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The Smell of Home, The Sweet Sound of Victory

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Bastards

“My lady, please. You must eat something,” a small unfamiliar voice begged. Sansa didn’t have to open her eyes or rise from her bed to know that this girl was new. Robb seemed to be sending a different servant to her chambers each day to try to try their hand at persuading her to eat more than her customary few spoonsful of broth and morsels of bread. She was genuinely sorry to cause the girls such trouble, knowing that they were loathed to disappoint their King. She wanted to be more helpful and compliant for their sake if not her own: to eat the hearty stews and pies placed before her with vigour; to regain her strength and be the Lady of Winterfell they all longed for, but she simply could not.

Sansa could tell from the looks of alarm on their faces and the occasional gossip overheard in the hallways that she looked less and less like the Lady her mother once was as her pallor spread and her cheeks hollowed out; the woman she used to be and the mother she hoped to emulate were almost all gone now. No matter how hard she tried she simply couldn’t stomach food most days. Even her favourite lemon cakes had lost their allure, so much so that she wondered how she ever found anything extraordinary in them. Fresh air at the ramparts only served to made her feel more weary and her daily visit to the Godswood drained her to the point of needing sleep shortly after her return. She had already been seen by the maester several times and explained that food had turned to ash in her mouth, and that vitality had seeped from her sinews, but he could offer her no cure, nor so much as a tincture to bring about any relief. She overheard her brothers confirming the maester’s assessment in hushed tones afterwards, when they thought she was still sleeping: he surmised the loss of her baby had turned her mad. She wondered if it was indeed madness causing her body to reject the rich foods the servants would deliver daily and preventing her from leaving her bed? She didn’t feel mad though, just terribly, irrevocably alone.

It was a strange sort of loneliness Sansa felt, even when her King visited her solar to discuss the settlements of the Free Folk and their difficulties with their neighbours; a peculiar kind of isolation when her youngest brother would bring the direwolves to her room on the days that she couldn’t get out of bed and regale her with fond tales of his time with Osha, who had rescued him several times before her death, just as Jon had once saved her. It occurred to Sansa that with so little recollection of their mother, Osha was the woman Rickon most remembered caring for him and soothing his fears. Sansa wondered if this would be how her son might one day feel for Daenerys. She wept, torn between hope that Daenerys would be a good mother and loathing at the thought of another woman nurturing her son and gaining his love in return. The solitude Sansa felt in her soul and the ache in her bones made sleeping difficult and waking even harder.

It was Bran who, unrecognisable though he was from the daring boy he had once been, brought the most comfort. They would journey together to the Godswood when the sun was at its highest almost every day, with Bran’s eyes growing clear and vacant whilst she would press her hands into the bark of the Weirwood tree and weep along with the face carved there. Bran rarely spoke during their visits and would not flinch when she wept, remaining stoic and strangely unfeeling. He didn’t interrupt the silence but seemed to relish in it, and for that she was glad.

The first sennight apart from Jon and Benjen was the hardest. A steady stream of tears accompanied her wherever she went, making it easier for everyone when she kept to her bed, so would not have to fuss and fret, worrying about what to say. The King had quickly informed the North that Ramsay’s son had died during the night of a sudden ague, having already ensured that only of few of the most faithful servants had been there to witness Jon leaving with Benjen nestled protectively in his arms. There were no whispers of a Dragon Queen and her betrothed stealing a child of the North from his bed to extinguish, only words of pity for a grieving mother, as well as relief that the child of a Ramsay would not grow up within the walls of Winterfell. Sansa’s wailing when they buried an empty box in the crypts was neither forced nor exaggerated and only gave credence to the lie her brother told.

Sansa wanted to be of use, but most of the things that once occupied her time seemed to elude her. She no longer found herself able to embroider or make clothes, with her hands longing to hold her child alone, and her arms yearning only for the strength of Jon’s embrace. Neither hands nor arms could be persuaded to do much else, until one morning when her milk persisted in coming, soaking through her nightshift and robe. After repeatedly petitioning the King, she was allowed to prove herself useful and offered a contraption to collect her milk for any babes going hungry in Wintertown. Although it was deemed quite a scandal for a lady of a great house to feed her own children let alone a stranger’s, there were many in the North who admired her charity and praised her efforts. The milk belonging to the Lady of Winterfell was soon considered quite a commodity. In order to ensure it was not traded amongst the smallfolk with foolish claims that it would bring about good fortune, it was given solely the unwanted bastards being cared for by some septas near Winterfell. And so, Sansa’s days were spent in the company of her brothers, and her evenings harvesting milk from her body to feed hungry babes living without the mothers who birthed them. Her thoughts were always with the one child she could no longer feed at her breast, another bastard in the eyes of the gods, one who also lived without the mother who birthed him.

After a further fortnight of grieving for Jon and Benjen, with little food eaten from her plates during mealtimes, and her body growing slighter with each passing day, Sansa was declared too week to continue providing milk for motherless babes. Her guilt and remorse for failing once again, were only assuaged by the news that it was now considered a mark of distinction amongst some of the highborn mothers as well as the smallfolk to continue this work and ensure the orphans didn’t go hungry. With Sansa’s bloom quite faded and no occupation to speak of, she grew listless. Determined to at least keep up her visits to the godswood to pray for Jon and Benjen’s continued safety, Sansa went to collect Bran for their solitary walk. It turned out she needed the support of his chair to walk as much as he needed her to escort him, as they travelled slowly together. Sansa soon wished that she had taken asked Rickon and the wolves to accompany them, her desire for peace and quiet soon replaced by a wish for some assistance. She wondered how she could have been so foolish as she struggled to push her own body as well as Bran’s to the heart tree.

“We should have brought the guards, or at least Rickon and the wolves with us,” Sansa panted with exhaustion as they finally reached their destination.

“There is no need Sansa, the she-wolf will return today from the lichyard,” Bran replied.

Sansa ought to have run out of tears to weep, but when Bran stirred the memory of her beloved Lady buried there, she found an additional store waiting to be shed. Bran’s words were as nonsensical as they were painful, promising that her long dead wolf would arise, when the only one able to raise bodies from the ground had been killed by her brothers in the battle for the living, to everyone’s relief and celebration. Sansa sobbed whilst her younger brother grew quiet, his eyes turned white and his mind soared over the skies above, leaving her behind and alone once again.

The weight of all that she had lost and the fractured heart within her chest, as well as the weariness in her limbs was all at once too much to bear. She studied her reflection in the hot springs and saw a stranger looking back at her: one almost dead; a body drained and useless. She bent down and picked up a rock to skim the surface of the waters and dislodge the mirror of herself that she found there. The rock felt smooth, damp and heavy in her hands: it also felt like the answer to an unspoken prayer. She sat down at the water’s edge, uncaring that the grounds would soil her dress and began collecting more and more rocks, heaping them with a newfound energy onto her lap. With her decision made and her mind finally as still as the waters by her feet, she tore the seam in her outer skirts and began tying the rocks to her as farmer’s wives used to gather berries in the summer. Those days seemed so long ago now. She longed to go back, but that was a futile wish and as she resolved she no longer wished to go forward, she understood that the only thing she could do was to cease journeying altogether. With the rocks weighing down her skirts, Sansa walked into the water, determined not to rise again.

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Sansa awoke to Stark grey eyes, simultaneously furious and kind. The face was all too familiar, one that looked like a girl she once called sister as well as a man her heart still called husband.

“Arya? Is that you?” she enquired, awed by the sharp cheekbones of a woman grown before her. “Are mother and father here too?” she continued, relieved that her family had not abandoned her in death.

“Mother and Father are dead Sansa,” Arya replied, her voice small and her eyes wounded by the images that were stored there. Small though her sister still appeared, Sansa noted that Arya was looking down upon her from a height and recognised feeling of warm bedding underneath her. She was in her bed.

“Are we not dead too?”

“No. We’re not dead, although you would have been if Brienne and I hadn’t found you in time. What were you thinking? How could you do something so selfish? What about Bran? He couldn’t get out of his chair to pull you out… What about Rickon and Robb? What about me? We were supposed to be a pack. I was fighting to come back to all of you, whilst you were fighting to leave us! Just as I was finally about to be reunited with my family, I could have lost you!” she cried, her voice growing louder, her face morphing from its customary scowl to a look of anguish and despair.

Sansa’s mind struggled to keep up with the story her sister was telling, as the guilt crept up her body, prickling her skin whilst the realisation of what she had done overwhelmed her.

“I’m so sorry Arya. Please forgive me,” she began looking at those large grey eyes like their father, ones which refused to cry no matter however sorely they were tempted. “Forgive me for all of it: for how I was when we were children; for Joffrey and Micah; for Cersei and what happened to Father; for having to pull me out of the waters now. I’ve never been the sister you deserved. I should have loved you better… I should have been braver… I should have been stronger like you.” The words flowed unrestrained from Sansa’s lips as if they had been lying in wait, desperate for the opportunity to come forth.

Arya looked startled and unsure. Her anger was leaving her, Sansa could tell. In spite of the many years apart, she knew her sister and thanked the gods for denying her death so that she could see her once more and beg her forgiveness. Arya moved to crawl into bed with her, her soiled clothes and boots muddying the sheets. In the summer years long gone she might have fought her for it or at least scrunched up her nose in disgust, but now Sansa pulled her sister close and breathed in the stench of the road and of sweat as if it was a field of wildflowers. She smelt like home.

“I missed you so much,” Sansa admitted in between sobs.

“I missed you too,” came Arya’s reply with a few tears of her own at last.

The two of them stayed together for some time, arms wrapped protectively around each other like the sisters their father had once asked them to be. There were no more raised voices or pulling of hair, no more harsh words and humiliations. They were, finally, at peace in each other’s presence. Sansa thought that this was what all the suffering and loss she had endured over the years had taught her: that a desire to change or control another isn’t an act of love; that true love is about acceptance. She welcomed her sister’s rugged manners and her mess into her arms, as the years of rebellion and separation seemed to melt away, leaving behind only attachment. They were together now, Sansa was determined that this is how they would remain, no matter how broken her heart was, and no matter how weary her bones.

“We’ve all made mistakes Sansa. I wasn’t the sister you deserved either. I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner,” Arya whispered, finally breaking the companionable silence between them. Sansa wanted to ask what had happened, where she had been, and who this Brienne was, but there was time for that, now all she wished was to feel her sister beside her and rest knowing that she wasn’t alone.

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“I want answers,” Arya demanded. She didn’t care that Robb was a King. He was her brother and he was lying to her.

“I told you already. Sansa lost her child and her mind. We did everything we could to comfort her, but she would not be comforted,” Robb replied, his hand rubbing his face and beard with a weary sigh.

“I don’t believe you. You did something,” Arya declared, certain that there was shame and not just sadness in her brother’s eyes. “I can see it. You’re afraid I won’t forgive you.”

“I don’t need your forgiveness” Robb bit back.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. You sent one sibling away to marry a Targaryen and the other you left to grief a child and wither away before your very eyes.” Arya retorted, knowing as much from the little information she could glean from Rickon and Bran.

“Jon will be one of the most powerful men in the seven kingdoms, married to a beautiful Queen with three dragons. As for Sansa, what was I supposed to do, hold her down whilst Rickon shovelled food into her mouth?”

“You should have talked to her. You shouldn’t have left her alone,”

“I did talk to her! I visited her every day, even though I have a kingdom to run, petitions to hear, people to settle, and a list of responsibilities as a King that you will never know.”

“You talked to her about Wildlings and wars. You talked about the Kingdom’s concerns but not hers. You forgot our mother’s words. Family comes first!”

“Did family come first when Robert called our father South? It couldn’t. Not for him and not for me: not when I was declared King in the North and you and Sansa were prisoners in King’s Landing and not now with so many of our forces called South to fight against Cersei. You have no idea what I had to do to ensure the safety of the North, to ensure that I could remain behind with some of our men to defend the North if the dragons should fail. I am the King and our people need me.” Robb stated whilst pacing the room with a furrowed brow.

“You are Sansa’s brother and she needs you too!” she shouted.

“Aye. I’m her brother,” Robb sneered, his footsteps faltering, as if the word was poison on his lips.

“You’re angry at her… you’re trying to punish her for something,” Arya realised, a sense of foreboding creeping up her spine.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about Arya,” he snapped, a look of panic spreading over his features.

“Is it because she married that Bolton and had his son? You knew she had no choice. You annulled the marriage.”

“It’s not that.”

“What then? You didn’t think she should grieve for her baby because of who his father was?”

“I know what it’s like to lose a child.”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“You always loved Jon the best of all your brothers and it never bothered me once, not until now, knowing that what you are asking me to tell you will ruin your opinion of him, as it did mine. Do you really want to know?”

“Nothing can change my opinion of Jon,” Arya stated with finality.

“Jon is the father of Sansa’s child, not Ramsay.”

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Arya kept her footsteps light as she approached them, wanting to remain unnoticed a little longer. She observed Sansa sat at the table, surrounded by wolves and stew. Greywind, Shaggydog and Summer circled the table protectively, whilst Rickon beamed encouragingly at his sister attempting to eat her stew. Bran looked absent, despite his position next to Sansa at the table, and just as indifferent to the taste of stew before him. Brienne seemed to be recounting her meeting with the Hound and a younger version of Arya on the way to the Bloody Gates at the Eyrie. She was explaining that she would have gone to Sansa too, had she known her whereabouts. Arya felt guilty at this, knowing that she had kept Brienne away, Brienne who tirelessly travelled the length of Westeros and beyond, after meeting with a red witch who spoke of a Faceless man that sometimes wore the face of Arya Stark. Brienne was nothing if not persistent and Arya knew that she would not rest until she had brought the last Stark home to her family. Her heart clenched at the thought that Brienne nearly returned one daughter of Catelyn Stark only to lose the other, and Arya was grateful that she had Brienne’s strength to aid in pulling Sansa and her sack of stones from the bottom of the hot springs.

Arya abandoned her cat-like prowl, striding towards them and announcing her arrival by clearing her throat. The sound resembled a growl and she once again thought about the wolves that they were as Starks, as well as the direwolves that still protected them. She knew Nymeria was nearby somewhere and hoped that she would find a way back to her littermates just as Arya had found a way back to hers. She had already visited Lady’s grave at the litchyard before journeying to the Godswood, Lady who was always so gentle and sweet, so unlike the rest of them. Ghost had always been different too, his white fur, red eyes, and quiet ways. She knew that unlike Lady, Ghost wasn’t dead but he was gone South with Jon and that was a bad omen if ever there was one. Her heart longed to see the brother who understood her best and accepted her as she was again, whatever sins he'd committed with Sansa.

“Did you fuck him?” Arya asked without any preface.

Sansa snapped her eyes away from Brienne and dropped her spoon. Rickon paled and swallowed loudly whilst Bran blinked, completely unphased by Arya’s interruption.

“Arya, enough!” Brienne chided.

“I want to know whether she fucked Jon.”

“Arya!” Brienne reprimanded once more.

“Yes,” Sansa interrupted quietly. “I did.”

“Why?” Arya enquired, her shock and confusion giving rise to understanding, before the reply even left her sister’s mouth.

“Because I love him.”

“And Robb sold our brother and your child to the Dragon Queen in order to keep the North safe.”

“He did.”

“That’s all I need to know,” Arya stated, whistling to the wolves, who got up to follow as she turned to leave.

“Where are you going?” Rickon asked. Sansa looked too stunned to ask the question herself , Arya noted as she glanced back over her shoulder. Bran looked like he already knew and Brienne looked ready to follow regardless.

“I’m going to bring them back,” Arya declared, leaving with needle at her waist, three direwolves at her side and a lady knight at her back.