Eight years had passed since the first time Sansa and Sandor had bathed together in the hot pools of the godswood in Winterfell. For eight years, the winter was upon them and many in the seven Kingdoms believed that it wouldn’t end for at least another eight years.
The North knew better though. Even without the white raven from Oldtown, the Northerners knew that the spring would soon come.
For years, the harsh ice storms hadn’t come, like they had in the first years of winter and new snow fell unregularly. Only the cold remained. Some of the southern houses couldn’t deal with the harsh climate and perished in the third year of winter, while House Stark and the North endured, like they had always done.
More than endured actually. The North was prospering despite the winter. Ships arrived and left White Harbor everyday, carrying the necessary supplies the North needed, since the War of the Five Kings and the following war in the North against the Boltons, had prevented everyone from raising enough stocks to come through the Winter.
While some lords south of the Neck took everything they needed from their own smallfolk, leaving them to starve in the cold, Bran had ordered that every village, as small as it might was, would be supplied through the winter.
The Lords had all agreed and the Iron Bank of Braavos had lent the North the money necessary to pay for endless shiploads of food. The North would repay its debts by delivering wood to Braavos. Rumors said that the First Sealord of Braavos planned to attack Myr, Tyrosh and Lys and he needed ships for the upcoming war.
Not only the northern economy was prospering, but its families, too.
The Greatjon had returned home to Last Hearth to finally find the time to mourn his son’s death at the Red Wedding with the rest of his family. Since his son and heir was dead, House Umber was facing the same problem like many houses of the North. The heir has died and the succession wasn’t sorted out.
Since House Reed was facing the same problem, Howland Reed, who had become Bran's version of a hand, had advised him to introduce the Dornish law of inheritance in the North.
At first, some of the lords had reservations at the thought of letting women carry on the name of a House, but Bran was able to convince them that it was the best for the North.
Soon after, Lord Umber's eldest daughter married Rickard Liddle, third son of Lord Torren Liddle, one of the mountain clan lords. Sansa and Sandor had attended the wedding at Last Hearth as representatives of House Stark. It had been a happy affair especially since another happy reunion came to happen.
Mors Umber's daughter, who had been believed to be abducted by wildlings had returned, with her husband. Against the common belief, she hadn’t been abducted, but had left on her own will after she had fallen in love with the son of the head of a wildling tribe.
Word of this reunion spread like wildfire in the North and helped the freefolk to be accepted completely. The freefolk had settled near Queenscrown and had started to build a small city, with the help and support of the other Northern houses.
While the freefolk became a member of the North, they didn’t establish the same feudal structures like the rest of the North and Westeros had. Instead of declaring a lord to rule them all, they had council of the different tribes to rule their land. As representative, all tribes had agreed to name no one else, but Tormund Giantsbane to speak for them all to the other houses and to King Bran.
The wedding of Lord Umber's daughter wasn’t the only one the North saw in all these years.
Alysane Mormont's son had been betrothed to Erena Glover, the daughter of Robett and Sybelle Glover. They would marry as soon as Alysane's son reached his sixteenth nameday, while Gawen Glover would marry Wylla Manderly. It was a good match and it would tie three Houses that were most loyal to House Stark together.
Thanks to the acceptance of the freefolk within the North, several matches came to happen between members of the freefolk and northmen. Meera Reed married the second son of Lord Fenn, one of the crannogmen lords, a few months after the wedding of Cley Cerwyn and Wynafryd Manderly.
Bran had been more than happy for his old companion, who had helped and protected him for a long time. It had been a small ceremony, and Bran and the other Starks had been guests at Greywater Watch. Meeras son Jojen, she had given birth to was three by now.
On the evening of their return to Winterfell, Bran had asked Shireen if she wanted to marry him. Sansa still remembered after all these years how besides herself Shireen had been with joy, when Bran had asked her to become his wife and Queen at his side.
The North was excited that their king had found a wife and queen. The fact that Shireen wasn’t a Northerner didn’t matter at all. Everybody could see that Shireen would make a good queen.
The wound that Robb Stark's marriage to Talisa had torn wasn’t completely healed yet, but this time House Stark and the North wouldn’t suffer from this match. Furthermore, it would establish a bond by marriage to the Stormlands, since Shireen was still the Lady of Storm's End and Lady Paramount of the Stormlands.
The wedding was rather large affair. Especially during the winter, but when the King in the North marries, a rather large ceremony is expected.
Bran had ordered that their mothers sept was to be restored for the ceremony. Shireen followed the Seven, like her parents had done, before the Red Woman had made them follow R´hllor and so Bran wanted to marry Shireen first in the sept in the light of the Seven, and afterwards in the godswood.
All lords of the North made the journey to Winterfell for the ceremony and even Queen Daenerys had attended with her Hand, Tyrion Lannister.
During the feast, Sandor shared ale with Lord Tyrion, and Sandor told Sansa later that some of the Stormlords weren’t happy that their lady had married the cripple king from the north, rather than one of their sons.
Sansa suspected that it only mattered to them because they didn’t think Bran was able to father an heir for the Stormlands and that they thought Shireen a weak girl, who would be easy to control. Luckily, Shireen didn’t care for the lust for power of the Stormlords. She was happy with Bran and even though he couldn’t use his legs, they were able to consummate their bond and have a happy marriage.
Except that children wouldn’t come from their bond, despite all their efforts. If it was caused by Bran's state or a side effect of Shireen's greyscale infection as a child could not be determined and so Sansa's daughter Serena was official heir to the throne of the North.
In the first few years, Shireen had been hurt by the situation that she couldn’t conceive a child. She once cried for hours, while Sansa held her. She thought herself useless and had cursed herself, because even her mother, Selyse, had been able to give birth to at least one daughter. She also feared that the North would start to hate her for not being able to give Bran an heir.
It hurt Sansa to hear that Shireen thought that the North would only care for an heir rather than having a worthy queen, but Sansa was able to convince Shireen that nobody thought less of her if she had her first child in many years or never.
Sansa told her of Stark queens that hadn’t had any children and had still been loved in the North. Bran told her the same and that it didn’t matter to him if she would have a child or not, since it was rather possible that it wasn’t her fault at all.
While Bran and Shireen still tried to become parents, Arya gave birth to twin sons a few months after Bran had married, in Winterfell. The bells rang the whole day and night again and Maege made the journey from the Bear Island to help, like she had done for Sansa and Alys.
Maege and Samwell had written a book about childbirth and soon it became the main lecture for maesters all over the north, helping to reduce the death in childbed significantly.
Arya and Gendry had been surprised to get twins. One had Arya's grey eyes, while the younger one of the two had his fathers blue. Both though shared their father's raven black hair. Arya had decided to name the elder one Eddard, after her father, while the younger was named Robert, after Gendry's father. With Arya and Gendry becoming parents, the promise to Daenerys Targaryen had been fulfilled to establish another branch of House Stark.
At first, Arya had been anxious to leave Winterfell for the Dreadfort, which had been given to her by Bran as their new home, since she had never listened at all during the lessons of Septa Mordane and Maester Luwin about running a household. Sansa had spent the first months after the birth teaching Arya everything she needed to know.
Even after all this years that had passed since the twins had been born, Sansa still thought it strangely amusing to see Arya as a mother, though she did an excellent job with Gendry at it.
Eddard would inherit the Wolffort, the new name of the former Bolton castle, while Robert was the heir to Storm's End until Shireen had a child.
Until this day, Ser Davos had been named castellan of Storm's End by Shireen, after her wedding.
Arya and Gendry hadn’t been the only Starks to enlarge the pack. Three years ago, Alys and Jon had gotten another little boy. Alys had named him Robb. He was a sweet boy and Sansa hoped he wouldn’t share the same fate as his namesake had.
The direwolf population grew and Sansa and Sandor hadn't been idle either. One and a half years after Serena, Elynore came into the world. She had Sansa's eyes and Sandor's hair. Sansa and Sandor had named her after the sister he had once lost to his monster of brother.
Two years later Sansa gave birth to a little auburn haired boy, which received the name of the brother they had lost, while taking back their home. Arya had cried openly when she had held him for the first time during her visit to Winterfell after his birth. Rickon's death still rested heavy on her shoulders, even after all this time.
One year after that Sansa had given birth to another daughter, which carried the name of their grandmother. Minisa shared the Tully hair of her eldest sister, but her eyes were her father's through and through.
But not only the Stark family finally grew in the North again, after years of losses. Not a year after the wedding, the heir of House Cerwyn was born, a healthy boy with strong lungs. The future of House Cerwyn was safe, and only a year after that, the future lord of White Harbor was born. Lord Umbers daughter had brought three healthy sons and a daughter into this world so far. Little Jon, the twins Smaller Jon and Joanna and the latest addition to the Umber family Tiny Jon where the joy and happiness of their famous grandfather.
It was good that the houses of the North had started to grow again. The smallfolk needed good news like that. And the smallfolk needed their legends and tales. The tale from the daughter of the Bear Island, which had a child fathered by a bear continued, when Jorelle Mormont gave birth to daughter with blond hair. Sandor had laughed openly, when Maege had written them the good news. He later had explained to her who was probably the father of Jorelle's child and even Sansa had to chuckle about it.
While Alysane Mormont stayed on the Bear Island, with Jorelle and their mother, the remaining daughters had plans other than staying on the Bear Island.
Lyra had asked Bran for the honor of becoming part of his Kingsguard. Bran didn’t have a Kingsguard at all, so Lyra Mormont became its first and only member, since, in case of a journey, Bran always took a fair amount of men with him anyway from the Winterfell garrison.
Lyanna, though, had followed Arya to her new home and when she had reached her sixteenth nameday, she had been made master at arms by Arya. Sansa was happy that Arya had a friend with her in her new home, surrounded by new people.
Sansa's own friend Jeyne had married Podrick Payne a few months after Sansa and Sandor had been guests in Castle Cerwyn.
Sansa had suspected that Jeyne was in love with Podrick, but when Jeyne had told her that they wanted to marry, it was the confirmation. Jeyne wouldn’t want to marry again if it wasn’t for love.
Jeyne had told her how devastated Podrick had been by the news of Lady Brienne's death, when Sandor had returned. Jeyne had told her how she had comforted him after he had heard the news. She shyly admitted how they had ended up in his bed that day.
Sansa knew that Podrick was good to her and she had been happy that Jeyne wanted to make that step in her life. Sansa had taken care that Jeyne's wedding was exactly like she had always dreamed as girl. Sansa had even asked all her siblings to attend and organized a relatively large feast. After all Jeyne had been through, she deserved to feel like a princess on her wedding.
A few months later, Jeyne Payne had given birth to a healthy son, which she named Vayon after her dead father. When Jeyne had announced that she was pregnant again, she told Sansa that she would name the child Brienne, if it was a girl.
Since her father had taught Jeyne everything about running a household, Jeyne offered to become the steward of Winterfell, which Bran had happily accepted.
Like Sansa had promised, Podrick received his knighthood by one of the knights of White Harbor. With approval from Bran, Sansa had offered him the post as master of arms of Winterfell, which hasn’t been officially filled yet.
Sandor had taken care of the training of new recruits and was happy enough that he now had Podrick at his side to support him and Lyra. The task of training new soldiers and guards to raise the strength of House Stark back to how it was prior to the war now fell to the three of them. Not that anybody had dared to contest the Stark rule in all these years. The children of Ned Stark were loved and respected by all the houses and the smallfolk alike.
Over the years, they had all gotten one nickname or another by the people of the north.
Bran was known as the wise wolf, for good and just rule, while the queen at his side was called the southern wolf.
Sansa and Arya were well known as the red and the wild she-wolves, while their husbands were called the scarred and the iron wolf.
Because of her good rule and kind heart, Alys was referred to as the gentle wolf by her smallfolk, while her husband, the white wolf, was known for his braveness.
The Stark rule was safe in the North and nobody even dared to question it despite the youth of all Stark members.
Also despite her youth, Daenerys Targaryen was loved by the smallfolk and the southern nobility. Many had feared that she would just like the mad king, but to many people's surprise, Daenerys tried to do the best for all citizens of Westeros.
With the help of her hand, Tyrion Lannister, she had accomplished what several kings and queens before her hadn't been able to do. She had peacefully united all of Westeros.
Most of Daenerys' Dothraki had returned to Essos, as the winter reached the south will all its force, while her Unsullied had become her standing army in the Crownlands.
After nearly a decade of rule, people started to ask themselves when the queen intended to finally take a husband. Many suitors of all major houses of the south had asked for her hand, but the Queen has denied every offer. Even in Winterfell, they had heard rumors of Daenerys having a lover, though it had never been confirmed by anyone.
Some speculated that her lover was a man she had met during her rule of Meeren, who had followed her all the to Westeros. Others speculated it was the nephew of Maege Mormont, who had become the Lord Commander of Daenerys' Queensguard. He had been healed of his greyscale infection after tracking down the same maester that had healed Shireen.
Bran had pardoned Jorah Mormont, by request of Daenerys, so he could visit his home if he liked.
While Daenerys still gave herself time on marriage, Lord Tyrion had married shortly after he named the Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West.
Every larger House of the West had suddenly thrown daughters at him, in hope of getting tied to the Lannisters, but Lord Tyrion had refused them all, and instead married the eldest daughter of House Westerling.
The Crag, the castle of House Westerling, had been taken by Robb during the war and Maege had told Sansa about the Westerling family. Maege had been present when Robb had accepted the capitulation of the castle, with Talisa already at his side. Maege had described Jeyne Westerling as shy, yet pretty girl, with chestnut curls, a heart-shaped face and brown eyes.
Lovely, Sansa had thought, if Robb wouldn’t have been with Talisa already, he would probably have fallen for Jeyne Westerling instead, probably with the same outcome.
While many rumors said that Jeyne Westerlings mother had sent her as bride to Lord Tyrion as punishment for not being able to seduce the young wolf, Tyrion had written Jon, to whom he wrote on a regular basis, that Jeyne had slowly but surely fallen in love with him, after she had seen that he wasn’t the monster the rumors talked about.
Sandor had joked that the bride probably had to kneel for Tyrion to fasten his cloak, when he had heard of Lord Tyrion's wedding. Sansa had scolded her husband and told her that she would probably had to kneel, too, in the variants of her life in which she had married Tyrion. Sandor had laughed and told her that she would never have knelt in front of the buggering Imp.
It didn’t take long for Jon to write them that Tyrion had written him that the heir for Casterly Rock was on the way. The little blond son Jeyne Westerling had a few months later, was named after Lord Tyrion's dead brother.
Jaime Lannister wasn’t the only child that was born in the south during the winter. Over the last years Roslin had given birth to two daughters. Edmure had written that the elder one, Catelyn, would become the lady of the Twins someday, while the younger, Lysa, would become the Lady of Harrenhal.
Sansa was happy for her uncle, that his family was growing like her own did.
Since Asha Greyjoy had become queen of the Salt Throne, the Ironborn hadn’t attacked the coast once. She had held her promise and brought the Iron Island on a better course. She had even sent several ships on a western course to the sunset sea, to explore what might be behind the horizon. Maybe someday, they would bring back the news of undiscovered lands.
“Am I doing it right, mama?” Serena asked, sitting next to Sansa, embroidering her handkerchief in Sansa's solar with Shireen, Elynore and Minisa. Rickon was playing with Jeyne's son Vayon in the courtyard.
Serena had asked Sansa if she could show her ways to embroider more delicate motifs and Sansa had gladly agreed, since Elynore had asked to learn embroidery, too. She was sitting on Shireen's lap and she helped Sansa's daughter with the stitches.
Minisa was still too young to learn and so she sat on a soft fur on the floor and played with the wooden doll Sansa had gotten all these years ago from her father.
Bran wasn’t with them. He had to help maester Samwell with a family matter. To many people surprise Daenerys had made Talla Tarly, Samwell's younger sister, the Lady Paramount of the Reach, since the Tyrells had been extinguished. Of course, she had to marry someone and countless offers from all over Westeros arrived by raven in Hornwood. Talla had asked her brother if he could help her with the choice who was to become her husband, since Samwell had better knowledge of all houses than she had. And so, Bran and Samwell, were in his solar since the morning, looking through countless offers and checking wealth and family trees of the suitors.
“Yes, darling,” Sansa told her daughter. “I think you can even make the stitches a little closer together, why don’t you try it here?” Sansa told her and Serena smiled back at her.
“I will try.”
Sansa kissed the crown of her eldest daughter’s hair. Serena reminded Sansa so much on herself as she had been that age. She already was the same well behaved lady Sansa had been, though she also was able to show the same stubbornness as her father or Arya.
Elynore reminded her often of her sister. She often liked to play in the snow or even asked her Sandor when she would learn how to swing a sword. Years ago, Sansa would have been scandalized at the thought of her daughter wanting to learn how to use a sword, but if she was old enough, Sansa would allow it. She wouldn’t keep Elynore from what she wanted to do. She equally showed interest in all of the tasks of a lady, so Sansa often thought that she would become the perfect mix of herself and Arya.
“Is this better?” Serena asked her and looked at her with big grey eyes, full of expectation, while Shireen showed Elynore how to make different patterns.
Sansa traced the embroidered wolf on the soft handkerchief. “Yes, Serena, it's perfect. Your papa will be happy when he gets it,” Sansa said smiling warmly and Serena smiled up widely.
The door opened and Rickon stood there panting, but looking happy. “Father is back,” Rickon told them excitedly and the embroidery was forgotten.
“Did he go to the godswood?” Sansa asked her son and he nodded.
Weeks ago, a village had been raided by bandits, and this morning a rider from Lord Cerwyn had arrived bringing news that several of them had been caught near Castle Cerwyn.
When Bran had heard what atrocities they had committed, and what they had done to several girls in the village, he had ordered that no mercy was to be shown and none of them were allowed to take the black.
Bran had already written to Lord Commander Tollett in case that one of them tried to join the Nightswatch to escape justice. Sandor had left Winterfell early today, to deal with them the old way.
Sansa and her children went to the godswood and found Sandor sitting in front of the weirwood, cleaning his sword with a leather cloth like Sansa's father had once done. Sandor had adopted this tradition.
“Papa!” the children squealed happily and Sandor put down the sword just in the right moment, when all his pups flung themselves in his arms. Sansa smiled at the picture of Sandor surrounded by his children.
“Enough now pups,” he warmly rasped. “Now its your mother's turn.” He got up from where he was sitting and gently cupped her cheek, before she felt his lips brush against hers. Even after nearly a decade, every kiss from him still made her heart flutter in excitement. “I missed you, my love,” he rasped against her ear and Sansa felt a shiver run down her spine at the feel of his hot breath on her cold skin.
“I missed you, too, even if it were just a few hours.”
Sandor sat down again and continued to clean Wolffang, while Serena and the others played nearby with the snow. Sansa sat down next to him and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“How many were there?” she asked.
“Ten,” he growled. “Begging for mercy and crying after their bloody mothers the whole time until I took their heads.”
“It's good that it's done,” Sansa simply said.
“Aye.” He was silent for a while and continued to clean the blade. “How was your day, Sansa?” he asked softly.
“It has been great so far. Elynore wanted to learn to embroider and Shireen helped her, while I taught Serena some new tricks. She is making something for you,” Sansa said smiling.
They looked over to their children. Rickon had just pulled on Elynore's braid and Serena was rubbing snow in his face as revenge. Serena always looked out for her younger siblings. Minisa was watching the scene of a squealing Rickon, trying to escape his eldest sister, while suckling her thumb and holding her doll.
“My little lady,” Sandor said chuckling.
“She is, Sandor, even if she sometimes knows how to show her wolf already,” Sansa mused. “I can’t wait for the day, when the first suitors come to us to ask for her hand,” Sansa said, smirking and Sandor only growled in response, making Sansa chuckle.
They already got letters from lords and knights all over Westeros, asking for the hand of their eldest daughter, but Sansa and Sandor had declined any offer. They still had time and when that time came, Sansa would make sure that her daughter had a say in who she would marry.
After all, it looked very much that she would become Queen in the North someday. If the suitors heard that Serena would rule and that they would have to take the Stark name, rather than carry on their own name, Sansa assumed that many would lose interest and the ones that claimed to be really in love with their daughter would have to convince Sandor, too. He would sniff out any lie about love. Especially when it came to his beloved little she-wolf.
“I already pity that buggering bastard that dares to break our daughter's heart,” Sandor said sheathing his sword. “I am sure he will, my love,” Sandor said and kissed his cheek.
“Arya wrote,” Sansa continued, making Sandor lift an eyebrow.
“Ohh, how is she?” he asked.
“She is fine, as are Gendry, Ned and Robert. She wants to visit us soon again, it's been a while since the last time. You will never guess what else she wrote,” Sansa said biting her lip, to keep herself from laughing.
“What?” he asked curious.
“Lyanna is with child,” Sansa said and Sandor's jaw dropped.
“Bugger me sideways…the little bear is…”
“Yes, Lyanna is pregnant and she has no idea how to explain it to Maege,” Sansa said giggling to herself, while Sandor laughed openly.
“The same explanation as always – a bear is the father, like with all Mormont children,” he said.
“Yes, but this time it seems to be a boy from the Freefolk, after what Arya writes.”
Sandor chuckled. “At least this time, the child won’t have Lannister blond hair.”
“Yes, but I would still love to see Maege's face, when Lyanna tells her, after her little speech she had given to her mother, when she had left the Bear Island, that she would never want to have a child,” Sansa said chuckling.
Their children have heard their laughing and had come over to them.
“What are you laughing about?” Elynore asked curiously.
“Your mother told me something very funny,” Sandor said while lifting Rickon on his shoulder before picking up Elynore.
Sansa picked up Minisa. Serena was holding onto Sandor's hand while they slowly strolled back to the godswood entrance. Sansa had to smile at the sight of her little hand disappearing in Sandor's large one.
“Aunt Arya wrote she wants to visit soon,” Sansa said and the children squealed in excitement.
“Will she bring Nymeria, too?” Serena asked with huge hopeful eyes.
“I am sure she will,” Sansa said, knowing how much Serena loved to cuddle with the giant wolf.
Sandor suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“What is it?” Sansa asked and Sandor pointed with the finger in the canopy of trees above them, where sometimes the blue of the sky broke through the branches.
“You hear that?” he asked and Sansa listened and could indeed hear the first chirping of the birds, confirming that the spring was near.
“Yes, Sandor,” Sansa said before giving him a kiss.
“The birds sing once more.”