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He's a bastard who stole your brother's crown.

He abandoned your family in their time of need.

He brought wildlings south of the wall.

He lies with a Red witch beneath the open skies, forsaking the old gods and the new.

 

Her stomach roils as Petyr's too-close whispers bring her out of her ruminations in the dark rocking cabin. They are one day from White Harbor and then Sansa Stark can shed Alayne Stone once-and-for-all…or so Petyr promises. Stannis Baratheon's troops have broken against the force of the relentless northern storms, starved and weakened, their king's fate unknown. Roose Bolton lies dead within Winterfell's walls as his bastard, Ramsey Snow, dances a bloody minuet with Jon Snow and his chaotic band of wildlings in the northern woods. It is time for a true Stark to return and bring these mongrels to heel, with the might of the Vale behind her.

 

Yet, the girl does not feel like a true Stark, nor could she look it after days of retching in the ship's cabin, pale and sweaty. The one relief is that it has kept Petyr at bay. Now he looks at her, calculating, making no attempt to hide the contempt from his eyes.

 

"I cannot present you like this. Manderly will not see a queen and he will not bend. We can't claim the North without a great northern house backing us."

 

She looks up at him weakly, as he continues on. "We'll stop at the outer harbor. There are accommodations I can place you in while you recover your bloom and I acquaint myself with the Merman's court. Hardyng's men are still weeks away…it may be better to present you hand-in-hand with the Heir anyhow."

 

The girl lowers her lashes and lies back. "Whatever you think is best, my lord". Her opinion truly matters not, but he requires her willing obedience in all things. He lingers another moment, examining her. "Try to eat something. You look terrible". He sweeps out of the room, leaving the cloying smell of mint in his wake. The girl leans over the fetid bucket beside the bed, emptying bile into its slick.

 

He may be a bastard - but so am I she thinks, uncertainty overwhelming her. She hasn't been a Stark in years, hasn't seen the north in even more. She was sent to King's Landing after her seventh name day to be fostered in the South under her aunt Lysa's care - becoming a stranger to her family in the process. Twice betrothed to monsters, once married to the Imp, an accessory to her father's death, she has been called many things, but never a wolf. 

Little bird. Traitor's daughter. Lannister. Alayne Stone...stupid girl.

Perched in gilded cages, singing songs for each new master, while every true Stark has died or disappeared.

 

 

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She tries to picture him - this Jon Snow. She knows little beyond the rumors that circulated through court years ago after word reached King's Landing that a bastard, looking more like the honorable Ned Stark than any of his true-born children, had shown up at the gates of Winterfell. She vividly remembers that first burning shame flooding through her as she endured weeks of vicious japes lobbed against her mother and father, but always spoken loud enough for her ears. To make matters worse, her father brought the boy into his home and raised him amongst her siblings, with nary a word sent South to counter the vicious gossip at court.

 

Now shame is a familiar constant in the girl's life. There are nights it drives sleep away and mornings where it hits her like a wave. Even in quiet moments that give the illusion of peace, Petyr has a way of twisting a phrase to bring it rising to her cheeks. Yes, Littlefinger is a skillful puppet master. He is just as adept at bringing her other ever-present emotions to the surface; crippling fear and a simmering rage that she manages to mask behind a veneer of speechless timidity and pliable complaisance.

For weeks Petyr has been feeding her information about Jon Snow, the bastard who long ago stole her family and her home. He now styles himself as the King in the North, her dead brother's rightful moniker. What right does he have to that title? A bastard and a betrayer of vows? He is no longer Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, nor does he hold Winterfell - his followers are wildings, Night's Watch deserters, and some Northmen who won't follow the Boltons, yet have no better alternative to align themselves with.

Surely they'd rather rally behind a Stark,  Petyr assures her and his words remind her of all Jon Snow has stolen from her.

While Sansa Stark was punished by her Aunt Lysa for the shame Jon Snow brought to their family, the bastard supped between Bran and Rickon in Winterfell's Great Hall, safe under the protection of the Lord and Lady Stark. While Sansa Stark was mocked and belittled by Joffrey, her betrothed and "one true love",  Jon Snow was playing at swords with Robb and gifting Arya that dreadful Needle.

Sansa had longed for a sister, a confidante, an ally. When she learned her father would be travelling south as the new Hand, she had been ecstatic…her loneliness would surely ease with the arrival of her true sister and father. If her father was named Hand, then it couldn't matter too much that a bastard had stained their family name.  Yet, when Lord Stark and his retinue arrived south, nothing was made right. Her father had little time for his eldest daughter and he made no effort to forge the right connections at court. Her sister…well her sister was a wild thing who had no interest in Sansa or behaving in an acceptable manner. Their father encouraged her uncivilized pastimes and both the Hand and his youngest daughter disregarded Sansa's warnings about acting so freely at court. Arya too blatantly longed for the North, speaking openly and fondly of the bastard, Jon Snow, insulting people everywhere she went, to Sansa's great mortification.

Then, before any time at all, nothing could ever be made right again. Lord Eddard investigated the wrong things and challenged the wrong people. Her father was executed for treason before Sansa's eyes and her sister vanished. Soon enough, what little was left of Sansa Stark ceased to be completely.

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Where was Jon Snow when Robb's men betrayed him?

Where was Jon Snow when Theon Greyjoy murdered her babe brothers and sacked Winterfell?

Jon Snow was sleeping amongst wildings in the deep north, betraying his Night's Watch vows, or so the stories say.

 

Even so, after, they named him Lord Commander and now they've named him King in the North…and where were you? Professing your loyalty to Joffrey, marrying Tyrion Lannister, hiding in the Vale…The girl's disgust with herself runs deep but it does little to stem the bitterness she feels toward this unknown Jon Snow, the bastard who put the first dent in her family's armor, who helped validate the Lannister's accusations of treason against her father. You played your part as well… an ugly voice points out and she must leave this room or go mad.

 

It's been a week and half since Petyr deposited her at this so-called "inn", though she knows brothel is the nearer truth. He told her to stay in her room and recover, and left only Ser Lyn Corbray to guard her door and ferry bread and fish stew up to her from the kitchen. The bread is hard, and the fish stew makes her stomach flip, but never-the-less, this arrangement serves the girl well. Corbray's lack of interest in women as well as his knowledge of her reliable obedience, make him a careless and inconsistent guard.  He has yet to peek inside her room without her express invitation.

 

It is nothing to slip out, hood up, while he pursues his own distractions elsewhere. She slides onto a bench in the corner of the main hall, giving the proprietor a small nod. It means little for him to see a bastard girl here. Discarding Alayne is another promise of Petyr's that has yet to come to fruition.

 

She sees the wisdom in keeping up the ruse. This is no place for a lady, with its soot stained ceiling and smoky air. The patrons are dark, dangerous men, and in most circumstances even Alayne Stone would be unsafe here. But the grizzled owner knows she is here with Corbray, who has done a poor job concealing his Valyrian steel and carries a heavy purse. He'll shoot a warning to any who draw too near, and as long as she keeps her hood up and attention away from herself, he tolerates her presence a few hours each day.

 

She sits in the corner, ears straining to catch the threads of conversation, starving for any information that doesn't come from Littlefinger's mouth. For weeks she has been cut off from any other source and it's a suffocating, claustrophobic thing to know how weak it makes her. She gleans little enlightenment here though. The subjects of conversation vary from crude jokes to ugly schemes against the smallfolk who have been flooding into the city from the broader north.

 

It seems Petyr spoke the truth when he told her that Autumn had not been kind to her people. The war of five kings has left them ill-prepared for winter and Roose Bolton did little to bring order, before succumbing to whatever killed him within Winterfell's walls. Instead of preparing for winter, his legitimized bastard has focused his energy on antagonizing the smallfolk and attempting to root out the White Wolf and his pack of misfits. White Harbor alone has maintained consistent trade with the south, remaining relatively untouched by the crisscrossing violence between the Iron Born, Northmen and wildings.

 

Even that peace is now threatened. The girl hears whispers of a great pack of wolves roving through the Barrowlands and rumor has it the bastards have brought their fight south of the Dreadfort and Winterfell. North of the Neck, the Kingsroad is avoided completely and boats traveling the White Knife must be heavily guarded.

 

Tonight the hall is relatively quiet. It's been a cold, wet day and the mood is brooding and unfriendly. Just as the girl decides to head back up, however, the door to the outside swings open and three men who clearly don’t belong, step across the threshold. 

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Her pulse quickens as recognition tingles down her spine. It's been years since she saw him last, fat and drunk at some tourney or another. He is much changed, but the oldest of the three men is clearly Thoros of Myr. His once fiery red robes and hair are faded to a dull rust and thinning grey respectively and his physique has dwindled considerably. His two companions are a study in contrasts - one, a slender boy with pale hair and a pale cloak, of high quality but well worn - the second a giant man with unruly black hair and beard, shoulders hunched in on himself, a hammer at his side.

 

They pause at the threshold, deliberately scanning the room with their eyes before Thoros leads their party to the table nearest the hearth, central to the room, yelling "Ale" over his shoulder to the owner as they pass by. This is a party that wants to be seen and is clearly searching for something - a departure from the establishment's usual circumspect crowd.

 

The girl thinks fast - they are too far for her to overhear their conversation, so she takes a calculated risk, lowering her hood as she slides off her bench and sweeps up to the bar. The innkeeper places three full cups there, raising his eyebrow and scowling as she makes a grab for them.

 

"Allow me…men drink more and stay longer when a pretty maid serves them". His scowl darkens, but he makes no move to stop her so the girl takes a deep breath and makes her way to the three men warming themselves by the hearth, hoping this foolishness proves its worth.

 

Though the dye she's been using for years has faded, and auburn is visible, especially at the roots, she promises herself she won't be recognized. The wan, limp haired young woman serving him drinks at the edge of the world is a far cry from the refined nobleman's daughter that Thoros would have last laid his wine-soaked eyes upon.

 

She's not sure if it's relief or bitter disappointment that grips her when he doesn't even spare her a glance as she places their drinks carefully on the table. The other two, however, both look her over, and she tamps down the now instinctual revulsion she feels every time she draws a man's gaze.

 

"If he's in the city, he'll stop here, I'm sure" Thoros says to his companions as he fishes for coin in his loose robes. The larger man scowls as he turns from the girl and takes a deep draft of his ale. The blonde boy smiles lazily up at her, his almost-violet eyes twinkling. "Maybe she knows…" he says raising his cup to her, smirking. She takes the opportunity, quirking her brow in a flirtatious manner and boldly sits down beside the hulking young man who is now scowling into his cup. "Oh, I know many things…when the right man is asking" she croons.

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At this, Thoros finally looks up at her, frowning. "We've no interest in that, lass. Be on your way" he says dismissively, flicking a few coins at her.

 

The limits of man's imagination.

 

She swallows her rage, her sloe-eyed expression never leaving her face. "Oh, I don't peddle in that…for that, you'd have to look upstairs" she glances up towards the blackened ceiling, above which, the tavern whores do their business in the rooms adjacent to hers. "But if you're looking for information…", at this she playfully elbows the black haired brute, who she now realizes is much younger than he first appeared. At her prodding, he sputters into his cup, finally expelling the breath he was holding since she sat down beside him.

 

Gracefully she stands up, winking at the pale youth who is now grinning broadly at her. "Wave when you're in need of another round". With that she walks away, holding her breath, fervently wishing for this bet to pay off. She deposits the coins at the bar where the owner is sulking and quietly sits back down on her usual bench.

 

How much time till Corbray comes back? What information is worth this risk?

 

She barely has time to gather her thoughts before the boy with the violet eyes is waving emphatically, crowing "More Ale!" She forces her heart to slow as she practically skips back to the bar to retrieve more drinks. Since her earlier promise to the innkeeper seems to be fulfilling itself, he readily hands her a flagon and motions towards the fireside table.

 

This time, as she approaches, Thoros is leaning back, his eyes coolly appraising her. The black haired young man gazes steadily into the fire, though he has made room enough on the bench for her to sit without touching him. The fair-haired fiend grins at her, expectantly.

 

After placing the container, she sits, smoothing her skirts under the table, waiting for one of them to speak.

 

"We're looking for the smuggler." Thoros leans forward, intently.

 

Smuggler? She stares back, impassively. Without waiting another beat, the black haired youth slams his cup on the table, spilling the others' ale and shaking the table.

 

"Who cares about the bloody smuggler! We're wasting our time." He grabs his hair in frustration and glares at his two companions.

 

Thoros glares back, wary and exasperated, "the fires are pointing here, boy. If you want to find the girl, they say we must find the smuggler."

 

Gooseflesh prickles her skin, and suddenly she regrets the game she's playing. Slowly, she rises from the table as the black-haired man raises his head from his hands, his eyes anguished. "We don't need to find her…we already know where she is. Everyone knows where she is…that Bolton bastard has Arya trapped in Winterfell and we're wasting time, following your useless visions!"

 

Time stills and she can feel the blood draining from her face.

 

Arya…she digs her nails into her palm, willing herself back into the moment.

 

She forces herself to look coolly at the three men, "You want the smuggler…come back tomorrow night, same time. I'll have the information you need then." With that she sweeps away, not waiting for a response, her skin cold and her legs weak. She walks past the innkeeper, without a glance, and up the stairs and into her room, forgetting to check for Corbray down the darkened halls.

 

She slides down against the closed door, her heart thumping out of her chest.

 

I'm stupid. A stupid little girl with stupid dreams who never learns.

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She sits by her small window the next morning, letting the pale light bathe her face while trying to ignore the stench of fish and fear that permeate the small room.

 

Stupid girl. She can't believe she fled last night before learning anything more of the smuggler or Arya….Arya! How could those men know Arya? And how could she possibly be in Winterfell? She spent most of the night trying to fit together a scenario that made any sense, and now she is shaken and exhausted, realizing she is missing too many pieces to make any assumptions.

 

Even worse, she realizes almost everyone else seems to know more than she does. That great brute of a boy, with dirt under his fingernails, and no sense of how to carry himself, knows more about the fate of her sister than she does. In fact, judging by his anguish the night before, he seems to actually know her sister more than she does. How?

 

And if those three fools know anything, then Baelish knows more. He knows that Arya is in Winterfell and he has kept it from her. What else is he keeping from her? What else doesn't she know?

 

Which brings her back to the riddle of the smuggler. If she is to learn any more of her sister's fate, it won't come from Littlefinger. She must learn it from Thoros and his young companions. To do that, she needs to provide evidence of this smuggler they are looking for. Unfortunately, like the coward she truly is, she fled the scene before she could glean any other clues to who they are looking for.

 

She leans her forehead against the greasy glass, her shoulders sagging in exhausted frustration. She can hear two of the inn's women cackling in the room next door, discussing the previous night's clients.

 

He wants me to tell him it's too big, so…I tell him it's too big. Never you mind, it's actually the size of shriveled bean. They're not paying for the truth, Willa. They're not paying for the truth!

 

The girl lifts her head and shakes herself. She needs to pull it together. She'll wash up, get some rest and pull this smuggler right out of the air if she has to. She ran last night, but this evening she'll have another chance. She must take it.

 

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Later, she perches on the edge of her bed, a bundle of nervous energy. It's almost the hour in which she told them to meet her and she should slip downstairs. She hasn't heard Corbray outside for at least fifteen minutes so it's now or never.

 

She rises, pulling her simple braid over her shoulder. Just as she reaches for the door handle, it opens and Petyr steps into the space, mere inches from her now shaking fingers. She pulls them back quickly, hiding them in her skirts, but she can't hide the shock and fear that must show plainly on her face.

 

His eyes narrow and he steps even closer, and her mind is blank and white and useless with fright. Tilting his head, he reaches for her traitor hand, tutting at her as he pushes her sleeve up revealing her forearm. He turns her palm up and presses a thumb to her inner arm, as if testing a cut of steak.

 

"You haven't been eating…Corbray tells me you barely touch your food." He casts a significant look at the fish stew that sits cold upon her table.

 

She swallows, "Forgive me, my lord…I'm trying, I really am." she doesn't have to feign the quiver in her voice.

 

He let's go of her roughly. "If a common whore can learn to swallow something distasteful for a few coin, a future queen should be able to for a crown". She feels sucker punched as he goes on, slipping into that dulcet tone which always precedes something unpleasant.

 

"Yet, you always have been a fragile bird…without me to care for you, what would become of you, my love?" He lifts her chin with a gloved hand. "Don't fret, I've brought you better provisions," he tilts her chin toward the large sack he must have dropped by the door. "I can't move you yet. Manderly is proving harder to sway than expected but soon enough those Snow bastards will be nipping at each other's heels right on his doorstep. Then he'll have no choice but to beg for the Knights of the Vale."

 

He drops her chin, and walks to the sack, drawing a pear out and holding it out to her. When she reaches for it, he withholds it, looking expectant.

 

She is familiar with this particular dance. She steps forward, almost shyly "Thank you, my lord…" she whispers as he makes to offer her a cheek. I no longer have to rise to my toes, she thinks, darkly. At the last moment, he grabs her, at the same time, turning his face so that her lips meet his cold dry ones. She lets her body relax and wills herself not to pull away. Finally, he releases her and steps back as she bows her head, not trusting herself to control her face.

 

"Soon, my dove" he coos. Revulsion cramps her stomach, but she peeks up meekly through her lashes, making out his self-satisfied smirk. At last, he leaves her and she collapses on her bed, the pear forgotten on the dirty floor. 

 

Minutes later, Corbray storms in, hauling her up by her arms. "I know you've been sneaking out…" he glares at her, his grip bruising. "If you told him, I swear I'll…" Realizing his fear, she places a hand on his chest.

"Why would I do that? I just need a bit of air…surely you understand? Who could blame either of us for needing a bit of air." Her voice is soft,  and she forcess her eyes wide and round, pleading. His grip lightens and he sneers in disgust.

 

"Then eat the damn food, so we can get out of this shithole!" He storms out and she can hear his boots stomping away down the hall.

 

She shakes herself, before bolting for the door, desperate for Thoros and his companions to be waiting for her below.

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In the first hour that she waits, the girl is still so distressed from Baelish's visit, she hardly notices the time.

In the second hour, she's a nervous wreck, worried that she somehow missed Thoros and his companions, while she was still upstairs.

By the third hour, she is despondent, convinced they were never coming in the first place.

 

She sits on her bench far later than any other night, as the hall gets louder and the men rowdier. Stolen glances have turned to open leers. Hours of drinking are making the men bolder, yet the girl can't will her legs to push her up from her seat. Making her way back to her room, a failure, seems an impossible task.

 

At some point an argument escalates to a brawl. Right before a stool comes flying in her direction, the girl is hauled out of her seat by another woman, older than the girl, but younger than most of the women she's seen here--pulling or being pulled through doorways. "Whoever has you glued to that seat, isn't coming!" she scolds. "Now get upstairs before something bad happens". The girl turns dull eyes to the woman, whose face softens. "What's your name?" she asks, guiding the girl up the stairs. "Alayne…always Alayne" she whispers.

 

"Well Alayne, is pretty enough for always, isn't it? I'm Willa, and I know who you're waiting for." At this, the girl looks up sharply, her eyes narrowing in distrust. The woman only gives her an appraising look. "I've also seen the man who brought you here. He's a dangerous man, but I don't need to tell you that, do I?" Now, they stand in the girl's doorway and she holds her breath, unsure. The woman only nudges her across the threshold, "go inside, and lock your door. Their blood is up now," she gestures down the stairs "and soon enough they'll come prowling." She closes the door, and the girl dutifully locks it behind her.

 

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The next day, a sharp knock wakes her, and she stares in tired confusion. Another knock, and then, remembering the bolted door, the girl scrambles out of bed to open it. The woman from last night bustles past her, whistling, a wash basin and a bundle of clothing in her arms.

 

"Were you honestly asleep? You lazy girl, I know you do nothing all day but pine at that window. How were you still abed?" Her tone is merry, as she approaches, however, gently but insistently lifting the girl's bedclothes over her head, before turning to grab a washcloth from the basin.

 

At this, the girl finally comes alive, wordlessly asserting that she can, indeed, wash and dress herself. She is capable of that much. "Thank you…Willa, for last night" she offers, unsure about the woman's presence and a bit in shock over the sudden change in energy that's arrived with her.

 

"I recognize a call for help when I hear it," the older woman gently lets out the girl's braid, running her hands through the limp locks. "You need a proper wash, and you're not going to get it here. Come, I'll take you to the bathhouse. I have just the thing to draw out this dye." The girl starts to protest, glancing toward the door. "Don't worry about him. He waved his best leg of three at the wrong man last night and is currently nursing a swollen eye and more down the hall. We have plenty of time."

 

And for the first time in weeks, a true smile steals across the girl's face. "Well, in that case, I have snacks" she offers, brightly, grabbing the sack before they head out the door.

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The girl steps back into the sunlight, cheeks flush from the steamy baths, her now auburn hair several inches shorter and  much cleaner. It still doesn't shine like Sansa Stark's hair once did, and she'll no longer be able to wear it in the complicated styles of the South. Even so, her natural growth blends nicely with the lightened chestnut tones Willa was able to achieve and the girl feels lighter than she has in years.


"The North is peppered with natural hot springs. Tis the only reason common folk like us get to enjoy a hot bath every once and awhile. It's one advantage we have over you southron girls. That, and our more virile men…" Willa winks at the girl, who is too happy about being outside to take umbrage at being mistaken for southron or common. Her mood darkens slightly at Willa's virile men comment, however. She's had to suffer the last hour, listening to all the women in the bathhouse chitter about the White Wolf and his many supposed attributes.

 

They say he is a comely man.

Too pretty to have stayed a crow…

He turns into a great white wolf at night and steals maids away from their beds. The girls come back with the White Wolf's babes in their bellies, or so they tell their parents.

He's got a great, big, magical member. It's even ensorcelled a Red Witch of R'llor…at the last the girl had to duck her head beneath the water to stop her eyeroll and to explain her blush.

 

He bravely fights to save his sister, Arya, the last true Stark.

His men take back the stores that the Boltons have unjustly taken…and they give them back to the smallfolk who have already lost too much in these long years of war.

He's got dark, beautiful curls to rival even the loveliest maiden, yet he fights with the skill of ten warriors. The last three claims; all the women at the bathhouse somehow know to be true.

 

Now though, with the northern sun shining down upon her, and her first taste of freedom in weeks, the girl doesn't want to think on the White Wolf. She doesn't want to think at all. She smiles warmly at Willa, lifting up her sack and shakes it a little to prove the contents. "Enough of Northern and Southron differences. Let's find somewhere to share a meal, away from men and work and war…"

 

At this, Willa takes her free hand, smiling, "Come Alayne, if such a place exists, we'll find it yet today", and the two make their way through the cobbled streets of White Harbor. The city is smaller than it was in Sansa Stark's memories; still orderly and clean; it's also more crowded than she remembers and there are fewer adornments grazing doorways and bannisters.

 

She finds it fitting that White Harbor was where she bade farewell to the North as a girl and is now where she returns as a young woman. As a girl she slept at White Castle for a fortnight as her ship was prepared. There were feasts every night with singers and dancing. Her whole family had come to see her off and she sat in a place of honor, eating lemon cakes till she was full to bursting, and then fell asleep in her mother's arms while bards sang love songs late into the evening.

 

Today, in this moment, sitting in Fishfoot yard with Willa, sucking honey cake off her fingers, the girl allows herself these happy memories. She floats in them, her stomach full and troubles tucked away, if only for the afternoon.

 

"Alayne, isn't that your lad," Willa nudges her foot, pointing, "over there…". Still caught in her daydream, the girl replies, "I have no lad…" before snapping to attention when she realizes that Willa is pointing across the square at the hulking raven haired youth from the other night; Thoros's awkward companion. Now he stands not 30 yards away, rolling nervously on the balls of his feet, staring down an alleyway, clearly waiting for something.

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There he stands, with his stupid hair sticking every which way, and his stupid shoulders hunched over his stupid giant back, and she is sure he must have a stupid look plastered on that stupid face and if she could just see it…and before the girl realizes what she's doing, she has crossed the square and grabbed his arm, and he's turning towards her, a look of utter confusion overtaking his face.

 

And she was right, wasn't she? He does have a stupid, dopey, befuddled look on his face and she's so mad, she could…

 

"Hey! Stop that!" he comes out of his stupor as she swats at his chest, furiously.

 

"Where were you the other night! You were meant to meet me!" She doesn't know where this anger is coming from, as she finally stops hitting him, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes.

 

"Meet you? You just swept off without a word…without a name!" He exclaims as she works to gather herself.

 

"But, the smuggler…" she finally counters, weakly.

 

"We've already found him, girl", the red priest grunts, materializing out of the crowd, with several large packs in his arms. "Here, Gendry," he shoves the largest pack into the boys chest, who is still glaring at her. "Well, more like we've missed him…as he's apparently sailed off weeks ago on some unknown mission for Lord Pig…'fraid I misread the fires this time."

 

He turns to her, nodding, "All the same, I see he's found you, so let's be on our way."

 

Found her?

 

"Where is Ned, anyway?" Thoros asks, peering through the crowd.

 

Ned?

 

"He hasn't come back yet" Gendry bites out, his glare intensifying as he looks at the girl with distrust. "He insisted on checking back on you before heading out, and now he's gone, and you're here, spitting like a wildcat…"

 

At this remark, the girl feels Willa stroke her hair fondly, purring "a clean and pretty wildcat, though", as she grins salaciously at the boy, whose whole face reddens.

 

"And why'd he decide to come find me, now? You've apparently already found your smuggler" the girl asks, still angry.

 

"Gods, if I know," the young man grumbles while Thoros offers "I s'pose as to get one last glance at a pretty face before we head north. The boy has a bard's heart and the devil's demeanor." Willa nods and the girl scowls. She is just about done with this useless conversation and these useless men. Just as she's about to turn away, the fair haired boy comes skittering down the alleyway toward them, yelling excitedly "I found out who she is! She's one of Littlefinger's infamous whores!"

 

Willa's arm snakes out and she twists the boy's ear as he comes to a halt at their sides. "Quiet, fool! You don't want to be yelling that man's name in public" she hisses at him. "Besides, she's no whore yet…" her eyes slanting to the girl, slyly.

 

"Och, leggo of me, Woman!" The boy pulls away, irritably, before noticing the girl, a grin quick to spread across his face. "You are here with Littlefinger," he says to her, "I asked around and the other whores say you arrived almost two weeks ago in the dead of night, with an armed guard. They say he's going to ferry you down to one of his brothels in King's Landing as soon as he concludes his business here…"

 

"Well whores lie!" The girl fumes. Movement over the boy's shoulder draws her attention, and blood drains from her face. Corbray is stalking down the alley, straight for them, looking down and struggling with his scabbard.

 

"What did you do, you fool!" She seethes. The boy's eyes widen before he ducks into the crowd. Frantic, the girl grabs the black haired youth, practically pulling him on top of her, backing into a nearby wall. They both freeze as Corbray stalks by, roughly pushing Willa out of his way before disappearing down a crowded street.

 

She waits another few beats, her breath shallow. Finally, when she's relatively sure Corbray isn't coming back, she pushes the young man off her, "Get off my foot!"

 

"Hey, you pulled me--"

 

"Enough, enough!" She throws her palm up to his face. "This has been a tremendous, foolish waste of time. Come on, Willa. I must get back before Corbray returns." She starts pulling Willa back down the alley, but half way down the street, the older woman pulls back.

 

"Alayne, stop!" The girl turns to face Willa, and the woman's face has lost all of its earlier gaiety. She steps closer, placing a hand on the girl's cheek. "Girl, I don't know your story. I don't know how you ended up in that man's web or what lies he's spun" her voice is grave, "but lies they are, dear. If you stay with him, you'll never be free. "

 

All the tension drains from the girl, hearing the truth spoken so plainly, after so many years of denying it. Petyr has never protected her and he's never going to let her go. He'll keep cutting away at her until there's nothing left. It's so clear, in the light of day that a strangled sob erupts from her.

 

Willa pulls her into her arms, stroking her hair. "Now, you have an opportunity right here, right now…but you have to choose to take it. I know those three don't look like much, but that big black haired lad will keep most kinds of trouble away with his size alone, and a pretty thing like you should be able to keep him loyal." At this, Willa's solemn eyes crinkle, "just practice a little more kindness toward him from now on, eh?"

 

The girl steps back, her mind turning. They aren't much, she thinks…but they mentioned Arya. They're looking for Arya. It's suddenly so obvious. Her sister is alive! Her sister is alive and every moment she stands waffling here, is a moment wasted. She takes a deep breath, grounding herself, before looking up at Willa.

Chapter Text

The two men look on the girl stonily, while the boy with the violet eyes grins.

 

"My name is Alayne Stone. As Ned here discovered, I have been in Lord Baelish's…service for the last few years. However, I now find that situation untenable," she says primly, giving them each a deliberate look before continuing…"I was hoping to travel north with you."

 

"Find yourself another situation, girl. We've no need of your particular services" The priest says. "Now, come boys. We've a ferry to catch-"

 

"Wait" She moves in front of him, "wait…you said you came here because the fires told you to find a smuggler which would lead you to a girl! Well…I'm a girl, and Petyr Baelish is most certainly a smuggler." She's desperate now as Gendry pushes past her as well, "You ain't the girl we're looking for."

 

At this, Willa steps in, "Well, who's the girl you're looking for?"

 

"Arya Stark, the lady of Winterfell!" Gendry glares at Willa when she retorts, "And what are you going to do with a lady?"

 

"Save her!"

 

"Well, if you want to play hero, there's no need to get yourselves killed by that Ramsey Snow and his hounds…there's a girl right here who needs saving."

 

"I do not need saving!" now it's Alayne's turn to glare at Willa. "I'm simply offering to help you rescue Arya Stark!"

 

"Yours is not the kind of help we need," Thoros marches past, but Alayne and Willa are relentless, badgering Gendry and Thoros all down the cobbled avenues of White Harbor towards the river. Soon Ned has joined them, offering up his own unhelpful arguments on why Alayne should join their trio.

 

Just as the girl uses, "but I have food-" Thoros turns and cuts her off.  "Enough child! You say you don't need saving. If so, you're a woman free to do as she wishes. I strongly advise you to wish yourself elsewhere, but if you want to come north, come north. Trying to stop you is only going to make us miss our boat."

 

At this he turns, heading to the river docks. The two younger men hesitate, watching the girl, as a small smile steals across her face. She hugs Willa fiercely, murmuring a thank you into the woman's ear, as Gendry huffs away, following the red priest.

 

"Take care of yourself, dear. Gods know, a woman can't expect anyone else to", and with that Willa is melting back into the crowd.

 

The boy winks at her, taking her sack of food from her hands. "I'm Edric Dayne, the lord of Starfall, and I vow that you shall always have a place by my hearth". The girl rolls her eyes, and with a flippant curtsy, retorts "and I'm Sansa Stark, the true lady of Winterfell. I pledge to ask no service of you that may bring you dishonor." At this, the boy let's out a belly laugh, feigning a tumble to the ground. "You slay me, lady, you slay me…" She ruffles his hair, playfully and the two walk to the docks, their heads tilted together.

 

-----

Thoros has procured passage for them up the White Knife as far as the rapids on a horse drawn boat, in exchange for Gendry's muscle and their protection of the goods being ferried up the river.

 

As the older boy loads the cargo, the red priest drinks with some men on the docks. Alayne and Ned idle against a wall, skipping stones into the water.

 

"Why'd you come all this way for Arya Stark?" she asks, carefully.

 

The boy recounts his history, squiring for Lord Beric Dondarion and roving through the riverlands with the brotherhood without banners. As he recounts how he met both Thoros and Gendry, the girl realizes he truly is the young lord of Starfall. She is not the only highborn who has strayed far from the path laid out for them.

 

When Arya comes into the story, the girl's heart twinges,"…so at some point after we lost her, the Bolton's got her. Things had gone bad in the Riverlands. We lost Lord Dondarion...and, well the brotherhood lost its way. I met up with Gendry at the inn where he'd been working metal. When I told him the news on Arya, he insisted we head north. One day, Thoros found us, and now we've found you," he smiles up at her. It's clear there is more he's leaving out, but she can't place it.

 

As she mulls it over, Gendry summons them back to the boat. Ned vaults in as Thoros stumbles against the draft horse, drunk and merry.

 

She hesitates on the dock, fussing with her cloak. Finally, Gendry looks back at her, warily. "Well are you coming or not? Not an hour ago you're begging us to bring you along and now you look like you've stepped in shit."

 

"Well…it's just, I get seasick."

 

He widens his arms and looks around him, bemused. "Does this look like the bloody sea?"

 

At this she huffs in frustration and stomps onto the narrowboat, "well if I need to fetch up, I'm aiming for your boots".

 

Ned cackles and Thoros pulls a nubby root and a small knife from his robes, handing them to her. "Chew on slivers of this and put pressure here," he lightly touches the inside of her wrist. "The idiot has a point…it shouldn't be as bad here as on the open water, but if you still can't help yourself…aim for his boots". He gives a nod toward Gendry before moving to the head of the craft to speak with the boatman. 

 

Alayne takes a deep breath, before settling in between two crates, her eyes pointed north.

Chapter Text

"Stop staring at me."

"I ain't starin' at you."

"You are."

 

Angry blotches creep up Gendry's neck and he scowls. "It's just, you look like someone."

 

"Everyone looks like someone, you dolt." Ned butts in.

 

"She looks like someone else…" Gendry turns to cuff the smaller boy.

 

Alayne narrows her eyes…"Who?"

 

Gendry turns back to her, scrunching his face, squinting, "Well, I can't lay my finger on it, see…well, maybe you don't look like someone so much as you just remind me of someone, though I can't think on who."

 

"You've, never in your life, been around a girl as pretty as our Alayne."  Ned quips before breaking into song.

 

Ruby…

let down your golden hair for me tonight….

Let down your golden hair for me to climb…

Don't you know your world's on fire

And I'm trying to get a message through to you…*

 

His voice is sweet and clear, and the girl exhales and leans back, her gaze drifting back to the water. She feels Gendry stand up and brush past to help maneuver the boat under the upcoming bridge. We never crossed paths before now…and Arya and I are nothing alike, she assures herself.

 

Ned continues on, with his sad, sweet song, and the girl feels some semblance of peace settle across her shoulders. The red priest had spoken true, for she doesn't feel sick on the river boat. The fresh air, and the steady pace of the draft horse, make for surprisingly pleasant travel.

 

For three full days, they've been heading up the White Knife, stopping along the river bank each afternoon to rest the horse and warm themselves by the campfire. Each night, they sleep on the deck of the boat, huddled under a tarp.

 

In those three days, Alayne has struggled to prove her usefulness.

 

-----

On the first evening, Gendry huffs at her. "Well, o' course your parents sold you to a brothel. Do you really not know how to tend a cookfire?"

 

She gives him an icy stare until he starts "I didn't mean--"

 

She cuts him off, coldly. "My parents never sold me to anyone. Don't speak on that which you know nothing of." She sweeps away to the boat, furious and ashamed. Her parents didn't sell her. They gave her away, freely. Somehow, that feels worse.

 

She's still in a bad humor later, as she frets about how little the few skills she does have seem to apply to this cold new world she's stepped into. She's roused from her thoughts when she feels a great skulking form behind her.

 

Eventually, she deigns to turn, and finds Gendry holding a blanket, a rueful expression on his face. "Thought you might be cold." She accepts the peace offering, wrapping it around her shoulders as he sits down beside her.

 

"I shouldn't a said that earlier."

 

"No, you shouldn't have."

 

They sit together, silently gazing up at the stars. Slowly she feels something unfurl a little in her chest, and she starts pointing out all the constellations she knows, while he listens amiably.

------

By the second day, the river traffic has already started to taper. The girl notes that there are fewer river runners navigating down from the north than she remembers, as well as fewer traders peddling their wares along the river banks.

 

Nonetheless, she manages to procure a sewing kit that afternoon, in exchange for several pieces of fruit from Baelish's bag. As she's chatting with the woman, she notices half a dozen armored men with tridents, a merman blazoned on their surcoats. They are slowly making their way closer, looking into boats and questioning the boatmen and traders along their path.

 

Panic spikes through her, as she quickly excuses herself and heads  back to the boat. She passes Ned, who is gazing curiously at the guards from atop a boulder. "They seem to be searching for something…or someone," he comments, keeping his posture casual, his tone bored.

 

She ducks into the boat and crouches between some crates as Gendry gently drapes a canvas over her. "Just in case…" he whispers.

 

She waits long minutes until she hears the guards finally walk up and ask Gendry his business. His low-toned responses are partially obscured by her covering.

 

"And is there anyone else with you?" She holds her breath.

 

"Just the boatman, the priest, and the boy."

 

"We're looking for a maiden, fair with brown hair, maybe auburn."

 

Thoros cuts in then, his voice thick with drink. "If you find her…send her to me! I'll show her my flaming sword…Any of you ever see a flaming sword?" She can hear him stumbling across the boat deck, making his way toward the other men.

 

"Leave off, you drunk!" she hears one of the men yell, dismissively. "Let's go. Nights coming."

 

Later, the priest stares at her from across the campfire, his eyes sober. "You may be more trouble than I thought, girl."

 

She ducks her head, remaining silent as she works on mending Ned's lilac cloak.

 

That night she lies awake, trying to focus on the gentle rocking of the boat against the shore instead of her chaotic thoughts. She can just make out the measured breathing of Ned's sleep under the red priest's staccato snoring.

 

"I know you're awake" Gendry whispers, closer than she realized. "I can practically hear that noisy mind of yours."

 

She huffs, her eyeroll hidden in the darkness.

 

"Why'd you come with us?" He asks.

 

She doesn't answer, so instead he tries, "How do you know you can trust us?"

 

"I don't." she snaps, reflexively . Then, softening, she adds "well, I suppose that you're the first people I've met in a long time, who don't want anything from me."

 

He sighs. "That's a poor standard to work from."

 

"Well, it's better than the standards I've used in the past. I have a history of poor judgement," she concedes.

 

"Hmph, more like shit judgement," He returns. 

 

She pauses, rolling his sentiment around in her head, then concurs, "shit judgement."

 

Gendry barks out a surprised laugh, and soon enough they're both howling, rolling on the hard deck, tears in their eyes.

 

Finally, Thoros throws a boot their way, yelling "for the love of light, shut up!"

 

------

 

On this third evening, the mood in their camp is subdued. The grassy wetlands nearer the coast have given way to a great floodplain forest, with large willows and cottonwood trees draping their branches balefully over the river and its many small feeder streams.

 

The boatman and Gendry had struggled several curse-filled hours to pull the narrowboat a few hundred meters up one such stream, stowing it beneath a large ghostly black willow. Earlier in the day, their horse had pulled up lame so after they were settled, the boatman trudged off with her down a well-worn path in search of a farrier.

 

Now, Thoros is sleeping in the boat, while the girl watches the large snowflakes that are accumulating on Gendry's raven hair. He's surly because the wood is wet and the fire won't take. Even Ned is unusually quiet.

 

"Your hair is a disaster." She breaks the silence.

 

He grunts, noncommittally, in response.

 

"Let me clean it up for you."

 

"You're not touching my hair." Now the glove has been thrown, and she has decided to pick it up. She rises to her feet, shears in hand, an imperious look on her face. Soon enough Ned is egging her on, and Gendry is warding her off and they're arguing and they're laughing and they completely miss the otherworldly shrieks until they're raining down from above.

Chapter Text

Ned is backing into a bush laughing, as the girl is waving the shears in Gendry's face…and suddenly a cacophony of high pitched shrieking and howling erupts from the forest, raining down from the great willow above and whooping out of the forest around them.

 

The girl is cringing and Gendry is crouching, his hands over his ears.  Just as her thoughts come rushing back to her, several things happen at once. The fire is doused, an object springs out at Gendry and a dozen shadowed figures drop down in their midst. The girl screams as one of the figures grabs Ned, a gleam of steel raised to his throat.

 

"Let him go. He's just a boy!" The girl is so afraid, her blood sings as she takes a step toward, what she now realizes is a man, holding Ned.

 

"Easy girl," one of the forms materializes from the shadows, suddenly blazing a torch high above them, shedding harsh light and stark shadows across their camp. "He'll come to no harm just as long as you cooperate."

 

"What do you want?" Gendry growls, struggling against a tangle of weighted netting that's roped around him.

 

"We're just here for the tithe." The man continues, his voice calm. Now that he's beside her, she realizes his height doesn't quite reach hers and he's clad all in green. "It's usually left for us unattended, but since you're here, we're taking extra precautions tonight."

 

"Tithe? On whose authority?" the girl demands.

 

"The King in the North, Jon Snow."

 

At this, Gendry's shoulders sag in relief and he stops struggling. "Well that's exactly who we are looking for!"

 

The girl's eyes bug from her head, "I thought we were looking for Arya!" she snaps at him, her nerves completely frayed.

 

"Girl, are you daft? You think the four of us are going to march into Winterfell and save her, ourselves? The White Wolf is the best hope she has. Of course we're throwing our lot in with him!"

 

Before she can muster a response, a rustling, coupled with a few choice curse words, comes from the boat. A moment later, the red priest pushes his way into the torch light. "I am Thoros, late of Myr. The Lord of Light has led us here. May we be the instruments that keep the darkness at bay." He holds out a hand to the green man, who simply stares back.

 

"We already have one follower of R'hllor in our camp…I don't know a need for another."

 

"Ahh, but the night is dark and full of terrors…"

 

"I'm a knight and a blacksmith!" Gendry jumps in, a bit desperately. At this, the green man looks intrigued.

 

"And I'm a squire!" adds Ned, still being held, though loosely now, by one of the marauders. The green man squints at the boy before finally turning back to the girl.

 

She waits a beat too long, so Ned offers "That's Alayne. She's a who-" "Hey!" Gendry finally sloughs the netting off, standing to his full height, bristling. "She was in a bad place in White Harbor and now she's with us."

 

The green man steps away to confer with his men, who all appear to be slight. The girl feels his eyes sweep over her, and not for the first time she deeply regrets the clothing she left White Harbor in. Not that she realized she'd be leaving at the time, but the dress she wears is cut too low to be practical, her cloak thin and her slippers are completely unsuitable for anything besides a short stroll, preferably indoors.

 

The green man returns to them. "You should have left her at White Harbor," he says to Gendry, with a nod in her direction "This is no place for a girl, but there's no doing for it now. A blacksmith will be most welcome in His Grace's camp and he wouldn't want us to leave a woman alone in these woods."

 

He nods once at Gendry, then adds, "Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch," giving a short, perfunctory bow. The youth only nods dumbly, before finally mumbling "Gendry, I mean Ser Gendry…of King's Landing."

 

Alayne glares at any man who will make eye contact, as several more torches are lit and the crannogmen spring into action. They quickly and efficiently move the goods from the boat into unique bags with odd hooks and ropes attached. Ned is watching with rapt attention, running his fingers along the strange attachments and asking eager questions of the small green men.

 

At some point, Lord Reed approaches the girl, appraisingly. "You're a bit tall…but certainly slender enough. You'll be able to move the usual way." Before she can ask more about the usual way, he steps away to Thoros and Gendry. She listens as he tells them, "You're too big…and you're…well I imagine a red priest won't suffer the indignity. You'll have to take the long route to camp. Lonnel and Garth will lead you." Two of Howland's men appear at his side, motioning to Gendry and Thoros, as two more crannogmen appear on either side of the girl. Before she can protest, they are strapping on a strange harness, with the same odd hooks, reaching across her chest and under her arms to tighten the leather and adjust the fit.

 

Another strap is hooked around her skirts and tightened as she looks up to see Ned getting a similar treatment. At this point, she's realized the camp has cleared out. The other crannogmen and the provisions have disappeared. Just as she's wondering where they all went off to, someone takes her hands, crossing her arms over each other and wraps her fingers around the harness on her chest. She hears the clicking of several hooks and then she is heaved into the air unceremoniously.  Gendry yells out as she rises rapidly.

 

Strong arms steady her and pull her onto what must be a plank in the tree, though it's dark and she can barely see anything. A voice whispers in her ear. "The trick to this is…don't do anything. Don't move. Don't cry out. Don't do anything. We've got you." Then before she can react, she's hurtling through the air.

 

She is flying and she can't see anything, and she can't do anything, and she realizes her eyes are closed so she opens them and she's going to crash into a tree.

S he's going to crash into a tree!

Just as her mind goes blank with terror and her stomach bottoms out, another set of arms have grabbed her, and another voice is whispering in her ear. "That's it lass. Keep quiet, just like that, so we don't have to silence you." She's set down on another narrow plank, and there are hands unhooking one rope and clasping another and before she can catch her breath, she's flying again.

 

There are moments when she has a chance to gather herself, where the crannogmen seem to have larger platforms built into the trees. Here they'll take a few extra moments to reset and shuffle things around before she's flying again. At one point she is dumped next to  Ned. He looks breathless with wonder, a dazed expression on his face, his hair tousled and his eyes round and black. She realizes she probably looks much the same. Her body is shocked but also exhilarated.

 

They travel through the night, at an unthinkable speed and in almost complete silence. The crannogmen use a complicated series of animal calls to communicate and seem completely at ease working in the dark. Sometimes the girl is lowered from the trees and guided down narrow paths she can't make out. At one point, they are clearly in a bog. The cargo, including Ned and Alayne, is divvied up between several narrow rafts that are poled through the reeds by the crannogmen, wading above them on stilts.

 

At last, they set the girl down on solid ground. Her legs are weak and her mind feverish. The harnesses are removed and as she steps into a clearing she realizes the sun is just rising. Before them lies a large camp; an array of tents shrouded in the fog.

 

Everything is quite still-a surreal, somnolence draped over the earth with the morning dew. The girl gazes at Ned and he looks up at her sleepily, a smile soft on his face. She plucks a twig out of his hair, and she's so tired, and everything is so strange. Perhaps she's actually sleeping because there is her father walking towards her out of the morning mist.

 

"Look Ned, it's Ned" she says dreamily, then suddenly the mist around her father has cleared, and she is wide awake, for of course it's not her father. Her father is dead so the man before her can only be Jon Snow.

Chapter Text

Lord Reed has his full attention as the two confer several yards away, so the girl is free to stare at the man who isn't her father, but may be her father's son. The resemblance is striking. He stands just like Lord Stark, solemn and intense, his stance wide and ready. His dark hair is pulled back in just the way her father used to wear it, and a desperate yearning washes over her. He's listening intently, his expression serious. Turning to her, his eyes narrow at something Lord Reed says. She looks away, her face aflame.

 

Too soon, he's walking over and she's not ready. This isn't right. This wasn't the plan. This is not the bastard boy she had imagined. This is a man--with scars on his face, a weary set to his shoulders, and a deep frown directed at her. She is exhausted and tense and frightened and if Ned's appearance is any indication, she must look like a disheveled mess.

 

His gaze slides from her face and over her shoulder, and he stalks by her without a word or backwards glance. He takes a pack from one of Lord Reed's men, then directs them in a deep, low voice, "Good work, brothers. Divide the goods in the usual way. Though, if ye any fresh parchment, I ask that you hand it over to my steward directly." Then he's gone, disappearing into the mist.

 

Her whole body trembles, and she can't stop it and her breath is coming faster, and she can't control that either. She can't stop or control anything. Ned takes her hand. "She's quaking like a leaf." His voice seems far away and Lord Reed's even farther when he says, "She's going to faint."

 

------------

 

She wakes on the cold, wet ground and the day continues on in a series of small humiliations. Lord Reed insists she be carried to the Maester, despite her protestations. Two of his men carry her, creating a chair with their arms. By this time, the encampment is stirring and she can feel cold eyes upon her. A few times she looks up, but these are not the northern faces of her childhood. These men are hard and wild. She catches a glimpse of several women, though they look as hard as the men, in breeches and great fur cloaks.

 

Maester Merion is old and bent and his fingers shake as he looks Alayne over. She learns he's come from Bear Island, in service of the Lady Maege Mormont. The girl remembers a past life where Prince Joffrey mocked Sansa Stark over her brother's lady warriors. She had assumed until now that their fate was tied to Robb's. The maester speaks across the girl, dictating her condition to Lord Reed as though speaking about a calf that's failing to ready itself for slaughter. "She's malnourished, though it seems a recent event. Rest her and feed her and she'll come round."

 

Then she's ushered to a fire in a far corner of the camp and left by herself with a bowl of brown and some dried apples. She's lost Ned and she's all alone. She is moments away from tears when he appears again a few paces away, and anger dries her eyes.

 

There are several men with him and he isn't facing her, but he turns when she marches up. She summons a breath and sets her face, but before she can speak, he does.

 

"You shouldn't have come here. A war camp is no place for you."

 

"I'm not the only woman here."

 

"Aye…there are warriors, and then there are ill-advised fools--selling themselves for coin that doesn't exist. Which are you?" He takes her wrist, turning it up to trace her smooth palm with his calloused thumb, a look of weariness stealing across his face. "As I thought." He lets her go and takes a step back, addressing his men. "We're not here to train green boys, nor wait on a lady's courtesies. We've no resources or time for that." He speaks as if she's a lesson and his men the students. Her mouth tastes like chalk as she watches them stalk away, her words dead in her throat.

 

Stupid girl. It had taken only a few days for her to forget how to feel this small.

-------

 

Ned finds her as the light is waning. He's whistling, with a skip in his step, but his grin fades on his approach.

 

"Don't be sad, my lady. Come sit at my hearth and I'll sing you songs of fair maidens and the knights who love them."

 

"I don't want to hear love songs."

 

"Then I'll sing 'Farewell, My Brother' and we can both be sad together."

 

Ned explains the camp layout, as he leads Alayne to a small but attractive tent, set up on the western side of the main camp. It sits a little apart, on the northern outskirt of the crannogmen's odd but orderly thatch huts and south of the chaotic, sprawl of the wildlings' hide-covered homes. It's a northern canvas tent with merry yellow stripes and a small yellow flag atop it's center pole, a miniature to the smattering of larger standard-bearing pavilions on the eastern side and the largest that stands alone in the middle of everything, a wide berth around it.

 

"Where did you find this," she asks, running her fingers along an outer pole.

 

"I've made friends m'lady." He is clearly pleased with himself, and she can't help but grin back at him. "Of course you have."

 

Inside, she finds two small cots on either side, covered with furs and he's even managed a small lantern that hangs between them. "You clever, wonderful boy. I forgive you for all your future mischief."

 

The next morning, Ned does her another kindness by pretending her furs actually muffled the sounds of her tears.

Chapter Text

Two days after arriving in the White Wolf's camp, Alayne's slippers are all but completely destroyed. Ned has helped procure several woolen vestments that she is in the process of bastardizing so that she can use them to reinforce her footwear and create warmer gloves and underlayers for the boy and herself. What she really needs are proper boots, but after the King in the North's dressing down, she's afraid to inquire after a leatherworker.

 

As she struggles with the slippers in front of their tent, she notices activity in the center of camp. Gendry and Thoros have finally arrived and Howland is introducing them to the bastard King in the North. She watches as the men exchange names and titles. Gendry bows awkwardly before Jon Snow, who makes to stop him, grabbing his upper arm and gesturing dismissively. His hand stays as Gendry rises. The two are of a height with each other, though the king is lithe and graceful where the blacksmith is all hulking muscle and boyish discomfiture.  They're probably of a similar age, the girl muses.

 

Soon they are talking animatedly, like long lost brothers. She fumes. Jon Snow pulls his greatsword out of its scabbard, offering it to Gendry for inspection. Whatever Gendry says as he hands it back, has the king nodding in approval, before he turns to acknowledge the red priest. Of course he likes Gendry, the great oaf. She doesn't even realize she's stood up until Gendry turns towards her, recognition lighting up his face.

 

"Alayne!" He shouts, loping towards her like a complete idiot, a broad grin on his face. Before she can unleash her fury, he's got her bound up in a tight hug and he's exclaiming, "I'm so happy you're alive! I thought, for sure you'd be smashed up against a great tree trunk, lost forever in that godsforsaken forest."

 

"Of course I'm alive, you idiot!" but the fight has left her, and she realizes she's quite pleased to see him. "It was actually brilliant, once I got over the sheer terror of it all."

 

He backs up, giving her a skeptical look. "I'll keep my feet on the ground, thank you…So, is this our tent, then?" He starts to peer inside, before she grabs his arm, scandalized.

 

"We are not sharing a tent! It wouldn't be proper!" She pushes him back.

 

"Plus, there's no room. The lady and I are quite cozy." Ned adds, a fiendish grin on his face.

 

Now it's Gendry's turn to look scandalized. "Not proper? How is it proper to share a tent with that wee demon, then?"

 

"Well…he's just a boy. You're a man grown."

 

"But he's got a filthy mind!" Ned only nods in agreement.

 

"It's also his tent." She admits, as Ned adds, "and she's claimed guest right!".

 

Gendry rolls his eyes. "You highborns make no sense, but fine. I'll find my own bloody tent…away from you and away from that red drunk. If I have to suffer another night of his snores, I'll put my hammer through his skull."

 

----

The blacksmith doesn't stay away long. Early the next morning he's poking his head into Ned and Alayne's tent, cheerful and bearing gifts. "Wake up! I have stew and biscuits and they're still warm." Yawning, Alayne joins him outside. "Ned will have to suffer cold stew. I can't move him. He stays out too late, carousing with the wildings."

 

"Nevermind, it's you I'm looking for." She quirks her head, curiously, stuffing a proffered biscuit in her mouth.

 

"I was hoping your offer still stands," he grins bashfully, elaborating, "for the clean-up. Now that I'll be working metal again, I can't have this mop on my head and especially not on my face." He tugs at his chin, ruefully. "I saw a spark take flame in a man's beard once. Those wee bastards move quickly. His whole face lit up and he was squealing like a dying sow." He shudders.

 

"Can't have the king in the north hear you squealing like a pig, now can we?" She gives him a wry look, but agrees to meet him by the traveling forge.

 

It turns out, Gendry has a rather spacious tent, situated between the forge and the king's pavilion. Alayne gently pushes him down onto a short stool outside and runs her hands through his hair, pensive. "You know, I've never actually cut anyone's hair before…well besides my sister's when we were both quite young. It turned out crooked and short. She loved it but my mother was furious. She kept us apart for a week."

 

"Well, there are no mothers here, and I'm not particular. Just cut it as close to my head as you can and I'll take care of my face and neck. I think even you can handle that much."

 

She shoves his head forward playfully. "You undeserving brute."

 

Trimming his raven locks is just the kind of meticulous work her hands enjoy and soon enough she and Gendry have fallen into a comfortable conversation as he tells her about his childhood in Flea Bottom. It's strange to think he was mucking around the Mud gate when only a few miles away she was practicing embroidery in the Tower of the Hand. He's getting more animated as he talks and she has to keep swatting at his neck to get him to sit still.

 

"Stop flailing about or I'll shear your ear off!" Out of the corner of her eye, she notices a figure watching them only a few feet away. Gendry starts to awkwardly stand, mumbling, "Yer Grace…" and she realizes it's the king in the north. Her smile slips from her face and she lowers her shears, but she's too stiff to muster a curtsy. It's Gendry who offers, "How can we serve you? The fires aren't up to temperature yet, but I'll be working the metal as soon as they are."

 

"No! No…please sit." Uncertainty flashes across the man's face, and the girl realizes again how young he actually is. He takes a few steps forward, his ever present frown deepening. Alayne gazes stonily back. "I just wanted to make sure you have what you need. We've been desperate for a smith, so if you…or your woman need anything at all, just say the word." Gendry starts, his ears turning pink, but the king is already moving away before either he or the girl can properly respond.

 

"What I need is for men to stop thinking every woman is a whore." She mutters under her breath as he walks off.

 

His figure stills, and for a moment, she's sure he's heard her, but then he's walking away and she thinks, he couldn't have.  

Chapter Text

It is not what she imagined; his war campaign. There are no knights, and there seem to be too few fighting men. They leave the camp every few days in disparate groups toward unknown locations between the Dreadfort and Winterfell. Sometimes they'll be gone a night and other times a week or more, returning all together, with several missing, or not at all. They act neither triumphant nor defeated, and the girl cannot make sense of it.

 

She sits, chin in hand, trying to puzzle it out one afternoon, watching Gendry demonstrate how to properly strike a great sledgehammer against the iron he's working. He is a man transformed at the forge; all of his bullish energy focused to a specific point at the end of his hammer. The king in the North has kept his word too, providing Gendry with several assistants and enough charcoal and iron for him to fulfill his campaign's long list of metalsmithing needs.

 

Once the young northman he's training has got a rhythm, Gendry walks over to Alayne, dropping next to her as he wipes his dirty face against a dirtier sleeve.

 

"You ruin your clothes that way." She huffs, sourly. 

 

"There's no avoiding it at the forge", he grins, and she once again marvels at how good-looking he is without the beard, despite the grime, with his blue eyes and square jaw.

 

"What pot are you stewing in anyway?" He asks. "If you keep scrunching your face like that, it'll stick."

 

"So when is the White Wolf going to save Arya, anyway?" She can't keep the scowl out of her voice, and Gendry only frowns back.

 

"Well, I'm not a man for strategy, nor am I privy to his Grace's plans…but I reckon he doesn't have the men to taken on Bolton." He shrugs, then adds, "but he will." She rolls her eyes. Gendry was a quick convert; worshipping at the altar of the King in the North within days of his arrival. It irks the girl to no end.

 

Not everyone's allegiance has been so easily won.  He holds no castle and wears no crown, yet the King in the North reigns over a fractious court, nonetheless. Jon Snow bears little resemblance to either of the kings that Sansa knew previously. He is neither given to excess like Robert, nor recklessly cruel like Joffrey. He dresses simply, in black, and has only one attendant, a former black brother named Satin. He often rides out with the wildings, returning with a great ghostly direwolf at his side, blood and mud smattered from muzzle to haunch on his thick white coat. Otherwise, the king keeps his own council, and meets separately with Lord Reed, the northern lords, and the wildings in turn.

 

Since their adventure through the trees, Ned has become utterly fascinated with the crannogmen. He spends his days among them, learning everything he can about their clever contraptions and begging to be included on any of their various missions in and out of the camp. Constantly on the move, they set elaborate traps along Bolton supply routes and run provisions between the White Wolf's camp and the surrounding holdfasts and farms. Alayne is not displeased that Lord Reed will not yet let Ned leave with them. 

 

Her father's sworn bannerman, and one of his companions during King Robert's Rebellion, Howland Reed is also the man who brought Jon Snow to Winterfell when he was younger than Ned is now. Any hopes that Jon Snow was actually his bastard disappear now that she has seen them together. There is no likeness, though Lord Reed is one of the few who has the young king's ear. The other northern lords, few that they are, shun the crannogmen completely.

 

Led by Maege Mormont and Galbart Glover, they are the last of Robb's loyal bannerman and, she is surprised to learn, the first to have bestowed the title of King in the North upon Jon Snow's head. They joined with him some months back, bringing King Robb's last will and testament. With their other siblings dead or disappeared, it was Robb who chose Jon Snow to succeed him, rather than pass his crown to Sansa, who he no longer considered a Stark, but a Lannister. The northern lords are vocal in their displeasure over the king's lack of inroads with the other great houses. Several times the girl considers approaching them with her true name, but she recognizes none of them from her childhood, and her brother's apparent circumvention keeps her silent.

 

Of the wildings, the girl is both fearful and fascinated in turns. Chaotic and loud, they fight amongst themselves and the northmen, constantly. At first this terrifies the girl, but she has learned that the fracases, though loud, are short and mostly bloodless. They make up the largest group of warriors in the camp and follow no leader, not even the king in the north, though a great beast of a man with wild red hair, styling himself as Tormund Giantsbane, makes the biggest impression. He bears down on Alayne in the first week as she is making her way to Gendry's forge.

 

"A great beauty kissed by fire! I've half a mind to steal you away from that blacksmith--but hurting his precious smith will only piss off King Crow." He chuckles, amusing himself, "Though that's reward enough in itself, l suppose." He winks.

 

She is not amused. "Seeing as I don't belong to the blacksmith, it'd be near impossible to steal me from him." She replies curtly, and his chuckles deepen with mirth.

 

"Ah, so you're one of the free folk, then? In that case, one night when you've grown tired of that black haired boy…when he can't please you as he should and you know in your wee little heart it's a real man you crave…Come steal me away instead. I won't tire before you're bow legged and spent."

 

Her face is burning, and she's acutely aware that they have attracted an audience which includes the king and the beautiful wilding warrior, Val, who the girl is secretly captivated by.

 

"I find big men and their big words are often hiding big disappointments." She leers, her gaze roving from his eyes and down his body, pointedly. She is shocked by her own brazen behavior, but she hears a sharp laugh from Val and Tormund roars out in laughter thumping his thigh with a meaty fist.

 

Mortified, she ducks around him, sweeping past Gendry and his forge, before hiding for several long minutes in the patch of trees beyond.

 

That night, Val and Tormund come to their campfire, where Ned is entertaining Alayne, Gendry, and a few of the younger crannogmen with songs.

 

"I thought you could use an accompaniment," Val offers, holding out a small stringed instrument to the boy, her eyes twinkling. He gives her a foppish bow before breaking out into 'Let Me Drink Your Beauty'. Tormund sits down across the flames, but Val gracefully lowers herself next to Alayne. The blonde woman has several years on her and moves with a feline confidence. She is often with the king and the girl wonders if she's the reason he betrayed his vows and abandoned the Night's Watch.

 

She gets no answers that night, but from that point on, if they are not out on a raid, several wildings can often be found at Alayne and Ned's fire, listening to the boy's sweet voice and sharing stories about the land of always winter. Alayne and the wilding woman form a fragile friendship, but the warrior is tight-lipped about Jon Snow and what happened at the Wall.

 

The girl is careful to hide her interest in the subject, but plenty of others at camp aren't. Rumors swirl but she gains little insight, beyond the knowledge that there are very few who know what occurred there, besides Val and Tormund, and that it's a mystery to nearly everyone else. This she knows:  for a short time Jon Snow was Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. For reasons unknown, King Stannis Baratheon traveled to the Wall. Either he or Jon Snow allowed the wildings south of the wall, also for reasons unknown. Stannis Baratheon and his men disappeared. Then Jon Snow was no longer Lord Commander nor a Crow.

 

Now he is a king.

Chapter Text

For the first time in her life, the girl has no expectations placed on her and no one watching her every move. At first, she is too afraid to do much with this newfound freedom besides watch the goings-on from her and Ned's tent and occasionally slip over to the forge to bother Gendry, but after her confrontation with Tormund leaves her unscathed, She gets bolder each day and soon enough she's explored the encampment and has annoyingly realized that the king did have a point-there is no obvious place for her at a war camp. She isn't a warrior, nor does she have any interest in becoming one. When Val brings her breeches and a dagger one day, she feels like she may have failed a test when she turns down the breeches; but it isn't her, no matter how much she admires the fierce wilding women. She keeps the dagger however, just in case, allowing Val to show her some basic defensive moves.

 

Thanks to her friends, she also doesn't have to resort to selling herself for coin like the desperate camp followers who reside is a smaller, haphazard arrangement of lean-tos and hovels half a mile southeast of the main camp. The King in the North actively discourages the arrangement, yet the numbers grow slowly by twos and threes. Some folk wander into camp, seeking relief and shelter from the Bolton bastard and the deprivation that years of war have wrung out on the North. Others come in as collateral bounty from crannogmen missions or wilding raids. They put a strain on the already tight provisions despite the crannogmen's efforts to give them aid.

 

One afternoon the girl observes the king walking, deep in conversation with his steward, when a haggard woman approaches them, pushing a girl forward. Jon Snow's whole body stiffens and he steps back, his face turned to the side, jaws clenched. It's clear the offer that is being made, and Alayne feels her own blood rise in response. Soon enough, Satin is ushering the woman and girl away, but it's a few moments more before the king's shoulders sag and he stalks off in the opposite direction.

 

The next day, orders are given for the whole war contingent to pack up and prepare to leave. 

 

"Where are we going?" Alayne asks Ned as they roll up their tent.

 

"Lord Reed's found a new spot for us. Have to keep on the move or our location will be found out. Too many smallfolk drifting in to keep this place a secret." He glares in the direction of the smaller camp, as if she and Ned didn't just drift into the White Wolf's camp in a similar manner.

 

"And what about them? Are we just leaving them here?"

 

"Aye…" He looks back to her, warily, sensing her growing agitation.

 

"Well that isn't right! How can he call himself a king when he's abandoning his people!" She's talking too loud, but she can't stop herself. "Who will be left when these wars have passed?"

 

She startles when she realizes Lord Reed has drawn near. He looks down on her thoughtfully, and she stands up, daring him to chastise her, but he only says. "Being common-born is dangerous, when the great lords play their game of thrones. His Grace is leaving the smallfolk here to protect them from future violence. If Bolton's men come upon us here, they will be the first die, with no weapons or training or walls to protect them. We're urging them south to White Harbor or the Neck, and my men will check on them as they can."

 

Her blood cools slightly, but she still feels uneasy as she looks back at the sad emptied clearing as they march away.

 

------

 

In the end, it is Val who finds the girl an occupation. She is finishing up one of several, more practical dresses she has created for herself, when the woman finds her, a bloodied rag placed across her forearm.

 

"What happened?" The girl sets aside her work and carefully peels the rag back, while Val responds. "Nothing to worry on. I was slow to dodge while practicing at swords." She has a small but deep gash just above her wrist.

 

"Red, I have a certain vanity, and I've seen your neat little stitches and I've seen that maester's" she spits the last word in disgust, "and I'll have yours."

 

"I've never stitched skin."

 

"It's just like cloth, but with more blood." Val winks at her then, and the girl wants desperately to please her, so she rolls up her sleeves and replies, "Would you like daisies or daffodils?" The wilding woman's eyes crinkle, and more seriously, she answers, "I'll do my best."

 

Val guides her through it, but it isn't as fearsome as she had first thought, and when it is done she feels a certain pride at her work. She carefully washes the area, but before she can wrap it, Val stays her hand.

 

"Wait, come with me," and she leads the girl through the camp, straight to the king's pavilion. His steward sits outside, tending to the king's armor.

 

Raised voices bleat out from the tent and Val quirks her brow at Satin in question. He merely shrugs, resignedly.  "It's the same fight they've been having for weeks."

 

"The other northern lords will rally around a Stark!" She recognizes Galbart Glover's voice. The two women pause at the entrance, as the king rages back.

 

"Lord Eddard is dead! Lady Catelyn is dead! Robb is dead! Bran and Rickon are dead! Sansa has run off to gods know where with Tyrion Lannister and even if she returned, would any northman even know her from the Stranger?" Something hard slams against what must be a table. "I'm trying to save Arya but I need the northern lords help!" His voice turns anguished at the end, and the girl's chest aches.

 

"We don't need to wait for Arya, your Grace. You can take the Stark name. It's clear as day you've got Ned Stark's blood in ye."

 

There is a taut silence before the King bites out, "I'm not a Stark."

 

"Your Grace, if you just-"

 

"Get out!"

 

The girl startles, letting out the breath she'd been holding, as Lord Glover and several other northmen storm past. Val takes her hand as if to head inside, but the girl tugs back, her eyes round, shaking her head. Rolling her eyes, the wilding woman only tugs harder, marching Alayne into the tent, pushing her gently before a very frustrated king.

 

He leans over a giant map, his arms wide, hands gripping the table with white knuckles. At their entrance, he looks up with a frown.

 

"Not now, Val." He warns, his voice practically a growl. Alayne turns, happy to hide from the king's sullen gaze, but the wilding woman is not cowed.

 

"Yes, now. Your warriors have been suffering under that rheumatic's quaking hands for months. I'll give you, he knows some things our healers don't, but the wounds he mends sometimes scar worse than they would if left unattended! The free folk don't trust him and your stubborn kneelers are suffering."

 

"Aye, but what can I do about it? We've no other Maester, and I can't force the healers upon them. I can't seem to force anyone to do anything!" He adds, in a bitter afterthought.

 

"Don't worry your pretty head, King Crow! I have a solution. Look!" Val proffers her arm, showing off her tended wound as if it were a fine bracelet. She receives only a tired, confused frown in response.

 

"She did it," Val nods sideways at Alayne, whose stomach flips when the king's attention turns towards her. "I know your stubborn southroners won't be treated by our healers, but who'd turn down a pretty rose like her, eh?" Still silence, but Val is undeterred."She'll need training up-she can work under the Maester's direction and our healers will guide her as well."

 

At this the king straightens to his full height, shaking his head. "A small cut from the practice yard is a far cry from an axe-wound on the battlefield. War wounds are a bloody, dirty mess, girl."

 

Before she can muster a response, Val gives her an appraising look and then asks, "Have you ever attended a birth?"

 

Alayne replies, immediately. "Of course!" The first birth Sansa had been present for was Arya's, though she has little memory of it. Since then she had attended many court births including waiting on Queen Cersei during prince Tommen's birth, and the traumatic experience at her Aunt Lysa's side when Sweetrobin was born weeks early, small and blue, his cord wrapped around his neck. She vividly recalls her rapt amazement at the midwife's swift work to unwrap him and breath the life back into him.

 

"And what were those like?" the wilding woman prods.

 

Alayne smiles, in understanding. "A bloody, dirty mess."

 

"And how did you handle them? Did you faint or vomit or have to look away?"

 

Her smile fades, but she answers, truthfully. "No, not even when the birth would end in a stillborn or the mother's life bleeding out between her legs."

She looks back at the king now, a challenge in her eyes, but he only gazes back solemnly, his hand at his chin.

 

Finally he asks, "Is this what you want?"

 

"Yes," realizing it's true as she says it. He nods and writes something on the table before him. With a curt nod he hands a folded parchment to her, motioning her dismissal. "Very well. Take this to the maester." She reads it to find a directive for Maester Merion to take the Lady Alayne as a novice in the healing arts, and that starting immediately she is to be his hands for anything that needs to be stitched.

 

She can feel the glow in her cheeks as she gives him a small curtsy and slowly backs out of the pavilion before skipping away to tell Ned the news.

 

That night they have a merry celebration by their fire, with Gendry and Ned gently ribbing her on her new post.

 

"To the loveliest Maester in Westeros! May you wear your chain better than all those tottery old men."

 

"May I never come to harm, for she'll surely seal my lips before ever sealing my wounds!"

 

She laughs and rolls her eyes and throws kindling at them both until they finally relent and move onto other topics. Her mood oddly sours when she spies the Red priestess slip into the King's tent, alone. The girl has seen Melisandre of Asshai only a handful of times, always entering or exiting her private audiences with the king, her alabaster skin glowing in the torchlight. Otherwise, her whereabouts are a mystery.

 

She frowns and turns to Thoros, who, like most nights is dozing drunkenly by their fire. "The king is meeting with the red priestess…shouldn't you be in attendance, red priest?"

 

He rouses, and harrumphs, "His Grace made it quite clear that he only wants me for my sword, and he doesn't give a shit if it's flaming or not." He turns to the king's pavilion. "I expect he wants other things from the red woman." Her frown only deepens.

Chapter Text

 

The king's edict is not enough. In the end it takes Maege Mormont, herself, to strong-arm Maester Merion into taking Alayne on as a novice.

 

"This is highly irregular! It goes completely against the tenants of the Citadel!"

 

"Well, we aren't at the Citadel! We're in the North. If baseborn and bastard men can learn at the Citadel, I don't see why this young woman can't learn under you. You are sworn to Mormont Keep, and I rule that keep and I'm telling you that if I see one more of my men or women marred unnecessarily in the name of the Citadel, I'll strangle you with your chains!"

 

He huffs, "Fine, I can prepare the ground, but it doesn't mean the seeds will take."

 

Over the next few weeks, the seeds take. The first few days are awkward and uncomfortable. The men who come to Merion for aid don't want a woman to be present, let alone touch them in a medical capacity, but the girl is determined and that makes her patient. She keeps her eyes wide and her voice sweet and low, listening attentively to both the maester and the sufferer and soon word spreads through the camp of sweet Alayne with the gentle touch who'll tend to your wounds and lend a sympathetic ear to all that ails you.

 

Alayne soaks up everything that Maester Merion gives her; the condescension, the ill-humor, the bad breath…along with glorious, glorious knowledge. The old man is a doddery old snob, but he loves to hear himself talk and the girl is a captivated audience. She learns how to properly dress all manner of wounds, from lacerations to punctures, and how to check for infection. She stares at men's urine to determine if they're bleeding deep inside their bodies and leeches them when they bleed just under the skin's surface. She is utterly fascinated and completely obsessed.

 

When she lies in her tent at night, her mind whirs with everything she's learning. "Ned! I treated a northman today with the most curious fungal infection-"

 

"Stop! I beg you! My beautiful, intelligent lady." Ned pleads in the darkness. "You're brilliant and I love you, but I don't want to hear another word about any of the disgusting things you do all day!"

 

"That's not fair! I listen to you prattle on about Val's honey hair and pale grey eyes and I don’t want to hear anything about that."

 

"You're proving my point for me. Val is lovely. Fungal infections are not."

 

"No, but being able to treat them is. It's a wonderful thing, to find someone who is sick or broken and put them back together." The girl smiles in the dark. She used to only want to look on pretty things because she equated beauty with honor and virtue and worthiness. She's smarter now. She's seen the malice behind a pretty face and the rot underneath facades of virtue and honor and wealth. For a long time now, it's felt like the ugliness is all she could see. It's only since coming north that her eyes are opening to a new reality…a reality where she can play a small part in helping turn some of the ugliness into something better.

 

-----

In addition to her tutelage under Merion, Alayne starts joining the wildings on foraging excursions, sticking particularly close to Holda and Eltrud, two woods witches who are the primary healers for the free folk. They show her where to find willow bark, garlic and a variety of hearty herbs that still cling to life in the waning days of autumn.

 

She is deep in the woods on one such day, when she comes face-to-face with the white wolf for the first time.

 

She has strayed a little farther from the group than usual, and is enjoying the first real solitude she's had since she was hidden away in the brothel back in White Harbor. She marvels at how different she feels now, with her hands in the dirt, her hair loose around her, and the sun dappled across her cheeks. Eyes closed, she whispers a word of thanks to whatever gods may be listening, but mostly to Willa, hoping that the woman is well and happy and safe.

 

She starts at a rustle nearby and opens her eyes to find a black snout leading up to crimson eyes, only inches away from her face. The King in the North's great white direwolf stands over her, head tilted to the side.

 

"Don't move!" It's Val's voice behind her, though she sounds at least 15 yards away. "I've seen him take a man down within seconds, Red. The only one who can control him is Jon Snow."

 

The girl pushes out a deep breath, before slowly raising a hand out to the wolf. He takes a few exploratory sniffs as she rises to her full height. She'll not be taken down by her own sigil, she sighs, staring into the beast's eyes. Even on her feet, he reaches midway up her body and she knows he could tear her in two, yet he only returns her long look a moment more before lowering his head, brushing his body against her and loping off into the woods.

 

She turns to Val who has a broad grin on her face as she lowers the bow she'd had at the ready.

 

"You'd shoot the king's wolf?"

 

The wilding woman flashes her a feral look before replying. "An arrow would do little harm to that beast. I'd shoot you to spare you the pain of being torn apart."

------

After this first encounter, the girl sees the wolf more often in the woods, always watching her with his blood red eyes.

 

Holda comments on it one day as she, Val and Alayne are washing their clothes in a nearby brook. "He's taken a shine to you, girl. Are you feeding him all the fingers and toes you cut off in that butcher's tent?"

 

Alayne laughs, morbidly. "I've only cut off one finger and two toes…and those men should be thankful it wasn't more." One man had crushed his finger in a fight with a wilding and didn't come for aid until it was too late. The other got too drunk and spent the night outside. He was lucky that his toes were all he lost.

 

"I've never seen that wolf show interest in anything besides hunting, killing and Jon Snow," Val muses.

 

"How is King Crow?" Holda turns to Val now. "Are you chasing the melancholy out of him in the night? Does he burn for you the way Jarl did?"

 

Val looks cross. "Leave off it, Holda. He burns for no one. After what happened to him…the man has too much ice in his veins to warm towards another."

 

"But he is a comely man, that Jon Snow."

 

"That he is, but not every woman is looking for a pretty man. My Jarl wasn't much to look on, but he knew just where to put his hands and he took direction well." Val winks and Holda cackles as the women start trading quips about clever hands and wicked tongues. Their banter reminds the girl of conversations she used to have with Margaery Tyrell. Back then she had been astonished and a little titillated by the older girl's candid remarks about what happened in and out of a marriage bed. Now, such stories leave an acrid taste at the back of her tongue. Margaery had been so confident about how she'd handle Joffrey, though maybe she had known even then that she wouldn't end up needing to. The girl wonders what Jon Snow would think of the clever and beautiful Rose of the Reach, a two-time queen, once again without of a king.

 

"And what of you, Alayne? Is that black haired giant bringing the warmth of the forge into your furs at least?"

 

The girl snorts. "Gendry? I wouldn't let that dirty boy within five feet of my furs!"

 

The wilding women laugh. "Dirty? Och, who couldn't use a good wash, here? Just think on his blue eyes and big, strong arms -"

 

Alayne covers her ears. "Stop! He's like…a brother to me." More so than any of her true brothers, she thinks. It's strange how a boy from Flea Bottom has become closer to her than Robb, Bran or Rickon ever were. She and Robb had been friendly as children but he'd been only eleven when she left. It was hard to reconcile her memories of a boy with rosy cheeks and twinkling blue eyes who'd steal into her bed when he had a bad dream, with the tales of the Young Wolf who captured Jaime Lannister with a direwolf at his side. Her recollections of Bran and Rickon are even murkier. Bran was only four when she went south and Rickon, a babe. She doubts she'd recognize either if they still lived. As for Jon Snow…well he is still but a stranger, even after weeks in his presence. 

 

Holda's laughter bring her thoughts back to Gendry. "That's how it is then? Well, the spearwives will be pleased to hear it. The free folk don't mind a little dirt. I also know many men and even a few women will be happy to hear that you are unclaimed as well." Val bumps a hip against the girl at Holda's teasing tone. "You could have your pick, my girl!"

 

"I've no use for a husband." Her tone is curt, ready for the conversation to end.

 

"Who said anything about a husband? What you need, my lovely girl, is a lover."

 

The girl is incredulous. "Why would I want a lover? Remove the few reasons for having a man and leave only the worst bits?" She shudders, mind retracing the unavoidable memories of Littlefinger's dry lips and wandering hands as well as the mortifying night with Harry Hardyng when he didn't get what he really wanted from her but still managed to take everything else that she didn't want to give.

 

Val looks at her, derisive pity plain on her face, and the girl is so sure she's about to make a comment on 'kneelers' and their petty customs and now she is furious. "Once I loved a boy with all my heart and admired and trusted him and thought he was the answer to all my dreams. He repaid that trust with my father's head. After, he had me stripped, mocked, and beaten. Now he's dead and I'll never make that mistake again."

 

She stands straight, shoulders stiff and eyes challenging.

 

The wilding woman steps closer, eyes serious now. "I'm sorry, Red. I only meant to tease, but I realize now that I shouldn't have. I see you've learned hard truths about men already." She runs a finger down the girl's braid, pulling loose a strand and wrapping it gently around her fingers. "Life is short and mostly painful, my love. Steal it's pleasures where you can. If you do find someone who quickens your pulse and pleases your eye I only suggest you open yourself to the opportunity. Not all men are brutes, and when the cold winds howl and the nights are long--a lover's gentle hands can keep the cold at bay."

 

Alayne pulls away, stonily. "Winter is coming and gentle hands are not enough to protect anyone from its wrath." She gasps as she feels a body brush against her and finds the direwolf standing pressed against her, his eyes on the wilding woman, hackles raised in warning.

 

Val takes several steps back, hands up in acquiescence. "You've more steel in you that I thought, Red. That's good. You'll need it when the long night comes."

 

But the girl only feels hollow, angry and unsure. She sinks a hand into the wolf's fur and it steadies her. The wilding warrior is staring at her appraisingly and she can feel that something has shifted between them. Finally Val offers, "Be careful you don't steal that wolf away from Jon Snow. I'm not sure he can withstand one more betrayal."

 

She can't guess at what the wilding woman is alluding to, so she only replies with, "You can't steal a wolf," before turning back towards camp, alone.

 

Sleep eludes her that night as freezing rain raps angrily against the tent's canvas and her furs can't stave off the chill that's seeped into her bones. When she finally drifts off, she dreams of icy fingers at her throat and glowing red eyes watching from the shadows. She wakes gasping, to the sound of scratching at the tent opening. Ned is gone with the crannogmen for several days, having finally convinced both Alayne and Lord Reed that he's ready, so she slips off her cot and creeps toward the opening. Outside stands the direwolf, whining and soaking wet.

 

"No, you're too wet!" But he slips by her and curls himself into a tight ball next to her cot, anyway. This time, when she sleeps, it's dreamless.

 

Her relationship with Val changes after that day. The woman still comes to their fire at night and has friendly smiles and easy congeniality for Alayne, but she no longer offers her advice or teasing guidance and the girl no longer feels any awe-struck bashfulness in the older woman's presence.

 

The wolf doesn't come into her tent again, though occasionally he'll sneak  down next to her at their fire, the reflection of the flames glowing in his eyes.

Chapter Text

In addition to his medical duties, Maester Merion also tends to most of the camp's ravens. He mutters constantly about the "bastard king" and his secret raven that only flies north and is handled exclusively by Jon Snow and his steward, Satin. It takes no time at all for the girl to realize that the maester's allegiance to both the King in the North and Lady Mormont is reluctant at best. She has suspicions that were he a younger, less feeble man, he might steal back to his precious Citadel rather than continue serving the north in any capacity.

 

Either way, because he keeps the other ravens, his tent is a regular meeting ground for the northern lords in the camp, and it is only days before they stop whispering or cutting off discussions about their correspondence when they see her. Soon enough, she is just part of the background, which makes her privy to all their current discontent.

 

She is not entirely surprised to learn that the reclusive king in the north has left all overtures to the other northern houses in the hands of the few lords who have already rallied to his side. "As he hardly makes time for us, why would he reach out to others?" Maege wonders aloud, often, when another scroll comes back rejecting Jon Snow and his claim. "He's too busy wiping mud on his face and pecking at Bolton's men from the shadows. The mudmen have too great an influence on him!" The northern lords look down upon the crannogmen and their unusual methods, decrying them as cowardly.

 

While the girl is as confused as they are on what the king's ultimate objective is with his frequent small raids and well-laid traps, she can't fault him completely. His men have sustained few serious injuries and only two deaths in the weeks she's been working under the maester, and one of those was from a camp fever. They are able to cover great distances and maintain a network that carries goods and information throughout the north. She concludes that Gendry's earlier assessment was most likely correct; the king doesn't have enough men for an open battle against the Bolton forces. Thus, she is as baffled as the northern lords by the king's seeming lack of interest in pursuing more men to back his claim.

 

She puzzles over this until she learns something about Jon Snow that truly shocks her.

 

A scroll comes from Lord Manderly, one day, that really sets Lord Glover off. "Lord Lamprey regrets that he can't back a king who deserts every post he's given. What assurances does he have that the King in the North won't one day decide that he doesn't want to be king, and abandon that position as well?" Galbart rips the parchment in half and huffs in disgust. "Well, we can't give him any, now can we!? Our king sets us an impossible task when we know that he has no intention of staying king!"

 

Alayne has to stifle her gasp of surprise by biting her lip and rummaging through Merion's jars of dried compounds. Listening to the disgruntled lords, she learns that when they first read him Robb's will, Jon Snow tried to reject it outright, claiming that he wasn't a Stark. It was only after private words with Howland Reed, that he eventually capitulated, agreeing to be their king only until Arya Stark was freed and could take up the northern crown herself. 

 

This new insight causes several sleepless nights for the girl, as she wrestles with an ugly jealousy that creeps in. Of course, she desperately wants Arya rescued, but a sick, dark part of her rankles at the lengths her supposed half-brother will go to both free and raise up their younger sister when no one ever came for Sansa Stark. That isn't quite true, a cynical voice whispers, many have sought out Sansa Stark; Lannisters and assassins and those who'd use her claim, but never family, never the North. She hates herself for the resentment, and when day breaks she pushes it down where the light can't touch it.

---

It is after one such sleepless night that Howland Reed finds her, early, having just arrived to the maester's tent. He addresses the maester first. "We've found another of Bolton's victims and he's still alive." Merion looks up sharply. "Is he here? I'd be fascinated-"

 

"No." He's cut off by Lord Reed, who is clearly impatient. "He's half a day's hard ride away. Is the girl ready?" He turns to her now as the maester answers, "I'm not sure anyone is every ready for that, but I'll send her along with what she needs," and he's putting vials and bandages in a bag for her as she stares at both men in confusion. Lord Reed stares back, impassive. "Get your cloak!", and she startles into action, sweeping her cloak over herself and grabbing the satchel out of the maester's shaking hands.

 

"Can you ride?" Lord Reed is leading her to several horses. She hesitates upon approach, unsure whether it would be wise to reveal her proficiency. Before she can answer, however, the king approaches from behind, "She'll ride with me. We must make haste!" He grabs her bag, buckling it swiftly to the saddle of a tall black mare before turning to meet her eyes. "Don't worry, I won't let you fall." At this she bristles, stepping neatly past him to a saddled grey gelding, answering Lord Reed's original question. "I can ride." She turns back to the king with defiance in her eyes, but he only nods with a ghost of a smile before turning back to the mare. 

 

They keep a brisk pace, trotting through wooded areas and breaking into a gallop upon reaching wide hilly plains, dotted with barrows. Their company is small; only Lord Reed and the direwolf accompany them and the girl would feel more exhilarated by the feel of a horse beneath her again and the wind whipping her braid, if it weren't for the apprehension radiating from the two taciturn men riding beside her. They reveal nothing of their final destination or what she will find there, but she knows it must be grave.

 

Just before midday they arrive at a shepherd's hut, dark and lonely in the middle of the plains. As they approach, she realizes that there are several crannogmen standing outside. They reach for the bridles as the party dismounts, already relaying information to the king. "It's like they got interrupted, your Grace, but he's still in a bad way. We found him there." Just beyond the hut are two large posts crossed in an X, something dark staining the wood. Dread pools in her stomach and the king touches her arm lightly. She looks into his solemn grey eyes. "Do you know House Bolton's sigil?" Bile rises in her throat and realization hits her. He looks off to the horizon. "Ramsey Bolton is fond of flaying his enemies. We've never found anyone still alive…" She might actually be sick now and he looks back at her, eyes squinting in concern, as he puts both hands on her arms.

 

A sharp, keening moan breaks from the hut and the girl bites her tongue, pulling herself together. She steps out of the king's shadow and retrieves her bag before entering. It's dark inside, but she makes out a prone form on a straw pallet, his lower half covered and his back exposed. She crouches beside his head, horrified to find the skin on his back and upper arms has been completely removed. It's a mess of bloody, exposed muscle and his moans of pain are reaching an unearthly pitch.

 

"We found him just after dawn. I expect he was hanging there all night. The pain is too much for him to sleep." The crannogman inside tells her what he knows as her hands struggle with the vial of milk of the poppy. Large hands, one heavily scarred, cover hers and ease the stopper off. "If you can limit the dose…we'd like to ask him what happened." The king's voice is gravelly and low.

 

The man barely clings to consciousness as is, but when she gently raises a spoon to his lips, he grips her wrist, eyes opening in agony. "No! My girl!"

 

"Shh…this will help with the pain." She presses the spoon against his mouth again but he moves his head away, his eyes desperate. Sweat beads along his brow despite the iciness of his fingers and she knows he can't have long before he'll pass out from pain or blood loss.

 

Jon Snow rests his scarred hand on the pallet, besides the man's head. "My name is Jon. We're here to help you. Can you…can you tell me what happened?"

 

"My Lyra! I had her here….hidden away…I'd heard what he does to young women… I meant to protect her, but they must have followed me here." A wretched sob racks him, and the girl is astonished that he's able to speak. "I tried to protect her, but I couldn't. They strung me up…right in front of her. My girl…my poor girl…"

 

His grip is bruising now and she looks at the king with wide eyes, but he is concentrating on the man. "Why'd they leave you?"

 

"I don't know…I think more men came…I heard horses. They took my girl…my Lyra." He slips into incoherence and his grip on her wrist eases.

 

"Please take this. It will help…" She finally eases milk of the poppy into his blue-tinged lips and he quiets, eyes closed. The king helps her to her feet and they look down on the man's ruined back.

 

"Can anything be done for him?"

 

"I'm afraid not." Her voice is raspy. "I'm sorry, but he'll succumb to infection if he survives the shock and the cold…" She looks up now, eyes pleading. The king only nods, grimly. "I'll not let him suffer longer then." He ushers her and the crannogman outside before turning back inside to end it.

 

She grabs Lord Reed's arm, where he confers with the other crannogmen. "He said they have a girl…Lyra!" He only look at her with tired eyes. "She's out of reach now, lass. She's either penned within Winterfell's walls or dead in the Wolf's Wood, felled by Ramsey's hounds."

 

She gasps, horrified, staggering back into something solid. Hands steady her from behind and the King speaks harshly to his advisor. "Enough Howland!"

 

"It's the truth." The crannogman's tone is as affectless as always, and the girl shudders as he asks the king, "Did you find out why he didn't finish the job?"

 

"No, it sounds like additional riders came and then they left."

 

"Maybe something to do with Mance?"

 

The king sighs heavily, behind her, hands still on her shoulders. "I don't know. I haven't heard word from him in weeks. I need to get back in case he makes contact." He steps by her towards the horses, calling to the crannogmen over his shoulder. "Burn the body."

 

---

Late in the afternoon, they stop to rest their steeds and eat. They sit in silence along a low stone wall, staring out on the lonely, windswept plains. At last, Lord Reed breaks the melancholic peace, rising to his feet before giving a short bow to the king. "I'll be off to Barrow Hall then, to let Lady Barbrey know what's befallen her vassals."

 

"Aye, so she can reaffirm her allegiance to House Bolton just as she has the last two times we've delivered similar news." The king glares sullenly up at his advisor who only bows again before trotting off with a quiet "Your Grace…my lady."

 

The girl watches the crannogman ride away on his sturdy garron, indignation roiling up, until she's pacing in front of the dour king.

 

"So the lords know this is happening." She's not asking, for how could they not?

 

The king only grunts in response, dragging a hand from brow to chin before rising to his feet as well.

 

"They'd rather follow a monster who preys upon his own people than Robb Stark's chosen heir?" She is incredulous now that she's glimpsed Ramsey's true depravity.

 

"All the lords see are two bastards." He finally responds, tiredly. "One has an inconvenient penchant for terrorizing the smallfolk but holds Winterfell and has the backing of the Iron Throne; the other is a Night's Watch deserter with no allies besides the wildings he let south of the wall." He looks at her with a grim fatalism and she's incensed.

 

"Then make them see something else!"

 

"And how do I do that?" She huffs in frustration and he grabs her hand before she can turn away. "No…tell me. What should I do differently? How do I make them see something other than the truth?"

 

"Make them see that you're something more!"

 

"How?"

 

"I don't know! I just know that this cannot be sustained! Whatever your strategy is with your little raids and skirmishes with Ramsey's men, it isn't working. How does that get you any closer to saving Arya Stark? Do you think she's going to just march out of Winterfell one day while the Bolton bastard is flaying another poor farmer?" Snow narrows his eyes as she goes on, "The men that you do have are growing restless and the days are only getting shorter and colder. Winter is coming!"

 

He's in her face now. "You think I don't know that? Gods, it's all I've heard since I was a boy of twelve. I've got Ned fucking Stark's voice in my head all day and all night, telling me that winter is coming and that I'm not prepared!"

 

At her father's name, all the fight leaves her, and tears prick her eyes. Jon Snow sighs heavily, looking down. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled."

 

"I think I may have yelled first." She realizes at perhaps the same moment as he that he's still holding her hand. They stare down where his thumb brushes lightly over the fine blue veins at her wrist, before he gently releases her.

 

He looks up grimly, "I'm sorry that I'm not the king you may have been hoping for." Then he's stalking back to the horses before she can reply. She wasn't originally hoping for anything, but now that she's learned that he isn't at all what she expected, she's surprised to realize that she does want him to be something more.

 

They ride back in silence, arriving to camp just after night falls. He helps her dismount and murmurs a quiet thank you for her service, before striding off to his pavilion without a backward glance.

 

She finds a merriment at her campfire that she's in no mood to join so she ducks into her tent before Ned can protest or Gendry can ask any questions. She lies atop her furs as images of flayed men, scared girls, and a lonely king with sad grey eyes flit through her mind, while her friends laugh and sing outside.

Chapter Text

In the days after her trip to the shepherd's hut, Alayne has trouble dispelling her dark mood. She retreats into her work and her sewing, avoiding the forge and the nightly gatherings around her fire. Not even Ned can rouse her.

 

"My lady, come sing with me."

 

"I'm busy, Ned."

 

"Sewing yourself an outfit for the Wall? Black doesn't suit you."

 

She grants him half a smile. "I thought everything suited me?" She looks up at him, eyes teasing and he grins back. "Tomorrow night. Tomorrow night I will sing by the fire with you. I'm almost finished with this." He huffs out of the tent and leaves her to her work.

 

Yet, there is no singing the next night, for the very next morning, the king sends almost all of the crannogmen and wildings away, Ned along with them. The camp is a flurry of activity as tents are disassembled and Val and Howland bark orders to their respective men. The girl sits on a stool by the forge watching the activity, curiously. At last Val comes by to pick up her sharpened steel from Gendry, who immediately begs to go with them.

 

"For the last time, you great boor. You're more valuable as a smith than a target."

 

"A target? I take offense to that."

 

Val only shakes her head, firmly. "You and Tormund both. He's livid about not coming, but this isn't a mission for big men or big swords. It requires stealth and finesse."

 

"I have finesse! Look at the fine edge on your spear!"

 

Alayne cuts in, sick of Gendry's pleading. "Where are you going, anyway?"

 

"To capture a castle and save a girl!" The wilding woman is spinning her spear in her hands, anticipation rippling off of her.

 

"You're going to Winterfell to save Arya?" The girl can hardly believe it, before Val let's her down.

 

"Different castle and a different girl. We head to Torrhen's Square to rescue it and the Lady Eddara from the ironborn. Howland's men have been scouting it for weeks. It's sparsely defended as many of the squids have left it in recent months. We should have it under hand in less than a week, and then, the rest of camp will be relocating to my castle!"

 

"Does the king ride with you?"

 

"No." Val looks pensive. "He's waiting on a message and that red witch tells him it's coming here."

 

Alayne feels uneasy. "Must Ned go?" She knows that he hates her protectiveness, but he is only a boy, and it pains her whenever she thinks on his lost childhood.

 

"Don't worry. He'll be hidden away from the action. He's nimble and we need his young, sharp eyes. Howland's men  don't take unnecessary risks and neither do I. When next you see him, he'll be singing to us inside a great hall instead of under the stars." With the increasingly volatile weather and uptick in seasonal sickness, the girl knows that this mission's success is vital, yet an uneasy feeling sweeps over her as she watches over half their camp disappear into the woods.

 

Her tent now sits on its own island of trampled grass and frozen mud, and even though she's been handling it for weeks, she can't get her fire to light that evening. Just as she's throwing down the iron and flint in frustration, Gendry and the king himself approach, the blacksmith grinning cheekily down on her.

 

"I see you're as hopeless as ever." Gendry teases as he picks up the discarded starters from the ground. She scowls darkly, as he lights the fire with ease and starts sorting through her provisions. "His Grace and I are happy to show you how it's done."

 

"And what does his Grace know of cooking?"

 

"Well, I was a steward in the Night's Watch. I can gather firewood, mend my clothing, and cook just fine." The king is poking through her things as well now, and the girl does not know how she feels about this turn of events.

 

"But doesn't his Grace have better things to do with his time?" She is glaring at Gendry since she can't well glare at the king. Jon Snow looks at her over his shoulder. "I can't let one of my subjects succumb to cold and hunger before my very eyes." The dour king in the north is teasing her. She sits in moody silence while the two young men set a pot to boiling and trade quips, comparing Flea Bottom's bowls of brown and the Night's Watch 'better days stew' which she learns consists of water, boiled root vegetables and a verbal description from whichever black brother has the best memory of a better meal.

 

"Often as not, it was me," The king says, his face softened in recollection. "Not from the Neck, mind you. Like in all things, utility is the main driver of crannogmen cuisine. But Winterfell…I survived many a night at the wall on the memories of Winterfell's food alone." The girl is holding her breath now, silently willing the usually laconic man to continue.

 

He does. "The first feast I ever attended was at Winterfell, in honor of Sansa Stark's name day." She almost drops the bowl Gendry hands to her then. "They always threw the best feasts in her honor. Lady Catelyn would send for singers and harp players from White Harbor and they'd serve several courses; thick soup of barley and venison followed by fresh trout baked in dill and lemon from the glass gardens. Later, we'd eat baked apples and lemon cakes frosted in sugar. Apparently, they were her favorite. "  Gendry suddenly nudges her foot with his, and then she does drop her bowl.

 

"Oi Alayne! I only meant to remind you to eat some, girl. That's why we're here." Gendry scolds as the king bends down to pick up her bowl at the same time as she, and they almost bump heads. Her face is burning, as they both rise to their feet.

 

"I'm sorry." She feels utterly foolish, but he only gives her a kind smile.

 

"No, I am. This soup isn't much, I'm afraid. When we're based in Torrhen's Square, I'll be able to feed you better." Deftly,  he fills a fresh cup and hands it to her as they sit again, eating in silence. The soup, in fact, tastes quite nice; better than her or Ned's usual fare. When her bowl is empty, a scarred hand lifts it from her lap, and she watches as the graceful ruler rinses her dishes and then adds more wood to her fire. The first stars are appearing in the sky, and his form casts a long shadow across the grass, stretching towards the woods beyond. When he sits again, it's closer to her side. Soon Tormund and a few other wildings join them, and the silence is broken by the red man's boisterous cock-and-bull.

 

When the circle is full with the sounds of conversation and laughter, the king leans close, whispering in her ear. "I'm sorry." She turns her face towards him, confused. "I hear you've been troubled since we've returned from the barrowlands. I shouldn't have taken you, especially when there was nothing you could do in the end." She leans back, understanding dawning on her.

 

"You've no cause to be sorry for that." She replies softly, "You couldn't have known, and I've learned it's better to see a harsh truth than be blind in the dark." She looks up and he's looking at her intently.

 

"I'm also sorry for what I said that first day." He's looks away now, peering into the fire. "I spoke poorly to you, when you arrived. I did not realize you were Lord Dayne's sister." Now she is truly bewildered, and she must look it, for Gendry is suddenly at her other side, flustered.

 

"Alayne," She's glaring at him now, realizing he's at least partially to blame for this idiocy. "His Grace didn't know at first, that you're Ned's natural sister. We've told him how you were a cupbearer to Lord Dondarrion when Ned was his squire." She could kick him for this stupidity, but his eyes are wild, and mostly she just needs him to shut up before it's obvious his words are lies.

 

"Well, it shouldn't matter whose sister I am. It's not right to talk to any woman that way." She snaps before she realizes what she's saying. Gendry's eyes look pained, and the conversation around the fire dies at her harsh words. She cannot bring herself to look at the king, who she can feel frozen and tense at her side. A long beat passes in terse silence.

 

"You're right." The king sighs, and she can feel his body go slack. "You again redress my wrongdoing with your candor. I thank you, lady, for your keen insight, and I pray I hold to a higher standard in the future. Goodnight." He stands then, as she pleads, "Your Grace-", but he's walking away from her fire, disappearing in the shadows.

 

"Ugh!" She sinks her face into her hands, while Tormund chortles across the fire. "Who knew that a wee slip of a thing could unman King Crow so! Well done, lass! Well done!" She stands, furious.

 

"Away! All of you. Find some other soul to haunt!" The wildings rise, slowly, laughing and calling back praises to the steel-tongued beauty, kissed by fire. Gendry stays behind, elbows on his knees, face sunk between his massive hands.

 

"Well?" Her tone is imperious. "Anything to say for yourself?" He glances up, warily.

 

"It's not like you gave us a better story to work with." He says, defensively.

 

"I certainly didn't tell you to make one up! What if I had told the king something different?"

 

"Seeing as you haven't given an accounting to your own friends, I think it's highly unlikely you'd be trading histories with our unsociable king!"

 

"Well then, why were you?" She's still on her feet, and she has half a mind to hit Gendry over the head, but then he's standing too, and he towers over her.

 

"Quiet woman! The whole camp will hear you." She crosses her arms and blows out forcefully, willing herself to calm down. When a few moments have passed in silence, Gendry puts a hand on her shoulder. "Look, I'm sorry. The king came asking after you yesterday morning, about how you were doing since you went on that ride with him, and asking about your history, and before I could stop him, Ned was spinning a yarn about how you were his bastard sister, raised with him in Dorne, where no one cares about bastards."

 

"Gendry! This is terrible. Ned already told Howland I was a whore, and Thoros knows I was with Baelish. This will only raise more questions!"

 

He leans down, squinting in her eyes now. "Well, you could tell him who you really are. For gods sakes, he's put his whole life aside to save your sister. He might just die of relief to realize his other is safe in the north as well."

 

Her legs buckle and he's holding her up now.

 

"How? How long have you known?" She whispers, grabbing his cloak.

 

His face creases. "Ages. I had my suspicions but I knew for certain when I saw you disappearing into the trees with the crannogmen. The look on your face-scared but excited-it was just like Arya's." She wants to cry as Gendry pats her arm awkwardly.

 

"Have you told anyone else?"

 

"Of course not. It's your name to give, not mine. I'm not even sure if Ned knows or not. The boy tells a lie quicker than the truth anyhow."

 

She sits now, hand at her forehead, mind racing. "Well, I can't reveal myself now."

 

"Why not?"

 

"What if he doesn't believe me? Right after hearing a lie…" Gendry only frowns at her and she dismisses him. "Just go. I need to rest, and think."

 

"It doesn't feel right, leaving you alone, with the camp half empty like this."

 

"Don't worry. The wolf will stay with me tonight." She gestures behind her, and the direwolf pads silently out of the darkness where she's felt him hovering since the king stalked off.

 

Gendry only mutters, "And you're worried he won't believe that you're Sansa Stark." She feels a tear slide down her cheek at her name on another's lips. It sounds so sweet, yet still feels so far away.

Chapter Text

For two days she barely leaves her tent, mulling over Gendry's revelation and finishing a few sewing pieces. She visits the blacksmith at the forge at midday and eats with him in the evening, but neither the king nor the wildings join them again. The camp feels listless with so many gone and a knot of anxiety binds her chest, keeping her up each night.

 

She rises early on the third morning, washing herself in the cold water of a nearby stream while the wolf stands guard. Over a warm, dove gray woolen dress that she's embroidered with weirwood leaves and white branches around the sleeves and high neck line, she dons a dark gray cloak that she's trimmed with fox fur. She takes care to brush out her hair and carefully braid part of it. Then she sits within her tent, practicing her words as the sounds of camp thicken outside. At last, resolve hardens within her, and she picks up a carefully folded bundle, and makes her way to the king's pavilion.

 

Satin sits outside, and his lovely, dark eyes widen in surprise at the sight of her.

 

"Is the king in? I'd like to request an audience." He sets down his mending and heads inside, motioning for her to wait.  She rolls on her feet, straightening her spine with eyes closed, as she soothes herself with deep breaths. She hears someone exit the tent and she looks up to find not Satin, but Melisandre of Asshai standing before her in all her crimson glory. The ruby at her throat practically glows against her radiant pale skin and the girl feels plain before the red priestess, despite her earlier care.

 

The woman draws close, a graceful hand reaching out towards her face, but stops just shy. "Ahh, it's you that I see in the flames; the one who hides herself." Her voice is rich and accented. "Now a dove, now a lion, now a fish, now a little bird - and you wear these skins so well that few hear the song you're really singing. A little longer you shall hide - now a fallen star and then a false prophet - but two golden horses will heed your call and a falcon too…though his appetite is for the starling."

 

Melisandre steps back now, the scent of spice lingering in the air. "Will you wear your true skin as well as you wear the others?" The girl is speechless as the red woman glides away, her heart thundering in her ears as all of her hard-won composure evaporates.

 

A moment later, Satin returns. "He'll see you now."

 

Inside, she finds the king sitting at the table with the map, toying with a small wooden figure, his forehead creased. As she approaches, he looks up, eyes widening slightly.

 

"My lady." He stands, stiffly, slipping the figure into a pocket and she gives a small curtsy.

 

"Your Grace."

 

Whatever she had planned to say has fled with the red priestesses words, so they stare at each other in silence before he offers hesitantly, "New dress?"

 

"Ah, yes." She looks down, remembering the bundle in her arms and raises it up to the king. "I've made something for you as well, your Grace." She hands him the wolf pelt cloak she's made for him, lined with black wool and crossed with black leather straps etched with the direwolf sigil. "It's like the one Lord Stark used to wear…" His eyes are keen now and what remaining courage she has, leaves her. "as described by the northern lords."

 

His fingers are tracing the sigil as he looks down at the cloak. "Thank you." His face has lost its severity and he even looks a bit pleased. "You've gotten it's likeness just right. Really." He glances up, earnest and warm.

 

"Well, the King in the North should look the part, at least." She's grins shyly down at her feet, and when she glances up through her lashes, he's grinning back at her. She could tell him now. But the moment passes, as voices rise outside the pavilion and Satin and Lord Glover come barging into the tent, Lady Mormont and the other lords just behind.

 

"Your Grace! Your Grace! An emissary has arrived, from Stannis Baratheon!" The girl steps aside as the lords brush past and the king's face transforms to a wary vigilance. They're all talking at once, and the girl feels Satin's hands on her arm guiding her out of the pavilion. "Apologies, my lady. If you have more business with the king, you'll have to conclude it another time."

 

"I thought Stannis was lost in the autumn blizzards?" Satin just grunts in response as they step outside where a gaunt young man bearing a faded sigil of a stag enclosed in a red heart, stands beside a tired horse.  She feels someone exit behind them, and it's the king standing behind her now, staring at the traveler.

 

"Farring? Breyen Farring, is that you?" He approaches the weary man who only nods, tiredly. "Come man, inside. Sit. Rest and tell me what has passed since we last saw each other at the Wall." He's ushering the man in now, but he pauses at the girl and his steward. "Satin, word must get to Howland. Alayne, can you fetch food and wine?" She nods, as he looks sideways at the man. "He may need medical attention as well." But Breyen is shaking his head. "No, no Jon Snow. I just need rest and a good meal." They duck into the pavilion and Satin ushers her towards the provisions before heading off to where the horses are kept.

 

When she returns, the northern lords are grumbling outside the king's pavilion and inside it is only Jon Snow and Breyen Farring sitting across from each other, deep in conversation. They pause when she sets down bread, cheese and wine on the table between them. The king tugs gently at her sleeve hem, thumb worrying over a threaded leaf. "Thank you. If I could implore you once more?" He's looking up at her, warmly and expectant, so she nods and he continues. "You play the hostess well at your campfire each night. Could you do it for me now with the northern lords? Keep them distracted and away from here until I call for them?" She smiles and nods. Satin enters then and the king waves him forward. "Lady Alayne will handle the lords. Did you send word for Howland?"

 

"Yes, I sent our fastest rider."

 

"Good, perhaps we'll hear news on that front as well. Wait outside for my call." Satin nods, and she and the steward leave the king and his guest.

 

It takes all of her skills and grace to keep the northern lords from barging in on their young king, and soon their grousing has raised the attentions of the rest of camp. By midafternoon, Alayne has a large crowd gathered around her fire, from wildings to northerners and the remaining crannogmen, all speculating on the fate of King Stannis Baratheon and his months-long disappearance. According to Tormund and the wildings, Stannis left the Wall, marching west towards the mountain clans almost a year ago. He sent some early communications of success in winning the Flints and Wulls to his cause, before ceasing all communication when early winter storms hit the lands just south of the wall. Since then, Lord Glover and Lady Maege have been reaching out to the mountain clans via raven, but none have returned.

 

Just as she's sure she can restrain them no longer, Satin approaches and asks for Tormund, Lady Maege and Lord Glover. They rise eagerly and head to the king's pavilion as a wilding, Isigar, calls for more ale to be rolled out. The girl makes wary eye contact with Gendry across the fire. It will be an unpredictable night with this much early drinking and so much expectation thick in the air. It's two more long hours before more commotion arises when Maester Merion totters out of his tent, a scroll clutched in his wizened hand.

 

"A raven! A raven! What's it say old man?" The crowd calls out to him, and Alayne rises to her feet. "Quiet! All of you. Get back to drinking." She's walks swiftly to the old man's side, assisting him towards the White Wolf's pavilion, where the king steps out to meet them.

 

"Well?"

 

The maester eyes the girl in dismissal, but the king only grabs the scroll from his frail hands, a grim smile appearing as he reads the contents. He looks up at her then. "You can tell the men that we've succeeded. Torrhen Square is ours." She can feel her face light up in response. "Of course. Congratulations, your Grace!"

 

When she tells the crowd by her fire, they erupt in a cacophony of cheers and calls for another round. Twenty minutes later the king and his lords emerge from his pavilion and the crowd erupts again as he approaches their group. "The King in the North! The King in the North!"

 

Jon Snow looks down, kicking the dirt, clearly embarrassed, before looking up again to give his men a reluctant smile. "Aye, thank you. Thank you." The crowd quiets, giving their king an ear. "When we get to Torrhen's Square we'll cheer for the free folk and crannogmen who executed their mission well. It sounds like it was an almost bloodless victory." He continues on, despite another round of cheering. "But, it'll be a little longer than expected before we reunite with our brothers and sisters there. We've finally heard word from our ally King Stannis Baratheon after long months of silence." The mob stills. "He was caught up in the northern storms that came some months back, but his men have persisted and Stannis has rallied the northern clans as well as the Umbers and Karstarks to his cause. They make a stand against the Bolton's and the Frey's north of Winterfell in three days' time. The able-bodied warriors amongst us will head there at first light to join them. The remainder of our camp will pack up and head to Torrhen's Square." The sound is deafening as the camp explodes in wild celebration.

 

The court of the White Wolf is raucous that night. The flush of victory and anticipation of new allies and a real battle charge the air with reckless energy. The wildings have rolled out great drums from their side of the encampment and are trading off booming war chants and epic boasts of past conquests. The claims get more outrageous with each new round of ale or spirits that gets passed among the mixed crowd. Even the northmen who usually keep to themselves have joined in the merriment.

 

"I'm Tormund GIANTSBANE! I slew a giant and then cut open the belly of his sleeping giantess. She suckled me at her teat till spring and now I'm stronger than any man!"

 

"Well Maege Mormont fears no man. I've been known to turn into a bear on occasion, to eat lying men like you, Tormund."

 

"Gads! Is it you? Are you the great she-bear I bedded? Ah, woman, what do you say to another go around tonight!"

 

Maege slaps Tormund hard on the back. "Ye couldn't handle it! I only bed bears, myself!" The two warriors collapse laughing next to the fire, and a few northmen break into the song 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair." The festivity has reached a level of drunkenness where the girl ponders how anyone will be able to sit astride a horse in the morning. She has stayed sober through it all, soaking up the revelry around her, the white direwolf lying at her side.

 

"So, this is where you've stolen off to." A hand reaches down and scratches Ghost's ear and the girl realizes the king has joined the gathering. He sits down on the wolf's other side, taking in the merriment around them. "I doubt we'll be leaving at first light then." She nods in acknowledgement, sending a sideways smirk his way.

 

"We need to steal life's pleasures where we can, Your Grace." The girl thinks back on Val's words, understanding their wisdom now.

 

She meets the king's eye and he gives her a rueful grin. "Aye, I suppose we must."

 

"Boy!" Tormund shouts now, pointing across the fire at a very drunk Gendry, who sits with a wilding woman half on his lap, laying sloppy kisses across his face. "Have you no shame, your beautiful Red is right here, lad." His arm sweeps her way, dragging everyone's eyes with it.

 

"I have no claim on him." Alayne calls out, mischievously. "Just make sure to learn her name first, and when she gives it, tell her it's pretty!" She waves them theatrically away with her arms to a chorus of cheers and one of Glover's men leads a laughing rendition of 'The Lusty Lad' as Gendry and his wilding woman stumble off into the night.

 

The celebration lasts well into the night, and as the girl sits around the fire, singing along with her friends and laughing at Tormund's crude jokes, a warmth spreads within her that she has not felt since she was a small child. She sends a silent prayer to whatever gods are listening, for tonight's joy to transform into tomorrow's victories.

Chapter Text

A wet snout against her cheek wakes her early the next morning. She dresses and quickly empties her tent of its few possessions. It is a cold, blustery day and the previous night's merry debauchery has given way to a sullen, sluggish mood in the camp come daylight. The direwolf whines against her hip but she ignores him until she is satisfied that everything she has is packed except for her and Ned's tent.

 

"Alright, alright. What do you want?" She finally turns her attention to the great white beast, gazing into his fathomless eyes. He's become a great comfort to her, especially when Ned is away, and she has to brush away her fears of him joining the upcoming battle, for she knows he most certainly will. He leads her to the king's pavilion, where the young monarch stands outside, looking like a proper king of winter in his new cloak, his gloved hands clasped behind him as he converses with Howland Reed. Her amazement at the crannogman's travel speed will never cease.

 

They pause their conversation when the king catches sight of her, a small smile on his face.

 

"My lady, I’m sorry for disturbing you this morning, but I hoped to speak with you." She gives him and Lord Reed a small curtsy before following Jon Snow into the pavilion. The crannogman stays outside.

 

The king gestures for her to sit, before joining her. "I know you must be eager to head to Torrhen's Square and see your brother, and I do not want to slow your reunion. However, I would invite you to join the party heading to battle, if you feel you could. I'm sure we need all the healers we can get, and Maester Merion will not be up to it." He pauses, looking intently at her, leaning closer. "Stannis has arranged a pitched battle, so you should be away from the action, and I'll make sure you'll be taken away to safety, if it comes to that." It hadn't occurred to her until this moment that she wouldn't be going with the king's party, the thought of missing the victory over Ramsey Snow, incomprehensible. Now, though, with the king looking at her so earnestly, she considers.

 

"Of course, your Grace. I pledge you my service, in whatever capacity you need it." She lowers her lashes a moment before hitting him with a piercing look. "But I beg one promise from you in return." He stares back, and nods once, grimly.

 

"Send Gendry to Torrhen's Square, your Grace. Do not let him join the battle."

 

Surprise flashes in his eyes. "I thought there was nothing between you two." He's frowning now, but she pleads anyway.

 

"Nothing but familial love. He's just as much a brother to me as Ned, and he's no warrior. I know he looks it with his build, but he's a gentle man and he'll be more use to you at the forge than on the battlefield." A part of her knows that it isn't right to intervene to spare a friend while also fervently hoping for as many men as possible to fight against Ramsey in the battle ahead, but she can't stop herself.

 

The king watches her seriously before conceding with a small nod.

 

"He won't like this."

 

"It doesn't matter. You're his king. He'll go to Torrhen's Square if you command it." He sighs wearily before whispering, "I should send everyone to Torrhen's Square." For a moment, his face looks impossibly sad, before his stoic mask is restored and he rises. He takes her hands in his, drawing her to her feet.

 

"Thank you for your pledge of service, my lady. In return, I promise to protect you and to ask nothing of you that will bring you dishonor. I swear it by the old gods." He's standing close enough that she has to tilt her head up to meet his eyes, and a strange confusion overtakes her, but then Satin enters, and the king releases her hands to address his steward. She takes her leave with a nod.

 

Later, Gendry finds her as she's overseeing the loading of the supplies she'll need from Maester Merion into a mule-drawn cart.

 

"What are you thinking?" She looks up and realizes that he's furious. "You can't go to the battle!"

 

"I won't be in the battle, Gendry. I'll be with the maesters and the healers."

 

"If someone recognizes you, or even if they don't but you get hurt or captured-" He's in her face now, whisper-shouting at her. "If he knew who you are, he'd never allow you to put yourself in this kind of danger."

 

She's glaring back at him, nose to nose. "Well he doesn't! And it's not your name to give!" She reminds him. She notices a movement coming toward them from the corner of her eye, and realizes it's Jon Snow. She sends Gendry one more warning glare, before backing down.

 

The blacksmith turns to his king, and gives a sullen bow, before beseeching him as well. "Your Grace, I know our lady has needed healing skills, but I expect her brother, the lord of Starfall, would not want her in harm's way."

 

Jon Snow only nods in empathy. "I hear you brother, but Alayne is her own woman, separate from Lord Edric, and she is capable of making her own decisions on this matter. We need her skill and I pledge to you that she will be kept safe. Ghost and I will watch over her on the march, and I promise she will be safe during the battle and after."

 

Before Gendry can respond, she huffs in impatience. "Forgive me, but I'm not sure anyone can promise safety for anyone."

 

Both men frown at her now, as she continues. "Be that as it may, his Grace spoke truly. I'm my own woman, Gendry, and I go where I am needed. We are wasting time, are we not? It is almost midday. This argument will be for naught, if we arrive to the battle after it has ended." Now, both men look slightly chagrined, so she merely nods primly and turns back to her task at the cart.

 

The battle party finishes preparations within the hour, leaving the rest of the camp to finish and make their way to Torrhen's Square after. Gendry gives her one last fierce hug before she mounts the grey gelding. "Keep yourself safe!" He whispers urgently in her ear. She sighs against his broad chest. "Pass this hug onto Ned for me, and we'll be reunited soon enough…with Arya as well." She looks up at him now, not quite able to keep the tears from her eyes.

 

They march away, once again dividing their coalition. Alayne rides near the front, with the king's party on horseback, gazing up at their scant banners, whipping in the harsh wind. She tries not to think on what the absence of a banner for the White Wolf portends. When the king drops back beside her, she hazards the question. "Why do we not fly your sigil, your Grace?"

 

"What sigil, my lady. I've no house."

 

She huffs back. "You're so stubborn. You know that isn't true. Just reverse the Stark colors. That's what the Blackfyre's did with the Targaryen sigil."

 

He snorts. "Look how that turned out for them." She glares back.

 

"You can't be a king without a sigil. Symbols matter, your Grace. You've bothered to put a wolf's head on your sword hilt, why not an official sigil?" She's eyeing his great sword, longer than most she's seen. He laughs at this. "You sound like Howland and the other northern lords. I didn't put the wolf's head on Longclaw. Lord Commander Mormont did after I burned my hand in his service…I suppose out of some kind of misplaced guilt. I've been trying to return it to Maege for months but she won't take it back."

 

"Does the sword not suit your tastes?"

 

He palms it, thoughtfully. "Well, I suppose it's appropriate for a bastard sword to be wielded by a bastard. Still, its Valyrian steel and it was in the Mormont family for hundreds of years. It doesn't seem right."

 

She frowns at his self-effacement. "Well, if you've tried to return it to House Mormont, and they've refused, now it is only an insult to them for you to keep trying to deny the honor they've bestowed." The girl can't help thinking about the Lannister's melting down her father's sword and giving part of it to Joffrey. He had no reservations about flashing his stolen Valyrian metal, Widow's Wail, boasting of his unproven prowess. Not for the first time, the girl measures the humble king beside her against her dead betrothed. They could not be more different and in all ways she finds herself favoring Jon Snow.

 

He pulls his mare closer now. "My lady, once again, you make an argument I find myself unable to defend. I'll keep the sword and I'll happily fly whatever banner you design for me. Will that appease you?" She beams. "Yes, it would be my pleasure, your Grace." He smiles back at her as she adds, "though it'll have to wait for Winterfell. I'll have no time before this battle." His eyes darken now, and she bites her lip at souring his mood.

 

"Aye, we don't have enough time. Forgive me, I must leave you now." He canters forward between Tormund and Maege to discuss the upcoming battle, no doubt, and she feels a flash of disappointment.

 

They ride until well after dark at a brisk pace. They make a sparse camp that night with most men huddled together under their furs and the open sky. Alayne spends the night with Lady Mormont in one of the few tents, listening to the older woman snore and trying to anticipate the days ahead.

 

On the second day they leave the hills and woods and break onto the King's Road, allowing them to make better time. She learns that they've joined the road after the fork towards Winterfell, but it is still the closest she has been to her home in many years, and she finds herself repeatedly turning west hoping for a glimpse of it in the distance.

 

"Is it safe to ride on the open road like this?" She asks the king as he rides beside her again. "Aren't you worried about Ramsey's men attacking?"

 

"Well, I suppose there is always that chance, but it wouldn't be honorable."

 

"We know that he isn't honorable."

 

"Aye," He looks at her pensively, "but he must be already preparing for battle too. He and Stannis have arranged a place and time, as is more traditional than the raids and skirmishes we've been waging up until this point. It would weaken his forces there to launch any mission against us now."

 

The girl feels stupid, for she must be missing something. "But, why would he agree to this battle? Why would he not just stay within the walls of Winterfell and wait for his opponents to succumb to winter?"

 

The king scratches his beard looking out across the fields. "I've been asking that myself. Either he doesn't have enough resources within Winterfell to withstand a siege or he's confident he'll win the battle." Gooseflesh rises along the girl's skin, as either scenario paints a bleak picture. If Ramsey has not stored enough provisions in Winterfell to withstand a siege, that means that he has also not prepared for winter. They could win the castle and still starve within months.

 

"Let's hope it’s the latter and that his confidence is unwarranted." She attempts a smile, but her bones feel cold. Jon Snow turns his gaze to her now, eyes softening, though he has no more words to offer. Instead, he rides next to her in silence until midafternoon, when they come upon riders bearing Stannis's flame-encased stag. Alayne draws her hood more securely over her head and drops back beside Thoros, while the king and his lords meet the party who will bring them to the pitch. They leave the road and ride through fields before finally cresting a hill that overlooks two camps below, a frozen field between them.

 

For a moment, the girl feels like she has entered a song. The sun stands high in the sky, shining down on the sea of tents with banners flying high and proud in the wind. She can see flashes of armor and the din from all the men at both camps rumbles up to them. She pinches herself then as a sharp reminder to her that this isn't a song and she's not the silly girl she once was who believed she lived in one.

 

Still, she's pleased to see that theirs is the slightly larger camp as they descend the hill. In addition to Stannis's sigil she spies the giant of House Umber and the winter sun of House Karstark amongst the smattering of additional mountain clan banners. She darkens at the absence of Manderly's merman or an sigils from the Vale. She wonders what Littlefinger plots, now that he's lost Sansa Stark. If she had stayed, would their side have the overwhelming numbers now? She has to remember that Baelish had no intentions of aiding Jon Snow, but still doubt creeps in.

 

As they enter the camp, the grandeur she saw from atop the hill gives way to a more forbidding reality. She looks on gaunt faces and too-weathered tents and clothing. While Stannis has more horses than their own party, they also look too thin. The girl tries to catch the king's eye, but he is deep in conversation with Lord Reed and one of Stannis's men. She watches the men dismount and make their way farther into the camp. She feels a tug at her skirts and looks down to find Satin, the king's steward, standing on the ground beside her.

 

"My lady, if you'll dismount, I'll help you find the maesters' tents and get you settled." She and the king's steward make their way carefully through camp, and her unease grows. There is definitely sickness here, and when they find the healers, there is only one maester present, from House Umber. The mountain clans don't keep maesters but the girl finds the absence of a maester from House Karstark strange. Maester Garrel is a twitchy, pale man who seems afraid of his own shadow, but he is accompanied by some healers from the mountain clans who seem able and organized and soon enough Alayne is working with them and forty of Lord Reed's men to prepare for the next day's battle. The crannogmen have brought stretchers to help move the wounded to a centralized location. There will likely be too many to fit inside a tent, but Alayne and the healers scope a spot off to the side that is somewhat sheltered by a hill flanking one side.

 

She is weary by the time the sun sets, and she can't help but think on their men who have been marching on foot for two days straight. Satin finds her again as she splashes water on her face. "Come my lady, there is food for you in the king's pavilion."

 

"Will you fight tomorrow, Satin?"

 

"I'll be with the archers." She nods, glad the youth won't be in the thick of battle. "May I ask…" She hesitates, but the pretty man only gives her an encouraging smile, "where did you come by your name?"

 

He laughs now, low and melodic. "From the brothel I worked in, in Oldtown." She feels her face redden, and the steward continues to laugh, shaking his head at her sudden discomfiture. "See, I told Jon you couldn't be a whore. No whore blushes like that." She huffs at him then as he goes on. "I suppose you'll want to keep your distance from me now, eh?"

 

"And why would I do that?" Now he's the one who looks disconcerted. "Satin, you're the king's steward. If he trusts you, I do." He's grinning at her as they enter the White Wolf's tent. Inside, the king sits around a low table with Tormund, Lord Reed and his other northern lords, food and wine spread between them, their faces grim as they discuss the upcoming battle. Alayne sits down, unnoticed, beside Tormund.

 

"We battle at daybreak, your Grace, despite your misgivings." Lord Glover continues, "I'll not say they aren't warranted, but we are here now. There is no stopping it."

 

"Stannis does not have the men Farring promised, and the ones he does have are in no condition to fight." Jon Snow pushes his food around in frustration, as Lady Mormont cuts in.

 

"Be that as it may, the numbers are still on our side, and the northern men are fit to fight - the Karstarks, the Umbers and the mountain clansmen."

 

"Then why did they never answer our summons? Why only Stannis's?" Lord Reed posits, and the girl can't help but wonder the same as the lords start talking over each other.

 

"Enough!" The king slams his fist against the table, halting the arguments and turning the attention back on himself. "I'll parley with Ramsey tomorrow, offering one-on-one combat between him and myself. " A chorus of protests rise out of the lords but the direwolf silences them with a growl. "Thousands of men don't have to die tomorrow. Just one."

 

"Your Grace! Your life is worth more than a thousand men!" Lord Reed starts to protest, but his king cuts him off with a glare. "No man's life is worth that, Howland." His voice is menacing now, and a chill ripples up her spine. The silence is tense as the king stares down his lords each in turn, though none offer him a rebuttal now. When his eyes light on the girl, they crease. "If I should fall tomorrow, take our people to Torrhen's Square with all haste. Our warriors should prepare themselves to reinforce the Night's Watch. Send ravens to all the lords of the seven kingdom's, warning them of the threat beyond the wall. Ask them to send fighting men and welcome non-fighting refugees from the north." The lords are passing glances between themselves, but they don't seem as confused by this turn in conversation as she is. They mumble reluctant assents and the king finally sits down again. The meal is subdued after that, with even Tormund staying relatively quiet throughout. At last, the lords start to take their leave. The girl rises to her feet, meaning to follow, but she finds the king at her side, eyes catching hers in silent supplication. Lord Howland pauses in her periphery, staring at them both before taking his leave as well.

 

"Your Grace." She offers quietly, unsure. He gives her a weary smile, taking her hand.

 

"May I ask one more thing of you, before tomorrow?" Her body stiffens, mind turning to all the things men want from women. The king drops her hand, frowning, as he steps back.

 

"Forgive me, I ask too much of you already." He's looking at his feet, and shame floods her. "I only hoped you might spare me a song."

 

"A song?" She relaxes as he looks up at her, bashfully.

 

"I hear you sometimes, with Ned. You've a lovely voice. I only thought it'd be nice to hear something so sweet before the violence of tomorrow." He looks so young in this moment, that grief washes over her. She closes the space between them and takes his hand again, starting in a whisper.

 

High in the halls of the kings who are gone

Jenny would dance with her ghosts

The ones she had lost and the ones she had found

And the ones who had loved her the most…*

 

Jon Snow's eyes close as she sings, the lines disappearing from his face and she thinks that he's never looked so beautiful or so sorrowful.

Chapter Text

The first glimpse she spies of the King in the North the next morning is as he rides across the barren field, a white flag waving above him, Ghost and Tormund at his side. There is an urgent throbbing at her temple, and if she hadn't already lost her breakfast she would lose it again soon. When she left him the night before, Lady Melisandre and Stannis himself were waiting outside. The Baratheon looked like a shell of his former self. His head was skull-like in the torchlit darkness, his shadowed eyes not sparing the girl a glance, though the red woman gave her a knowing smile that filled her with dread as she watched them enter Jon Snow's tent.

 

Now, the girl stands off to the side where they've prepared for the wounded, and that dread has transformed into full blooming panic as she watches the king's form grow smaller across the field. Three quarters of the way, a small group breaks from Ramsey's line to meet with the White Wolf in the open field. They are too far now to make out who is among them but the two parties pause several horse-lengths apart as they parley. Long moments pass and the girl digs crescents into her palms before, finally, they separate, and Jon Snow is returning to their side, his challenge clearly denied by the Bolton bastard.

 

He rides back to the center, where she knows King Stannis and his lords are waiting.

 

"Now what?" She whispers to herself, though Varn, a mountain healer answers her anyway.

 

"Now, they fight…and we bear witness." He has a slight hunch over his right shoulder and gnarled, liver-spotted hands, but he moves with a surprising agility and he has the clear blue eyes of a younger man. The elder reaches over and gently pries open the girl's clenched fist, placing within it a piece of dried meat. "Eat now, lass. You'll not have time once the wounded start coming in." She heeds his words, stepping back into a tent to harden herself to the day ahead.

 

When she emerges, the cavalry are lining up along the front and to her alarm, there Jon Snow sits on his black mare, in his plain mail and leather, Ghost at his side. On his other, sits Stannis in gray plate, astride a blood bay warhorse. She watches the two men converse, apprehension coursing through her. At last, the Baratheon king urges his steed in front, turning to address their men. From her distance, the girl cannot make out his words, only their harsh tone and clipped cadence and while she knows naught of inspiring men at war, she finds it hard to conjure anything stirring in her mind from his short speech.

 

The cavalry trots forward several paces, archers stepping into its wake with uniform gaps between them to make room for the infantry that will come behind. Across the field, she can see movement as well, though she can't yet make out what form their line is taking. Before she can steel herself, the King in the North pulls ahead, shouts something, and the cavalry are charging forward at his and Ghost's lead. Her heart is in her mouth as they cross the distance toward the enemy in what feels like an impossibly short time. There is a sea of shielded infantry awaiting them and the horses are going to break against them. Several volleys of arrows fly over Jon's charge, piercing the enemy ranks but it surely can't be enough.

 

At the last possible moment, the cavalry splits off, turning away to either side, running in the opposite direction along the flanks.

 

"Seven hells!" The men around her are murmuring expletives and the girl is awash in confusion and fear, watching Ramsey's line start to chase Jon and his men down. Several more volleys of arrows rain down on them, but Ramsey's men are advancing rapidly now, despite this, his line turning into a wave as some men start to outpace the others.

 

A horn suddenly blasts nearby, and the girl almost jumps out of her skin, but in response, the riders turn inward again in an elegant swoop, barreling back into Ramsey's scattered ranks and the girl realizes the brilliance of the previous bluff, for they have blasted a hole right through the enemy line, and she notices that Stannis's infantry aren't far behind. Arrows are raining down from Ramsey's archers now as well, and as the two sides truly come together, the girl loses all sense of what happens in the valley below.

 

It is a churning mess of bodies and she cannot tell enemy from ally from her distance. Grunts and the clash of metal ring out across the pitch, but it is quieter than she imagined, and a grim silence has descended upon the onlookers. The bowmen have stopped loosing arrows, though they creep closer to the action, she imagines to pick off any enemies who stray too far from the melee.

 

More men from both sides crush into the teeming mass and though the initial move with the cavalry has taken the fight far closer to Ramsey's side than theirs, the girl can see no clear progress as the minutes and then hours pass. Every once and a while a mud streaked horse will return riderless, bolting haphazardly, foaming and white eyed before someone grabs its reins and attempts to calm it. At one point she remembers the conversation from the night before in which the lords discussed a hidden contingent of Karstarks meant to attack from the flank, but if they have, she has missed it completely.

 

At last, horns sound from across the field, and the melee opens up as men start running over the opposite hill back where Ramsey's camp lies.

 

"They're retreating….They're retreating!" Murmurs turn to shouts as the men start moving with greater urgency over the opposite hill, a gap widening before it's clear their side is giving chase as well. The girl's heart swells as she stares over the horizon, a flicker of triumph where the land meets open sky, before her eyes travel back down the field in budding horror at the sea of bodies that remain in the valley below.

 

A wide blot bleeds out the middle of the field, an incomprehensible mass of men left behind as the battle carries on over the horizon. The girl stands frozen as the camp comes to life again around her, crannogmen starting to grab stretchers, calling to each other as they make their way into the field to retrieve the wounded. Fingers grip her at the elbow and jolt her back to life, cerulean eyes grabbing her attention away from the carnage below. "Our battle begins now. Ready yourself!"

 

---

 

The smell of excrement and blood fills the air…and the wounded keep coming. Screams of agony call out like a grotesque language of a cruel god and if the girl looks up, she'll take in the enormity of the horror around her and then she'll be lost. So she narrows her world, focusing only on the man in front of her in this moment, whispering words of comfort in his ear alone, focusing on each wound individually until she's done all she can for him. Then she changes focus to a new man, and now he is all that she sees. Sometimes she turns and the wounds are too big or too many and this man gets only a soft word before she leaves him. Sometimes the man is already dead, and she feels only an empty relief because that means she can move on to the woman next to him, and she looks in her eyes and whispers words of comfort in her ear, and focuses on each of her wounds one by one by one and this goes on and on and on. A few times she recognizes the eyes she looks in and in these moments she bites her tongue until she tastes blood before continuing her bleak routine. At some point the wailing turns to moaning and there are fewer men; fewer men alive and fewer men who need her immediate attention. All sense of time is lost and she could not say if the battle is over or who has won the day.

 

She sits, her eyes closed, just for a moment, just to listen to her own sacred breath and feel her own sacred blood flowing steadily through her. Then she is up again, going back over the wounded, revisiting injuries that were too minor to treat the first time or dying men who she couldn't comfort when there was still hope of saving another life. She is sitting with one such man, a wounded northman whose eyes have been closed for some time, his breath growing weak, when there is a commotion at the edge of her vision. It's Satin, his eyes scanning before coming to a stop when he spots her.

 

"Alayne! You're needed in His Grace's tent, urgently." She's on her feet instantly, scrambling for supplies, and rattling off additional items she may need to whoever may be listening and can come to her aid. As Satin leads her to the tent, a terror grips her that she didn't know was still possible after all the day had already wrought.

 

Inside it's chaos. There are at least four men around the body and one is Jon Snow shouting orders. Her breath catches and he sees her, drawing towards her at once, his bloody hands gripping her arms, his black eyes inches from hers. She lets out a deep breath as he holds her and it seems to settle them both for his pupils contract and he takes a step back, leading her to the cot where Tormund lies. He is covered in blood, lying deathly still. There is a great gash that stretches from just under his left rib down at a slight slant toward his groin, missing his most vital organs across the belly, but stretching down across his right thigh.

 

Jon Snow leans over her shoulder looking down at the wilding, his voice ragged. "It was meant for me. I lost him after and we've only just found him." She nods only once before setting out her things and instructing the men to start cutting the wilding's clothes away.

 

"I can sew him up but he's lost so much blood." When there is no response, she continues. "It will take some time and I'll need more light." She feels bodies move around her as she floats a hand just over the wound under Tormund's rib. One side of the tent is rolled back to let in more light and several lanterns are lit around her. She bites down hard on her tongue again, and then she sets to work. Tormund is too far gone for words of comfort, but she whispers them to herself anyway.

 

The others filter in and out at her behest, exchanging basins of water and bringing fresh bandages and blankets as needed, but the king does not leave her side. When Tormund seizes, he tenses and moves closer. When she adjusts her arms or reaches for new thread or cloth to pack the wound where it cuts too deep to sew, his arms move as if he's going to reach for something before his hands clench and move back to his sides. His anxiety is starting to affect her work.

 

"Your grace"

"Your grace…"

"Jon!"

 

His hand is at her elbow. "What? What do you need?"

 

"I can't work like this…you have to move away." He makes a strangled sound but steps back several paces. She pauses to look back at him. His face is white underneath the grime of battle. "This will take time. Sit." It takes a beat, but then he turns to find a stool, which he drags across from her so he can watch without interfering, elbows on this knees, his fingers steepled below his chin.

 

Halfway through, Howland appears and whispers urgently in the king's ear. He growls back, "I won't leave him. They turned and ran."

 

Howland frowns. "You know we can't trust that. Your Grace, you must leave here as soon as possible.The sun will set soon, and you need to be well away from here by then."

 

"Not until she's done." At this she looks up to find both men staring at her, intently. She looks back down at Tormund. "It will be at least another hour before he's stitched up. Then he needs to be washed and kept warm. His bandages will need to be replaced often. He should not be moved."

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the king stand and kick his stool away, sending it skittering across the hard-packed ground. It is tense and silent for a few long minutes before he commands the crannogman. "When she is done stitching Tormund, you and your men will finish tending him enough to move him-" He steps closer now as if actually imploring her, "carefully, and just far enough to get him away from the obvious threat." Turning back to Howland, he finishes. "I trust your men to keep him hidden and safe until it has passed."

 

"As you will, your Grace. Now come-"

 

"Not until she's done!" Another tense silence and Howland is whispering in the king's ear again. She hears shuffling and then they've taken their argument outside. Her hands are cramping fiercely and exhaustion is setting in. She longs to lay along the red man's side and will him to life with her own breath and her tears and her grief. "When you wake, I'll steal you away, just like you asked. I'll take you to Dorne, where it's always warm and sunny and we'll eat lemon cakes at Starfall. Ned promised that I'll always have a place at his hearth and he'll surely have one for you too. You and he have the same fondness for mayhem." A shadow crosses in front of her and she realizes the king has returned. He stands behind her in silence until she has finished seaming their friend's skin together. Stepping back she observes her work and fears for how pale and shrunken Tormund looks, his breath shallow.

 

The king places his hand on her shoulder. "You've done so well. Howland's men are able from here." Gently, he turns her around, his solemn eyes taking her in. "I've ordered all of ours who are able-bodied to leave, discreetly. Now we must be away as well."

 

"But the wounded!"

 

"Stannis's men are still here…and Ramsey's men have fled," but he won't meet her eyes.

 

He leaves again, giving her privacy to wash some of the blood from her hands and face and remove her ruined apron. When she steps outside it is only a few hours from dusk and an eerie quiet has fallen across the camp, the scent of death heavy in the cold air. Jon Snow waits for her with her grey gelding and the blood-stained direwolf beside him. She tries not to think of what might have happened to his black mare on the battlefield. The king helps her mount before pulling himself up behind her. Then, they ride out of the camp in silence.

 

The wolf leads the way through wooded hills and as the sun sets, she starts to tremble, shock and exhaustion setting in. Now that her mind and hands having nothing to do, she can no longer keep the trauma of the day at bay. "Shh… just a little farther. Ghost is leading us to a safe spot the crannogmen have found." His voice rasps, low. He wraps his cloak snugly around her and pulls her back against his chest. "You did so well and I'm so proud of you." He whispers into her hair, calming her with soft affirmations until her body relaxes into his and her eyes close.

Chapter Text

She wakes to strong arms sliding her carefully off the horse in the dark. The king does not set her feet on the ground, instead carrying her a few yards to the entrance of a small grotto,  obscured by several stout evergreens.

 

"Where are we?" She yawns sleepily into his shoulder, and he sets her down gently, keeping his arm around her shoulders until she steadies, meeting his tired eyes.

 

"Somewhere safe. I need to tend the horse, but there should be a lantern inside. Get settled and I'll join you soon." Warm air wafts from the entrance, where she finds said lantern and lights it, revealing a hot, spring-fed pool with a narrow shelf of earth beside it, provisions neatly stacked against the cave wall in typical crannogman orderliness. With leaden limbs, she lays out two sleeping mats and furs beside each other, leaving just enough room between them and the pool that she's fairly sure neither she nor the king will fall into the water in the night.

 

Jon Snow enters then, exhaustion writ across his face. He pulls off his leather jerkin to reveal a shirt, damp with blood.

 

"You're injured!" He looks down on himself, as if just realizing. "Nothing major. I'll take care of it in the morning."

 

"You will not. Take it off." She motions curtly with her hand and his face is suddenly guarded.

 

Her eyes narrow before he, slowly, pulls it over his shoulders and head, revealing a leanly muscled torso and chest littered with scars. They are stab wounds.

 

"You should be dead!" She steps closer, whispering. "What happened?" Her fingers softly trace the scar directly over his heart, in appalled fascination.

 

When he finally replies, his voice is low and it's a different question he answers. "We shouldn't have come. I could sense it the nearer we got. Nothing felt right but the lords were insistent and the red woman saw victory in the flames. We got to the field and Stannis had half the men he claimed and those he did…they were sickly and starved, in no condition to fight. Now he's dying in a tent back at the field along with all the men I led to slaughter." His breath shutters and the girl's face is wet with tears.

 

"But…didn't we win?"

 

He gives her a haunted look before letting out a hollow, harsh laugh. "We were mostly fighting old men and green boys, untrained northerners…our own people…" His voice is anguished. "Even then we barely managed to break through. I'm not sure Ramsey was even there. It was Aenys Frey who met me in the field before battle and his men who led the fight against us. Howland told me there were few Bolton sigils seen on the surcoats of the fallen…and when they ran, it was the Karstarks who met us on the other side of the hill."

 

"I don't understand."

 

"They betrayed us…they betrayed the North. It was a Karstark who felled Stannis." Her throat tightens as fresh horror washes over her. So many men died and they are no closer to Winterfell. No closer to saving Arya.

 

"I'm so tired of fighting. It's all I've ever done since I left home." Jon Snow leans his forehead against hers, eyes closed as he continues his hushed confessional. "I keep fighting and I keep failing. I've killed brothers of the Night's Watch. I've killed wildings. I've killed men that I admire. I hanged a boy." His voice breaks and she is crying in earnest now. "I've failed Robb. I've failed the Night's Watch. I've failed the wildings. I left people dying at Hardhome to save Arya and-." He finally opens his eyes and they are desolate. "Aye, I should be dead, for then I wouldn't be fighting or failing anymore."

 

"But you're not!" She shakes him because he's scaring her. "You are alive! There are lords hiding in their great keeps, hoping for you to fail! They're counting on it. They play games in their castles using their own people as pawns and they take and they take until there is nothing left! You can't let them! If you stop fighting, what will become of Arya? of Winterfell? of the North?" She's glaring at him, fingers digging into his chest.

 

The bleakness fades somewhat from his eyes, as he strokes a thumb across her tear-stained face. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made you cry. You're so good. Don't cry. Do you know that? You're so good and talented and brave. Please…watching you save Tormund….you were brilliant. I won't let anything happen to you. Not you. I'll protect you, I promise." His voice has changed and his eyes have changed, and she stills. Her breath is erratic and her cheeks obscenely warm, skin tingling where his fingers brush, just under her ear.

 

She pulls back, averting her eyes. "Well, let's get these wounds clean then." Her voice sounds foreign to herself. "You'll never protect anyone if you fall to an infection." She rummages in her bag until her heart has stopped racing. When she turns back to him, the vulnerability has been replaced with the weary face of the stoic King in the North, and her chest tightens again.

 

He sits quietly while she tends to him in silence; his fresh injuries are minor and she works quickly, cleaning and bandaging them. When she's finished, Jon Snow dons a fresh shirt before heading outside again, ostensibly to check on the horse.  She readies herself for sleep, slipping under the furs with her face to the wall before he returns. When he does, she listens to him quietly rustling, whispering softly to Ghost, before eventually lying down beside her, the wolf pressing himself between their bodies. She falls asleep quickly, heartbroken and aching.

 

-----------------

 

She wakes the next morning, alone, though she has a fleeting impression of arms wrapped around her in the night. The bright light of day filters in through the cave opening along with the scent of meat cooking over a fire. She wraps a fur around herself and pads out to investigate, luxuriating in the warmth radiating up through the cave floor.

 

Jon Snow crouches outside, back turned to her, tending a fire over which two rabbits are skinned and roasting. She once again marvels at the king who rides first into battle, sleeps on the hard ground, and tends his own cookfire.

 

"Ghost went hunting in the night. He brought back breakfast." His voice is soft as he peers over his shoulder. He's taken his hair out of its ties and the dark curls look damp. When he stands to face her, she realizes he's washed and changed. The skin on his cheeks is smooth above his trimmed beard, the paleness of it contrasting with the dark lashes that ring his dark eyes, and she is suddenly very aware of how filthy she is.

 

"You're clean!"

 

"Aye…"He raises an elbow up, mussing the hair at the crown of his head. "I took a dip while you were sleeping." Her arms cross and she's inexplicably annoyed with him.

 

"And what if I had woken?"

 

"It'd be nothing you haven't already seen…" He is confused and she is confused too, because he's right. After weeks in a war camp she's seen every part of man between her work in Maester Merion's tent and the general disregard for propriety that occurs in a mostly male environment, not to mention all she didn't want to see during her short marriage to Tyrion or her brief encounter with Harry in a darkened chamber. Still, her blood rises at the thought of seeing a naked Jon Snow, so before he can catch her blush, she turns on her heel with a clipped command, "Don't you dare enter until I say!"

 

"Wouldn't dream of it my lady," he murmurs as she flounces inside.

 

The water feels heavenly on her aching muscles and she slides under, letting her hair float around her in thick scarlet tendrils. For a moment she feels weightless in the silence and her mind blissfully empties before her lungs start to burn and she's breaking the surface with a small gasp. The wolf pads in and rests his great head at the edge so she swims to his side to rub an ear.

 

"Have you come to tell me breakfast is ready?" He only leans his head harder into her hand before she finally gives him a small shove and then a gentle splash. "Go on! Shoo! I'll be out shortly."

---

 

She reemerges in a soft green dress she's made of crannog-felted wool, her hair loose. Jon stills a moment when he sees her, before completing his task of dividing their food between two tin plates. He's rolled a log over to the fire so they can sit side by side, looking on the spring-fed brook that disappears into the woods beyond.

 

"Where are we? And where is everyone else?"

 

"We are in the Wolfswood. Howland and his men have divided the rest of our men and they are taking several routes back to Torrhen's Square, east of the King's road, looping south of Winterfell. We left too late to join those parties. The crannogmen will circle back to see what they can do about the wounded once the able-bodied are safely away." He gives her a quick glance. "Then they'll come for us."

 

"But I don't understand. Why'd we have to leave?" The night before, in her exhaustion, she'd barely questioned it, but now she is confused again. "I know the Karstarks betrayed us…but did they win the battle then?" Jon is looking at her warily, now and he hesitates before answering.

 

"No, we were able to strike down whoever didn't end up fleeing…but most of Bolton's forces weren't there, and we know who Ramsey is. You know who Ramsey is. If he came in the night, we'd not be able to defend a fresh assault." He's looking away from her again, and she sees the shame creeping up his neck.

 

"How many of ours did we leave behind?" She asks quietly, cautiously.

 

"I don't know." It's barely a whisper, and the knot in her chest tightens. They sit in silence while her thoughts swirl back to the chaos of the day before. Finally, she reaches across the log, resting her hand lightly on Jon's arm. "You're right. I do know who Ramsey is, and attacking in the night is exactly the cruel, craven thing he'd do. Lord Reed and his men will get as many of ours away as possible, I know it. There's nothing else you could have done." She offers the king her absolution, for whatever its worth, even as her own heart is breaking. She senses that it'll take longer for him to offer himself any. He places a hand over hers now, staring at the dying fire.

 

They spend the day quietly, both retreating into their own thoughts. The king tells her that the crannogmen have a network of hideouts and passages through the Wolfswood, though Ramsey uses the area often to hunt. As the sun starts to go down, they retreat back into the cave, unable to risk a fire in the night.

 

"I've heard hot springs indicate a sleeping dragon beneath." The girl dips her fingers idly in the pool, thinking on Old Nan. A soft laugh has her looking up. The king's face has softened and he looks younger than she's seen him, his dark curls loose around his face. A fresh blush of confusion blooms up her neck. "That's exactly what Old Nan used to say," he smiles, oblivious to her traitorous heart. "Gods, she was an ancient woman, who cared for the Stark children. She'd keep Robb and I up at night with her stories of the thing that came in the night and Mad Axe. I should have taken her words to heart." She crinkles her nose in bewilderment, but he does not elaborate. Instead he leans back against the wall, hands behind his neck.

 

"I wish Robb were here." Her hand stills in the water. "Then, I wouldn't be alone." Jon Snow's eyes are closed as he talks, so he does not take in her breathless expression as he continues. "You know, I tried to abandon the Night's Watch once before, for Robb. When he called his banners and marched South. I wanted to be at his side to save Lord Stark and the girls. My new brothers wouldn't let me though. I left in the dead of night and they dragged me back, reminding me of my vows.

 

So, I stayed. I became the watcher on the walls while Lord Stark was beheaded; the shield that guards the realms of men as Robb was betrayed; the fire that burns against the cold while Sansa was forced into marriage with a Lannister. I chose to stay at my post while Theon and the ironborn ransacked Winterfell, the only place that ever felt like home." He says the words as if he's recited them to himself many times over, his voice even, almost bored, but his body is taut and his eyes are still closed, tension throbbing at his temple.

 

"When I tried to abandon the Night's Watch the second time, I was Lord Commander. I knew then, what my vows meant, and from what I was defending the realms of men. Even so, love is the death of duty…Aemon warned me the first time. I knew. I knew I was needed at the Wall, at Hardhome, but I couldn't leave Arya in the hands of a monster, not when she seemed so close." She's staring at him now, mesmerized, dread pulsing with the beat of her heart. 

 

"This time, my brother's didn't draw me back. They killed me. For the Watch." His eyes open now, black as night, staring at her, fathomless. The hairs along her arms and neck rise and a chill creeps down her spine, despite the heat of the pool below.

 

"Your Grace!" She breaks the spell, and his eyes are warm and grey again, creasing at the corners.

 

"Jon…please, call me Jon." He huffs bitterly. "I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. Well, I'm certainly keeping the second part of the vow, aren't I?"

 

She draws closer, ignoring his self-deprecation. "How are you here? How do you sit before me, alive?" She reaches through his shirt opening, resting her hand over his heart, feeling his pulse, reassuringly steady under his warm, living skin. "How is this possible?"

 

"I don't know. Lady Melisandre brought me back. I barely remember that time. Val says it took days for me to come into myself again. I didn't speak or eat. Apparently Ghost attacked anyone who came too near." He runs two fingers distractedly up her forearm, and she burns, realizing how close they are, her hand still on his bare chest. She doesn't move, for fear he'll stop talking. "Then, the first day I really remember, I woke up early and watched the sun rise along the Wall and it was so beautiful. The ice changing from indigo to violet to brilliant hues of scarlet and amber…I wept. Val and Tormund found me, and I was myself, at least I think. I remembered what had happened before and even though it killed me once, I needed to get back to Winterfell." His head falls back against the wall now, and he lets out a long sigh, his body loosening all at once. "Ugh, forgive me. This is the most I've talked in…maybe ever?" He quirks his brow, slanting his eyes at her, almost playfully, and she lets out surprised laugh, finally drawing her hand back.

 

"Well…you have lost time to make up for, your Grace…er, Jon." She is completely out of her element, but the man beside her laughs heartily at this, his whole face transforming.

 

"My lady, you are a balm. I'm not sure how I'd have made it through the last few days without you."

 

"Well, you've survived death. I think you could make it through anything." She stands now, suddenly desperate for air. "Pardon me, I need a moment." She slips outside before he can respond, leaning long minutes against the cool trunk of a tree. When she returns, the king makes no comment on her absence, offering her a gentle smile, before turning back to the worn book he's reading.

 

"I found this in the provisions. The bogmen think of everything." He says fondly, and she ponders his childhood with Lord Reed, still unclear why her father would have his bastard raised in the Neck before coming to Winterfell. She doesn't dwell on this though; the night's other revelations being more than enough to keep her up well into the night.

 

-----

 

She stares up at the night sky, brilliant with stars, and loneliness for home overwhelms her. If she could just turn slightly, she knows she'd see the northern lights. They are always the most spectacular during this phase of the moon. Unfortunately, she can't move her bloody legs, and the brute dying next to her is blocking her view.

 

Nevermind. She'll watch the stars, for at least the kneelers' stars are the same as her own. Suddenly a shadow blocks the view, and annoyance tugs at her. The maester was just here. She doesn't need anything, but to see the stars.

 

"Oi 'Arry! This one is definitely not one of ours. It's a woman! Probably one of the Wolf demon's wilding cunts!" The shadow leans closer, and hot breath blows in her face. If she had her spear, she'd stab him in the eye. A second shadow lurches over her. "Too bad we don't have time for a bit of fun, eh, Rolan? I've never had wilding cunt…" She hisses at him, but then the first shadow moves back, and she can see the stars again before his arm comes down, spear in hand.

----

"Ahh!" The girl lurches awake, screaming, clutching her belly.

 

"Alayne! What happened! Are you hurt?" Large hands are on her, trying to pry her own off her middle and she's scrambling away, still screaming, desperate to get away, scratching at the body above her.

 

"Shit!" Weight moves off her and she rolls away desperately, hitting a wall, as light flickers, illuminating the space. She realizes where she is now, curled against the cave wall, sweaty and panting. Jon Snow shifts behind her, and embarrassment piles onto the mess of confusion and terror she already feels. She clenches her eyes shut, trying to slow her racing heart.

 

"Are…are you awake?" His voice is low and cautious and thankfully, he doesn't try to touch her again. She doesn't trust her voice, nor can she bear to look at him, so she nods weakly at the wall, hoping it's enough.

 

"Are you hurt?" She shakes her head, suddenly feeling so foolish.

 

"I'm sorry." Her voice is weak, and she realizes there are tears streaming down her face. "I must have been dreaming. I don't know what happened." Her mind is thick, but remembering that she fought him, she finally turns. "Did I hurt you?"

 

His shoulders sag as he sighs, eyes tired and concerned. "Hurt me? I thought you were dying! Gods, my heart almost stopped." He leans closer. "Are you sure you aren't hurt. You're crying." Tenderly, he wipes a thumb across her cheek, and suddenly she's sobbing and shaking. Arms engulf her, drawing her into a warm embrace as she loses all control. Eventually, her body calms as Jon rocks her steadily, and she stops shuddering against him.

 

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She can't stop apologizing, and he's shushing her gently in response.

 

"There's nothing to be sorry for."

 

"I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't stop crying. I'm so sorry."

 

"My girl," He cups her cheek now, pulling her gaze up to his. "You're exhausted. You were in a battle. You watched men die. You saved men from dying. You worked for hours! Of course you're a bloody mess." His eyes are impossibly kind, and she doesn't understand.

 

"Why aren't you?" He smiles, sadly.

 

 "I am, my dear. I'm a bloody, fucking mess."

Chapter Text

She lets her hair cascade in front of her, hiding her face. Memories of last night warm her cheeks to a distracting degree, and she is thankful for the excuse to keep her head down as she sketches in the notebook she's been carrying since apprenticing with the maester. She rolls the charcoal experimentally between her fingers and thumb, recalling the feel of tear-dampened linen pressed between her cheek and his chest. A breeze catches her hair, a specter of the fingers that ran lightly down her crown before gently lifting the sweaty locks tangled at her neck. When Ghost gives a low growl beside her, it echoes the deep brogue that whispered against her temple in the dark.

 

She leans her forehead against the page in frustration. Of course he comforted her in the night. She had been hysterical. Gendry would have done the same. But you wouldn't feel the same about it, a dark voice whispers and she's going mad. Fortunately, Jon Snow is not nearly as affected as she. He is pacing before her now, stopping periodically to peer into the forest beyond their little cave, before growling in a similar manner as his wolf.

 

"We should go." He huffs.

 

"You said it wasn't safe to travel on the ground."

 

"I can't stand this…the not knowing." Her stomach churns at his words, a dark awareness flickering behind her eyelids.

 

"Lord's Reed men will come for us." She soothes. The impatient king drops down on the log beside her and she looks up, finally meeting his eyes. When she woke, she was horribly self-conscious and as if sensing this, Jon Snow gave her space, rising early and busying himself in the woods beyond. She likes this about him; the care he took to alleviate her unease. Littlefinger used to find pleasure in it. He'd sniff out her discomfort like a carrion bird, circling around it until he figured out its source, and then he'd pick at it until it grew into a dull terror. In time, she got better at hiding her feelings from him, but it didn't mean the fear lessened.

 

"What are you drawing?" Leaning closer, he tries to catch sight of her page, but she quickly flips the book closed.

 

"Your sigil." He tries to flip the book open again, but a flurry of black wings falls down upon them, screaming "Snow! Snow! Snow!" The girl drops the book, covering her head with her hands, as Ghost yelps and Jon yells.

 

"Gah! You stupid bird!" The large raven flaps an uneven circle around them again before landing on the king's outstretched arm, now screeching. "Corn! Corn!"

 

"Are you alright?" Jon Snow spares her a glance, before turning a scowl back on the bird and the girl can't help but laugh. She rises to her feet, smoothing out her skirts, her earlier embarrassment shaken out by the shock of the new arrival.

 

"Yes! Just startled!" She smiles as the black, scruffy fiend continues to croak for corn. "How did he find us here?" The raven is the very same Maester Merion always complained about, for it would fly periodically into camp, only going to the King in the North, never to the maester.

 

"I couldn't tell you." Jon Snow is digging dried berries out of his pockets now, feeding them to the great bird. "He's Mormont's…Well, I suppose, now he's mine. He always finds his way to me, and never fails to make it to and from Castle Black." There is a scroll attached to the raven's claw, though the bird won't stop hopping long enough for the king to retrieve it until he's had his fill of berries.

 

Jon Snow argues with it for several minutes as Ghost jumps around them and the girl laughs at the ridiculous scene before her. Finally the raven settles, and the king is able to retrieve his message before retreating several paces to read it. When he's done, he drops it in the fire, a deep scowl on his face, and the girl's own smile fades.

 

She resumes sketching as the king broods, and the day drips by. Finally satisfied, she steps lightly into the pacing king's path.

 

"It's done, Your Grace." He looks at her in confusion, their earlier conversation clearly forgotten, and disappointment tugs at her.

 

"Your sigil. Would you like to see it?"

 

"Ah." He nods in understanding. "Of course, my lady." She holds up the page, explaining how the snarling wolf head will be white against a deep red field, a black raven flying just above. "The wolf's eye will be red as well, obviously." He's silent, and the disappointment tugs harder. Finally he takes the book from her hands, looking at it more closely.

 

He looks up, his eyes the warm grey that makes her stomach flip. "I'd be honored to fly this through my short reign."

 

She is the one frowning now. "You need to stop talking like that."

 

"Like what?"

 

"Lords do not like uncertainty. They want stability. That's what the Starks gave them for thousands of years. Your permanence cannot be in doubt if you want them to rally behind you."

 

"Well, I'm not a Stark." He says it in a half-teasing tone, but she is furious now.

 

"Stop saying that! I'm not telling you that you need to take the Stark name…only remind the lords that you have Stark blood. You don't deny that, do you?"

 

He gives her a wary look. "I'm not going to remain the king. Once we drive the Bolton bastard out of Winterfell, Arya will be Queen in the North. She's Robb's trueborn sister."

 

"And what if Arya doesn't make it out alive?" Jon Snow snarls now, his eyes black, but she presses on. "You need to reconcile yourself to that possibility, and…and if that is the case, then you must remain king. You were named by Robb Stark, former King in the North and Lord of Winterfell. The blood of the First Men and the Kings of Winter runs through your veins."

 

"Tell that to the lords. I've told you, all they see is a bastard and an oath breaker." The fight has left him now. He only looks weary and sad.

 

She stares at him, pensively. "That's not what the smallfolk see." She worries her lip before adding, "that's not what I see." He sits now, looking up at her as she paces before him.

 

"You are the White Wolf. Champion of the people. The King who denied Death. The Stranger fears you and the Red God bends to your will. You are a knife in the dark, taking back what Ramsey has stolen and bringing justice to the north! This is not the time for humility, Jon Snow, or requests for allegiance or aid. You must look these lords in the face and show them who you are and what winter demands!"

 

He looks up at her, with something like awe in his eyes, "Who are you?" he asks. Her breath catches. He knows, but then he continues, reverently "Did the old gods send you? To rouse me with your weir-red hair, your ivory skin and your silver tongue? Are you my beating heart returned?" Her face is flaming and she must look unsure, for he suddenly seems embarrassed, sinking his face in his hands muttering. "Ugh, I'm sorry. Ignore my nonsense."

 

He lifts his scarred brow, eyeing her bashfully, and she thinks that this is the moment. She should tell him who she really is. He's looking at her, heat in his darkening eyes and she hesitates, because he wouldn't look at Sansa Stark, his half-sister, the way he's looking at her right now. That would be wrong, and there is something deeply wrong with her, because she doesn't want him to stop. Desire unfurls within her, and she sees it mirrored in his black eyes, as he rises to his feet, stepping into her orbit.

 

A cardinal calls in the distance, and he's so close now, his breath ghosting over her lips like a promise. Vaguely, she hears an answering trill nearby, and her own body sings. She closes her eyes, practically humming in anticipation, but then a twig snaps and Ghost growls. Her eyes fly open as Jon steps back, leaving cold air in his wake. The bird calls are getting closer and understanding dawns just as the first crannogman materializes from the shadows.

 

"Your Grace." Three of Howland's men kneel before their king, and the girl would happily sink into a bog, this very moment, if possible. Soon, Jon Snow is conversing with the leader in low tones by the fire, while the other two crannogmen douse the fire and pack up camp. The girl gathers her own things, before kneeling beside the direwolf, burying her trembling hands in his fur.

 

Eventually, the king crouches beside her, scratching Ghost's ear. "You'll have to make your own way home, brother." He glances almost shyly at her, his voice jarringly formal. "My lady, we should leave soon. Arrel thinks we can be to Torrhen's Square by tomorrow evening." He helps her rise, but she can't meet his eyes.

 

"What about the horse?" She eyes the grey gelding who is now bare of any reigns or saddle.

 

"He's free now, I suppose. A gift to the old gods." She puts distance between herself and the king by rubbing the horse's neck, whispering her thanks into his dappled hide.

 

---

 

The journey through the wolfswood is no less thrilling than her flight from the White Knife, though it is certainly more dignified this time. Instead of being pushed through the trees like a sack of grain, the king attaches her harness to his, and shows her how the crannogmen maneuver themselves, using clever bars that slow their speed along the ropes when pulled a certain away.

 

That night, they sleep in the forest canopy, crowded together on a wooden platform, the sky and stars visible between the branches. It's frigid up here, with no fire, and the girl watches her breath condense in the weak moonlight. She doesn't dare roll closer to the king beside her. Instead, she welcomes the cold air, silently begging it to quell the base dishonor that has sparked within her.

 

When they reach the edge of the forest the next day, a ragged, exhausted Howland meets them with a small escort of northmen.

 

"Tell me that our people are safe." The king doesn't even allow the old man to finish dismounting before he's at his side, eyes intent. Even so, the crannogman settles his steed and dusts his gloves against his breeches before turning to reply.

 

"Our able bodied are all at or near to Torrhen's Square." He meets the king's eye, and the girl steps away, knowing in her gut the words that will follow. "Stannis is dead and our wounded were killed. We found the field abandoned yesterday morning, the dead left behind, throats slashed or bellies stabbed." Jon growls in frustration and her stomach clenches. "Stannis's body was desecrated and…displayed." Her dream is coming back now and she has to bend over, hands pressed against her sides to keep from twitching.

 

"What of Tormund?" There is a warning in the king's question, and her eyes shut in apprehension.

 

"My men who were with him have not reported in. It seems the remainder of Stannis's men have either surrendered or scattered. We managed to redirect the mountain clans and the Umbers to Torrhen's square." Lord Reed continues his report, but she has attracted the attention of the king now, his hand at her back as she forces breath out through her nose.

 

"My lady, are you well?"

 

"Yes, your Grace. Only weary." Straightening, she glances up in an attempt to reassure him, but the worry in his eyes has her looking away again, willing him to move his hand away. He does, after trying to meet her gaze half a moment longer.

 

It's a grueling ride after a night spent in the open, and everyone's mood seems to darken the closer they get to Torrhen's Square. When the girl spies it standing proud in the distance, she lightens at the thought of sleeping under a solid roof and seeing Gendry and Ned again. When she spares a glance toward the king, he is far away in his thoughts, his face, a mask. They pass farms and several smaller holdfasts, shut up and ghostly, before approaching the field of tents that circle the castle walls where most of the White Wolf's contingent must stay.

 

There is shouting along the walls, and the gate is opened to them, revealing a small square courtyard and party waiting for them. She hardly has a chance to look around, before large hands are dragging her down from her horse, and Ned is singing her name. "Alayne! Alayne! You missed all the fun!" Tears are in her eyes as Gendry hugs her and the younger boy is trying to recount all that's happened since they parted, in one breath.

 

"After I've rested and eaten, you scoundrel." She's laughing and crying and trying to get the younger boy caught in a hug, but his eyes are dancing as he points around, reliving their takeover of the castle as if he played each principal part. A shadow passes, and Jon Snow is striding past them, glowering. For a moment, it seems directed at her, but then he's marched passed and it's the red woman, Melisandre who has caught the king's wrath.

 

"Is this what you saw?" He's irate, aggression rolling off him as he stands over the priestess, his knuckles white. "Is this the victory you saw in the fires? The glory of cutting down old men and boys? Our wounded slaughtered in their sleep? You promised me Winterfell and instead your promised prince is dead! Is that what the flames showed you, witch?" He's shouting at her, practically spitting in her face and the girl cringes, fighting every instinct to turn away and flee. The rest of the courtyard freezes, watching their king explode.

 

Melisandre withstands his rage gracefully, her face as smooth and composed as ever. "You are the prince who was promised, my King." She says this as if commenting on the weather or the color of the sky, and this pushes him over the edge. His hand is at her ruby and then it's wrapped around her slender throat, lifting her body from the ground.

 

"Jon!" The girl jumps to life now, rushing forward as the king snarls at the woman choking above him. "I'm not your fucking prince! I didn't tell you to bring me back and when I fall again, I'll stay there!" The woman does not fight, even as her face purples, but the girl is scrambling at his arms now, desperate.

 

"Stop! Stop!" His eyes are black and she has no effect, despite her frantic efforts. The world drains of color and narrows to those hate-filled eyes, before there is a roaring in her ears and Jon is pulled off the woman. Melisandre lies gasping on the cobbles, while Gendry has the king by the shoulders, using all his strength to restrain him.

 

Lord Reed steps forward, helping Melisandre to her feet. "It is time for you to leave. You are welcome here no longer." The priestess eyes him with contempt, before bowing low to the still panting king.

 

"Soon comes the cold, and the night that never ends. I've failed you and for that I am sorry. I will not fail you again." She sweeps elegantly away, and the girl doesn't understand how she is the one who feels strangled.

 

She meets the king's eyes for one, terrifying moment, and they change from rage to remorse instantly, but it's too late. Alayne turns away, pulling Ned into the castle after her. When she finds her room later, there is a scarlet cloak left folded upon her bed. That night her dreams are dark and terrifying. Black eyes glare at her while a raven screeches "Lies! Lies! Lies!" above her head.

 

She wakes the next morning, cold and drained and fearful.

Chapter Text

Val wastes no time in pulling Alayne into the fray of castle life. She comes banging into the girl's room the morning after her return.

 

"Red! You're here at last. I need you!" She lies down dramatically on the girl's bed, throwing an arm over her eyes, as the girl fights the kindling in the fireplace, trying to get some warmth back into the room.

 

"It's lovely to see you too, Val."

 

"What is the point of a castle? I thought we'd get one and then things would be easier…there are so many things that need doing, and everyone keeps coming to me! How should I know what rooms need fires and when or who is responsible for keeping the lanterns lit, or how many people are expected for each meal? Gah!"The girl restrains herself from laughing as she pulls her friend back onto her feet.

 

"Where is the lady of the house? Lady Eddara? I believe these duties should fall to her." Val only scowls.

 

"That is another predicament in which your services will be needed. Come with me." Val leads her through the dark halls to the lady's chambers. Inside, a delicate woman stands at the window, facing out. When she turns, Alayne realizes that she is pregnant, and very far along at that.

 

"Edie, I've brought Alayne. She will know what to do, my sweet. Don't fret!" Val is at the younger woman's side, clasping her hands, and the girl is struck by the vision before her; The pale, finely dressed lady hand-in-hand with a fierce wilding warrior. Both are smiling at one another with a surprising tenderness. Alayne coughs politely to turn their attention on her.

 

"My lady, it is a pleasure to meet you." She curtsies before drawing further into the room, unsure of exactly how to proceed. "And may I congratulate you, on your impending birth." This is clearly not the right thing to say, as tears start sliding down the young woman's face. Val shoots Alayne a glare, but she ignores it coming to the young woman's side.

 

"Forgive me. I did not mean to offend."

 

The young woman works to compose herself before responding. "No. It's not your fault. It's just that…I can't have this baby." She grabs Alayne's hands now, a bit desperately. "It's that horrible Ironborn's…Dagmer." She shudders. "He…he called me his salt wife, but we never wed. I'm ruined. Who will ever marry me now?" She's losing control and Alayne's heart hurts for the girl.

 

"I'm so sorry this happened to you. We will do everything we can for you, I promise." She lifts Eddara's chin gently, making the girl meet her eyes. "You are not ruined. You were born a noble lady and you will remain a noble lady. You are the head of House Tallhart and Torrhen's Square is yours. No one will take that away from you. You will have this baby, though. You are too far along for anything to be done there."

 

"But how can I face anyone? It was one thing, when we were all held captive, together. But, now there are other lords here…and the king. I'm supposed to welcome him today, but I can't bear to leave my room." Val squeezes Eddara's shoulder.

 

"Don't worry about him. He's a bastard himself. He loved a free folk woman and knows that your kneeler marriages mean nothing." Alayne squints a warning at the wilding's nonsensical response. The young woman is crying again.

 

"But it means something to me! My babe won't be a Tallhart…they'll be a Snow!"

 

"Well, as Val pointed out, our king is a Snow, so there should be no shame in that. Plus, you can make your child a Tallhart, if you wish. You are the head of your house. All of Lady Maege's daughters are Mormonts and she never wed."

 

"Really? I…I had forgotten that." Eddara steps back now, drying her own tears with a kerchief. She is a lovely young woman, with light green eyes and fine, pale yellow hair. Aside from the swell at her belly, she is petite in every way, with a small nose and pink, delicate lips. She's standing a little straighter now as she faces the two other woman.

 

"Thank you, both. I'm afraid I've been wallowing here instead of doing my duty." Alayne gives her a sad smile.

 

"Well, I'd say you deserve some time to wallow…but it sounds like Torrhen's Square needs you, my lady. I am at your service as well, for Val is in over her head. Castles are easier to take than keep." She winks at her wilding friend who grins back. They are able to coax the young lady out of her chambers and the three woman spend the morning touring the castle and taking note of all that needs to be done to make its daily management run smoothly again. The ironborn were indifferent and disorganized captors and while the castle is actually quite intact despite the multiple takeovers, many things have fallen into disrepair from neglect and mismanagement.

 

Soon they have a plan, and by midday they are eating together in Edie's solar, reviewing the details. The young woman's demeanor has improved steadily in only a few hours and now she is animatedly reciting the list of tasks she plans on accomplishing this week. Val looks slightly stunned, as she eats an apple, elbows on the table, watching the girl with a dazed smile on her face.

 

"You better take notes. When Edie has her baby, these tasks will fall to you." Alayne nudges the warrior, playfully.

 

"Me! You are much better suited!"

 

"I'll be busy, attending to our lovely Eddara and the babe."

 

"Well, yes, you are needed there. Don't let those dreadful maesters touch her!" Alayne is surprised by Val's vehemence but before she can respond there is a knock at the door. Satin enters, announcing the king's imminent arrival. Alayne and Edie wear matching frowns, rising to their feet.

 

"Oh…I thought I'd be presented to him." The lady is flustered, and Alayne is as well. She did not plan to see the king today, hoping time would untangle her conflicting feelings over the past days' events.

 

"Well…"Satin hesitates. "I suppose, as we're in your castle, his Grace thought to pay you his respects."

 

"Darling, don't worry yourself. Jon will come off as brooding and sullen, that's a given, but he's no trouble at all and he's actually quite nice to look on." Val soothes the lady. "And if he's rude I'm sure Red will call him on it." The girl's cheeks warm but Edie is nodding tremulously at the wilding and moments later, in sweeps the king and in his wake Lord Reed and Lady Mormont.

 

Alayne has stepped back, behind the others, but Jon meets her eye as soon as he crosses the threshold. It is only for the briefest moment before he is bowing low to Lady Eddara, who has dipped gracefully in return. He's helping her rise and the girl is happy to note that he does not seem surprised by the lady's condition. Someone had the forethought to prepare him.

 

"Lady Eddara, thank you for welcoming us to your home. I hope you may one day forgive me for waiting too long to come to House Tallhart's aid. We appreciate your hospitality as we work to regain Winterfell." His voice is low and formal, ever the solemn king in fresh black clothes, his hair pulled back once more.

 

"Your Grace, the gratitude is mine!" Edie responds, earnestly. "We had despaired of anyone helping us. Torrhen's Square is yours for as long as you have need of it."

 

He nods, but she presses on. "Really…I don't know what we would have done. I was ready to throw myself from the walls. I was on the parapet when Val came flying through the air above like something from a story, and she and your people saved us. I am forever in your debt, your Grace. Val has been so kind, and-" She turns to the girl, gesturing her forward as well. "Alayne, too. She's helping set this castle to rights already."

 

The king smiles. "Aye, I'm lucky to be surrounded by singular women. I'd be a poor king, indeed, without them." His eyes are on Alayne as he speaks, warm and entreating, and she can't help the hesitant smile she gives him in return. Remembering his courtesies, the king continues. "May I introduce another such woman, Lady Mormont, as well as Lord Reed? They are two of my closest advisors."

 

Maege cuts in now, pushing past the king, and places a meaty hand on the young woman's belly. "Ah, my lady, last I saw you, you were just a child, probably at some feast at Winterfell. My, you've grown lovely, and you're having a girl! How lucky! I have five myself, my wee she-bears!"

 

Val looks ready to murder the old woman, but Edie has a real smile on her face now. "Really? You think it's a girl? I hope you are right." Maege pulls her and the wilding aside, expounding on the joys of motherhood. Lord Reed, unperturbed by the lack of acknowledgement, simply bows curtly to the king and exits the chambers, leaving the girl and Jon standing awkwardly together.

 

"My lady…" He hesitates, and she glances to the others, uncertainly, but they aren't paying them any attention. "I spoke to Satin about my sigil. If you wouldn't mind sharing it with him, and perhaps anyone else who could work on making banners, we'll start flying them as soon as possible." She looks back at him now in surprise, and a smile ghosts over his lips. "Also, I was thinking, it might be wise to make a similar mark, that could be stamped on any goods that are passed through the north via the crannogmen routes. It would make clear, that it's the King in the North who is redistributing goods."

 

"That's a great idea!" She's smiling at him now, excitedly and he mirrors her, looking hopeful. "I'll talk to the women in the castle. We can have your banner flying in days."

 

"Wonderful, I'm meeting with my council this afternoon. I'd like you to attend." She's frowning at him now, but he smirks, playfully. "That's an order."

 

She huffs. "Well, I wouldn't dare refuse the king." Eyes shining, He bows before exiting the chamber as well, and she notes that she'll have to remind him to stop doing that with his own subjects. Still, she feels lighter now. There was no sign of the terrifying rage in Jon Snow, today. He was everything a king should be--gracious and solicitous, and this sprouts hope within her.

 

After she leaves Lady Eddara's chambers, she finds Gendry where he's setting up a forge outside. He nods at her, stepping back from where he's directing his apprentices.

 

"I've a favor to ask."

 

"Of course you do."

 

"Well, the king needs a crown, Gendry." He laughs, slapping a glove against his thigh. "Do you share a mind as well as a wolf?" She is bewildered but he goes on. "The king already came down asking for one this morning. I'm not a magician, girl. I can't just imagine a crown into being. Give me a few days! Even that's not enough time to make a quality piece, which I've already told him, but he said he'd settle for something simple for now." She stares at him, agape, and he continues laughing at her, fondly. "You highborns have no patience. You think you can just snap your fingers and anything you want will appear."

 

"Okay, okay. You've made your point. I'll remind you on these words, next time you come running to me for your shirt to be mended or when you are in need of new pants."

 

Now he's the one with his mouth askew. "Have you not told him yet?"

 

"What does that have to do with anything?"

 

He draws closer, whispering. "Well, it'd hardly be proper for Sansa Stark, the lady of Winterfell and the king's own sister to be mending the blacksmith's shirts." She averts her eyes, her mood darkening again.

 

"I haven't told him." She hears Gendry scowling, and she bites her lip. "It's complicated, Gendry." Jon's eyes, filled with loathing, flash before her, followed by moment when they were warm and she thought he might kiss her. "He's starting to gain the lords' support. If I suddenly reveal my identity, that could put his claim into jeopardy and divide loyalties."

 

"But don't you have the better claim?"

 

"Yes and no…both are easily contested. He's a bastard but also a man. A man who is experienced leading other men. I'm a trueborn Stark, but also still technically married to an enemy, and I'm a woman, which isn't ideal in their eyes." She looks at Gendry, pleading. "Look, I will let Jon know who I really am, once things are less uncertain. We must take back Winterfell and save Arya. That is all that matters."

 

At this, he nods in agreement. "Aye, we must save Arya. I'll trust your judgement on the lords and their politicking, my lady. None of it makes any sense to me, anyhow. Seems to me, you and the king should just rule together."

 

----

 

He doesn't know how much his words haunt her as the day continues. By the time she is called to the king's solar, she has wrapped herself in knots. Inside she finds the lords--Reed, Glover and Umber--as well as Lady Mormont, Val and Jon Snow himself, standing at the head of large table, a map of the north spread across it with a variety of figures arranged in key locations.

 

When she enters, they are already in conversation, but the king gives her a small nod, and she slides next to Val as Lord Reed speaks.

 

"Now that we have Torrhen's Square, our capabilities expand considerably, though it is still imperative we take back Winterfell as soon as possible. The lake will provide an ample supply of fresh fish and the connecting river can provide transport of supplies and people south to the Saltspear. Val was able to retain the ironborn's ships so we have their use as well." He nods to the wilding, who is smiling like a cat. "We can also garrison more men here in preparations for a siege against Winterfell."

 

Glover cuts in now. "And more men we'll need. How do you propose getting them?" He sneers at the crannogman but it is the king who responds.

 

"The lords will provide them. Your efforts on this front are appreciated Lord Glover, Lady Maege." He nods at them both, mildly. "But I'll treat with the remaining lords myself." There is murmuring around the table as the lords sneak glances at one another, but the king continues. "I need to meet with lords who have not answered our calls, face-to-face. I understand their hesitations. They have responsibilities to their lands and their vassals. They need to see the man who asks them to put that all at greater risk, to assess his worth as king."

 

He looks around the table at his lords, his face darkening. "And I need to remind them who granted them those lands, and who can take them away. The north belongs to the Starks, and the time for hesitation is over." There are murmurs of approval around the table, and the girl is beaming at the king when he slyly catches her eye. He sweeps his arm over the map.

 

"The question is, where do we start?" This opens up a heated debate as his advisors argue over the map about which lords will be most amenable to a visit from the King in the North. Some believe the king should take a boat down the river to Lord Ryswell of the Rills, while a more vocal majority say Jon should treat with Wyman Manderly first, as he is the richest, most powerful lord left in the North. Just as the consensus seems to be forming around a visit to White Harbor, the king looks pointedly at the girl.

 

"What do you think?" The conversation stills, as the lords turn their gaze on her in surprise. She looks down at the map carefully, not interested in the derision that may be in their eyes.

 

"I'd recommend Lady Jonelle, of House Cerwyn." This raises immediately ridicule.

 

"It's in the shadow of Winterfell, girl."

 

" The area is crawling with Bolton's men."

 

"She can't even have many men left to her. Most of Cerwyn's bannerman died with King Robb."

 

"She signed the letter that Ramsey sent to me! She attended his farce of wedding to Arya!" Jon's eyes are fierce, as he slams the table for silence, but the girl will not be cowed. "Of course she did! You just listed the reasons! Her castle lies too close to Winterfell. Most of her men died in the south. She is vulnerable. She, more than any other lord or lady, would know who Ramsey is and what he is doing. Can you honestly tell yourself that she would freely choose him over you?" She is speaking to the king alone, but the rest of the table is quiet now. "You are the king and House Cerwyn needs you. Lord Manderly is rich and powerful. Thus, he has the most to lose. He won't come to your side until the odds are more favorable. You'd be wasting your time in White Harbor."

 

Lord Reed's calm voice interjects before anyone else can respond. "Even if we can safely get his Grace to Castle Cerwyn, it won't do. The whole keep is quarantined due to green fever. It's highly contagious. We can't risk it."

 

"Hah!" The girl taps the table, excitedly. "That's perfect." Everyone is looking at her like she's a fool, and she must look it, grinning like mad. "Lady Jonelle and I must have read the same stories as children. No one at Castle Cerwyn has green fever, I promise." They are all looking at her skeptically as she tries to explain. "In The Loves of Queen Nymeria, there is a tale where Nymeria's ship goes down near one of the Summer Isles. She's rescued by a prince, though she doesn't realize he's a prince at first…but that's not the point…the point is, the prince eventually gets sick and dies of green fever, an illness that affects warm, tropical places." She looks up, expectantly, but they are all gazing back at her, blankly.

 

"Before now, have any of you ever heard of green fever in the North?" Everyone is shaking their heads now.

 

"Precisely. It's not ever warm enough here, especially now that winter is almost upon us. She must be using the sickness as a reason to keep Ramsey and his Bolton dogs away from the castle." She's smiling brightly as the others murmur around the table, some hesitantly nodding. "Which also means, that she is not his supporter and it indicates that she probably does need our help."

 

The king is staring at her, impassively, before he finally looks to the crannogman. "Howland, can you get me in?"

 

"Yes, though it'd be easier with a diversion." This sparks a fresh debate as the advisors discuss ways to draw attention away from Castle Cerwyn while the king treats with its lady.

 

"Too bad you sent the red witch away. She could light something on fire for us!" Maege calls out, laughing, oblivious to the dark glare Jon sends her or the table quieting down around her. The girl taps the table again, drawing the attention back to herself.

 

"We do have Thoros…if fire is what you are after."

 

"That drunk! I forgot he followed the lord of light...He'd follow the lord of wine, if there were one." Glover and Maege start trading drinking tales, while the king quietly sends Satin to fetch the priest. Alayne sends a silent word of thanks to the gods, when he appears in the doorway, sober.

 

"Thoros, I told you I had no need of your flaming sword, but what else can you light on fire?"

Chapter Text

"Don't cry, my lady. You were the one who insisted that I go with the king." The girl ruffles Ned's hair before adjusting the new lilac cloak she's made him.

 

"I know, but we've only been reunited for a few days. Believe it or not, I've grown fond of you, you wee fiend." They are standing outside the stables waiting for the small party's horses to be readied. Thoros and Val took off north only the day before, towards the Wolfswood. The red priest promised he could create a glamour that would appear to set the forest ablaze, and the girl fervently hopes he's speaking true.

 

"Now, remember. No drinking songs…nothing bawdy and nothing you've learned from the wildings. Sing songs a northern highborn lady would appreciate: 'Alyssane', 'The Night that Ended', or 'Flowers of Spring'. If I find out you sang 'Megget was a Merry Maid' I'll break that lute over your head." It was her idea to send the boy to Castle Cerwyn along with the king. She figured that any woman who gleaned inspiration from the romances of Nymeria would appreciate a good bard, and that could be a better way to the lady's allegiance than anything the other lords had to offer. In addition to the new cloak, Ned is clad in a new charcoal velvet doublet and leather boots that shine with fresh oil. "You look like a proper lordling now. Remember to act like it." He grins up at her, and the king chuckles beside him.

 

She turns her gaze to him now, and her breath catches. He's wearing the cloak she made for him and under it is new finery, still black as sin, but befitting a king. He wears a simple band, the faintest allusion to a snarling direwolf just above his brow. "Any last words of advice for me, my lady." He's smiling warmly down on her and she glances down at her feet.

 

"No, your Grace. I'm sure she'll fall half in love at the sight of you." She admits this, carefully. "Just remember your courtesies and don't make any promises of marriage. You may need to with House Manderly, when it comes to that. He has two granddaughters and a lot more to offer." He's frowning at her now, but she keeps her smile light, as if there is nothing between them but the shared goal of Winterfell and an united north.

 

When she watches him ride away, his banners waving proudly above the riders, she silently tries to convince herself of that.

 

-----------

Red eyes stare at her from a pale white face and they're too close. She stumbles back, finding herself in a grove of weirwoods, moonlight reflecting off their smooth white trunks, while the branches creak above her. Thick red sap seeps from the baleful eyes, and they're her father's eyes and it's her father's face and her knees are bare against the cold, hard floor. "Father…"Her breath clouds in front of her, cheeks wet, and her father's mouth is moving but she can't make out the words. "Father, please!" She crawls nearer, fingers scrabbling to gain purchase on the slick ground. "Please, forgive me…" Now her hair is wet and water is dripping down from the red leaves above. She looks up and it's blood splatting on her forehead, running down the bridge of her nose, and it's not branches that are creaking, but a body, her body. She is hanging from the branches above by her pale neck and she can't breathe…she can't breathe. She can't breathe. Her father weeps red while she chokes before him.

 

The trees transform and she's in the shepherd's hut now, but a girl still hangs above her from a rope, lifeless, blood dripping down from between her thighs and she can't breathe. She can't breathe. She can't breathe.

 

----

 

She wakes in a cold sweat, heart pounding, fingers at her throat. The girl is alone in her room and everything is quiet and still. Slowly, her senses come back to her but she still feels as if she's in a dream. She slides out from under her furs and quickly dresses in the dark, gathering an extra, dark cloak in her arms and slips into the moonlit hall. The castle is blanketed in eerie silence as she pads silently toward Gendry's quarters near the kitchen.

 

Inside, he's deeply asleep, an arm flung over the side of his cot, fingers trailing the ground. She should leave him to his peace, but she can't. She can't do this alone, and he has the misfortune of her trust.

 

"Gendry, wake up! I need you!" She whispers fervently in his ear and he thrashes awake.

 

"What?" His eyes are round and startled until he focuses on her and his body relaxes. "What time is it?"

 

"It's the hour of the wolf. Get dressed. We have work to do."

 

"Can it wait till morning?" In the dark, palms digging into his eyes, hair tousled from sleep, he could almost be her brother, and she stops herself from pinching his ear.

 

"No! Meet me at the stable."
 

"Ugh, we're traveling somewhere? I can't ride."

 

"It's no matter, I'll lead you." She leaves him then to procure two horses; a sorrel mare for herself and then a sturdy garron to carry the blacksmith and their cargo. The crannogmen on guard do not question her when she insists they have business for the king. Gendry eyes his mount warily, but she pats the small, sturdy steed's rump reassuring him, "That thick skull of yours can handle a fall from a wee horse like this, surely. " He snorts and then gamely, but awkwardly heaves himself up.

 

It's slow going as they make their way south, along the eastern side of the lake, which glows in an eerie radiance from the full moon above. There is no wind this night, but low patches of fog roll through the plains, as she and Gendry ride in silence. She is thankful that he doesn’t ply her with questions as she's not sure what answers she could give. They leave the lake behind, heading deeper into the barrowlands, the howling of wolves in the distance.

 

As the sun rises weakly, they finally arrive at the shepherd's hut. It sits just as before, lonely on a hill, with the crossed posts standing sentinel beside it. Ghost materializes from behind the building as they dismount, rubbing himself along Sansa's side. Gendry eyes them both warily, and guilt stabs her for what she is about to reveal.

 

"I'd spare you this, if there were another way." She leads him inside, and he gasps behind her. A dead girl hangs by her neck from the rafters, naked, mutilated and bloody. She senses Gendry leave and retch outside, but she can't look away from the form above, still mesmerized by the earlier vision of herself hanging, neck snapped. Slowly, she peels her eyes downward, peering into the shadows where her father's face called to her, but there is nothing, only mildewed straw scattered in an empty corner of the lonely shack.

 

When Gendry recovers, they work together to lower the body and carefully wrap the girl in the dark brown cloak she brought. Running her hand gently across the girl's forehead, she sees that there is actually very little resemblance between them. The dead girl has the northern look, dark hair and a long face and she is quite small within the cloak.

 

"How did you know she was here?" It's the first words either of them have spoken in some time, and it breaks whatever sorcery has gripped her.

 

"I dreamt that it was me." She has no other explanation, and her friend only looks at her with concern etched on his face. "Come, help me get her on the garron. We still have a long ride ahead of us." She uses his arm to pull herself up from where she's crouched beside Lyra's side.

 

"Where are we taking her?"

 

"Barrow Hall."

 

---

 

Gendry leaves her to her thoughts as they ride through the mild day, making their way slowly through the dotted plains. She works to reconstruct her mother's face from memories. She knows that she shares her mother's hair and eyes. Littlefinger and Aunt Lysa told her enough to know it's truth, but what of her cheekbones or her chin? Was Catelyn's forehead smooth or creased from years of worry? Was she tall and slender, like her eldest daughter? Or did five children and half a lifetime in the north leave her thickened and bent, like the multiple miscarriages and the viper's pit of King's Landing left Aunt Lysa?

 

Lady Catelyn's voice and words are easier to conjure. Her mother sang to her often as a small child, and in her loneliest moments in King's Landing Sansa would retreat within herself to those safe memories. Her mother also frequently wrote to her, once she went south. Offering little direct advise on how to navigate her life at court, she'd instead give anecdotes on her daily dealings in the north, from managing the household at Winterfell to dealing with the northern lords and ladies. She'd sprinkle her letters with stories of Sansa's siblings and loving sentiments from her father.

 

The girl doesn't dwell on these tender remembrances now, however. She focuses on Catelyn's frustrations with the northern lords. She knows that in her early days in the north, her mother very much felt out of place, but by the time young Sansa had traveled to King's Landing, Catelyn had made a home out of Winterfell and the north. She was well-loved by Lord Stark, and the other lords respected her. However, in her letters, her mother revealed that there were still some who could make her feel like an outsider from time to time.

 

One, in particular, never welcomed Catelyn, for as Lady Stark came to learn, Barbrey Ryswell had wished to marry Brandon Stark and, if not him, she'd settle for his younger brother. In the end she was wed to Willam Dustin, the young Lord of Barrowton, who never returned north after fighting with Lord Eddard in Robert's rebellion, even when his horse did.

 

After run-ins with Lady Dustin, Catelyn would often write to her daughter, warning her the damage a bitter heart could rend. A grudge is a seed that plants itself in your heart, small and seemingly weak at first, but if you do not pull that seedling out completely, it's roots spread, thickening in your veins, leaving no room for love to flow.

 

As Sansa remembers her mother's words now, she lets them blow through the emptier spaces inside her like spring air and something dark that's festered deep within is finally expelled.

 

-----

 

They reach Barrowton's broad, elm lined streets by the afternoon, and inquire at an inn about lodging for the night. The wolf left them at some point in the barrows, and they will not have time to return to Torrhen's Square yet today. The girl sends a messenger boy to Barrow Hall to alert the Lady of House Dustin of their arrival before freshening up in her room.

 

She takes care to style her hair in the simple way her mother used to, pleased that she had the wits to pull on her dark blue woolen dress the night before. It brings out her Tully eyes, though as she inspects herself in the small looking glass, she sees Stark there as well, in the grim set of her mouth and the sharpness behind the blue. This pleases her as well. She'll need wolf in her tonight.

 

Gendry waits for her in the common room, frowning at the fire, cracking his knuckles, compulsively. She places a hand gently over them. "Come now, and we'll be back for supper tomorrow."

 

As they climb the wide wooden stairs to the keep of Barrow Hall, resolve hardens within her. A servant darts forward to help the blacksmith with the burden he carries, but he only growls at the man who flinches back. The girl gives him a wolfish smile, and he retreats further.

 

At the top, the castellan greets them. "The Lady Dustin and her father, Lord Ryswell are dining in her solar. They will receive you there." The girl smiles, demurely, feeling a grim satisfaction that her message will be received by the heads of two great houses this night. He leads them to a well-furnished room, with a fireplace dominating one side and on the other, a rich tapestry of a young, elegant woman astride a golden horse. It hangs behind a polished table where the lord and lady sit. The smell of roasted meat and baking spices permeate the room though neither of its occupants make to stand when the girl and her companion enter, and no one offers them bread or salt.

 

"The deserter has sent a girl this time? What does he ask for now?" Lady Barbrey is a handsome woman with gray streaked hair, and lines around her mouth and eyes. Her black dress contrasts against the pale gold velvet of her father, Lord Ryswell's, doublet.

 

"The King in the North asks for nothing. I come with a gift."

 

"The beggar king brings a gift. What could he possibly offer? I hope it's not you, girl. You're younger than my grandchildren would be, had I any." Barbrey shoots her father a cold look, his attempt at levity failing, and the girl understands who holds power in this hollow hall.

 

She motions Gendry forward, where he gently places the cloak-wrapped offering upon the rug. Lord Ryswell cranes forward a bit in his seat, but the girl raises a slender hand to halt him, before dismissing her friend. She straightens her spine and lowers her hood, revealing her face, as Gendry closes the door behind him.

 

"My mother once told me that you never forgave my father for failing to bring your husband's bones home from the war." Lady Dustin inhales sharply and Lord Ryswell makes to stand, but again, the girl raises a hand to halt him.

 

"I understand your pain and resentment. To be forgotten in the south, is a harsh fate for a northerner."

 

An uneasy look passes between the lord and lady and Sansa continues. "They say 'The North Remembers' but I've found no difference in the recollections of northern men nor a greater predilection towards loyalty. As in other regions, those in power determine what is remembered: stories are reframed to suit the victor, and the lords align themselves with whoever keeps them safe and rich. As for the smallfolk…well no one seems to remember them at all."

 

"My Lady-" Lord Ryswell starts again.

 

"Alas, I have not the means to return your husband's bones to you, so I offer you another's." Now she ushers the lord forward. He looks at her, aghast, but finally rises as she stares back, impassively. With shaky hands, he pulls back the cloak, to reveal Lyra's ash white face.

 

"What treachery is this?" Lady Dustin is indignant, but the girl only narrows her eyes.

 

"I've returned to you a girl whom Ramsey Bolton stole, raped, and killed…a shepherd girl, named Lyra, who tended your flocks in return for your protection. When her flesh has fallen away from her bones, what eye could tell hers apart from Lord Dustin's?"

 

Lady Barbrey's face has gone pale with anger or something else. Sansa can't tell, nor does she care.

 

"The King in the North asks for nothing in return, but I relay one last message to you. When we have retaken Winterfell and once again rule these lands, it will be wolves determining what is remembered, and as for those lords and ladies who turned their backs on their own people? Well, their words will disappear. Their houses will disappear. Their names will disappear. All memory of them will disappear. I expect Lyra's bones will outlast those who have betrayed the north."

 

The lord and lady only stare at her in appalled silence, so she bids them farewell. "I wouldn't want your dinner to grow cold. I pray you sleep well." Once out of the room, her breath expels in dizzying relief. She glides quickly through the halls, down the steps and out into the courtyard. There she finds Gendry, waiting for her, a scowl on his face. She smiles softly up at him. "Come. Let's be away from this dreadful place."

---

 

When they arrive back to Torrhen's Square the next day, they are flagged down by a guardsman who comes to her side. "My lady, you are to go to the king's solar at once, on his orders." She shares a glance with Gendry who only shrugs. She nods at the guard in dismissal, making her way into the keep, alone.

 

She can hear raised voices as she approaches the king's solar, and she pauses at the door, listening.

 

"I forgive your ignorance lad, as you've never traveled south of the Neck, but there is nothing dornish about that girl!"

 

"Perhaps she takes after her mother. You, of all people, know babes can have little of their fathers in them."

 

She can hear Howland sigh. "I know you've taken to the lass, but her story doesn't make any sense. When they first arrived, Thoros made it sound like she was a whore in service of Lord Baelish that they picked up in White Harbor."

 

"She's not a whore."

 

"Well, then perhaps she's a spy. I only ask that you put some distance-"

 

She knocks sharply then, interrupting their dispute. There is a pregnant pause on the other side, before the king growls "Come in."

 

His cheeks flush, brow furrowing, when she steps through the threshold, though Howland looks as unperturbed as ever.

 

"Your Grace, Lord Reed." She curtsies. "How were you received at Castle Cerwyn?"

 

"You left."

 

Jon's scowl deepens  but she responds lightly, her face relaxed, eyes easy. "I did. I was needed at Barrow Hall." He and Howland exchange glances, before the king starts flitting through papers on the desk behind him. Finding a scroll, he holds it up, reading "House Dustin and House Ryswell will stand behind House Stark as we have for a thousand years. We received this by raven, just today." He's peering at her now, eyes narrowed, but there is a smile tugging at his lips and she smirks back.

 

"What did you do, you clever girl? What did you promise them? My first-born? My sword? A dragon's weight in gold?"

 

"I promised them nothing, your Grace. I only reminded them that winter is coming." He's grinning broadly at her now, stepping near, and she can't help but beam back at him. Though, when she realizes he may embrace her, she steps nearer the hearth, turning away to warm her hands.

 

"House Cerwyn?" She asks again, carefully.

 

"Your intuitions were right there as well. No one at Castle Cerwyn has green fever. Lady Jonelle conjured  that story to keep Bolton's dogs away from her castle. Another clever woman. In fact, she's housing quite a few young women and girls within her walls, to keep them safe from Ramsey. Howland, we must send additional rations there at once." She looks over her shoulder, observing how animated the king is in this moment, his eyes alight as he turns back to his desk to write another missive.

 

"And, do we have her support?"

 

"Yes! Though, there is not much she can offer. Her resources are stretched thin as it is, being so close to Winterfell and all. She adored Ned so much though, I left him there with her."

 

"Jon! How could you?" She realizes, too late, what she's said as she covers her mouth. The king has not noticed her seeming lack of propriety, but the crannogman clearly has.

 

"Lady Alayne has just returned, your Grace. She still wears her travel cloak. You must be tired. Please, let me escort you to your room." Lord Reed's tone is mild, his face as expressionless as ever, but he brooks no argument. The king only nods distractedly, before turning back to the papers in front of him.

 

"Yes, good. Get some rest, my lady. You've done well." He's writing something, his mind clearly elsewhere again. "And don't worry on your brother. He'll come home safe, I promise."

 

They walk silently back to her room, the crannogman a half step behind her. He opens her door for her, following her inside the dark room. She breaths deeply, before turning to face him, head high.

 

"Do you want Jon Snow to be King in the North?"

 

"Yes."

 

"And do you want him to have a long, fruitful reign?"

 

"Of course, my lord."

 

"Many felt the same about Robb Stark. Then he lost his head, because he lost his heart to the wrong woman." Though his words don't surprise, they still cut deep.

 

"Be careful, girl. I can see you are hiding something, but also that you care for Jon. He has it in him to be a good king…even great. I only ask that you don't stand in his way." He bows and leaves her then, cold and in the dark, the flush of earlier victory receding. 

Chapter Text

Sansa rushes through her final preparations for the evening, sure that she will be late to the feast. She has taken over most of the king's written correspondence over the last few weeks and she lost track of time this afternoon, reading and responding to news from their new allies in the Rills and barrowlands. Lady Barbrey and Lord Ryswell have kept their distance, maintaining the façade of allegiance to House Bolton, but they have proven their worth with a steady supply of goods sent northward, including horses and gold.

 

Now she works to quickly fasten her dove gray dress; the one embroidered with weirwood leaves. It's her finest garment and tonight the castle is celebrating. She leaves her hair wavy and mostly down,  swept to one side over her shoulder. She has nothing to adorn her neck, but it's just as well for her eyes are bright in her looking glass and her hair glows in the candlelight, bringing the wilding sentiment to mind. Kissed by fire.

 

She glides through the quiet halls, guided to her destination by the rumble of the great hall. When she enters, she spies the hulk of Gendry's back at one of the side tables. He sits with Thoros and Val, and she places a hand on his shoulder when she reaches their table.

 

"You look dashing tonight, blacksmith." Gendry is washed and clad in a deep blue tunic that Sansa made just for this occasion. It brings out his lovely, though angry eyes.

 

"So it's Lady Alayne who joins us tonight, eh? Not the red lady? No deceptions needed tonight, then?" Gendry scowls into his pint and the girl ignores him, sitting gracefully at the table beside Val. Her friend may disapprove, but her new guise has been effective. On the heels of her and Jon's successes with houses Dustin, Ryswell and Cerwyn, she and the king traveled to Blackpool together to treat with Lord Slate, known to be a superstitious man. To enhance the White Wolf's mystique, Alayne donned the crimson cloak that Lady Melisandre left for her, and played the part of the priestess to Jon's resurrected king.

 

At first, she wasn't sure if he'd go with the ploy, especially when it meant revealing what happened at the Wall. But the king agreed when the rest of his council backed it, and the visit was another resounding success. Lord Slate practically threw himself at Jon's feet by the time the lady in red was done introducing the king in the north. Since then, Alayne has worn the red cloak a handful of times with a few of the more obstinate lords, to similar effect, and as the truth of Jon's death spread amongst his own men, their esteem for him has only grown to a now fervent dedication.

 

"I don't lie to the lords. I never say I'm a red priestess of R'llor, Gendry. They believe what they want when they see the cloak, and the direwolf, and the king whose come back from the dead." She's argued this point several times already, but the blacksmith only digs into his stony censure and a wedge grows between them that dampens the euphoria of each new success, of which there have been many. Since arriving at Torrhen Square, they have had a streak of good fortune, culminating in two large boons that prompted tonight's celebration.

 

She looks up to the head table, eyeing one of those boons sitting proudly between Lady Eddara and her mother, Lady Maege. Alysane Mormont marched triumphantly into the courtyard of Torrhen's square a fortnight ago with a troop of battle-ready men and the proof of their recent victory over the ironborn at Deepwood Motte marching in front of her, in the form of Asha Greyjoy, dirty and exhausted, yet somehow still defiant.

 

Now Alysane sits in a place of honor at tonight's feast, with Lady Tallhart and the king, while the traitor Theon Greyjoy's sister is locked away across the castle. Jon looks striking in a fine gray tunic that the girl made for him, far lighter than his usual black, but tempered by the sable mantle draped elegantly over one shoulder and clasped by two snarling direwolves. Sansa watches him pour Eddara more wine and Val huffs beside her.

 

"We should be up there tonight, should we not?" The warrior empties her cup, and pounds the table for more. "I won this castle, Red, and you…you've practically won us everything else." The girl nudges her friend, good-naturedly.

 

"Well, that's hardly true. I've assisted where I can, just like everyone here, and we can't all sit at the head table." Edie and Alysane are laughing at something Jon has said, and a small part of her does wish she could be beside them, to partake in this rare moment of joy in the young king, but she knows it's foolishness. "I'm afraid you're amongst the kneelers now, Val. Commoners and wilding warriors don't sit with nobility south of the Wall, not on night's such as this." Alayne fills her own cup with wine, and knocks it against her friend's. "But that doesn’t mean we can't have more fun. Drink up!" Val meets her eye with a look of delighted surprise, and they both take a deep draught of their respective drinks as the hall quiets around them, all eyes turned to their king who is standing now, regal and solemn, before them.

 

"The gods work in mysterious ways. A year ago, I died." The room collectively holds its breath as Jon Snow addresses his mortality for the first time, publicly. While he has allowed Alayne to tout his return to life in her new role as herald, the king never elaborates and she has been careful to only highlight his rebirth, not the conditions that necessitated it. Now, she aches for the man who stands before them. "When I woke, I was no more enlightened than before. The gods did not show me some hidden truth nor a reason for my second chance. My life had been measured in death, from the day I was born until the day I died. And for months after I came back, I continued to measure it thus."

 

Bodies shuffle uncomfortably around her and the girl meets the king's gaze across the crowded hall with apprehension, but his face softens in a rueful smile. "I suppose I shouldn't have started a celebration, talking about death, huh?" There are few nervous laughs. "My council would have advised against that, I'm sure." He keeps his eyes on her, and she smiles back, shaking her head, slightly. "Yet death is where this started. Death is what brought me to you and what I've learned slowly…more slowly I should have, is that death is no way to measure one's life. If we are to survive the wars to come, we must measure our lives by every way in which we deny death. Brothers! Sisters! I've learned this from you. From the crannogmen who work tirelessly to feed our people spread across the vast north, from the healers who shut death out with each wound they mend, from the singers who remind us that life can be sweet and joyous, and from the wildings and northmen who have learned to set aside thousands of years of animosity to work together to free our lands so our children can live life free from those who wish them harm."

 

Cups are pounding on tables, and voices are calling out in agreement. The king has them now, and the girl's chest swells with unknowable feeling.

 

"We still have a long journey ahead of us to see that vision true, and we've experienced our share of hardship and loss along the way." He pauses, and she knows his mind is on Stannis Baratheon and their losses on the field north of Winterfell, as well as the still missing Tormund. There's been no word or sign of the wilding or of the crannogmen who were tasked with keeping him safe, and each passing day without news portends a bleak fate for their friend. Yet the king does not dwell on these worries as he continues his speech. "Tonight, however, we must celebrate how far we've come. Six months ago we were a motley group of near-strangers, hiding in the woods, and bound together by nothing more than desperation and a longing for something better. Tonight we feast in a castle amongst comrades and friends! Let us raise our cups to the lovely Lady Tallhart and the men and women who risked life and limb to free Torhen's Square!" Everyone joins him, arms raised toward the rafters.

 

"The north does remember, and our numbers grow each day. Lady Alysane, of Bear Island, has restored Deepwood Motte to House Glover and brought with her the new lord of House Hornwood. To the fierce she-bear of Bear Island and young Larence Snow!" The roar is louder now as cups are drained and the room readies itself for impending revelry.

 

"And just yesterday, we learned that Lady Alys Karstark and her husband, Sigorn, Magnar of Thenn, have taken back Karhold from the traitor Arnolf Karstark and are marching now to meet us at the gates of Winterfell! We'll toast Arya Stark in Winterfell's great hall before the next moon!"

 

Now the room is wild with celebration, and no one needs the king's prodding to raise their cups towards the roof. The news from Karhold means that the White Wolf has effectively gained the allegiance of every major house in the north, with the notable exception of House Manderly. By Lord Reed's assessment their fighting men might outnumber the Bolton bastard's at last.

 

Jon Snow sits as the last "King in the North!" chants die down and the serving maids start passing dishes out from the kitchen. The pleasant din of many voices rises through the great room and Alayne meets Gendry's eyes, pleased to see that he's clearly thawed towards her, for he's got an idiot grin on his face that she mirrors back at him as they tuck away merrily at the food before them. She almost never drinks, but tonight Alayne indulges in everything from chilled autumn ale paired with slivers of honeyed chicken and bits of fresh bread to spiced squash and sweetcorn washed down with pale amber wine. By the time the main course is cleared away, her body is warm and her mind hums pleasantly as she watches Thoros taunt a small terrier under the table with a lamb bone as she idly traces the rim of her cup.

 

"A wolf wouldn't stand for that." She muses. "He'd take your hand along with the bone." The priest chuckles at this, finally tossing the scrap to the small dog who disappears under another table.

 

"No need to remind me not to mess with a wolf, my lady. You're the one who's grown cozy with one." He peers knowingly over his cup at her and she takes another sip of wine to hide her growing blush. In truth, she's hardly seen the king in recent weeks, outside of council meetings or various larger assemblies. They have not been alone since the wolfswood, yet she is always keenly aware of his presence whenever they are together and their eyes meet often across any room, no matter the distance. Even now, she raises her lashes to find his gaze pointed in her direction and she burns. The hall is growing louder as people start to get up and move and Alayne uses the opportunity to excuse herself, weaving through the long tables to find several of the better musicians. Soon they are assembling their instruments while she oversees the men clearing space for dancing.

 

She returns to her seat as the first song lilts merrily from the front of the hall. Alysane is at their table now, talking animatedly with Gendry while Val stares balefully up at the head table where lady Eddara sits talking to Lord Reed. "Just go up there, Val. There is nothing stopping you now." But the wilding turns to her, stubbornly, and shakes her head.

 

 "Can't have wildings mixing with the lords and ladies. Those were your words, not mine." The girl rolls her eyes and turns to Gendry and Alysane who are arguing about weapons. She reaches across and touches Gendry's arm.

 

"Come! Let's dance."

 

"Oh no…no way." Gendry's shaking his head, arms crossed and Alysane chortles next to him.

 

"Well, then let's play a game!" She pleads, in need of distraction.

 

"A drinking game!" The she-bear adds, enthusiastically, and soon they are all swapping stories, trying to determine which are true. Alayne is especially adept at this game, always knowing the falsehood, and the rest of the group starts to protest when she hasn't been forced to drink in several rounds.

 

"This won't do!" Alysane refills her cup sloppily with the fresh flagon that's been dropped between them by an accommodating serving maid, and Alayne sips from her own in solidarity. "We need a new game or Alayne will miss out on all the fun."

 

"Hear! Hear!" Val concurs. She's happy now that the lady Edie has joined their table as well, demurely abstaining from the contest, but successfully calling out each of Val's falsehoods, nonetheless.

 

The she-bear cuffs Gendry. "Come boy, get your elbow on the table and show me what's in that tree trunk of an arm!"  She rolls her owns sleeve up, revealing a thickly muscled forearm. The blacksmith tries to beg off but his friends egg him on and soon he and the Mormont heir are arm-wrestling as a larger crowd gathers around their table.

 

When Gendry wins the second round, Alayne rises to toast him before downing another cup of wine. "To Gendry! Strong of arm, and ungainly by foot!"

 

"Hey! Uncalled for!"

 

"Well, prove me wrong!" She  extends a hand imperiously. "Dance with me, Gendry!" The others chime in, to pressure the poor man, as he tries to protest.

 

"How can you deny our beautiful Alayne, boy!"

 

"Fool, get on your feet!"

 

He rises slowly, blowing out his mouth in mock frustration, for his eyes are cheerful and she winks back with a slightly crooked curtsy before leading him towards the dancing at the front of the hall. Gendry is ungainly, but it doesn't matter, for this is not the dancing of Sansa's past, with its careful choreography and polite distances. This is a swirl of joyful, uncoordinated yet harmonious movement and the girl twirls with breathless delight. Sure, her friend steps on her toes a few times, but she also knocks into him a bit unsteadily, and he laughs, pulling her out of the way of an exuberant wilding who spins beside them. "Ha! You're in your cups!" Gendry chuckles and she glares back.

 

"I am not!"

 

"You are. You're flushed and tipsy, just like the rest of us." She only twirls away with a new partner, giddy and giggling. She dances and dances, matching her movements to each new partner, doubling over at one point when a young crannogman hops around her in a complicated jig.

 

"Enough Jonnel! She can't possibly replicate that in this lovely dress." She feels a gentle tug on her sleeve and it's the king beside her now, smiling down at her.

 

"Your Grace!" She attempts a curtsy and he halts it, sweeping her into his arms.

 

"Dance with me." His eyes are dark, and her intoxication ripples through her as she leans against him. She is acutely aware of his hand at the small of her back and she can't look away from his eyes, from his lips, from his eyes. He keeps her close despite the flying pace of the melody, and it's too much. When the song ends, she breaks away, dizzily.

 

"Forgive me, your Grace. I believe I may have consumed too much wine. I think it's time for me to retire." She's flushed and breathless, and he looks at her with amused concern.

 

"Let me escort you to your room."

 

"That's hardly necessary." But her body betrays her with a hiccup, and the king is chuckling at her, his eyes merry. She spasms again, and he folds her arm into his, leading her towards the arched doorway at the other end of the hall.

 

"I insist. You aren't the only one in your cups tonight, my lady, and I'd rest better knowing that you made it to your chamber, unaccosted." They weave through the merriment together, Jon deftly guiding them clear of the more drunken revelers as she takes in the remnants of the party. Val and Eddara are sitting on a bench near the hearth, the pregnant woman resting a sleepy cheek against the wilding's shoulder. Gendry is with Alysane and her men-at-arms where the competitions of strength have escalated. Two men roll across the floor, wrestling, as the circle shouts rowdy encouragements at them.

 

"You'll need to watch them, Your Grace." She advises, as they sidestep the brawl, her credibility somewhat tarnished by the constant hiccuping. "You'll get a reputation for wildness, hiccup, if you let your men behave this way in the Great Hall of Winterfell."

 

"Is that so?" He grins at her, leaning in conspiratorially. "I'd have thought that was already my reputation, no? The wild wolf?" There is a glint in his eye and she shakes her head solemnly.

 

"Hiccup! No, Your Grace. You're the white wolfhiccup…Must I constantly be reminding you who you are?" He laughs again and she winks cheekily back.

 

"Yes, my lady. You must. Without you, I'd be roaming the barrowlands, howling to the gods for clarity." He throws his head back, raising a fist in mock despair. "Am I a wolf or a man? A bastard or a king?  Wild or weary?" His tone veers from teasing to thoughtful, and she pokes the tip of his nose with her finger before he has a chance to brood in earnest.

 

"Hey! What was that for?" She laughs, and pokes him again. "Stop that!" She giggles as he grabs for her hand, which she pulls away, and they're both laughing like children as they reach the hall entrance where Howland awaits them at the door.

 

"Your Grace, is it wise to leave the feast before the lady of the castle?" The crannogmen stares at their linked arms, and she almost sticks her tongue out at the green man. She's sick of Lord Reed and his disapproving eyes.

 

"I'll be back shortly, Howland. I'm just escorting our fearless healer to her chamber. The wine has made her impudent." Jon is too busy waggling his eyebrows at her to notice Howland's scowl as they sweep out of the room, but she doesn't miss it.

 

"He doesn't like me." She remarks as they walk down the quiet corridor.

 

"That's not true." Their pace slows, now that they're alone. "What isn't there to like about you? You're clever and kind and…invaluable. He's just cautious and slow to trust. Howland sees a threat in everything that he doesn't fully understand." He tugs her closer. "But it doesn't matter what Lord Reed thinks of you, anyway. I'm the king, am I not?" He pauses speech and step until she nods with a roll of her eyes, and he leans in, whispering. "And while I can't pretend to fully understand you, my lady, I trust you." Softer. "And I like you. I really like you."

 

He's smiling that secret smile that she's seen only a handful of times, and she wants it to be hers, so she presses her lips lightly to his, claiming it. It was an impulse, a madness, a thoughtless wine-induced fancy, but now his mouth is soft against hers and a warm boldness pushes her to deepen the kiss. It's but half a moment before he's responding in kind, parting her lips with his own as her head tilts back in dizzying deference to his ardor. He's all around her now and still she pulls him closer by the snarling wolves at his chest, by his face, by his hair. She feels the smile in the kisses that he dusts along her jaw and the errant pulse at her neck. When he catches her ear, a whimper escapes her treasonous lips and his answering moan, deep and low, sends a throb of heady awareness in all the places where their bodies meet.

 

"Alayne…" He rasps her deceit, and sense comes rushing back to her in cold, clarifying horror. She pushes against his chest to escape, for she's allowed him to press her against a shadowed wall and she's suddenly frantic as she fights to move away, her heavy skirts tangled between their limbs. Realizing the tenor of her movements has changed, he steps back, brows furrowed.

 

"Alayne…"

 

"Please! Don't call me that." What was she thinking? How could she be so foolish?

 

"Did I do something wrong?" His dark curls are mussed where she's pulled them from their stay and he manages to look both roguish and confused and she has to look away before she loses the threads of herself that she's desperately trying to keep straight.

 

"No…no. I did." Her emotions are at war with one another, and she wraps her arms around herself. "Forgive me." She turns away, striding toward her chamber, the clip of Jon's boots following behind.

 

"Alayne!" He implores again, and she cringes.

 

"Please, don't call me that!" She looks back and her heart falls. Jon Snow stands behind her looking blindsided. She hates herself for her wicked, dishonest nature. She should have told Jon who she was weeks ago, but she was weak and loathsome and stupid. How much will it break her when Jon hates her as well? Too much. This, she knows. "Forgive me, your Grace. I'm not myself tonight." His face softens as she continues. "Please forget my…overfamiliarity."

 

"You could never be overfamiliar." She winces and he looks so hurt. "My lady, the fault is mine." His voice is soft and sad. "You begged leave at the feast for overindulgence…and I took advantage." She's shaking her head at him, tears in her eyes, as she places a hand against her door.

 

"No." She swallows a strange grief as she looks back at him. "You were lovely." His kisses had seared away the lingering memories of false affection from other men that were still pasted over her like a claustrophobic second skin. All the touches, soft and hard, that had her fighting the instinct to fold in on herself; the kisses that tasted like sand; the oily words that made her jaw clench, were all gloriously burned away in a few moments of potent mutual desire. Their brief interlude in the corridor was a revelation for Sansa. She felt exposed and alive and seen, but it was a moment built on a lie. Jon wasn't kissing her. He wasn't seeing her. He was kissing Alayne. He sees Alayne. He likes Alayne. He'll hate Sansa.

 

"May we talk tomorrow?" His eyes are vulnerable and cautious and she feels desolate, but she knows she can't let this go on. Jon deserves the truth. Even if Sansa repulses him, even if it exposes the twisted brokenness inside her--a girl who'd fall in love with her own brother--she can't bear watching him fall in love with Alayne instead. Bitter jealousy roils inside her now, so she nods slowly.

 

"Tomorrow." Reflexively, she grabs his hand, squeezing. "I'm so sorry, Jon." And then she's in her room, alone and miserable. When she lies down across her bed, the world spins above her, and continues long after she closes her eyes.

Chapter Text

Smoke fills her room, but she pushes the bloody bedding into the fire, anyway. Her lungs burn, but there are still more sheets splattered with her hidden shame and she must discard them somehow. She's hacking now, and someone is yelling at her door and she must hurry or she'll be caught.

 

"Alayne!" They are pounding at her door. "Alayne! Are you in there?" Sansa comes to with a fit of coughing. She is in her bed, but her room is filled with smoke and there is a clamor outside, before Gendry bursts through her door, stumbling in.

 

"I'm here!" She wheezes and he grabs her, dragging her from her bed and out of her chamber into the dim hall, where a scared-looking servant girl stands. She takes deep draughts of fresh air, before coughing again, as Gendry steps back into her room. Minutes later he's at her side, where she sits against the corridor wall staring out through the narrow window at the predawn sky.

 

Gendry frowns down at her, wiping his arm against his brow. "Something must have blocked your chimney flue since your fire was last stoked. I've opened the window and dampened the fire, but you shouldn't go back in for a while yet."  He nods at the girl. "Nell noticed smoke coming out of your room and came running to me. Are you okay?"

 

Her throat still feels raw, but she nods as he helps her back to her feet. It's still very early and she's in a haze, but there are a few more servants in the corridor now and awareness grows that she stands barefoot in her nightclothes before Gendry, who is in a similar sate of undress.

 

"Come, I'll take you to Val's room. You'll probably need to borrow clothes." She nods, distractedly, following him as her mind flies back to the last time her clothes were ruined by smoke. It's been years since she's thought on that horrible morning when she tried to burn away the evidence of her first flowering. She lost the last garments from her youth in Winterfell in that ill-conceived scheme, and in return, she gained nothing but increased attention towards her new womanhood. The Lannisters married her off to Tyrion less than a year later, after all. She shivers, wrapping her arms around herself as Gendry knocks at Val's chamber.

 

Moments later, the wilding cracks open the adjacent door where Lady Eddara's rooms are. Val's eyes widen when she sees the girl and she quickly ushers her inside before sending Gendry off to request a bath be drawn. It takes a long time to wash the last vestiges of smoke from her hair, and she knows it will be much longer before she shakes off the airless phobia of the nightmare, but an hour later she is wrapped in a lovely, soft robe of Edie's and she must face the day. When she steps into the lady's outer chamber, she finds her two friends breaking their fast with a third plate waiting for her. 

 

"There she is. You've just missed the king. He came by as soon as he heard of your mishap." The girl blanches at Val's words. "Don't worry, love. I told him ye were fine and that he could inquire later, after you've dressed and eaten. Sit. Eat."

 

"Thank you. I'm sorry I disturbed you so early, Lady Eddara." Her head aches, and she's not sure if it's from the smoke or the wine or the nerves, but she hopes food will ease it. She needs to be clearheaded today.

 

"Oh, it's no matter, Alayne. I barely sleep most nights anyway, I'm so uncomfortable." Edie shifts now in her seat, and Sansa watches a movement ripple where the young woman's dressing gown is taut across her belly.

 

"Edie, I think you are very close." The pale young woman flashes a panicked expression before Val grabs her hand, and Alayne goes on to reassure her. "We have two very good midwives here, up from Barrowton. You will be in good hands when the time comes, and I'll be with you every step of the way. I promise." The young woman moans a little, and the girl realizes her time might be very close, indeed. "Eddara, are you having contractions?"

 

"Yes." The lady of the house whispers. "I think I just had one. They started in the night."

 

"Do you know how far apart they are?"

 

Edie looks to Val before answering. "I think the one before was maybe a quarter of an hour ago…and the one before that was similar."

 

Alayne drops her scone on the plate, rising. "I'll get the midwives."

 

But Val is rising too. "No. no. I'll do it. We need someone knowledgeable here." 

 

The girl smiles at the wilding. "Nothing is likely to happen for some time. This stage can take hours, sometimes even days. When the contractions are only a few minutes apart, that's when things get intense." The wilding only gives her a look of warning, before slipping out the door. She finishes her food quickly before dressing in a slightly ill-fitting wool gown borrowed from one of the other women in the castle. When the midwives arrive, Alayne and Edie are taking a turn around the room together.

 

"The baby has dropped." Morwyn, the elder midwife eyes Eddara, critically. "Come child, into your bedchamber and I'll have a look at ye." The young woman nods nervously, before leading the two midwives into the other room.

 

Val scowls at the doorway, and Alayne comes to her friend's side, whispering. "You have to be calm. For Edie. If you stand in the corner, with your hackles raised the whole time, you'll make her more anxious when you should be working to put her at ease." She adds, sternly. "I'll make you leave, if you can't pull yourself together."

 

Val turns to her now, eyes wild. "I'm not leaving." She sighs. "But you're right. I just can't help thinking on Dalla." The wilding has spoken of her sister only a few times, but the girl knows she was lost in childbirth, and the reminder puts her friend's worried protectiveness in a new light. She places a hand on Val's cheek, tucking a honeyed lock behind the woman's ear.

 

"Eddara is young and healthy and she's in good hands. Let's not bend toward despair without reason." Val smiles at her then, nodding, and they join the other women in the bedchamber. Morwyn rises from where she is bent at Edie's side. She believes it will be hours yet before the young woman labors in earnest, but the baby's head is down and there are no worrying signs, so they all have time to properly prepare the chambers and the castle for the impending birth.

 

Alayne kneels at the young woman's side. "My lady, I promised I would stay with you through your labor, and if you need me here now, you have only to say the word and I'll stay…but, I do have business with the king that I promised I would speak on with him today. May I beg leave, only for a short while?"

 

Edie smiles back, her face sweet. "Of course, Alayne. I would not keep you from the king. Plus, Val will not leave my side, even if I wish it." She teases the wilding woman, her dimples showing. "If you aren't back before it gets exciting, I'll send a maid to fetch you."

 

"Is there anyone else you would like here?"

 

The girl hesitates a moment before asking. "I can't believe I'm saying this. But, could you see if Lady Maege would come?"

 

"What?" The wilding is incredulous. "Why?" Alayne is mildly surprised by the request as well, but the young woman elaborates.

 

"I know you don't like her much, Val, but I find her brashness comforting. I lost my mother a long time ago, and it would be nice to have someone here who has been through this before. She has birthed five daughters and has two grandchildren, Val. She might be of help."

 

Seeming to remember Alayne's warning from moments before, Val shrugs. "Of course, my love. Whoever and whatever you need." When Alayne leaves them a little while later, the wilding and the lady are playing cards across the bedspread as the servants and midwives prepare the room around them for the birth. She'd give almost anything to stay here with them, but she promised Jon.

 

By the time she reaches the king's solar, her palms are sweaty and her stomach churns. Her fist feels leaden as she raps it against the door, but it is Satin who answers. He smirks, letting her in.

 

"The king isn't here, but I was instructed, quite emphatically, that if you did come here, I'm to make sure you stay here and I'm to fetch him at once."

 

"Ah." She walks to the window, where the day is bleary and bleached of color, as if even the land is sick from last night's mistakes. "Well, best fetch him then. Lady Eddara will have her baby today, and I do not have long." Left alone, she knows not what to do with herself. She paces around the map, finally picking up the wooden castle, surrounded by flayed men, white suns and the twin towers of house Frey. Will she ever be home, again? Even though they seem on the cusp of retaking Winterfell, it still doesn't seem possible. A smothering anguish blankets her. She is so consumed by it, that she does not hear the door open and close behind her.

 

"You'll love it." She sucks in a breath at Jon's voice. He reaches over her shoulder, taking the wooden figure from her hand. "Winterfell. This doesn't do it any justice, of course. One could not recreate it with stone or wood or even words. It's a living, breathing place full of layers and history and…magic. I can't wait to show it to you." She turns, looking up at him, feeling impossibly shy, and sees that he seems equally affected. He takes a step back, appraising her. "I heard about the blocked chimney in your room. Are you alright?"

 

"Yes, your Grace. I'm fine."

 

He sighs. "And I understand Lady Eddara is in labor?"

 

"Yes, your Grace."
 

"You should be with her then." He grabs at the back of his neck. "I know we said we would talk, but I would not keep you from her now." She would give almost anything to take him on this offer, but she is determined to cower no longer.

 

"We have time. She should have hours yet and if all goes well, it will be the midwives doing all the work. I'll only be needed if things go horribly wrong." His face darkens at this, and she notes his fist clenching at his side, so she amends. "And we have no reason to believe they will. When I left her, she was smiling and comfortable enough to be teasing Val."

 

He nods, walking to the window. "Good."

 

Now, there is no reason for them not to talk. He does not turn right away, and a flutter of nerves overtakes her again. She struggles to tamp them down.

 

"Your Grace…"

 

"Jon. Please…call me Jon."

 

"Jon. I wanted to apologize for last night-"

 

"No." He turns now, looking determined. "It is I who should apologize, my lady." She's shaking her head but he continues, stepping forward. "I…I have not been completely forthcoming with you."

 

"What?" This isn't right. "No. It is I who have not been forthcoming." But he's waving her words away, distractedly.

 

"Please, let me finish. There is information I need to give you before…before I can ask anything more of you." She is completely baffled now, so she only stares at him as he sighs, staring up, as if unsure of how best to continue. Finally, he speaks. "Do you recall our time in the wolfswood? After the battle? The conversations we had?" How could she not? The grotto with the spring comes to mind with an uncomfortable regularity. She can feel a blush rising to her cheeks, even now, as he continues. "You told me then that I must prepare myself for a kinghood that extends beyond the battle for Winterfell. And, you were right. I've taken those words to heart."

 

She nods. "I know you have, Jon." She smiles at him, softly. "You've done wonderfully-"

 

But he cuts her off with a hand upraised, and another heavy sigh. "The fight doesn't end at Winterfell, though. There is a larger war coming."

 

"You think I don't know that?" She steps forward, indignant. The Lannisters will not let the North go that easily. She knows there are more battles to come to secure the northern independence.

 

"Of course." He's nodding as if coming to a new understanding. "You know, then. I should have guessed. You spend so much time with the wildings. Good. You know why I can't stay at Winterfell then." She does not know, but he doesn't notice her confusion for he's looking down at the map, gesturing. "Winterfell is the heart of the north. It will be the key to coordinating the rest of the region for the long winter ahead, but I can't be there to do it. The line must be drawn at the Wall. I will be needed there the most. If…" He sighs again, turning to her. "If Arya is not able to rule, I need someone I can trust to do it in my stead."

 

She stops him here. "What are you talking about? Why would you need to go to the Wall? The threat is to the south! The Lannister armies are to the south!" She is so flustered now, her skin is tingling. "Jon, you aren't in the Night's Watch anymore! You aren't needed at the Wall!"

 

"The south?" He drags his hand over his face. "Then you don't know." He seems suddenly tired, but her blood is rising. She cannot understand why he would talk of running north again, just as things are finally starting to come together.

 

"Know what? Speak plainly." Her tone is clipped, and he narrows his eyes at her.

 

"Speak plainly? Fine, the dead walk again, north of the wall. The white walkers, the cold gods, the others…whatever you want to call them, are back. They are real and they march against the land of the living as we speak, with nothing but the Wall and a few hundred black brothers to stop them." His words are harsh and full of frustration, and she stills as he stares at her, his eyes black and intense, his face a mask. Her mind races through memories of drunken wilding stories by her campfire, the black raven flying back and forth from the wall, Jon's instructions to the lords before the battle with Stannis, Old Nan's stories of ice dragons and the last hero…

 

She sits down, abruptly, in one of the highbacked chairs. The hairs along her arm rise. "But…"

 

He kneels beside her now. "I know it sounds impossible. I don't know how to make you believe me. I don't know how to make anyone believe. If I hadn't seen it myself, I'd say that the white walkers were just tales told by drunk men and old women trying to teach children a lesson." He places his scarred hand on her knee. "But I have seen them. Dead men rose within the halls of Castle Black. Fighting them is how I burned my hand. It's what sent the wildings fleeing for their lives, south of the Wall. We have a brother at the Citadel, and he reckons that the long night has come again. A winter that will last for years…Petty squabbles over the kingdoms of men must be put aside, for if we can't unite, we won't make it to spring."

 

They sit like this for a long moment, looking into each other's solemn eyes. "I believe you." She murmurs, at last. And it's true. She does believe him. A horrible weight has settled in her stomach as he talked, and she knows the words he speaks are truth. She knows it in her bones.

 

He takes her hand now. "My lady, I wish none of it were true. All I want is to take you to Winterfell and reunite with Arya and stay there forever. But I have a duty to our people. I must keep them safe. I must keep you safe. I must protect the realms of men. I know I am not in the Night's Watch any longer, but this war will require more than the black brother's. It will require kings and queens and thousands of men to stand up against the dead, together."

 

He traces a thumb over the back of her hand and dread pools inside her. "I feel I have misled you."

 

"Jon-" She tries to stop the words that are coming from his mouth, but he continues on, doggedly.

 

"I can't do this alone. I know this isn't fair. I don't want to leave, but when I do…I need to know that Winterfell and the North will be ruled by someone who is capable. Somehow who is intelligent and fair. Who can treat with the lords and who will love and be loved by the smallfolk." She shakes her head in growing horror, but he is squeezing her hand now, his face earnest. "Alayne, if it can't be Arya, I want it to be you. It is unfair of me to ask this of you right on top of revealing these fresh horrors, but we are running out of time. I want you to be my queen…and my wife."

 

"No…Jon no!" She stands now, desperate. "I can't. Don't ask me that." She tries to put distance between them but he still has her hand.

 

"I understand if you need time, my lady-"

 

"It's not time I need. I cannot marry you. Not now. Not ever." The words come out harsh and wild, and they are both taken aback by her vehemence. "I'm not who you think I am, Jon." She realizes, too late, that her cheeks are wet and he is closing the distance between them again as she chokes down a sob. He strokes the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, his eyes warm and gray.

 

"Alayne, you are everything I have ever wanted. You are everything the North needs-"

 

"But my name isn't even Alayne!" She tries to pull away again, but he moves with her, keeping his hands on her face. "I'm not Ned's sister. I met him right before I met you. Gods! I practically met him in a brothel!" This conversation is going horribly wrong, and as she's grasping at how to put the right words into her mouth, Jon starts speaking again.

 

"I don't care! That's what I'm trying to tell you. It doesn't matter what your name is, who your parents were, where you came from, or what things you did before we met." She huffs in anguished frustration, but he's smiling at her, and his eyes are so soft. "I'm sorry about all the stupid things I said to you when we first met. I never should have made you feel small about your past. I understand why you didn't feel you could trust me, but I'm telling you it doesn't matter. I see who you really are. You are smart and brave and good. You're so good. I'm a sullen fool without you. You reminded me how to live again. How to want again…"

 

"You're not listening…" It's barely a whisper. His words are horrible. His words are wonderful, and she is falling.

 

Knock! Knock! The rap at the door startles them both, and Jon shouts, dropping his hands from her face. "Not now!" But the door is opening, and the girl scrambles away, shifting her face to the hearth to obscure her tear-stained face and quell her heavy breathing. She hears Jon expel a deep breath before speaking in a low, gruff voice. "Where the fuck have you been?"

 

Turning, she finds a stranger.  A slender man of middle age, dressed in dark traveling clothes, stands in the doorway for half a moment before entering the solar and shutting the door behind him. He glances warily at the girl before responding to the king. "You know where I've been, Snow."

 

"You may speak freely in front of…Alayne. What news of Arya?" Jon peers around the man, as if their sister is hiding in the shadows, but the older man only shakes his head.

 

"She's not in Winterfell."

 

She and Jon both step forward now. "What? Has he taken her to the Dreadfort then? How is that possible. We've been watching the roads between the castles-"

 

"No boy. Listen." The man is still shaking his head. "She isn't anywhere. The girl that Ramsey married is not Arya. He keeps her locked in a tower with no one but himself and some poor creature he calls Reek allowed in or out. It took me months to get inside, at great danger to myself and the remaining spear wives left alive. But I saw her at last, and she's a different girl. She's some other poor lass that he's passing off as Arya." Jon turns away to the window, in brooding silence, but the girl speaks up.

 

"And how would you know?" She is incensed. "What proof do you have?"

 

"I have no proof to show. I barely got out alive. I can only tell you what I saw. And the girl I saw was not a Stark."

 

"And why should we trust your eyes?"

 

The stranger takes a step closer, eyeing her up and down, but it's Jon who speaks, still turned to the window, his voice rough. "Mance was a black brother. He used to travel often to Winterfell with my uncle Benjen."

 

"And after I defected, I still travelled there often, though I made myself less recognizable. Couldn't have the honorable Ned chopping of my head." Awareness dawns. This is Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall and spouse of Val's dead sister, Dalla. He continues, gazing steadily at the girl. "I know the faces of all the Starks, from Rob to little wild Rickon. I know that Robb took after his mother, Catelyn's side just like his sister Sansa, who even as a lass of seven, it was clear, would grow up to be exceedingly lovely." It's in the way he says her name, that she knows. He recognizes her. This stranger knows who she is and he makes clear, he knows her sister too. "I know Arya Underfoot. She is a Stark through and through. There is no mistaking her. The poor girl locked in that tower is not Arya Stark. Be glad of it!"

 

At this, Jon turns, slamming his fists down on the table. "Glad of it? Glad of it? My entire family is dead and gone because I failed them. For months I believed the exception was Arya. I turned my back on everything for her. How can it not be Arya?" The terrible anger is back again, and her body is on full alert for the king's eyes are black and his body is bristling.

 

The older man seems not to understand what is coming as he calmly answer. "Disappeared or dead are better fates than the hell this poor girl is living, Jon. He's tortured her-" He glances her way again. "-in ways that are unimaginable. Arya would not come out the other side of it and be the same girl you grew up with. So yes. Be glad that it is not her!"

 

Jon snarls, flipping the table with the map over in one savage thrust, scattering papers and wood pieces across the room and both the girl and Mance step back again. "Then what did I betray my vows for?  What the fuck did I die for?" Before she or the older man can react, the king has stormed out of the room, and they are left in frozen silence.

 

After a few moments, Mance speaks again, quietly. "Welcome back to the north, Sansa."

 

She finally releases the breath she's been holding. "Don't call me that. I don't know you." She sweeps by him and into the corridor, looking for the king. She finds Howland sometime later, in the courtyard, speaking urgently with several of his men.

 

"What did you do?" He queries, but Mance is on her heels and he responds in her stead.

 

"It wasn't her, crannogman. It was me." He relays his message to Lord Reed, whose frown deepens. They learn from him that the king has left the castle, riding away with a horse and his direwolf and nothing else but a command not to follow him left to the guards at the gates. A dark part of her wonders if it wouldn't have been better if Gendry hadn't saved her from the smoke this morning. But then a maid comes flying into the courtyard to tell her that Lady Eddara is laboring in earnest and Alayne sweeps her troubled thoughts a way, happy to be done with men for this day.

Chapter Text

Ebba is perfection, from her tiny toes to the pale wisps of yellow hair atop her little wrinkly head and Sansa is in love. She nestles the babe closer to her face so she can pull in the sweetmilk scent, gently rocking in a chair by the fire. The day is about to break, and the young mother sleeps in the next room with her wilding curled protectively around her. The girl hopes Ebba gives them another hour of rest. They need it and she is loath to give the baby up. For the two nights since the birth, she has gladly attended to the sweet child while the others rest. Sleep eludes her anyhow, and cherishing the infant keeps her bleak thoughts at bay.

 

This will mark the fourth day since the king's disappearance and the council is set to meet, with or without him. Alayne has used the babe as a reason to avoid everything else, but she can neglect the world around her no longer. Edie is recovering nicely and between Val and the other women of the castle, she wants for nothing. She labored well into the night, but finally, with Val holding one hand and Maege the other, Ebba came just before the dawn.

 

There's a stirring in the other room, and when she looks up, Val is in the doorway, wiping the sleep from her eyes. "Give her to me." The wilding has been fiercely protective over the child, banishing all men from Eddara's wing and turning positively feral at the suggestion of a wet nurse. The girl understands that it has something to do with Dalla's baby and perhaps another babe as well, but Val is not forthcoming and she sees no reason to press the issue.

 

"She should wake soon, though she's already a good sleeper. Sweet, sweet girl."

 

Val hums in agreement, her eyes only for the babe. "Better than you. Have you slept at all?"

 

"I took a nap yesterday."

 

"When you fell asleep at the forge?" Her cheeks burn. She was watching Gendry work, and she did nod off, lulled by the warmth and the noise. Apparently the oaf couldn't keep his mouth shut. She does not dignify her friend's question with a response, instead kissing the top of Ebba's head before sneaking out the door. She almost misses the wilding whisper.

 

"He'll come back."

 

She knows that he will. Jon would not abandon his people, but it eats away at her that she might be one of the reasons he keeps away now. Their conversation runs through her mind again and again, and each time it distorts in more jarring and upsetting ways. Then she thinks of Arya. She resents Jon and his open grief. While he is off, mourning their sister, she must keep her feelings hidden away. Lord Reed cautioned not to let the news spread beyond the king's council and she agrees, but there are moments, like now, when she is alone in a corridor, or walking along the ramparts when the urge to scream and throw herself to the ground is so great that she must bite her tongue and press nail to palm to calm them. Arya is out in the world, free. She has to be.

 

She shuffles into the king's solar. Since her room still reeks of smoke and she hasn't been sleeping anyway, her time away from Edie and Ebba has been spent here. When Satin realized, he graciously pulled a cot in by the hearth, and she collapses there now. She'll close her eyes just for a moment or two before she writes again to Castle Cerwyn. It's been days since she's heard word from Ned or Lady Jonelle, and she vows that she'll never let that fiendish boy out of her sight again.

 

It's afternoon when she's startled awake by a wet nose on her cheek. "Ghost!" Bolting up, she looks around for his master. "Did you bring Jon home, too?" While the door is ajar, she is alone with the direwolf. Later, when the rest of the council members arrive, she learns that the wayward king still has not returned. They stand around the table, set to rights by the girl and Satin, looking around at each other, unsure.

 

Alayne opens the conversation. "Lord Reed, what news from your men? Have the Thenns crossed the river yet?"

 

"The last river. They should reach the White Knife in a few days' time."

 

"And Ramsey? Any movement?"

 

The crannogman taps the map, pensively, with his forefinger. "I have not heard from my men around Winterfell. They were due to report two days ago and have not." He looks up at Mance Rayder, who leans against the mantle, facing away, and Val calls out to him.

 

"What can you tell us, Abel?"

 

Mance tells them all he knows of Ramsey Snow and Winterfell's current defenses. The council is not surprised  by much of it, but the old ranger adds at the end. "There is nothing he won't do, and that is what makes him dangerous. It does not matter if we are equal in strength and men or even cunning. What matters is that he will go down paths that other men refuse to follow. He is a hunter who delights in laying cruel traps."

 

"So what do you propose?" She's tired of this conversation. They've been rehashing their siege plans for weeks and while Mance has been more exposed to the Bolton bastard's cruelty than most, no one here is ignorant of his sadism.

 

"Only that you prepare yourselves."

 

She huffs. "As if that is not what we have been doing-" But Lord Glover nods, cutting her off.

 

"Well than maybe we should wait. We don't have to attack now. He doesn't even have Lady Arya, so the timing is not so urgent. Perhaps we can draw him out another way."

 

"So it's only highborn girls who are worth saving with any urgency? Even if it isn't Arya Stark, there is a girl in Winterfell who is being tortured by that monster." She is exasperated and slightly satisfied to see Lord Glover cringe a little at her outburst.

 

"No, my lady. That's not what I meant-"

 

She interjects. "Well it doesn't matter what you meant. This is still the time to march on Winterfell. The winds blow colder with each passing day and we'll never be more ready than we are now." There are nods and 'Ayes' of assent but Maege adds, "we'd be more ready with a king", and everyone groans.

 

"He'll be back before we march. I know it. " Alayne assures. He has to be. She pulls a scroll from her pocket, relaying its contents. "This came two days ago. Apparently, Lord Ashwood, bannerman to Lord Wyman Manderly, makes his way here now with a message for the king. According to this, he could arrive as soon as tomorrow." This elicits a new round of groans. Wyman Manderly and his bannerman are the only lords who have not openly declared for either Bolton or Snow and their allegiance would tip the odds strongly in their favor.

 

"It's taken him long enough!"

 

"How many men does he bring?"

 

"Will they ally themselves with us?"

 

Alayne quiets them with a sharp rap against the table. "I don't know anything, only that he has a message for the king. It could be that Manderly's allegiance hinges on Ashwood's impression. We should assume that the lord will be acting as both messenger and spy for Manderly. We must present a united front. All the more so if the king has not returned before the audience." The council agrees, and they spend the rest of the meeting planning for Lord Ashwood's arrival.

 

The sun has dipped low in the sky by the time she and Val make their way tiredly back to Lady Eddara's chambers. Inside, the new mother is sipping tea while one of her attendants coos at the baby by the window. "Alayne! You're just in time."

 

The girl yawns, and Edie rises to her feet, shooing her into the vacated seat. "Just in time for what?"

 

Lady Tallhart's eyes twinkle as she gestures to a maid in the corner who retreats into the bedchamber. "I know you typically make your own clothes, and they truly are lovely, but I've taken it upon myself to have a new wardrobe prepared for you. I had them start it before your clothes were ruined, thank goodness, or it wouldn't be ready yet." The lady's maid re-enters with several fine gowns, which she lays across the settee carefully before going back in the other room to get more.

 

Alayne rises to inspect them. "My lady. These are too fine." She recognizes the beautiful brocades and velvet from a shipment sent up from Barrow Hall weeks ago. The gowns before her are gorgeous, with elegant lines and delicately embroidered details. "These are meant for nobility, Lady Eddara. They were meant for you."

 

"For me? My sweet Alayne, these are too fine for me as well. Lady Barbrey sent fabrics fit for a queen. It seemed only right to have them fitted for you." Alayne looks up sharply at this, watching the nervous glance that passes between Edie and Val.

 

"But I'm just a bastard girl. I'm nobody."

 

Edie laughs sweetly. "A nobody who speaks and carries herself like a noble. Dorne must take education seriously to teach a bastard girl so much. Not only can you read and write, but you know arithmetic and astronomy, too. I hear you pointing out the stars to my Ebba at night. You speak the language of politics and know how to run a castle. In truth, I know no one as educated as you."

 

"We all see how the king looks at you." The wilding approaches cautiously, as if sensing the girl's growing agitation. "And you, at him. We figure that it's only a matter of time before Jon tries to make you his queen."

 

"You misunderstand our relationship!" She spits out, retreating. Val and Edie share another glance before Val shrugs.

 

"Our mistake then. Either way, Red, you need new clothes and Edie had these made for your height. You can't keep wearing the loose fitting wools of a serving girl. You may not be a queen, but you aren't a commoner either…no matter how you like to pretend."

 

The girl huffs. "Fine, but only until I have time to make something more suitable." Val and Edie share another glance, smirking in victory. She retreats to Jon's solar that night, flustered and angry, but when the direwolf lies beside her, she sleeps at last. When she inspects the clothing more carefully the next morning, she admits to herself that they are beautiful.

 

----

 

She stands on one end of the great hall, alone and scrutinizing. It is midafternoon, and this part of the castle is quiet as she plans. The tables will need to be removed, though perhaps some benches can be kept and pushed to the side. The King in the North's banners already hang proudly on either side of the main fireplace, but there is no dais or throne from which the king can hold court, and she mulls how best to present Jon Snow to the Lord of White Harbor's messengers, assuming that Jon Snow returns to be presented at all. Lord Ashwood's party sailed up the White Knife in a large river boat and should arrive by nightfall. He travels with fewer than thirty men, and is now being escorted to the castle by Lord Glover and his men-at-arms. Rooms are being prepared and the lord will be granted a public audience in the great hall tomorrow after he has had time to rest, and Jon has had more time to show himself.

 

"Hello Jenny."

 

"That's not my name."

 

"You're right. It isn't. But you told me not to call you by the other."  She turns her attention to the dark man who has sidled up beside her. Mance Rayder is handsome in a weathered, cold way; his eyes, dark; his brown hair mostly gone to grey. He knows her, but she has no recollection of him, and it's completely disconcerting.

 

"You look so distrustful, niece."

 

"I'm not your niece."

 

"Your uncle was my brother, for a time. Does that not make me your uncle, too? For, I'm surely not your father." She starts to walk away, but he lays a gloved hand over hers.

 

"Benjen came to the Wall young and sad. You remind me of him. When you think no one is watching, you slip, and your face slides into sadness." She crosses her arms, eyeing him stonily.

 

"I don't know what it is about Stark blood and the need to give your life away to others, so young. Do you wolves have no interest in life's pleasures? Benjen joined the Night's Watch just after the war when he was not yet a man. In truth, I was surprised. I expected him to be an angry and restless boy; more akin to your white wolf."

 

"Jon isn't a boy."

 

He gives a short, harsh, laugh. "No. I suppose he isn't; not anymore. But he is angry. I saw him for the first time shortly after he came to Winterfell, all those years ago, sullen and mad at the whole world. He's learned to reign it in, more or less, but there is a fire within him, still." She wants to know more of Jon's youth, and how Mance knows so much about the goings-on at Winterfell, but the man is interested in another tale. "Like I said, it's what I expected of Benjen when he came north. His father, brother, and sister all needlessly lost in a pointless war and him forgotten at home throughout it at all. I expected a thirst. Instead I found the temperament of a man of ten and forty in the body of a green boy."

 

She bristles at his words. "Of course he was sad. He lost so much and the men that did it had already paid the final price. Aerys was dead. Rheagar was dead. He had no enemies left."

 

"Ah, so you think anger dies when your enemy lies rotting underground? My Dalla died with no man to blame, but perhaps myself, and still I burn with useless fury. I slay wights every night for her in my dreams."

 

She huffs in frustration. "What do you want?"

 

He sits on a nearby bench, leaning back, stretching his boots out in front of him, his hands behind his head. "I'm only speaking to you of your uncle. I'd have thought you'd want to hear on family, when you've only one left to you." She sits beside him now, gesturing for him to continue and he grins at her, revealing a glimmer of a younger man beneath his windblown and ruddy skin; a man with stories and charm to spare.

 

"As I was saying, Benjen had no choler in him; only a deep melancholy. He didn't have to learn the usual lessons of new recruits. He already knew who the true enemy was. He was an uncle to Robb and Jon by then, but babes born during war can't ever shed the stench of blood. When you came into the world, however, I saw a man in his second spring. A winter rose, born in Winterfell, sheltered by love and peacetime. You thawed your uncle's frozen heart, reminding it to beat again." She scoffs, but his words stir faded memories of a man in black with a quiet voice and a soft laugh.

 

"And now you thaw another's." How long did he stand outside Jon's solar before knocking? Before she can respond, Val enters the hall, dragging a dead deer behind her. "Mance, leave Red alone, and help me bring this to the kitchens. You'll have no luck with her anyway. She's already stolen the other crow."

 

The girl rises now, annoyed and flustered. "He's not a crow. He's a wolf, and I already told you, Val. You can't steal a wolf."

 

Mance only raises a brow. "A wolf, a bastard, a crow, a king… A man can be many things, just as a woman can be. Farewell, niece. Tonight, I'll write a ballad about your Jon Snow, one that will break young maidens hearts." He turns to help the wilding woman, but Sansa calls out to him.

 

"Not a ballad. A march. A call to arms. And make it easy to learn. I want it sung across the seven kingdoms."

 

He bows low. "As you wish, princess." She paces with restless unease until the direwolf enters the hall and rubs against her with a small whine. She kneels before him, stroking behind his ears.

 

"Tell Jon to come home now. I need him." The wolf blinks his red eyes, tilting his head in an eerie imitation of understanding, but he doesn't leave her side the rest of the evening. When she walks the ramparts later, watching the arrivals ride in, snow has begun to fall in harried squalls and her hopes of the king's quick return dwindle. She stands there, long after Ashwood and his men have been ushered inside, watching the drifts grow along the castle walls and obscure the sea of tents beyond. Lady Maege finds her at last, pulling her inside and brushing the snow from her hood and shoulders.

 

"Girl, you'll catch your death out here, and then where will be? We'll be stuck with the crannogman speaking for us tomorrow, and while I'll grant you, his cleverness has been made apparent over the last months, he comes across worse than I do with his lack of social graces!" The old woman claps her back, with a chortle, guiding her further into the castle and in front of the first fire they find. The girl slips her gloves off before warming her hands with the older woman sighing companionably next to her. 

 

"Don't worry, lass. The king will come back. I had my doubts about him, when we first brought King Robb's will. Despite his looks, I saw more of the wildness of Lord Brandon than the constancy of Lord Eddard. I suppose, just like his father, he needed a strong-willed redhead to set his course straight." The girl groans, pressing fingers to her brow. Mormont only chuckles, slapping her back again. "Easy child. I'm trying to lay a compliment on ye. Lady Catelyn was a fine woman. Despite her southron origins, she had steel in her bones. You remind me of her in more than just looks. I don't know from whence you came, but you have the winter in you, girl. The lords will support the union, if the king makes any overtures."

 

The girl has had quite enough. "Well, the lords would be foolish to do so! I'm a woman of unknown origins with no land, money or connections to speak of. You'd be woefully remiss in your duties as council to the king if you were to back such an ill-conceived match. If we are to survive the long night ahead, Jon needs allies with power and resources. He can't throw away something as valuable as a marriage on a strong will alone!" She has stunned the older woman to silence so she gives the woman a curt nod before taking her leave. "Forgive my abruptness, my lady, but a marriage between the king and I cannot happen. I will take my leave of you now. We have a long day ahead."

 

---

 

The storm still rages the next morning, as the girl finishes her preparations. She wavered on whether or not she should present herself as the red priestess. In the end, she decided on one of Edie's gifts instead, a deep blue velvet gown, with a beaded direwolf embroidered across the breast. If she's to speak with the king's voice, she decides it's best to play up his connection to the Starks and the north instead of a foreign god. Lord Manderly and most of his bannermen follow the faith of the Seven and she doubts they will be swayed by the supernatural.

 

She brushes out her hair until it's shining, before calling the direwolf to her side. "Come, Ghost. It's time." In the end, she opted to have all furniture cleared from the great hall, with the exception of one unadorned chair set before the hearth, facing the rest of the room. When she enters, the hall is crowded with the lords and ladies and attending men-at-arms. On one side of the hearth stands Val, regal and aloof, all in white. She wishes Tormund could be beside her. He'd make an imposing figure in her tableau. On the other side is Lord Reed and Glover with Maege and Alyssane, both in their armor and leathers. She spies Mance leaning against a wall towards the back, and Gendry stands awkwardly near the front of the room, in the finery she made for him.

 

She places a hand on his shoulder, smiling. "Thanks for coming. Remember, you aren't a blacksmith today. You are a hardened man of war, meant to represent the king's strength. Square your shoulders and look the part." She straightens his tunic and he leans in, whispering.

 

"And who are you today? You finally look like Sansa Stark."

 

She shakes her head, minutely. "Soon! I promise. I tried to tell him, but he wouldn't listen."

 

"Don't worry. He'll be so pleased to have both his sisters back, that he couldn't possibly stay cross with you for long." Guilt stabs her. She hasn't told Gendry that Arya isn't in Winterfell and she curses herself for yet another betrayal. She approaches the chair, stepping into place before it and turning to face the entrance. She motions for the direwolf to come to her side, but, as the room quiets and the crowd parts to either side of the room, he pads out of the great hall instead. Nerves ripple through her, but Lord Reed gives her a nod, and she knows Lord Ashwood will be presented soon.

 

At last, one of the young boys of the castle, an apprentice to the steward, leads in a slender, well-dressed man of middling height and age. Behind him, come several other men in similarly rich attire who stand a few paces behind the first. His sky-blue quilted velvet doublet contrasts with his dark, closely-trimmed goatee, and an image of Littlefinger flashes through her mind.

 

"Lord Ashwood! On behalf of Lady Tallhart, I welcome you to Torrhen's Square. Depending on your business here, I'll reserve any welcome from our king."

 

She motions the castle steward forward now with bread and salt for the lord and his men. The gesture is wholly symbolic, as they have already dined twice within the castle walls. Still, the lord makes a show of tasting both before responding.
 

"What king is this?" He spins in a slow circle. "I see no king here."

 

"Jon Snow. The White Wolf. The one who defied Death. King in the North as named by his brother, King Robb Stark. Surely you've heard of him?"

 

He looks at her now, contempt in his eyes. "Ah, you mean the bastard who deserted the Night's Watch and now takes on airs?" He nods. "Yes, I've heard of him." The crowd rumbles angrily, but the girl raises her hand and they quiet.

 

"State your business, Lord Ashwood."

 

"I'm here to speak with Jon Snow. Not some unnamed girl. Who are you, anyway?"

 

Ghost growls, darting forward from the shadows, almost knocking Lord Ashwood from his feet, and a gruff voice calls from the back of the hall. "She speaks with my authority and that's all you need to know." The king stands at the entrance, ice clinging to his cloak and his beard, looking like winter come alive. The audience bows low, including the girl, as he strides across the room in slow, deliberate steps. She watches the snow melting into the cracks in the floor where his boots stop in front of her. A gentle hand at her elbow has her standing to meet Jon's inscrutable eyes. He pauses before walking past her, his voice low in her ear. "You don't ever need bow to me. No matter what comes to pass."

 

Then he's seated in the chair, his knees spread. "Carry on." Ghost circles once more around the cowering lord, growling low, before settling at the king's feet.

 

Lord Ashwood rises now, clearly shaken. "I come with an invitation from Lord Manderly." Silence greets him. "To visit him at New Castle, in White Harbor."

 

"I didn't know I needed an invitation to visit my own vassal." The king muses. "Nevertheless, this invitation comes at an inconvenient time. You'll have to send him my regrets. I'm rather busy at the moment, you see. Though, once my wolf has feasted on Ramsey Bolton's flesh, I'm sure he'd have room left for any others who stood aside while the north fell into the hands of a traitor."

 

Ashwood shifts nervously on his feet, and the king continues.

 

"Or perhaps Manderly would like to meet at Winterfell, instead? How many men do you estimate he has? Two thousand? Three? Lord Manderly is always welcome to join his men to my…how many is it now Lord Reed? Twelve thousand? He best hurry though, before it's too late to choose the right side."

 

"Jon." Ghost growls again, and the lord amends. "Your Grace-"

 

"I don't believe there is anything more to discuss." The king rises to his feet, making to leave, but Ashwood steps forward. Before he can get any closer, Gendry throws an arm in front of him, halting him.

 

"He has information about your family." Jon stops now, his face hard. "Please, Lord Manderly bade me to give you this." Ashwood's arm extends past the blacksmith to the king, but the girl cannot make out what he holds, her view obstructed by Jon's back as he takes what is offered.

 

"Where did you get this?" His voice is dangerous and Ghost's hackles rise.

 

"Please, your Grace. I'm only the messenger. Lord Manderly said this was for your eyes only as his message is for your ears alone." He hesitates and Jon motions for Gendry to step back so the man can murmur in his ear. When he is finished, the king straightens, and stalks out of the room, ordering over his shoulder. "Our army leaves for Winterfell tomorrow. Council, to my chambers now."

 

The girl is the last to enter the king's solar, apprehension slowing her feet. Did Lord Ashwood give him something of Sansa's? Her mind races to any items she may have left that Jon would recognize, and she comes up blank. When she enters, the lords are already updating the king on the army's preparations, but his eyes glance from her to the cot in the corner, and she looks down, blushing.

 

"Very good. Howland, prepare to do whatever it takes, and I mean, whatever. This must end now. We've no more time to waste on Ramsey Bolton. Winter is almost upon us." As if in answer, the wind whistles at the windowpane, as the tempest continues to rage outside. The king's voice is hard and no one questions the wisdom of marching through a snowstorm. "Howland. Val. You have my full authority until I reach Winterfell. If the moment is right, do not wait to start the siege without me."

 

"Where will you be?" Lord Reed asks.

 

"In White Harbor." Dread pools in her stomach. The king is looking down at the map now, moving pieces from Torrhen's Square to Winterfell.

 

"What did he give you?"

 

"Perhaps nothing. But I must find out, either way. We'll ride with you to the river-" He glances up at her now. "And then, Alayne and I will take a boat down to White Harbor with Lord Ashwood and his men." She watches as he moves the painted wolf down the White Knife along with a pendant that she's never seen before. It's a rose with silver petals curling around a small blue sapphire. The council protests at once.

 

"Your Grace! This is unwise. Can't this wait until after Winterfell is won?"

 

"You must take men with you!"

 

"Forty at least, my liege."

 

He ignores their protests, staring at her across the table, his face a mask, so she adds her own protestations. "It could be a trap. I don't want to go to White Harbor. I belong at Winterfell. I'm a healer. I'm needed there."

 

"Am I not your king?" He slams his fist on the table,  looking around at all of them, waiting for each member of his council to accede. He turns to her last.

 

She scowls at him. "You are."

 

"Then do as I command. Our men are needed at Winterfell. I must go to White Harbor. And you are coming with me. We have other healers now." He dismisses them, but grabs her arm as the others shuffle out. She won't meet his eye.

 

"Are you sleeping here?"

 

"I'll go to Val's room." She starts towards the door, but he won't let go.

 

"No. You can sleep in my quarters."

 

She pulls her arm away. "You may be my king, but I'll sleep where I wish." Her words come out harsh, but she is angry and his neck flushes.

 

"That's not what I meant! I'll sleep elsewhere-"

 

"White Harbor is a mistake. I can feel it."

 

"I must go."

 

"Why?" He doesn't answer her. "Well, why must I go?"

 

"Because, I said so." His voice is rough.

 

She's enraged. "So that's the kind of king you are, now? One who runs away when things don't go your way, and sulks back days later without a word. Who won't heed his council or give reason for his demands. Who lets his men fight his battles for him, while he takes off on a fool's errand with no further explanation. I thought you were better than this!"

 

Pain flashes in his eyes, and she feels momentary regret, but then he digs in. "Well I guess you were mistaken! And, I'm not the one who needs to give an explanation!"

 

"I tried! You wouldn't listen!" She is fuming, so she turns on her heel to leave.

 

"Alayne-"

 

"That's not my name." She's too angry with him to have this conversation now. She's too angry at herself. Pausing at the doorway, she refuses to look back. "While you were away, Eddara gave birth to a girl. Her name is Ebba. Mother and child are both well."

 

He groans. "Wait!" She doesn't. When she enters the corridor, something slams against a wall inside. Ghost is at her heels as she storms to Lady Edie's chambers. She finds the wilding and lady embracing, so she turns to leave.

 

"Sorry-"

 

"No. It's fine." Edie pulls back and it's clear she's been crying. "Come in, Alayne." The lady embraces her now too. "I wish you didn't have to leave, though I understand that you have to. I was just making Val promise to come home safe. You must promise me as well!"  She can't make any such promise, so instead she pulls her friend closer, tears in her eyes.

 

"Give Ebba all of my love while we are away." She sniffs. "And don't ever let her go! A least, not until she's a woman grown, and can choose her own path."

"I wouldn't."

"Not ever, Eddara! Don't let her foster with another house, no matter how close the relation. Don't promise her in marriage when she is still a child even if she begs you. Because she's just a child! She doesn't know!" A part of her realizes she is growing hysterical, but she can't stop now, even as her friends look on with growing concern. " If you do, bad things will happen! She'll forget who she is and where she came from. She'll learn the wrong lessons from horrible people and she'll never make it home again." She's sobbing now as arms wrap around her from the front and the back and she hears Val's voice in her hair.

"My dear, dear Red. We wouldn't. We won't. We promise." And then. "You'll make it home, love. You will. You will. You will."

Chapter Text

Moving an army of seven thousand through the snow is a slow, miserable business. They march from Torrhen's Square to meet up with an additional five thousand traveling from Barrowton, Deepwood Motte and Karhold. Many of the supplies glide over the fresh snow on crannogmen-designed sleds, but even so, without the red priest's assistance, the girl wonders if they'd make it to Winterfell at all. Thoros has proven invaluable in melting the deep snow that blocks the horses and men as well as fortifying campfires and torches against the blistering winds. R'llor has become quite popular among the white wolf's men, and the girl suspects that the red priest has been gaining converts in the soldiers garrisoned in tents around the castle for some time, offering the red god's fire in exchange for companionship and drink.

 

On the second evening of their trek, he comes upon the girl and Gendry, where they've set up camp near the back of the train. The traveling forge is heavy and hard to move in the weather, even with the several sturdy garrons that pull it, and Gendry is losing his patience. "Ugh! Why is it so bloody cold? No wonder the north is empty. Why would anyone choose this place?"

 

"Because it's beautiful and wild and it smells better than Flea Bottom." She prods him and he drops his flint and steel, cursing. The red priest settles himself before their unlit peat, spreading his faded red robes around him with a sigh.

 

"Don't worry, blacksmith." With a careless snap, their fire is lit and crackling, and the girl claps in delight as Gendry settles down next to her, wrapping a fur around them both. "Now, who's going to pass me some ale?" When he receives twin glares in response, he produces a flask from his sleeve, instead, taking a swig before passing it to Gendry. "It's just like old times. Sleeping in tents and staring across the flames at you two killjoys."

 

"Except its twenty degrees colder." Gendry complains.

 

"And Ned isn't here." The girl murmurs. She misses the boy, terribly, though she's glad that he's safe and warm in a castle and not trudging towards battle in the sleet and snow like they are.

 

"Don't worry. He and Arya will be around causing trouble again, soon enough." Gendry makes to pass her the flask but she groans, pushing her forehead into this massive shoulder.

 

"Oh, Gendry…she isn't there." Her voice muffles against his sleeve, but she can't bring herself to meet his eyes. "I'm so sorry. I should have told you sooner."

 

"What are you saying?"

 

She looks up at him. "Arya isn't in Winterfell. Ramsey has another girl who he's passing off as her. Forgive me. I should have told you as soon as I found out-" Gendry arms engulf her, stifling the rest of her apology.

 

"Gods, girl. Why are you apologizing to me. She's your sister." He's whispers against her hair, cocooning them both from the world around. "I'm so sorry, Sansa."

 

"But you've come so far for her, Gendry, and you didn't even have to."

 

"Aye, but I can't say I'm upset that Arya isn't trapped in a castle with that prick. Excuse my language, m'lady. I never could picture the girl I knew being locked up anywhere. But if there were a chance, I felt compelled to help. When we lost her in the riverlands, I didn't go looking for her when I should have. I'll never forgive myself for that."

 

"But you did go after her, eventually. That's what matters." She pulls back to look into his clear blue eyes. "No one ever came for me." He rubs the top of her head, mussing her braided hair.

 

"They should have. Thank the gods, you saved yourself. I'd be stuck with just this old drunk for company, if you hadn't." She scrunches her nose, feeling better, as Thoros chimes in.

 

"This old drunk is great company. Lest you forget, it was I who brought you together in the first place, you ungrateful wretches." The girl slips out of Gendry's embrace to return the red priest's flask, placing a chaste kiss on his cheek.

 

"And we'll forever be in your debt, Thoros, late of Myr."

 

"I think, in the end, it may be the other way around, my lady." He gazes up at her with a sober, unsettling look.

 

Later, after they've eaten, and the red priest has wandered away, she lies her head against Gendry's shoulder.

 

"Where do you think she is?"

 

She can feel him shrug. "Hopefully, somewhere warmer than here."

 

"And safer."

 

"Aye."

 

"With friends."

 

"Aye. And once we've taken Winterfell, word will spread and Arya will come back to us one day, when it's not quite so cold and miserable, and she'll tell us all about her adventures." Sansa wishes she could feel any sense of that possible future. Instead, a dormant longing aches.

 

"What if it doesn't feel like home anymore? Winterfell?" She's been away longer than she was ever there. Dreams haunt her where nothing is familiar and she wanders unknown corridors and empty rooms looking for a family that is lost to her forever.

 

"It might not. Not at first." He sighs, pulling her closer. "But it will. We'll make it feel like home."

 

"You'll stay? Even though Arya isn't there?" Now he's looking at her like she's sprouted two heads.

 

"How can you be so clever and so dim at the same time? Of course I'll stay. I'm not traveling back through these snows, I can tell you that. You're stuck with me." She sighs heavily in relief and he frowns down at her. "Is that why you're sulking with me at the back of the caravan instead of riding up with the king and the rest of his council? You think I'm going to leave, now? After all we've been through?"

 

She stares at the fire.

 

"Sansa, I'm not going anywhere."

 

"You're going into battle. You can't make that promise. No one can." He has no response to that, so they stare into the flames together in silence, huddled against the cold night.

 

---

She has avoided the king and the rest of his council completely on the journey, and thankfully, none of them have come back seeking either. By the time they reach the White Knife's tributary near Winterfell, she wonders if perhaps the king has forgotten about both the marriage offer and the trip to White Harbor. As she and Gendry are setting up camp that afternoon, however, Jon Snow rides back on his new black mare, to fetch her.

 

He has not changed his decision to visit the Merman's Court or bring the girl with him. He has, however, amended his original plan and decided to bring Satin as well as a contingent of thirty fighting men. She is still furious with him, and on this, she and Lord Reed are in complete agreement.

 

"Your Grace, whatever is in White Harbor is not as important as taking back Winterfell. I know you are upset that Arya isn't there, but we still need to remove the Bolton bastard from power if we are to achieve our other objectives."

 

"I know that, Howland. That's why our armies are marching on the castle now. Sieges take time, do they not? I'll be back within weeks."

 

"What is so important in White Harbor?"

 

"A possibility."

 

"The possibility of a trap!" She exclaims, and Jon turns to her now, his face tired.

 

"Lady Mormont. Lord Glover. You know Lord Manderly. Would he invite me to his keep under pretenses? Am I in danger of imprisonment or death?"

 

Maege and Galbart glance at each other before the lord responds. "Manderly would not betray guest right, your Grace, if that's what you're asking. The north remembers. His son, Ser Wendel died at the Twins with King Robb." Jon gives her a grim nod, but Lord Glover continues. "But that's not to say he can be trusted, blindly. He's a clever, political man, my liege. He made some kind of agreement with the Lannisters to have his heir, Wylis, returned to him. And…the fact that he hasn't joined with us yet, is sign enough that he should be treated with caution."

 

"Duly noted, my lord. I'll keep that in mind when I meet with him. Still, he has been discreetly sending provisions through our networks, has he not, Howland? " The king fiddles with one of the miniatures lying on the map before them, as the crannogman nods. "So he has been aiding us, even if he hasn't been open about it."

 

"Your Grace, if you shared with us your motivations for traveling, we'd be better able to advise you." Lord Reed offers, but the king is done with the conversation.

 

"Never mind that. Let's go over the siege plans again." The girl doesn't trust herself to speak, so she fumes, while Val and the crannogman outline their plan for attack on her childhood home. They have managed to stop most of the travel between the castle and surrounding keeps, slowly staving off the supply of food and other goods while Ramsey has dug in at Winterfell with his remaining men. They figure he has about five thousand garrisoned outside the walls, and perhaps another thousand within.

 

Jon Snow's army dwarfs that number and should be able to wage a successful battle outside the walls in short order. It is the subsequent siege that puts them all on edge. They do not know how long Ramsey can withstand a siege, nor how long they can hold against the winter winds in order to pressure him to surrender. While they have trebuchets and other means to speed the process, Winterfell was built to stand strong against its enemies and Jon Snow has, until now, been loath to consider more ruinous methods of winning the castle.

 

Tonight he is resolute. "Our battle lies north of Winterfell. We cannot waste more time and men on Ramsey Snow." He places a gloved hand on Val's shoulder. "You know our true enemy. Do what needs to be done, so we still have resources to prepare for the long night ahead."

 

The girl can't stop herself. "What needs to be done? Do you mean to destroy Winterfell?"

 

The king closes his eyes as Val warns. "Red-"

 

"Of course I don't want to destroy my home. But, if it's between Winterfell and my people, I choose my people." She's glaring at him. "What would you have us do?" He growls. "Preserve a castle at all costs while our men starve outside its walls? Drag this war on so as many die as possible?"

 

"No, but-"

 

"But what?"

 

She feels like a foolish girl again, the council's solemn faces staring back at her. Even worse, there are tears pricking her eyes. Jon sags, pulling off his gloves, before rubbing a hand across the creases at his brow.

 

"Val. Howland. Use your best judgement until I return. Preserve life. Preserve Winterfell if you can. My lady, our boat leaves at first light. I'll give you leave to prepare and say your farewells." She tries to catch his eye, but he stalks out of the pavilion before she can argue more. It is Ghost and Val who guide her back to her tent.

 

"I don't understand what he's doing, Val."

 

"I don't know either, love. But it's Jon Snow. He's trying to do the right thing."

 

"It doesn't feel right."

 

"Maybe not to you. But it must to him." The wilding gazes up at the stars. "So, you need to decide whether or not you trust him enough to do something that feels wrong because he asks you to. He won't actually steal you away, if you don't let him." And for the first time, the girl thinks she understands the wilding concept.

 

In the morning, she wakes when the wolf slips from her furs, and she knows she will follow where Jon leads. Satin meets her by her tent, directing several men to move her possessions to one of the two galleys which will take them past Castle Cerwyn to the rapids, where the other tributary meets the main course of the White Knife. There, they will board another vessel to take them the rest of the way to White Harbor.

 

The storms and snow have made the water flow fast and choppy and the girl hesitates before boarding. She feels Gendry press his hands down on her shoulders from behind. "Relax. Chew the gingerroot Thoros gave you and stay above deck as much as possible. Fast waters mean a fast trip, at least." She turns, hugging him fiercely.

 

"Don't get yourself killed, you idiot!"

 

"Wouldn't dream of it m'lady." She can't get herself to let go, but there is a cough behind them, and she becomes conscious of Jon Snow waiting. Gendry pats the top of her head, smiling down at her. "Don't retch on the king."

 

But she does. It's not so bad at first. She stays on the deck and focuses on different points of land while trying to stay out of everyone's way. The strong current and capricious winds keep the crew busy, navigating around boulders and stopping often to clear debris blocking their course down the angry river. It is when the sun begins to dip beneath the horizon, and she is forced into her cramped closet of a cabin below deck, that she can control her stomach no longer.

 

Jon barges in just as she's heaving over the side of her bunk again, and she hates him. She stares where she's splattered his boots, feeling a grim satisfaction as he steps closer. The mattress creaks at his weight, and a cool hand brushes her hair to the side, before wiping a damp cloth across her cheeks and forehead. Then the weight is gone, and he's cleaning the floor before pulling over a basin, and she's sick again.

 

"I didn't know you get seasick." She feels the sharp night air as he cracks the small port window and then the weight is back.

 

"There's a lot you don't know."

 

"Aye. True enough." He strokes her hair. "Do you want me to leave?"

 

"No." So he settles at her side, rubbing her back, and sleep finds her at last. When she wakes she can't feel her legs, and she realizes Jon is sleeping across them in what looks to be an uncomfortable position. She sits up, pushing his dark curls out of his face and he stirs.

 

"This is more comfortable when it's Ghost warming my feet." She teases.

 

"Ugh, don't I know it." He sits up stretching, and she pulls her knees up to her chest. "I'm not going to be able to turn my head all day. Are you feeling any better?"

 

"I'll survive. You should leave before the sun comes up." The sky outside the window is the lavender blue of predawn and she can hear boots on the deck overhead and men calling. Jon rises, pulling his cloak back over himself and taking the soiled basin with him. When he reaches for the door, she murmurs, "thank you," and he gives her a slight nod before taking his leave. She sits for a time, letting the feeling come back to her limbs, as she listens to the shouts getting louder outside. As the movement above gets more urgent she realizes that the galley doesn't seem to be moving and she readies herself quickly to see what is going on.

 

Above deck, most of the crew are gathered on the starboard side, looking out at a massive form that is starting to come into definition as the sun rises. It's Castle Cerwyn, but as she approaches the bow, it's clear something isn't right. The buildings around the docks are odd and misshapen. With growing horror, the girl understands that they have been burned. Roofs have fallen in, walls gape open where they shouldn't and it isn't just the last vestiges of night that blacken their exteriors.

 

While it is chaotic on the galleys with both ships awake and alert now, the shore is eerily quiet and the castle is dark. She finds Jon cornering Lord Ashwood near a gangplank.

 

"Did you know about this?"

 

The older man is wary. "Well, your Grace, the last remnants of the fire were still smoldering when we passed. We assumed you knew." For a moment, she thinks Jon might strike him, but instead he turns, stalking down the plank with his men-at-arms following behind.

 

"Your Grace!" She calls after him.

 

"Stay on the ship!" He turns to her, eyes dark in warning, and she feels Satin at her side, drawing her back.

 

"Come, my lady. It may not be safe."

 

"Of course it isn't safe!" She snaps. "Nowhere is safe." But she lets the steward lead her to the galley stove, even though nothing can warm her now. Satin tries to get her to eat but the thought makes her sick so instead they sit together in silence, waiting. When the king returns, she doesn't need him to say the words to know that the worst has happened. A crofter found his party searching through the wreckage and relayed how Ramsey came in the dead of night over two weeks past. He burned the outbuildings and the castle, smoking out the survivors before hauling them away, towards Winterfell. She pushes against Jon's chest when he tries to embrace her, and he lets her rage. She should have raised more alarm when so many days passed without word from Ned or Lady Jonelle. She should have insisted more men be sent to guard them. And Jon…Jon never should have left the boy there. He had no right.

 

"I know, my lady. I'll never forgive myself." He admits as she finally exhausts herself, breathing heavily against his leather jerkin.

 

"We must turn around. We must go to Winterfell." She pleads, but he only looks down at her with tired eyes.

 

"It is too late. There's nothing to be done that our army isn't already doing. I've sent word to Howland of the news, but we continue on to White Harbor." She refuses to speak to him the rest of the day. When he comes to her cabin that night, however, she shifts to make room by her side. She is too low to resist when he pulls her into his chest, and too sick to tell him to stop kissing the back of her head or tracing his fingers up and down her arm in slow, calming loops. Before she drifts off to sleep she asks him again.

 

"Why won't you tell me what waits in White Harbor?"

 

His voice hums low against her hair, and it prickles down her spine. "It's only a hope. A fragile hope…and I know it's foolish superstition, but if I say it aloud it will grow beyond me and I fear it will not bear any fruit. All my spoken dreams turn to ash around me, and it's only those hidden, shameful thoughts that ever come to pass." He sighs, and his body shifts away. "So I'm holding it close. I know it's absurd."

 

She turns, following him. She is so used to her dreams dying around her, whether she speaks them aloud or hides them deep within, that sometimes it feels impossible to hope at all. If Jon can feel any, she can't resent his need to shield it. Ned's voice sings a sad, sweet ballad in her thoughts and despondency overtakes her at the thought of not ever hearing it again. Her tears dampen Jon's shirt and he wraps his arms around her again, murmuring low condolences until she falls asleep, heartbroken and hollow.

 

-----

 

She awakes, tangled in Jon, inhaling his cedar and salt scent. Her shift has risen up her thigh, and her bare leg is pressed between his. She silently thanks the gods that he had the sense to remain fully clothed. As she tries to subtly extricate herself, he only rolls atop her, his body warm and hard as he grumbles sleepily into her neck. 

 

She pinches his side, hard, where his shirt rides up and this wakes him. He sits up, allowing her to slip from the bed. Her mouth tastes foul from last night's sickness so she rubs a rough linen with paste across her teeth and gums before rinsing with water. When she turns, Jon is still lying abed, watching her, his hands crossed behind his head.

 

"You should go, before someone notices. You shouldn't spend the night here again." He winces and she tries to clarify. "I'm sorry that I've misled you but-" He's on his feet, a finger at her lips.

 

"Shush. There is nothing to apologize for, and trust me, I heard your rejection at Torrhen's Square, loud and clear. You have not misled me." Now she's cringing, but his eyes are kind.

 

"Jon-"

 

"I know you have more to tell me, but please, my love. Take mercy on my feeble heart. The splintered thing is barely beating as it is." He runs a burned knuckle down her cheek and her breath catches. "Let me imagine that your protestations are nothing but minor hurdles that can be cleared easily away."

 

"But Jon-"

 

"Please. I'm begging you." He's inches away, and an invisible thread pulls her closer. "Save your words for Winterfell. Tell me then, beneath the heart tree and before the gods, where only truths are spoken. There you can give me all the reasons why you cannot be my wife. There, I will be strong enough to hear them and there, I will be strong enough to tear them down." His eyes are dark and fierce, and his voice drops as he pulls her closer. "For make no mistake. We belong together. What is left of my heart, beats now in your chest." He places his hand over her shift, and in response, her pulse lurches beneath where his fingers press. "And I feel yours reaching out to mine, even as you try to deny it."

 

His kiss is searing and she burns in response. Just as she melts against him, he pulls away. Her eyes open to a look of dark satisfaction on his handsome face.

 

"See? What consumes you, devastates me too. So, I'm begging you. Protect my fragile heart." He leaves her then, unnerved, and he does not come to her again for the remainder of the grim, lonely journey. Where the tributaries meet the main river, they disembark and board a larger vessel beneath the rapids. Soon they are retracing her original journey up the White Knife, and she sees shadows of Ned everywhere; lying across a boulder on the shore, flirting with the washer women, and belting bawdy melodies off the bow. Satin stays by her side, making her ginger tea and reminding her to eat. She is not sick again, though she has no appetite and part of her is fading.

 

They arrive in White Harbor in the dead of night and Satin rouses her from sleep. "Come, my lady. We've a carriage waiting to take us to the outer harbor."

 

"The outer harbor? Lord Manderly doesn't even offer to house the king at New Castle?"

 

"Oh, he is. Jon is riding there with Lord Ashwood and most of our men. You and I will be staying with the family of our deceased black brother, Bannen, near the shipyard." Suspicion ripples down her spine, and she seeks the king out above deck as soon as she is dressed. She finds him leaning against the port bow, beneath a lantern, fingering a lock of auburn hair.

 

"Is that my hair?"

 

"What? No." He looks up at her in surprise before holding it up against her face. "It is just alike, though."

 

She scowls at him, batting his hand away. "Why are Satin and I going to the outer harbor while you ride on to New Castle?" He looks around her, but no one is near. Even so, he draws her closer, his face tight.

 

"I'm sending you to stay with friends, whom I can trust. With the family of one of my brothers at the Wall. His brother is a shipwright, here in White Harbor. You'll be safe there."

 

"Why am I not coming with you to New Castle?"

 

His face pinches, and she dreads his response. "I can't trust Manderly. I have an audience with him tomorrow, and then, regardless of what I find at the Merman's Court, I'm turning around and heading back to Winterfell, as soon as possible."

 

She nods as if this is obvious. "So-"

 

"And I'm not taking you with me."

 

"What? That's impossible. I belong with you. You said it yourself!" He looks around again but she doesn't care who hears them. She is furious.

 

"You do." He whispers, fervently. "After Winterfell is won. Until then, I must keep you safe." She tries to pull away, but he grabs her hand, pulling her close. "If you are there, I won't be able to do what I must. I can't risk you."

 

"But you'll risk everyone else? That isn't fair, Jon!"

 

"You made the same choice when you asked me to spare Gendry."

 

She shakes her head. "That's not the same. And, even if it were, why didn't you just leave me at Torrhen's Square? Why drag me here?"

 

"Because you wouldn't have stayed! I couldn't even bring myself to tell you until now, because I know you. I knew you'd use your silver tongue to try and talk me out of this. And if we fail, Torrhen's Square is too close to Winterfell. You saw what happened to Castle Cerwyn-"

 

She wants to slap him. "How dare you! You can't leave me here. I'll hate you."

 

"Fine! Hate me. Hate me and live. That's all I ask. Hate me all the way back to Winterfell, after it is won. But if we fail, I've instructed Satin to take you far from here. To sail down to Oldtown where Samwell Tarly is training at the Citadel. Where Ramsey Snow and the White Walkers can't ever touch you."

 

"I'm not sailing anywhere!"

 

"You will. I told Satin to have you tied, if he must." His eyes are dark and she is incredulous.

 

"You bastard!"

 

He gives her a sad, rueful smile. "Aye. I am. I'm weak and selfish. I keep failing because of it. I failed the Night's Watch because of my weakness for Arya and if something happened to you, I could easily fail the north again. If Ramsey had his hands on you, I'd give it all up. I'd betray our people, because of my weakness for you." He cups her face. "So, please. Stay here. Stay safe. For the north."

 

"What happened to not being able to do this alone? To wanting me to rule the north at your side?  How can I do that if you send me away when things get hard? You call me clever and capable and indispensable in one breath and then take away my choice and independence with the other! You're just like all the rest. You tell me pretty lies when it's convenient and then you seek to control me when it's not."

 

He steps back, anguished, and she follows. "Do not leave me here. I'm begging you. You say I will be safe here. In Oldtown. In the South. I'm telling you that it isn't true. There is nowhere that is safe, and if you leave me here, I will never forgive you, Jon Snow."

 

His face shutters, and as steps approach from behind, he leans in, his breath ghosting over her cheek. "Well, that's a risk I'm willing to take."

 

"Your Grace, the horses are ready."

 

"Thank you, Darran. I'll be right there." He takes her hand, but she won't look at him.

 

"I'm sorry." He presses something small and metallic into her palm, before striding away. It's the rose pendant. He is going to leave her with nothing but a pendant and regrets. If he falls at Winterfell, he doesn't need to worry about Melisandre bringing him back to life. She will drag him back herself so she can rage at him for abandoning her to a life left alone again.

 

"Wait!" She practically falls into him as she turns to catch him, for he's right there, hurt and hopeful. "Beneath the heart tree. Promise me. Do not speak about weakness or failure, for you must not fail. Call me home to Winterfell. Promise me."

 

"I promise." His lips are warm and gentle against her brow before he leaves her, cold and lonely.

Chapter Text

Sticky fingers, fluttering against her cheeks, wake her early the next morning. Liram the shipwright and his wife, Jenny, have seven children between them, and it was only the excited chatter of the three eldest girls, whose room Sansa slept in, that kept anger and despair from keeping her up all night. Now, a small child runs chubby fingers through her hair, whispering sweet nonsense in her ear.

 

"Hello, little one." She opens her eyes to find rosy cheeks and dirty dimples before her. Sansa hides beneath her cover before popping out again, and the child's giggles have Jenny poking her head in.

 

"I'm sorry, love. I didn't realize she had snuck away. Come, Miriam. Leave the lass alone."

 

Sansa runs her fingers through the child's dark curls. "She's lovely, and I needed to rise early, anyway." In the main room, she finds the rest of the clan gathered around a small table, arguing and laughing over breakfast. Satin is already up, sitting by the hearth with Liram, and she knows that two more of Jon's men are lurking outside somewhere, on guard.

 

While Jenny tries to shoo some of the older children from the table to make room for the guests, Sansa gestures to Satin. He rises gracefully, and she feels a flash of annoyance over his dark eyes and raven ringlets. It would be easier to be annoyed, if his voice were less sweet and his manner less mild. "My lady?"

 

"What time is the king's audience with Lord Manderly?" If he is surprised by her question, his face does not show it.

 

"I understand it is to be a public audience at the Merman's Court around midday, my lady."

 

She nods. "I'm attending. If you try to stop me, I'll scream for the city guards." He only looks amused, his dark lashes fluttering in mirth.

 

"My lady, I'd sooner try to stop the snow from falling or the sun from rising. I'm not so foolish as Jon Snow, on this." He places a friendly hand on her arm. "Break your fast, my lady. I'll tell Alyn and Gareth." With the first battle won, easier than she expected, she tucks into breakfast with vigor. Her appetite has returned now that her feet have found land again.  The older children hover around her and Satin while they eat.

 

"I can't believe we have members of the White Wolf's court here…"

 

"In our house!"

 

"What is he like? Is he as handsome as they say?"

 

"As fierce?"

 

"Is everyone in his court as beautiful as you two?

 

"Liam, Cat, Jeyne! Leave them be. You've chores to do." Jenny chases them away, swatting at the slowest with her apron, and they scatter, cackling. Satin smirks at her across the table, and she must admit, even though he was so very wrong to do it, Jon chose a lovely family for her to stay with. In another time, another life, she'd be happy to spend a few weeks in their noisy, merry company. Jenny sits with them, at last, with a heavy sigh.

 

"My dear, I understand you've been on the river for days. You must be dying for a proper wash. I'll take you to the bathhouse just as soon as you'd like. Gods know, my feet could use a soak as well. These children will be the death of me." Sansa thanks her hostess, and soon they are walking arm and arm to the same bathhouse she and Willa visited those long months ago. It's a sunny day, and if it were only a few degrees warmer and if she weren't being tailed by Alyn and Gareth, she could almost pretend no time had passed since her last visit.

 

But that isn't quite true. She is not the same. And neither is White Harbor. In the square, Jon's sigil is painted large across a prominent wall, and from windows, doors and railings, everywhere she turns, really, banners hang with a snarling white wolf, a raven black above it. Just as pride blooms, she catches Ned skittering out of an alleyway from the corner of her eye, but, no-it's another boy, and the banners can burn, if it would only bring the boy back to her.

 

She soaks until her skin puckers and her mind is lulled from the heat and the steam and the steady murmuring of women's voices all around her. But she cannot melt into the ancient stone, so instead, she pulls herself reluctantly out at last. She wears a dress of dark green velvet and gold brocade, one of Edie's gifts, and when they return to the cottage, Jenny's girls float around her in wonder. They take turns brushing her hair before the eldest, Cat, braids a knot at her crown, leaving the rest in gentle waves down her back. She is fit for court, but she doesn't want to attract attention, so she covers herself in a dark cloak, tucking her copper strands beneath the hood.

 

New Castle rises, pale and proud, high above the city walls, and Satin pays a boy to pull them up the cobbled hill in his cart. There is a steady stream of people filtering in through the castle gates, and the Merman's Court is crowded and noisy when they finally squeeze inside. The painted walls and floors are obscured by all the bodies, but Sansa remembers the great hall well. As a girl she had been fascinated with the depictions of sea creatures half-hidden among the twisting fronds of seaweed and sunken ships. She and Robb and Wynafryd, Lord Manderly's oldest granddaughter, used to play games of 'I spy' at feasts held in the hall.

 

She and Satin draw closer to the dais, where a large cushioned throne sits, and sitting just behind it, is Wynafred, in a gown of silvery blue satin, beside a younger girl with a thin braid dyed a garish green, who must be her sister, Wylla. Sansa pauses, instinctively pulling her hood further over her head. She saw Wyn last in King's Landing, at one of Robert's tourneys. Ser Wyllis used to sail to the capital frequently during Robert's reign and would often bring his eldest daughter to court, in the hopes of making her a southron match. Wyn would know Sansa, if she spied her. Still, the room is crowded and full and she stands in the shadows.

 

There is no sign of Jon or Lord Manderly yet, so she scans the hall for other familiar faces. There is a flash of plum and cream across the way, and she heart beats faster, but it's only the bodice of another woman's gown and her relief is palpable, though short-lived. Moments later the atmosphere changes, and everyone's attention shifts to the front of the hall, where the Lord of White Harbor's booming laugh carries as he shuffles in beside the mockingbird, himself. Pausing before the throne, Wyman chortles at something Lord Baelish says, and Sansa's palms sweat against her cloak, where she clutches at it.

 

Breathe. Dizzy suffocation threatens to overwhelm her, but she can't leave now, for bodies press close, craning towards the front and she is stuck. She is so focused on Lord Baelish that she almost misses the man behind him. Ser Harrold Hardying stands a few paces behind the lords, hands folded behind his back, dressed in the colors of house Arryn. She meets Satin's eye with a panicked flash and he leans close, giving his ear.

 

"This isn't right. Jon shouldn’t be here." She grasps his elbow, desperate. "You have to find him. Warn him." But it's too late. At the entrance, a steward in aquamarine livery calls out, and the hall quiets, leaving only Manderly's laugh echoing into the rafters. Lord Baelish gives him a short bow before retreating down the dais to lean against a pillar, across the hall from Sansa, Hardyng at his heels.

 

Her breath is shallow as dread and anticipation course through her. Satin reaches under her cloak, squeezing her hand in reassurance, and it's enough for her to slow her mind before panic makes her stupid. Lord Wyman settles in his throne, his bright velvet doublet straining across his massive form as he adjusts himself, fussing with the cushions in agonizing indifference to the hushed court below.

 

"Alright, Ashwood. Let's get this spectacle over with." He leans forward, gesturing theatrically. "Everyone have a nice view? Prepared to a meet a wolf or two?" He chortles, and the assembly chitters, nervously. Sansa has stopped breathing. "Call him in."

 

There is a movement at the back of the room, and a minute later, Lord Ashwood walks forward with Jon, stoic, beside him. All in black, with her cloak draped over a leather jerkin, he looks out of place amongst the bright silks and velvets of the court. An image of a shadowcat prowling in a garden comes to mind.

 

Lord Ashwood bows to Manderly. "My lord, may I present Jon Snow, here to answer your summons." She bristles, but Jon's face is mild as he gives Ashwood a nod in dismissal.

 

"Lord Manderly, I have urgent business elsewhere, so forgive my lack of courtesies as I'll forgive yours." The crowd murmurs. "You claim that which I cannot believe without the proof before me. So show it now, or I'll be on my way."

 

Lord Wyman leans back, folding his hands across his belly, with a chuckle. "Oh, I think I like you, Jon Snow. So dour. So forthright. Ned Stark come again, eh?"

 

Jon frowns.

 

"Aye, proof I have for you, but first a message." Lord Manderly waves his fat, ringed fingers and another steward steps forward with a small wooden chest, placing it at the foot of the dais, before the throne. "Sent down the river with Ramsey Bolton's men only two days prior. It would seem that he does not appreciate your army's presence on Winterfell's doorstep." He ushers Jon forward, and the girl seethes. "Come, take a look for yourself, since seeing is believing, hmm?"

 

The king stalks forward, lifting the lid. His scowl deepens, and the crowd presses forward as if to see, but Jon steps back instead, his stance wide, hands folded behind his back.

 

It is the lord of White Harbor who enlightens them. "Fingers…from many different hands. The Bolton Bastard has razed Castle Cerwyn and taken the lady Jonelle and her retinue hostage, Jon Snow. Each day that your head isn't delivered to him, he'll choose another appendage to remove, en masse." The crowd gasps, and all pretense of joviality has dropped from the lord on the throne.

 

"Is that why you've called me here then? To take my head?" Jon's voice is steady as he peers up at the lord.

 

"No. Ramsey Bolton is a scourge on the north. A traitorous bastard who does not deserve to lick the dirt beneath Winterfell. I am only passing on the message." He leans forward again. "But, you are antagonizing a monster, boy. If you fail in the game you play against him, it is the innocent who pay."

 

"I play no games, lord. And the innocent are already paying. Perhaps if White Harbor sent the men we asked for, months ago, Lady Jonelle would sit safe within her castle." His voice is low and angry, and again the audience presses forward to catch his words.

 

"And you'd sit upon a throne in Winterfell, as King in the North?" This is a trap, she can feel it. She wants to yell at Jon, and tell him to leave now, but she is as silent as the rest of the crowd, knuckles white as she digs crescents into her skin.

 

Jon does not answer Manderly's question, but she can see the tension radiating from his shoulders.

 

"For you're no trueborn son of Lord Eddard's even if you look it."

 

"I never said I was." Jon's voice is harsh and defensive.

 

"No?"
 

"Robb Stark named me his heir. "

 

"When you were in the Night's Watch. I find it interesting that you had no problem hiding up at the Wall while the Starks were being murdered, yet as soon as someone offers you a crown, your vows are easily forsaken. A bastard's loyalty?"

 

"Those vows ended with my death." Another gasp sweeps through the crowd, but Manderly is unperturbed.

 

"It is strange times we are living in. Everyone seems to come back to life when the temptation of a crown dangles before them. First you. Now, Aegon Targaryen has supposedly risen up from the mists of time to reclaim the Iron Throne, while the Lannister's lose more of their lion cubs, or are they fawns? One doesn't know what to believe these days." He pauses, looking down at this bejeweled fingers, adjusting a ring, flicking something from this pant leg, before continuing. "Robb Stark made you his heir when he believed his trueborn brothers to be dead." Her eyes roam to Littlefinger now. Does he have a hand in whatever game Lord Wyman is playing? But his face is a mask, his slender fingers tugging at his pointed beard, and revulsion ripples down her spine. "Do you deny that, boy?"

 

"No." Jon grounds out.

 

"So you don’t seek to usurp the Stark's rightful place in the North, then?"

 

"Of course not." She wants to scream at Jon to stop answering the questions.

 

"Well, that is good to know. I could not, in good conscience, let you stand here, armed, no less…" His head tilts to Jon's great sword, "…if I thought there were a chance you'd harm a trueborn son of Lord Eddard Stark's."

 

The crowd gasps and shifts again, and now Sansa can't see because a man is in her way, but there is a growl across the hall and bodies press against her once again, and an opening appears, and…

 

Jon is on his knees before a great black direwolf, and just behind him, almost completely obscured by the growling beast, is a boy. A lanky boy, tall for his age, with wild auburn hair and Tully blue eyes, and a look of distrust and confusion clear on his face. Her heart has stopped and she'd be on her knees too, if it weren't for the bodies pressed around her, holding her up.

 

Manderly is talking, but she cannot make out a word he says. She is entranced by the image before her, of Jon carefully removing a glove, reaching out to the snarling direwolf, before it sniffs and jumps back, splaying it's front paws low on the ground, tail up in the air.

 

Jon reaches for the boy now. "Rickon…" His voice is gutted. "My boy. It's really you."

 

"Father?" No, no, no, no…

 

"I'm Jon Snow. Do you remember me?" His hand is still out, but the boy looks up at an unknown woman beside him, with dark hair and dark eyes. She's dressed in a simple wool dress, but there is something about her stance that marks her for a warrior.

 

Manderly raps against the throne now. "Is this proof enough, Jon Snow?" Jon's eyes tear away from the boy for just a moment.

 

"How is this possible? Theon-"

 

"Theon killed two other boys, when Bran and Rickon escaped."

 

"Where is Bran?" Rickon has inched closer to Jon now, who still kneels before him in supplication. Finally, the boy steps into Jon's arms and Sansa's heart is in her throat, watching her brothers embrace. They murmur to each other, but she cannot catch the words. Her eyes flash up to Baelish and he is frowning. He didn't know about this.

 

"We don't know. Osha, here, says Bran went north with Howland Reed's children, while she and Rickon went on to Skaagos. I'm surprised Lord Reed didn't tell you. A strange oversight, for a trusted advisor." The crowd murmurs but Jon isn't paying attention. He runs a hand through the boy's wild hair and cups his face. "You've gotten so big. You're going to be taller than me." His voice is low and tender, and the crowd strains forward again to witness a moment not meant for their eyes. Jon is not a shadowcat in a garden. He and Rickon are sparrows in a cage, and Jon doesn't seem to know it. "You look just like your mother. You look just like-how can this be?" His pulls Rickon's face inches from his own, before leaning back on his haunches, glancing around the hall, wild eyed. 

 

"Aye, he has the Tully look, but he is a Stark. There's no doubt, there. So, I ask you again, Snow, do you seek to usurp the Stark's rightful place in the North?"

 

"No!" Jon stands now, facing Manderly. "I didn't seek Robb's crown. I fought for months to give Arya the North."

 

"Arya isn't in the North. White Harbor would not stand aside, if a traitor had Winterfell's true daughter." Sansa fumes. Manderly knew. She looks at Petyr again, and her eyes narrow. He knew too. 

 

"What do you want?" Jon's voice is low and tired, and she is aching.

 

"I want to know that Rickon won't be fighting a war of succession." Jon is shaking his head. He's going to give it away. She knows, he's going to do it. He'll give away all they've fought for. He'll say the North is Rickon's but it won't be his. It will be Manderly's and the other lords who hide in their castles, hording wealth and power, and Rickon will be a pawn in their game and he'll never be free. No! She wants to scream, but Jon is a noble fool.

 

"The North belongs to the Starks." Jon concedes, his face, stone.

 

"I also want to ensure that the antics of his bastard brother don't bring a hammer from King's Landing down upon the North, either. Especially, with Rickon just a boy. Winter is upon us, lad, and we need the South if we are to feed our people. Tell me, have you been forging fruitful alliances in the South, while you've been playing vigilante in the woods?"

 

Jon does not answer, and the crowd chitters. Manderly is effectively undoing all their work at once, and she feels like an utter fool.

 

"Here is what I propose, Snow. Go to Winterfell. Remove Ramsey. Come back and swear fealty to your half-brother. Unite the North, in truth, and be Rickon's sword while he grows into his manhood. You'll be forgiven for abandoning the Night's Watch and I will foster our king and keep him safe, as I have been. We'll guide him through the winter of his youth, together."

 

"What of Sansa?" Jon asks, and Petyr straightens from where he's been leaning against a pillar. "And Arya? And Bran?"

 

Manderly opens his arms to the court. "Seeing is believing, Jon Snow. If and when the remaining Starks return to the north, they'll be welcomed with open arms, and the line of succession will be followed, granted it's a north free from Bolton and Frey tyranny. So, I'm asking you, will you fight for Rickon? For the north?"

 

"I'll always fight for the Starks." Jon crouches again before the boy, drawing their foreheads together and once again his words are too low to hear, but it doesn't matter. He has given away the north, and the girl can stay here no longer. She pushes back through the crowd, her breath shallow, and Satin follows behind her, through a side door into a quiet and empty corridor.

 

"He's a fool." She fumes.

 

"And you're a Stark." Satin stares at her. "You and the boy look just alike."

 

"Satin, Jon can't give away the North to Wyman Manderly. Rickon will be a puppet king." Is he working with Baelish? Will he believe Jon about the White Walkers? What does he mean by 'fruitful alliances' in the South? There is too much that she doesn't know, and again she feels like a fool for not recognizing the dangers here sooner.

 

 The steward nods at her, slowly. "So, why didn't you call out and declare yourself, then?" She turns, eyes wild.

 

"Rickon will always have a better claim than I do. I'm a girl…and I'm married to a Lannister. The North can never be theirs." She paces, trying to think. She must stop this, somehow. "Satin, I…you have to let me go."

 

He's frowning at her, but she shakes his shoulders. "I need to know more. We will never be safe if Jon hands away the north. If he hands away my brother. There is someone I must speak to in the castle." She chews her lip. "I need you to wait for me, and be ready. Can you do that?" His face is grim, but he nods.

 

"Jon will kill me if you come to harm."

 

She waves a hand at the rich tapestries hanging from the walls on either side. "What could befall me here? Manderly is a Stark bannerman, and I'm a Stark. Wait for me outside the castle. I will find you." She sends him back into the hall to hear the rest of the Merman's spectacle, while she makes her way down the corridors, in the opposite direction.

 

In a courtyard, she finds two young serving girls, giggling together by a dried-up fountain. When they see her, they clam up with awkward curtsies.

 

"Forgive me. I seem to have lost my way. Do you think you could help me?"

 

"Milady." She lets her cloak part, revealing the rich velvet underneath, and the girls lead her to the rooms she's looking for.  She drops her cloak over a chair, before retreating into the inner chamber. The servants have already made the bed and its but a few minutes work to go through the knight's personal effects. There is not much beside a small ledger that seems to indicate a growing deficit as well as some love poems penned on scraps of parchment in florid handwriting.

 

She adds a few logs to the fire before settling at the window to wait and think. Not an hour later, she hears the door open and close in the outer chamber.

 

"Wyn, you saucy wench! How'd you get to my chambers so fast? I left the hall before you." She takes a deep breath, before turning to face the man who now stands in the doorway, holding her discarded cloak.

 

"Oh! Sansa! You are alive." Harry leans against the frame with casual elegance, a look of not displeased surprise crossing his handsome face.

 

"Is this a bad time? I wouldn't want to interrupt your tryst with Wyn." She moves to walk by him, but he stops her with a hand to her elbow.

 

"Come now. I thought you were dead."

 

"Is that was Baelish is saying?"

 

The heir rolls his eyes. "Of course not. He says you've been ill…that you caught a fever in the passage across the Bite, and its taking time for you to recover. But, I'm not a fool, Sansa. I've been watching Littlefinger scheme, and his plans have veered wildly since we set course in the Vale all those months ago." He strokes a finger down her cheek and she resists the urge to pull away. "You sure don't look ill. If anything, your beauty has only grown."

 

Clasping his hand with her own, she halts it's progression down her neck. "Come Harry, let's talk. It's been too long." She leads him back into the outer chamber to a pair of chairs by the hearth. "Tell me, how do you find the north?"

 

He scoffs, falling into his chair unceremoniously, resting his boots across her armrest. "Not well, Sansa. Not well. This cold, wretched place was supposed to be ours. Littlefinger promised that the north would be desperate for us. Instead, I see your bastard brother's symbol everywhere I turn and then your younger brother turns up today, out of the blue, with a better claim than yours."

 

One suspicion confirmed, she flashes a sympathetic smile, moving Harry's legs off her chair so she can rise and pour them each a cup of wine. "You still stand to inherit the Vale."

 

"Not bloody likely! Littlefinger is trying to wed the brat Arryn to the whale Manderly's granddaughter behind my back." He slams his wine, wiping his sleeve across his face angrily as he stares into the fire, and she struggles to keep the annoyance out of her voice.

 

"Is that why you've seduced Wynafryd? Are you hoping a bastard in her belly will halt the wedding?" He looks up at her in surprise, shaking his head.

 

"No…No. Wyn is already betrothed to a Frey, at least for now. It's the younger sister, Wylla, he wants to wed the lord of the Eyrie." She thinks about her poor, sickly cousin now. Still alive by the grace of the gods and the whims of Petyr Baelish. She pushes the image of him out of her mind before guilt impedes her.

 

"Even if Sweetrobin lives to be a man, it's unlikely that he'll be able to sire a child."

 

"That won't stop Littlefinger from mounting the girl himself if he has to, and passing the babe off as Arryn's. And even if he doesn't, it could be years before the little fucker dies. Baelish's hold on the Vale requires the boy's survival. And where does that leave me? A poor hedge knight without money or lands." He's scowling, and she notes that Harry's understanding of Petyr's true nature has grown since their time together in the Vale.

 

Then, he had enthusiastically fallen for the rosy portrait that Lord Baelish had painted. Harry and Sansa would save the north with the knights of the Vale at their backs, marrying in Winterfell and ruling from there until Robert Arryn succumbed to illness a short while later, effectively consolidating their control over two of the seven kingdoms. When Baelish shared the plan, Harry did not question Littlefinger's own interest in this plot, nor did he wonder what would happen to himself once the Vale and the North were won. Sansa, however, was not so naïve. Petyr didn't have to say the words for her to know that he would not suffer Hardyng's hands on her, or power, longer than was absolutely necessary.

 

She cringes thinking of that time now. The more Harry courted her in public, the more Petyr tormented her in private. Once again, she pushes unwanted memories aside, focusing on the man before her. Carefully, she parts his legs so she can kneel down between them, her hands folded in her lap. She peeks up through her lashes as he takes in a sharp breath.

 

"What if you could be Lord Protector of the Vale?"

 

"Littlefinger holds that title." His deep blue eyes stare down at her now, intent.

 

"But would you want it, if it could be yours?"

 

"Would you be mine as well?" He leans close, a lock of sandy hair falling across his brow and she reaches up, sweeping it back in place.

 

"Would you want that? I wouldn't want to step between what you have with Wyn." But he has her arm now and he's hauling her up into his lap, forcing her to bat away the flickers of self-loathing that threaten from the corners.

 

"Sansa, you know every other woman pales in comparison to you. They are but passing diversions."

 

She pats his cheek. "Passing diversions that will leave you with bastard children spread across the land." His eyes widen as she adds, coyly. "More the reason that you can't afford to stay a hedge knight."

 

When he smiles, she can feel a dimple under her fingertips. "This is why I need you by my side, love. No other woman would understand these things as you do." Fool. "But again, Petyr Baelish is Lord Protector of the Vale. How do you propose I unseat him?"

 

"You don't need to. The king will simply give you the title, instead. The Lords Declarant already despise Lord Baelish so they will not oppose the change."

 

He shakes his head. "The wolf pup is leashed by Lord Manderly and I already told you that the lamprey is about to get in bed with Littlefinger, if he hasn't already."

 

She swallows down the bile, slick in her traitorous throat. "Well then, we must make sure that it's another wolf who's king."

 

----

 

She does not leave Hardyng's chambers until after the sun has risen the next day when she escorts Harry to the stables where he makes ready to prepare his men outside the walls of the city. After he rides away, Satin slips out of the shadows, informing her that the white wolf has left the city and she is hollowed out. It's just as well, she tells herself, for she couldn't face him now. Satin agrees to gather their possessions from the inn and meet her at the castle gates. Then, she heads back to Harry's chambers.

 

There are missives to prepare for the Vale while Harry is gone and she must, somehow, see her brother again before they leave. Baelish will need to be faced as well, though the thought makes her blood cold. As she's preparing her quill, she hears a servant come in. "Lord Hardying is indisposed, but I have a message for Lady Wynyfryd-" She turns, the breath dying as Littlefinger closes the distance between them. His hand is at her throat, and as her vision flutters a distant part of her wonders if his rings will mark her skin.

 

"What game do you think you are playing, you little fool?"

 

She pulls at his wrist, trying to loosen his grip, and he does, just enough for her to gasp. "Petyr…please." He releases her now and she bends over catching her breath.

 

"Explain yourself, before I throw you from this window." He drags her in front of the pane, and she can see his glare reflected back at her through the glass and over her shoulder. "Where have you been? While you disappeared, Manderly magicked your little brother out of thin air and lost us the north." Pain shoots through her arm where he has it twisted behind her and she works desperately to quell her rising panic and clear her head. So he's not in bed with Manderly yet.

 

"The north is not lost." Her heart is going to beat out of her chest, but she forces her voice low and calm. "It's true that Manderly will not share control as long as he has Rickon, but…" Maybe she should throw herself from the window. "My other brother will." Baelish releases her at once, and she closes her eyes, resting her head against the cold glass as she slows her breath.

 

He waits for her to turn, and when she does his face is composed again but she can practically see his mind whirring behind those shrewd, green eyes.

 

"Jon Snow is ours, my lord. The Vale must aid in taking over Winterfell, though…and he must not fall…we'll need him in the wars ahead." He's impassive so she comes closer, keeping her head bowed, cursing that Petyr is not a taller man. She kneels before him, her hands grasping for his. "I was so afraid to be taken from you. All I could do to keep my wits about me was to hold your voice close in my head…and in my heart." She doesn't have to force the tears that fall down her face. "But I gained the…bastard's confidence, my lord." She is filled with black bile.

 

Baelish tilts her face up, roughly, by the chin. "What are you telling me?"

 

"We must back Jon Snow's claim. You can control the north, through him." She hesitates before offering the final lure. "Before he realized I was his sister, he even tried to make me his queen."

 

A predatory grin creeps along his face now, and Littlefinger throws back his head with a sharp laugh. "My little bird. I didn't think you had it in you. Maybe you are learning to play the game, after all." His fingers tighten. "You didn't give that depraved bastard anything you can't reclaim, did you?"

 

She tries to pull away. "Of course not!" Adding, softer. "I did not mean for it to happen."

 

"But happen it did, and good fortune to us, dove. Of course he fell. You grow more beautiful with each breath you take. Look at your hair. Once again, it's just like Cat's." Her stomach roils and he pulls her to her feet. "One day, I'll place a better crown on your lovely head. You weren't meant to hide away in this barren land for long. If you can bring the bastard wolf to heel, so be it." He places a hard kiss on her frozen lips. "But if you can't, we'll kill him."

 

She nods, demure. "Whatever you will, my lord." Littlefinger stays another quarter hour as she pieces together a suitable story for him about being taken from under Corbray's nose and sold to the white wolf's camp where she eventually gained the king's confidence. Baelish doesn't ask for more than vagaries for he is already planning his next move with Manderly.

 

"Mind, I never straight out said that I had you. But he suspected, I know. His men tailed me a few times and asked around the inns. We must play this right, dove." He paces before her hearth. "He's a shrewd man. Not easily manipulated. He wants Ramsey out of the way, so he will not turn down the Vale's aid there, but if he knows you are here too, he will not want to let you go."

 

"But, what about Rickon? I'd like to see him." Her voice is small.

 

"Girl, you've already made your choice, and you chose the other brother." He gives her a look of mocking pity. "Don't leave your room, and let no one else inside until I return." She holds her breath in frozen silence for long moments after he leaves. She is not a little fool. She is not a little bird. She is not a dove. She is a wolf. A wolf. A wolf!

 

Then she's back at the table, quill in hand.

Chapter Text

She has imagined her return to Winterfell many times. In her favorite fantasy, it's a sunny spring day, the scent of lilacs blooming, heavy in the air. She rides through the village streets upon a graceful palfrey in her best dress, where northerners greet her on all sides, flowers in their hair and in their hands. When she passes through the South Gate, there is music playing and her family stands in the courtyard, waiting for her, untouched by the ravages of time, with warm smiles and open arms. As she's grown older, the dream has morphed, despite her efforts to control it. Sometimes her father's face is solemn and he looks less the lord and more as she last saw him; pale and hurt and dirty, just dragged from the black cells. Her mother's features flicker between Aunt Lysa's or her own, and Arya will duck away from her embrace at the last moment, eyes dark and accusatory. Bran and Rickon fail to appear at all.

Sometimes, it turns so discordant that she knows the dream for a nightmare. She wanders, ragged and broken, through an emptied village, stepping over the remnants of a broken gate into a Winterfell, destroyed; burned or brought down by other nefarious means. She searches high and low for her family and all are lost but one, lonely in the godswood. Instead of charming boy with bright blue eyes and auburn curls, Robb is replaced with a sad wolf astride a bloodied mare and he cannot talk and he cannot hold her. When she reaches for him, the horse sidesteps away until she falls to her knees before him in the snow, a murder of crows mocking her as they circle above.

No matter the form that her musings take, she never imagined that she'd be returning to Winterfell, deep under its bowels, sliding on her belly, in the dark. Yet, here she is, slick with mud and she doesn't want to know what else, surrounded by the hot stench of sulfur and the oppressive paranoia that hours of total darkness bring, with only her thoughts and the occasional murmur from Mance Rayder to keep her sane. She loops through each choice that's brought her here, endlessly questioning if there was a better way home.

----

By the time Littlefinger ushered her out of a side gate of New Castle with Lyn Corbray stalking just behind, Sansa was riddled with doubts. The sun was setting, and as they led her down a narrow, quiet street she wondered if they'd even take her to Harry at all. Perhaps Littlefinger would finally sell her out to the Lannisters or have Corbray slit her throat or worse. Before her thoughts could run down darker alleys, a shadow separated from a nearby wall, and Satin presented himself. She immediately felt stronger. 

"Where are Alyn and Gareth?" She had murmured, low, when the steward offered her his arm.

"Waiting, just outside the city. When I arrived back at the shipwright's this morning, the rest of Jon's men-at-arms were there with orders to protect Sansa Stark, at all cost." Something swooped low in her belly.

"He knows who I am then." She whispered, more to herself than anything.

"Aye. He'd be a fool not to, after looking at the boy...er, your brother."

"He shouldn't have left his men. He shouldn't be alone."

"I expect that he thinks your safety is more important than his own." Having thirty men who weren't beholden to the Vale or Petyr Baelish was an unexpected comfort. Satin slipped a scrap of parchment into her hand, but Baelish was too close, so she let it fall down her sleeve, unread. "Jon is being escorted back up the river by Lord Ashwood and his men, along the western tributary. His orders still stand to take you to Old Town if the campaign fails at Winterfell. He'll be livid when he learns that you've left White Harbor."

"Why are you helping me, then? Jon will not bear your disobedience lightly, Satin."

He sighed. "Jon was my brother before he was my king. Things haven't always work out well for him when he makes a decision with his heart, instead of his head…And it's your home. I figure you have just as much right to see it liberated as Jon does." Drawing closer, he added, with a wink. "If Jon is angry, I'm counting on a certain princess to intervene on my behalf when the time comes."

----

As the tunnel narrows another impossible fraction and she struggles to gain enough purchase with her chapped fingers to pull herself through, she wonders if she'll even make it to a point where she could put in a good word for the steward. If she does, would the king listen? She is sure that if Jon doesn't hate her yet, he might if her plan succeeds, and he most certainly will if it fails.

"There's a tree root, along the left. Grab that to pull yourself through the tight bit." Mance's voice is near, but she cannot see a thing, and for a moment her senses become so scrambled that she fears they have both become disembodied in the dark…but then her elbow squelches in a wet spot, and she slips awkwardly back, her thighs chafing against her wet, dirty shift. This would be easier without a body, she muses, as she reaches along the slick, tunnel wall, finally landing on the gnarled roots. Without a body she could waft up with the vapors, through the cracks in the earth and stone until she found whatever dark corner Ramsey Bolton was lurking in. She would enter through his mouth and fill his lungs with her fury, choking him in her grief. Unfortunately, she cannot shed her tired form. Instead, she struggles to pull forward her sealskin wrapped bundle, hoping desperately that the muck and the mire have not penetrated and ruined the contents within.

"How much further?" she rasps through the kerchief covering her mouth.

"It's impossible to measure time down here, but I believe the tunnel widens soon." The ranger's voice is growing further away again and she needs to move faster lest the earth caves in around them.

----

When they arrived at White Harbor's northern gate, Harry was waiting for them astride a piebald destrier. He dismounted when he saw them, striding to her side with confidence before sweeping her into his embrace. She did not miss the twin frowns on Lord Baelish or Satin's faces when he finally pulled away. She understood that it was a complicated dance she was attempting, with no room for a misstep. Jon's men met them just outside the city, and a quarter mile further were the first of Harry's knights, waiting with carts and horses.

"It's hard to get twenty thousand men ready to move at a moment's notice, but we'll have seven thousand marching tonight, with the rest following behind." Twenty thousand fighting men, almost twice Jon's numbers, were camped outside White Harbor, for months. Both a promise and threat, she thought, depending on which allegiance Littlefinger landed on and Wyman Manderly knew it. His reluctance to declare for Jon or even engage with their camp became clearer with this knowledge and she wondered at Manderly's choice to reveal Rickon's identity so openly now, with the possibility of the Vale attacking on behalf of the Lannisters. Her role in drawing them away from White Harbor's doorstep could only bode well for her little brother's safety, and in that, at least, she'd feel no regret. Still, there was still too much that she didn't know or understand.

Their progress that night was frustratingly slow. There were no crannog-made sleds to pull the supplies easily over the snow, and the knights' destriers and coursers were ill-suited to the wintery conditions. She bit at her thumb, fretting beside Baelish, relegated to a cart instead of a steed.

"Stop that." He grabbed at her hand with his gloved one.

"It will take weeks to reach Winterfell. The hostages will be dead by then and we'll be too late. I thought the knights would help, but we won't even make it to Winterfell in time to do anything useful." Ned's face floated before her, scared and in pain.

"Certainly not with the hostages…an unfortunate loss, but it changes nothing. Is it not Jon Snow who we need? He still sails up the river, and even then, he's not going to get himself killed that easily, is he?" She worried her thumb again, unsure how to appeal to Littlefinger in a way that he would care.

"One of those hostages is likely the lord of Starfall. While I'm sure you have ongoing plans for gaining Dorne's allegiance in the wars ahead, my lord, I only thought the Daynes could be powerful allies in the future."

He eyed her, speculatively. "How many more surprises are you hiding up your sleeve?" But she only stared back, eyes wide, mind turning to the unknown contents of Jon's note.

"So let's say we find a way to halt the torturing of the hostages, what were you planning then? An additional twenty thousand fighting men are helpful in a battle, and certainly in a war, but what further use are they in a siege? I'm no general, but as I see it, we bring twenty thousand more mouths to feed as winter comes down around us." The taste of copper flooded her tongue where she ripped a hangnail with her teeth. This was all a mistake. Littlefinger grabbed her hand, once more stopping her. "So Harry the Heir didn't come up with some other clever way for his knights to be of use? Was he too distracted by you, naked and writhing in his bed, to come up with something better?" His tone was mocking, but he squeezed her fingers painfully. "I know you spent the night with him. I see everything." He brought his face close to hers and she could feel his minty breath cloud across her cheek.

But she did not pull away. "Clearly not, as nothing happened." Her voice was calm as she met his glare. "Harry's seed is known to take. I could hardly beg for an annulment from my marriage to Tyrion with Harry's bastard in my belly. Even Harry knows that." He kept the pressure on her fingers another moment more before leaning back with a laugh, releasing her.

"Good girl." They sat in silence for a time, until Harry trotted back to find them, near dawn.

"My princess, how do you fare?" She gazed stonily up at him.

"This is going to take too long. We won't make it in time." He smiled down from his mount, looking pleased, and she quelled a sudden urge to stand and smack the dimples from his face.

"Don't worry, beautiful. I have a surprise for you." But he would not elaborate more until they reached the river again, just as the sun was rising. There, anchored along the near bank were a row of huge galley ships, with the largest sporting a sail painted with a flock of flying birds. Harry helped Sansa out of the cart and Lord Baelish joined them to meet Wynafred Manderly, standing with her hood thrown back, her dark brown hair flying free from her long braid, in the wind. 

"My princess," Wyn curtsied low, but her eyes were bright with mischief when she rose, lighting on Harry's face before Sansa's. "We feared you were dead, when so many years passed without a word. After King Joffrey's death, my grandfather had contacts combing King's Landing for months, searching for news on your whereabouts." And searching White Harbor, when Harry let Sansa's identity slip, no doubt.

Sansa glanced nervously at Petyr, who frowned at the young woman before them. "Well, here I am, alive and well, thanks to Lord Baelish, my longtime friend and protector." She took Wyn's hands. "It's good to see you, again. Yours was always a face I looked forward to seeing on your visits to King's Landing." She smiled. "I hope we meet in friendship now."

There was a shrewdness in the young woman's eyes. "We do. I offer my ships in aid of the King in the North, Jon Snow."

"And does this aid come with Lord Manderly's blessing?" Baelish cut in.

"My grandfather is overly cautious, my lord, but winter is almost upon us. These are not the times to wait for old men to plot their moves, nor raise up children to be kings. This is a time for heroes and warrior kings. These are my galleys, gifted to me on my eighteenth name day, and I offer them in my name alone. I pledge them and myself to the White Wolf, Jon Snow, the true King in the North." Her voice was heady with excitement and unspoken expectations and Sansa bit back the impulse to tell here that this was also the time of depravation and loss and a night that may never end. Yet, Wynafred's ships would carry them to Winterfell in days instead of weeks, so instead Sansa curtsied low.

"My brother will be most grateful for your assistance, Lady Wyn. We will not forget this." By mid-morning, five thousand of their men were crammed onto the ships, with the remaining left to follow on land with the horses. Wyn led Sansa to her own spacious cabin on the largest galley as Lord Baelish took his leave to find where the ravens were being held.

"Come, you must be exhausted, riding all night. Rest here. I'll make sure you aren't bothered." She made to leave again, but Sansa stopped her.

"Does your grandfather know you are helping us?"

"He will soon enough, though we have some time. Wylla was to tell him that I’m holding five days of silence in the Sept in preparation for my upcoming nuptials." She gave Sansa a sly grin. "By then we'll have already sailed up the eastern tributary of the White Knife, and landed only a day's march from Winterfell, and it'll be too late for him to stop us."

"Who are you marrying?"

"Currently? A Frey. Though my grandfather never intended to follow through there. For a time, I had my eyes on Ser Hardyng. Please forgive any impertinence in me telling you this, princess, as I know you and he are intended. Harry led me to believe that you were dead and the heir to the Vale was an attractive match, in more ways than one." Wyn paused, eying Sansa appraisingly. "We are all very grateful that is not the case however, myself most of all, for my sights moved north as soon as your brave brother with the solemn eyes stalked into my grandfather's court. "

Wyn never had been one to keep her intentions hidden for long. She was a young woman who was not only aiding the king in a time of need, but her hand in marriage could be the lynchpin in ensuring Lord Manderly's eventual support for Jon's rule over Rickon's. Wynafred knew this as well as Sansa, who could only bite her tongue and swallow down the bitterness that rose up from her belly in response. Her family would win back their home by giving away every other piece of themselves.

Sansa could force nothing from her lips without revealing more than she could afford, so she simply nodded vaguely, before turning towards the bed in exhaustion. Wyn stayed a moment longer, before taking her leave and as soon as the door closed behind her, Sansa dug out Jon's note.

 

S,

Beneath the heart tree. Until then, stay safe.

~J

 

She knew she was foolish to think his message could make any clearer her path forward, but still she had hoped. She tucked it into the lining of her cloak, next to the rose pendant, before lying down. She slept fitfully and in her dreams, Winterfell was burning.

---

The air changes, slowly and subtly, and Sansa becomes aware of more of it around her, slightly cooler and less suffocating. When she reaches out, instead of immediately hitting the slick wall, there is space to stretch her arm out and above. When Mance calls back to her that they should stop and rest, the sound of his voice travels differently as well, like it's taking advantage of the added acoustics that an unblocked passage provides.

"Yes, here. We can stand here. Just a little further my brave girl." She's still on her hands and knees, but suddenly she's being lifted to her feet, and the shock of being touched is overwhelming, and wonderful. She traces her own fingers upon Mance's face, finding the stubble on his cheeks, and the grime down his nose, and his eyelids, and his ears, and she lets out a small sob, she is so happy to feel someone else's heart beating in the endless dark.

"Yes. I'm real and so are you, and we've made it through the worst of it. From here on, we don't need to be squirming on our bellies. We can walk or crouch and soon we'll reach a larger cavern with water to clean ourselves, and enough air to safely light a torch, but first we rest." His hands are on her cheeks, so he can feel her nod, before leading her slightly further where there is a dry place for them to sit, backs against the wall, legs stretched out, beside each other. She can hear Mance rustling in his pack, and then a flask is in her hand and she pulls down the kerchief, letting the water soothe her aching throat. Next, he hands her something hard and dry to eat, and she has never been more thankful for food.

"How many times have you made this trip?" She whispers, and he gives a dry laugh.

"Only the once, and it was in the other direction, escaping the Bolton bastard. Of the two, I figured this was the better hell, even if I never made it out." Now she's having him lead her back to that which he once fled, and once again she doubts. Mance adds, "I still don't understand how you even knew about this passage or that I knew of it as well."

"I can hardly explain it myself." The darkness is playing tricks again, and blood red eyes float before her and then fade into the black.

"Well, try. The sound of your voice is already bringing me respite. Indulge me while we rest." She reaches across the space between them to take his calloused fingers in her own.

"I don't know how you managed this journey alone. I'm going mad." She admits. He gives her fingers a quick squeeze in response.

"I have a son who still breathes in this world. I aim to hold him in my arms at least once before I go." He speaks of Dalla's baby, whom Val seems to be haunted by. She is afraid to press Mance with questions on his fate.

"Well, thank you for making the journey a second time, with me. I know it sounds impossible, but this madness came to me in a dream." He snorts, but offers no further comment so she recounts the journey back up the White Knife.

---

When they made land at last, Sansa was sick and desperate with worry over what was happening at Winterfell. Though their journey took only days instead of weeks, she had convinced herself that they were too late.

She begged Baelish and Harry to include her in their scouting party, and when Winterfell finally appeared through a copse of trees, seemingly ablaze across the fields below, she feared that all her nightmares had finally come true. The air was hazy with smoke, and even from their great distance, ash drifted down upon their cloaks in eerie silence. For a moment she lost all sense, but then Baelish handed her a Myrish far-eye, and she could better understand the scene before her.

It was not Winterfell ablaze, but the village outside its gates. Winterfell still stood, and the sight took her breath away, but surrounding the castle was a sea of tents, with the white wolf's symbol flying above. Baelish pointed out evidence of a previous battle in a dark mass where bodies were clearly piled, and evidence of the ongoing siege in the several spots along the outer walls that had sustained damage from the crannogman trebuchets that dotted the line around the castle walls. Yet, the Bolton banners still hung from the turrets and Littlefinger chose then to reveal a secret of his own.

"Ramsey knows we are coming." He said.

"Well, there goes the element of surprise." Harry grabbed the far-eye from the girl, to make his own inspection, while she eyed Baelish warily.

"Adding men to the ongoing siege would hardly need an element of surprise. A betrayal, however, would." That self-pleased smirk of his appeared, the one he reserved for moments when he reveled in his own cleverness. "I've been in contact with Ramsey for months. As far as the Boltons and the Freys are concerned, I'm a Lannister man, through and through. I was master of coin, was I not? Tywin Lannister, himself, raised me up to be Lord Paramount of the Trident. Why would I be in the north for any other reason than to aid them in ending the northern rebellion once and for all?"

In that moment, a chill ran down her spine and she could not be certain whether Baelish's planned betrayal was against the Lannisters or herself. She reminded herself to never forget his lessons. Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next.

---

Now, sitting in the darkness she realizes that even Littlefinger may not yet have decided which side he will choose. More of his words come back to her. Everyone wants something, Alayne. And when you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him. Littlefinger wants to control all the pieces on the board. Lord Baelish wants the admiration and esteem of the other high lords and ladies…and Petyr wants her.

"That man can't be trusted." Mance's voice is gruff, echoing her own thoughts.

"You think I don't know that? I've been under his wing for years. I've seen him plot and scheme his way from a minor lord of a lesser house to the Lord Protector of the Vale, the one kingdom in Westeros yet untouched by these years of war. He will not be satisfied until he rules all of Westeros or burns it to the ground." Chaos is a ladder.

"Yet, you willingly step into the trap he's laid."

"The trap we've laid. I told you, it came to me in a dream."

---

When they returned to the rest of their men at the river, Baelish explained that he sent word via raven to Ramsey as soon as they set sail, letting him know that the Vale was coming to reinforce Winterfell. The trick, he said, would be to get the knights of the Vale past Jon's men and into Winterfell, where they could defeat Ramsey within its walls.

"Even if we reach out to Jon, and he lets the knights pass, Ramsey will know you've double-crossed him. He will not let you in." Wyn said as Sansa frowned, pacing the cabin where they held council. 

"Then we shouldn't let him know our true allegiance. We break through the White Wolf's weakest line to the castle. We'll lose some men, but maintain the ruse." Harry offered, and Sansa was incredulous.

"We are not fighting against our own side! That plan is needlessly risky, and I'll not have my people's blood on my hands."

Baelish gave her a contemptuous smirk. "Every great leader does, my dove. But, you are right. There are too many unknowns in that plan. Most of the Vale's men are still traveling here and we cannot be certain we'll defeat Jon Snow. Even if he were in on it, he doesn't seem the type to allow the bloodshed of his own men to sell the plot. We need another way into the castle if we're to end the siege quickly."

Their council ended with no clear path forward.

---

"That was the night I dreamt of Jon." She and Mance are on the move again. They can walk now, their hands trailing the dewy cave wall for guidance in the absolute darkness that surrounds them. In some places, they are even able to walk abreast. "I was once again in the Great Sept of Baelor, sitting vigil for Lord Arryn. He fostered me in King's Landing along with my Aunt Lysa." While he lived, she had spent little time with the king's hand. He was busy running the seven kingdoms in Robert's name, and his relationship with Lysa was strained. Even so, when he did occasionally dine with them, he was always kind to Sansa, and he often brought her gifts; books with lovely illustrations and once, a myrish lense that let her gaze upon the stars from her bedroom in the Hand's tower. "He was just as I last saw him, dead upon the funeral alter. I sat with him for three days as his body lied in state for visitors and prayers. My Aunt Lysa fled King's Landing with my cousin, the morning after his death, but I was left behind. So, I stayed and watched while the silent sisters prepared his body, while the king made plans to replace him and travel north to my family without me, and while the queen whispered in the shadows." She shakes herself. "Forgive me, I digress." The void has loosened her lips.

"Digression allowed, my girl. We have time." Mance had warned her, when they first reached the shallow hollow only an hour's distance from Winterfell, that the distance above ground was a deception, but had she truly understood the toll of this journey then, she's not sure she could make the same choice a second time. Fresh sweat trickles down the dried grime at her temples, the hot air pulsing upward in steady waves from beneath their feet, and she's sure her bones will carry this heat into winter's coldest night. She does not know how long they've been beneath the earth, for the darkness plays tricks with time, but she believes that they are not nearly close enough to their final destination. After hours in this hot, black hell, she longs to roll in the white snows far above their heads.

"Well, anyway, I was in the Sept, alone, watching Lord Arryn and I noticed that that one of the funeral stones had slipped from his eye, and was lying on the marble dais below. When I went to replace it, however, it wasn't Jon Arryn on the alter…it was Jon Snow…older than he is now and white with death, a ruby studded crown across his brow, his body dressed in black finery, slashed with red." A tremor ripples through her again, thinking of it. "I did not understand. I stared for what felt like ages, until I noticed a woman weeping and I backed away in grief and confusion, stumbling against what I assumed was a pillar, but when I turned…" It was her father, carved in stone, a direwolf at his feet, and she was no longer in the Great Sept, but the crypts of Winterfell. "It has been many years since I've stepped foot there, but there was no mistaking it. My Aunt Lyanna's statue was just beyond, blue roses at her feet. As a child, I used to place them there with my father when he'd go to remember her."

She sighs, and Mance echoes her. "Benjen spoke of her often. She was his closest companion, growing up. I don't think he ever forgave himself for what happened to her."

"What was there to forgive? It was Rheagar Targaryen who kidnapped and killed her." She's thought often of her aunt in recent years, another young northern girl brought south and held captive by her enemies, her cruel fate never to return home alive.

"I've found you Starks to be quite adept at bearing burdens that do not belong to you." She has no response to that as Mance helps her up a slope, jagged with sharp rocks, and tangled roots. Her hands are scraped and bloodied, and her body weary. "We're traveling upwards again. That's a good sign. Continue with your dream."

"Well, I stood there, staring up at the likeness of my father, and I heard a boy's voice, from far away and all around." It was Bran, she knows it, but she keeps that to herself. " He told me that the only time one can be brave is when one is afraid, but also that I should not be afraid, for this was part of my home and who I am. He told me that one day I'd lie there too."

Mance grunts.

"And then the wolf at my father's feet moved, and it was Ghost's red eyes staring back at me. I asked him to bring me home. I don't know how to explain it, but the next morning, when I woke up, he had led you to our camp."

Mance grunts again. "I should have known you were a green-seer...Bloody Starks."

"What do you mean?"

"You have the old magic in you, of blood and bones and the earth, and that demon wolf heeds your call. That damn direwolf pulled me from my tent in the dead of night. I almost pissed myself before I realized he wasn't there to kill me. Then I assumed he was dragging me to another midnight strategy council of Snow's, but instead I stumbled half the night through the woods, with him nipping at my heel every time I tried to turn around."

Her chest constricts, and she murmurs. "How was Jon? Before you left?"

"A flame of single-minded fury. I'm not sure he's slept once since returning from White Harbor. He drags his advisors out at all hours to go over the plan of attack again and again and again. He tours the siege line continuously and nothing satisfies him, even though we've already won the battle outside the castle and Howland had plans to bring the outer walls down. Since his return, the king is suddenly loathe to damage the structure, though he also insists we must defeat Ramsey immediately. At this point, it wouldn't surprise me if he sprouted wings and flew over the battlements himself, to root the bastard out."

"Well, if all goes well, he won't have to."

Another grunt in the dark.

---

She woke early the morning after her dream, and a commotion at the edge of camp drew her attention. There stood Mance Rayder, held up by the guards, indignant and confused, and she knew that she had somehow brought him there. Once the guards had unhanded him, he confirmed that the direwolf had led him to their camp, before disappearing back into the woods. When pressed, he admitted, reluctantly, that he did know another way into Winterfell. Their immediate excitement died when he explained the route in greater detail. There was a tunnel that ran beneath the castle that opened in the crypt, but no army could pass through it, for it would barely allow one grown man in most parts.

Harry and Baelish went around and around on what to do with this knowledge, but it was Sansa who came to the only feasible solution. It would have to be her. At first, both Harry and Baelish tried to insist that they must go as well, but Sansa argued that their roles lay elsewhere, and when Mance showed them the hollow, near a stream bed, hardly wider than a fox burrow and slick with snow melt and muddy earth, both men were quick to come around to her view. So, as the daylight faded to the West, she and the ranger-turned-wilding king stripped down to her shift and his small clothes, bundling their gear in sealskins that Wyn provided and said their goodbyes to the sky.

---

Silence overtakes them again, and Sansa prays that the world above still stands when she finally emerges again. Suddenly, their way is blocked and Mance knocks against the unseen obstacle. Instead of the deadening of earth or stone, it is the hollow ring of metal.

"My girl, we are close at last. Behind this door, lies a large cavern with a hot spring-fed pool. Beyond, are steps leading to the crypt." She explores the surface with her fingers. It is raised in places, as if letters or symbols adorn it's face, but she can make no sense of them in the dark. Her fingers find a divot, where the handle is and with all her weight behind it, the door creaks open. At first she thinks the dark is playing tricks again, for there are beaded strings of glowing blue light hovering in the space before her, but then she hears Mance digging in his pack behind her and his torch is lit. She closes her eyes, the shock of brightness surprising her. Yet, when she opens them again, the glowing blue strings are still there, dangling from the cavern ceiling, stretching far enough for her to get a sense of the cavern's enormity. Below, lies a large, whisper-smooth pool of water, it's size immeasurable in the dark.

"What are they?" She wonders aloud at the glowing, pearl-like strings. "They're beautiful."

Mance huffs. "Any sight is beautiful after you've been blind. Even you, covered in muck, looking like a freshly dug-up corpse. I don't know what they are and I don't plan on staying long enough to find out." He hands her the torch before kneeling at the water's edge, splashing his face and arms.

"Old Nan used to say there was a sleeping dragon under Winterfell. Now, I believe her story may be true." She gazes up in wonder, and Mance grabs the light back from her so she can clean the worst of the filth from her face and arms and the ends of her hair.

"Let's not stay to find out. Nothing good comes from waking a dragon." They unwrap their clothes, and she is happy to find that her simple dress is mostly clean, and the other contents are intact as well. They walk along the water's edge, before finding another metal door, and beyond a man made passage leading upward. Her initial delight dims as they climb a seemingly endless series of upward sloping paths, and steep, narrow steps. Still, the air grows cooler as they move upward, and after they wake from another rest on a wider landing, she realizes that the walls of this passage hold brackets for torches and the floor is even at last

They reach an ironwood door, marking the entrance to the oldest part of the actual crypt. Sansa had never ventured past the highest levels as a child, but she knew that the vault was larger than Winterfell itself. In this first chamber that she and Mance traverse, the ceiling is low, and the tombs have been reduced to worn lumps, as if they've melted back into the natural stone beneath. In the next chamber, the ceiling is partially collapsed, and she and the wilding king spend several tense minutes searching for the opening that he swears exists. They find it, and continue wandering through chambers that grow grander in scale. Soon the tombs have statues above them, though the forms have eroded with time and are unrecognizable.

When they finally approach what Sansa starts to recognize as the newer part of the crypt, where her aunt and uncle are entombed, they hear voices and Mance immediately extinguishes the torch, pulling the girl low behind a pillar. They crouch together, straining, but the voices are too muffled from this distance, so they crawl closer, once again on their bellies. Slowly, her eyes adjust as they grow nearer the candlelight casting small shadows through the crypt.

"Shh! Do you hear something." A man's voice whispers, and Sansa freezes.

"Yes, my bloody stomach growling." An accent from the far north, and there is a niggling familiarity. 

"The guards change soon. Blackmyre, are you sure you're up to it?"

A third voice, and Mance starts to peer around the corner. "Yes, they're so focused on what's happening outside the walls, no one gave me a second glance the last time I ventured out."

"Then get on with it. I'm about ready to slide one of these tombs open, and eat a dead king." Mance grunts beside her, and the voices hush.

"There is someone else down here."

"A bunch of dead Starks. And perhaps some rats. Go try and catch one, you wee green devil." A light is coming nearer, and the girl holds her breath, but Mance stands as the torch blazes into view.

"And one live Stark and a former wilding king." He announces, and the torch drops to the floor, sputtering out.

"Bloody hells!"

Sansa hears the sound of a sword being drawn, but Mance yells out again. "Tormund Giantsbane, you fire-kissed fool. Tell the crannogmen to stand down. It's me, Mance Rayder."

Another torch comes to life, and Sansa stands up as well. There, at the base of her father's statue lies Tormund, a blanket spread across his lap, gaunt and more wild-haired than ever, but his eyes are bright in the dim light. Two crannogmen crouch warily on either side, but they relax when the wilding throws his head back, laughing.

"Abel, you cunning fiend. And you've brought me Red! Gods! I know that I'm the one that almost died, but you two look like you've crawled through six hells to get here."

She smiles down at him, tears in her eyes. "We have."

His face turns grim. "Well lass, welcome to the seventh."

Chapter Text

"How are you here?" She falls to her knees at Tormund's side and he smiles at her.

"I'd ask the same thing, Red." He reaches up for her, and his cheek bones are too sharp, the circles under his eyes too deep…but he's alive.

"We feared you were dead. We looked everywhere for you." She's rolling the wilding's shirt up, trying to inspect how well he's healed in the dim light, but he's pushing her hands away.

"Enough. I've been poked and prodded enough. You did you work well, lass. I can walk and I can shit…and it remains to be seen whether I can fuck or fight, but as soon as I get a sword in my hand, I aim to find out." She looks up at the two young crannogmen now who are whispering with Mance above them. The one who had dropped the torch earlier gives the older wilding a nod before turning to her and Tormund.

"The guard is changing soon. I'm going to head above ground to see if I can nick something to eat. Gage can tell you how we came to be here." When he walks away, she notices that he has a slight limp. Mance and the other man sit down beside her and the wilding.

"Lord Reed instructed Brandon and I to get the big man away safely, but there was no way and no time, my lady. You know. He was in a bad way." She nods, remembering the grueling process of trying to stitch Tormund back together after the battle north of Winterfell. "So, Brandon and I looked at each other…and we did what we crannogmen do best. We camouflaged ourselves. We relieved some dead Bolton and Frey soldiers of their surcoats, masking ourselves in flayed men and blue towers, and did the same for Tormund here. Then we looked each other in the eye…and we did what we had to." The young man pulls back his collar to reveal a still-healing scar across his chest.

"You purposely injured yourself?" Sansa is fascinated.

"Aye, but nothing too deep. Then we lied beside Tormund till morning, when a maester came round. He ordered us moved to one side with the other Bolton and Frey men…and…and…we were spared." The young man averts his eyes, his hands flitting nervously and Sansa reaches out to take his hand. She knows the feelings of guilt that plague him. They plague her too. They lived while their other injured brethren were murdered.

"You followed orders and you saved Tormund's life and your own. There is nothing more you could have done."

He draws his hand back, eyes still downcast. "Well, after that, we were brought here, to Winterfell, along with the other survivors. Tormund has been in the infirmary for most of it, but Blackmyre and I snuck away and hid ourselves soon after arrival. We couldn't pass for Frey or Bolton men for long. We split our time between the godswood and the broken tower for a time, until things turned really bad, above. Then we brought Tormund down here."

"Red, you'd be so proud." Tormund cuts in. "I passed for a kneeler!"

The crannogman scoffs. " He was barely conscious for the first weeks, and then the maester kept slipping him milk of the poppy because he'd re-open his wounds with all his yapping and gesticulating." Gage explains that the three bided their time while Tormund healed, but then the siege started and it became untenable above ground. 

The young man gives her a haunted look. "There were signs, before, that things weren't right in this castle, my lady. We'd heard the servants whispering about the women disappearing, and the girl locked in the tower…and even though there are fifteen hundred people within its walls, it's too quiet…except when it's not…when there are screams that even the thickest walls can't silence." He glances at Tormund.

"Ye shouldn't have come here, Red. This place is cursed."

She shakes her head. "This is my home. Winterfell isn't cursed…maybe only the people in it. Tell me, do you know anything about the hostages, from Castle Cerwyn?" The men exchange a dark glance. "Was Ned among them? Do they still live?"

"Red-"

"Sansa…my name is Sansa." He looks perplexed, but she persists. "Look, we know Ramsey is maiming them…but I need to know. Is Ned among them and do they still live?" She's growing impatient now. She needs to be above ground. She needs air. When she stands, Mance rises with her, grabbing her by the shoulders.

"Easy. Breathe." She tenses as footsteps approach from the staircase leading out of the crypt but it's only Brandon, the other crannogman, returning with a few dried apples and some hard bread. They divvy up the food, and with something in her belly, Sansa calms enough to listen to the other three describe the fate of the hostages. Several weeks back, thirty or so women and children were marched in from Castle Cerwyn, Ned among them.

Brandon picks up the tale. "The first day, they gathered them all in the main courtyard…and Ramsey and Aenys Frey were there. They told their men that an army was coming down upon them, but that the castle walls were strong and Jon Snow weak. Then…then they made their soldiers come forward and cut fingers off the women and children. Said it was a sign of loyalty…and if they couldn't show loyalty, then they could get their own fingers cut off too." He rubs his palms into his eyes, as if trying to erase the memory. "After that day, it was much of the same. The hostages were marched out. The soldiers were forced to show their allegiance to House Bolton and House Frey by cutting away flesh from women and children. Everyone else was forced to watch."

"And Ned?"

Tormund's eyes are hollow and he takes her hand. "They'd take them to the infirmary after, Red. The maesters would treat them…so they'd not succumb to infection, before locking them away again." She feels a fresh sickness. "I saw Ned…before Brandon and Gage came to get me. He was alive then."

"How long ago was this?" The men exchange another glance.

"Maybe…four or five days ago."

She stands. "It's time, Mance." He eyes her warily.

"Sansa…you don't have to do this. There may be another way-"

"What other way?" She's in his face. "Show me another way! I'm begging you!" But he just stares at her, his eyes haunted, and they have run out of time and options, so she turns her back to him, placing her wrists together at the base of her spine. "Then tie me up."

"Red, what madness is this?" Tormund rises unsteadily to his feet, and the crannogmen exchange nervous glances. "What are you doing?"

"What I can...what I must."

---

Brandon leads her and Mance out of the crypt and into a shadowed courtyard. It's late evening and though she tries desperately to take in the details, her blood is too high to recognize her home as they pass through its darkened grounds and then a darker tower, clearly abandoned, and wait…it's the First Keep. She does know where they are and it gives her strength. They walk along the edges of another courtyard, pausing each time Brandon senses a guard walking the wall above. Finally, they pass through a servant's entrance to the Great Keep, and the crannogman takes his leave.

"When you hear the horns…find the girl in the tower. Protect her. Let no one past. No one." The young man nods, his eyes anxious, as he backs outside. A wave of heady longing washes over Sansa as they creep through the passages of her childhood. Through that door Old Nan used to nap in the sun, and in that room Septa Mordane taught embroidery, and there was a great hiding place beneath those steps…Memories Sansa didn't know she still had wash over her, and her steps do not falter, even when a guard spies them.

"Halt! What business do you have here." When he gets close enough to see the state she and Mance are in, he starts to draw his sword, but Mance raises up the sealed letter.

"I bring an urgent message from Lord Baelish to Lord Bolton." The guard hesitates, and Mance huffs. "Just bring us to him. If he decides he doesn't like the message, you can lop off our heads then." Another guard is called, and soon they are being escorted down the hall towards her father's solar. As the door opens, for the briefest moment, it's her father inside, sitting behind his desk, a stack of scrolls and books before him…but the image changes and she sees how altered the room is from her memories. It's been cleared of everything familiar. A tapestry of a flayed man hangs upon the far wall, and a dark table and chairs take up the middle of the room, with a suit of dark armor with a red helm displayed in the corner.

At the table, sits a man. The guard is whispering at his side, before he dismisses both, leaving Mance and Sansa alone with Ramsay Bolton, the Dreadfort's bastard.

"Lord Baelish wasn't sure if his ravens have reached you. We feared they'd been shot down by Jon Snow's archers." Mance hands the sealed message to the pale lord before them. He's of average height, his pink velvet doublet partially unlaced as if he were about to retire. She's not sure what she expected, but after all these months with his specter looming over any hopes she had for coming home, she feels an odd sort of letdown. He's just a man.

"I received his ravens." His voice is oddly flat, and again she feels a strange disappointment. Still, he reads the missive before him and when he's done with the letter, Mance hands him the pendant and the scrap of parchment with Jon Snow's last words to her. Her stomach drops low at this betrayal, but it's too late to take any of it back now.

"So, according to Baelish, I'm to believe that the bastard of Winterfell will give up everything…for her." He promised he would. "He'll surrender, and his army will stand down for her?." Well, she amends in her mind, he promised Alayne that he would. If he doesn't for Sansa, then she is dead.

Mance grunts.

"Sansa Stark." He's closer now, inches away, and he isn't a monster. He's just a man. An ugly man with sloped shoulders and pink, blotchy skin. He laughs and it's a wet sound. "Well, I did hear rumor that he almost got himself killed for your other sister. Stupid bastard." His eyes roam her body, and revulsion grips her. "Under all this filth, you're a real beauty, aren't you?" He fingers the collar of her dress and she jerks away.

"Don't touch me!"

But he only leans closer, licking his wet, wormy lips. "And you've spirit. I do like a girl with spirit. They're always the most fun to break."

Mance shifts behind her. "What would you like me to do with her, my lord? Is there a chamber to lock her in, or…"

"Leave her here." He steps back to his desk now, ringing a bell, and a servant appears in the doorway. "Get this man a bath and a meal." He eyes Mance. "Do I know you?" She holds her breath, and Mance shakes his head. "Hm. You look familiar. But, no matter, I'll be sending you with the message to the bastard, Snow, so rest up. I'll call for you in the morning."

"My Lord-" Mance is hesitating and she wants to scream at him, Get out of here, you stupid idiot!

"When you get back, you'll show me that passage. Hm?"

Mance grunts again, before leaving the room with a gruff, "'Course, my lord." She lets out a breath, and it's just her and Ramsay now. He's eyeing her again as he plays with the pendant.

"Another Stark bride." He laughs. "Not too bad for man who started life as a bastard. But, what shall I do with my precious Arya? My lovely wife. Not as lovely as you though. You'll make me a better wife, won't you? A true wolf bride." He grabs for her chin, and she tilts away.

"I'll never be your wife." Her voice is ice, and she can tell he doesn't like that.

"You think your bastard brother is going to save you? That I'll just give you back when he asks? He really is a stupid man, isn't he? To fall for such a trap. Will he really do it? Give his head for yours?" He wrenches her closer by her hair, his pale beady eyes inches from her own. "Does he have a bastard's lust for his own sister? Is that it?" She stays silent and he laughs again. "Well, we shall see, won't we? I do appreciate a man who gives into to his baser nature."

He leads her to a chair at the table, pushing her down roughly, before ringing the bell again, this time for food. A bowl of brown stew is set before her by an emaciated man more filthy than she, with missing teeth and fingers. When he moves to place the bowl before her, he shakes so much that some of the contents spill onto her lap.

"Reek! You naughty boy. You spilled on Lady Sansa." The man only shakes more, darting furtive eyes to her face and then back to the floor. "Best clean it up."

"It's fine. Leave it." She does not want this creature touching her. He smells of excrement. Ramsey simply shrugs, dismissing the poor servant.

"Fine. Eat."

"I can't. My hands are tied."

"Eat." He sits across the table from her, spinning a knife with a hilt of yellowed bone and she knows she should be scared. Her lack of fear is concerning, really, but he's just another little man who delights in cruelty and she is too weary to be scared. Still, this is not the time to be stupid either, so she bends forward, trying to carefully sip at the stew. Without her hands, there is no avoiding dipping her nose in it. It's cold and the fat has congealed over the top, creating a milky, oily crust. She's not too proud to let this attempt at humiliation get to her, so she chokes down her disgust, letting it slop over her cheeks. At last, he grows bored, pulling her face up again, by the back of her head, and she can feel broth dripping down her chin.

"Enough. It's late. I'll enjoy you more once this business with Jon Snow is concluded. Then, I can release you in the woods, and we'll see how fast you run."

"Jon Snow is going to kill you." She knows it's stupid to provoke him, and he confirms it by pulling her by the ear to the fireplace. He presses her face close, towards the dying embers, and Sandor Clegane is in her head, and she laughs. It surprises her and it must surprise Ramsay too, for his grip loosens and she is able to move her face safely away from the flames. She stares up at him, balefully. "You're all the same, aren't you? Little men who need another's pain to feel like a king."

He smiles back, licking his lips. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy you. I'll definitely be naming my next bitch Sansa." He brings his lips to her ear, and she can't quite contain her shudder now. "It's not the pain. It's the fear. I'm going to find what you're afraid of…and we're going to dance in it, little girl."

He leaves her, tied to a table leg, and she closes her eyes, telling herself that she is not afraid. This time will be different. This time, someone will come for her. This time, Jon will come for her. He has toHe promised.

-----

She wakes with a start, and her whole body aches. It's morning, and if it weren't for everything else about her circumstances, she could weep for joy at seeing the sun filter in through the window. A cold rag is being dragged over her face, and the dirty servant from the night before is crouching before her, muttering to himself as he wipes at her.

"Stop!" She wrenches her head away, and he sits back in surprise.

"M..m…master says to clean you."

"I can clean myself if you untie me." He's trembling, and he's as filthy as ever, and how could he possibly clean her? "I'm not going to run, if that's what you're worried about."

"M..musn't do that. Reek listens to his master…n…n…not anyone else." He starts dragging the rag over her face again, and she sighs, resigned. He wipes at her a few more moments, before leaning back on his haunches, his eyes flitting to the ground when she stares back at him.

"Who are you?" She asks.

"My name is Reek."

"What is your given name?"

"My master gave me the name Reek. It rhymes with freak." She sighs.

"Well, I'm Sansa…thank you for cleaning me, Reek." He's trembling all over again. She knows she should feel sympathy, but in this moment a well of frustration rises up instead. She hears boots coming down the hall, and Mance and Ramsay enter together. She meets the wilding's eyes briefly, with the slightest of nods, before staring at the dead hearth. The room has grown cold, but it doesn't reach her. She can't let anything reach her now.

"Did you sleep well, sweetling?" Ramsay nudges her with his foot, but she doesn't respond, and he turns away, fishing for something on the table. "Here. I wrote another letter to Snow…not quite as fun as the last, but I think it'll serve its purpose…along with the pendant and his little note. Do you think he needs any other proof?" She hears the scrape of his blade across the tabletop. "A lock of her hair? Maybe one of those pretty blue eyes?"

Mance grunts. "I believe we are offering her safe return in exchange for his surrender, my lord."

Ramsay laughs. "Ahh, yes. That's what we're offering. Very well…the pendant and the note will have to suffice...though, if he doesn't take the bait, tell Baelish that there are no promises on her condition. I've been cooped up for too long, and I need a little fun."

Mance grunts again. "He'll take the bait. He's a noble fool, just like Ned Stark before him." She winces and Ramsay laughs again in agreement.

"Don't forget her trueborn brother, the other Stark who lost his head. Robb, the King Who Lost the North. Ha! I do so enjoy setting traps for wolves." Reek is rocking back and forth now, muttering to himself, and Ramsay kicks him, savagely. "Get out of here. You smell like shit." Mance follows the servant out the door, and she lets out the air she's been holding.

Ramsay crouches down before her. "You're starting to smell as bad as Reek. I told him to clean you…but he didn't do a very good job."

She closes her eyes, too tired and sore to play games. He slaps her.

"Look at me." She looks at him, her ear ringing. "If your brother doesn't surrender, I'm going to rape you in the courtyard in front of all my men, and then I'm going to let my men take turns raping you as well. When they've had their fill…I'm going to carve out those pretty blue eyes of yours and send them to Jon Snow as a gift along with written testaments from my men on the state of your cunt." A memory whispers in her ear. He wants me to tell him it's too big, so…I tell him it's too big. She smiles, thinking on Willa now. Ramsay slaps her again.

"My brother is going to kill you." She tells him. He slaps her again.

"Do you remember the shepherd girl?" He pauses, his arm raised. "The shepherd girl, in the Barrows…forgive me, there may have been many for you, but I'll never forget her." His hand has fallen to his side, and he's watching her, his pale eyes narrowed as she continues. "Her name was Lyra. You flayed her father but didn't finish the job. Jon Snow did." His lips curl. He doesn't like that. "Is that a problem for you? Finishing?"

Another slap. She tastes blood at her lip.

"At some point though, you killed the girl and decided to hang her up back in her hut. Do you really not remember?" But he does, she can see it. His eyes dart over her, suspicious. "Well, I finished that job for you. I cut her down and wrapped her in my own cloak. She was a lovely northern girl. She looked a little like Arya, in truth." She sighs, sadly. "I returned her to Lady Dustin, because I felt it was worth reminding the lady of her responsibility to her flock. When you have a rabid dog, you don't let it loose among your sheep. You put an arrow through its neck, or a sword in its belly…or poison, in its food."

She looks up at Ramsay again. "You do know who the rabid dog in this story is, don't you?" He slaps her again, and she's seeing stars now…but if he's focused on her he's not thinking about Baelish's letter nor the weakness in their plan…nor the signs of their trap…so she shakes her head and opens her mouth again. "It's you. You're the rabid dog and my brother is going to put a sword in your belly."

He slaps her again, and this time all she sees is black.

When she wakes, she is lying on her side and there is something cold across her cheek. The man, Reek, is looking at her with anxious eyes.

"You shouldn't make him m...m...mad." He whispers. "It'll only make things worse."

"Worse than what? Him raping me? And flaying me alive?" She tries to sit, and he helps her up, holding what she now realizes is raw meat, to her cheek. She runs her tongue across her bottom lip, where it's split. Ramsay is no longer in the room and she looks down, ashamed. "Thank you." Her comment was stupid. She sees what Ramsay's cruelty has done to this poor creature. Who is she to think that she wouldn't be reduced the same, given time? But he won't have time.

They sit like this for a few minutes, Reek holding the meat to her cheek, and her gazing into his aged face. She suspects that he is younger than his appearance, and with that thought all her anger and frustration leave her, and she is left feeling incredibly sad.

She starts. "I'm sorry-" but the horns sounding in the distance stop her.

Jon Snow has surrendered. And though it's the outcome that she wanted...the outcome that she needed, she feels only a deep shame at the sounding of the horns. 

Chapter Text

Guards come for her and the strength leaves Sansa all at once. They have to drag her through the halls because she cannot lift her feet, and she's a girl of eleven again being marched through the Red Keep, and out to the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor. A blast of cold air brings her to and no…she's in the courtyard, where Robb used to practice with his wooden swords, but there will be no playing at war today. A crowd has started to gather, a mass of strange faces, and archers have lined the covered bridge between the armory and the Great Keep. Ramsay Bolton stands in the center of the yard in a pale pink cloak and Sansa knows she will never wear that color again. Beside him is a tall grey man with a bald head and round shoulders.

"So, this is the Stark girl?" The stranger steps closer when the guards drag her before them, his watery eyes squinting down at her over his pointed nose. "You're sure?"

Ramsay laughs. "What does it matter now? The wolf bastard has already surrendered." The older man strokes his thin beard, that does little to hide the weak chin beneath.

"Aye. I suppose. There's still an army waiting outside these walls, though. If it's the wrong girl, are you sure they'll still stand down?" She worries her lip, and it bleeds anew.

"Well, then Baelish and the knights of the Vale can deal with the fallout." Ramsay twirls a dagger through his fingers, restlessly and the other man shrugs. "This was his plan."

"Still, you could have cleaned her up better…and did you have to smack her around so much? They're not going-" He stops because the south gate is opening. The lords dismiss them so the guards drag her back out of sight, leaving the lords standing alone in the middle of the yard. Bolton and Frey soldiers line the perimeter, and even if things go well, she knows that too much blood will be spilled this day.

The knights of the Vale flood in, their armor gleaming, the standard-bearers flying the Arryn falcon proudly above. As their numbers swell, the lord beside Ramsay darts a nervous glance to a Frey soldier who comes rushing forward, calling out to the newcomers.

"Halt! That's enough!" They slow, and there's some confusion in their ranks, before Lord Baelish materializes with Lord Ashwood at his side. Baelish's mockingbird pin shines against the dark sable of his cloak.

"Lord Bolton! Is there a problem?"

The older man speaks instead. "We won't be able to close the gates if many more of your men come in. Leave the rest outside." Littlefinger smirks.

"Why do we need to close the gates? Forgive me…I didn't catch your name."

"Lord Aenys Frey."

"Ah yes. Another Frey." He pauses, looking up at the archers along the wall behind him. "There is no reason to close the gate, good man. The northern rebels have seen the folly of their campaign and laid down their weapons, as long as you return the Stark girl to those who would both keep her safe and remain loyal to the crown, that is." He gestures for Lord Ashwood to step forward. "Lord Ashwood is here to receive Lady Sansa and bring her back to White Harbor. You do have her, do you not?" As he speaks, the Vale knights have continued to march into the courtyard, spreading out amongst the Frey and Bolton forces. If the archers loose their arrows now, they'll have just as good a chance of hitting their own men. Sansa feels a glimmer of hope.

"First, Jon Snow." Ramsay calls. "Where is he?"

"He's coming. And the hostages? They were also part of Jon Snow's terms." There's movement at the back of the courtyard, and the guards lead out a small group of hobbled forms. There are far fewer than thirty and Sansa's breath is coming shallower now as she scans them, desperate for a flash of pale hair or a lilac cloak and yes…Ned is leaning against a drawn woman with chestnut hair, and he's so pale and he's too far away, and she doesn't realize that she's straining against the guards until one cuffs her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her.

"Now, Snow." Ramsay calls again, and she can't regain her breath as the soldiers part. Jon is pushed forward, his hands tied behind his back, in his plain leather jerkin and he's so beautiful and he's so angry and Sansa wants to call out to him that she's sorry, but she still can't breathe properly, and she's doubling over again, wheezing.

"Gods, Lynel. What'd you do to her?" The guard on her left whispers to the other.

"Nothing. I didn't even hit her that hard."

"I'm here, Bolton. I surrender. My army has stood down. Now, where is Sansa?" Her name on his lips is a beacon, and air comes rushing back into her lungs, watching him stand before Bolton, uncowed. Ramsay gestures for her to be brought forward as well. When he sees her, Jon curses, fighting against his bonds, and it's Harry who is holding him back. Harry, in his polished, never-used-in-battle armor and the sight of Jon shackled before him makes her sick to her stomach. She did this. There are some gasps from the crowd and she regrets goading Ramsey now, for she must already have looked frightful with her muddied hair and her soiled dress and now, with her cheek…Jon's eyes are desolation as they rake over her. It's not what it seems! But she isn't sure of that, herself.

Baelish speaks, his voice mild. "She was to be returned, unharmed."

Ramsay runs a cold finger down her bruised cheek. "Oh this?" He shrugs at Lord Baelish. "She must have tripped. Clumsy girl." He pats her cheek, roughly, and Jon is practically growling where Harry has him held. "Oh, he doesn't like that, does he?" Ramsay licks his lips and they're Joffrey's lips, mocking the soft hearts of women before calling Ilyn Payne forward, and she digs her nails into her palm to stay in the present, but she's slipping.

Lord Ashwood steps forward. "Give us the lady, Lord Bolton," but Ramsay pulls her close, instead.

"Not so fast." Is he suspicious? She feels a spike of white-hot panic, but he's laughing, his breath hot against her bruised face and she realizes that he's simply enjoying this. "I want the bastard's head, first."

"No!" She's found her voice now, and she struggles against Ramsay. "No…he surrendered!" He's supposed to hand her over first

Ramsay yells out over her protests, twisting her arm painfully. "You heard me! Kill him. And then you can have her."

Harry throws Baelish a look, and Littlefinger nods. "Fine." Harry looks unsure, and her heart stops. This isn't right. She was wrong. She doesn't know how to move Petyr. She doesn't know how to move anyone. Why did she think she could? She's just a stupid girl. A stupid girl, who never learns…and now she's killed Jon.

"No! No! You promised!" She's kicking now, desperate. "I'll be good! Petyr! You promised! I'll be good! This time I'll be good!" She screams and the knight is pushing Jon to his knees in the dirt, and Ilyn Payne is raising Ice, and the crowd is screaming for her father's head and it's all her fault! She can't see Jon's face. She needs to see his face…

"No! No! You promised!" Her voice is high and ragged and the sound of it drives up her panic. "I'll be good! I'll be good! This time I'll be good!" She's blind with tears. It's all her fault! Her father confessed! They promised that he could go to the Wall if he confessed! Her father's head is rolling down the steps and it's all her fault! "You promised!"

A white blur comes streaking towards her from the left, and she is knocked to the ground and out of Ramsay's grasp. Ghost stands over her and she isn't in King's Landing. She's in Winterfell's courtyard fighting to stand up, and Jon isn't dead. He isn't even kneeling. He's rushing forward, with a sword in his hand and before she can draw the breath to yell his name, he's gutted Ramsay with it.

But that isn't enough…It isn't enough for the girl in the tower. It isn't enough for Lyra or Ned or Lady Jonelle and all the other unnamed women and girls. It isn't enough for Sansa…and it isn't enough for Jon.

She watches him bludgeoning Ramsay with his fists and he won't stop. The clash of metal rings out around them, and chaos has erupted in the courtyard, but Jon is still beating the dead man.

"Jon!" Her scream is a hoarse wild thing, and Ghost growls. Jon looks up at her at last, his eyes black, his face painted with Ramsay's blood. Someone is coming at him from behind and she screams his name again. He ducks at the last moment, pulling the sword from Bolton's body, and as his sword meets another man's, the direwolf nips at her ties, finally releasing her arms before he's dragging her out of harm's way.

She crouches near a wall, the direwolf lunging at anyone who comes near and she's lost Jon, her eyes scanning desperately for him before she sees a flash of pale hair and she's darting forward.

"Ned!" Ghost comes with her, bringing down a man who leaps out between her and the boy, and he's in her arms, but he seizes beneath her and she releases him almost at once. "Ned! We have to get out of here!" She reaches for the boy's hand…but it isn't there. His arm isn't there. Her hand hovers, still grasping stupidly at the air while the boy yells to the woman beside him.

"Come, my lady! Lady Sansa and her wolf will keep us safe!" The woman with the chestnut hair stumbles beside him as Sansa comes back to her senses. She does her best to lead their small party through the melee and they reach the guesthouse just as a smattering of arrows hit the door in front of them. Sansa does not wait, wrenching it open and ushering the woman and boy inside with Ghost following after. The main room is dark, but blessedly empty.

"Ned, away from the window!" She pulls a chest in front of the door before backing up to the far wall as well. The sounds of battle are loud outside, but when several moments pass without anyone barging in after them, she lets herself turn to the boy at last. He's staring at the door, eyes wide and her gaze trails up his form. His clothes fit more loosely than they should and his left sleeve is knotted up at his shoulder where his arm should be. His other side is obscured and she feels sick at the thought of what's been done to him, but then he catches her eye, and he flashes her a strained smile raising his other hand in a tepid wave.

"I know I once told you that everything suited you, my lady…so I hate being the one to tell you, but you look like absolute shit." His hand sweeps up from her feet to her hair, and she chokes out something between a laugh and a sob before she's crossed the distance between them, falling to her knees.

"Oh, Ned! You beautiful boy! I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry!" She cries and he wraps his good arm around her, patting her back.

"Tis but a scratch, milady." But he's crying as well as she moves her hands carefully up his body, checking him over. He flinches slightly, when she touches his sides, but quickly flashes her another strained smile, backing away. "Please, my lady…"

"Are you alright, Lady Sansa?" The other woman asks now, and Sansa recognizes her as Lady Jonelle Cerwyn. She was at Winterfell often in Sansa's youth, a shy, plain girl whom Theon Greyjoy would tease whenever she'd stammer before Robb. Now she stands, armless and gaunt, yet her voice is calm and her eyes are kind amidst the chaos around them, and Sansa feels like a hysterical fool.

She stands, taking a deep breath. "Lady Jonelle, forgive me. Yes, I'm fine…" This was her plan, after all, yet she's completely out of control. She tries to ignore the commotion outside and gather her thoughts. "We failed to protect you or Castle Cerwyn. I know that we cannot return what was taken from you, but House Stark will do everything it-"

The older woman cuts her off there, with a gentle smile. "I know. The king has already made a good start by killing the bastard. We can discuss reparations after he's done putting the rest of Bolton's men to sword." It doesn't take long for the battle to die down. Outside, the sounds change from the clang of metal to shouts of coordination. Sansa peers out of the window, and Vale knights are picking through bodies while Harry stands in the center of the courtyard, shouting orders.

Sansa leaves the guest house, approaching him.

"Sansa! Gods! You look like hell."

"Where is Jon?"

"I think he's off chasing down the last of the Bastard's Boys."

"You were supposed to protect him!"

He barks out a surprised laugh. "Protect him? Sansa, he's a beast. Nothing could touch him. I've never seen a sword move so fast." He shakes his head in awe, and she resists the urge to shake him. "He'll be fine, my lady. Lord Baelish is in the Great Hall." He nods toward the keep. "The Frey surrendered, but there is still some fighting around the castle where the remaining Bolton soldiers didn't get the message. Why don't you head inside until it's safe."

She and her companions make their way into the crowded Great Hall, where many of the castle inhabitants have gathered. Jonelle spies the remaining Cerywn hostages and she and Ned separate from Sansa to attend them. Across the hall, Lord Baelish sits in the high seat of the old Kings in the North. Her father's seat. Jon Snow's seat. She swallows down her ire at Littlefinger's heavily-ringed hand stroking the snarling direwolves along the stone chair's arms.

The crowd parts as she and the wolf approach. Littlefinger stands to greet her, a snake oil smile on his lips. "The lady of the hour! My girl!" He moves to place his hands on her shoulders, but then thinks better of it, glancing down at her filthy dress and the growling direwolf beside her. Lord Ashwood approaches, bowing low.

"My princess, had I known who you were…" He's flustered. "I never would have-" She gives him an icy stare, before she turns back to Littlefinger.

"Lord Baelish, does the rest of Jon's council know that the castle is won?"

"We sent a messenger, letting them know that the Bolton bastard has been slain and Winterfell is free." He gives her another once-over. "You should find a place to get cleaned up, though." He gestures behind her, and Satin is crossing the hall towards them. "You played the captured princess almost too well. For a moment, even I thought Hardyng was going to chop off the king's head, with the way you were screaming and carrying on." Her stomach roils at the understanding in his cold green eyes. She gave away something when she lost her head…something he'll be able to use against her.

"You played yours competently, as well, Lord Baelish." She nods at both lords, stepping away as Satin reaches her side. They exit to the rear of the hall, into the dimly lit gallery behind, Ghost trailing after them. As soon as the door closes behind the steward, Sansa sags against the wall, covering her face with her hands. She feels Satin slide down beside her, and the direwolf's cool wet nose pushes between her fingers to touch her bruised cheekbone.

"You did it. You saved your home. You saved Winterfell and ended the siege weeks before it would have, otherwise." Satin's voice is low and sweet, and his words are true…but then why doesn't she feel any sense of victory? Instead, she only feels numb...and alone.

"At what cost?" She finally whispers. Of course, the steward has no answer, so he sits beside her while her heart slows and she feels she can move again. When she lowers her hands at last, Ghost rubs his great head against her shoulder, and she sinks her hands into his white fur, drawing strength. She is home. For now, that will have to be enough.

She and the steward walk through the corridors of the Great Keep, and in a way it is like her nightmares. There are no familiar faces in these halls. Vayon Pool isn't rushing around, making sure the chambers are ready for the lords and ladies. Maester Luwin isn't in the library, lecturing Robb on Westerosi heraldry. If she enters the kitchens, she won't find her mother consulting with Gage over the night's menu, while Arya and Bran hide beneath a table, sneaking stolen oatcakes.  Satin breaks her from her gloom, with a gentle hand at her back.

"Where should we bring your things, my lady? Is there a chamber…that was yours?"

"I slept in the southern tower as a girl. My mother thought it too cold, but up there, I felt like I had wings." She leads Satin higher through the keep, and as they circle up the tower steps, she hears voices on the landing above.

"Should one of us go down? It's grown quiet?"

"She told us to guard the girl…plus, I barely got up all these fucking steps. Now you want me to go back down?" It's Tormund and the crannogmen, and now Sansa is flying up towards them.

"Halt! No one-" Blackmyre starts to block her, but Tormund yells out.

"Red! I mean…Sansa! We found the girl in the tower!" He's sitting on a stool, his feet propped on the body of a dead Bolton guard. Gage and Brandon follow Sansa's gaze.

"Sorry, my lady. We'll…uh…dispose of this now."

"Is she inside?" Sansa's heart is in her throat again, and the three men exchange worried looks.

"A young woman is inside…I know that you said she wasn't Arya…but she insists that she is." Gage tells her. "In fact, she became quite distraught when Tormund implied that she might not be." The wilding has the sense to look chagrined in response to Sansa's angry glare. "She was quite afraid of us, so we felt it better to wait outside, my lady…er…my princess."

"Well, thank you for guarding her. Ramsay Bolton is dead. Most of his men have surrendered, and Winterfell is ours. Dispose of this body, please. Tormund, find a healer, and get your wounds looked at." She turns to Satin now. "I'll see the girl alone. Please, let me know when I'm needed elsewhere…and you-" She bends down before the wolf. "Find Jon."

---

Her childhood room has been transformed into a jail cell. Iron bars have been placed over the windows, and the chamber has been cleared of all comforts beside the bed, her same four-poster bed with its carved vines and flowers, and a table and stool beside an empty hearth. There is a young woman huddled in the far corner of the bed, a thin blanket wrapped around her.

Sansa moves first to the fireplace, placing fresh logs in the grate and spending several minutes bent before the nascent flames. When she is satisfied, she drags the stool across the room from the trembling form in the bed, assessing. The young woman has long dark hair, matted and twisted in some kind of knot down her back, and she's dressed in a dirty nightgown. There's nothing telling Sansa that she isn't her sister, so she takes a deep breath before speaking.

"Hello Arya." The girl flinches.

"I'm not here to harm you…I won't come any closer if you don't wish it, and if you do not want to speak, that's okay as well. You don't have to answer any questions. I'm Sansa…your sister." The girl in the bed makes a strangled sound, and her pale face flashes in Sansa's direction before the girl has turned back to the wall.

"No…no, you can't be here. Sansa is in the south. She's in the south. I'm Arya and Sansa is in the south."

"Arya, it is me, Sansa. I am here with you at last. I've wanted to be with you for so, so long, sister."

"No…no…no.." The girl's voice is keening higher and she is scratching at her arm now, and Sansa makes to stand but the girl flinches at the movement so she sits again. "He'll hurt you. He'll hurt you like he hurts me. You can't be here."

"No one is going to hurt you, Arya. Ramsay is dead. He cannot touch you again." The girl stills. "He's dead. Our brother, Jon Snow, killed him. I saw it with my own eyes."

"It's a trick. You're playing a trick on me." She's scratching at her arm again, and Sansa breaks her promise to the girl, standing up and taking the girl by the hands to stop her. Her arm is red and scabbed and she's so frail that it's nothing for Sansa to hold her still. She turns her glassy brown eyes up at Sansa in horror, her breath quickening. It isn't Arya.

"It's not a trick! He will never hurt you again. No one is going to hurt you." Sansa keeps her voice calm and there is something familiar about the young woman's face, but Sansa cannot place it before the girl is suddenly clinging to her, her head ducked down.

"It is you! Oh Sansa!" She's trembling again, murmuring again that she is Arya and "Sansa is Sansa" over and over again, so Sansa places a hand gently on her back in an attempt to soothe, but again the girl flinches.

"It is me. This is not a trick. I am Sansa. You are Arya and you are safe. You are safe. You are safe." She repeats the mantra quietly until finally, the woman stops trembling again and her breathing slows.

At last the girl whispers. "I am Arya, but I am much changed. You…you may not recognize me."

"That's okay. I am much changed as well." The girl raises her face up to her and again Sansa feels a flicker of recognition. Her cheeks are so hollow, though, and…her nose has been broken at least once.

"They hurt you too." The girl touches the bruise at Sansa's cheek, and…It's Jeyne. Sansa feels punched in the gut. Jeyne Poole, her childhood friend. Her confidante. Her ally. Her last friend in King's Landing. Jeyne. Tears spring to her eyes, and she chokes back a sob. "Yes, they hurt me too." Not like they've hurt her Jeyne.

"Is it hard to be Sansa?" The girl asks, her voice small. " It's been…hard to be Arya." She shudders, and Sansa struggles to control her breath, to control the memories.

"Yes…it is hard." She whispers. She can't speak. She can barely breathe. So, they hold each other then. Sansa lies them both down on the dirty mattress and she looks into Jeyne's still beautiful eyes, their hands intertwined.  Eventually, their breathing slows and Jeyne closes her eyes, her fingers loosening. At some point Sansa drifts off as well, for she wakes with a start when she hears the door close, and somehow the light of early morning shines through the eastern window. No one is in the room, besides Jeyne whose eyes are open as well, still lying beside her. When she sits up, she sees a fresh wash basin on the table, as well as a plate of oatcakes with honey waiting for them. She rises, coaxing Jeyne to her feet as well. After they wash, they sit side by side, holding hands while they eat.

"So, you believe me?"

"Believe what?" Sansa asks.

"That I'm Arya."

She takes another bite of her oatcake, mulling over her response. "You are my sister." She squeezes Jeyne's hand. "You know, when it was too hard to be Sansa…when I believed it to be a matter of life or death, and then…even when it wasn't, I called myself Alayne."

"Alayne?"

"Yes. Alayne Stone. She didn't make the same mistakes that Sansa made. She wasn't mean to her sister. She didn't have sisters. She didn't believe herself in love with a monster or betray her father to her family's enemies." Sansa's breath shudders again, but she continues. "Alayne was strong and brave. She didn't wait to be rescued. She saved herself. She made friends and had adventures and learned new things because she was also smart and kind. Alayne saved me, until I could be Sansa again…until I realized that Sansa could be those things as well." She looks in her friend's eyes. "So…if it's too hard to be Arya, I understand." Jeyne's eyes are tearing up again but Sansa presses on. "If you need to be someone else, or want to be someone else, I understand."

"Someone else?"

Sansa smiles now, trying to infuse as much warmth as possible, despite her teary eyes. "I had a friend once…Her name was Jeyne. She was my best friend. My only friend for a time. She was my other sister. She was funny and kind…and a little mischievous." They are both crying now. "She used to help me sneak into the kitchens to steal lemon cakes, and we always kept each other's secrets." Jeyne chokes back a sob. "So…I'm only saying…if you wanted to be a Jeyne instead of an Arya, I'd understand, and you'd still be my sister. You will always be my sister…no matter your name." They are clinging to each other now, and it takes a long while for their tears to stop and their breath to calm. But when it does, the other girl looks a little stronger, she's better able to meet Sansa's eyes and her hands tremble a little less.

Sansa doesn't press her more. Instead, they lie back down on the bed and she tells the girl stories of Alayne's adventures. Of flying through the trees, and singing songs around the fire. Jeyne even smiles, once, when Sansa talks of threatening to cut Gendry's hair.

"I remember when you cut Arya's hair!" Jeyne gasps, covering her mouth, realizing the admission, but Sansa only laughs, kindly.

"My mother was so mad. Remember? She made me pray to the maiden every day for forgiveness, for a week and couldn't have any treats." Jeyne nods cautiously, and Sansa feels a twinge of hope. Finally, there is a knock at the door and Sansa rises, finding Satin on the other side, so she slips out.

"I tried to give you as much time as I could…but the lords are meeting in the Great Hall, with the king." His dark eyes are solemn. "I think you should be there."

Chapter Text

Before she will follow Satin down the stairs, Sansa ensures that Jeyne, who she cannot coax out of the chamber, is guarded by two female wilding warriors. "Let no one past. Not even the king!" She pushes as much authority as she can into her voice for she must resemble a half-dead pigeon, but the warriors nod and she has no choice but to trust that they will listen. A fresh flutter of nerves swoops through her as she follows the steward's voice down the tower steps.

"There is a bath drawn for you in the chambers we've prepared below. I've had several dresses laid out as well." She is going to steal Satin away from Jon…if the king doesn't have them both beheaded, first. They tread a familiar path, and her tears almost start anew when they arrive at her mother's chambers. "I hope these are to your liking, my lady. Jon said you'd prefer these rooms." Lady Catelyn's chambers are at the heart of the Great Keep, warmed by the hot springs below, and Sansa is amazed to find that they are hardly altered from her memories. Aside from a missing basket of mending and embroidery near the hearth and the roll-top desk shuttered closed instead of littered with correspondence, she could almost believe her mother had just stepped out. Several serving women are waiting inside, and Sansa trusts Satin to have chosen them with care, so she gives herself over to their attentions once he takes his leave.

The bath is emptied and filled several times before the water remains clear and the women sprinkle lavender petals and oils around her aching body. She closes her eyes as her hair is washed once more, reveling in the feeling of gentle hands at her scalp. She is so focused on the sensations, she almost misses the sound of the chamber door opening and closing, but her eyes pop open at the sound of the latch scraping closed again, prompting her to wrap her arms around her knees, protectively.

"So...You were a wolf all along." Sansa lets out her breath at Val's voice, staring up at the blonde woman who steps before the tub. "I should have known after that day in the forest when you stared the white devil down. Wolves only respond like that to their own kind." Her eyes crease in a friendly smile though, as she reaches for Sansa's hand. "Come Red, this is not the time to laze about. There are a lot of silly men in the main hall, congratulating themselves over your victory."

"It wasn't my victory." Sansa allows herself to be pulled from the bath and wrapped in a warm, soft robe. "It was Jon who killed Ramsey."

Val rolls her eyes. "Aye, he may have been the blade, but you were the arm, lass. I was with Jon when Mance came riding into camp from the castle with the bastard's letter. I've never seen a person turn that white that fast and stay on their own two feet. Then, when Mance explained that you got yourself captured intentionally, well I thought our little crow might transform into a dragon then and there. He was ready to breathe fire for you, girl." Sansa blanches, but the wilding only laughs. "So don't tell me that this isn't your victory…I'll know who to thank when I'm home with my girls again in a few weeks' time, and it isn't any man."

"Thank you, Val. I fear you may be the only one who ends up feeling that way." Sansa lifts her hair out of the way as she is buttoned into a stunning dress of deep green velvet accented with a flamboyance of gold leaves drifting around the collar and chasing up the long bell sleeves.

"You're worried about Jon."

Now Sansa is the one rolling her eyes. "Obviously."

"Well, Red, I'll not lie to you. I've never seen the man so angry…or so determined. The council, Lord Reed especially, cautioned Jon not to surrender without knowing the Vale's true intentions. While we could trust Mance's word that you were truly within Winterfell's walls, it was harder to understand why a heretofore un-allied army was suddenly going to throw their might behind us and why our dear friend Alayne was suddenly another missing Stark girl."

"Val, I-"

"Look Red, you don't need to explain anything to me. There are myriads of reasons why a woman would need to hide her own skin. What you call yourself, is your own business. I'm only trying to prepare you for what you may be walking into."

"Thank you." Sansa doesn't understand what she did to deserve such friendship, but she hugs the warrior tightly. "How did Jon convince the council to trust the Vale?"

"He didn't. He didn't care if the Vale scheme was true or not. He insisted that either way, he needed to surrender to save you, so there was no point in arguing further. I've seen Jon Snow dig into a stupid idea before, Red, but when all else fails, Lord Reed can usually take him aside and make him see reason. But not this time. I've never seen the crannogman so frustrated. The only one who could make Jon listen at all was Mance, who suggested that he add something else into the bargain or Ramsey would never believe the King in the North would surrender his head and his armies for a mere sister, alone. So Jon insisted that the hostages be freed and the army be allowed to disperse." Sansa shudders at her reflection in the looking glass as the serving women finish dressing her hair in soft waves down her back. Once again, she regrets baiting Ramsey. The bruise at her cheek is a shiny ugly purple and it counteracts much of the womens' good work, but there is nothing more to be done about it now.

Satin waits in the corridor as Sansa and Val leave the chamber. "Red, Jon threatened to cut us down, himself, if we resisted his order to surrender." The wilding's grey eyes flash with warning, and Sansa understands that she may have caused Jon to lose serious ground with the other members of his council. If her gamble won them Winterfell, but lost Jon the North, then her betrayals will have been for naught. 

"I understand, Val. Thank you for coming to me." As they approach the Great Hall through the gallery, Sansa can hear the raised voices of the lords. She halts Satin and Val with her hand, pausing just shy of the doorway so she can take in the conversation within.

 

"We must send word to White Harbor at once!"

"Why? To let Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse know that we saved the North without his aid!" There is a round of jeering, before something loud raps hard against the stone floor.

"No. To let the rightful king know that his home is free."

"The rightful king stands before you-"

"What nonsense is this?"

 

Ghost growls, silencing the hall, and Jon's voice comes through, low, yet clear. "Rickon Stark is alive. Lord Wyman Manderly shelters him in White Harbor." There are gasps and murmurs through the hall. "As far as we know, Bran Stark also lives. He was last seen traveling north towards the Wall with Lord Reed's children, Jojen and Meera. I have sent word to the Night's Watch to be on the lookout for them." The murmuring grows louder.

 

"This changes everything!"

"This changes nothing-"

"Bran and Rickon are Robb's rightful heirs!"

 

Satin tugs at Sansa's sleeve, but she places her finger to her mouth in caution, waiting. As if on cue, the floor of the great hall vibrates with the rhythmic thumping of sword hilts against the stone floor, and as they die out, Harry's baritone fills the hall.

"The Knights of the Vale did not ride north to stand behind a child or a cripple. I know the North has been preoccupied by its own struggles, but the whole of Westeros is at war. The Riverlands are overrun with brigands who terrorize the smallfolk who are desperate from famine and war. Meanwhile, the remaining Lannisters are losing control over the Crownlands and the Reach as they fight against rival houses and invaders from Essos. We came to fight for a man who knows how to wield a sword and lead men into battle. We'll fight for Jon Snow and no other." The knights rap their swords again, in unison, but voices of dissent still call out.

 

"And who are you to speak for the Vale?"

"I'm the heir to the Vale."

 

"Behind a boy! You'll be nothing but a hedge knight for years to come!" Sansa winces. This is not going well. The direwolf growls again and Jon speaks.

"There is another Stark among us." He pauses, and Baelish takes the opportunity to fill the void.

"A trueborn daughter of Ned Stark, and a woman grown, raised from infancy to be a queen. Sansa Stark." She groans. Before Petyr can say another word, she straightens her shoulders, and glides into the room, her head raised high. The room falls into a stony silence. Turning, she takes momentary pleasure in seeing Jon in the high seat on the raised platform, his crown, proud across his furrowed brow. She gives him a simple nod before turning away to face the rest of the lords standing before the dais, their faces hard and tense. She dips into a low curtsy before them.

"My lords." When she rises, she notes the mix of antagonism and confusion on their faces and takes strength from it. She is no stranger to a court of hostility. She is Sansa Stark, a wolf raised in the lion's den. She crawled through hell to get here. She will not be deterred. "I know many of you may be surprised by my presence here in the north, when many presume me to be in hiding with Tyrion Lannister." The faces grow colder. "Thanks to my dear friend and protector, Lord Baelish, I was able to escape my farce of a marriage and have been sheltered safely by our allies in the Vale. Hearing of the North's many hardships brought me much pain and heartache. It is true, I am a woman grown, but what use could I be against Lannister-backed Frey soldiers and the brutality of Ramsey Bolton? I am just a woman, untrained in war who has been away from my home for many years." She hears Jon growl behind her, but she refuses to look back at him. "Thankfully, Lord Baelish, the Lord Protector of the Vale, and Ser Hardyng, heir to my dear cousin Lord Arryn, took heed of my pain and agreed to travel with me to see what aid we could bring to the North." She pauses, scanning the room. Satin and Val have filtered into the back, and they lean against a far wall near Mance and Tormund. All eyes are on her, and the room listens to her in silence.

"Though my half-brother and I were raised apart, I recognized my father, the honorable Lord Eddard Stark, in Jon Snow, immediately." She braves a look back at him now, where he sits, watching her intently. "Just look at him. Lady Maege, is he not the very likeness?" The She-bear of House Mormont grunts in agreement, and Sansa smiles softly. "And, the resemblance does not stop at the surface. Jon Snow has the true north in him…the blood of ancient kings. And, just like my father, he is a leader who brings men together. Look around. Could any of you imagine a day when wildings, northmen and knights of the Vale would be standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Winterfell's Great Hall?" Heads shake in reluctant agreement.

"And just like Ned Stark, Jon Snow understands duty. He devoted his life to the Night's Watch when he was hardly more than a boy, to protect the realm, just like our Uncle Benjen. Then, when death came for him, releasing Jon from his vows, did he allow himself any rest? Did he, Tormund?"

The red-head lets out a sharp laugh from the back of the hall, "Hell no! The little fucker doesn't quit!" This raises some laughs, and Sansa grins back at the wilding.

"No. He doesn't. He raised an army to save Winterfell. And now, thanks to him, we stand within its walls, alive and safe, for now. There are more storms brewing, and we need Jon to lead us through them."

"But what about Rickon?" Lord Ashwood calls out again, and Sansa pauses, brushing her hands across her skirts to smooth them and hide her annoyance, before responding.

"Rickon is our baby brother." She sighs. "I can't begin to describe the sensation of relief and hope I felt when I learned that he was alive and safe in White Harbor. House Stark will be forever in House Manderly's debt for keeping Rickon safe." She bows before Lady Wynafryd who stands beside Harry. "But Rickon is a child, and he deserves a childhood. Lady Jonelle," It is a gamble, calling out the Lady Cerwyn, whom she does not know well, anymore."You grew up close to Winterfell and visited often. Do you recall, at what age did my father allow my brother Robb to practice with real steel in the yard?"

If the lady is surprised at Sansa's question, she does not show it. "I watched your brother practice often, and as I recall, it was a topic of much debate between your brother and Lord Stark…Robb was still practicing with a wooden sword at age fourteen, when your father went South to be Hand to the King, much to Lord Robb's chagrin." 

"Fourteen. Yes, and Rickon is little more than half that age now. Our father was fiercely protective of us. Do you think he would support thrusting Rickon into a contested kinghood that he is not prepared for in the name of…I don't even know…tradition? Convention?" The lords are shaking their heads now, and several step away from Lord Ashwood, as if to distance themselves from such a notion. "I thought not."

"And what of you?" Lord Glover asks, and Sansa shrugs.

"What of me? Like I said, I am but a woman, raised in a Southron court during times of peace. I cannot sing the North to safety, nor embroider bread for our people to eat…and I am still married to a Lannister. I know my father and brother, Robb, would not want any chance of Winterfell being claimed by our enemies." Jon snorts behind her, and Sansa twirls now to face him, kneeling on the cold stone floor before him. "Brother, my marriage to Tyrion Lannister was unconsummated and with your blessing, I wish to annul it as soon as possible. When my hand is free, I ask only one thing of you." She glances up, warily. "Let me wed my true love, Ser Harrold Hardyng, and formalize our alliance with the Vale." She can hear whispers of surprise behind her but she barrels on. "You are my king, Jon Snow. I swear my fealty to you now. Let all present and to come, know that I, Sansa of House Stark, eldest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark and Lady Catelyn acknowledge you as the rightful King in the North. I pledge myself to you, in peace and in war, and will follow your lead in the Long Night and through all nights to come." She presses her forehead to the cold stone, too afraid to look up.

For a moment, the hall is deathly silent, but then a single voice calls out.

"Jon Snow! The King in the North!"

Another voice joins the first, and then another, and another until the Great Hall rumbles with the chant as Sansa hears the sound of bodies dropping to their knees behind her.

 

The King in the North! The King in the North! The King in the North!

 

When Sansa rises to her feet at last, she looks up to find Jon Snow's eyes on her alone, black and furious.

---

The king adjourns soon after. He gives the lords a brief acknowledgement of their fealty before reminding everyone that the castle is still in chaos from the battle, and they have much work to do in the coming days and weeks. More formal declarations and plans can wait. Sansa tries to catch his eye again as he sweeps out of the hall, but he strides right by her. Before she can follow, Lord Baelish is at her side so she takes his proffered arm, allowing him to lead her in the opposite direction.

"My lady, I must admit, you surprised even me with your eloquence."

"You flatter me with your kind words, Lord Baelish." His arm grips tighter as they turn into a solitary corridor. "Did my speech displease you? Forgive me, my lord, I was only following the plan."

He hisses. "You should have come to me before making that pretty speech, girl. I admit, your ability to sway men's minds is impressive, but you are not a true player of the game yet, my dear. You did not realize the potential you walked into today." His eyes glitter with possessive zeal and Sansa glances down the hallway, nervously warning him from stepping too close lest they be interrupted.

"I'm afraid I do not understand what you mean, my lord."

"You did not need to hand the north to your bastard brother, my sweetling. You could have had those lords kissing the hem of your skirts. If you had only turned your words in the proper direction, we could have bypassed this nonsense with King Jon Snow and Harry Hardyng completely."

She looks down, feigning confusion. "I don't understand, my lord. I do not wish to rule the North. I thought that our ambitions lie south…"

He laughs, and her skin itches. "They do. They do, my love, but we intend to rule the seven kingdoms, not six. By pushing a northern independence that is not consolidated under your rule, you may have complicated the path of bringing the north back into the fold when the time comes."

She sighs in mock regret. "Can you ever forgive me, Petyr? I have a woman's mind. I cannot see so many steps ahead as you."

He strokes her cheek, his minty breath flooding her airways. "I know my dove. That is why you must consult me closely before making such moves. Of course I will forgive you. You did as well as you could with the limited knowledge you had. Just know…you do better with me by your side. Do you understand?" His voice dips in warning with the last, his hand pressing into the bruise at her cheek, and she nods breathlessly.

"Of course. I will not fail you again." She breaks away from him, stepping away. "I must get back to the girl in the tower now. She needs me." At this, his eyebrows rise, and he moves to block her.

"I'll join you. Did you learn who she is or how she came to be here?" Her skin tingles and she sidesteps the lord.

"No, I'm afraid the poor girl has been mistreated most violently. Forgive me, my lord, but I must insist that I go alone. I do not think it wise for her to be in the presence of any men at this time." She can see the flicker of annoyance in his eyes and she does not understand what Littlefinger wants with her Jeyne, but she knows she was right to place a guard at her friend's door. Littlefinger does not like when she defies him, but he lets her pass with a bow, and this, more than anything, alarms her.

When she reaches the tower, the guards assure her that no one has been past, but she does not want the girl to spend another night in her cold, lonely cell. It is a greater challenge to persuade Jeyne to leave her prison and join Sansa in her own chambers down below than it was to move the lords, but at last she has the girl safely in Lady Catelyn's rooms and she feels some small measure of relief helping her friend bathe and dress in fresh, warm clothes.

Later, she gazes out the window, watching the snow fall, while Jeyne sits curled in a chair by the hearth. "You will sleep with me, sister…just like when we were young. I will keep you safe, I promise."

"I know you will, Sansa."

She turns, smiling at her friend. "Is there anything else you desire right now? Anything at all that I can do for you?"

Jeyne stares into the flames, looking impossibly small all wrapped up in a robe, with a blanket piled over her. Sansa would be roasting. These chambers are almost too warm as it is, and if she were alone, she would crack the window open and let the snowflakes fall against her skin. The girl's voice is small and hesitant when she answers. "There is someone who I'd like to see..who I'd like to know is safe."

"Who is that?"

Jeyne darts a nervous glance her way. "He goes by the name Reek…he was a servant to…to Ramsay, and he has been my only friend…until you came, of course. I do not know what I would do if more harm came to him."

Sansa turns back to the window to hide her surprise that the pitiful man from Ramsay's solar was Jeyne's one comfort during her captivity. "Of course, love. In truth, I have not learned much of the goings-on in the castle since we freed you yesterday, but I will inquire after him for you. If he did not raise arms against our soldiers, I am sure that he is safe somewhere in the castle." Movement catches her eye in the courtyard below, and it's Jon stalking towards the godswood, Ghost at his side.

"Excuse me…I will see if I can search him out even now." Quickly, she dons her cloak and ties up her boots. "Lock the door while I am gone. I will be back soon, sister." She presses two fingers to Jeyne's cheek, and the other woman grabs her hand before she can pull away.

"Sansa, you may call me Jeyne." She feels the first true smile of the day stretch across her face and she bends down before her friend.

"Jeyne. My lovely, beautiful Jeyne. You don't know how much it pleases me to be at your side again."

---

It is not snowing so hard as to obscure his tracks, but even if it were, she knows where she will find him. Winterfell's godswood stands silent and foreboding as ever, too ancient and primal to be affected by the trifling affairs of the past few years. She passes beneath the tall, armored sentinels, her footfall quiet over their fallen grey-green needles. The bare branches of the great oaks and hawthorns cast long afternoon shadows across the path she follows to the very center of the wood, where all alone, stands the pale, giant weirwood, its red leaves still clinging to the bone-white branches that hang low around it's sad face.

There, she finds Jon, dwarfed by the massive trunk, his back to her; the direwolf out of sight. As she draws nearer, he lets out a low, clipped laugh. "I thought you might find me here."

"We did promise…"

His voice is gruff. "I think it's a little late for promises, Sansa." He turns, and his face is shadowed, the sun dipping below the heart tree behind him, turning the snow beneath their feet pink. "If I recall correctly, when we agreed to meet beneath the heart tree, you promised to keep safe in White Harbor and I promised to call you back home once Winterfell was won."

"I never promised-" He cuts her off.

"Instead, you ran right into the fire, didn't you? You could have died!" She's close enough to see his face now, and his anger has not dissipated in the intervening hours since last they met in the Great Hall.

"So could anyone! I told you not to leave me in White Harbor! And I did not promise to stay there. I cannot regret the risk I took, if it saved lives, Jon. A siege would have lasted weeks, even months! We did not have that kind of time. Ned and Lady Jonelle and the other hostages did not have that time. Do not tell me that this outcome is worse than the alternative. It isn't." He scowls before changing tactics.

"Yes, well, perhaps had I known we had the Vale's forces at our disposal I may have approached things differently. Unfortunately, I was quite in the dark there as well."

She can feel her face flush. "I didn’t-"

"I just thought of another promise I won't be able to keep." He gives another bitter huff. "I believe I promised to tear down any excuse you might have for not marrying me. Turns out they're pretty obvious and quite concrete, huh? Seeing as you are already wed, and have your next husband lined up once the first marriage is ended."

"Jon...I'm so sorry." Her voice is small, and he steps closer, eyes wild.

"Why? You promised you could never marry me. Not ever. So, I suppose, no broken promise from you there, either. Perhaps, I'm the only fool whose word can't be trusted."

"Jon-"

"I just have one question." He's in her face now, and she cringes, looking down at her feet. "Why him? What's so special about him?"

She is growing frustrated. "Did you not tell me that we need thousands of men to fight against the Others?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"My marriage to Ser Hardyng will secure fighting men who you led me to believe we will be desperate for, as well as a new source of food and shelter if needed, for our people. So that's why, him. That is what makes Harry special."

"So you're just selling yourself off? For the north?" His words are ugly, and she has to resist the urge to wrap her arms around herself.

"No! Ser Hardyng is a fine man and I am a lady of high birth. I've spent my entire life knowing I would marry to strengthen my House and maintain alliances. It is my duty and Harry is hardly the worst of my betrotheds. Who else would I marry?" He gives her a dark look, and she steps back. "We are not Targaryens, Jon." His eyes flash, and she turns her head away in shame. "I…I'm sorry for the confusion that I caused…I did not mean to mislead you as I did. The fault and the shame are mine and mine alone. You are blameless, brother." When she looks up he's shaking his head at her, his face dark.

"You didn't mean to mislead me? You hid your identity from me for months! I think you knew exactly what you were doing."

"Jon-"

"No. Most of what I thought I knew about you may be wrong, but not this. You are clever Sansa. Far more clever than those lords in the hall, despite all your protestations to the contrary." He starts to turn away, and she reaches for his arm, desperate.

"Please-" He shrugs out of her reach, but stops a few paces away, staring up into the heart tree's branches.

When he speaks at last, his voice is low and sad. "Why did you come to my camp, all those months ago?"

"I wanted to save our sister…and to know what kind of man you were."

He snorts, turning back toward her. "Well now you know. I’m just a know-nothing fool, Sansa."

"That's not true…"

"What if I hadn't surrendered?" His voice cracks, and she shifts uncomfortably.

"I knew you would." She whispers.

He chokes out a strangled groan. "Of course you did…I told you I'd give up everything for you." His voice drips with disgust as he drags his hand over his scarred eye. "You play the game so well. Well done. Did you and Littlefinger have a good laugh when you told him that you knew just how to move me?"

"It wasn't like that-"

"No? What was it like, then? Explain it to me." He strides back towards her, spitting out his words, his face ugly with bitterness, and she knows that she is losing him.

"Jon, I was desperate! You left me, and then gave away the north and Rickon to Wyman Manderly and I was so worried about Ned-"

"I didn't give up the north or Rickon!"

"I was in Manderly's court when you treated with him. I heard you!"

"Heard me? What did you hear me say? That I'd forsake my crown? That I'd let Wyman Manderly set Rickon up as a puppet king? Did those words leave my mouth?"

"Well-" She is suddenly unsure, and he scowls, raking his hand through is hair.

"I never promised Manderly anything, Sansa. I was trying to buy time by avoiding any such promises. Gods! Do you have any faith in me, at all?"

"You know I do! That's what I'm trying to tell you, Jon. You are the only one I can trust."

He sneers. "With what? Not your name. It seems I was one of the last to learn that minor detail. And certainly not your heart. You've given that away to some shiny hedge night in the Vale…You don't trust me with your schemes, either. You'd rather work those out with Lord Baelish. So what does that leave? What do you trust me with, Sansa?"

She chokes back a sob. "I trusted you to come for me…when no one else would. I trusted you to keep your word, and you did. Don't you see? That's why I trust you to rule and protect the north!" His shoulders sag, and he's backing away from her again, and she doesn't know how to make him understand.

"Jon-"

"Enough. I can't do this." He shakes his head, wearily. "If you want to play the part of the helpless princess, so be it. I'll play your hapless king. Whatever you want Sansa, just keep your lies away from me." He leaves her then, in the godswood, broken-hearted beneath the heart tree. She stands, stiff before its weeping eyes for some time, telling herself that Jon's anger is no worse than she expected and no more than she deserves.

---

After the way their conversation ended in the godswood, Sansa is shocked when she is summoned to the king's solar the next day to attend his council. The room is crowded with lords, ladies, and wildings, and she wishes Lord Reed would advise Jon to cull the group. She slips quietly next to Val, near the back. Jon and Lord Reed lead the discussion, instructing various lords on what to expect in the coming weeks. When Jon calls forth Val, his eyes flash briefly to Sansa before sliding back to the wilding.

"Winterfell is not yet prepared to garrison all of our troops. I'll let you lead your choice of men back with you to Torrhen's Square once we've sorted out exactly how many we can accommodate here. Barrowton can also house many of Winter Town's survivors. I've already sent word to Lady Dustin, if your men can escort them."

"Of course, your Grace."

"The castle is in complete disarray as well. While we have put to sword or imprisoned anyone who fought back, it is still unclear who helped Ramsay perpetrate his crimes and who was innocent. Lord Reed, please assign men to work with the princess to sort out the obviously innocent and get the castle in working order again." With a jolt, she realizes that she is the princess he is referring to, which means, at least for now, he has decided not to disown her.

"Can you manage that?" It takes her another moment to realize he is talking to her, for he will not look her way.

"Of course, your Grace…"

"Good, now-"

"I do have one question, your Grace." She winces at the look of annoyance that washes over his face, but she did promise Jeyne. He gives a curt nod in her general direction, so she presses forward. "I only wondered if anyone has come across a man…he's a rather poorly man, in truth, and I would not expect him to have taken up arms during the fight, but I have been unable to locate him thus far…"

"Who is he?"

"One of Ramsay's servants. He goes by the name of Reek-"

Jon looks at her now, his face full of alarm. "Did he hurt you?" Her face flushes as his eyes dart to her cheek.

"What? No…no. I don't think that man was capable of hurting anyone."

"That man who answers to Reek is Theon Greyjoy! The same Theon Greyjoy who betrayed our family and sacked Winterfell. So yes, Sansa, he is capable of hurting someone." She covers her mouth to hide her gasp, and Jon's eyes soften slightly.

"I…I did not know."

"Well, he is much altered, after what Ramsay did to him." He concedes. "What did you want with him, anyway?"

"The girl in the tower, the one who Ramsay was trying to pass as Arya-"

"Lady Sansa, we need to question her." Lord Reed jumps in. "We need to know who she is, and how she came to pass herself off as Lady Arya. You cannot hide her away in your rooms."

"Absolutely not! You think she chose any of this?" Sansa shakes her head. "She is just as much a victim of Ramsay's as any other woman who had the misfortune to be taken by him. And you don't need to question her. Do not make her relive his violence so soon after she has been freed from it." She stares at Jon, pleading. "I know who she is."

"You do?" His forehead creases.

"It's Jeyne Poole…"

"Vayon's daughter? Wasn't she in King's Landing with you?" Sansa sees Lord Baelish shift in the corner and her chest tightens.

"Please, your Grace. She is my dearest, oldest friend, and this would not have happened to her if she were not close to me. In time, we may learn the truth of how the Lannisters sent her north, but for now are there not more pressing concerns? She is not our enemy."

"My lady, we do not know-" Lord Reed's objection is cut off by the king.

"Leave it, Howland. She is not to be approached. I place her under my protection."

"And Theon?" Sansa asks.

Jon scowls. "He is imprisoned along with the rest of the Bolton and Frey traitors, and there he will stay." She nods, knowing there is nothing she can or even particularly wants to do there. The council discussion moves on and she listens quietly until the end.

Jon does not look at or speak to her again. Nor does he in the following day's council meeting nor at dinner in the Great Hall, where he has her seated next to him at the high table. While he'll hold the platter so that she may pick the choicest cut of meat, he will not meet her eyes, and looks right past her to nod politely at a comment Lady Jonelle makes. Over the following days, she does not see him outside of meals and council meetings, and it is just as well, for she is busy enough trying to manage the castle, as well as lords Baelish and Hardyng, while also finding time to spend with Jeyne and Ned. When Gendry finally enters Winterfell several days after they've retaken it, she is so relieved, her legs buckle at the sight of him.

"Oy! Sansa. Easy, lass." He scoops her into a hug, chiding her, gently. "If my mere presence sends the princess to her sickbed, I'll be banished from Winterfell before I've had a chance to become properly acquainted with it."

"Gendry! You stupid brute! Don't you dare leave me!" She beats at his broad chest. "Consider that my first royal command." She stares up at him, overjoyed to see his handsome, dirty face, but he drops her too soon, stepping back and looking around, coughing awkwardly. They have an audience, and of course…she is no longer Alayne, free to be friends with the blacksmith just as she pleases. She is Sansa Stark, Princess of Winterfell. She turns, worried her impropriety has been spotted by Harry or even worse, Littlefinger, but it is the king and Lord Reed across the courtyard, whom Gendry is eyeing, sheepishly. Jon watches them, his face cool and impassive, while the crannogman shouts orders to his men who are unloading carts beside them.

"Sorry, my princess. It's going to take me some time to remember how to treat you proper." He bows awkwardly, and she rolls her eyes.

"You treat me properly always, Gendry…though, I suppose this is officially the end of my tenure as your washer woman and seamstress." She grins up at him, cheekily, but his face is wistful. "Either way, we'll still be friends." Her voice lilts up, unintentionally, at the end and she feels a sudden uncertainty prickling down her neck.

"Of course, your Grace." He steps back. "I better get to the smithy." He bows again, turning towards his forge.

"Gendry-" Her hand rises, then falls limply at her side. All at once, the price of being Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell, drops down around her neck, heavy and cold. Gone are the rowdy nights around the campfire with Ned where she could tease Gendry and laugh at Tormund's bawdy jokes. Never again will she be able to throw herself into the blacksmith's arms nor drink too much ale with him and Thoros at the back of the dinner hall. Once again, she will have eyes looking to her at all times, for better and for worse, and she must leave behind yet another layer of her youth, this time a cherished one. She turns back towards the one person who might understand this new pang of understanding, but Jon has disappeared again.