If there was one thing her mockingbird had not counted on, it was the wings on the horizon; the screams of dragonsong; the white hair of a Targaryen queen atop a beast with murder in its eyes.
Tyrells fled and Petyr Baelish simply...disappeared again. Smallfolk and minor nobles alike, left behind by all their lord and ladies, knelt in terror before Queen Daenerys. For now, at least, they submitted.
Amongst the crowds, a hood shrouding her weary face, Alayne Stone bent the knee as well. For these were once to have been her people, when she'd still been Sansa. Her head told her to run, for the sake of her position as a piece in this complicated game, but her heart still had a spark of curiosity left. That spark did not want to leave King's Landing to strangers. Winterfell was gone. This was her home, surely.
It was not so awkward now, for they all walked the halls like ghosts. Alayne merely melted into the crowd.
Little blood had been spilt, yet the city smelled more of the Targaryen words than it had even after Blackwater. Fire, blood, shit, rot, and winter. Chill made its way even down here, where there was no snow or bare ground to be blanketed in it.
Alayne carried a plate of bread from the feast table back to the kitchen, unnoticed by all those of consequence. Just a little bird, not even chirping.
"Here, don't take that away."
Alayne turned quickly, mouth a perfect circle. Somehow she had not noticed before how small the dragon queen was. In her foreign gown, standing no more than three handsbreadth from Alayne, she seemed only a child. Those violet eyes were aged but the small pink mouth was that of a girl's even while pressed in a straight serious line.
"Do you not speak common?" the queen asked again, not harshly.
Alayne shook her head and then nodded. "I beg your pardon, your grace." She offered the platter of bread.
Daenerys cocked her head and took a sesame roll. "You're not afraid of me like the others."
Unsure what was expected of her, Alayne took no chances and tried not to stammer. "I—I'm sorry, your grace. Your dragons are indeed terrifying. I did not mean to offend."
"But not I, their mother and rider?" A queer amusement crossed Daenerys' young face.
There were far worse things than a death by fire, but Alayne could not say so aloud. A conqueror was not as terrifying as a rightful heir or a crafty spider. She caught herself still staring and shook her head. "I do not believe that you would let them ravage your new home...and new people."
The queen's mouth twisted, but she said only, "What is your name?"
"Alayne Stone, your grace."
"I wish to speak to you tomorrow. You are no flattering fool, Alayne."
She walked away then, like a queen who cared not for the responses of subjects. A contradiction, so it would seem.
Alayne wondered why she had spoken and not kept to the cautious silence that had been her wont for years now. Fingers trembling, she carried the bread tray to its destination and then prayed to her father's gods as she had not done in too long. Life, that fleeting gift which she still found precious—today she had endangered it.
That night she dreamt of running through the forest, paws silent over the brush, all the powers of life and death in her strong jaws. Far better than the nightmares she'd grown used to, but she woke with the taste of blood in her mouth. It wasn't her own, this time. The taste remained even as she brushed through the brown hair she now wore as her own.
To be a wolf would not be wise and so she put the dream away in her locked box of memories when the queen called for her.
She did not hold court in the throne room as Alayne had expected. Instead, Daenerys' handmaiden with the foreign lilt to her words directed her to the royal chambers.
However it had looked under the Baratheon and Lannister reigns, Alayne did not know. As of now, it was all black and red, soft silky fabrics covering every cushion and ledge. It must have been the eastern influence, though Alayne had never studied those lands, that made it seem strange. And the queen herself, lounging on a chaise in a plum gown, looked just as imposing as if she'd been sitting on the Iron Throne.
Yet not so. For certainly Joffrey, Cersei, even Margaery, had never looked this soft.
"People hate me." Daenerys sipped at a cup of wine, full eyes watching Alayne as no one ever had.
The door closed behind her and she stood still, hands loosely clasped at her waist. It had not been a question, the queen's words. She held her tongue this time.
"If I'm to live here for the rest of my life, to reinstate the Targaryen dynasty, I cannot be so hated. You must understand this, even though you are no great lady of court."
Shaking her head slowly, Alayne bit the inside of her lip and swallowed, old pain and confusion mixing in her voice when she at last spoke. "Do you wish me to help the people not hate you, your grace?"
Daenerys laughed. "No, not that. Do not look so scared, Alayne. Sit."
As always, she did what she was told.
"I want to know what the smallfolk say," the queen told her. "For no one listens to them, so they say what they will. I would know that. Will you speak?"
No, Alayne had never been around another ruler with such softness. She told Daenerys all she knew, and her heart beat fast at how many words she let loose. All the months of silence had taught her how to speak only to herself. Now she let the words free. Now they flew to listening ears, and Daenerys nodded and did not strike her.
When she'd spent all her voice, however, and the dragon queen had taken time to digest the words, she was dismissed to her duties. A man who looked and spoke as if he'd come from the North escorted her from the chambers. That was odd, but Alayne had stuck her neck out far enough. "Thank you," she said, and gave him a courtesy.
Then she stood alone in the hall, invisible once again. Dragons did not kill wolves when they saw only sheep's clothing. The woman who had once been Sansa was still safe.
After a deep breath, she turned to leave the royal apartments, but she'd only gone three steps before she stumbled over someone she didn't see. A little squeak escaped her and it took a couple fumbling grasps at the wall to keep herself from falling.
"Seven hells!" the man she'd ran into cursed in a gravelly voice.
Alayne stopped short, eyes wide as the moon, hands frozen in sudden fear.
Tyrion Lannister, a full beard scarcely hiding his unique face, glanced up at her.
"I beg your pardon," she whispered, praying to the old gods that he did not recognize her.
That was too much to expect of a husband, so it seemed. "Sansa?"
It was all gone wrong again, and she felt once again surrounded by hunting beasts. All the old fear made her throat too tight to breathe, her fingernails digging into her palms to keep them from trembling. Thoughts raced, but all of them were the same. Run. I can still run. Sansa didn't answer him, only turned in a whirl of skirts to flee.
A familiar small hand grabbed hers before she could go. "Sansa!" His voice was still rough, an order to stay.
"I'm not," she tried to say, looking back at him with begging in her eyes. She was taller than she had been the last time they met, towering over him, but he was a Lannister and she was a traitor fugitive and without anyone in the world. Her game was ended if she could not escape again. There was no Dontos nor even Petyr this time to save her. "I'm Alayne Stone, I'm no one. Please, ser, let me go." Her fingers twisted in his grip and she took a step back.
Half a dozen emotions cycled through his mismatched eyes before he spoke again. Sansa saw confusion there, bitterness, weariness, and anger too, but those were only the ones she could name. He still frightened her, the husband they'd once forced on her.
In the end he only said, "You changed your hair."
Sansa's heart was in her throat and she wanted to hide. Maybe Tyrion saw that, maybe that was why he finally let go. Whatever his motivation, she did not feel bad in pulling away and running. Her feet were her wings, or maybe they were paws, and she ran until solitude enveloped her. They were all gone before she could stop: the queen who had paid her too much attention, the man who had recognized her—was he with the dragon queen? Was that where he'd gone after he disappeared from everyone's knowledge? Sansa didn't know. She'd never known.
This time, she did not run to Alayne's room, but to the godswood. It still thrived in King's Landing, and only once she could kneel in the soft dirt and look into the bleeding eyes of the heart tree could she breathe again. There was no place in the world for Sansa Stark or Alayne Stone. She'd been a foolish little bird again to think so. She'd forgotten who she had to be. And she was tired, so tired. There was nothing so heavy as the weight of her own self. A single bitter tear fell down her cheek as she remembered everything she'd tried to forget. So heavy.
Make me a wolf, she prayed. Let me escape at last. I can't be myself anymore. Please. You have not answered any prayers before but you gave me the wolf dream last night. Make it real. Let me run free.
She was used to repeating words, over and over. She was used to getting no answer. The red leaves rubbed together like old papers, like fire, and that was an answer she did not understand. Sansa prayed to be set free from this game of thrones. Prayed, prayed, and prayed again. Only the rustling of leaves came as a reply.
The sun began to set, the shadows painted the forest floor, and her hair became a dark curtain as she bent over her knees and spoke soundlessly to the weirwood.
No god spoke to her now. Sansa raised her head and swallowed her unshed tears, but did not respond.
"Gods be damned, girl, when will you learn that you need not always run from me?" Tyrion's voice was more tired than hers, words spoken with only old and bitter emotion behind them. "I'll not betray you to the queen, if that's what you fear."
What Sansa feared...were there enough words to hold all that? She turned, and while kneeling she could meet Tyrion's gaze across the godswood without looking either down or up. "No one can know who I am. Not the queen...not anyone."
He gave a short laugh. "I think I, out of anyone, understand that."
Sansa met his eyes and said nothing. She felt...nothing.
The godswood held only broken fugitives and unspoken vows, and as Sansa held her silence Tyrion's face became pained, looking at her with more than curiosity. She didn't like that look; she never had.
"Why did you do it?" Tyrion's voice sounded like stone rubbing against stone, his eyes seeming small and dark. "Why did you not tell me you were poisoning the king? I would have helped you, damn it, but instead I had to defend your treachery in front of laughing mobs. Damn you, why did you do it?"
Perhaps she should have expected such an accusation, but it was far easier to think only of her own grievances. What little pride she had left kept her from fearing the anger in his words, and somehow—somehow—she didn't think he would kill her, no matter if he hated her. "I didn't." Sansa swallowed, steeling herself against the hate in those eyes. "I didn't kill him. I didn't know. Lord Baelish took me away before any of it happened and I didn't have a choice." His lips twitched and she lifted her chin a little, refusing to fear this at least.
Tyrion snorted and rested a hand against a tree, digging fingers into the bark. "Littlefinger," he said in disgust. "He would leave me to my fate, of course. Sooner than you would, I'll bet. I terrified you but I never did see murder in your eyes."
Sansa's heart throbbed painfully in her throat. She rose to her feet, hands clasping tightly in her dark skirt. "Was that a fault of mine?" Her words came out jagged, wavering. "Was my fear so stupid? All I wanted was a knight. Not a husband, not...not anything but protection. I thought you were good, once, but you married me. I was afraid and you—" The words choked in her throat and she bit them down, bit the inside of her lip till it bled, warm and bitter. Her eyes stung as if she'd been cutting onions, and the fear was back again, the fear and the hurt.
"I swore I wouldn't touch you," he said, angry at someone, his knuckles white where he gripped the tree trunk. "I never wanted you, Sansa. I didn't want you afraid either, but you wouldn't listen. I promised you protection and you looked at me like I was the bloody Mountain."
"No," Sansa whispered, and then louder, "No." One step forward and then she held still, hands still in desperate fists at her side. "You can't say that, you can't lie like that. You didn't protect me. You wanted me to love you."
His face was crimson, whether with anger or something else she couldn't tell anymore. What was left of his lips made a tight line and he didn't respond.
They'd all wanted her to love them. Joffrey, the Hound, Petyr, and even Tyrion. "I listened to that." Even if you didn't, she could not say aloud. "And it frightened me."
The look on his face only tightened until he seemed pained and could not hold her gaze.
Sansa was a maid of sixteen now and she had more to fear than unwanted love, yet memories could still turn her into a girl. Her hands trembled. She had not meant to speak and yet she had. The words that came out next sounded foreign, as if she had not said them, as if no one had heard them. "Fear did not hurt me. It did not kill me. My mother cast fear aside...and I had to weep for her." He had not come to comfort her then. Not then, not ever. Perhaps she might have loved him if he had...it would not have been true love, but it would have been something.
"I forgot that you were but a girl," Tyrion said. There was no accusation in his words, but there was self-loathing.
The raw wounds of their hearts became tension in the godswood. A tear escaped Sansa's struggling hold and dripped down her cheek, then another and another.
Tyrion turned his hands into fists and walked away. No glance back, no words of farewell.
With a little gulp that sounded more pathetic than anything, Sansa swallowed a sob and turned back to the trees. Her streaming tears could not be stopped now. She was truly alone with no more than the gods, and she couldn't bear to leave.
Night fell and Sansa stayed, body shaking, eyes turning red and swollen. She prayed because she knew of naught else to do.
A rustling in the trees roused her from her own emotions, and there was no time for terror before the direwolf pushed her to the ground. There was only time for half a scream before she recognized the wolf. Warm wet licking cleaned the tears from her cheeks. "Nymeria," she sobbed, and clung to the unexpected companion.
The gods had answered her prayers at last.
She forgot Tyrion, the dragon queen, her own loneliness. Nymeria's warm fur cradled her and she didn't even mind the smell of blood, burying her face in the direwolf's neck. The animal licked her face clean and then curled around her, and she'd never felt so safe. Sansa cried until she had no tears and felt clean.
No one else came to the godswood and so she slept with Nymeria. And when dawn came, she did not have to pause to remember her name today. Sansa Stark lived, and always had. She could never forget.
"But what do I do?" she whispered to Nymeria and stroked the wolf's ears. She could still taste the remnants of fear in her mouth. "What do I do?"
Nymeria had no answer but a fierce licking, and it tickled so that Sansa almost giggled. How many years had it been since she last laughed? Not since I was a child. I was only Sansa then...just Sansa.
The wolf reminded her of the day when Bran had come barreling into her lessons with Septa Mordane, two balls of fluff in his arms. "Father got us pups!" he cried joyously, and pushed the both of them at Arya. Sansa had gasped, and more so when Robb and Theon entered with three more fluffballs. She'd been only eleven, then, and giggled with her siblings as they watched the pups stumble around. Hers was named Lady as soon as Sansa saw the grey wolfling lick her paws clean. Arya had bent down to stare full into her pup's mouth until Sansa had been sure her head would be bitten off, but her sister only pronounced that her pup's name was Nymeria.
How many months had it been since Sansa felt as clean as a lady? She couldn't remember. One of the many feelings lost after King's Landing and Joffrey's corpse were left behind. Change had come to her as it had come to the weather. She needed teeth now more than cleanliness.
Nymeria gave her hope. As a piece of home, a weapon against all the wretched turmoil, she was significant and large. Sansa felt herself a child again, at least with her arms locked around the wolf's neck. It felt natural to murmur words into the fur.
"The queen did not kill Tyrion for being the child of a traitor. And that man at her side...his voice was of the North. She is just and I can see the goodness in her eyes."
Petyr's mocking words echoed in her mind, though, and she bit her lip. Even with a wolf the size of a horse at her side she could not throw trust at the feet of the mother of dragons.
There was Tyrion—and there wasn't. So Sansa had naught to trust, as always.
Worry and bone weariness, however, kept her from submitting to the habits of running and hiding. Her wolf was her. Sansa Stark might be ready to appear to the realm again. Petyr would have told her no, but her mockingbird had not been all wise, least so about Sansa's needs.
Prayer to the gods seemed to bring results, so Sansa offered up all the old prayers to her father's gods. Nymeria sat and patted her tail against the dirt, panting, her red mouth full of white teeth. That was the only answer, yet it gave Sansa confidence. She was free to make her own course. She did.
In her wrinkled dress, with hair that would not lay perfectly smooth, Sansa returned to the palace to ask for the queensguard.
A Dothraki man came to her first and she stared at his arakh so long that he grew suspicious. But she found her words—it was easier knowing that Nymeria was close, would come at a call. "I spoke to a man yesterday, with the queen. I don't know his name...but he was from here, from Westeros. Very close to the queen?"
The rider snorted. "Jorah the Andal. Always with her, yes. Very...close, yes." He laughed in a way that made Sansa flush.
"Would you please tell him that I wish to speak with him in the garden? It is a matter of importance to him and the queen." Her eyes darted about, but no one seemed to be watching.
"Why should he listen?" the queensguard asked, suspicious again. "What is your name, girl?"
"Stark," Sansa breathed, backing a step away. "Tell him Stark."
The man stared but she knew he heard. Not waiting for an answer, Sansa hurried away into the shadows.
Nymeria padded at her side almost before she'd left the halls, wet nose brushing against Sansa's palm. Most likely it was courting danger to have her in the city, but Sansa knew her wolf did not care—and neither did she.
With the sun only hinting at its full warmth, the gardens were empty. Cool dew still dripped from lush green leaves, melting into soil as dark as night. Winter blooms colored the world around Sansa as she waited, chilled fingers buried in Nymeria's fur. In the North, winter would have been much harsher, yet this bare chill felt strange. Snow would have made her feel more at ease.
Finally she heard footsteps, and hurriedly helped Nymeria to hide among the bushes. When she turned around, she saw him coming.
"Who is it?" the battle-scarred man asked, a hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Just me, Ser." Sansa swallowed and stepped forward. "I don't know your name, but I saw you yestermorn..."
"Ser Jorah Mormont," he said with a frown, staring at her. "Alayne, was it?"
Sansa breathed in quickly. Mormont. There was little family more loved in the North, by the people or by her family. Many a time had she watched in both awe and horror as the wild Mormont girls played at archery or sparring with her brothers, laughing and running as they pleased. There was a son who her father had banished—this must be he. "No," she said, daring. "Not Alayne. I am Sansa Stark."
Expectedly, he looked her up and down as if she'd declared herself a dragon.
"My family is not loved anywhere, not anymore, and so I've been hiding..." Sansa spoke quickly, hands clasped at her waist. "I would serve Queen Daenerys, though, if she would protect me. I don't want to hide anymore."
"Do you take me for a fool, girl?" Jorah stepped forward, brows fiercely drawn together. "House Stark has known enough troubles without having to face another impostor."
"I'm not an impostor," Sansa insisted, forcing herself to stand her ground. It was a new talent. "You must believe me...you must have seen my mother once, or my father, before you were banished. I'm a Stark and a Tully..." No one else would recognize her, but surely a Northman would.
The man was no less suspicious than his fellow Dothraki, and stepped towards her with a dark look on his face. While the hand that had been on the hilt of his sword was now less-threateningly placed, it spooked Nymeria. The enormous wolf leapt from the bushes with a snarl to stand between Sansa and Jorah, almost as tall as the girl she defended.
"Seven hells!" Jorah snapped, and did draw his sword then.
"No, Nymeria, don't!" Sansa ordered desperately, clutching at the wolf's fur. "Don't hurt him!"
Obeying, Nymeria only snapped the blade from Jorah's hand and sent him sprawling onto his back. From the ground, eyes wide, he stared at them both.
"A direwolf," he breathed.
"My sister's once," Sansa replied, and somehow it stung her eyes to say that now, even after all this time. Her fingers dug tighter into Nymeria's fur, and the wolf didn't once yelp.
Jorah laughed harshly and pulled himself to his feet, brushing the dust from his palms. "A good trick, this, if it is one." He was taller than Sansa, much older, and broad of shoulder. Yet he looked at her with less darkness in his eyes, though still caution, and nodded to both her and Nymeria. "I'll speak to her grace."
Sansa let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Thank you, Ser Jorah."
With no more than a final look at Nymeria, he backed away and disappeared.
Sansa realized then that her legs were shaking, and the import of his words struck her. If the queen believed her...if she would help Sansa... "I can go home," she whispered to Nymeria. Her mouth trembled but she laughed it off and blinked the tears back. "I can go home." And so she waited.
Missandei had a pet cat that belonged to a former Lannister king. Ser Pounce said the collar around its neck, and while most fond of its new mistress it doted on Daenerys as well. Pets had been denied her on her journey so far, and so she allowed the cat free reign of her solar. "It is more of a ruler than I, judging by manners," Dany had said laughingly only an hour before.
Ser Pounce preened at her feet now while she sipped at sweet mare's milk. Outside, pigeons cooed, but the room felt empty. Her bear would be back soon enough, but it could not be too soon. Peace urged her to cling to him in ways that, when sober and undistracted, frightened her worn heart.
Missandei returned with a bowl of dates to wrest her thoughts from Jorah, and Dany smiled at her for it.
By the time her bear entered, she'd composed her face for duty. "You found her again?"
"She comes." Jorah crossed to stand by her.
"And you are certain it is no trap?" Dany asked while reaching down to scoop up Ser Pounce to her lap, for Missandei had left without the cat.
"I trust the Lannister's words." Jorah shrugged. "And for all that they gave away nothing freely, I trusted the girl's eyes too."
"Oh, her eyes," Dany mocked, recalling vaguely how Alayne had possessed a young—if strained—beauty.
Jorah made to protest, but a bustle outside had him hurrying to the door instead. "Let them in," he commanded to the guards outside. "They are expected."
Dany looked up, expecting the Stark girl to enter with a guard.
Ser Pounce was not so prepared—he hissed and dug sharp claws into her leg when in padded a wolf the size of a large foal. Outside of books, Dany had never seen a wolf before, yet she could imagine that the woodland variety paled in comparison to this hulking beast. Walking beside it, the auburn-haired girl looked as a child of four, though the top of her head reached Jorah's shoulder at least. Dany remembered flat, mousy hair and a stiff demeanor. Lady Stark, however, had a striking grace even in a loose cotton gown and with unadorned hair falling about her shoulders.
Until she bowed and spoke, Dany could not be sure that she wasAlayne.
"Please rise, Lady Stark." Dany nodded to a cushioned bench and gave a queen's smile, gaze flitting from girl to imposing direwolf. "Sit and be at ease. You are an honored guest, I hope."
Sansa smiled as if it had been years since her last attempt, but took the proffered seat and directed her wolf to lie at her feet with a simple wave of the hand. "Thank you," she said, hands folded across her lap. "You are more gracious than I had hoped. When I spoke to Ser Jorah, I despaired of having impressed him at all."
Dany allowed a tiny smile. "My Jorah is never welcoming at first, but his trust is solid once earned. We were satisfied with your husband's assurances, for truly I have never heard a higher recommendation from his lips."
Rather than calming, the girl paled and her wolf looked up bristling until Sansa's hand rested between alert ears.
Frowning, Dany leaned forward. "Is there something I am not aware of?" Tyrion's vouching had been unexpected, when the matter came up, but not suspicious. Curious, perhaps, but not worthy of the fear that Dany saw—and liked not—in the girl's eyes.
"Lord Tyrion is too kind," Sansa said quietly, fingers twisting together. "He has no cause to support me, your grace."
While Dany found that even more curious, and stared at Sansa with mixed feelings, she felt that the time was ill-suited for such personal discussions. Leaving curiosity for later, Dany offered a smile and raised her palm upwards in peace. "I do not mean to make you uncomfortable. You came to me for protection, did you not?"
The Stark girl relaxed barely, though no color returned to her cheeks. She lowered her eyes for a few seconds, but raised them with defenses fallen somewhat. They were large, clear, and the chill of the blue made Dany wonder where this younger girl had been to return with ice that might rival her own fire.
"Yes," Sansa said simply. "I am not loved in this kingdom."
"Because you are not from the South. That is how it works, no?"
Sansa shook her head. "More than that..."
"Did you indeed murder the pretender Joffrey?" Dany asked.
Sansa's mouth went grim. "I only wished to."
Yet she'd killed others. Dany could see the guilt, however cold. "You are a Stark," Dany finally said. "The North has been restless about your absence ever since your sister died in the snows."
The wolf let out a low growl, but Sansa appeared unaffected. "I don't seek my brothers' throne or inheritance, your grace. You need not—you need not be vague in your suspicions."
Dany blinked. "I had not suspected you of that. You may have a wolf and a name that demands strange loyalty, but the North submitted to my dragons. They did so to Aegon the Conqueror before me. It would take a girl more foolish than you, and an intact realm, to dare do anything else. But submission is not always...willing."
A little hardness returned to Sansa's eyes and she nodded.
Ser Pounce had retired hastily to the corner when the wolf entered, but he now returned to rub against Dany's elbow. She sighed and lifted him to her arms. "I want my people to be happy. And if I can do so, while still giving you the protection that a lady deserves, I will do it. Perhaps you might call me heartless, as so many have done, but practicality is necessary when the realm is so..."
Sansa swallowed hard and said quietly, "Please tell me what your terms are."
Dany looked to Jorah, then again to the girl sitting across from her. Though only sixteen, and too-slender for that age, she had a woman's figure and the weight of woman's experience in her eyes. Slim lines at the corners of her eyes explained the tension in her limbs, marks of a life lived in constant danger. Skittish she was not, though. Dany saw the strength and would bet on seeing more. "Winterfell lies in mostly ruins, unmanned and unsettled. I would send you home, Lady Stark, as a symbol of rebirth. Your husband will be lord, there, and Warden of the North in my name. Because of our time spent together I trust him for this task, but not alone. You must work together to convince the North that I bring peace to their ghosts, and life to their children."
Sansa started and opened her mouth, but no sound came out for a few seconds, then only a nearly-stammered. "It is necessary to be his wife again?"
Niggling curiosity returned to Dany and she furrowed her brow. "I am fond of Tyrion. Are you telling me that he has done anything in the past to make you fear him? He said you were estranged—I'm not ordering you to share his bed, Lady Stark, but your marriage is important to the kingdom as it is now."
Sansa looked smaller to hear that answer, though, and only nodded. Her wolf nudged at her hand and licked its palm, and she stroked its ears.
A part of Dany was sorry to cause her unrest, but then again, she did not know this girl. Her terms were those of a queen, not a friend. Hopefully this Sansa would realize it. "I will give you until tomorrow to decide. Jorah will escort you to a room where a maid will tend to you."
"Thank you, your grace." Sansa bowed her head and rose. Jorah stepped forward to offer his arm, but the wolf stepped between them.
"Lady Stark," Dany called. "Would you tell me at least why you go with a wolf?"
Sansa turned back. "Her name is Nymeria. All my brothers and my sister had wolves, too. They were a gift from the old gods...for safety."
The tragedy struck even Dany. "I am sorry that your gods forsook your family. I swear, if you accept my terms and prove as trustworthy as I hope, you will know glory again. I'll not take your legacy away from you simply because you are a woman."
Sansa looked straight at her, hands at her sides. "You cannot take the Starks from Winterfell. No one can. Not all of us."
It was not a threat.
Dany wondered again what this North was, that made men and women both cold and hot. Jorah was from there, and Tyrion would go there willingly, but she was the dragon and the dragon did not belong in snow. Winter had come for her as well as the rest of them. Winter in all its glory, however, could stay away.
She nodded, and Jorah escorted Sansa and Nymeria away. Dany called for Tyrion, and while she waited made a list of questions to ask. Westeros was full of mysteries, and he and Sansa were the two most curious as of now.
Silence could be a cruel weapon, sharp as any sword. If courtesy was her armor then Sansa made silence the only blade she carried. Sixteen she might be but sixteen and still lost.
Nymeria dealt in silence, too, as the caravan made its way towards Winterfell. Goldcloaks rode before and behind to keep guard, leaving Sansa and Tyrion to ride in the center. The direwolf made no move against the Lannister man, yet remained always between him and Sansa. She appreciated the comfort, and her relative calm seemed to please Nymeria. The wolf's wagging tail sometimes brushed her boot and made her smile, despite everything.
Grey sky above, grey lands around them, and Sansa was clad in grey again. In his red and gold, it was Tyrion who was out of place, now. That was why she was needed. A Northern woman for the North.
Amongst so many goldcloaks, it was but a pretty facade.
Daenerys had done well by Sansa in personal matters. When they made camp, she was given a noble tent of her own and two handmaids to wait upon her. Red like her hair, gold like Nymeria's eyes—so she translated the Lannister colors on this journey. Though she'd sprung up in the past years, the bed could have drowned her with its size and amount of warm furs and pillows. Thankfully, as soon as she climbed into it, Nymeria leapt nimbly up to fill up what space there was left. The wolf was enormous, warm, and the safest guard Sansa could have imagined.
The maids help her dress each morning and served her breakfast in the tent. She only had to see Tyrion or any other Lannister when they rode out again. If it was cold, she could pull up her fur-lined hood and see only the chilly road ahead.
Tyrion probably thought her rude. For one of the few times in her life, Sansa thought Let him and kept courtesies to herself. While her unwanted husband did not bring her hate—far from it, in the grand scheme of things—she felt no obligations to him. Their marriage had been a time of fear and grief, and recollections of it only increased the ice at her core.
The North felt winter more deeply than the South. Already, Sansa could feel how truly it was her only home. She would not die by fire, but by ice. A frozen maid by the ruins of a frozen castle, for Winterfell could not be whole again without a family.
Sansa never forgot that this protection was more than half due to politics, to the game. Daenerys must needs play it well, and Sansa too if she wanted more than survival.
Whatever Tyrion wanted, he did not reveal to her. She did not ask.
With no summer rains to wash anything away, the ravagement of the Northern countryside lay stark and bleak on the sides of every trail. Deep ruts in the ground, frozen blood, corpses and bones lying stripped of all value and in pieces. No one came to meet them, and half the cottages they could see were marked by fire or sword. Yes, Sansa belonged here. The brokenness inside her seemed vomited out, present in the land itself.
Winterfell finally crested the horizon, scattered towers and piles of rubble. All blackened by fire. Fire and blood. All that Daenerys Targaryen ever gifted, despite her kindness.
Sansa drew up her horse and drew back her hood, letting the cold breeze tug at her coifed hair and the scene fill all her gaze. Her jaw was steel, her fingers ivory, but her skin was still porcelain and her eyes stung. Once she'd built Winterfell as a snow castle. The reality could not have been any more protective. than such fragile snow. Broken...violated...like her family. Sansa shuddered and her breath caught in her throat.
Nymeria whined and trotted ahead, her nose to the road. With the wolf's absence, Tyrion was able to draw his horse beside her. "Is something wrong, Lady Stark?" he asked. The first real words shared between them in weeks.
She looked to him almost bewildered.
"Anything I can help, I mean." He looked irritated with himself for asking, but awkward as well.
"No." Sansa barely got the word out before looking back to her home. "No, my lord."
No more words could she spare. She made her horse run ahead of them all towards the broken gates; Nymeria kept pace, like her inner spirit brought to life. There, for several precious minutes, she sat astride her horse alone in Winterfell. The last Stark.
"There must always be a Stark in Winterfell," she whispered to no one but the ghosts after swallowing the lump in her throat. Her fingers dug deep into Nymeria's fur and did not let go.
Someone, not Sansa, walked through the ruins of Winterfell and found the buildings repaired by the Boltons and untouched by dragonfire. Lord and Lady of Winterfell could not sleep in piles of rubble, after all. Before Sansa entered, someone had replaced the garish red and pink of Bolton with white and grey and black. The old banners had all been torched. She smelled newness on the bright white cloth of the replacements, and wondered what—if anything—was left of the home she'd been cradled in from birth onwards. What made this still Winterfell?
From one of the tall windows, she watched the men of her escort begin clearing the rubble from the courtyard. They were here for Daenerys, and for Tyrion, but she couldn't allow herself to resent them. They had no choice to be here, and if it were not them...it would be no one.
Winter sun in her eyes made her squint. She breathed in the cold air, and if she closed her eyes a little further it really was home.
A gust of cold wind buffeted her back, making her grip the side of the window to keep from falling out. Like Bran. Worried for the breeze in what would be her living quarters, she turned to face the wind and follow it to its source. Men bustled around the building as if they hadn't noticed, and only one in a dozen even seemed to see her.
Even in her fur cloak, Sansa felt cold. She kept going. Only a few yards off from it, she knew that the breeze came from the crypts and her skin prickled with goosepimples. Turning back, though, would mean that she'd lost the part of her that belonged there as all Starks did. She was of a bloodline that did not fear either winter or death. She was a wolf child.
Hurrying past the people who'd cast curious glances towards her strange movements, ignoring Tyrion's "Lady Sansa?", she followed the cold breeze to the crypt.
Whether it was warning her away or beckoning her closer, she couldn't have said.
Nymeria hurried at her heels, ears half pinned back to her shaggy head. Sansa breathed in ice and descended the dark, half-broken steps. The graves of her ancestors lined the walls, unlit and untended, in a nigh-suffocating darkness.
"What is wrong?" Tyrion had followed her and broke the awkward tension between them with a worried question.
Sansa swallowed and shook her head. "I need a torch," was all she could say, and not even meeting his eyes.
He had a silent practicality sometimes, and returned shortly with a single torch.
She didn't stay for questions, just took the torch and walked into the cold dark. The pace of her heartbeat could have matched a galloping horse, but she felt drawn to something. Something.
Past the tombs of her grandfather and grandmother, past the tomb of her aunt Lyanna, a shadow lurked that had not been cast by her torch. It hunched over what should have been her father's tomb, a gargoyle of the night.
Nymeria leapt forward with a growl of fierce outrage, only to fall back with a whimper when the shadow moved and became a figure in a black cloak. Sansa's call to her wolf (I must get that away from father's grave) froze in her throat; for she couldn't remember Nymeria ever fearing anything.
Pale eyes glowed in the light of her torch, full of bitter hate. A look Sansa knew well, and feared. She would have run, but the shadow's gaze fell to Nymeria and returned changed to Sansa's. The hood fell back to reveal a sick corpse and Sansa let out a small cry, frozen stiffly in place. The shadow--a woman, it seemed, though her face had lost such distinction--raised a black hand to her throat to cover a jagged cut across it.
Tyrion was behind her, his hand on hers, saying something urgent. His earlier worry might have been due to having nothing else to do, but now it was sincere. She neither heard nor paid mind.
All she sensed was a growl less audible than Nymeria's, yet she knew it.
The whole of her body shuddered and she covered her mouth to keep another cry from escaping.
Nymeria backed away, as did Tyrion, as the corpse-woman stepped forward from Ned Stark's would-be grave.
"Sansa," it said again more intelligibly, hand still clasping a years-old wound on her throat.
"Mother," Sansa whispered back, and wanted to fall to her knees as she'd not done since the godswood in King's Landing.
The woman that had, once, been Catelyn Stark stumbled forward and enveloped Sansa in her dead, shadowy arms. She had no warmth or life, yet something that might have been her spirit made Sansa not pull away. Dark magic, yet not as dark as the tragedy of the Starks. Sansa shuddered and clung, out of desperation that this was only a bit of comfort before she, too, would be dragged into death itself. Her mother held her and perhaps death would not be so bad after all this time.
"Vengeance," whispered Catelyn's corpse, her rotten fingers brushing gently through Sansa's hair. A promise, a mother's oath, a vow of honor. "Lannister. Frey. Bolton."
Sansa shook her head and swallowed a childish choking sound. "No, mama, they're gone. They fought the dragons and the dragons won. Lord Walder and Lord Roose, and Jaime and Cersei." The latter had not been slain by Daenerys, but that mattered little now.
The corpse-woman's breath hissed through the gash in her neck, full of frustration. "Vengeance," came the garbled growl, barely Catelyn's at all.
"I won, mama," Sansa whispered. "I don't need vengeance anymore."
Before the last word had left her lips, another wind caught her skirts and loose hair. It was warm as summer, an old embrace and a whisper. Sansa caught her breath and pulled back, looking the creature her mother had become in the eyes. Pale, watery, dead...and stunned now. Hesitating.
The wind swirled around them, warm and natural, and then Catelyn breathed out and it sounded like, "Ned."
Sansa could only watch in the flickering shadows of her dropped torch as her mother reached out a skeleton hand to her last child, touching Sansa's arm to make sure that she was no spirit. Burning tears seared Sansa's cheeks and she trembled, but did not look away. Catelyn finally did, as the warm breeze blew away down the row of crypts. "Ned," she whispered again with a ghostly smile.
The shadowy corpse of Lady Stark moved back to the grave that was meant to hold Sansa's father's bones and, like a child crawling into bed, lay herself in the hollowed-out stone. There was a sigh of spirits and Sansa watched the shadows crumble away until there was nothing. No mother, no father, only the peace of the dead.
Grief overcame her, and she fell to her knees with a keening cry. For a few moments the feeling remained of her mother's embrace, of the warm wind that must have been her father's last breath. Then it faded, and stole all the worry and fear and denial. Sansa was left with only empty loneliness that she had not truly faced.
She buried her fingers in the dirt of the crypts' floor and wept like the child she'd been (the child that had died) so long ago.
When Nymeria came to her and nuzzled her side, and Tyrion laid a tentative hand on her shoulder, both of them shaken and full of worry, she didn't differentiate between them. Only sobbed, and prayed that it would be the last time.
Nymeria gravely gnawed at a meaty bone by the fire where she'd been dismissed, leaving Lord and Lady of Winterfell to their formal meal. The hall had too little in it to keep it warm and so both persons dressed in furs. They might have done so regardless, for the armoring of the thick garments. A grim silence added to the cold as much as the scarce insulating tapestries, though the food steamed hot and fresh from the kitchen.
Sansa ate the pigeon pie and parsnips in thick gravy, dabbing a crust of bread into the juices and downing it all with a hot cider. Tyrion made a light compliment about the Northern cuisine and she thanked him politely.
What they'd seen in the crypts two days before might never have happened for all they'd spoken of it since. Memory was not the issue--Sansa remembered all too clearly the cold shadow and the warm comfort that her companions had offered. They'd touched her like she was a brittle sheet of ice on the verge of shattering, and likewise every man Dany had sent to Winterfell looked at her as if she was a White Walker's queen. Sansa had come back home touched only by winter.
But then, she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt like a summer child. Had she not been born in the grips of winter? She thought her mother had told her so once.
"Sansa." Tyrion's low voice broke her withdrawn silence and made her look up. "Or Lady Stark, if you wish."
Sansa swallowed, remembering how once he'd called her Lady Lannister, years and years ago in King's Landing. At the time she'd not been able to hide the way her face crumbled, and he'd answered with a look of pain and a blatant ignoring of her for days. That was the first night he'd come to their bed in a nightshirt instead of the bare skin he'd preferred before. And she'd been grateful, and not the least guilty for it. Painful lessons had come by the dozen in those days. "Yes?" she replied now, avoiding the choice he offered her. Names meant nothing and everything and she couldn't decide what she should be to him.
"I don't want this." He swallowed his wine and faced her squarely. "Believe me, if the queen didn't wish me here, I'd have had our marriage annulled by the first septon who didn't curse me as kinslayer. Since that's out of the question, though, I don't want a repeat of those excruciating months in King's Landing."
Sansa tightened her stance, not even thinking why. "What do you want?" she asked flatly, holding her lips in an unmoving line.
Tyrion made a face and set his goblet on the table. "What do I want? I want my brother and sister-children to be alive, still. I want to be six feet tall and beloved by the kingdom. I want to be back in the south instead of this godsforsaken frozen waste. I want my wife to stop looking at me like I'm about to murder her--or worse." He made a resigned sound and shifted in his seat. "And yes, I know I've been selfish. I didn't just fall into the lap of luxury with Queen Daenerys. I'd like to think I did a little soul-searching in my trials before, and faced some...flaws. But as you said, I've been more selfish than I even admitted to myself, and I've held grudges, and done things that will haunt me. I'm not asking for your trust because I know now it doesn't work like that. For both our sakes, however, I'd rather that we can at least talk. This wretched discomfort is not something I want to share with any woman. I'm not saying that I won't wrong you, somehow, because gods know I can be an ass. But I'll try, as always, to be good to you. I did promise you that once and I meant it. Perhaps less then than I do now, but--"
He broke off, the look in his eyes distant for a moment before he continued. "I'm not trying to be a monster anymore. You don't deserve me in any fashion, but since we're here, I would like you to tell me what you want. I know I can't make you happy but I'll do my best to make you content. Daenerys said we were to rebuild Winterfell together. Just tell me how, and I'll give you my best effort." When he was finished, he breathed out and sat back, dropping his eyes for a second as if he hadn't planned on so much.
Sansa sat as still as death for many long minutes, watching the man who no longer met her gaze. Ever since Daenerys had told her the terms of her returning home, she'd thought back on her marriage to Tyrion Lannister. When they'd wedded he'd been a twisted little man in more than just looks. She'd been lost, then, and so had he. They'd been cruel to each other and yet he had been sure he'd been kind. Any guilt Sansa had felt had been overcome by the fact that she had told him true from the beginning. He'd offered himself, his "goodness", and yet she had not wanted it. So he'd given her only decency and that with bitterness. No, he'd not been a good husband. Kinder than some, and gentler, but not good. Sansa's girlish foolishness could not erase that there had been little to love about Tyrion--at least that he'd shown to her.
Yet he'd never been a man she could hate. Fear, perhaps, but not hate. She'd pitied him more than once, and appreciated the scraps of goodness she'd received. Sometimes she'd even liked or been grateful to him. That was not love, but it was not nothing.
Now he sat with the same strange awkwardness on his face. He did not love her, perhaps did not even like her, but they were here and could not escape and so they must find something. Sansa understood desperate practicality, and finding ways to live a broken life. And this time she had a choice, and power, and that made all the difference.
Tyrion finally met her gaze again with weary resignation, as if he knew what she would say next.
Sansa looked down at her clasped hands in her lap, at the hand that had not worn his ring in three years and need not wear it now save on her will alone. This is my home, not his, this time. Winterfell had known many lords and ladies, and only few had shared any love. What they had shared, as her father and mother had told her when she was too young to listen, was quiet and understanding. Northerners spoke little, but they were always honest.
Before Tyrion could give up and leave, she met his eyes and said in a voice that was less empty, "I would like for your stonemason to create two stone wolves."
He looked confused, but said nothing.
Sansa took a breath and continued in a voice less controlled, "One for my mother and one for my father. Their crypts should not lie empty with no place for their spirits to dwell. My mother was born a Tully...but in the end, she was strong as any wolf." Her voice faded at the end, the grief still too new, but she did not break.
Tyrion looked at her with an expression of surprise for a long moment, then a half smile touched his deformed lips. There was a 'thank you' there, even though not in his words. "It shall be done, as swift as I can order it. A far nobler task than most around here, I'm afraid."
Sansa could not quite manage a smile, but she nodded, and they took a sip of wine together.
They spoke no more during dinner, nor when they parted for their separate chambers. Yet there was no chill in Sansa's limbs as she crawled under her furs and nuzzled against Nymeria's neck, and no dread of the breakfast that would come in the morning. Even though she could no longer quite remember their faces, she thought her mother and father would be proud of her. She would be Lady of Winterfell indeed and though her marriage was still a farce, perhaps it would be honestly undertaken at last.
She and Tyrion, she thought as she went to sleep, had been without truth for far too long.
Dany met her court as Ser Barristan advised her to, every morning and every evening. Conquerors tended to rule by force at first, by fear, and at first Dany had rejected him in the fervor of her right to the throne. She'd stormed out of Jorah and Barristan's council with Targaryen words on her lips, and it had been nigh a week before she returned to accept their advice. As far as the common folk were concerned, the throne only belonged to whoever held it. They were not traitors; indeed, they had very little influence over the occupancy of the throne. Treating them haughtily would, Dany finally agreed, create resentment.
Winter darkened the Seven Kingdoms already. No need for yet another war.
The court soon taught Dany that her loveliness still had use. Westeros had knelt before the dragons, but brought its concerns to the young beauty who sat the throne lightly, no weapon upon her but slender bare hands. She smiled as she dealt out justice, and listened to every concern. Royalty was a right but also a duty, and no matter how heavy she was determined to bear it. She'd won so much. She could not lose now.
Yet after each session was done and she rose from the throne, back aching where she could not lean it against the sharp swords, she retired to her chamber with its cushions and wine and sweetmeats. Even the winter sun of King's Landing was warm enough to bask in. Dany liked to curl up by her window and rest her eyes for an hour or so, often with Ser Pounce resting between her breasts like her dragons had once done.
Once she was recovered from politics, it was off to see her dragons. With the dearth of winter, she'd taught them to fish for their food. Drogon especially had a taste for krakens now, and it still terrified most of her remaining Dothraki to see the black and red dragon carry the great sea-beast ashore to devour. Dany only smiled, and called to her dragon-son in the fellow language of warriors. The song of dragons.
Today, however, she would attend to her small council first. Doran, her master of coin, still resided in Dorne and sent instructions by raven. Tyrion as master of ships would do likewise from Winterfell, once they had a navy again. Barristan as commander of her Kingsguard was waiting, timely as always. Lord Florent and Lord Tyrell—her masters of laws and whispers—were absent. She'd as yet to name a hand, so Jorah as her commander of the goldcloaks was the only other person waiting in the chambers. Frowning, Dany waved a hand as she approached the long table.
"There was nothing to bring to your highness," Barristan informed her, rising from his seat and bowing. "So I dismissed the other nobles."
Dany suspected something in the absence of any talk at all, but knew that Barristan and Jorah would be no less diligent than her in guessing at dissent. Voicing her suspicions would hardly make the situation better. "Thank you, Ser Barristan. Is that all?"
Jorah cleared his throat. Her older, wiser, and more-worn bear; he more than Ser Barristan had aged on the last journey to Westeros. Perhaps it had been Dany's mistrust, near hatred, that he'd had to overcome. Perhaps it had been the trials he barely spoke of, from when he'd first been banished.
"Yes?" she asked him, wondering what he would say that he could not say in their private chambers. His frequent visits ended often in whispers and moans, yet not always.
"My cousin, Lyanna Mormont," Jorah said. "She sent a message from Bear Island asking that I return home. Her mother and sisters are still missing and she is but thirteen years old."
Dany's brow furrowed. "Of course you must visit and properly arrange things. If a new maester or castellan is required, I'm sure you would be invaluable in helping Lady Mormont appoint them."
Jorah frowned and did not answer for a moment. When he did, it was standing straight with his hands clasped behind his back. "I am asked to take my place as Lord Mormont, Daenerys. And I would accept."
Dany stiffened but did not blink. Nor did he, as if he was telling her no more than a bit of common gossip. "You would leave my side and abandon your post?"
"I've prepared a successor for your goldcloaks," Jorah said without hesitation. "My family needs me. I told you when we first met...I've always wished to go home."
But you told me that I was your home, once. Dany felt her throat tighten in an emotion she could not name, yet swiftly she stuffed it behind her queenly pride. "Then return home, Lord Mormont. I would not force you to remain."
She'd never called him that before. However, he did not flinch. "Thank you, your grace," he murmured and bowed before departing the room.
Dany would have an empty bed that night. Hurt turned to anger and then to hate before she even reached her chambers, but even hatred could not keep her from sobbing fiery tears into her pillow. Jorah was gone again. As a child she'd whispered to herself that the Iron Throne would fill the hollow in her belly that had been there since birth. After conquering, she'd felt whole at last. Yet her bear left and the hollow was there with a vengeance.
She hated him and slept with her dragons that night, and every night until he finally rode north.
Sansa made a noise of surprise when Tyrion handed her a letter at their shared breakfast, wondering who could be writing to her. Yet they were his words, when she opened the parchment. His words to his queen, a report on their progress and some notes on his position as master of ships. She read swiftly, then looked up in confusion. "What is there for me to see?"
He shrugged. "I thought you might have something to add."
Sansa shook her head and handed the letter back. "No, my lord, it's a satisfactory letter."
"Tyrion," he said. "Call me Tyrion, please."
Sansa nodded slightly and served herself more of the sweet oat cakes and tea. The last five weeks had not made her more fond of her erstwhile husband, yet they'd eased some of her fears. He had more honor, or perhaps more stubbornness, than she'd expected when they declared a truce. Haltingly, awkwardly, they'd worked together to begin Winterfell's rebuilding.
"Good, good," Tyrion said, and sealed the letter with his Lannister seal. Once it was set aside, he piled his plate with bacon and herring. "Do you know, Lady Stark, that this is the same breakfast I had on my first morning here, five years ago now."
She'd been expecting merely small talk, and had to look up, a slight furrow between her brows. "Your first morning here?"
"King Robert came to visit your father. Surely you remember."
Sansa had not thought nor spoken of her father since the stone wolves above his tomb had been laid in place. It was not kind of Tyrion to bring up such memories--yet neither was it unkind, she realized, as her stomach did not tighten and twist. Only a soft sadness made her nod and reply, "Yes, I remember. I did not recall you there, that is all."
"Of course." He snorted. "I've never been the place young girls look to first, or ever."
Sansa managed a wan smile, and since she could not deny his statement she said nothing. Honesty brought them so far, and she would not be the first to abandon it.
Tyrion sighed and ate his breakfast, filling the hall with the loud crunching of bacon. Nymeria's ears twitched from her place on the rug and she watched the new lord of Winterfell, as always, with mild caution.
The wolf had dominated Sansa's dreams from the night before. Ever since Daenerys had arrived, she'd had many of the same dreams. They were wild and almost senseless and had her waking every time breathless and in a sweat. Yet not nightmares, no, not terrifying. The Hound had often called her a little bird, but in her dreams she was a wolf. Winter made game scarce in the forests around Winterfell, yet wolf-Sansa hunted with skill she did not know she possessed in life. Every time she woke, a thrill of satisfaction put a half smile on her lips though Nymeria was never there to see it.
Arya's wolf was hers now, but Sansa only woke to find her present when she had nightmares. Nymeria seemed to know when she was needed, and Sansa's silent tremors or desperate screams always found relief in the licking of a warm tongue on her cheek or the nuzzle of a cool nose to her neck. She could bury her fingers in soft grey fur and cling for hours, and Nymeria never chided her for childishness.
Sometimes she had nightmares, sometimes she had wolf dreams. On rare nights, she had a sleep as dreamless as Winterfell's itself. Every morning, regardless of her sleep, Nymeria accompanied her to breakfast with Tyrion.
Said breakfast now finished, Sansa departed the hall to give instructions to the men at work. Tyrion allowed her to make any commands; "You are the heir of this place--I am not," he'd said once. She thought then that he looked pained, and wondered if he'd rather be at Casterley Rock. Yet her wondering never had any other proof, and she would not ask for it. Her orders brought the old Winterfell back to life, while he dealt with everything that must be changed. Dragons and winter had come. Ned Stark's Winterfell would never be as it was.
Neither would Ned Stark's daughter.
When there was nothing useful for her to do, Sansa walked with Nymeria to the godswood and said her prayers. If the Seven had ever done anything for her, she could not remember. It had made her abandon them at last, without regret. I've become a practical woman. A lady is good to all around her, not just those who help her. Maybe one day I will be a lady again. Maybe when the nightmares go away.
Today she knelt, breath visible in the cold, whispering her prayers with more enthusiasm than ever she had as a child. Sunlight dappled down onto her cheeks through crimson leaves, the pools steaming around her. The sheer age of the wood brought her comfort, and she sometimes thought she could hear the gods listening.
Sansa looked up, startled, at the sound of Tyrion's voice. "I would not be long here. You need not have walked so far, if you wished to speak to me."
The man made a face. "Walking is good for me, so the maester says. Have I interrupted you?"
"Yes, but I do not mind," Sansa said, turning but not rising from her knees. Tyrion knew he was a dwarf, of course, but Sansa thought it polite to not remind him of it every time by standing and towering above him.
"A raven came from Bear Island. Lord Mormont and his cousin wish to visit you." Tyrion laughed slightly. "They did not even acknowledge my existence, which I think Daenerys would find the opposite of my purpose here. I, however, am not so proud. You'll wish to receive them, I assume."
Sansa nodded quickly. Ser Jorah had been kind in King's Landing, and she had never found reason to doubt the Mormont's fondness for her family. "I've not received anyone in so long. It will be good... Winterfell was always full of guests, before."
A flash of bitterness struck Tyrion's face. "Casterley Rock, not so much. My father wished to keep my existence hidden as much as possible."
She said nothing. When it came to the Lannisters, she had nothing proper to say to him. She'd rejoiced over Tywin and Joffrey's deaths. For a moment she'd mourned when Myrcella and Tommen were pronounced executed by the Martells—an offering of loyalty to Daenerys and her Targaryen claim—but the news of Jaime and Cersei's subsequent deaths had only filled her with relief. Lancel and Kevan, she'd never cared for either way, and the fewer Lannisters alive the less her nightmares felt real. House loyalty was still an ugly distance between her and her husband, an unfinished war that neither were willing to fight.
"Never mind," Tyrion finally sighed. He ran fingers through his ragged yellow hair, then nodded to her. "I'll send them a reply for you, then. Mormont and I can get along if need be, no worries. I've yet to meet the young girl, but I'm sure she'll give me the same mild scorn." Shaking his head, he turned and left the godswood, walking with a weary kind of waddle to his step.
Sansa smiled weakly at the thought of Lyanna Mormont facing Tyrion Lannister. The girl would be thirteen now and taller than him. She'd probably make him grumble and bluster and try to best her at games of wit. Tyrion never did allow people to make fun of him without retaliation. It was one thing that had not changed in his travels. What had, however, she was surprisingly grateful for. If she held her tongue when he spoke self-deprecatingly, or called for pity with his words, he eventually sighed and moved on from the subject. Sansa never wanted to tell him how his self-pity wearied her and made him look only more vulnerable. Another person had, perhaps, and now he checked himself at least half the time.
Whatever had befallen Tyrion on his travels outside of Westeros, the changes made him easier to...deal with. There were worse political husbands, truly.
Sansa sometimes included Tyrion in her prayers now. Their partnership had no warmth, yet it was safe. Stability, rare as it had once been, now seemed to bless them with contentment.
He'd kept his promise to her, and Sansa was finding that Tyrion often did that now.
The morning before the Mormonts arrived, Sansa woke from a wolf dream to find Nymeria gone. Her maid showed obvious relief at that—Sansa found amusement in whenever denizens of Winterfell balked at her large, but generally harmless, wolf. Nymeria became every day her second self, and Sansa didn't mind being feared. She'd been hated and ignored before; a little fear mixed in with general respect and love was not undesirable.
Today's gown was silver and blue, a river-blue that made her hair seem as red as blood. It, like all her other gowns, felt tighter around bosom and hips than it had when she'd been given it six months ago in King's Landing.
"You're growing a woman's form," her maid said with approval, adjusting the laces to perfection. "It may be winter but it's peace, and that's good for girls' growth."
Sansa brushed her hands over the top of the gown where it curved around full breasts. Her body had known the thinness of fear and running for years now, and this fullness of womanhood felt odd. She'd been betrothed and married almost half a dozen times, and had faced the desires of men more than she wished to remember. Even her maidenhead was gone—she'd lost it with wine coursing through her veins, with Podrick whispering 'Alayne' against her neck like the sweetest of prayers, with a smile on her face despite the quick burst of pain. (He'd not recognized her and they'd parted ways when his lady-knight returned for him and they both disappeared on a quest they kept secret.) Yet Sansa did not feel like a woman. She never had, at her core.
As always, though, she played the part. Her mother's role, she thought as her maid wound her hair in a familiar pattern, thick braids of auburn hair twisted at the back of her head and held in place with clips of gold. The weight of ladyship, the burden of Winterfell. She bore it willingly in the end.
Once prepared for guests, it was down to breakfast. She'd only gone down half the stairs before a loud yelp made her hurry her descent.
"Get off!" Tyrion called, but no one seemed to hear him.
Sansa rushed into the hall expecting ruffians or soldiers, only to see Nymeria crouched atop the man and licking his entire face with her tongue.
"Sansa!" Struggling, Tyrion called to her, using her name in his unsettled state. "I gave the wolf a herring and she attacked me!"
Nymeria licked full up his face and made him bluster loudly.
Sansa brought a hand to her mouth and choked back a laugh.
Tyrion growled. "I try to be good to the beast and she abuses me."
Nymeria pressed her nose to Tyrion's, tail wagging fiercely.
Sansa burst out into giggles that not even her hand could muffle. "Nymeria," she said through the laughter, "to me." Reluctantly the wolf pulled away, leaving a disheveled Tyrion to scramble to his feet. A bit of his hair was slicked back thanks to the thorough licking, and he was red-faced and scowling. Yet she laughed and ruffled Nymeria's ears, and couldn't stop laughing the more he scowled.
"Now I must clean up so that Lord Mormont doesn't think I've just rolled out of bed." He waggled a finger at Nymeria. "No more herring for you. Ever. Damnable beast." Then he turned his scowl up to Sansa. "And you."
Sansa giggled. "No more herring for me either?" she said, with an attempt at a straight face.
Tyrion's lip twitched, his scowl threatening to disappear. "Exactly right."
"I am devastated," Sansa told him, choking on a stray laugh.
"Good," Tyrion said, sniffed, and walked as proudly as he could from the hall.
Nymeria looked up at her mistress almost mournfully. Sansa smiled, walked over to the table, and gave her a herring. "That was very naughty," she said, still smiling, "but I think he liked it."
So did Sansa, she decided later as they stood at the gate for the Mormonts' arrival. She stood tall with hands clasped at her waist. Tyrion stood at her side, arms crossed over his chest. His hair still looked rather licked. Sansa smiled and stroked Nymeria's fur. No, she was not quite a woman yet. Unless it was womanly to tease one's husband mercilessly, and in that case she had taken her first step.
"You're looking very well," Jorah said as he dismounted, walking up to meet her with young Lyanna at his side.
"Thank you, Lord Mormont," Sansa said. "It has been a good morning."
"At least for some of us," Tyrion said dryly.
Jorah snorted. "No worries, Tyrion, the lady's beauty makes everyone forget your very existence."
"I should kick you in the shins, were you not speaking the truth," Tyrion said with half a growl, but reached up and took Jorah's hand to shake it.
"Lady Sansa," Lyanna said and bowed. "Is this your husband? I've not ever met a dwarf before."
"He is Tyrion Lannister," Sansa corrected swiftly. She paused, then, as they all looked to her. Once, no one had looked at her except to request her obedience. Now, they waited on her word. The word of Lady Stark. Playing her woman's part with more ease than ever before, she said after a moment, "And yes he is still my husband."
When they walked into Winterfell, Tyrion gave Sansa a look that was three parts gratitude, one part surprise.
Mormonts never gave in, yet Lyanna had been near to doing so before cousin Jorah arrived and swept her into a bear hug. She'd clung for dear life, even though she'd never met him, and refused to let go for a full minute.
"I heard you needed me," he said with a smile, though one that did not reach his eyes.
Lyanna nodded, and before she knew it they were inside by the fire and she was spilling out all her fears about mother and sisters alike. The last she'd heard, they were with King Stannis at the Wall or with Robb Stark's last wishes. Since the arrival of the dragon queen, she'd heard nothing.
Jorah had sighed and nodded. "They are likely biding their time. My aunt would never bow the knee without considering every option first."
"If they're alive," Lyanna had fretted.
Jorah had assured her that night, as he had for many nights since. He was dreadfully old and looked nothing like the rest of her family, but Lyanna knew Mormonts and he was one to the core. Yet after her relief and gratitude, as he helped her with all the duties of ruler of Bear Island, they started to bond as family and she noticed a heaviness in his eyes.
"Why did you leave your queen after all these years," she'd asked one night over a game of cyvasse.
"For love," he'd answered shortly, face growing tight.
Lyanna was old enough not to question him further then.
"The rumors all say that Queen Daenerys loved you," she brought up weeks later, as he taught her how to fight with an arakh. "Is that why you came home to stay?"
Jorah hissed and buried the arakh in a straw figure. "No."
Lyanna was no fool. She said no more, and thought she'd put the pieces together. Her cousin was suffering from a broken heart, and trying hard to forget it. Yet every night he stroked the wooden dragon he wore about his neck, and Lyanna could see pain in his eyes. Forgetfulness was not what he wanted.
Bear Island seemed empty these days, and it had been her idea to visit the new Lady Stark. She'd remembered Sansa as a little girl, but they'd both grown in the following years. Lyanna's breasts were finally starting to bloom, and Sansa looked quite like a fair lady of song. Surrounded by the gruff bear men for so long, the obvious womanly touch in Winterfell made Lyanna feel immediately happier than she had in a while.
When Sansa whispered, "It is good to see a friend at last," once Jorah and Tyrion were away, Lyanna knew that this trip had been a most brilliant plan.
She decided to give Sansa a hug without warning, which made the older girl freeze for an instant, but she returned the embrace and smiled.
"It's been lonely on Bear Island," Lyanna said once they were settled with tea and lemoncakes. "I worry for my mother and sisters, though Jorah says I shouldn't."
"Lord Mormont is wise," Sansa said quietly. "Worry saves no lives."
"Oh, I am sorry," Lyanna said, flushing red. "I didn't mean—"
Sansa shook her head. "I lost my family years ago. I am not hurt to be reminded now."
Lyanna thought that was half a lie, given how the light had dimmed in Sansa's big blue eyes. Yet she nodded, ate her lemoncake, and changed the subject. The thought of her family becoming like the Starks frightened her more than she wanted to admit. "I'm glad, though, that I do not need to be Lady Mormont anymore. I like the fine gowns, but I like my arakh more."
Sansa's eyebrows rose high. "What?"
"It's a Dothraki blade," Lyanna said, with a shy grin. "Jorah is teaching me to fight with it. I know it's not ladylike, but I like it." While her older sisters followed their mother's example of fierce protection, none of them paying much attention to things of beauty, Lyanna had stubbornly insisted that she liked fine things whether they were gowns or steel. Jorah didn't quite understand, but Lyanna loved the beautiful curve of his foreign blade as much as she loved the delicate silver bells he'd given her.
"My sister wanted a sword," Sansa said wistfully. "It isn't ladylike, no, but after everything..." Her eyes seemed far away, her breath more like a sigh. "Not all women need be ladies. There are far worse things."
Lyanna nodded again and sipped her tea. It was so good to speak of things again to someone of her own age. "King Stannis was going to make Bear Island part of his realm, but I told him that I would only bend the knee to a Stark. And dragons, I suppose. They are as worthy as direwolves, in the end."
Sansa smiled, and clapped a little so that Nymeria appeared out of the shadows.
"Oh, may I touch her?" Lyanna asked, eyes widening.
As if expecting the question, Sansa nodded, and Nymeria nosed Lyanna's hand with a playful look in her golden eyes.
"You're lucky, Sansa" Lyanna said while grinning at the wolf. "She's as good as any sword."
Her hostess said nothing, only smiled a queer smile.
Winterfell had much that struck Lyanna as strange, in particular the coolness between Lady Stark and her husband. Jorah had reprimanded her too about her calling him a dwarf, but he was short and the way he spoke with Sansa reminded her of no one she'd ever seen. They were not friends, she guessed—they shared only occasional conversation, and little of it with any warmth. Nor did they hate each other, though, which perhaps explained why they still admitted to being married. Lyanna had seen many couples without love for each other, yet none with such tension between them. So much lay unsaid, and Lyanna's curiosity almost drove her to interrogate Sansa and Tyrion as she had interrogated Jorah.
That would be impolite, however, and Lyanna did try to be a lady.
Sansa woke from a wolf dream one night and could not go back to sleep. The moon shone fully and she had the urge to go stand under its light. Her nightrobe had a fur lining to keep her warm, and she put on slippers before going to stand in the courtyard and stare at the moon.
It seemed only a few moments later before Jorah joined her.
"Can you not sleep?" she asked him. "Is there something you lack?"
"No, Lady Stark," he said. "My poor sleep has been going on long before I came here." He forced a smile. "You've been more than kind to us."
Sansa accepted the compliment. "I'm glad...it is all new to me. Sometimes during the war I thought I would never be lady of anything, not even a cottage to call my own."
"So did I," Jorah murmured. "Not the lady part, but... I didn't think to be home."
His tone was as light as he could make it, but Sansa heard what lay behind it. There was a tiredness in this man. He had suffered long and did not yet believe his new position. The war had broken many, and Sansa pitied him as she pitied herself. The moon showed the harsh lines of his face and she wondered if any of her scars ever showed thus.
"Will you tell the queen of this visit?" she finally asked curiously.
He shook his head, hair falling to half-hide his face. "I do not think she would welcome the correspondence."
Sansa spoke before thinking, "But are you not lovers?"
Jorah stared at her, surprised.
Feeling foolish, Sansa opened her mouth to apologize but stopped when he spoke first.
"Just a paramour, I'm afraid, my lady. I thought lover as well, but it never became anything. She is a queen and I..." He trailed off, shaking his head again.
"I'm sorry," Sansa said quietly. For such a large man he looked very sorrowful then, worn and pale in the moonlight. She'd not known love in so long, but the word still tasted sweet in her mind. Jorah's bitterness made her stretch out a hand to rest on his arm.
He smiled at her, sighed, then turned and walked back to his room.
Sansa stayed in the courtyard until Nymeria returned from her hunt to join her. With her direwolf, she could never be truly alone, yet her heart had only pity for Jorah. Not sympathy. No, she could not share his pain, for her heart was empty. She'd almost forgotten that it was not natural.
Winterfell will be full again someday, but I will not. I've lost too many things for good. I've lost love.
She settled for contentment when weariness fell on her again, returning to her bed to curl up and rest her head on Nymeria's flank.
Far from Rh'llor and Azor Ahai, Melisandre walked the Wall alone. Night came for her, stretching out cold fingers for her soul. She could feel the darkness calling and every time she refused to look was as strong as if she'd said: "Go back. I fear not your terrors." Lies, if spoken to the enemy, were a weapon of good.
Ice crunched beneath her boots. So high up, no other sound could be heard. She walked alone with her own thoughts, and for all her faith felt empty.
Neither of her Azor Ahai's gave her peace, only frustration. Stannis would not give her up and Jon would not accept her. Every day she had to fight to keep him from leaping off the Wall. He had plenty to remind him of his oaths and of the war to defeat the night, but Melisandre could see and understand the despair in his soul. Not all those given second life by Rh'llor could accept his fiery gift. Before he could take his role, Jon would have to shed the ice and snow that was his birthright.
Melisandre would not give up, for she did not wish to see the end of the world.
In the darkness she mistook Maege Mormont for a pillar, and started with a curse when the stout woman shifted to nod her greeting.
"A shame you aren't as warm to the touch as you look," the Mormont woman said with a half laugh, once Melisandre had calmed. "I swear I've frozen my fingers off already, and the watch is only half done."
Melisandre shivered, longing for Dragonstone or Asshai again. Though supplemented by the crannogmen of Greywater Watch and Stannis' exiled troops, the Wall still barely had enough to keep its length manned. Even with the women...it was a dismal defense. The army was coming. They were coming, and without Azor Ahai the Wall would fail.
"What from your visions has you worried?" Maege, like the other Northmen, accepted Rh'llor and his priestess with far more grace than the southern-born men on the Wall. Not that she would convert, but she offered respect.
"Nothing." Melisandre shook her head. "Not from my fires. I'm worried, as always, for the state of men."
Maege laughed. "A pity we must rely on them, yes. Especially yours."
She could only sigh. "I thought perhaps your Robb Stark's letter would inspire him. He is Jon Stark, now, heir to Winterfell. A royal pardon allows him to claim his right and leave the Wall. Why does he not? Why will he not lead?"
Lady Mormont shrugged. "On Bear Island we make our own leadership, if those with the right fail us."
Melisandre gave her a grim smile. "If only prophecy came about that way, my lady."
"They say Howland Reed inspired Ned Stark, and he was no more apt to leadership than this Jon Snow. Once that crannogman arrives, perhaps things will be different."
A fierce wind blew in from beyond the Wall, blowing Melisandre's hair across her face. She shivered and stared into the night. Upon the wind she could hear whispers and screams, quiet enough that they might have been imagination. But no, she'd heard them in her dreams. They were coming. The army of death and darkness and eternal night was coming.
"Perhaps," she whispered, and stood beside Maege upon the Wall. They were the sword in the darkness, but was their blade sharp enough?
Once the bones of Winterfell fit together once again, with enough trappings that the castle looked whole, Sansa opened court for her bannermen. It was an unexpected duty; though seventeen now and a woman grown, Daenerys had charged Tyrion with the wardenship of the North. Yet when she'd spoken of the restless North at supper, he'd gone silent for a while and finally told her that he'd had enough of being scapegoat.
Sansa wondered what that made her, but allowed him his selfishness. These were her people. If Daenerys objected, she could come up to Winterfell herself.
The first task before her was the empty Bolton lands, without a living heir to inherit. Sansa had stared at the documents for too many nights, nearly sleepless as she remembered the blood on that family's hands. Under her rule, such evil could not be allowed even respect. So it was Lady Tallhart, born of House Hornwood, that was given Dreadfort with the condition that she cleanse it.
"The North remembers Lady Hornwood," Sansa said.
Lady Berena Tallhart smiled. "The North has no more cause to remember."
House after house came to bend the knee and to air their grievances. Some—Umbers and Manderlys mostly—stood by Sansa's throne to support her. Sansa made her judgments with more and more courage as the day went on.
Yet Tyrion arrived after the time to sup had gone without her presence, just as a cry went up, "The North! The North!"
"We are one realm in the end," Sansa added, though her cheeks flushed at the support. "We cannot fight brother against brother again."
"The North never starts wars, only finishes them," said Greatjon Umber and came over to give her a slap on the shoulder.
Sansa smiled shakily, and when she turned her gaze to Tyrion found the man looking stunned, one eyebrow raised in question. "I shall hold court again tomorrow," she announced, and the courtroom filled with the sound of shuffling as they bowed in unison. She'd not forgotten her training; she smiled, nodded, and swept from the room like a queen.
"I knew this would be your talent," Tyrion said as they walked to dinner.
Still flushed with the thrill of being loved by her people, Sansa said boldly, "I always do my duty."
"And I don't?" Tyrion made an offended sound.
Sansa only gave him a look until he grunted and changed the subject.
Their suppers came and went easily these days. Tyrion had adjusted to her winter, as she adjusted to the autumn that he stubbornly named summer. For all his red and gold livery, yellow hair, overly-bright speech, he had the touch of dying in him. Sansa never said it, but there were some things that did not need to be said.
Nymeria more than anything made clear their partnership. While Sansa always, politely, instructed her wolf to sit by the fire for meals, Tyrion had begun sneaking her food beneath the table. Sometimes he pretended not to notice Sansa's disapproving looks. Sometimes he grinned at her, and patted his knee to bring Nymeria closer. The direwolf always obliged for the sake of a good meal. Sansa didn't mind in the end—Nymeria always finished by licking Tyrion across the face, often depositing crumbs of bread and fish in his scruffy beard.
"Gods damn you!" he would growl, and Sansa would smile into her napkin in satisfaction.
"The towers are almost rebuilt," Tyrion informed her at tonight's supper, chicken pie and dumplings with honeyed carrots and mashed turnip. "And the glass gardens too, though I've had to beg her grace for more funds to do it proper. I always assumed you Northmen lived on snow in the winter, but apparently not."
"No," Sansa said without looking up from her chicken pie. "Snow is for play."
He looked up at her, blinking. "Was that a joke, Sansa?"
She shook her head, memories returning like the ache of an old wound. "When snow comes, only the children are ever happy. My brothers used to make armies of snow men that Arya would attack with snowballs. Except for Rickon. He liked to play at being a snow fish, at least until he got too cold."
"And what would you do in the snow?" Tyrion asked, a little quieter than before.
She smiled, though. "Suck on icicles until Arya decided to hit me instead of the snow men. Then it became a snowball fight."
Tyrion grinned. "I'm sure you made quite a lovely target for snowballs."
"Did you play at snowballs?" Sansa asked before remembering that, like her, he'd lost all the family he had. Whether he had found peace with it, she didn't know.
"Never," said Tyrion. "I stayed indoors and read books. Any story I could get my hands on. Someone once told me that you were the same..."
She bit the inside of her lip, wondering how he knew. "I cared too much for stories."
Tyrion's glance at her had disbelief in it, a protest to her quiet murmur, but he shook it off and returned to his supper. The moment of embarrassment passed, and under the table Nymeria nosed at Sansa's hand and whined for food. She slipped her a bite of chicken while Tyrion wasn't looking, and then heard him say, "When I write to the Queen, I think I'll have her send a library to us. Would you like that?"
"I never did read stories from books," Sansa admitted with a little flush. "If it will please you, though, of course."
He scoffed and took a drink of his wine. "You are the lady here. I'm only the Queen's representative."
Light-hearted as always, and she did not appreciate it this time. For a moment she held her tongue, poking at the food on her plate, but then sighed. "So you keep saying, but you hold this castle in my name. Even if you pretend it isn't true, that you aren't my husband, it doesn't make it so."
The room fell silent.
"I thought it might make you less afraid of me, that's all," Tyrion muttered under his breath.
"It doesn't," Sansa said quickly. "I don't like lies."
"Then I beg your pardon, Sansa." Tyrion let out a breath, shifting in his seat with an upset turn to his face. "This is no easy task for me. I hoped you might consider me a friend, at least, so there could be someone from this place who didn't look at me as an enemy."
Another request for pity. Sansa grew weary of that tactic of his, yet this time it gave her a shameful pause. Now she knew the adulation of Northerners, their support and respect. She had Nymeria, too, and with long slow lessons learned to live alone. This time, Tyrion had the disadvantage, alone and unloved. And unlike she had in King's Landing, he was trying—and failing—to belong.
Sympathy softened her and she took a moment to breathe deeply in and out. "I would like to have an honest friend," she said.
He looked up, the disgruntled expression fading a little. "I see." A pause, an exhale. "Well then, in all honesty Sansa, I think there are many books whose reading is essential for all lords and ladies. I'd have them delivered as soon as possible."
Sansa smiled a little. "Very well, then."
And for the sake of friendship, when the books arrived, Sansa stayed by the fire to read them with him. The nights were still silent, and they departed separately when the fire burned low, but it felt less like loneliness. She'd settled for partners, but found that she did not mind friends.
No one had told her that inevitably she would hate the throne she'd fought so long for. Dany discovered that on her own, as the Realm became yet another Mireen, yet another knot of lies and war and blame. Even her dragons made daily restless complaints, and half the time Dany wondered if everyone might be happier if her children fed on dissenters.
Barristan calmly told her no, every time she voiced the frustration.
She missed Doreah and Jhiqui and Rakharo and all those who had died to bring her here. However hard she strove to forget him, she missed Jorah as well. When sadness kept her from sleeping, and she tossed and turned amongst her pillows, Irri always came with a sweet kiss and fingers even sweeter. Release never satisfied her. Whatever she truly wanted, she couldn't name. But Irri had grown to love her and Dany always returned it in the only way she could, making her handmaid squirm and gasp beneath her.
Afterwards, in a cuddle of limbs of brown and white, Dany listened to Irri's heartbeat and missed Drogo so much it hurt. And Jorah, Jorah too. She did not love Irri yet, so there was a hollow in her heart that stayed empty.
A queen needed sleep, though, and so Dany slept wrapped in Irri's strong arms.
Missandei joined them in the morning with breakfast and Ser Pounce, and Dany smiled and put aside how much she hated the throne and hated loss.
"What messages do I have?" she asked, once breakfast was finished and they'd helped her into her day gown.
"One from the Wall, your grace," Missandei said, "asking for recruits as fast as you can find them. One from Lord Tyrell saying he wishes to meet and discuss family matters, and one from Lord Tyrion, who says the North is well and Lady Stark has proved both capable and trustworthy."
"So he says in every letter," Dany commented on the last one, though not displeased. Tyrion might be overly fond of the Stark girl, but she doubted that he would be fooled by treachery. Not if what he said of his past experiences were true. He was as cautious as her, in many ways. "Is there more to Lord Tyrell's message?"
"It is about his missing sister Margaery," Missandei said. "But he says no more."
Dany nodded. "Make an appointment with him, will you? Not today. I will go flying today."
Drogon waited impatiently for her and made a cry of success when he saw the saddle she brought. She nearly fell off twice when trying to mount him, and squeaked in shock when he took off straight up, the air blowing her hair behind her like a comet. It seemed nearly an hour that he spun and turned with her in the winter sun before submitting to her directions and letting her fly across the land.
The realm—her realm—shone brightly even as winter wrapped tighter around every land. Drogon flew higher and once again she marveled at its size. So beautiful...so large...was that what made it so difficult to rule?
Dany flew until her thighs were sore and then returned to the palace. Irri was waiting with a hot bath and a smile and another sweet kiss.
It is my duty, Dany told herself. No wonder it made my father go mad.
She ruled as best she could, even without her original fire and blood. When Lord Tyrell asked a pardon for his sister—the queen of three traitors—she gave him what he asked for. Forgiveness mattered now more than justice. Barristan taught her that.
Snows buried Winterfell for three weeks straight, so that even Sansa had finished all the books in the library before it melted. The walls of her home loomed tall and white with their layers of snow and ice, more like a prison than ever before. Her heartbeat pattered fast, and she woke sweaty from dreams of being trapped beneath a mountain of ice while Joffrey laughed and laughed.
She needed the snow to melt. She needed winter to end.
The feeling of being snowbound made her take to wandering about Winterfell's courtyard, even in the boot-deep snow, until she could barely move for the cold. Then she'd melt the chill away with a hot bath, and go back to wandering. It was starting to remind her of the Eyrie and Petyr and her peace began to crack.
Nymeria still gave her enough comfort to hold onto as she paced the snow until it packed down into near-ice. Another snowfall, and she could have cried but she didn't.
The wind turned her cheeks red as she walked and walked and walked through the white landscape of Winterfell's courtyard.
Suddenly a loose ball of snow came from nowhere and splattered her dress, like white paint on a blue canvas. Sansa gasped and turned every which way to find its source. Another, though smaller, hit her full on the mouth. She yelped.
"I was right," a familiar voice intoned dryly. "You do make a fine target for snowballs."
"Tyrion!" Sansa said, stunned beyond belief.
The Lannister man, all bundled up in furs, came from behind a shed laughing and looking half like a goblin amongst the snow.
Distracted, and flushed from the snow, Sansa declared loudly, "That was not lordly of you at all."
Tyrion laughed again and another snowball hit her square in the belly.
Another snowball went flying past her face and in her irritation she forgot her grace, crossing the distance between them in two steps and tackling him into the snow. He yelped as she pelted him with snow, rolling away toward a drift, but she was taller and therefore swifter and caught his arm.
"Mercy!" he cried, but mercy she did not give.
She had her revenge soon enough, though he didn't stop laughing until the tears ran down his ruined face and she could no longer glare at him. Kneeling in the snow with wet hair, she felt almost a girl again. He did not look like her brothers—far from it with his scarred and twisted face and beard made white from the snow. The mischief in his eyes, however, was clean as a child's.
"That was not ladylike of you," he said once he'd caught his breath.
"No," she admitted, still half breathless. "But you deserved it."
"Aye, I did," he said and laughed. "It was worth it, though. Now I have been in a snowball fight, and now you are smiling."
"There are other ways to do that," she protested, yet offered him a hand when she rose to her feet.
"I know," he said, waddling back with her towards the castle. "But are they that much fun?"
"You're horrible," she said, yet did not mean it and he knew it. The distraction had soothed her nerves, and the hot bath almost lulled her into dreamless sleep.
"Targaryen?" Stannis blustered.
"Targaryen?" Maege laughed.
"Targaryen?" Jon breathed.
"What's a Targaryen?" demanded Tormund Giantsbane.
Howland Reed took a deep breath before beginning, but Melisandre only smiled and looked to her Azor Ahai. For weeks Jon had sat as dead as stone, but now the dragon was awakened. The prince that was promised was here at last and not a moment too soon.
Margaery Tyrell arrived at court to bend the knee to Daenerys Targaryen with her brother Willas' escort. Though the lord of Highgarden walked with a limp, she did not hurry him and seemed to cling. The Martells had kept her secret until Dany's rage had calmed, and she could see why. The young woman had a fresh, smiling face, as sun-kissed as her lips seemed touched by pomegranates.
"Your grace," she said after a sweeping bow.
"Lady Margaery," Dany answered, and nodded to receive her.
"I've long feared your wrath," Margaery admitted, rising and offering a shy smile. "All I ever wanted was happiness and peace."
Dany allowed a little smile of her own, beckoning for Margaery and Willas to follow her from the courtroom. "You could have found ways that did not involve the throne, surely."
Margaery laughed. "Yes, but power is...a very lovely thing. Almost as lovely as you, your grace."
The accompanying smile had Dany blushing a bit, unexpectedly, and she scoffed at the same time as Lord Tyrell. "And do you consider flattery a lovely thing as well?"
"Only when it's true," Margaery said with a little smile.
"Margaery has always loved beautiful things, and people too," Willas said apologetically, patting his sister's arm.
"Yes, but they are always taken from me," Margaery answered with a sigh. "Although I heard that you have pardoned Sansa Stark as well, your grace. I knew her once—we were to be sisters, though she had no choice in the matter."
"The only maid who would marry me," Willas said with a sigh that attempted to be mocking, yet had true regret in it.
Dany wondered, leading them to a state dinner to speak of affairs with House Tyrell, why the Martells had the sigil of a sun. For surely she had never had her court so brightened as with the Tyrells.
Hours later, wine-drunk and laughing at yet another story, she wondered at two things. Why her limbs felt like water every time Margaery smiled beneath her lashes at her; and why she had not charged her with treason for admitting that young Tommen and Myrcella Lannister had not been slain after all.
She never did answer her own wonderings.
For generations, the Mormonts had kept to their island and held true to their words. They stood. And stood. Though coming whenever called, their lives were as solitary as a hermit.
When Lyanna had been surrounded by mother and four sisters, it had not felt solitary. With only Jorah, and him pining, she decided that the lifestyle would simply not do. A raven to Winterfell flew swift and sure. Sansa replied graciously.
Lyanna would have dragged him to Winterfell on foot if she'd had to. He submitted to horses in the end, full of a malaise that made her scrunch her brow and glare.
Sansa met her with a warm embrace and a smile, looking more the fine lady than ever. "Not empty anymore," Lyanna said.
"It's home again," Sansa said and smiled, and pulled her inside.
Though icicles and snow filled every cranny and crevasse outside, the inside of Winterfell glittered with light and warmth. Hot springs heated the walls, fires blazed in every hearth, and newly woven tapestries hung bright on the walls. The capitol of the North seemed full and lush again, with raucous laughter and fierce games among the bannermen who came for supper. Only once the candles burned low and the guests departed did any of the scars appear.
Jorah walked the halls alone sometimes, despite all Lyanna's efforts. Giving up on her cousin, she sewed with Sansa as Tyrion read aloud from some great history tome. The ease had come at a cost, she could tell, but it was nothing to scoff at.
Sometime after midnight Sansa drifted off to sleep, half curled up in her chair. Tyrion read to himself and Lyanna pulled a book for her own use. Nights at Bear Island were once like this, though with more axes than books.
Out in the night, somewhere, Nymeria howled. There was melancholy in the sound that mingled with the triumph. Lyanna listened for more, not realizing that she'd held her breath.
Sansa screamed, and both books dropped to the floor.
She screamed again, voice shaking with utter panic as she flailed in her seat, hands reaching for something that wasn't there. Wide eyes reflected the fire, yet clearly saw nothing. "No, no, no," she begged to some unseen person.
Lyanna scrambled to her feet, startled and worried, but made it only a couple steps before Tyrion intercepted her path with a speed she had not expected.
"No," Sansa screamed, half a sob. Lyanna watched as Tyrion caught Sansa's flailing hands and held them against her lap. "Let them go, please, mercy, let them go, let them go."
Lyanna had forgotten how recently Sansa had been both girl and prisoner. Gone was Lady Stark. The nightmare gripped her and made her tremble, voice breaking and thick with tears.
"Mercy," she begged, trying to break free from Tyrion's grip.
"Sansa," he said, louder than her weeping. Brow furrowed, he spoke with urgency, "Sansa, wake up. You're home, you're safe. Wake up."
The reassurances might have woken her, or perhaps the nightmare faded. Sansa stopped pulling away and bent forward over her knees, sucking in deep breaths and crying wretchedly. Lyanna felt useless and intruding yet she couldn't leave, and stood watching while Tyrion reached up to bring Sansa's forehead to his, awkwardly stroking her auburn hair.
"I'm sorry," Lyanna heard Sansa whisper through the tears, though if it was more of her nightmare or to Tyrion she couldn't guess. "I'm sorry."
Tyrion hushed her, a worried grimace on his face, and when Sansa's head lowered to his shoulder he made a soothing sound and rested one hand against the back of her neck. Her body shook with half-swallowed sobs.
Lyanna finally ran to fetch tea, realizing halfway there that her face was flushed with embarrassment. This moment had not been for guests, it had been for family. Perhaps that was not the right word, not exactly, yet she returned to find Tyrion still holding Sansa's hand while she wiped her tears away with a kerchief. Lyanna had not even seen friendship on her last visit, and now she saw this.
"Thank you," Sansa said when Lyanna handed her the tea, taking the mug in both hands and inhaling the soothing scent.
Tyrion also gave his thanks.
"I should get to bed," Lyanna said, still a little awkward.
"And I'll fetch you your wolf," Tyrion said to Sansa.
She shook her head. "No, please, she'll come on her own. Stay..."
As Lyanna left the room, she saw Tyrion give Sansa a strange look. Her gaze stayed on the tea, lost in whatever horror had invaded her dreams, lower lip drawn between her teeth. And he watched her with an expression that Lyanna had never seen and did not understand.
Jorah had told her that strange things had happened during the War of the Five Kings. Life had moved swiftly for those who'd played the game of thrones, forcing together people who had never been meant to be. Yet nothing was meant to be. That's what he'd told her, though with sadness in his eyes for her cousin still dreamed. This was Lannister and Stark finding peace together, in a marriage that was yet not a marriage. Strange things happened to strange people, and not a survivor of this war was anything but strange.
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.
She'd seen nothing in the fires that night, though everything that could have been burnt ended as a pile of ashes in the hearth. Rh'llor did not answer her prayers and the cold mocked her. When the horn sounded three times in the morning and the dragons answered back with feral screams, she knew that even Rh'llor could not see the outcome of this.
Life hung in the balance and only a few men worked the scales. While the gods fought for Westeros, Melisandre fought for the people in it. Rh'llor's people, all of them.
They all climbed to the top of the Wall eventually to take their place. Maege Mormont, for the sake of practicality. Stannis Baratheon, for the bitter duty that she'd instilled in him. The Night's Watch did as they'd been trained, and then there were the dragons. Jon and Dany were born to it, but the Lannister had made himself one of them. Without Aegon and the raw power of his blood, there was only Tyrion and his knowledge. For knowledge was power, Melisandre knew that.
Cold crept through her red robes and to her very bones, despite the heat of her belief. Melisandre watched the sun rise, watched the dragons flap impatient wings, and listened.
The skies darkened in the span of a few heartbeats, like a black shroud over the world. She heard the cold arrive, felt its very presence.
Silhouetted against the sky, Rhaegal and his least-kingly of riders still looked proud and fearless.
"Lead us from the darkness," Melisandre whispered in prayer. "Fill our hearts with fire, so we may walk your shining path. Yours is the sun that warms our days, yours the stars that guard us in the dark of night. Lord of Light, defend us. The night is dark and full of terrors. Lord of Light, protect us."
She looked over the wall and saw the land as one sea of darkness, rising up to destroy the Wall whose sole purpose was to keep it out.
The warriors of light stood their ground. The dragons screamed. The war of ice and fire began.
Margaery woke to find the bed empty, only a pile of furs left where Sansa had slept the night before. The fire had died out, leaving a chill to seep through the entire room and frost over the window. On a usual day, she'd lie abed and savor the warmth of blankets as long as possible, but on usual mornings she could watch Sansa sleep and make sure the young woman did not wake alone from nightmares. Not today. Mildly cursing herself for her heavy sleep, Margaery wrapped a fur around her shoulders and rose from the bed to search for the Lady of Winterfell.
Three months had passed like sand trickling from an hourglass, and for all that everyone stared to the North they could neither see nor hear the conflict still raging. No news had come south, nor bodies either living or dead. Only darkness and silence to feed the dread of those left behind. And snow, always snow.
Sansa could not be found in any of the Stark rooms, so Margaery swiftly dressed herself to head to the halls below. Worry saturated the very air of every room in Winterfell and Sansa should not face it alone.
Margaery had been with her during the first days when she seemed once again like the child that she'd first met. Without either family or wolf again, Sansa looked small and frail, and did not sleep for days before passing out exhausted at the supper table. Margaery had hushed the young Lannisters--now Sansa's wards--and shooed them away to let the woman sleep. Loras (and oh how she missed the brother who'd died in pain and grief long before his time) had been the same when he'd lost Renly, and while Sansa was no blood relation Margaery still behaved as a sister to her. Perhaps she felt more, yes, but such hopes must always be secret. And just like she'd done with Loras, Margaery stroked Sansa's hair smooth while she slept. Then the nightmares came and Sansa had woken with a cracked scream and wide eyes.
It was then, seeing an empty hopelessness in those blue eyes, that Margaery decided that Sansa should never be left in solitude. A brittle loneliness touched the young Stark woman and she did not accept help easily, but her strength (and Margaery was always surprised by how much she had) was put solely to keeping her people and castle safe. With so many gone North it took much toil to keep all necessary posts filled. Margaery would not try to take Sansa's duties from her but when those duties were done, she'd slip close to her and ease her into the rest she so needed. Soon Sansa adapted to it and went willingly to bed when Margaery directed her there, often asleep before her head hit the pillows. The fear took its toll on her--yet even her sleep was not undisturbed.
Margaery could now scarcely remember a time when she had not slept at Sansa's side, always there when the nightmares had her screaming to hold the young woman cradled against her breast. "You should not have sent your wolf away," she'd whispered one night, worry nearly choking her.
"I had to," Sansa had answered in a shaky whisper. "He was not a warrior but Nymeria is."
Margaery could only sigh, kiss Sansa's brow, and gently rock the woman in her arms till she fell back asleep. Sansa had a half-brother up there, but it was the half-man she'd lived and worked with whose fate commanded the most worry.
However chaotic the nights, during the day they did what was expected of great ladies and carried out duties. Everyone lived in fear and everyone had something at stake at the Wall now; the obligation of nobility was to soothe fears as much as could be and provide pillars of strength. Sansa did well, and Margaery aided where she could and helped Myrcella. Tommen barely understood what was going on and usually caused more trouble than support, playing with the stable boys or blacksmith's boys or any children around Winterfell. Sometimes they made chaos and Sansa would snap at him, only to apologize later and kiss his head. Tommen took such occasions well in stride, unsurprising when one remembered who his mother had been. Margaery wondered sometimes if he considered Sansa his mother now. It would be strange, for he was still Margaery's husband and she had three years on Sansa, but strange hardly stopped anyone in these dark days.
"Why are you still here?" Myrcella asked one day as Margaery brushed her hair. "I thought you wanted to go back to Dorne."
"I do," Margaery said. This time spent in Winterfell made her miss the Sand Snakes, yet that could wait. "But you're family, love, and I'm still needed here."
They all made a strange family, misshapen pieces stuck together because there was no other option. Margaery had once had a large family, whole and happy. The last of it was at the Wall now, and so she stayed to help Sansa's. It wasn't duty that kept her, though, no matter what she told Myrcella.
This morning, she at last found Sansa directing the cooks for how they should handle the dwindling food stores. Dark circles beneath her eyes spoke of how restless her sleep had been, and Margaery's first urge was to drag her back to bed and pin her down till she slept fully. But no, Sansa needed to be Lady Stark of Winterfell. Anything else and she'd break--Margaery didn't always know how to help it but she could not watch Sansa break. Eventually she'd sleep, if nothing more than passing out during supper again.
"You did not wake me when you left," Margaery said once Sansa had finished giving her orders.
"I didn't want to disturb your rest." Sansa smiled, though it was too weak to reach her eyes.
You silly girl, Margaery thought, You never disturb me. She said nothing aloud, only cupped her hand around Sansa's elbow and rubbed. Outwardly Sansa looked like an ice queen, but the simple touch made her lean forward, melting somewhat. "Perhaps you could leave a note next time, so I don't worry?"
Sansa looked embarrassed. "I didn't think I'd worry you so much."
Silly girl, Margaery thought again. I love you, don't you even see that? "Well you do. Have you eaten today? No, I can see that you haven't. Come at once to the table."
As always, Sansa didn't protest.
Sometimes Margaery wanted to scream at her for stopping living and settling on surviving again. All that the years had blessed her with was fading with each day. She'd climbed so far and Margaery hated to watch her fall.
But it had been three months and the war was not over. So Margaery held her tongue and held Sansa and waited with the rest.
It was Alysane Mormont who shook her awake, barking warnings to the camp as she did so. "Night attack! Baratheon is down! Up, up, up!"
Dany felt sluggish but pulled herself upright in a second. "How many? Is Stannis dead?"
"Don't know," Alysane said, drawing her axes and running off with half the guard.
This was her life now. She never knew where anyone was, if anyone was alive, or how their numbers compared to the evil they faced. Since knowledge was not allowed her, she only did. Drogon was already lighting the air in flames when she came to him, going without a saddle in her haste. "Fight," she called to him once on his back, gripping the ridges of his neck.
They rose screaming in the air and Dany barely saw the Others before Drogon turned everything to fire. She heard cold steel meet obsidian, heard bloody screams and ice hissing. Others died beneath Drogon's breath. More took their place.
Six months of this war and it was still the same. Dany fought and slept and ate and knew nothing else.
Tommen's twelfth nameday came with little cheer, though they all ate lemoncakes and milk and sang songs about the hearth.
When it was done, though, nothing changed. The war had still gone on nine months without end and one party could not cleanse the gloom from Winterfell. Nor could another cause for cheer--Margaery had petitioned the septon to finally annul her marriage to Tommen. They were both free and happier for it, but then Tommen asked if Sansa should do the same for her marriage to Tyrion and she'd gone pale and said, "No" too quickly. Once she would have jumped at the chance, but the longer he was gone, the more Sansa realized that Tyrion and their sham marriage was half of what kept this little home of Winterfell together. Everything else came and went, as unsettled as the winter birds flying high, but her marriage had stayed solid for six years. The longer Tyrion was gone, the more Sansa realized that he was as important to her as everything else here.
Tommen was twelve and yet little had changed. He was still plump, still hated beets, and after finding that there were barn cats had adopted all the kittens he could find. Sometimes he walked through the hall followed by a dozen cats of various sizes, and on his nameday could barely be seen for the pets covering him as he ate lemoncakes with Margaery and Myrcella.
No, little had changed. Little ever did. The world waited on the edge of a knife and Sansa couldn't even know which way it was swaying.
Once her Lannister wards had gone to bed and Margaery had dozed off waiting for Sansa, and once she'd finished giving orders to the household for the morrow, she slipped on a cloak and left the hall. The crypts had less chill than the outside air these days, yet they seemed to suck all the heat from Sansa's breath and torch. She had to brush frost from her father and mother's grave statues so she could see the carved wolf faces with deep eyes of garnet that looked almost alive in the torchlight. Letting out a cloudy breath, she knelt to the cold floor and pressed her forehead to each wolf's nose in turn. "Mother, father," she whispered. Once she'd prayed to the old gods but her faith had faded over many months. Prayer could not help her. She sought only the comfort that memories provided, and even so she could not remember her parents' faces.
Sansa didn't realize she was crying until her hot tears steamed on the cold stone floor. She didn't have the strength to swallow them back now, and just let them fall. Life was growing weary again, and what little family she had left could be gone in an instant. What if it never ends, she thought. What if they all die, and no matter who I grow to love, they too will be stolen from me.
"Mother," she whispered to the stone, "if Jon and Tyrion come to you, be good to them. I can't explain it all, but they deserve goodness. You too, father, and help Nymeria find Arya. I'll follow soon to tell you everything..."
"No you won't," Margaery's voice suddenly broke through, her hands clasping Sansa's and pulling her from the stone. The solitude was gone. "No, Sansa, no."
In her surprise, she couldn't do anything but catch her breath. Margaery knelt beside her and had arms wrapped around her before she could move, entangling her in a knot of caring. Sansa tried to speak, but it came out as half a sob.
"Don't come here," Margaery begged into her hair, holding Sansa so tightly that she could barely breathe. "Don't live here. You won't go, not yet, not soon, not ever."
"Margaery--" she tried to say. Her arms were caught between them, pressed against her own chest.
"I know," the other woman whispered, voice cracking, and then there were lips kissing away Sansa's tears. "But it won't happen. You'll live. You'll have people to live for."
Sansa needed to speak her fears but the words wouldn't come, and Margaery kept kissing away her tears. The palms of her hands were warm against Sansa's cheeks as the other woman held her face, and then Margaery's lips were against her own, soft but desperate, telling her to stay and to be comforted. Sansa stayed.
Margaery kept her clasped against her bosom for what felt like hours until they were both chilled and yet somehow Sansa felt stronger.
"I'll leave here," she finally said.
Looking half-relieved, Margaery helped them both to their feet and back inside where hot wine brought feeling back to her toes. Then it was bed, and Sansa felt the need for it badly. She couldn't keep breaking. Her companion, her dear Margaery, hadn't lied about that. Even without her wolf Sansa had to be strong. Even alone. And she wasn't quite alone yet. She laid weary head to rest on her pillow again as Margaery watched over her, and as drowsiness overwhelmed her mind she thought she heard someone say, "I love you".
The nightmares still wracked her mind but she expected them and bore them in silence.
One day the war would have to end one day or another, and she had to see the resolution of it.
She felt Rh'llor in her mind, her heart, her blood. This was the moment. Eleven months of blood spilt on either side, and all for this. The nameless one and his Others had turned everything to blue ice--they would turn the Wall if they could reach it. Melisandre could see them like some hideous tide, sweeping away trees and rocks and corpses in their fell path. "Where are the dragons?" she called. No one answered. "Where are the dragons?"
Dragonglass-tipped arrows flew into the horde below, yet not enough. She threw boiling fire to the wights but that, too, wasn't enough. With their forces scattered and few, Melisandre knew they couldn't hold more than a few moments. Not without the dragons. This wall was not meant for their kind, but together the wisdom of Valyria and the First Men could defeat this evil. She believed.
The cold tide began to climb the Wall and Melisandre felt the heat of Rh'llor tremble.
"Where are the dragons?" she cried.
Fire hissed away into blackness and she drew her dragonglass dagger. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Maege Mormont fall to a wave that breached her position. Melisandre didn't even have the breath to cry out for reinforcements (and in truth there were none) but could only fight the demons that swarmed towards her.
A familiar scream filled the air, then two, then three. Drogon and Viserion flanked the great dark horde and their fire scorched even the demon ice away. It was too bright, blindingly bright, and one of the Others cut her arm before she stabbed him in the heart. Blood gushed over her red dress and stained the snow beneath her, and for all her efforts Melisandre fell to her knees. Pyp and Grenn fell together, despite the dragons' arrival. Where is Rhaegal? she thought.
Another demon breached the wall but she cut its legs from under it with her good arm. Then the dragon's cry filled her ears and she looked up to see only green, the belly and wings of Rhaegal as he landed on the walls. A burst of flame took out three Others before they'd breached the wall, and scorched her dress. She breathed in sharply, tasting smoke and death.
"Go!" Tyrion yelled, and for some reason he was sliding off Rhaegal's back onto the Wall. "Go!"
With a roar, Rhaegal took off again, diving down from the Wall into the midsts of the fray below.
Melisandre's vision started to dim, blood still throbbing from her arm.
Tyrion took a horn from his vest and then blew, and the sound resonated through her bones, more than even the greatest heat of Rh'llor. He blew again, as all three dragons flooded the Nameless One's army with smoke and flames.
Everything went black for her just as the very Wall itself began to tremble on the third note.
An earthquake and a bright dawn told Margaery that something had happened, but for weeks the silence still ruled. To the North, however, the sky was clear. Everyone chattered and wondered and feared, and even Margaery found herself pacing the halls with Sansa.
Then ravens came.
"The Wall has come down but the Others are destroyed."
"Our last armies fell but we won."
"The dragons sacrificed themselves in the final conflict, and all the ground is scorched."
"Half the remaining lords are killed and the rest are wounded."
"None of the leaders have been found save Stannis Baratheon, blinded and near death."
And more, and more. Nothing to relieve, yet also nothing to destroy their last hopes.
Survivors began to trickle down South with a dozen separate stories (rumors). Sansa and Margaery heard them all, how Jon Targaryen became the Night King reborn and fought the Others off with an army of direwolves the size of elephants, how Ser Jorah threw himself to the horde to save the Queen, how the dragons melted the Wall and flooded everyone to destroy the enemy. In the end, they all contradicted each other and nothing was clear.
Margaery had never seen Sansa so anxious.
Finally truth came in the form of Jorelle Mormont and half a dozen minor bannermen of the Starks. Ragged and worn, they were at least alive and came directly to Winterfell itself.
"My lady," Jorelle said formally, but Sansa ran to the bear-woman and clasped her hands.
"Tell me everything."
"Lord Tyrion brought down the Wall and destroyed what the dragons could not," the Mormont woman said. "The last dragons died to save us all--all who had not already died."
"Who?" Sansa demanded. "Who has died?" Margaery touched her shoulder, ready to catch her should the news be ill.
"My mother," Jorelle said, "and Lord Umber, Ser Brynden Tully, Lord Tallhart, and many more that I do not know. The Queen lives, though, and her bastard cousin of the Night's Watch. Your half-brother, I mean, my lady."
Some of Sansa's tension faded away with a visible shudder. It was something, at least.
"But what about Uncle Tyrion?" Tommen demanded later.
None of the returning Northmen knew. The chaos had lasted so long that details had been lost, and the final skirmish--the fire, the Wall crashing down, the death of the dragons--seemed to wipe every other detail from men's minds.
Two weeks later, finally, breakfast was interrupted by the howling of wolves. Direwolves.
Paling, Sansa dropped her knife and ran to the door. Margaery came two steps behind.
The blanket of snow had been breached by a small force coming from the North, perhaps no more than a twentieth of what had ridden north. Margaery barely had time to catch her breath before a great snowy wolf came out of nowhere and welcomed Sansa with licks and a wagging tail.
"Ghost," she breathed in relief.
One rider amidst a dozen other wolves galloped up to them and Margaery knew he must be Sansa's bastard kin Jon. The two of them did not speak, but Jon wrapped Sansa up in a hug so tight that Margaery thought she might break--or perhaps he might have, for Sansa's knuckles whitened as she clung back to him.
So many questions needed to be asked, about lives and deaths and why so many direwolves had come south. Before any of them could be voiced, however, the queen herself rode up in a great wagon, surrounded by the remainder of her army. No dragons, but Ser Jorah was once again at her side, and she still held herself high.
"Your grace," Sansa breathed, finally breaking from Jon's embrace and stepping forward to bow low. She always remembered her courtesies.
"I've brought back your husband, Lady Stark, " Dany said quietly, and looked back to the wagon.
Margaery's breath caught in her throat at the sight of Nymeria there, lying as still as death. The wolf raised her head at the word 'Stark'--but Sansa's face still lost all its color.
"I'm sorry, Sansa," Jon said, though Margaery didn't think she was listening. "When the Wall fell, those atop it...most didn't fall the whole way, but none escaped unscathed."
Soundlessly, wordlessly, Sansa moved swiftly to the wagon. Margaery knew she should stay back, but walked forward all the same. Nestled among furs, head bandaged and eyes closed, lay Tyrion Lannister. He looked smaller than Margaery had ever seen him, but his cheeks were not even as pale as Sansa's for all that he lay unmoving.
"He's not dead," Sansa breathed out, though the same words could not be said about her voice.
"We hoped he would wake once his body healed from the fall." Jon looked upset to have to speak so, though grim as if he'd said similar speeches a dozen times already.
A flicker of pain passed over Sansa's face and Nymeria whined.
"I'm sorry," the queen said softly behind them all.
Then the pain was gone from Sansa's face, an emotionless mask replacing it, and she turned to the survivors. "Just bring him inside. I've kept his chamber ready since you left.
She didn't ask for comfort nor said another word until Tyrion was laid, motionless and yet still breathing, into the great bed. Every limb locked in a straight line, she only stood and looked down on him. Whatever strength was in her, Margaery sensed this time that it would shatter if touched even for a second. She left the room and closed the door with a shaky breath, then returned to the hall where Jon and Dany had come to sit at the table.
Tommen and Myrcella cried out in worry on hearing how their uncle had been returned. "He's not dead," Margaery assured them. "Only hurt." Once they calmed, she took on the role of lady of the household and provided rooms and food for everyone in the queen's party. Though many, they were a pathetic group compared to what had ridden North. By the time everyone was settled, the sun had set and Margaery realized that Sansa had not rejoined them.
They all fell asleep, and Margaery crept up in the darkness to the lord's chamber. The door made no sound when she opened it. Inside, she saw that Nymeria had crawled up to sleep at Tyrion's feet, and Sansa had knelt by the side of the bed. All three slept, and the sight sent a sharp stab to Margaery's heart. This was Sansa's family. Others might someday join it, for Margaery knew how big Sansa's heart could be, yet this was the core. And now she knows it too, she thought.
Swallowing an odd grief, Margaery closed the door and left the three of them be. The last war had ended and all those who would return had returned. Soon Willas would come back to her, and then she could go home. Sansa would not be hers, not ever, but she had Willas and Highgarden. And maybe Dorne would still have her.
Whatever happened in the North, Margaery had no doubt that Sansa could face it on her own. She would not break again. Her steel had been battered and torn, but was now tempered at last and strong. The strongest this North might ever see. Margaery would find her own tempering elsewhere, and leave the North to its own devices.
King's Landing rose in cheers for Daenerys as she returned victorious, and fell on deaf ears. She gave no speeches and smiled no smiles, only went to the empty dragon's pit and sat in the scorched dust. There lay her last secret, the eggs laid before she'd taken her children to war. So small and cold, she could barely imagine they were alive; they reminded her of the scaled corpses lying amid the carnage of their victory.
The keening cry that left her throat filled the pit and still wasn't enough. Mirri Maz Duur had been right: never would she see a child of her own survive. The weight of death was enough to choke her.
Jorah found her first, and she wondered why he'd come. He knelt beside her, silent, and rested a hand on the eggs. Not her, just the eggs. "Why are you here?" she asked him, bitter and wavering. "You're just a ghost. You died too, when you left me alone in King's Landing."
"I thought you would call me back," he whispered. "I thought...when you didn't, I thought you didn't care."
"Fool," she snapped.
"Thrice-damned," he agreed.
"I hate you," she said before she could think, eyes full of painful tears.
"And I still love you," he whispered. "I am sorry."
She could bear no more, though her mind and pride told her to stop, and she reached for him. With arms that had never felt more secure, he wrapped her in an embrace and squeezed. She might have broken, but she already was. Instead she pressed her face to his neck and refused to let go.
So Irri found them, when the sun had set and people feared for their dragon queen. The look in her eyes was one of pain, of death, and she seemed ready to leave—Daenerys stretched out a hand and Irri came. The last thing she knew, Irri's fingers stroked through her hair while Jorah held her to his chest.
When morning arrived, she'd been deposited on her great soft bed and both Jorah and Irri slept on nearby chairs. She felt cold, not least because of the chill seeping across the floor. A death still lodged deep in her heart, pulling life from her with every breath. And the realm called for its queen.
As always, she answered the call. Viserys had taught her of her right and duty so long ago, it seemed like childish imagination and dreams. Had she known a family once? Brothers, a mother, a father? Were they all mad, before they were murdered? She thought, maybe, that she too would go mad. Madness was better than death.
Without Ser Barristan, she had to face the council alone. Half the faces she'd never seen before, for Barristan was not the only one to meet his end in the final war. They all had questions, so many questions, and she answered them for it was her duty. Some of them hated her, most had feared her when she had dragons and now didn't know what to do, and Dany wanted to rain fire and blood down upon them for how little they loved her. She who had saved them and sacrificed her own children, her own safety, her own happiness.
Once queenly duties were done, she returned to her chambers and screamed. Screamed and cried and went mad until her knuckles were bloody with hitting the walls and she had no more tears. Then she was but a woman, barely more than a girl, collapsed on the floor to wait for the loneliness to kill her.
It didn't. Nothing did.
Irri returned first to hold her, weeping silent tears for the distress that she could not aid. Dany didn't have the words to tell her that her caring was the only thing that eased the pain of the moment. Jorah came too, eventually, penitent and full of such love that Dany found herself crying again. She thought all her tears were gone, but they weren't. Everything else was but not her tears.
And when yet again she exhausted all her tears, she whispered, "Stay with me. Both of you."
They did, and she forgot that she was a queen and just slept.
To wake pressed between the only two loved ones left to her in the world was a precious gift, one that queenhood sought to steal from her. She breathed in Irri's scent and absorbed Jorah's strength at her back. Her family told her that this was nothing compared to the familial right of royalty, of the conqueror, of fire and blood and making the world fear anything else. It is my fate, like it was to be my fate to be Drogo's khaleesi and bear him strong sons. I made my own fate. Now the world has made it sour to me, and I would be a fool to stay. I'll make my fate again.
If the Council met that day, it would have to be without its dragon queen.
Margaery left for Dorne, kissing Myrcella and Tommen goodbye and telling them to give Sansa her love. For a moment Myrcella wanted to beg to come along, afraid that her uncle would die and the cold in this castle would steal her soul, but she was a good girl and there was Tommen to worry about. And Tyrion had not died yet.
"Can we do anything?" she'd asked Sansa desperately when two weeks had gone by without a change.
"The maester says no," Sansa said heavily, "and I've read every one of his books to make sure. All we can do is wait..."
"Your brother woke from such a sleep, didn't he?"
Sansa nodded, but the look in her eyes told Myrcella that she was far away, escaped or lost somewhere in memories. Even knowing that Sansa was barely older than her, Myrcella shivered to see how aged Sansa's eyes looked when glazed over, like ice-covered steel forged a thousand years in the past. Before the war there had been happiness, but perhaps this had been one too many wars for Sansa.
Myrcella left her hostess alone after that, and it felt like those days after her father—King Robert, anyways—had died and her mother had been focused on everything but her. They'd loved her more in Dorne than in King's Landing, but she'd grieved for her mother all the same when the news came south. Winterfell had lost more than Dorne, if not as much as King's Landing, and even when all the bannermen came together to talk of cleaning up after the war Myrcella felt like she melted into the tapestries and no one saw her.
They all talked and talked and Sansa had to listen, and when it was done she'd return to Tyrion's bedside and Myrcella handled any small concerns. Thankfully, Ned Stark had always kept an open hall and the Stark bannermen made themselves at home with little arrangement required. The great hall was now always filled with bittersweet songs of victory, of pride, of the North in winter. Voices male and female rose in chorus while outside the winds whistled through still-damaged towers, and Myrcella stood behind a pillar and listened and missed her mother.
"Afraid someone will see you, girl?" Alysane Mormont appeared from nowhere, bearskin cape still around her shoulders making her appear even larger than she really was.
Myrcella shook her head, but only once. "They don't like me, I think." The Mormont woman seemed unlikely to glare, so she spoke honestly. "I'm an...abomination."
"So'm I," Alysane said, and a dry grin revealed a couple teeth knocked sideways in her broad mouth. "My father was a bear, and so was my husband. I'm hardly going to be afraid of a lion cub, especially one smaller than me. Most of the lords and ladies here'll be the same, no doubt."
"They ignore me, though," Myrcella said, a little wary of the woman's swagger.
"Well, they're not here to stare at pretty girls." Alysane snorted. "If you blush and keep silent and hide away, you'll catch no attention. But you're Lady Stark's ward and you've not threatened any of them, so there's no need to be skittish."
Myrcella laughed weakly, but then cocked her head to the side. "Did you really have a bear husband?"
"Hairiest one you ever did see," Alysane said, grinned, and returned to her family in the great hall.
Deciding that perhaps she didn't need anyone's attention, Myrcella flitted around the hall to give orders to servants and make sure the dogs didn't get into the feast. Someone asked about Nymeria and she said that the wolf always stayed with Sansa. Tommen and his kittens sat by the fire, all of them shiny-eyed as they listened to the singing. Responsibilities finished, Myrcella snuck away for a breath of air.
She didn't like being alone, but solitude was something else entirely. Crowds made her ill and she liked to listen to her own thoughts. Tonight, however, they turned to Sansa. Myrcella didn't feel like a "ward", but since Tyrion had been brought back dead to the world she didn't know what she was. Casting a glance back to the hall then up towards the keep and its one lit chamber, hesitating, she decided in favor of answers.
The door was closed as it always was, but unlocked. Myrcella opened it silently and shut it behind her, letting out a soft breath.
Sansa sat in her usual seat by Tyrion's side, flickering shadows from the fire crossing her face. The time for urgent prayers had passed and now she waited, sewing a wolf banner and keeping watch should anything change in Tyrion's health. Nymeria, less poised, flopped over Tyrion like a blanket and rested her large wet nose against his chest, which barely rose and fell with every breath.
"Am I needed?" Sansa asked when Myrcella did not move.
She shook her head and walked forward. "No, I just came to see..." Thoughts were easy and words were hard. A grimace twisted her lips. "I'm worried."
"We all are," Sansa said by rote, though the fingers holding the needle seemed to tighten their grip.
"Not about that," Myrcella said, twisting her hands in front of her. "When he wakes up...when he's well again...will you still let us stay here?"
Sansa stared, confused.
Myrcella heard her words come out quick, almost stumbling from her lips. "Before the war, he said that once the queen trusted you we'd all have to go to Casterley Rock, because we don't belong here. I don't want to go away again, Sansa. And I know my family hurt you and I know we aren't a real family, but we love you and I'm worried and..." She stopped, gulping back a lump in her throat, and lifted her eyes from her hands, bracing herself for only empty steeliness.
What awaited her was the opposite. "You are my family," Sansa said, as wavering as the flames in the hearth. "You're all I have and I can't...I can't send you away. How could I even think of it?"
Relieved and embarrassed and dangerously close to tears, Myrcella let out a small sound and then dropped to the floor, resting her cheek against Sansa's knee and half-hugging her legs. "I thought it was just...I thought you were only good because you had to be."
"I'm not that good," Sansa whispered, her hand resting on Myrcella's shoulder and trembling. "I need you. You and Tommen and..."
"I know you love him." Myrcella closed her eyes and clung to Sansa.
"I do," Sansa said, voice breaking like a child's. "It frightens me."
With nothing more to be said, they kept quiet for a while. Tyrion still slept but Sansa's sewing had dropped to the floor and her fingers tangled in Myrcella's golden hair, and Myrcella stayed wrapped around Sansa's skirts and almost, almost, missed her mother slightly less.
Shireen's father had come back to her walking tall, as always, scarcely looking at her, as always, with the red woman, as always. "Papa!" she'd called, relieved and happy.
He hadn't looked to her.
"He's blind," the red woman said.
Shireen hadn't cried and nor had her mother. He was alive, the cold man they couldn't help but care for. Blind or not, he lived.
Daenerys gave him Storm's End for his service in the North and they left for it immediately, silent as they traveled the lands (they became more green with every mile further south). Not a word spoken among the four, but Shireen was used to that. Melisandre sat to her father's right and held his hand, so Shireen took up a place at his left side. He said nothing but didn't push her away.
"There it is," her mother sighed at last.
Since her father and uncle had always been feuding, Shireen had never seen the Baratheon home. She peered out the carriage window now and gazed towards her new home.
Her father's hand reached blindly for her, settling on her shoulder. "Shireen. Tell me what it looks like. How has it fared?" She'd never heard such longing in his voice before.
"It looks untouched by war," she said, and felt his hand clasp her shoulder tighter. Dragonstone had been wet, dark, sinister, and the Stormlands had none of that. Save the wetness, perhaps, but it seemed lush. "It's...beautiful."
Her father sighed, and when she turned back she saw his eyes tightly closed, a look of pain on his face. This should have been his—he'd said it more often in her childhood than anything else. Daenerys had given him his due at last, but her war had robbed him of the eyes to behold it.
"I wish you could see it," Shireen whispered, resting her hand over her father's.
His lips twisted in what was almost a smile. "You must tell me often what you see."
Perhaps it was not so bad, then, how her father had come home from the war.
Weeks passed and nothing was half so bad as it had been. Melisandre told Shireen's mother that fanaticism was no longer needed. Rh'llor had won. With mother quieter, father seemed less tense. No more arguments, only a mutual silence.
Stannis Baratheon had his duties as a lord, of course, but he no longer could do them alone. At last, he acknowledged Shireen as his heir, and they sat together every day in a high tower while Shireen read aloud all the missives that Storm's End received. Weary and grim, her father would dictate exactly how she would reply. Shireen wrote and then passed each paper for her father to sign and seal.
The routine had nought but simplicity, but it was more than Shireen had ever hoped for. Memories of being dandled on her father's knee were distant and few, and she was a woman now. Yet not here. Best of all was when they finished the paperwork and Shireen sat on her father's lap like a child and looked out the window and described. Hills and cliffs and fields and towns and even the castle walls...each time she grew more confident, more poetic, and her father's burnt sightless eyes went cloudy but he almost smiled. Sometimes he stroked her hair.
I love you, father, Shireen thought but never said. Such words never fell from his lips but the trust was enough.
Shireen knew her father and knew that his trust was more than any words of love.
Things began to settle down and then—and then.
"What in all the seven hells?" her father demanded before she'd finished half the queen's declaration.
Shireen repeated the last sentence. "By the powers vested in me as queen of the Seven Kingdoms, I hereby declare the Realm split."
Her father looked furious and confused all at once, and waved a hand at her. "More, read more."
She did, eyebrows rising at each sentence. Daenerys had only just arrived and now she would leave, returning east across the sea. She had no heir and named none— "Each kingdom shall now rule itself, and any alliances or trade agreements shall be the determination of their seven rulers. Let the North, the Iron Islands, the Mountains of the Moon, the Crownlands, the Stormlands, the Riverlands, and Dorne, be forever separate for the good of their people."
Shireen had never seen her father rage so, though with such futility. He ground his teeth and fumed and she was used to that.
And that was before the rulers were chosen. Lady Stark, of course, had the support of her people to be ruler of the North. Asha Greyjoy, the only survivor of her family, took on queenship of the Iron Islands with a hard fist. Robert Arryn had the Mountains of the Moon and Roslin Tully's newborn son had heirship of the Riverlands. Arianne Martell, as always, was the next ruler of Dorne. Jon Targaryen had been gifted Dragonstone, but he refused the people's proffered leadership and the Crownlands protested and flailed. When Margaery returned and the people chose her, Shireen's father (king of the Stormlands, of course) had blustered for hours about the Reach and their foul scheming.
It did nothing, in the end. Daenerys and her Mormont and Dothraki left for Essos in a single ship and said nothing more. The lands, stripped from wars and winter, hastily swore oaths to their leaders and hoped for peace. Maybe even prosperity someday.
Shireen's father ran out of complaints and she once again described for him the lands around Storm's End. His face would soften, then, and she'd kiss his balding head and not even mind his half-grimace at the soft intimacy.
He loved her, she knew. And he would teach her to be a queen.
Three months after the war, when even his scars had begun to fade, a fever gripped Tyrion and everything changed. Skin red as a beet, sweat dampening both hair and sheets, he tossed and turned and dreamed. Sansa, who'd grown used to the neverending neverchanging sleep, felt the twisting grip of fear around her heart again as she mopped his brow and could do nothing more.
Once she'd lived in torment and he'd stayed back, bitter and passive. The world itself had changed since then, and the two of them no less. Tyrion had fallen apart and repaired himself, while she had found herself in the pieces that had never (not really) been whole. This home was their doing and so was this. Sansa could barely leave his side and not because she needed him but because she was used to him. Circumstance had begat friendship, and friendship begat love, and their lives now entwined like ivy amongst roses.
Without Tyrion, Winterfell felt strange. It needs your laugh and your intelligence and your passion and your stubbornness. I need all that. You made me feel safe and you made me happy. I don't know if you meant to but you did.
Sleep like death no longer had him in its grip, but feverish nightmares seemed little better. His body, small and frail, twitched and flailed in the grips of some darkness. Sansa wiped his face and arms with cool cloths, yet for naught.
At least his sleep had been peaceful before.
"Mother," he called hoarsely on the third night of fever, and Sansa had slept so little that she almost thought she imagined it. "Mother," he cried out, over and over and twisted and turned in the bed till he was caught in a knot of sheets.
Sansa's eyes stung, her helplessness again a burden, as she untangled him and clasped his hands in hers. He whimpered, then, but did not flail or cry out. "Tyrion, wake up," she whispered. Your mother is dead but I am here. "I'm here."
The fever did not break, he did not wake, and she couldn't remember falling asleep. Regardless, it was all the same when she woke. Sansa started to fear that it was the beginning of the end. Other nightmares took him—he would call out for father, brother, sister, Tysha, even for her. His skin was always hot and damp beneath her hands and even her lips when she kissed his forehead and begged him to wake from the fear. Never before had he been so fragile—never before had she had so much strength in comparison—and all she wanted was for his pain to end.
One night, as the fire died out and Sansa was drifting into oblivion, he seemed to fall back into the deathlike sleep. Weary and sick with the worry of love, she rested one cheek against the mattress, cradled one of his hands against the other, and closed her eyes. She'd slept on her knees by his bed for so long, she thought she might grow old here—she'd always known that happy love could never be hers, that it would always be touched by tragedy.
Then a whisper. Not a cry, not a whimper, but a hoarse whisper. "Where am I?"
She sat bolt upright, voice catching in her throat.
Tyrion's skin looked pale again, and in between all the scarring his eyes had opened again. One green, one black, clouded with confusion but just as she remembered. They met hers, and the confusion didn't lift. "I...I know you..."
The hope that he'd be perfectly whole was shattered by the words but it had only been a small hope. Nothing came back unscarred, and healing never happened all at once. She clung to what she'd been given and that was life. Sansa nodded to him, heart in her throat. The life returned to it made his face look almost beautiful to her. "Sansa," she finally managed to say, hoping it sparked memories, and then a pained amusement took her. "Your wife."
His brow furrowed. "My wife was...Tysha...?"
He's talking. He's confused but he's back and talking to me. Have you heard me, gods, even when I denied you? "No, Tyrion. Remember... Remember your family, the war, the dragons, Winterfell... You're here." Her smile was shaky and she couldn't let go of his hand. "You didn't die. You came back to me."
"You wanted me to?" Tyrion blinked slowly and tried to raise a shaking hand. "I can't remember why...I should..."
Sansa let out a half-laugh and half-sob. "You hit your head, Tyrion. But you're awake. Just rest and...everything will come back. I'm sure." Oddly enough, she was.
He only looked confused, nodding and staring at her like she was a hallucination.
For her part, she hadn't felt so real since he'd left. And in memory of that moment, and to keep the love and hope from breaking her heart, she leaned down and kissed his hand. "Everything will be alright."
Every time Tyrion fell back asleep, the niggling worry that he wouldn't wake assailed Sansa. Though he was "well" again, she slept less than she had before, fussing over and checking for the least signs of worsening. Tyrion responded with only confusion—which did not calm her.
"Sansa Stark," he said the next morning.
A sudden smile escaped her. "You remember?"
His brow wrinkled unevenly. "I don't remember why a Stark girl should be my wife. You did say wife, did you not?"
Brushing her skirts free of wrinkles in a habit that perhaps she recalled her mother once having, Sansa shook her head and rose to bring over a tray of breakfast. "It is more complicated than I could explain, even if you did remember everything."
"It sounds right, though," he said after sipping the honeyed milk. "Your name. It sounds familiar. I know I've said it often, for it comes easily to my lips."
There was such an innocence in him as he rambled, frowning, still trying to take in his new situation. Sansa sometimes found herself flushed, with embarrassment or joy she could not always say. It had never felt so good to be near him as it did now, even though she wore herself out with worry and giving him proper care. Tyrion's limbs after so long abed were too unsteady to allow him to leave the bed—Sansa took on all nursing duties despite his protests. It took much of her day to bring him food, bathe him, shave the beard that he said he did not like now, rub ointment into his scars, and add or remove blankets depending on his temperature.
"Do you have nothing else to do?" he mumbled after the third day. (This day, he said, he remembered her from when she was younger, in particular the brilliant hair. "It's like your mother's, is it not?")
"Much else," Sansa admitted. "But I would rather be here."
He frowned and scratched his ear. "Joffrey. That bastard Joffrey—weren't you to marry him?"
Sansa froze and felt ease leave her. "What?"
Tyrion squinted and pounded his fist against the mattress. "The way you moved just now. I remember King's Landing, you and me and that wretched nephew of mine. We weren't married. Nay, marriage wasn't even on my mind. That I remember. How long ago was that, ten years? I remember you looking like a girl, and miserable too."
How could she forget, when every memory came to visit in turn, filling her nightmares with all the terror she forbade during the day. Someday, possibly, he would understand that those were the first and deepest scars that would never go away. She nodded, swallowed slowly. "Yes, all that's true. Even then, though, you were always kinder to me than Joffrey."
A look of horror crossed his face. "Gods above, I should hope so. I don't think of myself as a bad man."
Sansa laughed weakly. "You're not. But once you were someone I could not trust, one among many."
He stared at her for a long while, and without anything further to say she tidied up the room and carried soiled bedding to the servants so that they could wash it. When she returned, opening the windows for a moment to freshen the air, he called to her from across the room.
"What am I missing? I don't like being left out of some mystery, and these memories come back so slowly. What aren't you telling me?"
Sansa could only press her lips together and look outside, then close the window and return to his side. "I shouldn't tell you. I would not do it all justice."
He frowned and reached out to touch her hand. "I swear I'm not as weak as I seem. I can handle truth, good woman."
She laughed a little and patted his hand. "Then you remember very little of herself."
That made him scrunch his face up and let out a painful breath. "So you, at least, know me well. I suppose that's good to know." Then his eyes drew together and he scanned her face closely. "I hurt you before. That's why you didn't trust me."
Sansa breathed in swiftly, the air almost hissing through her teeth. "You remember?"
"No. But you look..." He waved a hand and trailed off, a heaviness making his mouth twist to the side.
Sansa turned her gaze away and swallowed again a rogue lump in her throat. Then, in barely more than a whisper, "Most of it wasn't you, Tyrion. Most of it is old hurts made by cruel, cruel people. You've apologized to me and I've forgiven you—that is all that matters to us now."
She turned back to look at him, hearing a strained sound in his voice. The look of self-hatred wasn't a new one on his face, but this time especially it was one she hated. "Your guilt can't help me, Tyrion," she snapped. "It only makes it harder to love you and if you think I want that then you are a fool."
Tyrion blinked, with more clarity in his eyes than she'd seen in so long...so so long. "Sansa," he said in a low voice. "I must beg for more patience. I don't understand."
"I know you don't," she said, inhaling deeply and then letting it all out.
"I know that too."
He sighed, lay back, then scrunched his face again. "Are you the only one who cares to see me?"
"Of course not," she murmured. "I'll bring your family in, if you're ready."
Tyrion shrugged. "Might as well."
Sansa hurried from the room, breathing a little quickened. It would have been so straightforward if he'd woken fully healed and she could have confessed her love and...and all that entailed. Awkwardness, instead, made her flustered and unsure. Some things were easier, others infinitely more complicated, and while her head had logical answers her heart seemed to overwhelm her too often.
Finding love had always seemed so much simpler in songs. Those stupid, stupid songs...
The ship to Pentos passed through every winter storm, so it seemed. Wood creaked and vomit joined salt-water on the decks, even in Dany's lush cabin. Irri, her brown skin turned a sickly color, moaned and turned on the bed. Even Jorah had a greenish cast where he stood at the window and watched the raging seas.
"How close?" Irri asked yet again, hands pressed over her belly.
"Days still," Dany said and stroked the woman's clammy brow. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed how Jorah watched her every movement. Still insecure, still worried. She'd refused to choose between her two loves and he felt sure that one day she would choose and it would not be him. Foolish. But loyal, and she would prove him wrong in the end. They were both hers.
Irri moaned and closed her eyes. "When we land, I demand that we buy horses."
Dany managed a tiny smile, the first in weeks. "Horses?" Demand? she thought also, amused and yet pleased.
"We are building our own life, and I want horses," Irri said with a fierceness that seasickness could not squelch. "They know well to stay away from this cursed poison water."
Dany's smile grew. "True, yes. We can be Dothraki again, like in the beginning. We can start our own khalasar."
Irri smiled back, eyes half-opening. "I shall be Khal Irri and you the blood of my blood."
Dany faked horror. "What is this? Am I not still your khaleesi?"
"Yes. Khaleesi to my khal, for no Andal can be khal. It is known."
Jorah snorted but Dany only laughed and kissed Irri's brow. "Yes, my khal," she teased.
"It is known," Irri murmured again and smiled, tangling her fingers with Dany's.
The ship rocked back and forth on the waves and had Irri any food left in her belly it probably would have joined the rest on the floor. Yet it was better here. King's Landing and all its troubles were far gone. Westeros was no longer her task to rule and she was free. Free to love, free to live, free to leave all her burdens in her wake.
Eventually Irri dozed off and Jorah came to wrap his arms around her. Dany hummed to herself, resting her head against his shoulder. "When we are Dothraki again," she murmured, "you must not wear your heavy armor."
"Give me a painted vest and an arakh," he whispered into her hair. "I am yours, Daenerys. We have given up Westeros for good."
And Dany smiled and buried all her sorrows where they could not bring her tears.
"Curse dragons and the day I ever thought I would want to see one," Tyrion growled as his knee gave way and he nearly crashed to the stone floor.
Sansa had a firm grasp on his hand and helped him up again. "When was that?" she asked, avoiding mentioning the fall that so clearly hurt his dignity. "When did you want to see one?"
He made a low noise and attempted again to walk across the room. "Oh, I was probably four...five...too young to know anything but that if I didn't have a dragon, no one would ever fear me."
She could have been cruel and reminded him that, no, many had feared him—herself included—but she only tsked quietly. "You have much better talents than causing fear."
"And what are they, hmm?" He'd been recovered for over a month now, and save a few dark patches all his memory was returned. Limbs still held onto weakness, though, and at first he'd cursed them and said he'd always been twisted and dwarflike so why not a cripple as well. Sansa glared him into submission; for all the embarrassment he showed she knew he wanted to walk again. It was all they spoke of, most days. She helped him to health again and they spoke of that or his memory, testing its solidity. Nothing more, for Sansa had her embarrassments as well and a dignity that made her shy.
"You are intelligent, compassionate, just, self-aware, loving," Sansa listed off, a talent for each wobbling step he took. She held her arm steady for support, watching each step in case he should stumble again. While she had grown taller, he did not seem so outrageously small as he once had. Love was very blind, maybe. "You are well-read and battle-savvy, and good with animals and most people."
He scoffed, raising one eyebrow. "Now there you exaggerate most criminally, Sansa. You and my niece and nephew do not count for most people. Besides, I believe Nymeria sees me as her pet, not the other way around."
On hearing her name, the wolf who'd been flopped on her side by the fire lifted an ear and made a sniffing sound.
"Companion, fine," Tyrion corrected himself and rolled his eyes.
Sansa laughed under her breath.
At last he made it back to the bed, climbed the short stairs, and sat on the edge of the mattress with a sigh of relief. "Well. Now, if there's a fire in the castle, we know I can make it just to the door before realizing that I would rather die in bed."
She sat down next to him and gave him a look. "If there is a fire, I will have Nymeria carry you out." On impulse, she found his hand with hers and squeezed gently. Unexpected moments of silence followed, and she wondered if she should pull back—but didn't. His hands were smaller than hers, but warm and somehow comforting to touch. Sansa had rarely felt a comforting touch in the span of her life, when all touches were called into account.
Before the awkwardness reached its zenith, Tyrion cleared his throat. "Had I realized I would not die, when the Wall fell and I with it, I still should not have expected this kind of welcome at Winterfell. I hope Daenerys didn't threaten you into this."
"Into what?" Sansa raised her eyes from their joined hands, not quite sure of his meaning.
"Taking care of me, of course." Tyrion didn't quite meet her eyes. "I'm already so far in your debt, there's no need for..."
"Hush," Sansa said, soft and short. A flutter of emotions turned her stomach over, but she swallowed it all. "I did it willingly." She tightened the hand around his just a fraction of an inch and tried to will herself calm again.
But then he looked up at her, looking braced for hurt—or perhaps hurting already. "Why?"
She'd answered it every night since the beginning of the war, only deep in her heart where no one else could hear. She'd kept back the answer for months when he struggled to remember simple things about their history. Now, the words fell from her lips before she could even pause for breath. "Because I love you."
Tyrion held her gaze for another few seconds. Then, barely audible: "Oh."
Sansa inhaled deeply, biting her lip and glancing over to the window to break the too-strong tension. "Are you going to tell me that I don't? That I shouldn't? That I'm just lying to you or myself or maybe even both?"
"I'm thinking about it," she heard him say.
"Well, I don't care," she said firmly, turning back and steeling her jaw. "I don't." After all the lies and awkward truths, these words felt precious. Not quite a joyful truth—not if he didn't love her back—but hopeful. Sansa had already sacrificed her last defenses for hope, she could hardly stop now.
When he finally laughed, it sounded almost like crying. "There is no one like you in the world, Sansa. Gods be good, no one else like you."
She swallowed the lump in her throat, unsure and too caught up in the importance of the moment to see clearly. Her wretched heart beat too fast and she heard herself murmuring, "I don't think that's true..."
"I've traveled the world, I know it is," he said, hoarse and suddenly vulnerable. "The world is full of good women, and remarkable women, and even women who don't hate me once they know me. None like you, though. None I could love like you. Unless you're a fever dream and I'm still asleep..."
Sansa shook her head violently, feeling like her heart would now fly away, too happy to stay grounded with her. His face looked so soft, all the hard twisted lines as nothing compared to the warmth in his eyes—the love had been there before, but never so strong as now. "I'm not a dream, I promise," she whispered, and when he smiled she returned it.
My husband. This time the words seemed to fit.
"Are you sure you're not a dream?" he asked, the teasing tone not hiding even a little of his hesitation as he turned inwards, releasing his hand from her grasp.
She only nodded. The closeness threatened to steal her breath away—had her own heart not been pounding so, she might have heard his too.
Though he could barely reach, Tyrion brushed fingers through her hair and slid them to cup the back of her neck. He'd smiled at her so many times, but this one was simply from intimacy. Sansa shivered, but not in fear, and leaned in to close the distance. He kissed her then, just barely. There was nothing perfect about his mouth against hers, nor was it her first kiss, yet Sansa thought the love in it might envelop and never release her—and she liked it.
When he pulled back, still looking as if he'd not be surprised if she ran away, she couldn't contain her smile nor the impulse to cup his face in her hands and kiss him again. The impulse had been good—she liked it even more the second time.
"I love you," he whispered shakily when the kiss ended again.
"Do you?" she asked, forehead pressed against his, breath catching in her throat.
He laughed and stroked her cheek. "Very, very much."
"That's good..." Sansa wondered if this was what made minstrels write songs. "I mean—I love you too."
He snorted, and Sansa ducked her head and laughed, for relief and for love and for the unmatched healing of a wanted kiss. Then Nymeria nosed them apart with a look of disdain, and after that the laughing didn't stop until they were both red-faced and weeping. It rang through the halls and nothing so good had been heard in far too many years.
Winter still ruled the lands outside, but inside Winterfell it was as warm as summer.
The loud thumps from within the wagon kept frightening Brienne's horse. Sandor ignored them pointedly, except for a few times when he kicked back, but Brienne's horse whinnied and shied every time the thunderous noises started again.
"Don't you think a few minutes of talking would have been worth all this?" she asked the Hound, not for the first time on this journey North.
"You think she'd have coming willing?" Sandor laughed mockingly.
"He's right," came the boy's voice from within the cart.
Brienne sighed. The pious Hound she'd found on the Quiet Isle had made a reversal at the sight of this one girl, and she found herself a skeptic of it even to this day—yet perhaps it was not extraordinary, for there had always been that Lady Stark he talked about, who was not her Lady Stark. Regardless, he'd lost some quietude when they found their prisoner, and Brienne no longer felt particularly honorable among his company. The last time she'd felt honorable, it had been when Jaime—dear, doomed Jaime—gave her Oathkeeper. Now she brandished a simple unnamed blade and did not dream of knights. Yet she would keep her oath, just as (in a perverse way) Sandor was doing as well.
Two scarred giants such as themselves met no resistance on the road, even with the border disputes that had been rumbling ever since Daenerys Targaryen left for Essos. The Tullys' land had been easy enough to pass through, and Robert Arryn did not rule the Mountains of the Moon with as much paranoia as his mother had. The North, however... Sandor had been right about one thing, and an open show of force had saved their skin more than once.
Somehow Brienne doubted that this would be the case once they arrived at Winterfell itself.
The last few hours that she had to doubt, nothing changed. Thumps from the wagon scared her horse; Sandor growled; Brienne questioned her life's purpose. At last they came to the gates.
"Prisoner for Lady Stark," Sandor growled.
"Who?" the guard demanded.
"None of your fucking business." Sandor had a foot and a half on the guard, and used it and his ferocious face quite well. "Take us to Lady Stark."
The guard scampered off and they waited.
"We should get her out," Brienne said, frowning.
"You want the scratches? Be my guest." Sandor spat in the wagon's direction, though as always his bluster had a bit of awe in it.
A few scratches would be worth the honor of a proper meeting. Brienne braced herself and opened the back of the wagon. Gendry sat, bored and eating a wrinkled winter apple, looking more like Renly now than he ever had as a boy. The log-shaped bundle on the wagon's floor flopped back and forth while making muffled angry sounds.
"She's got a lot of anger," Gendry said with a shrug. "Still going strong."
"I could hear," Brienne said, and cracked her knuckles. "Well, we're here. If you don't want the wrath, you'd best get out now."
Gendry laughed and hopped out of the wagon before she could ask twice.
Brienne dragged the wrapped and bound prisoner out and set her upright before slicing the ropes around the upper half. She'd barely begun unpeeling the blanket before a gag was spit in her face and a snarling face made to bite at her nose.
"Enough," she ordered, hefting the young woman up with one arm to keep her from getting a foothold in the mud. "We're at Winterfell, as promised, so fighting is pointless."
"Bloody kidnappers," Arya sneered at her, trying to wrench away. Her shaggy mess of black hair was plastered half to her face, half to the back of her head, but while her face was not pretty it was most certainly a Stark's. Not that Brienne had seen many, but Sandor assured her of the accuracy. "Then you'll be responsible for my traitor sister's death!"
Brienne ignored her and cut away more of the bonds. Though skinny, Arya was quick and strong, and slashed her nails across Brienne's forearm enough to draw blood.
"Bugger your talk of traitors and killing," Sandor growled. He'd changed his mind and came to help with the irascible prisoner. "You've been in Braavos, idiot girl, so don't pretend you know anything about your sister."
"I'm not a girl," Arya snapped, even as Brienne caught her arms and held her from diving towards the Hound. "I'm a woman grown and you can't fucking kidnap me. Gendry, tell them!"
"Tell them what?" the Baratheon bastard demanded, looking decidedly awkward. "That I made you a woman? That's hardly relevant."
"You didn't," Arya scoffed. "I made you a man."
A fierce bout of squabbling only ended when Sandor laughed mockingly at both the "mewling babes". The situation was swiftly growing out of hand and Brienne didn't approve. When Sandor stopped Arya's stream of curses and threats with a hand over her mouth, she let out a short-lived breath of relief.
"Gods fuck you!" Sandor roared, drawing back his hand dripping blood where Arya had bit him.
At that moment, of all moments, before Brienne had even cut the ropes binding Arya's legs, the Winterfell guard returned and said that Lady Stark would see them.
Brienne wasn't sure how they managed to drag Arya to the Great Hall without ending up in pieces, but they did. The girl might have been a "woman grown", but Brienne and Sandor made her look a dwarf. Size mattered more than Arya cared to admit, clearly. Lady Catelyn, I hope you appreciate this, wherever you are...
Inside the hall, oddly enough, Lord and Lady of Winterfell sat at supper with their bastard wards. After such a long journey, Brienne had lost all hope for things to actually be as they'd been rumored. Yet it was true—Sansa looked the very image of the mother that Brienne had once served, a fact that sent a pang of guilt and grief through her even now. Tyrion Lannister, though propped up to the same height as the others, laughed and ate with the rest as if he belonged here. The boy and girl sitting just below them could have been his children, and the direwolf by the fire could have been a family pet. An odd family, but a happy one nonetheless, something Brienne had never thought to see again.
It was Sansa—Queen in the North, Brienne corrected herself—who rose as soon as they were escorted in. "What is this?" she asked, steely confusion in her voice. "You bring me a prisoner but you mistreat her?"
"Lady Stark," Sandor began, and as soon as he spoke both Sansa and Tyrion froze, suddenly recognizing him.
"You were dead," Sansa breathed.
"Was, yes." Sandor didn't mock her. "Not anymore."
"Your grace," Brienne said and stepped forward. "Your mother commanded me many years ago to return you and your sister to her—or to Winterfell, once she was slain. I've been lost most of those years and you returned on your own. It was by chance that another opportunity to fulfill my oath came to me, and so here we are." She awkwardly pulled back Arya's hair from her face. "I'm sorry that we come like this, but she refused to believe that you were not...a traitor."
Sansa's cheeks went pale. Arya only hissed, though she no longer struggled in Brienne's grasp.
"This can't be," Sansa said aloud.
"Sansa, they used another girl in place of your sister before," Tyrion warned, rising to join his lady wife.
Arya suddenly wrenched free, drawing a dagger from thin air somehow (Brienne and Sandor were not stupid and had both stripped her of all weapons long before) and darting across to slide it against Sansa's throat. Before Brienne had time to cry out, Arya snapped loud enough for the entire hall to hear: "I'm no imposter. I've come to avenge father, and Robb, and mother, and everyone who died because of you and these Lannisters."
Brienne couldn't move, caught by the fear that she would now watch both Lady Catelyn's daughters die in hatred and blood.
Then a great beast snarled and Arya went flying back, the direwolf pinning her to the floor and sending the dagger flying uselessly away.
Everyone moved again. Sansa gasped and put a hand to her unharmed throat as Tyrion leapt in front of her and Sandor swore and drew his sword on the pinned Stark girl. Brienne and Gendry shared a look of unsurety.
"Nymeria?" Arya's voice sounded small now, and she did not struggle.
The great wolf held herself with fur raised and teeth bared protectively, and did not release her Brienne had a horrid thought that Arya might actually cry.
The tension broke as Sansa gently pushed Tyrion's hand away and took two steps forward. A look from her, and Nymeria settled down. "Yes, Nymeria." Lady Stark's voice wavered, even while she stood tall. "She came to me when I called and she's been at my side ever since. Waiting for you to come home."
Brienne didn't understand, but this was not hers to understand.
Sansa's eyes glittered with tears, and when the direwolf stepped back at last Arya stood up slowly, not bothering to reach for her knife.
"It must have been horrible living without her," Sansa whispered. "I'm sorry... Arya, I'm so sorry..."
"Sorry?" Arya's voice came out strained, the furrow between her grey eyes making her look like a little girl. "Who are you and what have you done with my sister?"
Sansa laughed strangely, then swiftly took a step forward and embraced her.
Strangely, Arya did not struggle. "Told you," Gendry murmured at Brienne's side. Then Arya made a choking sound and gingerly hugged Sansa back, some of the strain vanishing in a way that only family could cause.
Brienne's work was done. That last duty had been carried out and her heart was unburdened. Now she had only to find Pod again, give him a home, and she might at last settle down. Where that might be, she knew not. Nearly all who she cared about now lay beneath the earth, and she had no allegiance left to direct her. She'd traveled with Sandor for years now, a matter of shared purpose, but now she saw a painful longing in his eyes as he watched the sisters' reunion. Somehow she doubted that Sandor would leave Winterfell now, yet she might as well wait here.
In some ways, Sansa did not recognize her sister. After nine years apart, however, that was hardly surprising. Sansa barely recognized the girl she herself had once been every morning when she looked in the mirror. Arya, though, seemed more wild than ever, and yet full of a terrifying control. One moment she'd be ranting passionately—the next, looking like she might slit a throat. At least this time, Sansa had dealt with far worse.
"Your hair," Sansa had said, mourning the tangle that was atop her sister's head.
Arya looked at her like she was an Other.
"It gets in your eyes and in your way," Sansa explained. Arya had trained with the Faceless Men. A lady of Westeros she would never be, and Sansa no longer required that of her kin. Basic hygiene, however...
"Oh." Arya scrunched up her nose in the Stark family way. "Well if you want to cut it, I won't say no."
Somehow, Sansa convinced Arya to take a bath in the hot springs, far away from the others. Arya's suspicion made social interaction difficult, and Gendry had confided that he barely remembered Arya before she'd shown up to the Brotherhood Without Banners and had no more trust in her. What little she exhibited now, he told Sansa, had been hard wrung from her sister.
Nymeria padded along—anywhere the direwolf went, Arya followed, and that could only mean good in the long run. Once in the godswood, Sansa joined ARya in the steaming bath with a pair of shears, noting how her sister looked less like a wildling once the dirt washed off her skin. For a long time, though, she could only stare at the blue and black tattoos along her back. "Braavosi?"
Arya tensed slightly and nodded.
She wouldn't ask further, not now. Sansa buried her fingers in Arya's hair to scrub out the dirt and grime, expecting resistance, but instead Arya seemed to turn to soft clay beneath her hands. Brow furrowed, Sansa focused only on washing and combing out her little sister's hair—not so little anymore, but still small. Then she heard a whimpery sob and pulled back as if burnt. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
Arya turned, eyes red and shoulders hunched, and wrapped skinny arms around Sansa. Hot tears leaked onto Sansa's neck and she didn't understand. "What's wrong?" Sansa asked again.
"Why do you have to sound like mother?" Arya asked achingly. "You always looked like her but..." A strangled sound choked off any further words and she only clung.
"Arya..." Sansa held still, bewildered.
Another sob came wrenched from Arya's throat, then a rush of almost unintelligible words. "I was so close to seeing her and then she died, and I was so close, and if I'd just been faster or better I could have saved her, and I tried to forget but it still hurts and I could have saved her."
Sansa had to swiftly swallow a lump in her throat. "No, no, you couldn't! No one could. We were children, just children."
"I don't think they even buried her," Arya said, with a bitter grief that made her arms shake.
"She's here," Sansa could whisper, and stroke her now-trembling fingers through her sister's hair. "She came home, her and father. Their spirits rest in Winterfell."
Arya shivered but her sobs stopped, her clinging lessening. And then, as if a switch had flipped, she was as calm as if emotion had never touched her face. "You can cut my hair now," she murmured under her breath, pulling away and turning her back to Sansa again.
Lip between her teeth, Sansa continued with her original task, dragging fingertips through Arya's tangled locks and finally snipping the ends with her shears. Something was broken in Arya and home alone could not fix it. Sansa knew how that worked, knew her own brokenness very well. They'd been children once, her and Arya, and then the world had robbed them of childhood and left a black hole in its place. Family, though, was stronger than such emptiness. They'd been born sisters and would die sisters, but not yet. Not for a long time, Sansa could only hope.
They need not rely on sisterhood alone, also, for Arya had Gendry and Sansa had Tyrion. Sansa could hardly guess the exact nature of her sister's relationship with the blacksmith, yet it seemed essential to them both. Gendry made no attempts to leave Winterfell and Sansa would never ask him to.
Her own love was less easy, more stated, and rather more awkward than she'd hoped. Tyrion had a way of treating her gingerly that made her worry, yet any impulsive hungry look that escaped his control made her gasp and turn hard, brittle. Then there were only awkward apologies and explanations and wretched anxiety. Love was simple, trust was not. "They broke you worse than they broke me," he would tell her, giving her hand a squeeze as if to tell her that he understood. But she still flushed in shame and then he would say nothing at all, nor give her even a simple affectionate touch, drawing away with a look of guilt that made her want to weep.
Sometimes it was easier to laugh and smile at the table, to share a sweet kiss before bed, and pretend that the rest did not exist. Pretending made nothing so, however. Love was less a happenstance than it was a journey, and for all her anxieties Sansa needed to keep going on even though she didn't know how. Surely Tyrion must as well, for he was still there, still trying.
Arya's arrival into the family, and all the adjustments necessary, distracted them from each other for a while. Myrcella and Tommen seemed to fear the longlost Stark, and Sansa worked day and night to ease the tensions and conflicts. Tyrion awkwardly attempted to befriend Arya and Gendry, and in an unusual show of maturity Arya didn't rebuff him. There was hope for them all, Sansa thought.
She almost forgot everything but Winterfell's family, in the broadest of senses.
A full week passed and it finally looked like no one would argue over the supper table. For an hour or so at least, Sansa could trust that her diplomacy would go unneeded. Her head in a whirlwind, overwhelmed with so many people, she stepped out of the hall to an empty corridor and took a deep breath of the cool air. Lady Stark fell away and Sansa thought only of herself. She was alone and could be selfish, just for a little.
"Tired of all the people, little bird?"
She opened her eyes in surprise and saw Sandor standing a few paces away, a tall figure in the shadow of a wall-torch. "Yes," she answered simply.
"Then I should leave you," he said under his breath, but made no move to follow his own suggestion.
The torch flickered, its hiss the only sound they could hear. Long years had touched him with age, yet he was the same as ever. Broad-shouldered and massively tall, yet with a fear behind his eyes that was so small. She pitied him still, and wondered what he'd seen. While she'd been buffeted about Westeros, what had he done? "You've not spoken to me since you brought Arya home."
"That was Brienne," the man snorted. "I don't care about your sister, beyond the many bruises she gave me. I came to see you."
That gave her no surprise and Sansa nodded. He whose rage sometimes became passion was touched by calm now, but not in his eyes. Across the corridor she could see them still like embers, dark and glowing. Just like she remembered in her dreams that were not always nightmares.
"Was it a disappointment, to find me alive again?" Sandor took a few steps forward, voice like gravel and jaw set.
"No," Sansa said softly. She'd loved him, in her way, once. Fear had sometimes given way to a desperate desire for someone to want her and to keep her safe. Even when she'd grown weary of the fear, he'd been a precious memory of the fact that there was goodness in the world. Those had been girls' thoughts, however, and now she was nearly one-and-twenty. "I never wanted you dead. I prayed for you."
"Not anymore, though." He gave a half-laugh. "I called you little bird, but that's all wrong. You've lost your littleness. You're a great mother bird now, aren't you, with a whole world beneath your wings. And no songs for me...no, none for the Hound."
Sansa flushed. For a moment words escaped her, but in the end she said only, "I don't sing anymore."
A sadness crossed his face, but he shook it off and shrugged. "Well, could be worse. You're happy enough, right?"
She swallowed and nodded. "More than enough." No need to lie about that anymore, thank the gods.
Sandor looked ready to leave, but he paused a moment and stared at her. "With the Imp?"
Sansa gave a hint of a smile and corrected him. "With Tyrion."
He turned away with a painful laugh, and walked away down the corridor without a single glance back.
When she could no longer hear him, Sansa let out a long breath and closed her eyes again. So many had come back to her and so few had stayed. Yet they need not all stay for her to be happy. Just a handful.
Peace still reigned in the great hall when shereturned, and love drowned out the discomfort every time it raised its head. It was as if nothing had changed while she was gone. Her world stayed together even without her busy hands to construct it.
Sansa took a seat on the rug by the fire and fed Nymeria herring, listening to Tommen sing a song he'd written about kittens. Arya slept with her head on Gendry's lap and Myrcella played at cyvasse with Tyrion. When he looked up from the game and met her gaze, smiling so hard that his eyes crinkled, she found herself grinning back.
Yes, she thought. This is what I want. For always.
Long ago, Irri had learned to allow her khaleesi time to ruminate over decisions. Daenerys spoke firmly, as a khaleesi should, only to despair over her choices when their flaws became evident. Irri played a longer game and could always wait for Daenerys to catch up. Daenerys—and Jorah too, though he was grizzled with age. Sometimes they could be as foolish as children, and had she not loved them it would have been unbearable.
"Are we going to make a claim for your old khalasar?" Jorah asked Dany when they at last landed in Pentos and sat cross-legged to eat dog sausage and flatbread and peppers.
Dany frowned and shook her head. "We are but three, and disowned at that. Something smaller, maybe."
"A caravan on the Dothraki sea?" Jorah mused.
Irri swallowed a laugh, but not well enough.
"What is it?" Dany asked.
They looked so silly with their blotchy skin and pale eyes, after all these years still only awkwardly wearing Dothraki styles. So innocent and so hardened, with naught but Westerosi ideals. They've not left anything behind yet. Irri chose her words carefully, but not too carefully. "Dothraki do not travel in caravans. Caravans are for rich merchants who can pay for stupid soldiers to guard their trade. Dothraki ride in khalasars and look only to take tribute. Khaleesi is right, we cannot be a khalasar on our own and we cannot win one. But there is no other way to be Dothraki, and only Dothraki are allowed on the Dothraki sea. We should be raped and plundered before traveling a day's way."
Jorah flushed deeper with his shame. "I did not think."
"Can we live outside of a city and raise horses?" Dany asked, brushing over her first failed idea. "We have enough gold to start something, surely."
Irri snorted and took a bite of her food. "Yes, but that has nothing to do with being Dothraki."
The conversation continued, however, and as always they were children of Westeros. Dothraki had taken them in, but they still understood nothing. Andals never did. They spoke of houses and work and trade and gold, of position and safety, words which true Dothraki did not even know. Yet Irri said nothing, for happiness mattered more than being right in this case. Love mattered more.
Irri could barely remember her own mother or father, no brothers or sisters, and she'd always been happy on her own before Daenerys (for solitude could be found even amongst a khalasar). The woman and her bear were too strange not to love, perhaps. Sunshine might burn them as brown as her, someday, but they would be her Westerosi loves until the end. And now, at last, it seemed like the end would be far off.
With the aid of Jorah's intimidation and Irri's hard glare, Daenerys bought a small farm for half the original offer. The lands were bare, the dwelling a shell, but Dany smiled at them both and spun Irri around. "It is ours," she said.
Jorah laughed and wrapped his huge arms around them both. "It is, and we'll make it fit for a khaleesi."
This is what they call a home, Irri thought, laughing with them both. When they were distracted, she stroked the walls and shook her head at the oddity of the hard dwelling. It is far better than a ship, if not quite a khalasar.
And it was not a throne. They ate and drank and slept and worked and fucked, but they did not rule. That was happiest and best. That was the life Irri had always wanted.
Dragonstone's smooth black stone stood harsh against the overcast sky, wave after wave pummeling the foundation and sending icy spray into the air. The last dragon would die here, and all that would be left behind was the black stone. Wrapped in furs, the direwolves at her side, Arya did not fit here any more than she fit at Winterfell. Nymeria whined and Arya made a sympathetic sound.
At last she left the harsh winter sea and descended into the belly of Dragonstone, finding Jon as always by the painted table.
"So that's where Ghost ran to," he murmured, forefinger stroking his bearded chin as he arranged pieces on the table.
"He's no dragon." Arya pulled up a seat and watched Jon work, head tipped to one side. "Are you?"
Tall, lean, dark—he looked so very much like her father, and his wordless answer only made it more obvious. For a moment she had to swallow back emotion, not letting any of it out into the room. Sansa might share every move of her heart, but Arya and Jon were different.
"She never asked if I wanted that side of my family," he said after a long pause. "Daenerys, I mean. So I didn't have a choice. I'm a dragon now. I can't be a wolf anyways, not with you and Sansa still alive."
"Rickon too," Arya said.
"Rickon too." Jon sighed, for truly it had been easier when Bran and Rickon had been presumed dead. Davos Seaworth's return, with his reports of Bran among the Children of the Forest and Rickon among the Skagosians, both of them incapable or unwilling to come back to family and Westeros, it had been a blow to every remaining Stark (and Targaryen-Snow-Stark...whatever Jon was). Some losses were worse than death, Arya knew. Arya knew.
"But what else could I expect." Jon laughed, even if it was mostly humorless. "I'm half dead myself, I might as well inherit this place."
Arya scoffed, rising from her seat to stand next to him, leaning back against the table. "Valar morghulis, Jon. All men must die. From the moment we're born we're on our way to death. We never know what "halfway" is."
Jon smiled for real, then, the warmth reaching his eyes. He ruffled her hair as if she was still eight and he was fourteen. "Don't speak like that to Melisandre, or you'll be in for a sermon."
Arya said nothing, for she knew no god but death and she avoided him as best she could. Westeros and all its faiths seemed quaint to her now, shallow, even though Sansa had told her about the wolves and answered prayers due to their father's gods. Once you knew death inside and out, and had felt the emptiness that life could bring, nothing could ever seem so hopeful as a benevolent set of gods. Arya's life was her own—she'd stolen it from the Faceless Men and reveled in the warmth. No grand purpose for her, no prayers, just daily life.
Jon had known cruel gods and for longer than her. He felt forsaken, as he had his entire life. Arya understood, and kissed his cheek. "You're a king. There are worse fates."
He made a face. "Marriage, for one. They keep pushing me to it but...well, I've lost all taste for love."
She groaned in sympathy.
"And I think Ghost has grown tired of me."
"Nah, he's just missing the North," Arya corrected. "The direwolves are coming south again. You may not want to marry but I'll bet you he does."
Jon laughed, and even more as the direwolves gave them scandalized looks. "I'll send him home with you, then. He can find a northern mate and you can go back to yours." A teasing light touched his grey eyes.
Arya punched him in the arm for that, and shook her hair back over her shoulders. "Gendry's not my mate just..."
"Just yours," Jon said quietly, as if it was a memory he relived. "You should go among the wildlings sometime. I think you'd like their ways."
In truth, Arya had like little of the civilizations she had seen. For family's sake—for Jon and for Sansa and for Gendry—she kept Winterfell as home and played the queen's sister when required. Wildlings, Braavosi, Dothraki, indeed everything across the Narrow Sea, had all done nothing to give her a sense of belonging. She was Arya, broken and strange and happy for it. For Jon's sake, though, she said, "Maybe I will. The Mormonts like them and the Mormonts are the best of the North."
The fire blazed in the hearth and the usual silence of Dragonstone reigned for a few more minutes. Then Jon ruffled her hair again and Arya protested and smacked him hard, and laughed ruthlessly at the pained yelp he made. Some things never changed, even when the rest of the world did, and that was good.
With Arya and Nymeria in Dragonstone to visit Jon, and Myrcella and Tommen gone south to visit Queen Margaery and her renowned Sand Snake Queensguard, Winterfell's evenings became as they once had been. Tyrion made connections with the maesters of Old Town to have more books sent north, some that he'd read before but Sansa had not, and others that they would share for the first time together. Until the fire burned low, it became a habit to sit together on a chaise and simply read.
Sansa loved to hear his voice and to curl up at his side with her head on his shoulder. Sometimes his hand would stray to her hair, curling locks of it around his fingertips as he read aloud of kings and warriors and maidens and crones. It was more love than she'd ever known—yet she craved everything. Her fears always fought with her desires but each day she was more and more determined to win. Tyrion was no fighter but she was, deep down. Wolves did not give in to fear.
He finished the chapter and let the book fall closed with a pleasant thump, then leaned in to press a kiss to her hair. "You're not asleep yet, are you?"
She shook her head, sitting up a little. "Just entranced by your voice." Smiling teasingly, though feeling the flush of shyness, she tangled her fingers with his and gave them a tug. "Tonight...will you come to bed with me?"
Tyrion turned his head, confusion and caution turning his brow into a mass of furrows and lines.
Sansa swallowed, tugged his hand again. "Unless you don't want to..."
His frown deepened and a small sound escaped his throat. Wordlessly he wrapped his hand around hers, shaking his head. "No matter my wants, they don't include a desire to see hurt or fear in your eyes."
"You won't," she whispered, insisting even though her heart pounded behind her ribcage. "I trust you and I want to...I want to not be afraid and I want to be with you." Sansa could feel her cheeks burn with color. "I'm not a maiden so you can't...hurt me."
He met her eyes with surprise and a sort of pain. "Did someone—did they—?"
Sansa shook her head quickly and pressed a swift kiss to his lips to stop his worry. "No, it was my choice. But I'd had too much wine and it was foolish and I don't want that this time. I don't want to be so afraid of...the past."
Tyrion exhaled and cupped her cheek in one hand, turning her face so he could look her in the eyes, his own grave and hard. "And this is what you want? You're not doing it for guilt or any other foolishness?"
She almost laughed, but instead just nodded and sucked her lower lip between her teeth. Fingers stroking the back of his wrist, she met his eyes till the concern faded, then said quietly, trying not to fidget. "I want to be your wife in every way. I do. Please." Again, though still a little breathless with anxious anticipation, she gave his hand a slight tug. "Please come to my bed."
A few heartbeats passed in which he didn't answer and she wondered if they'd never be free of awkwardness and guilt, but then he leaned up and kissed her with a heat that caught her off guard. Sansa breathed in sharply but did not pull away—she told herself that there was no need for fear, and it was easy to believe it. His hand, still cupping her face, stroked down her jaw as he deepened the kiss and she forgot all rationalization because it felt good. If it had been a test, and after all they'd gone through that would have been a likely explanation, they both passed it. Sansa kissed him back, unsure what she was doing but liking and wanting, and his hesitant caution vanished. There was only loving passion, half clumsy and half perfect.
Flickers of bad memories passed through Sansa's mind as Tyrion's hands strayed, caressing the line of her neck and then brushing a thumb over one half-bared breast, but she banished them swiftly. Love would win over fear because it had to. It was meant to. This love was too dear, and when Tyrion finally broke the kiss she made a disappointed sound before catching her breath.
He laughed, softly, eyes warm and dark with desire. "Yes, I'll come to your bed."
Sansa smiled, still flushing, and rose from the chaise to pull him away with her. They were too young to stay broken forever. They were just young enough to have everything they wanted.
Later, when the moon rose and the fires in her chambers had burnt down to dark embers, Sansa lay with her head pressed against her husband's chest, listening to the quick patter of his heart as it slowly settled back to normal. She was no fool to think that his presence nor even the sweet ache of afterglow would keep away her nightmares, but no longer would she have to face them alone. That was what marriage was, facing every trial together. Halving every burden, doubling every joy.
Sansa thought, as she fell asleep, that her mother and father would be proud.
As far back as Shireen could remember, there had been three constants at home: Melisandre, Davos, and her dragon nightmares. Others had shifted but those three had never strayed even a hairsbreadth. She had two years alone with her father before Davos returned to his side and balance was restored. At the sound of the old knight's voice telling his king that, no, he was not in fact dead, her father's face had trembled with something more than relief. The two men had clasped hands and Stannis' voice was husky when he said (not asked, said) "You shall be my hand again." Davos smiled, and then kissed Shireen's cheek like an uncle.
That night she dreamed the same old dream, only instead of Dragonstone it was Storm's End that turned from stone to dragon and swallowed her whole. She woke panting for breath and clutching at her right cheek, tearing her fingertips on the stony greyscale. Blood dripped from them onto her sheets and she blushed, feeling like a fool.
Shireen's mother spent nearly every hour of every day in the company of Melisandre, and now her father had Davos. Nineteen and plain, no one stayed at Shireen's side. Even Patchface had died in the war. Lonely and unhappy, she defied her father and sent a raven to Queen Margaery in King's Landing.
Though Jon Targaryen ruled the Crownlands from Dragonstone, Tyrion's relinquishment of his father's lands had sent the south into a fierce reshuffling of land. Some of the Lannister lands had been granted to the Riverlands and young Rhaegar Tully (still a ward of his mother Roslin). Some, such as Casterly Rock and Lannisport, had gone to Willas Tyrell in the Reach. And from King's Landing west to Silverhill and down to Cider Hall and back to King's Landing again now made up the new Crownlands. Jon named his realm the Dragonlands, and so the South settled down for now.
Margaery sent a welcoming reply to Shireen and so, despite her father's grumbles, she took a wheelhouse to what had once been capitol of the realm. It was nothing like what she had always imagined, but then again it was less intimidating. Shireen would be queen once her father died yet she had little skill in facing other lords or crowds of smallfolk. The lack of pomp in King's Landing assured her as she waited. When Margaery approached her outside the throneroom and gave her a sweet smile, Shireen's stilted caution faded. Margaery didn't even stare at the greyscale.
"You look like a true Baratheon," the queen said warmly, welcoming Shireen in. "I knew your uncle Renly well, and you have some of his look."
Renly had been fine to look upon, though, and Shireen knew her own face too well to take the compliment as more than it was. She had a wide-set, harsh face—but Margaery was kind, and Shireen smiled. "You are everything I heard."
Margaery laughed, turning to walk backwards, her gold-and-green gown sweeping luxuriously across the throneroom's floor. "Heard from who? Your father?" Her brown eyes twinkled.
"Oh no," Shireen added. "From others. My father thinks you're ill-suited to this position."
"And you're as honest as he, that's good." Margaery flicked her wrist to send her guards to the edges of the court, and only as they walked away did Shireen notice that they were Dornish women. The famous Sand Snake queensguard.
For the rest of the day, her stay at the capitol was nothing but lightness and joy. Margaery had other visitors, Myrcella and Tommen Lannister, who were no less kind than her. Margaery had queen's business and so Tommen, a perfect gentleman despite his tainted blood, offered to give her a tour. All of it was beautiful and Tommen, though plump and shy for it, made an engaging guide; Shireen wondered what her father could have possibly hated about the city.
That night, as lords of the new Crownlands came at Margaery's behest to welcome all her guests, she learned why. Though Shireen always wore her hair wrapped down to keep her protruding ears hidden, she could not hide her jutting chin nor greyscale so. Among her father's court everyone was always courteous and she assumed that such would be true across the land. Here, however, the party had barely started before she heard rumblings of "No wonder she's unwed" or "It's a wonder his grace lets her about" and "What a pity she takes after her parents so". A few hours later, when the wine had started flowing, the comments were less quietly spoken. Shireen, crimson with awkwardness, kept to the side of the room and clutched a glass of water—wine had always been too strong for her, and besides she was her father's daughter. Margaery and Myrcella and the other fair ladies twirled and bobbed around the hall whether dancing or making lively talk. Shireen could no longer tell who was petty and who was lying to her face, and so she kept her lips tightly together and did not move or meet anyone's gaze.
Tommen Lannister came sometime later with two glasses of wine, only to say, "Oh," when he realized she was not drinking, and then, "I'm sorry, I thought to refresh you."
"Thank you," she said anyways, and took the glass from him. The wine was too strong but she quaffed it back regardless.
"Why are you not dancing, princess?" he asked her.
The look she gave him must have been just like her father, for he swallowed nervously and she felt instantly sorry for it. "No one will ask me," she said. "I know I'm not pretty, but they seem afraid of my ugliness here."
Tommen's brow furrowed. "They are quite mean," he mumbled, standing at her side and casting a quick glare towards the dancing couples. "You are a little frightening, maybe, but that gives them no right to call you ugly."
Shireen blinked, wondering if the wine had gone too quickly to her head. "Are you teasing me?" she demanded.
He stammered, "No, I'm not. I'm sorry, did I say it wrong?"
"No," she said, less harshly. Feeling her face redden again for making a gaffe of even an honest conversation, she quickly changed the subject. "Why are you not dancing?"
Tommen made a face. "All the ladies have prettier partners than me. I used to be married to Margaery, but now that she's the queen and I'm just Tyrion's ward...well, even her schedule is full. I was hoping I could dance with you anyways."
Shireen smiled, nodded, and probably shocked half the nobles in the court by dancing not only one but two dances with Tommen. During one of the circle dances, two of the lords she crossed arms with smiled and said she danced very prettily, and somehow that made up for all the nasty remarks. She ended the evening neither lonely nor unloved by the people, and that was all she'd ever wanted.
The next day, Tommen again took her around King's Landing, though they spoke more personally than before. At last, though, during a discussion of the North and how neither of them had liked the bitter cold, they passed through the royal treasure house and Shireen stopped with a distracted gasp.
"Oh, yes, the dragon room!" Tommen lit up and beckoned for her to come in. "Margaery has the skulls and the eggs and all the Targaryen tapestries, since Jon didn't want to decorate."
"Eggs?" Shireen swallowed at the sight of the skulls, which seemed just from her nightmares, but followed Tommen's lead and gazed on all the ancient treasures. At the end, guarded closely by four queensguard, three stone eggs lay on a bed of satin.
"Daenerys' dragons left them, before they died. They're only cold stone, though. Margaery thinks it'll be like before, and they won't rise for another thousand years. Or maybe never, if there's no one with the Targaryen blood."
"My father has that blood," Shireen said, though her eyes were captured only by the scaled eggs. Hesitantly she reached out to give one a stroke, half glad that the dragons were no longer around to fulfill her nightmares. "Oh, it's warm," she said in surprise.
Tommen frowned and touched it. "Are you fevered? It's cold as ice."
Shireen shook her head. "It feels like a bedwarmer."
He stared at her as if she'd just displayed magic. Perhaps she had. "Maybe it knows that it belongs with your family, since all the Targaryens are gone."
Had she not been so fascinated, Shireen might have asked if Jon Targaryen had ever seen these eggs. Instead, she only kept staring until Tommen laughed and asked if she wanted to carry it with her. The queensguard protested, but though Tommen had been joking Shireen found herself asking if she really could. Her heart throbbed in her chest and the scaled egg felt like it was hers.
Cautious but kind, Margaery declared that she was secure in her guards and so a little kindness was granted. The gold-and-black egg kept Shireen's nightmares away that night, even though the extra guards about her room and window made her on edge. Impulse made her lay the egg in the fire on her third and final night in King's Landing, for where else did a dragon egg belong.
She woke the next morning to a thunder clap and the tiny scream of a dragon babe, and for hours could do nothing but sit upright in bed and stare across the chamber at the tiny lizard-like being in the ashes. For all that she blinked and blinked and blinked again, she doubted that she was not still dreaming.
When Margaery gazed at her in awe and said she dared not part babe from mother, though, sending the dragon (who she'd named Barath) home with Shireen, she decided that possibly it was not a dream. Before she returned home, the dragon had spread its jaws and swallowed her greyscale in flames that did not burn her. Her nightmares were fulfilled, and never came again, and Shireen knew then that it was all the opposite of a dream. Perhaps her father wished otherwise, especially when Tommen came to woo her and she accepted his proposal—but despite Stannis' angry protestations about the man's incestuous birth he bowed his head with reluctant pride when she declared herself future dragon queen and beyond his control.
Even after all the loss, the Baratheon name would live on and Shireen had made her father proud. The world, in her eyes, could not improve further.
Last chapter! I hope you've enjoyed this possible ending to the Song of Ice and Fire, even if it's more biased than GRRM probably would ever write. I never expected this universe to end up so large, and I may even have a few more oneshots set in it, but this is the ending that I've chosen for this story.
The winter raged on without sight of an end, the coldest in recent memory. Every Northern castle lay buried beneath drifts of snow, every road blocked by ice, and only unsettling ravens came from south of the Twins. Previous wars had left the kingdoms ill-prepared for winter after such a tumultuous summer, and food now grew scarce. Kingdoms that had sworn to peace found their borders afire and no one knew who had lit the first blaze. Riverland farms barely rebuilt burnt to the ground. Reavers reaved along the coast of the Westerlands, and smugglers smuggled under Dragonstone's very walls. Kings shouted at each other via raven and every border became a battleground.
Snowbound in the North, Sansa fretted for everything they'd all built together. Surely the old generation had died in chaos so that this one might thrive, yet here they were in a cycle thousands of years old, war and starvation and suspicion. She paced the halls and counted the food stores and pored over every raven and yet could do nothing. The very gates of Winterfell were blocked behind twelve feet of hard-packed snow.
"Winter does not last forever," Tyrion told her every time she sat and he could keep her there, brushing her hair over one shoulder and rubbing away the knots in her neck. "I've known a couple and they always seem hopeless until they're not."
"And peace seems unbreakable until it isn't," she said, though her eyes closed and she did not pull from his persuasive touch.
"You can't save the world," he murmured in her ear.
"I don't want to." She clenched her hands into fists. "Just our family. The world only needs to...keep quiet."
"A foolish dream." Tyrion planted a kiss at the base of her neck.
"Don't call me foolish," she snapped. Sometimes he liked to pretend that the world didn't exist aside from him, that as long as he was happy then nothing else mattered. Sansa was always certain that happiness would fly away on the next breeze, for it had so often. "Do you think when we're starving and the snow melts and there's raiders at the gates, that they'll care if we ignored them?"
He made a low sound and caught her chin with thumb and forefinger, turning her head so she looked back over one shoulder at him, eyes drawn together in a frown. "I called your dream foolish, for it is. Men will always fight over what other men own, and want what they don't have. We can only stay out of it. They can't touch us here."
Sansa was tired of hiding, tired of running away. "What of our children?"
He stared at her, confused. "What?"
It was only then that she realized the word had never passed her lips before. "I thought it would be inevitable. I'm...and you..." She bit her lip, thinking of old Tyrion, of the man who'd slept with naught but whores and yet had never claimed a bastard. The shock on her husband's face now made her wonder if this was all the family she would know. If she would leave the North lost on her death. Her stomach turned with confusion, and her words came out flat, "I just assumed."
"As I assumed you'd not want dwarf children," he said hoarsely, lips tight, his scar bloodless against the sudden flush in his cheeks.
It was such a cautious, scared answer, and that hurt. Sansa swallowed hard and pulled her jaw from his hand. "So after all these years I must still work for you, in hopes that maybe you might one day trust that I don't lie to you and that I love you and not in spite of how large or small you are. I see, it will be a neverending task."
"Sansa," he said, reaching for her hand.
"Tyrion," she answered, eyes stinging but voice crisp.
"Do you hate me for my weak fear?" He gripped her hand as if afraid she'd float away. "I'm sorry. I do trust you, I swear. The fear is only a habit, a bad habit I keep trying to exorcise."
His honesty and earnestness made the stinging go away and she swallowed the lump in her throat. Tyrion might falter but he always saw her true in the end. The only one who ever did. She let out a breath and with it the sharp tension. "I'm not a monster. I'm not your father. I couldn't not love my children, no matter what they were."
Tyrion wrapped his arms around her with an aching sound, holding tight. "Don't cry, my love, my Sansa. If you want children then I shall give you a dozen, two dozen, as many as you want."
"No, not so many," she protested, but embraced him back.
"The winter won't last forever," he said after a few moments of silence. "We'll bring back peace somehow. For our family, when it comes."
Sometimes he was so earnest that she couldn't help but believe him, and that made it easier to sleep at night. She nuzzled against his neck now and did not fret for the rest of the day. No one could predict the future, after all. They could face the facts when snow melted. Or if it didn't...they could stay like this forever.
After birthing fourteen foals with her own hands, and guiding her lovers with the care of their breeding stallion, Irri should have known more about the process of creating life. Instead she woke and untangled herself from the pile of sunburnt limbs and visited the privy only to find that, once again, her moonblood had not arrived. A quick counting told her that two moons had come with no blood, and if she counted back so far there was cause for the delay.
Irri glared at her belly and poked suspiciously at her widening hips, and then returned to stand scowling over Jorah till he also woke. "You will have to learn foaling quickly, for I refuse to do it with a fat belly," she told him firmly.
He stared disbelievingly, but Dany's eyes lit up with hope that Irri had not seen there for years. Now was the time for babies again. "He will be beautiful," her khaleesi purred later while braiding Irri's hair.
"I will not be," Irri pointed out.
Dany laughed and denied it, but Irri still made her promise to take full responsibility for her state. Jorah too, though he seemed rather in awe of the experience and did not protest even a little.
They took care of horses and Irri worked as hard as anyone else until her feet started to swell and she grew dizzy and aching. Then Dany ran her cold baths and Jorah did the work till he was brown as dirt. She was not used to staying still for long periods of time, yet the pampering made her feel loved and that was all for the better.
Her belly swelled and Dany began to rest her ear against it as if Irri were her pillow. "Jorah says that if the baby is a boy we should call him Jeor, and if a girl then Lyanna. He will not listen to me when I ask for Visenia and Maegor. Whose side will you take?"
Irri snorted. "Neither, khaleesi." Dany sat up and Irri pointed to the left side of her belly. "Jogo." The right side of her belly. "Kholo."
"Two?" Jorah sounded half faint.
Dany only stared open-mouthed.
"Yes, and since I must carry them for nine months, I choose the names," Irri said. Neither protested. Power was still a fresh sensation to Irri, but it was becoming a favorite one.
Life went on and Irri did not mind that it was not one she'd been born to. She missed traditions, and sometimes prayed to the ancestors in the stars even when Dany and Jorah forgot that gods existed. Yet this life was hers as so little else was. Life, love, and the babes in her belly. Hers and ours. Irri would teach her sons (for so she believed them to be) new traditions, and they would grow up to be kings. Of that she was sure--and already proud.
By the time her belly grew to overshadow her feet and she could barely dress herself, however, the sensation of being with child was no longer a pleasant one. Jorah might rub her back and Dany might fetch her cold plums but she still ranted in Dothraki until bursting into tears for the exhaustion and inability to find comfort. The babes took their own time and she could not help it, only endure. Somehow she managed, and did not lose love.
Dany and Jorah still faced foaling with grimaces and caution, but they were the only midwives available when Irri's water burst in the middle of the night and confirmed her fears about the aching pains in her abdomen. She vowed to herself that she would stay calm and reasonable, but it felt so much better to scream. When Jorah got within striking distance, that felt better still. Sweat, blood, tears, and pain beyond imagining accompanied the entrance of two red-brown babies into Irri's family, and on the second one Jorah exclaimed in surprise, "A girl." Only once they suckled at her breasts did she quite believe it, and then her tears were from relief.
"Never again," she said, looking straight at Jorah.
He laughed and promised to be good.
That night, once Jorah had fallen asleep and Irri was once again woken to feed the newborn babes, Dany stirred and stayed with her, stroking the soft wrinkled skin of their children.
"They are so beautiful," she whispered with tears in her eyes. "And they will live."
"Of course they will," Irri said, brushing the wild black hair of her son down as flat as she could manage.
"Thank you," Dany whispered, leaning in to kiss her beloved's cheek. "I never thought to have a living child. I thought my curse..." A sigh escaped her lips and she shook her head.
Irri smiled, tired but happy. "You know my names will not fit any longer," she murmured. "I will not make the girl suffer as "Kholo" all her life."
Dany chuckled, scooping up the tiny bundled girl. "What was your mother's name, Irri? Do you remember her well?"
"No." Irri shook her head. "My family...they were dead before I could remember their names."
"Mine too," Dany whispered. "We shall have to make new family names."
Irri bounced the tiny boy on her knee till he burped and thought to herself, thought of names old and new and every one she'd ever heard. "Havva," she said, nodding to the girl. "And Chayim," she added, looking at the boy in her arms. "Life and life."
And so they were, and so they lived, and though Irri heard rumors of dragons again in Westeros, Dany was distracted from them by the children running into the streets. That was all for the better.
The white raven proclaiming spring arrived too late for some, just in time for others. Some had been pronouncing it the endless night come again, and in her cold loneliness Myrcella had believed them. Now she woke to the sound of endless dripping as icicles released their water and everything turned to soggy mud. The roads North cleared at last and she and Tommen could return home.
Sansa waited with open arms for them both, and Tyrion too, and there was quietness and family but only for a short time. Tommen declared his engagement and that flipped Winterfell upside down in excited preparations. Spring brought laughter and smiles and sunshine again, but nothing for Myrcella. She missed Dorne and the time when she had a role, even if it was only to stay in hiding with Margaery and Tommen. No longer was she either princess or maiden-ready-to-wed, nor could she fit the roles of sister, daughter, mother, friend. Everyone had their place in the world and their closest confidants, but Myrcella had none. Margaery and Lyanna Mormont had come close, but they were gone and busy and Myrcella was too shy to make any move.
On the journey south, as Tyrion spoke to Tommen of a husband's duties, Sansa wrapped her arm around Myrcella and kissed her cheek. "You're quiet."
"There's nothing to say," she murmured. "I'm not the one getting married."
"Are you jealous?" Sansa's voice softened further, with the genuine concern that oft made Myrcella's loneliness a little more bearable.
Myrcella shook her head. "I don't want a husband, I just want someone to talk to...someone who's closest to me and no one else. I'm too shy for the North and they look queerly at me in the South. Or maybe I just want a place that's mine. Not someone, just somewhere."
Sansa could say nothing, of course, for her own displacement had been solved by a direwolf and a castle and a kingdom in the North. Not everyone could be so blessed. Myrcella didn't want to be queen just...something. Anything. Womanhood had come years ago and she was restless for it to matter. She felt stuck.
Eventually Tommen rode ahead to Storm's End and Myrcella sat between uncle and honorary-aunt and absorbed the gentle love they both provided with arms around her shoulders. Tyrion and Sansa were good to her. Better than her own parents had been, if truth be told.
This generation's marriage of Baratheon and Lannister glistered with far more genuine feeling than its predecessor. Tommen laughed and twirled and grinned widely, and though Shireen's hard face did not look quite so joyous it shone from her eyes and made her almost a beauty. Her dragon crowed just as happily, even more when Tommen fed him mice and tickled beneath his chin. The nobles of the Stormlands had a sort of fearful pride in their dragon, but Myrcella no longer feared any beasts.
Stannis, acknowledged king at last, submitted to presiding over his daughter's marriage. He might have little love for bastards born of incest (and though blind he had no difficulties expressing such thoughts) but denied his daughter nothing and was just in the end. Tommen had been legitimized and so legally Stannis had no claim against him. When it was done, however, he retired to his seat at the end of the hall with his hand Ser Davos. Myrcella found herself doing the same on the opposite end, watching the celebrations from afar. None of these people cared for her and she did not care much for them either.
Brienne of Tarth arrived and bent the knee to Shireen, swearing her the sword that had once been sworn life and death to another Baratheon. Melisandre and Queen Selyse provided a second wedding ceremony for Rh'llor, and though the crowds fussed Shireen and Tommen had no complaints. It was all about them and Myrcella didn't mind...she was only tired of being simply happy for others.
Margaery arrived to offer congratulations to former husband, in gold and green and flanked by terrifying Sand Snakes. Myrcella ran swiftly across the hall to embrace her old companion, and the woman made a gleeful sound and kissed her. "It has been so long!"
"Not really," Myrcella laughed. "But I missed you anyways."
"As did I," Margaery said before the crowds swept her away.
Behind her came the procession with the last dragon egg. Since Shireen's had hatched, the entire Realm sent envoys to test their luck with the stony eggs. Time and time again nothing had happened, and though one had hatched for Jon Targaryen the last one remained stubborn as ever. The longer it remained an egg, the more famous the situation. At Tommen's wedding, however, there was not a soul who'd not yet tested their luck against the egg, and so no one cared. While Margaery flitted among the other guests and kissed both Tommen and Shireen, four bored Dornish women guarded the egg display on the sidelines. Myrcella stayed with them and wondered if the egg felt half as lost as her.
The wedding went on for hours, and hours more after the King of Storm's End retired grumbling about the frivolities. Tommen and his new bride retired some time later, and the guests sang and drank loudly in their honor. Myrcella could not make it to her room, nor could she find an escort, and ended up resting against the pedestal holding the dragon egg. "You understand me," she mumbled, wine-drunk and tired, and repeated it over and over until sweet oblivion took her.
She woke to a strange scratching sensation, a squeaking sound, and something leathery against her arm.
Before she even opened her eyes, someone cried out, "Myrcella Lannister! It is Myrcella Lannister's!" and a newborn dragon curled up between her breasts to escape the noise.
No one left her in the sidelines ever again.
"Why her?" people asked, and Myrcella asked the same question. Her red and gold dragon had no answer, only rubbed its scaly nose against hers. In the end it was Tyrion who said, smiling through tears, "Because my brother and sister died before they could triumph, and all that potential is now yours." He hugged her tightly, though the dragon squawked in protest, and Myrcella laughed and cried and decided that the answer was good. Tyrion was eclipsed by Sansa's sun and Tommen by Shireen's. She and her dragon were the last greatness that the Lannister house would know for this generation.
A hundred proposals came from great houses and small, all bastardy forgotten now that she came with a dragon. Even Willas Tyrell, and Myrcella found herself disappointed to know that they still played the game in such a fashion. Margaery's proposal came last and had only an offer of a home far from the North that dragons hated. Myrcella burned all the other letters and returned to King's Landing.
"Who shall you accept if not my brother?" Margaery asked as they sat together while nightfires burned, wrapped in warm blankets and all alone in the dark.
"None," Myrcella confessed, and laughed suddenly. "I don't want any of them."
"What do you want?" Margaery asked, leaning in and tipping her head to one side.
Myrcella thought of her desire for a friend that she could have all to herself, thought of Margaery and her dragon and how there was no reason to be shy anymore. King's Landing, where dragons first arrived in Westeros, had yet to make her feel lonely. That was the sweetest thought and so she whispered, "Absolutely nothing. I have it all."
"So do I," Margaery said, and they giggled like girls and were happy.
The heat of summer scorched the south and ripened crop after crop of soft fruit and rich grain. Every week a shipment came up North and rivaled the produce from the glass gardens, even after Tyrion read every book on gardening and spent hours improving the system. Sansa could have told him that it would never rival the Reach, but he'd rather find out on his own. So she merely directed him to the bath whenever he came in covered head to toe in mulch.
Southern fields rippled with heat, but thankfully Winterfell still had a nip to the air. Mornings were bright and birds and children alike sang their glee at experiencing summer again, and on especially warm days there were happy screams and the sound of splashing water. Such was the way of children while their parents worked.
Sansa sat in a cool tower room and pored over ravens with young Maester Samwell fresh from Old Town. A queen's life was never as full of glamor as songs implied, and sometimes Sansa wondered what made singers lie so thoroughly in their songs. Perhaps in a life that was mostly cruel and disgusting and short, it helped to imagine that there might be another life in which things worked out just right. Perfection no longer appealed to Sansa, and indeed seemed a suspicious concept--she preferred the middle ground she'd found.
The morning had been one full of sickness and she'd considered staying abed, but in the end her duty called her. Leaving all the work to others would only bring her guilt in the end, and thankfully the ill feeling soon passed and she could work in peace. The quiet domesticity of it all gave her satisfaction with her role. She could find some sympathy with Daenerys and her desire to leave it all behind; the North was work enough, and Sansa could not imagine wanting to rule all seven kingdoms. One alone sent a flock of ravens to Winterfell daily. Some came from bannermen, some from other realms, and some were not ones she could answer. Those she set aside for Tyrion and continued on. Her mother had not lived long enough to teach her this task, but she'd had good instructors along the way.
And bad, too. When a raven from Robert Arryn brought memories of Petyr Baelish back to the forefront, she shuddered. But she found that her cousin had learned manners since their last meeting, once reading the letter. While not strong, apparently he'd grown up to be a lord that his people did not detest. Robert now asked for Sansa to send an envoy to discuss trade negotiations, and Sansa pondered which of her bannermen would be best suited to representation of the North. She wondered what Lyanna Mormont would think of the Eyrie, and what those in the Vale might think of a Mormont. Such a clash had rarely been seen, surely.
"Oh, here's one from Riverrun." Sam interrupted her reverie and pushed over a broadly-scrawled note.
She opened it swiftly. The last time Arya had sent a message, Gendry's visit to Storm's End had not given him quite the reception he and Arya had hoped for, seemingly, and Arya declared herself ready to become a wildling and never see civilization again. Sansa desperately urged her to visit Riverrun before making any decisions, using the excuse that their Tully relations had been abandoned too long. Roslin Frey's son by Edmure had finally come of age and Sansa had yet to visit him. She'd done no traveling, indeed, since spring had arrived six years prior.
Judging by this raven, Arya had listened and visited Lord Rhaegar Tully after all. And more. Smiling, Sansa told Sam, "Please continue with these, but I must show this to Tyrion at once."
"Do you need help?" Sam asked, jumping to his feet to offer an arm.
"No, thank you," she replied, making her own way from the tower. One of Tommen's kittens had stayed at Winterfell when the young Lannister transplanted himself to live with his new lady wife, and its offspring had infiltrated the entire castle. On the long way down, one leapt onto Sansa's shoulder and started playing with her braided coif. She sighed and ignored it as always. It was no more annoying than Tyrion's obsession with her hair whenever he grew drunk--she might tell him so one day, in fact, for he enjoyed her japes and jabs.
She found her husband still at the breakfast table when she at last arrived in the great hall.
"Where are your escorts?" he asked, flustered, as soon as he spotted her.
Sansa tsked his concern away and came to sit by him. "I'm not as weak as you think I am. I've survived worse than this."
He could hardly protest that, for its truth was as hard as any. A little frown and he abandoned the subject.
"Just out of bed?" she continued, changing the subject.
"You may enjoy hours and hours with your maester, but I do not." Tyrion rose from his seat to bring her a lemoncake and mint tea, though the action seemed an excuse to come close enough to rub her ever-growing belly. "A good morning is one spent in bed. I don't understand why you have yet to realize that, after all our years together. What makes you leave your lair now, by the by? Letters for me or...no, you always give those to me at supper. War? Dragonfire? Others?"
"Arya," she said with half a smirk.
"Ah." He bowed his head and shook it with a fake sigh.
"This time it is nothing drastic, however. She and Gendry send their regards from Riverrun, where they have grown very...attached...to Lady Roslin."
Tyrion raised an eyebrow. "Why the pause?"
Sansa handed over the letter with a pointed look, and watched him read between the lines. As always, Arya had said more than she probably intended. It all created an amusing picture that she had not dared try to describe in words. No, Tyrion must experience it himself.
"Oh my," he said with a low chuckle.
"Indeed." Sansa smiled.
"Those two will change Westeros against its will, I swear." Tyrion shook his head. He glanced again at the letter, stroking his beardless chin (a change that Sansa had demanded). "Now have you any idea what this 'gift' she's sending could be?"
"Not at all." Sansa shrugged. "We will see."
Tyrion leaned over to kiss her and she made a pleased sound. Work satisfied, but nearly as much as kisses, especially when they were seated and height did not matter. "Better not tell Jaime," he added after using the pretense of fixing it to play with a few loose strands of her hair. "He keeps waiting for 'Aunt Arya' to send him weapons."
Sansa finally stood from her chair and snorted. "In his dreams."
"Exactly." Tyrion laughed, then asked. "Do you need help back to your tower, my love?"
She rolled her eyes that time, and would have put hands on her hips if they'd still been visible. "I'm carrying your child, not the Iron Throne. I can manage."
"If you say so." Tyrion cast a glance to her belly as if both terrified and in awe.
Sansa only wriggled her nose, half irritated and half endeared. The years had softened his sharp wit as he no longer needed to defend himself so thoroughly, but he never failed to make light of everything--including her. Yet the years had given her plenty of ammunition to throw back at him, and she used every one. She might be mother of three children with a fourth on the way, but there was always time to play at wits. Life had blessed her with that much at least. All the time she'd ever prayed for, both to heal from the past and to savor everything beautiful in the present. Sweet sweet time. It was making her plump and distracted, but happy. The happiest she'd ever been, and the more she worked at it the happier she became.
That was something no character in songs could appreciate, how secure it felt to live a life built with your own two hands. Sansa's might still be soft and fair, but they'd crafted everything from a marriage to a kingdom.
Despite the best of intentions, however, Jaime Stark did find out about Arya's raven and subsequently ran raucously about Winterfell shouting excitedly about the weapons he was sure were on their way. Sometimes Sansa wondered how at only three years of age he could spy so well, and how he could possibly have so much energy. Ned, the older and quieter boy, managed to divert his younger brother by starting a fight over whose blocks were whose. At least it was not talk of weapons, however, and at least they did not wake Cate in her cradle.
By the end of the week, however, Tyrion and Sansa alike had both lost their patience with Jaime over his constant piercing demands of "When is Arry's present coming?.
"She wouldn't actually send him weaponry, would she?" Tyrion asked under his breath after Sansa joined him in their bed
"No," Sansa said firmly after groaning over her swollen aching feet. This subject had been made clear long ago, when Arya had still lived with them in Winterfell. The war was over and Sansa would not have her children raised as if it was not. Arya burned for violence at times, and Sansa didn't understand but she allowed it, yet not with her children. One day they'd be prepared for darker possibilities, but as of now Sansa clung to their sweet innocence. As much as possible, she'd keep their red-gold heads free of any harsh notions. They would have the childhood she'd almost had. It was a choice made from fear, perhaps, but it was hers and she stuck to it.
Arya was a good sister, though. Tyrion relaxed about the matter and rubbed her feet and made her forget that she was tired and achy. Little Jaime could chatter all he wanted, but that didn't make what he said true. He was only three, after all.
The very next day found the family walking together in the godswood. Sansa still prayed even if Tyrion did not, and the children liked kneeling with her to say the words. At least Ned did--Jaime preferred to toss leaves into the hot springs and Cate only burbled and drooled all over Tyrion's vest. But it was family. Sansa hoped her children would grow up taking it for granted.
Today, the family harmony was broken when a guard ran to meet them. "Lady Arya's gift has arrived," he said with wide eyes.
Before Sansa could stop them, both boys had cried out in delight and raced towards the front gate, leaving her half-waddling with pregnancy and Tyrion carrying their sister who was too young to walk.
"Hey!" Tyrion called, brow furrowed.
"We'll catch up," Sansa said and sighed.
Slow as they were, none of the excitement had faded by the time she and Tyrion arrived in the gateyard. The bustle of Winterfell life blocked much from view and Sansa grew curiouser with every step.
Then, as if appearing from the ground itself, Nymeria bounded up to her and barked with pleasure.
"Gods above!" Tyrion said in surprise, and tiny Cate started in fear.
Sansa only gasped, then laughed when the great direwolf licked her nose. It had been years since Arya and her wolf had left, and though Sansa had not been lonely she'd cherished all her memories of direwolves. "Nymeria." As always, she wrapped both arms around the wolf's neck. "I never thought to see you again."
"Look look look!" Jaime came running after Nymeria, holding what looked like a fur rug in his arms. "Look mama!"
Sansa froze and stared. "Are those...?" Tyrion wondered aloud.
Before either of them could put it into words, another three direwolf pups with fiercely wagging tails followed Ned as he ran up to both parents.
Sansa put a hand to her mouth as suddenly she was choking on her air, a lump filling her throat. "Oh," she whispered.
"Aunt Arya sent us puppies!" Jaime squealed in happiness, hugging one so tight that Tyrion warned him that he might break something.
"They are for us, aren't they?" Ned, more cautious than his brother, looked up to Sansa even as one of the pups licked his hand.
They all waited for her answer but Sansa's emotions nearly had her in tears. Long ago she'd told herself that Winterfell could not be whole without a family again. Years had gone by and little by little she'd made it come to pass; by the time of Cate's birth she told Tyrion that things were right again, and meant it. Now, though, she could only remember that day so long ago when little Lady had jumped into her arms and her siblings had been happy. So much had changed in the sixteen years since then. So much. But what hadn't changed was that Winterfell was home of the Starks, and that was the last moment that they'd been true children of the First Men.
Finally she swallowed the lump in her throat, laughed away the pain, and answered her waiting family. "Yes. Yes, they're for you all. One for Ned, one for Jaime, one for Cate and one for this one." She pressed a hand over her belly. "It's a sign from the gods."
Tyrion looked up at her, bouncing his daughter to calm her from seeing the enormous wolf so suddenly. "Do you think so?" he asked quietly, while the boys chattered about their puppies.
Sansa let out a shaky breath and smiled at her husband. "This time they're a reward, not just for protection. Everything goes smoother the second time around. That's what I believe. It's come true so far and so I'll keep believing it."
His eyes crinkled with half a warm smile and she knew he understood.
Nymeria left soon enough to return to her mistress, for Arya needed her far more than Sansa, but Winterfell rang with the sounds of happy wolf cries.
Sansa thought to herself, as her unborn babe kicked at her ribs and Tyrion grinned and cooed at the visible flutters on her belly, that the Starks had won in the end. No one had expected it, and that made it sweeter. Here she was victorious and there was still a Stark in Winterfell. Someday, maybe, Bran and Rickon would come home, and hopefully not simply to join the graves of father, mother, and Robb. Until then, however, Sansa would keep the hearth warm and surrounded with family.
As if an omen, that night passed by without a single nightmare. Winter might be coming again, but not yet. Not yet.