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The Burned Beauty

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They called her a dragon.

    It was a presumptuous name, but one she wore with as much dignity as she could muster. Titles meant nothing in the face of sincerity, but what was that worth, when you groveled in lies? She was being mocked, a title guised in praise, though, considering recent events, it was more of a curse than a nuance. I did not kill thousands of people.

    She collected other names over the years, a prominent example being The Burned Beauty. Alkin Pine used to say it was attractive and mysterious, just enough to draw in a few eyes. She saw it a different way, a way to control her, to perpetually remind her of what she was and what she would remain as if he had his way.

    Whore.

    A man had hailed her across the tavern. His voice was booming, like a clap of thunder, but as she approached she realized he was quite the opposite. Lithe and toned, suited for agility rather than raw strength. Deception. He was strong, but where remained to be seen.

    She threw on a smile, sauntering over to him with a lilt in her hips.

    He sat near a frost-armored window, nursing a keg of ale. He wore a great big cloak the color of moldy lemons, as old as dirt. As she approached, she smelled dirt, and grime and sage, the man freshly presented from a trek through the woods no doubt. The green fork was notorious for men like him.

    As she approached, he swept her into his lap. She could feel his heady breaths hot and heavy against her neck. His hands settled onto her hips, her back to him. She stared out the window, listening to the listless clapping of wet leaves.

    “You really are a dragon, ain't you?”

    Many men said that, but what she lacked was quite obvious: she had no golden eyes or a chest that could heave golden flame. Her hair used to be golden, but now it was dulled by a film of dirt and dust. She was more of a lizard, but that sounded not at all appealing to any lackwit.

    Rather, she had scales. Not the armored kind, instead burns. They scorched her body in thick ribbons, most prominently spiraling up her left side; along her calf, nearly covering her whole thigh, before cupping her breast and her cheek and upper lip. It was reddish-black and ugly beyond compare, hard and tough like leather but without the benefit of protection. Her skin was weakened in those spots, prone to burst.

    “So I’ve been told,” she said slyly. “But don't worry, I don't bite.”

    He grinned nastily, a few of his teeth ashen grey. “Or burn, I would hope. Last dragon who could burn set an entire city aflame. Smoke choked even the youngest halfwits of the Night’s Watch. It smelled of blood and ashes for miles out, I still feel it clinging to my skin.” He shuddered, curling his lip. “Most people burned, if I’ve heard it true. No survivors. A Targaryen’s insanity. Say, you from there? Never seen burns like yours before.”

    “I could be,” Margaery said loftily. “Or I could be from Old Valyria, perhaps a pyromancer, or a survivor of the Disaster at Summerhall. I could be anyone you like.”

    His hands started to wander down across the plains of her thighs, and she winced as his nails raked across the scaly patch of burns. He took no notice. “What I like,” he mumbled, “Is blood on my hands, a song in my ears and a smile on my lips. Do you sing, you burned beast? Or did the flames burn away your tongue as well?”

    She swallowed down something thick. “I can sing. What do you want to hear?”

    “Something before that Targaryen Bitch and the Northern Whore. Before the dead walked the land like a lot ‘o cunts and there were seven kingdoms instead of six.” He took a swig of ale, his pupils enlarging like two new moons.

    She thought for a moment. Her memory may be choppy, (though on purpose or accident she didn't know), but she would be disgraced if she didn't remember something to keep her spirits high. So, taking a deep breath, she sang.

 

***

 

    The morning was colder than usual.

    It was the type of cold that snuggled into your neck, armoring your skin and licking your veins. Margaery awoke shivering, bundled snuggly in an aggregation of mildewy furs. They smelled starkly of use, sweat and sex, but fainter was the smell of the North: lichen and sage with just the slightest kiss of pine sap. Fainter still was blood from a birth so many years ago.

    What made the cold worse was the fact she was alone. Most commonly men drank themselves into a stupor, snoring away the light until into early noon. But, as she had suspected, this lemon-cloaked ranger had none of that.

    On the pillow beside her three groats and two pennies had been scattered. She palmed them, running her fingers over the blunted edges. Her grandmother would be disgraced and enraged to see such pitiless payment, or, more likely, would have been angered at her granddaughter for stooping to such ignominy.

    All the same, Margaery felt only the smallest flood of shame. Over the two and a half years of her stay in the shanty-town near the green fork, she had grown into a hygge, factitious and unkind, but comfortable. She would only allow herself to see the glamor in the men she entertained, the benefits of waking up within the embrace of someone strong and better off, their toxic, ale-laced breaths hard and heavy against her neck.

    As she laced up her tresses, finding them spattered with mud, she stretched her arms out. The ashen burns split, making her wince and grit her teeth. Loras would be here soon, she did not doubt, and she would hate for him to see her in such a stance of disarray.

    He knows what I do. He hates it. He hates Alkin Pine and every man who ever touched me. Yet she had relented from his plees, refusing to leave. She had been adamant, yet their arguments could rise to shouts, leaving her feeling more and more dejected.

    She made her way downstairs, finding Alkin Pine wiping down the bar. The cloth had gathered a fine sloshing of congealed amber liquid, turning it the same color as his skin. He raised his head as she entered, grunting.

    To her surprise, Loras was sitting at the bar, palming a keg, though it held only water. His eyes were distant, glossy, one nearly swollen over from his burns. He was far from pretty, though women had to tug their eyes away. For one reason or another, Loras remained desirable. As for her.. She shook her head. Comparing her to others wouldn't help her mentality or her mood.

    “Did you treat him well?” Alkin asked. Loras startled, turning to her with a tight grin.

    She didn't smile back. “Of course.”

    “Good,” Alkin huffed. “Last thing I need is another complaint.”

    “Another?” Loras echoed, eyeing Margaery as she unceremoniously plopped down into the stool next to him, exhaling thickly.

    “Aye.” Alkin said. Margaery didn't bother to correct him. “She’s a tricky one. Most won't touch her, and those that do tend to think she’s more of an animal. One wrong word and they are out the door. I told you that you need to be more complicit,” he turned to Margaery. “See how well it’s working for you?”

    Loras’s eyes were flashing angrily as he ground his teeth together. “We need to talk.” He hissed. Despite his stiff, enraged tone, his touch was surprisingly tender as he grabbed her hand, ushering her out the door.

    The morning was cold, and the breeze had an egregious bite to it. A heavy mist had settled over the town, lacing the trees in rippling tendrils. A few spears of sun filtered down from the clouds, but a stormfront was rolling in quickly. It would only be a few days until the first snow of winter hit the green fork, and Margaery wasn’t ready for it.

    Loras led her on in silence, winding past a few oxcarts and a few more not so pleasant-faced smallfolk. Their looks had long since been numbed to Margaery, but they still made her feel off, misplaced and hated.

    He began up a slow incline past the butcher’s shop, the air smelling starkly of peat. The grass was dribbled in frost, and so were the aspens. When they had trudged a little farther in, he sat down on a fallen log. It was damp, but they would make do.

The second she sat down Loras turned to her, releasing her hand and clenching his own into fists. “You can’t keep doing this.”

She winced as her thigh scraped a stray branch. “Why not?”

“Because it’s hurting you. You deserve so much better. You have been nothing but kind to everyone-”

“Life isn’t fair,” Margaery cut in, mildly annoyed. “It’s what we make of it that counts. Whatever I am doing now is a means to an end. I’m helping both of us. Why can’t you see that? Once we have enough money..” It was true they were poor, so much so that simple commodities were a luxury. Before Cersei’s death, Loras had been more laid back, pressing only slightly. But now that she was dead.. No.

She was afraid. Afraid of her own ambitions. Afraid of people.

“When will that be?” Loras asked, curling his lip. “When you’ve lifted your skirts for a hundred men? A thousand? How many will it be, Margaery? Until we are old and grey? I cannot- will not stand for that.”

She exhaled shakily, her control slipping. “It’s not your choice,” she whispered. “I may not have been able to control what happened then, or how father died, but I can control this. Give that to me, at least.”

Loras swallowed thickly, his eyes glossing over with tears. “What I would be giving you is pain. Every night until you are wrung of every ounce of hope and love until you are no longer my sister! Please. I beg you. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go North. South. I don’t care. Anywhere where you are safe.”

“How?” She asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She hadn’t noticed the trails of tears along her cheeks until now. “There is nowhere left for us.”

    Before she could grasp what was happening, Loras had pulled her into his arms, rocking her gently. She pressed into him, her breath hitching, clinging to his shirt. She never wanted to lift her head, his heartbeat strong in her ears; it was the only song she needed.

    “We will make a place. I promise. I will get you away from here. To some place better. A place where you will laugh and smile again. Gods Margaery!” He ran his hands soothingly along her back. “You are so much more than this.”

    The sun had begun to swell in the sky and the hearty chatter of the town began to cut it’s way through the mist. Something else rode along the breeze, the frigid promise of snow and ice. If the storm hit before they left.. There would be no hope of going anywhere until spring.

    “The North,” she murmured quietly. Whispered words seeped into her thoughts from the previous night. The man was drunk and had spoken of his woes. The North.. Seceded, ruled by a queen.. Sansa Stark. The words had rammed into her like an arrow, winding her.

    Loras stiffened, pulling away and holding her at arm’s length.

    “The North?”

    “Yes.” She built up a block of courage in her throat. “Sansa is Queen. She.. she will help us.” The words rang false to her own ears. Why would she help us? It has been years since I have seen her.. Yet hope bloomed in her chest. It was addicting, the feeling of elation and excitement. She wanted more, and yet at the same time felt a welling of fear in her gut.

    Loras’s gaze softened. “The North then.”

 

    ***

   

    Loras was excited, though confused. They planned to leave in the night, before the storms hit. But the King’s Road was long and treacherous, and with stores leaking out by the day, pickpockets and thieves would be common. They needed protection, direction, and, in a broader sense, provisions.

    She made her way down the ridge first, frowning deeply. Loras worked as an apprentice to a dyer down the way; his hands were always stained in some odd assortment of colors. She liked how sandy his hands felt, and liked how he draw small pictures on the trunks of trees. It was a small respite, but one she lavished.

    They rarely went to the sept, though the seven-pointed scar on Loras’s head was confusing to most. It had been puckered in scar tissue, once infected after the explosion, and never since healed properly. Yet it retained its shape, for whatever that was worth.

    If the gods loved us, they would have let us die with Father.

    As she walked, she noticed a band of newcomers. They were tall and beefy, muscles rippling under their leather-clad graves and plates. They were coated in a shell of brass armor, their eyes flinty and their skin pale. Two were younger, lads by the look of them, with three older, and one grizzled old lune. They pulled a wayne cart and led two flaxen destriers, each in prime condition.

    When she returned, having gorged on a half-stale loaf of bread, she found Alkin with a sneer plastered to his fat face. The tavern was already filling in with men ready for luncheon, though many refrained from drinking until the sun set.

    The armored band of men entered before her, choosing a seat near a frothy window. She noticed idly that there was not a single moment when their shoulders lay flat, always bouncing in laughter at some jape. She envied them, a flush creeping up her neck. She felt both ashamed and guilty for not smiling more often, especially for Loras, and had almost forgotten what her laugh sounded like.

    “There you are,” Alkin Pine hissed, drawing her close by the arm.

    “Sorry,” Margaery mumbled.

    “Aye. You better be sorry. What did I tell you about taking breaks?” He paused, hacking up a glob of phlegm. “Meet me in my chambers tonight.” It wasn't a question, but rather a command. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

    He shoved her away where she nearly stumbled into a table, her arm colliding with the liquor-stained rim. Her shoulder burned and she hissed, biting her lip so as not to cry out. You will hear me roar, you bastard.

    She swaggered over to the table, a lilt in her hips. She eyed their armor, finding a Tully Trout emblazoned on their pectorals. Her eyes widened. She had seen a few men from Riverrun, but most were simple merchants. These men.. They were knights, that was plain to see. But the two boys, she noted, were sitting farther back, almost protected by the older men.

    “What in the bloody hells are you?” The eldest asked. His eyes were a dusky green and his hair was a dizzying array of red, brown and black.

    “By god Daler, is that your mother?” One of the other men chimed in. He looked smaller, more lithe, clean shaven and ruddy. “Ugly and all that.”

    “Shut it Goffer,” the man, presumably Daler grumbled. He swatted at his friend, only for the other to dodge aside. The lad’s were chuckling.

    She opened her mouth to speak but the third cut her off. “Ale all around. Make it strong.” He seemed to think better of himself. “Two watered-down.”

    “Where’s the fun in that Bedrik?” Goffer wrinkled his nose. “Give the lads a fair spoil! Gods know they’ve earned it.”

    She turned to go, relieved and obfuscated, before Daler hailed her again. “You were beautiful once, weren’t you?”

    “Once,” she repeated. “Until I caught the blackscale.”

    Goffer curled his lip, shrinking back. “ Blackscale?”

    “Oh yes,” she said, her face drawing down into a frown. “Like grayscale but worse. It eats away at your skin, turning it black until it falls off.” She grimaced. “There is no cure. I imagine I’ll die soon. Perhaps you will hear my screams at night. I’m told they are dreadful.”

    Daler snorted before bursting into a bubbling fit of chuckles. Goffer looked horrified. “You’re joking!”

    She flashed a smirk before the older man curled his greasy lip, clicking his knuckles on the table. “It is not a whore’s job to make japes. Go find some other man to entertain. And while your at it, learn a little respect.”

    Margaery faltered. The man was greying, his beard an old bush etched onto his face. His eyes were sunken and a pale, smoky blue. She thought he might have been an ex-maester, by the look of his stooped shoulders and gaunt, hollow cheeks. “It is a whore’s job to entertain. Or would you rather I step down and you show me how it’s done?”

    “Liren,” Bedrick said, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder. He was glaring, his eyes ablaze.

    The man, Liren, sat back with a huff, his nose wrinkled and the crow’s feet around his eyes splaying out horribly. “There is a reason you are no lady, or ever will be one,” he said calmly. “You do not listen. Mocking your elders is a sure way to bring upon yourself misfortune. Don’t take it to practice.”

    Margaery’s heart started to beat faster, his words echoing in her head like the raucous beat of a drum. Mocking your elders is a sure way to bring upon yourself misfortune. She gulped, nodding once before turning.

    “You shouldn’t be so harsh on her,” Goffer whispered.

    Margaery glanced back in time to see Liren snort. “It seems the farther North we go, the more pitiless lackwits we find. It runs in their blood, as well as the Stark Bitch.” She bristled at that but said nothing.

 

    ***

 

    “You’re going North?” Margaery asked as she set down the kegs, waves of ale sloshing against the rims.

    “Aye. As far as we can before winter swallows us whole,” Daler replied dryly, gulping down the liquor. He wiped his lips. “Damn it all.”

    “Why would you risk travel this late?” Margaery asked, docile from their previous interlude. She tried to keep the hope out of her voice.

    The men exchanged a few glances. Bedrick shrugged. “Why not tell her? Nothing a good fuck can’t keep secret.”

    Daler cleared his throat, scrunching his brows. “We are an escort of sorts.” He turned to the two boys who had remained as silent as stone. One looked to be stiff as a board, his spine arched up and away from the seat. The other was slouching, staring at his keg of wine as if it were some sort of snake. “For the Lord.”

    “The Lord?” Margaery echoed. She sat on one of the nearer tables, swinging her legs. She bit her lip.

    “Me,” the slouched boy said, raising his eyes. “My name is Brynden Tully, heir of Riverrun.” Margaery nearly fell off the table. Word had it that Edmure Tully had a son off of the Frey girl, but she had put less stock in those rumors than most. “We are going to Winterfell, so I can be fostered by my cousin, the Queen.”

    The Stark Bitch. Whatever the reason, Liren took none too kindly to that title. She shivered. There was something left unsaid, but she didn't have the willpower, or patience to try and wheedle it out. Instead she said, “Take me with you.”

    Daler raised his brows. “And why would we do that?”

    She was about to speak before Bedrick raised his hand. “We don’t want coin. You have to offer something else.” His eyes glinted maliciously. A headache settled over her mind, slurring her thoughts. Now or never.

    She hopped off her table, slowly settling herself in Bedrick’s lap, feeling him stiffen and harden. She fought off a wince. “Take me to Winterfell, and I am yours.”

Chapter Text

Waxy fingers glided down the candle, pooling in a thick, red puddle. Sansa sighed, dripping the wax onto a strip of parchment, sealing it with the Stark standard. The movements were oddly soothing and methodical, tranquil and calming. She took a breath, handing the parchment back to the shivering messenger.

    “Send Bran my good graces,” Sansa said. She mentally cursed herself for forgetting his proper title. Everything was still so new, hardly weaned off of concept.

    The messenger bowed deeply. “As you wish.” He scuttled out of the room, his eyes remaining fixated on the floor.

    Sansa bowed her head, lacing her fingers together and hunching over. A warm gust wafted up from the fireplace, thawing her icy skin. The light danced across her skin like dark hands, making her uneasy.

    And so my strife begins.

    Winter had come at last, after years of warning and cursing. It had settled snugly over the North, kicking its feet up to stay. Frost clung to the windows in thick sheets; trees were masked in throes of white hills and the panoply of flowers in the Glass Gardens had all wilted and shriveled. Everything was dying, freezing, leaving.

    “Sansa?”

    Theon Greyjoy stood bathed in dancing shadow near a pillar of stone. Most of her Lords ignored him, or chose to shy away. He was the queen’s hand, yet he acted more like her cowed dog, much preferring the peace of shadows and silence than the chatter of an angry court.

    Sansa glanced up at him. He was skinny, his ribs still deep arations in his chest, his cheeks sunken and his hair stiff, but he was growing. He had never seen a winter before, and his blood was not of the North, yet he remained by her side, even after she offered him safe passage to the Iron Islands; he was the true heir.

    He had refused adamantly, abdicating his claim to Yara Greyjoy. Sansa, against what should have been proper, was relieved. He had left her once before, when he knew she was in good hands, and she never intended to lose him again.

    “Are you alright?”

    She pursed her lips, gnawing on her cheeks. “Theon, my mother always told me to live by a code. Family, duty, honor.”

    “I know.”

    “I had almost forgotten, after all this time. But my family is all gone, except for you. And Bran.. Bran . I don’t know what to think of him anymore. He is not my brother, nor my king. My Father always lived for his family. We always came first, and he was named a traitor and his head was cut off. So I ask you now, should I value the North, my kingdom I am sworn to protect, or the liberty and memory of my family?”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Theon whispered. He peeled himself away from the wall,

shuffling over to her and sitting down. “What’s wrong?”

    “Bran.” Sansa smiled wistfully. “As usual.”

    “What did he say?”

    “He says I should marry.” Sansa sat up straighter, standing and walking towards the window, gripping the frigid sill. “

    “Why?” Theon asked, slightly aghast. Years ago, what felt like just yesterday, she forswore marriage, though that was when death was pending on the horizon, and she doubted there would be a future to marry in.

    “Isn’t it obvious?” Sansa asked, though not unkindly. “He feels I cannot rule alone. He worries for me and my kingdom I understand. Without me the Starks will die off. Yet his council boasts of election over inheritance. It was his plan, he must have known what the Lannister was to say. The North remains a kingdom with the laws of inheritance, and he worries for that.”

    “You are quite capable on your own,” Theon muttered. “That is plain to see. But he knows things we cannot comprehend. He has more knowledge than-”

    “So I’ve been told,” Sansa snapped. “But what is the price of knowledge? He is no longer a brother of mine, or Ned’s son. No Stark. When he went beyond he was stripped of himself. Of the boy that was pushed out of a tower and became a cripple. Now he sees through the eyes of animals, but not the eyes of men. He preaches of future and past, but how can he possibly command when he does not know what it is to feel? He was no empathy for the people, or me and mine. He does not know what it is like to be me.”

    Wind buffeted the window, rattling it in it’s frame. Theon jumped. “He is a different kind of king,” Theon murmured. “We cannot know how he will rule, yet. But.. this is your kingdom. Yours. He does control it. Nor does he control you.”

    “I need him though,” Sansa hissed. “I need his armies and his crops and his direction. I cannot simply cast him away so easily. But he can to me. I do not know him as I once did. Who’s to say what he will do next? For we know, he could be mad.”

    “Just because he shows no emotion does not make him mad-”

    “I have seen what apathy and neutrality does to people. I have seen what it causes them to do to the weak and fragile. I have felt what it is like to be the brunt of a man’s force because he has nothing else to feel.”

    Theon flinched and Sansa’s composure shattered. They had both suffered at the hands of the Boltons, one no more than the other. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “None of this is your fault. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

    Theon stood beside her, staring into her eyes. “It may not be my fault, but I want to fix it. I want to be the solution in any way I can.”

    She sighed, hugging him tightly. Despite all these years, he still smelled of salt and the sea, something she had come to love. His hands were not strong on her back, but they were there, which was more than she could say of the ghosts that haunted her.

    “You can be,” she murmured. “You already are.”

    He paused, lifting his head from her mane of hair and glancing out the window. “Marriage is a byproduct of monarchy. But it is simply a means to an end. Heirs.”

    “Heirs,” Sansa echoed. She chewed on that for a moment. “When I was in King’s Landing, to be married to the Imp, I thought of having children with him. I was terrified of it, and not just the idea of his bed. I never want to be a mother, and I never want to raise children. I’m afraid of what they’ll become.”

    She vaguely remembered the last morning she thought about having a brood of her own. The sun had been swollen in the sky, the breeze smelling of roses. She had poured her heart out, to be heard by.. Margaery. Just the thought made her heart hurt.

    Off in the distance, a wolf howled.

    “Robb followed in Father’s footsteps and his allies slit his throat. Arya fled the moment when her family was ‘safe’. And Bran.. he no longer has a family, does he? And me? I’m nothing like either my parents.” She straightened her back, pulling away from him. “I’m just worried.”

    Theon went silent. “When spring dawns in the North, then we will have more words of children. Until then, focus on the ones you already have.” He paused. “What would you name them? Your heirs, I mean.”

    She knew he was trying to change the subject, if only to lessen the weight on her shoulders, even for a minute. For once, she was ready to be swept away in thoughts that had nothing to do with her turmoil. “If he were a son, I would name him Robb.”

    “And if she were a daughter?”

    “I’d name her Margaery.”



    “Your Grace,” Bronze Yohn Royce said.

    He was a gruff man, burly and coarse, not unlike the scattering of pebbles on his standard. He held himself high, his chest puffed out like that of a bird, and his chin loftily angeled, making every look of his condescending.

    “M’Lord,” Sansa said politely. Her gaze shifted to the snow-capped crenelations and beyond, where oily pikes fisted up from the tundra. They shivered and trembled in the find, spraying dusty loads of snow every which way. The air was cold, biting at her skin and making her cloak clap noisily.

    Yohn Royce seemed to fare far worse, born in the Vale and weaned off of warmth. He had seen winters before, but none so fierce as this; Winterfell had hardly had a day of respite since the first storm, and even so the guards on their rounds nearly froze of frostbite to their lips and noses. The lord shivered, growling like some wild beast.

    “You wished to speak with me?”

    “Aye,” Royce muttered, running her beefy hands along his thicker arms. “Though somewhere where the wind doesn't have teeth.”

    Sansa frowned earnestly. “My apologies. I wanted to see the forest. I doubt we will see it again for a long while.” She grimaced. “Nor any of the North, or the Vale. Why stay here?”

    Royce curled his lip. “That is what I wish to speak to you about. Now that the war is over and tranquility is restored, my fellow lords have turned to more.. Trivial matters. Specifically the untimely death of the Lord Baelish.”

    Sansa nearly laughed. “If you presume his death was unjust-”

    “I do not,” Royce snarled. “But I am not them, and they require recompense for their unrequited fealty since that.. incident.”    

    “Lord Baelish was judged within my court. Justly, tried as any other man would have been. You all swore fealty to Jon, I am no different.”

    “Therein lies the problem,” the lord turned to a few guards who were posted, teeth and armor clacking alike. “They swore fealty to Jon. Not you. They remain adamant with this, I assure you. However, they have a proposal that will seal your queenship, and the alliance between the Vale and the North will remain intact.”

    “What is this proposal?” Sansa asked, clasping her fingers.
    “A marriage.”

    Her heart skipped a beat and she clenched her fists, steadying herself with a breath. Bran must have known of this.. Allyment. He knew all, so he claimed. His knowledge will be the death of us all. “Our alliance should have been sealed with Jon’s fealty, and your own,” Sansa snapped, her composure slipping. “You are the Lord of The Vale now. You pledged your banners to me. I will hear no more of it.”

    “Your Grace,” Royce graded, grinding his teeth. “I may be the Lord but I am nothing without the support of my council. You will fare no better. I encourage you to contemplate this. The consequences could be dire.”

    Sansa bit her cheek, wrinkling her nose. She glared out at the woods, a lacing of shadows simmering at the trunks of the pines and aspens, mirrored in a lingerie of white ice. “Take your proposal elsewhere, Lord Royce. You have a long road ahead if you wish to race the storms.”

    He looked not too pleased about this, narrowing his eyes and swelling on his heels, thick cloak smacking a crenelation. Sansa sighed as he passed, lumbering down the way as if he were some behemoth.

    She exhaled shakily. What have I done?

    That's when she heard shouting.

    The men along the walls were hollaring to one another, voices raised to a fever pitch in the cold. They barked orders to one another in a seemingly foreign language. She looked beyond the wall, down where the snow had started to cling to the slick, grey stone.

    Men were pouring out the gates, holding bubbling torches as they sprinted across the landscape and into the woods. Sansa watched in confusion, brows knit, before she heard the distant cry of a wolf.

    Brienne was stationed near the portcullis, speaking softly to one of her serjeants. He was lean and lithe, no older than her own deceased Father, with a strong, boxy jaw and muddy brown hair. Howland Reed.

    The minute she approached Brienne curtsied, sending Howland away. He looked slightly muddled, his hair askew and his lips drawn down into a deep-set grimace. Brienne looked rather similar, all things considered, keeping her features neutral as Sansa approached. “Your Grace.”

    “Ser,” Sansa said. The word tasted odd on her tongue, but she respected it with ardor. “What is happening?”

    Brienne glanced past the portcullis which was now being held in place by the groaning winches. “My scouts reported movement in the woods. Something big. Most likely a direwolf.” She said it so nonchalantly that Sansa shivered.

    They stayed there in companionable silence for a few moments before the men returned. A few torches had guttered out, but the men looked unharmed. Not a wound was opening and not a sword was bloodied. Sansa sighed in relief. The only direwolf anywhere near the wolfswood was Nymeria, and Sansa was won’t to believe that that particular creature would ever hurt her or her family.

    They trotted up the steps, dispersing like water breaking on a stone. Sansa eyed them as two of the guards approached. They glanced at her uneasily before they focus became fixated on Brienne. They dipped their heads, eyes swimming with an emotion Sansa couldn’t place.

    Her heart started to beat faster and faster, searing hot blood pumping through her veins like lightning.

    “Sers,” Brienne said. “Anything to report?”

    The elder shook his head before making way for the smaller boy. He had pale skin with a band of freckles across his nose and a sour look about him. Sansa frowned, but his eyes glinted nicely enough. “The men told me to kill it, but.. I heard about the Stark direwolves.”

    Sansa cocked her head, kneeling down to his height. In his arms, bundled in a stole or ermine. It was dark and grey, layers of fluffy fur rippling in the wind. Sansa recognized it immediately. She felt something sharp in her chest, smiling faintly. “You were right to bring her to me.”

    The boy nodded meekly, turning away as he handed her the bundle. The wolf fit cradled into her arms, molded to her body as if it were meant to be. Sansa thanked him before turning to Brienne, a flush rising in her cheeks. “He seems very nice, considering you are his teacher.”

    Brienne snorted. “Your Grace, if I may allow, he is nieve. He still has a childish spirit.”

    “Is that a bad thing?” Sansa raised her eyebrows.

    “No.” Brienne admitted lamley, shuffling on her feet. “I've trained worse.”

    Suddenly, Sansa had an idea. It was ludicrous and preposterous, but if nothing else, she needed to prove something, whether it was to herself or others. Arya had trained and mastered the art of sparring, and, beyond that, of war. Yet Sansa remained ill suited to any bladed task. She remembered back to the crypts of Winterfell during the battle. She had huddled near a pillar, helpless, though she held a dagger.

    The Imp was braver than me, and no one likes the Imp.

    “Teach me then,” Sansa said.

    Brienne sputtered. “Your Grace, I don’t think that is appropriate.”

    Sansa shook her head, holding up a hand. “You will teach me to fight.”

Chapter Text

Winter crept up from the hills, a great, white wreath slung over the hulls of grass First it was pelting of rain-stones, then, later on, the trails turned to mud and slick bogs, crusted in a thin layer of blackice. Snow was next, hard and sharp, like small pins being carelessly tossed from the clouds. A blanket of white settled over the road near Castle Cerwyn, and provided little and less in terms of comfort.

    Margaery and her escorts had no issue, save for stiff mornings and cold nights (though that was soon remedied when the men hailed her), until the wayne busted a wheel, tipping over and crushing the horse’s leg. They killed the horse, salvaging what they could manage. Two of the tents were ruined. Margaery hated seeing the animal died, and wondered if his thick, congealed blood would be found come spring.

    It was that brittle chain of events that plopped Margaery where she was, reclining on a strip of canvas, watching the snow listlessly, looking to the side. Daler and the others were eating, though she had no appetite. Her stomach was knotted in dread and her throat felt clogged with something thick and swollen.

    She had been with all sorts of men, big, tall, small and even a couple boys, deflowering them soundly. But these men were different. They were weaned off of plate and mail and brute strength since they were small, dining on small pleasures and luxuries she herself once lavished.

    They were strapping, muscles flexed almost on instinct with a confidence she had nearly forgotten existed. It frightened her more than she would like to admit. She clenched her fists, shutting her eyes tightly. Just a little longer..

    Then there was that whole other pit of snakes. Sansa. The Queen of Wolves. It had been so long- too long since Margaery had seen her. She couldn’t imagine what Sansa had seen, been through and endured. She had heard mild rumors, but never took them to heart. It would only obfuscate and hurt her that way. Yet even still she struggled with what her feelings were, exactly.

    Back in King’s Landing, she had spent a couple nights pondering such queries, availing only to a cold sweat and a perpetually thin grimace. The feeling hadn’t faded in the years, to her great displeasure, and upon this.. Plan of theirs, it had festered and begun to burn as much as her scars.

    She hated it.

    Suddenly she felt something warm by her side and leaned into it instinctively. “You alright?”

    It was Loras.

    To put it plainly he had been beyond furious when she had approached him nye 2 weeks ago. His fists had clenched to white hooks and his eyes had blazed with such ferocity she saw a dragon truly awaken within him. But he was no match for Daler, at the very least, so subsided somewhat. Margaery doubted he understood the calamity of their involvement, but she didn’t bother. Either way he would be angry. Either way she would hurt him.

    Despite all this, his tone was light, tender nearly, something she had grown accustomed to, but all the same it warmed her heart. “Of course.”

    Loras frowned, crossing his legs. He smelled of peat. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t Southron. “Marg,” he gently tilted her chin towards him. She didn’t resist. “They’re hurting you. I can’t just sit by and let them. When the snows lift-”

    “They won’t,” Margaery murmured, though not unkindly. “Winter has come. You know the Stark words. They were not so idle as we all believed.” She pursed her lips. “As for them.. It's an arrangement. We need them.”

    “And I need my sister,” Loras argued. “Every night you lose a shred of yourself, of your humanity. What if- what if you disappear completely? It would break me,” he bit his lip. “And it's not fair. I know you think that its normal, that this is just the way things are, but it isn't. It won't be. I know you have hope. Even if it's just a little.”

    “It hurts,” she whispered, not trusting herself to say much more. “Hope.”

    “I know,” he grabbed her hands, running his thumbs over them. “But it's worth it.”

    Margaery glanced back outside through the slit in the canvas, shooting a spear of light into the horizon of bleak, bleached clouds. Snow streamed down in bulbous sheets, causing the flames of their peat-fire to dance and sputter. She shivered. Night had fallen. She squeezed Loras’s hands.

    “Go on then,” Daler said, patting Brynden on the back. The little Lord pouted with a yawn. “When will it stop snowing?”

    “When you go to sleep,” Daler muttered. He shook himself.

    Alyn tugged on Brynden’s arm, hauling him out of the tent. Liren used his cloak as a shield to protect the boys, dipping beyond the rim of the tent. Loras stiffened.

    “Oi,” Bedrick said, waving his hand at Margaery. “Come here.”

    She went to stand when Loras grabbed her shoulder, a panicked look in his eyes. “Don’t.”

    She hurriedly pulled herself away from him, worried that if she didn’t act hastily, she would actually follow her brother out into the storm and not look back. Then we would both suffer. Not just me.

    “How about you too, boy?” Goffer smirked lightly, his eyes pointed at Loras. “Fancy a man like me?”

    Loras was about to make a retort when Margaery shot a warning glare. “Go.” Her voice was firm and she begged it not to shake. It did anyway.

    Within a moment Daler had grabbed her wrist, pulling her to his chest. He smelled of grease and horse, unpleasant as it was dirty. He started to feel her up, nails plucking at her burns causing her to wince. He seemed fascinated with them, in a sadistic form of way.

    “No,” Loras said. His voice held a worried lilt, magnified by his shallow breaths. “Step away from them.”

    Bedrick groaned. “Remind me again why we haven't tossed him out yet?”

    “Because he’s mine, ” Margaery snapped. “But if he doesn’t go, you may have no choice.”

    She knew her words stung Loras, and he faltered, his eyes scrunching in hurt. He started to backpedal, nearly tripping out of the tent. Then he was gone, swallowed by the belly of snow.

    It was only then that she noticed a second pair of hands roaming up her back, under her shirt, grazing her burns without mirth. Bedrick.

    She shut her eyes. It would be over soon enough.

 

    ***

   

    The air was thick and cold, smelling acutly of sex and ice. Margaery shivered, shaking so badly that she startled away, seeing spots. She rubbed her eyes, hissing as a splinter of pain bolted across her left arm. Perfect.

    She glanced around. Oily shadows slithered across the heap of sleeping bodies, disturbed by their ragged breathing. A stone-like weight signaled to her that something- someone was in her lap. And upon inspection she found it was Bedrick. His arms were curled possessively around her waist, his breaths hot and heady against her thighs.

    Trying not to wake him, Margaery gingerly disentangled herself, clinging to a blanket for warmth. Gods knew where her clothes were in the darkness. But she needed to get out, and it wouldn’t do to snoop around and risk waking Daler. Driven by impatience, she swiftly staggered away.

    Snow buffeted her like claws, ripping into her skin and caking onto her blanket, nearly tearing it from her grasp. She gasped, feeling icy pincers prod her skin, burning wherever they touched. She took a breath, feeling a wave of snow suction to the back of her throat.

    A glowing mass shone a dozen feet away, a mirror tent to the one she came from. She stumbled towards it, her naked body going stiff and rigid with each second. Her feet were numb and wet, tingling where the snow groped hungrily. Would that the snow was another lover. What difference would it make?

    Finally she stumbled inside, nearly tripping over a guttering lantern. Loras startled awake, knocking his head on a support beam. Not three feet away Alyn Blackwood stirred, mumbling in his sleep. To her surprise (and lenity), Brynden was clutching his friend tightly, warding off the demons of the cold. Liren was folded over, breathing huskily through his fissured lips.

    “Marg?” Loras asked, visibly relaxing. The lantern by his ankle sputtered, crackling and popping.

    “You never sleep with a light on,” Margaery murmured.

    Loras yawned. “They don’t like the dark,” he glanced at the two boys, fast asleep. Then a reverie seemed to hit him and his eyes went wide. “Are you alright?”

    She didn’t digne to answer and instead knelt down, wrapping the blanket further around herself, leaning into Loras’s side. She snuggled into him, her forehead resting against his jaw. He pulled her close, hands stroking her back and through her hair, ever gentle and courteous of her burns.

    “Margaery,” Loras whispered, resting his chin on her head. She felt her eyes start to sting, and she furiously buried her head into his shirt, trying to stop any tears from falling. “I would let them have me too,” Loras muttered. Her eyes widened. “If it meant taking the burden off your shoulders.”

    She shot upright, eyes wild. She stared into his own, seeing a steadiness that left no room for argument. She tried anyway. “No. You are not doing that.”

    “Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Its my life to live. I get to decide, remember?” The last part came with a sharp bite, which stung for a moment before Margaery began to realize what had happened. He feels this way whenever I sleep with them. She felt her chest ache.

    “I’m sorry,” she wound her arms around his narrow belly, pulling them together again. “I-I’m used to it. Really. I’m not hurt. When we get to Winterfell-”

    Loras sighed, relaxing backward. His breaths bounced her slightly, but with each one she felt more connected, and.. Safe. “Was Sansa really your friend?”

    Margaery faltered, confusion bubbling up in her throat. “What?”

    Loras didn’t change his firm tone. “Was Sansa Stark really like a sister to you? Or was it all just a game?” At that his tone softened. “I don’t blame you if it was. But-”

    “It wasn’t an act,” Margaery said honestly. For once, she was sure of her words. “We were like sisters. I hope she remembers that.”



***



    The next few days passed in a lurid blur of white and red. The roads were canals of ice and wet rock, pocked in pitted puddles. The second destrier fared no better, dying on the second day. Goffer managed to harvest some of the meat, but Margaery refused to eat that either. She felt that if she did, she would throw it all back up.

    They trailed the white knife, though all the hunting paths were swollen with snow and were unusable. They took to using a compass and trekking through the woods, weary of every sound and movement. Margaery found that Daler and his comrades never tired of her, but ignored her come sunup. The days were far from pleasant, but this simple respite gave her enough room to breathe.

    But, she soon gleaned, they were a day out from Winterfell, so long as the weather remained lackluster (though to her this weather was far from dainty, bordering on tumultuous and insane). She didn’t say much though, and kept her opinions between herself and Loras.

    Her mind wandering listlessly to Winterfell. She had never been there, nor anywhere in the North, and had heard scant in terms of tales. She knew Northerners worshiped the Old Gods, nameless and faceless save for the dreary carvings in the weirwood trees. They were also strictly loyal to a fault, which was both comforting and worrying. Will I be seen as a threat?

    She forced herself not to dwell on thoughts like that, instead watching the surrounding forest. Most of the animals had sunk into burrows or nests, sheltered from the weather, but some, like an errant stag, were a sight to see. They came across a dead wolf, making her gut churn. In the North, omens are taken as seriously as prayer.

    That night, Bedrick was the only one to take her. He was lacking for skill and haste, sporadic, never quite finding a rhythm. He was spent easily, but she kept her japes to herself. He had grown a fondness for her, which she had noted dryly, but it made her feel even more dirty and bitter.

    She didn’t sleep much, and when Bedrick drifted off, she snuck outside. The snows had settled, only a faint sprinkle. The trees rattled like snakes, flinging clumps of ice every which way. But beyond that, the world was silent. A faint, ever so small patch of sky shone through the clouds, roped with wispy strands of cotton.

    Stars could be seen beyond, big and bright, shining as only malicious eyes could. She watched them until the clouds licked over the hole, returning the world to a bleak underbelly of black. Still, she did not return to the tent.

    Gods knew how long she stood there, minutes, though it felt like hours. It could have been hours, but she didn’t know for sure. Either way, Liren’s presence was slowly noted. He stood silent and idle for a while, glancing at her every so often before clearing his throat. She nearly jumped out of her skin.

    “Ser,” she graded out. The word felt rancid on her tongue. No true knight has eyes like that.

“M’dragon,” he trilled. He licked his lips, winding the cords of his cloak tighter around his sallow face. “I thought you Southerners detested the cold.”

“What?” She whirled on him, eyes pinching in confusion. “I’m as Northern as you. Born and bled in the riverlands.”

Liren wrinkled his nose. “I hate prissy nobles, and I like liars even less. So tell me, m’lady, who are you really?”

Margaery’s stomach did a flip. Her mind was tumbling over itself, her thoughts colliding rapidly. Her eyes became blurry. She thought she heard a wolf shriek off in the distance, and tethered herself to the sound, trying to gain her composure.

“I was a maidservant, long ago,” Margaery muttered, turning her head away. Her cheeks were flushed from cold, and her fingers had started to prickle with numbness. “To an old queen.”

He raised an eyebrow, bemused. “Which one?”

“Margaery Tyrell,” she replied evenly. Her own name felt foreign and sickly.

“So I suspected,” he cleared his throat. “Those are wildfire burns. Admirable.” He paused, clearly delighted with the look in her eyes: fear. “Don’t fret, girl. Your secret is safe with me. However.. Your travel to Winterfell is curious. Why there of all places?”

“You all said you wouldn’t ask,” Margaery hissed.

“They did, I did not. As you have noticed, I have a tendency to speak with purpose, and nothing less. So, Dragon, why have you sought passage so far North?”

“A friend,” Margaery said. She didn’t have an excuse, well, she did, but it wasn’t any good. Liren would be able to sniff a lie if she faltered even the slightest. The best lies are shrouded in truth, if Cersei taught me anything.

Liren tsked. “Long dead, I assure you. The death toll at the start of winter was immeasurable. Forces depleted on all sides; every Northern Lord has suffered. And with the Targaryen Bitch gone and dead, we can only assume that most of her men are likewise.”    

Margaery didn’t respond, watching another puddle of starry sky peak through the clouds. She wished she were a dove, if only to fly away and never look back. The wolf’s howl was long faded, but a different sound that reverberated in her guts caused her to gasp; thunder.

She squirmed uneasily. Thunder had always been a terror for her- it sounded too much like crumbled stones, masking the cries and screams of people. Scrunching her eyes, she felt her nails start to dig into her palms again. She would have scars from it, but right now that was the last of her worries.

    “For one reason or another, you are fled. Ladies do not resort to whorring for no reason. Unless they had something to hide,” he trailed off, his eyes distant. She tensed. “Unless you are no maidservant. You are her. Margaery Tyrell.”

    He knows.

    She gaped, unable to piece together words. No! She had to say something- a lie, even a simple one. “Don’t bother,” he held up his hand dismissively. “Though I find it quite interesting. You are the heir to Highgarden, are you not? Or do you relinquish it?”

    “Stop,” she growled.

    He rolled his eyes. “It's my secret to share now. Answer me, or we both know who’ll find out.” He didn’t wait for her to respond, but pressed forward. “You are going to the North for the Stark Whore aren't you?”

    “So what if I am? When we arrive, we will go our separate ways. What my business is is no concern of yous,” her resolve was slipping, but when it was gone she didn’t know if she would break down in tears or screams.

    “That’s where you are wrong, child,” he smiled. “However you knew that girl, she is changed. Though, you may find yourself with friends. She was a whore once herself, if the rumors are to be believed.”

    “A whore?” Margaery echoed.

    “Aye. Wed to the Bastard of Bolton. You’ve heard of him, I trust? How could you not have? He flays men slowly, relishing their screams and taking pleasure from their blood.”

    She had heard of Ramsay Bolton, but his name was spoken with taboo. People conferred in hushed voices, trading wisps of rumors and horrific tales. She had heard a couple, but they had disgusted her. She had no intention of poisoning her mind further. But Sansa? Margaery shivered at the thought, a white hot rage boiling under her skin.

    Liren shrugged, clearly lavishing his upper hand. “Just ale for thought.” He turned to leave, a clap of thunder piercing the sky behind him. “I’m sure my men would be willing to keep you, if your.. Friend doesn’t enjoy your company.”

    And with that he was gone.

    This time she really did cry, kneeling down in the snow.

Chapter Text

With a sickle of silver light the sword arched down, branching from its path to lodge in Sansa’s shield. She faltered, her boots digging into the snow. With a hiss of anger she pressed forward, swinging her sword with as much might as she could muster.

    She had to move quickly, dancing across the shells of snow hugging her feet, allowing the cold to flow through her veins. Her attacker was ill suited to winter, but glided with each movement so gracefully one might take it for a dance.

    Then, with a blinding flash of light and a monsterous force, Sansa found herself on her back, assaulted by the scent of mud and grass, panting like a wolf.

    “Better,” Brienne said, offering her a hand.

    Sansa shook herself, going to retrieve the dulled practice blade. “Hardly. Better would be staying on my feet.”

    Brienne curled her lip. “That is a man’s mentality. I find that the most powerful position a woman can be in is when no one suspects her; often when she is about to submit.”

    “Men are stupid,” Sansa muttered.    

    “I must agree.”

    Planting her feet, Sansa steadied herself with a breath. A soft dusting of snow was streaming down from the sky, obscuring the faroff scent of peat and woodsmoke from the armory, and the delectable smell of fresh bred from the kitchens. Home.

    “Again,” Sansa said, watching as Brienne cocked her head, squaring her bull-like shoulders. She could be on the defensive this time- and Sansa found that she was better at attacking than defending. When you try and defend, there is always someone to stab you in the back.

    Before she could land a swingle swing, however, a boy ran up. He was breathing heavily, shivering. His hair was spiked in reams of ice, long and braided. A couple fetishes swung loosely from around the knots. He was a Dothraki boy, Ero, one of the untrained children that Daenerys had insisted upon.

    She had grown a strange fondness for the child, and his quirky, baleful smiles never failed to make her grin. All the same, he was rather shy, and approached with trepidation, noting the sword Sansa was gripping.

    “Your Grace,” he said lightly.

    Sansa smiled. “What is it?”

    “Erm.. you see-” He trailed off, looking torn. Sansa frowned, kneeling down beside him and dropping her sword. He stiffened as she rested a hand on her shoulder, but relaxed again as she said: “Don’t worry. Whatever it is is not your fault.”

    “The lords Yohn Royce and Horton Redfort have arrived. They come with urgent news- they came with another man as well. Um.. Harry- Harrold! Harrold Hardyng!”

    Sansa’s heart sped up, blood pounding in her ears. Despite her previous relation having happened years ago, she had trouble distilling the memories. She had refused to marry again on those exact grounds- every suitor that had presented himself with austerity she had only been able to compare with Ramsay Bolton. No. No one is as cruel as him.

    But still.. She couldn’t bring herself to wed. At least not now. Three years was not enough time. Besides, she had a kingdom to think about, not some idle suitor who would be gone within the week should she so choose.

    “Thank you,” she said.

    Eros bowed before scampering off.

    Sansa looked up to the parapet where Theon was leaning over the railing, a vacant, glossy look in his eyes. In his arms, perched snuggly, was Lady. She liked Theon’s company; he was one of the only people she could tolerate.

    Quickly Sansa slipped into Lady’s mind, overcome with a sense of tranquility and bliss. It held on so tight she was afraid she would never let go. Theon didn’t seem to notice as she watched him from his arms, warging as only a Northerner could do.

    In truth, no one knew about this ability. It was well guarded, and she planned to keep it that way. The people are already weary of me. The last thing I need is to appear as a monster.

    She returned to her own body, exhaling in discomfort. “We are done for today. Thank you.”

    Brienne nodded, returning the swords to a rack before sauntering off. Sansa watched her go before calling to a servant. They exchanged a few words and he ran off to welcome the lords.

    Theon was still staring at the far wall, startling as she approached. “I- I’m sorry. Sa- Your Grace.”

    She frowned. “Is something troubling you?”

    The Greyjoy pursed his lips. “Of course not. Just the usual.” He shrugged unconvincingly.

    “What is it?” She pressed, all too aware of the fact that the lords would be seeking an audience with her the minute they gained the ability to acquiesce. But Theon came first. She rested a hand on his shoulder.

    He let out a shaky sigh. “Rumors, is all.” He gauged her expression before continuing. “The people believe it would be best for you to marry. T- They are adamant.”

    “The people will believe what they will. It's not your fault.” She kept her tone light and lenitous. “I understand why they would wish it, anyway. They are the ones who are suffering, not me. Their houses are chilled and their food stores have run dry. They have every reason to want something better.”

    “Even if it is at the displeasure of their queen?”

    “Yes, Theon. Even then.”

 

    ***

 

    That night she deliberated, pacing her council chambers listlessly, listening to the thrum of thunder roiling along the distant hills. Oddly it was comforting, reminding her of the summer nights when the occasional rains would stroll in. She and Arya and Bran had loved to play in the puddles, to the great grievance of their parents. Her heart ached at the thought.

    Yohn Royce, followed by Horton Redfort, entered the room, backs stiff and swamped in the largest fur robes Sansa had ever seen. They both were pasty and pale, cheeks flushed with a rosey pink. The look would have been laughable if the tension were not so thick.

    With them came an escort. There were three guards and a knight. He looked loose and in a way, promiscuous, held high with a perpetual smirk. He screamed self-confidence and depravity, with a revolting magnifying aspect. Harrold Hardyng.

    “Your Grace,” they bowed.

    She gestured for them to sit as she took her place at the head, keeping her face relaxed and calm. She thought about Brienne’s words earlier which only fortified her resolve. “Why have you come?”

    Harrold spoke first, his tone slick and oily. “It has come to my attention that we could be betrothed, should you so choose. I would be honored if such was the case.” He paused, grinning slyly. “Though the rumors I have heard of your beauty do you no justice. My men and I had hoped that if you met me, then your opinion might be swayed.”

    “Thank you,” Sansa said, her gut clenching. “But I am very adamant in my belief.”

    “Your Grace, if I may,” Yohn began. “We all believe it is in your best interest to accept our proposal. I understand how you feel- betrayal and deceit are no easy feats to recover from. But all the same, you must put aside such matters, for the good of the people. They are starving and cold and will surely not survive the winter without aid.”

    There was a lilt of a threat nestled in his words but she chose to ignore it, not in the mood to spur a fight. “I will not deny that your aid has been and will be appreciated greatly. But you must understand my hestitance. Though I do wonder, would you be here now if Jon remained the king in the North?”

    Yohn and Horton exchanged a look. “That was before Lord Baelish’s untimely death,” Horton said.

    “You have no heirs, no siblings, no cousins. Your Hand is a eunuch. After your factitious alliance with our lord, you killed him. Forgive us, but our trust in you is ever waning, as is the credibility of your word. I take you for a smart girl, I encourage you to accept.”

    “Lord Baelish was killed in court, tried and found guilty without bias. What he did was unforgivable, treacherous and intemperate. His death benefited us all.”

    “So you say,” Horton challenged, “but the Vale has fallen into disarray. Forgive me for saying so, but the young lord Arryn is not suitable to rule. And I dare say his alements keep him from his potential as a competent and just ruler.”

    “Besides,” Yohn interjected. “The Vale is in need of our resources just as much as your own kingdom. The war greatly depleted our working men, and our late harvests were killed. We are strung tight, without a firm promise of recompense come springtime. A marriage such as this would cement that- and we would have no more trouble with you or your people.”

    “I understand,” Sansa said, her voice strained. “But I must take time to consider.” She stood. “Thank you for your council. Rooms have been provided to you, fit for your station I trust?”

    With that Yohn, Horton and their men slowly lumbered out, sparing a couple backwards glancing. She held their gaze until they were gone. It took her a lurid minute to realize that Harrold had yet to leave, leaning against the table. “May we speak?”

    “You won’t live if we don’t. So yes.”

    He smirked, stepping closer. “I do hope you consider this; and not just for the people. Many have said my company is a fine and pleasant one. Besides, ruling is a strenuous task, is it not? I one day hope to live up to such a highness. I could aid you, what with all the toils and turmoil of your people. They would respect a proper knight, I do not doubt.”

    Sansa clenched her fists, feeling her nails dig in until it hurt. She let out a silent breath, gritting her teeth. “I will consider, as I said. Now leave.”

    He frowned slightly, stepping closer until she was looking down on him. Her heart started to beat faster and faster until she feared it would prance right out of her chest. She felt bile rise in her throat, seeking out Lady for a moment, feeling calmed and able.

    “Think long and hard, Your Grace,” and with that, and a chaste kiss on her cheek, he was gone.

    She stood there for a few moments, fingers shaking as they unfurled. She couldn’t help but think how good his head would look on a spike.

 

    ***

 

    On the morrow she dressed swiftly, rising with the sun. Lady trailed after her, silent as Ghost had once been. If she closed her eyes, allowing the throes of her dreams take her, she could imagine Jon and Robb in the practice yard; Arya and Bran chasing one another and Rickon begging their parents to let him spar.

    She grimaced, stopping for a moment to look out at the shadowed courtyard. If only.

    Making her down to the training yard, she found the rack of practice swords still without entropy. She smiled, palming her own and stretching. Her first day she had forgotten to do that and still felt the tight pangs in her thigh.

    Her exercises were simple and concise, maneuvers and turns that made her twist in all sorts of unladylike ways. She couldn’t help but feel a spear of pride at that, tossing her hair and feeling more free than ever in nothing but a boiled leather tunic and breeches.

    The cold hardly bothered her, and as the sun rose, she began to miss its subtle numbness. Not to say it wasn’t cold; something told her this little passing of sun and sweet wind was coming to an end. And when it does, the Glass Gardens will become my training arena.

    Brienne didn’t join her today, drilling her soldiers with Howland. Some of the Unsullied and Dothraki had remained and needed to be hardy for the winter, and, as she was beginning to suspect, some skirmishes with the Vale.

    Little thought had been given to the night’s antics, and she tried to forget. Deep down she knew that a marriage was the best option for her people, if not for her. She needed to let go of her demons and tread past them. But they will still haunt me, just as my ghosts do.

    The sun was a pale halo in the sky when Ero came back to her, this time biting his cheek. She knew that look; it mirrored his expression from the day before, however abated. “Your Grace.. The lord Brynden Tully has arrived.”

    Sansa felt a smile curved her lips. “Thank you,” she said, mussing his hair a little before putting the sword into the rack again. Her muscles were already sore and she felt as tired as she had ever been, but put on a brave, impassive face as she walked towards the portcullis.

    She had little to no care for her attire; or lack of it. But sometimes the simple, trivial matters were the easiest to digest, and left no room for distractions- of any kind. She was not blind after all.

    She recognized Ser Goffer easy enough, though his companions were new to her. From a raven sent at their departure, she had gleaned that the knights included Bedrick and Daler, as well as an aged sire named Liren. Along with them, and of course the lord himself, was Alyn Blackwood, a yealing of Brynden’s who he had grown quite close to. It warmed her heart to see something like that, a friendship which she had been sorley deprived of. Except Theon and Brienne.

    Brynden’s face lit up as she approached. “Sansa!” He called, clearly delighted.

    She smiled warmly, kneeling down to hug him. He smelled of fire and ash, most likely from their grueling travel from Riverrun. She felt guilty about it, but all the same she had no more control of winter than they did.

    “Winterfell is yours, m’lord,” she said, standing.

    He nodded and smiled. “Thank you! Its every bit as glorious as my father said it would be!”

    One of the knights approached her, the aged one who she took to be Liren. He was bent and tallow, his skin starting to sag, but he looked confident and turse, evidently proud. “Your Grace,” he said by way of greeting. His eyes were small gems embedded deep in layers of skin, unsettling her.    

    “Ser,” she replied.

    “We are very pleased you have accepted to foster the little lord- his home life has been quite stressful.”

    He’s come to the wrong place then. She chose not to say that, instead cocking her head a little, affirming. “He will be safe and cared for here, as well as you all, as long as you choose to stay.”

    “We are bound to him,” Liren chuckled. “For whatever that may bring.” He paused, looking drawn. “But I must confess we arrive here with two more than we set out with.”

    Sansa raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

    He nodded. “Aye. A whore and her brother. I do hope they are no problem; came here for the winter, gods know why.” He narrowed his already small eyes. “Though we have a hard time trusting them; the girl, well, she is a monster you see. Burned beyond beauty, disgusting to look at. If I were you, I would stay away from such folk.”

    “You think I am afraid of scars?” Sansa asked, a small pike of anger coiling in her throat. “Whatever hardships they may have faced it makes no difference to me. Here at my court all men are treated respectfully.” Her tone held no room for argument, but also a warning.

    Liren looked none too pleased by it, wrinkling his nose. “As you say, Your Grace.”

 

    ***

 

    Brynden was delitched by their food and culture, devouring each and every pint of information he could gather like a child hoarding toys. Sansa found it quite commendable but also exhausting; his questions were a constant, unwavering force she must reckon with.

    When it came time to sleep she was nearly falling over, regretting her early morning training. Her small respite, however, was Lady, who would brush up against her legs every so often, curling protectively around her ankles and growling at anyone who came too near. Even Daler, the leader of Brynden’s escorts, proved to be quite fearful and squeamish.

    She thought about Liren as she lay awake, sifting through a few documents, planning on presenting her answer to the Lords of the Vale on the morrow. She found the man disgusting, a wretched creature who undoubtedly was as shifty as his eyes implied. She would deal with him properly when the time came.

    Lady hopped up onto her bed, yawning and stretching. Sansa scratched behind her ears, closing her eyes for a moment. “Will everything be ok?” She asked.

    The direwolf gave her a look before licking her hand, causing Sansa to laugh.

    Just then there was a knock on her door. It was met with muffled shouting and grunts, causing Sansa to startle. Her mind began racing at all the possibilities of what was happening; any number of those torrid ideas made her stomach churn.

    But when she opened her door to the scene before her, her whole world froze.

    The two guards before her door were struggling to hold back a girl. She looked afraid, tears in her eyes. Her hair was bedragged and tangled, and she had a wildling-like look about her. Sansa originally thought that she had dark skin, like a Summer Islander, but came to realize it was only half of her.

    What..?

    Then the veil of confusion came crashing down upon her and she gasped, eyes wide. “I’m sorry Your Grace! We were trying to keep her from-”

    “Leave,” Sansa hissed, trying to catch her breath. Her eyes never left the woman’s, and for a painfully long moment everything was still.

    The guards cautiously released their prisoner, and Sansa watched as she fell to her knees, shaking. They took their leave, turning the corner and glancing back. Sansa was too preoccupied to make a sound.

    She took a deep breath. “Margaery?”

   

Chapter Text

Winterfell wasn’t some shanty town, or even a heap of stone abstractly placed upon Northern soil. It was the North, it’s heart beating furtively. The people were made of steel skin and cold blood, hewn of roughness and the harsh promise of winter. Yet now that the snows had shaken the land, the toil was evident.

    Peat fires smoked lazily all around, mingling with the scent of roast and the smithy, leaving a faint taste in the back of Margaery’s mouth. Everything was contained, however, bundled neatly inside the walls of Winterfell. So the North’s heart beat, even after all it had endured. 

    Is it possible to feel compathy for a place?

    Their band approached the portcullis, chilled to the marrow and stiff as kindling. As they entered, passing the idle looks of gruff Northern men, Liren grabbed her elbow and pulled her aside behind a snow bank, a nook between a rock and a hard place. 

    “Have you made up your mind?” He asked.

    “I suppose I have,” Margaery answered earnestly, anxiously glancing around. “Though I do not intend to tell you.”

    Liren shrugged. “You are unaware of much, m’dragon. Don’t go sniffing where you don’t belong. This Queen trusts no one and assumes the worst. She was the only one to see the Dragon Queen for what she was; and now she sits on her own throne. She knows how to play the game, better than us all. She will not pause for you, regardless of who you really are.”

    “You don’t know our history,” Margaery snapped.

    “No, I don’t. But I know hers. In case you hadn’t noticed, I have ears everywhere, all across the realm. A web of sorts. I have a minargeri of secrets stored up here,” he tapped his head. “Yours included. As I said, don’t go flapping your lips to the wrong person. Cersei may be dead but your head on your shoulders is not a welcome sight, but rather one of rebellions.”

    “Tell anyone,” Margaery hissed. “And you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

    He tsked. “Big of you to make threats. As I recall, you begged us for help, took everyone of their cocks for your own lost cause. You are beyond lucky, whore. Do not ever think to rise above that, lest you may find your work less enjoyable than you may find it now,” he sneered. 

    She felt like retching, swallowing a knot in her throat. Trust was such a fickle, sinister thing. 

 

    ***

 

    The servant’s chambers were embedded deep beneath the throes of snow and sheets of ice. A heavy layer of dirt hung above her head, though the walls were slick and damp with warmth. 

    No one paid her and Loras much mind, save a couple children who stared at her scars with wide, perturbed eyes. To everyone else, however, she was just another stripe in the shadowcat’s skin. 

    As she lay on her cot, smelled mildew and rust, Loras sat up, staring at her for a long moment. “Go talk to her.” The guttering lantern obscured his face, nearly making it look as smooth as samite, hiding the small fissures of scars. 

    “We should wait a little longer, for a more opportune time,” Margaery tried, her emotions fleeting. “When tensions have settled.”

    “Tensions won't settle for a long time. Winter has come, Margaery. Stop stalling. You promised not to sleep with another man once we arrived. I’m holding you to that. And if Sansa is the key- then by all the gods we’ll make it work. Go to her. Now.”

    “It’s late,” she insisted.

    “It’s not your fault those men spent the last few hours trying to lure you to their beds,” Loras muttered. “But it will be your fault if you refuse to speak to her. Please Margaery, if not for me, then for you. You deserve to be safe. She may be queen but she is not heartless, no matter what anyone tells you.”

    “How do you know?” She whispered. “You have no idea what they’ve done to her.”

    “If she is even an ounce of the Sansa you know, she will help you.”

    “Us,” Margaery said instinctively. “She will help us.”

    Loras smiled sadly. “Yes, but you come first.” She was about to object when he silenced her. “You have sacrificed everything for me. You come first. Always.”

    Finally resigned, though somewhat shaken, she hugged him tightly. “And what if she refuses to see me? I have been dead for three years.”

    “She won’t.”

 

    ***

   

    So here she wandered, snaking down hallways lit with guttering torches and decorated with austere guards. They all looked grizzled and beaten, though not cowed. More strong and rough, hammered to be warriors, not just fighters. 

    It wasn’t difficult to find the queen’s chambers; asking around was simple, though the looks she got spoke of a warning. All at the same time she felt pride, cultivated from empathy. These people were protective of their queen. She frowned. 

    The door was gilded in worms of gold and veins of iron, though it looked homely. It perched in a tower, the stairs spiralling a couple floors. A thick window overlooked the training courtyard down below, giving her a clear view of the snowfall. 

    “Stop.”

    Two guards were stationed outside the door, leering down at her from their long, narrow noses. “Who are you?” The younger guard asked. 

    “Who’s room is this?” Margaery returned, not quite sure how to answer. But she also needed to be sure this was indeed Sansa’s chambers, and not some other lord’s, gods forbid. 

    “The queen’s,” the older said, evidently uncomfortable. Though still there was a steel-stillness to his voice that made her shiver. “Who are you?”

    “I must see her,” Margaery said, her voice trembling.

    “Look, the queen ain’t interested in the services of some harlot. Least of all an abomination like you. Now leave or state your business and give me a reason not to shove this spear down your throat.”

    “I’m not here as a whore. I’m here because I seek an audience-”

    “If you have an audience wait till the marrow,” the older huffed. Then he paused, considering. “Or don’t. We could always answer your questions instead.”

    A sinking feeling fisted her gut. “No. I’m not a whore.”

    The younger reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her closer to him. He smelled sickly and sharp, and was most assuredly not sober. “Let go of me.”

    The older grabbed her other arm, seeming to understand an unspoken language between them. “Now why don’t you follow us and-”

    She kicked at his legs, fear rearing its head inside her skull. He stumbled, falling back against the door and letting out a string of curses, lunging at her and grabbing her shoulder, pressing her against the far wall.

    Margaery whimpered, kicking and struggling mightily. “Stop! Please! Unhand me-”

    Then their grip loosened. “I’m sorry Your Grace! We were trying to keep her from-”

    “Leave,” the woman- no- the queen hissed. Margaery faltered, confused and worried. 

    They did leave, scampering down the hall like rats. Margaery fell to the floor, her knees shaking. She looked up at the Queen of Wolves, seeing nothing of the girl she once knew. She was tall and regal, cold looking, more Northern than ever before. And, to Margaery’s great fright, a wolf curled around her legs, lips curled back. 

    “Margaery?”

    Margaery didn’t know what to say, her mouth running dry. She just started, fingers digging into the floor painfully. 

    They shared a moment of thick silence followed by a gasp and then- warmth.

    Margaery was enveloped in a tight hug, her nervous breathing silenced by a wave of red hair and an ermine cloak. She was too startled to move at first, feeling Sansa’s hands at her back, pulling her close.

    Then all she could do was cling, burying her head and letting out a sigh. 

    The moment dragged on for what felt like hours, of Margaery relaxing, becoming limp and closing her eyes, feeling the years past torment slowly ebb out of her to leave her in blissful tranquility.

    And that was that. It was over quickly, and Margaery stiffened, looking into Sansa’s eyes. She knows me. 

    But beyond the recognition there was something stone-cold, forged of memories better left forgotten. She looked like the guards doing their rounds; like the wolves in the woods and the stars swollen in the winter sky. She had the North in her veins, there was no doubt. 

    “You’re alive,” Sansa said, taking in a deep breath. 

    Margaery nodded before smiling shakily. “I am. And.. you made it home.”

    Sansa nodded. “I did.” She frowned before standing, offering Margaery a hand. She was afraid of what would happen when the shock faded and the emotions truly sunk in, but for the moment she felt a comradery, a friendship, however old and nearly null. 

    As she stood, the wolf sniffed around her ankles, causing Margaery to startle. “She won’t hurt you,” Sansa promised, lightly patting it’s head. “She only hurts the people who deserve it; to die in pain.”

    “Are there many of them?” Margaery asked, her voice clipped and breathy. “People who deserve it.”

    Sansa’s gaze wandered to the ground, then beyond her, as if staring through her. “Yes. People who rape and torture. People who burn cities to the ground. People who inculpate their own people, their own sisters for personal gain.” She ground her teeth. “Dead people, mostly.”

    There was a long moment of silence before Sansa turned to her again, shutting her eyes tightly. She ushered Margaery inside, her presence and posture commanding enough in the silence. 

    The room was warm and cozy, though was cold in a way that Margaery found nearly comforting. The wolf stalked past her, curling up in the corner on a pad of furs, staring at her with golden orbs of warning. 

    “Sit,” Sansa said, shutting the door and gesturing toward a plush chair. Margaery did, dutifully and uncomfortably, swallowing a knot in her throat. She had broken out in a cold sweat. 

    “Most people startle when they see a ghost,” Margaery murmured. 

    Sansa frowned. “Had I heard about you before I saw you, I would have taken it as a lie. Words are wind. But I trust my eyes, if nothing else.” She paused, clenching her fist slightly. Margaery watched as her fingers turned white, then softened. “Are you alone?”

    Margaery’s eyes widened. “No. I- Loras he- he’s down.” She calmed herself steadily, willing her breaths to become less erratic. “Down with the servants. Near the crypts, I believe.”

    The queen frowned, “I will send for him.”

    Sansa glanced back at her, kneeling down and cocking her head. Margaery stiffened, sinking back into the chair, feeling like prey pinned down by a wolf’s stare; perhaps she was. But Sansa only reached out a tentative hand, running her fingers along Margaery’s cheek. 

    On instinct Margaery jerked away, regretting it instantly as Sansa recoiled. A guarded look flashed across her face, turning it to stone again. “I will find Loras,” she said stiffly. “Stay here.” She thought for a moment. “Does anyone else know about you?”

    She thought about lying, or, as she did best, stretching the truth. She couldn’t bring herself to do it.. And yet.. No. Liren wouldn’t tell anyone. He couldn’t. Yet all the same she felt a sinking feeling in her gut, stirring her nerves. “No.”

    Sansa nodded, pursing her lips. “Don’t leave this room. Word travels quick.”

 

    ***

 

    Margaery shuffled, having taken to small, nervous trembles. She didn’t know what to think about this turn of events; it was evident Sansa was no longer the same person as the girl in High Garden, but she was still Sansa, the girl who wanted to be queen. The one who lived. 

    The wolf watched her keenly, hardly even blinking. Margaery kept glancing at it out of the corner of her eye, shuffling in her seat. She shivered.

    After a few minutes, or a few hours, who could tell?- Sansa entered the room, head held high with a stride in her step. Loras followed, running his thumbs along his stained fingers. He was just as surprised as her, despite having been the instigator. 

    He smiled widely when he saw her, pulling her into a hug. “I told you,” he whispered in her ear. She couldn’t bring herself to smile back.

    When Loras sat down, Sansa eyed them, a bleak look of exhaustion strewn across her face. It was apparent in the bags dwelling under her eyes and the way her back hunched when she sat down. She rubbed her temple before looking up at them. “How? How are you alive?”

    Margaery pursed her lips, not quite able to read the tension in the room. “The Sept didn’t like our company,” she grimaced ruefully. “It was the day of the trial, but I knew something was wrong. Cersei.. She never showed. She was planning something- scheming in her tower,” she grit her teeth, wrinkling her nose in anger. “Hiding like a coward as fire did her work for her. Wildfire.”

    “Everyone else is dead,” Loras whispered, sensing Margaery’s state of mind. “We should be as well. There isn’t a reason for us to live, hasn’t been for years.”

    “And yet you have,” Sansa replied earnestly. 

    “Yes, we have,” Loras affirmed. “For whatever that’s worth.”

    There was a moment of silence before Sansa exhaled. “As long as you are in the North and I am queen, you will be safe. Though for how long that will last I cannot say.” She gazed at Margaery for a long moment. “You have been dead for three years, yet the knights of the riverlands inform me that you are a whore.” There was no lilt of accusation in her voice, only worry and.. Distrust. 

    “A lie,” Margaery hissed harshly. “I traveled with them, that is all.”

    Sansa raised an eyebrow but said nothing, standing and walking over to her table, shuffling a stack of thick papers. “On the morrow you will become different people. Someone not like you. No queens or knights.” She turned to Loras. “That is the most I can offer you.”

    “Thank you,” Margaery said, fighting off a bout of shivers. “You are truly fit to be a queen.”

    Sansa nodded slowly. “You will stay here tonight. Some of the guards are not mine own. Be wary of how you act around them, any of the people here. We are in dire times, and winter has come. I don’t need to tell you what that means.”

 

    ***

 

    It was much later, when the candles guttered out and the fire groaned and darkened that Margaery lay awake, staring at the rafters and clutching a blanket tightly to her chest. She tried to even her breathing; to find a rhythm of calm, but without someone’s arms around her the avail was none.    

    She glanced over at the wolf again, startled when one of its eyes popped open, blinking a couple times before it shifted and rolled over, it’s back to her. But there was something oddly human in the motion, something that stirred her to the bone.    

    My queen. 

   

   

   

Chapter Text

The shallow waters of sleep wrung her out, spilling her back into the harsh cold of the North. Sansa shivered, rustling the sheets and feeling a gullet of warmth seeped into her bones. The sky was a puffy gray, a tinge of black rimming a couple of clouds on the horizon. The snow had been replaced with a rugged and wet sleet. 

    She was about to lapse back into the sweetness of her dreams when she heard breathing. She startled, sitting up and looking around anxiously. Then it came back to her like a storm, her heartbeat mimicking the roar of ice on stone and the din of the kitchens not too far down the corridors. 

    Margaery Tyrell. Alive and breathing, albeit with a nervous shake and a hitch every so often. Sansa stared for a few long moments, realizing dawn was hardly afoot, and that the Tyrells (and yes she realized Loras was there too), were in much need of rest.

    She stamped down her trepidation, swallowing the shock and biting her cheek. It wasn’t a dream. That thought sent her mind reeling in hundreds of different directions, all tangling and confusing her so profoundly she felt dizzy. They shouldn’t be here, let alone alive.

    Instead of voicing her concerns, however, Sansa slipped out of bed, drawing a boiled-leather tunic about her shoulders as well as a pair of greaves and breeches. The fabric felt rough against her raw skin, but not so rough as the emotions that threatened to bubble up and out of her throat. 

    To put her mind at ease, she traversed the halls after a quick “look after them,” look at Lady who responded with a nudge to her ankle. Sansa smiled, and continued with a small smirk as she snaked down the corridor to the Glass Gardens.

    Brienne was there, heard from up the hall. A steady din of steel on steel, or rather steel of stone could be heard quite loudly. Sansa pitied the servants and men who slept not so far away, in the barracks of her men-at-arms. 

    As she approached, the knight looked up, panting slightly. A slick sheen of sweat beaded her forehead, and it was evident she had been at her vigorous work for quite some time. “Your Grace,” Brienne muttered, leaning on the blunt sword. A few niches in the wood indicated the prior events. “Are you alright? Your light was on through the evening.”

    Sansa pursed her lips. “I had guests,” she said simply. Though she wished for her thoughts to stray from the trouble and toil this whole ordeal would bring; especially since she had carelessly dismissed her nosey, loud-mouthed guards so readily the night before. It had been a foolish instinct. “Surprise guests.”

    Brienne raised an eyebrow. “Should I be concerned?”

    “Not yet,” Sansa said carefully, plucking a sword from the rack. She palmed it, switching it from hand to hand. “I believe they are friends.

    The woman did not look convinced. “Who were they?” She stepped forward, squaring her stance. 

    “I will speak to you later,” Sansa vowed. “When the shock wears off.”

    And so the morning’s training began. Sansa lost herself in the swoops and arcs, parries and advances, all smooth as silk and rough as rapids. It was a kind feeling, one that allowed her to embrace her inner demons and set them loose. She wouldn’t lie; with a sword in hand she felt like a true queen. 

    Not so much as an hour later did Sansa hear the first rush of folk milling about, confined to the passages of the keep and away from the storm outside. Echos wandered aimlessly, and voices carried in a bubble of buzzes and hoots. 

    It was because of this that Sansa finally called it quits, wiping the sweat off her brow and leaning against a pillar of cool stone. Theon soon joined her, looking quite displeased and nervous. She pinched her brows. “Are you alright?”

    “Your Grace,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “Two things, actually. The Lords of the Vale grow less patient and more eager everyday. And they request an audience at noon. They never will quit, will they?”

    “No,” Sansa admitted sadly. “They have a reputation of adamance. What about the second?”

    “Rumors,” Theon muttered. “They never stop. Constantly turning and morphing..” he shivered. “Like snakes. Again.”

    She frowned, feeling on edge. “What are they?”

    “O- Of visitors. Strange visitors, so I heard. Forgive me.. It sounds ludicrous, impossible, I know. But.. the Tyrells are alive and here. I know it has no truth- they died years ago, but I thought it would be in your best interests that you know-”

    Sansa exhaled harshly, rubbing her temples and growling low in her throat. She leaned closer to him, steadying herself before speaking. “They are not wrong.”

    A look of confusion and shock cascaded over his features, contorting his face into something both frightened and awed. She quickly continued. “Tell no one. I will speak to you soon, I promise. But they are alive, and under my full protection. Do everything in your power to disprove that rumor; I beg you.”

    “Y- Yes Your Gr- Sansa,” he said. “But how? The explosion of the Sept.. it killed them. It is known. I don’t doubt you, I would never doubt you, but.. How?”

    “The gods like to play with us,” Sansa murmured. “We are toys, fickle and simple, simply there for the gods gain and pleasure. Only they know why the Tyrells have lived, but only we will see the end of it.”

    “I understand,” Theon replied carefully.

    Sansa nodded gratefully, pulling him into a hug. “Thank you.”

    Before she left, she plucked a few flowers, and went on her wild way.

 

    ***

 

    Hardly having a chance to return to her chambers and sup, she was summoned to her council chamber by a Vale guard who looked as pleased as her under the circumstances. As she suspected, the mood in the room was much the same; tense and turse, only punctured by Harrold’s erant grin. 

    “My lords,” Sansa said, bowing her head before taking a seat in her throne, looking down the table as if it were a carcass of her prey. 

    “Your Grace,” Harrold, Yohn and Horton echoed. A few guards stood as sentinels spaced at intervals, both of the Vale and the North, all looking as uneasy as she felt. War or peace. Starve or feast. Win or die. 

    “If I may, have you arrived at a decision?” Yohn asked, his voice strained.

    “I have,” Sansa said breathily, gathering her composure. “I will consent to your proposal, but under a few conditions. The North bows to no one; we are a free kingdom, not your slaves, not your comrades. We are an ally.”

    Horton nodded. “All is well.”

    “As such, the North will remain independent. We will not kneel to you or your verdicts and will remain as peace has left us. My council will have direct influence over the kingdom, regardless of your wills and whims. The final say will belong to me, and the council of my lord husband.”

    “And what of spring?” Yohn grumbled.

    Sansa pursed her lips. “Come spring you will receive a portion of our harvests and supplies, to replenish those you have given us. Each contribution will fall to my lords and their accompanying allies. There will be steady trade, which will pay you in full. You will have safe passage through our lands and the use of our militia and soldiers, providing the circumstance demands.”

    Yohn smiled in victory. “I see we have come to a consensus-”

    “However,” Sansa said, deliberately cutting him off. “I demand a dowry.”

    He looked startled, curling his lip and pinching his fat brows. “Why would we oblige? From where I see it our services are in your best interests.”

    “Don’t act like this alliance will not benefit you as well,” Sansa snapped. “I am not blind to the fields destroyed during the Dothraki’s ramage. The farms desecrated and the people slaughtered. Come spring you will find yourself lacking in valuable farming land and supplies. You will need me, more than you are like to admit.”

    Yohn snapped his mouth shut in rage. “How much?”

    “Five thousand dragons.”

    He grimaced, calculating before nodding. “It will be done.”

    “Then are we concluded?” Sansa asked. 

    “Yes, we are.” Horton said. “The wedding will be here, as you like, in the god’s wood. Within the month I trust, with the arrival and blessing of the Lord Arryn.”

    Sansa nodded, sucking in a breath. She misliked the little lord as she did these men; maybe even more. “Good,” she turned to Harrold. “Until then.”

    “Yes, Your Grace,” Harrold grinned wryly. 

 

    ***

 

    When she finally did return to her chambers, Margaery and Loras were rather restlessly, talking amongst themselves, though immediately went silent upon her arrival. They shared a look before Loras stood and bowed. “Your Grace.”

    Sansa nodded to him. “Loras.”

    He pursed his lips. “What is to happen to us?”

    “Rumors have begun to spread,” Sansa said uncomfortably. “You must lay low for a few days. But in the meantime I have a proposition for you.. Ser.”
    Loras gave her a confused look.

    “If you so desire, you will become a knight of my guard, under the command of Brienne of Tarth and Ser Howland Reed. You will sleep in the barracks and train with my men, under an alias for your protection.”

    The Tyrell’s face lit up, and a slick smile oiled his lips. “It would be my honor.” He paused, frowning. “What about Margaery?”

    Sansa glanced at the woman who was chewing her lip, staring at the ground. She looked up, swallowing hard before raising her eyebrows. “You will be my servant,” Sansa said carefully. “It is the best and safest thing I can offer you.”

    Margaery nodded. “It will be enough.”

    Within minutes Loras was escorted by Theon to the barracks (though her Hand looked more distressed and anxious than she had seen him in months; perpetually grimacing and breathing shakily). 

    Margaery remained silent for a long moment before standing and cupping an old, glossy vase. In it were four twin roses, curled neatly and trimmed of thorns. “Did you leave these here?” Margaery asked, running her fingers over the silky petals. 

    Sansa nodded. “I did.”

    “I didn’t think any flowers grew in winter,” Margaery mused. 

    “They are from the Glass Gardens,” Sansa said, coming to stand beside her. The movement felt odd and stiff, mirrored in her memories.

    “They remind me of Highgarden,” Margaery said softly, frowning and lowering her gaze. “Was that really so long ago?”

    “Would you choose to go back, if you had the chance?” Sansa asked. 

    Margaery shook her head. “Would it be strange to say I wouldn’t? It’s been so long, I hardly remember it. It is full of ghosts now, and controlled by a sellsword.” She sighed, lowering her hand. “It’s quite pitiful.”

    “That is what happens in war. The least likely come to power; and the great fall farther than all the rest,” Sansa said. “He will come to pass in his own time, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

    Margaery nodded, going silent and staring out the sleet-slick window. 

    “Do you like the North?” Sansa asked hesitantly.

    Margaery frowned a little. “It’s very odd. It’s darker, and very harsh, and very cold.” She paused. “What is it like in the summer? Winter proves to be worse than I imagined.”

    “In summer it is not much different, though on special days we could see the sun,” Sansa smiled softly. “The ice rarely melts, and some of it, the older sheets, are as old as generations.”

    “Flowers die and ice remains,” Margaery muttered. “It’s fitting though, with a Stark on the Throne. And what of the North and their Stark queen?” The smallest of smiles graced her lips and made Sansa’s heart hurt. 

    “The North is as it has always been, save in dire need of allies,” she pursed her lips, biting her cheek. “The Vale is our ally, and soon to be my dowager.”

    “Your dowager?” Margaery echoed, eyes going wide. “You’re..”

    “Getting married, yes,” Sansa said, smiling ruefully. “One more marriage can’t hurt. I have escaped two betrothals and two husbands yet, one more should be of little consequence.”

    Margaery frowned. “Who is it?”

    “Harrold Hardyng,” Sansa breathed; even his name felt bitter and rancid. 

    “I have never heard of him,” Margaery curled her lip. 

    “I believe that was their intention,” Sansa replied. “He is in close contact with the Waynewoods. We are to be wed within the month, if not sooner.”

    Margaery grimaced, her eyes softening as she carefully rested a hand on Sansa’s shoulder. The queen resisted the urge to pull away, stiffening instead. “You deserve better than that,” Margaery said kindly, though tentative. “You deserve a prince that will make you happy.”

    “That would be a fantasy,” Sansa said, pulling away slowly. “I’m done with those.”

 

    ***

 

    It was late into the night when Sansa was leaning against a window in the corridor, counting the streaks of liquid light far off in the distance. They cracked, followed by a roar of thunder and the pounding of hail. All things considering, it was quite calming and methodical. 

    “Your Grace,” She nearly startled at the sound, turning to see Harrold Hardyng.

    He had taken well to the North, adapting the clothes and furs as well as the old, condescending expression her people liked more than snow. But above it all, masking his true intentions, was an icy smirk. If she had hackles, they would have risen. 

    “M’lord,” she grated, turning back to the window. 

    “I have been thinking,” Harrold said, leaning against the wall next to her. “Your past marriages have been dark affairs, so I have heard. I plan for this one to be extravagant, no expenses spared. The North and South shall coalesce!” He glanced at her, not happy with not garnering a response. “It will outdo all your previous relations like the foul Imp and that Bastard of Bolton.”

    Sansa’s eye twitched. “I do not care for extravagance.”

    He frowned. “From what my men tell me, you were once ecstatic for you wedding day, as a girl. What has changed? Surely you are not that soiled?”

    Sansa ground her teeth tightly, pain splintering into her skull. “I am not a little girl anymore,” you fool.

    He stepped a little closer, his smirk gliding up upon his lips. “I hope to return you to those precious days. I do love the innocent, pure. I assume since you have had no child of Bolton's, that you are a maid, no?”

    “What I am is of no consequence,” Sansa hissed, her composure slipping. 

    Within a split second she was pinned against the wall, his hands closing around her fists and his broad chest dwarfing her’s, latching onto her like a dog. His breaths were hot in her ear as he spoke. “I think to give you a taste; to raise your excitement. I do love when girls get excited; they are so much fun.”

    She shot upright, knocking him off. He stumbled into a wall sconce, doubling over as her elbow hit him in the gut. He sputtered as she rounded on him, fire burning in her eyes. “You will never dare to touch me like that again,” she snarled. “Lest you lose a hand. You do not need those to produce an heir.”

    Harrold fell back, eyes wide and lips parted before he ran, stumbling off with a bleary look in his eyes.

    Sansa gasped. What have I done? 

   



Chapter Text

It was hard to tell whether the wolves howling or the passing thunder had caused her uneasiness, but it soon didn’t matter because she was sitting on the bed, knees clutched to her chest and hair matting to her head in sweat-slick sheets. 

    Margaery shivered, taking a few deep breaths and focusing on the heart of the storm beating against the windows, having began as a low tap in the distance and soon escalating into a roar of fury. Walls crumbling. Everything burning. Screams masked by falling stones. 

    This was a close knit fear of hers, dormant most nights until the storms came. Loras had always held her tight, or some other man of ill-birth. Even little boys who had just grown into men. They had all been a comfort, but now she had none of that, not even Loras who could be gods knew where, trapped in the barracks with the other men-at-arms. 

    Her only respite was the calming chatter of the late-night kitchens below, though it was soon drowned out by the incessant rumbling and rattling of the winds. They howled like wolves and bit just as fiercely, churning up mists of snow and spiralling them up into the sky.

    The candles in the room had dribbled to fat puddles and the fireplace had been deprived of wood. So she sat in darkness, glancing up at the oily shadows slithering around, splintered by flashes of lightning. 

    “Wait it out,” Margaery whispered to herself. “It’s almost over.”

    To her discomfort and anxiety, the storm persisted late into the night, never slowing save a stretch of an hour where she caught the tailend of a moment of sleep. Then it was back into the frey. She didn’t know when she started crying, or why the tears felt like rivulets of acid, but she did and couldn’t stop, even when the chatter of the kitchen died down and she was reduced to the silence of thunder. 

    That’s when she heard a slight scratching, like nails on wood. She paused, everything going still. Again, something rough scraped against the floor, like a plate of dented metal. Swallowing, she stood and approached the servant’s door leading to Sansa’s chambers, hoping beyond hope that it was Sansa (though in hindsight that could very possibly be the worst thing to happen). 

    Instead she stared into the eyes of Lady, swimming with a film that provoked a thumping in her chest. They looked so full of life and emotion it nearly made the rest of her seem plain and bland.

    Lady cocked her head to the side, whimpering as she carefully wound her way around Margaery’s legs, nuzzling into her skin. Her fur was soft and warm, radiating a comfortable heat rather than Margaery’s current overbearing perpetuity. 

    Margaery’s breath hitched slightly and she began to back up, fearful. But Lady just followed and kept whining, licking her hands until Margaery began to calm down, accepting the creature as readily as she might a sword.

    Another clap of thunder rattled her bones and she jumped, falling onto the bed and curling up again, staring with wide eyes at the far wall. 

    Lady followed her, sitting at her side, nudging her arms so she could lick Margaery’s face. Margaery wasn’t sure how to act, knowing that a direwolf, even a pup, could severely wound or even kill her at a moments notice. But this direwolf didn’t seem to have that agenda for she continued her liaisons, curling protectively on top of Margaery’s legs.

    She let out a sigh and began to run her fingers through the wolf’s fur, staring into her golden eyes and seeing emotions that hardly registered. How can a wolf have eyes like that? 

    More thunder had her burying her head in Lady’s neck, clutching the pup for dear life as the storm continued its assault on the castle. She barricaded herself within her mind, breathing in the scent of the North and listening to the wolf’s breathing.

    She didn’t know when she fell asleep, or how she was able to collect her composure to even accomplish that, but the next thing she knew she was rubbing her eyes, a direwolf peacefully sleeping beside her and a smile on her lips. 

 

    ***

The following morning, she awoke with a certain numbness that squeezed her bones. Sand lined her legs where Lady had fallen asleep, and the howling wind from the night before had become a misplaced hiss in the back of her mind. 

Lady blinked sleepily, her eyes fluttering open. She cocked her head to the side, splaying 

her paws out and whining a yawn. Her attention returned to Margaery who just stared, finding something missing from the previous night. The wolf’s eyes no longer gleamed with a milky sheen and seemed unfocused and rather docile. 

    Standing up, Margaery peeked out the window, seeing the predawn light filter through the clouds. Lady hopped off her bed and darted to the servant’s door which, when open, provided her a mouth to be swallowed up by. 

    It was an hour or so later that Theon knocked on her door, carrying a plate of food. Margaery glanced at it with an edacious leer, before frowning at Theon who had his eyes averted and chin tucked to his chest. 

    “I trust you slept well?” Theon said, seeming to gather his composure. 

    Margaery pursed her lips and nodded. 

    “Good,” Theon handed her the tray and made to leave before she gently grabbed his arm. He startled causing her to wince. 

    “What’s happening? I’m not sure if I can stand being cooped up here for another day.” The truth of that statement made Margaery feel dizzy; the room was becoming her cage of nitre and white-washed stone, something she had begun to mislike above all else. 

    “Her Grace will speak with you later,” Theon met her gaze shakily. “She has been very bussied.. I’m sorry.”

    “Is Loras ok?” Margaery pressed.

    Theon nodded. “He is. He trains with the knight Brienne and the knights from Riverrun, as well as the Lord Brynden Tully. But.. he goes by another name, for secrecy.” He paused, chewing his words. “He has chosen to be called Arthur, after the Sword of Morning.”

    Margaery glanced wistfully out the door, wanting to will Loras into existence. “As long as he is safe,” she said. Finally she let Theon go which came none to quick because it looked as if he were about to melt.

    ***

 

    Later turned out to be three hours past dawn, leaving Margaery to mill through dusty old pages of books. She learned next to nothing and kept glancing up at the door expectantly, wishing Lady hadn’t left so soon. 

    After what felt like forever, there was a knock then the queen herself entered, smiling softly at Margaery before pursuing her lips. “Margaery.”

    “Your Grace,” Margaery said, forcing the foreign words past her lips. “I was beginning to worry.”

    Sansa frowned. “Forgive me. Punctuality has been a lesser priority, but I promised I would speak with you today. The rumors have died down in part, enough that you may be given freedom of the castle on the condition you are concise and do not gallivant.”

    “Of course,” Margaery replied earnestly. “As you said, some of the guards may have ill intentions.”

    “Yes,” Sansa reaffirmed, glancing out the window and chewing her cheek. “Loras has been well, and I am sorry you haven't been able to see him. I wish to distance our predicament from the rumors as much as possible.”

    “I can be patient,” Margaery said, closing her book and standing. 

    “You will be my servant,” Sansa spoke softly, her gaze never leaving the window. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you more, at least not now. Gods know you deserve better than that.” In those few seconds the tension abated somewhat, replaced with something warm and almost cozy, like a reverie of older times.

    “The gods seem to know a lot of things and refuse to act on them, don’t they?” Margaery asked, curling her lip. “They are deaf to our prayers. Perhaps you were right, maybe there is no point in it.”

    Sansa chuckled under her breath. “I was foolish when I said that. And stupid. The gods will do as they please, but to me, praying is just a way to assure yourself, if nothing else. Who cares if some god is listening or turning a deaf ear? Words are still spoken and lifted off your chest, which is all we can hope for.”

    “Women in our positions must make the best of our circumstances,” Margaery murmured. 

    A small smile graced Sansa’s lips. She turned to Margaery, her eyes softening a fraction. “You always did know best. You should be sitting on the Iron Throne right now. The realm deserves a kind, and just ruler. Not someone who does not feel.”

    Margaery looked down at her feet, a flush crawling up her neck. She sauntered over to the window next to Sansa. “Joffrey would have been a cruel king, and Tommen a fearful one. Cersei was malicious and hedonistic. It’s quite silly how Robert Baratheon, a man who did nothing but drink and whore, was the best king the realm his seen in quite some time.”

    Sansa laughed a little, exhaling. “People say that the men who don’t want the throne are the best for it.”

    “I couldn’t agree more.”

    “Bran worries me,” Sansa said, a lattice of light crossing her face. “He refused to be the lord of Winterfell. I would like to believe he did that because he saw a future with me as queen, but now I realize it was so he could sit the Iron Throne. Whatever happened to him beyond the wall.. Bran Stark may as well be dead.”

    Margaery looked away, feeling a pit yawning in her stomach. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a brother, but still have him. It must be terrible.” Her tone softened as, unlike the previous day, she relented from touching her queen. “But someday you will have a family of your own, and Bran the Broken will be irrelevant.”

    “I’m sure that is what my Father said about Robert,” Sansa replied ruefully. “The world has a way of pointing you in the right direction, even if in the end it is wrong.” At that her eyes met Margaery’s and time seemed to slow.

    It was Margaery who turned away first. “How am I to serve you?” Her mouth went dry.

    Sansa pursed her lips. “A handmaiden and a cupbearer. You will serve me dusk till dawn, and will sleep in this room. During council meetings you will listen and try and collect any information I may have missed.”

    Margaery nodded, feeling less anxious and more fearful. The game of thrones was dangerous. She had already lost it once, and cheated death in the most horrible way. She did not intend to lose again. 

 

    ***

 

    True to her word, Sansa allowed her to roam the castle, dressed in serving guard with a head held low. From time to time, Margaery would glance a streak of grey fur, slowing the pounding of her heart. Whatever Lady was, she was no danger to Margaery.

    Most of the guards didn’t care for her, save a couple who’s eyes strayed and stuck to her scars like hot wax. The stares didn’t make her feel uneasy as they did angry. She was sick of the looks, sick of how people had taken to treating her. It’s time to change that. 

    Her first task was to go to the kitchens and get acquainted; word had been sent ahead during the morning hours so she had no issue. Most of the serving boys and cooks were kind and lenitous, though a bigger man named Tryskane kept eyeing her like he might eye a cooked chicken. 

    He barked orders at her to return during noon, dusk and dawn, which she nodded furtively at. Everything was foreign and she was treading on thin ice; she was in no mood to make enemies. 

    Yet all the same she couldn’t help but wander, following faint and distant dins and voices. The sounds were pitted deep beneath Winterfell in a web of corridors, evidently leading to the barracks and the servant’s rooms. 

    The walls were slick with sweat-like moisture and the whole expanse was oddly hot and humid, sticking to her skin sickeningly.

    To her surprise, she found Loras cozied up near a table, nursing a keg of wine and talking with another man, who she belatedly recognized as Goffer. In all fairness, he had been the most lenient and apathetic of the group, sleeping with her only twice. 

    Loras’s mouth opened into an O when he saw her, fighting back the urge to call her time. She silently crept through the tangle of men to where he sat, curling into his side and not caring who saw them.

    Goffer raised his brows. “So she does live! I thought the Wolf Queen might have gobbled you up!”

    “Sorry to disappoint,” Margaery muttered sourly.

    Loras’s arm came to wrap around her before whispering, “are you ok?”

    She nodded, barely able to hear him over the chatter of the chamber. 

    “I was worried about you last night,” he continued. “With the thunder I didn’t know.. I wanted to come to you but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

    “It’s ok,” she said breathily. “I’m ok.”

    “Good,” he kissed her forehead. 

    Goffer snorted. “So, where you been off to? The wolf’s den?”

    “I have,” Margaery sat up, tossing her mane of hair. “But it is no concern of yours. I’m a handmaiden, and that’s all you will know.”

    He looked mildly disappointed. “Servant turned whore turned handmaiden. What a story.” He chugged his own keg of ale. “Though it is curious how you managed to cozy up to the queen. She is said to have her own set of thorns and fangs. Not to mention she hasn’t taken a servant since her coronation. Silly, isn’t it?”

    “Not really,” Margaery replied. “Sometimes the presence of others can be overbearing, never allowing you a moment’s rest. I’m sure you understand one way or another.”

    He scowled. “I wouldn’t go around making mockery. It’ll get you hurt.. Or.. if your lucky, killed.”

    “That's enough,” Loras hissed, rolling his eyes. 

    They both quieted down and Margaery soon left, feeling worse than she had when she had arrived. Everything was changing, be it for better or worse, and she wasn’t prepared. 

    It was when she was beginning to ascende a flight of steps that she nearly ran into a tall, skinny man who looked to have no business with stairs. Upon further inspection, however, that proved to be quite false. It was Liren. 

    She swallowed thickly. 

    “Causing trouble already?” Liren cooed.

    Margaery wrinkled her nose. “Get out of my way.”

    He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been in the queen’s bosom for a couple days and already have adapted her spite. Curious. I assumed that the great and king Margaery Tyrell would be more considerate of an old fellow.”

    “That Margaery died in the sept,” she growled. 

    “Shame. I find the only reason you remained in power as long as you did was because of that compassion. Tell me, m’dragon, was it all a lie? A farce to gain power? Did you ever really care for the people?”

    She lifted her chin at him, trying to avoid the questions. Those emotions had been nearly forgotten, laid to rest. A part of her had been lying, her own ambitions clouding most sincerity she could have mustered. But like Sansa, that feeling had manifested itself into genuinity. “I cared for them more than you would believe.”

    Liren scoffed. “In case you forgot, I outrank you now. You are nothing more than a lowly serving girl. My, how the mighty have fallen.” He pushed past her, caused her to stumble. “Remember your place. Do not seek to rise above it. We both know how that ended last time for you.”

    She stood there for a moment, stricken to her marrow. 

    Thinking back to the night before, the thunder and the tears, she began to tremble. Maybe it had taken her three years, or it would take her a lifetime more, but she knew she was weak. Pathetic and craven. Her protection rested on her compliance and obedience, and her life rested on lies and shams. 

    Whatever power is, I never want to touch it again.

Chapter Text

“The Dreadfort?” Sansa echoed, dismayed.

    The whole morning she had been off-put and queasy, feeling sick and superstitious. Perhaps it was her suspicion and cynicism that made her heart race or it was simply Lady’s emotions blending with hers. Whatever the case, it did nothing but sour this already bitter conversation.

    Theon nodded. “You are the Lady of The Dreadfort.. They have waited long enough. The acting lord, Hareen Clenn, writes to you with severity. There is only chaos and disorder. I understand how you feel.. But you must do something. The Hornwood faces similar doubts, with Ramsay’s late wife being dead, the position of Lady again falls to.. You.”

    Sansa pinched her brows, leaning over a table. She hadn’t been blind to the affairs the Boltons had left her with, but she had been damned if she didn’t try to ignore them. So many people were dead, and so little of them were left to trust. Yet she couldn’t rule from Winterfell and The Dreadfort, barring the Hornwood. She would need to elect a standing Lord, gods knew Hareen Clenn was poor at it.
    “Who would be my best option?” Sansa asked.

    Theon paused, running through a mental list surely eons long. “Perhaps one of the Manderlys could supply the Dreadfort.. Wylis perhaps. As for the Hornwood.. It has an heir, I do believe.”

    “Really?” Sansa said, puzzled. “The Hornwoods are extinct.”

    Her Hand shook his head. “The Hornwoods, yes, but Lord Halys had a bastard son, Larence Snow. He is very much alive. By line of succession, should you choose to legitimize him, he will rise to title of Lord Larence Hornwood.”

    “It will be done. As for Wylis.. Would he be willing? He is Wyman’s eldest son and heir.”

    Theon shrugged uneasily. “If not him then Marlon Manderly. He commands the Garrison in White Harbor. I do believe he would be quite an asset.”

    “Yet the Manderlys sided with the Boltons,” Sansa hissed, wrinkling her nose. 

    “Can you blame them?” Theon shot back. She didn’t know where his bouts of courage and.. Handliness were coming from, but she liked it, liked the push back and true council which she had been starved of. “Wyman’s son, Wendel, was lost at the Red Wedding. They were afraid, just as the Vale is now. But they were some of the first to pledge to Jon, and they remain loyal to you.”

    “I know,” Sansa said softly. “But old wounds take time to heal. A very long time.” She paused, prodding a melting candle thoughtfully. “But you’re right. I need to let go of that. After all, who can blame Wyman? He’s as bloated as a fish, no wonder he felt the need to flop under pressure.”

    Theon let out a strained chuckle which she returned in kind. It felt good to laugh again, even jape. She sighed, wondering what spurred this new shift in tone. The Tyrells. She still hadn’t decided if Margaery’s presence was comforting because she was a reminder of a time she once loathed, or if it was simply knowing that she was there, hopefully the same Margaery who would hold and comfort her all those years ago. 

    Her thoughts drifted to thunderstorms and she shook her head, feeling her heartbeat just as loud. “Next week we will plan an exodus to the Dreadfort, then the Hornwood. Inform the Manderlys and Larence Snow of my decision, as well as Hareen Clenn.”

    “Of course, Your Grace,” Theon said dutifully, though something caused him to stall. “Can I ask you something?”

    She smiled as warmly as a Northerner could. “Anything.”

    He let out a shaky breath. “The rumors about Margaery and Loras are quelled as much as they are like to be, but.. The Tully men, they speak of rather.. Unsavory things she did. It is not my place, I know, but at the same time.. Know who you are with. Betrayal happens on the flip of a coin.”

    Sansa’s heart slammed into her ribcage and and she growled, not directly angry at Theon, but rather at the men who spread those rumors. She had little doubt that Margaery was hiding something, and had a pretty clear suspicion of what that was. But she knew her boundaries, and wouldn’t bring it up, not when she had so many secrets of her own.

    She wouldn’t play the hypocrite.

    “Thank you,” Sansa said, dismissing him.

    It was some time later that she saw Brynden in the yard, sparring with a very much exhausted Brienne from their earlier training. Sansa chuckled lightly, watching the poor boy, mirroring her own mistakes from a couple weeks ago. She felt a swell of pride followed by a prick of pity.

    He reminded her of Bran more than she wanted to admit. With his mussy orange hair and bright blue eyes, so ambitious and quirky. She missed the days when Bran would scramble along the rooftops in the morning. When Robb and Jon would spar in the yard come sun-up and Arya would come in and jump on her to wake her up. She had taken it all for granted. 

    But I will savor what I have now.

 

    ***

 

    She found she rather liked having someone.. Serve her. The word ‘serve’ was used sparingly and with a delicacy better reserved for a child, but Sansa was keenly aware that Margaery still had pride and dignity left within her, so refrained. 

    Margaery was largely helpful, but Sansa kept thinking back to how vulnerable Margaery seemed. It was during these times of quiet reverie that she studied the burns along Margaery’s skin; they went largely unnoticed mainly because she had learned to be lenitous when it came to judgement. 

    Yet all the same..

    One could not miss them. 

    They were large and ugly, a matt of black crossed with red lattice. It looked painful, but Margaery seemed unburdened for the most part, though stiff rather than languide and careful rather than cocky. Underlying all of this, however, like a faint light, was the Margaery Sansa used to know.

    Or maybe she was delusional. It was hard to tell.

    “You look good as a Northerner,” Sansa said, breaking their nervous small talk.

    Margaery startled, clearly unused to compliments. She glanced at Sansa wearily. “Does the fur match my burns?” There was all chiding in her voice, something light and lofty. “I think they compliment each other quite well, don’t they?”

    Sansa smirked. “As well as fire and ice.”

    The woman remained silent for a moment, her previous liaisons dedicated to the blooming sage along the windowsill forgotten. “The world was almost destroyed by fire and ice,” Margaery murmured after a time. “Do you think we deserved it?”

    Sansa was taken aback, her mouth running dry. “Most people I have met would be lucky to die in a dragon’s jaws or by a dead man’s sword. But they are all I know. You taught me to look to the people, after all. They can’t all be guilty. They don’t deserve it.”

    “Purge the rich then,” Margaery shrugged. “Liberate the poor and povertous. Would that be a fine world? They would know better than most, having suffered as they did.”

    The queen shook her head. “All our great houses started with one man. From the Gardeners to the Tarbecks to the Lannisters. They were once poor men who rose to thrones of iron. I’m sure people believed they earned it then.”

    “Like Ser Bronn,” Margaery spat. The words were slick with malice. “A sellsword ruling the Reach! What an absurd..” she trailed off, glancing at Sansa before lowering her head. “I’m sorry. It’s not in my station to question him.”

    Sansa snorted. “Permission granted. I like him no more than you do.” Sansa considered for a moment, broaching the next subject carefully. “We are to leave next week for the Dreadfort and the Hornwood.”

    Margaery stilled, looking back at her, confused. “Why?”

    “The Dreadfort and the Hornwood fall to me and my leisure. Widow to Ramsay Bolton, they are in my command. But I cannot rule from either. They will be raised anew by Marlon Manderly and Larence Hornwood, loyal to the North and their queen.”

    The woman nodded sullenly. “I am to accompany you.”

    Sansa nodded regretfully. “Yes, you will. Loras.. He must remain behind. Theon will protect him, but I doubt he’ll need it.”

    There was a few seconds of silence stretched painfully thin before Margaery spoke, her words hushed as if treasonous. “He has made enemies here. Grave ones I fear. Tully men.”

    Sansa stood, shuffling a deck of papers on her desk, flipping through them listlessly. “So I have heard. Ser Bedrick and Daler will accompany me. I do not want to offend my uncle, nor do I want to endanger you or Loras further.”

    Conflict bristled in Margaery’s eyes, and Sansa wondered for the hundredth time what history those men and her old friend had. It obviously wasn’t good, and Sansa’s suspicion was blooming too quickly. “There is nothing to fear from them,” Sansa chose to say. “They are loyal to my uncle and therefor loyal to me. To hurt you would be an offense as great as treason.”

    Margaery’s eyes widened. “Isn’t that excessive?”

    “Not in the slightest,” Sansa said seriously. “I’ve let too many friends slip by me because I failed to protect them. I will not make the same mistakes again.”

    “You aren't a little bird anymore,” Margaery whispered, dropping her arms to her side. “You are a Stark. You always have been.”

    Sansa exhaled, feeling something ripple within her chest. She turned to Margaery and, if on instinct, pulled her into an embrace. It felt good to feel connected again, even if in all likelihood it was false and specious. She savored the moment, feeling Margaery’s breaths across her neck, the subtle shivers from the cold, the ever so faint and delicate scent of summer. 

    It all wavered on a pin’s head but lasted for just the right amount of time.

    Sansa smiled as she pulled away, holding Margaery at arms length. “I am truly glad that you are back.”

    “Thank you,” Margaery whispered, looking up at her with doe-eyes. Sansa couldn’t read the expression, but there was more significance in it then she was expecting. “Not so long ago friendship was a luxury I could not afford.”

 

    ***

 

    Later that night Margaery, with the help of a couple guards, managed to haul half a dozen streaming pails of water upstairs, panting all the while. Sansa felt pity for her, tempted to take on the task herself, but thought better of it. What would the people think then? It’s already bad enough they believe I have taken a mistress.

    Margaery leaned against the doorframe, eyes droopy. “Sorry for the wait,” she said, sloshing the water from the pale into a basin. She stared at the water for a moment, and, as Sansa watched, she saw that Margaery looked distant for a long moment.

    “What is it?”

    “In Highgarden, there were rivers than ran in the courtyards. The water steamed and bubbled, but was never hot. It tasted sweet.. I remember playing in them with Loras when I was little. My grandmother would always scold us,” a small smile had fluttered onto her lips, tugging at Sansa’s heart. Moments like this were too few.

    Margaery looked back at her, shaking her head. “Just a thought.”

    “There are springs in the godswood,” Sansa said. “They are very, but I think you might like them.”

    “Is that how Winterfell remains so warm?” Margaery asked, her lips parting. When Sansa nodded she tutted. “I should have known. You Starks and your inventions. First a wall made of magic ice, then a castle nearly warm as summer.”

    Sansa’s lips quirked up. “We do have that reputation.” She paused, sensing that the conversation was over. “You may leave.”

    Margaery pinched her brows. “Shouldn’t I-”

    “No,” Sansa said as gently as she could, but recognized it came out rather harsh. “Go get some rest.”

    It took some more coaxing, but Margaery finally did leave, though sullenly. Sansa watched her go, feeling a pit in her stomach begin to tumble. But she was not ready to bare herself to anyone. That would be reserved for a later date, though hopefully not on her wedding night.

 

    ***

   

    The world was oddly bright and grey, lucid and sluggish. Shadows were smeared along the walls like watered paint, obscured by the heavy scent of sage and peat from the armory. It was pleasant and comfortable, and very, very warm for a wolf. There was no snow tonight, only a light drizzle of hail. 

    Lady sniffed as she made her way under sconces and window sills alike, treading none too carefully and with abandon. Most of the men stationed at intervals spared her little glances but nothing more, appearing to be occupied in the order of the bricks across from them. 

    She snaked around bends and corridors, past the kitchens and rooms small and large. Moments like these were stolen but nice, an escape from the rabble of court and the tedium of ruling. But they were few; and most of the time uncollected and scattered. 

    Everything was calm and tranquil; there was nothing to look for, nothing to worry about save melting into a different mind at dawn. Simple.

    What was not so simple, however, were the distant sounds of a struggle. 

    Lady froze, ears pricked and nose twitching. She silently slunk around a corner, following a river of light from heady sconces and down a spiraling corridor. Distantly she recognized that this hall descended into the servant’s chambers and, farther on, the barracks.

    Her hackles rose as she crawled down the steps, shoulders hunched. When she reached the bottom, she saw a tavern-like space that was foreign to her. Any men that had previously sat among the ale-stained tables had passed out drunk or were undoubtedly off with some whore or another. That didn’t bode well with her instincts. 

    But her attention was stolen by two men locked in what seemed to be am embrace, but was actually a grotesquely unfair fight. 

    One of the men was pressed against the walls, eyes as wide as suns with his hair of a similar color. His skin was tanned, though marred in small, silver scars. No Northerner looked like that; he was southern, she didn’t have a doubt

    The other was strapping and brawny, his muscles corded and lankly. He was large, but not so large as to pose a threat to her, she hoped. She recognized him in a heartbeat- a Tully man with Tully eyes. Daler.

    She bit back a growl, deciding to glean as much information as she could before rushing into something reckless.

    It took her far too long to realize who the second man was: Loras Tyrell. His hands were pressed against Daler’s chest, his nose wrinkled and his eyes pinched shut. Lady stilled herself to spring, but bided her time. 

    “Let go of me!” Loras seemed to find his voice.

    “Shut up,” Daler hissed, clapping a hand over Loras’s mouth. “Wouldn’t want to wake up some real dangerous men, now would we?”

    Loras shot him a fearful look. Lady recalled, as if in some dream state, a memory of him, grinning like a boy with just as much charisma. The two hardly seemed the same, let alone even close to comparable.

    “Bad enough we have to deal with the Stark Bitch,” Daler plowed on carelessly. “Bloody aristocrats. Don’t give me that look. I know who you are, sodomite. A bloody Tyrell. I wonder how much that information is worth; much more than a knighthood, I’d wager.”

    The smaller man just watched, clearly horrified. Lady’s own feelings were something similar, but she stamped that down. Listen now. Worry later.

  “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t sell you. Not until I took a pop at you myself. What are you hiding that would endear a Baratheon? You’re not some hermaphrodite are you? Or..” he smirked, running his hands up Loras’s sides. “Are you really a man at all?”

That’s when Lady sprang, rabid and wild. Her teeth sank into Daler’s arm with a sickening crunch as splinters of bone erupted into his flesh. Blood began to spurt into her nose, metallic and thick and addicting. 

The man screamed but she held on, even as he began to violently convulse on the ground, trying to pry her jaws open. His flesh was in tatters, peeling off and tearing away as she snapped and bit and snarled. 

She was deaf to his cries, even as ropes of tears fell from his eyes and he began to beg. More. She couldn’t stop, not even if she wanted to, which she didn’t. She felt nothing but pride as he shrieked, and smiled a wolf grin. 

If she could speak.. Well.. it was best that she couldn’t.

Hounds always knew best. 

 

Chapter Text

Trouble seemed to trail her like a lost dog. Every so often it would nip at her heels and she would stumble; or it would jump on her back. Now was one of the times when it swallowed her whole. 

    Margaery would be lying if she said she didn’t jolt awake at the rustle, then scuffing of boots that sounded too urgent to be casual. Worsened by the heavy breathing splintered with the signature gulps and hisses of crying. 

    It was the middle of the night, dusk a few hours off. Shadows bubbled lazily, a strip of light shattering the pitch of her chambers. She could hear Sansa’s door creak wide; groaning and resisting like a knight with his shield. 

    That could only mean trouble.

    So she carefully and silently made her way to Sansa’s chambers, resigning herself to a small peak; it would probably not concern her anyway. 

    Wrong. So very very wrong.

    Within the room, pale in the guttering light (though in actuality he was as pale as a moon), was Loras. For the first time in a good long while she saw paths of tears on his cheeks, and a few gathering in his eyes like crystal beads. Margaery’s lips parted and she acted on instinct, bursting into the room and wrinkling her nose. “What happened?!”

    Sansa looked up at her, though didn’t seem startled. Concern ripples across her features but was stamped down by her ashamed look. Margaery was taken about, her chest fluttering with a thousand small moths. 

    “If anyone asks any questions, deny them. I have yet to come up with an alibi- or even an excuse.” Sansa growled low in her throat, clenching her fists till her knuckles were white as bones. “He was a fool. That should be excuse enough.”

    Loras’s eyes seemed to focus as color bled into his face. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have left my chambers-”

    “I promised you protection,” Sansa shot back, clearly annoyed, but not at Loras. “Winterfell should be safe for you. What happened was disgraceful and unforgivable.”

    “But that doesn’t change the fact-”

    “WHAT HAPPENED?!” Margaery roared, anger rearing inside of her. To her surprise, only Loras shuddered, leaving Sansa with a stone-cold frown that could wilt flowers. 

    “Your brother was almost raped.”

    Margaery’s vision went red. She turned to Sansa, disbelief clouding any rational thoughts she had been in the middle of. “N- No.. How? How?!”

    Sansa rubbed her temples and Margaery felt sick. “You were right, about my cousin’s knights. They are no friends of yours, and after this they shall be no friends of mine,” she paused, sucking in a breath. “Daler is dead. His body will be disposed of, and he will be condemned with a late trial to justify it. Before morning I will talk with Brynden-”

    “What can a child do?” Margaery demanded, unable to fathom what was happening. “He won’t understand-”

    “It doesn’t matter if he understands,” Sansa hissed. “What matters is that he settles the issue in a way that makes as little issue as possible. None of the other knights can or will be punished. It was Daler and Daler alone. I warned my people of the price of rape.”

    “It is a small crime,” Loras whispered, clearly consumed with the idea of remaining as quiet as a mouse. 

    Sansa shook her head. “Not here,” she pursed her lips, images dancing in her eyes. “There is nothing more iniquitous. A knight who I hardly know comes into my kingdom with ill intentions. I have every right to deal with what happens next as it comes. His death.. Only he is to blame.”

    Loras shook his head. “But-”

    “No,” Margaery whispered, still confused but slowly piecing the situation together. “Sansa’s right. The North and its inhabitants are under her jurisdiction.”

    Sansa gave her a thankful look, relaxing. “There was not a trial but the incident was seen by me. I made a similar proposal to the Vale; my word would be final. It is only fair that extends to the riverlands and my uncle as well.”

    Margaery pinched her brows, realization dawning. “How did he die?” Her voice was harsh, nearly accusatory. Nearly.

    “Lady,” Sansa said simply. “On my command,” Loras’s eyes grew distant and thoughtful; he had just uncovered something Margaery hadn’t. “A spider has ears and a wolf has eyes. Men like Daler are fools to forget that.”

    It was moments like these that made Margaery really feel how helpless she truly was. She could do nothing to protect her brother while he was away, or aid Sansa in clearing her name and remaining on the throne. She could do nothing but watch and listen. Unless..

    “Your Grace,” Margaery said tentatively. “You can’t leave him here. Bedrick and Goffer are just as dangerous as Daler. This will happen again-”

    Sansa shook her head sadly. “Plans cannot change. It’s bad enough I have to postpone my wedding for the Dreadfort and the Hornwood, it would only make matters worse to raise suspicion. To everyone else, Loras should have no favors from me. He is a paige, at best.”

    Margaery nodded, but she was adamant. “You saw what happened tonight! It could- will happen again. Bring him with us. Please! I beg you!”

    Still Sansa made no move to accept. Margaery’s heart sank. “I’m sorry, Margaery. But I can’t. Theon and Brienne will protect him, as well as the Lords of The Vale. That will be a parting command of mine. No one will harm him, that I swear.”

    “You said that before,” Margaery argued. She didn’t have the faintest idea where her dormant confidence was coming from, but it didn’t feel like it was waning. “You said we would be safe here!”

    Sansa reared on her, something simmering in her icy eyes. Margaery paled. She didn’t see anger and rage, but rather regret and.. Fear. “I know how unsafe Winterfell can be. How unsafe the North can be. How every dark corner hides something lurking, how every face masks a secret that could undo you. I know what pain within protection feels like- when no one is there to save you. I refuse to let that happen again. To you or to anyone. No one will ever hurt him. That I swear on the Old Gods and the New.”

    Margaery’s lips parted in shock. Never in all her years had she heard Sansa- let alone anyone else, snap like that. Like a cobra kept in a cage, unleashed before being stuffed back inside. She deflated, letting the words sink in. “I apologize. I trust you, I do. I’m just worried.. Loras means everything to me.”

    Loras smiled at her, though his lips trembled. She gave him a look that read you don’t have to speak, before turning her attention back to her queen.

    “I understand,” Sansa’s tone softened considerably. “Believe me. But things are complicated at court, as you very well know. It’s dangerous, but then again, so is everything. Yet we survived.”

    Margaery looked down at her hands, a flush leaving her cheeks. “I do trust you.. Sansa,” she used her name, seeing hardly a reaction before Sansa slowly smiled. “You are my queen. Now and always.”

 

    ***

 

    Come morning, rumors zipped through the castle like a swarm of horse flies. Most of them were jumbled and so obtuse they made Margaery balk. But some held a semblance of truth. She ignored them in large part, like she had down back in her small village when the pre-winter gossip flooded in. 

    Today was different though. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how hard she simply focused on her listless, trivial and dull tasks, her mind always circled back to the night’s endeavors, and how Lady was kenneled and howling and howling and howling all through the morning.

    She watched all the guards wearily, imaging them with Daler’s face and his cruel, cocky eyes. I can’t trust any of them. Only Loras and.. Sansa.

    During one of these trips Margaery nearly ran head-long into a face she really didn’t need to change to fully hate; that of Harrold Hardyng. She had only seen passing glances of him until this point, and his reputation did him no favors.

    He let out a grunt before pushing her away, seeming to regret his actions when his eyes clung to her. A wry smile painted his wormy lips. “I thought all the dragons were dead.”

    Not this again.

    “Surprise,” Margaery muttered sourly. “But this dragon has places to be.”

    Harrold wrinkled his nose. “You know, without wings, dragons are just like the rest of us. Cowering lizards who only know how to hide in holes. Weak. Pathetic. Craven. What would you do if I tried to kill you? Or worse? Perhaps I am like that poor sap from last night.. Gods what was the fool’s name? Caught trying to commit sodomy! Although, it would be ok if it was with you, wouldn’t it? You are no maiden, I imagine.”

    Margaery tried to ignore him as she tried to ignore the chatter, but was tossed right back into his view when he stopped her fleeing with a hand across her chest. Her eyes flew wide. “Don’t touch me,” she snarled.

    He scoffed, clearly bemused. “Big words for a small girl,” he paused, squinting. “Come to think of it, you don’t look much like a servant, do you? I’ve slept with enough whores to know your ilk. The way you walk.. The way you look at people. Disgusting.”

    She resisted the bait, saying nothing. 

    To her great annoyance he wasn’t finished. “I could take you right now, if I chose. It would be easy, really. Want to temp me? Don’t you want it? Soon I will be King of The North- you could have my bastard. If he was a boy, think of how high you could rise. I suspect the queen my be barren in any case. Your child could be king!”

    “I would never be your mistress,” Margaery said hotly, anger bubbling up in her throat like bile. “Go back to your tavern wenches.”

    Harrold narrowed his eyes to ribbons of glacial blue. “Who says I’m asking?”

    “Who says I am?” She retorted. “You will receive no pleasure from me. Not today, nor any day.”

    The man recoiled a fraction, any traces of mockery or chiding leaving his face. His amenity slid away like a veil, but what lay beneath was far less pretty than a blushing bride. “Have it your way. Though I doubt you’ll stay out of a man’s bed for long.”

    She was terrified when she learned he was right.

 

    ***

   

    Later in the day, when Sansa was brushing lady near the rest of the hounds (the queen seemed to have an appreciation for them, one Margaery couldn’t understand), Margaery ran into Yohn Royce in a similar fashion to Harrold.

    He looked in far better condition for a conversation, and Sansa’s words seemed to trickle into her ears. She took a breath, her fate hinging on a wall’s edge. She plunged in headfirst.

    “My lord,” she murmured, dropping into a small courtesy.

    They stood on a thick parapet overlooking the yard, the crenelations capped in thick, sharp fragments of ice, giving the innocent looking creatures horns. 

    Yohn looked down at her over his double chin and scruffy beard, and she had the feeling he was about to decide if she were a pesky bug or something worth his while. She made the choice for him. “May I speak with you?”

    “Better be good,” he muttered, waving his guard away, deeming her of little consequence. It was better like that. The less people who knew about her little.. Ordeal, the better. 

    She led him behind a pillar of stone, hoping beyond hope that no one could see them. On instinct, she shot forward, pressing against his fleshy chest and locking their lips. She put on a smirk as grand as she could muster, and spoke a language with her hips.

    He sucked in a breath, rolls of skin sliding between her fingers. She wanted to gag. He didn’t pull away, however, and instead wrapped his beefy arm around her waist. She felt so small, cradled in his arms like this, but stamped it down, thinking rapidly. 

    Margaery was the one to pull away, her lips slick and tasting of mead. She swallowed thickly, not wanting to think about the smell wafting off of him. He’s drunk, but it’ll do. 

    “So you’re a whore then,” Yohn slurred, though he seemed to be a mild drunk if she’d ever seen one. 

    “I am,” Margaery gritted her teeth, feeling bile rise in her throat. “I want to offer you my services. My bed has grown ever cold since I was swept in from the south..” She puffed her lip.

    Yohn chuckled, his eyes lazily watching her movements. “I suppose I could use the company. How much you cost?”

    Margaery bit her lip but continued to put as much (and as little) effort into her seduction as possible. “I want you to protect someone. You see, I must go away for a while.. Traveling with the queen and all. I understand you will remain here..”

    He rolled his eyes. “And who is the poor boy then?”

    “Arthur, my brother,” Margaery replied, not realizing just how rash and reckless she was acting. “He is a new soldier training in the barracks.. Unmistakable.”

    Yohn considering a moment, curling his fat lip. Gods how he and Harrold differed. The worst people come in many different shades. 

    “I accept,” Yohn said, grabbing her again. “Come to my chambers tonight. I’m sure the queen won’t mind too much.”

    “Or she doesn’t have to know at all,” Margaery grinned, though every nerve and fiber of her being resisted the action. “Our little secret.”

Chapter Text

5 Days Before The Purple Wedding

 

    Blood seemed to ooze from the walls. In the dim light, every crack and crevice in the thick, red stone was a gaping, weeping wound. Some festered in the darkness and others webbed along the corridors without care, but they all only added to Sansa’s encroaching dread.

    She knew no one gave two figs about her wanderings- that job was left to her lord husband, Tyrion Lannister. Though as of late his furtive attempts at appraisal were largely overlooked, and eventually diminished entirely. 

    Yet all the same she recognized the guards and their perpetual sneers and condescension; but none would ever hurt her, regardless of what her thoughts liked to rattle on about. A heavy chain around her neck provided her some solace, and she clutched it tightly, the golden filigree leaving small marks in her hand. 

    The door loomed above her head, made of redwood- of course, but gilded in the sweetest floral bronze, twining round and round into crisscrossing rose buds and blooming flowers. It calmed her somewhat, though her heart still throbbed painfully.

    Two guards sneered down at her but said nothing as she knocked. Margaery promised they would let me in. Though what Margaery probably didn’t intend when she made that promise was for Sansa to come crawling to her doorstep in the middle of the night, looking like she was vomited out of the city streets. 

    There were a few seconds of silence before the door split open, and there stood Margaery. Her eyes were tired but ever so bright, her hair braided into neat, golden loops while she wore the finest of silk gowns. 

    Sansa’s breath caught, the absurdity of the situation seizing her. It was just a silly nightmare. I shouldn’t be bothering the queen with something like this-

    “Sansa?” Margaery asked, reaching out a hand.

    The Stark looked down, unable to meet the other woman’s gaze. Her words left her as a hollow, wooden doll with stiff limbs and a heavy blush in her cheeks. 

    “Come on,” Margaery said, lightly grabbing her hands. “Inside.”

    The warmth and hygge of the space enveloped her instantly. The room was small, smelling of roses and flowers in the prime of their life. It was mostly dark, the fireplace glowing with a few red-rimmed coals. 

    Margaery led her to a small table near the fire, sitting opposite her with a caring, albeit confused expression. “What’s wrong?”

    Sansa nearly broke down again. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here- It’s nothing. I-”

    “Well it is something,” Margaery pressed, grabbing Sansa’s hands again and running her thumbs over them slowly. Sansa shivered. “You can tell me anything, you know that right? I’ll listen, no matter how small you think it is.”

    Those words quelled her fluttering heart a bit, but not nearly enough. “It was a dream,” Sansa whispered. “It was.. I..” It was then that she realized she didn’t want to relive it; she didn’t want to let the words leave her lips. It’ll only hurt me more.

    Margaery seemed to understand, standing up and tossing her hair. “We all have nightmares, sweet girl. You don’t have to be afraid,” she stepped closer to Sansa and gave her a look along with a small sigh. “I know you have suffered at the hands of many men, but no more. As long as I’m queen and you’re here, no one will harm you again,” her eyes flickered down to the chain around Sansa’s neck and she smiled proudly. “You wore it!”

    Sansa instinctively grabbed the chain of twin, gold roses, the sigil of House Tyrell. It had been a surprise gift from Margaery on her previous birthday, and the simple thought brought a tentative smile to her lips. 

“You know what that means right?” Margaery continued, cocking her head to the side. Sansa suspected, but didn’t dare hope, so she shook her head. “It means that the Tyrells will care for you, protect you. We normally keep them within the family but.. Traditions are made to be broken after all.”

“Thank you,” Sansa murmured in awe as something gentle swelled in her chest. She looked to Margaery. “I miss Highgarden, even though I’ve never been there.”

“You miss the memories you could have had,” Margaery said sadly. “But this is far from the worst place to be in the world.” She squeezed the younger girl’s hands. “Come.”

Margaery let go of Sansa, treading over to the bed and pulling back the sheets, looking to Sansa expectantly. “No Your Grace.. I couldn’t-”

“Margaery,” she corrected before smiling tenderly. “And I insist.”

So Sansa laid down, staring at a foreign canopy, consumed by the lofty scent of flowers and a ripe pinch of cold. Her heart was stampeding wildly behind her ribs, and if Margaery hadn’t blown out the remaining candles, she would undoubtedly see Sansa’s blush. 

Margaery slipped into the bed, waiting for a few long moments before turning to Sansa, staring at her for a moment, urging Sansa to do the same. When she did, Margaery beamed, though the darkness made it hard to see.

“You know,” Margaery murmured. “I used to have terrible nightmares when I was little. I had dreams of all manor of creatures crawling out from under my bed,” she made a face. “Silly, I know. But it was oh so dreadful. I would scream when I woke up, then I would laugh.”

Sansa snorted before thinking better of it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t-”

“Yes you should,” Margaery chuckled. “Women laugh at funny things,” she paused. “One of the monsters actually talked to me. I was always so confused when he did, and even more so when he began to recite verses from the Seven-Pointed Star. My septa must have been haunting me in my dreams.”

Sansa giggled, imagining the scene with a fondness she had not felt in a long time. “It sounds like fun, being able to talk to a creature like that. I’d be curious what it had to say.”

Margaery grinned. “Oh, I was curious. But whenever I tried to ask him a question he would always neigh like a horse.”

Sansa mouthed a stranged what? Before bursting into a fit of laughter. “That’s ridiculous!”

 “Although I must admit my septa did look a lot like a horse,” Margaery said, sounding thoughtful. 

“You’re awful!” Sansa lightly swatted Margaery’s arm, earning a laugh. 

“I am, but so was she.” Margaery went silent after that, her mirth laying dormant. She yawned. 

“I’m sorry, you should sleep,” Sansa said politely, though the thought of being awake alone in the queen-to-be’s bed stilled her heart.

Margaery nodded, humming a little. “Don’t be sorry. You’re sorry too much, when I hardly doubt you have any real reason to apologize,” she reached out and gently tucked a stray strand of hair behind Sansa’s ear. “People are so cruel to you, you don’t deserve any of it.”

“What we deserve doesn’t matter,” Sansa whispered on instinct, as if Joffrey was breathing down her neck then and there. 

“But it should,” Margaery concluded sadly, curling into herself and shutting her eyes. “Sleep well, sweet girl.”

Sansa rolled over, her back to Margaery, and tried to sleep. An unrestful gust of air wafted in from the balcony door, bringing with it the scent of the city. It reminded Sansa of the day of the riots, when so many people had been killed for no reason. What we deserve doesn’t matter. And she also remembered being harshly pulled from her horse, being dragged into a back alley..

“Are you cold?” Margaery asked, her voice husky with sleep. Sansa stilled, not trusting herself to speak, let alone move. 

She felt an arm wrap around her waist, hugging her close and enveloping her in warmth. Margaery’s breaths were warm and welcome along her neck as the woman buried her head in Sansa’s hair, curling protectively around her.

Margaery ran her hand up Sansa’s bare arm, causing Sansa to whimper and press into the touch, overcome will a swell of emotions she didn’t understand. It felt safe and comfortable, things she hadn’t felt in so, so long.

She drifted off to the lullaby of Margaery’s movements, and the warmth of her touch.

 

***

 

Sansa couldn’t breathe. Something had clamped down around her chest, constricting every breath and pressing her ribs into her heart like the flats of swords. She gasped, tethered to the bed by thick sheets of what could only be restraints. 

Phantom fingers coiled around her stomach, and Sansa struggled, feeling their grip loosen before she was bombarded with a thickness in the air- the cause of her troubles. She stopped dead in her tracks, hearing the quiet din of the smithy and smelling the bitter Northern sage that spilled from nearly every window in Winterfell.

Winterfell.

Falling back against the pillows, she stared blankly at the cocoon of soft satin above her head as if it was the world’s most intricate map. Less impressed by the slick folds of the fabric, she let out a shaky breath. 

Memories impaled her like javelins tossed from some masochistic part of her, making her heart pound in her ears like the blowing of wildling horns. Some rushed back to her like shards of a broken mirror, and others more like a wave of waxy lucidity. 

She had tried to stoke them when they came during the night, or were brought upon by simple objects or actions. For the most part, as of late, she had evaded things like this, but it wasn’t hard to imagine what sparked this dream.

During Ramsay’s tyranny, she had grappled for any way to find comfort, to protect herself as best she could. She locked away everything that would hurt; the fragments of her parent’s death, how she thought Rickon and Bran had been burned by Theon, how Arya was probably lying dead in a ditch somewhere, and how Robb had been brutally murdered by people he thought were friends.

She forgot it all, after a time, and used the remaining memories to build a neat case of armor; faces of kindness and small actions, though even those were eventually forgotten, replaced with vibrant images of sleepless nights with a Bolton breathing down her neck. 

Margaery, despite all her kind words and actions, had been forcefully rejected and ignored, even after she arrived at Sansa’s door, looking like she had been spat up by one of the seven hells. Sansa remained ignorant and adamant. Craven. She was afraid.

But dreams had a way of showing her what she wanted to see the least, then concocted a steady mix of distortions and horrific frights. But her dream had none of that, which made it all the more sickening. It was raw, untouched and it hurt. 

Tears came to her eyes and she blinked them away, balling her fists furiously. Those times are gone, A part of her argued. But a smaller voice kept whispering in her ear: Your family may have left you, but Margaery is here, alive. 

Sansa reached to her neck, finding only beads of sweat. Her heart sank. What she did now remember was never wearing Margaery’s necklace to the Purple Wedding, in lieu of a brackish spattering of lies from Dontos the Fool. 

But all the same, something had torn in her heart, and she could do nothing to stop the feeling that she was drowning. 



***

 

    By the time the sky had been thoroughly bruised by the winter sun, she had slipped into her training garb, though this took more time than usual. She had rummaged around for quite some time, anxious and nervous.

    Finally she found what she was looking for: a delicate necklace made of engraved iron beads with the faces of the Old Gods, like those plastered onto the weirwood trees. And in the center, made of beaten silver, was a wolf howling, the Stark sigil. 

    She had it made the day Ramsay died. 

    Leaving it on the bed alone seemed rather pointless, so she accompanied it with a large rose from the Glass Gardens, arranging them on her table. 

    Brienne was in the courtyard, her masuline grunts a comfortable melody. What Sansa wasn’t expecting, however, was a very much half-frozen Brynden Tully, stiffly clutching a wooden sword with frosty hair and pink cheeks.

    Sansa watched for a few moments, calming herself before finding a secluded corner in the Glass Gardens, losing herself in the rhythm of her dance.

    Arya would be proud; each step was met with the ferocity of a swing or arc, and every swing was met with a thrust, and so on. She was caught up in a stream of anger and frustration, all of which erupted out of her blade.

    It was in these moments that her blade nearly connected with a very much alive, not plant-like creature with fleshy skin and a red flush on his neck. She had half a mind to run him through right then and there, but thought better of it.

    Harrold Hardyng snorted at her training, enthralled with this new display of hers, as if it were just for him. “I can’t same I’m surprised, really,” he tsked. “Standing by and watching your family die in battle doesn’t suit you well, does it?”

    Sansa curled her lip, sheathing her sword. “Weakness doesn’t suit me. Not anymore.”

    Harrold shrugged. “This will do you no good. Men wouldn’t follow a woman into battle, regardless of if she has a mangy beast dogging her heels. Need I remind you of your place, Your Grace. I will be doing the fighting for you, when we are wed. You will see no more blood, except that of the childbed.”

    “You don’t command me, ser. Nor does Lord Royce, need I remind you of your place,” she growled, moving to thunder past him. He grunted, knocking her back.

    Her hand flew to her sword, unsheathing it with bared teeth. 

    “I wouldn’t be making threats,” Harrold muttered, reaching for his own blade. “For if you did, this alliance could very well crumble,” he smirked. “And wouldn’t that be the end of this whole folly of yours? A kingdom? Are you mad?”

    She hunched her shoulders, allowing the fight to flood out of her. “You know what happened to Ramsay Bolton. You know what happened to Daler. You know what I am capable of. Tread lightly, ser, or you may find yourself in the eyes of a wolf.”

    Winter will come for House Hardyng. 

   

   

   

 

 

Chapter Text

Waking up within a tight, sweat-smelling embrace wasn’t unusual for her, but that didn’t mean it was in any way pleasant. 

    Margaery awoke with heavy, thick breaths crawling down her neck. She shivered. A large trunk of an arm had crushed her to the man’s chest, nearly constricting her breath. Perhaps that was for the best; Yohn Royce didn’t have a nice smell about him. Her stomach churned and bile rose in her throat.

    The wind beyond the heavy, grated door had given way to a sharp whistling like the call of one of the kennel-masters. It sounded like a shrill, drying heartbeat, doing nothing to soothe everyone’s nerves. Something went unsaid. Margaery could feel it as she pried herself away from Yohn’s arms. 

    It wasn’t that people knew what was wrong, it was that they knew something was wrong. The feeling settled in Margaery’s gut like fear, but far less grounded, making her dizzy.

    Finding her clothes was no simple task, and it was further burdened when she knocked her leg against the bed frame, startling Yohn with a sputtering half-snore. He squinted at her, as if she were some odd rat he found curled in his path. Then he fell back against the sheets, covering his eyes with his hand.

    “Thought it was a dream,” Yohn grumbled.

    “Are you thankful it wasn’t?” Margaery quipped.

    He chuckled heartily. “Not a chance. It’s been too long since I’ve slept with a woman proper; those girls down in Stone don’t know a cock from a mutt’s muzzle.” 

    She didn’t respond, instead choosing to run her hand gracefully up his leg. Every bone in her body resisted the motion, but she threw herself back into the mindset she had so joyously endured for the past three years. She was surprised to find it was harder to do than usual.

    “You’re the queen’s maidservant, right?” Yohn asked. She pulled on the husky cloth of her attire, her stomach knotting.

    “I am.”

    He sniffed. “Don’t go flapping your lips about this. I have a reputation to maintain you know. And so does the queen, for that matter. Having a harlot that close to her will do nothing but irk her lords.”

    She took those words to heart, heading towards the door tiredly. 

    The halls were stretched thin with an air of tursity and laxity as men hobbled to and fro, trying their best to ignore the pants of the wind as it shrilled deep and low. 

    Margaery had risen with the light, thank the gods. Any later and Sansa would have found out- No. Sansa wouldn’t find out. Ever. This would be a secret she took to her grave, sooner or later.

   

 

    ***

 

    Sansa’s chambers were empty when Margaery arrived, but in the silence of the queen’s wake, Margaery felt the ripples of the air recently stirred; she couldn’t explain it, but she knew she had missed Sansa just barley.

    A feeling ripened in her gut as she quickly set about her chores, delving into the part of her mind where listless action took precedence over all else. It was only when her fingers brushed a soft, silky petal of a rose than she paused.

    The rose had been laid delicately on the bedding, and coiled near its stem was a necklace. She traced the beads as her lips parted, running her fingers over the engraved, howling wolf. The feeling was so foreign yet so familiar.

    It had been so long since anyone had given her a pleasant gift like this, let alone one that sent her into a whirlpool of memories she had nearly, and harshly forgotten. 

    A rose necklace, mirror to this one. It was hers, when she was young, though she never wore it because it was far too big. And when she was finally able to, something about it didn’t fit, as it she was never meant to wear it at all.

    Then she saw Sansa, poor, sad Sansa who deserved so much to smile or simply breathe without fear of brutal chastisement. The girl tormented not only by the ghosts of her past but the monsters of her present. 

    She remembered.

   

    As she exited the room, no one questioned the necklace. No one paid her much glance, which was nothing out of the ordinary, but was, however, unsettling today for some reason. No one was watching her, per sa, but whenever the wind shrieked, she felt it in her marrow, covering her in perpetual chills. 

    When finding Sansa proved fruitless, she went to Theon instead, who had her deliver a note to Howland Reed out on the battlements. As she was returning, she found herself caught in the throes of a crowd. 

    Margaery stilled, panic flooding her. She hated crowds, but that fear had abated during her time in the green fork. No. This was something different, a different kind of worry.

    She slipped down a corridor, unnoticed, having traced this same path many times before. The hall slowly slanted upward to the parapet overlooking the courtyard, where she almost ran into a very beleaguered looking Brienne.

    The woman-knight knew her secret, but she was one of few. Margaery had never met her before, other than hearing stories of her escapades with the Kingslayer. A bloody Lannister. But she was willing to forget that though, for Brienne was willing to forget who Margaery really was.

    Brienne was gripping the side with white knuckles and a face drawn into worry that made her look like a middle-aged mother. She was staring blankly down at the courtyard below, where the crowd had funneled into a soft-spoken ringlet.

    “What’s happening?” Margaery asked, not as cautious as she should have been. 

    Brienne didn’t look up, seemingly ignoring her, sparing no glances and saying no words.

    But she didn’t have to.

    Centered in the ringlet was Sansa and Harrold. Swords were drawn, but everything was at a standstill. The crowd grew ever silent, and Margaery held her breath. She had no doubt of what was about to happen, but she had never expected Sansa of all people to be so sure of herself in the face of a hunting knight. 

    Something welled in her chest, something like pride.

    Words were spoken but she couldn’t hear them over the thumping of her own heart and Brienne’s breaths which seemed magnified tenfold. 

    Then the stand-still was broken and Sansa dove, slashing at his legs. He dodged, skittering backward and baring his sword like a dog bares his teeth. They circled, once, twice, then they both shot forward, locked in a dance.

    Off in the distance, Lady screamed a howl.

    Margaery was spellbound, unable to move. Sansa fought with agility and speed, parrying and slashing at any bare patch of skin, (neither was wearing proper armor, making Margaery suspect this was a spur of the moment advancement). She drew thin sprays of blood, staining the snow.

    Harrold yelled, his slow, languide movements at an odd match for Sansa’s. He swung hard and kicked with his legs, using his arms, without gloves, to shove her backward.

    In the first few moments it was clear Sansa had the upper hand; Harrold was shocked and caught off-guard, but after a while he grew accustomed to her games. Margaery’s heart sank and the crowd startled to bubble with unease.

    Harrold ducked, using his weight as a piston to rock him forward onto his heels and directly into Sansa. She stumbled, eyes going wide as he lunged at her. 

    She dashed to the side, making way for the tip of his sword to swing through a slit in the crowd. Everyone audibly gasped, stepping backward. Sansa, using his moment of diheavel, whirled around and brought the flat of her blade down across his shoulder blades.

    He crumpled, falling to his knees. As she made another move, however, he splayed his legs, knocking her off balance and springing up like a snake. His blade was shining, sifting through the air like some rippling wave, plunging down and down until-

    Sansa screamed, dropping her sword and falling to the ground, stuck on one knee. Margaery’s mind couldn’t register what had happened until Harrold backed off, his lips split in a wicked smirk.

    His blade had sunk through Sansa’s thigh, red as a bleeding sun, lodged firmly into the earth. Time slowed and the Northerners gasped, growling like a pack of wolves.

    Sansa’s labored breathing was the only thing to keep people in place, to keep them from rushing forward and tearing Harrold limb from dastardly limb. 

    Harrold waved his hands, sheathing his sword in the snow. “For the North, see the strength of the Vale! We come not as enemies, as pretend kings and begging harlots, but as allies and friends! The White Wolf betrayed you, the Dragon Queen left you in poverty, and this queen,” he gestured to Sansa. “Cannot protect you.”

    All eyes shifted to the queen, who looked up, gritting her teeth so hard they were likely to shatter. Harrold hardly glanced at her, his gaze glossing over the faces of the people who he would inherit soon.

    Sansa gingerly pulled the blade out with a slick pop, crying out through her teeth. Margaery began to tremble and her throat tightened, watching numbly as a rush of blood poured out of the wound. 

    Harrold turned around just in time to see a flash of silver light before blood erupted across his cheeks. He wailed, clutching his eye, and Margaery caught a glimpse of a deep slash splitting his chin to forehead. Blood oozed like swollen rivers from between his fingers as Sansa stood shakily, balancing on one leg, shoulders quavering.

    “You are no king,” she spat, tossing the blade at his writhing feet. “You are no Northerner. You are no Stark.”

He didn’t get up, or even really move, save his pitiful whimpering. No one made a move to help him until a rush of guards erupted from the crowd, kneeling next to him and trying to sit him up.

A couple moments later, Sansa fell to the ground, digging her hands into the snow as she scrunched her eyes, choking on her breath.

Brienne cursed, rushing down the stairwell. “Wait!” Margaery cried, worry consuming any          

sense of logic. 

    “She’s a Stark. She’ll live,” Brienne replied, her voice strained to breaking.



    ***

 

    Margaery had to push and shove to make her way through the halls which were clogged with people all angling to make their way to the maester’s tower. The scent of malice and blood hung thick in the air, and Margaery’s worry began to fester into raw, primal fear.

    The door was closed, two guards with red cheeks and wide eyes standing sentinel. They glanced at Margaery as she approached, having to fend off against an onslaught of Northerners worried about their queen.

    “Get back!” They shouted, waving a few spears. One of them scent a chain of whispers for more men, and Margaery knew her chances of seeing Sansa anytime soon were waning. 

    “Please! Let me through!” Margaery hissed, staring into their eyes. “I-”

    “Piss off,” one of them bellowed, shoving her back square in the chest.

    She stumbled, nearly falling, but someone caught her.

    Whirling around, she saw Theon, his eyes pained, his salty hair slick with sweat. “Come with me,” he whispered urgently.

    He led her by the shoulder, approaching the guards who nodded numbly to him. After a clipped, harsh explanation, Margaery was admitted into the foul, medicine-smelling room.

    It was small, shelves stacked with a panoply of jars and herbs. A couple beds had been erected, but Harrold had been taken to the opposite end of the castle, where he own Maester, Colemon, could tend to him.

    Wolkan looked stressed to bursting, his cheeks ripe and red like cherries and his movements edged in shakes and shivers. Sansa lay on the bed, teeth clenched onto a leather of bark as he spilled the contents of a small vile onto her wound.

    She bit down, stifling what would have been a scream. Tears sprang to her eyes as the maester elevated her leg, trying to reach both sides with the ointment. It looked worse than it had from the parapet, a gaping slit that dripped blood, her muscles torn, her bone undoubtedly chipped or cracked.

    It was Valyrian Steel, Margaery thought numbly, something fierce rising in her chest at the sight of the girl she cared so much for.

    Theon was at her side, grabbing her hand. Their eyes met and the raw compathy there struck Margaery. Her heart ached, but when the maester began to stoke a metal rod to cauterize the wound, Margaery went rigid. 

    Sansa’s eyes widened before she pressed her head back into the pillow, a tear slipping down her cheek.

    Margaery acted, kneeling on the other side of the bed from Theon and and trying to speak, finding words evading her. “Hold her down,” The Maester ordered, stirring the coals quickly.

    The Tyrell did as she was told, pressing Sansa’s shaking shoulder down. Sansa’s eyes flickered to her, and Margaery’s gut clenched. “Relax,” Margaery murmured, her voice cracking. She reached out with her other hand, brushing a few stray strands of hair away from Sansa’s face. “Breathe.”

    Breathing proved to be a difficulty when the Maester began his work, a sharp hiss and sizzling sound filling the space. Sansa began to thrash, sweat dotting her skin as her muscles clenched and she bit the bark, gasping and whimpering.

    Margaery didn’t know how long she stayed like that, trying to soothe Sansa, her old days of unwavering empathy coming back to her in short spurts. All she knew was that she had to help Sansa, she had to see her smile again.

    Once the work was done, Sansa could barely move. Wolkan situated her on her side, elevating her thigh on a pillow with a fresh wrap of bandages. Sansa stared blankly at the wall, her breathing slow, her eyes fluttering shut.

    “She’ll be ok,” Wolkan promised, looking down. “Mayhaps she will develop a limp, but that cannot be helped.”

    “Should there be no action taken against Harrold?” Margaery demanded. Wolkan’s lips parted in shock before Theon answered, stroking Sansa’s cheek like a brother. 

    “It was a fair fight. Anything that transpires during a duel.. It’s legal. She agreed to it.”

    Margaery sucked in a breath, turning back to Sansa, “Even still-”

    Theon shook his head, turning away for a moment, his hands pausing their ministrations. “There is no why about it,” he said slowly. “Things happen. Mistakes are made- we trust the wrong people and are hurt for it. That’s the way the Gods choose.”

    “The gods are wrong,” Margaery snarled. “They are cruel monsters if they think-”

    Theon silenced her with a look. “They are monsters. But so are we. Sansa- she’s no angel. She’s not the girl who knew her father. She’s killed people, she’s hurt them.”

    “But they deserved it,” Margaery argued.

    “And Harrold paid for what he did,” Theon concluded. He looked down at Sansa, placing a kiss on her forehead before a knock hammered on the door.

    Margaery watched as one of the guards spoke with Theon and he nodded with pursed lips, turning to Margaery. “Watch her. The Vale isn’t too pleased by this turn of events.”

 

    ***

 

    Candles were lit, choking the air with a sickly-sweet smell to contrast the odor of burning flesh. Margaery was light headed, but focused all her attention on Sansa, doing as the maester asked- ‘give her this to help her sleep’ or ‘dab this on her wound should she wake while I am away’. In between these short exchanges, Margaery would run her hands along Sansa’s arms, feeling her shake even in drug-induced sleep.

    Wolkan left just shy of an hour later, going to speak with Colemon. Margaery thought of Yohn, and how not so long ago she could stomach to look at him. But not now. Not after she had seen Sansa hurt because of them.

    Kneeling down eventually made her legs ache and cramp, but she ignored this, gently wetting Sansa’s forehead with a cloth and stroking her hair whenever the woman’s breathing began to hitch. 

    “You’re ok,” she murmured absently, if not to soothe Sansa, then herself.

    Slowly, ever so slowly, night crept in. She was brought a meal, but even then refused to leave. For some reason, a gut feeling, she stayed. She remained, hardly moving from her spot save to look out the window and letting a crack of fresh air strip the room of its scents    

    When the stars hung swollen in the sky, behind bleary by tufts of thick clouds, Margaery made to leave. She was beyond exhausted, about to fall over in fact, and had grown weary and nearly sick being cooped up like this.

    As she stood however, Sansa stirred, groaning slightly.

    Margaery stilled, frozen in place.

    Sansa’s eyes blinked open, unfocusing and dazed. When they finally did focus she winced, and gasped, gritting her teeth. Margaery was there in an instant, her hand on Sansa’s icy arm. “What hurts?” She asked.

    The queen swallowed thickly, wrinkling her nose. “Ache,” she muttered. Margaery doubted that Sansa would be willing to talk about her discomfort if she was wide awake, but right now she was sedated and sleepy.

    Margaery nodded, standing and rummaging around across a shelf until she found the vile Wolkan had prescribed. She dabbed a small amount to a ball of cotton before gently peeling back the bandage, cringing, seeing as the wound was beginning to yellow and bruise. 

    Sansa whimpered as Margaery began to press the cotton to the surface of the wound, a few times on the bottom, then on the top. Sansa’s fight had been taken out of her, but Margaery didn’t doubt that it hurt. I know a thing or two about that.

    When the work was done, she set the bandage in place and knelt back next to Sansa, running her fingers through the woman’s mane of bright, red hair. “Relax. You’re ok,” she breathed.

    Time slowed considerably, but Sansa’s breathing only picked up. Margaery began to panic, seeing fear blossom in the woman’s eyes, and being able to do nothing to stop it. She leaned over Sansa, unsure of what to do. “Sansa? What’s wrong? Does it still hurt?”

    Sansa shook her head, a tear slipping down her cheek. Her eyes were beginning to well with unshed tears, her body shaking. 

    Margaery didn’t know what to do as Sansa began to cry, unable to sit up from the strain of doing so, and unable to really move. She choked on her sobs, echoing around the room like the din of swords clashing.

    In a moment of sheer instinct, Margaery stood, sitting on the edge of the bed, and gently pulling Sansa into her arms and into a sitting position, allowing her to cry without choking.

    To her surprise, Sansa clutched at her shirt, burying her head along Margaery’s collarbone, tears running down her shoulder. Margaery cradled her tenderly, running her hands up and down her back, murmuring in her ear. “Shh,” she cooed, “It’s alright.”

    It might have lasted hours, or minutes, or hours and then some minutes, but Sansa finally quieted, her grip loosening on Margaery’s shift. She let out a few shaky breaths, clenching her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut. 

    “They’ll remember this,” Sansa murmured shakily. “The Vale. They’ll use this- they know I’m weak. The North knows I am. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have-”

    “It’s ok,” Margaery said, gently angling Sansa’s chin upward so they could lock gazes. She forgot about the normal trepidation she had about being close to people, about them judging her scars. “You aren’t weak. You bested him. You won.”

    Sansa shook her head. “If you win a battle doesn’t mean you’ve won the war.” She paused, looking down, but not away entirely. Margaery’s chest tightened. What has the world done to you? “This war is almost lost. I need the Vale- The North needs them. They don’t need me.”

    Margaery exhaled slowly. “You’re their queen,” she said firmly, gently grabbing Sansa’s hands and lacing their fingers, and for a moment they both lapsed back into the times of King’s Landing. “You freed them from a Southern King, from years of servitude to a lord that was not of their birth,” the words bubbled out of her mouth, and she made no move to stop them. “You protected them, you made an alliance that would keep them alive.”

    “And I brought them more servitude,” Sansa said, shoulder’s relaxing. “More..” she breathed out shallowly, and Margaery realized that she was beginning to fall asleep. 

    Sansa’s head rested against her shoulder, her arms locked securely around Margaery’s waist. She stiffened, overcome by a flood of emotions. But she didn’t pull away, and instead wrapped her arm around Sansa’s shoulders. “I’m here.”