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

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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.”

Chapter Text

It was a forsaken mix of fire and ice, the night Jaime had died. The only light to see by had been dragonfire and the enemies surrounding him had hands of ice. He had fought at Brienne’s side until he hadn’t, until the cold hands dragged him down and out of her reach.

And then he had jolted awake, with Bran Stark’s voice ringing through his head: Fulfil your oaths.

Jaime stared around the empty room. It was warm, unreasonably so. Jaime reached up to rub at the back of his neck, still feeling the ghost of a wight’s grip, and then stopped short.

He was using his right hand.

Jaime stared at his hand for a long moment, before lurching out of the bed and to the window. He dragged the curtains open and stared out over the vista of King’s Landing, the first streaks of dawn piercing through dark sky.

“What the fuck?” said Jaime, with a great deal of feeling.

King’s Landing was almost the same as he remembered it. It still smelt of piss and shit and if he strained his ears, he could just about hear the sound of waves rolling into Blackwater Bay over the noise of the small-folk beginning their days. There was one major difference, though: the Sept of Baelor still stood, as it had done for a hundred years before Cersei got to it.

Jaime turned and sank down on to his bed, burying his face in his hands. Even that action was enough to bring on a fresh wave of panic and confusion and he jerked his right hand away from his face.

What the fuck? he thought again. If there was some sort of afterlife, and he had ended up in it, he would have at least hoped it didn’t smell like King’s fucking Landing. Or maybe this was one of the seven hells. But if it was, Jaime had sat through enough services to know that King’s Landing wasn’t anything like the hell he was meant to end up in. He was meant to be encased in ice, deprived of the warmth of the gods and other humans forever after, the cold eating its way into his skin forever after…

Jaime shivered. He might not have been in that hell right now, but the description felt too close to the very real hell he had just awoken from.

For most of his life, he had hoped he would die in Cersei’s arms, and thought that he would die in battle. He had died by Brienne’s side, fighting against an impossible enemy. He supposed that it wasn’t the worst way to go out. Had Brienne died? It seemed impossible that she could have lived, and even if she had, for how long? If three dragons and the combined forces of the North, Vale, Dothraki and Unsullied were unable to prevent the onslaught of the Others, it seemed impossible to him that Cersei would be able to withstand them. And what then? Would the Night King have been content with all of Westeros as shambling corpses under his thumb? Would Brienne have been safe even in Essos?

What about Tyrion in the crypts? Had the dead risen there, too? Tyrion and Sansa Stark and all the others, unsafe in the crypts… I promised her mother that I would return her safely to Winterfell. What would Catelyn Stark say if she knew what became of her daughter within the walls of Winterfell?

Jaime looked back out the window, at the Sept of Baelor, standing tall and undamaged. He stood and dressed, still marvelling at the use of his right hand. As he went to leave the room, his hand hovered over the white cloak. It was that white cloak that soiled me, not the other way around, he had told Brienne once.

He left the cloak.

-

“Tell me, brother,” said Tyrion. He was lazing on a chair across the room from Jaime, next to the fireplace, a book open but abandoned on his lap. “What, exactly, has gotten into you today?”

“What makes you think something’s gotten into me?” asked Jaime.

“You haven’t made doe eyes with our dearest sister even once today,” said Tyrion, wryly. “Don’t tell me that you’ve finally realised the monster lurking behind our sister’s fair façade.”

A quarter of the city had lain in ruins because of Cersei. The continent was ready to be overrun with the dead and demons of ice, and she had sat back and done nothing. In fact, she had done worse than nothing; she had organised to overrun any survivors remaining. Not that there would have been any.

His thoughts must have shown on his face, because Tyrion slammed the book shut and sat up, amazed. “You have,” breathed Tyrion. “You have!”

“You can’t tell anyone,” hissed Jaime, crossing the room to kneel by Tyrion’s chair. “Swear it, Tyrion. On anything that you think matters. Swear it.”

The glee slid off Tyrion’s face. “Jaime, what’s going on?”

Swear it,” demanded Jaime.

“I swear it! I swear it on all the gods and every book I’ve ever read,” exclaimed Tyrion. “Jaime, what’s happening?”

Jaime sunk down. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I was in Winterfell, fighting against an enemy that could never be stopped. Then I woke up, in my own bed, and the Sept of Baelor was still standing, and the white cloak was still in my room, and the King’s Guard’s armour still has a stag on it.”

“Still -?” sputtered Tyrion. “You aren’t making any sense.”

“What year is it?” asked Jaime. “It can’t be any later than 301 After Conquest, not with you in King’s Landing.”

“It’s 297,” replied Tyrion, warily. “Do I need to get your head checked? Pycelle might be useless, but I’m sure he can do something for you.”

Jaime sank into a seated position, limp with relief. “Eight years, then. We have eight years.”

“Eight years until what?” questioned Tyrion.

“Until the end,” said Jaime. He rose to his feet, checking that the doors to the solar were closed and that they were completely alone. “I need your help,” he decided. “I don’t know who else I can trust with this.”

“Jaime, I need you to sit down and explain to me what is exactly going on,” said Tyrion, his words slow and carefully enunciated.

“I died,” said Jaime. “I died in battle, defending Winterfell from the Army of the Dead. Cersei refused to send our armies north, but I went anyway, alone, and joined the North and the Dragon Queen’s forces. I died, and I think the world might have very well ended. And then I woke up, here in my bed, with Brandon Stark telling me to fulfil my vows.

Tyrion’s mouth opened, then shut, then opened again. “I’m going to need you to explain all of that in significantly more detail.”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” hissed Jaime. “What matters is that the Seven Kingdoms is about to descend into civil war, and we need to stop it because we need every soldier possible to stop the Night King.”

Tyrion rubbed at his forehead, and said, “How did the civil wars start?”

“Joffrey executed Ned Stark, so the North rose in revenge. Stannis and Renly Baratheon both tried to take the thrones for themselves after Robert died, and Balon Greyjoy took advantage of the entire mess to start raiding the coast,” explained Jaime.

Tyrion rested his face in his hands. “We’re doomed.”

“And then, after the dust had just about settled from that civil war, Daenerys Targaryen sailed across the sea with the Tyrells, Martells, Unsullied and Dothraki at her back,” continued Jaime.

So doomed,” groaned Tyrion, voice muffled.

“With three full-grown dragons,” finished Jaime.

Tyrion jerked his head back up. “Dragons?

“Dragons,” agreed Jaime.

“Dragons and the White Walkers,” muttered Tyrion. He stood up, filled his glass with wine, drank it all down in one go, then filled it back to the brim before sitting back down.

“I think I would prefer it if you’re sober for this conversation,” said Jaime, mildly.

“I don’t think I’m capable of having this conversation sober,” said Tyrion, taking a long slurp from the wine. “Now. Why did Joffrey kill Stark, and why weren’t Cersei or Robert around to stop it? I assume they have enough sense to see why killing a Lord Paramount is a bad idea.”

“Robert was already dead,” said Jaime. “And not even Cersei can control Joffrey.”

Tyrion grimaced. “And what was the logic behind Stannis and Renly challenging Joffrey for the throne?” Jaime levelled Tyrion with a look, and Tyrion sighed. “Ah. Not much we can do on that front, then.”

“So what do you suggest we do?” asked Jaime.

“Well, I suppose we have two options at the moment,” said Tyrion. “The first is that we go to war fast and hard, and we win.” Jaime’s lips twisted. They had won, at least for a time – but Tywin had sent forces to the Riverlands very early on, put down Dornish opposition, and had consolidated power in the Crownlands and Westerlands, and allied with the Tyrrells. The war had still taken years to win. Tyrion nodded slightly at Jaime’s expression. “The other is that we keep Robert and Jon Arryn alive for as long as possible. That will curb any revolutionary sparks until Daenerys Targaryen makes landfall, at least.”

“But war will still break out when Daenerys invades,” said Jaime. “At best, we’re delaying war.”

“Well, I presume that Robert and Joffrey placed a price on her head in – in the other time,” said Tyrion. “What else would you have us do, from this side of the world? Perhaps we can arrange for the Unsullied to be purchased by somebody else. Perhaps we can keep Dorne and the Reach allied with us – and keeping Dorne on side will no doubt be nearly impossible – but there’s nothing we can do about the dragons and the Dothraki.”

“Perhaps we can destroy the eggs,” said Jaime, desperately. “No one will be guarding the eggs as closely as they’re guarding her.”

Tyrion leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and looked at Jaime intently. “Brother, we will be fighting a war against ice demons. I should rather think we will need those dragons.” He took a long sip from his wine. “But perhaps,” continued Tyrion, jiggling the glass so the wine sloshed against the sides, “we can find a way to delay her a while. Do you know anything of her campaign in Essos?”

“Not as much as I should,” admitted Jaime.

“A pity,” said Tyrion. “We’ll have to rely on the Spider.”

“Varys sided with her,” said Jaime. “We can’t rely on his reports.”

“Ah,” said Tyrion. “Again, a pity. I’m not sure I can cultivate little birds nearly so effectively as our Lord Varys, but I suppose I could try my hand at spymaster.”

“You’re going to help me?” asked Jaime, barely daring to hope.

“Of course I am,” said Tyrion, wrinkling his nose as if he couldn’t believe Jaime would ask such a ridiculous question. “Either you’ve gone mad, and I’ve got to help Robert from dismissing you entirely, or you’re telling the truth and the apocalypse is coming. You’re going to need my help either way, brother.”

-

It didn’t take long for Cersei to notice his absence and summon him. Tyrion had sent him a pitying look as Jaime focused on taking deep, even breaths to keep himself calm. Then, dire as a funeral march, Jaime followed Arys Oakheart to the queen’s chambers.

It wasn’t the same chambers that she had lived in when he had left her for the last time, when she had refused put together her ambitions and her anger for the common good of humanity. Those had been what were now Robert’s chambers; it hadn’t taken long after Tommen had died – had killed himself, because of what Cersei did – for Cersei claim them as her own. Just as she had done the crown.

She was standing by the window, staring out to the sea, when the door opened, but as Jaime entered, she turned, her gold-spun hair flowing around her as she did so. “Jaime,” she said, smiling. It was enough to make his heart ache. She waited until the door was closed behind Jaime before she continued. “You’ve been quiet today.”

Jaime shrugged, but he could already tell that his movements were too stiff to come across as nonchalant. “Just one of those days, I’m afraid.”

Cersei began pouring wine out for them both. “You would tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn’t you?” she asked, picking up a goblet and offering it to him.

He took it, forcing a smile on to his face. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

“You’ve been strange today,” said Cersei, and made a face. “Spending far too much time with the little imp, for one.”

“He is our brother,” cut in Jaime. “Am I not allowed to spend time with him?”

“Of course you are,” said Cersei smoothly. “I would never say otherwise. But he’s not the best influence; surely you can admit that.”

Tyrion wasn’t the bad influence. He never had been. It had always been Cersei and the gods-damned white cloak that was still lying in his chambers. It had been them that had made him believe that any act of kindness, of goodness, was worthless at best and pointless at worst. Tyrion took his queen and her army north to stop the end of the world; you only sat on your throne and watched the world freeze around you.

“Is there anything you wanted from me?” asked Jaime instead of answering.

Cersei’s eyebrows furrowed for half a moment and she shifted her head slightly to one side. “Do I need a reason to want to see you?” She held her wine close to the chest and stepped closer to him, tilting her head up so her hair fell backward and left her face clear. Her lips parted slightly as reached out to place her hand on his arm.

Jaime swallowed. “No,” he said. “No, you don’t.”

Cersei smiled. She never looked so much like a lioness as she did when she smiled: when she showed her teeth, it could have just as easily been a snarl as a smile. He knew that she could pretend, and be the kind and beautiful queen when she wanted to be – she had certainly lured in Sansa Stark easily enough. But she didn’t pretend with him, not really.

Tyrion had been right. He had always known what she was, and he had loved her anyway.

“Good,” she said, stepping closer again. The world’s going to end, and it was all your fault. She was so close.

-

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Tyrion. “You had literally just told me that she had abandoned the entirety of Westeros to a wintery death.”

Jaime had several regrets about how he had handled seeing Cersei for the first time. Tyrion was more than happy to outline every one of them in exquisite detail.

“She destroyed half the fucking city,” continued Tyrion, gesticulating wildly in emphasis. “She drove half of Westeros into the arms of the Dragon Queen! She abandoned Westeros to the White Walkers. She caused Tommen to commit suicide!”

“Technically,” said Jaime, “she hasn’t actually done any of that yet.” Tyrion speared Jaime with a withering stare, and Jaime shut his mouth.

“Please tell me you didn’t actually tell her anything,” said Tyrion.

No,” said Jaime. “Contrary to popular belief, I am not completely stupid.”

Tyrion raised his eyebrows and muttered, “Could have fooled me.”

“I know what she would use it for,” continued Jaime, like Tyrion hadn’t spoken. “I know what she is. But she needs to trust me, remember? I can’t suddenly start refusing her.”

“Don’t pretend,” said Tyrion. “Don’t pretend that’s why you fucked her today.”

“I’ve spent my entire life believing that I was nothing more than half of Cersei,” said Jaime, his voice low. “I’ve spent it believing I was only whole when I was with her. That doesn’t just disappear, Tyrion.”

Tyrion sunk into a chair and rubbed his forehead, exhaustion bleeding from every pore of his body. “Please say that you understand how bullshit that is, Jaime. You are your own fucking person, and that person is and always has been far better than Cersei has ever dreamed of being.”

“I once pushed a child from a tower,” said Jaime, not looking at Tyrion. “I never even thought twice about it, because it protected Cersei.”

“But you went north,” said Tyrion. “Cersei didn’t. For everything else that you’ve done over the years, for every oath you’ve broken and for all the people you’ve hurt – when the end came, you went north. Cersei didn’t. Look at me, Jaime.” Jaime looked. Tyrion was leaning forward in his chair, staring at Jaime intently. “You might have believed for your whole life that you were only one part of Cersei, but now you have the chance to be something else. You were given a second chance. Do you know how many people get those?”

“Just the one, apparently,” muttered Jaime. He smirked, bitterness eating at his very bones. “And what a one to give it to.”

“You think Robert Baratheon wouldn’t leap at a chance to save Lyanna Stark? Or that our father wouldn’t give anything to trade me for your mother?” asked Tyrion. “People spend their entire lives wishing they had a second chance to make better decisions – to save the girl, to earn more gold, to have one more adventure. To be a better person than they were. You are living their dreams. Don’t waste them.”

“Unfortunately, I can’t save Lyanna Stark,” said Jaime, inspecting his nails lazily. “Nor do I think Robert would have been particularly happy if he did. Nor would I wish to trade your life for anyone, even Mother’s.”

“Then who would you save?” questioned Tyrion. “There must be one person. One person in the whole world who you love enough to want to save.”

Jaime stopped, his heart seizing in his chest. Brienne, he thought. He stared at the door that led down the halls, towards the chambers of the royal family. Myrcella. Tommen. A shifting in weight brought his eyes back to Tyrion.

What had it been like, in the crypts? At least Jaime had been able to fight. If the dead risen in the crypts, then Tyrion and all of the women and children would have been utterly defenceless against them.

“There’s nothing I can do,” said Jaime. “Not me alone. Not even the two of us alone. Do you really think we can stop the War of the Five Kings? Stop Daenerys Stormborn from hatching her dragons and burning the continent?”

“I don’t know if we can stop all of it,” said Tyrion. “But maybe we can save one person. Then there’s one less soldier in the Night King’s army, and one more person in ours. Just focus on that, for now. Just save one person.”

Jaime looked up. “I know who that one person has to be.”

-

Jon Arryn had never liked Jaime. There were three certainties to life: death, taxes, and that Ned Stark and Jon Arryn would always be too fucking honourable to give the Kingslayer the time of day.

Jon Arryn was also not terribly fond on Tyrion. Tyrion Lannister, after all, was the Imp. Jaime didn’t know if Arryn distrusted Tyrion for his reputation alone, or if it was for all the drinking and whoring. If it was the drinking and whoring, it was right hypocritical of him, being foster father of Robert fucking Baratheon, but that didn’t change the fact that Jon Arryn did not like either of the Lannister brothers.

All in all, it presented a bit of a problem.

“How the fuck are we meant to convince Jon Arryn his life is in danger?” hissed Jaime. “We don’t even know who killed him.”

Tyrion sighed. “Half the people in court have their spies. We can suggest that there has been threats to his life. Surely he has enough enemies out there to warrant a bit of concern.”

Jaime grimaced. “He’s investigating Cersei and me.”

Tyrion closed his eyes for a long moment, his eyebrows scrunching together like he was in pain. At last, he sighed. “So if we tell him there have been threats to his life, he will receive it as us threatening his life for investigating.”

“And because he’s from House ‘high as honour’ Arryn, he’ll probably just redouble his efforts to expose us,” finished Jaime.

“I don’t suppose we can just bribe him,” said Tyrion. “Everyone has a price, and we have the biggest goldmines in Westeros.”

“Again: his house words are as high as honour,” said Jaime. “He raised Ned Stark.

“Ned Stark has a bastard,” pointed out Tyrion.

Jaime rolled his eyes. “Somehow, I don’t think he was paid for that – or do we have to have another little talk about how babies are made?”

“I’m just saying that Ned Stark’s honour is far from impeachable. Jon Arryn is surely likely to have a price,” said Tyrion. He pursed his lips then added, “But bribing him to keep his mouth shut about your affairs still does nothing to save his life, even if it does help the two of you.”

“He has to have more enemies than House Lannister,” said Jaime. “Well, more that he knows of, I suppose. If we could arrange a meeting with one of them within hearing of one of Varys’ little birds -”

“How do we know that it wasn’t Varys who poisoned him in the first place?” asked Tyrion. “It’s hard to plan with such little information. You really could have paid more attention in your last life.”

Jaime groaned, burying his head in his hands. His voice muffled, he said, “What if we plant false evidence that the children could be Robert’s, and then warn Jon Arryn once he’s off the scent?”

“We can try,” said Tyrion, his voice dubious. “I’m sure I can find a few blond-haired bastards in Fleabottom who’ll claim their mother was a whore that slept with the king for a few coin.”

“But?” prompted Jaime, lifting his head from his hands.

“But I think that Jon Arryn is on the scent now, and you and Cersei aren’t discrete enough to properly dissuade him,” said Tyrion. “Like you said – he raised Ned Stark. He’s not the sort to let go if he thinks something that he considers to be wrong is happening right under his nose.”

Jaime snorted. “Is that why the Small Council is so incorruptible?” he muttered under his breath.

Tyrion sighed. “Have you considered that saving Jon Arryn might mean condemning yourself and Cersei?” Jaime ran his hand through his hair – his hand, the one he’d lost, the stump that Cersei had refused to look at – feeling bile rise in his throat at the thought.

Cersei was a monster, and so was Joffrey. So was Jaime. But Myrcella and Tommen weren’t. Myrcella had loved and had laughed and had so much of her mother in her but so little of Cersei’s worst traits; Tommen had tried and tried and tried to keep the kingdoms stable, to keep the Sparrows from igniting a rebellion and to please his wife. Condemning Cersei and Joffrey meant condemning Myrcella and Tommen in the same breath.

Jaime licked his lips nervously. “What if we discredit him?”

Tyrion blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“Letting him die now will spark a war,” said Jaime. “But if we work on discrediting him, just in little ways, so when the day comes, Robert doesn’t believe him, and maybe neither will Stark, if we can play our cards right. Ned Stark won’t search out the evidence, and Cersei won’t feel the need to have Robert killed quite so soon, and Joffrey won’t execute Stark. The realm remains mostly stable.”

“That’s a hell of a gambit,” said Tyrion.

“Do you have any other ideas?” snapped Jaime. “Ones that’ll keep Tommen and Myrcella alive and safe? Because I don’t.”

Tyrion raised his arms up in surrender. “Alright. Alright. We’ll do it your way.”

-

Fleabottom stunk. There wasn’t really any way of sugar-coating it. Tyrion, for the most part, had gotten used to the smell of King’s Landing when cloistered away in the Red Keep, held back by perfumes and burning candles. Here in the alleyways of Fleabottom, there was nothing to block it.

Tyrion still wasn’t certain if he’d been the best one suited for the task. The question had been who would be more memorable – the Kingslayer, or the Imp? They had decided it was Tyrion who was to enter Fleabottom to bribe some of Robert’s bastards into denying all connection, and bribe some more bastards to claim any connection possible. It was a lot easier to brush off Tyrion entering Fleabottom; everyone always assumed the Imp was up to something.

Unfortunately, it was going to be the first of many trips as they tracked down the bastards Robert did have. This one Tyrion was only able to make so early because Jaime had remembered a bastard that had been in Winterfell, just before the dead came.

Tyrion stopped before the blacksmith, hoping that this was finally going to be the correct smithy. Anything to get out of here sooner.

There was someone just inside the blacksmith’s, just on the cusp between boy and man. Looking at the grime on his face and the muscles in the boy’s arms, Tyrion knew that this had to be an apprentice blacksmith – but was he the apprentice blacksmith?

“I don’t suppose you’re Gendry Waters,” said Tyrion, before the boy could greet him.

The boy’s eyes widened then narrowed at him. “Is there anything I can do for you, Lord Tyrion?” he asked.

Tyrion took the coin bag from where he had concealed it in his clothes and tossed it to the boy. Gendry caught it without difficulty. “You’ll be getting some visitors, soon enough. If they ask if you know who your father is, you say ‘yes, he was a poor sailor that had been saving up for months to fuck my whore of a mother,’ and then you get more money from me.”

Gendry raised an eyebrow. “And why should I be protecting your nephews, m’lord?”

Tyrion jerked his eyes up to meet Gendry’s. The boy knew. He had to. “You won’t be protecting my nephews,” he said. “You’ll be protecting the realm. Or do you want war to break out?”

“Joffrey’s rule will ensure a war either way,” said Gendry. “You never lived with the people, m’lord. Joffrey was the Mad King come again, and we all knew it. Someone will rebel eventually. And even if the Starks or Stannis Baratheon don’t rebel now, the Queen will come eventually.”

The Dragon Queen. Of course. Apparently, she was one to inspire loyalty.

“I’m surprised that you’re trying to protect your family,” said Gendry, throwing the coin bag back to him. “After all, you were her Hand before Tommen was dead.”

“I was what?” demanded Tyrion. Jaime hadn’t mentioned that.

Gendry’s eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. “Her Hand.” Gendry hesitated. “Do you understand what I’ve been talking about, Lord Tyrion?”

“I know that you’re talking about a future no one else has lived,” said Tyrion. “Well, no one except for my brother.”

Gendry let out a low hiss of air between his teeth. “The Kingslayer.”

“Unless I have another brother no one has told me about,” said Tyrion. “All he wants – all the both of us want – is to keep the realm stable so we have some semblance of a chance when the Night King comes south.”

“And he’s planning on doing it the one way that’ll keep his bastards on the throne,” said Gendry, shaking his head like he was somewhere between exasperated and furious. “What a surprise.”

“Exposing Joffrey means exposing Myrcella and Tommen,” said Tyrion. “Would you have two innocents put to death, just so your queen can sweep in?”

“If Joffrey sits on the throne, then there will be more innocents killed than just two,” snapped Gendry. “When Robert Baratheon died, I had to flee the city because he ordered the King’s Guard to slaughter all of the king’s bastards. Children died. Not just children, babes in their mother’s arms.” Gendry paused and looked back to Tyrion, but before Tyrion could come up with an argument, he continued, “You were Daenerys’ Hand – the Hand to the Breaker of Chains. I would have thought you’d care more for the small folk – well, more than most of your class, anyway.”

“I care for the small folk,” said Tyrion, “but I also care for my niece and for my younger nephew, who have done nothing more than been born to a particularly vicious mother. And I think that preventing a war – for as long as is possible – will do more to protect the small folk than exposing my sister will.”

“You know what I think would protect the small folk?” asked Gendry. “Warning them. The Army of the Dead is coming, and you can do something to prepare for it. You can send criers to every corner of the Seven Kingdoms, telling them to arm themselves with dragonglass and to be ready.”

“The rest of court would think I was insane,” said Tyrion.

Gendry shrugged. “There are some who think I’m mad, but not everyone – and I’m just a blacksmith.”

“Not everyone?” repeated Tyrion. He didn’t bother pointing out that Gendry wasn’t just any blacksmith: he was a blacksmith that looked just like the king, which had to have some effect.

“I don’t care for the Red Priests, but they’ve listened,” said Gendry. “I don’t trust them – haven’t for a long time – but so long as they’re helping, I’ll put up with them.”

Jaime had mentioned a Red Priest – no, Priestess. She had been there for the last battle, Jaime had said, lighting fires to help protect them. He’d called her Stannis’ witch. They certainly seemed to like the Baratheon bloodline, that was for certain.

“I’m not going to lie to protect Joffrey,” said Gendry. “I’ve seen enough lives torn apart by him – mine, Ar – a baby that lives not far from here, the length of the Riverlands that was torn apart by Lannister knights before war was even truly declared. I’ll do nothing to help him do it all again.”

-

Weeks had passed since Jaime first woke up in the past, weeks spent seeking out as many of Robert’s bastards as possible, bribing as many blond-haired bastards as possible, and – perhaps most importantly of all – keeping Cersei from becoming suspicious. Because regardless of what Tyrion thought or said, Jaime knew one thing for certain: if Cersei felt her grip loosening, she would do what any lioness would do – attack. If there was one thing that Jaime didn’t need, it was Cersei after him.

The weeks were turning to months quickly. It would be Joffrey’s name day soon, and after Joffrey’s name day, time would be rushing upon them until Jon Arryn would die. Arryn had to be deep in to his investigation by now, and Jaime hoped that enough small folk had been sufficiently bribed to throw Arryn off the scent. But just in case –

“Where the fuck is my Hand when you need him?” grumbled Robert as he sat at the Small Council.

“You did call this meeting rather suddenly, Your Grace,” pointed out Renly.

“I believe he’s in the city,” said Jaime. “He has been visiting the lower town regularly of late.” It wasn’t exactly the most graceful political manipulation, but no one at the table reacted.

Robert sniggered at the thought. “Finally discovered the brothels, has he? Can’t say I blame him. Brothels would be much preferable to this.” He glanced down at the table they were seated at in disgust.

“Perhaps we should start without him, Your Grace,” suggested Littlefinger, his voice smooth. “I’m sure that the Lord Hand won’t be too much longer.”

“I’ve received word from Winterfell,” said Robert. Jaime frowned – he couldn’t remember any messages from the North the last time round that would have been enough to draw Robert Baratheon to the Small Council. “Lord Eddard Stark has formally requested reinforcements for the Night’s Watch.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jaime could see Renly rolling his eyes and slumping in his chair. No one else in the room seemed to take it with much more gravity than Renly, thought most masked it better than the youngest Baratheon brother. Jaime, however, did not. In his corner of the room, standing guard over the pit of vipers that was the Small Council, the world seemed to tilt on its axis.

I’m not the only one.

I can’t be, realised Jaime. There had been no requests to reinforce the Wall – not this early, at least. The Wildling forces would still be gathering, not yet a serious concern for the Night’s Watch, let alone House Stark. Somehow, the Starks knew that what was coming was a bigger threat than the information currently available suggested. But who? It couldn’t be Eddard himself, or his wife and youngest and eldest sons – they had all died well before the Others had become a serious threat. The Stark sisters, or the bastard, or Brandon Stark himself, perhaps – though Jaime expected if it was any of them, then Stark’s next request of Robert would be Jaime’s head on a spike.

It didn’t have to be a Stark, either. The bastard in Fleabottom proved that. Anyone could have remembered ridden north to warn the Starks – Beric Dondarrion, one of the Wildlings, even Moonboy for all Jaime knew. Even Brienne, maybe.

Varys cleared his throat. “If the Night’s Watch was to seek recruitment here in King’s Landing, then I expect they would find many volunteers,” he said. “There appears to be a great deal of anxiety about the coming winter, and what comes with it.”

“What comes with it?” echoed Renly.

“Several priests and priestesses of the Lord of Light are preaching a return of the White Walkers in this coming winter,” explained Varys. Renly scoffed in disbelief, and even Littlefinger couldn’t contain a disbelieving snort. “Their religion seems to be gaining more support by the day within King’s Landing. It seems to be localised for now, but it may yet reach further.”

Jaime couldn’t help looking at Stannis. He was nodding along to the information, but he didn’t seem to be particularly disturbed or elated at the news – strange, considering his pet priestess.

“I’m told that this coming winter will be longer than any on record,” continued Varys. “While the Others are obviously an impossibility, their anxiety over the changing seasons isn’t entirely unfounded.”

“We’ve had reports that the Wildlings have declared themselves a king,” said Pycelle. “There are some Maesters that believe the tales of the Others were originally about a particularly aggressive Wildling tribe from the far north beyond the Wall. Perhaps they will be fighting the Others, as it were.” Jaime only just kept himself from rolling his eyes. No one was paying attention to him, not the silent King’s Guard at the edge of the room, but it was still better to be safe.

“Ned asked for reinforcement to deal with the Wildlings,” agreed Robert. “It’ll empty our cells, too, sending all the scum north to man the Wall – makes Renly’s job a little easier.” He nodded at Renly, who jerked to attention and nodded in agreement.

“Is that wise, your grace?” asked Stannis. Robert turned to look at him, his eyes narrowing. “If we give all people the same sentence – a sentence we have previously used as an alternative to death – then the smallfolk may be less likely to cooperate with bringing criminals to the king’s justice.”

“And what do you suggest?” asked Robert pointedly.

“Lord Varys says that there may be an upswell in volunteers,” said Stannis, nodding at Varys. “Allow us to see how many of the smallfolk volunteer. It may be enough without giving life sentences to every petty thief that crosses the path of a Goldcloak.”

“What does the Master of Laws have to say?” asked Robert, turning to Renly.

Before Renly could answer, the doors opened. Two guards stepped in, bowed quickly, then made way for Jon Arryn to enter behind them. Robert stood to greet him, and the rest of the Small Council hurried to follow suit.

“I apologise for my tardiness, your grace,” said Jon Arryn, with a quick bow of the head. He gave the room a quick sweep with his eyes before he continued. “I was commissioning some jewellery for my lady wife in the town.”

It wasn’t terribly subtle as far as excuses went, but Jaime was willing to bet that there would be a jeweller somewhere in King’s Landing that had an order from the Hand of the King. Arryn had not spent years as the Hand of the King without gaining some ability for political intrigue.

“Word from the North,” said Robert, sitting back down. “Ned needs reinforcements for the Wall. Sounds like there’s a new King beyond the Wall.”

Arryn nodded. “I have received some reports of Wildling raids from the Wall, your grace, though they did not indicate such urgency.”

“I say that we should send all criminals to the Wall, if they’re needed so desperately,” said Robert. He cast a dark look at Stannis. “My Master of Ships says that will make the smallfolk resist us.”

“Not resist us,” cut in Stannis. “But if your brother is going to be sent to the Night’s Watch where he would have previously spent a day in the stocks, I imagine some families would be more willing to let certain acts slide, as they were.”

Arryn nodded thoughtfully. “I’m afraid I have to agree with Lord Stannis, your grace. Not to mention, criminals might decide they may as well be hung for a dragon than as a sheep, so they’ll commit worse crimes.”

“Ned needs more men,” said Robert sharply. “I intend to give them to him.”

“Perhaps eventually, when things get more dire, we can send more criminals to the Wall,” soothed Arryn. “For now, we should look at increasing volunteer numbers for the Wall.”

Robert glowered, glancing between Arryn and Stannis. “Very well,” said Robert. “But if Ned writes me again -”

Arryn nodded. “Of course, your grace. I believe you wanted to hear updates about the tourney for Prince Joffrey’s name day?” And with that, the conversation moved on, the tension forgotten. Jaime kept his attention on the conversation, waiting for something relevant to be said. There was nothing, however, and Jaime found his thoughts wandering. The council was putting the final touches on the tourney, but once it passed, Arryn was as good as dead. Jon Arryn still hadn’t shaken his suspicions, but it was too late for Jaime to wait any longer. He needed to be warned.

-

Gendry sighed as he stored the finished sword away. The sun was high in the sky and the day was hot enough without the fires of the forge adding to it. Sweat rolled down his back in beads, but he still did not long for winter.

Jon Arryn had been round again, asking questions. Gendry had warned him again. He wasn’t particularly fond of Arryn – it wasn’t like his time as Hand had done much for the smallfolk of Fleabottom, spending more time throwing tourney after feast after tourney than he ever had helping the needy – but he didn’t deserve to die. And keeping Arryn alive meant Lord Eddard Stark would never come south, and he didn’t want Arya to lose her father. Or Jon, for that matter, and he didn’t know Lady Sansa well, but she still deserved to see her father die of old age, peaceful and grey-haired, just the same as her siblings did.

It might take longer for him to meet Arya, this way, but in time he would earn enough money to begin the long journey north, warning anyone who would listen the whole way. Tyrion and Jaime Lannister didn’t seem to have done anything to warn the people of Westeros what was coming, but Gendry would, the best that he could as a blacksmith’s apprentice.

At least he wasn’t the only one. When he’d started talking about what he had seen and done and how a dead man had dragged him to the ground and torn him to pieces, everyone had thought he was a madman. But the red priests hadn’t. There weren’t many of them in the city, but one by one, they were noticing how Gendry’s stories of the Night King echoed their beliefs of the Great Other.

Gendry still didn’t trust them one bit. He kept his parentage close to his chest and tried to avoid any depiction of Robert Baratheon that existed in the city, so none of them would see him by a statue or painting of the king and realised he had king’s blood. Maybe them thinking he was some kind of prophet would offer some protection – but remembering the Red Woman, Gendry suspected they’d believe that would only add more power to the king’s blood. Lunatics, the lot of them. Helpful lunatics, though.

Someone cleared their throat behind him. Gendry turned, expecting to see Tobho Mott. Instead, he nearly grabbed the sword back out at the sight before him.

The Red Woman strode towards him. She held his gaze the entire way, and Gendry couldn’t help but feel as if he was being evaluated. He tried to step out of her way, but she reached out and grabbed him by the chin, holding him fast and forcing him to meet her eyes.

“A Baratheon bastard,” mused Melisandre, moving her hand so that she could look at the side of his face. “I can see something of your father in you, and your uncle.”

“How are you planning to bleed me, my lady?” asked Gendry, a bite to his voice. “Will it be leaches, or a knife this time?”

“You know me?” asked Melisandre. “Did you see me in your visions?”

“They weren’t visions,” hissed Gendry.

“But you know me,” pressed Melisandre.

“You wanted to bleed me dry for my king’s blood,” said Gendry, wrenching his face from her grasp.

After half a moment, Melisandre nodded to herself. “I have no desire to do that again.”

“Somehow, I find that difficult to believe,” snapped Gendry. He slid out of where she had trapped him between her and the swords, but couldn’t quite trust her enough to turn his back and walk away.

“The Lord of Light spared you,” said Melisandre. “He brought you back here, to warn the people of the Great Other’s advances. If he does not mean for you to die, then I will do you no harm.”

“Comforting,” said Gendry, his voice dry. “How did you even know about me? Aren’t you meant to be on Dragonstone?”

“I have contacts in the city,” said Melisandre. “I am not the only servant of the Lord of Light in this strange land. When I was told about you, I requested that Lady Selise pay her lord husband a visit.” She dragged her eyes up and down his frame, making Gendry want to cover himself, despite already being fully clothed. “I had to meet the man they were calling Azor Ahai.”

“I’m no prophet,” said Gendry. “And I’ve nothing to do with your Lord of Light. I don’t want anything to do with him, not if you’re his servant.”

“Azor Ahai is no prophet,” said Melisandre. “And it does not matter what you want. We all do his bidding, whether we know it or not.”

Gendry threw his arms wide in exasperation. “If I’m not meant to be a prophet, then what am I?”

“When the Great Other last covered the world in darkness, the Lord of Light chose Azor Ahai to fight the Demon of the Night, the Great Other’s champion,” said Melisandre. Her eyes glinted in the light of the fire, reverence driving her voice into a lyrical tone, like she was reciting something she had memorized long ago. “He had to forge himself a hero’s sword to slay the beast, trying first to temper it in water, then fire, then – finally – in the lifeblood of his wife, Nissa Nissa. With the sword Lightbringer, he was able to drive back the Night.”

“I don’t have a wife, and even if I did, I’d never kill her,” snapped Gendry.

Melisandre continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Azor Ahai will come once more when the Great Other rises again. He will be reborn again under smoke and salt, and draw a burning sword from the fire once again, and he will once more drive back the night.” Her gaze shifted to the swords.

“Oh, no,” said Gendry. “That is a normal sword. I didn’t forge a single damn one of those with the blood of a person.

“For some time, I believed Lord Stannis Baratheon to be Azor Ahai,” said Melisandre. “But you. You have been reborn, just as Azor Ahai was promised to. Was there fire? Was there salt?”

“I am not the champion of the Lord of Light,” cried Gendry. “I am no one’s champion but my own. If I am trying to save us all from dying terrible deaths and being risen again as wights, then it is of my own will.”

“Tell me,” said Melisandre. “What happened to Lord Stannis in your visions?”

Gendry pursed his lips. “Went north to fight the Wildlings,” said Gendry. “Never came back south. I think he died trying to take Winterfell from the Boltons.”

“He fell to a human foe, then,” said Melisandre. “He cannot be Azor Ahai. You, though – you were born of the same line as Stannis -”

“I’m a bastard -” attempted Gendry, but Melisandre ignored him.

“You make your living amongst the flames and the heat, forging swords,” she continued. “It will serve you well when it comes time for you to draw Lightbringer from the flames. And yet you are a prince: you are the son of the king, no matter who your mother was. You are of two worlds, that of the future in your visions and the one we stand in now, and you are of both noble birth and low birth. You can unite the people.”

Gendry opened his mouth to protest, but Melisandre cut him off before he could. “Hail Azor Ahai, the prince that was promised, the last hero.”

-

It wasn’t as easy to catch Jon Arryn alone as Jaime would have liked. His duty, after all, was to the royal family, not the Hand. It was not Arryn he had sworn oaths to protect.

But it wasn’t impossible; very little was in the Red Keep. If anything was impossible, it was a member of the King’s Guard carrying on an affair with the queen for years on end – the queen who was the knight’s sister, at that. If Jaime could get away with that, he could find an opportunity to speak with Arryn in private.

He was making excuses. He knew he was. Every time Jon Arryn walked away from Jaime, he heard Brienne’s voice in his head: “Are you such a bloody craven?

It was only days before Joffrey’s nameday that Jaime caught Arryn by the arm, after the rest of the Small Council had taken their leave. Left alone in the room, Arryn turned to stare at Jaime.

“What is it, Ser Jaime?” he asked, voice even and polite.

“Be careful with what you eat,” said Jaime, his voice quiet. He let Arryn’s arm drop and went to leave the room.

Ser.

Jaime stopped at Arryn’s pointed tone. He turned back to face Arryn. Arryn’s eyebrows were raised. “You are the third person to warn me that my life was at risk,” said Arryn. “What do you know?”

“I’ve heard rumours,” said Jaime, fighting to keep his voice lazy and sardonic. “If you die, we’ll likely get Stark as Hand, and all the gods know we don’t need him in the Red Keep.”

“You’re aware, no doubt, of what I have been investigating,” said Jon Arryn, eyeing the sword that was on Jaime’s hip. “One of the people who have warned me had also heard rumours of a dwarf paying off people in Fleabottom to lie to my face about it.”

I didn’t realise you were quite so suicidal, Lord Arryn. Jaime bit back the words before they could escape him. It would only be taken as a threat. Instead, he said, “I’m sure there are other dwarfs in the world.”

Arryn’s expression didn’t waver. “Quite.”

“You’ll find nothing,” said Jaime. “Nothing that will convince Robert, anyway. You’d be best to look to your household first, Lord Hand.” With that, Jaime spun on his heel and walked out the door before Arryn had a chance to respond.

Tyrion was going to kill him for going to Arryn without Tyrion there to keep the peace. For perhaps the first time since he found himself back in King’s Landing, Jaime couldn’t help but feel a surge of relief that it was Cersei, rather than Tyrion, who he was joining.

He was to spend the rest of the day guarding Cersei, but he had never spent the time guarding his sister standing by her door. As always, he found himself lazing on her bed as she paced in circles before him.

“Jon Arryn has been spending too much time in Fleabottom,” seethed Cersei. She whirled around to face him, her hair flaring out around her as she did so. “He knows something, Jaime. We need to be rid of him before -”

“He doesn’t know anything,” soothed Jaime. “If he did, he’d have gone to Robert and both our heads would be on spikes.”

“This is serious,” snapped Cersei. “This isn’t just our lives – our children, Jaime; Joffrey and Myrcella and Tommen. Arryn threatens all of them.”

Jaime breathed out slowly through his nose, carefully considering his next words. “Would Robert really hear any accusation that he was cuckolded? Is it not possible that he will hear any accusations against us as an insult against him, and fail to hear the truth?”

“Can we risk that?” asked Cersei. “He knows I hate him as well as I know he wishes he had that Stark whore instead. What wins out – his arrogance, or his pride?”

-

“He’s hired a food tester,” hissed Lysa. Her eyes were large and rimmed with red, and her hair was askew despite her handmaidens. In that moment, she looked too wild and too desperate to look anything like her sister.

“For every meal?” checked Petyr.

“Everything he eats,” said Lysa. “He’s even having mine and Sweetrobin’s food tested, too.”

Petyr stroked his chin thoughtfully. “And has he said why he has such an interest in self-preservation?”

“Not to me,” said Lysa. “But he never tells me anything.” She raked her fingers through the loose ends of her hair, her breathing rough. “He can’t take Sweetrobin from me. I’ll die before it happens. I’ll burn this whole gods-forsaken city to the ground before he does it.”

“He won’t,” promised Petyr. “I won’t let him hurt you or Sweetrobin. I’ll take care of everything.” Lysa’s breathing evened out and she smiled at him, hope sparking in his eyes. He smoothed her hair down and pressed a kiss to her forehead, so that all he could see was red hair. Yes, Petyr would take care of everything.

Whatever it was that had caused Lord Arryn to take such an interest in his continued existence was problematic. What information, exactly, had he heard that had caused him to hire a food tester? Surely one of Varys’ little birds hadn’t overheard him and Lysa, or his head would be on a spike by now – or, at the very least, he would no longer be welcome in King’s Landing, let alone controlling the economy of the Seven Kingdoms. But Petyr’s own spies had yet to report to him any other active plots against the Hand of the King.

Perhaps Jon Arryn had decided to protect himself after he began to investigate the parentage of the princes and princess. The Lannisters murdering Arryn before he had a chance to tell Robert of his suspicions was far from unlikely – indeed, all of Petyr’s plans rested on them being the obvious suspects.

But that was a point in and of itself. Petyr wasn’t the only one who had a vested interest in seeing Jon Arryn’s mouth closed forever. It would take precision, yes. He didn’t want the Lannisters to see him as too large a threat. But was it ever really chaos if there was no risk involved?

It was several more hours before he found himself allowed into the Queen’s solar. Cersei was seated behind her desk, and Jaime Lannister hovered behind her ominously. A solar for the queen was highly unusual, but Cersei had never been subtle about her utter dissatisfaction with her lot in life as a woman.

“Your grace,” said Petyr, sweeping into a polite bow. “I come bearing a message from Lady Arryn, a message she sends at great personal risk to herself.”

“What is it, Lord Baelish?” asked Cersei, giving him a charming smile.

“I’m not entirely sure how to start,” said Petyr. “I fostered in Riverrun with her, remember. She trusted me with her concerns above all others -”

“And what are those concerns?” interrupted Cersei, before Petyr could ramble too long.

“She says -” He made a show of hesitating before he ploughed on. “She says that her lord husband is plotting against the crown.” Cersei’s smile dropped off her face, but he could still see the pleased glint in her eyes.

The ball was rolling. It won’t be long now, Cat, he promised.

-

“Littlefinger,” groaned Tyrion. “It has to have been Littlefinger.”

Jaime quirked an eyebrow. “Obviously. He just came to Cersei and offered Jon Arryn up on a silver platter.”

“No, I mean last time,” said Tyrion. “He fostered with Lysa Tully; if anyone was able to sneak past House Arryn’s defences, it’s Lady Arryn’s childhood friend. And he’s gone further in pursuing Arryn’s death in this timeline than anyone else, which suggests he was also the most determined last time.”

“Then we know who we have to take out,” said Jaime, simply.

Tyrion frowned. “I’m not so sure. Cersei will never stop now that she’s caught the scent, and besides, Littlefinger is Master of Coin. Preparations will need to be in place to have him replaced when he goes down.” Tyrion started pacing before where Jaime was lazing in a chair. “It’s an incredibly ambitious move from a man with so little connections or allies. Yes, he might be a member of the Small Council, but he must know every single one of them would abandon him if he was ever discovered.”

“Maybe he has less sense than a grumpkin,” suggested Jaime.

“No,” said Tyrion, shaking his head. “A minor lord like Petyr Baelish doesn’t rise to Master of Coin without sense. He has insurance, somehow.”

“Perhaps he’s relying on Lysa Arryn to protect him,” said Jaime. “Catelyn Stark, too, since he would have grown up with her as well. They’re not bad allies to have.”

“Catelyn Stark is on the other side of Westeros,” said Tyrion. “And even if she was regent of the Vale after Arryn’s death, Lysa would have a difficult time rallying the Knights of the Vale to rescue Littlefinger, of all people.” Tyrion gritted his teeth and added, “I don’t know what it is, yet. Give me time. Everyone reveals themselves eventually.”

“So what now?” asked Jaime.

Tyrion grimaced. “I’m not sure what can be done. We’ve spent the past few months discrediting Jon Arryn at every opportunity – if we’ve done our jobs right, then we’ve effectively doomed him to death.”

“Do you really think we’ve swayed Robert enough to have him believe us over the man who fostered him?” asked Jaime. Days ago, he would have wished for it; now, he could only feel nausea swirling in his stomach at the thought.

“With his wife testifying against him?” said Tyrion. “I don’t know. Perhaps.”

Jaime buried his face in his hands. “Shit.”

“Quite,” said Tyrion, helping himself to a large glass of wine.

“You lectured me about having a second chance,” said Jaime. “About saving just one person. And all I’ve gone and done is made everything worse!”

“Not worse,” said Tyrion. “The same. Better for the children, mayhaps, since Robert might be less likely to hear they’re bastards if the idea has been linked to Jon Arryn’s treason.”

“But this time, the Vale will be up in arms about Arryn,” said Jaime. “They stayed out of everything, last time. They won’t be so forgiving, this time.” The Vale would join with either Stannis or with the Starks. Either made for a formidable force. The entire northern half of the continent under Stark control if they joined with Winterfell, or one of the most powerful armies in Westeros under one of the most successful generals in the Seven Kingdoms if they fought with Dragonstone.

“I suspect they would join with the Starks,” speculated Tyrion. “The new young lord will be cousin to the heirs of Winterfell, and although Stannis is the rightful heir, I’m not sure the Vale would be willing to fight under the banner of the Lord of Light.”

“The Starks don’t follow the Seven, either,” said Jaime.

“Catelyn Stark does,” said Tyrion. “She may well have taught her children the same.” Tyrion sighed. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Ned Stark might yet live, and if he does, he might yet make a different decision to his son and join Stannis. With the North, Riverlands and the Vale at his side -”

“It’s almost the same coalition that took down the Targaryens,” realised Jaime. “Gods, we really are fucked, aren’t we?”

-

It had been an odd few days for Gendry Waters.

Melisandre seemed to be the Red Priestess in Westeros. Ever since she had declared him Azor Ahai, more and more people had come to his smithy. Tobho Mott had not been impressed by all the new traffic through his store. He was yet to kick Gendry out, purely because more traffic still meant more work, but he wasn’t at all pleased with the amount of people ambling into his store without any intention of buying something.

Gendry didn’t want to be Azor whatever. He wasn’t a hero. He would do the right thing – his mother had been able to raise him long enough to instil that in him, if nothing else – but he had never been the leader of the fight. That had been Jon, or Queen Daenerys – even Arya had contributed more to the war than he had. Gendry had made weapons out of dragonglass. Arya had sat in on the war council and helped to decide how they would best withstand the Others’ onslaught.

The smithy wasn’t the hero. Hell, Azor Ahai couldn’t have been a smithy – any reasonable blacksmith would have realised from the start that blood was useless for tempering a blade. Honestly, had the Red Priests never preached to another blacksmith? Or were they all just so blinded by faith that they ignored any problems with their stories?

It didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the Red Priests believed it, and with every passing day, they converted more and more smallfolk to their faith. Gendry’s name was starting to pass around town. People were beginning to look to him for answers, and Gendry didn’t know what to tell them.

The Others were coming. They had to be ready, but – how? Without the nobles helping, it was near impossible to truly prepare. The smallfolk didn’t have the money to buy enough dragonglass or Valyrian steel to arm themselves against the dead. Even if they were able to raise enough, if the Goldcloaks got wind that the peasants were arming themselves, there would be hell to pay. Any ordinary forms of defence and fortifications were useless against the dead. There was fire, of course, but as Gendry had seen the night he died, simple lines of fire weren’t enough when the enemy had no sense of self-preservation. What they needed was money, to buy the weapons they needed, and dragons. Dragons that hadn’t been born yet. Dragons that might never be born, because two miracles happening seemed too much to hope for.

Arya will listen, he promised himself. And her father, too. Arya had never had anything but good things to say about Lord Stark, and he had raised Arya and Jon Snow – Lady Sansa and Lord Bran, too, who had both taken the threat seriously. The Starks were a powerful and wealthy noble House themselves, and they had a better chance at influencing the other Houses than Gendry could even dream of. He could help prepare the smallfolk, but the Starks would prepare the rich.

That would still take time, though. First, he had to find a way to speak to Arya. She wasn’t a princess, yet, but as the daughter of the Warden of the North, she was just as impossible for a blacksmith’s apprentice to speak to as Princess Myrcella. And that wasn’t even mentioning that she and the rest of her family were on the other side of the continent. They would come south if Jon Arryn died, but Gendry had already warned him: he couldn’t bear to have the man’s death on his conscience when it might be avoided. If it came to it, Gendry would find a way to ride north.

It was all weighing heavily on his mind as he hammered another chest plate into shape, going round and round in circles as Gendry considered his options. Stay in King’s Landing, with his people, and achieve what might be very little, or ride north and enlist the help of House Stark, praying that he would be able to find a way to speak with one of the daughters of Winterfell. Neither was a particularly appealing option: both seemed to be giving up something.

“Gendry?” called Mott. Gendry put down his hammer and answered his summons. At the entrance to the smithy were two Goldcloaks, standing straight and watching him carefully.

Shit, though Gendry. He had brought too much attention to himself. They thought he was fermenting a revolution, and they were here to put a stop to it -

"We need to ask you about Lord Arryn," said one of the Goldcloaks, dark hair falling around his shoulders. Gendry’s thoughts skidded to a halt. He hadn’t been expecting that angle.

“What about Lord Arryn?” asked Gendry, then belatedly added, “Ser.”

“We have reason to believe that he has been visiting you often,” said the other Goldcloak, this one with greying brown hair. “We want to know what you spoke about.”

Gendry frowned, glancing between them. “Nothing treasonous, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

The dark-haired man’s lips thinned. “I don’t believe I said anything about treason.”

-

“He’s been meeting with your bastards,” raged Cersei, snarling into Robert’s face. “Isn’t it obvious what he’s doing? He wants to install another fucking puppet king for him to control -”

“Another?” said Robert dangerously. “Watch your mouth, woman.”

“Well, you’ve never exactly disagreed with him, have you,” hissed Cersei, the sharpness of her voice showing that it wasn’t a question. Robert raised his hand and slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. Cersei spat at him. “You’re blind to the truth. When are you going to do your duty as a king and as a father and execute the traitor who wanted to kill your children?”

“Jon Arryn would never harm my children,” snapped Robert.

Cersei threw her arms out wide and shouted. “Look around you! His own wife has testified against him! What will it take you to admit that he isn’t who you thought he was?”

“He’s a good man,” insisted Robert.

Jaime stood against the edge of the room silently. The argument had been going in circles for what felt like hours. Robert was cracking under the pressure. His voice was more high-pitched and frantic than it had been when the fight began. He didn’t want to believe Arryn was capable of plotting against him – which, to be fair, Robert was probably right about – but Cersei was driving nearly to the point of buckling. Jaime still didn’t know what to do: let Arryn take the fall and drive the Vale into enemy hands, or attempt to exonerate him and sacrifice Tommen and Myrcella.

That was if Jaime was even capable of preventing this from going any further. This had all the makings of an avalanche – a few stones slip, then the entire mountain. No doubt that was what Littlefinger had been waiting for. If Littlefinger could not simply have Arryn poisoned, then perhaps he had waited for the tipping point where an accusation would run away from them all, facts be damned. Tyrion was right: it was a risky move, what Littlefinger had done. The kind of move that one had to be certain of before you made it.

“Would a good man want your children dead?” said Cersei. She shook her head in disgust. “If you won’t act, then I will. You owe my father many debts, my lord.” She bit out the last two words with bitter sarcasm.

“Are you threatening me?” asked Robert, his voice low.

“No,” said Cersei, with a toss of her long hair. “I am not threatening you. I am protecting my children. Do you want to see what a lioness will do for her cubs, your grace?”

Robert let out a frustrated snarl, and Jaime knew it: the deal was done. Robert probably wasn’t even aware of it himself, yet, but Jaime was certain of it. They had wormed enough doubt into Robert’s mind and now, with the threat of the entire economy being bankrupted – well, the writing was on the wall for Jon Arryn.

Tyrion was waiting for Jaime when they finally emerged from Robert’s solar. Tyrion’s face was grim, expecting the worst. At the sight of Jaime’s face, he dropped his head into his hands.

“What next?” asked Jaime.

“Now?” said Tyrion. “I suppose now we start preparing for the long ride north.” Robert Baratheon had already been persuaded to give up on one person he loved. He would not be swayed from the other, and certainly not from the brother of Lyanna Stark.

Cersei would rage on. She would insist that Tywin Lannister be made Hand of the King, but Robert had already given her too much, Jaime knew. Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and now Hand of the King, would be making his way south once more.

-

As they rode north, rumours kept funnelling down into the king’s retinue. A meeting of all the houses for the North – supposedly an early harvest festival, but Jaime remembered enough of the last time round to know it had to be something else. Then, a week or two later, came another rumour: the execution of Ramsay Snow, the Bolton bastard, and a growing rift between Winterfell and the Dreadfort.

“Is that new?” Tyrion asked under his breath.

Jaime nodded. “Ramsay Bolton was legitimised by Tommen.” He grimaced, and added, “From what little I heard of him, I can’t say I regret this particular diversion.”

“There has to be someone up north who knows,” said Tyrion. “Someone who can convince House Stark to anger their most powerful and dangerous bannerman. Someone who can convince House Stark that grumpkins are real.”

“Not Eddard,” said Jaime. “He was dead well before any of this. Robb and Catelyn Stark, too, were both dead before the White Walkers became a threat.”

Tyrion started listing the other Starks off on his fingers. “So that leaves the two daughters, the remaining sons, and the bastard.”

Jaime had almost forgotten there was a third trueborn Stark boy. Rickon, he remembered. “Not Rickon. He was dead too, I believe. There’s Sansa and Arya, Brandon, or Jon Snow.” He paused, thinking of the four that were left. “The bastard was briefly King in the North before he knelt to Daenerys. It could be him.”

“If he got told the same thing you did, wouldn’t he have tried to convince his family to declare for the Dragon Queen?” asked Tyrion. “Unless they’re biding their time, there’s no evidence of that.”

“Brandon was the one who told me to fulfill my vows when I woke,” said Jaime. “It could be him. It’s probably him. If anyone would have been capable of sending himself back in time, it would be Brandon Stark. It’s just…”

“What?” asked Tyrion.

“If it was Brandon Stark, why send me and a blacksmith?” asked Jaime. “Me, of all people. Why not his siblings?”

Tyrion didn’t have an answer for him, and Jaime had to leave to relieve Arys Oakheart as the guard outside the King’s tent. Cersei was already inside, and Jaime could hear them through the flap in the tent. They were arguing, because of course they were. They did little else.

“How can you trust Stark?” demanded Cersei. “Arryn has already shown that he couldn’t be trusted, so why would the man he fostered be any better?”

“I trust Ned Stark with my life,” said Robert shortly.

“You trusted Jon Arryn with your life,” shot back Cersei. “My father would be a far better option.”

“I will tie Ned to the throne so that he will have no interest in betraying me, even if he were inclined that way – which he is not,” said Robert. “He has a daughter -”

“Sansa Stark?” interrupted Cersei, cackling with laughter. “You’ve heard, haven’t you? Heard all about why the Bolton bastard was executed? Because she opened her little legs to him -”

“It was a lie,” said Robert insistently. “The boy was just a bastard, not worth listening to.”

“The Seven Kingdoms will never accept a queen who has been fucked by anyone other than the King,” said Cersei. “Joffrey will not accept another man’s seconds, nor should he. The girl’s a whore.” Jaime could almost hear the part that Cersei no doubt was only just containing herself from adding: just like your precious Lyanna Stark.

“She hasn’t been fucked by anyone else,” snapped Robert.

Cersei reigned herself in. “But people believe she has been,” said Cersei. “You know as well as I do that the people won’t accept her as queen because of it. Besides, they say she’s been betrothed to the Greyjoy boy.”

“Sansa isn’t the only Stark daughter,” said Robert. That, apparently, was the one point that he would listen to: Sansa Stark was already betrothed.

“A second daughter isn’t good enough for the heir to the Seven Kingdoms,” said Cersei at once.

“No, but she is good enough for the second son,” said Robert. “Tommen is second in line to the throne until Joffrey has a son of his own, and even after that, he will still have his own keep and, as brother to the King, will be one of the most powerful men in the Seven Kingdom’s. Ned isn’t a fool.”

“My father would still be a safer Hand,” said Cersei.

“For all the gods, woman, I can’t escape the Lannisters as it is,” snapped Robert. “I go to bed with the Lannisters. I eat with the Lannisters. No doubt if you had your way, I’d fucking shit with the Lannisters, too. I’m not bringing another fucking Lannister to court when I can have Ned.”

They kept riding north. The air grew colder, and Jaime started having nightmares again as the temperatures dropped to freezing during the night. The cold was too familiar. Waking to ice instead of the stinking warmth of King’s Landing sent him spiralling back to Winterfell and a wight shoving a broken sword through his stomach. Each morning, he found it harder to look at Cersei without thinking You caused this, you could have fought and changed everything. Each morning, he looked at Tyrion and wondered what had happened to him in the crypts.

Winterfell dawned on the horizon after a month of riding. He had been relieved to see it, the first time, because it meant he could finally spend a day off his horse. Now, his heart sat in his throat as they rode through the walls that he had died in.

The Starks were all assembled in the courtyard. Brandon Stark looked like a child again, and Jaime didn’t know if that relieved him or made him hate himself a little more. Sansa Stark stared at Joffrey with love-struck eyes, ignorant of how her brothers and betrothed stared daggers at the prince. Beside her, Arya Stark was glancing around the riders curiously, inspecting each one of them in turn. And Jon Snow – Jon Snow wasn’t anywhere in the crowd. Interesting. Perhaps it had been him, after all, and he had gone after his Dragon Queen.

Then Jaime’s eyes caught on someone two rows back, just behind Theon Greyjoy. She was staring at him with wide, hopeful eyes. Brienne.

He had hoped for it, when he first realised someone at Winterfell had to have remembered. But he hadn’t expected the tidal wave of relief that crashed over him at the sight of her, so strong and fierce that his knees almost buckled. Brienne of Tarth no longer had Oathkeeper at her hip, but she had kept her oaths all the same, riding north to protect the Stark girls who likely hadn’t even remembered her.

Fulfill your oaths, Brandon Stark had told him. Brienne had. Had Jaime? He didn’t know. Gods, he had needed Brienne, needed her to tell him when he was being a coward and when he was just doing the right thing. He trusted Tyrion, but he had needed Brienne in a way that he hadn’t realised until the sight of her.

He was so caught on Brienne that he barely noticed that the crowd in the courtyard were breaking into smaller parties. Robert headed for the crypts with Ned Stark, and the Stark children took the royal household to their separate chambers. Cersei was led into the keep by Sansa Stark. It was Brienne that Jaime followed, though, away from the courtyard and into the depths of Winterfell.

Chapter Text

The halls of Winterfell were crowded and busier with people than they had been in years, so Sansa had squirrelled herself away in her chambers with Arya after she had presented Cersei with her chambers. She had met Arya back in her chambers afterwards.

“I need your help,” Arya had said. Sansa had spent the past few hours dressing both herself and Arya, braiding Arya’s hair back into beautiful northern braids.

Arya touched her hair hesitantly. “I can’t remember the last time I had my hair done like this. Yoren cut it when he took me out of King’s Landing but I can’t remember if I wore my hair like a northern girl in King’s Landing or not.”

“I wore my hair in southern styles,” said Sansa, sitting down beside Arya. “Septa Mordane called me a real southern lady for it.”

Arya reached out and tangled her fingers with Sansa’s. “She was wrong about that.”

Sansa smiled and squeezed Arya’s hand. “She was wrong about us both.” A piece of hair had somehow escaped Arya’s braid, and Sansa reached out and swept it out of Arya’s face delicately. “If Aunt Lyanna really looked just like you, I can understand why Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen loved her.”

Arya rolled her eyes, although her expression was still affectionate. “Gods, I hope not, then. That’s the last thing I want.”

“No, the only boy you want mooning over you is a blacksmith,” said Sansa, her face perfectly straight. Arya narrowed her eyes then reached out and shoved Sansa. Sansa fell back on to her bed, laughing but still shrieking, “You’re going to ruin my hair!”

Sansa’s hair was piled on to the top of her hair. It wasn’t quite the hairstyles that Cersei and the rest of the ladies of the Red Keep wore, but Sansa thought it was a good approximation for a girl who had supposedly never seen the south. She just hoped she wasn’t laying it on too thick.

There was a knock on the door, and Sansa got up to check. She and Arya hadn’t been expecting anyone else, but it was probably Catelyn checking to see if they were ready for the feast. Instead, when she opened the door, she found Theon waiting on the other side, fidgeting nervously with his fingers.

“Theon,” said Sansa. She glanced quickly both ways along the hall to see if there was anyone to see them, then tugged Theon inside before anyone could stumble into the hallway.

“Did Brienne get to you, too?” asked Arya, who had now splayed herself out on the bed, stomach-down. Sansa hoped that it wouldn’t wrinkle her dress.

“Yes,” said Theon. “The Kingslayer?”

“I know,” sighed Sansa, sitting back on her bed next to Arya. “We know that he swore an oath to our mother that he would see us back to Winterfell safely, but…”

“Now we don’t know what oaths count and which ones don’t,” said Arya. “A servant that once promised to see us safely back to our chambers, a seamstress that said she wouldn’t prick us once while getting our new dresses fitted -”

“Probably not that last one,” interrupted Sansa.

“Maybe that last one,” said Arya. “We don’t know! What did Bran count as an oath? And was it even Bran that decided?”

Theon’s eyes had been going from one sister to another throughout the exchange. “You’ve been arguing this one out all afternoon, haven’t you?”

“Perhaps,” said Sansa haughtily. (They had.)

“At least we have Gendry,” sighed Arya. “I’d take him over the Kingslayer any day.”

“Don’t let Robb hear you say that,” said Sansa, and dodged Arya’s half-hearted shove. She turned back to Theon. “We didn’t even know, really, if we were right about the oaths, but at least it felt like we had an idea of what had happened. But now, even if we were right, we still can’t predict if there will be anyone else. Between Ramsay and Jaime Lannister, I don’t know if it can be predicted.”

“At least Cersei didn’t,” said Arya. “I expect she would have had us all murdered by now if she had.”

“Small mercies,” said Sansa dryly.

Theon met Sansa’s eyes. “I hope Littlefinger hasn’t.”

Sansa smiled at him, a small, sad smile. “Jaime Lannister didn’t notice anything different about him. But we’ll see, I suppose.” She didn’t want to talk about Littlefinger, not yet. The arrival of Robert Baratheon had stolen some of her freedoms already, stolen away her ability to be entirely herself and to love her home and her family as fiercely as she wanted. Littlefinger, though; he was still weeks away. She didn’t want to worry about him just yet.

“We’ll know as soon as we arrive in King’s Landing,” said Arya, sitting up on her knees. She clasped her hands together under her cheek and fluttered her eyes at Sansa. “Oh, Cat – I mean Sansa – I mean -”

Sansa snorted and said, “We need to get going. Lord Theon, will you do us the honour of accompanying my sister and me to the feast?”

“Anything for my betrothed,” said Theon gallantly, offering her his arm. She slid hers through his and grinned up at him.

Ugh,” said Arya.

“You’re going to have to get used to it eventually,” said Sansa airily. “Think of it this way: at least it isn’t Joffrey.”

Theon blinked. “That’s such a low standard to clear that I think I’ve actually been insulted.”

As they made their way to the Great Hall, Sansa couldn’t help but miss Lady. She and Nymeria were in the kennels, because dire wolves didn’t fit well with the eager girls longing to go South that she and Arya were pretending to be. Shaggydog was in the kennels, too, but that was more because of the fact he was nearly impossible to control than because Rickon was participating in any deception.

It was probably for the best, though. Nymeria had tasted Joffrey’s blood once. Lady didn’t need to be getting any ideas from her wild littermate.

Catelyn was waiting for them outside the Great Hall. Her eyes widened at the sight of Sansa and Arya, dressed finely and with their hair all done. Theon had let go of her arm before they had come into view so that she could better pretend that she was entranced with Joffrey, and Arya had taken his place, letting them enter as a united force. Catelyn smiled at them.

“Where’s Father?” asked Arya.

“He and the King are yet to arrive,” said Catelyn. Her voice was slightly frosty; things between her and Ned had been tense ever since the truth of Jon’s parentage came out. Sansa hoped that her parents would have it out before Ned went south. Sansa would do whatever it took to keep Ned alive, but she knew better than to believe that everything was going to be fine. Letting an argument fester when they left could very easily mean that the argument would never be resolved.

“Were your chambers alright, your grace?” asked Sansa politely. Cersei’s jaw was set, her eyes searching the courtyard for any sign of Robert.

“Perfect, little dove,” said Cersei, gracing Sansa with a smile.

“I told you,” said Arya, her voice somewhere between a stage whisper and an actual whisper.

“Shut up, Arya,” hissed Sansa. This, at least, was familiar ground.

“Girls,” said Catelyn warningly. “I’m sorry, your grace. They’re usually better than this.”

“I have children of my own, Lady Stark,” said Cersei. “I’m well aware of how they can be.” Her eyes shifted to a spot beyond Sansa, her jaw growing hard. Sansa turned to look. Robert and Ned were both approaching across the courtyard. Robert looked tired, but there was a sharpness to him that Sansa could never remember seeing before. Ned nodded, ever so slightly. Arya grabbed Sansa’s hand and squeezed it. Ned had done it – they had the Iron Throne on side.

Now, they just had to keep Robert around long enough for him to make good on any promises he had made.

“Time for the feast,” said Robert, clapping his hands together. “Got any good wines, Ned? The gods know that I need a drink. Or several.”

“We had Arbor Gold and Dornish reds shipped in, your grace,” said Ned. “We’ve also got the finest ale of the North available.”

“You’re late,” said Cersei.

“I’m the King,” snapped Robert. “It’s my feast. It’s starts when I say it does.” He held his arm out to Catelyn. “Shall we, my lady?”

The rest of the party assembled themselves. Joffrey offered Sansa his arm, and Sansa took it gingerly. The blood was rushing through her ears so loudly she could barely hear what was going on around her. He’s still pretending, she reminded herself. He won’t hurt me. Not yet. He wasn’t like Ramsay, so confident that she was already broken that he didn’t fear reprisal.

“You look beautiful tonight, Lady Sansa,” said Joffrey.

Sansa looked down, the few tendrils that hadn’t been drawn up on to the top of her had falling forwards to partly hide her face. “Thank you, your grace.” Faster, as if she was nervous, she added, “You’re very handsome, too.”

They reached the High Table and Sansa was grateful to sink into her seat between Theon and Arya. Being escorted into the feast by the prince was an expected piece of royal courtesy, but sitting beside a man other than her betrothed throughout it would have been unseemly. It was the first time in this life she had been able to use social norms as a shield, but she knew that it wouldn’t be the last.

“Everything alright?” asked Theon under his breath.

“Fine,” said Sansa, giving him a tremulous smile.

“Tommen was nice,” said Arya. “I forgot how sweet he and Myrcella are.” Sansa suppressed a more genuine smile. She had always said that Arya could make friends with anybody, and if Sansa ever needed to prove it, this would be the first thing she would point to.

“They were always kind to me,” said Sansa quietly. “They treated me more like I was being fostered than being held hostage.”

Arya sat up straighter in her chair. “Could we do that? Have them fostered here, I mean.”

Possibilities stretched out before Sansa in an instant. Having Tommen or Myrcella or both fostered in Winterfell would mean they had a ready-made hostage if it came to it. And when the time came to reveal Cersei, having the two younger children cloistered away in Winterfell would keep them sheltered from Robert’s rage. They would have time to organise a new path for them, one that kept them away from Robert and away from the gallows.

“Later,” murmured Sansa. It would take too long to organise now, not in this hall full of eager ears and poisonous people.

Her eyes drifted across to Tyrion Lannister, seated next to his brother. Tyrion noticed her looking but didn’t acknowledge it, simply meeting her eyes for half a moment before her turned back to his conversation. Of all the people she would have guessed to have remembered, it would have been Tyrion. They had been wed once, after all. Perhaps it was the annulment, or Sansa making marriage oaths to someone else, that had seen him overlooked. It would have been more useful for him to have remembered than his brother – Tyrion knew the Dragon Queen in a way that no one else remembered did, and he knew the inner workings of the Lannister family intimately. So did Jaime, but Tyrion had proven in their last lives he could be convinced to work against his sister, and Sansa was uncertain that Jaime could be convinced to do the same.

Her eyes drifted further, to Brienne. She was seated with the rest of House Stark’s trusted guard, alongside Jory and Ser Rodrik. At least they had her.

A maid leant down beside Sansa and said, “Excuse me, my lady, but her grace would like to speak with you.” Sansa met Arya’s eyes for only a heartbeat before she nodded to the maid, gathered her skirts and stood up.

“Good luck,” whispered Arya.

Sansa didn’t reply, focusing on getting herself back into character, sweet and doe-eyed. Catelyn was seated next to Cersei, so at least she wouldn’t be alone. The two women were quiet as Sansa approached, exchanging only a few words despite the cacophony of noise around them.

Sansa bobbed into a curtsey when she approached. “Your grace,” she said. “Mother.”

“Little dove,” said Cersei warmly. “Will you be dancing tonight? Surely you won’t be cooped up all night.”

“I will, your grace,” said Sansa. “Lord Theon and Robb, my brother, will both probably ask me to dance.”

“You must take a turn with Joffrey,” said Cersei. “He seemed quite charmed with you earlier.”

Sansa flushed. “If you wish, your grace.”

“Sansa is an excellent dancer,” said Catelyn fondly. “I’m afraid that her brothers couldn’t quite keep up with her as children.”

“She’ll be spoilt for partners in the Red Keep,” said Cersei. “I’m sure they’ll be tripping over themselves to dance a turn with her. But Sansa, sweetling, whatever happened to your wrist?”

Sansa startled. She had laced her hands together in front of her, and hadn’t realised that the bandage was peaking out from under the sleeve of her dress. Her wrist still hadn’t healed completely from Ramsay breaking it, and while she was able to get through the day without much concern now, she still wouldn’t be able to ride by the time that they left. “It was Ramsay Snow, your grace,” said Sansa hesitantly. She didn’t know how much had reached the royal family on the road north. “The Bolton bastard. He accompanied his father to Winterfell for the harvest festival, but he went quite mad and attacked me.”

“I had heard of that,” said Cersei, leaning forward in her seat. “A dreadful thing. I didn’t realise you had been hurt.” Her words were laced with disapproval and concern. Sansa wished she could roll her eyes. Cersei had never cared when Joffrey had had Sansa beaten.

“It’s fine, your grace,” said Sansa. “He’s gone now.” And Joffrey will be soon, she promised. “Maester Luwin promised that if I don’t hurt it any more on the road south, it will be healed by the time we reach King’s Landing.”

“Excellent,” said Cersei. She sat back in her chair and smiled up at Sansa. “That is all, little dove.” Catelyn gave her an encouraging smile as Sansa turned and made her way back to Arya and Theon.

“What?” asked Arya as Sansa sat down.

“She wanted to know about Ramsay,” said Sansa. She was certain of it. She smiled at Arya and Theon and said, “It’s over now.” She was saying that a lot tonight. It’s fine now. He’s gone. She’s finished talking to me. I’m not with him anymore. She wondered how many more times she would have to say it before the dawn.

-

Most of the food had been cleared away, but few people had left the Hall yet. Arya kept an eye on Brienne and Jaime Lannister, but neither had slipped away to the Broken Tower yet, so she stayed put for the moment being.

Beside her, Sansa was watching the dancing couples longingly. “Oh, hurry up and dance a round,” grumbled Arya. “Just pretend your arm’s sore if you’re worried about Joffrey.”

“Are you sure?” asked Sansa.

Yes,” said Arya firmly. Theon took Sansa’s hand and led her away, Sansa shooting Arya a grateful smile over her shoulder. Taking their place amongst the dancers, Theon bent and offered his hand to Sansa. Sansa took it, a genuine smile working its way on to her face.

Arya hated to admit it, but getting betrothed to Theon had been one of Sansa’s better calls. She was anxious and withdrawn enough with Joffrey around: Arya couldn’t imagine how much worse it would be for her if she wasn’t already betrothed. And more than that, Theon and Sansa were good at drawing each other out of their shells, at reminding each other that they weren’t alone. Arya hadn’t ever particularly wanted to get married, but Sansa and Theon would work well together.

All that was because they already knew each other, though. Arya would likely be married off to someone who would help them in the war effort. She would do it if she had to – if that was what it would take to win the war and bring the dawn again – but she envied Sansa for the friendship she was able to have with Theon, well before they were married.

She spun away and said to him, no featherbed for me,” sang the bard, his voice clear and deep. “I’ll wear a gown of golden leaves, and bind my hair with grass. But you can be my forest love, and me your forest lass.”

Arya knew what she wanted. If she was to fall in love, she didn’t want to be the precious lady of the castle, locked away to sew silken dresses and pop out heirs. She would be like the maiden of the tree: no featherbed for me.

Despite what she had told Sansa, she knew what had brought Gendry back with them. She hadn’t meant it – well, she had, but when she had said it, she had thought she would die before the night was out. “You’re mine,” she had told Gendry. “Till the end of this, you’re mine.”

I’m yours,” he had agreed. “As you’re mine. Till the end.”

That wasn’t something she was going to tell Sansa about anytime soon. She wasn’t going to tell anybody about it, at least not until she could get hold of Gendry herself. She had tried to ignore it for months until Jaime fucking Lannister had to tear down all her carefully maintained walls. Because the truth was that she had meant it.

And that fucking terrified Arya.

She had bundled everything that she was so close to her chest, hiding the sight of it from the waif and from every other Faceless Man. Even before that, she had kept everything that made her Arya of House Stark, daughter of Winterfell, to herself. The idea that she had been willing to give a part of herself to somebody else, even if that somebody was Gendry –

It just wasn’t her, that was all. Not anymore.

“Are you jealous?”

Arya turned to look as Myrcella Baratheon took Sansa’s seat. She watched Sansa and Theon dancing for a moment before she gave Arya a sheepish smile. “You were about to stare a hole into them,” she explained.

“Jealous?” echoed Arya. “What – of Sansa marrying Theon? Oh, Gods no.” She made a face, screwing up her nose and mouth at the thought. “Theon’s the worst.” That might have been going a little far, but Arya had her taste to defend.

Myrcella giggled and said, “Your sister seems very taken with him.” She tilted her head to the side as she studied them. Theon dipped Sansa in time with the music, and Arya could see her grinning. “He is handsome,” said Myrcella.

“I’ve seen better,” said Arya before she could stop herself. She didn’t want to turn this into a gossip session or something. She tried to remember everything she could about Myrcella Baratheon: she knew that Myrcella had been dead before Arya had even gotten back to Westeros, though she couldn’t remember how or why for the life of her. Myrcella had been betrothed to a Martell boy, she remembered that much, and she had been good to Tommen – and to Sansa, apparently, even when Sansa was just a traitor’s daughter.

“Are you enjoying the North?” asked Arya, before Myrcella had a chance to do anything more than send her a curious look.

“It’s nice,” said Myrcella. “It’s very cold. I didn’t believe Mother or the septas when they made such thick dresses for me to wear here, but now I’m not sure the dresses are warm enough.”

Arya smiled wanly. “Just wait until winter comes.”

Myrcella shuddered. “I dread to think.” She hesitated and added, “I like Winterfell, though. It’s very warm inside.”

Arya leant towards Myrcella eagerly. Winterfell was a topic she could talk about for hours. “It’s because the keep is built atop hot springs, which we have piped through the walls to warm the castle. It’s the best castle in the North for weathering the winters. Even in the very depths of winter, the springs are still warm.”

Myrcella blinked. “You haven’t lived through a winter, have you?”

Arya sat back, bitterness on her tongue. “No,” she said. “They tell us stories, though. Old Nan told us all the stories about the Long Night.”

“Oh – with the White Walkers?” asked Myrcella tentatively. “We’ve heard those stories, too, sometimes, but usually Mother tells us of Lann the Clever and our septas told us about Durran Godsgrief and Elenei.” Her voice softened on the last two names, the same way Sansa’s used to when she mentioned Florian and Jonquil. “Northern stories are always so scary.”

“They’re true,” said Arya. “They’re scary because they’re true.”

Myrcella shrunk back, a worried crease to her forehead. Arya felt bad for scaring the girl, but she couldn’t lie about it. “Is it true you have dire wolves?” asked Myrcella.

Arya nodded. “Mother said it wouldn’t be proper to have them here tonight.” Catelyn had said that, but she had said it more as if it was a bonus after they had already made the decision, in case Nymeria or Lady reacted to Joffrey the same way they had reacted to Ramsay.

“Dire wolves,” whispered Myrcella. Arya remembered now – Myrcella had been scared of the dire wolves, last time round. She could see the anxiety in Myrcella now, a mixture of awe and terror.

“I can introduce you to Nymeria,” offered Arya, before she could stop herself. “That’s my dire wolf. And Sansa will let you meet Lady, of course, and Lady would never hurt a fly.”

Myrcella looked like she doubted that very much, and she hesitated. She glanced at Robert, then to her mother. Myrcella bit her lip then nodded. “Do you promise it’ll be safe?”

“I do,” said Arya. “You won’t have to worry about a thing.”

Sansa and Theon returned to the table, the song winding down. Myrcella jumped to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean -”

“It’s alright, Princess,” said Sansa, smiling. “We didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

“Is your wrist hurting?” asked Arya. Sansa was cradling her arm against her stomach. It wasn’t obvious – Sansa reached for her drink with her other hand, and to everyone else it wouldn’t look out of place. But Arya knew her sister, and she was definitely moving gingerly.

“A little,” said Sansa, still smiling. “I think Lord Theon and I were a little too optimistic today.” Arya shot Theon a look, and he at least had the decency to look sheepish. “It’s not his fault,” said Sansa. “I wanted to dance, Arya.”

“I best get back to my seat,” said Myrcella, shifting out of the chair. “You should rest, Lady Sansa.”

“Thank you, Princess,” said Sansa. When Myrcella was gone, she leaned down and whispered, “Brienne and the Kingslayer are gone.” Arya looked over, and it was true: Brienne and Jaime were no where to be seen. As Arya watched, Tyrion Lannister was melting from the hall, unnoticed by most.

Arya grinned. “I have the perfect way to get us out of here.” Sansa recognised her tone and narrowed her eyes, opening her mouth to question Arya further, but it was too late: Arya had already loaded up her spoon and flung it at Sansa.

“Arya!” shrieked Sansa. Beside her, Theon had burst into a startled laugh. Just like Arya remembered, Robb was on her a second later, sweeping her up and carrying her from the hall. Sansa and Theon followed, Sansa complaining loudly until they were safely outside. Sansa huffed. “Was that really necessary?”

“Completely,” said Arya, straight-faced.

Sansa rolled her eyes, turning and marching to the Broken Tower. “She’s going to kill you for that,” said Robb.

“I know,” said Arya, finally smirking. She, Robb, and Theon followed.

Brienne, Jaime and Tyrion were already waiting in the empty Broken Tower. Jaime’s gaze was caught on the window as they entered. “Remembering how you almost murdered my brother?” snapped Arya.

Jaime startled, turning to look at the new arrivals. “Arya,” said Brienne softly.

Arya crossed the room and stared up at Jaime. “Do you know where I was, those years?” she asked. “Where I hid from your family?” Jaime glanced at Brienne out of the corner of his eye, do you know where she’s going with this? written all over his face. “Bravos,” continued Arya. “Not just anywhere in Bravos. The House of Black and White. If you ever fuck with my family again, I will put those skills to use. Do you understand me, Kingslayer?”

“Perfectly,” said Jaime.

“Good,” said Arya, and stepped back, her glare still firmly fixed on the Jaime.

“Now that that’s dealt with,” said Tyrion, “I believe we have more pressing matters to attend to?”

“Lord Tyrion,” said Sansa. “It is good to meet you again. How much has Ser Jaime told you?”

“I’m told we were married,” said Tyrion, inspecting Sansa. Arya grit her teeth. “Though I am sure that was well over by the time you and your brother declared an independent North.”

“It never began,” said Sansa. “It was never consummated.”

Tyrion nodded, like he wasn’t surprised. “I know that Robert died, the Seven Kingdoms fell to chaos, the Wall fell, and by the end of it all, Cersei was on the Iron Throne in the South, and the North and Daenerys Targaryen’s forces were fending off dead men here in Winterfell.” He smiled tightly. “Would you like me to go into more detail?”

“No,” said Sansa. “Littlefinger has already had Jon Arryn killed, which is the first step to pushing the Seven Kingdoms to war -”

“You know it was Littlefinger?” interrupted Jaime. Robb, too, was staring at Sansa.

Sansa frowned. “Of course. I had him executed for it, at least in part, once already.”

“You executed Littlefinger?” repeated Tyrion. He leaned forward slightly. “Are you sure we can’t get married again?”

“No,” said Sansa and Theon together. Sansa shot Theon a small, amused smile before continuing. “Stopping Littlefinger is the first priority in King’s Landing.” Arya knew that wasn’t quite true: their first priority was stopping Cersei, and by extension, Joffrey. Sansa was choosing her targets carefully, though, well aware of her audience. “What have you done already?”

-

It was late by the time that Ned finally made it back to his chambers. Every flame he passed on his way, from candles in the halls to roaring fireplaces, were burning low. But it would have been rude to leave the feast before Robert, and Robert had always been one to feast deep into the night.

He froze in place when he saw Catelyn sitting on the bed. She had taken her hair out of her intricate braids and had redone her auburn locks into a long, simple braid that was sitting over her shoulder. She hadn’t shared his bed since the truth had come out about Jon, and his heart ached at the sight of her.

He missed her.

“Has the King taken to his bed at last?” she asked.

It took Ned a moment longer than it should have for him to nod. “Aye,” said Ned. “Cersei and her children went a while ago.” Their own children was a harder question: Bran and Rickon surely were, but he hadn’t seen any sign of Sansa, Arya or Robb in hours.

“Has he asked you already?” said Catelyn.

“Yes,” said Ned. “I agreed. We’ll be riding south in a matter of days.”

Catelyn’s lips thinned, and she looked away. “You should have told me about Jon.”

“I didn’t know you at first,” said Ned. “I didn’t know if I could trust you. And when I did – I wanted you as safe as possible, if it ever comes out.” He closed his eyes for a brief moment. He had lied to her for years, and betrayed her trust badly. If there was to be any hope of fixing this, he had to be honest with her now, even if it meant admitting his own weaknesses. “And… the longer it went on, the harder it was to tell you, to admit that I hadn’t trusted you to start with.”

“So you just continued to lie?” snapped Catelyn, her voice coming out brittle. “How was that meant to fix anything?”

“It didn’t,” said Ned. “I’m sorry, Cat.”

Catelyn stood up and walked to the fireplace. She had her back to him, so that he couldn’t see her face. “Do you know what the stupidest thing is?” she asked. “There’s a part of me that’s relieved, because if Jon isn’t your son and you lied to me, at least you never…” She trailed off, shaking her head. Her hair shone like copper where the fire lit it.

“It was only ever you, Cat,” said Ned. He had once shared a dance with Ashara Dayne, but despite the rumours that had swirled about Jon’s mother, that was all it had ever been. It had been Brandon who had taken Ashara to bed. For Ned, the only woman who filled his dreams had auburn hair and blue eyes and the voice of his wife.

Catelyn shook her head. Her hair slid from her shoulder and fell down her back, over her shift. “You’re riding off in a few days,” she said, like he hadn’t spoken. “And no matter what the girls do, you might never come back.” She turned to face him, and the tear tracks on her cheeks glistened in the firelight. “We should had more time, Ned,” she said. “Time for all of this.”

He hesitated before he stepped forward, fearing she would back away from him. But she let him take her hand, looking down at their joined fingers instead of into his eyes. “If the gods – old or new – are good, then we’ll see each other again,” he promised. “You’ll see.”

Catelyn closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Come to bed, Ned,” she said. In that moment, she looked tired, a deep exhaustion that sank all the way down to her bones. She let go of his hand and crawled into the bed, settling under the thick covers.

After he was finished undressing himself, he crawled in beside her. “Do you mind?” he asked quietly. She stared at him for a long moment before nodding jerkily. Gently as he would have treated any of the children’s dire wolves, he tucked her in against his side. With her beside him, he slept better than he had in weeks.

She was already gone by the time that he woke up. He pulled himself upright and sat at the edge of the bed, staring at the door she had disappeared through. Gods, he wanted to fix this, but there wasn’t any time. He had to believe that he would be able to come back to her, but even so, he didn’t want to ride for the Red Keep with so much hanging between them.

There wasn’t any time to brood, though. Sansa caught him on the way to Great Hall for breakfast. She fell into step beside him and smiled up at him, looking more like the thirteen year old she was meant to be than the woman she was.

“Bran and Prince Tommen are meant to be sparring today,” said Sansa. “Did you and the King spar together in the Eyrie?”

Ned nodded. “Most of my training happened under Ser Rodrik, but yes, the King and I used to spar,” said Ned. “Are Robb and Prince Joffrey to spar, as well?”

Sansa shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. She wrinkled her nose. “Best keep Theon away from Joffrey. He’d be ever so jealous.”

That comment was confirmation of what Ned had suspected from the moment Sansa had approached him: there was a risk of someone overhearing. She wasn’t talking to him openly because of it. It was still easy enough to guess what she was telling him: that Tommen and Bran should have a relationship like he and Robert had once had – that Tommen should be fostered in Winterfell.

It would be a good move. Hopefully, it would make Robert less eager to marry one of his sons to one of Ned’s daughters. It protected Tommen from Robert’s wrath when the truth came out about his parentage. And – the pragmatic part of Ned had to admit it – it gave House Stark a hostage if it came to it.

He broke his fast with Sansa, Robb, and Arya in his solar. Arya was in a dress again. Even after spending so much time trying to convince Arya to wear a dress over the years, it felt strange to see it. She had been wearing breeches ever since she and Sansa had been returned, and seeing her hair with her hair all done and in a dress was – he wasn’t sure. She reminded him more vividly of Lyanna than ever.

“The Kingslayer has returned,” said Robb bluntly.

Sansa nibbled delicately on a leftover lemon cake. “He doesn’t want the world ended any more than the rest of us, and he’s told Tyrion, who can help me in King’s Landing.”

The Imp. Ned didn’t know much about Tyrion Lannister – not as much as he did the other Lannister siblings, anyway – but he had rarely heard of anything good. “You trust them?” he asked.

Sansa frowned. “Trust might be going a little far. But we have the same goals, and Tyrion has little love for his sister.”

“And Ser Jaime?” asked Ned, noticing the omission.

Sansa pursed her lips. “He knows that she won’t do what it takes, but we should still tread carefully around him.”

“Brienne trusts him,” said Arya reluctantly. “She thinks he’ll do the right thing.”

“You said that he was the one that pushed Bran,” said Ned, his voice carefully even.

Arya bit her lip. “It was during the hunt after Robert arrived here in Winterfell.” Ned nodded – they were to hunt later in the day.

“Theon’s going to follow Bran around all day,” added Sansa. “And we’ve already told Bran about a thousand times that he can’t climb while the royal family is here. He won’t risk it.”

“The Kingslayer is attending the hunt, anyway,” said Ned. “I suppose he didn’t, in your time?”

“Probably wanted the time alone to sneak away and fuck his sister,” said Arya, her voice tight and cynical.

They finished their meal and separated for the day. Walking to join the rest of the hunting party, Ned’s eyes were drawn to the sept. He knew Catelyn would be in there, likely praying to the Mother. He wanted to go to her, to find a way to make things right…

But there was a larger world out there than just him and Cat, and if that world was to have any hope, Ned needed Robert on side. He kept walking.

“Ned!” roared Robert as Ned came into view of the hunting party. “Where have you been, old man?”

“We’re the same age, your grace,” Ned pointed out as he took the reigns of his horse from a stable hand and mounted. The dire wolves surrounded him, prancing from foot to foot. The horses weren’t pleased, but the wolves deserved the run.

Robert narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling me old?”

“I’m calling us wise,” said Ned. Robert barked out a laugh.

As they rode out through the gates into the wolfswood, Jaime Lannister urged his horse forward to ride beside Ned. “I hear that we’re to be neighbours,” said the Kingslayer.

“Indeed,” said Ned. “The King has honoured me with his offer.”

Ned didn’t like the look of Jaime’s smile. He didn’t understand how Brienne trusted him; Brienne was good, and decent, and everything that a true knight and a sworn shield should be. Jaime Lannister was… not.

“It’s probably for the best your oldest daughter is already betrothed,” said Jaime thoughtfully. “The Gods only know how the young men at the Red Keep would have reacted to such a beauty among them.” Ned jerked his eyes up to meet Jaime’s. “My brother has been eager to see Winterfell’s libraries,” continued Jaime, even as Ned debated if Jaime had meant a warning or a commendation. “I’ve no doubt he would love to question your Maester about the North and all its history. I don’t suppose such a thing could be arranged?”

“Maester Luwin has been incredibly busy, of late,” said Ned. “But perhaps Lord Tyrion could meet with Theon Greyjoy. He and Sansa have been a great help to Maester Luwin.”

“I’ll let him know,” said Jaime. He paused. “I’m sorry about Jon Arryn, by the way. I know it was a great loss for you.”

Ned had many questions for Jaime Lannister. What had he done to earn the trust of a woman like Brienne of Tarth? Why had he risked so much to bed his own sister, but abandoned her to fight for the living? Had he been taunting Ned when he mentioned Jon Arryn, or had he tried to warn Jon in King’s Landing? Why was he avoiding Bran now?

A million questions, but none of them could be asked now, surrounded by riders with too many ears.

-

“Why didn’t you mention Littlefinger?” asked Robb.

“I’m sorry?” said Sansa.

“Last night, you told the Lannisters that your primary focus in King’s Landing was Littlefinger,” said Robb. “You said that he killed Jon Arryn, even though you’ve never said that before. Why are you still hiding things?”

Arya crossed her arms and looked pointedly at Sansa. I’m not defending you. The words were written all over her face.

They had stayed in Ned’s solar after he had left for the hunting party. Robb had moved to sit behind Ned’s desk to give Sansa and Arya more room. He wouldn’t have had many opportunities to sit there, last time, before he had marched south. Sansa had probably sat there more than he had.

“Because I don’t know what Mother will do,” said Sansa. “Petyr was her friend. He fostered with her at Riverrun.”

Littlefinger always had an answer for everything, a plan for every eventuality. He had Lysa Arryn wrapped around his finger. Catelyn only saw him as a younger brother, harmless. She didn’t know how Sansa still had nightmares about him pressing his lips to hers, or how he had dug his claws into her and made himself her only escape. They didn’t know how he had tried to take her apart and rebuild her in his own image.

Not even Arya knew that. Not even Theon. No one did.

Petyr was hers to deal with. No one else’s. Everyone else had fallen to him, at some point: he had turned Arya against her, once, and he had led Ned to his doom. Sansa had fallen for his tricks, when she knew him better than anybody. She couldn’t trust anyone else with him, not truly.

“They’ll believe you,” persisted Robb.

“Sansa thinks she knows better,” said Arya, with a roll of her eyes.

No one knew. No one knew that she dreaded Petyr more than she dreaded Joffrey, as much as she had dreaded Ramsay. No one knew how close Petyr had come to turning her into something other than she was, into a monster like him.

“We all need to know,” said Robb. “Father especially, since he’s going to King’s Landing with you. You can’t keep secrets from us.”

She didn’t want to keep secrets from them. Didn’t they get it? She just couldn’t tell them. She couldn’t make them understand.

“We need to do this all together,” continued Robb.

“Sansa?” said Arya, tilting her head. She got up from her seat and kneeled down in front of Sansa. “You’re crying.”

Sansa lifted her hand and touched her cheek. There were wet tear tracks on them, and she wiped at them furiously. Her movements felt jerky and sudden, and even those simple acts felt nearly impossible. “I can’t,” she whispered.

Arya leant forward, cupping Sansa’s face with her hands. “Yes, you can, Sansa.”

“You don’t understand,” said Sansa. “None of you do. I can’t talk about him. Mother and Father can’t know what happened in the Vale.”

Arya’s eyes were wide. Robb hovered over her shoulder. “They don’t need to know,” promised Robb. “But they need to know that he’s dangerous, Sansa.”

Arya dropped her hands to take Sansa’s. “You don’t have to tell anyone, not if you don’t want to,” she said. “If you tell me or Robb, we won’t say anything, ever, but if you don’t want to, then you don’t have to. But you do need to warn Father, alright? He doesn’t need to know everything. Just enough.”

“I can’t tell you,” said Sansa. “You wouldn’t -”

“Would Theon?” asked Robb.

Sansa hesitated. Slowly, she nodded. “Yes. Yes, he would.”

“Then tell him,” said Arya. “I think you need to. But will you warn Father?”

Sansa swallowed past the lump her throat and whispered, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

The problem with trying to talk to Theon or to Ned was that it wasn’t easy to get them alone, not with a castle full of over-eager ears. Ned spent almost the entire day on the hunt, and the time he had back in Winterfell was taken up by Robert. Theon spent the morning shadowing Bran, just in case.

Sansa herself had demands on her time, too. After Robb left them, Sansa and Arya had to join Septa Mordane. Although Arya’s sewing abilities had improved by leaps and bounds over the past few months – Catelyn had been a far more patient instructor than Septa Mordane, and Arya actually had a drive to learn now, her stubbornness outweighing her hatred for needles – the Septa was still begrudging about any praise that she had to give out to Arya.

“I was ill,” Arya explained to Myrcella. “I missed so many lessons because of it. But Mother has been teaching me. I’m still not as good as Sansa, though.”

“It’s a shame I can’t see any of your work, Lady Sansa,” said Myrcella. “Is your wrist getting any better?”

“Slowly,” said Sansa. Unable to sew herself, she had settled for playing the harp and giving advice while the others worked. “It doesn’t hurt so much anymore, but Maester Luwin tells me I must still be careful with it.”

“He was a terrible brute,” said Jeyne, eagerly. “Ramsay Snow, I mean. It was such a relief when Lord Stark executed him. I can’t understand why anyone would hurt Sansa.”

Sansa smiled at her friend. She hadn’t spent much time with Jeyne since returning. She had missed Jeyne, over the years, and truth was that she still did, even with Jeyne sitting right next to her. There was a gulf of experience that gaped between her and Jeyne. Jeyne was childish, resenting Arya for Sansa’s new affection for her sister, wanting to gossip about the prince and Theon and a million other things.

Sansa didn’t resent her for it. Jeyne was a child. But Sansa wasn’t, not anymore. She wished that she had been able to keep her Jeyne, that Jeyne had grown up beside her and that they could share their secrets and their fears the way that they had done when they were children. But Sansa could never confide in this Jeyne. Sansa’s world had shrunk to her family and to Theon and Brienne: the only people she could trust with the truth.

And she didn’t even trust them with everything.

After finishing with Septa Mordane, she and Arya met Theon, Bran and Rickon in the library tower. Bran and Rickon had their lessons with Maester Luwin, and Arya and Theon were working on transcribing the parchments they had found in the crypts. The parchments were too fragile to handle much use, so they were working to complete at least two transcriptions of each piece: one for the libraries of Winterfell, and one for Maester Aemon in Castle Black. Sansa was still forbidden to write, so she read the parchments aloud for Theon and Arya to write down.

Afterwards came dinner, then before Sansa knew it, the halls were quieting and she found herself creeping from her chambers, single candle in her hands to light her way. Her footsteps were quiet against the stone floors, and she checked around each corner before she made her way down the corridors. There were already stories floating around her, of her opening her legs to Ramsay Snow, that she had only been betrothed to Theon because he was the only one who would take her. If anyone saw her sneaking through the halls in the middle of the night, they would only take it as confirmation.

Never mind that she actually was sneaking to Theon’s chambers.

He opened the door for her, his mouth still stretched open in a yawn. He froze when he saw her. “Sansa?”

“Let me in,” she hissed, and he moved aside, letting her slip in to his rooms.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I need to talk to you,” said Sansa. “I promised Arya that I would talk to someone, and she and I and Robb agreed it would be best if it was you.”

The fire was crackling away, and he drew her to sit in front of it. She tucked her knees against herself, drawing her loose braid across her shoulder. He sat down next to her, and she leant against him slightly.

“They want me to warn Father about Littlefinger,” said Sansa, staring into the flames. “They want me to tell him what Littlefinger is. But I don’t know how.

“Tell me,” said Theon, his voice soft.

“He was the one that started everything, you know,” said Sansa. “He had Jon Arryn murdered, both times. He betrayed Father. He has the whole economy of the Seven Kingdoms balancing on a knife’s edge, and no one realises -” She broke off. Her voice deadly quiet, she whispered, “He wants me.”

Theon took her hand, squeezing. “What do you mean?”

“He loved – or says he loves – Mother, but he wants me, because he wants to shape me into someone just like him, someone who will only help him and relies on him and needs him,” said Sansa. “He took me from King’s Landing, after Joffrey was killed, because then I couldn’t risk leaving him, and he made me complicit in Lysa’s murder, so I couldn’t even trust the other Vale lords.”

“He was the one who sold you to Ramsay,” remembered Theon.

Sansa nodded. “He said that I would either be rescued by Stannis, or I would be Lady of Winterfell either way, so between the North and the Vale and with me as the heir to the Riverlands, he had half the continent under his control, or nearly, anyway,” explained Sansa. “He didn’t account for how brutal Ramsay could be.”

Everything that Ramsay had ever done to her, every damn thing, was partly Littlefinger’s fault. Sansa couldn’t even be certain that it was a miscalculation. It probably was, because Ramsay very easily could have killed her, one day – but how could Sansa know that Littlefinger wasn’t always planning on bringing the Knights of the Vale to her aid, to rescue her and further indebt her to him?

If that was the plan, he hadn’t accounted for Jon, or Brienne, or even Theon. While his actions in the Battle of the Bastards had indebted her to him, he hadn’t been her saviour. That honour belonged to her brother, her sworn shield, and most of all, Theon.

“He brought the Knights of the Vale to us,” said Sansa. “It’s the only reason we won the Battle of the Bastards. He stayed in Winterfell to advise me, but really, he just spent his days playing on each and every single one of my insecurities.” She dropped her eyes to the floor. They all seemed so stupid, now that she was here, with Theon’s hand in her and Littlefinger halfway across the continent. “That I would never be recognised for my efforts. That the North would always see me as Lady Lannister or Lady Bolton. That none of my brothers and sisters would ever put me first.” She closed her eyes. “That Arya hated me, that she had never forgiven me for what happened in King’s Landing, that she would hurt me for it.” The last words came out only in a whisper. “I believed him, Theon.”

“She would never have hurt you,” said Theon.

Sansa shook her head. “He didn’t just work on me. He spent those months after Arya came home working to convince her that what happened in King’s Landing wasn’t just a little girl, dazzled by dreams and songs, but was an active plot by me,” she said. She hesitated. She couldn’t tell him about the faces. That was her and Arya’s secret, and theirs alone. Arya had yet to breathe a word about the Faceless Men, not really. She used it to threaten, when she had to, but no one but her knew what the Faceless Men were capable of, and what they did – or where the faces came from.

“I don’t know if she would have hurt me,” said Sansa, at last. “But I think she might have wanted to, for a while there. Then Littlefinger slipped up.” She gave a bitter half-smile. “He said Arya probably wanted to become Lady of Winterfell.”

Theon huffed out a laugh. “The greatest schemer of Westeros, undone by Arya Underfoot.”

“The thing about it all, though,” said Sansa, “the reason I can’t talk about him – it’s because I almost did it, Theon.”

He shifted so that he could look her in the face. She missed his warm shoulder against hers, but his eyes were concerned as he looked at her. “Did what?”

“He wanted me to usurp Jon,” said Sansa. “He was trying to make me get rid of Arya. And Gods, Theon, I considered it. I thought it was the only way I could be safe.” She buried her face in her hands. “And that’s how it started with him, too. Uncle Brandon hurt him in a duel, and he spent the rest of his life building himself up so he was untouchable, fighting his way to get to the Iron Throne, so he was the one who ordered other people’s death. I was so close to becoming him, Theon.”

I almost hurt Arya. I almost hurt Jon. If I had taken that step, would I have ever stopped?

Theon gently pried her fingers from her face, wrapping them in his hands. “Sansa, listen to me,” said Theon, slowly, carefully. “You could never have become Littlefinger.”

“I could have, Theon!”

“No,” said Theon. “Because when you came to Winterfell, you could have hurt me. You could have had Ramsay hurt me – he probably would have treated you better, even, if he thought you were anything like him.” He leaned a little closer. “You didn’t. You yelled and you cried but you never had him hurt me.”

“Gods, Theon, that’s just not being a complete monster,” said Sansa.

“Would Littlefinger have done it?” asked Theon.

Sansa opened her mouth, but no sound came out. If Petyr had thought that it would keep the heat off of him, if he had thought that it might ingratiate himself with Ramsay – then yes, he would have.

But Theon was right. She had thought about hurting him for what she had thought he had done to Bran and Rickon. She had said that she would have done the same to him as Ramsay had done. But she had had the perfect opportunity to inflict harm, and she had never done it.

Theon leant all the way forwards, resting his forehead against hers. “You aren’t Littlefinger, Sansa.”

“And you’re not Reek,” breathed Sansa.

“When I went to Pyke again, I felt that I was too Stark to be a Greyjoy, but too Greyjoy to be a Stark,” said Theon. “I threw myself into being a Greyjoy entirely. After everything – after Ramsay and after Euron – I returned to Dragonstone, and you know, I think Jon would have killed me, if it weren’t for you. He told me that I was a Stark and a Greyjoy.” His blue eyes gazed into hers. “You’re a sum of every person you’ve known, Sansa. You have a little of Littlefinger, and a little of Cersei Lannister – but most of all, you’re Ned and Catelyn’s daughter, you’re the sister of Arya and Robb and Jon and Bran and Rickon.” He hesitated, so Sansa finished it for him.

“I’m your betrothed,” she said, and kissed him. She dug her fingers into his hair and pulled him closer to her. His lips were chapped, but still soft under hers. Kissing Theon was still a marvel to Sansa; he was gentle and sweet and never took more than she gave. His hand rested on the small of her back, warm against her shift, and she pressed a little closer, wanting his warmth, wanting him. His other hand went to her waist, and –

And she couldn’t risk it. She was riding for King’s Landing soon, and regardless of what her heart felt, her body was still too young. With reluctance, she pulled away. Her eyes still closed, she rested her forehead against his, breathing heavily. “Can I stay?” she asked. “Tonight? Not to do anything, just.” To be with you, before I can’t anymore.

“You’re going to come back,” reminded Theon.

Sansa swallowed hard. “I know,” she whispered.

“You are,” said Theon.

She opened her eyes. “Too Greyjoy to be a Stark, too Stark to be a Greyjoy,” mused Sansa. “When we get married, what if we have our own keep, on the sea – or on a river at least – so that we can trade?”

“On the west coast,” said Theon. “Between Pyke and Winterfell.”

“We can trade Dornish silks and Arbor golds for the wood of the North,” said Sansa. “We’ll get so rich from it that all our children will be as plump as Tommen.” Theon laughed, throwing his head back.

It was a good dream. But the north winds were still blowing, and they both knew who came with the storm.

-

Jon had been able to see the Wall from leagues away, standing blue and white against the steely grey clouds that had been rolling over them for days. Castle Black had taken a little longer to spot, but its dark walls contrasted the Wall as well as the Wall did the sky.

He tried to imagine what it would have been like, for the other him, riding through the castle gates for the first time. Away from his brothers and sisters, not knowing the truth, pledging his life to a brotherhood that would have seen him dead.

The castle was busy when they arrived, but there were two men waiting to greet them. The elder man was dressed in Maester robes, his barely-there hair bleached white with age, while the other was a chubby boy of the same age as Jon, dressed in the black of the Night’s Watch. Jeor Mormont dismounted his horse before them.

“You received the raven?” asked Mormont.

“Indeed,” said the Maester. “Dark words, Commander. Dark words indeed.”

Jon dismounted his own horse, coming to stand by Benjen. The boy in black stared at Ghost nervously, shifting his weight away from the dire wolf. “This is Ghost,” said Jon. “He won’t hurt anyone unless I command it.”

“A dire wolf?” asked the boy.

Jon nodded. “A symbol of House Stark. One for me, and one for each of my trueborn siblings.” He smiled. “I’m Jon Snow.”

“Samwell Tarly, of Horn Hill – or, well, I was of Horn Hill,” said the boy. Jon blinked. The name was familiar. It had to have been Sansa or Arya who mentioned it, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember if it had been words of warning or of honor. “I’ve been helping Maester Aemon since the letters came in from Winterfell.” He hesitated, then asked, “Is it – is it true?”

Jon nodded. “I’m afraid it is.”

Dacey Mormont stepped up beside him. “Do they still tell stories of the Others in the south?”

“Oh, yes,” said Sam, nodding. “It’s just that – well, we all thought that they were just stories.”

“We all wish that were true,” said Jon.

“Come,” said Benjen. He and Mormont had finished speaking with Maester Aemon, and he grasped Jon’s shoulder. “It’s time to tell the men.”

Sam accompanied Jon into the halls, telling him about the scrolls he had been reading and the things he had been researching. As they passed a group of men, one of them jeered, “Ser Piggy!” Sam flinched, and Ghost growled, low in his throat.

“Who was that?” asked Jon.

“Ser Alliser,” said Sam. “He’s the Master of Arms here. He – he wasn’t pleased that I began helping Maester Aemon instead.” The understatement was obvious, and Jon glanced over his shoulder. So that was Aliser Thorne, the man Sansa had warned him about by name: a master of arms who spent his time bullying recruits and masterminding assassinations.

Jon and the heirs were seated at the High Table or in the few tables closest. As the crowd before them quieted, Mormont got to his feet. “I’ve no doubt that you’ve all heard the rumours,” said Mormont. “The Wildlings are no longer the greatest threat beyond the Wall. The White Walkers are on the march again, for the first time in thousands of years.”

The room erupted into a roar. Mormont slammed his mug against the table repeatedly. “Quiet!” he roared. “I will have quiet! These are strange times. We have the sworn support of the Starks of Winterfell and of the North.” He swept his arm out to encompass the heirs. “We will be riding out soon enough.”

“To do what?” called a voice.

“To treat with Mance Rayder,” said Mormont, unapologetically. He stared defiantly out at the room as it erupted once more, louder and more violently than it had before.

“We have fought the Wildlings for thousands of years!” protested Thorne, rising to his feet.

“We have fought beside them before,” said Jon, his voice cutting over the uproar. Thorne narrowed his eyes at him, and Jon glared back. You’d have killed me, even if I was your brother, he thought. I will not cower. Mormont stepped back, gesturing for Jon to rise. Jon got to his feet. “I am Jon Snow of Winterfell,” he said to the room at large. “I speak on behalf of House Stark. The Wildlings have fought alongside the Night’s Watch and House Stark before. The Night’s King -”

“Was a fairy tale,” sneered Thorne.

“So were the White Walkers, a year ago,” said Jon calmly. “Joramun, the King Beyond the Wall, allied with Brandon the Breaker to free the Night’s Watch. The songs say all men stood against the White Walkers.” He stared out around the room, his tone turning pointed. “I know your vows. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. The Wildlings are men, same as you and me. The Night’s Watch and the Wildlings have fought for thousands of years, yes – but so did House Stark and House Bolton, who now live in peace. Blackwood and Bracken. Velaryon and Hightower. There is far more at stake here than there ever was for any of those Houses.”

The heirs to the North had enough sense to not point out how Roose Bolton had stormed from Winterfell after the death of his bastard. That was something, at least.

“Jon Snow is right,” said Mormont. “The Wildlings will be dispersed across the North, and – if the King is willing – across the Seven Kingdoms. It will leave the Night’s Watch able to focus on the true threat.”

“The Wildlings are a threat!” cried someone in the back.

“Will it matter,” snapped Mormont, “when dead things hunt in the night and the snow falls heavy enough to choke, that Wildlings are south of the Wall? Will it matter when your eyes turn blue and your hands turn against your brothers? Will it matter when the Others themselves reach the Wall, with giants and monsters beyond remembrance reanimated in their army?”

The room fell silent, with the brothers of the Night’s Watch staring at Mormont with wide eyes.

“I have spent much of my life fighting the Wildlings at every turn,” said Mormont. “I thought that it would be my task to put down another King beyond the Wall. And I say, right now, that it is over. The Wildlings are human, and can be dealt with like any other man. We have bigger threats to think of. If we leave the Wildlings north of the Wall, then the Others will swell their army by the hundreds of thousands, and we will have failed in our duty to protect the realms of men, because it would be difficult enough, holding off an army of that size when they were living, let alone when they are dead men who do not feel pain and can only be put to rest through fire.

“We ride in two days’ time to treat with Mance Rayder,” finished Mormont. “Anyone who has a problem with it with have me to answer to.”

-

It had been a long-held ambition of Tyrion’s to see all the nine wonders of the world. It was an impossible one, he had always known: reaching the Five Forts of Yi Ti was difficult for any Westerosi, even the son of the richest man in the Seven Kingdoms. Most of the other Essosi sites would be just as difficult. Still, he had always thought he would have a chance to see the Wall.

Jaime had already forbidden Tyrion from visiting it. Tyrion had pointed out that it the assault on the Wall was still years off, but Jaime hadn’t softened. Tyrion would likely have ignored him and gone on anyway, but Sansa had mentioned that the Night’s Watch was riding out to treat with the Wildlings. The Night’s Watch had enough on their plate without having Tyrion in their hair.

Cersei made a face at him as he sat down at breakfast. “Isn’t there a brothel you’re meant to be ransacking?”

“I’d hardly call it ransacking,” said Tyrion, helping himself to some bread. “But no, dearest sister. I’m spending the day in the Library Tower.” Joffrey snorted in disgust, and Tyrion briefly raised his eyebrows at his nephew, before he turned to Tommen and started pulling faces until Tommen was giggling.

“Tommen will be remaining here when we depart,” said Cersei, her voice icy. “His grace wants Tommen to foster with the Stark boys, like he did with Eddard Stark.” Her voice sneered the name.

“Brandon and Rickon will likely be taking lessons with the Maester in the library,” said Tyrion. “Would you like to come and get to know your foster brothers, Tommen?”

Before Tommen could respond, Cersei said, “He’ll be spending what little time he has left with his true brother and sister.” Neither Tommen nor Joffrey looked pleased at that.

“We have practice, anyway,” said Tommen, quietly. “I’ll see Bran and Rickon there.”

“I’ll take you out to the training yards,” offered Tyrion. “It’s on the way, anyway.”

Joffrey was not pleased to have his dwarf uncle following them to the training yards, but Tommen was, chattering to Tyrion along the way about what his life would be like in Winterfell. The boy was disappointed to leave Myrcella – and Joffrey, he always hastened to add – but he liked Bran and Rickon well enough, and Robert had been full of stories about fostering in the Vale. It was probably the most attention Robert had ever paid Tommen, regaling stories of his youth.

Sansa and Arya Stark were seated in the stands by the training yard, watching their brothers warm up. Brienne of Tarth was seated just behind them, watching the boys with a critical eye. Tyrion decided that the library could wait another minute and climbed up to sit beside them.

“Lord Tyrion,” said Sansa politely, inclining her head in greeting. Arya eyed him warily.

“Don’t mind me,” said Tyrion, waving them off. “I’m just here to make sure my nephew’s training will be up to scratch when we leave him here.”

“Ser Rodrik is one of the best,” promised Sansa. She nodded at Robb Stark and Theon Greyjoy, who were just beginning to spar. The two hardly looked like fearsome warriors: Robb was laughing at something Theon had said, and Theon was so pleased with himself that he missed Robb’s thrust and was hit on his upper-left arm. Sheepishly, Sansa added, “Theon’s more of an archer.”

“More of an idiot, more like,” muttered Arya, smirking as Sansa elbowed her.

“Robert wanted you married to Joffrey, not to the heir of a rebellious pirate,” said Tyrion, watching Theon. “I don’t suppose you know anything about that.”

“Of course I didn’t,” said Sansa, the picture of innocence. “What reason could I possibly have for not wanting to marry the heir to the Seven Kingdoms?”

Tyrion’s eyes shifted to Joffrey, who was complaining loudly to the Hound about Ser Rodrik not allowing him to use live steel. “I haven’t the faintest idea, Lady Sansa.” Sansa and Arya both had matching, barely-suppressed smirks on their faces. “Don’t get too excited,” said Tyrion. “He’s thinking of marrying you off to Tommen, Lady Arya.”

Arya rolled her eyes. “Father won’t allow any betrothal for me for another few years yet.”

“Your parents have been tardy in betrothing you all,” mused Tyrion. “I believe Robb is still unattached, is he not?” At Sansa’s nod, he added, “I’m sure you have plans for that. A daughter of one of the Great Houses, I should imagine, to lend you swords when the Night King comes.”

“The North wouldn’t wish to see Robb married to a southern woman, not when he keeps the new gods as much as he does the old ones, and when Father married a Tully,” said Sansa. “Besides, who would we betroth him to? Shireen Baratheon is too young. The Tyrells would hardly marry Margaery to the North when the Stormlands, the Riverlands, Dorne and Westeros itself are all still up for grabs.” She considered for a moment. “Well, perhaps they would prefer the North to Dorne.”

“There’s Myrcella,” pointed out Tyrion. He didn’t particularly want Myrcella shipped off to spend her life in the North, on the frontlines of the war against the Others, but it was a reasonable match for the Starks to make, particularly when Robert was pushing so hard to join their Houses.

“Myrcella is too young for Robb,” said Arya.

“And everything I said about the North still stands,” said Sansa. “Even if they were of an age, we can’t risk upsetting the Northern lords too greatly, not with what’s coming.”

They were all very reasonable excuses, but Tyrion still couldn’t help but suspect they were exactly that: excuses. The Starks just had no wish to marry one of their children to a bastard of incest. He had no doubt, from what Jaime had told him, that the Starks knew exactly what Cersei and Jaime had been up to over the years.

Sansa had spoken well, the other night. She had made it clear that Littlefinger was her top priority. But that didn’t mean Littlefinger was her only priority.

Sansa was watching him. “You might want to look into marrying Myrcella to Dorne,” said Sansa. “Daenerys Stormborn will come eventually, and the Baratheons will need to do whatever they can to appease the Martells before they have a chance to raise their banners for her.”

Myrcella in Dorne, and Tommen in the North – because Tyrion no longer had any doubt where that suggestion had originated – the Starks were being very careful in removing Myrcella and Tommen from King’s Landing. If they were looking to unroot Cersei, then they were looking to minimise collateral damage.

“What are your thoughts, Lady Brienne?” asked Tyrion, turning to look at the woman in question. She blinked, startled at the question. “You are the heir to a southern House. You must have some thoughts on the matter.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Brienne said, “I agree with Lady Sansa. Trystane Martell is closest in age to Myrcella of any of the heirs to the Great Houses, and it would go a long way in smoothing tensions between the Iron Throne and Sunspear.” Sansa tilted her head, smiling at her sworn sword.

“My brother has had much to say about you,” said Tyrion. “All good, you needn’t worry,” he added, as Brienne’s face creased into a frown. “He says you saved him quite a few times.”

“Ser Jaime also saved me more than once,” said Brienne, her voice just a tad tighter than it had been before.

“I’m glad,” said Tyrion. “It sounds to me as if you have done much to appeal to my brother’s better natures.”

“He’s an honourable man,” said Brienne, softly.

“You would be one of the first to see it,” said Tyrion, not missing the way Arya’s lips thinned, doubt showing in her eyes.

“Oh, good work, Bran!” exclaimed Sansa, startling them all. Bran had been working on his archery, and had hit the centre of the target at long last. Arya let out an encourage whoop. Bran turned to his sisters and gave them a deep, flourishing bow, earning laughter from his siblings.

“You can’t be a showman in the battlefield,” teased Theon.

“Oh, like you’ve never flirted with Sansa in the middle of practice,” said Robb, ruffling Bran’s hair. “Excellent shot, Bran.”

Tyrion stood. “I’m afraid I still have to get to the library,” he said. “Thank you for accommodating me, Ladies Stark, Lady Brienne.”

“It was good speaking with you, Lord Tyrion,” said Sansa. She was far cleverer than she would have one believe, mused Tyrion – far cleverer than she had seemed, gazing at Joffrey with empty adoration and tripping over herself to welcome Cersei to Winterfell. She clearly had a thorough knowledge of Westerosi politics and had already manoeuvred herself to be removed from Joffrey’s grasp.

Arya, though. Arya was something different. He had no doubt that Arya was clever like her sister – the girls seemed to work too closely for anything else – but she was dangerous in a way that Sansa wasn’t. Sansa didn’t like Jaime, but she trusted Brienne’s judgement and withheld what she could. Arya seemed far more cynical, far more wild, and if what she had said the other night was true, then she was one of the deadliest people in all of Westeros – not that you would know it to look at her. She had kept herself well in check over the past few days, befriending Myrcella and being nothing but polite to Cersei. Still. Tyrion was going to have to watch her.

-

 The clock was running short now, the seconds before they left for King’s Landing slipping away from Ned before he could even hope to catch them. He dreaded leaving for the Red Keep, the games and the politics, Cersei Lannister ready to trip him if he made the slightest misstep. He dreaded leaving Robb and Bran and Rickon, and – perhaps most of all – Cat.

She had come to his bed chambers again the night before. “What can I do?” he had asked.

“Oh, Ned,” she had said sadly, resting her hand against his cheek. “The only thing that can fix this is time.” And we’re running terribly short on that. The words had echoed through the room without either of them needing to say it aloud.

He wanted more time, to mentor Robb, to watch over Bran, to see Rickon grow from baby to boy. He would do what he could to come home, and he knew Arya and Sansa would do the same, but with every moment he felt more painfully aware than ever that once upon a time, he had not.

“Father?” asked a voice, muffled by the door. He got to his feet and let Sansa in.

“Aren’t you meant to be with your Septa?” asked Ned.

“Arya’s handling it,” said Sansa, wringing her hands. Ned wasn’t sure who he pitied more: the Septa or Arya. “I needed to talk to you before we leave, without anyone to overhead, and we’re running out of time.”

“What’s wrong?” said Ned, his eyes catching on how pale her face was, the nervous hitch to her breathing. Sansa sat down in front of his desk, placing her hands primly on her knees. Ned sat down across from her and waited for Sansa to speak.

“I haven’t been entirely honest with you,” said Sansa. “Arya’s never approved, you know, but she was willing to let me have my way until two days ago, when she and Robb convinced me to speak the truth.”

The last time Sansa had admitted she hadn’t been entirely honest, it had been to protect Theon from the truth of his betrayal. “What?” asked Ned warily.

“I do know who had Jon Arryn killed,” said Sansa. “He had him poisoned last time, and this time he set things into motion to have him exiled for treason. I’m not sure if it was him or Cersei that had Arryn killed before he reached here. He doesn’t like to get his own hands dirty, you see. He uses other people, twists them into his web so they have no choice other than to do what he wants them to do, whether because they have to or because he’s turned them upside down so many times that they don’t know which way is up anymore.” She took a deep breath, then whispered, “It’s Petyr.”

“Petyr?” repeated Ned. He only knew of the one Petyr in the Red Keep, but he needed the confirmation.

“Petyr Baelish,” said Sansa. She pressed her lips together for a moment before she continued, “Lysa is in love with him. She poisoned Arryn last time because she thought that Arryn would foster out Sweetrobin, and because she wanted to marry Petyr after. This time, I expect she had the same motives.”

“How do you know all of this?” he asked gently.

“Because she said,” said Sansa. “She said to him that she had killed Jon Arryn for him, that she had written to Mother to blame the Lannisters, all for him.” She swallowed hard. “Then he told her that he had loved only one woman in his life.”

“He did all of this for her love?”

“Only one,” said Sansa. “Only Cat.” She was echoing him. Her eyes had grown distant, haunted. “And then he pushed her out the Moon Door.”

Ned sat back in his chair, trying to process the new information. “You’re saying that…”

“I’m saying the Petyr caused the entire war,” said Sansa. “I’m saying that he had Jon Arryn murdered to start tension between our family and the Lannisters; that he betrayed you to Cersei and caused your death.”

But Ned’s mind had gone elsewhere. “You said that Lysa married you to Ramsay.”

Sansa’s jaw set. She continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “I have never met anyone else like him, Father. He had us all dancing to his tune without us even knowing it. He’ll do it from the moment that we step foot in King’s Landing. He’s actually very honest that he isn’t trustworthy, but that’s a trick in and of itself: it makes you lower your guard, because you think so long as you know that he’s dishonest, he can’t get the drop on you.” She smiled bitterly, a deep, distant regret burning in her eyes. “He can, and he will.”

“Sansa,” said Ned quietly, “what did he do to you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Sansa.

“It matters to me,” said Ned.

“So you can, what?” said Sansa. “Arrest him on sight for something he hasn’t done? Arrest him for something that wasn’t actually illegal?” The words flew out of her as sharp as a knife. “He controls the economy of the Seven Kingdoms. He has the Vale through Lysa and Robin. If you kill him now, you will bring war down on all our heads, and you will bring economic ruin to all of us.”

“There must be something that I can do,” said Ned, reaching across the table. She wrenched her hands away.

“You leave him to me,” said Sansa, her eyes burning and her voice deadly.

“It’s my responsibility to protect you,” said Ned. He felt helpless, watching Sansa move out of his reach, a thousand demons bearing down on her and him not able to exorcise a single one.

Sansa laughed, her voice harsh and brittle. Without a word, she stood and left the room, her posture coiled as tightly as a snake.

After several long moments, Ned hauled himself to his feet. He left his solar and made his way into the crypts. They were empty, only the heavy silence and the judgement of the dead to keep him company. It was Lyanna he went to, like it so often was.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted to her statue. Promise me, Ned. “I failed you, Lya, and now whatever I do, it seems that I’m failing my daughters.” Sansa was like porcelain, cracked and repaired so many times that it seemed like any tap could see her shatter. She was stronger than that, he knew: if she was going to break, there were a thousand things that would have done it to her before now. And Arya he barely knew. His younger daughter, the one who had brought him flowers and teased her brothers and was never where she was supposed to be, was a mystery. He didn’t know what had happened to her in all those years between his death and her return to Winterfell.

“I just want to keep them safe,” said Ned. But what could he do? All the pain they had suffered had already happened. No matter what Ned did now, in this time, could change what his girls had lived through.

-

On her last night in Winterfell, Sansa went back to Theon’s chambers, creeping in after most fires had been doused and the household had gone to their beds. She didn’t know when she would see him again, and she didn’t want to waste a moment.

I should tell him, she thought, as Theon told her of how Bran had gotten away from him and Theon had tracked him down to clambering up the side of the Sept (“You said the danger was in the Broken Tower!” Bran had argued). I should tell him, she thought, as she curled into his side. I should tell him, she thought, watching as his breathing evened out and his face calmed.

Eventually, she fell asleep, and dreamed of a castle on the west coast and small children with her hair and his eyes.

Theon woke her before dawn could start to emerge on the horizon. “You’re riding early,” he whispered, his face hovering over hers. “The castle will be awake soon to see you all off.”

Sansa yawned and stretched her shoulders. She sat up and reached out to brush his face with her hand. “I love you,” she whispered. Theon froze, his blue eyes wide. Her chest seized, and she blurted out, “You don’t have to -”

Stupid girl, she thought. Stupid, stupid girl, you thought that just because –

Then Theon surged forwards, so strong and fast and sure that she squeaked in surprise. He leant her back down against the bed, one hand on her hip and the other in her hair. She kissed him back, using her hand on his face to pull him closer. At last, he had to pull away, pressing his forehead against hers, breathing hard.

“Gods, Sansa,” said Theon. “I love you. How could I not?” Sansa drew her back down to him, and he kissed her for another moment before he pulled away, his eyes still closed. “You still need to get up.”

Sansa huffed. “You’re not meant to be the morning person, Theon.”

“You’re rubbing off on me,” said Theon carelessly, drawing further back so that she couldn’t kiss him again. Sansa pouted, and Theon smiled. “If you want any more of Theon Greyjoy, you’re just going to have to get King’s Landing sorted all the sooner.”

“You’re a vicious negotiator,” muttered Sansa, but she sat up properly and stretched her back. Theon laughed, pleased triumph written all over his face. Sansa took a moment to memorise his face, the way his lips curled as he smiled, the spark in his eyes, the way he threw his head back to laugh.

When Sansa finally reached the courtyard, bustling with stable hands saddling the last of the horses, Arya smirked at her. “Slept late?”

“Shut up,” muttered Sansa, determinedly not blushing, just before Catelyn swept her up into a hug. Sansa could hear Arya cackling, but pointedly ignored her as she hugged her mother back.

“Be careful,” said Catelyn, kissing her forehead.

“I will,” promised Sansa. “I’ll make sure Father and Arya are, too. Keep an eye on Bran.”

“I won’t let anything happen to him,” said Catelyn fiercely.

She hugged Bran and then Robb, extracting a promise from Robb that he wouldn’t do anything stupid and a promise from Bran that he would tell someone if he ever dreamed of a raven. Theon she had already farewelled, in the safety of his chambers, far away from prying eyes.

When the time came to climb into the wheelhouse behind Cersei, Sansa did not look back. It would not be five years until she saw her home again. It would not.

Come back to me, Sansa Stark,” Theon had said to her before she had crept out of his chambers.

Soon, she promised him. Soon.

Chapter Text

Arya managed all of a day in the wheelhouse. She wanted to support Sansa, to not let her sister face Cersei alone day in and day out, but Sansa had caught her by the arm the next morning and said, “I have a broken wrist. You don’t. You shouldn’t waste that.”

After that, Arya rode beside her father and the Stark men. She exulted in how the sun seeped into her skin, in Nymeria and Lady loping on either side of her horse, in the wind unravelling her braids no matter how tightly Sansa made them each morning. The loss of Winterfell hung over her with each passing day, but riding across the country, with dire wolves at her heel, was almost enough to make up for it.

She knew these roads as well as anybody else riding the King’s Road – better than some, even. She had passed them riding to King’s Landing the first time, and spent so much time traversing the Riverlands with Yoren and Gendry and the Hound. Each day, it felt like a new memory leapt out at her as she passed: That leads to the Vale. That’s where the Hound got me. The Twins are down that road. She didn’t share her memories with anyone: not Sansa, not Ned, and definitely not the Hound.

He didn’t remember. She and Sansa were certain of that, even though the two of them had wondered about him, once. He was Joffrey’s man at the moment, angry and cynical and with little and less to redeem him. She avoided him wherever she could: it was hard to look at him and not see Mycah’s killer. Avoiding him was easy enough, since he spent most of his time guarding Joffrey, and she did everything possible to stay as far away from Joffrey as she could.

Sansa joined in her in the late afternoons, when they had stopped to make camp. They picked wildflowers for Ned – though Sansa always avoided where the mud was thickest, because some things never changed – Nymeria and Lady dashing at their heels. Lady, too, avoided the mud where she could, but Nymeria tackled her into the mud, her tail wagging.

“Nymeria!” gasped Sansa, while Arya just laughed. Sansa crossed her arms and harrumphed. “It’s not funny, Arya. Do you know how long it’ll take me to get all the mud out of her coat?”

“It’s fine,” said Arya. Lady nipped at Nymeria playfully, and Nymeria sprinted for the trees, Lady on her heels. “Nymeria does it all the time.”

“My ladies,” called Alyn. “It’s time to head back to camp.” Arya sighed. Alyn was a Stark man, but she still kind of wished she could hit him. It wasn’t his fault, of course, but the nights in camp were always her least favourite time, dodging Lannisters and the Hound, playing at being a perfect lady.

“We’re coming,” called Sansa.

“Unfortunately,” muttered Arya.

“Do you need to fetch your wolves?” asked Alyn, his eyes flicking towards where Nymeria and Lady had disappeared into the trees.

“They’re coming,” said Arya certainly. “They’ll reach us before we reach camp.”

“If you’re sure, Lady Arya,” said Alyn. “I’m not sure the guards will be forgiving if the two come without you.”

“They’ll catch up,” said Arya. As if on cue, Nymeria and Lady sauntered into view, unhurried and unconcerned, both panting delightedly and covered in mud.

“So much mud,” murmured Sansa in distress.

“There’s a creek by the camp,” said Arya. “The mud isn’t dry yet; we can wash them off there.”

When they arrived back among the tents, Ned was still with Robert. Sansa and Arya were both half-soaked, since Nymeria had taken a little too much pleasure in shaking herself dry. Nymeria trotted to the Stark tents, her tail wagging cheerfully, while Lady followed daintily. “Do you think that Brienne’s still with the Kingslayer?” asked Arya.

Sansa shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”

Brienne and the Kingslayer. It was still an odd thought.

Jaime Lannister was, in fact, still in the Stark tent when Sansa and Arya pushed their way inside. Brienne looked up at them and frowned. “Why are you both so wet?”

“Nymeria,” sighed Sansa, like it explained everything. Brienne nodded, as if it did. Arya wondered if she should be offended on behalf of her dire wolf, before deciding it wasn’t worth it. She really did explain everything.

“They’re smaller than I remember,” said Jaime, glancing at Lady over his shoulder. Lady let out a puff of air and rested her head on her front paws.

“Don’t worry,” said Arya blandly. “They’ll grow.”

“I’m sure they’ll terrify the kingdom,” said Jaime, his voice equally bland. “I’m not sure that they quite match up with your whole image, though.”

Arya rested her hand on her hip and speared him with her glare. “And what image is that, exactly?”

“You know,” said Jaime, waving his hand. “Proper ladies, desperately in love with the prince simply because he’s the prince, believing that the life is a story and you’re the heroine of a song.” He nodded at Sansa and said, “Cersei already thinks you’re a scheming whore, after the Bolton incident.”

“We’re not leaving the dire wolves,” said Sansa, her voice tight.

“No, I imagine not,” said Jaime. “They’re better protectors that anything else you could hope for – well, besides Brienne.” He flashed Brienne a smile. “I can’t claim to be much of a politician, but it would be a terrible strategic move to rid yourselves of guards as loyal and ferocious.”

“A better guard than you?” asked Arya. “Killed Aerys, failed to stop the murder of Robert and Joffrey, could not prevent the suicide of Tommen, abandoned even your sister.” Jaime’s spine straightened, his gaze turning cold. Arya jutted her chin out. He had mentioned Ramsay; he had caused the tightness in Sansa’s shoulders, the way her hands had balled into fists. His failures were fair game.

“Arya,” said Brienne, softly.

“Littlefinger was responsible for Joffrey,” said Sansa. “There’s little Ser Jaime could have done.” She did not mention Cersei, but she still hung over the conversation heavily, a blizzard ready to bury them.

Jaime got to his feet, his movements lithe. “It’s best that I head back. I’m due to guard my sister.” As he passed, he said to Arya, “I’d avoid the butcher’s boy, if I were you.”

-

“War in the North, war in the east,” said Robert, filling his glass with wine before coming to sit heavily by Ned. “No doubt the bloody Ironborn will start getting ideas and we’ll have war in the west, too.”

“War in the east, your grace?” asked Ned.

Robert sighed. “I got a rider in the night not long before I arrived in Winterfell. Daenerys Targaryen married to a Dorthraki khal.”

“A horse lord far across the Narrow Sea,” said Ned, his heart beating fast. “What of it?”

“A Dothraki khal isn’t just a horse lord,” snapped Robert. “You know that as well as I do. This Khal Drogo has forty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back.”

“Forty thousand men mean nothing when they have no ships,” said Ned. “She’s a child, Robert. If she is ever a threat, it won’t be for years yet.”

“A child?” asked Robert. He took a scrap of parchment from his cloak and handed it to Ned. “She’s with child herself.”

Ned stared at the parchment. Sansa and Arya had never mentioned a child. She must have lost it, decided Ned. Sometime between now and when Daenerys Targaryen had landed in Westeros, she had lost her child and replaced them with dragons.

I should tell Robert, he thought, not for the first time. But Daenerys Targaryen hadn’t done anything yet, nothing more than been sold to a Dothraki warlord and become pregnant by him. Robert would have her head for something that Daenerys had never even done, just as he had had the heads of Elia Martell’s children.  And Robert couldn’t be told just about Daenerys; he would have questions that Ned wasn’t willing to answer. What king would be fool enough to pass over an opportunity like knowledge of things to come? He had to protect his daughters.

“Lost your tongue, Ned?” asked Robert triumphantly.

“Daenerys has done nothing,” said Ned. “Her child is not even born yet, and for all we know, may never be born. If they look to sail for Westeros, we can handle it then, but the Seven Kingdoms have larger concerns, your grace. Like how to increase the numbers of the Night’s Watch, or how to properly store sufficient food for the longest winter in memory and an oncoming war.”

“And how are we to do any of that if there is to be a war between now and then?” said Robert. “Do you think Daenerys Targaryen will be so willing to listen to you when you tell stories of the Long Night?”

“I will never need to treat with Daenerys, or with her brother,” said Ned. “You are the King of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert. You have the North, the Riverlands, the Vale, the Westerlands and the Stormlands. Through Sansa and Theon, you will have the Iron Islands soon enough. The Martells may be proud and the Tyrells ambitious, but neither family is filled with enough fools to think that they can fight six other kingdoms and win.”

“You’re right that you won’t ever have to treat with Viserys,” said Robert. “The boy’s dead. Daenerys Stormborn is the last hope of House Targaryen.”

“A young girl who will soon have a squalling babe in her arms,” said Ned. “Hardly much of a threat. You have three healthy children and two brothers, a dynasty that the Targaryens have not been able to rival since the Dance. And,” he added, “the Dance alone shows the preference for kings over queens.”

“That was an entirely different situation and you damn well know it,” said Robert shortly.

“What else do you want me to say?” asked Ned. “She’s a child, Robert. She is no threat to you. As your Hand, I believe that there are better – more important – things to focus on.”

There was no agreement to be made. He went back to his tent. Brienne was standing guard, and she smiled at him as he greeted her. Lady and Nymeria were lying half on top of each other on the ground, and Arya almost tripped over them as she got to her feet.

“Are you still up?” asked Ned, more amused than anything.

She held out a bunch of wildflowers, a crowded bouquet of blue and yellow and purple. “We went exploring earlier.”

Sansa sat, braiding her hair in to one long braid. “Nymeria got us soaked.”

“How else was she meant to dry off?” shot back Arya.

“By not shaking herself right next to us,” said Sansa promptly. “Like Lady did.” Arya shot Lady a distrustful look, like shaking herself dry out of human reach was an inherently suspicious act. All at once, the weight seemed to lift off of Ned’s shoulders, the headache he had been fighting all afternoon receding.

“Thank you,” said Ned, pressing a kiss to Arya’s forehead. “They’re lovely.”

-

The night air was cool on her back as she dashed through the woods, leaping over fallen branches. Her sister was only a few steps behind, both eager to stretch their legs and run. The trees were thick with scents, but Arya didn’t stop for a single one.

Their running took them deeper and deeper into the woods, away from the prying eyes. She ducked around a boulder too large to climb and then on, on, until she reached a riverbank too wide to jump. At the edge of the water, Arya stopped and howled. Once, there would have been a pack to respond to her, but all there was now was her sister, howling at her side.

Across the river, somewhere out there, was home, and Arya’s brothers.

Arya woke with a gasp and as someone grabbed her shoulder. It was Ned, with Sansa just behind him. “Half the camp’s awake,” said Ned. “The King certainly is.”

Arya struggled upright. “Why?”

Ned looked at her pointedly, and the sound gradually came in, the long, drawn out howl of the dire wolves. “You told me once that Lady was killed and Nymeria lost,” said Ned. “We do not wish for the royal family to lose their patience with them if we can help it.”

Arya hunched her shoulders, nodding. “We’ll keep them quiet,” promised Arya.

“Dawn’s not far off,” said Ned. “We’ll probably be making an early start, since most of us are awake as it is.”

Arya nodded. She and Sansa helped each other into their dresses and tamed their hair before they emerged into the first rays of light, the pinks and oranges just starting to disrupt the dark horizons. Arya glanced towards the river, and flushed guiltily when she saw the red-headed boy drawing water.

Sansa nudged her. “Don’t look.”

“I haven’t spoken to him,” promised Arya. “Haven’t even met his eye.”

Sansa softened. “He’ll be fine, Arya. He’s not brought any attention to himself, and nor will he.” Arya must have looked doubtful, because Sansa smiled a little and added, “Joffrey’s not going to go around provoking fights with the smallfolk for no reason.”

Arya snorted. “Are you sure about that?”

“Well, no,” admitted Sansa. “But they have to do something to draw his attention in the first place, and Mycah -” Sansa still said the name oddly. She had forgotten it, she said, after all this time. Arya wasn’t sure if it was guilt or unfamiliarity that caused the odd inflection in Sansa’s voice. (Arya had never forgotten. She never would.) “ – is invisible, for all intents and purposes.”

Arya chewed at her bottom lip, her eyes wandering back to Mycah. He was so much younger than she remembered him being, but she supposed she had been young, too. They had both been children, all of them – even Sansa and Joffrey, really – and the Hound had still ridden Mycah down and killed him. Murdered, all because Joffrey had wanted to torment a common boy.

“I’ll ride with you today,” said Sansa, suddenly.

Arya jerked her gaze back to her sister. “But your arm -”

“It hasn’t hurt since just after we started out from Winterfell,” said Sansa. “Maester Luwin even said that it should be healed by the time we arrived in King’s Landing -”

“We haven’t arrived yet -

“- And honestly, the wheelhouse can be so bumpy, I’m not sure that it’s any better,” finished Sansa.

Arya narrowed her eyes. “You hate riding.”

Sansa shrugged. “I’ve never seen the Riverlands, not really. It’ll be nice to see our mother’s lands for the day.” She lowered her voice, so quiet that even Arya had to strain to hear her. “And it’ll be nice to be away from Cersei for the day.”

Reluctantly, Arya felt herself smile. “Fine. You can ride with me.”

When the time came for them to ride out, Sansa insisted on singing about Jenny of Oldstones – “She was from the Riverlands, Arya, of course we have to sing it” – and then Florian and Jonquil’s song. Ned had laughed and hummed along with Sansa’s singing. Arya found herself singing along to the maiden of the tree’s song, though she regretted it immediately when she saw Sansa’s smug face.

Along the way, Ned pointed out places he had been. Arya had as many stories to share as him, but she couldn’t speak them around so many people – and there were more than a few that she had no wish to tell. Still, Arya listened closely as Ned spun his stories, sometimes of war and sometimes of youthful misadventure.

“That way to Harrenhal,” said Ned, nodding at a path that snaked away through the trees. “The King and I both went to the Tourney of Harrenhal in the Year of the False Spring.” He smiled slightly, his face sad. “There was a mystery knight that entered the jousts that year, with a shield painted with a laughing weirwood tree. The knight unhorsed three knights before they disappeared.”

“A weirwood tree?” asked Arya. “Were they from the North?”

“Perhaps,” said Ned. “Or perhaps they were inspired by the Isle of Faces. Whoever it was, the Mad King wasn’t pleased, insisting the knight had to be a traitor. Yet all they ever found of the knight was the laughing shield.”

Arya smiled, saying, “I bet the Mad King wasn’t happy about that.”

“No,” agreed Ned. “But he wasn’t happy about most things in those days.” Ned’s eyes grew sadder.

“I bet I could unhorse three knights,” declared Arya, before Ned could sink any deeper into his thoughts.

Ned huffed out a laugh. “I’m sure you could, you little she-wolf.”

Sansa wrinkled her nose. “It seems very dangerous.”

“You love tourneys,” said Arya, twisting in her saddle to look at her sister accusingly.

“I love watching tourneys,” said Sansa. “And it’s trained knights that I like watching ride in a tourney, not my sister.”

Arya let out hmmph, looking ahead. They were riding behind the royal wheelhouse, and Robert himself was riding ahead of that, surrounded by the King’s Guard that had accompanied him north. She was surrounded by Stark men and by her father and sister, Nymeria and Lady keeping pace with them somewhere in the trees.

With a wrench in her stomach, she realised that Mycah had been left far behind, and Lady was still with them. She had changed something. She had saved two lives, and had caused all the changes that would spiral out of the two surviving. Maybe Mycah would just grow up to take over his father’s butchery, marry a girl and have children; maybe Lady would only make it to King’s Landing before Joffrey made a wrong move and found himself threatened by a snarling dire wolf. Maybe Lady and Mycah’s changes on the world would be tiny.

But the changes were made.

Valar morghulis, she thought. All men must die.

But not today. Not today.

-

It was ridiculously cold beyond the Wall. Jon was grateful when they came across their first building to take shelter in, cresting on the horizon. Next to him, Sam stared at the homestead, his shoulders hunching together and his mouth tightening.

“What’s wrong?” asked Jon.

“I’ve heard of this place,” said Sam. “Craster’s Keep.” Sam’s voice was heavy. “He’s one of the only people beyond the Wall who’ll give Rangers shelter, but…”

“But what?” prompted Jon.

“But he’s a cunt,” said Benjen, bluntly. “A monster, one that it shames us all to rely on – but beyond the Wall, the Rangers must take what protection they can. Dacey!” he called, turning to look at the Mormont heir. She was riding behind them, and sat up straighter at the sound of her name. “You’d best be careful in the Keep. Stay with someone you trust.” Dacey nodded gravely.

“That bad?” asked Jon.

“The worst,” said Benjen. “But we need shelter before we range further north. We don’t want to meet the Wildlings exhausted.”

Benjen wouldn’t be resting in Craster’s Keep. He would keep riding north to seek out the Wildlings and offer parley. As both a Stark and the First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, he was best placed to show that they were serious. He wouldn’t be alone, of course – but Jon wouldn’t be with him.

“Uncle Benjen died beyond the Wall,” Arya had told him, once, her face pale and sad after she had seen Benjen for the first time. “You and Bran both said that he became a kind of wight, one that kept his own mind. He saved you both.” And this time, Jon thought now, I’ll save him.

Well, he would, so long as Benjen didn’t die looking for Mance Rayder.

“Why is he so bad?” asked Jon.

“He marries his daughters,” said Benjen, grimly. “We don’t know what he does to his sons.”

There was something tickling at his memory. Something important. Arya and Sansa hadn’t mentioned Craster, as far as he could remember, but something they had told him was important.

“He kills his own sons?” asked Sam in horror.

Benjen sighed. “He must. No Wildling goes near him, so there would be no one to take his sons.”

Jon sat up straighter. “Except there is,” he realised. He knew what he hadn’t been able to remember. “The Others can change children – babes – into one of them.”

“They can what?” spluttered Sam.

“Are you sure?” asked Benjen. “Are you absolutely certain?”

“Yes,” said Jon. “We heard it from -” He cut himself, not sure how to say ‘the other me’ in front of strangers without sounding completely mad. Benjen nodded, though, not needing the name.

“Shit.” With that, Benjen spurred his horse forward to catch up with Mormont.

The Keep was quiet when they arrived. Some of the daughters stopped their work to watch them ride in. Their quiet stillness reminded Jon too much of his sisters ever since the world had changed. He didn’t need to wonder what had placed ghosts in their eyes and had stilled the bubbling energy of childhood for these women.

“This is sick,” muttered Jon.

“Worse than sick,” agreed Sam.

“Jon!” called Benjen, beckoning him. He was at the entrance to the so-called Keep, a foot half already in the door. Mormont and Craster were no where to be seen, presumably already inside.

Jon sighed. “Into the belly of the beast,” he said. “Ghost!” Ghost bounded to Jon’s side, looking up at him with a cocked head. “Take care of Dacey.”

“I’d tell you that I can take care of myself,” said Dacey, a slight smile on her face, “but I saw your sister’s wolf take down Ramsay Snow. Watching yours might be more satisfying than doing it myself.”

“I doubt you’ll need him,” said Jon. “The only one here to trouble you is Craster, and he’s already inside. But keep him from frightening the daughters, won’t you?”

“The daughters and the coward crows both,” said Dacey, glancing over her shoulder at the few Night’s Watchmen who had accompanied them.

It was dark inside Craster’s home, with only a few lanterns to light it. Jon made his way through the dim light and seated himself next to Benjen, across from Craster and Mormont. “We will be marching for the Fist as soon as we are able,” Mormont was saying. “We will not intrude on your hospitality for long.”

Craster snorted. “If you ask me, this is all a waste of time. The Wildlings will never bend the knee to you.”

“I heard you didn’t have much contact with the Wildlings,” said Jon before he could stop himself.

Craster narrowed his eyes at him. “I am a Wildling. Girl!” He turned and gestured over the woman standing nearby with a pitcher in her hands. She startled and hurried over, filling the cups with wine. “Tell them about our lives.”

“We are lucky to have such a good husband,” said the woman, with brown hair and pretty brown eyes. The words had a rote feel to them, the rhythm of the words too practiced to be honest. “He keeps us safe and he keeps us free. It is better to live free than it is to die a slave.”

“So I take it that you have no plans of moving south of the Wall with your -” Jon skated his eyes over the woman, who was shuffling back to retake her place against the wall – “wives?” He couldn’t keep the scepticism out of his voice.

“Why should I?” said Craster. “To kneel to a southern lord and kiss his perfumed feet? I am my own master here, and that is how it will remain.”

Your own master? Is that why you sacrifice your children to the White Walkers? Jon bit the words back just in time, but still couldn’t resist a response: “It almost sounds as if you don’t wish for peace.”

“Peace?” repeated Craster, snorting out a laugh. “Of course I don’t want peace. If there’s no Night’s Watch begging my mercy, then where I am going to get the good wine?”

“Then why should we not march out of here right now?” asked Mormont. “How do we know that you will not sabotage us?”

Craster shrugged. “No need to sabotage you. The Wildlings will never kneel to one of the little lordlings you call king south of the Wall, and you will never allow them to cross without the doing so. This will end poorly, you mark my words – then you’ll come crawling back to Craster.” He smirked.

This is pointless. Craster was a monster, and not a useful one, at that. He leered at the girl from before as she stepped forward to fill Mormont’s cup. Jon carefully didn’t look at her, not wanting for either of them to be on the wrong side of Craster’s temper.

Afterwards, he watched as Benjen swung back into the saddle. He had two rangers with him. Jon would have liked him to have more company, but Benjen had insisted it was best to travel in small groups north of the Wall – especially if they were to be dodging inhuman foes. Benjen was wearing his black cloak, the fur settling around his shoulders, and for the first time since Jon was a babe in arms, he had a dire wolf pinned to his cloak.

“Be careful,” said Jon.

“I will, Jon,” promised Benjen.

“You remember what the girls said?” asked Jon.

“Yes,” said Benjen. “I heard it from them a dozen times over in Winterfell, another dozen from your father, and then five dozen times from you on the ride here.”

Jon half-laughed, worry still festering in his chest. “I’ll see you at the Fist.”

“With Mance Rayder,” agreed Benjen.

Jon hesitated, then burst out, “At least take Ghost. He could take on most things out there, human, Other or wight.”

It took a bit of a scramble to find where Dacey and Sam had taken Ghost to get him out from under the feet of the women. Benjen and his rangers left the Keep later then expected, but they had a dire wolf trotting at their heels, his ears pricked and teeth ready. That, at least, thought Jon, his chest easing a little, is a change.

-

Gendry flexed his shoulders, dropping the finished knife on to the bench. His back ached dully, as it always did after a long day’s work, but he knew he would be fine by the time morning came. It was already dark out, and when he turned, Mott was watching him with his arms crossed.

“Enough?” he asked.

“Enough,” said Mott, and Gendry hesitated at the finality of his voice. “You’re out.”

“What?” said Gendry, his head jerking up. “Just because I went to watch the new Hand ride in -”

“You’re here working late because you crept out to watch some perfumed nobles,” said Mott. “You’re out because of all the damned priests you keep dragging in here.”

“That is not my fault,” protested Gendry. “I have never asked them here. I have always tossed them out the moment I could.”

“But you keep spreading the same story, and more and more beggars keep turning up at our door, begging for some more words of wisdom from our famed saviour, Azor Ahai,” said Mott, sarcasm colouring his voice. “It would be one thing if they all paid, boy, but they do not. They scare off more business than they bring. I can’t afford you anymore.”

Gendry’s jaw worked. Where was he meant to go? His mother was dead, and he had no uncles or aunts on her side; his father was a fat king sitting in a castle with no need to acknowledge his bastard son. He didn’t have the coin to ride North, and even if he did, Arya was here in King’s Landing and didn’t even know him.

The Night’s Watch, he considered. They took anyone. It would be a long and hard journey to the Wall with the little money he had, and just thinking of the cold made him want to shiver. But – at the Night’s Watch, he was just another crow calling out a warning no one listened to.

“Do I at least have time to pack?” asked Gendry, fighting to keep his voice even.

“You have until first light,” warned Mott, before turning and making his way into the sleeping quarters. Gendry turned back to the bench and picked up the knife he had just finished – the knife that Mott had let him finish, knowing that he was just going to throw Gendry out when he was finished.

I should take it, thought Gendry. But for what? What was he going to need a knife for? Keeping the bloody Red Woman at bay, if nothing else.

“Azor Ahai, huh?” said a voice behind Gendry.

It was Arya. The girl that had ridden into the Red Keep beside her father and sister had been dressed in Northern finery, her hair braided into perfection. The Arya that stood before him now, her weight all on one foot with her hip popped out, was in leggings and a tunic, her hair bound up under a cap. She tilted her head and grinned at him. “Missed me?”

Arya,” he breathed, and crossed the room to sweep her up into his arms. She stiffened for a second, then sighed softly and rested her head on his shoulder, relaxing.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Arya, shifting so that she could look at him.

“Maybe a little,” said Gendry. “Just a smidge.”

Arya smirked, rolling her eyes. “You keep telling yourself that.”

Gendry set her back down. She was tiny – she had been even when she was fully grown, back at Winterfell before the world ended – but she was back to how he had first known her, tiny but scrappy. “You’re back,” he breathed. “You’re back here, too.”

Arya nodded. “Me, Sansa, Brienne of Tarth, Theon Greyjoy, and the Kingslayer, of all people. We think it was Bran.”

Gendry had only seen Brandon Stark once or twice, and had never spoken with him. He had seen him being wheeled to the Godswood by a fat man once or twice, seen him with his sister when Daenerys had ridden into Winterfell. That had been all. “Why -”

“Why would he choose you?” finished Arya. “We’re still not completely sure. Some of the people sent back are - ” She paused and shook her head. “A monster was sent back with us. He’s dead now, and we don’t think that Bran intended him to come back with us, but we don’t know anything for certain about how or why it happened. We just know what we have to do now.”

“Win the war,” said Gendry.

“Win the war,” agreed Arya. “Now, what in all the hells is the blacksmith doing, calling you Azor Ahai?”

Gendry grimaced, running his hand down his face. “The fucking Red Woman declared me Azor Ahai and all that bullshit,” he said. “Destined to save the world from the White Walkers because the Lord of Light himself plucked me from death and sent me back to change the world -”

He had kept his voice mockingly grandiose, and it worked. Arya started giggling halfway through. She snorted with laughter. “Gods, how times have changed.”

Gendry dropped the airs and said, “Not sure how she expects me to save the world when she’s lost me my apprenticeship.”

Arya bit her lip. She took the knife from his hand and twirled it against her finger thoughtfully. “Come back to the Tower with me,” she said at last. “I know Sansa wants to talk to you at some point. It’ll give you somewhere to sleep until you work out what to do.”

“The Tower of the Hand?” spluttered Gendry. “You want to take me to the Red Keep?”

“You don’t have to stay, stupid,” said Arya impatiently. “But you don’t have anywhere to go, do you?”

Gendry swallowed. “No.”

“You have me,” said Arya. “So you’re coming back with me to the Tower of the Hand. We’ve got Jory on guard at the moment, and trust me, he won’t say anything if Father asks him not to. We can sneak you back out later.”

“Fine,” said Gendry, snatching his knife back. Arya didn’t protest, too busy grinning with triumph. “Only until I find something else, you hear?”

“I hear you,” said Arya, airily, as if she hadn’t heard at all. “Go get your things.”

Gendry wasn’t sure he owned anything worth taking to the Tower of the Hand. Anything he had would be out of place in the finery, the perfumed rooms and beautifully decorated halls. But Arya was still looking so triumphant, and even half his size she was still a force of nature, so he ate his words and went to gather his things.

Chapter Text

“Where’s Arya?” asked Ned, glancing around Sansa’s chambers like Arya was hiding in there somewhere.

“She missing already?” asked Sansa. “Isn’t there meant to be a feast tonight?”

Ned nodded. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

Sansa sighed and shook her head. There was the blacksmith, but she wasn’t going to mention that to her father – knowing Robb, he had probably already warned Ned to keep an eye out. What had happened between Arya and Gendry was their business, and had happened when they were both fully grown. Their family, for all that they knew technically that Sansa and Arya had both grown into women, still couldn’t always comprehend that, and she suspected that news of what Arya had gotten up to with Gendry would probably provoke some protective instincts in Ned.

“I’m sure she’ll be back,” said Sansa. “You know that she wants to be as inconspicuous as possible. She won’t mess with that by missing our welcoming feast.”

There was a scuffle from down the hall, then Arya calling, “Sansa? Father?”

“There she is,” said Sansa. “I told you she wouldn’t be gone too long.” She stood up and followed her father out into the main quarters.

Arya was standing next to a young man, with Nymeria shuffling around his feet and sniffing at him curiously. His posture was awkward, his shoulders hunched slightly, glancing around the room warily. His clothes were dirty and rough, and his hands were chapped and covered with black dirt. Sansa had never actually met Gendry Waters, but he was unmistakable. Arya herself was in clothes that Sansa hadn’t even realised that Arya owned: a cap that covered her hair, and a boy’s tunic, roughly spun and plain. She was still too clean to truly pass as a street urchin, but she wouldn’t warrant a second look wandering Fleabottom.

So much for not mentioning him, thought Sansa, suppressing another sigh.

“Who is this?” asked Ned.

“This is Gendry,” said Arya, grinning. “He’s one of us.”

Ned’s eyes flicked to Gendry. “The blacksmith.”

Gendry nodded, bowing his head. “Aye, Lord Stark.”

“We have to get you ready for the feast, Arya,” said Sansa, stepping forward to grab her sister’s arm. “Would you like to come with us, Gendry? It will be good to hear what you know.”

Ned frowned, but Arya didn’t give him a chance to protest. “Come on, Gendry.”

“But -” spluttered Gendry.

Arya rolled her eyes. “There’s a screen in there. You won’t see anything, and Sansa is there as chaperone.” She turned to Sansa and added, “Chances are he’ll be gone by morning, so we should talk to him now.”

“I’ll make sure nothing happens,” said Sansa firmly, and pulled Arya back towards their chambers. Arya – just like Sansa had known she would – grabbed Gendry’s hand and tugged him along with her. In Arya’s chambers, Sansa sent Arya to change safely behind the screens and turned to Gendry. “Lord Tyrion says that you weren’t willing to lie to protect Joffrey.”

Gendry blinked, shifting his weight. “No, m’lady. Joffrey was a monster.”

“Good,” said Sansa, at the same time as Arya stuck her head out from behind the screen and called, “Just call her Sansa!”

Gendry looked between Sansa and Arya, looking more and more like a cornered animal. Sansa smiled and said, “You saved my sister and are very dear to her. I think that more than earns you the right to use my first name.”

“Sansa,” said Gendry, trying out the name hesitantly, like a word from a foreign language. Arya had gone back behind the screen, but the smugness still emanated from her general direction. “Tyrion Lannister said that lying for Joffrey would keep the peace. I thought you would agree with him.”

Sansa shook her head. “No. Joffrey was mad and cruel, and I suspect that the two of us know that better than most. Lord Tyrion, I think, wanted more to protect Myrcella and Tommen: exposing Cersei and Joffrey will harm them just as much as it harms Joffrey. But you were right that Joffrey will bring war, no matter what. He is uncontrollable and he is a monster. Someone will rebel eventually, or they will flock to Daenerys when she comes. Either way, war will come.”

“Sansa?” said Arya, waddling out from behind the screen. Gendry looked away as Sansa began lacing up the back of Arya’s dress. “The Red Priests think that Gendry’s Azor Ahai.”

Sansa remembered the story of Azor Ahai only distantly, that Melissandre had declared first Stannis and had then been undecided between Jon and Daenerys. She glanced back at Gendry, who was inspecting the roof as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. “What do the smallfolk think of that?” she asked.

“Most people think it’s bollocks,” said Gendry. “Most keep to the Seven. But times are hard, and some people are looking for other answers.”

“Enough for your master to throw you out?” said Arya.

Gendry’s mouth twisted. “Apparently.” He paused for a moment then said, “I don’t like it, but it’s gotten more people to listen to me about what’s coming.”

Sansa blinked. “You’ve been telling people?”

Gendry frowned. “You haven’t?”

“No, I…” Sansa trailed off. “I’ve just been focusing on keeping our armies as strong as we can and making sure that the Iron Throne takes us seriously.”

“The people deserve to know,” said Gendry. “If they have time to prepare, then they have a better chance of making it, or of saving enough coin to book passage out of Westeros, or something. Something that can save them.”

“Sit,” ordered Sansa, shoving Arya towards the chair. Arya obediently sat. She had already learnt not to argue when Sansa was getting her ready back in Winterfell. Gendry cautiously peeked to see if all was clear, and relaxed at the sight of Sansa braiding Arya’s hair back.

“You’re right,” said Sansa. “I just hadn’t thought of it like that, though I suppose most of Winterfell, if not the entire North, knows about what’s coming after the lords heard at the Harvest feast and the heirs riding for the Wall.”

“That’s still a lot of Westeros who don’t,” murmured Arya. Sansa twisted the next strand of braid particularly tightly, and Arya winced and cried, “Sansa!”

“Stop moving and we won’t have this problem,” said Sansa sternly.

“You look like a proper princess,” said Gendry, an odd note to his voice. Sansa glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, not able to place it.

Arya rolled her eyes. “Don’t remind me. I’m in hiding.”

“In hiding?” repeated Gendry.

“Well, when I met you, I had to be Arry to be safe,” said Arya. “Now I’ve got to be Lady Arya to keep everyone else safe.” Her voice went high-pitched and posh at the words Lady Arya. Sansa narrowed her eyes at her sister in the mirror, because it had sounded suspiciously close to Sansa’s own voice.

“Then you better do a better job than you did as Arry,” said Gendry. Arya twisted in her chair, this time ignoring the pain she had to be feeling after practically ripping herself out Sansa’s grip, to glare at Gendry.

“I did a brilliant job as Arry,” hissed Arya.

“I caught you in the first week,” scoffed Gendry.

Arya huffed, flinging herself back against the chair. “Only because you were the only there who wasn’t a complete idiot.”

“You’ll do fine,” soothed Sansa. “You’ve fooled worse.”

Arya brightened. “I have. Did I ever tell you that I served Tywin Lannister wine and he never caught on? I would have had him poisoned, but things got in the way.” The last part was kept low with a furtive glance at the walls.

“You told me that you served Jaime Lannister wine and he didn’t catch you,” said Sansa. “You’ve already fooled half the Lannister clan, and out of those who are left, one of them is already on our side. Well, mostly.”

Arya looked over at Gendry and said, “Robert’s still half in love with Aunt Lyanna. If I pretend to be not like her at all, maybe he won’t be so quick to try to betroth me to Tommen or – Gods forbid – Joffrey.”

Gendry’s face tightened. “He’d do that?”

“Father won’t allow it,” said Arya certainly. “Not when I’m so young.” She gave herself a dubious look in the mirror before continuing. “Not just that, though. If all the Lannisters think that I’m just a naïve, sheltered little girl, then they’re more likely to let things slip around me. They won’t think I’m a threat.”

“They’d be fools to think that,” said Gendry, his voice low, like Arya being dangerous was one of the simplest, most basic facts of the universe.

“Done,” said Sansa, putting the last pin into the bun that she had braided half of Arya’s hair into. “We should probably go back out, before Father has a heart attack.”

Arya laughed. She got to her feet and grabbed Gendry by the hand. “Don’t worry,” said Arya, leading him towards the door. “He’ll like you.”

“Well, probably not right now,” said Sansa. “But he’ll come round.”

“I’m still ten years old in his head,” said Arya, looking down at herself. “I’m not even ten anymore physically, let alone mentally, but I think he forgets, sometimes.”

“He doesn’t forget,” said Sansa. “It’s just a bit hard to understand.”

-

Brienne hated dresses.

It wasn’t that they were particularly uncomfortable – they weren’t any worse than armour, really – or that there was even anything wrong with them. Dresses just held more than one unpleasant memory for her: a bear pit, her Septa, a million small cuts of not being good enough.

When she met Sansa and Arya in the audience chamber, Arya grimaced at her in solidarity, tugging at her own dress in irritation. Sansa looked lovely, dressed in a lilac gown and her hair braided like a crown, red tresses flowing down her back. Even Arya, who Brienne had never seen in a dress before the King’s party had arrived in Winterfell, was pretty – though uncomfortable – in her light grey dress and Northern braids.

Arya grinned at Brienne, and tugged up the hem of her dress, showing the leggings she had on under it. “Sansa wouldn’t let me wear my boots,” lamented Arya, glaring at the slippers she was wearing. Brienne smiled, and sheepishly tugged up on her own dress to show her leggings. Arya laughed as Sansa smiled and shook her head in exasperation.

Brienne had only been to a feast in King’s Landing once before: Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding feast. She had only just returned Jaime to King’s Landing, and they had only just heard of what had happened in the Twins. Sansa had slipped out from under Brienne’s nose, spirited out of the city by Littlefinger.

Walking into the feast felt like being thrown into the bear pit again. Jaime was there, and Sansa and Arya and the Stark men – but so was Joffrey Baratheon, cruel and vindictive and no doubt eager to get a strike in, and Cersei Lannister, who was yet to notice Brienne’s connection to Jaime but would rush to lay her claim as quickly as she had last time, and –

And Renly Baratheon.

All members of the Small Council were there, and the Starks were introduced to each in turn. Ned already knew most of them, but Sansa and Arya curtseyed in turn to each of them, charming and clever and lovely. It didn’t surprise Brienne at all to see Sansa so fluent in the ways of the Red Keep, the way she glided through the crowds as easily as a duck through water – though she could still see the tightness in Sansa’s smile. Arya was more of a surprise: Brienne remembered the girl again who had returned to Winterfell looking more like her half-brother than her mother or sister, the glee Arya had shown in being able to fence with another woman. That Arya Stark – the real Arya Stark – was nowhere in sight, smiling at lords and flushing shyly when she was paid too much attention.

Brienne hated court.

But it was a necessary evil, and she just had to hope that she and both of the Stark sisters would make it through unscathed. Brienne could protect them against physical threats, but there was nothing she could do about the ghosts that haunted Sansa, or the wall that Arya built up between her and the world.

“Renly!” exclaimed Ned. “You look well.”

“And you look tired,” said Renly. “Drink! Eat! We’ll see you hearty soon enough.” He turned to Sansa and Arya. “You must be Lady Sansa and Lady Arya – and?”

He was looking at her. Brienne’s heart froze, unable to think of anything other than a shadow with a face close behind Renly, the flames going out with a sudden rush of air, Renly collapsing under the weight of a phantom knife –

“This is Lady Brienne of Tarth,” said Sansa. “She has sworn her services to my sister and I. We are very lucky to have her.”

“Brienne of Tarth,” repeated Renly. “I’ve heard of you from your father. He tells me that you are a talented warrior.”

“One of the best,” broke in Arya. “She has embarrassed our brothers more than once.”

A flush crept through Brienne’s cheeks. “I wouldn’t say embarrassed, Lady Arya -”

“Nonsense,” said Sansa. “You needn’t be shy; it was good for them.”

Renly laughed. “Perhaps one day, I’ll have the chance to see you embarrass some knights myself, Lady Brienne.”

When they moved on, Sansa caught her by the arm and said quietly, “Brienne, I’m so sorry. I entirely forgot -”

“It’s fine,” said Brienne.

“It’s not fine,” said Sansa. “I should have remembered.”

“Lady Sansa,” said Brienne, gently. “It was fine. It was – good, even, to see him.”

Sansa and Arya both blinked up at her, concern on both their faces. They both understood, though, she could see it in their eyes: they knew more than anyone what it was like to come face to face with someone you had failed to save.

In the time they had taken to share just those few words, the crowd had shifted. Sansa turned to greet the man her father had begun speaking with, and went utterly rigid.

“From collar to navel,” Petyr Baelish was saying, gesturing down his torso. “But these must be your daughters, Lord Stark.” He smiled at Sansa and Arya, and Brienne’s hand felt for a sword that she did not have. “You look just like your mother, Lady Sansa.”

-

“Thank you, Lord Baelish,” said Sansa. She hesitated then added in a rush, “You are Lord Baelish, aren’t you? Mother just mentioned that she had a friend at court, and when you said -”

“I am Lord Baelish,” said Petyr. He was only smiling, but somehow his lips seemed to stretch too wide, and his teeth seemed too sharp, every feature distorted, a face from her nightmares brought back to life in the firelight of the Red Keep. “But you may call me Petyr, as your lady mother did, if you like.”

“Lord Petyr,” said Sansa, settling on the middle-ground: personal, but not improper. Acquiescing to his request too quickly would only arise suspicion, or at best, simply cause whispers about the nature of her relationship around court (and what a best case scenario that was). “This is my sister, Arya, and our sworn sword, Brienne.”

Petyr’s eyes widened at Brienne. “Forgive me, I didn’t expect -”

“She has been a part of our household for a long time now,” said Ned. “We could not have asked for a better protector for our daughters.”

“Indeed,” mused Littlefinger. “It is very wise, Lord Stark, to place your daughter under such protection. It will certainly keep eager foster brothers in their place.” He smiled, all good humour, all a joke, but all Sansa could hear was a reference to Ramsay Ramsay Ramsay. “But of course, you’re already betrothed to Theon Greyjoy, aren’t you, Lady Sansa?”

“Yes, Lord Petyr,” said Sansa.

“I’m sure the Iron Islands have never seen a beauty such as you,” said Petyr.

“Of course they haven’t,” said Arya, taking the opportunity to slide her arm through Sansa’s, like she was only an excited younger sister and not trying to lend Sansa her strength. Sansa covered Arya’s hand with hers and squeezed lightly before letting go. Less than a day in, and she could barely believe that she had survived years in these walls without Arya at her side.

“I won’t keep you,” said Littlefinger to Ned. “I imagine we’ll have more than enough time to speak at the Small Council meetings. I look forward to a fruitful realm under your guidance.”

“Thank you, Lord Baelish,” said Ned, just the slightest edge to his voice. Was that because of me, or was he always like that with Petyr? wondered Sansa. She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember. There were so many things she couldn’t remember, stupid stupid girl

Arya looked between Brienne and Sansa with wide eyes. “Big night,” she murmured.

“Not over yet,” said Sansa tightly.

“It’ll get easier,” promised Brienne. “Just like those first few days. You’ll adjust.”

Littlefinger was gone. He’d only been there for a moment. It hadn’t been a small thing for Littlefinger, not if Sansa knew him – he had to have been rehearsing just how he would introduce himself to Ned ever since Robert announced he was riding north – but he left them unshaken, not a single hint of nerves in his body language. Sansa wished that she could say the same.

“Come on,” said Arya. “Let’s take our seats.”

“But -”

Sansa,” said Arya, her voice firm. Sansa went. They were not at the High Table, and Sansa couldn’t help but feel grateful as she sank into her seat. She wasn’t sure if she could have faced Cersei and Joffrey after Littlefinger. Some of the small council members were seated with them, but not Petyr: the lord of the Fingers was one of the first to be shuffled down the line when there were too many guests.

Jaime took a seat next to Brienne. “Ladies Stark,” he said in a voice that played at jovial but didn’t quite manage it, “Lady Brienne. Is the capitol living up to your expectations so far?”

“It’s incredible,” said Sansa, with her big doe eyes. “Everything here is so beautiful.”

“I wish they still had some of the dragon skulls out,” said Arya. “Just think of it – a symbol of how the Targaryen dynasty is dead and buried.” Sansa smiled, looking down at her plate. Even the lady-like Arya still found the Red Keep lacking.

“I’ve heard that you’ve made quite a stir,” said Jaime, looking at Brienne.

Brienne raised her eyebrows at him. “Have I?”

“A lady – heir to her House, even – serving as a sworn sword,” said Jaime. “Renly says he would like to see you in the melee.” He nodded at where Renly was talking to Loras, laughing at something Loras had said. “Are you planning to embarrass Loras Tyrell? I think you might have to.”

“Ser Jaime,” said Brienne tightly.

“Be careful, Lady Brienne,” said Jaime. “The Knight of the Flowers isn’t one to take on lightly.”

Sansa looked back to Renly and Loras. They were still talking, caught in their own world. A maid refilled Loras’ wine. Sansa watched as Loras drank, and watched how Renly’s eyes were glued to his companion.

Ah, thought Sansa. Brienne had been a part of his King’s Guard, once, and had executed Stannis for his death. Sansa had always believed that Brienne’s loyalty to Renly had been the same as her loyalty to Catelyn, or to Sansa and Arya themselves. Now, turning back to see Brienne and Jaime staring at each other, both daring each other to speak first, she was pretty sure that hadn’t been it at all.

But she also remembered Brienne speaking for Jaime before the Dragon Queen, and the simple, palpable relief on her face when she had told Sansa that Jaime also remembered the other time. She remembered Jaime’s long look back at Brienne, the way he hadn’t been able to look away from her in Winterfell’s courtyard.

You sure know how to pick them, Brienne, thought Sansa. A man who could never return her affections and a man who could never dream of deserving her.

“Are you quite finished, Ser Jaime?” asked Arya, pointedly. “Don’t you have something better to do than to taunt Lady Brienne?”

“I’m not taunting Lady Brienne,” said Jaime. “I merely wish to advise her.”

Sansa cast a quick glance at the High Table and said, “Don’t look now, but Cersei’s watching.”

None of the others looked, but Jaime said, “Ladies,” and rose from his seat, heading back to his position on the wall, his white cloak trailing behind him.

Arya looked up. “Cersei’s not watching us.”

“No,” said Sansa. “But I figured you probably didn’t want to have that conversation here, Brienne, if you want to have it at all.” Brienne smiled, looked down at her hands, and hesitated like she was about to say something but decided against it. Sansa reached out and took Brienne’s hand in hers. “You know that you are one of the best people from Sunspear to Castle Black, right? That you deserve the entire world?”

Brienne’s cheeks went bright red, and she didn’t meet Sansa’s eyes. “My lady -”

The words Sansa wanted to tell her were at the tip of her tongue: it’s not your fault Renly doesn’t want you, and it isn’t his fault, either. And I don’t know what there is, exactly, between you and Ser Jaime, but he better damn well treat you right or I will end him. But that wasn’t safe to say in this noisy hall, surrounded by people, and she didn’t want to make a promise before she knew exactly how she would keep it.

-

Robb was doing far better as Lord of Winterfell this time around. It made sense: this time, Bran was not on the cusp of death and Catelyn was not near-catatonic with grief. Bran was still a happy child, happily clambering all over Winterfell as if he was trying to make up for the time he had lost while the royal family had been in residence. Catelyn sat with Robb most mornings, going over what needed to be done and how to handle different lords.

All in all, Theon felt a little superfluous.

He had known what he was doing when Sansa was still in Winterfell. He had been protecting her, keeping her safe from Joffrey and from the ghosts that haunted them both. Now, though, she was halfway across the continent. He trusted that she would keep herself safe, and that between them, Sansa, Arya, Brienne and Lord Stark would all return to Winterfell safe and well. He had to.

He broke fast with the Starks each morning before helping Ser Rodrik with training Bran. Rickon was just beginning to get the very first of his lessons. Theon showed him how to grip his wooden sword and how to keep his shield up in front of him. Mostly they were getting him used to the weight; Gods willing, he wouldn’t need any actual skill for years yet.

In the afternoons, as Luwin took Bran and Rickon for their lessons, Theon took over Luwin’s work in transcribing the ancient letters. It was slow work. The writing had faded with age. Luwin suspected that these weren’t the original copies, but they were still old enough. The writing was cramped and spidery, and spelling had evidently shifted quite a bit in the intervening years – that or the writers were only barely literate themselves. Either way, Theon spent more time staring at the crumbling parchments in bewilderment than he did actually writing. Whenever a copy was finished, Luwin sent it to Castle Black and Maester Aemon.

“I was thinking,” Theon said to Robb one afternoon after watching dark wings carrying a raven up and north, “we should send a raven to my sister.”

Robb blinked and turned to Theon. It stung to see the mistrust in Robb’s eyes. Robb had mostly forgiven him, but nothing had been forgotten, and it was clear in Robb’s eyes. “Your sister?”

“Yara,” said Theon. “She’s a good person, Robb. She agreed to stop the reaving last time -”

“Why not your father?” asked Robb.

“Because my father would never listen,” said Theon. “If I try to broker a deal, then it’s proof that I’ve become a greenlander. If I join him, then I’m still half greenlander. Yara, though – we could convince her. Having the Iron Fleet on side would help – troop movements would be faster, and more supply lines could be opened up.”

Robb looked away then said, “You realise that this is probably the exact thing you told me last time?”

“I realise that better than you do,” said Theon, smiling bitterly. “I know that I’ve fucked up, Robb. I know that I made terrible decisions and even in a world where I never made those decisions, their consequences are still with me. But talking to Yara is the right thing to do.”

“One question, then,” said Robb. “Why not you?”

Theon blinked. “Me?”

“You want to broker a deal with your sister,” said Robb. “But why shouldn’t we just put you forwards as ruler of the Iron Islands? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“Because it should be Yara,” said Theon. “I don’t – I don’t want it, Robb. My father would be right if he called me half a greenlander. I don’t dream of the sea anymore, just a quiet place to live with Sansa if the both of us survive everything that’s coming. But Yara commands a fleet as if she was born to do it. The Ironborn respect her more than they would ever respect me. The Salt Throne should be hers.”

“That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about her character,” said Robb dryly. “You know, with all the reaving and raiding.”

“She agreed to end raiding when she struck a deal with the Dragon Queen,” said Theon. “We can make the same deal with her if we support her claim against Euron, when the day comes.”

Robb paused, thinking over what he had heard about Euron, Yara and Daenerys. Eventually, he grimaced, and said, “Send a raven – but I’ll be coming with you to meet with her.”

Chapter Text

“Jon!” hissed Sam, glancing around furtively. Jon looked warily at Sam, raising his eyebrows – he liked Sam, he really did, but he wasn’t made for sneakiness. Sam gestured at Jon to follow him, and Jon sighed, put down his drink, and followed. It was obvious that Sam wanted Jon alone – Dacey and the Smalljon had only just left Jon to pack the rest of their goods, ready to ride out at dawn.

“What’s going on?” asked Jon.

“Just a little further,” said Sam, leading Jon out of the yard and just past the tree line. There, sheltering behind a particularly full fir tree, was a girl, one of Craster’s daughters. She startled as Sam and Jon appeared, but relaxed slightly as she recognised Sam. She remained agitated, though, her brown eyes ridiculously wide – she looked so desperate that it was if the gods had fashioned her specifically to evoke the protection of others.

“We’re not meant to be talking to Craster’s daughters,” Jon hissed at Sam.

“She needs help!” said Sam. “She’s pregnant, Jon.”

“Please, I can still run,” said Gilly. “I only just found out. My baby, if it’s a boy -” She hesitated.

“Craster will give him to the Others,” finished Jon. Gilly nodded jerkily, her hand curving protectively over her still-flat stomach. Jon grimaced. He couldn’t leave her to that, nor could he condemn an innocent child to the White Walkers. “Alright,” said Jon. “Alright. Can you meet us just north of the keep when we leave? Is that safe enough?”

Gilly nodded, her expression solidifying into one of steely determination. “It’ll have to be.”

“You’re now under the protection of House Stark,” said Jon. “I’ll keep you safe until we can return south of the Wall, when you can choose your own path – I’ll take you to find work in Winterfell if you want, but you can stay with your people, or leave entirely, if you want.”

“My -” Gilly hesitated again, but Jon knew who she was referring to.

Even though there was no one around but Gilly and Sam, Jon still dropped his voice. “Once we’ve treated with the Wildlings, Craster will never take another wife. We will take your sisters to safety south of the Wall, and he can either take his chances here with the White Walkers, or face the King’s justice. He will never see another son born.”

Gilly stared at him, her eyes gleaming with tears, her breath coming in heavy. “Truly?” she whispered.

“I swear it on the old gods and the new,” said Jon. Gilly covered her mouth with her hand, tears beginning to run. Sam rubbed her shoulder gently. “Sam, we need to get back. We’re to ride out any minute.”

“You’ll meet us north of the keep?” asked Sam. Gilly nodded, sniffling.

“Be careful,” said Jon. She nodded, seeming unable to speak.

When he finally mounted his horse, Jon had never been so relieved to leave a place behind. Everything about Craster’s keep seemed tainted by the knowledge of what he did to his own children, sons and daughters both: the rafters creaking with the weight of what they had seen, the waters poisoned by despair, the food spoiled and rotten. Jon would give up the little safety the building had provided with pleasure if only to escape the creeping disease that infected every corner of the place.

Gilly found them after only five minutes after the party had left, stepping out of the trees. “Gilly!” Sam cried out.

“My lady, I’m sorry, but -” began Mormont.

“I’ve placed her under the protection of House Stark,” said Jon. “She will ride with us.”

Mormont pursed his lips. “On your own head, be it.”

Sam scrambled off his horse, but Dacey beat him to Gilly. Dacey was the only woman amongst the party, and Gilly seemed relieved to see her, giving her a tentative smile. She smiled more truly when Sam hurried up to her.

“You can ride with me, if you like,” said Dacey. “It won’t be particularly comfortable, but…”

When Gilly hesitated, Sam said, “You can trust Dacey. She’s wonderful, and far better in a fight than me. You can ride with me if you like, but -” Sam glanced down at himself and shrugged with self-deprecating good humour “ – Dacey’s probably the better bet.”

“Thank you, Dacey,” said Gilly. Dacey led Gilly back to her horse, swung herself up into the saddle, then stuck a hand down to help Gilly up. Gilly grasped it and pulled herself upwards, gasping as she settled behind Dacey.

Dacey nudged her horse forward until she was riding beside Jon. “Tell me, Snow,” said Dacey. “Do you make a habit of rescuing maidens?”

“Well,” said Jon. “My sister always did make me rescue her from the terrifying monster keeping her captive in a tower. Of course, the monster then was always my other sister.”

Dacey laughed. “I’m sure your sister will be very proud when you tell her.”

Sansa was already proud of him. Even after all these months, it was still strange how she looked to him. The other Jon had been her king and her saviour. He had taken back Winterfell for the Starks and brought the Wildlings to safety, south of the Wall. She trusted him to make the right move, no matter how much she had stressed over him before he had ridden out. Jon just hoped that he was as worthy of her faith as her Jon had been.

The days passed slowly, a long slog of passing through the snows. The snow fell higher in the Haunted Forest than Jon had ever seen it fall in Winterfell, but it reminded him of the stories that Old Nan used to tell, great snowdrifts that could bury a man if not a castle. He rode alongside Dacey, Gilly and Sam most days. Despite being a Wildling, Gilly had seen less of the world than any of the others, and she spent her days gazing around in wonder as Sam told her endless stories about the history of Westeros.

On the third day, Jon watched as a member of the Night’s Watch spurred his horse forwards to catch up with Mormont. Jon nudged his own horse forward just enough to catch what Mormont was being told: “There’s someone following us.”

Mormont nodded, but gave no orders. As night began to fall, they set up camp for the night, Sam assuring them it wouldn’t be much further to the Fist. Mormont beckoned Jon over to him.

“We’ve had Wildlings following us most of the day,” said Mormont. “A scouting party most likely – there doesn’t seem like enough of them to be anything larger.”

“What do you want to do with them?” asked Jon.

“If we leave them, we’ll likely have our throats slit as we sleep,” said Mormont. “But if we kill them…”

“It won’t be a good start to negotiating with Mance Rayder,” finished Jon. “So we capture them, as best we can.”

They collected a few more men – and Dacey, who had no patience for anyone who suggested leaving her behind – and left the inner circle of the camp. There was no one to be seen in the trees, but that didn’t mean much. The Wildling weren’t like the southerners, colouring their clothes to match their allegiance to a House or brotherhood: they dressed to blend into their surroundings. Jon eyes flicked from tree to tree, bush to bush, wondering what was real and what just a Wildling hiding.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” said Mormont calmly, his voice ringing through the trees. “If you surrender now, we’ll give you quarter, and we’ll take you back to your king.”

Someone scoffed. Then, half a second later, someone burst out from behind a boulder, axe in hand and screaming. The other Wildlings threw themselves into the fray, too fast and too sudden for Jon to count them all, but even he could tell there weren’t enough to hope to win.

A Wildling thrust their axe at him. He blocked it with his sword and kicked, hitting them in the stomach and sending them sprawling backwards. They were on their feet in an instant, axe back in their hands, but they didn’t have time to fully regain their balance when Jon pushed his advantage, hooking the axe where the blade met wood with his sword and wrenching it clear of the Wildling’s grip. It flew out of reach, and Jon pushed forward, his sword coming to rest at the Wildling’s throat.

The Wildling stumbled back, eyes narrowing at him. “Kill me,” she spat – because that voice had to be a girl’s voice. “Burn me after. I’m not kneeling to you.”

“I don’t want to kill you,” said Jon. “I’m trying to make peace with the Wildlings.”

“Then why are you with the crows?” she spat, jerking her head at the Night’s Watchmen.

“Because they’re the only ones who can guide us beyond the Wall?” said Jon. “I don’t need you to kneel. I just need you to not attack us until we can give you back to Mance Rayder.”

She eyed him warily. “You’ll want us to kneel, though,” she said. “That’s what all you southerners do. The Free Folk will never kneel.”

“We want you to survive the Long Night,” said Jon. “Everything else is negotiable.”

She still didn’t look like she trusted him, but she reached up, her movements slow to show she wasn’t planning anything, and tugged her hood back. Her red hair tumbled from it, revealing a long braid that had seen damage during the fight. “Who are you, then?”

“I’m Jon Snow,” said Jon, lowering his sword. “Son of Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell. I’m here on his behalf to make peace with your king. And you?”

“Ygritte,” she admitted, spitting the word out reluctantly.

Dacey appeared at his side. She had traded her weapons for rope. At the sight, Ygritte jerked back. “We’re not going to kill you,” said Dacey, with a roll of her eyes. “But we can’t have you stealing our knives and slitting our throats in our sleep.” Ygritte took another step back, her eyes narrowed. “Look, we’ve got another Wildling girl in our camp under Jon Snow’s protection. You can either have your hands bound for a few days or you can join your friends.” Dacey jerked her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of three other Wildlings, all dead. Only one other Wildling beside Ygritte had survived the fight. “And based off how warm your reception was, I don’t think we can risk burning your bodies and alerting other Wildlings where we are,” finished Dacey.

Still glaring, Ygritte thrust out her arms but didn’t move any closer. It was Dacey who had to close the distance between them to bind her hands together, and pat Ygritte down to check for more knives.

“If it helps,” said Jon, “we have another Wildling to keep you company.”

From the glare she shot him, it did not.

-

“We could make you a squire,” offered Sansa.

Arya rolled her eyes as Gendry fumbled his way through a polite refusal. Gendry didn’t want to stay in the Red Keep, and she couldn’t blame him. Cersei and Joffrey would be out for his head if they ever noticed one of Robert’s bastards running around, and most of the other lords around would treat him like shit for his low birth. And besides, who would be squire to, anyway? No one knew about Brienne’s knighthood, and she wouldn’t wish Jaime Lannister as a master on anyone. The amount of knights in the know was running rather low aside from those two.

“D’you want to go back to smithing?” asked Arya, swinging from her place sprawled on the soft chair by the window up into a sitting position.

“Where else can I go?” asked Gendry.

“You could set up your own shop,” suggested Arya. “Or we could probably get you a job in the smithy here in the Red Keep.”

Gendry shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Staying in the Red Keep isn’t the best idea.”

Arya pictured Joffrey’s reaction to finding a blacksmith that looked more like Robert than he did and winced. “Maybe not.”

“Perhaps,” said Ned, entering the room, “I have an alternative.” He had only just arrived back from the Small Council and had spent the past few minutes scribbling down his notes in his solar. Now, he took a seat next to Sansa and looked to Gendry. “The Seven Kingdoms will need all the dragonglass it can get. I’m arranging trade agreements with Dragonstone, but it still needs to be shaped into weapons. Dragonglass hasn’t been used for weaponry since before the Andals landed at least. There’s one blacksmith in all of Westeros that has experience with working dragonglass – you.”

“What do you want me to do?” asked Gendry cautiously.

“You’ll set up a shop,” said Ned. “We’ll make orders from you – arrowheads, spears, swords, anything. We can begin stockpiling dragonglass and sending it north to the Wall.”

“If we could make it fashionable,” mused Sansa, “if we could have lords across Westeros having things made out of dragonglass – we might be able to get more smiths working with dragonglass. It’ll take work away from you, Gendry, but it’ll lighten the load and speed up production.”

“You could take apprentices, too,” added Arya. “That would speed things up as well.”

Gendry looked between them all and asked, “How would I even start this?”

“We can provide you the money to set the shop up,” said Ned. “Once the orders start coming in, you’ll be self-sufficient, I imagine.”

Gendry’s jaw set. Eventually, he said, “Thank you, Lord Stark.”

With Ned’s meeting finished, he and Sansa were readying to leave for the Kingswood with the dire wolves in tow. Sansa was already dressed for it, and Lady and Nymeria were both waiting by the door. Arya watched enviously as her father and sister took her dire wolf out, ready to ride out for something other than this damned city.

Arya, though, had other things to attend to.

“I would have thought you’d leap for a trip to the Kingswood,” commented Gendry.

“Can’t,” said Arya. “I need the Tower at least somewhat empty for an afternoon, and this was the easiest way to get the men out of the way.”

Gendry looked at her warily. “What are you planning?”

Arya grinned. “Come with me.”

She led the way into the Hand’s bedchambers. They were larger and more spacious than Arya’s own, though that wasn’t surprising. Ned’s belongings were only half unpacked, scattered across the room. He hadn’t much time to spend in the Tower of the Hand, and even less to spend in his own chambers, thought Arya with a twinge of dismay.

Gendry shifted uncomfortably. “Are we meant to be in here?”

“After we parted,” said Arya, “I – I didn’t always run with the best people, Gendry.”

“I figured,” said Gendry. “You don’t get that dangerous without running with dangerous people.”

Arya took a deep breath. “Some of them – the last group I was with before I started going home – they taught me how to get in and out of places undetected,” she said, keeping her voice low. “How to get in, how to avoid notice when you’re there.”

“And – why is that important to us standing in your father’s chambers?” asked Gendry.

“Because Maegor the Cruel had secret passages into the Red Keep,” said Arya. “Now, the F – the people I was with taught me that secret passages can be used for one of two reasons: as an escape route if the castle if ever taken – that’s usually the reason they’re built – and for people to spy undetected.”

Gendry looked around, understanding dawning on his face. “And of course the Hand of the King is important enough to get an escape route.”

“And is important enough to be spied upon,” agreed Arya. “If there’s secret passages in this Tower, then it’ll be in here or in Father’s solar.” She gestured widely around the room and added, “Secret passages will be hidden under rugs, behind tapestries or bookshelves.”

“And you want me to move that shelf over there,” said Gendry, nodding at the shelf in question, next to the bed. There wasn’t anything on it – Ned wasn’t the type to have too many knick-knacks, and anything Jon Arryn had kept had been cleared away well before.

“You’re quick,” said Arya. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

Gendry rolled his eyes at her, but pushed up his sleeves and went to move the bookshelf. Arya busied herself shifting the rug on the floor – it was a bear’s skin, the fur fluffy enough that it would hide any trapdoors underneath. There was nothing there but smooth wooden floors.

“Shouldn’t your father have been told where the secret passages are anyway?” asked Gendry, straining against the shelf.

Arya shook her head, even though Gendry wasn’t looking. “I doubt the Baratheons even know where most of the secret tunnels are,” she said. “Varys probably does, but why give up an advantage like that when you can use the tunnels to spy on everyone?”

“Nothing here,” reported Gendry. “The solar?”

“Not yet,” said Arya, pulling the rug into place. There was one more place to check. The Faceless Men hardly gave an exhaustive list of places to search for hidden doors, but they had taught her the kinds of places they were hidden: quiet places, part of the room that most people didn’t see, obscured by anything and everything.

There was no fire burning in the hearth. It was a warm day – uncomfortably so – and the fire had been doused early in the morning, as the sun rose. The ash was cool to touch and easy to sweep away under Arya’s hands. There, hidden from the eye by flames and cinders, was the trap door.

“Got you,” whispered Arya.

“Now what?” asked Gendry.

Arya took hold of the handle and heaved. It came open easier than she had expected, coming loose so quickly and suddenly that Arya nearly overbalanced and fell. Stupid, thought Arya, annoyed at herself. Varys’ spies probably crept through here looking for information all the time.

This is risky, she thought. The little birds could be anywhere in the secret tunnels and passages, and any one of them could see Arya and report her to the Spider. The entire façade Arya had built up for the Southerners would crumble and one of the most powerful players in all of the world would begin to understand what Arya was capable of.

She remembered her face being pressed against Yoren’s chest as she was forced to look away from her father’s murder. She remembered the Waif chasing her through Bravos. She remembered Littlefinger leaving Sansa’s letter for her to find, playing her like a fiddle. I am Arya Stark of Winterfell, she thought. I was the only Stark to survive the Twins. I trained under the Faceless Men. I looked right at Tywin Lannister and told him he could die. I can do this.

She braced her hands against either side of the trap door and neatly dropped inside. She popped her head back up to look at Gendry. “Are you coming?”

Gendry shook his head, exasperated but smiling. “You’ve got no sense of self-preservation.”

“Well, I’ve survived this far,” said Arya. “Come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“I’m coming,” sighed Gendry. “But only because your sister would probably murder me if I didn’t.”

“If you say so,” said Arya. “Grab the candle.” And with that, she ducked back into the way between the walls.

-

Across the Narrow Sea and in another Sea entirely, it was dark. The sliver of a moon that shone above them barely provided enough light to see by: instead, Daenerys Stormborn was guided only by the torch held by her bloodrider.

She watched impassively as Mirri Maz Duur was bound to the pyre. Of all the people in the world, Mirri Maz Duur was not one whom Daenerys could summon sympathy for. As Jorah made his way back to her side, she took the torch from Rahkaro and lowered it to the kindling. The pyre was alight at once, the flames spreading around the outer circle, then to the centre, then, at last, to Drogo himself.

Daenerys turned to look once more at her Khalasar. There were no more slaves, not here. In this small corner of the world, she had brought freedom and justice. But she had no desire to stop with a single Khalasar.

She took her first step, then a second. The flames licked at her dress, her legs, her face, but they did not burn her. Mirri Maz Duur had begun to scream, but Daenerys did not flinch. In the centre of the fire, where the flames burned their hottest, she knelt to hold the dragon eggs.

The pyre continued to burn, growing into an inferno as the moon made its way across the sky. The eggs were blisteringly warm in her hands. As orange light began to blaze across the sky, the smoke began to clear, the pyre giving way to only ash and dust: a life for a life, a fire for a fire.

In the midst of the devastation, covered in soot, the sun shining brilliantly on her silver hair, Daenerys Stormborn rose to her feet, once more the Mother of Dragons.

Chapter Text

“You put your foot here,” said Bran, tapping the piece of stone jutting out from the Broken Tower. “See how the stones have crumbled just there? You can use that for a handhold.”

Tommen nodded eagerly, inspecting the side of the Broken Tower. “How far should I go up?”

“I’ve gotten up to the third level before,” said Bran. “But you probably shouldn’t go that far. You haven’t been doing this long.”

Tommen pouted, but nodded anyway. “Mother would never have let us do this back home.”

Bran leaned in and lowered his voice. “My mother doesn’t really let me do it, either.” He and Tommen shared a conspiratorial grin before Tommen dug his fingers into the cracks in the tower wall and pulled himself up. Tommen felt around for another handhold to hoist him higher up, Bran calling out suggestions. “Little higher! Just to your left!”

“Brandon Stark.” Catelyn’s voice rang out across the courtyard and Bran winced. Tommen, knowing the game was up, quickly jumped back to the ground, trying to look innocent. “I should hope that you’re not encouraging Prince Tommen to do anything dangerous.”

“Of course not!” exclaimed Bran. “We were just -”

“We thought we saw -” started Tommen, at the same time.

“You thought you saw a bit of mischief to get into,” finished Catelyn. “I have raised your brother and sisters, and was once a child myself. Do you think there is any excuse you can make that I haven’t already heard before from Arya?”

Bran hung his head. “No.”

“Come,” said Catelyn. “You will both be lords one day, with castles of your own. Many lords find themselves thrown into it before they are truly prepared when their father dies. With your lord father in the south and Robb gone, you can experience some of a lord’s duties without the pressure.”

“I thought you were regent while Robb is away,” protested Bran.

“Where is Robb, anyway?” asked Tommen.

“He and Theon had urgent word from White Harbour,” said Catelyn. “It shouldn’t take long. But you can learn a great deal from simply watching, and that is what you’ll be doing today.” She rubbed her hands together and added, “Go get yourselves cleaned up. We don’t want our men to think that we run around in muddy rags, do we?”

“They’re not rags,” argued Bran, as Tommen took off for the Keep. Catelyn grabbed his arm before he could follow.

“Bran,” she said. “You know what happened to your sisters. If there’s anything to learn from it, it’s that our fortunes can change with the wind. I hope that you won’t ever need to be the Lord of Winterfell, regent or otherwise, but -”

“I did in the other time,” realised Bran. He hadn’t ever thought of it before, but with his father dead and his mother and older brother fighting in the south, Bran would have been the Stark in Winterfell.

Catelyn looked pained. “Yes,” she said. “Your sisters will do everything they can to keep your father safe and the realm peaceful, but they are only two people. We need to be prepared for the worst, you and me.”

“Is that why Robb and Theon are gone?” asked Bran.

Bran saw the indecision in Catelyn’s eyes, torn between letting him stay the baby or preparing him for the worst. Bran knew that he didn’t know everything about the other time – he knew more than Rickon, which was something, but he had never been let in on the councils the others all held. How was Bran meant to prepare for the worst if he didn’t know what the worst was? Finally, Catelyn pursed her lips then said, “Yes, Bran. Theon thinks that his sister will be more amenable to us than his father and they have gone to seek an alliance.”

“So that Theon can take the Iron Islands from his father?” asked Bran, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. He imagined Theon taking the Iron Islands, Sansa and Robb at his side, a kraken banner in one hand a dire wolf in the other. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of Sansa living on the Iron Islands for the rest of her life – he hadn’t heard many good things about them, and it was so far away – but he supposed it was better to be in a strange place with someone she loved than at home with a monster.

Catelyn shook her head. “No. So Yara can take the Iron Islands, one day.”

“Like the Dornish?” said Bran, his eyebrows creasing in confusion.

“I suppose, yes,” said Catelyn. There was a hint of reluctant approval in her voice as she added, “Theon believes his sister would make a better ruler than him, and he would prefer to live a quiet life with Sansa rather than drag her into Ironborn politics.”

“I think Theon will be good for Sansa,” decided Bran. Sansa – and Arya – always seemed to have a tired look in her eyes, and Theon was one of the only people who could make her laugh. And Theon was always good to Bran, especially over the past few months, since the world had shifted – he was someone that Bran could trust with his sister.

There was something stony about Catelyn’s gaze, but she nodded sharply. “Go get dressed,” she told him. “I’ll see you in the Great Hall soon.”

-

Ned wished that he could bring Sansa with him to the Small Council meetings. It was precisely the kind of place she would thrive: flattering one lord, deflating another, twisting them all around her finger so deftly they would think her ideas were theirs. She was certainly better suited to it than Ned, who sat in in the Small Council chamber and longed for Winterfell and home.

“Are you telling me the Crown is three million in debt?” asked Ned, aghast.

“I’m telling you the Crown is six million in debt,” corrected Littlefinger.

He controls the economy of the Seven Kingdoms, Sansa had said. If you kill him, you will bring economy ruin on all of us. Was this what she had meant? Was this how Littlefinger had operated all along, building the treasury into a house of cards that would crumble the moment he was no longer there to maintain it? Ned had never known Jon Arryn to be a fool, but Littlefinger had seduced his wife under Jon’s nose and had placed the realm on the precipice of a knife’s edge. Glancing around the rest of the chamber, he could almost hear what the others must have thought of Littlefinger: a jumped-up lord from the edges of the Vale, a nobody who they barely needed to account for in their own plans. Littlefinger had them all dancing on his strings.

Not Sansa, Ned reminded himself, remembering the icy blankness on his daughter’s face as she had spoken of Petyr Baelish for the first time. His grip on the parchment tightened.

“We can’t afford this,” said Ned, slamming the order on to the table. “Not when war is coming.”

Glances were exchanged around the room. “Lord Stark,” began Varys delicately.

“The Citadel simply can’t abide by this,” interrupted Pycelle. “The Others are no more than a story -”

“I have seen the evidence with my own eyes, Maester,” said Ned, his voice low. “As has the King. Are you calling us both fools?” Pycelle shrunk in his chair. “Or mad, perhaps?”

“Of course not,” said Pycelle. “I simply meant that -”

“I’m well aware of what you meant, Maester,” said Ned. “You may open up communications with Maester Luwin of Winterfell or Maester Aemon of Castle Black if you wish for more information. The assistance of the Citadel will be invaluable as we research the coming threat.”

Littlefinger cleared his throat. “Forgive me, Lord Stark,” he said. He gestured at the table at large and continued, “Forgive all of us. You must understand that it is hard to fathom, that the stories we were told as children have turned out to be real after all.”

“All too well, Lord Baelish,” said Ned. “But that doesn’t change the reality. I will speak with the King. He will understand the need to save all that we can.”

“My latest report from Essos says that the Dothraki have turned on each other,” said Varys. “As they are wont to do. Khal Drogo is not yet dead, but he has not stirred since the fight, and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will ever wake. Once Drogo is dead, Daenerys Stormborn will be taken to live out her days with the Dosh Khaleen, and the Targaryen cause will die in Vaes Dothrak with her.”

“Good,” said Ned. He didn’t know what had changed for Daenerys Targaryen in this time – perhaps there was somebody out there in Essos who also remembered. Ned made a note to mention it to Sansa and Arya before he returned his attention to the Council. “Are there any other urgent matters to inform me of, Lord Varys?”

Varys shook his head. “My little birds have told me little else of interest, Lord Stark.”

When the meeting ended, Littlefinger fell into step with him in the corridors. As the rest of the Small Council went their separate ways – Ned’s eyes followed Varys out, wondering when exactly Varys had thrown his lot in with Daenerys in the other time – Littlefinger said, “How much have you heard about Lord Arryn’s exile, Lord Stark?”

“I know that Lysa Arryn was the one to throw him the dogs,” said Ned, turning to look at Littlefinger. “I know that you were the one to carry the message. I assume that’s what you want to know.”

“It is, yes,” said Littlefinger. “You know that I grew up with Lysa, of course. She has never been one for Court life, not truly. I am one of the few people she trusted here.”

“I’m sure Cat will be glad to hear it,” said Ned. They fell silent as they went past a guard, and once he was safely out of earshot, Ned continued, “What is it that you want, Lord Baelish?” What did you do to my daughter? he thought, and caught himself as his fists started to clench. He straightened his fingers back out into a neutral position.

“I wanted to ask you not to judge Lysa too harshly,” said Littlefinger. “It was not an easy decision for her to make. If you’ve heard why Lord Arryn was exiled -”

“The bastards?” asked Ned.

“Yes,” said Littlefinger. “The queen has wanted Jon Arryn gone for a long time – she has always wanted her father as the Hand. But when Lord Arryn began investigating the King’s bastards, she had more urgent reasons to get rid of him, and she turned to some – less than honourable methods, we might say.”

“Are you saying that Cersei blackmailed Lysa?” asked Ned, stopping in his tracks.

“I’m saying that Lysa loves her son very much, Lord Stark,” said Littlefinger. “I have no doubt that you and Cat would make the same decisions for your own children.”

Ned pursed his lips. “Perhaps.”

They came to the throne room, and there, sitting on the steps to the Iron Throne, was Jaime Lannister. Littlefinger cast a glance between the two of them and said, “I’ll leave you to it, Lord Stark. Ser Jaime.” He gave Jaime a quick nod of acknowledgement, which Jaime did not bother to return, and left the room.

Jaime waited for the footsteps to fade before he said, “You know that Littlefinger was the one who got Jon Arryn killed, don’t you?”

“I have been informed, yes,” said Ned. He nodded at where Jaime was slouching on the steps and added, “Defending the throne well.”

Lithe as a cat even in his armour, Jaime got to his feet. “It’s a sturdy old thing. Trust me, Lord Stark, I know the threats of the Red Keep far better than you do.”

The reminder of the other time brought Ned up short. “You hurt my son.”

Jaime looked him straight in the eye. “Yes.”

“Do you have a reason I shouldn’t kill you where you stand?” asked Ned, his back straightening.

“I imagine it’s much the same reason you haven’t executed Theon Greyjoy yet,” said Jaime. “Whatever you may think of us and what we did, whether we deserve it or not – your son thought that we were worth saving, and able to help.”

“The Three-Eyed Raven also thought that Ramsay Snow was worth sending back,” said Ned. “Tell me, Ser Jaime. Lady Brienne trusts you, and my girls trust her. What have you done to win the respect of a woman of unimpeachable honour?”

“I saved her life,” said Jaime. “And she saved mine, more than once.” His voice dropped, and Ned was surprised at the amount of reverence in his next words. “She is a good woman and a good knight, Lord Stark. Your daughters are lucky to have her.”

“She said that you knighted her,” remembered Ned.

Jaime cleared his throat. “Any knight can knight another.”

Not any knight would have knighted Brienne, thought Ned. He hadn’t seen much of the two interacting, but the way they spoke about each other and around each other suggested something far deeper than Ned would have thought the Kingslayer capable.

“Knighthoods aren’t common in the North,” said Ned, “but I was fostered in the Vale, where every other man I met had taken the vows. Brienne is more worthy than most.”

“I can’t argue with that, Lord Stark,” said Jaime.

-

Most of the North’s sea trade went through White Harbour, but the people of Flint’s Finger still saw some trade. The tavern was doing a roaring trade as Theon and Robb approached, handing their horses off to stable hands.

“Are you sure about this?” asked Robb.

“As I am about anything,” said Theon.

Yara didn’t look up as they entered. She was alone at a table, nursing a jug of ale. She was an easy target for any man to try his luck, but Theon knew she was well aware of that. She knew he was due to arrive today, and just like last time, she wanted to find out what kind of man he was.

He hoped he would make a better first impression this time round.

“That’s her,” he said to Robb, heading straight for her. She looked up only when his shadow fell over her, her face blank and uninterested.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

Theon swallowed a wave of disappointment. His Yara would have been happy to see him. His Yara would have embraced him, or at least clapped him on the shoulder and smiled.

“Yara,” he said. “It’s me. It’s Theon.

There was a stirring of surprise in her eyes, but she simply gestured to the chair across from her. “Have a seat, little brother.”

Robb pulled up a chair from a neighbouring table. “Robb Stark,” he said, holding out his hand. Yara stared at it with barely masked contempt until he dropped it.

“I was surprised to get your letter,” said Yara. “I didn’t realise Lord Stark was letting you send letters.”

“It’s a recent development,” said Theon.

“Ah, yes,” said Yara, her face screwing up in displeasure. “The betrothal. Father isn’t pleased, you know.”

“I’m not surprised,” muttered Theon. “But he wouldn’t have been pleased with anything I did, would he?”

Yara studied him. “No,” she agreed. “He wouldn’t be.” She leaned back in her chair, her eyes moving lazily from Theon to Robb and back to Theon. “What is it you wanted from me, little brother? Why have you brought the heir to the family that stole you?”

Robb bristled, and Theon shook his head. Turning back to Yara, he said, “I need your help. We all need your help.”

“The Starks need help from a Greyjoy?” crowed Yara.

“The entire realm needs your help,” said Robb. “The Iron Islands included.”

“It’s a long story, Yara,” said Theon. “One best not told in a crowded inn for anyone to overhear. We’ll need a room.”

“I’ve got one already,” said Yara. “You can come to it. Not him.” She didn’t so much as bother to look at Robb as she dismissed him. “I want to hear what my brother has to say without his captor hanging over his shoulder.”

Theon hesitated, not looking at Robb. He didn’t want to risk seeing the distrust in Robb’s eyes. “Done,” he said.

“Theon -”

“We do what we have to do,” he said to Robb. “I know better than anyone what’s at stake, Robb.”

Robb stared at Theon for a long moment, his eyes steely and his jaw set. Yara leaned forwards and said, “If I don’t get to speak to my brother alone, I won’t believe a word out of either of your mouths. If you truly want my help, this is your only chance, Stark.”

“You know this is what Sansa would want,” said Theon.

Robb looked away. “Go.”

Yara’s room was small and sparse: the tavern wasn’t large enough for anything bigger. There were two chairs and a table crammed into the corner, where Yara gestured for him to sit. The table was small enough his knees knocked against it as he sat.

“How poorly have they treated you?” asked Yara, pouring out another jug of mead. “Robb Stark doesn’t trust you, and his father betrothed you to his daughter only when her prospects were ruined elsewhere – is that the worst of it or is there more to know?”

“Ruined?” spluttered Theon. “That’s not what happened. My betrothal to Sansa is not an insult, and you had best tell Father that.”

Yara raised her eyebrows and said, “So you’re expecting me to tell Father that Lord Stark didn’t only betroth his daughter to you the moment that her maidenhead was taken?”

Theon gritted his teeth. The way she said it, like it was just some casual thing and not something that had seen Sansa jumping from the walls of Winterfell, unsure if she would survive, made every part of him feel ill. “It wasn’t Lord Stark that chose me,” said Theon. “It was Sansa. Sansa chose to marry me. No one else had any say in it.”

“Not even you?” asked Yara.

“Sansa is…” He thought of her in the hours before it all ended, eating her last meal surrounded by her people, the fire catching on the copper of her hair. Your name is Theon Greyjoy, last surviving son of Balon Greyjoy, lord of the Iron Islands. Do you hear me? “She’s my north star, always there to guide me home.”

“Pretty words,” said Yara. She took a long drink from her mead then said, “What is it you want to tell me, Theon? You didn’t risk sending that letter to tell me what a beautiful maiden your betrothed is.”

“It’s an unbelievable story,” warned Theon. “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t lived it.”

“Can’t be any more unbelievable than the one you’re expecting me to take to Father,” said Yara. She took her seat on the opposite side of the table, narrowing her eyes at him and inspecting his expression. “Try me, Theon.”

-

The secret paths of the Red Keep were a labyrinth. Arya returned to them every day, but she was still learning her way around them. It would be easier if she was the only one using them, but there were children roaming the halls. Arya had had to double back more than once to keep out of sight.

So these are Varys’ little birds, mused Arya as she ducked around a corner. Tiny, dirty and wild, they reminded Arya painfully of the past. They deserved better than skulking around in the dark, but what could she do for them?

She remembered Missendei and Grey Worm. She hadn’t known them well, always only ever a step away from Daenerys, but she had known enough: freed slaves risen to the Dragon Queen’s closest advisors. They had loved their queen for freeing them. There had been no slavery in Bravos; the closest she had ever come to the practice had been meeting Daenerys’ followers. But the choice of these children, these little birds, couldn’t be much more of one than the slaves of Essos had: to spy or starve, to deceive or die. Arya wondered if Daenerys would do anything for Westeros’ poor.

Arya shook her head. Daenerys had had Varys as an advisor, too, and had relied on his spy network in Westeros. No matter the pretty words he had spoken to Daenerys, he used these children, and her failure to take him to task for it made her either a hypocrite or a fool.

We need to do better, thought Arya, casting her thoughts northwards. They had discussed the best ways to integrate the Wildlings into the North, but there were things that the North could learn from the Wildlings, too.

Arya carefully peaked around the corner. The hallway was clear, and she slipped back out. She wanted to find a path into the royal apartments. They said that Maegor the Cruel hadn’t allowed any secret passages around the royal apartments, but Arya didn’t believe it. Secret passages were built to get people out safely in the event of a siege: even the Targaryens at the height of their power wouldn’t have risked passing that up.

She came to a fork in the path. Yesterday, she’d gone left, and had found an escape route to Blackwater Bay, a set of stairs cut into the cliff face. Today, she turned right, and followed the hallways up a slight incline. These halls were decorated, like the secret stairs creeping from the Tower of the Hand, a grimy mosaic of red and black tiles. It was a better sign than she had seen in days.

She came to a set of stairs, cramped, steep, and spiralling. They were wide enough for a grown man to climb, but it would have been a tight fit. There were steel fittings cut into the stone walls, but any rope they had once held had long since rotted away. Arya braced herself against the wall as she climbed, keeping her balance on the steep stairs more of a challenge than she wanted to admit.

The stairs ended at a door, larger than in the Tower of the Hand. Arya bit her lip as she examined it. It was cut into a wall, not the floor, but was over a foot off the floor, meaning getting through it would be a bit of a scramble at Arya’s height. More than that, it meant it was hidden behind something placed on the wall – and that meant the room had to be rich enough for wall decorations.

She leant against the door, not putting any weight on it, trying to hear through it. Generally, you could hear movement inside, but silence didn’t necessarily meant the room was empty. It was the middle of the day, meaning bed chambers were likely to be empty – but that assumed that Arya had found somebody’s chambers. Entering the room was always the biggest risk.

There was a gasp behind her.

Arya turned, dread settling in the pit of her stomach. Her knife was in her hand before she even saw the boy. He had to be even younger than Arya was physically, dirty and hunger hanging from every part of his body.

Arya faltered. He was a child. She had never signed up to kill children.

Her grip tightened on the knife. He’s one of Varys’. The Spider can’t know.

A million faces flooded through her mind: Sansa, the morning everything changed; Jon, telling her she didn’t have to be just a killer; Petyr Baelish on his knees the heartbeat before she slit his throat; teary-eyed Catelyn; the Waif, her face still dripping blood in the Hall of Faces.

Before Arya could make the decision on whose face she would listen to, whether to threaten or end the problem entirely, the boy turned and ran, taking the stairs two steps at a time. Arya jammed her knife back into its scabbard and followed.

She didn’t know whether she reached out to grab him or to push. It didn’t matter what her intentions were: what mattered was that the movement unbalanced him, and he tripped, falling hard head-first into the curled stonewall. There was a terrible cracking noise.

Arya had seen many things that gave her nightmares. This was the first from this life.

She tried to carry him down the stairs, but he was almost as large as she was and she could only hold half of him up. She winced with each stair as his legs hit one after another. She dragged him down the secret halls and out to the stairs overlooking the sea, where she set his head down carefully and sat down beside him.

“Everyone I’ve ever killed deserved it,” whispered Arya, to the salty sea air. Her old list cycled through her head: Joffrey, Cersei, Walder Frey, Meryn Trant, Tywin Lannister, The Red Woman, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros Of Myr, Illyn Paine, The Mountain. The boy next to her had done nothing other than get trapped in a spider’s web.

Except even that was a lie. Arya had not taken her time in the Twins. She had not taken the care to approach each of the Frey men, to determine if each and every one of them had been party to the Red Wedding. Some of the men she had killed in the Twins that night could have been as innocent as the boy next to her now. No matter what Jon had told her, she was a killer, and she hated herself for it.

Varys would notice the boy was gone, but he would assume that the boy had disappeared into the streets of King’s Landing, dead or worse. It had to happen all the time. Varys wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss unless there was a body to be found.

Bile roiled in her stomach. This wasn’t who she was supposed to be. This wasn’t what Ned and Catelyn wanted for her. It had been one thing when it was the only way to survive, but now?

No, she corrected herself. They wouldn’t have understood her doing it in the last life, either. There was a reason only Sansa knew about the faces. There was a reason even Sansa had been terrified of her. If even Sansa couldn’t understand, then there was no one she could tell.

Arya wasn’t sure who she was praying to when she unsheathed her knife: the Seven or the Old Gods or the Many-Faced God. She didn’t know if she was begging the gods or the boy himself for forgiveness as she pushed his body off the cliff. She climbed to the beach below and washed the blood from her hands and the tears from her face before she took the face in her hand and began the long climb back to the Tower of the Hand.