The car did stop in Bain, but only for a moment. The driver hopped out, darted into the relay station for only the amount of time it might take to send a message, and then returned to the car. Then, it continued northward.
Only one thing of note lay north of Bain, and the residents of that town were unusual in Ancelstierre, in that they had not the luxury of pretending they did not know what it was. While the politicians in the capital far to the south could ignore the particular quirks of the northern border and its unusual perimeter, the people of Bain were cautious about anything that concerned the kingdom in the north and the creatures that inhabited it.
The more skeptical were wary of those in Bain who wore the baptismal marks of the northern faith, but they had not lived in Bain long enough to know better. They did not know to wear silver and seek fast water when the bells rang in town, and they did not know that the tall tales of the Old Kingdom were all true. But they all watched the car leave town, and wondered what it might mean for them.
Had the citizens of Bain thought better of it, they might not have been so concerned by whom might be in the car, but the purpose for its journey.
The occupants of the car were very quiet, as they had been for days since their rather hasty departure from Corvere. A young woman with startlingly red hair sat primly against the window, dressed in the stylish mode of the Ancelstierran capital, with her hem just below her knee and her loose, silk blouse pinned at the base of her throat with a delicate, gold broach. She had barely lifted her blue eyes to her companion once during their long, solemn journey, staring blankly at the violent green of late-summer that blurred past the window.
“It will already be autumn in the kingdom, Lady Sansa,” Davos said to her gently, tugging uncomfortably at the southern fashion he had adopted after crossing the Wall into Ancelstierre before continuing on to collect Sansa in Corvere. “Your mother packed for early snows.”
Sansa looked up from the window to the stone-faced man beside her, blinking owlishly at the man who had served as a loyal retainer to her family. She had been lost in her own mind for so long that she had nearly forgotten that he was there. Outside the window, the countryside was slowly giving way to the wilderness that came just before the northern perimeter, suggesting that it would not be long before they would see the terse signs warning careless trespassers away from the military zone staked out by the Crossing Scouts.
“Oh,” she breathed quietly, a crease forming between her brows. “I will need to thank her for that.”
In truth, Sansa had given little thought to the details of returning to the Old Kingdom. Ever since Davos arrived in Corvere to deliver news of her brother’s death and her immediate recall to the kingdom, all of Sansa’s emotions had been suspended in shock. And so, though she was far more familiar with Ancelstierre and its customs, she had retreated into silence and relied on Davos to make the necessary arrangements for their journey north.
She did not entirely welcome the unexpected return after several comfortable years in Ancelstierre, either. After her father’s death, Sansa announced then she would be attending university far to the south of the Wall, beyond the reach of the Charter, and she had not been home since. It had seemed an easy decision to make at the time. The Old Kingdom was a backward place, overrun with all sorts of magic and monsters. Life there was out of step with the one she dreamed of, attending the fashionable parties and political balls of Corvere, dodging intrigues between classes. Sansa had even been able to justify it by insisting that the Old Kingdom would need an ambassador of its own in due time, as quiet resentment of the kingdom to the north grew in Ancelstierre. It had seemed ideal for her for so long.
Now the kingdom beckoned its princess home to her duties.
It had all changed so fast. Davos had not been explicit about her brother’s death or what would be required of her now. There was no chance that she would return in time for the winter term in Corvere. In truth, there was no chance at all she would ever return to her sun-lit apartment on the canal in Corvere.
Sansa turned her attention back to the forests outside the car, but the blur of trees began to slow as as they approached the Perimeter. The political situation with Ancelstierre was tenuous and, though the Crossing Scouts stationed at the Wall might recognize her and her right to cross as a citizen of the Old Kingdom, she did not expect the bureaucratic negotiations necessary to arrange the crossing would be anything less than painful. Sansa smiled thinly to Davos and straightened her back.
Soon, the forest gave way to barbed wire and bare ground and Sansa finally saw the familiar sign warning away trespassers away from the peculiar dangers of the Perimeter as the car came to a slow halt.
Soldiers moved about in formation, wearing their peculiar combination of Ancelstierran khaki, rifles, and battered mail, iron helmets, and aged swords. If she were closer, Sansa knew she would see the crudely drawn Charter marks etched into the blades. These soldiers were prepared not for the modern warfare of that which she’d flirted with in Corvere only weeks before, but for something far different.
Davos opened the door and Sansa grimly allowed him to hand her out of the car as her heart drummed a war march in her chest. Some distance ahead, though close enough for her to feel its presence, the Wall towered ominously over them.
“State your business,” barked a young corporal outside their door, but when Sansa looked at him, she saw worry lines carved into his face and the faint outline of a Charter mark on his forehead. She did not recognize him as one of the soldiers stationed at the Wall during her last crossing, but there was no doubting that his time at the Wall, however long, had left an impression on him.
Davos cleared his throat: “Her Royal Highness, Sansa Stark, Princess of the Old Kingdom, desires to cross the Wall.”
Sansa was impressed with Davos’s crisp address of the young man, but she remained silent. The soldier’s eyes snapped from Davos and his crisply-pressed suit to Sansa, taking in her marked southern garb, from her shoes to her fashionably-styled hair. He did not seem to believe Davos, but Sansa did not speak or try to defend her claim. “You’ll need to see the Sergeant if you’re planning to cross.”
“Very well,” Davos answered and gave a signal to their driver, who made a sharp motion that echoed the drawing of a Charter mark. The corporal watched him with a cautious frown, but Jory only removed the bags from the car boot, leaving him with nothing to do but lead Sansa and Davos to the Sergeant.
When she approached the crossing point with Davos at her side, several of the scouts who had seen her in southern dress were forced to stare at the difference in her appearance. Gone were her silk stockings and charming leather shoes. Sansa wore a pair of sensible boots, comfortable breeches, and a leather jerkin under a grey, wool cloak pinned in place with the sigil of the royal family, and her long hair was braided and pinned to her head in the Old Kingdom style. Her hands were gloved in a pair of comfortable, doeskin gloves, and a long, Charter-spelled dagger hung from her belt. Despite this, the thing that most set her apart from the young woman who had arrived at the Perimeter looking every inch an Ancelstierran noblewoman was the dimly glowing Charter mark on her now-bare forehead.
Sansa had expected to feel disappointed when she looked up at the Wall and then beyond it, where the trees were a riot of autumn color. A chilly breeze cut through the late summer warmth of Ancelstierre, but it carried on it the strong sense of magic. She instead felt her heart hammering impatiently in her chest. It did not stop when they passed between two long lines of Scouts, nor when the Wall gave a shimmer of Charter marks along its surface.
On closer inspection, the entire surface of the Wall was covered in Charter marks, as lively and eager as the Charter stones that dotted the countryside of the Old Kingdom, or the Great Stones that warmed the central reservoir of Belisaere. Sansa caught the marks for comfort and protection, warning and reassurance, of things astray returning to their place, before they floated back into the sea of marks along the stone and her breath was stolen away by a sharp, northern wind.
The Wall was welcoming her home.
“You’ll have maybe six hours of strong daylight,” the Sergeant told Sansa directly when they reached the end of the line where he waited for them. “You ought to be able to reach one of the border towns with plenty of light left.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” answered Sansa absently as she looked toward the curve in the road ahead with a faint, automatic smile. She thought of her past travels in the kingdom, how she often rode on horseback to Greystone Watch to stay the night before continuing. When the weather was good, they took a Paperwing and flew northward. On at least two occasions, Sansa had been forced to take the King’s Road, which was far slower, but more reliable. “I’m sure we’ll be met at Greystone Watch. It’s a little further, but a suitable place to take rest.”
The Sergeant exchanged a doubtful glance with Davos and sheathed his Charter-spelled sword with a curt shake of his head that clearly communicated his dislike. “Perhaps you might have before, but I wouldn’t risk it with the haunts out there.”
“We do not go the Greystone Watch.” Davos cleared his throat and touched Sansa’s shoulder through her cloak. “But as you say, Sergeant, the daylight eludes us. We must make haste.”
Davos’s words had the desired effect, for the sergeant gave a swift salute and barked an order to the line of scouts. They turned abruptly and began their return to the Crossing Point, leaving Sansa and Davos alone on the road.
“What was that?” Sansa demanded, once the last of the scouts had circled around to return to the Wall.
“The borderlands are not stable,” Davos answered her frankly, adjusting the sword at his belt and nodding toward the road. His impatience suggested that he thought they should continue their journey without stopping for explanation, but he cleared his throat and bowed gently to her. “A Paperwing escort to the capital awaits us at Harrow’s Point.”
Sansa stood still in the road with a tight frown, her gloved hands closing in tense little balls at her sides. “Davos,” she called quietly, but when he did not turn back, she followed with a considerably slower gait than his, forcing him to keep pace with her. “You didn’t say there were--I beg your pardon. Are there Dead near the Wall?”
“I’m afraid so.” Davos reached out to give her shoulder a gentle, bracing squeeze. “The Guard has undertaken considerable risk to bring you home to Belisaere without raising the alarm in Ancelstierre or among the people of the kingdom. It is important we bring you back soon.”
A cloud passed over the sun and Sansa shivered from something more than the autumn wind. The things that preoccupied her in Corvere seemed too far removed from her to have been so important not two weeks before. She looked abruptly back toward the Wall. Even in the sharp, midday sun, it glimmered with Charter magic. The Wall was meant to keep the magic and the Dead of the Old Kingdom out of the south, inasmuch as it could restrain something which bled across the border whenever the wind blew from the north. The only comfort it offered on this side was a wellspring of magic from the Charter. What might they find when they were too far beyond its influence, where its enchantments held the passages to Death closed?
“When did you plan to tell me how dire things were in the kingdom?” Her voice barely sounded like her own, cracking over the edges of her words, but Sansa forced herself to be calm.
“Ideally when we were somewhere more secure than Ancelstierre.” Davos withdrew his hands and folded them in front of him. “You are King Robb’s heir. The Clayr have seen your coronation and your reign in their Glacier, as they did your brother and your father before you. The time for that vision has come, and at a time when the realm needs their queen to lead them more than any in my memory.”
Davos bowed his whole body forward, touching the Charter mark on his forehead and making the same sort of deferential sign in the air that Jory had done earlier. This time, however, saturated in the magic of the Old Kingdom, it left a shimmering Charter mark in the air before it dissipated.
Sansa made a clumsy attempt at the returning mark -- acceptance of fealty, an oath to be upheld -- and was grateful that Davos did not remark on her discomposure. She had known the truth of it since Davos arrived that morning nearly a week past, but the truth of her brother’s death, the terrible and obvious reason for her hurried return to the kingdom, but it was no easier to hear it again.
She’d learned to swallow her emotions in Corvere, where the elite raged for favor or power over one another in a game of political intrigue, but hot, bitter tears welled up in Sansa’s eyes as the mark faded. She forced herself to swallow these down, too, and a hard lump took their place in her throat. Grief could not save the kingdom. It could not even bring back her brother.
“Take me home, Davos,” Sansa commanded through the pricks of pain in her chest and followed him without another word for hours.
Sansa had never been to Harrow’s Point, but when the tower swam into view some hours later, as the sun began to sink along the edge of the sky far earlier than it did in Ancelstierre, she began to understand why there was no permanent attachment assigned to Harrow’s Point. The tower was not large enough to house more than a dozen, and its view of the area was mostly obscured by the trees that had grown tall around it. Still, she did not hide her shaken breath of relief when she saw the first red and gold banners of the Royal Guard ahead of them.
Davos drew a quick mark in the air and a Charter flare crackled above their heads, signaling to the guard before their approach. An extra measure that would not have been necessary in better times, Sansa thought as she straightened her shoulders in anticipation of greeting a group of unfamiliar guards. How much had changed in her absence since her father’s death? Or only because Robb was dead, and Sansa his uncrowned heir? Or, still more frighteningly, because of the Dead that had not yet been put down by the Abhorsen?
The Abhorsen, she thought with a start. Why hadn’t the Abhorsen come to put down the Dead near the Wall? It was the sacred duty of the Abhorsen to seek out and lay down the Dead. A necromancer, but one who served the Charter as she did, and a birthright of their family. A heritage and duty bound to their bloodline as powerfully as Robb’s claim to the throne of the kingdom. As powerful as her duty, now.
Perhaps things were worse elsewhere in the kingdom, leaving roaming Dead in the borderlands of the south to the relatively minor damage they might do. That was little comfort, thought Sansa, and pulled her cloak tighter around herself. She welcomed the appearance of seven guards from Harrow’s Point on the road ahead, because it gave her opportunity to put her anxious wonderings to the side.
The guards kept their hoods up to protect against the growing chill in the air, carried by a wind from the north, but they lowered them when they met Sansa and Davos in the road. When the tallest of the guards at the front of the group drew back her hood, Sansa recognized the solemn face as that of the Commander of the Royal Guard, Lady Brienne.
“Your Majesty,” she said, her voice sagging with relief when she knelt before the Princess, but she held out her fingers to Sansa to test her the Charter mark on her forehead for the taint of Free Magic. Sansa did the same and felt a forgotten rush of the Charter around them, as though she had tipped forward into an ocean of Charter marks rather than tested Brienne’s mark.
Satisfied, Brienne rose to her feet, touched her mark, and drew the fealty mark in the air. Behind her, the remaining guards echoed this motion, and the air sparked with magic that warmed Sansa through. Drawing the answering mark even seemed easier for her than it had not so very long before.
In the spell light, Sansa scanned the faces of the other guards and was greeted with a final surprise: the familiar face of Jon Snow, her bastard-born cousin, near the back of the formation.
Jon’s mother had been the willful, younger sister of the king, who lived wild as a wolf and merry as a summer’s day. Sansa had not yet been born when Princess Lyanna returned to Belisaere heavily pregnant but she knew that her aunt had defiantly refused to name her child’s father.
And so, when she died bringing Jon into the world, Jon was raised up in the tradition of royal bastards: Sansa’s father had brought him up to the King’s household, though could never truly be part of it, and raised the boy himself. And though her siblings had loved Jon dearly, Sansa left for school in Ancelstierre just as Jon began to train for the Royal Guard, and she had spared him little thought in the years since.
Jon had grown from a lanky teenager who sparred with Robb into a tall, lean man on whom the longsword at his hip did not seem out of place. His expression was grim, which was no change at all from the Jon who lived in her memory, but it was his uncanny resemblance to her dead father, his uncle, that now left a hard lump in Sansa’s throat that she struggled to swallow down. But it was neither his physical resemblance to her father, nor even the lingering echo of the discomfort she’d felt around the orphaned bastard boy when she was a girl which left an unsettled feeling to pull at her chest.
Sansa had seen Jon only one other time since leaving for Ancelstierre, standing solitary guard next to her crowned brother. It seemed appropriate then, that Robb would choose Jon for his personal guard. Jon had pledged his life to Robb, to lay himself down to protect his king. A duty, it seemed, he had forsaken. Sansa felt nauseous and her magic faltered for only an instant.
When the marks had faded, Sansa’s more quickly than the others which left a shimmering afterimage, Davos cleared his throat from Sansa’s side. “The hour is not late, but we are losing daylight and the Princess has come a very long way.”
Brienne nodded curtly to him and gave a signal to the guards with her to take up formation around Sansa. They closed ranks around her in a diamond shape, with Brienne at the front and Jon following at the back, and Sansa did not dare look backward at his solemn face.
Sansa wondered dimly if this was an abundance of caution, or if this was simply the way her life would be forever.
She was not given long to ponder this, however, before she was hustled into the inner chambers of the tower. The door was barred behind by Jon, who exchanged only a curt nod with Brienne, and Sansa was left alone with Davos and Brienne.
Maps were pinned to the heavy, knotted table at the center of the room, and bits of heavy, linen paper that bore messages written by a different hand on each one were strewn everywhere over these. Occasionally, Sansa spotted a scrap of paper that carried only a single Charter mark that carried the sender’s message.
She watched Brienne stoke the fire with little interest, and tried to think of something appropriate to say, as if she were still in Corvere. She politely asked, “How long have you been in Harrow’s Point?”
“Lady Brienne was kind enough to accompany me from Belisaere to the Wall,” answered Davos lightly. “We needed an extra Paperwing for the return to the capital.”
Brienne bowed her head in Davos’s direction and folded her hands behind her back. Her posture was stiff, and her brow betrayed just how difficult she found the burden of a second king’s death in fewer than five years. “The regiment from Qyrre sent some of their number here until we depart tomorrow morning. For your protection, Your Majesty.”
I am not yet their queen, thought Sansa, but when she peeled off her gloves and approached the table, no one stopped her, as they might have before. Their deference made her stomach churn uncomfortably.
She turned her eyes to the spidery lines of the large map of the kingdom and the territories beyond with a grim expression. Small, lead figurines to show where the Guard was garrisoned were placed all over the map, and she studied these for a moment. A cluster around Belisaere must have been the guard assigned to protect the royal family. Sansa reached out a hand to touch one brightly-painted miniature over the palace hill, but withdrew it and turned her attention to the glowing, crimson Charter marks that shimmered just over the surface of the paper cast her face in a sanguine glow.
Her eyes lifted to Brienne’s. “The marks are the Dead that Davos mentioned?”
“Those we know about, at least,” Brienne corrected grimly, lifting her hand and flinging several marks onto the map. Some of the marks dimmed, or faded completely, but others burned brighter. “We don’t yet know where they are coming from, or who--what is summoning them.”
“A rogue necromancer, simply judging by their numbers,” Davos offered, standing back from the table with his arms crossed. “Nothing else could summon the number of Hands reported by our scouts.”
Sansa pushed aside some of the parchment to look closer over the map. “Where did Robb -- my brother--” She choked on the words, inhaled deeply the scent of burning wood and the pine of the table beneath her as she collected herself. “Where did the King die?”
“I don’t think that’s--” Brienne began, but fell quiet when she looked up from the map to meet Sansa’s piercing stare. She bowed her head to her and gestured to the mountains to the northwest of Belisaere, beyond the Clayr’s Glacier, where a blood-red mark pulsed like a slow, living heart. “The King mounted an expedition into the mountains after reports of a broken Charter Stone.”
Sansa peered closer at the map. “There’s almost nothing there,” she said carefully, her mouth pinching into a thoughtful frown. “I thought the Clayr patrolled the area around the Glacier.”
Davos hummed thoughtfully, but when Sansa looked up she saw that he was watching her rather than the map. “There are a few villages along the Nailway that support the miners in the mountains. The Clayr do what they can to contain the dangers under those mountains, but they can hardly repair a broken Charter Stone. Or five, as it turns out.”
“Five!” exclaimed Sansa, looking up from the map with a jolt. “Did my brother not know?”
The Charter Stones were the heart of those communities. To break them was to open the door to Death, Free Magic, and worse still. A swath of broken stones in a remote part of the kingdom would certainly account for a number of Dead, but not how far they had spread. There were Dead reported from the Greenwash to the Bay of Mountains, and smaller groups edging toward the heart of the kingdom. And this was the way Robb had died. The way Davos and Brienne and the rest of the kingdom feared she might die, before the kingdom could be secured.
“How could he have?” Brienne interjected, her eyes drifting regretfully over the map. “The broken stone in the Nailway could have been anything. A fool experimenting with Free Magic. The stone was repaired, but the King sent word that he intended to investigate a report in the mountains. It was the last we heard before a survivor from the King’s Guard arrived at a small garrison at the Estwael Road.”
She turned from the map toward the fire and closed her eyes, forcing herself to focus on the problems before her and not the fresh wash of grief that rose like a waterline in her chest. Robb had been strong and keenly intelligent, well-mannered, charming, and all the things that marked him as destined to wear a crown. In her youth, Sansa had admired him for his easy manner and cheerful disposition, but she’d seen very little of that when she last returned from Ancelstierre after their father died. Robb as King was encumbered with duty, burdened with the responsibility of his iron and bronze crown, and Sansa had not thought twice about it.
Perhaps she ought to have done so. The death of king while fulfilling his duties to the kingdom was not unusual. It was the mark of a devoted servant of the realm, a legend to the people. Two, however, in so short a span of time, along with the Dead, the broken stones, and the unusual absence of the Abhorsen could not be simple coincidence.
Sansa opened her eyes and folded her arms over her stomach. If she did not wish to die as her father and brother, she could not afford her grief to blind her. “Has there been word from the Abhorsen?”
Davos’s frown became more pronounced, which answered her question with more certainty than his measured response. “The King corresponded regularly with him. I believe he requested his assistance before he was lost in the mountains, but…”
Brienne finished for him: “There has been no word.”
Five broken Charter Stones and the Dead ravaging her kingdom with no Abhorsen to lay them back to rest. There was no one but her now, thought Sansa with dizzying clarity.
“Charter preserve us,” murmured Sansa softly, to the quiet affirmations of her companions and advisors. They allowed her silence, seeming to recognize that Sansa was only now coming to realize the weight and urgency of their troubles. Part of her wanted to demand answers, to know how long the kingdom had languished this way, or if she had simply never recognized these dangers in her youthful naivete. But she was tired and she knew neither Davos nor Brienne would be able to satisfy her questions.
After a long period of quiet, the fire popping in the wide hearth, she finally asked: “Who was the survivor?”
“Jon Snow,” said Davos immediately, his eyes drawn to the door where Jon must have been left to stand guard outside.
Sansa felt her first spike of anger since she left Corvere. It was not entirely fair to blame Jon for surviving what Robb had not, but Sansa had no defense against this irrational surge of fury now she had something on which to focus her flood of emotions. When he took up the oaths of the Guard, Jon had sworn to protect the man he loved as a brother. Her brother. His King. But Robb was dead and Jon lived. The injustice of it licked like flames in her chest, momentarily burning up all her grief and pain, before Sansa could contain it.
“I see,” said Sansa coldly, before adding: “Good night, Lady Brienne. Davos.”
She bowed her head to them, then reached for the same acknowledging mark she drew in answer to their fealty and let it hang between them. The answering marks came, but Sansa walked through these on her way to the door with her shoulders back and her spine stiff.
Guards buzzed around, preparing two other Paperwings for flight, while Sansa’s hand lingered over the painted eyes. Brienne had explained their plan over a sparse breakfast of oats and dried fruit. The rest of her journey would be accompanied by Davos, Brienne, and a handful of guards, among them Jon.
It was tradition for the personal guard of the king or queen to pass to their heir upon their death. As the only remainder of Robb’s personal guard, Jon was now the only member of Sansa’s own guard. At least, she thought with lingering bitterness, he would be until she named her own guard. She was so distracted by her thoughts of the journey that she did not notice when Jon came to stand beside her, his hand resting nervously on the hilt of his sword.
Sansa looked away from the Paperwing and found herself looking from his tall, leather boots and red and gold patterned surcoat to his anxious frown. She did not mask her disdain, which had not entirely faded overnight, but if Jon noticed, he did not let it show.
Instead, he took her to the side with a hand on her elbow and bent his head so only she could hear. Sansa looked to the side, where Davos was deep in conversation with a guard who bore a gold chevron on his sleeve. Lady Brienne barked orders from the far end of the field, giving directions to prepare space for the Paperwings to launch into the sky.
“Your Majesty,” Jon repeated quietly, drawing her attention back to his gloved hands. “Has anyone taught you the marks for the Paperwings?”
She looked over to the little craft with surprise. No one ever had. She’d always flown with a pilot who was adept with the weather magic that encouraged a strong and sure wind, and she’d paid almost no attention to the whistled Charter magic required to activate the spell in the Paperwing, or to sustain their flight. “They’ve only said that they rely on weather magic.”
Jon gave a short nod and Sansa saw that he did not quite meet her eyes.
Sansa watched as Jon drew the outlines of the marks in the air, speaking their names slowly so she could commit them to memory. Some of them Sansa recognized, but others were unfamiliar and tasted like something wild and dangerous if uncontrolled. Jon was a careful teacher, waiting until Sansa tried humming the right notes, summoning the marks in her mind and pressing them out into the notes, before he moved on to the next. Beside them, the Paperwing gave a soft shudder, like a sleeping animal shaking off a fly.
“You’ll do well,” said Jon with the smallest hint of a smile ghosting his mouth when they finished, drawing back from her. “If something happens -- if I have to defend us, or if I’m otherwise incapacitated, it will be up to you to keep us in the air.”
Sansa’s stomach gave an uncomfortable swoop, like she’d swallowed ice. She’d flown to Belisaere by Paperwing at least two dozen times since she’d gone to Ancelstierre for school as a girl. All she remembered of those journeys was that they had not been comfortable, and the joy of flying had gone when she’d grown from a child to a woman, but nothing dangerous had ever happened there. She asked, “What could possibly attack us in the sky?”
Dismay, and something else that Sansa could not recognize, flashed over Jon’s face. He wet his lips and swallowed before he said, “Any number of things, Your Grace. Charter willing, none of them do.”
“I’ll certainly hope they don’t.” Frustrated, Sansa turned from him and adjusted her braid. She was sure Jon did not meant to unnerve her before their flight, but they could hardly spare the time for trouble along the way.
Some several yards away, Davos looked over to them with a grim smile that made her somewhat uncomfortable. Sansa lowered her head and climbed into the rear seat of the Paperwing, her boots slipping across the lacquered bottom. It was difficult to maintain her composure with everyone feeling tense and frightened, but she knew that she must. It was not only her own strength that relied on it.
When Jon climbed into the seat in front of her and whistled the first marks to activate the magic in the Paperwing, Sansa’s heart beat uncomfortably fast in her chest. But if she held any lingering fears after his warning, they dissipated as surely as the wisps of early-morning fog under the strengthening sunlight.
The first day gave them fair weather that did not trouble their Charter-summoned wind. Jon’s magic was powerful enough to overcome the deficiencies in his atonal whistles, but Sansa could not help adding her own, purer notes to stabilize the choppy wind he summoned. And though she shared the burden of the magic with Jon and, to a lesser extent, Brienne and Davos in the other Paperwings, Sansa was exhausted by it. She spent hours watching the landscape beneath them turn from the yellow-green of early autumn to a riot of orange, red, and yellow as they hurtled north on a strong wind.
Sansa did not remember falling asleep, but she was woke with a jerk by a sharp whistle from Jon, infused with Charter magic, and the slow of the Paperwing around her. An answering whistle came from their left, where red and gold wings swooped wide and the other Paperwing began to circle toward the ground, lit by the ruddy glow of dying sunlight.
She leaned forward toward Jon and gasped when their Paperwing dropped some ten feet before he stabilized their wind again. The wide, rushing water glittering in the late-day sun could only be the River Ratterlin, but she saw nothing to hint at where they might be along the great river’s enormous length, which spanned from its headwaters deep in the mountains of the north until the Ratterlin Delta, not far from the Wall. “Where are we?”
Jon was slow to answer until the Paperwing had begun an easy, circling descent, then he peered over the side and frowned at the countryside beneath them. “North of High Bridge, south of the Yanyl,” he called back, then pointed to the dense forest beneath. “The forest will give some shelter tonight.”
Shelter from the Dead, Sansa supposed, sitting back in the little seat and falling silent again. Jon did not press her for more conversation, returning his focus to their descent and landing.
Once they were aground, Sansa climbed awkwardly out of the Paperwing. After hours in the cramped seat, she was dreadfully stiff and her rump was sore, and she was aching too much to refuse the hand Jon offered her as she steadied her feet. They’d come far in a single day’s flying, and she’d only have to endure another day of flying before she was home. That was enough for her.
Brienne and Davos had already landed and the guard who accompanied Brienne, a fresh-faced young woman that Sansa did not recognize, had already disappeared into the woods to begin casting their diamond of protection. The other had an axe in hand and had set to work splitting wood for their fire. After removing the pack from beneath Sansa’s seat, Jon lingered by the Paperwing with his hand on its nose and his eyes shut tight, and then he, too, disappeared into the trees.
Sansa was left to pick her way through the brush until she found Brienne and Davos deep in conversation over a scrap of paper she recognized as the map from the night before.
“We should send word to the Clayr,” mused Davos as she stepped within earshot, looking down at the map with a deep furrow in his brow. He sounded tense, as though he and Brienne had been bickering about this, or something else, all day. “Ask if they have seen anything in the ice."
“We received word.” Brienne’s mouth was thin with displeasure, but she bent her head to greet Sansa. “The Nine-Day Watch has seen nothing of the Abhorsen. But the Clayr, of course…”
“Can hardly tell their futures apart, or tell us when those futures will happen.” Davos crossed his arms over his chest and stood to the side as Sansa circled around the guards setting up their camp. She felt dizzy at the conversation that seemed to happen around her, rather than with her. It simply seemed to be the way things were going to be now.
“Do you think the Clayr could tell us what’s happening in the kingdom?” Sansa thought of the rare occasions when she’d so much as seen a Clayr, usually when they came to visit her father with a future they had Seen in their glacier. Sansa had certainly never spoken to one of the reclusive sisterhood who lived in the glacier that fed the Ratterlin in the far northern reaches of the kingdom. She knew that they, along with the Royal line and the Abhorsen, were among the Great Charters that kept the kingdom safe and whole, and not a great deal more.
“I am assured they will try harder to do so,” Brienne said humorlessly, but Sansa could see that she was trying to seem reassuring to her young queen. “For all their ice-gazing, they have as much to lose if we fail to complete the coronation rituals. They mean well.”
Brienne’s hand closed tighter around the hilt of her sword, staring out at the lengthening shadows with heightened alert. Despite her confidence at Harrow’s Point that they could have made it to Belisaere by following the King’s Road, she seemed less certain of that once they were beyond its walls.
Jon appeared at the edge of the clearing, swiftly drawing an unfamiliar mark of fealty in their direction. For Sansa, he gave a half-bow that did not suit him.
Brienne waved it aside as he approached. “Are the diamonds up?” she asked, but Sansa did not sense the familiar hum of Charter magic around them.
“They are working on the south mark,” Jon answered simply, but he turned to address Sansa directly. “The wards will be stronger if you cast the north mark.”
“If I do?” Sansa’s voice jumped with embarrassing surprise. The north mark was the final mark in a diamond of protection, and usually the most difficult. “What could you possibly gain if I cast the mark?”
“Snow is right.” Davos cleared his throat with a smile meant to reassure, though it did no such thing for Sansa. “Your blood -- your connection to the Charter, that is -- should resonate stronger in this part of the kingdom. There is a Charter stone perhaps a quarter of a mile to the north. That might strengthen the diamond.”
That seemed to decide the matter. Jon bowed his head to her and Davos returned his attention to the map, while Brienne returned to observing the preparations for camp. Sansa had no choice but to follow Jon through the woods, but she did so silently, pausing only two or three times to tug her cloak free of a patch of thorns.
Anger still bubbled in her chest, thinking of her dead brother and Jon, who swore to die for his king. Jon survived what Robb could not. It wasn’t reasonable, far from the rational sort of thought she needed if she had a hope of finding out what had killed her brother. If she planned to survive it herself.
Sansa waited until they had disappeared into the trees and looked him over with a cold, sweeping glare. “Why were you the one who survived?”
Jon tipped his chin upward at her. For a moment, she thought he might be defiant. It was in his eyes, a burning emotion tearing at him, but he swallowed visibly and turned his face from hers. It was a foul, unfair accusation for her to make, but she was not sorry for saying it.
“I don’t know,” he finally answered with such determined honesty that Sansa couldn’t help believing him. Jon looked back over at her with a searching stare, and for a moment she thought that perhaps the emotion she’d mistaken for anger was something else entirely. But then Jon said nothing else, and Sansa was happy to let it drop.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, her boots crunching through the dead leaves on the forest floor the only sound to echo through the woods. It was becoming dark quickly in this part of the kingdom, and Sansa was ill at ease with the lengths of the shadows along the forest floor. She was made aware of the nearness of the Charter stone well before it bobbed into sight: the late autumn forest was more lush as they grew nearer to it. When she saw it, though, all the taut emotions pinching in her chest seemed to fade like the scar of an old wound. It was the first she had seen since visiting the Great Charter Stones in the reservoir under Belisaere several years before, and Sansa grabbed for Jon’s arm out of the shock of warm magic that seemed to emanate from the misshapen rock, black like onyx but swirling with an eternity of Charter marks.
He stood by, patiently waiting for her to draw back, which she did when she realized she was clasping his forearm quite firmly. “You must have been very homesick,” Jon observed in a voice that he must have thought would be soothing for her.
“I wasn’t,” Sansa admitted, rather more honestly than she might have for anyone else. Jon’s eyebrows lifted at this, but he didn’t seem to be offended by her candor, so she continued: “Ancelstierre is very different, but I liked it there.”
Perhaps Jon thought this was strange, but Sansa kept her chin lifted and he did not answer. A length of silence seemed best, anyway. Sansa knew she would have to work very hard to cast the north mark.
Sansa took the sword that Jon offered her, grasping at the long, heavy weapon until she had a grip strong enough to begin casting the mark in the ground beside the Charter stone. Drawing on the comforting warmth of the nearby stone, Sansa dipped into the Charter like a child testing the waters of an ocean before rushing in with abandon. Charter marks seemed to surround her, reaching out to make themselves known to her, should she need to draw on them. Dimly, she could feel the humming magic of the incomplete diamond held down by the scouts at the east, south, and west marks and Sansa reached for the marks that would connect her to them and complete the diamond. It did not seem to matter how long it had been since she’d last cast this sort of magic: the marks fell into her mind seemingly before she could even summon them.
The north mark flared from her palms and slid like water down the blade toward the ground. When it touched the ground and rooted, lines of golden flame shot past them to connect to the east and west marks. The diamond was complete.
Sansa offered Jon’s sword back to him and felt him remove a hand from her shoulder. She had not even felt him touch her, but he had done so to lend his magic to the casting. As a result, it had gone much smoother than it might have had she tried on her own.
“Thank you,” she said politely. It would be easier for both of them if she could put aside her anger until they were safe, but Sansa wasn’t ready to apologize yet.
He bowed very slightly to her, and she allowed him his grim silence on the brief walk back to camp. It was growing darker more quickly than before, and though their diamond was complete and powerful enough to secure their encampment for the night, she did not like the stillness of the forest around them.
Jon waited until they were within sight of the fire before he excused himself with only a brief nod. Sansa watched him leave with her hands fisted around her cloak, hesitating only a moment before she walked purposefully after him, toward the fire.
After dinner, Jon and one of the scouts who accompanied them took first watch and left the camp to check the diamond. Brienne had gone to send messages to Belisaere, and Sansa was left to sit along by the fire with her cloak draped over her shoulders.
On the drive from Corvere, she’d had plenty of time to think about the state of the Old Kingdom, but that had been before she’d seen it for herself and learned just how bad the kingdom was without her brother. Or perhaps how bad it had been since her father died, if things had come to be bad enough for five Charter stones to be broken before he came to deal with them. The weight of the past few days rested heavily on her, and though her journey had hardly begun, Sansa was suddenly very tired.
She rested her cheek in her hand and stared absently into the flames, thinking of her brother. Robb had been far too young to be king, she knew, younger at his coronation than she would be at hers, but he had been good for the kingdom. He had always known that he would be King, and so had prepared for it all his life.
Sansa had been set on another path almost from the moment of her birth and had so prepared a life lived between the land of her birth and the one she had done so much of her growing up in. It had not seemed so terrible, Sansa had even liked the notion of serving as the Old kingdom’s ambassador. It had seemed so worthy a purpose, one so suited for her particular talents, and one so utterly different than the duties she knew she must now assume.
Davos came to sit next to her with a rough greeting and a horn of wine. He poured some of garnet liquid into a rough, copper cup for her, which Sansa accepted with polite thanks. As Davos poured himself a cup, she stared into the darkness of the cup absently for a long time before she tasted it. The wine was full-bodied and strong, with none of the delicacy of the Ancelstierran wine she sipped at parties. Sansa took a deeper drink, and welcomed the warm feeling that filled her weary body.
“Have you given any thought to who will serve in your guard?” Davos was careful to keep his voice only loud enough for her to hear, his eyebrows lifting toward his hairline.
Sansa looked up, drawn abruptly from her thoughts. She shook her head and frowned back at the cup in her hands. “I hadn’t.”
“You ought to.” Davos drank deeply from his cup, as though steeling himself to say something he thought she wouldn’t like. “And you ought to ask Jon to stay.”
“Ought I?” Her expression turned sharp immediately, as swiftly as she straightened her back. She’d been right that she wouldn’t like what Davos had to say, and she was forced to wonder what it was that made everyone so nervous about Jon. She could not resist adding bitterly: “Do you suppose Jon will serve well, or do you expect him to deliver news to my mother that another of her children has died? I suppose that Arya will be a fearsome queen, and more prepared for the dangers in the kingdom than I am.”
“You are indulging a pettish fantasy,” Davos scolded, but he did not lose the softness on his face. “It’s tradition, of course. That would normally be enough to keep him.”
Sansa did not understand, but she’d had enough of not understanding. She took a deep gulp from the cup and frowned at Davos, tipping her head to the side. “What is it then? What am I not seeing about Jon Snow that has everyone twisted up?”
The fire popped violently. Davos took a moment to throw another log onto it and watch as the flames crept along the splinters of its roughhewn surface, catching and consuming with haste.
Davos cleared his throat and drained the wine from his cup. “Commander Tarth does not like to hear it, but you must: I saw Jon when he returned to Belisaere. Perhaps you cannot see the signs of it now because Luwin is quite talented, but I have fought the Dead -- yes, I have! Don’t look at me like that! It’s important that you hear this: I have never seen a man survive wounds like his.”
Sansa drew away from him and retreated to the relative comfort of staring at the flames. She thought of stories of men crossing over from Life into Death, of the cold grip of the river that flowed through that realm, bringing the spirits of the dead through each of the nine gates and beyond. She thought of necromancers, summoning those spirits through dark magic, necromancy and Free Magic and worse. But she shook these off -- frightening stories like Old Nan had told her as a girl had never done her any good before, and she doubted they would do her any good while they were alone and vulnerable in the forests. She asked, “What are you saying, Davos?”
He shook his head, as if he were clearing webs from around his head. “Only that I can think of few men I would rather choose to have at my side in times like this.” Davos rose to his feet and drew his fealty mark for her, allowing it to burn in the space between them a moment longer than usual, and then he left her alone.
The diamond of protection had lasted through the night, and this was the last thing they dissolved before Jon handed Sansa into the back of their Paperwing. His attention stayed focused on the misty darkness beyond a copse of massive trees as the others climbed into their own crafts, a deep crease between his eyebrows as he stared. The pure, strong notes carrying the activating marks came from the others, but Sansa thought they sounded as though they were muted by the oppressive roll of wet fog.
Just when she was about to reach out for Jon’s sleeve, he turned and tucked his sword beside his seat. Within easy reach, she thought as he whistled the activating marks and settled in front of her.
Whatever had bothered Jon on the ground seemed to dissipate as surely as the fog they broke through toward the sky. Warm, orange-gold rays of sunshine had just peeped over the far horizon and this, along with the security that she would be home in Belisaere in mere hours, gave Sansa comfort enough to relax and think of the coming days, of her imminent coronation and the dangers that she must immediately turn her attention to.
There were rituals to observe before she could be coronated, or perhaps they were the coronation. Robb’s coronation had happened so soon after their father’s death that there had not been time to wait for Sansa to come home to participate. King Eddard had died in the west, set upon by a group of Dead in the Great Forest and it had only seemed natural to conduct last rites and crown a new king as quickly as possible. It had hurt then to be excluded from her ceremonial place in her brother’s coronation, but something else replaced those feelings. Now, she regretted her absence from the kingdom out of grief rather than a misplaced sense that she had been rejected by her family. Out of fear of what was to come rather than envy of the mysteries Robb had seen.
Davos had alluded to these mysteries during the long week from Corvere, remarking only that she must complete whatever rituals there were before the next full moon. And though Sansa knew that they had something to do with the many secrets tied up in the Great Charter that ran in the blood of the Royal family, she could not know what these were, or what they required of her. Robb had been prepared for his inevitable coronation, would have known the details of the magic involved, but Sansa, being meant for something quite different than the throne, had never learned. That gave Sansa very little time to learn, or prepare for the sort of powerfully advanced magic that could consume a Charter mage if unprepared for it.
And when that was complete and she was queen, there would be no time for rest. It would fall to her to carry on the work that had killed her brother.
Sansa wallowed in utterly depressing line of thought for hours, keeping her chin balanced on her hand as she stared at the landscape beneath them. It felt colder than the day before, and a thick layer of dark clouds had filled in from the north since that first glimpse of the morning sun. These threatened rain, or even snow if the temperature dropped any more than it already had. A dark flock of migrating birds rose up from the trees in the distance, and Sansa watched these with a persisting gloominess.
But rather than avoiding the unfamiliar Paperwings, as normal birds might have, these seemed to fixate on the Paperwing and drew ever closer as they flew, even after the Paperwings turned toward the northeast.
Sansa leaned forward and bent toward Jon’s ear. “Jon?”
“I see them,” answered Jon immediately, and she saw that his shoulders were taut and pulled close to his ears.
Sansa curled her fingers around the seat and looked closer. The flock was tightly packed with birds, but they moved with an eerie unity, as if they were guided by a single will rather than the disorderly fluttering of many individual birds. She frowned, and when she looked down, she saw that Jon’s hand had crept toward his sword. “What are they?”
Jon hesitated before answering, an uncomfortable expression passing like shadow over his face. “Gore crows, I think,” he answered slowly. “A flock of dead crows possessed by a Dead spirit.”
Panic flooded Sansa’s stomach, a hot, swoop of adrenaline that left her light-headed and heavy. She thought of Jon’s warning the day before and realized that she had not taken it seriously at the time. For all the danger she’d known of in the abstract, she had never actually thought anything might happen. At least, not now.
“Can we do anything?” She heard the panic in her voice and winced.
Jon’s hand moved away from his sword and the warm rush of Charter magic flowed past Sansa, crackling in the air around them as Jon drew together the spell. He thrust out a single hand and a bright, sun-like flare arced ahead of them, toward the flock. It moved around it in smooth unison, but a few crow bodies from the outer edge fell from the sky, caught by Jon’s spell. The Paperwing gave an irritated shudder, the Charter-summoned wind becoming quickly unstable.
Sansa did not need to think twice before quickly summoning the Charter marks Jon had showed her before, squeezing her eyes closed and letting them flow out on a shrill note that wavered in the wind, but was strong and pure. Now she was the one flying it, Sansa felt the Paperwing around her, giving impressions of fear and dislike of whatever magic it was that Jon was casting from his place in front of her.
The first of the gore crows soared close enough that she could see their skeletal bodies shedding feathers and rotted flesh in the roaring wind around them, stark against the gray of the clouds. Jon gave an irritated snarl, Charter magic flashing like lightning from one crow to the next, but there were too many and they came ever closer. Their first pass ripped a gash into the thin wood frame of the Paperwing, leaving Sansa with an impression of its distress, before Jon could cast another defensive spell.
Another bolt of Charter lightning crackled near them, close to her ear, before dissipating to nothing. Whipping her head to the side, Sansa saw Brienne circling above them, but the gore crows did not seem to notice her. Or they did not care about her.
Is this how Robb died?
The thought came unbidden to her, causing the breath to rush from her lungs in a cacophonous rush that interrupted the Charter spell Sansa had not finished casting. Her mouth seized and her chest burned for fresh air that would not come. She would die this way: frozen with horror and besieged by the Dead, powerless to save herself.
“Sansa!” Jon’s shout was urgent and frightened. A flash of fire burned before her eyes and the foul, acrid stench of burned flesh jarred Sansa back to her senses. The Paperwing shook violently, batted back and forth by a wild wind and dangerously close to freefall.
Squeezing her eyes tightly closed, Sansa ducked her head and wet her lips, her fingers gripping the thin wooden sides of the Paperwing. The marks did not come easily this time, her whistles drowned out by the roar of the wind, but she felt the Paperwing respond to her. It steadied first, giving Jon a clear shot of the gore crows. But even as he knocked a dozen from the sky with a powerful spell, Sansa knew it wouldn’t be enough. There were more than a hundred swarming around. She took in a lungful of air and summoned a great wind that blasted around them, splitting the flock of birds and scattering them forcefully across the sky. Several gave up their miniscule shard of a spirit and plummeted to the ground as nothing more than it had started as, and they could not regain the cohesion that made them so dangerous.
Before long, Jon had wiped the sky of all but a few stray gore crows. Sansa corrected the Paperwing’s path with a look to the sun and a quick spell to orient them, which Jon remarked on with a breathless compliment that left her cheeks pink. She had for years felt superfluous in the kingdom, and had not cared to practice even the theoretical parts of her magic while in Ancelstierre.
“We’re almost there,” Jon called back, when her heart had begun to slow and her limbs felt weak from the aftereffect of her adrenaline. His finger extended over the wing, and Sansa saw it, her first glimpse of Belisaere in years.
It was nothing more than a glimmering in the sea that came into sharp focus in the afternoon sun as the Paperwing began to circle toward it. Jon’s whistle was sharp, and the winds around them swirled dangerously for a moment, but the sudden surge of Charter-fueled wind from one of the other Paperwings steadied them. Whistling Charter marks came more easily to Sansa, and she added the purer tones of her whistles to Jon’s. The wind gentled, bringing them down for a slow, circling descent.
They landed in the Palace garden, on a flat square paved with smooth-hewn stones. Sansa pulled herself free of the Paperwing and set feet on the firm stone with a soft sigh of relief. Brienne and Davos had already landed their Paperwings nearby, and were talking animatedly with a few people that Sansa did not recognize.
But she did not care. Sansa could not remember feeling so relieved to be home, so grateful to put the weariness of the journey behind her, but the feeling did not last long. The rapid click of boots on stone announced the arrival of the Guard, but it was a loud, frenzied shout that made Sansa whip around, her disheveled braid slapping uncomfortably against her cheek.
Arya and Rickon darted into view from behind a line of guards, giving Sansa almost no time to prepare to catch Rickon when he collided with her abdomen with a hug. He was still for only the briefest second before going to Jon next, before he was even free of the Paperwing himself.
Concern and nonchalance warred on Arya’s face where she stood until Sansa grabbed her shoulders and pulled her into a tight hug. She heard a soft, keening noise from her own throat, an animal noise of relief to see her surviving siblings here, but Arya only gripped her tighter. “We heard there was trouble,” she explained near Sansa’s ear. “Nothing since.”
“There were… complications,” explained Jon, adjusting his sword belt. Rickon stood by him with his pack in his hands, smeared tear streaks on his soft face from where Jon had wiped his face with his gloved thumb. “Sansa kept us from crashing.”
Sansa cleared her throat and twisted her hands. “Jon is being modest. He took care of the crows. We’re all safe, Arya. I hope Mother isn’t worried.”
“That’s not possible for Mother.” Arya released Sansa from the hug with another quick squeeze that betrayed more of her own anxiety than she would normally show. She took Sansa’s bag from the Paperwing and looked her over. “You should get cleaned up before you see her.”
Her sister’s suggestion aside, Sansa was grateful for the opportunity to bathe and change from her traveling clothes. Jon was bent toward Rickon, patiently answering his questions about the gore crows, but his eyes traced over to Sansa when Arya pulled her from the Paperwing. She gave him a quick nod before returning her eyes to the flagstones beneath her feet and let Arya drag her away, and wondered at the twisting rush of emotions that roiled in her chest.
Of course, Sansa thought as she rested her hands on the window sill, she had eventually gone to fulfill her dreams. Life in Ancelstierre had been exciting to her. She had even preferred the intrigues of Corvere with its political balls and handsome young men courting her, the thrill of being a foreign princess in the Ancelstierran capital over the boring reality of being home. If she had ever felt the call of her homeland so far to the north, Sansa had immediately squashed it under another diverting pleasure cruise with Lady Margaery, or another soiree at the embassy of some continental country or another, or a visit to the Decision Palace, bowing to the Hereditary Arbiter...
Staring out at the twin beacons at Boom Hook and Winding Post, their softly blinking Charter lights cutting across miles of darkness, Sansa’s life in Ancelstierre may as well have belonged to someone else entirely.
She had packed a small number of things before leaving Corvere, mementos and other items that she had not wanted to leave behind in her sun-lit apartments. There were letters written on fine, machine-made paper, but these had already begun to disintegrate, as all the modern luxuries of the south always did north of the Wall. Sansa sniffed the remnants of Margaery’s perfumed letters and wished she had left them behind. At least if she had, her beloved keepsakes would have had a chance of existing a little longer. It was only a matter of days before all these things would turn to a pile of mold. Sighing, Sansa put the letters aside and looked to the other things she’d brought with her. An antique locket, a gift from Margaery’s brother, whom she’d fancied. It had seemed important to bring it before, but Sansa doubted she would ever see the handsome face of Willas Tyrell again.
But even as silly as they were, Sansa found herself wishing she had brought more than the paltry items tucked away in the satchel as she turned them over in her hands. Perhaps if she’d brought something that could endure the corrosive nature of distance and the magic of the Old Kingdom, perhaps her former life in Corvere wouldn’t feel like the remnant of a dream she’d had in this very room.
Dismayed by this utterly depressing line of thought, Sansa left the contents of the satchel on the table by the window and went to her wardrobe. Though it was already late and she was exhausted, there was too much left for her to do before she could permit herself to rest for the night. She changed from the comfortable dressing gown to a practical, handwoven gown in the Old Kingdom style, and had just finished braiding her damp hair over her shoulder when a gentle knock came at the door.
Sansa had just risen to her feet when her mother’s figure slipped past the heavy iron and wood door. Catelyn made a soft, distressed noise when she saw her daughter and crossed the room in a rush to take her up into her arms, as though Sansa was still a little girl.
“Arya said you were home,” she sighed into Sansa’s ear after a long time, her fingers combing apart Sansa’s fresh braid. “By the gods, it is good to see you again.”
Drawing her along to the bench by the window, Catelyn’s hands searched Sansa’s arms and shoulders, as though searching for some sign of harm. Grief carved lines into her mother’s face, her skin was sallow and pale and her cheeks hollowed. Sansa knew that her father’s death haunted her mother, but Robb’s death had been worse for her mother.
It took her a few minutes to compose herself, tucked in her mother’s arms, but Sansa finally straightened and asked, “How are things? How are you?”
“The palace is secure,” Catelyn said gently, tucking Sansa’s mussed hair behind her ears with wistful fondness. “We have all been waiting for you. But what is this I heard about an attack on the way?”
Sansa looked down at her hands, chewing the corner of her lip thoughtfully. It wasn’t nothing, and though it would only worry her mother more, Sansa wouldn’t pretend that it was nothing to be concerned about. Even if she didn’t know how to answer the threat with action, as she would be required to before very long. Perhaps even as soon as when her coronation was complete. She cleared her throat and folded her hands around Catelyn’s with a gentle smile. “Everyone is fine for now.”
It was inadequate as far as answers went, but Sansa was barely prepared for the Charter magic she would be required to perform. Magister Luwin, the Palace’s elderly scholar of Charter magic, had provided her with the texts she would need to study before she was taken to the reservoir beneath the Palace hill, where the Great Stones of the Charter lay. Where she would be crowned queen, whether she was suitable or not.
The magic of the kingdom was bound up in the Great Charters, the creators and sustainers of the Charter that gave structure and order to the Free Magic that would have otherwise run rampant across the kingdom. She had always known that her family carried one of the Great Charters in their blood and, had she ever given it any thought, she might have realized that this relationship between the kingdom and the Charter required some magic or another to sustain it. Magic that, she now knew, bound the realm and its protection to her life. These protective seals would dissolve under the first full moon after the death of the previous sovereign, and required the living heir to the throne to recast the binding spells.
But what if Sansa tried to renew the seals, recast the binding spells and failed? What if the Charter recognized that she knew almost nothing about the Old Kingdom and rejected her?
If anyone could understand what it was Sansa was feeling, the troubling emotions that roiled through her, she thought that perhaps it was her mother. Catelyn had been born to a noble family across the Wall, in the north of Ancelstierre, and though she’d willingly been baptized into the Charter and come to the Old Kingdom to marry Sansa’s father before he was made king, Sansa had always thought she’d felt out of place here. It had been Catelyn who argued that one of their children should retain a connection to her homeland, who read the signs of malcontent in Ancelstierran politicians and suggested that someone in the royal family ought to be able to navigate southern politics. Sansa had been an easy choice, a good choice when she was meant only to be an envoy rather than a queen.
But it would be too easy to lay this on her mother’s shoulders, and Sansa could not afford to rely on easy choices any longer. She could not even indulge in feeling sorry for herself, not if she hoped to resolve the many troubles of the kingdom.
And so, when her mother leaned heavily on her shoulder, Sansa put her arm around her and hugged her tightly, and said nothing at all.
The sense of warmth grew as they passed into the ring of stones and Sansa forgot that she had felt chilled when she first stepped onto the shaking boards of the barge. Jon stood at the edge of the barge, his Charter-spelled sword giving off a dull glow that broke off the edge of the darkness, but his stony face shifted when they passed back into shadow near the center of the Great Stones.
“I have never forgotten how beautiful they seemed to me when your father first brought me here.”
Sansa had not felt her mother approach, but she slipped her arm through hers and folded their hands together. “They are no less magnificent for me, after being gone for so long,” she admitted with a thin smile.
“There is nothing in Ancelstierre to compare it.” Catelyn smiled at her daughter, but even in the dim Charter light Sansa could see that her blue eyes were still clouded with grief. Wrinkles she did not remember crowned her mother’s forehead. “I had no idea when I agreed to marry Ned and come across the Wall.”
At that, her face sagged with the weight of her pain and Catelyn pulled a shawl closer around her shoulders. Sansa was sure that her mother had no notion of living to see her husband, her son, and her daughter all crowned. It made her chest ache to think of her mother as she had been, young and innocent to the life in the Old Kingdom, and how she grieved now.
She leaned over and pressed her forehead to her mother’s, forcing herself to smile. “Do you suppose Father would be proud? Even though...”
“Of course.” Catelyn made a soft noise, as much fond as wistful. “Ned believed in his duty, even if I never quite understood what it meant. I never thought it would take so much.”
Sansa closed her eyes and remembered her father looking out over the city with his hand on the window sill. He had been a good king, and would make a worthy model for her own rule. She was sure Robb thought the same.
“Father served the Charter faithfully all his life,” Sansa sighed. “As Robb did.”
“As you will,” Jon interjected quietly, and his eyes lifted from the surface of the reservoir to meet hers. Sansa felt her mother tense next to her and Jon dropped his gaze to the wooden boards at their feet, his voice heavy when he added, “Forgive me.”
Catelyn refused to look directly at Jon. Sansa did not doubt that her mother felt betrayed by fate when Jon returned to Belisaere without Robb, and he suffered doubly for being the man to deliver word of Robb’s death.
Despite having felt much the same not more than two days before, Sansa felt unusually defensive of him, drawing in a sharp breath and squeezing her mother’s arm. “Perhaps it’s better not to speak of such things in a time like this,” she added quickly.
“As you say,” said Catelyn, tipping her head in Jon’s direction. It was not a courteous gesture, but she leaned over to kiss Sansa’s hair and left her alone at the edge of the barge.
Sansa studied Jon’s expression, but the only hint that the exchange had bothered him was a tick of tension in his jawline. His shoulders remained square and his eyes went back to the water. She swallowed and went to stand beside him.
“Mother grieves for Robb,” she explained, softening her tone. She may not have shared the resentment that bristled her mother any longer, but those feelings had not entirely gone. But she was home in Belisaere and it was in no small part because of Jon’s efforts. She could not afford a petty grudge because Jon’s fortunes had been so different than Robb’s. Sansa tried to offer him a reassuring smile. “She does not mean to be discourteous.”
“She has every reason to be, Your Grace,” said Jon, but he shifted his weight from one foot to another and dared to look back toward her. Despite his words, Sansa thought he looked grateful to her. “And as much as the kingdom has taken from her in the name of duty, I am sure it is no comfort to see another one of her children sit the throne in times like these.”
This was so close to her own thoughts that Sansa fell silent and crossed her arms over her stomach as she collected herself. But she had no chance to answer him after that: the barge eased so close to one of the Great Stones that Sansa could reach out and touch it. Guards shuffled around them.
Luwin was the first to approach her, his hands tucked behind his back. “We are at your command during the binding, Your Grace.”
Her mouth felt dry, but Sansa nodded to him anyway. “Will it take very long?”
“Not usually,” answered Luwin, smiling grimly out at the Stones. “It rather depends on the Charter, and on you. King Torrhen spend thirteen hours on the binding spells. Your brother only perhaps half an hour. The Stones will give you everything you need to know.”
Her siblings had stepped onto her barge from another, and the guard had taken up a diamond formation, casting the cardinal marks for protection into the water around them. Her mother stood at the East mark, Arya took the South, and Bran at the West. Jon bowed his head to her and drew the North mark. Brilliant, golden flame shot from the north mark to the east, the south, and the west, and the diamond of protection was complete.
“Charter preserve us,” Sansa breathed, turning in place to see them all. The Stones gave a thrum of assent, feeding the power of the diamond, but she knew they would all be exhausted before long. She, perhaps, more than the others.
Luwin had reviewed the first marks for the binding before they came to the reservoir, but he repeated the first for her now. Sansa touched the Charter mark on her forehead, then dipped into the Charter, sifting through like a child through clear seawater. The mark leapt to her easily, then flowed out from her fingers to hang in the darkness in front of her. Light like a beacon burst from one of the Great Stones before shooting out across the darkness of the reservoir to push the mark back into her chest.
Something hot and fizzy pushed through Sansa’s veins, like lightning forking out from the place where the Charter mark had touched, and her yelp of surprise was cut off when she realized that it had not hurt. The light broke into five, blue-white stars that arced toward the remaining Stones, where they shone as bright as the first.
Luwin had told her that the Charter would reject one who was not of Royal blood, or one who bore the taint of Free Magic. But it had done more than that: Sansa could now feel the depth of the Charter, a vast, bottomless ocean that she could reach for or drown within at will.
Still, the magic did not overwhelm her. Sansa felt along for the edges of the Charter, beyond the confines of the Great Stones for the bindings themselves. When she found them, Sansa was first astonished to find how apparent they were to her now, like something omnipresent but somehow never noticed. She was relieved to find that they were unbroken, but they felt like rusting iron might under her hands, as if she could give them a strong push and find them crumbling between her fingers.
Sansa did not need Luwin to show her the next mark, for the Charter knew which she searched for and it sprang to her, then the next. The marks came in a steady stream after that, filling and overflowing from her, spilling out from her outstretched hands in a stream of golden light. They came so easily that it seemed at first that Sansa’s only purpose was to guide them, stitching the magic together over the weak bindings until she cast the master mark to renew the bindings and sealed it with her blood.
It took no time at all, or it was hours later, for Sansa could not sense how much time had passed and the dim sunlight gave no hint. Even as the flow slowed, Sansa could feel the long chains of Charter marks. She reached for her belt and drew out the long, Charter-spelled dagger that she had worn since crossing the Wall. For a moment, she did not think she would have the strength to bring the blade down, but she closed her left hand into a fist around the blade and pulled the dagger down, slicing deeply into the fleshy part of her palm. Sansa swallowed her gasp of pain and looked down to the bright blood that sparkled with Charter magic dripped to the wooden planks.
“The master mark, Lady Sansa,” Luwin murmured, exhaustion cracking on his voice.
Sansa nodded and lifted her hand, tracing the shape of the mark onto the surface of the Stone nearest her. The Stone felt hot under her fingers, and when she had finished sketching the mark, she dipped back into the Charter to summon it.
But this mark did not come easily to her. Sansa reached deeper, feeling the steady presence of the Stones around her. The mark sputtered twice until a warm hand closed over her shoulder, impressing marks for reinforcement and strength. Jon, she realized, but did not look to see him. Instead, she wet her lips to speak the mark.
It burst from her throat with blistering force that left her throat aching and her lips numb. Rising over them, it drew in the chains of Charter marks Sansa had summoned. Relief flooded her chest, feeling the spell swell toward the Stones, then toward the bindings she had felt before. They would not replace the magic entirely, but the deteriorated bonds would be renewed, whole and unblemished, and they would be tied to her for as long as she was among the living.
The mark pulsed gently, as though it were hesitating, and Sansa urged her magic along. But something was wrong: if she pressed against the bindings she felt only resistance, as though a barrier had sprung up between them and her own magic. The more she pushed herself into the spell, the firmer the resistance from the bindings, until the strain of it frayed the edge of her carefully-cast Charter spell.
Sansa, too, was fraying. The spell pulled at her, drawing power from her rather than the Charter, and she shuddered with the effort to maintain it. Her mother strangled a cry of horror at the East mark, but she tried to ignore this, to feed the Mark the power it needed to complete the spell. The wound on her hand pulsed hot, staining the planks under her feet with blood and scorching impressions of half a hundred Charter marks. For a fleeting instant, Sansa thought the spell would take, but the decayed bindings had strength enough to resist it.
Her knees gave out under her at the moment the mark exploded over their heads with a tremendous force. There was an answering shout from the South mark and Jon caught her shoulders in time for a gale of wind to sweep across the surface of the water. The diamond around them flickered like the electric lights in Ancelstierre and Sansa fell forward into a black abyss.
More often, she was alone in the quiet. True unconsciousness took her less frequently, but Sansa slept more and true wakefulness escaped her.
On what she guessed was the fourth day, the door creaked open, as it often did when Luwin checked her or when her mother came to sit in the window by Sansa’s bed. But Catelyn already sat by the window and the footfalls on the floor were heavy and unfamiliar. Her mother sat up -- a sound of brocade slipping across the wood bench, hands bumping against the table set for her convenience, a fluttering of pages from a book -- and the new visitor stood in the doorway.
“What have you come here for?” Catelyn’s words tumbled across the room, and Sansa recognized grief and fear in the way her Ancelstierran accent clipped the syllables short.
She knew who it must be an instant before Jon cleared his throat and said, “It is my duty to be here with her.”
“Brienne might have sent another,” Catelyn countered, but there was no fight in her voice, only the soft trails dragged behind her words.
Jon entered the room, heavy boots on stone. He did not speak again.
There must have been some silent interaction between the two of them, for Catelyn spoke again: “Do your duty, Jon.” There was venom there, but her mother’s shuffling told Sansa that she was gathering her things. Her slippered feet swished across the room and the door clicked shut behind her.
An weary puff of breath was Jon’s only answer, followed by a few steps toward the window. She had not felt the network of Charter magic around her before, a complex web of marks for restoration and healing, but she felt Jon probe this carefully: a distinct presence moving through the magic around her like the whisper of cloth on her skin. He seemed to only feel for weaknesses in it, because all he did was cast a single mark to be absorbed into the net around her bed. Sansa felt a flush of warmth, but Jon did not say anything and he did not leave.
Sansa fell back into sleep. She had the sense that Jon must have gone at some point, but he was in the room again when she came to herself again. This time, she felt better, as though she were waking from a deep, heavy sleep rather than crawling back from an abyssal darkness. Her breath came stronger, her fingers twitched in the bandages swaddling her hands, but her whole body hurt abominably, as though she was finally allowed to feel the pain the Charter net had held back. Pain, and everything else.
“You’re awake,” Jon observed when her stiff eyelashes finally peeled apart. She saw he was standing far closer to the edge of her bed than Sansa had expected him to be. He reached for her shoulders to steady them, his hands cool, but strong when he helped her onto the pillows. A deep crease set into the center of his brow, not unlike the one she remembered on her father’s face, and Sansa fell back into the pillows with her eyes pinched shut.
Finally, she croaked out, “Yes,” and felt as though the word would tear out her aching throat. But now she was awake, Sansa did not want to fall back to sleep, even if she could not sit up without help.
“Do you need Luwin?”
Sansa shook her head, testing the weakness in her limbs. Jon crossed to the table on the far wall and poured water from the pitcher waiting there. This he helped her drink, bracing the stone cup with one hand as Sansa guided it to her lips, giving thanks to the Charter for whomever had enchanted the pitcher to keep its contents cool.
She drank until the pain in her throat eased. It was not so bad as she’d first thought. No doubt Luwin had worked tirelessly to heal her as she slept. The sores she remembered on her throat and mouth were gone, and her weakness was almost certainly still the fault of the failed binding spell. The memory of the cloying darkness in the reservoir when the spell broke over them, the bare moment they had all been exposed and unprotected by the Great Stones, sent a shudder through Sansa. She pushed the cup away and Jon stepped away, dutifully keeping it upright so the water did not spill even a drop on her silk coverlet.
The spell had failed. She had failed.
“What phase is the moon?” There had been some three days left before the full moon when they had attempted the spell, but if the moon was still full, then they might try again before the bindings were irrevocably broken. It did not matter to Sansa that she could have barely summoned the mark for light, let alone managed the binding ritual again, with its demands on her blood and magic.
“Waning,” answered Jon simply, returning the cup to the side of the pitcher. His fingers traced the outer edge of the cup and she saw his throat bob with something unsaid. “You slept for eight days.”
“Eight!” Sansa wished for the oblivion again, imagining the destruction across her father’s kingdom. Her kingdom. She made herself ask, “What of the kingdom?”
Jon’s wry smile suggested this was not the right question to ask, but he straightened and came back to her bedside. “The kingdom is as safe as it was before. Robb’s bindings hold.”
“What?” She felt stupid asking, but her heart thudded painfully in her chest, throbbing with the misery of failure, the fear for the kingdom. “I felt the old bindings. They were rotting. Robb is -- you told me that Robb is dead.”
Fear and hope pounded with Sansa’s heart. She had failed because Robb still lived. If it was still possible that they’d all been wrong --
“He is dead.” Jon’s expression was grieved, but solemn. “You must understand that. Whether his spirit has passed beyond the Ninth Gate or not, Robb is dead.”
“You must have been mistaken,” she insisted. “You were injured, nearly dead yourself, and there was no body. We could find him, we could save him!”
“Sansa,” Jon interrupted, louder now, pushing away from her bed. His voice was ragged, barely stitched together, but he took a deeper, calming breath and repeated, “Sansa, I felt it. I felt his spirit slip across the border to Death. I felt it fall into the pull of the river there. I saw him pass the First Gate. I thought I’d follow him. I was already in the river, I already knew it was over.”
His words felt like a bolt punching through her shoulder. What Jon described was something different than she had imagined in her worst moments dwelling on Robb’s death. She recoiled into her bed, her breaths shallow in her tightening chest.
Jon walked to the window, his eyes searching the gardens below Sansa’s window, the streets of Belisaere and to the sea in the far distance.
But Jon looked far away, farther even than the horizon. What he remembered haunted him, she thought. Finally, Jon dragged a hand over his face, scrubbing away the memory. “I was pulled back to Life. Or sent back, I don’t know.”
Sansa thought back to what Davos had told her that night over the fire. The words echoed in her head, made it ache with the effort, but something whispered there, like the reminder of something forgotten.
“You died, too,” she realized aloud, the horrible reality of it settling over her. “Jon.”
But Jon didn’t turn toward her. His eyes settled on a corner of the floor where he wouldn’t quite be able to see her. “When I was a boy, I thought it was… I thought it was normal to feel things dying around you. Every little death in the city. I could feel the edge between Life and Death when I fell asleep at night. Thank the Charter for the protective magic in the Palace, or I might have fallen through. I didn’t even know everyone couldn’t do it until I told your father about it.” A grim little smile settled on his thin mouth. “He never seemed surprised or angry about it, though he knew how dangerous it was to keep me in the Palace with the rest of you. When he told me what it could mean, I was terrified. I was ashamed. I agreed to keep it secret.”
Sansa swallowed, struggling to breathe around the shape of Jon’s secret, and understood why it had been so difficult for him to bear. Few were taught to seek the place where Life and Death met. Few would even wish to cross it before the moment of their death. Fewer still would be able to return from Death.
“Jon,” she sighed again and hoped she sounded kind rather than frightened.
“Who comes back from Death?” Jon challenged, his anger spilling out, but he refused to look back at her. What she could see of the expression on his face -- fear and repulsion and confusion -- unsettled her, but it made Sansa sit straighter. For a few beats, she thought perhaps he wanted her to answer, but she saw the twitch in his jaw, the tension lacing from his neck to his fist. No, he was only frightened.
“I know what you’re implying. You aren’t a necromancer.” Sansa wanted very badly to climb out of her bed, but she was quickly wearing herself thin, quickly using what energy she had recovered in her week in the abyss. “Unless you’re summoning the Dead when no one’s looking.”
“No,” Jon admitted, but his hands were still clenched up tight, as though he wanted to tell her something. As though he doubted that. But he continued, in a weary sort of voice, “It made me useful in the Guard.” He folded his arms over his chest and fixed his stare on something in the distance. Anything to keep from looking at her, Sansa supposed, and tried to listen to him.
“I felt the Dead when I was with Robb, up in the mountains. There was a rumor of a broken Charter stone in the mountains. We’ve been in that region nearly half a dozen times since his coronation and Robb wanted to repair it before anything happened. I felt the Dead following us, kept them off the first few times.”
They had attacked in the night, she remembered. Sansa knew what it was that had occupied him in all the silences since he’d met her and Davos at the Wall. Frozen in her bed, she reached for the coverlet and stared at him in horror.
Jon went on: “We should have made camp in the river after the first attacks, but we thought we’d fought them off. They were fresh and they knew where we were. There was a Mordicant leading them, and the Shadow Hands broke our diamonds before we could reinforce them. Greatjon and Alys were overwhelmed with Hands, and Dacey was with Robb when the Mordicant--”
Sansa’s voice cut like the clear note of a bell through the room, her fingernails biting into the blankets held in her fists. The room felt like it had begun to spin off-axis, and it was suddenly too warm. But her cry was enough. Jon jerked his entire body from the window and looked down at her, as though he had forgotten that he was speaking to her and not merely trapped in his recollections, forced to recount and relive his story.
“Your Highness,” he said, reverting to the formality of her address and bending his head in apology, his left hand raised to draw his fealty mark. When he lifted his face to hers again, his eyes were nearly black with emotion. “I would have hunted every inch of the kingdom to find him if I believed for even one moment that Robb could be returned to Life. I swear it.”
Robb was dead, she told herself as tears stung her eyes. No -- worse than dead.
Only one hot tear slipped down her cheek and splashed onto her limp hands. When she had composed herself once more, Sansa lifted her head again. “If he is not dead, Jon, then where is he?”
Jon returned to where he had stood at her bedside, but he could not bring himself to lift his face to hers. “The bindings are weak, but they will hold until his spirit has passed through the Ninth Gate. It may be that he has been chained before then.”
“Why?” she asked, and feared the answer. They had all believed that Robb had passed easily through the Ninth Gate until the ritual in the reservoir had failed so utterly. The alternative was worse than death: that Robb might be among the Dead himself now, raised back into Life by the will of a necromancer.
Jon turned his face up to hers, honesty written in the crease of his forehead. “I don’t know,” he said, and nothing more.
Luwin had no answers for this, assuring her in turn that they would find another way. “But until the spell for the seals is recast, there can be no formal coronation, of course,” he added with a kindly smile, as though this was the thing that concerned Sansa most of all.
The business of the kingdom still required tending however, despite the pervasive grief that hung in the air of the palace. Sansa took dinner with her siblings, sober affairs occasionally broken by shreds of normality when Bran pulled faces at Rickon and left them all laughing until they remembered again and fell silent.
Sansa felt alone in the palace, isolated from the rest of her family by the mantle she was to assume. Her mother accompanied her to Robb’s study the first time, but it had also been her father’s before him, and Catelyn made a quiet excuse to leave while Sansa skimmed her hand along sun-warmed bookcases. It was here that Sansa wrote letters to the vassals of the throne, Charter-enchanted notes with dictated messages announcing her return, or begging information where they had it of the state of the kingdom around them.
Most often, Sansa sat in the plush chair of her father and brother’s study and watched the tides of the sea come in and blow out, testing the magic around her, and wondering how she was to save her kingdom and, if possible, her brother.
Jon most often stood guard outside this room, as Sansa had named no one else to her personal guard, but after only a few days of this, Sansa began to insist that he carry out his watch over her in the study.
A week passed in this way, then another, and, though she recovered her strength bit by bit, Sansa could not summon a brilliant solution to her greater predicament. Together, she and Jon reviewed the books that lined the walls, searching for anything that promised information about the kingdom’s seals, their history, or magic that might help secure them while they waited, and recovered, and hoped that some scrap of intelligence might come to help find Robb. More often, they found themselves lapsing to their shared memory, sitting up to talk of lost things until the midnight bells. As Jon was the only one who sought out her company, it was he she talked with about her fears and insecurities, of a life in Ancelstierre suspended to take up another she had not prepared for. Sansa was honest with him and, when she inevitably questioned the wisdom of her divulgences, found herself thinking that if Jon could share his deepest secrets with her, she could share such petty things as the fear that she was an inadequate Charter mage, or that she missed simple things like electric lights and cocktail parties.
On one such night, Jon nodded off in the chair opposite hers and Sansa realized that as tired and worn as she was, Jon could be little better for dying and being somehow resurrected before he’d come to the Wall with Davos and Brienne. She watched him drift from fitful half-sleep to the stillness of true sleep, and Sansa reconsidered the notion of waking him to send him off to his quarters. Instead, she quietly slipped from her chair and pulled her woven shawl tighter around her shoulders, crossing toward the heavy desk near the fireplace.
Sansa had avoided the desk since she’d first come to the study. It was here that she remembered her father sitting for long hours, answering petitions and a thousand other tasks she had not thought twice about. Robb must have done the same, she thought with a wistful half-smile, and tried to imagine her brother’s jovial smile and auburn curls gleaming in the golden Charter light. It was an easy thing to imagine. Far easier, in fact, than Sansa herself being the one behind the desk, carrying on the same work.
For the last couple of weeks, Sansa had told herself that there could be little to shed light on such an unusual problem inside the desk. She’d skimmed the top layer of letters for information, finding several unsent missives from Robb that activated when she touched the Charter marks in the center of the heavy, linen paper. These had brought a fresh upswell of grief, but told her nothing she hadn’t already known from Davos, or Jon, or her mother. And so she had left the desk to itself, until now.
As Jon slept by the window, the lights of the city behind him, Sansa started by organizing the stacks of thick parchment on the top of the desk, and then moved to the drawers that were unlocked. These held more paper, a few miscellaneous contraptions she did not recognize, a pot of black ink, and an old pen that had a few Charter marks to preserve it, to keep it from splotching ink. These must have been from her father, who sent her hand-written letters that could survive the trip across the Wall and beyond. Sansa put these aside, swallowing around a hard lump in her throat.
It was past the second bell by the time she had finished with all but one of the drawers, which was locked tight. Her first attempts to summon Charter marks to unlock the last drawer solicited only an answering glow from the outer edges of the lock, and Sansa abandoned the task for the following day. She’d done quite a lot of work already. There were three stacks of parchment in front of her: those she could burn, those she could address later, and those that detailed troubles across the kingdom. The last of these was the most important to her, and she carried the stack over to the long, heavy table where she and Jon had done all their reading.
Sansa had just begun making tiny Charter marks on a small map she’d found in the desk when Jon stirred awake by the window, first with a soft shuffle and then a sharp inhale. She looked and found him blinking away the last clutches of sleep.
“How long have I been asleep?”
She set aside another letter and the quiet, urgent voice of one of the nobles from the northern borderlands fell instantly silent as the Charter message faded. “A few hours, perhaps.”
Jon looked out the window, but it was still deeply dark outside. The sliver of moon had set hours before, Sansa remembered dimly, while she had still been looking through the desk. He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. “Most of the night, I’d think.”
Rather than scold her for staying up through the night, as Sansa expected, however, Jon picked up his sword from where it leaned against the chair and came to look over the papers in front of her. His eyes lingered over the map, searching it for some sort of pattern, but gave up after a moment to scrub the crust from his eyes.
“The books didn’t tell us anything,” explained Sansa rather earnestly, hoping that Jon wouldn’t do as Luwin had and tell her to let it be. “I thought that… if we can’t find the magic to fix the seals -- that is, if Robb is dead…”
“Then we might find Robb.”
Her short nod was the only answer Sansa could manage. All the air in Jon’s chest came out in a deep exhale that rustled the papers in front of her. Then he pulled out a chair and gestured to the map. “What have you found?”
Sansa looked down at her work. “Nothing we didn’t already know,” she sighed and bit down on her lip. “The messages that came before Robb left would have led him to the mountains where he disappeared. The ones that came after…”
“I see what you mean.” Jon’s eyes traced the map over and over, looking for patterns Sansa’s weary eyes hadn’t spotted. There were marks where Charter stones had been broken, where the Dead had been spotted, and two villages that had been abandoned entirely to a massive force of the Dead. His hands hovered over it, but he did not touch or alter it in any way, except to cast another mark where the gore crows had ambushed them. “A powerful force all across the kingdom, concentrated in the northern mountains.”
He sat back and rubbed a hand over his beard thoughtfully, but Sansa could see that he’d only come to the same conclusions as she: that whatever or whomever their enemy was, whatever it was they wanted, they were sorely outmaneuvered and unlikely to strike a blow against it alone. Yet, if they did nothing at all, the kingdom and the Charter itself would certainly fall.
Sansa held out a letter to him with a frown. “The Abhorsen wrote to Robb some three or four months ago, in midsummer, of his concerns about the Dead in the Yanyl Trident and the Greatwood.”
Where her father had died, Sansa added silently. It seemed less and less likely that her father’s death and Robb’s were unconnected.
“By the Charter,” Jon muttered. “Was that the last letter he wrote to Robb?”
“Not quite, but nothing since late summer.”
Jon was very quiet for a long time, absently stroking his pale fingers along the page. Something occupied his thoughts and more than once Sansa thought he was going to say something to her, but when he finally broke from that reverie he only stood up from the table and said, very formally, “It’s been a very long night, Sansa. Would you like me to escort you up to your rooms?”
Disappointed, Sansa almost told him that she could walk herself through her childhood home, but she acquiesced with a nod in his direction instead. Jon did not owe her all of his secrets, any more than she owed him all of her own.
“Yes,” said Sansa stiffly, “that would be very good of you, Jon.”
Once her map was complete and the letters stored inside the great desk in her study, Sansa spent an entire afternoon trying to find the right Charter spell to open the locked drawer in the desk. The longer it took to crack the spell, the more she convinced herself that the key to Robb’s death and disappearance, to finding the Abhorsen and restoring the protections on the kingdom, would be found inside that drawer.
She finally managed it after a routine conversation with Arya while walking in the gardens, as she had taken to doing in the early afternoon after Davos dropped a heavy hint that such activity would help her recover faster. Such as they were in late autumn, almost the earliest parts of winter, when the skies were heavy with the promise of the season’s first snow. She had not felt free to speak openly with her sister of her work, afraid of dredging up any number of emotions over Robb’s death, and was surprised to find that Arya had not only suspected what Sansa had been working on in the study, but that she was not so potently affected as Sansa had feared.
At the flash of surprise on Sansa’s face, Arya gave a deep laugh. “Of course I knew what you had to be doing in there. You were always so… political. I thought you’d go right to sending rousing letters to the nobility about their duty to the Charter, muster up some force or another to do something about the Dead.”
Sansa bit her lip and twisted her hands around under her shawl. She was not really cold, despite the chill in the air. After an uncomfortable moment, Sansa told Arya everything: the letters from the Abhorsen and his abrupt disappearance before Robb died, the broken Charter stones and the withering Charter seals that she feared might break at any time. She told her about the Dead all the way down by the Wall, the single-minded pursuit of the gore crows, and more. All she withheld was Jon’s secret, but when she was done, Arya looked stunned, but not burdened or embittered, as Sansa had feared.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” Sansa explained weakly when she had finished, and sank down onto a stone bench. She had not realized how long it would be before she might feel fully recovered from her ordeal in the reservoir, and recounting everything to her sister had exhausted her completely.
“Don’t be stupid,” Arya sighed, but her arm was around Sansa’s waist to keep her upright. “You’d worry me more if anything happened to you.”
“It’s just been so soon since Robb, and Father was only a few years ago.”
“And I’ll make a wretched queen,” Arya retorted with a grim smile. “So, we’ll figure this thing out and get a crown on your head. And it’s going to be fine.”
Sansa leaned against her sister’s shoulder and smiled wearily. “It’s only that there is so much I don’t know. About what Robb was looking for, or why he thought he had to go to the mountains. Even about the kingdom.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Arya said kindly, and Sansa felt her sister’s fingers twirling one of her loose curls by her elbow and closed her eyes. “At least, about that. Robb didn’t know what he was looking for, either, far as I could tell.”
“Even knowing what he did would help, I think,” sighed Sansa. “Any idea how he locked that last drawer in the study? I’ve tried every unlocking spell I know and I haven’t been able to manage the lock.” Arya looked down at her with such a peculiar look that Sansa straightened her back and arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“You never thought to try a key?” Arya grinned a little at the stricken expression that passed over Sansa’s face. “I just thought -- after all that time across the Wall. You know, with the way they are there. Would have been the first thing you’d do.”
Sansa swatted at her sister lightly, but gave her a quick kiss on her hair before she hurried quickly out of the garden and up to the study, the first flash of hope she’d felt in weeks lightening her steps. She pushed open the door to the study and shuffled around the drawers, trying to remember if she’d seen a key the night she cleared up the desk. When searching for ten minutes through sheaves of paper turned up nothing, Sansa leaned back against the desk and frowned. She’d thought, been so sure something would turn up.
It was Jon.
Sansa looked up from the wood desk to find him standing in the doorway. “Oh,” said Sansa. “Have you seen a key?”
At her flushed cheeks and disorderly appearance, for she had allowed her shawl to trail behind her, and the hem of her dress was dusty, Jon stepped into the study and closed the heavy door behind him.
“For the desk?” He reached for a book on a shelf and opened it for her to see that it was a false cover. Lying between the dusty covers was a large, iron key etched with Charter marks. Jon held it out to her with a tight smile. “If I’d known you were looking for it before, I’d have mentioned it before you tore apart your study.”
Sansa took the key and lined it up with the keyhole with shaking fingers. “I didn’t know about it,” she explained when the key slotted neatly into place. The edges of the drawer gave a soft glow of light and Sansa felt the lock slide back. Looking up quickly at Jon, she opened it and held her breath.
The drawer was almost empty, save for several letters tied up with ribbon, and a small, leather-bound book with Charter marks etched into the bindings. The letters were addressed to Robb, and Sansa was surprised to find that they were all from the same person: a young woman from a titled seat in the west. She put these aside with an embarrassed swallow and another quick look to Jon, who took them with a grimace.
“Were they engaged?”
Jon’s face betrayed surprise. “No,” he said quickly. “Or, rather, I don’t think so. He was private with his personal affairs. I let him have that, because...”
Because he was the king. Sansa thought how little personal privacy she would be afforded now that she was to succeed Robb. Shoving that aside, she picked up the book with shaking fingers. The leather felt warm to the touch and she realized immediately what it was.
“My father’s journal.”
Sansa’s voice was barely a whisper. Sinking to her knees, then leaning against the desk and sitting fully on the floor, she opened the journal. It left a faint, warm sensation, as though the book were testing her to see who she was. Finding nothing amiss, the pages fell open, as mundane as any of the other books in the libraries of the Royal Palace. She sat there and flipped through it, touching Charter marks where her father had left imprinted recordings of his voice and reading longer passages he had written in his neat, tight script when he had taken the time to write out his thoughts. These written entries were typically longer and detailed some of the more mundane aspects of his reign.
The enchanted pages of the book bore one or two Charter marks that thrummed with ambient magic left untouched for a long time. Sansa touched one of these, between two written entries some ten years before. It was not long after she had been sent to Ancelstierre, she remembered, and though she had long before come to accept her father’s death, hearing his disembodied voice brought the sting of tears to her eyes.
But King Eddard sounded weary when he dated the entry, giving the year and season and phase of the moon, and far older than Sansa remembered her father. Exchanging a look with Jon, Sansa listened.
“--the Nine Day Watch send their regrets again and tell me that there are too many possible futures to know which they see is true. I cannot know where the Dead come from, but they have broken two Charter Stones already, and Abhorsen has put them down three times already. They come back every time and never have the Clayr seen them. They dream of catastrophe in their glacier, of my daughter’s -- No. They tell me that it may not yet come to pass.
Sansa drew her hand away and frowned at the pages while Jon watched on, his mouth half-opened. She swallowed and flipped ahead past a few other written entries, detailing a visit to Ancelstierre, which she remembered, and an extended trip to the clans in the far north, which she did not. As she flipped through the years, Sansa’s father had written more and more of a great evil at work in the kingdom, whose aim seemed to be only to weaken the Charter. Her father also began to rely more often on the Charter recordings than on his own hand, his handwriting turning disorganized and hard to read at times, occasionally splotched with what must have been raindrops, as he dutifully recorded the state of the kingdom even when he traveled to the farthest reaches of the realm and beyond.
When she reached the last entry -- dated perhaps two weeks before her father died -- Sansa held her hand over the mark and listened to her father’s weary, cracking voice one last time as he described the unnamed necromancer that had plagued the kingdom throughout the years. King Eddard went on to describe that necromancer’s newest work: a Free Magic construct that had destroyed a village of more than four hundred in a matter of hours. He had gone on to break another three Charter stones and resurrect the villagers into a force of the Dead that threatened every village for a hundred miles.
Sansa did not need her father’s journal to know that he had succeeded in repairing the broken Charter stones there, that he and the Abhorsen had succeeded in putting down the Dead villagers, subduing the Free Magic construct, and destroying the necromancer responsible for both. It would have been a legendary victory, had King Eddard not been ambushed by a fresh group of the Dead in the Great Forest.
Finally, after a moment of uncomfortable silence that she used to collect herself, Sansa closed the journal and looked up at Jon. The sun had already begun to turn bloody as it sank past the horizon, casting Belisaere in a warm glow. On the far, eastern horizon, darkness spread across the sea like a cancer.
“It’s been like this for years,” she said hoarsely, pulling herself up from the floor with the hand Jon extended. “And Robb must have known when he went to the mountains.”
“It wasn’t the first time he’d gone to mend the Stones,” Jon explained quietly, as though he was giving her the space she might need to work through her many emotions. “He didn’t share Uncle’s opinion that this was something as dangerous as… Anyway, he’d done this a dozen times already before we went to the mountains. There was no reason he’d have thought it would be a trap that time.”
Then Robb had been careless with his own life, Sansa thought. The rot in the kingdom had persisted since before either of them had been born, had been fought by her father and at least two Abhorsens before it killed all of them. As it had killed Robb.
As it might yet kill her.
Sansa’s mind was made up before her fingers closed around the window sill, watching the darkness bloom across the sky. She would need to go north, would have to trace her brother’s journey through the mountains if she hoped to find his remains, if his spirit had not already been chained to the will of a necromancer to undo the Charter. There would be no Abhorsen to help her, as there had been for her father. And yet, Sansa had no choice at all if she meant to undo an evil that had taken so much from her.
Jon had been so quiet coming behind her that Sansa had not heard him come behind her, but his voice suggested that he had called for her before then. Sansa reached out and gripped his forearm with both hands, but she did not say anything to him about her plan. Jon had barely survived his first trip into the mountains -- had not survived at all, if she could believe such a thing -- and she could not bring herself to ask him to do it a second time.
“Thank you, Jon,” said Sansa very faintly, once all of Belisaere had fallen dark and the Charter lanterns in the street had begun to glow softly. She released his arm and pulled away. “That will be all tonight.”
It was only days after that before Sansa could slip away from Belisaere under the cover of night. The moon was still young, but she would not be able to count on its darkness to cover her abrupt, clandestine departure for Belisaere if she waited any longer than she did. She hid away food that was brought to her rooms for meals, packed a small amount of coin and a few pieces of her jewelry to sell that she did not think would attract much attention. She took her map, a Charter-spelled dagger with a long, sharp blade etched with spells for destruction and fire, and her father’s journal, and she waited for the night she had chosen.
Thick, moisture-laden clouds had rolled in from the sea early in the evening, as the last of the daylight faded away dimly. Sansa watched these from the window of her study until the room fell so dark that she could no longer see. After dismissing the guard Brienne had left for her, Sansa lit a few of the lanterns around the room, as she had every night over the past few weeks, and settled in the corner, wrapped in a heavy blanket that hid her traveling clothes. Her pack was stashed in a hidden cubby she’d discovered the day before. When the city was finally still, quiet creeping like night up the Palace hill, Sansa peeled back the blanket and collected the things she had prepared for her journey.
After weeks of working through the night, often sleeping with her cheek pressed against the desk and her fingers smudged with ink, no one would think twice about the light in her study. She locked the door by pressing a powerful Charter mark for binding and holding into the wood. It would hold until a more powerful Charter mage came along to unravel it, but by then she would be long gone.
Her hair braided tightly to her head and hood low on her face, no one she might run into in the palace might recognize Sansa. Still, she felt the thrum of anxiety pulling at her chest while she slipped down a back set of stairs that led through the kitchen and into the street. She pulled her hood lower and hurried through the darkness, avoiding the light from the lanterns as she hurried away. She was all the way at the bottom of the hill, more than a mile from the palace, before she dared to look up again.
Leaving her family like this was foolish, Sansa thought, sparing a look back up at the palace. It was bright from down here, and leaving it behind made her heart beat uncomfortably in her chest. She had barely the time to begin sorting through these feelings before a firm hand reached out from the dark of an alleyway and pulled her roughly in from the street.
Panic flooded her whole body like floodwaters from a dam and a defensive spell rose in her throat with the acid burn of bile before she recognized the gold-and-red plaid of Jon’s guard kilt. But when she dispelled her magic and looked closer at his face, she realized that his expression was one of shock, not anger, and his fingers glowed with his own lingering magic. She had, apparently, surprised him as much as he had surprised her.
Sansa looked him over from the tower clasp of his cloak to the longsword he had belted to his waist and shrugged off his hand. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’d ask you the same thing,” Jon answered immediately, having finished his own inspection of her garb and pack. “But I think I have a few ideas.”
Stealing a look toward the sky, which did not threaten snow nearly so effectively as the sharp snap of icy wind that cut between them in the alley. “I need to do this.”
“Alone?” Jon’s gray eyes snapped up toward her face, but the sharp bite of his words -- sarcastic and heavy with fear -- was what surprised her. “Without your guard? On a snowy night at the turn of winter? I’d have never thought you imprudent a day of my life.”
“Then trust that I’m not being imprudent now.” Sansa’s cheeks flushed with anger as she straightened to her full height, thinking of how carefully she had tried to plan what she knew was a dangerous, possibly even suicidal, mission. “I am the queen. Or, I will be. Who else is supposed to do something about this? There is no one else, Jon!”
“And who will protect you out there? Alone?” Jon’s breath fogged the air between them, his expression unreadable while his throat worked desperately. He hardly seemed to breathe while he searched her face, his hand working itself into a fist that crinkled the leather of his gloves. “You are the queen, and you ought to stay in Belisaere, where it’s safe and--”
“Robb is my brother,” interrupted Sansa savagely, tilting her head up defiantly. “Knowing what we know, Jon, I could no more stay in Belisaere to be swaddled than I would have stayed in Corvere. I am not afraid of the Dead.”
“You should be! And if you aren’t, then be frightened of what’s worse than them!” Jon reached for her again and made a desperate motion with his free hand, his eyes blazing as they searched the alley around them. Jon dropped his voice to a hush: “Necromancers, Sansa. Free Magic adepts with a bloody belt of bells on their chest!”
“Robb would have gone.” Sansa pulled herself free of him, her eyes sweeping up from Jon’s boots and back to his eyes. He looked away, unable to meet her eyes. “My father would have gone. Why should I do any less?”
Through the darkness, she was sure she could see his jaw working, gritting his teeth, and knew that he had no argument against that. “There is no Abhorsen to hold off the Dead. There are Free Magic constructs along the Nailway. Monsters from beyond the Fifth Gate stalk the Sicklewood. There’s probably worse than that in the mountains where you’re going.” He was trying to scare her, Sansa realized. Or he was scared himself. The pull at the corner of his eyes, his tensed up shoulders, all belied the fear that he tried to keep hidden from her.
“Then come with me.” Sansa clasped her hands together to hide how they shook. It was important for her to go, it was her duty, and it frightened her. Jon would know that only by looking at her, but she did not need to be brave for his sake, only her own.
“What?” The storm on his forehead broke and the thunderstruck expression of surprise that he’d worn when he pulled her into the alley returned.
“You know the way,” she implored quietly. “You know the danger better than I do. You could…” Sansa fell short of mentioning his gift, but Jon understood anyway, for he looked away.
Her fingers raised to her forehead and she touched her baptismal mark, leaving a faint glow around its edges. The mark pulsed a few times, drawing Jon’s eyes up to it. After a tense, silent moment, he touched his own Charter mark and nodded slow and uncertainly.
Then he looked out to the street. “We should tell someone,” he said numbly, but he didn’t seem surprised when Sansa shook her head immediately.
“They’ll only insist on sending a full guard with us. We can’t… find Robb if we go with all of them.”
His eyebrow arched. “Then we go without the protection of the rest of the Guard.”
Reaching for his shoulder, Sansa tried to remember how she’d learned to smile in Corvere. Robb had been her brother, and near as a brother to Jon as he could be.
There was no small amount of beauty to the plan, the two of them going to search for him. To lay him to rest, Sansa tried to remind herself. The more she thought of it, the more she tried to think of a way they might be able to save her brother from the clutches of Death, but the truth of it had lay on her like a boulder on her chest ever since Sansa first felt the decay in the bindings. Nothing short of Free Magic corruption or death could cause that, she did not need the Abhorsen to tell her that.
She was the queen, after all. Or she would be. To leave the defense of the kingdom to another was to abandon her duty. Jon seemed to understand this, though she felt the tense pull of his shoulders under her hand, even as he slumped in acquiescence.
“We go alone, as we ought to.”
“Then we’ll need more than what you’ve got there,” he said, nodding to her pack. “Give me a few minutes.”
Though she’d felt recovered in the relative sedate pace of life in the palace, Sansa did not feel entirely recovered from her failure in the reservoir once they had begun to travel in earnest. She fell behind at times, slowing to take rest more frequently as the days wore on, and had more than once found herself drowsing during her watch. Jon had borne these with more patience than Sansa herself thought she deserved, but his greatest display of mercy on her was not only to suggest that they spend the night in Sindle, but that they take a room in an inn.
“We might be able to buy horses in town,” he explained awkwardly, looking across the lamplit streets. Sansa thought that he became less at ease the further they were from Belisaere. Perhaps she had been safer in the city, but she wouldn’t allow herself be frightened back into hiding. Still, there was no reason for Jon to lie about why he had hired a room at the Hare a’th Thorn when it was obvious that a night’s respite from camping would be welcome to both of them.
Jon gallantly allowed Sansa first use of the steaming water that the innkeeper brought up in massive cauldrons and poured into a deep tin tub. She scrubbed away three days of travel with the inn’s herbal-smelling soap, salt air and dirt, and soaked until the water was tepid and she finally felt warm again. The bath was refilled, and Sansa bespoke dinner for the two of them in their room while Jon took his turn in the bath.
Their bellies full of warm, rabbit stew and bread so fresh that it scalded Sansa’s fingers when she broke it apart, Sansa felt more refreshed than she had in months. She scribbled a little on their map, as she had done every night since leaving Belisaere, and they passed a few hours exchanging harmless stories of better times, of Sansa’s halcyon days in Corvere attending parties and visiting scandalous new bath houses with Margaery, and the diverting hunting expeditions that Jon had spent in the Sicklewood with Robb.
It was a disappointment, then, when Sansa’s heavy eyes drifted shut and she remembered the gravity of her reasons for traveling to Sindle with Jon, of all people. Sighing, she reached for the heavy, stoneware cup of hot, spice-mulled wine the innkeeper had brought up after clearing their dinner.
“I suppose there’s a horse market here in town we’ll visit in the morning.”
“I asked around while you were in the bath.” Jon’s lazy eyes opened again. “We might stay another night, if we don’t find suitable horses early enough in the day.”
Perhaps it was only the wine making her feel so warm and secure here with him. He certainly didn’t seem to notice how she stared at his fingers, tapping absently on the cup, or his bobbing throat when he was between thoughts. Sansa imagined a second night of this sort of peace. Their argument in an alley in Belisaere seemed a year before, and the dislike Sansa had indulged herself in when she first returned to the kingdom only a few weeks before seemed like another life entirely. It was as though she had always known Jon so well as this.
Thoughts like that, she realized with a start, was the danger of it. A brief respite before she went to her doom seemed perfectly reasonable, except that Sansa would then be able to talk herself out of doing what was necessary.
She swung her feet from underneath her and set the cup of wine down again. “Let’s hope we find suitable horses early in the morning, then, and hope they can bring us north faster than our own feet.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to disparage how far your feet can carry you.” Jon gave her a brief smile over the edge of his cup. “The price of a good horse these days, we might end up with a pair of nags little better than we are.” That small humor drained from his face and he looked back to the shuttered windows with a crease in his forehead. “It may suit you better to have a horse, though. I’ll have a look at their stock.”
Already, Sansa missed the warmth she’d come to know in him, even as she scolded herself for her sentimentality.
After a long time, she gathered her still-damp hair from where it fanned loose over her shoulders, and braided it in a loop around the crown of her hand. Jon watched her work with a look that Sansa was startled to recognize as the same as some of the admiring men in Corvere who sought her hand in fashionable dances and sent her vast bouquets of flowers. Her fingers slowed as Jon began to say something, but he only took a deep drink of his wine and looked down at the knotted wood of the floor.
Hot roses bloomed on her cheeks as Sansa quickly finished off her braid and announced that she would be going to bed. Jon mumbled something that sounded like, “Good night,” as she went to the bed in the corner.
Climbing under the soft, worn blanket, Sansa thanked the Charter that Jon had quietly demurred on sharing the bed with her in favor of sleeping on the floor earlier in the evening.
She rolled onto her side lay awake for a long time, staring at the wall and listening as Jon quietly walked to each corner of the room and drew Charter marks for a powerful protection spell. Then he rolled his cloak up and lay down on the floor on the other side of the bed, and Sansa did not hear his breathing steady before the darkness of sleep took her.
The night before. The memory of the look on Jon’s face -- equal parts longing and astonishment -- swam behind her eyelids, even as Sansa scrubbed her fists over her eyes until little sparks of pain made her stop. Worse -- or not, rather -- was that she had not minded at all. That she still did not entirely mind.
“Oh, Charter help me.” This was no time for complications like love. Or lust, as it were.
Sansa went to the table, where her map and a few other scraps of parchment were scattered absently where she had abandoned them. She gathered them up now, picking up the map and rolling it into a tight scroll that she could stash in her pack, and paused when she saw a book lying underneath it.
The book was very old, bound in green leather that was bore the signs of many years of heavy use. It was held shut with a pair of heavy silver clasps that was tarnished in their many, intricate etchings, and when Sansa lifted it into her hands, she was surprised how light the book seemed. She turned it around in her hands, but neither the covers nor the spine gave any hint as to what was inside.
It was only when she reached for the silver clasps that she saw that they were enchanted with powerful Charter magic to keep the book sealed. Curiosity and dread warred at the pit of her stomach, but when Sansa tried to pry open the heavy clasps, they would not yield.
“Where did you get that?”
Sansa dropped the book onto the table with a loud thump that echoed through the early morning peace. She had not heard Jon sit up, but it was the cold fury in his voice and the white pinch at each of his knuckles that surprised her far more than how close he stood to her.
“I don’t -- it was here when I --” stammered Sansa, looking down at the enchanted book and back at Jon’s face. He stared at the book, too, with his lip curled with revulsion. She recovered and hastily pulled her hands away from the book.
“I thought it must be yours,” she finished rather weakly.
“It isn’t.” But Jon ripped his spare tunic from his pack and wrapped the book in it. “We should leave today, with or without a horse.” Then he shoved the shirt-wrapped book into his pack, along with the rest of his things, leaving Sansa standing helplessly in the middle of the room.
“I don’t understand,” she pleaded, following a step behind him as he dispelled each of his carefully-cast wards from the night before. “What is that book?”
Jon stopped short of reaching for her cloak on the back of the chair and looked at her curiously, and Sansa could see that his hands were shaking violently, as though he had been badly frightened. He looked very much as he had that day in her bedchamber back in Belisaere.
“You didn’t read it?”
“I couldn’t open it,” she admitted and folded her hands nervously in front of her. The book out of sight, the pit of dread in her stomach seemed to diminish. “What is it?”
“Dangerous,” answered Jon instantly, thrusting her cloak out to her.
Sansa did not take it from him. “Then why are we taking it with us?”
Frustrated anger flashed across Jon’s face for only an instant before he shut them and took two deep breaths. “I swear I will explain it to you, but not here. Please, Your Majesty.”
So, she wasn’t Sansa anymore. She snatched the cloak from his fingers and pulled it around her shoulders and hoped he was as cross as she was. “Fine,” she said shortly and stabbed her cloak pin into place.
The rest of the morning passed in tense silence. Jon left her at the inn to visit the horse market, and he came back with a large, dappled mare that someone had named Jonquil. Sansa helped him tie down their packs on Jonquil’s back, but did not speak to him again until mid-afternoon, when they paused to let Jonquil drink from a small stream some fifteen miles out of Sindle.
Jon handed her his newly-filled skin of water and said, “I frightened you this morning.”
“No, you made me angry.” But Sansa took the water from where she sat beside the stream and drank deeply from it. Handing it back to him, she studied his face and saw that he seemed contrite. “It’s a book of magic, isn’t it?”
“It’s the Book of the Dead.”
Sansa’s heart raced uncomfortably fast in her chest, and the sense of dread from that morning crept back into her hollow core. The Book of the Dead was a grimoire full of the darkest secrets of Free Magic and necromancy, but the unnamed green book had been sealed with Charter marks. She could not make herself speak, for her mouth tasted of ash and her lips felt glued together. Then she licked them open and asked, “How did you find it?”
Jon looked uncomfortable for a moment, scanning the tree branches around them. “Do you feel like we’re being watched?”
“I don’t,” Sansa retorted acidly, annoyed that he seemed to be deflecting her questions again.
Unlike that morning, however, when he had decided that he was sure nothing was leering down at them, Jon looked back at her with a grim smile. “I didn’t find it in the Royal Library, if that’s what you’re wondering. I didn’t even go looking for it.” Now he paused again, his throat working dryly. “The book just keeps… coming back. It appeared on my table one morning before I went with Robb to the mountains.”
“Books don’t do that.” At least, none that Sansa knew of, either in Ancelstierre or in the Old Kingdom.
“No, they don’t,” Jon agreed, and adjusted Jonquil’s forelock around her bridle.
That was the end of their conversation about the book, but they resumed easier conversation for the rest of the day. It was not the same, warm exchange as the night before, but Sansa thought that perhaps it was the wine that had made them both at ease enough for that sort of comfort with one another. They had stilted conversation over dinner about breaking from the main road the following day and beginning the harder travel over the countryside, and Jon took up his watch after casting a diamond of protection with rather more rigor than usual.
“Jon,” called Sansa in a conversational tone, so as not to alarm him. “Do you think it’s unusual that we haven’t run into the Dead yet?”
He looked over his shoulder at her and looped Jonquil’s rein around his hand a second time. “Yes,” said Jon flatly. “I haven’t felt the Dead near us since we left Belisaere.”
Sansa knew better than to hope that this meant the Dead had abandoned their task, whatever it was. After the gore crows had attacked and after reading her father’s journal, she was more certain than ever that their purpose was purposeful and designed for far greater destruction than they had yet wrought on the relatively smaller areas that had fallen under their influence. It was more likely that the necromancer that controlled them was preparing for something so important that they did not need to openly attack her once again.
Or, even more likely than that, it was a trap. Which brought her back to the prickling sense of being watched on the back of her neck.
She leaned back in her saddle and asked, loud enough for anything nearby to hear, “Then what is that’s been following us since Sindle?”
The look of warning Jon shot at her over Jonquil’s head was short-lived, because there was a soft, crackling chortle that echoed down from a rustling tree limb some ten feet above their heads. Then something small and white dropped in front of them like a fallen star and Jonquil gave a wild whinny of panic, rearing back with Sansa clinging to her neck while Jon pulled at her rein with one hand and drew a Charter spell with the other.
“A little before, actually,” said the small, white cat standing before them, shaking its round head and peering up at them with luminescent green eyes.
Sansa slid from Jonquil’s back with an unqueenly whimper of pain, staggering to her feet and grasping at Jonquil’s bridle until she calmed. The cat only licked its mouth quickly with a pink tongue and stared scornfully at the glow of the half-formed spell on Jon’s fingers.
“I was quite sure you would notice first, Abhorsen.” Blinking slowly at him, it stretched in a luxuriously slow way that also somehow gave the impression of a mocking bow. Then it sat back and curled its tail around its forepaws, flicking its tail very slowly as it looked between Jon and Sansa.
Jon flicked the ambient magic from his fingertips and touched his hand to the hilt of his sword. For her part, Sansa stared openly at the cat. As her memory served, cats did not usually speak, even in the Old Kingdom.
"At least you do have the queen with you,” trilled the cat in a way that did not make it seem as though it was especially pleased about this detail. It’s voice was distinctly inhuman, but something of it left Sansa with the impression that it was male. “That will make things much easier. Stupid, and very dangerous, but easier."
Then it yawned widely and shook its head as though it had an irritating itch and Sansa saw there was little bell at its throat that gave an inviting jangle as he moved.
But while she tried to think how to answer, Jon’s hand grabbed for her wrist. “That’s magic,” he mumbled close to her ear, nodding at the little cat. “I don’t know what it is, but--”
This was not quiet enough to keep the cat from hearing. “Would it comfort you to have a look at my collar?” it asked while it stretched again, little paws flexing into the soft, leaf-strewn ground beneath them. “Remove it, if you like.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” Jon countered, holding out his sword without letting go of Sansa’s hand. “Who are you?”
Now she was looking, however, Sansa saw tiny Charter marks dancing along the surface of the red leather band around the cat’s neck. Bright as they were, suggesting a great deal of power in them, she had not noticed them before, or perhaps they had not been there. They were marks of binding, and powerful ones at that.
A Free Magic construct bound in service to… something, Sansa did not know. She did not especially wish to find out, either.
“Jon, we should leave,” she said quietly, gripping his arm tightly. Her magic was strong, she was certain, but while she had been prepared for the Dead, perhaps even a very human necromancer, a Free Magic creature leashed to an unknown hand was beyond her. Very likely it was beyond even Jon’s magic.
“And where should you go, Your Majesty? To a place you have no idea how to find, where you will inevitably face the Free Magic adept who killed my last Abhorsen?” He made a yowling noise that seemed to charge the air around them. “And, I presume, the King.”
Jon went stiff beside Sansa, no part of him moving except the slight twitch of a muscle in his clenched jaw. Finally, he lifted the sword higher. “Who are you?”
“You’ll call me Mogget,” sighed the cat, seeming to decide that it was safe to come nearer, for he leapt to the wide trunk of a large, fallen tree near where they stood. Jonquil gave a snort of disapproval and cantered back from him, even when Sansa pressed a gloved hand to her flank to ease her.
“I am a humble servant of the Abhorsen, here to fulfill my duties,” said Mogget with such dripping cynicism that Sansa swallowed and found her voice again.
“Then why are you here?” She clenched Jonquil’s bridle tighter in her hand and wished that she could see Jon from where she stood. “Where is the Abhorsen? Why hasn’t he come to deal with the Dead?”
“By the Charter, you ask a lot of questions.” Mogget’s eyes swiveled over to her and sat back primly on his haunches, looking for a moment as though he were as mundane as the cat who prowled the garden walls near the University of Corvere.
Sansa drew back, then straightened, unwilling to let him believe he could cow her.
“I am here to help you, of course,” Mogget announced, as though this were already obvious, and his half-lidded eyes slid toward Jon and yawned when the bell at his throat gave another inviting jangle. “It would be rather inconvenient for me if the kingdom fell to pieces, you know.”
When neither Jon nor Sansa responded to this, he made a disgusted noise in his throat and smugly added: “You need my help. So, why don’t we get on our way and talk about this slipshod plan of yours?
And without giving either of them a chance to object, Mogget cantered lightly through the woods with his tail held high and straight, and did not even look back to see if Jon or Sansa were following.
But despite this obvious flaw, Mogget was able to tell them a great deal that helped Sansa connect the narrative left in her father’s journals and what information she’d managed to scrape together from Davos, Brienne, and even Jon. Mogget might have been less clear about dates, dropping cryptically flippant remarks about how hard it was to differentiate between one era and the next, but he knew much about their enemy. He knew that it was the same necromancer that rose the force of the Dead that killed Robb, created the flock of gore crows that had nearly killed Jon and Sansa on their way to Belisaere, and even had been responsible for Sansa’s father’s death three years before.
“It calls itself the Night’s King,” Mogget supplied from behind a thicket that flamed brilliant vermilion, and Sansa thought for the first time that she heard a note of concern in the cat’s typically self-assured voice. But when Sansa asked what that meant, Mogget only gave a soft noise that suggested a shrug. “Whatever it was before that, whether man or Free Magic elemental or something else entirely, I cannot say. It is… very old.”
He did not answer anything about the Night’s King after that, but did hum a maddeningly repetitive tune that sounded faintly like a children’s rhyme.
Mogget did not use either of their names, preferring to refer to Sansa by her formal style as queen, rather than princess. When he address Jon, it was only, peculiarly, as Abhorsen. But if Sansa told him he was mistaken, he gave only a sing-song hum and darted further ahead of them.
Finally, when the sunlight angling through the trees was the pale, gold light of early sunset, they found Mogget curled up on a rock by a spring of clear, cold water edged with frost. He suggested that they make camp, and Jon left Sansa to fill several skins with water while he gathered firewood in the forest. They built their camp in silent, comfortable tandem, periodically stealing glances toward Mogget to see if he was listening while casting a diamond of protection and building a fire. But after hacking up a silver ring that he suggested Jon might need, the cat had returned to his rock to fall into a deep sleep, emitting a soft, grunting noise that sounded decidedly feline, and only stirred when Jon had speared two fish from the spring with one of Sansa’s arrows, and then just long enough to steal one of the fish for himself before falling asleep again.
Jon speared through the remaining fish and set it at the edges of the fire to cook. He pulled his sword over his lap when he sat next to Sansa with one, last look over to the slumbering cat.
“You don’t trust him,” she observed deftly, pulling her knees up to her chest.
He shrugged and poked the smoldering firewood at the edge of their fire deeper into the flames. They gave a quick flare that drove back the shadows. “Neither do you.”
“We’d be foolish to.” Sansa scooted closer to him and dropped her voice so that it was quieter than the crackle of the fire. “He knows so much more than we do. We may need him, but I’d feel better if I understood what he wanted.”
“It could be a trap.”
Jon pulled the fish off the fire and hissed with pain when its crackling skin burned his fingers. Sansa broke off some bread that they had bought in the last town before leaving the road and passed it to him before wrapping up the rest and replacing it in her pack.
They ate in silence, but Jon’s warning hung between them until they were done, sitting near enough that their elbows brushed every time either moved.
“I don’t think he’s any danger to us,” Sansa finally concluded aloud. Mogget, whatever he was, was decidedly strange and assuredly very dangerous, but she did not think he was a threat to them. Not yet, at least. “His aim seems to be the same as ours. At worst, his motivations may be different than ours.”
“Astute, Your Majesty,” drawled Mogget from across the fire. He cracked one eye just enough to eerily reflect the firelight back to them, but remained otherwise unmoved. Blinking both eyes open, he stretched his paws out and circled around, as though trying to get comfortable again. “Wake me for second watch.”
Private conversation apparently being out of the question for the time, Sansa exchanged a look with Jon and found a comfortable patch of grass to lay out on. She watched him take out a small knife to fletch arrows for her, and the slow, repetitive motion soothed her into a deep, dreamless sleep.
She woke to soft pressure on her shoulders and a distant noise that seemed like lightning crackling, but when she opened her eyes it was only Mogget sitting on her chest, backlit by early-morning gloom.
“She’s awake, Abhorsen,” he called over Sansa’s face and left tiny pinpricks in her cloak when he leapt away from her before she sat up.
Jon’s answer was a clumsy, single-handed approximation of his fealty mark, done without power behind it, for he knelt over the cold remnant of their fire. Sansa rolled to her side and stood with heavy, leaden feet, her legs giving a painful cramp from days of hard travel. On her way downstream to wash in the frigid water, Sansa indulged in a daydream of waking mid-morning in her apartment in Corvere, with warm, gold light streaming through sheer, silk curtains, of hot coffee and toast in her dressing gown while she read through calling cards and notes left for her, and of deciding her schedule by whatever caught her whim.
These fantasies disappeared the instant she splashed cold water from the stream onto her face, but for the first time in weeks, Sansa did not feel a pang of regret when she thought of what she had left behind in Ancelstierre. Her current predicament was far from glamorous, but she felt more sure of herself in duty than she ever had in the whirl of diplomatic life in Corvere.
When she returned to camp, feeling somewhat more refreshed, she thought she heard voices through the trees, raised as if in a heated argument. But when they came into view again, Jon sat under a tree with Mogget draped around his neck like a foxfur and they were both silent. Her carefully-marked map was spread over his knees. He absently handed up a portion of dry bread and salted fish to her and exchanged a look that told her that Mogget had decided on their arrangement under the tree.
Mogget ignored this and stared at the fish with interest while Sansa pulled her cloak around her and tucked herself between two gnarled roots nearby. The ground was not especially comfortable, but given her revelation while cleaning herself, Sansa did not think she minded so much anymore.
“You said we didn’t know where we were going.” She looked at the cat and picked aimlessly at the stale bread in her hands, allowing crumbs to scatter over her lap. “So, where are we going?”
“Your map is better than I thought it would be,” admitted Mogget airily, as though this was nothing to be pleased by, but Sansa felt a small surge of validation. “I have made a few improvements, however.”
Jon held out the map to her with an irritated snap of the parchment. “We’re going to the right place,” he told her flatly, but when Sansa took it from him she saw that many more Dead had been marked on the map and there was at least four Free Magic thralls marked with a sickly green Charter mark where there had once been thriving mining communities in the mountains.
“You were right.” Sansa looked up at Jon, frowning. The Dead alone could easily overwhelm them. “We should have brought more of the Guard from Belisaere.”
“And how conspicuous!” Sansa saw that Jon’s fish was missing and the cat was licking his mouth eagerly, as though he had just finished with a particular treat. “The Queen and the Abhorsen and a half-hundred of the Royal Guard. We may as well beg the necromancer hunting you to slaughter us all immediately and offer the entire kingdom to him while we’re at it. It will be no mean feat for him, he has waited long enough, and another member of the royal bloodline will be a fine addition to his collection.”
“Enough.” At Jon’s dark look, Mogget vigorously licked himself. If he could have rolled his eyes, Sansa thought he might have done just that.
“Why do you keep calling him Abhorsen?” She tipped her head toward Jon, but kept her stare intensely on Mogget. She did not want him to slip away without answering again.
Jon made an angry noise deep in his throat. “Sansa,” he gritted out, but she ignored him and offered Mogget the bit of smoked fish she had not eaten. A bribe, if he would take it.
“It is who he is,” explained Mogget when he had finished the proffered treat, lazily flexing his paws into the bared skin of Jon’s neck as he sputtered a half-formed protest. “When the previous Abhorsen gives up their spirit to Death, the title passes to their successor, wherever they are in the bloodline.”
The Abhorsen she’d known, the one who had come to the palace shortly after Robb had been made king, had been a tall, handsome man with white-blonde hair. She’d thought him mysteriously romantic and Arya had teased her for it mercilessly. But the only things she remembered beyond that was his deeply blue surcoat embroidered with silver keys and the leather bandolier of bells strapped over his chest. The Abhorsen was the only necromancer she had ever met, and he was a servant of the Charter.
Sansa remembered the book on the table in Sindle. The Book of the Dead etched with Charter marks. Surely, she thought, surely not. But when her eyes flew to Jon’s face and searched his profile, perhaps she saw something of the old Abhorsen. Jon’s mother had never told anyone the name of his father. Perhaps…
“It can’t be Jon,” Sansa argued out of shock rather than true disbelief, looking urgently toward Jon while her stomach swooped wildly. Their eyes locked for a moment, only long enough for the doubt swimming there to pass like a lightning bolt of dread into her own chest. “He doesn’t have the -- the bells, at least. Right?”
“Well, not for lack of trying.” Mogget gave Jon a withering look and slid his eyes toward the rock where he had been sitting. “I’ve had to bring the bells and sword myself. A fine place you’d be in if I hadn’t, too.”
Jon looked sullen about this, as if it were an argument he’d already started with Mogget and hoped to keep from her. So, Sansa thought, they had been arguing before she returned to camp, and now she knew what about.
Sansa cleared her throat and tried again. “Surely the Abhorsen would have known his successor. Would have known about… Jon. Right?”
“Not likely. The previous Abhorsen was a dreamy sort,” sighed Mogget, his tail flicking at Jon’s ear. “Not his fault, really. His grandmother was a Clayr and so that whole branch of the family was a little strange. A bit of the Sight, I think. There is another, a sister, but it was apparent she walks another path.”
Mogget did not seem to notice that he had not answered the question, but Jon made a quiet, disapproving noise.
“There’s no proof either way,” he argued, passing another piece of fish up to the cat and yanking hand away when Mogget snatched it out with a flash of a white paw. Jon had no practice concealing his emotions, Sansa thought, and his discomfort was plain as anything. He pressed on, “There’s no point to arguing whether I’m Abhorsen’s get or just a regular bastard of the crown.”
“There are other ways of knowing,” said Mogget, looking over at Sansa with a curl to his mouth, as though this was proof enough of what he said. “Haven’t you a strange affinity for Death? A sense for it that others don’t, perhaps. An unusual experience of being drawn back from the edge?”
“You told him.” Jon looked over at Sansa, a stormy expression settling on his brow.
Sansa did not have the chance to protest, for Mogget interrupted her with a rolling purr. “She did no such thing.” His paws flexed again near the bare skin at Jon’s neck. “I have known enough Abhorsens that I can recognize the next with some degree of accuracy, you know. Besides, the sendings knew to send you the book.”
Jon shifted uncomfortably in the roots, but Mogget’s eyes had sharpened like a hunter seeking prey. “You did read the book, didn’t you?”
When no answer came and Jon did not meet either his or Sansa’s eyes, Mogget coughed and leapt from his shoulders. “It’s better that you have, you know. It’s a slippery thing, the Book of the Dead. Sometimes you forget what you’ve read until you need to know it, but at least you’ll know when the time comes.”
“I’m no more able to be Abhorsen than Jonquil can dance the Bird of Dawning,” Jon interjected, but Sansa heard his voice crack a little. He spared a look in her direction, but now Sansa could only stare down at the bread in her hand.
It had been important before, and she’d known that the Abhorsen ought to have dealt with the Dead that she was herself going to face. But Sansa had been stubborn, and she had set aside the Abhorsen’s absence as one of the troubles of the kingdom she would handle after she’d found Robb and freed his spirit. After the Charter seals were renewed and the kingdom itself could withstand the threat that faced them. A problem, but not one for her just then.
I would have died before I made it home again to Belisaere, she thought, seething at herself for her own foolishness. Sansa would have likely failed, would have let her mother bury another child, for her own short-sightedness.
Mogget did not seem to be bothered by Jon’s stubborn resistance. “You are the Abhorsen,” he drawled, sounding bored by the debate. “The sooner you take up the bells and do your duty, the better the kingdom will be for it. Or did you come all this way with the queen only to give yourself up in Death again?”
He stood haughtily, his tail straight up behind him. “Do remember to bring the sword and bells,” he called over his shoulder as he trotted out of camp toward the stream, leaving Jon and Sansa to pack the camp alone. When she had finally set her bow on her shoulder, Sansa looked over at Jon for the first time while he held Mogget’s bag in his fist. His eyes were cast down at the ground, avoiding hers. She took his free hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?” His mother’s desperate secrecy to hide his father’s identity, the sense for the Dead that had tormented him for years, and even a natural capability to fight his way back from Death. Sansa wondered if her father had known, or at least suspected, the truth all along.
“It would,” Jon agreed and straightened, his fingers twisting around the neck of the bag. “It doesn’t really make me feel better, though.” But then he brushed his curls out of his face and offered her a thin smile, nodding out to the forest. “But we should find Mogget. I don’t think he has much patience for waiting.”
Their change in attire, however, did not come without comment from Mogget. Jon wore the longsword Mogget had brought, strapping his guard-issue sword to Jonquil’s saddle now that whatever magical properties of the bag that had permitted Mogget to carry its weight had been exhausted. But no matter how many snide remarks Mogget passed his way, he refused to wear the oiled bandolier of bells.
“We are going to face the Dead, Abhorsen,” Mogget hissed one day while laying across Sansa’s shoulders, which he had decided were more comfortable than Jon’s. “Do you expect to banish them with nothing but your sword and wits?”
“No,” said Jon irritably. “I intend to ask them nicely.” He shifted Jonquil’s reins from one hand to the other and rubbed her neck. The horse had endured the last few days well, but she was tiring of the long climb into the foothills with their packs, and Sansa had already begun to think how she might be cared for when they would inevitably need to leave her behind in the mountains.
“I hope the Dead share your sense of humor,” Mogget grumbled in Sansa’s ear.
“And what if someone should see me?” Jon gestured ahead of them to the road. “The people here are perfectly aware that there is a necromancer among them raising haunts and glims, as others in the kingdom are not. Why should they recognize me as the Abhorsen and not as the very enemy that plagues them?”
“The people of the kingdom know the Abhorsen, as they know the Charter.”
Mogget burrowed deeper under Sansa’s hood, peeking out only to stare disdainfully at the snow that fell around them. She noticed that he didn’t mention the bells again, but that Jon had moved them from the bottom of his pack to the top, and would sometimes stare at them absently for long periods of time throughout the day.
She fell into step next to him and waited for him to look up again before she slipped Jonquil’s reins from his hand. Their conversation, rare as it was when they were exhausted from long days of travel, was usually focused on finding Robb, giving him his last rites and burning his body, and returning to Belisaere as quickly as possible. They had not talked Mogget’s confidence in his place as the new Abhorsen at all.
Sansa asked, “Do you feel any better about it?”
The swirl of emotion in Jon’s eyes answered her question better than if he had spoken. “Do you feel better about being queen?”
“No.” The word fell from her mouth reflexively, but Sansa knew that it wasn’t true. Not as true as it had been only a month past, when she’d first been told that Robb had died. She kicked at the rocky path under them. “Well, not better, anyway. More settled with the idea.”
Jon smiled a true smile that crinkled the edges of his eyes and made him seem younger, more like his actual age. “Then I hope I feel that way in a month, too.”
Under her hood, Mogget made a disgusted noise.
“Oh, quiet,” Sansa scolded, rolling her eyes at him. “You could go back to sleep if you didn’t want to listen to Jon and I.”
“No time for that,” said the cat, his voice sharper than before. “There are Dead waiting for us beyond the next crest.”
“What?” Sansa looked immediately to Jon, who swore under his breath and scanned the area around them with his hand on his sword.
“Obviously you didn’t,” said Mogget scornfully, climbing out from under Sansa’s hood and leaping onto the ground in front of Jonquil, who gave a snort of disapproval. The horse’s nostrils flared with fright as she cantered away from the crest of the hill. Perhaps she could smell the Dead, but Sansa had nothing but the rush of adrenaline in her veins. She pressed a spell for rest into Jonquil’s hide and waited for the horse to fall under the lull of the trance so she wouldn’t run away.
“We’ll have to defend here,” Jon said, abruptly drawing the sword with the green stone pommel from its scabbard at his belt. In the dim light, Sansa saw Charter marks flare to life and race along the length of the blade with blinding brilliance. The east mark slid as easily as oil down the length of his sword, and Sansa came to her senses when it rooted in the earth beneath Jon.
She was at the south mark, drawing the Charter-spelled dagger from her belt and tracing the mark in her mind, then in the air before her. Jon took the west mark, and they met to cast the north mark just as Mogget gave an angry hiss and darted into the incomplete diamond.
“They’re coming!” he shouted, skidding across the rock and spitting angrily. All his hair stood on end, making him seem much larger than he was. “Half a dozen Hands. Shadow Hands behind them.”
Sansa closed her eyes and pushed all her magic into the north mark, which resisted them at first before finally edging down Jon’s sword and rooting in front of them. Gold light sparked around them just in time for Sansa to see the shambling, reanimated servants of the Night’s King.
The Hands marching up the hill with the exposed bone of their heels striking the stone like the hobnailed boots of soldiers. Dread pooled in the bottom of her stomach, leaving her limbs feeling loose and disconnected from the rest of her, when she heard the first horrible scream from their rotted mouths. They were more horrible than she could have imagined, and she was frozen in place trying to imagine her beloved elder brother facing these monsters to his death.
Robb, who had petted her hair when she was afraid of the winter storms that blew in from the sea when their father was away.
“Two Shadow Hands below,” Jon shouted, brushing a bead of perspiration from his forehead from the effort of casting the diamond. Then he lifted his hand and summoned five burning marks to his fingertips where they shimmered for an instant before exploding toward the Hands.
Two of the marks hit true, for two of the reanimated Dead collapsed to the ground, legs shattered from the force of the spell. The remaining four dug in and began to run toward them, now close enough that Sansa could see their nearly fresh sinews and the fire burning in dead eye sockets.
This is what Robb saw when he died.
“Sansa!” Jon seized her quiver of arrows from Jonquil’s saddle and thrust them into her hands, pausing to close his hand over her shoulder. She looked up at him and swallowed around the thick knot of terror in her throat, wanted to tell him that she couldn’t do this. But he pressed a warm mark for clarity and focus, to loosen her frozen body, and squeezed her shoulder again, and Sansa saw fear in Jon’s eyes, too. He had seen this before, the day that Robb died.
She nodded and took the arrows from him, nocking one and summoning the first Charter mark for it to fly true, planting marks for fire and destruction into the shaft.
“Make it count, Your Highness,” Mogget called from her feet, watching the approaching Dead with ferocious intensity that made Sansa wonder what the little cat actually could do if he were made to defend himself.
Sansa refocused on her arrow, finishing her spell and loosing the arrow. It flew high and true, piercing the skull of one of the approaching Hands and exploding into lightning and flame like a thunderclap. At Jon’s incredulous look, she flashed him a quick, nervous smile and pulled another arrow from the quiver. It swished neatly through the air toward the Dead, driving back another one of the Hands.
“Get the bells!” called Mogget irritably, his narrowed eyes watching another Hand fall back.
Jon’s answer was muffled by the flash of another Charter spell, casting marks like mines on the ground ahead of them, set to explode if approached. Sansa fired a third arrow, swallowing her cry of victory when it exploded on impact for a third time.
Mogget circled around her feet urgently, nearly tripping Sansa when she lowered the bow. “No time to celebrate, Your Highness,” he admonished shortly. “There are more Hands, but the Shadow Hands will follow soon enough!”
“I thought there were six!” Sansa looked over at Jon, with his eyebrows knitted together in a furious war with himself.
But when two pools of infinite darkness crept up the edge of the hill, flanked by another dozen Hands, Sansa understood the Mogget’s tense pacing inside the diamond of protection. Shadow Hands, the twisted forms of spirits powerful enough to exist together outside of Death without a physical body to hold to, were somehow more dreadful and terrible than the mundane Hands, or the crude forms of the gore crows.
“Charter save us,” she murmured instantly, gripping her bow tight enough that her gloves strained against her knuckles. “Jon?”
“Now would be a time you should hope I’m right about you, Abhorsen.” Mogget leapt to Jon’s shoulders and yowled, his tail lashing furiously. “Now, get the bells!”
Sansa had not seen Jon move so quickly as then, shoving his left hand into the pack on Jonquil’s saddle and pulling out the bandolier. It buzzed with a dizzying array of Charter marks along the surface of the leather, but Jon ignored this. His fingers scrabbled over the the clasps holding the bells in their silence, feeling over each of the bells from the smallest, which was no bigger than Sansa’s thumb, to the largest, which was as large as a jam jar. His breath came ragged, before he unclasped the first and smallest of the bells, with a quiet mumble of assent from Mogget, crouching near to hiss into his ear.
The bell rang sweetly across the edge of the hill, softly drawing Sansa toward sleep, but she resisted it as the Dead could not. Even the Shadow Hands slowed their steady ascent toward them, sluggishly dragging themselves along the loose stone beneath them. Jon shoved his fingers inside the bell to silence it and looked quickly toward Sansa before replacing it and resting his hand on the fourth bell, then the sixth.
“Saraneth,” he whispered, and the sound carried toward Sansa with a blast of snowflakes that tangled thickly in her braided hair.
Below, the Dead shuddered to a halt, writhing as if struggling against a massive invisible hand pressing down on them. The simple Hands gave up their spirits and collapsed in a useless heap of bone and grave dirt like marionettes with their strings abruptly severed. The Shadow Hands were slower, slinking from one side to the next as they came close enough to send sparks cascading off the diamond around them.
Mogget flattened his ears and hissed in rage at the nearest Shadow Hand, which oozed the shadow stuff it was made of until it had formed a mouth to speak.
“Abhorsen,” it hissed, drawing out the syllables. “The Night’s King will cut your head from your body, harvest your blood to break the stranglehold of the Charter -- bind your spirit to his will, as he has done your--”
“The last bell, Abhorsen,” commanded Mogget coldly, his high voice cutting through the cold wind.
Jon hesitated here, his fingers still holding the clapper of the second-largest bell he had called Saraneth. He drew in a tight breath and sheathed his sword, replaced the bell, and drew out the third bell. Its clapper brushed the side of the bell and gave an eager little noise that carried cheerfully on the wind before Jon silenced it, held his breath, and then rang the bell.
It was the sound of military parades on the streets of Corvere, of crowds of joyful revellers on festival days in Belisaere, and it invited her to join them in a march to Death and beyond. Sansa dropped her bow and jammed her fingers into her ears, but the marching tune followed her, even after she clamped her eyes shut and tried to hum off-tune to drive out the noise. Her stomach rolled in fear, feeling her spirit longing to pull away from Life.
Then, as quickly as it had started, the bell’s assertive song came to a clattering halt. Snow-chilled hands smoothed over her hair, pushed her fingers from her ears and turned her face up. Jon. It was Jon, Sansa realized at the same moment her fierce longing to remain in Life, to find Robb and go home to Belisaere and live, came crashing back to her.
“Sansa,” she heard him repeat, louder and more urgently than he had the first few times she’d heard the syllables of her name without recognizing them. “Sansa, are you all right?”
“I’m here,” she breathed, laying her hands over his and holding on tight to reassure herself of the realness of the world. “I’m still here.”
A soft thump on the ground next to her announced that Mogget had dropped from Jon’s shoulder to sit next to her. “Kibeth is a trickster in an inexperienced hand,” he explained and licked his paw aggressively before continuing, to Sansa: “The Walker. Kibeth commands the Dead -- and, as you have seen, sometimes the living -- to walk where the wielder of the bell wishes. In this case, to Death.”
When Sansa had gathered her breath again, she scrubbed her hands up and down her arms to warm the gooseflesh that popped up under her clothes. The tools of a necromancer were powerful things, but she held her tongue for Jon’s sake. When she was able to open her eyes again, she saw his face was pale and taut with fear.
“I’m going to be fine, Jon,” she said again, gripping his hand tightly to reassure herself as much as him.
He insisted on helping her up onto Jonquil’s back and letting her ride for the rest of the day, though Sansa knew this slowed them more than they could afford. If Sansa’s suspicions were correct, then the Night’s King was somehow able to keep track of the Dead under his control, to see and know what they knew. He would now know not only where they were and who was with them, but that Jon was the Abhorsen. And, if what the Shadow Hand had croaked out before succumbing to the Walker was true, then the Night’s King had use for those who bore the Great Charters in their blood, for breaking the Charter and for binding them to some other unknown purpose.
Sansa had feared from the first time she had touched the rotten bindings on the kingdom that Robb’s magic had not broken for some darker purpose. That this was at odds with the Night King’s aims also did not escape her, but Sansa could no longer ignore the possibility that Robb -- rather, his spirit -- might be under the control of something evil.
It also confirmed that they were certainly walking directly into a trap. But knowing this did not change that it was necessary.
Over the fire that night, while Mogget prowled the outer edge of their diamond, Jon came to sit next to Sansa again, even as he refused to meet her eyes.
Since he wasn’t likely to start a conversation with her, Sansa reached for Jon’s hand and said, “It was an accident, Jon.”
“You weren’t the one ringing the bell,” he pointed out, and didn’t sound even the smallest bit comforted by her assurances. “You could have died. I knew it was a dangerous bell, but--”
“Was it the right one?” Sansa interrupted him, wrapping both her hands around his and imploring him to look at her. He nodded, and she rested her cheek on his shoulder. “Then, you’ll know next time.”
“It isn’t the worst I’ve seen from a new Abhorsen,” said Mogget as he jogged back into camp, his snout smeared with something that looked ominously like blood in the darkness. “But do try not to send the queen to a premature death next time.”
“We’ll have to leave Jonquil there,” Sansa said sadly, rubbing her satin-soft nose. “I don’t think she’ll make it in the mountains.”
Mogget had no criticism of this and so he said nothing at all before perching on Sansa’s shoulders. She was glad for his warmth on her neck, if not the irritating tinkling of his bell in her ear, or the cat’s habit of falling deeply asleep when she wanted to talk about something important, only to wake with some pithy response or another.
This morning, though, he seemed more alert than usual, and more willing to converse openly with his companions. When Sansa remarked that the menace of the Night’s King and his army of Dead creatures and Free Magic elementals could not have gone unnoticed so long as it had.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, Your Majesty, it all seems to blur together. There are always the Dead, always some new necromancer who thinks herself impervious to the Abhorsen. And perhaps they can kill a few before they, too, go to meet their final death.” He shrugged at this. “This one is old enough to be smarter than the others. Working in small, remote areas, letting the Abhorsen and the crown believe it’s disappeared.
“My last Abhorsen thought something was amiss, and was the first to consult the Clayr about the unusual surge of the Dead this century. They have done this well before, but though they could see the rot in the kingdom and what it would yield if unchecked much longer, they were never able to find where it comes from. Your father did his best to manage the broken Stones, but a king -- even a good one -- cannot end a threat like this alone.”
“Your father’s journal,” Jon said quietly, leaning around Jonquil to look at Sansa directly. “He mentioned something of the Clayr.”
Mogget hummed absently. “It could be they said something of the queen, many years ago. They thought it might be helpful if she went across the Wall. Something of a future they’d seen. But I can’t imagine they would have if they’d known you were to be queen.”
“When I was brought home, Davos -- one of the crown’s advisors, that is -- said the Clayr had Seen my coronation in the glacier.”
“One of many futures that became possible with the king’s death, I’m sure.” Mogget yawned loudly in Sansa’s ear, settling in as he often did before a long nap. “Wake me when we’ve arrived in Istoan.”
Within moments, he’d begun to snore lightly, not stirring even when Sansa rolled her shoulders and peered through the fog. She saw that Jon was staring at her, and tried to look in higher spirits.
“I don’t feel anything at all from yesterday,” she assured him, but rather than looking relieved, Jon’s face froze in a mask of surprise.
“I hadn’t been thinking of that,” he admitted. “I was trying to imagine what would happen if we…”
Sansa feigned cheer when she finished for him: “Actually find Robb, put his spirit to rest, and escape without finding ourselves in the clutches of a -- what was it you called them? Free Magic adepts with a bloody belt of bells?”
“Something like that.” But Jon was smiling again, and this time it seemed to persist for as long as they walked side by side in companionable silence.
When had it happened, Sansa wondered, that her feelings for Jon had turned from ice to… whatever it was that left a strange, swooping feeling in her chest? It was like anxiety, and fear, but also the overflowing effervescence and warmth of deeply-held affection, and more than that. Sansa had fancied herself in love with handsome young men in Corvere, but those feelings seemed flat and vacuous compared to this. Perhaps it wasn’t only that she loved Jon, but respected him, actually liked him, and cared deeply what might happen to him.
And here he was, wondering what might happen next, if they were lucky enough to survive. Sansa wondered, too.
“I suppose you’ll have to leave the Guard,” Sansa mused and tried to keep her disappointment from sounding in her voice. “I can hardly keep the Abhorsen bound to my service.”
“I can think of a few members of the Guard who would serve you as loyally as any of Robb’s had,” he answered lightly. “I always told Robb there were a dozen others that could serve better than I ever could.”
Jon had always been terrible at hiding his emotions. Robb had lamented it when they were children, that Jon would be the first to break under pressure. Sansa smiled a little at this. Duty had brought him to into her service at the Wall, and it would be duty that would finally separate them now they had come to trust each other.
Another faint smile traced the edges of Jon’s mouth, lingering with fondness when he looked her over. “You’ll be a bloody good queen, too.”
Years before, perhaps even weeks before, Sansa would have rebuked him for his language, but she saw it for the intimate gesture of his comfort with her that it was. Sansa slipped her hand through his arm and fell into step with him.
“You’ll make a fine Abhorsen,” she said after a long pause, during which Jon walked stiffly beside her with Jonquil’s reins in hand.
They walked that way all the way until little houses sprang up along the road on the way to Istoan. “You’ll have to be silent,” Sansa warned Mogget in a hushed whisper when the road widened. “Just a normal cat.”
“Of course. Perfectly unremarkable,” Mogget mumbled irritably, but as he had no use for arguing the point with her, he was dutifully silent when they shuffled into town.
The people of Istoan weren’t quite hostile, but nor were they particularly welcoming. This, at least, Sansa could understand, for the living these people scratched out at the base of the mountain could not be anything but meager and rough. The woman who they bought bread, dried venison, and a few other sundries from, however, looked them over with nothing short of disdain, her eyes lingering on the red and gold patterned tunic Jon wore under his cloak. He saw this and shrugged the cloak farther over his shoulders.
Sansa cleared her throat to draw her attention away from the remnants of Jon’s Guard attire. “Is there anywhere in town we might sell a horse?”
“Jorgan’s the only one who might buy a horse. Where are you headed?” she asked suspiciously, turning the silver they gave her over in her hand, as though she did not believe it was real.
“Into the mountains,” Jon answered curtly, without looking up from his coin pouch.
Sansa cleared her throat and smiled sweetly to the woman. They couldn’t tell anyone what it was their purpose in the mountains was, but she had forgotten to work out a reason for their journey. “There’s a mining community in the north mountains, Astoye.”
“The Nailway’s safer,” she said sharply, thrusting their packages of food at Sansa. “It’s hard travel in winter as it is, and I can’t see why you should take the mountain passages when there’s--” Her voice fell off, as though she had said something she had not meant to. Clearing her throat, she held out the packages again, giving them a little shake.
Exchanging a quick look at Sansa, Jon’s eyes went flinty and cold, and his hands stilled over his pack. “There’s what?”
“Avalanches,” the woman said flatly. “And fool you are for going up into them when we’ve lost five families this year to them.”
“This early in the season?” Jon’s voice was so unyielding that it made Sansa uncomfortable, shifting her weight back and forth until Mogget gave her a warning prick with his claws.
“As I said, the Nailway’s safer.” She nodded to the packages, pocketed the silver they’d paid her, and turned her back to them. “Jorgan’s at the edge of town.”
As that seemed to be as clear a dismissal as any, Jon picked up the food and followed Sansa out into the now-abandoned road. She took Jonquil’s rein from where they had tied it and wrapped it around her hand absently, stopping only when Jon took it from her before she wound it too tight.
“I’ll take care of Jonquil,” he said, in the breezy way he did when he was trying to hide something, a habit that Sansa had begun to notice only in the last couple of weeks. But since Jon almost certainly had a reason for leaving her, she only nodded and reached up to scratch Mogget’s ears.
“Moggie and I will see what we can find for the other things we need,” she said cheerfully, in case anyone was watching. She watched Jon lead Jonquil away with a sad smile, but hissed in pain when sharp claws slashed along the side of her neck, her fingers flying up to find a smear of blood there.
“Never call me Moggie again,” hissed the cat into her ear. “Now come on, I want to see the Charter stone in this little hovel.”
Istoan’s Charter stone lay at the center of the village, up a steep hill littered with shale that slid under Sansa’s feet as she climbed. The usual warmth of the stone reached for her as she approached, giving her aching legs some much needed relief as she cleared the last of the hill and found it jutting sharply up from the ground, surrounded by rock fragments as long as her arm and cut through with deep, black rock. The surface of the stone gave a shimmering of Charter marks as Sansa approached, and when she rested a hand on it she felt the warm ocean of the Charter wash through her like a hot bath. Sansa indulged in the comfort of that magic for a moment, closing her eyes and feeling the cold fall away as if she had just walked into a room where a roaring fire blazed.
But when she pulled her hand back from the stone, it wasn’t only the early winter chill that came rushing to her. A pinch of wrongness, tension that had nagged at her since they first entered Istoan. Sansa looked around them again, but no one was there.
No one was there.
The Charter stone was the center of their community, injecting vitality into their lives. The stone supplemented what the ground could yield, improving crops, encouraging growth among the children of the village. And no one was around it. There was little vegetation here, even for early winter, only a few scraggly, bare trees.
“Something is not right here,” Mogget observed, rolling out his vowels into a hiss like lightning on raindrops.
Sansa rubbed warmth into her arms. “We should find Jon,” she breathed back to him. Even though no one was around to hear her, she had no desire to be apparently talking to herself.
They did not need to look far, for Jon came from the other direction alone, carrying their pack on one shoulder. He had apparently succeeded with his arrangements with the mysterious Jorgan, but his expression was troubled.
“We’ll make good time into the mountains if we leave now,” Sansa suggested when he came close enough to hear.
“We need to leave,” he said shortly, adjusting the pack on his shoulders and gesturing to the road that spiraled its way deep into the the mountain pass ahead. “While there’s still good sun.”
For once, all three of them were in accord with their silence, trudging up the road with more than a few nervous glances back toward Istoan. As poor as the land was around that village, it deteriorated the farther they walked. At first, Sansa thought it was the absence of the Charter stone’s influence, but it only grew worse the further they went, leaving her with a nauseous feeling, as though she was coming down with a bad flu.
When her legs cramped after nearly three hours of silent climbing, she leaned against the rock face beside them and tried to stretch them through long, soothing breaths. It helped a bit, but did nothing for her nausea, which crashed down over her like a series of tidal waves. A quick look at Jon’s face, pale and drawn, told her that he was feeling much the same. He passed her a skin of water and though she hoped the water would ease her nausea, her stomach only cramped around it painfully.
Mogget leaped from her shoulders to the ground and sniffed the air. “There was a Charter stone near here once. The disruption in the Charter affects you.”
“Once?” Sansa pushed sweat-dampened hair from her forehead and looked to Jon. She thought of the bright Charter markers where she had notated the broken Charter stones on her map and swallowed. The broken stones they had known of had been south of Istoan, in the villages along the plains and in the valley, or along the Nailway and in the remote far north of the kingdom.
“There is an opening to Death there now,” explained Jon stiffly. “The remains of the Charter stones provide enough raw power to keep open a passage for the Dead to return to Life without the… usual limitations.”
Sansa pushed back the wash of helplessness that accompanied the next twist of her stomach. “Then there are Dead nearby.”
Mogget paced impatiently in front of her feet and hissed angrily at the cold breeze, which carried a few errant snowflakes despite the weak sun above them. “Hiding, yes. Moving between the broken stones. They have followed us since last night, but I don’t think they’ll bother us. For now. And…”
“And?” Sansa looked down at him, and then at Jon, who shifted his gaze back the way they had come.
“They aren’t bothering the people in Istoan,” said Jon angrily. “I’m sure the people there must have known about the Dead. I saw a few wearing silver, things like that. They must have made a deal of some sort with the Dead to hold them off while they destroy the other stones around them.”
Her stomach gave another uncomfortable flop at the thought of the the people of Istoan bargaining with the Dead for their lives. Five families had died that year, Sansa remembered, wondered if they had truly died in accidents, or if they had been part of the price the village paid to protect the rest.
She inhaled stiffly and handed the water skin back to Jon. “There may be other villages who have made the same bargain with the Dead. Or the Night’s King, more likely. We should be prepared if they’re hostile to us.”
But the next village they passed -- the home of the broken Charter stone -- was deserted. The center of the village was scorched from Charter fire, likely the remnants of a mass cremation before the villagers had fled. Or been killed. Despite the discomfort at being so near the broken stone, Sansa insisted on taking half an hour to search for bodies. They found only a handful, which they burned with a quiet invocation of last rites and a spark of intense Charter magic that came haltingly so near a disruption of the Charter.
They walked well past dark to move past the reach of the broken stone and did not rest until they had cast a double diamond around their camp, at Mogget’s suggestion. Jon took the first watch, leaving Mogget to sleep heavily on top of the pack, where the bells sat. Sansa did not sleep so well, and so she pulled her cloak closer around herself and came around the fire to sit next to Jon.
“I can’t sleep,” she said lowly, under the crackling of the fire. “Can I sit up with you?”
Jon gestured widely to the space where she sat and broke a half-strained smile. “You should sleep, if you can. Tomorrow isn’t likely to be much better, as far as days go.”
The weak smile faded when he looked back into the fire, but Sansa thought she understood what it was that left him as unsettled as she. The same swirl of fear and knowledge they were now in the deepest of danger that kept her awake. Before, in Belisaere, it had seemed like the only thing to do.
Now, she knew that it was.
She followed his stare into the flames, which gave a merry snap, as though taunting the Dead that followed them.
“Are we near where it happened?” she asked lowly. At the edge of her vision, Jon nodded tightly, and she added: “Are you afraid of it happening again? Of… Death?”
A shiver shook down Jon’s spine, but he shook his head firmly. “No. I’m afraid, but not of that. I’m afraid of it being you next. Of being as powerless to stop you from dying as I was before. And it scares me to think that this necromancer might use Robb to break Charter stones and run roughshod over the kingdom. If I imagine failing -- if it’s you he takes next… ”
She knew what he meant and didn’t need him to finish, but the words hit like a drop of hot wine in her stomach, leaving her as light-headed as if she had drunk wine. Sansa ducked her head and reached for his hand. Jon folded his around hers like it was a precious treasure, brushing calloused fingertips over the soft center of her palm and lifting it to his mouth. His beard tickled when he kissed it, and his eyes were watching when Sansa looked up again.
“I won’t die,” she promised and folded her fingers between Jon’s, pressing her cheek into his shoulder.
But there was no way to promise such a thing, no way even to know that Jon would survive, but he didn’t say as much to her, and he did not stop her from leaning against him and drifting off into fitful sleep.
At night, they took turns keeping watch, in case the Dead turned up to attack. They built their camp near mountain streams, when they could be found, and cast two diamonds. The nights were fraught, but quiet, and Jon almost always stayed awake through Sansa’s watch.
Often, he silently read through the leather bound copy of the Book of the Dead with startling intensity. Mogget tried to dissuade him from this at first, but Jon was adamant.
“I can’t afford another slip with the bells,” he explained firmly, his fingers resting over the delicate pages of the book. It appeared very old in the firelight, Sansa thought.
“Perhaps if you were wearing them.” Mogget’s claws dug into the leather of the pack, where the bells had returned. “Typically, you would have received training as Abhorsen-in-Waiting and such carelessness would be firmly managed.”
“Aye, and you’ll tell me when you find me an Abhorsen to teach me the bells,” argued Jon tartly, and Mogget did not argue about the Book of the Dead again.
They made slow progress, but they were rewarded on the third day with path markers etched into the stone that led them to a system of massive caverns inside the mountain that were carved by the little streams that converged to form the great River Ratterlin. Some had eroded through the mountain, leaving gaping scars in their ceilings that let in snow and sunlight. Those that were dark were infested with Dead, Jon warned, and so they avoided these.
Sansa marveled at them, what had likely started as cracks and small caves, and been expanded with Charter magic.
Judging by their map, they were not more than thirty or forty miles from the Clayr’s Glacier. Sansa wondered aloud if these caves were under the protection of the Clayr when they found another marker, her fingers tracing over the Charter marks. Someone had put these here, had expanded the caverns. But who? Sansa wondered, and for what?
“These mountains are old,” Mogget said airily from her shoulders. “There is magic here even I could not guess at. Charter and Free Magic alike. It is yet to be seen if that is to our advantage or that of our foes.”
This was no comfort, Sansa thought, but it did make her and Jon more careful as they progressed more quickly now on the relatively flatter terrain of the caverns. The sun streaked the sky with brilliant ochre as it slumped down the horizon from its apex.
If not for the sun’s distant setting, Sansa would not have noticed that they had wandered deep enough into the caverns that the ceilings were more solid, with fewer breaks to show the sun. She slowed until she had stopped next to a Charter mark that pulsed to life when she came near, and looked back the way they had come.
Jon looked back to her, saw that she had stopped. “They’ve been following us all day.”
And there, just at the curve in the path, was a flicker of movement. The stuff of shadows, bubbling unnaturally in the gloom. Lesser Dead, she knew, no worse than they had fought off before Istoan. But now there was no path for them but forward, deeper into the mountains. Away from the protection of the failing day.
“Jon,” she began, and her hand drifted toward the bow on her shoulder. “I think they’ve been… herding us here.”
Mogget made a cat-like noise that was at once pleased and disgusted. “We must be close, then.”
“He’s right.” Jon nodded to Sansa’s bow approvingly and drew the sword with the glimmering green stone in the pommel. Charter marks raced along the surface, scattering the letters to words that she could not read in the failing light. “We keep going.”
They walked for what felt like hours after that, past the time the sun must have set on the mountains. Before long, however, the wide gaps in the cavern became fissures, and then disappeared entirely. Sansa cast bright, blue-white suns over their heads to drive back the shadows, but though she lacked Jon’s ability to sense the Dead, she knew that they were lurking just beyond those lights. She also knew that there were a great many of them.
The symbols that had marked their way into the caverns were older here, faded magic that gave a glimmer of power as they passed, then sank back into the stone they were carved into. They were more frequent, too, as they followed a narrow passage from one cavern to the next. She had tried to decipher their meaning, had even recognized a few of the marks, but these were as a foreign language to her, where she could pick out a few familiar words, but not the meaning of the whole. Sansa thought their shape was familiar, and the impression of power that they left behind felt like an old memory long forgotten.
She had just been about to ask Jon if he knew them, if they were something she had forgotten in her years away in Ancelstierre, when the passage came to an abrupt end in a massive cavern that dwarfed all the others they had passed through before.
No, Sansa realized, looking up to the faraway ceiling, dark and distant as the stars. This was no natural cavern. It was not even the sort of cave that had been helped along by Charter magic. This had been constructed. There were massive pillars of stone made smooth with time and uneven with the trickling streams of water that webbed across the stone floor.
“What is this place?” she asked in a whisper, but the sound of it echoed around them, bouncing higher and higher with a crescendo of sound.
Sansa followed where Jon looked and saw what he had seen first: a mass of squarish ice jutting up from the floor like a cenotaph.
Cold drenched her veins, the numbing punch of renewed grief leaving Sansa rooted to the floor. Her Charter lights flickered at her distraction, but Jon cast new ones from spread fingers. These hung above them and the ice gave an answering shimmer of Charter magic.
“Curious,” muttered Mogget, his claws digging into her shoulder as he blinked around at the room. “I think the queen may have been right about the Dead bringing us here. We should cast some protective magic, don’t you think, Abhorsen?”
Jon began casting the diamond in a wide perimeter around the ice encasement, but Sansa did not move to help him. Mogget did not object, however, when Sansa trudged leadenly toward the ice and stared down at it, or when a soft sob choked in her throat a second before she shoved it back down.
Robb’s face was smooth and unblemished under the crystalline encasement, his eyes closed as innocently as though he had fallen asleep.
She could not break now, though. Hadn’t they come all this way, left behind the safety of Belisaere and the cocoon of her family’s protection, so that they might find Robb, lay him to rest, and save the kingdom in doing so?
When Jon had finished and come to stand next to her, she asked, “How do you think he ended up here, like this?”
“We must be miles from where we were ambushed.” Jon’s hand gripped his sword tighter as he approached the ice, circled around the perimeter of it. “If the Night’s King had wanted his body for some sort of magic, perhaps. Or if he wanted to bind Robb’s spirit. But…”
“He’d only need his head,” drawled Mogget, sniffing at the air like a bloodhound. “I don’t know this magic.”
Frost roped like vines around Jon’s boots where he stood with no warning, then crept along his shoulders and into his hair. The blade of his sword became dull with cold, but the Charter marks beneath the hoarfrost gave off a soft shimmer in the blue light of the cave around them, and the words on the blade came into sharp focus under it.
Sansa gave a soft scream, but quickly shoved her knuckle into her mouth to muffle the noise as it echoed through the chamber of the cave. Forcing her numb feet to move, she came to stand next to him with one hand extended and her heart hammering violently in her chest. Every inch of him was frosted as surely as Robb’s still body beneath the ice. Even Jon’s eyelashes sparkled with tiny crystals of ice.
Though she couldn’t bear to look at Robb, perfectly preserved under the ice, she wondered if this, somehow, was the magic of the cave. Was this what had happened to Robb? Was she alone? Sansa was afraid to touch Jon, too afraid to tear her feet from the ground to leave him; too afraid to lose him.
The thought was so shocking that she ripped her hand away and clenched it into a loose fist. “Mogget? What’s happened to Jon?”
“He’s stepped into Death to see the King,” said Mogget casually, and pricked his ears at the long echo through the cold, thin air of the cave. His paws twitched little pinpricks in Sansa’s neck but, though she raised her hand to stop him, her eyes were fixed on the place where Jon stood. “Very stupid, doing it for the first time here, without any extra precautions.”
As this seemed to be a veiled command rather than an observation, Sansa drew the dagger from her belt. Mogget watched curiously as she cast a second diamond around them, walking clockwise from the East mark until the diamond formed a closer edge around both Jon’s still form and Robb’s encasement. It was harder than usual to cast the diamond without the support of the Charter Stone, and the marks seemed pallid in the ice under their feet, but the diamond would hold. For a time, at least.
When she was done, Mogget leaped from her shoulders and walked the outer edge of the diamond curiously. Then, he leapt to the high encasement of ice around Robb’s body.
“Leave him be!” commanded Sansa in a hush, reaching for Jon in his quiet vigil. One of his hands was extended toward the ice encasement, not at all unlike a mourner at a coffin.
“I do not mean to do any harm, Your Majesty,” said Mogget. He tested the ice with a curious flick of his pink tongue. After a thoughtful moment, he did so again, and then sat straight up and gave his paw a vigorous licking.
He did not seem inclined to share whatever conclusions he had come to, however, and so Sansa found a large rock to sit on, drawing her bow from her back and setting the arrows next to her for easy reach. Slowly, she drew her forefinger along the taut string and looked out into the dim light of the cave. It was still as death here, but nothing moved but she and Mogget. The Dead that had followed them for days had not, apparently, come here.
After some time had passed, she looked back toward Jon. He had not moved. Would she know if he died, gave up his spirit in the river that flowed through Death? Would his body give any sign, or would he remain frozen as he was unless she burned his body? This thought gave Sansa a cold shiver. She curled a knee up to her chest and willed her breath to come steadily again.
She could not stop herself, and asked Mogget, “Will he come back safely?”
The cat’s green eyes reflected back to her like a pair of headlights. “Hard to tell,” he drawled and leaped from the encasement. The cold ground was not to his liking, for he gave a little hiss of disapproval and trotted toward her. “There are dangerous things in Death. He would have done better if he’d taken the bells with him. Still, he is not the most stubborn of Abhorsens I’ve had.”
Luminous eyes peered up at her half a breath before Mogget jumped into her lap, circling around a few times before settling in with his gaze set firmly in the distance. Sansa had the feeling he was keeping watch with her, blinking slowly into the darkness.
After a long moment of her palpably tense silence, he sighed, “Worry less, Your Majesty.” The emphasis he placed on her style carried the weight of sarcasm, but not, she thought, a great deal of disdain. “I doubt very much that the Abhorsen will be permitted to lay down his spirit until there is another to carry on after him.”
“Then Jon is the Abhorsen? You’re sure?” She looked anxiously out at him, pulling her fingers away from her bowstring to keep from snapping it. After he had used the bells, Sansa had been left with little doubt. After all, she might ring the bells herself, but it would be as artless as if she picked up his sword and tried to swing it. She had none of the aptitude to do what came so naturally to him. His crossing into Death, however, and his miraculous survival before, was the answer to a mystery that had consumed Jon all his life.
Sansa wondered if her father had suspected the truth about Jon and feared for his life as he had feared for his children’s.
Mogget interrupted her thoughts. “I have been telling you all along,” said the little cat with an air of absence, but he shook his head violently, leaving the bell at his neck tinkling softly. He looked irritated at it and stood up to circle around in her lap again.
“What happened to the previous Abhorsen? His father, I mean. How did you know it was Jon?” Jon had nothing of his look to him, she thought, lacking the Abhorsen’s pale hair and broad, muscled frame. But, then, he strongly resembled her father’s family, instead, as she resembled her mother’s.
“He fell to the Dead in the Yanyl riverlands not quite two months ago. Very likely not long before the King,” began Mogget slowly, yawning through the words. Then he shook his head again, as though clearing fog away from his thoughts.
“Those who remain of the family have done what little they can, but none were suitable to take up the bells. There had to be another heir.”
“If he didn’t know about Jon,” she thought aloud. “Surely the Clayr would have Seen him in the ice. They saw that I would be Queen when Robb -- Robb died.” The words came out in a stutter. Standing so near to Robb’s body made it difficult for her to choke out the truth, even after so much time to become accustomed to the truth.
“The Clayr are able to direct their Sight where it is most needed. Seeing the next ruler of the kingdom is a very old tradition of theirs. The Clayr are occasionally able to find the Abhorsen-in-Waiting through their Sight, but that was not so this time.”
Sansa frowned at this, but she was not finished with her questions. “Then surely the Abhorsen knew she was the princess. Someone must have known.”
“Hmph. You ask a lot of questions, you know. It reminds me of...” He hissed a little, and did not finish his thought. “I cannot say if the previous Abhorsen knew of his son. He wrote to the King often. It was those letters which led me to Belisaere after a time, thinking there was something I had missed, but I did not think…”
Mogget’s irritated yowl had the bite of something electric at the end. “I am old. I thought only of the small things and failed to see the signs until it was too late. But I see it now: there are worse things in the kingdom and they plot against the two of you in particular.”
Sansa’s eyes flashed back toward Jon. “Do you believe Robb and the Abhorsen -- the last one, I mean -- you believe they were murdered by the Night’s King?”
“In a word, yes. Likely for the same purpose. There is, after all, considerable power in the Charters you bear in your blood.” Mogget stretched luxuriously in her lap, then climbed up the edge of her cloak to settle back on her shoulders. “But we should reinforce the west mark of this diamond. There is Free Magic in this cave working very hard to erode your diamonds.”
She did as Mogget suggested, though the effort of reaching into the Charter and pulling out the protective marks left her winded and seated on her rock again within a quarter-hour. Mogget dozed lightly on her shoulders. Sansa still felt full to bursting with questions, but had apparently exhausted all that Mogget was willing to answer for a time, for he did not answer, or stir.
A loud crack shattered the silence around them, and Sansa had already half-finished a chain of Charter marks for a destructive spell when she whirled around and saw that it was Jon, ice sloughing off of him in thick sheets.
He held up the hand with his sword to stop her while he coughed, touching his fingers to his throat with a spark of Charter magic. When he could speak again, he fell to a knee and drew his full fealty mark in the air before her and let it burn between them.
The King is dead, Princess.
Old words echoed as loudly as if they had been said in that enormous cavern, rather than in her memory of the second parlor at her school in Ancelstierre, just outside Bain, murmured by another red-and-gold clad member of the Royal Guard. Of Davos standing by the window of her sun-lit apartment in Corvere.
Her stomach gave a swoop of regret, though Jon was only confirming what they had already long known: Robb was dead, and she was now truly queen.
Sansa drew the answering mark weakly, and Jon stood again.
“I found Robb,” he said weakly, crossing the cavern to their pack, where he pulled the bells free with care that neared reverence. There was an air of confidence about him now, she thought.
“His spirit is bound before the Ninth Gate, then,” Mogget said slowly, tasting the words on the chilled air, but as Jon took up the bells and buckled the bandolier over his chest, Sansa saw that he clearly approved. “In the service of the evil we face.”
“Not quite.” Jon sounded surprised himself when he came back to them, pausing long enough to rest his hands on Sansa’s shoulders for a single, reassuring moment. Then he beckoned them over to where Robb’s body was preserved, as surely as if he had only fallen asleep under a sheet of clear ice.
“A necromancer can use any number of dark magics to carry out their work,” explained Jon in a patient voice that she knew was for her own benefit. “Binding and raising spirits into a dead body to create a Hand. Building a body from bog mud and grave dirt to raise a Mordicant.” His palm hovered over the ice for an instant, but it gave an answering spark of Charter magic like its response to their Charter lights, and Jon rested it on the smooth surface.
Charter, not Free Magic, thought Sansa, her heart racing impatiently against her breast. She didn’t need to know how the Dead were made, only how to stop the one who raised them. Who might bind Robb’s spirit to serve evil, or disrupt the Charter seals on the kingdom, or use his body to do worse things than she could even imagine.
Jon calmly went on: “There was no one to conduct the final rites and burn his body. A necromancer might have used it to bind his spirit to their service, or far worse. Without it…”
Suddenly, she understood. Not a curse, not a mysterious, unknowable magic. Even as children, Robb had been a brilliant Charter mage, and he had done things that Sansa could have never dreamed of. And apparently in death, he had managed the sort of magic that would protect himself and the kingdom.
“He protected himself from being bound,” Sansa sighed aloud as hot tears pricked her eyes. “Until someone might come to cast the rites.”
Impulsively, she reached out to touch the encasement, but Jon caught her hand instantly.
“Not yet,” he said quickly, nodding toward the rush of Charter marks that pooled where Sansa stood, and a pool of meltwater trickling toward her boots. “The spell is tied up in the kingdom’s bindings. It will only break for someone of royal blood.”
“I see now.” Mogget leapt back onto the encasement and gave a feline noise of disgust. “This Night’s King couldn’t break the magic on his own. He wouldn’t need to if you were here to do it for him.”
“We can’t allow Robb to fall under his control.” Sansa snapped her head toward Mogget. “We can burn the body, prevent anyone from getting control--”
Mogget interrupted her coldly, “We ought to leave it as it is.”
Sansa withdrew her hand from the ice encasement and closed it into a fist. “I’m not going to leave my brother here like this.”
“Oh, so we’ll simply break the spell and hope that there is time enough to burn his body before our foe sets upon us?” sneered Mogget, drawing back to show his teeth. “Then you will both be killed by the Dead. Your Majesty’s death will break the seals holding together the covenant with the Charter. There will be no Abhorsen to stop them. They will march into Belisaere and sacrifice your siblings over the Great Charter stones, and once they have broken the tenuous thread holding your kingdom together, they will spread like pestilence, as the Clayr have Seen in the ice for some twenty years. But your brother, perhaps, will be free to pass through the Ninth Gate, even if you will not.”
Sansa opened her mouth to shout at him that he could not understand, but Jon stopped her with his hand on her wrist.
“We didn’t come this far for the Night’s King to have us, too,” he interrupted. “Robb’s spirit is bound with Free Magic in the Third Precinct of Death. The seals on the kingdom will eventually fail if we leave him like this, and we will still have to fight the Dead to escape the cave.”
“This is madness,” Mogget hissed.
“Haven’t we already fallen into the trap?”
He was right, she knew instantly. Had known before then, perhaps. They were trapped here, unless they could somehow fight their way back out, only the two of them against a horde of the Dead. Their cold, rotted hands, reaching to steal the breath from her lungs and sap the life from her dying body.
But hadn’t they always known their quest was foolish, even suicidal?
“We burn Robb’s body,” she decided, squaring her shoulders and drawing the bow around again. “And if there is a chance we will fall into the hands of the Dead…”
Mogget yowled with displeasure, but he bowed his head to Jon. “Then you remove my collar,” said the cat sullenly. “Very well. We should not tarry, or we will have no choice at all.”
Jon seemed to agree, but he passed Sansa some dried venison and stuffed a few pieces down himself. It was very late, already nearing midnight, and Sansa knew it was little more than the rush of the moment that kept fatigue at bay. Eating, at least, might prevent their magic from consuming some of their spirit when they lacked power to control it.
Still, her legs shook violently when Sansa stood over the structure where Robb’s body rested, her hand hovering over the ice. He was dead, she told herself, and had been for weeks. Moreover, this would set him free to pass peacefully beyond the Ninth Gate. She would never speak to him again, her kind and beloved brother, any more than she could ever again speak to her father.
“Sansa?” Behind her, a spark of magic gave freedom to her movement and surety to her purpose.
“Yes,” answered she, and pulled off her glove so she could touch the ice with the bare pads of her fingertips.
The response was instant. Ice melted off the encasement like water flowing from a spring, leaving behind a stone pedestal on which Robb lay. Under the ice, old wounds had been perfectly preserved. Bruises flowered over freckled skin tanned rosy and brown as brightly as if they had just formed. The Royal sigil on his breastplate had once been enchanted with Charter magic to protect the king, but it was now smeared with blood that was only just darker than the garishly bright red of blood freshly spilled. Dead Charter marks were frozen all along the surface, their magic expended the moment Robb had died.
“Oh, Charter,” she heard Jon moan behind her, and reached for his hand.
“Together,” was all she said before they spoke the funerary rites together, calling up marks for burning and cleansing.
These sparked like tinder above Robb’s limply coiled auburn hair, shimmering gold and red under the flame like a new sun, then exploded down the length of his body with a consuming inferno. Sansa did not allow herself to look away, but clung to Jon’s hand with the same fierce strength that he held hers. Within seconds, nothing remained of her brother but ash.
“Everything dies in its time,” murmured Jon softly. “Everything and everyone.”
“Let us hope now is not yours, Abhorsen.” Mogget had stayed back during the funerary rites, but now he drew their attention to the passage they had come down. “The Dead have arrived.”
“And more besides them.”
As they dispelled the diamonds around them, Sansa saw the quiver of shadows edging around the darkness toward them as they rushed into another narrow passage snaking out from the far edge of the cavern. When they had just passed into it, she stopped long enough to cast a massive wall of hot flame behind them. It would not hold them off indefinitely, and they could not know if there were more Dead in the tunnels ahead, but the fire would slow those behind. A sharp noise erupted from the Dead in the cavern, snapping angrily after them now that they knew they had been slowed, or had found that Robb’s body was burnt.
He should have been buried in Hole Hollow with Father, thought Sansa, blinking back the sting of tears as she ran.
“We’re almost there.”
But something shuddered loose in her chest, and she found herself swallowing back a wild sob. Even if they could make it that far, it would still be dark in the northern mountains and there was no saying whether or not the Dead would be there to meet them. The Dead and an ancient necromancer. It seemed too easy, too dangerous to hope that they might make it to see the sky again.
Mogget leapt from her shoulders and sniffed disdainfully at the air. “Abhorsen,” he said, and the word was a warning.
“I know,” said Jon, and lifted the sword under their Charter light. Sansa saw the words of the inscription clearly for the first time:
The Clayr Saw me in ice. The Wallmakers forged me in fire. The King quenched me in faith. The Abhorsen wields me to lay the Dead to rest.
She scanned the cavern, reaching for the familiar comfort of the Charter. An arch of stone lay ahead of them with the gleam of snow just beyond it. The way to the mountainside.
But there were three passages deeper into the mountain, and it was from these that the Dead came filing out. Bone grated against bone without the softness of sinew and tissue, clicked ominous as an invading army against the stone floor. The white snow under the arch disappeared under the darkness of a score of Shadow Hands creeping from the mountainside. There were hundreds of the Dead now, and in forms of the Lesser Dead that Sansa could not possibly have known, even in her darkest fears. Possibly a few among them were of the Greater Dead, monstrous, distorted things of nightmare from beyond the Fifth Gate that had fallen under the control of the Night’s King.
They marched closer, and then held position in an odd, crescent-shaped formation surrounding where they stood. Having pinned their little party in place with their number, the Dead waited.
The revelation came out with Sansa’s next, quavering breath: “He’s coming.”
“Charter preserve us all.”
Jon’s spare hand drifted to the bells at his chest, as though he were trying to decide which would help them now, but froze when a cacophonous sound echoed violently around them. It was another moment before Sansa recognized that it was speech, and that the voice came not from one, but from many Dead speaking at once.
“Another Abhorsen to meet my master?” The ceiling shook around them at the terrible sound of their speaking with decaying tongues and warped mouths built of shadow. “Behold him,” they said, and the Dead parted for a single figure striding in from the mountain.
The Night’s King was clad entirely in white, from the hem of his cloak to the pallid leather of the bandolier of bells he wore. His face was shrouded in gauzy fabric that left only his eyes exposed, burning an unnaturally bright blue in the darkness. Free Magic rolled off him in dizzying waves that turned her stomach and left an acrid, iron taste not at all unlike blood on her tongue.
“How young you are,” said the Dead, and a few of the voices broke out with cold, scraping laughter. “Your blood will break the seals, and he will make the river red with the blood of the broken Charter.”
“I can cut a path,” said Jon at a bare whisper, under the shout of the Dead. “They must all be here to trap us. You can escape into the mountain. Take Mogget with you.”
It was a sensible idea, thought Sansa, staring ahead at Night’s King while the Dead encroached ever closer to them. She had little doubt that Mogget possessed some secret ability that allowed him to stay alive and move freely through the kingdom without danger, and that she might even be safe with him. And if it was true that Jon would not be permitted to die…
Then he would be enslaved by an ancient necromancer, whose comfort with the bells no doubt outstripped his own.
“Your spirits will be bound to his service and the gates of Death itself shall break apart,” taunted the Dead. One of the Hands broke from formation and charged at them, but Jon’s sword was swift and sure, gleaming with blinding Charter magic. A terrible shriek went up through the Dead as the Hand gave up its spirit and went howling back to Death.
“I’ll take my chances here with you,” she said in her best queenly impression and squared her shoulders to stare back to the Night’s King.
He wore a jagged sword at his waist, his thumb caressing the pommel with something that seemed like thoughtfulness. But he did not speak. Perhaps he could not.
Charter be with us, she prayed silently, and drew an arrow from her quiver. She would need to make these last, if she could.
Mogget leapt between the two of them and the Dead. His fur stood on end and his tail lashed fiercely as he stared them down. “Tiresome,” drawled the cat, and his vowels sizzled like electricity. “The same as ever. I expected quite a lot more from the necromancer that killed three Abhorsens this century.”
“And more besides!” shouted the horde. “For centuries before you were ever born, he has evaded the cold river and stalked the kingdom, slain more who bear the foul mark of the Charter than you can imagine--”
“Oh, quiet,” called Mogget lazily to the Dead. “Abhorsen, I grow bored. ”
“Mogget,” warned Jon through teeth gritted shut, as the Night’s King reached for his bandolier of bone-handled bells.
“Belgaer, I think.” The cat’s green eyes slotted toward Sansa and her bow, and the bell at his neck gave a bright twinkle when he inclined his head as if nodding to her.
The first peal of the white necromancer’s bell crashed against the walls of the cavern, echoing toward the sky before hammering its way back down to them. Sansa felt its pull, like a massive, invisible hand pressing against her shoulders, seizing her like a leash that would tether her to its wielder. She could feel it, the will of the Night’s King pressing over hers, telling her what she would do when enslaved to his power.
The realm would fall -- her realm, then as it was hers now. Sansa would break the Great Stones herself, would be queen of darkness and death and wear a crown of bone and blood when the Dead fell across the land like a great shadow and pestilence.
Then there was another bell, a deep, jarring sound that reverberated up from the very stones beneath her, and revulsion flared in her chest as she found will to fight back against the pull of the first bell’s magic. Blue-white flame exploded from her fingers toward the Dead, and Sansa came back to her own mind like a drowning woman breaking the surface of the sea.
Around them, the Dead had burst from formation, driven mad by the distorted echoes of the bells. What control the Night’s King had over them was, at least for the moment, temporarily broken. The ground rolled beneath them with a sound like thunder, sending them all pitching forward. The Night King’s bell made a clamorous noise as it struck the ground and rolled away, and Sansa caught herself against the wall of the cavern before she was knocked back to her knees.
“The mountain is coming down around us!” shouted Mogget, darting out of the way of a long, pointed rock that shattered where he had been standing.
Sansa seized Jon’s hand and pulled him after her at a sprint, hardly daring to look at the Dead. A crackle of Free Magic shot past them to the stone archway, a last, desperate effort to stop them.
Jon shouted angrily and shoved her hard through the archway just ahead of the shower of rock and the two of them rolled out into the blinding white snow to see the gray of pre-dawn cracking the dark of night on the far-off horizon. The rumbling of the mountain grew louder, shrieking against the early morning calm, and Sansa twisted around in time to scream out a Charter spell as the peak of the mountain came roaring down around them.
“Jon?” she called weakly, though her throat felt burned and raw. She rolled herself up to sitting and stared around her.
Drifts of snow piled high around in a perfect circle, and the passage into the mountain was sealed with snow and rock and debris. The avalanche, she remembered, and the spell she had cast to protect them. It must have taken the last of her energy to cast it before they were buried completely under the snow.
Jon lay in the snow only a few feet away, curled tightly around himself. He was very still, and did not stir when she shouted his name again. Sansa dragged herself to him, a fresh pulse of fear rushing through her when she pulled him toward her. His eyelashes fluttered in the sunlight, and Sansa felt herself breathe again, until she saw the crimson stain on the snow where Jon had lay before.
“Not as bad as it seems,” said Jon, flicking his wide, blown gray eyes from the blood and trying for a weak smile on pale, bloodless lips. “Didn’t kill me this time.”
Hot tears splashed against his cheek, and Sansa was as surprised to see them as she was to realize that they were hers. She pulled him up onto her lap and reached for his sodden surcoat. The gold towers of the Royal Guard were soaked through his blood, leaving a faint, vermilion pattern in the red surcoat, but the snow had at least slowed the bleeding when she peeled back the garment and the mail shirt under. The wound in his side was deep, almost certainly from one of the rocks, and he hissed with pain when Sansa pressed his surcoat back against it while she dipped into the Charter and reached weakly for the marks she needed.
“I might die, Sansa.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said savagely, drawing marks in the air over him. Those to encourage the blood to slow, to congeal at the wound and keep it sealed, but they flickered in the cold air and faded away with no effect. She pressed her hand against the wound again to do what her magic could not. “You won’t die if you show me the marks that can help you right now. You won’t die. I won’t allow it.”
But Jon only folded his hand in hers and smiled blearily at her. Sansa felt his pulse in his hand, weak but fluttering like a bird in a storm, and she clung to him. She had no plan, no way out for them.
She had not seen Mogget escape with them from the cavern, and the cat was nowhere to be seen then, either. The thought that he had been left behind, trapped with the Dead and the Night’s King, left her choking on a lump in her throat. They were alone and weak and defenseless. Even if the Dead did not find them when night came, their packs and all their supplies had been left behind in the mountain.
“I love you.” Jon’s voice was faint, but when she looked back down at his face, his eyes were bright and lucid. He blinked owlishly through another wave of pain and added, “I hope you don’t mind.”
Her heart pounded loudly in her ears, a hot rush of emotion swooping through her stomach and through her blood. She loved him, too, didn’t she? It had been so easy, so natural, that she could not even say when it had happened.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Sansa sucked in a lungful of frigid air. “I love you,” she heard herself assure him in a breathy croak, as though the sound was very far away. “But I hope you aren’t planning to tell me you love me and leave me here alone.”
Blood from the jagged cut on his forehead trickled down the side of his face, but Jon smiled weakly, tracing the marks into her palm with the faint hum of power behind them. When he’d finished, his hand going limp against hers, Sansa closed her eyes and reached for the Charter again. She waited for the familiar sea of warmth and magic to wash over her, but it was like reaching out and grasping only air. The hot iron tang of Free Magic was still there, and it tasted like sick in the back of her throat. Sansa swore under her breath and tried again to summon the marks with the spark of magic Jon had given her, gasping with relief when she found the first of them.
They were slow to come to her, and it cost her something more than usual to dig so deep into the reserves of her magic. Sansa was breathless when she opened her eyes again, but the edges of the wound had begun to darken and seal. “Look,” she said, drawing away her hands and willing herself not to cry from relief. “It’s working. You’ll be fine, and we’ll go home to Belisaere together.”
Jon only winced in response, sucking in a sharp breath when Sansa shifted his head onto her knees and curled over his head. His hand reached for hers again, clammy fingers holding hers in a surprisingly strong grip. “You should leave. Look for help.”
“After a love confession like that?” Sansa’s voice wavered, but her fingertips brushed his hair from his damp forehead, tender and affectionate. Her right side was bruised and her ankle throbbed. She had almost certainly twisted it in their escape, and the force of the avalanche had probably broken a couple of her ribs. She sighed, “I won’t go anywhere.”
“Stubborn.” But Jon was laughing deliriously, holding onto her and wheezing through the end of his laugh. “By the Charter, Sansa, we can’t both die here like this.”
“No one is going to die today,” she insisted as firmly as if it were a command, as though she were only his queen and he only her guard.
But as the day passed into night and Jon drifted in and out of sleep, Sansa was forced to acknowledge that the chances of their surviving were fading as quickly as the day. There was nothing on the mountain that bothered them by day, but by night she had barely gathered enough energy to cast a diamond around them and sustain a small Charter fire.
Eventually, she drifted in and out of sleep, stirring every so often to check that Jon was still breathing, though his heart had slowed. She brushed his hair from his face and stared up at the waxing moon. A day on the mountain, weak and injured. If the Dead did not find a way out to them, then an animal might. An animal, at least, they could trap and cook.
Hallucinations were the first sign that they might succumb to the elements, and so, when Sansa saw the first flare of Charter magic farther down the mountain, she was sure that Death had finally come for her.
The second, fired high over her head and arcing down toward the snow with a brilliant afterimage across her tired eyes, was no hallucination.
“Someone’s come, Jon,” she whispered, closed her eyes and prayed to the Charter for strength before firing a scarlet flare into the air above them, where it hung as a marker.
A green flare came as answer almost instantly, and Sansa clung to Jon’s shoulders as it bobbed up the mountain toward them. It was over an hour, almost two before she finally saw figures stark against the snow, climbing slowly over the wreckage left by the avalanche. There were three of them, and they wore heavy parkas and carried sticks for climbing, but as they came closer, Sansa saw that they were also armed with a sword each.
“Here,” she shouted, as loud as she could, though the sound of it was weak and thin, even to her. Jon stirred again in her lap, but he did not try to sit up until the trio was near enough that Sansa could see the silver stars embroidered on the outside of their coats.
The Clayr, she realized, before they removed their goggles and hoods. One of them came forward. Sansa was struck silent by her arresting beauty for a long instant, and the accompanying relief of seeing another person.
“The Queen and the Abhorsen, I presume?”
“I think I may be dreaming,” she admitted and tried to smile while the woman crouched next to her and extended her fingers to test her Charter mark.
“It is no dream,” said the woman, testing Jon’s mark before pulling back her hand and examining him closer for a second time.
“Your Majesty,” greeted one of the other women with a kind smile that lit her green eyes. She sounded a little awed, and hung behind the first woman.
“Rhaelle was the first to See you, Your Majesty,” said the woman, as if this would explain everything to her. She did not look up from Jon, pulling off her glove and casting a quick spell that hovered over him. The pain that had pinched his face slackened, and she nodded to Rhaelle and the third woman, who knelt next to him with a heavy skin of water.
When she was satisfied at this, the woman turned to Sansa and drew a complicated Charter mark between them. Not quite the fealty mark that the members of her household drew, but something respectful nevertheless. Sansa echoed the movement, but the woman’s fingers closed around hers with a kind smile.
“I’m Dany,” she explained with a curiously warm expression. “I have been looking forward to meeting you for a very long time.”
When Sansa described the caverns where Robb had been found, she thought carefully before answering. “The ones you were in may have been used for, oh, any number of things. It may be some long-dead Clayr Saw the cavern for a purpose and it was forgotten when that purpose was served. I’m sure the Clayr wouldn’t know now.”
She was more willing to answer questions than either Shaena or Rhaelle, who seemed perfectly willing to leave Dany to answer Sansa’s questions while they helped Jon through the well-lit tunnel. This one, unlike the abandoned ones from before, was lined with ice that glowed with Charter magic as they passed through it. When Sansa had exhausted all her questions about the caverns, the mountains, and even the Dead they had escaped, Dany slipped a strong arm around her waist and supported her, though Sansa towered over her.
“You’ve come a very long way,” said Dany sympathetically.
Sansa peered down at her white-blonde hair and shining violet eyes and asked, “Are you a Clayr?” Dany did not seem very much like the dreamy women that she had heard described before. And, though she resembled the other two, with their gold hair and green eyes, her skin was only lightly tanned rather than their rosy mahogany, and she lacked something of their distant, removed air.
“Me?” Dany blinked at her, apparently taken by surprise, and gave a sharp peal of laughter. “No, not in the traditional sense, anyway. I don’t have the Sight, but I have lived among the Clayr for several years now. My grandmother was the last true Clayr in the family.”
Something Mogget had said some time before swam back to Sansa, and she shifted her weight to straighten again. A starburst of pain from her injured side left her breathless and she sagged back into Dany’s arms.
There is another, a sister, he had said.
“You were the one Mogget went to see before he found us.”
“Yes.” Dany beamed at her, as though she were pleased Sansa had realized this. “My brother was the Abhorsen, and our father before him.”
Sansa looked to Jon. How might he feel knowing that some of his father’s family lived? But she cleared her throat. “You weren’t the next Abhorsen.”
“Does the walker choose the path, or the path choose the walker?” Dany quoted immediately, and there was power in the words. Another path, Mogget had said, and Sansa felt a pang for the cat. “There is something else for me to do. No, I was not the Abhorsen in this, or any of the futures the Clayr Saw. ”
“My father wrote of the Clayr’s visions,” Sansa began slowly, trying to recall her father’s words. “But he didn’t say what it was they Saw.”
“For years, the Clayr saw several futures,” Dany answered, her slim fingers surprisingly strong on Sansa’s waist. “The death of the bloodlines carrying the Charter and a wasteland of the Dead, the Wallmaker’s gifts cracked and shattered on a field of snow. For years, they advised the king that you might be safer in Ancelstierre -- or the kingdom itself might be safer. The Clayr have a hard time telling the difference between the two sometimes.”
She held Sansa closer as they edged along a massive canyon in the ice, glimmering a thousand shades of rosy pink and orange as the sun rose magnificently in the sky above them. It was a breathtaking sight to behold, and not one that Sansa had ever thought she would ever see again, but they did not linger there.
“Whatever version of it they saw, it became more and more likely as the years went on. Then that future shattered just a few months ago, when you were Seen ascending the throne. After that, there were a hundred different futures splintering from the moment you crossed the Wall. The Dead invading the Glacier, or wiping out Belisaere, or raiding the royal burial ground in the south and raising those of the Royal bloodline. It was impossible to say which was most likely, and prepare for it.
“It wasn’t until they called a full Fifteen Sixty-Eight -- nearly all the Clayr in the Glacier -- that they finally saw the two of you, buried under ice and stone. And then the Dead were gone.”
“The avalanche,” Jon wheezed from just behind, leaning heavily toward Shaena’s arms. He had apparently been listening to her, but his face tightened with pain as he spoke. The Charter mark that Dany had cast over his head gave a soft pulse and his eyes half-closed with relief. Sansa reached for his hand with one limp hand and tried to give him a weak smile. Jon’s fingers clung to hers for a moment, then fell to the side.
“Maybe it was.” Dany shrugged and pressed her hand to a smooth, flat block of green ice embedded in a flat rock face that looked as though it had been formed by a massive knife shearing through the mountain. Sansa had not seen the Charter marks in it, but they raced across the stone to form a door that she was sure had not been there before. “Whatever it was had not been Seen, and it changed everything. Whatever you did was enough to alter a future foreseen for more than ten years.”
The door gave a heavy groan and gave way when Dany shoved at it with her free shoulder, revealing a hallway with bright fires springing up on either side. It was warm, Sansa thought as they shuffled inside, and a pair of Charter sendings materialized beside them.
Their cool hands rested on Sansa’s shoulders, as though encouraging her to relax into them, which she did. They seemed stronger than she had expected and she looked up from the silver stars on their surcoats to study their form, the surface of the sendings swirling with Charter marks like a pool of the Charter, rather than the ocean depths of the full Charter.
You are safe here, Sansa thought they might have said to her if they could speak, guiding her into a wide room with soft furniture and a massive stone fireplace. You have traveled far and you have done so much, and now you can rest here.
“About time the two of you made it here,” yawned Mogget from where he was curled up in a tight ball in front of the fire. He gave an exaggerated stretch of his forepaws and ignored Sansa’s soft cry at seeing him. “Daenerys left me with those tiresome ice-gazers for hours.”
* Postlude *
It seemed different to her now, watching over as queen in more than name and right and feeling the underpinnings of magic upon which their whole existence was suspended. It had all seemed abstract to her before: the magic in her blood, the importance of sealing a covenant between the Charter and her kingdom, and even the Charter itself. But now it was different, her duty bound up in her blood and magic. It was not, she thought, very different than it must have been for Robb, and for their father.
A familiar knock cut past her thoughts, the now-instinctive wish to reach out and strum the magic holding together the kingdom, and Jon stepped through the door after hesitating only a moment.
He, too, seemed different to her now. Gone was the red-gold plaid uniform of the Royal Guard, his kilt and long tunic. Jon now wore the deep, intense blue surcoat of the Abhorsen, crested with silver embroidery, over a lightweight scale shirt and warm leggings. There was the green-pommeled sword, sheathed and buckled at his waist, and the bandolier of bells, polished with oil and gleaming in the afternoon light that cut across the study.
“Abhorsen,” Sansa greeted with cool formality, and found she was unable to stop the ghost of a smile from crossing her mouth.
“Your Grace,” said Jon and lifted his hand to draw his mark, but halted when Sansa lifted her hand to stop him instantly.
“You’ve come to resign your service to the crown,” she pointed out with only a small gleam of regret. It would have been impossible for her to have returned to Belisaere with him only to resume the roles they had once thought to occupy there. And so she did not mind that Jon would leave her service, only that he would leave her.
He lowered his hand and walked to the hand she extended to him. “Though I serve the Charter, you are still the queen.”
She folded her hands in front of her primly and returning her gaze to the streets below, the warm smile lingering over her mouth. Jon stood next to her, shifting weight from one foot to another, as though his new garb fit him as unfamiliarly as the duty he now bore.
Finally, she sighed and slipped her arm through his. “It’s still out there. The Night’s King. It could raise another army of the Dead and come again.”
“It seems likely. Mogget knows something of it he hasn’t said.” Jon crossed an arm over the bandolier of bells on his chest and he traced the lines of the streets before them with a watchful stare. “He’s said we’ll talk more when we get to this house he keeps talking about.”
“Is it very far?” Sansa looked up at his severe face with a wistful, longing smile like a ghost across her face. “The house, I mean.”
“It’s far to the south,” answered Jon and his face broke with a small smile to match hers when he looked down again. “But I’m sure I’ll be in Belisaere again before you’ll have a chance to miss me.”
“Not possible,” Sansa laughed and caught the sleeve of the blue surcoat Jon wore between her fingers. She was quiet as she examined it, drawing her thumb over the intricate silver key pattern and listening to the answering swish of the fabric. It felt light, but very strong.
“It suits you,” she told him, looking up from the garment to his face with more warmth than she’d thought she would ever feel for him. Or anyone, perhaps.
“I don’t know about that.” He looked away again, but she saw a soft smile curling on his mouth under his beard. His hand brushed over the bells on his chest once more and the warmth drained a little from his face until Sansa returned her hand to the hook of his arm and rested her cheek against his shoulder. After a moment, Jon rested an arm around her shoulders and pressed a kiss into her warm hair, pausing to inhale the scent of her soap.
Sansa asked lowly, “Are you frightened?”
“Aren’t you?” A quiet laugh reverberated through Jon’s chest and into her own, but he drew her hand into his own. “I’d be a fool if I weren’t.”
It wasn’t the sweeping romances of Ancelstierre that Sansa had once longed for. These were not even the circumstances that she would have chosen to have found someone like Jon. Even this brief respite was fleeting, a temporary flash of comfort before their responsibilities drew them away from one another.
Jon would leave to deal with the Dead around the kingdom and to learn all the things about becoming the Abhorsen he had never been taught. Sansa would need to stay in Belisaere for a time, to tend to the many broken things across the realm. Then she would leave once again, back to Dany’s companionship in the Clayr’s Glacier to learn more of what they knew about the Night’s King that stood against them.
There were the Dead, and the Free Magic creatures beyond the Night’s King itself, and more dangers than Sansa could have ever imagined in her life before. And against them there was only the two of them to prevent the worst from happening again.
It was daunting. It was frightening. But they had done so much together already, Sansa thought, leaning up onto her toes to bump the smallest kiss against the beard-rough line of Jon’s cheek, tracing her mouth down toward the soft edges of his waiting mouth.
“Not to worry,” she sighed fondly. “We won’t be doing it alone.”