She was too far from home.
She knew she should have retraced her steps hours ago, but she feared the consequences of coming back empty-handed. Lysa had given her a task and Sansa had, needed, to perform it.
Her aunt was a merciless woman and she hated Sansa. Sansa had spent her first years of existence oblivious to this fact. She’d had a happy childhood: she’d lived with her siblings and her parents in Winterfell, in a castle surrounded by trees and snow; she’d felt like a princess in a fairytale.
A princess that could understand the talk of animals.
It was a rare gift. At least, she’d never met anyone who had a supernatural ability. In Westeros, magic was feared and hated. People used the word “witch” to address those who could do extraordinary things. Witch. Witch. Witch. The tone of their voices was full of hatred and terror every time they pronounced it.
Being accused of witchery was one of the worst things that can happened to someone, for the punishment was death.
Sansa had never told anyone that she could understand the talk of animals. However, Lysa had found it.
It had happened shortly after Sansa moved to Riverrun. She’d been twelve. Her parents and siblings had died (she still wasn’t ready to talk about what happened even though it’s been seven years since then) and Lysa and Robin were her only relatives so there had been no other choice than to stay with them, to her dismay. Sansa was certain that her aunt would have kicked her out if she’d been of no use to her. But fortunately, or unfortunately (Sansa still couldn’t decide if this had been a blessing or a curse), one afternoon her aunt had caught her talking with Speed (Speed was Robin’s horse) beside a hazel tree, several feet away from the stables. Speed loved wandering across the property at daytime.
Lysa had witnessed how Sansa leaned forward to take something from the ground.
A flower. But not just a common flower.
The wonders were the most rare and prized flowers in Westeros. They could grow in the most unexpected places, but no one had managed to cultivate them. They only grew in the wild.
They were used to make ointments. It was said, they could reverse the signs of aging if used monthly.
“I can track wonders in hundreds square feet,” the horse told Sansa proudly as she straightened again, holding the flower in her hand.
“Really?” Her eyes widened in admiration. So Speed wasn’t an ordinary animal. He was magical.
“What are you doing?” Lysa’s voice startled them.
Sansa turned around and put her hands behind her back instinctively. She didn’t want Lysa to see the wonder. Her aunt shouldn’t have been listening to a private conversation. She had no right to do so.
“What are you hiding?” Lysa raised her voice, and Sansa flinched. She knew how volatile her aunt was and she’d seen for herself how dangerous Lysa was when she was filled with rage. Sansa knew she shouldn’t make her aunt angry, yet there she was, disobeying her.
“Answer me!” Lysa screamed and ran towards her. Sansa stepped back quickly, scared by her reaction, but she wasn’t quick enough. Lysa’s hands grabbed her dress and yanked her. Sansa let out a cry and fell onto the ground.
“Stupid!” Lysa hissed. “Did you believe that you would get your way? You’ve been so sheltered all your life, haven’t you? You should have realized since you set foot in this house that things would be entirely different here! You’re not a guest; you’re not someone my sweet Robin or I would want here. You are a pain, a nuisance, and you should be grateful that I’ve allowed you to stay. You should kiss the ground I walk on since I’ve given you a roof over your head! Ingrate! But you’ll learn to behave, one way or another. Now, show me what you were trying to hide from me.”
Her mind wanted to resist, but her hand opened, and the delicate flower came to view.
Lysa’s expression changed. First, confusion. Then, amazement.
“A wonder,” she murmured to herself as if she couldn’t believe it. She looked at the horse and then at Sansa, and something seemed to click in her mind. Her lips curved into the most spine-chilling smile Sansa had ever seen. Sansa looked around, trying to find a way to escape.
“He showed it to you!” Lysa exclaimed.
Sansa stepped back, swallowing. She didn’t know what her aunt would do now that she knew her secret. Would she call the guards? If her aunt told them that Sansa was a witch, she would be done for.
Her eyes met Lysa’s. Sansa was expecting her aunt to leap on her at any moment, but her aunt remained surprisingly quiet. Suddenly she gave Sansa a small smile and her words surprise her:
“Perhaps you won’t be useless after all.”
And this sentence changed Sansa’s life. Since then, every day, before the sun rose, she left the house in search of wonders. She spent hours and hours riding.
The first days had been the worst: Sansa wasn’t used to riding, and her muscles ached. The first nights she could barely sleep; she’d felt as if someone were sticking needles in her body. Every moment hurt, and she thought she wouldn’t bear it.
But she did, and a week later her body began getting used to riding for hours. Most days she didn’t find any wonder, but this was expected. The fact that there were very few and far between, made them more valuable. So long as Sansa found some wonders every month, her aunt would be pleased.
Lysa used them to make her own ointments. She didn’t look younger with each passing month, but of course, Sansa wasn’t going to tell her. Her aunt was in a better mood. At least, she hadn’t had a rage attack since she’d started using the ointments, and even though Sansa was wary (she though of her aunt as a hibernating beast), she hoped this apparent calm lasted.
But Sansa wasn’t happy. She couldn’t bear the idea of living like this forever. What if nothing changed no matter how hard she tried? What if she spent all her life between those walls, first serving Lysa and afterwards (when her aunt died) taking care of Robin?
Some days, these somber thoughts invaded her mind, and Sansa felt tempted to stop fighting and just resign to her fate. But she never did. She kept going.
And one day, things changed, though not in the way she expected.
One morning, the sky became black. Seconds later, a massive storm rolled through Riverrun.
It lasted two months and caused terrible damage. Houses, trees, crops. The roof of Lysa’s house had to be repaired, and her vegetable garden got waterlogged. The lettuces, potatoes, melons, zucchinis… everything went to waste.
But there was still another terrible effect the storm had caused.
It seemed to have destroyed every wonder. For weeks, Sansa searched and searched without success.
At first, Lysa thought it would be a matter of time. New wonders would grow in Spring. But when Spring came and Sansa kept coming home without flowers, Lysa’s patience wore thin.
It was the end of May now, and there were no signs that the situation would get better. Sansa knew her aunt wouldn’t be able to stay calm much longer.
Sadly, she was right.
Last night, Lysa exploded with rage. She entered Sansa’s bedroom while she was asleep and yanked her blanket.
Sansa jumped in her bed and opened her eyes, her heart pounding so hard that it hurt. What was happening? She looked at her aunt and saw there was a strange sparkle in her eyes. What were her intentions? Sansa put her arms around her legs, a weak attempt to protect herself.
Lysa crossed her arms and said firmly:
“It’s clear that wonders are no longer growing in Riverrun so it’s time to search in somewhere else.”
“Wh… What?” Of all things, she hadn’t expected this. She’d though her aunt was going to punish her or even get rid of her now that it seemed evident that Sansa won’t be able to find more flowers.
“Are you deaf? Get up and dress quickly! You’re leaving now! And this time, I don’t want you to come back until you find some wonders.”
Sansa didn’t know where she was. She could barely see the sunlight; the top of the trees almost hid the sky completely.
A thunder broke the silence. Speed neighed loudly and moved backwards. Sansa gasped with surprise and leaned forward to pat him on the neck.
“Hey, it’s alright, Speed. It’s just a thunder.”
She hadn’t finished to say it when it started raining. The rain was so heavy that soon they both were soaking wet.
Sansa’s teeth chattered. She looked around, trying to decide what to do, where to go, but it was difficult see the path before her.
Speed didn’t seem to have the same problem because suddenly he raised his front legs off of the ground, neighed again and began running.
“Hey!” Sansa gripped bridle harder. “Stop! Where are you going?”
Speed didn’t obey her. He was running so fast that Sansa feared they might hit a tree or stumbled over a bush or a root. Either he was running away from something (or someone) or an invisible force was attracting him to somewhere. Both options were unsettling. Sansa shut her eyes. Her knuckles had turned white.
Please, stop. Stop.
And then, suddenly, her prayers were heard.
Sansa breathed slowly, but she didn’t dare to move. Why Speed had stopped?
At first, she didn’t notice. But then, she realized.
It had stopped raining.
But how strange. She still could hear the drops of rain falling behind her. How was it possible? She opened her eyes and saw for herself that certainly the rain wasn’t falling on them anymore. Alright. She took a deep breath and turned her head.
She’d been right. It was raining just a few feet away. If she raised her arm, some drops would fall on her fingertips. She lifter her gaze to the sky. Strangely, there were no clouds over their heads.
Speed neighed again and pawed the ground as if trying to demand attention. Sansa looked down and let out an exclamation.
Wonders. Thousands and thousands of wonders covered the ground like a delicate carpet, and its petals shimmered even thought the sunlight was dim. Sansa opened her mouth as her eyes followed the path of flowers. But the surprises weren’t over yet. When she took her eyes off the ground, she saw a castle in the horizon.
A castle. There, in the middle of nowhere.
Who had decided to build it in such a place? Who would want to live there?
Perhaps it was uninhabited. But it seemed to be in good condition. Someone must be in charge of its conservation.
Sansa stared at the castle hesitantly. It was getting dark. Soon she wouldn’t be able to see anything. She needed a place to stay for the night. And she needed to get out of wet clothing as soon as possible. A violent shiver confirmed her words. She didn’t want to catch a cold.
“Stay here,” she told Speed.
The animal moved his head, but this time he didn’t neigh. Sansa got off and began walking towards the castle.
The ground was damp, and her footsteps made no sound. Time seemed to have stopped.
There was a low relief on the door. She narrowed her eyes, but she couldn’t distinguish the image just yet. She kept walking, resisting the urge to look at the wonders again. There was something special in them, some kind of magnetism that made them fascinating, but Sansa needed to focus. She needed to change her clothes and find a safe place to sleep.
As she came closer, the lines became more defined and the image was revealed.
No, it couldn’t be possible. Sansa stopped and blinked several times. Was she having a vision?
A bird. No, it wasn’t just a common bird. Sansa knew now where she was. Her heart pounded faster in her chest, and she wondered if it was due to fear or excitement.
Four lines of a tale she’d heard as a child came to her mind:
A silent mockingbird watches
Those who dare to come into the castle.
Be careful if you walk through the door.
For the magic in this place will entice you to stay.
This was the Mockingbird’s Castle, a place between the living world and the Otherworld, a place Sansa thought it only existed in folktales and dreams. A tickling sensation spread across her belly. If the castle was real, its owner too.
The tales said he wasn’t completely human. They said once he’d been a boy with a heart full of hope. A boy who believed in fairytales. But after an incident that almost costed him his life (the tales didn’t specify what happened exactly), he’d lost his soul, and his heart had turned to ice. He’d become a supernatural creature, one even more powerful than witches.
Sansa shivered again, her eyes fixed on the door. Should she turn away?
But then what? To take some flowers and go back Lysa’s home? Her mind rebelled against the idea and her feet moved forward.
Towards the castle.
Unconsciously she’d made her decision.
Her knuckles had barely touched the door when it opened. Sansa froze, her arm hanging in the air. She expected to see someone on the other side, but there was none.
No one had opened the door.
It has been magic. Powerful, unexpected.
The magic in this place will entice you to stay.
Sansa lowered her arm slowly. Beyond the doorstep, darkness covered everything. She didn’t have any candle, any match. She had no clue about what she would find if she came into the castle.
Had she made the right choice? She faltered. But before she could decide whether she should walk through the door or not, she heard a flapping wing sound behind her, and a gust of wind pushed her forward. She managed to keep her balance and turned away quickly. She wasn’t ready for what she saw. Her breath caught in her throat.
A giant bird, as big as a northern bear, settled on the ground. And riding him, there was a man dressed in black, with dark hair and grey temples. Sansa directed her gaze towards the mockingbird pin hooked in his cloak.
He seemed to be around forty, but Sansa didn’t let herself be fooled. The stories she’d heard of him were old. Very old. They’d been told for centuries.
How old would be he in truth?
His green eyes stared into hers, and a sparkle of curiosity colored his features.
“Who are you?” He spoke in a soft voice.
She opened her mouth but paused, her eyes still fixed on his. Should she tell him her true name? Would he have power over her if he learned it?
“I’m Sansa Stark.” She decided to take the risk.
“Sansa Stark,” he repeated more to himself as if he wanted to see for himself how her name sounded in his lips. His expression didn’t change. “And what are you doing in my kingdom?”
His kingdom. Sansa wondered who his subjects were. The tales said all the creatures that lived in this place could become invisible.
“Speed brought me here.” She gestured to the horse.
Lord Baelish followed the direction of her gaze.
“I see.” He looked at her again and silently he got off the bird. The animal began preening himself as Lord Baelish came closer to Sansa. She tensed but didn’t step back. She realized then that his clothes were dry. How was it possible? Lord Baelish smiled again and took off his cloak.
“You’re soaking wet, sweetling.”
Sweetling? Why had he called like this? Strangely the word made her feel warm inside. Lord Baelish put his cloak over her shoulders, and Sansa perceived a scent of mint.
“Come,” he said softly after pulling away. “You need to put on dry clothes.”
He stopped and looked at her again, a questioning look on his face. Sansa bit her lip.
“I don’t know if I should. I’ve heard the stories about you.”
The last words spilled out of her mouth before she could stop them. She clenched her teeth. She hadn’t meant to say the last part. Was he offended?
He smiled, but this time Sansa noticed it was a sad gesture. She was going to apologize when he spoke again:
“I’m not surprised that you’ve heard some stories. But tell me. Are you afraid of magic, Sansa?”
“No.” Her quick answer caught them both off guard. But it was truth, Sansa realized. Her heart was pounding fast in her chest, but it was due to excitement. She wanted to discover all the marvelous things this world hid. She wanted to see more displays of magic (witnessing how the door opened by itself had been quite amazing).
“No?” His lips curved upward.
“No,” Sansa assured him and gave him a small smile.
He held out his hand.
“Them, come with me. I promise no harm will come to you in this castle.”
She felt butterflies in her stomach when she took his hand. It was surprisingly warm. Perhaps his heart hadn’t turned to ice.
What other lies about him had been spread over the centuries?
A loud noise came from the second floor when they entered the dining room. It had sounded as if someone had knocked over a heavy piece of furniture. Sansa, who was still holding Lord Baelish’s hand, lifted her gaze to the ceiling.
The tales said he’d seduced and defeated a monster, and that he’d locked them in a room of his castle.
Her eyes met his, and she knew she didn’t need to express her concern. He must have known what the tales said. His thumb caressed the back of her hand, and he said softly:
“Don’t worry. They cannot hurt you.”
Sansa swallowed and tentatively squeezed his hand.
“Can they hurt you?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
Her question seemed to surprise him. Had no one cared for him before? He tilted his head as if considering his answer.
“I have to use my magic to keep them locked,” he said finally. “Sometimes it’s exhausting.”
“Why do you keep them locked then?”
Lord Baelish sighed.
He didn’t want to talk about it, so Sansa decided to let it be.
She was sat by the fireplace, wrapped in a white sheet and a cloak. Lord Baelish had given them to her. First he'd given her a towel so she could dry herself.
“I’m afraid I have no lady clothes,” he’d told her.
Sansa had smiled.
His fingers had grazed against the back of her hand for an instant, and then he'd asked her if she fancied a mug of hot chocolate.
Lord Baelish had left the room then. He'd given her enough time so she could take off her clothes and made herself comfortable. By the time he showed up again, the sweet smell of cocoa filled the room. They exchanged a smile, and he handed her the beverage.
Lord Baelish sat in the armchair opposite and set his mug on the glass table between them.
She stared at him expectantly. Now what?
“May I ask you a question, Sansa?”
She nodded, a little hesitant.
“What were you doing before getting here? I don’t think you were just taking a ride.”
Sansa breathed and before she realized what she was doing she was telling him about Lysa. Lord Baelish listened to her in silence, his expression unreadable.
“It seems you’ve also dealt with monsters,” he said when she finished.
Sansa didn’t know what to say. Lord Baelish sighed and leaned forward.
“I have a proposition for you,” he told her, and a special sparkle filled his eyes. “Stay here. Start a new life. Here you won’t have to look over your shoulder in fear. No one will subdue you.”
“Not even you?”
“Not even me.”
She studied his face, her mind racing. She could feel her heart beating in her throat.
“And what I’ll become if I stay?”
“Sorry?” He looked confused.
“Will I become one more of your subjects?” But this wasn’t the question she really wanted to ask.
What do you want in return?
He gave her a reassuring smile as if he’d guessed what she was thinking.
“For now, you’ll be my guest. I mean every word I said, Sansa. I won’t subdued you. I won’t force you to do anything. You can leave at any moment” He leaned back, and his eyes flickered. “This is all I can offer you. I have no control over the future and that’s exciting, don’t you think so? Who knows what can happen between now and never?”