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The Chamber Below the Dreadfort

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Sansa Stark remembers that day how she trotted on her palfrey in a tremulous if cheerful state of excitement. Her heart pounded in time to the horse’s hoof-falls as it bore her to the serrated battlements of the Dreadfort, and into the unexpected and unguessable life as the lady of Ramsay Bolton.

Though close in her thoughts, she and her mother parted ways at Winterfell, where Lady Catelyn rebuilds the throne for the King in the North. Her mother directs a new household recruited from Torrhen’s Square while her son's soldiers train new guards. Sansa rode on with her new husband and his lean entourage, his men hard-bitten but not unfriendly. She recalls the pang of loss that stung her excitement; it seemed scant days after reuniting with her mother and brother that she stood in a godswood with a new cloak around her shoulders, Robb’s bid to placate the North.

Sansa never thought a Lannister would save her from another Lannister, or that she would leave King’s Landing without her brother battering down its gates. She never thought she could be married off to the former Bastard of Bolton. But these are strange times.

The Kingslayer has returned to King’s Landing. Sansa only recognizes his voice, the day she stands at the edges of the throne room. The slaughterous lion she last saw is a half-starved beggar, his shoulders jutting out from rags and only a beard keeping his face from looking cadaverous. Those are not as alarming as his missing sword hand. His companion is the tallest woman Sansa has ever seen, taller than the Kingslayer, and she wears full armor like a Mormont daughter. Sansa scours for a sigil, hardly paying attention to her soon-to-be goodbrother, even though her marriage in two days makes her stomach writhe in dread.

Her nerves are flayed raw when the Kingslayer—Ser Jaime, she reminds herself—visits her chambers that evening with the homely warrior woman in tow. He has bathed but his shirt collar hangs from his collarbones like a half-shed skin. Unbidden, she remembers Jory. Oh, Ser Jory—she remembers Joffrey's slash of a grin as he described his uncle gouging out the young knight's eye. 

The woman falls to one knee and Sansa flinches back at the clatter of armor. This close, she notices her large blue eyes.

“Lady Sansa, I am here on behalf of your mother.” Her elocution is highborn, puzzling Sansa more. “We have sworn an oath to secure the return of you and your sister.”

Does the infamous lion not serve his sister?  Hurt and treachery have made her wary. The Kingslayer’s mouth twitches as if he’s trying to hold his tongue. She stares at her hands, fingers twining uselessly. The woman is...unusual, she decides. But she has a solemn dignity in her voice that makes Sansa risk an honest answer.

“Arya vanished when the king arrested my father. I fear she is dead. And my lord, I am to marry your brother the day after tomorrow.”

He cannot hold it in—the knight starts laughing, his unsevered hand massaging his temples. To Sansa he sounds more aggrieved than amused.

“My lady Brienne, will disrupting my father’s politics at last raise me above your contempt?” His voice is quieter than she remembers, scraped raw by too many days in pain.

Lady Brienne—of Tarth, Sansa thinks, the name niggling in her memory—looks up at him in surprise and rises. “You would do this?”

His mouth is sour. He won’t meet her eyes, but he looks down at Sansa. She sees the lion there, appraising and weighing. Weighing his own cost? Lady Brienne said he was fulfilling an oath, but her father always said Jaime Lannister had less honor than humility.

“Only if you leave tonight,” he says at last. “I know most of the guards now. Perhaps not the ones tomorrow.”

“But Lord Tyrion…” It is not out of any desire to stay, but an illogical thought he might suddenly remember his brother’s engagement.   

“It would not be the first time I’ve dashed his chance at romance.” Jaime tries to sound indolent, but she hears his bitterness. His eyes narrow on hers, not angry, as if he senses every false note in her. “Though I suspect not yours. Not the first time I have spoiled my father’s politics either.”

Sansa does not understand these conflictions, and with her feelings close to choking her, she does not dwell. She merely listens, as the Kingslayer and the daughter of Tarth argue out a plan. In the end, they set out that night. Ser Jaime accompanies them to the city gates, menacing them past several over-inquisitive guards. Sansa knows not what he risks, but she bids him good luck. Brienne looks morose, until she turns in her saddle to offer Sansa a small smile. They have gold and supplies, but also a long road before they reach her brother’s camp. 

Sansa knows escaping the Lannisters does not free her from her duty of marriage, but neither did she expect talk to turn so soon. It began the day Roose Bolton arrived on a black courser, his fur cloak draped over its flanks like heavy wings. He looked at her before addressing his king, his gaze canny and cool as a lynx. She remembers Lord Bolton from a lifetime ago, when she offered condolences for his son, Domeric. He had accepted them with cold grace and void eyes. 

She shares a tent with her mother, close to Robb and his new wife’s quarters. King’s Landing gave Sansa a shameless habit for eavesdropping—it was the only way she could learn something not couched and tailored for her ears. She lies on her camp bed, playing with wall shadows as she listens.

“I propose my son, Ramsay.” Though their voices are muffled by the tent walls, she hears Roose’s dagger-precise inflections.

“Your bastard?” Catelyn’s voice is shocked and sharp. “You cannot think—“

“He is a Bolton now, heir to all that I own. Legitimized when he returned from Winterfell.”

“After he let Theon Greyjoy escape?”

Sansa knows of her foster-brother’s treachery, and his murder of her sweet brothers. 

Roose is quiet a cold moment. “When he secured Winterfell after your kraken-ward’s carnage. He commands the Dreadfort admirably in my absence. Your Grace, would you fault your natural brother for his birth? Ramsay is a skilled commander and huntsman, cleverer and franker than most.”

“Is he not the widower of Lady Hornwood?” Catelyn ignores that he purposely addresses Robb.

Sansa smiles; Lady Stark is answerable to no man but her king.

She thinks Lord Bolton wants to snap at her mother, but his voice merely holds more steel. “He was her gracious husband. She disappeared well after he returned to the Dreadfort, as she wished to stay in her own lands. A tragedy, but one my son could not have prevented.” He sighs—it sounds intended to Sansa, whose ears have grown sensitive to court-speak. “Your Grace, you must see the contention around you, especially after the Karstarks. A Northern match will reassure your people. Your sons will rule Winterfell, your nephews will rule the Dreadfort. This is not a poor proposition.”

A legitimized bastard? No, Robb would never agree to that.  She tucks her knees to her chest, remembering with queasiness her last betrothed. And also a bastard. 

Robb answers after a long pause and Sansa squirms. “I will consider it, but I give you no more than that.”

She has fallen into a restless sleep by the time her mother comes to bed, but her brother discusses it the next morning as they break their fast. Sansa remains a maid, if only by a day and because of a strange Lannister. Her marriage will help her family. Speaking to her as a king, Robb keeps his voice impassive.

“I will not force you into this. But consider meeting him. Ramsay can catch up to our host. Whatever your answer, I will respect it.”

Her mother’s eyes are wary, her pride offended. But perhaps she merely thinks of Jon. Sansa nods without hesitation, even though her stomach is uneasy and her bacon feels like a stone. She will never forget the day she railed against her father when he planned to break her engagement to Joffrey. If she had just listened to anyone not wearing red and gold.

“If it helps the North, I shall.”

As Sansa learns, they were en route to her uncle’s wedding at the Twins, at least until Lord Bolton brought word from the Freys. They have postponed the nuptials due to Lord Walder’s sudden illness. Robb can do little but fortify his camp by Oldstones and make for Riverrun. Bolton’s bastard—Ramsay, she tells herself—will arrive any day now.

That day comes buried in clouds and pattered by rain.

Sansa misses Shae. The woman could be coarse and cagey, but her advice was sound. Unmaidenly so. What if she is hurt for my escape? Surely the Kingslayer will take the fault.

A camp is hardly a place for meeting a suitor, but her brother wants it decided. From prodding her mother, who remains in wary opposition of the match, Sansa knows that if she accepts they will marry here, and then she will go with her husband to the Dreadfort while Lady Catelyn takes men to Winterfell to rebuild. They meet today; her family and the Boltons wait in Robb’s pavilion. Roose had informed her mother that Ramsay raced ahead of his men to get there early, but Catelyn only asked what virtue there was in riding a frothing horse.

As Sansa finishes arranging her hair in a Northern style, she tells herself bastard does not mean boorish. Jon has never been unkind to her. 

But Joffrey is also a bastard. She even found him beautiful once. The thought makes her chest go cold, chillier than the damp morning as she walks the short distance to Robb’s tent. Her father always spoke of Lord Bolton as a sensible man. But also cold. Calculating. A stone throw from treacherous, says her mother. Sansa enters the royal pavilion, its flaps pulled wide. What if he—

“Good morning, my lady." 

Sansa breaks off her unraveling thoughts at the unfamiliar voice. Her brother stands at a large table, Catelyn and Roose beside him. Between her and her family is Ramsay Sn—Bolton. She looks at her suitor as she would a King’s Landing courtier, her face passive, but her mind racing to put together an impression. Without thinking she returns his greeting.

She feared Lord Bolton's son would be a brute, but he is just a young man, with a strong jaw and a compact build. Not so much taller than she, and dark-haired like his father. He wears a black cloak with fox fur at the shoulders. Sansa does not think he grew up in the Dreadfort. A life of little denial pins itself to a face as a permanent quality. Some claim this stamp is noble heritage, but her half-brother Jon has the same cast. This polish merely comes from less hardship.

Sansa thinks him striking more than beautiful. Except his eyes. They would be large and expressive even on a girl. And the color—not a stormy blue like her Tully kin, but icy and pale, ringed in darker cobalt. He lacks the affixed smile of most courtiers addressing a lady, but he studies her with quiet mirth.

Somewhere, amidst her thoughts, she hears his father’s introduction. Her mother watches like an eagle; her brother watches with trepidation. Then she realizes they are looking at her, as if—

As if wondering how much King's Landing has damaged you. Her near-marriage to the Imp made her mother blanch…Sansa does not want to tell her that was hardly the worst of it. Lady Brienne has heard her stories though. The lady-knight is kind without being soft, and told Sansa she was braver than she ever expected.

Except Sansa made a fool of herself her first night in camp, when she stumbled into a knight. When she is indoors, the clatter-clank of armor sets her nerves on edge. At the Red Keep the sound meant blood and bruises. Robb’s bannerman clapped a mailed hand on her shoulder to help her balance. Her yelp set the pavilion to silence and her mother to horror. Gods, a little fool. She hates their pitying, overly gentle looks, like she's lost all her northern heart. 

And so Sansa arms herself with her courtesy, smiles graciously, and welcomes Lord Bolton’s heir.

“You truly wish this match?” Her mother looks strained.

“I wish to help our family.”

Catelyn tries to smile, fails, and sighs. Sansa takes her hand, feeling a fool for thinking she was the only one steeped in loneliness. When she turned twelve her mother began taking her into her confidence, and it remains the sincerest moment Sansa ever felt like a lady. Catelyn does not hide her thoughts now. 

“My defiant, foolish son almost lost this war for love. I am loath to make you pay for his mistake.”

"Robb did not make me."

Her mother sighs again. At last she takes out an early gift to her daughter—a deep brown, sable-lined cloak, better suited for the North than the torn thing she arrived in. It will match her new gloves. Catelyn talks about sundry happenings, pausing when she realizes Sansa is lost in her own thoughts, her hands buried in the soft sable.

Sansa cannot help thinking of yesterday. Her mother is not the first to offer a gift.

They finally have a moment alone. The North is not so strict as the south regarding chaperones; a man is expected to have honor, not be forced into it. Her mother made an exception for Ramsay, finding odd things to fill her time while Sansa attempted to speak with him. She kept Lady Brienne close too.

Because of her nearby suitor, Sansa cannot tell her mother why she wants to be alone—Joffrey was his best-mannered when their parents were near. She will not fall for those mummeries again.

Then at last the rain stopped. She has watched his eyes slide sideways, narrowing, knowing full well why Lady Catelyn remains. Sansa admits he has reason to feel offended. It makes her think of her half-brother. In an effort to please her mother, she knows she was cold to Jon. Someday, Sansa will visit the Wall and pay him the kindness he deserved.

She is the one who suggests they take a walk near the sepulcher of King Tristifer, and Ramsay shoots her a surly, eager look like a tiger in a cage. They leave with her on his arm. Her mother scowls, but Sansa smiles back at her, hoping she understands. She will not choose lightly.

The air is cool and damp; Sansa breathes deep, knowing the tender ladies of King's Landing would think it miserable. She is glad to be rid of the sticky, salty heat of the capital. They reach the weathered sepulcher of Oldstones, a ways from the noisy camp. Sansa almost gapes when Ramsay vaults onto the chest-high tomb, careless of the king beneath. He holds out an expectant hand. Picturing her old septa's aghast face, she accepts after a moment, and he lifts her up. While she straightens her dress, he takes out something wrapped in black velvet.

“A gift, Lady Sansa. Winter is coming.” Her House words are spoken with jest, but she has missed hearing them.

Smiling, pleased if perplexed, she unwraps it. Gloves? A pair of leather gloves, lined with rabbit fur. The craftsmanship is simple but the seal-brown leather feels softer than kidskin.

“They are beautiful, my lord.” She will ask her mother what animal it comes from.

Ramsay smiles, his incisors sharp. Deftly, he takes the gloves and slides them onto her hands. They are warm and soft, fitting her like a second skin. Too soft for a hunter or soldier, but not a lady.

Squeezing her fingertips, he finds the leather snug. “Good, they fit. You have long fingers.”

Sansa finds his eyes fascinating—grave and mirthful, appraising and chaffing. “All the better to play the harp with,” she teases, starting to blush.

Perhaps bastard children do not grow up with the same tales of wolves and woods. Instead of answering he leans close and kisses her, his mouth warm. Sansa is too surprised to be offended. A stronger kiss than Joffrey's. Pulling away, careless of an apology, he raps on King Tristifer’s ancient face.

“Isn’t this the Mud King?”

When she tells of King Tristifer Mudd, he looks amused. He is quiet—not reserved, she thinks, but with no desire to carry on like a lordling at the Red Keep. Lord Bolton is clever and calculating though. Perhaps he told his son not to act like the allies of her jailors. Or perhaps Ramsay is just different, raised in a different world. She finds frankness more desirable since leaving the North. 

Above the hoofbeats and steady breathing of the horses, her husband rides in silence, eyes far-off but not unaware. Sansa remembers his stolen kiss, with tongue and teeth, sharp and tender. It hinted to her the future she so dreaded in her last engagement. Now, she finds her nervous excitement returning. She remains a maiden—her mother and brother would not consider a bedding in a warcamp. It came not at their brief stop in Winterfell, for her heart was sick with memories and she slept near her mother. Her future lay at the Dreadfort, the Bolton’s ancient hold. The place where she will bear their children.

Though she stays carnally innocent, her mind slinked from girlhood the night of her wedding. Her brother gave her a boisterous wedding feast, drenched in wine and music. If the Lannisters had planned an attack, they would have thought Robb’s host was twice its size. 

Sansa and her new husband shared a cup of wine, as custom. She knows she drank more than he did, though he refilled it every time she neared the dregs. Ah, it made for a warm evening. Whatever the odd circumstances and her unusual match, she was happy. Happy to see Robb dance with his lithe Volantene queen, and her mother smiling in spite of her worries.

Her necklace hung heavy on her throat. A family heirloom, her new goodfather explained after Ramsay clasped it around her neck. The silver loop was short, almost a choker, and covered with a ring of dark rubies. One of her brother’s bannermen, deep in his cups, slurred that she was the most beautiful bride to have her throat cut on her wedding night. Lord Bolton’s frigid stare made him quickly return to his wine.

Later in the feast, she remembers Ramsay’s solid form more than his voice. He spoke relatively little, though a small smile never left. She leaned against him more than she meant, laughing at some jest she cannot remember. At some point he tucked his arm low around her waist and kept her close, his fingers sometimes winding in the chestnut hair that fell free down her back. Sansa remembers wanting to giggle—in her wine-soaked state, she knew it was because they sat across from her mother. Now, she wearies of their mutual dislike.

From time to time he would look at her, silent only in voice. His eyes were alive, narrowed in desire, though she does not know if it was lust for his bride or just her flesh and title. At the time she did not care and smiled back, emboldened by drink and the carmine jewels encircling her throat. She was no one’s meat, but the heir of Winterfell, though likely not for long.

She watches Lord Ramsay out of the corner of her eye. He smells of leather and forest. Not unpleasant, but she notices it after her long stay in King’s Landing. It is how she knows when he tries to surprise her once they have stopped for the evening. He moves as softly as snowfall, but she can always smell the leather. She has also developed a good sense for eyes at her back. It seems to amuse him though, so she pretends to be pleasantly startled.

First they arrived in Winterfell, Robb having already sent a handful of men to make it habitable. Lady Catelyn will oversee the rebuilding. The Young Wolf wants her away from the war, as much as he feels comforted by her presence. Sansa held in her tears when they rode through the gates. Though she knows Theon burned anything that could hold a flame, the charred sight still sends a shudder through her, and her reins bite into her soft gloves.

Ramsay steers his horse closer, a hulking red stallion that pins his ears at everything. A monstrous bit keeps him civil near Sansa’s roan palfrey. As he takes in the burned stead with his impassively expressive gaze, she realizes he has never seen the seat of the North without char and ash.

“I wish you could see Winterfell as it was, not this…” The word comes strained off her lips. “Burned shell.”

He offers a smile. “We will be back. I’m sure your mother will make it respectable soon.”

Sansa thinks he sounds like a commoner but speaks with schooling, mimicking his father or otherwise. Sometimes it drops and his words knock together, like someone she would hear in a marketplace or Robb's army. She still prefers his bluntness to deceptive niceties. And she supposes she is still girlish enough to appreciate a mystery. For every word Ramsay speaks, his eyes say a dozen more. Yet his face is hard to read, a pale mask with two odd eyes that stare out. He is older than her, but she cannot tell by how much. Or if he tolerates or truly likes her. And sometimes, with his sharp and hungry looks, he unsettles her.

At last, the Dreadfort comes into view. The stallion licks his clanking bit, reins loose at his neck. Her husband smiles to himself and she sees pride in his distant eyes.

“When did you first come here?”

He looks over, at once sharp as a saber, but soon shrugs and softens. “As a child, when my father learned of me. I came here for good three years ago.” 

Close to when Domeric died. As her brother thought, Lord Bolton took in his bastard when he had no other heir. What will happen when his Frey wife gives him sons? Bolton swore to Robb that Ramsay will remain his heir, but if he dies, will his highborn bannermen feel the same? She should have thought of this before she agreed, before she…ohthat is why he wanted you. A king’s sister to strengthen his claim. 

Terseness fading, Ramsay tells her small pieces about his home. History she refrains from correcting, its prized kennels, the command it holds over the eastern North. He even mentions his mother, who he says entranced Lord Bolton with her beauty. Sansa cannot imagine his father entranced by anything, but she keeps her thoughts to herself.

The Dreadfort earns its name. The battlements are sharp and serrated; the stone is dark. She shivers when they pass under the gate, cold in its shadow. It is only late morning, the grass still wet with dew. He lifts her from the saddle once they reach the courtyard and introduces her to the old steward standing nearby. Hounds bark in a kennel she cannot see, cutting off when the door grinds closed behind her. She blinks through the dim. The Dreadfort has windows and sconces, but weeks on the road have accustomed her to sunlight.

Sansa does not know what to expect or what is expected of her. When he leads her up flights of stone stairs, to one of the highest floors, and guides her into a bedchamber, she realizes he plans to have her. The grand bed is made of ebony, touched with dark red lacquer. A shiver and twisting belly comes unbidden. Until the morning after Blackwater, she dreaded her wedding night as something only survivable because she was expected to bear children. And yet she remembers her wedding feast, warm with wine, thinking how silly her brother was for delaying her consummation.

Her eyes are already closed when her husband kisses her, tasting her unease. But it is a brief kiss before he pushes away, hands on her shoulders.

“I have the Dreadfort to see to. Wander wherever, except the kennels.” He smirks, rakish. “My girls will be jealous.”


He chuckles and his grip tightens, making her squirm on the edge of discomfort. “Soon. Did I wed a harlot?”

She flushes. Some doubt she returned from King’s Landing a maid. Rumors whispered instead of voiced, for fear of Robb’s fury or her great uncle’s fists. He leaves her standing there, wishing he stayed, confused as to what she should even do.

Sansa feels adrift in this new place, as different from Winterfell as her birthplace is from King’s Landing. Winterfell never made her feel the weight of all the stone above her head. Servants soon arrive with things to unpack. Sansa has no idea if this is her chamber or his.

How does one wile away the time before a bedding? He bade her to explore and thus with nothing else to do, she leaves the room and to acquaint herself with the overbearing place.

The Dreadfort has many stairs and dozens of halls. She supposes the Boltons have memorized the cracks in the walls, the faded tapestries. Sansa has not, and soon has no idea where she is. The closest room is behind double doors of mahogany. Peeking inside, she enters in curiosity.

A meeting chamber? A trophy room? In the center is a wooden table twice her length, flanked by chairs too comfortable for dining. Both are carved from bloodwood. The room simmers with the musky scent of wood and leather. The pride of the chamber is steel. Racks and display cases span the walls. The glass is exquisite, almost without flaw. Nothing better would do for the blades that fill the room.

There are swords, both tools of war and decorated ornaments, broadswords and even an arakh. But mostly there are knives. A dirk as long as her forearm, its hilt pocked with jade; a small ebony rack with the daintiest blades she has ever seen, delicate and sharp as a cat’s fang.

Old Nan’s stories cozen back to her, of ancient Boltons and their ghastly predilection for skinning. Our knives are sharp, their words say. A naked man has few secrets, a flayed man none, so some whisper as their true saying. And yet, she is transfixed with how pretty they are. Not the grisly things one might imagine, but immaculate and veneered. A lucent world of metal and stones.

Sansa thinks she can hear the whispers of the Weeping Water, its secrets trapped beneath the icy currents. At the far end of the chamber is a glass display case mounted on the wall, holding two swords and a long, slender dagger. Caught in the light, the case shows her reflection more than the blades.

Below the case, and more intriguing, sits a pedestal with three knives, none longer than her hand. The prettiest has blade so slender it looks almost like jewelry. A red-filled design is etched into the steel. The small hilt has an oxblood strip of leather.

Her nape prickles a warning and her head snaps up.

“Arming yourself, my lady?” Her breath hisses past her teeth. He stands behind her with a cool smile and glittering eyes, someplace between mocking and amused. “Of course the only time I startle you is when you have a mirror.”

She blushes and turns to him. So he realized she can usually sense him coming. “Exploring, my lord. The door was not locked.”

He cocks an eyebrow. “If it was locked you would not be in here.” Ramsay steps beside her, eyes only for the blades. “My family’s greatest treasure should not be locked away.”

“Are they ceremonial?” As if she would touch one to find out.

“Blades are for killing," he scoffs, "not play-acting.” 

“These are beautiful.”

Ramsay smiles, genuine she thinks, not just at his own amusement. He plucks the red-etched knife from the stand.

“You throw this one. You can core an eye if your aim is good enough.” He balances it on his fingers, flipping it into his palm. “Few smiths forge anything this well-weighted. Kill someone with it, and their widow should thank you for the gift.”

He takes the second blade, longer than its companion, with a wider blade and heavier hilt. A red, black-flecked stone shines in the crosspiece. “This is one for hunting.”

“Throwing it?”

His laughter barks overloud through the chamber. “Skinning.” His eyes look to hers, glimmering, not only with mirth but ardor. “It’s an art. How can you have a fox-trimmed cloak without someone cutting its skin off?”

Sansa looks at the pristine blade. He holds it almost lovingly, a tender-hearted huntsman. “You enjoy hunting, my lord.”

“It’s better than hitting knights with a stick,” he says, daring her to say different.

Sansa offers him a pretty smile. “I used to accompany my brothers on hunts. Rabbits and deer and such.” Those were happier times.

“When a dead rabbit means you eat that night, it loses excitement. I hunt better game.” He replaces the skinning knife, grin quirking.

During the ride from the Riverlands he took down a hart from almost three-hundred yards. Bears, elk, wolves—she can see him with his bow, bringing them down with the eagle-eyed sharpness she sees glitter on occasion. Ramsay looks at most people like they are game.

“I could accompany you, my lord, if it pleases you.” She has little desire after Lady’s death, but that would make for a dull reply.

He snorts and touches her cheek. “You can, someday. Hunting is always better with a pretty lady.”

It is those moments that make her step away—sometimes, the hunter in his gaze is too prowling and canny. A cat may find a broken-winged bird amusing, but its own laughter does not make it so. His eyes lurk now, and his hand slips to her throat, thumb tracing her jaw. She shivers, not only from unease.

“I doubt you enjoy hunting, Sansa, pretty as you would be in the wood.” He sounds amused, not accusing. “It’s artistry. Are your gloves not fine?”

Sansa has heard that a snake can transfix you with its eyes. She feels warm, like she just drank a cup of wine. It makes her think of something Margaery said, soon before she fled with Lady Brienne. The Tyrell Rose was in good spirits, reclining on a divan, wine and sun making her as close to silly as she ever could be. She laughed, teasing but also not, and told Sansa something she heard from a bard in Highgarden. Sansa always remembered; she would not blurt it to a man, particularly hers, but his voracious stare makes her voice tumble free. 

“There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer, my lord.”

Lord Ramsay watches her in dead silence, expression blank as the grave. His eyes that say everything often say nothing. Then in a hot rush his mouth clacks against hers, and when he pulls back his grin is feral, voice thick and eyes alight.

“From you, that's precious.”

He resumes his attack, pushing her against the heavy table, her hands steadying herself against the edge, his own tugging at her stays. Though she fights for breath between kisses and it seems so very wicked, he is not harming her. Something prods her belly—Sansa wonders a moment, before her girlhood with five brothers answers for her. He jerks harder at her stays, smirking when her breasts pull free. No, surely for a consummation…

“Should we go…?” Should we wait for night? Do newlyweds even do this during the day?

No,” he growls.

He lifts her onto the table's edge, sliding between her legs, hands disappearing under her skirts. Sansa catches her reflection in the glass case, another girl looking at her, eyes wide. Then pain spears through her and she yelps—just as those sharp teeth bury themselves in her neck. Not buried, she realizes, but digging, daring her to cry out. Her reflection stares back as he drives into her. She is wrapped around him, as wanton a maid as there ever was, feeling one of his hands braced on the table beside her, the other one clamped on her shoulder. She can barely see him from their closeness, only hear his rutting breath and feel a smile as his teeth scrape her throat. A striking resemblance between the act of love and impalement.

At last he gasps out a curse and something warm and wet rolls down her thighs. Ramsay pushes her to her back and further onto the table so she lies atop it, detangling himself enough to sprawl beside her. The sudden cold air of the Dreadfort stings; she is spent, cored. Her mind races too much to think clearly, but the pain was not as awful as she feared. Not as strong as the surprise.

Propping himself on an elbow, he absently twines her hair in a long cord, until some berated desire to be a lord instead of a bastard moves him to kiss her tenderly, the softest kiss since their wedding. Her husband, whose most beautiful room is dedicated to bloodshed.

“I was rash, my dear.” He rubs her neck with his thumb, her skin wet and sensitive. “But you standing here, looking so rapt, saying pretty things—how does anyone resist you?”

Before she can reply, the doors swing open. Ramsay twists and hurls the red-etched dagger. The intruder squawks and Sansa winces as she hears steel bury in the doorframe. Then she realizes he must have been holding it beside her hip. She never heard him set it down. 

What?” he snaps. “I'll aim for your throat next time.”

Sansa remains on her back, arms still trembling from extertion now covering her chest, caught between horror and embarrassment. She arches her neck to see him upside-down. A middle-aged guard, she thinks, his gaze averted. To be found on a table

“My lord, the brigands were seen a league away. You wished to know.”

The anger melts off her husband’s face, replaced by the thrill of one who feels most alive amid baying hounds and fleeing creatures. “Gather the boys and bitches and wait for me.”

When the guard is gone, Ramsay springs off the table and laces his breeches. He shoots her a sharp-toothed smile.

“Idiots plague my lord father’s lands, and my hounds have been so bored.”

Sansa sits up, disheveled beyond easy repair. “But you just returned—”

“You’re a girl so you don’t understand. They disrespect my father, and so they die.” He smiles like he just found a cache of Valyrian steel. “I’ll call you a bath and see you before I leave. You and the Dreadfort can get better acquainted.” So she is just as easy to use as to put aside? She once imagined her wedding night trickling dreamily through the next day, a tender start to her marriage. He scoops her off the table, eyes half-closed, somewhere between languid and excited. “If you’re lonely already, show me when I return.”

Good to his word, his servants have a steaming tub waiting when she returns to the bedchamber, and a waifish servant to scrub her back and wash her hair. The water stings and her neck aches, but it is not truly unpleasant. Sansa stretches out in the tub, breath wafting steam. Giggling in spite of herself, she doubts her mother will want to hear this story. Lady Catelyn already thinks her husband is a lowborn beast.

Instead, Sansa thinks of witty Margaery, who would savor a rakish tale. They used to talk during Margaery’s frequent baths, Sansa curled up on a divan and she in her tub, a pitcher of cold honeyed tea nearby. The Tyrell Rose explained she grew up with dozens of close cousins, and so she could not imagine a bath without someone to trade gossip. She had a way of turning to regard any who entered her chamber, her face wreathed in steam, eyes beguiling.

Margaery would like her story. Now that her body has relaxed in the hot water, her skin scrubbed clean, she finds herself less bewildered. Did fine ladies fling their passions onto tables? She thinks of his soft kiss. A welcome to a world more debauched than you expected? Sansa remembers his odd smile from their wedding feast. Perhaps it is better to be valued as an object of passion than to never be valued at all.

Sansa knows he has entered when the maid skitters off. She turns to look over a bare shoulder, but he has slipped just out of sight. Before she can look the other way, his arms hook under hers and haul her from the bath. She squeals at the cold, horrified at the water splashing everywhere.

“A lord keeps his promises to his deflowered wife.” He laughs into her damp hair and drapes her in a towel.

Something clinks at his hip and she turns in curiosity. Ramsay wears his hunting clothes of leather, fur, and weapons. The clinking comes from a ring of keys.

“The Deadfort is your home now. You should learn its secrets.”  He unhooks the ring. It holds every key she can think of—thick black ones, tiny copper ones, elegant keys to a chest and crude keys to a cellar. “Play with my knives, lounge in the jewels of my father’s old wife, whatever suits. Except for one thing—“

He smiles, cagey, and separates a key from the rest. It is sharp and thin, almost a blade the size of her smallest finger. Ramsay tilts her chin up, eyes lively though his voice is solemn. “This key’s door is on the first floor, at the end of the west-most hallway. Do not use it.

“What—” He taps her lips with a finger.

“A small room of no import but to me.” He bares his teeth in a smile, his hand reaching to cup a half-covered breast. He squeezes, not enough to hurt, but she still squirms.

Bolder—perhaps the steam has loosened her mind—she reaches for his own chest. “A key to your heart?” she asks.

He looks back just as coy. “There is none. A key to my hell though.”

Sansa smiles. She thinks she is learning his strange humor. “Then I promise.”

He clips her chin gently and holds out the key ring. “It was a gift from my father, for when I want to be alone. A room down a dark stairwell full of cobwebs that would ruin your hair. Old and dark and boring, but a wolf defends its den.” She accepts the ring with a solemnity that makes him chuckle. “So elegant, even dripping wet.”

A blush returns, but a dawning thought too. Perhaps she is strange to him, with her court-trained ways. Do lowborn bastards fling their passions onto tables? He is just as strange to her. Sansa decides to use the time he is away to explore the Dreadfort and understand him better.

The men set off soon after she dresses. Ramsay rides his red stallion. A bow swings from his back, a falchion from his hip. For a man who loves knives, he wields an ugly sword.

First Sansa sends pleasant letters to Robb and her mother. The Dreadfort’s maester has gone with Lord Bolton, but his steward tends the ravens. Beyond that she knows not what to do.

The Dreadfort’s silence has returned, even more hollow than before. Compared to King’s Landing the place is a tomb. It is almost a story—she a lady, bound to an abandoned castle forgotten by the rest of the world. Roose Bolton has a new Frey wife, does he not? She wonders why he has not sent her here. He does not seem like a man who has much passion for his wife’s bed. And you do not seem a lady who almost enjoys being tossed onto a table and speared by her husband.