“This way, we must away, quickly now, have no fear.”
Sansa hurries after Dontos, heart thundering in her chest as loudly as the tolling bells. She covers her hair when he asks, holding one hand to her hood to keep it in place. Fear spirals after her as she and her Florian make their way to a ladder, then a bluff, breathing in sea air as if it will be the last she ever tastes. Will this be so? She wonders, swallowing her panic. No. It mustn't. Dontos promised.
Sansa's huffing and puffing knight guides her to a skiff, where a man waits, idly tapping his fingers on his knees.
"Ser Daemon," she whispers. She doesn't remember seeing him at wedding. He didn't see Joffrey's wheezes, nor his awful face—
He twitches a finger to his lips, and gestures for them to come aboard. Sansa scurries, Dontos waddles, and once they are sitting comfortably, Daemon begins to row. Sansa watches their progress past the sunken ships of Stannis Baratheon's ill fated fleet, brimming with curiosity. Her heart skips and stumbles rather than thunders as she tries to puzzle out what motive Ser Daemon possesses to spirit her away from Joff's wedding day-turned-death day. My claim, she thinks. Of course. Though this Dornishman has less of a chance than the Lannisters to hold it. Bastards require legitimization to inherit anything legally, and even then, must come after all trueborn siblings...
"Smile, sweetling," Dontos says, swaying in his seat and stinking of wine. "Your fool has saved you." He hiccups.
Sansa's attempted smile is pitiful, apparently, for it makes Ser Daemon grimace in sympathy. She lets herself think it is sympathy.
"Quiet, ser," Daemon tells him, drawing the oars close to his chest for the umpteenth time. His breath is even. "We are at risk yet."
Dontos obeys, as does Sansa. If she does whatever Ser Daemon asks, perhaps that will curry his favor. Joff liked her compliance.
The bells toll, Dontos hiccups, Daemon rows, and Sansa sits in silence, watching the lapping of the waves against their tiny skiff.
She chances a question once the city seems distant and asks if Ser Daemon intends to ferry them all the way across the narrow sea. Dontos shakes his head like a waterlogged dog, about to chastise her, but Ser Daemon's smile flashes like lightning in the moonlight.
"Home, my lady. To Winterfell."
Now a veteran in a war of false promises and misleading smiles, Sansa isn't appeased, but she lets herself be relieved when the skiff finally reaches its larger partner, if only for the mystery of her escape to be revealed. Dontos climbs the ladder first, and waits at the top for Sansa as he did only hours earlier. Once the sailors are occupied with raising the skiff onto the deck and setting sail, Daemon escorts Sansa to the biggest cabin.
"I'll be just outside," Dontos promises. His promises have all held true, save for the deception of her hairnet and its amethysts from Asshai. Still, Sansa reasons with familiar resignation, her Florian is the only man who's kept his word to her. All the rest are dead.
With a deep breath as the door shuts behind her, Sansa spins on her heel to find...
Ellaria Sand. Sansa closes her mouth lest she look as ridiculous as Moon Boy, though Ellaria smiles, and extends a hand.
"Sit, my lady, if it please you. We have must to discuss."
"Forgive me for the duplicity, Lady Sansa," Ellaria says after Sansa has perched on a rickety chair. "We thought it best if you were smuggled out as soon as possible." Sansa's eyes were drawn to her in King's Landing. They remain on her again, searching in vain for a hint of Ellaria's intentions. All Sansa finds are the elegant silks the Dornish favored, and a beautiful woman with an enigmatic smile.
"We?" Sansa repeats.
"Prince Oberyn and myself."
The combination is bewildering. Sansa closes her mouth again, trying to put it all together. That explains Ser Daemon Sand, who arrived for Joffrey's wedding with all the other Dornishmen. It doesn't explain the prince and his paramour's enormous risk in getting her out of the capital. Sansa's stomach gives a twist as she jumps to the worst conclusion. Do they mean to give me to Ilyn Payne?
"Why?" Sansa asks, finally.
Ellaria curls a finger around the rim of her cup, a crease between her eyebrows. After a moment, Sansa has her answer.
"For your gentle heart, my lady."
It's Sansa's turn to crinkle her brow in thought. An instinct to lie has her at a crossroads. She agrees, somewhat—King's Landing has brought her nothing but blood and tears and so much pain. Agreeing with Ellaria Sand's assessment is very much what she should do, what a girl of a dead, treasonous family must do to guarantee another day, another hour. But...she can't quite give up yet. There's a terrible part of her that exulted when Joffrey kof, kof, kof'd his way to an early grave. The same part seized her with anger on the Traitor's Walk, when Joffrey showed her father's head and Septa Mordane's on spikes. She nearly pushed him off the walkway and didn't care if she would go down with him because then she would be with Father and Lady and her sweet septa. Later still, when Joffrey received a chalice from Mace Tyrell as a wedding gift, she wished that Joff would break his neck whilst trying to carry it.
Gentle, she thinks, stricken with grief. No.
"My heart isn't very gentle," says Sansa. Ellaria smiles, soft. Sansa won't sink into it, won't lower her guard. The queen's smiles were soft. Margaery's are even softer, with beautiful eyes and hair and lips and laughter to match. Pretty smiles never bode well for her.
"No longer, I take it?"
You have a good heart, my lady, Lady Tanda said, as dozens of guests were fleeing. Sansa doubts it.
"You are like my prince in that way," Ellaria muses, tracing her cup again. "After he lost his sister."
Elia, Sansa's mind supplies, though her stone and steel heart goes to her own sister, long lost. Maester Luwin spoke delicately of the Rebellion, and never in Father's hearing, but Sansa's snooping in the library and patient ears for the truth gave way. Rhaegar stole her aunt, the king murdered Sansa's uncle and grandfather, and poor Elia Martell was caught in the path of the approaching Lannisters.
Just like me, Sansa thinks. Only Princess Elia had no drunkard Florian to whisk her and her children away from harm.
"Is that why?" Sansa ventures, smoothing out her cloak. The real answer waits, patiently. "He—the prince...he saved me."
A prettier picture than the more likely possibility of the Dornish being her new captors.
"As did I," Ellaria says, twisting a beguiling smile behind her hand and making her voice playfully indignant. The mirth is charming, Sansa observes. "He's already so arrogant. We'll share the credit, my lady, lest Oberyn's head swell almost as big as Lord Tyrell's."
Sansa can't quite hide the twitch of her lips and temptation to smile, though she tries. It's easy to set it aside for graver matters, as much as she wants to laugh with Ellaria, and recline just as comfortably. She smooths her cloak again, searching for words.
"What brought Ser Dontos to you?"
Ellaria dims her amusement, as Sansa did. "Our spy at court. She found your knight, gibbering about repaying a debt to you."
That isn't out of the ordinary. The more Dontos drank, the looser his tongue. Tonight, he was only slightly more sober than usual. Sansa counts it a boon of the old gods that Dontos only spoke of her escape in the godswood, where it was safe from unkind ears.
"She?" Sansa questions, catching her hand on the arm of her chair for balance as the ship rocks over larger waves. This is the ship she wanted to bring her home, not the mummer's hairnet, but like the gift it's Ellaria and the other passengers she is unsure of.
"That tottering terror no one is fond of. The Lady Olenna."
It takes a little time to wrap her head around it all. Dontos promised her freedom before the Tyrells came to King's Landing, before they even joined forces with the Lannisters, so Olenna's interest is untimely. There's a man in the middle, Ellaria explains, filling in the blanks of the story, connecting Sansa's suspicion to truths doled out now. Lord Varys is the intermediary, Sansa learns, unsure if this is good news. Of course. Even the queen complained about Varys's little birds, who saw and heard everything in the Red Keep. Sansa's secret meetings in the godswood were for naught, then, if Varys pulled the strings of her sweet Florian. What does he want of her?
"Lord Varys serves the realm, my lady," Ellaria admits. "Make no mistake of that. With you, however, he made an exception."
"Why?" Sansa asks again. The grisly wedding still has her numb about the ears—Ellaria's words approach her slowly, dreamily.
"In admiration of your lord father, or so the Spider tells me. Even in Dorne we heard of Ned Stark's honor."
Sansa holds her tongue, remembering another piece of the Rebellion. Father fought the Targaryens, Martells, and other sworn families at the Trident. Her families on one side, Ellaria's chosen one on the other. She hesitates, unsure of how to advance in a game she never wanted to play. "His admiration comes rather late," Sansa murmurs, settling for neutral ground. Her septa would be proud.
Ellaria shocks her with a smile.
"Better late than never, Lady Sansa."
Sansa gets the rest in small portions, accompanied by a plate of strawberries to nibble on. Lord Varys employed Dontos, Ellaria elaborates, sharing Sansa's mislike of the slices of pomegranate left by the cook. Lady Olenna made arrangements to divert attention from Sansa's escape, confirming the sickening truth of her hairnet and Dontos's lies. The amethysts aren't magic. They are the Red Viper's tools. "They will suspect me," Sansa points out, unhappily. She tried so hard to be loyal, even to the golden boy she once thought she loved. Everyone saw. Even if accepting Lord Tyrion's embarrassed, reluctant, and public marriage proposal made her sick to her stomach. Their wedding was to follow Joffrey and Margaery's after being deemed unworthy to usher in the new century.
"And your betrothed," Ellaria adds, though the comment troubles her. Sansa listens closely. "My prince admires Lord Tyrion. He has his father's cleverness but none of his cruelty. And like you, Varys wants to spare Tyrion Lannister if possible, despite his family name."
Varys never acted against the Lannisters. His crooning words when Sansa pleaded for Father were of little use, and made her feel stupid, but she remembers how frantic he looked when Joffrey demanded Father's head off. Why feign that, in front of everyone?
"Lord Varys waved his arms," Sansa says, distantly, as a new clarity finds her. "Before Father died. He wanted it to stop."
"He did. Your father was innocent, as the Usurper was not."
Ellaria doesn't join Sansa in the next chair, but it feels as though she does, just as her gaze feels as though it touches Sansa's cheek.
"Lord Varys, Lady Olenna, the prince, and myself happen to share the same goal, Lady Sansa. We all want you to be safe."
Safe. Home. Winterfell was once safe. It isn't now, but Sansa longs to see it again. She doesn't need to search hard for the feeling of its warmth, or the sound of Bran's laughter echoing down the corridors. The swish of Mother's gowns, the thundering of Arya's boots (even if ladies must always step quietly, Jory teased). Rickon's giggles whenever they snuck off to the kitchens to beg for lemoncakes from Gage, the clatter of Robb and Jon's swords in the yard, with the crack of Ser Rodrik's commands in the air. Father's stern silence, somehow loud in its noiselessness (but his smiles came next). She can hear Jeyne's whispers, see the twist of Beth's auburn curls over her sewing as she leans over to fix something Septa Mordane has pointed out. Old Nan's endless stories before bed—even the stories Sansa never wanted to hear, with the wargs and the giants. Sansa even misses Theon's sideways smile, one of the fixtures of Winterfell.
The four of them sound like the Seven, Sansa notes, half a mind to embrace Ellaria for it. Varys, the Stranger. Olenna, the Crone. The prince, an image of the Warrior. Ellaria, a definitive Mother, the epitome of mercy. Is that what they mean to give Sansa, finally? Mercy?
"Why?" She asks again, unable to dredge out the hoarseness from her voice. It's too much, so much after an endless day of unhappiness. The tolling bells and Joffrey's coughs still linger in her head, twisting in her hair and curling around her ears like snakes.
Ellaria deflects again, but her smile is the kindest Sansa has seen in ages. "I saw your sadness, my lady. When every lady in that sorry excuse for a city smiled when that little tyrant spoke, you never did." This time, she does stand and find a seat beside Sansa, looking a bit rueful. Sansa watches, curious. "I am a Sand, Lady Sansa, but a Uller through my father, too. They say the Ullers are half-mad, did you know? Half-mad and the others much worse. When I saw your sadness, all I wanted to do was send it away, and make you smile."
After a sleepless night and a light breakfast, Ellaria invites Ser Daemon and a man who Ellaria introduces as Ser Ulwyck to the cabin.
"My lady," Ser Ulwyck greets, joining Ellaria at the desk.
Ser Daemon unfurls a map. Sansa smooths the page on one side to keep it spread flat, fingers pressing down on Duskendale.
"We'll reach the Bay of Crabs within a week, if the wind holds," Daemon says. Sansa follows his gesture along the coast with her eyes.
"If pirates don't get us," Ulwyck points out, dryly. "Or Stannis Baratheon's fleet."
"What fleet?" Daemon quips. Ellaria waves this away.
"Oberyn intends to meet us in Harroway, sers. The question now is where to land."
"Maidenpool," Daemon offers, just as Ulwyck grunts, "the Quiet Isle."
As Ellaria considers this, Sansa plucks up the courage to interrupt.
"The Quiet Isle?"
"A refuge, my lady," Ellaria's uncle answers, sounding sure as Sansa in the maze of Winterfell's courtyards. "For servants of the Faith."
Sansa likens him to the Father, the seeker of justice. She moves the direwolf piece closer to the mouth of the bay, seeing Ellaria smile in her periphery. "The Isle will be safer. And..." She fiddles with the piece, now a symbol of her. "They won't care to recognize me."
"Randyll Tarly has Maidenpool, boy," Ulwyck reminds Daemon, scowling. "We'll need to pass it."
Sansa studies the map, armed with more questions than answers. They mean to gain entry into the Riverlands and escort her home, but the road to Winterfell seems longer than it ever has, longer than the journey in the other direction with Father, Arya, King Robert...
Robb and Mother died at the Twins, so the Freys will not protect her. Sansa traces the two castles of the Trident with her fingers, forcing down a terrible anger. Robb was meant to save her, not die. And Mother—how they defiled her and the Tullys, throwing her body in the river. It's treason to love a traitor, she once told Tyrion, but how could Sansa not? She loved Mother and Robb and Arya and Father and her brothers and half brother and now all of them, all of her family and friends were dead save for Jon at the Wall.
Ulwyck and Daemon are still arguing by the time Sansa composes herself. Ellaria listens absently, eyes flitting to Sansa occasionally.
"We should make for Riverrun," Ulwyck snaps. "The Blackfish holds it. Her mother's uncle."
"Not the Vale, with Lady Sansa's aunt?" Daemon shoots back. "Lysa Arryn, if you remember. The widow with a sitting army?"
"Aunt, uncle—what does it matter?" says Ulwyck. "No one passes through Bloody Gate. It took a damn dragon to fly over it."
"We need Lady Arryn."
"We need a soldier. The Blackfish fought the Ninepenny Kings, like I did. He was Stark's Warden of the Riverlands."
"We need to ask Lady Sansa," Ellaria interrupts, raising a hand to bat the Dornishmen away from each other, "for her counsel."
The men look to her, though nothing strikes Sansa with inspiration and she sits back an inch, flustered. She has no head for battles, and less of strategy. Maybe if Arya were here, she could...Sansa lowers her eyes to the map, struggling to remember how Father acted if given petitions. He listened to them all, patient, always very serious. His judgments came after careful thought, and never quickly.
"What can you tell me about the Trident?" Sansa asks, deflecting as Ellaria did, wanting enough facts first. "Then the Vale."
Ser Daemon answers, drawing a finger to each of the forks in turn: Red, Green, and Blue. The Tumblestone of the westerlands and the Trident meet at the Red Fork, making it a deep river but not swift—it meanders, with islands and sandbars and loops and bends. The Red Fork is both a crossing and a wartime barrier. Daemon moves on to the Green Fork, which is swampy and closest to the Twins (farthest from their current position), so Sansa disregards it for the moment. The Blue Fork sits near Fairmarket, although the marshy terrain and combined threat of outlaws and Freys makes Sansa mislike it. Daemon draws Sansa's attention eastward, mapping out the Vale. The Bloody Gate protects the Eyrie and bars invaders from safety after a perilous journey through the Mountains of the Moon.
Difficult, Ulwyck's expression seems to say.
Sansa studies the map. They can sail past the Vale, the Fingers, and the Three Sisters, straight into White Harbor. It's tempting. But...Sansa realizes, eyebrows knitting together. That won't do. That leaves the prince and his host stranded in Harroway and surrounded by the Lannisters and Freys, while Sansa's column is alone, above the Neck (with Moat Cailin held by the ironborn). The Manderlys are Stark bannermen, but how many Manderlys died with Robb? The North is in Lord Bolton's hands now, by the talk.
"There's always the ruby ford," Ulwyck adds, interrupting Sansa's reverie.
"We should go to the Red Fork," Sansa suggests, taking a deep breath. "And...see if we can contact Ser Brynden, discreetly."
"And if we can't?" Ser Daemon asks, favoring the alternative option.
Sansa moves the direwolf north, beyond the Twins. "Then we risk the Green Fork and go to the Neck," she tells them. "To Greywater Watch." She chances a smile, thinking of the days of travel, rumbling down the causeway through the bogs. Arya found thirty-six flowers she had never seen before, Sansa remembers with a heavy heart. Her and that butcher's boy. "Did you know the castle moves?"
The voyage has Sansa clinging to the railing, sick. The Dornishmen are kind enough to ignore it, and mind even less answering her questions about their progress. They pass Rosby and Duskendale without incident; Driftmark and Dragonstone slip by with the crew on tenterhooks due to their proximity to Stannis Baratheon and his mercenary fleet. Sansa watches the forests of Crackclaw Point sail past as she takes note of the other passengers. Ellaria, herself, Sers Ulwyck and Daemon, Dontos nursing a bad belly belowdecks. The others are strangers, though Sansa learns their names quickly—Dickon Manwoody, Ser Deziel Dalt, Ben Gargalen, Joss Hood, Ser Qoren Sand. No heirs except Ser Deziel, she observes, and more Sands than anyone else. The rest of the group adds twenty-five men, a maid, squires and guards and scouts and men-at-arms and spearmen, along with the sailors on the vessel.
Ellaria joins Sansa at the prow, wearing a roughspun dress much like Sansa's. The men wear soft leather, brown and undecorated.
"This is mad," Sansa mumbles, queasy. "Thirty men to take Winterfell?" To battle enemies in the Riverlands, to protect Sansa?
"My prince brings more. And himself, easily worth ten men."
At Sansa's doubtful look, Ellaria elaborates, wise as the Rainbow Knight's Lady Shella. "We'll find more men, my lady. Our spies report unrest under these lions and Freys." She twitches a hand at that. "The river lords will join us, and then the northmen. All for you."
It isn't comforting. "They'll suffer." And all for me, Sansa thinks, unhappily.
"For a noble cause, Lady Sansa," says Ellaria, inviting her to the railing that overlooks the deck. "These men volunteered."
"Ser Deziel," Ellaria calls, beckoning the knight to them. When he's close enough, Ser Deziel does a small bow, smiling all the while.
"Tell Lady Sansa why you joined us."
Ser Deziel of Lemonwood looks a little mischievous, but there's something sincere in his face that reminds Sansa of Robb, however vaguely. He's earnest, now, matching his face to his words and tone. "Honor, of course. No true knight allows the innocent to suffer."
Ellaria flicks a lazy finger. "And?"
Ser Deziel touches his left shoulder. "I swore in the name of the Maid to protect all women, my lady, yourself included."
Sansa inhales a breath as Ser Deziel returns to the circle of gambling men below, unsure of how to take the matter to heart. Ellaria, the still unmet Prince Oberyn, Sers Daemon, Deziel, and Ulwyck, even sweet Dontos...all they want to do is help. It's baffling. It's gladdening and maddening. It's...painful. She wants to seize them all by the hands and thank them profusely, just as much as she wants to push them away for their own safety. A handful of strangers are doing more than anyone in King's Landing has done for her since Father died.
Sansa wants to believe them. Trust them. She learned too late that trusting the Lannisters was folly; trusting the Tyrells rewarded her only after a terrible price. Freedom for a brand of kingslayer. She hesitates, resolving to keep a close eye on her Martell sworn swords. They speak kindly, but behave like Elinor and Megga and Alla, with dreams of songs and stories. Have any of them seen a man die?
"I don't know what to say," is what Sansa settles for, trying to steer her thoughts into untroubled waters.
"Say nothing," Ellaria suggests, a playful glint in her eye. "Be imperious. Stern and haughty, like those ladies at court."
"They aren't stern," says Sansa, unable to hide an unwilling smile. Ellaria laughs, mischievous as Ser Deziel.
"Not to you, my lady."
The queen didn't like Ellaria or the Dornish, Sansa remembers, an expert on deciphering the cues of Cersei Lannister. She sat the prince's party on the dais at Joffrey's wedding for the sake of etiquette, but a spiteful hairsbreadth from the salt. And far from the Tyrells, Sansa realizes in hindsight. A charade that worked in their favor, Sansa thinks, recalling Shae's gossip of Lady Olenna and Ellaria's spat in the yard, the death of a Tyrell man-at-arms, and the scalding of Lord Gargalen's. Sansa reflects on the animosity with new eyes. Dorne and the Reach, always at odds. Margaery's grandmother and Oberyn and even Lord Varys took advantage. Clever.
Cersei treated Ellaria like a bastard. Like how Mother treated Jon, how Sansa treated Jon. A flush climbs up Sansa's neck.
"They are rather awful," Sansa admits. If I ever see Jon again...
"Peace, Lady Sansa," Ellaria says, placing one hand over Sansa's knuckles. "This is the way of the world. Outside of Dorne, that is."
Sansa turns her hand, palm up, until Ellaria's fingers interlace with hers and looks the other woman in the eye, making her voice firm.
"It won't be that way in Winterfell. Not when it's my home again." Father never treated bastards unkindly. Heartlessly. Nor will I.
They smile at each other. Sansa breaks the spell with a glance to the lower decks, crowded with friendly, courteous Dornishmen.
"Can you introduce me again? I want to get to know them—properly."
These men are mine. I will do right by them, she thinks, on my honor as a Stark.