Chapter 1: Wild Horses
“Oh, you look so bonnie," Jeyne sighed as she tightened the laces of Sansa's dress. The two women gazed at Sansa's reflection in the long mirror, Jeyne's gaze admiring, Sansa's critical.
Tonight was the Stark clan gathering. Tonight was her last chance.
The dress had to be perfect.
Sansa had made the dress herself, from the Stark tartan and a panel of dove-grey brocade, which ran down the front of the dress and complemented the greys of the tartan. The silvery threads of the brocade glinted like they had been touched by moonlight, and made her think of faerie tales, of mysterious woods, of enchanted love.
All week, Stark clansmen and members of other, smaller clans who had sworn fealty to her father had been arriving in droves, filling Winterfell’s walls with laughter and chaos and music. The more prominent clanspeople were staying within Winterfell’s walls, but there simply wasn’t room for everyone: the muddy yard was boiling over with guests, and even in the rolling, sodden hills beyond Winterfell, clanspeople had set up tents.
One man had yet to arrive—the man whose arrival she had been so nervously anticipating. Sansa stared out the window, though it was impossible to see anything. The rain blurred everything, and turned even the brightest colors somber. She could pick out the tartans of other clans that were friendly—the green of the Tyrells, notably—but she did not see the bronze of the Royce tartan anywhere yet.
Jeyne leaned against her comfortingly.
“He’ll simply die when he sees you,” Jeyne reassured her. “He’ll lose his mind with need,” she teased, squeezing her shoulders, and Sansa laughed, blushing at her words, but her laugh was shaky. “At the next gathering, you’ll be Mrs. Royce, and then where will I be?”
“Another Mrs, too, I suspect,” Sansa teased in return, clasping her friend’s hand, but she felt distracted and sick with fear. “And I don’t know that I will be Mrs. Royce. It’s been so long since we last met…”
“If he doesn’t beg for you to marry him the minute he sees you, he’s a fool,” Jeyne promised her, “and you can do better.”
Sansa smiled thinly. Jeyne did not know the truth about Waymar Royce; she did not know just how much was riding on his appearance at the gathering tonight.
Everyone, it seemed, knew that Sansa had burned for him. Everyone knew that when he had been at Winterfell last year they had spent time together, more time than was strictly appropriate, more time than her father felt comfortable allowing. He and Mother had made so many remarks about the eligibility of Willas Tyrell—gentle, bookish Willas Tyrell, soon to be Laird Tyrell, with whom she often discussed songs and the stars—but everyone knew that she had admired Waymar for years.
But no one knew just how humiliating it would truly be if Waymar spurned her, save for one person, though she could not let herself think of him now.
Her hands were trembling as she gripped the windowsill, and her mouth was dry. Waymar had to come tonight. If he did not, her pride would be mortally wounded. She would be proven a fool, once and for all. And not only that, she would be ruined, once and for all, as well. Even Willas—who did not make her heart flutter nor her cheeks flush—would not have her then.
He had to come.
There was a pounding on the door; she heard Mrs. Mordane, and though it was her duty to greet the guests and to help her mother and father manage the house, she could not bring herself to look away from the window just yet. Still no Waymar. Still no Waymar. Still no Waymar.
“Come; you’re needed,” Jeyne broke her thoughts, pulling Sansa away from the window at last. Sansa followed her friend out into the hall, her stomach churning.
The halls were already dark as the daylight was fading, and the stone was cast in warm amber by the candlelight. Voices clamored, echoing along the halls—shouts of greetings and orders as everyone prepared for the feast tonight—but Sansa felt as though she had dropped beneath the surface of a lake. Jeyne was pulled away to the kitchens, and Sansa was forced to follow Mrs. Mordane towards the yard. Along the way they ran into so many clanswomen who knew of her hopes, and they complimented her dress with sly, knowing looks.
A dress to break a man’s heart, they told her as she passed. A dress to make a man fall in love.
“It’s the Royces,” Mrs. Mordane finally explained over her shoulder with a teasing look, as she pushed open the heavy wooden door, and Sansa’s belly clenched as the yard was revealed. “I heard Waymar’s arrived, and I thought ye might wish to be the one to help him find his room,” she added innocently, and Sansa had no choice but to step out into her fate.
In the yard, the air was thick with meat over bonfires, and drunken song, and fiddles, and children shrieking as they played and cried, and horses screaming and whickering. The Stark tartan was everywhere, blurred grey like mist.
Sansa had to push her way through thick throngs of people to follow Mrs. Mordane, all of whom wished to greet her, to thank her for her father’s hospitality, to admire her beauty and tell her how she’d grown. She did her best to be the dutiful daughter of Laird Stark but she was distracted; she would not rest until she had seen him. It was like hacking her way through vines ever-growing around her.
“Aye, there he is,” Mrs. Mordane hissed, stopping short before Sansa as they came to the center of the yard. Two fine black horses—warhorses, she noted, that were impractical for traveling but made for such a fine show—stood in the center of the yard, one of them bearing him.
Waymar Royce was as handsome as ever, clad in the bronze and black Royce tartan and looking down from his horse with the air of a prince visiting a foreign land. On a black horse beside his was a woman, clad in a cloak that did not quite obscure the Royce tartan dress beneath it. Sansa felt Mrs. Mordane looking at her in shock and confusion, but Sansa realized at once who this woman was.
She was not a Royce by blood; she had to be a Royce by marriage.
And, of course, Jon Snow was approaching them now. He always helped with the horses; it was his duty to tend to Waymar’s horse just as it was Sansa’s duty to tend to his wife. Jon Snow was clad in the Stark tartan, though he was rain-soaked and mud-spattered, his hair clinging to his forehead and jaw. Molten gold flared in her belly and warmed in her throat as she looked away from him. She was careful to never spend too much time looking at Jon Snow. He was not beautiful, she told herself; she merely found the lines of his body—the svelte shoulders, the hard stomach, the strong legs—fascinating.
Behind him, her brother Robb was approaching as well, caught in happy conversation with other clansmen who walked beside him. He had not yet seen Royce, but Jon had.
“You may put our horses with my father’s, Snow,” Waymar allowed, as Jon Snow strode up to them. Jon said nothing, his face unreadable as he reached them. For a moment, Waymar and Jon regarded each other coolly.
On Waymar's last visit to Winterfell—that fateful visit—he had insisted on dueling Jon, and had lost. There had been so much drunken talk of Jon's prowess with a sword, and Waymar had been unable to resist a chance to show off. Jon had defeated him swiftly, wordlessly, with a lesser sword to boot. Sansa was not sure he had recovered from the humiliation of being bested in a duel by a stablehand. If he knew who Jon truly was, if he knew that he had been beaten by the heir to the Targaryen dynasty, would it make it better—or worse?
“There’s no room left in the stables,” said Jon bluntly, as Waymar swung down from his horse. Waymar tossed the reins to Jon without looking at him, and turned to Sansa and Mrs. Mordane.
“Sansa Stark—you are more bonnie than ever,” he greeted courteously, in his smooth, affected southron lilt, and her heart soared so foolishly, though she knew it meant nothing. His eyes lingered on her dress as her cheeks burned with shame. He would know, she realized, that she had dressed up for him. “This is my wife, Mya. Mya, this is Sansa Stark, Laird Stark’s eldest daughter.”
He gestured to the woman in the Royce tartan, who was still seated on her horse. She was quite pretty, and reminded Sansa strongly of Arya—she looked like she would have been far happier swinging a sword than stitching with a sewing needle. Sansa stared at her, horror ringing in her ears, feeling Jon Snow studying her.
It was too much. She would have given anything to make Jon Snow leave in that moment. It was bad enough that everyone else knew she had carried a torch for Waymar—but for Jon to witness this moment, knowing what he did, was unbearable. Robb had reached them now, and she watched his blue eyes take in the scene and come to the realization that his sister had been made a fool of, and watched his face flush beneath his auburn beard.
She clenched her fists. She had to be a lady. Courtesy was her armor.
“W-welcome to Winterfell, Mrs. Royce,” she said, stammering at first but quickly smoothing her voice. “I didn’t realize you had married,” she said to Waymar. He had the decency to look a little uncomfortable, but it passed quickly. Too quickly. “Our home is your home, of course. Come with me, and I’ll see if we can find a room for you, and a place to dry your clothes.”
“Thank you,” Mya said gratefully, swinging down from her horse without Waymar’s help, as gracefully as he had.
“With my father’s horses, Snow,” Waymar reminded Jon.
Over Mya’s slim shoulder, Sansa briefly met Jon’s eyes. His face was impassive, though his gaze spoke volumes.
He was remembering that moment, just as she was.
In one sickening flash, she relived it: Waymar above her, gasping as she clung to him, her legs wrapped around his hips and fingers digging into his shoulders as she tried to fight through the pain, and then the door swinging open—revealing Jon, his grey eyes at first blazing, then icy, as he took in the scene before him.
Even now, the humiliation of that moment was a bitterness on her tongue and an acid in her belly, as though it had happened only moments ago. Jon knew how she had sullied herself, how she had so foolishly given all of herself to Waymar in spite of the many cautionary tales and warning songs she had been taught. And now he also knew how it had been a waste; she had been taken and discarded, like a half-eaten peach, left to rot in the grass, only half-touched yet no longer worth eating.
Now his gaze was blazing again. She felt naked and flushed again.
“I’m sorry my father couldn’t greet you himself,” Sansa said, briskly turning away from him to lead Waymar and Mya into the Great Keep, with Mrs. Mordane puttering after them, leaving Jon and Robb with the two horses. “As you can see, he’s been rather busy,” she added, gesturing to the yard behind them packed with clanspeople before pushing the door open.
“Aye, being a Laird seems like easy work,” Waymar jested easily, making Mya laugh. Sansa forced herself to smile.
She would not give him the satisfaction of showing how wounded, how shamed, she truly was.
She would not.
“Was that Royce’s brat?”
Jory Cassel approached him now, with Robb looking furious beside him.
“Aye, it was. With his new wife,” Jon told them, watching Robb’s face grow blotchy with anger as the three of them stared after Royce. He was following Sansa inside, and Jon was free to watch Sansa’s coppery hair disappear through the doorway. He was careful to never be caught looking at Sansa without a good excuse, and he took his opportunities where he could, like a dog hunting for scraps.
Pathetic, he told himself disgustedly, and he tore his gaze from where Sansa had been. “He told me to put these with his father’s mounts, but there’s no room left in the stables,” Jon added. The two black horses were the finest warhorses that Jon had ever seen—he was not even sure there were stalls big enough in the stables for them.
“I don’t think Royce’s forgiven you for beating him last year, Snow,” Jory remarked with a laugh. “Didn’t look too friendly to you, ye ken.”
“How dare he bring his wife?” Robb fumed, still scowling. “It’s an insult to my sister—to my family. To the Stark clan.”
Laird Stark was approaching now, and by the look in his eyes, Jon knew he had seen and understood what had happened.
“Impressive horses,” Ned observed, flicking his gaze over the two enormous mounts. “Well-suited to the Royce boy,” he added, almost slyly.
Jon tried not to smile.
“The stables are already overcrowded,” he told Ned, before Robb could speak further of Waymar Royce. Too many were listening in; too many would have too much to say about how Sansa had been jilted. “I don’t have anywhere to put them.”
“They need to be stabled,” Ned said evenly. “Even if it means taking other horses out.”
“We ought to let them run free,” Robb said disgustedly, but Ned ignored him.
“Stable them with his father’s, Snow, and then get yourself cleaned up for the feast.”
Ned led Robb away, to the Great Keep, and Jory helped Jon take the horses around to the stables.
“I know Stark’s angry, but I reckon it’s for the best,” Jory remarked as they reached the shelter of the stables. The air was warm and sweet with the scent of hay and thick with the odor of manure. Around them, the horses whickered and shifted in their stalls. “Sansa deserves a better man than that, and she’s too young a lass to see beyond the pretty face, and too much like her father to learn fast. Laird Stark wasn’t always shrewd—once upon a time he was just as sweet as Sansa, ye ken. She doesn’t see the faults in Royce yet… And she doesn’t know the ways of men yet,” he continued with a roguish chuckle. “Royce has a reputation, ye ken, that she’s too young to know of. Wife or no, he’s a man who likes to win.”
“Aye,” Jon agreed quietly, leading Royce’s horse to the end of the stable. Sansa knew rather more of Royce’s reputation than Jory realized, and had learned it in a painful way—an unfair way. There was something of what Royce had done that had seemed conniving, coercive. Jon had not walked in on a foolish romp in the hay that night but, rather, a theft of something.
Theft had always sickened him.
They switched out one of Karstark’s horses for the fine black warhorse. It dwarfed the stall, looking as proud and haughty as its owner. Jon locked the stall, thinking of how Royce had so clearly basked in Sansa’s thinly-veiled distress, and felt his face grow hot. “I hope he challenges me again,” he suddenly blurted out, and he heard Jory snigger.
“Oh, will ye duel him again? Give him another taste of your quick blade? He’s a little shit, but he’s no fool, Snow. He’ll know better than to fight you again.” Jory clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s kind of ye, lad, but Sansa will forget about him quick enough. There’ll be more lads after him; she’s a bonnie lass, of course. Nothing wounded but her pride.”
Jon thought of one year earlier, and how Sansa’s eyes had been set aglow with romance as Waymar had flattered and wooed her for days. He thought of that burning moment in the stables one year ago, when he had found them—Royce’s face ruddy with exertion and Sansa’s twisted with the pain of losing her maidenhead—and thought of how she still shrank from him in shame.
And he had watched Royce, and his fine features and smooth laugh and sly words, knowing in his heart that Royce was false, because he knew something of what it looked like to long for Sansa Stark, and Royce did not look like a man longing for Sansa Stark.
But he had told himself that it did not matter, that Royce would merely leave and not make good on any of his implied promises, and Sansa would be heartbroken for a time—and then invariably another man would come along, a man who loved her and was worthy of her, and he would watch in agony, and tell himself that that too did not matter, that for Sansa to not marry another man did not mean she would ever marry him.
For Royce, it had been a conquest, he knew; a testament to his own self-admiration. He had likely been pleased with his flirting prowess, had likely seen it as yet more proof of how handsome and charismatic he found himself. For Sansa, however, it had been a humiliation; a testament to the plight of her own innocent romanticism, that part of her that Jon had loved from the start.
He had watched her utterly unravel in the moment their eyes had met over Royce’s shoulder, and for days afterward, had watched her curl in on herself, had watched her feelings change from embarrassment to the realization that she had given him everything for nothing, and then to abject horror and a deep, powerful shame. She had not met his eyes in a year, not until that moment earlier today in the yard, and it had shaken him so much that he had had to turn away.
So many times he had imagined going to her, telling her that she had nothing to be ashamed of, telling her that Royce’s deception had been cruel but believed by so many, not just by her; telling her that she did not deserve to waste her time feeling humiliated. He had imagined telling her that her worth was not determined by whether this self-absorbed fool would marry her but by the way her eyes filled with tears at the beauty of the first snowfall, or the way she seemed to feel others’ pain as if it were her own, or the way she remembered, as he had seen at every gathering before, each and every person’s name along with their hopes and dreams and disappointments, or the way she remembered every faerie tale and could captivate a room with the way she told them.
But he had never been able to do it. Besides, he told himself, it would not have mattered, coming from him. They were not close. He was only here by the generosity and protection of her father, and her father had risked much to keep him hidden here. She resented him, likely. He would not blame her if she did.
He thought of how he had seen her pacing the halls of Winterfell for days, tied into knots of fear, or bent over her sewing late into the night, and how she had looked just now, confronted with Royce’s new wife. “Forget about it, lad,” Jory urged him, and with a grin he looked Jon over, nodding to the mud on his boots and knees, and to his hair, which was surely wild from the rain. “Ye have your work cut out for ye if you’re to go to this feast tonight. Finish your work quick.”
It was late afternoon, now, and she ought to have been helping with last-minute preparations, but instead she snatched a cloak from her room and slipped out into the rain to hide in the kitchen garden behind the stables. She just needed a moment alone, she told herself. She needed a moment to arm herself for the evening to come.
All afternoon she had felt everyone’s eyes on her, their gazes sympathetic, pitying. She’s been holding out for the Royce lad. She loved him, ye ken, she had heard a woman whisper to another in the kitchens, not knowing she was near. Aye, and now he’s gone and married another. Poor lass.
And then, later: but the lad always had a way with the lasses, ye ken. She’s not the first to have her heart broken by him. Swept her off her feet, he did. Aye, and she’s always had her head in the clouds, that one.
Poor lass. Poor, foolish lass.
She stood there, hearing the words over and over again. The rain would soak through her cloak and ruin her hair and her dress, but what did it matter?
If only they knew just how much of a poor, foolish lass she truly was.
For weeks after Jon had caught her, she had waited for him to tell someone—anyone—of her indiscretion. Most would not have been able to resist the chance for such gossip. For weeks she had been tied into knots, filled with dread, waiting for the moment that her father called her into his rooms and looked upon her with disappointment.
But it had never happened.
As far as she could tell, Jon Snow had never breathed a word of it to anyone.
Perhaps he hadn’t told anyone because she was one of the few people who knew who he really was, and if he ruined her, then she could ruin him.
She had considered, so many times, confronting him about the incident and assuring him that his secret was safe with her—and therefore her secret ought to be safe with him—but she had never been able to do it, and anyway, nothing had come of it. Jon Snow was the only person who knew what she had done, who knew that perfect, prim, proper Sansa Stark—daughter of Laird Stark—had rutted in the hay with a man, and that man had not even married her. And any attempt on her part in the future to be chaste, to be proper, to seek a husband, would look foolish in his eyes.
It would be like locking the stable door after a horse has already been set loose.
A waste. A foolish, desperate waste.
Now he had witnessed this second humiliation. He had watched her learn that her hopes—so visible, in every stitch of the dress she had poured her heart and soul into—had been so thoroughly dashed and so completely misplaced. She had been praying that in the chaos and drama and seductive celebration of the gathering she might draw Waymar in once more, and that she might marry this man whom she had admired from afar for so many years.
The worst part was that she could not seem to stop thinking of how brief Waymar's discomfort had been.
He did not regret spurning her. If anything, he enjoyed it.
This was the man she had admired. This was the man she had given herself to.
Stones crunching wetly drew her from her horror, and Sansa looked up, pushing the hood of the cloak back from her face, the better to see. Jon Snow had walked round from the front of the stables, carrying two large pails. He froze in his tracks and they regarded each other across the little garden.
Of course it was Jon Snow. Of course.
Poor, foolish lass.
“You’ll ruin your dress,” he said at last, looking up demonstratively to the rain. Sansa looked away, her face burning.
“It’s ruined already,” she said, looking down at the sodden tartan, the silk brocade panel now stained with water. Ruined before she’d even made it to the feast. The gown was growing heavy as the rain soaked through her cloak. She felt her jaw tremble. Of course she would start to cry now—a third humiliation for him to witness.
She tried to swallow her tears, tried to swallow over the lump forming in her throat.
Poor, foolish lass, with the ruined dreams and ruined dress.
She crossed her arms over her chest, still turned away from Jon. “A-are you coming to the feast tonight?” Her voice was shaking; she could not seem to smooth it over as she had so deftly done earlier.
He always sat far from the rest of them at feasts and gatherings, with the other unmarried men, never dancing, never singing, and rarely drinking. He would leave early, too, slipping out from the chaos and joy like a ghost. She had always noticed it, had always tried not to notice it. She had always tried not to notice him, tried not to notice how soft his voice was and how gentle his hands were as he brushed the horses, speaking softly to them, or as he knelt before the stray dogs that lingered about Winterfell, scratching them behind the ear.
“You’ll have to change,” she remarked needlessly, looking back at him and forcing a small smile. He studied her for a moment, and then looked away, pressing his lovely lips together.
“Aye, I will.” He cleared his throat and shifted beneath the weight of the pails. He looked like he wanted to say something, and for a moment her belly clenched in fear.
Would he speak of Waymar? He was gazing at her, his eyes soft. Her fingers twitched; she thought of pushing his wet hair out of his eyes, and fiercely discarded the strange thought. “Get inside,” he said at last, his voice so soft that it was nearly lost to the rain. “It’s not ruined yet,” he added, nodding to her gown. “Still has time to dry.”
She watched him bite his smooth lip, briefly. “You worked hard on it, and it’s—it’s a fine dress,” he added suddenly, to her utter bafflement. She watched him swallow, his Adam’s apple just barely visible over the collar of his coat.
And then, abruptly, he picked up the pails again and walked swiftly around the garden, disappearing beyond the low wall dividing the kitchen garden. Sansa stood there, staring after him in the rain, and realized she was crying. She blinked, the tears mixing with the rain, and looked down at her dress.
There was still time for it to dry. He was right.
“Oh, he’s a bonnie lad,” Jory Cassel said loudly with a laugh when Jon emerged from the room he shared with him and a few other men, his beard freshly trimmed and his hair somewhat dry, clad in a dark coat and the Stark tartan. Jory slung an arm around Jon’s shoulders, leading him to the Great Hall.
Even so far from the Hall, the air seemed to throb and shiver with all of the noise. As they walked, two little boys darted through the hall, smacking into their legs, but before either could catch them, they’d disappeared. They passed by a darkened alcove, from which came the unmistakable grunt of a man finding his release and a woman’s soft gasp, and Jory sniggered and elbowed Jon. “Never a luckier night than the gathering,” he mused under his breath as they passed. “So, my bonnie lad, who’ll be the lucky lass tonight?”
"There won't be," Jon insisted. Jory sighed.
"Ah, you break so many lasses' hearts, lad."
They reached the entrance to the Great Hall. It was packed; the room was never more brightly lit than it was now, with candles everywhere, and a roaring fire in the enormous hearth. Everything was a blur of shades of grey: the Stark tartan was everywhere, dotted with a few other tartans. He picked out the Royce, Mormont, and Karstark tartans immediately, and then spotted the green of the Tyrell tartan. Mace and Loras were up and about, but Willas, crippled and shy, was seated in the corner, observing everyone with an air of pleasant melancholy.
At the center of the tables was the place for Laird Stark and his wife to sit, but of course, Ned was not sitting down. He was moving through the room, taking the time to greet every guest, with Catelyn at his side, her copper hair streaked with grey gleaming in the candlelight. The room was full of joy, and everyone’s faces were flushed with whiskey.
As usual, his eyes found Sansa, as though the gods had fashioned his eyes for looking at her. Though she so resembled her mother, it was her father that she truly resembled in spirit: just like Ned, she was moving between each guest, asking this woman about her dress and that man about his sheep, her lovely features a mask. Her dress had dried, it seemed. She paused by Willas and Jon watched the man brighten at the sight of her.
Jon looked away; he had to be careful about how much time he spent looking at Sansa. Even if he did not feel as though he had had long enough, he knew that there could not be an amount of time that would feel like enough. He would always be starving for her, always dying of thirst for her, no matter how much time he spent looking at her.
Waymar Royce and his new wife were not far; Waymar had changed into fresh tartan and was glancing at his wife, handsome lips twitching with a disdainful smirk, as Rickard Karstark boomed on. As usual, Waymar was subtly establishing himself superior, though luckily Karstark was rather too blunt to see it.
And all eyes were on Sansa; too many wives were whispering, looking away hastily when she passed.
They found their place at a table towards the corner of the hall, where the other unmarried or widowed men were already deep in their cups. Jon tried to focus on the conversations at hand, but Sansa, making her way about the room, was approaching their end. In the firelight she was radiant, but he could tell it was a façade; each time she turned from someone, he would watch her face fall, so quickly, only made worse by the way everyone who remembered Royce’s last visit to Winterfell was clearly waiting to see her reaction, clearly looking for a chance to gossip. He would watch her square her shoulders and hold her chin high even as she blushed, fighting against the urge to wilt or be shamed each time she caught people looking at her. He could have killed them all.
“Not wise to spend too much time looking at Sansa Stark, lad.” Mikken was on his other side, bent over his ale. No one else had heard him. If he had been younger he might have argued, but he knew he had been caught. He was old enough to know that Mikken was being kind, even if it rankled. “You’re not usually so careless.”
“Aye,” he admitted softly. She was blushing again; the Greatjon had paid her a compliment, it seemed, likely on her dress. Her dress showed off more of her skin than he was used to seeing, and it was doing his head in. She looked down at her dress shyly, her hair spilling over her shoulder and catching the light. She looked up again, smiling at the Greatjon, and she said something that made him roar with laughter. Jon felt Mikken’s eyes on him.
“Laird Stark’s no fool, lad,” he warned. “He knows that ye look, that ye want.”
His skin prickled with shame, but he was not ready to look away yet. Not just yet. She was talking to a little girl now, bending forward and smiling at the little girl, and then gasping in delight at the doll that the girl showed her. She felt she was tainted—he knew it, he could read her as well as he could read any book; after all, he had spent his life practicing—and yet nothing so perfect and lovely as her could ever be tainted. There was nothing she could do to ruin herself.
He watched her straighten, watched her flush as she passed a group of women who had been looking at her and gossiping, watched her neck turn pink. A group of young men were eying her, too, with interest. All of them prudent choices for her, Stark clansmen who were in better standing than he was. He had no right to despise them.
He started to turn away, but saw a flash of copper and Stark tartan, and realized she had fled the hall.
“Forgive me,” he muttered to Mikken, and got up and went after her.
The rain had let up and thick mist hung over the gardens, drenching her as though it had been raining anyway. But it felt good on her burning skin, as Sansa came to a halt, gasping.
There was a raw, burning feeling in the pit of her stomach. She straightened, shivering, thinking she ought to have brought a cloak and deciding that it did not matter, and found herself walking towards the stables. Her head was spinning, her throat burning, her hands trembling.
She could have handled the stares, the whispers, the sly looks. She could have handled any of it. She was a Stark, and it would take more than petty gossip to bring her to this point.
But then she had spoken with Waymar, had watched him look so snidely at Laird Karstark, had felt him revel in his pity for her.
How did I not see it, she wondered, letting herself into the stables. How did I not see how foul and selfish and rude he really is? How did I ever find him gallant, how did I ever imagine him kind?
Waymar’s fine black horse was at the end. It was larger and more finely kept than any of the other horses there. The stables were full tonight but she had been able to pick out his horse at once. With my father’s horse, Snow. It turned her stomach. He had been so condescending, so snide, so self-important, and she had been foolish enough to fall for him.
Oh, poor Sansa, he probably thought to himself, pretending to feel sorry for her but secretly delighting in it. Perhaps he had even told Mya about her feelings for him; perhaps he had even told Mya about how he had lay with her, taking her maidenhood like the Northern fool she was.
Poor, foolish lass.
The horse was as pretty and overly groomed as Waymar was. It was unsettled, shifting about and whickering. It was a horse bred for war; it did not belong here.
With my father's horse, Snow.
She thought of him pounding into her, uncaring that it hurt; she thought of his pretty lips threatening to curve into a smirk as he looked down at her, his wife by his side, all eyes on her.
Poor, foolish lass.
With my father's horse, Snow. He had treated Jon like dirt merely because Jon was a stablehand, and this was the man she had willingly given herself to. He had bullheadedly challenged Jon to a duel and had been a sore loser, and this was the man she had willingly given herself to.
She had watched him sneer at talk of Jon's prowess like a callow child and then had watched him turn puce as Jon defeated him, and this was the man she had willingly given herself to.
He had misled her for sport, and this was the man she had willingly given herself to.
Poor, foolish lass.
The beautiful black destrier loomed over her. It was a horse fitting for Waymar, she thought. Overblown and silly, embarrassing in its finery. Useless yet proud.
In a fit of rage, she threw open the stall.
She regretted it instantly. Shaking and weak, she began stumbling desperately after the horse as it exploded into the yard and dashed through the mud. Why had she done it? She'd always been terrible with horses; it would take forever to coax the enormous horse back into the stables. The destrier reared and made its way for the hunter's gate, desperate to break free.
And then she saw it: the hunter's gate had not been locked.
A dark blur streaked through the yard ahead of her, but the horse dashed through the open gate, losing them both to the night.
In the darkness, they both stopped.
It was Jon Snow, panting, who turned to meet her eyes. His hair was wild and the Stark tartan flapped about his knees. He was wearing a finer coat now than he had been earlier. He cut a fine figure; she had overheard some of the younger girls giggling longingly at the sight of him.
“I—I—“ She turned away from him hastily. “I didn’t mean—oh, gods. I’m such a fool.”
He did not speak. He did not move. “It was an accident,” she tried again weakly. She turned back to face him reluctantly. “I don’t know what got into me,” she added miserably.
“What’s happened?” Jory Cassel was walking toward them, looking thunderous. Sansa opened her mouth to speak, but Jon cut her off.
“One of the horses got out,” he said briskly to Jory, turning away and leading him toward the stable. “It's Royce's. We’ve got to go after it.”
Jory cast a look at her of confusion, and Jon cut her off once again. “Thank the gods Sansa noticed,” he added, and her face burned.
He had done her a favor, a favor she did not deserve.
They came out of the stables at high speed, riding together on one horse, and disappeared into the night. Sansa could not bring herself to go back inside, but instead stood there in the darkness, waiting, feeling sick with horror.
She felt like a child. In her anger she had done damage that would mean little for Waymar—and besides, he had not truly done her any real evil; it had been her own foolishness to blame—but would mean struggle for Jon and Jory. He had merely behaved as all men behaved, and she had been foolish enough to think that a man’s touch meant a man’s love.
Nearly an hour later, they returned, with Jon on Waymar’s horse. Both men were soaked thoroughly, with Jory looking deeply hassled, and Jon’s face impassive.
“Sansa, why are ye still out here? And no cloak, too,” Jory called as they came through the gate. “You’ll catch your death."
Sansa could not look at Jon.
“I-I was worried,” she said weakly. Jory snorted.
“Just a matter of catching a horse, lass. But he’s just as his owner—handsome and not quite as swift or clever as he might look. We found him lingering over the hill, trapped by his own reins,” said Jory, dismounting his own horse. “Good thing no one else—oh, shite.”
Sansa turned to see her father and Rodrik Cassel approaching them, silhouetted by the golden light coming from the door into the Great Keep, and her stomach dropped.
“What’s all this, lads?” Rodrik demanded.
"Royce's horse," Jory began cheerfully, as Jon swung down from the horse. "I'll take that, lad," he added to Jon, taking the reins from him.
"But what's happened?" Rodrik pressed.
Her father’s features were carefully arranged, giving nothing away, but his eyes lingered on her soaked dress, then on Jon. A lump formed in her throat, and she opened her mouth to speak, yet again, to admit to what she had done—Jon could not take the blame for this—but her father spoke before anyone else could.
“Let them get inside and dry off, Cassel,” her father said loudly. “Snow looks like he drowned,” he added in a lighter voice. Sansa turned back to Jon, sick with guilt, and watched him offer that seldom-given half-smile he had, pushing at his wild, soaked hair. He walked past her, carefully not looking at her, and she felt her father’s eyes on her once again, before he turned away. Rodrick and her father went inside first.
She and Jon were the last ones, and they walked more slowly, falling into agonizing silence as they walked beside each other, the air pregnant with all of the many things she wanted to find the courage to say. Mainly: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Inside, her father and Rodrik had already disappeared, and it was Waymar standing there, silhouetted by the golden light coming from the great hall. His cheeks were slightly flushed; he was a bit drunk, she could see it even from afar. They paused to stand before him in the darkness.
“What’s this of my horse?” he asked loudly.
She had to do it. She could not let Jon take the fall for this.
But to admit to what she had done…it would be more humiliation. It would mean admitting to being a foolish, scorned lass. It would give Waymar the satisfaction of knowing just how much he had burned her.
But to not admit would be more foolish, more childish.
Jon was not looking at her. She saw water dripping off his chin, running along his jaw, the water turned golden by the light streaming from indoors.
She had to do it.
“It was—“ she began, but once more, Jon cut her off.
“I left the stall open and your horse got out,” he said plainly.
“I should have known better than to trust a bastard with my horse,” he remarked softly, and Sansa drew in a sharp breath that made both men look at her in surprise.
Jon was no bastard—he was the son of Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen and, therefore, to Targaryen loyalists, heir to the throne and king of the seven kingdoms. But to keep him safe, her father had lied to the world, naming him his sister’s bastard.
The irony almost made her laugh as she stared at Waymar. You attempt to insult his parentage, Sansa thought, staring at him, despising him, yet you’re sneering at a man who, by every right, should be king.
How had she ever fallen for this fool?
“Aye, you should have,” Jon agreed quietly, but he was staring at Waymar with so much profound dislike that it could not be misunderstood. Even Waymar seemed surprised by it.
“Jon is a Stark,” Sansa said now, shaking with anger. Jon looked sharply at her, and she avoided his eyes. “We trust him completely. And it wasn’t his fault, it was—“
“Don’t defend him, Sansa. I know why he did it. It’s always hard,” Waymar said suddenly, stepping into the darkness with them, “to see another man in possession of something you want.”
The heavy door banged shut; the golden light had been put out. “It’s hard to be kind to a man who has something you want,” Waymar continued, hand on his belt where his sword was. “Sorry, who’s had,” he corrected, and just as Sansa realized his meaning, Jon let out a snarl of fury and lunged for Waymar.
The two men fell to the ground, spattering mud everywhere as Sansa reeled in horror.
He was talking about her.
After all, he had had her.
“Stop it,” she yelled. “Stop it!”
Jon landed the first punch.
“How dare you,” he growled, as Waymar writhed beneath him. Waymar gained the upper hand, knocking Jon onto his side and then pinning him in place, landing a hit that made a sickening, meaty sound. Her blood was pounding in her head as she panicked, and she blindly grabbed a stick from one of the burned-out bonfires, slippery with ash and rainwater, and swung it at Waymar’s back, feeling ridiculous—though it worked.
She knocked him off of Jon, and cast the stick aside. The door swung open again, casting them all in golden light once more. It was her father. Waymar was groaning in pain, and Jon was getting to his feet. In the low light she could see dark wet coming from his lip. His breath clouded in the air before him as he attempted to catch his breath, looking at Waymar murderously.
“What’s this?” Father asked with chilling fury, stepping into the mud and rain. No one answered him. “Have ye been brawling?” His words were directed at Jon, but Jon did not answer.
For a long, torturous moment, no one spoke.
She had to do it.
Poor, foolish lass.
“I let your horse out,” she admitted to Waymar. The men were staring at her in shock. “And the next time you call Jon a bastard, I’ll do worse,” she added in a shaking voice. She turned away in furious disgust, and turned back to Jon. “Come, I’ll clean off your lip,” she told him, and she pushed past Father.
She walked down below the castle, to where the old man Luwin, the clan’s healer, practiced—though his sleeping quarters were on the top floor, near Father’s study. His healing quarters were dark, but the last of a fire remained in the hearth. She stood there, struggling to catch her breath.
She had never done anything like that before.
After a moment, she heard tentative footsteps on the stone steps leading down to Luwin’s quarters. Jon was there, his tartan smeared with mud and dark red dripping down his chin. He was looking at her like she had informed him she was the queen of the faeries and had bewitched the whole clan, and now approached her warily, until he stood before her, turned half-golden by the firelight, muscles tensed as though approaching a wild animal. Their eyes met, and she realized suddenly that she was shaking violently, and that her dress was soaked through, and muddy, too.
Now it was ruined for certain.
“Sit down,” she told him, turning away, but he caught her wrist, and there was a violent rush of warmth through her. He had never touched her before.
“You need to change and get warm—“
“Sit down,” she interrupted, snatching her wrist out of his grip. Her skin bloomed with heat where he had touched her. She heard a scoff, and then the scrape of the chair against stone as he sat down heavily while she rummaged through cupboards and chests until she found clean cotton.
She heard him shivering slightly, heard him trying to stifle it. “Take off your coat and shirt,” she added, more gently, still facing away from him. Her hands shook as she unfolded the strip of cotton, listening for whether he would obey her. She heard cloth rustling, then dropping wetly onto the stone.
When she turned around at last, he was bare from the waist up, and staring at the fire, avoiding her eyes. His chest was lean and hard, slender but strong—the way she had always thought men ought to look, and her face flamed for thinking it. “You shouldn’t have hit him,” she said, walking to him with the cotton in hand.
There was a basin of water by the fire, and she soaked the strip of fabric in it. “But I suppose I shouldn’t have done a few things, myself,” she admitted.
She might as well acknowledge it, she decided. She turned back to him, holding the dripping fabric, and watched a muscle leap in his jaw, beneath his short beard. He was looking down at the ground, and she drew another stool close and sat down beside him.
“I don’t judge you,” he said quietly. She pressed the cotton against his lip, feeling his short beard coarse against her wrist. “You did nothing wrong.” She felt his jaw moving beneath her hand as she held the cotton to his lip. His skin was warm. Water from his hair dripped down her arm, making gooseflesh ripple along her skin.
“But I did,” she countered sadly. “I was a fool. I thought he loved me.” Her voice hitched with the threat of tears so she cleared her throat and dabbed the cotton against his mouth. “I thought it would be …more romantic,” she admitted suddenly.
She had not confessed to this before. There hadn't been anyone to tell.
But it was too late to take the confession back; Jon looked at her, suddenly, and she realized just how close they were. His eyes were gentle. She could have kissed him, for how close they were. “But it was just painful, and lonely,” she added, her voice thick. “Is it always like that?”
She needed to know. It was inappropriate to ask, it was unladylike to ask; it was not behavior befitting Sansa Stark, daughter of Laird Stark. But she had left that behind a year ago, when she had giddily, drunkenly followed a foolish, immature man to the stables and let him have her. Jon didn’t look away this time.
“I don’t know,” he admitted softly.
“You’ve never?” she breathed, pulling the cotton away. He looked down, briefly, at the bloodied fabric in her shaking fist.
“Never.” His pretty lips twitched, and a new line of blood formed. “It's too great a risk. Laird Stark’s got enough Targaryens to hide,” he added wryly, though there was pain that hardened his voice, turned it into a blade that deftly cut her. “Thank you,” he said suddenly, looking up again. “For saying I’m a Stark.”
“You are a Stark—you wear the tartan,” she reminded him. “And I should be thanking you,” she added, ashamed, and now it was her turn to look down. “For keeping my secret. And for tonight. I don’t know what got into me. I just… I was so angry. At myself, really—for giving him so much. Not just last year in the stable, but since then, too. He’s…he’s horrible. How was I so blind to it?” she despaired. “I really believed he was a good man.”
“Because you’re kind,” Jon said softly. “Because you see the best in everyone…to a fault,” he added.
His words made her eyes burn, and the bloodied cloth turned silver before her as tears filled her eyes. She blinked until they subsided, and looked up to meet his eyes again. His gaze was warm, so warm she forgot how her sodden dress chilled her.
It’s always hard to see another man in possession of something you want, Waymar had said.
He wanted her.
She had the sudden thought of laying with Jon in the darkness of the stables, and heat bloomed on her cheeks and neck. It would not, she thought dizzily, gazing into his eyes, be painful and lonely with him. She was hungry for him, aching for him. She had been so for years. Perhaps that was how Waymar had bewitched her, with the slender lines of his body and the soft grey of his eyes and the darkness of his hair. She had wanted another slender, graceful man, a man with soft grey eyes and dark hair, a man she could not have.
They were so close, close enough for her to learn the scent of his skin, to see the fine white scar over his brow and another one on his jaw.
“I want you to kiss me,” she confessed.
“I can’t,” he whispered, yet he was leaning closer anyway.
She closed her eyes as his lips brushed against hers in the softest kiss. “I can’t,” he said again, his voice desperate, but he kissed her again anyway, his lips lingering against hers, his forehead brushing hers, the wet curls tickling her skin.
She tasted copper and salt. “Sansa,” he breathed and in a rush kissed her more deeply, fisting his hand in her hair and holding her close. The room was airless. Then his lips were on her cheek, a kiss more tender than any touch that had ever ghosted over her skin, and then on her jaw, making her tremble but not with chills. She did not feel lonely at all in this moment. Her hands were on his shoulders, relishing the smooth skin over the hard muscle, and the way the muscle shifted and tensed beneath her touch.
He paused, lips still on her neck, and she felt his grip in her hair tighten, briefly, as he exhaled raggedly against her skin. “I can’t.”
“Why not?” she gasped, fingers tangling in his hair as he kissed her neck again, then her collarbone, then her shoulder.
“I have no right,” he murmured against her skin.
He released her and pulled away, running an unsteady hand through his hair as he tried to calm himself. Her skin tingled in each place that he had kissed her and she sat there, reeling, trying to catch her breath, but then he turned back to her suddenly and kissed her again, gripping her shoulders and pulling her against him. She wrapped her arms around his neck, delighting in the smooth warmth of his bare skin, clinging to him as his tongue slid against her lips until they parted for him.
They broke apart roughly, gasping. “I can’t.”
He got to his feet and stalked away from her. “You aren’t mine,” he said. “I’m no thief.”
“Thief?” Sansa breathed, rising and following him into shadow. “Is it because of Waymar—”
“No.” He would not look at her; she saw the muscles of his back coil and tense, and she longed to touch him but she held herself back. “I told you,” he said more patiently, “I’ve no right to you.”
Sansa hugged herself. “You’re meant to have a house of your own, and a husband who can give you the life your father wants for you.”
“A husband like Waymar Royce?” she countered with a sad laugh, and at last he looked back at her.
“Aye, like Royce,” he said softly.
“You’d wish a man like him for me?”
“No, but it’s no matter what I’d wish.”
“What of what I wish? What if I wish for you?"
"You might wish it now, in this moment, but it won't bring you happiness," Jon said sadly. "It's a road that leads nowhere but the bottom of a lake."
And he turned from her, and knelt down to pick up his shirt and coat again, the golden firelight illuminating the hard planes of his shoulders and back as he moved. When he straightened, their eyes met once more, and she watched his gaze soften before he shut his eyes and turned away. "I can't," he said once more, perhaps to himself, and then he left her there in the cellar, standing alone in the darkness.
The gathering was still in full swing when Jon returned to the shadowed halls, and he could hear the chuckle of fiddles and the peals of laughter from afar. In the darkness, he put his shirt and coat back on with numb, clumsy fingers, his hands cold and his head hot, unbearably hot. His skin was on fire, his blood pounding her name in his ears.
He was too ashamed to venture into the light, yet he could not stay here. He did not trust himself to turn away again, to resist the temptation. It would be so easy to fall, to fool himself into thinking there could be any way. He could not let himself slip into that dream.
He didn't return to the feast; instead, he hid in the stables. And because he hid in the stables, he did not have to see her return to the feast.
He would later hear of it, how she came back in a different dress, to so many whispers; he would later hear of how she'd sat with Willas Tyrell all night, their heads bowed together as they talked of books, of songs, of all the stars whose names Willas knew. He would later hear of how her clear blue eyes had twinkled, how even Willas Tyrell had been turned handsome by the radiant light that she cast everywhere she went. He would later hear whispers of a romance as delicate and tentative and lovely as a spotted fawn in a dappled forest. He would later hear that Waymar Royce had left in humiliation. He would later hear of how this was the night that Willas and Sansa's great love began.
And when he saw Sansa next, their eyes did not meet, and they did not speak.
And thus the years passed.
Chapter 2: Mummer's Farce
It was Sansa’s wedding day today.
He had had two years, since the breathless moment he had kissed her, to prepare himself for this day.
And yet in these past few weeks he had been waiting with bated breath for some catastrophe, something that would ruin the possibility of a wedding, all the while knowing that his days with Sansa were numbered. There would be a wedding; the time had come at last.
For weeks he had switched between a leaden dread—Sansa is getting married, he would tell himself, and feel his limbs turn to lead—and a restlessness, a need for it to just happen already. Some mornings, in the last few weeks, he lay in his bed of hay and stared at the eaves above him and the doves that roosted there in secret, and could not bring himself to move until Jory Cassel came and willed it so; others, he had never gone to sleep at all, and was instead already at the horses when Jory strolled in, working fiercely.
Let it end, he begged the old gods, each time he passed through the godswood.
Sometimes he could detach himself. He would consider that he and Sansa had hardly spoken, had not looked at each other openly, in two years. He would consider how much of a fool he was. He would let other things—work; exploring the wild country with Jory; politics—consume him, all the while marveling at how much power he allowed Sansa over him. He would laugh at himself, at his folly.
And then he'd see her again.
Their eyes would meet across the Great Hall during one of the summer feasts, hers set aglow with happiness as she charmed and bewitched everyone around her, and then the regret would come screeching back in full color. Those blue eyes would meet his, in a breathless moment, and his skin would prickle with heat, and she would bite her lip—I know her lips, he would think, unbidden—and look away, her thick auburn hair, which gleamed in the candlelight, swinging heavily with the movement. He would think, I just need a little more time.
More time for what? More time to not look at her, to not speak to her, to not think about her?
Let it end.
At last the wedding day had arrived, and Winterfell was swarming with guests, clansmen of both Stark and Tyrell, and the grey tartan intermingled with the green tartan. Jon watched every second pass like he was watching an open wound, waiting for it to finally clot.
It’s almost over, he told himself. He had almost made it—yet on the other side of this was a drop into nothingness. He did not know what life would be like without Sansa, without those breathless moments where their eyes would meet, where their arms would brush in the halls, where they'd pass each other in the kitchen garden and nod, both holding their breath as they passed in a rush. It would be a normal life, he supposed. It would be an empty, painless life.
And then Laird Stark changed all of that, and in one swift motion destroyed and rebuilt his hopes with one request.
Jon was in the stables, mucking out the stalls, alone, keeping busy until the ceremony in the Sept. Ned Stark's silhouette darkened the doorway. Jon paused in his work, sweating and out of breath, and greeted him, self-consciously raking a hand through his hair, all too aware that he was shirtless and probably smelled like manure.
He would always stop for Ned Stark, the man who had given him a life. He would have been killed while still a babe in his cradle if not for this man. He owed him everything.
Ned was smiling as he looked around the stable. He was clad in his finest coat and the Stark tartan, crisp and clean. He was not a man for ceremony or finery, yet even he had outdone himself today. Jon's own tartan and fine coat were hanging above his bed round the corner, waiting for Jon to bathe.
"You hardly look ready for a wedding," he remarked, his grey eyes, so like Jon's own, flicking over Jon's sweat-soaked torso and wild hair. Jon flushed and looked away, setting his shovel against the wall.
“There’s time. Still a few more hours to go," Jon replied, nodding to the late afternoon sun behind Ned.
"Aye, it's true." Ned stepped inside. “It’s so calm and peaceful here. It's a storm inside," he added. Jon forced a half-smile. “I’ve come to ask you a favor, Snow," Ned said suddenly, fixing his cool gaze on Jon.
"Anything,” Jon said at once, as Ned turned and closed the stable door. They were in darkness now. Ned approached Jon.
"Ye might change your mind when I explain," he said grimly, and he sat down on a bench beside one of the stalls. Jon took a seat beside him, conscious of just how much he was perspiring.
They sat in silence. Jon wondered what Ned could possibly ask of him that he would not be willing to do. "Sansa's lived a safe life," Ned began, and Jon's heart gave its usual little jolt at her name, but he ignored it.
"Aye, she's been well-loved," Jon agreed carefully. He thought of the girl who loved to make flower chains and drape them on scowling Arya and happy Bran and confused Rickon, of the girl who had passed him a book through the bottom of the stable door when they had been children, the first book he’d read. He’d almost forgotten that. Ned gave a fond smile that fell quickly.
"I fear sending her south, alone. I've had some letters this week that trouble me, but it's too late, now, to stop the wedding.”
"Tyrell is a good man," Jon reassured him, but a lump was forming in his throat and his heart was beating fast, too fast.
"Aye, Willas is a good man," Ned conceded. "But he's a soft man—he cannot help it—and he's surrounded by vipers. To be a laird is hard, Jon, and in the beginning, it’s a lonely job. It takes a certain confidence, ye ken, that Willas does not have. He’s no lesser for it—perhaps better, if anything—but he’ll struggle, and with the trouble coming from King’s Landing, he’ll only have it harder. The Lannisters won’t miss that he’s taken a wolf for a wife; they’ll watch him and they’ll pressure him. And should things come to a war…”
The two men sat there. Jon thought of how Winterfell had been his home, how every day for the last fifteen years had been so much the same, and how every day for the next fifteen—and twenty, and thirty, and forty—years would be more of the same. He thought of how Winterfell was all he, like Sansa, had ever known.
He knew what Ned was preparing to ask. Any fool could see it. Sansa, so very northern, was being sent to a clan southron both in location and ambition. She was being sent south to a viper’s nest, accompanied by a man with neither the drive nor the ability to protect her.
"You want someone to go with her," Jon said after a long moment. He heard Ned laugh softly.
"Aye. Someone to watch over her and protect her. But not just that. Someone to know her, to care for her. She'll feel alone, I know her, and the Tyrell clan will be distant at best, the way things are going now. She’ll need a friend.”
Jon could not seem to find his words, and he stared down at his hands, chapped and calloused. "If it's not what ye want, there's no need," Ned added carefully. “We will just watch her more closely; her mother will visit more often. But it’s hard, ye ken, to learn much from visits, from letters—”
“—I’ll do it," Jon said. He felt Ned peering at him, and he fixed his gaze ahead, his heart in his throat. "I told you that I'd do whatever you asked me, and there's no one else better to go with Sansa. Jory can't leave his father; you can't send one of her younger brothers; her friend, Jeyne, is marrying soon. It’s got to be me.”
“Are ye certain?”
Jon finally met Ned’s eyes, and had to look away quickly. Ned saw more than he let on. He knows, he thought, but he could not pinpoint what Ned knew, exactly.
Laird Stark’s no fool, lad, Mikken had said, two years ago, the night that he had kissed Sansa for the first and last time. He knows that ye look, that ye want.
He owed him this. He did not want to go—he did not want to live with Sansa and her husband, watch her bear him children, watch her love him and be loved by him—but he owed Ned Stark whatever the man asked of him.
It’s always hard to see another man in possession of something you want, Royce had said, two years ago.
It was hard.
But he owed Ned Stark. He fisted his hands on his legs, and cast a look around the stables.
“Aye, I’m certain.”
Laird Tyrell, her new husband, was standing before her, aided by a finely-carved cane. In the red-patterned light of the Sept, his handsome brown eyes looked almost amber. He reminded her of a fawn, gentle and knobby and shy, his brown hair as soft as a fawn’s fur. He smiled at her, nervously and tensely, whenever their eyes met. He smiled reflexively, compulsively, like he was always on the verge of apologizing for something.
Their hands were joined, his soft and slightly clammy in hers. All eyes were on them. The cane didn’t matter, she thought in a burst of emotion. He was kind, and gentle, and they’d spend the rest of their lives talking about books. He did not make her heart race; he did not make her see glimmering magic tucked behind every leaf and every rock; he did not make her want to laugh and dance. But he was good, and kind, and gentle, and he cared for her. And after Waymar—and all that had, or had not, happened after Waymar—this was so much more than she had dared to hope for.
She squeezed Willas’ hand gently, and saw him offer that same shy, reflexive smile. She focused on his eyes, focused on her new husband before her as the Septon droned on, because if she looked elsewhere she might cry.
She knew precisely where Jon was standing. He was near her brothers and sister and parents—a rarity, due to his status as a bastard—and that meant he was close. She’d seen him when she had walked up the aisle of the Sept, had felt his gaze upon her. His gaze inflamed her, made her foolish and clumsy and too-warm. She would never be able to forget the feeling of his lips ghosting along her neck, made all the sweeter and more torturous when she thought of how he had turned away from her so soon after that. He had turned away from her not out of rejection but out of love for her father, out of a sense of honor, and it had made it so much harder.
The ceremony ended in a blur. Sansa wanted an unwatched, private moment to look at Jon one last time, for tomorrow she would be leaving Winterfell and going to Highgarden. This was her last chance to drink him in. She sneaked her glances where she could, but she had had few chances.
Later, at the wedding feast, it was so loud and busy that she kept losing track of him, and her panic began to rise like seawater. She just needed a little more time. Just a little more time to see him. Over the years, every glance, every accidental brush of their hands, had been rising, blooming hope, and now that garden would be tilled over. She needed to look at it one last time.
“You’re a slim lass now, but wait until Willas sprogs you up,” Willas’ grandmother told her with a sharp crackle of laughter before taking a long drink of her wine—her southron wine—and everyone around them was laughing but Willas was not. He was looking down at his plate, his neck flushed. He was being humiliated.
“Did you grow fat, when you had your first, or was it before that?” Sansa asked in her most warm, pleasant voice, and she watched a gleam flash in Olenna Tyrell’s eyes. Leave him alone, Sansa thought hotly, and she glanced at Willas. Her husband. He gave her a small, grateful smile, amid all of the chaos, and she smiled back.
She looked away from Willas and at once her gaze found Jon Snow, across the hall, seated with Jory and Mikken. Arya was lingering, being teased by Jory and Mikken who were both deep in their cups. Jon’s lips were twitching like he was trying not to laugh, but she watched him pause and then look at her, like he had sensed her gaze.
Tonight would be her wedding night with Willas. She did not know what to expect. She had been trying, ever since he had asked her to marry him, not to picture a wedding night with Jon. It came to her yet again, unbidden: his lips on her neck, brushing along her skin so tenderly, his hands—gentle and strong, the hands that held reins so securely and that built fences and raised barns and wielded blades and beat Waymar—whispering along her skin… His gaze was blazing, tying them together even from across the hall. It was impossible to breathe when he was looking at her like that; it was impossible to imagine another man ever touching her when he was looking at her like that.
“Who is that?” Willas’ voice was soft, yet Sansa startled as though she’d been slapped. She tore her gaze from Jon.
“Wh-who?” Her heart was racing. Willas would not meet her eyes.
“The man over there, who’s been staring at you.” He paused, licked his lips. “The one you’ve been staring at.”
She made a show of looking around.
“Oh, do you mean Jon?” she blustered. “The one with the dark hair?”
“Aye, that one, the one that looks so sour. I’ve always seen him but …we’ve never been introduced. He is Lyanna Stark’s bastard?”
His voice was polite.
“Aye, he is.”
She would not say bastard.
She looked, one last time. This is the last time, she told herself, as she drank in his smooth lips and gentle eyes, drank in the way he looked at her, drank in everything about him. Now look away. She could not do it yet. She thought of how she had watched him, hidden in the garden, as he had taught Bran how to properly clean a rifle, the hint of a smile on his lips as he gazed at Bran with love. She thought of how he looked when he led the horses around the yard for exercise. She thought of how fiercely he had fought Waymar. Now look away. She could not do it yet. Look away. Just do it. Enough.
She thought of how he’d said, I’m no thief. She blinked, and turned her head. She smiled at her husband, and he smiled back. There was no room in her life for Jon Snow anymore, no room for that shiver of rush and hope and joy that she felt each time their eyes met, no room for secret, silly, girlish wishes and imaginings, as wild and dark and romantic as faerie tales.
At least, she thought, he would not be at Highgarden.
Willas touched her hand, the look on his features almost pensive.
“We’ll be happy,” he promised softly. She laced her fingers through his.
“We are happy,” she promised in return, but she felt like she was drowning, water closing over her head as she drifted downward, to the bottom of a lake.
They had carried them off to the room they would use for their wedding night; it was one of the finest rooms yet Sansa wanted nothing more than to be in her own bed tonight, for one last time. It had been an explosion of chaos and laughter and jeers and whiskey. Now the world felt cold and windy, and she felt lost, as she stood across the room from Willas, neither of them looking at each other.
“Shall I undress?” she asked at last. She could still faintly hear the fiddles and laughter. She wondered where Jon was, wondered what he was thinking. She forced herself to look at Willas. She was married, now. There would be no more Jon Snow. That moment at the wedding feast might be the last time she ever saw him. Suddenly, she could not seem to breathe, and her eyes burned as she looked at Willas.
He did not seem much happier.
“There would be no point,” he said wryly, and he turned away, and her heart broke.
“Do you not…want me?”
She was thinking of Jon again. Enough, she thought desperately. It was like seeing a wounded fawn and thinking cruelly of the running stag it would never be. Willas needed her help. He sat on the edge of the bed, and looked down.
“It is not a matter of wanting, or of not wanting,” he said bitterly.
The silence rang in her ears. He would not look at her; he was fidgeting with his cane, shamefaced, so she went to sit beside him, and she covered his soft hand with hers. “I hate—” he began, halted abruptly, and tossed the cane aside. It clattered on the floor, and she squeezed his hand even as his words squeezed her heart.
She touched his jaw, and they kissed, clumsily and wetly.
“We do not have to,” he began, so she kissed him harder.
“I want to,” she whispered. She would not think of Jon, would not think of smooth lips and rough hands, of sly half-smiles and gentle eyes. She would not think of the man whose honor was worth more than his desire. She would not think of how her skin had bloomed with burning flowers at his touch. She would not think of thieves stealing her heart and her hopes. I am no thief, he had told her. But you are, she should have said to him, for you have stolen me. Perhaps he might have laughed. His laughter was so hard-won, and that made the victory all the sweeter. She would not think of a future where she had all the time in the world to try and make Jon Snow laugh.
She undid his coat, and he clumsily fumbled to unlace her dress, so she did it for him. He was flushed and his touch was tentative. He is a wounded fawn, she thought as she stepped out of her skirts. His eyes were wide as he took her in, in just her sark. The fire, which had been tended all night in preparation for them, was roaring at her back.
“You are lovely,” said Willas, his voice shaking. “I do not know what to do.”
“Neither do I,” she admitted.
They each crawled back onto the bed, Sansa’s face hot with shame at her nakedness. In the flickering light from the fire, she helped him out of his shirt, then out of his boots, whispering reassurance at his shame for the weakness in his legs. Her heart broke for him, for his pain, for his gentleness. Soon he was naked too, and they kissed nervously, like sipping whiskey for the first time.
And after some time, Sansa traced a shaking hand downward, and felt Willas freeze as she touched his length. He was unchanged by her, completely. He touched her wrist, to push her hand away, but she slid her hand along him, their foreheads touching and eyes closed, each holding their breath. Nothing changed, save for how his breathing quickened—not with desire but with shame.
“I’m sorry,” he said brokenly.
She kissed him.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. It was a long day. Perhaps when we’re in Highgarden and not so tired…”
She pulled her hand away, and kissed him again. He rolled over, away from her. She would not think of Jon, of how it would feel to touch Jon. Laying on her back, she turned her head to look at Willas’ slim, delicate back, so tense and stiff. She rolled onto her side to face his back, and ran her fingertips along his spine, soothingly, and felt him relax beneath her touch.
She would not think of Jon. Willas needed her, needed to be loved, needed to be reassured. He needed to be loved by someone in spite of his physical ailments, not because of them. She could do that; she could love him where others had failed. “I’m so happy,” she lied in a soft voice, and pressed up against him. She heard him choke out a scoff.
“Whatever for? For marrying a crippled man? For being tasked with the impossible task of bearing me a son? For being saddled with the permanent shame of having the ugly Tyrell as your husband?”
“For marrying a kind man, a smart man, a man with eyes I could drown in. For marrying a man who can name every constellation. For marrying you.”
He reached back and took her hand. “Promise me we’ll keep trying? I know it is difficult,” she whispered.
“Aye, I promise,” he said softly. “Whether I will it or not. They want a child from us, or else I won’t stay laird.”
“Do you even want to be?”
“No, but Loras—” he halted.
“What of Loras?”
“Never mind about Loras,” he said softly.
For a long time, they lay there together. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you for saying it, though I know you don’t mean it.”
“I do mean it.”
He squeezed her hand, but said nothing more.
It was Sansa’s wedding night tonight.
Jon would not think of it. He had dully watched them led off by the guests to the room that had been prepared for them. Prepared for fucking, he had thought vaguely, then realized he was truly, thoroughly drunk, drunk as he had never before been in his life.
How was he going to do it? How was he going to live with Sansa, watch her every day as she lived her life with her husband?
They’re fucking, he thought, hours later, filled with the Stark’s finest whiskey.
Is it painful and lonely, Sansa? Or is it romantic?
He thought of how Willas’ face had twisted with shame in the Sept as he had struggled, in pain, with his cane. Willas was a good man, a kind man, and a man in pain. I am a fool. A selfish, brutish fool. A jealous fool.
“Heard you’re leaving for Highgarden with the new Laird and Lady Tyrell,” remarked Mikken. Everyone had heard earlier; Arya had talked of it loudly, angrily, face flushed with too much whiskey.
“Aye, at dawn.” Jon stared into his whiskey. The guests were a blur of music and candlelight and whiskey around him. Everything was spinning. “Stark asked me to go. To watch over her.” Finding his words was like feeling through dark water.
“Ye do that well enough,” Mikken remarked gruffly. He was too drunk to be ashamed of what the man implied.
“Aye, I do.”
“I suspect Laird Tyrell sees as well as Laird Stark.”
“Would ye have me defy him, and not go, then?” Jon snapped.
“You’ll be damned one way or the other,” Mikken sighed.
He knew it, too. He had known it the moment Ned had asked.
He heard one of the Tyrell clansmen make a crude remark about Sansa and Willas as they passed Jon and Mikken’s corner. There was raucous, whiskey-laughter.
They’re fucking, he thought again, dully. He finished the rest of his whiskey, and Mikken wordlessly offered him his, too. And he went back to the stables, and dropped into his bed of hay.
Sansa rode with Willas in an open carriage, with the closer Tyrell clansmen—and Jon Snow—riding around them on fine horses. Jon wore the Stark tartan, and maneuvered his horse with ease. He would not look at her.
The day was fair, as the summer was at its climax, and still cool, as it was so early. She and Willas rode in strained silence, taking pains to smile at each other, to be kind to one another.
Her head throbbed. She had hardly slept, and had lay awake for hours in the dark. As the fire had died, the room ever-darkening, so had her thoughts. It was because she had given herself to Waymar, she found herself thinking at the darkest of the night. She had lost her maidenhead too soon, and to the wrong man, and to pay for that she had married a husband who would not touch her. Or perhaps, she had thought, her thoughts sliding even deeper into darkness, this was payment for all of the thoughts she had had about Jon—as tempting and dark and lovely as faerie tales.
She did not want him here.
Later, when the afternoon’s light was at its most golden, and she was sleepy and achy, Jon slowed his horse and rode alongside their carriage, at Willas’ request. He looked weary and drawn, Sansa noted, and she had the ridiculous urge to run her hand through his hair, to hold his head in her lap. She looked down at her hands.
“Laird Stark tells me you’re good with the horses,” Willas said, his voice barely audible over the clop clop of the horses in the dirt, and the persistent squeak of the carriage wheels. Jon didn’t reply right away. “I already have a man who runs the stables,” Willas continued, “but you might be a better fit. He has no talents, according to my brother, but he’s a good man and I’ve known him all my life. I’ve kept him on, as I feel badly for him.”
“Every man has his use,” Jon said after a time, peering into the distance. “I’m sure he has some talent, if we look hard enough.”
Jon rode up on ahead again, ahead of any of the clansmen, and crested the hill before them, searching for their path, searching for trouble.
“Your father told me he’s a good man,” Willas remarked at last. There was something knowing in his voice—or perhaps she was hearing something where there was nothing. “He told me I would find myself glad to have him—particularly in times of trouble.”
“Jon has always been calm in a crisis,” Sansa agreed carefully. “And he’s good with the animals.”
“He is handsome, too. Loras’ reign as the handsomest man in Highgarden may be ending.” Willas’ voice was light, and Sansa smiled and turned to him, and took his hand. She would not think of Jon. She met Willas’ doe-like eyes.
“You sound jealous,” she teased, “as though you’d like me to tell you that you are the handsomest man in Highgarden. You’re as vain as a young girl!”
Willas flushed. “And though you’d like me to, I won’t,” she continued loftily, and he looked at her in surprise. “I’ve yet to see all the men in Highgarden,” she explained. “I can’t possibly make such a judgment until I’ve seen them all.”
“Well, I’ve seen all the women in Highgarden, and you’re the loveliest of them,” Willas said. “Even lovelier than Val.”
“Aye, one of the crofter’s daughters,” Willas said. He nodded toward Jon. “She might make a fine wife for him.”
Though the day was warm, she suddenly felt cold. Her stomach clenched. Her face became a mask. She made a show of looking at Jon up ahead, formed her features into a look of consideration.
“O-of course,” she replied, and she squeezed Willas’ hand and turned back to him with a smile. She would not think of Jon. “You’re so clever to think of it.”
Highgarden was well south—the most south that a clan could be. The castle itself had been remade many times, and did not have the craggy, weatherbeaten yet immoveable look of Winterfell. Sprawling gardens surrounded its facade, and a high tower overlooked all of the land. The hills surrounding Highgarden were covered in heather and dotted with crofts. It was too few, Sansa knew, to sustain the land—the lush rose gardens, the fine horses, the tidy stone all came from gold from the crown.
And though Highgarden was the loveliest place she had ever seen, Sansa could not help but think that she was riding into a dangerous place.
“Welcome home, my love,” Willas said. “This is all mine, and now it is yours, too.”
Up ahead, Jon slowed near the gates, which were manned by two Tyrell clansmen who wore not tartan but fine-cut coats and breeches. He looked back at them over his shoulder, and briefly met Sansa’s eyes before looking away.
He is warning me, she realized. The clansmen’s hair was oiled and styled, pulled back at the napes of their necks with green silk. They were guards for show.
“It’s beautiful,” she said to Willas.
But she soon learned the truth: Highgarden was not Willas’, nor was it hers. Though Willas was Laird, he made few decisions, save for inconsequential ones. Even the decision to make Jon a stablehand was, ultimately, out of Willas’ control. Highgarden was ruled by Mace and Olenna, and felt little like the seat of a clan but rather more like a splendid and terrible machine, like the gears and pulleys that lurked behind a stage, moving the players about the stage. The crofters—by whose work Winterfell just barely sustained itself—were a sham fixture in Highgarden. They looked quaint but produced little. The real food came from the south.
Redcoats were often present. Their dealings with the Tyrell clan were far friendlier than their dealings with the rest of the clans—and as a result, Sansa felt she might as well have married into a family of the crown.
No one wore tartan here.
She had had more authority in Winterfell, as a Laird’s daughter, than she did here as a Laird’s wife. She and Willas would sit in the great hall together, listening to the complaints of all of the people who rented Tyrell land, and Sansa often sensed she was in a play, the dullest play in the world, moved about by the great machine that was the Tyrell clan. Their words were of no consequence.
The only time a Tyrell spoke to her was to ask if she was with child yet, and they asked often. Nearly daily, it seemed. And her belly remained flat, for at night she and Willas did not touch each other. Willas had never been inside her, and whatever attempts she made to seek his lust, he pushed away, turning away from her in shame.
She even, once, went to a nearby village in disguise, and went to one of the women who was rumored to practice witchcraft. The woman gave her something to slip in Willas’ tea, something to raise his desire, and whispered words of advice—ways to make any man’s need burn. That night she crawled down his body, and took him in her mouth, felt his soft hands in her hair, and—nothing.
“I’m sorry,” he said, that night, guiding her back up to him. They had lay there together, with Sansa trying to blink back tears.
“They never stop asking if I am with child,” she had whispered into the dark night.
“I know.” His voice was broken.
“What will happen, if—if I never—”
“—I do not know.”
She had thought of the looks, of the whispers. She had thought of how Jon’s lips had ghosted over her neck. She had thought of how Jon looked when he led the lambs out to the pasture—for the Tyrells were, like all the other clans, leaping into the burgeoning wool industry with prayers on their lips—with strong hands and gentle eyes.
No one, she had thought, would ever love her.
So she had turned away from Willas and allowed herself silent tears. She knew by his breathing that he was still awake, staring at the fabric of the canopy over their bed, boiling in his own fears just as she was.
Nearly a year after they had arrived at Highgarden, with the summer once again at its peak, Jon and Willas had an argument that changed everything.
Jon asked to speak with Willas, and out of courtesy to Sansa—she supposed—asked that Lady Tyrell be in attendance as well. Now they were in Willas’ study in the high tower, with Sansa and Willas behind Willas’ desk, and Jon before them.
He was still in the Stark tartan. He still would not look at her. Sansa had not been so close to him in an entire year.
“The sheep are doomed,” Jon said plainly. “I’ve had letters, Laird Tyrell, about the wool business in the north. You’re a learned man, you must see it, too. The crown’s stopped buying from the Starks, and from the Karstarks.”
“The crown still buys from us,” Willas replied coldly. The air itself seemed to prickle. Sansa watched Jon’s lips twist, briefly, before he smoothed his features once more. His dark gaze flicked to her, then back to Willas. She watched him shift where he stood, drank in the lines of his body.
“I’ve heard it too,” Sansa remarked, surprising both men. “I’ve had letters from my sister Arya. The rumors are that they’re buying from sheep farms in Essos.”
“Aye, that is what I’ve heard, too,” Jon said. “And heard it often, and for months. We need a new plan, and we need to make it while the crown still buys from us.”
“There’s no sign of any of this in my dealings with the crown,” Willas said. He was gripping the arm of his chair. “I am the one who meets with them—not you, Snow.”
Jon stared at Willas, a long, chilling gaze.
“They wouldn’t tell you they planned to stop buying,” he said slowly. “The Lannisters are hardly known for their honesty.”
“I know them a good deal better than you do.”
“You need to find a new trade for the crofters—”
"I cannot do that, and my decision is final. My father—a shrewd businessman—believes the wool will sustain us, no matter the rumors,” Willas said, not looking at either of them. He knows it too, Sansa realized suddenly. He’s likely been told these words by his father; he’s likely said just the words that Jon and I have said.
Jon's face was mutinous.
"Are you not laird?" he asked disgustedly. He cast a hand toward Sansa. "Have ye not married the daughter of one of the most important clan lairds in the last hundred years? You can make your own decisions, with the help of the wife you took. It’s the job of the laird to make the hard decisions, the ugly decisions, and you know what needs to be done.”
There was frosty silence as Willas finally looked at Jon.
"Took?" he prompted quietly. Jon stared back.
"Aye, you took a wife for a reason," he said simply. "You could have any woman but you took an educated and important one. She can give you counsel, meaningful counsel. Would ye not listen to her, if not to me?”
"That doesn't explain your choice of words. You said 'took.' It sounds almost like you think I stole her," Willas insisted slowly. Sansa had never seen him so determined. "Like she does not rightfully belong to me...Like she rightfully belongs to someone else."
Jon glanced at her, then away, and something within her burst.
"You both make me sound like cattle," she cut in, and rose from her seat and pushed past Jon. Willas' face fell; Jon's flushed. "I've been sitting right here yet you speak as though I'm an animal meant for the barn. If you have no need of my counsel, Willas, I'll go," she said acidly.
"Sansa—“ he began sadly, but she ignored him, and fled to the hall. I hate it here, she thought. I want to go home.
Later, well after supper, when the house was quiet but for night noises and she had settled into bed in her nightdress, Willas at last came in, struggling with his cane, his face crumpled with weariness. He shut the door behind him, and Sansa stared down at her hands.
"I am sorry," he said softly. "I do not mean to treat you like cattle, or to insult your counsel. I have no more power than you do—“
“—You have some," she bit out, then felt her face flush with shame. She was not a child anymore; she could not argue like a young girl anymore. "I am sorry as well," she amended, glancing at him. "I just feel...useless."
The weight of her words seemed to hang in the air between them, buzzing and menacing. She had spoken of the thing that they had seemed to silently agree to not speak of. She saw Willas swallow, saw him look down and shift. With great effort, he sat on the edge of the bed, his back to her. "If you do not want me to run your household, or do any work, or raise children—“
“—I want you to do all of those things, but I have no ability to give you any of those things," Willas cut in, and her chest tightened. "I told my father that I knew I could not...continue...the line, but he insisted that taking a beautiful wife would sort it," he continued wryly. She wondered if he realized that he had mirrored Jon's words from before. Took. Taken. I am no thief, Jon had said. "And you are lovely, and if I could..."
"We could try again,” she said softly. Willas did not speak. She shifted forward and crawled across the bed, then knelt behind him and placed a nervous hand upon his back. He tensed, but did not tell her to stop, so she traced her hand along his shoulder, then through his hair. With her other hand she smoothed down along his arm, then up again. Her blood was pounding in her ears; she did not know how to seduce anyone, least of all her own husband. She thought of Jon's lips on her neck, the way she had seemed to burn at his touch, but all she felt in this moment was a powerful sense of shame, a sense of how unwanted her touch was, a sense of how silly this all was, how performative, how utterly pointless.
"Sansa," he began gently, and he stilled her hands. "You are kind to try, but it is no use. You know it’s not.“
He sounded so sad. She rested her forehead against his shoulder. He was no happier, she realized, than she was. He was feeling just as useless.
"Then what are we supposed to do?" She hated herself for the tears that leaked out, and she swallowed over the lump in her throat. She pulled her hands from his, and moved downward, along his stomach, eyes still pressed shut by his shoulder, as she blindly reached his groin, and yet again he stilled her hands.
"Please," he said, "I am humiliated enough."
"I'm so sorry." She allowed him to pull her hands away. "I thought—“
“—I know." He shifted away from her, and Sansa pulled back from his shoulder and sat back on her heels.
They sat in silence.
"What are we going to do?"
“There is one thing,” Willas began. “I have been thinking it for months, but could not bring myself to even speak it. But then, today, Snow inspired me, I suppose.” There was black humor in his voice. “He said it is the job of the laird to make the hard decisions, the ugly decisions.”
Her blood was hot, thick in her ears; she looked down at the coverlet, and tried not to be afraid. Would he send her back to her father? What could he possibly do? “I cannot give you children, but other men can.”
The silence was ringing in her ears. Her mouth was dry.
“Aye. I would not ask it of you if there were another way, but I see no other way. And if I am to be laird…I must make the hard decisions.” His back was still to her, and she watched him bow his head. “The irony of the matter is that Snow is the one to inspire me, and he is the one I had been thinking of all along.”
“Jon Snow. If you had his child, it would look like you, or like Ned Stark.”
Her eyes burned.
“N-no,” she said weakly. “I could not—”
“—You will.” His voice was fluttering, tremulous, but hard, too. “You will go to him, until we have two children—at least one son—and you will not speak of it to anyone. You will not speak of it to me. I never want to know if you’ve been with him; I never want so much as a hint. You will not be with him in a place where you might be caught. But you'll go to him, and bear his children, and they will be our sons."
“He won’t have me,” Sansa said. I’m no thief.
“No, he won’t. He would never do something so dishonorable.”
“He will if his laird wills it.” Willas’ voice was so bitter.
“You must ask him.” She hardened her voice. “He must know it is you that wills it.”
Jon had been furiously mending a tear in one of the fences on one of the crofts, working until he was drenched in sweat, making mistakes and unable to fully concentrate on the task at hand no matter how much he wished. He worked until after sunset, trying not to think about how he had behaved towards Willas—a kind man, a victim of terrible luck and a position that put far, far too much pressure upon him.
Jon knew he had been unkind, cruel, and to think of it made him sick. Laird Stark would have been ashamed of him had he learned that Jon had been so aggressive towards a man who had been, by all accounts, only generous, pleasant, and understanding. And his plight of disability—of which he was so gracious, so accepting—only made it worse. Jon would rather be the secret heir to the Targaryen dynasty—and field all of the trouble and pain and loss that came with that dubious honor—than be in Willas' place, unable to walk, run, jump, or ride unaided.
The disability had stolen his legs but his controlling, ambitious family had stolen his arms and his voice, too. Willas might have flourished in another family—he would be a good Laird, Jon thought; understanding and empathetic while still strong-willed—and it was no fault of his that he was in this position.
Jon had bullied him, for no reason other than his own anger. He would have to apologize to Willas, but he did not know what he could possibly say to the man to make him understand. Or, perhaps, he thought as he furiously, breathlessly drove a stake into the ground, Willas would understand his feeling of helplessness, of uselessness, better than anyone.
It was dark when Jon finally walked back to the stables, sweating yet shivering, as the night was cool now that darkness had fallen. A lantern was flickering, to his surprise, and Jon wondered if one of the stablehands had been by.
In the dim, amber light, a shadow sat on a bench, and Jon had a flashback to one year earlier, when Ned Stark had come to ask him to protect Sansa. This time, it was Willas.
Across the darkened stable, their eyes met. Willas’ eyes looked as amber as the flame in this light. Jon shut the door behind himself, shutting them into the thick, sweet air of the stables.
“Laird Tyrell,” Jon greeted. He felt slightly sick. He dropped the tools he had been using to mend the fence, and watched Willas examine his cane.
“I must apologize for—”
“—No.” Willas cleared his throat, and with much effort, got to his feet. Jon often thought he had declined even in the last year; he seemed weaker. Another pang of guilt made him turn his head. “I ought to be thanking you, truthfully. You did me a favor that no others will do: you spoke to me candidly.”
“I was disrespectful.”
“No, actually. I think you were more respectful than anyone else, even my own wife. You treated me like a man, and it gave me the strength to do what I’ve known I must do.”
Jon looked at Willas. Would he send him away? “My legs are not the only part of me that is weak, and useless,” he said. His voice was stronger than Jon had ever heard it. “I’ll never give Sansa children.”
For a long moment neither man spoke. Jon could only stare at Willas as his heart pounded. “My brother and father are close with the crown. They are waiting for me to fail. I am the firstborn but the least loved, and was only given the title of Laird out of tradition. I never wanted it. I wanted to be laird even less than they wanted me to be laird. But now I am laird, in spite of everything, and I aim to be a good one, a strong one. And I know what they all whisper of me. The whispers are true. I cannot give Sansa children. But no one would follow a laird that cannot even give his own wife sons—Sansa needs children.”
“You need children,” Jon corrected, though he was treading on thin ice and he knew it. Willas’ lips twisted into a wry grin.
“Ye think Sansa will fare well in this clan after I’m gone, with no sons? Ye think they’ll love her, protect her, as you do?” Willas laughed quietly, looked down, tapped his cane upon the packed-earth floor. “I’m not blind, Snow—my eyes are as strong as any other man’s. I know that ye look, that ye want. But I do not mind. It makes my choice easier. You look like a Stark. If Sansa’s children look like you, they’ll say my sons look like Starks. It will not be questioned.”
“You ask too much,” Jon said. He could not breathe. “I will not—”
“You will, or I’ll send you back to Winterfell, and have ye killed on the way.” Willas was flushed, breathing heavily. “Do ye think this is what I want? Do ye think I want you anywhere near my wife? But this is the ugly decision that I must make as laird, and I’ve made it. You’ll give my wife children, at least one son. They will be my sons, not yours. You’ll meet her in secret, and I will never know when or where it has happened.”
“Does Sansa know of this decision?”
“Aye, and she told me that you would only accept it if it came from me. So here I am.”
Willas began making his way to the door. “Ye will do this,” he said finally, and then he left.
Jon was left to stand in the silence, struggling to breathe.
He had wanted, more than anything, to have sons of his own, and he had accepted a very long time ago that he never would have sons of his own. He had wanted Sansa, and had accepted a very long time ago that he never would have Sansa.
Now he was getting the two things he had wanted more than anything, the two things he had never thought he would have.
Not like this, he thought in horror. I never wanted them like this.
It was in broad daylight the next day that Sansa walked to the stables in her finest dress, a green silk—the Tyrell green—embroidered with flowers. Outside of the stables she saw a figure dressed all in dark, shabby clothes, surrounded by sheep that stumbled about the pasture, their white wool dirtied and yellowed.
She walked through the heather, thinking of how the dirt would ruin the hem of her dress. The day was fair—summer’s final shout, that golden moment before the world started to die again. Jon looked up as she approached, and across the heather their eyes met. A jolt ran through her, as it always did at the sight of him, and she watched him turn away and walk toward the stables, not looking at her, all the lean lines of his body tense.
She had wanted him more than anything for so many years.
But never like this, she thought as she reached the stable door.
She stepped into the warm, sweet darkness, and thought of tumbling into the hay with Waymar all those years ago. Perhaps she was destined to be a cautionary tale, a wanton whore rutting in the stables with men who were not her husband. In the darkness, Jon stood waiting for her, and he turned to face her as she stepped through the door.
He was as lovely as ever, and in spite of her sadness, there was a fierce joy rushing, rising, razing everything as she drank in his soft eyes.
Poor, foolish lass.
“Close the door,” he said softly.
Chapter 3: Amethysts
Sorry for the delay - I moved across the country this week!
This is a bit shorter than my chapters usually are. I initially planned for 3 chapters, but this third chapter was going to be crazy long - like 18k - so I cut them.
Thanks for the wonderful comments and kudos. You all are so intelligent. I'll be responding to them soon!
Sansa did as he bade her; soon they were wrapped in thick, sweet darkness.
Alone at last.
Jon was regarding her so many paces away from her, but he might as well have been pressed against her for how her body bloomed for him.
She smoothed her skirt with damp palms, her heart in her throat. She did not know where to begin. Three years ago in Luwin’s cellar it had been so effortless to fall against Jon; now it seemed an impossibility, a fervent wish that could not ever be made real. How did people touch each other, how did people love each other? She had forgotten.
"Your father asked me to come with you to protect you," Jon began quietly. He shifted, looked down at his boots, bit his lip. "I've been thinking, since last night when your husband came to me, about how I could possibly protect you from this."
He raised his gaze now, to meet her eyes. "There's no easy path forward. If we run, we would be on the run forever. If we stay..."
She drew in a sharp breath. If we run. Soaring relief and crushing disappointment collided, made her weak and breathless, suspended her somewhere in between.
His eyes looked almost black in the darkness; they flicked, irresistibly, down and up her body, and then away, and lines of fire traced her skin as though his gaze had touched her with flame. “If we stay… it will be a disaster. Your husband thinks the child would look like a Stark."
His gaze was fixed on some point against the wall. She watched him swallow.
“I know. I thought of it all night—of what would happen if…“ Sansa trailed off.
She had lay awake all night, visions of silver-haired children swimming before her, thousands of amethyst eyes winking at her like jewels in the darkness. “It would ruin us both, and it would ruin Father,” she whispered.
"It's not just that.” Jon looked away disgustedly, and paced away from her. “I cannot stand for you to be married to a man who would force this upon you..."
"But I am married to him, and the marriage was a political one. You know that,“ Sansa pointed out, and watched him pause. She took in a shaking breath.
She had thought of this, too, all night, her mind swimming with all of the different paths, with all of the different ways she and Jon had been damned by Willas. “If we run, we'll never be able to go back home. We'll be on the run forever. And you're not the only one who receives letters about the rest of the clans,“ she continued, approaching him. "We would be handing the Tyrells just one more reason to break away from the other clans, and betray us all. Laird Stark’s daughter, running off with a known bastard and abandoning her husband? It would be a scandal. The north is on the verge of going up in flames, and we would be the spark—”
“—Not if we make it look as though I took you by force," Jon countered fiercely, turning to stalk toward her. “If it looked like a kidnapping, it couldn’t be seen as a political move. We could make it look like a crime, like I stole you. …But then you would be stuck with me. It would mean a life with me," he added, looking away.
Sansa stared at Jon, at the man whose honor had been worth more than his desire, worth more than his pride, worth more than anything.
"But you would be a criminal. Your reputation, your honor—“
"Nothing could blacken my honor so much as allowing this to pass," he said. Sansa felt her eyes growing wet and she looked down, blinking rapidly. "It wouldn't be an easy life," he said more quietly.
"I think it would be a happy life," she replied.
They fell silent, regarding each other almost warily in the darkness, the heat of the stables sultry and almost suffocating. She watched him exhale, slowly, raggedly, never taking his eyes off her. And suddenly that heat bloomed within her once more.
Oh, she thought. This is how people touch each other, how people love each other.
They were balancing on the knife-edge of obeying or disobeying Willas. And part of her—the part that had rutted in the darkness with Waymar, the part that had felt Jon’s smooth lips on her neck and reeled with pleasure, the part that still let her hands wander when Willas was late to bed and she was alone, to thoughts of Jon—wanted to obey Willas, more than anything, right now.
And Jon was looking at her like he wanted to obey him, too, right now. Like he would tear the silk of her dress and leave teeth marks on her soft flesh, in places she had never thought she’d be bitten or kissed. Like he would touch her in ways that would have her slick and throbbing with desire and then show her all of the dark, secret, enchanted thoughts he’d been having about her that she knew, she knew he had been having about her.
And then he looked away, breaking the spell, but there was a high flush to his cheeks, and the breath he let out was short, terse, desperate.
"I'll need to take you when you're alone," he began. "You'll need to make it look like there was a struggle. ...And we won't be able to take anything. Not even a change of clothes,” he warned.
"I read in the mornings, when Willas is out walking in the gardens," she thought aloud. "In the library. I could just—just sort of break a few things, leave a book on the floor...We could leave tomorrow."
She paused, staring at Jon. "But are you certain?"
"Aye, but I have no plan," he admitted. "We'd have to leave the north. You might never see your family again."
She had thought of that, too, and in the darkness had cried at the very thought of it… But she’d not cried enough, for she had dismissed the idea of running altogether, knowing that it would be incendiary, knowing it would cause more problems than it would solve, knowing—or so she thought—that Jon would never run with her. She felt her jaw begin to tremble, a fluttering in her throat, as sadness rose up, hot and shuddering, and at last tears slid down her cheeks. She heard Jon draw in a breath sharply, saw his hand twitch as he stepped closer, but he did not touch her.
"I don't know what to do," she admitted thickly, staring at the ground. "If I stay and do not bear him children, I do not know what will happen to me."
"If children is truly what you want..." he started, carefully, but she shook her head even as that same shiver of desire rippled through her.
"Not like this," she said, wiping at her cheeks. "Never like this." Her dreams had been haunted by thousands of violet eyes, glittering amethysts curtained by spun silver hair, and fire—blooming, consuming, vicious fire—razing all. In waking she had trembled and sweat at the memory of the three-headed dragon—it was still on their coins—and at the idea of giving birth to a dragon with amethyst eyes who burned down Winterfell.
There was too great a chance of it—the Targaryens had wed one another for thousands of years, and their seed was strong. Jon might not have looked remotely Targaryen, but his blood was Targaryen.
She looked up at Jon, at his gentle eyes. He looked almost afraid, watching her carefully as she searched for her words. "I thought all night about it," she confessed. "I didn't see any way out of it that would not come back to haunt my family, or you... You'd be giving up everything," she pressed.
"Your father sacrificed so much—he put himself and his family at great risk to protect me," Jon protested sadly. "I owe your father at least this: protecting his daughter from a man who would—“ he could not even finish his sentence, and they fell quiet once again. “He told me that if I did not obey his wishes, he would have me killed,” he said at last. “If he will have me killed—what will he have done to you?”
Sansa could not speak for the horror coursing through her. He had known he was not able to give her children, had known it from before they had married—it was his burden, not hers, and certainly not Jon’s. And yet she and Jon were made to bear that burden.
He is weak, she thought miserably, though she had always known it. Not of body but of heart. Of all the men she had known in her life, he was the weakest of heart. She did not know another man—not even Waymar—who would have done this to his wife, to his clansman.
What will he have done to you?
Sansa stared at Jon. It was, she realized, his strength of heart that had won her over: how he had never, not even once, told anyone of what he had seen her and Waymar doing; how he had refused to give into his desire for her; how now he was sacrificing everything to protect her from a husband who would so completely disregard her happiness in favor of his own pride…
She wanted to be strong of heart, too.
She wanted to be like Jon.
And so she stepped forward, watched his gentle eyes widen in confusion as she placed her hands on his shoulders, and placed the softest kiss on his cheek, his beard scratching at her chin. Then she released him, and turned away, her face aflame, before he could see her heart.
"We could raise sheep in Essos. We could raise sheep, and pretend to be no one, and just live. And after some time, perhaps we could come back," she said as she paced away from him, her heart swelling with sudden, painful hope.
"Only you could make it sound like a faerie tale," he scoffed.
"It could be," she insisted even as she felt herself beginning to cry again. "It—it would not be perfect, because we would not be at Winterfell, but—but it could still be lovely."
"Aye, it could be," Jon agreed.
Her heart was racing. No more clench of fear each time one of them asked her about children; no more sleepless nights adrift in sadness, lying next to a man who did not have the strength of heart to stand up to his tormentors...
“At dawn?” she asked, going to the stable door.
“Aye, dawn,” he said softly.
That night, Sansa dressed for supper in a lavender dress that was more fashionable than anything she had ever owned at Winterfell, and took extra care with her hair, so that it hung down her back in shimmering copper waves and framed her face more prettily than it had on her wedding day.
She had to look like she still cared for her husband’s opinion of her beauty.
There was one final touch. She sat at her vanity and pulled a delicate amethyst necklace from her jewelry box, and held it up to the dim light. She thought of the Targaryen children of her dreams, thought of the amethyst and silver hidden inside Jon, a powder keg waiting to go off and lay all of Westeros to ruins.
Targaryen eyes, she thought, and she put on the necklace. The amethysts winked in the low light.
"I have never seen that necklace before," Willas said at supper. They were eating just the two of them in Willas’ study, away from the rest of his family. He had not asked about Jon, nor even hinted at it, and in fact had been obsequiously polite and almost gallant. She despised him for it. She saw less and less of a wounded fawn and more and more of a pathetic weasel, scurrying away from the things that were difficult.
“It was a wedding gift,” she told him across the table, the candlelight between them. “From your grandmother.”
Willas stirred the stew in the fine china bowl before him; northern food in southron bowls.
A northern girl in a southron dress and southron jewels.
Poor, foolish lass.
She had never felt so foolish in her silks as she did now; she had never found Willas so pathetic as she did now, in his fine brocade waistcoat, no tartan to be found. Every flicker of the flames of the fine candles seemed to whisper, Lannister. “And what did you do today, husband?” she asked politely.
“I spent some time in the rose garden,” Willas mused, setting down his fork, “and I helped Father and Grandmother settle some accounts with the Crown for our wool. They believe this season will be lucrative for us.”
“What do you think?” she pressed, pushing her stew around in her bowl. She heard Willas laugh softly.
“It hardly matters what I think. You know that.” A pause. “And you, wife?” The irony was bitter on wife. “What did you do today?”
There was an edge to his voice. A warning. A prayer.
I fucked Jon Snow like a wanton whore in the stables, she could have said. Or, actually, I planned to run away from you and your horrible family with Jon Snow in the stables…
Instead, she smiled at him, watched him smile back slowly, cautiously.
“I read,” she said. “I could spend the rest of my life in your library.”
Willas brightened; for a moment she saw a ghost of the man at the Gathering who had told her all about his library, about his rose gardens, about his favorite constellations. Then it passed as quickly as it had come, and her poor, foolish heart still ached anyway for what might have been.
“What did you read today?”
“An old favorite,” Sansa replied, before taking a sip of her wine. “The Tale of Drustan and Isotta. Do you know it? It was my first story that I ever read. I could not believe my eyes when I found a copy in your library.”
Willas frowned in thought.
“I do not recall it,” he admitted, looking almost abashed that there was a book in his library that he did not know by heart.
“Well, I won’t bore you with a retelling of it,” she promised him. “I could not possibly do the tale justice.”
“You’re the most gifted storyteller I know,” Willas countered. His eyes were golden in the candlelight.
“Perhaps you ought to read it first,” she suggested lightly, “and then see how my telling of it compares.”
Willas’ lips twitched as he looked down.
“I will read it tomorrow,” he said, “and at supper tomorrow night you can regale us all with the tale. My brothers and sister will be coming for supper.”
“Aye, so I will,” Sansa said with a smile.
In the wee hours, just after dawn, Sansa left the library for the last time. She overturned a chair, bunched up a rug, dropped a candlestick on the floor, and—as her last word to Willas—left The Tale of Drustan and Isotta laying open on the floor, its pages wafting as she passed.
Learn it well, she thought on her way out the door.
Her heart pounded in her ears so loud that it was difficult to hear anything else, like great drums, the drums that they pounded at gatherings, were lining her path to the stables.
She had worn a fine blue dress—to wear anything plain might give away that she had planned to journey today—and no cloak, and the fabric was thin, and she was cold. She burst out through the kitchen garden door, among the cabbages and potatoes, into the amethyst dawn.
She knew Willas had already risen and was walking through the rose garden with one of the clansmen, as was his morning ritual, and she only had a little bit of time. She skirted the kitchen garden, following the long, low crumbling stone wall to the stables. The morning dew clinging to the heather turned her skirts sodden and heavy, but she moved no slower for it.
And there he was, and her heart gave a shudder of senseless joy. Jon was behind the stables, saddling his own horse with a small pack, the Stark tartan moving slightly, making her think, fiercely, of home. He startled when she came round the corner, then relaxed when he saw her. The morning was windy, whipping her hair about her face and rustling her heavy skirts. He paused in his work and regarded her.
"It's done," she told him, suddenly breathless.
Somehow she had been living out a fairytale, a daydream, until now. Suddenly the world seemed so much larger, so much more mysterious and rocky and windy and beautiful, beautiful in a way that she had never before appreciated, as she took in Jon's face, with all of his little white scars, and his hair, wild and windblown. She had lived her life in daydreams and faerie tales but no one ever told you that real moments—the wind through a man's hair, the green mountains blurred by blue in the distance, your pounding heart—could be even more lovely, even more mysterious and unfathomable and enchanted, than any tale on dusty pages in a sunlit library.
Jon nodded, once, then turned to finish his work.
Sansa felt tears spring to her eyes as she watched his back, and before she lost her courage she stepped forward and embraced him from behind, burying her face in the back of his shirt. She felt him tense at her touch.
"Thank you," she whispered into his shirt.
"Don't thank me yet," he warned. "You're not cold, wet, or hungry, yet."
She let go of him, and he turned back to face her. "We'd better leave."
He helped her into the saddle, his strong hands on her waist making her blush, and unbidden she thought of writhing against him in the stables as she had initially planned. He got into the saddle behind her, his hard chest against her back and his legs against hers, and then they were off into the misty morning.
The blue hills of the north tempted them in the distance, beyond the walls of Highgarden, but she knew they would be moving south—towards Essos. This might be her last glimpse of the mountain ridge that had edged her views all of her life, and as she rode with Jon, his form sturdy and warm against hers, she drank it in, saying goodbye to all that she had both loved and despised, all of the people and places that had turned her into this poor, foolish lass running off with a man.
There was no one manning the front gate, and they paused as they peered toward the lavish rose gardens, but they spied no one. Jon murmured a command to the dark horse, and they sprang forward through the open archway.
The straight road stretched out before them, the hills all around tumbled with heather, and the sun was beginning to burn through the amethyst sky, and the air was sweet with summer’s final refrain, and it was as lovely a morning as might be found in a faerie tale. She realized she was beaming, until—
—Horses, behind them.
Sansa looked over her shoulder and saw at a distance Loras, Mace, Garlan, and even Willas, propped up on a horse by one of his clansmen. They were gaining on them. Dark stars winked in Sansa’s vision as she realized, with horror, that they had already been thwarted. Caught.
They might never get away now.
“I can’t outrun them,” Jon murmured, slowing the horse.
“But your horse is—”
“—They have their rifles,” Jon interrupted, as he halted his horse and angled to face the approaching Tyrells. Indeed, gleaming brightly as silver jewelry in the early sunlight, each man had a rifle.
“No,” she whispered desperately, and felt Jon tense around her, protectively.
“I’ll find a way,” he promised in her ear.
The Tyrells were upon them now. Sansa’s hands trembled so she fisted them in the horse’s mane.
“It’s a lovely day for a ride,” Mace said, his fine horse trotting closer. “Though ye are riding far…almost like you’re running away,” he observed.
“I told you, Father: my wife needs exercise, and Snow was kind enough to volunteer,” Willas said suddenly, his voice nearly lost on the wind. Everyone paused and stared at him. “The doctor thought the exercise might help her, as she has not yet become with child,” he added.
Sansa’s face flushed as she met Willas’ eyes.
He smiled at her.
In the cruelest twist it was the truth, yet it read as a plain lie that made the Tyrell clansmen stare at him in shock. "But ye best stay inside the walls of Highgarden," Willas told Jon. "I know the riding's better outside, but it's not safe out there. Not in times like these."
Jon did not speak; he gripped the reins tightly. They were caught and outnumbered; no matter how fierce a fighter Jon might be—and she knew he was fierce—there was no way they could outrun them now.
"You're right, my Laird," Jon conceded at last.
They had no choice but to ride back into the walls of Highgarden. As they passed Willas, he would not look at her; his smile was aggressively pleasant, and she knew that he knew, of course.
But she could not feel sorry for him, for he had humiliated her. He had blamed her for their lack of children, publicly. She felt her eyes burn but she would not cry. Something settled over her and she sat straight up on her horse, her smile as fixed as Willas'.
No, Jon, she thought, thinking of Drustan and Isotta. I will find a way.
Jon went to the stables after parting ways with Sansa, and hid his saddlebag beneath his bed. In the darkness he stood there, his mind reeling. Now that they had been caught, it would be harder than ever to get away. Now Willas would suspect—for he had covered for them today but there would be a price for that lie.
Did he believe Jon and Sansa had merely been riding to find a private place to do as Willas had bid?
No, that was impossible, Jon decided. Willas was an intelligent man; he would have seen it for what it was. But what would happen now? Had it been Mace, or Garlan, or even Loras, he would be punished for this…but Willas was a different sort of man. Once upon a time, Jon would have guessed that Willas would do nothing, but last night he had glimpsed a savage streak within him—I’ll send ye back to Winterfell and have ye killed on the way—and that meant that anything might happen.
The stable door banged open; Jon jolted from his reverie and turned to face whoever had exploded into the stables.
It was Garlan and Loras.
Loras shut the door.
“Our brother will tolerate humiliation, but we will not,” Garlan explained, stepping forward. He had a whip coiled in his belt, its handle golden and carved with roses.
“Does your Laird know about this?” Jon asked archly. He still had his sword sheathed at his hip, over the Stark tartan. He’d heard Loras could out-duel most men, but Jon could out-duel most men, too. His heart pounded, but not out of fear.
He was ready for a fight.
He had been ready for a fight since he had watched Sansa walk through the Sept toward Willas Tyrell, one year ago.
“No, he doesn’t,” Loras said, his face flushing, evident even in the darkness. “And he won’t.”
“Willas needs us to protect him,” Garlan explained, stepping closer, almost leisurely. “He is weak; he cannot deliver the punishments that need to be delivered. He’s always been a soft lad.”
The irony was that Jon agreed with them. It was not Willas’ weak legs that crippled him; it was his fear, his hesitation, his lack of will.
Jon drew his sword, and Garlan smiled. Loras, behind Garlan, scoffed.
“Ye won’t be needing that,” Garlan promised. “You’ll learn this lesson and keep quiet about it—or Lady Tyrell will learn the lesson for ye.”
“What would your Laird do if he found ye whipping his wife?” Jon countered, his anger strangely cold, like he had jumped into a frozen lake, making him shudder. A lump formed in his throat. He could not help but picture Sansa’s face contorted in pain.
Someone to watch over her and protect her, Laird Stark had said.
“Nothing, I suspect,” said Loras now. And again Jon agreed with him.
He sheathed his sword, and took off the sword belt. He tossed both aside as cold dread hardened in the pit of his stomach. He had never been whipped before—Laird Stark had forbidden it at Winterfell—but he’d seen the scars of men who had been. Lumpy white welts crawling all over their flesh like pale worms, never to fade. Grotesque, twisted, violent.
It would be his back or hers.
His pride or hers.
He stared at the two men. They were young men, ambitious men. They loved their brother but did not respect him. They thought they were helping, thought they had to prove their strength in place of Willas’. They were, he thought as he studied their flushed faces and averted but defiant gazes, just as afraid as the rest of them… They had no more love for the Lannister-Baratheon crown than the Starks did, but they would not taunt the wicked, crazed lion sleeping at their feet. So they would shed their tartan; so they would make their weak-willed, helpless little brother Laird; so they would do their evils in the thick, sweet darkness of stables. So they would tend their roses with rotting manure; so they would stitch growing strong into every cloth; so they would curl, insidious and slow as ivy, around the throne, until they were safe at last, until they could not be hacked down.
Jon shed his coat, never looking away from them. He saw the barest tremble in Garlan’s jaw; saw Loras draw in a sharp breath as Garlan withdrew the whip, and its long forked end trailed like a dragon’s tongue upon the rushes.
“Ye should kneel,” said Garlan, his voice rough, his hand shaking so that the whip quivered and shuddered like a serpent.
Garlan walked round behind him; Loras stood by the door, watching. Jon stared at him, fists clenched, back straight.
“T-twenty lashings should do it,” Garlan said.
Jon waited, holding his breath, but no strike came; he only heard Garlan’s heaving gasps. Loras scoffed again, and came forward.
“I’ll do it,” he said disgustedly. “You’re like Willas. Our sister’s more a man than either of ye.”
He heard Garlan drop the whip, then walk to the door to take Loras’ place. “I’d rather fight ye,” Loras said from behind him, brandishing the whip, “and there’s no honor in this, but there’s less honor in stealing a man’s wife—a man who’s fed and housed and clothed ye. The punishment fits the crime.”
Jon said nothing. He heard Loras draw in a sharp breath, and then—
—An explosion of ice and fire, all at once, ripped up his back, making him stumble forward and gasp. The sheer force of it was what shocked him, more than anything—he had thought it would be a sharp line of pain, but the force radiated all over, knocking the breath from him, like he’d been hit with a boulder.
He righted himself, his back burning. “One,” Loras said, and raised the whip again.
The second almost knocked him to his knees. He clenched his jaw and held his breath. He would not cry; he would not fall. “Two.”
The third, he felt something hot and wet trickle down his back, and he saw Garlan turn away and cover his mouth. Loras hesitated. “Three.”
“You humiliated me,” Sansa whispered.
Willas sat on the chair she had overturned that morning, his cane balanced against the arm of it. The Tale of Drustan and Isotta lay open on his lap.
“Am I King Marcus?” he asked softly, looking to her. “The infirm king, the king that Isotta cannot bring herself to love?” He closed the book. “And are ye the fair Isotta, so beloved by Drustan the handsome, young knight? Is that what ye wished to tell me?”
The silence of the library was ringing in their ears. Sansa stared down at him. He was blurred by her tears, her tears of anger.
“I would have been happy,” she said finally, “if you had once—even once—proved to me you were a strong man.”
“Aye, it’s Snow’s strong back and strong legs—and strong cock—that ye love,” he said bitterly, with a short, miserable laugh. One hot tear slipped down her cheek.
“No, it is his strong heart,” she replied.
“Ye read your faerie tales all your life, and wanted a Drustan—but instead, ye got a King Marcus,” Willas continued, not looking at her.
“I didn't want a Drustan. I wanted a husband who loved me, who would protect me when his family insulted and embarrassed me, who would take charge of his own destiny. I would not have cared if you had never once touched me—if only you had been stronger against your family; if only you had never asked this horrific thing of Jon Snow.”
“Is it so horrific?” Willas asked, looking at her once more, his golden eyes boring into her. “Ye stare at each other like panting maidens. Every time he is near, his presence alone humiliates me.”
“I would never have looked at anyone but you.”
Willas’ eyes filled with tears and he looked away quickly.
“Ye want strength, I’ll give ye strength.” His shoulders rose and fell. He struggled to his feet; it was painful to watch, and for one moment she felt a burst of pity. He walked to the door of the library. His back was still to her when he spoke again. “If it’s not Snow, it’ll be another man. Choose wisely.”
“Do ye not hate yourself for this?” she whispered desperately, hot tears spilling down her cheeks, down her jaw, along her neck.
“Aye, but then, I always did.”
The sun had set when Sansa walked toward the stables, her eyes aching from her tears. All along the path, Tyrell eyes watched her.
The stables were quiet, and Sansa opened the door. At first, they seemed empty of Jon, but she soon realized he lay on a pile of hay, facedown. He was bare from the waist up, and there was something dark and shining on his back. He was asleep, and the air was thick with a sharp, herbal odor. A cup of something, still steaming, sat beside him.
With shaking hands she lit a lantern and brought it closer, and gasped.
Long, deep slashes patterned his back; the flesh was ruined and craggy as a shoreline.
She dropped to her knees and covered her mouth in horror, her eyes filling with tears once more.
“Jon,” she whispered, and he stirred, eyelids fluttering, then raised his head.
“Sansa, ye must go,” he murmured, his speech slow and thick. Another empty glass was beside his head—she would guess it had once held whiskey.
She had to be strong of heart.
“No,” she told him. “I’m not going anywhere.”
In the flickering darkness, she washed the wounds, heard him try to stifle each hiss and gasp of pain. Nausea rose in her throat as she touched the ruined flesh, so she breathed shallow, quick breaths.
“It wasn’t Willas,” he told her, an hour later when the lashes had been cleaned and dried, and he lay his head on her lap as she ran her fingers through his hair. He was damp with sweat and hot to the touch yet shivering. “He doesn’t know.”
She said nothing. She only ran her hands through Jon’s damp, tangled waves until he slept once more, and thought of winking, twinkling amethysts, and of strength, and of witches in the village who could turn a garden into life and death and bottle it, and of the blue ridge of mountains, and of the wind through her hair.
“I’ll find a way,” she whispered.
Chapter 4: Pennyroyal
This got longer than I intended, so now it's five chapters. Also, I promise I don't hate the Tyrells.
Later, when Sansa had finally pulled herself from Jon, she walked back to her room with Willas in a daze. She felt as though she were taking slow steps toward the bottom of a lake, her dread rising up over her chest, then over her shoulders, and then touching her chin with cool, liquid fingers; then closing over her mouth… She was drowning…
She knew what she wanted to do, but away from the blind rage that had burned her at the sight of Jon’s ruined flesh, the very thought of it made her soul sink like a stone to the bottom of a deep, dark lake. Can I do it? she wondered numbly as she walked. And, is there any other way?
Arya would do it, she thought. Arya would have stabbed them all and then run off with Jon by now. Arya was strong; Sansa knew she was weak.
I’m not Arya. All I do is wear pretty dresses and do foolish things, like let horses out of stables and tell silly faerie tales.
Lovely, mild Highgarden, with its fine, new stone and its tamed, southron rose gardens had never looked so cruel and menacing to her as it loomed up before her now. It was her gilded cage, built of fragrant roses and polite words and pretty silk dresses. Built of the easy way out. Once upon a time she had run from her feelings, from the burn of Waymar's humiliation and Jon's rejection, and run into the lukewarm embrace of Willas. Now she wished she had allowed herself to feel her own pain, rather than run from it. It gets you all the same, she thought as she passed through the heady air of the roses. The pain comes no matter what you do, and if you try to run from it or dull it, you only delay it and you only dilute it, until instead of a sword piercing your gut it's a lake that drowns you. You can heal from a sword's pierce; you can't heal from drowning.
It was well after midnight, now, and there was a hint of crispness to the air tonight—summer was ending. Winter is coming, Willas, she thought as she stepped through that door. And you are not growing strong.
Willas was in their bed, a single candle casting the room in flashing gold. His slender back was to her.
She stood before the bed, staring down at the empty space where she should lay beside him. Belatedly she found a piece of straw in her skirts, and thought of Jon there in the stables, alone and in pain, and she clenched her fists as she watched Willas stir at her presence. I should be with him, she thought, reeling with pain, cradling his head in my lap and stroking his hair and taking care of him.
"I told ye not to ever let me know when ye were fucking him," came Willas' sad voice.
She had never heard him use such a word. Fucking. It turned her stomach.
She thought of how he'd looked, two years ago, in the corner of the great hall at Winterfell, as he'd told her about the constellation of Cygnus.
How did I ever think him gentle, how did I ever imagine him kind?
Just as with Waymar, her love had been foolish and misplaced.
"I wasn't," she said. "I couldn't."
Willas didn't move, but she saw his shoulders shake, once. "Do you know what your brothers did to him?"
Her voice now shook worse than her hands, and she watched, in the flickering golden light, as Willas turned over to face her at last. His eyes, those doe-like eyes, grew wide as they took in the state of her ruined gown, smeared with the blood she had cleaned from Jon's back. He sat up slowly, blinking rapidly.
"What in seven hells has—“ he began in shaking horror, but she interrupted him.
"The flesh on his back is ruined," she told him, her own eyes burning again. "I've never seen so horrible a thing done in my life. They whipped him. Your own brothers whipped him. My father outlawed such a practice among the Stark clan for its primitive brutality—and yet your clan has the audacity to act like you’re more civilized.“
There was a beat of horrified silence as Willas stared at her, his eyes wet.
“—But they did. He can barely move."
Willas clenched his jaw and looked away.
"He was stealing ye," he said in a hardened voice. “They dealt punishment as they thought he deserved.”
She hated him for his helplessness yet her heart broke for him, too. She knew his pain. She had once heard that pity was the heart of love and she thought now that if that was true then she did not want to be loved, ever, for she never wanted anyone to feel about her as she felt about Willas now. Across the bed—that so ill-used bearer of pain in their short marriage—they stared each other down.
"Did you ask them to whip him?"
Her voice was flat.
If he said yes, it would mean he was cruel—crueler than she had ever imagined.
If he said no, it was just more proof that he was laird in name only.
"No.” He fidgeted with the lace-edged cuff of his nightshirt. He curled in on himself further, as though he knew that he had been damned no matter what his answer.
"Would you have?"
Willas would not look at her. She watched him struggle to breathe, watched him struggle to swallow, and her heart broke anew.
She had never pitied Jon, she realized suddenly. No matter his pain, she had never pitied him, and he had never pitied her. His pain had been her own, and her pain his. Her back burned as though it was her own flesh that had been lashed, and his pride had burned when hers had been wounded by Waymar as though it had been he who had been humiliated and rejected.
“No,” Willas admitted at last in a rush, shaking his head. “No, I would not have. He may have been stealing ye, but ye went willingly, too.”
Willas shifted, so that his back was to her once more. “He let the horse out the barn is all.” He paused. “It’s you who should be punished.”
“And what will you do to me?”
“Bring ye back and lock ye up like the blind, willful animal ye are.”
His voice was empty like a hollowed tree. He laughed sadly. “Or perhaps ye are jewels that fell into my lap. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and every man wants ye, and I have no use for ye but I want ye too. And so I spend my miserly hours waiting for you to be stolen, admiring ye in the fine gilded box I’ve put you in. You’re a horse too fine for me, jewels too lovely for me, but I cannot let ye go. I am surrounded by men who know better how to use ye; I am always on the lookout for a thief, but the truth is that I’ve been the thief all along.”
“Aye, it’s Jon Snow who’s owned ye from the beginning. I knew it at the gathering, I knew it at the wedding, I’ve always known that I took ye from him, deep down. But I held onto some hope that I was wrong, that I was seeing shadows where there was sunlight—but now I know I was right. He had your maidenhead that night, at the gathering—I could smell him on ye when ye came to talk with me—and he’s the one who broke ye.”
“He didn’t have my maidenhead,” Sansa said. “That horse was let out of the stable long before that. He’s never had me.”
Willas scoffed softly.
“Ye know whore’s tricks—someone’s had ye.”
“I only know them because I wanted you to love me. I visited a woman in town—”
“—Aye, and ye slipped this herb or that in my tea, and ye wore your lovely gowns, and ye dazzled me like jewels. I should be the luckiest man alive but it’s all wasted on me, because the gods decided to curse me with useless legs and a useless cock. Not quite useless enough, as I know what I want, but I can’t have ye. My body’s a living hell. And I know I’m not the prince ye imagined, Sansa.”
Sansa realized her face was wet with tears. “And so I give ye a chance to be with the man who owns ye, and ye throw it in my face and humiliate me before my brothers and father,” he continued, his voice low, seething, furious. “And now ye expect me to feel sorry for the man who humiliated me? Now ye expect me to apologize?”
She wiped her cheeks of the tears, and felt her skin hardening, until she was raw, pulsing fury behind a cool mask.
“I expect nothing of you anymore. Not after you asked your own wife to lay with another man to cover up your own weakness. Not after you demanded that another man—a good man, an honorable man, a man who can’t refuse your request—do something so dishonorable.”
In the darkness she undressed and slipped into her nightdress. She lay beside Willas, her heart torn to pieces for the broken, sad man beside her, and her veins coursing with rage for the weak, petty man beside her.
“Who had your maidenhead, then?” he asked, hours later as dawn began to fill the room, his voice soft as a fawn’s fur. They had lay awake together, staring at the fabric of the canopy above them, miserable and trapped beside each other—yet distant too, so very many moons apart. “I know it’s been had, so do not bother lying to me.”
Willas did not speak for a long time.
“He looks like the poor man’s Jon Snow. Ye are a foolish lass,” he said at last.
“Aye, I am,” she said softly. “And you’re a pathetic man.”
“Aye, I am.” He drew in a breath. “Sometimes I think your father did it on purpose. Sent Jon Snow to torment me. I thought it, that first day we rode here to Highgarden. You stared at him all during our wedding feast, then the next day ye would not look at him. And when I suggested he might marry Val, ye looked like ye were dying. …And he looked at me like he wanted nothing more than to flay me.”
“My father sent Jon to protect me from your foul family. Not to torment you. Though perhaps they’re one and the same.”
“Aye, he sent the best stablehand to keep watch over his prized horse.”
Sansa turned on her side, away from Willas, to hide the tears in her eyes.
“I thought you were kind.” She hated how her voice trembled like a child’s. Poor, foolish lass.
She thought, once again, of the red woman, of her garden of life and death.
Her stomach clenched.
Could she really do it?
“I was, before I married you, before I became laird.” His breathing grew quick, and ragged. “Do ye know why Loras and Garlan are not laird? They told me it’s because I’m the clever one, the fair-minded one. They told me it’s because Garlan is irresponsible, because Loras is hot-tempered. But do ye know why I’m truly laird?”
“Because you’re soft-hearted, because you’re easy to control?”
“Ye truly are a foolish lass, if ye cannot see it.”
He rose from the bed, and in the pale amethyst light she saw him struggle more than he usually did with his weak legs. He paused, in pain, before leaning forward and reaching for his cane. “I’ll give ye a hint: I’m just as the sheep your Jon Snow herds about. I’m just as the crofts and the little food they produce.”
He was on his feet, now, bent forward, silhouetted by the dying light. “And you are the fine horse in the stable,” he added with a soft laugh. “Just waiting to be bred.”
Yes, she thought. Yes, she could do it.
Jon awoke, facedown in the hay, with his mouth dry and tongue thick and his head pounding, and his back throbbing, the skin burning and stiff as though something had been dried over it. For a moment he thought it was like any other day, until he remembered what had happened the day prior. A ghostly memory of Sansa’s slender fingers through his hair came to him like the barest hint of music, briefly coloring his world before fading again. He had dreamed of that touch for so many years. Each time he tasted it he lost hold of himself, of the things he had told himself for so many years, of the strict and careful rules by which he had been governing his life ever since he had learned that he owed Laird Stark his life.
It was just as it had been the night that he’d fought Royce: that night he had tasted Sansa’s lips and skin and had turned away from that temptation, knowing she did not belong to him, knowing he had no right to her. Yet this time he was older, and somehow he understood the world, and where he stood in it, less now. It had been easier, before; it had been simpler. He had been grateful to Laird Stark; he had thought that honor resided in never taking that which did not belong to you, in always being honest and brave, in always doing what had been asked of you.
But honor was a pretty sword of flimsy copper when he was faced with the thought of what Willas had asked of him, had asked of Sansa. Honor was a pretty but empty word when he was faced with the thought of how Sansa’s voice had sounded, earlier. I could kill him, he thought as he lay there, for what he’s done to her.
All his life he had looked at Sansa from the outside, from beyond high walls, peering into a garden of flowers that did not belong to him, but now he was older and Sansa was no longer a flower he wanted to pluck, but the sun whose warmth he longed for, could not grow without.
It’s always hard to see another man in possession of something you want, Royce had said, that night. Ye were wrong, Royce, Jon thought as he forced himself to rise. It’s hard to see another man ill-using someone ye love. It’s hard to know that that which you would love better is unloved by someone else. It’s hard to know that the person you love is in pain.
He dressed. It took longer than usual—he had never known such pain. I was more sheltered than I knew, he thought, remembering Ned Stark. At Winterfell, no one was ever whipped. Laird Stark had deemed it brutal, too brutal to be an effective and reasonable punishment. He wondered if he would ever see the man again.
He thought of his plan, and cringed from the memory of Laird Stark.
He donned the Stark tartan—it was the only way he could express the rage that razed him—and as he went to the fields with the sheep, he saw Garlan and Loras ride by on their fine horses. Garlan looked away, and pretended he had not seen Jon. Loras met Jon’s eyes with something like defiance.
“The Stark tartan,” Loras observed, the sun hitting his soft brown hair and setting it aglow with gold. Jon had seen it do the same to Willas’.
“Aye. Winter is coming,” Jon called back. It hurt to stand; he would not show it. Loras looked away, a muscle leaping in his slender jaw. He is shamed, Jon thought. He knows he’s acted without honor.
“Aye, and we are growing strong,” Loras replied, citing the Tyrell clan’s motto.
“Are ye?” Jon asked. He thought of Willas’ weak legs and weak heart, thought of how Garlan had been unable to do what he so self-righteously deemed must be done, thought of Loras’ shame.
Loras said nothing, but rode on with his brother.
What was the point, Jon wondered as he worked, with his back on fire, of a life?
Why had it been given to us, and what ought we to do with such a thing?
He had been in gratitude for his own life every waking moment—he had known whom to thank for his life, had always been waiting for it to be stolen away from him, always on the lookout like a man in possession of the finest jewels. But why did Laird Stark give me this life? he wondered, as he herded sheep—that pointless task; the wool in Essos would be better and cheaper and he knew it—and as he mucked out stables, and as he watched the comings and goings of Highgarden.
What was the point of his life if all he did was do as he was told by men who had been born above him? What was the point of his life—of all that Laird Stark had sacrificed—if all he did was let everything important pass him by?
What was the point of a life at all?
He had been grateful for a gift that he could not use.
He would never father children, he would never wed Sansa before his family. He would simply continue to be grateful for this gift that Laird Stark had bestowed upon him, as though he had been gifted the finest jewels or the finest-bred horse, and worry over it, waiting for it to be stolen from him.
What was the point of such a gift?
He thought of his plan again, and looked north toward Winterfell. No matter what he did he would be betraying Ned Stark with his plan. You'll be damned one way or the other, Mikken had said. From this angle the man seemed almost a prophet.
I'm sorry, Laird Stark, Jon thought, and his chest burned with his guilt. You taught me to live and act with honor but you also asked me to love and protect your daughter. I can't do both.
He knew which one he would choose. Jon turned away from Winterfell.
Sansa dressed for supper in a fine Tyrell green silk dress, and on impulse wore the amethyst necklace that Olenna had gifted her. Against the Tyrell green, it was quite noticeable. She sat before her vanity and stared into the speckled silvered glass as she clasped the necklace round her neck. The amethysts glittered in the low light.
At supper in the more private dining room, Sansa joined Willas, Loras, Margaery, Garlan, Mace, and Olenna. The light was low, and as Sansa entered, she saw a gleam in Olenna’s eye. Everyone else, it seemed, was avoiding looking at her. Sansa offered a tentative smile to Olenna and then hated herself for her instinctive need to please. I despise these people, remember? she reminded herself. It was hard to keep it in mind, sometimes—the Tyrells were so likable. She could not help but want to please them. Yet she knew that it was the likability of the Tyrells—they were all handsome, all pleasing in conversation, all well-versed in all fine subjects—that had meant their survival. They were as yielding and pretty and fragrant as their rose garden.
“Ah, the amethysts,” observed Olenna, as Sansa took her seat at Willas’ right. The jewels were warm and heavy against her breastbone. “I had feared you did not like them—I’ve never seen you wear them before.”
Sansa’s fingers fluttered to the heavy necklace chained round her throat.
“They’re so lovely; I always feel that the occasion is not special enough for them,” she explained, her neck prickling with heat. Olenna smiled, a slow curve of clever lips. “But then I thought tonight that I may as well celebrate this day as any other; each day should be celebrated,” she added, sensing the silliness of her words.
“The amethysts are from Essos,” Olenna said, as Garlan leant forward and poured southron wine for each of them. Arbor gold, Sansa recognized. As a younger lass she’d favored it for its sweetness, but now it made her teeth ache. “I work with a lovely jewelry dealer—a cad, if I must be truthful, but thankfully I’m too old to be swayed by such nonsense—and when he showed them to me, I thought of you at once.”
“It’s very kind of you to think of me,” said Sansa, sipping her wine and fighting a grimace at the sweetness. She wanted the bitter burn of whiskey, she wanted Jon Snow to rip off her gown, she wanted hay in her hair and sweat between her breasts. She did not want jewels and sweet wine and roses.
“Do you know what I thought of, when I first saw them?”
Olenna lowered her voice. Willas was listening to Garlan and Mace intently; across the table, through the flames, Sansa glimpsed Loras’ gaze, but she avoided it. A flare of rage, as golden and fiery as whiskey, rose up in her throat.
I can do it, she told herself. Easily.
“I think of the sky just before dawn, whenever I see them in my jewelry box,” Sansa supplied blandly.
“Well, personally, I thought of the Targaryen eyes, but I suppose you’re too young to remember what the purebreds looked like,” Olenna continued.
Sansa’s smile grew fixed. She thought of the ruined flesh of Jon’s back; thought of her father’s gentle touch as he led a young Jon back into the safety of Winterfell, each time the Crown was in the north. Her heart was an ugly mass in her throat, making it impossible to breathe.
“I heard their eyes were lovely and pale as lilac,” Sansa remarked, setting her wine back down, her hand trembling finely.
“Most of them, yes,” said Olenna. “Though of course, there are whispers that Prince Rhaegar—may the gods rest his poor, foolish soul—tumbled in the hay with a northern girl and got her sprogged up, so perhaps there’s a Targaryen running about the north in disguise…hidden under all that snow. A Targaryen without amethyst eyes.”
Sansa turned her most innocent, foolish look upon Olenna. Widened her eyes, parted her lips.
“But there are whispers about so many things, my lady. Of bastard princes borne of incest, of men turning from their betrothed to lay with other men…” She did not let her gaze slide to Loras, but she paused just long enough to watch Olenna’s eyes narrow slightly. “It all becomes so terribly confusing. How can one know which whispers to listen to?”
“I find a good rule of thumb,” Olenna began slowly, “is to pay attention to the ones that the Crown seems interested in.” She had raised her voice slightly, and Garlan, Mace, and Willas looked at the two women.
“Oh, not this secret Targaryen prince nonsense again?” Garlan asked disinterestedly, pouring yet more wine for them. “I told the Queen Regent as I will tell you now: if there were a Targaryen prince running about the north, we’d already know. They wed brother and sister for hundreds of years; their seed was too strong. There would have been a silver-haired child running about.”
“The Queen Regent is just bitter that it was not her that Prince Rhaegar tumbled in the hay,” said Margaery slyly before taking a sip of her wine. Loras and Garlan snorted, but Mace looked thoughtful.
“S-surely by now such a person would have been found,” Sansa stammered, attracting stares. “The Targaryen loyalists would have found him—if there were such a child—would they not?”
“Aye, yet every few years the Queen Regent begins her search once again,” Garlan sighed. “And everyone must find new ways to convince her that she’s looking for something that simply does not exist, and she sends her soldiers up north to pointlessly hunt for something that cannot be found.”
“No, not under all that snow,” Olenna snorted once again. Sansa looked down at her plate, and thought of how the meat before her had once been a chicken, clucking about the kitchen gardens. She suddenly found herself unable to eat.
“Are ye unwell, Sansa?” Willas’ voice was soft, barely audible. She could not look at him. She could not move.
“Oh—is your exercise helping, dear?” Olenna asked, touching her arm. “The lads tell me you’ve been out riding with the stablehand. What was his name?”
Olenna’s lips curved slyly, her hand still on Sansa’s arm.
“Jon Snow,” Sansa said, and she felt Willas stiffen beside her. “Aye, it helps with my health.”
“A good ride will do that,” Margaery teased, earning laughter once more.
“Perhaps you can ride with the Queen Regent, Sansa,” suggested Olenna lightly. She swilled her Arbor gold thoughtfully. “When the Baratheons come to visit us,” she explained. “The Queen Regent and her daughter are coming to Highgarden next week.” She paused at the look of horror on Sansa’s face. “Oh, dear. Didn’t Willas tell you?”
Sansa glanced at Willas, but he was looking at Olenna thoughtfully.
“It slipped my mind, grandmother,” Willas said quietly, but his eyes searched Olenna…and then Sansa. Sansa stared down at her plate. “Surely the Queen Regent does not expect to find her secret Targaryen prince at Highgarden,” he added, and she saw a sliver once more of the clever man that she had run to the night of the gathering, in her haste to get away from Jon.
“Wouldn’t that be a productive visit?” Olenna chuckled. “Loras gets a princess, Cersei gets a prince.”
They moved away from the topic of the impending Baratheon visit, but Sansa sat there frozen in place.
How did Olenna know?
Was it a lucky guess, or did she know for certain?
Either way, it was undoubtedly a warning, a warning away from escaping, from disobeying the Tyrells—from doing anything, really.
It was a threat.
Not just any threat—it was a threat against Jon, against her father, against everyone and everything that she had ever loved. If Jon’s true identity was revealed, it would destroy the Stark clan completely. Her father would be named a traitor; everyone who had known and had colluded with her father to keep Jon hidden would be named traitors, as well.
And it would not simply end her clan—it would end the north, and end any dreams of a friendly relationship between the Crown and the clans.
Sansa raised her gaze and looked at each of the Tyrells in a new light. Olenna had kept it well-hidden until now that she knew who Jon was (or, at the very least, suspected) but who else might know?
They were all so good at pretending to just be pretty decorations.
Sansa thought of vines snaking round her throat, tightening; she thought of vines snaking round Jon’s wrists, binding him. Growing strong, she thought queasily.
The thing she had been wavering on—the idea, an impossible idea; could she really do it? Did she really have the strength?—now seemed necessary. Not just for her own survival or for Jon’s, but for her family, for the Northern way of life. For everything.
Supper continued in a blur as Sansa’s stomach churned. It was no good telling Jon; he’d do something sacrificial and impulsive. Yet it was like being forced to watch a vicious serpent hover near him whilst she was gagged. She could say nothing; she could only observe with bated breath, praying that the serpent slithered on.
Across the table, Margaery smiled at Sansa. Willas touched her hand, his eyes soft. How dare you look at me tenderly, she thought furiously, but she did not dare retract her hand, though his touch made her skin crawl. She watched his face fall; he sensed her disgust and pulled his hand away. Sansa felt Olenna watching them, so she reached out and touched Willas’ hand. He looked back at her in surprise, and she smiled for him.
“You look so handsome this evening,” she told him softly, so that only he could hear—though undoubtedly Olenna would witness the exchange. His soft brown eyes lingered on her mouth, then on her necklace so briefly. He looked away.
“I can almost believe ye—but you’re not so good at lying just yet,” he replied, just as softly.
“Aye, you’re right—I’m a terrible liar,” she agreed under her breath. “Perhaps you can teach me.”
“I’ve heard your father’s skilled. Perhaps you can write him and ask him for some aid.”
“My father?” Her heart was pounding. Willas pulled his arm away from her touch.
“Have ye done as I asked?” he changed the subject instead, still not looking at her. Garlan was telling a somewhat raunchy joke, and Olenna and Mace laughed loudest of all.
“I told you: I couldn’t,” she shot back in a hiss.
“Perhaps one of your precious herbs can help with the matter,” Willas retorted in a whisper. Sansa set her jaw. “I’ll give ye leave to visit that witch of yours tomorrow.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Accompanied,” he added.
“You’re so industrious about it.”
“It would only be a matter of time before ye turned to him anyway,” Willas replied, touching his glass of Arbor gold. No one seemed to be listening, yet Sansa felt their attention all the same.
“Yet you want this more than either of us. Would you like to bear witness?” she asked bitterly. Her sadness and anger and fear were a potent poison coursing through her veins. She could rain lightning down on Highgarden; she could raze the fields. She could kill.
“I’ve thought of it,” Willas said quietly, quickly, and her breath caught in her throat.
Briefly their eyes met. “I’m still a man,” he added.
He let out a slow breath, staring at her.
“Aye, I am. Whether ye think it or not.” He took a long, long swig of his Arbor gold. She was not accustomed to seeing him drink so much. “And at some point, I’ll have to—if I’m not certain you’re doing as told.”
There would be few things that would destroy Jon as thoroughly as what Willas proposed—indeed, there would be few things that would destroy her as thoroughly as what Willas proposed. And yet—
—To see Jon harmed—
“I’ll visit the red woman tomorrow,” Sansa vowed quietly. “…To help with the matter.”
The next day, Sansa went into the village accompanied by a Tyrell girl. She went in a tartan dress and gave in to Willas’ insistence that they take a carriage. The Tyrell girl was sulky and clearly unhappy about having to accompany Sansa to the village, and the carriage ride was silent and terse. But her reticence only made Sansa’s plan easier to execute. As they reached the village, Sansa spotted the red woman’s cottage in a corner of the village, its thatched roof in dire need of repair and its garden as wild and tangled as it had been in the many months prior that she'd visited.
“You need not come in with me,” she said to the girl. “Why not wait with the carriage? It’s such a lovely day, and soon it’ll be autumn and not so pleasant to sit outside,” she continued with a soft smile and a gentle touch to the girl’s arm. The girl seemed to deliberate for a moment.
“Aye, I’ll wait with the horses,” she said seriously, as though it were a sensible choice. Sansa looked away.
Was she really going to do this? Could she really do this?
Yes, she thought dully as they drew to a stop in front of the little cottage. The shutters, stripped and brittle, were closed but the front door hung open, and on cue Melisandre stepped out, her magnificent dark red hair covered by a long red scarf that looked of Essos to Sansa though she had never seen such a thing before.
Her eyes met that of Melisandre’s. Yes, she thought once more, thinking of the herbs she had bought to make Willas desire her, thinking of how Willas had looked as he had told her to couple with Jon, thinking of how Willas had threatened Jon’s life, thinking of how Jon’s flesh was ruined, ripped savagely—thinking of how Olenna’s eyes had gleamed as she'd said, hidden under all that snow. The scars would be horrific but they would be nothing to the scars left on the north if she did not do this. Yes, she could do this.
“I’ll be here, waiting,” said the Tyrell girl, as Sansa slipped out of the carriage, her green silk dress billowing around her.
“I won’t be long,” Sansa said sweetly, and she followed Melisandre into the smoky darkness of the cottage.
“You are not here for herbs for desire,” Melisandre deduced as Sansa shut the door, casting them in the thick, sweet darkness. The sharp, bitter scent of smoking plants made her eyes water as though she'd been crying.
“No, I’m not.”
The two women stared at each other plainly. “I-I became with child,” she said now, her voice shaking even though she had practiced the words so many times the night before. “But it wasn’t by my husband,” she continued. “If I have this babe, he’ll know it wasn’t by him.”
Melisandre continued to stare at her, her large eyes terrible and unreadable.
“How long?” she asked.
“Three weeks, I think,” Sansa whispered. She reached into the purse sewn into her skirts and withdrew gold. So many three-headed dragons glinted up at them. “I hope this is enough.”
“For a life? Aye, it's enough gold.”
Melisandre turned to a large cabinet and took a small bottle from it.
“One sip will kill your babe. Three sips will kill a dog. Any more will kill something bigger than a dog.” She pressed the bottle into Sansa’s palm, and Sansa closed shaking fingers around it.
“Thank you,” she said. Melisandre turned away.
“We must do what is necessary to protect those we love,” she said.
It was a strange thing to say.
It was almost like the red woman knew.
Sansa blinked, and turned away.
"Aye, we must," she agreed. "And to protect ourselves."
Sansa slipped the bottle into her purse and stared at the cabinets full of herbs and plants, thinking of the last time she had been here—so desperate to create a life with Willas, so desperate to find a path toward happiness within the rot she'd been given.
How she had changed.
Poor, foolish lass.
But, she wondered, as she palmed the cool bottle, was this so different than letting a horse out of a stable in her fury? Was she truly any different? Or was she still just a wild, scorned girl, lashing out in her shame and anger?
"It is not an easy path," Melisandre said suddenly, and Sansa looked over her shoulder at the red woman once more. Her eyes looked crimson in the dim light. "To take a life."
"Nor to give it," she countered. For some reason she thought of her father, thought of all that he had sacrificed in saving Jon, in giving Jon his life. Melisandre's eyes glimmered.
"Aye, to give it is the hardest of all. It's the greatest pain and the greatest sacrifice. Theft is simpler than generosity, of course."
The hairs rose on the back of Sansa's neck. She thought of asking the red woman why she would make such a thing if she so clearly felt against it; but she could not make her mouth form the words. She knows, Sansa thought, turning away once more. She knows what I plan.
"If I don't take this life," she began, "then another will be taken in its place."
"All lives will be taken, one way or another. We are all merely players in the lord of light's great play, and his will moves us, not our own," said Melisandre. "You need not explain yourself to me."
On the carriage ride back, Sansa tried to take in the sweet scent of summer's last shout, to take in the breeze through the heather and the pale blue sky and the sunlight edging the blue mountains in the distance with gold, but she saw none of it. She tried to reach out and touch her anger, the anger that had propelled her to the red woman's home, but that too was as distant as the blue mountains. She felt nothing.
If I do not do this, she thought, feeling the hard glass of the little bottle of poison through her skirts, I am simply letting Jon suffer in my stead once again. Just as he had stepped in and claimed blame for what she had done out of spite to Waymar, now he had been whipped for how she had disobeyed Willas. She could not let Jon continue to suffer for her; she could not let Jon continue to take the fall for her problems. She could not let Jon be harmed again; she could not let her father's many sacrifices go to waste for her own failed, impulsive marriage.
At Highgarden, as the sun gilt the fields and the tower and the roses, Sansa saw Jon near the stables, edged in gold too. He paused in his work to look at her, but he did not wave, and he turned away from her with haste. His movements were stilted and taut. He is in pain, she thought, and suddenly her cheeks were wet with tears. He is in pain and he does not want me to know. Her body tensed as though it were her own limbs locked with pain. She usually was careful to not be seen gazing at Jon but she gazed openly now because she could not look away just yet.
His pain was her pain.
Once upon a time she had turned away from him in the yard of Winterfell so that he would not see how Waymar Royce had shamed her. Now it was his turn to turn away from her.
She would fight for him, she would take the fall for him, as he had fought for her, as he had tried to take the fall for her.
"Lady Tyrell?" the girl asked warily, as they pulled up to the front entrance to Highgarden. The air was heady with the last of the summer roses. Sansa looked away and wiped at her cheeks. The sight of Jon's ruined flesh would never leave her.
"I am well," she promised, turning back to the girl with a smile.
She would fight for him, no matter what it did to her. She would take the fall for him.
Jon was in the stables, asleep, when she went to him that night. The little bottle was still in her pocket, and she palmed it with her free hand before entering the stables. She had carried it with her all day, though she would not use it for several days, as though it might help her become accustomed to what she planned to do.
"Sansa," he murmured, sitting up and cringing in pain. She thought of Olenna's clever eyes.
"Sit," she hushed him, sitting down beside him in the hay. "I have a poultice for you. ...I can put it on your back, if you like," she added, holding up the poultice she had made from the herbs in the kitchen garden.
Jon sat back down beside her in the hay, and they stared into the darkness before them.
"It'll be a while before we can try to run again," he said at last.
"Aye, it will. The Baratheons are visiting next week; we can try after that," she promised him. She heard him swallow, and she risked a glance at him. In the darkness he met her eyes.
"I shouldn't have walked away," he finally said, and she felt her eyes burn. "That night," he clarified.
"Would things be different?" It's Jon Snow who's owned ye from the beginning, Willas had said.
His grey eyes were soft as dove's feathers; the look he gave her now washed warmth over her like the sun had come from behind a cloud.
"I should have fought for ye. I didn't think I had a right to you but..." He looked away and she relished the line of his jaw, the knowledge that he was near, the touch of his heart and his hopes against hers. "You must be loved," he said hoarsely. "Loved, and understood, and cherished. Else, what's the point of it all?"
"Aye, of all this. We have these rules—who's king, who's laird, who we whip and who we kill—but why have them at all, if not to have a better life? Isn't that why men do the terrible things they do—but to get a better life? Is that not why we steal, why we lie, why we kill?"
"Aye, it is why we do the terrible things we do." The bottle was digging into her leg. She touched her skirts but she didn't move it. She wanted to be reminded; she wanted to know where it was at all times. She wanted to think of the horrible thing she would do for Jon's life. She did not want to forget what she was willing to do for Jon's life.
Poor, foolish lass.
"Let me heal your back," she whispered. Jon turned from her and undid his coat. In the darkness she could just barely see the planes of his strong back. He should be king. But her father had hidden him, had kept him from his true heritage, his true purpose. I'm touching a king's back, she thought as she opened the poultice and faced Jon's strong back. The ruined flesh awaited her touch. This was what he had done for her. The bottle was heavy against her leg. That was what she would do for him.
For a better life, she thought. She curled her fingers into the cool poultice. It's why my father did what he did. It's why I'll do what I shall do.
Her fingertips smoothed over hard planes and Jon shivered at the coolness of its touch. She painted his back with the stripes of green. He would have those scars the rest of his life, but at least this would make his back heal faster. His pain was her pain, and her back burned with each streak of the poultice.
Soon the ruined flesh was covered, and Jon hesitated before turning back to her.
"I'll find a way," he promised her again, as he had done when they'd been forced to turn back into Highgarden. His skin looked so smooth. She had loved his skin for so many years. His dark gaze traced over her like lover's hands and she felt her skin prickle as though he'd touched her.
"Wait until after the Baratheon visit," she whispered. She fought against the urge to touch the bottle in her skirts. "The Queen Regent is coming next week. Wait until after that, when they let their guard down."
Jon studied her. His grey eyes always saw too much. His brows knit together, and his hand ghosted over her cheek. She turned toward his palm and brushed her lips over his skin, then he stepped closer and slid his palm to the back of her head, and brushed his lips against her forehead. Her eyes burned and she stepped closer to him, leaning against his chest, her skin blazing as it brushed against his. His heartbeat was quick and hard beneath her ear, and she closed her eyes and listened as she felt his hands rest on her shoulders, so tentatively. I didn't think I had a right to you... The irony of it: he had a right to everything, by blood, yet he would take none of it.
It's Jon Snow who's owned ye from the beginning.
She drew back just enough to look at him and he gazed down at her only briefly before pulling her close once more, his lips brushing against hers. His touch was gentle but his grip on her was tight. It was like coming home. "Promise me," she began against his lips, when they broke apart, "promise me you won't do anything until after the Baratheon visit."
"I can't," he said back, against her lips, and fisted his hands in her hair and kissed her harder, his strong hands in her hair, then on her jaw, then smoothing along her neck and shoulders. She couldn't think; she had wanted this, had dreamed of his touch, for so long...
"You must," she gasped as he kissed her jaw. "It won't be safe, Jon. Promise me you'll wait." She wound her fingers in his hair as he kissed her lips again, then sighed against them.
"Aye, I promise," he said at last against her lips, then let go of her and stepped back. She ran her fingertips along the skin she loved so well.
"What will we do," she asked softly, "when we get to Essos?" She raised her gaze to meet Jon's, felt the heat of his gaze wash over her.
"Rip this silk dress off of you," he said just as softly, and her breath hitched as he pressed another kiss to her lips, gentle but blazing.
"But we won't be able to carry even a change of clothes," she teased in a whisper. "I won't have another."
"You won't need one," he promised, and she laughed before realizing just how long it had been since she'd laughed, so she kissed him back, hard, harder than she'd ever kissed anyone before. Heat flared between her legs; maybe she really was just a wanton whore, because nothing made her life feel so close to her, so filled with magic, so worthwhile, as kissing Jon.
They broke apart at last, and his dove-grey eyes searched hers. A Targaryen hidden under snow, she thought, dazed by his touch. A secret prince. Perhaps that is why I've always loved faerie tales so much.
"Do you ever wish you'd been king?" she asked, and his smooth lips twitched.
"No," he said softly. "Why?"
"I was just thinking of it, and wondering," she explained hastily. "I was looking at a coin and wondering how you feel when you see the three-headed dragon."
"I don't feel anything," he said. "I'm not a dragon."
"No, you're not," she agreed, and she kissed him one last time. "You're a wolf. You're a Stark."
The poultice that Sansa had pressed to his wounds had helped, undoubtedly. The next day, Jon felt better already, the skin less tight and the throbbing, pulsing pain dulled. He was in the paddock with the sheep when he realized Willas was approaching, making his way slowly. Jon paused in his work and watched the man. He's getting worse, he thought, staring at Willas' uneven gait. He could bear it no longer after a time, and left the paddock to meet Willas in the middle, amongst the heather.
"I realized no one told you," Willas greeted without preamble when they met, "that the Queen Regent will be here next week, with her daughter and her brother, Jaime Lannister."
Jon said nothing; if he revealed that Sansa had told him, it would not help anyone.
"Ye want me to prepare the stables," Jon guessed instead. Willas' lips twitched.
"Aye, they'll have fine horses and they'll need all the room. The Queen Regent never travels without a full litter," Willas said. He gazed at Jon directly; Jon had never felt Willas look at him so squarely. "Have ye ever met the Queen Regent?"
Jon thought of all the times that Laird Stark had led him back inside, or back to the stables, when the Queen Regent had been passing through the north. The Starks had all met Cersei, but he had not.
"I haven't," Jon said. "I don't think the Queen Regent has much care to meet stablehands."
Willas did not look away. He studied Jon, his soft brown eyes roving over Jon's face as though searching for something, and Jon felt something turn to lead inside him. Suddenly, it was impossible to breathe.
"No," Willas agreed at last, his voice as soft as his eyes. "She only cares to meet princes," he added slowly, and then he turned away. He stumbled on the uneven ground and Jon reached out, instinctively, to steady him, even as the thought of throwing him down and breaking his neck flashed before his eyes.
How did he know?
Do you ever wish you'd been king? Sansa had asked. Jon's heart was in his throat as he let go of Willas, who looked over his shoulder back at Jon. "Thank ye," he said softly. "Laird Stark told me I'd be glad to have ye in times of trouble," he mused, straightening and steadying himself against his cane. "I didn't know just how right he'd be."
It was an odd thing to say over some uneven ground.
Jon watched Willas turn back, the breeze toying with his flyaway soft brown hair. Willas paused like he might say something more, but then walked away, leaving Jon there with his horror.
Promise me, Sansa had pleaded last night.
I can't, he thought, watching Willas walk back toward Highgarden.
Chapter 5: Arbor Gold
I split the final chapter into two because it was just way too long. Sorry for the delay, y'all - I couldn't let go of this story.
She had never been so keenly aware of time as she was in the days leading up to the Queen Regent’s arrival. Every beat of her heart was the swing of a pendulum; she found herself thinking, increasingly, of home: of Winterfell, of her mother and father, of Arya and Robb and Bran and Rickon, of Rodrik and Jory, of Mrs. Mordane, of Jeyne. Perhaps it was because she knew that her plan would forsake a future that involved any of them, for she had never felt so homesick. The little bottle from Melisandre was with her wherever she went, and she felt its weight even when it was so deeply buried in her skirts that it was not touching her.
The days leading up to the Queen Regent's visit were frenzied with preparations. Had Sansa been a traditional laird’s wife, she would have been in charge of the preparations—but it was Olenna and Mace who chose what to serve, whether to decorate the guests’ rooms in red silk and which servants would wait on them, how much wine to ship in, and whether to choose Arbor Gold or Strongwine.
Each day when Sansa awoke to the rosy fingers of dawn in her bedroom, the servants were already in the gardens pruning the last of the season’s magnificent roses—and they were still toiling away when she blew out the last candle each night.
The great manor was filled with the perfume of fresh bread and the sweet tang of Dornish wine; every room was arranged and rearranged again like a maiden's hair on her wedding day. Every surface was polished until Sansa could see her own reflection in it, but she found it harder and harder to look at herself these days, and so she always turned away in shame.
She could not bring herself to look at Jon, either. She ought to have been savoring every last moment with him—for she knew this was the end—but she could not look him in the eye. She had spent so many years avoiding his gaze when all she had ever wanted to do was meet it, for it was only he who truly saw her. She just wanted a little more time, just wanted to look at him a little bit longer, but their time was already over, and she could not let her resolve crack.
His absence from her life made the roar of activity around her seem all the more hollow, and each time they passed—in the gardens, in the hallways—she had to press her fingertips to her eyes to stop her emotions from leaking out, stop her porcelain facade from cracking. It was just like being thrown back to those years before her marriage, when she and Jon would not speak, would not touch, but would pass by each other with a ripple of longing so many times each day… yet this time, there was no hope behind it.
She knew he was stung by her distance, and that drove her mad, too—for his pain was her pain—but she told herself it was better this way. He was worth it, he would always be worth it; but she was weak, and she always had been, and she did not know how to be strong without him. Her few moments of strength had always been upheld by him—but this thing she would have to do alone.
She had to.
Each night when she lay next to Willas, they did not speak. She sometimes felt like a doll that had been placed just-so in a dollhouse by Olenna and Mace: the pretty princess laid down next to her prince—for when Willas was abed without his cane, and the candlelight softened the look of illness lingering about his eyes, he could have been a handsome and strong prince. Their golden duvet was piled around them like sunlit clouds, and their finely-made silk nightclothes were splayed around them as though they had been arranged.
Sometimes she imagined Loras and Garlan poised like toy knights outside in the gardens, mid-fight, their swords raised permanently, about to strike down an enemy that did not exist. She imagined Margaery seated before her vanity, waist-length chestnut curls forever perfect, like a sketch of the fairest lady. She imagined the glossy horses in the stables, their coats uniform and perfect, all posed by the hand of a higher power that arranged each piece until the scene was perfect, an imitation of a world that did not depend on the needs and wants of those who inhabited it. They were all just dolls that went where Olenna moved them, down to the little sheep in the paddocks, and they had no voice and no power of their own—none of them.
Two nights before the Queen Regent’s visit, Sansa had dressed for bed and was standing by the open window, staring out at the rose garden and watching the gardeners pack up their tools for the day, as her gauzy nightdress fluttered round her legs. The rose garden was nearly perfect at last. She heard the thump, thump, thump of Willas coming in. He had been getting weaker, his movements more erratic, and she noticed he was trying harder to hide it, too. The door closed, and she heard her husband let out a sigh.
“They are still out there?” He sounded weary.
“Aye, but they’re packing up for the night,” she replied, without turning back to him. She heard him struggle onto their bed, the wooden frame creaking with the movement.
“Grandmother has worked them too hard,” he was saying, grunting with effort. She could not bear to hear his exertions, and turned at last to help him up, but he ignored her proffered hand and struggled beneath the golden brocade duvet on his own. Kneeling on the edge of the bed, she raised her gaze to his. In the low candlelight his Arbor-gold eyes were filled with spite.
“I only wanted to help,” she said quietly, thinking of the little bottle, hiding in a pocket sewn into her nightdress. Willas studied her for a moment.
“You, and everyone else,” he said bitterly, before turning away.
Willas felt the mattress dip as his wife climbed into bed beside him. The room smelled like smoke and roses and her, and his skin prickled with awareness as always when she was near him. Her long hair pooled beside him on their plush pillows and tickled his ears and neck, and he struggled to breathe evenly.
If he had been a usual man—a man like Jon Snow—blood might have warmed his loins and he might have grown hard with desire. He might have turned to his wife and brushed that long hair from her porcelain skin and felt her fingers slip into his hair, might have felt her wet warmth around him.
As he did every night, he waited for this empty, pointless longing to abate. The nights were the hardest. Everything in him except for the part that mattered was ready to take her, to touch her, to make her gasp and cry out, and the desire intensified, rising to a dull, rushing roar as he thought of the flush on her neck whenever she passed by Jon Snow; as he thought of the way her lashes flickered with her quick gaze dancing between him and the floor before her. She had not even looked at him like that at their wedding. Oh, she had given him looks of pity, looks of empathy—but never longing, never desire.
She would not even pretend. Even when she was slipping out of her silks for him, there was always another man’s name on her tongue.
And then the desire receded like waves pulling from the shore, just as it had every single night before, and in its place hot rage burned like acid in his veins, until he was breathless and wet-eyed with hatred for the woman lying next to him; hatred for the man she was always trying not to look at; hatred for his grandmother whose tone was so dismissive, for his sister whose tone was so pitying; hatred for his brothers who treated him little better than a woman and for his father who looked at him like a beast for breeding in which he had unwisely invested against the cautions of others.
He hated them all, but right now most of all he hated Jon Snow—Jon Snow who had so instinctively reached out to stop him from falling, Jon Snow who had so coldly, so disdainfully looked upon him, who had so ruthlessly defied and questioned him, Jon Snow who pitied him.
There was no one who did not humiliate him, no one who did not pity him.
His burning hot rage leaked from his eyes and he felt it burn a trail down his temple, into his hair.
And yet he was still such a fool for his wife. For he still inhaled deeply, relishing the scent of her skin, and held his breath, briefly afraid to speak.
“Yes?” Sansa was wide awake. She never seemed to sleep anymore. He didn’t either.
He wanted not to say it. He wanted to not need her approval. He wanted to be free of her, free of them all.
“I thought,” he began, hating himself more than he hated all of them put together, “perhaps we could have a supper to thank the servants tomorrow night.” She was silent, so he continued. “We could have them all eat with us in the great hall.” He paused. “I know your father would have done it.”
“He would have.” Her voice was leaden. He hated her, he wanted her. He stared at her hair, dark as blood in the darkness. "But it's just another task for them, is it not? You act as though it’s some great honor to them, but it’s another enormous meal for them to cook, another enormous supper for them to clean up after."
She had never been so openly spiteful when unprompted, and that rage came back again. He got ashen silence when he was cold toward her, and acidic spite when he was warm toward her. It did not seem to matter what he did.
"It is a great honor," he said evenly. "You'd do well to remember it."
"How could I possibly forget?"
She turned from him, and Willas' resolve hardened and turned brittle.
So be it then.
It was time to hit back.
He had been keeping something quiet to himself for days now, holding it and hiding it from even his grandmother, but he had his own sources too, and their words were not to be dropped casually. But this moment seemed the appropriate time to use this piece of knowledge. He could not think of how better to wound her in return—for this moment and all the moments that had come before it.
"They say a war is coming," he breathed now, and felt her turn still, her breath freezing in her lungs.
"No." He paused, let her fear begin to build. "Between the clans who will fight for the Crown and the clans who won't."
He did not need to outline it for her. She would know the implication of such a thing.
“Do you really think you won’t suffer in such a war?” Her anger seemed to billow in the room. “Do you really think your grandmother will still prop you up as Laird, once the clans have fallen?”
He did not have anything to say to that.
Jon had been planning, moving so carefully and so stealthily that no one could possibly have known what he intended. The results of his efforts were slowly being piled up beneath the hay he slept on: he hadn't been able to bring himself to steal gold—yet—but he'd taken potatoes, and blankets, and boots small enough for Sansa to wear, as she’d need to run.
She’d need to run fast.
He’d gotten her a coat and trousers to wear, too. She’d have enough to last a few weeks; enough to get to Winterfell, if she chose to go north, though where she went was entirely her choice.
Jon had at last—at last—made his decision, made the decision he had known he would have to make. He had known his bargaining chip, had known what he would inevitably need to do, but had been too craven to use it. On the rare occasion that he saw his reflection in a looking glass—and there were so many of them in Highgarden—he found himself searching for some evidence from Nature of this secret bargaining chip, this card up his sleeve forever, and yet he never could find the slightest trace. And yet it was within him all the same, a terrible clock that had been ticking out the seconds of his life that he had not been imprisoned and murdered for who his father had been, each tick of that clock a gift he had not known—until now—how he could possibly use.
He had argued with himself: it was wasteful, he told himself, as he mended fences. It was dangerous, he would add as he chased the sheep about the paddock, the dogs running before him, golden grasses brushing the bare knees between his boots and his tartan, little reminders of the life he knew was soon to end. It was no guarantee of her safety, and it was reckless.
And yet, each night as the sun set on Highgarden, he lay awake in his hay and came to the same place: he had nothing else to offer. He had no other way to protect Sansa.
He’d offer this bargaining chip to Willas and Willas alone. That much, at least, had been obvious from the moment he had settled on his decision. Willas was in need of power, and would readily accept whatever chance he had to pull the wool over his family’s eyes and take charge. Willas had also implied that he knew—or perhaps Jon was simply fearful and paranoid, yet he did not think in this case he was reading too much into his encounter with Willas. Of course, Jon would also give Willas conditions, though he had no idea of how to ensure Willas honored those conditions. It was one of so many potential flaws in this plan, and his head told him this was fool’s work.
But his heart told him something different every time he looked at Sansa.
They’d hardly spoken. She was distancing herself, he could see it, and this he did not know what to make of. He had considered trying to get her alone and trying to speak to her, but in the end he always decided it was for the best if they did not speak. He might lose his courage, he might give in to his own desires and simply try once more to run off with her.
It was better this way, he would tell himself again and again. Less pain this way. Easier to stay true to his decision. He’d only speak with her to tell her the plan, before enacting it. She would protest, he was certain of it, but he at least had a plan for how he might handle this.
He just wanted one last chance to be with her, one last time to kiss her hair. He just wanted a little more time. But time was not on his side and, anyway, he couldn't be certain that he would be able to tear himself away.
So on the day before the Queen Regent arrived, he checked the bag he had packed for Sansa, and then he walked with purpose to Highgarden.
Willas was in his office, a quiet centre of the storm of activity in Highgarden, when it happened.
He had just informed Grandmother and Father of his intentions for a feast for the servants tonight. They had seemed somewhat exasperated with him but all the same had agreed to it, like indulging a child. Now he sat in his chair and brooded, alone, surrounded by books and maps and nothing living or loving. His legs still throbbed with pain from the effort of walking all the way down the stairs and into the garden where his grandmother and father had been standing, examining the roses.
It was getting worse; drastically worse. In the last two years he had known he was declining, but in the last season he had felt it steepen, worsen. Every day was pain, and whereas before some exercise could cure it, this time he felt that more movement could only harm him. So he had come here to hide, to wince in pain, to let a few errant tears of frustration and agony slip from his eyes—
—And then there was a knock. It was brisk, curt. Willas wiped at his eyes hastily with a lace handkerchief and cleared his throat, set his shoulders back. "Come in," he called.
The door opened, and Jon Snow’s slender, quick form slipped inside. He was clad in the Stark tartan as always, and defiant as ever, and strong as ever. His grey gaze chilled Willas. Without looking away, Jon Snow shut the door behind himself.
The office seemed to buzz with life. Willas was inexplicably breathless as Jon approached him, boots making the floorboards creak. He looked as drawn and pale as his wife, as unhappy as his wife. Willas watched Jon Snow swallow.
"I came to make a trade with you," he said quietly. "I know you're a man of honor though your brothers are not, so I’ll only make this trade with you.”
Willas scoffed; even that movement hurt.
"You know I'm not," he countered miserably. Jon grimaced.
"Ye are," he insisted, shaking his head and stepping closer, his voice briefly warm. "But you're in pain, all the time—I can see it—and you're cornered by your family. No man can be honorable when he's cornered like you are, when he’s in pain like you are.”
There was a lump in Willas' throat.
Who would have thought that Jon Snow, of all people, would offer him the most empathy?
Jon was studying Willas. "You need a bargaining chip to gain your power. Ye need something that no one else has, and I can give it to you. You're a clever man; you'll know how to put it to use and when to do it."
"You're saying you have such a bargaining chip for me?" Willas asked softly. A muscle leapt in Jon's jaw. Willas did not miss how his hands fisted briefly at his sides before he forced himself to relax.
"Aye, I do."
Willas thought of his grandmother's words, thought of the amethyst necklace that his wife had worn. He thought of princes buried under snow. He did not speak; he could not even begin to think of what he might say. "I can give it to you—but make no mistake, it's a trade. And since I will give you this power, you'll have the power to be honorable, to honor your end of the trade."
Jon stood before the desk now, and Willas saw his dirk at his hip, in its leather sheath. This was no errant detail.
"Aye, Sansa. Her life, her freedom. It matters not what ye tell her, but you'll let her go freely. I've packed supplies for her and readied a horse. You'll let her go."
Those grey eyes froze him; that tone froze him. Willas would not show fear to Jon Snow, so he simply looked up at him, spread his palms on the desk before him.
"Why should I?"
"Because it's the right thing to do. You can say she died; you can find yourself a new wife. Ye know as well as I do that a war is coming, and then after that the alliance between our clans won't matter anymore."
"The clans will end," Willas said. Jon Snow nodded.
"They'll end, and you'll be a lord and you can do as you please. And you'll have something that no one else in this whole kingdom has, to use as you like."
“But if I keep Sansa," Willas countered, sitting back, "I can offer the Starks protection."
"But you won't do that, and you can't, anyway. We both know how this ends. You're a clever man," he said again. "I see all the letters you receive. Your grandmother and father might have their contacts, but you have your own, Laird Tyrell. When the Crown fights the clans, the clans will fall, and the North will be ruined, destroyed—perhaps forever. You'll side with the Crown—especially if I give you what I can give you—and then you'll have to distance yourself from the Starks as much as possible. If anything, your marriage with Sansa will only hurt both of you. I wish I could save the Starks, but Laird Stark’s no fool and he’s readied himself for the coming war. I can’t help the Starks, but I can help Sansa.”
There was the briefest flush of passion on Jon Snow’s cheeks before he seemed to regain himself, and the color bled from him once more.
"So what is it you can give me?"
He knew the answer; he could feel it in the room. The slender, dark-haired man before him seemed to take up more space, suddenly, and a shiver rippled through Willas, prickling his skin.
"Power," Jon repeated softly. "But first—I need your word. I need proof that you'll be an honorable man"
"Why would I honor such a trade without knowing for certain that what I'm getting in return is so very useful to me? Only a fool would make such an agreement." Willas scoffed and felt it turn to a cough again. "You have no other options, otherwise you wouldn't do this. So give me your bargaining chip and hope for the best in me."
"Aye, I have always hoped for the best in you," Jon said sadly. Willas wanted to laugh again.
"Why? I am your enemy."
"You're not my enemy," Jon promised him. "You're Sansa's husband. I promised Laird Stark that I would protect Sansa as he protected me, and that is why I must do this—and that is why I have always hoped for the best in you, even when I have despised you."
"You're not Ned Stark's bastard, are you?" Willas asked plainly. Jon shook his head.
"I'm Lyanna Stark's son," he confessed. "I am the son she gave Rhaegar Targaryen."
Shadows of dragons danced on the paneled walls; Willas tasted ash and copper in his mouth as he stared at the final Targaryen. He did not look like a dragon but in this moment he seemed prepared to breathe fire, to tear Willas to strips of flesh if he so wished.
"Where's your proof?"
Jon scoffed, looked away.
"What does it matter? You know the Queen Regent is certain that Rhaegar fathered a son, and that he is hidden in the north. Ye know I am the right age for such a son. You know the rumors of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Even if it were a lie it would be a lie that most people would be very happy to believe. ...And it's not a lie. Laird Stark fathered only trueborn sons, and kept me safe at great personal risk all these years in honor of his sister's dying wish. And I'm the spitting image of Lyanna—ye can be sure I’m Lyanna Stark’s son, at the least.”
Willas had suddenly the sense of having drunk too much wine. He was unsteady, filled to the brim with something that took away his control, made him feel dizzy and falsely powerful.
"Why would you throw Stark's protection away?"
"I promised I'd protect Sansa, and I am scared for her. I cannot keep her safe here, not with this impending war. And I don't think you can keep her safe, either." Jon let out a breath. "This is my bargaining chip. I know you'll know how to use it."
"What if I use it to kill you?"
"So be it. I've always been living on borrowed time. Every breath I have taken has been a gift that I did not deserve." He turned away from Willas. "I have been a thief, taking breaths of life that have never been mine."
Sansa was having new gowns made for the Queen Regent's visit, by Olenna's personal dressmaker. Today was the final fitting, to ensure they were pristine and immaculately tailored for tomorrow. She stood in a splendid room dripping with silk and drenched in gold, before an enormous paneled mirror, placed on a pedestal and dressed in Tyrell green, as the older woman flitted and swarmed around her, prodding and poking her.
Sansa had always loved dresses, and could not help but think of the dress she had made to entice Waymar—she'd made it herself, from the Stark tartan and a panel of dove-grey brocade. She could not help but remember standing in the kitchen gardens of Winterfell, the dress drenched with rainwater, and Jon gazing at her.
You worked hard on it—and its’s a fine dress, he had said so softly. It’s not ruined yet, he’d reassured her.
"You're a bonnie lass," the dressmaker said through the pins in her mouth. Sansa stared at her pale reflection. She looked wan and weary; the dressmaker was merely flattering her. But it only further brought back the day that she'd let the horses out of the stable, the day that she and Jon had first kissed, and it almost seemed the dressmaker were prodding her eyes with the pins now for how they burned.
Oh, you look so bonnie, Jeyne had sighed.
Poor lass. Poor foolish lass, Sansa thought as she stared at herself.
"Thank you," she said evenly, blinking away the grief. The door creaked open and Olenna joined them, swathed in golden silk and perfumed with roses, drenched in glittering jewels. In the mirror, Sansa met Olenna's gaze and watched the older woman survey the dressmaker's work.
"Still too slender," Olenna remarked with a gleam in her eye, shutting the door behind herself. "Look at that waist. I've got the daintiest hands of all the clans and I could circle that waist with my own hands."
"Aye, I was just saying she's a bonnie lass. Such a fine figure, a figure made for dresses,“ the dressmaker agreed. Olenna came to Sansa's side in a rustle of silk and taffeta.
"What jewels with this one?"
"The amethysts," Sansa replied, and Olenna laughed a dry little chuckle, and took Sansa by the elbow. Her wrinkled, age-spotted hands glittered with heavy rings.
"Oh, dear, best not have those on display when the Queen's here," Olenna warned her, with a sharp pat to Sansa's arm. "You know the Queen loves amethysts and she'll want to know where you got them."
I personally thought of the Targaryen eyes, Olenna had said at supper that night. Sansa’s mouth was dry. She could have taken Olenna by her silver hair and forced the poison down her throat in this moment.
"Did you get them from a lover, Lady Tyrell?" the dressmaker, oblivious to the tension, teased Olenna. Olenna let out a cackle.
"You might say that, but a woman of my standing can hardly go around talking of past lovers,“ she said slyly. She turned away from Sansa. "And with all the Dornish wine Mace has brought in, I can't be sure I won't let it slip. So inappropriate," she mused. She looked back at Sansa once more, her gaze lingering on Sansa's defiantly flat belly. "A fine figure, truly. You're the bonniest lass of them all. You still look a maiden, though you're no maiden anymore. Why, your childbearing years are nearly behind you."
"Oh, don't say that, Lady Tyrell," the dressmaker admonished. "The crofter's girl Val's the same age as Lady Sansa and she got with child this past winter, quick as a beast in the barn."
Sansa thought of Waymar's fine horse, too big for the stables. She saw her neck begin to flush. She thought of amethysts, of Targaryen eyes. She thought of how it had felt to kiss Jon's damp, warm skin in the chamber beneath Winterfell, them both turned gold by the firelight, his wet curls brushing her skin as he tried to pull away from her.
Poor, foolish lass.
Her own dress lay draped over one of the silk-covered chairs, and the little bottle from Melisandre was hidden in its depths. Sansa smiled at Olenna through the mirror.
"Well, as Lady Tyrell said, the wine will be flowing. Who knows what will happen?" she wondered aloud.
Olenna's eyes narrowed into knowing, clever crescents.
"Who knows indeed? That's what I do love about a royal visit—the excitement, the unpredictability of it all. A royal visit is never dull—secrets and gossip always come out.”
And with that she left the room, and Sansa realized she would have to act sooner—much sooner—than she had planned.
She would have to act tonight.
As the sun set over Highgarden, Sansa stood before her mirror in her only remaining Stark tartan dress. It was the dress she had made herself, and the dove-grey silk glimmered like frost. She wore no jewels, and she left her hair loose and wild like they did in the real north. The bottle, Jon's salvation, was hidden in her skirts. She met her own gaze defiantly. This was who she had always been: selfish, foolish, romantic. She had let the horses out of the stables and so she would let Jon out of danger. He would not take the fall for her own protection ever again. She would not allow it.
She turned from her reflection, and left her bedroom. The rough wool of the tartan had grown unfamiliar to her, and as she walked along the sunset-lit rosy halls of Highgarden, the carpet plush beneath her fine shoes, she remembered walking out to the yard of Winterfell, following Mrs. Mordane along the darkened, cavernous corridors, anticipating Waymar. And she remembered how her heart had pounded and throbbed then just as it did now, how her hands had trembled. The difference was that this time she was being a fool for the right man, and this time, she had no uncertainty of how this would end. Her future had never been more clear to her.
It was time to go to the great hall, but she could not bring herself to go just yet. And so amid the flurry of activity, she slipped outside into the balmy evening, the last balmy evening she would ever know, and stood in the kitchen gardens. The sunset turned the fields golden, and the air was heady with roses and thyme and freshly-turned sod, and she could smell the fresh bread even from here, and in the distance, Jon approached her, edged in gold by the dying sun, and her heart swelled in her breast.
If only they had allowed themselves one night—just one. Their moment beneath Winterfell, his lips on her shoulder and neck, where he had murmured against her skin, would be everything that they had ever built together. Oh but what a fragile and perfect empire it was, a testament to love that did not need words or rings or veils, but only grazing gazes in the rain and unspoken devotion from across a busy room.
He met her there in the gardens as the sun disappeared at last over the high walls. His hair was still damp from bathing, and he wore his finest coat over the Stark tartan. They only had a minute, and as he passed, he took her arm, his grip one of surprising urgency. How did he read her mind? How did he know what she planned to do? He was facing Highgarden and she was facing the fields, and this was the closest she had been to him in days and she burned with longing for this brave, gentle, strong, loving man. She had to cover her mouth with her free hand to stifle a gasp of grief for all that she was giving away—yet they were things that would not have belonged to her anyway, and for even feeling she was giving them away she knew she was just as selfish, just as stupid, just as foolish as she'd always thought.
Jon's hair tickled her cheek as he turned to her, his lips a hair's width from the shell of her ear.
"Ye are not mine, but I have loved you, I have been in love with you, I have longed for you my whole life. Ye must know. You are the mystery I'll never solve, the secret I will always keep. You are every beautiful thing in the world...and you are not mine."
Her words were caught in her throat, and then he released her, and his boots crunched on the gravel as he entered Highgarden and left her there in the kitchen gardens, just as he had done years before.
Chapter 6: The Broken Mill
I have no excuses for myself. Just a final chapter/epilogue after this because I'm long-winded and dramatic as ever.
Sansa was thrown back years in time to that moment in Winterfell's kitchen gardens, when she had stood in the rain and Jon had promised her that her dress was not ruined yet.
Poor lass. Her anguish in that moment now seemed unbearably pastoral and so sweetly tractable. She had thought the world was ending then—this time, it truly was. Poor, foolish lass. Back then she had had more hope than she had understood; the sight of Jon in the rain had still prompted her to think of her own future.
But it was not raining here. It was balmy, and the sunset had turned the world around her aglow, and her arm still ached and pulsed from where Jon had gripped her, and his confession was still tickling her ear. For a moment she was baffled by the pointless beauty around her: why should the universe bother to be lovely when everything was so transient—when nothing lovely could ever last?
Why could she not simply run off with Jon and have a life with him—why could she not have happiness?
Was life nothing more than missed opportunities, foolish misunderstandings, and desperate, irredeemable mistakes? She had grown up thinking that every painful thing was merely another investment in a golden future: that pain added up to ultimate happiness, that suffering bought beauty. The songs had said so, and it was this which had lodged a shard of hope in her heart for so long, even at her lowest moments. Suffering bought beauty.
She had suffered, and was this moment—Jon's confession in the loveliest garden on the loveliest evening—all the beauty it had bought her?
It was not enough.
Why was it never enough for her? She was surrounded by golden roses and the man she had loved since childhood had told her he loved her. Why could that not be enough?
Poor, foolish lass.
She was starting to see that happiness was not earned. Happiness had to be snatched up with quick, greedy hands and a pounding heart under the cover of darkness. She was snatching up happiness for Jon, stealing from the world around her to give him some measure of beauty. It was the only thing she could do… But in this moment it seemed all so pointless and so without order. Once she had given him his freedom, he would only be able to run; the little happiness she had managed to cobble together for him would crumble and scatter, leaving him to suffer again.
And yet… to not do this thing...
Her future had narrowed, and now she was closing it off, pruning possibilities from her future as the gardeners had pruned the roses of Highgarden. There was only one way this could go, now, if she did this thing.
She had not had the chance to tell Jon she had loved him, longed for him, as well.
It didn't matter, she told herself, wiping at her eyes discreetly and turning back to Highgarden. He already knew. How could he not?
So she steeled her will and went to the feast.
What had he done?
Why had he said the words aloud?
That horse had long been let out, but still Jon felt as though he had told a secret. Perhaps it was because this time there could be no turning back. There would be no more breathless moments of hope as he fleetingly met Sansa's eyes. For however long he had left, his imaginings of a life with Sansa (for he had compulsively thought of her for so many years) would be utterly without hope—he had killed the possibility. And though a future with her had never been possible, there had always been some stupid, desperate part of him that had held onto the idea anyway.
Now, he was falling. Now, he had nothing left.
The walk to the great hall of Highgarden was a blur. Jon wished for death, for execution. He had so much left to say, so much left that he wanted—but would it not be best to simply let it all end? Words were wind, and in the end would only be weak attempts to justify his actions to people who would not want to hear. Either Sansa would understand his actions or she would not. Either Laird Stark would understand his actions, or he would not. And their understanding was not necessary; it was something he wanted but not something he needed.
The rest did not matter.
Outside of the great hall, the other servants were waiting for the feast to begin, dressed in their finest, their faces freshly scrubbed and flushed with the pleasure of getting to eat something other than gruel. Jon did not engage with them. He wished for calm, for quiet, because his fool heart would not stop pounding. He did not know if Willas would do something today, or tomorrow—or never. He could not stand not knowing.
The large, carved doors swung open, revealing candlelight and trails of violins. Loras was sulking already at the high table, and across the room their gazes locked. There was some hollowness in Loras’ gaze, a fresh desperation. Tension was strung between the Tyrells even if they jested and smiled and drank their Arbor gold.
But Willas was nowhere to be found.
Jon took his seat, hands clammy and heart pounding. Why did Loras look at him like that? Where was Willas?
What if Willas was telling Sansa to leave at this very moment?
What if that moment in the garden just now was the last time he would ever see her?
It wasn’t as though it hadn’t occurred to him but the thought was suddenly, unbearably real. It would be the best outcome, more than he could really hope for, but it was agony, it was pain worse than any that Loras and Garlan had inflicted upon him, worse than any he had ever experienced. It was sharp as a whip through your flesh yet aching and consuming as longing for your mother, as going hungry for too many meals. It could not be escaped.
…Worse yet, what if Willas had no plans of freeing Sansa?
He would see her again...but she would not be safe.
His pathetic, traitorous heart lifted like a dog sniffing the air hopefully. He should have kissed her, he should have held her. Damned either way but at least then he could savor that feeling as the world ended. He knew what it was to kiss her and he could still remember it but why wasn’t it enough?
It would never be enough; he longed for execution.
Willas had been waiting outside of the hall. He was dressed more finely tonight than she had ever seen him: he wore a waistcoat of dusky lavender brocade, with a silver watch and silver buckles on his shoes. He had a new cane, too. She supposed it had been picked out by Margaery, who had made it a tongue-in-cheek hobby to find Willas increasingly lovely and over-the-top canes, an implicit acceptance of his declining health—and an implicit insistence that others accept his declining health.
Perhaps it was well-meant, but it only added to the sense that Willas had to be held upright by the women around him—a notion well enough for an average man, but deadly for a laird. As their eyes met and as she noticed how he struggled to stay upright, she was confronted with the uncomfortable complexity of the Tyrells' morality.
Willas studied her dress, particularly the Stark tartan. There was something strange about her husband tonight.
"Ye look the way you did that night," he said as though marveling at an impossibility. "At the Stark gathering. The night we spoke of the stars.”
She looked down at her dress, and then smiled back at him. She could not help it: there was some tenderness there still, even now. Tenderness for the poor, foolish lass she had been, tenderness for the helpless fawn that Willas had seemed. Tenderness for the illusion they’d both so eagerly bought into, to escape their respective realities and therefore their respective pain. She was not the same woman who had sewn this dress, and yet in so many ways she still was, too.
She was still the worst of her but she had sacrificed the best of her.
What she would do now was so much worse than letting a fine horse out of a stable—and yet so much more necessary, too.
“It’s the same dress," she admitted, looking back up at him. Willas was still studying her dress.
"Aye, I know.”
For the briefest moment there was heat in his gaze, but it dissipated quick as it had come, leaving behind a hollow shock that she had never before seen in him. She half-expected him to make some cruel remark, but he merely held out his arm for her to take. Together they walked into the Great Hall of Highgarden.
Highgarden's great hall was so different from that of Winterfell: the walls, painted the palest green, were paneled and crowned in gold filigree, with golden and silver leaves twining along the crown moulding. Whereas Winterfell's great hall had been a place of darkened stone and roaring hearths, of ancient pillars and cast-iron fixtures for candles, Highgarden's great hall was like a sunlit grove.
Several smaller tables had been arranged in a circle to accommodate the servants who had been invited. Sansa spied Jon with the other field hands; his Stark tartan, so grim and plain, stood out among all the gilded finery, just like hers did.
Sansa and Willas were seated at the center of the high table, with Sansa on Willas’ right, and their table faced the rest of the room like a stage, or frieze on display: a tableau of finery and repression, of feelings drowned in silk. Sansa was seated next to Olenna, who was already locked in bright, strained banter with Garlan and Mace. On Willas' side, Loras sulked as Margaery tried in vain to stir him into a better mood. Loras' foul mood had only increased as the Lannister visit loomed, and there were rumors aplenty for why he might be so unhappy. He is no more free than I am, Sansa thought, and she hated herself for her sympathy for her enemy.
"No jewels?" Olenna noted, glancing away from Garlan and Mace as Sansa took her seat.
"All of the jewels that Willas has given me are too fine for this dress," Sansa smoothed, taking her cup of Arbor gold. Her hand trembled as she reached for the cut crystal, and Olenna's eyes did not miss it. Across Willas, she felt Loras' gaze upon her. He seemed to be watching her; it was like he knew.
"How polite of you to wear your Stark tartan today," he observed darkly, and Olenna chuckled.
Sansa could not look at him. She thought of Jon’s back, the flesh ruined. Her stomach somersaulted, and the perfume of fresh food caught in her throat like a foul odor, made her as sick as if she’d been confronted with a rotting carcass.
"Oh, let the lass wear what she likes, Loras," Olenna said, swilling her own crystal goblet of wine. "We should all be so proud of our lineages. Sometimes I like to wear the Redwyne colors, though I've not been a Redwyne in years."
"You're still part Redwyne," Sansa said sweetly, turning away from Loras. "More wine, my lady?"
"I'll pour it," Willas intercut, and with a hand shaking near as bad as Sansa's, he poured them each more wine. All eyes followed the tremors of Willas’ hand.
She had to find some way to break the attention away from her. She needed to let Olenna turn her attention back to Garlan and Mace, and for Loras and Willas to be distracted by Margaery.
She had to do this thing.
She was normally not so impolite as to not make conversation, but she pretended to be dull-witted and distracted, and toyed with her first course, only providing Olenna with the most close-ended answers to her questions, and asking nothing in return. She wondered if Jon was looking at her, but she would not be able to look at him and then do what she needed to, so she did not check.
Eventually, Olenna seemed to give up on Sansa as a lost cause, and turned back to Mace and Garlan—but Willas was not distracted by Loras and Margaery, and instead seemed as dissociated as she was. He was staring ahead, and Sansa followed his gaze.
He was staring at Jon.
And Jon was staring back.
It was a match; Willas’ eyes were glassy and Jon’s were cold.
“You stare at Jon,” Sansa observed under her breath. Willas did not turn to her or acknowledge her, but she saw him swallow.
“Add his name to the list of people who gaze at Jon Snow,” Olenna chuckled. “It's quite a long one. Who of Highgarden doesn’t stare at that man? He’s the finest man I’ve ever seen; even I catch myself staring from time to time. He draws eyes like royalty.”
She had to do this.
“He’s no Lannister or Baratheon,” Margaery said gamely, with a quick wink toward Sansa. “Handsome like the North, in a wild sort of way, I grant you. But he hardly looks like a king to me.”
“Well, if the North splits, he can be king in the north,” Garlan put in, and they all laughed, all save for Willas, Sansa, and Loras. Loras shot a dark look in Jon’s direction. Sansa considered the rumors about Loras and wondered if he found Jon handsome. The way he looked at him, he didn’t seem to. He was looking at Jon like he despised him.
“You think it likely, brother?” Margaery was asking with bright interest.
"As likely as a field hand becoming a king, sister," Garlan retorted. Laughter bubbled up again as the decorated doors swung open, and a golden tray bearing a roast was brought in. It was succulent, dressed in herbs, steam rising from it, but it made Sansa sick. She watched the servants and field hands stare hungrily, and Margaery and Garlan were laughing, and Loras was glowering at Jon, and Mace and Olenna were remarking on the enormity of the beast—it took two people to hold the tray—and this, this was Sansa’s moment.
She had to do this.
Slippery bottle, shuddering heart, yet oddly certain hands.
She poured Olenna more wine. She poured herself more wine.
Her eyes were burning and her heart was racing; she was breathless as the choicest cuts of meat were placed before her and Willas.
It was done.
Now there was nothing to do but wait.
“No, thank you,” she heard Willas softly decline his portion. “Save that for someone who has worked today.”
The servers turned away, moving on to Olenna.
Willas was still staring at Jon.
Jon was still staring back.
Olenna had not touched her cup yet.
“You seem preoccupied,” Sansa said, to distract herself. She watched Willas swallow.
“Do you ever feel like such a fool?” he asked under his breath. A whisper, choked with despair. She saw his eyes grow misty; in the corner of her eye she saw Jon shake his head almost imperceptibly, just once, at Willas. A warning. A threat.
What had Jon done?
“Always,” she admitted, trying to keep her terror at bay. “But you're so clever. What has made you feel like a fool?”
Willas seemed immune to her flattery and vacant of his usual barbed, subtle sarcasm with her. He seemed like a lost boy, and it scared her more than his acidic cruelty ever had.
“I never knew my limitations, not really. I feel as though I am faced with my limitations daily—hourly—but they have always been physical. I have never felt so small,” he confessed. “Such a small piece of a vast picture, a vast machine that has been in motion for thousands of years. And yet the smallest pieces can destroy the machine, can destroy everything.”
His hands were still shaking. “Thus I too have never felt so enormous, so powerful, in knowing I am so small and contain so much possibility.”
“You must have had too much wine, husband,” Sansa replied. Her terror was on Willas, but she kept Olenna—and her cup—in her periphery. Her heart was pounding. She thought she might be sick. She longed for fresh air, for freedom from the thick perfume of meat and the sweetness of wine.
Her panic was on her tongue, in her throat. Burning her teeth.
What had Jon done?
“I have not had any wine. I don’t think I’ll ever drink again,” Willas said softly. He was still staring at Jon in a daze. “It is the tiniest things that cause destruction, that change everything."
What had Jon done?
Willas spoke again. "When I was a boy, one of the mills broke down—everything was stopped, and it could have been ruinous. There was no bread for months, and had we not had our connections and our other crops, we would have starved. Many of the servants and tenants went hungry. No one could understand what had happened. No part of the mill was broken; there was no explanation.”
He paused, and Sansa waited. Olenna had not sipped yet. “In the end, the fault lay with one of the crofters’ boys. He had been hiding kittens in the mill. One got caught in the axles, so small and so dark that no one saw it. It was so small that it was no bigger than my fist, but it wreaked destruction. It caused famine and poverty, stopped our trade, almost ruined our reputation.”
Sansa stared at the table. A stray kitten, an unlocked gate. A fleeting moment in the stables. Tiny things that changed the balance of everything.
What had Jon done?
“Are you considering ruining any mills today?” she tried to jest. Her voice quaked. Olenna was saying something scathing, and cutting her meat. Her crystal goblet remained full and untouched.
“I could.” He seemed more baffled by this than anything else. “I could change history. I am not even able to cut my meat by myself anymore, but right now I am the most powerful man in this room.”
He was still staring at Jon, and when Sansa braved a look at Jon, she did not know what to make of his expression. She had never seen it before: a profound and wild desperation, as he stared at Willas. Grey eyes filled with horror, smooth jaw clenched, strong hands gripping the table. He looked like he was about to beg Willas.
And then it came to her.
She knew what Jon had done.
Powerful hatred for Willas, for the Tyrells, for the Lannisters and Baratheons and Targaryens surged through her. She was reeling with it, reeling as she had that night she had let Waymar's horse out of the stable.
“And what will you do with this power?”
Willas did not speak. Garlan made a joke and Olenna let out a cackle, and her age-spotted fingers wrapped around the stem of her cup but she did not drink. Jon’s body was taut with tension. Willas looked like he was about to cry. Margaery’s voice was getting louder, she was teasing Loras, and it was beginning to sound desperate, but Sansa understood none of it.
She knew what Jon had done. And Willas was bitter. Willas was angry. Willas wanted power and had been denied it by nature, by family, by his own fear. Willas was a cornered animal who had been given the power of lightning.
Why wouldn’t he use it?
Who could truly blame him?
All of the nights they had failed to lay together, all of the things unsaid between them, all of the things said between them that should have been left unsaid…these stacked up around them like a narrow corridor. The only way for Willas to go was forward, toward what Jon had so foolishly—so foolishly—given him.
“That is just the thing,” Willas said softly. Olenna lifted her cup; Arbor Gold sloshed over the rim as she laughed. Sansa could not breathe. “I always thought that if I had never been ill, that if I had been born a proper man, I would be brave and strong. I would be fierce, I always told myself. A ruthless killer, a war general.
“I have always hated myself for my softness, and have always sworn that my helplessness was never my fault. But here I am—I could stop the mill—and…”
He trailed off. “I cannot help but think of that kitten. It has haunted me all these years. I hated the crofter’s boy for being such a fool—he should have kept them somewhere else, in the stables—not because he broke the mill, but because that tiny creature had suffered and died. I didn't care about the mill; it was the kitten I thought of. My brothers beat the boy, and the boy's father beat the boy, and they all spoke of business. I cried for the kitten.”
“I think that is a thing to celebrate,” Sansa countered. “I think that is the best of you.”
Olenna swilled her wine. Loras stared.
“It would save me,” Willas was saying, almost manically. “It would give me everything I ever wanted. But…” he swallowed. “I cannot. All that I have already done haunts me; it is killing me faster, I know it…”
Tears blurred her vision. She was falling helplessly, tumbling down a hill with no way to stop. She was reeling. “And then I realize,” Willas suddenly continued, “that it was not the kitten that broke the mill, but the crofter boy’s selfishness. He wanted the kittens, and when his father told him to give them away, he kept them anyway. It's not the tiny thing that causes destruction, it's our selfishness.”
When she had let Waymar’s horse out of the stable, she had selfishly only wanted to hurt Waymar. It had not been until after the horse had been freed that it had occurred to her that Jon and Jory would be the ones to suffer for her struggle for power. “I have been so selfish,” Willas suddenly confessed, and at last he looked away from Jon. When he looked at Sansa, his eyes were golden. “I cannot die a selfish, hateful man.”
For one moment they were reunited in total understanding.
She did not even have time to consider her empathy. Her heart split open and flooded the world with blood. Her heart could turn the world red. She bled for anything. She did not even have to think.
She turned back to Olenna.
Olenna’s lips were on the rim of the cup.
Sansa snatched the goblet from Olenna's hand.
Arbor Gold sloshed over the rim and onto her wrist. The room went silent as she set the cup down with a shaking hand. Sansa was breathing hard as she met Olenna’s eyes. She'd almost done it; she'd almost let the horse out of the stable again.
“You poor, foolish lass,” Olenna said calmly, in the singular moment of calm.
And then mayhem broke.
Jon leapt with wild grace from the table just as Loras and Garlan did; the scrape of the chairs along the floor was shattering. Someone screamed. Sansa was panicking, backing away from the table. Someone was grabbing her by the hair as Margaery shrieked, and Sansa writhed and fell from her chair in an attempt to escape her assailant. There would be no escape, but she was a cornered animal and fought like a wolf. She was yanked backward; it was Loras, and there was a flash of a blade and something tickled her belly, through her dress, and she clutched at her stomach.
Sansa realized, belatedly, that warmth—red warmth—was seeping through her fingers, and dizzily she realized she was going to be in pain soon.
She met Loras’ eyes, so like Willas’, and she saw his sadness—and then his shock. He pulled his blade from her belly and it clattered to the floor, and in the silence that followed, Loras dropped with a final gasp to the floor, revealing Willas standing behind him.
Willas was shaking, holding a knife covered in blood.
He had stabbed his brother in the back.
"Willas!" Olenna cried in horror. Garlan and Mace were advancing on him, and Margaery was sobbing, and servants were overturning tables and chairs to get out of the great hall. No one seemed to notice or care that Jon was there with them, running to Sansa. He was the loveliest thing she had ever seen, and he was running for her. Oh, but she loved him, she loved him so wildly and now it was all ending...
“Sansa,” he said, his voice strangled, as she stumbled into his arms. Jon was holding her and he turned, wildly, to escape, but Mace and Garlan were blocking his way, and he had no weapon.
They were trapped—but all eyes were on Willas, shaking and holding his bloodied knife, over the body of his brother. He was staring at Olenna.
The hall, at last, was silent.
"Listen to me," he choked, swaying on his feet. He could not stand for very long without his cane; it had only gotten worse in his stress. The silver blade flashed in the light with his shaking hand; the blood was ruby-red. “I am Laird, but I am your blood. And you have ruined me. You have ruined my life. And you ruined his, too. I’ve only killed him, but you’re the ones who made him suffer.”
There was silence; only Sansa's labored breathing and the drip, drip of the blade from Willas' knife could be heard.
Willas looked to Jon and Sansa. "You will leave this place. But you won't go free—you've taken so much from me, so I’ll take from you. If I ever learn that ye have gone back to Winterfell, I will have you killed. Go."
And then he turned back to Olenna, Mace, and Garlan. "You've controlled me long enough. I'm laird. And I'm my own man; I'm not your doll to position as you please."
Everything was going dark; Sansa watched her husband clumsily bend down, and take Loras’ pistol from his belt. His aim was shaky, but he was mere feet from his grandmother. He nodded to the goblet which Sansa had snatched. “You'll drink, or I'll kill Margaery."
Margaery let out a choked sob in horror, and Garlan was brandishing his sword, but Olenna merely smiled.
"Do you know," she began almost ponderously, "I always thought you were the cruelest of your brothers."
Willas swayed with the last of his strength, propped up by his own rage at how ill-used and ill-loved he had been.
Olenna did not flinch as hot tears tracked down Willas' cheeks. "It was Mace's idea to have you as Laird. So that when the clans folded and the Lannisters took our government from us and hanged the Lairds, no one would be sad to see you go. You were always just for show, just like our tartan, but perhaps it's the things we do just for show that will kill us in the end."
And she lifted the goblet to her lips and drank. And that was the last that Sansa saw.
You can heal from a sword's pierce, she had told herself only days earlier.