Morning arrived, garish and abrupt, with a pounding in Dany's head and a dryness in her mouth. She moaned, and a bit of stirring brought to light that her limbs sprawled all over the floor, rather than her bed. An incoherent sound left her throat.
"Your grace," Barristan said with eternal poise, and offered a hand to help her to her feet.
"Last night..." Dany mumbled, her head feeling crushed between two anvils.
"You shared many bottles of wine with the Lady Margaery," he said, his crisp tone implying disapproval without stating it outright.
That much she remembered. Other sharing had happened as well that did not involve wine. Dany remembered laughs, touches, secrets, whispers, and kisses before everything became a blur in her head. Somehow she'd ended up on the floor, so it seemed.
"I made sure no one disturbed your sleep," Barristan said while helping her to a seat. "Not even Irri, though she cursed me to my face for it. Especially since it is well after the noon hour now."
Dany made her way to a chaise and took a seat, pressing the back of her hand to her heated brow. "Thank you, ser. And...Lady Margaery?"
"She left of her own volition," Barristan said, with a slight snort. "Pardon, your grace, but she handles her drink better than even the Usurper once did."
Fire could not kill a dragon, but fiery Dornish wine... Dany nodded, relieved, but looked up to see worry in his eyes. To think that he'd been there the entire night made her flush, for she knew not what had occurred after (somehow) Margaery had shifted nearly onto her lap, eyes dancing and lips tantalizingly close.
"I don't know why I did all that," she said, not quite an apology but at least a regret.
"Beautiful women often produce that response," he said simply, and bowed. "I shall leave you to the care of your handmaidens now, since I know that you are safe and awake."
Dany nodded her thanks and the man left.
She'd hoped for a few moments to catch her breath but he had barely exited before Irri came in with a fierce scowl. Dany opened her mouth to protest but she was instantly pushed towards the antechamber, in which a steaming bath stood already prepared. Irri stripped her before she could do more than make a whining sound, and once enveloped in the soothing water she had no more protests. Silent and yet reproving, Irri washed her hair with firm hands.
"Barristan said you were worried," Dany sighed after a few moments.
"I did not know what that woman was doing to you," Irri said, digging her fingers into Dany's scalp to thoroughly clean her hair.
If Dany flushed again, the heat of the water hid it. She bit her lip and then sighed again. Jorah had been gone half a year, and since then she'd shared no one's bed but Irri's. What had once been idle, almost dutiful, had become a tender habit that she valued. The girl was beautiful, and Dany cared more for her than anyone else in her retinue. They came together as more, far more, than merely khaleesi and handmaiden. Dany could now sense the hurt in Irri's actions--and rightfully so.
Irri worked her way to the ends of Dany's hair before she said anything else, voice quiet enough so that it might almost go unheard. "Do you love the Lady Margaery?"
"No," Dany answered quickly. "I don't know why...I don't know what happened last night. The wine made me feel strange, and I can't remember it all." Swallowing, she turned to look up at Irri. "It is nothing."
"She is very beautiful," Irri said, with a skeptical and guarded look.
"Not as beautiful as you," Dany said, and if it was a lie then it was only half so, for Irri was beautiful in ways that Margaery could not be.
Still, Irri smiled only a little and did not seem eased. She helped Dany finish bathing and then dressed her before braiding her hair into place for the day. Dany kissed her lightly on the lips, but it did not relieve the tension.
"You still miss Ser Jorah," the Dothraki girl said, not a question.
Dany froze, for even his name felt like a touch to an open wound.
"You still love him, but you are too proud to say so. I know I am only second in your heart." Irri tightened her jaw a little, setting Dany's crown in place atop her head. "Even if I am above this Lady Margaery, you have not settled for either of us."
"Jorah is gone," Dany snapped, with more force than she'd intended. "So is Drogo, so is Daario. You are the only one I love, Irri. The only one I have left."
Yet as soon as the words were said, Irri only looked sad and kissed Dany's forehead. Dany clasped the woman to her bosom, almost clinging, and they stayed that way for a moment. Dany's words had not cleared the air, however, and Irri's had. Khaleesi she might be, but she could not hide the truth.
A summer child indeed, Sansa found winter a constant weight upon her heart. Patience, a trait learned with painful lessons, did not soothe the frustration as she looked every morning to the vague snow-covered hills surrounding Winterfell. The North adapted well to winter; only Sansa, and Tyrion, fretted at the constant chill and wind and silence of ice.
She kept busy, however. Every day new cracks in Winterfell's armor had to be patched, new concerns brought to her as both lady of the castle and warden of the North. Freedom from war did not make bannermen any more harmonious among themselves. She guessed, too, that her gentle voice made them more likely to approach her than they would have if, say, Tyrion had held court.
If ever a man had shied more away from power than Tyrion did, Sansa had not met him. Unless she thrust an issue before him, he stayed mostly behind the scenes and kept busy with anything but politics. She knew he grieved for his family, was learning to see it in his eyes when he hid dark thoughts behind a witty mask, but grief alone did not explain how thoroughly he abandoned all lordly duties to her. At first she'd been grateful for the control. So little of it had been allowed her, after all, in the recent years. Yet soon she realized that he'd only done it half for her—she was still not yet eighteen, and entirely untrained in how to handle these affairs. Were her 'husband' more considerate, he'd have at least given her advice. An exemplary man would have helped her.
Tyrion was a decent man, and a good friend, but Sansa still had to admit to his flaws.
Yet if he had his selfish moments, so did she. She clung to privacy like a babe to its mother, spending long hours alone on many days. Winterfell had few retainers now, and she liked that. Tyrion seemed restless when alone, but as long as he did not raise a complaint Sansa did not change her habits. Nymeria at her side, she walked the halls and merely listened to the sound of her slippers against the smooth stone. She let her fingers stroke the newly woven tapestries, breathing in the scents of life and home, and in the dark depths of the castle she could feel the hot water running through the walls if she pressed her palms to the stone. The solitude gave her comfort, for there were no expectations, and she did not care what Tyrion did during those times. Solitude alone, though, could not sustain her. When she and he came together at meals or in the evening, the talk shared between them was bright for its rareity. During so many years spent in silence, Sansa had learned brevity—with Tyrion as nearly her only company, she started to learn wit as well.
The simple amount of time spent together, half-expectedly, deepened the friendship that had blossomed over the past months. Sansa and Tyrion had their secrets, their unspoken (regretful) history, but their tendency to obsess on the present allowed for pleasant interactions. Only a few times had Sansa slipped and let the dark past come crumbling down around her. Tyrion had more control—he was, she knew, more experienced in guardedness—and both maintained his control and did not comment when she failed with hers. Strange for a Lannister, she thought, he was to her almost a mirror image of herself: cracked, hard, chill, yet unerringly good-intentioned. They both tried for kindness and mostly accomplished it.
"My eyes are sore," Tyrion told her one evening, as they dabbed dark-brown crusts into a heavy lamb stew. "I'm afraid I can't read tonight."
"We need not read every night," Sansa replied. While winter brooded outside her walls, she always kept the great hall well-heated in the evenings. With little else to do, she and Tyrion had made a habit of sitting by a fire while Tyrion shared his favorite books with her. From such evenings she learned things that no one else would have taught her—and he could both hear his own voice, and share something that few others cared for. Even with the ease of the habit, though, caution and hesitance hung at the edges of every night. It was uncertainty rather than comfort that kept them repeating the ritual.
Tyrion raised an eyebrow and swallowed his mouthful of stew. "I know not what else you would rather do. You've never spoken to me of your hobbies or interests."
"I have few," Sansa admitted, "yet. But I have liked all of the books you've read to me, so perhaps you have a hobby I would enjoy."
As Tyrion paused to consider his thoughts, Sansa had the brief odd thought that he might have made a jape with her choice of words—a bawdy one at that. When they'd first shared a dwelling together, in fear and bitterness, she'd often feared his 'rude' wit. Had it been a groundless fear? Or had some of that been crushed from him by his wanderings from Westeros? Sansa had feared Tyrion's lustiness once, but as she looked at him now she could see little of it. He, like her, looked worn down despite the long peace.
"I've not played cyvasse in many a year now," he mused aloud. "Are you aware of the game?"
"Petyr taught me," Sansa answered, without thinking that she had not thought of the man in almost two years now. Two blessed years. "I...could never beat him."
A frown crossed Tyrion's face. "It's not a fair challenge to go up against Littlefinger. Devious bastard had us all fooled—may still, for all we know."
Sansa swallowed and nodded. "But I like the game. As long as you don't crush me too quickly, I will play with you." She didn't smile, but changed the tone to something more playful. Tonight was not the night to remember Littlefinger. Those memories needed to stay away for now.
Tyrion smiled a bit. "I'll be gentle," he promised teasingly.
A few hours later he was saying, less teasingly, "Is there no mercy for me, Lady Stark?"
"None," she laughed, surrounding his last pieces with a delicate click of stone on stone. The shadows made the black and white pieces appear mottled, hardly different from one another. More realistic, Sansa thought.
He groaned and threw up his hands in forfeit. "You're a damned mastermind. You could have at least warned me." His eyes, when meeting hers, were gracious enough. "Yet I still win, for you smile."
Sansa blinked. "Is that so rare?"
"You're not called the ice queen for nothing," he said with a half a laugh. When she did not return it, his face grew more grave. "It's not an insult."
"No, I'm not offended, I only..." Starks had never been entertaining, as far as Sansa knew, and she'd always been called lovely not vivacious. Certainly the long years of imprisonment had hardly cheered her, and this peace had been touched by enough grief to hardly make it happy—still, she'd not thought of herself as grim or cold. She thought she'd smiled more often than he implied. "How many people call me the ice queen?" she asked, rearranging the cyvasse pieces. "Do you think it fits?"
Tyrion made a protesting sound, waving one hand. "Don't pay any heed to rumors. They're only words and—"
"I want my people to love me," Sansa protested, brow furrowed as she interrupted his assurances. "I knew they feared Nymeria once, but I thought...they've been so good to me, I thought they cared for me." Her momentary glee in defeating him had turned on its head suddenly, and the thought of being unloved again brought a lump to her throat.
She didn't notice him moving before his hand was on hers. "Do you think they'd call you queen if they did not love you?"
Confused, Sansa met his gaze. "What?"
He gave her a smile, and twisted as it was there was warmth in it. "They bent the knee to Daenerys, but you are their queen. If they had anything against your icy demeanor, they'd not be so respectful in their terms, believe me."
The truth made her cheeks color, and she dropped her eyes. "Oh."
"You can be sure that I'd be glad to be called an ice king," he quipped under his breath, patting her hand before sitting back up.
Sansa scrunched up her nose. "But you don't want to be a king."
"You have me there, but to be called one..." His smile seemed almost wistful. "Well, it's more than I deserve. I've left all the royal business to you and wasted time with my books. I'm a horrible man. I'm surprised you haven't had me sent packing to King's Landing."
Sansa shrugged, setting the cyvasse board for another round and not looking at him. "I think the queen would see it as an act of treason, to send her trusted man away."
For the span of a few heartbeats Tyrion did not answer, then he said in a strange tone, "Sansa—"
Before either could continue, Sansa's captain of the guard entered the room. "My lady, travelers at the gate. Night's Watch. They sent no raven ahead."
Distracted and concerned, Sansa rose swiftly from the floor where she'd been sitting and brushed the wrinkles from her skirts. Since they'd taken no part in Daenerys' unification war, no one had truly heard from the Night's Watch in two years now. They did their duty and said nothing. But the North grew colder daily and Sansa felt a flutter of unnamed fear in her heart as she followed her captain down to the gate. Nymeria met her halfway, mouth still wet from her supper, and followed at Sansa's heels.
A dozen black-clad figures stood outside the gate as a light snowfall dusted them, making them ghostly statues against the night. Sansa wrapped a wool shawl about her shoulders before stepping outside with her guard. The foremost man stood a head above her, and closed the distance between them in two long strides.
"What brings you to Winterfell?" she asked, blinking hard with the cold.
The man sucked in a breath, looking at her more fully after she'd spoke. "You're just like her..."
While the voice was not Petyr's, the familiar words made Sansa pull back repulsed, her stomach flipping. "What did you say?" she demanded with more fear than force.
"Sansa..." The stranger pulled back his hood to reveal a shaggy black head, a young face marked with a beard like coal dust. His grey eyes...she knew those eyes. "I'm sorry, I've not seen you in so long. You're like her, like Lady Catelyn."
"Jon?" For a mad second she'd almost thought he was her father come to life again, though younger than she'd ever seen him. Stranger things had happened...so much stranger... But no, it was her half-brother, the one who'd always looked more a Stark than any of her siblings. Sansa stared and forgot everything but the fact that he was alive. She'd assumed when he sent no word that he'd died on some ranging or had declared her dead to him. Their cool relationship as children, and her continued presence among Lannisters, would have been ample cause. Here he stood, however, gazing at her with awe. "You're...alive." The word came haltingly from her lips, all her lady's courtesies forgotten.
He took a step closer and she looked up into eyes that were suddenly now shiny, and saw herself reflected in them. "I knew you were still a Stark," he whispered with half a smile.
Then suddenly she'd wrapped her arms around him and let out a choking breath, the walls from childhood gone in an instant. Jon, her brother, her family, with strong arms around her. Sansa buried her face in his strange-smelling cloak and breathed in the snowy dampness of it. He was really alive, grown so tall that she had to rise up on her toes to keep her footing. The embrace lasted long enough for her to hear Nymeria voice a wolfly greeting to...Ghost, wasn't it? Jon's wolf. The wolves had a pack once more.
"I didn't know you missed me so much," Jon mumbled against her hair, sounding boyish despite his age.
"I didn't either," she whispered back, embarrassed for her foolishness both before and now. Tears stung her eyes, but this time they felt like relief. "Please come inside, all of you." Come home, she almost said, almost begged. Winterfell still needed family.
"We can't stay long," Jon said, but it didn't stop him from letting go of the embrace and following her indoors.
Tyrion stood waiting inside the gatehouse, head cocked curiously.
"It's Jon Snow, my brother," Sansa said to him, unable to keep a smile from her face.
"Snow?" A spark of remembrance lit in Tyrion's eyes.
"Jon Targaryen," a woman's voice corrected, with a lilt that Sansa had never heard before.
All turned, and one of the figures in black lowered her cloak to reveal hair even redder than Sansa's. The woman smiled and nodded her head. "He is Jon of the House Targaryen, Azor Ahai reborn and the prince that was promised."
Sansa stared. Tyrion stared. Jon looked pained.
"Well now this should be a tale to hear," Tyrion finally said.
Margaery had been winning until Daenerys arrived. All the innocence, all the plans, all the carefully orchestrated mistakes. Tommen had softened like unbaked clay in her hands, and Cersei's hasty assembly of control had shattered in the face of cool Tyrell plotting. A few more weeks and she would have been queen in more than just name. So close...
Then dragons, then her brother's hasty alliance. She'd had only a few hours to make up her mind before he'd shipped her off to Dorne with Tommen. If the Martells hated her family, they did not at least hate Willas; with him as lord of Highgarden, they treated her with only underlying suspicion. Especially as wife of Tommen, who vouched for her to his sister (and Myrcella was well-loved in the South).
For years they stayed hidden while the dragon rage died out. For years Margaery had played with Tommen and Myrcella while the Sand Snakes guarded them resentfully. They were not Cersei and could not be won over with tricks—for her own sake, Margaery brought all her sweet strength to play in seducing her formidable guards.
All had turned out well for her in more ways than one, and then she repeated the same feat in King's Landing with the dragon queen herself.
"You're better than our grandmother," Willas told her with a sigh, when she finally left him to King's Landing and the court.
She kissed his cheek. "I don't know if I appreciate that remark."
Now she sat among piled blankets as the rickety carriage rolled further and further from Dorne.
"Are we there yet?" Tommen asked, now eleven but still short enough to nearly disappear in the blankets.
"If we were, we shouldn't still be moving," his sister pointed out with a maiden's disdain for little boys (or perhaps just little brothers).
"Soon," Margaery promised him.
Outside the carriage, a light snowfall dusted everything with white. Harsh as winter was, this was good weather for traveling, and considering her easy pace she might be passed any day by the queen herself. Even while traveling Margaery had heard of the mass exodus from King's Landing, and sometimes when looking back along their path she saw smoke that might be from dragon's fire. No one knew why Dany had left, though, and Margaery could not be sure she wanted to.
If anything, she wanted to relax in a castle again, and without the burden of her young Lannister companions. Tommen and Myrcella both had a place in her heart, of course, but Margaery grew tired of such youthful company. She was too young to be a maiden-aunt to children. Without queenship, she'd been growing daily ever more impatient for an exciting life. The Sand Snakes had been diverting, but she could not be with them now.
Tommen held his tongue, however, for another two hours, and before he could ask again their carriage pulled up to the formidable gates of Winterfell. Highgarden and King's Landing had both emanated gilded strength—nothing like the raw stone here, tall and black against a bleak landscape.
"Tell Lord Tyrion he has family come to call," Margaery informed the guard who inquired name and purpose.
While the man stared at her for a moment as if he did not recognize the dwarf's name, eventually he departed.
"Are you sure he wants us?" Tommen asked when there was a delay.
He must, Margaery thought. For I cannot be responsible for you forever.
"He loved us," Myrcella assured her brother.
A few minutes later, the guard returned with permission to admit them into the courtyard. No one stood to greet them, but a figure exited the great hall and came towards them. Margaery did not recognize it, but knew that Tyrion Lannister had never been so tall.
Tommen suddenly squealed, "It's Sansa!" Suddenly very much a six-year-old boy again, he ran across the yard.
Margaery watched without moving as Tommen proved correct, and flung his arms around the young lady of Winterfell. Since Margaery had last seen the Stark girl, she'd grown in many ways, yet the sudden laugh was Sansa's. A rare laugh still, Margaery guessed.
"You're so tall." Sansa's kind falsehood drifted across the courtyard as she walked back with Tommen to the rest of them.
"And not dead at all," Tommen said and giggled like it was the most marvelous trick.
"I'm glad," Sansa declared, finally drawing up to Margaery and Myrcella.
"So am I," Margaery said, smiling at her one-time sister. The years had blessed both of them, yet Sansa's womanly beauty was touched by a certain heaviness to her eyes. Highgarden would have done her better than the fate the Lannisters had prescribed her.
"Why are you here?" Sansa looked among the three of them, confusion furrowing her brow. "You are welcome, but...why?"
"You're still married to Uncle Tyrion," Tommen said. A sudden worry crossed his face. "You didn't kill him, did you?"
Margaery expected the girl to bite her lip and simply shake her head, but Sansa turned a bright pink instead. Myrcella punched Tommen's arm and the boy yelped and Margaery tsked them both with a hidden smile.
"Of course you want to see your uncle." Sansa took a deep breath and smiled, gesturing to the hall. "I think he's in the library. Please come inside."
Tommen offered his arm to Margaery with a grin and a, "Lady wife," while Myrcella turned to grasp Sansa's arm.
"You really are the lady of Winterfell," the Lannister girl breathed.
Margaery made an assenting sound, noting the smooth grace in every movement of Sansa's. The fire of her hair had settled to something darker, like blood, and from neck to hips was a perfect arrangement of curves and dips. Margaery had rarely seen a woman more regal or full of such taut control. Like a drawn bow, Margaery thought.
"Where have you been?" Sansa asked, turning back to give Margaery a look of wonder. "I thought you must have been killed in the war."
Recognizing that sweet concern, Margaery smiled to herself. Sansa might hold herself as a queen yet nothing was missing from that girl who Margaery had hoped to know better. "No, my brother spirited me away to Dorne. It was very warm, but very safe."
"It was hot," Tommen said. "They had to give me a poultice every day to keep me from roasting in the sun, and it smelled horrid."
"But it kept your pretty skin all smooth and white," Margaery teased.
Sansa laughed again, and Margaery liked the sound.
The bite of the cold vanished instantly on entering the great hall, and Margaery let out a breath. So long had it been since she'd set foot on rush-covered stones and smelled smoke and potatoes and hounds. A smile touched her lips and she looked around, noting only a few burnt stones to show that this castle had ever been destroyed. In Dorne they'd spoken of Winterfell as the second Harrenhal, but it seemed that Sansa had proved them all wrong. Even the new tapestries fit against the walls like they'd been there a thousand years. In the torchlight, that same ancient quality touched Sansa's face, revealing thin lines that her youth should not have blessed her with.
Before anything could be said, a great wolf lopped across the room to greet them, and Myrcella squeaked as its exact size became instantly clear. Margaery herself found her breath catching in her throat—a throat that those jaws could snap like the tiniest of twigs, and take her whole head off in one bite without any extra effort.
"I thought Joff had your wolf killed," Tommen said.
"Nymeria was my sister's," Sansa said, smile wavering only a little. Nymeria licked a wet streak up her ear and Sansa's nose scrunched, then she ruffled the direwolf's ears. "She's protected me very well."
"Not, thankfully, from me." Tyrion Lannister, looking rather more ragged than when Margaery had last seen him (and not just because of the full beard), entered behind Nymeria with one eyebrow cocked. "What—who are these, Sansa?"
"Tommen and Myrcella," she told him brightly. "And Lady Margaery."
"Good gods, hopefully not all the dead are coming back to life," Tyrion declared, but then barked out a laugh and crossed the room. "Tommen, Myrcella, how much you've grown!"
"It's been five years!" Myrcella squeaked, leaning down to wrap him in a hug. Tommen, too, embraced his uncle, and the two youths made him disappear between them. Nymeria made a disapproving noise, but Sansa hushed her.
"What's this?" Margaery heard Tyrion ask. "Family that is glad to see me? Sansa, pinch me, I'm dreaming again."
Despite the dry tone, none of them pinched him, and Sansa's smile suddenly didn't quite reach her eyes.
"We're going to live with you," Tommen declared, pulling back from the embrace as if it had lasted too long for his manly honor. "Forever and ever, since the queen won't let me rule. Can you tell her at least that I want Ser Pounce back?"
"Tommen, you're being rude," Myrcella chided, Tyrion's arm still protectively about her waist.
"I don't care," Tyrion said, voice a little husky. "Be as rude as you like."
Myrcella gasped, Sansa laughed, and Margaery felt oddly out of place in the group. But then Sansa looked at her and smiled, and Margaery remembered falconing with her outside King's Landing, the wind tangling red hair with brown. She stepped forward and smiled, as Tommen declared that now he would be allowed to fart at the dinner table. Tyrion near killed himself with laughter, and Sansa rolled her eyes and pulled Myrcella and Margaery towards the table.
"We can be ladies here," she said. "Are you hungry?"
"Are there lemoncakes?" Margaery asked.
Sansa smiled as if she was full of secrets. "More than you could ever eat."
Margaery liked the North. She liked it very much indeed.
On the morning that Sansa descended to the dining hall to find Tommen brushing Nymeria's fur smooth, Myrcella opposite Tyrion at cyvasse, and Margaery sewing in a chair, she had to run back to her room and shut the door firmly behind her. With it firmly against her back, she sank to the floor and put a hand to her mouth to muffle the sob that suddenly escaped. Though all the figures were different, it had been just like home of old. Just like the family she'd lost. Just like she'd never have again. All the loneliness that she'd swallowed down now came back up, and no one saw her cry into her skirts for a few aching minutes.
Happiness had yet to be more than a shell for her, as pleasant a shell as it was. The holes in her heart for father, mother, Robb, Arya, Bran, Rickon, Lady, and even Jon Snow, had only been patched over. Not healed, not yet.
Eventually, shaking, she pulled herself back from the brink of grief and wiped her eyes. The force of emotion had surprised her, breaking the control she sometimes forgot she maintained. Drawing her handkerchief from its pocket, she scrubbed as much of the tear-stains as she could from her skirts, then wiped her eyes yet again. The redness she could blame on tiredness. All those people expected her to be a lady and of course she would fulfill that role.
I'm stupid, I am so stupid, she said to herself after one last glance in the mirror. I need to grow up. I am eighteen after all.
Descending once again, it was easier the second time to say good morning and play hostess. Nymeria, fur shiny and sleek, came to greet her, and after the wolf came Margaery with a warm hug—the young woman always smelled of freesia, and her hugs were more warming than any Sansa had known. "Shall we go riding today?" Margaery asked. "Myrcella and I want to see these Northern lands of yours."
"Of course," Sansa said, smiling at both her lady companions. "But I have court first."
"Oh, must you? Isn't that what husbands are for?" Margaery's teasing voice was loud enough that Tyrion was sure to hear.
Sansa flushed, and didn't know why. "No, I am always the one to hear my people's pleas. It will not be too long."
"No, Margaery is right," Tyrion said, for he'd come up beside them without her noticing. "You look in no state to hold court, Sansa. Go riding, or if not you should go back to sleep." He patted her hand.
"I'm fine," Sansa protested, only weakly stubborn, but Tyrion looked worried and Margaery whisked her away with a tut-tut and an arm around her shoulders.
Soon all three of them were in the stables waiting for the boys to saddle their horses. The cool air brushed Sansa's cheeks and refreshed her a little from the tears and flushing of before. Perhaps a ride in the open winter air would be good.
"I'm glad he is better to you now then last time I saw you," Margaery leaned in to say, a perfect smile on her lips.
Considering that the last time had been at the unfortunate, nightmarish wedding, such a comment meant little. Yet Sansa said in all honesty this time, "Yes, he's very kind to me."
Margaery clasped Sansa's hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "You never did deserve anything else, Sansa dear."
"We don't always get what we deserve in this world," Sansa murmured in reply.
That time, Margaery had nothing in answer. They mounted soon after, and Sansa's fur-lined cloak flapped behind her as they cantered through the snowy fields. Morning sun glinted bright on the white plains and made Margaery's hair look almost as golden as Myrcella's. They looked like princesses as they danced their horses through the snow, laughing loudly in the open air. Sansa envied them their ease until Margaery rode up beside her and offered a silly grin.
"What is it?" Sansa asked, half-laughingly.
"Are you afraid of snow goons under the ground, waiting to pounce?" Margaery's eyes sparkled like honey and chocolate. "Or are you worried that your Lannister husband will ruin everything in court? He probably will, but then you can demand that he make it up to you. You look so grim and it's a beautiful day, if not as beautiful as you."
"I'm sorry." Sansa brushed a stray hair behind her ear. "I don't know what's come over me today."
"You haven't played in too long," Margaery noted, drawing her horse right beside Sansa. Leaning in, she suddenly planted a light kiss on Sansa's cheek and then kicked her horse away. "You are the Tag Queen now! Come and catch us!"
Gasping a little in surprise, Sansa didn't have time to second-guess herself. She chased after the other ladies as they darted laughingly away. "You are behaving like children!" she called, but with half a laugh in her throat.
They forgot to continue playing tag by the time Sansa caught up, but they rode for another few hours and let the Northern hills roll away under the snow-dust that their horses left behind. Sansa breathed in deeply and broke the last tension from the morning. A nuncheon was eaten beneath a leafless willow tree by a frozen stream, the food still steaming when they opened the basket.
"I'd do this every day of winter if I could," Myrcella declared as she nibbled at a beef pie. Margaery hummed, but shivered a few moments later and gratefully accepted Sansa's arm around her shoulders. "Are you going to stay with us forever?" Myrcella asked, breaking a silence that Sansa had not realized had lasted for nigh half an hour. "You're married to Tommen but I don't think it's a real marriage."
"No," Margaery said softly, her head nestled on Sansa's arm. "This is not my place after all."
"I'll miss you," Myrcella said.
Sansa only swallowed and could not say anything.
After that, they rode back to the castle in quiet as the sun set ahead. Sansa hoped for another quiet evening of reading by the fire—as soon as they rounded Winterfell's walls, though, the hope was dashed. Her heart leapt to her throat and she drew her palfrey up short. The plains that had this morning been white now were full of shadowy figures, an army with black and red banners flying. Queen Daenerys was here with a full force at her back.
Sansa rode back through the gate in a near-gallop and hurried inside, boots leaving a wet snowy trail. She entered the great hall to find, not a battle—she hadn't realized the fear's presence until it was laid to rest—but a council about the table. Tyrion sat on one side with Jorah and two men she did not recognize. Daenerys had the head, and she could not see the other three faces until they all turned to look at her.
"Lady Stark," Dany addressed her, and nodded but did not smile.
"What is happening?" She tried hard not to breathe too deep and show her breathlessness, standing just past the door. "Why is there an army at my gates?"
The red woman by Jon rose from her seat. "We are off to fight the last battle in this war of fire and ice. The dragon has three heads, and one of them is Tyrion Lannister. Rhaegal awaits him."
"But you can't," Sansa blurted out without thinking.
"Sansa," Tyrion started to speak, brow heavy.
"We must go now," Dany interrupted, also rising from her seat. "The Wall cannot stand forever. My dragons are needed there."
They all followed the queen from her seat, ignoring Sansa as she stood and felt panic rise in her chest. Not again, not war, not alone, not again.
"Pray to Rh'llor for our victory," said the red woman as she passed Sansa, the touch of her fingers strangely burning.
The hall was emptying and Sansa could not stop it.
"Sansa," Tyrion murmured before he left, standing before her and looking pained. "I can't explain it all, there isn't time. It's their last shot, I assure you. They wouldn't be here unless they had to." He laughed bitterly. "Maybe I'll be of some use after all. You'll tell Tommen and Myrcella, won't you? I don't know when I'll be back."
"I'll tell them," Sansa whispered.
He made a twisted face that was probably meant to be a smile. "Don't look so stricken. Worst comes to worst, you get Winterfell to yourself at last, and we're both free of this marriage."
"I don't want you to die," Sansa choked out, her sight suddenly blurring.
Tyrion said nothing but he took her hand in his and kissed the knuckles, and then she heard the whisper, "Neither do I, Sansa."
"We must go," the red woman called.
Sansa blinked away her tears only just in time to see and feel Tyrion pull away and follow the rest out the doors. Gone to fight the reason the Wall had been put in place, and she was once more left without a friend but Nymeria. "Nymeria!" she called suddenly, and the wolf was at her side. "Go with Tyrion," she ordered sharply, and then, "Keep him safe."
The direwolf padded off, taller than the man she would now guard, and once they were all gone Sansa walked to the gate and watched the army move away north. Even after the sun set, she could still see flames in the distance. Her last family, friend, and ally faded into the North, and she was left with only Winterfell and graves.
When Margaery finally found her, trembling with cold but refusing to go indoors, she lost the last control she had and wept in raw fear for the fate of the life she'd cobbled together.