When Sansa is three years old, she sneaks away from her nurse’s watchful eyes and into the godswood. Her father had taken Robb there, not quite a week previous, and Sansa had felt furious at being left out.
And though she’s now in the godswood, there’s nothing special here; only cold air and a tree with leaves as large as her face, as bright as her hair.
Sansa is cold, and hungry. After some finagling, she curls into a hollow beneath the base of the white tree, huddled for warmth. She doesn’t cry, exactly, but she wants to- her mother and father likely won’t find her, not here, and even if they did they’d start yelling, and she hates that, hates it deeply.
Then she hears a voice.
“Come out, little one,” says a woman, her dark hair plaited back in a fashion that Sansa’s never seen before. Her eyes find Sansa unerringly, and she waits for her to clamber out of the roots with an expression that’s both disappointed and loving. “Your parents are looking for you,” she says, and her hands brush over the godswood leaves resting on Sansa’s shoulders light enough that she can’t feel it. “Now clean yourself up, sweetling. I’ll take you home, don’t you fear.”
The woman does. Sansa is in her chambers, wrapped up warm and toasty in her blankets, when she asks the woman her name.
“Lyarra,” says the woman.
She steps out of the room, and when her parents ask her where she was, who brought her back- well. There’s nobody named Lyarra in Winterfell, according to her father; the last person who bore that name was his mother, and she was buried decades ago.
Sansa speaks to her the next week.
“Father says your name can’t be Lyarra.”
“Your father,” says the woman, “does not know everything.”
Sansa bites her lip. “He says his mother’s name was Lyarra.”
“His mother’s name is Lyarra,” says the woman sharply. “It always will be. Death does not take away names.”
“Are you her?” She asks softly. “Are you my grandmother?”
The woman- Lyarra- steps closer, and her stardust hand rests light on Sansa’s brow.
“Yes,” she whispers.
Sansa is three years old when she realizes that she sees ghosts.
Ghosts of starlight and dust, pale as the full moon. Lovely and shadowed and real, as nobody else would believe. She might have whispered her secret to someone, but Lyarra stops her.
Those who choose not to see cannot be forced, she says, eyes large and sad and as cold as Sansa’s father’s. They will envy your powers, sweetling, and they will break what they envy. Promise me, Sansa: you will not tell anyone about your powers.
It takes Sansa more than a decade to understand that her grandmother only ever tried to protect her.
There are other ghosts: long-haired Cregan; her own namesake, Sansa; warm-eyed Beron; sharp-tongued Alysanne. They are loud, sometimes, and angry at others. Sansa tiptoes around Artos and Donnor whenever the year turns- they both blame each other for Errold’s death, and Errold died the night before the year turned new. Melantha and Marna scream at each other during the solstices, but they only do so during the night.
There are other ghosts, but the one Sansa’s closest to is her grandmother. Lyarra is unfailingly patient, and breathtakingly witty. When Sansa bores of sitting quietly, she tells her stories of her travels through the south, her days in the mountains, her years as Lady of Winterfell.
The hardest thing for Sansa then is to keep her face blank, to bite back her questions until night.
(But even as Sansa is closest to Lyarra, she charms the ghosts of Winterfell, one by one. You see: no matter the universe, she’s always been the charming one.)
But for all Sansa’s happiness, there is grief eating away behind it like a cancer.
There are no ghosts inside Winterfell that Sansa can name aunt or uncle or grandfather. And for all that Lyarra never weeps, she looks the saddest the day Sansa asks after them.
“They went south,” she tells Sansa, once, kneeling, her hands resting on Sansa’s shoulders, weightless as light. “They died there. Lyanna died in Dorne, and Brandon and Rickard in King’s Landing. They were killed, sweetling.”
“Who killed them?”
Lyarra rises, and looks past Sansa, straight to the knot of furs that is Robb and Jon, wrestling in the snow.
“The Targaryens,” she says. Then, firmly, “When you’re older, I shall tell you everything.”
The ghosts are kind, after a fashion. They tell her stories, sometimes, and sing when Sansa asks particularly charmingly. Sansa cannot control them, cannot force anything of them; they are of another realm, and all she can do is bear silent witness.
Sansa cannot control them, but she can love them.
When Lyarra tells her how the Starks died, Sansa does not shiver. She bends her head forwards, lets the red strands slip over her face like a shroud, and then looks back at Lyarra.
“How do you know?” She asks, and does not think at all of burned flesh or screams.
“We ghosts speak to each other,” murmurs Lyarra, eyes wide and pale as a snow-drift. “We gossip, for the afterlife is rather boring. And news of a Targaryen monarch burning a Lord of a Great House alive is interesting, indeed- word came quickly. But that wasn’t the biggest secret, sweetling, of the war.”
Sansa frowns. “What was?”
“Lyanna died in Dorne,” says Lyarra. “My wolf-daughter, my ice-daughter, she died in those ugly desert sands. But all of her did not die there. Ned brought back a little child, with a face as Stark as they come.”
“I have a cousin?” Sansa asks, eyes lighting up.
Lyarra smiles, small and bitter. “You can never tell.”
“Never,” vows Sansa.
After a moment, Lyarra winds around Sansa and presses cold, weightless lips to her ear.
“Jon,” she breathes, and Sansa never looks at her father the same again.
Years pass. Sansa laughs and loves and lives.
When the castle sleeps she slips out of bed and listens to the stories of her ancestors. She complains about Arya to Sarra. She begs Torrhen for stories of the dragons and learns what the North looked like, under the old Kings of Winter. She dances, sometimes, under the full moon, and the ghosts converge around her like wings of pearl and silvered dust.
When the King comes, Sansa is flawless in her courtesies.
She flushes a brilliant red when Prince Joffrey smiles at her, something budding inside her like a blossom. Her mother’s lips curl upwards at the sight, and Sansa makes sure to braid her hair as neatly as she can over a soft new dress.
The King announces their betrothal that night, in the feasting hall. Sansa smiles prettily, elegantly, as southron-lovely as the queen; she wears a gown of starlit-silver, grey and warm and shining as all the ghosts that crowd the halls of her home.
Do not leave the North, Lyarra had told her, quietly, that morning. Do not go south. I have lost- so much to it. My husband, my son, my daughter, my sister- I do not wish to lose you as well. Please, Sansa-
But Sansa is not a Stark alone.
She is a Tully, half, born and bred; she has a grandmother who was a Whent and another who was a Flint, and she will be as unyielding as all of them. She will be her mother’s daughter and her father’s heir and the North’s pride, and she will return someday- she will return, with a crown on her head or not; but she will walk back.
I will survive, Sansa had promised her, hands freezing in Lyarra’s grasp. I will see you again.
“Be careful,” Lyarra tells her, softly. “That one- he’ll love himself far more than he ever loves you.”
“Sansa tells me that he reminds her of her husband.” Sansa lifts her head, watches Lyarra closely. Sansa- who married her uncle, who had her inheritance stolen from her through Jonnel Stark’s greed- rarely names any man like her husband. It’s not a compliment when she does. “But- a prince, Grandmother! He’d certainly be kinder than Jonnel.”
“That’s not difficult,” Lyarra snorts. Then, voice dark and sharp, “And princes can be just as cruel as other men. Do not forget that, Sansa. They are still men. They are still as flawed, and terrible, and unkind.”
It’s Serena that shrieks her name, and Sansa pauses for all of a heartbeat before she picks up her skirts and runs, towards Serena, towards the crowding ghosts.
She freezes when she sees the small, broken body on the grass.
(The blood- for a long, terrible moment, Sansa’s sure Bran is dead.)
“Who pushed him?” Sansa demands, as soon as she slams the door shut.
She turns, and there in front of her stands Lyarra. Her hair is unbound, now, and the dark strands whip over her face as if stirred by a wind. The grief on her grandmother’s face makes something deep in Sansa’s chest clench.
“Bran doesn’t fall,” says Sansa. “He hasn’t. Not once. Tell me, tell me truly: who pushed him?”
“I don’t know,” says Lyarra.
Sansa inhales slowly. “You’re lying,” she says coldly.
“I’m not,” she repeats, holding up a hand. “But I know who does. Tell me, do you know of Brandon Snow?”
“The very same.”
“I- yes,” says Sansa. “But I’ve never spoken to him.”
Lyarra looks grimly amused. “Follow me. I’ll take you to him.”
Sansa follows her past the hallways, slipping through the shadows with the careless ease of a girl long used to it; the nights that she has spent alone save for ghosts of starlight are countless. Her feet are soundless against the cold stone.
Lyarra leads her to the godswood and bids her to stand still. Sansa obeys, and as promised, a ghost appears after a few minutes- young, with dark hair that curls at the edges like Robb’s. His eyes are even paler than her father’s.
“Lyarra said you wished to speak to me.”
Sansa raises her chin. “Yes,” she says. “She told me that you know who pushed Bran. That you were the only one to see what happened.”
“I was,” he says, and she’s never before heard such disdain poured into two syllables. “But why should I tell you?”
“Because I’m his sister,” she says.
Brandon arches an eyebrow. “And what will you do with this information? You will tell no one; you will simply turn your face and look away. Why should I tell you something that won’t do anything?”
Sansa looks away, tears filling her eyes. But it is only the truth, what he says; and though she wants to deny it, she can’t. It is hard, and cold, like a cut of silver and steel. She is only a girl, and even more than that- she will never tell anyone the truth. That secret is stamped into her heart.
But she is still Bran’s sister.
“If Torrhen had fought,” she says, suddenly, and Brandon looks back at her. “If he had fought, and if he had fallen, do you think you would have knelt easily? Do you think that if Aegon had destroyed your forces, you would have bent the knee? Do you think that if you did- you would have meant any of it?” She lifts her eyes to meet his, as steady as she can make them. “Bran is my brother, and he might die, and I want to know why.”
He looks at her, and then away, and then back again. For just a moment, he looks more grieved than she’s ever seen a boy that age look, more than she’s ever seen even Lyarra look, and she’s the saddest person Sansa knows.
“It was a Lannister,” he says abruptly. “Looks right similar to Loren Lannister- I’ll never forget that smug fool’s golden hair. Probably his descendant.”
Sansa breathes in, slowly. “Was he- how old was he?”
“Seen thirty namedays, or close enough.”
A golden-haired Lannister, middle-aged. There is only one man who can be that in all the kingdoms. Sansa wants to panic, and feels her breaths shorten slightly; but everything seems very far away at the moment, and numb.
“Thank you,” she says, and walks back into the keep, stiffly.
The last thing Sansa wants is to leave Winterfell.
And she does her best to avoid it: she claims illness, and then fear for Bran, and then fear of the south- but nothing sways her father.
“You can rest in the queen’s own wheelhouse,” he told her. “There is nothing you can do for Bran, sweetling; and there is nothing to fear in King’s Landing. I shall be there, I swear it.”
Sansa watches the curtains fall shut and then turns to face Cersei Lannister. The bitterness across her tongue is sharp and acrid, and she cannot name it to be anger or hatred. In response, she averts her eyes and ducks her head, and when she chances a look up, she realizes what it’s been taken as: fear.
No matter, she thinks, then, hands tightening around each other silently. She remembers the strength that comes from silence, the strength that Berena insisted she never discount; Sansa will hold to her silence, and she will not let the sister of a kingslaying brother-killer frighten her. No matter, I shall survive.
And Jaime Lannister shall pay the price.
When she leaves, the ghosts gather around her as a thousand sheets of silver, sparking through the cold winter air. Serena spins a thread of silver through the air, and Eddara kisses her with frozen, yielding lips; Beron embraces her, arms cold, eyes warm.
It’s Lyarra who holds her after they leave.
“Listen to me,” she says, quietly. “Listen to me, girl. You are going south, to marry a boy who will only ever look at you as a piece of chattel bought and paid for with a crown.”
“I am going to marry a prince,” Sansa replies, sharply.
Only for Lyarra to smile, bitter and cold. Only for the wind to chill, frost creeping in whorls over her hair.
“And he is a man,” she says. “He is still as flawed, and terrible, and unkind as the rest of them.”
Sansa’s heard this before, she remembers it well; she doesn’t want to listen to a repeat of-
“He is a man,” says Lyarra, “and he can yet bleed.”
“I-” Sansa falters. “What?”
“He is a man,” she bites out. “He may be a prince, and he may become a king, but he has blood in his veins and if he hurts you- if he lays a single hand on you- you will pay it back to him tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold. You are my granddaughter. You are Sansa Stark of Winterfell, of the blood of the North, and you will not break there.”
Lyarra wrenches her chin up, fingers frozen and biting. “You will come back to me,” she says, and it sounds like a truth-telling, like a dream-seeing, like a fortune-whisper.
“Yes,” says Sansa.
The heartwood’s leaves rustle, though there’s no wind, and as Sansa looks up- she sees it. A single tear, the first she’s ever seen Lyarra shed, falling down her cheek. When it lands on the snow it disappears.
Goodbye, Sansa thinks, and when she leaves it aches in her chest like a roasted chestnut.
Cersei is to be her goodmother. Sansa does her best to avoid her, and mostly succeeds; it is only inside the wheelhouse that she is forced to be in close contact with her, and after a few days of awkward silence, Cersei utterly ignores her for even that period.
Sansa is homesick, and she wants Lyarra with a yearning that almost makes her feverish. She hasn’t been away from her for longer than a few days at the most, and even then there were other ghosts to keep her company. Now there’s nobody beside her in this wooden box save for the living.
And Lady is in Winterfell, still, because Sansa refused to bring her wolf along while she was certain her father would send her back; now, of course, she wishes she hadn’t been so foolish- but she had been, and must bear the consequences.
(Her shoulders still tremble, every time she enters the litter. Her glares at the Kingslayer are mistaken, thankfully, for the besotted looks of a lovelorn girl.
Joffrey doesn’t like it, but Sansa has more important things on her mind than his happiness.)
When they land in the Red Keep, the cacophony of ghosts almost makes her cringe.
Sansa straightens stiffly, and bears through the roar. She has kept this secret for years now; she won’t give it up so quickly. Anyhow, it only sounds as loud as it does because she is unused to it. Winterfell had even more ghosts, and Sansa’d learned to tune them out easily enough.
That afternoon, she is alone for the first time.
Sansa runs a hand down the soft wool of her gown and swallows through a dry throat before summoning a smile and turning to the pearly figure standing before the window.
“Hello,” she says. The ghost doesn’t turn, assuming she isn’t speaking to her. Sansa firms her voice and says, steadily, “I can see you.”
By that night, the entire city knows she can see ghosts.
It takes three days for the news to truly percolate through the ranks, or perhaps three days for him to work up the nerve; whatever the reason, Brandon comes to see her on her fourth day in King’s Landing.
Sansa doesn’t know who he is- but he is tall, and the curve of his jaw is similar to her father’s, and the tilt to his hair is startlingly reminiscent of Robb’s and Brandon Snow’s. She offers him a small smile.
“My lord,” she greets. “My name is Sansa Stark, eld-”
“-eldest daughter of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell.” He studies her, closely, and doesn’t seem to care for either his rudeness or that the silence between them has become awkward. “Yes, I know,” he tells her after a long minute.
“But I do not know you,” she reminds him, trying hard not to let her tone get arch or impertinent.
He smiles, like a flash of sunlight in a blizzard: blinding.
“Brandon Stark,” he says, sweeping a courtly bow. “And let me assure you, my lady, it is a relief to speak to someone whose heart still beats.” When he looks up at her, through his lashes, it is a look so obviously Lyarra’s that Sansa gets a lump in her throat.
“The honor is mine,” she says, speaking through the lump. Then, unable to stop herself, she continues: “Your mother misses you.” Brandon stills, but the flood of words goes on as if it were truly a torrent, unstoppable. “She was very close to me, in Winterfell. She doesn’t cry much, but she looks saddest when talking about you, and she never forgot you. You or your father or your sister. Lyarra-” Sansa falters, slightly, finally, but finishes the sentence. “Lyarra loves you.”
After another long silence, Brandon’s face breaks into a smile. It doesn’t look truly honest, but the effort is there, and his voice is warm when he says, “You must tell me everything about her.”
Her grandfather doesn’t come to her, and Sansa doesn’t ask.
There are other ghosts, of course, and over time Sansa learns the places they haunt, the places to avoid, the places to visit. She laughs with some, and begs stories of others, and for a time it is- nice.
Or if it isn’t nice, then it is a close enough facsimile.
With Sansa refusing to bring her wolf, Arya had not had a leg to stand on when their father refused. She’d huffed and glared and fought, but it hadn’t made an ounce of difference. That unfairness had left Arya furious at Sansa.
But the rage still prickles at her skin, and she starts to avoid Arya as well, soon after that.
It is a warm day when three ghosts materialize, one after the other, each looking wild and terrified with it- Sansa is happy, content, right up until they tell her to run, and not look behind her.
“Lannisters,” one snaps, and Sansa pales.
“They’ve arrested your father,” another says. “Wait, don’t go now-” Sansa skids to a halt before she turns the corner, and hears the clank of armor; after a moment, the ghost nods.
Barring the door is difficult, but the ghosts help her, tell her what to do. Sansa hides, there, with Betha Blackwood and Shaera Targaryen. Fear pounds in time to her heart, and she trembles; she is a child, after all.
But she is not alone, and ghosts flow through the door slowly, in a long, winding chain, bringing her news. After a few hours, Brandon enters and seats himself beside her.
“Ned’s leg is badly injured,” he tells her. “Worse than before, I mean. He’s in the Black Cells. Arya’s escaped into the city, though; I was with her, making sure she’s fine. She’ll survive.”
Sansa swallows and looks away. “I don’t- what does it matter, telling me anything? I can do nothing. I am a fool-”
“You aren’t the first Stark to speak to ghosts,” Brandon says, looking at her as if surprised. “You are young, yes, but this is a blessing from the old gods. They have given you the power to touch dreams, don’t you see?”
“No,” says Sansa, frowning. “No, I don’t. Dreams?”
Betha’s eyes are narrowed thoughtfully, but her daughter only shakes her head.
“It is a Northerner custom,” Shaera says. “I’ve not heard of it.”
A voice says, from the doorway- “It is a legend told by the First Men.” A man steps in, and when he comes to stand beside Brandon, the similarity is unmistakable. “Sarra was the first, and then Arrana after her; Cregard had a touch of it, and Beron did as well, but none so strong as Jocelyn.” Rickard Stark nods to her. “And after her, there is you.”
“What can I do?” Sansa asks, not looking away from him.
Rickard shifts, slightly. “They called it dreamwords: a way to walk in dreams and change the landscape. It is difficult, Sansa, make no mistake. Difficult and dangerous. You must not treat this lightly.”
“I will not,” she says slowly. “But- just- why does Father not know this?”
“Ned’s always been more trusting of his own own eyes than anything else,” says Brandon. “And it wasn’t anything Father thought important."
“But my father is imprisoned, is he not? And I have seen what mercy Lannisters are capable of. If the King is truly dead, then they will not show kindness to my father. Not if his accusations of bastardy are true. And if Father is in danger, then I am alone; and then, I must do something. I could never live with myself if I let him die because I was afraid.”
Rickard doesn’t respond immediately. When he does, his eyes lighten with some form of amusement.
“You look nothing like a Stark,” he tells her, grimly, amusedly. “But there is a wolf in you, child, and a dreamspeaker yet. Come, let us do this.”
It takes her some tries- these are muscles that Sansa has never used before, and so they are atrophied; aching with disuse. But she flexes, and then she tries more, and before she knows it she is standing outside of a door, decorated with scrolls of gold and dark, pinkish-red marble.
You will falter, Rickard had told her, hands resting lightly on her shoulders, eyes as undying-brilliant as if he had never been burned alive. You will fail. But you must try again, and again, and again. Walk in dreams, dreamspeaker, and craft the stories you will.
Sansa flinches, now, at the smell: rank meat, and sweat. She takes one step forwards and knocks on the door, and the sound echoes like a gong. The guardsman’s dream she is inside shatters like a stained glass window, and Sansa finds herself back in her own body, trembling.
“A sleeping guard,” she says, to the room. “He’s- close by. But I think I woke him.”
Rickard nods. “It does not matter, how careless you were. There is no time for delicacy, not if you are to save your father. Now, try again.”
Sansa’s head aches, but she doesn’t let that stop her.
They break the door down hours later. Sansa meets the guards with a shaking, red-scrubbed face, and doesn’t once ask about Arya. The next morning, she goes to the sept with a sack of food and cloth, which she distributes amongst the poor. After, she goes to the godswood.
Two nights later, she feels confident enough in her skills. Rickard looks faintly dubious, but Brandon nods.
Sansa pinches out the candles and lets her eyes slip shut. Her mind flutters, leaping from one person to the next, spiralling further and further, deeper into the bowels of the castle. She lands, finally, in a mind that had faint echoes of her own- older, more worn, but with something similar all the same.
He was asleep, but Sansa hasn’t the subtlety to maintain that yet. She places one foot directly in the land of living, and maintains the other in the land of dreams, and she yanks- or something close enough to the action that it has no other name.
Then she turns, and- in this half-dream state, she cannot control her father’s body. Instead, she leaps into the mind of the man who is guarding her father, and reforms his dream so that he is facing thirty Ironborn soldiers, and watches him scramble into the cell in a desperate attempt to stop it; she shoves him deeper into sleep and leaps back into her father’s mind, slotting what she can into place, frantically-
-he inhales sharply when the ghosts shimmer into view, but still doesn’t wake. Sansa holds tight to the dream-world, hoping Brandon understands what she is doing as her father reaches for the keys and unlocks himself.
So long as Sansa remains in his mind, her father can see the ghosts. Sansa can only remain in his mind while he sleeps- and so she keeps his thoughts fuzzy, forces herself to maintain her calm.
Brandon and various other ghosts help them- they form an honor guard, and an advance guard as well. They scout ahead and tell Sansa in her father’s body where to go, when to go.
They end up in the godswood, and Sansa leads her father to the sack of food and clothes she managed to scurry away. There is nothing more she can offer, not even a knife; but her father is smart. He is smart and quick and strong- and there is nothing more Sansa could do, even if she wanted to.
“I love you,” she says, letting the words echo in his mind, letting the words fade. Then, louder, so that this time he’ll remember, so that he’ll wake: “I love you, Father.”
He wakes with a gasp, and Sansa is thrown back into her own mind, trembling. Rickard looks at her sadly, and Naerys gestures towards a cloth. Her head is aching, and the tears that drip down her face are of blood.
But her father is gone from these monsters, and that leaves her limbs quivering with relief.
Rickard disappears, after that. Sansa asks after him, and Brandon purses his lips; sighs.
“Father loved my mother,” he says, quietly. “And he’s- he’s spent too long in the North. He can’t bear this castle, this… life. He hates it. Even speaking to you took too much effort.” He shrugs, and Sansa can see sadness lining the shadowed curve of his throat; she wonders, at it. Surely, surely, pain ought to stop at death- but, clearly, there are some things that are eternal.
Grief chief amongst them: for even with everything taken from them, humanity has mourning carved into their bones, engraved into their souls.
The Lannisters still don’t take Sansa seriously.
Sansa expresses only fear when they tell her that her father has abandoned her- she cringes, weeps, babbles. The ghosts circle her, offer her comfort, and Sansa learns to look through her lashes, learns to bend her head and still look prideful.
Brandon spends his days with Sansa, but his nights with Arya. It is meager protection- one ghost against a deadly world- but it is a relief for Sansa, one that tells her that her sister is at least alive and surviving.
It isn’t enough, however: the Lannisters will find Arya, sooner or later, if she remains in the city. Sansa doesn’t have the strength yet to pick her sister’s mind out of an entire city- she has to do something before Arya becomes just as much of a glorified prisoner as Sansa herself.
Brandon helps. He goes hunting for a boat, because the Lannisters likely wouldn’t search the seas as closely as they’d look over land. Two weeks later, he enters and nods, and hope lights up her stomach, her throat.
Two weeks later, she wraps herself in brown wool and takes a bag stuffed full of bread and preserves, a few clothes, some small bits of money that the ghosts helped find in the shadows of the keep- her boots are sensible, and her cloak is sturdy.
The ghosts tell her where to go, when to walk forwards, when to stay silent. Sansa keeps her head down and makes her way as quickly as possible into the twisted, narrow streets of Flea Bottom.
Brandon leads her to Arya fairly easily, but her sister has decided to spend the night wedged between two buildings, hidden behind two large clay pots; Sansa can’t reach her without climbing the wall, and she’s not about to do that-
It takes her a full hour, three thrown stones, and two close calls with the City’s Guard before Arya comes down irritably.
Her narrowed eyes widen when she recognizes Sansa.
“What’re you doing here?”
“We have to leave,” whispers Sansa, stepping forwards, embracing Arya tightly. There is a sort of unspeakable relief in having someone’s actual physical body in her arms, and Sansa almost weeps at the feeling. “The Lannisters… they pushed Bran, Arya. The Kingslayer. And they would’ve killed Father, I know it. If we aren’t careful, they’ll kill us too.”
“What’re you saying?” Arya asks, but she’s already lacing her boots up, already belting her thin sword to her waist. “What are you saying, Sansa?”
“That we have to leave.”
Arya shakes her head. “We aren’t going to be able to get anywhere. They-”
“If you’re going to continue talking,” Brandon snaps from behind Sansa, “get behind some cover and do it quietly. And hurry! We don’t have much time.”
“I know of a way,” Sansa says, grabbing Arya’s wrist and dragging her towards the shadows of a nearby tree. Arya’s face bulges with her indignance, but Sansa wrestles her behind it, using her greater height to her advantage; a moment later, three guardsmen canter through the street, and Arya relaxes minutely. “Now, come on.”
They slip between buildings, silently. Sansa doesn’t let Arya’s hand go the entire time.
But they’re too late.
The fisherman’s boat that Brandon had spied out is cut from the moors by the time they arrive at the dock- the owner must have decided to get some early fishing done. Sansa pales at the sight and turns an accusing look on her uncle.
He leaps into action, trying to find something else that can take them that won’t be missed quickly; Sansa communicates this to Arya, quietly, and is climbing over ropes when Betha appears in front of her. Her eyes are wide, and her black hair whips about her in an agitated wind.
“King’s men,” she says. “They know you’re missing.”
Sansa feels her nails cut into the meat of her palm. “We can’t- we can’t take a boat.”
Arya turns and looks at her sharply. Sansa ignores her.
“Not fast enough,” she stresses. “They’ll be on us as soon as we land. We have to…” Slowly, she turns towards Arya. “Oh,” Sansa says softly.
“What?” Arya snaps.
“Not we,” Sansa replies, reaching for the sack of food and cloth she’s held so tightly. She shoves it towards her sister. “You.”
Arya takes it, clutches it. “What do you mean?”
“The Lannisters are coming,” Sansa tells her, ducking under ropes and sweeping her hair behind her, loosening the hood so the sun catches the brilliant red of her hair. “Don’t take a boat, Arya. Stick to the shoreline for another day, and then follow the Kingsroad- you know the way. And don’t stop, alright? Just go- go north. To Riverrun. Mother’s family will keep us safe, I promise.”
“Not without you,” says Arya, eyes narrowing. “I’m not going anywhere without you, Sansa-”
“I’ll be fine.” Sansa smiles wanly at her. “But keep that sword handy, alright? And keep your head down. I’ll see you soon.”
“You are,” says Sansa, and feels tears well up, swallows them. “Tell Father that I love him, alright? And the same thing to the others. Robb, Bran, Rickon, Mother- tell them that I miss them. And that I’ll see them soon.”
The dawnlight illuminates Arya’s face, a rictus of horror. Sansa breathes out and stumbles off the mooring, and avoids the knowing pity on Betha’s face, in Alysanne’s eyes. She can hear Arya trying to follow her.
No. Sansa looks around her, and there- right there- there’s a pile of rigging- There will be only one Stark left in King’s Landing by tonight.
Sansa shoves the rigging as hard as she can. The splash is loud enough to draw attention of the entire pier. Then she’s running.
It’s hard work in a skirt, no matter how loose it is. Her boots pinch, and she very purposely flees towards the troops, not away. Her heart is pounding. She can see, from the corner of her eye, the silvered outlines of the ghosts- they’re keeping time with her. Sansa stumbles to a halt at the opposite edge of the pier, still ignored by half the people on it, and realizes that there’s nothing she can do to gain the men’s attention without either taking a boat and setting sail- or yelling loudly.
Saying “look at me” might have been suspicious, but wordless screams sounded hysterical enough to forgive. And with her head uncovered, the delicate dragonfly necklace she wears- Sansa is easily found, easily recognized.
Their hands are not gentle when they drag her back, but neither are they particularly rough. The tears that drip down her cheeks are not entirely unfeigned.
(The smile is harder to conceal.)
“Courage,” Naerys tells her, face pale and thin in the darkness. “You must have courage, Lady Stark.”
Betha laughs, harshly. “She has far more courage than any of us ever will. Intelligence, too. No- you must have faith, Sansa: faith in yourself.”
“They will kill me,” Sansa murmurs, hands curving away from each other. There is relief, on the one hand, that Arya is safe; on the other, there is fear for herself. “How can I stop them?”
“They call you a traitor’s daughter,” says Brandon, materializing into the cell. His eyes are narrowed, and it is anger that thrums inside of him, hot and bright as liquid silver. “The Lannister Queen wants you skinned, but the Imp is talking her down from it. With only one hostage left to them, they can’t hurt you. But- be careful, Sansa.”
She nods, and that is that.
“Traitor,” Joffrey hisses, and Sansa says nothing.
The court seethes, twisting and roiling, waiting eagerly to see the disgrace of one of their own; Sansa simply lifts her chin high and meets Joffrey’s gaze. A heartbeat too late, she recognizes that pride was an incorrect path to take- Joffrey’s mouth twists, and his eyes go flat, and she can see her death echoing in them.
“Treason shall never go unpunished,” he bites out, raw in his fury.
Meryn Trant’s sword lights a line of fire down her spine, and Sansa shrinks away, stumbling. She doesn’t bother to beg. Over the roar of her heartbeat, she hears Brandon howling, screaming curses and threats, and yet: useless. Her knees fall to the floor, echoing vibrations up through her body, and she bows her head, spine curving like a vase’s arch into the ground.
“I think my lady is overdressed,” Joffrey sneers, and Sansa feels her blood freeze, hears the room go silent, stiff- even Brandon is silent, now. She cannot bear to look at him- Sansa feels her lower lip wobble. Her jaw aches from clenching it.
“Do not cry,” says another voice, so close that Sansa flinches even as Meryn Trant shreds her gown. She looks up and sees a woman, slim and small, looking so coldly, dignifiedly disdainful that the very room feels chillier at the sight. “Do not cry,” the woman repeats. “They are not worth your tears, Lady Stark.”
Tyrion Lannister enters and then Sandor Clegane hands her his cloak. Sansa feels the cool brush of Betha’s hands along her shoulders, the quiet grief in Naerys’ eyes, the rage in Alysanne’s- and the other woman, the strange woman, who stands beside her, unmoving as a heart tree’s trunk. She stands, and Tyrion says, quietly, “Do you want an end to this engagement?”
Alysanne snarls something, and Betha’s unembodied hair flutters through the air in her outrage, and Naerys looks away. It is the strange woman who says, glacial and magnificent in her contempt, “Do not trust him.”
Sansa keeps her back straight, her spine unbent.
“I am loyal to King Joffrey,” she says, running her tongue across the back of bloodied teeth, “my one true love.”
Back in her own rooms, Brandon stands vigil, and beside him stands a tall, strong-boned woman. It is only when she flips her pale braid over her shoulder and shifts, revealing the slender sword belted to her waist, that Sansa recognizes her, and stops dead in the hallway.
“Visenya,” she says.
Her maids flitter about her, anxiously. Sansa already knows them to be Lannister spies- Shaera had told her as much weeks ago- and now she ignores them, instead staring straight at the ghost she never imagined to see.
“Step inside your rooms,” says Visenya. “Dismiss your servants. We can speak after that.”
Sansa does, and once she’s closed the door behind the last of the maids, she turns, meeting Visenya’s eyes steadily.
“I heard of you,” Visenya says, quietly. “The Northerner who speaks to the dead. Who listens to the dead.”
“You didn’t die in the Red Keep.”
“I did,” Visenya murmurs, eyes lighting with something that’s equal parts amusement and scorn. “But that is another story- I am here for yours. The girl who plays with men’s minds and recruits an army of the dead for herself.” She leans forwards, graceful and sinuous as a snake’s uncoiling, as a dragon’s flame. “You are helpless in the face of the Lannister boy’s rage- and you shall remain so. But you can learn to move with attacks so that the bruises are softer, and looks worse than it actually is. I can teach you.”
Sansa stands very straight, very still. “And what would you like in return?”
No gift comes freely. Not ones this great.
“I shall teach you to wield a sword.” Visenya smiles, small and pale and deadly. “And when this is over, I shall give you one of Valyrian steel. And after that, you will go and find my sister’s bones, and you will give her the burial she deserves.”
Slowly, Sansa nods.
Visenya returns to standing outside the door, a stiff, immovable guard. Betha and Alysanne help Sansa tend to her back- tell her to go a little left, right, lower; brush the cloth a little harder, there’s still some wool strands caught on the blood.
When it is done, they leave. Sansa gazes outside the window and tries not to weep.
Arya is gone, and it is a good thing- but Sansa feels so alone. Arya is safe, but Sansa has paid the price for that in blood.
“They do not deserve your tears.”
Sansa looks up and sees the strange woman- she studies her closer, now, and identifies the tassels, the floating silk, the edges that drip to the floor as insubstantial as clouds. Her eyes are bright and intelligent, and underneath the glitter of kindness there is something that speaks of empathy.
It softens Sansa’s voice.
“No?” She asks. “They have stripped me. They can still kill me. I do not deserve to cry for that?”
“Your father is not dead,” the woman says. “Your sister is gone. Your family is safe in Winterfell. What cause is there to weep?”
“Then I am selfish,” says Sansa. “Selfish and tired, and afraid, and I will weep tears of blood if I so wish. I cry for myself, and-”
“-and you are a more powerful dreamspeaker than any in the past seven thousand years. Your tears are-”
“Magic?” Sansa asks, derisive and exhausted, unknowing whom she loathes more: herself, for her failures, or the Lannisters, for placing her in such a position, or her parents, whose gifts flowed into her along with her blood.
“No more magic than the magic of a powerless woman,” says the woman, and it is gentler than Sansa might have expected. “A woman who is thrown into the deepest ocean and not only learns to float- but to swim. You are stronger than them, Lady Stark, and I will not watch another woman die in these walls soundlessly. There has been enough injustice.”
For a long moment, Sansa looks at the woman. She is insubstantial, translucent; but for just a moment, she shines so bright that Sansa has to avert her eyes. For just a moment, she shines brighter than any star in the sky, as bright as the sun.
“It is an honor,” Sansa says, inclining her head and letting a small smile emerge from her lips, “to see the Princess Elia Martell.”
“Move faster,” Visenya orders, and Sansa drops, rolls, freezes her muscles.
She aches. Both in heart and body, but body more so these days; and not wholly against her will. Visenya is a hard mistress, but she gets results. Sansa learns to roll with the Kingsguard’s blows, learns to bite the inside of her cheek and let the blood paint her lips, learns to shrink in on herself and never once cry.
“If you are ever to bear a sword, you must do better,” says Visenya.
Sansa levels a glare at her. “My brothers bore swords when they were three,” she tells her. “They had none of this training.”
“They didn’t spend almost a decade and a half learning bad habits,” Visenya replies, acidic. “You have. Now: move.”
Elia walks beside Sansa, sometimes, when the days are particularly bad, when Sansa can scarcely move without breaking open the scabs across her back. She is a sad woman, and more than that she is an angry woman, and there are few days in which she can bear to look at the daughter of one of the men who fought a battle opposing her and hers- but Sansa is an innocent, as Elia agrees, and they both strive to find common ground.
(There’s quite a lot of it.
Elia, after all, knows exactly what a highborn woman’s all-but-imprisonment is like. And after that, everything else seems- paltry.)
They speak very rarely, but the hatred in Elia’s eyes and her frigid dignity almost makes up for it.
Finally, one morning, Visenya wakes Sansa.
It is just before dawn, and the darkness almost makes Sansa trip over her own two feet; but Visenya floats, implacable, impatient, and takes Sansa into dark hallways under the castle. They end up in a small, airless cell.
“There’s a stone,” Visenya tells her, waving at the back of it. “Count three up from the bottom and pull, it’ll come out. You ought to find a sword inside.”
The wall is damp, and there is mold where Sansa scrabbles at the stone; the stone gives way, though, easily enough. When she places her hand inside, she meets only cold stone- and then, reaching a little further, her fingers curl over something hard, even colder.
Sansa pulls it out.
The steel is wrapped in a scabbard of stiff leather. It’s quite small, slender; when Sansa unsheathes it, it glitters brighter than anything else in the darkness.
“Dark Sister,” says Visenya, quietly. Her eyes are over-bright as they trace her old sword. “The first sword I ever held properly. My father handed it to me the night that Vhagar hatched. He told me that my first duty was to protect my brother, and then our blood, and then our people.” She exhales sharply and turns away; gestures to the door. “We ought to head back.”
Sansa stuffs the sword into the deepest part of her skirts and walks out. Back in her rooms, she is careful to hide it in the safest place she knows of. That afternoon, when she goes to the godswood, she takes it with her.
Visenya awaits her there, arms folded, back straight. She cannot provide an opponent to Sansa, but she can get Sansa to move, to shift, to learn and accept the weight of a sword in her hands.
Sansa grits her teeth, swallows, and moves through the ache of her bruises, of her scars.
“Traitor,” Joffrey sneers, and drags Sansa to the battlements. “That’s your septa,” he tells her. “That’s your friend, over there. Look.”
Sansa can scarcely hear him over the pounding of her heart, of her sudden fury. She bites her lip and looks away, and feels all the breath rush out of her as Meryn Trant grabs her shoulders bruisingly. Her eyes flick up to see the dead-eyed skull of her septa, the fly-ridden corpse of Jeyne Poole. Sansa cannot feel herself breathe.
“Look at her!”
“They weren’t traitors,” she whispers. “Not once. Not ever. Septa Mordane never once so much as called you by name.” She doesn’t look at Joffrey, doesn’t let her eyes waver from those who died in her name, those she couldn’t protect. This is what happens when you fail. Look at them, and don’t ever forget it. “Jeyne loved you. Why did you kill innocents?”
“You’re as stupid as Mother says,” Joffrey spits, and Sansa doesn’t flinch. “Ser Meryn-” he waves his hand.
Sansa feels the slap as if from a distance.
“I will kill him,” a voice growls, and Sansa leans on it: with her eyes closed, Brandon sounds just like her father, and she needs that strength. “One day, I will take his soul and tear him to shreds, I swear it.”
Joffrey is still talking. Sansa still feels sun-hot anger, but it is distant, swallowed by the pain and sting of grief. She forces herself to focus on what he’s saying.
“I’ll give you a present,” he says. “I’ll give you your father’s head as well. It shouldn’t be long before my men find him, after all.”
“Or,” Sansa says, “he’ll give me yours.”
Joffrey blinks, taken aback, and she can see the exact moment when he decides to ignore her words. He cocks his head to the side, bluntly cruel, unsubtle in his attempts to wound her. “He left you here, didn’t he? Perhaps you don’t love him very much- I’m sure a proper daughter would have cried at least a little, wouldn’t you?”
My father will give me your head. I will kill you with Visenya Targaryen’s sword, and bring it dripping to my family. You will decorate Winterfell’s walls for as long as I wish it.
“My father is a traitor,” Sansa tells him. Her voice is steadier than Joffrey will ever be with a sword. “I am not.”
Brandon’s arm is freezing next to hers, numbing her shoulder. Sansa can feel Meryn Trant’s bruising fingers, can taste the blood blotted across her lip. She keeps her gaze fierce on Joffrey.
The first of them to look away is the one with a crown.
Brandon avoids her, at first, and then takes to hovering about her, more protective than even Robb at his worst. Sansa can see the fruitless rage in his eyes as he bears silent witness to her beatings, to her humiliation- they don’t speak of it, ever, but he shimmers brighter in the moments that he sees Joffrey than anytime else.
The bruises ringing her wrists blaze with pain as Sansa whirls, twists, lifts the sword-
Visenya tells her to turn, and Sansa does, she does- but she also cries out, once, sharp and high, and drops the sword. Her hands ache. Her eyes burn. She wants to curl inwards, wants to weep, but her eyes are dry as bone and her muscles are too stiff, too cold, to relax. Sansa feels as if the chill of the North has snuck inside her when she didn’t know it.
On the worst days, she even welcomes it.
“Sansa,” says Visenya. Her face is blank as ever, but her eyes are kind. Her arm, when it brushes at Sansa’s cheek, isn’t cold to make her feel as if the bone underneath will shatter. “You said you could do it today.”
“I can,” Sansa replies, but her traitorous hand won’t reach for the hilt.
“You are no good to anyone if you kill yourself,” Visenya says.
“No?” Sansa tilts her head to the side, feels dirt give way under her fingers as they claw. “I just…”
“You are tired,” says Visenya, rising to her feet. “Well, I tell you this: this life is nothing but exhausting. You will sleep on your feet, and then you will learn not to do even that. You will weep until your tears run dry, and then you will wish you had more to offer. Protectors can do nothing else.” She lifts her chin, lifts her sword, and Sansa can see the girl in Visenya’s bones for just a heartbeat, the girl who’d held a newly-hatched dragon in one hand and a sword in the other, the girl who’d loved her brother enough to conquer a kingdom beside him, the girl who’d desired power and seized it as she needed. “And, Sansa Stark, you are nothing but a protector. Do you understand?”
Sansa feels her muscles twitch. She slowly uncurls her fingers, reaches for the hilt of Dark Sister, and closes her hand about it. She is colder than the Wall, than Winterfell in the dead of winter, than death itself. She is as hot as the sun’s own fire.
“I will protect,” Sansa says, and lifts her sword, clenches her teeth and rides through the wave of pain. Visenya’s eyes gleam with satisfaction.
But for hours, one question echoes in Sansa’s mind: Protect what?
Visenya watches Sansa cut through the air, fast and deadly.
“You’ll never be perfect,” Visenya tells her. “There will always be people better than you, smarter than you- you will not ever be perfect. But you will survive, and that is what matters.”
Sansa keeps her head high the entire time.
People sneer, whisper behind painted lips and raised hands, mock her for her helplessness. Were she alone, Sansa doesn’t know if she could have stood against them.
But she isn’t.
Not even when Joffrey laughs, tells her about Bran’s and Rickon’s deaths. Naerys flares white, bright as a full moon, and is the one to wrap Sansa in her arms in the godswood, the one to cry silently beside her.
Not even when Joffrey forces her to kiss a sword that leaves her lips bleeding, a sword that belongs rightfully to Sansa and her house. Shaera presses her freezing fingers to Sansa’s lips, and the stinging pain goes numb.
Not even when Cersei mocks her for her stupidity, or the courtiers laugh derisively, or the commonfolk avert their eyes. If people look closely, they can see the glow of something ethereal fanning out from Sansa’s skirts, pale and pearlescent. Even through the worst of their rage, Sansa remains coldly calm. There is nothing Joffrey can do to hurt her, and even if he does she won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing it.
The ghosts cradle her, sing to her, place a sword in her hand and only ever look at her with pride.
(Later, Sansa learns of the ghosts that wished to hurt her, the ones that she was protected from. She learns that when Visenya tried to speak to her, in the very beginning, Rickard Stark stood tall against the woman who conquered Westeros and refused her. That Aerys the Mad and Maegor the Cruel were chained and fought off by women who once held nothing to their name but silence.)
She doesn’t know that yet, however, and trusts even less. The week that Sansa wields Dark Sister well enough to silence even Visenya’s unrelenting criticism, she feels something rise in her gullet, too ugly to be a laugh, too soft to be a cry.
“You are ready,” Visenya murmurs, and Sansa smiles, plaits her hair back into a banner as bright as blood, bares her teeth too wide to call a smile, lifts a sword that shimmers like moonlight.