The first news of the strangers came in a message from the North. Like most of the letters sent over the years by Sansa’s brothers, this one made its way south of the Wall in the hands of a Wildling stranger, a thin black-haired girl who demanded payment of a loaf of the soft southern wheat bread she’d tasted only once in her life before she’d hand the scraped-thin parchment over.
She was hardly the first of the Free Folk to have travelled back south. Although the Wall still stood tall across most of the north, the great breach at Eastwatch had not – could not – be closed. Trade across it was halting and slow: even now that the Night’s Watch was no more, the Northerners maintained an armed watch at the breach.
Nevertheless they’d managed to maintain a cautious, uneasy peace with their former enemies across the barrier. The sheer need for survival in the face of winter and war saw trade in food and furs and the other staples of life become a necessity; fighting was a luxury they could no longer afford.
That need, that peace let Sansa smile when she read the joyful news at the heart of the letter. Bran, Jon wrote, had led their companions from the sheltered forest villages where they’d spent the first years of winter to a hidden valley in the Frostfangs where a tiny handful of the Children had protected not only themselves, but also near two hundred of the Free Folk of the mountains from the Night King – survivors beyond all dreams, all hope. She’d been raised to fear the Wildlings, but they’d fought side by side with her people, against the dead, and now her brothers had chosen to join them. She could rejoice with them all at the news of those few precious survivors – more weapons in the fight against the Free Folk’s extinction.
The rest of Jon’s letter was mostly concerned with small successes: another village rebuilt, old food caches rediscovered, the return of the reindeer on their endless migrations. There was only one line about the strangers, small news indeed in the face of the greater triumph.
Jon wrote, there are strange knights here, who say that have ridden here from a distant land. Their colours are red and gold, and their sigil is a lion, but none here know of their home: it is beyond the range of Bran’s sight. They are not Lannisters. They do not know of Westeros at all.
If they had been Lannisters, Sansa would not have tolerated it: for all that the King of the Rock was her ally, to see his red-and-gold soldiers travelling through the Northern lands would be a threat and an insult past bearing. But if they were not – if they were strangers – that was a matter of less urgency. They would not easily cross the Wall.
Sansa did not forget the strangers entirely, but she let the news of them slip from the surface of her mind. Jon’s happier news was a distraction, and there was so much else, far more urgent, to take up her time.
She had grown up all her childhood watching her father’s steady, watchful hands on the reins of power, but ruling the North in an easy peace was very different from ruling it in the aftermath of ruin and destruction.
So many had died, so many had lost their lands and their livelihoods both. And the survivors, who had lived through years of war, often found it too simple to return to violence – they had all forgotten what peace could be.
In the years since she’d taken up lordship of the North, Sansa had judged quarrels, ruled on inheritances, arranged for lands and goods without owners to be granted to new families where no heirs could be found. From the great lordly houses of the North to the humblest of crofters and fisherfolk – no families had been spared from the devastation of the wars, and too many of them demanded the advice of the Queen in the North before they would accept a new heir or settle a feud.
It was hard work, but satisfying, knowing she was well-suited for it. And she had strong allies: hunger, and cold.
No-one in the North had really been prepared for winter – some had food, some cloth and furs, some had stores of seasoned timber, but none had all of these. Many had seen their towns and crofts burned out by raiders, many had lost their strong young folk in the wars.
After the first hard year all had realised that none could survive on their own resources, alone. But at the command of a Stark, the last Stark, they would share, and live, together – so long as that Stark was strong enough, and clever enough, to keep their trust.
So far she had managed it. But there was one other problem to worry Sansa.
Of the great houses of the North still living, most had sent men to serve her – younger sons, cousins – as guardsmen and servitors. Some sent women, too, ladies of the minor nobility to support the highest ranked woman of House Stark, as had been the custom for centuries. But most were men. Young and handsome and accomplished, for the most part; all unmarried.
But she could not wed, yet. If there had been a man of the Mormonts living she would have married him at once, as a reward for his kin’s great loyalty, and seen it accepted gratefully by every lord in the North – but the lordship of that House had passed to the hands of a distant cousin, a widower in his seventies with three grown daughters and no sons. Alysanne Mormont, his eldest daughter, promised to be a worthy heir to Maege and Lyanna, but Sansa could not wed her, could not expect Alysanne to get her with child.
There were no others she could trust. A few other Stark bannermen had been loyal, but those mostly minor houses, and most of the men of those houses were dead. If she wed a minor cousin of a lesser house, the rest of the North would take it as an insult, a message that the Stark did not trust them – and they would be right. Manderlys, Dustins, Umbers, Ryswells… they had all failed the Starks when they had been needed most. As a Queen, Sansa could forgive them, could accept their loyalty as bannermen – but she would not bind herself intimately to any of them.
After Ramsay and Tyrion she would not sell herself lightly again.
“That was the midday bell, your Grace,” Wylla Manderly said quietly. “Will you come to the Great Hall for the petitioners?”
Sansa looked up from her parchments and smiled. “Of course. Forgive me, I was distracted…”
“Better you than me, with those old taxes!” Wylla burst out, then grinned sheepishly. “I don’t know how you stand it, your Grace, the writing’s so faded I can barely read a word.”
“Because I must, Wylla,” Sansa said, smiling gently. “It was a great good fortune when your father found these old copies with the Maesters at White Harbor. All the time I’ve been Queen I’ve just had to take lords’ word for it as to how much tax they owed me, since all the Stark records were burnt by Ramsay when he took Winterfell.”
Wylla screwed up her face in disgust at the name. “Curse his bones,” she muttered, as she reached out to help Sansa tidy the papers neatly away. “Here – ”
She passed Sansa the fur-lined mantle she wore when sitting in court in the Great Hall, as together they made their way towards the door. Sansa had embroidered the pattern of running wolves on its hems herself, though the fur had been a gift from her Master-at-Arms.
The thick soft bearskin was necessary, as sitting inside the Great Hall for hours was a chilly prospect these days. The building was much colder than she remembered it as a child; repairing the damage of fire and war was a project for decades, not years. Sansa would be lucky if she lived long enough to see the castle fully restored to what it had been in her childhood; for now only in the central keep where the people of the castle slept had the warming pipes been repaired.
These days Sansa was used to the chill. Ignoring it, she walked through the hall at the stately confident pace that had become second nature.
At the back of the room, by the fire where Sansa kept the great chair of her forefathers, was her mother’s great wooden loom. It had belonged to Ned Stark’s mother before her and his grandmother before that, back down the years through centuries of Lady Starks. Somehow it had survived the fire with only minor damage, and now the dark wood was smoothly polished and oiled again, warped with warm grey Northern wool.
Sansa could not hunt, she could not fight, she could not swing the sword of judgement with her own hands…
Still, she was the Queen in the North, the Stark of the North. Northerners did not sit idle on their thrones in gold and silks.
Sansa was a lady of the North, and she ruled as a lady, doing her duty by her household to see them clothed and fed and warm. She spun linen and carded wool with her own hands, wove it, cut it, stitched it. Let her people see that she worked for them with her own hands.
These days she liked the steady rhythms of the loom best. It gave her mind something to do, as well as her hands, but to keep track of the patterns of her simple sturdy Northern weaves was not so difficult that she could not also listen to her people as she worked.
Several people arrived as soon as she seated herself by the loom, and more trickled in steadily as the day progressed. Three crofter’s sons seeking judgement over a complex quarrel over boundary stones; an accusation of rape against a miller’s second son; a woman who had fled south with her husband a decade ago, come home to seek news of her mother’s kin…
She listened to them all carefully, courteously. Some cases Sansa would have to spend time considering, some she would need to seek out old records or witnesses before she could judge fairly, but most she could send away satisfied, with a good meal in their bellies and news of the fair judgements of the Queen of the North to carry back to their homes.
The last petitioners entered the hall late, near sunset, when Sansa had almost decided to pack away her weaving for the evening. It was a man and a woman, heavily cloaked and walking together – no, it was two women –
“Arya,” Sansa said very quietly. She thought she was moving slowly and neatly and carefully, so as not to damage her weaving, but her hands were shaking.
Then she was up and halfway down the room and her sister was in her arms.
She’d forgotten how small Arya was, even now she was a woman grown. And how hard she was, all muscle under the soft furs.
“Sansa,” her sister said, her voice suspiciously thick. “It’s good to see you.”
“I missed you,” Sansa said, into her hair. “You’ve been away so long! I thought you were – ”
She didn’t finish the sentence. Didn’t dare to.
“I’m sorry,” Arya said, voice muffled in Sansa’s mantle. “I didn’t mean to be gone so long.”
“I know,” Sansa said. Now her own voice was shaky. “I’m glad you’re home.”
They parted slowly. Distantly, Sansa could remember a time when her sister had been a frustration and an annoyance, when she couldn’t stand to be around her – so distant those feelings barely seemed real.
Now Arya was looking up at her and grinning – grinning! – eyes warm and bright with affection.
“This is my friend Lucy,” she said, gesturing towards the cloaked woman still waiting patiently at the back of the room. “Lu, this is my sister Sansa. The Queen in the North.”
The woman – Lucy – curtsied with an ease and elegance that seemed almost Southern, despite her heavy clothes.
“It is an honour and a pleasure to meet you, your Grace,” she said, voice light and sweet with an accent Sansa didn’t recognise. “Your dear sister has told me so much of you.”
“Any friend of my sister is welcome here,” Sansa said, already gesturing behind her back for Wylla to bring the bread and salt. “Be welcome in Winterfell, for as long as you desire.”
Later, after Arya and her friend had been fed and offered the use of the hot springs for bathing, the three of them sat together in Sansa’s solar, curled up on the hard Northern benches over glasses of steaming spiced Southern wine. An expensive luxury, if Sansa had paid for it – but the wine was a gift from a friend.
“I only sailed west for three weeks before the storm hit,” Arya said. “It was a bit foolish to think I could control that whole ship alone...”
Sansa said nothing, but Arya read the expression on her face correctly, and gently kicked her before continuing.
“The winds drove me back north – it was hard to tell how far I went, I lost track of time. I didn’t dare sleep much... And when I finally did, the damn ship ran aground.”
“Luckily against the point below the castle of Cair Paravel, the seat of the kings of my land,” Lucy said lightly. “It was very dramatic. No-one in Narnia had ever seen a ship like your sister’s before!”
“I am grateful you saved her,” Sansa said, only partially controlling the emotion in her tone. “The Starks owe your people a great debt.”
“Oh, I wasn’t responsible for any of that,” Lucy said, laughing. “I just came in after the dramatic rescue was finished, to give Arya some company while she recovered. We got on so well, I decided to stick around and help her learn our language.”
“And learn mine from me,” Arya said, smiling a little.
Sansa blinked. “You don’t speak Westerosi in your land?”
“Oh, no,” Lucy said at once. “Our tongue is very different. But your sister is a good teacher.”
Sansa blinked again; that seemed an unnecessarily kind stretching of the truth.
“It is strange that our languages are so different,” Lucy went on, politely ignoring Sansa’s expression. “Arya sailed weeks to find Narnia, but since she came here we have been exploring together and found that our countries are linked by land – north-east of my country through the land of the giants, north-west of yours across the Wall. It was only a month of travelling for us to reach Arya’s brothers, once we learned the way.”
Sansa frowned. It was strange indeed that no stories she knew had ever mentioned Lucy’s land.
“None of the Free Folk had ever heard of Narnia,” Arya said quietly. “The people of the Frozen Shore know their home very well, and they’d always known that the land ended in the south-east at the edge of a frozen sea. They didn’t believe Lucy and I could have walked from a warm southern country. Bran thinks the lands themselves changed, somehow, when the Night King fell…”
She hesitated, looking up at Sansa with a strange expression in her eyes.
“It isn’t winter in Narnia, Sansa. At least, it was when I first arrived – but only for a few months, and then spring came almost at once, and then the summer, and then autumn and winter again, all in the space of a single year. I have seen four winters since I last saw you, Sansa.”
“But…” Sansa shook her head. “Arya, that isn’t possible!”
“I almost didn’t believe your sister, when she told me that a single season could last years in her country,” Lucy said. “I wouldn’t believe it, except Narnia once had a long winter, too… But that was a wicked magic cast by an evil woman, and she is dead now. In every land I know the turn of the seasons takes only one year, and I have known more lands than most.”
“It’s so strange,” Arya said, shaking her head.
Sansa sat upright suddenly, realising the obvious.
“So it is summer in your lands, while it is winter here,” she said, slowly. “And our lands are separated perhaps by six weeks of travel on foot. Even if your summers are short… how are your harvests? Might you have food to trade with us?”
Arya’s smile was small and secret, Lucy’s bright and untroubled as the sun.
“Oh yes,” Lucy said. “That is why your sister asked me to come.”
Sansa looked west over the battlements towards the faint golden light of sunset, ignoring the snow blowing in her face. Somewhere out there, far to the northwest, Arya had returned to a strange distant land… but unlike all the other times Sansa had stood at this place thinking of her sister, now Sansa knew where Arya was. Knew what she was doing, and that she would be coming home.
Arya had carried a trade proposal from Sansa back to Cair Paravel with her, and Sansa’s blessing to treat with the King of Narnia on her behalf. Lucy had told them the Narnians would be very glad to trade Northern furs for their surplus grain and other foodstuffs – there was some issue with finding furs in their country she could not or would not explain.
The North was surviving winter mostly alone, but only barely. Even now, the South had little food to trade – even the warm sheltered lands of the Reach, which for centuries had fed the North in the depths of winter, had neither the labour nor the will to send much food North; the new King in the Reach drove hard bargains, and was not much given to charity.
But if they could find a new trading partner… if they could turn away from begging in the South for a time, and regain their strength…
Sansa stood for a long time, thinking, until even her great furs could not keep the chill from her, and she began to shake with cold.
Down below, out of the wind, the ward was warmer, but Sansa still moved quickly towards the central keep.
“Your Grace! You should come, there’s a messenger…” Beren Tallhart, sent here to serve her half a year ago by his older brother, was very young and awkward still, and did not manage well with strangeness; Sansa thought nothing of his pale-faced shock, at first.
But then he took her to the rookery, not the gates. Maester Halys met her at the doorway, and he was palefaced too, and stunned; that was not his usual manner.
“Your Grace,” he said, easily and smoothly enough, but there was a strange look in his eyes. “Your Grace, there’s a raven…”
“Hail to the Queen in the North!” It was a strange voice, harsh and ragged, and Sansa could not see who was speaking. It was only her and Halys and Beren here…
“I bring you greetings from the High King of Narnia to the Queen in the North. He bade me fly to seek you, and bring you his words.”
There was no other human here. It was a raven speaking. The largest she’d ever seen, with a strange intelligence in its dark eyes.
There was a message tube strapped to one of its legs, and as she watched the raven turned and lifted a thin scroll from the tube itself, delicately manipulating the toggles with its long beak.
“Hail, Queen in the North,” it said again, voice slightly muffled, and laid the tube in her hands.
“I thank you,” Sansa said woodenly, courtesies falling from her lips without conscious thought. The raven was speaking like a man – not merely mimicking speech, as some ravens were taught to do, but understanding the words it spoke.
She drew in a deep breath.
“Does your King expect an answer?” she asked the bird, feeling an absurd bubble of amused delight rising in her and pushing the feeling down.
The raven bobbed its head. “He does, my Queen. If I may wait here, I will take your answer back to my King.”
Sansa bit her lip. The ravenry was warm and protected, but pungent with droppings; could she ask an intelligent beast to live among its dumb kin?
Maester Halys caught her eye, and spoke at her subtle nod.
“You have come far through the winter cold,” he told the bird, staring at it in wonder. “Would you accept my hospitality, and wait in the Maester’s chambers below for my Queen’s reply?”
The bird shook itself out, ruffling its feathers and then relaxing. “I would, with gratitude. I have not flown through winter winds like that for many years!”
It bowed at her again – she bowed back, feeling clumsy and strange – and then she left, still clutching the raven’s message in her hand.
A raven, that spoke like a man…!
The message was short, and written in a careful but clumsy hand; if Lucy had been speaking the truth, its scribe had learned her script and language only recently, and that from Arya, who was hardly a master of the written arts.
Nevertheless it was written with great courtesy, as if by a Southern knight.
Peter, by the gift of Aslan, by election, by prescription, and by conquest, High King over all Kings in Narnia, Emperor of the Lone Islands and Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion, to his sister Sansa, Queen in the North, greetings!
Our sister Lucy, sometime Queen under us in Narnia, Duchess of Beruna and Lady of the Glasswater, Knight of the Noble Order of the Table, has brought us word of your great generosity and wisdom, and the strength of your rule in your northern lands.
We seek friendship with your Majesty, that we might each aid the other in our troubles, and share our blessings in times of peace.
That this friendship may long endure, we offer you the hand of our brother Edmund, sometime King under us in Narnia, Duke of the Lantern Waste and Count of the Western March, Knight of the Noble Order of the Table…
Sansa looked up blindly towards the western window of her solar but the sun had set, the golden light was gone.
There was fear, but the shock was stronger. She had not expected this…
Perhaps she ought to have.
“Arya did not tell me Lucy was a Queen…” she whispered to herself, feeling shaky and cold; but perhaps Arya had not known.
She stared west for a long time, thinking very little – trying not to think.
Sansa did not need to decide how to answer this proposal; she needed only to find the strength to do what she knew she must.
The Maesters of Oldtown had sent the white ravens to announce the beginning of spring two weeks ago, but of course there would be no sign of it this far North for many months. Waiting by the great north gate of Winterfell, Sansa was still wrapped in heavy layers of fur; her pretty grey linen dress, that she had embroidered with her own hands, was completely hidden from view.
It was a strange crowd surrounding Sansa. Arya had arrived an hour ago, ahead of the Narnian party; they hadn’t yet had the chance to speak in private and now she stood silent and grim-faced at Sansa’s elbow. Sansa’s ladies were with her too, of course, and a group of her guards reinforced by the men lining the walls of Winterfell; and behind them row after row of Northern bannermen and their families, here to see their liege lord wed. Tyrion Lannister and Sansa’s uncle and even little Sweetrobin had sent knights to witness the wedding of one of the great kings of Westeros, though thankfully Yara Greyjoy had kept her people away. Even Brienne of Tarth had ridden north to see Sansa safely wed.
And Jon was with her too, and a great crowd of the Free Folk. They had fought together against the dead, but it was still strange to stand together side-by-side, in peacetime.
Bran had not come. Could not come, Jon said; falling deeper into the life of a greenseer, these days he rarely ever even passed outside the mouth of the children’s caves. The long ride to Winterfell was no longer possible for him.
But Jon was here. Tormund too, with his daughters, a familiar old friend – another man Sansa knew she could trust. Sansa had them all – her guards, her bannermen, her allies, her friends, her brother and sister – beside her, if the Narnians turned treacherous. She did not think they would; but she needed all their strength beside her. Needed that comfort.
“They’re strange folk,” Jon said wryly, staring at the approaching banners of the Narnians. A great crowd walked beneath the lion standards, but few were human.
“But trustworthy, I think,” Sansa said, staring at where a great spotted cat was marching in step with a beautiful unsaddled bay mare.
“Aye,” Tormund said beside them. “But too damn wordy. They talk like southern kneelers.”
“They are southern kneelers,” Sansa said, half-smiling. “It suits me well enough.”
He slapped her on the back, so hard she almost stumbled. “Better you than me!” he said cheerfully. “I wouldn’t – ”
“Hush,” Sansa said, before he could finish that sentence; beside her Arya let out a quiet huff of laughter. “They’ll hear.”
The four figures in the lead of the Narnian group were human, at least – or seemed it. Sansa recognised only Lucy, looking strange and formal with her hair braided and topped with a silver circlet. A second woman, extraordinarily beautiful, had loose dark hair hanging almost to her knees; she walked beside a handsome blond man whose gold crown was larger than any of the others.
The second man was dark-haired, and his circlet was thin and silver, like Lucy’s.
Edmund. Her husband-to-be.
Edmund was a quiet man – watchful caution, Sansa thought, not shyness. He was as polite as Lucy, but did not have her careless easy charm.
Then again, what Sansa would tolerate in a friend was very different from what she would accept in a marriage partner. Arya and perhaps Lucy had no doubt warned him to treat her with caution, not to take her for granted, and it seemed Edmund had listened.
Though who could know for sure? A great feast, at the high table at the centre of the room, was perhaps not the best place to get to know one’s future husband.
Edmund spoke Common almost as fluently as Lucy – much better than their older siblings – but there was still a hesitation in his speech. They spoke only of inconsequential things, the differences in the land between Sansa’s North and the north of Narnia, playful stories of their childhoods, their siblings. It seemed that Edmund and his siblings had come to Narnia as young children, and barely remembered their homeland and their kin.
Sansa recoiled at that. “You do not remember your family?” she said, unable to keep the true horror from her voice. “I am sorry…”
But Edmund merely shrugged. “I remember that they were honest and kind folk, and they loved us. But we have found another family in Narnia. And we have always had each other.”
“I envy you that,” Sansa said, before she could stop herself.
Edmund looked down, lashes dark against his pale cheek.
“Your sister told me a little of your troubles. I am so sorry for what you and your family have suffered.”
“I thank you for your sympathy.” Sansa looked away. “The woman who attends your sister Susan is very beautiful, I have never seen a woman with hair like hers before.”
Her hair was pale as silver, but streaked with shades of brown and a colour that was almost green.
Edmund smiled, accepting the deflection. “Betula is a dryad, a tree-spirit. She is a lady of the silver birch; all her sisters have hair like hers.”
“A tree-spirit!” Sansa said, delighted despite herself. “You live in a land of wonders, truly.”
“Yes,” Edmund said, his smile small and secret as he passed into another story.
For a moment Sansa almost wished that she would be leaving with him to dwell as the wife of a king in a land of knights and fairytales, as she had dreamed when she was a child… but only for a moment.
The child was grown and gone now. And Winterfell would always be her home.
The wedding would be held on the third night following Edmund's arrival; the Narnian party would return home on the fifth.
“Will you go back with them, Arya?” Sansa asked her, failing to keep the chill from her tone.
“No,” Arya answered, jaw tight. “Sansa, I swear it. I did not know what they were planning until Lucy told me you’d already accepted the proposal.”
“You did not know what King Peter was planning? I can believe that. Did Lucy know? Did you know Lucy was a Queen? Did you know they planned to sell us an alliance with myself as the price?”
“Sansa…” Arya’s eyes were wide and dark. “I’m sorry. I knew Lucy was one of the ruling queens. Not the rest. She asked me not to tell. If Narnia was going to make an alliance, she wanted to find out how you treated an ordinary traveller, not just royalty.”
“She said she didn’t even think about a marriage until she talked to Peter, it was all his idea. She said – ”
“You seem to value what she said.”
Arya lifted her head and met Sansa’s eyes. “I do. I trust her, Sansa. She risked her life helping me find my way home to you.”
Sansa wanted to answer that with more sharp words, but she bit her tongue on them. Arya was a good judge of character, when it came to matters of life and death and battle…
And she was bad at political judgement, at playing the game of kings, the battles of power and words and alliance that were Sansa’s field of war. She took people at their face, good or ill. That was simply who she was.
Pushing past her bitterness for a moment, Sansa realised that she did believe Arya. She did trust her.
It still hurt to realise that Arya had loyalties outside the Starks.
“I’m sorry,” Sansa said at last, filling the quiet between them. It was hard to let this anger go, but for sister she could do it. “If you trust her, then I trust you.”
Arya took her hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry I didn’t realise you felt like this about the marriage. It’s not too late to stop it! I can – ”
Sansa laughed. “No, Arya. It’s alright. I chose this, it will be good for us in the long run.”
Arya looked at her dubiously. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “I don’t want to marry, but I must. This is the best I can hope for.”
“I’m sorry it has to be this way.” Arya shook her head, half-smiling. “You’re braver than me, I’d never stand for a marriage like this. Better you than me!”
Sansa grinned. “I don’t know, I think I’m not the only one making alliances with Narnians. You and Lucy are very close, aren’t you? Are you lovers, yet?”
She had the satisfaction of watching a faceless man, the assassin who slew the Night King, blush.
They held the wedding in the pure Northern style, in the heart of the Godswood, in the snow. The short winter day was so dim and overcast, all Sansa’s guardsmen carried bright torches to light up the shadows between the trees.
Sansa refused to let Edmund cloak her with red and gold lions; not only did she not wish to do it, her bannermen would have rioted at the sight. Instead she gave her husband a grey-embroidered wolf’s cloak that he draped around his shoulders with his own hands.
Narnians, it seemed, exchanged rings, not cloaks. The one Edmund gave her was heavy and ancient, made all of gold carved with patterns of leaves and flowers. Not lions, she thought, with gratitude. Never lions again.
It was all over so quickly – and then she was staring at the pale nervous face of her third husband, white against the snow. All around them the strange crowd – Narnians and Northerners and Free Folk and Southerners – began to cheer, as the torches flared and reflected golden through the trees.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Edmund muttered beside her as they led the procession back towards the warmth of the keep; it was too cold to linger out here for long, particularly for soft Southerners. He smiled carefully at her, then tucked his arm through hers. Sansa tensed, but she let him do it; part of her was shocked to realise that he had been nervous, too.
Sansa smiled at him, trying to keep her own nervousness at bay, knowing that the great crowd behind them was watching. “What were you expecting?” she teased, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. “A fight to the death? Real wolves?”
He blinked at her. “Your brother has a wolf,” he reminded her flatly, astonished. She stared at him for a long moment – then they both laughed.
“I forgot about Ghost,” she said ruefully, which just made him laugh harder.
For a moment she could almost forget why they were here.
There would be no bedding ceremony, Sansa had told the Narnians firmly, willing to make a fight out of it if necessary – but she didn’t need to. They reacted only with confusion, and then with horror once she explained the custom.
“No!” said Peter, looking thunderous and magnificent despite his halting speech in her tongue. “No dishonour my goodsister!”
“I would rather not see so much of my sister either,” Jon murmured, then grinned when Sansa kicked him under the table.
But it meant that now, as the great feast to celebrate the wedding grew hot and bawdy, it was left to Sansa to chose a time to rise, and take her new husband’s hand to lead him to her bed.
Better him than Ramsay, she told herself firmly. Foolish child that she’d been, she’d feared that bedding less than she’d feared her first night with Tyrion Lannister.
She knew the worst, now. Edmund would not be so bad as that.
Still, she knew herself to be drawn and pale as she led her husband away. Behind them Tormund was singing something unmentionable about the wedding of a giant and a bear – and oh gods, Arya and Lucy were singing raucously along; she prayed Peter did not have the Westerosi to understand them – and she ought to smile at them, but could not.
“My lady,” Edmund said carefully, touching her elbow gently without laying his hand on it. “Are you well?”
“Perfectly,” Sansa said. Her smile was fixed to her face like a mask.
Inside, her room was brightly lit by beeswax candles, hung with sweet-smelling branches of fir and pine and bright holly berries to replace the flowers the Northerners could not afford to grow in winter.
Sansa took a deep breath of the fragrant air, the Northern air. Found her courage, slipped it over her like a cloak.
“My lord,” she said softly, turning to face her new husband. A tug at its laces and her dress loosened, slid from her shoulders to pool at her feet.
Edmund stared at her, red and flushed. “My – my lady – we need not, at once – I mean, there is no hurry –”
“Why wait?” Sansa said shrugging, watching her husband watch the motion. “We are wed now. I would rather be man and wife in truth.”
Edmund drew in a breath, obviously fighting for his own composure. “If you are sure?” he asked hesitantly, then at her nod reached out and laid his hand tentatively against her hip.
She controlled her flinch. Felt his other hand touching her bare body and could not help how she twitched away from him.
Desperately, trying to distract him and herself, Sansa wrapped her hands in his hair and pulled his mouth down to hers for a kiss. His lips were soft, breath sweet and still flavoured with the evening’s fragrant wine. Not so bad, she told herself dizzily.
Then his hands slid around her waist, caressing, and she could not bear it. She broke free and flung herself across the room.
“Sansa?” His eyes were dark and soft with concern. “Sansa, we need not do this.”
“I must,” she said, through gritted teeth. To save her own life she had endured Ramsay’s touch on her for weeks on end, she could do this.
She reached out for him again, but her hands were shaking. Edmund caught her hands in his and drew them away.
“Did someone hurt you?”
His voice was kind, so kind. “Did Arya tell you all about him?” she snarled at him, hating him for that gentleness. She was not weak, she did not need his pity.
“No,” he said quietly, withdrawn a little way from her. “Only that you had suffered much in your life, and that I should be kind.”
“I don’t need your kindness!”
Slowly Edmund shook his head. “No. I think you are very strong, you do not need a knight to save you now. But I would still offer you kindness, all the same.”
She wanted to snarl at him, still – she was a wolf, she did not need to be treated like the soft delicate lady she’d never been given the chance to become – but he’d turned away from her now, finding the soft blue wool robe laid out over her press.
He offered it to her carefully, in both hands, without attempting to wrap it around her or to touch her. She would have scorned him for it, but she was growing cold, and she did not have the strength of will to keep throwing herself at him if he was only going to turn her away.
Cautiously, Sansa sat down on the edge of the bed, with the warm robe wrapped around her. Edmund did not attempt to sit beside her; instead he sat on the floor, folding himself up on her bearskin rug like a boy.
“Do you know why my brother was so pleased to hear of a woman ruler to whom he could offer my hand?” he asked her at last, almost abruptly.
Sansa shook her head.
“Four kings in one kingdom is too many, and our land has many large unfriendly neighbours to our west and south. We’ve been seeking marriage alliances for years, and many came to us seeking them, but it was really only ever my sister they wanted.”
Sansa had seen little of the beautiful Susan, who was even more quiet than her brother. She spoke very little Westerosi, though Sansa suspected she understood much more of the language than she pretended. It was hard to get close to her, because her brothers and sister, all their folk, were always hovering round her protectively, a cautious guard…
“One prince managed to fool her – fool us all – into thinking he would make a good match, but it was a lie. He tried to kidnap her, once she saw through his mask; we barely escaped from him with our lives, and only because he underestimated Susan. Then he sent an army against us to bring her back by force. Many died, turning them away… if we hadn’t had help from our allies in the south all would have been lost for us, and they suffered greatly to give us that aid.”
Sansa wanted to shake her head, wanted to deny the pain in his story – did he think his sister was the only woman who had suffered? Did he not realise that she was fortunate, not unlucky – did he not realise how few women had a family and a kingdom to protect them, as Susan’s had done?
Sansa’s family had left her to face the monsters alone.
Only – it was not pity in his face after all, when he looked at her. Only compassion – understanding –
“We need alliances as much as we have ever done, but Susan won’t be the one to make them. Not now, maybe not ever. None of us will force her. And I won’t force you.”
Somehow Sansa’s face was wet.
“You must. We must lie together.”
“One day, perhaps.” Edmund shrugged, looking away from her. “Perhaps not. It does not matter.”
“I need an heir,” Sansa said harshly.
“But not yet. And you need not get one from me unless you truly wish it. It’s your blood your people want to see in our heirs, not mine.”
She stared at him, confusing breaking through the trembling fear still churning in her belly. What kind of man was he?
She had offered and offered – why did he not just take?
He looked at her again, starting to reach out for her hands, but then he dropped them and did not touch her.
“You deserve more than this, Sansa. You deserve a chance to get to know me, before we even try this again. A chance to heal, without me hurting you.”
She shook her head back and forth, blindly.
“I can’t – ” But she could not finish that sentence. She could not think what to say.
Edmund stood suddenly, and walked towards the door – opened it – Sansa felt her stomach drop. Of course the kind words had just been a pretence, of course this was the moment when the horror would begin.
But it was not men, another man, who stepped through the doorway.
It was the great spotted cat Sansa had seen as the Narnian party rode up to Winterfell, long and lean and elegant, her cream fur spotted and dappled with grey.
She walked towards Sansa and stopped by the edge of the bed, then folded herself to sit neatly on her haunches with her enormous long tail wrapped around her feet. Her green eyes were almost at a level with Sansa’s own.
“I am Hoarfrost,” she said, in a voice that was rough leather and satin all together. “I am sworn shield to King Edmund. We are knights of the table together.”
Sansa bowed her head, shaken out of her shock by sheer wonder.
“May I stay?” the cat asked, in her husky voice. “I guard you, I protect. No-one reaches you when I am here.”
Sansa reached out as if to touch her great furred head, thought better of it and drew her hand back; but Hoarfrost leaned over and rubbed her head against Sansa’s hand like a housecat.
“Please,” Sansa said, in a voice almost as hoarse and rough as the cat’s own.
Edmund blew the candles out and curled himself up on the rug beside the fire, wrapped in Sansa’s furs. Hoarfrost was the one who leapt onto the bed beside Sansa.
Her fur was impossibly thick and soft. It felt like Lady’s…
“Oh, cubling,” Hoarfrost said, in a voice that suddenly sounded like Sansa’s mother.
Sansa buried her face in the great cat’s fur and wept.
In the morning Sansa woke to find herself alone in the room. She dressed herself carefully, in layers of wool and fur like armour. Wylla came to braid her hair and chattered inconsequently, lightly, distractingly, while her kind hands stroked and soothed.
“Are you well this morning, your Grace?” Wylla asked.
“Very well,” Sansa said brightly, and found the strength in her to smile.
Edmund and Hoarfrost finally returned only after Wylla left her. Edmund was carrying a tray of fresh bread and honey to break their fast in his own hands. There was a little pot of golden preserve beside the bread – it smelt something like lemons, but more fragrant, and very sweet.
“Honey lemons from the south of Narnia,” Edmund explained, with a smile. He was handsome when he smiled, Sansa realised, with something like shock.
She’d been too afraid of him to notice it before.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “You are kind.”
His smile broadened, brightened.
I could love him, soon, Sansa thought. The thought came to her with hope, not fear.
The Narnians and the southern knights and the Free Folk all left together, on the same day; Hoarfrost and two human men were the only ones of Edmund’s people who stayed with him in Winterfell.
Arya and Lucy left that day too – travelling south, not north.
“I wish to see more of your lands, as Arya has seen mine,” Lucy said, all dimpling smiles, but Sansa saw her expression when she farewelled her brother, how closely she and Edmund clung to each other before she pulled away.
“Don’t be so long this time,” Sansa told her sister sternly, at their own farewell. Jon echoed her, cuffing Arya’s head as he had when they were children.
“I won’t,” Arya told them both seriously, then grinned. “We’ll be back before you have time to miss me!”
And then it was time to farewell Jon – she clung to him, longer than she ought, but she missed him so; his unshakeable honour, his sword at her back.
“I could stay a little longer,” he offered, uneasily, but Sansa wiped her eyes and shook her head.
“You can’t,” she said firmly, crushing her own wants. “You promised you’d leave Westeros.” That was what he’d agreed with Daenerys, when she agreed to return with her people to the eastern lands. Each kingdom would be free to rule itself as it chose, as in the days before Aegon, and if she could not sit in the Iron Throne then neither would any other Targaryen. No more of that house would dwell in Westeros.
Jon did not want to rule the Seven Kingdoms – and as much as she loved him, Sansa knew very well he was too honest and straightforward to make a good king – but there were still southern lords who wished to see a Targaryen ruling seven kingdoms from King’s Landing. It was safer for all of them if Jon stayed out of Westeros altogether, out of their reach, beyond the Wall.
“Aye, I did.” He hesitated, still tense with his worry. “But if you need me, I’ll come. It doesn’t matter the reason, I’ll always come.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, trying not to cry. “Send Bran my love.”
“Mine, too,” Arya said gruffly. The three of them met for one last hug –
“You’d better go before you waste the daylight,” Sansa said shakily, and turned back to the keep. She could endure this parting as she had all the others, so long as she did not have to watch all the people she loved riding away from her.
Edmund settled into Winterfell more easily than Sansa would have expected. He was friendly and polite to everyone, from the gruff old lords to the servants’ little children, and he soon dropped his courtly ways; the casual informality of the North did not seem to bother him in the slightest. His human knights fit in as easily as he himself did, and Hoarfrost – once Sansa’s people were used to the shock of speech coming from a cat’s mouth – made friends too. Mostly among the Northern warriors, but the keep’s children all loved her almost at once.
The training yards were still where Sansa was most likely to find her husband and his people. He was a good warrior, skilled with a broadsword and a bow.
“Not as good as my sister,” he said ruefully, when Sansa complimented him on his skill at the archery targets.
“Lucy?” she asked. Remembering what Arya was like as a child, it wasn’t really a surprise to hear that Edmund’s wild little sister had similar ways.
But Edmund just laughed. “Oh no. Lucy uses a bow, but she’s not a master at it – she prefers a sword and a dagger, like me. No, Susan’s the archer in our family.”
Sansa was staring, but she couldn’t help herself. It was one thing to see a wild warrior woman like Arya or Brienne or Lucy with a bow, but Susan was so much the graceful lady, elegant in jewels and silken gowns, it was hard to imagine her with archer’s gauntlets and a quiver on her back.
“Does that bother you?” Edmund said, politely enough, but there was a hint of danger in his tone.
“Of course not! Not with Arya as a sister. I was only surprised…”
It was a lesson, though. She ought not take the Narnians for granted, ought to learn more of their ways before she embarrassed herself like this again.
Evenings were the best time to seek more information about Edmund and his people. As her parents had done, Sansa ate together with most of the population of Winterfell, seated with her ladies and husband and chief guardsmen at the high table. Through all the long winter evenings, they all took turns telling tales – and since Edmund’s were new, Sansa rarely even needed to be the first to ask him to speak.
She enjoyed them more than she expected – he was a good storyteller, and it was clear his people had a good stock of tales. But their evenings together were not all pleasure, for Sansa.
Since their guests had departed, Winterfell had returned to its typical winter fare: only two meals a day, and those of stuff that would be considered coarse peasant food in the South. Barley groats with onions, sour pickled cabbage, turnips from the winter gardens cooked together with their tops. For meat they were more likely to eat squirrel or lemming than fine venison or fat beef – particularly since Hoarfrost could eat only flesh, and usually claimed the first share from the hunters. Their few remaining cows had been dry for years, all their stores of butter and most of their cheese eaten long ago.
Sansa doubted that even peasants in the south would touch the soft fermented herring or stewed seaweed that appeared on Winterfell’s tables almost every night.
Every night Sansa waited for Edmund to show his disdain – if not aloud, then by a look or a wince or a grimace. By all accounts his homeland was soft and southern, rich in fine fruits and fat meat. Sansa well remembered the rich meals of King’s Landing, the cultivated appetites of its lords who scorned coarse and simple dishes.
But he said nothing, only spooned up his thin soups and groats with every evidence of enjoyment.
Finally she could bear it no longer.
“You do not mind our food? Few southern lords can tolerate it.”
“Better than boarding school,” he said laughing, and then suddenly frowned.
“Boarding… school?” Sansa asked curiously, stumbling over the words.
“They sent children there, in my homeland,” Edmund said slowly. “I don’t remember… It was before the war…”
It was as if the whole table leaned forward together. Edmund almost never spoke of his strange homeland; from his stories he and his siblings might well have been born in Narnia.
“There was a war, in your homeland?” Sansa asked him, gently.
“Yes,” he said, eyes distant. “We were a great land, the greatest. They said the sun never set on our empire. Our enemy grew jealous and cruel, mad with power. He overran all our allies on the mainland in a lightning war. We stood alone…”
He frowned, mouth moving to shape words in another tongue.
“My father went to war. He was too old, but he did his duty…”
“What happened to him?” Sansa asked, very quietly. “Did your land win?”
Edmund shook his head, eyes sad. “I don’t know. They sent the children away, for safety… I don’t know…" He shook his head and smiled at her, coming back to himself. "It doesn't matter. We can’t ever go back, not without the Lion’s aid.”
There must have been something strange in the expression on Sansa's face; Edmund's smile faltered.
“The Lion helped us forget - it truly was a kindness. Remembering is too hard, when we’ll never find out the truth, never go home. It’s better this way.”
Sansa said nothing – could say nothing, through the deep emotion welling up inside her.
She would never understand this man. She’d rather have died than forgotten her family.
And yet, still - at night, after the food and the stories were finished, after the Narnian Ser Melyn had sung for the hall to the accompaniment of his great harp, Sansa and Edmund and Hoarfrost raced each other through the cold back to Sansa’s rooms, laughing and tossing snow at each other like children.
Somewhere along the way Sansa had learned to laugh with Edmund. Somehow, at night, she had grown comfortable letting Edmund and Hoarfrost switch places, so that Hoarfrost slept curled in a perfect circle on the hearthrug, and Edmund slept beside Sansa in her great bed with a barrier only of bedclothes between them.
Edmund was a good bedmate, sleeping still and quiet, but radiating heat beneath the blankets.
It was – pleasant, maybe, to wake beside him in the dark still cold before sunrise.
Surely she must have learned to trust him, if she could let herself fall asleep beside him in this way?
The raven was a common, speechless Westerosi bird, but the letter it carried had been written in Arya’s own hand; her careless scrawl was unmistakeable.
Trouble in the south, it read. The Reach has attacked the Stormlands. Dorne has sent their banners but Gendry’s already lost half the old Crownlands; Bronn looks to attack our uncle next.
The Vale won’t answer our ravens.
Will you send aid?
Sansa’s first thought was to do nothing; her cousin in the Vale had the right of it. The North could not afford to lose more men, more supplies, not with months still before the snow would be clear enough for the first spring crop. Early spring was the hardest time, when foodstores were at their lowest. Kindness was a weakness not even the strong could easily afford; it had cost her family almost everything, once.
Let the South look after their own.
That was her first thought; then she looked up and saw Edmund looking at her, eyes wide and dark with concern.
“Trouble in the south,” she said reluctantly, at his question. “Arya sent a letter – she and Lucy are fine, but they’ve stumbled into a war.”
Edmund sucked in a breath between his teeth.
“How many men will you send?” Then he looked at her more closely, and his expression changed. “You’re allied to the southern lands, aren’t you? You’ve sworn your aid?”
Deliberately Sansa folded the letter and walked from the room, leaving the ravenry and its attendant listening Maester behind. She didn’t wait to see if Edmund was behind her, but when she stopped on the wall he was there.
“I did,” she said finally. “At King’s Landing before the wreck of the Iron Throne eight kings claimed their independence and swore mutual aid to each other against their enemies – but who should I aid, when the kings’ worst enemies are each other? Dorne’s already replaced the king they had then in another coup; Yara Greyjoy’s not raiding in Westeros but she’s taken her fleet east again and the gods only know what she’s doing there, or what she'll do when she gets back. Now damned Bronn the Reacher is doing what we all should have known he’d do, and is grabbing at more than we gave him.”
Edmund opened his mouth to speak, but Sansa shook her head; she wasn’t finished.
“Maybe it isn’t right, but he’s a strong king; neither Gendry Baratheon nor my uncle Edmure Tully can say the same. Gendry’s too kind and Edmure’s too weak. Why should I risk the North to aid them, when it could leave me vulnerable to the Ironborn, when they come back, or to my cousin in the Vale, or even to my own bannermen if they decide I’m wasting their lives to no good cause?”
Why should I risk you, she almost asked, then snapped her mouth shut on the words before they could spill free.
“And what if Narnia begs for your aid?” Edmund asked her, quietly. “If Calormen attacks again, or Telmar, and we call on your soldiers to help protect our borders?”
Sansa looked away, saying nothing. Edmund’s cheeks were pale, his lips thin and bloodless.
“If I could do it, I’d send aid,” Sansa said at last. “If we had the men and the supplies. But I can’t send aid south now, it’s too early in spring for that. It’s too great a risk for the North.”
“We’re sending you food,” Edmund said. “Not just for the sake of our alliance but because it is right. Because you’re starving here, and we can help you! You have fighting men here still, you have ships in White Harbor. You could send men south if you wished. Your sister is fighting for her friend!”
“My sister could never play the game of thrones and rule. Kindness is weakness.”
For the first time in weeks Edmund reached out and touched her, covering her hand with his own.
“Do you truly believe that, Sansa? Is that all you really think ruling is?”
Sansa pulled her hand away.
“I didn’t want to,” she said softly. “But I learned. This is the only way to survive.”
Edmund was not at dinner that night. Hoarfrost accompanied her to her room alone, lay down on the bed beside her alone.
“Are you angry with me, too?” Sansa asked her quietly.
Hoarfrost nudged Sansa’s knee with her head and leapt up to the bed beside her, stretching out to her full length with her head in Sansa’s lap and her great furry paws dangling from the edge of the bed.
“He’s not angry. Just sad.”
“Disappointed in me?” Sansa said mockingly, lightly, but there was a lump in her throat it was hard to speak around.
Hoarfrost said nothing.
“He doesn’t understand what it is like here,” Sansa said at last. “He doesn’t understand how these kingdoms have torn each other to pieces in war, over and over. We’re nothing but the scraps left of something great. Maybe in another world things might be different, but in this one, we have been so cruel...”
Hoarfrost’s eyes were closed; she looked as if she was sleeping. Maybe it was only that that gave Sansa the courage to speak.
“The first man I was betrothed to killed my father out of nothing but spite, while I watched and begged for his life. I was thirteen years old. He was a king, and he used to strip me naked in front of his court and have his knights beat me while they laughed. I thought my brother would save me, but his own allies broke guest right to murder him, and my mother with him. Then the ones who killed my family wedded me to their kinsman, the king's uncle. I thought I was so lucky that he never bedded me, but my second husband more than made up for that. He was a monster, the worst man I’ve ever known… he liked hurting people, killing them. He hunted servant girls with dogs when they displeased him, flayed them alive. When my brother and I took Winterfell back from him I had him fed to his own dogs. You have to be as cruel as them, as strong as them, to survive this world…”
She was crying, she realised distantly. She felt Hoarfrost’s rough tongue rasp over her cheek.
“Life is more than survival, cubling,” Hoarfrost said. Her eyes were so sad, so kind. “You love your brothers and sisters still, do you not? You love your land, your home, your people…”
“Yes,” Sansa said, through the tears. “I do. That’s why I have to be the strong one, the cruel one, so I can protect them…”
“Cubling,” Hoarfrost said again, nothing more. She did not chide Sansa, did not attempt to sway her. But she stayed with Sansa all through that long night.
In the morning Sansa came to Edmund, her hair neatly braided and heavy layers of fur round her shoulders. Her eyes were dry.
“I’ve called the banners,” she told him, feeling cold and empty, remote. “I can give you three thousand men, no more.”
He stared at her as if he’d never seen her before. “Sansa?”
“Protect the towns and cities, the smallfolk, as much as you can. Arya’s making for Maidenpool; you can sail from White Harbour and meet her there, to catch Bronn’s army whether he turns north to the rivers or back south to the Stormlands.”
He was just staring at her, eyes dark and soft. But then he stepped forwards and took her hands in his. Kissed her gloved knuckles.
“Sansa, I’ll bring them back to you, I swear. I’ll come back…”
“Don’t,” she interrupted, harshly. “Don’t make me promises you don’t know you can keep.”
I can’t bear it.
He nodded and said nothing, but she saw the promise still in his eyes.
She did not watch him ride away.
Weeks passed. Months. Sansa had survived years alone in Winterfell before Arya returned... This would not be different, she would not let it be different.
This time there had been ravens from Arya, good news written in her own hands, even word from a group of wounded Northmen sent back home to recover. Sansa still could not believe that any of her family still lived until she stood on the walls of Winterfell herself and saw the riders coming beneath the northern banners. Grey wolf, axe, mermaid, bear…
There were three riders in the lead. A spotted grey cat running beside them.
Sansa waited, hands clenched to the point of pain, until those figures were close enough to recognise – then she ran.
Her sister, her sister’s lover, her husband. They were alive, they were alive, they’d come home to her…
She hugged Arya first, her sister’s arms squeezing the breath out of her.
Then she turned to Edmund. He looked drawn and tired, and there was a thin new scar near the corner of his mouth, but he was alive…
She flung herself into his arms, surprising herself as much as him.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she said hoarsely. He smiled at her, those lovely dark eyes soft.
“So am I. I missed you, Sansa…”
She leaned in and kissed him. His mouth was soft, soft and warm and slack with surprise at first, but then he kissed her back and he was the sweetest thing she’d ever tasted.
“I love you,” he said in her ear as they pulled apart, then jerked backwards in surprise at himself, cheeks flushed pink.
Sansa just smiled at him, helplessly. He made her feel soft and warm and hopeful again – she’d missed him so much, and he’d come back to her –
“I love you too,” she said. When had she last felt so light, so joyful?
He kissed her again, swift and sweet.
Then she took his hand, to lead her husband home.