Chapter 1: The Queen in the North
She has severely miscalculated.
With Fa- no, with Petyr's plan soon coming to fruition, the time had come to reveal herself to Bronze Yohn Royce, to give the Lords Declarant the evidence they needed to turn the Vale away from Petyr's influence, and to finally, maybe, find her way home again. To remember her name.
But now she's been found out. She'd been so careful, too. Careful to always be Alayne, to never trust any one, and to only confess lies so carefully crafted they had become truths. She'd squirreled away funds, mapped more than one route out of the Eyrie and the Vale, but in the end, her discovery had come down to a momentary whim on Petyr's part to return just as she was making her move.
Oh, he's so angry- teeth tight, his voice sibilant, and he is going to hurt her- not in a way that depreciates her worth, of course not, but a violation all the same. She knows all his faces, yet this one is new. You'd think by now she would be used to how unfair life is. She has survived so much already: a docile singing bird in the Red Keep amidst all the humiliation and cruelty, the deaths of her family in a relentless march that battered her hope, and yet here she thinks to risk fighting.
A bird does not fight, why had she thought to?
You are a Stark. You are a wolf.
The animal rouses itself from her bones, coursing through her blood. Before Petyr can hold her down and tear at her skirts, she is snarling and snapping her teeth, clawing him away. But the force of her push propels him backwards, his weight hitting the beautiful painted glass window behind him, shattering. There is a moment where he looks so utterly surprised- eyes wide and hands scrabbling for purchase. He finds none. She watches as Petyr Baelish disappears from her sight with a desperate shout, but then he's gone.
All the rest happens in a daze of dawning horror.
It's Ser Lyn Corbray who comes bursting into the room, not Ser Lothor Brune. “You fucking cunt,” he spits out, face twisting with menace. There's no time to tell him she remembers her name. It's been so long since she allowed herself to think of it anyways, and the sounds don't come to her tongue fast enough. I am Sansa Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn, the blood of Winterfell, and with my brother Robb's death I may well be Queen in the North and the Trident.
Hands, callused from years of handling a sword, wrap around her throat, making her choke on the words. They wouldn't have meant anything to Ser Lyn anyways. Except maybe a reward for turning over a traitor and a Kingslayer to Queen Cersei in exchange for a reward. “Why I ought to...” Except Ser Lyn thinks otherwise, a trail of spittle trickling down his chin. It's all so horribly ugly as she's dragged over to the open window, twisting and kicking at empty air.
This can't be how it ends.
How unfortunate, then, that she should remember she is not a bird but a wolf, for she does not fly, she simply falls
10th turn, 299 AL
“As much as I thoroughly enjoyed our assignation, darling, you really must go now.”
Oberyn raised his head from where it had been comfortably pillowed in Ellaria's lap to stare at the woman in question.
“And why must I? We've only had two hours together and I could go all night, unlike that husband of yours,” he murmured, lifting his chin pointedly at the last bit. A breeze wafted in from the open window, bringing with it a hint of rotten eggs, making him scrunch up his face and Ellaria giggle gaily. That's what happened when you established a castle near a sulphurous river- the stench alone would drive away most enemies, to say nothing of guests.
Ah, well, it wasn't like he was going to stay long enough to get used to the smell.
He had thought it such a tragedy when Ellaria Sand had been legitimized as Lord Harmen's heir and married to a second son nearly a decade her senior. Never mind that Oberyn himself was nearly a decade her junior. That a wild and free woman such as Ellaria Uller should be consigned to such a fate...
She snorted and lightly batted at his shoulder, the act making her breasts sway enticingly in front of him. “You've missed the point of our fucking, I think. Now hurry and dress yourself before you have to flee out the window.” With that, Oberyn was left grasping at cold and empty sheets as Ellaria darted out of the bed to pull on a burnished copper silk dressing robe. She shot him a smirk while she tossed him his breeches, which left him to frown as he reluctantly moved to obey.
“I thought pleasure was the point of us fucking. Lots of it, in every which way.”
“Oh, don't get me wrong- that part was lovely. But my lord husband and I enjoy a different kind of game.” The insinuation was clear in her voice. With a jolt, he realized that his bad decision here may have either spawned disaster...or not have been that bad of a decision after all. Oberyn froze, breeches still unlaced and shoes barely on his feet. As if summoned by his mere mention, a loud voice bellowed down the hall from their chambers.
“Wife, I have returned- ready yourself to greet me!”
Ellaria rolled her eyes towards the heavens. “That man will never be employed by a mummer's troupe,” she muttered before giving Oberyn a pointed stare. “Now, go! You're not supposed to actually be here when he enters.” For how frantic Ellaria looked then, there was a gleam of excitement in her eyes that kept Oberyn from drawing his blade from its sheath and challenging Lord Abelar to a duel. Dorne may be relatively permissive compared to the rest of Westeros, but adultery- a Prince of Dorne sleeping with a married noblewoman- would be no small scandal. And Oberyn had already caused a scandal back in Old Town, dueling over another man's paramour. He sighed as he watched his tunic and his golden robe go flying out the window.
“Very well, I see what I'm worth,” he tossed back blithely as he held onto his sword-belt and stepped over the window ledge.
“Do come back and visit someday, my prince!” Ellaria trilled with a little wave over her shoulder as she positioned herself in front of the mussed up bed, facing the entrance to her chambers. The terracotta roofing underneath the ledge rattled alarmingly as Oberyn slid over it and swung from the gutters down onto the patio below. He heard Lord Abelar exclaim through the open window above him.
“Gods be damned, woman, I'm gone for naught a fortnight and you've had some cur in your bed?”
Ellaria's answer was softer and harder to hear since she didn't feel the need to be overly dramatic. “What else do you expect, my lord? You abandon me for such great lengths and a wife has needs that must be satisfied!” Apparently Ellaria and her husband had found something in their marriage that satisfied them, even if knowing precisely what that thing was made him cringe.
“I'll show you satisfaction!” The answering creak of the bedframe, loud enough to be heard even down here, had Oberyn staring up bemusedly before bending over to pluck his clothing off the ground. He dressed himself expediently, re-buckling his belt low around his hips. As he headed back through the castle, he spotted a servant girl, her arms laden with a tray of food, presumably bringing it upstairs to her lord and lady.
“I would leave it outside the door,” Oberyn told her with a conspiratorial wink. “I suspect they'll be busy- and noisy- for some time.” And with that he left the poor, wide-eyed girl and strolled outside to where his horse was stabled, whistling a sprightly tune.
Having recently seen twenty-six name days, Oberyn was probably too old to be spending himself about married women. His Toland father had died when he was two, his mother the ruling Princess Loreza when he was the tender age of five, and then finally his sister Elia when he was eight. Perhaps it was the extent of his losses at such a young age that left him unmoored and given to wandering. He'd traveled the world first- to Essos in particular- then attempted to settle himself in Old Town and forge several Maester's chains. To date, he had earned three of them. Oberyn couldn't imagine never striving to widen the breadth of his knowledge and experiences, but his twin desires seemed diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, he wanted to continue to travel; on the other, he found himself fascinated and tempted by the idea of domesticity.
(Although if he ever came to sound like Lord Abelar, he prayed someone would do the merciful thing and run him through with a spear.)
Only now Doran had recalled him to Sunspear. Something about serving the interests of Dorne in Westeros. Oberyn was no fool- he might be a lover and a fighter, but he paid careful attention to the increasingly fraught situation in the Seven Kingdoms. And much of it centered, naturally, on King's Landing. If he had to guess, Oberyn would say with near certainty that he was going to be sent in his brother's stead to the capitol. Their nephew Aegon would be celebrating his twentieth name day soon and the King had seen fit to have a tourney organized in his honor. Which essentially meant that besides granting further knightly acclaims, King's Landing was about to become one enormous marriage market.
“The King has offered me a seat on the small council, so I am sending you to King's Landing to take it up in my stead,” Doran announced with as much gravitas as an Archmaester, setting his goblet of wine back down on the desk with a decisive thud.
Such a shame I won't get a prize for being correct, Oberyn thought to himself with a sardonically. To his elder brother, however... “You know, if your hands had shook when you poured yourself that cup of wine, I might even have been convinced you truly are too infirm to take up the office yourself,” he pointed out slyly.
Doran's stare then could not be classed as anything less than unimpressed. Oberyn did not bristle the way he might have when he was two and ten. All the same, he was aware that Doran's health had been in decline since Mellario returned home to Norvos. He sighed, relenting. “Very well, I'll go into the dragon's pit...or could King's Landing be more aptly called a lion's den by now? These things get so confusing.” Oberyn clucked. Gods knew there were too many Lannister-men in positions of power in the capitol. “What are we to preside over? Master of Laws? Would the Queen trust me with the purse strings now that Lord Baelish is off enjoying his new castle?” He snorted at the thought.
“Neither,” Doran answered evenly. “The King is including several advisors to deal with matters of import. It seems he has become distrustful of his counsel since Lord Arryn died.”
Oberyn considered this for a moment. “So murder is suspected?”
“Poison,” Doran said with a nod of his head. “So you'll have to take great care while you are there.” Whether this meant to not be murdered himself or to not be implicated as a poisoner, Oberyn did not know.
“While still sussing out every secret within the walls of the Red Keep, I presume.”
He didn't even need his brother's confirmation to know the answer. But Doran paused, almost seeming reluctant to say what he needed to next. “There is one other thing. You will, of course, recall that historically Dorne's inclusion in the Seven Kingdoms has come through marriage.”
There was a noticeable uptick in Oberyn's heartbeat as he realized where this conversation was now heading. “And you have seen fit to barter with me- are my dear niece and nephews already spoken for, then?” He pinned his brother with a steady glare, his jaw clenching so hard it ached. Doran nodded slowly, carefully.
“I have plans for my children, yes, plans that already had negotiations underway. But this was an opportunity that I could not let pass, nor wait long to act upon.”
The bouncing of one leg was no longer enough to contain his emotion, so Oberyn shoved his way out of the chair and began to pace back and forth. Anger was a hot rush that thickened in his blood. “You've already made an offer- without my prior knowledge or consent. I had thought we were brothers, not father and son, despite the years between us.” He said bitterly. What else could he have expected? With their parents dead, it had fallen to Doran to preside over Oberyn's care and education alongside those of his own children. If he had thought being a man grown would have finally made him privy to decisions before they were made, clearly he was mistaken. Does Arianne have this much trouble trying to learn how to rule from her father , or does she find it easier than extracting her own tooth?
A weary sigh sounded from behind him and he turned back to face his brother, who looked older and older every time Oberyn saw him. “You're right, Brother. I've presumed much over the years and I do you a disservice by not informing you before I submitted a petition.” It's the closest to an apology he'll hear from Doran, who held up one finger. “Nothing is set in stone- no betrothal has yet been finalized but you haven't been outright rejected either. I'm asking you to make a honest effort and consider this for Dorne's strategic interests.”
“And with whom am I expected to consider our strategic interests?” Oberyn asked, moving over to stand before an open window. He stared out at the green of the trees, the sandstone of the palace walls, the crush of the city beyond, and in the distance he could make out the faint blue of the Summer Sea. A sensation almost like a cell door slamming shut came over him. Trapped.
“Lord Eddard Stark's eldest daughter, Sansa.”
Oh, Father smite me. Oberyn muttered the words though no sound escaped his mouth, and closed his eyes.
“I take it from your reaction you know her,” Doran remarked dryly. “After all, she has only been a ward of the Hightowers for the past decade.”
“Oh yes, we've met. Though I've scarcely exchanged more than a few sentences with her.” And that was the truth, although Oberyn was deliberately omitting just how aware he had been of Lady Sansa despite them rarely speaking. When he had first met her, years ago in the Hightower when Duncan had invited him to meet his family, she had been a sweet maid of thirteen. He remembered thinking that Sansa didn't look the way he thought a Stark would look and he had concluded that she must favor her mother. She hadn't paid him much mind, being more preoccupied with her not-so-subtle infatuation with Duncan's younger brother, Baelor. Oberyn couldn't blame her, the younger Hightower was very handsome, especially when he was in the training yard with his shirt off. Sansa had curtsied and given him a softly-spoken "how do you do, my lord" and that had been that for some time.
Just over a year ago, he'd spied her wandering through a market one day, a guard several paces behind her, and noted how unfailingly polite she was to the merchants and that, while the Hightowers were kind enough to provide her with a little purse money, she frequently spent most of it on things for other people. Oberyn's sporadic contact with Sansa Stark had shown him that not only was she lovely and truly kind, she had an innocence about her, a naivete that had him thinking 'not for you' before he could even wonder 'perhaps someday...' He wondered what Sansa, with her devotion to ladylike pursuits and training, thought of this potential betrothal, given there was no way she had not heard about how dissolute he had been sleeping with Myles Mullendore's paramour and dueling the man over her. They'd agreed to duel to first blood, given Oberyn's high birth and the trouble that would come if it were a duel to the death. That hadn't stopped Oberyn from dipping the tip of his sword in a diluted mixture of greycap- only enough to make the man empty his bowels repeatedly overnight. If he had to guess, she must be downright horrified at the prospect of being the Red Viper's bride.
“Lord Stark himself has journeyed to King's Landing, ostensibly to take the knee and reaffirm his fealty to the Iron Throne- and to the Targaryens,” his brother explained. “I suspect that the King was reminded that Lord Stark's daughter is not only a woman flowered these past years, but now also a woman old enough to be wed, and therefore perhaps it is time to release the wards and make peace.” There was no question what Doran thought of the King's motivations, not with the way he spat out the word 'peace'.
Rhaegar had sued for peace, but the gods had still seen fit to take the lives of not only their sister, Elia, but Lord Eddard's own sister, Lyanna. Both victims of the beautiful Prince Rhaegar. Though Oberyn had been just a boy during those days, he came to understand how for some people, peace was less a relief than a sour taste on their tongues. Even to this day, Doran simmered with a need for vengeance. Oberyn was less confident. His grief for the sister he had barely knew was a distant, peculiar thing. At times he wanted to lash out and run and run until he could run no more, at other times he just felt bereft. The world was a very dangerous place and he hated that he had been made aware of that kind of insecurity as a child. He'd certainly spent enough years trying to master that fear.
Rhaegar's punishments, which some considered too soft and others too cruel, had been meted out under the guise of security- ensuring that the terms of the peace would be adhered to and his precious crown protected. Ser Jaime had been exiled from the Crownlands, ordered to turn in his white cloak and return to Casterly Rock as Lord Tywin's heir. Some would say he got quite the prize in his bride, but just as likely the man had plenty to grow bitter over. Edmure Tully had spent the past decade in the capitol alongside Jon Arryn, the latter while his heir Denys (Oberyn suspected) continued to resist the royal edict and thus had only sired a single child, a daughter. Robert Baratheon and his Penrose bride were the opposite: three sons and a daughter. Their second son, Triston (or was it Stevron?) had been sent to be a ward of House Lannister. And little Lady Sansa had been sent to flower among musty books and hallowed buildings just as the young Prince Jon was sent up to Winterfell to foster with his mother's family for some years. Relations between the North and the crown had remained frosty ever since the war's end, but for the sake of the child that linked both their houses did they make an effort.
Everything costs, not just war. Only time would tell whether the return of the hostages would maintain the peace, or endanger it. But then again...
“Just out of curiosity, why was this too attractive a prospect to pass up?” he asked.
The ghost of a smile tugged on Doran's lips. “On paper House Nymeros Martell is simply doing their part to put the past behind them by demonstrating we bear no ill will towards House Stark.”
Oberyn nodded, reaching out to toy with a delicate, gold-embellished glass weight on Doran's desk. “During my time at the Citadel, I found that a great deal doesn't make it onto paper, especially when one must consider the weight being sent with the raven.”
“How pleasing to see your years at the Citadel haven't been in vain," Doran said a trifle acerbically. Oberyn only shot him an unrepentant grin. "But yes, my motivations run deeper than simple goodwill. I'm sure you would agree that Rhaegar has proven a weak king and opportunists are taking advantage, which places our niece and nephew in danger. Simply put, I believe the Starks are the only Great House we can count on to act nobly and effectively should war break out."
"They wouldn't support another Blackfyre rebellion, you mean." Oberyn sighed. "Very well, I'll put forth a honest effort with Lady Sansa but I feel I should warn you, brother, that she might be less than enthused by this betrothal proposal."
"Then you'll simply have to put forth your most charming self, Oberyn," drawled Doran, prompting an eye-roll on Oberyn's part.
"When do I leave?"
Oberyn spent the next hour speaking with his brother at length about their objectives in the capitol- who to discuss terms with for politics and for trade, and what sort of information Oberyn should aim to obtain. Mid-afternoon found him wandering through the halls of the palace, nostalgic for his childhood and ponderous about his future. It was no understatement to say he was uncertain about his possibly upcoming nuptials.
He was a Prince of Dorne, though a second son, and on paper an attractive prospect for many high-born maidens in Westeros. He did somewhat have a reputation for dueling- but at least his expertise was proven and though he may not be a knight, many Sers would be sorely pressed to dismiss him. There was also the promiscuity- but then again, who could discern what was truth and what was tall tales based on the usual stereotypes about lusty Dornishmen? Still, it may matter enough to sour things with Lady Sansa and Lord Stark.
It was the last issue that gave him much thought. Particularly, he wondered whether he could devote himself to one woman for the rest of his days. Plenty of noblemen did not confine themselves to their wives, and bastards populated every corner of the continent. Marriages, particularly among the nobility, were not done for love but for politics. Oberyn didn't think he could demand fidelity from his future wife if they found they did not suit. He saw no reason why a young woman should be denied some measure of happiness despite being used as...well...chattel. But such a compromise might be unpalatable to Sansa.
Oberyn sighed and decided to put the whole business out of his mind, it'd be nearly a month before he was in King's Landing, he'd have plenty of time to obsess over it. Instead, he began to track down Arianne, knowing his niece would have the juiciest gossip he'd missed while he was away. And besides, why expend much energy worrying about something that was unlikely to happen- Sansa would certainly have plenty of other suitors she found more preferable. He honestly couldn't see Lord Stark sending his daughter to Dorne, much less wedding her to Oberyn himself.
Frankly I have no business starting this fic but here I am, the queen of poor life choices. When it comes to book canon vs show canon, I pretty much use a mix of both. I'll be using AL rather than AC because I want most of the characters aged up a bit, but note this is a parallel universe so some things are different (like Sansa's year of birth). Just handwave the science of it all, like GRRM does. I'm feeling guilty about having both Lyanna and Elia dead, like...I need to start brainstorming AU worlds where they're both alive and doing the medieval equivalent of smashing the patriarchy or something. Or crushing Rhaegar's balls underfoot.
Chapter 3: A Stranger In A Strange Land
End of the 10th turn, 299 AL
Rain and mud.
First the scent and the feel of wet, then her lungs inflated suddenly as if shocked into action. Pain came third- the awareness of her throat burning and how impossible it seemed to swallow and let out a cry. Once she opened her eyes it wasn't dark anymore and neither was it as quiet as she had first thought. She regained use of her limbs next.
Sansa sat up with great effort and with one hand gingerly against the base of her throat she took in her surroundings. Trees, she was surrounded by thick green trees and through the holes in the canopy, she could make out the pale light of the distant sun as it dipped near the horizon. The sky itself was a blanket of grey, sprinkling rain onto the earth below. Sound returned to her in a cacophonic rush: yelling and screaming and...was that the howl of a wolf? She twisted around to look and what she saw left her dumbfounded. There were men everywhere, their swords swinging together, spraying blood all over the dirt. Arrows protruded out of one wheelhouse and Sansa spotted women, some highborn and some in the simpler garb of servants, crouched near another wheelhouse a ways down the road.
As she sat there on the grass in a daze, watching the scene as if from a great distance, Sansa wondered if the gods had seen fit to punish her by sending her to one of the Seven Hells. It wasn't like she had been dead before, and therefore she wouldn't know how it was supposed to feel. She remembered falling; in fact, she was certain that was why her heart was pounding so hard right now and her limbs trembled with faint terror.
Gradually as her mind came back to her, she began to study the men. Some of them were dressed in the raggedy, unmarked boiled leathers that heavily implied they were bandits. As for the men fighting the bandits... Squinting, she could just make out a few house sigils on the flags and armor. Six yellow flowers on blue- that had to be House Cuy. The one with the grapes was most certainly House Redwyne. But most plentiful was the sigil that had a white tower with a red flame above it- House Hightower. These were Reachmen! Once she realized that, Sansa could more easily identify a few others- Bulwer and Rowan and Fossoway. But why in all of creation would she surrounded by Reachmen in death?
Movement to her right, past the treeline, drew her attention. Slowly and not without a flare of pain, Sansa twisted her head and saw two men fighting on the grass a short distance from her- wait, no, that wasn't right. It was one man atop a boy, their swords crossed, with the former trying to use the weight of his body to force both swords down onto the boy. The boy...he had dark hair, a familiar profile, and he wore leather armor in the style of the North. The moment she spotted the direwolf sigil, her eyes darted back up to the boy's face. Sansa gasped, a rattling sound. Even after all these years she would recognize her brother, her Bran. But it couldn't be! Theon had murdered him and Rickon during the sack of Winterfell. The image of their burnt bodies had haunted both her waking hours and her nightmares.
Sansa ceased to care about the whys and the hows, all that mattered right now was that she was not alone in this strange place. But no matter where she was and how it was possible for her to be here, it was clear Bran was in trouble and she had to get to him. His teeth were clenched from the effort of pushing against the bandit; due to his youth he had not yet built up the muscle of a man grown, and for that reason he was losing.
Her head immediately spun as she rose onto shaky legs and as she used her hands to brace against the ground, her fingers brushed against something short and smooth. Tearing her eyes away from her brother for a heartbeat, she blinked as she saw a dagger laying there, abandoned and somehow unbloodied in spite of the melee going on around them. The gleam of the metal hypnotized her with the weight of its potential, yet Sansa picked it up and began to stumble towards where Bran and the bandit grappled.
She didn't have the faintest idea how she could use the dagger to get the bandit to leave her brother alone, but before she could do anything, Bran let out a small cry and deflected both swords to the side, throwing the bandit off balance and nearly unseating him. Both swords slid along the small slope just out of reach. Bran scrambled for one hilt, but his fingers hovered scant inches away while the bandit sat back upright and fumbled for something at his hip. The instant Sansa saw the steel of the man's own dagger and how vulnerable her brother was, she did not think, she only acted.
She wasn't trained in how to wield a blade larger than a needle, nor had she ever particularly wished to, so she drove the dagger into the nearest, most exposed part of the man's body: his neck. Sansa had such a tight grip on the hilt that she didn't let go of it even as she darted away, whimpering as a spray of blood caught her across her face and dress. The bandit might have dirty blond hair and at least fifteen name days on her, but in that moment all she could see in his shocked and gaping expression as he clutched at his throat was Joffrey.
Sansa couldn't bear to watch, especially not after Bran shoved the man off of him and scrambled away, rolling to his feet. He stared at her with wide eyes, almost as if seeing a ghost. “Sansa! You're...” He gulped. Blood streamed down one side of his face from a wound near his temple.
“Bran!” She found herself whispering fervently, her voice virtually nonexistent. Mindful of the dagger, she flung her arms around him, squeezing hard. He was so solid, so very real. It had been so long since she could touch her family. “You're alive, I can't believe it! And you're walking.”
This could not be one of the Seven Hells- her brother had done nothing that would merit such damnation.
Bran pulled back to look at her, now as tall as she, brows furrowed in confusion. “Of course I'm alive and walking- why wouldn't I be? I should be asking you the same question.”
Before Sansa could say anything further, a trio of knights covered in sweat, blood, and mud reached them. They escorted a wide-eyed and trembling lady in between them, her lovely robin's egg blue dress streaked with mud. The knight in the front who bore the Hightower sigil, with his light brown hair and peculiarly familiar blue eyes, focused on Bran, addressing him. “Stark! They've got us cut off from the rest of our men. We need to get you, your sister, and Margaery on horses. If you ride hard you can make it to the Red Keep and get some help on the way here by dawn-”
“I'm not leaving you!” Bran protested with the vehemence of someone not yet a man grown who knew his youth and inexperience counted against him. Sansa heard it all, but she couldn't take her eyes off the one the Hightower man had called 'Margaery'. The only Margaery she had ever known was Margaery Tyrell, and she had certainly never heard of another noblewoman, much less one from the Reach with the same name. This Margaery, however, was all honey- wavy, flowing locks a particular shade between dark blond and light brown, and hazel eyes that, for all her fear, still seemed to gleam like topaz in the fading light. No, she wasn't Margaery Tyrell, but Sansa still saw some kind of peculiar echo in the tiny upturn of her nose and the heart-like shape of her face.
A flash of grey and paler grey further distracted her.
“Lady!” Sansa tried to exclaim, but once again her voice came out in a broken croak. She shoved the bloody dagger into the pocket of her traveling cloak, dropped to her knees and opened her arms wide for her wolf, not caring about the blood in its muzzle. Lady whined but allowed Sansa to bury her face in her wolf's fur. It really was her! Even after all this time, Sansa remembered the direwolf's scent. First her dead brother now her dead wolf...she didn't dare hope who else she might be reunited with in this strange kingdom.
“I swear I will never say a bad word about those wolves again- not after they saved grandmother, Desmera, and I. If Lady and Summer hadn't taken out those archers...” Margaery's words went from a breathy torrent to a horrified silence as she realized how close she had come to dying. Sansa said nothing; even if she could have spoken right then, she wasn't sure she knew what to say. Everything was so confusing and being under attack was hardly the time to get answers.
She allowed herself to be herded along, ignoring the measuring looks the Hightower knight was giving her, likely frowning at the blood on her face and dress. “This isn't some random attack, Bran- the bandits have been concentrating their attempts on Margaery. I'm counting on you to protect my sister as well as your own. We'll stay and do our best to save the rest of our company.”
Bran nodded, finally seeing reason. Within moments they reached two horses and Sansa was assisted onto one, behind her brother, while Margaery was put onto the other. “I'll guard them with my life,” Bran promised the knight. No, not with your life! Sansa mentally scolded him, curling her arms around his torso.
“Baelor-” Margaery reached out with one hand for her brother, worry etched into every feature of her face.
“I know, sweet girl. I know. Go, and I'll see you in King's Landing before long.” There was a shout from one of the other knights and Baelor turned, sword raised, to meet the oncoming rush of five bandits who had noticed their attempt to escape.
Gripping both sets of reins, Bran dug his heels into his destrier's flank and with that they were leaving the sounds of battle behind and disappearing around the bend in the road. Lady and Summer flanked them as they all raced onwards. Sansa's heart continued to pound against her ribcage, her every nerve ending on alert even the further away they got.
How could she feel any relief when she was being taken to the place of her nightmares, her very own personal hell...the Red Keep?
Very little conversation passed between the three of them, as if saying a single word would detract from their willpower to make it to the capitol and get help for the people they'd left behind. By carefully tearing a strip from her skirts, Sansa managed to wrap her brother's head to stem the flow of blood from his wound. From the way his head would begin to loll before he snapped back straight, she knew Bran was fighting against light-headedness. The ache in her own body and the flush to her skin had to be fever; it didn't help that the temperature had grown chilly and damp, so much that she could feel it in her bones even with a cloak on. The pain in her throat had grown steadily worse as the sun disappeared below the horizon, taking with it what little light they had. She was sure there must be purple bruises blooming on the skin of her neck.
The prospect of riding their horses in the encroaching darkness seemed impossible but they forged on, counting on the wolves to keep them on the road. Hours passed and Sansa slipped further and further into a daze, unable to make out more than the pale color of Margaery's palfrey and the unsteady shape of trees as they streaked by in the dim, barely-there light of the moon. She was still awake, she thought, yet she must also be dreaming, for she was running close to the ground. The world brightened and intensified as she went off the road, following her litter-m...Summer, she was following Summer into the woods.
Beneath the clomp of hooves she could hear scampering hares and the creak of trees in the wind. Sansa was no longer aware of the throbbing in her throat, she felt wildly and utterly free as she raced against the wind and the night. There, beyond the scent of moss and mushroom, was the smell of wood-smoke. Suddenly she could hear them- they were near people! There was laughter and conversation and the pungent smell of cooked boar.
“Whoa!” Bran's shout and the whinny of their horses startled Sansa awake and she clung to her brother as their horses burst into a clearing. The appearance of firelight made her eyes hurt for a moment but even if she had to blink several times, she could hear the alarmed shouts and the sound of blades being drawn from their sheaths.
As the dark shapes took on more detail, Sansa made out a sizeable camp with tents pitched and several small fires going. There had to be nearly two score people and more than that many horses. Several buildings, one identifiable as an Inn, stood in the distance and with the lack of trees beyond, she realized they must be at the edge of the woods. One man stepped out in front of the line of drawn swords, his body language welcoming but alert. He was dressed in yellow robes that brushed his knees, the gaping neckline showing a hint of the orange tunic underneath. Sansa recognized the Dornish style right away.
“Who goes there?” He called out. Sansa thought he had seen perhaps twenty-five name days, with a trim figure, black hair, and dark eyes as well as the tanned skin that proclaimed his Rhoynish descent. The hooked nose did nothing to mar his handsomeness, only served to accentuate it alongside the neatly kept moustache and a beard that followed the angular line of his jaw. An eerie sense came over Sansa, as if she ought to know this man...but in a day full of impossibles, her mind seemed to resist the answer.
It was Margaery who provided it for her. “Prince Oberyn!” She cried out, clearly knowing the man. Frustration bubbled up in Sansa as she returned her attention to him over Bran's shoulder. She would grant that he did strongly resemble the Prince Oberyn she had seen strolling through the Red Keep with his paramour, but that Oberyn had been older than even her own father. This could not be the same man! She had, of course, heard of the trial and the Prince's death all the way in the Eyrie and had felt sadness at the injustice of it. If this man could be anything, he might be Prince Oberyn's bastard son, unless he'd had a wife hidden somewhere. If she could speak above a squeak or a whisper, Sansa would have made an outburst of her disbelief.
She could at least begin to entertain the idea that she was not dead at all, but somewhere else entirely. There was no reason why half of the so-called dead people would not resemble who they had been while living.
Not-Oberyn frowned as he studied the state Not-Margaery was in. “Lady Margaery? What's happened?” He clearly wished to approach their horses but a wary glance down to the direwolves that stood protectively in front tempered that. The eyes of the lords and ladies behind him, as well as the knights and servants were on them and for the first time in hours, Sansa was aware that she must look a fright. The bloody bandage around Bran's head spoke of some terrible disaster, she was sure.
It was Bran who spoke up then, telling Not-Oberyn what had befell them. “The Reachman party was attacked on the Roseroad before dusk, just after we had passed into the Crownlands. Ser Baelor sent us to safety and for help from the Red Keep.”
“And who might you be?” Not-Oberyn asked him, squinting.
Her brother's voice was clear and steady as he replied, “Bran Stark of Winterfell, and my sister, Sansa.” She gulped when those dark eyes widened a fraction and swung over to meet hers, making the throbbing pain worsen.
“My apologies, Lady Sansa,” Not-Oberyn murmured, “I should have recognized you immediately.” All's forgiven, I suppose, since I recognize practically no one in this world, Sansa thought acerbically to herself.
“She- her throat was hurt. She can't speak right now,” Bran explained on her behalf. Not-Oberyn's frown deepened.
An older knight approached, sword belted to his hip. “My prince,” he addressed his liege lord. Some unspoken communication passed between the two men before Not-Oberyn nodded in Not-Margaery's direction.
“Your brother won't have to wait as long...Ser Myles will lead a group of men back and give whatever aid may be needed. In the meantime, let's see if we can't get you some water and a fresh bandage while the camp is being packed up.”
“Truly, thank you so much!” Not-Margaery exclaimed, stark relief on her face.
“Say nothing of it,” Not-Oberyn demurred. "Your family has only ever been a friend to me."
“Summer! Lady! Let them by, they're friends.” Bran issued the commands to both his and Sansa's wolves. They obeyed him easily, padding over to the side and sitting back on their haunches to demonstrate for the nervous humans that they would not attack. A part of Sansa wanted to shout at Lady to move behind her horse- she'd already lost her once, she didn't want to lose her again. Margaery slid off her horse with the assistance of one of the knights, but it was Prince Oberyn himself who approached hers and Bran's horse instead. His eyes were kind and the hand he held out to her innocuous enough, but Sansa had learned the hard way that many kindnesses were false and came with ulterior motives that never boded well for her. She gripped Bran's tunic tighter.
“Sansa? It's alright- it won't be long before we're all on our way to Father in the Red Keep.” She stared at his profile as he twisted to reassure her, and her entire world narrowed to the words that had just come out of his mouth. Father was in the Red Keep! She could throw her arms around him and beg for his forgiveness-
If he's even the same Father you knew, her mind was quick and vicious enough to point out. Are any of the others even here? Mother, Rickon, Robb, Jon...oh Gods, was Arya?
But this one hope, tiny and fragile, was enough to give her faith. Sansa reached out and took Oberyn's hand.