Sansa emerges from the crypts with the light of the dawn, into a world she does not recognize.
Bodies. Countless bodies piled left and right. Some as high as hills, the early light illuminating the terrible mix of grotesque faces and exposed bones. The blood streaks in the snow glint like jewels. Her hand clutches around the handle of the dragonglass dagger so tightly her fingers ache but she dared not let go. The crisp winter air burns in her lungs, fighting with the stench of burning flesh that hangs thick. She can’t decide what is worse—what she is currently facing or what she had left down below.
Skeletal faces appearing from the dark, the musty air filling with rot, her ears ringing with children’s screams—
She hears the gasps as the others step out from behind her to be confronted by the carnage. Someone lets out a wail, the mournful sound cutting through the eerie blanket of silence. Is this what victory sounds like? Is this what it sounds like to save the realm?
A soldier in her line of vision slides to the ground, head cradled in his hands, alive but broken. How many of them are left? How many still alive? She takes unsteady steps forward, searching the corners of the yard with her eyes, seeing too few still moving. There’s no one she immediately recognizes among the living—at least she doesn’t think. She can’t focus, eyes always finding their way down instead of up. Her chest tightens with each unsteady step over body after body, finding that the opposite was true for the fallen. There was the stable boy. The woman she served soup to less than a day ago. Lyanna Mormont lies at an odd angle, her small armor dented and concave. There are too many.
Is this what victory looks like?
Gilly tears past her, Little Sam in her arms. His namesake is dirty, covered in dust and blood, and utterly defeated. But alive. His cheeks are tear-streaked, the only inch of his person that did not appear to be caked in grime. Sam reaches for her, burying his face into her neck. Sansa’s throat catches as she watches them embrace.
(Where would they be? Are they even alive?)
A few other voices sound out as some are reunited. Some calls are repeated, echoing over and over, unreturned, fading as their owners search the remnants of battle. Many will never be answered. Missandei brushes past her, Tyrion not long after. Sansa notices that a portion of the outer wall is down. The empty space it leaves lets in too much light, casting the yard in an odd brightness and illuminating the carnage. She wonders briefly how long it might take to fix it, or if it was even worth fixing at all. The dagger hangs heavy in her grip.
Had her father been among them? She had stood before his bones countless times, making the trip to the depths of the keep to stare up at a likeness that was almost but not quite. Did he burrow his way through the stone? Did he rise, headless and hungry, grabbing for the living? Would she have recognized him if he had?
Did she cut him down?
Her chest feels tight. The leather across her body is restrictive underneath the weight of her cloak. Her breath is coming shorter, too little air filling her lungs.
Then she chokes. Rickon.
Her baby brother, dead far before his time. They had buried him in the crypts after reclaiming his body from the fields. Now she pictures him below, free of his grave and moving through the torchlight, the holes from the arrowheads gaping. Maybe he got up for her. Maybe he knew the thought that ate away at the deep corners of her mind, that perhaps there had been more she could have done to save him.
Her eyes are stinging. The ground around her begin to blur. All she sees is grey and black and red, so much red—
She lifts her gaze.
Jon pushing his way towards her through the survivors. Jon covered head to toe in mud and blood. Jon, alive. The light of daybreak rushes in.
He gets to her just as the dagger slips through her fingers.
Jon pulls her tight against him, the scent of dirt and sweat thick. She can’t tell who is shaking, him or her, but his solid presence is an anchor she’s too eager to cling to. The blood smeared on the side of his head rubs against her temple, sticking to Sansa’s skin as she lets herself be held. She finds an odd comfort in the sensation.
His voice is rushed and breathless and he speaks into her ear. “I only just realized—the crypts—we should have known not to—” He pulls back then, holding his dark eyes even with hers. Dirt is flaked across the bridge of his nose. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
She does not know how to answer. “W-what happened? Bran, Arya…”
“They’re alright, they…” He doesn’t finish but it’s enough; she can see his relief for them in the light of his eyes, hear it in his exhale of breath. She could drink it in. “Come, I’ll take you to them.”
She’s reluctant to let go completely, clutching at his forearm as he turns to lead them away. But he does not seem to mind. He barely reacts to her vice grip as they weave their way through the carnage to head back the way he came.
They pass Brienne corralling the wounded with Jaime and Podrick. Davos helping Tormund to his feet. The weight in her chest lessens with each step.
They pass the large remains of a dragon, the skull bearing its sharp teeth at her. Hadn’t Jon been riding one of the others? Hadn’t she seen him soaring above the walls, high above the army of the dead? He rained down fire as he went. The bravest thing we can do is look the truth in the face. It means something, shouldn’t it? She can’t decide, doubt and faith eating away at her. Her head spins. She feels as if she is floating, clinging to his arm like it’s her tether to the earth.
His doublet is torn at the shoulder, the stitching burst open. She can fix that.
Jon wordlessly leads her around the rubble of the gate, past the broken tower and into the smoking wood. Some trees are still burning, the flames a stark contrast against the brilliant ice blue of the dawn. The concentration of remains is heavier here, and her fingers tighten their hold. She tries not to think about it, tries not to even look. At the change in her grip Jon turns, gives her the smallest of smiles, and he looks so weary that she’s surprised she is not the one holding him up.
Movement from the corner of her eye. She freezes, missing the weight of the small dagger desperately, and her defenseless hand grabs for Jon’s arm like the first. “It’s okay,” he says, the warmth of his hand atop hers. “It’s just Ghost.”
Ghost. The direwolf’s red eyes seem to glow back at her through the trees, the white fur of his face streaked in blood. He slips through the branches towards the both of them, cutting in front of their path to lead the way in. Sansa focuses on the gauzy outline of his figure as they follow in his pawprints. The last of six. She wonders if he aches for his littermates, if he feels their loss eating away at him each day.
She looks to Jon, so tired and so grieved, and she knows that he does.
They follow until the path bends, opening up to the small clearing.
Arya and Bran. Her sister and brother huddled together under the weirwood, alive, at the center of a circle of corpses. At the sound of their feet crunching over the snow, Arya turns. Even from this distance Sansa can see half of her forehead is covered with blood but still her smile is bright. She moves to push Bran’s chair towards them. Even her composed little brother looks satisfied, a glint that she has not seen since she was a girl present in his eyes. Her brave little brother.
Sansa lets go of Jon, makes to move for them, to meet them halfway. The boot of her toe catches. She stumbles on unsteady legs and looks down just briefly to catch herself out of instinct—
A body. Dark doublet, leather-plated armor, the shape of a kraken spread out over the breastplate.
(Is this what victory looks like?)
She can feel the wind whipping through her cloak as they fall from the ramparts, his hand tight against hers as they weave through the trees. Yesterday she had been reunited with him, he stood in the great hall, where all of them used to share meals and laugh and some days they would all run through these very woods, Sansa and her family, playing out the stories from the songs and she can see them now if she tries, the summer sun catching the red of Robb’s hair as he wields a stick as his sword, Theon giving a sweeping bow and professing him king—
Theon and Robb. Robb. And Mother and Father and Rickon—
She doesn’t realize she had sunk to the snowy ground until Arya is there with her, kneeling at her side. She doesn’t realize she had started crying until she sees the same unspeakable grief reflecting back at her in the eyes of her sister. Arya’s arms go around her shoulders, and Sansa falls into her sideways. She doesn’t have the energy to keep herself upright anymore.
She cries for her, Arya. For Bran. For Jon. For those they had lost. So much has been taken from them. So much would never be again.
Bran’s hand is upturned in his lap, and she grabs for it with one of her free hands. His grip is as tight as hers.
She knew that even though this war was over, there was another to come. Enough. She wants to scream it out. Leave them be. Let Arya laugh again, like she used to. Let Bran smile again, like he used to. They were still so young, too young to have seen any of this.
Sansa reaches out for him but he’s already there, at her other side. His eyes are red-rimmed but he doesn’t say a word as he pushes the stray strands of hair from her face, presses a kiss to the side of her head.
Let Jon rest. Let him breathe easier, shed the burden from his shoulders, wipe the worry from his brow.
(“Do you have any faith in me at all?”
Yes, she thinks desperately, clinging to him. She could drown in it.)
She knew it would never happen. They would never be able to rest, not while those who would wish them harm circled just out of sight. A lion paces restlessly in the south. Outside the walls dragon fire still burns.
But for now they have this. They are still here. The four of them, together. And right now, as the sun breaks over the horizon, Sansa knows it must be enough.