Rough hands undid the blindfold. The light was almost assaulting after the long stay in darkness, but she drank it in.
In the past few days her world had condensed into a wagon, a tent and a bowl.
Sansa had tried to be brave and composed, like a true lady, but when a man warged into Lady and sent her away, she was lost. She had cried and moaned, and prayed. She prayed always, for someone to save her.
Father will have sent search parties! We are still in the North, wolfswood perhaps. Someone will come save me, she told herself.
Beads of sweat formed in her brow and lip despite the endless snowfall.
The girl, Ygritte - she had learned her name was - touched a cup of water to her lips and dabbed the remaining droplets off once she was done and returned the gag to its rightful place to do its rightful duty.
Sansa scooted and shifted in her corner, trying to get into a comfortable position. She'd been knocked out cold by that concoction they'd fed her the night before, or was it two nights? She couldn't tell anymore. It could have been a week and she wouldn't have known.
The rope dug into her wrist and she squirmed again.
"Be still, girl. That'll only make 't worse," Ygritte said, her crooked teeth peeking through the frown. "It ain't pretty, but we wouldn't've done it if it weren't for your kneelers' rules."
"I'm sorry," Sansa mumbled through the gag, her saliva wetting the cloth.
"You could help us," the girl crouched down. "You could make him understand- your Lord father and he the King - 't let the Freefolk in.
Once the dead march south, won't make n' matter to 'em where you live. You Southerners may make it for a while longer than us, but you'll be just as dead once they getcha," she laughed.
The words sent a chill through her heart but Sansa held on. She nodded and Ygritte lowered her gag.
"I'll convince him, my lady. I will do my best. Just let me go home," her lips quivered. "I just want to go home."
"Shut! Ya wanna be gagged again? Is that it?" Her expression, a mix between pity and disgust. Sansa couldn't bear it.
"You think you're so brave because you don't cry! You aren't bound and captured! Were you in my place, you'd be scared too!"
"Tis not us you should be scared of! They're coming, I tell you," she sneered.
"There's no such thing as White Walkers! They've been gone a thousand years, everyone knows that."
"Got a thick skull, haven't you? Fine, Sansa Stark, if that's so then turn us away and we'll come back for you," she grinned as Sansa paled. "You know nothing."
The shadows showed it being morning, just shy of noon. Another girl, a pretty, gentle, one with hair like candlelight brought in her breakfast. Val.
"Thank you," Sansa said, when Val placed the food in front of her.
Ygritte laughed. "T'is us that hold her captive and she thanks us for her meals!"
"Ygritte," Val said softly but sternly. "Wait outside. I'll talk to the lady."
"Lady, my ass," Ygritte muttered as she left. "Never seen a lady whimper for her pet."
"You've never seen a lady!" Sansa huffed.
"I'm sorry about this," Val said, loosening the ties and rubbing Sansa's hands. "Here, this'll help." She brought a small pot filled with some kind of cold paste.
Sansa couldn't help the sigh of relief as she applied it on her rope burns.
"Thank you," she murmured, grateful. She feasted - for it felt like a feast - on the husks of bread and apples and rabbit. Or at least she hoped it was rabbit, she wasn't one to ask questions she didn't want answers to.
"Will we be here long?" She asked in an attempt to get anything out of them.
"When can I go home?"
"Soon. Once Mance can arrange a meeting with the King, we will go with him."
What if… what if I'm not important enough for the king to care about my safety? No, father will make him meet Mance. Father will save me! She thought.
"Who is Mance? Your Lord?"
"Our King," Val laughed.
"King?" She frowned. "Ygritte keeps saying how you don't kneel to anyone. How do you have a king then?"
"We chose him to lead us, sweet," she explained. "We don't kneel to him, and he doesn't want us to. The free folk… we don't live as you do, with your customs and classes. We don't serve for life or grovel at others' feet. We live as we like!"
Sansa listened eagerly, appalled and fascinated at the same time.
"You have no rules then? What if there are rapers or thieves? Or killers? Don't you punish them?"
"Our clans have rules, of course. And leaders. We aren't savages as you believe. We're more similar than you think, you know."
"And the girls… Ygritte has a bow…"
"Yes, and she's good with it too. Killed a moose halfway across the field, that one. Straight through the eye."
"But… how will she find a husband if she's out hunting! Surely the men won't find that acceptable!" She said, scandalised.
Val laughed. "Acceptable? They love it! A spearwife and she's kissed by fire! They all want to steal her away, I bet!"
"Yes, when a man wants to make a woman his wife, he steals her away. They live together then. It proves that he's strong enough to take care of her."
"So he just kidnaps her?! What if she doesn't like him?"
"Kidnap?! Oh, well I suppose that's how you'd see it. Girls don't wander around for that same reason, not to be taken before they are rea-
"-if she doesn't like him, be easy enough to get rid of him," Ygritte entered, running her index finger across her neck.
Sansa gasped. Surely, she doesn't mean that!
Three days. Three stupid shivering days he'd spent trying to find the stupid, pretty girl and her utterly useless puppy of a direwolf.
Sandor had split up the search party, after hearing the news of the new suspects. The command came from Lord Stark himself, he was to take his people North and continue the search but his instincts bound him south.
He took three men and three dogs with him Westward, while the other six men and one dog trudged towards Winterfell.
"There," one of his men pointed, "smoke!".
"I see it," he reigned in Stranger. Puffs of grey clouds rising from the area in the middle of the Northern plains covered in trees. The canopy stretched out about a league more, then dissolved into the plains again.
His vantage point on the mountains gave him the upper hand. The hounds had tracked the girl to the South gate of Winterfell from where it appeared that she was taken.
He summoned the men he'd not bothered befriending.
"Bane, go and find the others in our party, lead them here. Ryan, ride back to Winterfell and let them know this place. Harwin, you're with me," he commanded and the men scurried.
He drew his sword and led Stranger down the steep hill, dogs following.
Barely he could spy a canvas triangle was erected in a clearing. Several men prowled the perimeter in grey furs.
"Clegane," Harwin hissed nodding towards the rear.
A bird stared at them, suspiciously focussed.
"What of it?" He snapped.
"Could be a warg! Wildlings have old magic in them," his eyes darted from the bird to the Hound and back again.
"What a load of shit," Sandor muttered, dismounting to get a better look.
The dogs were skittish now, and alert, as if expecting an attack any moment now.
That did it. He didn't care for stories and curiosities but an animal's instinct, he trusted more than his own.
"Back up," he told Harwin. "Patrol the area, blow this whistle if you get caught."
"Aye," he said, taking it reluctantly. "What about you?"
"I'm going to get the girl."
Sansa was sniffling again. She tried to stop her weeping but she missed home so terribly.
They hadn't hurt her, Val promised. She was out there but had done nothing to attack Sansa's captors.
Someone must have warged into her! She thought. My poor baby.
It was unnaturally quiet suddenly, as if all the critters had gone. Her tent seemed darker than usual. She could make out shadows of some men just outside.
"... You sure?" One was saying.
"Others take you! Of course, I'm sure! A knight, mounted with the biggest black horse you've ever seen! Right at the edge of the forest.
Sansa's spirits soared. She was saved!
Oh, could it be him?! I'd die of joy, if it were! Riding down the forest, come to save me! She smiled to herself, suddenly giddy.
I'd be grateful to whoever it is. Thank you gods, old and new. She prayed and corrected herself. But the flame of hope that it could be him was burning too bright now for her to suppress it.
"...cut him down then! One of him and four of you!"
She bit her lip to suppress a gasp.
"And the dogs?! Hounds! Three of them!"
"You have a direwolf, fool! Take Orel. Ask him to ditch the bird and take the wolf."
Orel… Gods that's the warg! They mean to use Lady! To kill him! Her chest constricted and suddenly it was hard to breathe as the gravity of the situation smacked her right in the chest.
Suddenly tenacious, she inched herself into sitting position. Her hands were tied behind her back, her legs beneath her, mouth gagged.
She made a noise, kicking the ground as hard as she could.
"What?" Ygritte hissed.
Her gag prevented her from saying anything. Ygritte pulled it down.
"Water, please," Sansa pleaded, hoping she wouldn't give anything away.
Ygritte fetched a skin of water and tipped it at her lips. She drank deeply, breathlessly.
"Thank you," she said.
Ygritte frowned. She was just about to return the gag -
"Wait!" Sansa burst out.
"Shhhh!" Ygritte said, giving her a little smack across the head. It didn't hurt though.
"What've I tol' you, girl!"
"Sorry," she started, "it's just that I… I need to make water…" she lowered her lashes, ashamed.
"Make water… you know… go ," she pressed.
"Look girl, now's not the time for your fancy talk. Whaddya want?"
"I have to use the privy…"
Ygritte didn't understand.
Sansa steeled herself and squared her shoulders as she said, "piss. I need to… piss."
Ygritte threw back her head and laughed. She quieted down, saw Sansa's tomato shaming blush and toppled over again.
"Piss? Piss you wanna, piss you shall," she said, wiping tears with her pinky.
She untied her legs and led her out back in the bushes.
"Hey! What're ye doing with the Stark gi-" a man started shouting at Ygritte. He fell over with a thud before he could complete his words, a knife stuck out at the nape of his neck.
A scream cut through the air forcing the birds to take flight. A scream Sansa vaguely registered as her own.
Ygritte tried to drag her back to the tent but she fought her off, and fell into the bushes, hands still tied behind her back.
They're here! I'm saved! Thank the Seven and the old Gods!
She scrambled to her feet and just before they could catch her again, Lady bounded up from the foot of the hill and took down a wildling man. The bones his armour was made of a scattered in the snow.
The ropes were too tight for her to take off on her own. She ran towards the direction the knife seemed to come from, Lady following close.
The cold wind cut through her deeper than the low hanging branches. It was harder to run with hands tied, she felt like she'd fall off any second.
A great black stallion galloped through the woods to the barking of dogs. The Hound! Her heart soared.
"My lord! My lord, here!" She called out, panting. His Hound helm turned at her voice and he paved his way towards her.
Instead of stopping he lifted her up like she weighed nothing and set her in front of him.
"Try not to fall," he said. His voice didn't fail to get her heart fluttering even in a time like this.
"Lady, run" she called and the wolf ran behind the stallion dwarfing the three dogs he'd brought.
The woods seemed to stretch forever and yet we're over as soon as they began. She kept glancing over his shoulder to see if they were following but other than the occasional missed arrow, there was nothing.
The wildlings were poor , she thought. They hadn't any horses or even proper bows and swords.
For some reason instead of giving her comfort, the thought made her uneasy. The moment before the man fell over sputtering blood kept flashing before her eyes. His eyes had rolled back, only the whites visible while he most definitely saw only black.
She cut off her thoughts and focussed on the wind. I'm going home.
Once they were out of hills and had bounded across a meadow, he stopped under a tree covered field.
"You alright?" He asked. "Girl!" He shook her thoughts off her.
"Yes, my lord."
"Have they hurt you? Why are you crying?" He asked looking her over frantically. Finding her condition satisfactory, he untied her hands and rubbed the rope burns with his giant ones, his calloused touch somehow alleviating the pain.
She whimpered in agreement. "No, my lord," she said trying to cover up the unladylike noise she made.
"We have to get as far away from their camp as possible," he told her. They mounted and rode ahead.
She couldn't say for how long they rode, she couldn't say she felt any of it either, just that it was close to nightfall and they were still on horseback. The only sound disturbing crickets and hoofbeats were the occasional grumbling from the Hound.
"It all looks the bloody same!" He said in disgust as they neared a forest. "Just pray we didn't come around in one big circle, little bird."
"No! We couldn't have!" She pointed at the weeds by the foot of the larger trees. "We are further south, these flowers didn't grow in those woods. I think the camp was near the wolfswood."
"We must needs go North then. But can't chance running into them, not when I've got to keep you safe all by my bloody self," he frowned like it was her fault.
"Why are you all by yourself?" she asked. "Did my father send you alone?"
"No." He admitted but gave no further answer. "We need to make camp. Brace yourself, little bird, you won't be going home just yet," the corners of his (very distracting) lips turned up, mockingly. "Do you mind sleeping rough or have they made a wildling of you yet?"
"I don't mind, my lord." A night in the woods alone, with my saviour. This is the stuff of songs. She almost smiled, pink from cold and joy.
He narrowed her eyes at her, "now don't go blushing over this. I didn't do this purpose I'll have you know. Your bloody North is huge. And empty. T'is not my fault we're stranded."
"Of course, my lord," she said, biting down a smile.
They made camp at a clearing. The moon reigned over the sky.
The three dogs and Lady had curled up together for warmth under a big willow. The pond beside it was frozen but small fish could be made out just under it. Barely any ground remained uncovered by snow, but the small leaves grew stubbornly showcased the perpetual spring that seemed to breeze through the south of the North.
The wind whistled through the trunks and ran its hands through his hair, like it had done when she'd first laid eyes on him.
She blushed at the memory.
He was hunched over the map he had placed on a big boulder. "Think we might be here," he said more to himself than her. "There should be a pass up the mountain. We cross it and get to this town, here" - "from there it's a straight road to White Harbour. You'll be back in your nest soon enough, pretty bird."
Fortunately for Sansa, that wasn't what happened.
The pass he'd spoken of was shut off with mud and snow. "Fuck this," he cursed loudly. The sound loosened a bunch of snow which promptly fell on him.
She laughed. He groaned.
"Looks like I'm stuck with you now," he said.
"Yes, my lord," she said, failing to keep the joy out of her voice.
"Seven hells," he muttered, almost smiling.