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The Winter Queen

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WINTERFELL I

high summer, 298 AC

 


 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

He is not a man normally given either to self-pity or complaining, but Jaime is now thoroughly sick of being on the road. The King’s host left the capital nigh on three weeks before, and Winterfell has only just come into view on the horizon; a great grey-white castle high on a green moor. It is high summer; but that means nothing here in the North; it is cold during the day and colder still at night, colder than Jaime had ever imagined it could possibly get.  

 

But all these things are only trifling annoyances, really. What really sets his teeth on edge is King Robert Baratheon. After Prince Joffrey’s sudden death Cersei had been inconsolable. She had been with child at the time; and grief combined with the King’s utter indifference to Jaime’s sister’s feelings added to the abuse Robert Baratheon hurled at her for the crime of not being Lyanna Stark, there had only been one way the tale would end. Cersei had died in the childbed, screaming and bleeding in the Red Keep as Robert Baratheon drunkenly whored his way through another day’s hunting. 

 

Jaime wishes the boar the King had proudly carried into the Throne Room that day had skewered the King instead, and that Cersei had lived. He has no words for the ache he feels. His twin, his sister, his lover, his life has been ripped from him, and if it would not seriously endanger the Princess Myrcella’s claim he would have thrust his sword into Robert Baratheon’s chest. 

 

And now Robert Baratheon rides north to claim another Stark bride. Jaime hopes the Lord of Winterfell will refuse his oldest friend, but he does not think it likely.

 

Can he not stop this infernal singing? He’s been roaring The Bear and the Maiden Fair ever since we passed Moat Cailin, dear Gods. Jaime forcibly unclenches his jaw and makes himself relax. 

 

“Kingslayer!” Robert Baratheon crows, swaying precariously on his monstrous mount - the horse must be a good seventeen, eighteen hands high, in order to be able to support the man’s incredible weight. “D’you want to hear about that boar? Gods, it was a hellish beast, tusks bigger’n my arm… no, the mighty Kingslayer thinks himself above hunting! Seven hells, Lannister, you’re as uptight as that cunt of a sister of yours…”

 

Jaime ignores the rest of the diatribe, staring straight ahead at their destination far in front of them, for the moment no bigger than the gap between his horse’s ears, and willing, for the hundredth, the thousandth time, that the journey were over. Beside him ride the King’s brother Lord Renly and Jaime’s fellow Kingsguard Ser Loras Tyrell, and Jaime is thankful that he will no longer have to listen to Loras servicing Renly in the next tent, as has been the case on multiple occasions on this trip. 

 

And then something jolts him from his concerted focus. It’s subtle, a pricking at his nape, the increased flickers of his horse’s ears, a few more light chomps on the bit, and the odd quiver down his mount’s shining white flanks. He grips the pommel of his sword, and his eyes begin to scan the surrounding terrain. 

 

Nothing. There’s absolutely nothing. Nothing except the endless green of the moors, dappled here and there with the odd tree or patch of snow, but nothing moving. 

 

No - there. 

 

On the moor nearest to Winterfell, two, no, three riders coming towards the King’s host. But what are those shapes moving at their sides? One is black, one brown, and one grey, blurred, the size of horses. Jaime tenses in his saddle, and then fights to regain control of his mount entirely as the horse snorts and rears, eyes rolling. 

 

The air is suddenly rent by what Jaime instinctively understands to be the howling of wolves. 

 

Robert Baratheon begins to laugh uproariously. “Seven fucking hells, Ned,” he wheezes to himself. “You’ve set your wolves on us - what a welcome. The North indeed!”

 

Jaime watches, curious despite himself, as the three riders and their wolves approach, and when they are close enough, he cannot help the sharp intake of breath if he tries. 

 

Approaching them at a swift, flying canter upon a proud white horse, is a lady who can only be Ned Stark’s daughter, her loose hair a russet waterfall in the wind, and her dark sapphire eyes sparkling as though at some private joke, accompanied by a youth and a boy who can only be her brothers. 

 

Jaime had thought Ned Stark’s daughter a child, but the lady riding with direwolves at her heels is quite clearly a woman full-grown. She is close enough for Jaime to hear her as she laughs at something the youngest brother says, reaching over to ruffle the dark curls, and this at a full canter. 

 

He looks over at the King, who is drooling and practically rutting into his saddle, to the marked annoyance of his mount, and feels something inside himself clench and then sink, heavy as a stone. 

 

It looks as though the King will have his Stark bride after all, regardless of the lady’s inclinations. 

 

The lady stops her mount, but lets it prance around as she speaks, and her voice is polite, though colder than Jaime would have anticipated. “On behalf of my father, welcome to the North, your Grace, my lords.” She inclines her head to the King, Lord Renly, Jaime, and the rest of the Kingsguard in turn. “If it pleases you, my brothers and I will escort you to Winterfell proper.”

 

“Of course, Ned’s too busy readying the castle, I’ll wager, always so concerned with the right way of doing things. Come, my lady, ride with me.”

 

“As you say, your Grace,” Ned Stark’s daughter’s voice has virtually no inflection in it as her eyes narrow fractionally. Jaime knows, somehow, that she is less than impressed.

 

“Sansa,” the boy says, and Jaime estimates that he cannot be more than eight at the very most, “should we not send the wolves ahead to warn Father?”

 

“Our approach will be seen from the walls, Rickon, but yes, good, idea.” The Lady Sansa replies gently, and Lord Rickon motions at the direwolves. “Go and tell Father, Shaggy.”

 

The black direwolf peels away silently and races towards the castle at this command. 

 

“Fearsome pets,” the King slurs as the King’s host starts to move once more and Jaime sees the Lady’s lips tighten and her eyes freeze to ice.

 

“They are far from pets, your Grace. They are not tame.

 

“They’re direwolves,” Rickon says spiritedly, with the tone of one explaining something to the particularly stupid, and Jaime can’t stop the sudden burst of laughter. 

 

King Robert grunts but turns his leering gaze on Ned Stark’s daughter (she stares determinedly at the road ahead, Jaime notices) once more, leaving Jaime to reply to the curious looks the Stark boys are giving him. “Direwolves indeed,” he answers, amused.

 

Impulsively, he offers the boy his right hand to shake. “Ser Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard, at your service.” The boy’s grey eyes widen before he collects himself and lays his small gloved mitt in Jaime’s. 

 

“It’s an honour to meet you, Ser Jaime,” Rickon grins. “This is my brother Brandon, but everyone calls him Bran.” 

 

“And I can speak for myself, Rickon,” Bran replies, playfully cuffing his little brother, before bowing fluidly from the saddle, as Rickon casts his eyes down.

 

“Sorry, brother,” he mumbles.

 

“Oh, don’t take it too personally, little brother,” Bran grins, before raising his voice to speak to his sister. “Sansa, may we ride next to Ser Jaime?”

 

Sansa turns in her saddle, a mischievous smile on her face. “My little brothers quite admire you, Ser. When they learned you would be accompanying the King, it was all they spoke of for a week.”

 

Jaime raises an eyebrow, smirking. “Indeed?”

 

“Sansa!” Bran exclaims, cheeks flushing.

 

“Hush!” Sansa grins back. “As your elder sister, it is my prerogative to embarrass you both as much as possible.” 

 

“Please, sister - I’ll let you have my lemon cakes,” Rickon pleads dramatically.

 

The Lady Sansa laughs, and again, despite the cold, his hatred for Robert Baratheon and his grief for Cersei, Jaime cannot take his gaze from her lithe form, the teasing glint in her eyes, the way her hair, only held back from her face by the crown of russet-red weirwood leaves she wears, ripples down her back as she laughs.

 

“Of course you may, so long as Ser Jaime agrees?” She raises a sculpted brow in question. 

 

“How can I refuse such a graciously worded request?” Jaime answers playfully, and is gratified to see the barest hints of colour appear on the Lady’s cheeks before she looks away. He turns his attention to the boys properly. “Why don’t you both tell me of Winterfell?”

 

 


 

 

EDDARD STARK 

 

He sits in his solar with his eldest child, who, at seventeen, is no longer a child, and his good-brother Ser Arthur Dayne as the cold Northern sun begins its ascent in the clear sky. The three break their fast together every morning at dawn, discussing either the petitioners that have come to call or else talking of Sansa’s mother. His gaze is solemn and sad as he gazes upon his eldest daughter and heir; his sole reminder of his first wife. Oh, Ashara, he thinks. Would that I could spare our daughter this. 

 

“We both know this is not a request, Sansa,” he says wearily, sipping at his ale. The King is due at Winterfell by nightfall, and then there will be nothing to be done.

 

His daughter, his kind, beautiful, clever daughter, sinks to her knees in her dark grey dress, and grasps his warrior’s hands in her own delicate ones. “Father, I beg of you, please, I beg of you, don’t make me marry the King.” Her voice is tight, and though her deep blue eyes never leave his grey ones, he knows she is near tears. “I know he is your old friend, and I know you have no great love for the Lannisters, but I know you believe, as I do, that Cersei Lannister did not deserve to die as she did.”

 

“He wants a Stark bride, Sansa.” He replies gently, with the sickening knowledge that he is about to break his sweet daughter’s heart ripping at his insides. “He was denied Lyanna, and little Arya is still only a baby at six. Giving her to Robert would destroy her.”

 

“And it will not destroy me?” Sansa chokes out desperately. “Father, please.” She leans her forehead on their clasped hands, and he feels her tears burn his fingers as though they were acid. He listens to her sobs, and he has never before felt as powerless as he does in this moment. 

 

She wrenches herself away, stumbling away, angrily swiping at her tears. “I’ll run. I’ll take Lady and my horse and I’ll run.”

 

There is a note of hysteria in his daughter’s voice which scares him more than her tears. 

 

“If you ran,” Arthur says quietly, but firmly, “you would be running all the days of your life. Robert Baratheon would see it as the gravest of insults, and he would tear the Kingdoms apart in his quest to find you.”

 

“But he does not know me! He has never set eyes on me - ” Sansa whirls around to look at her uncle.

 

“That won’t matter to him. It didn’t with - with Lyanna, and it won’t matter with you.” Eddard laughs without humour. 

 

Arthur echoes the sentiment bitterly. “What Robert Baratheon wants, Robert Baratheon gets, and woe betide those who stand in his way.”

 

“But I am not Lyanna, any more than Cersei Lannister was.” The hysteria is gone, and only quiet despair remains. 

 

“No, you are not. You are the Heir of Winterfell. You are the only daughter of Lady Ashara Dayne and Lord Eddard Stark, and you have more courage, more heart, than any man I’ve ever met.”

 

There is ice (the blood of the North) in her eyes and she comes to sit at her father’s feet and leans her head against his knees, the way she used to when she was very young. “I know we’re trapped, Father,” she says eventually, her voice quiet. “I know I have to marry him, or the whole North will pay in blood and death for my refusal. I won’t run, you have my word.” She lifts her head and looks straight at him. “But I have no illusions about what I am walking into. Robert Baratheon will pay for ripping out my heart, for thinking that I am his property - ” she is snarling now, his elegant daughter with her hair the colour of the weirwood tree leaves so revered in the North, a direwolf for true, and she collects herself with difficulty - “when the time comes, will you fight for me? Will you both fight for me?”

 

He hates the way her voice cracks on the last word, and there is only one reply to be made. “When the time comes, daughter, I will raise the banners and I will march south and I will fight for you.”

 

Then Arthur kneels at Sansa’s side and takes her hands in his own. “One serves on the Kingsguard for life; though I have been presumed dead these past fifteen years by most, for you, dear niece, I shall take up the white again and accompany you to King’s Landing, where I shall stay and protect you as best I can, and this I swear all days of my life.”

 

 


 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

Lord Stark’s hospitality is generous, Jaime finds; his chamber is comfortable and large, though having furs instead of sheets does take some getting used to. There had been meat and mead aplenty at the welcoming feast, and spirits had generally been joyous, though Robert Baratheon had been his usual drunken, womanising self, and he had seen Lord Stark’s face become grimmer and the Lady Sansa’s become more impenetrable as the night went on. 

 

He sees a light flurry of snow falling through his window, but he dresses quickly anyway, strapping his sword to his waist, and makes his way through the castle, intending to find some quiet corner of the courtyard and shake the sleep from his mind and limbs by means of a brisk, early morning sparring session. As he expects, Winterfell is asleep, and the very great majority of inhabitants are still abed, though he sees some movement of the servants in the halls. 

 

The cold is a slap to the face; but invigorating, and he grins to himself, walking to the centre of the principal courtyard with his boots muffled on the snow. He’ll warm up soon enough, he knows, and he breathes in once, twice, as he draws his sword, the rasp of the steel a song he knows well in the winter silence. He lets his mind wander free as he goes through the forms he has practiced ever since he was a young boy, achieving that relaxed, focused state of mind that is his aim. Some soldiers say fighting heats the blood; is a way of losing control, but in Jaime’s experience berserkers don’t live to fight another day. Jaime knows he’s good at killing; he has the titles to prove it, but killing has never attracted him, has never been something he enjoys. Rather, it is the sense of clarity that descends upon him, that incredible sense of instinct, the enjoyment and challenge of pitting his skills, his elegance and his strength against another, that he seeks. It is the only thing that makes him feel alive. 

 

And so he fluidly goes through the forms, again and again and again until he is breathing harshly with the exertion, the cold air biting his lungs, until his mind is utterly clear and relaxed, almost as though he were in a dreamlike state, and yet he is utterly alert. 

 

“You’re even better than I remember.” The voice cuts sharply through his consciousness, and he whirls around, disbelieving.

 

“But to be expected, I think, considering I haven’t seen you in fifteen years.” Ser Arthur Dayne continues dryly.

 

“Ser Arthur… I…” Jaime gasps out.

 

He might have been squire to Ser Barristan Selmy, but Ser Arthur Dayne has always been first his inspiration ever since he was a little boy at Casterly Rock, and then both mentor and elder brother since he first sparred with live steel at the age of twelve. The last time they’d seen each other was before the Trident; before Rhaegar’s death and before Jaime killed King Aerys. 

 

“I thought you dead… we all did.” Jaime continues, a lump in his throat.

 

“Come here, lad,” Ser Arthur smiles, and pulls him into an embrace before Jaime has time to do anything. The tears are already running down his face before he realises, remembers that he is a grown man and a Lannister at that; but he has always hero-worshipped Ser Arthur Dayne, and he realises how much he misses this open, easy affection; he is the Kingslayer, and that means the rest of the Kingsguard, though they would not dream of provoking him, have no wish to trust him. 

 

Jaime lifts his head from the elder man’s shoulder, and is unable to keep the wondering, hesitant joy from his tone. “How did you survive - what are you doing in Winterfell, of all places?”

 

Ser Arthur gives his familiar, mysterious half smile, but it is another who answers him.

 

“He’s my uncle, Ser Jaime,” Lady Sansa says softly from behind. 

 

Jaime stumbles to address her, running a hand hurriedly through his hair. Though he wears his cream leather surcoat, he is still acutely aware of how disheveled he must appear. “Forgive me my disarray, my lady, I was not - I thought the courtyard would be quiet at this time.”

 

“Oh, it is quite normal for my father, my uncle and I to be the only members of the household awake at this time,” the Heir to Winterfell replies easily, a playful smile dancing on her lips, and her direwolf ever present at her side. She is dressed for the outdoors rather than for court, in a white dress with split skirts that show the embroidered grey wool and the toes of her black leather riding boots beneath, and a grey cloak hemmed in the northern style with white fur. “So you need have no fear of sparring in front of a crowd, my lord.”

 

“Despite my fearsome reputation, I don’t believe I am in possession of flower-enamelled armour, nor do I twirl my sword around for the amusement of the masses.” The teasing retort is on Jaime’s tongue before he realises, and for a moment he fears he has offended her, but she surprises him by laughing, and the sound gives him a bittersweet joy. Such a marvellous creature should always laugh and be happy, but he fears (he knows) it will not last (like Cersei - he cannot help but see the parallels in their fates, and he hopes the Lady Sansa will not be as bitter and spiteful as Cersei was when she bled to death) and that thought makes him sick to his core.

 

“Uncle, Ser Jaime, cider?” She holds out her offerings, two steaming mugs, and the knights accept them gratefully. “I was on my way to the Godswood if you would care to join me?”

 

The Lady Sansa is silent as she leads the way; and Jaime enjoys the sense of stillness that exists in a sleeping castle. The Godswood is like nothing he has ever seen; the trees are ancient and silent; and devoid of wildlife; the hot spring pools they walk past in their quest for the heart tree in the centre of the wood are black glass that perfectly reflect the dark green of the leaves, though pale steam rises from some. Their boots crunch upon fallen leaves, and Jaime starts as he sees the white tree at the pool’s edge, a great face carved into the bark and dark red leaves rustling in the branches. There is a weight to the air here, and he feels no little sense of awe when he thinks that these trees have stood such for tens of thousands of years. 

 

The three sit at the water’s edge in appreciative silence until the Lady Sansa decides to speak, her direwolf’s head in her lap, and her cadences musical and kind and utterly without the guile and double meanings Jaime has grown used to in the capital. “I am sorry for your sister her Grace the Queen, ser Jaime.”

 

“Thank you, my lady,” he responds thickly, before continuing without really understanding why he does so. Something about the place in which he finds himself loosens his tongue. “She had her flaws, and she could be bitter and cruel to those she did not care for by the end, but she was my sister, my twin, the other half of me and I loved her. Conceiving a world in which I lived and she did not was something I thought to be impossible.” He stills, aware that he has perhaps said too much; but he perceives neither disgust nor hatred in either of his audience, and something within him eases just a little, though he wonders sardonically how long it will last.

 

The Lady Sansa smiles sadly. “What did the King do to her?”

 

Jaime does not know how to reply. “My lady, I cannot - I -” he closes his eyes helplessly, fighting the grief and the rage that swells up inside of him at the thought of what the King has done to his sister.

 

“Will he do the same to me?”

 

“Sansa!” Ser Arthur interjects.

 

“No, uncle, I will hear this. I must know. I might be young, but I am no fool. I must know.” Lady Sansa retorts with a hotness, a ferocity Jaime can see is born of despair. 

 

Jaime stares at the dark, grassy ground. “I do not know, my lady. You are a Stark, so perhaps…” he trails off, and he knows he disbelieves his own words even as they leave his mouth.

 

“But I am not Lyanna Stark.” Lady Sansa replies, her voice small with resigned melancholy. “I will not be Lyanna Stark,” she continues more fiercely. “And I do not think that the image of Lyanna Stark he has in his head bears any more resemblance to the real Lyanna Stark than your sister did, or indeed myself. Father has always said he admired her wildness, but I -”

 

“Sansa, stop torturing yourself.” Ser Arthur says firmly. “What use is all this? What will more knowledge do to help you?”

 

Lady Sansa sighs miserably, wrapping her arms about her body. Her direwolf whines gently. “I don’t know.” Her voice is meek and tiny, and Jaime grits his teeth at the sheer wrongness of it.

 

“My lady, you have my word as a knight of the Kingsguard; I will do what I can for you. I do not know how much this will help, but you have my word and my sword, such as they are.” Jaime offers.

 

Ned Stark’s daughter looks straight at him then, and he thinks vaguely that her eyes, their dark blue, the colour of the Sunset Sea, are enough to drown a man. “Thank you, my lord.” The slightest of smiles tugs at her lips.

 

“Now, Jaime, I believe I owe you a tale or two,” Ser Arthur says.

 

Jaime inclines his head. “I would be honoured to hear them.”

 

Ser Arthur sighs. “Where to begin?”

 

“Harrenhal?” the Lady Sansa suggests.

 

Ser Arthur nods, taking a gulp of cider. “Harrenhal… after the King sent you back to King’s Landing, Jaime, my sister Ashara came to my chambers and said she wished to marry Eddard Stark. I’d seen them talking, dancing, but I admit I was surprised nevertheless. So permissions were asked and duly granted by both Rickard Stark and my father the Lord of Starfall, and the two married in a ceremony there. And then Rhaegar Targaeryen crowned Lyanna Stark the Queen of Love and Beauty in front of Elia his wife… the sense of foreboding I felt then is something I find quite difficult to describe; some choking, roiling sense of doom…” he shakes his head. “The tourney ended, and Ashara returned to Starfall to pack her affairs in preparation for a trip to Winterfell. I have no need to detail what happened next; Ned and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the war, and Ashara was heavily with child… it was a mess, an utter mess.”

 

“Why were you at the Tower of Joy?” Jaime asks.

 

“I knew Ned would keep looking for his sister, so I volunteered myself. I had no wish to fight my good-brother; but the rest of the Kingsguard and Ned’s men were more sanguine. Lord Stark’s good friend Howland Reed; the man we agreed would claim to have killed me, took Lyanna’s child back to the Neck, in the chaos of the end of the war, and raised him as his own natural child - he is now a man of the Night’s Watch.”

 

“Gods above, Arthur…” Jaime whistles, reeling. He glances at the Lady Sansa, who does not appear surprised in the slightest. Arthur does not notice, but stares blankly into his now finished mug of cider.

 

“But then - Ned and I made for Starfall, only to find that Ashara had thrown herself into the sea, believing, according to the note she left for my youngest sister Allyria, that not only that both of us were dead, but that we had died at the hands of the other.” Here Arthur’s voice breaks, and the Lady Sansa takes over the tale.

 

“It is my earliest memory, my mother’s death.” She says softly, hands gently tangling in her direwolf’s fur. “I was no more than two years old; but I remember how she raged and wept, and the sudden silence when she fell.”

 

“Ned and I found Sansa sitting by the window railings of Ashara’s rooms, a garland of white starflowers on her head, staring silently out to sea. It was the first time your father saw you, niece, and I don’t think I will ever forget his expression - somewhere between heartbreak and awe.” Arthur swallows, and Jaime reaches out to squeeze his mentor’s shoulder in sympathy. “I don’t understand how it happened - there must have been a spy who’d forged the note to Ashara.”

 

“Who would do such a thing?” Jaime frowns.

 

“Hoster Tully, or someone connected to the family - with Lords Rickard and Brandon Stark dead, not only was Ned now Lord of Winterfell and the North, but Catelyn Tully also now found herself without a husband. I have thought on this for years, and it is the only explanation that makes sense.”

 

“How did you come to Winterfell without gaining King Robert’s notice?” 

 

“I took ship from Starfall to White Harbour with Sansa, and Ned made certain my name was never mentioned south of the Neck, and there we have it.”

 

“That is quite a tale, Arthur.” Jaime breathes, eyes wide, before continuing as another thought occurs to him. “My lady, forgive me, but many believe you to be Catelyn Tully’s daughter, not Ashara Dayne’s.”

 

The Lady Sansa smirks. “It’s the hair, isn’t it? But my eyes are my uncle Arthur’s, and my hair, well, look at the leaves of the heart tree. I am a child of the North, and had the Lady Catelyn and I ever been standing side by side, it would have been immediately apparent that I was not in fact her daughter, but she never liked me very much.”

 

Jaime raises an eyebrow, perplexed. “I’m the Heir of Winterfell, not my half-brother Robb,” the Lady Sansa explains wryly. “Lady Catelyn never forgave me that; but it was apparently made explicit in my parents’ marriage contract; my mother insisted on their children inheriting in the manner of Dorne - which meant that the eldest child, regardless of sex, inherits.” 

 

“Robb… he is squiring for Ser Garlan in Highgarden, is he not?” Jaime asks. 

 

The Lady Sansa nods.

 

Jaime snorts. “He’s a great favourite of the King’s, don’t you know?” He says, a wicked, teasing glint in his eye. “Never shuts up about him. Gods, I still remember the feast the King threw in King’s Landing when he heard his oldest friend had had a son named after him. A more disgusting display of excess I have never seen, well, except perhaps when Joffrey was born.” 

 

“I can see how that would be the case,” Sansa drawls, a wry, amused smile on her face, and all three of them laugh.

 

“I suppose you want to know why I killed the King, do you not, Arthur?”

 

“The choice is yours, Jaime.” Arthur replies gently. “If you wish for me to hear your tale, I shall.”

 

The Lady Sansa rises and her direwolf with her. “I will leave you to your storytelling, my lords,” she says, brushing her skirts free of leaves.

 

“No!” Jaime replies forcefully. “My lady, I - ” he trails off, a wild desperation in his eyes, but he does not know how to tell her, how to ask her - he has come to care for her opinion of him, come to trust in her kindness, he realises, and suddenly the thought of the lady thinking him nothing more than an oath-breaker, a man without honour, (he knows he has lost his honour, but, but-) makes him sick to his stomach. “Stay. Please.”

 

She looks at him for a long moment, and Jaime wonders if she will simply sweep away as everyone else has done (and the Gods know, he would not blame her in the slightest if she did.) “You wish for me to stay?” she queries softly.

 

“I - yes, I do, my lady.” He forces out thickly, sincerely. Gods, what is it about her that makes him so tongue-tied in her presence?

 

“Then I shall,” the lady says simply, seating herself again. He looks at her, slightly stunned that she has accepted his request. 

 

“The Mad King,” Jaime begins eventually, voice hollow as he stares out at the pond, eyes scanning over the reflection of the trees in the water; a perfect mirror. He cannot bring himself to see the revulsion on their faces as he explains why he is known as the greatest oathbreaker of the age. He has never considered himself a coward, but in this he is infinitely cowardly. 

 

“My father was marching on the capital with the entire Lannister host… it was a siege like none other; it was as though the very walls of the Red Keep itself were infused with this-this madness, this kind of desperate, foolish if-I-can’t-have-the-capital-no-one-else-can mentality… Aerys had no intention of surrendering the city, believe me.” He swallows unsteadily. “Instead, instead… he planned to blow King’s Landing to smithereens. I knew, everyone knew he was a rapist, cruel and paranoid, but this - he asked his pyromancers to store caches of wildfire all around the city. Burn them all, he kept saying. There was a feverish glint in his eyes, I remember. Burn them all. Burn them in their homes, burn them in their beds, men, women and children alike. So I killed him. I took my sword and killed him, and his pyromancers too.” He laughs, a hollow, humourless sound. “Men call me the Lion of Lannister to my face, but behind my back they whisper oathbreaker, Kingslayer, man without honour. It’s strange; the act I consider to be my finest thus far I am utterly reviled for.”

 

His tale finished; he is slightly embarrassed, a pale flush on his cheeks. He’s never been good at storytelling, never been a wordsmith like his brother Tyrion, but he would have liked this recounting to be more eloquent than it was. He chances a glance at Arthur and the Lady Sansa. The latter’s sapphire eyes are shining with unshed tears, and they are so expressive he feels burnt by them.

 

“To have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, yet to say nothing against the scorn and derision, the insults you are met with; it is an admirable thing.” She dares lay her dainty hand on his forearm. He stares at the white skin, the elegant fingers, with something akin to awed despair. “You are admirable, Jaime Lannister.”

 

“Arthur,” he turns hopelessly towards his old mentor, yet he cannot bring himself to shake his arm from the lady. He might castigate himself, self-loathing roiling in his stomach, but he wants this meagre comfort (call him selfish, vain, arrogant) from her. Deep inside himself, he still wants to be the gallant knight, the defender of those who cannot defend themselves, the warrior against evil, the way he wished to be, the way he thought was entirely possible and achievable, when he was still a young boy at the Rock, his head filled with courtly tales and songs. “Arthur…” he rasps. He desperately wants absolution, but he is frightened; some part of him thinks it better not to ask, because then there is not the possibility that it will be denied; something which he knows he will not be able to live through.

 

“Jaime my lad,” Arthur says, gripping both his shoulders, pinning him still, “I will not say I forgive you,” he continues, and Jaime suddenly feels sick, dizzy and ashamed to the core, “because there is nothing to forgive.”

 

Jaime looks up sharply at that, scanning his mentor’s blue eyes with a desperation born of agony, and when he sees only kindly compassion and even a glint of pride twinkling in those eyes, it takes everything he is to prevent him from collapsing into Arthur’s arms and bawling like a boy for the second time that morning.

 


 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

WINTERFELL II

 

 


 

 

SANSA STARK

 

“Sansa!” a high, childish voice calls as Lady lifts her head briefly from Sansa’s lap before settling down again.  

 

“We’re by the tree, little sister,” the Heir to Winterfell replies gently, her voice carrying in the silent hush of the Godswood, startling her uncle and Ser Jaime. 

 

Sansa bites back a smile as her little sister, all of six years old, comes into view, bundled into her wolf-cloak so only her head peeks out above the  dark grey fur, riding Nymeria. The direwolf picks her way sedately through the trees, making no sound. 

 

“What has father told you about riding Nymeria, Arya?” Sansa asks as Arya halts in front of her.

 

“Not to do it,” the child replies mutinously as she slides nimbly off her direwolf’s back. Sansa shakes her head, sharing a grin with Ser Jaime, and though their gazes catch each other’s only for a moment, her fingers tremble, her breathing stutters, and she is overcome with - with - nerves, embarrassment, or something else; she does not know - she cannot parse it. 

 

“What is it?” Sansa tilts her head in question, turning her attention hurriedly back to her little sister. Though her uncle might not be saying anything, he is most certainly paying attention to everything that is said and done. “Aren’t you meant to be at your dancing lesson?”

 

“But I don’t even like dancing,” Arya whines. “It’s stupid and boring and slow and I have to wear a dress and I don’t understand why I can’t learn to fight.”

 

Sansa bites back a rueful laugh and a groan. Her little sister is wilful; that much is true, but Sansa also finds her little sister’s constant capers and pranks both exasperating and amusing. “How have I told you to think about your dancing lessons?”

 

“Footwork,” Arya grumbles. “I have to think of it as footwork practice. So I’ll be good when I learn to fight.”

 

“Exactly,” Sansa says gently, smoothing back her little sister’s hair. “Now then, would you care to explain why you’re riding through the godswood shouting for me at the top of your lungs?”  

 

“Father’s looking for you,” the little black haired girl replies, and Sansa feels an icy fear begin to twist her insides; a writhing, coiled serpent. “He said it was something about a mawiage con-something.” Arya’s face twists with impatience and frustration that she cannot recall the exact words.

 

“A marriage contract?” Sansa repeats hoarsely, and is rewarded with a single nod.

 

“That’s what I said,” Arya pouts.

 

Sansa bites back another smile, despite the icy fear that shakes her whole being. “Alright. Go and tell Father I shall be along in a moment; and Arya - ” she continues, her little sister already scrambling back onto the direwolf’s back. “Remember, you cannot be seen by the King or any of his party that Father or I have not introduced you to.”

 

“I remember,” the little girl says solemnly, and the direwolf bounds silently away.

 

Sansa exhales shakily, staring down at her hands, rubbing her fingertips together. 

 

“Gods,” Ser Jaime sighs, staring after the spot where Arya and Nymeria were, his brow furrowed in consternation. “She’s just like…”

 

“Lyanna reborn,” Sansa replies grimly. “Yes, so has my father always said. She cannot be seen by the King; he cannot even know she exists, or else he will take her south and she will die to be away from the snow and the woods and Winterfell. Ser Jaime,” she continues, voice even despite her urgency, and he looks sharply at her.

 

“My lady,” he says solemnly, glancing at her as she takes his hands in hers. Emerald and dark sea-blue. Skin on skin. Sansa swallows, dizzy; it is the first time. She can feel the callouses on his skin from wielding a sword; she can feel the warmth of his blood and the steady pounding of his heartbeat. It is so incredible a sensation she cannot describe it. 

 

“Your word, I beg of you; neither the King nor any of his party will know of Arya.”

 

“You have it,” he replies, as he brings her hands to his lips to press a kiss to her knuckles. Now she does tremble, and he squeezes her hands gently in reassurance. A brief smile flits across his face (his real smile, not his teasing smirk) and she cannot help but return it.

 

Her uncle clears his throat pointedly and both of them flush. Sansa tears her gaze away from his, and stands hurriedly. “If you will excuse me, uncle, Ser Jaime. I should see what my father wishes to discuss with me.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

He waits until she is out of sight before sighing heavily, tilting his head back as he rests on both elbows, his legs stretched out in front of him. He’s proud of himself for not staring at her lithe, elegant figure disappearing between the trees, at the very least. He looks up at the tree canopy and rubs his jaw. What in the Seven Kingdoms has possessed him? What, precisely, is he doing? He is no stranger to women throwing themselves at him, but he’d never looked at any of them twice, being utterly devoted to Cersei. And yet Sansa is different, and not merely, he suspects, because his sister is dead. It isn’t simply a  case of Jaime becoming fascinated by a woman who despite her inclination, lacks any kind of vulgarity that would make her throw herself into his path. If anything; their respective positions, his as a knight of the Kingsguard and hers as the King’s intended, would deter any sort of dalliance. 

 

Somehow, they see each other truly, and feel only compassion and shared suffering instead of disgust, disdain or revulsion. Lust for her is almost an afterthought to Jaime. He cannot understand how this has happened, but he cannot bring himself to resent it. 

 

“A dangerous thing to do,” Arthur says eventually.

 

“I know,” Jaime sighs. “Believe me, I know.” He tilts his head to look at his mentor. “But I cannot seem to stop myself.”

 

“I don’t wish for either of you to be hurt.”

 

Jaime thinks of her eyes, her laugh, her hair, her sorrow, her gentle heart. “It’s already too late for that, Arthur.” He pauses, struggling to articulate his feelings. He is fascinated by her, intrigued by her; but it is more than that. She rouses his protective instincts in a way Cersei never did or could. Cersei never wanted his protection. She wanted his life. And what did he gain in return? Hidden moments, too few and far between, and always, always the spectre of treason hanging over their heads. He gave up everything for her; she gave up nothing. The long trip north without her has given him cause to think, to really think, about the imbalances of their affair. Cersei loved him; but she loved power more, and it is the bleeding, open wound it always has been, still, even to this day. 

 

And though he knows whatever ends up happening between him and the Lady Sansa, it will have to remain chaste; it must always remain chaste. Cersei’s death has cured him of his recklessness, he thinks, at least in part. Though he cannot help but be stunned at the sheer rapidity at which he seems to be flinging his heart at the Heir of Winterfell’s feet. It should frighten him. Seven hells, it should terrify him. It does not; and that does scare him. What on earth had possessed him to bring her dainty hands to his lips? To run his thumbs across her knuckles and the backs of her hands? The sudden, burning look in her eyes as he’d done so; the exquisite tremble in her slim fingers as they curved into his palms. He is still reeling from it. 

 

He could try to stay away from her; but that would hurt her, and he never wishes to hurt her. Who is he trying to fool? It would hurt them both, deeply. He cannot stop himself; it is beyond him. This he knows with a certainty that chills him to his bones. It is a path to madness; extreme madness, but any sort of distance from her would equally drive him insane. At least, if he is close, he can attempt to cheer her, bring her some small measure of joy in the hell she is walking in to. He can try and protect her. “She has my absolute devotion, my absolute loyalty. And I would never endanger her or dishonour her.”

 

“I know, Jaime. I know.” Arthur’s voice holds no hint of disdain or disgust, only compassion.

 

“I will volunteer myself as guard,” Jaime forces out thickly, “on her wedding night.”

 

“As will I; I would not entrust it to anyone else.” A grim look passes between the two men. It will be horrible; as horrible as guarding Rhaella’s door was, as horrible as guarding Cersei’s door was, but better them than any others from the Kingsguard. Ser Barristan would only remain unmoved; and Ser Loras - Jaime snorts. His disdain for women; though not openly spoken of, is well known in King’s Landing. Ser Loras’s disdain is different to the King’s, and perhaps all the more damaging for its insidiousness: Robert Baratheon considers women possessions, but to Ser Loras, unless they are kin, women simply do not exist as a consideration of his. And what more humiliating to a Queen, or indeed any woman, to know that your guards do not consider you at all? That as you suffer through marital rape; it is all in a day’s work for the men on the other side of the door?

 

That is where Jaime’s cynicism originates, he knows. When Ser Barristan and Ser Gerold Hightower told him, at the tender age of fifteen, that not only could he not protect the Queen from the King, but that it was his duty to stand aside, all the stories, all the songs about how knights were called to protect the innocent, everything seemed like a singularly cruel jape. That it was his duty as a knight of the Kingsguard to soil his cloak with such an act, again and again and again, in the name of the King. He had tried, though. He’d often carried Rhaella to the gardens on days she was too battered to stand, and along with Arthur, had not allowed the Queen to be summoned by anyone other than the King himself.

 

Cersei had not wanted any of that. She had only wanted him outside her door; but never his help. Never that. Only the knowledge that he was hers entirely, though she had not returned that devotion equally. He’d known, for a long time before her death, that she had other lovers, and he had never allowed himself to dwell indefinitely on the anguish this caused, because he could see for himself how awful being Robert’s wife was for Cersei. 

 

“I shall also ask my good-brother if Bran and Rickon can come to the capital; it is beyond time they squired. They do it for me unofficially anyway.” Arthur continues, thinking aloud. 

 

Jaime smiles briefly. “Their enthusiasm is refreshing, isn’t it?”

 

Arthur throws him a laughing glance. “Rickon has taken quite a shine to you, Jaime.”

 

Jaime scoffs. “Only because he thinks me a perfect hero, no doubt. I haven’t the heart to tell him I’m not nearly as good a man as he thinks I am.” He admits to himself, but only to himself, that Rickon reminds Jaime of how he himself was as a boy; full of hope and faith for the future, with an unshakable belief in the importance of honour, and the determination to strive for it. Perhaps that is why he finds himself amused, even touched, by the youngest Stark boy.

 

“Perhaps,” Arthur allows, before smirking. “The fact remains: you need a squire. Pending Lord Stark’s approval, I’ll take Bran and you take Rickon.”

 

“And do you really think noble Ned Stark would let his youngest son near the infamous Kingslayer?” Jaime drawls, raising an eyebrow.

 

Arthur returns his gaze with an even countenance. “He will if I suggest it.”

 

And Jaime nods in response, dazed and humbled. 

 

 


 

 

SANSA STARK

 

She has the entirety of the walk back to the castle proper to try and make an attempt at parsing what has just happened, Lady trotting reassuringly at her side. Thoughts of Jaime Lannister are infinitely preferable to those of the King, but Sansa knows she cannot afford to think that way. She does not know whether or not she wants to think that way. She clenches her hands. She must be insane to even be thinking the thoughts she is thinking. It can only make things worse for herself in the long run. And yet; and yet - her mind keeps drifting back to his promise, his vow to her. You have my word. You have my sword. His tale of the Mad King, and how honourable - he might disdain the word, but she is determined to convince him - how honourable and admirable his actions have been. A vulnerable part of her thinks, how alone, too, especially after the death of his twin.

 

She might be young, but she is not stupid. She knows Ser Jaime was the Queen’s lover. From what she has seen of Robert Baratheon, she does not blame either twin in the slightest. How, too, can she declare herself disgusted by them for their relationship when the Targaryens wed brother to sister for hundreds of years? It would be hypocritical of her in the extreme to allow it for one family and not another. 

 

She admires him; that has been clear enough from their first meeting outside Winterfell. She’d noted the harshness in his eyes as the King turned his leering gaze on her. She’d noticed his handsomeness - how could she not? But she’d also taken clear note of his interactions with her little brothers Bran and Rickon. 

 

She’s never been close to her brother Robb as Catelyn Stark had pitted the two against each other in a rivalry for their father’s affection and attentions, but Bran and Rickon and Arya too, she loves deeply; fiercely. For them, in their defence, in their name, no task is too great. 

 

Ser Jaime had been under no obligation to speak to the boys, highborn though they are. But he’d gone beyond the pleasantries and engaged them in conversation for the duration of the ride to Winterfell, and spoken to them in pleasant, amused tones devoid of the condescension so often displayed in the older when talking to the young. And that consideration; she will not deny it, has greatly warmed her heart.

 

She’d lost her mother when very young; she has only the sparsest memories of Ashara; the sound of her voice, soft and melodic, her warm embrace full of strength, and the reassuring weight of her mother’s hands carding through her hair. No-one else done it since; perhaps why Sansa attaches so much importance to those particular memories. Catelyn Stark, though devoted to her own children, had not been any sort of maternal figure for Sansa. Instead, she’d had to rely on her mother’s family: her uncle Arthur, who’d told her tale after tale of Ashara’s graciousness, love of music and riding, of her proficiency with the bow, her support of all forms of art: poetry, song, embroidery, dance. Her aunt Allyria, her mother’s younger sister, though only ten years Sansa’s elder, had always been and still is one of Sansa’s most cherished correspondents. Lastly, the Lord of Starfall, Arthur, Allyria and Ashara’s eldest sibling Parsifal, had never made any attempt to disguise the fact that he considered Sansa should learn history and the mechanics of trade as well as how to run a household. 

 

Ned Stark has always been a stalwart, if rigid and at times a  somewhat negligent figure in her life. She does not doubt and has never doubted his affection, but if it had not been for her uncle Arthur, the frequent letters from Starfall and then the existence of her younger half-siblings as playmates, Sansa knows she would have been left to her own devices. She remembers how at the age of seven, she’d had to insist to be present when her father’s bannermen came at regular intervals to present their grievances and discuss the running of the North. How, too, she’d had to insist that at the same age, she was old enough to follow her stepmother as she oversaw the day-to-day running of the castle. 

 

Aside from her own half-siblings, Sansa has never had any lasting connection to any other child her own age; another reason why she values Allyria’s letters so much, which are more the letters of an elder sister than an aunt. Her younger brothers Bran and Rickon are those she goes riding with, plays her lute and harp to, and has archery competitions with. 

 

So for a man like Jaime Lannister, she thinks as she crosses the principal courtyard, one of the greatest knights of the realm, to pay such genuine attention to her little brothers is no small thing. As is the fact that he did not dismiss Arya in the Godswood.

 

She admires him, finds him honourable, finds him handsome, finds him kind. And with that summary ringing in her mind, she knows she is in trouble. She makes her way to her father’s solar.

 

The square chamber is as it normally is; a crackling fire burns merrily in the great stone fireplace, and her father sits at his desk, his massive grey-white direwolf Winter at his feet. But next to him is the King, corpulent rolls of fat spilling out of his doublet and over the armrests of the chair, and Sansa tenses as she closes the heavy oaken door behind her. It shuts with a dull thud, and the very air in the room becomes as ice; brittle and pressured, inclined to snap with nary a warning; and the shock of finding herself in a place she had previously thought of as welcoming, but now appears to her as the portent of her doom, almost makes her stumble. She braces herself against the door, closes her eyes briefly, swallows down her apprehension and her revulsion, and smoothes her expression into placid acceptance. 

 

“Your Grace,” she curtseys politely. The King grunts in return. Lady pads over to Winter, who thumps his tail in welcome on the flagstones like an overgrown puppy, wet pink tongue lolling between sharp white canines. “You wished to see me, Father?”

 

“I did.” Her father gestures for her to sit, and she lowers herself gingerly into a chair on her side of the desk. “The King and I have been discussing the marriage contract. If you are agreeable, we will sign this here and now.”

 

Hands shaking, dizzy with despair, she takes the parchment with slim fingers and reads, her heart sinking to her feet like a stone. In all fairness; her father has done the best he can to give her what minimal protection is traditional for a queen. She is to have her own court in King’s Landing, her own apartments, allowance, ladies, horses and entertainments, and every material comfort she could dream of. But she will be expected to share the King’s bed at his pleasure, and forsake any and all others for the rest of her life, whilst he continues with his whoring and drinking. She will have no seat on the Small Council; but there are ways around that, Sansa knows. But she will be, in essence, the King’s broodmare whose sole purpose in life is to produce the King’s heir. She will be the prettiest, most pampered broodmare in the kingdom; but a broodmare all the same. Disgust and horror and resignation war within her heart, but she has no choice but to accept this. She frowns, considering. 

 

The King already has an heir, his daughter the Princess Myrcella. It would not do at all to alienate the Lannisters, one of the most powerful families in the realm, and nor would it do to allow a child, especially a male child of hers, to make the Princess feel unwanted. But there might be a way to -

 

“Father,” she says gently, “might I ask a boon? That no matter whether I give the King sons or daughters, that the Princess Myrcella might remain the heir to the Iron Throne?”

 

“Sansa, it would be most irregular - ”

 

“Please, Father, as a wedding gift?” She bursts out desperately. Myrcella, by all accounts, is a sweet girl, and does not deserve to be shunted aside by an eventual younger half-sibling. She has half a mind to send a raven to Lord Tywin Lannister regardless of the outcome of this conversation; pledging her support behind Myrcella’s claim. It is not merely that she wishes to avoid strife; to avoid antagonising the Lannisters further - who must still be grieving Queen Cersei. It is also that she knows she is about to step into a den of iniquity, of treachery and politicking, and she needs as many allies as possible. To rely on one faction, as Elia Martell did, is too risky, Sansa has learnt. She must begin, now, whilst she is still at Winterfell, the building of her own court, because by the time she arrives in King’s Landing it will already be too late. She must make herself agreeable to more than her kin; not merely for the security of her position as queen, but also for the stability of the Realm. The support of the Great Houses is vital, of course, but having the support of the commons as well will ease her position and grant her greater influence. And the Lannisters are quite possibly the most powerful allies she could ask for. 

 

There is a tense silence, before Ned Stark sighs. “If that is what you truly want, Sansa?”

 

“I do.” She reiterates.

 

“Robert?” 

 

The King gulps from his glass of wine, belching loudly. “I don’t see the harm.” He waves an arm, pudgy and wobbly with fat, dismissively. 

 

“Good.” Her father dips his quill in the inkpot, making the amendment, before signing it and stamping the Stark sigil on the parchment in wax. He passes it to the King, who does the same, and then finally Sansa must sign. She presses the nib of the quill so hard she fears she might snap it, but she manages to sign her name in her habitual flowing script. She looks at the letters, black ink on yellow parchment; the Baratheon House colours, and feels the insistent press of tears behind her eyelids. She shudders, composing herself.

 

“Will you be coming to King’s Landing with me, Father?”

 

She realises something is wrong when her Father averts his eyes to stare at the inkwell.  

 

“Father?” Her voice shakes.

 

“I swore after the war that I would never leave Winterfell again. I swore I would never go South again; and as Lord Stark, my word is my honour. I cannot, Sansa.” He replies sombrely.

 

She sways in her seat, fingers clutching at her armrests. Her ears are buzzing, and in some distant part of her she understands, dimly, that the promise her Father made, that he would gather the banners for her when the time came, was not a vow he was able to keep because it contradicted a previous vow. It was a promise made, she realises, to get her to agree to the match. Her breakfast rises in her throat.

 

“If you cannot; might my uncle, might my brothers Rickon and Bran come with me?” She asks, trembling, fighting to keep her voice even, devoid of the anguish she feels.

 

“Uncle?” The King frowns. “Benjen’s First Ranger at the Wall; he can’t come south.”

 

“No, not Benjen, your Grace,” Sansa replies politely. “My other uncle; Ser Arthur Dayne.”

 

The effect these words have on the King is quite extraordinary. His cheeks purple; his three chins wobble, his arms flail about and his eyes, watery and weak, bulge. “Ser Arthur Dayne?” He gasps out. “He’s dead. He died fifteen years ago. Ned, you told me he was dead.”

 

“He survived, your Grace,” Sansa explains gently, wondering at her own courage. The King in a rage is a frightening thing, but if she has any intention of having a voice of her own in King’s Landing, she knows that she must start to be assertive now, whilst still under her father’s protection, in her own castle. “It was his sister Ashara, my mother’s last wish that he travel to Winterfell and take care of me, just as it was my Aunt Lyanna’s that my father take her body from the Tower of Joy and bury her here.”

 

Mentioning Lyanna has an interesting consequence; it could have gone very badly, Sansa knows, but it serves only to make the King contemplative. “A sister’s last wish?” The King rumbles. Sansa nods, as does her father. Robert Baratheon gulps down more wine, belches, farts, and sighs loudly in satisfaction. Sansa looks down at her hands, wrinkling her nose. So this is the brute she will spend the rest of her life chained to. The brute her father has just sold her to, for the North. Her homeland’s continued freedom and prosperity bought with her tears, her screams, her pain, her unhappiness. It is a sobering, excruciating thought. 

 

“Fine,” comes the King’s eventual reply. “But keep something from me again, Ned, and I’ll have your head.”

 

 


 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

By the time he and Arthur make their way back to the castle proper, it is past mid-morning and Winterfell rumbles with activity. The smallfolk and servants bring in victuals, livestock, tithes, load after load of laundry. The forges sputter with fire-sparks and the rhythmic clang of hammer on steel. Horses are being exercised and dogs brought in from the hunt with hares and vibrantly-plumed pheasants in their jaws. The younger of the two Stark boys, Rickon, hails them from the other side of the courtyard, chewing on hunks of warm bread fresh from the kitchens, slathered in salted butter before being dipped in heather honey. 

 

Jaime takes the offered food gladly; he hasn’t eaten anything since before dawn, and his morning exertions have rendered him quite ravenous. The honey is fragrant, warm and melting, soaking into the still-warm buttered bread, and the resulting combination of flavours makes him close his eyes in appreciation.

 

“Rickon,” Arthur says, “how would you like to accompany the King’s party south to the capital when they leave?”

 

The boy’s eyes widen. “On my own?”

 

“No, lad. Sansa is to be Robert Baratheon’s Queen, so she will be riding south, as will I, and Ser Jaime too, of course.” Arthur explains hurriedly. 

 

“And Bran?”

 

“Bran too.” 

 

Rickon nods, digesting this, before his brow furrows. “But what is there to do in the South? And what about Shaggy?”

 

The question, so earnestly asked, makes both men burst out laughing. At Rickon’s crestfallen expression, Arthur ruffles his dark hair. “Don’t growl at me, Starkling. Shaggy would come too. Bran would officially become my squire, and you would squire for Ser Jaime.”

 

Rickon turns wide grey eyes on Jaime. “Really?” he exclaims joyfully, all manner of protest instantly forgotten.

 

Jaime finds himself grinning in return, despite his best attempts at summoning up his cynicism. “Of course.”

 

“Thank you ever so much, Ser Jaime,” Rickon Stark says to him, exuberantly throwing his arms around Jaime’s middle, entirely oblivious to the knight’s stiffening in surprise. Honest, serious grey eyes look up at his slightly bewildered green ones. “I promise, Ser Jaime, I’ll work hard, I’ll do you and my House proud.” 

 

Jaime lays a hesitant hand on the boy’s dark curls. He’s never much interacted with young children; Cersei had seen to that. He has absolutely no idea what to do with such abject hero-worship as this, but he supposes being kind and fair might be a good start. Rickon’s innate faith, his goodness (so like his elder sister’s) makes Jaime want to live up to what the knights in all the songs of old were like, he realises with a jolt. “I know you will, Rickon.”

 

This understanding of such a sudden, monumental change of his views takes him quite aback. He’d thought Aerys and Robert (and the whispers of Kingslayer, Kingslayer, Kingslayer whenever his back is turned and whenever nobles and smallfolk alike believe him to be out of hearing) had managed to bleed him completely dry of any belief in chivalry and honour; making another victim of yet another Kingsguard, yet the only one denied rest in a grave; a dead man walking. He’d believed Cersei the sole speck of light in his life, the sole reason the whispers of Kingslayer and those few stolen, hidden moments with his sister, were somehow worth it. He knows now that he was wrong. So long as our hearts still beat, let the rest of the world burn. How on earth could he ever have thought that a coherent definition of justice? He no longer subscribes to such a notion, though he could never be ashamed of loving Cersei, and he knows nothing or no-one could ever make him feel ashamed of that. He is ashamed of Joffrey; but Cersei had never let Jaime near him. The Prince had taken far more cues from the King and the Queen. Jaime’s seed he might have been, but Robert’s son. Robert’s heir in every sense of the word, combining Cersei’s arrogance and self-entitlement with Robert’s rages, casual disregard of anything he did not like, and despite Joffrey’s young age, Robert’s indefatigable penchant for whore after whore. 

 

Now he knows Cersei had simply been another one of the chains dragging him to the deepest hell; not because of their relation to each other, but because she’d been able to manipulate everything she wanted from him, because her hold on him had twisted his love, genuine and all-encompassing as it was, into a weapon she was able to direct for the execution of her own desires, no matter how short-sighted or destructive. She no longer has such a hold on him; he might mourn her and love her, but she no longer owns him.

 

Tyrion’s trial in the aftermath of Joffrey’s death had begun the sundering of ties between them. Cersei had been incandescent with rage when Jaime had announced himself has his younger brother’s champion. She had seen it as a personal betrayal, her hatred spewing forth all manner of vile threats against both Lannister brothers. Jaime had been stunned by her ferocity, by such abject hatred of someone he had always loved deeply, fiercely, unconditionally. For all her boasting that they were one soul in two bodies, he’d understood in that moment, standing in her beautifully appointed chambers in the Red Keep, that not only did she not understand Jaime’s feelings on the matter, but that she, convinced of the rightness of her position and her hatred, had no care to attempt to understand him. He had not recognised this twisted, embittered, cruel caricature of the fierce, charismatic sister that stood in front of him. 

 

Her death, then, had snapped those fragile ties. Without her, he’s felt adrift; something deeper than grief clawing, gnawing his way through him, body and soul; until only his hatred for the King and his desire to protect Princess Myrcella sustained him.

 

Now, though, he is alive once more, and he knows exactly whom to thank, though he recognises acutely the danger of the position he now finds himself in; it is one he is eminently familiar with.   

 

Arthur cuts through Jaime’s contemplations with an offhand, “Now, Lannister, how about a quick spar?” His half-smile is back on his face, an absolutely devilish expression twinkling in his eye. “Just to make absolutely certain you won’t embarrass your new squire here, of course,” he continues jestingly.

 

Jaime laughs in response, full of fierce delight, paying no attention to Rickon’s sudden gasp of excitement. “We’ll see, old man,” he replies, a predatorial, leonine grin flashing across his face.

 

“Gentlemen, if you could give the Kingslayer and I some room?” Arthur calls, taking off his surcoat until he is left only in his linen shirt and woollen breeches, and the centre of the courtyard clears immediately of servant, smallfolk and bannerman alike.

 

Jaime does likewise, peeling off his beige leather surcoat, and handing it off to Rickon, rolling his shoulders to keep himself warm; linen really is not meant for northern climes. He draws his sword, and calm descends in his mind as soon as he feels its familiar weight, and hears its whistling, slicing song through the air. The master-at-arms at Casterly Rock when he was a boy had always told him his sword should become an extension of his arm, of his body, but to Jaime it feels like an extension of his soul. It is the only time he feels truly alive, and it is the only real pleasure left to him in this world. 

 

Arthur fights with both hands, a sword in each, and though Arthur had taught him the basic principles of dual-wielding when he was first raised to the Kingsguard at the age of fifteen, he cannot deny that he prefers the hand-and-a-half blade that he was first introduced to. He isn’t bad with his left hand when it comes down to it; and he doesn’t doubt that Arthur will insist on resuming the left-hand lessons, wanting his protege to be equally proficient at both, but his right hand will remain his dominant hand. 

 

Jaime and Arthur stand motionless, swords drawn. Jaime doesn’t watch the blades as his mentor spins them in a fluid arc, once forwards, and then backwards, but rather Arthur’s eyes. Any swordsman worth their salt reads their opponent’s moves in the eyes, not the weapon. A suspended breath, a glass about to shatter, and then the storm breaks.

 

He isn’t aware of it, but Jaime fights with his teeth flashing a fierce smile, a smile he sees reciprocated in Arthur’s crinkled eyes. As he blocks a parry-thrust-overhead combination, he realises he’s having fun. He hasn’t had fun like this in years, an entire age, it feels. As he moves, ruthlessly, efficiently, a lethal kind of elegance in his stances, he suddenly feels ten years younger. There’s a joy, too, in fighting what Jaime considers to be a real opponent; someone to give him a bit of a challenge. He finds himself having to concentrate, to trust that his body knows where to go and what to do next. He hasn’t and to consciously trust himself in such a way since before the Rebellion. Arthur will give him no quarter, he knows. Arthur never has, and had he been any other person Jaime might have resented it; but Arthur has always been his hero, his greatest inspiration, and accepting corrections from him is not only fair, but the only person Jaime is willing to take correction from. Cersei, the Mad King - he forgets it all, and everything around him suddenly seems so much brighter; the sharp, light-reflecting silver of the clashing blades, arcing so quickly through the air the steel itself cannot be seen, and only the flashes of light, the hissing sound of steel slicing through the air finishing in bell-like ringing when the blades meet. His world narrows and blurs; the dark colour of Arthur’s shirt, the earth being packed firmly by their fast moving feet. His blood rushing through his veins, hot, pounding. He is alive. 

 

He loses track of how long they fight for, and only realises how harshly he is panting with exhilaration more than exertion when Arthur steps back three paces and then throws both blades forcefully into the ground; their long-ago agreed signal for a halt. An exuberant laugh tumbles from his lips, as much a joyous sound as it is a release of tension.

 

“You gave me a good run for my money there, Jaime.” Arthur slaps his shoulder in praise. Some deeply buried part of him uncoils, and Jaime feels the full weight of his praise.

 

Jaime shakes his head ruefully. “It still felt like you were toying with me. I don’t think I’ll truly ever be as good as you, Arthur.”

 

Arthur simply looks back at him evenly. “You will be, Jaime. Of that I have no doubt. You came within a hairsbreadth of winning the match at the end there.” Jaime swallows and looks away. It’s been so long since anyone had any kind of confidence in him; since he was not reviled, since he was not anything other than a disappointment. 

 

“Thank you,” Jaime replies sincerely, before seeing something out of the corner of his eye that makes him want to stop in his tracks.

 

The Lady Sansa is standing on the parapet, looking down into the courtyard. Her bearing is as frosty as it always is; and he could think her made of ice, so still is she. He can see it already; the crown upon her head as highborn and farmer alike bow for her. A light gust of wind pinks her left cheek, blowing a strand of russet hair free, and he suddenly longs to wind the sleek strands around his fingers, to drift his fingertips down her pretty porcelain cheek. She blinks long eyelashes over her blue eyes and the illusion is broken; she is not ice, but flesh and blood with a beating heart. Her melancholy eyes find his, something incredibly earnest and resigned in them and he drowns again, inhaling sharply, desperately. She is all the more beautiful for her silent suffering, and he wishes he might do something to alleviate the anguish she so clearly feels, though she conceals it well, albeit not from him. To him, she radiates sorrow. He trembles, trying to regain his bearings. How can a single look from across a courtyard fell him in such a way? This is dangerous, his mind repeats. For both our sakes, this - whatever this is - can never be. And then something he belatedly recognises as attraction flares through him. His blood is still up from the duel with Arthur, and he hopes he has impressed her.  

 

Arthur follows Jaime’s gaze and smirks. 

 

“You’ve only just realised she was watching? You need to be more observant.”

 

Jaime splutters out a cough. He never thought he’d be teased by Arthur about something like this, much less when the subject was Arthur’s own niece. “Arthur,” he groans. 

 

The Sword of the Morning has the temerity to wink at him before walking away.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

WINTERFELL III

 


 

 

SANSA STARK

 

 Her little brother Rickon won’t stop going on about the duel both of them witnessed between her uncle and the Kingslayer earlier in the day, as he follows her about Winterfell’s keeps, and eventually she is so sick of everyone and everything, of the horrendous situation she finds herself in, that she snaps at him in annoyance, telling him to go away and leave her in peace.

 

His face crumples, and she instantly feels guilty. She has never once before raised her voice to him, and she feels all the weight of this knowledge now. “Rickon,” she reaches out to him, and he flies into her arms, and both of them breathe out trembling sighs of reassurance, whispering over and over again between tears and gulps, that they did not mean to get angry, to be annoying, to hurt each other, and the two slide down to the floor of the empty corridor they find themselves in, and lean against the warm stone wall, hugging each other tightly.

 

Rickon’s head leans against her shoulder, and his bent legs are pressed along hers, and he quiets quickly enough, but now that Sansa has begun to weep, she finds she cannot stop. She makes not a sound, but her tears run down her cheeks and jawline to soak her youngest brother’s  dark curls. 

 

“You’re sad,” Rickon says, reaching out to touch her wet cheek with a finger. “Why are you sad?”

 

Sansa splutters, a choked laugh spilling from her lips. She presses a gentle kiss to her little brother’s head, attempting to camouflage the convulsive sobs which threaten to shake her entire body. What can she tell him? How can she respond? Her dreams, her hopes, have shattered in the hands of powerful men, now nothing more than broken toys upon the floor, uncared for and disregarded (she is too old for them now). But her little brother does not deserve to have these illusions, these hopes and stories destroyed so abruptly, so ferociously. Let him believe. Let him hope. 

 

Her father, her beloved father whom she believed would always protect her, has just sold her to his oldest friend the King, a man who drinks and whores and mistreats his wives. She must leave her home, Winterfell which she loves deeply and takes real joy in caring for, Winterfell which she does not know if she will ever see again. And though Bran and Rickon and her uncle Arthur will ride south with her, she knows she will not be able to see Arya again until Robert Baratheon is dead.

 

And the Kingslayer… they have placed incredible trust in each other, he with his tale of Aerys the Mad and she with her fears and disdain for the King he is sworn to protect, but it goes beyond trust, she knows (she fears). She cannot get him out of her mind; it is as though he is imprinted in her skin, in every beat of her heart, and she does not want him out of her mind and she cannot have him. They do not converse much; there is too much danger in words spoken aloud, however much she might wish, might desire them to be, but they say, speak more eloquently to one another with a single glance, a most minute shift of their stances, than a minstrel might with a thousand lines of epic poetry. Neither of them can stop this. Neither of them have any wish to do so.

 

She sighs, her thoughts returning to the King; he has told her father he wishes to be on the road south as quickly as can be, so her time runs short. She can almost feel it fleeing between her fingers like snowmelt in spring. She is caught in the storm now; and it shall only gather greater strength and momentum, and the breath is ripped from her. She will not have long to say her farewells; she estimates she has a week, if that. She must also begin cultivating allies; she has letters to write and ravens to send. She thanks the gods she does not have to pack away many of her things; it would be yet another task that reminds her of her impending departure. The climate in the South is much warmer and so there is no point in taking her woollen dresses anyway. Some vicious, uncharitable part of her hopes that whenever her father comes across some of her things, in the future, after she is gone, he will be reminded that his freedom and life and prosperity was bought at the cost of her maidenhead; that he will not forget the cost of his actions. 

 

So she sits with her little brother, leaning back against the stone, letting her mind wander until the bells sound the hour, and she nudges Rickon gently. “It’s time for your lessons,” she says quietly.

 

Rickon pouts, but gets up and eventually scampers off to find Maester Luwin for his afternoon lessons, leaving Sansa with a quick kiss on the cheek. She frowns as her muscles protest her movement; leaning against the stone for so long was not the best idea, and she feels it know as she rises. She smooths her skirts and makes her way to her room, making certain to use the servants passages that wind their narrow stairs around the keep, from the highest tower to tunnels leading to the labyrinth of crypts and the kitchens beneath the Great Hall. In this way, she hopes to avoid the King. Her absence at the midday meal will have been noticed, she knows, but she needs to be alone.

 

Ever have her chambers been her sanctuary; Catelyn Stark never entered the series of rooms; a solar, bedchamber and garderobe. No-one, not even her siblings, her father, have been beyond her solar. The only exceptions are her direwolf, Rickon, and her Uncle Arthur. 

 

She finds a tray with a covered bowl of thick, hearty vegetable soup, still piping hot, accompanied by fresh rolls of bread smothered in salted butter and honey, a few slices of cold ham cuts, lemoncakes, figs and grapes, and a cup of the mint tea her uncle taught her to favour on her desk. Winterfell’s gardeners grow figs and lemons in the glasshouses specially for her, at her uncle’s command. She has very few memories of Starfall, but the juiciness of the figs and the tart-sweet taste of the lemoncakes is one of them.

 

There is no note, only a single white starflower bloom and a red heart-tree leaf, and Sansa smiles. Uncle Arthur has always known how to cheer her up. Her Dayne relatives have always been her greatest lifeline; now, they are more important to her than ever, and she carries her tray to the elegant side table next to the fur-lined armchair by her stone fireplace, where the flames roar merrily, though she does not really need it. She begins to eat, absentmindedly feeding the odd morsel to the direwolf who has come to lay contentedly at her feet. She takes a sip of her soup and closes her eyes in appreciation, letting the richness of the flavour whirl around in her mouth, and she feels all the tension leave her body. 

 

She leans her head back against her chair and sighs before getting up again and walking back to her desk. She leaves her tray where it is; her handmaiden will come and collect it in the afternoon. For now, she has letters to write. 

 

Her desk faces her windows, giving her a view of the godswood and Winterfell’s great ramparts beyond. When she was younger, she fancied she could see the heart tree from her window; a childish hope, but ever a comforting one. Now, her view is tinged with both melancholy and no little fear. Will she be locked away in the southern capital, reduced to staring out into the world, staring at life passing her by? Gritting her teeth, she shakes the thought away. With everything she has seen thus far of Robert Baratheon; his drunkenness, his indiscriminate whoring, his casual disregard for everyone except her father, with everything she has heard of what he did to his previous wife, her fears are not entirely unfounded. But there is a difference between that and needlessly working herself up into hysterics.

 

Determinedly, she turns her attention back to her parchment. Her letters come slowly, every word thoughtfully considered. She is entirely too aware that the moves she makes now will set her course, and she does not wish to make mistakes. 

 

She writes to Lord Tywin Lannister first. It is like to be one of her more difficult tasks - how to make the Lord Paramount of the West understand that she is not a threat to the Lannister position or legacy, and that she will not allow herself to be made into a threat? She commences with expressing her condolences for the Queen’s death, and though she takes a risk in doing so, states outright that she has no desire to erase Cersei or the Princess Myrcella; that she has managed to include in her marriage contract the same rule her mother Lady Ashara Dayne insisted upon; that the eldest child, regardless of sex, will inherit, thereby safeguarding the Princess’s position. She closes with an earnest vow to love the golden haired little girl as she would her own, and with her hopes of friendship with the Lannisters. The missive completed, she sets it aside. She will pass it to her uncle before sending it, and ask for his opinion.

 

Her next letter she addresses to Lord Stannis Baratheon. By all accounts, he is a staid, honourable, if inflexible man. But she does know, from her Dayne relatives in Starfall, that he is devoted to his daughter Shireen. The little girl is a recluse due to her disfigurement by greyscale as a baby, but Sansa thinks it a good idea to change that. She extends to Lord Stannis an invitation for Shireen to reside in her court, as one of her ladies, receiving all the privileges Shireen’s elevated station demands. Here she labours over her words in a way she did not when penning Lord Lannister’s letter. She is careful in her phrasing, aware that she must extend an invitation, not an imperious summons. 

 

In writing to Prince Doran Martell of Dorne she is similarly careful, using the full extent of the knowledge imparted to her by the Lord of Starfall to her advantage. She is aware of the enmity between the Martells and the Lannisters; but she writes that she is not the King; she doesn’t see little girls as threats to her position. She closes, as she did with the Lannisters, with hopes for her friendship.

 

She intends to write to Lord Parsifal and Lady Allyria next, but before she is able to do so, a knock sounds at her door. 

 

“Come in!” she calls evenly, rising from her desk as she does so. 

 

It is her uncle Arthur. “Your absence at the midday meal was noticed,” he says by way of greeting as he shuts the door to her solar behind him and takes a seat by the fire.

 

Sansa twists her hands. “I could not - I - ”

 

“I know,” her uncle replies gently. “You’re under an enormous amount of strain. I’m not surprised you needed a respite. Nevertheless, an absence at supper tonight would be… unwise.”

 

“I understand,” she replies blankly, and her uncle’s jaw tightens at her words.

 

“Oh, my dear girl,” he sighs. “I wish I could do more for you.”

 

“You can’t. No-one can. But thank you all the same.”

 

Arthur snorts. “No, there is one who could, but I am beginning to doubt he ever would.” At her bewildered face, he continues bitterly. “Your father. I’ve looked at the contract. It will provide you with the minimum amount of protection, no more than that. It also makes no mention of the Heirship to Winterfell. Your father could have made that contract far more favourable to you - Seven Hells, the only reason you will have your own men in King’s Landing is because Starfall is supplying them!”

 

“Could you talk to him?”

 

“I already have, to no avail.”

 

The words ring in her mind and she paces in front of the fireplace almost convulsively, in a frenzied, despairing manner. “Father won’t ride South for me. He won’t call the banners for me. He vowed never to ride South again. He lied to me. He won’t even be at my wedding. He told me when I signed the contract.” She chokes on the words, whirling desperately towards him. “Tell me. Tell me, uncle, that you did not know.”

 

“I did not know.” Her uncle’s response is just as fierce. “Gods, Ned, you’re an idiot…” he trails off, a sharp laugh catching in his throat. “I did always wonder - for all his words about honour and loyalty, only with Robert Baratheon have words been inescapably followed by action. He tarried two days at the Tower of Joy attempting to find a raven to send word to Robert of Lyanna’s death, when I urged him time and time again to ride for Starfall. Had we arrived sooner; perhaps Ashara would still be alive.” Her uncle does not often say his sister’s name aloud, but it is always with a wistful, melancholy reverence. Arthur is not like her father is about Aunt Lyanna, never letting her name pass his lips and refusing to speak of her at all; no, Arthur wants Sansa to know who her mother was, and has often entertained her with stories of Ashara. “Neither did he fight Robert for long about Cersei…” Arthur continues, and Sansa feels something cold slice through her veins. “Anyone with a brain understood what happened on that wedding night and every night thereafter, but his loyalty to Robert, Robert, Robert, always to Robert, superseded any qualms he might have had about Robert violently mistreating his wife.”

 

Her uncle stares, unseeing, lost in memory, into the fireplace, and Sansa trembles. When she eventually speaks, her voice is high with uncertainty. 

 

“Robert Baratheon over his firstborn daughter?”

 

“I fear so,” Arthur replies heavily. “Your father wants me to ride ahead to King’s Landing, and take Bran with me, to prepare your arrival.” He continues eventually, and Sansa feels sick. Is everyone to leave her? “I have refused him. I have no intention of leaving you alone with the King, and you have no other qualified to guard you in my stead.” 

 

“Thank you, uncle,” Sansa stutters out, a wave of emotion crashing through her. She sways, and when she finds her words again, they are worn with the weight of such incredible gratitude she almost fears to express it. Her Dayne relatives are the only adults she knows who have always, without fail and since the day she was born, always had her best interests at heart. Her. Not her claim. Not the political standing of their Houses. Her. It is the greatest gift she could ever receive. “Thank you,” she gasps, sitting at his feet, leaning her back against his booted legs and her forehead against his knee. “You may be my uncle, but you are more my parent than my father has ever been. You have been father and mother both. I remember you teaching me my sums and my letters, sitting with me as I made mistake after mistake on my lute, teaching me to ride. I owe you everything, uncle. You and Uncle Parsifal and Aunt Allyria.”

 

“Now, now, Sansa, you’ll make this old soldier weep like the Trident.” Her uncle has always laughed to hide his tears, but she can hear the emotion in his voice nonetheless. 

 

“You’re not old!” she returns, swatting his leg. “Your duel this morning against Ser Jaime put paid to that idea, not that it was at all needed in the first place.” 

 

“Ah, yes. Jaime Lannister.” her uncle drawls, knowingly elongating the vowels. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about him.” 

 

Despite herself, she blushes, ducking her head when she realises, but not before she catches the glint in her uncle’s eyes that means he’s seen the flush spreading on her cheeks. “What about Ser Jaime Lannister?” she asks, pleased with her equanimity.

 

“Playing the coquette doesn’t suit you, my dear.” There’s a hint of teasing in his tone, but it is undercut by seriousness, and Sansa feels like a little girl all over again.

 

“Uncle, I - ”

 

Arthur raises a hand and Sansa falls silent. “I am not going to scold you.” Indeed, there is no hint of reproach in his voice, only compassion. “I am only going to caution you that by going down this path, you will be placing yourself, and him, in an incredible amount of danger, and that you must be prepared to face the consequences.”

 

“I know, uncle,” Sansa answers, her voice small. “I have not forgotten my lessons. I know what the sentence for adultery and high treason is. I would not wish that on him.” She feels entirely the weight of her words, and everything within her screams in response. She cannot stay away from him. They might have recently met, but she knows, already, with a certainty that chills and heats her at the same time, that staying away from him is beyond her. “But I must be honest, now, if never again. I will not be able to stay indifferent to him. I am not indifferent to him now, and I never have been.” Not indifferent must be the understatement of the century; but it is already more than she can safely voice. The rest must and will stay forever locked in the very depths of her heart, not even to be spoken of, thought upon and examined in the dead of night.

 

Her uncle rubs his forehead wearily. “You must guard what happiness you can, Sansa. You are a woman full-grown; you must make your own decisions in this as in all things. I will keep your secrets, should you choose to give them to me.” 

 

“Have I disappointed you?” 

 

“No. Never.” Her uncle shakes his head vehemently. “Never. Disappointing me is not something you are capable of. I am only deeply saddened for you. Your path is not an easy one to walk.” There is something in Arthur’s tone; something beyond sympathy, something beyond compassion, a strange, choked note that hints at some old grief. Her uncle is a private man and Sansa knows there are some things he will not tell her, and some things she will never asks. Some secrets are not meant to see the light of day. 

 

And Sansa hugs her uncle’s knees and weeps, even as Lady settles herself on Sansa’s lap, the direwolf wanting desperately to comfort the other half of her soul. She weeps for the North, she weeps for Cersei, she weeps for her Father and the position he is in (although some bitter part of her flares with hatred and the acrid taste of betrayal, heavy as lead on her tongue) but she weeps for herself and for him most of all. Her uncle simply rests his hand on the crown of her head, the heavy weight the comfort of her childhood, of lemoncakes and figs drizzled with honey and rides in the Wolfswood and the gruff, honest nods of Northern bannermen, of home. 

 

 


 

 

Sansa is numb; she is beyond sadness and beyond tears, but the silence of her solar is rent by the sudden, agonised howling of a direwolf. Lady startles in her lap and Sansa scrambles agitatedly to her feet. 

 

Something has happened. 

 

Something is wrong.

 

The howling becomes more desperate.

 

Summer.

 

Bran. 

 

 


 

 

Sansa feels bile rise in her throat as she sees, at the foot of the First Keep, two small shapes, unmoving and dark against the grass, but she squares her shoulders and moves determinedly forwards. She sees Rickon and Arya on their wolves, streaking closer, Ser Jaime striding at their heels, and Sansa somehow forms words with her tongue and forces them out of her mouth. “Rickon and Arya can’t see this,” she says, and her uncle nods, moving to intercept them. She sees, in her peripheral vision, Arthur pluck little Arya off Nymeria and turn her head away from the grisly sight at the foot of the tower, and Ser Jaime do the same for Rickon, even as the men call for Maester Luwin. 

 

Sansa sinks to her knees beside her brother and his direwolf, and as she scans her eyes over his form, she knows in her heart that he is dead, staring blankly up at the sky, dark blood staining the back of his head, pooling on the grass. Summer at his side whimpers, feebly thumping his tail, and Sansa sinks a reassuring hand into the soft fur, scratching behind the ears. He closes his eyes and the direwolf is fading, she realises. 

 

“Summer,” she says urgently, and the direwolf’s eyes open, blank and sad with grief. She bends across her brother’s corpse to lean her forehead against the wolf’s, nose to nose. “What happened, Summer? Show me,” she growls desperately. 

 

Summer shows her, and whimpers again before growing still, the light fading from his eyes. Sansa’s hands tremble with the truth, and she extends shaking fingers to close first her brother’s eyes, and then the direwolf’s. 

 

A warm hand comes to rest on her shoulder as her uncle and Ser Jaime kneel beside her. “I’ve sent Rickon and Arya back to your solar; they shouldn’t be alone,” her uncle murmurs, and she nods her understanding, her gaze not leaving the bodies on the grass that are still warm. 

 

“Where is my father?”

 

“Hunting in the Wolfswood with the King.” It is Ser Jaime who answers, voice thick with distaste. 

 

“He should be here,” Sansa replies blankly.

 

“He could not have foreseen this.” Her uncle replies gently. Sansa nods jerkily in acknowledgement as Arthur helps her to her feet, slipping an arm around her waist for support. “Come away, Sansa. Let Maester Luwin do his work.”

 

She is trembling, she realises vaguely, her vision blurring. Her fists twist in her uncle’s tunic, and his hand comes up to cup her cheek, and he rests his forehead against hers. “Summer…” she gasps out. “Summer showed me what happened… I felt him fall…

 

“Not here, Sansa.” Her uncle replies firmly, but gently. “You are the Heir to Winterfell, you cannot break here.” She nods against his chest, inhales deeply, straightens her spine, and steps out of her uncle’s embrace. I am the Heir to Winterfell. I must show them that I can lead, with grace and strength.

 

She leads the way back into the castle, calling orders to servants and bannermen alike in a clear, even voice that betrays none of the roiling turmoil and grief clawing at her stomach. She asks for a message to recall her father to the keep post-haste, and makes arrangements for her brother and his direwolf to be interred at dusk. And though it will likely displease the King, for he is ever fond of wine and whores, she decrees that the evening meal will not be as extravagant as it otherwise would have been, as a mark of respect. Referring to Bran and Summer in the past tense almost makes her falter, makes her dizzy, but she grits her teeth and holds her head high and somehow fulfils her task with the dignity she has sought always to portray. As she passes her handmaiden, she calls for wine and sweetsleep to be brought to her solar, and only when she reaches the safety of her rooms, accompanied by her uncle, Ser Jaime, Arya, Rickon and the wolves, when the heavy oak door is safely shut and barred, does she sink to the ground, leaning heavily into Lady.  

 

Ser Jaime looks awkward, but Sansa extends her left hand to him, asking him to stay, and he kneels beside her on the flagstones, and takes her hand in his, and brings it once more to his lips. The warmth of his touch, of his thumb rubbing back and forth across her knuckles, the firm pressure of his lips, brings her out of her daze, brings her back to life. 

 

“As you command, my lady,” he says, his green gaze meeting hers. In his expression she sees only empathy, only concern, not pity. And that is why, she realises, she allows him to see her fall, to see her strip away the courtly masks she must wear in public. The bonds of trust that bind them are only tightening further, it seems. She wants to lean into him, to have his arms wind around her waist, to rest her cheek on his broad chest and hear his heartbeat thrumming in her ear, but she restrains herself with great difficulty. 

 

The moment is broken by Arthur passing them goblets of wine from the carafe that has been brought up, and he encourages them all to drink. Arya, Rickon and the wolves pile into a tangled heap on the rug by the fire, hoping to be lulled to sleep by the flicker and crackle of the flames. Sansa smiles as the children settle between the wolves, so tightly entwined that they are almost invisible. Arthur spoons diluted sweetsleep into the children’s mouths, so they can rest, allowing their minds to attempt to make sense of the afternoon’s events. 

 

Her uncle tosses back his first glass of wine, before immediately serving himself again and collapsing with a sigh into one of Sansa’s chairs next to the fire, turning his expression to the crackling flames, the only sound in the otherwise silent room. 

 

Sansa’s hands shake too violently for her to be able to take even the smallest sips, and when Ser Jaime notices he sets down his goblet, as yet untouched, and brings his hands to rest over hers to steady them. She only manages to wet her lips on the first attempt, but Ser Jaime’s expression, lit with a strange intensity, a focus that she is unaware she is matching, never changes, encouraging her to try again, and slowly, gently, her trembling ceases as the effects of the wine make her body languorous with ease, and she anchors herself in the emerald of his eyes. Neither of them speaks; the world has narrowed, and it is as though her uncle Arthur is not even in the room. She feels his calloused fingers at her wrists and shivers race down her spine. He is so gentle with her, this man who is a god of war, freely offering her the comfort she needs instead of the mockery of the weakness of her sex she is like to be faced with by some, and she can do nothing else but offer up all her tenderness, her earnest honesty and admiration in return. 

 

When at last she has drunk her fill, when the wine has settled her stomach enough that she no longer feels the desire to retch at the barest provocation, she offers Ser Jaime the rest of her cup with a small, shy smile flitting across her face. His eyes widen a fraction, his nostrils flare as he inhales sharply, but his hands tighten over hers in acceptance, and the glint in his emerald eyes darkens before settling to a simmering burn. His gaze rakes her from crown to folded knee, and he twitches his mouth into the slightest smile, and she blushes, his gesture stealing her breath. She watches, rapt, as he brings the goblet to his mouth, and she gets the barest glimpse of white teeth as he closes his lips on the rim, tilting his head back to expose his neck as he does so. His eyes half close and her blush intensifies. He is repaying trust with trust, intimacy with intimacy, abandon with abandon. She can see the cords of tendon and muscle in his neck and throat working as he swallows, and she trembles, barely preventing herself from squirming. There is a strange, splendid heat building in her core, a pricking under her skin. He has his back to the fireplace, and the dramatic shadowing across his face burns his blonde hair to shining gold, and something deep inside her twists. She’d thought him handsome before, the handsomest man she’d ever seen, even, but now he is nothing short of beautiful; this Lion of Lannister is a god amongst mortals. 

 

He tips his head further back, eyes closing fully as he does so, in order to swallow the last dregs, and the very edges of her fingertips touch his jaw. He freezes at her gentle touch, eyes snapping open. She holds his fierce gaze even as she marvels at the tiny prickles of a day’s worth of stubble on his smooth jaw make on her fingers. Part of her wonders, quailing, if she has perhaps overstepped the mark, but he simply, slowly, guides the goblet and her hands down to the floor, holding his gaze to hers, and she understands she has nothing to fear. The blaze in his emerald eyes is not anger.

 

Gently, he tugs her hands free of the empty metal and shifts so their kneecaps touch as he places her hands, palms up, fingers slightly curled, upon her thighs. His palms warm the backs of her hands, his thumbs resting lightly in the curve between her thumb and forefinger. With infinite tenderness, he traces his thumbs in a butterfly-light path back and forth across the centre of her palms to the inside of her wrists. Sansa’s eyes close and her head falls back at the exquisiteness of this caress, and she bites her lip, exhaling silently, mouth flashing a glorious smile of exultation. 

 

Then she feels him lift his hands from hers, and she blinks at the loss, confused, disorientated, but when she looks at him again she understands it is so he can bring his large hands to cup her face. A blissful sigh escapes her lungs, her warm breath washing over his hands; and it is Ser Jaime’s turn to close his eyes and tremble. She nuzzles into his touch, and his eyes reopen, intense and fierce and tender, a combination that robs her of what little remaining breath she has. Every part of her, every iota of being she has is tuned to him, as though she has become an instrument only he can play, and he repays this by turning every single bit of his considerable focus on her, and she has never felt so overwhelmed in her life. She forgets it all; the King, the danger of this position, Bran, Summer’s dreadful images, until there is only him. Ser Jaime. Jaime. 

 

For such a powerful man as him to turn his full attention to her… she remembers his duel with Arthur in the morning. He fights like the Warrior made flesh; but then so does her uncle. The difference is that where her uncle is cold, almost remote, glacial in his swordplay, when Jaime Lannister fights you can tell he is alive. He throws everything he is into it; his soul is there for those who care to look. He fights with such intensity, such sheer life that one can hardly take their eyes off him. And the way he looks at her now… he loves the same way he fights, she suspects - with everything he is. With fierce intensity and joy and playful wit; he is incapable of doing anything by half-measures. His vulnerability is matched only by his incredible courage; she is not so nearly open with her thoughts and feelings as he is (though his defence mechanism is sarcastic wit more often than not), but only Ser Jaime Lannister manages to draw out her true, unguarded responses. 

 

His thumb traces the plumpness of her bottom lip, the edge of her chin, the line of her jaw. The pads of his thumbs just beneath her ears make her bite back a whimper, and she relaxes into the caress as he smoothes his way down her neck to her collarbones, arching her back. Suddenly, she realises how close to him she is. She can see the flecks of gold at the centre of his irises; their noses only need to be a hairsbreadth closer in order for them to touch. They are now both merely on their knees instead of sitting back on their heels, and she is close enough to bask in the heat his body radiates. His eyes burn into hers, and only a twitch of his mouth betrays his smile, a gesture which she shyly returns. 

 

Kiss me, she thinks suddenly with a desperation that surprises her. She is all but melting into him, and she cannot help the sudden flush of victory that sweeps through her as he reads the plea in her eyes and draws his hands across her shoulders and down her spine which arches into his touch. One hand settles languorously into the small of her back and the other tangles and fists her long, loose hair, pulling the strands taught, and the hint of pressure makes her breath hitch in anticipation. Her hands come to rest on his shoulders, and she easily imagines sliding one up his neck and coming to rest on his jaw, and the other down his arm to grip his bicep and feel the muscle flex beneath her dainty fingers. Having hitched her breath, he then proceeds to steal it from her entirely by smoothly drawing her body fully against his. A lazy, leonine grin flits across his face at her blushing response, and the playful glint in his eyes tells her he has every intention of taking his time, of savouring this, and she raises her chin defiantly, pushing past her maidenly embarrassment, watching his grin widen in response. 

 

She has a moment to appreciate the firm muscle of his frame against hers, apparent even through his clothing, before a series of sharp, loud knocks at the door startles them back to reality. 

 

The two wrench away from each other, breathing hard, even as Arthur is torn from his fireside snooze to answer the intruders, which turn out to be Sansa’s father, accompanied by the King.

 


       

 

Chapter Text


 

 

WINTERFELL IV

 

 

 


 

 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

 

He can still feel the silk of her hair in his hands, the warmth of her lithe waist held against him, her whole body against his, the sweetness of her breath, the give of her lower lip under his thumb, the exquisite softness of her cheeks, the flash of shy anticipation in her eyes that glimmered like the Sunset Sea. Her radiance fells him like a tree; and his fingers clench around the entrancing memory of a ghost. 

 

His breathing is harsh with shock, his thoughts entirely scattered as he gropes blindly for his own cup of wine, forcing away the burning memory of the two of them sharing her wine, her small hands tenderly enclosed in his, and hurriedly gulps it down. He is struggling to understand precisely what has just happened; it had been more than an innocent desire to comfort her - though he’d not had any intention beyond such when he’d closed his hands around hers and lifted the cup of wine to his lips. Her offering of the cup to him, her fingertips just brushing his jawline, her shy, close-lipped smile, her earnest, innocent affection, had been his undoing. He’d traced the insides of her palms and the soft skin of her wrists, and felt the thundering of her pulse. She’d smiled broadly then, tilting back her head, hair cascading down her back, eyes fluttering shut, and he’d never seen anything more beautiful, more entrancing. He’d not consciously decided to bring his hands to her face to cradle her head, fingers brushing over her cheekbones, her lower lip, trailing down her neck behind her ears to her collarbones, but it had seemed the only thing to do. And then he’d gathered her in his arms, had been a hairsbreadth away from claiming her lips in an ardent kiss when they’d been disturbed. He grits his teeth; he needs to clear his head, now. 

 

The King and the Lord of Winterfell are at the door, he reminds himself, and that snaps him from his stupor as efficiently as if he’d poured a bucket of snowmelt over his head.    

 

In his peripheral vision, he sees her practically flee to the other side of her desk, and she stills to look out of the window. Only her bowed head, the slight tremble of her shoulders and the flexing of her musician’s fingers upon the stone windowsill betray her disquiet. They are both reeling from what they have just experienced, and the danger - had they been caught in such a position, however innocent it might have started as - they could both have been in. To forget themselves thus… it cannot happen again. It will not happen again. It must not happen again.  

 

Arthur - thank the gods - has not seen what both of them were doing, exactly, but the assessing look he gives Jaime as he steps past the knight in order to open the door tells him he knows something has happened. The voices at the door; one perpetually too loud, with a hint of a slur, and the other gruff, here tinged with grief; do nothing to alleviate the sudden buzzing in Jaime’s ears. 

 

Focus. Now. 

 

“I’d like to speak to my children,” Lord Stark says. Arthur nods, once, before stepping aside and opening the door widely enough for Lord Stark and the King to be able to step into the room. 

 

The Lady Sansa turns around at that, curtseying shallowly. “Of course, Father.” She gestures with her habitual elegance towards the pile of fur and limbs next to the fire. “But please, they’re sleeping now. Can it not wait?”

 

“We bury Bran at dusk,” Lord Stark continues, and the Lady’s brow furrows in confusion.

 

“Do you not agree with these arrangements, my lord Father?”

 

Jaime grits his teeth, silently hoping Lord Stark will have the intelligence not to say anything. Can he not tell what sort of day the Lady has had? It is written in every line of her face and body; she is the living embodiment of sorrow, it appears to him. 

 

Lord Stark shakes his head. “Dusk will do.” He looks around for some wine and his gaze falls on Jaime. “What in the name of the Old Gods are you doing here, Kingslayer?” He snarls, hand going to the pommel of his sword.

 

“Seeing to the wellbeing of my squire,” Jaime replies swiftly, his tone sincere as he nods towards the boy slumbering with his little sister by the fire. The children do not stir, knocked into slumber by the sweetsleep, and little Arya is entirely hidden from the King’s view by Lady and Nymeria. Lord Stark looks disbelieving, and Jaime snorts inwardly. You fucking hypocrite. 

 

“Get on with it, Ned,” the King grinds out from his position in what has been up until then Arthur’s armchair, before Lord Stark can reply to Jaime’s words. “I haven’t all day; there’s a nice new whore waiting for me between the furs in my chambers. A hunt always gets my blood up, you know.”

 

“The King has suggested a wedding would cheer everyone up.” Lord Stark announces and Jaime sees the Lady pale. “His Grace would like a Northern wedding, and I have agreed.” He turns to his daughter. “You will marry the King tonight, Sansa.”

 

In the stunned, dazed silence that follows, the King farts once, belches twice and then proceeds to hoist himself out of the creaking armchair and take himself out of the Lady’s solar, but not before turning to Lord Stark and saying, “I’ll leave you to your daughter, Ned. And remember, I’ll be waiting.”

 

The door slams, and the sound shocks them all from silence. 

 

“Bran is not yet cold in his grave and you would have me marry this night! Father, have you taken leave of your senses?” The Lady’s voice shakes with fury and despair. “This is a day of mourning, not celebration.”

 

“You wouldn’t celebrate anyway when you married the King, so what does the day matter,” Lord Stark retorts, and the Lady’s mouth falls open in shock. 

 

“Ned, tomorrow at the very least; this is an insult.” Arthur attempts reason in his turn, but all Lord Stark does is shake his head, a weary expression set deeply into the lines of his face. 

 

“My hands are tied,” Lord Stark responds as he leaves. 

 

The Lady Sansa flies to the door behind her father, and for a moment Jaime believes she will tug his clothes to plead with him once more, but she merely slams the bolt in place to lock the door, breathing hard. “When it comes to the King, Father, I have come to realise that your hands are always tied,” she murmurs bitterly. Jaime winces, believing she did not intend for her words to be heard. 

 

He longs to stride to her, to embrace her, for her to lay her cheek against his heart so his hand can cradle her head to him, to comfort her in some way, but he does not dare move. 

 

“There’s no way out,” she says, voice flat, lifeless. Jaime wants to weep, to rage; he feels her anguish as his own, he realises as her eyes meet his. His face must be contorted with anger and hatred, he knows, but she does not avert her face, instead looking at him more intently. He is her anchor, it seems, and the notion simultaneously exhilarates and humbles him. “I gave my word I would not run; and so there is no way out. After my brother’s burial I shall marry the King tonight.” 

 

Arthur sighs, defeated. “If that is your decision, my Queen, I shall honour it.” He bows and then begins the task of rousing the direwolves as Jaime looks on curiously. First Nymeria then Shaggy rise, and Arthur then sets the still sleeping children upon the furry backs. He then strides forcefully towards a concealed door in the corner of the solar, pushing it open on silent hinges. A servant’s passage, Jaime realises belatedly as the direwolves precede the Lady’s uncle into the darkness; Jaime assumes, returning to the Lord Rickon and the Lady Arya’s own chambers. Arthur glances back at Jaime and the Lady Sansa solemnly.

 

“I cannot give you much time. I’ll knock when I return; let no-one else in.”

 

“Uncle, wait a moment!” Lady Sansa gathers what Jaime sees to be letters in her hands and extends them to Arthur. “With my wedding moved forward, it is of paramount importance these are sent, immediately.”

 

Arthur flicks through the parchment, nodding his approval. “Lord Tywin, Lord Stannis, Prince Doran… you’ve done well. I would send to the Lord Hand too, but the choice is yours.” He bows fluidly. “I’ll see these sent tonight, you have my word.”

 

The Lady bows her head. “Thank you, uncle,” she says quietly. 

 

Arthur nods and disappears, the little door shutting, and Jaime hears the click of the latch locking behind.

 

“You’ve written to my father?” Jaime blinks.

 

A smirk flits briefly across the Lady’s face. “Your father is the most powerful man in the Kingdoms, we both know. It seems foolish in the extreme to have him as an enemy when I can make him my ally.”

 

“Would you share your plans with me, my lady?” Jaime asks. If that is what she needs at this moment; to reassure herself that she is not going into this situation entirely weaponless, he will give it to her. Anything she asks of him; anything she desires of him, he will give. It is as simple as that. 

 

The Lady nods, gesturing for him to sit. He protests, but she explains that she prefers to pace as she plans, he acquiesces and sinks gratefully into the chair. 

 

“Your father will not accept anyone other than the Princess Myrcella succeeding our current King. It is no hardship to me to pledge myself to her claim.” 

 

“You would deny your own children a claim to the throne?” Jaime can’t understand. Cersei would have fought to her last breath so that her own children would sit on the Iron Throne before anyone else’s. 

 

“I am Heir to Winterfell because my mother insisted on my father following the Dornish rules of succession; you might remember. That always displeased my father’s second wife; and she raised Robb to believe that he would one day be Lord of Winterfell. I am now going South; and my half-brother is of an age where he shall likely be knighted by Ser Garlan Tyrell, and thereafter return to the North. It would not only be the height of hypocrisy but also cruel for me to deny a daughter her claim when I will have to defend mine to Winterfell.”

 

“The Northern Lords practically worship the ground you walk on, my lady,” Jaime replies in astonishment. He marvels at her reasoning for allying with his father, and the evident grasp she has on politics, but his heart aches for her, that she feels that despite all her talents and qualities, the North would declare for a younger half-brother and not her. 

 

“I’ve had fifteen years to woo the likes of Lord Manderly and Lord Bolton and Lord Umber, that is true.” The Lady Sansa replies with a hint of laughter in her eyes. “Nevertheless…” she trails off, frowning. “Nothing is certain.”

 

“You cannot mean to tell me that you honestly do not believe your bannermen would choose you?”

 

“I’m a woman,” she replies sadly. “If even my father will not fight for me…” 

 

His eyes narrow. “What do you mean?” He growls dangerously. “The honourable Ned Stark will not fight for you?”

 

She twists her fingers, her voice tight with heartbreak. “He promised to call the banners if I ever asked in the future, and I, like a naive little girl,” she snarls brokenly, “believed him. I agreed to the wedding, but now I know the truth.” She raises her head and states blankly, “The Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell will never go South again; for so he swore at the end of the Rebellion. I don’t know why I expected any better; what is a girl against a king, after all?”       

 

“Damn you, Stark.” Jaime bites out. The resignation in her voice enrages him, and he desperately wracks his brains for a way to tell her that she is better than this, that she deserves better. “Your bannermen,” he says eventually, voice harsh. “Manderly, Mormont, Umber, Karstark, Glover, Bolton… all of them.” He pushes himself from the chair and strides forcefully towards her and gently brings his palms to her cheeks. “They would fight for you. They are furious with the disregard and the insults the King has shown you, whoring in plain sight at your table as he does. I’ve heard them, believe me. Their discontent is growing.”

 

She exhales shakily and blinks away the shining tears she refuses to let fall. He wipes them tenderly with the pads of his thumbs. “Then, for the stability of the realm, I must ask them to desist.” She trembles, and Jaime can only sadly take in the sight. 

 

“Tell me what I can do, my lady,” he entreats. “Tell me know I can help you and I will do it.”

 

Her eyes widen. “Why?” she whispers hoarsely. “What have I done, what am I to warrant such devotion?”

 

He traces her cheekbones, a wistful look in his eyes. “You are you, my lady. It is that simple.”

 

She gasps at that, her sea-coloured eyes scanning his face, looking for some hint of trickery, of some hint of a lie. Jaime lets her, looking back at her. There is no lie for her to find; to him, it really is that simple. “Such faith in me,” she breathes wonderingly. 

 

“Nothing less than you deserve,” he responds, a hint of the old, confident drawl in his voice, and it is her turn to bring his hand to her lips. Her kiss is soft, tender, almost ethereal, and conveys everything she cannot say. Her gratitude, her disbelieving wonder, her promise in return to prove herself worthy of this confidence. He senses they are on the edge of the cliff as she clasps his hands in hers; he is trembling under the gentle onslaught of her affection and admiration, and he needs to steer them to safer waters.

 

“Now,” he continues, “what may I do to help you?” He sees the answer in her eyes. Only hold me, they say. Hold me and let me forget the future for a time. No-one can truly help me for I am alone in this. “Hush, my lady,” he reassures her. “You are stronger than your fears. Turn that brilliant mind of yours to what you can do, those things you do have control of.” He isn’t entirely certain where all this is coming from; he must have absorbed more of his father’s lessons than he’d realised, he thinks sardonically, and he sees the change in her expression as she responds to his words. He sees her considering his question more seriously now, turning over various ideas in her head, and when she gasps he knows she has it. 

 

“Starfall is supplying my guardsmen for the capital; at this moment in time there are no plans to include any Northern knights amongst them.” 

 

He understands her immediately, though the notion that Ned Stark would allow his eldest daughter and the Heir to Winterfell to ride south, into the clutches of the King without the protection of her bannermen makes him rage at the man. He can’t comprehend such utter foolishness. “Forgive me for saying this, my lady, but your father is a fool.”

 

“So I have learned,” she replies quietly. “The details of my marriage contract have not yet been made public; the Northern Lords do not yet know. When they indicate their displeasure about my wedding ceremony being held this evening; I will suggest in full view of the Northern court, my father and the King that they might, as a gesture of appeasement, select knights from the North to accompany me South.”

 

“That will work, my lady.”

 

“It must.”

 

Jaime hesitates, framing his next sentence with care. “If I may suggest, my lady,”

 

“I would welcome any suggestions of yours, my lord,” she replies immediately, not hiding the affection in her voice. He realises with a jolt that she has been addressing him as my lord instead of ser, as though they are equals and not a knight of the Kingsguard and the King’s betrothed. The notion makes something deep within him clench and twist. With Cersei, he’d never allowed himself to think in terms of equals; she’d been his twin, his lover, his other half, his Queen, but she had always dominated him. He has never been her equal. And so, for this Lady to address him as my lord, it eases something deep inside his chest he had not realised had been so tightly coiled, something he had not realised even existed within him.  

 

“I do not believe your bannermen will satisfy themselves with that; can you negotiate for seats on the Small Council? At least one, if not two? I remember my father doing so when Cersei married.” 

 

She nods. “Thank you. And I know whom I would ask, too.”

 

“Good.” He replies fiercely, and she leans into his touch.

 

“No-one has ever treated me as you have.” Her voice is gentle, musical again, the regal, matter of fact tones fading back into the background, and he now registers the intimacy of it. This, then, is the difference between the Lady of Winterfell that shalt be Queen, and Sansa. Very rarely can he tell where one begins and the other ends, but it is in secluded, unguarded moments such as these that the distinction becomes clear. “Somehow, I think, you see me truly, as I see you, and it does not - does not -” she breaks off, suddenly, unable to stop the irrational fear that she has said too much.

 

Jaime does then as he has wanted desperately to do and gathers her gently in his arms. The Lady melts into him, and the level of trust she shows in him threatens to destroy him. He has done some reprehensible things in the name of war and of honour and of love, and he does not really consider himself a good man. He wishes he was, fiercely, but he knows all too well how much he falls short of the ideal. Kingslayer, Oathbreaker, man without honour. But for her, for the Lady Sansa Stark, he will try. Not only does she make him want to be a better man, but she makes him believe he can be; that the good in him might one day outweigh the dark. 

 

He tangles his hands in her long hair, his arms around her slim, lovely waist, hers gripping his shoulders, and he knows the silken feel, the weight of it, the look of it wrapped around his fingers will haunt him for many nights to come, and he only becomes aware that he is murmuring her name over and over again into the juncture of her neck and collarbone when his eyes close and his throat clogs thickly with unshed tears. Sansa. Sansa. Sansa. His pulse is her name, thundering in his ears, the only thing that matters. 

 

“It does not repel,” he finishes her sentence, whispering thickly into her ear.  

 

Her nose is cold against his neck as she sinks against his hard frame. “So much for us being able to stay away from each other,” she whispers, her breath tickling his neck as he fights a shudder down his spine, and despite the situation, this startles a rumbling laugh from him. He’s been thinking the same, of course he has. 

 

He opens his mouth to reassure her that he would never do anything without her consent, but she is faster. “You don’t need to make that promise to me, my lord,” she continues tenderly. “I already know you would never do anything of the kind. You would never force me.” 

 

He lifts his head to look at her then, and she does the same. “I - ” he has no idea what to say; he is astonished. Astonished at her perception, astonished at her faith, astonished at her admiration of him. He frowns. There is so much that is unsaid between them; and now that they have at last the opportunity to speak he has no idea where to begin. “Any decision will always be yours,” he offers eventually.

 

“No,” she refuses, and he sees the steel in her blue eyes. “Do not put me on a pedestal. I have no desire to be your Queen. You see me as I truly am; to you, I would be Sansa.” 

 

A small grin flits across his face. “I’ve always thought of pedestals as rather lonely,” he shrugs. “Sansa,” he adds deliberately, grin widening as he feels rather than sees her fingers flex against the muscles of his upper arms.

 

“You see my point, Jaime,” she smiles. Gods, the way she says his name. He bites back a groan and pulls her more tightly against him. She willingly sinks into his weight, and it feels as though everything within him is aligned with her. The sensation is so overwhelming to him that he grinds out another curse or five. 

 

“We have to stop,” he bites out through clenched teeth and jaw.

 

“Do you wish to?” She replies softly. There is no accusation, no anger, no resentment in her voice, only kindness.

 

“You know I do not,” he replies fiercely, illustrating his point by tightening his arms around her, and she smiles briefly into his shoulder. 

 

“We really can’t stay away from each other, can we?” she murmurs, a hint of laughter in her voice, and he looks at her then, and his heart lightens to see her eyes bright with some measure of joy instead of shining with tears. 

 

“No, my lady, we cannot,” he replies soberly, with a trace of heat lacing his words in a way similar to the way wine is heated and laced with spices against the cold; the warmth fills one’s very heart and then seeps out through the entire body. Her affection is an even greater restorative, he thinks suddenly. And just like that, what was thereunto unacknowledged between them has now been spoken, has now been said. Many things between them remain unspoken, that is true, and their emotions are still too new, too fraught, too raw, but they now both have a freedom they previously lacked. They can be freer in their thoughts and in what they feel, though not in their actions, not yet, and perhaps never. 

 

“It is more than I ever believed I would have,” she says, tracing up and down his arms with soft fingertips. And though she leaves the rest unsaid this is more than I thought I would have, trapped in marriage to that brute of a king, he divines her meaning instantly.

 

“My lady, my lady,” he says gently, more gently than he’d ever thought possible, but Sansa Stark inspires him to kindness, to care. He runs his hands slowly from the backs of her shoulders to the curve of her hips, over and over again, marvelling at her responsiveness, attempting to comfort her. He’s never been good with words, he thinks, not like his siblings or his father, but he has always found physical affection soothing, amongst other things, and he is rewarded by the feel of the tension leaving her body, as she relaxes fully against him.

 

They stand together, revelling in their embrace, and it is as much comfort of the soul as it is physical, a moment of quiet and peace and calm before the storm, a moment of gentle intimacy. He can both hear and feel her breathing as she languidly rests her head against his shoulder, and he swallows unsteadily. He is powerless against her, powerless to resist her onslaught that is no less deadly for its gentleness. 

 

At length, her voice breaks the silence. “I should prepare for - for the burial.” He nods, his cheek brushing against hers, and he briefly tightens his grip on her before releasing her reluctantly and stepping back. 

 

He strides towards the door that leads from her solar to the hallway beyond, but as his fingers go to slide back the bolt, he hesitates. He turns to speak, but the Lady only shakes her head with a small smile. She gestures towards the servants’ passage. 

 

“Follow it until you’ve past the third turnoff, then take the next flight of stairs up. Your chambers will be the door at the very end.” He stares incredulously at her, and she blushes, but holds his gaze. “I am the Heir to Winterfell, after all,” she replies lightly. 

 

“Of course, my lady.” He bows fluidly from the waist. He looks into her sea-coloured eyes and his mouth softens. “Sansa,” he says, and then he tears himself away, because he knows that if he stays a moment longer he will never be able to bring himself to leave.

 

 

 


 

 

SANSA STARK

 

 

The last burial she’d witnessed had been at the age of eleven, and it had been that of her father’s second wife, Lady Catelyn of House Tully, shortly after her little sister Arya’s birth. She has long outgrown the black mourning clothes she’d worn at the time, but she has found her simplest gown of darkest purple, embroidered with the white Stark direwolf. She wears no cloak; instead a long black veil, made of the sheerest silk, is held back from her face against her loose hair with the hammered bronze circlet studded with minuscule white starflowers carved from mother-of-pearl that she wears only on the most important occasions as the daughter of the Warden of the North and of the line of the Kings of Winter.

 

She is glad her family have been left alone for the moment; Winterfell’s seneschal earning his keep informing their guests and the smallfolk. Thus, the courtyards are empty and silent as she crosses them, a spirit in the shadows of the lengthening dusk. The very stones of the walls themselves seem to have stopped breathing, as though out of respect for her brother. She cuts a melancholy figure as she makes her way to the ceremonial entrance to the crypts, her direwolf at her side.

 

She must leave the castle walls to do so; and as she sees the smallfolk, the Northern bannermen as well as the King’s party, an uncomfortable-looking Lord Renly lining the path, standing silently, holding weirwood leaves in their hands. The Kingsguard, including Ser Jaime and Ser Loras in full regalia are sombre next to the King, who is steadily gulping down another flask of wine. She sees Ser Jaime’s jaw clench in distaste at the spectacle, and their eyes meet briefly through the crowd, and she sees the harsh light in his eyes soften to something infinitely sad. She smiles wanly at him, before wrenching her gaze away, back to the stone door carved into the moor, because she knows that if she keeps seeing the sympathy, the shared grief in his eyes she will fall to her knees and weep and break, and she cannot do that here because she is the Heir to Winterfell, she is Sansa Stark, the eldest daughter of the Warden of the North and she has a duty to perform this evening. The dark outline of the steps into the crypt can barely be made out, only shakily illuminated by the two flickering torches speared into the ground next to the entrance. She conjures up the crypts themselves in her mind’s eye; that labyrinth below the earth, below the stone and snow, beneath the life flowing through the subterranean streams of steam that heat her family’s ancestral seat. Down there, the air is stale with dust and grief and the passing of the ages, sometimes the Kings of Old seem to come alive when the torchlight flickers across a face, a hand of stone, a foot stepping from the darkness into the light, and these thoughts keep her anxious mind from straying to more unpleasant things. Her brother’s corpse. Feeling the life leech from Summer’s body. The King. Her wedding. 

 

Rickon and Arya appear silently beside her, silent direwolves behind the two children, and only their eyes glowing in the gloom, Arya looking as a younger version of Rickon, only the top of her dark head visible with the heavy furred cloak she wears. They slip clammy, trembling hands into hers and she squeezes them reassuringly as they approach their father and uncle to stop at his side. As one, they turn their backs to the door of stone, grey and dark against the snowy fell, to watch the palanquin bearing their brother’s body and that of his direwolf carried aloft in state down the path by four of the North’s most trusted bannermen; Lords Karstark, Manderly and Umber, and Lady Mormont too. The wood digs into the bearers’ shoulders, and it must be difficult despite the heavy cloaks they wear, though all four expressions remain solemn, without any sign of discomfort, and the silence that falls is oppressive, a weight on Sansa’s chest, and she struggles to even breath. She is close enough to see her brother’s ashen face, and she finds it difficult to understand what her eyes are seeing. Bran’s face is more than devoid of any expression; it is slack in death, and already he looks like a statue, akin to those of his forebears in their dark and silent halls of stone and ice below. 

 

Her brother’s tomb is yet bare, she knows; a rectangular sarcophagus of stone, with Brandon Son of Eddard freshly carved on the side. Her father and uncle, once the words have been said and sung, will carry Bran and Summer’s bodies with the aid of the retainers down into the crypts and lay them down, before sealing the tomb with the plain stone slab they will push into place themselves. 

 

The stonemasons, Sansa knows, have already set to carving a full likeness of her brother and his direwolf, but it will be several weeks before the statue is ready.  Her father and uncle Arthur each take a torch and hold it aloft as the procession stops at the door, and Sansa bows her head, gritting her teeth so she does not sink to her knees, her entire frame trembling with the force of her restraint before the silent door of stone gouged into Winterfell’s moor, gently tugging on her siblings’ hands so they copy her movements. She knows without looking that her father and uncle have done likewise.

 

“Brandon Stark, son of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North,” her father begins eventually, his voice more grim and gravelly than it normally is. Sansa only feels numb at the words; tears are beyond her. “Beloved son and brother, fallen to winter in spring, be at peace. Entombed in stone, wrapped in winter, under the moor, facing the sky, called by the Gods of Old to the Halls of your ancestors, be at peace.”

 

“Entombed in stone, wrapped in winter, under the moor, facing the sky, called by the Gods of Old to the Halls of your ancestors, be at peace.” Sansa intones, voice wavering on the words, her younger siblings tightening their death grips on her hands, before repeating the same litany after her. She distantly hears the words rumbling across the hill as the rest of the North solemnly takes them up, the sound of stone tumbling down the mountainside, an approaching storm, the cry of the wind. 

 

She reaches out to press a trembling hand to the cold stone of the entrance under which her brother’s bones shall turn slowly, inexorably to dust, until the tomb is empty, until only a memory remains, until an age entire has passed and memory itself fades but the name of Stark itself will live on.

 

Winterfell’s great bells begin to ring, once for every year of her brother’s life, and once they again fall silent, she opens her mouth to sing the lament every lady of the North learns but prays never to sing. It is a harsh, dissonant melody, in the all but forgotten tongue of the First Men, the ancestral language of the North. She sings despite the tears running down her cheeks, carving a path of misery into her very skin, it seems, despite the despair clogging her throat and choking her tongue, despite the heavy weight in her heart, her chest, her very core, a weight that attempts to seduce her into falling, here, before this very entrance, and never to rise again and instead be carried to her own dark place inside that hall of ghosts.

 

the snow lies thick

the wind howls strong

and it’s time, my love

it is time

 

can you hear the call,

my lord, the call of ice

the call of starless night

the King of Winter’s 

outstretched hand?

 

can you hear the horn,

the howl of the wolf

across the barren moor?

your kin have come

to carry you free, aye,

to carry you free

 

ghosts and kings of old

swords of ice and wolves howling

howling in the dark

they’re here to help you sleep

 

rest, my lord, rest here,

for you will remembered be

in silent halls of steel and snow and stone

you will remembered be,

my love, it’s time

it is time at last to sleep.

 

And then the direwolves once again take up their howling cry, until they are heard even at the tops of Winterfell’s towers both great and crumbling. 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

 

WINTERFELL V

 

 


 

 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

 

“There are days when I hate Rhaegar, Lyanna Stark and Robert Baratheon with every fibre of my being,” Arthur says to Jaime bitterly. The two men had reconvened in Arthur’s solar after Brandon Stark’s burial to share a much needed cup of wine; necessary to steady them for the evening ahead. From his slouched position in his chair, Jaime looks at his mentor curiously; he is standing with booted feet planted apart, staring out of the window, yet unseeing. Both men are casually dressed in white linen shirts and black breeches, but Arthur at this moment seems suddenly so incredibly weary. “This is one of them.”

 

“Days?” Jaime asks carefully, taking a sip of the Dornish red, enjoying the fullness of the flavours. 

 

Arthur glances at him, the corner of his mouth ticking up briefly; but there is no humour either in his expression or his voice. “Days… oh, who am I attempting to fool?” Arthur stalks across to the chair next to Jaime’s and drops a weary frame into it, leaning his elbows on his knees, his chin in his right palm, the goblet loosely encircled by the left. “Days. Weeks. Months. Years. Decades.” His voice by now is a snarl.

 

Jaime is taken aback. “I did not believe you capable of such a grudge,” he comments. 

 

Arthur blinks out a harsh laugh in reply, shaking his head ruefully, wistfully. “Yes, well. I have never claimed perfection.”

 

“Arthur,” Jaime insists gently. “What is all of this about? And why now?”

 

The Lord of Starfall’s brother snorts. “If you think I’ve been able to speak freely here about the Rebellion… who would I speak to - Ned? He thinks the sun shines out of the King’s arse. Anything I might utter against him would be dismissed, or worse, passed South, and my life forfeit. My niece? I would not trouble her with bitter, petty grudges from a time long past. My brother? You can’t put that kind of thing in a letter.

 

Jaime frowns his disagreement. “They are not petty; not if they still trouble you after all this time, a decade and a half later.”

 

Arthur smiles sadly, sincerely. “Thank you.” He gulps down more wine, rubbing his knee, sighing. When he speaks again, the amused glitter has returned to his blue eyes. “You do realise that your high opinion of me is something I have always tried to live up to?”

 

It is Jaime’s turn to splutter and cough on his wine. “Arthur, I - ”

 

“If you think I didn’t notice your hero-worship, you are quite mistaken.” Arthur smirks wickedly, clapping a hand on Jaime’s shoulder. “But I am honoured by it, truly. I always have been.”

 

“You’ve forgotten who I am, Arthur. I’m the Kingslayer.”

 

“And I am grateful every day since then that you had the courage that no-one else had - and I include myself in that - to do that deed.” Arthur responds evenly. “Aerys truly earned his name; we both know that. I wish I had had your courage; I wish I’d killed him myself. The Targaryens should never have come to Westeros. They brought nothing but fire and suffering in their wake.”

 

“I wish I’d kicked Rhaella’s door down; that first night.” 

 

“I wish I’d knocked Rhaegar out, tied him up, anything, anything at all to prevent him absconding. I wish I had been able to prevent him from taking up with Lyanna. I explained to him the utter selfishness of his actions, I argued with him for hours, for days, but even so…” Arthur trails off, tones more than a little tinged with both melancholy and fury. “He married Lyanna, you know? In Dorne. After setting aside Elia.”

 

Jaime blinks in shock. What in the Seven Hells? But Jaime trusts Arthur implicitly, unconditionally, so he does not see how this could be anything but the truth. He leans forward, expression intent, enunciating precisely, wanting to make certain he’s heard correctly. “He set Elia aside?”  

 

“He set her aside.” Arthur confirms through clenched teeth; his grip on his goblet turned white.

 

Jaime inhales sharply as all the pieces tumble through his mind and click into place; a lock successfully opened. Arthur is a Lord of Dorne; but this goes beyond the insult Rhaegar’s actions dealt. There is a reason Arthur has been so sympathetic to the situation Jaime and his niece are in; a reason Arthur’s actions in the matter have gone beyond counsel and compassion. A reason, too, why, when Jaime has hinted at what had existed between him and Cersei, Arthur has been only understanding.

 

“You loved her,” Jaime breathes. “You loved Elia.”

 

“I did,” Arthur agrees quietly, staring blankly at the flagstones. “And Rhaegar, in his self-righteousness, in his indiscriminate lust - whoever says the Prince only ever looked at Lyanna is a fool; but then again I suppose it was not their responsibility as it was mine to clean up after said glorious Prince after a raucous night out playing that harp of his at the taverns on the Street of Silk - set aside the Princess of Dorne, a kind, gentle lady who loved him with all her heart and gave him his heir - for a girl, pardon me, woman, barely let out of the schoolroom and betrothed to another man.”

 

“I know, Arthur. I know,” Jaime can only commiserate. One thing, however, still eludes him. “What has Robert to do with this?” Aside from the obvious, of course, that the King is set to marry the Lady Sansa this very evening. But Arthur has said that he has borne this grudge for decades. 

 

Arthur shoots him an assessing glance, before his posture relaxes and he rubs a tired hand over his eyes. “Robert ordered your father to have Elia, and Rhaenys and Aegon killed.”

 

Jaime’s heart drops to his feet. “Forgive me, Arthur,” he replies, throat clogged at the agony he can clearly see in the other man’s every sinew. 

 

He remembers Elia, too; good and kind and gentle, though unable to exert any influence whatsoever over Rhaegar. Aegon had only been a baby; but Rhaenys, little Rhaenys with her dark Dornish hair and her laughing violet eyes had been the only source of light in that damned keep. He remembers well the sound of her giggling laughter when playing in the gardens, or when she would - successfully - Jaime must admit, wheedle the Kingsguards, himself included, into carrying her on their tall shoulders. None of the seven Kingsguard had been more inclined to grant Rhaenys’s every wish than Arthur himself. 

 

His mind catches up with all of what Arthur has just said. “Robert Baratheon was involved?… Arthur, had I known Elia and the children were to be murdered, I would have done everything I could to stop it, I swear it. But I did not learn of it until it was too late.”

 

“I know, Jaime. There is nothing for which to apologise.” Jaime marvels at how easily Arthur bestows his compassion and understanding on him; he can’t quite understand it, but he does understand that whatever revelations Arthur might make to him; whatever his japes about the notion of perfection, Arthur will always be the best man Jaime knows, because he carries such profound goodness in his heart.

 

“Your anger is more than that of a lover,” Jaime continues slowly. Arthur remains silent, looking evenly back at him. “Your grief is that of a man who has lost his family.” Arthur had said heir, Jaime realises suddenly, not heirs. Which meant that - “Rhaenys was yours, was she not?”

 

Arthur only inclines his head in reply.

 

“You… comforted Elia when she was distraught over Rhaegar’s roving. Is that how it happened?”

 

“Something like that,” Arthur admits, falling briefly silent before continuing, his tone wistful and pained. “I could not refuse her. I could never refuse her anything; not since we were children playing in the Water Gardens together. But… it was a moment of madness - for her, anyway - and it never happened again; she loved Rhaegar, as we all know. Despite his indifference towards her, despite him setting her aside for Lyanna, and thereby rendering their issue illegitimate, despite everything, she still loved him.” Arthur is choking out the words, but Jaime sees the tears glittering in his eyes before he hurriedly averts them. The words and not me, despite everything, not me, never me, always him hang in the air unspoken between the two men; but the words do not need to be spoken for them to weigh heavily on Jaime, and he feels his own heart break for the man who has ever been as an elder brother to him.

 

Jaime rises and pulls the other man into an embrace. “I’m so sorry, brother. I’m so sorry,” he whispers words of commiseration again and again as Arthur shudders, chin resting on Jaime’s shoulder, trembles with the effort it takes not to break entirely. “Brother, brother, brother,” Jaime keeps repeating, and eventually he feels Arthur relax against him, finally letting himself fully give into his grief after fifteen years. 

 

“Thank you, little brother,” Arthur says eventually, voice quiet and somewhat hoarse. Jaime’s heart swells at that, warmth racing through his veins. Arthur lifts his head to look at Jaime, and blue eyes lock on green. 

 

Perhaps it is because Jaime is past denying, at this point, that drowning in the Lady Sansa’s sea-coloured eyes is a most pleasurable occupation for him, but the next thing he says is entirely incongruous with the rest of their conversation. “The Lady Sansa has your eyes, Arthur.”

 

The amused glint, accompanied by the mysterious, peculiar, half-smile that must be Arthur’s favourite expression, Jaime thinks, is suddenly back on the Sword of the Morning’s face.

 

“You can’t keep your mind off her, can you?” Arthur replies, striding more calmly back to his seat. His whole posture now is much more relaxed; he even goes so far as to sit back in the carved chair and place one booted foot upon the seat itself; the very picture of insolent, nonchalant insouciance. 

 

“No,” Jaime replies softly. It is his turn to pace the room agitatedly. “I cannot.”

 

“I know that this is not the first time you happen to be in this position, Jaime, so I will not insult your intelligence by asking you to be careful nor your honour by asking you to treat her properly; because it should be evident to both you and my niece that not only do I trust both of you, but that I also trust you with each other.” Arthur continues evenly. “I will, however, say this. She is good for you, I think, and you for her. In any other situation, if you were not of the Kingsguard, and she not the King’s betrothed, I would be the first to promote such a match. I do, nevertheless, confess to being curious. What happened this afternoon, when the King came to deliver that news? I’ve rarely seen Sansa move so quickly.”

 

Jaime flushes, and clears his throat abruptly. “I - we -” he closes his eyes in consternation. Having Arthur’s tacit blessing does not make this line of conversation any less uncomfortable or embarrassing. “We acknowledged our…” he trails off, waving his hands helplessly.

 

Arthur raises an eyebrow. “Your sentiments.”

 

“Yes.” Jaime latches on to Arthur’s words with relief. “She also told me of her plans; and how she believes the Northern Lords are going to react.”

 

Arthur’s eyes flick briefly to his. “You do know the Lords haven’t been told; Ned has only summoned them to the Godswood in an hour. He wants to quell as much rebellion as possible by giving them the minimal amount of warning. Ned has also not yet released the details of the marriage contract.”

 

“Is he purposefully trying to make things worse?” Jaime exclaims. “They already don’t like the idea of her marrying the King; even I, a man of the West, have heard their pointed comments often enough to understand what precisely they mean by them. To call them discontent with the current scheme of events must be the understatement of the year. When they realise that is what they have been summoned to the Godswood for - when they realise the contract has been kept secret because quite frankly it is an insult to her and by extension the North and Starfall as well - there is no telling what will happen.”

 

“The Godswood is a sacred place; no weapons can be drawn in violence there; I would say that is what Ned is counting on.”

 

“This is insanity.”

 

“You know I share your opinion, Jaime,” Arthur says, a placating hand raised. “However; he hasn’t taken Sansa herself into account. When she agreed not to run, I’d wager Ned took that to mean that Sansa would agree to everything and anything. As we both know, nothing could be further from the truth.” Arthur rises and strides over to his desk, picking up a sheaf of papers. “These,” he indicates to Jaime, “are her plans; notes I am about to distribute to the Northern lords. You are to be credited with the idea of recruiting an informal Queensguard from the bannermen, I hear.”

 

Jaime shifts on his feet, unaccustomed, after having been so long reviled, to accepting praise. “It’ll work, but we now happen to be on a knife edge, I know it.”

 

Arthur sighs. “So I fear. And it is all due to the King and Lord Stark. If it would not cause immense suspicion to fall upon Winterfell and thus on Sansa, I’d kill the King myself, this very instant.”

 

“And I fear I would duel you for the opportunity to do so.” 

 

They exchange grim glances, and Jaime hesitates before voicing the thought that has just come into his head aloud. Eventually, he grits his teeth and speaks. “Does she know what is meant to happen in the marriage bed?”

 

Shock flits across Arthur’s face (it is, after all, the height of impropriety to ask such a question) before becoming first contemplative, then pained, then furious. Arthur’s fury is as cold as his niece’s, demonstrated through clipped tones and flashing eyes, and a posture as rigid as steel. 

 

“I very much doubt that what happens tonight could in any way be seen as indicative of what one might be reasonably given to expect as a maiden in the marriage bed,” Arthur bites out, jaw clenched. “However… my honest answer is that I could not tell you what the extent or not of her knowledge is. Catelyn most certainly never spoke to Sansa about anything; I cannot imagine her taking any time to explain the intricacies of bedsport to her. And as for Ned, well, I think we certainly know the answer to that. I have not mentioned it; Parsifal most certainly has not. Allyria may have done, but I think it unlikely; again, it is not the kind of thing one puts in a letter, and the last time both met face to face Sansa would have been too young for such a subject to be broached.” 

 

Jaime closes his eyes in despair, gritting his teeth to make certain he keeps a hold of his emotions. He is feeling too much; his heart is already twined too deeply with hers. He feels her fear and disgust as his own; he feels her sense of having been betrayed, her bone-deep melancholy, as his own. “He already disgusts her, and tonight he will terrify her.”

 

 


 

 

SANSA STARK

 

Were she not marrying the King, she would be pleased with her gown. Made of a heavy white brocade, embroidered with tiny silver direwolves and stars, studded with white winter pearls fished in the seas off White Harbor, cut in a form-fitting flattering style which leaves her shoulders and collarbones uncovered, displaying a tasteful hint of her bosom, her slim waist accentuated by a thin purple ribbon, and long tapered sleeves draping elegantly over her arms and hands, and her skirts flowing as she walks, it is a thing of beauty. But because of the circumstances, it is a reminder that she is being led as a lamb to a ritual sacrifice, and it is more than the instant sacrifice of a maidenhead; it is the sacrifice of an entire life, a sentence to a living death bound to an unpredictable, violent, whoring brute. That is the future her father has bought for her.

 

She is alone with her direwolf; she has asked her handmaiden for privacy, after being bathed and dressed and her hair brushed. And now, as she stares into the mirror, seated at her dressing table, she looks at the picture before her in bewilderment. The Lady’s eyes are blank, almost hollow, every expression leeched from them like the lifeblood drained from a hunted animal finally brought down by the hounds. The reflection is beautiful; but seems sculpted; inhuman; as though from glass or stone or ice instead, devoid of the warmth of human life. Snow-pale skin, as smooth as glass and as soft as silk. Glittering eyes with all the coldness of flashing gems; reflectors of light but no more than that. Russet hair loose, waves cascading down her back, held away from her face by a coronet of silver-sculpted starflowers, frozen petals carved from mother of pearl and moonstone, the winding leaves created from filigree silver inlaid with diamonds, the two parts of the coronet almost meeting at the centre of her forehead. Wound into her hair are more starflowers, with either tiny diamonds or pearls in the middle of the ornaments. Her neck is tensed slightly, though whether out of dread or the weight of the jewels in her hair she cannot precisely say.

 

She stands on weak, shaking legs, her left hand fisting into the soft fur at Lady’s neck. She feels sick, so dizzy she is about to faint; she can barely think, she can barely stand upright for the pain of her stomach clenching in fear and revulsion, but it is time and she has no choice. I am a Stark of Winterfell in the North and a Dayne of Starfall in Dorne; I can be brave. 

 

There is a knock on her door and she bids the person enter in a voice that attempts, and fails, not to quaver. She almost falls over in shock at her uncle’s entry, accompanied by Ser Jaime. Her uncle is dressed in the full regalia of his house; purple embroidered tunic, black breeches and boots, white enamelled armour. She meets Jaime’s eyes before quickly averting them, but not before noticing how well he looks in full Kingsguard armour, not before noticing how his eyes rake her form appreciatively and she almost staggers. Only Lady’s presence stops her from tripping over her own skirts.

 

“Uncle, Ser Jaime, I did not think to see you now,” she stutters, blushing. “Is my father not-” her question withers on her lips as she catches the uncomfortable looks on their faces, the way they shift on their feet. She swallows unsteadily the bitter cup of betrayal; naught but blood and bile upon her tongue. “He’s with the King, is he not?” 

 

“Yes,” her uncle replies eventually, and she nods her understanding sharply, swaying. 

 

“I can’t do this,” she murmurs deliriously, eyes fluttering. Lady whines in distress as she collapses against her direwolf. “I make quite a pretty prize, uncle, don’t I? Why not tie me down to an altar and thrust a sword through my heart; it would be quicker, and the final result the same.” She vaguely understands that she is now leaning against an armour-covered chest, gentle hands at her waist the only anchor to sanity, her head tilted against an armoured shoulder, russet hair cascading down to the floor.

 

“My lady,” a voice answers her helplessly, a voice that is not her uncle’s.

 

“Jaime?” she blinks in confusion, as awareness slowly returns to her. He must have caught her before she could hit the cold flagstones and injure herself. “I can’t do this,” she continues with a wild, frightened desperation. “Please, I need your courage, Jaime. Give me your courage,” she pleads, meeting his solemn, fierce gaze with wavering vision of her own, vision blurring with tears. 

 

“Sansa, Jaime and I will be with you every step of the way,” she hears her uncle reply, his hand reaching to grasp hers. “I have delivered your notes to the northern lords.”

 

“Every step? Even - even tonight?” Her voice trembles, and part of her hates this weakness. She has to be brave. She has to be. The North and Starfall are trusting her with this and she cannot afford to stumble; even as everything in her is screaming, pleading violently with her not to see this through. She has no choice. She has nothing more than the vaguest notions of what a bedding entails; but she knows enough of Robert Baratheon to know that he will not be gentle and patient with her. 

 

“We will be outside your door,” Jaime replies grimly. “Only say the words and we will break it down.” She looks at him in a kind of incredulous, disbelieving wonder, and he shrugs, a touch embarrassed by her scrutiny and her admiration. “I’ve never had much stomach for the suffering of women.”

 

“Don’t let me out of your sight. Don’t leave me alone.”

 

His hands tighten on her. “Never,” he vows fiercely.

 

 


 

 

It only takes for her to appear at the edge of the clearing in Winterfell’s Godswood, Lady at her side, for chaos to erupt. One look at her, at her clothing which is obviously a wedding gown, and the Northern Lords realise what is about to happen and begin to protest vociferously. Sansa steps closer, watching carefully the expressions on her father’s face and on that of the King’s. As the Northern Lords become more agitated, so too do the storm clouds gather on Robert Baratheon’s wine-ruined face and she knows she needs to take control, now, or else the moment will pass and all shall be lost. She fists her trembling fingers in Lady’s fur so no-one can tell, and gentle, trusting Lady growls, rendering the whole clearing silent. 

 

“Peace, my good lords, peace,” Sansa speaks quietly but clearly, her voice carrying without difficulty. Mentally, she steels herself; she does not expect this to be easy. “The King wishes to wed me tonight; and I have acquiesced.” She pauses, and when she speaks, her voice is as harsh as the winter wind itself, just as cutting. “And in return for the insult of wedding me when I have only just this eve buried my little brother, your Grace, you will not only agree to Northmen accompanying me South as my guards, as you have already agreed to my guards of Starfall. For the insult of fondling your whores at my table, your Grace, for the insults you have perpetrated against me in my own home, your Grace, you will grant me, as your reparations to me, your lawful wife and Queen, two seats upon the Small Council, to be given to Lords of my own choice.”

 

Her father steps forward. “Sansa, you can’t -

 

She cloaks herself in rage and betrayal, and she cuts the honourable Eddard Stark off. “Oh, I can; because the North will not be insulted in this manner. Starfall will not be insulted in this manner.” She turns the King. “Your answer, Your Grace?”

 

“Ned, let’s just get this over with,” Robert Baratheon returns carelessly. “Very well, wife, you may have these things. Now where is that septon?” The King continues, bellowing, and Sansa can’t help the acid thoughts that come to mind. You would wed me without knowing or caring for my culture, my traditions. How dare you. 

 

She inhales shakily, trying to quell the roiling fear and nausea swirling, clawing at her stomach and steps forward to stand beside the King, facing her father, catching Arthur’s solemn, heartbroken and proud countenance, but when her eyes land on Jaime beside him, reading the momentarily shattered expression in his eyes that he can’t quite hide, she wants to scream, to turn and run, but then he nods almost imperceptibly at her, and his hand comes to rest on his sword hilt, and she remembers his vow to her, that she needs only ask and he will step in, and the thought, the reassuring weight of his gaze on her gives her enough fortitude to nod to her father and place her small hand upon the King’s thick, meaty forearm. 

 

From then on, everything is blurred; whether by the tears shimmering in her eyes that she refuses to let fall or because she shuts as much as possible out she does not know; but she is barely aware of speaking her vows, only that she does so, in a voice devoid of inflection; it is the voice of a lifeless statue. She hears the King’s half-slurred words as though from the other side of a wall. She is only half aware that when Lord Renly attempts to call for a bedding once the rite in the Godswood is complete, her uncle competes with the rest of the Northern Lords to roar his disapproval, and Ser Jaime has to hold the Northern Lords back from attacking Lord Renly whilst her uncle carries her safely to her chambers, unmolested. She is, unfortunately, only too sharply aware of the manner in which the King leers most lecherously at her, even going so far as to grope her as soon as the vows were spoken. 

 

Some sense of doom settles, a heavy mantle upon her shoulders, a perilous anchor around her heart, and she cannot stop her tears, her trembling. She did not wish to marry the King, but she has. But the knowledge that she has done so is nothing to the realisation that she has married a brute in front of the man she would have liked and hoped to marry, had circumstances been different. 

 

The door to her bedchamber opens, and she catches a brief glimpse of her uncle and Jaime and Lady taking up their posts outside her door, Lady howling mournfully, before the King enters, his doublet already discarded, his stomach wobbling heavily over his breeches. 

 

The door slams shut with a dull thud, and Sansa and the King are alone. 

 


 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

 

WINTERFELL VI

 

 


 

 

 

SANSA STARK

 

 

I can be brave. I can be brave. I am a Stark of Winterfell; a Dayne of Starfall, and I can be brave. 

 

Her fingers shake uncontrollably as she attempts to unlace the back of her gown, but she does not complete her task fast enough for the King, it seems, because he brings his much larger frame to hulk towards hers, sausage-like fingers pulling roughly at the fabric of her dress, and a startled yelp escapes her lips before she can swallow it back down to her stomach. His proximity makes her realise that there is nothing she can do to stop him; a brutish drunkard he might be, overfond of food, but he is taller and stronger than she is, and does not take kindly to disobedience, and Sansa has heard enough tales of the Rebellion to know that he is truly deadly with the warhammer that is his weapon of choice. In comparison to him, she is as slight and fragile as the doll her father gave her for her sixth nameday.

 

 She lifts her eyes to the mirror and searches her husband’s reflection desperately for some thread of kindness, of gentleness in his eyes, in his face, but finds nothing other than leering lust contorting his expression, and she shudders, fighting the nausea clawing at her belly and her throat. She remembers, too, that this is the man who ordered Elia Martell’s brutal death, along with that of her children’s.

 

“A Stark bride at last…” he frowns, yanking the beautiful dress from her shoulders, and it falls to the ground. “Well then, let us see what I paid for.”

 

She whirls around and snaps coldly, though lowly, at him. “I might now be your wife, your Grace, but I am still the daughter of Eddard Stark of Winterfell and Ashara Dayne of Starfall. I would ask you to speak kindly to me, your Queen.”

 

His face twists and clouds, and she knows she will pay for this display of defiance, but she cannot regret it. Despite her fear of what is to come, she decides then and there that she will not allow him to break her. She cloaks herself in the knowledge of who she is, in the knowledge that she only has to speak the words and her uncle and Lady and Ser Jaime will break down her chamber door.

 

“Don’t think I don’t understand your scheming, girl,” he rages, and though she takes an involuntary step back, she stubbornly lifts her chin, glaring frostily at him, her slight fingers curling into fists. “I am your husband, now, and you are mine. I’ll be denied no longer what I have been denied for so long. Get. On. The. Bed,” he growls, spittle flying. 

 

She complies with his demand, every bone in her body feeling as though it is made of lead, shivering at the hungry, greedy way his eyes linger on her form, and she feels soiled, so soiled. She knows very little about what is to happen; but she knows in her bones that this feels wrong, and she fights the sudden, fierce swell of rage that burns at her heart. Her mind begins to notice the most incongruous things; how scratchy the furs are at her back. One of the beams supporting the ceiling has four whorls in the wood. 

 

Her husband curses as he heaves himself onto the bed; and suddenly she can escape what is happening no longer. Unceremoniously, he shoves her legs apart, his grip on her knees cruel and biting. She realises she can do nothing to move away; he is so much stronger and bigger than he is. And then she only has a moment to understand that he is crushing her with his bulk, that she cannot breathe, that his putrid breath is on her face, that he is about to -

 

Her vision goes white as she screams. 

 

She is vaguely aware that she is panicking the way she was before the ceremony, only now she is going to rasp her throat raw. Her mind is reeling, spinning, as she tries to understand, but she is frozen. Her body is frozen, and no longer obeys the commands of her mind. She wants to fight him, but she lacks the physical strength and the knowledge, and she is powerless against him. She wants to flee, oh, how she wishes she’d been reckless and selfish enough to take her horse and her direwolf and run. She wants it to end. She wants the pain to stop, she wants him to stop, but she knows it will not; she knows he will not. Despair threatens to drown her; how on earth could she have thought she had courage enough for this?

 

This is wrong. You are hurting me. 

 

She wants the safety of her uncle’s arms around her, the safety of Jaime’s sword drawn between her and those who would harm her. She wants her mother.

 

Stop. Please, stop. You are hurting me. 

 

But her mother is dead; and there is no-one to protect her now. Not from this.

 

Get off me. This is wrong. Stop. You are hurting me. Stop. Stop. Please, get off me. I do not want you. I do not want this. You are hurting me. Please. 

 

“Cease your infernal whimpering, woman! By the gods, you’re as dry as Dorne!” Robert Baratheon bellows suddenly, and the note of bitter incomprehension in his voice would cause her to laugh hysterically had she any breath with which to do so. I do not want you, you disgusting lecher, she thinks. You are hurting me. Her thoughts must be discernible on her face because he raises his hand to strike her across the cheekbone, and she moans as she feels the bone bruise, and she wonders vaguely if he means to pummel her to death in her own bed, in her own home, upon her wedding night. 

 

And suddenly her skin is cold and she can breathe again, and though her mind doesn’t understand, her body must because she finds herself sucking in desperate lungfuls of air, but everything is knocked from her again as he manhandles her roughly so she is on her hands and knees, and she chokes out her humiliation. She has, somehow, enough presence of mind to turn her head so her good cheek bears the brunt as he shoves her face into the furs with a meaty hand. 

 

This time, when he forces himself in, she does not scream. She cannot. Her body no longer has the strength.

 

Stop. Please, stop. Let it end.

 

It will not. This is to be her fate; every night for the rest of her life. It will not stop; it will not end, not until Robert Baratheon is safe and cold in his grave. 

 

She looks at the window instead, turning her attention to the darkness of the sky outside, on the way the white shafts of moonlight fall into the room. She thinks of white starflowers falling in the night, of weirwood leaves in the snow, of her uncle’s mysterious half-smile, Rickon’s laugh, Arya’s stubbornness, even Bran’s fearlessness. Her mother’s singing; though nothing more than a vague imprint on her mind, and she wonders if she is delirious. The taste of figs and honey and lemoncakes melting upon her tongue. Her direwolf and the gentle peace she brings. Jaime’s eyes, green as Winterfell’s moors in summer, flashing, cat-like with amusement. The heat and affection of his embrace; his voice rumbling in her ear. 

 

Without entirely realising it, she reaches along the bond with her direwolf, searching for peace, for affection, for relief, and when she blinks again, she is no longer looking at the cold moonlight but at her solar, at her uncle and Jaime standing stoically at her door, postures rigid (she can almost taste the metal of their swords and their armour upon her wolf-tongue; she can smell their sorrow and furious helplessness). They turn to look at her in surprise, and as she nudges at their shoulders, her uncle smiles in melancholy awe. 

 

“Oh, Sansa,” her uncle murmurs as she whines. 

 

“Enough,” Jaime rasps out, in a hoarse voice haunted with the shades of his sister, of Elia, of Rhaella and Aerys the Mad. “Enough. I’m kicking that door down, Arthur.”

 

Her heart stops. No. She will not let him do that; she cannot. He would be sentenced to death for such an act, and she could not bear that. She turns, and presses her head against his chest, and even through his plate armour she can hear the frantic, frenzied beating of his heart. She would never ask of him that he act so recklessly in her name. 

 

He gazes at her in consternation, her name tumbling from his lips, jaw slack, and she lifts her head to his furious, anguished countenance and meets his eyes. He whispers her name again, and it is so full of mingled affection and misery that she whines her fear, her pain, her terrified helplessness. I will not let you die for me. Please. 

 

He lifts his left hand to his mouth and pulls off his glove with his teeth and then slowly, so slowly, so tenderly and carefully, his hand sinks into the fur at the scruff of her neck, fingers tangling in it, and his touch anchors her; anchors them both, she suspects. He continues speaking softly to her, an aching, melancholy tenderness to his tone, and she trembles at it. She closes her eyes and leans against him.

 

“She’s warged into Lady, Jaime,” she hears her uncle explain. “An old Stark gift; all of the children can do it. We can only hope it gives her some measure of peace.” She rumbles her agreement; she is almost floating here. She only feels what is happening to her real body vaguely; the agony is muted. 

 

And then Jaime speaks and he gives voice to the thing she cannot help but fear most. “And what happens when she returns to her own body?” She doesn’t want to return to her human body. She likes it here, in this floating, wolfish consciousness, where she has fangs and claws to defend herself. She’s afraid of the pain; she’s afraid of having to understand what is being done to her. She doesn’t want to go back, but she knows she has to.

 

I can be brave. I can be brave. I am a Stark of Winterfell; a Dayne of Starfall, and I can be brave. I must be brave.

 

And so when the terrible silence falls after the King’s final diatribe, a melancholy, dreadful hush that draws her inexorably away from her direwolf and back into her own body, she doesn’t fight it, though she cannot fight the fear.

 

She gasps as she feels herself become anchored to her own, human body once more, only distantly noticing Robert Baratheon’s wheezing snores. Wincing, lightheaded and groaning, she rises with difficulty from her prone position on the furs, and staggers over to the windowsill, bracing herself against the wall. It hurts to move; every muscle of her body protests, but she needs to get away from the bed. She looks down and catches sight of the spatters of seed and dark blood upon her thighs, and reels, dizzy with shock and nausea. She collapses to the ground and curls up into a ball, trying to make herself as small, as inconspicuous as possible, shaking out her hair so that it falls around her in a protective curtain. 

 

She blinks, as she realises she holds something in her hand; metal and sharp. A dagger. She had not even noticed she held it. Abruptly she wants to hack her hair off, to gouge out her eyes and flay her skin. Perhaps then the King would decide he does not want her; but destroying herself, she considers, with a numb, despairing indifference that surprises her, would not solve anything. Her people would still pay the price; there is no way out. She is trapped, and she laughs desolately, hollowly, as she lets the instrument fall with a dull thud.

 

She is cold, but she does not care. Her teeth are chattering, and she feels as though she has been torn in two, but she does not care. None of it matters. She is numb, but she does not care, because she does not have to feel the agony of what has been done to her.

 

And then door is forced open, and Lady bounds to her side, and the two men enter, and she turns her head, eyes blank. But Lady snuffles at her ear and Jaime’s gaze meets her, and suddenly she feels like weeping again, but all her tears have been bled from her; they are drying upon her thighs and upon the furs of the bed. The gods help her, but she cannot look at Lady, at her uncle, at Jaime, and not want to feel. Because that would mean not feeling love and that is somehow worse than the torment of this night. 

 

She watches, uncomprehendingly, as Jaime uses the pommel of his sword to deliver a precise thwack to Robert Baratheon’s temple, though the knight then explains that their gracious liege will think it only the wine in the morning, and part of her wonders if he has knocked the King unconscious before. 

 

“Jaime… uncle…” she murmurs, and the next thing she knows, she is cloaked in white, and the notion makes her heart sink and soar all at once. It is Jaime’s cloak, but given to her in these circumstances, and she slumps tiredly into his arms. Suddenly, it is too much, and choked, silent tears begin to fall down her cheeks, and she curls into him, desperately seeking his warmth. She is cold, so cold, and she fears she will never be warm again. Her soul has been ripped this night, and she is so completely frightened of the numbness slicing through her veins, but she does not know how to stop it, and in the arms of the man who - who - it is too painful now to think, let alone articulate - she finally allows herself to break and fall, to feel, completely, the terrifying extent of her grief, safe in the knowledge that she is not alone.

 

“Let me die… please… I’ve done my duty… let me die… I promised I wouldn’t run, and I haven’t… so let me die…”

 

 


 

 

When she awakes, she is no longer cold, but warm, and she sighs with contented drowsiness, before full consciousness returns, and she remembers. Jaime’s cloak is still wrapped around her, and the furs heaped over her shoulders are a meagre comfort. Her direwolf is curled around her, and whimpers softly. She turns to look at the other half of her soul and extends a gentle hand to rub Lady’s furred forehead. She wishes - but wishing is futile, and she casts her gaze around, realising she is in her uncle’s chambers. Jaime must have carried her here. She swallows sharply, overwhelmed. 

 

She staggers from the bed on trembling legs towards the washstand, and she attempts to clean her legs with ferociously trembling hands. Somehow, the pain is worse now; her core, her legs throb with a bone-deep ache. Her throat is tight and dry and her eyes feel as though sand has been rubbed into them. The water is cool, but Sansa does not mind; the bite of it is refreshing; it brings her some clarity, some sharpness of mind. The cold cuts through her despair, and after catching one glance at the way the soft rag has bled the colour of blood into the water to pink it, she keeps her gaze resolutely upon the world outside, grey and shadowed in the pre-dawn light through the windows.  

 

Her ablutions finished; she shuffles slowly to the door, wrapped securely in the white cloak, and supported by her direwolf, and stops short when she sees her uncle dozing in a chair next to the banked fire, and Jaime awake beside him; pale faced, in shirtsleeves and breeches and nursing a cup of cider. 

 

He leaps to his feet when he sees her, hurriedly running his hand through his hair, and she blushes. “Your Grace,” he bows, and she feels sick at his words. This is real; this is not a mere nightmare. 

 

“Call me by my name, Jaime, please,” she whispers hoarsely. “I will hear the title often enough from others; I could not bear it from you as well. Not unless you have no choice.”

 

He smiles, bitterly; wanly. His expression does not reach his eyes. “Of course,” he replies, voice soft. “What…” he trails off, swallowing unsteadily, a huffed breath escaping him as he collects himself. “What may I do for you, Sansa?”

 

She lowers herself gingerly to the floor, wincing as she brings her knees to her chest, leaning against Lady’s furry body. “Some cider?” she rasps, cringing at the sound of her own voice. She has spent the night screaming; and it shows, and she feels soiled and humiliated. And though she has made strides in forming her own court; all the Lords know how the King treats her, and all the Lords know that her own father sanctioned it. It is more than the humiliation; it is the pity she dreads. 

 

She nods her thanks as he passes her a mug, and she shivers at the brief touch of his fingertips on the back of her hands, and greedily gulps the liquid down. The tankard empty, she passes it back to the knight, and she starts at the intense, solemn expression on his face; drawn with melancholy and pride and this - this - and her stomach lurches again. “Thank you for the cloak, Jaime,” she says softly, and his eyes widen in pain, a pain she recognises in herself, and she is suddenly dizzy with emotion, and she twists her fingers. 

 

“Don’t thank me; not for that.” He averts his eyes. “I should have done more.”

 

“If you think I am going to let you die for me - ” she sees the protest writ in his frowning lips, pressed so tightly together they are almost white; in the locking of his jaw, as she speaks, but she continues on nonetheless. “Jaime, it would destroy me,” she admits. “Please. It is enough that I know you would knock that door down if I ever asked.”

 

He stares at her, almost bewildered, before nodding once, sharply. “Keep the cloak. If it is to be the only one I can give you; I would ask you to keep it, my lady.” He is struggling to speak evenly, and her heart aches. She does not believe herself capable of forming words with her tongue, so she simply raises the cloak to her lips in return. His eyes widen impossibly; his face slack with shock, but then she sees his emerald eyes flash, and his whole look is turned entirely to her; fierce and tender all at once, and the wave of warmth that crashes through her heats her to her very bones. She swallows, attempting to regulate her breathing, but her head is spinning.    

 

“Is it meant to be painful?” She’s asked the question before she realises she’s spoken, and catches him by surprise. He abruptly goes very still; he’s understood her meaning immediately, of course, and two points of colour appear high on his cheekbones.  

 

“No,” he replies very quietly, after a long pause, and she closes her eyes; a thick ball of despair coming to settle slowly in her stomach; heavy as lead, and suddenly she is furious. This is yet another betrayal she must live with. She clenches her fists in the heavy white wool, staring blankly at the grey flagstones. Lady whines; a long, mournful sound.  

 

“Your sister,” Sansa thinks rapidly; mind whirling. “She must have had a plan. She would not have accepted enduring the King’s… attention indefinitely.” 

 

There is another long silence, but when it is broken, it is her uncle, not Jaime, who speaks in a hushed, cautious tone, and her head snaps up. “Sansa, there is no going back from such a path.”

 

“Have no fear, uncle,” Sansa replies flatly, acidly, and her uncle flinches at her vehemence. “I will be a good little broodmare and do my duty; but once I have, then…”

 

“She did.”

 

The words, though spoken tightly and quietly, cut her off, and her fury is suddenly replaced by a slim, wild hope, that more than anything she wants to be able to grasp. She can’t be a coward (I am a Stark of Winterfell and a Dayne of Starfall, I can be brave) not about this; not when her understanding of the world has been so violently turned upon its head. 

 

“Would it still be feasible?” She asks, unable to mask the desperation from her voice. 

 

“It would,” Jaime replies heavily. 

 

“Sansa, this is high treason,” her uncle continues incredulously. 

 

“And if you think that after last night that I am afraid of execution, you are wrong, uncle!” she bursts out, flinging the words like daggers, suddenly ashamed to find herself sobbing convulsively, hiccuping her breaths. “Indeed, it would be a kindness!” She ducks her head then, unable to bear the looks on their faces. “I cannot live my whole life thus; do not ask it of me.”

 

There is an incredulous sort of silence; both men, however inadvertently, are looking at her as though she is some sort of wild animal, some entirely foreign creature, and suddenly she can bear it no longer. “And do not look at me like that! I will not have your pity; do you understand me?” she snarls, her whole body trembling. “I will not have it.” Her fingers twist, her vision blurs, and she swallows viciously. “Is it not enough that all the Northern Lords are privy to my humiliation? I am humiliated, soiled, tarnished, impure. And I must pretend I allow myself to be thus debased. I will have to enter the Great Hall and pretend my husband is the best man in the world when I can still feel him strike my face; when I can still feel everything he did to hurt me - I don’t mean it pains me in my tender little heart - I mean I can feel it inside my flesh, sitting here. Perhaps I should stride around naked?” 

 

She laughs hysterically, and her uncle makes to move towards her, but she flinches and he freezes, a troubled look upon his countenance. “After all, that’s what all these men want, isn’t it? That is all my father has decreed me for, is it not? Some empty vessel to carry and birth the next generation of kings as boorish as their father is; and thus the cycle continues - I - enough! Enough!” She squeezes her eyes shut, pressing shaking palms to her eyelids. 

 

“Do not ask me to endure this, I beg of you.”

 

“You are Queen; you beg of no-one.”

 

“And yet it takes hysterics and tears and pleas for men to do my bidding,” she retorts with uncharacteristic bitterness, and both men flinch as though struck, faces pale, at her words, and she knows she is being unfair.

 

“Forgive me,” she murmurs, pressing her fingertips together. “That was uncalled for, I know. You are both of you the best men I have ever known. And I am furious and humiliated and in pain, and I hate that it has turned me into such a bitter, shrewish creature; that he has made me this-this object of pity and lust; and I have taken my feelings out on those who do not deserve my wrath.”  

 

“My sword is yours, niece, in this and all endeavours,” her uncle replies, sighing heavily, sounding as though he has aged twenty years in the course of the conversation.

 

She nods, acknowledging his words, and then her attention shifts as Jaime deliberately drops to his knees beside her, and she revels in the swell of tenderness and affection she feels as his keen green gaze alights on her once more. His arms hang at his sides, and he shrugs helplessly, his expression entirely open. He hides nothing from her, and she is once more overwhelmed.

 

“I am yours, in everything,” he says simply. 

 

And thus is the covenant formed. 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

 

WINTERFELL VII

 

 


 

 

 

 

Je vis, je meurs : je me brûle et me noie

Louise Labé / Sonnet VIII

(I live, I die : myself I burn and drown)

 

 

 


 

 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

 

 He is unsettled by his new little squire’s fury as the lordling hacks and stabs away at the training dummies on the sparring ground. Rickon Stark is good, even at his young age. More than good, even. He moves with a fluidity, an instinct, he’s rarely seen, and despite the ugly circumstances surrounding this trip to Winterfell, a part of him is looking forward to training the Starkling, as Arthur calls him.

 

“That kind of fury needs to be carefully channeled,” Arthur says heavily from his place beside Jaime. Both men are leaning forwards on the fence, watching the young boy, watching the way his direwolf in the shadows never settles, but paces, shuddering with repressed tension. The furious despair in his squire’s movements frightens Jaime.

 

“He is the closest to his eldest sister, isn’t he?” Jaime replies. A horrid thought twists his stomach. “Do you believe he understands what is going on?”

 

His mentor looks at him sharply, blue eyes glinting as he throws the question back at him. “What do you believe? How much does an eight year old understand of his brother being pushed from a tower and dying? How much does an eight year old understand of his eldest sister being raped by the King and everyone else calling it marriage and hailing it as fortuitous?” The Dornishman’s jaw clenches, his words thrown like daggers, spat from his mouth. “Children understand more than we think they do.”

 

Shaggydog interrupts the two men by howling, and Jaime and Arthur watch hopelessly as the boy’s swings get wilder and faster, each movement punctuated by a fierce, wrenching cry, until he finally slumps to the muddy ground, exhausted, hacked with sobs, the wooden blade falling from his fingers with a dull thud. Instinctively, Jaime strides over, though not knowing what he will do or say. Rickon looks up at their approach and promptly throws himself at Jaime, hiding his face in the leather surcoat, crying convulsively, little fists twisting into the material. Jaime lays a hesitant hand on the boy’s dark curls, exchanging a dark look with his own mentor. 

 

The child speaks between gulping breaths, tears making his throat hoarse. “Sansa’s sad, she’s so sad and Bran’s gone and the wolves won’t stop howling.

 

“We know, Rickon,” Arthur replies grimly.

 

“Then do something!” the youngest Stark boy bursts out, grey eyes flashing with accusation. “Please, uncle, Ser Jaime, Sansa is the bestest person in the world. She’s sad, she’s so sad, she’s packing her trunks, she’s like the ghosts Old Nan tells us about, please, please, please, she thinks I don’t notice, but she’s so sad. Please, uncle, Ser Jaime, please! I asked Father but he said no but that’s not fair.

 

“Have you seen her recently, Rickon?” Jaime asks, a desperate resolution forming in his mind. 

 

“She was speaking to the King when I saw her - he slapped her, and then she went to the Godswood, to pray, she said,” the boy replies darkly, and his black direwolf beside him growls. “I hate him. I hate him. I hate the King.”

 

“Rickon, you cannot say that; for your own safety, for your sister’s safety, you cannot say that,” Arthur says urgently, lifting the boy’s chin with a gentle finger so boy looks man in the face. “Do you understand me, Rickon? You cannot say that.”

 

“But it’s true!”

 

“Rickon, do you want your sister to live?” Jaime insists, his voice serious. The boy nods emphatically, eyes wide. “Then you cannot speak those words; they are treason.” 

 

His squire’s head drops, his shoulders slump. “I understand, Ser Jaime. But I don’t like it.”

 

“I know, Rickon,” Jaime repeats sadly. “I know.” He looks at Arthur and sees his own frustration and helplessness reflected in the other man’s face and he casts about desperately for a change of subject, something to cheer the lordling up. “Now,” he continues, his tone deliberately light, “if you promise to go and work hard at your sums and your history with Maester Luwin this morning, I’ll see what we can do about that footwork of yours. How does that sound, Rickon?”

 

The boy sniffles, swiftly wipes the tears from his cheeks and raises his chin proudly, looking Jaime right in the eyes, and he is impressed by the determination he sees in Rickon’s expression. 

 

“Thank you, Ser Jaime,” he replies solemnly, before scampering off. 

 

Jaime watches the way he lightly dashes off, his direwolf a constant shadow at his heels, and sighs wearily. “What can we do, Arthur? What can we do?” The words taste of defeat, withered and bitter, and he hates it. 

 

The Sword of the Morning shakes his head, equally defeated, equally resigned. “I know not.” There is a moment of silence, before he continues, uncharacteristically faltering. “I did not think I would see such a thing happen again; I thought that this far North I would not have to endure the court of King’s Landing once more.” He laughs hollowly, and Jaime cringes at the sound. “Fool that I am. And yet she is my niece - I cannot leave her to endure this alone, but the price for my watch and my sword is to see her become the ghost of herself in front of my very eyes - and I can do nothing.”

 

“Your presence will be enough.” But even as he speaks, he knows he lacks conviction. He saw Elia fade in front of him when he was newly raised to the Kingsguard, in those terrible years of the Rebellion. He saw Cersei’s light stamped out and twisted into something horrible and vile and cruel. 

 

Arthur snorts disdainfully. “I know Sansa is attempting to convince herself of that, but you know better, Jaime. We both do.”   

 

“So what do we do?” he repeats helplessly.

 

The glittering of Arthur’s eyes is replaced with a hard, brittle glint. “We keep her alive, we keep her children alive, we watch her break, and we hope that we can put her back together again.”

 

“She needs something to live for,” Jaime muses. “Something beyond Elia’s loyalty and Cersei’s desire for power and revenge. Something beyond duty to her family and her people.”

 

Arthur looks out at the courtyard, scanning it aimlessly, even as his next words are precise and carefully enunciated. “You are the only person to give that to her, I fear.” 

 

Jaime looks at him, astonished. “Arthur - ”

 

“You will not be disturbed, I assure you. Go to the Godswood, Jaime, and give yourselves both something to live for.” If he were not so dumbfounded by the words he would wonder how on earth Arthur has come to know him so well.

 

 


 

 

SANSA STARK

 

She retches dryly, spluttering, her hands twisting in the crackling dry leaves of the Godswood floor. Look at me, look at me. Father! Look at me, please. Her voice had cracked upon the last word. Look at me and look upon the violence of the King. Her father had apologised, eyes averted, and said he could do nothing. She trembles at the memory, not knowing how to appease the fury raging in her veins. Do nothing? Do nothing? He listens to you, Father. You are the only person apart from Lord Arryn he listens to, Father, please, I beg of you. 

 

The King over his firstborn daughter? Her incredulous words to her uncle come back to her now, with the bitterness of knowledge, the poison of defeat, the illusion shattered glass at her slippered, dainty feet. 

 

Father, please. 

 

Forgive me, daughter, my hands are tied. 

 

They are only tied, Father, she thinks acidly, because you allow them to be.

 

A scream wrenches itself from her mouth, ripped from her very heart, here where it is silent and still and where there is no-one to hear. Winterfell’s stones learned the sound of her agony, now so too do the trees. Only Lady is there to witness it, but curling up next to her direwolf, pale hands twisting in the grey fur, brings her no comfort, not now, not any more. 

 

Her white hands shake, her teeth chatter, she shivers though she is not cold. For all her bravery in front of others, she does not know how to live like this. Her strength has been torn from her as her innocence was torn from her body. There are so many adjectives, so many round-about ways to describe what has been forced upon her, so many phrases she remembers being bandied about in the hallways when she was a child. That maid had been importuned, that Lord’s daughter, soiled, spoiled, fallen, ruined. 

 

But only one to describe the true violence of her state.

 

My husband raped me, Father, and you turned away. No, more than that, you gave your approval for it to happen. My husband beat me, Father, and you did not even look at me.

 

Her face hurts, her throat hurts, her legs hurt -

 

She looks at the weeping heart tree. It weeps as she does, silent and bloody, and she desperately tries to get her breathing under control. Unbidden, the memories of her wedding at dusk the day before (the day before, when I was still me, not this bitter, hysterical creature who is Robert Baratheon’s wife) rise in her mind’s eye, and she chokes back another convulsive sob.

 

Just for a moment, for a single, tiny moment, she’d allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to - 

 

“My lady,” there is a voice, deep and reassuring in its affection, and a shadow falls over her and her head snaps up, and they look at each other. He has appeared as though conjured by her mind, and now she looks at him, taking in the weariness in his green eyes, the uncertain set to his surcoat-clad shoulders, looking far too human, and she swallows, struggling for breath, her brows furrowing as she grasps for the words that are suddenly out of her reach. 

 

“My lady?” his voice is tighter now, with unease, with concern, and though her mouth opens her tongue forms no words.  

 

Shakily, she extends her trembling hands and he grasps them immediately, and she gasps at the sudden, welcome warmth. He sinks to his knees in front of her, and she looks at her hands cradled in his. He holds them so gently, so carefully, so tenderly that her heart aches and splinters, and she sinks bonelessly against him, crawling into his arms, burrowing her face into the crook of his neck, wetting his collar with her tears, numb and prostrate with grief. 

 

She whimpers, a wounded, dying animal, and his arms tighten around her in response. His hands, one cradling the back of her head, the other splayed across her lower back, anchor her. She does not know how long they stay thus, for how long she is enveloped in his warm affection. She only knows that she wishes (vain, cruel, terrible wish) that she might stay thus for ever, and she knows that he wishes it too. 

 

“You are not alone, my lady,” he offers eventually, quietly, and that makes her lift her head to look at him, seeing in his expression an equal weight of grief. “I…” he hesitates, a pained, furious glint in his eyes, tracing the growing bruise upon her cheekbone with a shaking hand, so gently it makes her begin to weep again. “You have my utmost devotion.”

 

The way he is looking at her - she can hide nothing from him - it should have been you -

 

This is too much; she is unmoored, lost, wandering in a blizzard, buffeted by a gale, and his tenderness rips her heart to shreds. “We cannot,” she sobs desperately, burying her face in his neck. Her hands twist into his surcoat, violently. “We should not.” Her voice cracks and dies, the words wrenched from her against her will. 

 

His embrace tightens in response. “I only wish to make you happy.”

 

“Happy?” she sputters. “I will never be happy. Not as Queen. Not even with a child of my own.” Her voice is eerily calm, distant even, and she knows without looking that he hates it. “Not whilst Robert Baratheon lives.”

 

“The first time I saw a man burned alive, I was fifteen, and I’d been raised to the white less than a month before,” he begins quietly, and she jolts at the hollow bitterness in his words. “Ser Barristan… all those eminent men, those paragons of virtue I’d been raised to admire… he told me it was not my duty to protect the Queen from the King, but instead to stand aside and keep guard and not judge… to ignore the screams… my awakening to the cruelties of men was violent indeed.” He pauses, swallowing heavily. “Your uncle saved my sanity; he forced me to focus on what I could control, which wasn’t much, but it did help. He told me to find something to live for, something more than duty.”

 

“Your family,” she surmises. “Your sister.”

 

“Yes,” he agrees. He shifts to cup her cheeks with his warm, calloused hands, and she trembles, her lips parting on a shaking exhale, revelling in his touch, and the way this man looks at her, with such confidence, so intently, eyes blazing a so dark a green that they are almost black. “What will you live for? You have a choice - you can be a broodmare and meekly resign yourself to the role your father and the King have carved out for you, or you can be a Queen, and you can fight, as I know you have the strength and the courage to do.” 

 

Embarrassed warmth curls in her stomach, loosening the tight, suffocating bands around her chest, and she averts her eyes. “I don’t feel very brave,” she stutters. “This bitter, hysterical creature the King has made me isn’t me,” she explains timidly, haltingly. “And I - I want to be me again but I do not know how I can be.”

 

“You can’t,” he replies bluntly, though his tone remains gentle, and something withers to ash in the wind in the recesses of her heart at the awful finality of his statement, and she feels the sting of tears again, mingled with fury. She is exhausted of raging at the world; it isn’t a state she is particularly familiar with, nor one she is fond of in any way. It bleeds the life from her. “But you can go forward,” he continues, and that makes her gaze snap back to his. She is so close to him that the comforting heat he radiates sinks into her own body, the scent of him - steel and leather and masculine - dizzying on her tongue, the golden flecks of his irises making her reel. “What do you want to be? What, as Queen, do you want to do? What will you live for?”

 

It is the answer to the third question that is by far the easiest. You, she thinks, I will live for you. 

 

And then the stunned expression upon his face, the way his green eyes brighten with unshed tears tell her that she has spoken her thoughts aloud, and she blushes, but does not retract her words, choosing instead to look evenly back at him, even though the sight of him renders her breathless, speechless, unable even to think coherently. This is dangerous, she thinks, paling at the sudden knot of churning fear that tightens in her stomach. Bile rises in her throat. This is perilous. Far too perilous. I must go. I have to go. Leave! I should. I cannot. For the life of me I cannot.

 

“I - you - ” he bows his head momentarily, swallowing harshly, attempting to collect himself. “You humble me, you honour me.” His regard makes a mockery of her fears - they are as mere shadows in the light of his sun, and she is no longer afraid.

 

“And what will you live for?” she finds herself asking, raising her own hands to his cheeks, and the thrill she feels when he leans into her palms is like nothing she has ever felt. “What gives Jaime Lannister the will to rise, day after day?”

 

“You already know my answer, my lady,” he replies lightly, though his expression remains intent as ever. “I have lived for you since the moment we met upon Winterfell’s moor, and I will continue to live for you until the day I die.” 

 

Now she understands how her declaration brought him to his knees. They are the most powerful words she has ever heard, and to know they are for her, is an incredibly potent thing. It robs the breath from her, and she knows her eyes are impossibly, vulnerably wide, and his expression in turn is far too eloquent, his fingertips upon the sensitive shells of her ears are far too expressive, and she is entirely overwhelmed. But he says nothing, gazing upon her with a wistful sort of tenderness that is mingled with an absolute determination, and that strikes fear into her heart.

 

“Do not speak of death,” she says, her voice tight with pain. 

 

“My profession is a dangerous one,” he responds solemnly. 

 

“I could not bear yours,” she murmurs, and he swallows audibly as she almost unconsciously does as she has wanted to do since the first time she set eyes upon him and slides her dainty hands into his hair, winding her fingers around the soft golden strands. He curls his right hand around her nape and she shudders, melting, her eyes fluttering, a strangled whimper escaping her as his other hand drifts down the curve of her neck, sweeps over her shoulder, down her arm to wind around her waist, his hand splayed low upon her back.

 

And then they are close, so exquisitely, torturously close to one another, and she blushes violently at the wondrous sensation of her breasts pressing against his broad chest. I have wandered into a dream. I am imagining this. 

 

She doesn’t know who moves first, but suddenly his mouth is pressed to hers, hot and entirely absolute. He is fierce and tender and gentle all at once, patient as she learns how to move her lips against his, again and again and again until her mind spins with the delirium of it. His affection fights away the demons tearing, waiting in the dark, lonely corners of her mind, his kiss makes her heart beat once more, and as he pours his soul into her she can only reciprocate, ardently, earnestly, guilelessly. She presses herself more closely to him, arching into his touch, and is rewarded with the way he growls ferociously into her mouth in response, a rumble sounding deep in his chest, and she smiles against his lips, breathlessly sighing his name. 

 

“Sansa,” he gasps against her jaw, “Sansa, Sansa, Sansa,” he continues, nipping light kisses down the line of her jaw, placing a decadent, open-mouthed kiss below her ear, and she mewls helplessly. She is delirious with elation, her veins thrumming heatedly with pleasure, and this is madness.

 

This is madness.

 

She is the Queen. 

 

And the King will execute them both if this comes to light. 

 

Everything in her screaming in protest, she wrenches herself away from him, scrambling to her feet. The sudden look of vulnerable bemusement upon his face as he stares at her, chest heaving as he forces ragged breaths into his lungs, his hair boyishly ruffled, makes her feel nauseous. 

 

“I will never force you,” he says quietly, earnestly, and that simply makes her feel even worse.

 

“I know,” she replies forcefully. “I know you would not.” She swallows, her hands twisting in her skirts. “But this is madness. We cannot.”

 

“Forgive me. I should not have - ”

 

“No. We both know I am equally responsible. Do not put me on a pedestal.” 

 

“I am yours to command, my lady,” he states helplessly, shrugging his shoulders, looking upon her with an expression she cannot parse. 

 

“This will never happen again,” she declares, fighting to keep her voice even. “And we will not speak of it ever again.”

 

He bows his head. “As you say.”

 

“Jaime - I -” She cannot stand this anymore, this thick, stifling tension that hangs over them, choking her, and she must leave, for her own sanity she must go. 

 

So she flees, Lady at her side, skirts sweeping the ground, dizzy, sick to the very marrow of her bones, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands, and as she rounds a bend she chances to look back at him and the sight that greets her eyes makes her stagger and almost retch, makes her wrap her arms around her waist in a futile attempt to stop her from breaking. Amidst the glass stillness of the black water pool, the hush of the great white trees a knight is upon his knees, gold and white, as bright as the sun, his proud frame hunched in defeat and despair, shoulders shaking with grief. 

 

What have I done? She castigates herself, battling a sudden wave of self-loathing. What I must. What is right and honourable, because I am the Queen.

 

I will live for you.

 

She cannot give him her body or her time or her hand or a child, but she can give him her heart. She can give him her regard, even if nothing can come of it. She only hopes that it serves as some small consolation for her champion, and does not become another source of pain.

 

Oh Jaime, Jaime, what have I done?     

 

 

 


 

 

 

JAIME LANNISTER

 

 

He is cold, he is so cold and he feels as though nothing will ever warm him again. This is not mere grief, this is agony, and how he has ever thought himself strong enough to bear this he does not know but he knows now that he was a fool to believe it possible. He is a newborn, alone and helpless, naked in the face of fate, and he laughs bitterly. He is not angry; no, his anger seems to have been bled from him as soon as the Lady Sansa’s mouth opened under his, delectable and sweet and true. 

 

If only he’d asked his father to get him released from the Kingsguard after Cersei’s death. Then he could have married his lady, instead of consigning them both to this miserable torment. This will never happen again. We will never speak of this again. He understands why she has demanded this of him; they are mad fools to indulge themselves thus, but his blood had frozen at her voice, anguished and determined, a grim death knell. His ears are still ringing, his hands shake, and silence has never seemed so oppressive or so loud. He’s long known the gods have a cruel sense of humour, and yet he’s once again managed to be caught by surprise. The Queen - gods, even thinking her title leaves a sour taste in his mouth - the Queen might be younger than he, but he realises he is far more naive than she. He’d actually had the audacity to hope. Hope for what, precisely, he is uncertain, but he had allowed himself to feel joy. Well, that hope is perforce gone now, scattered to the winds like so much ash, but he realises that the best thing he can do, aside from guarding her as best he can, swallowing down his misery, is prepare to set the plot originally concocted by he and Cersei into motion. 

 

And that means writing to his father, something he is not entirely certain how he feels about. With Tyrion fled the Seven Kingdoms and Cersei dead he is his father’s last child, and the eminent Tywin Lannister has made no secret of the fact that he cannot abide Jaime remaining in the Kingsguard, but Jaime knows his plot is far more likely to succeed if he tells his father about it. 

 

So he drags himself to his feet, numb, dazed with the shock of finding himself still breathing, and takes himself back to his chambers to painstakingly scrawl out his missive in the lull before the noon meal. 

 

He is startled by the knock on his door, but answers it with an equanimity that fades alarmingly rapidly when he sees Arthur. The older man looks at him wearily enough that Jaime steps aside wordlessly to beckon him in. 

 

“The King wants to leave for White Harbor after the noontide meal,” the Sword of the Morning says by way of greeting. “Rather sooner than anticipated, but I believe he’s finally become aware of some of the hard stares he’s been getting from the Northern lords.” 

 

Jaime nods his understanding, beginning to pack his things; not that he has brought many personal effects with him, but he has no idea what to say and so remains silent. Silence between the two men, in all the years of their long acquaintance, has never been awkward and uncertain. It has never been tense. It is now.

 

“You look as terrible as she does.”

 

Jaime stiffens. “I have no wish to discuss it.”

 

“Jaime, if I have been too forward, then I must apologise.” 

 

He sighs with exhaustion, stuffing a linen shirt into a saddlebag. He is too drained for fury, and at last turns his green gaze upon his mentor. “No,” he disagrees quietly. “You are simply attempting to help us both navigate the impossible situation in which we currently find ourselves. You’ve done no wrong.”

 

“And the only thing that seems to have happened is that you are both more miserable than you were this morning.”

 

“I don’t start wars,” Jaime replies bitterly. “I finish them.”

 

Arthur’s eyes narrow in realisation. “You’re fighting your attraction to each other?”

 

“With everything we both have,” he says grimly. “And she is far too selfless to be another Lyanna.”

 

“What can I do?”

 

“Support her as best you can.”

 

 


 

 

As everyone mounts up in the principal courtyard with a flurry of colourful banners, and chaotic efficiency, Jaime spies as he runs an experienced hand down his horse’s legs, Lord Stark speaking to his daughter. He also notices that he is not the only man watching the conversation. Lords Bolton and Manderly, the two men Sansa has invited to take up Northron seats on the Small Council in King’s Landing, observing carefully, harsh looks upon their countenances. Lord Bolton reminds Jaime a little of his own father; ruthless and as unfeeling as ice, with cold grey eyes. Lord Manderly, though he masks it behind the facade of a jovial grandfather, perhaps a tad overfond of life’s little material luxuries, misses nothing, renowned as both a merchant and a spymaster. Though the latter is not common knowledge, people always seem to forget precisely how much information the Kingsguard is made aware of, simply through their constant, silent presence within the treacherous corridors of power. 

 

He is too far away to make out the conversation between the two, but their body language is not hard to interpret, tense and standoffish as it is. It ends only when the King bellows for Lord Stark to attend him, and the Warden of the North is like an eager puppy; he cannot get away from his daughter fast enough. The daughter of Winterfell and Starfall is quick to distance herself from her father, her strides sedate enough that she is able to mask the physical pain she is in apart from the occasional wince as she is helped into her saddle, by Winterfell’s horse master and Arthur. 

 

And then his own jaw slackens in surprise as the Northern lords follow the Queen’s lead to mount up; he hurriedly does the same, gathering up the reins with an ease born of long familiarity, and urges his horse next to Arthur’s. He cannot help the longing glance he sends in his lady’s direction; he meets her sunset eyes for a single moment before she averts them, subtle colour rising on her cheekbones, and something leaden and unpleasant sets up a permanent home in his stomach, clawing viciously at his insides, as he stares blankly at the leather reins in his hands. His horse’s mane needs a trim, he observes distantly.

 

Rickon comes up next to him, and Jaime jolts at the quiet greeting before scanning over him, nodding his approval when he sees the lad’s mount is tidy, Rickon is properly attired and the saddlebags are full. The baggage train is being loaded and will follow behind them at a more sedate pace. From what Jaime understands, Lord Manderly will host them at White Harbor for a few days until said train arrives, and then they will board ship to convey them south down the coast to King’s Landing. 

 

The beginnings of the new Queen’s court are gathered too, ready to leave, their mood solemn. The North’s heirs volunteered in droves to be part of their lady’s guard. Wynafryd Manderly and young Alys Karstark are to serve as ladies-in-waiting. Dominic Bolton and Dacey Mormont, amongst others, form her guard.  

 

All too quickly, the boisterous fanfare sounds, the King bellows his farewell, swaying precariously upon his horse’s back, to the animal’s marked annoyance, Lord Stark bows to his king and then attempts to speak once more to his daughter, but she merely gives him an even, impersonal leave-taking, before wheeling her mount out of the gates. 

 

He canters at Arthur’s side, glancing quickly over his shoulder to make sure his new squire and the lad’s direwolf are following, and then they clatter through the gates, the King drunkenly bringing up the rear with his brother Lord Renly and Ser Loras of the Kingsguard.

 

But it is once they reach Wintertown, cantering easily down the road, that the true surprise occurs, because the smallfolk leave their homes and their workshops and their barns and forges to line the road. They are unnervingly silent, solemn, a single red weirwood leaf clutched to their chests, bowing their heads in reverence upon the passage of their Queen, who gracefully acknowledges their fealty by inclining her head, her hand conspicuously placed upon her heart, her long red hair streaming behind her. She blinks, eyelashes fluttering, her eyes suspiciously bright.

 

Exchanging glances with Arthur, he carefully observes the Northern contingent’s reactions. Calm, grim satisfaction radiates from them all, down to the last child, and he realises that if his plot is to have any chance of succeeding, he needs to inform his father that it will have to be done with Northron co-operation, at the very least. 

 

In contrast to the Northron stoicism, the illustrious King is already calling for another skin of wine and singing bawdy-house songs at the top of his voice, in an off-key, slurred bellow that makes Rickon beside him cringe. 

 

“Is he going to keep singing?” the lordling asks, disbelieving. 

 

Jaime smiles humourlessly. “It’s going to be a long ride, Rickon. You’d best get used to it, I’m afraid.”   

 

 


 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

 

 

THE KINGSWOOD I

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

TYWIN LANNISTER

 

three weeks later

 

 

 

His son is silent as both men canter through the Kingswood, and dread settles low into Tywin’s stomach like a ball of lead. Jaime is never silent. Jaime is never still. Jaime always has some cuttingly witty remark to make, some careless jape, some mocking comment. And now, nothing. Nothing but a set, angry jaw and tense shoulders. Tywin is far more unsettled by this than he cares to admit, and when he considers the new Queen Sansa Stark Baratheon’s raven to him, a few weeks old now, in which she’d outlined her support for the Princess Myrcella’s claim to the Iron Throne, even going so far as to put it in her wedding contract - curious letter! and still more curious a lady! - when he considers that she’d treated the five year old princess with genuine, guileless warmth upon their first, public meeting earlier that morning - he’d watched her, most suspiciously - and as surprising as it might seem, he’d seen no evidence of playacting upon the face of Robert Baratheon’s second wife. Combined with a raven from Jaime, sent from Winterfell, that had stated simply - we must speak when I return - well, it is a rather extraordinary circumstance.

 

And so he’d watched his son closely as the King’s party arrived in King’s Landing, and had marked the stiffness of his frame, and the bleak, haggard look upon his face that all his armoured finery could not erase, the way he unerringly followed the new Queen’s every move, every gentle smile and kind word with a gaze he can only call yearning for it is the way he remembers - with a jolt - looking at Joanna once upon a time, and the thought chills him. The Queen’s careful avoidance of Jaime’s gaze Tywin contrasts with the way she cannot seem to step far away from his son, and he has an inkling, a suspicion he prays to gods he does not believe in - Tywin prays with everything he has that his suspicion is wrong. Because by the gods if his suspicion is not wrong and Jaime is caught, then - then Tywin Lannister will have to watch Joanna’s child, his son, his heir, hurt and perish, tormented and executed, and that is something Tywin will not, will never endure.

 

Thus they are riding through the Kingswood the afternoon of Jaime’s arrival, without Tywin’s retinue, to make absolutely certain there is no chance of the two Lannisters being overheard. They arrive in a small clearing, where the trees are spaced enough that they will be able to see any man arriving before their conversation might be heard, and both men dismount fluidly, wrapping their horses’ reins to a low lying branch to prevent the steeds from wandering off.

 

In the quiet of the clearing Tywin Lannister looks at his son, truly looks at him, at his last remaining child, at Joanna’s child, and the dread intensifies, seeping into his very veins. Jaime looks exhausted. More than that, he looks defeated, and it is not something he thought he would ever see in his proud son’s countenance.

 

Grimly, he lowers himself to sit upon a tree stump, resting his elbows upon his knees, already knowing he is not going to like what he is going to hear. He wonders how to address his suspicions. Does he mention the Queen’s name outright? Does he mention that his son cannot take his eyes from the Queen Sansa Stark Baratheon? That unless she is speaking to her uncle or her younger brother who is Jaime’s squire - that little fact has not escaped him - or indeed to his granddaughter, she appears brittle? “Your raven… surprised me,” he says eventually, his tone even though his words belie him.

 

He does not expect Jaime to begin to pace, clenching and unclenching his fists. “Yes… I… Father - I - ” he begins, before closing his eyes in obvious frustration, and Tywin feels colder still, so cold it takes him a moment to realise that the ache in his chest would have driven to his knees had he not already been seated. Jaime looks furious and terrified and despairing enough to go off and do something grand and indisputably reckless. “I have fallen in love, Father,” he shrugs helplessly, looking at Tywin the way he did as a young boy the first time he fell from his pony and broke his wrist, begging wordlessly for his father to take the pain away.

 

“With the Queen,” Tywin murmurs, barely aware he speaks the words, the pieces falling into place.  “You cannot keep your eyes off her! Jaime, what in the Seven Hells were you thinking? I cannot imagine you would ever be so reckless, not with your life, not with Sansa Stark Baratheon’s life! If you think I am going to watch you die - you do know the lover is executed first, as a general rule? Do you want her to watch you die? Do you want her to have to lay her head upon the same block as you and have your own blood upon her elegant neck before her life is in turn cut short? End this foolishness, now, or the gods help me but I will - ” The pallor, the wretched, despairing agony in his son’s expression at his words, the depth of feeling upon his son’s face greys Tywin’s vision.

 

“Father, you think I do not realise the dangers of our situation? You think she does not?” Joanna’s child exclaims, before continuing, stoically. “Of course we realise it. Of course we do. I have not - we have not - ”

 

What mad world is this, Tywin thinks. What mad, absurd world is this?

 

“Father, I have tried, I promise you I have tried. With everything I am I have tried.” Jaime’s voice breaks and he averts his gaze, swallowing harshly. “But she was made to be loved,” he continues quietly, his voice softening to something wistful, something utterly, hopelessly, irrevocably enamoured and admiring, and Tywin knows it is far too late. His son is set upon this course and Tywin can already see the silver flash of the executioner’s axe high above their heads, glinting grimly in the cold sunlight. He can already hear the roaring of the mob.

 

“She is kind and gentle and clever and Father, how could I do anything but fall in love with her? The way she is with her younger siblings, the way she is unfailingly kind, the way she is so incredibly brave, Father I could never be as half as brave as she, and I - I love her. I love her. I adore her. I admire her. I want desperately to marry her. I want to have children with her. I want to grow old with her. I love her, as she loves me.” He gives a pained huff of self-conscious laughter. “And that is the first time I have said the words aloud.”

 

Tywin can barely bring himself to ask his next question, but ask it he must. “Do I need to worry about you being arrested for high treason? Do I need to prepare for the possibility of a trial?”  Do I need to begin planning a way to get my son out of the capital - though he is loyal enough - if he loves the Queen he will never leave her and I will not be able to protect my child. Do I need to begin devising an escape for the Princess Myrcella? Do I need to begin preparing for another civil war? He cannot deny that he has made plans of the kind before; he’d surmised that if Cersei ever took a lover, given the state of her marriage to Robert, such plans might have been required.

 

“No.”

 

Now that does surprise him. He raises an eyebrow. “No?”

 

Jaime shrugs again. “We are chaste.”

 

“Chaste?” Tywin repeats the word incredulously, entirely disbelievingly. He wonders if he has perhaps stepped into some sort of mirror world asleep,  but one look at his son quickly disabuses him of that fantastical notion; this is indeed the real world, and Tywin is indeed awake, not dreaming a nightmare. “You mean to tell me that you love her, she loves you, you cannot take your eyes off each other, you look about to be sick or snap clean in two if you are not within sight of one another, and you tell me the two of you are chaste?”

 

“Yes,” his son lifts his chin proudly.

 

“Good gods, Jaime!”

 

“It is the most difficult thing I have ever done, Father,” he explains wearily. “To see her but not speak or touch - I can hardly bear it.”

 

“You do not speak?”

 

“We do not need speech,” his son replies. “A single glance from her warms my heart more completely than a thousand lines of declaimed poetry ever could.”

 

“Oh, my son…” Tywin sighs. “This can only end one way, Jaime, you do understand that? Eventually, you will be caught and this will end with both your heads on spikes and I will go to war to avenge you. The North will go to war for her. Starfall will do the same, and Robert Baratheon will die, but that will be cold comfort to you and your Sansa, I fear.” He pauses, even as Jaime’s gaze snaps to his. “It will be cold comfort to me. And I shall see your mother in my dreams and we will mourn you and she will ask me why I could not save you and I will have no answer for her, and I shall wake to face the rising sun, the Lion of Lannister, the last of my house.” 

 

He does not expect his son’s expression to morph into one of determination. “We have a plan.”

 

“Do you now?” Tywin replies more evenly. Plans he can deal with. Plans he can work to make happen. The prospect of Jaime being executed on the other hand is beyond even his great capacity for stoicism.

 

“Sansa will bear Robert Baratheon’s child, and some time afterwards, when the child is some months old, he will go hunting as he habitually does, and he will become drunk, and I will slip poison into his wine and Arthur will encourage him to tussle with a boar or ten,” Jaime explains succinctly, weary to the bone, Tywin can see.

 

“Ser Arthur Dayne, the Queen’s uncle, is involved?” He has had enough surprises for one day, thank you very much.

 

Jaime’s reply is clipped. “His distaste for the King is as great as mine.”

 

Tywin sticks to establishing facts. “And he knows of you and his niece?”

 

“Yes. He does. He was the first to know. He was in a similar position, once upon a time.”

 

“What is it about the Kingsguard and abused Queens?” Tywin sighs. He knows the answer of course; it is fairly obvious to anyone with a brain, and yet his son’s bleak reply makes him force down a shiver. Tywin Lannister, Warden of the West, does not shiver. It is far easier for the peers of the realm to pretend that royal affairs between knights of the Kingsguard and Queens or princesses of the blood do not happen; to believe they have not in the past happened is to be wilfully naive. And with a man like Robert on the throne… well. Truly, it is only a matter of time, anyone with a brain can understand that. But the truly astonishing thing, Tywin finds, is that his son has just informed him that he and the Queen are fighting that which they feel. They are making themselves thoroughly miserable in the process, but they are fighting. They have not committed high treason. Yet. And that is the salient point, that is the terrifying point. They are chaste, yes - but for how long? His son’s answer does not inspire any great confidence.   

 

“We stand outside their doors and listen to their Kings rape them, and then when we question the Lord Commander he says we do not protect the Queen from the King. I asked the White Bull that very question, and that was the answer he gave me, and everyone agrees that he was a better man than I.” Tywin thinks vaguely that he does not ever wish to hear his child speak so grimly ever again, and he begins to calculate in earnest how best to buy off the City Guard to sneak the Princess Myrcella to safety and Casterly Rock. He will send his captains out to investigate those men - vices, misdemeanours, any and all information about them that he can obtain. Anything Tywin might bribe them with successfully. How many men would it take to subdue Jaime into unconsciousness? No, better for Tywin himself to slip his son a sleeping draught. And to stop his son from throwing himself headlong back into danger as soon as they are clear of the Red Keep Tywin is going to have to trust Lord Dayne of Starfall to secure the Queen’s escape as well as that of Jaime’s squire, Rickon Stark. 

 

“Father, I’ve never heard anyone scream the way Sansa screamed that first night, the way she has screamed every other night since. Not even when Aerys used to burn men alive, and Arthur and I stand outside Sansa’s chamber every night and listen to her scream until Robert Baratheon grows bored of her weeping and muffles her protests. She wargs into her direwolf then, to escape the pain. And in the morning her uncle wraps her carefully into soft blankets and carries her to her bath because she is in too much pain to walk. I offered to break her door down and run the King through on her wedding night. She refused. She has refused every night. She told me it was enough for her to know that I would do it should she ever command it, and she said that is why she never will.”

 

“And she is right to do so, Jaime,” Tywin replies evenly. Or Jaime’s life is forfeit, and hers with his.

 

“She should not have to endure it!” He retorts passionately, pacing furiously, a lion in a cage, roaring defiance though chained. “I want to help her. I’ve thought of killing him, I’ve thought of fleeing with her - I have thought of so many things, each as mad and as reckless as the other - but she would never agree, and I do not start wars, Father. I finish them.” Tywin can only watch as his son works himself once more into the acutest despair. “Every day the glimmer in her eyes fades more quickly, and I must pretend I do not notice. I must pretend there is nothing wrong. She must pretend there is nothing wrong and - I - I wish I had asked to be released from the Kingsguard after Cersei died,” he confesses quietly. “I wish I had met Sansa Stark just a few months ago, before her betrothal to the King. But here I am, standing here, and I am fortune’s fool.”

 

“Your plan will work,” he assures his son, “and I will help you. We will not fail.” Robert Baratheon hunts drunk with a regularity that is akin to clockwork. Him being gored to death by a wild boar is a very real possibility, one he can well imagine drives the Hand of the King Lord Arryn mad with worry. The wild hope in Jaime’s eyes, a wild hope born of desperation, is almost too painful for the Lord of the West to look at. “All you have to do, Jaime,” he continues soberly, solemnly, “is hold on. Endure.

 

“How? How can I endure for a year, perhaps longer?”

 

“Because it is the only choice you have,” Tywin replies swiftly. “Because you are a Lannister. Because you are my son. Because you are Joanna’s child. You have my stubborn will, and as much grief as that has caused me in the past it will serve to your advantage now, and you have your mother’s loyalty. You have her heart.” And though he does not say it, Tywin sees that his son loves Sansa Stark with an all-encompassing depth that reminds him of what he felt for Joanna.

 

Jaime stills, bewildered and even embarrassed by his father’s words, blinking at him in shock.

 

“You will endure this, Jaime,” Tywin repeats, before continuing, his tone softer than it has been for decades. “I will help you, my son. You have my word.”

 

“Thank you, Father,” he replies, his tones strangled. “Thank you.”

 

“Now,” Tywin says, frowning in consideration, “tell me of the Northron court that accompanies Her Grace. What are your impressions of them?”

 

And Jaime does as they remount and return to King’s Landing and the Red Keep proper, unaware of how relieved his father is to be returning to the comparatively more straightforward world of pure politicking, as compared to the messy business of planning an assassination and clandestine affairs. Her Grace has surrounded herself rather astutely with a mix of bright young things from the noble Houses of the North, heirs and heiresses alike, and the extremely formidable Lords Manderly and Bolton to represent the North upon the Small Council, Jaime explains. Neither man is to be underestimated, in Jaime’s opinion. Nor must the contingent from Starfall be forgotten. Lord Parsifal Dayne, the Lord of Starfall, arrived with more retainers and courtiers for the Queen not two days past, and Tywin makes a mental note to share a cup of wine with Lord Dayne in the near future. Jaime’s friendship with the Queen’s uncle Ser Arthur Dayne has proven immensely helpful in that respect for the trust between the two men is immense, and Arthur is generous to Jaime with his knowledge. In some part of him, Tywin relishes the notion of a new sparring partner or two.

 

But the most pressing question of all is how Her Grace the Queen will fit in to all of the politicking, and Tywin knows the sooner he is granted an audience with her the better it bodes for his granddaughter the Princess Myrcella. He is decided, then Tywin thinks. He will ask for a meeting at her earliest convenience. Neither does he deny that properly meeting the lady his child has fallen dangerously, irrevocably in love with, holds significant appeal for him. He finds himself, rather shockingly,  greatly anticipating such a meeting. He is curious to see if Jaime’s admiring descriptions hold true.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

 

 

MAEGOR’S HOLDFAST I

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

SANSA DAYNE STARK

 

 

 

Sansa suspects her aunt the Lady Allyria has had a hand in decorating her apartments in Maegor’s Holdfast, for her solar is decorated in gentle colours of dusky purple and airy white, lending a feminine air to the rooms that soothes her instantly. Her handmaidens - she has so many, now, and it seems to be a constant ballet of curtseyed ‘Your Grace’ this and ‘Your Grace’ that as they scurry about unpacking gowns and trinkets - have been dismissed. It has been years since she has last seen her aunt, only ten years her elder, and Sansa had felt like a little girl at their reunion, sinking gratefully into an embrace, barely holding back convulsive sobs. Her eldest uncle, too, is in the capital, and a weight lifts from her shoulders to know that she is surrounded by them once more.

 

The request for an audience from Lord Lannister is no surprise; she’d seen the way he’d scrutinised her from afar that very morning as she was introduced to the young Princess Myrcella who is all that is charming and innocent. That had been a whirlwind of introductions to lord after lord, all bowing over her hand one after the other in a lengthy parade, excruciating to stand through gracefully after enduring yet another painful night in her lord husband the King’s bed. In tents on the way to White Harbor, then whilst hosted by Lord Manderly, then upon the ship sailing down the coast to King’s Landing, it seems she has not had one moment of solace or respite or privacy, always surrounded by a maid or a courtier or a guard.

 

She knows the importance of impressing Lord Lannister; for the Princess Myrcella, for her own claim to Winterfell which she has every intention of fighting for when the time comes as she knows it eventually will, for peace in the realm, but most of all for Jaime. She wants to impress the father of the man she loves - as hopeless and as painful as that love might be - she wants to be considered a worthy prospect for Jaime.

 

And so she sends for wine and a plate of fruit and cheese to offer her guest when he calls upon her, bowing very properly, green eyes sharp and assessing.

 

“Your Grace,” he says smoothly.

 

“My Lord Lannister,” she returns elegantly. “Please,” she continues, gesturing elegantly, “Sit; take your ease. Wine?”

 

He nods, and she serves him herself. They are alone, her uncle Arthur guards her door, her direwolf Lady is at her feet and thus she is as safe as it is possible to be in this dangerous court.

 

“You are curious about me, my lord,” she begins, “and justifiably so. Ask your questions. What would you know of me?”

 

The Lord of the West sits, ramrod-straight, in his chair, considering her carefully, and she allows the scrutiny. Eventually, he speaks, calmly, almost tonelessly, as though making an idle comment about the weather. “Not many would uphold the Princess Myrcella’s claim to the throne in your position, Your Grace.”

 

She smiles tightly. “The time will come when I will have to fight my own younger half-brother for my right to Winterfell. Do you see the conundrum, my lord? How can I expect to succeed in that if I deny the Princess Myrcella?”

 

“I see.” There is no inflection at all to his words.

 

“I will support her claim. I made that vow to you in writing, my Lord Lannister, and I make it to you again now. Your granddaughter will have the Throne.”

 

“Bold of you, Your Grace.” His surprise is carefully guarded, but it is there all the same, she sees. It is apparent in the minute furrow of his brows before his expression is once again smoothed into a perfect courtier’s mask.

 

“I am no danger to you, nor to the Princess,” she replies, and she winces inwardly at how young her voice sounds with naivety and sincerity. She recognises instantly that this is how her opponents will underestimate her, but she does not want the Lord Lannister to underestimate her. She wants to be considered a worthy ally. “You have my word. You have your own informants and spies, the same as everyone else. They will prove to you the truth of my words.”

 

“And in return?” The words are heavy with expectation, and she wishes she could say that she wishes for nothing in turn, because she would support the Princess Myrcella even if she did not need his support, she thinks. For Jaime. For his House. But she does not say any of this because Lord Tywin Lannister would never believe her if she did and the truth is also that she does need Lannister support or else her chances of survival in this court are drastically lessened.

 

“It seems to me to be a mistake for a Queen to rely merely upon one faction,” she phrases delicately.

 

As she knew he would, the Lord Lannister understands her immediately. “You wish for my support, then.”

 

A faint smile touches her lips. “In part. I would like to build a coalition.”

 

“Indeed? And to what purpose?”

 

“The King is a warrior.” She is all too aware of the possibility of there being listeners in the walls; one of the first things her uncle Arthur had told her that in the Red Keep even in her personal chambers she should always expect the possibility of being overheard, and thus she chooses every word with care.

 

“Women have no place upon the Small Council.” The words are bland and drawled, but there is a flicker of intrigue in the man’s eyes.

 

“I have neither the need nor the interest to be upon the Small Council, my Lord Lannister. No man need fear the interference of the Queen Consort in such hallowed pursuits.” Lord Lannister’s lips twitch at her words and she knows he takes her meaning.

 

“I suppose you will occupy your time then with the typical pursuits of a consort; entertainments and alms-giving, Your Grace. Being a pillar of steadfast support to His Grace.” He replies in the same even, drawling, dry tones she has been using, and she realises with a jolt that she is enjoying this pitting of her wits against his, though she would not go so far as to say that she is at ease; she is far too attentive to the substance of her words to be anything else but tense.

 

“I would not presume to advise His Grace. I know my duty, and it is my great wish to give my lord husband the King a child. Within the year, I hope.” Again there is that flash of amused irony, of knowing, in his expression, and she has to fight the instinctive urge to stiffen. Lord Tywin Lannister knows, and the only thing she can think is that her champion must have spoken to his father, somehow -

 

“A noble wish indeed. I pray Your Grace is thus blessed quickly.” His reply confirms her suspicions, and she does not know whether to worry or rejoice. Surely Lord Lannister cannot condone the feelings she has for his son and that he has for her? Much less assassination? But then she considers that a regency would give House Lannister far more power than they currently possess, and she hazards a guess that even though he might not condone the idea of assassinating the King, the Lord of the West would certainly not object to the outcome of such an act. 

 

“You are kind to say so, Lord Lannister,” she replies demurely.

 

“And how do you like King’s Landing thus far?” he changes the subject with all the finesse she expects coming from a lord such as he. “It is to be your home now, after all.”

 

“I could not possibly compare the capital to anywhere else; it would be a most grievous disservice,” she answers in the same vein, allowing herself to show some of the amusement she feels, though masking the relief at the more neutral topic of conversation.

 

“And you must have been glad to see your maternal family again?”

 

“Of course; the Lady Allyria and I are already planning a musicale. It is as though my family and I were never parted in the first place.”

 

“Do you compose, then, Your Grace?”

 

“I do; I can spend days entire doing so.”

 

“My wife was the same,” Lord Lannister says pensively, and it is only because she is scrutinising him so attentively that she catches the momentary softening of his expression at the thought of his late wife, and Sansa’s heart aches with sympathy.

 

“If you have a musical mind, my lord, you are most welcome at my little gathering with my lady aunt.” The words she speaks instinctively, her only thought to be kind to this great lord.

 

He blinks in surprise, nonplussed. “Your Grace is most gracious to extent such an invitation.”

 

“Music is one of my greatest enjoyments; why should I not share it?” She explains, smiling wistfully. It is one of the only enjoyments that remain to her, and so she cherishes all the more greatly.

 

“You shall become a firm favourite with the Princess Myrcella if you do so.”

 

“All the more reason. She is delightful,” Sansa responds, her smile widening at the thought of the sweet young princess who had greeted her so shyly, so charmingly in spite of her young age.

 

“She is impressionable,” Lord Lannister corrects sternly.

 

“You will teach her well, I am sure, my lord,” Sansa is unfazed. “Under her grandfather’s tutelage she will become the most formidable queen the Seven Kingdoms, of that I have no doubt.”

 

He snorts at that. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Your Grace.”

 

“It was not flattery, my Lord. I was being sincere.”

 

Tywin Lannister leans back in his chair, eyes narrowed in careful consideration, and when he eventually replies his voice is softer with an incredulous sort of surprise. “That I do not doubt, somehow.”

 

“I owe much to the tutelage of mine own uncles Ser Arthur and Lord Parsifal,” she feels the urge to explain. “It will be a great comfort to the Princess to have the support of her grandfather and the protection of her uncle.”

 

Lord Lannister allows himself a smirk, taking her meaning. “She has it already. And how is your uncle Ser Arthur? It must be strange for him to have returned here, to the Red Keep.”

 

“Yes, his reaction has been rather restrained considering the circumstances.” Her uncle’s expression upon riding through the gates of the capital to the rapturous cheering of the smallfolk had been nothing short of grim resignation and the sight of it had tightened the iron bands choking her heart, her throat.

 

“He is not the only one to know the meaning of the word restraint.”  He does not have to say the name aloud for her to understand instantly of whom he speaks, and her expression turns pained and wistful before she can catch herself. The worry, though carefully hidden behind more general statements, is there, and suddenly he is not a high lord of the realm but merely a man terrified for the wellbeing of his son.

 

She swallows, meeting Tywin Lannister’s stare, unable to force herself to levity, her features saying all that she cannot speak. She understands only too well the perils of her situation, and it is only the thought of Jaime’s death and the hurt her own execution would cause her family that prevents her from throwing caution to the wind entirely. She is not afraid of her own execution; not now, not after what she has been made to endure, and that is what the men around her for all their good intentions cannot understand.

 

“No, indeed not,” she murmurs softly, sadly.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Her maternal family shower her with gifts, for she finds her apartments overrun with entire trunks of silks and velvets and jewel boxes and a beautifully decorated high harp. Bouquets of cut flowers in clear glass vases that add a fresh, pleasant scent to the rooms to counteract the stench of sewage and the city she is told wafts even into the Holdfast on particularly hot days, a fact which makes her inordinately grateful for the private garden her suite of chambers open onto. Rickon is tending to his duties as a squire, which is one less thing to worry about for she entirely trusts her champion to look after her younger brother properly. He is in all likelihood helping unpack or tending to Ser Jaime’s armour or suchlike - and she really must cease that train of thought or else she will drive herself from the depths of misery deeper still to sheer insanity. 

 

They are all here, now, excepting her young cousin Edric whom Lord Parsifal has left at Starfall, and it is a surreal reunion. She does not blame her lord uncle at all, for the capital is treacherous indeed, as evidenced by her other uncle Arthur insisting upon tasting her wine for her before motioning for her to serve herself.

 

The four of them lounge at ease upon cushions and blankets spread over the grassy, shaded expanse of her garden, nibbling upon sweet plates of lemoncakes and marchpane and fresh summer fruits, sipping at chilled wine, and for the first time since the King came to Winterfell she feels the iron bands around her chest ease and she can breathe properly again. How joyous, and how bittersweet this gathering is! After years of communicating only by letters and couriers, to have her mother’s family, her family in front of her thus, in the flesh, is overwhelming. Greedily, she drinks in the sight of them, the laughing glint in her aunt Allyria’s eyes, the way she keeps tossing back an errant dark curl of hair behind her shoulder, the precise way Lord Parsifal bites into the marchpane, swallows a mouthful of wine, before taking another bite. These ordinary, mundane habits are infinitely fascinating to her.

 

“To Starfall,” her eldest uncle toasts solemnly, “and to you, your Grace.”

 

She toasts to the first, but to the second, she says quietly, “please do not call me that. If you have the choice, please do not call me that. I have been reminded without respite for the past three weeks of what that title means, and I abhor it.”

 

Her uncle Arthur winces.

 

“Of course, Sansa. If that is what you desire,” Allyria soothes.

 

“We have been hearing rumours,” Lord Parsifal begins stoically and Sansa stiffens. “You take tinctures of honey and thyme to ease your throat.”

 

She laughs bitterly. “Without them I would not be able to speak, much less croak, I would wager.”

 

“Brother, is this truly necessary?” Allyria interjects. “I would not distress her further.”

 

“No,” Sansa shakes her head, draining her glass of wine. “If I cannot be honest with you who are my mother’s house I can be honest with no-one. Whatever rumours you have heard about how I have been treated by the King, they are true, more often than not. Word travels fast indeed.” She lays down fully upon the cushions, curling up like a child, drawing her knees to her chest carefully to avoid further injury, resting her head upon Arthur’s leg, sighing when his hand, gentle, familiar, parental, comes to rest upon her crown. “I wish… but what I wish does not matter in the end, I have learnt that cruel lesson now,” she murmurs, beyond anger, resigned, wanting only comfort, greedy in her appropriation of it. “I am glad you are all here,” she continues drowsily, her body and mind beginning to succumb to the exhaustion she has for so long held at bay, now that she is warmed by the afternoon sun and surrounded by the elders of her mother’s house who will protect her, she knows. Lady is there, too, sprawled quietly out upon another blanket. “Thank you,” she says, blinking back tears.

 

“We will do all we can, Sansa,” Allyria assures her fiercely. “I am the chief Lady of your household. We shall have charitable works and entertainments, feasts and recitals and tournaments and horse-races to give you an occasion for all the politicking you must do as well as enjoy yourself, have no fear.”

 

Sansa splutters a laugh at that, before sobering abruptly. “The quicker I am with child, the better.” She has decided quite suddenly that she must tell her family all - or almost all - she is not under any circumstances telling anyone what happened with her champion during that final, awful meeting in the godswood at Winterfell - because she cannot bear the weight of such isolation, of such a secret. It is tearing her apart. The weeks of travel from Winterfell, to White Harbor then sailing down to King’s Landing where she has had to pretend that nothing was wrong, all the time for she had been denied privacy, in a tent and then in a ship’s cabin - it has wearied her beyond anything she has known, beyond anything she could have anticipated.  “Tell them, uncle, tell them.”

 

Allyria nonchalantly picks up her lap-harp, though her sharp eyes belie her casual demeanour, and begins to strum a melody that tugs insistently at Sansa’s heart, and it takes her a moment to recognise it as one of the lullabies she was sung to sleep with, first by her mother and Allyria at Starfall and then by Arthur at Winterfell. She has not heard it in at least a decade and then she does weep, silently.

 

Arthur looks down at her, forehead creased with concern. “You are certain?”

 

“Please, uncle,” she replies. “I cannot bear it. Please. Tell them everything. They deserve to know.”

 

She does not listen to the substance of her dearest uncle’s words, content to let the soothing sound of his voice weave with Allyria’s lullaby into something that calms her, lets her drift off at last to rest.