Ned Stark arrives at the Tower of Joy to see blood.
Bloodied roses, bloodied sheets, bloodied guards.
And: an empty bed.
“A toast,” says Ned, rising to his feet. His eyes sweep over the gathering, watchful and bright, and he lifts his wine cup to be better seen by the people at the lower tables. “To my sister. May she know the happiness I have known for the past twenty years.”
Sansa, not a few feet from him, sweeps her gaze over the crowd. She wants to snort; she knows happiness, yes, but she also knows pity.
Perhaps best of all her siblings- she has nothing to her name but a pretty face and her reputation, and she’s lost the second to men’s wagging tongues quickly enough; she is nearly grown and has no marriage offers; she is as close to being a pariah as a Stark can become inside Winterfell- and she can see pity in the hall now, with people lifting their glasses but lowering their heads. They respect Sansa’s father too much to say anything, but they all know that this feast in Lyanna Stark’s name is... more than useless. Twenty years passed and not one hint that she’s alive- it’s hope, of sorts, but mostly just foolishness, to think that she’ll ever return. To think that she is even alive.
Love makes us foolish, Cersei whispers into her ear. Sansa shudders and masks it by sipping the wine.
It doesn’t work. The wine is sweet, almost too much, and reminds her of the taste of blood, ripe in her mouth. She sets aside the cup swiftly and seats herself without any more ceremony. Arya, beside her, lifts a brow in silent question. Sansa ignores her.
“To a better year than the last,” Robb mutters, when they’re seated, just loud enough for the high table to hear.
Arya snorts and Bran, next to Arya, sends a worried look towards Sansa that makes bile rise in her throat. Still, she lifts her cup once more to toast to it. There’s no possible way this year can be worse than the previous one, Sansa’s sure of it. At the least, there won’t be any hissing crown princes or malicious queen mothers to bother her.
But when she goes to set her cup down, the world seems to fracture apart.
The torches gutter and half of them blow out, leaving the hall dark. There’s a scream, and then a shout, and Sansa reaches out to grasp Robb’s arm when he rises to his feet. The thick wooden doors closing the hall curve inwards, as if against a great wind, before they shatter. People scream as they throw themselves to the floor to avoid the splinters.
The hallway beyond the great hall is darker still, all the light snuffed out. Out of the darkness, something pale- pale, large, and eldritch- pads forwards.
On its back is a hooded figure.
There is so little steel at the table. Sansa feels her hand spasm, digging her nails into Robb’s forearm, at the realization. No swords. Nothing save for ornamental daggers.
Nothing to stop the figure’s advancement, not until the wolf’s half past the tables.
“Lord Stark,” says the figure. “You have heard of the rise of the Others.”
“Direwolf,” Bran murmurs, and Sansa tips her head in a silent acknowledgement. She can see it now; the pale beast is a direwolf, only one larger than she’s ever seen before.
Slowly, the direwolf moves, edging around the corners in a slow, deliberate path that brings its rider closer to the high table without being in true light. Sansa can feel Robb’s muscles flex; she doesn’t dare say anything, though. There’s something old and terrifying about this beast, and she doesn’t want to bring attention to herself if she can avoid it.
“I have,” her father says. “What of it?”
“My people can stop them.” The hooded figure is tall, with pale skin that’s alternately revealed and hidden in the rocking motions of the direwolf’s stride, and Sansa has a feeling that he’s- human. Or close. His voice doesn’t sound much different from Robb’s, at least. “Or we can shield ourselves, and leave them to destroy you.”
“Is that a threat?” one of the lords asks, outraged.
“The truth,” says the hooded man. “We ask for something in return for saving you.”
“And what is this thing?” asks her father.
“A woman. For all of Westeros, one woman.” The direwolf stops moving, and the man inclines his head. “More than a fair price.”
“A bride price?” Robb demands. “What makes you think we’ll give you a bride- you can’t just enter our home and demand- like that-”
“And yet I did.”
Amusement, thinks Sansa, before she digs her nails into Robb’s arm, hard enough to draw blood. He’s amused.
It feels like Joffrey, like Cersei, like all of the south again: playing games of blood and death and never once being touched by it themselves.
Sweet fills her mouth.
Blood, from biting her cheek.
“We’ll need time,” her father says.
“Take it. You have until midnight.” The direwolf turns, but pauses when it sees Arya. It’s nothing more than a breath, but it’s the first crack in the hooded man’s composure that Sansa’s seen thus far. “Only midnight, Lord Stark. Longer, and I shall choose a woman for myself.”
Robb hesitates for a moment, and then he shakes off Sansa’s hand to follow their father into one of the side-chambers, along with a number of other lords. Even her mother leaves the great hall, leaving Sansa to act as the hostess for everyone there.
Sansa can see the fear, though, and the way it sinks teeth into people’s minds, gnawing deeper and deeper as time passes. The door remains shut. When her own skin starts to itch from the tension, she starts to think- much longer and there will be a riot, never mind the still-circling direwolf. Slowly, she leans over to Arya.
“We can’t leave,” she whispers. “He’s- he knows magic, and we can’t risk insulting him, so we can’t let anyone leave, but-”
“-midnight’s too far off.” Arya’s eyes narrow on the wolf as it walks past them. “People will start- doing things. Soon. If nothing happens.” She tips her head to Rickon, over at the far end of the table, who’s dipping the tablecloth in their father’s winecup and then sucking on it. “The kids won’t last that long either.”
He stared at you. Sansa remembers Joffrey’s fingers, bruising on her arm. She’d give anything not to see that same quiet, creeping fear on Arya’s face- wild, beautiful Arya, who doesn’t deserve to know helplessness. It aches in her chest, but she swallows past it.
“Get them out,” Sansa says. “Do it quickly, and quietly.”
Arya studies her. “And you?”
“I’ll distract him.”
Slowly, she stands, and makes her way down the dais. Bran reaches out to her dress; Sansa brushes her hand over his, but doesn’t stop moving.
“My lord,” she says as she approaches, keeping her voice level, keeping her eyes fixed steadily to the dark hood, “please- we are having a feast. It is a time for... remembrance, and happiness.”
He leans back, a little. “I suppose you wish for me to come some other day?”
“I wish,” she says carefully, “for you to partake in it.” His back stiffens, and she continues: “All those in Winterfell enjoy this day. Criminals are allowed to feast as well- it is not right that a stranger be devoid of it, no matter if you are cloaked and threatening.”
There’s a rustle from under the cloak. “Who did you say you were?”
“Sansa, of House Stark.” She curtsies. “Eldest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark.”
“Then, lady Sansa- do you think your father would approve of your- kindnesses?” The voice roughens, just a little. “There is a thin line between folly and trust.”
My father would approve of saving children.
“You will stay here until midnight and not a moment longer,” Sansa says quietly. “Whether you eat our food or not- it matters little. Kindness does not mean trust, my lord.”
“I am not your lord,” he says flatly, but not angrily. “And I am not hungry.”
She summons a smile to her face. It’s not as difficult as it might have once been; Joffrey had demanded she smile while watching people die, and this- she only has to imagine her father’s face, when he realizes that the children are safe- it’s far easier, no matter the cold she still feels running down her spine.
“Not even for lemoncakes?” Voice light, light as the air above the Eyrie, light as the spun sugar of King’s Landing, delicate enough to snap at the slightest touch but lovely and sticky and distracting nonetheless. “They’re lovely.” There’s the faintest hint of a chair scraping against stone behind her, and Sansa’s pulse jumps. “The best dessert I know. Not too sweet, but- sweet enough.”
“I’ve never eaten lemoncakes,” he says. His voice is a little gentler than before.
“You must,” says Sansa, before holding one out to him. “It is- the best thing you’ll ever taste.”
It all happens almost simultaneously. The man’s hand closes on the cake, and a child shrieks at the door. The direwolf snarls, and Sansa feels the man’s hand tighten, bruisingly, on her wrist, before he jerks upright at the sound; light flashes across her vision as Sansa’s dragged forwards, closer to the direwolf’s jaws, and she opens her mouth to scream.
“Don’t,” shouts Bran, lurching forwards.
Half the room rises, too, hands reaching for forks and knives still stained with food; the door to the side-chambers bursts open, and Robb and a dozen lords spill out, swords drawn. Sansa can feel the scream, still high in her throat, but she bites down on her lip hard enough for it to bleed.
Abruptly, he releases her.
Sansa stumbles back, almost losing her balance, before she catches herself against the wall.
“You lied,” says the hooded man. He sounds furious, and hurt, too, just a bit. “You lied to me.”
Do not mistake kindness for trust, Sansa thinks, viciousness thick across her tongue. Before she can say anything, Robb speaks.
“Get out of here, Sansa.” He moves forwards, five measured steps, just enough to be past the high table. “Now.”
She swallows, hard, and steps back. At the door, she stops.
“It wasn’t a lie,” she says, and wonders what the man sees across her face. Something hot and angry, she hopes. Something frightening. “It wasn’t- it wasn’t a lie.”
“Father rejected him,” Arya cries, bursting into their rooms, hair disheveled, eyes wild. “He told the man to leave.”
“Good,” says Sansa, hissing as she rubs an ointment into her skin. She pauses at Arya’s disappointed face in the background. “What’s the problem?”
“He says his people can handle the Others. You know Father’s been worried over that for- a long time.”
A long time, she thinks. Months. Years.
And now, Sansa can see it- her father, worried; Robb, angry; a dozen lords, each untempered as the next. Her mother might have tried to stop them, but she is one woman in a sea of men. It isn’t enough. It’s never enough.
“You think he’s honest?”
Arya heaves a sigh, before finally seating herself on the bed. She picks at the cover. “Entering Winterfell’s great hall, during a feast, just to make a bluff? That’s madness.” Her eyes dart up to meet Sansa’s. “And he didn’t seem mad. Angry, and a little- indifferent- but not mad.”
Sansa turns, fully. “If he speaks the truth, then we have to take the deal.”
“-not always right.” There are scars on Sansa’s body that came from Ned Stark’s mistakes. And it’s that which convinces Sansa, something slotting into place in her mind- old pride won’t be what leads her astray. “Arya,” says Sansa, softly. “How certain are you, that he is not lying, that this isn’t a trick?”
“More than half,” she says immediately. “He knew what he was doing. And he could use magic with ease inside of Winterfell, where there’s dampers all over the place. It’s made of steel and stone- but he didn’t even seem to feel the strain. He’s powerful, if nothing else.”
“Then we take the deal.”
“Even if we did-” Arya stands, starts pacing, “-then we need a bride. Someone willing to trek all the way to the river, someone who’d be able to convince him to hold up his end of the bargain, someone whose parents wouldn’t kill us-”
“I don’t have any marriage offers,” Sansa murmurs.
“What does that have to-” Arya stops.
Just- stops. Stops talking, and moving, and for a moment Sansa is worried that she isn’t breathing either.
“No,” she says, and it’s so furious that Sansa nearly jumps. “No, you don’t get to do that. We just got you back, Sansa. I won’t let you die.”
“We all must die,” Sansa answers quietly. “Some more meaningful deaths than others. And I won’t die, Arya. I might not come back, but-”
“Who else can do this? Beth? Jeyne? They’ll faint before I finish telling them.”
“Wynafryd has a betrothed,” says Sansa. “No. It must be me.”
Arya straightens. “Or me.”
No, thinks Sansa, an abrupt, desperate thought. Not for a hundred years.
“Between the two of us, who’s better at convincing?” she asks instead. “If he has magic- this isn’t something you can approach with swords. This needs words, and subtlety, and- and you’re not bad at it- but-”
“But I’m not better than you.”
Sansa leans forwards and catches Arya’s hands in her own. “Convince Mother and Father that it’ll work out. Tell them that I left of my own will. Keep them happy, Arya. You’ve always managed that better than me.”
“That’s not true,” she whispers, pulling away. Arya’s got large eyes- grey, wide, expressive- and they look even larger now, horrified as they are. “I fought with them so much-”
“I did what they wanted,” says Sansa. “But you? They loved you. They adore you. And that’s what they’ll need, so- don’t let them forget it.”
“Sansa,” she says, shaking her head. “Sansa-”
“Give me until dawn.” Sansa swallows. “If he recants, then I’ll return; there’s time enough for that. But if he speaks the truth... someone should tell them that he didn’t steal me away.
“I don’t like this.”
Sansa remembers her last days in the Red Keep, alone, bruised, afraid. She’d been thrown in the darkness- those same cells in which her father had been held, before he escaped- and even the terror had waned before the sheer boredom after a few days. She’d prayed, then, for hours on end; and the only person to come for her was her aunt, with glowing red wings and glittering, brilliant hair. She’d looked so lovely, and she’d been so kind, right up until she held Sansa against the Eyrie’s Moon Door and threatened to throw her down it.
She’s home now, months- years- later, but she walked those miles home herself.
And she’s so tired of looking at people and seeing only grief, of her mother’s sad eyes when she speaks of those weeks on the run, of her father’s pale face when he hears of what she suffered, of Robb’s guilt and her brothers’ silent avoidance.
Sansa wants to be- someone else.
Not this creature of longing and possibilities and washed-out hope. She can feel that old, aching part of her tear again at the thought; but Sansa won’t ever be queen now. She must accept that.
“Neither do I,” she says, and it is not a lie, but not the truth either. Sansa breathes, steadily, into lungs scraped and scarred by her own bones, by others’ hands. “But it must be done, and done properly, and there are no others- so I shall.”
Arya looks away, hands tightening on each other to form fists, before she snatches something from her belt and offers it to Sansa. “Take it,” she says roughly.
It’s a dagger, Sansa sees; thin and small, delicately made, with a blade that shifts and shines.
“I don’t know how to use one.” And this is priceless.
“You don’t need to.” She bites her lip. “You can aim. You’re not tall, so don’t aim for the head or neck- stick it here.” She taps against her underarm. “And yank it out. He'll bleed out soon enough.”
“Arya,” says Sansa, softly, but Arya reaches out before she can continue and presses the blade into her palm, folds Sansa’s fingers over it. “I’m not a- a killer.”
I am worse. Far worse. If you knew-
“No. You’re a survivor,” says Arya, and presses her forehead to Sansa’s collarbone.
The next words they exchange are goodbyes.
(There are all sorts of magic in the world.
Terrible, lifting magics- the kind that raise mountains and carve valleys. Place magics, tied to locations that echo their eldritch powers; family magics, bound to bloodlines; learned magics, written into books. Bargain magics, as Lysa had used- to be lovelier, to be stronger, to be more.
And there is another sort altogether.
The magic of things given freely: in love unconditional, in tears shed without shame, in gifts without expectation of repayment.
Arya offers Sansa a knife, that night, steel blooded a hundred times over, and she weeps as well, for letting her sister go, for her fears, for her loves. The knife that Arya gave was of moonlight caught over a battle’s death, the hilt of bone carved out of love.
When Sansa wields it- it shines, brighter than it ever has with Arya.)
It isn’t a long ride to the river. When Sansa arrives, she sees him- a dark-winged shadow, though this time he’s leaning against a tree rather than astride the wolf. Leaning against a tree, and playing a flute- the sounds skip over Sansa’s ears, high and piercing, and she finds herself feeling vaguely hesitant to break the spell that he’s woven.
Spell, she thinks, and steps forwards, leaves crunching under her boots, to meet the man’s abrupt movement. You will not enchant me. I will not allow it.
“You spoke of a bargain,” she says evenly. “I’ve come for that.”
“The bargain your father rejected?”
“He doesn’t speak for me.” Sansa straightens. “And it matters not. I am here, am I not?”
He shifts, folding his arms over his chest, sleeves falling back just enough that Sansa can see his wrists. “Your father rules over the North. I’ve no desire to bring an army to my people’s doorstep, Lady.”
There’s something metal there. It’s what had caught the light, when he bruised her- a ring, small, but shining nevertheless. His fingers are long and thin, and she thinks she can see blue veins running along them. Human, she thinks, and summons as steady a smile as she can manage.
“No army.” One step closer. “No tricks either, on my part.”
He cocks his head to the side. “And you believe there are tricks on my side?”
“I’ve no idea what to believe. You’ve not shown me anything- only offered your word. And words are but wind.”
“‘Tis still better than attempting to beguile someone.”
Sansa feels the dagger dig into her side. She lets her smile widen, empty and beautiful. “Kindness is not trust, my lord. All I did was make you look in another direction. Why-”
“-you could have had one of them strike me in the back,” he says, and it’s- oh, thinks Sansa, realization flooding through her- it isn’t anger at her, so much as it’s anger at himself for falling prey to her distraction. “It was a lowly trick.”
“It was the truth,” she says, shrugging. “Nothing else.”
He sighs. “What do you wish for your proof? A dead man’s skull, perhaps?”
“I was thinking along the lines of your magic,” says Sansa. “Of- your intentions.”
He’s tall, a slender shadow that could just as well be another branch in the willows curving over the river’s edge. The cloak he wears is worn at spots but patched well enough that it’s not immediately visible. There’s something at the hems, though- a silver spark, a glint. It’s just enough to draw her attention, but not to identify it.
“And how would you prove that?”
“A blade of moonlight,” she says, softly. “Caught in blood and forged in love. Given freely. Tell me that you shall uphold your bargain, and I shall come with you.”
“Very well.” He holds out his hand, and Sansa sees the ring once more- it’s so small, so delicately formed; it doesn’t look like a man’s ring at all. She swallows against the questions.
Sansa presses the blade to his hand. The very air seems a little colder, a little sharper, when he holds it aloft- as if she were on the cusp of a mountain, or the headwind of a blizzard. It shines in his hand, and Sansa breathes in, out, steady as any storm’s eye.
“My people can turn back the dead,” he announces. “We have the power. We have the will. The price we ask for in return is one woman.”
If he lies, the blade shall twist away from his target. If he speaks truth, he can attack Sansa- with a weapon she placed in his hands- but if he speaks truth, then he won’t have any reason to attack. She watches him, carefully, and thinks his shoulders twitch.
It’s the only warning she gets before he slices it across his palm.
Blood wells over it in a single, scored line. Dark, in the night sky; but she knows to identify it. Human, Sansa thinks, and walks forwards, slowly.
Goodbye, she thinks, hand brushing over the willows she won’t ever see again. I love you, Arya, Robb, Bran. Mother. Father. I’ve always loved you. I will always love you.
“Let’s go, then,” is what she says aloud.
She mounts the wolf carefully; the man sits behind her, arms around her as he leans forwards to whisper in the wolf’s ears.
Take us to the Queen, Ghost, Sansa hears. Quickly, now- ‘tis midnight already.
They move, in a trot that doesn’t seem to have a maximum speed- each moment makes more wind whip at her hair and face, until her vision’s obscured by tears. But even through that fractured lens, she sees light: silver as the stars above them.
And then they stop.
“We’re here,” he says. Sansa grips the wolf’s- Ghost’s- mane a little tighter, before she rises and turns to him, blinking the tears away. Even in the light of his own castle, he hasn’t removed his hood. “You can let go, now.”
Slowly, she uncurls her hands and slips off of the direwolf. Her legs wobble, but support her, at least. “I- how did we do that?”
“Magic,” he says, sounding amused. He pats the wolf on the flank and then walks to the castle entrance. “Come, Lady. The Queen is not a patient person.”
Sansa follows him, chills prickling up her spine. It’s cold this far north, and the dress she wears- it’s practical enough for a lady, but if she’s left out in the snow for too long it’ll be frostbite that takes her.
But even more than the cold, it’s frightening. The castle is dark. Jutting spires of ice provide the columns and the only tapestries Sansa catches glimpses of are tattered, faded things. She doesn’t know who can live in a place like this, but she fists her hands together before she can blurt it out.
I can convince people, she thinks. Then: I must convince them. This is not a choice.
They draw close to a giant door- doubling the man’s height, and Sansa braces herself for this meeting. She’s battled with queens and princes and her own blood. She will do this, and do it well besides.
There is none else. Not for things such as these.
“Be careful,” he says, suddenly, his hand reaching out to circle her shoulder.
It’s warm. The bruises at her wrist twinge in something approaching pain.
For a moment, Sansa thinks he’ll say something more, but he doesn’t, only reaches forwards and pushes- lightly- and the doors swing open, revealing a large room easily twice the size of Winterfell’s great hall. It’s teeming with people- alternately shadowed, uncloaked, bejeweled.
As they step inside, nobody seems to notice them. They start moving through the crowd- the hooded man pushing through, Sansa following with steadily-growing disquiet- until they meet a round, pink man, who seems to recognize the cloak, for he grabs his arm.
“Tell me you didn’t,” he hisses.
The hooded man leans into him and speaks so lowly that Sansa, the closest person to both, can scarcely hear. “I had no choice.”
“You know what she will do,” the fat man whispers. “Two more villages while you were gone, Jon. She’s hungrier. It won’t end here.”
“I’ll need my face for that though, won’t I?” he replies, before jerking away.
He doesn’t make it two steps before the court goes quiet. Sansa sees his shoulders slump in something approaching defeat, before he straightens once more.
“My son,” says a voice- raspy, low- and the people drift apart so Sansa now has an unimpeded vision of the throne.
The Night Queen’s throne.
The Queen is not beautiful, Sansa sees. Dark lines have scored through the flesh of her cheeks, and her eyes are too large for her face, as if she’s a hungering, starved beast. Her long hair is dark, but frosted with either true ice or age; Sansa can’t tell which. Even the dress she wears is strange- made of a diaphanous material that looks out of place in a castle this cold.
Beside her, the hooded man- what had the fat man called him? Jon?- sketches a bow. “My Queen,” he says. “I have done as you bid.”
“Have I bid you to speak to servants as if they were noble, then?” she demands. Her finger flicks through the air and the fat man disappears without warning, replaced by a puddle of clothes on the floor and a tiny squirrel that looks utterly terrified. “Or to delay in speaking to me upon your arrival?”
Jon- she’s quite certain that’s what the fat man had called him- bends his head. “I have brought a girl from the North,” he says evenly, as if his friend hadn’t just been turned into a squirrel. “As you requested.”
As he speaks, Sansa moves slowly, until she’s in front of the squirrel. Come on, she thinks, before shuffling her cloak. Come on, get the hint.
It does. She feels a weight scamper up her leg, clinging like a burr onto her side. And then the Queen says, “Approach me,” and she has no room in her mind for things like squirrels or mysteries; there is only terror, as if black ink was blooming through water.
Every step that Sansa walks feels familiar to her, though. She knows how it feels to beg for life in front of a court.
“You are the price the North has offered?”
“Yes,” says Sansa, before she looks up at the Queen.
She is not beautiful, perhaps, but there is something captivating about her nonetheless. A hundred contradictions, all bound together with magic. And there is certainly magic around her. It swirls and eddies and hums, audible as a high whine to Sansa, who has little formal training in the arts.
“Good,” she says, and lifts one hand lazily, jerkily, as if her muscles don’t have the strength to obey her. Behind the throne, what Sansa had assumed to be a wall- for it was too dark to tell- flares with light, revealing a cavernous space instead.
There, hidden in the dark, stand legions of men.
“Now,” says the Queen, “tell me your name.”
“W- what?” Sansa looks up at her, and then back to the dead men, and then to Jon, before finally looking back at the Queen. “No, I mean- why?”
Magic, she thinks, as it rises up around her, beautiful and pointed as if a thousand daggers were held to her throat. No one knows, of course, how sensitive Sansa actually is to magic. Not even Petyr had known before she killed him. Those things Lysa had done to her... they’ve changed her, irrevocably, but not so anyone else will know. This Queen, this hooded man besides her- they’re only another in a long line to underestimate her will. You want my name for magic.
Sansa wants to hiss her rage, wants to weep with grief, but her horror eclipses it all. The men are dead, and she has been shown these legions for- what? Why? Two more villages, she hears, and feels dizzy for it. She’s hungrier.
“To know what to call you, of course,” says the Queen. “What other reason could there be?”
Petyr had mentioned to her in passing, of a type of magic that needed one’s true name to fulfill it. He’d spun out green sparks, fingers twitching, eyes alight.
Then he’d called her Alayne, and he’d laughed.
“Soul magic,” she says, eyes meeting the Queen’s terrible eyes, hands fisting at her side. “Black magic. For a name freely given means blood freely given, means life freely given. You could own my every thought, with the correct magic.”
There’s silence. “You are well-read,” the Queen murmurs. “A pity you shall die.”
Death is not what I fear.
“Why would I die?” Sansa asks warily, nails bloodying her palms.
“For your people,” she says. “You will die, so they might live. One life for a realm. It is more than fair.”
Sansa turns to look at Jon. “You did not tell me the truth,” she whispers. “You swore-”
“-that we could turn back the dead,” he says. “I never told you what we would do with you.”
Sansa’s never regretted anything more than she’s regretted putting that knife in Jon’s hands. She wants it, enough to slide it straight into his body, enough for blood to paint her hands.
“Or that the armies of the dead are controlled by you,” she says.
He takes one step away from her. “I did not trust you,” he says distinctly.
The Queen shifts, and Sansa whirls back to face her. “As amusing as you are, this is enough. Speak your name, girl, and let’s have an end of this charade.”
The charade- this is my life!
“No,” says Sansa. There are tears in her eyes. It’s always irritated her, because she cries easy; she wept for Joffrey, for Lysa, for Petyr, easily and without hesitation. Even when she wants to appear strong, the tears come. “No, I won’t tell you that.”
“Tell me,” says the Queen, in a voice that rings of bells and high, beautiful truths, all raspiness gone.
Magic sings along her veins. Sansa falls to her knees. Her name is all that exists in her mind: Sansa, Sansa, Sansa. There’s a ringing in her ears.
A year ago, Lysa had cocooned her in wings of glowing red and threatened to throw Sansa down the Moon Door if she didn’t swear to stop learning magic. Her family knows that part of the story, but not the ending; Sansa’s told them that she’d sworn to her aunt.
It isn’t the truth.
Sansa had fallen down the Moon Door that day. She’d risen, too, white fire spilling from her palms.
When she looks up at the Night’s Queen, now, it’s with lightning in her eyes.
“I am your price,” she says, and fire blazes around her, a white ring that rises and falls in time with her breath. “But I will not give you this.”
The Queen smiles, ghastly. “Son?” she trills.
For a long, terrible moment, there’s silence. Sansa remembers, abruptly- Sansa, of House Stark. Eldest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark. This- this Jon knows her name. She’s given it freely to him. All he must do is say it, and Sansa will disappear. Sansa will no longer exist, replaced instead by a puppet that thinks everything the Night’s Queen wants her to think, does everything the Night’s Queen wants her to do.
Then Jon steps forwards, illuminated by the pale flame. He’s so tall and slender; he looks like a ghost. Sansa hates him, then, almost more than she’s ever hated anyone in the world.
“Her name-” he shrugs, “-I don’t know it.”
Ice frosts over the hall, dropping the temperature immediately. Sansa shivers; surprise and shock make her flames wink out.
“This is your responsibility,” hisses the Queen. The lamps start to fade out- but in Sansa’s exhausted state from throwing the Queen’s geas off, they appear not to flicker, just darken before her power- and Sansa isn’t sure she’ll have the strength to defeat her once more. “I charged you to bring one foolish Northern wench here, and you brought- this.”
Jon doesn’t flinch. “My apologies,” he says woodenly.
“I do not want apologies!” the Queen cries. “I want her name, and I will have it found. By you.”
“Get out! Out!” The Queen slashes her hand down, and a wave of cold ripples through the air, freezing Sansa straight to the bone. “And do not darken my doorstep until you’ve found it, or I will rescind all the gifts I’ve given you as my son. Do you understand?”
Jon bows. “I do, my Queen.”
His hand grips the collar of her gown, jerking her upright. She feels cold metal brush across her neck. Sansa would protest, but she’s dizzy- properly dizzy, the adrenaline and sudden relief leaving her tired enough to make the world revolve.
The last thing she knows is sitting on Ghost’s back, before it all fades away.
When she wakes, it’s to a small bed in a cold, bright room.
She’s wearing her own dress, but her hair’s so tangled she can’t even run a hand through it without getting caught. And the air’s so cold: her feet ache from just moments of standing on the stone.
Looking around, Sansa sees a cup of tea- still steaming- on a small wooden shelf near the bed.
She snatches it up. It’ll be good to toss in someone’s face, or to chase away what are surely icicles growing in her ribs. Slowly, taking small sips along the way, Sansa slips out of the room.
A few minutes later, she’s determined that it’s either a very small castle or a large house: three floors, to judge from the height of her current location, with a neatly-kept roof garden above and a large library. But every room she’s seen is empty. The cup of tea, finished, remains clenched in her fist. Surely they wouldn’t leave her here, to fend for herself?
“Sam!” A voice shrieks, suddenly, approaching with alarming speed. “Sam! She’s gone- I just left for-”
Sansa barely stifles her own shriek when she sees a translucent being turn the corner. It’s a girl, she notes distantly, through her shock; a girl of Arya’s age, with dark hair and a face that looks- surprisingly like Arya’s.
“Oh,” she says. “You’re here.”
“Yes,” says Sansa, clutching the cup closer to her chest.
“I thought you’d leave.” The girl hesitates, a little. “Or try to.”
“I don’t have any shoes.”
“That would have been a problem,” she agrees.
A moment later, a red squirrel scampers through an open window. “Lya, did you find the- oh. You’re here.” He doesn’t sound any different from at court, but it’s jarring to hear a grown man’s voice from a squirrel’s tiny body. “At least you didn’t try to run off.”
“I’m getting the idea that would be bad,” Sansa says dryly.
“We’re west of the moon now,” says the squirrel. “The monsters here are- not the kind you’ve ever seen before.”
Do they want to kill me? Sansa thinks. It’s the sort of thought that Arya might have actually said aloud. If so, they’re not so different from all the rest.
“West- of the moon?” she asks instead.
Lya snorts. “Jon likes to be pretentious, when he can get away with it. When he found this island it was the furthest west that any of us had ever come. Further west than Lonely Light, so he thought, you know, why not call it West of the Moon? And it went from there.” She sends a disapproving glance to the squirrel. “Sam encourages him.”
“So Jon is the hooded man, then?” Sansa barely waits for Lya’s nod before she tips her head to the squirrel. “And you’re Sam?”
“Samwell.” It almost sounds like he's waiting for the second half of the name, but also stubbornly refusing to say it.
“Well then.” Sansa lets go of her grip on the cup and sets it on the table besides her. She has a hundred questions- why are they so far from everyone? Who is the Queen? Who is Jon?- but there are important things to be attended to first. “I don’t wish to be rude, but seeing as I’m-” a prisoner, “to remain here for the foreseeable future, could we do anything about making me warmer?”
Sam straightens, looking more puffed up and squirrel-ish than she’s ever seen a squirrel look. “Of course,” he says. “Please, follow me.” On the way, he explains: “The only people Jon lets in here are me and Lya, and he didn’t really have a choice with Lya- she just showed up one day, apparently. She’s also a ghost, so you can’t wear anything of hers. You’ll have to make do with either mine or Jon’s clothes.”
“So long as it covers my feet, I don’t particularly have a preference,” she replies.
And that’s how she ends up: wearing boots that she stuffs the ends of with socks, and belting a tunic that looks more like a bedsheet around her waist. But the cloth is warm on her body, and the relief from that outweighs other things by far.
“Jon will be here soon,” Sam tells her, when she exits the room, fully dressed. “He’s gone to get dinner. Now. Do you have any questions? I presume this must be- confusing. To say the least.”
“Yes,” says Sansa. “Why did the Queen curse you?”
He blinks, before the bushiness of his tail settles a little. “Because she doesn’t like Jon talking to me. It doesn’t matter, truly. Another few months and the spell will fade. At least she hasn’t turned me into a beetle like last time; that was terribly difficult for Gilly to get used to.” At her frown, he shrugs. “My wife.”
Sansa lets it go. “So this happens often.”
“She treats him like her son,” Sam says slowly. “But- Jon doesn’t simply obey her. It infuriates her, and intrigues her, and- well. He’s lucky, a lot of the time. It’s the people around him who aren’t, so much.”
Luck runs out.
“Why is he always hooded?”
“That is private,” says a voice behind her, and before Sansa turns, she knows who it is: Jon, masked and cloaked as always, even in the confines of his own home. “There are other things I will answer, however, if you would accompany me to the dining room.”
Lya is floating above their heads; Sansa sees her roll her eyes.
“For stew, Jon?” she asks, before swooping over him. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll eat in the kitchens, like always.”
“This is-” he pauses, likely realizing that he shouldn’t tell others her true name, “-a lady. Our first meal ought to be-”
“Please,” Sansa says, brushing off the dust on her knees, “don’t go to any undue trouble on my behalf. Eating in the kitchens will be far more luxurious than scrounging for scraps in a halfway inn, I assure you.”
Lya’s eyes narrow, and Sam seems just as startled. But Sansa knows the shame and stomach-crunching hunger of the starving well, and while she enjoys rich food and luxury well enough, she also knows the true price of it.
“The kitchen, then,” Lya announces, and nobody contradicts her.
The stew’s good.
Sansa eats it quietly and quickly, setting the wooden bowl aside carefully as soon as she’s done. Jon, she sees, is already finished; Sam is gnawing on some nuts, and Lya is sitting, waiting not-so-patiently.
“So,” says Sansa, “You know my name.”
Jon inclines his head. “I do.”
“I gave it to you freely.”
“The Queen asked you for it.”
Sansa leans forwards. “Then why did you lie?”
Sam squeaks. Lya uncoils, frowning at Jon as if he’s done something terrible. Jon, for his part, doesn’t seem much affected.
“It matters not,” he says. “All I gave you was a stay of the blade. I understand that you are afraid, but-”
“I am not afraid of death,” Sansa interrupts politely. Jon does not believe her, she thinks, and neither do the other two, but that’s fine- she does not seem like the kind of woman who would be so unafraid. “But if I am to die, I shall die in my own mind, knowing what is to come. Not under the Queen’s geas and her spells.”
“You are strange,” muses Sam. “But a good match, I think.”
Jon makes a sound that scrapes along Sansa’s ears, low and rough, and Sam quails.
Sansa lifts a brow. “A good match for what?”
“Ah.” Sam looks between them hesitantly. “I mean to say-”
“-what Samwell is trying to say,” Lya says, “is that you will do well here. It is lonely and quiet and dangerous, but beautiful as well, if you search for it.”
“I know beauty,” Sansa says, and it is wry, though no one seems to catch it. Then she turns to Jon. “But you are planning something. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why, but you are trying to defeat the Queen. And you saved my life. So thank you, for that, even if you won’t answer anything more.” Even if you are a liar.
She rises to her feet, but before she can leave Jon speaks.
“She is dying,” he says quietly. “The Night’s Queen- she is dying. Those black lines you saw on her face? It is rot, for no woman ought to live for so long as she has. She steals women’s beauty and their life for her own.”
“That’s what she would have done to me?” Sansa asks.
“Perhaps.” He pauses. “But never before has she demanded a name, nor a freely given sacrifice. Both are more powerful ingredients than simply- ripping a woman to shreds. So perhaps something has changed.”
Sansa nods. She remembers Arya’s pale face, as she’d ridden low on a horse; she remembers how it had felt to see Winterfell, years after she left it, the safety, the warmth. “If she’d threatened to send the dead to my home,” she says, “I would have acquiesced.”
“I’m sure,” says Jon, before he, too, rises to his feet. “But that would not be freely given. Which is why she was careful to not even speak of the legions around her, simply show them to you. Magic is a fickle thing.”
“Just as truth?” Sansa murmurs.
Jon is not so strong in magic as the Night’s Queen, but he has a master’s understanding of it- enough that Sansa is aware of the slowly rousing temper in the room.
“What did you say?”
“You swore on a blade of moonlight,” she says, mockingly innocent. The air is cold; Sansa feeds on it, draws it into her, and feels the tempest that has been raging inside of her ever since she realized how well Jon’s duped her. “I thought you wished for a bride-”
“-I never used such terms. The sole person to start calling it a brideprice was your brother-”
“-you told me you could turn aside the armies, and never once told me they were your own armies.” Sansa stands before the gusts tugging at her clothes and bares her teeth at him. “I am grateful that you saved my life. But I wish for you to know: I will not forget you standing before me and asking me- having the gall to ask me- if I believed you had tricks on your side, knowing full well what you knew.”
The wind rises, and Sansa feels her temper rise to match. She lets it: white flares that swirl and dance with the wind, flash-heating the entire room to boiling.
“I am a prisoner!” Sansa can barely hear herself over the wind, but she knows she is shouting- her throat aches with it. “I have killed demons and monsters and wielded magics enough to blaze my soul apart! I have survived the Black Cells! I have fallen from towers and risen to their heights and broken each stone in it until there was nothing but ash! And I am stuck here now, in this- this-”
She grounds her palms into the bone of her thigh, and the fire, the wind, all of it dies. Sansa feels even colder now, which was why she’d hesitated to use her powers before- she feels cold and alone and small.
“-barren, cold place,” finishes Sansa. Her hands pick at the rough weave of Sam’s old shirt. She breathes deep and draws the tattered dregs of her dignity about her before she looks up to meet Jon’s gaze.
“I did not lie,” he says.
She is so tired. Tired enough that she cannot curb the scorn that suffuses her voice. “No,” agrees Sansa. “You did everything but.”
The next morning, there is a thin blade of silver moonlight on her wooden shelf, besides a steaming cup of tea.
Jon is nowhere to be found.
A day passes.
Sansa spends it in the library, with the rare excursion out to the kitchen when her stomach grumbles loud enough. Both Sam and Lya are avoiding her, likely to do with the magic she’d thrown around yesterday, not to mention the confessions she’d screamed, throwing the words out as if they were javelins.
Nobody knows what happened to the Eyrie.
Nobody but Sansa.
There were terrible scars along her wrists for ages afterwards, but they’ve faded with her mother’s gentle healing. Sansa still can’t think of those days without fire flickering around her palms: the anger, the helplessness, the utter wrongness of it all. She still can’t find regret in her for what she did.
But now, three people have some idea of her actions, and Sansa trusts none of them as far as she can throw them. There’s nothing she can do about it, however; so she reads the books that are there in the library and studies other magics, kinds older, stranger, than any she’s ever heard of before. When she leaves, that night, she feels at least a little less shaken.
“Who trained you?”
Sansa pauses on her way to the kitchen, turning to look at Lya. So you’re speaking to me now, she thinks wryly. “What do you mean?”
“Your magic.” Lya folds her fingers together, wringing them. “It’s of a kind I’ve never seen before. Who taught it to you?”
“Well,” says Sansa. “I was never apprenticed, if that’s your question.”
“It wasn’t. Though someone so strong as you being unapprenticed is a shame.”
“My home damps the magic,” Sansa replies. “So I never knew I had an- inclination- until I left. And then I did leave, but I was fearing far more terrible things than learning my abilities. I cobbled these things together after a few months of study.”
The door to the kitchens slams shut. Lya folds her arms, glaring at Sansa.
“Don’t lie to me,” she says. “I know how magic works. You’d need instruction to use magic so simple as that. Nobody ever learns spells like that from a book.”
No, thinks Sansa. In that, at least, you’re right.
“They learn from experience,” Lya says, voice a little gentler. “I know what the Queen did to Jon, to get him as powerful as he is. But you? Jon called you a lady. What cause would you have for knowing as powerful a magic as you do?”
“I fell,” Sansa tells her brusquely. “I was asked to choose between magic and life, and I chose magic. And it saved my life.”
The air had spun around her, thin and cold. Sansa had fallen, fallen, fallen, until nothing had mattered, not the fear in her chest, not the tears in her throat, not the screams ringing in the air. And then she’d felt white-hot rage spark in her belly.
She’ll never forget the look on her aunt’s face when Sansa flew through the Moon Door.
“You didn’t start out learning this,” says Lya.
Sansa sighs and places a hand on the kitchen door, pressing it open. “No,” she says, entering. “I learned healing magics from my mother. She’s quite good at it- I wanted nothing more than to follow in her wake.” She hesitates, looking at Lya, before shrugging it off. Jon knows her secret; it matters little if a ghost knows it too. And, clearly, Jon trusts Lya. “I’m a Stark of Winterfell. I was to wed the prince, and I went south to do so. Things... went wrong.”
“A Stark.” Lya frowns, mulling it over. “I- I know that name. Winterfell, wasn’t it?”
“You might. It’s quite well known in the North.” She heads towards the cupboards to see what’s in stock. Little enough, Sansa determines; flour, and some herbs, and a neat little pouch of salt. Some preserved meat is there, though, so she gets on cutting it into manageable portions. “The prince tried to kill my father. My sister- she’s a natural at battle magics- saved him, though. Spirited him out of the city with a quarter-year’s training and determination, all under the age of fifteen.” She smiles, thin and small. “She left me behind. A good decision, all told, because Joffrey would have certainly hunted her down if she’d had me beside her.”
Perhaps that’s why Arya’s been so kind to Sansa, since she returned; guilt. It makes sense, of a sort. A very cynical sort of sense. Sansa focuses on Lya’s pale, ghostly face, her wide grey eyes.
“But he was angry, so he threw me into the Black Cells. Forgot about me until he wanted to scream at someone, and then he’d drag me out and beat me in front of the court.” Sansa sneers, mentally, at the memory. “I used to heal myself in bits and pieces when I could.”
Lya stops braiding her hair, stilling suddenly. “You didn’t know about the darkness?”
Sansa’s smile widens. “I was- young. And stupid.” And desperate. Even if she’d known, Sansa isn’t sure she’d have done things differently. The pain had been terrible. “And I didn’t know that using light magic in the dark attracts demons.”
“How did you survive?” she asks, eyes even wider.
“Luck, mostly,” answers Sansa, before finally slicing the cut of meat off and dumping it in a pot. With the judicious use of some snow and her own fire, she has it cooking soon enough. “My aunt saved me. She was beautiful- red hair, red wings; she looked like a phoenix when the light hit her at the correct angle.”
“She’s dead,” Sansa replies, before turning away and throwing herself into cooking the meat into something similar to the previous night’s stew.
She refuses to say more. There’s no need to spill any more secrets to people whom she doesn’t know and doesn’t trust, no matter if they’re far more understanding than any of her family could ever be, or have ever tried to be.
When she looks up, to her own surprise, Lya’s still there.
“So,” says Sansa, ignoring the way her chin wants to wobble, “how did you become... this?”
Lya smiles. “ A ghost? I don’t remember.”
“Is that so?” Sansa asks noncommittally, turning her face away.
“It’s the truth. I woke up in the Night’s Queen’s castle; you can ask Jon. He was just a baby when it happened, but I’ve been around him for as long as he can remember, and for as long as I can remember, too.” She runs a finger over the pot, slowly. “The Queen did something to me- I didn’t remember anything, not how I came to be there, nothing. Just her, standing over me as I died, and that I should protect Jon, always.”
She shivers. “I remember- bits and pieces. From my old life. I think I had a father, and brothers, and I loved horses- I remember the horses very well- but little else.”
“You don’t remember how you died?”
“It was cold,” says Lya. “Very cold. And I was very afraid. But nothing more.”
Sansa nods, spooning the stew out into a wooden bowl. There’s something haunted in Lya’s face; something old and threatening. Instead of talking about their pasts, Sansa gestures to the bowl of stew.
“Should I leave some for the others?”
“Hm?” Lya shakes herself out of her thoughts. “No, don’t bother. Sam’s still got the appetite of a squirrel and Jon’s... not going to be back for some time.”
“Please don’t tell me that I chased him out of the house.”
Lya grins. “You couldn’t if you tried. That boy’s more stubborn than half a dozen of the most bloody-minded asses you could find. No, I think he just needs some place to think, and he always thinks best while hunting. He’ll return with a nice apology for you, don’t worry.”
Sansa lifts a brow at Lya. “Apology?”
“He’s a good person,” she answers. “A little bit of a temper, but he’s kind where it matters. And when he’s gone wrong, he’ll return with an apology. Always.”
“And he doesn’t hold a grudge for last night?”
“Jon will be back soon enough,” Lya tells her, a half-smile pulling at her lips. “He and Sam- they’re fools, perhaps, but brave fools, and neither are so prideful as they seem at first sight. He might still be angry at you. But that will become respect soon, if it hasn’t already.” She turns to leave.
“Lya,” says Sansa. When she pauses, Sansa swallows. “The Night’s Queen called him her son,” she says slowly. “But he seems to treat you as far more of a mother.”
“The Queen gave him power,” says Lya, simply. “I gave him love.”
It is as simple as that in her mind. Sansa knows what she will choose between life and power. But between power and love? Or life and love?
Long past Lya’s leaving, Sansa stares into flames, red as her hair.
“A gift,” says Jon. There’s frost along his cloak, and his hands are trembling finely from what must have been air cold enough to shatter bones. But he holds out a white pile of furs, and Sansa can hear the determination in his voice. “And an apology. For lying.”
“I-” Sansa takes it from him. “Thank you?”
“They’re from an animal that lives only on this island,” he tells her. “A white bear. It’s the warmest furs you can find here.” A pause. “I thought you’d rather wear that than- Sam’s clothes.”
Sansa hesitates. “I don’t- I- thank you.” She reaches out and encloses Jon’s hand in hers. “That will be a... relief.”
“Might I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” says Sansa.
“You said you weren’t afraid of death.” His hand is so cold, but his fingers turn, just a little, and brush against the purpled bruises he’d left on her wrist a few days previous. “So, lady Sansa of House Stark- what do you fear?”
She frowns. “Why does it matter?”
“Because I thought you were another lady,” he says, deliberately slow. “Just another person in the North. I know how much they hate magic, you know. But you held off the Night’s Queen herself, and that takes not only power- it takes skill.”
“And the best way to know magic is to know fear.” Sansa rocks back on her heels, the other hand pressing against her lips to hold back the smile. “Did you speak to Lya about this? She asked me a very similar question.”
He inclines his head. “We think alike, my lady. But I haven’t spoken to her since returning. I came here directly.”
“She looks very much like my sister,” Sansa muses. “Sometimes- I could mistake one for the other, if I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Perhaps,” Jon says. “We’ve never truly understood where Lya comes from. She says she doesn’t remember.”
“Do you remember my sister?” Sansa asks carefully.
“Was she the girl standing beside you?”
“Then- yes.” Sansa feels her heart skip a beat; Jon must notice, for he presses his fingers down, just a little. Just enough for her to feel reassured. “She looks very similar to Lya, as you said, and- we don’t know where Lya came from. It could have been close to your family.”
He steps away, and Sansa feels the loss of his hand- cold though it may be, in a land that’s perpetually frozen- keenly.
A secret for a secret.
She has only a few more days to live. Jon’s lie can only last for so long. And Sansa’s known Joffrey’s kisses, and Petyr’s after him, in her short, scarce years- but never something akin to what’s lingering between her and Jon now, actinic and strange and beautiful, all at once. She doesn’t understand it. Not at all.
But it still leaves her fingers numb, her tongue dry, her-
“You asked me what I fear,” Sansa says, looking into a hood that hides his face.
She doesn’t know what lies under the hood, but for now- she doesn’t care. There are deeper mysteries here: a man who lies to her, who protects her, who wields a tempest in his slender, pale fingers and brings her apologies of furs and warmth and sweet, halting words.
“Tell me what you fear,” she says. “And I shall answer.”
Everyone’s magic is unique. Lysa’s had been bloodflowers, rank and rotting. Petyr’s had been mint. Cersei’s petty sleights of hand were barely worthy of the title magic, but they'd stank of wine. The Night’s Queen’s had been nothing, as if she’d sucked all of the life of her magic into herself.
Blood, and ice, and the wild, frightening joy that comes from freedom. Sansa feels herself drown in it, a little; she feels like she's underwater, like she’s got half a minute to live and nobody to save her.
“I,” says Jon, “fear failure.”
Like she’s discovering magic all over again.
“Oh,” she says softly. “I most fear losing.”
It’s Sansa who tips her face up, and Sansa who kisses Jon.
No, no, no- screams a voice inside of her.
The same voice that had sobbed, when Petyr brushed a hand over her chest. The same part of her that had shriveled up, withering, when the first demons crept out of the magic she’d used to heal long, bloodied furrows down her back in the Black Cells. The same part of her that had told Arya she wasn’t a killer.
But Sansa isn’t all of that girl.
She’s kissed Petyr, slayed her demons, and killed thrice over. She has fire in her bones, pale as her bones, and has fallen from heights that ought to kill her.
And now- the world feels sparking.
Jon is warm against the lines of her body. Sansa tastes freedom and wind in the coldness of Jon’s mouth, in the rough, chapped skin of his lips and beard, and deliberately, purposely, shuts off the part of her that’s thinking. She closes her eyes and kisses Jon harder, and the lamps through the entire floor flicker out in a stray gust of wind before she pushes him into her room, before she stops thinking entirely.
Fail in what? Sansa does not say.
But then, Jon does not ask, Lose what?
When she wakes the next morning, Jon isn’t there.
But he’s outside her room, and his hands are fisted, knuckles pressing against the skin of his knuckles hard enough to turn the entire hand bloodless.
“You mustn’t see my face,” he says roughly, before she can say anything. “You cannot.”
Sansa remembers shame, and fear, and hate. She remembers the world she’d lived in, once, just a short year previous. She says, “Very well,” and doesn’t demand any more of Jon.
Sam corners her in the library, that same day, eyes hard even as the rest of him looks terrified.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “You’ve made a target of yourself before the Queen, but she can- she will- forget that. She won’t ever forgive you for taking some of Jon’s love for yourself.”
Cruelty is not a language Sansa is fluent in, for all that she has been surrounded by its speakers for so long. But she feels something eerily similar surge through her, now, hearing Sam’s sharp words.
“It is not your business how I spend these last days of my life,” Sansa says, “and anyhow, it is not love between us.”
These things take time, she thinks, shame hot beneath her breastbone, anger even hotter underneath. How dare this man think to shame Sansa for wanting something- something so simple? If the Queen is so possessive, then it is surely Jon’s duty to avoid her advances, not Sansa’s. Love is bred, not born. Something to build, something to craft and perfect over years and years of compromise, of knowledge.
Not this- wild thing.
It sits in her, seething and building, for days, up until she cannot stand it one moment longer, so she goes to find Jon.
Sansa finds him, seated in his study and looking over some letters.
“Ought I be afraid?” she asks. Jon looks up, and there’s a troubled set to his shoulders. It itches, that Sansa knows him well enough to know that of him. “Sam tells me I should,” Sansa continues, “he says that the Night’s Queen will not forgive me for taking some of your love for my own.”
There’s a long silence, in which Sansa is aware- hyperaware- of the world. The dust motes hanging in the bright winter sunlight. The wooden scrolls that need polishing, around his desk.
“And what did you say?”
“I don’t know if it’s enough,” Sansa replies. “I told him it wasn’t any of his business.”
“And it isn’t,” Jon says mildly.
“But should I be afraid?”
“You-” Jon pauses. “You aren’t the first. The first woman I-” he breaks off, head averting, before he says, “I was younger then. More foolish. It isn’t anything you must worry about now.”
Secrets, and lies, and Sansa- she has her own, perhaps, but not things like this. Not tales of love and death and-
Oh, she thinks.
Yours is a tale of despair, she thinks. And so is mine.
“You cannot protect me from her,” she says quietly. “You said it yourself- a few weeks’ reprieve, that’s all you’ve given me. So I’ll ask it again, should I be afraid?”
Jon reaches out, tracing a hand over the whorls decorating the end of the table. He says, almost soundlessly, “Sam had no right to tell you this.”
“Perhaps not,” Sansa agrees. “But that is not disagreement.”
“You don’t know what you speak of.” Jon starts to rise to his feet.
“I know better than most,” she says, as earnest as she knows to be. “I just told you-”
Jon shakes his head. “No, you don’t know.” His fingers flex under the cloak. “The Queen is not a being you can bargain with. She doesn’t understand, not truly, not really. She just- wants, and takes, when she wishes it. What she did to Ygritte...” he shudders. “It was terrible.”
“Doesn’t understand what?” Sansa asks carefully.
“Kindness. Softness. Loving.” He slumps back into the chair. “That kind of cruelty is- she calls it love, and doesn’t once think it might be something else.”
“I know cruelty,” she says.
“Not like this.”
“And you don’t know me,” Sansa responds, flatly. “You do not know me, and you do not get to pretend to know me either. All we’ve done is lie together. What knowledge do you have of my past? Of my abilities?”
“Weaving fire does not make you a master,” says Jon. “You’ve no training, and throwing off the Queen’s geas once doesn’t mean you can do it more. You don’t-”
“I cleaved a castle in two,” Sansa interrupts him, abruptly, scathingly, furious. How dare he! “I‘ve battled demons that I summoned, killed people I loved, flown up a mountain that my aunt pushed me off of. No, I’ve never been trained by anyone- but I know magic.” Heatless flame, white as angel’s raiments, shines from her fingers. “I know its price, and I know its cost. I know betrayal, and heartbreak, and fear, and I am still here despite all of that. Do not patronize me.”
Jon is bristling. It feels like a window has been opened- cold air floods the corridor.
“She called herself my mother and threw me into a blizzard when I hadn’t yet seen ten namedays,” he says, deathly quiet, “all because I took this ring-” he holds it up, the slender band shining, “-from her. She took Lya’s name, all of her memories, and we didn’t even know what it was until I saw it on this.” His hands clench, unclench, and Sansa doesn’t know how to stop him, isn’t sure if she even should. “I should have died there.”
“But you didn’t,” says Sansa. “That counts for-”
“I loved Ygritte,” Jon says, rawly, lowly. “I did. And the Night’s Queen fucking killed her. Took her and shredded her apart, muscles and blood and all. Why d’you think I’m doing this? I’ll kill her before the end. And she’ll probably kill me, too, but it isn’t as if that will matter to anyone save Lya, so maybe I’ll come back as a ghost-”
“Don’t say that.”
She doesn’t know why she says it so loudly- it’s only her and Jon, here- but still, it feels right. There is something frightening in the idea that he might be dead within a year. Jon is the kind of man who deserves to live, Sansa thinks. Petyr had lived for nearly twice as many years as Jon has, and what kind of a world allows men like Petyr four decades of life to ruin and twist and darken it, men like Jon not half of that?
“You don’t know this cruelty,” Jon says, lifting a hand to his face before dropping once more. “Not the kind that calls itself love, that never believes it’s anything else.”
Sansa lets the flame go and instead steps forwards, close enough to take Jon’s hand, the tips of her fingers exploring the thin band on his Jon’s hand. She turns it, and sees- his hands are callused, roughened; there’s a long, red scar running down his palm that hasn’t healed yet, and on the ring there’s a faint set of scratches, almost disappeared by time: L Y A.
The scar must have come from his oath, from the moonlight blade that Sansa still has in her belt.
Affection swells inside of her, rising like the wave of an ocean, not so much replacing the rage as frothing over it, enveloping it.
“Two years ago, I was to marry a prince,” she says aloud, gently. “You didn’t know me then, but I- I was different. More foolish, you could say. My greatest dream was to wed him, and be his queen, and bear his children. And then he tried to kill my father, and would have succeeded if not for my sister. In his rage at being denied an execution, he threw me into the Black Cells.”
She thinks he’s staring at her; her chest feels hot with all these things she’s never said aloud before, all these secrets she’s giving up freely. Like that first spark of magic in her belly had felt, flaring up around her even as she plummeted. Freedom is what she feels around Jon. What she’s always felt, even when he only terrified her.
“Your sister abandoned you?”
“My entire family abandoned me,” says Sansa, the whisper scraping her throat. It is the truth, but it hurts like the cruelest lie. “I was brought before the court and forced to beg- for my life, for my family’s life- and the Kingsguard would strike me as I did. I used to heal myself when I returned to the Cells.” He stiffens, and Sansa continues, fiercely. “I would do it again, even knowing the price I pay. Demons came out of the darkness, wanting my blood, wanting my power, and I learned to fight them off.”
Until the darkest, strongest one had lunged for her, maw open to reveal a hundred teeth, each shining like a sun.
“My aunt came for me,” Sansa says. “She saved my life. But I beat him back, first, with nothing but my fear and my hands. I’ve stood against the blackest demons, and I’ve drawn their blood.”
“They should have eaten you alive,” Jon says quietly.
Sansa moves forwards, one step, and takes Jon’s hand; runs her finger over the thin metal band there. “My aunt took me to the Eyrie, and gave me clothes, food, knowledge of what I was doing and what I’d done. But she lost her mind to the bargain magics she’d used- the last, she said, would be to make a man she’d loved for all her life love her in return.”
“Listen,” she orders, and Jon goes silent. “I was the bargain. My life for Petyr’s love. Until she found that I knew too much magic to be named pure for the bargain, and she took me above the Eyrie’s Moon Door and threatened to throw me down it if I refused to stop learning magic.”
She lets pale flame ignite in her palm and passes it over Jon’s hand with all the careful delicacy of a needle pressing into skin.
“I fell,” Sansa says softly. “I flew.”
When she extinguishes the fire, the red scar has almost disappeared.
“I killed Lysa, when she wouldn’t stop, and I killed Petyr when he tried to bind my magic. I cleaved the Eyrie in two. I burned the ruins, burned them hot enough to melt the stone left behind, until the very mountain glowed in the night like a beacon.”
She steps back. “I know what it is, to love someone who is cruel to you. I know what it is to hate them, too. I know, Jon.”
He trembles- Sansa can feel it, finely, through his palm.
“When she killed Ygritte,” Jon whispers, hands pressing against hers, “I went mad. I swore that I would kill her. I- I told her, to her face. She cursed me, to never feel sunlight again on my face. That is why you won’t ever see me, not truly.”
“But you’re the one upholding the curse,” Sansa tells him. “Not her.”
Unless you’re waiting for the backlash... believing in a curse makes it more potent. Following a curse will make it more powerful.
“Oh,” says Jon, sounding like he’s smiling for the first time- a grim sort of smile, perhaps, but a smile nevertheless, “I’m just waiting for the right time.”
There are bruises on her body that Jon gave her, ones in the shape of his fingers, sweetly painful along her hips and breasts. Sansa remembers the heat from the previous week- how desperately he’d nipped at her skin, how deft his hands had been. She’s not the only one running.
She’s not the only one afraid.
But then Jon runs his hand up, skimming over the curve of her wrist, and Sansa remembers how he’d yanked her that first day they’d met, how scared she’d been in the hall- how he’d pressed kisses to that skin not a fortnight later with slow, blazing heat.
“A hundred things have tried to kill me,” she says, lifting the hand he’d scarred for her to her lips, feeling the calluses and the softness, all present in the same man. A thousand contradictions, of cruelty and malice and kindness and love. Who taught you this? Sansa would ask, if she were braver. Who taught you that there is more to life than battling against death? She cannot see his face, but Sansa knows the softness of his shoulders, the liquid curve of Jon’s spine, and she does not fear him any longer. “And none of them have succeeded. I am here before you, alive and well, and that is more than I ever hoped for, in the darkest of my trials.”
She does not love him.
But Jon is kind, and good, and Sansa is alive, for however short a time she has left.
“It might be more than you can dream of now,” she whispers into his ear, drawing his arm around her waist, “but it will not always be so. This much I swear to you.”
Perhaps some are born good, she thinks, sliding forwards until she’s mostly just in his lap and drawing his head down to her shoulder, accepting the weight of his fears for one long, long night. Perhaps sometimes, it cannot be stamped out of a person.
She feels him stir.
She feels him hiss something out, too low for her to hear.
She feels the kiss he gives her, on her forehead, hard and pressing.
She doesn’t wake.
“Get up,” Sansa hears, and jerks to consciousness. She turns, looking, and Lya is there, right above her. “Sansa, you have to get up.”
“Jon’s buying us some time, but not nearly-” Lya whirls away, and then returns, her eyes large, her face flushed. “Not nearly enough. So get up! Now! It isn’t going to be easy, but you’ll-”
“Lya, you aren’t making sense.” Sansa gets up, though, and tugs on the furs that Jon had given her. Her head aches. “What’s going on?”
Lya swoops over her. “The Night’s Queen is coming!” she exclaims. “She got impatient- or that’s what Jon said- but-” her eyes narrow. “It hardly matters. She’s on her way here, and if she finds you- when she finds you- she will not be merciful.”
“So you’ll leave,” says Lya, impatiently. “Sam will help you get off the island. And after that you’ll have to return to your home. Jon wants you safe, and safe you’ll be.”
There’s true fear in the lines bracketing her eyes. Sansa moves faster, braiding her hair with swift fingers. Jon is in danger because of her. And if he’s already gone to the Queen- then she has no choice. His sacrifice should not be in vain.
I never asked him to do this, she thinks, but it’s not truly irritable. I would never ask it of him. I am not so cruel as that.
When she moves to leave, she sees on the small wooden shelf that had once held a hot cup of tea: the ring, worn and thin, that he’d braved a blizzard for. Why would he- Sansa cuts off the thought and scoops it up, holding it tight in her fist.
Then she shuts the door to her room and moves to the front door. Lya appears beside her.
“He’s close,” says Lya, face devoid of all color. Her voice is clipped. “So is she. They’re almost at the island, I can feel it.”
Sansa thinks she can feel it, too, a miasma of nothingness slowly swallowing up the peace that surrounded the island. Her heart feels hard, calcified, in her chest.
Sam’s waiting for them at the door. “Hurry,” he says. “Jon can only delay for so long.”
They leave; Sam guides her through the forest in as unobtrusive a manner as he can manage, and Sansa tries to follow without leaving traces of their path behind. Suddenly, he freezes.
“Something’s following,” he says, out of the corner of his mouth. “Keep your flame ready.”
“It might alert the Queen,” Sansa cautions.
“A white bear'll kill you quicker than thought if you’re not ready,” he says sharply. “Be-”
He cuts himself off when a white wolf appears out of the shadows beside them.
“Oh, Jon,” whispers Sam, eyes closing briefly. Then he steels himself. “Ghost will help you off the island. I must-”
“What’s happening?” Sansa asks. Something is wrong. Terribly wrong. Sam’s tail is drooping; he looks half a minute from a breakdown. Why would a wolf-
“Sam?” she asks.
He averts his face. “Jon-” Sam shakes his head. “He’s a fool. Ghost will take you to Winterfell easily enough, lady. Go-”
There’s a- sound. Muffled, and yet loud, and Sansa whirls around to see a dome of golden light slowly coalesce in the far distance before disintegrating. She thinks she can hear someone screaming.
“Sam,” she whispers.
“Go,” says Sam, scampering towards a tree. “Run hard, and do not look back. Now.”
Sansa cannot breathe. Somehow she mounts Ghost. She chews her cheek, hard enough that it bleeds. The sweetness of it makes her want to retch. When she closes her eyes, all she can see are his hands, Jon’s hands: long fingers, blue veins, gentler than anything Sansa’s felt on her skin in her entire life.
I didn’t ask this of you, she thinks, even as the sky above her turns silver with the speed of Ghost’s movements. You shouldn’t have-
There is no way to end that thought.
Sansa lands in Winterfell, shaky and pale and distressed.
She does not speak to anyone- does not recognize them, not truly- and though she realizes that she’s alarming her family with her unresponsiveness, she also cannot find it in her to react.
The only time she does: they try to take Ghost from her, and Sansa weaves her fingers into his fur and glares, and they desist.
He is dead, thinks Sansa. It is all she can think.
Jon, who was good and kind and honest, is dead, all because of her.
It is all she can think, and every time she thinks it, her heart breaks anew. It is a new pain, too. Sansa has never loved a person she’s lost; it has never been this uncomplicated in her mind. Not with Lysa, whom she’d begged to stop, whom she’d killed in self-defence; not with Petyr, whom she’d trusted to protect her, whom she’d burned alive when he tried to bind her magic; not with Joffrey, whom she cursed from the depths of her cells and never once regretted.
This is a terrible kind of pain.
The only place she feels even slightly at peace is in the godswood. So it’s there that she goes, from dawn until well into the night. When it turns cold, she has fire, sunken deep into her blood and bone.
It’s late evening, and Sansa is sitting in front of the heart tree, eyes half-shut.
They aren’t prayers. What god would ask Sansa to live as she is? What god would have a heart cruel enough to end Jon’s life as it did? Sansa has blood on her hands, but never has she regretted anyone’s more than Jon’s.
And then she hears a crack behind her.
Flame erupts into being as Sansa whirls around, a cocoon of blazing, brilliant white. She hears someone yelp, and cuts it off abruptly, breathing hard; when the spots have disappeared from her eyes, she sees Arya still crouching behind a boulder that’s charred nearly as black as the encroaching night.
“What was that?” she asks, leaping up.
Sansa exhales sharply. “Don’t sneak up on me.”
“No, what was that?” Arya isn’t moving closer, but she hasn’t run away either. Her eyes are narrowed on Sansa. “Was that- fire? Fire from you?”
“And if it was?” Sansa asks, gripping calm with both her hands and all the will she can muster.
There’s a long beat, and then Arya straightens, moving slowly- as if Sansa’s a spooked horse- until she could match another lean, dark shadow that Sansa had once-
No, Sansa thinks fiercely, and keeps herself staring straight at Arya. I will not do this now, of all times.
“You wielded it,” Arya breathes, and it isn’t a question.
Sansa jerks her head in a stiff nod.
“What did he do?” Arya asks quietly, eyes hot. Sansa frowns, and Arya steps forwards, just a little, shoulders bunching up, voice getting louder, agitated. “To make you learn fire, Sansa, what did that bastard do to you?”
“Who’s to say that he did anything at all?”
“Everyone knows elemental magic only comes during the greatest trials,” Arya bites out. “The greatest despair, the greatest fear, the greatest love- and when you’ve stolen a girl, it isn’t love that makes fire claim her.” She shakes her head. “Sansa: what did he do?”
“Jon did nothing,” Sansa replies evenly. “He was kind. Understanding. If not for him, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“No,” says Arya crossly. “You’d be in bed. Because you’d never have left, and none of- this- would have ever happened.”
This, meaning Sansa meeting Jon, who’d looked at a woman with power enough to shake the very seas, who’d lied to her face. Meaning Lya, who’d welcomed Sansa with careful, unafraid curiosity. Meaning Sam, who’d been prickly and quiet and still the first and only person to ask her how she was holding up.
“They’re good people,” Sansa says. “They certainly didn’t abandon me when it became dangerous.”
Arya’s eyes- those damnable grey eyes- widen, just a little. “Sansa-”
“I wonder if everyone inside this castle can say the same.”
She flinches. “I didn’t mean to-” slowly, Arya gets herself back under control. “This has nothing to do with him endangering you until fire chose you. So let’s talk about that.”
“They had nothing to do with it,” Sansa says, and she feels the magic well up inside of her like a rolling tide, hot, indolent, implacable. Magic, and cruelty, inextricably linked forever. “No: Lysa did this to me. She held me over the Moon Door and asked me to swear to never use magic again.”
“And you swore.”
Ghost snarls beside Sansa, shining the same shade as the fire that’s now dripping from her fingers onto the cold earth, searing it to ash. Sansa bares her teeth.
“I fell,” she says.
“You- you lied.” Arya looks horrified. “She- the Eyrie- it was all-”
“You know why I ever met her?” Sansa asks, flexing her fingers. “Because I was in the Black Cells. And you know why I was there? Because someone didn’t think I was worth saving.”
It’s mean, and cruel, and Sansa has never before felt anger like this: licking over her soul, grasping and yearning and pushing all her resentments up her throat until she cannot help but spit it out. It is one of the most addictive things she’s ever felt.
“That isn’t true,” Arya protests sharply. “You- I thought you were with Joffrey, I’ve never denied it, but- you- it isn’t my fault. Keeping Father alive itself was almost more than I could-”
“Oh, certainly,” says Sansa, flicking a finger so a shower of sparks follows the path of her hand.
“This isn’t you.” Arya backs away from her, eyes glassy. “What happened to you?”
Sansa remembers how Lya hadn’t flinched, not even when Sansa lit a cauldron of water on fire with just a flick of her fingers. How she’d passed flame over Jon’s fingers and pressed as much healing magic as she could into it, how she’d never before used fire for kindness instead of destruction- how Jon hadn’t stiffened, or startled, or feared her, at all.
She looks at Arya, who knows battle magics that will kill people quickly, painlessly. All Sansa knows is fire, but she’s more frightening to Arya than Arya’s ever been to her. She looks at the fear in her sister’s eyes, and fights the guilt that surges inside of her with anger.
That’s a mistake, though- Sansa hasn’t controlled herself so closely for the month she’s been with Jon, and she’s already using the fire- it’s too much to ground into nothingness, as she’d done in the kitchens. It needs an outlet.
“Run,” she breathes, insides trembling hot as a star.
Arya’s eyes widen, and she turns, not looking back once as she breaks into a sprint.
Sansa lets go.
She’s driven to her knees, a scream torn from her throat, as fire explodes out of her in a hundred streams, each hotter than the other. Sansa feeds all of her emotions into it: her fury, her guilt, her aching, aching grief. It’s all she knows, flame and heat, hot enough to dry her tears before they ever drip down her face, before they ever even form.
By the time she’s aware of anything else, the sky is lightening.
Her body feels crusty. Sansa’s surprised, a little, that there is enough of her left to feel anything at all. It’s one of the greatest dangers of elemental magics: all magic might feed on emotion, but elemental magic feeds solely on it, and giving too much of oneself to it will make it consume the giver as well as the surroundings.
But there’s no fire around her, and though her sleeves have been burnt away, the rest of her gown seems fine. Even in the depths of the greatest emotion she’s ever felt, Sansa hasn’t lost the instinct to protect herself.
Slowly, she levers herself upright.
The hand that isn’t supporting herself presses against her belly.
She’s not sure. Not certain at all. But she’s been feeling nauseous, and her breasts have been far more sensitive, recently, and she’s so afraid that it might be nothing- Sansa’s got everything to lose, and nothing to gain if what she suspects is true.
“I wondered,” she hears a woman say.
Sansa jerks upright those last few inches, and inhales sharply as the world fades in and out. When it finally resolves, she sees her mother, standing before her, eyes crinkled in worry but otherwise impassive.
“Mother,” she says warily. “Why are you here?”
“One of my children is in pain, and you think I’d ignore them?” Catelyn seats herself on a nearby stone gingerly, before sweeping her gaze back to Sansa. “If I’d known what had happened, I would have stepped in earlier.”
Sansa swallows. “You did. You healed me, for weeks on end. I don’t know how I would have been if I’d had those scars still.”
Black, mottled skin, the scars toughened by Sansa’s inability to control the fire. Petyr had tried to bind her powers there, along those bones, and Sansa’s fire had blazed through the chains in response. The remnants of those chains had been what her fire was responding to, but it had only worsened the scars.
Her mother had healed them.
“It wasn’t enough,” says Catelyn. “Not nearly enough. I should have pressed. But you refused to speak on it when I asked in the beginning, and then you seemed recovered. Quieter, perhaps, and a little angrier, but still the sweet girl I remembered.”
“I didn’t want to think on it.” Sansa pulls on her hair, tugging the end of her braid with strength enough to make her wince. “And- you didn’t want to hear it, either.”
“Lysa’s my sister,” Catelyn responds. “Of course I did not wish to hear it-” she leans forwards, taking the hair out of Sansa’s hands, “-she braided my hair, and Petyr and I used to play in the mud, and we were as close as you or Robb ever were. But that does not mean that you should have hidden it. It isn’t a daughter’s duty to protect her parents from ugly truths.”
“You loved her.”
“And then she hurt you.” Her mother smiles, sweet and kind, and Sansa realizes for the first time how dangerous that curve can look as well, how it’s sharp on one end and soft on the other. “Do you think I could forgive her that?”
“I didn’t want to make you choose.” Sansa says quietly.
“Oh, sweetling,” says her mother, reaching forwards, not quite touching Sansa’s cheek but close enough for her to feel its warmth, “it was never a hard decision.”
Sansa tries to stem the tears. She’s screamed herself out, the night before, but it seems that this is something else altogether: not guilt, or fear, or rage; just relief, pure and clear as mountain springs. The tears come, swift and hard, and she finds herself hiccuping into her mother’s shoulder before long.
“I- I’m- I’m sorry,” Sansa says miserably, sitting back after. She swipes at her face, grimacing at the mess on her sleeve- ash and dust and dirt and sweat and tears, all mixing together in a terrible combination. “I am. I didn’t mean what I said to Arya, and I didn’t mean to do- this- either.” She waves at the blackened crater she’s formed. “I’ll apologize to her, tonight.”
“You will. But I don’t think this is all- something to brush away,” her mother says slowly, reaching out to brush a line of soot away from her brow. “Certainly not now. You’ve been so angry, for so long- I remember your eyes, Sansa, when you walked into Winterfell that first day- and I remember thinking, someone has hurt you. I didn’t know who, and I didn’t know how, but it was there.” She sighs. “Arya told me that you have elemental magic.”
Sansa twitches her wrist, and flame comes to life in the center of her palm, small and flickering.
It’s enough of an answer for Catelyn. Tears shine in her eyes, but she ignores them, and instead reaches out to Sansa, embracing her tightly once more.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, arms so strong that Sansa thinks she could melt apart, could become nothing but scorched ash and hate, and her mother would hold her together through that. “I never wanted this of you, Sansa. I’d take every burden onto myself if I could.”
“There’s nothing you could’ve done,” Sansa whispers back.
It’s all she’s wanted: an apology, for silence and distance and fear. Half a year passed, and nothing of understanding- just cold rooms and averted eyes- Sansa’s burned quietly, ferociously, with growing bitterness.
Finally, Catelyn draws away. “You will apologize to Arya,” she says firmly. “You will plant grass here, as the gardener suggests to grow on burnt soil.” She reaches out and lifts Sansa’s chin, and it is not just her lips that smile- it’s her cheeks, her eyes, her entire body. “And you shall return to Winterfell, and speak to me- speak to us- of this man you care for so deeply.”
“It isn’t like that,” Sansa says. Her mother lifts a brow, and she struggles for the words to explain. It had once been so clear to Sansa: she let Jon into her bed, and she accepted his warmth because she’d die soon. She hadn’t ever thought it would be all turned on her like this- Sansa back in Winterfell, Jon dead, nothing to remember of him but a silver ring and the taunting possibility of a child in her belly. “Love takes more than what we had. It was just- we were alone, at the edge of the world, and he was- kind. Alive. It was wilder than anything I’ve ever known in my life.”
“You lay with him,” says Catelyn.
Sansa bows her head, before lifting it. She will not be ashamed, not of this. Not of Jon, who’s sacrificed his life for hers. “Yes,” she says. And then, because if she is ridding herself of secrets, it ought to be done all at once- “And I think I bear his child, as well.”
Her mother closes her eyes. “Sansa,” she says.
“I know it isn’t an easy path,” Sansa continues, fighting the tears back. Those damnable tears, thickening her throat, reddening her eyes- she’s not afraid of the difficulties, but the grief is still there: ever-present, ever-terrible. “But who would have wedded me otherwise, Mother? I’m fire-chosen, not to mention the rumors that started about me in the Vale. This- at least I have something to remember the kindest man I know, and a child to love otherwise.”
“Your father will be unhappy,” says Catelyn. “And you know what others will call you? Call your child?”
“Let them say it to my face,” says Sansa. “Let them dare.”
I am a fire-chosen Stark.
I will not shrink away from this.
Sansa does not shrink, but her father does not listen either: she’s confined to her rooms for the rest of her pregnancy, according to him, and none of her protests- all of which make sense- hold water for him. She cannot get with child again; the man who brought shame on her is dead; Sansa left to be with him to save her people, not for glory.
The maester who examines her, however, claims the child to be healthy. The relief from that leaves her happy enough that she doesn’t push for more freedom.
A fortnight later, Sansa’s praying in the sept- it’s the only place she’s allowed now, though that too only with guards to accompany her to the doors and back- they’ve all relaxed, a little, now that Sansa’s shown she’ll obey the restrictions- when there’s a feeling- light, across the back of her shins, as if a band had snapped.
Sansa stiffens, stretching upright.
Her eyes narrow, searching the ceiling. The magic dampeners across Winterfell are least powerful in the godswood from within, but they’re the weakest from the outside... in the sept. Newly constructed, less traveled, with little belief strewn into its soil and stone.
A ward fell, she thinks, before reaching for her magic. It’s harder inside the walls, away from the godswood, but Sansa’s powerful enough to still feel it, to still have use of it. Better to be prepared to-
She doesn’t know what’s coming. If the Night’s Queen comes, then there will be none to help; Sansa’s the only one powerful enough to use her magic within the walls. Even Bran, who’s the most powerful otherwise, can only do his seeing in the godswood.
Fire bursts into life in her hands, and sputters out almost immediately as she sees and recognizes the dark shape hurtling towards her.
“Lya?” Sansa asks. “What are you doing here?”
“Tracking you.” She’s very pale naturally, but even paler now; Sansa thinks she can see the bones around her lips, they’re pressed so tightly together. “Sam- he’ll be here soon, but- he said- you saw the golden light?”
Sansa tries not to shiver. ““I saw it,” she says quietly. “But it was... unclear what it was. There was screaming, that much I heard.” And Jon’s magic, blood and ice, so heavy she thought she could choke on it.
“That was the Night’s Queen.” Lya relaxes minutely, just enough that Sansa can see satisfaction in her eyes. “She wanted to see Jon’s face, and forgot the curse she’d placed him under. If he’d bucked the mores of the spell, it would have faded, a little; but he didn’t. And he’d added vows to the curse she’d placed. Magic took a great price that day.”
Sansa clasps her hands. “Is the Queen dead, then?”
“No,” Lya shakes her head. “She’s alive. But he’s stripped her of even the barest glamour. And there’s a horrible scar across her face: black, deadened. I thought either the magic or the Queen had killed Jon.”
“Of course it would have killed him. That much magic? It was- it was in the air, leagues and leagues from him. What else-”
But hope is wending its way up her throat, and Sansa could not ever dream of swallowing it.
“The Queen isn’t dead,” says Lya, slowly, precisely, “but neither is Jon.”
When she comes to, the room is dark.
She struggles upright and glances around- the fire’s burned low, and from the ashes, she sees that it’s her chambers; the room’s empty save for herself, but clearly just vacated.
“Lya,” Sansa calls, sharp and low. “Lya, are you there?”
In a flash of light, glittering, she bursts into being. Sansa narrows her eyes instead of turning her head.
“You didn’t need to-”
“How certain are you that-”
“-react that strongly-”
“he’s alive, because-”
“-he’s alive,” Lya hisses, puffing up with the force of her outrage. Sansa draws back, sinking into her pillows, but Lya continues without noticing anything. “Of course he’s alive. I saw it with my own eyes: he’s alive, and lucid, and wakeful.” Her face tightens, skin so thin to be translucent. “He is suffering, however,” she says coldly, clipped, as if trying to quell any other emotions that might leak through her voice. “And I do not know for how much longer he can survive on his own.
“So why are you here?”
“Because-” Lya pauses, head swiveling to the doorway, before she fades out of view entirely.
Sansa straightens, wincing against the ache in her lower back, before she glares at the opening door. It’s Bran who enters.
“Oh,” he says, when he sees her. “You’re awake- I thought-”
“How long was I out?” Sansa lifts a brow.
“Not a day.” He bites his lip. “An hour? Two? Willam thought you were being loud in the sept, and then- well. He saw you. You were passed out on the dais.” Bran gnaws on his lip harder, before turning to her fully. “Father and Mother are worried.”
So am I, though for separate reasons, I suppose.
“And why’re you coming here?”
Bran’s not exactly Sansa’s favorite. They used to be close, once, before Sansa returned; she remembers singing long, old songs for him, and teaching him stories that nobody else had much interest in- but then he’d been politely distant, ever since Sansa came back from the south, and she’d been just as polite in return.
“I read a story,” he says, and his eyes are brighter than she’s seen in years. “It’s of the first Starks.” Bran holds up the book he’s carrying. “I think you might like it?”
A question, and an offer, all wrapped up in a boy’s clumsy words.
Sansa smiles, and reaches out, brushing a finger over the embossed cover of the book.
“I’m quite tired right now,” she says slowly. “Perhaps- tomorrow?”
Bran pauses. He studies her face, taking his time, and she realizes- he isn’t the same brash temperament as Robb or Arya. Bran’s not just a miniature version of them; he’s his own person, her younger brother, and he’ll treat her on his own merits.
“Yes,” he says, and backs out.
Sansa immediately turns to the spot where she’d last seen Lya, who fades into view once more.
“Why are you here?” she asks again, folding her arms.
Lya frowns. “She wants your name. When he won’t give it up- and Jon won’t, never doubt that- she’ll kill him. Probably use him for a sacrifice, too. I need to save him.”
“You’re a ghost,” Sansa points out carefully.
“Which is why I’m here.” Her lips purse. “I need that ring.”
Sansa’s fingers spasm, before she folds them back slowly, forcibly. “Why would you need the ring?”
“It’s mine,” says Lya, eyes hard. Then her expression shifts, softens; turns questioning. “He didn’t tell you what happened? How he got it?”
“Jon said- he was thrown in a blizzard. That he stole it. That-”
“Not a lie,” Lya mutters, “but not the truth entirely, either. No: you see, the only thing I remember from before, entirely, is that I love Jon, that I must protect him. He was just a babe when the Night’s Queen tried to kill me- perhaps a month old. He grew up with my voice, with my guidance, with my love.
“And then he turned ten namedays old, and I could remember that there was a body- my body- and the Queen seemed to dote on him so very much, I asked him to go to the crypts where she preserves the bodies, and to see if there was anything that could be done.”
“All he got was the ring?”
“Before the Queen realized,” Lya affirms grimly. “She raged, stormed- I’ve never seen anything like it. I told- ordered- Jon to beg for his life. He wouldn’t have, otherwise, and she would have certainly killed him then. But Jon knelt, and he begged, and she decided to throw him into a snowstorm instead of cutting him down where he stood.”
Sansa closes her eyes. “You thought he was dead.”
“Of course I thought he was dead! Anyone would have! But a month later he returns with wind at his back and tears down her doors, shatters all her windows; the Queen was ecstatic.” Her lip curls. “She’s called him her son ever after. She even- for the snowstorm he survived- named him Snow. And I was too afraid of calling down her wrath once more to ask Jon to return to the crypts.”
“So you don’t know if there’s anything that might help,” she says slowly.
“All I need is that ring,” says Lya. “It has my name on it. My family would be better, if I knew it, but- that’s of little consequence. Will and desire can overcome any magical limitation, and I’ve never wanted anything more than to save Jon. All I have need of is that ring. Which is why you’ll give it to Sam- he’ll be in the godswood- and you can return to your life here.”
There’s just a twist to those words, though- life, here- that makes Sansa’s hackles rise. “And if I didn’t give it?”
“Then you’ll be responsible for Jon’s death,” she says. “You wouldn’t do that.”
Sansa jerks forwards, upright, levers herself to her feet. The world doesn’t spin, and the floor remains firm.
“Let’s go to the godswood,” she says, reaching for her cloak.
I don’t want to die, she thinks.
I want him to live, she thinks.
I fear losing. Her heart beats in time with the words. Losing what? Losing those I love.
Do I love him?
No, no, no, sings out the part of her that is always afraid, always cringing. But Sansa is made of brighter, stronger places than that. There is a fire in her that has burned of fear, and then despair, and then anger. Now all that is left is a purer, harder substance- something terrifying.
Love is something built of sacrifice, and compromise, and caring for another more than myself.
If this is not love, she thinks, then I do not know what it is.
All that is left in her is something terrifying.
“I’m coming with you,” she says curtly.
Lya freezes. “No.”
“Jon wanted you safe,” she argues. “You-”
“If you want the ring-” Sansa folds her arms over her chest, “-then you’ll bring me along. Seeing as you need the ring, you need me.”
“Sam,” says Lya.
He moves towards her. Sansa flicks her wrist and lets fire form a ring around her hand, pale and glowing.
“Try it,” she says.
Lya snarls an oath.
Sam folds himself down. “Do you know how dangerous she can be?” he asks earnestly. “The Night’s Queen, I mean- she’s terrifying. You’ve seen her on a good day. And you’ve heard Jon wounding her. That’s not all that she is. She’s killed people- good people, bad people, some because they annoyed her, most just because she likes killing, because she likes to take power from them.”
“I know she’s dangerous-”
“No,” he says. “You cannot. Not until you’ve-” he shudders, and then starts anew. “My brother- he came here. After my father banished me. Wanted to bring me back. Annoyed the Queen to the seventh hell and back, and then my father showed up. She struck a bargain with my father: Dickon’ll turn into any animal, all animals, under the sun. If my father could hold onto him until dawn, she’d let them both go.” His paws tighten on the branch, making it creak. “Dickon trampled my father into pulp. When she released him, let him see what he’d done- Dickon killed himself.”
“I’m sorry,” Sansa says quietly.
Sam inhales raggedly. “I have a wife. A son. I found her in court, that’s why I’m still there- she’s working off a debt- but if the Queen has her way, we’ll be there forever. I’ll see her dead for killing Dickon. Jon’ll see her dead for killing Ygritte. You don’t have anyone you’ve lost, Sansa. What’s your vengeance for?”
“See, that the difference,” says Sansa, thumb rubbing over silver worn smooth by age, by time, by a man’s rough, scarred fingers. “You fight for your dead. I’ll fight for my living.”
“We don’t have time,” Lya says harshly. “Fine, Sam, bring her along if she’s that insistent. We can’t stop her.”
He draws his tail around himself. “Call Ghost, then.”
Sansa does, and is about to mount him, when she hears a voice- Lya hisses under her breath, and Sam looks about ready to protest, but Sansa pulls herself away anyhow, going to meet the voice.
If she is about to disappear once more- and this time, with far greater danger around- she owes it to tell her family what she is doing.
It’s Arya who steps out of the darkness, though.
Arya, who accepted Sansa’s apology, but never seemed truly fine with it. Arya, who’s been angry and sad in alternating, furious cycles. Arya, who’s never understood Sansa all that well, not even at their closest, who’s always striven to love her despite that.
Sansa almost wishes it was anyone else.
“Arya,” she says, instead.
“Father thinks you’ve been stolen,” Arya replies. “Again.”
Sansa winces. “I didn’t mean for that.”
“What’s so- interesting about this place, though?” she asks frustratedly. “That you stay here for so long, for so often.”
“My power’s stronger here. I feel safer here.” She shrugs. “But that isn’t why I came here today.”
Arya stills. “And why’s that?”
“Because Jon’s in danger.” Sansa folds her hands together, tightly, knuckles shining against the rest of her skin. “And I must leave, so that I can save him.”
“You said he was dead.”
“I was wrong.”
Sansa inhales unsteadily. “Yes,” she says. “And even if he weren’t, I know who killed him. I could not stay here, knowing that.” Her palms feel hot, and her skin feels cold. She wants to fall.
She wants to fly.
“Are you afraid?” Arya asks.
Sansa considers it. She’s been afraid for so long, but she’s a little too tired for that fear now. There’s something colder inside of her, harder, stiff along her ribs and spine.
“No,” she says, and she decides there, then: I will be unafraid.
“Come back,” Arya says softly, stepping away. “We’ve much to speak of when you do. So please, Sansa- come back.”
“I can’t promise that,” Sansa says, but she smiles anyhow, because Arya deserves to remember Sansa as that- smiling, wind in her cheeks, snow in her hair, alive and fierce and strong. “But I’ll try harder for that than anything else, that’s for certain.”
Arya says simply, “Then you’ll come back.”
Sansa backs away, returning to Ghost, and she only turns back once- catches a glimpse of Arya, lips flattened as if to keep from crying, face pale, eyes large.
It’s a face Sansa’s seen before.
Sansa feels as if the air around her has disappeared. She inhales, and nothing enters her lungs.
The stars around her melt into streams of silver. Sansa holds onto Ghost, eyes streaming, chest airless.
They stop, and Sansa stumbles off of him, falling to her knees as she yanks the ring off her finger. There, under the cold winter sunlight of the Night’s Queen’s castle’s shadow, she searches for the letters she’s seen so many times: L Y A.
And then, next to it, worn away until even sight couldn’t manage it- not unless someone were looking for it, Sansa sees the last truth, the first truth, the thing that she’s been missing all along.
“I know who you are,” Sansa says, all in a rush.
Lya- no, Lyanna, her aunt, her father’s sister- looks at her, and then nods curtly. “Let’s go inside,” she says. “We must hurry. She’ll already know we’re here, I think-”
“The crypts are this way,” says Sam, and they take off, all three of them- the red-haired girl, the bushy-tailed squirrel, the spirit of a two-decades lost woman.
When they arrive, it’s freezing; Sansa can’t stop her shivers, and she would’ve been worried for her child if not for the flame she’s sending through the cloth, heating the air constantly.
“Here,” says Lya, floating towards one end. “I can feel it- here.”
“Why’d she keep the bodies?” Sansa asks, even as she steps closer.
Lya grimaces. “Trophies. And they can be reanimated at will, so- I suppose it’s an investment. Of sorts.”
“An army,” says Sam. “For when the dead she’s amassed thus far aren’t enough.”
Sansa shudders. “Let’s finish this, then.”
Leveraging the crypt’s stone slab covering is so difficult- Sansa uses her fire to melt it, a little, and then heats the air around one so that it’s propelled off- but she flinches, each time she uses it, terrified of the guards that are likely already on their way.
“Yes,” says Lya, when it’s off. She looks a little thin, taut, faded at the edges as if pressed out of existence. “Yes, I can feel it. The pull. You’ll have to do it quickly. You said you know my name? Tell that, and put the ring as the focus. There isn’t time for mistakes.”
“I set a mountain afire,” Sansa replies, flicking off her cloak with a roll of her shoulders. She gives a smile to Lya: all teeth. “And that was in the depths of madness. I can manage this, now.”
Sam takes the ring from Sansa and settles on top of the slender girl that’s lying in the stone. Sansa reaches for the magic, lets it pool in her voice, in her throat, in her lungs; all the way up to her tongue where it sits, rich and thick as cinnamon.
People use words of power, often, because they perceive it to lend more power to the ritual. But Sansa’d ripped each stone of the Eyrie apart with nothing more than the strength of her fury, the words nothing but the words she’s used all her life- normal, just infused with magic enough to tear apart a castle, to light a castle into a pyre so bright the flames reached the heavens.
“Take the spirit into the body,” she intones, now, sharp and cloying and unshaking. “There is a spirit here, the spirit of Lyanna of house Stark, daughter of Rickard and Lyarra, sister to Eddard, Brandon and Benjen. There is a body here, the body of Lyanna of house Stark, daughter of Rickard and Lyarra, sister to Eddard, Brandon and Benjen. Let them be twined once more, and never again broken.”
She sinks the magic into the ring- metal always holds magic better than flesh- and watches it glow, hotter and hotter, as she continues speaking.
“Let it be done,” says Sansa, and Sam echoes it, and Sansa echoes him: thrice over, as all these things ought to be, when done properly.
And then, before either of them can do anything other than pant with the force of the magic, Lyanna sits upright, a body for the first time in more than twenty years.
Even as she does, two men enter.
Guards, thinks Sansa, fear flashing across her mind- she starts to gather fire, starts to aim, and then she hears what they’re saying.
Some disturbance, one mutters, and the other says, Hurry up, the sacrifice is going on soon.
The sacrifice, thinks Sansa.
Fear turns from low-grade to boiling in an instant. Sansa binds them with ropes made of flame- they won’t burn, not if they don’t try to escape, though once they do it’ll be utterly painful.
“The Queen’s doing it now,” she calls over to Lyanna and Sam.
Lyanna hisses under her breath. But she’s struggling to stand- twenty years has atrophied some of her muscles, or she’s just unused to physical motion as opposed to the freedom of being a spirit- and Jon’s in danger.
He’s in danger.
He saved me first, she thinks, distantly. There’s a plan brewing in her mind- half-mad, surely foolish. Sansa trembles and she wants nothing more than to hide, preferably in the crypt she just opened. He stood in front of the Night’s Queen and lied.
If what she feels isn’t love, then Sansa will tear apart the world, because surely nothing else can be this terrible, this beautiful, all at once.
“We have to stall.”
“Sansa,” says Lyanna. “Sansa- wait-”
“She’ll kill him,” Sansa replies. “She’ll do it now, and never once hesitate. And you aren’t ready- you can’t even walk.”
“All I have is the wind,” she whispers. “Same as Jon.” She pales. “There’s something you need to know. A secret that- that Rhaegar told me, about the Targaryens.”
Sansa frowns. “What secret?”
“They weren’t just dragonriders,” Lyanna says quietly. “The first Targaryens? They were dragons.”
Sansa freezes, blood chilling to ice in her veins. “Those stories aren’t true.”
“They are. Which means the Stark tale might be true as well.”
“Of us as wind sprites?”
Slowly, Lyanna inclines her head. “Jon’s control of wind comes from my side of the blood. But he hasn’t shown any indication of his father’s side, not for all the years that I’ve watched over him. Not even in the depths of the blizzard. It will take something great to push him over that ledge.”
“Pain works,” Sansa says neutrally. “Fear. Anger.”
“Love,” says Sam.
“Give him enough of it all,” says Lyanna, “and you’ll have the end of it.”
“Magic doesn’t work on magical creatures,” Sansa says softly.
“Dragons are magical creatures.”
“It’s going to be dangerous,” Sansa says, but she’s already drawing the cloak around her shoulders, already readying herself. She passes Lyanna the moonlight blade, fingers lingering over its soft, blueish blade. “You’ll need this more than me.”
“Only at the end,” says Lyanna. “I’ll need some time before that.”
Sansa closes her eyes. “You have until dawn,” she murmurs, before leaving.
“Stop!” she cries, even as she runs into the chamber.
There are two levels- a raised dais surrounded by red flame, and a lower one with a crowd assembled in it, where Sansa is. She’s commanding the attention of the lower level now, but not the other level’s.
“Where’s the Queen?” Sansa asks, fingers twitching.
Nobody answers. But enough people’s eyes flick to the raised level; Sansa knows where she has to go.
Fire lights up her palms. A woman behind her shrieks. Sansa ignores them, and concentrates. She hasn’t tried to fly since she first fell down a mountainside. It isn’t going to be easy, but-
This isn’t a choice, Sansa thinks, and twists, eyes closing until all she sees is white, all she feels is cold air along her face. It must be done, so I’ll do it.
She lands just past the flames on the rim of the platform, white fire streaming behind her like large, shining wings. The scarlet flames that had surrounded the platform become her own, flaring white as she takes control of them.
“Stop,” she says, again, magic augmenting her own voice through desperation just as much as choice.
The Night’s Queen is there- and if she was beautiful before, she’s truly ugly now- disfigured by a large, twisting scar, and stinking of rotten, stale blood. The only color in all her face are her eyes, large and actinic blue. Jon’s in chains beside her, chained heavy enough that his back is bowing from the weight of it.
Sansa feels her heart stutter at the sight: she can see his face for the first time in her life. This man, who’s been monster and friend and lover- she feels like they’ve traversed oceans together, terror and love together, and this is the first time she’s seeing his face.
He freezes when he sees her. Crow’s feet extend from the corners of his eyes into his temples when he does; deeper, harsher lines bracket his mouth. His face- already long, already somber- turns even more so.
The Night’s Queen freezes as well, but she recovers faster.
“You dare?” she snarls. “To use magic against me-”
“Yes, I dare,” says Sansa, eyes not leaving Jon’s. He’s handsome, she thinks again, heart racing faster, a man she’d never have loved, once, but cannot imagine otherwise now. A Northerner, born and bred. “For he is mine, before he is ever yours- to sacrifice, or to love.”
“By what right?”
“He is my lover,” Sansa says defiantly. “He is the father of my child.”
Jon goes deathly pale. “No,” he says, stumbling as he tries to move towards Sansa, despite the heavy chains bound around him. “No, Sansa-”
He’s drowned out by the Night’s Queen’s cackling.
“And you bring the child to me?” she asks, a red slash of lips and tongue against her chalky skin, her terrible eyes. “I ought to thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
“No. What you’ll do is give him up,” Sansa tells her. The heat of her fire melted through the soles of her shoes, so now her feet ache against the uneven stone. “I know what you did to Dickon, when he came for his father. You want to know who loves Jon more? Play the game.” She straightens, until her spine is stiff as a ruler. “Let’s see.”
“No,” Jon bites out. “No, no, no-”
“Yes,” says the Queen. “Yes, let us finish this. You think you love your man, girl? I’ll turn him into a monster thrice over, a hundred times over. You let go even once, and it will mean both your deaths.”
She waves a hand, and Jon’s chains disappear. He hurls himself forwards, gripping Sansa by the shoulders, dragging her into an embrace that should not feel so intimate in front of all these people.
“Please,” he whispers into her ear. “Leave, Sansa. Don’t bring our child into this.”
“Do you think you can frighten me?” Sansa asks softly, stepping back just enough to see his face, those lovely eyes, that soft skin. “I know you, Jon. Not all of you. But you would give a frightened woman an apology for lying, and choose magic over death for the chance to make others happy, and learn that there is more to life than fighting death, despite no one ever telling you that, despite being told the opposite for all your life.” She smiles at him. “I know enough of you.”
He closes his eyes. “This will be dangerous.”
“All of life is dangerous,” she retorts. Sansa’s fallen for eternity. She’s taught herself to fly. She is in love, now, and she knows how to defeat this evil.
There’s only so long we can run, she wants to say, before our pasts overtake us.
There is a part of me that has been afraid all my life, she wants to say, that has sobbed every time I had to do something terrible.
I am more than my fears, she wants to say. I have always been more than that.
“But,” says Sansa, “that does not mean we shrink from it.”
“Hold me fast, then,” says Jon, curving over her, forehead to the curve of her neck. “Hold me fast, and fear me not. I will not hurt you.”
“You will not have a choice,” the Queen calls, that damnable smile still on her face. “You will have the mind of what I wish you to have. It will be painful, sweetling. You might have asked for an easier death.”
“If I hold him,” Sansa says, coldly, “then you shall let us leave. All of us. None of your people shall give retribution.”
“And if you fail?”
“I will give you my name, freely.” She swallows. “And the name of my child.”
“Sansa,” Jon says behind her, anguished.
She ignores him.
“Agreed,” says the Night’s Queen.
They stand facing each other, and then Sansa steps forwards, wrapping her arms closely around him. She can feel his breath against her forehead, hot and damp.
“Remember the warmth,” she whispers into his ear. “Remember how hot my fire is, how powerful it can be. You are not just a blizzard, Jon.”
And then the Queen’s magic takes hold.
Sansa feels him shift, the bones of his frame cracking- she has a moment to recognize the sheer agony on his face, before he’s swallowed up by the creature the Queen has turned him into: a cat, who draws deep furrows down her arm before Sansa can calm it enough to regard her warily.
He’s a deer, with horns sharp and deadly. Sansa ducks under them before he can gore her and gains a bruise to the face for her efforts, but her grip doesn’t loosen.
A fox, teeth small and shining, with eyes the grey of a summer storm. He’s calmer, a little, but only long enough for Sansa to brush a hand down his fur before he’s changing once more.
Snake: long and black, tongue flickering and scales dry. Sansa shudders, but remembers: Jon. This is Jon, and she won’t fear him, no matter the form he takes.
This time it’s a lion. The mane is rough against her palms, and Sansa can feel the heat of his breath against her face, the danger with which he could crush her. She doesn’t flinch.
He rakes his paws across her back, three stinging lines of blood.
“A lion,” Sansa laughs, through the pain, holding onto him, holding onto her love, with all of the ferocity of a mother, of a lover. “You are no Lannister, sweetling. Do you want to know who you are?”
Dawn is not too far off.
The skin sloughs off to an octopus, jumpy and slimy and difficult to hold.
“No,” says Sansa, fingers dancing to keep heat away from it, to ensure the moisture is retained within his skin, “you aren’t a Greyjoy either, love.”
He bites her, jaws closing over her wrist. Sansa lets fire pass down his throat in warning and closes her eyes, and then she opens them, and she says, quietly, “You’re a Targaryen, Jon Snow. Son of Lyanna and Rhaegar. And do you know what Targaryens are?”
An elephant, angered already from the pain.
Sansa throws her head back and lets loose the fire in her veins, in her breast, in her lungs. White streams around them, hot and smokeless, blinding. Jon rears back at it- stumbling-
“You are a dragon!” cries Sansa, still holding him fast, still fearing him not. “The last Targaryen in the world! Be a dragon!”
A breath, unsteady and long, and Sansa knows the silence to be shock for her audacity. Only magical creatures are immune to magic, for they’re made of magic. And dragons are the most magical creatures of all.
It’s broken by the Night’s Queen’s cackle.
“Oh, is this your play, girl?” she asks. “It won’t work. The dragons are dead, and they won’t ever be back. The last Targaryen in the world? I bound him when he couldn’t even speak. There’s nothing that can will help you now, not your fire, not your rage.”
Ages ago, when Sansa had been in the Eyrie, Petyr Baelish had thrown green sparks with snaps of his fingers. When she killed Lysa, Petyr had protected her for a week, soothing her with tonics and letting her sob into his shirts.
And then he’d bound her with words of magic, winding magical chain after chain around her wrists.
Sansa had blazed through those chains, because she hadn’t known a way to live while wearing them.
Because the pain, in the end, had been worth the freedom.
“That’s your mistake, then,” she says, now, and smiles at the Queen with all the malice she’s ever known in her life. “Fire comes from anger, yes. But it comes for purity.”
Mindlessly, she places her palms on Jon’s back, flat against his leathery skin, and presses as much fire into him, searching, searching, for something that isn’t his, something that’s been forced on him-
His neck catches afire, and then his ankles, and then his wrists.
Sansa passes it into him, pulse after pulse, because if she falters even a little now- if she lets those chains remain- it will be pain beyond knowledge for Jon, and sure death for herself, for her child.
“You are Jon,” she says, screams, sobs. Even as his bones crack and recrack, even as he howls in growing agony- Sansa doesn’t let go. “You are Jon, of West of the Moon. You are Jon.”
He’s a bear, large and roaring, and her arms loosen as he stands upright. Not entirely- she’s still embracing him- but her weight’s dragging her down, and he’s a writhing, white-cocooned mass.
Blood is still dripping down her back, from his lion’s claws. There are bites and bruises along her body, and Sansa’s aching from all of it.
She can’t hold on much longer.
“I’m sorry, Jon,” she says, even as her palms slip free, sweat and matted fur leaving them with little purchase. “I love you. Never doubt that.”
Sansa lets go. She falls to her back, tears- damnable, infuriating tears- in her eyes, blurring her vision. She can see the fire wink out along Jon’s body, and she wants to weep with the force of her failure.
There’s a puff of hot breath along her face, and she opens her eyes to see- see him leaning over her, eyes bright and knowledgeable, before throwing his head back.
Slowly, and quickly, all at once: Jon shifts.
A bear’s thick fur becomes scales. Nails become talons, the tail lengthens, widens, his upper arms become smaller and then flare out into wings. The nose becomes longer, sharper, and all his skin goes as white and pale as her flame.
Sansa doesn’t know how much time passes, but by the end of it- Jon’s there.
He roars, and it hurts her ears, but she can’t keep herself from smiling through the tears. Slowly, she rises to her feet, and even as she does, she feels him coil around her back, a snap of muscles so quick it makes dust rise from the dirt around them.
There are a hundred sharp teeth right beside her head. Sansa does not fear any of them. The air sings of magic, and for the first time it’s Jon’s- blood, ice, freedom like the teeth of a wind on the top of a mountain. Sansa’s cheeks hurt from the force of her joy.
Before she can say anything, though, Lyanna appears.
She’s braided her hair out of her face, and Sam is sitting on her shoulder- but her eyes are dark, and fierce, and the large blade she wields would be unrecognizable to Sansa if not for the pale blue tint to it.
“Your Majesty,” she says, as she enters, scornful and loud. “Long have I waited for this day.”
She steps forwards. There’s a wind- low, growing, causing dust to swirl in the path behind her. Lyanna moves, and she seems to jump; one breath, and she’s besides Sansa. Another, and she’s ten feet ahead.
“I fought my way out of Dorne," she says, "I stole myself and my son away, and all I wished for was to return home. There was a storm that blew us of course, and instead we came here." She smiles, toothed as Jon for all that she's still human. "I begged you to spare me,” Lyanna says proudly, “and you didn’t. I begged you to spare my son, newborn and so small- and you didn’t. You tried to raise him as your own, and you would have killed him twice over for the sin of not being yours.” She hefts the blade. “You tried to kill him twice.
“I will see you dead for that,” says Lyanna, and throws the blade.
She throws it like a javelin, shoulder and arm curving downwards, and it spits the Queen straight through her chest in a blur of light.
“May the seven hells hold you for eternity,” she whispers, into the abrupt silence.
Sansa stumbles, then, as the Queen’s oppressive magic suddenly disappears- relief and pain making itself known suddenly. She catches herself on one of the ridges along Jon’s back. Lyanna appears beside her, frowning, and Sansa waves aside her worries, for all that her vision isn’t entirely steady.
“Let’s go home,” says Sansa, wearily. “It’s at an end. Let’s just- go home.”
No sooner has she said it than Jon’s coiled his muscles, and it only takes two leaps for him to tear through the ceiling, until he’s crouched upside down on the roof, Sansa caught in one of his claws, Lyanna in the other, before he twists once again and lands outside, heavy and panting and shining as the ice around them.
Then he leaps again, straight up, and his wings come up around him, beating into the air.
It’s cold, so cold- Sansa feels too exhausted to even summon the smallest flame- and her bruises ache, her back is bleeding; she’s hurt and tired and so very, very, relieved.
They’ll need to talk. There’s secrets and lies and weights between them, now, that have been revealed. They’re cousins; Sansa hasn’t even begun to think through the repercussions of that. Where will they live? West of the Moon, or Winterfell?
It scarcely matters.
She’s alive. Jon’s alive.
Their child is alive.
When they land that afternoon, as Jon shifts from dragon to man- Sansa throws the furs he’d given her onto him, stopping his shivering. A white bear’s furs. Her own white dragon, who breathes fire as pale as her own.
“Thank you,” he says hoarsely, looking straight into Sansa’s eyes. “I couldn’t have done it on my own.”
Sansa laces her fingers through his, fire to his wind, warmth to cold. “None of us could have,” she says quietly, before letting her head rest against his chest, before allowing his arms to encircle her.
I love you, she thinks. For a hundred lifetimes, now- for all the rest of eternity. I will always love you.
What does a castle, a family, a thousand petty things matter, when they’ve defeated a monster together? When they’ve saved each other, twice over, thrice over?
Nothing, Sansa decides. She’s never before been able to hold her world in her hands. It’s a dangerous feeling. It’s a lovely feeling: poised on the cusp of the canyon, trembling and terrified, but unflinching. This does not matter.
You see: Sansa knows how to fly.
They land in Winterfell’s courtyard the next day, the girl everyone thought stolen, the man who’d entered it as an enemy, the sister her brother had prayed for for twenty long, long years.
Sansa has bruises and aches and fear, still, living in her belly like a breathing thing.
She pushes her hair away from her face and smiles at her family.
“Mother, Father,” says Sansa, breath cold in her lungs, heart still beating, alive, alive, alive. “This-” She steals a look at him, and then back to her family, and she can’t repress her smile, now, not for all the stars in the sky, not for all the gold in the world. Not when her joy is matched by nothing less than her love, “-is Jon.”
"and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty which is, of course, a garden, which is
a tenderness, which is a room, a lover saying Hold me
tight, it's getting cold."