Jon was almost certain that he was about to die, and all he could think was if only his family could see him now. Defenseless, head bowed, hands tied behind his back, on his knees before Robb Stark, the King in the North.
Viserys would laugh. His uncle always relished signs of others’ failures, weaknesses, humiliations- he seemed to think that their flaws would distract from his own. And Daenerys- Jon’s aunt, even though they were the same age- would be incensed. She’d tell him to fight back, to show these northerners the wrath of a dragon. Rhaenys and Aegon would react with pity that would smart more than his aunt and uncle’s scorn. Rhaenys would weep, openly, while Aegon would want to cry, but would conceal it. Elia, who wasn’t Jon’s blood, but acted more like his family than many Targaryens did, would look away. She never had a stomach for violence. Rhaegar wouldn’t look away, though. Even now Jon could imagine the regret in his father’s face, for it was an expression he’d seen a thousand times. An expression which said: I hoped you would be better than this.
“You claim you’ve had a change of heart. That you’ve abandoned your old ways,” Robb Stark said to him. All his life, Jon had been taught that the northerners were nothing but foolish upstarts, and that only Targaryens had a divine right to rule. But this wolf king spoke with an authority honed by years of war and desperation, and somehow that seemed more important than a Valyrian bloodline and an ability to firebend. He went on, “Your mother may have been a northerner, and a waterbender. But you’ve lived your whole life in the south. Targaryen blood still flows in your veins. And a Targaryen cannot be trusted.”
He didn’t look as if it brought him any joy, but Robb Stark stood up from his simple throne and drew his sword regardless. There was nothing Jon could do except hold his head high and hope that it would be as painless as possible. Robb Stark’s hands were steady, and the edge of the blade looked sharp. There were worse ways to die.
He closed his eyes and braced himself. The silence was thick and dark as blood, until suddenly-
“Wait, you can’t,” Sansa Stark said. Jon opened his eyes to see her throw herself between him and her brother. Robb Stark lowered his sword, but did not sheathe it yet. Sansa quickly continued, “You can’t kill him. This man has saved my life, more times than I can count.”
the previous spring
Sansa waited until the ash fell from the sky like snow to escape from the tower.
She knew she had to time her flight perfectly. Too early, and she’d be caught and escorted straight back to her locked bedchamber, with no hope of trying again. Petyr put far too alluring a price on her head for anyone in the Eyrie to turn a blind eye and allow her to leave, no matter how much they might sympathize with her predicament.
But if she waited too long, the Targaryens would find her. They would scour the castle and drag her out into the open, where all the other inhabitants of the castle would be gathered. Then they would demand that anyone who could waterbend step forward and surrender. If no one did, the southern soldiers wouldn’t hesitate to use force against innocents in the crowd- children, the sick, the elderly. Then, once all waterbenders were subdued, the dragon would turn its fire toward the castle.
That was what had happened at Winterfell. That was what had happened to Sansa’s father.
When the time was right, Sansa pushed her bed in front of her chamber door, then smashed the window glass. She had to move quickly- she could already hear the guards that Petyr always insisted were there for her protection, trying to break down the door. ‘
The tower was perilously high. To simply jump from the window would be suicide. But Sansa was able to waterbend and draw the snow up to an incline to cushion her fall. By the time the guards burst into her chamber, she was already gone, making her way through the Eyrie’s godswood.
The grove of weirwood trees ended along a sudden cliff- Sansa didn’t see it coming through the smoke and mist, and had to grab ahold of a nearby branch to keep herself from tumbling into the chasm. She peered over the edge. The incline of the mountain was impossibly sheer, with a narrow foot-path, half worn away by the wind, as the only way forward. Even for the most talented of waterbenders, it would be treacherous to try to climb all the way down. And Sansa was never the most talented of benders.
But the sound of a dragon shrieking in the distance was enough to encourage to Sansa take a few tentative steps down the mountain.
When Winterfell was invaded by the Targaryens, Sansa, her mother, and her siblings managed to escape through the castle crypts. Sansa was spared the ordeal of watching her childhood home burn. But now she witnessed the full force of Targaryen destruction as the dragon unleashed its flames on the Eyrie. Sansa watched as the place which was meant to be a shelter for her during the war, but instead became a prison, blackened and crumbled.
She thought of the way Aunt Lysa taught her how to use waterbending for healing instead of combat. She thought of how Lysa later threatened to push her out of the moon door. She thought of how Lysa’s jealousy was not entirely unfounded, of the way Uncle Petyr used to call her “Cat” before grabbing her by the waist and stealing a kiss. But Uncle Petyr was also the first person to ever say that Sansa was clever. She thought of poor little Sweetrobin, who destroyed castles made of snow one moment, then begged her to tell him a story the next.
Hot tears stung Sansa’s eyes and slid down her cheeks, but she quickly wiped them away. As she did, the path before her became more clear, and she noticed a silhouette of someone, dark against the glow of the great blazing castle.
“Who’s there?” she called out.
The stranger stepped closer to the edge of the precipice, and Sansa looked up to see his face. It wasn’t one of Petyr’s sellswords, nor a soldier clad in scarlet and ebony armor. Instead, it was only what looks to be a northman, dressed in plain black clothes.
“What are you doing?” the stranger asked her.
“Down the mountain?” The stranger sounded incredulous. “You must be insane.”
“Perhaps. But I’d rather take my chances with the mountain than with the Targaryens.”
“You really think they’re that bad?”
Now Sansa looked at the stranger as if he were mad. “Have you ever seen what they do to a captured castle?” He shook his head, and Sansa half-pitied, half-envied his innocence. “Trust me, if you had, you’d be coming with me.”
She hesitantly moved from one foothold to another, until she reached the next ledge. It was progress. Slow progress, but progress all the same. “Wait!” the stranger called after her. “Can I come with you? I could help you. Or, I mean, we could help each other.”
Sansa shrugged. “If you want.”
Despite his earlier trepidation, the stranger vaulted down to join her on the ledge almost fearlessly. “My name’s Jon Snow,” he said. “What’s yours?”
She hesitated a moment. “Alayne.” She wasn’t about to reveal her identity to someone she just met, and Alayne was a common enough name, in this part of the realm. But the lie still felt strange on her tongue, like the first time Robb had let her try whiskey.
The path down the mountain was silvered with ice and frost. At times the slope became so severe that Sansa found herself clinging to the rock face for dear life while balancing on a ridge mere inches wide. Her hands and feet were numb, and her lips felt blue. The wind was like two strong hands trying to push her over the edge.
They hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way down the Eyrie when Sansa slipped- her stomach plummeted as the rock beneath her crumbled and left her reeling. But she’d barely even registered the risk before Jon reached out and grabbed her by the cloak, pulling her to safety.
“Thank you,” she exhaled, grateful for the fact that she was still breathing.
“It’s nothing,” he replied.
A mile later, Jon was the one who lost his footing, stepping on a patch of black ice and suddenly skidding down the mountain. Sansa shot out her hand, and the ice under him turned to liquid, then locked him in place until he recovered his balance. Jon looked down at his feet just as she made the ice retreat again. “You’re a bender,” he said.
“I am,” she admitted. She’d wanted to keep it a secret from him, but now that she had revealed the truth, she didn’t regret it. She wanted to trust him, despite herself.
“Is that why you’re running?”
She nodded. “What about you?”
“I’m just ordinary,” Jon said, with what Sansa thought to be a little bitterness. Hoping to make him feel more at ease, she confessed: “I’m barely a bender, to be honest. My siblings are much better at it than I am. I can heal well enough, but I’m no good at fighting. And fighting is the only thing anyone cares about, during a war.”
“I don’t think that’s true. Healing is just as important as combat, especially during a war.”
“You’re just saying that because you haven’t encountered the Targaryens before now,” Sansa said. “Where have you been hiding out, all this time?”
“Are you alone? Or have you got any family?”
“Some,” Jon said. “My aunt and uncle, and my siblings are away fighting.”
“Oh, so they can bend?”
“Well… yes, they can.”
Sansa had always felt so lonely, as the Stark with the least aptitude for bending. She could only imagine what Jon’s experience must have been, being the so-called ordinary one in his family. “What about your parents?” she asked him.
“My father… my father prefers that I stay out of his way,” Jon said. “My mother’s dead.”
“I’m sorry. Was it the Targaryens?”
Sansa watched him nod, his jaw set in a tense line, his eyes two furious sparks in the darkness. She told him, “I’m sorry. I really am. They killed my father, too, three years ago. The rest of my family was lucky to get away.”
“And where are they now?” Jon asked.
After they’d escaped Winterfell, her mother and her siblings had scattered like ashes in the wind. They’d agreed it was safer that way; if its members were separate, House Stark had a greater chance of surviving the war. Rickon and Bran, the youngest, had gone far north, beyond the Wall, to live in anonymity among the Free Folk. Arya, always so willful, had run away to Braavos, where they purportedly knew strange and ancient bending techniques. Mother and Robb now roamed between the Vale, the Riverlands, and the North, rallying waterbenders against the Targaryen invasion. “They’re all gone now,” Sansa said faintly. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.”
Eventually, the ground leveled beneath her feet, and the sky illuminated in a fiery dawn. Sansa came to a stop at the edge of a cliff overhanging an old-growth forest. In the glow of the rising sun, she could just make out a small tower hidden amidst the trees. “It’s one of the Eyrie’s outposts,” she explained to Jon. “I don’t see any sign of the Targaryens nearby. We’ll reach the keep by mid-morning, and then we’ll be safe. Whoever mans the tower will take us in.”
“How can you be so sure?” Jon asked. He stood behind her, farther from the edge.
The honest answer was that Sansa was the sister of the King in the North, and to turn her away would be to risk provoking Robb’s wrath. But of course Jon believed her to be Alayne, and even if she told him her true identity, he probably wouldn’t have believed her. She looked more like a peasant than a princess right then, Sansa thought a little ruefully, looking down at her simple gown coated with ash and melted snow, So instead she said to him, “I have to believe that people are good-hearted. That they’ll help each other, especially in times of war.”
She turned to face him. She could see his face more clearly in the sunlight- he had a mouth like a girl’s, and a grey eyes. But he wasn’t smiling. he didn’t look happy to have reached a refuge from the enemy. That pretty mouth of his was set in a flat, hopeless line. Those grey eyes were shadowed with sadness and a sort of grim determination. Drawing a hand to the sword strapped to his back- Sansa hadn’t noticed the sword in the earlier darkness- Jon said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, princess.”
The sunrise gilded the valley in new light, but Sansa had never felt colder. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied, taking a step backward.
Jon mirrored her and took a step forward. “There’s no use pretending. A beautiful redheaded girl, traveling alone, who talks like nobility, who can waterbend? You’re Sansa Stark.”
He unsheathed the sword, dragged a hand along the blade until it ignited with flame. The metal had to be Valyrian steel, Sansa realized. Those swords were so rare that they were only gifted to the most elite firebenders, and members of the royal family themselves. And Jon knew how it use it- she could tell instantly, from the ease with which he held the sword, and the grace with which he advanced on her.
She’d always been the weakest waterbender in her family. Robb might have been able to beat him, or maybe even Arya, but Sansa didn’t stand a chance, not in a fair fight. But it doesn’t have to be fair, she told herself.
She remembered everything Jon had told her over the course of the night. It might have all been falsehoods, but didn’t the best lies contain a little truth?
He was about to strike, so Sansa gasped, “I know who you are.” You really think they’re that bad?… My aunt and uncle, and my siblings are away fighting… My father prefers that I stay out of his way. My mother’s dead… And those grey eyes, that precious Valyrian steel sword. “You’re King Rhaegar’s bastard.”
Jon flinched as if slapped, then immediately recovered, shifting back into a swordsman’s stance and ready to attack. But a moment of hesitation was all Sansa needed- she transformed the ice and snow at his feet into a vicious wave, and knocked him to the ground. Then she flung her hand forward and sent the wave crashing over the edge of the cliff. She closed her eyes- she had no desire to watch a man die, even if he was her enemy.
But when she opened her eyes, Jon wasn’t dead.
The wave surrounding him had frozen back to ice, suspending him in place just before he could fall off the edge of the cliff. Only a waterbender could have achieved that- and one of great prowess, to react so quickly and create such a sudden change. And Sansa herself hadn’t done it. She didn’t even know if she was capable of it.
But there was no one else on the cliff except her and Jon.
“That’s impossible,” Sansa breathed. She watched as the ice melted and dropped Jon back onto solid ground, then quickly took the opportunity to pin his hands with frozen manacles before he could get back up. “You can do both,” she said. “Waterbending and firebending.”
Jon didn’t answer yes or no, but his glare was all the confirmation she needed. “Let me go,” he ordered. All the humility of pretending to be a commoner was gone, evaporated like rainwater after a storm was done, leaving only the imperiousness of a prince who was used to having his commands obeyed.
“You were about to take me prisoner,” Sansa reminded him. “Fair is fair.”
His sword lay on the ground, thrown by the sudden force of the wave. Sansa picked it up. She’d never held a sword before. It was heavier than she’d expected. “Don’t touch that!” Jon said. He struggled to free himself from the ice, but couldn’t bend with his hands constrained.
Strange, Sansa thought, that in three years of war, she was the first person to successfully capture a member of the royal family. She knew she should kill him. That’s what Mother, and Robb, and Arya would do, if they were in her place. They wouldn’t even hesitate. This man had tried to kidnap her; his family had killed her father; his kingdom would see hers conquered and subjugated.
Father wouldn’t kill him, though, Sansa thought. He never shed blood when he had the opportunity to show mercy instead. And Jon wasn’t just a firebender; he could control water, too. His murder would be the murder of another waterbender, and wasn’t that exactly what the Targaryens were trying to achieve? The slaughter of waterbenders?
Sansa turned the Valyrian steel sword over in her hands. “I think I’ll be taking this,” she said.
Jon strained against the ice so fiercely that for a moment, Sansa thought he might actually break free. “You can’t,” he said, furious. “It’s mine, I earned it. And a northerner can’t wield Valyrian steel. You aren’t worthy.”
“ You’re half northern, everybody knows that. Are you only half-worthy? Besides, you don’t need to worry. I’m not going to wield it. I’m just going to keep it. You see, the sun is coming up, and that ice around your wrists will melt soon. And when it does, I’m sure you’ll come after me. I’ll be long gone, but just in case we ever do meet again, I’d prefer to face you without your precious sword. Like I said before, I’m really no good at fighting.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Jon fumed. Sansa sensed that he was speaking more to himself than to her. “You weren’t supposed to be like this. You were supposed to be more- more- delicate.”
Her last words to him before she continued down the mountain were an echo of the ones he used to reveal himself to her: “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
It surprised no one when the Lannisters, and all the other southern houses, allied themselves with the Targaryens as soon as the dragons hatched. Southerners couldn’t be trusted- that was common knowledge. But northerners were supposed to be different.
The Freys had been the Tullys’ bannermen for generations, and the Boltons sworn to House Stark for even longer. Roose Bolton had been present, bending the knee and pledging his sword when Robb was crowned king; Walder Frey had hosted the northern forces in his keep and allowed them to cross the Trident. When Sansa sought sanctuary at Roose Bolton’s keep, she’d expected him to break bread with her, to allow her to warm herself by his hearth, to help escort her to her brother- not chain her up and imprison her in the Dreadfort’s dungeon. And when Walder Frey had arrived at the keep, she’d expected him to turn against Roose and help free her- not transport her south in the dead of night and deliver her to a camp of Lannister soldiers.
They’d traded her for a promise of protection against dragons, and for a chestful of gold each.
Now Sansa was trapped in Tyrion Lannister’s tent, her hands bound, waiting to reach King’s Landing. She knew they were moving south- though they blindfolded her when they travel, she could feel the air growing warmer with each passing day. And it was only logical that they would go to the capitol and use her to attempt to gain favor with the Targaryens. That was what Sansa would have done, if she were in Tyrion’s place.
The Imp had treated her well enough. He spoke to her kindly, though Sansa didn’t care for the way he leered at her when he thought she wasn’t looking. And at least he made sure she was well-fed, sharing his evening meal and wine with her.
He never gave her water, though.
Sansa was fantasizing about Robb storming the Lannister camp with his army and freeing her- though of course she knew he had no idea where she was, and even if he did, likely would not risk the loss of life just to free one girl who could barely bend- when she heard a different voice speaking outside the tent. Not Tyrion’s self-important tones, or the usual ribaldry from the guards. Someone new, though the cadence of his voice was somehow familiar to Sansa. She strained herself to listen closer.
“I need to see the prisoner,” the stranger said.
“We’ve got strict orders not to allow any visitors,” the guard replied. “From Lord Lannister himself.”
“I outrank Lord Lannister.”
Tyrion was in command of this battalion- the only people who outranked him were Jaime and Tywin Lannister, or the royal family. But why would any of them be here? And why would they wish to see her?
“What’s going on here?”
Sansa recognized Tyrion’s voice instantly.
The stranger said, “This guard is being insubordinate. I need to see the prisoner.”
“Why?” Tyrion asked. Then, after a moment, he said as if heartbroken: “Your grace, I thought you were better than this.”
“You’re one to talk, Lannister,” the stranger said. Except he wasn’t a stranger anymore- Tyrion’s reveal that he was speaking to royalty made Sansa remember exactly where she’d heard this man’s voice before.
The guard spoke up. “I don’t blame you, your grace. She’s not bad, for northern scum. I’d do the same, if m’lord wouldn’t chop my cock off for it.”
Suddenly Sansa heard something that sounded very much like the noise of someone being hold in a chokehold. “Don’t talk about her that way,” Jon Snow growled.
The guard sputtered, “All right, all right, she’s yours!” Then it sounded as if he fell to the ground, just before the flaps of the tent opened, someone strode inside, and Sansa found herself faced with a pair of very familiar grey eyes.
She recoiled away from Jon as he came closer, and hissed, “Don’t touch me.”
“I would never,” he shot back, with the audacity to look hurt, as if she’d insulted his honor or something. He crouched down behind her, loosening the rope which tied her to one of Tyrion’s tent poles, but making sure to still keep her hands bound. Then he led her out of the tent, past the guard, who massaged his bruised windpipe, and Tyrion, who called after her, “I’m sorry, my lady,” but made no attempt to help her.
She and Jon walked across the tent, coming to an eventual stop at one of the tents. There seemed to be no reason to go to this one- it was no grander than any of the others. But as Jon gently pushed her inside, Sansa realized that it must belong to him. “Why did you bring me here?” she demanded, as soon as he closed the tent flap behind him.
Jon crossed his arms and met her defiant gaze head-on. “Because you’re the only person who knows where my sword is. I want you to tell me what you did with it, and where I can find it.”
Sansa couldn’t help herself- she burst out laughing. Jon’s indignant expression transformed to something more fragile as he said, “Why is that so funny to you?”
“Because,” she replied as soon as she caught her breath, “Everyone assumes you wanted to ravish me, but instead all you want is to find your bloody toy.”
“It’s Valyrian steel. Of course a northerner wouldn’t understand, but it’s one of a kind, priceless. It’s proof of my prowess in battle, and of my skill as a bender. Of course I want it back!”
He looked so earnest that it was all Sansa could do not to start laughing again. “I’ll tell you where I hid it, if you answer a question first.”
“What’s your family going to do with me? Kill me?”
Jon shook his head. “No. We’re not monsters- ”
“Oh, I beg to differ.”
“We’re not. I don’t know for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say they’re going to marry you to Tyrion. He’ll deserve a reward for your capture, and the Lannisters are desperate to bring the bending ability into their bloodline. It’s their greatest shame that they can’t firebend- but even waterbending is better than nothing.”
Sansa tried to contemplate a life of marriage to the Imp. Of course only a Targaryen would consider that punishment anything less than monstrous. However, she didn’t get the chance to consider it too deeply, for Jon then demanded, “Now tell me where you hid the sword.”
“No,” she replied.
Jon seethed and paced the length of his tent. Sansa knew she was taking a risk, provoking him like this. But even though putting her faith in Jon Snow was what got her in trouble the last time they crossed paths, she didn’t think the bastard prince was truly capable of hurting her. If he was, he would have done it already. That was what gave her the courage to say, “I won’t tell you. But I’ll bring you to the place, on one condition.”
He stopped pacing. “What condition?”
“Once you get the sword, you let me go free.”
“And what makes you think I’ll agree to that?”
Sansa said, “Because you owe me.”
Jon looked at her for a long moment, then swore an angry oath. He crossed the tent in long strides, suddenly tearing through a trunk, flinging out blankets, knives, a map, a change of clothes. He gathered the items in his arms and approached Sansa. “I’m going to cut you loose,” he said. “Please don’t try to kill me.”
He was very careful not to touch her as he sliced the cords around her wrists. The moment her hands were free, Sansa stepped away from him. She flexed her wrists and felt the power flowing there, then touched the necklace she always wore. It contained a small vial of water, which she carried wherever she went. She could open the vial, fashion the water into a sharp blade of ice, kill the Targaryen prince here and now.
But then what? She’d still be trapped in a Lannister prison camp, alone, hundreds of miles south of the Neck. As much as she loathed to admit it, she needed him- for the time being, at least. She moved her hands away from the necklace.
Jon commenced packing supplies, and handed some to her to carry. “We can steal two horses, and be on our way before anyone notices,” he said before moving to leave the tent.
“Wait,” Sansa said. “The sword can’t possibly be that important. Why are you really helping me? ”
“The same reason you didn’t kill me back on the mountain,” Jon replied. Then he stepped into the sunlight.
She didn’t trust him.
They avoided the King’s Road, instead choosing a slower, less trafficked route north. They travelled on miles of country roads, only occasionally passing a farmer or peddler. They cut through empty fields and meadows. They led the horses through neglected forest paths. It was a long way from the Crownlands to the north, made even longer by their oblique wandering.
They rarely spoke. Sansa soon discovered that Jon was naturally a man of few words, which she didn’t mind. She’d spent too much time with men like Petyr and Tyrion, who believed the whole world held its breath waiting for their next brilliant utterance. And besides, it wasn’t as if she and Jon had anything to say to each other. They weren’t friends, only reluctant allies. The only matter they had to discuss was which fork in the road to take.
Each night, they would hunt and scrounge for food. Sometimes when they were close to a river, Sansa was able to catch a fish with her waterbending. Other nights, Jon would set traps and try to catch a rabbit or some other small woodland creature. And Sansa had learned enough as a young girl in Winterfell, wandering through the wolfswood with Old Nan, to know which plants and herbs were edible, and which meant sure death. She would bring the edible ones to Jon each night, but keep the poison ones tucked away in a pocket, just in case.
Sometimes, in the south, they would pass a town or castle where the ebony and scarlet Targaryen banner flew overhead. Jon would always stop and gaze at the three-headed dragon for a long while, but never move to follow it. And sometimes, as they ventured further north, Sansa glimpsed waterbender soldiers, or remembered that they were crossing through the territory of houses pledged to her brother. But she never approached them. After her experience with the Boltons and the Freys, she didn’t have faith in any vows men swore.
They took turns sleeping at night. Someone always had to stay awake, to keep a watchful eye out for intruders in the dark woods. But sometimes, in the flickering firelight, Sansa would look at Jon’s sleeping face. He seemed less guarded, less furious at the world when he was dreaming. Younger, more like the person she’d thought she’d met that night on the mountain. The one who had caught her when she nearly fell, the one who’d described himself as ordinary, the one who didn’t pity her for being unable to fight. The one who she’d taken a liking to immediately, almost instinctively. Knowing what she knew now, Sansa had to scoff at how useless her instincts had been. Much like she’d pretended to be Alayne the commoner, Jon had only used a mask of kindness when it suited him, then abandoned it when it didn’t.
Sansa wouldn’t make the mistake of trusting him again. It was just that she trusted everyone else even less.
“We’re lost,” Sansa said.
She and Jon had stopped to let the horses rest on a nearby bluff, as well as use the higher altitude to gauge their surroundings. Now she sprawled out on the grass and rubbed the knots in her thighs while Jon stood at the edge of the precipice, holding up the map and inspecting the landscape. “We’re not lost, ” he said. “I’m sure we’ll reach the Trident in a day or two.”
“We should have reached the Trident a week ago. Look at the land, Jon. These are mountains, not rivers. We’re heading east. We’ll reach the Eyrie sooner than the Trident unless we change course.”
Jon turned in a baffled circle, and though he didn’t say anything, Sansa could tell that he realized she was right. He folded the map in exaggerated, angry motions, and snapped, “Well, you’re the one who knows where the sword is hidden. Why don’t you try leading the way?”
“I’m hopeless at navigation.”
“Of course. You probably just expected people to lead you around your whole life, while you just sat there, brushing your hair and letting everyone else do the work.”
Sansa removed her fingers from where they’d been twined in her hair, trying to comb out the tangles. “Well, I certainly never expected to be dragged through Westeros like a vagabond searching for your bloody toy! This isn’t the life I was prepared for. This whole situation is your fault, anyway.”
“Aye? How do you reason that? You’re the one who stole the sword in the first place.”
“Because you tried to kidnap me!”
“And you tried to throw me off a cliff!” The memory sent Jon a few steps away from the edge of the bluff, and a few steps closer to Sansa. She stood up- she was slightly taller than him, and he had to look up to meet her eyes- and shouted at him:
“Well, your family was the one who decided to invade and start the war! Your family burned down my childhood home, and a dozen other castles! Your family killed my father, and sent everyone else I love into exile! How do you justify that?”
“It’s for your own good,” Jon argued. “The Valyrian civilization was the greatest the world had ever seen- Targaryen rule will bring peace and prosperity, if your people will just stop resisting.”
“I haven’t seen any peace and prosperity. Just blood and ashes.”
Jon gathered his hand in a fist, and sparks danced around his fingers. Sansa reached for the vial of water hidden beneath her dress. Jon’s eyes followed the motion, and he huffed a sigh of frustration before turning away from her. Sansa watched him breathe deeply, trying to calm himself down, while deliberately flexing his hand. The sparks faded. “We have a long away to go,” he said. “And we shouldn’t spend the entire journey at each other’s throats.”
“Fine,” Sansa said. She tucked the necklace back under her dress, but the thrill from the argument still made her blood run scalding in her veins. She wanted to win the fight and prove him wrong, once and for all. It was strange, that the bastard prince could work her up like this. Usually she was a peacemaker among her siblings, more inclined to help settle a dispute than to start one. Still, she ignored the ferocious urge and said to Jon, “We need to head northwest from now on.”
He pointed toward the horizon; storm clouds accumulated in the distance, marring the otherwise perfectly blue sky like a dull grey bruise. “That storm will be here soon enough. We’ll go northwest tomorrow. For now, we may as well just find a place to camp.”
Jon was right; by the time they settled in a small grove for the night, it had begun to storm. Usually rain calmed Sansa, but that evening it only unsettled her. She felt almost feverish, as if the thunder and the lightning in the sky were roiling underneath her skin instead.
She and Jon completed all the necessary tasks without speaking, like they did practically every night. But this silence was more hostile- Sansa was intensely aware of every movement Jon made, and she knew he was watching her in the same way, but neither of them said a word to each other. There was only the crackling of the fire- which reminded Sansa of the sound of something breaking, over and over- and the rain incessantly falling- which sounded almost like the slap of someone’s hand against a burning cheek.
To make matters worse, the downpour forced them both to seek shelter under some low-hanging branches. Normally they would never lay their bedrolls so close to each other’s, or huddle near the fire’s warmth with so little distance between them. Sansa found, to her immense irritation, that Jon was so close, she could smell the rain on his skin.
They both had to work hard to keep the fire lit during the storm. Jon would encourage the flames with his firebending, while Sansa tried to repel the rain falling overhead. She wasn’t very good at it, though. Despite her best efforts, more than a few drops would always make it through and threaten to extinguish the flames. Every time some rain would land on the fire, Sansa would sharply exhale in frustration. And every time she did that, Jon would glance at her, his gaze burning more dangerously than the fire.
After she failed to catch a cascade of water which slid off one of the branches above and fell onto the flames, Sansa cursed furiously. This caused Jon to ask her, “Why are you so hard on yourself?”
“Because I need to do better.”
“You’re doing fine.”
“No, I’m not. If my sister were here, she would be able to stop the rain from falling from here to there .” Sansa gestured to the expanse of the entire grove. “And she’s two years younger than I am.”
“Maybe you just have other talents.”
“If you’re trying to be nice, you’re doing a terrible job.”
“Fine, then I won’t try.”
“Besides, I already know what you think of me.”
“Oh, really?” Jon challenged.
“That night on the mountain, you called me delicate.”
“Actually, I think I said you were supposed to be more delicate,” Jon said. “All my life, I’ve been taught that the Starks are my enemies. My siblings and I were told about your worst qualities. You were supposed to be this spoiled little princess, who hated getting her hands dirty, who could barely bend. That’s why I tried to capture you on my own. It was supposed to be easy, and the glory would be all mine. Then I’d finally-”
His smile slipped away. “Nothing.”
The best lies contained a little truth. Hadn’t Sansa told herself that countless times? Of course the Targaryens would teach their children to hate other children by focusing on their flaws. It was clever, and if Sansa were in their place, she would have done the same. Still, it hurt more than Sansa could have anticipated, to have her enemy confirm what she’d always suspected: that she was the weakest of the Starks. “Arya was always better at bending than me. Ever since we were children. She’s the fearless one. She never backed down from a fight, and though it infuriated my parents at time, it also made them so proud. I could see it. And Robb- well, he’s the golden one. Eldest son, born to rule. Brave, talented, goodhearted. My little brother Bran is the smartest one. You wouldn’t think a twelve year old could be wise, but he is. And Rickon, the youngest, he’s the wild one.”
“So what are you?” Jon asked her.
“The delicate one, I suppose. The one who can’t defend herself, the one who’s always getting captured, the one who can’t even read a map.”
Jon laughed, then, and Sansa flushed. “I don’t even know why I’m talking about this to you,” she muttered.
“I’m sorry,” Jon said. “It’s just- when I did finally meet you, I realized how wrong everything I’d heard about you was. I underestimated you, and well- you know what happened. I certainly didn’t gain any glory.”
“So then who does have the glory, then, in your family?” Sansa asked. She wasn’t sure why, exactly, she asked. She immediately told herself that it was pure strategy- she’d already made herself vulnerable, so she may as well try and discover a few of the Targaryens’ weaknesses, to make up for her own lapse. But in the moment when she’d asked the question, she’d forgotten that she was a Stark and a waterbender, or that he was a firebender and a Targaryen. They were simply a boy and a girl, shivering together in the rain. He’d tried to be kind to her, and she would try to be kind in return.
Jon didn’t have to think his answer over. “Daenerys.”
“But Rhaegar’s the king.”
“Daenerys is the one who hatched the dragons, though. My father believes it’s our family’s destiny to rule over all of Westeros, but Daenerys is the one willing to take action and make that happen. She’ll gladly ride into battle. My father would never.”
“What about your uncle?”
“Oh, he’ll boast the longest and the loudest about his heroic feats. But you’re more likely to find him in a whorehouse or a gambling den than on a dragon’s back.”
“Have you ever ridden a dragon?” Sansa asked.
Jon shook his head. “No. I was never considered worthy. I’m only half-blood, you know. I can’t be trusted. I know what exactly what you mean, about feeling… less than.”
“So Rhaegar is the king, Daenerys is the conqueror, and Viserys is the fool,” Sansa summarized. “What about your siblings?”
“You know what you said about your brother Robb, that he’s the golden son? Well, that’s Aegon, in my family. He has the privilege of riding a dragon. He’s a hero. And the worst part is, he would be unbearable if he weren’t so damn likeable. As for Rhaenys… she’s kind, and clever, and loyal to a fault.”
“How would your siblings describe you?”
“The unwanted one. Not a true Targaryen. Maybe they wouldn’t say it out loud, but I know they all think it.”
Though he tried to conceal it, Sansa recognized the ache in Jon’s voice. It was like an echo of her own endless self-upbraiding. “I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world, not to be a true Targaryen,” she said. “Jon, if your family did decide to let you ride a dragon… would you even want to?”
He didn’t speak for a long time. Sansa didn’t know if he would reply; she wasn’t sure if he’d interpreted her words as comfort or criticism. While she waited, the rain stopped. The world was truly quiet, so quiet that Sansa almost thought she could hear her heart beating and her blood moving through her veins.
At last, Jon gave his answer. “Of course I would.”
They rode northwest.
Day after day, the landscape slowly transformed from the lush green and gold of the south to the bleaker shades of grey which made up the north. It was still summer, but the sun’s rays felt colder, and the wind was less forgiving. Even the ground they slept on at night felt harder. But Sansa was so happy to be home that she welcomed the change. Returning north felt like splashing cold water on her face in the morning after waking up from a long nightmare; the cold was bracing, but necessary.
“It’s beautiful here,” Jon said one day. Sansa was surprised. Usually he was so driven, focused only on the next challenge. Now he slowed his horse to admire the acres of hollow fields, the distant tangled forests, and the steel sky above. “Brutal, but beautiful.”
“I thought it was ugly, when I was growing up. I appreciate it more now,” Sansa confessed.
“My mother always wanted to take me here. She used to talk about it all the time. But my father never let us go. He said the north was inferior to the south in every way.”
“Then why does he want to conquer it so badly?” Sansa scorned. But Jon was too entranced by the landscape to even bother arguing with her. He looked like he belonged here, she realized, with his grey eyes lit up with longing, his dark hair moving in the wind, his long face transformed by a rare smile. “What was your mother like?” she asked him.
“Wonderful,” Jon replied at once. “I don’t even know how to…. She was just wonderful. She loved to ride- she would ride in the Kingswood for hours. She would always watch me spar with Aegon, and cheer me on when no one else would. And she was brave. She was the bravest person I ever met. She never saw an injustice she didn’t try to set right.”
“It doesn’t sound like she’d approve of your family’s war.”
“She died well before the dragons were hatched. Things were different, back then.”
“How did she die?”
“A fever. At least, that’s what my father says. I’ve heard the servants whisper something different.”
Sansa looked at him as if to say, go on. So Jon elaborated, “Some of my other relatives didn’t approve of my mother. They thought she was too willful, too… northern. And of course my father’s wife didn’t take kindly too being slighted.”
“Well, why should she just sit there and take it?” Sansa said. “It sounds like your father wronged both his wife and your mother.”
“It’s treason to say such a thing,” Jon told her. But his face belied his words- he looked half-incredulous and half-delighted, and as if he would very much like her to go on insulting Rhaegar.
“Well, I’m already a dirty northern rebel, aren’t I? Your father seems awful, Jon.”
He grimaced in what Sansa had begun to recognize as his version of a smile.“I wish my mother could have taken me north. She wanted to go to Winterfell. You grew up there, didn’t you? Maybe we would have met.”
“What was it like?” Jon asked, with obvious yearning.
“Lovely,” Sansa told him. She gathered her horse’s reins in her hands. “It’s a pity that your family burned it down.”
Then- though she was never much of a rider, that was always Arya’s strength, not hers- Sansa urged her horse away from Jon’s, and flew across the empty fields as if the ghost of Jon’s mother had dared her.
It wasn’t until they had hacked their way through a thicket of heather and overgrown brambles- the horses slowly traipsing behind them, Jon complaining all the while that he wished he had his sword right now, and Sansa rolling her eyes- that they saw the Targaryens soldiers gathered around the campfire.
Jon came to a sudden, stunned stop, and Sansa walked straight into him. “What are you doing ?” she asked- but then, over his shoulder, she saw the smoke, the flames, the men in their black and crimson armor. They were only a short distance away, just on the other side of a small clearing. One of the soldiers noticed them, and waved in a friendly manner.
“We need to turn around,” Jon whispered to Sansa.
“It’s too late, they’ve already seen us. If we leave now, it’ll only attract suspicion.”
Jon sighed. “I really wish I had my sword right now.” But nevertheless, they stepped out into the clearing, still leading the horses behind them. Sansa smiled, tight-lipped, and hoped the men would let them pass by quietly.
But, of course, they didn’t. They were men. And Targaryens, beside. “Hello there,” one of the soldiers called out. “Care to warm yourself by our fire?”
“No thanks,” Jon muttered.
“What about you, miss? Surely you won’t deprive us of your lovely company.” The soldier smiled in what Sansa was sure he believed to be a winsome way.
“She doesn’t want to,” Jon said. He took hold of Sansa’s hand and pulled her across the clearing a little faster.
“Are you sure? She doesn’t look too happy to go with you.”
“We’re just in an awful rush to get home,” Sansa lied sweetly. But the soldier didn’t back down. Instead, he rose up from his seat on the grass, and placed a hand on the pommel of his sword. His companions stood as well. There were six of them in total, Sansa noticed. She’d become used to anticipating that every encounter might devolve into a fight, and was already calculating their odds.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Jon said. He didn’t sound frightened. Not at all.
“Of course you don’t,” the vocal soldier replied. “But you see, there are six of us. And only one of you. So it doesn’t really matter what you want, does it?”
Jon let go of Sansa’s hand. “That’s it, there’s a good lad,” the soldier said with mock encouragement.
He was the first one Jon attacked, with a single vicious burst of flame which caught the soldier in the chest and face and sent him falling to the ground with an agonized scream. Then Jon managed to incapacitate- or maybe even kill, Sansa couldn’t tell- two other soldiers with well-aimed bolts of red lightning. But in the mean time, the other three soldiers had recovered from their initial shock, and had drawn their weapons.
Two of the remaining three could bend, and they approached Jon head-on. But even outnumbered and lacking a weapon, Jon was deadly. Sansa didn’t know anything about fighting, but she could tell that Jon was faster, more graceful, more clever with his bending than either of the men. She’d been right, back on the mountain- she could have never beaten him in a fair fight.
Jon took down one of the men easily, leaving him with only one opponent. But there had been three men- where had the last one gone? Sansa had been frozen in fear, just like a bird or a rabbit or some other defenseless prey. She backed up nervously, but that was a mistake. She hit something solid, and then there was an arm around her waist, and a knife at her throat. Sansa screamed, and when she did, she could feel the blade against her skin.
Jon had the solider he was fighting on the ground, and his fist crackled with lightning. He was about to deliver a killing blow, but the sound of Sansa’s scream distracted him for long enough that the other soldier was able to get back up, wipe the blood from his face, and move into a fighting stance.
“Easy there,” the man who had Sansa pinned said.
The four of them were at an impasse- if Jon made a move against either of the soldiers, Sansa would be killed. But lightning still flickered between his hands, ready for a target. The three men looked at each other, wild-eyed, trying to discern who would break first.
Sansa’s pulse beat desperately against the cold steel. She struggled against the soldier, trying to her loosen her arms, and this caused him to shake her violently. He pressed the blade harder against her throat. A drop of hot blood slipped down her neck.
But Sansa didn’t mind that she hadn’t been able to free herself from his grip- that had only been half of her aim. She’d been able to skim her hand against the plants closest to her, just for a moment. Now the dew from the leaves was gathered in her palm. She flexed the water and froze it into a short, sharp knife. When she drove the makeshift blade into the soldier’s leg, it didn’t do any lasting damage, but it hurt him. It hurt him enough that he dropped the knife at her throat, and recoiled away from her. Sansa then flung herself forward, onto the grass.
Out of the corner of her eyes, she watched as Jon directed his lightning toward the man he’d been fighting; his aim was true, and the soldier collapsed. Then the only soldier left alive was the one who’d attacked Sansa. He stumbled toward her, snarling something about a waterbender bitch. She struggled backwards, and the man dropped to his knees. His hands were outstretched. He hadn’t found his knife from it had fallen in the grass. Instead he looked like he didn’t need a weapon; he seemed intent on choking the life from her with his bare hands.
Jon, however, had not forgotten about the knife. Sansa kept her face in a terrified mask, as to not alert the soldier above her, as Jon picked up the blade and cut the man’s throat before he could lay a hand on her. The arc of the knife was so fluid and ferocious that it sliced clear to the bone.
The man gurgled, and gasped, and died. He collapsed onto Sansa, so that she was crushed between his corpse above and the cold ground below. She shoved at him, until Jon offered a hand and hoisted her to her feet.
Sansa was grateful for the support- she felt like she was being pummeled by a high tide, and didn’t trust her own balance at that moment. She surveyed the carnage. Six dead bodies were artlessly slumped around the roaring campfire; some were still twitching. “You killed them,” Sansa said. “They were on your side, and you killed them.”
Jon’s only explanation was: “They were trying to hurt you.”
“You did it as easy as breathing.”
“It’s not hard to kill people.”
As Sansa spoke, she could taste the salt of the blood drying on her lips. She was covered in it- it had fallen like hot, dark rain onto her face, her chest, her neck which had so recently had the blade pressed against it. If it hadn’t been for Jon, she might have been a corpse twitching on the grass. She might have been covered in her own blood, instead of that of her enemies.
She didn’t let go of his hand.
The next morning, Sansa woke to find that Jon had brought her a gift.
“New clothes,” he explained. He handed her a bundle of dark fabric. “Your dress is a bit, well-”
Sansa looked down to see that the bodice was still drenched in the soldiers’ blood. Black and scarlet, the Targaryen colors, she thought with a little grim humor. Then she unfolded the clothes meant to replace the ruined dress, and gasped in horror.
“Jon, you brought me a shirt and breeches.”
“Yes…” He stared at her, uncomprehending.
“I can’t traipse around in breeches with my legs exposed! I’m a lady.” Arya might have welcomed the opportunity to dress like a boy, but the mere thought of it made Sansa feel vaguely ill.
“That was all I could find,” Jon said. “I had to get up at dawn and hike three miles just to find some poor farmer’s clothesline to steal it off of. And besides, it’s not like you’d even fit into the dresses that were available. I don’t think you realize how awfully tall you are.”
“Now you’re insulting me.”
“No, it’s fine that you’re tall, I didn’t mean to-” Jon ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “Listen, Sansa, just put on the bloody breeches, all right? It’s hardly more unladylike than having a dead man’s blood and guts on your clothing.”
As if the argument was settled, he then stubbornly turned around and kept his back to her. Sansa was confused for a moment, until she realized that this was his way of giving her privacy while she changed. So she did, quickly as she could (keeping her necklace on, of course). And she thought about what a strange sense of honor this bastard prince had- that he could kill six men in cold blood at night, then refuse to gaze upon a lady in the morning.
Sansa could smell the smoke a half-mile before she and Jon even reached what had once been a village. The wind carried the cinders; Sansa tried to shield her mouth and nose, but she couldn’t avoid inhaling the ashes. They tasted like memories she’d rather forget.
When they crested the top of a hill, the destruction came into full view. There were the blackened remnants of what used to be homes, taverns, whorehouses, businesses; acres of scorched and salted fields; and the still burning godswood. Flames lashed the weirwood trees, making it look as if their scarlet faces were screaming in agony. These sights were all familiar to Sansa, and she remained stoic as they rode through the ravaged village. But Jon couldn’t hide his shock, and as Sansa caught him wiping at his eyes, she found herself again thinking of how naive he was. It made her angry.
“Do you think there were any survivors?” he asked.
“Perhaps. They usually spare those who can’t bend. But sometimes, if a town or a castle is deemed too rebellious, they’ll slaughter the benders and take all the other citizens to a prison camp, just to send a message.” Sansa guided her horse around an object in her path- it was a little toy soldier, she noticed, its face half-melted, but otherwise undamaged. She said a silent, hopeless prayer for the child who must have owned it.
She asked Jon, “You said that Eyrie was the first castle you ever saw burned. Was that a lie?”
“No. I was never considered important enough to help with the conquest before then."
“You were lucky.”
“When they talk about the war back in King’s Landing, they talk about the bravery of the soldiers, and the might of the dragons, and the splendor of the empire. Not… this.”
“It’s all a lie. This is the truth,” Sansa said shortly. “You think this is bad? Imagine what it’s like to see someone you love being burned alive. To hear their screams, to smell the burning flesh. You never forget it- and I guarantee that almost every northerner living today has experienced that pain. Once you’ve seen your family, your friend, your neighbor killed by a dragon, you don’t need lies or propaganda to convince you why the war has to be fought.”
But Jon still didn’t understand. “Why would they do this? There’s no strategic advantage to wiping a town like this off the map.”
“If I had to guess?” Sansa said. “I’d say that your army punished this place because they found six Targaryen soldiers dead, in a field not ten miles away from here.”
The sound of water splashing woke her.
They’d decided to camp along the banks of a tributary which flowed into the Trident. Jon had volunteered to take the first watch, and Sansa had eagerly agreed. The murmur of the river had quickly lulled her to sleep, but now the disturbance of the current roused her. She sat up, let her eyes adjust to the moonlight, and scanned the trees for enemies.
But there was only Jon, standing by the edge of the water. He looked to be concentrating fiercely, and at first Sansa thought he’d gone mad, but then she realized he was only trying to bend.
His skills with the water were nothing like his firebending prowess. He kept trying to summon water from the stream and make it hover in the shape of an orb. It never made it more than a few feet into the air, however, before Jon would lose control and the whole thing dissolved. Every time this happened, he would become more frustrated, and the more frustrated he became, the less success he had with waterbending.
It was amusing to watch for a short while, but eventually Sansa called out to him, “It’ll never work.”
Jon turned, startled. “What do you mean?”
Sansa got up from her bedroll and joined him at the river’s edge. She created a perfect sphere of water and suspended it in the air. It was easy for her- this was one of the first lessons a young waterbender learned. Even little Rickon, before they’d left home, had mastered the move. “The problem is that you’re angry,” she explained to Jon. “Anger can be useful sometimes, especially in the heat of battle. But you can’t always rely on it. Your waterbending will be stronger if it comes from a place of serenity.”
“I’ve always been fuelled by anger with my firebending. Anger, and ambition.”
“Fire and water are opposite elements. It’ll be difficult for you. You’ll have to unlearn almost everything you know.”
“I don’t want to firebend anymore. After what we saw- it makes me feel ashamed,” Jon confessed. His eyes were very grey in the moonlight.
“I could teach you, if you want,” Sansa said. “I know I’m not very good. You really need a master, if you’re going to learn properly. But I do know some things. And maybe if I practice with you, we can both get better.”
“We could help each other.”
Sansa nodded. “It’s a good idea to practice at night. Water, the tides, the moon- they’re all connected. You’ll be stronger at night.”
So they adjusted their route north to follow the river, and camped along its banks each evening. They would wade into the water when the moon turned the stream silver. It was summer, and the river was always just cold enough to feel exhilarating after a long day of traveling on horseback. Sansa taught Jon all of the movements and techniques that she had learned years ago- creating whips with the water, transitioning from solid to liquid to solid again, using the water as both a shield and a weapon. Jon was a quick and disciplined student, even though he had to fight against the firebending instincts which had been instilled in him.
Sansa found herself improving too. As a child, she’d learned alongside her brothers and sisters. She’d taken it badly when they naturally excelled where she struggled, and had always given up easily. But now she had only Jon to compare herself to, and his patience and determination rubbed off on her. Moves that were once nearly impossible for her became easier and easier, and Sansa longed to see her siblings again so that they could witness the progress she’d made.
One night, she had a challenge for Jon: to see which of them could knock the other off their feet first. Any kind of waterbending was fair game- the only aim was to be the last one left standing.
Jon made the first move. He hurled a series of jets at Sansa, designed to catch her in the chest and throw her off balance. She was able to deflect most of them, until one did find its mark. Sansa didn’t lose her balance, however- she’d frozen her feet to the rocks at the bottom of the stream bed.
“That’s cheating,” Jon complained.
“No, it’s not. The problem is that you’re thinking like a firebender. You’re throwing the water like you’d throw flames, and you’re dodging my attacks like you’re scared they’ll burn you. You’d be better off standing your ground.”
So then Jon sent a massive wave in Sansa’s direction. She countered with her own wall of water that she used to send the water back in Jon’s direction. He swayed, but managed to bend the wave away before it toppled him.
Jon frowned, and Sansa braced herself for another onslaught. But instead, she felt a sudden change in the current below. The ice locking her feet to the ground melted, and before she could react, a force in the water below pulled at her legs and wrenched her into the river. The moment she was submerged, the force released her.
When she resurfaced, Jon was waiting for her, trepidation plain on his face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Sansa said. She coughed up the water in her lungs, then asked, “How did you do that?”
“I don’t know. Just started thinking like a waterbender.”
Jon took a step forward, his hand outstretched to help her to her feet. Sansa trained her face to look grateful and slightly subdued. She took his hand. Then, quick as she could, she pulled Jon into the river with all her might, aided by thick ropes of water which helped drag him down. When he came back up for air, she was grinning wickedly. “Now we’re even.”
They’d almost reached the end of their practice for the night- Jon was trying to freeze the running water well enough so that he could stand on the ice he created, while Sansa lazily guided a thin serpentine lasso of water through the air. “We’ll reach the Neck soon,” she said. “In less than a week, I’d reckon.”
“Are you sure?” Jon asked. “Because you swore you knew a shortcut along the Green Fork, and instead we nearly ended up in Fairmarket.”
“That was an accident!”
“How do you accidentally end up on the wrong side of a river?"
“Don’t get so smug, Jon, or I’ll be forced to remind you the Saltpans incident.”
“I had that entirely under control-”
“No, you really didn’t.”
“Well, we made it through eventually, didn’t we?” Jon said. He made the ice spread all the way to the opposite bank, and stepped onto dry land again. Somehow, the slight distance between them gave Sansa the courage to ask him the question she’d been wondering for the past weeks:
“What are you going to do once we reach Greywater Watch, and you have the sword back?”
He didn’t answer her question; instead, he asked, “Where will you go, once we reach Greywater Watch?”
“I’ll try to find my family.”
“Of course. You must miss them.”
“I think about them all the time. When I’m riding, when I’m practicing, when I try to fall asleep at night. But Jon, I’ve also been thinking… maybe you could come with me. Wherever I go, no matter who I find. I bet that you and Arya would be friends- she’d want to spar the minute she met you, but she’s like that with everyone. And I’d want to find Bran and Rickon. They’re still so young, they need someone looking out for them. Even Robb- maybe you two wouldn’t get along at first, but I’m sure you’d grow to like to each other.”
Sansa felt as if she’d jumped from a tall cliff into the ocean below, and the water was studded with sharp rocks. She might land safely and be encompassed by the cool blue, or she might be dashed to pieces among the rocks. The outcome lay with Jon’s reply, so she waited for him to speak.
“So you’re suggesting that we keep traveling together, until we find your family?”
“Exactly. Don’t you think that could be good?”
So soft that she could barely hear him above the sound of the river, he said, “But what about my family, Sansa?”
“What about them? Jon, you saw the Eyrie, you saw the village. You know the war is wrong. And you’re not even a firebender anymore!”
“I’m choosing not to firebend, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a firebender.”
Sansa stopped idly moving the water in the air, and instead moved it close to her side, coiled like a weapon. “What’s the difference?” she demanded.
“The difference between simply leaving my family and taking up arms against them. Do you really expect me to join your brother’s side? To meet my brother on the battlefield and use the sword my father gave me against the men I used to fight beside?”
“How can you stay neutral, after what you’ve seen?”
“What if I asked you to turn against your brother?”
“My brother isn’t evil. ”
“Neither is my family,” Jon said. His hands were clenched in fists, and in the darkness, Sansa could see the sparks of lightning ignite. This was his true nature, she realized. He might pretend to be peaceful, he might try to fight against the way he was raised, but in the heat of the moment, he would always be a Targaryen.
He went on, “My father, my aunt, my uncle. They’ve done evil things, I won’t deny it. And they may be past redemption. But I can’t give up on Rhaenys and Aegon. They’re innocent, just young and misguided, the same way I was. When you first met me, I’d done things wrong. But you decided my life was worth saving. Their lives are worth saving, too.”
“I can’t believe you’re choosing the people who have looked down on you all your life, the people who made you feel worthless. Do you even think they’ll let you come back, after what you’ve done?”
Her words were meant to hurt him, but the moment Sansa saw the pain shining in Jon’s eyes, she felt like the wound had been inflicted on both of them. He didn’t try to retaliate. He only said in a low voice, “I didn’t know you were capable of being cruel.”
She had nothing to say to him. Sansa had always been good at persuasion, cajoling, and flattery, but Jon’s mind was made up, and none of her words would change it. But she was still angry, and hurt as well. The moment she’d let herself fall off the cliff, she’d been pierced by the rocks below, just as she’d feared.
Why had she trusted him? Why did he always make her so furious that she lost all sense of who she was? Why did he always find a way under her skin? Why did she let herself forget who he truly was, again and again? They were enemies; they had always been enemies.
Sansa needed to unleash her anger somehow. She couldn’t bear another moment of feeling like this. With all that she had in her, she bended the water, so that it lashed at Jon. She expected him to fight back- after all, he’d always been more than a match for her. But instead, he just stood there and let it happen to him.
Almost as if he wanted to be hurt.
The silence of the following days was the silence that followed after a forest fire- when something alive and vibrant had been reduced to charred earth and ashes. And it was in this scorched silence that Jon and Sansa came across the Targaryen army.
She and Jon had been following the river and riding through the forest, all greys and greens and the wind through the trees, when a ridge rose to their left. They led the horses upward, and then suddenly the valley below came into view. The marshy lowlands were covered in a scourge of ebony and scarlet. There were thousands of men marching north; Sansa had never seen so many troops assembled before, not even when Winterfell had been attacked. The sound of them marching in unison was like thunder. Banners embroidered with the three-headed dragon rippled in the wind, and the day abruptly blackened to night as a dragon flew overhead.
“Quick, get away from the edge, before they see us,” Jon said. It was the first word either of them had uttered in days. Sansa urged her horse back into the relative safety of the greenery.
“Where do you think they’re going?” she asked.
Jon shrugged. “Maybe the Dreadfort?”
“No, it wouldn’t be the Dreadfort.”
“What makes you so sure?"
“Because Roose Bolton conspired to sell me to the Lannisters in exchange for a promise of immunity. It won’t be the Dreadfort.”
Like a nearly healed wound that instead tore open again, a fresh surge of hatred swept through Sansa at the thought of the Boltons. It was all their fault, she thought. If it hadn’t been for them, and for the Freys, she never would have been captured. She never would have crossed paths with Jon again, and she wouldn’t feel so heartsick now.
The river ran wild and tangled, like an unspooled skein of wool. She and Jon followed its path through the deepest part of the woods. It was there, amidst the cool shadows and the lack of sunlight, that they stumbled upon Jon’s family.
First they heard the voices.
“You know I don’t care for hunting,” someone said. A woman, soft-spoken, highborn and around Sansa’s age.
Another woman, her tone more imperious, replied, “It’s not for sport. It’s important that you see the lands you’ll soon be ruling, Rhaenys.”
His sister said, “So you’ll send me to Moat Cailin?”
“Yes. Watching over the Neck will be a great responsibility- it’s critical for holding the north. Your father will remain in the capitol, naturally, and Viserys will marry one of the Tyrells and take Highgarden for his own. We needn’t worry about the Westerlands, the Lannisters are loyal-”
Sansa suppressed the urge to laugh.
“And your brother will go to the Riverlands, just to watch for any signs of rebellion. I suppose Rhaegar will insist will marry him to a Tully, or something. You know how passionate he is about his little crossbreeding experiments.”
“Which brother?” Rhaenys asked the question in such a way that made Sansa suspect she already knew the answer.
“Aegon, naturally. What a foolish question.”
“And I suppose, Dany, that you’ll install yourself at Dragonstone, and rule over your own little dominion.”
“As is my right, wouldn’t you say?” Daenerys Targaryen said, “After all the effort I’ve put into winning the war?”
The entire time they were speaking, the women’s voices became louder and more clear, until finally they came into view on the other side of the river. Daenerys Targaryen led the way on an impressive silver mount, while Rhaenys trailed behind, riding a smaller black horse. Neither of them had noticed Jon or Sansa yet, and though Jon looked stricken, he didn’t dare move, for fear of attracting their attention.
“But the war isn’t over yet,” Rhaenys reminded her aunt.
“It will be soon. One last great show of strength, and we’ll snuff out this rebellion, once and for all.” Daenerys smiled as if she could already see the north razed and a Targaryen flag flying over every castle still left standing. Her confidence made Sansa grit her teeth and grip her reins so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
They rode on. For a moment, it seemed as if Rhaenys and Daenerys would simply pass by without ever realizing that the northern princess and the traitor who’d freed her were hidden in plain sight just across the river. But then Rhaenys turned to survey the woods- inspecting the lands that she expected to conquer, Sansa thought bitterly. Her eyes landed on her half-brother. “Jon?” she gasped.
Daenerys followed her niece’s gaze, and sharply turned her horse to face the river. “Nephew,” she greeted, voice faint with surprise. “This was the last place I expected to find you.”
Jon’s lips parted, but he didn’t utter a word. He just stared at his family.
Rhaenys then said quickly, “The whole realm is looking for the Stark girl. How lucky that Jon was the first to capture her.” She glanced between her aunt and her brother like a cunning spectator watching a game of cyvasse, trying to determine who would be the victor.
“Yes, it’s very fortunate,” Daenerys agreed after a moment of consideration. “You’ll be welcomed back to the capitol with honors, Jon. Hailed as a hero of House Targaryen, with all other… transgressions forgiven.”
“Don’t do anything foolish, Jon,” Rhaenys urged him. “Father will be so proud of you when you come home. We all will.”
They spoke of Sansa as if she wasn’t even there; she was nothing more than a commodity to them- a valuable commodity, a horse or a chest of gold or a Valyrian steel sword, but still just something to be sold or stolen, depending on one’s political leanings. They were bartering over her, but they wouldn’t even look at her. Jon wasn’t looking at her either, even though Sansa couldn’t tear her gaze away from his face. He was looking at the river.
At last, Jon said, “Take me instead. I’ll come quietly. You can do whatever you like with me. But let her go.”
Rhaenys buried her face in her hands, and Daenerys began to laugh. “Oh, nephew,” she said. “Don’t you see? We don’t want you .”
She was greatly amused, and laughed a long time, full-throated, with all her teeth bared. Then she started to dismount her horse. While she was distracted, Jon whispered to Sansa, so just they could hear, “You need to run.”
“What? I’m not leaving you here-”
“Sansa, go. Now.”
He still wasn’t looking at her, he was still looking at the river. And Sansa realized his intention. “Jon, you can’t waterbend against them. You need to firebend.”
“I swore a vow-”
“Are you willing to die for it? You’re not strong enough to face them with waterbending-”
“Neither are you.”
He slid off his horse and moved to face Daenerys. The river roiled; Daenerys’ hands shimmered with white-hot lightning. Rhaenys begged, “Please, we’re family,” and Sansa wasn’t sure if she was speaking to Jon or Daenerys.
Sansa moved the horse’s reins slightly, and Daenerys unleashed the lightning. But she didn’t point it at Jon- she flicked her hands in Sansa’s direction, instead. Facing the white light, Sansa felt like she was looking into the sun and going blind. I’m about to die, she realized, somehow horribly calm. She could feel the heat approaching-
But it never reached her.
Jon moved. Not across the river to his family, but toward her, placing his body between Sansa and the lightning. The bolt hit him square in the chest, and he fell to the forest floor.
Rhaenys screamed, while Daenerys cursed about a stupid boy, but Sansa was silent. She still felt that strange sense of serenity. She was aware of everything- Jon’s spooked horse, running into the forest; Rhaenys weeping; the wind in the trees; Daenerys stepping closer; the slight acrid smell of Jon’s singed clothes; the river, running in rhythm with her own heartbeat.
“Now, Lady Stark,” Daenerys was saying, “I hope you won’t try and make this difficult. We both know you won’t win.”
Sansa heard an echo of her past self, that first night she discovered Jon trying to waterbend: Anger can be useful sometimes, especially in the heat of battle.
Daenerys send a plume of fire in her direction- she wasn’t trying to kill her, Sansa realized, only hurt and subdue. Thankfully, she was prepared for this, after weeks of training with Jon and growing used to his aggressive style of bending. She was able to dodge the worst of the flame, and it only grazed her arm.
Still, she decided to take advantage of the wound. She let her eyes fill with tears and adopted the countenance of the trembling, terrified little girl that Daenerys believed her to be . It wasn’t hard- she hurt, and she really was terrified. “Please,” she said, “I’ll come with you, just please stop firebending.”
She dismounted her horse, fell to her knees, raised her hands in surrender. “The sensible decision,” Daenerys said triumphantly. She moved to cross the river, eager to claim the glory of capturing the next-in-line to the northern throne.
“Wait, Dany, it’s a trap,” Rhaenys suddenly said, having ceased her crying long enough to realize what Sansa was doing.
But it was too late. Daenerys had already stepped into the water.
Her victorious smile vanished, and her violet eyes went wide as the current changed around her. Sansa knew what she must be feeling- sudden panic as the earth under her feet disappeared, and river pulled her under. The current swelled and swept her away, batting her back and forth like a cat toying with a mouse. Within a moment, she was downstream, and in another, she was out of sight.
Rhaenys, still seated on her horse, didn’t spare a second glance at Daenerys. She only had eyes for Jon’s defeated form. Sansa had already run to Jon’s side. She struggled to lift him, before turning to Rhaenys and asking, “Are you going to help me, or are you just going to sit there?”
The Targaryen princess slid off her horse and tentatively made her away to the other side of the river. Neither she or Sansa was very strong, but between the two of them, they managed to haul Jon onto Sansa’s horse. Sansa quickly lashed him to the saddle with rope, then used a nearby rock to boost herself onto the saddle.
“Where are you taking him?” Rhaenys asked. A single tear glimmered in the half-light as it slid down her cheek.
“Away from here.”
“You can’t save him. He took a lightning bolt to the heart. Not even a red witch can heal that.”
Sansa didn’t reply; she was already gone.
Sansa glanced over her shoulder every half-mile, expecting to see a host of Targaryen forces following her, or a dragon soaring overhead, but it seemed that Jon was right: Rhaenys really wasn’t all that bad.
She rode east until she reached the edge of the forest, and the horse was half-dead beneath her. The Neck was an easy place to become lost in, and Sansa was grateful for the thick mist which surrounded them on all sides. She was as confident as she could be that the Targaryens wouldn’t discover them, at least for the time being. She set out to find a place to take shelter for night. She was lucky to come across an empty cave, not too far away- it was filled with cobwebs, and was so small that she couldn’t fully stand up in it, but at least it was secluded.
She tied the horse to a nearby tree, whispered her thanks and gave it extra provisions for its labor. Then she commenced to untie Jon and drag him from where he was slumped in the saddle. It wasn’t a task accomplished gracefully- he fell face-first in the mud, and groaned upon the impact. But Sansa chose to interpret that as a good thing- if he was complaining, he was still alive.
Sansa pulled Jon inside the cave, rolled him onto his back, and tore open his shirt. The skin above his heart was burnt and blistered a livid red . His breathing was shallow, his pulse listless. Sansa remembered Rhaenys’ earlier warning, and feared the Targaryens wouldn’t need to come find them and finish them off.
She took the necklace out from under her shirt and slipped it over her head. It was a blue crystal vial, with a stopper tightly screwed to the top. She remembered the day her father had given it to her.
He’d gone to treat with the Free Folk, and had promised to bring them all presents from beyond the Wall: a fine set of goblets carved from mammoth tusk for Mother; a yew longbow for Robb; a dagger with strange symbols carved on the hilt for Arya; a flute for Bran; and a pair of snowshoes for Rickon. They’d all received their gifts first. Sansa had hovered in the corner of the room, her anticipation slowly turning to anxiety as her father continued to ignore her.
At last, he turned to her. “I had the most trouble finding something for you,” he said. “They don’t have much time for fine things like dolls or embroidery beyond the Wall.”
“It’s fine. I don’t need anything.” And she hadn’t. But she did want something.
“No, I have a gift for you,” her father reassured her. He pulled the necklace out from his saddlebag, and placed it in her hands. Sansa tried to force a smile. She wasn’t as good at pretending, back then. But her father seemed to sense her disappointment- the pendant was small, and ugly.
“But it’s special,” he said. “It’s filled with water from an ancient godswood. It has special properties. It can heal the most previous of wounds. It’s very rare, and very precious, so only use it in the most dire of circumstances. All right, Sansa?”
She’d nodded, and thanked him. Now Sansa wondered if her father would approve of using the water for this purpose, to heal a Targaryen bastard. But it didn’t matter what he might think- she judged this to be the most dire of circumstances, and that was all that mattered. She gathered the water in her hands, and gently lowered it to the burn on Jon’s chest.
Sansa concentrated, trying to remember everything Lysa had taught her during their lessons on healing. The water glowed and illuminated the entire cave, pulsing in time with Jon’s stuttering heartbeat.
Then, after a moment, the water dissipated. Sansa held her breath, waiting to see the result of her attempt. She exhaled when she felt Jon’s pulse become stronger, and saw his pallor was less deathly. Even the burn on his chest didn’t look so raw anymore.
She finally had time to feel the emotions of the day, and they all hit her at once like an avalanche, until she was left only numb and cold and utterly exhausted. Sansa settled against the damp, rough walls of the cave. Usually at this time of night, Jon would have lit a fire, using his bending or later on, some particular stones. She didn’t know how to light one herself, she realized, and she was too tired to try. So she simply pulled her knees to her chest and let herself sleep.
The first thing Jon said when he woke was, “What happened? Where are we? How long was I asleep?”
Sansa glanced up at him, then returned her attention to the paltry collection of herbs and vegetables she’d managed to gather, as well as the fish she’d caught. She’d had no trouble pulling them from a nearby pond with waterbending, but descaling and deboning was an entirely other matter. “You slept almost two days. It’s evening, now. I’m not sure where we are, precisely. Northeast. Close to Greywater Watch.”
“What about Rhae? And Dany?”
She smothered the spark of irritation she felt at the concern in his voice. They were his family, she reminded herself. Even if they had tried to kill him. “Rhaenys helped us escape. As for your aunt-” Sansa coughed delicately. “I took care of your aunt. If you’re feeling up to it, could you light a fire, please?”
“You took care of her? Sansa, what is that supposed to mean?”
“Jon, please, the fire.”
“Not until you tell me what happened!” For someone who had very nearly perished two days prior, Jon was remarkably indignant.
“Fine,” Sansa sighed. “You know that move you used on me, not too long ago? Where you used the current to pull me into the river?”
“Yes. What about it?”
“Well, I- you know, I tried it.”
Sansa nodded. Jon stared at her. She’d never had someone stare at her like that before- astounded, a little joyful, and a little frightened, and something else as well. Something she couldn’t name. Then he burst out laughing, before clutching at his chest in pain. “I would give anything to have seen the look on her face.”
“It was pure luck. I never would have won a straight fight, but she was too sure of herself. She underestimated me, that’s all.”
“I bet she did,” Jon said. “Gods, I can’t believe you took down Daenerys.”
“Well, you don’t need to sound so surprised,” Sansa huffed. “Now, the fire, if you would?”
Jon obliged. Sansa slid the fish on a spit roast, and hovered a disc of water above the flames. “I see you’re firebending again,” she remarked.
“Just this once.” Then, after a beat, he asked, “How am I alive?”
“I healed you.”
“Sansa, she hit me in the chest with lightning. I felt my heart stop for a moment. Even a red witch can’t cure that.”
“Your sister said the same thing.” Sansa fished her now-empty necklace out from under her shirt. “Recognize this?”
“Yes. You never take it off.”
“I hadn’t realized you’d noticed. Well, it was full of water from beyond the Wall, with special properties. It could heal practically anything.”
“That’s helpful to have.”
“Well, it was helpful . But there’s none left now.”
“You used it all on me?” Jon’s voice was very soft and very solemn.
“Thank you, Sansa. You saved my life.”
“You saved mine,” she reminded him. “We’re even now. That’s all.”
The water began to boil, and Sansa moved it into her skein. She dropped in the herbs, and passed the tea to Jon. “Drink this. It’ll help with your recovery.”
He attempted to sit up, and groaned in pain. “Don’t strain yourself!” Sansa scolded him. “I just told you, I don’t have any healing water left. You’ll have to keep yourself from being killed next time around.”
Jon barely had enough strength to sit up by himself, let alone ride on horseback. Sansa estimated that they were only a day or two’s ride from Greywater Watch, but first they would have to wait in the cavern until Jon recovered.
Sansa could think of worse ways to spend a few days. In fact, whenever she contemplated their arrival at Greywater Watch, and then their imminent separation, she felt oddly reluctant to go. So she didn’t mind waiting. The only complication was the matter of the bedrolls.
When Jon’s horse had run off during the clash at the river, it had taken all his possessions in his saddlebag with it. Sansa had no doubt that the horse had been discovered by some northern farmer, or drafted into service with the nearby Targaryen army at this point, and that she and Jon would never see it again. But in the mean time, that left them with only one bedroll. This hadn’t been any trouble when Jon was asleep- of course Sansa had let him rest on it. But now that he was awake, he was annoyingly chivalrous about the whole thing. “You should use it,” he insisted. “It’s raining, and it’s cold out, and you deserve it.”
“You’re a lady, you can’t sleep on the ground!”
“And you’re injured. You need it more.”
Jon shifted off of the bedroll and attempted to move it over toward Sansa’s side of the cavern. He was still so weak that it was easy for her to stop him. She pinned the fabric to the ground with one hand, then wrapped her fingers around Jon’s wrist with the other. “If you’re going to be so stubborn, we can just share the damn thing,” she said.
She felt Jon’s pulse leap. “Are you sure?”
“Why not?” She shrugged nonchalantly, but then moved her hand down to twine her fingers with his.
“Well… because you’re a princess. And a northerner. And I’m a Targaryen bastard. And because we’re not even married.”
“But do you want to?”
“Yes, Sansa,” he said, voice ragged. “Of course I want to, but-”
She kissed him. And despite all his reasons why they shouldn’t, he kissed her back. There was no hesitation in it, and Sansa wondered how long he had wanted this. As long as she had? But even she didn’t know when the desire had first started- during the time she spent caring for him, or those all those nights practicing in the river, or the time he saved her from the soldiers, or even that first night on the mountain, so long ago.
They moved down to the bedroll. Sansa pulled off Jon’s shirt. She wanted to touch every part of him, because no one else had skin that was so soft, so warm- but she made sure to avoid the still-healing scar over his heart. He loosened the ties of his borrowed shirt, licked desperately at her neck, her collarbone. They lay down, side by side.
“We can’t… we can’t do everything,” he whispered.
“I know how to make moon tea,” she assured him, before leaning in to kiss him again.
He indulged before pulling away again. “The risk is too much. There’s a war on…”
“I hadn’t forgotten.”
“And even if there wasn’t, I won’t father a bastard.”
It was hard for Sansa to agree, when she’d seen tansy growing in the woods, and his hands were on her, and he was looking at her the way a man dying of thirst gazed at the ocean. She knew she could likely convince him to change his mind- but she wouldn’t, for he’d made his choice, and she’d abide by it. She’d rather have a little than none of him. So she slipped a hand into his breeches, made him gasp and beg and say her name until he lay boneless on the bedroll, just as defeated by her hand as he’d been by a bolt of lightning.
Then he shifted her, carefully, so that she took his place, lying down on her back. He slipped the breeches she loathed down her hips, carefully, gently.
When she was younger, she’d imagined her bedding countless times. That was simply part of being a girl, the knowledge that a bedding was an inevitability, and the hope that her husband would at least be kind. Those fantasies always focused on an elaborate wedding to a good northern son, and she was always more concerned with the cut and color of the dress she might wear than with the details of what actually occurred during a bedding. But now Sansa discovered that the details were all that mattered. This might not be anything close to what she had envisioned; this was a thin blanket spread over the uneven ground, the cold digging into her spine and her hips, a cavern in the woods, a Targaryen bastard’s mouth on her. It was better than she could have imagined, in all her naïveté.
It was like she was made of water, and Jon knew precisely which ways to bend her. Her blood, like magma in her veins, felt so good and hot and golden that she thought it might start glowing through her skin. Between her legs was a tumultuous ocean, the waves building every moment, until finally they reached the shore with a tremendous crash.
As she clutched at Jon’s curls and pressed her skin to his lips, his tongue, and implored him for more until she couldn’t form the words, there was a moment- just a moment- when outside the cave, the rain stopped.
They let the horse go free. There was no use putting the poor beast through the trouble of trying to navigate the uneven ground of the Neck. Even Jon and Sansa themselves didn’t find it easy to make their way through the mist and morass. For once, Sansa was actually glad that she wore pants instead of skirts, for she and Jon kept sinking into the bog, and would have to stop and waterbend each other out.
“This place spooks me,” Jon said. “I can’t even see where we’re going. How do you know where the castle is?”
“I don’t,” Sansa replied. “No one does, except the Crannogmen. But don’t worry, castle will come to us.”
“That’s why Greywater Watch has never fallen?”
“Precisely. And that’s why your family’s army will have a harder time than they expect if they try to cross the Neck.”
“The dragons can just fly overhead, though.”
“The dragons can fly. The men can’t.”
Jon suddenly flinched. He grabbed Sansa’s hand, then gestured toward a dark shape, a dozen yards away. “That tree almost looks like a person.”
“It is a person.” Sansa dragged Jon forward until her suspicions were confirmed. A small man, dressed in simple greys and moss greens to blend in with his surroundings, was silently waiting for them. She rushed to embrace her father’s oldest friend. “Lord Reed, you scared us!” she laughed. “When did you realize we were coming?”
“My son dreamed it, two nights ago,” the man replied.
Sansa was accustomed to Reed’s peculiarities, but Jon looked more than a little apprehensive. She made her introductions: “Jon, this is Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch. Lord Reed, this is Jon Snow-”
“Lyanna’s boy,” Reed finished.
“You knew my mother?”
“We were great friends, once. We met when she saved me from a terrible lot of bullying squires. You look a great deal like her, you know.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“You two have been traveling together?” the strange little lord inquired.
They both nodded. “I think it would bring your mother the greatest joy to know that, Jon. And to know you’ve come north at last. She always intended that for you.”
“Really? Could you- could you tell me more about her?”
“Later,” Reed assured him. “For now, I believe you’ve come here to retrieve a certain lost item?”
“The one I left here last time,” Sansa confirmed.
Reed waved his hand, and a small wooden boat, barely big enough for two people, glided through the nearby water. “Go that way,” he told Sansa, indicating a particular direction. “You’ll find it. And the castle will be close by. Come there when you’re done. We’ve been very anxiously awaiting you.”
With that, he disappeared back into the mist. Jon and Sansa stepped into the boat, and she guided it through the water. They travelled only a handful of minutes before she murmured, “This is the place,” and stopped the craft in front of a distinctive gnarled tree with pale bleached bark. She remembered coming here so many moons ago, for one wished to hide something, the Neck was the place to do it. Though she’d contemplated it, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to destroy the sword, just as she hadn’t been able to kill Jon. So instead she’d dropped it into the depths of the fen.
Now she concentrated on summoning the sword up to the surface. Jon leaned over the edge of the boat to peer into the water, watching as a pale shape emerged. Then he reached into the water and grasped the sword. He used his waterbending to wash the moss and filth from the unrusted metal, then dragged his hand along the blade in a familiar loving gesture. The sword lit with bright flame, and his smiling face was illuminated gold.
It reminded Sansa of the night they first met, of the false identities they’d used, and the way Jon had eventually revealed who he really was. But you trust him now, she told herself. You know him completely, he’s saved your life. He changed. Still, she leaned away from the fire.
“The day my father gave me this was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “I trained twice as hard, twice as long, just so I could be better than Aegon, so that I could be the best at something. And finally I was recognized for it. I always felt like a dog, begging for scraps, until I got the sword. Then I felt like I was finally accepted. It didn’t last, of course. But I’ll never forget it.”
“Well, it’s done now,” she said. “I held up my end of the bargain. You have the sword- now I can go find my family, and you can go back to yours.”
“Sansa.” He said her name in the way she’d come to know so well in these past months: exasperated and affectionate, but slightly more affectionate than exasperated. “I don’t care about the sword right now.”
The flames abruptly went out, reinforcing his words and leaving them back in the eternal twilight of the mire and morass. “But you’re not going to stay.”
“I can’t. I’ll come back, though, when the war is done.”
“You say that now, but what if you change your mind? How can you promise that?” To her horror, Sansa began to cry.
Jon reached out and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the gentlest hands she’s ever felt. “Because I love you.”
And by all the gods, this is not how Sansa would have chosen to hear those words for the first time: her crying, and filthy from months of travel, and wearing breeches of all things, with the sword between them, sitting in a boat in the middle of the godsforsaken Neck. But despite it all, the words still felt like a lightning bolt to the heart. “I love you too,” she said. “Where will you go?”
Jon pointed to a haze of golden light in the distance, growing closer every passing moment. “For now, we’ll go back to the keep. I think it’s coming to get us.”
So they did. And, to Sansa’s astonishment, Robb and all his lords and knights and soldiers were waiting there for her. She finally got the chance to hug her brother, after years of separation. His armor was cold and sharp, and he was exclaiming, “Sansa, what happened to you? You’re so— tall, now, and… are you wearing breeches?”
While she was reuniting with Robb, his personal guard noticed the man who had come in with her, and recognized him as the infamous Targaryen bastard. So they captured him, and he let them, without a fight. And of course, the first they did was take away his sword.
“So don’t you see? You can’t kill him,” Sansa said, concluding her account of their travels north. A slightly abridged account, of course. Jon didn’t doubt that Robb Stark would have his head in an instant if he knew everything that had happened on their journey.
Jon waited for the northern king’s sentence. He was still on his knees, though no chains or blade at his throat kept him frozen in place. He simply couldn’t move- his body felt like it was under someone else’s control, though Jon didn’t understand how that was even possible.
While Robb Stark deliberated, one of the northern lords spoke up. He had pale, grave eyes that unnerved Jon, and a calm, monotone way of speaking. “Your Grace, if I may- your first instinct was correct. To leave the Targaryen alive would be to leave him a threat. As for your sister, I mean no disrespect, but we don’t know what the poor lady has been through. She might not be in her right mind.”
Sansa whirled around to face the man. “Lord Bolton?” she said. The name sounded vaguely familiar to Jon, but he wasn’t sure why. Sansa went on, “I assure you, my mind is perfectly sound. As is my memory. You’ll be happy to hear that nothing was damaged when you and Lord Frey kidnapped me and sold me to the Lannisters.”
So that’s where Jon had heard the name before. Bolton’s face blanched a ghostly white, while a host of northern lords and soldiers turned on him, and Robb Stark snarled, “It’s his fault that the Lannisters got their hands on you?”
Bolton was no match for a hall full of men still loyal to the Stark name, and he seemed to understand this, for he surrendered without a fight. There was still some chaos as he was hauled away, but Sansa didn’t watch and gloat over his downfall; instead, she turned to Jon and whispered, “What are they doing to you?”
“This is going to sound insane but I can’t seem to move,” Jon explained.
Sansa’s jaw dropped, and she said cryptically, “Arya must have learned the old ways after all.” But there wasn’t time to explain this, for her brother was back on his throne and ready to deliver his sentence.
“You’re right, Sansa. This man did you a great service, and we shouldn’t reward him with murder. But he’s also the son of our kingdom’s greatest enemy. We can’t let him go either.”
The soldiers closed in around Jon, ready to bring him to a cell alongside Bolton, but Sansa cried out, “No!” She summoned water from a nearby flagon, and fashioned it into a circle which surrounded her and Jon. Whenever one of Robb’s men would take a step closer, the water would rise up like a serpent ready to strike.
“You couldn’t do that before,” Robb said faintly. Suddenly, he was no longer a stern king dispensing justice; he was someone not much older than Jon, a brother speaking to his little sister.
“I’ve changed,” Sansa said.
“I see that. But Sansa, be reasonable. We’ve bloodbended him. You know what that means. You know why we can’t release him now.”
Bloodbending. Jon had heard the term once before, when Rhaenys and Aegon were arguing about whether firebending was always more powerful than waterbending. Aegon had taken the traditional Targaryen stance. “Of course firebending is more powerful. That’s why we’re winning the war.”
Rhaenys was more of a contrarian. “What about bloodbending? If someone controlled the blood in your veins, they could prevent your arms from moving. Then you couldn’t bend. You’d be defenseless.”
“Everyone knows that’s just a myth,” Aegon had scoffed. “The northerners are more likely to bring grumpkins and snarks out onto the battlefield.”
Now Jon realized that Rhaenys had, as always, been right. His body was not his own; his blood had rebelled against him from the inside. He was lucky that Robb Stark had decided to spare his life; for if the king had come to the opposite conclusion, there was nothing Jon could have done to stop him. Nothing at all.
His mother had always wanted to bring him north, but somehow Jon doubted this was what she’d had in mind: a small, dank cell in the depths of Greywater Watch, with only the rats and Roose Bolton for company.
So this was where he’d spend the rest of the war. Jon contemplated escape- he knew how to summon fire with his breath alone, he could blast the bars off of his cell. But even if he did do that, he was still surrounded by bloodbenders, with his hands bound behind his back, trapped in a castle which was designed to disorient trespassers. He was bound to be caught again, and Robb Stark might not be so lenient a second time.
“So you’re the one who freed the Stark girl?”
The question startled Jon- the last time he’d glanced into Roose Bolton’s cell, the man had been slumped over, unconscious. It had looked like he’d been roughed up before being thrown in the cell. But now the man was apparently awake, and feeling talkative.
Jon didn’t answer. All he knew about Bolton was that he was a liar, a coward, and a traitor. He didn’t care to know more. But the man was unbothered by the lack of response. He went on. “I wonder why you did it. Why you would forsake your king, your family. No woman is that beautiful.”
“And I suppose your reasons for betrayal were better,” Jon retorted. “A chest of gold is far more noble.”
“Oh, it isn’t riches or honor. It’s about survival. When Tywin Lannister approached me for an alliance, I thought I was picking the winning side. Send a few ravens, trade a few military secrets, steal a princess, and my house was guaranteed to live through the way, when all the other northerners would perish. I was wrong, though.”
“Why do you say that?”
The other lord scoffed. “Of course they locked me up here with an idiot. Isn’t it obvious?”
“Bloodbending,” Jon said. Much as he hated to admit it, he’d come to the same conclusion as Bolton. Ordinary soldiers, the finest of firebenders, the royal family, even dragons didn’t stand a chance against the new trick up the northerners’ sleeves.
“Robb Stark has gathered the last of his forces here for a reason. A final stand, in the North’s best stronghold, the battlefield where they have the best advantage. My ravens informed your family of his location; now the Targaryen army and dragons march north, thinking they’re leading an invasion, when really they’re walking into an ambush. They have no idea what awaits them. It’ll be a slaughter.”
So Daenerys was right after all, Jon thought. The war would be over soon- she just wouldn’t be the victor.
He knew she would never give up. Dany, Viserys, and maybe even his father, they’d rather fight to the death than admit defeat and abandon the conquest. But Aegon, Rhaenys, and Elia might listen to reason, if only Jon could reach them before the battle began. Given the chance, he was certain he could convince them to surrender.
“It may not seem like it, but this is probably the best place you could be right now, bastard,” Bolton said. “I’m sure your father won’t pay ransom for you, but there are worse places to wait out the war. At least you’ll probably survive what’s to come- that’s more than I can say. Robb Stark will behead me in the morning. And it’s more than any of your kin can say. He’s sure to kill them, if they face him in the field.”
Jon knew he shouldn’t listen to the man, but he couldn’t help picturing it. Robb Stark, avenging the murder of his father and of thousands of other northerners- and who could blame him? Using bloodbending to force the Targaryens to their knees, and proclaiming they were worthy of death. The rest of his family wouldn’t have Sansa to save them, the way Jon had.
It was up to him. And he was locked in a dungeon.
Now Bolton was asking, “Was it worth it? Rescuing the girl? I hope she provided you with some fond memories to contemplate while you’re locked up-”
But he didn’t finish his sentence. Jon watched as the northern lord choked, then suddenly slammed his head against the bars of his cells. He then fell to the floor, blood flowing from a gash on his brow. If Jon had seen it the day before, he would have called it a bizarre act of self-violence. But now he recognized it as bloodbending. He braced himself, expecting whoever had attacked Bolton to turn on him next.
The dungeon filled with light. Someone stepped around the corner, holding a lantern. It was nearly blinding, compared to the earlier darkness. Jon struggled against his constraints, and the voice of the stranger called out, in an echo of that first night at the river, “It’ll never work.”
Jon’s eyes adjusted to the new brightness, and he saw that it really was her. She’d washed, combed her hair, changed into a proper lady’s dress, and while she’d always been beautiful, now she looked like royalty again. Jon couldn’t believe she’d ever let him touch her.
Sansa took out a ring of keys from among her skirts, and began to try and see which one would unlock his cell. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner,” she said. “Robb wanted to talk for hours. And then he insisted on giving me a lesson about bloodbending. Though I must admit” -she glanced over at Roose, and the puddle of blood spreading under his head, “-that part was useful.”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Jon said as she finally found the proper key. The cell door creaked open, and he stumbled out into the narrow passageway.
“Did you really think I was going to let you rot here?”
“But what about your brother? Won’t he be angry?”
“Oh, furious,” Sansa said. “But he’ll forgive me, eventually. He doesn’t really know me anymore- he’ll never expect this, me going against his orders. He still thinks I’m just this… helpless little girl. Then again, I don’t really know him, either, now that he’s king.”
She untied Jon’s hands, then immediately filled them with a saddlebag, a bedroll, and his Valyrian steel sword. Jon immediately grasped it by the hilt, and spun it in his hand, a favorite old trick of his. He was glad his hands hadn’t forgotten the motions, after all this time. He had a feeling he would need to use the sword again soon.
“So you’re firebending again?” Sansa asked him.
Jon nodded. “It’s still a part of me. Maybe I can start using it for good.”
“You’ll need to move quickly,” Sansa said. “Lord Reed will help you- he’s waiting outside with a boat. He’ll take you wherever you want to.”
“To my family,” Jon said. “They’re going to attack the Neck, and they’re going to be defeated. But maybe I can persuade them to end the war without annihilating themselves.”
He waited for Sansa to tell him not to be foolish, to try and save himself. But instead she gave him a look of approval, and hugged him fiercely. He wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his nose in her hair, trying to memorize the scent and shape of her. “Don’t make me regret this,” she whispered to him.
“Sansa, I’ll come back. As soon as the war is over.”
“As soon as the war is over,” she repeated, so that it became a kind of oath between them.
Jon knew he had to let her go. The longer he stayed, the harder it would be to leave. Lord Reed was waiting, and perhaps he would tell Jon about his mother as they made their way through the land of all things lost. And beyond that, he had a family to save, and a war to end. “Thank you, Sansa. Goodbye,” he said. He strapped the sword to his back, threw the saddlebag over his shoulder.
“Wait,” she said, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him close again. “You’re not going to leave without kissing me one last time?”
So he did kiss her, one last time. And then he left without looking back.