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Blood of the Wolf

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The burning on his left wrist started at the same time that his wife’s body caught fire. He clenched his fists and stared at the funeral pyre, eyes focused on the shape in the middle of it. His wife was dead and soon would be nothing but ashes. Their relationship had been quite good. She had given him an heir, she had run the keep to his satisfaction and she was a warm body to share his bed.

Lord Bolton did not need much else from his wife. He had learned not to wish for more. Once, when he had been a boy, he had hoped for a mark as youths usually did. It was a rare honor, after all, and with the Faith of the Seven gaining ground even in the North, the marks of the Old Gods were becoming even more scarce and much valued. Then his thirteenth name day had come and gone and no mark had appeared. Roose had waited for two more years and then he had given up. The gods had clearly deemed him unworthy of their gift. There hadn’t been a soulmate for the Bolton heir and his father, unmarked himself, had thought it fitting. Boltons never had been the gods’ favorites. Too untamable, the late Lord of the Dreadfort had said, too strong to bend to their wills and be bound by a mark.

Boltons did not need soulmates. For them, it wasn’t a blessing – it was an obstacle, stopping them from choosing their own partners, getting in the way of their ambitions and plans.

For hours, Lord Bolton watched the pyre until nothing was left of it until the embers turned dead and cold and servants went to collect the remains of his wife and unborn child into an urn so he could sprinkle her ashes later. Only after the dark had fallen and his keep became blissfully silent, Roose moved, turning his head to look down at his hand.

He took a deep breath, his eyes expressionless as he observed his limb as if it was belonging to someone else. He considered it a betrayal of sorts, that his own body bore the mark suddenly binding him to another living being. Ridiculous.

The gods decided to tell him who to wed, bed, and love? Now? The times when he had been curious about love had been long gone. He no longer wanted it and had no use for it. The idea that he would irrevocably belong to someone was insulting – and he found no satisfaction in knowing that the other person would equally belong to him. He was a solitary man, after all, had learned to depend only on himself and to never trust anyone else. Now he was supposed to trust some stranger with his soul? No. His father had been right. Boltons did not need soulmates. Whatever for? Some even believed that he had no soul so why he should be saddled with a soulmate?

Hesitating only momentarily, he pulled off his glove and pushed his sleeve up. He knew to expect a name on his wrist but he wasn’t prepared to actually see it there. Inked in a vibrant red cursive, each letter was carefully linked to the other and formed a short name. It took his breath away with the same force as a kick to the stomach would. The amount of pain was probably the same, too.

Sansa.

He stared at it for a long time and furrowed his brow slightly in concentration. The name wasn’t of the North and he wasn’t sure why he had expected it to be. Maybe he had dreamt of a true northern bride as a boy – with ivory skin and eyes the color of the winter sky, with hair as dark as night, beautiful and unpredictable and untamable as the North itself. Knowing that his soulmate was a foreigner from the South with only a little drop of northern blood was just one more reason why he would ignore the mark. He wasn’t even sure why he had spent so long looking at it.

The mark still tingled but it was nothing compared to the initial burn of its appearance. He clenched and unclenched his fist, watching the letters as his frown deepened. The mark was mesmerizing, he could concede that. There was something fascinating about the metallic glint of the writing, how it reflected even the slightest bit of torchlight, how it seemed to move. It looked alive.

As he pulled the sleeve down, he felt relief when it disappeared from his sight. It came ten years too late. Roose Bolton was already set in his ways – a man grown, a father and a lord, not a foolish green boy who would be willing to leave everything behind and search for the girl whose name was Sansa and who had Roose tattooed on her wrist in his bold writing.

Still, the mark burned on his skin from that day on, a constant reminder that the gods had spoken.

***

It was moons later when he heard about the newest addition to the Stark family. A girl, people said, a beautiful baby girl named Sansa. Upon hearing the news, Lord Bolton quietly excused himself from the company of his bannermen, shed his fur cloak and made his way outside of the castle, into the corner of the courtyard where his men usually trained.

A Stark. The gods had bound him to a Stark?

He calmly unsheathed his sword, weighed it in his hands with concentration and then faced the training dummies. There were four of them, solid wooden structures covered in straw used for drilling the proper sword techniques.

His face was impassive as he attacked the first one. There was no roar of fury, but only the sound of steel hitting wood. Again and again, it echoed between the walls of the Dreadfort just as the name echoed within his mind. Sansa Stark.

Some time late, Domeric found him still raging in the training grounds, three straw dummies already destroyed in his fury.

“Father!” the boy cried with his pale eyes wide, fear and shock evident in the way he trembled when his father whirled to face him. He didn’t understand what was happening, what could have prompted his father to react like that. Domeric took a hesitant step closer. “Father, please!”

Roose flung his longsword away and dropped to his knees, his shoulders heaving as he struggled to control his breathing. He gestured for the boy to come closer and when Domeric did, he picked him up and marched away from the destruction his wrath had wrought. The child promptly burst into tears and clung to his neck.

His boy was terrified – as were the guards and most of his household. Lord Bolton wasn’t one to lose his head but that day, it had happened and so easily. He detested Sansa for that, the baby just recently born was the sole reason why his emotions had exploded with the force of a blizzard.

“Domeric, shhh,” he said, patting his son’s back soothingly, walking briskly through the corridors of his keep. “Now, my boy, calm yourself. Everything is fine, no need for tears.”

It was a lie. It was wrong, everything was so utterly wrong he couldn’t put it into words but he lied for his boy’s sake. Domeric had lost his mother recently, still too young to do without her, and Roose was not about to let his son and heir see him distressed by things that couldn’t be changed.

It was a cruel joke, a mockery – nothing more than that. She was just a baby, twenty-three years younger than him and what was worse, she was a Stark. His ancestors had proudly worn flayed skins of Stark princes into battle and those bloody wolves had tried their best to break Boltons throughout the centuries, to make them abandon their traditions and pride, to take their very identity away. The idea that Roose should share his very soul with one of them was filling him with disgust and rage.

Brought to heel, at last, he sneered. Chained by a pretty smile of a pretty girl, eh? No, never.

He would let the whole of North burn before he would fall to his knees in front of any of the Starks, let alone a girl who was younger than his son. He would rather see her dead than surrender his soul to her.

The mark flared up angrily at his thoughts and pained him for days, weeks even, yet Lord Bolton would not be deterred from his decision. He detested Lord Stark and his feeblemindedness to rule effectively just as the ancient Red Kings had detested the ancient Kings of Winter. He would not join his house with theirs and no mark could force him.

***

Years passed as they tended to do and apart from the occasional summer snows, the North enjoyed the comfort of a particularly long summer. Roose didn’t doubt that the Starks enjoyed it immensely. The same couldn’t be said for the Boltons.

He had lit yet another funeral pyre, this time for his quiet, books and music and tournaments loving son. Domeric had died suddenly from a strange illness and left him without an heir and any immediate family. He had been almost a man – strong and calm in most situations as his father with a gentler personality, a young man whom everyone had been fond of.

Was this the punishment of his refusal to bend to the gods’ will? Roose often wondered as he stared at his wrist and the bloody letters glittering there. The color of the writing had changed from the vibrant red to a darker shade just like his heart had darkened with the passing of years. He hated the mark and he hated the girl who had brought it with her birth.

Roose had been forced to send for Ramsay and educate him properly as a lord’s son. The gods were at least merciful enough to gift his bastard with a quick mind – as well as a quick temper – and the boy was also good with a blade, so he was not a complete disappointment to his father. Yet he was still a bastard and if Roose wanted another trueborn son, he would have to remarry and since the appearance of the mark, a union to a woman who didn’t bear his name on her wrist would not be accepted by the gods of old. Marrying in a sept, on the other hand, would be unacceptable in his eyes. He was no southern lord and people of the North married under heart trees.

It wasn’t fair that Domeric, his wonderful boy, had been taken from this world so Roose would be forced to marry her. It wasn’t fair but it had happened – and he was now headed to Winterfell to present face-to-face the tithe of his crops. Stark had insisted on Roose’s personal appearance, most probably to stress yet again the importance of not flaying enemies of his house. They had already had disagreements in the past. While the previous lord of Winterfell had been more tolerant of the practice, the current ruling Stark had outlawed it outright. He wondered which of his men had let it slip and what punishment dear Eddard had in mind. Soft-hearted fool.

Roose’s thoughts took a darker turn as the walls of Winterfell loomed in the distance. Nights in the north were long and cold despite the summer season. His bed was most of those nights equally cold – and empty. Lord Bolton already had one bastard and he didn’t wish for another so he rarely invited women to his chambers. However, he was but a man and in need of a legitimate heir.

How old was the girl now? Twelve? Roose wasn’t actually sure. Not flowered yet, or Eddard’s raven would have already reached him. She would be considered a woman in a few years but was still a child now. He would be nearing forty when Sansa would be grown up enough to be bedded. Was he expected to wait three or four years to wed her and then wait some more to put a child safely in her? Was that the gods’ great plan?

He doubted a Stark would be thrilled to be chained to a Bolten, anyway, let alone a man old enough to be her father. Perhaps he could spare her the shock and kill her before her mark would appear? And spare himself the humiliation of the girl’s rejection as well. Too many Starks had already degraded his family for far too long.

His face was expressionless as he rode through the gates of Winterfell and greeted his liege lord while he contemplated the murder of his eldest daughter. He nodded politely and joked drily as his eyes shifted about, looking for a girl he hated more than anything and anyone in the whole world.

“I was sorry to hear about your son, Lord Bolton,” said Lady Stark and touched his upper arm gently for a moment to get his attention. “My condolences. He was a fine young man. We have considered offering a match between your son and our eldest, haven’t we, Ned?”

He almost choked but managed to control himself. He glanced at Stark and caught the fleeting expression of a mild grimace on the man’s face. Perhaps Lady Stark had considered it and perhaps she had bullied her husband into thinking about it, but Eddard would rather die than to see his daughter wedded a Bolton, that much was clear.

Roose answered her words with a slight smirk masked as a polite smile, appreciating the irony of the situation. “Thank you, Lady Stark, your words are kind. And where are your children, if I may ask?”

Lady Stark was happy to talk about her children and she prattled on about where each of them was and what they were doing. Her daughter, Sansa, was currently praying in the sept but would relocate to the Godswood later as she kept the faith of both her parents.

Unnoticeably, he also wandered into the Godswood after the greetings were over and the visitors were allowed time to rest after their long journey. Roose had avoided the Godswood at the Dreadfort since his son’s death and walking under the weirwood trees again was making him uncomfortable.

He sat down under the heart three, close to the bank of the pool, and stared at the face carved into the trunk. The Stark heart tree was enormous and its serious face had closed eyes, reflecting the serene atmosphere of the grove and the somber men who ruled the lands around it.

He wished for the eyes to open and the lips of bark to speak and tell him why the gods had mocked him so. The writing on his wrist was burning yet not even a leaf rustled in the stillness of the wood. The gods were silent.

“Oh, pardon me, my lord!” A child’s voice startled him and Roose jumped up to face the intruder.

It was a girl with ivory skin and eyes as blue as the winter sky with fiery red hair, the exact same color of leaves hanging above their heads. She was a beautiful child who would grow into a stunning woman and he had no doubt that he was gazing upon his soulmate.

Something inside of him broke at the realization and he swallowed. This was the child he had spent years hating? This little thing with innocence shining from her eyes so brightly it was almost dazzling? She was nothing like he had expected, she clearly took after her mother.

“I didn’t expect to meet anyone here at this hour,” she explained, dropping into a curtsey, gentle smile gracing her lips. “I hope I didn’t disturb your prayers. I’ll be on my way…”

“No need to run, my lady.” Roose heard himself saying and gave her a small bow in return, amused by the practiced poise and grace of the child. She was so proper – as if there was not a single drop of Stark blood in her veins. “I don’t bite.”

“Of course, my lord.” She hesitated and then glanced at the emblem on his leather vest, trying to figure out whom she had just met.

“I’m Roose Bolton, my lady,” he offered. After a beat, he added, “And who are you?”

“I’m Sansa Stark, Lord Bolton. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She beamed at him and cautiously approached. With every step she took, the mark on his wrist was burning more and more. He clenched his fist and tried to ignore it, his face never betraying his discomfort.

The gods were cruel, indeed, to bind him to this child and her to him. Lord Bolton of the Dreadfort and this pretty little lady? The girl would probably balk at the talk of hunting and faint at the sight of blood. She would cry at the very idea of flaying people alive.

It would be mercy for them both if he would just kill her here and now and drop the body into the water. Nobody knew he was in the Godswood and he had no reason to murder the child – at least no one was aware of one.

“The pleasure is all mine,” he said and gestured for her to take his place in front of the carved face. “Please, I won’t disturb you from your prayers. Tell me, my lady, isn’t your father concerned when you wander out of the castle alone?”

He looked around, searching for hidden guards. There weren’t any.

“My father says that the Godswood is safe for us but that I cannot go any further without an escort. As I’ve said, I’m usually alone here at this hour.”

“I hope you wouldn’t mind my company for a moment longer, then. I’ll guard your peace, my lady.” Roose let her see his slight smirk, hand resting at the hilt of his dagger. He had a permanent sort of peace in mind but the girl didn’t need to know that.

“Oh, how courteous of you!” Sansa glowed at his supposed gallantry and walked past him still with that sweet polite smile glued to her face. She primly knelt down in the same spot he had been previously occupying and closed her eyes, her head bowed in prayer.

Roose watched the child for a second and then he soundlessly drew his dagger, closing the distance between them with light, silent steps. His eyes took her in for the last time. Sansa Stark would never grow into her beauty, never would flower and bear children, and she would never discover the pain of burning, unwanted, and impossible mark on her left wrist. He was doing the child a favor.

A gentle breeze ruffled the leaves, the whole wood started to whisper. His own wrist was on fire, the pain of it so acute that his hand shook and he couldn’t stop it. His right hand, however, was steady in his relaxed grip. How should he do it? Slit her throat? No, too much blood. Drive the blade into her heart? Yes, it would be painless.

Her lips were moving and he could hear her whispering her prayers but it wasn’t loud enough for him to catch any words. This was the fate the gods had chosen for the girl? Because he would not wed the child, nor would he love her or protect her. He would not give her his soul. Steeling his resolve, he raised his eyes to look at the carved face as if to urge the gods to see what they had made him do.

Two dark deep holes met his gaze, trickles of red flowing down the white bark from them. The eyes of the heart tree watched him, the lips parted in sorrow.

The gods were crying.

Roose was struck by the sight, rooted to the spot, and only a sharp intake of breath a moment later made him look down. Sansa had turned and was not looking up at him, her expression frightened, her blue eyes impossibly wide and fearfully watching him. A trembling voice asked, “Lord Bolton?”

She was a child. He couldn’t form a single thought and dropped down to his knees next to the girl instead. Swallowing hard, he flung the dagger away and it sunk into the depths of the pool.

“Lady Sansa?” he echoed, his voice hoarse. He could not kill the girl, not when she was looking at him like that. Not even the Lord of the Dreadfort was so wretched. “You shouldn’t trust men you don’t know.”

“Did you want to use the dagger against me?” Her voice was still trembling and he refused to look at her. This was the end, wasn’t it? She would tell her father and Stark would order his head to be chopped off. That was the end of his line. It seemed that after thousands of years of animosity and tense relations between their houses the Starks had finally prevailed with the help of this little girl.

She had managed to bring the last Bolton to his knees. He remained silent.

“Why?” She burst into tears. They were silently rolling down her cheeks but she did nothing to stop them and stared at his profile. “What have I ever done to you? I’ve never even met you before and you’re my father’s bannerman!”

He shook his head, blinking, his vision blurring. Roose focused on the heart tree whose face had smoothed out and eyes closed again as if nothing had happened. Had he imagined it? Tiredly, he ran his left hand over his face, his right fist resting against the ground. The leaves stopped rustling, the wind quieted down. There was silence – or almost silence. Sansa Stark cried at his side.

Strangely enough, she hadn’t run in her distress. Why hadn’t she?

“Lord Bolton?” she asked and then there was a tug at his hand – the one which covered his face – followed by another gasp. Now the silence was absolute. Neither of them dared to breathe. She had seen her name on his wrist and he felt her touch it.

It was accompanied by a strange feeling – a fall and then coldness as if he was just dropped into a freezing lake. His insides turned to ice and then back and his heart hammered away in his chest with difficulty. The world stood still for a moment and then it started to move again with an unpleasant lurch and the impression that something wasn’t quite where it was supposed to be.

When Roose came around, small fingers were tracing the writing. A shiver ran down his spine and the infernal burning finally stopped at the touch. He wrenched his hand free from her gentle touch. “Don’t!”

“But it’s my name,” Sansa whispered. “You wear my name on your wrist!”

“And I wanted to kill you for it!” he hissed and stood up. Sansa was sitting now on her heels, looking up at him with eyes red from her crying and confusion and hurt on her face.

“But I don’t understand any of it, my lord!”

“No?” he scoffed and watched her flinch. Stupid child. He should have driven the dagger into her heart and be done with it!

“It’s quite simple, my lady. I do not wish to marry you; certainly not now and not when you’re older. I do not wish to be bound to you and this?” He raised his hand, offering her one last look at the mark before he covered it with his sleeve. “This is nothing to me. I was trying to be merciful, to spare you the knowledge that I did not want you, to spare you the shame of your soulmate rejecting you. Who will marry you with the name of another man on your wrist, hm?”

“But why?” Her breathing hitched and a fresh wave of tears flew out of her eyes. “The gods-”

“Are you daft?” he interrupted her. “I do not care for the mark and I do not care for the gods!”

The mark pulsed with pain but he ignored it and loomed over the child. “If you know what’s best for you, you forget this day and what you’ve seen. Of course, if you want to tell everyone what has happened, that’s your right, too – your father would want my head, in that case, and you would be forced to live with the knowledge that you caused my death.”

They stared at each other in silence and she shook her head, wordlessly promising to keep the events of the last hour for herself. Roose knew that she wouldn’t want to be the cause of his demise, she was a child and the idea of being responsible for anyone’s death was too much for her to even contemplate.

“I trust we’ll never see each other again, Lady Sansa,” he said calmly next and bowed mockingly. “Have a pleasant day.”

He was already several paces away, his heart still beating wildly in his chest and his wrist burning in agony when her voice stopped him one more time.

“I hope I won’t have your name!” she cried after him furiously. “You are an evil man and you don’t deserve a mark!”

She wasn’t wrong yet hearing her say those words made him pause and clench his fists. There was some blood of the wolf in her after all – that damned self-righteousness in her childish voice was a pure Stark. He forced himself to continue walking and didn’t acknowledge her outburst in any way – and he felt as if something had been just irrevocably broken. Like he had just been broken – both by his own actions and his soulmate’s words.

Chapter Text

It was more than a year later when a raven reached the Dreadfort bearing news of a royal engagement between Crown Prince Joffrey and Lady Sansa Stark. He stared at the short missive, not understanding the words for several moments. His mind refused to process it.

Sansa was betrothed to Prince Joffrey? What nonsense was that? Who in their right minds would sanction the union? Had Stark finally taken leave of his senses? Roose carefully folded the parchment and tried to think of a reason why.

There were only two possible explanations. The Stark girl didn’t have her mark yet and she hadn’t told anyone about their encounter in the Godswood – therefore she had been betrothed to the prince. Or her mark had appeared and Roose’s name wasn’t the one inked on her wrist.

The breath left his body as he thought about the second possibility and he leaned back in his seat, shaking his head. His mark had stayed almost the same, just growing darker and turning into a deep burgundy color. Had the gods decided to give her another soulmate after he had attempted to kill her? Perhaps his mark would continue to grow darker and darker until it turned black and become dead. A name inked in black meant that the person was gone and the bond broken. He would be rid of her as Sansa was obviously rid of him.

The idea should thrill him. It should.

He quickly pushed his sleeve up to look at the mark. His only link to the child he had almost murdered was still there. It still reflected the light, it still glittered, it was still alive. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes when he made sure that her name was where it had been for the past years.

Roose hadn’t spared the Stark girl more than a fleeting thought since their encounter and he didn’t understand why he wasn’t relieved when she was now betrothed to someone else. If she married the prince following the rituals of the Faith of Seven and stayed in the South, he would be free of her in the eyes of their people.

And yet… the Old Gods had given her to him and he couldn’t suppress the voice which told him that he had been betrayed and robbed of something that belonged to him by the will of their gods.

One of his hands inched closer to the inkpot at his desk and he picked it up, contemplating for a moment the item in his grasp. Then he threw it against the opposite wall where it shattered. Watching the ink trickle down toward the ground, he took a calming breath and forced himself to focus on other letters.

The image of a pair of frightened blue eyes stayed with him for hours and the memory of her furious voice repeating over and over again her hope for a different name echoed in his mind for whole weeks.

Sansa’s wish had been granted, it seemed. She would be a queen and Roose would not wed her, bed her or love her. His soul was only his own again. He couldn’t explain the sense of deep loss those thoughts brought.

***

Lord Bolton answered Robb Stark’s call swiftly with only one thing in mind; retrieving the hostages as quickly as possible. Anything else was unthinkable.

***

The first taste of real battle had done wonders for the morale of their men and the victory in the Whispering Woods was even sweeter. Their celebration was full of loud laughter and crude jokes. Lord Bolton, however, was observing the festivities without much enthusiasm. His mind was occupied with less optimistic thoughts.

Roose wasn’t a naïve young fool and he knew that retaliation was coming one way or another and he feared for the safety of the hostages. King Joffrey had taken Stark’s head in a fit of childish impatience, after all. The boy obviously didn’t concern himself with thinking about what was right, proper or fair – as his own young King in the North seemed to do so often. Both boys didn’t understand anything about how power worked and how to play to win.

“You look troubled, Lord Bolton,” observed Lady Stark from her seat next to him. She didn’t seem to be enjoying the feast either.

“Well, we still don’t know where to put all the prisoners or how to feed our men, do we?” He turned to look at her, gaze flicking briefly over Lady Stark’s features, and he wondered how strong the resemblance between mother and daughter was now that Sansa was growing up and if their personalities were similar. He was inclined to think so.

The prisoners would slow them down considerably, something Lady Stark would hate. He believed he understood her acute fear for the lives of her daughters more than the woman would think possible.

“Lord Bolton…”

“Yes, our King has spoken, I know… But the way to King’s Landing is long and hard. The Lannisters won’t forge-”

His words caught in his throat as the most excruciating pain seized him. A blind panic, utter terror rose in him. His back felt as if he had just been whipped and inside of him, a burning pool of lava was spreading, every nerve in his body screaming in agony, his heart beating wildly. He clenched his jaw, his body taut, and a painful grimace appeared on his face. Roose tried to breathe through it without much success and watched as Lady Stark stood up in alarm, crying out.

“My lord!”

In the middle of it all, he felt… he thought he heard…

“S-sansa?” he whispered before his eyes rolled back into his head and darkness claimed him.

***

Roose came to several hours later in his tent in a company of Master Wolkan and Lady Stark herself. His body felt weak and tired as if he had spent several days marching without stopping, and his back still pained him. There was also a different kind of ache inside him that he couldn’t pinpoint, couldn’t recall ever feeling before. It wasn’t physical but it hurt nonetheless.

The change in his breathing alerted his two visitors to his consciousness.

“Thank the gods, you’re awake!” she proclaimed and he almost believed that she had been concerned for him. Perhaps she had been – it was in her nature, he mused. Sansa was probably just as caring a person as her mother.

He tried to sit up and found his left wrist bandaged. Roose’s mind was not as quick as he was used to, so he stared at the bandages for several moments and then he raised his eyes to look at Lady Stark, expecting her ire and questions, perhaps some accusations.

None of those came. Her expression was surprisingly soft, understanding. There were deep circles around her reddened eyes indicating exhaustion and betraying the fact that she had been crying. Roose was almost certain that the maester had seen the mark and since Lady Stark was here, he had obviously told her about the name on his wrist. What he didn’t understand was why they were both there looking at him with apprehension.

“What happened?” His voice was hoarse and it took a considerable effort for him to speak.

“Your mark bled,” said Wolkan and glanced at Lady Stark who put her hand in front of her mouth to better control her emotions. It seemed that she was on the verge of tears again.

Roose flicked his eyes between the two of them. “Why did it bleed?”

He had a feeling that he already knew the answer or at least a part of it.

“There are recorded cases of these happenings but they are very rare and we couldn’t be really sure-”

“What has happened to me at the feast?” he asked slowly, staring at his wrist with a sinking feeling. There was loud pounding in his ears.

“Well, the mark bled because your bond was under a tremendous strain and it manifested-”

“My bond?” Roose repeated, closing his eyes. The pounding didn’t stop, he would have a headache. He hadn’t been aware of its existence. How was it possible? While he couldn’t deny that Sansa and her well-being had been often on his mind since the start of the war, there hadn’t been any chance for the bond to be created. He hadn’t been in her proximity in years and that fateful day in the Godswood, she had been an unmarked child and they hadn’t even touched… Roose’s eyes flew open.

But they had. He clearly remembered Sansa touching the mark, tracing her name with her fingers curiously. Had it been enough for the bond to take hold? Had he been bonded to a twelve-year-old without noticing? He had hardly even thought about the child in the time between their meeting and the death of Eddard Stark.

“They must have whipped her,” said Lady Stark suddenly, her voice breaking. The tears escaped her eyes and she buried her face in her hands. “There’re faint marks on your back.”

Roose stared at Lady Stark without speaking, observing how her shoulders shook. He had whipped personally men who had dared to disobey his orders. His heart clenched painfully, recalling the sound of a whip hitting bare back, how it tore at the skin, and the sight of blood welling up in the cuts. Now, he believed, he knew how it felt as well as looked liked. Then he turned to the maester.

“What do you think has happened, then?” he asked in a soft tone, needing something else than Sansa’s pain and his reaction to it to focus on.

“We know that some soulmates can feel through the bond the emotions of their other half in cases of great distress or danger,” said Wolkan, glancing away from him. He cleared his throat and continued uncertainly, “Then there are mentions of instances when it was possible for them to experience even the physical pain of their mate. It’s believed that descendants of wargs and greenseers instinctually try to reach out to their other half and hide within them if in extreme distress. Their magic then changes… p-perhaps even reinforces the bond to the point where it allows the pair to pass general images and even share their strength if need be. Are you feeling unusually tired, my lord?”

He nodded once, shocked and unwilling to let them hear his voice tremble as his emotions swirled inside him wildly.

“Then it seems to support this theory, and your strength helps Lady Sansa recover from her ordeal…”

Roose stopped listening to him, his mind abuzz with his thoughts. The Starks had prided themselves on their warg ancestry, he knew, their wolf blood as they had called it. He certainly couldn’t deny that there was something unnatural in the way King Robb’s direwolf seemed to obey its master and he had seen the other animals with the Stark brood on several occasions, too.

There was also the memory of his last moments before losing consciousness. He could swear that he had heard her in his mind, felt her inside of him. And this ache that would not leave? Was this his soul sharing her pain? Did his body truly bear the wounds inflicted upon hers? Gods, there were so many of them, he could tell that someone had enjoyed hurting her.

His fist clenched at the thought. He would find that person and he would flay them slowly – after flogging him within an inch of their body. They had dared to hurt the hostage. They had dared to hurt his soulmate. He wasn’t surprised – he hadn’t expected much better from the Lannisters, but they would pay.

Ignoring both the maester’s and Lady Stark’s protests, Roose clawed at the bandage. He managed to loosen them enough to pull them off and heaved a sigh when he saw the mark. The writing was brilliant angry red and the skin around it was inflamed.

Seeing her name inexplicably calmed him and he swallowed, tightly closing his eyes and willing his heart to beat slower. He hadn’t asked for a mark since reaching adulthood and he had spent years hating it – hating the very idea of being chained to a Stark. He had tried to kill the girl, his soulmate who had just hours ago reached out to him in her fear and pain, seeking protection he had sworn not give her.

Yet here he was, marching south with every intention of retrieving the girl from their enemies’ hands, confused and angry and wholly uncertain about everything he had believed about himself until that very day.

***

It didn’t happen during a celebration the next time. Roose was briskly walking alongside King Robb through the battlefield full of corpses when the pain suddenly struck him and he went down. He fell to his knees, hissing, then tumbled face first into the mud, echoes of his king’s cries of alarm ringing in his ears. He heard only one voice, though.

Please, please, please, make it stop! Make it stop!

Roose was only partly aware of strong hands turning him and lifting him and supporting him. He focused only on the frightened voice resonating deeply within his mind. Struggling to stay conscious, Roose gripped the Young Wolf’s cloak to keep himself upright. His vision swam as he shook his head to clear it.

“It will pass,” he forced through clenched teeth, tasting mud. “Calm down, girl, it will pass.”

“Lord Bolton! Lord Bolton!” Robb was suddenly shaking him. “Is it my sister? Are you talking to Sansa? Lord Bol-damn it! He’s drifting in and out of consciousness!”

Why are they doing this to me? What have I ever done to deserve this? Please, I will be good! Please!

Sansa,” he stressed her name. He had trouble breathing through the pain of her cuts she was projecting on him in her panic. Not only his back hurt but his whole body was on fire and his mark was bleeding again, warm blood was seeping through his sleeve. His head felt as if someone had hit him with a warhammer, as if it had been cracked open. “C-calm down, you’re hurting m-me.”

The maester had believed that the initial seizure had been caused by her utter panic and confusion and the fact that the magic inherent in her blood had been interacting with the magic of the soulbond. Now, Roose was almost certain than her untested and uncontrolled abilities were going to rip him apart, that the strength of her emotions would break the bond.

Who is it? Who… I… Roose?

“Yes,” he breathed out when the pressure subsided and tightly closed his eyes to focus on her.  His voice dropped into a soothing murmur. “It’s the soulbond, Sansa, nothing to fear.”

I don’t… I think… Oh, it hurts so much! They’re hurting me. I’m scared it will be my head on a spike next. Please, help me, please!

“I will,” he responded without pause or thinking. “Sans-”

Her departure was as abrupt as her appearance and again, it brought a wave of darkness that swallowed him.

***

There were no more incidents like those two. Roose felt like he wasn’t alone in his own mind but there was no longer pain and or any direct contact with Sansa. When he was out riding in the rain, he believed he heard her sigh and felt her joy at feeling the raindrops and wind against the skin. Or when he was out long into the cold night with his teeth chattering, the feeling of warmth when sitting close to a fire spread through him, giving him some measure of comfort. Falling asleep, he often felt a flutter against his mind, a whisper of presence snuggling close seeking safe haven from the terrors of her waking hours.

It was as if Sansa had somehow stopped reaching out to him once aware of the pain she had unintentionally caused him, and become nothing more than a distant but constant presence at the edges of his mind. The idea that there weren’t any more beatings was absurd. Why would they stop? Roose wasn’t sure what was happening to his soulmate and not knowing was driving him slowly mad.

The mark never burned, not any longer, but he felt it pulse with warmth on occasion, sending shivers down his spine to remind him that it was still there and that his soulmate wasn’t lost to him completely despite the distance and obstacles between them. It brought him a measure of peace at night because Sansa had somehow become the last thing he thought about in the evenings and the first thing he thought about in the mornings.

Moons passed and they were no closer to King’s Landing then they had been at the beginning of the campaign. King Robb, on the other hand, was very close to losing his fancy bronze crown. While Roose understood Lady Stark more than anyone else, her stupid actions had cost them dearly.

He couldn’t even bear to think about all the stupid mistakes the Starks had done – from breaking their word to the Freys to letting the Kingslayer go. Or perhaps it had been their trusting a Greyjoy or the beheading of Lord Karstark that was the height of their idiocy? The family seemed determined to be directly responsible for Sansa’s death and if they would continue on that course, Roose would be forced to remove them from it forcibly.

Didn’t they understand that they were slowly losing the war? It didn’t matter what he advised to the king, the young fool was never listening. He knew the Freys and he knew that Walder was planning something. He would have in his place. Oh, Roose knew well the bitterness of slights the Starks unwittingly left in their wake.

The Lord of the Dreadfort was so lost in his own mind that only the first shouts of his men alerted him to the ambush from behind. He turned his horse, sword drawn in a blink of an eye – and was promptly unhorsed by the arrow that hit him in the chest, easily piercing the light leather armor and sinking into his flesh.

***

A woman’s voice spoke to him, in the cold darkness which had surrounded him, and he struggled to understand her words through the haze of pain.

No, please, please, don’t go, it begged. He wasn’t sure whose voice it was and why it was talking to him. It sounded desperate. There was, perhaps, something familiar about it but he wasn’t certain. Nothing made much sense and he was so cold, so tired, it hurt so much.

Please, don’t leave me alone in this place, the voice whispered. I can’t bear it alone, knowing you’re gone forever.

But why not? What did it matter? What did he matter to some woman whose name he couldn’t recall? Coming to think of it, he didn’t recall his own name. What for? Names seemed unimportant. He just wanted to let go of this, whatever it was. There must be some warmer place he could go to, a place where he wasn’t in the dark and hurting.

Roose, please.

Roose? Was that his name? Roose Bolton. Yes, he remembered.  He was the Lord of the Dreadfort. He was serving Robb Stark, a stupid young boy. He was a father of two boys himself – Domeric, who had died, and Ramsay, who was a bastard. He had been a husband, once. He was… He was someone’s soulmate. He belonged to her and leaving that person alone in the world seemed rather selfish. He couldn’t do that to the other half of his soul. Was that the woman who had been speaking to him?

Yes. What was her name, though? Who was she? Where? There was something he was forgetting, something important, but he couldn’t focus, not really. It took some time but eventually, he remembered and fought to open his eyes through waves of pain, breathing out a single word.

“Sansa.”

***

“My lord!” Maester Wolkan leaned over him, checking the bandages wrapped around his chest. His face was pale, cheeks hollowed, and he refused to meet Roose’s eyes. “We thought you wouldn’t make it. It was a close call.”

He blearily stared up at the maester, his mind sluggishly recalling his last conscious moments. He remembered sharp pain and then falling and coldness and a voice urging him to not leave, pleading with him to stay – for her. Sansa. He had stayed, of course that he had. It felt so stupid to deny that there was a bond between them, or pretend that it wasn’t the most important thing in his life, or try to tell himself that the girl was nothing to him. She was – had been – everything and for quite some time.

He felt weak and feverish and his chest hurt from the wound and there was this strange impression as if something vital was missing… but he was alive and he was willing to bet the Dreadfort that he had his soulmate to thank for that. “I dread to ask this again, but what happened after I was down?”

Wolkan swallowed, his hands stopped fussing with the bandages and he glanced around them. Roose followed his gaze. The room was bare and he didn’t recognize it.

“We’ve been betrayed by the Freys,” whispered the maester. “The king is dead, as is Lady Stark and half of the northern lords – all who were at the wedding. If you weren’t shot on the way there, you would have been killed with the rest of them.”

“The army?” he asked, his voice tight, cold, furious. He had known that dear old Walder had been up to no good but to actually massacre people at a wedding? That was so simple it was almost impressive. The old fool was hardly clever enough to think it up by himself. It sounded more like Tywin Lannister’s plan and if that was the case, they were trapped in enemy territory. Should he expect Tyrell and Lannister forces attacking from the south and the Freys from the north?

“We’re currently garrisoned around a small village in the hills south of the Twins. The remaining lords gathered our forces and are awaiting your recovery, my lord,” he said with a small bow of his head as he straightened. “It will boost their morale to know you are awake after weeks of uncertainty.”

He had been unconscious for weeks? Pushing that thought aside, Roose nodded once; he wasn’t surprised to hear about the other lords. After Robb’s death, Sansa was the rightful Queen in the North and most of the northern lords had seen first-hand the strength of their bond. For all intents and purposes, he was her husband to be – any betrothal to a Southerner be damned – and the lord still commanding a large portion of their forces. He would need to speak with them and they needed to come up with a way out of the mess.

Maester Wolkan was still staring at him, looking uncomfortable.

“What it is?” he asked, rubbing carefully at his chest. The feeling of wrongness just wouldn’t go away. What could possibly be worse than the trouble they were currently in?

“A message arrived… and… and ravens from the Dreadfort and White Harbor confirmed that they had received the same news,” Wolkan said, wringing his hands together and staring at them. He glanced up, swallowed, and looked down again. “Lady Sansa married Lord Tyrion Lannister several days ago.”

“The Lannisters intend to claim the North,” Roose hissed. Kill Robb Stark and marry Sansa to one of theirs, it was simple and it was brilliant and it was Tywin Lannister’s doing. He doubted that Sansa had been thrilled to marry a dwarf, so they had forced her. They had been not only abusing his soulmate, but they had also been degrading her in other horrible fashions. He fisted his hands and clenched his jaw, fighting to remain calm and came very close to losing his composure. He couldn’t afford it, not now. He wasn’t physically fit to spring up from the bed and give way to his rage at the audacity of those Southerners. Sansa belonged to him, she was his soulmate.

“If they think that we would accept that farce, that I would allow it-” he fell silent, biting his tongue when he noticed Wolkan’s reaction.

The maester’s face radiated apprehension and his eyes strayed to Roose’s wrist before closing.

Roose felt his heart stop for a moment and then speed up. With a frown, he lifted his hand and pulled the loose sleeve of his tunic away to reveal the mark. The writing had been his constant companion for so long, the source of various emotions. He remembered the anger and hate in the beginning but in the recent moons, it had become a source of comfort. He couldn’t breathe for several long moments as he stared at the mark, unwilling to believe his eyes. All traces of color had gone from it and the name was tattooed in black ink.

 “Have you spoken to anyone about the mark?” he asked softly, not looking up at the maester. If he had, it could threaten Roose’s position among the northern lords. Some of them might balk at following the Lord of the Dreadfort if they believed that his tie to the Stark Queen had been severed. In the enemy territory, he needed their full cooperation, and he would need them later if there was to be any hope to survive the coming winter.

“No, my lord.”

“You won’t tell a soul, do you understand?” His voice remained calm but Roose felt like his world had just ended. There had been a time when he wished for nothing more than be free of the bond. He wanted the mark to be dead so much that he had almost killed his soulmate, a part of himself, to escape the bond and its obligations.

“Of course, Lord Bolton.” Wolkan shrunk on himself, understanding very well.

He had defied the gods and they had evoked their gift, allowed one of their own to be married under the watchful eyes of the southern gods. Sansa was gone from him, taken forcibly. She was lost to the North – to him – forever. That had been the strange feeling inside him; her absence.

“Good. Now, get out.” His vision was beginning to blur and he needed a moment to himself.

“My lord, you can’t strain yourself-”

“Get out!” he whispered, voice deadly quiet, eyes closed tightly. He listened as the maester shuffled out of the room and closed the door behind him. For long minutes he searched his mind, looking for a trace, an echo of her but he couldn’t find anything. Then and only then he allowed himself a moment of weakness and with a shuddering breath, he mourned the loss of the only person he could ever come to love.

Chapter Text

He knew he was dreaming, there were no weirwood groves south of the Neck and he could count the heart trees on the fingers of one hand. He stepped under the canopy of red leaves slowly, something calling him closer, tugging at his heartstrings.

The grove was full of light, sunbeams were cutting through the treetops and the smell of the forest soil was heavy in the air. Roose breathed it in, strongly reminded of the North during a long summer day. His steps were muffled as he walked on the moss and he couldn’t help but feel at peace. After the long desperate moons on the march, and a battle after battle, this felt like home.

“Who is it?” A voice called. His heart shuddered to a stop and then started beating wildly. He knew that voice, it was hers, Sansa’s. Looking around, he tried to locate its source. Where was it coming from? Where?

“Who comes here? Show yourself!”

Ah, there! He followed her voice, his breaths coming short as he ran through the weirwood grove, his heart bursting with hope. How long had it been since he had heard her voice? Since he had seen the other half of his soul? Years. It had been years and sometimes, he felt like he was losing his mind not knowing if she was well and how she fared. How would she look like now? Would there be something of the child’s innocence in her eyes still? Or would she be already a woman grown?

He stopped abruptly when a deep dark pool came into view. He knew that pool and he knew the enormous heart tree growing at its bank. Its face was serene, eyes closed, as it slumbered throughout the ages. The grove seemed darker, now, colder – winter was coming and the warmth of a summer day had bled out of his very soul, leaving him uncertain and apprehensive.

There was a figure kneeling between the roots of the tree. A girl with red hair was facing away from him. It could be her. It was. Roose swallowed and took a step closer.

“Sansa?” he whispered softly, afraid of scaring her.

“Roose,” she answered but didn’t turn. “It’s you… I was afraid that they found me… that they came for me… that they’d hurt me.”

“Who?” he asked, slowly coming closer. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t let them touch you.”

“Won’t you?” Sansa turned and he reeled back, swallowing his shock and outrage and clenching his jaw. The skin of her arms and neck was deadly pale and her entire face was mottled with bruises and bleeding cuts, unrecognizable.

Who had done that? Who dared to hurt her and why?

“Did you want to use the dagger against me?” she asked him, a soft whisper.

He started and glanced down – there was a dagger in his right hand. The design was familiar – he had owned a weapon like that, once. He had planned to slit Sansa’s throat with this blade or drive it straight into her heart. It rested at the bottom of the pool at Winterfell.

“It’s alright, you can do it. It will spare me the knowledge that you do not want me, the shame of my soulmate rejecting me. It’s alright. Do it, it’s a mercy. Please.”

He flung the dagger as far away as he could. There was a sharp pain in his chest as he did so, agony piercing through him as if he drove the dagger into his own heart. Gasping, he forced out, “What are you saying? You can’t mean that, Sansa.”

“Can’t I?” Her blue eyes stared up at him without emotions. The way she looked at him multiplied the pain he felt. There was nothing in there, just the reflection of cold blue skies. Then she whispered, “Why have you forsaken me?”

“No, I haven’t!” Roose protested and reached for her urgently. She couldn’t mean it, she couldn’t be saying those words. When he touched her shoulder, though, she disappeared and gasping, he woke up.

“No!” he growled, bolting upright in his bed, tearing his stitches. Wildly, he looked around in the darkened room but no one was there. His wound started bleeding, the pain of it nothing compared to the emptiness he felt inside. Pressing his hand to the wound, he tried to breathe, shudders of fever wracking his body. Slowly sliding back down, eyes tightly closed and hand sticky with his own blood, he whispered, “I haven’t… I haven’t… I haven’t… I… I have. Gods, I have. Forgive me. Forgive me!”

There was no answer, only darkness.

***

The reality of his waking hours was dire. Twelve thousand Northmen were trapped south of the Neck without provisions or any way to obtain them. If they tried to move south, the Lannister and Tyrell forces would meet them and drive them back. If they tried to move north, they would be slaughtered at the Crossing – not to mention the Ironborn lurking at Moat Cailin. If they had to fight their way back to the North, only a fraction of the army would survive the bloody battles.

Even though he wanted nothing more than to go south and search for her, Roose’s concern was how to get them all safely home now that the war had been lost. There was no way for a Northman to get past their enemy’s patrols, he was wounded and he was a traitor to the people in the South. The main reason stopping him from a suicide mission, however, was the fact that she wasn’t his anymore. The gods had taken her away from him and he couldn’t bear the idea that she had perhaps welcomed their decision.

His men needed him. Focusing all of his energy in that direction helped him to forget the emptiness inside of him for most of the time. They were all tired, hungry and their spirits had been brought low. They knew that they would all soon die – if not by blade, then by illness or hunger, or those who would hold out the longest would freeze to death in the coming winter.

When Lord Lannister’s offer came, a broken man agreed and bent the knee. That way, Roose spared the lives of his men from a southern threat of eighty thousand men. It would have been a bloodbath and the northern lords all willingly and without much grumbling swore their fealty to the new Warden of the North – in truth, they were swearing fealty to their Queen’s consort. It was time to retreat so they could fight another day, he had told them. The North remembered but they needed to survive first before anything else could be done – before they could get their justice and retrieve their Queen.

He had also sent a word to his bastard and tasked him with taking Moat Cailin using any methods necessary. They had the Greyjoy heir, after all, so why not use him? Ramsay could try to trade him and if that failed, flay him in the sight of Moat Cailin’s gate to provoke the Ironborn. Roose only prayed that he had not put too much trust in his son and the boy would be up to it.

His next problem was how to get past the Twins. Although Frey had been in league with the Lannisters, he didn’t seem to be too keen to simply let them pass.

Wary of the safety of the guest right, Roose met with him in an open field. There were still archers present but they were on both sides and if he would be shot, he would die knowing that his men took out Lord Frey as well. Most of those days, the idea of dying was almost welcomed, anyway.

“I’ll go straight to the point, Lord Frey,” he said loud enough for the man to hear him. His chest wound was still healing and he didn’t feel like expending too much energy on that turncoat. “My men and I need to return to the North. What is your price?”

“I allowed you Northmen to cross south under the condition that the Stark boy would marry one of my granddaughters,” cackled Frey loudly. “I’d think it’s only fair to demand the same when you try to cross back north.”

So, that was what he wanted. Roose’s face remained impassive and he stared at the despicable man for several seconds. His left hand clenched into a fist. His own bastard had no idea about the mark and not many knew about his bond – half of them were dead. It was a northern matter, anyway, and the Northmen didn’t like to talk about their traditions with outsiders. It was possible that the information had slipped – but in that case, he doubted that Tywin Lannister would have offered him the North. If the Lion felt threatened, he would have Roose killed instead of elevated. No, Frey didn’t know about his mark.

And his mark didn’t matter. She was out of his reach and the bond was dead. By the will of their gods, she was no longer his concern and when she had been, he had still not protected her, failing her terribly. Roose felt her absence every hour of every day, never before he had known such devastation.

He hardly slept at night due to nightmares and preferred to work or read, to avoid the desolation of his own mind and the overwhelming loneliness of his thoughts. The memory of those fleeting moments when she had dwelled within him… To know how it had felt and to lose it, it was a crushing blow more painful to deal with than any wound a sword or an arrow could deliver. On the other hand, he thought it a fitting punishment for his attempt to kill her. He should have killed himself instead of even contemplating murdering his other half. The guilt of it, when he had finally fully realized what he had almost done, was his constant companion. Kinslayers were cursed – what fate awaited those who were worse than that?

“I’m sure that we will find one of your granddaughters a good husband among my bannermen,” Roose said eventually, rubbing his chin and appearing deep in thought. He hadn’t shaved in weeks but the graying beard masked the hollowness of his cheeks quite well. His body ached, his wound festered, and he hadn’t eaten enough since he had woken up – he didn’t have any appetite and there wasn’t much food, anyway.

“A bannerman will not cut it, I’m afraid. I was promised that she’d be the Lady of Winterfell, and I won’t settle for anything else.”

“Ah, I believe that my son would be happy to marry her once I have him legitimized, then. He’s a man grown, it’s a high time he starts a family of his own.” A cold small smile curled his lips. If Walder wanted one of his brood to marry into the North, Roose would make the most of it.

“Your bastard? No, that won’t do at all! You will be the one to marry her, or you can all starve and freeze right where you are.” Frey almost frothed at the mouth and Roose was glad that his beard masked his amusement when he smirked at the sight.

“If that comes to pass, your granddaughter will be the wife of the Warden of the North and Lady of both Winterfell and the Dreadfort,” he said idly. “It’s more than Lord Stark offered at the time you negotiated with him. I’d expect a bit more than just a way across the river.”

“Provisions to last your men until you reach your homes, then,” Frey offered. “I’m a reasonable man.”

“Only the Queen has a greater dominion, and even that is debatable. The North is larger than all six kingdoms combined, after all…”

They stared at each other and then Lord Frey started to laugh madly. “Oh, you’re good! Better than those wolves ever were! Fine then! You marry my granddaughter, your men get safely across the river, you’ll get some provisions and I’ll give you the girl’s weight in silver to fill your coffers. Wars aren’t cheap and I want her to live well, not hide in some Northerner’s hovel throughout the winter. What do you say, Lord Bolton?”

Roose hid his distaste and nodded. “Only that I’ll choose the bride, my lord, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine, fine! We have a deal!”

That they did, for now. Roose had no idea if he would survive the winter and if he would see peace restored to the Seven Kingdoms. He swore, however, that he would see Walder Frey dead. One day, he promised himself and the smile he offered to Frey was sincere for once. One day.

***

He had married Walda – a rather fat young lady – in a sept and had recited his vows to the New Gods. In the eyes of his men and his gods, the marriage wasn’t binding because it would not be repeated under a heart tree but the farce had been enough to pacify the Freys. Roose’s first instinct was to kill the girl as soon as the last of his men crossed safely the river but the memory of frightened blue eyes stayed his hand. He hadn’t touched her, citing his injury as an excuse, and decided to annul the marriage and then marry her off to one of his men when the time came.

Ramsay had proved himself and the Bolton banners welcomed Roose at Moat Cailin. After that, the march back north progressed much quicker. They were home and they had survived. Walda was obviously uncomfortable by the way the Northmen treated her once they had reached their territories – not at all like Roose’s wife because, for them, she wasn’t the new Lady Bolton. The position of Lord Bolton’s wife was reserved only to their Queen if she would ever return to the North. Not that Walda was treated badly or disrespected – she was just generally ignored by all but her maids and guards, and she was generally ignored by her new husband as well.

Roose couldn’t force himself to be civil to the girl for more than five minutes and let Ramsay keep her company during their journey. It was almost amusing to watch those two interact. His bastard was making fun of her at every turn and his poor little wife had no idea how to respond – if she even noticed that she was being mocked.

“I hope you’re not serious, Father,” Ramsay told him the first evening after meeting his new mother. “You can’t be serious. She’s ugly and… I mean… yes, I know you want, eh, other children but… How in the seven hells would you… you know… manage it with that… whale?”

Roose watched how his bastard gestured with his hands wildly, how he grimaced in distaste, how he wiggled his eyebrows to make a point. Then he backhanded the boy with such a force that his not quite healed wound flared up in pain and Ramsay stumbled.

“You forget your manners,” he said softly, unwilling to show how much the wound pained him. “That whale is a highborn lady and made our family quite rich. You can make jokes about her but you will not insult her in my presence – or hers. Do you understand?”

He had been too lenient with the boy and his absence these last three years of the war hadn’t helped in curbing Ramsay’s more dangerous tendencies. Reek was the proof of that – not to mention the fact that someone had burnt Winterfell to the ground and Theon Greyjoy hadn’t been stupid or reckless enough to do that.

Roose would need to be more careful with the boy, his bastard was unpredictable at best and dangerous at worst and he enjoyed violence a little bit too much to the point when it clouded his judgment. Violence was only means to an end, not the other way around.

“Yes, Father.” Ramsay nodded, spitting out a little bit of blood.

“Good. One day, you’ll also marry and you need to remember that women respond better if you treat them kindly,” he advised his son. Then he remembered that he hadn’t been speaking to his wife and amended, “Or at least if you don’t treat them badly.”

The boy nodded again, a thoughtful expression on his face, and that was the last time Ramsay had made inappropriate remarks about Walda. Roose couldn’t stop wondering if his soulmate would have been treated by his bastard in the same manner and then he cursed himself for thinking about her at all.

The less he thought about her, the better. It still hurt too much. He still didn’t sleep well, or at all most of the time, and he still had to force himself to eat to keep up at least some of his strength to appease Maester Wolkan. Just thinking her name pained him.

***

“Sansa?” A whisper in the night, a plea unanswered. Long moments went by. A broken voice, alone in the dark. “I’m sorry.”

***

When the news of Joffrey’s and Tywin Lannister’s deaths reached them at the Dreadfort, Roose was amused to note that it had been Tywin’s own son who had killed the Lions. However, more interesting was the fact that Lady Sansa had disappeared from the capital and no one knew about her possible whereabouts.

For the first time in ages, Roose made his way to the Godswood outside of the Dreadfort. It was nothing like the weirwood grove at Winterfell. It was wilder, untamed, and dark. The Godswood felt hostile as if the gods disliked disturbance of their peace, and the heart tree was ominous and radiated coldness. Its face was grinning disconcertingly at him, its eyes watching him with sinister glee as he sunk to his knees in front of it.

He hadn’t prayed since before his son’s death and he hadn’t been too religious even before that. Since he had decided to defy his gods and reject the bond and his soulmate, he had avoided heart trees altogether – not a hard task in the South.

Coming here today was not a decision he had made lightly. Bolton men were usually very bad worshippers and he had come to ask a great deal of the gods. His greatest, impossible wish was to see the mark come to life again, to feel her presence inside his mind, to touch his soul to hers… but he knew better than to ask the gods for that. He had already had that and he had foolishly thrown it away. It was all lost to yesterday and his tomorrow was bleak, dreary and cold.

Collecting his thoughts, he stared up at the face, his mouth was dry and eyes suspiciously wet.

“I won’t ask for her,” he whispered because he had the feeling that the gods were expecting him to do just that so they could gleefully deny him. His voice was hoarse, weak. Roose swallowed and cleared his throat. He rubbed at his eyes with the knuckles of his hand.

“I don’t deserve your blessings. But she was faultless, innocent. Do not abandon your child in the land of strangers. She is a daughter of the North, her blood is of the First Men, she belongs here,” he said sincerely, humbled. He paused, thinking for a moment, and then he continued, “Whatever price you ask, I’ll pay it. Protect her. Bring her home safely. I’m begging you. If it’s in my power to give, I’ll give it gladly. If it’s my life you want, it’s yours.”

The stillness of the grove was chilling. There was no sound, no movement, for the longest time. Then Roose watched with bated breath as the face changed, as the vicious grin faded and the mouth formed a thoughtful straight line, as the expression softened and the eyes became less menacing. His heart stopped beating and then, a gentle breeze rustled in the canopy above his head and one bright red leaf floated slowly down.

Roose reached out for it with his hand and the leaf landed on his palm. It was warm to the touch, and soft. A promise accepted, a promise given.

He closed his fingers around it carefully, bringing his fist to his chest. Bowing his head, Roose rested his forehead against the gnarled roots of the heart tree, eyes closed and the leaf safely held close to his heart.

The gods had answered him.

***

The leaf didn’t wilt, remaining lush and bright as the moment it had fallen from the tree. Roose had put it in a jewelry box in his nightstand and kept it there under a lock. Some nights, he would look at it and marvel at the vibrant color – his mark had been the same shade of red, once – and just watching the god’s reassurance of help brought him an unexpected sense of serenity. Since that day, he had slept better, his sleep dreamless and deep, and his wound had stopped paining him and started to heal properly. He trained with his sword again and ate well. Slowly, Roose started to regain his strength. When the first snow fell, he resembled the man he had used to be… at least physically. He was no longer haggard and thin but he had become even quieter, his face resembling a mask carved of stone.

Ramsay would often stare at his father with a strange expression on his face; his bastard had a lot of questions for him that went unanswered, though. How Roose had managed to convince all the northern lords to bend the knee, even those completely loyal to the Starks? What had happened to him in the South? He couldn’t understand what had changed and why. It seemed that nothing was the matter yet everything was different.

Roose couldn’t blame his son for his suspicions – he wasn’t who he had been before the war. His injury and her pain and their shared connection had altered him, opened his eyes to the fact that he was nothing but one half of a soul. Ramsay wouldn’t understand that, however. Roose doubted that anyone could – only those who wore black names on their wrists could understand the depth of his loss and how it affected him. The chance of ever being whole was slim and he wasn’t sure he would ever learn to live with that.

Instead of focusing on the nothingness inside, he poured all of his efforts into work. There were two things demanding his immediate attention – two excuses to avoid his wife as the plague. His poor Frey bride was slowly beginning to understand that she was here only because she had bought the Northmen passage through her grandfather’s crossing and nothing more, and he would need to speak with her soon about her situation. He just had more important matters to attend.

Roose had inherited rule over lands ravaged by wars. The Northmen focused on salvaging whatever could be salvaged – they stored their crops, took good care of their animals, stocked firewood and food. Winterfell was being rebuilt and they were preparing for the winter. First frost hadn’t surprised them and they dealt with first snow just as well.

The Night’s Watch had dealt with a wildling invasion while Roose and the rest of northern lords had been trying to get back home and bloody Stannis Baratheon, the man who had saved the day, was currently camped at Castle Black. Roose would guess that the man also intended to claim the North and was trying to convince Jon Snow to abandon the Night’s Watch and accept the Stark name to march south with him. He needed more men if he intended to fight for the throne, he needed the northern support.

The idea was ridiculous, though. Good luck with trying to convince any Northman to march south and betray their loyalty to their Queen’s soulmate they had chosen to swear their fealty to… Good luck trying to convince the Stark bastard to break his vows, too. From what Roose had seen and heard about him, the boy was just as honorable as his father and would never betray the Night’s Watch or claim something that wasn’t rightfully his. The North belonged to Sansa or her trueborn brothers if they were truly alive.

Roose breathed out carefully and grimaced in the privacy of his chambers. Her name brought a sharp sting of regret and pain but it no longer crippled him to think it. He often wondered where she was and how she fared – and if she was even among the living. But he refused to think about that and focused instead on finding any leads on the Stark boys who were supposedly alive.

That was his second task. He didn’t believe it but he had sent his best hunters to find them and alerted his bannermen with the exception of Karstark to look for the boys as well – gaining even more of their respect than he had expected to ever have. He didn’t have a way to search for her in the South but he could search for her brothers in the North and by the gods, he would find them and bring them home. For Sansa’s sake. She would have wanted her brothers safe, wherever she was.

It was surprising how strongly she dominated his everyday life and thoughts even after she had been absent from it for so long, after their bond had been broken.

“Are we going to kill the little Starks if Locke brings them back?” asked him Ramsey during the dinner one evening. Walda gasped at his words and Reek stilled, trembling, before he continued to pour his master a goblet of wine. When his bastard noticed the looks he was getting, he shrugged. “What? The Starks have ruled the North for thousands of years – the other lords would flock back to them once they were back. They’re a threat to us.”

Lord Bolton blinked in disbelief several times and then his eyes narrowed. “If the boys are found, they won’t be harmed.”

“Why?” his bastard asked sullenly. “Since when are we their best friends?”

Since their sister was more precious to Roose than anything or anyone, but he doubted his bastard would be thrilled to hear that. “Since I am the Warden of the North and they are the sons of my beloved predecessor and the brothers of their beloved King, their princes. Think, Ramsey, how the lords would react if I murdered the boys.”

“No one will know.”

“If you truly believe that, then you are a fool,” he hissed, stood up from the table and marched away. He would know and he couldn’t bear the thought of killing Sansa’s brothers in cold blood to strengthen his hold over the North. It was beneath him for the North was already his – thanks to the Starks and his ties to the daughter of their house, to the rightful Queen.

***

Time passed and the snow settled in the earnest. Roose sent his son to the Dreadfort to see if everything was in order and was enjoying a rare moment of peace. Baratheon was trapped at the Wall along with his army and if he wasn’t a complete madman, he would not attempt to march his men south until the spring. Roose still wasn’t certain what to do with the last Stag claimant and how to welcome him once he passed through Winterfell.

He held no love for either of the contending parties. The Northmen held Moat Cailin and were driving the Ironborn from their shores without any help from any of them. They were protecting their kingdom quite well on their own. They didn’t need to be brought into the southern squabbles and he couldn’t honestly care less about who sat the Iron Throne as long as the North was left alone.

Roose’s approach changed, however, when two ravens came. One was from King’s Landing bringing documents legitimizing his bastard as Ramsay Bolton, son of Lord Roose Bolton, Warden of the North. It was debatable if the royal decree was legal in the North since the Northmen quietly considered themselves an independent kingdom but that was unimportant right now. He carefully read through the parchments and then he locked them inside his desk. Ramsay wasn’t ready to bear the Bolton name, perhaps he never would be. The question of why had his son been ‘legitimized’ and on whose behalf – because Roose had certainly not asked for it – was answered shortly.

The other missive came from the Vale and in neat small handwriting, Lord Baelish was offering him the most prized of possessions. He offered him Sansa Stark’s hand in marriage – for his son and heir Lord Ramsay to ally the North and the Vale. Roose had to read it twice before he started to believe that his eyes weren’t playing cruel tricks on him.

The letter slipped from his numb fingers and he closed his eyes tightly as his emotions rose in him like a tidal wave. Relief. Hope. Pain. Giddiness. Shock. Roose couldn’t pick the one that dominated his thoughts the most – he actually couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t breathe either and there was loud pounding in his ears. He had hoped – he had prayed – that she was alive. He was willing to sacrifice everything – his life, his position, the whole of the damned North. He would burn everything he had so painstakingly built for her safe return.

In a foolishly hopeful move, he raised his left hand and pulled the sleeve away. A sharp exhale of breath escaped him and Roose had to blink to clear his vision. Her name was still black. Why had he expected it to be red and vibrant and alive again? He had destroyed his chance years ago when he had failed to claim her as his soulmate, when his inaction led her away from the North and into the viper’s nest. Their houses would never join, just like he had promised. She wasn’t his anymore and he would be damned if he let her become Ramsay’s plaything as Theon Greyjoy had become, completely dependent on his master. His bastard had no idea how to treat a lady, let alone one with the blood of a wolf. Ramsay barely understood how to treat his hounds, but not people.

One thing was clear to Roose, though, as he reached for parchment and ink to write an affirmative reply with hands only slightly shaking. Sansa was alive and she was relatively well. She was alive and she would be coming home. His personal feelings aside, she belonged in the North and he had to do everything in his power to bring her safely back.

***

“My lady,” he said softly and watched as his wife started and dropped what she had been carrying. The plate clattered loudly and its contents rolled in all directions. Roose’s face remained expressionless. “I didn’t mean to startle you. My apologies.”

“M-my lord,” Walda stammered, smiling nervously. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

Of course, Roose was trapped in her company usually only at dinner, and he had never before sought her out. She was a simple girl, he supposed, but even a simple girl like her understood why she had been married off to him and that it couldn’t go on indefinitely. He offered her his arm and led her to his study.

“Let us talk about your position within my household, Lady Walda.” He sat behind his desk and watched her for a moment, waiting if she wanted to say something. She just nodded.

“I intend to have our marriage annulled,” he told her and still she didn’t say a word – if anything, she appeared relieved. It smacked of an insult and Roose took a deep breath and raised an eyebrow at her. “You do not wish to know why, my lady?”

“I-I understand that…” Walda swallowed and shook her head, opening and closing her mouth hesitatingly. She then gestured at herself. “I understand.”

Oh, he thought he was beginning to see. There was raw pain in her voice that she couldn’t mask and Roose blinked at hearing that. Perhaps she wasn’t as stupid as he had thought, and she had very well understood all the jokes his bastard had directed at her. Another maiden trapped in a foreign land in the company of strangers came to mind and he swallowed, willing the memory of Sansa’s pain away. Contemplating the situation for a moment, he sighed and then bared his left wrist for her to see. Walda was a victim of her circumstances and she had made him quite rich and saved the lives of his men. He wasn’t like the Lannisters, he was not, and he would offer her every courtesy – and he would offer her an explanation.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked her calmly. The sight of his dead mark made him flinch but he was already used to the sense of loss that assaulted him every time he looked at it.

Walda cautiously peered at his wrist and then shook her head. He supposed that marks were even rarer south of the Neck and families without ties to the blood of the First Men had little reason to feed their children fantastic tales from the North.

“This is a soulmark,” he explained in a clipped tone. “Sometimes, the Old Gods bless their children with it for reasons only they understand. When a boy usually turns thirteen or when a girl flowers, the name of their soulmate – their other half – appears on their wrist. In some cases, it can happen later but it is unseemly to defy the gods and ignore the mark. You cannot marry anyone else but your soulmate here in the North.”

Roose conveniently forgot to mention that since his mark was dead, he was in theory free to marry anyone he wanted. Once, he had wished for that freedom but those times were gone and the greatest irony of it all was that he wanted only her. The idea of being wedded to a woman who wasn’t his soulmate was something he refused to consider. His bond was broken, of course, and he had no clue how Sansa would feel about him but he wouldn’t defy their traditions any longer. Roose had an heir – one that had been even somewhat legitimized – and he had no reason to remarry unless Ramsay died. He would wed only his soulmate if she would miraculously be willing to have him.

He scoffed inwardly. Roose sincerely doubted that. What had an old, graying man to offer to a queen? Sansa was coming home but she wasn’t coming to him and he should remember that. The last time he had seen her in person, he had been cruel and tried to murder her, hurting her feelings and rejecting their bond. How could anyone let alone the one who had suffered because of that forget it?

“It says Sansa,” Walda said, obviously unsure how to react.

“Yes.” Roose stared at her without any expression, pushing Sansa’s possible reaction to him out of his mind.

“Oh.”

There was a tense silence and he looked away from his southern wife and traced Sansa’s name with the tip of his forefinger. There was a slight twitch in the mark and he blinked, uncertain if he was not just fooling himself. The mark was dead for almost two years. It couldn’t be – could it? Trying to shake those thoughts, his attention returned to Walda.

“I can send you back to your fam-”

“No, please!” she blurted out, panicked, and gripped his hand with eyes wide and lips trembling. “Please, my lord! Anything but that!”

“I see.” Roose frowned at his wife and carefully patted her forearm with his free hand. He wouldn’t want to go back to the Freys either, coming to think of it. If they made fun of Walda in here, they had made fun of her – and more – back south. It would explain why she seemed almost content among the Northmen who mostly ignored her but treated her with respect when she was noticed.

“Alright, I can have you marry one of my men and let you stay here if you sever all ties to your family. The Freys are the enemy of the North and will be dealt with accordingly. Would that be acceptable?” he asked and withdrew his hands from her person when she nodded frantically. Looking at the poor girl, he sighed and offered, “Is there anyone who has caught your eye? A man you would like to get to know better?”

To his utter surprise, Walda blushed and nodded. But who was he to judge? That was how Roose Bolton, Lord of Winterfell and the Dreadfort and the Warden of the North found himself playing a matchmaker between his fake southern wife and Steelshanks Walton, one of his captains. He was just relieved that he wouldn’t have to get rid of his wife in other, bloodier fashion to be honest. Disposing of the body would have been a chore.

Chapter Text

Littlefinger’s missive that he and Lady Sansa were on their way sent his heart and mind into utter panic. However, Roose managed to calm both and notified the northern lords that the Stark Queen was returning home, summoning his bastard back from the Dreadort for the occasion as well.

 He had seen her only once when she had been a child and since his bond wasn’t alive to confirm that Baelish was truly bringing Sansa, he needed the others to confirm her identity because he couldn’t trust his own judgment in that matter. Having Winterfell full of armed and loyal Northmen also wouldn’t hurt. Roose didn’t trust Littlefinger as far as he could throw him, not when a raven from Cersei meant for him had just arrived, redirected from the Vale.

The man was always up to something and the Warden of the North was not going to underestimate him. Roose didn’t like southern politicking but he was quite good at playing the game nonetheless.

***

It was late in the night – or early in the morning – a day before Sansa’s planned arrival when Roose was alerted to Locke’s return. Hastily putting on his tunic and sword belt, he left his chambers to speak with him. His best hunter wasn’t returning alone, his guard said. Had he managed to track down the Stark boys and bring them back?

He could hardly dare to hope. Sansa would be so pleased it that was true, he just knew it. Perhaps it would cast him in a slightly favorable light in her eyes – one could only hope. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts and focus, Roose scoffed and checked that his sleeve was covering the mark before entering his study. It was a private matter, after all.

“Locke,” he said quietly. “I wasn’t expecting you to be gone for so long.”

“We’re a bit late, but I think you’ll forgive us when you hear why, my lord.” His man bowed and shrugged and then gestured to the chair by the fire, “I bring Bran Stark, as you asked.”

Just the fact that the younger boy, Rickon, wasn’t mentioned meant that he was dead. It was a pity – he had been so young.

“Perhaps.” Roose turned to the boy sitting there. He had met Bran Stark years ago, when the boy had been a child running around Winterfell, and couldn’t be sure if the young man was truly him or not. Observing him carefully, he decided that yes, it was Eddard’s son. The boy was pale and thin with dark hair and a long face that definitely marked him as a Stark. Two enormous direwolves were curled at either side of his chair and only further confirmed his identity. The wolf blood was much stronger in Eddard’s children than it had been in the last several generations of Starks, it seemed.

“Welcome home, Lord Stark,” he said with a slight bow. Or maybe he should have addressed him as Prince Bran? The other Northmen would expect the renewal of their fight for independence now that the Starks were back where they belonged.

“I can never be a lord of anything, Roose,” the boy replied with an expressionless face. Then he cracked a small smile, “I’ll be the Three-Eyed Raven when the time comes and I’m afraid that that position takes precedence over any other. Until then, I’m perfectly happy to be called Bran by my family.”

Family? The last male Stark counted him as his family? Roose watched the boy for a moment, unsure how to respond. Bran Stark’s presence was disconcerting. The way his eyes looked back at people – so knowingly – was eerie and not even the slight smile on the boy’s face helped to diffuse the feeling that something wasn’t quite right with him.

“Who is the Three-Eyed-Raven?” Roose decided to settle for that.

“The most powerful greenseer in existence, and I’ll take his place when my teacher passes away,” he said and shrugged. “I’m also a warg if you are wondering how strong the wolf blood in me is, but you already know all about our warging gifts thanks to Sansa, I suppose.”

Yes, Roose knew quite a bit about that. Did the boy know about the mark? He must have. Was he considering him his good-brother based on that? Reeling, Roose slowly sat in the chair opposite to him. “It seems you have quite a story to tell, Bran.”

“You can say that, but it’s actually quite boring. I was hiding in the wilderness for most of the time.” The boy carefully rearranged the furs on his lap. “There are more important matters to discuss, though. You need to listen and prepare. Locke can go and rest, he knows parts of it and he was an immense help on my quest. Please, send him away so we can proceed.”

With great curiosity, Roose dismissed the hunter and went to pour them some water and stocked the fire before sitting back in his seat. “I’m listening.”

Bran stared into the fire for a moment and watched the flames devour the logs. Then he looked up at Roose and glanced at his left wrist momentarily before meeting his eyes. “The day in the Godswood when you tried to kill my sister, you angered the gods so much that they decided to punish you.”

“How do you know about that?” Roose’s blood turned to ice at hearing those words and he half rose from his seat. He had never spoken out loud about his greatest mistake, his greatest regret. He had thought about it only in the privacy of his own mind – since Sansa’s absence, at least. He hadn’t thought of that day much when they had been still bonded.

“I’ve seen it,” Bran gestured for him to sit back and heavily, Roose did so. “I’ve also seen the day in the Godswood at the Dreadfort. Since that moment, I knew I could trust you. I’ve been watching you – your past, present, future and even the events that would have taken place if you had continued to deny the bond and defy the gods. Not pleasant.”

A log cracked in the fireplace, sparks flying high. Roose swallowed and barely managed to stop himself from shaking his head. He didn’t want to know. He couldn’t imagine his life without accepting the bond, without his heart beating for her.

“Eight thousand years ago, the darkest winter full of terrors fell but only thanks to the efforts of all people of the North,” continued the young greenseer, his voice was soft and serious and his eyes were boring into Roose’s with intensity. His apprehension only intensified when Bran added, “There’s a task for you as there is a task for all of us. Are you as good with a blade as people say you are? I have come here to collect the price you promised to the gods. Will you do what needs to be done, no matter what will be asked of you?”

Bran stared at him for a long time and a cold and heavy weight settled at the pit of his stomach. Was he as good with a blade as people said he was? He supposed that they would see – he had promised his life, hadn’t he? Was that the price the gods would demand, then? No matter how well he had been trained, all it took was one lucky shot – as the scar on his chest had proven – and long hours of training and years of fighting experience did not matter.

Roose couldn’t stop the shudder that ran through him when he heard Bran’s ominous words, not while subjected to that intense stare. He could finally pinpoint how he felt in the boy’s presence – the crippled Stark had the same aura as the heart trees. He had been touched by the gods.

“I will,” Roose agreed. He had promised his life for Sansa’s return and she was returning. That was all that mattered to Lord of the Dreadfort.

They talked long into the morning. He listened to the boy as he recalled his quest north of the Wall and what he had found under the weirwood tree far away from any settlements. He listened as Bran warned him of the threat far more dangerous than any human army could ever be. He listened as his role in the events that would soon take place was revealed, and then he accepted it and planned accordingly.

The man he had been before the mark wouldn’t have ever listened to Bran – to any Stark. He wouldn’t have ridden alongside them into battle, he wouldn’t have bled for them, he wouldn’t have been willing to die for them. It was a good thing that Roose wasn’t that man anymore.

***

It was snowing when the delegation from the Vale was finally spotted. Their small blue pennons fluttered in the wind as they rode through the gates of Winterfell. His bastard was fidgeting nervously at his side, turning to Bran and then to him and then to Bran again with unease, clutching the hilt of his sword as if he was contemplating something stupid.

Ramsay had been shocked by the appearance of the young Stark and he had hated the reactions of the northern lords who had gathered at Winterfell to welcome home not only one of the Wolves but two.

Perhaps he should have kept his son at the Dreadfort, his purposefully late arrival early this morning made it impossible to let him know about all the changes in their lives, about the real threat they needed to face. However, Roose stopped paying attention to his bastard as soon as Lord Baelish and his companion appeared in the courtyard.

A figure in black rode in atop of a white horse, snowflakes dancing around her. She was tall, slender and beautiful – a young woman grown. Her hair was a darker shade of red than he remembered – as if it had been dyed and the color still lingered – and it contrasted sharply with her ivory skin. Sansa’s gaze flicked around the courtyard and for the briefest of moments their eyes met; hers were so blue and cold like clear winter skies.

The sight of her pierced right through him – a blade driven straight into his heart – and Roose had to turn away from her, struggling to breathe. She was as stunning as he had expected her to be and more. A true northern bride, he almost choked at that thought. He remembered dreaming of one when he had been a young boy – before his pride had blinded him.

They dismounted and Lord Baelish was coming to stand in front of him, holding Sansa’s arm courteously. “Lord Bolton… and oh, is that…?”

“Bran!” Sansa didn’t spare Roose even one look and rushed past him to embrace her brother. It was a good thing because it allowed him the opportunity to regain his composure. It didn’t matter that his heart ached at the sight of her and that he felt the desolation of his soul most keenly, the emptiness in his mind where she was supposed to dwell stretching agonizingly.

It had been his choice to reject her and now he had to reap what he had sown. He would face her with politeness and he would endure any pain her presence would bring him. It wouldn’t be for long, anyway. His time in the lands of the living had already been measured out. Seeing her with his own eyes back home, Roose knew that it was his turn to keep his word to the gods. He had a debt to pay and though the Boltons weren’t Lannisters, he wouldn’t let it unpaid.

He watched with disinterested façade as the Stark siblings embraced and the northern lords cheered, the atmosphere optimistic and jovial, their spirits high. Quite understandably, the Northmen were overjoyed by the return of the Starks.

To Roose’s unease, they started to turn their expectant looks to him next, waiting for Lord Bolton to claim Queen Sansa as his soulmate very publicly. With the Queen’s return, Roose’s position in the North wasn’t as precarious as it had been when he had let them believe that their bond had been still intact. If she decided to reject him publicly, though, it would reflect badly on her. He didn’t have the loyalty of the North only due to the soulmark, though. She hadn’t been there with them, struggling to get home, to prepare for winter, to fight for the North against the Ironborn or defying the Lannisters – Roose had been doing that in her stead while she had fought her own battles lost in the South.

They would need to talk about their bannermen’s expectations as soon as possible.

Ramsay skulked closer and frowned. “Oh, look, they breed! Should we expect more of those wolves?”

“Mind your tongue if you don’t want me to cut it out,” hissed Roose and clenched his jaw. The last thing he needed was for his bastard to make a spectacle of himself in front of all their bannermen. Bran was unable to father sons and he had no interest in ruling. With his younger brother dead, the only Stark that mattered was Sansa. Not to mention that there were much direr problems lurking in the shadows of the coming winter.

The boy shifted from foot to foot and looked around. “Where’s your wife, Father? Shouldn’t she be present to welcome the Stark girl in our castle?”

“If you listened to me and arrived when I told you to arrive, you would already know that I have my farce of a marriage to Lady Walda annulled by our septon and she is quite happily wedded to one of our captains.” He was surely testing Roose’s patience – and it was rather limited on this day. He felt like he would soon lose what little of his calmness was remaining.

“Happily? Ugh.” Ramsay shuddered and then grinned. “I wonder…”

“Not one more word,” said Roose softly and glared at his son.

It was then when Baelish brought Sansa over again to make proper introductions under the watchful eyes of the northern lords. “My lady, allow me to introduce you to Lord R-”

“We’ve already met,” she interrupted him. Her voice was deeper, more mature than he had remembered from the brief connection of their souls, and Roose swallowed when he met her cold eyes. She was staring at him impassively with her head held high and a blank expression on her face.

He didn’t know what he had expected but he deserved her frosty demeanor, her disdain. Did she blame him for her fate as he so often blamed himself? There had been a time where their connection brought her comfort, he knew, but it had been destroyed the moment she had been forced to marry the Imp. Had she blamed him for not coming for her in time? He should have found a way, he should have died trying even though their marks had been dead. Who knew what cruelties she had endured because of him? She had every right to blame him for everything she had suffered from the moment he had met her until this very minute.

“That we have,” he agreed and bowed over her hand without actually touching her. “Lady Sansa, welcome home.”

“Oh, have you? How wonderful. You’ve never mentioned meeting Lord Bolton before, my dear,” Baelish said with a smile but the way his eyes flitted over Sansa’s face made Roose fist his hands and he hid them behind his back. He didn’t like the proprietary way the man was looking at the young woman who was… once had been his soulmate.

“Yes, I was perhaps eleven or twelve. It was a brief meeting in the Godswood.”

“The Godswood? I didn’t know you ever ventured there, Father!” Ramsay chuckled and moved forward to grab Sansa’s hand with a wide fake smile. “Welcome, my lady, I’m-“

“That’s my son, Ramsay,” forced Roose through clenched teeth and his look alone promised to his bastard that there would be consequences. Then he shifted his eyes to stare pointedly at his bastard’s paw still holding Sansa’s hand and Ramsay dropped it immediately.

“Forgive his manners, he’s no better than his hounds.”

“I’ll have you know that my hounds are perfectly mannered animals.”

“They would gladly tear you to shreds if you forgot to feed them,” he said dryly and turned away from his son. “Lady Sansa, let’s get you inside. I’m sure you are cold after your journey and would welcome the opportunity to get warm. Allow me to escort you inside.”

With what appeared calm confidence, Roose offered her his arm while he held his breath, wondering if she would trust him enough to actually touch him.

Sansa’s eyes rose to meet his for a second before she lowered her head in acquiescence. Then she rested her hand lightly on the crook of his arm.

What was that? He could feel the warmth spreading through his forearm upon the contact and he exhaled in surprise, quickly glancing at her when a soft sigh escaped her lips. She refused to meet his eyes and they moved in the direction of the stairs.

“There will be a feast in an hour’s time,” Roose said to fill the silence between them. She was tense and uncomfortable, he could tell by the way she walked stiffly at his side, and he was uneasy himself. Actually having Sansa so close yet so out of his reach was agonizing.

He could hear the others on their heels. Baelish and Ramsay were exchanging remarks about the dogs and the state of the roads. Heavy footsteps of the man who helped Bran around – Hodor was his name, he believed – thundered in the corridor. Around them echoed the loud chatter of the northern lords… who wouldn’t stop watching them expectantly.

Thank the gods that Roose had the reputation of a mild-mannered, reserved man and Sansa had been often described as a courteous proper lady. None of them would deal with private matters in public no matter what the wild Northmen wished to see.

“Oh, that’s very kind of you. You shouldn’t have bothered.” She took a deep breath and then she whispered in a warm, touched voice. “Bran told me you sent your best hunters to look for him in the wilderness. For that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, Lord Bolton.”

“There’s no need for your thanks, my lady,” he replied, wishing she hadn’t spoken to him so. It made the ache inside him more acute and the yearning for their previous connection was unbearable. Something of those thoughts bled into his next words, “The North has missed you more than you can imagine.”

“Has it? I can’t help but doubt that.” Her hold on his arm tightened momentarily and Sansa asked in a light, seemingly disinterested tone, “Will I meet your wife at the feast, my lord?”

Roose wasn’t expecting the question and he frowned, turning to look at her profile. She didn’t glance at him, her jaw was set and there was something about the way her lips were firmly pressed together that spoke of anger. He almost stopped to force her to look at him but didn’t, well aware of their company.

They continued in silence and the longer she waited for his answer, the angrier Lady Sansa became. Her eyes narrowed and a slight pink flush appeared on her cheeks. The muscles of her long neck and shoulders were taut.

If he didn’t know better he would say that she was jealous. But that was impossible, it would imply that she felt something for him and all of her reactions and expressions so far let him know quite clearly that Sansa detested him. He deserved to live out the rest of his days with her hatred.

“There’re matters I need to discuss with Lady Stark in private,” he said, arriving at the stairs leading to the family wing. He gestured for the others to move along into the great hall, reassuring them, “I’ll join you momentarily, my lords.”

Another round of cheers rose among the men as they merrily continued down the corridor. Ramsay and Baelish looked like they didn’t want to leave their company, questions and suspicions clearly visible on their faces but were forced to move by the others. Hodor didn’t stop and didn’t try to walk past them at all. He just simply pushed the two men in front of him. Bran turned his head and waved as he passed them but only Roose seemed to notice the boy’s wink – Lady Stark was too busy glaring at him.

“I can’t think of anything we need to discuss privately, my lord,” said Sansa caustically once they were alone and climbing the steps. “And what was that? Why they were whistling of all things?”

“Can’t you truly think of anything?” He covered her hand on his arm with his palm in case she would feel the need to try and wrench free. Roose shivered at the feeling of their bare skin touching and Sansa swallowed, answering the question if she had also felt it.

Bran’s remark about family and the boy’s familiarity together with these strange reactions filled Roose with mad, burning hope even if he knew that only pain and nothing but heartache could follow those thoughts.

Sansa tried to move her hand away quickly and when he gripped her tighter, she glared at him with sharp steel in her eyes. “Let go of me.”

“Not yet.”

His chambers were closer and seeing the mutinous expression on her face, he pushed the door open and then bowed mockingly, gesturing for her to precede him.

Sansa snatched her hand away from his arm and stormed inside. “What is the meaning of this, Lord Bolton?”

Hadn’t she felt it? The tingle of magic upon their touch? He shut the door and leaned against it, his arms crossed over his chest to stop himself from shaking the stubbornness out of her. It seemed that Lady Sansa had found her inner wolf and it was grating on his nerves. He couldn’t continue to live like this, spending his waking hours in the shadow Sansa Stark cast from across the Westeros. He needed to know if there was a chance of something for at least a few fleeting moments. Even if the bond was broken beyond repair, they could still… His train of thought came to an abrupt halt and Roose glanced at the floor to hide his grimace.

Neither of them would have considered the other as a potential partner without the infernal mark. He doubted a young woman would be interested in a man old enough to be her father – not even for political purposes let alone because she liked him.

If she refused him, he would see her settled at Winterfell and then he would relocate to the Dreadfort where he would continue to act as her Warden of the North and prepare his men according to Bran’s instructions and face his fate at peace.

“The last time we spoke, you yelled at me that you wished to have someone else’s name on your wrist. Do you?” he asked and he was proud to note that his voice remained calm and steady even though his heart started beating madly. Would she be the one to deny her mark today?

She whirled to him, her face betraying her disbelief which rapidly turned into anger. “And what is it to you, my lord?”

The obstinate girl! Hadn’t she been inside of his mind? Hadn’t she shared her soul with him? In one long stride, he stood close to her. How could she stand here and pretend that they hadn’t shared something important, something special? He wanted it back, he wanted her back. Roose was a selfish man and he wanted her, at least for a moment – a memory to cherish in the afterlife.

“I was a fool but I never thought you’d be one as well, Lady Sansa,” Roose hissed. Sansa didn’t know it but he didn’t have enough time for childish games. She was as tall as him and met his gaze without flinching. He couldn’t help it and his eyes strayed down to her mouth, watching as she licked her lips before answering.

“The last time we spoke, I was the fool, my lord.” She tossed her head defiantly. “I should have known better than to put my trust in the likes of you.”

“What do you mean?” Roose asked in a strained voice. She wasn’t referring to their only meeting in person, he was sure. But he hadn’t given her any reason to doubt him during the time their bond had been alive. He knew he hadn’t. Or was she referring to his failure at finding her sooner? “If I tried to ride south and look for yo-”

“Oh, please! As if you don’t know what I’m talking about, Lord Bolton!”

When Sansa took a step back, he followed. When she took another, he repeated the action. Slowly, he backed her against the wall next to the window. He was breathing hard by the time he trapped her between his arms and he noted that her cheeks were flushed and eyes glistening.

“Let go!” She pushed at him with both her hands but Roose didn’t move, relishing in the shockwaves of warmth spreading through his torso at the touch.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what you imply,” he growled in response.

Her eyes bore into his and then she bit her lower lip and she trembled. He was fascinated to note that her heart was beating wildly – he could see the pulse point on her neck – and that she fought to control her emotions. The anger left her suddenly and Sansa then flattened the palm of her right hand against his chest, slightly left of the sigil on his leather armor. He had been shot in that spot – but of course, she knew that. She curled her fingers slightly, tugging at the straps there, and stared at her hand for a long moment.

“I never really knew what was happening while in King’s Landing. I had no idea if you survived or not,” she whispered finally, her voice broken, raw, and he couldn’t stand to hear that but he didn’t know how to ease her pain.

“The mark was black and you were gone and Joffrey gleefully let me see my brother’s desecrated body and you were gone!” Sansa choked, struggled to breathe and then continued, “No one told me which of Robb’s bannermen negotiated with Lord Lannister. Then I ran away and I couldn’t ask Lord Baelish about you, what did one of my brother’s bannermen matter, after all? For more than a year, I had no idea if you lived or not.”

Roose closed his eyes briefly, well familiar with the uncertainty and pain of that feeling. He covered her hand with his. “I believe it was you who saved me, Sansa.”

“Was it?” she repeated. Snapping out of her memories, she lifted her head to give him a mocking smile. “The next I heard of you, Petyr was negotiating my marriage to your legitimized bastard. I asked him why a bastard, that it was beneath me, and you know what he told me? He told me that you were already married to a Frey. Imagine how it made me feel. Like a fool, my lord. The biggest fool in Westeros.”

So, she was jealous and she felt betrayed that he had allegedly married an enemy. He noticed her use of Baelish’s first name and it annoyed him but still, Sansa was jealous of his supposed wife. Roose carefully concealed the inappropriate smugness he felt about that and decided to put the record straight.

“I was married in the same manner as you were. If you think for a second that the Lannisters would keep quiet about wedding the Queen in the North to one of them, you are mistaken. Imagine how I felt when I woke up, wounded, bereft of you and knowing you married the enemy.”

She produced a sound that resembled a sob and turned her face to the side, fighting her emotions with eyes tightly closed. For a moment, Roose tried to suppress an impulse to touch her face. It was selfish, his actions. It would hurt her more in the long run. But Sansa was hurting and he couldn’t stand it. He threw his self-control to the wind, embracing the dark yearning for her warmth. His hand shook as he caressed her cheek with the tips of his fingers. Sansa sighed and leaned into the touch, lips parting invitingly.

Unwilling to deny himself this opportunity, he lowered his head and kissed her, knowing that he was damning them both to terrible suffering later. The moment their lips touched, a startled gasp escaped her but she returned the kiss with the same amount of fervor and wrapped her arms around his neck as Roose brought her closer, holding her firmly.

Warmth spread through every nerve of his body and the writing on his wrist flared up in familiar burning agony but he ignored it and he devoured Sansa’s mouth with every intention of imprinting himself on her, of marking her as his. It didn’t matter if she’d be his for an hour or a moon’s turn. She belonged to him in the same manner that he belonged to her.

When they finally parted, both were struggling to catch their breath.

“I’ve never been touched by a man,” she whispered into his neck and Roose was glad to hear that she hadn’t been abused in that way. “Any septa could tell. My marriage to Tyrion was a farce.”

“How convenient,” he smirked, breathing her in. Sansa smelled like a cool winter morning, fresh and pure with sharpness in the air. “I had the local septon annul my union and the poor Frey girl married off to one of my captains. She bought me and other twelve thousand men safe passage through the Twins, nothing more.”

It seemed that Roose was unable to release her from his hold once he had Sansa in his arms and he kept her close. Sansa, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind and clung to him, her knees weak. There was a slight fluttering against the back of his mind and he closed his eyes, his shoulders sagging with relief when he recognized the familiarity of the feeling.

“Sansa,” he breathed and was dismayed to discover that his eyes were wet. Roose knew without any doubt what agony he would bring her shortly but he forced those thoughts out of his mind. This was not the time to dwell on them.

His soulmate was openly weeping in joy as she continued to cling to him, her face pressed into his chest. He hadn’t dared to dream for such a response from her but he was not going to complain about it. He was not letting it slip through his fingers, not again, even though he felt like he hardly deserved her.

“Roose,” she said giddily and laughter bubbled out of her as she let him feel her happiness. The feeling assaulted his senses and he was brought to his knees by the strength of it. They tumbled to the ground, Sansa laughing even louder. It resonated around him in the room and inside of him, in his heart and mind and soul.

“Gods,” he grunted, taking the brunt of the fall as she landed on top of him. “Someone needs to work on their warging abilities. It’s slightly overwhelming, my love.”

As soon as those words passed his lips, he felt her still, the laughter cut off abruptly. Sansa peered down on him, her face strangely vulnerable and her eyes impossibly blue. It had just slipped out of his mouth without his consent and Roose had no idea where it had come from. Yet he wouldn’t take it back. He stared up at her without breaking eye-contact, not breathing and waiting for her reaction.

It felt right to refer to her as such. Sansa was the other half of him and Roose was not going to let anything get in the way of that – not any man, living or dead, and certainly not any misunderstandings. He didn’t have time for that. Sansa Stark was the only person Roose Bolton was willing to love. Perhaps he had loved her already for years, perhaps he had loved her since this afternoon. It was impossible to pinpoint the exact moment it had begun but it was the only truth he knew without any doubt.

“I’ll work on it,” she promised then, eyes sparkling and a radiant smile lit up her entire face. Then she leaned down and pecked his lips, one of her hands coming to rest against his cheek. She rubbed at the short stubble she found there. “You have a beard.”

“There are more important things to do every morning,” he answered, caught her hand and brought it to his lips. Pressing a kiss into her palm, he tried to sit up. “Now, my lady, I’ll ask you to get off.”

“Or what?” She grinned and straddled him, resting comfortably on his thighs and playing with the leather of sword belt. He wondered if she was also thinking about what would happen should she loosen it.

“Or we’re not going to leave my chambers for the remainder of today.”

There was a mischievous glint in her eyes and Sansa appeared to contemplate his answer, biting her lower lip thoughtfully. There was one more tug at the belt. “That doesn’t sound so bad, actually.”

“I’m sure our bannermen would approve,” Roose conceded and moved her off him, scooping Sansa in his arms as he stood up before she could protest. “But you’ll spend the rest of your rule blushing furiously at their never-ending supply of bawdy remarks.”

“Ah, so that’s what it was about earlier,” she said as he carefully set her down and smiled at him, letting him know that there was no real bite behind her ironic tone. “It’s so good to be back in the North.”

“I’m particularly glad to have you back,” he remarked idly, smoothing his hands down her arms and inspecting her closely. “There, now you look like a well-bred young lady who just hasn’t been rolling on the ground with a man who isn’t her husband.”

Sansa huffed and tugged the strap of his fur cloak back into place, straightening his sword belt with some reluctance. “Well, perhaps I should acquire one just so I can roll on the ground with him for the fun of it. You wouldn’t know of a man willing to fill that role, would you, my lord?”

Roose chuckled and then shook his head. Sansa in the privacy of his chambers and without her courtesies was quickly becoming his favorite version of his soulmate. “Perhaps I’d be willing to suffer that fate, my lady.”

“Oh, would you?” Sansa smirked, stepping closer.

“When properly compensated for my troubles, of course.” Roose smiled briefly and wound his arms around her as she leaned in for a short, sweet kiss. He held her close for a moment longer, pushing the thought of how briefly he could fill that role as far away from his conscious mind as he was able. He couldn’t let her know his darker thoughts, the ugly truth. “You deserve a proper northern wedding under the heart tree. The gods will be happy to welcome you back home.”

She sighed, returning his embrace briefly before she stepped away. “I wish nothing more than to be wedded to you in the Godswood but we need to be careful.”

“Do we?”

“Lord Baelish won’t be happy about it. He has plans within plans and he planned to wed me to your bastard and then play you off against Lord Baratheon, dispose of the one who was left and claim both the North and me in the aftermath.”

Roose blinked at hearing that and then he nodded. That sounded like a brilliant plan. There were just three little hitches in it. One of them was that Sansa was his and he wouldn’t let Baelish have her. The second was that the North was also his and the same applied. The final hitch was that Littlefinger wasn’t as smart as he believed himself to be.

“Baelish will have some troubles convincing Baratheon to go against me seeing that I have written to him and offered my aid in supplying his army, thus opening negotiations of an alliance between the true Baratheon king and the Queen in the North.”

“What?” Sansa’s eyes widened and she gripped his hand. “You negotiate with Stannis Baratheon on my behalf, styling me as the Queen in the North? Why?”

“I might have bent the knee to the Lannisters to spare the lives of our men but I did it in the office of the Warden of the North, not as the representative of the Kingdom of the North. None of us has actually withdrawn the declaration of northern independence. Not your brothers, not any northern lords and certainly not me. You are a supposed traitor to the Iron Throne according to Queen Cersei.” His tone was derisive when he spoke about Sansa’s status in the South. His thumb caressed the back of her hand as he continued, “Marrying you to my heir, as Baelish suggested, would enrage Cersei. The North was neutral in the fight for the southern throne but I chose to support the man who doesn’t wish to put my soulmate’s head on a spike and who would be forced to acknowledge our sovereignty or freeze and starve out there during a true northern winter.”

With that, he lifted her hand and placed a kiss against her knuckles. Grinning briefly, he added, “Amusing also is that by sheltering you and bringing you here, by offering the alliance with the Vale, Baelish marked himself as a traitor to the Lannisters. His actions have already been brought to Cersei’s attention. Now he won’t have a choice but to truly ally the Vale with the North and Stannis Baratheon or face the wrath of the Queen Mother.”

Sansa looked at him blankly for a moment and then she offered him the most devious smile in return. “It looks like the Mockingbird has clipped his own wings, my lord.”

Roose honestly didn’t expect her to feel such a dark satisfaction and wondered what exactly the man had been doing to earn Sansa’s ire. It was a matter worth investigating but they must be missed by the others. The feast had begun already.

With the great hall full of excited northern lords, the chances that his bastard hadn’t discovered his little secret were slim. Frowning, he remembered something. “Baelish didn’t seem to know about our connection.”

“No one did,” said Sansa and showed him her left wrist. Roose felt his heart stop at the sight – there was no mark on her skin. Seeing his expression, a whisper against his mind let him know that the bond between them was still there, still active.

With a small smile, Sansa rubbed at the skin of her wrist and Roose watched curiously as his name slowly appeared. It was a brilliant vibrant red and he felt a smug sense of satisfaction when he finally saw it. She was undeniably his.

Sansa showed him the smudge of some sort of paint on her thumb. “When your name appeared the day I flowered, I panicked, fearing what the Lannisters would do to me if they saw. My handmaiden showed me how to mask it and how to mix the paste on my own.”

Roose watched his name on her wrist, feeling a strange flutter of excitement build up in him. It seemed that his soulmate was truly his ideal partner, his other half in every sense of the word, complementing him wonderfully.

She was a survivor, just like him. Sansa was more beautiful than he deserved, she was intelligent and cunning and her wolf blood would make sure that she would not shy away from flaying their foes, understanding the pragmatic fact that scaring off their enemies was necessary. Something told him that while she wouldn’t enjoy it, she wouldn’t try to stop him from doing it. It was such a pity that there wouldn’t be enough time to explore their compatibility in all areas of life.

She tugged at his sleeve and he offered his own mark for inspection. Her name was also written in red, the mark pulsing with color and life, and he felt it pleasantly heat up upon her gentle touch. She kissed the tip of her forefinger and then pressed it to it.

“Are you willing to let everyone know about it now?” he asked. “We should reappear in the great hall soon.”

“And you? Are you willing to claim the bond and me in front of the whole of the North?”

He looked into her eyes. Sansa was watching him intently and he understood why she was doing it. This moment felt surreal, like one of those fleeting dreams that disappear with first morning light. Having her in his arms with their marks pulsing with light, love, and life – after the years of separation, doubts, after his mistakes – was filling him with happiness he had never known until that day even though that it had been tainted with the knowledge of his own fate. He could hardly force himself to believe that this was real and was afraid that he would wake up and she would be gone. However brief their time together, he would cherish it.

What had been one of his first thoughts when he had discovered to whom the gods had bound him? With his eyes never straying away from Sansa’s, he slowly sunk to his knees at her feet. The feud between their houses was at a definite end for he would never betray her.

The proud, cold, dangerous Lord Bolton of the Dreadfort brought her hand to his lips and kissed Sansa’s palm. He would wed her, bed her, love her, and protect her until his dying breath from this day on. It seemed that he had been finally brought to heel by this girl, his Queen. Broken and rebuilt, destroyed utterly and made anew.

“In front of our men, in front of our gods, in front of all our people,” he said, his voice soft and deep and his expression earnest. Some of his desperation leaked into his next words and his voice broke. “I can’t bear a moment longer alone, my love. Marry me at the next full moon.”

“I will.” Sansa touched his cheek, projecting her own tender joy into him, her eyes brimming with tears that she tried to blink away. To feel her relief at being reunited and her happiness at accepting him was overwhelming and he wrapped his arms around her middle, pressing his face into her stomach. He didn’t deserve it, he did not, for his departure would break her and Roose couldn’t forgive himself for it.

“Of course you deserve this,” Sansa choked out as she held him tightly, not understanding from where his emotions were coming from. “Of course you do.”

But he couldn’t tell her about his deal with the gods, couldn’t rob her of the few fleeting moons of happiness that they were allowed to share together before the darkness of winter would come for them all.

Chapter Text

A deafening noise greeted them once they appeared in the door of the great hall. The Northmen from the lowest men-at-arms to the highest-ranking lords were yelling, cheering, stomping and clapping when they saw their Queen walking arm in arm with their Warden of the North.

Sansa blushed, a soft smile gracing her face. That, of course, made the Northmen whistle and the level of noise somehow rose even more. Roose allowed a self-satisfied smirk to appear on his face as they walked among the cheering lords to the high table, accepting their wishes of long life and many babies. Some asked when the wedding would be and when to expect the heir to the throne. Those words elicited startled laughter from Sansa, and it warmed him from inside out. She liked the idea, he marveled at the flutter of delight the thoughts of their children brought her.

It drove another sharp dagger into his heart and Roose had to turn his face momentarily away. She would be a wonderful mother, he just knew that. Perhaps – if the gods would be willing – he would not leave her completely alone in this world. He liked the idea of a little Bolton with the blood of the wolves in his veins very much; a strong boy to protect his mother in his father’s absence, or a little red-haired princess to charm the servants and steal some poor young man’s heart one day just as her mother had stolen Roose’s.

Not every Northman was cheering, though.

Roose tensed and took a half step in front of Sansa when Lord Harald Karstark moved into their way, agitated. The young man had bent his knee to the Boltons willingly and had paid his taxes without complaints but Roose doubted that he had forgotten who had executed his the late Lord Karstark for treason.

“My lord,” he asked, his voice soft with a hint of warning, “how can I help you?”

“I’d like a word with Lady Stark.” Karstark eyed him for a moment and then glanced at Sansa, trying to sidestep him. If he wanted to speak to his soulmate, why was he trying to get into her personal space?

“Not a step closer,” Roose commanded a blocked his approach fully, tilting his head to stare at him. He felt his soulmate’s unease against his mind as she reached for his soul, her hand letting go of his arm.

Roose moved to grip the hilt of his dagger as he explained, “Lord Harald’s father was executed by King Robb shortly before your brother’s demise, my Queen. Do you wish to speak to him?”

Sansa watched the young man for a moment and then she inclined her head. “I do. We are kin, after all.”

Karstark visibly tensed at those words and clenched his jaw. “We are kin, yet your brother chopped off my father’s head!”

“I wasn’t there. Were you?” she asked idly. Then she turned to look at Roose, her expression never betraying her emotions. Her voice rose above the noise in the hall. “Was my brother a cruel, unjust ruler like that false Baratheon cub?”

Silence reigned as the other lords stopped cheering and started listening. All eyes were now trained on the three of them, waiting. Then someone called, “No! The Young Wolf was fair and just!”

“Aye!” echoed through the hall so strongly the windows shook. Men banged their goblets against the table. “Aye!”

“What was the reason for such a punishment?”

“Treason,” supplied Roose. “After that, the Karstark men marched all home.” And none of them had had to marry any Freys when they had reached the crossing. How peculiar.

“That’s three thousand men if I remember my lessons correctly.”

“You do, my love.”

Sansa turned to look at him briefly and Roose’s mind was assaulted by the warmth those words brought to her. The nearest men chuckled and some whistled. Karstark blanched when he witnessed firsthand the intimacy between the Stark Queen and the man to whom he had sworn his fealty. Then the young lord paled when he heard Sansa’s next words.

“So, three thousand men abandoned their King and marched home. If my brother’s actions hadn’t been justified before, they certainly were after that desertion. I doubt he granted them permission to leave – losing three thousand men in the enemy territory weakens one’s positions, easily leads to their defeat, or plants the thoughts of betrayal into other men’s minds.” She stared coldly at Karstark. “What is the punishment for desertion?”

“Beheading,” answered Roose and grinned at Karstark, the expression in his eyes feral. Shrugging, he added, “If the Queen is merciful, the Wall.”

“The Night’s Watch would be delighted to welcome some new recruits… Do you have an heir, my lord?” asked Sansa next, mulling over the words as she discreetly glanced around the other gathered lords.

Roose noted with amusement that they were now mostly giving poor Harald menacing glares. His soulmate was very good at manipulating crowds, it seemed, though she didn’t feel any true resentment towards the man. Harald had lost his father and two elder brothers in the war and she felt pity but had to stand firm. Betrayal or undermining her authority would not be tolerated.

“I have a daughter.” Lord Karstark looked rather green now and his eyes were glancing between Sansa and Roose as if he expected one of them to swing the sword right now, right there.

“Oh, that’s very good. I’d like to have her company in Winterfell as soon as possible. We women of the North should stick together and I’ll be in need of ladies-in-waiting.” Sansa smiled at him coolly, her tone allowing no room for mistaking it for a request. It was an order and it was a threat. “It’s the highest honor I’d like to bestow first on those of the Stark blood, Lord Karstark.”

“As you wish, Lady Stark.” Harald managed to choke out and started to bow.

“The proper form of address is ‘Your Grace,’” corrected him Roose in a bored tone. “You are addressing your Queen, Lord Karstark. I won’t let any more of your disrespect to my soulmate stand and this is my last warning. Queen Sansa is merciful. I am not.”

“Forgive me, my lord, my Queen.” He bowed low and then went to hide back into the crowd. Someone showed him away harshly and then he disappeared from Roose’s sight. He would watch the man.

After that incident, Roose and Sansa proceeded to the high table without any interruptions but the cheers of the other lords died out and the mood turned somber. When they finally sat down, he observed the other three occupants of the table with caution.

“Sister, Brother,” Bran said in greeting and started sipping his water, his face hidden behind the cup, but his eyes were sparkling with mischief that was so rare to find in the greenseer’s expression.

“I have to say, this is quite an unexpected development, my lord.” Lord Baelish was smiling widely, eyes cold and dangerous as he watched Roose’s hand settle over Sansa’s. “I heard the most interesting information while we waited for you to join us. Pray tell, is there any truth to the rumors of your soulmarks?”

He directed the question at Sansa and was piercing her with his eyes. Roose felt her reach out to him, seeking his strength and protection before she realized what she was doing and stopped tugging at his soul. Why was she so wary of the man? He didn’t like it, not one bit. Roose leaned back in his chair so he could see the man better.

“Yes,” he said simply and didn’t feel the need to elaborate.

For a moment, Baelish stared at him without speaking. It was disconcerting how easily Roose could imagine the wheels turning in Littlefinger’s mind, how he schemed and plotted and adjusted his plans within plans.

“I’ve never seen a soulmark!” he declared finally with fake eagerness. “They’re so rare in the South! May I see it?”

“It is a private matter, my lord.” Sansa was uncomfortable with the idea, Roose noted. Her outward appearance didn’t betray her thoughts but her soul shuddered in distaste. She disdained the idea of sharing her soulmark with someone like Baelish.

“Well, Father, I’ve never seen yours either! That is, if you have one, of course.” Ramsay’s eyes were wild as he turned to look at his father. “You never mentioned it until today.”

Roose curled his lip in distaste when he observed his bastard’s openly agitated face. No matter how he looked at it, Ramsay knowing about his soulmark was making him uncomfortable and he wondered if Sansa felt perhaps the same way about Baelish and her own mark; one more reason to be wary of the upstart.

“There never was a reason for you to see it, Bastard,” he said without interest. “It doesn’t concern you.”

“It doesn’t concern me? I had the right to know who my new mother would be, I’d say!” Ramsay gritted out. “Lord Baelish even said that he had negotiated a marriage agreement between me and the woman who is going to be my new mother! I think I had a right to know about all of that!”

“Queen Sansa won’t be your new mother,” he growled, staring Ramsay down. “She is your Queen first and foremost and you will hold your tongue, boy…”

“Does that make you my new king, too?” Ramsay interrupted him, a maniacal glint entering his eyes as he drew the gazes of the two Starks and Lord Baelish with his disrespectful behavior.

He was trying to provoke him, Roose just knew it, and what was worse, his bastard was succeeding. He could feel his anger rise like a tidal wave, begging to be released after the whirlwind of emotions of today. He would not tolerate it, not now and not in the future.

“Actually,” said Sansa mildly and leaned over the table to better see his bastard. Her calmness pushed at the fury inside him, soothing his frayed nerves, and she grasped his hand under the table. “It does.”

“How wonderful,” quipped Lord Baelish, smiling broadly while he was murdering Roose with his eyes. “Utterly wonderful.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Sansa said in that dreamy voice that empty-headed girls usually adopted. “To think that after all those years of waiting, I was finally reunited with my soulmate. I could never thank you enough for making it possible, Petyr.”

“Ah, it was my pleasure, my dear,” he said and almost sounded sincere. Roose was able to read him, though, and he knew better. Lord Baelish was anything but happy about his plans concerning Sansa crumbling to dust. Baelish had planned to be the one sitting at the high table with Sansa’s hand in his, the Queen’s consort with the power of all the North behind him. He was a greedy man. The Vale wasn’t enough, Harrenhal wasn’t enough. The whole of the Seven Kingdoms was the only thing that would satisfy that lowly-born brothel keeper and only with a beautiful northern bride at his side.

It was a satisfying sight, watching Baelish realize that his efforts had been futile. The North would never bow before an outsider and Sansa was quite happy with the match the gods had chosen for her. Baelish would have her over Roose’s dead body – and because he knew he was going to die soon, he just had to make sure to eliminate Littlefinger before that would happen.

“So, when did the marks appear?” asked Ramsay in a brittle tone and forced out a wide smile. Roose stared at his bastard in irritation. He should have left him at the Dreadfort.

“I’m quite sure you remember your lessons well, Ramsay,” he told him. “There wasn’t anything extraordinary about the appearance.”

“Well, I just thought that perhaps it’s a new development on your part or something since it’s obvious that you’re not anywhere near thirteen, Father…”

“Don’t be upset with my sister and Roose for not sharing the truth with you,” said Bran suddenly. The young man leaned over the table to get a better look at Baelish and then glanced at Ramsay and Roose was surprised to see how all the light had gone from the boy’s eyes. They were cold and dark and unforgiving. Then Bran blinked and it was gone, his neutral expression firmly in place when Baelish met his gaze and Ramsay glanced his way. “I doubt many knew, am I right? One can never be sure when the enemies hide, after all.”

Knowing what he knew about Bran’s abilities, Roose became instantly alert and he narrowed his eyes as he studied Baelish and his bastard. Perhaps he would need to deal with them much sooner than he had anticipated – and perhaps it would require a more direct and bloody approach.

“I am not upset, Prince Bran,” Baelish said cheerfully, easily adapting to the fact that he was now on the northern turf. “I was just surprised. I thought that we were friends, my Queen.”

“Of course we are, Lord Baelish.” Sansa’s answer was soothing and her smugness at the flawless delivery and the expression on Littlefinger’s face – he knew he was being placated like a child – made Roose chuckle. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Her good mood made certain that he was unable to dwell on darker thoughts, at least not for the moment.

 “Shall we make an announcement, my love?” he asked, tired of dealing with Baelish and Ramsay. Her years in the enemies’ hands had made her stronger, had robbed her of the innocence and left someone worthy of respect and following in the child’s place. He could easily see everyone falling to their knees in front of his soulmate. It was time to tell the world that such a magnificent woman had decided to join her house and life with his, however briefly.

She appeared startled but then she nodded graciously. “Yes, it’s high time, isn’t it?”

Lord Bolton then rose, raising his hand to silence all talk inside the great hall. When the men paid him their complete attention, he allowed a small pleased smile to appear on his face.

“My lords,” he said loudly and clearly. “It is my greatest honor to announce that Her Grace Queen Sansa has agreed to become my wife. Many of you know how long have I waited for this moment and we are not going to wait any longer.”

Sansa rose and held his hand, giving their guests a brilliant smile. “We would like to invite all of you to join us in the Godswood in three days' time and bear witness to the union of our houses so the North can remain strong.”

“To the Queen in the North!” Roose called out and bowed slightly in her direction before leaning over to kiss her cheek.

“To the Queen in the North!” roared the Northmen, and the chant echoed in the hall for long, long minutes. Everything appeared to be on the right track and both Baelish and Ramsay were forced to clap along the rest of them.

***

At the night of the full moon, dozens of lanterns lit up the path to the Godswood where all of the northern lords gathered to witness the union between the houses of Stark and Bolton. The North remembered their lessons well and joining the ancient lines of Kings of Winter and Red Kings finally ended the division of the lands that had lasted thousands of years. There never would be another Bolton rebellion and the kingdom would be stronger for it.

Queen Sansa looked beautiful in her white dress and white furs with snowflakes resting in her hair. Her groom was strong and serious as he waited for her under the heart tree, watching her approach barely forcing himself to breathe. The mood of their guests was solemn, the air crisp and cool.

“Who comes before the Old Gods this night?” When Lord Manderly asked, it was Bran who answered from his wheelchair at Sansa’s side, Hodor hovering behind both of them.

“Sansa of House Stark, Queen in the North, comes here to be wed. A woman grown and flowered, trueborn and noble. She comes to beg the blessing of the gods. Who comes to claim her?”

Roose closed his eyes momentarily, listening to the softly falling snow, relishing in the serenity around him. His heartbeat was steady and his mind calm when he stepped forward next. All the pain and struggles and sacrifices had brought him to this time and place, to this woman.

His eyes never left her face and he could feel her own sense of peace and contentment as it intertwined with his own. There was no burning, no whirlwind of frantic emotions, no need to be nervous or apprehensive. His mark was pleasantly warm. No one would take this moment from them. In the moonlight, in the stillness of winter night, his life would be forever tied to hers.

“Roose of House Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort and Warden of the North. Who gives her?” His soft voice was deep and smooth, lips turning up slightly.

“Brandon of House Stark, her brother.” Bran smiled up at his sister, gently squeezed her hand, and offered it to Roose.

“Queen Sansa,” Lord Manderly cleared his throat when they already joined their hands and the Lord of the White Harbor smirked and continued with the formal question. “Queen Sansa, will you take this man?”

There wasn’t any doubt what the answer would be. Roose gripped her hand tighter, breathing in the cold night air as he watched her eyes sparkle and shine. She was happy and it was slightly overwhelming to know that their union was the cause of that.

“I take this man,” she said, beaming at her groom and he returned the smile, kissing the hand gently resting in his. They turned toward the heart tree and knelt, bowing their heads in prayer.

The Godswood fell eerily silent as they begged the blessing of the Old Gods. There was no need for words. At this moment, his heart started to pound loudly as the memory of the last time he had been in Winterfell’s Godswood rose in his mind. Roose was a different man – he had accepted the gods, he had bent to their will, and he had sworn to follow their wishes. He had given them his life and he only asked for Sansa’s survival, for her comfort and happiness and for – he didn’t dare to think it, let alone to ask it.

Children were the most precious gift the gods could bestow upon them.

The eyes of the heart tree opened and the mouth smiled at the pair, letting them know that they knew and that he had truly been brought back into their grace, that they listened even to the unspoken secrets of his heart. It was a moment both bitter and sweet, and he finally understood that the Old Gods were cruel to be kind. A human’s life was so fleeting, so fragile, and there were so many lessons to learn. It didn’t have much value. But faith? That was something else entirely.

With faith, he would face all that was to come. He would have faith in his brothers in arms and his own abilities to secure the victory, in his wife to live after he died, in the gods to heal their lands and people after the battle is won. Only with faith, humanity could prevail.

Shocked murmurs rose among the Northmen and they all fall to their knees into the snow, bowing their heads in prayer with hands tightly clasped together, shaking. The air was suddenly charged with anticipation, the energy of thousand fires and thousand storms when the Old Gods walked among their children.

A wind rose, howling around them, and hundreds of blood red leaves fell from the branches. They were wildly dancing with the snowflakes for several moments and Roose felt a cold touch of unseen fingers on his brow, Sansa’s gasp alerting him to the fact that she had felt it, too. Then the snow and leaves swirled violently around them, cloaking them from view of the others, and finally fell down on the pair of newlyweds.

The gods blessed their union and as Roose helped his wife to her feet and brought her under his protection with his cloak, he still felt their touch and was at complete peace for the first time in his life. His fate wasn’t his any longer and only when he had fully surrendered it into the hands of his gods, he was able to find his place in the greater scheme of things.

***

Bran was evasive when directly asked questions he wasn’t ready or willing to answer. Roose didn’t understand the young man’s gift but he supposed that having those abilities put Bran under tremendous pressure; one misstep on his part could lead to horrible consequences.

On the other hand, when he decided to speak up, his warnings were not to be taken lightly.

“Take Captain Walton with you,” he told him that morning at breakfast. They were alone, two early birds. Roose planned to visit a small village a half day’s ride from Winterfell and needed to set out at dawn. There had been a fire and he needed to inspect the damage and decide what to do with the survivors. The castle still could accommodate more people and the winter was cold and unforgiving to those without a solid roof over their heads.

He stared at the boy for a long moment and Bran returned his gaze without flinching. Then he just nodded once, and the matter was closed. He took Steelshanks with him and proceeded with his duties of Lord of Winterfell.

There hadn’t been any disagreements between Roose and his wife concerning power dynamics on the northern court. She was the Queen and he was her husband and while neither of them had been officially crowned yet – an issue to be addressed later – they had stepped into their respective roles effortlessly, each having their own duties to attend. Sansa was the better diplomat and knew what she was doing as she was slowly setting up the court. Roose was a better strategist. She ran the keep. He addressed issues outside of Winterfell. When uncertain, the other was only a thought away, after all.

The journey to the village was uneventful, as was the inspection. He invited the survivors to wait out the winter at the castle and left several of his men to assist them with transportation and rode with the rest of his company back to Winterfell.

They should manage to arrive before sunset and Roose felt Sansa’s gladness at that. Neither of them was comfortable when they were separated for long periods of time and the distance didn’t help. He knew that he was projecting his own anxiety on her because he had so little time with his soulmate left but Sansa hadn’t said a word. Perhaps she was also happier with Roose close by.

It was nearing dark and they were close to the castle when a sudden snowstorm hit them and Roose was separated from the rest of the riders in the heavy snowfall. He calmly guided his horse into the woods, soothing the animal with soft murmurs. He knew where he was and he could find his way back to Winterfell after the storm passed.

In the woods, the howling of winds and the whirlwind of snowflakes wasn’t as harsh, as unforgiving, and he dismounted and led his horse deeper into the trees. He found a sheltered place eventually and settled for a long wait, wrapping his fur cloak around him tightly.

Roose! Sansa’s thought reached him some time later. Oh, gods, where are you?

She could feel the cold slowly seeping into his very bones, the sting of it in his cheeks. He breathed out a sigh, his eyes closed, and answered softly, “I’m in the woods close to Winterfell.”

Is it the snowstorm? Are others with you? Bran was-

“I’m perfectly fine, my love,” he told her firmly, her rising panic made his own heart beat faster and he willed her to calm down. They had so little time in each other’s presence and so many years of pain between them. It was no wonder that she was reacting this way.

He couldn’t imagine ever telling her that he wouldn’t see the next spring. It would kill her.

“Look around,” he encouraged her instead and felt as more of her presence seeped into him. She was so hesitant, so very gentle. His knees buckled anyway and he gasped as Sansa gazed through his eyes. “It’s not so bad, is it? I’ll be back as soon as the snow stops. I promise. Nothing to fear…”

When you said it the last time, you got shot soon after.

“And I’m still here to say it again, my love.”

You’re going to freeze to death, she huffed and Roose could imagine her moving closer to the fire because a feeling of its warmth enveloped him shortly afterward. Should I send someone to look for you?

“Don’t, I’m capable of finding my way home on my own.” He chuckled softly and rested his head against the trunk, slowly sliding down as he felt the presence of her mind withdrawing. “Have some trust in me, will you?”

If you promise. Sansa’s soul snuggled closer to his and started tenderly sharing her own strength to keep him warm. I’ll wait with you.

They exchanged small talk for the remainder of the snowstorm and it wasn’t long after that when Roose heard a rider approach.

“My men are here. I’ll see you soon, Sansa.”

Hurry, I can’t wait. With that, Sansa withdrew from him and only the whisper of her presence remained at the back of his mind as usual. He smiled and started to get up.

“Father?” Ramsay’s voice reached him and soon his bastard came into view. He was wrapped in heavy furs covered in snow. He halted his horse and jumped down. “Father, there you are! We’ve been looking for you!”

Roose blinked at the picture his bastard presented. He looked like he had truly been out during the worst of the storm – Ramsay’s cheeks and nose were red, almost frostbitten, and ice clung to his eyebrows and eyelashes, his lips were bluish and eyes irritated from the wind. His poor horse looked even worse than its master.

“Who’s been looking for me?” he asked suspiciously.

“My men, of course!” Ramsay was coming closer, pulling his bulky gloves off. “Lady Sansa was beside herself when the storm hit. She asked for volunteers to look for you and here we are… Where is the rest of your company?”

“Where is the rest of yours?” Roose stood taller and gazed at his son with an expressionless face. His bastard was lying and he didn’t like the implication of why. Sansa certainly had not sent anyone to look for him – but Ramsay had no way of knowing that Roose communicated with his soulmate so easily.

Ramsay stood in front of him, so very close, and peered at his face. Then he shrugged. “You know, I really have no idea.”

His bastard was good with a blade but Roose was better. He caught Ramsay’s wrist in an iron grip before the dagger could sink into his stomach. They pushed at each other for several moments and then Ramsay let go and punched him in the face with his left hand.

Pain exploded through him and he instinctually cut off the bond with Sansa as he stumbled backward, spitting blood. He didn’t want her to see this, to be there for this. Roose’s whole world shrank to the dark woods and nothing beyond this place and time existed. He needed to survive this encounter.

He managed to avoid another swing of the dagger as Ramsay let out a frustrated growl.

“Why are you putting up a fight, Father? Why? It could have been painless!”

“What do you think you are doing?” He drew his own dagger. Using the sword would have given him an advantage but they were Boltons by blood and fighting with daggers was a matter of family pride. Fighting with a dagger was also more personal and Ramsay? Ramsay had gone and made this a very personal issue.

“You’re an old fool! Do you know that?” Ramsay shook his head.

They circled around each other, snow crunching under their boots. In the white and black of the forest, they resembled two wild animals in their cloaks of fur with their daggers as sharp as claws of steel.

“Not so foolish to fall for your lies and not so old to be unable to deal with you. What do you hope to accomplish?”

“I’m defending my rights, Father,” Ramsay explained and lunged for him. Roose moved away in time and returned the attack. His bastard dodged and jumped away. They were both breathing hard.

“Rights? You have no rights.”

“No? Am I not your only son? You heir?” He laughed and Roose was certain he had never heard a more deranged sound. He had known that Ramsay had been always quite insecure about his position in Roose’s home, at his side, and recently at the northern court.

“You share my blood but not my name, Ramsay Snow. You are no heir of mine.” Roose moved swiftly and kicked Ramsay in the stomach and aiming for his throat. The boy managed to move away but not before receiving a shallow cut on his cheek.

His bastard laughed more as he rubbed at the wound, smearing blood over his face. It was red, so very red in their grey world.

“I found the decree. I am a Bolton by rights. When you’re dead, I’ll be the last Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort… And you know what?” Ramsay grinned, eyes shining with madness. “I’ll take care of your pretty little widow as well. The North will be mine and I’ll rule it without that woman ordering me around as she does you!”

Had he found the decree or had someone told him about it? Roose clenched his jaw and lunged for him. Ramsay danced out of his way and howled in pain as his father gave him another shallow cut, this time the blade sliced Ramsay’s upper arm, and a swift kick to the chest that sent him sprawling on his back.

“I’ll cut your tongue out for that, boy, before you’ll hang.”

Ramsay growled and grabbed a fistful of snowing, throwing it into his father’s face.

Roose tried to clear his vision and blinked furiously. His bastard’s body slammed into him in that moment of hesitation but there was no pain of steel sinking into his flesh – just the lifeless weight of a corpse.

He grunted as he rolled Ramsay away and sat up, gasping for breath. His son’s face was frozen in a victorious smirk, his eyes still bulging madly out of his sockets but the maniacal light was gone. His son was gone.

Raising his head, he saw Captain Walton standing several feet away with the bow still raised and an expression of grim satisfaction on his face.

“Alright there, my lord?” he asked, lowered the weapon and marched closer.

“Yes.” Roose grasped the man’s offered hand and rose to his feet.

“Good. Walda would have my hide if something happened to you on my watch, sir.” Walton glanced down at the bastard at their feet and then spat. “Little shit had it coming.”

***

It was several days later when Sansa’s emotions exploded into him with the force of a blizzard. Roose staggered on the battlements which he had been just inspecting, leaning against the frail wooden handrail in front of him.

“Gods, Sansa, calm down,” he gasped, seeing black spots. He was aware of the master builder’s grasp on his upper arm as the man steered him away from the edge of the battlements. The outer wall had been rebuilt to his satisfaction but the inner one had been obliterated and had been being repaired but only slowly. The fall into the courtyard would have killed him.

Do you know who’s here? Right under our roof? Her thoughts assaulted him viciously. Sansa did not wish to calm down, her fury burning brighter than the fire of her hair. She let him feel her irritation and Roose was quite sure that his head would split open and his brain would bleed out. Of course, you do! Why didn’t you tell me?!

Not caring about his appearance, he slowly sank down to rest against the solid stone and grimaced, pressing his fists to his temples, tightly closing his eyes. There was nothing gentle and hesitant about her visit this time as if she did not care about the damage she was causing. It was unlike his soulmate to be so inconsiderate but Roose knew that she had a terrible temper. If provoked, his wife was as vicious as a pack of hungry direwolves.

“I have no idea what you are talking about, my queen,” he murmured. Their relationship was still so new and they treated each other with so much selfless affection, both still a little awe-struck that they had found each other that he had never imagined being on the receiving end of her ire. The only time when she had been angry at him was when he had cut off the bond during his fight with Ramsay, and she had quickly forgiven him after making sure that he had been uninjured.

“Shall I call for Maester Wolkan?” asked the builder in a hushed tone. “Your mark, it’s bleeding, my lord.”

“That’s alright, thank you,” he said through clenched teeth. What exactly had he done? He honestly had no idea. “Sansa! Stop this, you’re hurting me!”

As soon as those words left his lips, the pressure and her presence disappeared. He took several deep breaths, glad that her departure hadn’t rendered him unconscious this time. He believed that the commotion their brief conversation had made was quite enough.

Roose glanced up at the man who was gawking at him silently and tried to stand up. He managed on his own and as soon as his vision stopped swimming, he spotted that his incident had caught the attention of everyone present in the courtyard.

“Where’s the Queen?” he asked calmly and slowly moved along the battlements towards the ladder down, holding onto the wall just in case his wife decided to yell at him some more.

“She said she wanted to inspect the kennels, my lord,” answered one of the guards.

The kennels? Good gods! Roose blinked and then heaved a sigh, most of his irritation evaporating. Reek liked to hide in the kennels, it had been the place Ramsay had initially kept him. Roose was beginning to understand his wife’s violent emotions. He didn’t look forward to the following conversation in person.

As he made his way down, he was running through all the possible things he could tell her and came up short. Roose Bolton had sincerely forgotten that Ramsay’s poor plaything had been the heir to the Iron Islands once, and it didn’t occur to him how Sansa could react to Theon Greyjoy’s presence.

Bran hadn’t mentioned him at all… Speaking about his good-brother, he spotted him and Hodor making their way out of the castle and moved quickly to meet them. He was glad that he was on good terms with his good-brother because to have the greenseer as an enemy was a frightening concept – and Lord Bolton was not a man easily frightened. The young Stark always seemed to know where to be and what to do when he was needed.

“It would be best if you let me talk to Sansa alone,” said the young man as soon as Roose climbed down. He turned and saw Bran and Hodor waiting for him. “She needs to hear certain things from me, it’s time.”

Roose hesitated for a moment. Sansa had withdrawn from him to the point that there was barely a trace of her in his mind and he didn’t like that. It was too reminiscent of the times when she had been stolen from him. He also didn’t feel like sharing his and Bran’s secret with his wife.

“Are you going to tell her about-”

“Trust me, Roose,” said Bran softly and gave him a reassuring smile. The fact that he was trying to be reassuring was enough to convince Roose and he nodded, clenching his fists.

Bran tilted his head toward the kennels and Hodor pushed his chair in that direction. He watched them disappear and couldn’t help the feeling of apprehension that enveloped him. His mind was racing and he swallowed. He was being ridiculous. It was just a misunderstanding – but he hated it nonetheless.

Roose hadn’t seen either of them for the rest of the day. They didn’t appear at dinner and Roose had been forced to endure Lord Baelish’s presence on his own. He disliked conversing with the man because he needed to be on his guard all the time.

They both sipped water – no wine to dull the senses – and exchanged remarks about mundane topics, unwilling to go into anything more detrimental to their lives. Roose had been corresponding with Lord Royce in secret and everything was going well. The Vale Lords were happy to rally behind the Stark Queen who was the cousin to their own high lord, and were quite sick of the Lannister rule. They were quite sick of Lord Baelish, too. With Sansa’s help, steering the Vale Lords in the right direction hadn’t been that difficult. Few words here and there and the northern monarchs had them wondering about all the coincidences that had made Baelish the man holding all the power in their homeland. It was a bit suspicious, wasn’t it?

Soon, Littlefinger would be disposable and Roose couldn’t wait for that moment. He hadn’t forgotten that Baelish had been the one telling his bastard about the decree. He had most probably fed him lies and fanned the boy’s paranoia, perhaps he had even encouraged him to attack Roose that night. There was also the fact that his very presence made Sansa shudder inwardly and Lord Bolton strongly disliked the familiarity Baelish often displayed when talking to the Queen.

Yes, he couldn’t wait for Littlefinger to be finally disposable. He actually only waited for Lord Royce’s arrival and these thoughts gave him the strength to manage polite conversation with the brothel-keeper.

After the torturous dinner was at the end, Roose escaped to his study where he spent several hours going over the ledgers. Later then he anticipated, he tiptoed to his and Sansa’s chambers expecting his wife to be already asleep.

However, Sansa was sitting on their bend, her back resting against the headboard with her knees drawn up to her chest. As soon as she heard him enter, she looked up and Roose swallowed when he saw the redness of her eyes. Had she been crying?

“Sansa, what is the matter?” he asked softly as he crossed the room. What a stupid question. Reek was the matter, the traitor. He had let him live because Reek was nothing like Theon Greyjoy. He had let him live because he pitied the man who was harmless. He wanted to believe that Ramsay had broken Theon Greyjoy’s mind when he had been taking Moat Cailin but he knew better, and Roose felt perhaps slightly responsible for the man’s fate.

She was silently observing him and to his surprise, a fresh wave of tears gathered in her eyes when he came close enough. Sansa buried her face in the crook of her arm, turning away from him. Surely Theon Greyjoy wasn’t the reason for all those tears, or was he?

“What is it, my love?” he whispered as he gently touched her shoulder. It made it only worse and sobs wracked her body now. Roose reached deep within his mind but Sansa was the one keeping the bond purposefully closed. She was the warg, so she had much greater command and understanding of how the bond worked. If she didn’t want him to reach for her through their bond, there was nothing he could do.

Helpless and feeling a little out of his depth, he sat down next to her and pulled her against his chest at least. “Shhh, it’s going to be alright.”

“How can you sit here and hold me like this? How can you-” she gasped after several moments and pushed herself away from his embrace. “I almost killed you!”

“What are you talking about?” Roose was truly confused now. He took in the trembling of her lips, the tremors running through her entire frame. What was happening?

“You almost fell from the battlements,” she choked out. “It’s the only thing the servants talk about. You almost fell, Roose, and I was responsible for that.”

Oh. He shook his head and reached for Sansa, briefly struggling against her weak attempts to stop him. He brought her closer and kept her in his arms until she stopped trying to get away. Kissing the top of her head, he murmured, “I didn’t.”

“You could have!”

“It would have been an accident, Sansa, stop thinking about it. You were upset and you reacted. It’s instinctual to reach for me when you’re upset and you know that…” He gritted his teeth. “Stop shaking your head and listen to me!”

“No! You listen to me!” she cried and managed to free herself so she could look up at him. Her eyes were puffy from crying but the tortured expression in them broke his heart. “I wanted you to feel how upset I was, and I held nothing back! I knew I was hurting you even though I had sworn to myself never to let go of my control of the bond like this, not again…”

It had been nothing like the first time when he had felt her emotions – or the second – but it hurt all the same. She had wanted him to hurt? Sansa? She was so young, he sometimes forgot the fact that she wasn’t even twenty. While her experiences down in the South had helped her mature in many ways, his soulmate was still a young woman with a fiery temper and she needed to learn the lessons of life he had already learned.

Roose let her go and stood up, taking a deep breath. He flicked his eyes around the room and then shook his head. How could he explain it to her in a way Sansa would understand?

“I can’t be angry at you,” he said finally. He was well familiar with guilt, he knew how she felt and he knew that because of that, he couldn’t ever be upset with her. “If that’s what you want, I can’t do that. I’m sorry.”

“Says the man who flays his enemies,” she scoffed.

“Says the man who loves you,” he retorted in the same tone. “I can’t be angry at you – you have punished yourself already, can’t you see? I’ll appreciate it if you won’t use the bond to settle any arguments between us in the future, though. Now, am I allowed into my own bed or not? It’s been a tiring day and my wife is in need of some comfort but if you are going to be difficult about it, I’m not above force-feeding you lemon cakes and cuddling you to death, Sansa.”

His soulmate was momentarily speechless and Roose used the opportunity to strip off and slip into the bed. He patted her usual spot at his side with a self-satisfied smirk. “Good. Now, come to sleep.”

He held her tightly that night, keeping her safe from her own thoughts and dreams, and didn’t sleep a wink. He could feel it, her shock and fright at the very idea of him dying. It was Sansa’s greatest fear, to see the mark turn black again. His heart bled for her and Roose hated himself for what his death would put her through – but his soulmate was stronger than she knew and she would live without him. She had to.