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retread your footsteps carefully; here be wolves

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It had begun to snow in Winterfell. Sansa felt like a ghost, haunting the tower where Ramsay put her, where he only came to rape her. She could feel him, even now when he’d gone to sleep in what had been Robb’s chambers. Ramsay was present in the bruises scattered on her skin, the iron brand, the cuts. He was careful, with her. He needed her womb and he liked her face, but what he loved most of all was her screams. Sansa tried to deny him that. She would clench her jaw and think of his death, oh, his death would be sweet indeed, but he was resourceful in his cruelty.

Myranda drew her a bath. It scalded her skin and stung the open cuts, but Sansa sank herself in without hesitation. This was water that had been the snow that had fallen on her home. This was the embrace from which she did not recoil. After, she pulled on the shift—her mother’s, the fabric smelling slightly of mothballs—and lay down on her back. She closed her eyes. It was cold. No one warmed a stone to be placed at her feet. Only a threadbare blanket, pulled to her chin, protected her.

On nights like these, she ached for Lady. When the direwolf had been a mere pup, she would climb in bed and curl against Sansa’s belly. Lady would eat scraps from Sansa’s hand, and sit by Sansa’s feet, and push her wet snout against Sansa’s leg. Lady would be fully grown, by now, had she lived. It would be lovely to sleep beside a warm, living direwolf, enveloped by her fur. A creature of winter, protecting Sansa from the cold. A creature slain for no mistake of her own.

She heard a voice.

It was the voice of a boy grown, but not quite a man, yet. It echoed in the space between her ribs, as if coming from within her. She needn’t open her eyes to know that no one was in the room with her. The voice asked, “Would you, if you could go back and save Lady?”

Sansa scoffed. What a silly question. Sansa would save Lady, and that boy the Hound killed, and mayhaps even Father, and Mother, and Robb, and Bran and Rickon, if she could manage it. She knew, now, how the order of things went, and she knew secrets that had doomed her family. All empty wishes. What did it matter?

“Everything.”

Sansa woke with a gasp. It was warm, and bright, and she was in a room she did not know, in a modest bed with a girl next to her. No. Not any girl. It was Arya, small as Sansa last saw her, with long plaited hair and gangly limbs.

Arya opened her eyes, and the reproach, too, was hers. She rolled away from Sansa and pulled a pillow over her head, grumbling about stupid sisters.

Sansa’s heart thumped as she raised her own hands and saw small hands and wrists that bore no bruises. Slowly, she got off the bed and looked into a mirror, and her own face stared back, small with too-wide, guileless eyes. She looked out a window and saw tents under green trees and the King’s troops and camp followers.

Septa Mordane announced herself with a knock, though she did not wait for a reply, and swooped in with a basin and a washcloth. “You’re awake,” she said, approvingly. Unaware of Sansa’s trembling lip at the sight of her, Septa Mordane set down the basin and washcloth on the dresser before calling Arya to get up and get ready.

“You know what comes next,” the voice said, again a whisper between Sansa’s ribs. She turned and saw Septa Mordane tugging at Arya’s blanket. Neither heard the voice. “They can’t hear me. When you get farther south, and you need to speak to me, come to a godswood. Elsewhere, you will not hear me.”

Who are you? Sansa asked.

“Look out the window,” the voice said.

Sansa did so. A crow was perched on the sill. It gave Sansa a caw and flew away.

“Now. You know what comes next.”

“Ser Raymun insisted the King stay for another day in Darry, so we will move on tomorrow,” Septa Mordane said to no one. Then, to Sansa, “Which gown today, Lady Sansa?”

“The blue one,” Sansa said. She remembered that blue gown. She’d sewn it herself, from hem to neckline, and she had attached the fabric roses one by one, thinking it would surely get her a compliment from the Queen, if not from Prince Joffrey. She’d worn it the day Lady died. She would wear it today.

Sansa washed her face. The water was cool and fresh. Septa Mordane helped Sansa into the powder blue gown, then brushed and did her hair. Sansa let the crone did all this, while she mapped what would happen today.

When Septa Mordane was done, Sansa left the room. Her stomach was turning too much to have breakfast. Instead, she went to the kennels. Lady was there, looking at her quietly. She was barely as big as the other hounds.

“Hello, Lady,” Sansa greeted, pressing her lips together. She would not cry. This dream would end if she cried, she promised to herself, and so she would stay as long as she could. The ground crunched between her feet and the kennel fence was rough wood, a splinter working its way into her skin as she leaned on it to look at Lady, but dreams were as fickle as the gods, and Sansa would rather not tempt this dream.

Lady made a small yip in reply.

“I will walk with you, later,” Sansa said. “But not now, you understand me?”

Lady yipped again.

Sansa slipped a hand between the wooden bars. Lady licked it. “Good. I’ll make sure the kennel master feeds you.”

Sansa did as she promised Lady, slipping the kennel master a couple of stags. She walked through the camp, then, and when she crossed paths with Ilyn Payne her blood ran cold—she could still see him raising Ice into the sky, then dropping it to sever her Father’s head from his body—but she curtseyed, nonetheless, and when the Hound mocked her for it she smiled at him. Sansa had seen Sandor Clegane weep at the sight of wildfire. His scars did not frighten her anymore.

And at last, Joffrey strutted to her, offering his arm. Sansa wondered how she had not seen the cruelty behind his shallow eyes. Swallowing the revulsion that rose in her, she took it. “My prince,” Sansa said, all timidity and no steel, “What would you like to see, today?”

“I should like to see the place where my Father slew Rhaegar Targaryen. They call it the Ruby Ford, have you heard of it?”

Yes. “No, I haven’t. Why do they call it that?”

Joffrey repeated the story to her as they walked. She nodded and made her eyes wide and her grip tight on his arm, gasping prettily when his story demanded it. He smiled. “How do you like the story, sweet princess?”

She remembered Margaery, her friend, and the glint of violent desire in her eyes when she’d spoken with Joffrey in a low voice. Sansa thought of Joffrey’s purple face and the foam that had bubbled from his mouth. Letting a smile bloom at the thought, she said, “King Robert is truly a fearsome warrior. I can only imagine your own prowess, being his son.”

Joffrey puffed his chest and placed his hand on the sword on her waist, and he told her more stories of his own training. Sansa knew all of them to be lies. The sword was beautiful and ornamental and unused.

They arrived at the Ruby Ford shortly, greeted by the sound of stick on stick. Sansa had prayed it would not come to this, but it had, now. She looked at the butcher’s boy. He was ginger and red and a boy, only a boy, and he would die tonight if she failed. They stopped at the tree line, just before the clearing, Joffrey watching with disbelieving eyes, Sansa with her heart running wild in her chest.

What she did next would change everything.

She had screamed at Arya, before. Now, she put on a mocking smile and laughed. “Look at them, my prince. A woman and a lowborn, thinking they could be knights.”

“Indeed,” he sneered. “I should teach them a lesson.” He began to pull his sword from the scabbard, but she rested her hand on his. He looked up sharply at her.

Sansa shook her head. “You’re a prince. My sister fancied herself a knight, but Father would soon marry her off to a lordling, nowhere close to your own station. As for the boy, he would be lucky if he became a mercenary, much less a hedge knight.” Sansa laughed, then. “Let the fools play their mummer’s farce, my prince. They had no promise of a throne in their future, the sad creatures.”

Joffrey took the hand Sansa had on his and clutched it tight. Her control slipped and a pained gasp—this body was not used to pain, so young and untouched—escaped her, but his eyes only darkened at the sound. He pulled her hand to his lips, kissing it, keeping his eyes on hers. She held his gaze, unblinking. Oh, but she wanted to drown him in the ford for things he had yet done, but she knew it would not end well. No, she had to play the devoted betrothed, for now.

“My prince?” Sansa asked.

Joffrey dropped her hand. “My betrothed is as wise as she is beautiful,” he said, in that voice that she'd thought was magnanimous. “Very well. What will you, then?”

Sansa tried not to let the relief show, though she allowed herself a smile anyway, and fluttered her eyelashes as though his compliments discomposed her. “I wish to see real knights fight, my prince, don’t you? The whitecloaks would put a better show, and perhaps they might draw real blood, too.”

Joffrey readily agreed—Sansa thought it might be the mention of blood—and they left Arya and Micah, who were never aware of their spectators, in favour of the camp.

Her heart raced all the way, only stilling when Ser Barristan and the Hound began their bout, Joffrey’s laugh ringing together with the crossed steel.

 


 

After supper, she took Lady from the kennels and went to her room at the inn and pretended to write to Mother. What she wrote instead, however, were accounts, of all that had happened and why and how and who: Littlefinger and the tears of Lys, and the knife he sent for Bran. Cersei and her cousin Lancel and the wineskin passed to King Robert on a hunt. Tyrion, an ally she could use if she could convince him of her value. The Boltons and the Freys, all of them turncloaks. She wrote and she wrote and she wrote, Lady curled around her ankle, and when she could remember no more and the parchment was black to the edges, she scattered sand over it, folded it, and kept it under the peeling lining of her trunk.

Arya entered the room, looking dishevelled but bright-eyed. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“I was just writing to Mother,” Sansa said. “I’m sleeping with Lady tonight. If you want to sleep with Nymeria, we can be in trouble together with Septa Mordane in the morning.”

Arya’s face lit up. “Since when are you fun?” she asked, but she went out anyway and returned not long after with her own direwolf.

The next morning, Sansa woke to Lady’s grinning face. The direwolf gave her a long lick and bounded off the bed, yipping. Sansa grinned back. When Septa Mordane scolded the girls for sleeping with the wolves, Sansa thought, I’ll save you, too.