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the lone traveller, standing strong

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It takes several days before Sansa can bring herself to believe it. To understand that she is not dreaming; not yet dead. Against the odds, her mind has not broken from the strain of all that she has endured. No, Sansa is a child again. In a girl’s body, returned to Winterfell as it was. Long before King Robert came, and forged the first link in the chain that ripped her world apart.

They tell her she has been confined to her room, burning with a fever. Maester Luwin was extremely concerned. When the fire under her skin finally cools, she allows her parents to take her into their arms, and weeps at the feel of their sweet embrace. She had forgotten the scent of Mother's hair, the rough callouses on Father's gentle hands. It is so lovely to see them all again; Robb, her brave brother so noble and honest, sullen Jon who carefully graces her with a rare smile, grumpy Arya, who tells her she is stupid for staying out in the snow and getting sick. Sweet Bran, the cheerful boy running recklessly through the halls, so different from the solemn Three-Eyed Raven. Rickon, the babe she barely knew, beautifully loud and unafraid. Even Theon, with his sly smiles and confident swagger, brash and quick-witted, so rich in spirit compared to the hollow creature he became.

I won’t let it happen again, she vows, to every god she knows. I will save you all, and destroy all who attempt to stop me.

*

She spends a lot of time, those first few nights of restoration, trying to understand how a foolish, unflowered girl could influence anyone, enough to prevent the tragedies to come. Her lord father did not believe in omens, magic or visions. If she tried to convince him of what was to befall their House, he would think her mad. If she had an ally, someone else who had lived all that is to come, mayhaps her trial would be easier to endure. But as far, no one seems to recall having lived out these days before.

Cersei Lannister had called Sansa little dove with that sick smile on her face, because the Sansa she knew was as defenceless as one. Cersei would never have allowed fat King Robert to betroth her precious lion to a wild wolf, like Arya. Sansa could never feign to be so unladylike, no one would ever believe it. Sansa is not built to carry arms. But she is not completely incapable of change, she knows this. In this second life, the gods have granted her the chance to become something new. A she-wolf, cloaked in a lady’s garb. No, she will not be betrothed to any Southern man in this life, at any cost.

Before any of her hopes can come to pass, Sansa must first learn to be a player in the great game. A woman’s weapon need not be tears, but it need not be only her woman’s place either. Mother would be horrified to see Sansa with any weapon in her soft hands. Catelyn Stark detested war and weaponry. She scorned it as a man’s excuse to abandon his family and the duties of home. Sansa understood now that it was fear, of the outcome of war, which worried her mother so. But commanding her daughter to stay out of the training yard would not protect Arya from all the men who would attempt to harm her. Father and brothers and guards could not be relied upon for protection. No one can protect anyone, save themselves.

Mother would mayhaps faint, if Sansa ever asked to join the boys, as they sparred under Rodrick Cassel’s careful eye. So Sansa simply does not ask.

First, she must pick her weapon. Sansa sits at among her family, at the feast to celebrate her miraculous return to good health, and eyes the swords she sees strapped to her lord father's guards. No, she is not built for such a heavy, obvious weapon. Arya was the swords-woman of the family, and rightly so. Sansa will never forget the display of skill she watched with Petyr Baelish by her side, as Arya danced through her spar with Brienne. Mayhaps in the new world Sansa will create, Arya will never need to progress to such a level. But she still deserves to learn, and Sansa is loath to overshadow her sister’s passion with her own sure-to-be clumsy attempt. She firmly resolves never to learn more than the basics of swordplay. Daggers were more easily concealed, anyway.

She will never forget the furious fear in Joffrey’s eyes when Tyrion stabbed a table, and threated to cut off his cock, after the monstrous King attempted to call for a bedding. Sansa has no love for any Lannister, but she cannot deny Tyrion was kind to her. Still, in future she would prefer to be the one that holds the dagger; not beholden to any man to provide it for her.

Yet, it is not enough. The dagger is a close-range weapon. Sansa is not yet a killer. But if she is to become brave enough to be a player in the game of thrones, she may have need to become one. How much easier it would be, to fell her enemy at fifty paces, rather than five? This is why she chooses the bow. It has dual qualities; if Sansa is ever lost in the wilds again, a bow may keep her fed, the way a sword would not. If she could hunt for herself, Sansa may never go hungry again. What a wonderful life that would be.

No one can learn a new skill without a teacher. Jon might help her, now that she no longer turns her nose at him, nor reminds him of his supposed birth. But she has only been restored in this life but half a moon; no one will believe her new, kinder self is indicative of her future behaviour until she has proven herself over the years. She cannot afford to wait that long. The master-at-arms would never teach her without her lord father’s consent, nor would any other man sworn to her father’s service. Robb’s honour would not allow him to assist her in secret either, as he would feel duty-bound to tell their parents of her request.

It is just as well then, that Theon Greyjoy is the greatest archer Sansa has ever known. 

*

The only one who ever rivalled Theon in skill, that Sansa ever looked upon with her own eyes, was Ramsay Bolton. Remembering Rickon, fleeing like a frightened doe, felled by a single arrow skewered through his back, makes her sick to her stomach. She stares at the venison on her plate, colour rapidly draining from her face. So intent is her stare, that Sansa misses her mother’s insistent questioning after her health, until Arya punches her in the arm. Her little sister, so full of energy and ire. Here, she is still the wild wolf, not tempered by all the hardship she suffered, in the world Sansa will not allow to come to pass.

 “Forgive me, Mother,” Sansa demurely whispers, “I am well, only a little tired.”

Mother does not look convinced, but Sansa’s smile is disarming enough to mollify her. She does not notice how Sansa carefully avoids eating the meat on her plate.

Sansa eyes the kraken among wolves, who is still more boy than man here. Theon, with his lazy smile and arrogant assurance, dressed in finery, as though the world were his to command. She is surprised by how much she approves of him this way, in comparison to the tortured wretch she saw him reduced to. This is the man that sacked her home and put her little brothers out into the cold. A part of her will always hate him for that. But it is difficult to see that oathbreaker, in the young man seated down the table from her, japing with Robb.

Jon reminded Sansa once, when he spoke of his time at Dragonstone, that Theon had been a prisoner in their home. No matter how well he was treated. Theon lived under the threat of execution, every day that Sansa's father lived. It had been a shock for her, to equate Theon’s childhood in Winterfell, to that of her own imprisonment in King’s Landing. Theon was beholden to his father’s good behaviour. Much as she had been beholden to Robb’s military decisions, and she was beaten viciously by the Kingsguard for each one of her brother’s victories. Theon may not be publicly beaten, but she has no doubt he knows her lord father will not fail to do his duty. Should Lord Balon rebel, Theon will pay with his life. Theon is not her father’s ward, nor her brother. He is a hostage.

How could she ever hope to secure his loyalty? She knows Theon loves Robb, truly and honestly. But he betrayed him, nethertheless. She now understands Balon will never give up reaving ways, if he senses an opportunity to seize power. If Westeros erupts into war, and Balon rebels, Theon’s life will be forfeit. That, she cannot allow. She owes him her life. Sansa would never have escaped the Boltons without him. Would never have reunited with Jon, whom she had believed to be her only living kin.

Regardless of the disgust she still feels, knowing Theon to be a child-slayer, he must be protected. Those horrid events have not yet come to pass. And yet, she cannot deny that she still feels indebted to him, for aiding her escape. She will do everything she can to ensure she is never sent South, and that the Bolton's sick practices are exposed. But similarly, she must ensure Theon is never sent back to the Iron Islands. Balon and Yara will never accept him. Though Theon may reject the title, she would name him for a Stark, and keep him beside Robb. Starks do not do well outside the North, and she cares nought for the opinion of others in this. She will make it so, despite the considerable obstacles in her path.

She cannot hate Theon here, she realises, as she watches him tease Robb and roll his eyes at something Jon mutters. Quite separate from her own views, she is sure Robb would never permit Theon’s execution for Balon’s crimes. And if Robb stood against their lord father, the results could be disastrous. Robb loves Theon as an elder brother. He oft looks to him for advice. Sansa learnt that he followed Theon’s counsel, in the early stages of the War of the Five Kings. She knows that losing Theon for Balon’s treachery is something Robb would not abide. Jon has taught her not to punish a son for his father’s sins, but Sansa knows her own father would never agree to such sentiment. Always, Lord Eddard Stark was a man of honour and steadfast duty. And Houses have been destroyed over far less than a son standing against his father. It is an issue she knows must be rectified, before the Lannister's cuckolding of Robert Baratheon is revealed.

The boys are too far away for Sansa to listen their conversation this night. Every so often, her lady mother glares in their direction. As a former Tully of the Riverlands, Lady Catelyn could never hold any love for the Ironborn. Too much blood was shed between their lands. Nor could she love her husband’s nephew, proclaimed to be his natural son. Sansa knows her mother despises Jon's presence, and mistrusts Theon greatly. Her lady mother's prejudice has resulted in much folly, and Sansa knows not how to begin to alter her staunch beliefs.

Sansa bites her lip, knowing she cannot afford to be caught staring at her father’s 'ward'. Nor can she reveal Jon’s parentage at this time. If she tells Jon, he will demand proof she does not have. If he asks Father, Lord Stark may feel compelled to send him away, to ‘protect him’. No, the knowledge is too dangerous, while Robert Baratheon lives, and commands her father’s respect. However, Jon will never go to the Wall, if Sansa can prevent it. She doesn't have any intention of suffering Joffrey to ascend to the throne, nor will she live through the Dragon Queen’s conquest. There is only one Targaryen that deserves the Iron Throne, though she doubts Jon would ever want to claim it. But that is a matter for another day. There are only so many issues Sansa can tackle at once, and she has no influence yet. Still, she knows the problems will percolate at the back of her mind, declining to be supressed for long.

She eats her dessert, with a fake smile pasted on her lips. Her favourite lemoncake is cloying against her throat, the rich sponge almost choking her, before she washes it down with cool water.

Formulating complex strategies is something Sansa now has ample experience in. Determining how much time she has to work in is more difficult. She cannot afford to rush, and give away her true intentions. She must wear a mask of steel and iron, like Robb’s crown was said to be, hiding her claws and teeth. But slowly, steadily, Sansa will assume the mantle that was as always hers to take; she is a Stark of Winterfell, a wolf of the North, and Winter is Coming. She will never allow herself to be collared and chained again. The price for her freedom is a cost which could never be too high.

*

She seizes her opportunity, as soon as an opening presents itself. Theon has always been a betting man; a known gambler and whoremonger. Sansa-that-was was unaware of much of this. She had been far too concerned with herself, and all her selfish wishes to abandon the North for a Southern husband, to notice much else. She has vowed to never be that stupid, vainglorious girl again. It begins here, with her siblings and true friends.

The Sansa she is now, can finally understand Theon’s sly looks and whispered japes (even if most are said out of her hearing). No one expects the prim and proper eldest daughter of Eddard Stark to challenge Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, to a bet. Not even in jest. Theon’s mouth hangs open dumbly, when Sansa suggests it, a playful smile dancing around her lips.

She is too young for the smile to be misconstrued. But she knows that same smile on her elder face and body, the one that she had before she died and reawakened in the past, would be taken as flirtation. An enticement to more. Theon shifts uncomfortably, and Sansa wonders if she has in fact miscalculated, and he will think her wanton. It matters nought, if she obtains her objective.

“You think Jon will best Robb?” he repeats her suggestion, as though her words were spoken in a language foreign to him.

The clash of tourney swords rings through the yard as her brothers spar, panting with exertion. They have been at it long, and are both visibly tiring. They are not as skilled as they will become, Sansa knows. Just as she knows Jon has always been the better swordsman of the two. She remembers Arya boasting of Jon's prowess in this fight, in her first life. Now that she herself knows how to look for it, Sansa sees her sister was right about his skill.

“Jon’s form is far superior,” Sansa shrugs, as though that truth were nothing of consequence.

As if it was natural, that a lady of breeding would stoop to an honest assessment of skill. Instead of exulting an heir over a younger son, let alone a bastard, as any highborn would. Sansa-that-was would never neglect her lessons to skirt the yard and watch her brothers. She had found swordplay grim, dirty and boring, versus gossip and laughter with her friends. Now, though it is sweeter than she ever imagined to be with Beth and Jeyne again, her friend’s concerns are not her own. Their chatter is idle, ridiculous and sometimes spiteful, though innocent compared to the ladies in King’s Landing. Since Sansa returned, she has stopped insulting her sister and demanded her friends do the same. They look at Sansa with barely veiled confusion. Theon looks at her that same way, now.

Still, she cannot take back her words, even as her heart beats wildly, praying he will not question her changed attitude.

“If I take that bet and win, dear Lady Sansa, what’ll I gain?” Theon eventually asks, his wry smile firmly back in place.

“What should you like, Lord Theon?” She mimics his formal address, politely, and sees the sparkle of honest pleasure in his eyes for a change. It is not usual for Theon’s smile to be so genuine.

Jon feints to his left before striking out on his right instead. Robb skitters backward, but is still caught with a glancing blow to the ribs. His yelp of pain carries easily across the yard. Sansa watches Robb grimace, but hold his ground; lunging out a strike of his own, which Jon easily repels.

“A dance!” Theon declares over the singing of steel. “If Robb wins, I ask for the pleasure of your company, during the first dance of Bran’s name-day feast, my lady.”

“I accept your terms, my lord.” Sansa readily agrees. It is not a difficulty to accept, by any means. Theon is a graceful dancer. Sansa has no desire to wait for another man to ask her, when she can seize the chance to be on the floor immediately. She needs to find a Northern boy worthy of her hand, before Robert is compelled to come North. That won’t happen without considerable effort on her part, and every gathering of Northmen is an occasion to impress. Even if she knows this is one particular bet Theon will never win.

“Ah-ah,” Theon tuts playfully, “I can’t agree to the wager if I don’t know all the terms.”

Sansa pretends to consider her forfeit, should she win. She feels his eyes glancing over her still form, as she watches her brothers swipe at one another.

“If Jon wins… then you must assist me in an endeavour of my choosing, without question or complaint.” Sansa declares.

Theon chuckles, no doubt finding her choice absurd. “I suppose you wish me to sit still, while you braid ribbons into my hair, my lady?”

Sansa smiles, but chooses to say no more. Thankfully, Theon’s curiosity wins out. He agrees to her terms, and looks only mildly disturbed, when she refuses to name the task he must assist her with. Jon wins his bout with Robb, just as she said he would.

*

“Meet me in the godswood, early on the morrow,” Sansa whispers as she twirls elegantly around Theon, their palms pressed together as they move in tandem. Theon lost the bet, but Sansa needs him in high spirits, and dances with him first, and repeatedly, throughout Bran’s name-day celebrations.

Theon’s brow furrows, but he does not object. Judging by how deep in their cups most men already are, there will be little chance they will be seen by anyone if they rise and slip out early. She can tell Theon is longing to ask her to explain herself, but he cannot seem to find the words. Inevitably, he settles on being offensive.

“Anyone would think you wanted to get me all alone, my little lady,” he grins, licentious and unashamed.

She wonders what he hopes to achieve, by goading her. Perhaps Theon wishes to give her a chance to blush and stammer and back away from him. Sansa-that-was could be relied upon to parade her virtue. She would have been horrified at any hint of impropriety. But this Sansa knows Theon would never dare take liberties with her. And after enduring Joffrey’s vicious taunts, and Ramsay’s brutal madness, she doubts any mere words Theon could say, will ever truly frighten her. She chooses to ignore his taunt, and sees the surprise flare in his eyes when she maintains the sharp steps of the dance, undeterred. His smile never falters.

“You promised to assist me, without complaint.” She reminds him quietly, mindful of the jolly crowd around them. “Will you come?”

The song is almost at an end; a lively Riverlands tune played to honour her lady mother, and their Tully heritage. Sansa knows the steps intuitively, even though this younger body must only have learnt them lately.

Theon holds her eyes, for once silent in his assessment. She remains stoic under his scrutiny, refusing to flush beneath his unwavering attention. Whatever he finds in her face, is enough to captivate him into agreement.

“Aye, my lady,” he rasps, “I’ll come.”

The music draws to an end, and all the dancers slow to an standstill. Most men merely bow to their ladies. Theon goes a step further; he clasps her hand, and presses a gentle kiss to it. Sansa ignores the heat rising on her face, telling herself she is only warmed from the vigorous steps of the dance.

Sansa curtsies perfectly. Theon takes a step back, but before he can release her entirely, she steps forward again and whispers; “Come alone. Don’t tell Robb.”

She refuses to look down in maidenly shame when his eyes snap toward her, his stare wide with alarm. She doesn’t give him the chance to question her, only squeezes his hand briefly, then turns away and hurries to freedom, eager to escape Theon’s bright, soulful eyes. He is a handsome man, she thinks, then pushes the unbidden thought away with vengeance.

*