“I don’t like this,” Uncle Benjen muttered darkly for the fifth time in an hour, running his fingertips along the bandoleer on his chest. “We don’t know who’s broken this Charter Stone, Ned, and there have been reports of wildlings raiding south of the ice – ”
“Benjen,” Sansa’s father, the Abhorsen, said quietly. “There are always risks. The far greater risk is for none of the children to know how to repair a Stone.” Sansa saw them both wince at that, and clench their fists, as Arya muttered under her breath that they weren’t children any more. She knew it had taken repeated cuts of their hands to repair the pair of Great Stone under King’s Landing, which anchored most of the city’s protective magic, after their father and brother – the Abhorsen and Abhorsen-in-Waiting – had been drawn south by reports of the Dead rising and a Free Magic sorcerer preying on the living. The deaths of Rickard and Brandon Stark had ruptured the Charter for years after the Free Magic sorcerer had turned out to be the king’s pyromancer, and the king himself a crazed old man who loved watching people burn.
“I’m ready, Father,” Arya piped up, fourteen and always ready for a fight. Sansa swallowed hard, and nodded.
The sick, strange feeling emanating from the stone was a perverse echo of the way the Charter ought to be, and Sansa hated it. She also hated sweat and blood and ruining her clothes, but she was a Stark, and that meant she was an Abhorsen-in-Waiting, even if she didn’t think she was a very good one. “It’s our duty, Uncle Benjen,” Sansa said, to cover her fear. She touched the Charter Mark on her forehead, and felt its warm flare of magic, named and safe and known. Her brother Robb and cousin Jon already knew how to fix Charter Stones – they were off with their aunt Lyanna, trying to hunt down the Free Magic sorcerer who had broken this one, and who had been raising the Dead all across the North.
Arya already had a hand on her sword. “Do you need me to go into Death?”
“No,” said Father, rather more sharply than usual. “Arya, you are always too eager to leap into the fray. Think for a moment. It’s easy to enter Death near a broken Stone. What does that mean?”
Arya sighed. “That the Dead return to Life more easily here.” She crossed her arms. “I’m ready to fight them! Way more ready than Sansa is.”
Their father looked at them both. “Arya, you are a highly capable fighter. But the Abhorsen is not just someone who fights the dead. Your sister is an excellent Charter Mage, and her understanding of the Charter and how it can be used is as valuable and useful to her as your weapons are to you. There are different kinds of Abhorsens, dear one, who are just as successful in different ways. And, if the gods are willing, you will have time to work together and with the rest of the family, to explore your talents and become aware of how others’ strengths will help you put the Dead down.”
Arya sighed, all the fight gone out of her because she knew their father was right. “Yes, Abhorsen,” she said, with a tone of formality usually reserved for their lessons.
“She’s not wrong,” Sansa said, prodding at the border of Death, the cold tug of the river swirling around her ankles like an unpleasant breeze before she banished the feeling. She was sixteen: she was too old to indulge in foolish fears of the realm of the dead. “Arya’s much better in Death than I am.”
“That’s because you don’t just understand the Charter, Sansa, you feel it with every breath, binding life and power together, safe and steady,” her father said, as Uncle Benjen looked at her expectantly, as if she were to draw her own conclusions.
“But Death is a realm of Free Magic,” Sansa sighed, shuddering at the memory that every time she went there, she felt like a flower cut down and taken into a dungeon: wilting and withered and weak. “I know.”
The Abhorsen folded his arms. “ Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”
Sansa glanced at her sister, whose face was still set in a stubborn moue, and Uncle Benjen, who was scanning the perimeter. “I suppose we find out by walking it.” And she saw her father’s wry smile. All the Stark children had read all of The Book of the Dead by their tenth namedays, but understanding its final page could take a lifetime.
“Yes, but not alone. Come here.” He pulled out a silver knife and gestured closer to the Stone.
Sansa took a step – and promptly bent over, retching, as the alien discomfort became a harsh, jangling buzz all over her skin.
“I mean it’s not a pleasant feeling,” Arya said, and Sansa wondered through the effort of trying to keep down her breakfast whether Arya was doing the side-eye again.
“You try first,” Sansa bit out, swallowing hard, managing to stand again. Arya didn’t even respond as she leapt to it. As she drew the silver knife across her palm, Sansa felt the harsh metallic tang of Free Magic, and a few bright sparks of the Charter spitting out, as something stood up from under the snow and reached for Uncle Benjen, who was already drawing his sword and a bell. A bitter stink of wrongness hit her, and a horrible crunching noise behind her had her whirling around, reaching for her sword, as she heard Saraneth ring out.
“Take this,” her father snapped out, carefully unbuckling Kibeth and pushing it into Sansa’s hands before pushing past her. Sansa’s fingers automatically wrapped around Kibeth’s clapper to stop the bell from making any sound, and turned to see that Arya was still bent over the Stone, her bloodied hand pressed against it and her eyes closed – and as Sansa looked on, frost appeared on her face. Arya wasn’t fixing the Stone – she had stepped into Death.
She glanced down. What to do? Why had her father given her Kibeth? The Walker was a contrary bell, seeking to sound of its own accord and force the listener to walk places they didn’t want to go. Just as Sansa herself didn’t want to go into Death.
She ran over to Arya, taking her second sword from its sheath and saying “Arya, I’m borrowing Needle,” to let her know she wouldn’t be able to wield it in Death; Sansa didn’t want to risk drawing her own sword left-handed – at such an awkward angle she might lose control of Kibeth, or drop it, or worse. The Charter Magic in Needle’s blade was comforting in the muted, jangling sense of the broken Stone, and Sansa forced herself to focus, as Saraneth rang out from Uncle Benjen on her left, and her father began chanting a Free Magic spell to take control of Hish on her right.
Pins and needles crept up her feet and the hand holding Kibeth’s clapper as she envisaged the Eastmark and pushed it down the sword into the ground, where it flared into life, flickering occasionally in the presence of the broken Stone. She ran through the Southmark – one she’d always found easy, because she dreamed of exploring the south – and the Westmark, which was harder, because her own intellectual curiosity about what lay to the west got in the way, and she was closest to the Stone, here, and the prickling in her legs and hand seemed to be in her throat as well. But the marks were cast true, and she hurried to face the North and the final mark: the one all Ahborsens found easiest, because theirs was the blood of the North and it was their ancient home. The Northmark flowed down from Needle, and bright warm lines of Charter Magic fire spread, connecting the diamond of protection around them.
They were safe, and trapped with the sinking wrongness of a broken Stone, with the border of Death yawning like an open gate alongside them. Sansa wondered for a second whether she’d done the right thing – she was protecting their prone bodies, yes, but what if something came through and they were stuck in the diamond with something Dead, their spirits still in Death?
Sansa shook her head, swallowed nausea, and stepped into the cold river of the First Precinct to see what was keeping Arya. The chill current swept up from her ankles to tug up her shins as she turned to find her sister, and saw her stalking a small dark shape under the water, her Charter-spelled blade glittering in the cold, peculiar light.
“Mordaut,” Arya barked in warning.
“I’ve got Kibeth,” she said, keeping one hand firmly around the bell’s clapper and the other around the handle as she glanced around, extending her senses, trying to make sure it really was just the two of them and a Mordaut. “You need to take Needle or I can’t wield it.”
Arya opened her mouth to say something just as the shape rushed up out of the water at her and she pierced it through with her heavier blade. Its shrieks were terrible, grating shrilly on the ear and the teeth – and it would draw any Dead closer than the Third Gate to them. She put out her hand and Sansa threw Needle to her. Arya snatched it from the air and stuck it into the Mordaut too, and Sansa grappled with Kibeth, getting her right hand around the handle instead of the clapper and her left inside the bell, ensuring it didn’t ring. Really, it was annoying not to be allowed a bandoleer of her own.
“Sansa!” Arya barked, because the Mordaut was slipping from her blades.
Sansa gripped the handle, slipped her fingers from the clapper, and poured her will into the bell as she rung Kibeth forward, back, forward, and around in a three-quarter circle – a marching rhythm that rang from the bell as an old Northern war song, full of the determination of marching away to do one’s duty. “Go,” she told the Mordaut, her voice redolent with power, and she felt the Dead thing slide from Arya’s blade and scuttle away as fast as it could, following her will and Kibeth’s command through the First Gate and beyond, as far into Death as it would go.
As it went, Sansa felt a warm, curious energy building in the bell, and snapped her fingers back around the clapper. She’d already walked into Death – she had no desire to find out where Kibeth wanted her to go next. She’d read of divination through the bells, where the unwary would wield Mosrael and try to glean the truth from whatever was spoken, or who would allow Kibeth to ring as it willed and would follow where it led. Old Northern stories told of great follies and rare successes by Abhorsens of the past to use the bells for anything other than their intended purpose – so she kept a tight hold on Kibeth, and appreciated the flare of Charter Magic in its metal.
“Not bad,” Arya said, blowing her hair out of her eyes. “Kibeth’s tricky, and you hate it here.” She squinted ahead at the waterfall. Sansa could feel that the Mordaut was approaching the sinkhole of the Second Gate, now. “Should I follow it?”
Sansa felt a sharp lessening of pressure as the Mordaut suddenly sweep further away, likely caught in the wave of the Third Precinct. “No, it’s well on its way to the Fourth Gate,” she said, pulling her attention away from it and back to the task in hand. “We need to fix the Stone.”
Arya grimaced. “Yes.” She glanced around, and Sansa thought she wanted to stay in Death where she couldn’t feel the effects of the warped Charter.
The sounds of Saraneth and Ranna wielded together echoed dimly in the still air as Benjen burst through the border into Death, followed by the lurking, dull spirits of a number of Dead Hands. “I’ll take this one through to the Fifth Gate,” Benjen said. “Go back to Life – your father could do with a hand putting down the Hish.”
Arya’s eyes lit up, and Sansa and her sister turned to plunge back to the border with Life. They burst through as Ice, their father’s ancient Charter-spelled sword, sliced into one of the Hish – but it only hissed and sparked, and the Hish slid off again.
Arya leapt into battle, slicing and snicking, keeping the pair of Hish together and penned in – and Sansa began pulling together marks for binding and silencing, for returning to the elements they were made from, for fixing the Hish into the Charter – but she couldn’t focus on the master mark to pull them together, not with the still-broken Stone buzzing in her ears.
She tried to hold all the marks together in her mind, keeping the spell almost ready to go – and she rang Kibeth again, this time in a figure-eight pattern, forcing the Hish to stand still and await their fate – and in the seconds of stillness that followed she drew the master mark in her mind and reinforced Kibeth’s song.
The Hish froze, and her father reached out to take the bell from her and pass her another knife, waiting until Sansa cancelled the diamond of protection to make the exchange. “Good work,” he said, as the marks flared out, and turned away, beginning the Free Magic spell that would reduce the Hish to the opposite elements of ice, lightning, and fire that they had been made from. Arya glanced toward Benjen’s frost-rimed body in its own small diamond of protection, likely cast in haste, and took up a guard position next to him.
Sansa, unable to bear the keening of the broken Charter any longer, sliced her palm, pressed her fingers to her Charter Mark, and pressed her hand to the Stone. She felt the wrongness like a wave, breaking over her skin, tarry and sick, with the death of the Charter Mage that had damaged the strength of the Charter in this place. She reached for marks of binding and belonging and beginning, of the Charter that described everything that lived or would live or could live, and shaped her spell. As she felt the blood leak from her hand and mingle with her sister’s – the blood of two Charter Mages and Abhorsens-in-Waiting – she felt the warm currents of Life and the Charter blaze within the Stone.
Under her hand, it began glowing, bright and kindly and warm, as the blood disappeared, soaking into the golden, drifting marks. The mark for belonging flashed up, brighter than the others, and Sansa smiled, pulling her hand back and preparing to deal with the cut – which had already healed, golden Charter Marks sparkling across her skin.
Her father was still chanting the spells to separate the Hish, whose forms had become foggy and indistinct, and Sansa saw his shoulders relax a fraction when the Charter sank back into place over the cold hillside, the comforting sense of its presence like sinking into a bath after a hard day. He ended the last of the Free Magic spells, and traced a Charter Mark of defence and one of undoing in the air with his sword as he drew Saraneth and rang it one-handed, a low, commanding note. The Marks flew at the Hish – and lightning crackled outward, bouncing off the shield-Mark and the outside of the diamond of protection around Benjen before grounding into the earth, as water fell in a patter of droplets and fire flared briefly in the air, before burning out.
The Abhorsen wiped his forehead and glanced at his daughters, re-holstering Saraneth. “Find something in Death, Arya?”
“There was a Mordaut trying to get through,” she reported, glancing from Benjen, who was now completely frozen over, back to their father. “I felt it from this side – it wanted to use the broken Stone to cross into Life.”
“Hm,” he said, folding his arms. “And going into Death alone without letting us know? Without protecting yourself first?”
Arya’s jaw tensed, and Sansa sighed, because her sister always ran straight into punishment as well as into the fight. “Father,” she cut in instead, “it gave me the opportunity to wield Kibeth in Death. I’ve never done that before.”
Her father shook his head as he restored Saraneth to its placed and checked all the bells in the bandoleer. “Stop covering for your sister, Sansa,” he said, more gently now.
“I don’t need you to justify what I did,” Arya flared at her, and Sansa felt a hot rush of anger that her sister was being such a contrary, ungrateful brat . “I felt the danger and I dealt with it! It was tactically sound!”
The Abhorsen raised an eyebrow, and in that small movement Sansa saw Eddard Stark, nine-hundred and fifty-second Abhorsen and Warden of the North, ready to pass judgement in a trial. “You were tasked with repairing the Stone,” he said, calmly, but there was a hint of thunder in it now. “If you had restored the Charter, as you were ordered, the Dead and the Hish would have been weakened, and your sister would have been free to use her skill in Charter Magic to aid me, which would have been very useful in combat with Free Magic constructs. Instead, she had to cast a diamond of protection and chase you into Death to make sure you weren’t facing something powerful alone and without bells. Attempting to heal the Stone triggered the trap, Arya, and I for one am surprised there wasn’t a Mordicant waiting. If you had done what you were supposed to, this little skirmish would have been dealt with in under a minute, and the Mordaut would never have made it through to Life with a Charter Stone at full strength – and if there were something worse waiting in Death, we’d have all been able to deal with it together.”
Arya’s face was thunderous, now, too, and she opened her mouth to say something –
“No,” their father cut her off, and even Sansa felt surprised. He was a patient teacher, always allowing them to explain their thoughts before offering alternatives, letting them map out their ideas before pointing out the drawbacks in each. “You were reckless, Arya. You disobeyed the Abhorsen while in combat, and you needlessly placed us all in greater danger.” He folded his arms. “You’re fourteen years old, and you should know better. When we return to Winterfell, I’m confiscating your swords, and you will be banned from the training yard for a month.”
“A month!” Arya shrieked, and Sansa pressed two fingers to her forehead. She wasn’t going to be worth living with. “That’s hardly fair!”
“If you act like a child,” he said, sharply, “I will treat you like one. The task I gave to you and your sister was to fix the Stone. You got distracted before you finished and ran off into an entirely separate fight.”
Arya folded her arms right back at him. “And what does perfect Sansa get, since she fixed the stone?” she sneered. “A pat on her pretty little head?”
“Don’t take this out on me because you messed up and you’re embarrassed about it,” Sansa snapped, turning away, and ignoring her sister’s squawk, because if there was one thing Arya hated more than being chastised, it was someone pointing out when she was being aggressive to try deflecting attention away from her and anything she might have done wrong.
“Sansa is far from perfect,” their father said, and she tried not to feel a swooping sense of disappointment, because she’d stepped into Death without hesitation, she’d wielded one of the trickier, tricksier bells, she’d set up a perimeter to protect them both, she’d even fixed the Stone. She glanced back at her father, whose eyes were steady on Arya’s, but whose words were all for her. “She could have wielded Kibeth to send all four Hands into Death, freeing Benjen from his task, and driven the Hish far away, ensuring that the full strength of the Abhorsen and three Abhorsens-in-Waiting could have focused on the Stone before hunting down any other Dead or Free Magic creatures in the area. She could even have cut her hand open on your sword and fixed the Stone first herself.” Sansa felt her shoulders slump further with every word, because he was right.
“Damnit,” she muttered. She hadn’t thought of any of that, and had, in fact, thought it had gone quite well. She heard a crack behind her and whirled around, hands grasping the hilt of her sword – but it was only Benjen stirring, ice dropping off him as he sheathed his sword and cancelled his diamond of protection.
“Instead of uniting us, she focused on protecting you,” Father continued, and the set of Arya’s mouth wasn’t any less stubborn. “She wasted time in combat setting up the diamond you’d forgotten, and went haring off after you. Did a Mordaut really need two people to deal with it?”
“It did if one of them went into Death with no bells,” Benjen said, somewhere between amused and stern.
“I thought you two could take care of yourselves, but Arya was vulnerable in Death,” Sansa sighed.
“She was,” their father and Benjen said together, and Arya’s proud little face stiffened further.
“I should have thought it through,” Sansa said, rubbing a hand across her head.
Father raised both eyebrows slightly. “We all learn by doing, Sansa,” he said. “The problem isn’t making mistakes, it’s failing to do something different next time.”
“Being an Abhorsen often means fighting alongside family,” Benjen said, gently, glancing at his brother – and the loaded look they shared had something very painful in it. “That can make things complicated.”
“I became the Abhorsen at nineteen,” Father said, heavily, as he finally slid his sword back into its sheath. “Barely half-trained, because I had both parents still living, and a brother and a cousin both older than me, as well as an aunt and great-uncles. And when the nine hundred and fifty-first Abhorsen was bleeding out and burning in a Free Magic fire, all we know from Brandon’s sending, the one that brought us a warning of what was happening in the Capital, was that he was trying to save our father. And the sending came to me.”
“Saving him would have stopped the Charter Stones from breaking,” Arya pointed out.
“I suppose he wanted to send a message to his family,” Sansa said, lowly, because she knew that what he should have been doing was sending a report to the Abhorsens, and the Clayr on the Wall.
Father shook his head. “It was so hurried, all we know is that he had very little time. We can’t fully know why Brandon chose to do what he did,” he said. “Maybe it was the best course of action. But if he had set aside his love for our father and focused on the task in hand, would he have found another way, something that could have prevented the destruction of the Stones and two sets of bells?”
“We became too protective of one another, your father and Lyanna and I, in the years after,” Benjen said, softly. “We made a lot of mistakes when we should have thought more tactically.”
“But being together kept us alive,” their father countered. “The lone wolf dies.”
“I don’t understand,” Arya said. “Are you telling us to stick together or to forget we’re family? You always tell us that it’s the pack that survives.”
Father sighed. “Neither,” he said, and he cast a hint of a glare at Arya’s way, presumably at her mulish tone. “I’m telling you that rushing in after family is a natural urge, but it’s one you need to be cautious of, because it might blind you to other possibilities. You already blind yourself to other possibilities by running into battle too quickly, and running after you is one of Sansa’s greatest weaknesses. Jon’s, too, come to think.” His gaze sharpened on Sansa for a moment. “And we don’t know who will be the next Abhorsen,” he added, turning back to Arya.
Sansa felt herself lean against the Stone for support. “It skipped to you,” she said, faintly, feeling the truth of the words as she said them, an echo of the Charter describing all life coming from the Stone at her back. “Even though Grandmother was a Stark born, and Jocelyn was only sixty – ”
“It’s not like being Warden of the North or a king, it doesn’t follow parent to child, or down a line of siblings, eldest to youngest,” Father agreed. “If I fell tomorrow, the next Abhorsen might be Benjen or your Aunt Lyanna. Or it could be your cousin Jon, or one of your brothers – it might even be your great-great-aunt Jocelyn, though I’d like to think that’s unlikely at her age. We don’t know who will be called until the time comes. It might be either of you two.”
And Sansa understood, then, what the point of today had been. “Oh,” she said, unhappily, and Arya looked at her, confused. “You don’t think we’re ready.”
“Nobody is ever fully ready,” her father said. “You become the Abhorsen when someone you love dies, Sansa. And it’s surpassing rare than an Abhorsen dies peacefully in their sleep surrounded by their grandchildren.”
And Sansa saw something akin to horror suddenly break over Arya’s face as she unfolded her arms, half-reaching toward their father in a gesture that suddenly made her look younger than fourteen. “Oh,” she echoed Sansa, a quiet, uncomfortable murmur, her eyes flickering to Benjen and Sansa herself, and then Arya drew her hand back again.
Sansa was sixteen, and a woman grown, but she didn’t think she’d ever be ready to be told her father had died. She certainly couldn’t imagine taking up the bells as the Abhorsen in the horrible hollow space he would leave in all their lives.
“Yes,” he said. “What would you do if I died in front of you, Arya?”
“I would want to avenge you,” she said.
“That’s natural,” Benjen said, softly. “He’s your father.”
“And if you were the Abhorsen?” he pressed. “If you had people to save, if you had Dead to fight, Stones to repair? If you had to leave my corpse to be desecrated until your duty was done?”
Sansa knew what she would do. She would do what the Abhorsen must, and then she would mourn. But if it were war, she wouldn’t trust herself to do it well.
Arya shook her head. “I’d hate it,” she said. And when she lifted her head her eyes were glittering. “But I’d do it. And then I’d want revenge.”
“The best revenge,” their father said, “is to be an Abhorsen the Dead truly fear.”
Sansa shook her head. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready,” she confessed, and Arya’s eyes snapped to her. “I’m no good at fighting and tactics, Father. Sometimes I worry that I’m more of a Wallmaker than an Abhorsen, I’ve got too much making and mending in me.”
“But you’re a really good mage, Sansa,” Arya said, sounding puzzled, as if she were seeing Sansa in a new light. “You even crafted a set of bells for Robb! That’s so important, we lost too many bells in the last war!”
Sansa shrugged. “So I’m useful as support staff. I can make bells and swords, and I’m alright in battle. But I don’t actually have a talent for close combat the way you do.”
“All of our skills are useful,” Benjen said. “I’m a much better scout and ranger than your father, but he’s better at keeping calm under pressure and finding the most elegant solution.”
Father was smiling slightly. “Do you understand?” he asked them, his gaze resting on Arya and then Sansa herself.
“I don’t know,” Sansa shrugged. “But will I ever? Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”
Benjen laughed, and Father chuckled – and Arya looked thoughtful. She turned to Sansa, and there was no sign of childishness in her face when she said, “Maybe I could train you in combat? When my month away from the training yard is done,” she added quickly, glancing at their father, who was watching with that air of judgment again. “I know Aunt Lyanna’s been working with you, but her style is very offensive, but you need something to deflect and defend you better while you wield bells and work magic. And in the meantime, maybe Robb or Jon can train us in tactics. And you could teach me some more of the Charter?” Their elder brother and cousin were learning to command Winterfell’s armies as well as how to wield the bells, in line with House Stark’s dual role as Abhorsens and Wardens of the North.
“That sounds useful,” Sansa said, lifting her hand from the Charter Stone. “I’d like that.” And when Arya beamed at her, she felt like she’d won some kind of battle that she didn’t really understand.
“Good,” Father said. “The pack survives, girls.” He surveyed the scene: the Dead banished, the Stone restored, and for a moment his approval shone like a glimpse of the Northern sun. “Now let’s ride home and see if Lyanna and the boys have news of the Free Magic sorcerer they were hunting.”