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Beast

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A Dinner Party

It was as if there was a beast within her tonight.

Sansa was used to restless nights. Oft she would awake to a thrumming heartbeat, her breath caught like a web in her throat. The panic would rise, a merciless tide to sweep her sunder, terror seeping like ice into her bones. Too often the reality of her perilous position made itself all-consuming in the small hours of the night. Reality had made a habit of torturing her.

But tonight, the beast was not borne out of terror.

 She had had that peculiar dream again, of the marriage bed, of husbands vying to consummate wedding vows, only for their faces and bodies to merge into one. He was larger than any of her husbands had right to be, no fairy-tale knight nor prince nor king, only a brute.

Stronger and faster than any fantasy. He would slaughter them all, and steal my song, should I will it or no.

There was a beast within her tonight, he was the beast within her tonight.

She near leapt out of bed, kicking the covers away. Her dogs, all splayed out on her bedcovers, awoke with fright. She turned away to the windows of her room, throwing the shutters open, and the glass panes too, so the cold could enter the room and calm her heated blood.

She paused there, inhaled the fresh air. The thoughts running in her head began to blur, and merge, until they were compressed. The world was larger than her bedchambers. Her continuing survival, the uncertainty of the spring to come, that was enough to slay her racing thoughts of bedsports. A soft thump sounded behind her, a dog pressed itself to her ankles, whimpering softly.

A light snowfall had fallen, a thin early springfall. A man walking through He seemed to notice her, his torch held high. He rose his hand in greeting.  

“Hail Lady Stark,” he shouted, his voice naught but an echo.

For a moment she thought it was John Snow, her bastard half-brother, the distance and the northern look fooling her. But it was not.

Larence Hornwood, Once Snow, but no longer. The heir to Hornwood.

She raised her hand in greeting, then remembered that she was only in her nightclothes, her slip thin and the candlelight penetrating.  She blushed, and moved to return to her bed.

She left the window ajar, so that a breeze could cool her room, and turned to deal with the dog.

“No need to fuss so, Amiable,” she had to speak softly to the spaniel. The tiny dog was timid, and she had to be gentle, picking it up and holding it to her breast as she moved back to the bed. Her other two hounds were uninterested as she interred herself, clasping Amiable close.

Amiable can be just as nervous as myself.

She thought no longer of bedsports, and slept instead. Her dreams were vague, and when she awoke to the kindling of her fire they could not be recalled.

“Good morn, m’lady,” Pardy crowed, shovelling the coals in the fireplace.  Her handmaid was a wildling, once a Skagosi spearwife, but her sword arm had been so badly mangled in the fight for Winterfell it hung limp and lifeless by her side. Working for her keep as an unlikely handmaid kept her pride intact, and kept her six boys fed.

“What’ll it be? The black dress? Or the black dress? One of these days you’ll join the damn crows at the wall. “

“Oh, I think I’ll wear the crow black.”

“Big fucking surprise.,” growled Pardy, gathering a bundle of clothes and throwing it onto the bed.

Amiable jumped off the bed to hide in the garderobe, but the other two dogs took no notice.

“Oh Pardy, she’ll be antsy for the rest of the day.”

“She’s always a pain in the arse. Want me to do somethin’ with your hair? Somethin’ special for your fancy lords?”

These dammed Lords.

“No, not really, I’ll do it myself. The usual.” I’ll make no effort for them.

Sansa moved to the dressing table and began to brush her hair. A gleam of auburn caught her attention, she studied the mirror more closely. “I need to procure more Tyroshi wash. You can see the red.”

Pardy cast an eye over the fine line of hair. “Where I come from bein’ kissed by fire is lucky.”

“Well it hasn’t been very lucky for me,” Sansa retorted, hotly. “Just how badly did you sleep last night?” Pardy is a spiky one. But not normally this spiky.

“Eh, aye, you have the right of it, m’lady. My youngest but one, Rolan, ee’s got the springshits. All the boys’ll have it next, mark my words. Spreads worse than fleas.”

Mother used to call it Springfever, much more genteel. A spot of flux lasting only two days, nothing to worry about. But Pardy is right in that it spreads quickly. .

“I wish I had a maester to see to him. Take a little more for the boys’ rations. They will need it to keep strong.” Sansa pinned up her brown hair, as severely tight as she could make it. The same colour as my late father’s, my true father. She teased out strands to frame her face. Though as I recall my father’s hair held more grey.

 “That’s good of you, m’lady. Thank you.”

“Best keep far from Mya though. Not in her condition.”

Pardy nodded, sufficiently chastened, and aided Sansa in donning the woollen mourning clothes, pulling the laces tight. She dismissed Pardy and visited the garderobe, where she performed her morning ablations and ushered the cowering Amiable to lurk under her full skirts.

“Breakfast!” she shouted as she left the room. She was only halfway down the hallway before the other two were trailing at her hem.

Dancer placed her muzzle against her hand, so that Sansa could cup her chin. Her nose was wet, and her pink tongue was even wetter. She liked to be reassured that she would be fed.

When she entered the small hall, Mya was lying back on the bench, round stomach pointing to the sky. Cynthia Frey was with her, placing a wooden bowl on Mya’s belly.

“Oh, Sansa! Look!” squealed Lady Frey as the child in Mya’s tummy kicked, sending the wooden bowl flying.  The hounds all leapt to the bowl to investigate, Dancer snuffled the most persistently, determined to find something to eat.

“Oh Dancer, have your fill,” Cynthia fed the black Labrador bacon. The woman was sweet and delicate, preferring to wear soft pastels and framing her face with tight blond ringlets. She took more after her Waynewood mother than her Frey father, and never let her situation dictate her ladylike nature.

A hostage, of sorts. But in the red keep, I was shamed for my Father’s choices, his name. Cynthia was but a child when Walder turned upon my brother. But how likely would it be, for my sweet Cynthia to turn Theon Turncloak?

“She’s fat enough as it is Cyn, she’ll only get fatter with spring,” laughed Mya Stone, feeding Dancer a second rasher.  Mya kept her hair short, and only wore skirts now that her belly had outgrown the convenience of pantaloons.

“Stop feeding her, both of you!” snapped Sansa. “She’s only getting better at begging. She’ll be fatter than our good Lord Manderly at this rate!”

Her ladies laughed, and jested, and she ate her own porridge and honey. After she fed the dogs, ensuring that Dancer had no more than the other two, and didn’t steal their food.  

“Have the Northern Lords come yet?” Sansa asked, with no little dread.

“Rumour is that Lord Liddle is making his way through Wintertown. They say that he’s visiting every cathouse on the way up the castle!” Both women looked at her for her reaction. They saw none.

Disappointed, Lady Cynthia carried on. “Theo Wull is in Winterfell now, paying his respects to the Old Gods at the heart tree. He’ll make for Lord Rickon, probably take his lunch with him.”

“Do you want to bother with them? Lothor can always take you to Wintertown,” asked Mya, who was always willing to stage a kidnapping to disrupt a social engagement.

“I would rather face them, face on. I’ll see you both at dinner tonight.”

She swept from the room, hounds lolloping beside her. She donned a cloak and braved the fresh spring day to visit the glass gardens. In her mother’s day the glass gardens had stood tall, arches arranged as if the pillars of a sept, clad in shining glass. The air had hung with the scents of thousands of flowers from blossoms of blue winter roses to the rough gorse of Westerland heather. The pleasure gardens had stretched out, vast and beautiful, despite the bleakness outside the glass planes.

She walked where there had once been a covered trellis, a tunnel of blue winter roses. The Boltons had smashed the majority of glass, and she had ordered the salvage of the what remained. Her glass gardens were maybe an eighth of what her mother had cultivated at half the height. Sansa had been forced to abandon the high arches, that glorious symmetry. Her gardens were made to make the most of the remaining glass. Where her mother had grown roses, Sansa Stark grew turnips, potatoes, carrots and parsnips.  The trellis of blue winter roses had been repurposed. Sweet pea pods hung where the roses had once blossomed.

The blossoms were not roses but were sweet and little and she tucked one behind her ear anyway.

Scout, her wiry-haired wolfhound, raced far ahead, down to the potting sheds, Dancer falling far behind. Amiable preferred to trot at Sansa’s heels, beneath her skirts.  She made her way to the potting sheds, to the head gardener Hewin and his lads, and ensured that his needs were met.

The gruff farmer had no demands of her, except for the regular plea to ensure Scout didn’t dig holes.

She moved to the remainder of the gardens, the seven eigths that couldn’t be rebuilt. There she kept her livestock, more than her father had kept inside the walls. Where she had once giggled with Jayne Poole in the pleasure gardens, now she kept seven goats. She had a pigsty with five breeding sows and a boar. Beside them she kept the hardiest breed of northern chickens, mostly gristle rather than flesh, but reliable in producing eggs.  

I never thought I would know so much about the fornication of chickens. But here I am.

In the hen coop, she spied the little Lady Lyanna Mormont, scattering seeds for the chickens. The rooster, an absolute fiend, came for her, and she ran from the pen, screaming. Gawen Glover waved a wooden practice sword at the vicious cockerel, then his nerve failed him, and he ran too, his frail little sister Erena giggling from the sidelines, having never even entered the pen.

“I never thought I would see the heirs to the North feeding chickens, but here we are,” Widow Dustin remarked from beside her. “Then again. They’re not the only ones in Winterfell running screaming from cock.”

The dark woman laughed and when Sansa flinched, she laughed even more, for too loud and too long.

“Is it so obvious? have no wish to marry again.”

“I don’t blame you, but your little brother will be wanting some loyal kinsmen.”

She threw a look at her companion. Widow Dustin had mothered no heirs. The woman smiled with thin lips and left Sansa to her hounds.

She wandered a little longer, her thoughts as heavy and dark as a brewing storm cloud, then headed to her room and performed her tasks. For however short a period, I am still the lady of Winterfell. I know my duty.

 Still, Oldtown had not provided her with a Maester, and too many keeps in the north were going without. If the Springfever was bad, the entire keep would be poorly.

Amiable liked to sleep on Sansa’s lap in these quiet moments. Dancer preferred to curl up under the desk. Scout, the most standoffish of all the bitches, preferred to stretch her long body beside the fire.

It’s humiliating. Winterfell not having a maester. And Rickon still has so much to learn. His Skagosi upbringing combined with the last few years of Manderly tutoring. I wish his education could come from someone less biased.

She set Amiable on the ground and left her rooms to attend the Lord’s solar. She knocked, and it was Wylla Manderly, not Rickon that bid her to enter.

Her youngest brother was there though, sat at the solar’s table. He wore a plain tunic of grey, and his boots were still muddy from the yard. His eyes, so like her own, met hers for only a minute before he rolled them, and slumped back to the parchment before him. Upon his head, set upon his Tully red hair, he wore a thin circlet of black iron.

Father never wished to be the King in the North.

Wylla sat beside him, with pearls set in the braids of her strange green hair. She wore a confection of silks and brocade, mermaid greens and Stark silver. Younger than me, but older than Rickon. Clever, with a family more intact than any other in the North. And yet another thing I don’t have; a spotless reputation.

The two sat together, and under the table, she could spy Shaggydog’s yellow eyes, watching her closely.

“Your grace,” she curtseyed low and prayed that her brother was in good cheer. “I intend to send another request to Oldtown. We need a Maester, now more urgently than ever. There are reports of Springfever in the servant’s quarters.”

Her brother’s eyes flashed with irritation, his mouth pursed with sourness.

“And if the Maester is a southron spy?” Rickon spat. This argument yet again. Her brother trusted little. And he trusted her even less. He was weary of allowing her any allies. He disliked that she had made friends with Cynthea Frey and had permitted her movement around the keep. His dislike was even greater of Luthor Brune in the guards, and would not permit his ascension in the ranks, despite his experience and knowledge being even greater than his Skagosi Master of the Arms, Haeker.

“Maesters are supposed to be impartial. They serve the whole of the realm.” An old argument. One that he has heard before. And ignored. A new tactic is needed. “Failing a supply from Oldtown, I was planning to petition Uncle Manderly. If the Maester comes from White Harbour, and has been vetted by Lord Manderly we could be more sure of the man’s good will.”

“It is not a bad idea, your Grace,” Wylla interjected. “We will need a Maester for the illnesses around the keep. We need not take the new maester into our confidences until he has proved himself.”

Wylla likes the idea well enough. It’s almost as dear Margery was here herself, weaving that soft manipulation, that sweet smell, that soft virginal flesh.

 “That’s true Wylla. Anyhow Rickon, We will need a Maester for the safe delivery of your heirs. I know that your Skagosi spearwives have no fear of childbirth, but your bride deserves a man with Oldtown training.”

Sansa laughed but Rickon’s face darkened and his cheeks flushed puce red. I have angered him. Again.

“I know that! I’m not stupid! I’m fed up of this conversation. Skulk somewhere else in the keep!”

Shaggydog leapt up, and growled, deep and low. Her heart leapt hard in her chest, and with her, her hounds leapt to her defence. Scout, the largest of her bitches, was near ready to pounce on the direwolf, despite the size disparity.

She curtseyed low and made her leave. “Your Grace.”

She threw open the door and walked straight into the mass of Lord Manderly.

“A she-wolf in my midst!”

She bit the inside of her cheek, and closed the door, keeping her head low.

“Has our good king been too quick with you?”

“Only what I deserved.”

“Now, now. Those Southron lies are a bad habit, sweetling. We’ll look after you. You’re Ned’s little girl, and we’ve pulled two of the best families from the North. You’re luckier than you know. I could have taken you for a bride!” Wyman Manderly roared with laughter, as if it were a good jest.

I’m not a little girl anymore. I have no need of your suitors. I want to be left alone so I can…so I can haunt these halls, drown myself in memories of the past.

She looked down to her feet. “I will do my duty.”

“I had no doubt of that Sansa,” his eyes were warm, his voice soft as butter. He patted her arm, and opened the door wide to squeeze himself through.

She walked away, wishing to avoid her brother for as long as possible. Her dogs, followed behind her, thankfully. Tears burnt her eyes, but she refused to allow then to fall. She swallowed her fears. Another game. I need space. Gods, I need to breath.

She broke routine, and went another constitutional walk now, before lunchtime.  She passed the training grounds, and heard the clash of swords, of steel on steel. She knew then that the Northern Lords had both come to Winterfell and paid their respects to Rickon.

If I were younger, more foolish, I would walk out to them and watch them fight, see my suitors as warriors. I once knew foolish boys of Summer. They too had dreamt of glory. The Gods saw fit to unleash war upon them.

She would face the men later, at dinner. She took the long way around the training grounds, making for the godswood.

She drew away from the keep, further towards, then into the Godswood. The ground grew boggy and when she put her booted foot down it had to be pulled from the icy sludge of the pathway. The stink of sulphurous water grew, the closer to the heart tree. She could smell the sweet rot of leaves. Scout galloped away only to return with quagmire mud dripping from her curly coat.

Finally she grew close to the heart tree, felt the heart tree stare back at her, at the odd little woman she had become.

I once had so much promise. Once.

The leaves rustled, and faintly, she could hear. Winterfell’s daughter. Winterfell’s blood they whispered.

She was just about to rebuke them, to tell them how her brother was to marry her off, like a filly to be broken and ridden, how he detested her, and hardly recognised her. Then she heard another voice on the wind, a ghastly rasping voice, like the crunch of gravel under a boot, or steel scraping against stone.

She’ll be wearing her summer silks she heard to the south, a voice that was far but also near. She’ll be wearing silk slippers, and a silk tunic and her skirts will be silk and her underskirts too but she’ll forgo corsets and all those women’s things that would bind her tight. She’ll wear that summer green, and that hair against it, like flame, burning, burning bright. She’ll wear only silk, and under, oh, oh, oh, oh, and under. Under. She’ll be the finest thing of all under all those silks. Her skin, those secret acres of female flesh so soft, soft, soft, soft, soft, soft, soft.

The voice of a man she knew long dead creased and she found her breath again.

The leaves spoke again. Winter. Winter comes. They said, in a horse little whisper. It was scared, and she was scared too.

She stood, and meant to flee.

“Oh! Sweet Sansa!” a soft voice called to her. Jeyne Stark nee Westerling stepped from the woods, like some forlorn abandoned ghost.

Terror fell to irritation.  

Why did she have to haunt my keep? She could have gone home, to her father’s castle. Not content to seduce, dishonour and kill Robb, she had to be his sad weeping widow here too.

She kept her thoughts to herself. Lady Jeyne had been devoted to Robb. Even now she wore only black mourning cloths and kept her face veiled. These encounters were rare. Lady Jeyne preferred to embroider Septry altar cloths and pay patronage to the charitable institutions of Wintertown. It kept her busy and it kept her away.

“Lady Jeyne. How sweet it is to see you. How does this day meet you?”

The sweet little woman spoke little, and Sansa spoke even less, but enough not to be rude, or cruel or spiteful. Still, she made her excuses, and when the opportunity presented itself, left the broken women behind her.

She fled back to Winterfell, away from the widow, away from the Heart-tree, away from that voice that made her so sad.


 

They sat at a long dinner table in the small hall, an intimate gathering of Lords and Ladies, far from the prying eyes of the peasantry. Rickon sat at the head of the table, still wearing that damned circlet. Lord Manderly to his right, Wylla to his left, wearing a tiara made of coral.

Sansa was sat at the opposing end, her hair still pulled back into a severe bun, her mourning clothes unchanged. Her two new suitors sandwiched her. Both were of the Northern clans, and had that look of the First Men about them. Rickard Liddle sat to her right, pinecones on his green tunic. His hair was a dark blond, and wiry, his eyes dark brown, and set too close together and too small. He smiled nicely enough though. Theo Wull sat to her left, wearing a badge in the shape of a bucket. He was more solemn, his hair darker. His nose was fat and round, and pointed upwards, like a pig’s snout. He had fat fingers, covered in thick black hair.

Lady Glover and the heir to Deepmotte, Gawen sat close by. Erena had fallen to the springfever, Lyanna Mormont was sat by Lord Hornwood, who looked handsome in his simple yellow tunic. He seemed to entertain her girlish talk. Widow Dustin sat by him, a handsome woman, wearing samite and a clutch of black opals at her neck. Lady Jeyne, wore her mourning garb, near the same as Sansa. Lady Cynthia giggled with her, dressed in a confection of pretty pastels, her blond ringlets shining in the fireplace light.

There are thirteen people at this table Sansa thought Old Nan would have said that this is bad luck, that the first to rise will be the first to die.

As if commanded by her traitorous thought, Lord Manderly rose from the table. “I have brought a fine vintage for you, dear Lady Stark!” his chins quivered as he spoke, “I hope you turn your attentions to the suitors sitting to either side!”

Sansa smiled. The sort of simpering smile that spoke of submissiveness and other pathetic passive shows. She knew the smile too well.

Still, she raised her glass of Manderley’s imported Essosi champagne. “My thanks Uncle Manderly. I hope they can brave my springtime attentions.”

The company laughed, and the feast began.

There were seventeen courses. Manderley had brought, in addition to the champagne, lobster, mussels, eels and fringed sole. Sansa had instructed that they be cooked smothered in the butter made in Bear Island. Little Lady Lyanna had churned the butter with her own hands, and upon entering Winterfell keep, had announced loudly so to Sansa, proudly showing off the fading calluses from the churning. Sansa had arranged for the use of herbs from the glass garden to make sauces, and vegetables to be roasted in goosefat.

Widow Dustin had brought six sweet spring lambs and had arranged their slaughter in Winterfell. They were served with rosemary and mint. Lord Liddle, in some attempt to initiate courting, presented Sansa with an entire roasted swan. Wull, presumably thinking similarly, brought a massive whole honeycomb, the largest Sansa had ever seen. The new Lord Hornwood had found Arbor wines in his late father’s cellars. Her had brought red and white, and varieties of sweet dessert wine. Sansa provided the dessert, plums served in rose jelly, served in a thick shortcrust pie, with cream and custard.

It was the most food the hall had seen in a long time and Sansa in an even longer time. All of Wintertown feasted tonight. Sansa had arranged for banquets in the merchant halls and street parties. Fountains had been filled with cheap wine.

Spring. Spring is here. Tonight we celebrate that.

She too was indulging tonight, more interested in the next cup than the attentions of her suitors. There was a thirst that she had, a dryness in the back of her throat, but it remained unquenched.

Lord Manderley roared down the table to her. “How old are you, Lady Stark?”

“I am two and twenty, dear Uncle.”

“A spinster!”

Her face grew red and hot, but she knew Lord Manderley would not cease. This will not be the last exchange of this breed, nor the first.

“I fear that if we let you grow any older, we’ll not have any Stark cubs until Rickon puts himself to task!”

She could not see the face of Widow Dustin in the corner of her eye, but knew exactly how that black eyebrow had arched high.

“How many husbands have you had now, Lady Stark!?”

She pulled a face. Her brother would not protect her and she had to protect herself, under a layer of courtesy and humour. “Too bloody many, Uncle Manderley!”

Lady Glover spat out her mouthful of wine with laughter, and everyone laughed, especially Rickard Liddle. He bayed with laughter to her side and her face was covered with droplets of his spittle. Even Lady Jeyne was tittering, a nervous, high pitched squealing that put Sansa to edge.

She raised her glass to all the grasping lords sat at her table, drunk as a dog and only half as merry.

“To a long spring, and a longer summer, and to my dear brother. King in the North!”

The Lords toasted, but in her head, she could hear that horrid little voice. Winter comes. It had said. Winter comes.

Musicians set to playing. The high harp and the bells, a man playing the lute and another a skagosi marching drum. Wylla and Rickon set to dancing. Sansa ignored her suitors subtle and less subtle requests. Theo Wull attempted to grasp her hand in his sweaty palm and tug her onto the dancefloor, but had to settle with Widow Dustin dancing with him instead.

I am no dancing bear. They can dance with one another if they’re so desperate for a turn.

Lord Liddle decided to press his advantage with the absence of Theo Wull. He tried and charm her with his last hunt, of the stag that he had brought down. “A mighty stag, just as mighty as the stag you brought down, my Lady.”

She was slow then, the wine had caught her senses as if it were taffy. “What stag?”

He bayed with laughter. “The Lion then, Ill-born King Joffrey!”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Of course you would say that.” He pressed his hand to hers. “We shouldn’t have any lies between us. It don’t scare me, your history. Not at all,” he pressed his lips to the curve of her ear. “A murderess like you? And now I see you, beautiful and deadly. A real wolf. Warms my blood. To boil.”

She felt his breath on her neck and smelt the sickly sweet dessert wine Lord Hornwood had brought to the table.

She stood abruptly and Liddle overbalanced, then fell to the rushes. “Excuse me Lord Liddle, I’ve need to see to other needs.”

It wasn’t a proper lie, there was a pressure building in her tummy and she had a true need to rush to the garderobe. Desperation grew, and she had to rush to the servant’s toilet, rather than the one set aside for the guests. When she finally managed to scoop up her skirts and sit on the lavatory slat, her urine gushed out of her.

I’ve drunk more than I intended. I’m pissing like a stallion.

She sat a little longer, listening to the drip of urine falling, to the music from the hall. She swayed a little to the tune.

I could stay here forever. I needn’t ever go back out.

But she did go back out, every move to clean slow, and the necessary fumbling with her skirt even slower.

She was passing back down the hall when she heard the hiss of a whisper from an alcove. A curiosity grasped her, and she crept closer.  Rickon and Wylla were entangled, their hair mussed. But they were bickering, rather than engaging in carnal relations.

“She’s not interested in either of them,” hissed Wylla.

“She’ll do as she is ordered. My sister is dutiful,” squabbled Rickon back.

“We need to watch her Rickon. Remember she is Widow Lannister. She’s a poisoner, a polygamist, it’s even claimed she has performed pagan rites. She’s dangerous. Demand it, or send her to a septry. I don’t want her near our children. She’s not safe to have around a child.”

“Do you think she did it?” Rickon whispered. “Do you think she killed that boy?”

“I think she’s capable of doing terrible things—“

Shaggydog growled then, deep and low, and Sansa had no option to stumble from the shadows, into the flickering torch light.  

“Oh Shago- saggydog, you’re always so grumpy,” She offered her hand and Shaggydog near bit it off, “He’s so mean sometimes brother.”

She smiled wide and false.

“You should see yourself to bed sister, you’re worse for wear,” ordered Rickon, his voice ice. Through fear or anger?

 “Oh I think we’re all worse for wear children,” Widow Dustin stepped from the shadows, sleek as a shadowcat. “Forgive me Lord Rickon, but you shouldn’t be taking liberties with your betrothed before the wedding night.”

The two blushed. “Shall we go back to your chambers, dear Sansa? You must tell me what you think of your new men.”

She clasped onto Widow Dustin’s arm, and left, woozy with drink and shock. Widow Dustin clung back, whispering gossip and speculation, her steps as unsteady as Sansa’s. They swayed together down hallways, and up spiral staircases. The music slowly faded away. Sansa could barely hear the Widow’s gossip, only the pulse in her neck, how it clicked, sickly under skin.

“I don’t like Lady Glover. I think she’s a silly bitch. There. I said it,” the dark woman laughed. Sansa buried herself into the samite at the lady’s neck.

Such a vicious, mean thing. I quite like her.

The widow listed the faults of all the guests, no person was safe. Liddle was a Lickspittle and Wull had committed the high treason of being both too handsy and too boring, in addition to his poor dancing.

At her door, she asked the question that had been playing on her mind. “What of my faults, Barbrey?”

“Oh darling Sansa. You are the most repressed woman I have ever met.”

Sansa had no response to that, she only smiled as if it were a good jest, and stepped through the door, closed and barred it, only to slide down against it, as if the door had been greased with butter.

She stared at her room dumbly. How many hours have I wasted in this room? How soon would it be that I am evicted? To a dungeon or a cold keep in the deep North, both with the same intent.

She had only vague memories of her mother’s chambers. Her mother would usher her in, both clad in their nightgowns, and brush her hair. The fire would roar, and under the flickering light of the finest beeswax candles, Catelyn Stark would whisper her Southron stories.

There was a terrible burn that spread over the western wall, a remainder of Theon’s fire. She could hide it with tapestries but under her windowsill, a blackness lingered like rot. Her candles were made of tallow, and left a smell of lingering burning. The tapestries in her mother’s chambers were gilt with precious metals and reinforced to keep the chill from her rooms.

She had known Rickon better than to petition stags for rich fabrics for her chambers. She had made use of thin banners. It was cruder and cheaper than her mother would have approved of. But what point was there in becoming settled?

I know that I am not long for Winterfell.

Her room stank of dog. That warm, musty smell, reassuring and safe and normal. It was a common smell, a poor sort of smell, more keeping to a kennel than a ladies’ room.

Why can’t I take comfort in this? Men take comfort in wine and whores and lies. I love my animals, and it is a wholesome sort of love, healthy for a broken thing like me.

The dogs were all fast asleep on the bed, curled together in a pile, Dancer splayed on her back, Scout curling her long body around her and Amiable lounging, her head on Scout’s side but most of her body curled onto Dancer’s belly. I’m much happier with a dog in my bed, rather than a husband.

 She blinked, and her gaze stayed, from the bed, down, to under her bed.

There’s something under my bed. For a moment, she was scared, petrified. In those moments her imagination was cruel. She could imagine it was Ser Payne folded up like a piece of Yi-ti origami, come to kill her at last. Then she felt foolish for being as spooked as a horse. It’s a chest. A little chest. Not anything that can hurt me.

But I do not recognise it.

She crawled towards it, slow so that she did not disturb the dogs. Slowly she slid under, her body flush to the floor.

She breathed and that was a mistake, as she snorted up dust and sneezed. She waited for the springs above her head to creak, for the dogs to awake and find her half under the bed.

The dogs did not awake, and instead, she grabbed a handle, pulling the box out.

In the low light of the fire, she recognised it for her old cedar hope chest. A silly, girlish tradition, Jeyne Poole had kept one, just the same. It was covered with dust, untouched since King’s Landing.

He had smuggled it out for her. Another favour. Another debt to owe to him. Something small, large enough to feel grateful and indebted, but small enough to be done without excessive risk.

The chest lid was only held by clasps. They were hard to ease open, time had made them old and stiff. With persistence, both were eased open, punctuated by a stiff click. The lid was eased back, on rusted hinges.

The scent of dust and girlish perfume hit her. She had worn silly girlish perfumes in King’s Landing, thinking that the citrus scents would make her more adultlike, more ladylike, and in her deepest desperation, more lovable. Nausea washed over her. The scent was not so sickly sweet, but the memories it brought back were nearly too awful to bear.

She looked, and found a crumpled red velvet tunic. She had cut and sown it herself and had begun to embroider a lion in repose as decoration. She had tried so very hard to be a good wife, but in attempting to make it, it had provoked her to tears.

It wasn’t being a Lannister. I had long accepted that. It wasn’t being married to the imp. It was the size. Tyrion’s size. Too close to the tunic Bran had worn.

Even now, Sansa could see the dark spots on the red velvet where her tears had fallen. She had continued her work, despite her weeping, and her fine little stitches had gone awry, becoming messier and messier. The golden mane of a lion was hardly recognisable.

She drew the fabric taut, then tauter still, as if she were to rip the damned thing in two. Her shoulders shook and she realised she did not possess the strength.

Damn them. Damn them all to the Seven Hells. Long may they burn.

She scrambled to her feet and threw it in the fire. The fire consumed, until it crumbled into a burning bush of fibres, the golden threads breaking and curling back upon themselves. It was as if it had never existed.

She turned back to the little chest, and saw the pair of apple green silk slippers, the ones she had worn to the feast at the hand’s tourney. She had danced the quadrille and the carol that night. When she breathed in the scent of beeswax she could remember the dancefloor, how it had been waxed to shine bright. The night had stained the soles of her slippers yellow with beeswax’s grease.

She dug deeper. Her girlish summer clothes were in there, soft silks and crisp linens, all smelling of that girlish perfume, like lemon, and summer, and child’s hope. She pulled out a soft gown and measured it to herself. She had long outgrown the gown, it would be better given to little Lyanna, or repurposed.

There was something underneath the gowns, pressed underneath the silks, and separated by thin starchpaper. She had sprayed it with even more perfume. She pulled it up, and out, and with a loud swish it unfurled under its own weight, each flap of the fabric as mighty as a booming war drum.

She remembered it then.

It was grey and stained, and the wool was hard, and scratchy. There were two slashed holes, and a corner was burnt. The bottom was covered in the splatter of Blackwater muck, and stained by seawater. She could smell the patches of blood before she saw them, brown splatters without pattern, but before she could recognise that smell, that tinny smell of blood, she smelt wine first.

Dornish Sour. That was his poison of choice.

Her mother had once told her that she had been born in the last winter before the summer of her childhood. The only winterchild of Ned and Catelyn Stark, she had always been the hungriest and the neediest of all their babes. She could hardly be parted from her wet nurse and whenever someone held her, she would latch on to any flesh or fabric with desperation.

Septa Mordane had never could stop her habit of biting her lip. She had been more successful in stopping her habits of suckling on her thumb, or on fabric. She did that now, fastening her mouth on the cleanest part of the collar. Through the rough weave on her lips and tongue she could taste steel. The collar must have been tight to the gambeson at his neck, close to his snarling helm.

Grant me but a fraction of his ferocity.

She brought it into her bed, clutching it as she would a doll. When she awoke in the morning, she had wrapped it tight around herself, her head pounded, and there was a nasty chill to the air.

She looked to her washing bowl, and saw that it had iced over. She rose to the window and threw open the shutters.

She heard that little voice from the Godswood, that little scared voice. Winter comes, it had said.

The gods had not lied to her.

The whiteness stretched before her, infinite, endless and deadly.