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R I V E R R U N

 

The Targaryen girl was not as foretold. By the way vicious rumours circulated about her, Sansa had at least expected some shaking sickness, or deformed limbs. But though she was short in stature, the girl was no cripple. She had a sweet smile and the legendary long silver-white hair and purple eyes of her House. Pretty indeed, though perhaps a little simple-minded. But to her credit, she certainly responded well to Sansa’s courtesies. They exchanged pleasantries and sat together at the Arryn’s introductory feast at Riverrun, the seat of power in the Riverlands. But the Targaryen girl could never be Sansa’s true friend, for all that they were about to become kin.

Sansa had listened to her parents speak many a time of King Robert’s reluctance to let Lady Daenerys live. She knew that no friend of Daenerys would ever be able to garner favour from House Baratheon. Though Sansa herself might find a sanctuary in Winterfell, her parents still had to reside in King’s Landing, so long as her lord father was Hand of the King. And the Hand of the King’s daughter could never be seen to shelter or befriend the enemy. In this, Sansa knew her duty well; she simpered and smiled, and said nothing of importance. She danced with Uncle Edmure and his friends, whilst Ethan glowered at any man that attempted to be over-familiar. Though she thought him bull-headed, Sansa felt much safer with him at her back, keeping the unwed Riverlords sons a decent distance away.

Lady Daenerys had been rescued as a babe by Sansa’s brave cousin, Ser Oswell. Formerly of the Mad King’s Kingsguard, now stripped of his position and returned to House Whent. After the death of his fellow Kingsguard in the war (save for Ser Jaime and Ser Barristan), King Robert had bid him to go to Dragonstone with Uncle Stannis. To bargain with Mad King’s Queen, on behalf of the new King, to prove his loyalty to the Crown. Or so the story went.

But Queen Rhaella had died in childbed, bringing Lady Daenerys into the world. Ser Oswell and Uncle Stannis had no choice but to return to King’s Landing with the two young Targaryens, the last of their House, and no former Queen for King Robert to shame.

Sansa had heard awful whispers of the fate of Prince Rhaegar’s wife and children, so she had not been too shocked when word came to her lord father that the former Prince Viserys had died of a ‘fever’. He had been shipped to Oldtown to take up the duties of an acolyte before she was born, but died before he could forge his maester’s chain. Sansa could remember being horrified to overhear that her lord father thought Viserys’ death was ‘probably for the best’ because ‘keeping him from being ensnared in the briars was proving an irritant’.

As she grew and became more aware of the darkness of the known world, Sansa questioned the King’s decision to let the last Targaryens live, even brought low as they had been. Why had he done so? What did he gain from keeping them? King Robert was not a merciful man, she had learnt, watching him laugh at bloodsport and hearing her lord father lament the duties the King forced him to proceed with, when the King remembered that he was not merely supposed to drink and grasp at women. The histories found in the Great Library claimed King Robert was merciful and kind for allowing the last Targaryens to live, cursed by their foul blood though they were. Sansa took it to mean that King Robert had been persuaded that he could not rely on the goodwill of House Tyrell and the Dornish, if he were to execute the two remaining scions of the Dragon Conqueror. But it was all settled long before Sansa’s birth; all that remained were her Father’s weary whispers.

Viserys had died from a 'fever', but the babe Daenerys had lived and thrived in the Riverlands. She was older than Sansa, but almost seemed younger, sweet and sheltered as she had been. Lady Daenerys’ first years had been spent at Harrenhal with Ser Oswell, and a contingent of Baratheon men, who were there for her ‘protection’. But they had no doubt been instructed to kill her, if anyone attempted to rescue her. Sansa knew the sons and daughters of those Baratheon men-at-arms, because they had been hostages in the Red Keep. Politely treated, some even doted on, but hostages just the same.

Sansa’s path had momentarily crossed with the Targaryen girl, because Lady Daenerys had been fostered in Riverrun for most of her life. She was betrothed by the King’s decree to Edmure Tully as a child. Sansa had heard Father speak of it; it made perfect political sense. The girl was highborn, despite her cursed blood, and the supporters of House Targaryen would claim any match too low was invalid. But House Tully was perfect, for they were not descended from Kings, but still very powerful. As Lord Paramounts of the Riverlands, Tullys were reasonably wealthy without the opulence and greed of the dangerous House Lannister. The Tullys had fertile lands, but unlike House Tyrell of the Reach, they were loyal to House Baratheon through pledge and marriage. Hoster Tully’s two daughters had been tied to the rebel alliance between Houses Arryn and Baratheon, after all. The Targaryen girl needed to be close enough to keep eyes upon, so the North was unsuitable, and Dorne too, being the seat of the Targaryen’s most staunch supporters. All that left was the Vale and the Stormlands, but father would never tie his House to the polluted blood of the Targaryens, and nor would the Baratheons, though they had a little dragonblood already. The Targaryen girl could never be seen to be rewarded, so marriage to the King’s brother was out of the question.

Now that Daenerys had flowered, the marriage had finally come to pass. As she was only a Lady from a deposed House, it was with little fanfare. She had only ever been a lady, from a dead House, after all. Sansa shuddered, watching the wedding take place in the splendid Sept of Riverrun. Lady Daenerys looked beautiful in a charcoal grey dress, slashed at the shoulders to reveal her pale arms beneath, embellished with tiny red beads at her throat and waist. But Sansa could think of nothing but how awful it would be, to be utterly alone in the world, without kin and allies, with no seat or people to stand for her. Lady Daenerys blushed deeply when Uncle Edmure kissed her. The couple were obviously close from her long fostering in Riverrun, yet Sansa felt a deep well of pity in her heart.

House Targaryen would be forgotten at last, though in truth it was long buried. Standards displaying the infamous three-headed dragon were forbidden, as was the utterance of their bizarre words. All depictions of dragons were frowned upon, so much so that almost all of them in the Seven Kingdoms had been destroyed or melted down, and reforged into something more favourable.

As the wedding revelries got underway, Sansa took upon herself the duty of seeing Bran to bed, when the talk turned lewd and the drink began to flow liberally. Ethan followed her stoically. His brow was deeply furrowed in disapproval at the Riverlords, who were too lax in their manners once the wine was uncorked. He stood without the door, as Sansa helped Bran into his sleeping shirt. She was aided by the meek Lady Perra of House Breakstone, her new companion. Once Bran was tucked a-bed, the petite girl politely took her leave, bobbing into a low curtsey. She was very conscientious and aware of the vast difference between them, haling from a low masterly House in the Vale.

Cracking open Bran’s favourite volume of tales, Sansa snuggled onto the bed beside her favourite brother to read aloud about Knights of the Realm. Bran was obsessed with Knights, and none more than the Kingsguard. He thought they were all wonderful, with their unblemished white cloaks and their shining golden armour. Currently, they were recounting the life of Ser Barristan the Bold, Sansa’s favourite of the Kingsguard, because Bran deserved to be influenced by the best.

“Why is her cloak plain?” Bran asked suddenly, when Sansa sat beside him, reading from the collection of tales.

“Whose cloak, sweetling?” Sansa asked, startled out of her recount of the defiance of Duskendale.

“Lady Daen- Day- Dan-ahrs,” said Bran, stumbling over the silly Targaryen name.

“Because her House is dead and gone,” Sansa whispered, unable to suppress another shiver. The last Targaryen must be so lonely.

What would Sansa do, without Bran and Ethan, Mother and Father, Uncle Stannis, even shrill Aunt Lysa and petulant Robin? To be without her family, her ancestral seat and all reminders of her House, would be awful beyond comprehension.

“But she must have a sigil, and-”

“Hush, Bran,” Sansa interjected swiftly, conscious that they were no longer encased in the Tower.

“Her House was defeated by King Robert himself.” She reminded her sweet brother, “She is lucky that a future Lord Paramount will have her, and do you know why?”

Bran shook his head, wide-eyed. It was not often that Sansa was sharp with him.

“Because in the sight of gods and men, she is an abomination. The Targaryens wed brothers and sisters to one another for centuries, polluting their line with weakness and madness. She is the last of them, but with any luck our Tully blood will cleanse the madness out.”

Bran considered her words solemnly for a long moment, regarding her with his warm brown eyes, so like their father’s.

“What if it doesn’t?” said Bran, serious for a boy of seven.

What could she say? Sansa could not tell him what had befallen Prince Rhaegar’s children, not yet. Perhaps the gods would be kind, and there might never be a need.

“We must pray to the Seven that it does,” Sansa whispered, before cracking open the tome to continue the story.

She had no desire to tell Bran what she had overheard their lord father tell Uncle Stannis- that the Targaryen girl and her issue would be ‘dealt with’ in the same manner that Viserys was, if the madness was apparent in them.

 

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

 

Ashara had no great love of embroidery, but she could not deny the usefulness of a sewing circle. Gwyn Whitehill sat on her left, silent and obedient as usual, carefully threading pale cotton for her Northern flowers, in a pattern of a rock garden. On her right, Jyana had taken pride of place, eschewing the ordinary tasks of adorning clothing or embroidering kerchiefs, to instead mend her daughter’s leathers. Arya had begged to be exempted, which Ashara had allowed while knowing full well her daughter would be in the yard with the boys and Sera, who had simply failed to materialise. Arrana sat at Gwyn’s side. The two girls occasionally exchanged thread, sharing quiet conversation. Whilst Alys Karstark, Lyra Mormont, her daughter Elia, and Mariah Cassel chattered exuberantly amongst themselves. Gwyn and Mariah were close friends, but they knew their duty, and instead of twittering to each other, did not stray from their appointed tasks within the room.

In her lap Ashara carried a tiny tunic, which she was ostensibly mending for Rickon. But in fact was altering to be suitable for the new babe. She had high hopes this one would live. Of the six children she had carried, she had only lost two. Her fingers were reddened from repeatedly jabbing herself with the needle, but no word of discomfort passed her lips. Ashara caught Mariah’s eye, and knowing her mind well, the girl jumped up, uncovering the refreshments of cold meats, cheese and fruit, and began distributing plates.

Lady Mariah had been kept secret from House Stark until the Greyjoy rebellion. Once Ned had ridden to war with many of their men, there was little entertainment to be found, to assuage the worries of the women and children left at home. Gossip was all they could do. Whereupon Ashara’s darlings had come to her in Ned’s absence, to tell her of their suspicions.

Lady Barbrey, the widow of William Dustin, had a girl in her employ with whom she favoured above all others. A little slip of a child, too young to be a handmaid, yet granted the position regardless. A bastard daughter was of no real consequence; aside from the rumours that the girl was Brandon Stark’s.

Even so, it would have made no difference. Save for the pertinent fact that Lady Dustin held a festering grudge against Ned. Since he had failed to return her husband’s bones from Dorne, House Dustin’s loyalty to House Stark was begrudging at the least. Ashara had no doubt they would hold to House Stark in times of peace upon the mainland. But should war spill into the North, she feared they would be difficult to wrangle. It was not outside the realms of possibility that Lady Dustin intended to plot against House Stark, by raising the little girl to an advantageous marriage elsewhere.

Ashara used her influence as Robb’s advisor to invite House Dustin to Winterfell, making it plain that it was not a request. They arrived with Lady Barbrey’s Ryswell kin in tow. Ashara used her many wiles to work upon the households, charming and disarming them in turn. House Ryswell could not hope to stand against the might of Winterfell, when the entire North was united in war against the Iron Islands, and would House Dustin truly fight against their liege lords over the bastard girl of their dead lord’s widow? Ashara did not believe so, and her belief was vindicated when Lady Dustin conceded. Though Lady Dustin was not keen to part with the girl, Ashara was persuasive and well loved.

Some might have thought Lady Stark crazed, for almost provoking a battle, when their fighting men had left to wage war upon the Ironborn. But Ashara knew what a mother wanted most of all. Stability and a place for her child. Though it could not be definitively said that the girl was Brandon’s, for he had died without acknowledging her, Mariah had the Stark look. Even as a young girl, she had a long face, dark hair and slate grey eyes. And Mariah was of the right age, almost five years Robb’s senior. Ashara swore to the Ryswells that Ned would acknowledge the girl as a Snow, promising she would always have a place in Winterfell. Though Lady Barbrey denied the truth for weeks, eventually her stony facade was worn away. Ashara was the Mother incarnate when the older woman admitted the truth, the font of mercy. True to her word, Ashara granted Mariah Snow a place at their home and hearth, in perpetuity. Ned was baffled to meet her on his return from Pyke, but quickly took to the well-mannered girl.

Unfortunately, Brandon’s daughter grew to be a pretty thing. Too pretty to be fostered in Winterfell and unspoken for. As the years passed, Robb grew enamoured with his older cousin. Unlike Jeyne, Mariah Snow was almost a woman grown, and had noble blood on both sides. Theon took liberties and Robb lashed out at him for it, leading to brooding on both sides. Ashara quickly saw the tragedy just waiting to befall them.

House Stark could not betrothe its son and heir to a bastard, but especially not one from their own line. It would encourage mercenary behaviour in unwedded girls across the North, seeking a tie with House Stark, as had no doubt been Lady Barbrey’s intention, all those years past. It would infuriate their bannermen, and endanger them all. But a wedding is what Robb would demand, if Mariah let him into her bed. The girl was poised and demure, but Ashara knew better than to trust a meek outer appearance. Lady Stark knew she must take action, before another bastard was born into House Stark.

There weren’t too many Houses in the North low enough to consider wedding a bastard. The Northmen were prideful, and Mariah was the last in succession, beyond Ned and Benjen’s trueborn sons and daughters. The Northern lords wanted matches for those children, not Brandon Stark’s by-blow. Jon could have wed her, if Ashara had allowed Ned to claim him as a bastard, but that ship had sailed, and could not be floated now. Robb and Jon might have come to blows with more than tourney swords, had Mariah been betrothed to the younger twin.

Ashara had promised Lady Dustin a good match for her girl. She had hoped to have more years, to persuade a second or third son of a truly noble, yet less prestigious House, to take Mariah. Once she realised what folly it was to have the pretty girl within Robb’s grasp and unbetrothed - Robb who had inherited too much of the wolf-blood, and was always keen to prove himself a true Stark, despite his ‘dainty Dayne’ looks - Ashara stopped her overtures to Houses Tallhart, Lake, Cerwyn and Wull. Robb would only ride out after her. Better not to separate them, but to watch Mariah fall for a man grown, whilst Robb was still a boy.

The Cassels were on hand. They had been installed in Winterfell for generations, and were unlikely ever leave, fealty was in their blood and bone and breath. Poor Rodrick had suffered the loss of his wife and babes, leaving young Beth as his only issue. His nephew Jory their only kin, and his heir. Beth would be wed into another House (Rodrick spoke of House Tuttle with hope), but Jory would remain.

Jory was a good man, the Captain of Ned’s guards, honourable and handsome, though still quite green but with a gentle heart. Ned was dubious of the match- Mariah carried the blood of the Starks, after all, and the Cassels were rather low. But Ashara reminded him that this way at least Mariah would always be in Winterfell, and perhaps one of their children might marry back into House Stark in the future. Thus mollified, Ashara approached Jory, who fell over himself in thanks, proclaiming himself unworthy, but eager to take the girl just the same. Their wedding was joyful, but Robb pouted for months after the betrothal was announced. Ashara had fretted constantly in that time that he might act rashly and disgrace them all. But Robb was still Ned’s son, after all, and would not dishonour a girl wedded and bedded. Thus the door to that particular dishonour was closed. It broke his heart, but it was a love unmatched and unsuitable, and such is the way of life for a highborn. Ashara felt little guilt over it, except for when she caught Robb staring at ‘Riah’, as he always called her, with hopeless wistfulness.

Robert Baratheon had been happy to legitimise the girl, so that she could be wed as a Stark before the heart tree. She flowered at fifteen, and wed Jory some months after. Ashara had supplied the girl with moon tea for two years beyond that, to save her the danger of having babes too young. It was their secret however, held between Ashara, Luwin and Mariah only. In this way, she bound the girl to her alone, knowing Northmen were much more affronted by such practicalities than any in the South.

After two years, Ashara deemed it safe, and young Lady Cassel agreed immediately, thrilled by the idea of a babe of her own. A bonnie girl arrived after less than a twelve-month, and was named Branda for her grandsire. Little Branda had recently celebrated her first name day, and looked the image of her proud father, who enjoyed showing her off at every opportunity (despite his worried wife’s frequent admonishments to be careful). Branda slept in the nursery beside Rickon often, though she had her own small room adjoining her parent’s apartment. Being the Captain of the guards afforded Jory a nicer set of rooms than most Winterfell servants, below the family rooms. But they were still in service to House Stark, and they did not forget it.

“There’s nettle cheese, Aunt Ashara, I know it’s your favourite,” young Mariah smiled, presenting a plate already made up to Ashara, who had not realised how familished she was.

Babes always made her ravenous. But she had not anticipated such hunger so early on, usually displaying the more prominent symptom of dizziness first. Still, her moonblood had not come, her teats were starting to swell, and she was nauseous. There was no mistake.

“Thank you, child,” Ashara replied, setting her embroidery aside to take up the plate. Mariah was a good girl, and eternally grateful for her position.

But Ashara kept a certain distance and detachment from her, and not for any nonsense about bastards being untrustworthy. But because she had a claim to Winterfell, weak as it was, that others might seek to exploit without her knowledge. Mariah was not a wiley one, but that did not mean she was incapable of being manipulated by her sour kin.

Therefore, although Mariah was afforded the respect of a highborn, and named a lady, she did not sit beside the Starks at the high table, and was never referred to as one. Nethertheless, she clearly had the blood of the wolf. Ashara was always careful, and did not speak freely in front of Mariah. Her mother was still the head of House Dustin, after all.

“An attentive húnn,” Jyana commented with a raise of her brow, when Mariah moved out of earshot.

Ashara said nothing, smiling enigmatically as she bit into her divine, gods-blessed cheese.

“Still grappling with threads, systir ?” Jyana asked meaningfully, her eyes flickering about the room, over the assembled girls, as they squabbled and laughed about trivial matters over their food.

Ashara hummed in agreement, her smile never faltering. After taking luncheon, Ashara found she could no longer stand the continued sewing. She dismissed the girls and linked arms with Jyana so they could walk together, gracefully gliding along the covered walkway above the courtyard, to watch the progress down below. Ned was in his solar at this hour, and though Ashara longed for his company, she was mollified by the attentions of her closest friend.

Jyana was pleased to see Meera sparring with Robb, her spear against his sword. The two children were close in age, and seemingly evenly matched. Alys Karstark appeared in the courtyard below, flush from having hurried from the sewing circle, and the clever girl immediately began chanting Meera’s name. Her feigned indifference was working well upon Robb, chipping away at his confidence. Peeved at her apparent disregard, Robb began fighting more ferociously. Meera matched him blow for blow, dancing out of his way with footwork familiar to Uttara and Elia’s, whenever they fought.

“Would that I could convince Meera to set aside her oath and wed Robb,” Ashara lamented, “You’ve done a wonderful job with her, Ana.”

Jyana flushed at the praise, her thin lips spread even thinner by a broad smile. “She is so like her faðir. The spear was never my weapon, but I am proud to say she learnt ǫrvar at my knee.”

“I should have liked to learn, I think,” Ashara said, before throwing aside the idle thoughts. She did not have time for daydreams. But before she could move on, Jyana spoke.

“Meera was not meant to be a great lady, I do not think,” Jyana whispered, her voice smooth and deep with wisdom beyond her years, “She is of the crannogs; a creature fleet of foot and hard of heart. Her love for her family and her duty is strong, but when I dream I do not see children at her breast.”

“And I? What do you see of me?”

Jyana wrenched her eyes away from the thump of a dulled blade against scaled armour, and met Ashara’s haunting purple eyes with her own mossy green look.

“I see snow,” she said softly, “Snow and ice.”

For a long moment, Ashara did not breathe, staring into the eyes of her dear friend. Then she forced herself to relax, pressing the tension out of her muscles and resting lazily against the barrier above the courtyard.

“Well, Winter is Coming, as Ned is so fond of warning me,” she said playfully, ignoring the breath of icy fear lifting the hairs at her nape.

But Jyana said nothing more, returning her critical eye to the bout below.

 

 

 

T H E    N E C K

T h e   K i n g ' s   R o a d

 

 

Sansa was glad to be on her way. Though Riverrun was beautiful, she could not allow herself to fall under the enchantment of the rushing Forks of the Trident, the lush green forests and beautiful flowers. This is not for you, she scolded herself. Put it out of your mind.

The Riverlands were lovely in times of peace, but their central location was decimated in times of war. If Joffrey wanted her, she would not be waiting like a freshly plucked flower, ready to have its petals scattered by the wind. No, if the vicious cub wanted to swipe at her, she must be far from the reach of its claws. Nothing but the North would do.

The Neck was unlike anything Sansa had ever seen. Mother had warned them to be careful, terrified of the lizard-lions and swamp-dwellers both. But Sansa was enchanted by the moss and mist; the eerie quiet of the unseen crannogmen hidden in the Reeds.

“Isn’t Greywater Watch our next destination?” asked Lady Ysilla, baffled when the order came to halt but not dismount. The King’s Road had disappeared.

“Now we wait,” said Ser Vardis Egen, the genial and aged Captain of their guards.

Sansa peered out into the gloom, her heart beating wildly with anticipation. Though it was not yet midday, the sky was dark with thick clouds. Their horses nuzzled at the sodden grasses, and though the mud was thick, it was not yet saturated with water.

“What are we waiting for ?” Robin demanded, the usual surly thread of a whine hanging in his voice, and Sansa jumped at the chance to reply before anyone else did.

“The crannogmen are the only ones who can navigate the Neck,” Sansa said firmly, “Only they know the secrets of the water-ways. They live on houses on stilts, and travel on mossy crannogs. Greywater Watch is a keep upon a giant crannog itself- it floats along the water and only crannogmen know how to find it.”

She heard a few of her father’s men scoff, and saw fear on the faces of others, but Ethan seemed suitably intrigued, and Robin’s eyes gleamed.

“You are well-informed, my lady,” said a polite voice from among the stunted trees, deep with the thick accent of the North.

It belonged to a small man with a great big black beard. He was dressed in curious leathers and mail; clearly the hide and scales of a beast, rather than links of metal. In his hand he carried a spear, and he was flanked by six other men, clad in similarly unusual clothing. Sansa beamed, pleased to meet the first of her potential future bannermen, and also at the auspicious number of men. Seven companions were blessed by the gods of her Faith.

“Who are you?” snapped Ser Marwyn, another of their guards. He was tall and thin, with flame-red hair more akin to carrots, than Sansa’s more muted wine-red.

“We are of swamp and crannog, stone and water, mist and fog,” said the little man ominously, “we will allow passage to none but the friends of House Stark. Though you are welcome to tread our marshes alone, if you dare.”

None of his companions said a word, staring up at Sansa and the rest of the household, fearlessly. Though they were outnumbered and unmounted, they had melted out of the fog like shadowcats, lithe and menacing. And Sansa did not doubt they would disappear again as quickly, if they found them wanting. It was madness to navigate the Neck without help from the crannogmen; they would have to go back, and procure passage to White Harbour. Surely, these crannogmen knew to expect them? Lord Stark had replied to Father’s letter with simple but courtly words.

When Mother spoke up in reply, her voice was confident and assured. But Sansa could tell she was tense and frightened by the odd little crannogmen, as her grip upon the reins of her horse was strong, and her face was pinched and hard.

“I am Lady Catelyn of House Arryn, wife to Lord Jon Arryn, Lord of the Eryie, Warden of the East, and Hand of the King,” Mother stated formally, “we are expected in Winterfell.”

She offered no reason as to why.

The crannogman with the bushy beard stared impassively at her, unmoved by her words. The horses of the Vale twitched and shifted, treading their hooves nervously. They did not like the eerie stillness of the Neck. Sansa ran a hand over the mane of her bay mare, hoping to sooth her. The mare’s ears twitched, but she showed no other signs of bolting, of which Sansa was extremely grateful. She was not an especially confident rider. Sansa hadn’t had much chance of practicing, as most of her journeys around King’s Landing, she had undertaken either by litter or wheelhouse.

At long length the crannogman nodded, bowing deeply and stiffly, entirely silent. He said no words of welcome, and Sansa’s heart sank. It had been many years since her lord father had seen Ned Stark in person. Had House Stark fallen out of love with House Arryn? She did not want to believe it so.

When at last he stood up, it was with a pale, wry smile. “Welcome, Lady Arryn, to the Neck. Your boats await.”

Sansa released a long exhale, slumping a little in relief, but careful to keep her expression stoic. She alighted from her mare, only when Ser Vardis bid her to. Ethan kept close, holding her hand as she clambered into the boat, which was long and thin, curiously shallow. How long the journey took, Sansa could not have said, so mesmerised was she by the still and silent swamp. Mother could not keep the distaste from her face, but Bran’s eyes were wide as saucers, and even Robin was gaping in awe. Ethan sat tense at her side, his bow at the ready, in case of lizard-lions. But none were forthcoming, and they glided through the reeds without issue.

She could not help but pout in disappointment, when they were not invited into the mysterious floating Greywater Watch, but instead alighted their boats onto dry land. They were presented with fresh horses, hardy Northern drays, a far cry from the sleek palfreys and destriers of the Vale, and a younger guide, who proclaimed himself as Torghen Marsh. He promised they would be reunited with their own horses, once the flooding along the southern end of the King’s Road cleared, and they could be lead through. He too was tiny, lanky and quiet, but he led them along the causeway with ease and confidence, where they made camp for the night, surrounded by large torches. But Sansa could not sleep. She was enchanted by the gigantic flowers, the likes of which she had never seen nor heard of, and the sight of the stars above the murky, fungus-covered trees. No lizard-lions were seen nor caught, though many men claimed to have seen them slithering about in the darkness.

In the morn, most were shaken and ill at ease, desperate for the safety of open ground, though they refused to admit it. So their days continued, until it seemed like they would never leave the endless, winding single road through the Neck, invisible to anyone but the reticent crannogmen.

By the final day, Robin was in a horrendous mood, shrieking and shouting, despite Mother’s attempts of placating him. Sansa rode beside Ethan and Bran, and did her best to block him out.

“Here we leave you,” Torghen Marsh proclaimed promptly, as soon as the causeway opened into a wider clearing, afore the huge, intimidating, glittering black rock of a keep.

“Wait-” Mother called, but the little men were already gone, disappearing into the swamps, following a track only they could see.

The knights and men-at-arms cursed, but Sansa stared up at the castle in awe. It was wild and rugged; an ancient gatehouse and wall of glittering black stone, vast and thick, but sleek and shiny, as though it had retained every inch of rainwater that had ever fallen upon it. It shone from the mist like a gigantic, squat jewel. Every crevice where stones met seemed home to some form of lichen or fungus or ghostskin, giving the whole structure an overgrown air, but Sansa did not believe it abandoned. A keep was visible beyond the thick wall, just poking up higher than the crenellations of the wall. The wall stretched out into the dim shadows on either side, betraying that there was no path but onwards. Everyone knew that Moat Cailin lay directly on the King’s Road, but all of Sansa’s books had said the ancient stronghold was a ruin. Not for the first time, she lamented the South’s lack of interest in the truth.

It was surrounded by delicate pale purple and blood red flowers, all along the base of the wall, some with vines creeping and stretching up it, like something magical, from a half-forgotten song. They were more plants Sansa had no name for, and she wondered what they were called, and who lived here. This must be Moat Cailin. Clearly it was impossible to go around, for any save the crannogmen, but there was no need. The portcullis was open, gaping like an empty maw.

“Fucking bog-dwellers,” Ethan swore, unsheathing his sword, glaring around as he searched for an ambush or other threats.

He had not long spoken before a retinue of men appeared at the gate, and began to march sedately out from the stronghold, flying Stark colours. An honour guard, as in the South. Sansa had not anticipated such, and flushed embarrassed, when she considered the state of her hair, braided in complex plaits that were frazzled from the humidity and coming undone. She was not ready to meet her future betrothed.

Sansa straightened in her saddle, lamenting the long days she had spent riding, sleeping in tents without chance to beauty herself, and the shabby state of her cloak. But she held herself firm with dignity, determined to impress nethertheless. The scrape of steel on scabbards surrounded her, as her lord father’s men hastily re-sheathed their swords. But Sansa had no interest in them; her eyes were glued to the young lord that rode at the front of the retinue, directly toward their party. He was one of the few men astride a horse, the rest were marching, in the confident, lithe way she had become accustomed to in crannogmen.

The young lord was of age with her, with brown hair so dark it was almost black, just long enough to hang round his ears in a tempest of curls. His eyes might have been a deep plum, but in the gloom of the Neck, they looked grey. And he was handsome, more handsome than Ethan by a league, and Sansa felt her traitorous heart flutter with glee. She forced herself to remain sensible, knowing that a fair face could hide a foul heart. But oh, how she hoped it would not be the case this time! The stranger was clad in a black jerkin, bearing the head of a snarling grey direwolf scattered with diamonds so it glittered even in the low light. The sigil of House Stark bold across his chest, and he was flanked on both sides by grizzled men proudly bearing the standard of the leaping wolf on white-and-green.

When he spoke, his voice was deep and wonderful, polite and courteous. But his words when they registered, were an icy stab of disappointment to Sansa.

“Welcome to the North, my lords and ladies. I am Jon of House Stark, Lord of Moat Cailin and Steward of the Causeway. It would be my honour to escort you to my keep, where hot baths, warm rooms, meat and mead and all manner of refreshments await you.”

His smile was broad and genuine, and Sansa felt her family and fellow travellers sigh and smile, glad to be greeted with civility at last: but all Sansa could hear was the rush of blood pounding in her ears, and it sounded like Jon, Jon, Jon...