Sansa stands at the window, hands resting atop the snow-covered balustrade. She doesn’t feel the cold (she is in fact barely aware of her fingers slowly going numb) and the wind that cuts through her layers of clothing is merely a nuisance.
She’s too caught up in her intense study of the reparation works that are being carried out all over Winterfell to care.
Nights come fast and sudden this far North. One moment the sun is hanging over the horizon, a small, reddish orb without warmth, the next it drops behind Winterfell’s walls like some unseen hand reached up and plucked it out of the sky.
Sansa shudders. The Night King almost succeeded.
Despite the rapidly dwindling light, she can still pick out the workers. They crawl all over the battlements, lugging stone and other building materials up the wooden scaffolding that sprouted, quicker than mushrooms after a heavy rain, alongside the damaged parts of the outer wall.
They will work until the last shreds of light have left the sky, and be back at it come sunrise. As daylight dies, a hundred or more fires are lit atop the walls, candles are placed on each windowsill and bonfires rage in every courtyard.
The Army of the Dead has been defeated, vanquished by the might of the Targaryen dragons and the obsidian swords of Sansa’s and Daenerys’ combined hosts, but the memory is still fresh and her people – noble and commoner alike – are haunted by the darkness.
Behind her, the servants enter and lit the candles in her rooms, tend to the fireplace. And even though she has been through too much to jump at shadows, she does not begrudge them the need for fire and warmth. Fire is life, the Red Woman told her the night of the battle - fire will save us all. And, ultimately she’d been right. Now, some of Sansa’s people pray to the God of Light when they think nobody is around to listen. She doesn’t see the need to put a stop to it even though she doubts R’hollor has time to listen, much like the old gods or the Seven.
She’s called to them enough times to know they do not care about the plights of men.
“You’ve not eaten. Again.” Margaery’s voice is strong metal wrapped in silk and Sansa turns her back on the night and shuts the window. Unlike her, her Hand is not yet used to Winterfell’s omnipresent chill and is, even now, wearing a fur-lined cloak. Ermine, candid as the snow that covers the ground thickly. Sansa can’t help but notice how darker the omega’s eyes seem in comparison. Despite the cold and the dark and the hardiness of the men around her, the Rose of Highgarden hasn’t withered. Yet, it must be hard for her. The way the North holds court is unlike anything Margaery has ever experienced, Sansa surmises. Homespun wool and coarse furs replace brocades and silk and the food is less refined, but far more filling. But the worst part for Margaery must be the garden. Here, only the hardiest of buck roses grow, their colors pale even in summer as if they are perennially edged in frost. And none have bloomed since they all first left for the South, or so Sansa has been told.
It must be hard for her, but Sansa has said nothing because there are some things a lady never asks to another. Just like Margaery studiously avoided staring at the scars upon her back, the one morning she walked in while with a message from the Vale and caught Sansa still undressed.
Clasping her hands behind her back, Sansa raises a testy eyebrow.
“My Queen,” Margaery adds belatedly, but a smile accompanies the words. Sansa is not surprised: she can frown and sneer and posture all she wants, but the omega’s brown eyes are always unimpressed and all-too-knowing.
“There was too much to do.” She points at the parchments the newly appointed Maester left atop her desk. “There still is.”
“Nothing that can’t wait until the morrow surely?” Margaery pulls a chair back for her and waits until she’s seated before she speaks again. “Must I remind you how little will get done unless you keep your strength up, Your Grace?”
“Is it not what a Hand is supposed to do for her Queen?” Sansa’s riposte lacks bite and, with a sigh, she reaches for the tray of food her maids have left for her. “You needn’t, but it is nice.”
The bread is hard and the cheese so bitter that Sansa’s tongue curls a little at the taste, but she is hungrier than she thought. Before she is really aware of it, she’s licking the last crumbs of bread from her fingers and staring at the dregs of her mulled wine.
Margaery says nothing, but Sansa thinks she glimpses the edges of a smirk as the omega drinks from her own cup.
Whenever they are alone like this, there is a stillness, and tonight isn’t any different. The air thickens and Sansa has to force it down her lungs while her stomach contracts a funny way. Perhaps it’s worse than usual this time. Worse because of what she means to ask.
Sansa’s palms grow cold and sweaty just from thinking about that, and she wipes them on the fabric of her dress as discreetly as she can, painfully aware that Margaery’s eyes seldom miss a detail.
Alongside the unsettling feeling comes the omega’s scent, and she breathes it in, unthinking. Lily-of-the-Valley and tuberose, hyacinth and freesia fill her nostrils, and another thousand flowers she’s only ever seen the picture of in Maester Luwin’s books.
Sansa has never been to Highgarden, but both Margaery and her grandmother Olenna described it to her in detail. With the omega this close, she can almost picture it in her mind. The castle, perched on a hilltop like one of Daenerys’ dragons, towers so high that miles upon miles of the surrounding plains are visible from the bannered battlements. Highgarden, with an entire forest within its concentric walls, countless fountains and bubbling brooks, and a hedge maze grown in its entirety from rose bushes.
“Your Grace?” Margaery has leaned forward, one hand lightly resting upon hers. “Are you alright?” Her hand is warm against Sansa’s, calloused where hers is scarred. Perhaps a Queen and her Hand should not haul wood and feed the laborers themselves, but Sansa declared everyone would pull their own weight in the repairs, and set the example.
“I was just… drifting for a moment.” Sansa is reluctant to pull her hand away, but does so and picks up one of the messages the Maester left for her before Margaery can suggest she head to bed.
“Shall we?” There definitely is a displeased curve to the omega’s mouth, and she adds. “The quicker we are done here, the quicker we can rest.”
Margaery sighs and settles into her chair more comfortably while Sansa breaks the seal of the first message.
“A note from Robett Glover at Deepwood Motte.” The parchment creaks when she angles it for Margaery to see. “He offers to send ironwood to expedite Winterfell’s repairs.”
“And not so subtly hints that you should take his daughter as one of your wards.”
“That he does.” Sansa ponders the matter, her gaze wandering to the crackling fire. Lord Glover did not come when the banners were called to defend Winterfell, but he did bend the knee when she was declared Queen. Perhaps he’s simply searching for an honorable way to make amends.
“I see no harm in it,” Sansa finally says. “It will be good to have children under our roof again.”
The rest of the messages are easily dealt with: more offers of help, a minor lord asking her advice to settle a dispute, and Robin Arryn proposing to re-establish a stable trading route once the snows have melted.
“My cousin seems confident that winter will end soon.” With the Night King defeated, they had thought that the cold’s suffocating grip would break but the snow had continued falling as if it didn’t care for the desires of men.
Sansa tosses the parchment on the table and rubs her eyes. They itch and she has to stifle a yawn. Margaery was right after all: all of this could have waited till the morning.
“He may have cause. A scout arrived at nightfall, just before the guards were shutting the gates. From Greywater Watch.”
“From the Neck?” Sansa forgets all about her tiredness. “With what news?”
“Snow has begun to melt.” Hearing that, Sansa thanks gods she scarcely believes in. “The scout reports that Reed’s lookouts have seen blocks of ice float down from the Shivering Sea and into the Bite.”
If ice is flowing freely from far colder waters… Winter may indeed be at an end. That would mean fresh game instead of salted meats, and a new harvest. Light and life for people that have endured too much already. Sansa would be happy not to see snow for a few years – even though summer flurries are a fairly common occurrence around these parts. Old Nan used to say that summer squalls were caused by spirits that had died before their time and, envious of the living, brought them the unexpected chill of the grave during the hottest nights. Sansa never admitted it out loud, but Nan’s strange tales terrified her and she hated when Bran or Arya would ask her for more.
After travelling the King’s Road, she learned that the wickedness of the world far exceeded anything Old Nan’s fevered mind could conjure up for them.
“I should like to see him first thing in the morning, when he’s rested.” Sansa tries to chase hope from her voice, but finds it is a hard task. Already, in her mind’s eye, the castle is as full as she remembers it being during her childhood, and the many villages that Ramsay Bolton burned to the ground are being rebuilt.
Perhaps she’ll visit the Godswood and the Sept and pray for summer after all.
“As you wish, Your Grace. I left him in the kitchen with a bowl of stew, and the guards will house him in the barracks for the night.”
Sansa nods, her thoughts a thousand leagues away as they span the entirety of her kingdom. She’s spent weeks studying the crumbling maps Maester Wolkan keeps within the aviary, and can name even the smallest of villages, every brook and all the acres of woodland she reigns over. Some places like Umber Hall are lost forever - smouldering ruins that will act as memorials until the land reclaims them. But others, most of them, could be salvaged or rebuilt if only summer came.
In the hearth, the fire is down to reddish embers, and the wind rattles the window casings. The pervasive chill which the fire protected her from has returned with a vengeance - a harsh reminder that it is not summer yet.
“My Queen?” Margaery moves close again, and Sansa’s thoughts grind to a halt. “Sansa?”
Her voice contains the same kind lilt it held when Margaery met her the first time and asked her about Joffrey. And, just as they had during that walk, her eyes darken with concern.
“I should have listened to you.” When Margaery stares at her this way, Sansa’s heart thunders like a maddened horse inside her chest. “I must be more tired than I thought.” The admission is followed by a jaw-splitting yawn and, this time, Sansa cannot stop it.
“Well.” Her Hand stands and drops into a graceful courtesy. “Then I suggest we adjourn and meet the Reed scout with the rest of the Small Council in the morning.”
Her chair scrapes loudly against the flagstones, and Sansa climbs to her feet as well, her legs so stiff she has to help herself by leaning against the table.
“Wait.” She speaks hurriedly, before courage deserts her. “There is one other thing.” Funny, how feeding Ramsay to his own dogs caused very little emotion to stir within her, but she can barely bring herself to ask a simple question.
“Some of the Lords have suggested I marry.” Sansa’s mouth twists as she speaks. Some had done more than suggest. “Despite me pointing out that I do not lack in siblings and that the matter of succession is not a pressing one – not at the moment at least – they are… adamant.” Dogs that had snapped their jaws shut around a bone and had no intention of letting go.
“Most of them are alphas and, to them, you siring a pup would be a sign of strength.” Alpha Queens were so rare they were the stuff of legends. The warrior-queen Nymeria had been one, or so it was rumored, and Rhaenyra Targaryen was another. In the latter case the tale was grim: the aspiring Queen had been fed to a dragon by her own brother.
“Did they propose a name? Or name themselves?”
It may be wishful thinking, but Sansa has the impression that Margaery’s tone cooled and her eyes, in the low light, appear like intent pools of shadow.
“They have, but I already have someone in mind.”
“Oh?” Indeed, the omega’s tone rivals the frost rimming the window. “And who may that be?”
“You.” Sansa sees no need to tiptoe around the issue. Should Margaery say no, she’d rather know. “I was wondering if you would be my Queen.” The choice is not one that came lightly to her, nor something she concluded in the space of a fortnight. But Margaery is the only one save Tyrion who ever showed her kindness in King’s Landing when the entirety of the court regarded her as a traitor and a whore. Margaery consoled her when her nightmares about Joffrey and her father would cause her to wake in a cold sweat, throat raw from screaming. The only one around whom, even now that she is a scared, little bird no longer, Sansa feels like she can let her guard down.
She’d always believed she’d fall in love with a handsome, valiant prince, until her heart had shown her different.
“Me?” Margaery chokes out, her face a mask of shock. There’s some inherent satisfaction in leaving a woman of such wit utterly speechless. Sansa has to stifle a bout of nervous giggles, but laughing in the face of the woman who could be her future wife would never do.
“Yes.” Sansa steps closer to her and, before the omega can move back, or slap her hands away, she twines their fingers together. “You do not need to answer now. But think on it?”
“You would have to name a new Hand.” Margaery says weakly. She doesn’t pull her hands away and that makes Sansa’s heart soar.
“I would.” She agrees, a sudden surge of emotion constricting her throat. Her fingers are shaking, or perhaps it is Margaery’s hand in hers. Sansa neither knows nor care.
“I-I will consider it.” At last the omega unclasps their hands, but her fingers linger just a moment longer than is proper. “I will consider it.” She uses the same words Sansa had employed when some of her Lords had asked her own hand: her voice is stronger now if still quivering.
The next moment the omega is bidding her goodnight, and although she’d very much like her to remain, Sansa knows she has to let her go.
That night, sleep is a long time coming.
The answer is murmured against her cheek the following morning.
Sansa is already awake, but has kept her eyes stubbornly shut against the growing morning light. Besides, she reasoned as she emerged from fitful sleep, lingering in bed would delay Margaery’s inevitable rejection.
“Yes.” This time, the word is followed by a feather-like kiss to her cheek, and then another pressed more firmly against her brow.
“Yes.” Sansa cracks open a doubtful eye, afraid that she is dreaming.
It is earlier than she thought, the greyish glow of predawn washing over her room’s walls. Margaery is perched on the edge of her bed, clothed only in her nightgown. The light shines through the linen a little when she moves and highlights her curves in soft shadow.
Sansa swallows. Hard.
“Yes,” Margaery bends down until their lips are brushing. Her breath is a warm caress against Sansa’s upper lip. “I will marry you.”
The omega kisses her then, and her mouth tastes like mint leaves.
They should marry in the Godswood, like her father and all the other Starks before his time. Sansa has this discussion with Maester Wolkan inside his newly renovated quarters while he feeds his messenger birds.
“It’s tradition.” He insists. He is a peaceful man, Maester Wolkan. Adverse to violence, soft-spoken. Sansa has never seen a Northman look as out of place among his own people as he does. The Maester has stopped to look at her and is still holding morsels of bloody meat between his stubby fingers. One of the ravens caws impatiently, fluffing its wings and snatches a large chunk of food before if flyes atop a nearby bookshelf.
“The lords expect tradition. After all the North has been through, it would be wise to offer it to them.”
“I’ll think on it.” Sansa lies before she leaves him to his ravens and his studies.
She has made up her mind already, but she is her father’s daughter and remembers what he taught her. His voice – the rough, warm lilt she loved so well – echoes in her thoughts. A good lord, he used to say to Sansa and her siblings when they gathered around the Great Hall fireplace at night, always makes a show of listening to their retainers, even when the answer is already clear. Especially when it is.
Maester Wolkan means well, Sansa is sure of it, but as she returns to her duties, she can’t stop herself from thinking of Maester Luwin who had a sweet and a bedtime story for all of his Lord’s children whenever they would ask. Sansa always waited for Arya to fall asleep before she did - so that she’d have the tales of gentle knights and fair princesses all to herself.
He lives on, him and many others, like a half-glimpsed shadow under the pale winter sun, and while the guards speak in hushed whispers of the castle being haunted, Sansa finds an odd comfort in the thought.
Loss is more bearable with its ghosts walking beside her.
In the end, they are married outside the walls.
The flatlands on which the Battle of Winterfell was fought have been cleared of the corpses, Wights and simple dead alike. For days, the smoke from the great pyres darkened the sky and the air stank of offal and burnt wood. Worse had been the ashen snowfall that came after: it covered the castle overnight and they woke, stupor and horror painted on their faces to find every source layered in grey. The food, their clothes, the very air they breathed - everything smelled of death for weeks.
Flanked by her honor guard, Sansa tries not to dwell on it.
Instead, she focuses on Margaery, resplendent in the Tyrell’s colors. The dress is made of wool, much like the one Sansa herself is wearing. It’s simple in style but soft-looking, and the cloak her bride donned over it recalls the deep shade of an ironwood forest. Sansa can tell, from how her lords and ladies stare that - by eschewing the splendor of the Southern courts - Margaery has already won them over.
With neither of their fathers present, accompanying them to the altar would fall to their oldest brothers - but both have lost them all and Jon has vanished, with Tormund and the rest of the Wildlings, somewhere beyond the Wall.
It is a Karstark, one of late Lord Rickon’s distant cousins, who breaks the impasse. With one pointed look at Sansa - in reply to which she nods discreetly - he steps up to Margaery and offers her a gallant hand. He and her betrothed must be around the same age, but the Karstark man still looks like a boy, fresh-faced and yet untainted by the world. Sansa suddenly remembers that because of an old injury he didn’t follow his cousins South and feels strangely glad.
Next to her, Tyrion Lannister tugs at her sleeve. Unable to come herself, the Dragon Queen had sent her Hand to represent her accompanied by a sizeable escort and a chest of old treaties from the Red Keep’s library as a gift.
He tugs again and, this time, Sansa bends toward him so he can whisper in her ear. There is visible relief written on Tyrion’s face, and she remembers another wedding, and a time in which she did not kneel. It is a lifetime ago, the memories faded as if they had another woman for their protagonist and not her.
“I would be honored, Your Grace.” Sansa gazes into those oddly colored eyes and knows he means it. “To accompany you.”
“I would be honored if you did.” She whispers back.
Since settling on one faith would have ended up offending someone, it feels a little crowded when they gather at the altar. First, a Septon from the Vale approaches them and binds their hands together with a length of linen - “so that what is joined by the Gods may never be untied by men” - he intones, before allowing the Red Priestess to step forward.
There is no love lost between the two as they eye each other warily, but whatever differences they may have are set aside in honor of the day. The Priestess is a reedy-looking woman that lacks Melisandre’s aura, but her words are no less potent. She lights a brazier and tosses something that looks like chalk into the flames. For a moment they burn bright blue, before returning to the usual orange-gold.
“In this fire blessed by the Lord of Light you burn something of your past, so that you may be reborn anew into His light.”
Sansa and Margaery reach for bundles they had already prepared. Hers contains the necklace Petyr Baelish placed around her throat before they left the Fingers for the Eyrie, but Sansa has no idea what her bride chose.
The fire eats the offerings with a strange eagerness as if it were alive and every tongue of flame licking into the cloth bore teeth. Her eyes begin to burn from the smoke and the heat, but Sansa forces herself to watch until what she tossed in the embrace of the Red God is nothing but a crumbling husk.
She’s only going along with this foreign rite because it’s best to give all the faiths the same importance but, as the silver of the necklace runs in rivulets among the burning coal, a great shadow seems to leave her spirit.
Judging from Margaery’s face, she feels the cleansing too.
A crone came for the old gods. Her back is bent with age and her skin is burned by sun and wind and snow in equal measure. There is unease among the crowd as she approaches, and, when a gust of wind shakes the threadbare cloak she is wearing, Sansa is reminded of a raven in flight. Hopefully, her words won’t be so dark.
“A long time ago the Northern Kings would wed the land along their bride.” The woman’s voice is like dry twigs crushed underfoot. “This land, it has suffered much and the hatred of men has caused our gods to turn away from it.”
Behind Sansa, someone hacks loudly and spits onto the ground to ward off against evil.
“Will you marry the land again, Wolf Queen? And you, Queen of the Roses, will you wed this land that is not yours and bleed for it so that its people do not have to?”
Ancient she may be, but her eyes shine with sharp intelligence.
They pledge at the same time, and the air around them thickens with a magic far older than their lineage. Somehow, Sansa is sure that Bran is smiling, and her unease trickles away.
“Then bleed you shall.”
The knife the woman bears is long and wicked. It gleams as it catches the first real sunlight they have had in months and someone in the gathering shrieks their alarm.
Unperturbed, Sansa offers her free hand: the cut stings worse than it looks, but everything is over as quickly as it began.
At her side, Margaery bites back a lowly hiss and they extend their hands, bleeding crimson on the altar and the pile of snow below it.
“It is done!” The Septon and the Priestesses announce in unison, and though the man looks a tad green in the face he soon recovers.”You are wed, wife and wife, in front of the old Gods and the new!”
“The Queens in the North!”
Robett Glover is the first to break the silence, but the next instant, his voice is drowned beneath a dozen others.
“The Queens in the North! The Queens in the North!”
Sansa raises her eyes to the sky and has to squint to shield them from a light she’s grown unaccustomed to.
Against the perfect blue of early spring, the listless, dusty banners of her vassals have never looked so colorful.