The sky was clear, pale blue and sharp with the low-slanting sun, when the litter bearing Ned's wife and children arrived at Winterfell. It was a cold morning, but not unbearably so, and he hoped that neither of the children would fall ill. They were so young, so small...
Twins, he thought, amazed. A boy and a girl. Robb and Sansa.
Catelyn was wrapped up in furs and scarves when she stepped down into the courtyard, but even so she looked cold, her cheeks and the tip of her nose pink. She was balancing somehow without her hands, because there was a bundle tucked into each of her elbows. Two children.
"My lord," she said, and there was a flash of uncertainty in her eyes when Ned moved to push away the layers of swaddling so he could see the faces of these children who shared his blood – did she wish that it had been Brandon welcoming her to Winterfell, having fathered her children? "You are well?"
"The better for having you all safely home," he told her honestly, looking down into the two matching faces in something that feels like shock, but warm and soft under his breastbone. Their eyes were closed, but they had the same shape cheekbones under their baby fat, the same noses, the same bright red curls poking down over their foreheads.
"My lord, there is- there is something you must know," Catelyn said, her voice almost faltering. "About Sansa, my lord."
"My lady?" Ned asked, carefully taking the smaller bundle - Sansa, he told himself, his daughter, and he thought he might burst with pride to hold her in his arms even as he forced back a shudder of terror at being responsible for something so small and lovely – and turning to guide Catelyn inside.
"The maesters think - they think she is blind, my lord," Catelyn said helplessly, sounding terrified. Was that why she had been so anxious when he greeted her? Was that why her letters had been so stilted, even when he had tried to make his own as warm as he could?
Ned stopped just inside the doors, looking down into Sansa's face again. He touched the pale lavender of her eyelid, heart aching for this perfect creature and all that would be denied her if the maesters were right.
"She is our daughter," Ned said firmly after a moment, looking up to meet Catelyn's worried gaze. "And her being able to see or not does not change that."
The warmth in his wife's eyes lasted until he guided her towards the nursery, only to walk into Wylla walking Jon up and down the hall to quiet him.
Catelyn did not like Jon Snow, not because he was a dislikeable boy but because of everything he represented, everything she feared Ned resented having to give up because he was forced to wed her. That did not mean that she would ever pretend to like him, just because her husband had seen fit to insult her by raising his bastard under their roof, of course, but neither did it mean that she would be cruel – he was a quiet boy, like a shadow trailing in Robb's steps, and easy to ignore, generally.
She may not have liked him, but she could never hate him because of how he was with Sansa.
Both boys were remarkably gentle with their sister, and utterly accepting of her limits – they understood without needing to be told that there were some games that Sansa would never be able to play, that there were some things with which she needed help, and there had never been so much as a murmur of complaint from either of them.
Jon, though, was far more patient that Robb – he was like Ned in more than looks – and often walked Sansa from her room to the great hall and to their lessons with the maester, holding her hand and ignoring the way the servants children and the younger maids teased him for it. How could she possibly have hated someone who so clearly loved both of her children?
She thought of this often, but never more than when she watched the twins and Jon playing in the yard. One day, when Sansa was following the sound of the boys’ voices and giggling when they stopped to let her catch them, she did not see a stone on the ground in her path and tripped, grazing her palms and cutting her knee through her soft gown – there was little point in worrying about Sansa's clothes being pretty, as far as Sansa herself was concerned, only that they were soft and warm.
Catelyn was already moving towards the stairs when Robb bolted for Maester Luwin, but she saw the way Jon crouched down on his hunkers at Sansa’s side, the way he stroked her hair back from her face with careful, clumsy hands as she began to cry, big, round tears spilling down her cheeks from sightless eyes the same blue as Cat’s own, as Robb’s.
Jon pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, a clean one, by some miracle, and wrapped it around the hand Sansa held out to him just as Cat approached, and then he patted her hair and told her that even if her knee scarred it will make her look fierce and strong – something that made Ned laugh later, when Cat told him about the incident, because even with her only a babe in arms, it was clear that Arya would be the more ferocious of their daughters.
Jon looked up at Cat when she reached them, eyes wide and so like Ned’s, and Cat forced a smile. It was easier to be kind to him, when he was with Sansa.
“Thank you,” she said, bending down and gently helping Sansa to her feet. “I will take care of her now.”
Jon and Robb spent the rest of the day sitting on the end of Sansa's bed – her knee was not badly hurt, but she had taken a fright when she fell and Maester Luwin had suggested some rest to sooth her nerves – and telling her wild stories, singing songs in rough little-boy voices, and begging that Arya be allowed to join them, even though she could barely sit up alone quite yet and was more likely to scream than add anything to their fun.
Sansa was ten when she first heard that someone had asked for her hand.
She had thought, because of maids' whispers overheard when Robb left her to listen for adults coming when he wanted to sneak lemoncakes from the kitchens, that she would never wed – it had been clear from the things the servants said that no man would want a blind wife, even if she looked like Sansa's mother.
Sansa could not see, but she knew that her mother had to be the most beautiful woman in Westeros because she was the best woman in Westeros.
But, not long after Sansa and Robb's tenth nameday, she heard that Lord Karstark had inquired after her hand for his youngest son, Harrion. She knew that she ought not to have heard it at all, because she had been intending on knocking on Mother's door to ask if she might sleep with her that night because she had had a nightmare, but she had overheard Mother and Father arguing, and had lingered when she heard her own name mentioned.
She had run to Robb's room straight afterward – Robb never minded her climbing in beside him, even if Mother and Father had said that it was not appropriate anymore, and Father had used his formal voice – and told him everything, and he'd told her not to worry, that Mother and Father would never marry her off to some smelly third son, because she was worth far too much for that.
But then there had come more offers, all of them the same. Mother and Father started telling her about them, third and fourth sons, men years and years older than her, widowers with children older than she was herself, men with terrible reputations and men who were said to have a dozen bastards in every town they passed through.
Sansa began to doubt Robb's words – if it was only smelly third sons and even worse men who wanted to marry her, was she really worth more than that? It wasn't her fault that she could not see, wasn't anyone's fault, but nobody who was worthy of her seemed to want her, and that upset her more even than when Theon teased her.
Jon wondered how Sansa understood the world, sometimes, because it seemed to him as if so much relied on appearances.
“What's that noise?” she asked, when she appeared in the kitchens with Bran holding onto her hand. “Why are there puppies in the kitchen? Robb, Mother will be angry-”
“She told us we could keep them here,” Robb promised, but Jon could see that Sansa was doubtful. “They're not normal pups, Sansa, they're direwolf pups! We found them by the road!”
“Direwolves south of the Wall?” she said doubtfully, feeling along the wall until Robb reached up and took her hand to guide her down to the floor. “But I thought that there were no direwolves this side of the Wall.”
“Well, we found them,” Robb laughed, and Jon gently steered Rickon away from Sansa before he could bump into her and knock her down. “One for each of us, even for Jon.”
“One for me?” Sansa asked, sounding surprised, and Jon wondered if Robb would ever understand that he was the only one of them who found everything so easy – nobody paid Jon or Sansa any attention because they were effectively useless, bastard and blind as they were, and poor Bran and Rickon were only the spares, really, extra sons in case something happened Robb in the eyes of many no matter how their lord father and Lady Stark loved them. As for Arya, well, it sometimes seemed as though Arya would never find her place in the world, that she would never fit in at all.
“A bitch,” Arya said cheerfully, carefully guiding Sansa's arms up into a cradle so Bran could deposit the second female pup into her hold. She was the smallest of the pups, smaller even than Jon's runt, and the prettiest, too, a soft smoke-grey with wide golden eyes – and apparently a rose-pink tongue, as they all could see when she licked the corner of Sansa's jaw.
To everyone's amazement, Sansa squealed in delight and hugged the pup close.
“I shall call her Lady,” she said brightly, rubbing her cheek against the back of the pup's head. “That was a true lady's kiss, wasn't it?”
Robb knew how excited Sansa was when Father announced that the King and his court would be visiting Winterfell – it was like something from one of her favourite songs – but he worried that mayhaps it would be nothing at all like she hoped.
He worried that mayhaps Sansa was hoping to find a husband among the visitors, because he knew that Sansa wished to marry, wished to find happiness such as Mother had with Father, and he worried that the southerners would scorn her in a way even crueller than the Northern lords who had so insulted her with the marriage proposals she had received thus far had.
He held her hand as the King rode through the gates, and kept a hand behind her back when they dropped to their knees – he worried that, without being able to see, she might overbalance, but Sansa had been graceful from the moment she had pulled herself to her feet by Mother's skirts, that was what Mother and Father always said – and helped her back up, smiling even though she could not see it when she smiled herself in thanks.
The King, though.
The King completely ignored Sansa as he moved along the line to greet each of them in turn, choosing instead to linger with Arya and look at her with such disgusting interest that Robb was unsurprised to feel Jon's hand grasping the back of his cloak. Jon was always the more cautious of them, had always been, and he knew better than anyone save Sansa how to calm Robb's temper.
Sansa did not react to the insult, but Robb could see it in the faces of all their family that everyone else had noticed it – and he could see it in the Queen's face, when she stepped from the wheelhouse and finished glaring about her as though someone had dealt her an insult. She had seemed amused by the King's rudeness, and turned up her nose at both Sansa and Arya.
Robb knew even from then that he would not enjoy court being at Winterfell as much as he had hoped.
Sansa was wandering along the corridors before the feast, holding onto Lady's ruff, when she overheard the Queen's voice – she had a very singular voice, the Queen, sharp and high and strident, a voice that did not bear being ignored any more than the Queen herself would. Robb had said that the Queen was very beautiful, but Arya had said that she looked as if something smelled bad.
“Quite the brood,” the Queen laughed, and whatever man was in her room with her laughed as well. “A bastard, a blind ruin, a wild brat. At least Lady Stark's sons are strong and handsome – the gods truly blessed them when they spared those boys that long face of their father's.”
Sansa could hardly believe her ears – this was not the way a queen ought to speak, particularly not of her hosts! - but waited regardless, unable to tear herself away despite knowing that she should.
Lady sat quietly at her feet, warm against her legs even through her heavy skirts.
“They're well enough behaved for having grown up in the wilderness,” drawled a male voice that Sansa didn't recognise – it sounded somewhat like the Queen, though, both the accent and the intonation. Could it be her twin, the Kingslayer? And what did he mean, wilderness? Cold didn't make a place a wilderness, did it?
Sansa thought about this – Maester Luwin had taught her that different plants and animals were found in different places, but he'd never mentioned that the North was a wilderness. Mayhaps it was a subjective thing.
“Who would ever have supposed that Ned Stark had it in him to father six children, though?” the male voice laughed, and Sansa drew back her shoulders indignantly – how dare these people speak so ill of their hosts? Of her family? She had ignored the insult to herself, she was well used to doing so because she of all the family was the easiest to insult, after all, but she could not bear to hear her father spoken so ill of.
She tore away, running straight to Mother's rooms. Mother would know if there was anything that could be done to the Queen and her brother for their rudeness.
Robb had wanted to escort Sansa into the feast, Jon knew, but their father had refused – it made sense, of a sort, that Robb escort the princess and the elder prince escort Sansa, but Jon knew why Robb had been so reluctant. The prince was rude and boorish, and made poor japes at Sansa's expense the whole way to the high table, japes that left tears brimming in Sansa's bright eyes.
Arya was with the fat little prince, and seemed as unimpressed with him as with his brother, albeit for different reasons.
The prince kept up the nasty japes all the way through the feast – Jon could hear them, even from his place far down the hall, and he could see the way Robb's jaw clenched and Lady Stark's cheeks flushed red in indignation.
And then, Father-
“I would be thankful, Your Grace, if you restrained your son.”
The King guffawed, saying “He's only a lad, just high spirits-”
“If you do not make him apologise for his treatment of my daughter, Your Grace, I will.”
The hall fell silent, but then the King cuffed the prince over the back of the head and grunted at him to apologise to the girl.
He hadn't called Arya a girl. She was a lady, a young woman, and Jon knew that everyone had noticed that, just as all of Winterfell made a point of not mentioning how like their aunt Lyanna Arya was.
The noise and bustle resumed, but Sansa asked to be excused soon after – her cheeks were bright red with embarrassment, her eyes near to overflowing with tears, but because Robb had no choice but to remain, it fell to Rickon, already half asleep, to call for their wolves, and Sansa left the hall with her head bowed and dozens of southerners mocking her as she passed.
Jon himself left almost immediately, sickened by the cruelty directed towards his sister, who was only ever sweet, by his own wounded pride at being seated so far from his brothers and sisters, and by all he had drank to... He was not certain why he had drank so much, but he had an idea that Sansa would not appreciate his company in such a state.
Sansa sang to Rickon until he started to snore, and then she had Lady guide her back to her own bedchamber. Once there, she locked and barred and bolted the door, changed into her nightclothes – her maid always left them on the bed for her – and burrowed under the covers so she might cry without being overheard.
Sansa had never read a book, had never been able to, but Robb and Jon and Father and Mother and Bran and sometimes even Arya had read plenty of them to her, and she knew a great many songs and poems and was quite good at singing and reciting them.
Princes, Sansa thought, should not act as Joffrey Baratheon had.
It was a long time later that Robb knocked on her door, asking if he might come in, but she held her breath and waited until he sighed and went away before throwing back the bedding.
No, no prince ought behave as Joffrey had. Sansa pitied whatever poor woman had to marry him and be his queen.
“It's only because I look like Father's sister,” Arya said furiously. “I don't want to marry the horrible prince and be queen, I'd rather die!”
“Arya!” Robb snapped, clapping a hand over her mouth. “Watch your tongue!”
Sansa was playing her little harp, an uneven melody that she often played when she was upset, and Robb wondered at that – was she upset that Arya was marrying someone so terrible?
“Well, I would,” Arya insisted, slapping his hand away and scowling. “I'll run away to the Free Cities and become a courtesan if Mother and Father make me marry him-”
“At least someone wants to marry you,” Sansa whispered, and then she threw her harp down so hard the wood cracked. “At least someone who isn't old or ugly or cruel or, or fat or stupid, or lowborn, or from a House of no consequence, or- at least someone wants to marry you!”
Arya looked contrite immediately, scooping up Sansa's harp and moving to sit beside her.
“I'm sorry, Sansa,” she said, awkwardly patting Sansa's hair back. “I didn't mean to upset you.”
Sansa leaned her head on Arya's shoulder and sniffled, tears falling down her face.
“It's not your fault,” Sansa said. “I just sometimes wonder how... How different things might be, if I weren't ruined.”
“You're not ruined,” Bran said firmly, startling them all as he swung in the window. “Anyone who thinks you are is stupid and doesn't deserve you anyways.”
On the day that court was due to leave Winterfell, Robb found Sansa sitting in the godswood with Bran. Jon was leaving as well, to go north to the Wall with Benjen, and Sansa was not taking being left here alone well.
“... and Mother and Robb will be busy keeping Winterfell, and you know Rickon doesn't like spending time with me, because I can't play with him properly. What use am I to anyone, Bran?”
Bran and Sansa had always been close – they were very alike, in unexpected sorts of ways – but Robb was still hurt that Sansa chose to share these worries with Bran instead of with him. He was her twin, after all, and her best friend besides, he'd thought.
“Mother needs you here,” Bran pointed out. “She will be lonely without Father, Sansa, and she will need your company.”
Robb made his presence known then, crossing over to sit on Sansa's other side.
“Am I such terrible company as this, to inspire such horror in you, sister?” he teased gently, and Sansa shook her head. “Sansa, I know that you hoped that things might be different with court here, but... Mayhaps it is for the best that they were not, do you think?”
Sansa turned her face toward him, mouth tight with fury and cheeks flushed, and then she stood and sank her fingers into Lady's ruff and took off towards the heart tree, skirts swishing through the snow.
It was not until the crowds cleared from the yard that Robb realised that Sansa was not with Mother, or with Rickon, or with Maester Luwin or her septa.
Sansa was weeping quietly when Cat found her, curled around Lady and hiding her face in the wolf's ruff. There was snow gathered on her shoulders and in her hair, and Cat's heart ached for her sweet girl, denied so much because of something none of them could control.
“Come here, sweetling,” she said softly, gathering Sansa close and guiding her inside – it must have looked odd, Cat thought ruefully, for Sansa was taller than her already, slightly taller than Robb even though he would never admit that, but Cat didn't care at all.
“Why did the gods curse me, Mother?” Sansa whispered, and Cat had to stop to hold her tight as she wept, her wolf whining softly and butting against their legs all the while.