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Like winter we are cruel

Chapter Text

"How many more?" Sansa asks, watching the shadows file into the courtyard.

They drag their heavy feet through the muddy snow, villagers and farmers and hedge knights, the family of lords and of paupers alike. The men and women are nearly indistinguishable, burrowed as they are in their warm winter clothes. Sometimes, the head of a child emerges from the folds of a cape. All of them look haggard and weary, a succession of haunted faces in the light of the torches.

"Forty-eight", Davos replies, counting the heads as they come in. "We can relocate them with the groups from last night, in the Great Keep. They'll be warm, at least..."

"Are they from the winter town?"

Davos shakes his head. "Further up north. There's a rumour Last Hearth has been abandoned. We won't know for sure until the King returns."

If he does return, Sansa thinks, though she has learned not to say such things out loud. More often than not, people think her cold, when to her this pragmatism is a strength - a sign of her will to endure.

"No word from Jon yet?"

"Not yet, my lady. Should I accompany this group to the Great Keep?"

From the onset of this cold, dark war, Sansa has felt that it was her duty to welcome the populations of her homeland. They come with little to nothing in the way of belongings or friends, chased away from their villages and castles by the army of the Night's King. During the first few nights, Sansa tried to oversee the resettlement of every single northerner within the walls of Winterfell. Eventually, however, the task proved more daunting than she would have thought. It's a lord refusing to share a room with a trader, or with some other lord who isn't from his immediate circle. It's a village put to the torch by the remnants of the Lannister armies, or girls hurt during a raid led by deserters from Jon's army. Every day, Sansa tries to feed and clothe hundreds, and to give them a semblance of hope. It's a thankless task for a hopeless girl.

At night, she insists on spending several hours walking the castle halls, asking the names of Jon's subjects, trying to learn their stories and to provide comfort where she can. But she has learned to delegate, and Davos and Lyanna Mormont spend as much time in Jon's war councils as they do giving out bedding and supplies. As for the complaints, Sansa has refused to listen to them outside of a single night during the week, where she passes judgment in the Great Hall.

"Make sure they have something to eat," Sansa tells Davos, gauging the vacant looks and spiritless gait of the new arrivals. "I'll send some of the knights to replenish our stores in the morning."

As she walks away from the sinister crowd, feeling their despair like poison on the wind, she can't help but look towards the east. The dawn is still hours away, but she has a stubborn streak. The dawn is Jon in the grey light, the North's diminished troops trudging through the gates and that one soldier who bears the torn direwolf standard. She repairs the banner herself every time the troops return, only to see it return in pieces after the next battle.

The army doesn't come home every morning. Though Jon's first priority is to defend Winterfell, there are other castles that need his protection, engaged as they are in a losing battle against the Night's King. And there are villages, too, where the people were far too preoccupied with the coming of winter to prepare for an assault. Sometimes, it's two or three days before she receives any kind of news.

She's hardened herself. The wait is no longer this steady pain, like a hook driven through her heart, agitated by a cruel hand. Slowly, inch by inch and with every moment she spends alone, she turns herself into a cold shell. It's harder when Jon returns, and with him the secretive smiles, and a blinding glimpse of the old summer.

She heads towards the Godswood, where every night an old man holds a vigil by the heart tree. He'd arrived in Winterfell the day after the Wall fell, and on the following night his sons had all been given swords and mail and he had set up his vigil, praying the Old Gods in their name. At first he prayed for their swift return. Now Sansa knows he's praying for a true and lasting death, one that will not have them rise and battle against their own brothers with a stone-cold heart and blue-eyed malice.

Still people join him in the Godswood at night, because they can't sleep for fear of the wights breaching the castle walls, because they have lost a son or a brother or a lover or because they fear that they will soon. They stand so utterly still beneath the trees that from afar they seem to be a man-made structure of standing stones, betrayed only by the foggy vapour of their icy breath.

Sansa is no more faithful than she was in King's Landing, when she retreated to the Godswood to find some peace of mind. She doesn't come to the Godswood to pray, though she sometimes spends the vigil wondering what she should pray for.

It's no use praying for an impossible victory, or for the sudden arrival of the Dragon queen. She won't beg for the death of Daenerys Targaryen, either, or for
Petyr Baelish to lift the crown from the dead queen's head, and place it on her own.

She won't pray for Jon, the battle-bloody king who has no fear of defeat because he already knows what dying feels like. He can't hide how much he longs for it, a repeat of this first demise, and it's this desire for death that has him riding against the White Walkers each night.

She won't pray for him, and she won't pray for Arya and Bran. She might not be as resigned as she was when she heard Rickon had fallen into Ramsay's hands, but she bears no illusions as to their chances of survival, with winter and the wights upon them.

No, the Godswood is a shelter for her thoughts, and the vigil a moment of political play, when she shows to the people gathered there that she is the ruler they need, as steadfast as the Old Gods and the heart tree.

"You're an unforgettable vision," Petyr had said only the night before, and as she joins the people gathered beneath the tree, she's tempted to believe him. They turn towards her as if she were bringing the light into their circle, and many brush their fingers against her arms as she walks to the foot of the tree, as if that touch will give them strength.

On most nights, the vigil is silent. Tonight however, an elderly woman is humming a tune, and the others listen, with their heads bowed and their eyes closed. Sansa catches a glimpse of Petyr in the crowd. He started coming a day or two after she made it a habit to attend, though she is well aware that he has other affairs to tend to. She's heard of the itinerant brothel that he's set up within the castle. He found prostitutes first, and then he'd recruited village girls, too. It is a thriving business, especially in the daytime, when the troops march in to get a few hours of rest. Petyr hasn't asked her for her opinion on the subject, and it's possible he thinks she doesn't know. This might explain why he makes such a secret of the whole endeavour - the girls change rooms every day, and the only way to get access to them is to bribe the right maidservant, a young woman who might be sleeping with Petyr. Sansa doesn't have any clear reason to suspect the latter. But the girl is pretty, with red hair and eyes like the night sky, of a blue one could drown into.

During the vigils, Petyr stands at a distance, but his eyes never stray from Sansa's face. It's a gaze like an insect crawling up one's leg, a phantom itch. Tonight like every other night, she gathers her cloak around her and closes her eyes, though it takes a while for his face to disappear. The cunning look goes first, and then the sliver of a smile, though it leaves behind a mocking indent in her thoughts, like a warning that they're not hers to keep.

She meant to make use of the vigil to ponder the provision run - how many of the knights of the Vale will be sent out during the day time, and what they should set out to find, and where. But she finds her mind to be an idle thing, fluttering this way and that without committing to a single train of thought.

As often, she remembers the battle of Blackwater Bay, and the long wait with the women of the Court, while the men fought Stannis's fleet. It's a dreaded memory, but also one that she cherishes. Cersei had been in the Keep that night, but only one of them had behaved like a queen.

This memory reels in another, which snags against her calm facade and threatens to tear it apart. It's Cersei on the day she'd first bled, telling her in a rare display of compassion that love is always a weakness.

And as she stands beneath the heart tree, love is an evening in the Godswood, when the Wall was still standing and she'd fallen asleep beneath the tree. She'd dreamt of blue roses and ice. The smell of smoke was everywhere, but she'd buried her face in Ghost's fur, and later on, in what was no longer a dream but a strange, vibrant wakefulness, she'd kissed Jon beneath the walls of Winterfell. And the weakness had grown inside her, like a disease, as she tried to cling to the one thing that she'll never be allowed to keep.

Sansa opens her eyes, and realizes that the people in the Godswood are heading back. Those who bear lanterns point their trembling lights in the direction of the Great Keep. Soon there remains but a few people - the old lady who sang, and a woman crying and a man snoring softly among the roots of a gnarled tree. Even those are made to leave when the old woman notices Sansa beneath the tree, and Petyr who lingers among the shadows. She kicks the man awake and clasps the woman's hand, and before long it's only Petyr and Sansa, and a distant rumble that could be the sound of a battle, carried along the wind.

"How are you, my dear?"

He doesn't move. Maybe he's waiting for her to bridge the distance between them. Instead Sansa sits, gathering the folds of her cape as she settles among the roots of the heart tree.

"We need more food," she tells him. "We can barely put a roof over the head of all the people flocking to Winterfell. Our stores won't last the winter -- they won't even last a week. Send out some of your knights tomorrow. Have them visit every abandoned village they can find, tell them to return by sundown. Before sundown."

Petyr steps forward at last. He comes to sit beside her, his arms crossed over his knees. She resists a silly impulse to lean against his shoulder.

"A wise decision," he notes. "See, I told you that sending our knights to fight with your half-brother would have been a bad idea. At least, now you have men to provide for you and your people."

"I'm not an idiot," she warns him. "I know you're trying to turn us against each other. Or at least, to turn me against him. Jon would never..."

"Betray you?" Petyr laughs, a sharp caw. "Didn't he do so, already, when he took the crown that should have been yours by right?"

"It wouldn't have been mine," she says. She's given this some thought, time and again over the past few days. "Bran is the legitimate heir."

"A cripple." Petyr holds up a hand, sensing an imminent protest. "Your brother Bran might have made a wonderful king, but it doesn't matter. Right now, Westeros needs a ruler who isn't... diminished."

"Westeros has such a ruler," she reminds him. "And we have our own, and he's as strong and wise as we could have hoped."

"Do you hear yourself?" Petyr laughs. "I could easily picture myself in King's Landing, listening to you defending your intended, our dear Joffrey Baratheon. Strong and wise, indeed. Jon... Our king is losing this war, and you know it. We need to prepare a contingency plan."

"I will not leave Winterfell," she warns. The image shoots through her like an arrow, of empty halls and burning banners, a castle reduced to fallen timbers and mounds of snow.

"If... When your king dies. I'll ride back to the Eyrie with the knights of the Vale. You should ride with us. It isn't abandoning your people, when your people chose a bastard as their ruler, over a beautiful and fearsome queen."

"Beauty doesn't win wars."

"Doesn't it?" he muses. "Did it not send your half-brother charging after Ramsay Bolton, did it not summon the knights of the Vale?"

Before she has time to retort, a rising clamour has her scrambling to her feet. Horns, the beating of hooves, and the screeching of the East Gate. She tilts her head back, catches a glimpse of pale blue dawn between the treetops.

Suddenly, her annoyance with Petyr transforms into gratitude, that his talk of treason should have distracted her from the long night.

"You look like a rabbit, ready to flee," he says, amused. "Off you run, then! Run to your king. Remember me when he complains about the war that he's losing."

"You wouldn't do any better in his place," she says, lingering despite an urgent need to bolt towards the castle.

"I'd never have let myself be put in his position. A king can fight a war from the rear-guard. No ruler in their right mind would ride ahead of their army."

"What does it matter," she snaps, throwing caution to the winds. "He can be foolish and brave. He has me to watch his back."

"He doesn't need someone to watch his back -- he needs a shield, stronger than even you can provide, my dear. Stronger than his will to die."

"That's enough," she warns.

She strides off before he can say anything else, and further corrupt the relief she felt upon hearing the returning army.



Winterfell has never been so crowded as it is now that the war has begun.

The castle seems to overflow with soldiers whenever the army gets ready to depart, and it's even worse when it returns, and a good portion of the troops walk through the gates, investing the courtyards and the keeps. Finding anyone among this roiling wave of horses and men is a hopeless endeavour. The soldiers' faces blur before Sansa's eyes, until all she can see is a chaos of mud and ash and blood and sleet.

She finds Brienne first, standing outside the armoury, with her fair hair plastered to her forehead and her sword still dangling from her hand, the blade shining in the morning light. Brienne bows her head in recognition. As Sansa makes to join her, she feels a familiar shape collide with her legs, wet fur and heavy muscle wrapping around her skirts.

Ghost is covered in soot, his coat greyer than white. The red eyes have never looked so much like embers, burrowed beneath these ashes. Sansa grips the fur at the back of the direwolf's head and follows Ghost into the fray, weaving her way through soldiers and knights and northerners and wildlings. Most of the men and women don't notice her, too preoccupied with the thought of a pallet, of a warm broth and a pitcher of ale. She just has to let Ghost shove them aside, and to follow in his tracks.

When they finally come upon Jon, Sansa is given a moment to watch him unnoticed, the hair gathered at the nape and the sturdy shoulders, the posture that can't quite decide if it means to be diffident or assertive. He's talking to Tormund, but when he sees her approach Tormund jolts Jon's shoulder, an amicable nudge that nearly sends the King to the ground. Jon totters on weary legs, attempts to latch onto Tormund for support and finds Sansa already there, her arms wrapped tight around his middle, her face buried in his neck. She can't help but crinkle her nose at the smell, but she wouldn't let go, not if the entire army of the Night's King threatened to run her through.

She has no thought of weakness in this moment. There's only Jon, and the startled sound he makes when she embraces him, and the whisper of her name on his tongue. There's so much relief in that whisper she could nearly hit him. If this is what he wanted, he could have had it a long time ago.

For he has been keeping his distances since the beginning of the war -- this is the first time she's touched him in weeks. At least he doesn't draw back. Beneath the blood and sweat, he smells like the winter beyond Winterfell, and like the scorched fields where they try to burn the bodies of the dead in the heat of battle, before they get a chance to rise again as wights.

"Your majesty? Food has been served for the troops in the Great Hall. The camps around Winterfell are..."

"Not now," Jon says, with enough desperation to give her pause. But there is no looking at his face, not with his hand heavy on the back of her head, or his lips on her neck. She'd lose her head to these soft, forgetful kisses and to the rough graze of his beard along her jaw.

She'd only need to turn her head to meet his mouth.

Jon seizes her face between both hands, his gloves leaving muddy imprints on her cheeks.

"Did you even sleep?" he asks, his thumbs tracing the purplish remnants of the long night.

"I can now," she says. "A few hours maybe? Let's go find you food, first."

Cries and whispers follow them to the hall, most of them congratulatory, although Sansa can tell from Jon's face there is little to congratulate him about. He won't let go of her, biting off a glove to hold her hand and then her waist, and then sitting her by his side in the hall. They look like conspiring children, huddled over his broth with their arms around each other and their heads pulled close.

Jon eats as if he hadn't eaten for days, with big bites of bread and a splattering of soup, like a soldier or a wildling, not like a king. But when he speaks, his words have the weight of his usual silences.

"We won't last another night."

This pronouncement is for her ears alone, and she mulls it over until he's done eating, certain as she is that there's something on his mind, and that when he decides to share it, she'll have to be ready.



There is to be a meeting of the King and his advisors, though it will happen later in the morning, after the various parties involved have had a few hours' worth of sleep. Sansa walks Jon to his room. The last time he rode back from a battle, he'd patted her shoulder once before listening in grave silence to her talk of razed villages and dwindling resources. They'd parted long before reaching his chambers. She can't fail but notice how he holds her arm now, and how he doesn't try to send her away, even as they reach his door.

Her earlier relief has vanished. All she can feel now is wariness, so instinctive it's nearly painful. She's guessed his intentions long before they sit down in front of his fireplace and he begins to speak.

"You should leave," he says. She can read in his posture the impulse to recline, and the effort it takes to resist it, as he leans towards her and takes her hand. "Go south. Go to the Eyrie. Keep writing to Daenerys Targaryen - send some of your knights to her, maybe a few soldiers... Send Davos and Lyanna. At the Eyrie, you can hold on a while longer, even if..."

"Jon. I'm not leaving."

"Sansa, we're losing. We can't go on like this, burning our own lands, burning our own men. There's a new wight for every wight we kill. We have two swords of Valyrian steel, a handful of daggers... When I think of the dragonglass we lost at Hardhome... I'm just sending men to their deaths. And condemning them to being killed twice over. It's a hard bargain when you know you've got a chance, but we haven't got one. You have to leave - I need you to leave."

"Littlefinger said the same thing."

She doesn't know what she expected with this remark - to annoy him, maybe? But he looks as sad as ever. He was probably frowning when he came out of the womb, she reflects, a little king in the making, burdened from birth with the fate of others, of a whole world that he knew nothing about, but would die to protect.

"I'll never trust him, but on this matter he's right," Jon says. "Follow him to the Eyrie - take some of my men, not just the knights of the Vale. Take Brienne. And when the day comes, there'll be Valyrian steel between you and the White Walkers."

She looks at him with wide, guileless eyes, though her mind is working fast. "You're saying I won't see you again. When you march out..."


"Tonight?" she exclaims. "But you only just came home!"

"If we don't ride out tonight, they'll reach the Long Lake. And then it's a straight path to Winterfell - we don't know the extent of the wards that protect the castle. We lost Last Hearth last night, and all the villages north of the Last River fell in the nights before that. All we've been doing is delay them."

He sighs, rubs his eyes. Even in the light of the fire, he seems dreadfully pale.

"I'm the king of winter and ruin," he says, with a dispirited smile. "All hail."

Sansa is silent, already weighing the words of the next message she'll send south. Tyrion said they would help and send troops, but that was weeks ago, and no word has come since then, to confirm the departure of these troops, or the number of soldiers, or the nature of their weapons. Following Jon's instructions, Sansa wrote time and again about the dragonglass, but Tyrion made no mention of it in his letter. Neither did Theon, who promised to plead her case with the
Queen, but who also reminded her that he'll consider himself banished from the North as long as Jon is alive.

"What are you thinking about?" Jon's sad smile changes, becomes the strange startled smile that's hers alone. "I can tell you're planning something."

"I'm thinking of the Eyrie," she lies. "Of my cousin. Here's another marriage option we should be thinking about."

"Me and Robin?" Jon says.

She's so unused to him being anything but grim that for a moment, she can only stare.

"I'm sorry," Jon sighs, the smile falling from his face. "I don't know where that came from. Exhaustion brings out the worst in me."

"I don't think you two would be well-matched," Sansa says, hesitantly. Starks trying to joke - the thought is absurd. She has a vision of two fawns trying to walk, unfolding their slender legs and then tumbling back down amidst the ferns of the forest. "Robin can be... Capricious. You wouldn't have the patience."

"You can be capricious, too," Jon says.

"Are you saying we'd be well-matched?"

They smile at each other. For a tenuous moment, the war and the wights and the long nights of fighting and waiting recede, and it's only the warmth of the fire on their hands, and some fragment of their childhood, recaptured and made golden in the early morning light.

"Will you leave, then?" Jon asks, not one to enjoy happiness when there's despair to mull over.

"If I agree to leave, and you think you're about to die... You could at least give me something to remember you by."

Jon has a little huff of self-deprecation.

"I walked right into this one, didn't I?"

And though she wanted to believe she had no heart left to break, that wry tone is like a dagger through her chest. She nearly feels guilty for the deception she's about to commit.

"What do you want?" he asks. "If it's in my power, you can have it."

"Your honour," she says. "That's what I want."

She can see him hesitating, but it's a decision he'd made before she gave her answer, and he's not one to renege on a promise. With a sound of leather sliding against leather he's at her feet, his hands curving around her waist. Sansa goes willingly, edges towards the edge of the chair and leans down to kiss his brow and then his mouth. It's nothing like the quick, impulsive kiss she dealt him in the courtyard, trying to prove a point. It's nothing like Petyr's commandeering kisses, either -- an offer hiding a demand hiding a claim. This time she's tried to think this through, only to realize that she has no idea what she's doing, that it's one thing to ensnare a wolf and another to deal the killing blow. She's too nervous at first, risking only a mere brush of the lips, finding his mouth pliant under hers. His beard scratches her chin, and there's that smell again, of sweat and snow and burning things.

Jon draws back slightly, giving her a considering look. It's in his nature that he wants with caution, and gives before he takes. He's thrumming with energy all the same, and the hand on her waist trembles. It could be the aftershock of the battle. His actions are governed by exhaustion, laced with desperation. She can't tell if he'll kiss her again, or fall dead at her feet.

"I wish I could keep you here," she whispers. "We would never leave Winterfell. We would never leave this room."

And to think how much it had mattered, when he had given her their father's chambers. Now she'd gladly stay in this much smaller room, with the draughty window and the perpetual musty smell, if only he would let her hold him in his sleep.

"I can't give you that," he says.

"I know."

He reaches for her hands, holds them between calloused fingers.

"Here's your parting gift," he whispers.

Like he would tell her about some rare creature, the softness of his voice in itself a warning -- don't scare it off, blink and you'll miss it.

Then he leans over their clasped hands, and kisses her.

Sansa forgets to breathe, holds onto his hands and wonders if she knows him, more than as a memory -- if truly she knows him at all. There'd been snow in him when he was a boy, and in the man she's often felt ice, straightening his spine and guiding his sword. But there's no coldness in that kiss. It feels like the fire in the hearth has taken root inside them both. She can feel it roaring inside her and she can sense it on his tongue. It's the warmth in his voice whenever he talks to her, now slipping through her teeth, and kindled to a blaze.

Before she knows it she's letting herself slide off the chair, fingers grasping at his belt for support, trying to get as close as she can. Without meaning to, in the ensuing shuffle of bodies coming together and hands getting tangled in hair, she bites his lip and he groans, deep in his throat. So she goes and bites him again, harshly this time, just for the headiness of that choked-off sound.

"Are you satisfied?" he mumbles, nuzzling her nose.

The tenderness of the gesture causes her eyes to snap open. The guilt she'd cast aside with disdain returns to torment her, until she can do nothing but speak, her hand twitching inside his.

"I lied. I lied, Jon."

He pulls back, just enough to get a good look at her. In a gesture she's coming to love and fear, he frames her face between his hands, and peers into her eyes.
"About what?"

"I'm not leaving. I can't." She takes a steadying breath. When she speaks again, her voice is strong and sharp, a steely point sliding between his ribs, searching for his heart. "You will survive this night," she tells him. "And the one after this one, and the one after that. Because you'll know that I'm in Winterfell, and that you can't allow the castle to fall."

"You tricked me," Jon says. He sounds genuinely hurt. "Is this what you want?" he asks. "For us to maybe get a few more nights, and then we both die? And why would you lie? Just for a kiss? That's a cruel and childish game you're playing."

"I want us both to live," she tells him. "Look at me, Jon. Look at me. You have to stop avoiding me, you have to stop denying yourself. We could have a home here, and if the war ends, then you can ignore me, if that's what you want. But not now. I'll get you your dragons and your dragonglass. But you have to hold on. Make me the reason you hold on."

"You have no idea what you're asking," he sighs, and rises to his feet.

He walks away from the hearth and in silence, he begins to undress. She watches as the belt and scabbard fall to the ground, soon joined by the many pieces of his armour. It's not until his shirt is hanging loose, the collar open onto a frustrating sliver of pale skin, that he looks up, and finds her still sitting on the floor, surrounded by the crumpled folds of her direwolf dress.

"I'll sleep until the meeting. Have them feed Ghost if they can find him."

Sansa scrambles to her feet, her face aflame, with the memory of his mouth like poison on her tongue. She shuts the door behind her and leans against it, trying to make sense of her thoughts. It was a mistake to think that she could control this. Whatever giddiness she felt has been supplanted by worry and want. It'll never be enough now - she must have him, as a king or as a bastard or as a dead man walking. The mere thought of him leaving again makes her weak in the knees.

"Is he a wolf in bed, too?"

Sansa glances up sharply. Petyr rounds the corner, advancing on her with that oddly graceful gait that he has, as light on the paved floor as it would be in the snow.

"Don't," she says, stepping away from Jon's door.

"I'm just repeating what they say," Petyr shrugs, the sharp curve of his smile slightly mellowed by the pale light of dawn.

"The clients of your brothel?" she asks, arching an unimpressed eyebrow.

"The people of Winterfell," he corrects. "Some are loyal to your family. Others regret the Boltons. On both sides, there are people saying that you bed wolves. It just made me... curious. About the mating habits of wolves, and of dead men."

"Sometimes, you seem to forget that I'm a wolf, too."

"Do I? It seems to me you're the forgetful one, my dear. Or do wolves mate with their own kin? Unless you two are Targaryens, and I wasn't aware of the fact."


She glances back at Jon's door. There's no doubt that he's sleeping behind it, rather than listening in to their conversation. She can picture it easily - the tense set of his shoulders, even in sleep, and the disorder of his hair on the pillow. But it feels wrong, nonetheless, to be talking about him a few feet away from his bed.

"I meant to talk to you," she says. "I'm not leaving for the Eyrie."

"You're not?"

She has to give this to him -- he may be caustic at times, but he never condemns her actions outright.

"I'm not. But you are, and not for the Eyrie. I want you to go south, to seek out Daenerys Targaryen and bring back an army."

"You seem to believe that I'd do this," Petyr says. "I wonder why."

It seems so simple to her. Petyr wants her and Jon loves her and the both of them would move mountains - armies - kingdoms, for her sake alone.

And Petyr would sell her to further his goals, too, but at this point, that's just another thing she can use to stir him.

"I know what you want," she reminds him. "This vision of yours won't come true if we hide in the Vale. You need to fight for this kingdom -- you need to fight for me. I know you win your battles with words. So I want you to talk to Daenerys Stormborn."

She makes to leave, knowing what his answer will be. She hears him when she's halfway down the corridor, like a soft exhale on the back of her neck.

"Of course, my queen."

An involuntary shiver of pleasure causes her to quicken her step. There is no telling if the title was meant as a term of endearment, or as a promise. Perhaps it was both.



The army departs at nightfall. Though the troops have had little time to rest, most of the soldiers were able to eat and drink. The food will keep them
standing. The alcohol, meanwhile, will keep them walking in the right direction - it would be all too simple for these men to turn and flee a battlefield where they know they might be killed, or, worse, turned into a wight. So a good portion of the army is drunk, and restless, and loud.

With such a crowd standing between her and Jon, a farewell is out of the question - even as she stays clear of the troops mustered near the main gates, she overhears lewd comments, and one of the men tries to grab a hold of her waist. This causes Brienne to slam the pommel of her sword into the man's helmet, hard enough that his knees crumple. Brienne lifts him by one of his leather straps and plants him back on his feet.

"We can't afford to waste any men," she tells him. "Otherwise I'd have broken your wrist. Apologize to my lady."

Sansa gets her apology, but it doesn't mean much, swallowed as it is by the surrounding cacophony of boots and hooves and the drunken fragments of song and the clanging of suits of armour. The troops exit the courtyard to swell the ranks of the soldiers who have spent the day camping beyond the walls of the castle. Sansa climbs to the battlements, where she is soon joined by Lyanna Mormont. Together they watch the army leave.

"There were more this morning," Lyanna muses. Her eyes barely reach the top of the wall.

"Did they run south, you think?" Sansa asks. The Lady Mormont unsettles her, with her sharpness so like a hawk's, in a tilt of the head and a considering slant of the eyes. Sansa's wariness is tinged with outright distrust - she has yet to forgive Lyanna for naming Jon her king when she was standing right there.

"If you checked the pantry, you'd find a few soldiers there, gorging on our supplies. Could we trust one of these knights of yours to watch the granaries?"

"I'll send one," Sansa says. She has one in mind, a sturdy-looking man whom she'd once seen with Brienne and Tormund, engaged in a lively exchange about swords and bears. Anyone who can get along with them both, she figures, must be in equal parts honourable, and valuable in a fight.

"You should sleep," Lyanna says. "You look dreadful. I'll do your rounds tonight. Comfort your subjects, and whatever it is that you usually do."

Sansa has a hard time picturing Lyanna comforting anyone, especially the downtrodden population of the castle. But she nods, murmurs her thanks, and heads slowly back towards the main courtyard, already thinking of heavy furs and downy pillows.

"There's people approaching the gate, my lady!"

Davos hastens towards her across the courtyard. Sansa halts in her tracks. Briefly she staggers, her exhaustion draping over her like a blanket. The muddy snow blurs before her eyes. Davos is instantly at her side, catching a hold of her arm to steady her.

"I apologize," he says. "I'll take care of this."

"How many?" Sansa asks. Now that she has noticed the extent of her fatigue, she has the impression of moving through high banks of snow. She thinks back to the icy river, and of Theon seizing her arm. Onwards, always onwards, to Jon and to safety.

"Only two," Davos says. "One of them is unable to walk."

Sansa's blood begins to pound in her ears. She speaks before she has had time to weigh her decision, spurred on by some foolish hope.

"Open the gates."

For a brief moment, she understands Jon, riding alone towards an army of thousands in the hope of saving at least one member of their doomed family.

And yet, for the second time that day, her foolishness is rewarded, for it is indeed Bran who comes through the gates. He looks older, and so much like Arya and her father, with his rigorous northern features and his dark hair, that she stumbles in her haste to get to the makeshift sledge, and ends her course on her knees, her arms thrown around his neck.

"We had to wait beyond the Wall, or Bran would have drawn them across."

It's a girl speaking, tall and stern, but very young, too, with a remnant of summer quivering at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

"When the Wall fell, we started going south," the girl goes on. "We meant to avoid the castle, but we saw the Stark banners... We don't want to draw them to you, but if you can give us a few supplies, we'll be on our way."

"I thought you were dead," Sansa mumbles against Bran's hair, feeling his arms tighten around her neck.

"You can't be thinking of leaving again," Davos says. "Come inside. We'll get you warm. And you must be starving. Have you been on the road since the Wall fell?"

"Not the road," the girl says. "We had a horse for a while, but we lost it near the lake..."

Reluctantly, she agrees to follow Davos towards the Great Keep, though she stops every few steps to look back at Bran, as if she can't stand to leave him out of her sight.

Apart from Sansa and Bran, the courtyard is nearly empty.

"I saw the army leave," Bran says. "I saw Ghost."

It's the first words he's spoken since the beginning of the war.

They look at each other. Something passes between them - the shadow of dead direwolves, the ghost of a burning house.

"You're home," Sansa tells him.

And she means it, though a part of her can't help but wonder what this return will mean. She remembers her protest, earlier that day. Bran is the legitimate heir.

She embraces him once more, willing these confused thoughts to subside, and eager to hide herself from her brother's eyes. Bran had always seemed wiser than his years, but now his otherworldly gaze seems to hint at darker things. Change and loss and unwanted truths. Even if it's only for a moment, Sansa means to hold onto Bran like he's a piece of the past, and not some ill omen for the future. So she tightens her hold, and tries to ignore how fragile they sound, with their quickened breaths like frightened animals.

"You're safe," she whispers, because for a moment at least, it's the truth. "We're home."