Sometimes – only sometimes – when Sansa wakes, she goes to the window of her bedchamber, the one that faces north out over the walls of Evenfall Hall, and pretends. In that direction there is nothing to be seen but hills, fields deep in snow, trees standing black-branched against the carpet of white. She could almost be gazing out of her window in Winterfell. She could almost believe that at any moment Arya will go haring across the field, pelting Jon with snowballs, that her mother will call her and Lady down to break their fast with her father –
It's colder than Winterfell, here. Of course, Sansa never lived through a true northern winter, only their spring and summer snows, but even so, she's sure Winterfell would be warmer than Evenfall is. The Starks built their stronghold over hot springs, which made it hellishly humid in summer, but let them survive eight thousand years of the worst weather the North could throw at them. Outside, the air might freeze your skin black on your bones, but within those walls you could go barefooted, if you wanted.
Sansa never did, not then. In the evenings Arya ran about on grubby feet, said it made her feel free, while Sansa kept on her embroidered slippers, ladylike, dreaming of the day they'd be jewelled, fit for a princess. She’d tug her fur-lined robe around her shoulders and wish for the sun-warmed south.
These days, she doesn't mind the cold. She turns away from the frost-rimmed glass of her window, pads into the small solar she shares with Brienne, and sits in the window-seat. The view here is toward the south-east and the precipitous plunge of the great waterfall that roars night and day, giving the Hall its name.
She sits, in her long woollen nightgown, sleeves rolled up past her elbows, bare feet pressed to the flagstone floor. She watches the spray of the waterfall, the pale rainbow shimmering where it catches in the dawn light. Listens to the thunder of it, steady and repetitive, that she found maddening when first she came to Tarth – still weak from the wasting cough, clinging to Brienne as she sat astride their exhausted horse – that now soothes her to sleep. She closes her eyes, imagines she can feel it through her feet, a rise and fall of breath, the heartbeat of the castle.
It's not Winterfell – but then, even Winterfell isn't Winterfell anymore, sacked and burned and abandoned, another casualty of war among thousands. Even if she returned, she wouldn't find the Winterfell of her long-ago childhood, the Winterfell of her dreams. The North has nothing to give her anymore but ghosts.
No, Evenfall Hall isn't Winterfell. But Sansa is starting to think – sometimes, deep down, far at the back of her mind, barely daring to bring it forth into the light – that, given a chance, it might become home.
"Would my lady do me the honour of a dance?"
Ser Edric Goodholt makes an elegant leg, one hand extended across the table toward Sansa. His young face glows hopefully in the flickering light of the torches, as it has done almost every night for three months. Almost every night since Brienne arrived at her father's keep with her charge beside her, quiet and grave and beautiful, even gaunt as she was after weeks of living hand-to-mouth.
And as she has done at every time of asking, Sansa Stark inclines her head slightly, and says, "My thanks, ser, but I cannot."
Ser Edric, as always, takes the rejection in stride. "As my lady wishes," he says, bows again, and retreats.
Brienne glances across her father at Sansa. Her face is almost unreadable, a perfect pale mask. Brienne remembers something she said once, on that long desperate ride south from the Eyrie, to the ferry-point to Tarth: courtesy is a lady's armour. And she has it drawn tight around her now, a steel wall of politesse that it sometimes seems no-one will ever break through.
The musicians strike up a reel, and the knights and squires and men-at-arms lead out the ladies, two-by-two. Tarth has always been fond of dances – the jigs and reels and circles were the backdrop of Brienne's childhood – but somehow she had thought the arrival of winter would quell all that. Instead, every night there is more enthusiasm, more laughter, more vigour in each step, than there was on all but the most special occasions before. Her father says it is the same every winter, that folk need the comfort and the joy in the winter most of all, to keep their spirits from freezing.
There are dances every night. And never, not once in three months, has Sansa stepped out.
Brienne hasn't, either, but she rarely ever did – dancing never suited her – and besides, she's resolved to stay on the side-lines with Sansa. But she thinks there is something in Sansa's expression, some sadness beneath her protective reserve that says, unlike Brienne, she wishes she were one of the girls out on the floor, laughing as they pick up their skirts and twirl. There again, she could be imagining it. Sansa is almost impossible to read, except when they are alone, and not altogether easy even then. She spent too many years wearing a mask for that.
As they watch the dancers, Lord Selwyn turns to his right. Gently, he says, "Do you not like to dance, my lady?"
So he has seen it, too, Brienne thinks.
Sansa smiles, wistful. "No, my lord, I love to dance." A pause, and then she flushes, as if realising how contradictory that sounds, and says, "I just – I do not wish to lead any of the men on, my lord."
Her head is ducked slightly, and she's hiding behind those long curtains of hair the way she had when Brienne found her, a captive in the Vale with Littlefinger haunting her steps. A sudden flash of anger has Brienne's hands curling into fists beneath the table. All those men – those so-called knights – gazing after Sansa in half-awe, half-lust, till she has no peace, even here, where Brienne brought her to be safe.
Except no. No. They aren't looking at Sansa. They are looking at Lady Stark, the last survivor of the oldest of the Great Houses, sister to the late King in the North, heir apparent to Winterfell. Brienne rode from one corner of Westeros to another to find Sansa, to keep her safe from those who would make a pawn of her, and yet it never stops. Even in her father's Hall.
Seven hells take them all.
"My lady," Lord Selwyn says, in his soft father-voice, the voice that soothed Brienne all the lonely long years of her childhood, "I am sure no good man would dare presume, not on the basis of a single dance. Besides," and he looks to his left, quirks a smile at Brienne, "my daughter and her sword would correct any who did, wouldn't they?"
Brienne looks at her father – who supported her when she picked up a sword and donned men's armour and left to swear herself to Renly Baratheon, when she returned to his Hall bearing with her a fugitive stolen from the clutches of one of the most powerful Lords in the realm – lifts her chin. "I would," she says.
There's pride in this, honour, now. She's not some gangling never-good-enough freak of a not-quite-daughter, not any longer.
"I doubt not, my lord," Sansa says, all formality, but she gives Brienne one of her barely-there smiles that fairly glow with warmth, the smiles that only Brienne sees, that make her heart clench tight in her chest. One of Sansa's long pale hands drifts up to brush over the side of her neck. The gesture would seem unconscious, meaningless, but she's holding Brienne's gaze, steady and unflinching, and Brienne knows she's touching a faint half-inch long scar.
Once, just beyond the border of the stormlands, Brienne had left Sansa and the horses (two horses then, before Trickster sickened and died) for barely half an hour, scouting for shelter. She returned to find two men ferreting through their meagre possessions while a third held Sansa at knife-point. There had been no time for hesitation, for thought – Brienne had the one bleeding out at her feet and his friends begging for mercy before she truly understood what danger her charge had been in. And yet Sansa had not screamed, had not cried, even when Brienne dressed the nick on her throat, said only, I was not afraid. I knew you would save me.
The memory floods up – how bright Sansa's eyes had burnt, how softly she'd kissed Brienne's chapped lips – and heat flushes Brienne's cheeks, locks up her throat. She has to look away, down at her lap, over at the tapestries on the far wall, to keep her composure.
When Sansa speaks, though the Evenstar sits between them, she hears the words as clearly as if they were whispered in her ear. "All the same, my lord, I cannot dance."
Brienne found Sansa Stark, delivered her from the shadow of the Vale, brought her to the safest place she could think of. Her oaths to Catelyn Stark, to Jaime Lannister, must be counted fulfilled in the sight of gods and men.
And yet it occurs to her – they still have far to go, she and Sansa.
They are, perhaps, past the darkest depths of winter, but it is not over yet.
On calm days, when the snowstorms and howling gales blow themselves out, they go riding – just Sansa and Brienne, their two mares, and the wide sky above them. It’s like things used to be, that long long ride, before, and the thought brings a quiet smile to Sansa’s lips.
It's not that she misses those days. She certainly doesn't miss the constant bitter taste of fear in the back of her mouth, nor the nights spent trying to sleep curled up on the ground with only a tree over their heads. It's just that, well, there's a simplicity to things, when it's only the two of them. They can be Sansa and Brienne, not Lady Stark (nor even Alayne Stone) and the Maid of Tarth.
Today, the weather is clear, the sky above a pure bright azure, the pale sun glittering on icicles and the snow crisp beneath the horses' hooves. The air is so cold it hurts to breathe, but Sansa refused the offer of a scarf to shield her nose and mouth and muffle the pain. It's a good pain, clean, and it makes Sansa feel so powerfully alive.
"I thought we might go down to the Long Lake," Brienne says. "Unless you'd prefer Cape Storm again?"
"The Long Lake sounds perfect." Sansa mounts the mare Lord Selwyn gifted her three months ago – a stolid dapple-grey. Stark colours, my lady, he'd said, and she'd smiled past her uncertainty. It has been years since Stark colours were last safe for her to claim. But Dove is a good horse, well-behaved and sweet-natured, and she knows every inch of the Isle, never loses her footing, even with the paths obscured by snow.
Brienne leads the way, riding Faithful, who carried first Brienne and then Sansa also from the Vale to Tarth. Sansa and Dove follow, alongside and just a pace or two behind.
Over the last three months they've been gradually criss-crossing the island, and Sansa has been gradually falling in love.
It's not just the beauty of the Sapphire Isle – though it is beautiful, all spectacular waterfalls and great weeping willows and white chalk cliffs, everything blanketed in powder snow, dreamlike. No, more than that, it's the stories Brienne tells her about the places they pass. They're simple and matter-of-fact as she is about everything, stories of this ancestor and that visiting king, of the seabirds that roost only on Cape Storm and nowhere else in Westeros, of the places she spent her days as a child, climbing this tree and exploring that cave, practicing swordplay and archery in this glen and reading Dornish poetry by that waterfall.
Seeing Tarth through Brienne's eyes, it's like – it's like being wrapped up in her. Held tight and safe the way Sansa is when they share a bed and the fierce strength of Brienne's long limbs becomes a cradle. A sanctuary.
It takes perhaps half an hour to reach the Long Lake, following the valley that Evenfall Hall overlooks as it curves to the south-east. Gradually the ever-present roar of the waterfall fades, and there is no sound but for the muffled crunch of hoof-beats in snow, the whistle of birds from the bare trees, Brienne's occasional soft commentary.
When they reach the Lake it comes upon them all at once – they round an outcrop, and there it is.
Sansa's breath catches in her throat. "Oh – Oh, Brienne, it's beautiful."
The way Brienne grins tells Sansa plainly that she'd planned this, gave no hint of we're nearly there, in order for it to come as a surprise. "I've never seen it in winter, I wasn't sure if you'd – if it'd look so good. Compared to in summer."
She leans over, squeezes Brienne's gloved hand where it rests on the pommel of her saddle. Above the scarf wrapped about her throat and mouth, Brienne's cheeks are flushed bright pink with cold, and perhaps with the bone-deep insecurity she carries with her, still. As if at any moment, Sansa might draw back, push her away. "I love it, dear heart," she says, and Brienne's flush deepens, her eyes bright.
For a moment, Sansa keeps her gaze steady on Brienne – the freedom to just look at her, long and intimate with no regard for propriety, is another of the reasons to appreciate their rides together – then squeezes her hand again and turns back to the Lake.
From north to south it stretches almost as far as the eye can see, a vast expanse of deep blue-green ice, gleaming like a looking-glass. The fringe of trees and the backdrop of dramatic hills are reflected back in perfect symmetry. Growing up in Winterfell, where even during the long summer there were foot-deep snows at the turn of every year, Sansa never really appreciated the winter, but she loves it. The ice, the snow, the stillness it lends to everything it touches. For all she spent years yearning for the south and the long red-gold days of true summer, this is her weather.
"Is it frozen thick enough to walk on, do you suppose?" she asks.
"My father's steward says the smallfolk held a market on it, not long before we arrived at Tarth," Brienne says. "If you follow the slope down along there, there's a post, we can tether the horses."
Brienne dismounts first, ties Faithful, and reaches up to help Sansa down from her own horse. It's not necessary, strictly speaking; Dove is not a particularly large horse and Sansa is a tall girl, her health recovered after three months of Evenfall's hospitality. But it's what they've always done, and letting Brienne take her weight, hands firm on her waist, lifting her, setting her down so gently – well. So many of Sansa's dreams are forever lost, it doesn't seem so selfish of her to keep this.
When she's on solid ground again, Sansa leans in, tugs Brienne's scarf down so she can press a kiss to her lips, swift and almost chaste. For a moment, they stand with their foreheads pressed together, close enough for them to breathe the same air, for Brienne's eyelashes to brush Sansa's cheeks.
Then, "I should tether Dove," Brienne says, sounding a little breathless, the way she does after a particularly vigorous swordplay session with Lord Selwyn's master of arms, or in the dead of night when Sansa's fingers find that sweet spot inside.
"Of course." Another quick peck on the lips, then she tucks Brienne's scarf back into place, and steps away.
While Brienne secures the horses, Sansa picks her way down the snow-covered slope to the edge of the Lake and steps out hesitantly onto the ice, heart pounding sickly in her chest. Her mother had always been so insistent about the dangers of thin ice, so afraid that their summer frosts were not enough, that one day one of her children would fall through. Sansa had done as her lady mother said, of course, but the warnings had never worried her overmuch. After all, Lady Catelyn had been convinced Bran would lose his footing, climbing about Winterfell, and he never had.
Until the Lannisters came north, and everything changed.
She holds her breath as she puts one foot down. The ice doesn't crack beneath her boots, or even creak: emboldened, she puts the other down and takes sliding steps forward, the way she was taught to walk on ice, pushing out towards the middle of the Lake. It doesn't take long for the fear to vanish, and she'd been expecting as much, in the back of her mind. King's Landing and the Eyrie taught her fear. Tarth is teaching her trust.
Behind her, she can hear Brienne following. Her gait sounds less confident than Sansa's – didn't grow up used to icy paths, after all – broken every now and then by little skidding noises and muffled curses that make Sansa grin unaccountably. "You will never catch me, ser," she calls over her shoulder.
"Seven hells, I chased m'lady across half the realm! A bit of ice won't stop me," Brienne yells back, and with that, the chase is on.
It's been years, years since Sansa felt so carefree, half-running, half-skating across the frozen lake, Brienne in hot pursuit behind. When she catches up to Sansa, grabbing at her shoulder like a child playing tag, they both go down, skidding across the ice in a tangle of limbs and helpless laughter.
Even when they've both caught their breath, neither of them makes a move to get up. They just sit there, leaning against one another. Sansa's hand finds Brienne's, and their fingers intertwine.
The cloudless blue sky over them, the snowy hills reflected in the looking-glass perfection of the Long Lake – it's all almost too beautiful to be real. Like a painting.
When Sansa was a child, her father gave her a toy that once belonged to his sister: a glass globe, containing a tiny carved model of Winterfell. It was filled with some clear fluid, and white sand, so that if you shook it, snow would seem to fall on the little castle. Sometimes Tarth reminds her of that, like the island is contained within its own glass bubble, set apart from the outside world, where the wars still rage. The world where Sansa Stark is, depending on whom you ask, an attainted traitor, or the rightful Queen of the North, or just a bargaining chip to be flung at the feet of whoever sits the Iron Throne.
Would that she could stay in her snow globe with her true knight forever.
"This lake is where I learnt to swim," Brienne says. "My father taught me. He'd swim every day, if he could. Says his mother's father did, and that's why he lived to a hundred."
"I've never swum," Sansa admits. Her brothers had, sometimes in the hottest parts of the long summer, Arya too, but she'd always been too shy, only going as far as dangling her bare feet in. Septa Mordane used to say it was unladylike to swim, not to mention uncouth.
Brienne shifts a little closer. "Mayhaps – mayhaps when the spring comes, I could teach you?"
When the spring comes. Brienne believes they'll still be here, together. Wants them to still be here. "I'd like that," Sansa says, quiet. Tries not to betray the lump in her throat.
With her free hand, Brienne rubs at Sansa's shoulder in the tentative circular motion she uses for soothing the aftermath of nightmares. "When it's not frozen, the Long Lake is so clear, you can see right to the bottom. There's fish, too. Trout, mostly, I think, and some bigger ones, salmon and suchlike. Our old master of horse used to go fishing, sometimes, for sport really. I once saw him hook a salmon so big it pulled him out of his boat and into the lake."
It's not the funniest story in the world, but Sansa finds herself laughing as she leans in to Brienne and presses her face to her shoulder. There is something she almost recognises fluttering in her chest, painful and giddy and sweet. She closes her eyes, lets Brienne's soft-edged voice carry her back to the summer, to the spring, lets herself believe it will come again.
It's well past midnight when Brienne wakes. She comes to with a sudden jolt of fear, groping to the side where she keeps Oathkeeper – not there, not there – where's the sword, where's Sansa – and then she remembers.
She's in her old bed at Evenfall Hall. She hasn't slept with her sword for three months.
Sansa is safe.
Brienne sits in the darkness for a moment, breathing deep, willing her heart to stop pounding; then she pulls one of the furs on her bed around her shoulders and gets up. There's a flint and steel on her bedside table, a beeswax candle in a small iron holder. She fumbles it once, hands shaking a little with the cold and the echoes of her panic on waking, but the flame catches the second.
Candle in hand, she crosses her bedchamber, slips through out the door into the solar.
The solar isn't as dark as she'd expected – the drapes covering the great south-eastern window have been pulled all the way back, and light from the full moon pours in, edging everything in silver. Sansa is sitting in the window-seat, gazing out into the night, long hair in a loose braid pulled over one shoulder, like a maiden from a painting or a stained-glass window, waiting for her knightly love.
The door creaks as Brienne closes it, and Sansa looks up. In the moonlight her redhead-pale skin looks like white marble. "I was going to come ask if I could join – I didn't wake you, Brienne?"
"No, don't worry." Brienne's father gave Sansa the room that had been intended for Brienne's siblings, long ago, connected to Brienne's own chamber through the shared solar. In the evenings, they both go to their separate beds, but almost every night of the three months they have spent here, one or the other will wake, come padding through to slide into bed beside the other.
Neither of them sleeps well, not alone, not anymore. They both have their nightmares, but it's not just that. It's not just the shades of a dead woman walking or a monstrous child-king - horrifying as they are - that drive them to seek comfort in each other's arms. After all the nights they spent as outlaws together – curled up side-by-side, or else Sansa's head pillowed in Brienne's lap while Brienne kept watch – it simply feels wrong to sleep apart.
Brienne walks over, puts the candle-holder down on the floor, and curls up in the opposite side of the window-seat, her fur wrapped close around her. They may be sheltered by the Hall's thick stone walls, but it's still bitterly cold. Sansa is clad only in her nightgown and she even has the sleeves rolled up to bare her arms to the elbow. Once or twice, Brienne has heard smallfolk say northmen have ice in their veins in place of blood and so feel no chill, and it's times like this she half believes it – except Sansa's bare feet creep under the fur to nestle against her own, wrapped sensibly in thick wool hose.
And so they sit, quiet, for some time. Sansa is watching the constant shimmer of the Evenfall, rapt as if the waterfall might at any moment cease forever. Free from outside scrutiny – from prying eyes, from sharp-tongued questions – Brienne lets herself watch Sansa. In her borrowed nightgown, arms bare and pricked with gooseflesh, eyes sleepless and shadowed, hair neither an unbound river nor an elaborate crown but a simple peasant's plait, she is the most beautiful thing Brienne has ever seen. So beautiful it almost hurts to behold.
And all the more beautiful for being Sansa.
Beautiful men and beautiful women are not so very rare – Brienne's seen enough of them, from Loras Tyrell to Cersei Lannister. Beauty alone, she knows not to trust, and it doesn't speed her pulse, doesn’t twist at her heart, not the way Renly and Jaime did and Sansa does.
Renly is dead at the hands of his brother, Jaime at his own after he strangled his sister, and neither of them looked at her the way Sansa does sometimes, gentle and heated all at once.
Eventually, Sansa says, "At Winterfell, when it froze, we used to skate on the mill-pond."
Sansa often says things like this, after they've been riding out across Tarth. While Brienne tells the stories of her childhood, Sansa almost never shares her own tales until the evening, as though she cannot bear to remember in the light of day. "I've never skated. I was too young in the last winter, and it never got cold enough in the spring chills."
"What you think is winter, we call summer," Sansa says, smiling at Brienne, ironical. She runs a hand down her own arm, sighs.
She must miss home terribly. When Brienne had found Sansa in the Vale, hair clumsily dyed brown, thin with fear, she had offered to take her back to the North. Asked if there were any Stark bannermen she would turn to. Only when the poor girl had grown quite overwrought trying to think of the right choice had she suggested Tarth. Sansa had seized on the idea, and it is only at moments like this, the stillness of the night, that Brienne thinks perhaps she was wrong to bring Catelyn Stark's daughter here. Isolated and therefore safe it may be, but the Isle is so very far from Sansa's home.
"When the war is over," she says hesitantly, "perhaps we could go to Winterfell, and you could teach me."
The smile on Sansa's lips fades. Her gaze cuts back to the waterfall. "Perhaps," she says, and then, bitter: "If the war is ever over."
There is nothing Brienne can say to that. Nothing anyone can say to that, save the gods. Her father has stood aloof for six long years of civil war, kept the Sapphire Isle obscure and unnoticed, but the ravens still come. News still reaches them of Lannisters killing Lannisters, of Stannis and the Bastard of Bolton tearing the North apart between them, of Dorne rising behind Targaryen pretenders, of the Faith Militant, of shades and demons crossing the Wall. Her father's maester says all wars must end. All Brienne has learnt of the history and craft of war agrees with him, and yet still some childish part of her wonders.
Six years. It feels like an age. A lifetime.
Reaching out from the warmth of her fur blanket, Brienne touches Sansa's shoulder, rubs gently. Even through the nightgown, she is icy cold. "Come, let's go to bed."
For a moment she thinks Sansa will say no, will keep staring out of the frost-rimmed window until dawn paints the sky. Then Sansa says, "Of course, dear heart," and unfolds herself from the corner of the window-seat. She lets Brienne take the lead and follows her into her bedchamber (Brienne always prefers her own room to Sansa's, and the memories of the siblings she saw buried).
Sansa perches on the edge of the bed as Brienne puts the candle down on the bedside table. Her hands sit folded in her lap, pink and purple with cold. They look almost pathetically fragile, like the delicate bones of a baby bird's wing, and on instinct Brienne covers them with her own, draws them under her blanket to press them to the warmth of her belly.
"You mustn't sit out so long in just that nightgown, you'll catch your death," she murmurs. A fine thing it would be, to spirit Sansa away from Littlefinger's clutches, bring her a thousand miles south, evading outlaws and brigands and search parties, nursing her through the wasting cough as they went, only to have her perish from cold when they're finally safe.
"It's impossible to freeze a Stark, everyone knows that," Sansa says, and digs her fingers into Brienne's ribs, teasing at a tickle.
After so long spent so terribly sad, every time Sansa smiles, or laughs, or japes, it goes straight to Brienne's heart. But she can't let it drop, the fear is too real, too sharp. "I mean it. At least put on your robe. Please."
Sansa's eyes soften, and she slides a hand out from beneath the fur blanket to cradle the side of Brienne's face. "If it makes you happy, then I will." She tugs Brienne down gently, leans up to kiss her.
It's not like their chaste daytime kisses, soft and swift, kisses that could almost be of friendship and nothing more. It starts out slow, Sansa's mouth opening languidly under Brienne's, tongues flicking here and there. Sansa's fingers curl into the wisps of hair at Brienne's nape, grip tight at her hip, and her legs slide apart as Brienne presses in close, one hand covering Sansa's on her hip, the other wrapping round the curve of Sansa's waist.
They're both feeling it now, the heat of their two bodies, the connection that lies almost-dormant between them coming alive, the memories of other kisses – on lips and breasts and down stomachs and up thighs and –
Brienne teethes at the plush of Sansa's lower lip, grins into the kiss as Sansa arches against her and lets out an airy light moan, her grip tightening convulsively at Brienne's neck and hip. Then the moan stretches out into a long, loud, terribly unladylike yawn.
For a moment they both pull back and look at each other, Sansa blushing scarlet even in the half-light. Then, as one, they dissolve into giggles.
"Would my lady care for another drink?" Brienne says, aping her father's manner when skating over some awkward remark. Still giggling, Sansa shoves lightly at her shoulder, covers her own face with one hand. Brienne darts in to press a kiss to the short scar on the side of her neck. "Shall I blow out the candle?"
Sansa nods, stroking Brienne's hair a little. "I didn't sleep much last night either," she says, quiet, averting her eyes from Brienne as though ashamed.
The nightmares must be coming back in force again, then. Sansa has never spoken in much detail about what shapes they take – not that it takes much guesswork, after the horrors she and her family have suffered. She never wakes screaming: the dreams come and go quiet as thieves in the night, sometimes abating, sometimes worsening, an ebb and flow Brienne cannot begin to comprehend. All the tense way through the Kingswood, Sansa slept soundly and untroubled, and Brienne had hoped the dreams were gone for good.
It didn't surprise her when they returned, though. Some wounds cannot be healed so easily, and the gods know Brienne understands that. After all, she still mourns her king, her liege lady who gave her hope and sent her to Sansa, the tainted knight who saved her and gave her her sword.
She doesn't try to tell Sansa all is well, just tucks a stray lock of auburn hair back behind her ear and kisses her forehead. She pulls back the blankets, blows out the flickering candle and slides into place in the bed beside her.
They both shift and turn from one side to the other for a few moments before settling into place: Sansa on her side, Brienne behind her, one arm curled tight around Sansa's waist, fingers interlaced. Their bodies slot together, the curves of spine and thigh and knee fitting perfectly as a fist and a glove, as though one were made for the other.
As they lie there, front-to-back, gradually the rhythms of their breaths converge and synchronise. No matter what has gone in the day before – whether it be ill news borne on black wings, or blizzards that threaten to break the windows, or impertinent stares and comments from Evenfall's knights and ladies – Brienne always forgets it when she curls up with Sansa like this. When she's cradling Sansa with her entire body, breathing with her, breathing in the smell of her, there is nothing else. Nothing but her, and them, and the certainty that this is where she belongs.
Brienne is drifting slowly toward sleep when Sansa says, in a very small voice, "Brienne?"
"What you said earlier – about when the war's over, and going back to Winterfell – did you mean it? If I went back, you'd really go back with me?"
There's a hint in her voice of fear, of hoping but not quite daring to believe, that is achingly familiar ("You really knew my mother? You really came to take me away?"), and it brings Brienne sharply back to wakefulness. "Of course, my love. If you want me to, I'll go with you anywhere."
Sansa swallows, nods her head. Her voice trembles, threatens to break, as she says, "And what if – if I never want to go back? If I just want to stay. To stay here. On Tarth. And never go back? Could I – would you –"
Perhaps she doesn't want to go home, after all. If the long-ago memories of Brienne's lost siblings still cling to the other bedchamber, how many must cling to the walls of Winterfell?
Sometimes it seems that Brienne will never, can never, truly understand the breadth and depth of all Sansa has lost. All she can do is keep walking beside her, keep believing that the war will end, that spring will come, and that they will see this through together.
Brienne squeezes Sansa's hand. "If you want to stay, I will stay with you. If you want to go, I will go with you." She presses a kiss to the nape of her neck. "I swore an oath."
She feels the tremor that runs through Sansa as she chokes out a sob that's half a laugh. She's shaking as she draws their linked hands up, presses her lips to Brienne's palm. "My true knight," she breathes. "My best-beloved, my true knight."
After the day they first go to the Long Lake, the weather takes a turn for the worse. Storms roll in from the north, blizzards that keep everyone huddled inside for nigh-on a full fortnight.
Sansa sits at the window, watches the snow fall from the roiling clouds. She aches to be outside, to feel the wind on her face and in her hair, though she knows it would bite the skin from her bones. There is some deep-inside part of her that will always be a terrified little bird trapped in a gilded cage in King's Landing, longing for the freedom of the open air. Even now. Even here.
When the bad weather finally breaks, the first morning she and Brienne go down to fetch their horses from the stables, Sansa is giddy as a child. She's always careful to keep her composure in Evenfall Hall, to guard her emotions, to hold the courtly mask in place where outsiders (anyone other than Brienne) might see, but she can't keep the corners of her mouth curling up into a too-broad grin.
They're going to ride again.
Before her flight from the Vale, Sansa had never ridden a horse for longer than a couple of hours here and there. For the first few days spent on horseback she was sore and miserable, desperate to sit on solid ground again. By the end, she felt almost homesick upon dismounting. Sometimes Brienne would tease her that she had become a Dothraki horselord.
Sansa kisses Dove's velvet-soft nose when she sees the mare, and gets an affectionate headbutt in return. The youngest stablehand – the one she likes most because he so obviously loves the animals in his care – boosts her up into the saddle. A click of her teeth, and Dove follows Brienne and Faithful out into the fresh-fallen snow.
There's a crisp breeze on the air, and it lifts Sansa's loose hair. She shakes it out, luxuriating in the sensation and the Others take the tangles it'll cause.
Brienne's face is shrouded nearly to the top of her nose by one of those thick woollen scarves of hers, but she's beaming with her eyes. Eyes as wide and blue as any of the Sapphire Isle's lakes. "Would you like to go to the Long Lake again, Sansa?"
"Wherever you want, dear heart," she says, and means it. When she feels like this, a day spent riding alongside Brienne is its own destination.
"The Long Lake, then." Brienne turns her horse to follow the familiar route down through the valley. Today, Faithful is carrying two saddlebags, which look unusually full.
"Is it a banquet or a picnic luncheon we're having?" Sansa asks lightly.
Brienne gives her a half-sideways look. "Something like that," she says, a little evasive.
Sansa briefly considers pushing it, but the storms are finally gone, the sun is shining, and she knows her lady knight enough to trust that whatever surprise she may have up her sleeve, it will be to Sansa's liking. She just nods, turns her attention back to the scenery, the great snowdrifts, the icicles feet long draped from the branches of every tree.
She wonders how deep the snow is in the North, how fierce the cold is atop the Wall, how long the icicles are that hang from the heart tree at Winterfell.
Even on the brightest days, those ghosts never entirely leave her. Nor does she entirely want them to.
It takes longer to reach the Long Lake this time, as the drifts force them to take detours, to lead the horses carefully on foot at times. It's almost like taking a completely different trip, and that's good as well: the change. How Sansa ever spent years of her life in one place and didn't go mad, she'll never know.
When they finally arrive, the great expanse of ice is every bit as impressive as Sansa remembered it. The high north winds swept most of the snow to the southernmost end of the lake, so they ride around the edge for a spell to reach the clear area. Brienne dismounts into snow that almost overtops her boots, and Sansa is suddenly fiercely glad she's wearing tall boots and breeches beneath her heavy skirts. She might not mind the cold as much as Brienne does, but for all she jests that winter never killed a Stark, feet wet with snow is not her idea of pleasant, nor safe.
As ever, Brienne comes to her horse's side and helps her down. Sansa kisses her cheek and rests her chin on Brienne's shoulder, their cheeks pressed together. There's a hand resting heavy and strong on the nape of her neck, and she knows now that nothing and no-one is ever safe in this world, but oh, in this moment she could believe it.
Brienne says, "Close your eyes, my lady. I have something for you." Her voice rumbles against Sansa's chest, and she says my lady not in her old way, brittle and deferential, but in her new way, softly, an endearment.
So now she's going to find what it is in those saddlebags. "And it's not even my name day. Should I hold out my hands?"
"If my lady wishes," Brienne says, dry. Sansa can practically hear the teasing roll of her eyes. Then there's something in her hands, surprisingly heavy. "You can open them now," Brienne tells her, and when she does, her breath catches.
In her hands are a pair of ice skates – slim metal blades attached to a leather frame obviously designed to strap over boots. "Oh – oh, Brienne …"
"My father had a lot of old pairs in storage. I hope those are about the right size, I got some for myself and thought you'd need them a little smaller than mine, and, well. Yes." What's visible of Brienne's face above the scarf is bright red. "I thought. I thought you might show me how to use them. If you don't want to, I don't mind, I just –"
How Sansa ever, ever came to deserve someone like Brienne is beyond her. And to think she spent so long lovesick over the ideal of some silver-tongued prince, playing the high harp and reciting poetry. "Brienne, thank you. This is perfect. Perfect." There are tears prickling at the backs of her eyes, sticking in her throat, because here is the incontrovertible proof that Brienne not only cares, but listens even to what she can't say aloud.
I miss the North so much, but I can't face the thought of going back to Winterfell.
And so Brienne brought a tiny piece of the North to Tarth.
They sit in the snow at the border of the great lake and strap the skates onto their boots. The thick sheepskin gloves make it a harder process than it ought to be, but eventually they're ready.
When Sansa steps out onto the ice, pushes off for the first time, it feels like she it was only yesterday that she was skating on the mill pond with Jeyne and Robb and Jon Snow. Like the last six and a half years were only a dream.
Except they weren't. And for the very first time, Sansa doesn't wish they were.
She turns in a wide fast arc, hair flying out behind her, to go back to Brienne. The lady knight is hesitant, wobbling nervously on her blades as first-time skaters always do. Sansa takes both her hands, faces her. "Relax. Just go gently, steady, like this." And Sansa skates backwards as Brienne follows, like a dance, slow at first and then faster, faster.
Brienne's hands hold hers tight as a lifeline, and her blue eyes are gleaming, dancing wide and beautiful and fixed on Sansa's own. They race over the ice under the pale sun, and Sansa can't see where they're headed, but it doesn't matter. They're going there together.