Sansa feels her eyes peel open, but believes that she must still be dreaming. Her body jostles this way and that as it hurtles into a heavy mist- am I on a horse? She glances down- yes, that is horseflesh between her legs. And her thigh muscles ache so badly- now she knows it isn't a dream. Nothing ever hurts in her dreams.
Burlap drapes over her head and scratches at her cheeks. She fights to keep her mind still, she tries to place herself in time, in reality- Tyrion escaped and Tywin Lannister is dead and they were coming after me, and then I slept... or fainted, or...and now I'm...where?
She feels warmth beneath her palms and under her cheek- she is pressed against someone's back, and her arms are wrapped around someone's waist. She strokes her hand lightly over the surface and finds hard stomach muscles- a sudden moment of wild, absurd elation- he's come back for me, after all this time. Her head rises, and she cranes her neck in a desperate effort to see her companion's face- let me see scars, please...
The man does not turn, but he hisses abruptly: "Put your head down, now." And Sansa's stomach drops- the voice belongs to Jaime Lannister. He's taking me somewhere to kill me...he's taking me off to die in the woods like an animal... she begins to shift, intending to leap off the side of the horse- it would be a better way to go . But the Kingslayer reaches his left hand behind to grip her thigh. "Don't do anything stupid. Head down."
His fingers bite into her skin, and she trembles. If she defies him and tries to jump and run, he'll just come after her, and he is so much stronger and faster- she shuts her eyes tight, opens them again, repeats once, twice- always sees the same.
She feels her breath become shallow and labored, and she prays that suffocation will take her first.
"You aren't going to kill me."
Sansa has posed the question several times already, and she can sense Jaime's patience straining with each repetition. But he obliges her with yet another shake of the head, the shadows cast by their pathetically small campfire playing over his handsome face.
"Quite the opposite, my lady. If you had remained in King's Landing, my sweet sister would have your head mounted on the gates by now."
My knight on a white stallion, galloping to my rescue. She feels the urge to vomit and is deeply grateful for the emptiness of her stomach.
"But why are you helping me?"
Jaime shrugs, tossing a twig into the waning flames. "Because you are innocent. Because enough innocents have been harmed already. " He pauses to heave a sigh. "Because I made a promise to your mother."
"To keep me safe." He'd told her the whole story of his captivity at Riverrun, of the conditions of his release.
Jaime nods. "Yes. I made a vow, and I believe you know my family's words." He grows quiet, and she starts to fumble for something to say when he continues: "I realize it may have been more...proper to send you with your husband, but Tyrion was in quite a rush to be gone...he has a better chance alone. I hope you understand."
Sansa purses her lips, but does not comment. Instead, she asks, "Why not just send me off with someone? Why take me away yourself?"
She watches as his shoulders lower and his golden head drops forward. He speaks barely above a whisper- "I helped Tyrion escape. There's no one who doubts it- there were witnesses. Not only did I help a criminal flee justice, but I enabled him to murder our father." His forehead falls into his hand, and he pulls at his hair. "If I stayed, Cersei would have no choice but to sentence me to death. The people, the High Septon would accept nothing less."
She thinks she understands, and the weight of what he's done falls upon her. "You won't make her kill you."
“She could never bear it.”
The crackling of the fire fills the silence.
Finally, Sansa works up the courage to ask, “What will we do?”
And he turns on her, slides over on the log until their faces nearly touch. “Listen to me. Sansa Stark and Jaime Lannister are marked. Wherever they go, whatever they do- they are the dead walking the earth. There is only one thing to do if we have any interest in survival.”
Sansa waits, holding her breath all the while. A shiver dances up her back at his next sentence:
“We need to disappear.”
“Completely invisible,” Jaime says as Sansa uses the small amount of beer in his flagon to soften the remainder of their hard tack. Sansa nods, but she can’t stop herself from frowning.
Whatever treatment she’d been forced to suffer at King’s Landing, she still received the lodgings and provisions appropriate for her station. She’s been a high-born lady since birth, and it is all she knows. But what Jaime is talking about- some dirty veterans’ camp hidden in the hills, filled with peasants too poor to hold even a pittance of land...
She knows that she is pouting like a child, and she tries to force her lips into a straight line before Jaime sees her face.
But he notices, of course.
“Try to be practical, Sansa. There are few places where a man without a hand will raise no eyebrows, and even fewer where the people wish to hear nothing of the past. All they care about is a willingness to work and a skill to contribute.”
Sansa opens her mouth to speak, but Jaime anticipates her question- “They raise horses in the valley. I’ve been riding since I could sit upright on my own, and I spent most of my youth breaking in tourney mounts.” He stops, and a smirk passes across his lips. “I might even be... useful there.”
She cannot argue the logic, and so she moves to a different point.
“And who will we say I am? Your daughter?”
Jaime pushes his tongue into his cheek and shakes his head. “For a man to travel with only his grown daughter as a companion is unusual. We do not wish to attract any attention at all.” He tilts his head and sweeps his verdant gaze over her face. “Besides, you don’t favor me in the slightest.”
“Then who? Your sister, or cousin....?”
“Gods, one might think that you’re being intentionally dense.” Sansa purses her lips and knits her eyebrows together, but she lets him complete his thought- “You will be my wife.”
Sansa drops the flagon, watches as the remainder of the beer drenches the hard tack, rendering both unfit for consumption. The expression on her face must be one of absolute, hyperbolic horror, for Jaime bursts into genuine laughter.
“Don’t worry your pretty head over it. It’s the most believable scenario, and it’s what we’ll tell anyone who asks. But while I may be a deserter and a fugitive, I mean to keep at least one of my Kingsguard vows. You’ve nothing to fear from me.”
She supposes she’ll have to trust him- what other choice do I have?
If he notices that she’s destroyed the rest of their provisions, he says nothing about it. He only leans against a tree trunk and crosses his arms over his chest. “We must decide what to call ourselves...”
An idea comes to Sansa: “Perhaps I could think of a name for you and you could think of one for me?”
He throws a sharp glance in her direction, emerald eyes bright in the sun. “This is not a game, Sansa.”
“I know it,” she replies with some indignation. She feels herself start to pout again-
His face quickly softens, and he nearly smiles at her. “Very well, then. Have at it, my lady.”
She looks him over. The way he stands there, all golden hair and green eyes and leonine grace, it seems impossible to call him anything other than Ser Jaime Lannister. Well, there’s also “Kingslayer”... But she endeavors to use her imagination.
The name comes to her from nowhere- she can’t think where she would have heard it, but it feels as good as any other- “I name you...Anders.”
He shapes the name with his lips, appears to ponder for a moment before nodding his acquiescence. He then pushes off of the tree and steps toward her, focusing hard with those beautiful cat’s eyes. Her cheeks grow hot, but she forces herself to look back at him.
Finally, he decides:
“I name you Elin.”
She likes it. Clean and light and wearable- just Elin.
“What is our surname?” she asks. Jaime answers with a speed that surprises her- probably the first name to come to his head-
Elin Sharpe. She’ll spend the rest of the afternoon saying it at different volumes, different pitches. She’ll mouth it under her breath as they ride through secret woods and winding paths, and she’ll use her finger to spell the letters out in the damp dirt, to see it written on the earth.
They travel quickly and efficiently, with only one horse and few possessions. She thinks they are approaching the Vale, but she can’t be sure. Where they are in reference to anything else seems irrelevant, anyhow.
During a brief stop-over in a little village, Jaime has a wooden hand made to replace the gold. He also buys a razor, and she takes it in hand before he has to ask for her help. His hair is softer than she expects, and she nearly hesitates to shear it, but he urges her on until all that remains is a light prickling of gold over his scalp- and a bit of silver, too.
He wonders aloud whether they should alter Sansa’s hair as well, but red hair is not uncommon in these parts- she’ll assimilate perfectly well. They find clothing, rough-spun peasant garb that irritates her gentlewoman’s skin. With her spreading rash, plain attire and less-than-clean hair, she supposes that she does look rather common.
She cannot decide if the idea upsets or amuses her.
The camp is all she expected, and worse. Small and cramped and destitute - “How long will we have to stay here?” she asks Jaime, and her heart sinks like a stone when he has no answer.
His choice proves sound, though- a sizable number of the men here lack a limb or two, and Anders Sharpe’s self-identification as a veteran of Robert’s Rebellion - it's true, I suppose...- proves all the information required. A handful of silver pieces buys them a ramshackle cottage toward the edge of the camp. As she watches him hand the coins to the camp leader, she nearly laughs- this man once had all of the gold in Casterly Rock at his disposal...literally.
He gives her the straw-tack mattress and tries at first to sleep on the ground. But the sod of the floor grows soft, and he awakes each day coated in dirt and chilled to the bone. She eventually tells him to stop being ridiculous- you said I have nothing to fear from you - and slides over in the bed, patting the space at her side.
They sleep on their backs, shoulder to shoulder, and although he never touches her, she finds comfort in his nearness.
Days pass, and as she gets to know Elin better, she wonders what to make of her. Sansa Stark of Winterfell wouldn’t have much time for Elin Sharpe, for the simple girl from nowhere, the wife of a maimed peasant. She judges Elin harshly sometimes, judges her clothes and her unruly hair and her flat, twanging accent. She must be older than Sansa- seventeen or eighteen, probably- but Elin hasn’t half the education. Elin cannot dance or paint or embroider, she knows no poetry, and while she is mild and quiet much of the time, her manners are unrefined.
But Elin is capable in other ways. She knows how to skin a rabbit and boil it into a stew. She knows how to mend clothing and fix the worn seams of the mattress. She knows how to wash with lye and can help the village women mind their children and feed their livestock. Anders even teaches her to ride like a man, with one leg on either side of the horse, and he laughs when she comes home windswept and ruddy from galloping around the valley. She sees her legs growing strong, the muscles in her arms developing from carrying buckets of water, her soft, ladylike hands becoming calloused and hard.
The people of the veterans’ camp live entirely in the present. They dare not hope much for the future, and they do not care to think of the painful past. She thought at first to devise some kind of back-story for Elin and Anders, but she dropped the idea once she determined it unnecessary. She finds a curious strength in the company of these battle-scarred men and their stalwart women, these people with no land to call their own, these people who suffered through wars for causes they barely understood. High politics matter nothing to them- they care not a whit who sits the Iron Throne, so long as they can feed their families.
The realization humbles and relieves her all at once.
Although the details of Anders’s and Elin’s past remain murky and vague, she feels quite sure that these two people chose each other, wedded because they wanted it. She catches him watching her sometimes as she pores over her sewing or stirs the heavy pot on the hearth or steps out from behind the thin screen that hides the bath basin. She finds that she likes being watched, the way he does it.
He does not fight her anymore when she tries to help him wash and shave. They are easy together in the evenings; he tells her about the horses and the stories he hears from the other men, and she keeps him updated on the affairs of the household and the village. He brings her squirrels and rabbits to cook and praises her skill when she turns them into a meal. And he tries to make her happy; he brings her the little white flowers she likes, the ones that grow in the crevasses of the hills.
One night, after she tends to a scrape on his shoulder, he tucks a flower behind her ear and smiles. He seems a bit surprised when she sits in his lap and puts her arms around his neck, but he does not stop her from pressing her lips to his. And it feels so familiar, the most natural thing in the world, as if they’ve done this every day for years and years.
Elin and Anders probably have.
She still dreams as Sansa, more often than not. They are frightening, lurid, fitful dreams, dreams that make her sweat and shake. And she knows that he dreams as Jaime, too- he whispers names and words from another life, twisting the bedlinens around his legs as he thrashes about. They’ve long since abandoned their efforts at courteous distance, and they hold each other tight, teetering on the edge that separates Jaime and Sansa from Anders and Elin, until they breathe together and sleep again.
She likes to go out to the valley in the mornings and watch him with the horses. As he runs them around the field, his eyes shine and he glows, radiates in the early sunlight.
He seems so happy - she wonders whether Jaime Lannister ever imagined a life like this, anonymous and unattached and free.
“You’re so beautiful here,” she whispers against his mouth, ignoring the lewd jests and chortles from the other men on the training ground.
They are considered very fine, Anders Sharpe and his pretty young wife. She hears the women whispering about Anders, discussing his lean physique and handsome face. Although he is of an age with many of the men in the village, he looks far younger- obviously thanks to Jaime Lannister’s years of good nutrition and moneyed comfort. A rich man’s five-and-thirty is a poor man’s five-and-twenty.
The men tease him, call him proud. Most of the other handless veterans simply wrap their arms in cloth; only Anders wears a proxy. She takes care to keep him tidy- his clothes are always freshly mended, his hair and beard well-groomed. She loves to look at him, to admire her handiwork, and when she sees her sunburnt, freckled face reflected in his eyes, she loves the look of that, too.
They’ve shared a bed for several moons now, and it seems just a matter of course when he slips his hand over her hip and into her smallclothes. It does not even occur to her to worry- Elin is no maiden, hasn’t been for years- she forgets, forgets completely-
There is pain, pain and blood, and she cries aloud. Horror passes over his face as he meets her eyes, and they are at once Jaime and Sansa again- ‘You’ve nothing to fear from me’. She panics, her mind flitting and flapping like a moth in a jar- no, I don’t want Jaime Lannister, I don’t want gold and emeralds- Anders’s hair is the color of the sun and his eyes the color of the forest and Elin has hair red as the earth and eyes blue as the sky- he starts to withdraw, and her heart leaps into her throat as she seizes his face and says again and again- “Come back to me. Come back to me.”
She kisses him breathless, kisses him until he moves within her. It hurts her still, but she can learn to ignore that- after all, it wouldn’t hurt Elin one bit. She makes herself remember- or, more accurately, create - the pleasure that Anders and Elin find in each other- she kisses him again, moves with him, chants Anders’s name like a prayer.
And if she hears him whisper “My name is Jaime” into her hair, she does not acknowledge it. Not ever.
The women tell her that she has nothing to fear. It will come to her as naturally as breathing- once she holds her babe in her arms, she will know how to be a mother.
She is not so sure.
Motherhood means something different in this place, for these people. While Sansa had loved her mother dearly, she'd also been raised with the help of servants and Old Nan and Septa Mordane and Maester Luwin. But the women of the village have no such support; they do all and more for their children. Just last week, she watched as the cobbler's wife put her mouth around the nose of her sick baby and sucked the malignant mucus right out. She tried to imagine Catelyn Stark doing the same, and she laughed out loud.
When she found herself with child, Elin rejoiced- it was all she could want, the most she could give her beloved husband. She told Anders over dinner, and he smiled and kissed her, told her she was beautiful- she pretended to ignore the darkening of his eyes.
She dreams less often now- Elin's nights are silent and serene. But when she does dream, it is with greater violence than ever, and she remains Sansa Stark for a while after she awakes- Sansa Stark the fugitive, womb full with a Lannister bastard. She draws her knees to her chest- or as close as she can, as her belly starts to swell- and she cries and cries. He lets her weep until her sobs fade to sniffs, and then he holds her. She endures several strange moments as Sansa Stark lying in Jaime Lannister's arms before they melt back into Elin and Anders and find peace once more.
Her labor is fast and messy, out in the field with only the blacksmith's wife there to help. It happens before she can think about the excruciating pain, splitting her in two...and Gods, there is so much blood- the blacksmith's wife strokes a big hand over her damp brow, tells her to push and push and push, and all she can say, all she can think-
Mother....I want Mother.
Anders and the blacksmith arrive in a wagon, and they lift her in and wrap her in clean cloths. The blacksmith's wife passes Anders a bundle, which he places in Elin's arms.
She shivers hot and cold all at once at the sight of the wizened little face, the tiny hands, the shock of sunny hair. She feels his arms on hers, cradling their baby, and she rests her head against his chest as the wagon thumps and bumps down the dirt trail.
The child's hair is uncanny- not flaxen or dark, but yellow-orange, the color of marigolds. She smiles at her next thought- as a girl with no concern for family history or dignity, if Elin Sharpe wishes to name her daughter for the flower she favors, there is no one in the world to tell her no.
News from outside arrives slowly here, trickling in bit by bit. She hears familiar names mentioned now and then, most frequently that of Petyr Baelish, referred to as a liege lord- I suppose we are near the Vale, after all. They hear of the arrival of Aegon Targaryen in the South, of the conquest of Dorne, of the invasion of King’s Landing and the exile of King Tommen and Queen Margaery.
These are bad days for him, and she tries to allow him space to think and remember. She feels strangely relieved that Sansa Stark has almost no living family, no one left to mourn.
He knows that something is amiss days before the raven arrives. He grows gravely ill, unable to keep food in his stomach, sweating and shaking as though taken with fever. She asks him what is wrong, but he cannot articulate- he only drops in and out of consciousness, shakes his head back and forth and mutters words unintelligible. She asks the blacksmith’s wife to mind Marigold and stays by his side night and day, fighting to remain strong in spite of the dread gnawing at her core.
They hear of it on a cold, clear morning, just after dawn. He seems to be improving- he can eat a little and walk on his own. She retrieves Marigold from the blacksmith’s house and is spooning porridge into her mouth when a boy from the village shouts the news through their window- Queen Cersei Lannister has been executed.
She finds that she cannot look him in the face- she starts a whisper of apology, but the words catch in her mouth. He says nothing, only turns and walks out the door. She watches through the window as he disappears into the woods surrounding the valley.
Marigold squirms in her seat and blinks up at her mother with enormous green eyes. She gathers the child in her arms and holds her tight, swallowing hard to keep the tears down.
If he never returns...
But he does return, a day and a half later. He crosses the threshold and nearly trips over Marigold, who likes to crawl about the cottage on all fours. He sweeps the babe into his arms and kisses her bright hair, placing a sweet in her chubby fist. Marigold fills her mouth with the sticky honey-based confection and allows her father to place her back on the ground.
She watches from the hearth, hardly daring to move. His eyes still hold a bit of shadow when he approaches her, but he wraps his arm around her waist and draws her close. His lips on hers are hard and urgent, and she takes hold of his short golden hair, afraid to release.
He never says where he went or what he did, and she knows better than to ask.
Sansa’s name days always feel peculiar. Elin and Anders must have name days, of course, but they never speak of them. They did celebrate Marigold’s first, and now that her second is approaching, she supposes she’ll have to start thinking about acquiring the ingredients for a pudding.
It takes her a moment to recall how old Sansa Stark would be today. Elin is twenty or twenty-one...that would make Sansa eight-and-ten. Three years since we arrived here...three years since Sansa Stark and Jaime Lannister vanished, never to be seen again.
The training field is quiet after twilight. Imprints of hooves and feet scatter throughout the snow, but she feels new flakes descending from the heavens, ready to restore the pristine whiteness. The summer child on her first winter name day- she lets the crisp air fill her lungs, lets herself stand between Elin and Sansa in that nebulous region that she usually tries to avoid.
The falling snow silences his footsteps, but she can sense his presence all the same. She sighs when he wraps his arm around her shoulders, falls back against his body. This man, her Anders, the father of her child, her husband and friend and companion and lover and partner - she feels a pull of something from without, a premonition of change, a force chipping away at the secure fortress of Anders and Elin Sharpe- but for now they are here, on a quiet winter night in a quiet peasants’ village beneath a vast, dark sky.
She turns in his arms and presses her cheek to his heart.
“I love you,” she whispers as she closes her eyes. And it may just be the wind whistling past her ear, but she thinks she hears him say it back.
It has to be a dream, all of this- one of her bizarrely vivid Sansa-dreams, where people long dead reappear and impossible events occur and the world trembles and turns on end. And yet every time she closes her eyes, expecting to awake as Elin in her little cottage with her pretty baby and handsome husband, she still finds herself here.
It knew her instantly, the creature they call Lady Stoneheart. Her heart and mind cried out against it- this cannot be, Mother is dead, has been for years- but soon there were others; Stoneheart’s ragged band, the lady knight of Tarth- and she felt more like Sansa than she had in years at the sight of Sandor Clegane.
They ride from the village, forging a path northward, leaving Elin and Anders Sharpe behind. Their train seems to grow larger with every mile- Sansa Stark rides for Winterfell with an army at her back.
The stories they hear about what awaits them in the North are nearly fantastical- a dragon princess beyond the Wall, gathering forces to overtake the conqueror in the capital. They ride to pledge fealty, and she is assured that if she does, Winterfell will be hers.
And with all of these people following her, raising her up as a standard, as the lone Stark returning home- she has no other choice.
She misses Elin, misses her with an ache that fills her completely and keeps her awake night after night. Sansa and Jaime stay in separate tents, of course, and she has grown so unused to sleeping without him. She keeps her daughter with her, the sweet-tempered little girl who takes the dismantling of her world in stride, the child who used to be Marigold Sharpe, now called Marei Lannister.
(Jaime had little to say when they rode from the camp, but he insisted on legitimizing his daughter, insisted with a fervor that made her heart swell.)
As she rides, one leg on either side of the horse, she looks over at Jaime Lannister. He sits at the back of the saddle, with Marei in front of him- she is not yet three years old, but she is big-sized for her age, and she needs little support. The little girl’s chirpy voice carries a folk song, just a simple tune they used to sing while tending the crops and feeding the animals. She listens as Jaime hums along with her, watches him lift his left hand and ruffle it through Marei’s curls.
After a time, Marei grows drowsy, and Jaime keeps his right arm around her as her head falls back and she sleeps.
Sansa urges her horse forward, ignoring the whispers and disapproving stares as she positions herself at Jaime’s left.
She kisses her fingertips and smooths them over Marei’s cheek. And then, for the first time since they shed Elin and Anders, they look each other in the eye.
“Ser Jaime,” she begins, then stops.
She feels her lips begin to quiver- I mustn’t cry, not here.
Her mount edges closer, and their knees touch. She breathes the next word at a volume below a whisper-
“I miss him.”
His gaze becomes furtive, and she has to look away. Half a moment passes, and the next thought escapes from her mouth before it even plays in her mind-
“I miss you.”
He hears, she knows it, but he says nothing. Instead, he grasps her right hand in his left, laces his fingers through hers, squeezes until both their knuckles turn white.
The days are shorter now- she sees evening descending and knows that they must soon stop and make camp.
They can say what they like about it, Sansa reflects as she clings to Jaime’s hand, but I’ve no plans to let go.