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A Dance of Shadows

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When had the snow stopped falling? She wondered. Beyond the window, where her gaze had wandered, spring seemed to take possession of the land. She remembered her beginning, as a little girl full of dreams, the green grass that always seemed so dull compared to what she could imagine, the houses that were always so small, so rustic, and their walls grey from smoke and dust. And the people, austere and quiet, with few smiles, when her mind wanted colors, vibration and euphoria.

But spring was not in her heart this morning. And the color of the grass was now much less shiny than what it had been, and the houses now were immaculate due to their recent repair. The people were now hers, more than she ever thought it was possible. Yesterday, that comparison would have offended her, but now she felt it. She felt the ice in her veins, just as them, just as the cold wind that were straying in such a quiet morning.

Where did the North and her end, exactly? She wasn’t quite sure anymore. She was the North, and the North was her. When it suffered, she could feel it as if it was her own wound. Of her body, she couldn’t really feel anything now. Hunger perhaps. Anger too. But no pleasure. No, it wasn’t for her anymore. She could still feel unwanted touches on her skin, unwanted presence behind her, tormenting her, ordering her again and again to break.

But not again. No, she would not break this time. Her skin has changed from porcelain, to ivory, to steel. And even her tormenter had doubted it. He shouldn’t have underestimated her. His loss, her win.

‘Your Grace?”

Sansa blinked and turned her head away from the window, towards the man that interrupted her thoughts. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew his face. A warrior, ill-suited for his task as a messenger. From the emblem, he must be from House Hornwood. Righteous at wrath.

Seven gods, she did not fear his wrath. Where was his lord?

“I beg your pardon, your Grace,” he said. “We c-come here today to ask for… prot… protection. As I said, there’s been people who… slaughtered… at the village of Pealsnow and…”

She interrupted him.

“Who?”

He lowered his head, as if frightened.

Was she that terrifying? She wondered.

He bowed, looked around at the men around him, and seemed to find some courage, finally.

“Wildlings, men said, your Grace. There’s unrest in the villages. People fighting over chicken and crops, and babes being stolen in the night.”

His speech was followed with quiet but firm “Aye”, and nodding.

She was tempted to laugh.

“Wildlings, you say?” She wondered. “Are you entirely sure of yourself? They are children of Winter, they don’t like the life on this side of the Wall. They all decided to move out as soon as the Great War ended. You’ve seen them as much as I did.”

He seemed a bit ill-at-ease.

“Well, I… I did, such as you. B-but…”

“Do you have any proof of what you said?”

The Hornwood man shook his head nervously. She almost thought he would piss on himself if she would continue staring at him.

“No? That’s disappointing. Then I will ask you, ser, to bring me one, in the name of your lord.”

“Your Grace, I… I will. B-but… we hadn’t thought… We thought… Well, now it’s done…”

Could he be any less articulate? Sansa bit back a remark. She was supposed to be good, to make them talk. She sighed instead.

“We thank you for your information, ser. I dare hope your lord would join us soon for the festivities next week”

He seemed to shrink a little.

“He… did not survive, your Grace. Me and my men… we are the survivors of the attack. We couldn’t… We had to flee, if we stayed… ”

She raised one of her eyebrows.

“So you let him be slaughtered?” She raised her voice, cold as snow. “You broke your vow to protect your given lord?”

He shook, looked around him for support, and continued, with more precipitation.

“But… there were no chances… You have to understand, your Grace, we were outnumbered.”

“And I believe you remember, ser, that you swore your life to protect your lord, and that your desertion means that this oath was broken. Plus, you come here, asking for protection, when you hadn’t even stayed for your lord. And my men said that you stole pigs and threatened their owners in one of our nearby farms. My lord Cerwyn”, she asked, turning to the lord in question. “It seems that I have trouble to remember. Could you remind me what law recommend for men who have done such deeds?”

Lord Cerwyn smiled. He had been friends, she knew, with the young lord Hornwood, and when he learned of his demise, he had almost come for the man, he knew. She had heard it when his hand clang to his sword.

“Death,” he said with a snarky smile.

The leader of the Hornwood men began to shake, but he could not say a word. Nor his men for now.

She nodded, deeply in thought.

“My father used to say the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

She raised from her throne.

“I am no man, ser.” She continued “And your hand is important for the North.”

The man raised his head, relief on his face.

“Oh, your Grace…”

Once again, she cut him short before he would fool himself more.

“I’m not finished. You will, as an example, be led to the Night’s Watch,” she turned her head toward Lord Cerwyn, who nodded. “Here, you could see by yourself if any wildling crossed the Wall. Some of my men will escort you, with others that decided to take the black. But not now. Not before you've seen what happened to your lord. In my name, I will ask one of your men to take the mission I asked of you. Then, when the mission is finished and you realize your failure, you will go."

He stopped, petrified, but then nodded, broken.

“Yes, your G-grace. As you… said.”

She overlooked the rest of his men. Most of them did not dare to cross her eyes as she wondered which one could replace their leader. None of them had defended him. They all seemed to act as one in their cowardice. But then, her gaze stopped on one man. He was shaking, as the others. But not from fear, she gathered from the way his fists were tight. The top of his head was clumsily wrapped in thin bandages, but she could still see blood on it. A scar was drawn from his left cheek to one side of the bandage, and she wondered how long it was. His clear green eyes were staring back at her, with anger and sadness. Not an anger directed at her. More like a thirst to revenge.

He was slighter than the other men. Maybe a bit older than her. But it didn’t matter. Age and built, she had learned, were not signs of competence.

“You.” She asked him. “Who are you?”

“Your Grace…” the leader said. “He’s no one. N-not even a ser… Just one of the playmates of my lord, bastard to one of my… Not someone with any importance.”

“I haven’t asked you” She glared at him, and then asked again for the young man. “Who are you?”

“Malwyn Snow, your Grace.”

“And where were you, when your lord died?”

He lowered his head, seemingly in order to gather his thoughts. One of the men answered in his stead.

“Don’t be too hard on him, your Grace. The lad tried to defend one of the families, but then… some of the enemies knocked him down. He’s a good lad, your Grace, I’ve known his father. We found him near a fountain, barely alive.”

“Aye” said others.

The leader glared at them. They shut their mouths. Visibly, he did not like the young man.

Good, at least some people seemed to respect him.

“And you say it was wildlings”

“I say they were dressed as wildlings.” The young man replied.

She raised her eyebrows.

“Oh.” She said. “So you seem to have some doubts.”

He raised his head, suddenly nervous, seemingly aware of the whispers of his group.

“I wouldn’t presume…”

“Your presumptions are what interests me at the moment. Humor your queen, Malwyn Snow.”

He fidgeted a little, then continued. “I’ve seen Wildlings, your Grace. Some of them took my mother away when I was a little boy. That was not wildlings, your Grace. They were far more disciplined to be only that.”

She pondered the question.

“Then, Malwyn Snow, I guess we have found an arrangement. You will lead the men for your investigation.”

She could see the plead In his eyes. That was not a easy task she was asking of him, given his status.

“But… I’m not…”

“You will gain the rank of a knight if you succeed, and you will have revenge for your fallen lord and friend.” She continued. “And if I ever hear of any mutiny against you, let it be known that I will take the offence personally.”

He looked at her with surprise, while the others stared at her with awe.

“You can’t!” the leader said one last time.

She turned back to her chair and glared at him.

“This is my decision. You can take your leave, now, and rest. Food will be brought to you. As for you, ser, I believe lord Cerwyn can show you the rooms prepared for the ones who have the honor to take the black. ”

With hesitation, the Hornwood men bowed to her. The former leader bowed a bit more reluctantly, but she saw that he had no will to fight more. She would have to look at him a bit more closely, maybe. Weak men like him could be easily manipulated.

Lord Cerwyn joined her when he was done.

“An admirable decision, your Grace,” said lord Cerwyn. “You were just and kind, when others would have killed him…. I would have.”

She nodded, waiting for the next report. “I know, my lord. But I would certainly need your wrath elsewhere, I believe. It is the third time this week. Something is going on, and we’d better be prepared.”

“My arm is yours, your Grace.” He bowed to her.

She was their Queen. Ice flowed in her veins. They were her men : Hornwood, Cerwyn, Manderly… They all had already fought for her. Fought for Jon in the wars that came.

Not the Karstark or the Umber, not anymore. And now, of Hornwood… Who was really left of it?

Queen Sansa the Wise, they had called her. They certainly would not have called her that if she stayed silent and bent the knee, if she hadn’t done what they wished she would. She would have preferred the Red Wolf, honestly.

She was known to be smart and pragmatic. Still, it seemed like the only ones who wanted to claim her hand saw her as a price to be won with a pretty face, a girl who had always pleaded to get what she wanted: an army for Jon, the independence of the North. These persons saw her beauty, but not the iron underneath. Not the she-wolf underneath. A she-wolf who wanted to bite anyone who threatened her pack…

A pack who was now gone. Jon farther North, Bran South. And Arya… Who knew where she was at the moment? She was not one to write letters, and Sansa had not awaited it. But she was still alive, that she could feel it.

Poor lord Gendry Baratheon had waited the first month since her departure, in Winterfell in order to have some news of her. All this month he had been pestering Sansa, as if she was concealing him her location. He would certainly have stayed a lot more, had he not had his own house to rebuild at Storm’s End.

Sansa sighted.

It was love, it seemed. Once upon a time, she dreamt of a love like this, of a lord coming to Winterfell to sweep her off her feet. But then, love in her family seemed to go the wrong way. Duty was to be observed. It was what was necessary for the security of the realm.

An image came to her, haunting her. Jon, with his silver queen, eyes locked as if they were the only ones in the place. Voices that came, but that didn’t break it. A bit of jealousy and envy in her heart, feelings she thought she would never experience anymore.

That was another day, another dream. A fool’s dream.

She hadn’t wanted to be right. She just wanted to be safe. Jon could procure that safety. ’He’d understand’ she thought at the time. But did he? She saw the glimpse in his eye, the uncertainty. He loved her, as a true brother would, she thought. Or cousin, maybe. Time had troubled that assumption. But trust her? No, she didn’t want his trust. If there was something she had learned from Littlefinger, it was that she couldn’t trust men. Nor women. Life wasn’t a song where knights would save distressed maiden from dragons and tyrants.

She wasn’t a maiden anymore. And dragons and tyrants were not her problems anymore. Both were gone. She did the right thing. Or, more like, she pushed one button, and the others followed, as she planned it.

But now, here she was, alone in a world of men that thought they could one day tame her, make her theirs, somehow. She could see the lust in their eyes, as much as the admiration. Many of them had travelled in the year to ask for her hand, some just sent letters. Sometimes, she had been tempted to say yes, for the North to have more allies. But then, her blood turned cold when she met them. She could always see straight through them.

She was always a key to the North for them. If she let them, they would want to take her away, to sent her in the bedchamber, where she would be just a womb.

It was her duty, she learned when she was young. But now, there was other things she’d learned. And being entirely passive wasn’t one of them. It she had to step back, it had to be for the North to gain a powerful ally, one that she could make listen. One that wouldn’t want her or her people to bend the knee.

So here she stayed. And the more she waited, the more they were waiting at her door. But none worthy for her to consider it.

She had never thought she could feel lonely when being so admired.

Queen, she was now. But to what price?

Her fingers danced lightly on the arms of her throne as she counted all the losses and gains. All the faces that she would never see again. All the faces she would see day after day. And faces that belonged to another past, one where Such as that one, who was now standing in front of her, waiting for her command.

She motioned him to talk. The man smiled, bowed and stood back to let another step forwards.

“There’s someone who I would like you to meet, your Grace.” The first man said.

She raised her eyes.

“Who?”

“Ser Harrold Hardyng”

Harrold Hardyng. Also named Harry the heir, for his claim on the Eyries. If Robert Arryn were to die, such were suspected these days as he had been taken ill since the last tournament of Harrenhal two months ago, he could become a strong ally.

If rumors were true, he already had two bastard daughters.

But then what the rumors said of her, again? She wondered, seeing the well-built sandy-haired man in front of her, his deep blue eyes staring at her with confidence.

The perfect image of the knight in shining armor.

Well, she would have to wait and see, she decided.