Castle Black is an ancient, half-dilapidated, forlorn conglomeration of chiseled stone. It would have better served as a historical ruin, like the dragon fighting pits in King’s Landing than a functioning facility. When Jon had first seen it, it had brought him little joy, and he can imagine it was the same feeling for all the brothers who came before him.
Despite it’s expansive and rich history, Jon can’t remember if it ever housed the Lady of Winterfell. He never thought it the Watch could bring comfort to someone with that title and less to someone like Sansa.
Scrubbed, washed and warmed up, sitting in clean clothes and wrapped in blankets in front of the fire, Sansa looks more like herself now than she did when riding through the castle gate. The only thing different is that he cannot find the haughtiness, the bitterness, the venom she’d learned so well from her mother. She does not shy away from reality. Her eyes are hard and unyielding when he tells her what had happened to him.
They’d never been close. She wouldn’t have confided in him were he the last person left in Winterfell when they were children but eight years is a long time. Sansa tells him everything, from Joffrey’s wedding to Theon’s help in escaping Winterfell. Everything .
She weeps but it’s soft, tears running only because she lets them, as if she wishes to push out the poison within her heart, that had made her cry in the first place. He cannot fault her, and he cannot think her weak for it.
“Where will you go?” she asks, fingers curled around a bowl of soup, trying to get warm. Jon doesn’t feel the cold as her, and he doesn’t feel the warmth either.
He takes a sip of his ale, wondering if she would detest him were he to tell her about Tormund. He decides that for now that information should remain close to his chest. He’s just gotten a part of his family back. He cannot lose it again.
“I was thinking Dorne,” Jon replies. He smiles when he sees her face.
“What will you do in Dorne? ” Sansa sounds actually surprised as well.
“Get warm before returning to fight the Night King.”
“Before dying you mean,” she says. Sansa doesn’t frown, but her eyes narrow, as if she doesn’t know if he’s stupid or lying to her.
“It’s not a fight we can win,” Jon says, matter of fact. It isn’t. Both he and Tormund know it. They don’t have weapons, they don’t have the men, and they don’t have a strategy. The only thing holding the Night King and his army is the Wall.
“Then why fight it?”
Jon laughs. “I’d rather fight and die than cower. Besides, I promised the Free Folk I will fight with them when the time comes.”
She scoffs. “And you believe them?”
Jon feels a surge of protectiveness which he lets fade before speaking. No fault can be prescribed to Sansa for her opinion; after all, Jon had thought the same before he’d actually gotten to know the Free Folk. She doesn’t know better and it’s in Jon’s hands to do something about it.
“When they say they’ll do something, they do it.” He smiles when Sansa quirks a questioning eyebrow. “Lying isn’t on the repertoire when you’re freezing half the time.”
“Everybody lies,” Sansa replies, viper quick.
“Not the Free Folk. Not really. There’s no use for it. If they lie, it disrespects their own clan. It can lead to fighting. They’re literal, straight forward people.”
Though he’d been taught that honor was important to northmen, even they could be duplicitous. The Boltons betrayed his brother, his house, for gain. Theon, a man who he’d considered a brother once, turned his sword against Winterfell.
“You sound like you admire them,” Sansa comments.
“It’s refreshing,” Jon admits. “You should let me introduce you sometime.”
Jon looks back to the fire. He should have been well on his way south. There’s at least six hundred miles between the Wall and Winterfell. It takes another month from Winterfell to King’s Landing by King’s Road and they would have taken a boat the rest of the way to Sunspear. Jon imagines they could have gotten some better riding leathers. He would have finally been able to see Tormund dressed in brown and copper southern clothes. More importantly, Jon had been looking forward to seeing Tormund’s reaction to warm climate, soft air and warm water.
He looks back at Sansa. “Come with me.”
“Come with me to Dorne,” Jon repeats. He turns in his chair towards her. “If I don't watch over you, Father's ghost will come back and murder me.”
Sansa, for a moment, looks hopeful. Then her eyes soften with sadness, even as a smile spreads on her face. “There’s only one place we can go Jon. Home.”
“Should we tell the Boltons to pack up and leave?” Jon says, disbelief dripping from every word.
“We’ll take it from them,” Sansa says, conviction, steel in her voice. She believes that.
“I don’t have an army,” Jon retorts.
“How many wildlings did you save?”
“They didn’t come here to serve me. They came here to save their own lives. I won’t be the one to take it from them.”
Sansa stands. “Do you think they’ll be safe here if Roose Bolton remains the Warden of the North?”
Jon had thought about that. He’d wagered more on the fact that Boltons were smart enough to remain in Winterfell with the winter coming. They would be fools to wage war further North. He says as much.
“You don’t know Ramsey,” she says, bitterness dripping from her tongue. “He’ll come for me. One way or another. I have to give him an heir .”
“Sansa,” Jon says, standing. She lets him close and he takes her hands in his.
“Winterfell is our home,” she declares, quiet but firm. ”It’s ours and Arya’s and Bran’s and Rickon’s. Wherever they are, it belongs to our family. We have to fight for it.”
Her eyes are filled with pain but also with strength Jon had not thought Sansa ever possessed. But Jon is not that strong. Jon has been tired ever since he woke up on the slab.
He squeezes Sansa’s hand, shaking his head. “I'm tired of fighting. It's all I've done since I left home. I've killed brothers of the Night's Watch. I've killed wildlings. I've killed men that I admire. I hanged a boy younger than Bran. I fought and I lost.”
He expects Sansa to understand. He expects her to back down, to drop it. Instead, Sansa’s hands tightens around his. Her face shifts, and she reminds him more of their father than ever before. “If we don’t take back the North, we’ll never be safe. You cannot fight both the Night King to the north, and Ramsey to the south. I want you to help me--” her hands release him, and her shoulders pull back, proud and serious, “--but I’ll do it myself if I have to.”
He sees she means it but Jon did not come back from death just to die so soon. He will not risk the lives of the people he promised to save. He will not risk Tormund’s life.
“I’m sorry, Sansa. But my fights are over.”
She looks disappointed but not shocked and that hurts worse than anything she could have said.
Though he would have preferred to stay with the Free Folk, because Sansa claims a room, Jon feels obligated to continue living in Castle Black despite Lady Brienne’s protection.
Thankfully, Tormund’s laid claim to Jon’s chambers after Jon asked him to stay until he could speak with his sister. He’s prepared for sleep, under the blankets, when Jon comes back from escorting Sansa to her room.
Tormund looks at him, at his crumpled expression, and can probably tell his sour mood. “Is that the one who killed the king?”
Jon sighs, starting to strip. “False information. But she wishes she did it, at least.”
“Oh,” Tormund says and sounds vaguely disappointed. Then his expression brightens again when he says, “Did you see the big woman? She could carry me in her teeth .”
Jon laughs at the absurd image, despite his mood. He climbs atop the bed and leans in to kiss Tormund, who hums into it. He has a hand in Jon’s hair, releasing the tie. Once the kiss is over, he guides Jon to bring their foreheads together.
“I’m sorry,” Jon murmurs through a sigh. “I’m so sorry.”
Tormund presses a kiss against his temple and curls his hands around him. In his embrace, Jon finally feels a semblance of warmth.
“I take it your sister isn’t too keen on travelling to the southern edge of the world?” Tormund asks, pulling open the blankets so Jon can slip underneath.
Jon settles, pushing his cold feet against Tormund’s. “She wants to re-take Winterfell. Says she’ll do it alone if I don’t help her.”
Tormund hums again, curling a hand around Jon’s waist. “If she’s as stubborn as you, I believe her.”
“If the Boltons are smart they’ll stay in Winterfell and ignore us,” Jon says. “Else they risk the same fate as Stannis.”
“What does your sister say?” Tormund asks, now sounding already half-asleep.
Jon glanced up at Tormund, betrayed, then he huffs and admits, “That Bolton’s son she’s married to will come for her. He...forced herself upon her. I think she wants to kill him.”
He relays the information Sansa had told him to Tormund who makes agreeable sounds and soft nods. In the end, he yawns before saying, “If the fucker tries, we might convince the clans to fight. But we will not march for someone else’s pretty house.”
“The winter is coming,” Jon says, sleep clinging to his lashes, pulling so strongly Jon has to close his eyes. “Best we can do is prepare.”
The men aren’t sure what to do with Lady Stark in their presence. Neither do they know what to do with three women in their home, when Gods know how long before then they’ve seen one. Jon doesn’t wish to doubt his brothers, but he knows some natures cannot be changed.
Sansa won’t be confined to her room. Thankfully, Lady Brienne of Tarth refuses to leave her presence for too long without keeping her in the eye’s view. However, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Sansa to dine with them in the hall either, so it leaves Jon to taking his meals in the kitchen: Lady Brienne sandwiched between her squire and Sansa while Jon wisely sits between Tormund and Edd.
Edd is still miffed about Jon leaving, or attempting to leave, and who knows what he might say were Tormund to provoke him. Particularly because Jon knows exactly how good at provoking Tormund is . Thankfully, Tormund is preoccupied with looking at Brienne.
To say the meals are awkward is an understatement, but at least, Jon reasons, they have something to eat. He’s gotten used to eating anything by now but now he can barely taste it. It had surprised him at first but Jon tries not to think what else changed after he’d died.
When the letter arrives, and Jon sees the Bolton houses’ sigil stamped into the wax, he feels dread pool in his gut. Taking a breath, Jon glances at Sansa, before he unrolls the letter and begins reading it out loud.
He can sense Tormund tensing behind him, as he turns to look at Jon.
“...Send her to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your wildling lovers. Keep her from me and I will ride north and slaughter every wildling man, woman, and babe living under your protection. You will watch as I skin them living. You..."
He feels Tormund’s gaze on the side of his face. Jon throws the letter onto the table and meets it, knowing he feels what Tormund is feeling. There’s no such thing as empty threats with the Free Folk.
Sansa picks up the letter and finishes reading it aloud. "You will watch as my soldiers take turns raping your sister. You will watch as my dogs devour your wild little brother. Then I will spoon your eyes from their sockets and let my dogs do the rest. Come and see. Ramsay Bolton, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North."
She drops it with the finality of someone who has heard and expected worse. She did. She told him.
“Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. His father's dead.” She looks him in the eyes then and there is no fear in them. Only determination. “Ramsay killed him. And now he has Rickon.”
“We don't know that,” Jon tries, but it’s weak and she knows it.
“Yes, we do. Ramsey doesn’t lie if he can hurt someone with the truth.”
His sister had been at the hands of such a monster, and now, Rickon is as well. Gods , Jon thinks, Does Rickon even remember any of them? Yet, even if he doesn’t, Jon owes him. He’s family. He would have marched for Arya and Bran, he would have tried to help Sansa, had he knows she was in Winterfell. But this is more than just his family. This is the family of everyone he’d led past the Wall. This is for Tormund’s family.
“How many men does he have in his army?” he asks, feeling the disappointment sink low in his gut as he makes his decision. He will fight. He has to.
Sansa seems surprised. “I heard him say 5,000 once when he was talking about Stannis's attack.”
Jon turns to Tormund. “How many do you have?”
Tormund’s eyes are clear when they look at Jon. He doesn’t have to say anything and yet, Jon feels understood. “That can march and fight? Two thousand. The rest are children and old people.”
Jon feels the hope within him fluttering out and dying. Five thousand people, most of them mounted on horses against two thousand of the Free Folk. They don’t stand a chance.
Sansa grabs his hand, forcing him to look at her. “You're the son of the last true Warden of the North. Northern families are loyal. They'll fight for you if you ask. A monster has taken our home and our brother. We have to go back to Winterfell and save them both.”
He doesn’t know how to tell her that, no matter what, it doesn’t matter whom they fight if they end up dead before they can re-claim it as their own. Yet, Jon knows, if Bolton marches North, they will all be dead regardless of intention, left as corpses in the field to be claimed by the Long Night.
Jon squeezes her hand. “I will try.” That’s the most he can promise.
He pulls back and feels Tormund’s hand low on his back.
“We’ll need information. Bolton’s allies, their enemies, anything we can use against them.”
“Perhaps,” Edd says, “you might want to bring this up with Davos. He outlived more battles here than any of us.”
Jon nods. That’s a start.
Davos is not particularly enthusiastic about their chances and it says something about how fucked their situation really is when the man willingly marched into a snow-storm. The most they can do is ride around the North, begging for people to join a losing cause. Sansa may still have faith in the given word, but Jon doesn’t think he has any more trust left to give. Not after his own brothers murdered him.
“ Looks like we’re getting that battle after all ,” Tormund says in the old tongue, saddling up to Jon. Tormund’s brow is heavy, shoulders stiff and serious. Jon never realized how much he disliked seeing him like that until now.
“ The northern lords will help us,” Jon replies.
Tormund’s mouth quirks. “ I think if you say it a few more times you might start believing it.”
They set out of Castle Black in a slow trot. Jon had ridden to Free Folk camp many times just to see Tormund but now the road stretches as Tormund and he trot in front of Davos and Sansa.
The closer they get to camp, the louder the noise gets. He sees the children first, then the men, who disregard Jon and Tormund until they spot the other two riders. In camp, the word spreads like wildfire, and no sooner than they tie up their horses are they granted the audience with the elders.
Unlike the first time he’d talked to them in Hardhome, the men he greets are but a handful. He knows them, if not from meeting them during their journey to the Wall, then from spending time with Tormund. They’re his friends. Jon tries not to be saddened at the thought of Karsi, but the woman had left an impression on him.
Dim Dalba doesn’t mince his words. “ We said we'd fight with you, King Crow, when the time comes and we meant it, but this isn't what we agreed to. These aren't white walkers. This isn't an army of the dead.This isn't our fight.”
Jon knows this, and he and Tormund had spent nights talking on the very topic. Tormund is prepared but even then, it is hard to convince someone to fight an impossible battle.
“And if we lose this, we're gone. Dozens of tribes, hundreds of generations. Be like we were never there at all. We'll be the last of the free folk,” Dim Dalba says looking both at Tormund and Jon.
Jon cares for them, but that doesn’t mean the other Northern houses do. If Jon goes, and dies, they will rally and try to push them back, especially with Ramsey as the Warden of the North. Jon says as much, and adds,” You're right. This isn't your fight.You shouldn't have to come to Winterfell with me. I shouldn't be asking you. It's not the deal we made.I need you with me if we're going to beat them, and we need to beat them if we’re going to survive.”
“The crows killed him because he spoke for the Free Folk when no other southerners would,” Tormund says grimly but with pride. “He died for us. If we are not willing to do the same for him, we're cowards. And if that's what we are, we deserve to be the last of the free folk.”
Dim Dolba presses his lips together so they form a thin line, hidden behind his massive beard. “ We know. But you two were supposed to leave, Tormund, weren’t you?”
Tormund grunts, admitting it. Dim Dolba’s eyes go past Jon, to where Sansa’s standing behind him. “ Is it because of her?”
“ She brought news. The man who was ruling Winterfell was sensible. He wouldn’t have marched North with the winter coming. But he has been killed by his son, and his son has little reason and little sense.”
The chieftains looks between one another, but before they can make a decision Wun Wun, who’d been listening to their conversation, stands.
“Snow,” the giant simply says, and walks away. It takes one voice, but it sways the other chieftains who, tentatively, agree.
Jon doesn’t know if to feel relief or the weight of the newest responsibility settling onto his shoulders. So many lives depend on him again and he himself has little faith they’ll win the fight.
When the council breaks, Jon knows they can’t linger. Sansa, Davos and he have miles to cover and they’re already losing light.
“Are you sure they'll come?” Sansa asks Jon, but it’s within Tormund’s earshot so it’s him who replies.
“We're not clever like you southerners. When we say we'll do something, we do it.”
Tormund follows them to the horses. Jon wishes he could say proper goodbye as he mounts his horse, while Tormund steadies it by the reins.
He can’t risk touching his face or kissing him, can’t show this to Sansa, or confirm Davos’ suspicions. Jon can’t do anything more than offer his hand in a handshake which feel too small for them.
“ I’ll be in the camp. When you ride back be sure to visit. It’s time Drys met you, ” says Tormund.
It’s a punch to the gut Jon hadn’t thought the words could ever be. He’d always wanted to meet his other daughter, but never under such circumstances. It tells Jon that Tormund is aware of the grim future in front of them, and it’s heartbreaking.
Jon wishes now they were in his room where he could wrap his hands around Tormund, reassure him, do anything but sit with emotions stuck in his throat.
“ I will ,” Jon promises.
For a brief moment, Tormund touches his leg before handing him the reins. Jon rides out of the Free Folk camp and onto the King’s Road with Sansa and Davos behind him.
It’s a doomed campaign from the start but Jon knows it only when the Glovers turn them away with the words, “The Starks are dead.” If Jon had the heart for it, he would have wept, but he feels nothing but overwhelming sadness he’d known he’d find on their journey.
Sansa, when she turns, looks disappointed but more than anything, she looks spiteful. She takes travelling by horse through the north with no complaints, and her expression grows all the more stormy by the end. On the way back, she says, “Brienne may have succeeded.”
“Maybe,” Jon allows.
The new cloak Sansa had made for him feels too tight across his chest, as if he isn’t the one who’s supposed to be wearing it. The Stark symbol almost mocks him. Once, he’d wanted to be allowed to wear it as much as he’d wanted the Stark name. Now, it reminds him too much of Robb.
On their way back to Castle Black they pass the camp and Jon follows Sansa and Davos to its northern edge.
“You should hurry before the night sets, I’ll stay here tonight,” Jon says once they come to a stop. He dismounts, taking his horse by the reins.
Sansa’s eyebrows pinch together. “What are you doing?”
Jon smiles thinly. “Promised Tormund I’d meet his daughter.”
Affronted, Sansa sound alarmed when she asks, “Is he marrying you off?”
She’s so serious, Jon cannot keep himself from laughing. “Last I know she’s ten.”
Jon doesn’t hear the footsteps behind him. He just sees Sansa’s eyes flickering down and then something barrelling into him from behind. He turns to see a rusty colored mop of hair pressed into his flank, and when he looks up he sees Munda, the elder daughter, walking at a steady pace, face shifting between a shy smile and annoyance.
“ Papa said you were coming, ” Drys says once she unpeels herself from him, and jumps onto Jon so he has to lift her up onto his hip.
“ I did promise, ” Jon replies. Drys, unlike her father, has warm brown eyes, but the same square jaw and brows. They pinch together as she looks at him. Then she says, “ You are pretty.”
Jon laughs. It seems Drys, unlike her sister, is unbothered by strangers or brave enough to conquer any prudent heedfulness she must have been taught.
“ When has father lied?” Munda asks once she reaches Jon. They’d met before, so she smiles at him and greets him in the traditional Free Folk way.
Jon almost forgets he’s holding Sansa and Davos up, until he hears the horses snorting.
He lets Drys down. “Don’t worry about me, Sansa. I’ll be safe.”
“If you say so,” she replies dubiously. She looks at the children, then back at Jon, but doesn’t add anything else. She nods at him and she turns her horse around, heading back onto the road to Castle Black.
“ Who’s she? Your wife? ” Drys asks once they start heading back to Tormund’s tent.
“Drys ,” Munda says with the air of an older sibling who always knows better. “ Not everyone is married to everyone.”
“ But she has red hair. So does papa!”
“ Actually,” Jon says, amused, “that’s my sister.”
Munda nods, as if to say, “See?” and Drys rolls her eyes. In Drys’ defence, he’d known Munda longer than he knew who she was. Only later had Tormund told him that one of the children that accosted him during their journey to Castle Black was one of his own.
First, they go to the little outcrop where the Free Folk keep the few horses they have, and makes sure his has water and food, before heading for the tents.
Tormund’s tent is recognizable only by its size, and then only because Jon’s been there enough times for it to be familiar. Drys and Munda knock off the snow from their boots, wipe off the excess mud on a piece of tree every tent has before it, then go in. Jon follows their lead, bringing up the heavy skins that cover the entrance with one hand, and steps inside.
The girls have settled by the fire. Next to them, besides Tormund, sits a woman with a sharp face. For a moment, Jon is reminded of Karsi, but where she’d had pale eyes, the woman here has brown ones, just like, Jon realizes, Drys. Their mother.
Before he can even say hello, Tormund stands and barrels into him with such strength Jon almost loses his footing. “Took you long enough,” Tormund says, grabbing his shoulders and knocking his head into Jon’s, thrice on each side.
“I’m glad to be back,” Jon replies, looking up at Tormund who smiles and pats him on the shoulder. When he steps back, the woman has gotten up. She greets him in a similar manner, and says, “So you’re King Crow.”
“Jon, please,” Jon replies, and he sees the woman’s eyebrow ticking up.
“I’m Anka Firstclaw of the Spearwives,” she says as they take a seat around the fire. She’s taller than Jon and built strong in the shoulders. With the fox and rabbit furs wrapped around her, she poses a striking figure accentuated by her broken nose and scars littering her face. Most ladies in Winterfell Jon imagines would have wanted to hide it, but Anka displays her scars, her hair pulled in braids behind her.
Though they’re nothing alike, she reminds him strikingly of Brienne. However, where Brienne had to defy expectations placed on her: long hair, soft words and pretty smiles; Anka was brought up never knowing or needing such things.
Jon doesn’t know how not to feel like he’s encroaching, like he’s a mistress, in this situation. He’d never thought he’d meet her in the first place.
“Where did you go?” Drys asks. Like all children, she has yet to learn what to ask and what not to question.
“My sister and I went to see if any of our father’s bannermen wanted to fight for us,” Jon replies, and sees the confusion on their faces before he’s even finished.
“What are bannermen?”
“People who promise to fight for you, when you need it, in exchange for you protection,” Jon explains.
Munda frowns. “But isn’t that like us?”
Jon chuckles. “No. These are very old families, who promised that when the first southern king sat on the throne. Their promise is forever. Your isn’t. And you’re not fighting for me .”
“And?” Tormund asks. His eyes are expectant but Jon can meet them only with disappointment. Tormund sees it, but he doesn’t let his feelings show. Instead he shrugs, and says, “I’ll get you to eat something.”
As suppers go, Jon has had worse and not for the quality of the food. The initial awkwardness passes once they start speaking of other things, and especially once Jon bears through being questioned by Drys and Munda, who for every answer have three more questions.
Anka, at first stern-faced, softens slightly. By the time she’s dragging her daughters away from the tent, Jon has learned that she has a personality similar to Tormunds: when serious she looks frightening, but she prefers to tell stories and laugh when she can. Jon feels being in her presence is a privilege.
“I would say you’re too young,” she says in front of the tent, “but my wife is eight years my younger. Just make sure he doesn’t talk you into anything stupid.”
Jon, surprised, laughs. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Good,” she says. “I’ll be seeing you on the battlefield, Jon.”
When Jon gets back into the tent, he strips off the cloaks and the gloves, and gets comfortable, sitting next to Tormund.
“What does she mean she’ll see me on the battlefield?”
Tormund look at him as if he’s being an idiot. “The spearwomen are going with us, Jon.”
“Oh,” Jon mouths. He looks away, feeling a fool for having asked and a fool for having hoped. It would have been easier to carry the burden of war on his shoulders if he had not known; he was born into a world that liked battle and war, raised to be good at it. Good at killing people. Knowing that someone so important to Tormund could die, knowing Jon himself had the possibility of watching Tormund die, is a suffocating realization. War is war, but it has always wanted sacrificed. It’s the price they pay for family and for a possibility at life none of them truly believe in.
Ramsay Bolton is not like Jon imagined him to be. The smugness he exhumes Jon had seen only once before, and only in Joffrey when, at the time, prince had come to Winterfell.
Jon has always thought he’s had a leash on his temper, but when he sees his smirking face, Jon wants to do nothing else than hit him and keep hitting him until he’s an unrecognizable caricature of himself. Though he tries, Ramsey needs no needling words to make Jon hate him. He already does.
The night before the battle Jon’s reminded of who hates Ramsey worse -- Sansa. Though he’d not had the intention, he’d overlooked her. He’d only labeled her as something that needed to be protected. He’d never thought to consult her on Ramsey but her words ring true: Jon doesn’t know him. He’s met him once, he’s judged his character, but little can be extrapolated based off of that; all they have is standard battle tactics.
“Tell me then, how can we get our brother back?” Jon asks. He tries not to sound angry. He isn’t. Jon’s tired, and frightened of leading people into a pointless death. A death with no meaning is no worthy death at all.
“We'll never get him back.” Her statement rings in his ears, until he can’t think around it and feel nothing but disgust.
Sansa continues, unaffected. She’s thought about this before, Jon ralizes.
”Rickon is Ned Stark's trueborn son, which makes him a greater threat to Ramsay than you, a bastard, or me, a girl. As long as he lives, Ramsay's claim to Winterfell will be contested, which means he won't live long.”
“We can't give up on our brother,” Jon insists, shocked that she would even suggest it. But Sansa does not look apologetic, she looks resigned.
“Listen to me, please. He wants you to make a mistake.”
As have all the others he’s fought, Jon think. But he argues with Sansa regardless of the cloying realization that she has been more prepared for this battle than he ever was. Jon fights because of his duty to her. Sansa fights for her family and for the honor they’d lost. Had she not come to Castle Black, Jon would have never considered attacking Winterfell. He’d have been in White Harbor, boarding a ship to King’s Landing.
Her eyes are unyielding and unwavering when she says, “If Ramsay wins, I'm not going back there alive. Do you understand me?”
Jon remembers how she’d said she would do this on her own even without his help. She’d believed that. And now she ignores his platitudes, and believes it when she says, “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.”
Jon feels something within him quaking like a child even after she leaves. He knows how to kill, he knows how to fight, but he knows Sansa is right, and there is no fighting that ultimate truth: no matter how much he wants to protect her, Tormund, his children, he can do nothing but what he’s good at. Kill.
Somewhere close to midnight, Jon finally leaves the commander’s tent. Tormund is easy to find when Jon knows where to look for him, and he’s pulled down by his side the moment he steps inside the tent. A horn of goat’s milk is thrust into his hands, which Jon passes along to other men sitting around the fire.
They stay, but not too long. Tormund’s hands are warm on him as they stumble into his sleeping tent, trying to rid themselves of unnecessary layers. Jon doesn’t feel the cold anymore, not really, but he does feel the heat of Tormund’s hands that grip his thighs and pull them apart, the pressure of his lips that skid over his chest, the pleasure of his fingers within him, before they’re replaced by his cock.
Jon pants and kisses Tormund, trying to find leverage to move his hips back, to feel his scorching skin under his cold fingers, and not think too much about them dying tomorrow. For a while, he succeeds. Yet, the thoughts return with a devastating vengeance, making their kisses messy and desperate, their fingers biting into skin a little too hard, leaving trails and drawing blood as they try to cling to each other. Tormund lays a hand on Jon’s chest to hold him down when he climbs to his knees. He grabs Jon’s legs, one hand under each knee, and fucks him into the sleeping skins, knocking the air out of his lungs with each brutal trust of his hips.
Tomorrow they die, but tonight they’re alive. As long as their blood is still pumping through their veins, and as long as they breathe, they can feel each other in the most primal way and in the one true way they’ve always understood each other.
Jon feels the tears only when Tormund bows his head to rest it into the crook of his neck, when his hips become sloppy as he loses himself with pleasure. He groans against Jon’s chest as he spills within him, Jon’s shaking thighs holding him closer. Jon’s own release cools on his belly.
His fingers hurt from holding Tormund too tightly. He passes them softly over the cooling skin of Tormund’s shoulders and lifts his head back. “Just a moment. Just give me a moment.”
He reaches over the opened poultice for his undershirt and wipes his face with the corner of it. Only then does he allow himself to melt into the skins underneath him while Tormund places soft kisses over his neck, whose purpose is nothing more than to show affection.
Sleep wishes to overwhelm him. Moments slip away from him between one blink and the next, growing slow and lethargic. He feels Tormund pulling out, and then pulling away. He feels something passing between his sticky thighs to clean him up, the heaviness of Tormund’s hand around him and blankets over him. Yet, when he should fall asleep his eyes open and he knows, Tormund is awake as well.
He should sleep, but he doesn’t want to give up these last moments to it. Instead, in a low voice, he tells Tormund what Sansa had said, and in an equally low voice Tormund tells him, “You should listen to your sister.”
Jon look up at him, past his beard to meet his soft blue eyes. Tormund quirks an eyebrow and kisses the top of his head. “She’s right to be angry you know. If I was making the decisions for the elders, do you think they wouldn’t be cross with me?”
“It’s different, you know that,” Jon replies. Tormund humms, rubs his shoulder before pulling the blankets higher around them.
“You told me how this succession thing of yours works here. You told me that her having name Stark means something. I also know that without her, we wouldn’t be here. She’s responsible for this as much as you.”
Jon takes a moment to think over his words. Nothing, Jon thinks, he didn’t know before. However, put in another perspective, he sees what Tormund wishes to say. Were Sansa one of the Free Folk, he wouldn’t have questioned her. Were she Karsi, he wouldn’t have thought to leave her out of war plans. Jon has made a fool of himself.
“This politics thing,” Tormund says with disdain of one too familiar with how people work, “has always been smarter leaving to the heads of people who knows how to do them. Killing people is one thing, telling them what to do is another.”
Jon doesn’t want to pull away, so instead he pushes onto his hand that had been resting on Tormund’s chest and lifts himself up. “You can’t tell me to give up on my brother.”
“ Vranjska ,” Tormund sighs, and rubs his neck until Jon lays down once again.“You don’t learn what a man is like until you see how he treats the old, the weak, clan’s prisoners. The Thenns kill all those that aren’t their wisemen and they take no prisoner.”
His hand is in Jon’s hair, slowly working through the curls. “Your sister was with him as his wife and as his prisoner. She knows this Bolton fucker. She would not have told you that to hurt you.”
No, Jon thinks, she wouldn’t.
“Besides,” Tormund adds, chuckling, “If she escaped him, she’s even smarter than she looks.”
Jon looks up at Tormund. His smile draws out a weak one in Jon, and he has to tilt his head so he can kiss him.
“Tomorrow,” Jon says against his lips, a hand tracing the fine lines on his face, “whatever happens. Remember we made a promise, Tormund Giantsbane.”
Tormund huffs and kisses his again, but briefly. “I don’t plan on dying tomorrow, vranjska . Not until I see the Night King’s head on a pyre.” He draws him into anoter kiss by the back of his neck and rolls on top of him, pressing him back into the furs.
Jon gasps, feeling Tormund’s cock hard against his hip and laughs breathlessly against his lips.
Sansa was right. It echoes in his head as he watches Rickon running towards them before he’s shot full of arrows. It echoes when Ramsey gives in after Jon retreats to hold the line and their army charges; when no strategy can save them from the sheer fact they have fewer men. Her words are thunder when the Knights of the Vale come charging over the hill, cleaving through Ramsey’s army so Jon is left free to charge after him.
He looks towards her on the top of the hill with Lady Mormont and remembers, belatedly, that her mother was a Tully and had a sister in the Vale. The knights came for her. That’s the army she’d told Jon to wait for, in so little words.
“We’re killing that bastard,” Tormund growls, drenched in blood. In the madness of the battle, Jon had seen him bite someone’s ear off. He’s a madman, Jon reaffirms, and feels somehow all the lighter for it.
Jon looks towards Wun Wun who nods before they take off for Winterfell.
As the castle gate becomes more obvious to them, the surer Jon is of the fact that he’d never been as angry as in that moment. It runs through him as if all the hatred of the people that died, Rikon’s, his sister’s, has thickened in his blood and set it on fire.
At the castle gates, before the bowmen can organize, Jon looks at Wun Wun and tells him to lift him up. It’s precarious standing on his shoulder, and yet, it gives men pause when Jon shouts, “Don’t shoot!”
They look at him, uncertain. “I’m here for Ramsey, not for you. Give him to me, and you will return to your families.”
“Lies!” he hears someone shouting. An arrow notches loose, and hits Wun Wun in the arm.
“Listen to me,” Jon shouts. “You lost your army. The Knight of the Vale are coming here. But I am Ned Stark’s son. I give you my word, you will live to see another day if you open these doors.”
The men look between each other, their bows lowering. He remembers Davos’ words: no man wants to die for a lost cause.
The gate opens and Wun Wun lets him down so he can walk through it. Inside the courtyard, Ramsey’s shouting something at his men, but his words die once he spots Jon.
What must he look like, Jon thinks. He’s covered in dirt and horseshit and blood. Jon’s not a vengeful person but he feels its hot breath on the back of his neck. Jon is there just to watch the smirk bleeding from Ramsey’s face as he lets arrow after arrow loose, hitting the shield Jon picks up, until he can smirk no longer but fall under him, and Jon can finally do what he’s wished to do ever since he saw him: beat him until he’s bleeding, bruised, crying.
He would have done it until Ramsey bled to death, but he’s taken out of his wrathful daze when in the corner of his eye he sees skirts. He looks up at Sansa. No , Jon thinks. He will not kill Ramsey. There is little justice in that.
Instead, filthy, exhausted, barely standing his ground, Jon waits in front of the kennels with Tormund while Sansa enacts her revenge. He hears the shouting, the screaming, barking of the hounds, but when he sees the relief on Sansa’s face he knows what she did was right.
Sansa passes them then turns and quirks an eyebrow. “You need a bath.”
Jon laughs, and keeps laughing long after she’s gone, letting Tormund hug him in the courtyard, in front of everyone. They’re alive. They’re alive .