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Battle Tested

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With Sandor Clegane’s bloodied cloak falling around her shoulders, Sansa shut the door behind him. She slid a heavy chair in front of it to brace it. Had she done the wrong the thing, refusing to leave with him? He promised to take her to Robb, to Mother, who as far as Sansa could tell, had forgotten about her entirely. Despite his protecting her from Joffrey’s petulant rage where he could, she did not trust the Hound. He had wells of dark weakness within him that even he didn’t understand. If they stayed on the road long enough and he had enough of his precious wine, he would forget his chivalrous impulse and hurt her beyond anything Joffrey had attempted.

Though what Joffrey had attempted was no small thing. Her back still ached with the sting of healing lashes. The salve Shae used to keep them from infection wept through her gown, making it clammy and uncomfortable against her back. Even if by some miracle King’s Landing survived the siege, Joffrey would only be more emboldened as a “warrior king” to abuse her at every opportunity. She couldn’t imagine she would fare much better under dour, unfeeling Stannis, who, from what she had been told, resented Ned for usurping Stannis’s place in Robert’s affections.

Doomed to rape and ruin if she left with the Hound. Doomed to torture and worse if she stayed. This was the price she was paying for listening to the cursed Queen, for believing Joffrey could ever be a “golden lion.” She was a fool. And death was the forfeit of foolishness.

So many times, she wished she could just go back to those days leading up to her father’s execution and scream at herself to “Wake up, you idiot!” She wishes she could tell Joffrey to leave her alone, never speak his lies to her again. She wishes she could take back the cruel words to Arya and ask how her baby sister disappeared so well. She wishes she could take back that day her father had given her the doll, and thank him prettily for a sincere effort, instead of being such an ungrateful brat.

She crossed the room to where the doll rested on her vanity. It was a finely worked toy, made from porcelain, starched cotton and soft silk. Even the hair was real. Six years ago, she would have wept happy tears for such a present. She stroked a finger over the doll’s curved cheek, tear welling in her eyes.

Outside her window, she heard screaming, but not the cries of dying men – the petulant howls of their king in a fit. She peered down at the darkened courtyard, a mere three floors under her window, where a clutch of Kingsguard surrounded their mewling monarch. Joffrey was whining about his mother summoning him, and that his men weren’t making way through the crush of soldiers fast enough. He couldn’t even be bothered to look at the dying soldiers being dragged to the infirmary from the front. He just wanted his dearest mummy.

Sansa supposed she should be grateful that there was no blood dripping from the coward’s untested sword. So if she was forced to kiss it again, the act would only be humiliating, not repulsive.

A haggard man in a patched black robe approached Joffrey, with a small green glass pot in his hands.

Sansa recognized the substance and gasped. Wildfire? Surely, Joffrey wasn’t mad enough to use wildfire in battle! The liquid was notoriously unstable. Then again, Joffrey was screaming at the old man for bothering him with stupid questions while – a pyromancer, she supposed – clutching him by the robe and shaking him. The royal idiot was spilling the green liquid in splashes around his feet. The Kingsguard ducked out of the way to avoid it, but their bright gold armor showed the telltale emerald splashes even in the moonlight.

Sansa wished she could just toss the candle by her bedside out of the window and put King’s Landing out of its misery. But a candle would just blow out on its descent to the ground. She weighed the doll in her hands. A candle might lose its flame on its flight, but a doll, soaked in cheap perfumed oil Cersei had given her as a nameday present? That would hold a flame nicely. The perfume bottle, which its chipping gilded paint, was in her hands and uncorked within seconds. Before the plan had fully formed in her head, the doll’s dress and body were saturated with the stinking overly floral perfume. Holding the doll by its porcelain head, she pressed the cotton-stuffed hand to the candle’s flame, eyes widening as it spread over the doll like a caress. Breathing deeply, she scurried over to the window. It was right and fitting that Joffrey, who had taken her father’s head with his lies and madness, now be destroyed with a gift from Eddard Stark.

Joffrey was still there, still berating the poor necromancer for daring to question why the king wasn’t at the front of the battle. She heard his weak, high voice bellow, “I AM THE KING” as the doll dropped out of her hand and plummeted down. She could see its flames reflected in the golden armor of the king as his guard. She watched the face of Meryn Trant as he looked up, saw the ball of fire dropping from above, and the moment he realized what it meant. And she smiled, knowing that her face would be the last thing he saw.

The North Remembers.

The explosion was almost beautiful in its shifting, boiling greens. Still, Sansa knew enough to throw herself away from the window, watching as the flames roiled up past the opening for a second and then returned to earth. The screams of dying men were almost musical in her ears. She laughed as she crawled to her bed, and pulled the cloak around her body. If she told Shae such a thing, her not-a-handmaiden would tell her she was succumbing to Targaryen madness.

Wildfire could burn through stone. She’d just condemned anyone in this section of the Keep to death. And while she was sorry for it, she couldn’t summon the energy to warn anyone. Death was her forfeit, and she would gladly share this gift as many Lannister loyalists with her as she could. Other than Shae, she had no friends in the Red Keep. The court’s ladies and their guards could watch for smoke and flames as easily as anyone else. And Shae was a survivor. She’d be gone before anyone else realized there was danger.

Sansa had slain the Baratheon monster. She’d earned the right to a rest. Perhaps she would be asleep before the flames ate their way into her chamber. It wouldn’t be such a bad way to go, letting the smoke take her while she was sleeping. She wrapped her arms around her pillow, whispering, “Mother, I’m sorry. Father, I will meet you soon.”

As the screamed echoed in the courtyard outside, she let the words of her favorite hymn run through her head. “Gentle mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray…”

The sound of fists pounding on her door woke her. The chair braced against the wood rattled mightily as accented voices shouted outside. “Lady Sansa! Lady Sansa of House Stark? Are you in there?”

Sunlight was pouring through the window. Her room was intact, save for the slight staining of smoke around the window casing. She was alive and well, as far as she could tell. And she wasn't sure how she felt about it. There were men banging on her door. Stannis’s forces? Joffrey’s Kingsguard? Did they know what she’d done? Was she to be executed for regicide?

She scrambled up her bed as the door gave away ever so slightly. She leapt from the bed and sought out the only weapon in her room, a small paring knife Shae kept on her side table for peeling fruit. Hiding the blade in her stained skirts, she scurried into her wardrobe and closed the door as silently as she could. She pressed into the back of the wardrobe and made herself as small as possible. It was no easy feat with her long limbs.

Outside her hiding space, she heard the door give way. Footsteps as loud as thunder clamored into her room. She shrank back into the corner of her wardrobe. The voices outside were strange and lilting as they called her name. But she’d never traveled to Dragonstone, perhaps this was the natural accent of Stannis’s men? . They were trying to sound gentle, she noted, like her brothers when they tried to train their direwolves. They didn’t want to spook her. That didn’t exactly make her want to trust them.

“Lady Sansa, if you can hear us, please come out. We will not harm you,” a voice practically whispered.

“We’ve looked all over the Keep. Where could she have gone?” an anxious, higher voice asked.

“You don’t think she was taken by the fire, do you? It was awfully close to her chambers.”

“Her younger sister disappeared like fog the moment their father was executed. Perhaps the lady shares the talent for escape.”

“She is reported to be a sweet, biddable girl, I doubt she would have risked escape.”

The words “sweet” and “”biddable” echoed in her ears like the gravest of insults. Sweet and biddable had gotten her nowhere in this place. Her nature had only brought her heartache. She was a Stark, she was a wolf. She would let Stannis know this from the start.

Her sweaty hand slid against the paring knife as footsteps neared the wardrobe. She gripped the handle tightly and prepared to spring at whoever opened the door. She thought of Father and of Robb as they practiced their sword arms in the yard. She even thought of Arya, who’d mastered the bow in secret by the time she was eight. She was of the same blood. She could be strong.

The wardrobe door rattled and Sansa tensed her legs. The door swung wide and she let out a warrior’s scream. She sprang forward, brandishing her tiny dagger.

“Mother of fuck!” someone nearer her bed shouted as strong hands wrapped around her wrist and cradled her body as she rolled to the floor. The man under her was older, older than her father, and tanned skin and a hawkish nose. His hair was black, as was the short goatee at his chin. He didn’t seem at all angry that she’d just tried to stab him in the face. In fact, he was grinning up at her as if she’d just done something absolutely adorable.

“The Lady Sansa Stark, I presume?” he asked, his accent rolling the S’s. “Not nearly as biddable as rumor would have it.”

“I won’t let you hurt me,” she told him, hoping that she sounded somewhat bold as the other men in the room, garbed in orange silks and strange leather armor, lifted her from her compromising position. They didn’t grab at her, like the white cloaks did, she noted. They’re hands were gentle as they brought her to her feet. “Tell Lord Stannis that I am not a traitor, no matter what Cersei says, and I will not be treated as such!”

“If and when I see the Lord Stannis again, I will be sure to tell him,” the man said, still smiling as he pushed up from the floor. His armor was more ornate than the others, with bronze suns at the shoulders shot through with a red spear. It almost looked like the sigil of

“House Martell?” she said.

“The best and brightest of all houses,” the man said, pressing his hand over his heart. “Prince Doran was happy to send forces to protect our beloved capitol when we heard of Lord Stannis’s plans to revolt. We could not stand by and see the king thrown aside so easily.”

Sansa nodded slowly, her heart sinking. He was speaking of the king in the present tense. She would be summoned to the throne room at any moment. Joffrey would surely have her beaten to death for her trick with the doll.

The man – a general? - gingerly took her elbow and led her to the window. Outside, she could see the banners of House Martell, red suns against orange silk, fluttering in the breeze. Below her window, green flames still flickered feebly at the sooty remains of armor suits. She could see a melted circle of gold near the smallest set.

She’d done it. She’d killed Joffrey. The only thing keeping her anchored to earth through her joy was this man’s hand at her elbow. His skin was so warm, even through the silk of her gown, and he smelled pleasantly of spices. She wanted to curl against him like a cat. “King’s Landing is now safe for you, my lady. I promise, on my brother’s name.”

“Your brother?” Sansa asked, frowning at him.

He grinned again, his teeth white and perfect against his tanned skin. “I am being very rude. A thousand apologies, my lady. I am Prince Oberyn of House Martell. I am very pleased to meet the fabled beauty of the North.”

It took all of Sansa’s remaining strength not to faint.

Chapter Text

Prince Oberyn appeared reluctant to leave her, but insisted that he had to report to the small council that Sansa had been located. He introduced a tall, sturdy woman with the prince’s curved nose and an enormous spear as his natural daughter, Obara Sand. He promised that this hard-faced, silent woman would guard Sansa with her very life, if the queen herself came for Sansa’s blood. He pressed her hands between his own and kissed her fingertips, before sweeping from Sansa’s rooms. 

“So the queen is alive, then?” Sansa asked Obara quietly as Oberyn’s guard led her from her smoky rooms to the Maidenvault. 

Obara nodded, her expression grim. “She has been confined to her apartments for the time being, and given dreamwine. Her reaction to her son’s death was… immoderate.”

Sansa shuddered to imagine what the Dornish would consider immoderate. A thousand questions rose in her throat. Did they know that she was the one who dropped the fire on Joffrey? Were they leading her to trial for her crimes? Would the queen be allowed to choose her means of execution? But she swallowed all of them, keeping her voice as steady as her own mother’s when questioned by the wives of the Stark bannermen. 

By her figuring, Sansa had done nothing wrong. She had committed no crime. She simply corrected the balance of injury between her house and the Baratheons. She hadn't expected to live through the effort. In a way, the silly, dreamy girl Sansa had been died that night of the Blackwater. A new Sansa would have to rise from her ashes. From here out, every word, every gesture, would have to be weighed and measured for its likelihood to keep her alive. 

“Has Tommen been crowned king?” she asked quietly.

“That discussion is for another time. You have difficulty days ahead of you, Lady Stark,” Obara told her. “For now, you should rest, and that includes your tongue.”

Sansa snorted indignantly, which only made Obara smirk. The rest of the walk to the Maidenvault was very quiet. The guards led her down hallways where the Tyrell banner, a golden rose against a field of green, hung from the walls. She wanted to ask when a contingent of Tyrells had arrived, but given Obara’s reluctance to answer questions, she thought better of it. Sansa was led to a small, but beautifully appointed apartment, said to have once belonged to Elaena Targaryen herself. The bedclothes were icy blue silk, shot with silver, and the walls were painted with white flowers. She doubted that the Martells or the Lannisters had connected Joffrey’s death to her doll, considering that she was not being installed in the Black Cells. 

A flock of Dornish handmaids waited near the fire with a tub of hot water that smelled of sandalwood. Shae was not among them. Sansa wondered if her maid was still in King’s Landing or if she had found a way to escape. Sansa would miss her only friend, but she would not begrudge Shae a life away from the cruelties of court.

The maids clucked over the bloodstains on Sansa’s dress and the small burns on her hands that she’d barely felt. She’d almost forgotten about the scars on her back when they helped her out of her ill-fitting gown and heard them gasp in horror. Several spoke what could only sound like curse words in Rhoynish.

“My lady, who did this to you?” the most senior of the handmaidens – Myria – asked, her warm hand wrapping around Sansa’s wrist. 

Face flushing red, Sansa struggled to find words for the beatings the Kingsguard administered to punish her “traitor” brother, finally saying, “The people who did this are dead." 
Myria’s brow furrowed, but she nodded solemnly. “That is good.”

Myria barked out orders in Rhoynish and the other maids sprang into action. They washed Sansa’s hair and oiled it, combing it until it gleamed. They carefully cleaned the wounds on her back, coated them in a salve that felt considerably better than the one Shae used and applied soft silk bandages. Sansa was seated with her hair toward the fire with a cup of warm, spicy tea, white cheese and soft brown bread.

“You will feel more settled with a full stomach, my lady,” Myria promised her. “Now, what gown would you choose?”

The other maids displayed several gowns, beautifully sewn silks in shades of slate blue and icy gray, none of which Sansa recognized. “These aren’t mine,” Sansa told Myria. 

“A gift from the Tyrells, my lady,” she responded, without pointing out that the dresses were considerably larger than the gown she’d just worn. “They hoped a high-born girl such as yourself would appreciate some new clothes, by way of introduction.”

Sansa frowned. Nothing came free in King’s Landing. Her time at court had taught her that much. She didn’t want to think of what she might owe the Tyrells if she accepted silk gowns. At the same time, it was an even worse offense to reject a gift. She would start her relationship with the Reach’s most powerful family on a decidedly sour note. 

“The blue,” Sansa said, nodding to the dress with a higher back and longer sleeves. It would expose less of her scars than the gray. 
Myria smiled. “An excellent choice. Now, your hair. I do not like these loopy, poofy Southern styles on a girl your age.” Myria paused to pin two sections of her hair from the side of her head behind her crown. It was a Northern style, something Sansa might have worn at home. Myria smiled slyly. “Something decidedly more simple, I think.”

Between wearing her house colors and a decidedly Northern hairstyle, she would be making a statement to the court. She would no longer pretend to be a simpering Southern lady. She was a Stark. She was of the North. She was a wolf. It was time the lions remembered it, even if it resulted in her death. Sansa smiled back at the maid. “Simplicity is best.”

A short time later, Sansa was escorted to the Queens rose garden. Obara the spearwoman stayed close at her side, glaring nastily at a Lannister lady-in-waiting when she tried to approach. Sansa had decided to like Obara, whether Obara wanted it or not. 

Sansa spent so much time staring at the floor in this place, she’d almost forgotten the terrible beauty of the Red Keep. Prince Oberyn had changed out of his leathers, into a flowing orange tunic of finest silk. He lounged cat-like on a bench amongst the carefully cultivated roses.

In the distance, a girl her own age, with dark hair and flashing blue eyes, sat near a statue of Queen Daenaera with two kittens frolicking in her lap. Tommen Baratheon was doing his best to keep Fat Bob’s too large crown from slipping over his eyes, as he chatted animatedly with the girl about the cats. Two women in Tyrell green, and a heavy-set ginger-bearded lord watched over them from a nearby pavilion.

“My Lady Sansa!” Oberyn cried, a grin bending his generous lips. He took her hand and tucked it into the crook of his elbow. His voice, his carriage, was that of a courtier, but he moved like his namesake viper, deadly, graceful and efficient. A thrill of some hunger Sansa couldn’t quite name rippled up her spine. She swallowed thickly, tamping it down, and focused on the conversation ahead of her.

“You look absolutely lovely. I fear I must return the yellow and orange silks I brought to gift to you, and select something more worthy. My Ellaria said that cool winter colors would best complement the pale, perfect skin we’d heard so much about and she was right, as always. Please don’t tell her I said so, I would never hear the end of it.”

“Is the Lady Ellaria here in King’s Landing?” Sansa asked as he led her toward the bench. 

“Oh, never let her hear you call her ‘Lady,’” Oberyn chuckled. “She’s base-born and proudly so. And you will be meeting her soon enough. She kept her distance for the battle, but now that things with Lord Stannis are settled, she’ll be along any day now.”

Sansa watched the courtiers in the pavilion, who eyed her with shallow, pleasant smiles. “I look forward to meeting her.”

“As she looks forward to a close friendship with you.”

“Lord Mace Tyrell seems exceptionally happy this morning,” Sansa observed. 

“The Tyrells have every reason to be happy,” Prince Oberyn whispered as the paused to admire a burbling fountain of lions spitting water at each other. “Just recently, they were on the verge of betrothing their own Lady Margaery to King Joffrey. Tywiin Lannister sent the Littlefinger himself to arrange the match, in return for their assistance as relief troops should Stannis invade. But by the time Littlefinger arrived, I had been a guest in the Reach for days, negotiating our own terms, independent of the Lannisters. And the Tyrells found my offer to be more generous. By the time the Lannister troops rallied, the joined Martell and Tyrell forces had already repelled Stannis’s ships. And so, the unfortunate Lord Lannister rode his great white warhorse into the throne room to find King Tommen and Lady Margaery already betrothed, that we had beaten him to the position of the city’s savior, that he will get no credit, and has brokered no deal to maintain his control of the throne. For him, it has been a very bad morning indeed.”

The prince looked absolutely gleeful at the prospect of Tywin Lannister having such a morning. Suddenly, Sansa recalled a story Catelyn had told her, when trying to warn her of the dangers of court and the horrors of the war – of Elia Martell, left behind while Prince Rhaegar waged war against Robert Baratheon, left in a conquered city with no protection for her babes, raped and murdered by a Lannister bannerman with her children’s blood on his hands. How long had the prince waited to exact this revenge? How long had he planned it? 

“Margaery will have better luck with Tommen than she would have had with Joffrey,” Sansa murmured. “The Queen largely left Tommen to his own devices. He will be pleased with any attention Margaery gives him. He will not expect it, demand it, like Joffrey.”

The prince hummed in agreement, casting a sly, pleased look at Sansa. “That explains why the little boy-king was so moved by Lady Margaery’s gift of two golden kittens, that he has been persuaded to name Lord Mace his new Hand.”

“Reason for happiness, indeed. Don’t you have a niece of Lady’s Margaery’s age, that would have made an equal match for King Tommen?” Sansa asked. 

Another pleased expression crossed his face. “Do you play cyvasse, my lady? It requires strategies within strategies.”

She shook her head. “My brothers played with Father, but I was more often with my mother, who did not enjoy it.”

“I will teach you soon. Surely someone with your adaptive skills would excel at the game.”

She watched him carefully. “I’m not sure what you mean, my prince.”

He turned, so only his back was visible to the Tyrells pulled a small sooty object from inside his tunic. It was the head of her doll, or at least a fragment of it, the damaged surface of the porcelain scaled and cracked. Her heart plummeted into her stomach. Air rushed out of her lungs and she struggled to draw it back again. Her eyes darted up to Oberyn’s face, his impassive, maddeningly neutral face.

“I realize that you may not have been told how King Joffrey, gods rest his soul, died in battle. He and his Kingsguard were the unfortunate victims of a wildfire mishap. A pot of the notoriously unstable substance spilled at his feet and somehow, a spark caught it.There were nothing but ruined armor left. Ruined armor, and this fragment. I found it amongst the remains this morning. An odd object to find near experienced soldiers and a king, don’t you agree? It’s something that might be treasured by a young girl, far from home. It couldn’t have belonged to them. It must have dropped out of a nearby window.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” she murmured.

“I can’t help but notice that the king met his end directly under your chamber,” Oberyn said.

She raised her eyes to meet his, her voice steady and cold. “The Keep is a large place, Prince Oberyn. This mishap might have befallen the King anywhere in the castle. It would be difficult to keep count of any one person’s exact location, especially in the heat of battle. In fact, you would be hard pressed to know where I was any given point throughout the night. Many women saw me in Maegor’s Holdfast, praying and singing hymns with the other ladies of the court. Some of the soldiers can attest to seeing me in the hallway, speaking to my handmaiden. It’s all such a muddle, nothing can be known for certain.”

Oberyn grinned widely and pressed the fragment into her palm. “Precisely.”

"Besides, it's hardly a crime to throw a doll from a window. What harm could it do?." Sansa slid the piece into her pocket, eying the prince warily. Was he threatening her? But he’d just given her the fragment, losing what little evidence he had. Trying to establish power over her? She’d felt that from Littlefinger so many times, but the Prince’s eyes didn’t share that same smug leer of Petyr Baelish. He simply seemed… interested? Amused?

“Young girls with soft, kind hearts do not fare well in this court, Lady Sansa. My maids have informed me of the wounds to your back. I assume that they were a parting gift from the King, at the end of your betrothal?"

"From his Kingsguard, on his orders," Sansa told him, staring deep into his dark eyes.

"Then I will not mourn his lost white cloaks, either. I am glad to see that you have grasped how to survive in this place, without losing your innocence. I will endeavor to do all I can to further that survival, to protect you however I can. You will have nothing to fear from me, only friendship. Should you ever find yourself in a position where you need help in such a matter, please come to me so we might find more… elegant solutions.”

She nodded. “I will consider it.”

“Excellent! It is important, I think, for us to be on equal footing as we begin our friendship,” he said, taking her arm and walking toward the Tyrell tent. “In the mean time, you should write to your mother as soon as it pleases you. I understand that under the Queen’s supervision, you were allowed no contact with your family.”

“The Queen would be very displeased to find I’ve written my mother when she emerges from her… mourning,” Sansa said, eying Oberyn’s face carefully. “As a ward of the crown, it would not be wise for me to disobey her.”

Oberyn positively beamed at her. “I believe the Queen will emerge from her apartments to find the Red Keep running very differently. And by that time, there will be little she can do to change it.”

Sansa grinned.

“Now! Let me have the pleasure of introducing you to the newly named Hand of the King, Lord Mace Tyrell. Lord Mace, it’s high time you meet Sansa Stark, the most beautiful face in the North.”

Sansa curtsied. “Lord Hand, thank you so much for your gift. I’ve never worn such fine silks.”

“A trifle, my lady. But please, let me introduce you to my daughter, Lady Margaery. Having spent so much time at the Keep, you might help my sweet, shy rose adapt to life here. A lady at court can use all of the friends she can get.”

Oberyn’s brows rose and Sansa answered. “I would be pleased to meet her.”

“Strategies within strategies, lemon blossom,” Oberyn murmured to Sansa as they crossed the garden. “Strategies within strategies.”