Actions

Work Header

A Knight's Watch

Chapter Text

EDDARD

Some men treated honor and vows as mere words. That was not his way. Nor was it Jon's.

“Please father!” 

“No, I’m sorry Jon but I forbid it.” He sighed to speak the words.

Much and more had been denied Jon throughout his life and as much as it bothered Ned to deny the boy yet again, he couldn’t allow this to pass.

It wouldn’t be fair.

“It’s not fair!” Jon shouted, his mood swinging to a rarely shown rage.

So much like me, he thought, Benjen said so again at the feast.

“No one would ever question that you are the boy’s father Ned.” Benjen had whispered to him after the feast. “No one.”

The Great Keep had been silent and mostly empty after welcoming Robert and the royal family to Winterfell last night. The silence had been as comforting then as it was now as Ned did not want this conversation to be heard by the wrong ears. Even in his own solar they had to be cautious so Ned had given orders to the household that he and Jon were not to be bothered. Not even Maester Luwin, who had helped come up with this plan in the first place, was there.

He also didn’t want an audience for what he was about to ask Jon as it shamed him a bit. It was an unbecoming and unfair task to put to Jon when the boy only ever strived to be as honorable as possible.

If only the honorable path was always so clear.

“Father, if I can’t go south with you, and if you say that Lady Stark won’t have me in Winterfell, where else can I go but the Wall? Uncle Benjen says I would serve well there…”

“He also says that you are too young to know what such a choice means. And I’m inclined to believe that he is right.” Ned reached for his son but the boy shrugged away from his touch.

He sighed.

“And you are wrong about so much else.”

“You mean I can stay at Winterfell?” Jon asked, eyes almost hopeful.

“No.” Eddard replied. “I’m sorry, but no. You are my blood Jon, not Catelyn’s. I cannot ask her to care for you. It would be an unfair thing to do to her.”

The lad looked ready to say something to that but he was cut off by Ned’s raised hand.

“You are still meant to go to the Wall though. You will leave with Benjen and…”

“I can take the black?”

“Do not interrupt me.” He said sternly. “You were raised better than that.”

It was easy to forget Jon was almost a man grown when he still acted like such a boy at times. Such discourtesy on the journey Ned and others had planned for him couldn’t be allowed. Jon was as well treated here in Winterfell as he could make it but the rest of the realm was not so kind to bastards. A lack of manners to the wrong person could go very badly for him.

It could get him killed.  

“I am sorry father.”

“You must do more than be sorry. You must remember your lessons Jon. I still forbid you to take the black. Instead, you will be representing me in your travels… and those of Tyrion Lannister’s.”

Jon’s face twisted in shock and confusion.

“He has a mind to travel onwards to the Wall while the rest of his… family… go south. As Warden of the North, I’ve promised him an escort for his journeys through it. You will be that escort Jon. See him safely to the Wall and back again to Winterfell.” He paused, deciding to delay the truth a bit longer. “Then you will seek me in the capital.”

“But you said I wouldn’t be welcome at court.”

“No, the Lannisters might take offense to my bastard at court but if all goes as I hope, you won’t need to be worry about that. You’ll be off somewhere else soon enough. To squire for some lord or his son, far away from King’s Landing.”

“Squire?” Jon’s face lit up for a moment, his head probably filling for a moment with boyhood tales of knights and gallantry about such men as Prince Aemon the Dragonknight and Serwyn the Mirror Shield, tales that Ned knew Bran and Sansa would often be enraptured by as well.

Just as quickly his face fell though.

“Who would want me? I’m too old to squire and… a bastard besides…”

“Some of the finest knights who have ever lived started off little better.” Ned almost smiled to say so, what came next was no happy matter.  “I’ve been named Hand of the King Jon, which means I speak with the King’s voice and act in his stead when needed, an honor some might say. In truth, I didn’t want it when Robert offered to me. I don’t want it still, the tasks life sets out for us are often surprising and difficult, challenging us in ways we never thought to prepare for.”

He stared carefully into Jon’s eyes, ones so much like his own and he felt a smile pull at his mouth when Jon nodded in understanding.

“If Robert is going to foist this hardship upon me, I will use it to do some good for my blood. I believe it is easily within my power now to find a good knight who can take you as a squire.”

Jon was hanging on his every word, his eyes glimmering in gratitude and it made Ned feel like a fraud. For the words weren’t his. In truth, the idea had come from Maester Luwin’s counseling the night before.

“If you must go south to investigate Jon Arryn’s murder, you must not do so openly or it could lead to your own end, my lord. It may be best if you are seen to have an ulterior motive for accepting the position, something to busy whisperers about.” Luwin had pulled on his chain as he always did when deep in thought before continuing. “Finding a knight to take on your bastard son would be an ideal rumor. Your reputation for being an honorable man, well-earned as it is, will make such an act believable. A welcome distraction and a cloak for your true intentions.”

“Jon should not be protecting me.” He’d said at the time.

I should be protecting him.

I must protect all my family.

‘Promise me, Ned.’

“You think I could be a knight?” Jon’s face was still filled with doubt but a cautious hope shone through as well.

“I do.” Ned reached for the boy again, this time being permitted to grasp his shoulders and gaze down into Jon’s face, which bore the same long features as his own. His was a Stark face, none could deny that. “I think you could make a fine knight Jon. I’ll help you all I can but truly, this is a chance for you to make a life for yourself. Knights can even make their own names you know…

“I wouldn’t have to be a Snow? I could…” Jon’s eyes widened some at the thought. “But who would I serve? Where would I…”

“Those are questions for me to answer when you arrive in King’s Landing.” He patted the boy’s shoulders. “I want this to be a new start for you Jon.  I want you to have a life where you’re not held to account for my… sins.”

For my dishonor.

The thought made him realize he could wait no longer.

“Jon, there’s more.” He released his hold then and backed away some. “I must command something of you and you must tell me now if you can do it. If you cannot, I must act quickly.”

“Anything father, you know that.” Jon spoke so earnestly that it made Ned feel all the worse to put this on him.

“The Lannister.” He almost spat the name. “Ride with him. Protect him as long as he is in our lands. Show him all the courtesy and respect he is due.”

“Of course.”

“And watch him.” Ned said quietly, as if the gods should not hear the dishonorable task he set before the boy. “Listen to what he says. Know to whom he speaks. Learn why it is he is lingering when the others have left.”

The meaning of what Ned was asking him slowly dawned on the youth.

“I am to spy on him?”

When he nodded, Jon’s face darkened in anger again.

“Is it because bastards are the seed of sin? I’m expected to be good at doing such a foul thing? Is that why you can’t ask Uncle Benjen…”

“Benjen is a man of the Night’s Watch, and as such he takes no part in the affairs of the realm.” He sighed. “To do such a thing could mean his head.”

I sent him there to save his head.

“I’m sorry Jon. It must be you.” He continued. “For reasons I can’t say, we must be wary now. Our family may have enemies in the realm…”

“The Lannisters?”

“Perhaps.” He could not risk telling the boy more, in case he was discovered. If Jon was ignorant of the truth, Ned had hope that he would not be hurt for knowing nothing. “Can you do this Jon? If you cannot, tell me so now. I will not think less of you.”

Jon waivered some at that. His eyes began drifting over to where Ice lay scabbarded above the hearth. Eddard had often cleaned the blade in front of Robb and Jon, espousing the importance of honor even in the darkest of times.

As father once did for Brandon, Benjen and I.

Lyanna always carefully listening as well.

“Doing this will help keep my- the others, safe?” Jon asked.

“I would not ask if it wasn’t so.”

Jon straightened then, like a guardsman ready for inspection.

“Then I will do as you as you command of me Lord Stark.” He said before adding, softly. “Father.”

Ned fought the urge to embrace him then. He was asking the boy to act a man and he could not rightfully ask so much and still treat him like the boy he’d watched grow up in Winterfell. Instead, Ned offered his hand, thinking of the little babe he had brought to his home so many years ago and shaking the hand of the man who was about to leave it.

On a path not of his choosing.

“It would be a monstrous crime, Ned.” Benjen had said earlier that morning, in this very room. “To allow him to make such a choice when he knows nothing-”

“It’s his life Benjen. Why can’t the Night’s Watch shelter him as it does you?”

“Because he’s never been allowed a chance to truly live. I lived a fine enough life and eventually, I made my own choice to take the black and offer myself to the Watch. Jon probably hasn’t had a choice at anything in his short life.” Benjen’s good nature disappeared then. “You chose this path for him.”

“Should I have abandoned him?” Ned had slammed his fist down onto the table, spilling the pitcher there. “Abandoned him to the same fate as his mother? Could you have done so?”

“I love him too Ned. Not as much as you but the love is there.” Benjen had softened some at his questions. “And I’m asking you, as his father, forbid him this. Let him know the world and… and its secrets. Let him know that much before he makes such a choice. Be his father in this.”

As Ned gazed into Jon’s eyes, eyes he found so familiar, he remembered his reply to his brother.

“I will always be Jon’s father.”

“I knew I could depend on you.” Ned clasped another hand over top of the boy’s, holding it firmly. “You must be careful. Trust only those who deserve it. Stay true to yourself and remember all you’ve learned here. Most of all, stay safe. I can rest easy so long as you promise to do that.”

His heart willed all that to be so yet he needed more. Ned needed his son’s oath.

“Promise me, Jon.”

 

JON

 

 

The wilderness stretched before him in a never-ending landscape of dark forests and rolling hills. It was as if the whole of the world lay ahead of him, his eyes roaming across mysterious lands that would take him weeks to ride through.

And Jon wanted to do so very badly. To put on a black cloak and ride forth into that wild abyss. To know what lay beyond the end of the world. Let other men make their names in battle or songs, Jon could make his in this land.

He could make it his land.

“One last look lad?”

The man’s voice startled him. It shouldn’t have, as Jon had grown quite used to it over the weeks they’d spent together. He was even more accustomed to the awkward gait the dwarf walked with and the lopsided smile he offered as he approached from the winch lift.

“Great minds think alike.” Tyrion’s crooked grin widened even more as he joined Jon in staring out at the great expanse before them. “I’ll live my whole life and probably never see anything quite as beautiful as the view from atop this miserable chunk of ice.”

Jon thought the Lannister right on that scoreFrom where they stood atop the Wall, the view had often enticed him into riding off into that mysterious unknown.

Uncle Benjen is somewhere out there, right now, he thought, serving in this noble calling.

Not like me.

“I saw it first with my uncle, before he left.” Jon said, the memory warming him against the wind. “I called it beautiful then too.”

“As a man who has actually bedded a wench or three, the Wall probably appreciates my praise more.” Tyrion shivered, untying a skin of wine from about his waist.

Uncorking it and drinking deeply, he then offered it up to Jon before speaking again.

“Your friends in the hall asked after you. It appears you’ve gained quite the following here. You’ll be missed.”

“They’ll miss my help in truth.”

The small group of Night’s Watch recruits he’d befriended during his weeks at Castle Black had rarely treated him differently for being a bastard, and the change had been nice. Grenn and Pyp were lowborn themselves and had arrived at the castle the same time their own party had. Despite his words to the Imp, Jon did appreciate their asking after him. He had grown fond of their company too, finding them good lads to pass the time with.

Their master-at-arms was a different story.

The first words Ser Alliser Thorne had spat at him set the tone for their dealings since.

“Is the Wall now a place for bastards to holiday? We are in worse shape than I thought.”

The knight was a cruel man who Jon soon realized would rather see his trainees bloodied than learn anything of value about arms. To his shame, at first he’d thought Grenn, Pyp and Toad and the others as being quite pathetic. None of them worthy of serving in the Watch beside his uncle Benjen as far as Jon had been concerned.

That had been his jealousy speaking, his thoughts unworthy of their sacrifice. For these boys were able to serve and he was forbidden to do so which and it bothered him intensely.

What bothered him even more though was Thorne’s cruelty and harshness towards them.  Knights were meant to protect those who could not protect themselves. Thorne appeared to enjoy beating on his trainees though. Jon began to pity the poor recruits almost as much as he disliked the knight.

It had been Tyrion who suggested he help them.

“I see your face as they train. You take no more pleasure in seeing that sunken cunt beat those boys than I do.” Tyrion had said while watching Thorne mistreat the recruits one day. “So do something about it.”

“It’s not my place to tell Ser Alliser how to train…”

“Perish the thought, him being a knight and you a bastard. He’d take suggestions from you as well as he would from some spoiled dwarf.” Tyrion had chuckled. “What I meant, was rather than telling him how to train those boys, show them yourself how to survive his training.”

It had been a fine idea. Between their meals and watches, Jon gave each of his friends lessons at-arms, just as Ser Rodrick had done for him and Robb as boys. It would never make them proper warriors, but the tips and tricks he showed them could spare them some of the worst Thorne had to offer.

Now on the Wall, he swelled with a queer pride as he told Tyrion how well they’d been doing.

“They’ll make fine men of the Watch one day.” He offered. “Maybe they’ll even become skilled enough to beat a knight.”

Tyrion chuckled some.

“See what a bastard and dwarf can do together? Why, I believe this partnership could see to the building of a second Wall!” Tyrion pointed south.

“Men on one side, women on the other. Of course, the good men of the Maiden’s Watch…” Tyrion pointed at the two of them. “Their sworn duty would be to keep the fairer ones safe. And warm!”

Jon’s laughter echoed down the ice, the wind carrying it far and away.

The Lannister was good company.

The thought saddened Jon even more to think on, so instead of speaking he drank more of the wine to hide his guilt. How Tyrion found southron wine here at the Wall was beyond him, or how a man as short as the lordling could drink so quickly.

“This is what I’ve been trying to tell you boy. You’re the bastard of a lord. Your very existence is awkward for nobles so why make it easy for them? Living life as a nail up the arse of men like Ser Alliser could be a fine life indeed. Of course, there are finer men than him to torment back south.” He jerked his thumb back the other away. “I for one am glad you won’t be taking the black. You do your father wrong, blaming him for sparing you this. I’ve known many knights and I think you’d make a fine one. A somber one for sure, but truer than most.”

Tyrion’s kind words rattled him. For the Lannister had been good to Jon and even patient when Jon acted too much like a boy. He liked how Tyrion spoke freely with him, without a care for appearances. He’d even been there to comfort Jon when news came of Bran waking.

He said I’d be true.

But I’m not true, he cursed, oh father, why did you ask this of me?

“My lord… you speak too kindly. I only hope to become a man- an honorable man one day. Mayhaps knight but…”

“But you feel guilty because you’re to be spying on me?” Tyrion turned his skin upside down and frowned at the lack of wine spilling out.

Jon’s mouth was frozen open and not due to the cold.

His father’ words came back to him.

“I do not trust him Jon. But I trust you to see what he does.” His father’s words in his solar had hung in the air awkwardly between them. Jon had thought to spy in such a way was dishonorable and father had agreed yet he believed it necessary to protect their family. “It is not entirely without honor, you will be an escort in truth. As you watch the Lannister so too will you guide and protect him through our lands. There is honor in that… still, I’m sorry Jon. I ask this of you because it can only be you, and I know you will not balk.”

I didn’t balk, he lamented, I was discovered.

Tyrion’s announcement had left Jon speechless but the man himself was more concerned with quenching his thirst. The dwarf tossed the empty skin aside and held out his hand for Jon’s, which Jon blankly handed over.

“My lord I’m not…”

“I swear, if you learned your skills at lying from Ned Stark, he is going to have a rough time as Hand.” Tyrion shook his head and eyed Jon with disappointment. “Jon, come now, it was an obvious ploy, clumsy even. You’re too good a lad to be a spy. Every time we spoke of why your father sent you with me, your awkwardness laid it all bare. If you laughed you’d look guilty, when you smiled, the same. It must have been hard for you to come to like me.”

His face burned with shame that he had failed so miserably at his task and Tyrion laughed.

“I take no offence. In truth, I’m flattered Lord Stark thinks me worthy to be spied upon. To be such a threat to the Warden of the North…”

“Well… I wouldn’t be too flattered… they only sent a bastard.” Jon grumbled and Tyrion laughed heartily.

“I have to ask though, being found out, does that change your plans?” Tyrion asked with curiosity, offering the wine to him. “Do you still intend to go south with me?”

He nodded, taking the drink.

“My father expects me to do so. I am meant to squire, not to be a sworn brother. And I cannot be at Winterfell so long as he’s in the south.” Jon took another drink before admitting the truth. “Lady Stark would not have me at Winterfell without him.”

“My good fortune for it.” Tyrion snatched back the skin. “I’ll be happy to share the road with you south.”

“Truly? Even after…”

“Especially after.” He grinned at Jon’s disbelief. “I enjoyed your company before. With this laid bare, I can only imagine how much your demeanor will improve. It’ll be like trading a sullen goat in for a more even-tempered donkey. You’re a good man Jon, a poor spy, but a good man.”

“As are you Tyrion Lannister.” Jon spoke without thinking, and offering his hand as if by reflex. “I’d name you a friend.”

The dwarf’s mismatched eyes widened and he stared at the hand almost shocked. To be honest, Jon was surprised he’d done so, yet to do otherwise felt wrong somehow, especially considering that the man had forgiven his dishonor.

Tyrion shook off his bewilderment and took Jon’s hand.

“And I, Jon Snow, I name you friend as well.”

The wind had whipped around them then and they retreated to the shelter of an icy parapet to continue drinking. They talked of foolish things, such as the benefits of lions versus wolves and the like.

“See, I would’ve much rather been a bastard than a dwarf. I mean, look at how well your father treats you!” Tyrion had said as he went to the edge of the Wall. The man was good and drunk, and tottered some as he began to piss off its side. “Winterfell is a rather drab place if you ask me. It’s good of Lord Stark to arrange differently for you."

“I told you, he had to do it. Lady Stark…"

“Allowed more than most ladies ever would have. You were raised within the castle walls, not begging outside of them. That’s better than most bastards get.” Tyrion laced his breeches again and tottered towards him. Bundled in furs as he was it made a funny sight to Jon and he almost laughed drunkenly.

“Giving you the honor of escorting a royal guest through his lands and arranging you to squire somewhere south… my father would have me cleaning his privy before he wasted his influence in such a way.”

“I’d rather be here, at the Wall.” Jon grumbled before he let the truth slip bitterly from his lips. “Or in Winterfell.”

“Well, we’ll be stopping there on our journey south.” Tyrion leaned against him as he drained the last of the wine. “I told you, I’d had a thought to helping your brother…”

It would be good to see the others again. Jon didn’t have a chance to properly say goodbye to Bran as they’d left before he woke up and Lady Stark had tainted the visit otherwise. Now that his brother was awake it became his heart’s desire to see Bran’s eyes open again, to see the boy smile and speak. He wanted to tell Robb of his travels too and the thought of the reunion had him looking forward to the return trip.

That night though, after Tyrion and he retired to their beds after finishing the last of the wine, Jon worried over what would happen when he returned to Winterfell. Should he tell Lady Stark or Robb that Tyrion had discovered his true reason for escorting him? Would they know to ask of it? What if father had sent word already of who Jon was to squire for?

What if Lady Stark won’t let me within the castle?

The idea made him angry. As he drifted off to sleep, he imagined riding to Winterfell one day, an armored knight, pledging his service to House Stark and serving his father and brothers in all they needed. In the wine-soaked haze of his dreams, half-formed names of what he would call himself when he would no longer have to be a Snow kept popping up.

The next morning Grenn and Pyp came to see them off.

“Keep your arm up, you’ll be a fine ranger if you remember that.” Jon reminded Grenn before turning to Pyp. “Watch your foe’s eyes, they’ll always tell you what’s coming next.”

“It’d be better for us if you stayed.” Pyp shook his head but smirked as he glanced over Jon’s shoulder. “Thorne won’t be sad to see you leave though.”

He jerked his head and Jon followed his gaze towards the frowning knight across the yard.

“I wonder if anyone has ever seen that fucker happy.” Grenn grumbled.

“Don’t worry about him. Both of you watch out for each other.” Jon shook their hands in turn. “And help those who come here as I tried to do for you.”

As he walked towards the party of riders he was to travel with, Jon turned to gaze up at the Wall again. He had to tilt his head at an awkward angle just to see the top.

I like the view from up top more.

Tyrion was upon his horse already, slumped over his saddle groaning. Jon’s head hurt some but clearly the Lannister was suffering the worst of their farewell to the Wall. Yoren of the Night’s Watch was laughing at the dwarf’s woes.

“I know a stew of roots and pig guts that would put you right back in good spirits, m’lord.”

“Oh that sounds delightful, but I'll try your Yoren stew another time perhaps.” Tyrion groaned. “I feel I’ve already got a belly full of something similar, waiting to be tasted again. Are we to be off now lad?”

Jon nodded as he climbed upon his horse and gazed again at Castle Black.

He could have lived here, been a sworn brother. Served the realm. That would have been enough for him, Jon thought.

“I hope to see this place again one day.”

“You have as little hope for your future as that?” Tyrion smiled. “Maegor’s teats, we need to find you a wench.”

Jon’s thoughts stayed on the Wall even as Tyrion continued on about the importance of him knowing a woman. He imagined it would have gone on for some time longer but soon enough the riding got the best of Tyrion and he let his own Yoren stew fly off the side of his horse.

Watching that made Jon question his future with the southrons.

What kind of life is there for me in the south?

Gazing back at the Wall.

What life could I have had there?

“Jon…Jon quick, grab a bowl.” Tyrion moaned. “I’ve got more than enough Tyrion stew to share.”

A fine life it was so far.

 

JON

 

 

“You see my good bastard squire, the trick to bedding a serving wench is always pretending she is taller than you.” Tyrion raised his mug towards the serving girl making her way about the patrons.

The inn was small but lively and Jon felt it to be the best place they had stopped on their journey.

It was full of freeriders, bowmen, traders, and women, all heading the same way to King’s Landing, just like Jon. While they all sought glory or profit from the Tourney of the Hand, he only sought his father and the next step to becoming his own man.

They were four days north of where the Kingsroad and Highroad met according to Tyrion. The dwarf seemed as eager to get to the capital as Jon.

“Oh to have city whores and good wine again! Not to say the local fare doesn’t have its own charm.” Tyrion looked at a pretty woman who was busy haggling with some hedge knights. The man could spot a whore a mile away and swore they had a scent as well. "Not the kind of hedge I want to see on a woman, personally."

“Do you miss your golden privy as well?” Yoren laughed to himself as he scratched his greasy, lopsided head.

Tyrion ignored him and grabbed Jon’s sleeve.

“You like that one? The redhead?” He breathed ale upon Jon’s face and he looked to where the dwarf’s eyes had set upon a serving girl a few tables away from them.

She was a young girl, older than him for sure but pretty enough. Her hair was more of a light red, nothing like Lady Stark’s or Sansa’s auburn, whose red-hair had more of a rust tinge to it. He thought it looked pretty enough though. What had caught his eye was the sweet smile on her face and the warmth of her eyes as she’d brought them ale.

Her dress showed less than the other women in the inn and she had smiled at him a few times as she’d passed.

“She’s no whore boy… that one you’ll have to use those famous Stark charms upon.” Tyrion continued. “Yoren, do we have any snow to throw at the girl?”

He shook Tyrion away from him and stared at the table. The situation reminded Jon of when Theon would tease Robb and him for never taking liberties with the serving girls. He would always say that they would never be men until they had, but Jon could not do that.

He would father no bastards.

“Take no offense boy, I think she likes you, that much is certain or why else has she has ignored me?” Tyrion japed before his tone suddenly changed. “Quickly now, gaze at her and let her see you looking. Make her feel like she’s the only girl in the room.”

Jon did as he was bid but staring at the girl and waiting for her to see him was just as awkward as he thought it would be. Yet as soon as he thought to stop, she caught him looking.

“Don’t look away, keep your eyes on hers.” Tyrion hissed as if he knew Jon’s first instinct was to avert his gaze. “By the gods Jon, if I had a face like yours, I’d hide it from no wench!”

The ale must have given Jon the courage to heed his friend because he did keep looking. Her eyes gazed right back at his and he was rewarded with a smile before she sheepishly bowed her head and carried some tankards away from a table.

“See! Now, to bed her you must get her to share in some wine with you…” Tyrion began to speak of bawdy things and the memory of Theon teasing him came back quickly.

“How will you ever father a bastard of your own if you don’t get a girl Snow?” Theon’s words echoed in his ears and he flushed in anger.

I will father no bastards.

He shook his head and rose from the table.

“No my lord. I will leave the tending of the women to you. I will check to see if Ghost is well.” He turned and walked away before either man could respond.

It was a poor excuse but it allowed him to leave the cramped inn for a bit.

Beyond the door, the night air was warmer than Jon thought it had any right to be. Cool enough, but still somewhat unsettling to him as much of journey south had made him feel.

He’d seen more people on the road between this inn and the Neck than he had seen during the entirety of their ride from Castle Black to the Neck. When they’d emerged from the Neck’s swamps, a queer feeling had come over Jon. He was leaving the north for a long time and it felt wrong somehow, as if his place was there.

It’s a foolish way to feel.

My mother was likely from the south.

He walked away from the noisy inn and across the road it straddled, towards the dark field beyond. Jon could make out an outline of some hedges and a few trees but little else as there was no moon on this night.

Jon put his fingers to his mouth and whistled, the sound disappearing into the darkness.

After a few moments he did so again and was about to do whistle for a third time when Ghost finally appeared from the shadows. As the direwolf came before him, Jon saw blood about the wolf’s mouth and wondered which poor beast fell prey to his friend.

“Well, at least you seem to be doing well in the south.” He bent down to stroke Ghost’s white fur. “Don’t you miss the north too? Don’t you miss your brothers?”

Jon couldn’t help thinking about the north with his wolf before him.

When their party had come to Winterfell, it was plain that something was amiss.

For one thing, it had been Robb to greet them instead of Lady Stark. While Jon had been happy to see his brother, he wondered if the lady’s absence was because of him. She’d made it clear he wouldn’t be welcome at the castle with father gone.

Yet that didn’t explain Robb’s obvious anger with Tyrion. His brother’s greeting in their father’s hall had been discourteous and his manner towards the Lannister worsened by the moment. Had Bran not been carried within, Jon wondered if he could have held his tongue much longer. The sight of his little brother alive and awake made him smile and Bran smiled back.

“I am so happy you awoke little brother. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you did.” Jon had said as he held the boy’s hands.

“It’s okay, I’m just glad you’re back! It’s been so boring here without the others and with mother…”

“Bran!” Robb’s sharp cry had cut off whatever their brother had been about to say and Tyrion seemed as confused as Jon. The parchment in Tyrion’s hand reminded Jon of what it contained and he saw a chance to improve the mood in the room.

“Bran, Lord Tyrion made something for you that I think you’ll like.” Jon gestured to Tyrion who unveiled to Robb and Maester Luwin the special saddle that would allow Bran to ride again.

Things did improve some after that. Bran’s face had lit up at the thought of being able to ride and the boy’s smile lightened the room and made everyone seem glader as it always did. Robb had even seemed embarrassed at his harsh manner towards Tyrion.

It didn’t last long though.

When Rickon came into the hall with Shaggydog, Grey Wind and Bran’s unnamed wolf, they had bared their teeth and moved to attack Tyrion. Jon had been too shocked to move as Tyrion stumbled or he would have tried to help. Theon made a jest at the dwarf’s expense and it had fallen to Ghost to intercede. The direwolf moved between Tyrion and his brothers, baring his teeth in warning and shaming Jon for not protecting the lord as he had been charged.

After that, Tyrion had opted to stay in a nearby inn rather than bed at Winterfell overnight. Tyrion had not asked Jon to join him there but he declared that he would, to the shock of his brothers and Tyrion alike. He did beg a moment alone with his brother and the lord had agreed to await him without.

“Jon, Maester Luwin told me what father tasked you with but stay here with us. There’s much you need to know…” Robb had seemed troubled as he spoke and Maester Luwin had cleared his throat, giving him pause. “We missed you, the boys missed you and we would hear of your tales of the Wall.”

“I can’t.” Jon had said despite very much wanting to do as Robb asked. “Our father bid me to escort Lord Tyrion through the North, then to travel on to the capital. I’d fulfill both my duties, and I’d be a poor escort if I took a better roof than him.”

“He was the one who refused Winterfell’s hospitality…”

“After being treated with such discourtesy, I cannot blame him.” His words had stung Robb but he continued for he knew his brother to be better than such. “The wolves almost attacked him Robb, in our father’s hall…”

“Never would it have offered poorer meal.” Theon joked and he earned baleful glare from Jon. “When did you become a Lannister, Snow?”

“I assumed the Starks would treat guests with the same dignity as hostages.” He snapped back, which made Theon curse and Robb bristle. “What was that Robb? Truly? Father would never have treated a guest so!”

“He is no true guest!” Theon argued.

“Keep your tongue.” The maester warned and Jon decided to press the matter.

“No true guest? We must wait to offer bread and salt now? Father never insisted on…”

“Enough!” Robb didn’t just shout the word. He commanded it, like father would. “Do not lecture me on how to run my castle Jon! I am the Stark here, not you!”

“Robb!” Bran had called out and the anger in Robb’s face burned as he glared at Jon.

Then it suddenly seemed to drain away, and Robb looked as he did whenever he’d accidently hurt his partner while sparring. But they hadn’t been sparring, and Robb was right. He was the trueborn son of Ned Stark and he was the Lord of Winterfell in their father’s absence.

Jon was only a Snow.

“I apologize my lord. The castle is, of course, yours and I won’t presume on its hospitality. I’ll be following our father’s commands and bedding outside the walls tonight.” He’d tried to sound calm but he probably failed.

He hugged Rickon but the boy seemed to take more interest in bidding farewell to Ghost. It went worse with Bran, who wept as they embraced.

“Please stay Jon…”

“I can’t, my place is elsewhere… I love you Bran. Stay strong and listen to Robb.”

Turning away from his little brother was the hardest thing Jon had ever done and he felt tears coming into his eyes too. This might be the last time he saw Robb and Bran and Rickon for a very long time and the thought troubled him.

“Jon, I didn’t mean…” Robb said as stepped in his path.

“You were right. You’re the Stark in the Winterfell and I’m but the Snow outside.”

The words were harsher than he meant but it was true nonetheless. Robb embraced him but it was awkward and the moment ended quickly.

It was not how Jon would have liked leaving his family.

Yet that’s how it had to be. Tyrion’s party had left the next day and he’d spent much of their journey reflecting on the queer visit.

As he sat outside the southron inn petting Ghost, Jon realized that he missed Winterfell and his family more than he thought he would. Winterfell had been his home, his safe haven, for his entire life and Jon wondered where his home would be now or whether he would even have one, knight’s often lived on the road as part of their duties after all. Jon was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the girl approach until she was almost on him.

“M’lord said you’d be wanting this.” A soft voice came from behind him. He jumped to his feet to find the pretty red-haired serving girl standing there, a tankard of ale in one hand and a plate of raw meat in the other. “He said you’d be wanting to feed your wolf. I think he was playing a jest on me but he gave me the coin so here I am with your elk haunch… oh!”

Her nervous smile turned into a look of terror as Ghost emerged from behind him. The tankard and plate of meat fell clattering to the ground as her hands went to her mouth.

“It’s a monster!”

“It’s alright! He won’t hurt you!” Jon yelled but Ghost leapt forward.

The girl cried out and made to run but tripped on her skirts. She fell backwards and raised her hands up to protect herself. Instead of attacking, the white wolf ignored her completely, opting instead to eat the dropped meat. The girl was clutching her chest with white knuckles and staring wide-eyed at the wolf as Jon came to her side.

“He won’t hurt you.” He offered her his hand and tried to sound reassuring. “Are you alright?”

“It… it… won’t hurt me?” She was still staring at Ghost but clutched his offered hand like a claw.

“No. He’s mine. He only eats dwarfs and meat thrown by pretty girls.” Jon said with a hopeful smile.

The girl’s eyes finally left Ghost and fell upon him. They were a pale green, like northern grass and that thought made him like her all the more. She smiled some at his jest and grabbed his arm as he helped lift her to her feet.  

She began to brush off her skirts while Ghost finished his meal, ignoring them. Jon went forward and put his hand upon the wolf’s head, giving the Ghost a playing slap for his poor manners. The wolf returned the slap by biting Jon’s arm and pulling it side to side but the wolf’s teeth never broke the skin or hurt Jon. It was just a game they played.

The girl marveled at Jon as he did so.

“That is the biggest wolf I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s a direwolf from the North.” Jon continued to pet Ghost who sat and appeared bored now. “You can pet him if you wish.”

The girl didn’t believe him at first but he coaxed her over. She reached forward and tentatively began to stroke Ghost’s head. The wolf cared little and let it continue for a time before bounding away, off into the darkness again.

“He’s not much for farewells.” The girl giggled, which was a tad too high pitched for Jon’s liking. Still her smile was gentle and she was looking at him instead of Ghost and so Jon tried to follow Tyrion’s advice, looking right back.

“I’m Jon. It would be a fair trade to know your name now as well, yes?”

“I’m Iryne.” She pulled nervously at a lock of hair. “My uncle owns this tavern and I’ve seen all types of folk pass through. Never a group like yours though.”

“A man of the Night’s Watch, a dwarf, and a northerner with a direwolf?” Jon believed that if Tyrion heard him describe it as such, a bawdy joke would have been made.

“You’re a northerner?” She looked him up and down. “But you’re so kind, I’d thought…”

“Us all cold barbarians who steal maidens? Lord Tyrion can accuse me of the first charge but I’d be more worried about him on the second.”

Iryne giggled again and took step closer to him. Her foot kicked the dropped tankard and she groaned a little.

“The dwarf spent good coin on that.” Her eyes found his again. “I could go and fetch another? My aunt already says I spill more than I serve so…”

“I’d rather have you stay than have an ale.” Jon said without thinking and he was upset when she laughed at that too.

“I’ve heard that before. Many times.”

“Because you’re so fair…” His words were interrupted by another bout of her giggles and he became frustrated. “I mean it, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve seen during my ride!”

“Must not have ridden very far then!”

When he told her they had ridden from the Wall her eyes bulged.

“So you be a gallant northerner, travelling with the Lannister Imp, from the Wall, with a direwolf…” Iryne said softly as she stepped towards him. “How do I know this isn’t all some tale to get in my skirts?”

“Who would pretend to be such a party if they weren’t?” Jon asked. “But if it’s a tale that’s needed to impress you, I’ve heard several…”

He’d had enough ale to feel bold yet when her eyes met his the words fell away. Up close like this, he thought her lips to be full and soft. The softest things he had ever seen.

Look at her.

Tyrion said to look at her.

He forced his gaze up to her eyes again and the two of them drew closer still.

“My cousins would never believe that I…” She started but never finished.

Jon leaned forward and kissed her. Her lips were as soft as he imagined and a little wet. His kiss must have been a bit too forceful as she’d reached up to pull at his hair some and ease him back. He was glad for the guidance, and Jon even liked the way she pulled his hair a little in a strange way. It made her desire for him seem stronger.

The kiss continued despite Jon’s fumbling, Iryne clearly knowing more than he did and soon it was her mouth leading them. Her tongue pushed at his lips lightly and he opened them slightly to let her tongue into his mouth. It was a strange feeling at first but one he quickly began to enjoy. His tongue joined with hers and Jon’s body burned with how sweet she tasted. If all girls kissed as hungrily as Iryne did, he could understand why Theon had been so wanton with the women at Winterfell.

Then they heard voices and Iryne broke away. Men were leaving the inn but they seemed to pay them no mind. She giggled then and ran off back towards the open door.

Jon just stood there staring after her.

The south is not so bad.

 

JON

 

 

I hate the south.

“We’re almost there.” Yoren growled. “Keep your hood down and let me do the talking.”

Jon only half listened, looking up from beneath his hood to see the truth for himself. Indeed, ahead of them stood the gates to the Red Keep itself, which meant an end to their skulking about the city that Jon had grown to dislike in a very short time.

King’s Landing was a filthy, crowded place that stunk of shit and things Jon did not wish to know. It would’ve been more tolerable if he weren’t so damned hot under his cloak.

It wasn’t his cloak in truth. Yoren had purchased the dirty thing from a beggar and made Jon disguise himself in it. He thought it stank worse than the city itself and Yoren had cuffed him when he said so.

“That’s the point.” The crooked-backed man had said. “Who would want to see what hides beneath such a rank cloak?”

Indeed, as packed as the streets were with people for the Hand’s Tourney, people cursed and made way as Jon approached. He hated when people brushed against him roughly and Jon decided that there were too many people for his liking in this terrible place.

As they came before the gates, the guards demanded their business.

“Yoren of the Night’s Watch.” Yoren proclaimed, offering up a parchment to the men. “I been sent by the Lord-Commander to seek recruits from the Hand of the King.”

“Fine then, and who is this?”

“One of my brothers who gambled away his black cloak. You see why we be needing new recruits.”

The guards laughed and sent a man to fetch someone from Lord Stark’s household. They waited some time before Jory Cassel himself came to fetch them.

Jon was excited to see a familiar face but he kept his eyes straight down, looking at the cobblestones. If Jory saw his face they could be undone and all their trials, all their efforts at getting here undetected would be for naught.

Thankfully Jory didn’t recognize him and the pair were led throughout the castle to the Tower of the Hand and then to his father’s chambers.

Jon heard arguing as Jory knocked upon the door and his heart leapt as he saw father and Arya within. Jory announced them as men of the watch and Jon stayed silent despite wishing to go forward and hug his sister tightly. She was filthy herself, covered in dirt and grime. Jon thought she looked like he smelt.

He smiled to think that even in the capital, Arya managed to cause such trouble.

Too soon their father dismissed her and the opportunity to hold her was lost. As the doors closed, Jon yanked his hood off and took a deep breath of fresh air.

“Jon! What is happening here?” His father walked forward and grasped him tightly by the shoulders. “Why did you not send word?”

“Begging your pardons my lord, but that’s what we’re here to tell you. There are things you need to be hearing before word gets out, as it most certainly will.” Yoren said then and he began to recount the tale of what happened at the Crossroads Inn.

Jon had wanted to keep riding but both Tyrion and Yoren had chided him for his lack of experience. Apparently they had been at the last inn of repute for many leagues and no matter how much Jon wished to reunite with his father, Tyrion made it clear that he didn’t want to sleep beneath a hedge. 

When they’d entered the inn, he’d scanned the room full of patrons and recognized her auburn hair immediately. Her and Rodrik Cassel both.

Tyrion was still haggling with the innkeeper and hadn’t noticed the pair yet. Something Jon saw they were trying very hard to avoid. It hadn’t worked though, as he had learned in their travels, few things ever slipped Tyrion’s notice. When the Lannister called out her name everything had happened at once.

Lady Stark never once looked to Jon while she named Tyrion as the man responsible for an attempt on Bran’s life. As much as he didn’t want to believe it, what she was saying made sense with what he’d seen at Winterfell. The burnt tower, Robb’s strange behavior, all of it. He also didn’t forget that father had wanted Tyrion watched for a reason.

So when Lady Stark had called for swords, all Jon knew was that something terrible had happened at Winterfell. Someone had tried to hurt his family.

He had named Tyrion a friend, he had spoken to the Lannister truthfully on many things he never had before, not even with his own siblings. Yet Jon pulled his sword along with the others as his friend stood accused of trying to kill Bran. The look on Tyrion’s face when he saw Jon’s blade weakened his resolve for a moment but he held the blade firm.

For he served the Starks.

None of that mattered to Lady Stark though. She was preparing to lead a party to escort Tyrion to Riverrun for trial, having asked for loyal men to join them. Men from houses sworn to House Tully made to do so and Jon had also made to mount his horse.

That was when she refused him.

“I would not have you.” Lady Stark said as she climbed upon her mount.

He’d been crushed. His sword had been good enough for her in the inn yet Lady Stark appeared content to ignore all that now. He had looked to Ser Rodrik then who had taken up his cause.

“My lady, I trained the boy myself. He is very capable with a sword and would be…”

“I would not have him. You were to squire somewhere, weren’t you? Go and do so.” The lady said without looking at Jon before moving her horse to ride past him.

“Lady Stark! I would serve your House in this! Bran is my brother!”

“Bran has enough trueborn brothers to protect him.” She’d called back. “House Stark would not have you!”

Those were the last words she said before they left him there with Yoren. The pair had continued on together towards King’s Landing with great haste. When they had neared the city, Yoren bid him to leave Ghost behind.

“We can’t bloody well sneak into the city with that beast, can we?” Yoren had said. “With you taking part back there, I guarantee word will reach here, and soon I wager. It be best if people did not think you came to the city.”

Jon had adamantly refused to do that. Ghost had chosen him and Jon would not abandon his friend. He’d used what coin he had to buy a wagon and cover from a farmer along the road. With Ghost covered in the back, none could see the direwolf but Jon was not sure how long the wolf would stand to be in such a state.

At that part of the tale his father interrupted.

“Yoren I thank you, for all you’ve done for my family by coming here and bringing my son to me. I’d ask for a moment with Jon, if you would excuse us.” Father said. “I’ll have lodgings arranged for you somewhere but I must ask you to speak to no one of what has transpired here.”

“I won’t be. I’m fond of my bloody neck where it is.” Yoren grumbled before nodding to Jon. “Farewell lad, ‘tis a shame about the dwarf. He had a decent way about him.”

He did, he thought, he was a good friend.

Jon nodded numbly and said his own goodbyes as Yoren took his leave. Weeks of travelling together and it came down to that. It felt strange to have it end so quickly but he had no time to dwell on goodbyes.

I must explain to father.

“I tried to accompany her father, I did, but…”

“I know Jon.” Father waved it away. “Where is Ghost now?”

“In the shed of an inn we stopped at. I traded my sword for the promise that no one would go in but I don’t know how long Ghost can stand it here.” Jon said. In truth, he was in a hurry to return to his wolf.

“I’ll arrange a new sword for you and better lodgings for Ghost.” Father shook his head and sighed. “What happened at the inn makes our position in the capital even more dangerous than I feared. I’d hoped to keep you here safely for a bit and not under a shroud of secrecy.”

“I’ll help you father. I’d rather help you all here than going off…”

“Nothing has changed about my plans for you Jon.” He said firmly. “You’ll be leaving at once to begin squiring.”

“How can I leave you like this? You just said it was dangerous here! Let me help protect you and the girls.”

“You were a part of what happened at the inn. Cersei Lannister would not hesitate for a moment at the thought of harming you, even if just to prove a point. And if Robert knew…” His father shook his head in disgust. “Besides, Lord Royce has arranged that his son second eldest son, Ser Robar, take you as his squire.”

“Lord Royce?” Jon had seen the man when he visited Winterfell. “You mean Bronze Yohn Royce?”

The storied Lord of Runestone was an aging warrior yet had seemed hale and full of smiles when he’d visited Winterfell, especially towards Lady Stark. His father held the man in high regard while Jon had thought little of his son Waymar. He found the younger Royce to be an arrogant and haughty man. His opinion was discolored by the memory of how particularly annoying Arya and he had found Sansa that week, with her constant fawning and sighing and crying over the ‘handsome knight of her dreams’ joining the Night’s Watch and being unable to marry. She had dutifully forgotten about him two weeks later.

That’s when he remembered that Ser Waymar been the one Benjen had sought on his ranging, lost and feared dead. Jon felt a little bad about thinking ill of him then.

“Yes, the ser is eager to be away from the capital so I’ll have him sent for immediately. They can collect you and Ghost at the same time.” Ned called out and a Stark guard opened the door. “See if my daughters are awake. If they are, and can get here quickly, let them know Jon has arrived but cannot stay long.”

When the man left, his father’s shoulders slumped slightly and his gaze went about the room, appearing almost disgusted with it. Jon wanted to know what troubled him before they’d arrived and why he thought the capital so dangerous. It was clear to him that Eddard Stark felt very out of place here.

“I’d have them say their farewells, I know Arya would never forgive me if I didn’t.” His father sat in a chair then and looked at him carefully. It made him wonder for a moment if his father still saw a boy before him or if he saw Jon, finally, as a man. “You look well, considering your journey.”

He wished he could say the same but Eddard Stark looked tired and worn compared to when they last met in his solar at Winterfell. Jon worried for him.

“Father… perhaps you should leave here too. If the Lannisters mean your family harm-”

“I have a duty to my king. As much I want to return to my home, and hold all my children, I can’t. We have talked on this before, Jon. The world is not about what we want. It is about what we must do.”

He was not happy yet didn’t challenge his father further. For the man wished to talk of other things instead and he would ease his father’s burdens any way he could. They spoke of how the girls were doing at court and of the time he’d spent at the Wall. Father had smiled to hear how strong Bran had seemed when Jon had visited Winterfell.

Then a knock came and Jon looked to door in anticipation.

Yet it was only the same guard father had sent to collect the girls, and he was alone.

“Lady Arya is bathing and the steward told me she could not be prepared quickly.” The guard reported and his heart fell, especially because she had been so close before. He felt that he should have said something then.

“And of Sansa?” His father asked and the guard shifted uncomfortably and looked quickly to Jon in apology before looking back to his lord again.

“Lady Sansa… well the Septa reminded her of how such would be seen… and…”

It would be improper.

Being seen with her father’s bastard.

Jon understood of course. It was the same reason he could not go south with them. A bastard at court was unseemly and he didn’t think harshly of Sansa for scorning him. She was to marry the prince and she needed to start behaving properly. What other choice did she have?

“Thank you, leave us.” Ned said but he looked anything but thankful. “I will have to remind the Septa that I can determine how things will be seen at court well enough for my daughters-”

“It’s alright father, she’s to be a queen one day. I would not risk ruining those prospects.” He did not want his father to worry any more than he already did. “I must go then. I am eager to serve Ser Robar well.”

His father moved quickly and embraced him then, awkwardly but tightly.

“I know you are almost a man and told old for embraces but please forgive me this. Let Ser Robar see a man where I still see the boy I raised.” Father’s voice was strained as he backed away. His eyes were full of sadness. “Before you left Winterfell you asked of-”

“My mother. I wish to hear of her, but I gather that now is not the time, is it?” He interrupted and it was a hard thing to do. He desperately wanted to hear of his mother. Yet this was not the moment to learn of her he felt.

And his father nodded.

“It is something I would like to take my time with, not something to be rushed right before you leave again.”

As Jon made to don his smelly disguise again, his father grabbed his arm suddenly. His face was pale and he had a pained expression upon it.

“She loved you Jon. Loved you more than you can know.”

It had been good to hear. Their second farewell was hard to endure but it had to be done. Later, as he walked through the streets of the city, back towards Ghost, his father’s words came back to him.

And a realization struck him numb.

For his father had told him two things with those words. 

My mother loved me.

And she is dead.

Chapter Text

JON

 

Jon fell to his arse again.

He swore silently at his failure but arose quickly, his sword raised. His attacker waited impatiently, his armor glimmering in the sunlight, taking a few more swipes in the air with his longsword before waving Jon forward to charge him again. Jon obeyed and rushed forward, this time slashing low. Sweat ran down his face and his body ached with brusies but still he struck against his foe again and again.

“Good boy, good!” The knight smiled as he deflected every blow with an effortless flair.

Ser Robar did not give compliments easily and Jon felt heartened by it. When he struck at Jon’s leg, Jon jumped back and returned the attack, slashing downward and throwing his shoulder against the knight’s chest, feeling his shoulder jam against the bronze armor there. Jon could only hope that the surprise charge had knocked the knight senseless enough for the pain to be worth it. By the time Jon raised his sword to take advantage of the hit though Robar was already back in his stance and defended easily.

Before Jon knew it, he had been backed against the side of the guardhouse. The knight had Jon’s own blade pinned to his chest and the edge of Robar’s longsword tapped his neck.

“Not good enough.” Robar smiled again as he drew back from Jon.

He walked away and moved to ladle some water from the bucket they’d brought and drank deeply. The old stone guardhouse to the west of Highgarden had been a good place to spar, the training yards being quite full.

“It’s that pretty armor of yours ser, it’s distracting.” Jon rubbed his shoulder, the pain there only adding to his many aches.

Robar’s armor gleamed in the light of the sun and Jon took pride in that. It was he, after all, who cleaned and scoured it so often that his hands ached. Yet Robar looked as a knight should and even in a land full of great knights, he stood out. The bronze runes of the first men were borne prominently across his chest plate and it always drew compliments from others. Compliments that Jon quietly agreed with.

Though it wasn’t just his bright and shining armor, Robar was also thoughtful, charming, quick with a jest and even quicker with an offer of help to anyone and everyone around him. He fought like a demon and walked like a prince. Jon thought again of his prideful younger brother Waymar, and how Sansa had droned on for days about him being a “true knight,” and how Jon had rolled his eyes at the idea of such a thing. Bran too had been similarly mesmerized and spoke about becoming a true knight himself, serving as a member of the Kingsguard when he grew up, though Jon had attributed such naïve ideals to his little brother’s age.

In Jon’s experience, knights were just men. Men who could fight a little better and rode a horse well, and who treated bastards just the same as everyone else.

Robar Royce though, he was quickly changing Jon’s opinion on the matter.

If true knights exist, I believe I’ve very much met one.

“Feel happy for the distraction, your armor is so dull, I fear I’ll fall asleep!” Robar’s jest was welcome.

He had equipped Jon himself at Highgarden’s armory with his own coin. Jon had tried to argue that his father had given him some coin for such a thing but had been told by Robar that it was a debt he owed his squire. Robar had pointed out a shiny plate of mail that looked to have been worn by many a fine tourney knight and gleamed in the sunlight like a jewel. Jon had asked for a dented suit of dull gray.

“By the seven, do you truly wish your armor to match your personality?” Robar had said but admitted later that Jon had impressed him with his choice. “That armor has seen real battles and I see no holes in it. It will hold.”

Jon had been ready to endure a knight much like Yohn Royce’s youngest son Waymar when Robar had first collected him from the inn. Though the two shared the look of brothers, the longer Jon rode with the second son of Bronze Yohn, the more Robar appeared to take after his father. He was handsome in a courtly way but also had a tough look to him, especially when he fought. Robar did well with any weapon it seemed, Jon having seen him wield the lance, the flail, and the quarterstaff, all with an impossible ease.

He shined with a longsword though. Robar was easily one of the finest swordsmen Jon had ever met and others who had seen more of the realm had said the same in his hearing. He still couldn’t understand how his father had been able to convince such a knight to take Jon as a squire. It was an honor he didn’t think he deserved.

“Because you’re a bastard?” Robar had asked Jon’s question for him on the second week of their ride into the Reach. “Well there are three reasons really. First, my father asked me to and it’s a hard thing to refuse Bronze Yohn, even if you are his son. Second, you’re not just any bastard, you’re the Hand of the King’s bastard and don’t think that doesn’t carry some weight. Third, I was told you and your half-siblings all have direwolves! I thought that unique and fascinating. Show me another knight who has a squire with a pet like yours.”

Ghost is more than a pet, he’s a part of me, Jon had almost said but he held back.

“Still ser, there must have been squires of higher birth for you to choose from.” Jon was not such a fool to think that any number of lesser houses from the Vale didn’t have sons that could bring Robar more repute.

“Jon… I’m a second son.” Robar answered with a sigh. “My father doted on Waymar as his youngest and last son when our mother died, and of course he gushes over Ysilla as she is his only daughter. All the while he took special care of Andar, raising him up to be his heir, as is only right. I love my father, and he always did right by me, but it has often been left to me to find my own path in the world.”

Robar looked off to the horizon then in thought and that was when Jon had begun to understand that the knight he served was more than just his sharp wit and his skills in battle. He was on a journey to become his own man.

Just like me.

“I am a knight… a knight that’s sick of tourneys!” Robar snapped out of his thoughts and spoke excitedly then. “I seek a new challenge for myself and deeds worthy of a song. I’ve never heard of a knight with a squire such as you, a northman’s bastard with a direwolf as a pet... and they say Symeon Star-Eyes was blind, putting star-sapphires in his eyes to see. Perhaps you’re just the detail I need, to make my song one to remember for the ages.”

That had also helped explain why they rode to Highgarden instead of the Vale where House Royce held their lands. Robar had entered the service of Lord Renly Baratheon, King Robert’s youngest brother and Lord of the legendary castle Storm’s End, who had bid Robar to ride to the seat of House Tyrell. Jon had wondered at the reason but Robar was silent about that.

Robar had been of great comfort to Jon when news had come of the Kingslayer’s attack upon his father. According to the knight, the Lannisters were going too far and over-reaching themselves and that soon the decent lords and knights of the realm would put a stop to their power-hungry ways. Jon had hoped that they might return to the capital, to help protect Arya and Sansa but they continued on to Highgarden. Hearing that the Kingslayer had fled the city did not soothe Jon’s worries for his family.

Then word had come of King Robert’s death and his father’s arrest for treason against the king by betraying his son, the new king, Joffrey. Robar broke the news to Jon himself and refused to hear of any talk of Jon riding to King’s Landing. The knight swore that they would go eventually, but that they needed to be patient and Jon did as he was commanded to. Yet not a moment passed when he wasn’t afraid for his captive father and sisters.

That he was surrounded by such beauty and wealth did little to help Jon’s feelings of guilt. When he’d first seen Highgarden, it had astounded him. From what little he had seen of the grounds the white walled castle contained several groves of flowers and fruits, massive stables full of fine horses, and courtyards for comfort and walking rather than for training. It was a place of splendor so unlike Winterfell but a place that Jon thought his siblings would enjoy immensely and thought of them there with him.

He wished they were all there to share in this splendor with him for Jon felt out of place in such richness.

There were training yards too of course, but to have more than one still amazed him. The opulent farmlands he had seen as they travelled there, and the blue, slow moving Mander River beyond the walls, all fed such wealth. Jon couldn’t believe such a place ever seeing a true winter as he had.

The lords and knights of the Reach were feasted every night in the halls and everyday it seemed more men of standing came. Robar had also spoken of several lords and knights coming in from the Stormlands as well, sitting alongside him in the great hall, and Jon had thought it queer that they would journey to the Reach but he said nothing.

Jon himself often ate in silence in the common hall among the other squires, just like at Winterfell, he thought strangely. Sometimes he took his meal to visit Ghost in the abandoned kennel they had permitted him to use. According to Robar, the Tyrells had spotted Ghost from their walls and declared him a prize to be sheltered within. Robar had escorted several highborn, including several ladies, to view Ghost within the kennel. That direwolf gave Robar an excuse to spend time befriending such important people of high standing was a debt that Robar felt he owed Jon but he always gave the credit to Ghost. Robar suspected the Tyrells might try and have Ghost mate with one of their hounds and they had laughed at the thought.

Most of the southron lords and ladies treated Ghost better than Jon in a way. He was something from a land they had never seen or had little interest in learning about. He had been asked if he’d paint his face during battle or if he preferred an elm or apple tree to pray to. Jon couldn’t tell at times if they were jesting with such questions. It was not lost on him that the Tyrells had asked to view Ghost but never sought him out.

The treatment was worth it though, even if only for what Jon had learned at swords from Robar. Ser Rodrik had trained Jon well but he suspected now that Winterfell’s master-at-arms had been holding back because he had watched his students grow from children and couldn’t help but think of them as such. Robar did not meet Jon as young boy and treated him as the man was, acting as a harsh and unyielding teacher. Robar had jested that it would reflect terribly on him if the Hand of the King’s son died on his watch.

“Riders ser.” Jon said as he pointed towards the castle.

A group of horsemen were coming from one of the many gates towards them. As they closed in, Jon saw from their sigils that they were Baratheon men.

“Ser Robar!” One of them hailed. “Lord Renly has arrived from King’s Landing and he bids you to join him at the castle.”

“As long as he does not mind me smelling like a man who has just come from the yards, I would be happy to oblige.” Robar shouted back, looking pleased. They had been waiting for Lord Renly since their arrival and Jon still didn’t know why.

“He bid you to bring your squire as well.” The rider spurred his mount back to the castle and just as quickly as they came, they were gone. Jon looked to Robar who seemed to look as surprised as Jon felt.

They found Lord Renly in a hall filled with bright tapestries depicting roses, knights, and maidens. King Robert’s youngest brother was a tall and handsome man with bright blue eyes and dark hair falling to his shoulders. He looked just as Jon had always pictured the King before Renly’s older brother had arrived in Winterfell, fat and disappointing to look upon. He was garbed in green and gold, the colors of House Tyrell, which Jon thought odd. The attending Tyrells matched the lord in his grandeur.

Lord Mace Tyrell had never spoken to Jon, but he had seen the lord ride about the grounds, fat and jovial and always elegantly dressed. He often spoke to the men as being the true pride of Highgarden, but Jon noticed that he never stayed long at the training yards, preferring instead in the gardens.

He may have taken pride in his men, but his daughter, “Maid Margaery” as Jon had heard her called, was clearly the apple of Lord Tyrell’s eye and the love of everyone at Highgarden, highborn and low alike.

She rode almost as well as a man, sang beautifully, hawked well, joked with the squires and the men-at-arms, shared pastries with the servants, and had a way of looking at someone that made them want to give her anything she asked, which for Jon had simply been Ghost’s name.

Jon still remembered with deep embarrassment when Lady Margery had visited Ghost with some of her cousins. Her cousins dutifully ignored Jon but Lady Margaery curtsied and apologized for bothering his “pet.” The cousins were much too bothersome for Ghost, trying to pet and braid his fur, and the direwolf shook them off, pushing fat Megga Tyrell roughly onto her bottom. Lady Margaery had found the exchange entertaining and told the cousins not to both the direwolf so much. Ghost had shown his appreciation and licked at the girl’s cheek, jumping and pushing her back so that Jon had to catch her.

Jon was sure that he would be lashed or beaten then, his hands holding onto the smooth, warms arms of the lady, her back pressed against his chest, but again she laughed. Lady Margaery stood with his help and pressed a hand to Jon’s own cheek, telling him that Ghost was a fine beast.

“Like his master, I think.” She said in a way that made a baser part of Jon thankful for Ghost’s careless jostling.

Jon felt almost sure that she had been trying to purposefully make him blush and it worked splendidly. Robar had taunted him viciously about it in their next training session.

Both Lord Tyrell and his daughter were also richly dressed in the green and gold of their house while his youngest son, whom Jon was now just meeting, Ser Loras, wore a suit of gleaming steel-blue armor, flowers knitted tightly and carefully into a chain that ran through the plate in a mesh across the chest that must have taken hours to complete. He was handsome without a doubt, and carried an air of confidence that seemed in contrast with his young age.

These were some of the most important people in the south and Jon felt a beggar in his dented and dull, gray plate yet Robar strode forward proudly and he followed, head held up.

“Ser Robar Royce and his squire, Jon of Winterfell.” A steward announced then. Hearing his name said as such seemed foolish but Jon didn't bother trying to correct it. Instead, he tried to walk as straight and proper as Robar had.

“My red knight! I hope my dear friends of House Tyrell have treated you kindly.” Lord Renly smiled broadly as Ser Robar and Jon bowed before him.

“I fear that I have gained five stone because of their feasts.”

“Perhaps we should change our words to ‘Growing Large?’” Lady Margaery quipped and Jon smiled at the girl’s wit yet again.

He couldn’t help but notice again what a beautiful girl she was with soft brown hair, gently curled at the ends and kind eyes that invited you in to look but Jon sensed that they also seemed to hide a fire. He made sure his eyes did not linger long, though sometimes that was an admitted struggle.

Highborn maidens are not for the eyes of bastard squires.

“You’ll have to endure their hospitality a bit longer good ser, there are more due to arrive and I’d not leave without them.” Lord Renly stood and walked forward to put his arm upon Robar’s shoulder, the knight nodding as if no more explanation was needed.

Then the Lord of Storm’s End turned his attention to Jon and his mood seemed to change. Jon worried suddenly that his presence was a mistake and that Lord Renly might be offended by the bastard before him when the lord did something surprising.

He held out his hand.

Jon stared at it, shocked for a moment, before finally reaching out and taking it.

“Cersei’s and my nephew’s actions against your father have been shameful. Anyone who met the man would know that Ned Stark could no more commit treason than warm a room with his smile.” The man squeezed Jon’s hand firmly as he said such. “I promise you this, your father will be freed as soon as we mount a force to do so.”

The surprising treatment he was receiving and Lord Renly’s words lifted Jon’s spirits but only a little. Knowing that the Lannisters held his father and sisters tied Jon’s stomach in knots.

“Thank you, my lord.” Jon finally spoke as Lord Renly released his hand. “When you do so, I’d march with you.”

“Tywin Lannister already marches.” Ser Loras put in. He was called the Knight of Flowers and the rumors about his beauty seemed true. That he was as great a warrior as well, Jon could not say, but he looked graceful and strong, like a knight should. “The Kingslayer and he are burning their way across the Riverlands.”

“And Robb Stark is bringing his bannermen south even as we speak.” Lord Renly countered with a wave of his hand. “None of that will compare to the force that your lord father and I intend to raise.”

Jon couldn’t believe his ears. The Reach and the Stormlands were going to call their banners. They were going to march together. All to save his father, and Jon would be with them.

A northern bastard would be riding with the finest knights and lords of the south.

It made no sense.

“So you seek to become a knight someday? To start squiring at such an age is not strictly common. Most start as a page at eight, then move on to squiring not much later…” Lord Renly’s words interrupted Jon’s thoughts.

He had walked to a table beside Lord Tyrell and lifted a pastry to his mouth. As he chewed, regarding him curiously, Jon realized that the others were looking upon him too and Jon remembered his courtesies and made sure to say nothing until he was asked.

“What changed for you? You are six and ten?”

“Just turned five and ten, my lord.”

“Hmm? Well, happy nameday then. Lady Margery just turned six and ten.” Lord Renly said with a warm smile to Jon before he turned to give Lady Margaery a small bow which she returned before he looked back at Jon again. “You neared adulthood and simply sought a different path for yourself?”

“My lord… I never thought myself as worthy enough to be a squire. For anyone, let alone for a knight such as Ser Robar. Unable to think of myself as a squire, I never even gave thought to being a knight. My father only arranged such after he had forbidden me to join…” Jon realized he’d made a mistake then but Lord Renly motioned for him to continue. “When he forbid me to join the Night’s Watch.”

Ser Loras made a noise of laughter and his sister shot him a cold look which silenced him. While Lord Tyrell had more tact, he still looked at Jon with something akin to pity.

Robar looked uncomfortable and Jon cursed himself for saying such. While Ser Robar and House Royce still remembered the old ways, and the honor that came with serving the realm in the Night’s Watch, he had warned that the order was something to be mocked this far south.

Renly had not reacted except to shrug.

“Well, for that I am glad. The Night’s Watch still has good men among it, kin to Robar and yourself if I remember correctly. Sadly, like so many other things in the realm, it has faltered over the years, becoming the dumping ground for cutthroats and dungeon dwellers. I could see better for you Jon.”

“As could I.” Robar added, smiling as he raised an eyebrow at Jon whose face still burned from his foolishness.

“Your father obviously cares for you a great deal. Ser Robar is a knight of renowned skill and to squire for him is of the highest honor.” Lord Renly accepted a cup of wine from a servant and sipped, his eyes smiling but his face calm. “Does your brother also hold you so dear?”

“Robb and I grew up together at Winterfell. I love him… as I believe he does the same for me, my lord.” Jon said truthfully. Despite what happened at Winterfell, he would die for Robb and thought of him often. He missed his brother greatly.

“Then I was wise to counsel Ser Robar to take you as a squire.” Lord Renly took notice of the surprise Jon felt on his face, and how Robar looked to the floor suddenly. “He didn’t tell you? Fear not, I’m sure he would have done so anyways without my counsel. I just reminded him of how… beneficial the friendship of House Stark would be.”

“I don’t understand…”

“I hope to earn your good favor Jon.” Lord Renly continued as a servant entered from the other side of the hall carrying something in his hands. “I hope to show you and your family that I am a man worthy of your friendship… and your fealty. A man to whom you would happily bend the knee.”

Bend my knee?

With those words, so much began to make sense and Jon started to see it before him. Renly was raising an army to march on King’s Landing. He insulted the Queen and the new king Joffrey. He wanted Jon to speak warmly of him to his father, the Warden of the North, and Robb, his heir.

Jon looked to Robar who was smiling widely along with Lord Tyrell who ran his fingers together greedily. The Lady Margaery was more subdued in her joy, giving a polite smile to Jon but seeming in no way surprised while Ser Loras seemed barely able to contain his excitement at what they were about to see.

Robar knew.

That’s why we rode for Highgarden and not the Vale.

“My lord...”

“Your grace, soon enough, and if you do well by me, people will soon be calling you Ser Jon as well.” Lord Renly said as the servant presented him with a pillow upon which sat something covered with a green cloth. As he pulled the cloth away, a golden grown of roses lay before them. Renly smiled upon it and admired it with his fingers tapping lightly upon his chin. “Yes. That would do nicely.”

 

JON

 

 

He rode hard through the fields and orchards of the Reach. The moonlight gave little light to his horse, warning of obstacles and it was a wonder that he had not been thrown yet. He’d left the Roseroad hours ago, and in fact had no idea where he was, simply looking up at the Ice Dragon and following its eyes north.

Nor did he have any idea where Ghost had run off to. The direwolf had left his sight as soon as they’d left the road.

He knew the wolf would find him though. Just as he knew he couldn’t stop.

He just knew he had to ride north. He had to get to the Riverlands. He had to get to Robb.

He needs me.

That’s where the Lannisters were too. Lord Tywin and the Kingslayer. If he couldn’t find Robb, he’d find them. He’d kill them himself.

Father… father… I’m sorry.

The shame Jon felt now, thinking that he been at a feast when the news came, jesting with a Fossoway squire, was indescribable. That he had been sitting amongst knights and lords, raising a cup alongside them, thinking to himself what a beautiful queen Lady Margaery would make when Robar had sought him out.

He had thought Robar simply wanted to clank cups together until he saw his face. His normally pleasant smile was gone, his brow creased with concern.

“Jon, come with me please.” Robar had bid him.

It was a strange request. King Renly had only just been crowned and Lord Mace was making a grand speech of how the marriage between his daughter and the king would mark a new age.

“An age of chivalry!” They had cheered.

Cheers and men rose to that while Robar briskly walked from the hall with Jon following soon after. Robar had been seated just below the dais, which held the Tyrells and the newly crowned King Renly as well as some powerful Stormlords.  Jon had not been seated anywhere near as close, but that he was even present as a squire felt like an honor.

They had been in the corridors, Robar walking swiftly, passing servants and men carrying food and wine towards the hall. When they had finally exited through a stone doorway, leading out to a courtyard full of lavender and goldenrods, Robar stopped. He seemed to be looking around to see if anyone was nearby. The courtyard was empty but of flowers and trees. The smell of them, combined with the warm air, still made Jon feel as if he was in a different world from the north he’d known.

“Jon…” Robar had said with a hoarse voice and that is when Jon knew something was terribly wrong. His voice was always strong and ready, with a kind word or stern instruction.

“Jon…news has come from King’s Landing.”

The dread had gripped his heart immediately. As it did any time news came from the capital. He always feared some new treachery befalling his father or sisters. Usually his worries were for not, but the worries came anyway. It was Arya he worried about most, since no word had been spoken of her in some time, and he knew strong and fierce Arya would never have taken to captivity quietly. Jon had begun to fear the worst.

“Of Arya? Is there word of my sister?”

Robar shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair.

“It’s your father, Jon… he confessed to being a traitor and asked to take the black. But Joffrey…” Robar paused then and swallowed. “They killed him Jon. By the warrior, I swear, I am sorry for it. No one believes him actually a traitor. All told he was a good man...”

Robar’s hand had reached for his shoulder but Jon had shaken it away. He backed away from Robar, the knight who had taken him away from his father. This knight, who had brought him far away to some strange and foreign land when his father had been surrounded by enemies. This knight, who had made Jon stay at the flowery castle while his father rotted in the black cells.

And was killed.

“Leave me…” Jon had turned away from the man he saw as both a mentor and friend. He stared upwards into the stars, the tears feeling wet upon his face as the truth of his father’s death, a traitor’s death, ripped through him.

“Jon, I will see him avenged alongside you, but we must not speak of it yet.” Robar had not left but made no further moves to console Jon. “The King only told me because to keep such from you would be monstrous, but such news would not be good to announce during his coronation…”

“I won’t ruin his party. Leave me ser. Please.” Jon felt cold inside. These people only cared for what suited them. They could have their party and feasts. He would have his vengeance.

When Robar left him, Jon found his way to the kennel where they were keeping Ghost. Few men were keeping watch between there and the horse lines by the gates, the makeshift stable used by smallfolk. He could not have risked seeking his own horse at the lord’s stables as that gate was heavily guarded. This gate was lightly guarded and used mostly for farmers and merchants bringing goods for the festivities.

So together, Ghost and Jon rode past the guardhouse. He saw one guard fall over drunk at the sight of the direwolf before they were off into the night.

I’ll avenge you father. I’ll help Robb and free the girls.

I’ll kill your killers.

Jon repeated such thoughts to himself over and over again as his horse slowed to an exhausted pace. He’d had to ride it hard, to put distance between him and Highgarden. Leaving the road was the best option after his lead. If anyone were giving chase, they would not know where he had left the road and would hopefully be unable to follow his trail until the morning.

At the end of one of the countless orchards he had ridden through, he saw the glimmer of a pond. Jon directed the horse to it and dismounted. The palfrey drank greedily of the water and he rubbed its back. It was not meant to be ridden as such. It was likely a merchant’s horse, rode only between a town and the castle. It didn’t belong on a quest for vengeance.

No more than you belonged at Highgarden.

Since the talk with Lord Renly and the Tyrells, wherever Robar had been called Jon had been there beside him. He came on rides alongside the Lord Renly and Ser Loras through the country. He participated in training alongside other knights of the south. Robar had even been proud to see Jon best some of the younger knights and Lord Renly had complimented his sword hand. Jon wasn’t a fool though. He knew Lord Renly and the Tyrells didn’t really care. They simply needed him. They hoped all their attention would make him bid father to support Renly’s claim.

And it may have begun to work. Jon began seeing Lord Renly as how a king should be and often thought that he should sit the throne and not Joffrey. Yet now he saw Renly in a new light. While Ned Stark lay dying, the so-called king had sat around feasting and drinking.

Just as Jon had done.

He prayed Robar would understand. Jon had sworn himself to serve the man and there was no better knight he could not have asked for. But this was his family. Robar would have to understand that.

A noise caught Jon’s attention then. He drew his sword and looked back the way he came to the lines of trees silhouetted in the moonlight.

Something was moving between them, towards him. As it closed in, he lowered his sword and sighed in relief. The direwolf paused just at the edge of the trees looking at Jon with those red eyes of his.

“Where have you been?”

Then the wolf turned to look behind him and Jon heard others approaching. The sound of horses grew louder and then he heard men speaking loudly.

Traitor, he led them right to me.

Jon swore and jumped to mount the horse but Ghost had sprung forward towards the beast and startled it. It reared up and knocked Jon aside just as his hand had barely grasped the saddle. The riders galloped through the trees just as Jon had finally gotten a firm enough grip on the reins, simply trying to keep the horse from fleeing.

“Jon! Stop!” Robar’s voice called out.

Jon had finally gotten ahorse when another rider was beside him, hands grabbing at his reins. A tall, broad, and bearded man riding a beautiful looking courser, held the reigns firmly and made soothing sounds at Jon’s horse.

“I’m sorry boy, it might seem unfair but we cannot let you do this.” The man said and Jon recognized the voice now.

“Ser Garlan, my family needs me…” Jon began to yank at the reins but it was futile, the second Tyrell son was older and stronger than he was.

Even to draw a sword against him would be futile. While Ser Loras was lauded as a great warrior by all, Jon thought that the older and broader-shouldered Ser Garlan to be greater than the Knight of Flowers at swords. He’d seen the knight in the practice yard training against multiple opponents at the same time with Ser Garlan often coming out the victor. Ser Garlan had told him once that he shared Jon’s feelings of dismissal over tourneys, preferring instead to train for real battle, which was probably why most didn’t notice his great skill. More important than his skills at arms though, Ser Garlan possessed a great patience and kindness that younger Loras seemed to lack, and Jon had grown to admire the second son of Mace Tyrell greatly. 

 “Your family doesn’t need you to die.” Robar was on Jon’s other side while the third rider moved to block his rear. “And I’d have failed a vow to both our fathers if I let such thing happen. I forbade you to return to the capital without-”

“I don’t ride for King’s Landing! I ride to seek my brother Robb, in the Riverlands! His army is there and-”

“So are his enemies. There are thousands of Lannister swords between here and Riverrun, burning and killing all they see. There’d be little doubt of your identity if they spotted you with Ghost.” Ser Garlan did not speak harshly, nor did he try to lecture him. His voice was sad in a way. Jon didn’t want his advice or his sadness. He wanted him to release his reins.

They won’t see me.

“You’d abandon your oath to me, Jon?” Robar eyes were dark in the moonlight and this was the first time Jon had the courage to look at his face.

“I can’t drink and feast while my sisters are held by murderers! While my brother marches to war!” Jon spat the words out. Robar had kept him at Highgarden so Jon aimed his rage at him. “While good men are murdered!”

Robar answered his rage with obvious disappointment.

“I would have thought Starks more honorable than that. Do they only honor their oaths when it is easy for them? I’ve known knights who didn’t deserve the title and I’ve known knights who were the swords of chivalry itself.” Robar paused as Jon looked away from him. “I thought better of you Jon. I truly did.”

Reminding Jon of his honor twisted the sword in his gut. His father had bid him to serve Ser Robar and he would never have broken such an oath.

They need you.

“My sisters need me…”

“Your sisters need more than a grief stricken squire. They need a true knight. One who puts his honor and duty ahead of selfish wants, which is what this ride is. Your own selfish desire to ride off and die quickly, rather than march with an army guaranteed to see the vengeance you want done.”

Robar began to move his horse away from Jon. He saw the man was not looking back as he did so.

“I’d have you return with me if you are your father’s son. A man I respected and will avenge. Return and fulfill your oath to me or leave to sate your own desires. The choice is yours Jon Snow, I will not force you.”

Robar’s horse cantered back the way it came, the man not once looking back. His turned back shamed Jon greatly.

“Ser Robar speaks truly.” Ser Garlan released his reins then and backed his horse away as well, to ride beside the Robar. “There is no shame in what you have done tonight. To love one’s family is one thing, but doing the right thing for your family is often very different than what your heart will tell you.”

It was then that Jon noticed the third rider, the tall, homely woman watching him silently. He’d only seen Lady Brienne of Tarth a handful of times at Highgarden but he had learned of a bet about her among some of the knights that disgusted him. When he had told Ser Robar of it, he had been wroth and soon after Jon saw the knight speaking with Lord Tarly. Then it was known to all of the men that the bet was off, which Jon was glad for, but that meant the bet itself came to light. He could imagine word had reached her ears as well.

Yet she stayed. Stayed to ride out after him when he fled into the night.

This woman has more honor than you. 

She rode to join the knights as they disappeared back into the orchard until only Ghost and his stolen horse were left with him next to the pond.

Jon had never truly believed he would become a knight when he’d travelled to King’s Landing. He assumed he’d squire for some hedge knight for some years, see the world a bit, train at arms, then one day he could seek service back in the north at a castle, hopefully Winterfell. Yet when his father had told him he would squire for a son of House Royce, and bid him to serve the knight in all things, that’s when Jon had known Lord Stark truly believed his bastard son could become a knight.

If Robar had truly brought Jon to Highgarden as a pawn of Renly then why did he leave now? Why had Ser Garlan, one of the most chivalrous men Jon had ever met, ridden out with him?

Ghost stared at him and Jon could not shake the feeling that the wolf was judging him.

He rode behind the party for some time. In silence, urging his horse forward only to catch up to them. Each step his horse took was another step away from Robb and towards Highgarden. Away from what he wanted and what he had sworn.

Robar’s horse eventually slowed until they rode beside one another.

“Your father would be proud of you.” Was all Robar said to him. “As am I.”

To that Jon said nothing.

The memory of his father forcing him along, no matter what he wanted.

 

JON

 

“This will be a slaughter.”

Hallis Mollen shook his head as Jon and he watched another group of armored knights riding towards the battlefield. The battle was to start at dawn and was still some time away. Eager knights of the Reach and the Stormlands were already beginning to take the field.

None want to miss this chance for some actual fighting.

The thought still angered him to no end. He had returned with Ser Robar all those moons ago believing they would soon march upon King’s Landing to crush the Lannisters. To avenge his father. Instead the time had been spent slowly gathering men and marching from castle to castle, feasting rather than fighting.

Jon had scorned all of it. The lords and knights of the south spoke often about the deeds they would accomplish that would be worthy of a song. Some even wrote the damn songs themselves, to deeds they hadn’t yet done. Meanwhile his brother had been crowned the King in the North by his lords, with the Riverlands bowing to him as well. Robb had forged his kingdom by trouncing the Kingslayer in battle and lifting the Siege of Riverrun, feats actually worthy of a song.

Jon’s feats included showing off his direwolf to lords and ladies who laughed and danced while northmen fought and died. He had not hid his displeasure and was no longer invited to halls or feasts as he once was, especially after Cider Hall.

“You make me feel as if my kindness and generosity towards you have been for naught.” Renly had said from upon his horse as Jon knelt before him.

Ser Garlan, Ser Loras and some Fossoway knight were there as well, all ready to go on a hunt. A hunt Jon had been invited to join, with Ghost of course. Renly had them treat several of his highborn hosts to a hunt with a direwolf during their slow march. This time Jon had scorned the invitation, choosing instead to clean Robar’s armor.

“It has not, your grace. I still intend to speak on your behalf to my brother. That is if he ever finds time to feast while fighting the Lannisters.” His words had been too bold and Ser Loras had been livid. The Knight of Flowers asked Jon who he thought he was but Renly had just regarded him coolly before riding off.

He trained hard with Robar to get rid of his frustration, and when the knight was called away, he would find any partner he could to replace him. If none could be found, he’d practice his riding at the quintain. His once lean body had become hard and muscular.

Jon no longer trained alongside the other squires and Robar remarked with pride how he was actually hard-pressed to defeat Jon at times, though Jon had still never beaten him in sparring. It was the one of the few things they did not disagree over. Jon would often argue with his mentor over how slow their march to the capital had been.

“Is retaining your northern honor all you seek in my service Jon? You would insult and spurn the chivalry of the south?” Robar had said as he pummeled Jon’s shield with blows.

“My honor bid me return to you ser, it is the only thing I have left amongst this foolishness.” That Jon had said such in front of others would have been unthinkable when he’d first rode to Highgarden.

That was half a year ago, before he realized that all their courtesies and titles was just a way to mask selfishness and indulgence. Jon had been used to courtly pleasantries, being raised by a lord growing up, but the courtesy and manner here was too much for him. It all felt like lies. Many of the knights watching their sparring had bristled at Jon’s words and Robar had sent him hurtling to the ground in an attempt to cover his words up, but Jon cared little what these highborn knights of summer thought of him now.

Such had happened just before Bitterbridge, before Lady Stark had come upon Renly’s camp. He had been riding on a patrol of the vast castle grounds during the games. Robar had asked him to watch the melee but that these knights played at war while his brother fought one made Jon’s blood run cold.

When he had heard later that a company of the north had ridden into camp, Jon rushed to find them, hoping against hope to Robb again. Seeing Hallis Mollen had been a pleasant surprise and the man had laughed loudly to see him yet learning it was Lady Stark and not his brother who led the party had been a disappointment.

He wasn’t a part of whatever discussions Lady Stark and their flowery king had. Apparently Renly knew well enough to keep him far from her sight. Soon after her arrival, word had come down to every man with a horse to prepare for a ride. He’d had hope that somehow Lady Stark had spurned Renly to battle.

Again the knights of summer disappointed.

The king he rode with wasn’t taking his cavalry to join the fight in the Riverlands, nor were they attacking King’s Landing. Instead of fighting the Lannisters, the king went to challenge his brother Lord Stannis, who for some fool reason was besieging Storm’s End.

“He takes half a year to gather an army and march halfway to King’s Landing, yet how quickly did his force of thousands move upon Stannis?” Jon’s voice had been hard pressed to stay low, the words angering him as he said them and Hal offered a grunt.

“While slowing his march has allowed him to gather a formidably-sized army, he has stretched his supply lines thin in doing so.” Hal added. “But fighting his own brother rather than the Lannisters is the bigger folly.”

Hal continued on, pointing out that even with the few men Stannis had, they were numbers that would be a welcome addition to Robb’s forces, as more men were desperately needed to protect the Riverlands. He reminded Jon that, despite the glorious victories Robb had won, they were still sorely outnumbered and needed allies.

Speak to Robar again.

Maybe he can convince Renly to stop this.

He has to.

The thoughts were practically shouts in his head, much as Robar and his fight had been earlier.

Then the shouts came from the camp and Hal gave him a worried look.

Men were shouting and running around in a panic. They couldn’t make out the words but instead moved to return to where the northern party awaited at the king’s tent. On the way there, Lady Stark and Lady Brienne almost stumbled into them.

“We are leaving. Now.” Lady Stark commanded and some of the men snapped at her command. Hal was one of them and Jon noted how pale and out of sorts Brienne looked.

Then he saw the blood on her.

“What’s happened?” Jon asked as they all began mounting. “Lady Brienne, are you well?”

“I would never… I didn’t… my vow…” The woman said quietly, staring at him as if she truly didn’t seem to know him. Her face was twisted into some horrible grief. Lady Stark regarded Jon coldly for a moment as if in thought.

“Renly is dead.” She said quickly before gesturing back to the chaos of the camp. “Murdered, and Brienne held to blame. A charge she is innocent of.”

The shouts became clearer and they all confirmed what Lady Stark had just spoken. Renly was dead. Murdered.

“You would do well to be away from here, Jon Snow. Neither Renly nor Stannis sought to help Robb.” Lady Stark said as she gained her horse. “And Ser Robar aided our escape. I do not know how it will go for him, or for you, after they see us gone.”

Jon’s head swam at that. This was it. Lady Stark was asking him to join in service to Robb and fight alongside the North, like he had wanted but something held him back.

She said Robar helped their escape.

“Robar? Where is he?”

“He was at Renly’s tent, I warn you Snow I will not wait…”

Jon turned and ran before Lady Stark could continue. He charged into the mass of men panicking about of tents, pushing his way towards Renly’s pavilion. He thought he heard Hal shouting after him but his duty was to Ser Robar.

Cries and shouts echoed in his ears.

“The King is dead!”

“Assassins!”

“The Beauty did it!”

He found Renly’s pavilion surrounded by men who were shouting even louder. Some were even brandishing swords and threatening each other. And from within the tent, the sounds of battle rang out.

A man thumped another hard enough to send him to the ground and his comrades came to his defense, opening a hole in the ring of men that Jon leapt through.

The first thing he saw was Emmon Cuy’s lifeless eyes staring up at him. He’d been a part of Renly’s sworn swords, the Rainbow Guard, alongside Ser Loras and Robar. Now he was dead, his body propped against a basin and his armor awash in blood.

As if Emmon too watched the duel unfolding between his two sworn brothers.

Robar and Ser Loras were locked in a brutal fight, swords slashing and cutting in a way Jon knew was not for sport. They were battling hard even though Robar shouted for an end the entire time.

“Loras! This is madness! Stop!”

Ser Loras ignored the Robar’s warnings, red faced with tears upon his cheeks, he pressed the attack. Jon caught a glimpse of his eyes and saw them to be full of fury. Despite Robar’s shouts, the Knight of Flowers made no effort to stop and it was going poorly for Jon’s friend.

Robar wore no gorget or helm and Loras’s blade cut again and again near his head and neck.

Jon drew his sword in time to watch Robar’s final feint fail and Loras’s sword cut under his sword arm. Even as blood stained Robar’s armor, his sword arm lying on the ground, Loras’s backstroke was in motion, opening Robar’s neck in a bloody spray.

“No!”

Sword in hand, he rushed at Loras.

And even though Loras hadn’t expected it, the knight showed his skill and met Jon’s attack.

With Jon’s first slash he saw Robar outside the inn waving at him from a horse. The parry, the first time he offered Jon a skin of wine. As Loras stumbled over Robar’s body, Jon stabbed at him, his mentor’s smile flashing while he helped Jon up from the ground.

His rage and the surprise of his attack only gave Jon those three acts of superiority over his opponent. Then Loras was on him. The knight was armored and ten times the warrior, while Jon was not dressed for battle and was largely untested. Loras moved faster than he thought possible and there was no attacking now.

Only desperate acts of defense.

The first cut across his chest made him realize he was about to die. Loras kicked out, knocking Jon to one knee and cutting down at his head even as Jon fell. He blocked the blow out of instinct but lost his balance and the second blow met him across the middle.

As the pain of the cut screamed through his body, he saw Loras raising his bloody blade for the final blow and Jon had no strength to stop it.

This is how I die.

I’m sorry Robar…Father…

But the killing stroke never came.

Loras was ready to deliver it before his eyes widened and the man cried out as a blur of white slammed into him. Ghost’s jaws just missed getting a grip on the knight’s arm yet Loras fell.

Ghost made to charge again but stopped just in time to prevent Loras from skewering the wolf’s neck upon his sword. Ghost snapped again and again, pacing back and forth between them. Loras’s sword following him the entire time.

More men entered the tent and Jon rose to face them, as weak and bloodied as he as. They were Tyrell men but they made no move to attack him. They were too focused on retrieving Loras, only pointing spears at him and Ghost as they did so. Two grabbed at Loras while others grabbed Renly’s body, pulling them backwards out of the tent and into the night.

Jon stood there feebly until they’d gone, then he took shaky steps towards Robar’s body. He knelt beside it and Ghost came to join him in his silent vigil over his mentor.

All around them Renly’s camp tore itself to pieces.

Yet Jon stayed true to the vows he swore.

And that is where Stannis’s men found them.

 

JON

 

“It would be a good sign your grace, a direwolf amongst our men.”

Jon could have embraced Ser Davos for his words.

Yet the hard looking man who sat in judgement could only grind his teeth at the Onion Knight.

For over a moon now, Jon had been Stannis Baratheon’s captive. Weeks he’d spent at the island fortress of Dragonstone and while the realm continued to burn, yet another Baratheon kept Jon from the fight.

He did his best not to seem entirely ungrateful though. That he still had his head upon shoulders was because Stannis wanted it there. The man also seemed intent on bringing battle to the Lannisters, though he had so far refused Jon’s sword in the cause.

It was just Jon’s luck. He was finally part of a Baratheon army ready to take the fight to the Lannisters and this king wouldn’t let him join.

So far his good fortune only extended to Ser Davos arranging for Jon to argue his case before Stannis himself. The Onion Knight had done him a great service in securing this audience in the king’s solar but whether it would amount to anything was still far from certain.

He’d been miserable his entire time at Dragonstone, even though he’d been treated fairly well. His wounds from the battle with Ser Loras had been dressed and, despite the reputation of the island, none had tried to burn him.

He was also permitted to leave his chambers and stretch his legs or even attend the yard with the other warriors. Stannis had also spared Ghost, bringing the direwolf to the island, though forcing him into a captivity of his own. The poor beast was confined to the castle’s small garden with nothing to hunt and barely any room to run.

Their visits together had been one of the rare things to keep Jon from lashing out. He’d had rare contact with any others, save Ser Davos and Ser Richard Horpe, a pock marked warrior tasked with seeing him from his chambers to the practice yard and back.

It was Ser Richard who had brought him here to find Ser Davos, King Stannis, and his red priestess. Had someone told Jon a year ago that one day he’d be standing in the very room where Aegon the Conqueror had plotted his conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, he would have thought them mad. As he gazed upon the table, carved into the likeness of the realm, he realized just how far he was from Winterfell.

And how close to King’s Landing.

“A good sign? Because his half-brother wins some victories?” Stannis ground his teeth and stared upon the table himself. “Fighting for their true king should be all the good omens my men need.”

“To fight is all I wish to do, your grace. To help bring justice to those who plotted against my father.” Jon laid plain his case to Stannis. “To help free my sister whom they hold captive and to see a just king upon the Iron Throne. If you permit me, I’d fight for all of those things. I’d fight by your side, your grace.”

“Fight by my side? Not for me?” Stannis questioned him without warmth. “Be honest Snow, if your usurper brother was here, would you even consider fighting by my side?”

Not for an instant.

“I am a Northman your grace, and the Starks are my liege lords and kin. My loyalty is to them.” Jon would not lie, Tyrion had showed him how poorly he did so. “And the Lannisters are my enemy. Same as yours.”

Stannis grunted and Jon shot a quick look to Davos, who gave him a reassuring smile. He hoped that meant he’d spoken well.

“My enemies are any who deny the throne that is mine by rights. Whether it be the abomination in King’s Landing, the reaver at Pyke or your usurper brother.” Stannis crushed his hopes with a flick of his hand. “Do not hide behind your feelings for family, I did not. I took the fight to my own brother because it was right. I did what must be done against usurpers.”

“Your grace…”

“You held some esteem in Ned Stark’s eyes I’d heard. I’m hoping the same is true for his heir. As a hostage, you may have some value but as a soldier?” Stannis ground his teeth and shook his head. “We have enough squires.”

Jon saw it all falling down around him. He’d offered Stannis no guile, meant him no betrayal. His words had been true. All he desired was to get into the fight and do right by the memory of his father. He dreamed of such some nights. Of freeing Sansa, finding Arya, and somehow making his way home to Winterfell with them in tow.

That’s when Melisandre stirred, her hands touching the sides of her head before being clasped at her chest.

“My king, I’d speak if you’d allow it.” She spoke softly, in that strange and mesmerizing accent of hers, somehow drawing the attention of the entire room.

“Of course… even Lady Melisandre has a view on this…” Stannis shook his head. “Go on then.”

Despite how coldly Stannis spoke to her, Melisandre smiled and there was nothing foreign about how enticing she looked. Jon had admired the exotic priestess since he’d first glimpsed her at Storm’s End. She garbed herself in deep scarlet robes that slashed across her body like ribbons and was almost sheer in some places. It made Jon felt immodest just looking upon her, which he did his best to avoid whenever they crossed paths.

“I thank you, your grace, and I ask that you reconsider this matter.” Melisandre glanced to Jon then and he felt a queer tingle run down his spine.

What was that?

It felt like she looked right through me.

“If you would not have me at your side for this battle, take this youth.” Melisandre continued, her eyes swinging back upon the king. “I have seen Jon Snow in the flames. The visions given to me by our Lord of Light show me that his path is beside the future king.”

She brought her arms up as if beseeching the king and Jon swore he felt a burst of heat wash over him.

“I’ve seen Jon Snow fighting alongside the armies of light against the forces of the Great Darkness!” Melisandre cried, her hands closing into fists. “A great white wolf standing before the great pyre of R’hllor, a bright fire burning, serving as a beacon of hope for us all! A vital part of Azor Ahai’s glory!”

Jon stood gaping at all this. He had no idea what any of it meant or if it meant anything at all. He knew full well what kind of offerings this red priestess asked of Stannis in return for her god’s favor. Ser Davos had told him she’d even suggested burning certain bastards of royal blood since Jon’s arrival.

Even those of northern usurpers.

Ser Davos was scowling at the whole spectacle before them but he cared little, his attention focused on Stannis. He searched the man’s face for any sign that Melisandre’s words had helped him but all he could see was the same hard and impassive expression he’d borne before.

“You’ve seen him as some kind of warrior... this green boy helping me to my throne?”

“It is why I bid you to spare him when your false brother’s army broke.” Melisandre clutched at the red ruby at her neck then. “I saw all of these things the night of Renly’s death.”

Jon thought Stannis looked surprised by that comment.

The king’s gaze slowly turned from Melisandre towards him. As his fingers thumped against the arm of his chair, his eyes seemed to take measure of Jon.

“I’ve seen you in the yard. You do well enough against guardsmen.” Stannis turned and waved at the knight standing off to the corner. “You’ve seen him ser. As a warrior, would you trust him in a fight?”

There was no other way to describe Ser Richard than a warrior. Jon couldn’t imagine him among Renly’s preferred knights. Pox-scarred and unkempt, Richard’s long, greasy hair hung limply from his head and a face that usually held a look of blank indifference. Not exactly a knight to be loved at first glance. Jon thought he would’ve fit in with Renly’s Rainbow guard as well as Brienne of Tarth had.

Considering the knight’s skill with a sword and reputation among the men at Dragonstone, Jon didn’t think he would’ve been pleased being a part of Renly’s march. He was no master of courtesies or words but what he lacked in grace he made up for in ability. Jon pitied any man that might face Ser Richard in battle.

Whether Ser Richard thought the same of him, he didn’t know until the man spoke.

“He swore to attempt no escape and kept that promise. He is well trained, and fights better than his youth and experience should allow.” Ser Richard spoke simply, never once looking at Jon. “He’d be a good addition to our forces and I trust the lady’s visions. I trust in R’hllor.”

Ser Davos made to speak as well but Stannis held up a gloved hand against it.

“Your position has changed, my onion knight, now that the lady has spoken in favor? Don’t bother, I’m done with this matter.” Stannis walked to Jon and glared long and hard upon his face. “If you fall during the battle, I would still have your sister as a hostage. And if she falls, you had best survive.”

Jon dropped to a knee and began to utter his thanks but Stannis had already stridden away to the far end of the table, bellowing for his steward. With their audience apparently at an end, Jon rose and saw Melisandre whispering something to Ser Richard. She broke away quickly and left the room before Jon could thank her.

Instead it would be Ser Richard to thank, as it fell to him to escort Jon back to his chambers.

“You have my thanks ser.” Jon said as they made their way through the corridors of the Targaryen castle. “I will do my best to prove myself worthy of…”

“I have no need of your thanks or your promises.” Richard cut him off. “The Lord of Light has a purpose for us. If I can help you be of use to R’hllor, I’ll do so.”

“To finally be able to fight… it’s a use I’ve wanted for some time.”

Richard said no more to that so Jon’s thoughts turned to the battles that lay ahead of him. He decided he would take Robar’s sword into battle himself, to honor his mentor by using the blade in the battles they were supposed to fight together.

One day he would return the blade to Runestone. To hand Robar’s sword back to his father was the least he could do. For all that his mentor had done for him.

That and make Loras Tyrell suffer for Robar’s murder.

The Lannisters first, he decided, then Loras.

So lost in those thoughts, he didn’t realize Ser Richard was leading him to another part of the castle away from his chambers. Jon then realized that they were in a wing he hadn’t ever been to before.

He began to ask why they were here when they stopped outside a large, dark, door, guarded by two men he did not know.

Richard held out a hand towards it, beckoning him to enter.

As soon as he did, Jon was blasted by a wave of immense heat within and his back was almost caught by the door as one of the guards pulled it shut.

The room appeared to be someone’s chambers, plainly furnished save for a bed that did not look slept in, and a simple trunk at its base. What the room lacked in finery, it made up for with the sheer number of flames within. He counted three burning braziers about the room, six torches along the walls and scores of candles upon every surface that could hold them.

“Welcome, Jon Snow.” Melisandre’s voice drifted from behind the largest brazier. The tall flames had blocked him from seeing her as she knelt behind it. “I would have you join me… if you are willing.”

“Of course, my lady.” Jon bowed.

She smiled and beckoned him forward. He made to sit to the other side of the flames but the woman bid that he come to her side. Already he felt the situation somewhat inappropriate, that he was out of place here, yet he would not insult her. Not after she’d helped him.

The heat of the room had already caused sweat to break upon his brow yet Melisandre showed no sign of discomfort. In fact, she seemed much changed from when he’d seen her earlier.

Jon thought she almost glowed in the light of all the flames around her. Her copper eyes appeared to glow as they gazed upon the brazier.

That wasn’t all that had changed in her appearance. Melisandre had changed gowns as well. The silk dress she wore made her previous robes look chaste and homely in comparison.

Her shoulders and the top half of breasts were bare to him and the silk was so sheer over the parts she had attempted to cover he wondered if it was worth the effort. The round, fullness of her chest and the dark areas that could only be her nipples drew his eyes.

Yet he pried them away and stared into the brazier as he knelt beside her.

You should be thanking her not ogling her, you fool.

“You did me a great boon saying what you did to the king. You’ll never know what it means to finally fight-”

“The battle before you is a doomed one.” Melisandre spoke without taking her eyes from the flames. “It is one my king would fight despite my counsel, without me at his side. It is the path R’hllor has set for him and I must accept that, just as you must accept that there is more to your path than fighting beside the king. You’re meant to fight for the one true god.”

She looked to him then, as if expecting him to speak to that but Jon said nothing.

He had no idea what to say to something like that.

This red god of Ser Richard and Melisandre’s was a strange, foreign thing to him. A god that seemed pleased with the burning of men. A god which might be pleased by seeing him burn.

Ser Davos said to be wary of her.

Is she truly mad?

Suddenly being alone in Lady Melisandre’s chambers felt more than awkward, it felt almost threatening. He remembered the feeling he’d had when she gazed upon him in Stannis’s presence. Now with her speaking so strangely, the urge to leave her side grew stronger and stronger.

Jon glanced to the door for only half a moment before Melisandre’s hand cupped his chin and turned his face to regard her fully.

“This battle will end in flames Jon Snow, yet the war will rage on. R’hllor’s will must still be done. You shall be set upon a path my lord has set for you. I saw you in need, when a dark fish would wish to be a beast and be welcomed among its kin. When king’s blood would be offered to the flames, these bands will burn with R’hllor’s favor. His will must be done, and he’s shown me your efforts are worth such gifts.”

Melisandre reached beside her and pulled a small bag into her lap. From within she took two simple bronze bracelets, each with a ruby upon them, similar to the one on her choker.

“These are his gifts, wrought by his mortal servants, but blessed with his power. When the time comes, you must place one upon each of those you’d change. Their possessions empower the glamor, clothing, jewelry, anything that makes them who they are to the eye.”

“My lady, I don’t know what you…” Jon protested but Melisandre grasped his wrist, pulling him towards her until her face was a hair from his own.

“When it comes time, let the blood of king fall upon them then into the flames themselves. When the bands are removed, so too is the glamor.” Her touch was hot upon his skin, her lips full, and Jon thought of an ale soaked kiss with a serving girl long ago. “Remember that Jon Snow. R’hllor wishes you to.”

He knew something was wrong about all of this. The flames around them appeared to pulse with the beating of his heart.

Or was it hers?

For some reason he could not tell the difference now. It was as if her touch was stealing him away. His head felt tired but his breathing quickened in panic.

“Say you understand.” Her voice filled his head yet he could not tell if those full, red lips moved to speak. “Say you accept them.”

“I understand.” His voice sounded queer and he felt as if he’d had too much wine. “I accept your gifts, my lady.”

He watched as Melisandre returned the bracelets to the sack and placed it upon his lap. Then she rose and his head began to clear.

His senses returned to him so suddenly that he felt embarrassed to be sitting while the lady stood before him. He rose hurriedly to beg her pardons but she had walked away from him towards the pristine bed.

Jon assumed their audience had come to an end.

“I shall take my leave then.” He said, backing away towards the door.

“You would leave without offering a prayer to R’hllor?” Melisandre asked as she undid the bronze chain about her waist and let it fall to the floor. “After the boons he’s given you?”

“Forgive me, but my prayers are not one your god would want.” Jon stared as Melisandre reached to touch the strings around her neck, binding her grown. “Mine are for the old gods.”

“False gods, not worthy of your words.” She wrapped her fingers around the laces. “And prayers are merely words Jon Snow. Sacrifice is the only kind of offering R’hllor truly wants of us.”

“Your red god takes offerings that I’d prefer not to give. I’m sorry, but I’ve no desire to burn. I know that much…”

“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Lady Melisandre said as she undid the laces holding the front of her gown together, dropping the dress to the ground, standing bare before him now.

Her actions made his heart beat even harder within his chest, the sweat upon his body becoming but a minor inconvenience. Melisandre was beautiful in her gowns but she was positively awe-inspiring without them. Part of Jon wanted to run but something else pulled him toward her, undeniable in its power.

“My lady…” Jon objected as he gazed at the perfect roundness of her breasts. The dark pink circles around her nipples kept his attention only for so long before his eyes roamed to the dark copper thatch of hair between her legs.

“It would be a pure death, to die in the flames.” Melisandre said as she walked towards him, taking his hand in hers. “But there are other offerings you can make. We can join our flames… and hold off the darkness for one night more.”

“I have not…” Jon barely resisted her pulling of him towards the bed. “I mean, I haven’t ever been with…”

“R’hllor will thank you for that gift.” She said as her hands moved over his clothes. The heat of the room, and beauty of the woman, distracted him so much that it seemed only a second before he was completely naked before. He felt himself being pushed back onto the bed as Melisandre moved to straddle him.

“I would father no bastards.” He protested as her wetness touched the tip of his cock. “Oh gods…”

“This is for the one god… the true god…” Melisandre’s words were almost lost in his own groan as she sank down upon him.

Those were the last words she spoke in the Common Tongue as she drew herself up and down upon him. When she rose up, he almost growled at the prospect of his cock leaving her folds until she fell back upon him and he grunted, arching his back to be even deeper within.

As he grasped her hips and fought against every moment he wasn’t in her, Melisandre murmured in a strange foreign tongue. Her hands traced the lines of scars Loras had given him. They’d once stung horribly yet her touch set his skin tingling in pleasure.

As the flames burnt around them, he gave Melisandre all she wanted of him. Even with the fires burning so hot, he felt that being inside her was somehow warmer.

Driving into her again and again, it made no sense how her heat could burn him so much and yet cause him such pleasure all at once.

Yet as he felt his peak coming, his senses began to return.

“I can’t…” He tried to stop then, pushing at her hips to lift her body off of his. “I can’t have a bastard!”

Melisandre ignored his efforts. In fact, she pinned his arms down from pushing her off and rode him all the harder as if in retaliation.

He wondered if she hadn’t heard him until he saw her eyes.

They burned with a terrible fire as she looked down at him, her hips pushing him even further within her and he felt himself boiling over.

“Fear no child…” She gasped at his release. “…for it would be for R’hllor.”

And with those words, despite the heat, Jon felt very cold.

“For the flames of R’hllor.”

Chapter Text

JON

 

“Go on Ghost, I’ll be fine.”

Jon was lying and he knew it.

His horse was faltering, weak from hunger and tired, meanwhile their pursuers were closing in upon them.

Whoever they are.

The horse had managed to amble toward a thicker copse of trees but could go no further.

When Jon had dismounted, he found that his legs were so sore from riding that fleeing on foot was no longer an option. So instead he leaned against a tree and waited, watching and listening for a sign of the party that had been following them since midday.

As he waited for his pursuers to fall upon him, Ghost paced in a circle, nudging at his leg as if urging Jon to continue forward. He didn’t want the wolf to face whatever fate awaited him, but a part of Jon was thankful for his old friend’s loyalty.

Jon didn’t want to die alone.

“This is it my friend, go on now.” He pushed at the direwolf but the beast would not budge. It seemed that Ghost was intending to stay by his side until the very end. “You have poor taste in friends Ghost. It’s just my luck to always pick the wrong armies… the worst luck…”

Weeks later, he still dreamed of the Blackwater burning. There were still nights where he awoke to the screaming of dying men in his ear. Those few times Jon risked building a fire to warm himself, he would look into the flames and see the green inferno, the bright explosion that lit the battlefield like some demonic sun, flames flicking off the walls of the capital.

During Stannis’s march through the Kingswood, his army came under continued attack by wildlings in service to the Lannisters. When Jon had proven that Ghost could warn against such attacks, the two of them had been put to use in scouting for enemies.

Unfortunately, doing so meant he’d gone from a sure place in the main fight to being placed in a party of outriders, screening their march against further raids.

It had still meant fighting though and it was a bloody business all around. Jon killed his first man in those woods. He had always known that one day he would have to kill someone, and Jon had worried that when he killed his first man that their eyes would somehow haunt him. In truth, he hadn’t really seen his attacker’s face. Most of the raids came at night, under the cover of darkness. He’d killed two more before they emerged from the Kingswood and Ghost five, to his best account. According to the party’s leader, a Mullendore captain named Henry, they were the only outrider party to survive and reach the banks of the Blackwater.

When the Blackwater had been set aflame, Jon had watched as ships and men burned in a way he had never thought possible, the flames impossibly hot, spreading as if the inferno had a hunger all its own, one it sought to sate by feeding on their army. Wildfire was as terrible as they had been warned but everyone seemed as surprised as Jon that there was so much of it. As he watched the carnage, Jon couldn’t help but think of his night with Melisandre and how she probably would’ve enjoyed seeing such butchery and he became disgusted with himself once again for lying with such a woman.

It was through that chaos that Jon and the others sailed. Some small crafts had been saved and were used to ferry the men across the bay, to begin their assault against the walls.

Even with the bay in flames and most of Stannis’s fleet lost, they still hadn’t lost heart. Victory had still been within the king’s grasp. The attack had pressed on. Jon was part of the force trying to breach the King’s Gate while the main battle geared up around the Mud Gate to their left.

Jon had wanted to be a part of the main attack and it had frustrated him that he could see so much of the battle unfolding yet his party was to continue guarding the flank, facing the river, away from the battle at the King’s Gate. He had come all this way and once again he felt like a spectator, unable to help, to fight, to serve with honor.

If he was to save Sansa and Arya and he couldn’t do so as an outrider.

Yet I swore to obey. That was Stannis’s price for my being a part of this.

The other men in his riding party had been no happier to watch and wait. When a foray from the city broke the attack upon the King’s Gate, moving the men there further down the riverfront, Jon had been eager to take part then. He had been among a group that called for riding against the rear of the city defenders but Henry had held firm.

“Look, the broken men reform even as we speak.” Henry had pointed to the survivors of the gate siege gathering again at the riverbank, forming a line for another attack. “If their leader has need of eight riders he’ll send word but for now let’s guard the way from any attacks so that they have the chance to reform.”

“Against what attacks? Wildlings? They’re on the other side of the bloody river! All we’re doing is staring at fucking water!” A man-at-arms named Rigsby had argued and Jon realized then that they truly were the only eyes on the flank of their force. Then he noticed Ghost disappearing into the darkness up west, towards the direction where the assault on the King’s Gate was being attempted once more.

“Someone should ride further upriver.” He’d said and the others called him craven. “I wish to fight as much as you, but Rigsby is right, the river is guarding us south. If a counterattack comes, it’ll come along here from the west and sweep us, maybe even take our men at the Mud Gate by surprise.”

“Alright bastard, since you seem to be the expert, you’ll be following your own advice.” Henry had laughed. “Marc and Ian, you’ll join the bastard here for a little ride upriver. Just in case…”

They’d ridden off to the catcalls of the others and Jon had been furious to be sent further away from the gates.

Something, it turned out, had saved his life.

They were still riding about the walls, moving further and further west when a cheer went up behind them. He imagined that the Mud Gate had been breached and Jon cursed himself for being so far from the battle. Then Ghost suddenly veered north, toward the Lion Gate where there was no battle yet some instinct told Jon to follow after him.

He remembered thinking that Ghost was acting like he did during a hunt just before the direwolf made a kill. His prey this time had been another group of riders, three men flying a lion banner, and with the direwolf scaring their horses it was a fight his party had the better of.

Jon had cut a man down himself before they heard the trumpets sounding.

That was when he had truly lost heart.

Even in the darkness beyond the city walls, he could see thousands of dark shapes moving down the river towards the battle. They had thought the river would guard against any attacks on the army’s rear but this force was on the north side of the Blackwater Rush, somehow having stolen a march on Stannis, burning no torches to warn of their coming. Jon would later realize that the men his party had attacked were sent ahead to tell the city of Lord Tywin’s arrival.

“Back! Back!” Marc had yelled. Too late it turned out, for they’d been cut off from doing so by a group loosing crossbow bolts at them.

His two comrades fell to the bolts and there had been nothing he could do for them. Jon barely escaped death himself. A bolt had chewed through his shield and stabbed into his side. It had been a shallow wound though and he’d ripped the bolt out as he rode after Ghost. More riders were shooting at them and the only escape Jon and Ghost had was away from the rest of Stannis’s army, into the charge of the Lannister one.

Ghost and he slipped through an opening in their lines and somehow outlasted those who gave chase. He imagined they probably sought more glory than killing a single outrider. There was a better fight to be had as the Lannisters fell upon the Baratheon flanks, just as Jon had warned might happen, though he had never dreamed a force would come in such large numbers.

It shamed him that he wasn’t there to warn anyone but his route back to Stannis’s army had been blocked by tens of thousands of the enemy and the capital itself.

Within its walls Sansa and Arya were still imprisoned. He thought then of Sansa brushing out Lady’s fur, singing. He thought of Arya jumping into piles of leaves in the Godswood, laughing when Nymeria joined by jumping on top of her. Freeing the girls was something he wanted more than anything in the world but it just seemed so impossible now. The river, the army, the wildfire… so much stood in his way.

Jon was lost as to how to survive the night, let alone somehow saving his family. The army marching on the capital seemed endless and deep inside Jon had known that his family was out of reach once again. He’d even given thought to letting the Lannisters capture him, just to see the girls again. They could at least be prisoners together. He could give Sansa and Arya courage and maybe hold them in his arms one last time, even if those arms were chained to a dungeon wall. After all of the waiting, the idea had been tempting.

Ghost would have none of it though. The beast had done everything he could to keep them moving, save attacking Jon’s horse. They continued on, away from the city and his family. His friend somehow guided them through the night and past whatever men screened the Lannister advance. Soon they both saw morning.

Jon spent most of the early day watching from a nearby hilltop for any sign that things were not as dire as he feared. He’d hoped Stannis had somehow overcome the arrival of the Lannister reinforcements and Jon looked to see any defeated remnants of Stannis’s army fleeing nearby that he could regroup with.

Yet none came. Instead what came forth was the sound of bells ringing with the city and Jon knew then that the siege had been broken.

The Lannisters had won.

Jon sat upon his horse watching the smoke rise from the battlefield for some time longer. The smell of burnt men had been wafting in the air even there, far from the city. His thoughts had been ringing in his head, even louder than the bells.

Stannis is defeated and even if I could return to him, I’d be a prisoner again.

He’d looked to Ghost and saw his friend pacing warily, as if eager to leave the place. Yet where would they go? Jon thought on that for a long time. That he suddenly had the freedom to choose his course was an altogether new thing for him. All his life, Jon had done as his father bid him. Then his father had placed him under Robar’s care and Jon had done as Robar bid him, then later Stannis. It was hard for Jon to even remember what it was like, to just want something for himself. He couldn’t be sure what that even was anymore.

The one thing you’ve wanted since the night you fled Highgarden, he’d realized.

To fight alongside your brother. To fight beside Robb.

We can save the girls together.

It didn’t matter that he had little to no idea on how to make such a thing happen. Once the goal was in his head, Jon decided that that was the only path he could take.

So at as quick a pace as they could muster, Ghost and Jon made their way north towards the Riverlands. He had scorned trying to find the Kingsroad out of fear for which side may control it so the pair followed the river as it headed west. He knew from maps he’d seen at Highgarden that it would eventually curve north and branch off in two directions, one toward Harrenhal and the other toward Pinkmaiden, south of Riverrun. He had spent hours staring at those maps, thinking of where his brother Robb and the Northern army was marching, where his sisters lay captured, so Jon felt confident in the route. They did their best to avoid any riders or settlements, opting to sleep beneath hedges and live off what game Ghost caught.

Ghost and he were not the only ones trying to avoid catching attention. Over the days of riding, Jon spotted camps hidden within untended fields or amongst overgrown hedges. The people all had the look of smallfolk trying to escape the fighting that was raging north. Most often they hid from Jon and he did not think to bother them.

They were fleeing the war while he sought to find it.

Yet days with only Ghost and his mount to spend the time with wore on Jon. His thoughts would torment him. Thoughts of his mistakes and the things he’d lost.

So when the river finally forked and he found a ferry to help them cross, he also sought news from the ferryman. The man was old and his barge was barely afloat, yet it did well enough to get them across and he shared with Jon what other travellers had told him.

“Truly?” Jon couldn’t believe what he had heard. “The Tyrells joined with the Lannisters?”

“Tis what some Marbrand riders said.”

“But… but the Tyrells were going to fight the Lannisters! Why would they join them?”

Jon hadn’t wanted to believe it. In his time with Renly’s army, he had grown critical of their wasteful and decadent march, of their constant boasting without any action, but he never once doubted that the knights and lords truly believed in what they were marching for. They had denounced the Lannisters as evil, Queen Cersei as a schemer, the Kingslayer as a villain, and young King Joffrey as a dishonorable little monster for taking his father’s head.

Stannis had thought otherwise of the army, even the ones who ended up joining him after Renly’s death. Though Jon had rarely shared audiences with the man, he heard Stannis accuse those who followed Renly of being nothing more than opportunistic sots. That they sought to defy their rightful king, and depose the Lannisters, not for honor or for duty, but so they could place a king on the Iron Throne who would flatter and shower them with favor. Though Jon had had the foresight to keep his opinions to himself at Dragonstone, he had quietly disagreed with the man’s denouncements of the Tyrells and their armies.

I thought them fools, knights of summer, but that their chivalry was true.

Was it all a lie?

“Do you think Tywin Lannister and the Knight of Flowers share their secrets with me?” The old man had wheezed and laughed at Jon’s shock. Then he had noticed the baleful look that Ghost was giving him and the old man composed himself.

“I heard Stannis lives though. Hard man, King Robert’s brother.” The ferryman hacked up that news with some discolored mucus. “Seen ‘im once, hard is the only thing to call the man. The Imp’s fires couldn’t do for ‘im, nor the lions or the roses. Traitor that he is, of course.”

The man had added the last part as if conscious of the respectful tone he had been speaking with. Jon didn’t ask the man which king he supported, showing the same courtesy the ferryman had shown in not asking about Ghost. It cost Jon what little coin he’d had and even his own sword to afford the trip across the river.

Many nights Jon slept with no more than a belly full of wild berries and his saddle to rest his head upon. When there was a chill, Ghost and he would share the ground and Jon would have nothing but the wolf’s fur to keep him warm. Jon knew their travels were taking their toll on him. His breeches fit looser, he was at the last notch of his sword belt, and he began wondering how much fight he could offer if it came to it.

Most days he was too worn from the journey to practice at the sword, and when he found the strength to try, he did so alone with a blade that was not his. Robar’s sword was finely made, gifted to him by Bronze Yohn Royce himself, and Jon felt unworthy wielding it.

But I will.

I won’t be taken prisoner or killed without fighting back.

It had been the first thing he thought of when their troubles worsened.

One morning he awoke and had somehow known they were being followed. Jon put it down to the strange dreams he’d had of moving through the trees and fields at night, yet doing so as a wolf and seeing the world through a wolf’s eyes instead of his own.

The world would be alive with sounds he usually couldn’t hear and smells he’d never noticed. Most often he was hunting, sometimes watching himself sleep by the embers of a dying fire. This time he’d smelt their coming; men on horses, moving through the darkness.

He’d awoken with a start as Ghost licked his face. There was no reason to think the dream was true save for Ghost’s earnest efforts at getting him to rise. Still, Jon made sure that they had left their camp at a quick pace. Hours later he spotted them upon a ridge in the distance.

And now they were moving between the trees towards them.

“Ghost, go. Please my friend.” He tried again to push the wolf onward but Ghost did not move. “Please. Find Robb, or the girls. There’s no helping me anymore.”

If Ghost understood his words, and Jon suspected the bloody beast did, he ignored them. The direwolf moved to Jon’s side, as if to stand his ground 

Just as I must, he almost laughed, at least I’ll give them a fight.

They can’t take that from me.

He unsheathed Robar’s sword and straightened up to a proper fighting stance as they came on.

Six riders on ragged horses emerged from the trees, doing their best to navigate the heavy brush. They bore no sigils or banners, their cloaks and armor giving them the look of outlaws rather than outriders. Jon spotted two archers among them yet neither had drawn their bows nor had the others pulled their swords. Yet.

Ghost and Jon were in a good position for battle, the large trees behind them prevented an attack from the rear and there was too little space between the trees in front for any of the riders to charge him.

Even better, some of the horses were shying from the scent of Ghost.

Maybe we can take a couple of them down before they kill us.

“Good day to you.” A fleshy-looking man called out. He was holding a large mace and eyed Jon intently as the riders moved into a semi-circle about them.

“Always a good day with no rain.” Jon kept count of the men carefully.

“Quite the beast you have there.” A cross-eyed man wearing a halfhelm pointed at Ghost. “Are you a scout for the wolves? Sworn to Lord Leech?

“I have no gold and no possessions beyond what you see.” He gestured about his person and towards his exhausted mount. “I ask you to leave me with them.”

“And what would be in that sack you’re hiding under your cloak?”

The bands Melisandre had entrusted with him were tied behind his back and he cursed the outlaw’s good eyes. He’d kept them well-hidden during his march with Stannis’s army and even from the prying eyes of the ferryman, for fear the man would exploit his desperation. He didn’t truly believe Melisandre’s prophecies when she’d made them but after the river burned, and the battle was lost, he was loath to lose them.

The outlaws had their own ideas and were declaring them loudly.

“Gold for Lord Leech to be paying his Bloody Mummers most like.”

“Hand it over and you’ll be doing the king’s business lad, no shame in that.”

“Come no further or you’ll pay in blood. That I swear.” Jon answered with a strength that hadn’t been in his voice before. He took up a stance towards the most eager of the thieves and Ghost bared his teeth.

Now swords were being drawn and the archers notched their arrows. Jon wished he had a shield against the arrows. He could always run behind the trees should they come yet leaving Ghost to their mercy was too shameful to imagine. So he stood and hoped their aim was poor, trying to maintain as brave a face as he could.

Yet a wave of helplessness fell over him as another pair of riders appeared behind the others.

These two were different than the outlaws. One was a young boy with pale blonde air and queer colored eyes. He was ordinary-looking compared to the other rider though, who had the look of a scarecrow made of bones and human skin. His head was caved in at one part and one eye was bound over with dark cloth, yet those wounds paled to how stick thin he appeared, making Jon feel positively fat in comparison. As shabby and threadbare as their clothing was, Jon could see that it had once been lordly garb. They also carried themselves differently than the others, in such a way that Jon thought them highborn.

“Hold!” The man commanded and the would-be thieves all heeded him. His one eye moved between Ghost and Jon several times before he finally spoke again. “That is a direwolf. How did you come to have a direwolf?”

“I keep him and he keeps me.”

“I’ve only heard of one family who could boast such about the company of direwolves.” The disfigured man said in an oddly powerful voice considering his frail appearance. “What is your name lad?”

Say nothing.

“I’m just a man trying to make his way. Let me continue on and I will be no trouble to you… my lord.” Jon bowed slightly without taking his eyes from the weapons arrayed against him.

“No trouble… I think that true, no matter how poorly you lie.” The thin man dismounted and walked slowly towards him. “That’s a fine blade you hold, good looking without being lavish… a warrior’s blade. My memory is not what it was but I remember a tourney… a tourney where I met a knight who wielded such a blade. I remember that he was a good man and a better knight… I remember that he was to take a squire before he left the capital…”

“Please, come no further.” Jon warned as he moved the point of the sword towards the lord’s approach, more out of fear for what Ghost might do if he felt threatened than fear of the lord himself.

“That squire… his father was a man I knew. A man I respected. His face is not yet lost to me.”

“I said stop.” Jon took a step forward and the other riders all cursed and threatened as he did so.

The scarecrow lord continued on, his gaze fixed upon Jon’s face. Something about the way the man’s eye bore into his own made him uneasy. His gaze had an intensity that he’d seen in Robar’s eyes when he sparred against a worthy opponent, or Melisandre as she gazed into the flames.

“You’re Lord Stark’s natural son? He too had a direwolf, Robar bragged about that much.”

“Jon Snow?” The boy who rode with the strange man spoke for the first time and Jon was shocked that someone knew his name. “Be you Jon Snow?”

“Yes, Edric has the right of it. I so name you Jon Snow, son to our late Hand.” The thin man now stood before Ghost and held out his hand to the wolf. Jon was surprised when the wolf merely sniffed at it before allowing the mystery lord to stroke the top of his head. “Speak to it.”

If they’re going to kill you anyways, why not let them know who they kill?

If you can be proud of anything, take pride in who fathered you.

“I am Jon Snow.” He said through gritted teeth, his eyes moving across the riders now. “Eddard Stark was my father and I am his son, and an enemy to any who call House Stark theirs.”

Someone whistled and a few of the men began to talk amongst themselves while the battered lord only gave the slightest of nods.

“Robar would not have given his sword away. Either you stole it or my friend’s fire has been extinguished.”

“He fell in battle.” Jon admitted. “He was betrayed by his sworn brother. I was forbidden from seeing his bones home. All I could take was his sword and I hope to return it to his father at Runestone one day, to honor his memory…”

“Such a blade could pay for a good bunch of food, m’lord.” The cross-eyed man urged his horse forward which Ghost answered by snapping at the mount. The outlaw continued to argue even as he struggled to keep his horse from fleeing. “Or better horses! The lad could have stolen it-”

“I am no thief. There are enough of those about.” Jon made sure to look about at the outlaws then, raising his eyebrow at the thought of them accusing him of thievery. “This sword will be returned to Lord Royce and I would sooner die than balk from that task.”

Silence followed his words. Again, men seemed to tense for battle but the mystery lord merely stared at him. Whether the lord was being truthful or not Jon couldn’t say but he hated the idea of having to cut down a friend of Robar’s with his own sword.

“To die rather than run from what you must do… it is something I understand well Jon Snow. You are too harsh in what you think of my men. We may steal, but we do so in service to our king. To spare his subjects the cost of war, to see the king’s will done as your lord father tasked us… to see the Mountain brought to justice…”

Bring the Mountain to justice?

As my father bid them to do?

Jon remembered now when word had reached Robar and he upon the road to Highgarden, of a party sent forth by his father to hunt down Gregor Clegane and bring him to justice for the crime of raiding and pillaging in the Riverlands. They’d both been disappointed to miss out on such a noble quest but Robar had insisted that they press on. Jon stared hard at the man’s tunic then and through the bloodstains and grime, saw what he had missed before.

A purple lightning bolt.

“Lord Beric? Lord Beric Dondarrion?” He dropped to a knee without hesitation.

“Rise Jon Snow.” Beric’s hand pulled upon his shoulder. “Rise and meet the brotherhood your father created.”

 

 JON

 

“They’re waiting for us, just like the shepherds said.”

“Speak quieter boy or they’ll know we know they know.” Merrit whispered, sounding exasperated at Edric and looking even more so when the rest of them started shaking their heads at his words. “They will! Keep talking like that and they’ll hear us, you’ll see…”

“Yes, we know.” Jon whispered back, his eyes still scanning the darkness for any sign of Ghost. The ten of them were hunkered down behind some fallen trees, far enough in the woods to avoid being seen but close enough to the river and the bridge to do what needed to be done. “How many Edric?”

“Eight riders, some archers I think, but mostly spearmen.” He could almost hear Edric grinning in the darkness. “They’re a smelly lot too.”

“You got that close?” Jon frowned despite being impressed at the young Lord of Starfall’s ability at scouting. As the smallest and lightest of them, it had been Beric’s squire to go forth and find the waiting ambush and report back on its size.

“That or they have never bathed in their lives.” The squire whispered back before Merrit growled at them to hush again.

It had been over three weeks since he’d met the Brotherhood and Jon still marveled at how the motley group had survived all this time. He had grown used to them now but it had taken some time for Jon to trust men who were, no matter what they said about themselves, essentially outlaws. The first night with them had been the hardest.

It was Beric that told him Robb was still off fighting in the west and that trying to reach him by travelling alone through the Riverlands would essentially be suicide. Then it had been Beric who broke his heart.

“We have had this news from a trusted source some days before we found your trail Jon…” The lord had seemed hesitant to continue but Jon had pressed him, fearful that Robb had been defeated or trapped somewhere. “No harm has befallen your eldest brother…”

“My eldest brother?” He’d asked, wondering why Beric had felt the need to make the distinction. Bran and Rickon were safe at Winterfell, the only members of his family he didn’t need to fear for.

How wrong he had been.

When Beric had told him about the fall of Winterfell to Theon Greyjoy he’d been furious. Jon had always distrusted Theon, less for his Greyjoy heritage and more for his callous and selfish nature. Robb however had always treated Theon fondly and seemed to look to him as an older brother. Theon seemed to return the affection and held a fierce loyalty toward Robb, the only part of his character that Jon cared for. There were even times when Jon grew jealous of the brotherhood that Robb and Theon shared. That he had betrayed Robb and the Starks in their time of need was something Jon had not thought Theon capable of.

Which is what made Beric’s next words the hardest to hear.

“He didn’t… no. Theon is greedy and vain but he’s not a monster… they are but children… they are safe in Winterfell… they were safe… safe.”

Those were the only words he could utter before his disbelief struck him silent. The murders of Bran and Rickon cut into him as badly as his father’s, maybe even more so. He’d never prepared himself for the possibility that the boys would be doing anything but waiting for him back in Winterfell. His father had been in danger in the capital, the boys protected in the castle.

Where he’d left them.

“Oh gods… I was there… I left them.” He drew his sword and the other men gathered about had drawn their own in fear. Instead of lashing out though, Jon had fallen to his knees in grief and screamed, clutching Robar’s sword to his chest, feeling more impotent than ever.

You were there and you left them.

If you’d stayed, you could have protected them.

You killed the boys.

Just like you killed father.

He’d slept that night only because he could drown his grief in a skin of wine that Kyle had given him. When he awoke, the pain in his head did not compare to the one he carried within himself. There was a hole where his heart had been cut out of him, the edges bleeding and raw, aching with every breath he took.

Simply living has become painful.

It had still been dark out, very late in the night, but Beric had been sitting by the dead fire staring at him, as if waiting for when Jon would wake from his stupor.

“You feel you have failed in everything.” The outlaw lord tended to the cooling fireside. “Your duties, your family, even yourself.”

“Do not try and tell me I haven’t. My family has been fighting a war for over a year now and I have scarcely been in a battle. Not even one where I’d been on their side…”

“It is not for me to say how you feel, only to tell you that I have felt the same. I was a lord once, a man with lands and a castle of my own. Honor and a sense of worth I thought well deserved… now it is all ash… turned to dust before me.” Beric had thrown a few pieces of kindling into the embers then. They caught flame and lit up his gruesome features in the darkness. “The fire… it gave me the chance to have some of what I lost returned to me. I do honor to King Robert and your lord father in fulfilling their last orders to me, and I take worth from how I serve their subjects. Your brothers are dead… but others could live because of you.”

“They were innocent…”

“There were many innocents among the bodies I’ve seen in this war. But there are more who live and may continue to do so, as long as my men do not give up the fight. As long as good people do not lose heart in the face of the darkness, they can always find the light and warmth our fire offers.” Beric tossed some more bits into the flames before staring deep into Jon’s eyes. “My men would have me ransom you back to your brother. Sell your sword and those bracelets you carry as well. It can supply our efforts and the lands before us which lack for so much.”

Jon had risen to argue but he faltered in his stance from the sickness the wine left behind and he was lost for words as to why anything mattered. So he’d lowered himself again and Beric had continued.

“You told me those bracelets were given to you by a red priestess of R’hllor. I doubt she gifted them to you so I could sell them for grain. And I would much rather have you wielding your sword beside us than selling it. Right now there is a famine about Stoney Sept and we seek to relieve it. We were going to seek food to the north but my friend Thoros had a vision in the flames that we’d find what we sought to the south as well. So he journeyed north while we went south of the God’s Eye. I began to doubt his vision until we captured a rider from the capital with information. To act on what we learned, I need men.”

“I would return to my brother’s side…” Jon finally managed. He still had one brother left. He still might save the girls.

“And you may… when you have earned the coin to pay me back for what I have allowed you to keep. Part of your payment will be serving as one of us, defending the smallfolk as we do. The other will be to give your word to me that you will continue to serve until I say so. When I believe it to be possible for you to seek your brother without killing yourself, I will release you from your vow. If you’re unwilling to do this, hand over your horse and possessions right now and I will wish you a healthy walk.”

The terms meant keeping him from Robb’s side even longer yet he knew that he couldn’t make it for long, riding alone as he had been doing. Lord Beric offered him the chance to fight for a cause that Robar and he had both deemed worthy and one his father had set the Brotherhood upon. Besides, Beric’s group was heading in the very direction he meant to and they knew the lands better than he ever could.

So he’d accepted.

They continued riding and little by little, Jon learned how the war had devastated the Riverlands. He’d never seen more freshly dug graves in his life than in those weeks of riding, and they were far to the south from where the main battles had taken place. The slaughtered smallfolk, the burnt homes, the damaged villages, it wasn’t because of fighting. It was all the work of raiders and foragers. To his shame, Jon learned that it wasn’t all Lannister work.

“The wolves finally get the Lannisters and those fucking Mummers out of Harrenhal, and what does Lord Leech do? He hires the sellswords on to work for him.” Kyle told him.

Apparently Roose Bolton had set forth the sellswords and his own men into the countryside, raiding as far as they could for supplies. Jon understood that it was to deny the enemy a means of feeding themselves but it also left the smallfolk starving. A small part of Jon thought it a good strategy, to starve the enemy out rather than face them in pitched battle and risk the lives of good soldiers but then he saw women and children dead in large piles, their corpses thin and wasted away, and it made him wonder how a man could bear making such a decision.

As far as Jon could remember, his father had never had a foul thing to say of Roose Bolton but he never said a kind thing either and that spoke to the lord’s character more than anything. How Robb could trust a lord their father didn’t with such a responsibility and then allow such crimes to happen, Jon couldn’t understand, save that his brother campaigned far from the Riverlands and knew little of what was happening in his name.

They’d struck first upon the Gold Road, for the rider they’d captured from the capital carried a message asking that a series of supply trains be brought from the Golden Tooth, to re-supply the city’s coffers. Their ambush numbered only two and ten men, with only half mounted, yet their enemy had apparently expected little fighting this far south and were completely unprepared. It was the first time since the war had started that Jon fought against Lannister men in a pitched battle.

There were only a score of riders guarding two wagons in truth, not so much glory befitting a song, but in Jon’s mind it would always be the Battle of the Gold Road. He wasn’t sure whether it had been the sight of Ghost or Lord Beric with his flaming sword charging forth from the trees, but as soon as the attack started, a third of the riders fled from the battle.

 Jon’s own horse had done well. He’d come alongside one of Lannister guardsmen as the man struggled to settle his mount and Robar’s blade had swung true. The man’s neck had been awash in blood after his pass and Jon had moved on to attack one of the crossbowmen emerging from the wagon next. The man’s shot went wide, passing over Jon’s shoulder while Robar’s sword cut deep into the man’s thigh, sending him hurdling from the wagon.

In the end they captured eight horses and both wagons of gold. Men had escaped though, some heading east towards the capital while others went back to the west, possibly for reinforcements, so they did not linger long. Beric figured they had enough gold to feed three villages for a few moons at least. People couldn’t eat gold so they set out to find food to buy.

They stayed south of the Blackwater Rush where the foraging parties hadn’t reached but Beric had sent two riders north with sacks of gold for a reason Jon couldn’t fathom at first. Meanwhile they bought only what could move with them, some cattle, goats, and sheep, becoming slower with every animal they added to their party. Yet they gained information for every farmer who heard their reason for buying the animals, sharing what they had seen or heard along the river and from the west. After a few days they had a small herd following their party and Beric decided to return north. The goodwill sown among the smallfolk paid off as they were shown goat trails and hidden footpaths that cut through hills and streams, shortening their ride. That’s when they met the riders Beric had sent north, their sacks of gold gone.

“The mummers come m’lord.” Merrit had reported when they’d found him at a farm a half-day’s ride from the crossing. “We gave every family coin like you said, for as far as we could ride in them days, and they told us themselves that the mummers heard about the gold we took. We try crossing north and they’ll be waiting.”

“Let’s not keep them then.” Beric had said and Jon thought him mad.

Jon thought himself a fool meanwhile. Ghost and he swam the river with some rope tied around Jon’s waist, the other end fastened to a tree. Ghost had the strength to cross the river without moving too far downstream and beyond the reach of the rope and waited for Jon on the other bank as his master pulled himself from the river, shivering and feeling tricked somehow. The rope had almost grown taut by the time he stood on the other side and it was their job to march it back upriver to and tie the rope to something so the others could cross.

Then prepare to ambush the ambush.

“Lord Beric will come soon… we should move closer.” Edric whispered as Jon checked that his sword belt remained tightened.

“The Lightning Lord told us to wait…” Merrit started but Jon hushed the man and gestured for the others to huddle close.

“If Edric thinks we are too far, I trust him. We need to be as close as we can for this to work, so we stay low and move quietly.” With that he was over the log and carefully creeping his way through the brush towards the crossing. The others followed behind and he hoped wherever Ghost had disappeared, he would be doing the same soon.

The torches foretold Beric’s coming more so than the sounds of the animals. The glimmer of the flames could be seen far south of the river but grew closer by the second. The first sign that the sellswords were stirring came from a flurry of movement just ahead of them. It drove the outlaws to crouch low. Men were positioning themselves to either side of the trail leading from the bridge, obviously hoping to catch the Brotherhood in a vice as soon as Lord Beric’s party crossed.

A crashing sound to his right alerted them to the approach of a particularly clumsy man who’d blundered into a hedge and was now cursing loudly in a language unknown to Jon. It was strange to think blunderers such as this could have surprised them, had Beric not shown such foresight.

Then the Brotherhood was crossing the bridge, the wood creaking under the weight of so many hooves. Beric himself was clearly visible under the torch he held, riding at the front of the column and making a tempting target for any archers among the mummers. The lord had said they would wait until all had crossed the bridge before attacking so Jon waited just as long before signaling their own ambush to commence.

The last man had ushered the straggling sheep from the bridge when Jon rose and launched himself forward.

“Winterfell!” He yelled as the first shadow rose to face him. He swung and his sword cut deep into what he thought was boiled leather. A gruesome scream answered his blow and then the sound was drowned out as all around him the hidden outlaws began yelling bloody murder and falling upon what foes they could find.

It was chaos, Beric and his outlaws to the other side of the trail must have launched their attack at Jon’s shout for the sounds of battle and panicked animals rang through the trees ahead. In the darkness, a shorter form he thought to be Edric cut at a shadow running towards him with a spear. The man fell and Jon stabbed downwards into something soft, the act answered by a choked gurgling.

A torch was thrown upwards amongst their fray and in the faint light it offered he saw outlaws cutting down any sellswords who thought to stand their ground. He even saw two of the mummer’s wrestling with each other before they were both knocked down and set upon by a white beast he knew too well. Ghost could fight as well as ten of them in this darkness so Jon didn’t worry; instead he grabbed Edric and ran towards the trail.

This fight was easy to keep track of. Men on horses battled the outlaws almost man to man. Kyle was hard-pressed by a man swinging a curved sword, turning his shield to kindling. Jon came behind the Kyle’s attacker and jumped up to wrench the man down from his saddle, his body striking the ground like a sack of wet suet. Robar’s sword was half buried in his neck before the dark-skinned sellsword could even realize what had happened, and Jon kicked at the man’s chest to pull it loose when he lay dead.

Kyle had taken the sellsword’s horse and rode to join in another fight, as had many of the other outlaws. A horse with a flaming mane and burning rider galloped by Jon’s path, man and horse screaming, and for a brief moment he was back at the Blackwater, surrounded by dying, burning men.

“Jon!” Beric shouted from further down the line. “Gain your saddle! We ride before they can regroup!”

He wanted to argue but did as he was told. This was Beric’s command. He found his horse tied to the reins of another. The outlaw tasked with leading the horses across lay dead upon his saddle so it fell to Jon to lead the man’s horse and body on.

Edric had gained his horse again, as had Merrit and Kyle, Jon glad to see that they had survived. They had only lost four men in the fight and Ghost had herded back most of the livestock that had fled from the battle.

It was a victory as sweet as any Jon could imagine. They fought enemies none denied were foul, all to feed innocents in need. When he’d been told that he could become a knight, this was the type of battle Jon had pictured himself fighting.

They made camp not far from the crossing, in a field where their animals could graze and Ghost could easily keep them penned in. Ghost was no more a shepherd’s dog than Jon was an outlaw but they both played the roles that some strange fate offered them.

The same fate that had brought Edric Dayne and himself together, apparently for the second time.

“Edric, may we speak?” He found the lad as he tended to a fire alone. Beric must have been walking about the perimeter, for Edric rarely left his lord’s side, save when the man ordered him to.

“If you wish Jon.” The younger man said hesitantly, eyeing him with a caution Jon felt guilty for instilling in him. “Lord Beric said you led the men well. I told him it was you who made us move closer…”

“Then I must tell him of the bravery of his squire. If you hadn’t done as you did, I would not have known to move us so close. The smallfolk owe you much my lord.”

“I’m not a lord yet, not for a few more years at least. Call me Edric, please. We shared the same breast after all…”

“Yes.” He spoke more curtly than he meant and the boy started, his purple eyes widening some. “Edric, I wanted to apologize for how I acted when you tried to speak to me before… I had just learned of my brothers’ deaths and what you told me was something… emotional… for me… my father had promised to speak with me about my mother, but died before he ever could.”

It had been days after they met when Edric had come to him and spoke of how he’d known Jon’s name. The young lord talked about his father coming to Starfall with a baby and a woman, and leaving the woman behind. A woman who would later become a wet nurse to young Edric and one Jon’s father never told him about. At the time, Jon had felt betrayed that this stranger knew the secret of his mother before he did and he had raged at the boy. Only later when his grief had numbed did Jon come to his senses and realize how unjustly he had acted.

“Wylla? Her name was Wylla you said?” He asked and Edric nodded. “I sent you away in anger and I’m sorry for it. I’d hear now what you could tell me about her, for if she is who you claim, I only know as much of her as you’ve told me.”

“Of course. She is a kind woman. All said that she was very gentle with me as a babe. My family treasures her dearly… oh and she sings very well. I remember she sings well.”

My mother sings.

No one ever sang to me.

It was a lie of course, many had sung in Winterfell but never specifically to Jon. Sansa did, once, when she’d been barely older than Rickon. She had come to his chambers when he was sick abed and sang a song to him.

“When I have taken ill, a song always makes everything better.” Her little child’s voice was already so proper, even then.

It was a strange thing to remember now but it was one of the few sweet memories he had of his more distant sister. Jon had even given her a hug to thank her for it and she giggled a little.

That was how Lady Stark had found them. She hadn’t said anything to Jon or Sansa about it. She simply bid Sansa to leave the room in a calm voice, saying that she shouldn’t bother Jon while he needed rest… but his sister had never acted so warmly to him again and he didn’t have to guess what his father’s wife had said to her.

They treasure her dearly?

“She lives?” He was confused now. From what father had said in the capital, he could only think his mother had died.

“When I left Starfall she still did.”

“Did she… did she ever speak of me? Of being my mother?” Jon hated how young he sounded just as much as he hated that it wasn’t father telling him this.

“I never really spoke to her…” Edric looked uncomfortable and he cursed his stupidity.

How often did Robb ever sit about and ask the serving women of their children?

Whatever more he had to ask was put off by the arrival of a figure coming forth from the shadows. Both Edric and he rose to welcome Beric to the fireside, the lord waving them to sit as he gazed deep into the flames.

“We captured one of the sellswords who fled. Kyle and I put him to the question.” Beric wiped his hands upon his tunic, still damp from the washing he’d given them. They’d heard nothing yet Jon imagined there were ways of getting answers from a man without allowing him to make much noise. “He knew a good deal.”

“More ambushes?” Jon asked.

“Not so far south as this. We did for the main force of sellswords in this area and the Lannisters are too busy consolidating their hold over the capital with their new allies.” Beric made a sound like a sigh then and gazed at Jon over the flames. “And your brother is returning from the west. He may already be at Riverrun as we speak.”

He’s back.

Riverrun, that’s close.

I can reach him.

“Steady yourself Jon, I do not yet give you my leave to seek him.” The lord held up his hands as Jon made to protest. “You will, when we deliver these animals to those in need. This gold must be brought to a safe place as well. Once those tasks are done, I will give you your freedom. It will give us time to discuss your best route to Riverrun, and friends who might help you.”

“Swear it please. Swear that when I’ve done as you ask, you will release me to seek my family.” Jon held his hands before him beseeching the lord. He’d gotten ahead of himself in hoping he could ride off that night in search of Robb, forgetting everything he’d agreed to when joining Beric’s band. Yet the lord offered him this chance, and seemed honorable enough for Jon to place faith in his word.

“I swear it, though your father may curse me for it.” Beric lowered his head in some sort of somber thought. “I fear the journey you set out upon. Of the dangers you would face. Of the pain.”

He turned from the lord then and walked off to find some food.

“It can be no worse than what pain I’ve already felt.”

 

JON

 

A pain came upon him, one so deep it pulled everything in him apart.

He saw glimpses of what was and what had been, flashing in the darkness. Almost all of it was pain and screaming.

Ghost and he had been alone again, as it had been after the Blackwater, only better. They’d journeyed with the Brotherhood to their hideout at the Hollow Hill and Beric had been true to his word, he’d been released. He kept his horse, Robar’s sword, and the bracelets, while gaining in knowledge of the outlaws’ paths and friends Jon could seek shelter from in his journey north.

“Ask of our friends sparingly, and leave the trails I’ve told you of even less so.” Beric’s words drifted back to him through a haze. “It will take longer, but you’re more likely to arrive alive. Be well Jon Snow.”

“Safe travels Jon.” A lad’s voice had spoken as well, not Bran’s as he hoped, but a purple-eyed youth he’d befriended.

The pain came to him again and he felt something cool upon his brow and someone somewhere was saying soft things.

They travelled to the strict path Beric had set forth for them, showing his face to few and Ghost’s to even fewer. The direwolf rarely left cover save when they had to. This ride had felt different from the desperate one he’d made from the capital. With each day he knew he came closer to Robb. Ghost had sensed the same of Grey Wind, they even dreamt of it, and from the few smallfolk he risked speaking to Jon heard the same.

The king had returned to Riverrun. The Young Wolf was back.

With weeks of riding, Jon became more hopeful with every sunrise he saw. Then one say they’d both felt it. How, he couldn’t say, but it was there. One morning Ghost and Jon awoke knowing that Robb was not as close as he had been. That he was moving away from them.

Something was touching his side and it burned so much that he cried out and thrashed against the pressure there. Hands reached out to hold him down and the burning touch continued, just as his cries did.

The cries were what threw him from the trail, what made him defy Beric’s advice and leave the safety of cover that the trees gave him. He was near a place he thought to be Acorn Hall, judging from the map the Brotherhood had gifted him. It was evening, and Jon knew better, but the screams were a woman’s and his father had taught him to never ignore such.

The girls were servants from their garb, and the goats that fled at Ghost’s approach were probably the reason they ventured so far from their home. The men about them were the reason they had been crying out.

Four men, burly and clad in dress familiar to him, from feasts at Winterfell and lessons with Maester Luwin.

A white sunburst over black.

Karstark men.

Robb’s men.

Two were holding one girl down, both having their way with her at the same time. The other two made her friend watch, the girl sobbing and her lip bleeding. One had just pulled his breeches down in front of the bleeding girl when Jon rode up.

“Stop!” He remembered shouting as he rode from the brush. Ghost had hung back, wary as he ever was with new people.

“An outlaw come to us? Today is getting better!” The only fully-clothed man shoved the bleeding girl’s face into the dirt before he rose. He was a large man, missing most of his teeth, and he had laughed as he drew a huge battle-axe that had been strapped to his back, up and over his shoulder, his half-naked companion now holding the bleeding girl down.

His friend doesn’t bother even bother pulling his breeches up.

What is wrong with these men? These are Northmen?

They have become animals.

“No outlaw! A northman!” Jon noticed then that the other two hadn’t stopped raping the other girl so he rode forward, reining his horse at them until they finally stood up. The girl was bruised and sobbing and she looked to be barely older than Arya would be now.

“I’m kin to the Starks and I demand you stop this, in the name of your king!”

“King for a few days more maybe…” One of the rapers had said before the large man cuffed him so hard he was knocked down into the mud.

“Kin to the Starks? Name yourself!”

“I’m Jon Snow, son to Lord Eddard Stark, seeking the King in the North, who would not approve of the way you treat his subjects.” He should have known what was coming from the way the three men still standing looked about at one another.

He should have noticed how the large one did not put his axe away. Instead his eyes followed the man trying to move around behind Jon while bearing a dagger. It drew his attention away long enough for the true attack to come.

The scream of his horse when the axe cut into its neck was horrible, though not as horrible as the screams he heard in his dreams, in the castle over the river. Those had been gut-wrenching and full of grief, and full of howling that never ended.

He remembered falling on the ground and the men cursing around him. Ghost had come to his rescue, and the large man who killed his horse was suffering a terrible fate as the direwolf ripped his arm off. The other three were torn over which enemy to face first and hesitated. Jon had struck quickly before they had a chance to decide. He attacked the man who had been holding the bleeding girl, his breeches having been pulled up in time to meet Jon’s attack.

His spear blocked some of Jon’s sword cuts well, yet Jon was too close for the weapon’s reach to be effective, and soon he opened a grisly wound in the man’s thigh. The man fell to the ground, holding his leg, but Jon knew it was too late. Robar had taught him that such a wound was mortal, the bleeding unable to be stopped even with a maester’s help. It was a slow way to die.

The one who had been circling earlier came from Jon’s left side then. He had stumbled on the breeches around his ankles or else Jon would be dead now. The dagger had been meant for his heart, not his gut.

Still, the blow landed and the man jerked it sideways as he fell, drawing an agony that reigned over Jon’s mind even now. He half-remembered Ghost tearing the man’s throat out before he could stand up again and the bleeding girl had risen out of the mud and somehow found the strength to pick up the fallen axe, swinging it down at last the man’s kneecap, toppling him, before bringing it down over and over again into the raper’s face, screaming as she did so.

The memories caused him pain but what hurt more were of the sounds of dying men and drums, great pounding drums. And the howling of his brother as the men fired bolt after bolt at him. Of losing what he sought for all this time.

Of losing his brother.

“Can you hear me ser?” A soft voice was asking him.

It was a girl, a familiar girl, and she looked down upon him with worry in her eyes.

“What…”

“Are you awake? Please say you’re awake.” The girl reached down with a damp cloth and pressed it against his forehead.

He looked about and saw he was abed in a chamber barely bigger than his own back in Winterfell. Beside the bed was a table where soiled bandages lay scattered. He looked down and saw that his middle was bandaged heavily, his small movements creating a pain he groaned to endure.

“I told them you’d wake up. You had to. I didn't care what the maester said. I knew you were strong and true. I lit candles for you in the sept and…” The girl kept up her efforts but when he reached to grab her hand, she cried out.

His movements were so clumsy she evaded him completely. His grasp found his own face instead, wet from his tears.

The girl rose and began to run towards the door.

“My brother… please…” He rasped but the girl disappeared through the arch. “No please, tell me… please!”

Robb’s fine, he told himself through the pain, it was but a dream.

He laid there trying to think of what kind of strange dungeon this could be instead of dwelling upon his dreams.

Soon enough the young girl returned beside two other women. One was old and grey, clearly a servant, while the other he thought to be a lady from the berth the other two gave her.

“Ser, I brought the lady for you…”

“I’m no ser… I serve the Starks… tell me of King Robb, please…” Jon rasped and reached out. The woman he thought to be a lady held the young girl back as the old woman began prodding at him.

“You’re a Stark man? Why weren’t you at that wedding then?” The crone hissed as she lifted his bandage, though more softly than Jon did when he felt the pull of his bandages.

“At the Blackwater… rode with Lord Beric… please, where am I?”

“You are in Acorn Hall, under the care of House Smallwood.” The lady continued to gaze at him strangely, as if she were making some judgement. “I will show courtesy and say that I am the Lady Ravella Smallwood. Now do me the honor of telling us your name.”

He hadn’t the strength to lie and all he wanted was answers.

“Jon Snow, brother to King Robb. Tell me of him. Is my wolf…?”

“Driven off, it took four men and a dozen hounds and gods only know how many arrows to get the point across, but it’s been gone from my lands for a week now.” Lady Smallwood sounded relieved whereas he felt a hollow pit in his stomach. His face must have betrayed it for the lady sighed and allowed the girl, whom Jon recognized now as the girl who the Karstark men had been having their way with, to come forward with a cup of water.

“You’re honest, that’s good to know. The girls remembered you naming yourself when you defended them against those monsters. Had you lied, I would’ve been hard-pressed to think of you as one of those rare bastards, one not tainted by the sin of their origins.”

“He saved us m’lady! They said when they w-was d-done, they was going to cut our throats!” The girl received a slap to her arm from the old woman for her words.

“That he did.” Lady Smallwood continued. “That’s the only reason why I allowed you to be brought to my hall Jon Snow. Sparing poor Nessa and Nancy from those savages earned you that. Driving your wolf away rather than having it killed was what I owed the king my family knelt to, may the Mother guide his way.”

“Robb? Please… tell me he lives… please…”

The lady’s face told him before her words did and Jon realized then that he’d known. The details of the massacre at the Twins were news to his ears but his heart had already known that Robb had been murdered. It was as painful as it had been for Jon when he learned that the boys had died, but none of the shock came with it, for he’d known. So the sobs racked him sure enough, sending waves of pain through his body and shaming him before the women.

“I failed him.” He sobbed, to himself more than them. “I tried so hard… I should have been with him… I should have died with him… Just let me die…”

“You may still get that chance.” Lady Smallwood waved the other two women away. “You’ve been here two weeks, and for each day of it we thought it was your last. Word came of the massacre two days passed, a survivor from the Twins brought it to us and I can’t imagine it will be long before the Freys or Lannisters come calling as well. If I let that beast of yours remain outside my gate I might as well have lit a beacon to announce your presence here.”

“Let them come for me, just give me my sword and I can take one of them with me before I go. I’ll be with my family and-”

“Bloody up my husband’s home? I think not. For what good you’ve done, I won’t hand you over to your enemies but I cannot hope to shelter you so don’t ask it. I plan on you being as far from here as possible as soon as you’re able.” Lady Smallwood offered Jon the cup of water again and he drank greedily, his thirst incredible. “You can take a boat. The river is a few days ride from here. If you can get to the Saltpans you can take a ship to the sea and be far away from here. What’s left of House Stark is not in the Riverlands, nor much of a war left after this. I imagine I’ll be forced to bend the knee very soon and you can’t be here when I do.”

“You’d have me flee?”

“I’d have you live, as I did with my own child when I sent her away from here. There must be something far from this wretched land of graves that you can seek? Those bracelets or that sword of yours either could pay for travel across the Narrow Sea, even north if you will it.”

“Not my sword…” Jon tried to rise but it was a fool’s errand and his body raged at him even worse than the lady did for the attempt. “Can I have it?”

The lady nodded and had the blade sent for.

In the meantime she told him of the goings on in the realm he’d been ignorant of. Jon learned of Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion and prayed that the man wouldn’t take Jon’s betrayal at the Crossroads out on her. Lady Ravella had no word of Arya, but she had strong views on how young women were being abused throughout war, the stories she told chilling Jon when he thought of Arya suffering in such a way. Hearing Sansa still lived should have been a greater comfort, had he not already spent so much time travelling away from her.

“I have two men outside your door if you think of any villainy.” The lady said as she left him with Robar’s blade and the bracelets Melisandre had gifted him.

She also left him to his grief and as tired as he was Jon stayed awake for some time with it. Robb had been beside him as long as he could remember and when it had come time for Jon to be at his brother’s side, he’d failed. Worse still, at Winterfell Robb had asked him to stay, as had Bran, and he’d chosen to leave them.

If you’d stayed you could’ve been there to keep Bran and Rickon safe.

Or marched south with Robb and his army.

As he looked upon Robar’s sword, he remembered that his father had bid him to do all of these things but it comforted him little. For father was lost to him as well.

The only member of his family left to him was at King’s Landing, and wherever Ghost was, he couldn’t depend on the wolf to guide him there again. Still, he had to try. There were few people in the capital that might recognize him, especially without his direwolf cluing them in to his Stark allegiance. Perhaps there was a way to sneak in. There was no argument Jon could think against it, other than fear of death, but what did he have left to live for? He would do as the lady suggested, he would seek a port and from there Jon would seek the only family he had left.

He tried to rise and failed again.

When he could move. Then he’d seek his remaining family.

He’d save Sansa. Then he’d find Arya.

“I’ll find them.” The tears came again as he spoke. “Robb, I’m sorry, Bran… Rickon… father…I’ll find them.”

 

JON

 

“Say that again.”

“Eh? Who are you to be giving…”

The sailors eyed the sword upon Jon’s hip warily before looking about themselves. He knew he looked half a bandit, carrying as fine a sword as Robar’s while wearing such tattered clothes yet he pushed on. He would hear their words again.

“Just repeat what you were saying. It’s all I ask.”

“King Joffrey’s dead.” The sailor shrugged. “Murdered by the Imp and his she-wolf.”

“May the seven guide his way.” Another piped up, eyeing the room.

Jon spoke to his gods then, save silently, and gave thanks that that monster was ended. He was filthy and weary but glad that he had sought the inn as soon as he’d arrived at the Saltpans. It was small and cramped but if there was any news to be heard, he’d thought it would be here.

And what news.

“The Imp’s as good as dead too, on trial when we left the capital.” The sailor continued and Jon felt a small pang at the idea of Tyrion facing such a fate.

You pulled your sword on him to meet a similar one.

He pushed that guilt away. With word such as this, he’d have to hurry along his plans for reaching the capital.

Sansa will need me more than ever it seems.

He had already turned to leave when one of the men spoke again.

“He wasn’t as lucky as that wife o’ his.”

“Why?” Jon whipped back around. “What happened to her?”

“Gone. Run off. Whole realm is supposed to be looking for her.” The innkeeper burst into the conversation, eyeing Jon just as warily as the sailors had. “Too bad she doesn’t come in here, plenty of coin to be had for turning her in to the queen.”

“More fun to be had before you do that! Show her what a full man feels like!”

“Don’t be fools.” The older of the sailors shook his head. “She’s dead already, you can be sure of that. Think the Imp would truly leave her behind to tell the tale? He probably fucked her one last go with his little imp cock before he did her in, the wretch.”

Jon liked to think that he would have cuffed the man for speaking of Sansa’s honor in such a way if he hadn’t been so devastated at what he heard.

Gone, she’s gone.

I was coming to save her.

It had been close to a month before he’d been able to leave Acorn Hall and seek a boat upon the river. He’d held hope that someone from the Brotherhood would arrive, as Lady Smallwood said they often came with news or food in exchange for shelter, but none did. House Smallwood did well by him though. They’d kept his guts from spilling out and even furnished him a few animal pelts to look like a proper trader during his travels. The stable master had even given him one of the dead Karstark’s horses for his trip to the river.

When he’d found a boat, it had been a small river galley, making a slow, meandering journey back towards the Bay of Crabs. They’d passed Riverrun and Jon had seen first-hand the siege lines being thrown up around the castle of House Tully. Defiantly, they still flew the direwolf banner but he knew better than to try sneaking into that castle. It was Lady Stark’s family within those walls. He doubted they wanted his help, as meaningless as it would probably be.

The whole time he’d been thinking of how he would take a ship south from the Saltpans and do his best to find a way to Sansa. To find some way to free her and get her home, like he’d wanted to do at the Blackwater.

Now she’s gone, missing just like Arya. 

No matter what I set out to do, I always fail.

The men had continued their talk without him and he saw empty seats should he have need of them. Yet the strange glances he was attracting from other patrons bothered him some. A young boy stared openly at Robar’s sword before catching his eye and running quickly from the inn.

He decided to take his leave as well.

Jon hadn’t been expecting a large port when he set out for the Saltpans yet somehow the place still disappointed. Much of the buildings along the harbor had been burned down during the fighting here and there were paltry few ships there to seek passage on.

There was a large river galley next to the smaller one he had arrived on. He also spotted a big salt sea trader in the harbor and a smaller trade ship, yet built for the sea just as the large ship was.

Either one of the large ships he could try and barter passage upon but he no longer had a destination to sail to.

Jon had no reason to seek the capital now nor could he journey back to Winterfell. It had been burned and abandoned. Had he known all this before he’d left Acorn Hall, he might have tried to seek out the Brotherhood again, yet to return to the Riverlands now and wander aimlessly seemed pointless to him.

He had come south to make his own name and find honor but Jon had spent most of his time here at tasks that offered him nothing but frustration and distraction. Had his father allowed him to take the black, he could be serving at the Wall even now, his lack of action in the war at least being explained by doing his duty to the realm.

I can still take the black.

Father forbid it at the time, but he is gone and so is the man I swore to serve.

The Wall hadn’t been what he thought though. More men who had failed at life served there than men who wanted their lives to have worth. They were the refuse of the realm, the ones who had no other place. Orphans, criminals, fallen knights and lords. Was that all Jon had left?

He realized then that he was being prideful and foolish, for he was no better than any of them. Jon was the refuse of the realm now too. He had failed at this life, just like those men, with no other place to go and the Wall offered him the chance to redeem himself and regain his honor. He was, after all, still a lowly bastard, only now he was the bastard of an extinct house as well.

He was the last drop of blood from a family that had existed for over 8000 years and he had a duty to uphold to that legacy. His actions might be the last thing history would ever say about the Starks, and while House Stark might die out with him, and though Jon had never been a Stark in truth, he could hope that people might say Eddard Stark had raised four sons, not three.

The Starks raised the Wall. Maybe they should end at the Wall.

He went to the larger sea trader first, the one with the purple sail, where a stout man wearing red shouted about at the men on the ship. He spoke a foreign tongue but Jon decided to try his luck anyways.

“Are you the captain of this ship?”

“I am but I be needing no more crew.” The man switched over to the Common Tongue, giving Jon but a scant glance.

“I seek passage to the Wall, to the castle of Eastwatch.” He gained the captain’s attention then and the man raised a greyed eyebrow as he named Eastwatch.

“That far? It will cost, we hadn’t planned to stop there.”

“I have some pelts for trade and I can work at the oars if you…”

“I said I need no crew and need less of pelts. I take coin, or trade for what will get me coin. Do you have nothing in trade?” The captain pointed to Jon’s hip and whistled. “That sword there would do.”

“It’s not mine to trade.”

“Whose is it then? I don’t see anybody else carrying it.”

At the mention of Robar’s sword Jon’s shame came back tenfold. He’d been so caught up in seeking a new destination that he’d forgotten what he’d vowed to do for Robar. It seemed impossible that he’d carried it all the way from Storm’s End to here… but it was meant to go even further.

It was meant to go home.

“Come now, I’m busy man. Trade or be away from me.” The captain crossed his arms and Jon shook his head. He could no more trade away Robar’s sword than he could sail to the Wall without returning it to Runestone.

“What of the Vale? Could you get me to Gulltown for the pelts?”

“What are you up to?” The captain cursed and gestured to the smaller trade ship berthed further down from them. “Are you deserting one ship for another? Ride back to the Vale if you miss your woman so bad. Away with you!”

Jon had no idea what the man was talking about but the captain had already turned his back to him. The roads to the Vale were rife with wildlings and after facing them in the Kingswood, Jon was not tempted to do so again without a horse or Ghost. So he set forward to the other ship, only to find some of its crew already heading towards him. The boy he’d seen at the inn was leading the way with four armed men following after.

“You there! We would have words with you.” Hailed a tall man to the back.

“I only seek passage to the Vale. I mean to do nothing else here, save find that.” He raised his hands and backed away from the group. The boy was whispering to a short man beside him, one bearing two swords and a tunic adorned with bronze runes.

It was familiar in a way.

“That’s the ser’s sword, isn’t it?” The boy pointed excitedly at Robar’s sword and Jon protectively put a hand upon its pommel. The other men all followed suit save for the short man who, like the boy, gazed at the sword. “That’s it, I know it is. The lord had me polish it after it was smithed, and scores more times after that!”

“That you did lad, that you did, and I know it as well as you. That sword pummelled me as much as my own father did.” The short man did not act threatening and none of the others were young men like Jon. “The boy here and I say that the blade you carry is not your own, how did you come by it?”

Should they wish a fight he could probably run and outpace them, but for the moment he saw no reason to lie.

“It belonged to the knight I squired for. He fell in battle and I seek to return it to his family. They live in the Vale so if you would allow me to be on my way…”

“Name the knight you squired for.”

“Ser Robar Royce, called Robar the Red by many, second son to…”

“Lord Yohn Royce of Runestone, called Bronze Yohn by many and cousin by me.” The man spoke clearly enough but it took Jon a moment to truly realize his words’ meaning and by then the man was approaching him. “I am Ser Willem Royce, cousin to Bronze Yohn and his sons, and a knight in his service… and if you are who I think you to be, stay silent. We are not the only ones involved in our words here.”

Ser Willem’s eyes flickered to their side and Jon saw others, traders and townsfolk alike, doing their best to seem disinterested in the conversation yet not moving about as they should. When his attention fell on the knight again, the man’s hand was out, a smile upon his face.

“Ser Willem… I seek Runestone and if you travel there I would…” Jon spoke quietly as he shook his hand but the knight leaned in to whisper in Jon’s ear nonetheless.

“You will sail with us and together we’ll see my cousin’s blade home.” Ser Willem pulled away and wrinkled his face some. “Which I think from the smell of you ought to make for an interesting journey.”

 

JON

 

“I failed him my lord.”

The words echoed through the hall, just as they had in his own head for well on a year now. Whether it was the castle walls or the long line of silent knights, Jon couldn’t say which added more weight to his admission. The whole affair made Jon nervous but all he could do was own up to his failure before the handful of knights and other members of House Royce’s household and await their judgement.

Lord Yohn was a powerful looking man. His hair may have greyed and his faced was aged and lined but the man still looked formidable. He was but an older version of the knight to his right, Ser Andar Royce, his eldest son and heir, whose face was as inscrutable as his father’s.

The lord held Robar’s sword in his hands, staring at it just as he had from the moment Jon had knelt to offer it to him. He’d told the story of Robar’s death as he continued to kneel and it was in the telling that Jon accepted the blame that he had borne along with the sword, all the way from Storm’s End.

“I was his squire and wielded a sword of my own yet I failed to stop Loras Tyrell from slaying him as much as I failed in avenging his murder.” He continued, still kneeling on the hard stone floor now. “And had your men not found me at the Saltpans, I may have failed to return his sword to you now…”

“He lies!”

Hushed whispers among the gathered men answered Willem’s announcement. Lord Yohn looked up from the sword for the first time and watched the knight come to Jon’s side.

“As the one who found him, he does himself a disservice and insults the feat he performed in arriving at the Saltpans alive.”

“I merely sailed up the Red Fork…”

“The smith should’ve hammered some sense into your head you stupid-”

“What does Willem speak of lad?” Yohn’s grumble interrupted their bickering. “You did not travel all the way from Storm’s End to the Saltpans by way of that river. So tell me the truth.”

He did as the lord commanded, as Willem had had him do during their journey from the Saltpans to Gulltown.

He was the last son of a cadet branch quite low on the Royce family tree and Willem liked to joke that a strong wind would convince Yohn to break them off from the main branch of the family. Jon thought that unlikely though, since it was Willem the Lord of Runestone had entrusted to journey by sea to seek the High Road and report back on the foul state of things there. They were to leave the very day they had come upon Jon, and the knight had bragged that he was a greater prize than any report that he could hope to give his cousin, which Jon hadn’t understood.

Willem was a pleasant man and good company on the journey to Runestone, filled with tales and jests. The knight could bring a smile even to someone as somber as himself. From Gulltown they’d ridden on to the castle of House Royce, which sat upon a hill that commanded an imposing view from all sides. They’d arrived not long after a great gathering of Vale lords, following recent events at the Eyrie. At Gulltown they’d heard Lysa Arryn had been murdered by some singer and that the heir to House Arryn was now under the protection of a Lord Petyr Baelish. Jon knew little of the man, save that he had been a part of the Lannister court and Willem disdained him.

“And you could say that I’m the middle ground in respects to Littlefinger, nothing compared to Bronze Yohn’s hatred of the man.”

The Royces had played host to many notable Vale lords and had written out an agreement, demanding young Robert Arryn be surrendered to them. The others had begun the journey to the Eyrie while Lord Royce had remained behind. Willem had sent word ahead and the Lord of Runestone delayed his departure to await their arrival.

Willem had assured him all would go well, and despite his jests, he had actually been a comfort to many of Jon’s worries.

Yet as Jon tried to tell his tale, Willem seemed intent on aggravating him.

“He fought the Knight of Flowers and saved Robar’s sword in the process. He bears the scars to prove it!” Willem had added to Jon’s telling of his battle with Ser Loras, which was nothing compared to what the knight tacked on to his recounting of the Blackwater.

“One of many Stannis left behind after the folly there, but one of the few I know who didn’t bend the knee to the Lannisters or their Tyrell dogs!” Willem called out and some of the knights had grunted in approval. “Tell them about the Lightning Lord! That tale is one I can’t tell any better. Go on then!”

“I-I was found by Lord Beric Dondarrion… he was still fighting under the orders my father gave him when he sent him from the capital…”

“We hear of his deeds even as far as here.” Ser Andar interrupted, moving forward from his father’s side to tower over Jon. “It does not seem possible that a squire could make it to the Riverlands from the capital alone.”

“You forgot that he made it all the way from the westernmost side of the Riverlands back to the Saltpans.” Willem spoke for Jon again. “With a gut wound no less! Have him lift his shirt if you doubt any of the hardships he’s endured.”

Jon did not wish to do any such thing in the company of lords and knights but Lord Royce insisted, making Jon thankful that there were at least no ladies present. The grimace upon Ser Andar’s face and the whispers among the gathered men when he turned to allow them to behold his wounds made Willem smile even wider.

“Is it as Willem says? Did you earn all these wounds as he tells it?” Lord Royce asked him after he pulled his shirt back over his head.

“He makes it sound grander than it was my lord… but he speaks the truth as I told it to him, and I would not lie. I would have come sooner and if you want an apology for it, I understand.” Jon decided to not balk at telling the whole truth. “Yet my family needed me. I tried to fight for them however I could, yet I was little help to anyone... to my shame”

Silence followed his words, the assembled men of Runestone either looking at him or to their own lord. Bronze Yohn himself was stroking Robar’s blade and regarded Jon with those hard grey eyes of his. He’d expected disappointment or even disgust from the storied lord yet the man had a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Jon Snow…” Lord Royce said gripping the sword tightly. “Ned Stark’s bastard boy.”

“Cousin.” Willem tried to put in but the lord waved his words away before pointing at Jon.

“You’re a bastard Jon Snow. I say it again because when your father came to me, offering you to squire for Robar, I was shocked. Perhaps even insulted. Robar may have been a second son but he was a Royce of Runestone and I loved him as much as I do all my children.” Lord Royce paused to hold up Robar’s sword again, stroking the bronze pommel almost gently. “I gifted him this sword when he was knighted. It’s a fine blade, one of the finest my smith has ever forged. Even Andar was jealous of it. I would have never imagined it failing him when it mattered most.”

“My lord, the blade did not fail him. I-”

“In my hall I speak until I’ve had my fill of it, so be silent. That be your influence Willem.” Lord Royce grumbled and Jon’s eyes fell to the floor. “This treasure I gave my boy, out of love, failed him, while the squire I bid him to take, out of obligation, served him more faithfully than I ever could have imagined. Your father was a friend of mine Jon Snow, a good friend, I say proudly, or else I never would have considered Robar taking you to squire. Now I think it was your father who did me the true favor.”

Bronze Yohn walked past Jon then to pace along the lines of knights gathered there, inspecting them as if he was about to command them into a battle.

“How many here could call Ned Stark a friend? Or at least a good man in their eyes? A man you respected?” The lord’s question earned loud calls of affirmation from over half the men gathered there, which made Jon’s heart swell with pride. “And while we all sat here, safe in the Vale, Ned Stark was murdered. His sons were murdered! Mine own son was murdered!”

“The warrior will guide his way.” Andar added as his father came to stand before Jon again.

“As he bloody well should! At least my Robar fought in this war while we all sat here getting fat. His squire has seen more battles in this war than I have, to my shame. To all of our shame!” Lord Royce roared the last part so loudly that Jon started, but the lord reached out and gripped his shoulder firmly. “And to his honor. His father’s honor.”

Jon felt his eyes heat up with tears at the lord’s kind words but he swallowed and willed them away. He would not shame himself in front of this lord and his men.

“And to repair some of own honor… I ask you to kneel Jon.”

He did so numbly, thinking he knew what the lord meant but not wanting to get his hopes up. Lord Yohn of House Royce unsheathed his son Robar’s sword, the sword of Jon’s mentor and ser, and held it before him with two hands, gazing down upon his son’s squire with a warm expression.

“You keep the old gods lad?”

“I do my lord.”

“Would you for forsake them for what I offer you now?”

The thought that he might have to one day forsake the old gods for The Seven had always been there, and once Jon might have done it. Rarely had the gods ever answered Jon’s prayers and his life had been one of great hardships. What difference did it make, whether they were the old gods or the new, if Jon’s prayers went unheard?

Yet when he thought of his faith, and the heart tree at Winterfell, he remembered his father before it. Of Robb and him playing at swords. Of Arya and him playing games between the trees. Of seeing little Rickon’s first steps beside the pools and Bran first learning of his love for climbing on the weirwood’s branches. The old gods had bound them together and he could not break that bond.

Even for knighthood.

“I cannot. They were the gods of my father.” Jon knew he may doom his chances there but Bronze Yohn simply offered a wry laugh.

“I thought so. It’ll be the godswood you stand your vigil in then. I will have to be creative in how I say the words to this but know that I think it an honor to do so.” With that he laid the flat end of the blade upon Jon’s shoulder. “In the name of your gods Jon Snow, I charge you to be brave…”

He felt his chest tightening and his breath came heavy and hard as he put the words to memory.

“I charge you to be just. I charge you to defend the young and innocent…”

This was what his father had meant for him. This was his father’s wish finally being fulfilled.

“I charge you to protect all women…”

The blade was rising again and Lord Royce lifted the blade to touch his other shoulder. He continued to charge Jon with tasks his father had always taught him were what was expected of any good man.

I will go beyond them. 

I will earn this.

For father, for Robar, for my brothers…

“I bid you to rise.” The lord’s words beckoned him to do so and the eyes of men who’d endured much the same were looking upon him, many smiling, none more so than Willem. “Ser Jon of Winterfell.”

“No my lord, Ser Jon the Wolf.” Willem put in and Bronze Yohn seemed annoyed before Jon noticed the smile on his face.

“Ser Jon the Wolf it is.” The lord offered his hand and when Jon grasped it he pulled him in for a tight embrace. “Together we will do great things ser. I swear to you, your father’s house will not fall. It is the least I owe him. And you.”

That confused him but Bronze Yohn pulled away as Ser Andar came and offered his own hand. Then Willem who laughed and claimed the wolf idea came from his stench more than anything else. Others came forward as well and all called him ser.

And Jon wished his family could see him now.

 

Chapter Text

SER JON

 

“I think our wine stores are going to be taking a real hit tonight.”

Willem’s prediction may have made Jon smile if it wasn’t for how grim their lord’s face was as he rode through the gate. It appeared that the foul news that came by raven from the Eyrie days back still weighed heavily on Bronze Yohn, Willem having predicted that as well.

It fell to Willem to welcome the lord back, as Ser Andar had left some days ago for Old Anchor and others seats, to rally more support for their cause against Lord Baelish. A cause which had been greatly weakened since the Lords Declarant had returned from the Eyrie.

“My lord, Runestone is yours!” Willem called out and Bronze Yohn gave a curt nod as he dismounted and practically threw his reigns at a stableboy. “Fine weather on the ride back cousin?”

“Shut your fool mouth before I shut it for you and follow me.” Lord Royce grumbled as he stalked by the assembled household, stopping only to point at Jon and another knight. “You two as well.”

The second knight was Ser Mychel Redfort, married to Bronze Yohn’s only daughter, and the other recent addition to Runestone’s household knights besides Jon. Willem and Mychel were his most frequent sparring partners, and if Jon had thought Robar was a swordsman far beyond others of the Vale, those two taught him otherwise.

Jon felt out of place as he fell in line behind the two knights following Lord Royce. The lord inviting Mychel to join him in his solar made some sense, the man was his only goodson, but having Jon attend the meeting as well was strange. Lord Royce’s more senior and highborn knights returned with the rest of his army, yet the doors to the lord’s solar remained shut to all but the four of them.

“The fiend schemed his way out of it! If I hadn’t been there to see it I wouldn’t have believed it myself.” Bronze Yohn poured a cup of wine messily and then three more as he gestured for the others to join him in drinking. “We had him. We had him cornered and at our mercy and what happens? We give him permission to stay and skulk off with our tails between our legs. Now he has all the time he needs to scheme and plot safely in the seat of our beloved Jon Arryn…”

“I warned you that Lyn Corbray was a stupid bastard.” Willem shook his head before slapping it. "I'm an idiot, sorry Wolf."

Jon shrugged and drank. He knew what Willem meant and took no offense at the word. He too wondered at the foolishness of the Corbray knight, to bare steel at the meeting and earning the lords arrayed against Baelish a public rebuke. A rebuke that had apparently shamed them into allowing Lord Baelish a year of protectorship over young Robert Arryn, and continued rule over the Vale.

“For once you are right cousin.” Bronze Yohn stroked his beard.

“I also said the Wolf here was worthy of knighthood.” Willem smiled. “And how that one serving girl always walks a little funny after seeing to your bed sheets…”

“Shut it!” The lord bellowed.

“That’s not right.” Ser Mychel said before realizing the look they all shot him. “Not the serving girl… I mean the part about Ser Lyn.”

“Yohn saw him pull Lady Forlorn with his own eyes. He’s either a fool or a Frey. Take your pick.” Willem shrugged.

“No. He’s neither of those things.” Mychel put in uncomfortably, he’d squired for Ser Lyn and Jon did not think it dishonorable to defend his former mentor. “Lyn has many flaws but he is not stupid, nor is he as hot-headed as-”

“Just because you are married to my daughter does not give you the right to question my word ser.” Lord Royce grumbled.

“My lord, you mistake me, I meant only that he knows better than to do as he did. I could never see the knight who trained me acting so rashly.” Mychel stood his ground and earned a thoughtful look from Bronze Yohn for doing so.

“If he knew better, he certainly didn’t show it. Pulling that sword ruined our position as the true protectors of honor and custom.”

“It was good fortune for Baelish that Ser Lyn was there then.” Jon offered.

He didn’t know much about the Vale or its politics, only that Lord Royce had failed at something that had disappointed everyone at Runestone. His lord had assembled a powerful body of lords to pressure the husband of the late Lysa Arryn from the Vale, and had somehow failed at what had seemed a sure thing.

“Very good fortune… you’re right Jon.” His lord paused to glance at Willem, who cursed lightly under his breath. “And his good fortune continues… most of the lords who marched with us stay true but I fear some will lose heart. With Tywin Lannister dead and that daughter of his as Queen Regent, some may cower before challenging her man here in the Vale. Or worse still, with winter upon us and the clansmen attacking in greater force than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, many might actually start to think that Littlefinger can offer stability. Even protection.”

“Can’t blame him for the season’s changing… but those clansmen were armed by the Lannisters, Littlefinger’s dear friends.” Willem put in and Bronze Yohn slapped him so forcefully on the back that the smaller knight choked on his wine.

“Exactly!” The lord went to stand at his desk and unfurled a map of the Vale before him. “Littlefinger thinks that his schemes have forced me to stand down. That I’m a defeated old lord whose only hopes now rest on raising up Harrold Hardyng as heir apparent to the Vale, and praying that our dear Lord Robert dies.”

It was a vile thing to hear.

Jon was shocked to hear such come from Lord Royce. As little as he understood of the specifics, he thought his lord an honorable man, not one to hope for the death of his sickly liege lord, a young boy far from manhood.

“Don’t worry Wolf.” Willem smirked, grasping his shoulder and shaking him as he pointed Jon’s face out to the others. “He believed it well enough, look at his face!”

Bronze Yohn’s deep, rumbling laughter made Jon feel quite foolish and he saw now that he had missed something in his lord’s words.

“It’s what Littlefinger thinks, not what I mean to do ser. In truth, I wish Lord Robert a long, healthy life. That’s why I wanted him away from Baelish in the first place.” The lord turned his attention back to the map. “But I’ll play the part Littlefinger wants of me. I’ll be throwing a melee for squires only, here at Runestone, to raise the spirits of our people after my recent bungling. Really to give young Harry the Heir a chance to win himself a knighthood and raise his status even more.”

“Too bad you went and got yourself knighted Wolf, you could’ve battered an heir about.” Willem joked before Bronze Yohn hushed him.

“Littlefinger will see it for what it is, an attempt at trying to raise up my own claimant while he still holds power over our lord. It’ll be more than that of course. It gives me reason to keep my men mustered and ready to march, which I hope to do if you three can succeed at what I’m about to ask of you.” Lord Royce placed a heavy finger upon the Gates of the Moon. “Mychel, you’ll be returning to my cousin’s castle, ostensibly to carry on your dalliance with that bastard girl.”

At that Mychel flushed, whether more out of anger or embarrassment Jon couldn’t decide, for his words betrayed some of both.

“I am married to your daughter and will not forsake-”

“I don’t expect you to ser. Few here have heard of what happened with that girl before you married my Ysilla. What matters is that many at the Gates of the Moon knew, and just as many know you claimed to love her.” The lord paused as Mychel drained his cup and move to fill it again, his back suddenly turned to the others. “And because you’re my goodson and sworn to my service, I ask this of you. Go back and pretend that it was a love fit for any song, a love that drove you to return there. Act as though you’d do anything to have her.”

“I… you ask too much…”

“You’re a fourth son to one house and a goodson to another, with no lands of your own, angry at the lords of both for forcing you into a marriage you didn’t want.” Lord Royce straightened and did not break his gaze from Mychel’s back. “You’re exactly the type of person a man like Littlefinger would try and use against me. He doesn’t know you like I do though, and I trust you to do this. You will be ready to speak to any betrayals he attempts to enlist you in.”

Jon had been tasked with many difficult things in the past yet the one set before Mychel was something that he wasn’t sure he would have been able to face. If Mychel did love this girl Bronze Yohn spoke of, then he was being asked to return to her after marrying another and playing with her feelings for the sake of politics. If Mychel didn’t love this other woman and truly cared for his wife, the situation was still as cruel but instead to Bronze Yohn’s own daughter.

When Mychel returned to the table his face was dark.

“Damn you… you don’t know what you ask of me my lord, what I did to Mya, how ashamed I-” Mychel paused, his face one of disgust, whether with the task Bronze Yohn had asked of him or with himself for what he had done to this bastard girl, Jon wasn’t sure. “Ysilla can never know. Asking me to shame myself is one thing Yohn, I cannot shame her.”  

“I love her dearly. She will not know.” Lord Royce nodded before swiftly looking to the map again, like the matter was but an inconvenience. The lord began moving his finger to the mountains south of the Eyrie and west of Redfort.

“This is my task for you two. You will lead a party of men into this area, where the clansmen have been striking hardest from. Find me proof of Littlefinger’s involvement with them. If you find only evidence of Lannister work then you will bring it to me anyway. With such I can try to rally the other lords against Littlefinger’s control.”

“My lord, your plan is daring but what if Lord Baelish learns of any part?” Jon asked, only because to stay silent would have been failing to serve his lord as well as he could. “Whether Mychel discovers anything at the castle or we capture a clansman willing to speak to any plots, returning back to Runestone would be a challenge.”

“You’re right, that’s why I won’t be here.” Again the lord returned their attention to the map, pointing at a place at the pass connecting the Vale of Arryn with the peninsula Runestone resided upon. “I will be there, with as many men as I can muster, ready to march to the Gates of the Moon.”

The scale of what Bronze Yohn planned made Jon feel uneasy. Not for the wisdom of it, for the lord was far older and had waged more campaigns than most others in the realm.

It’s that I’m a part of it.

After Willem and Mychel had been sent on to prepare, Lord Royce had asked him to stay and Jon was thankful for it. If only to attempt to convince his lord that he was not worthy of such a task.

“My lord, Willem knows these lands you’re sending us to and has earned such an honor. While I’m happy to serve under him, I think there are several knights in your service you’d rather have-”

“Of course there are, but every day you stay here Jon is another day Littlefinger might learn of your identity.” Bronze Yohn moved to sit in his chair by the hearth. “Willem allowed no ravens or riders to leave Runestone during my absence but I will allow it now. Let Littlefinger’s spies report what they see here, for you will be elsewhere by then.”

“If my presence here endangers your family, I would not begrudge you asking me to leave.” Jon owed everything to the Lord of Runestone. He would not allow any harm to come to Bronze Yohn or his House on behalf of him.

“I didn’t give you your spurs just to send you off to become a hedge knight. Besides, I fully intend to reveal the last son of Eddard Stark to the realm. Just not yet." He smiled. "There are great things in store for you Ser Jon, your father must have known the same. Why else would he have you squire for my son?”

Because he was the only one who would have me.

The lord appeared to think the subject closed yet Jon lingered, for there was something else he’d waited weeks to ask about. Something he’d waited over a year to know.

“My lord, while you were away, word came from the capital… about my sister Arya.”

“Yes I heard. She’s to wed Ramsay Snow and make the Bolton claim to Winterfell more legitimate.” Lord Royce cocked an eyebrow at him and drank again of his wine. “Fear not Jon, after what you told me of the Red Wedding, I could not leave your sister in the hands of the false friends behind it.”

Hearing Bronze Yohn speak about Arya’s fate so plainly was hard for him. For every fear that he’d had for her safety, a doubt had arisen on whether she even lived. Jon saw the gods mocking him in finally offering him a place to find service, only to provide a reason to leave once again. His lord had denied him that option, yet he couldn’t leave Arya in the hands of the Boltons, it spoke to what he knew in his heart.

That he had to go to her.

“Then we’ll attempt to free her?”

“When matters at the Gates of the Moon are settled I swear, we will attend to the wrongs in the North.” Bronze Yohn shifted in his seat and closed his eyes. “Go on now ser, the sooner Willem and you find the evidence I need, the sooner we can see about saving a Stark girl.”

 

GHOST

 

These lands were not as full of prey as the others had been.

The mountains and rocks loomed around him and the air carried the scent of a goat he’d been stalking. It had been dark when he first caught the scent. He’d tracked it through the light and now, when it was dark again, he was near enough to catch the prey’s movement in the distance.

He hadn’t been forced on such a long hunt since he’d left the cold lands. Before they’d gone to the land of plenty.

The lands of fields and rivers had been the best, where prey ran behind every bush and the night was full from the sounds of life and the air filled with the smell of dead man.

Those lands were far behind him now.

What brought him here was closer than it had been. Men had driven him away when his other self had been hurt. Their torches and dogs chasing him further and further, after his swift brother had been so close. He’d tried to reach him and the others but the rivers stopped him, too wide and powerful to cross.

He’d broken the silence he held since his birth and howled in grief when he’d felt his brother’s passing. His wild sister’s grief had carried as well, hers further and beyond his grasp as well. So his journeys had begun again, alone.

He prowled and hunted along the land of rivers, always moving towards where the sun rose, seeking what he’d lost. The part he’d always had. From his earliest days he’d had the man and it was him he sought now.

The land of the mountains had been hard to enter. The climbs were steep and the game in the passes hard for him to catch. He had been lucky when the men living among the rocks made a kill for him that he could steal. They hunted him, tried to make him prey, but they couldn’t. He was always a hunter.

He’d been passing into flat lands when he smelt it in the wind. Men were travelling down the tall rock, so tall that it reached into the clouds, and among their scents he found one he remembered. Not the man he sought, but one who had been part of their pack a very long time ago.

The dead sister’s half, like the man was half to him.

The excitement he’d felt made him howl again, as loud as he did when in grief.

He hadn’t made a sound since his swift brother had been killed and now he did so in joy.

He called to her again and again. She never came to him but he tried to go to her. When she went to the great rocks men stacked around their dens he could not reach her. Yet she had not left the man den since.

So neither had he moved on. For he felt what he sought was not so far, and coming closer.

He would stay and keep their pack safe.

The goat bolted from its hiding place ahead of him but he was too far from the steep rocks. He ran like his swift brother, closing and taking the prey down at the base of its shelter. The blood ran warm and sweet in his mouth. He drank of it before gorging on the flesh of the body.

He was still eating when the wind changed. He was far from the man den and should not have smelt her here.

But he did.  

She was not in the man den any more. She was somewhere he could reach her.

But she was not safe.

She was scared.

  

ALAYNE

 

 

“I can’t believe my father is allowing this.”

Myranda spoke for both of them in this matter. As much as Alayne was not supposed to care about such gossip, a foolish girl who had lived for such things once couldn’t help but realize the depth of the scandal unfolding at the Gates of the Moon.

“Mya won’t see him?” She asked as they turned a corner.

They’d been in the great hall when Ser Mychel had arrived to take a meal beside father and Lord Nestor. Mya had been there at first but had disappeared upon their arrival, Myranda bidding Alayne to do the same, to show solidarity with their poor friend. Father had given them a sly grin as she’d done so.

“After what he did? Bedding her, setting her aside, only to come back months later?” Myranda let out a humorless laugh. “Mya hates attention and now everyone is talking about her.”

It was true, even father was talking about Ser Mychel’s arrival. Yet not for the same reasons Myranda was.

“My father thinks it’s because he’s angry at our cousin." Myranda continued in a conspiratorial tone, looking behind her to the sworn sword that followed Alayne everywhere now. "That a marriage to Ysilla should’ve earned him some title or lands but Yohn offers neither.”

“Or it is truly love…” Alayne would say that, such innocence had been beaten out of her a long ago but Alayne still believed. “Why come here if it’s not for Mya?”

“Please Alayne, who is Yohn’s greatest rival here in the Vale?” Myranda sounded exasperated.

She understood of course, but Alayne wasn’t necessarily so sharp, having so little experience at court. Father had sounded much the same as Myranda last night when she'd feigned ignorance then as well.

“Dear Alayne, if Yohn wished to learn more about what transpires in this castle do you think he’d expect to learn more from befuddled Nestor… or a man likely to conspire with me?” Father had come to her chambers before she was to sleep. She’d barely had time to throw a robe over her shift and his eyes had watched after her greedily.

A hundred years ago some foolish girl would have been thrilled at the more womanly shape her body had taken over the past months, eager to become a beauty like her mother. Now she would have given anything for it to stop. Alayne hated the way her body seemed to draw father’s eyes to her, his touches sometimes lingering in ways that made her feel unclean. If she were uglier, or even quieter, she hoped Petyr would forget she was there. Or perhaps even treat her like a father should.

I had a father who loved me once.

When he told me I was beautiful it made happy, he made me feel safe.

Alayne never feels safe when her father remarks on her beauty.

“You think Ser Mychel did not come for Mya? Nor out of anger at Lord Royce…” She’d pretended to be coming to the realization slowly, forcing father to look into her eyes rather than at her breasts. “But to make you think he is… so that you will speak to him of your plans.”

“Excellent!” He’d clapped and come forward to kiss her cheek and she accepted it with a smile. “Now I need only think of a way to use dear Mya against Ser Mychel, then I may have the chance to put Yohn in an awkward position.”

She’d been bothered by the idea of using Mya. She truly thought of the girl as the closest thing she had to friend since her life had fallen apart in King’s Landing. Myranda was so sweet and wanted to be close, and she yearned for such friendship, but the lady was too shrewd, too pointed with her questions. Alayne wasn’t safe around Myranda. Mya however accepted Alayne as she was, quick to share a story and a smile with her fellow bastard girl. Alayne didn’t want Mya to fall into father’s clutches, but she made sure he didn’t see her doubts. She’d been practicing how to keep her face still of emotion every night in the mirror.

She used her new talent again as he twirled his fingers through her hair and gently pulled her in for a lingering kiss upon her lips. The blush came anyways and Petyr laughed as he pulled away.

I hate that laugh.

If she’d expected moments like that would become fewer here than they had been at the Eyrie, she’d been wrong. Father had set out to arrange a marriage between herself and Harry the Heir yet every chance Petyr had, he took liberties of her. Eventually she’d accepted his kisses and touches, pushing her shame deep down into herself, knowing that there was nothing to be done about it. Lately though, she’d begun to worry how far he would go with her.

She feared whether or not she could stop him if he tried.

Myranda was fortunate to have simpler fears.

“I’m afraid if I throw a feast to celebrate my name day then Ser Mychel will make a scene by trying to make Mya attend. The last thing I need is Lothor Brune killing a knight in my father’s hall.” Myranda had led them to the room where they would do needlework when the sound of someone clearing their throat was heard from behind them.

Ser Byron was now joined by Ser Shadrich, another of the sworn swords that Petyr had added to his personal garrison in the castle. He wore a thick black cloak and he made the noise again before smiling widely at them.

“My lady, I apologize if I’m intruding. Your lord father asked me to bring you to him.”

“Your father ruins all our fun, he seems intent on interrupting our talks.” Myranda pouted but Alayne sensed an accusation there. Her friend was too clever to miss that father rarely allowed them time alone. If they ever found the chance, father would always find something to interrupt it with.

“I’m sorry. I forgot we were to speak about Sweetrobin’s fits…” Alayne lied as well as she could, before embracing Myranda and taking her leave.

I hope he does not wish to kiss me again.

Or has not found some way of using poor Mya.

Worrying about such distracted her long enough that she lost track of where the knights was leading her. She knew something was amiss when the men turned to guide her down a corridor, different than the one that led to her father’s chambers. This one led towards one of the courtyards to the south side of the castle whereas father’s chambers, or even the Lord Nestor’s solar, were to the north.

“My father awaits us outside?”

“Hush now.” Ser Shadrich’s voice was hot against her ear suddenly. It was shocking behavior from him, as shocking as how tightly he gripped her arm before pressing something menacingly against her back. “It’s a blade girl, be silent and do as I say. I can cut you so you’d die slowly and painfully, even with a maester’s help.”

Everything froze for her.

She found me.

The queen found me.

Somehow, despite the fear gripping every part of her body, her legs betrayed her and kept the pace set by the knight. The two men hurried her further down the corridor. This side of the castle endured more wind from the mountains and was much colder than the rest of the castle, so it was deserted. No servants or guards were about to see her and raise the alarm. She was being stolen right out of Petyr’s grasp and none knew. They stopped abruptly in the stone archway leading out into the courtyard while Ser Byron continued out into the darkness beyond.

“Put this on now. You can cry if you want but do not make a sound or you’ll suffer for it.” The knight removed his cloak and offered it to her. As she clasped it about herself shakily, her eyes caught the blade he’d pressed against her back. It was slightly curved and looked sharp to the touch.

Ser Byron reappeared wearing the cloak of a castle guard and handed another one to Ser Shadrich.

“Only two on the postern gate and that boy is off to start the fire now.” Ser Byron shivered in the wind and Ser Shadrich nodded before grabbing her arm again and pulling her out into the cold air. The hood was thrown over her head suddenly and she saw little from beneath it.

The courtyard was empty. The increased cold recently seemed to have driven most into finding warmer places to congregate and she imagined any man upon the walls merely saw guards escorting someone across the yard. She wanted to scream but there was no one close enough to help. Her only hope was that Petyr would notice her absence soon and come for her.

The sounds of horses made her raise her head and she saw another hedge knight, Ser Morgarth, attending four steeds and seeming impatient with the haste of their approach.

“Come on man, I better get a greater share for getting these and doing for them-”

“Shut up. Get up girl, be strong now, that’s a good girl.” Ser Shadrich was forceful, almost throwing her up into the saddle.

She could hear shouting from far off and wondered if they’d noticed that she was gone. Someone must have raised the alarm and she imagined guards pouring over the castle looking for her.

“That’s the fire, let’s go.” Ser Shadrich said, and with her horse’s reins in his hand, they rode forth and out of the small gate, into the countryside beyond.

None yelled down to them and she thought she saw two bodies lying prone upon the ground by the gate. As the castle grew smaller behind her, she saw light flickering within the walls and smoke rising as well.

They set a fire.

Everyone will be fighting the blaze, not searching for me.

They rode for what seemed like hours, the horses lathered by the time they finally slowed their pace and it was not out of mercy to the beasts. They’d come to the base of one of the many mountain ranges that made up the Mountains of the Moon, and were now urging their horses up the pass. The pace was slower so Ser Shadrich allowed his horse to fall back beside hers.

“I’m sorry for scaring you so my lady. I needed you to do as I said or our task back there could’ve gotten very messy. I wasn’t paid to see you hurt, I promise.” He said this almost softly before reaching out to pull her cloak tighter about her body.

“Please… please ser… j-just return me to my father. If you do so he will be kind… he will forgive you…” She begged and probably would’ve wept if there were any more tears left in her to do so.

“Tell the truth now Lady Sansa, that man is not your father.”

Ser Shadrich’s words confirmed her worst fears. The Queen had learned of Petyr’s deception and found her. Still, she refused to let the truth slip so easily. Alayne was her only protection now.

“Whoever you think I am ser… I beg you… do not take me to the queen. Please.”

“The Queen?” Ser Shadrich laughed and shook his head. “I don’t sell my sword to just anyone, especially not to one as mad as her. The Spider sent me searching for you, sent word of where you were likely to be found.”

The Spider?

Her time at court and alongside Petyr made the title familiar but it still took a moment for her to put a name to it. The Master of Whispers, a spymaster feared throughout the realm.

“Lord Varys? Why should Lord Varys want to take me away from my father?” She wouldn’t stop being Alayne, even now.

“Well, who really knows with that eunuch? I bet he has some plan for you, you being the eldest child of House Stark and all, but he said some nonsense about having to protect you.” Ser Shadrich shook his head at the thought and Alayne understood. Father said often that the Spider could never be trusted and that everything he said was a lie.

Like Petyr, she couldn’t help but think.

“How’d he say it? That he’s doing this for your father. We’re supposed to fulfill the promise the Spider made to Lord Stark.” Shadrich gave her a look that almost bordered on sympathy while she was profoundly confused. “The Spider was to keep you safe if the Hand admitted guilt before the city and take the black. Your father kept his word but someone put it in the king’s head to go against the Spider’s advice.”

Father was supposed to take the black but Joffrey killed him.

Joffrey was a monster and he’s dead now. 

She forced herself to remember how much she hated Joffrey, ignoring the queasy feeling she got in her tummy whenever she remembered Joffrey’s death, how he had looked so scared, clawing red ribbons of blood into his throat, how young he had looked. It was utter madness to be sad over that, just as it was madness to doubt Alayne’s father over Lord Varys.

Petyr saved me from the Lannisters, not Varys.

She wanted to ignore Ser Shadrich but he kept talking and a part of her couldn’t help but listen.

“I hardly believed the story myself until I spent some time with Littlefinger. Imagine the balls on him, actually convincing the king to take your father’s head then pretending to be your father.” Ser Shadrich gave a laugh then and laughed again at the shock upon her face.

All her practice at keeping her face free of emotion meant nothing in that moment.

He wouldn’t.

He saved me.

“My father was… was…”

“Your father was killed by Littlefinger as surely as King Joffrey gave the order. By the Seven girl! Can you really tell me such a thing is beyond a man like him?”

She said nothing.

She couldn’t answer.

To answer was to admit the truth.

It’s exactly what Petyr would have done.

Sansa retched then, spewing forth all the disgust and horror that had build up within her. Her body couldn’t take it anymore, it needed it gone, she need it gone.

Without wanting to, completely against her will, her mind went back to that terrible day. She hadn’t thought of it once since it happened, her father standing there looking so weak, so tired. She’d kept her spirits up though and smiled for him, to try and give him hope. Her golden prince, her king, her love, he was going to spare father for her. Everything was going to be alright.

Then Joffrey betrayed her. Sansa screamed at the memory, both in her mind and out loud, begging her thoughts to move away from that moment but she couldn’t hide anymore. Joffrey had killed her dreams of him as her gallant prince that day, but she’d pushed the horrors deep down inside her ever since. She’d stood on the battlements and stared at her father’s head and made the memories disappear, leaving only emptiness and hatred for her betrothed behind.

I don’t want to remember!

But she did.

She had to now.

He’d been standing there, tall and proud, smiling with those stupid wormy lips of his. The Queen looking panicked, whispering in Joffrey’s ear while he pushed her away. Fat and jowly Janos Slynt was shoving father painfully down to his knees, onto his bad leg, while the terrifyingly silent Ilyn Payne pulled Ice from its giant sheath.

Lord Varys had been there. He had looked as panicked as the Queen, shouting at Ser Ilyn to stop but his voice became lost to the shouting, all of the shouting… The crowd had been so loud!

Petyr had been there too. She’d forgotten for a long time but she remembered him now. Petyr had been there. Petyr had been wearing the same face she practiced every night in the mirror. Watching all the while, calm like he always was. As calm as he had been when he pushed Aunt Lysa out the Moon Door, not Marillion. He watched her father’s execution completely unflinching.

I called him father. I called him father and he killed my father.

My true father… the one I loved…

Ser Shadrich wiped the vomit from her lips with a rag after he pulled her tightly to her horse, tying her down into the saddle. The knight shook his head at her in disgust or perhaps pity. Sansa felt both for herself in that moment.

And somewhere a wolf howled and she found that the tears had not truly left her.

Not like all the others have.

 JON

“You northmen are supposed to be half wildling yourselves, how it is you can’t find them in all this open country?”

Willem’s question was met by scattered laughter among the men. Their party had all taken this time to rest their mounts and themselves after a particularly steep climb. They’d all dismounted and led their horses and pack mules by their reins. As they'd done so, Jon had been struck by the thought that the clansmen were doing much the same with them.

They’re leading us somewhere.

Every time they found a sign of the clansmen moving in large groups they would follow the trail, and for three weeks now, none of their pursuits had borne fruit. To continue in this manner was not an option, for time was not on their side. Snow had fallen several times already and while no storms had come yet, and the passes still remained clear, Jon knew they wouldn’t be so lucky forever.

The greater fear however was not about the weather. It was the one that troubled him now, for Jon suspected the clansmen were drawing them deeper into the mountains on purpose.

“We need to head towards the Vale of Arryn Willem.” He said when the laughter died down. “We can delay no longer.”

Willem spat and reached back to pull a skin of water to his lips, only to spit again.

“That bad feeling creeping up on you too Wolf?”

“Where we are? How tight are the passes here? If we find them, I doubt it would matter if we had a hundred, even a thousand knights, let alone only twenty men-at-arms.” He reached out and Willem offered the skin to him, the water from the mountain spring being cool and welcome against his raw throat. “Every time we give up we find another sign. It’s happened one time too often. They’re leading us away from flatter country.”

“I’d call that a bad feeling.” Willem spat again. “If they’re hell bent on trapping us, maybe they’ll give chase and do our work for them. Either way, I’m not one to keep my cousin waiting. He made me promise to get you to him before the moon’s turn.”

Worse than giving up the chase was the thought that their lord might already be marching, expecting them to bring him any evidence of Littlefinger’s crimes that they had yet to find.

I hope Mychel has had better fortune than us.

Someone had to.

As Willem and the men most familiar with the mountains argued for the quickest route back down through the passes, Jon scanned the rocks around him. He hadn’t lied about his reasons for wishing to leave the high passes. They’d been real concerns for him. If they were caught in battle here, the mountain clans would surely have the advantage of terrain.

But telling him about my dreams would be idiocy.

Trusting them even more foolish.

He hadn’t dreamed like this since Acorn Hall. Not since Ghost had been driven away from him and Jon had been left alone. Yet after their first day in the mountains the dreams had come again, not of hunting in the lush green lands but of prowling rock faces and running up steep inclines.

And of her.

Jon had no true idea what her he was dreaming of, but he knew, deep down he knew, she was out there. Not so now far but growing more distant every day that they journeyed further into the ranges.

And she needs me.

He would have never argued changing their path for that reason alone. Yet with everything pointing to that being the wisest course, Jon had accepted it with less argument than he might have.

Just as he accepted the route Willem chose for their descent. They rode side by side for much of the day, his friend doing his best to make him smile and Jon doing his best to let him. The thoughts of prowling after some girl who needed him still hammered at the back of his mind.

“See now, it bothers me. I lay awake at night, thinking to myself that Jon does not take life seriously enough.” Willem slapped the pommels of the swords strapped to either side of his hips. “I mean, for a man who has seen the worst of what the world has to offer, more so than many, he still only carries one sword. What sense is that?”

“Why would I carry two if I can only fight with the one hand?”

“I’m only saying. I’d never want to lose a fight due to a lack of swords.” Willem smirked. “And a tavern whore once bragged to me that she could do well with three swords at once. Are you saying you’re less able than that lovely lady, ser?”

Jon’s laughter heralded a cry from further up their line. Two of their outriders had returned and brought word of dead men ahead.

Clansmen at that.

“The only clansmen we find and they’re bloody dead.” A man named Huett grumbled, which earned him a cuff from Willem.

The clansmen had earned worse from someone else. Over two score of them lay scattered over what seemed to be a camp of their own making, and they hadn’t been dead long. While some of the bodies had been stabbed and hacked from battle, others had parts of themselves cut away, clearly after the battle had ended.

“These bodies were made by the clan encamped here, defending themselves. See how some of the dead aren’t missing parts?” Willem pointed to some of the bodies, as savagely cut up as the others, but still having their ears and manhoods attached to them. “It was attacked by a local clan, one who likes to collect trophies it seems.”

Then he walked over to one man, propped up against a rock and missing more than most. His ears, nose, and eyes were all gone while his tongue remained. It had been cut free and pinned to his forehead with a blade.

“This poor bastard, they caught him alive. He must have known something important, something these others wanted to know about.”

“These men are Painted Dogs ser.” Gerold, one of their men most familiar with the ranges added to Willem’s observation. “They always wear dog pelts and they’re not from these lands, they keep most often to the rocks between the Redfort and Wickenden.”

“So what are they doing here?” Jon asked.

Coming upon this sight after his dreams drove them this way was too strange. He reached down to grasp at the bag holding the bracelets, just to make sure they were still there. Willem watched him do it with a bemused expression before shrugging.

“Well, we can always ask the ones who did for them, they aren’t hiding their trail at all.” Willem gestured at the tracks that the clan had left behind, either purposefully or from their rush at wanting to leave. “They’re practically dropping ears behind them, so eager to leave it seems.”

They did nothing for the bodies before leaving. Jon thought it dishonorable but the Vale men made it clear that the clansmen did far worse to the smallfolk they attacked. They rode until darkness was falling and made camp in a sheltered bit of rock that protected their horses and men from the wind. Jon volunteered to take the first watch and scorned the fires, instead facing the darkness to the west. It was there they were heading and there his dreams drew him to.

The wind whipping about him reminded him of the North and for some reason he felt closer to it now than he had since crossing the Neck.

He wondered if his father had ever camped in the Mountains of the Moon like this when he’d warded at the Eyrie. Whether he had felt winds like these and been reminded of his home so far away. If he’d ever longed for Winterfell during his journeys as Jon did now.

He’d made the mistake of telling Willem of how the cold weather reminded him of home. The knight had mocked him for equating such a chill with happy memories and promised to set children to making a snow wench for him as soon as the weather permitted. According to him, she’d be harsh enough for Jon to find a kindred spirit in.

His friend wasn’t far off. The North had always been a harsh place and outsiders never seemed to understand its charms like those who had been raised there. Many had whispered disbelief at Lady Stark adapting so well to her adopted home, many of his father’s bannermen coming to respect her for it after a time.

Jon always liked to think, when he was a child, of his mother liking the North as well, maybe even learning to love Winterfell more than his father’s wife had.

Probably not, she was from even further south than Lady Stark.

But I’m half southron and whatever blood runs through my veins, I’ll always be a northman.

The wind blew through the passes so that it almost sounded like howling to him. He smiled against the cold, pretending that all the direwolves were howling together as they would when they were pups at Winterfell.

Then the wind stopped and he realized the howling continued.

And sounded so familiar.

 

THE ORPHAN GIRL

 

She was cold and her legs ached from riding.

It had been over a year since she’d been asked to ride for such a long period and the gown Sansa wore was not meant for such activity. They’d ridden the entire night of her abduction, resting the horses only a few hours before continuing onward throughout the day. It caused her thighs and backside to scream in pain.

She wouldn’t complain though. Every time she spoke, Ser Shadrich told her things that she wished she didn’t know.

“The Spider was worried about this m’lady.” He’d said when she tried feebly to argue against his claims about Petyr, despite knowing in her heart that they were true. “He said Littlefinger would have you wrapped around his… well, little finger. The man has been using you for some time now and was going to keep using you if Lord Varys hadn’t sent us fine men to rescue you.”

“Lord Varys serves the Queen…”

“As does Littlefinger. I think we both know how loyal he was to that mad cunt.” The knight had actually seemed abashed for a moment. “Forgive me m’lady, I spend enough time on a horse and my old ways come back to me.”

She couldn’t understand where they were taking her. The quickest ways out of the Vale were the High Road or east towards Gulltown. Yet from what she could tell, they’d headed straight into the mountains to the south, taking a long meandering route through its passes.

When they’d camped again, despite her exhaustion, every sound coming from the darkness made her jump. At the Gates of the Moon, they’d all heard the tales of the mountain clans attacking from the mountains and what they did to maidens. Ser Shadrich had tied a rope about her wrists and slept beside her in the tent, yet after one of her many gasps throughout the night he’d cursed and turned to face her.

“What is it? If you’re afraid I’ll touch you, don’t be. The Spider made that a requirement of the reward he offered. Your maidenhood must be intact for me to get my gold.” Shadrich had been irritated but his face softened some after the first outburst. “Even if he hadn’t I’m not one for rape. Seen enough of it in my life… I prefer when a woman comes to me nice and willingly, eager even, if I’m fortunate.”

“What about the clansmen? There’s only three of you and they won’t care about the reward.” She whispered as quietly as she could, as if the savages were outside the tent listening.

The knight had chuckled and rolled to his side away from her.

“That’s where you’re wrong, some would and do and those are the men we’re seeking out here. I wouldn’t have dragged you out into the countryside if the Spider hadn’t arranged us an escort. This route is the last one Littlefinger would expect us to take and by the time his men know to follow, our good savage friends will be leading us through passes that even the Vale men haven’t heard of. Now go to sleep. Another hard day of riding is ahead.”

She had still been terrified after his words but exhaustion had taken its hold and she drifted off. It was of course a nightmare that awaited her. One where Petyr forced her to kiss him even as father was thrown to his knees by Janos Slynt. Father stared at her in betrayal but when Sansa tried to go to him while Petyr held tight, grapping at her. Then Joffrey held father’s rotting head up to her face, the mouth shouting at her…

“Bugger me! Wolf!”

Sansa awoke as Ser Shadrich wrenched himself to his feet and dragged her forth by her rope from the tent. She tripped and fell, crashing onto the hard ground, scraping her elbows and knees. A gasp escaped her then from the fall but the pain was quickly forgotten when she saw it. Her head jerked from side to side in disbelief but the same sight awaited her when she stopped, standing at the edge of their small camp. A sight that felt like an answer to the same prayer she’d had every night for years.

Lady! She’s come to save me!

Yet after a moment, Sansa realized it wasn’t her direwolf after all.

Ser Byron was on the ground, kicking away from the pale shape in the darkness. A dark outline in the night that wasn’t Lady yet was so familiar that Sansa felt herself crawling closer to it.

“That is the biggest fucking wolf I’ve ever seen!” Ser Shadrich yelled as he pulled his sword and pulled her rope taught. The other knight rushed forward with a crossbow.

Sansa’s eyes adjusted to the darkness well enough but she rubbed them again in disbelief. The firelight caught the beast’s eyes, and she saw the bright redness of them and knew better.

“Ghost.”

“What?” Ser Shadrich stared at her before shaking his head. “Kill the bloody thing!”

“Gladly.” Ser Morgarth said as he took aim with the crossbow.

“No!” She cried and lunged at his feet, causing the man to stumble as he fired. The bolt skittered before Ghost. The direwolf then leapt up and fled into the darkness, out of sight as the knights cursed after him and then her.

No, don’t go. Please don’t go…

I didn’t mean any of it… I didn’t mean for Jon to die either…

She’d begun to weep again even as the men shouted at her. Seeing the direwolf had reminded her of the Blackwater all over again and how Joffrey had pulled her aside to gloat about the victory.

“They told me your bastard brother was out there with one of those Stark beasts.” Joffrey had smiled cruelly and needled her arm with the end of a dagger. He’d taken her to the walls of the Red Keep, so they could look at out at the carnage left by the Battle of the Blackwater. “I know you northern savages prefer fucking them to decent men, so you’ll be happy to know it got away. Your father’s bastard didn’t. They told me he burned with the rest, too good for a Stark by-blow in my opinion.”

She’d held in the tears until he left her be, bored by her lack of grief. The sounds of the men burning and dying during the battle had been horrible enough. When she thought of Jon out there it made her ill. They’d never been close, but to hear he died so horribly had been too much for her to bear, especially so soon after the news of Bran and Rickon’s deaths. Jon had only ever been kind to her, he was going to be a knight and she’d been so happy for him, but now he was dead too.

But Ghost lives.

A howl in the night suddenly cut through those memories. It was a long, deep sound, coming forth from the darkness Ghost had disappeared into.

He had not gone far, that howl said.

None of them had slept much that night after seeing Ghost. She remembered the wolf being so quiet at Winterfell yet now it howled continuously at the mountains. As if beckoning Sansa to come to him.

“You should have let us do for it.” Ser Shadrich had grumbled as they rode in the morning, angry for the lost sleep. Even more so when come first light, they had seen Ghost following behind, just out of range of Ser Morgarth’s crossbow. “What if it attacks the horses as we sleep? It'll slow us down for sure! Just because we have friends waiting for us, doesn’t mean there aren’t other clansmen out there willing to do for you or worse!”

The presence of the direwolf unnerved them so much that Ser Morgarth and Ser Byron began pondering aloud how to ride down the wolf. Sansa couldn’t let that happen though. Ghost had come for her. She'd no idea how he had arrived in the Vale, or even how he found her, but she vowed not to let them hurt him.

Not like father.

Or mother… the boys…

Not like Jon.

“Petyr might find us before the clansmen…” She risked Ser Shadrich’s favorite topic in her attempt to sway him from allowing his companions to attack Ghost.

“Finally! You understand that that’s something much worse to fear.” The knight had grinned for the first time that day. “I mean, it was him who buggered up that deal with the Tyrells for you! He warned Lord Tywin about that little arrangement so you could end up with the Imp. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone my lady.”

“He wasn’t in the capital though, and if he wanted me for himself, why would he marry me to someone else? That…” Sansa remembered then how she’d told Ser Dontos about the Tyrell plan for her marriage to their heir Willas.

If Ser Dontos knew, then Petyr knew, and he told the Queen.

And it didn’t matter if I was married to Tyrion.

Petyr always planned on framing him for Joffrey’s murder anyway.

Hearing those thoughts caused Sansa to shiver. A part of her had always understood that, that Tyrion had been framed for killing Joffrey just as much as she’d been, but she’d pushed those terrible thoughts away for how they painted Petyr, her only friend and savior.

She’d been so relieved to be released from her marriage to Tyrion but she hadn’t wanted him dead. He had been kind to her even when he didn’t need to be. When people whispered about him not bedding her, he’d continued to stay away per her wishes and she’d never considered how thoughtful that was of him.

Unlike Petyr, he was always finding ways to push Sansa further into kissing him, letting him touch her. He had never really protected her, not like Tyrion or the Hound. Now that she could see him clearly, more and more she came to realize how deeply Littlefinger had been playing her. He had even admitted to her that she was a piece in the game of thrones to him but she hadn’t allowed herself to believe it.

He said he saved me. He didn’t save me at all. He endangered me in the first place.

The Queen thinks I poisoned Joffrey along with Tyrion.

Just as he planned.

“Varys told me to ask you about Jan Poole.” Ser Shadrich spoke, shaking Sansa out of her terrible thoughts.

“Jeyne Poole?” She remembered her friend from another life. They’d taken her away and she’d never known what they’d done with her.

Petyr said she would be safe, she thought with dread.

That was a lie too it seemed. The truth caused Sansa to feel a deep anguish.

“That’s the one. He put her to whoring in one of his brothels. Bet he never told you that!”

Sansa thought of poor little Jeyne Poole, her friend who’d thought Lord Beric was the handsomest man in the world. The girl she’d gossiped with and shared dreams with and even shared a bed with at times. She’d been so excited about the capital but so scared by the blood they saw at the Tourney. She’d also been scared the day that the Lannister men started killing everyone and Sansa hadn’t listened.

Instead she’d told the Queen about Jeyne and Cersei had placed Sansa’s closest friend under Littlefinger’s care. Her friend, who dreamed of marrying a knight, put to work as a whore.

You betrayed her just like you betrayed father.

Ser Shadrich lost his taste for revealing Petyr’s plots after Sansa retched again over the side of her horse, and the others had slowly become accustomed to Ghost’s plodding pursuit behind them. Late in the afternoon the pass opened into a large, grass covered plateau. Snow was falling now and the hill was so wide and long that they could barely see the other side.

It took almost an hour to reach that other side, and waiting for them were the Spider’s mountain clans.

They looked even more terrifying than how she’d pictured them.

The clansmen gathered at the far end of the flat land were savage and filthy, all clad in furs and leathers. Some had bits and pieces of normal clothing or armor while all held weapons of good steel. They eyed the group without warmth and those who sat by fires stood to move towards them. Sansa tried to keep her eyes from meeting any of theirs and instead glimpsed more details of the men she wished she hadn’t.

Much of their clothing was stained, and many of those stains looked to be blood.

And others had necklaces of body parts, barely even beginning to rot.

“Hail the Painted Dogs!” Ser Shadrich called out and the clansmen laughed in reply. “I was told to ask for Rollo!”

“Rollo’s dead, you talk with Ruk.” A particularly ugly and fierce looking man rose from beside a fire.

He scared her more than the rest. His face was filthy and scarred, his eyes a mismatched brown and yellow. For a moment she thought of Tyrion’s scar before more of Ruk’s features added to her fear. A large sword was slung across his back and he looked to have a necklace made of ears hanging around his neck. That wasn’t as bad as the severed manhood hanging from his belt though.

“What tricks you before it kills you?” Ser Shadrich asked, eyeing the group around them warily. Ruk smiled then. It was an ugly smile which showed more stained yellow teeth than warmth.

“Spider.”

Ser Shadrich seemed to relax a little then and gestured to the other two knights. They began to dismount and Ser Byron came to untie her from her horse. As he did so, she saw the clansmen had begun to close in at her side.

“Is there food? We should eat before you lead us up, elsewise the girl may pass out.” Ser Shadrich stretched and nodded towards the approaching men coming slowly from the other side.

“Food will come later.” Ruk had stopped smiling and moved closer to them, as had many of the others. “Where is the gold?”

“The food will come now, the gold will be later." The knight countered as the clansmen drew closer.

The way they were looking at her made Sansa feel uneasy. It reminded her of the men who'd tried to rape her during the riots in the capital, of Joffrey whenever he threatened to take her virtue. 

Sansa shuddered at the memory.

“Mouse…" Ser Morgath hissed. "Mouse! They don’t have enough garrons.”

Ser Morgarth's tone was meant to be hushed but she heard it well enough, causing her insides to twist in terror. Ser Shadrich whipped his head around, seemingly counting the short, hairy beasts that the clansmen had tethered up to the side of the camp.

"We thought you’d have garrons for us, will our horses be able to make the climb?” Ser Shadrich asked, moving Sansa and himself closer to the other two hedge knights. She knew something was wrong when he’d lost that confident expression of his and the other two had their hands on their sword hilts. She noticed the clansmen were resting their hands upon their own weapons too.

Ghost?

Oh Ghost please...

She looked behind them but through the blowing snow she saw no sign of the direwolf. Nor had she seen him during their ride through the flat lands.

“Ruk will be having the gold. Ruk will also be having the girl.” Ruk drew his sword as the other clansmen closed in on them, their weapons glinting in the firelight.

“What is this? Do this and only half of what you were promised will be yours!” The Mad Mouse drew his sword and pushed Sansa behind him roughly.

“You dealt with Painted Dogs, we are Milk Snakes. Half their gold is good. Girl is Ruk’s first!” His last words were shouted to the men around him and it was the last warning before the clansmen charged at them.

“Get to the horses!” Ser Shadrich yelled as he backed away and cut at a man swinging an axe.

There were too many of them, she knew that. Still, Sansa ran towards her horse as the sounds of fighting and dying erupted around her. She was remembering the riot in King’s Landing and all the carnage it had wrought. So much violence had been done by hungry smallfolk without weapons; these were savages with steel axes. Her horse was her only chance and it was only steps away.

Until two clansmen came between her and her mount. She turned away from them in time to see Ser Byron lose his arm to Ruk’s sword before another man caved his skull in with a club.

Snow whipped at her face and the wind blew it around her like a white shroud. While around Ser Shadrich it became a red mist as he cut through a man’s middle, blood spraying forth. Two others pushed the knight away from her and another group had formed around Ser Morgarth so she saw no more of what happened to him.

Ruk was steps away from her when someone grabbed her arm roughly so she spun and struck out blindly. Her balled up fist connected with the man’s nose and he released her. He raised a maul before crying out and falling before her.

His leg was being ripped apart below his knee by the fearsome jaws of the direwolf behind him. The other clansman stabbed down at Ghost who leapt away from the jabs, grabbing at the spear with his jaws and snapping it in two. Ghost was jumping on the man when the horses began to flee out of fear of the direwolf. She grabbed her skirts and began to run after them.

Run, you have to run.

She looked behind her and saw Ghost surrounded by Ruk and many of the clansmen, the direwolf snapping and dodging their stabs and jabs. She also saw a man chasing her, running much faster than she could.

“No!” She screamed as he latched onto her shoulder. Her nails raked down his filthy face, tearing away skin and causing the man to yell and push at her.

He raised his club up and she did the same with her arms to protect against the blow. It crashed down and a blinding pain flashed in the side of her head and she was falling. The ground met her roughly and something wet was streaming down the side of her face.

She tried to rise up and crawl across the snow covered ground but the world was spinning and the ground was shaking. A hand was grabbing at her leg and pulling when she saw them through the snow. She thought their horses were returning, that somehow the beasts answered her need.

But there were more horses than before. Nor were they riderless.

As they neared, she saw men upon them, waving weapons and charging towards the clansmen, yelling.

The hand released her foot and she tried pushing herself to her feet when she saw him. Atop a horse and riding hard, his sword flashing through the snow and his cloak whipping behind him.

Through the snow he was coming for her.

But he was long dead.

Even through her blurred vision, and the whipping snows, she knew him.

Father…

Chapter Text

JON

 

“Father?”

The word pulled him from his worries and he sought her face then.

Jon found her eyelids fluttering, her head lifting slowly from the pillow to stare at him, her eyes looking a little glassy. He brushed some of the hair away from her forehead, hair that was the wrong color. As wrong as it may have been though, he still saw the truth of her. It had been over two years. In that time she had grown into a young woman rather than the little girl he’d left behind, but he still knew her.

Even beneath the ugly bandage upon her head.

I’ve known her for as long as I can remember.

“Sansa.” Jon choked out, reaching down to clutch her hand and holding it as tightly as he dared. “Sansa, I’m here.”

She’d been asleep their entire journey through the mountain range, almost a full day and night of hard riding. They’d found a village that was long abandoned, out of fear of the clansmen, Willem said, with some of the stone buildings still standing strong against the wind. He’d brought her to the strongest and most well-kept storehouse, to be warmed by a fire and rest on a soft mattress filled with hay. He’d covered her in as many furs as he could find before sitting vigil beside her ever since.

And now she was waking.

“Father?” Her voice was hoarse from disuse. “Father how?”

He was taken aback.

For a moment Jon feared for what the clansman’s blow had done to her senses and wished the man’s death by his hands hadn’t been so swift. Then he saw how her eyes squinted against the light of the fire, how she kept blinking like she couldn’t see him clearly.

She must have been dreaming.

“Oh Sansa… I’m sorry.” He felt horrible having to say it. “I wish it was him but it’s only… it’s only me, only Jon.”

The immediate falling of her face at his words hurt a little but he understood. He could only imagine how it would feel to think that their father had returned, only to have that hope torn away again.

“Jon… oh Jon…” Sansa’s voice was shaky, tears filling her eyes. “You’re alive… we’re alive…”

“You’re safe Sansa, I’m here. I’ve found you. I looked for so long, for any of you. I’m sorry I never… I couldn’t…”

His voice caught in his throat and he bowed his head. He moved to slip his hand away but she gripped it tightly before saying something softly that he missed.

“I’m sorry, do you need something? Water?”

She shook her head slightly.

“I remembered a boy… not a man. You’re a man now Jon.” She smiled through her tears. “You look so much like father.”

“I think he was handsomer than that.”

Sansa gave a weak laugh before moaning and reaching for her head. He turned to pick up the skin of water beside him and offered it to her, making her drink slowly for fear that too much would make her sick.

“I thought you were dead.” Sansa said, wiping her mouth clean. “They told me you died at the Blackwater.”

“I almost did. It was awful… I was lucky to have escaped the fires… the killing… but I failed you.” It all came out before he could stop himself. “I failed father, I failed Robb, the boys… I’m sorry I never came for you Sansa. I tried but the Tyrells betrayed us all and-and I couldn’t even reach the walls…”

She made a soothing sound and reached for his face. Her fingers cupped against his cheek and it felt softer than anything he could remember.

“Stop that. You came for me.” Sansa smiled. “You came for me out of the snow. No one ever came for me. You’re my savior Jon… I didn’t think I’d have ever have someone to save me…”

“I’m not much of a savior. Lord Royce and his army will do better I think. He’ll be so happy to see you.”

He’d meant his words to be reassuring but Sansa’s features suddenly twisted into a look of terror.

“Jon, we are in grave danger.” She rasped, her eyes darting about fearfully. “Are the men who took me dead?”

“The short one with the orange hair lives. The Mouse he called himself.” The man was apparently quite the warrior, outfighting dozens of clansmen long enough for Jon’s party to come upon him. “We’re putting him to the question, to learn what he knows. He’s under guard Sansa. I won’t let him-”

“Jon, he must be killed. He knows who I am!” Sansa began to push herself up but he gently urged her down before she fell out of the bed. She was determined though, so he placed a pillow behind her back to allow her a sitting position.

“You have to kill him… you must.” She acted almost hysterical. “He knows too much! He will tell people, it’s true… he must die Jon, you have to kill him…”

“Kill him? Why?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Sansa wishing someone dead?

She was always the most gentle out of all of us.

“Because they know who I am!” Sansa cried out, her hands balled into fists in front of her chest. “No one can know!”

“Sansa, the men who are with me know who you are. I’ve already sent word to Lord Royce that I found you. Killing this man does nothing…”

Sansa was shaking her head violently as he spoke and he glanced to her bandage, fearing again for what the blow might have done to her wits.

“No, they can’t know! I must be Alayne! Alayne is my protection. The Queen wants my head and they’ve killed everyone else. Petyr… Petyr will come for me Jon… he can’t find you. Not you Jon, please, not you.” Her hands went to her face and she looked absolutely terrified.

He barely understood half of what she said. The Mouse had told them that Lord Baelish had disguised her as his bastard daughter but said little more beyond that.

“I do not fear Petyr Baelish and nor should you. He will find me waiting if he comes to take you from my care.”

“You don’t understand him!” She screamed and he jerked back as if on instinct. He thought perhaps to give her some space, like he often did when they were children but Sansa was having none of it. Sansa reached out and pulled him close.

“The knight who took me, Ser Shadrich, he told me that Petyr… that Petyr had done things. Horrible things… he’s capable of more than anyone imagined… I thought he wanted to keep me safe, he made me call him father-”

“Eddard Stark is your father.”

“He was Sansa’s father Jon. I’m Alayne Stone now. If I’m still her, you’ll be safe… please… I’m trying to save you! Please!” Sansa seemed to fight against the tears but lost the battle in the end. Her whole body was shaking as the sobs moved through her. Sansa’s hands were clutching at her dark hair, pulling frightfully.

He brought his arms around her without thinking.

They’d never held each other like this, not for many years, not since they were very young. Lady Stark was gone though, she couldn’t stop him from comforting Sansa anymore, and it was clear that she needed it desperately. He moved her hands away from her head and smoothed the frazzled locks gently with his fingers, careful to avoid the bandage.

“Sansa, you could never be anyone else. I don’t understand now, but I promise I will. And I promise that you’ll be safe, I’ll make sure of it.”

If his words calmed her, he couldn’t tell. She continued crying for some time in his arms. When the sobs finally started to die away, he continued to hold her, saying soft, reassuring things while he ran his hands through her hair in what he hoped was a soothing manner.

Then a noise came from the doorway and he rose in alarm before calming himself. Standing there was one of the Royce guardsmen, looking abashed as he held a bowl of steaming stew in front of him.

“I knocked ser, but you did not answer…” He started and Jon nodded his forgiveness.

“Thank you Huett. See if the healer can come take a look at Sansa, now that she’s awake.” He walked forward to take the bowl before sending the man away.

When he returned to her side, Sansa was staring at him strangely.

“Ser?”

He smiled and even felt his face burn a little before he handed her the stew.

“I was knighted by Lord Bronze Yohn Royce some moons ago.”

“Oh Jon, how wonderful! Congratulations!” Sansa smiled brightly, staring at him with what seemed like such genuine affection. He wondered if she’d ever looked at him like that before. “Father told us you were to squire for Ser Robar. He seemed quite gallant and I was proud of-”

Her face darkened suddenly and she stared down at the bowl, moving her spoon about listlessly.

“I never came to see you.” She muttered with shame in her voice. “When you came to the capital… they told me you were there… but I didn’t want Joffrey to hear I’d been visiting my bast- my half-brother so… I…”

“Think nothing of it.” He meant it too. At the time it had hurt a little but holding a grudge now after everything felt foolish. “Trust me, I’ve been getting used to seeing you alive for only a day and not once did I think poorly of you. Now eat that stew, it’s really only edible when it’s warm.”

Sansa did as he bid, taking a small spoonful of what looked to be carrots and boiled salt beef. Her appetite overpowered her courtesies soon enough and she was almost shoveling the stew into her mouth.

He looked out the small window and saw the snow still falling, though somewhat lighter than it had been.

He’ll make it.

I know he will.

Despite what he’d said to Sansa about keeping her safe, he knew they were far from it. Ghost was out there somewhere, watching the darkness for any signs of riders and Jon was thankful for it. If any danger came their way, Ghost would spot it first.

It was thanks to the wolf that they’d found Sansa in the first place.

They’d still been tracking the clansmen’s trail when he’d heard Ghost’s howl. The others swore that they hadn’t heard anything but Jon knew that sound as well as he knew his own heart. Somewhere ahead, his friend had needed him.

Needed his help.  

At his urging they’d ridden hard, coming across a fight on the plateau just in time. Sansa and Ghost had been both moments away from death before Jon had cut down the clansman standing over her unconscious form. Seeing her staring up at him as he rode by had unnerved him enough for one of them to almost spear his horse.

He’d left most of the battle to his comrades, leaping from his mount to come to Sansa’s aid. Ghost had joined them not long after, having miraculously escaped the battle with only a few cuts and scratches. Though they’d darkened his snow-white fur with red, Jon had embraced his lost wolf, tears in his eyes from this small family reunion.

That joy felt queer compared to the dread he felt now while watching the snow fall. For Willem and his men were out there somewhere, putting themselves at risk while he sat warm under a roof.

“I’ll move as quickly as I can Wolf, but with the weather like it is, don’t expect help too soon.” Willem had warned him. “Littlefinger will have men out too. I believe the Mouse on that score at least. Your sister’s too great a prize for him to lose.”

“That’s why you need to get to Bronze Yohn.” Jon had answered, helping Willem and two other men in preparing for their journey. “His army needs to be on the move. Get to him, tell him of Sansa. Have him bring his men to us as we ride to the valley. With any luck, we can meet in the middle within a week.”

“You can’t be idle Jon.” Willem had urged. “I know you can’t push the girl too hard but keep moving as much as possible. Littlefinger’s forces are much closer to you than I will be to Bronze Yohn’s, and if it comes to battle I don’t think they’ll be-”

“I know Will.” He’d slapped the man’s horse. “Hurry back. Just hurry back.”

“Stay safe lad… ser… whatever.” Willem had spurred his horse away, the others following. “Just do as I say!”

The three riders had disappeared into the snowfall then. It had not stopped since and he cursed it with all his heart.

“Is it snowing?” Sansa asked sleepily, gazing towards the window.

“It is. Just lightly though.” He took the empty bowl from her, smiling against his worries. “No worse than our summer snows in the North.”

“I miss those.” She whispered, letting her head fall back against her pillow. “I miss so much…”

“I miss them too Sansa.”

"If I sleep... don't leave me... promise me Jon."

"I promise." 

He kept his promise. He sat and watched the snow falling outside long after Sansa fell back asleep. There was no need to ask it of him truly, he didn’t feel any need to leave her side.

I’ll never leave her side, not after all this.

Not now.

Not ever.

THE LOST DAUGHTER

Something was touching her face and pulled her from her sleep.

As Sansa opened her eyes, all she saw was white fur. Then a pair of bright red eyes started into hers. For half a moment she panicked before she felt that strong warm tongue licking across her face, something that felt so familiar and comforting that it made her want to weep.

“Ghost!” She cried out.

The direwolf had been missing from her bedside the entire day before. She’d slept fitfully through the day and then the night, but still he’d made no appearance as far as she knew. It was morning now, the light streaming through her window, and waking to find the direwolf at her side was a pleasant way to start the day.

“Where did you go?” She asked, embracing the direwolf around its massive neck and pulling him bodily against her. “I owed both my heroes thanks but you were nowhere to be found!”

Ghost’s heart beat powerfully against her chest and she wondered if Lady would have grown so big. The direwolf endured her embrace for a moment or two longer before pulling away to begin lapping at the empty bowls at the far end of the room.

“You’re as bad as Jon at accepting praise.” She almost giggled at the similarities between the two.

Jon had been there when she’d fallen asleep last night, speaking of his journeys across the realm as if they weren’t worthy of song. He’d become a knight and a hero in her eyes, yet in many ways he still remained that shy boy she remembered at Winterfell. He was nowhere to be seen now though, and Ghost had left her door open after apparently forcing his way in.

This building must have been a storehouse at some point for she saw another room beyond her door with bits of grain strewn about a dusty floor. The frown that came to her face couldn’t be helped. She might be a fugitive but she’d been raised a lady and had been tending to a castle’s household for several moons now. A messy chamber was something she couldn’t allow.

Even the bastard daughter of a lord must act like a lady.

She froze as she stood up from her bedding.

But I’m not a bastard now.

Jon had come for her, and more of Lord Yohn Royce’s men would be coming as well. Not to escort her back to Petyr but to someplace away from him. A feeling of panic washed over her at the thought. Despite all that Ser Shadrich had said, Alayne still saw Petyr as the reason she wasn’t still suffering in King’s Landing.

He was the reason you suffered there in the first place, she chided herself.

But… maybe Ser Shadrich lied.

It’s all lies, forever and ever.

That’s what Petyr said.

Sansa shook her head against her own thoughts and Ghost stared at her actions with an almost thoughtful manner. The direwolf came to her then, nuzzling at her side as if he knew she was troubled. Just as she knew deep down, for all of Ser Shadrich’s rough ways, the tales he told made too much sense to be denied, not after everything she’d seen Petyr capable of.

His plots are endless.

Lords with a hundred times his strength all fall against him.

It was true. No matter how strong some had been, if Petyr wanted them defeated, they were. Most never even realized it had been him to do it. That it was Petyr who betrayed them.

I never saw it.

She knew Petyr had plans for her though. He wanted the Vale and the North, and he planned on using her to get both. Yet using her meant depending on her, and a small part of Sansa had always wondered why he would want to arrange a marriage for her that would only elevate her power. To raise her up as Sansa Stark would mean the realm knowing that he was not truly her father.

She would have no reason to obey him then.

He’d find a reason, she realized, I’m underestimating him.

Everyone sees him as weak, a lord without power, and that’s how he wins.

She laughed suddenly at another thought answering the last.

And I’m even weaker than him, just as Petyr wants me to be.

Sansa stood up, tired of running circles in her head and wishing to see what the morning had brought with it. Outside the window, she saw Jon’s men moving about, preparing for the ride she’d delayed them from taking for far too long. One man was loading a mule with as much supplies as the beast could carry, probably to ease the burden upon his own horse.

For some reason that reminded her of Sweetrobin.

He was still in Petyr’s care, and as wretched as the little boy could be, she worried for him. Petyr didn’t love him. She didn’t think Petyr even cared if her cousin still lived after she was married off to Harry the Heir.

In fact, the sooner little Robert dies, the sooner Harry comes into his power.

The sooner I would come into ladyship over the Vale.

And my power is Petyr’s power.

In her mind, she saw a little stone Robert Arryn being flicked off a game board before Petyr’s hand wrapped around a statue of herself. The thought made her stomach turn.

He’d have power over the North somehow, through me, she thought. That’s his scheme.

But I’d be home. Finally, after all these years, I’d be back in Winterfell.

Maybe it’s safer in his grasp, safer for me.

Safer for Jon.

She caught a glimpse of him moving about outside. Her half-brother, who was now a knight, was striding about a line of horses, looking taller and stronger than she’d ever remembered him being.

Jon was taller than their father was, she was sure of it now. He had father’s long-solemn face but Jon’s jaw looked a little different, sharper maybe. Then suddenly the image of father’s head on a spike jumped into her mind and she gripped the window frame tightly.

Ghost jerked at her side, the direwolf’s ears perking up and its whole body as tensed as Sansa was.

Did he sense my fear?

She reached to pet him but Ghost bolted away and out the door before she had a chance to try and stop him. From the room beyond, she heard the sounds of frantic scratching upon wood then the sound of a door opening, followed by a curse and a gust of cold air hitting her.

Turning to the window, she watched Ghost send many of the animals rearing as he ran through the ruined village to stand at its edge. Jon’s men were busy calming the horses but Jon ran after the direwolf. Coming to the wolf’s side as Ghost stood looking out into the snow-covered countryside.

Sansa squinted into the distance and saw a rider approaching. A Royce man, riding hard and fast towards the village, towards Jon and Ghost. When he neared them, the rider shouted something at Jon that she couldn’t make out. Whatever it was made Jon turn and run back towards the camp, shouting orders. The men started rushing about, trying to gain their horses in a panic.

Something’s wrong.

The door beyond slammed open again and then Jon stood in her doorway as the cold wind blew past him.

“Sansa, we need to leave now.”

“What’s-”

“Sansa now!” He yelled and it scared her so she started to back away from him.

He came at her and she cringed, not knowing what to expect. Instead of striking her or treating her roughly, he went to grab her cloak and quickly fastened it about her shoulders. His touch felt strong and urgent but not unkind.

“Put on those riding boots I brought you. Quickly now, your feet will freeze without them.”

When she didn’t move and simply clutched at the trim of her cloak fearfully, he went and grabbed the boots for her. He pulled each of her legs up in turn and gently eased her feet into them. The boots were too large for her but he didn’t seem to care.

“Jon? Jon, what’s wrong?”

He rose and grabbed her arm, much more gently than Ser Shadrich had, and began guiding her to the door. She was shuffling her feet and pulled back enough for him to whip around and look at her. He seemed terrified.

“Jon…”

“Riders. A great many of them, and they’re on their way here.”

“Clansmen?” She asked, already fearing the answer. “Lord Royce maybe?”

“They bear the banner of House Arryn.”

“No!” Sansa almost didn’t recognize her scream. “I told you! I told you that he’d find me! Jon, you- oh gods Jon! You can’t be here! You can’t…”

She was trying to push him away when a man shouted from without, urging them to hurry. Jon reached out to grab her hands and pulled them to his chest.

“I swore to protect you, and I will.” Jon said softly, his dark grey eyes almost pleading with her as he pulled her forward. “We can still make it. I’m not giving up Sansa. We can make it.”

They couldn’t.

By the time all the men had gained their horses, another one of Jon’s riders had come from the opposite side of town, heralding more dark news.

“They sent some around us! More are back to the range ser!” The man cried out and others cursed and drew their weapons.

“Form up around Lady Stark!” Jon yelled as his horse left her side and she reached out feebly for him to stay with her. Strangers were about her suddenly, and she saw Ser Shadrich, bruised and bound on a horse beside her.

“If any see a way through, take Lady Stark and ride hard for Lord Royce’s camp!” Jon shouted from the front of their group. “No one is to touch her!”

“Give me a sword! I’ll do no better than you without one!” Ser Shadrich yelled at the men around him but all ignored his pleas.

Please make them ride by, she pleaded to the gods, please don’t let them come here.

Just like Ser Shadrich’s pleas, her prayers went unheeded.

From the side of the town where she last saw Ghost, a great many horsemen had arrived. Spread out in a long line, wending their way through the buildings, closing in on their smaller party. One rider in particular stood out at the head of the newcomers.

No, not him.

Those were her first thoughts as she recognized him. The shame came quickly after. If she could’ve ridden yesterday this wouldn’t have happened. They would’ve been a day away and far from his grasp.

Now Lothor Brune had found them.

Which meant Petyr had found her.

She saw no sign of Petyr himself amongst the riders, but the man leading them was a symbol of his power nonetheless. Lothor Brune was armored and attended by two score of riders and some mounted crossbowmen as well.

Jon’s men were horribly outnumbered and she cringed as he took a position parallel to that of Lothor’s, as if to challenge him.

Jon, no.

He’s a killer.

“Alayne!” A familiar voice pulled her attention away and Sansa saw a young woman riding forth from among Lothor’s men. “Alayne, are you well?”

Oh Mya, why are you here?

Her friend was wrapped in furs and dressed in riding leathers, her cheeks burning prettily from the cold. Mya’s eyes were full of worry as she took in Sansa’s bandaged head.

“Alayne! Don’t worry, you’re safe now!” Mya shouted as one of Lothor’s men barred her path. “I told them I could find you!”

No, Sansa’s heart fell. Mya… what have you done?

Mya had been raised in the country around the Gates of the Moon for her entire life and knew them well, better than most, people had told Alayne. While others had fancy balls or grand feasts, her bastard friend would ride about the ranges, sometimes camping outside for days.

And she realized then that Lothor had put her friend’s experience to good use.

“Release the girl and my lord has offered to spare your lives!” Lothor called out, pointing a sword at Jon. “Resist and that offer will be rescinded.”

“This lady is under the protection of Lord Yohn Royce!” Jon yelled back. “Let us pass and your threats here will not be reported to him!”

He sounded brave but bravery wouldn’t matter against Lothor Brune, who had killed half-a-hundred men himself during the Battle of the Blackwater. Nor would bravery protect Jon with so many crossbows trained upon him and his men. Lothor certainly wasn’t put off by the threat, in fact he looked all the more menacing and confident at Jon’s threat. He even smiled a little.

“Bronze Yohn condones the kidnapping of young girls now? It would only be right to see justice done for such a crime.”

“You and I both know who is guilty of kidnapping here!” Jon shouted, now to the men about Lothor instead. “You men seek Alayne Stone? Well there is no such girl here! We protect the Lady Sansa Stark! Lord Royce is and always has been a friend of House Stark and he will see to her protection now!”

Looks of shock and surprised whisperings rippled through Lothor’s men at Jon’s declaration. None appeared more surprised than Mya, who gaped openly at Sansa, repeating the name she’d just heard to herself.

Lothor didn’t react at all, save to lift up his mailed fist, which was enough to bring total silence among his men. He gave Jon a hard look, then his eyes travelled to Sansa but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. Lothor scared her and made her scared for Jon.

“My lord told me to return the girl who was taken from the castle, boy. That’s what I intend to do, even if it means gutting you and the rest of these men to do it.”

Jon shot a look back to his group and she could almost feel the men in his party tensing for battle. She gripped her reins so tightly that her knuckles whitened. While Lothor’s company glimmered in mail, with crossbows loaded and ready, Jon’s party had no bowmen she could see. Worse still, few of them had found time to put on armor before Lothor’s arrival.

“My lord thought if it came to this that I should remind the lady’s kidnappers that battle is a dangerous place.” Lothor sneered at Jon before waving his hand in the air at three crossbowmen near him. “The Mouse.”

The men loosed their bolts and she cried out. One came so close that she felt the wind of its passing brush at her hair.

“Sansa!” Jon cried out in worry.

Ser Shadrich didn’t even get the chance to cry out himself.

The hedge knight could only offer a hiss as the three bolts struck his chest. She stared as the blood began to seep down his tunic and drip down his feet onto the ground. He coughed some, reaching up numbly to touch his bloody mouth before he fell bodily from his horse. Even through the yells and outcry around her, Sansa heard the sad thud that Ser Shadrich’s body made as it hit the ground.

He’ll do the same to all of them.

He’ll do the same to Jon.

During the confusion, more riders were arriving from the direction of their escape route. Another score of armored men, waving the banner of House Arryn, came to join Lothor’s cordon. They moved to form a tight circle of death around their party and she saw no chance for breaking out like Jon hoped.

There is no hope.

Life isn’t a song.

“Come now boy, my men could just as easily aim at one of her guards and miss…” Lothor left the rest unsaid before tapping on his own blade. “You want to keep her safe? You want to protect her? Drop your blades and she’ll come to no harm. Keep them and I can’t say the same.

Sansa felt herself in a daze as she looked to Jon. He had turned back to face her and his expression reminded her of father at the Sept of Baelor.

It’s happening again.

She wanted to scream at Jon to run. Sansa knew she should try and speak to Lothor’s men herself, to try and make them see reason or confuse them long enough for Jon to act. Instead Sansa became Alayne again totally, frozen in terror and just wishing it would all end.

She pulled her eyes from Jon’s and a moment later Jon did as Lothor commanded.

“I would protect her… lay down your arms… put them down… put them all down.”

The sound of clattering steel and disappointed men answered Jon’s order. She watched numbly as Lothor’s men moved to subdue their prisoners. Jon was the first to be pulled from his horse and had his hands bound in front of him. The welling in her eyes made Sansa miss the rest. Alayne did little better, for she lowered her head to the saddle of her horse to hide her tears and shame.

“Alayne?” Mya half yelled as she rode up beside her, her voice filled with concern. “Are you well? Alayne, please answer me. ”

“I… I’m…”

“She’s fine Mya.” Lothor answered for her. He was watching the pair closely but had yet to approach them. “We’ll be riding out shortly, and I’ll have you guide me as before-”

“For the way back? Bloody well follow the way we came! I’m staying with her! Look at her! She’s terrified!” Mya raged suddenly and Alayne saw Lothor was taken aback. “Those crossbows could’ve done for her! What were you thinking?”

“L-lord Baelish commanded me to do all I thought necessary to return her to us.” The man sounded genuinely hurt by Mya’s harsh words. “But… if you wish… you can ride with her… for a time.”

He left them then to oversee the gathering of blades and prisoners. Alayne washed away at Lothor’s leave and Sansa began shaking with fear and rage. What awaited Jon and her back at the castle brought on the fear. That she’d done nothing to stop their capture fueled the rage.

It’s your fault, she cursed herself. They have him because of you.

Just like it was with father.

“M’lady…” A Runestone man she knew to be named Huett spoke as he was being bound beside them. “I’m sorry… I would’ve fought for the Starks, like my father did.”

He said no more before Lothor’s man cuffed him upside his head and dragged him away. Her shame grew even greater that a common born man was willing to fight for her family while all she did was cower.

Mya watched his rough handling with a confused expression across her face.

“They called you Sansa Stark.”

I am Sansa Stark.

“Why would they call you that?”

Because it’s true.

“Alayne! You’re scaring me!”

“I am scared Mya.” She answered softly so that only her friend could hear. “I’m in danger… and you are too…”

“Lothor will get us back. We have too many men for the clans to-”

“No, you don’t understand. He can’t let people know the truth. You know the truth.” Sansa stared into her friend’s eyes and hoped Lothor was still distracted. “About who I really am. He’ll hurt you. Petyr will hurt you.”

Mya stared at her, as if taking stock of Sansa’s warning. The girl spared a glance down at the corpse of Ser Shadrich before her eyes moved back to Lothor and the collection of prisoners he’d just taken.

“You’re telling the truth?” Mya whispered back. “No lies? Going back puts you in danger?”

“It does. Mya, please believe me. It puts us both in danger.”

Mya leaned back in her saddle then, looking about the riders and countryside again. As the wind blew past, she brushed the coal-black locks of her hair away from her face.

A small part of Sansa hoped her friend was thinking of a way to escape.  It would be a comfort if at least Mya could be spared whatever Petyr had planned for her.

Let me save at least one person.

Yet Mya made no move to escape. Instead she started playing with her sleeve in an almost nervous manner.

“Let’s get these men back on horses! We’ve a hard ride ahead of us!” Lothor began shouting and his men began heaving Jon and his men bodily back onto their mounts.

With all the activity, Mya finally seemed to finally break free of her spell.

“No one will hurt me. Or you.” Her face was dark and her words sounded odd. Then she reached out and pulled Sansa’s hand into her own. “That won’t happen.”

“Mya please, you have to understand-”

“I do.” Sansa felt Mya force her fingers open before placing her hand over top of them. “I’m a bastard Alayne. Bastards see the truth of the world before anyone else because no one bothers trying to protect us from its ugliness.”

Sansa thought of Jon’s childhood and a different shame hit her then.

“Mya-”

“I learned long ago to protect myself. I thought a bastard like you would know better but if you’re truly Sansa Stark…” Mya’s grip tightened and Sansa felt a slight pain there. “No one hurts me because I don’t let them. Do you understand me?”

Sansa felt cold then.

As cold and hard as what Mya placed within her hand.

“Don’t let them.”

JON

“Come now boy, that’s enough for now.”

Blood welled in Jon’s mouth so he spat it out upon the floor, feebly crawling away from his tormentor’s boots. Considering how little comfort the man’s words offered him, it seemed a fair response.

Nor did Lothor Brune seem particularly comforting as he stared down at Jon, wiping blood from his knuckles.

It hadn’t been the worst beating he’d ever taken, but Littlefinger’s man knew how to use his fists and Jon suffered for it. The strange thing was that Brune hadn’t asked any questions of him and gave no reason for the beating. Jon had been quietly searching the chambers they’d locked him, looking for any tools he might use to unlock the irons upon his wrists. That’s when Brune had arrived. The man had said nothing before his fists came on, hard and punishing.

Fine by me.

I’ll ask the questions then.

“How is Sansa?” He asked, reaching up to touch his rapidly swelling eye.

“She lives.” Brune said as he threw down the rag he’d cleaned his fists with. “For how long depends on you. Come now.”

With that, Lothor Brune pulled Jon to his feet and forced him out of the chamber and into the corridor. He knew little of the Gates of the Moon, so whether he was being led to a dungeon or a privy, he couldn’t say.

When he’d realized Baelish’s men were returning them to this castle, he’d had hope. No matter how scared Sansa had seemed during the ride, Jon had still clung to hope. The Gates of the Moon were held by Lord Royce’s own cousin, and despite his criticisms of Nestor Royce, Bronze Yohn had always said he was a fine man.

Yet it was a different lord who awaited them when they rode through the castle gates. This lord was short and slender, with a pointed beard, and clothing fine enough to make him almost appear handsome. The authority he wielded over Jon’s captors and the guards within the courtyard betrayed his identity long before Brune hailed him.

Bound and at his mercy, this was how Jon met Petyr Baelish, Lord of Harrenhal, Lord Protector of the Vale, and Sansa’s captor.

“Sweet Alayne! I worried so for you.” Littlefinger had opened his arms to embrace Sansa while the guards roughly pulled Jon and the other Runestone men from their horses. “I can barely believe the size of this conspiracy to rob you away from me.”

Had Jon not been gagged, he would’ve shouted the truth for all to hear. He felt for sure that there were true men amongst the castle guard. Instead his grunts were met by a fist to the gut from one of the guards and indifference from the rest.

Sansa had seen it though and made to move towards him. She’d been stopped by Baelish grabbing her arm, pulling her towards him. Words passed between them, too quiet for Jon to hear, and ending with Sansa nodding slightly.

“Take them to the dungeon but have that one taken to guest chambers.” Baelish had pointed to Jon. “He’s a person of great interest after all!”

Jon was dragged away, struggling the entire time, the men handling him roughly as they pulled him from the yard. He could only watch as Baelish led Sansa within a stone archway, a hand upon the small of her back.

For two days he’d been held captive. In truth, the chambers were better than any he’d had since his time in Highgarden. Servants had come to deliver his meals and take his chamber pot, but none had spoken to him, nor would the guards without his door allow him to yell for long.

Their beatings had been nothing compared to Brune’s though.

The man shoved him again as they came upon a large oak door guarded by four men-at-arms. They were all bearing the sigil of House Royce of the Gates, yet parted at Brune’s command. They opened the door and Lothor led him into a large solar, well lit and furnished.

As the guards pulled the door shut behind them, Jon gazed up at the banners depicting both the falcon of Arryn and the black gate of Nestor Royce. The two people standing by the hearth grabbed Jon’s attention next.

His heart stopped at the sight of her.

“Ser Jon, I welcome you to the Gates of the Moon.” Baelish said with a bow.

Jon didn’t look at Baelish. His eyes were focused entirely on Sansa. She’d been dressed in a clean gown, and besides the bandage upon on her head she seemed unharmed. Something about the blank expression on her face and the faraway look in her eyes scared him though. He’d never seen her so empty of hope or happiness in all their years at Winterfell.

Sansa stared at him as if she didn’t truly see him.

See me Sansa.

I’m still here, you’re not alone.

“I welcomed you to this castle ser. It would be polite to respond.” Baelish said as he came to inspect Jon. He made a disapproving sound, gesturing to Jon’s face. “I must apologize for my man. He takes his duties seriously, and at times can be too severe. I disdain violence myself but with such foul plots about, sometimes I fear it necessary. As necessary as the answers we would have from you.”

“It would’ve helped if he’d asked me questions then.”

Baelish laughed.

“An excellent idea! But now that you know what Lothor here is capable of, I’d hate to have to remind you.” Baelish gave a sly smile as he went to pour a goblet of wine for himself. “Now that the pleasantries are done with, I’d dispense with idle chatter if you don’t mind. We’re both serious men I believe, so let’s speak as such. If you could tell me how long Bronze Yohn has known Sansa was here in the Vale and under my care, I’d be grateful.”

He ignored the question.

He kept his eyes on Sansa, willing her to see that he was there, hoping to see some sort of defiance in her towards her captor. No matter how much she feared Baelish, he prayed that it wouldn’t blind her from any opportunity she had of escape.

His silence hadn’t gone unnoticed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Baelish make a motion and a moment later Brune’s fist drove into Jon’s back.

The blow set his side aflame, causing him to grunt in pain. He began to stagger but Brune gripped his arms to keep Jon in place. A small grin pulled at the sides of Baelish’s mouth as leaned against the table, swishing the contents of his goblet before him.

 Sansa didn’t seem to have noticed, her eyes still staring off at nothing.

“How long ser?”

“I imagine since he was told. Some days now.” Jon tried to lie convincingly.

Willem may have found their lord by now but Jon doubted it. Not with how foul the weather had been during their ride back to the Gates of the Moon, but he still needed to make Sansa and Littlefinger think help was coming, to give her hope and him pause.

But the lord showed no intent of stopping.

Baelish signaled his man again and another blow fell to the exact same place in Jon’s back. Pain blinded him and he almost went to his knees before he was quickly steadied again. Jon felt a cold sweat break out upon his brow as he gritted his teeth against the pain.

I’d give anything for a sword.

Or to be unchained. My own fists would do.

Baelish shook his head, sipping lightly at his wine.

“I take the blame for your discomfort ser. I only just learned of your presence here in the Vale a short time ago. Bronze Yohn did well in keeping your arrival secret, I commend him. Had I known sooner, I would’ve had you join us here in a much different manner, one that would’ve spared my sweet Alayne much suffering.”

Littlefinger’s demeanor changed for a moment. It was something akin to how Ghost looked over recently caught game. Just as quickly as Jon saw it, the predatory expression was gone and a genial smile stretched back across Baelish’s face.

“It was my arrogance, nay, my pride in how well Alayne performed her mummery. I thought Yohn would never see the girl he’d met years ago at Winterfell in my dear daughter. But I’ve obviously I underestimated his guile. I see now that Ser Mychel’s obvious attempts to earn my favor were merely a distraction…”

Jon betrayed Mychel then by reacting to his name, and he cursed himself for doing so when Littlefinger tapped his temple in a knowing manner. If the man truly knew Mychel’s reason for being at the Gates, Jon hoped his fellow knight still lived.

“Sending his goodson as a spy? That I could expect of old Yohn… sending sellswords here to seek employ, while plotting to kidnap my ward from my own safekeeping? It is beyond shocking… it even speaks to a level of creativity beyond Lord Royce.”

Bronze Yohn knew nothing of Sansa being here, he thought, what is he talking about?

“I don’t think it was his idea to bring you to the Vale, was it? Not really up to Yohn’s usual marshal strategies. Familiar enough from my days at court though.” He guffawed at Jon then, like he’d said something foolish. “How is Varys faring these days?”

“Who?”

It took Jon a long moment to understand before he remembered the name from fearful whispers in his travels, but never from his time at Runestone. Baelish held up his finger again and this time Brune struck to the opposite side of Jon’s back. The other side still throbbed in agony, so Jon was almost thankful that the man had not struck there again.

“Was it Varys or Yohn who bid you here?”

“I came… to return his son’s sword…” He rasped out between gasps and Baelish laughed.

“You are one of the few people in the whole realm that none would question in identifying Alayne as Sansa Stark. Yet you mean to tell me that you travelled all the way to the Vale… to deliver a sword? This is the tale you feed me?” Baelish’s smile was gone now, his face had darkened and his eyes were on Sansa. “Or that you happened upon her by chance?”

“Hey, hey! Don’t you look at her!” The way Baelish looked at Sansa caused Jon to fear for her. “Sansa, whatever he’s threatened you with do not-”

He was half expecting it yet Brune’s strike to his side robbed him of his strength anyway. This time no one stopped Jon’s fall and he landed hard upon his knees and his bound hands clenched in fury as much as in agony.

“I think perhaps your fists are getting tired Lothor.” Baelish mused somewhere above him. “Perhaps you should find some tools that could be of use?”

Brune didn’t get a chance to answer, for Sansa broke her silence then.

“Please, father… stop.”

He’s not your father! Jon screamed within. Sansa, don’t ever call him that!

“Oh Alayne. Sweet Alayne.” Littlefinger’s voice sounded soothing as he went to Sansa’s side. “I suppose you’re too gentle for the harsh realities of this game. I’m afraid our deception is at an end. Varys and Yohn have forced us to hurry our plans along some and I must know how much things have changed.”

The man then reached to cup Sansa’s face in his hand, tracing a finger over her cheek. Her eyes were downcast as he moved to kiss her lightly upon the cheek he didn’t molest. Jon made to rise in disgust and Brune shoved him down roughly, his knees hitting the stone hard enough to make Baelish jerk his head towards him.

“And your father’s bastard complicates things. You see that don’t you? He has the look of Ned Stark, and you remember how he failed to keep you safe… you remember that don’t you?” Baelish reached down to grasp Sansa’s hand and caress it as they both regarded Jon. “To give you the North and return you home, you must be the only claimant for the northmen to rally around. Before, we only had that mummer’s Stark in Bolton’s care to contend with, but now? Could you imagine the problems Jon Snow would give us with Lord Royce at his back? You know how men are. Some would prefer to follow a bastard son instead of a trueborn daughter.”

“But Lord Royce doesn’t have Jon, we do.” Sansa said quietly. “We can use him now.”

“Such a gentle heart you have. We could, but how would we control him I wonder?”

With that, Sansa’s face contorted into one of terror and Jon saw Baelish’s grip had tightened on her hand. Squeezing it so hard that it turned a bright red and Sansa uttered a pained sound.

 “Stop! Don’t hurt her!”

Jon’s words were desperate. He’d sworn to keep her safe and just because he was a prisoner did not mean he would forsake that vow. He couldn’t fail Sansa, not like he had father and Robb. As much as it disgusted him to do so, he pleaded with Baelish.

“Please stop. I’m not seeking the North, nor is Lord Royce. I just wanted to find Sansa. She’s all I have left in this world…”

Baelish smiled as he released Sansa’s hand, patting it gingerly and whispering a soft apology to her before placing a kiss in her hair. Jon couldn’t hear everything, but he picked up snippets of what Baelish said, something about this being a game and that Sansa had played her part well. He turned to Jon then.

“Many would find that hard to believe of a bastard brother. Although like I said before, I see much of Ned Stark in you ser. So while you will tell me of what your lord has plotted, I will in turn offer you a chance to protect dear sweet Sansa from any harm.” Baelish waved his hand upward and suddenly Jon was yanked to his feet. “I intend to present you before a group of lords sometime in the future. And there, before them and as many other people of import I can find, you will admit your guilt to this terrible crime. How you plotted to kidnap Sansa so you could return her to the Lannisters for gold.”

Jon was dumbfounded.

It took him but a moment to realize Baelish didn’t believe a word of what he was saying. This must have been plain to see, as Baelish gave a dismissive chuckle.

“You will admit to misleading Lord Royce in your quest for wealth. That Queen Cersei used you as an agent to seek her vengeance and that our poor Lord of Runestone was quite innocent in all of this, though it was foolish of him to believe you so easily.”

“Pe-father… they’ll kill him.” Sansa protested, clutching at the sleeve of the hand where Baelish had gripped her.

“Oh they’ll want to. Hatred for the Lannisters runs deep here in the Vale but I’m not so cruel as to let the ser die like that.” Baelish put his hand upon her middle and pulled her close to him, holding her in a way that made Jon’s fury reach new heights. “I will plead his case myself, pointing to the nefarious nature of bastards, and the wickedness of Cersei in trying to exploit those flaws. I’ll convince them to spare poor Jon Snow and allow him to take the black.”

With that, Baelish turned from her and strode towards him, leaning in to whisper quietly in his ear.

“And in return for all of this and for your silence, I promise Sansa will not suffer as much as she could.” His breath smelled of mint this close and Jon looked away from his smile. “A rare beauty she is… there are men in this world who would do such foul things to such a body… terrible things.”

Jon hated Petyr Baelish more than he thought he could hate anyone. His hands balled into fists and he wanted to reach up and choke the life from the small man’s throat. Brune’s grip tightened upon his shoulders as if he read his thoughts, and Jon had no doubt that such foolishness would be quickly stopped.

And Sansa possibly hurt for the attempt.

The proposal before him was as vile as he could imagine. Baelish would have him name himself a Lannister tool and a kinslayer at that. It would bring shame to Lord Royce and it made Jon sick to think of betraying him.

But he would do it.

Despite the cost to his honor, despite everything else, it was the only path to sparing the girl before him.

I did not find her to fail her, he reasoned against himself. I can’t falter after all this.

Sansa still stood in front of him, numbly watching what unfolded, still favoring her wrist. Jon thought Baelish must have twisted it in his manhandling. He thought that to be only a small taste of the cruelty Baelish could do. Jon remembered the terror on Sansa’s face, how frightened she’d been of Lord Baelish finding him. He hadn’t understood it then but he did now. He was scared too, more for her than himself.

If this was the one act he had left to do her any sort of good, he would not balk.

He could not balk.

“I’ll do it. I’ll swear to it to any way you want, before any gathering you wish.” Jon held back from spitting into Baelish’s grinning face then. “For her.”

“Excellent!” Baelish clapped his hands together, causing Sansa to jump some as he walked straight towards her before planting a kiss upon her brow. “It is done sweetling! I give you the Vale and North, free of all other claimants! All I do for the love I bear you, and your gentle heart.”

“I-I thank you.” Sansa gave a weak smile.

But Baelish wasn’t satisfied with such.

“I proclaim my love for you and such is my reward? We should show your brother what safe hands you are in… who you truly love.”

With that, Baelish kissed Sansa on her lips and Jon struggled some against Brune’s hold. The man’s grip was like iron, and Jon stood numbly as Sansa was used, his shame growing because he could not stop it. Worse, though Sansa seemed to cringe while doing do, she reached up to Littlefinger’s neck and deepened the kiss further. When Baelish finally moved away from her, he turned to give Jon a wink.

He can do worse.

Unless you keep faith.

“Hmmm… thank you Alayne, much better.” Baelish said with a little chuckle.

“Of course.” She said numbly. “Anything for my father.”

He wished Sansa could read the look he gave her. That he was sorry and would stop all of this if he could. But her eyes were not for him. Instead Sansa was staring at Baelish’s back and he noticed something strange.

Something had flashed across her face when Baelish turned to face Jon. Not an emotion, for she remained eerily calm, instead a gleam of light had appeared across her cheek. As if something was catching the torchlight behind her. For a moment, Jon thought it must be some jewelry he could not see, but then Brune seemed to spot it too and had grasped its meaning quicker than he did.

That iron grip was gone all at once as Sansa made a jerking motion.

Baelish stepped forward and cried out, the sound almost drowning out Sansa’s words as she followed his move and he gasped again.

“I love my father.”

Littlefinger stiffened after that, his eyes widening in shock as he reached behind himself at his back. He gave a groan of agony and stumbled away from Sansa so that Jon could finally see it.

She held a small blade.

Brune shoved past Jon, moving towards Sansa and reaching for his sword at the same time. Jon acted just as quickly.

He lunged forward at the man’s back, lifting his manacled hands up so he could drag the chain binding them across the Brune’s throat.

Wrenching backwards as hard as he could, Brune made a loud, choking sound as he was pulled to an abrupt halt. The man no longer reached for his swordbelt and instead clawed desperately at the chain across his neck, jerking his body away from Jon’s grip. Jon drove his elbows into Brune’s back in answer to his attempts at escaping, the manacles digging into Jon’s wrists.

The pair stumbled into a table and then against the wall. Jon caught a glimpse of Baelish collapsed on the floor, gasping in pain as he gazed at his own bloody hands.

Brune fell then, taking Jon with him. They landed hard upon the floor, Jon still atop Brune’s back. Jon arched backwards, pulling on his chain with all his might. Blood dripped down his arms as the manacles cut deeper into his flesh. He felt skin tearing from his wrists but he wouldn’t stop. He kept pulling as long as Brune fought beneath him.

It was an eternity before the man’s struggles finally ended. Jon only stopped pulling when it became clear a new threat was bearing down upon them.

There was pounding against the doors, doors that had evidently been barred by Brune earlier. Men were shouting for them to be opened, yelling about the noises that they heard. Jon knew the door would not keep them out for long and untangled himself from Brune’s corpse.

You have to finish Baelish.

Kill him before they can stop you.

He gained his feet and saw Sansa standing over the prone form of her captor. She still held the bloody dagger in her hand, staring down upon Baelish’s body with a strange, child-like curiosity. Blood was pooling around the man as Jon came besides her, meaning to finish it.

There was no need.

Baelish’s eyes stared back up at them with a frozen expression of surprise upon his face. Yet those eyes saw nothing.

The man was dead.

His blood on Sansa’s hands.

"He never had me searched." She said softly. "All of you, but not me."

A loud thud against the door made Jon break out of his disbelief. The door was splintering from the blows outside and soon men would come in to find this scene.

“He thought I was too weak…” Sansa babbled as she held the dagger close to her chest, staining her gown in blood.

“Sansa, give me the dagger.” He pleaded. “Quickly.”

Baelish had been the lord here and had commanded the guards who would soon break in. When they did, they would find Jon holding the weapon that killed their lord rather than Sansa.

When she looked at him, he’d expected her to be scared but Jon saw no fear in her eyes. Instead they’d lost their earlier listlessness and became bright and alive. Full of the same hope he’d seen when they were first reunited.

Protect her.

“Sansa! The dagger!”

“It was for father, Jon.” Sansa’s eyes beseeched him to understand. “For father.”

He didn’t get a chance to argue further as the doors swung open with a crash and five armed men charged in.

Nestor Royce’s guards found two men dead in their lord’s solar.

With their killers at their mercy.

Chapter Text

THE ACCUSED

 

"Sansa please! You must think this through…”

“No. No, never. I would never.” Sansa said firmly. “Nothing you can say will change that Randa.”

Myranda released Sansa's hands from her gentle hold and turned away so the lady could dab at the tears in her eyes. Apparently Sansa’s current predicament weighed heavily on her friend.

The lady was enthralled that the girl she thought had been but a bastard all this time was actually Sansa Stark in truth.

Sister to a King. Wanted by the Iron Throne.

And soon to be a confessed killer.

If only they’d let me confess.

“Father will help you, I know he will.” Myranda turned back with a pleading look. “But you must make the task easier for him. Let Ser Jon take this burden from you and-”

“You call it a burden? To die for me?” She asked more shrilly than she meant to. “He almost did already Myranda. I wouldn’t allow it then and I won’t allow it now. I killed Petyr, not Jon.”

She felt Jon’s hand in Myranda’s current behavior. It was part of something he’d started when the guardsmen had stormed into Lord Nestor’s solar. When they saw what she had done.

“It was me! I killed them both! Leave her be!” Jon had yelled, pushing her behind him. “I’m the killer!”

He had continued shouting his false confession even as the guards knocked him to the ground and began beating him with the butts of their spears.

“He lies! I killed Lord Baelish! Stop it!” She’d tried to stop the men from hurting him but one of them had dragged her from the room screaming. “Leave him be!”

The last she’d seen of Jon, he was hurt and bloody with men raining blows down upon him.

Ser Andar Royce, acting as castellan to the Gates while his father was away, had locked Sansa in her chambers, apparently at a loss of what to do. So when Lord Nestor finally returned from his search for Alayne Stone two days later, he’d found his castle in an uproar. The man who’d granted his lordship was dead and the long missing Sansa Stark was the confessed killer.

To say Lord Nestor was flustered when he came to her was an understatement.

“Do not lie to me girl, I cannot help you if you do.” Nestor had said when Albar and Myranda had joined him in attending her in her chambers. “Now tell me your name.”

“Sansa Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn Stark, sister to King Robb Stark.” She’d said with little hesitation yet a shiver ran down her back at finally saying it out loud. “The killer of Lord Petyr Baelish.”

Albar had cursed at that and his father had not been much happier with her response.

“One of us will lose our heads… if not both.” Nestor had said grimly before Myranda hushed him.

“Father, she did no such thing. Ser Jon claims to be the killer and was found with blood on his hands.”

“It was his own blood!” Sansa had argued.

At the time, she’d naïvely thought that her friend had merely misunderstood what Sansa had told her.

“He claims to have plotted to kill Baelish all along father.” Albar had added with Myranda nodding calmly.

It quickly became obvious what the younger Royces were up to and she’d almost screamed in frustration. Now she believed Jon had urged Myranda to speak such lies all along. They’d been kept apart with no way of communicating since the guardsmen had taken them, save through Myranda.

Nestor Royce denied his daughter little and she’d been permitted to visit both Jon and Sansa in their chambers. It had been at Sansa’s urging that her friend visit with Jon and offer him her words of love and comfort. Rather than listen to Myranda and find hope in Sansa’s words, Jon had decided to use the lady to further his own end.

Jon was trying to take all the blame for Petyr and Lothor Brune’s deaths upon himself, most likely in some attempt at chivalric protection. Once Sansa would have found such an act heroic but now she couldn’t stand for Jon to act so foolishly. He didn’t seem to understand that even if he took the blame for this crime she was in no less danger of being executed. The Lannisters would want her head whether she was believed innocent of Petyr’s killing or not.

She took a small comfort knowing Petyr’s last attempt to fool her had failed. Petyr had shocked her by making his false offer to Jon right in front of her. Had Petyr known all Shadrich had told her she doubted he would ever have been so confident.

For the lord had offered Jon the same deal her father had been given. To admit to a false plot and save her life and in return be allowed to take the black. The plot Petyr had forced Jon to agree to was a perfect example of who Littlefinger truly was, exceedingly clever and poetically cruel at the same time. Petyr had had no trouble convincing Joffrey to kill father anyway, Sansa was sure he would do the same to Jon, afterwards he’d likely try to convince her that there was nothing he could have done and that he’d tried his best to save Jon.

So once again Petyr would have murdered someone Sansa cared about, pulling her closer into his embrace, making her need him all the more as she became alone in the world again.

She’d feared something like that happening since their return to the castle.

It’s why she’d hidden Mya’s blade in her sleeve when they came for her.

Sansa had been so afraid that Petyr would know. That somehow he would see in her eyes that she had it on her body. When he’d grabbed the wrist near the dagger’s hiding spot she’d almost lost her composure. The sight of Jon being beaten and the way Petyr clearly delighted in continuing his torture had already tested her strength. The mention of making a deal had almost set her into a screaming panic.

She’d had to numb herself to Jon’s treatment to protect him for Petyr would have hurt him all the worse if he’d seen her true feelings towards Jon. Sansa had even gone as far as to return Petyr’s kiss the way he’d always wanted, to try and distract him and assure him of her loyalties. The feel of his lips had set her skin to crawling and strange rage to boil in her stomach. That rage had helped guide her in doing what needed to be done.

She hadn’t expected to survive it. The moment after she’d stabbed Petyr Sansa had expected Lothor to be there with his sword drawn, to cut her down in vengeance. After everything she’d been through Sansa had accepted that fate, her reward for finally finding the strength to act as a Stark. Yet she’d held hope that Jon would have a chance to survive somehow.

Their trial would be that chance.

She hoped so at least.

For Jon and she would sit before the judgement of Nestor Royce and the lords Horton Redfort and Lyonel Corbray with Sweetrobin also set to attend. The lords would give judgement and her cousin would be permitted to pronounce whatever sentence the older men decided.

Today was to be the day it all began, a day she’d been preparing for.

She’d been steeling herself for anything they might accuse her of and anything that they might threaten her with. Her own fears were the worst trial of all as it was more than her life at stake. If she lost her nerve or failed somehow, it would be the end of her, but more importantly, it would be the end of Jon.

I can’t let that happen, she told herself, not again.

I’m readyI know these peopleI know how Petyr would handle this.

What little confidence Sansa had was not shared by Myranda.

“I just wish this could be over. Father should’ve just commanded it to be over. It’s our castle now and he never really cared for Littlefinger. If you die for that little man… oh Alayne….” Myranda caught herself then and smiled sheepishly, an expression Sansa had never quite seen on the brash young woman. “Sansa, I’m sorry, truly, it will take some getting used to. And I want to get used to it, I do. Yours is such a sad tale, I can’t have it end so terribly.”

“Perhaps it won’t Randa.” She replied, trying to smile herself. “There are things I would say to your father and the others which could help Jon and me but I must be able to speak to them. A trial can only help me. A trial where everything can be known… where the truth can be known…”

“But the risk… you told me what Littlefinger did for the Corbrays. Even Horton Redfort has been acting oddly of late. Talking of plots and the Iron Throne setting its might against us…”

Yes, Petyr would have been threatening him with that.

There was a slight knock at the door and Myranda dabbed at her eyes again.

“I’m sitting here crying when I’m supposed to be helping you get ready!” She moved to fuss about Sansa’s hair.

Myranda had offered her skills at preparing ladies for feasts to help Sansa’s cause. She’d put Sansa’s hair up in several charming braids before dressing her up in a fine gown of bronze and black. It was touching to think Myranda was trying to shield her, in her own way at least.

Pretty gowns and hair didn’t protect me from the Lannisters.

I can’t pretend they’ll do so now.

The knocking came again and Myranda huffed.

“Come in then!”

Her brother Albar appeared in the doorway, dressed in a fine blue doublet yet appearing slightly out of sorts. Sansa rose to smooth her skirts, preparing herself for what was to come.

“Is it time ser?”

“I’m sorry to intrude, I- time? No, no it is not time. Not today at least. There is to be no trial today.” Albar said simply, avoiding her eyes. “They’ve put it off until tomorrow.”

“Oh thank the Seven.” Myranda clutched Sansa’s arm and smiled. “I didn’t want to it to happen so soon.”

She didn’t share Myranda’s relief.

Something about Ser Albar’s manner of speaking seemed forced and uncomfortable. He hadn’t smiled at Sansa since learning the truth but now he kept offering up charming, weak grins. He was also dressed too finely if all he was doing was walking about the castle.

He dresses for a grand occasion.

And why send him to tell me this and not a steward?

“Why is it delayed?” She asked, eyeing him carefully.

“Well, the young lord Robert has had a spell…”

She took a step forward and Albar’s voice trailed off. His shifting stance betrayed his lie almost immediately. All her time in King’s Landing, her lessons with Petyr, Tyrion’s noting of the liars at court to her after their wedding, all of it pounded in her head as she looked at Albar now.

“May I speak to your lord father then?”

Albar’s mouth opened but no words came, his eyes blinking as he tried to come up with some other lie.

As he did so, she rushed at the door, a desperate attempt to escape her chambers. Albar may have been a poor liar but he was a skilled knight. He reacted quickly enough to bar her path and she screamed and beat her fists against his chest. When her fist almost reached his neck he gripped her wrists and held her back.

“You lie! You lie! What has happened?” She fought to escape Albar’s hold as both he and his sister urged her to be calm. “Jon! Jon! What did you do to him? Jon!”

“Nothing! Lady Stark, please!” Albar held her away from him, his strong grip easily containing her struggles.

“The truth!” She looked up into his eyes, which themselves were full of doubt. “Please ser, I beg of you.”

Albar escaped her gaze and sought Myranda for help. His sister was quite confused at everything but ignored his silent plea, waving at him and urging him to speak. He sighed loudly before nodding, letting her wrists go.

“As you wish. My father will have my head for telling you this. It is true that your trial has been put off… but Ser Jon’s has not.”

No. He can’t.

They wouldn’t…

“Albar!” Myranda’s hand went to her mouth in horror.

“Ser Lyn arrived during the night and he and his brother convinced Lord Redfort and father to accept Ser Jon’s claims.” Albar spoke slowly and looked down to hide his shame. “They’d do this quickly to avoid… to avoid complications.”

“Jon needs someone to speak for him!” Sansa cried. “It can be no true trial without it! A knight deserves better ser! For the honor of your family, you must let me go!”

She reached up to grasp his hands before turning to her friend.

“Please Myranda! It is such a foul thing to do! They condemn him without letting anyone speak for him!”

Sansa prayed her friend, who pretended to think so little of chivalry and true men, would see the right of this. She hoped that Albar cared for the good name of his house as much as her father had cared about the honor of House Stark.

Myranda offered no help though, staring at the floor and doing her best to ignore Sansa’s words. She probably welcomed this turn of events. Albar disappointed her like all the knights Sansa had ever met, save Jon, by staying silent.

Someone from behind the knight answered for him though.

“The lady is right.”

They all turned to doorway.

Standing without between her guards stood a comely looking young man, bearing the red castle of House Redfort upon his chest. Myranda had told her that Ser Mychel had been released from his imprisonment after Petyr’s death but she saw no reason for his presence now.

Neither apparently did Albar.

“Mychel you shouldn’t be here…”

“My father is wrong in this too Albar. We both know this is not a true trial. They only wish to condemn Ser Jon quickly before anyone can offer denials against it.” Ser Mychel spoke earnestly and gestured behind him. “And I know Jon, he deserves better. He deserves to have someone speak for him.”

“Then let someone else do so!” Myranda answered fiercely.

“They won’t let us!” Someone else shouted back.

From behind the knight Mya came forth, appearing very uncomfortable and out of place. When their eyes met, Mya’s sincere expression of worry heartened Sansa some.

“The lords won’t let me tell them about the dagger… about what I saw at the village… I tried and they sent me away.” Mya stood taller for a moment, her attention on Albar now. “And it’s the truth! They want to keep it away from the trial so I told Mychel and… and…”

“We’re knights Albar, born to proud houses, and what they’re doing makes us little better than Freys.” Mychel added. “Are you really happy letting the Corbrays have their way in this?”

Whatever resolve Albar had left escaped with the curse he uttered at Mychel’s words. His shoulders slumped some as he turned to her, his look almost beseeching Sansa now.

“They’re not Freys my lady… they just don’t know what to make of all of this.” Albar admitted before sighing and nodding his head, gesturing at the door for her. “Let’s see if you can help them with that.”

“Albar…” Myranda protested but he waved her off.

“You can tell father that you tried to stop me. He always liked you more anyways.”

Sansa hugged Albar before running to the doorway and kissing Ser Mychel upon his cheek. He was a married man and blushed at her actions but she had little time to worry about manners now. When she turned to Mya it was plain her friend was upset. For her to seek out Mychel after all that happened between them showed Sansa her friend’s worth.

“You’re braver than any woman I’ve ever met.” Sansa said as she kissed Mya upon her cheek gently.

“And stupid to boot… if I hadn’t led them to you or given you that bloody dagger…”

“You brought Ser Mychel here and gave me the courage to do what I must.” Sansa kissed her other cheek. “You were Alayne’s friend, you’re mine still.”

“You finally take time away from your mules and look what happens!” Myranda snapped at Mya as she pushed her way out into the corridor. “Well if we’re going, we should be going.”

Myranda gestured for her brother to follow before turning to the guards.

“And you all come as well! You’re supposed to keep her safe and I believe you’ll be needed…”

They took a quick pace as they headed to the great hall but it would never feel quick enough to Sansa. When Albar and Mychel shouldered past the guards standing without and threw open the large oak and iron doors, she saw that the hall was already filled with people.

Many turned to behold the new arrivals, their expressions ranging from surprise to outrage when they recognized her. Sansa’s party continued on through the crowd, Mychel and Albar pushing through the collected nobility as they gaped and whispered about Sansa.

She ignored them as the knights cleared a path to where a ring of guards held the crowd back from a great open space. Within it, a trial was taking place. A high table upon a dais hosted three lords all too familiar to her while seated behind them, upon a ridiculously tall weirwood chair furnished with cushions, sat young Robert Arryn.

Standing far below all of them was Jon. He was still in irons, and as he made to face the commotion, she saw the toll that all the beatings had taken on him. His left eye was blackened and swollen shut, his lip was broken in more than one place and cuts and bruises adorned almost every spot of his face.

A face that twisted into a pained expression when he saw her.

The lords had taken notice as well. Lyonel Corbray and Horton Redfort were speechless and red with anger yet she thought Lord Nestor’s expression bordered somewhat upon relief. Sweetrobin appeared half asleep until he saw her and his face brightened.

“Alayne! Alayne!” The little lord cried out, waving a scepter about childishly. “We’re going to make a man fly!”

“You will do no such thing!” Sansa called back, hoping she sounded stronger than she felt. “I am Sansa Stark and that man before you stands innocent! I would be heard!”

“She was to be kept away! Lyn!” Lord Lyonel yelled furiously at a knight standing beside the dais.

“So she shall be.” Ser Lyn Corbray growled back at his brother as he strode towards her, drawing his sword, with more men at his back.

“Hold ser!” Mychel moved between them. “The lady has asked to be heard.”

“Mychel move.” Ser Lyn grunted, not slowing his pace.

“Mychel stand down!” His father shouted as well but her protector stood firm as Albar took a place beside him.

Ser Mychel defied both the knight he’d squired for and his own father, leaving Sansa touched. She had not thought to see an act so noble from a man she hardly knew.

“I am in service to Lord Yohn Royce! As is Ser Jon, who I know to be a good man and a true knight!” Mychel shouted as Ser Lyn stared down at him menacingly. “And he deserves a witness in his defense!”

“He wants no such thing!” Lord Corbray shouted back as Ser Lyn placed his hand upon the pommel of his sword, raising an eyebrow at Mychel.

“Hold!” Nestor rose while Sweetrobin laughed and clapped at the chaos. “This castle is under my lordship so all will keep their blades sheathed!”

“Father, Lady Stark has demanded the right to speak. Do we deny the daughter of such a House that right?” Albar asked and a murmur went through the crowd.

“If she is who she claims to be, that’s a Lannister standing before you. One wanted for the murder of young King Joffrey.” Lord Corbray added and Horton nodded.

“It’s that trial Lady Lannister should be attending.”

“I am a Stark still!” Sansa screamed as hysterically as she could. “I was wedded but never bedded! On my honor, I would not have the Imp touch me!”

That’s only half true… Tyrion never tried to touch you...

It’s for Jon, she reminded herself, it’s all for Jon now.

“Lies!” Ser Lyn sneered. “She spread them for the Lannister or I’m the Imp himself.”

That mocking expression was still on his face when Jon jerked free of his guards and bowled into the knight, catching him off guard and toppling him to the ground.

“I’ll kill the bastard myself!” Ser Lyn roared as his men began a charge at Jon.

The Royce guards protecting Jon and the Corbray men-at-arms fell upon each other and she lost sight of Jon in the fray. Then he appeared at the edge of it, held up by Albar while Mychel was forcibly staying Ser Lyn’s hand from unsheathing Lady Forlorn. It took much time for order to be restored, with Sweetrobin clapping and laughing the whole time at the chaos.

When Lord Nestor’s men finally had everyone in their places and the commotion settled, the lord of the Gates of the Moon sat exhausted and looked at her in thought.

“I would hear the lady’s testimony, if you agree Lord Robert?” Nestor turned to look up at Sweetrobin who nodded enthusiastically. Her arrival had evidently made the proceedings much more entertaining to the young lord. “Our lord wills it so come forth and speak child, only the truth or you will answer for it.”

Sansa squeezed Myranda’s hand as she left her friend’s side. She walked forward, remembering to curtsy before a collection of lords. Appearances and ceremony mattered, now more than ever. As she took her place next to Jon, she offered him a small smile to reassure him.

It didn’t work.

“Sansa… let me do this.”

“Trust me… just trust me.” She whispered back to him. “It’s my turn.”

“Your testimony Lady Lannister.” Lord Corbray’s words earned him a rebuke from somewhere in the crowd and Sansa knew where its sentiments truly lay.

My father was well liked here in the Vale and Petyr largely reviled.

I can use this… just like I planned.

“I shall speak as a Stark, for my words are on my honor and the Lannisters have none.” She glanced back to the crowd and Myranda led some in a chorus of agreement. “My testimony to this matter is as simple as it is true. Ser Jon is innocent. I killed Petyr Baelish.”

The lack of disruption and outbursts from the crowd let Sansa know that her claim was already widely known. The lords however all shook their heads and Nestor slumped slightly in his chair, sighing.

“And we’re to believe a girl killed Lord Baelish and not a knight with blood upon his hands?” Lord Redfort asked with a laugh.

Yes, she thought, dismiss me because I’m just a stupid, foolish girl.

Just like Petyr did.

“My lord, forgive me for doing so, but I would remind you that Ser Jon was born a Snow.” She felt poor using such in Jon’s defense but the path before her was clear. “Whereas I am a trueborn Stark and the Starks were besting Littlefinger in fights long before today.”

A ripple of laughter went through the crowd for it was well known that her uncle Brandon had defeated Petyr in a duel for her mother’s favor years ago. He’d only survived because of her pleas on his behalf, a shameful display by most standards.

Lord Corbray displayed nothing but disdain for the reception her words had earned.

“And what of Lothor Brune? The man bore the marks of the bastard’s chains clearly across his neck!”

“Ser Jon is guilty on that charge.” She admitted. “Guilty of protecting me from Littlefinger’s dog! The man sought to harm me in revenge for killing his master.”

“A true knight!” She heard Ser Mychel shout and others yelled in agreement.

“Silence!” Lord Redfort answered back, obviously becoming flustered by his youngest son. “Are you claiming that Lord Baelish meant you harm? That he threatened you? You, who he hid and kept safe from the Iron Throne?”

Now, she tried to gather all her courage, it has to be now.

“No.” Her answer pleased Horton Redfort at first, but not for long. “No, I claim he meant us all harm!”

For some reason she felt the winds from the Moon Door all around her then. All the fear and panic she’d felt during her aunt’s attempt to kill her came back then, as if to hold her back from saying what she needed to. It was like the truths that could very well damn her wanted to stay hidden. With an effort that made her head spin, she forced them out.

“I say he plotted against my father, a true friend of the Vale! I say he kept me captive for his own ambitious ends and perverse desires! I say he made every effort to worsen Lord Robert’s ailments and I say he threatened me with a return to the Lannisters to keep… to keep…”

“Keep what girl?” Nestor bellowed.

“To keep his murder of Lysa Arryn quiet!”

The thunderous reaction of the audience matched the panicked beating within her chest.

It’s all out now, she couldn’t quite believe it. The truth is out now.

Jon was as shocked as the lords were, none of them bothering to shout down the loud cries that echoed from the crowd in the aftermath of her statement. She let it all wash over her, comforting herself with the knowledge that her honor was intact. For she had told no lies, it was all the truth.

Finally… the truth.

“Lies!” Lord Redfort called over the still rowdy audience. “You yourself named a singer as the killer!”

Sansa remembered the relief she felt when Marillion had taken the blame for her aunt’s murder. Not only did it spare her and Petyr from facing justice by the lords of the Vale, it spared her ever having to look upon Marillion, a man who had tried to rape her and most likely would have tried such again, if not for Lothor Brune protecting her and Petyr wanting her for himself.

In truth, she was glad that Marillion was dead but that would not do now.

Think of father, she told herself, of mother and Robb.

Of the poor boys.

Of Arya.

It worked and the tears came bursting forth from her in one long wail. The lords cringed back from it and Nestor even raised a hand as if to stop the sound from reaching him. The grief he heard was genuine though. Thinking of all she’d lost and all they’d suffered threatened to break Sansa even now.

But to all others, it seemed as if she broke under some other strain. She made it look a struggle to continue on, peering through her tears to find something of use to her.

“I am as you see me my lord! A girl… only a girl.” She sobbed, reaching out to grab hold of the guard beside her to steady herself. “The last of her line… hunted by the Lannisters… monsters by any name.”

She turned to face the crowd then, her hands clutching at her skirts.

“What was I to do when Lord Baelish told me to choose between lies and lions?”

Someone cried out and she saw Myranda coming towards her, arms outstretched. Sansa fell into her friend’s embrace as she continued to wail. All eyes in the hall were on her until another spectacle grabbed their attention.

For Sweetrobin had stirred at last. He stood up on his chair, beating the arms of it feebly with his scepter.

“He killed mother!” He raged. “He was horrid! Alayne says he killed mother too! She was kind and told me stories and I hated him! He hurt me! Make him fly!”

The young lord’s outburst quickly devolved into a violent shaking that led to some servants and the maester rushing forward to calm him. As Sansa sobbed into Myranda’s shoulder, she felt a great weight lift from her heart. She’d spent so much time living a lie, but if she was to die, Sansa wanted the truth to be the last thing the world had of her.

Some small part of her hoped that the truth would be her shield against such a fate.

The three judges sat shocked in indecision while the assembled nobles showed no such division. Littlefinger was despised among the highborn of the Vale and even those who did not hate him disliked the Lannisters or felt shame at the peace forced upon them by her aunt. For too long events had been beyond their control and now they had something they could face. All their anger and rage came forth in shouts in her favor.

In Jon’s favor.

“She avenged the lady!”

“They killed a killer!”

“For the falcon!”

“As high as honor!”

The tears were wet against her cheeks as she looked over Myranda’s shoulder to Jon. He was watching her with concern, and as much as she truly did grieve for her family, she forced herself to wink at him.

His eyes widened at that.

The commotion from the gallery grew louder as the lords above argued amongst themselves. She wondered if whatever plot the Corbrays had to protect themselves was unraveling, for surely they had one.

The most likely plot was that, with Jon executed for Petyr’s murder, they could move freely and deliver Sansa to the Queen themselves. Then they alone could reap in the riches that the Lannisters would offer for her rather than just her body.

Cersei would prefer me alive.

She did not like to think of what fate could befall her in Cersei’s grasp. Her mind was sparred doing so when she was distracted a new development. For behind them the tone of the fervor changed suddenly, beginning to quiet overall yet she heard shouts of alarm go up as well.

Sansa released Myranda to see a large party of soldiers entering the hall. At least twenty armored men were making their way through the crowd. Some of the audience were even screaming and falling over themselves to part before them.

Either in a sign of respect for the lord leading them or out of fear of the beast that strode beside him.

“Ghost!” Sansa smiled despite herself. “Oh Ghost!”

Her heart leapt to see the direwolf alive and well. He’d disappeared the day of their capture and she’d worried after him every moment since. Ghost must have been worried too, for it ran full bore at Jon, leaping over a fallen man to do so. Jon’s guards moved to retreat quickly as he dropped to a knee and greeted his friend, Ghost knocking the knight over in his excitement.

No less impressive a sight than Ghost was Lord Yohn Royce, who stood tall and strong looking, armored in shining bronze plate with runes of the First Men adorning his chest. He joined them before the lords, stopping only to tower over Jon as he eyed the knight’s battered face with concern.

As Jon rose to stand, Lord Royce raised an eyebrow and gestured to the lords who sat at the high table.

“Littlefinger’s men or theirs?”

Before Jon could answer a short man at Lord Royce’s side grunted and glared towards Ser Lyn, placing his hands upon the pommels of the two swords at his side.

“Oh please say it was Corbray…”

“Lord Royce!” Lord Redfort called out. “You are interrupting-”

“A farce Horton!” Bronze Yohn barked. “If I hadn’t ridden ahead of my men, what would I have found here? Some of the finest lords of the Vale doing Lannister work for them?”

“We’re merely trying to learn the truth behind Lord Baelish’s murder…”

“The truth, Lyonel, was that the man was a fiend, a pretender, and a schemer who is better off dead!”

Silence followed Lord Royce’s pronouncement and his eyes fell to her. The last time she’d seen Bronze Yohn Royce, she’d prayed he wouldn’t see her for who she was. Her prayers had been answered then and the lord had seen Alayne Stone instead of Sansa Stark.

She hoped he’d see the opposite now and tried to help him along.

“My lord, you met me once long ago when you came to Winterfell…”

“I’m not such a fool as to mistake you a second time.” The lord said before dropping to a knee before her. “And I beg you forgive me that discourtesy… your grace.”

Your grace?

The Royce men were falling to their knees as well, echoing the title that their lord had just given her. Some in the crowd followed suit, drawing hesitant others to join them upon the floor until almost half of the room was kneeling.

Slowly it donned on her what Lord Royce was doing, what he and his men had started in this hall.

Petyr called her the true heir to Winterfell. But Petyr had ignored what the Lord Royce embraced now.

That Robb had been a king.

And they'd have her be queen.

 

JON

 

 

“Say that again! I’d have her say that again!”

The urgency in Lady Waynwood’s voice surprised Jon. The Lady of Ironoaks was not known for sudden displays of emotion nor discourtesy. She’d remained calm and proper through all of Sansa’s testimony, even while others had not. At several points during Sansa’s telling of all she knew of Littlefinger and his plans the assembled lords had interrupted with outbursts of outrage or arguments amongst themselves.

Jon bore witness to all of this from where he stood behind Lord Royce, acting as his cupbearer rather than a guard. Besides Bronze Yohn and Lady Anya, four others had been chosen to bear witness to all Sansa knew. The lords Nestor Royce, Redfort, and Corbray were also joined by Ser Symond Templeton, in listening to how Littlefinger had manipulated the Vale.

Getting angrier all the while.

Sansa had borne it all with grace and a patience he’d not expected of her. She spoke calmly and quietly, awaiting the lords to quiet whenever arguments arose. When Jon realized that they were meeting in the very room where Lord Baelish had met his end, he’d worried how Sansa would hold up. If being within this room again bothered Sansa, she’d given no sign.

Though now she showed a shocked expression at Lady Waynwood’s reaction, evidently thinking the same as him, that the lady was acting out of character.

“M-my lady? Which part?”

“Repeat what Lady Lysa Arryn spoke to Lord Baelish before he murdered her.” Lady Waynwood grasped the table before her and leaned forward expectantly. “You must say that part again.”

The woman had listened calmly when the other lords had heard of how Littlefinger expected to manipulate the lady by using her family’s debts. Yet for some reason, hearing Sansa’s terrifying account of Lysa Arryn’s failed attempt to kill her had now set the lady off.

“She said she loved Petyr. That he took…” Sansa repeated, before pausing to gaze at the table. “That he took her maiden’s gift and-”

“You think she remained unfaithful to Lord Arryn with the fiend Anya?” Lord Redfort interrupted, only to have the lady wave away his words, her eyes intent on Sansa.

“Not that, the part about the crying! Say that part again and be sure of it please.”

“Aunt Lysa said that Petyr told her to cry into Lord Arryn’s wine…”

“She said cry?” Lady Waynwood sounded desperate. “Are you certain that is what she said?”

“The woman was almost mad.” Lord Corbray asked and Ser Symond nodded some at that. “Can we be surprised that she rambled on about such things?”

“No, that wasn’t it.” Sansa’s forehead was furrowed in thought. “Tears… she said she put the tears in Jon’s wine. That Petyr told her to put them in Lord Arryn’s wine… yes, I’m sure of it.”

Bronze Yohn started and Lady Waynwood whipped about to face him, the two of them sharing a look that was lost to Jon. It was not lost on the others though.

“This is important, isn’t it?” Lord Nestor asked. “It means something?”

“It does Nestor…” Lord Yohn ran a hand down his face, his eyes towards the ceiling. “By the Seven, it means much and more. To think we blamed the Lannisters for so long when all along…”

“All of us know Jon Arryn’s death was suspicious.” The lady continued for him. “All reports say that our lord was hale before his death. His sudden illness gave us reason to think that he’d been poisoned.”

“Had it been poison then the Grand Maester-”

“Pycelle is a Lannister puppet and always has been!” Bronze Yohn shouted down Lord Corbray. “Had they wanted Jon’s death to seem natural, I have no doubt that the Grand Maester would have obliged them.”

“Nestor, you remember the talk we had with Yohn?” Lady Waynwood asked. “Of Jon Arryn’s symptoms and what poisons could have caused such.”

Nestor grunted an agreement before his eyes suddenly widened and his goblet tipped in his hands to spill onto the floor. As his cupbearer dove to refill it, the lord began to sputter.

“By the Seven, she put tears in his wine… Tears of Lys…”

Tears of Lys… the poison?

Jon knew little of the Tears of Lys except that it was supposed to be very deadly, hard to detect, and a poison favored by eastern assassins.

Not lady wives against their own husbands.

Sansa and the others shared his shock at what was being proposed.

“Tears of Lys? Truly?” Ser Symond asked.

“Madness… it has to be…” Lord Corbray mumbled.

“She accuses the lady of murder!” Lord Redfort shouted, pointing at Sansa who appeared startled at all of this.

“Lady Sansa did no such thing Horton.” Lady Waynwood snapped as Lord Yohn bristled.

Queen Sansa obviously had no idea of the importance of what she heard.” He added, styling Sansa as he had for days now. “It is for me to make the claim of murder against Lysa Arryn. I claim now that she and Littlefinger plotted to kill our lord and my friend and this testimony we’ve heard makes me sure of it.”

“And myself.” Lady Waynwood added.

“Lady Stark’s words by themselves do not make a strong case.” Lord Corbray offered. “Especially considering she’s already spoken falsehoods once on the matter of Lady Arryn’s murder.”

“Which she did when under threat by the man who did the deed himself!” Lady Waynwood answered, seeming aghast at what Lord Corbray was saying.

“Again, so she claims…”

“My lords!” Ser Symond broke through the argument. “If there is strength to this claim, it comes not only from what we’ve heard today. Lady Lysa was devoted to Littlefinger, we all saw that. She spurned matches from lords at this very table, men whose blood made them worthy enough for such a station. All so she could wed one the Vale’s pettiest lords. A man whose bloodlines are not even Andal…”

“He’s right.” Lord Redfort nodded. “She rejected a score of others beside Nestor and myself, men of means and noble birth. Folly I named it, madness by others. To call it a plot… I can name it so.”

Lord Redfort’s words were met with sounds of approval from Nestor Royce and Ser Symond. All in the room save Lord Corbray soon named Lysa Arryn the murderer of her husband, with Littlefinger as her accomplice. Lord Nestor seemed enraged that the Lord of Heart’s Home would not speak with them on this as one voice and another round of arguments seemed ready to come to a head when Bronze Yohn rose.

“I think Queen Sansa has given us enough to discuss for today. I say we excuse her so we need not trouble her further.” Bronze Yohn smiled warmly at Sansa, who lowered her head in agreement before turning to Jon. “Good ser, I ask you to escort her. Send in Morris to take your place, with better wine this time.”

“Of course my lord.” Jon bowed before making to take his leave with Sansa. When she rose, Lady Waynwood and Ser Symond did as well.

They give her the courtesy due a queen.

Like the others, Jon thought of Sansa as his queen and felt ashamed that he hadn’t thought of it when he first found her. Since Bronze Yohn’s arrival, things had been moving quickly. More of the lord’s allies had arrived in the days following while none in the castle had been permitted to leave. The two Royce leaders had agreed that until the Lords Declarant, which Nestor had now joined, sorted out the mess at the Gates of the Moon they wanted little word of what happened here escaping.

Days before, Jon had been desperate to escape this castle yet now the Gates were a safe haven. Men who’d once thought to execute him, now spoke with Jon on how to safeguard Sansa and his future here in the Vale.

If we stay in the Vale.

I made a promise to see her home.

As they left the lords to their talk, Jon joined two other Runestone men in following behind Sansa. It would be presuming too much to try and walk beside her. She was a queen and he was but a newly made knight.

A bastard knight at that, not worthy of walking with a queen…

Sansa had other ideas though and waved him forward.

“Please don’t make me walk alone.” She smiled. “I feel an outcast.”

“I do as my queen commands.” He answered and together they continued down the corridor, side by side.

They did so without speaking, which surprised him some, for he remembered Sansa as a talkative girl in their youth. Yet now Sansa’s face was creased in thought and Jon thought not to worsen her state by being a bother himself. It was clear she wasn’t leading them back to her chambers. Rather, they travelled to a window overlooking one of the castle’s courtyards. The window had a clear view to the stables.

To look higher was to gaze upon the Giant’s Lance and the Eyrie, sitting high above them and covered in frost. For some reason Jon thought of the Wall then, and how terrifying it would have been to climb up such a structure.

I’m glad I didn’t have to climb it to find her.

I would have though... I would’ve climbed the Wall itself…

“I wasn’t lying.” Sansa said suddenly, barely above a whisper. “To the lords… I didn’t lie once.”

“I didn’t think you had.”

“You should’ve.” She stared up towards the Eyrie. “I lied for so long… for Petyr… for myself. My world was lies for so long Jon… father would’ve been ashamed of me.”

Had it been Arya, he would’ve reached out to comfort her and ease the despair that he heard in Sansa’s voice, but they’d never been so close. So he used words instead.

“No.” He said feebly. “Father would be happy that you survived and proud of the bravery you’ve shown.”

“I wasn’t brave though. I was scared the whole time. Terrified. I just couldn’t let you die… not like father. Not for my mistakes.”

“I would be dead without you Sansa. Twice over.” He held up two fingers as if to demonstrate. “In truth, I make a pretty foul savior.”

Her laugh was quiet but a relief to hear. Jon didn’t want her to continue blaming herself for things well beyond her control. Some shouts from outside drew his gaze to the courtyard where people were making a path for Ghost as the direwolf loped through the yard. Terrified sounds came from the stables as horses took wind of the beast and Jon shook his head.

“Either we’ll have to keep Ghost confined to the godswood or this castle will need to become better accustomed to him.”

“They won’t have to, we won’t be here long.”

“I don’t think Ghost can have the run of Runestone either.” Jon grumbled. “Lady Ysilla doesn’t even care for hounds.”

“Runestone?” Sansa gave him a puzzled look. “We’re not going to Runestone. Has Lord Yohn not spoken to you?”

“Of what?” He knew Bronze Yohn had met with Sansa several times over the past week but it was not his place to pry into their business.

“Of what he is proposing to the Lords Declarant now. It’s why he asked us to leave. If it all goes as he hopes we’ll be leaving for Coldwater soon and-”

“Coldwater?” Jon knew the castle along the Bite held allegiance to his lord but thought it otherwise unimportant. “Why there?”

“To meet the ship waiting there for us… truly, Lord Royce has said nothing of this?”

“Sansa, I’m but his sworn sword, not his confidant. If these are matters he’d prefer to keep between the two of you…”

“I want you to know!” She took his hand and squeezed it. “Because I won’t go without you and I’d not keep this a secret from you. You saved me when no one else did and-and I want you by my side when we do this.”

It was touching for her to say. Had she not asked him to go, he would’ve begged to do so anyway. Asking to leave Bronze Yohn’s service for Sansa’s was something he meant to do soon. He respected the lord greatly, but after all this time, he could finally be of service to House Stark and he’d delay it no longer.

Then act the part, he thought, you can’t be much help when you know nothing.

“I will be at your side for as long as you can tolerate me.” He tried to sound serious but Sansa offered a small grin, making him feel a fool.

“What ship awaits us then?" He asked through his blush.

Sansa leaned close to him, whispering so that he struggled to hear her.

“A northern one.” She said. “Lord Royce says it is a strange matter. Some weeks ago, a ship no one expected came to Coldwater. The crew wanted word of their arrival sent to Runestone immediately. They wanted the lord to know that they came for the heir to House Stark.”

He jerked back at that.

“How did they even know you were here?”

“When Lord Royce was told, he thought for sure the men he’d sent to the Sisters had found some of Robb’s bannermen and that it had spurred them into seeking you out. The castellan at Coldwater was ignorant of what they spoke of but took them into his custody anyways. This all gave Lord Royce hope for his plans for you…”

“What plans for me?” He was deeply confused. “Bronze Yohn sent men to the Sisters? What for?”

“Jon, you’re the only surviving son of our father. As soon as you arrived at Runestone, Lord Royce began efforts towards making you King in the North. To help you reclaim the North from Lannister rule and giving the Vale an ally against Petyr. It was only the problems here in the Vale that gave him pause. Now with Petyr dead, he’s free to help us.”

He had no words. Hearing that Bronze Yohn had thought to make him King in the North made many of the confusing things that the lord had said to him in Runestone suddenly make sense.

But I don’t want to be a king.

“I’m glad he came to his senses and named you Queen then.” He said truthfully yet his words were meant as a sort of apology for, even unknowingly, standing in her way. Sansa didn’t look comforted though. Instead she lowered her head and wrung her hands nervously.

“You could still be a king if you wanted Jon… I wouldn’t stand in your way… I-I’m not the leader the North deserves…”

“What are you talking about?”

“Everyone in the North thinks that I’m Tyrion’s wife still, and I spent the whole war a prisoner while you spent it fighting… you deserve the crown not me.”

She sounded so sad that he almost reached out to take her hand but again, it felt like it would presume too much of her.

“You’re father’s heir, not me. It’s not about deserving the crown Sansa… and even if it was, you deserve it more than me. You stayed in the capital and I left, and even after everything you’ve been through, you still had the courage to kill-”

“I don’t deserve it!” She snapped, her lip trembling and her eyes glistening with tears. Sansa choked up then and he couldn’t hold back this time. He reached out and grasped her arm gently, leaning forward to find her eyes when she avoided his gaze. They were so blue and so filled with hurt.

“I don’t deserve it… you did what father told you to… you didn’t betray him…”

“Sansa…”

“You didn’t tell the queen of father’s plans. You didn’t let them kill him-”

He released her and took a step back before he really knew what he was doing.

“No.” The word came from him reflexively. “No you didn’t.”

She couldn’t have betrayed him.

Sansa may have been spoiled but she would never have betrayed father.

She still wouldn’t meet his eyes as the tears began flowing down her cheeks. Some part of Jon wanted to step forward and wipe those tears away, to help ease this pain that she felt.

Instead he just stared at this girl he didn’t know.

“He wanted to leave… he told us we were leaving. I still thought I loved Joffrey then and I didn’t want to leave the capital so I told the queen, thinking just to say a proper goodbye and maybe… I-I disobeyed father and they killed him for it…”

For a brief fleeting moment he wanted to strike her.

Less for choosing Joffrey over father than for all the times she’d been haughty and rude to others. For all the times she’d acted better than Arya or him.

As if we weren’t worthy of being in Winterfell.

Like we weren’t worthy of father.

He realized then that he’d felt this way before. As a young boy, the first time father had taken Robb and Sansa to visit Castle Cerwyn without him. He thought again of when she refused to see him in the capital and the disappointment he felt that she hadn’t seen fit to even say good bye to him. They were childish feelings of jealousy though and as he watched Sansa weeping, he felt ashamed of them.

Her shame was so great now that she seemed a different person than the one who’d awoken in the cabin, after battle with the clansmen. She’d been full of hope then.

When she thought you were father.

She loved him too. We all loved him.

Sansa had acted so bravely the last few days, it was easy to forget the girl she had been. For all her faults, Sansa had been so young when she left Winterfell.  She was always prattling about romantic tales and brave knights while she danced about the castle, ignorant of the ugliness that had been Jon’s entire childhood. He’d seen a lot of that in the Reach, people confusing tales with reality.

Some of those men had been great lords, not little girls.

Sansa wasn’t ready for the world and its monsters.

Someone should have protected her.

Instead she had to see father’s head on a spike.

Sansa’s reddening eyes found his then. They were still as blue as ever and he couldn’t remember ever seeing them so sad in all his memories of her.

“I know you can’t forgive me… that you’ll hate me… and I deserve it. For everything I’ve done.” She sniffled and tried wiping away her tears. “Just please don’t leave me. You’re all I have left in the world and I swear if you want to be king, I’ll never disobey you Jon. I’ll always listen to you like I should have father…”

The anger was falling away from him even as his thoughts drifted to the Sansa shunning him in the capital and his own last moments with their father.

“I should have disobeyed him…” His voice sounded so hoarse, he wondered if he’d even spoken.

“What?”

“Disobeyed father.” He said again, more forcefully. “He told me to do something and I was wrong to listen.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about… but it doesn’t change what I did.” Sansa shook her head. “There’s no excuse.”

“Do you think that me having an excuse for leaving you all in the capital makes it any better?” His hands were balled into fists and now he couldn’t look at her, the shame was so great. “Father told me you were all in danger there. I wanted to stay and help but he sent me away. He ordered to go and I went with Ser Robar when I should have stayed. Damn him and damn my honor.”

“Jon…”

“Damn what he told me to do!” He gritted his teeth. “You were a girl! Barely more than a child! You thought you were just some lady from a song didn’t you? You always pretended like that but I knew the truth Sansa. I knew it was no song and that there were people in the capital that meant you harm and I left you all.”

“Jon, it’s not the same-”

“Robb and Bran asked me to stay at Winterfell, did you know that? I stopped there on my way back from the Wall. Did you know Bran cried and asked me to stay?”

The memory made him strike the wall in anger. Sansa cried out, trying to grab his hand before he pulled it away.

“I left them! I left Robb! I left father! Arya! You! All because to disobey father would dishonor me… well, I kept my honor and lost everyone I loved because of it…”

“Your grace, is everything alright?” One of the guards had approached and Sansa moved between them.

“All is well, please, some privacy.”

The man gave them both a confused look before retiring further down the corridor with the other guard. When she turned to face Jon again, he dropped to his knee before her.

“How many times did we all disobey father? Bran with his climbing, Robb and I sneaking through the gates at night… you being kept away from the boy you loved…”

“It was different!” She shrieked.

“You were an innocent and I can’t fault you like I can myself. You didn’t know and I did. If you seek to condemn yourself then take my blade now and condemn me for the same.” He looked up at her and saw the surprise there. “Please Sansa… I couldn’t serve father or Robb but I can serve you. I’d serve my queen.”

She stood speechless, staring down at him as if she couldn’t believe all he’d said. After a while, she wiped her hands across her eyes and he remembered his courtesies then, pulling out a cloth tucked in his sword belt and offering it up to her.

Sansa smiled faintly as she took it, drying her eyes.

“Please get up.” She asked softly and he did so, her blue eyes seeming a little clearer now. “It’s not the same but I thank you for trying Jon. If you can forgive me… you who are so much like our father… I think I can make him proud of me. I’ll always bear that shame but I can try to live my life as father would have… I remember him. I never forgot him Jon. The north remembers and so do I.”

Spoken like a queen.

My queen… the Queen in the North.

“We all shame ourselves sometimes. I think it is how we redeem our honor afterwards, that’s what matters most.” He said before grasping her hand when she made to return the cloth. “You’re right, the north remembers… and they’ll remember that you gave father’s true killer northern justice. I know I will.”

“Your grace?” A guard interrupted then, causing Sansa to roll her eyes.

“I asked for some privacy…”

“My apologies, but there is a summons.” The guard gestured back towards one of Nestor Royce’s stewards. “The lords have asked for your presence again, with their own apologies.”

“It is no bother, we shall be there soon.” Sansa’s words sent the man away and she began feeling at her face. “I probably look frightful…”

“You look fine Sansa. Do you think Lord Royce proposed what you said?”

“We will know soon enough.” She gestured for him to come forward and take her arm as an escort. “If you’d see me back ser?”

He obeyed his queen.

This time upon their arrival, every lord save Lord Corbray rose when Sansa entered and sat only after she did. Jon went to take his place by Lord Yohn again but the man held up a hand, permitting him to stay by Sansa’s side. She seemed pleased by that and her tone was happier than it had been only a short while before.

“Is there more you’d hear from me my lords? I’m most willing to be of any help.”

“Less a question and more of a request your grace.” Lord Nestor gestured to a parchment on the table and the maester unfurled it before Sansa. “We must ask something of you… in regards to the care of young Lord Robert.”

The maester began to read it for Sansa when she excused him, explaining that she was capable of doing so herself. Jon kept the grin from his face while Lady Waynwood chuckled some. When Sansa finished, she handed the parchment to Jon to read himself before turning her attention to Lord Nestor.

“You name my cousin your ward and yourself high steward of the Vale.”

“Not just I…”

“We all agreed on this matter.” Lady Waynwood spoke quickly. “With Harrold Hardyng under the protection of my house and the Gates of the Moon being the winter seat of House Arryn, we see no reason to remove Lord Robert from Nestor’s care and guardianship.”

“Baelish was a fiend, but in naming my cousin lord of this castle, he proved himself wise.” Bronze Yohn slapped a hand on Nestor’s shoulder and shook it warmly. “And Nestor ruled the Vale for all the years Jon Arryn acted as Hand. I trust no one more.”

“So say we all.” Ser Symond’s words were echoed by the others, although Jon noticed Lord Corbray spoke with less enthusiasm than the others

Nestor took the praise in stride, keeping his attention focused upon Sansa.

“As the closest living relative of our lord… or at least one who is not held captive, we hoped to have your blessing for such an arrangement?”

“And I give it gladly. Before me sit the greatest lords of the Vale, who were so concerned with my cousin’s safety that they laid siege to the impregnable Eyrie itself. I can sleep soundly with you all caring for him.”

Sansa was all smiles as she spoke and the brightness of it infected several of the others, Lord Nestor even blushed some. When her smile suddenly faded, Jon couldn’t help but notice how many others disappeared as well.

“My lords, I’m sorry, but I must ask something terrible of you. And only because my cousin is so young and frail do I fear burdening him with such a request, and must instead come to you all.”

“Please do, for all you’ve suffered, fear nothing of us.” Lady Waynwood spoke in a matronly tone and the others nodded assent.

“My father… many of you knew him and him you. He always spoke fondly of his time in the Vale, of the honor of its men and the strength of its people. No more so then when he spoke of rebellion against the Mad King. When the Iron Throne demanded Lord Arryn surrender his wards, late King Robert and my father, to a fate that was almost certain death, Jon Arryn refused. He called his banners in rebellion rather than let the Baratheons and Starks s-stand… stand alone…”

At that Sansa faltered, reaching for a cup of water. Jon moved first, picking it up and handing it to her. She held his wrist as she drank and did not release it as she continued speaking.

“House Baratheon and House Stark once again stand alone. Jon and I are, as far as we can tell, the last of our father’s children. Our true sister is missing and all our brothers lay murdered. Our home is stolen from us, our lands held under the thumb of a monster… and I fear…” She seemed to shake some then and looked to him. He had no idea what to do except pat her hand comfortingly and nod. Sansa straightened then and he wondered if she’d been truly afraid at all.

She’s become disquietingly good at that, Jon thought. It’s a bit worrying.

Then again, I had swords and Ghost to protect me.

Lies were her only protection all this time.

“I’m afraid I must ask for House Arryn to stand with us again, to remember the bond it shares with House Stark and fight for a cause that is good and just.”

“You’d have us declare in rebellion?” Lord Corbray asked incredulously. “The Vale against the rest of the realm?”

“The rest of the realm? What’s left of it you mean!” Bronze Yohn answered. “The Riverlands lie in waste, the Westerlands without Lord Tywin, the Reach besieged by ironmen, and parts of the Stormlands still declaring for Stannis. We’re the only ones besides Dorne to be spared any of the fighting!”

“Shame indeed my lord.” Ser Symond thumped the table with his fist. “I would’ve marched years ago your grace. It was the murderess who kept me from doing so. My desire to fight has not dwindled, nor my men’s.”

“The Warrior knows that the men sworn to House Arryn have been unhappy with the state of things.” Nestor wrapped his fingers upon the table in thought. “But as well provisioned as we are, we could probably muster an army of twenty thousand… maybe even march against King’s Landing within a few moons…”

“A few moons? Don’t be foolish!”

“Craven!”

“My lords!” Bronze Yohn barked so that Ser Symond and Lord Corbray calmed their tempers. “Cousin, you have the right heart but we are entering winter. Snows will close many of the passes and not all the lords of the Vale are gathered here. Some will require convincing and by then our enemies may be prepared for our attack south. We could march into our own Blackwater.”

Jon couldn’t believe his ears. He’d thought Lord Royce as the one most likely to press for an attack against the Iron Throne. He was even more shocked when Horton Redfort began to agree with caution.

“Nor are the clansmen like to give our lands much peace if all our men go on the march. I’m sorry Nestor, but I fear the course of action you propose leaves too much to chance.”

“Sense if I ever heard it.” Lord Corbray gestured to the two lords with an air of respect. “We should use this time to strengthen our position while our enemies grow weaker. Our granaries are full while theirs are not. The mountains keep the Lannisters and Tyrells at bay and our ports are well defended. Should we choose to march, we should do so when it benefits us best.”

“Like Littlefinger would’ve-”

“Lyonel is right!” Bronze Yohn again cut off Ser Symond’s attempts to argue. “And Horton is as well. We are quite alone and before we take on the Lannisters and the Tyrells both, we need allies. And before us sits one.”

Bronze Yohn stood and raised his cup to Sansa.

“Your brother was a king so I name you a queen. As the people of the north will as well. Northern honor demands nothing less. So I say we do as the Queen in the North asks of us. Stand with House Stark and help them retake their lands and castle, so when it comes time to throw the false king from the throne, we do so with direwolves at our backs.”

“Sense if I ever heard it!” Ser Symond’s mood had come full circle, his smile wide as he rose as well. “House Templeton will march for that.”

“As will House Redfort.” The lord rose and offered his hand to Lady Waynwood as she stood as well.

“House Waynwood will do its part.”

“No more than your own kin, your grace.” Lord Nestor stood, with his hand over his breast. “As your cousin’s protector, I command the swords and spears of House Arryn in his name, and as they marched beside your father all those years ago, they will march beside you now.”

The most powerful lords of the Vale were pledging themselves to reclaiming the North and Jon stood there, dumbly, clutching Sansa’s hand. When she squeezed his hand tightly, he broke away from the sight before him to seek her eyes. 

Sansa and he stared at each other, the hope in his heart reflected in her face and he saw the path laid out before them.

We are going home.

 

THE QUEEN IN THE NORTH

 

 

She retched again.

Some of the bile stayed in her mouth, causing her to hack and retch again. As she had done countless times during this journey. Except this time she missed the bucket completely and hit Jon’s leg instead.

“I’m sorry.” She groaned but could do little more as the sickness came over her again. Sansa thanked the gods for Jon’s hold upon her hair then.

For days she’d been like this. Whole days she’d spent more as a sickly girl than a queen.

It had only taken four days at sea in the crannogmen’s ship to reduce her to this. Four days she’d been regretting not joining her Vale escort in one of Coldwater’s larger, cleanlier looking galleys.

As the others had begged her to. Bronze Yohn among them.

“Your grace, please, I would be bereft of your company for this journey. A worst condition I could not imagine.” Lord Yohn had said when she’d announced her intention to travel aboard the crannog boat rather than one his vassal’s ships.

“These men travelled very far to collect Jon and me. I would do them the honor of returning successful.” She hoped her admiration for the men hid her doubts about sailing on their ugly ship. “And it sailed here… well enough…”

The Reed ship was but a single mast galley, salt-stained all over, with a worm eaten prow that was no longer distinguishable as anything but wood. The Coldwater galleys were newer, larger, and most likely offered more amenities. Yet the enthusiastic cheers that had rippled through the crannogmen when Jon and she appeared at the quay had hardened her resolve.

“I think they’d prefer it if you arrived alive.” Jon’s quiet words had drawn a scowl from her but agreement from the lord.

“Ser Jon is right, there’s the matter of safety… I fear this vessel has seen too many journeys your grace.”

His worries were met with laughter from the leader of the crannog party, a man named Korjen, sworn to House Reed. He had an easy smile and was quick to laugh. Sansa had thought Ser Willem and he would get along famously.

“I’d be trusting my boat more than one of these untested rafts. This boat has made more journeys through the Bite than you’ve seen years, m’lord.”

“That’s a lot of journeys to be sure.” Ser Willem had added, earning a sharp rebuke from his lord and cousin.

Jon had chosen that moment to pull her aside and press his case.

“We barely know these men. Yes they are from the North but so were the Boltons…”

“And you think sailing in one of Bronze Yohn’s ship will prevent any treachery? What if they ambush us on arrival? That what the hostages are for Jon.”

In the end she’d had her way. Sansa would return to the Neck with the Reed men while Lord Yohn and his men would follow in the Coldwater galleys. Jon’s worries were only slightly eased by each of the Vale ships taking a member of Korjen’s crew, namely Korjen’s first mate and eldest sons, ostensibly to act as guides if their ships became separated, in truth to act as hostages to the captain’s good will.

Her protection aboard the northern ship was also formidable. Besides Jon, Ser Willem and a score of Arryn and Royce men joined her for their voyage.

She’d been honored by how each member of the crew had come forward to beg her favor. When they’d set sail, it had been a wonderful moment, Korjen even pronouncing it the first step in her journey to return to Winterfell.

Yet the swaying took its toll barely half a day into their fateful voyage. Fortunately she'd escaped to her cabin before any of the men saw how sick she became. It was small and now thoroughly reeked of vomit yet remained drier and warmer than the rest of the ship, according to Jon.

He’d been forever by her side whether she wanted him there or not.

A woman was aboard the ship, a wife of the first mate, and had been meant to act as Sansa’s servant during the voyage. Since she had little reason to dress though, the woman had been useless and Sansa had ordered her away. Jon defied those commands and despite her protests, had cared for her himself.

He was always wiping the mess from her face, offering her water or broth when she felt able to take any and was often dabbing at her brow with a cool cloth, just as he did now.

“I’m sorry…” She said between dry heaves. “I’m sorry about your pants…”

“They’ve been blessed by a queen. I am honored.”

“I’m a poor queen now.”

“I doubt there’d be so many men working above in the cold and wet for a queen they thought poor.”

His words made her feel worse for lamenting her own illness while her men labored every moment she lay idle.

“Do we know how much longer we shall sail?”

“Korjen says the launches of the Neck are hard to see and that foul weather makes it even harder.” Jon sighed. “But he told me perhaps a day. Time enough for me to clean my pants.”

Another day… another day of hell…

A sudden rocking made her stomach turn and the thought was almost unbearable. Despite her best effort, a sob escaped her throat. Jon's fingers wrapped around hers and the cool cloth dabbed at her brow again.

“We’d all spare you it if we could, but it’s for your own safety. Without the others following, we can’t risk setting aground anywhere for even a night.”

Jon had been worried ever since a squall had driven the ships apart. Whether the Coldwater galleys had already landed safely or were sent to the bottom of the sea was something none of them knew yet.

“Yohn and the others will be well… they have to be…”

“I don’t think Bronze Yohn could bear disappointing you.” Jon smirked.

He wrung out the cloth and made it to dampen it again, yet she shook her head against any more of his treatment. She had a better idea for how he could help and gestured to a chest at the far side of the cabin.

“Jon, I’d rather you read me the letters Lord Royce gave me. I have not had the chance to look at them.”

What she meant was attempting to read them made her even sicker. Jon nodded at that, drying his hands and retrieving the three letters that had awaited their arrival at Coldwater. Lord Yohn had been insistent they leave the Gates of the Moon with little delay, so she never got the chance to bid farewell to those she’d come to care for at the castle.

So it had been ravens that carried their farewells to her.

“This is one is from Lady Myranda Royce.” Jon cleared his throat, steadying himself by bracing an arm against her bed frame, holding the parchment up to catch the light of the lamp. “Queen Sansa, I am as sad as I am angry that you had to leave without any word to me. Do not fear, I will pray for you as I do for my lord cousin and the comely knights accompanying you. The next time I see you, a crown will adorn your head and men will clamor for your favor. I will it to be so, your friend, Randa.”

As he finished reading he held up the parchment in disbelief.

“She truly thinks Willem is handsome?”

“I think she speaks of you Jon…” She did her best to tease and Jon blushed some before quickly moving to pick up the next letter.

“This one is from Lord Robert Arryn. I think the maester put it to parchment or his hand writing is much better than my own.” He paused then, as if something about the letter bothered him before reading on.

“You shouldn’t have left. Lord Nestor is ugly and smells. The donkey girl won’t take me back to my castle and no one reads the stories like you do. The North is horrible and cold. Everyone says so. Come back. I command it.” Jon made a face at the end of Sweetrobin’s letter and set it aside quickly. “I hope whatever ails him will be cured soon, he needs a good beating.”

“Jon…”

“He’s but a boy, I know.”

He didn’t apologize though. Nor could she blame him. Missing out on a farewell with Sweetrobin had not weighed on her too greatly.

Someone knocked on her cabin door then and she weakly called for whomever it was to enter. Ser Willem poked his head in with eyes to the floor, as if seeing her in her sickbed was unseemly.

“Sorry your grace. Wolf, you should be seeing to that other wolf. Poor beast got out of the hold and is retching all over the ship. Korjen’s acting like it’s a bloody pleasure barge…”

“I’ll come in a moment.”

“Something ails Ghost?” She was genuinely concerned; the poor direwolf was stuck in the hold, a far cry from the comforts she enjoyed.

“You live up to your sigil.” Jon sighed. “Ghost takes as poorly to the sea as you do.”

“Then you must tend to him as well as you do me.”

“He can survive without me long enough for me to read the final letter. It’s from that kind young woman, Mya.” He looked at it grinning. “Sansa, stay strong and do not let them beat you. Remember you are worth it. Alayne was my friend and you are my friend, Mya.”

Of all the letters, that one brought a tear to Sansa’s eye and she was glad when Jon took his leave. She’d wept too often in his presence and she hated knowing that he was watching and worrying.

Worries still filled her mind in truth. The Vale had finally become a place of safety for her, where she had friends who knew her true name and still stood by her. So of course she had abandoned it on a quest to retake her home from men even the Vale lords feared.

This trip to the Neck would determine much of what was to come, hence why Bronze Yohn journeyed with them. If the Neck lords would not support her claim against the Boltons, then the Vale strength she so depended on might wither away. The Lords Declarant wanted proof that there would be support for her in the North before they risked their lives for it.

House Royce, House Redfort, and House Templeton were confident though and had already begun gathering men in support of her claim, some even taking sail to the Three Sisters in anticipation that she succeeded in the Neck.

As she rested, her dreams were not so hopeful. Instead they were tainted by sickness and foul memories.

Sansa dreamt Petyr was kissing her while spinning her about in a hall of horrors. For all about them were disembodied heads, thrust upon spikes. She saw father’s alongside Robb’s, Bran’s besides little Rickon’s. She dreamt of Arya and mother crying as men with blades advanced upon them, a loud drum beating the whole time as a lone wolf howled into the night.

Then it was Jon, helpless beneath Lord Nestor’s guards who, instead of beating him with the butts of their spears, were stabbing at him with the sharpened points over and over again. Then it was her stabbing Jon, just like she had stabbed Petyr.

Sansa was killing Jon.

‘You’re poison to everyone… around you…’ Jon gasped as he lay dying. ‘You’re going to kill me too…’

A loud slam woke her suddenly.

She tried to rise but the nausea remained so she lurched for her bucket instead. As she did so, she realized there were others in the room. The noise had been someone closing the door of her cabin, someone who now threw another person bodily down upon the ground.

The man standing on his feet she saw to be Ser Willem.

“Ser?”

“Your grace! A thousand pardons but I can’t let him die on this wreck!” The knight answered as he bowed and pointed down at the body below him. “I beg you, command him to see reason!”

“Who is dying?”

“No one.” Jon’s voice alerted her to his presence as the body on floor. As he tried to gain his feet, Willem swore and pushed him back down.

“Again, your pardons. The man has been sick with fever for days and will not heed anyone about how to stay out of an early grave!”

Fever?

He never spoke once of a fever.

“It is nothing, a chill I took on a watch. They need all the eyes we have searching the shore…”

“He can barely stand!” Ser Willem’s protest was cut off when Jon stuck him soundly in the leg and the knight responded by shoving him down again. “Your grace, I beg you to order him to seek his cabin and be dry.”

“I do not need-”

“I so order it.” She tried to rise and make the command but could only manage to prop herself up on one elbow and look down at her knight. “Come here, I would feel this chill.”

When Ser Willem had to help Jon do so, she realized how bad he must have been. The heat of his forehead against her palm made her gasp. He’d been tending her and standing watch in the damp while she laid abed in a warm, dry cabin.

He is a fool!

“How warm and dry are your cabins?” She asked.

“Not very.” Ser Willem admitted. “I’m surprised more aren’t ill.”

“Damper than here?” Her question earned a nod from the knight and she made up her mind. “Then fetch a pallet and blankets. Jon shall bed here. Let this be the sick chamber of the boat.”

“It’s not proper.” Jon protested, “Sansa-”

“I’ve retched in front of you for days, unable to change out of my nightgown during all of it. Proper is well passed us ser. Fetch him dry clothes as well.”

Jon continued to argue with her as he moved to tend to her again and earned as forceful of a shove as she could manage. Ser Willem returned and helped in setting up a makeshift bed to the wall opposite of her own. When they were alone again, she took notice of Jon’s damp clothes as he made to rest.

“Change your clothes.”

“Sansa I can’t while you-”

“I will look elsewhere but do as I ask, please.”

Sansa shut her eyes and somehow kept herself from retching as the boat moved around them until Jon gave his assent. He had changed his filthy, wet pants but had not done so with his shirt. She was about to scold him to put a fresh shirt on, that the fever was only making him feel a false warmth, when the words caught in her throat.

For across Jon’s chest were horrible scars.

Sansa had imagined he’d been wounded in his travels but what she saw went far beyond anything she’d expected. Even in the poor lighting, she could make out two long cuts across his chest and a jagged looking scar near his stomach. There were others but Jon must have seen her gaze because he quickly bent to collect a wool shirt from the ground and cover himself.

“I apologize, I forgot myself.”

“It’s alright Jon, just rest please.”

She meant what she said. He needed to rest. Yet those marks bothered her, troubling her thoughts so much that sleep would not return to her. After what seemed like an eternity of staring up at the ugly ceiling of the cabin, she chanced at seeing if he was still awake.

“Jon, can I ask you something? Not as your queen?”

Surprisingly he replied.

“I would answer no matter how you asked...”

“The marks upon your body… how did you get them?”

“Fighting mostly.” He said simply.

The silence between them felt awkward. Sansa should have respected his privacy but she pressed on. The scars bothered her that much.

“You would not speak of it?”

No answer came save the sound of water against the hull and the creaking of the ship. She looked over and saw Jon staring up at the ceiling of the cabin, looking more somber than usual.

“The worst ones weren’t from the Blackwater and for that I am ashamed.”

“And for that I’m thankful.” She said. “And the others?”

“The worst are from Loras Tyrell. After he murdered Ser Robar, I thought to challenge him and… it was foolish. Robar was a far greater swordsman than I and Loras bested him. If not for Ghost, I’d be dead… I hope to have justice for Ser Robar someday…”

His words were interrupted by her retching. It wasn’t the sea that made her sick this time but the memory of how she’d praised Ser Loras and held a secret desire to marry him.

You’d wanted to do that even after he joined the Lannisters.

After he did that to Jon.

To her shame, Jon came to her side, trying to help and standing firm against her attempts to push him away.

“Loras never told me he did that…” She surrendered, reaching out to cup Jon’s sweat soaked face instead. “I would have never thought well of him… I didn’t know, I swear…”

“Hush.” Jon said, laying her back down in her bed and pulling her blankets about her.

She shook her head and offered feeble arguments and apologies but the last retching had drawn her strength. As Jon’s fever robbed his. Later, she couldn’t say how they had both fallen asleep in such a way. The last moment frozen in her mind, she remembered her arm was upon his and he was crouched beside her bed, resting his head against her side. She awoke at one point and knew Jon would probably feel embarrassed at sleeping in such a way so Sansa said nothing.

Having Jon there put her at ease and she slept better for it.

It was a peaceful rest.

Untroubled by nightmares or sickness.

And ended only by Ser Willem arriving to announce they’d arrived in the North.

 

 

JON

 

“Beautiful country this.”

“Shutup.” Jon shot Willem a glare. “Be courteous.”

The decent folk guiding them through the bogs didn’t need to hear Willem’s mocking of their lands. Without them, he didn’t think they would ever have made it so far into the Neck. As some strange creature slithered into a creek to his left, he realized that they might not have even survived turning back.

He’d travelled through the Neck once before but upon the Kingsroad, not the meandering, treacherous paths that the crannogmen led them through now. The country about them was pockmarked with deep watery pits, creeks that spread out like webs upon the land, and tall willowy trees with long stretches of dark brown moss hanging from the branches.

Their column at its thickest was two riders wide, for no more could fit upon narrow parts of dry land they rode along. Falling from it could mean sliding into the jaws of a lizard lion or a pit of muck that would suck you down in moments and guarantee your death just as surely. They could not even set tents upon the ground without ensuring every flap was securely tied, for fear of the venomous snakes which dwelt within in the shadows.

Ghost had killed a score of them already, the direwolf adapting fairly well to these lands.

When they’d arrived along the shores of the Neck, Ghost’s snow white fur had looked out of place upon the rocky, moss covered beach. The only thing more out of place had been the tall, proud looking Northman, standing amongst the party of crannogmen gathered to welcome them. Even if the mailed fist of his house had not been borne across his tunic, he had visited Winterfell enough for both Jon and Sansa to know him by sight.

“Your grace!” Galbart Glover had shouted happily, dropping to his knee in the sand before them, rain dripping from his hair and beard yet smiling all the same. “In my dreams I thought to find you, but never did I dare hope for both of you.”

“It is all because of Ser Jon. Rise, it is too wet for such.” Sansa had said, offering her hand while Jon’s feverish mind remembered Galbart Glover hesitating at her words.

“Ser Jon?”

“Knighted by Lord Yohn Royce himself.” Sansa had to pull at Galbart’s sleeve to remind him to stand, which he did after a moment. “Jon was the one who found me in the Vale and the reason I am here today.” 

“The Queen does me too much kindness.” He had done his best to sound stronger than he felt, offering his hand to the man. “We rescued each other in truth.”

“The Queen… yes…” There was an awkward pause when Galbart did not grip his hand back so Jon let his own drop instead.

“It is good to see you survived all of this my lord.” Galbart Glover was not a lord in truth, only being of Masterly rank, equivalent to a knightly house in the south, but House Glover remained one of House Stark’s principle bannermen and Jon afforded the man extra courtesy, a habit he’d developed as Eddard Stark’s bastard.

Yet Galbart reacted as strangely to Jon’s calling him such, as he did to Jon’s offer to shake hands. Rarely had Jon ever interacted with his father’s bannermen in the past, and when he did it was often with absolute respect so as to give no offense at being presented before them. He specifically remembered father telling him to refer to Galbart as ‘my lord’ and the man had accepted the title in the past, though now he seemed surprised by Jon doing so again.

Is it my new knighthood? Should I give him some new title?

Is there some new courtesy that is expected of me now?

“For a few days more at least… ser.” Galbart had answered, seeming to finally shake away his stupor and smile. “I’m to lead your party back to Greywater Watch, and I’ll be damned if I don’t see the looks on everyone’s face when they see the both of you.”

They were forced to postpone that journey as they awaited the arrival of Bronze Yohn and the other ships. Jon still had a fever then and was sickly for most of the wait. Yet Sansa’s recovery had been remarkable.

The look on Sansa’s face when she stepped out onto dry land was still etched into his memory. She had been much too pale and the light rain had flattened her hair some, yet her smile more than made up for all of that. Sansa probably would have said she looked dreadful but Jon thought her beautiful all the same.

Galbart Glover told them as much as he could about what awaited them at Greywater Watch. Lady Maege Mormont and he shared the grim honor of being the last of Robb’s battle commanders not killed or captured. The two along with Lord Howland Reed had done their best to gather and lead the surviving remnants of Robb’s army through the Neck, to shelter in the shadow of the swamps and Greywater Watch.

It worried Jon when Galbart did not give firm estimates on the size of Robb’s forces there yet was assured that the man did not balk at the thought of retaking the North.

When Bronze Yohn’s ship and the others finally arrived, they set out into the swamps, Sansa more eager than anyone to be on their way. She spent much of the time riding beside Bronze Yohn or Galbart but frequently sought him out as well.

Not a day into their ride she’d called back to Jon in joy upon finding something she thought to be a good omen.

“Look Jon! They’re like the winter roses at Winterfell!” She’d laughed, pointing down at several blue flowers growing at base of a fallen log.

They were no winter roses in truth, the shape was different but the shade was right, and more importantly, it made Sansa smile. So he dismounted long enough to snatch one free and bring it to her.

“It wouldn’t be right to leave a good omen like this behind then.” He’d smiled as she held the flower up to her nose and closed her eyes at the smell.

Sansa had ended up tying it into her hair, and as pretty as it looked, he thought her true hair color would make it even more so. Alayne Stone’s dark hair wasn’t ugly in any way. In fact it was closer to his coloring and sometimes reminded Jon of Arya.

Yet it just wasn’t Sansa.

Her natural color had begun to appear at the roots again and others took notice as well.

Specifically the women in their crannog escort. Not servants or handmaidens but strong women, ready to fight and dressed as warriors. They wore leathers, carried spears, and at times were a bit fearsome to behold.

Yet they remained women no matter their appearance. It wasn’t long before three came to Sansa as they camped on the dry bank of a particularly large stagnant pond. He’d spotted them earlier gathering roots and other growth native to the Neck that he knew little of. With what they collected, the crannogwomen made some sort of paste and lathered it into Sansa’s hair one evening before she slept.

It had smelt foul. So foul in fact that Ghost, who’d been sleeping beside Sansa’s tent since they’d begun their ride, had kept his distance that night.

In the morning the women had returned to wash Sansa’s hair clean and Jon had marveled along with others. The dark dye had been nearly stripped away and Sansa’s natural auburn color had been almost restored.

Sansa had risked lizard lions to stare at her reflection in the water. When she’d looked up again she'd been close to tears, so great was her joy.

The crannogwomen rubbed the paste into Sansa’s hair for two more nights until nothing was left of Alayne Stone. Sansa, as Jon had known her, rode before him talking quietly with Galbart, her thick auburn hair flowing down from her shoulders.

Willem’s complaints distracting him from that fine sight.

“I’m just saying… I’ve seen better views in a dungeon.”

“It’s a pretty enough view for me.” He answered without thinking.

After Willem followed his gaze to Sansa he laughed.

“Careful man, take too much of a notice and they’ll be calling you a Lannister.”

“And they should call you a fool for thinking to joke about such.” Jon shook his head. Merely taking stock of Sansa’s beauty was nothing close to what the Lannister twins were accused of.

“Fine! What else should we talk about save the weather and the view? Which scaled beast is most like to be the end of us?”

“What about the crannogwoman I saw leaving your tent last night?”

The short knight made an effort to deny it for a moment but quickly offered a wide grin. Holding his hands up in mock defeat and whistling.

“Now there’s something to talk about… all the noises here keep me up at night, so I figured I might as well do something to pass the time… and lad, it was something.”

“That good?”

“There’s certainly something to be said about a woman who can handle a spear.”

Willem was still laughing at his jest when Sansa turned back towards them. Her face beamed with excitement. He looked beyond her and saw what she had. Ahead through the willowy trees of the swamp, he saw a great many lights, even some smoke rising into the sky.

And soon enough he heard voices calling out welcomes. He rode forward to be at Sansa’s side then.

“Have we arrived?” He asked. “Is this Greywater Watch?”

“It could be nothing else.” Galbart answered without turning back.

Greywater Watch was like no other castle Jon had ever seen. Over half of the fortress floated upon the water, much of it supported by thick, half-submerged logs. How they bore the weight of so many wooden structures was beyond him, especially considering that some rose up to just over the height of the canopy. The lights he’d seen through the trees were hundreds of burning lamps outlining the walls and walkways, connecting the sprawling collection of buildings that made up the castle.

One tower, made of a strange greenish timber, rose up higher than the rest. It appeared to be the only part of the castle which rested upon dry land. The trail they followed led straight to it while Jon saw plank bridges connecting the different parts of the castle to each other and the lands beyond. Other paths and trails dotted the land around them and his eyes followed one which led to a pale white tree with blood red leaves.

He dismounted before Sansa and came to help her from her horse. She accepted his help as if in a daze, her eyes wide as she took in the marvel all around them. Many others were doing the same thing so he took the chance he was offered and leaned in to whisper to her.

“Sansa, let’s not have our horses unsaddled just yet.” His words caught her attention and made her frown. “I’d have them ready and waiting in a place we knew, guarded by our men… just in case.”

“Jon…”

“Not too many, Willem can guard them.”

People were calling down from the wooden ramparts above them and more were emerging from the gates ahead, so Sansa quickly nodded to him and he went to tell Willem of the arrangement.

“Of course! Go in and enjoy yourself.” Willem spat and glared at him. “What am I supposed to do out here meanwhile?”

“Learn how to handle your own spear.”

Jon left his friend cursing as he ran and caught up to Sansa. She was patiently waiting despite the crowd forming up in front of her. A large number of people had come from within the castle and, to his embarrassment, all stopped and stared as he joined her side. 

Three stood out more than the others.

A small dark-haired man with eerie green eyes stepped forward, his tunic matching his eyes, a black lizard lion displayed across his chest. To his side was a short, slim woman, more similar in appearance and dress to the man than the woman to his other side. She was large, donning mail which made her look all the larger with a mace hanging at her hip.

She was as familiar to him as Galbart had been.

“By the gods they made it… you made it... I can’t believe it.” Lady Maege Mormont laughed with tears in her eyes. “There is so much to tell you…”

“Your grace.” The shorter man interrupted as he knelt before Sansa, the woman beside him doing so as well. “I welcome you to my castle and offer you the fealty and protection of House Reed.”

The rest of the crowd quickly followed and soon everyone save their own party was kneeling before Sansa.

“Rise, please, it is I who should be honoring you.” Sansa smiled and waved them to do as she asked.

Maege looked utterly confused while the crannog pair did as was asked. Both came to stand before her, the man introducing them both.

“I am Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch and this is my wife, the Lady Jyanna.” He took Sansa’s hand in his own, kissing it lightly. “I knew your father, I served your father, and I loved your father. I am forever a servant of House Stark.”

“My lord, my lady.” Sansa reached to clutch both their hands. “I thank you for all you’ve done. We both thank you.”

She turned to Jon as she released their hands and he offered his own.

“My sworn sword and protector, Ser Jon the Wolf, son of-”

“I know this face well. It is one I recognize from long ago.” Lord Reed’s interruption seemed quite rude to Jon but he shook the man’s hand nonetheless.

Behind the lord, he saw Galbart whispering quietly into Lady Maege’s ear, her head suddenly jerking away in surprise.

What happens here?

“Bread and salt.” He spoke so suddenly that most turned to gaze at him curiously. He’d interrupted Sansa’s introduction of Lord Royce and she looked annoyed but he pressed the matter. “Lord Reed, please, I must ask for bread and salt.”

“Forgive Jon my lord. He is too protective of me sometimes…”

“As he should be your grace, after what befell your brother. I’m glad to see such behavior.” Lord Reed waved a man forth and presented them with plates of cooked snake with salt, as well as pieces of fresh, torn bread. “And I’d insist that your men remained armed within the castle, for your protection and my confidence.”

Jon thought that gesture was going far beyond correcting the lord’s earlier rudeness and felt embarrassment for his demand then. Yet Sansa, Lord Royce, and he still ate of the offering as Maege approached them and gestured within the gates.

“I’m sure you’re both weary after your journey. We have clean clothes and warm lodgings awaiting you, your grace.”

Sansa accepted on their behalf and Jon thought it a kind and welcome thing for Lady Maege to do.

Yet something about her manner marked it strange.

Even as they walked within the floating castle, something bothered him. Not a feeling of dread or worry.

Something more akin to confusion.

Why did she look at me when she said your grace?

Chapter Text

SANSA

 

“Your grace.” Lord Reed announced, prompting the others to rise as he did.

“A fine evening to you all.” She said earnestly.

Greywater Watch was a humble keep, built in a way that was both curious and confusing. Many of the rooms attached to side halls which led outside to canopies in the trees but were somehow still a part of the structure itself. They said that the keep was built of old ashwood and reeds, very different from the stone and marble keeps of the Vale.

All the rooms she’d seen so far had been small yet this room was apart from the rest. Behind an iron hinged door lay a room larger than the others, with a council table that was fit for the lordly company it now kept.

Maege Mormont sat next to Galbart Glover on one side of the table while Howland Reed sat at the opposite end of the room. As lord of this castle, it was only proper that he be seated at one head of the table while Sansa sat to the opposite side. She knew who she wanted to fill the empty chair to her right, for it was a place of distinction.

Jon deserves it, she thought, even more than he might think.

The knight stayed quiet as he pulled her chair out for her, always remembering his courtesies. It made her smile. Once Sansa was seated, the others followed suit. For a moment it seemed like Jon would stand behind her, acting as a guard, but she gently pulled his hand down so that he would sit in his rightful place. He hesitated for a moment but eventually obeyed his queen.

For however long I remain one that is.

“The hour is late my lords.” Jon said, sounding wary. “I had thought you would allow our queen some time to rest. Is something amiss?”

He's always so cautious now.

She knew he was not nervous by nature, her knight was just always preparing for the worst. It made her feel sad and grateful all at once. In their situation, they had every reason to be wary yet she wouldn’t show her unease. These were to be her bannermen. She would act grateful and trusting of them.

Even if her fears since arriving in the Neck were well founded.

“No your… ser Jon.” Galbart answered awkwardly. “It is just that Maege spoke the truth earlier. There is still much you should know. The lady and I had another reason for being here at Greywater Watch, besides preparing for King Robb’s return north. We were… well… we did not want to delay the news any more than necessary.”

Galbart’s eyes remain locked on Jon the entire time he spoke, only giving her cursory glances. During their entire ride, Galbart had acted cautiously towards her, not wanting to offend but also acting reluctant to treat her as a queen. It led her to suspicions she knew Jon would not like.

Lady Maege reached within her cloak and presented a rolled up piece of parchment that she handled as gently as a newborn.

“King Robb, before his murder, tasked us with carrying his will here while the rest of his army marched towards the Twins. Greywater Watch was the lone secure Northern fortress from where we could attempt to locate you.”

Sansa thanked the gods that Robb had been as much a king as she’d hoped. The will protected his rule and without it, the fates would’ve decided where his crown sat. She felt Jon stir beside her and saw an uncomfortable grimace on his face. It was likely he now sensed what she had on their ride here.

Jon must have seen it by now, she thought, how they act around him.

How they both defer to him, even now.

“My brother was as wise as he was brave.” She could not keep the grief from her voice at the thought of Robb’s murder. “Have you read this will, my lords?”

“We were party to its writing, we know its contents.” The lady spoke softly, trying to treat the moment gently while Galbart looked on with pity.

“And I’m afraid it will change some things… my lady.”

There it is.

The signs had been there since they arrived in the Neck and Sansa had half expected this since the Gates of the Moon. Jon clearly hadn’t though. His face darkened and she saw his anger rising.

“It is proper to style a queen as your grace.”

“No. I am truly sorry, but no.” Maege sounded sincere and it took away some of the hurt. “Lady Sansa, I knew and respected your mother deeply, and having to say this to the daughter she so cherished wounds me deeply… but King Robb did not name you his heir.”

“He didn’t?” Jon appeared more crestfallen than she felt herself. Perhaps because he hadn’t expected the worst like she had weeks ago.

“With Sansa wed to the Imp, our king could not allow Winterfell to fall into Lannister hands.” Galbart said carefully. “He feared that once she became with child… that Sansa would not live much longer past the birth.”

“He did not disdain you my lady, he had duties to his realm.” Maege added.

“The marriage was a farce!” Jon’s anger broke free. “The Lords of the Vale are shouting it from their castles for the entire realm to hear! It was never, er…”

Jon stopped then and she thought he almost blushed. He glanced quickly to her and she gave him a small smile to let him know he had not offended her.

“Jon means to say that I may have been wedded but never bedded. Tyrion Lannister did not take me to his marriage bed as a wife and I remain a maiden.”

Both Galbart and Maege were stunned at her words. It was a moment or two before the Mormont woman recovered enough to speak.

“That… that is the sweetest news I’ve heard since learning you two lived!” Maege smiled while Galbart remained dumbstruck by the revelation.

Lord Reed remained silent however, watching all these developments without offering any of his own input. Again it fell to Maege to speak for Robb’s will.

“But… I’m afraid it doesn’t change what the king willed.” Maege’s joy slipped away from her face. “Another is still named as heir…”

“My brother had no way of knowing the truth of my marriage. I love him still and I will accept whoever he decreed as my king.” She placed her hand on Jon’s then, already guessing at the identity of Robb’s heir.

Maege saw this, offering Sansa a small look of understanding. The moment passed however before the large woman elbowed the man beside her. Galbart reacted to the nudge by sighing.

“My apologies, I thought to… it is you Jon. The King named you his heir.” The words hung in the air until Maege broke the seal and handed it Galbart for him to unfurl. “His royal decree legitimizes you as a Stark, as well as making you the heir to Winterfell and the crown of the Kingdom in the North.”

“Our swords are yours, your grace.” Maege nodded.

Jon’s hand pulled away from her grasp at Maege’s words, his face unreadable. Sansa found his hand again as he slowly shook his head against what he’d just heard.

It touched her that he felt so troubled.

He was my true knight, she thought, he can be my king.

“No.” He closed his eyes and shook his head again, his brow furrowed as he appeared to be battling something within himself. “I am not… Sansa is the Queen, I can’t do this to her. My lords, my lady, Robb didn’t know the truth of her marriage or he wouldn’t have done this.”

“Jon, Robb loved you. He knew the kind of man you were… the kind of king you could be.” She squeezed his hand to reassure him. “Those are the truths he knew. I know them as well, your grace.”

Sansa smiled as she pictured a crown upon his head and knew he would still see her home. There was no doubt in her mind he would protect her and take back Winterfell. For a brief moment she saw him riding through the snow towards her again.

I trust him.

Even if he does not trust himself.

Jon plainly disagreed.

“No, no this is not right, I won’t take it.” Jon shook his head almost violently, causing Maege and Galbart to glance warily at each other.

No, that will not do. He’s forgetting himself.

He can’t show weakness like this in front of his bannermen.

“It is right.” She soothed, placing her other hand over his to try and comfort him but he jerked away.

“Sansa, no… I am a Snow, not a Stark, no matter what any will might say. No matter how much I may have dreamed of being one as a boy…you are the true Stark here. I may be a bastard but I have my honor. Winterfell is to be yours, not mine. Never mine.”

“Jon… Robb has simply given you what our father never could. I don’t hold this against you, I promise.” She tried to go for his care for her as a tactic. “Besides, this is as it should be. I grew up believing I’d be the lady of some castle south. Not of Winterfell. You know that.”

It was the truth. In her youth she had dreamed of some dashing knight taking her away to a beautiful castle far from her home. She hadn’t wanted cold, drab Winterfell as a little girl. Even if the woman she was now wanted it more than anything.

Fate is cruel like that.

“I said that I would see you home and that I’d see you with a crown. I vowed it Sansa.” Jon looked desperate for her to take this from him.

I can’t, she thought, Robb wanted this. It’s what is right.

“That was a vow made by a knight and I trust King Jon Stark to bring me home just as much as him.”

“I have no right to it!” Jon hissed as he clenched his fists and looked to the table. “That paper does not change who I am or what Sansa was born to!”

Galbart cleared his throat, preparing to take up the will’s cause, when some mumbling came from the end of the table where the Lord of Greywater Watch sat.

His eyes closed, brow furrowed.

“Howland?” Maege had caught it too. “Did you wish to-?”

“Jon is right.”

The crannogman had not mumbled that time.

His voice had taken a commanding tone and his eyes opened, displaying his eerie green eyes once more. As stern as he’d become, Sansa thought he looked paler than he had been earlier. His eyes were fixed upon the door to the end of the room yet when she glanced there she saw nothing.

“Howland… the King wanted this.” Galbart recovered from the interruption and sounded irritated. “Jon is the last son of Eddard Stark and shall be King in the North, willed by the last.”

Lord Reed sighed and appeared very sad to Sansa then.

“Ser Jon said it himself. Had the king known the truth he would not have asked for such.” His eyes once again focused beyond them, still gazing at something invisible to the rest of them. “Jon is right.”

She hoped the man did not mean to insult Jon. To say his bastard birth made him unworthy or something cruel of the like, she wouldn’t condone that, not anymore. Just because he was their father’s bastard did not mean he was unworthy.

He is a brave knight.

He saved me.

“We can’t know that Howland…” Maege began to protest.

“I speak not of Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion Lannister.” Howland almost snapped. His lack of respect added an air of unease to the conversation.

Jon was the most put out. The lord's odd behavior made her protector eye the man carefully. At that moment the lord decided to meet Jon’s gaze. She saw no malice in his eyes though.

There was only pain there.

“What truths did my brother not know my lord?” She asked, genuinely curious.

“King Robb named the last living son of Eddard Stark as his heir.” The crannogman paused as he struggled with what he said next. “Jon is not that.”

There was a pause and a silence fell upon the table. Then Sansa’s anger rose.

“How dare you!? Father never denied Jon! Robb only legitimized what he always was!”

“He legitimized a half-brother, born of the same seed as his father.” Howland swallowed and closed his eyes. “There is Stark blood in him but Jon is not of your father’s line. He is no son of Ned Stark.”

Sansa felt her eyes widen and her heart stop.

No son of Ned Stark.

The words made no sense. Jon had been at Winterfell since before she was born. Her father and mother fought over him at times but father had treated Jon just the same as his other children. She looked to Jon and saw shock clear upon his face. Her own feelings were all over the place.

“Forgive me Ned. And you Jon… you most of all.” Howland seemed to pray, his hands balled into fists upon the table. “You most of all.”

“My father claimed Jon as his own from the day he was born!” Sansa recovered her wits but the lord shook his head somberly.

“That is not true-”

“Anyone can see the boy is a Stark Howland!” Galbart shouted. “Stop this nonsense!”

“Jon is of House Stark, just not of Ned’s line… but of his sister Lyanna’s.”

Sansa had no more words for that.

The others joined her in stunned silence. Galbart even spilled his wine in his shock. He made no effort to clean it and Lord Reed seemed too lost in thought to care for the mess upon his table.

“Lyanna’s son? How can that be?” Maege asked. “She had no son Howland…we both knew her and she… she…”

The lady made a choked sound then, her face twisted as if struck by some sort horror.

“You can’t speak of her time with… no, Howland that can’t be…”

“I do Maege.” The lord nodded. “It is no matter how much Ned and I tried to deny it. It is the truth of things.”

“I don’t understand.” Jon struggled with his words. “I’m Ned Stark’s son. Not my aunt’s… he would have told me…”

“It was a tale he never wished to tell, for all our sakes.” Howland lowered his head. “Yet one that must be told now…”

 And so Howland Reed began a tale that would haunt Sansa for a very long time.

‘We all know the story that is told, of how Rhaegar Targaryen stole Lyanna Stark and of the war that followed. It was a war that wrought such death and loss, where so many wrongs were committed, even against children.

Yet so much of that tale is wrong. No one knew that it started with an act of love.

For Lyanna was not stolen by Rhaegar but left with him.

Loved him.

For us who knew her well it’s easy enough to believe.

Hers was always a wild spirit. Lyanna was a woman born as much to adventure and laughter as any man. As willful as she was beautiful, few men could think to try and tame her.

I’ll admit that when I heard of her betrothal to Robert Baratheon, it was hard to imagine Lyanna being given to such a man. To be given to any man.

It was hard for Lyanna to accept as well.

Harder still after finding such a kindred spirit in the Dragon Prince she met at the Tourney of Harrenhal. Perhaps this all would have gone differently if those two had remained unpromised until that day.

How many people would have been spared? How fewer tears would have been shed?

It is best not to think on that.

I believe paints the lovers in a light they don’t deserve. The love they shared was as true as any, truer than most perhaps. That love took them south, to the Tower of Joy, and there they hid from both their families. Their stay there was likely a sweet time for Lyanna, a time when their love was all that mattered.

For her to have that short happiness, the thought is some comfort to me.

That time was doomed to end… as doomed as their happiness. What followed after was wrought in so much blood… far too much. The murders of Brandon and Rickard Stark by the Mad King Aerys forced Rhaegar’s return.

And his death.

If not for Ashara Dayne telling Ned of where her brother Arthur had travelled, we would have wandered for months. When we came upon that tower… the seven of us… the Kingsguard awaited our coming. Knights who were ready to do their duty.

All finer men than I had any right to be among.

Why did they guard the tower? Why were Rhaegar’s most trusted swords here rather than with their prince? Why did no one ask these questions then?

That fight haunts my dreams still. The sounds of the killing… the dying of good men. The Kingsguard fell protecting Lyanna, our men to trying to save Lyanna.

In a way the memory is worse than the fight itself… to know that we all fought for the same cause. Lyanna knew it. During the whole fight she screamed at us to stop. Her cries always await me when I dream of that day.

Ned and I found ourselves the only survivors of the battle and so we went to her. We found Lyanna dying upon a blood stained bed. The entire canopy was adorned with the winter roses she loved so much, the petals fell all around her even as she wilted before our eyes.

She wept tears of blood, cradling a babe to her chest.

As she died, Ned made her a promise, to protect her son, to show him love. She begged for Ned to love the boy as he had loved her. To do what she and his father couldn’t. As I held that child, a boy who looked so much like Lyanna, I saw the path before us as clearly as I knew the way home.

Ned saw the same.

As soon as Ned took the child our treason began. We would betray our new king to protect the son of a dead prince.

Eddard Stark was no ordinary man. For he fulfilled his promise. He made the boy his son, loved him as a son. To protect his wife, his new family, and even the boy himself, Ned made his nephew into a bastard. The boy would inherit no titles or forces that could threaten the new king.

The secret was ours alone. Should it ever be discovered, Robert’s wrath would fall upon our shoulders, not theirs. Perhaps not even the boy’s.

The child could live his life in peace… never knowing his mother but knowing the love of brothers and sisters. The love of a father who risked his life for him. We made a choice that day.

To make that child a bastard that lived rather than a prince who died.

To both keep and give peace…

We damned ourselves.

We turned a dragon to snow… may the gods forgive us for it.’

When Howland ended his talk, Sansa found her hands at her mouth.

There was total silence in the room save for the crackling of fire in the hearth. The whole chamber seemed to have grown darker in the telling, their shadows flickering along the walls. There were no words to say, nothing that could make sense of this. Only one thought echoed through her head.

Jon is not my brother.

He is the son of a Targaryen.

The son of a dragon.

As she sought Jon, she saw that the spilt wine had spread across the table in front of him. The dim light of the fire made it look like blood, the flames of the hearth leaping in its reflection.

Sansa’s hand fell to her chest and her mind swirled.

Fire and blood.

“Peace?” Jon choked out.

His face was dark and his hands gripped the table tightly. He was hunched over the pool of wine, glaring at the lord. His eyes scared her. She’d only seen Jon make such a face once. When he was killing Lothor Brune.

“Live my life… in peace?”

“Ned wanted so much for you Jon-”

“What of what I wanted?!” Jon roared and Sansa jumped at the rage in his voice. “What peace have I ever known?!”

He rose to tower over the table and she feared he meant to hurt Howland so she reached for his arm but Jon threw her touch aside.

“An outcast in a home that was never truly mine? Living my life as the sole stain on the honor of Eddard Stark?” He paused then and raised his fists to the sides of his head. “The death! By the gods, all the people who died! The people I’ve watched die! The blood and the pain! I am the cause of it all and you dare to tell me- what peace did I have Lord Reed? Tell me!”

“Jon… you were loved. You are loved.”

“By a father that wasn’t mine! By brothers that weren’t mine… sisters that… it’s all a lie! I am a lie!”

The sheer anger pouring out of Jon was nothing she had ever seen from him. She was scared of him. She was crushed for him.

“Jon…” Galbart started but a long howl from somewhere beyond the walls cut him off.

Then Jon’s cry joined it.

He grabbed his chair and flung it violently against the wall. It exploded into splinters and everyone but their host rose from their seats. The door to the chamber swung open and two guards entered with swords drawn while Jon started towards them.

“No! All is well. Let him be.” Howland said, once again using his soft, commanding tone. “By the gods let him be…”

Jon pushed by the guards and disappeared from sight.

“Leave us.” The lord commanded of them. “Leave us and do not enter again.”

The guards left but the others remained staring at the crannogman.

He’s a monster.

“Howland… how could you?” Maege asked in a red-faced rage.

“What choice did I have?” Lord Reed finally rose to stand, facing the fire instead of them. Ghost howled again and Sansa thought it was a mournful sound. “What choice did any of us have?”

She turned and began to walk out of the room.

“My lady… are you sure that is wise?” Galbart began to round the table towards her.

“Considering what wisdom has earned Jon today, I care little.” She looked to Lord Reed with disgust. “He is the only family I have left. I know what it is like to feel alone, just as Jon must surely feel now. I beg your leave Lord Reed and ask that no one disturbs us.”

She hoped the tone she’d used let no one mistake the last part as any kind of request. Without waiting for a response she turned to follow the man who had brought her here.

And had been damned for it.

 

JON

 

You know nothing Jon Snow.

Melisandre’s voice came back to him, a clear sound among the chaos of his thoughts.

The cool air outside Greywater Watch did little to comfort him. He imagined little would but still he had chosen his route of escape from the wooden fortress carefully. After almost running out of the gate, he’d taken the path they’d arrived on, finding his way to the trail he’d spotted earlier.

The path had been wet and the muck slippery yet he’d arrived at the shelter he’d hoped to find.

Hidden upon an island of sorts, the weirwood stood tall before him. It was the only company he wanted right now. Beyond the weirwood lay the swamps of the Neck, where the other trees rose like corpses from the muck, the fog around them their death shrouds.

This dry area was no Winterfell though. Nothing had ever felt as comforting as those walls and the country surrounding them. This swamp wasn’t the godswood he’d sought sanctuary in so many times as a boy. He would run there to escape the whole world at times, to hide from every person who held his birth against him.

This place offered few of those comforts.

A part of him wanted to break down and weep. Another part wanted to fight and rage. Greater still was the desire to march back and force the crannogman to take back everything he’d said.

So everything would make sense again.

The lie itself made sense though. Deep down, he knew that. It explained so much. It fit so perfectly. It was Jon that didn’t fit.

How could he?

Everything he thought he knew had been torn to shreds.

‘She loved you Jon… loved you more than you can know.’

His father’s words in King’s Landing came back to him and he pushed the memory away, only to have others come unbidden in its place.

Running with Robb along the castle walls. Laughing with Arya and Bran as they threw snow at one another. Bouncing baby Rickon on his lap. Watching in awe as his father cleaned Ice.

Not your father.

An uncle, he lamented, only an uncle.

An uncle who’d lied to him for his entire life. An uncle who had let Jon grow up believing himself the bastard of an honorable man while thinking his true father was dead, a murderer and raper besides. 

Jon took a deep swig of the wine skin he held.

He had stolen it from Willem during his flight from the fortress. His friend had been drinking with some guards at the entrance to the castle when he’d snatched it from the knight’s hand. Jon had ignored Willem’s worried cries while taking the first drink.

The crannog spirit burned down his throat now but less so than before. On the walk here he had drained over half of it. He was glad Willem and the others hadn’t followed.

Only Ghost had.

The direwolf lay amongst the trees watching him intently. Those red eyes showed no emotion but Jon always thought the wolf was smarter than any animal had any right to be.

Had Ghost ever guessed at the lie?

Did he smell that my blood was different than the others?

“I fear Lord Stark betrayed you as well Ghost. You and your siblings were meant for his children… you thought you had a bastard… but I’m only a pretender.”

Another swig. He never drank like this but the pain and rage was more than he could stand sober. Robar had taken him as a squire because he was Eddard Stark’s son.

Another drink.

Robb had embraced him and bid him stay with his brothers one last night in Winterfell.

My brothers… my cousins…

Again he drank.

The pain he’d felt when he learned his father’s death, of Robb and Bran and Rickon, it returned all at once and struck him. He had loved them so much. They were supposed to mean less to him he supposed, but the pain was still so strong. It was always there. That he stood now in such gloom was not lost to him for the place fit him well.

Promise me, Jon.

He had promised her. Sansa would be a queen and he’d help her return to Winterfell. Finally, finally, he would be able to help his family. But somehow he’d befouled even that and stolen Sansa’s crown from her.

Now he couldn’t even be the king to take her home.

I’m no more a king than I am a wolf.

Only the bastard of a dragon.

“I’d rather be your bastard!” He yelled at the weirwood, the spirit spraying from his mouth like a mist.

Jon needed his uncle, his father, whoever Eddard Stark was to hear him. He fell to his knees before the weirwood. The swamp mist was thick but Jon could still make out its mournful eyes. They gazed down in pity. 

“I wanted no dragonsblood father… I only wanted you… the others… Robb as my brother… please… please… I only wanted to be your son…”

“Jon.”

He looked to the weirwood’s carved mouth, sure that he’d heard his name but the tree was silent. Its leaves were moving some, the branches creaking slightly in the wind, but nothing else came from it.

Jon drank again, a mirthless laugh coming forth.

I can’t even feel the wind, he thought, that’s been denied me as well.

“Jon.”

He looked to the tree at first but then heard the snag of a twig behind him. Despite his wishes, Jon knew he had company then and it wasn’t the gods. From what he knew of the old gods, they would never speak in such a soft, sweet voice. He turned and saw her walking through the fog, a flickering torch in her hand.

He had not heard her approach and Ghost had given no warning.

The traitor.

Jon turned and stood to face her but he did so shakily. His body felt warmer than it should and responded poorly to his wishes. Sansa’s face became gradually clearer in the torchlight, and she placed the flame between two branches of a dead tree to hold its place. He could not look her in the eyes, noticing instead that her skirts were stained with the mud from following him.

Jon drank deeply from the skin again, the burning bringing tears to his eyes. He sucked the air deeply into his lungs and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He took another swig before he spoke again.

“Your grace… you should not have come unguarded.”

“The guard I trust most is the one I came looking for.” Her answer was spoken so softly that it was almost lost in the sounds of the swamp.

Sansa knew what to say and how to say it. He barely recognized her from the girl he’d known at Winterfell, and during their journey she’d changed even more in his eyes from the scared girl he’d found in the Vale. Now because of him and that damned will, this girl would not be queen.

Gods, what a queen she would be.

Facing her made it too hard to say what he wished so he turned away, stumbling on a root as he did so. Once again he was on his knees before the weirwood. While Sansa gasped he let out a drunken laugh, waving his hand to show he was unharmed.

“Sansa, what was done to you in there… what Robb’s will said… I hope you know that I’d never wish that upon on you. I am no more a King in the North than I am a Stark. You shall have your home.” He stared ahead at the tree without really seeing it. “It should be home to one of us at least.”

He didn’t want her to see his face. If she saw the pain his words caused him she might hesitate to take her rightful throne. Sansa was too giving like that. Another part of him wanted the gods to hear his words. To know that whatever plans they’d had for him would be thwarted.

As had all his hopes and dreams.

He could’ve been a Stark. Being denied it made his hands clench in anger. He didn’t want the crown, but knowing that Robb had wanted him to be a trueborn Stark meant everything. To be a true brother to Robb and the others, it was something he’d wished for since he was old enough to understand that he wasn’t one.

“Jon I have suffered worse than what Robb laid out in his will. It was wise and well meant. You are the one who is owed apologies… you’re owed so much…” Sansa had moved closer to him. He felt a hand touch his shoulder but he threw it away and stumbled back to his feet.

“Not by you… you have treated me well. All the people who would owe me anything are dead. A father I never knew… a mother… a mother I think I loved but never knew… and an uncle who was the only father I knew… and I knew nothing Sansa.”

He drank the spirit again, remembering how the red woman had tried to warn him.

“I know nothing.”

It was funny. He thought once that he had a name to give his mother, Wylla, and even then he was wrong. Jon felt little joy in learning the truth.

“Father loved you Jon. He loved you as much as any of us. Surely you see that.”

“I was his shame. That’s what I always knew. I just thought it was his shame for bringing a bastard into his home, a constant reminder of the one mistake he’d made during his honorable life. Every time Lady Stark looked at me I felt it! Even you!” He hadn’t meant to say that but his thoughts were blurring and it had come out. “I’d see it sometimes Sansa… you felt the shame too. I was the shame he carried. A lie he carried into his castle and placed before his lady wife.”

Jon drank again and Sansa tried to grab at the skin. His grip was too strong and she shouted at him as they struggled.

“He was never ashamed of you Jon! The wrong was ours! If I could go back and throttle the girl I was for ever looking at you with anything but love I would!”

He watched a tear travel down her face in the moonlight as he moved away from her, his back pressed against the weirwood.

Her eyes are too pretty to weep so often.

“The love you had for a brother… but I’m not that. I never was. Who’d want me as their family? Truly? My life meant so many deaths… a war… how can anyone be asked to love someone born of so much pain?”

The shame of bastardy was nothing compared to this. After Lord Reed’s story, Jon felt a new burden to his existence that he wanted no part of. His parents had caused the deaths of so many with their recklessness. His life had cost the lives of some the finest men in the Seven Kingdoms.

“None of that is your fault Jon. None of it.” Sansa moved towards him again, her hands folded in front of her. Her eyes locked on his face and he couldn’t help but look into them.

“You don’t understand…” He raised the skin to his mouth but her hand stopped it from reaching his lips. She gently pushed it away from his face.

“I understand feeling responsible for people’s deaths.” Her hands grasped his shoulders and her blue eyes bored into his own. “You called me an innocent, one who meant none of the pain she caused and I was not an unborn babe. If you were right then, I am right now.”

“I don’t want this Sansa.” His voice felt weak and pitiful. “I want them back… I want it to be like it was.”

It was a plea. Perhaps to the gods, perhaps to her, he couldn’t be sure. His shoulders slumped and he felt what strength he had leaving him.

“I know Jon, but it won’t be.”

Sansa embraced him then. Pulling her body against his, her hand guiding his head into the crook of her neck to hold him there. They’d only hugged a few times since being reunited and never like this. Her hold was warm and gentle.  As pathetic as it made him feel, he let her comfort wash over him and started crying again.

She smells like the summer. She smells like the sunlight shining down in the godswood.

She smells of the home I had forgotten.

“I am here though. I’ll be here for you, just as you are there for me when I need you. And I do need you Jon… winter is coming.” She said softly, moving to look at him letting her hair brush softly over his face. “Those are our words Jon, Stark words, and Stark blood runs through your veins as much as it does mine.”

“I’m so sorry Sansa…” He said into her hair. He felt Ghost beside them then, nuzzling into their embrace.

“I’m sorry too Jon. Don’t forget that I love you. Please?”

He was surprised by her words but the answer came without thought.

“I love you too, Sansa.”

Amongst the fog and trees, before a carved weirwood, the eldest daughter of Eddard Stark comforted the only son of Lyanna Stark.

The gods offered them that small comfort at least.

 

SANSA 

 

She found Howland Reed breaking his fast with a simple porridge.

His wife had told her to seek him in what looked to be his solar, and when she knocked his voice had beckoned her. She had slept poorly that night and not because of the strange noises of the swamps outside her window. It appeared Lord Reed had had similar troubles. The man was as pale as when she’d left the lords to search for Jon, his strange green eyes glazed with a tired and haunted look.

He was simply staring into the bowl.

“Lord Reed.”

“Your grace, I hope the day finds you well.” He said as if she’d been expected.

“Better than Jon I’m afraid.”

Last night’s memory of Jon in her arms would not leave her mind. After taking the wineskin from him, they’d simply stayed before the weirwood, comforting each other for hours.

They spoke little more about the meeting and instead shared memories of Winterfell and their family. Almost none of their memories were of being together, which made her sad. Yet they found moments to laugh about, moments which made them smile to think on. He’d even told her of a time long ago, when she sang to him whilst he was abed with sickness. She’d forgotten that moment until he mentioned it.

Yet a part of the night felt full of loss. After some time Sansa realized they sounded like they were speaking of yet another brother she’d lost. Where once she’d had four brothers and now she had none, only a cousin she still knew far too little of. Jon seemed to sense the mournful tone to their talk and they’d returned to the castle not long after. Walking together in silence, arm in arm, the whole way.

“To fear for Jon… it is something your father and I knew well.” Howland shook his head and gestured to a chair beside his own. She sat as the lord pushed aside the bowl of porridge with a look bordering on disgust.  

“You must think me very cruel, so careless for telling him as I did. To share his true origins in front of others… it is a poor excuse but know that was not how I planned it. Often how and when we wish for events to occur is not possible.”

She had not come to hear his excuses. That her father had trusted this man and called him a dear friend had lulled her into thinking that he would not harm them.

Petyr claimed to have been mother’s dear friend as well.

That was lesson of she would take to heart for Lord Reed had already harmed her greatly by hurting Jon.

“You took a crown away from him. You took his father away from him.”

“A crown we both know he did not want. Your father may have never revealed this to Jon, that’s true. I did not have that luxury.” The man did not flee her glare nor did he seem to challenge her. His tone reminded her of Maester Luwin when he taught her lessons he knew she disdained.

“I am not a man who hopes for too much from the gods, yet I pray Jon will forgive Ned and love the only father he ever had.”

As do I.

Sansa did not say so though. Something had bothered her about the tale but she hadn’t the time or the energy to question it the night before. Depending on the answer Lord Reed would give her, she preferred to ask him in private.

“You said my aunt chose to leave with Rhaegar. Why would she choose to be a mistress to a prince? Rhaegar was already married to Elia Martell.”

He had even had children. The Lannisters saw to their murders just as they’d murdered her own family. She realized then that both sides of Jon’s family had been murdered by House Lannister.

“Yes… Targaryens have an interesting history in regards to wives. Rhaegar married Elia of Dorne out of duty to his father.” At that he cupped his hands together before his chin and raised an eyebrow at her. “Lyanna on the other hand, he married out of love.”

Sansa nodded. She’d feared as much.

“He took two wives, like Aegon the Conqueror did.” She whispered the next part.  “So Jon is not my father’s bastard nor is he Rhaegar’s. He is Rhaegar’s trueborn son, the heir to the Iron throne.”

Whichever identity Jon chose would lead to a crown and enemies sharpening their blades against him. The Lannisters and the Tyrells on the Iron Throne to the south and Roose Bolton to the north.

Howland nodded at both her words and fears then.

“You understand now the fear we felt for the boy. Rhaegar’s children had been butchered and Ned saw their small bodies with his own eyes. He spoke against that crime but Robert was blinded by his hatred for Rhaegar. Their murders pleased our new king. We both loved Lyanna too much to see her son suffer such a fate.”

Sansa saw no hint of deception in the small lord’s pained face or his tired eyes. He reminded her very much of father then, when he came to her rooms in Winterfell. The day that Bran fell. Father had had the same exact face while he was explaining to her and Arya that Bran might not ever wake up.

“In truth Jon is heir to nothing but war.” The lord continued, leaning back against his chair and gripping the arm rests. “Just another claimant to a throne already picked over by the lords of this realm like hounds fight over a bone. He would be but a symbol for all the others to rally against and destroy.”

“You wouldn’t allow him to be Robb’s heir either. Jon could have been King in the North and never known the truth.”

The Lannisters and Boltons would want him dead either way.

Whether he took the crown or helped her gain it herself.

Lord Reed shook his head once more.

“Robb named the last son of Eddard Stark as his heir without knowing he was Ned’s last son. For the false reasons he thought to disinherit you and name Jon his heir. Was I to stand by while our lie stole your rightful crown? I loved your father too much to do that to his daughter.”

The idea that he’d hurt Jon for her benefit was a cruel thing to think on. Sansa began to object but he cut her off.

“Today I intend to put forth that we set aside the will. I’d hoped to speak with Jon on the matter but it pains to me to think of such a conversation.”

It was becoming quite normal for the crannogman’s words to shock her into silence. Asking that Robb’s will be put aside made her the heir again. Without meaning to, she saw the wisdom in allowing him to do so. Lord Reed asking for such would not reflect badly upon her and the others would look to her to see if she supported it.

Jon would also look to her.

Stop it, she cursed herself, such thoughts are unworthy.

“No matter what action I take, I place the two of you in harm’s way.” Howland ran a hand down his face. “I knew my friend and this was a fate Ned would never have wanted for his children. Whoever is named as Robb’s successor faces challenges that could mean their death. I am a man grown and a lord who has seen much of what the game of thrones can cost. So I fear for what it could cost two so young.”

The last words were so quiet they were just above a whisper. As he finished, Lord Reed looked towards the small fire burning just to the other side of the room. His sad green eyes watched the flames in silence. Soon it became apparent that he had nothing left to say.

Unfortunately for him, Sansa did.

“My father named you his dearest friend. Do as you wish but I ask one thing of you. Let me speak to Jon in your stead. Of what you propose and what you have told me.”

That was not the move she should make. Petyr would have been disappointed but she could see the pain the lord felt. All for the well-being of her family, and she thought her real father would want her to speak these words.

“I fear hearing so much from you will earn you nothing but anger from Jon… an anger I am starting to feel you might… that you might not deserve.”

“As you will your grace.” Howland reacted little to her words.

Sansa stood to leave and was almost out the door when she thought he spoke again, his words too quiet to hear.

“My lord?”

“Jon… I was the first one to hold him.” He still stared into the flames. “Lyanna let no else touch him before we arrived. She asked me to be gentle with him… she told me how he liked to be sung to. From the day I took him from his mother and placed him in Ned’s arms, I was a part of his life. Bound to keeping it. Bound to fear for it.”

Sansa thought he would say more but he didn’t. She had to see Jon after this and wanted as much time with him as possible.

So she left the lord there, sitting alone in his solar with his fears and his memories.

 

JON

 

“My lords, I ask you to set aside this will.”

Jon did his best to sound firm despite his discomfort in asking this highborn audience to heed him.

No matter what he’d been told last night, Jon had been a bastard his entire life and a knight for barely half a year. He had grown up trying to avoid offending highborns with his presence, not giving them counsel.

“Are you certain ser?” Galbart asked as he ran his hands over the will in question.

“Last night Sansa told me Robb had acted wisely and meant well. I believe she was right, she often is.” He looked to Sansa and gave her the slightest of nods. “But Robb erred. I can no more be a Stark than the next King in the North. Sansa is the rightful heir to Winterfell and Robb’s crown, not me.”

“Jon, I did mean to sway you into doing this.” Sansa broke in.

“Nor did you.”

She had come to him twice while he’d been weak. The night before at the weirwood, when he’d been as angry as he was drunk, then again this morning when he suffered from the excesses of the previous night.

They’d spoken of Lord Reed’s plans and Jon had been relieved to hear of them to be honest. He agreed that the truth of his parentage was a distraction from their quest to return home to Winterfell. While the lord’s idea would make Sansa the heir, she had never pushed him into asking for the will to be set aside. Sansa had acted uncomfortable even mentioning it, and Jon suspected that she felt badly for benefitting from Lord Reed’s proposal.

She was being unfair to herself of course.

I want her to benefit from it.

“You all heard me last night.” He continued. “I supported Sansa’s claim before the will was even read and I will fight for her claim even after knowing its contents. If you still urge me to inherit the crown I will simply disinherit myself to place her ahead of me in the line of succession. The will is for naught.”

“The will also legitimized you.” Maege added.

He tried to speak but his mouth became dry then. His whole life he had wanted to be a Stark and to pretend otherwise was beyond his heart’s ability. Now the chance lay before him in Galbart’s hands.

Sansa had urged Jon to accept that part of the will at least. Yet, deep down, he knew it was folly to consider that. They couldn’t keep some parts of the will and reject others.

If Sansa was to be queen, Jon could not be a Stark.

As if sensing his thoughts Sansa reached for his arm then, her eyes pleading with him. As they had once before.

Promise me, Jon.

“As I said… Robb erred… the will is for naught.” He felt like someone else was speaking the words. “I am no Stark."

“I will be honest ser, I found myself hoping to call you a Stark rather than a Targaryen.” Galbart sounded somber as he poured himself some wine.

“You won’t be asked to do either. None of you will. My name is Snow and so it shall remain.”

“Jon!” Sansa protested, just as he predicted, for he hadn’t told her of this decision beforehand. “Jon please, you don’t have to! Howland will attest to your bloodline.”

Sansa pushed at his arm, as if to bid him look to the crannog lord. Still he would not acknowledge the man.

“Let him do so, there is no shame in being Jon Targaryen.”

“Less shame than being Jon Snow?” He said.

Sansa blinked as if he’d slapped her. He knew better than to throw that in her face after everything they’d been through together, but this conversation needed to end. As a child he had dreamed of dragons but he’d been raised as a wolf. A bastard wolf at that. He’d already denied himself his lifelong dream of being a Stark, forsaking a Targaryen name was no great sacrifice. Besides, there were other matters to discuss and Jon was quite done with this one.

Howland saved him there, to his displeasure.

“Perhaps one day Jon will take his name, perhaps not.” The lord dipped his head in a respectful way. “Adding an unknown prince and possible claimant to the Iron Throne would only muddle what we seek to accomplish. I say we respect his wishes.”

Jon felt a quiet rage against the man burn hot within him. He pushed it down, like he had so many insults towards himself over the years.

Dragons were beasts of fire.

Let me be ice.

“Northmen would’ve rallied to a son of Eddard Stark. A man knighted and bloodied by battle.” Galbart looked half ashamed to be saying such for his meaning was clear.

No matter her family name Sansa might not find the support she’d need to make her claim to Winterfell. The North had followed Robb, a great leader, to some of the greatest victories seen in this war. Such men may not be as inspired by a daughter who’d been a prisoner of their enemies for the length of the war. 

Jon reflected on the worries he’d had himself on that account while Maege made a sound that was half a laugh and half a grunt.

“Come off it Galbart.” Maege sounded irritated but her eyes gave away the hope she had. “As if any northman would stand by and let the sister of their murdered king, the daughter of their liege lord, fight to avenge House Stark alone. I have more faith in our people than that. I say Jon is right. The will should be set aside.”

Galbart took a deep drink from his cup before nodding.

“I cannot argue against what we’ve learned here. This will would do naught but hurt the North. I agree.”

“Unless any of you deem to challenge our claim that Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion Lannister was not consummated…” Jon paused then to see if any would. Only Galbart reacted, by pouring himself more wine. “Then she would be the eldest child of Eddard Stark and heir to Winterfell. And to Robb’s crown.”

“It is how I view her.” Howland agreed. “The issue of her youth will come into question though.”

It surprised Jon then how he hadn’t considered that. They both had been through so much already it was easy to forget how old they truly were. He had reached the age of manhood only recently and while Sansa might be a woman flowered, she was younger still.

“The North needs a symbol, not a regent.” Galbart said firmly, his eyes challenging the crannogman. “It will be divided enough when we announce ourselves against the Boltons and naming a lord on the queen’s behalf will only hurt our cause.”

“I fear you’re right Galbart.” Howland said. “But forgive me Sansa. You are not experienced in marshal matters or in matters of court or diplomacy.”

“She brought the Vale to our side.” Jon put in.

He was annoyed by all of this. The lord knew well enough that it was Sansa who had negotiated the alliance, the Vale was now their best chance at taking back the North.

“Why not continue as this?” Sansa asked looking around the table. “I may not be experienced but many of my bannermen are. Let my crown be a symbol and you all my counsel. It will be a sign of confidence in my rule and give all who doubt our strength pause.”

They all were silent in consideration of Sansa’s words. He saw the wisdom in it. Galbart and Maege were both experienced battle commanders. Despite his anger at the man, Howland Reed had been Eddard Stark’s dearest friend. Jon believed the uncle who had been his father would have wanted these lords to help Sansa through the hard days ahead.

They will guide her to victory.

And I will protect her from danger.

“Who says she has no experience in diplomacy?” Maege laughed. “Seems to have quite a mind for it. I offer my counsel gladly, if you’d have it.”

The other two quickly added their assent and Sansa smiled before turning to him. She was waiting for him to say something but he wasn’t sure what.

“Jon… I’d have your counsel too.”

He thought that a foolish notion.

Except the other lords were nodding in agreement before he could protest. It amazed him that such battle-hardened lords would be willing to accept him among their number. How he ever rose to such esteem in their eyes, he did not know. He could only blame it on Sansa.

“You have it your grace, though I cannot speak to its worth.” His words made Sansa laugh and he thought Lord Reed was staring at them in an odd way.

He didn’t care.

This is it.

“Our king is dead.” Howland said solemnly, a hand lightly placed upon his chest. “Long live the queen.”

Maege placed a hand over her heart and smiled as she gazed at Sansa.

“That you survived all your trials to find us here, others might call it a gift from the gods but I call it the mark of your mother. She was strong and so are you.”

“I fought for King Robb Stark.” Galbart followed the lady’s lead and put his hand to his chest as well. “I will fight for Queen Sansa Stark.”

None spoke then and Sansa seemed at a loss for words. So he rose from his seat and knelt, looking up at her surprised face.

“I swore that I’d see you returned to Winterfell and restored to your rights, do you have faith that I will uphold my vow?” Jon hoped the memory of that moment was as pleasant to her as it was to him.

If she was still surprised at the turn the meeting had taken it showed little. Sansa smiled down at him and shook her head.

“You have my faith, my trust, and my love ser. Always.”

“I would have you as my queen Sansa Stark.” He drew his sword from its scabbard and offered his blade to the girl who was once his sister.

The young woman who was now his queen.

The sounds of chairs moving came and Howland was suddenly beside him, kneeling with a sword held out as well.

“The Queen in the North.”

Maege and Galbart were soon on their knees as well.

“My blade is for Queen Sansa Stark.”

“The Queen in the North.”

 

SANSA

 

I am not used to this.

The smell of cooking meat and the sounds of laughter were all around her. No one was in a foul mood despite knowing the truth of her. They only wished her well.

Once, such treatment had been normal for her at Winterfell but that felt like a lifetime ago. Becoming accustomed to it again was difficult but she was trying very hard. It was all so marvelous.

It almost made Sansa forget they were in a swamp.

Well, on the drier edge of a swamp in truth. Where there was room enough for people to eat and drink and celebrate her coronation. In all her girlhood dreams of becoming a queen, she’d never pictured a scenario like this.

Sansa could only imagine her reaction if two years ago someone had told her that she would become a queen but that her coronation would be in a swamp. That during people’s cheers she would have to hold up her skirts to keep mud from ruining them.

The idea made her laugh.

The weather was cool but the sun was bright as the Reed pole boat journeyed through the marsh waters to the gathering place. The elevated patch of land served as a sort of field to fit the assembly of Neck lords, Northmen, and her escort from the Vale. Sansa had wanted as many allies as possible here.

Her nervousness had worsened when she saw the throngs of crannog people waiting along the water’s edge. Her hands trembled as she felt the gaze of what seemed like hundreds of people on her. She worried that the sight of her would disappoint them. That they would ask for someone else, a man who’d fought in battles and not some girl who’d spent the war as a prisoner.

Howland had interrupted her worries, leaping up to the prow of their boat and balancing perilously upon its edge while cupping his hands about his mouth.

“All hail Sansa Stark! Queen in the North!” He shouted far louder than she would have expected of a man the lord’s stature.

The cheering that answered was surprisingly loud. People began clapping and shouting her name. Not angrily or in derision like in the capital, but with hope.

When the boat hit land and she was helped down, the crowd parted for her, still applauding. Women were throwing things at her and it turned out to be wildflowers. Then she saw Ser Willem toss a man’s hat in the air with a yell and she had laughed, especially after the now hatless man acted displeased and tried to quarrel with the Royce knight. 

A new fear had gripped her after the cheers died down, that these people only cheered for her because they expected her to save them from their enemies and their troubles. Then she saw men bearing northern sigils upon their clothes. The Mormont bear, the Glover mailed fist, an Umber giant. Some even bore the Stark direwolf, and one of those men was large and fearsome looking. She felt strange that she did not know the man while he almost wept to cry out her name.

Seeing the survivors of Robb’s army did away with much of Sansa’s fear. She wasn’t just a queen in name. They wanted her to lead them.

Could Cersei ever say the same of the people in Kings Landing?

She did not take their love for granted. After all these people had endured, after so much sadness and death she wished happiness for them. Sansa vowed to use her crown to do just that.

Fires burned to the edge of the clearing and Lord Reed’s people were seeing to the cooking of food, sending many delicious and fine smells wafting through the air. The feast was everything Sansa could have wanted. She watched her men of the North make jests with the crannogmen who hosted them. Elsewhere men of the Vale took turns asking girls of the Neck to dance.

And the music!

It seemed like the people of the Neck had been done a disservice by the Seven Kingdoms in that no one knew them for their lively playing.

She knew few of their songs though, most being native to the bogs and swamps of the crannog lands. Some of the minstrels plucked at harps nimbly but most used string instruments that she’d never seen before. Adding to their sounds were the hasty beating of drums that would no doubt be seen as improper in other courts.

Not at hers though.

These sounds were joyful and full of life. That was how her people looked right now and it was how Sansa felt. Truly both were worth celebrating. She hoped if Winterfell was ever hers again that there’d be music there.

Tables had been brought out and Sansa sat in a large yet humble seat upon a raised platform that had been constructed only that afternoon. Considering how often Greywater Watch apparently moved, she shouldn’t have been surprised at how quickly the crannogmen could raise structures.

To her right Howland Reed sat in an honored position which befit his role as host. Next to him were his lady wife Jyanna and Maege who hailed her fighting men happily. Calling her Maege was a hard thing to do but the Mormont woman had insisted Sansa start referring to her bannermen like the loyal friends that they were.

The seat to her left was empty but Yohn sat beyond that, deep in conversation with Galbart Glover and Hallis Mullen. She had insisted that Hal be given a position of esteem as he had so dutifully guarded her father’s remains.

“To the Queen of the North! May her rule be as magnificent as she looks!” Willem shouted from the other end of a table further down the platform. “And may she forgive the Vale for sending such an ugly rabble to bring her here!”

Tankards and cups were raised along with shouts and cheers and Sansa smiled at the Vale knight. He had been such a delight during their journey north and she’d grown fond of him. Yohn shook his head at his sworn man’s words.

“I should’ve had him hung years ago.” He followed those words with a deep, rumbling chuckle that betrayed his true feelings. “Ser Jon will speak to the wisdom of that.”

“You think me so easy to be rid of?” Willem called back. “I’d simply stretch my lord!”

This time Yohn and Sansa joined in the laughter as Willem began pestering a serving girl if she’d prefer him taller.

Jon would have laughed too.

She searched for her northern knight who was supposed to be sitting next to her. Jon had been present throughout the ceremony and his demeanor during had reminded her so much of father. Not cold like some said, but stern like a lord. She hadn’t seen a hint of the frightening anger he’d shown in the swamps a couple nights ago.

Everything had become so crazed once she’d been named queen. A torrent of Neck lords and northerners had come to kneel before her. Jon had been by her side the whole time but seemed distant somehow. Sansa prayed that he held no ill will towards her.

They had spent so much time together traveling from the Vale and she disliked how little they saw of each other lately. Jon had arrived in a different boat than Sansa and had only taken his seat next to her for a short while. After the toasts had been made and the food served, Jon had quickly excused himself.

When she saw him leaving she’d hailed him quietly, to ask if anything was wrong.

“Pray forgive me your grace, there is something I must attend to, but I promise I will return.” As Jon strode away, she’d feared that her prayers would go unanswered.

All I have is at his expense.

He could have been a Stark.

A king.

But instead Jon had named her queen. He had been the first to do so without her asking. While her bannermen had done the same, Jon’s act had mattered more to her somehow. Thinking of his loyalty and his earnest care for her threatened to make her cry, so she put the thought aside.

Instead Sansa watched as her friends and subjects smiled and laughed. She knew this would be a day to cherish for a long time.

We’ll have to cherish it, she thought, for the hard days are coming.

Sansa was not naïve. She knew most of her days as queen would not be so happy. She still had a war to fight and a home to restore. Her father had died serving a crown and her brother had been killed for naming himself king. Her people had lost men and homes fighting for a crown. It was up to her to set all of that to rights.

All of these burdens came with the crown she bore.

I don’t even have a real crown.

Ashamed at such a petty thought, she swept it away. Her people were offering her what wealth they had along with their very lives for her house. She thanked them by sulking and acting like a little girl who still dreamt of knights and songs. A pretty crown on her head wasn’t important.

The knights of songs aren’t real.

These people made you a queen, she reminded herself, that’s better than some silly crown.

Still she worried on that some, wringing her hands at the symbol she lacked.

A crown makes you someone to be feared…

Symbols could carry as much importance as armies. When Petyr had been trapped in the Eyrie, he’d never acted like he was trapped. He sat in the symbol of power for the entire Vale like it belonged to him. No matter how besieged he was, the Lords Declarant still wanted his abdication rather than to starve him out. The power of the place had made him a force to be feared.

Sadly Robb’s crown had been lost to their enemies. His queen was still being besieged by those same enemies at Riverrun. During all the preparations for Sansa’s coronation, no one had had time to forge a new crown for her rule.

She was still thinking on it when Howland’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Your grace, might I beg your leave for a dance?”

His arm was outstretched and though his strange green eyes still looked sad, his smile was warm. His offer had come at a good moment too, almost as if he knew that she was troubled by her thoughts. 

“Gladly, my lord.” Sansa took his arm and rose. “One dance from me is small payment for all you have done.”

“Naming my dearest friend’s daughter as queen will forever be a moment I cherish fondly. Sharing a dance with my queen will be a memory that warms me for the nights ahead.”

Applause began as they made their way to the small clearing that was designated for dancing. Those already doing so stepped aside at their coming. The minstrels took up a pleasant tune, not one familiar to her but easy enough to follow.

She had loved to dance as a girl. Howland led her through some steps and she remembered why she loved it quickly, the pair falling into a comfortable rhythm.

“If only your father could see you, Sansa. I hope he wouldn’t be too jealous to see me on your arm.”

She laughed.

“My father was a terrible dancer!”

Her father’s poor ability at dancing had shamed her once. Now she honored his memory for the true man he had been. Still, remembering his poor footwork and stiff movements at feasts made her laugh.

“My mother however, she would have found you a fine partner.”

It was nice to think of her parents warmly. Most of her memories were tinged with grief and while that feeling still lingered, Howland had a way about him. He led her well and made her feel graceful. Sansa was spun around and laughed and thought once more of her mother and how beautiful she was when she danced. Mother’s smile was always so radiant, her hair catching the firelight.

Soon enough the song ended and Lord Yohn asked for the next dance. Sansa had seen him dance several times with her mother at Winterfell and she reminded him of such.

“If any man deserved your lady mother more than me, it was your father.” The bronze lord smiled at her as they did their steps. “I had to settle for dances, but such dances they were! That I have been blessed to dance with another such beauty is something I am thankful for.”

“As I thank you for your kind words and all you’ve done for me.” Sansa said sincerely. The man had become their great hope from the Vale and so much of her future plans depended on him staying so devoted.

“You’re taking a fine man from my service.” Yohn said as he led her hand in hand through a step. “Jon will be hard to replace. I hope one day that you’ll send me a son to foster at Runestone. It would only be fair.”

Sansa could have kissed Yohn then for the hope he offered in those words. If the lord could speak to such dreams, she felt less silly for having them herself. Of getting married and bearing children, of perhaps bringing a future grandchild of Yohn’s to play with her future sons and daughters in Winterfell.

“Consider it a pact my brave lord.” Sansa said as the dance concluded, kissing the man upon his cheek.

After him Galbart asked for a dance. Then Willem, who at one point pretended to falter and Sansa had to steady him to the laughter of many. After the knight came several Neck lords and soon it seemed like she had danced for hours.

Then as a Lord Bogg held her hand high and led her in a quick circle, she caught a glimpse of her missing knight.

It was Ghost who caught her attention first.

The direwolf stood out amongst the other spectators taking in the festivities, the white beast looking serene amidst all the activity around him. While Ghost’s eyes were following no particular dancer, the knight beside him only had eyes for her.

Jon’s expression was far-off and thoughtful and she worried for a moment that he was troubled. Those worries fell away when their eyes met and Jon smiled warmly at her.

Some crannog girls were huddled near the knight and his wolf. They were much too young to dance at such a feast but they reminded Sansa of Jeyne and herself in their youth. The two of them would do as these girls did now, watching and gossiping at who danced with who and how well.

These girls appeared quite taken with Jon, their eyes moving from him to her several times. She could understand why. Jon was a tall and handsome knight now. They probably hoped he would ask one of them to dance for this splendid occasion.

As the song ended, she thanked the lord and started to make her way to where Jon was standing. Before she could get too far though Jon’s voice rang out, loudly and demanding of attention.

“My lords! Good sers!” He raised his hand above his head so people could see who hailed them. “People of the Neck! Men of the North and the Vale!”

He made his way towards the center of the dancing area, throwing his voice to meet those at the furthest parts of the field.

“I fear we have done our queen a terrible disservice!” Jon shouted in a tone much more grandiose than she’d ever heard him speak, and Sansa wondered what he was up to. “Thankfully some daughters of the Neck helped me in trying to make it right.”

He waved then at the group of young girls and the boldest ran forward to him with something in her hands.

“Our Queen stands before us without a crown!” Jon yelled as he turned to face Sansa.

The girl had her back to Sansa as she handed Jon whatever she carried before running away just as quickly, blushing and giggling.

“I hope that she would accept this one for now!”

Jon held a ringlet of bright blue flowers and raised it high so all could see. They were of the same kind that she’d remarked upon during their travels through the Neck. Each flower had its stem tied around the next to produce a green band, three flowers high at the front and slimmer at the back, like a bright, beautiful blue tiara. Jon walked forward and knelt, presenting the crown before her.

He made me a crown.

Her eyes brimmed but she held the tears back.

You cannot weep… a queen must show poise.

“I would accept it gladly if you would do me the honor.” Her words surprised him so she whispered as low as she could. “You offered me the crown so it is for you to give it to me.”

A grin pulled at the corners of his mouth and he nodded. Rising to stand tall before her, he lifted the crown of flowers and placed it lightly upon her head.

She felt truly a queen then.

“A fine crown!” Maege shouted and others echoed her cry.

It was something so well done that Sansa thought any attempt to fabricate such would have turned into a dreadful mummery. That the gesture was so genuine made it a moment worthy of a tale.

Such stories are good to have, she thought, people love those worthy of tales.

“I thank you ser! A Queen could ask for no better crown.” She looked up into his grey eyes and saw no anger in them. They beamed with happiness and Sansa knew then that somehow her prayers had been answered.

He bears me no ill will.

Then a wicked idea came to her and Sansa knew she had him trapped.

“But since you are so keen on pointing out mistakes ser, you too have been remiss in your duties!” She called loudly for all to hear. The crowd hushed as Jon stood at a loss for words. “I’d ask what kind of a knight leaves a feast before doing his queen the courtesy of asking her for a dance?”

The laughter came quickly and loudly. Men began haranguing Jon for his manners and blindness at forgetting such a woman. Willem was yelling the loudest of all, some jest about Jon needing to bathe first. She hadn’t seen Jon look so embarrassed in such a long time, and she felt like enjoying the moment a little longer.

“If I remember correctly, King Robb once said that you’d make a better gardener than a dancer!”

More laughter and calls pelted the knight then. After enduring it all with flaming cheeks, Jon nodded and raised his hands in mock defeat.

“If the Queen would forgive me my failings, I’d gladly ask her to dance.” He held out his arm and she feigned indecisiveness for a moment before gladly reaching for it.

The minstrels returned to their playing and more joined in the dancing. Galbart with Lady Jyanna. Lord Royce with Lady Greengood. Willem with Maege, who laughed to lift up the short man and spin him about.

She only saw the others in passing though. Her eyes wouldn’t pull away from the knight before her. As they danced, Sansa saw that Jon seemed just as entranced. His eyes did not leave her face and she knew they would be alright.

The knight she feared held ill will against her had forged her a crown.

My cousin.

Who gave up a crown for me.

To make me one himself.

“If I remember correctly, Robb said I’d make a better septa than a dancer.” Jon said quietly but he continued to smile.

It’s a good smile, she decided, he does it too little.

“Part of ruling is the tales that people will tell of me Jon. This whole day is a beautiful beginning to a reign but what you did… it is worthy of song.”

Jon’s face fell some at that.

“I didn’t do it for appearances Sansa.” Jon’s tone was more serious than she’d expected. “I did it to make you happy.”

“I-I didn’t mean… I was just…” She felt foolish all of a sudden. Plotting and scheming at such a time. “I couldn’t help thinking about what others would say. I’m sorry.”

“No, no, you’re right. You’re a queen now. Such things are important for you to think on. I’m glad you do.” The serious face melted away and he offered another one of his rare smiles as he led her through a different step. “I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned it, but you look beautiful today.”

“As it happens you are the first, and I would say you make a very pretty knight ser.” He shook his head at her but she couldn’t resist adding.

“And despite what Willem says you smell quite pleasant.”

 

 

Chapter Text

JON

The days following Sansa’s coronation had been busy.

Organizing the separate forces of the Neck, Robb’s surviving army and the company from the Vale gave them a force of just under two thousand men. Although Jon believed the men loyal and hungry for vengeance they sorely lacked armor and horses needed to achieve it.

Not much to retake a kingdom.

Meetings with Lord Reed’s scouts and the other lords had been exhausting as well. Sansa had raised him up to be almost a commander on such matters despite his protests.

“There are better men than me for the task, it is an insult to others.” Jon had said but Sansa had not even bothered to glance away from the parchments before her.

“Not so. I made you a counselor as well as a commander. Robb would have done the same. I seek all my bannermen’s counsel Jon, but I seek yours first. Keep arguing and I will give you some keep somewhere and name you a lord.”

He had protested little more after that, she was his queen and determined beyond that.

Sansa and the others poured over what news of the south they could gather and most seemed grim. Riverrun had been surrendered to the Lannisters and Freys while the Kingslayer led another host to other holdouts. The Twins lay to the south with their hostages and powerful defenses. It surprised him how little word they had of Beric Dondarrion yet tales abound of a Lady Stoneheart hanging men throughout the Riverlands.

The North was even worse off.

Roose Bolton marched to Winterfell with an army of Freys backing him and, supposedly, Arya as well. Sansa had her own ideas about that but had yet to share them with others.

There were also rumors of upheaval in King’s Landing. The two queens at each other’s throats and of other intrigues. It was hard for Jon to keep straight what news was good and bad.

And harder still to have it all come from a man he could barely stand to be around.

As part of the new duties Sansa had given him Jon had to have a fair amount of contact with the Lord of Greywater Watch. The crannogman helped Jon take stock of their forces, collect word from his spies, and was proving to be the lord Sansa relied on most.

Beyond necessity she appeared to have developed an actual fondness for the man. A feeling Jon definitely did not share.

His dealings with the lord were always cordial but the man made him feel uneasy.

He knows me better than I know myself.

Surely that’s enough to put any on edge.

He certainly felt on edge as he watched Howland Reed approach him now. He was outside the castle speaking with Willem about which men he felt were best suited as outriders when he spotted the crannogman’s coming.

“I’m sorry to intrude sers.” He said, putting a hand upon his chest before glancing to Willem. “If I could be allowed a moment with the good northern knight.”

“Take all the time you need my lord, I’m quite sick of him.” Willem smiled, walking away towards some passing crannogwomen, almost eagerly.

If Willem knew what Reed had done to me he’d never trust me alone with him.

I barely trust myself.

“I’d walk with you ser.” Howland interrupted those vile thoughts, gesturing towards a path leading away from the castle. “If you’d do me the courtesy.”

“I am a guest, I’d show no discourtesy. The Queen wouldn’t approve.” Jon managed to sound polite yet did little to hide his displease.

The path the lord led him to was a mix between planked bridges over murky water and rutted, packed ground than anything. It took a meandering route towards the south side of the castle and in truth Jon thought these lands were more appealing at night. Swamps offered a poor view in the light of day.

And the view was all he had to occupy himself with. For neither the lord nor he spoke as they continued on their walk.

Jon was firmly resolved not to start any conversation himself.

They almost circled Greywater Watch before Howland finally broke the silence.

“Did you know my children were at Winterfell?”

He hadn’t, and it shocked him to hear it.

He’d heard some talk of the Reed’s children at the castle but it was always done in hushed tones. From what Howland just said he decided the talk had been quiet for reason.

“I did not my lord. Have you had word of them?”

“They were there at my command. They were there when Theon Turncloak took the castle. They were there when it burned.” The lord’s voice was pained. “We have heard nothing of Meera and Jojen since.”

Jon felt him then. No matter his feelings towards Howland Reed he would never have wished something like that upon him.

Too many have suffered in this war.

Too many children.

He thought of Bran and Rickon’s head adorning Winterfell’s walls and felt ill.

“Perhaps they survived.” He tried to sound hopeful. “In hiding somewhere?”

“Perhaps. Hiding has its dangers too.” Howland finally turned to Jon then. “Sometimes harm comes to those you’d keep in hiding for their own safety.”

If the lord expected Jon to let that pass unnoticed he would be disappointed.

“What Lord Stark and you did was different. Do not try and justify it.”

“I did not ask you here to defend my actions. Nothing I can say would. But I sense you have done things you never thought to do because it had to be done. In that I see my friend. The man who raised…”

“I know who my uncle was.” Jon cut him off, angry at the lord’s strange way of playing on his feeling. “Why did you ask me out here then? To admire your castle grounds?”

Howland did not shrink away from his anger, nor did he take offense at the taunt.

“I thought to do something Ned was never able to do.” He said, gazing up towards the sky. “I would tell you of your mother.”

Since Jon had learned the truth he had been trying to connect the aunt he’d never known with the mother he had always wondered about. It was strange to think of how many times he’d asked of his mother to hear nothing but rarely was he ever denied a story of his Aunt Lyanna.

All that time you thought he kept her hidden.

And all along she was right there for you to see.

“You seem fond of telling tales.” Jon shrugged. “Go on, I care not of which you choose to tell.”

The lord nodded and turned to continue walking, this time back towards his castle.

“This might be hard for you to grasp as you take after Ned so, but the Starks have always been a wild breed. Your uncle Brandon especially, quick to laugh and to fight. Benjen, easy with a jest and so young, he’ll always be so young to me. Earnest to a fault that boy was.” Howland chuckled. “But my dear friend Eddard was the wolf apart. More solemn than joyful, serious than playful, Ned was everything his brothers weren’t. It bothered Brandon so yet it served to bind Ned and Lyanna closer than the others.”

Jon swore the lord could have been speaking of Robb, Arya and himself. While Robb had laughed at Arya’s antics too sometimes he despaired to have a sister so unladylike. Jon had never despaired of Arya, nor she of him.

“Lyanna was just as wild as Brandon you see.” Howland went on. “Always riding off or challenging men in a way ladies were not meant to. Their father wanted a lady but he got a she wolf. Her wild streak made her as much an outsider in the family as Eddard’s quiet honor.”

At that Lord Reed regarded Jon carefully.

“Even in the Neck I heard talk of Ned’s youngest daughter. I heard she was wild and free spirited, causing embarrassment to her parents at feasts and what not. The tales were so similar it was hard not to weep to hear them. I wondered if Ned would see what I saw. If he would fear…”

“Enough.” Jon stopped him at that. “Enough with this.”

Picturing his mother as akin to Arya was not what he wanted. Arya could act a child at times but he couldn’t imagine his sister being so foolish as to start a war and cause so much pain.

She was a good person.

Unlike his mother.

 “Why did she go with him? With Rhaegar?” He asked. “Robert was a lord, they say he liked to laugh and ride. That he was strong and handsome. If she had done so many lives would have been spared.”

I wouldn’t have been born.

The lord seemed to think a moment, as if to choose his words carefully.

“Robert Baratheon was a fine warrior and excellent commander but he was not a good man. Ned may have loved him as a brother but even he saw the man’s flaws. So much so he even spoke against the match to his father.”

“Truly?”

Jon couldn’t picture that. His father had loved the king. He had left his home and family to serve the man.

He had died for him.

“As I said Ned and Lyanna were close. Ned knew her better than any of us. So he saw clearly what a match like that would mean for your mother.” Howland sighed then. “Lord Rickard did not heed his second son. Nor did he heed Lyanna I think. She was not a woman to be ignored and at Harrenhal Rhaegar had eyes only for her. Lyanna found a man with a deep sadness and an understanding of how it was to feel out of place in this world. A man who played his harp so beautifully she wept to hear it. Rhaegar found a woman as fierce as she was beautiful. No reason could stand in their way when he presented her that crown of blue roses…if ever a wolf could tame a dragon…”

No, he thought, no he tells this tale wrong.

Sadness and poor matches could never excuse what came after.

It can’t excuse my life.

“Haven’t you told enough lies in your life? Must you continue to lie to me?” Jon asked desperately. “They doomed thousands with their love. This is not some sort of tale to tell small children to give them hope of love. It is a tale of folly and sorrow, nothing more.”

Jon thought he spoke of the war but he could have just as well been speaking of himself. Howland surprised him by cautiously grabbing his shoulders. For some reason Jon did not shake off his hold as he stared into the man’s eerie green eyes.

“You’re right. I have told enough lies in my lifetime. I’d tell no more to you Jon, son of my friend.” He patted Jon’s shoulders some. “I would have you know that your mother was a fine woman, brave and true. I name few people in this world friend and I named her one with all my heart. And I see her in you as much as I see Ned. I’d not have you ashamed of her for she'd be proud of you.”

Jon had naught to say to that.

He just wanted away from his man and for once the gods answered his prayers.

For just ahead of them came such a commotion that Jon broke Howland’s hold to run towards it. The sounds of shouting and horses screaming were coming from an area closer to the entrance of castle. If it were some threat to Sansa he’d be there to meet it.

Yet as he neared the fortress he saw no attack was underway. Instead a group of riders were without, shouting for aid. From what Jon could see there were five crannogmen surrounding two strangers riding together upon an exhausted mount.

One was an older man, the other a young woman. Both were filthy and pale. The man struggling desperately to keep the limp girl upon the horse.

“We need a healer! Quickly!” One of Howland’s men shouted as he dismounted and joined the older man in slowly easing the girl down.

“Help her!” The older man shouted, stumbling from his horse, moving as if he’d been wounded. Jon saw his clothes stained with blood and dirt. “Find Lord Reed! Howland Reed! Tell him I beg safe passage!”

“You would have it stranger!” Howland called as he strode up from behind Jon. “But I must know the names of my guests!”

The older man fell to his knees, whether from exhaustion or relief Jon couldn’t tell.

“I am Ser Brynden Tully.” He answered. “Escorting Queen Jeyne Stark. Wife of our murdered King Robb. Please help her…she must live…”

Jon froze in his tracks and gaped at the sickly girl being carried towards the castle. The newcomer continued his pleas as he watched her disappear within.

“Please…you must help her…”

“She carries the heir.” 

Oh gods.

 


 

 SANSA

 

 “My baby…please my baby” The girl’s sickly pleas rang out again.

“Hush now, drink please, you must drink.” Lady Jyanna tried to get Jeyne to sip again of the healing brew but the girl’s swollen throat would have none of it.

She hacked and sputtered before a spasm of pain began to take its toll on her poor body.

“Oh seven save me!” Robb’s wife screamed in reply, clutching at her swollen stomach. “Save the baby!”

“Can I help?” Sansa asked meekly from the side of the chamber.

Jyanna and the crannog healers were doing their best to clean Jeyne while trying to cool Jeyne’s fever. All the while she stood there, totally useless as Robb’s wife suffered.

“Talk with her my queen.” Jyanna suggested as she poured another cup of the brew. “Calm her if you can.”

The brown-haired girl was too pale and sweat stained the sheets around her. She didn’t want to interfere in the healers work but she managed to make her way to the bedside.

“Jeyne? Jeyne I’m…” She paused as the girl gasped loudly in pain before pressing on. “Jeyne I’m Robb’s sister Sansa. You’re among friends here. We’re going to take care of you…”

“Sansa?” Jeyne turned her feverish eyes to her, gritting her teeth against some new pain. “Robb’s sister?”

“Yes.” She forced a smile. “I’m so happy you found us. You and the baby…”

“The baby!” Jeyne looked down at the sheets covering her lower half before wailing. “No! No please!”

Sansa followed her gaze and saw the sheets there had darkened some. Jyanna lifted the blanket, tucking her hand beneath causing Jeyne to cry out again. When she pulled back her hand it was red with blood.

Which forced Sansa to choke down her midday meal.

To her shame she turned away from the screaming girl to find else to look to. Anything to calm her mind after such a sight. Unfortunately her eyes fell upon the pile of clothes Jeyne had ridden in with, piled high in the corner. On top she saw a gown that’s lower half was stained with blood as well.

It sent a stab of icy terror through her heart. Jeyne’s pained scream that followed did her little better

Such bleeding is dire for a woman with child.

Even I know that.

“Your grace, I must do something you would not see.” Jyanna leaned in, gesturing towards the door. “Perhaps waiting outside would be best.”

“I should stay with…” She started as Jeyne shrieked again before falling back against her pillow, her eyes closing and the girl become very silent.

“No…no is she…she can’t have died! She only just…”

“She lives, the pain is just that great.” Jyanna answered, moving back to Jeyne’s side. “As is the need for what I would do. You can help her no more here. Only healers and prayers can help her now.”

I am in the way, she realized, I’m not helping at all.

“If she wakes please tell me.” Sansa said rushing to the door. “I’ll just be without.”

If Jyanna answered she didn’t hear it, so quickly did she flee into the corridor and slam the door behind. Her hands pressed against it, as if to keep the horrors she’d just seen safely within.

She shut her eyes and cursed himself for her childishness.

You’re a coward.

Jeyne’s in there fighting for Robb’s child and you can’t even stand some blood.

She’s the true queen here.

“Is it so bad?” A hoarse, smoky voice asked.

Sansa opened her eyes to see Ser Brynden standing without, leaning against a wall and clutching his side. The tall man with the weathered face and grey hair had been of her brother’s most trusted commanders. He’d also been her mother’s beloved uncle yet had others not already vouched to his identity she’d never have known him.

“You are to be in bed ser…”

“Please, niece, queen, whatever you are to me.” The old knight pleaded. “Tell me how bad it is.”

Sansa wrung her hands in nervousness before deciding to do as he asked.

“She bleeds.” She admitted, watching his face fall. “But Lady Jyanna and the healers are helping. I swear.”

“My wife will do all she can ser.” Howland said as he came along Ser Brynden’s side. “As you did by getting her here.”

“Not enough…” Her great uncle choked out, his face clearly pained. “Not nearly enough.”

Sansa was surprised he was even on his feet. Howland had told her the old knight had taken an arrow through his side and removed it himself, burned the wound closed afterwards.

Yet it had been but one of a score of wounds the knight had taken during the long journey from Riverrun. A fever had taken hold of him and he’d bare many scars yet with rest and care he was expected to return to health.

She hoped so at least, for her great uncle looked near death.

And Jeyne looks even worse.

It was a sad thing to think on.

Sansa could see how obvious it was Robb’s wife had been very pretty at one time. Yet the girl within the sick chamber had suffered greatly. Her skin had a grown taut around her bones and her eyes seemed dimmer than they should be.

Their escape from Riverrun had caused all their current pains. Yet Sansa blamed the Kingslayer and Freys for their current condition more than the journey itself. It was a credit to her uncle’s abilities they had even survived to arrive in the Neck.

“I’d hoped they wouldn’t expect us to travel through Frey lands.” Ser Brynden had said earlier as she watched healers cleaned his arrow wound. “I knew those lands well so we travelled mostly at night. We made good time, avoiding outlaws and Freys both. We ate when we could but the weather cooled so quickly…I should have known she’d taken ill.”

When Jeyne’s health had worsened her uncle stole a boat from a fisherman to carry Jeyne and himself across a river in their path. He believed that was when the Freys were warned someone was trying to reach the Neck. Three mounted men had come upon their trail and it came to a fight.

“Two fell to my bow before the third even knew where the arrows were flying and by then it was over.” He’d almost smiled at the memory. “And we gained a horse from the ordeal.”

Their luck did not hold out. He’d taken the arrow when another group of Frey riders fell upon them. Their horse had been about to drop and the Freys closing when Howland’s men interceded. The crannogmen had been sending raiding parties south of the Neck into Frey lands for some time now, the pair fortunate enough to be found by one.

Ser Brynden did not look as if he felt fortunate. He looked ready to collapse.

“You return to your rest ser uncle.” She urged. “I insist. I’ll have men carry you if I must.”

His reddened eyes widened at that, and despite everything, a sad smile broke across his face.

“I see it now. The hair is right, the eyes as gentle…how you order me about…yes I see your mother in you girl.” He said, reaching out with his hands so that she placed her own within his rough grasp. “It warms and breaks my heart that I get to see you and she does not.”

Sansa nodded, it saddened her to think the same.

“My mother told me stories of you since I was a little girl, good ser.” She said truthfully. “I am happy beyond words you survived this journey and brought my goodsister to me.”

“Tully!” Galbart Glover shouted, interrupting the moment.

The Northman made his way briskly down the hall as her uncle reached out and took the Northman’s hand in his.

“Galbart Glover, I hoped you’d survived that massacre at the Twins.”

“I was fortunate.” Galbart nodded. “I think Queen Sansa even more so to have you returned to us.”

The Blackfish took notice of the title and looked to Sansa.

“I was made Queen in the North by Robb’s bannermen…my bannermen now. My coronation was only days ago.”

If the knight was surprised he did not show it. His eyebrow raised slightly but after a moment he nodded grimly.

“I congratulate you niece, but I fear I have complicated things here with our arrival.”

“Whatever issues there are will wait. Jeyne’s recovery is all that matters.”

In this Sansa spoke truthfully, in her heart she knew Jeyne and her health came first. Yet putting off handing away her crown could wait a long while as far as she was concerned.

But I would do it, she decided, for Robb I will do it if I must.

Jon and Maege arrived not a moment later. It had been Jon who sought out Sansa immediately to tell her of Brynden and Jeyne’s arrival and she had asked him to find her bannermen to let them know as well.

The reunion between Maege and Brynden was just as warm at it had been with Galbart. Brynden offered his condolences for Maege’s daughter Dacey, also lost at the Twins and Maege offered her own for his loss as well.

He lost a niece, I lost my mother, she’d thought, we have that grief in common at least.

“Ser, I’d introduce a fearsome knight like yourself, Ser Jon the Wolf.” Maege slapped Jon on the back and pushed him towards the knight.

Jon appeared almost sheepish before her uncle. He had heard tales of this knight growing up at Winterfell as well. Tales Robb would've shared as mother did no include their half-brother in her storytelling.

Your cousin, she reminded herself, a cousin not a half-brother.

He’s not a bastard anymore, you can’t think of him as one, he deserves better.

“Ser Jon the Wolf? I have not heard of you.” Brynden looked at Jon uncertainly.

“I was born Jon Snow ser.” Jon had held his hand out to the older man. “I’m honored to meet you and hope…”

“Snow.” Brynden grunted leaving Jon’s hand empty. “Found another crown to follow I see?”

Her shock was shared by most of the others, including Jon whose face bore it clearly. His expression was soon replaced by one of shame as he lowered his hand.

“Brynden that is not fair!” Maege had countered but the man ignored her, rising up to glare fiercely at Jon.

“Cat told me herself that you were by Renly’s side when Robb marched to avenge your father. Then after his death we hear you fought for Stannis. Would the krakens or lions not have you that you suddenly appear at your family’s side?”

Those words shook away Sansa’s surprise and replaced it with anger.

“Uncle! Without Jon I would be dead or still a prisoner in the Vale, a puppet of Littlefinger. You will show him the respect he deserves.” She stepped between the two and tried to meet her uncle’s eyes but they still remained locked on Jon. “I demand you apologize at once.”

“No…Sansa…your grace.” Jon said, backing away. “I would pray you excuse me.”

Before she could stop him Jon had already turned and walked quickly away down the corridor.

She watched his departure with worry, Brynden with a look of triumph.

“Your mother never trusted that bastard.” Brynden said darkly. “You shouldn’t either.”

“Stop it!” Sansa did not try to keep a civil tone. What had just happened was ghastly and she could not keep her anger from showing. “Robb trusted Jon when he was king! I trust him now!”

“King Robb placed his trust in Roose Bolton and Walder Frey as well.”

“Those…men…did fight by my brother’s side and yet betrayed him.” She argued. “But Jon served the man my father bid him to. Fought at the Blackwater to try and kill Joffrey and rescue me. Survived to try and make his way to my brother and nearly died for it. He may not have fought with the rest of the Starks but he still fought for us. And I’d ask you not to ruin our joy today uncle.”

Brynden responded to that with a dismissive grunt and so that was where the conversation had ended. He tried to ask of standing vigil for Jeyne but she ordered him to rest. Howland and Galbart escorting him away themselves.

Checking on the state of Jeyne afterwards had not raised her spirits. The girl alternated between consciousness and fevered dreams. Lady Reed expected that to continue for some time but said she would stay with her throughout the night.

Sansa promised to take her place when she tired.

She tried to find Jon to offer words of support but none had seen him, nor was he in his chambers by nightfall. Sansa prayed her uncle’s words had not destroyed how close Jon and she had become. She’d tried very hard to make sure Jon felt loved since that night in the swamp, to let him know she needed him.

Those worries and the ones for Jeyne awaited her when she tried to sleep. It felt like every time she shut her eyes the memory of Jeyne’s sad, mournful wails crept up in her mind. For half the night it felt she lay in bed staring at the ceiling before finally deciding to just go and relieve Jyanna now.

She’s actually useful.

Let her be well rested and Jeyne will be the better for it.

Yet as she walked down the corridor towards Jeyne’s chambers it appeared like others were having difficulty sleeping as well.

The Lady Jyanna was there, as was her Ser Brynden. He still appeared far too weak and sickly to be standing yet there he was, nodding at whatever the Lady Jyanna was telling him.

Further down the hall she saw another figure, one she’d last seen outside these very chambers.

Jon was armored in grey steel and stood watching Jeyne’s doorway with a good distance between her uncle and himself. He had a sword in his hands, pointed downwards at the floor and Sansa realized why’d she been unable to find him.

He stood vigil for her.

He did as Robb would’ve wanted.

She should not have been surprised to see him doing such. Yet her attention shifted to her great uncle as he appeared to be ailing worse than before. He was steadying himself against the wall with his arm while Jyanna rested a hand upon his shoulder.

“My lady, has something happened?” Sansa’s voice caused Jyanna to start. “I’m sorry but is all well?”

Her uncle slammed his fist against the wall and fear gripped her then.

“Is Jeyne…”

“Jeyne lives your grace. The fever has broken but she is very weak. I fear for her still.” Lady Jyanna paused then, closing her eyes and folding her arms in front of her.

A sorrow-filled Brynden turned to face Sansa then.

“She lost the baby.”

It took a moment for his words to make sense to her.

The baby is lost. Robb’s baby is lost.

Gone like all the others.

“No.”

“I pushed her too hard…” Her uncle’s face seemed to break before her. “A woman with child could never have been expected to…”

“Ser, you do little good in blaming yourself.” Lady Jyanna reached out for the man’s shoulder and spoke softly to him. “Women have had fevers or travelled whilst with child and not suffered such a loss. You’ve told me her mother gave her moon tea to prevent the birth of a child. The fact she conceived at all was a miracle, those herbs can have dire consequences.”

The knight acted as though he heard none of this. He shook his head and ran fingers through his greying hair.

“I should be the one to tell her.”

“She doesn’t know?” Sansa asked, thinking that a cruel thing.

Jyanna nodded.

“It happened in her sleep, she’s beginning to wake…”

“I will tell her.” Brynden repeated, straightening and smoothing his tunic. “It must be me.”

“You were her savior uncle, you may do so if you have the strength but I would join you.” She grasped his arm. “I want her to know my sorrow for her loss. That her family grieves with her.”

It was not just sentiment, those were words she needed to say. The fear of losing her crown had nagged at her thoughts but truly the idea of welcoming Robb’s child into the world had filled her with hope. So few of her family remained and that babe would have been a sweetest gift since Jon and she were reunited.

“It is kind of you.” Brynden accepted her arm upon his. “I think Jeyne needs someone like you right now…she needs family.”

With that Jyanna opened the door to lead them within and Sansa spared a look down at Jon.

He’d heard of course. His head lowered as he stood alone in the shadows.

We all need family, she thought, all of us.

 


 

JON

 

“You’re Jon aren’t you?” The frail girl smiled up at him. “I hope you’re Jon.”

As sickly as she was he found the smile warm and inviting. A sweet thing to look upon.

No wonder Robb did as he did.

“Yes Jeyne, I’m so happy to meet you.” He said, struggling to smile for her.

It was a hard thing to do as his eyes moved to hers.

Jon wished he could have seen her eyes before. He imagined when she was healthy they had been as warm as her smile. For they were a pretty brown, tainted horribly by the yellowing which had overtaken what had once been white.

“Robb talked of you often, said every smile from you was hard earned…” Jeyne’s hand reached for him and he met her halfway. “But your smile is handsome. Like Robb’s. He loved you so…”

Her grip was so weak, so clammy. Jon cupped her hand in his anyways and fought against the sadness building in him. This sweet girl had been Robb’s wife. She was meant to spend her days happily beside her king. Meant to bear him a child which all could have cared for.

She was to be family to him.

Yet just as Robb was dead, just as their child lost, Jeyne would soon be lost to them.

Jon had been hopeful for the poor girl only the day before. Just because she’d lost the baby did not mean Jeyne would mean less to him. Robb had married her and Jon would protect her, as he would have wanted.

Yet Lady Jyanna had crushed his hope. It had been her to come without the chambers and invite him inside. Her to tell him Sansa and the Blackfish were already at Jeyne’s side.

Saying their farewells.

“Save her.” He’d protested. “You must…we can’t lose her now. Not after she came all this way…”

Jyanna had listened to his pleas with a sad, knowing expression.

“We in the crannogs have different ailments than most of the realm. The chill she had before she reached our lands weakened her. The illness that befell her after is well known to us. They burn hot until death but we have ways of easing the fever away but if too much damage is done…it is but a calm before the end. The gods allow that at least. Do not waste it ser.”

He’d heeded those words for so much had been wasted already.

Not the least bit Jeyne’s suffering.

She had travelled so far. Been so brave. To die now like this.

When he finally entered the Blackfish was kneeling beside her bed speaking softly to her. The Blackfish not reacted to Jon’s presence, his eyes focusing on the girl before him.

Jon had seen her during her fever and she seemed a different girl. Sweat no longer soaked her face and her body was still and composed. Yet signs of her poor health were there, her skin had gone from pale to yellow. Such was one of the signs the lady had told them of pointing to the end.

“Robb chose well in his queen your grace.” Jon said, hoping to prolong that end with his words. “I’m sorry to have missed your wedding.”

“It was beautiful.” Jeyne closed her eyes as if in remembrance. “Robb so handsome…he said his family would welcome me…”

“We do Jeyne.” Sansa said, kneeling just to the side of him. “I’ve a goodsister I never thought to meet. I owe you so much for coming here…for finding us…”

“He told me you were a beauty…a real lady…” Jeyne trembled some then. “I think you’ll make a wonderful queen…better than me…”

“No, don’t say…”

Jeyne inhaled sharply then, her hand clutching Jon’s with a sudden burst of strength. They all were at a loss for what to do but the spell passed, Jeyne slowly pulling her hand from his, pointing to the side of the room.

“Ser Brynden…please…the bag…”

The knight nodded and then rose to pick up a muddied back from the side of the room. Jon remembered it had tied to their horse as they’d rode into the castle. The Blackfish carried it to her and she untied it with care and reached inside.

“I prayed…” Tears appeared in Jeyne’s eyes. “I prayed for a son…a son to name after your father. Robb would have liked that.

“Yes, it would have been an honor.” Sansa was crying now too and Jon put his hand upon her shoulder. She reached up and held it against her.

“But…if it had been a daughter…I’d thought after your mother…and to give her this.” Jeyne’s tears continued to fall as her words came out shakily. “I kept it safe for her….for you now…”

From the bag she pulled a bronze crown. Its band so thin it was barely as thick as a finger and adorned with small black iron spikes barely as long as fingernail along its length.

Her crown, he realized, the crown Robb had made for her.

“Take it Sansa…take it and be the queen I couldn’t be…”

Jeyne held it out to Sansa who made no effort to take it. Instead she shook her head as tears ran down her cheeks.

“No Jeyne…I never wanted to take your crown. It is yours and I don’t want to take it from you…”

“I’m giving it you Sansa…don’t let them forget Robb…he was a good man…such a good man…be a good queen….”

Jeyne’s hand was shaking now and Sansa gingerly took the crown from her.

“I swear it Jeyne. I swear it.” Sansa said as she clutched the crown to her chest and looked helplessly at the girl.

“We will never forget Robb or his beautiful queen.” Jon said as a tear fell from his eyes. “Jeyne Stark. Queen in the North.”

How many more?

How many more will die?

Jeyne’s soft words were too quiet to hear. Jon knelt to be closer to her and apologized for not hearing.

“I wanted to see Winterfell…”

“You will, I promise…” Jon said as the Blackfish leaned forward to brush a curl of chestnut hair from her face.

Sansa was sobbing softly, still clutching the crown. He just knelt there, willing Jeyne to live, to join them as they retook their home. He could bring her and Sansa both home to Winterfell. Sansa and her could be friends as well as goodsisters and he would stand guardian over both of them. They would show her the godswood where Robb and him played as children.

If Jeyne lived they would do all these things.

Then the Blackfish’s hand went to her face again but not to brush away any hair. His fingers gently touched upon her eyelids and drew them down over her unseeing eyes.

“It is at an end.” The man rasped as he pulled his hand away. “Farewell my queen.”

And although Jon knew the knight was right.

Knew another Stark was lost to them.

He willed her to open her eyes.

Willed her to do what the others couldn't and come back to them.

Just open your eyes.

Please.

 


 

ARYA

She opened her eyes.

Wincing in pain as soon as she did so.

Bugger me my head hurts.

Another thing Arya could blame the Hound for. As she rose from where she lay Arya decided she would do what he’d asked of her afterall.

I'll kill him, she thought, I'll gut him if I have to.

But the Hound wasn’t where she’d left him.

Nor was she.

They’d been outside when he’d collapsed and could travel no further, where he’d begged her to give him the gift of mercy and she’d refused. She wanted him to suffer for what he did to Mycah, to die slowly and to know how truly weak and worthless he’d become.

Her mistake was thinking weaker than he truly was.

She’d been about to leave him behind when the Hound had reached out to grab at her. Arya had leapt aside but he’d tripped up her legs with his grab. As she’d fallen she’d seen the rock flying up at her and remembered no more after.

Nothing in that memory explained why she lay in a bed in what looked like a cottage. The room itself was small but cleaner and drier than she’d had in a long time, a fire burning in the fireplace off to the side. As was she, a quick glance to hands showed her nails clean of the filth so often collected there and her clothes had been changed. She now wore a simple, rough spun dress of wool which covered was so modest it felt like only her head and hands visible to the world.

She jumped from the bed, bare feet thumping on the dirt packed floor and she cursed at how loud she’d been. There was little furnishing in the room beside the straw pallet she lay upon, two chairs, and a chamber pot. No sign of her clothes or her sword anywhere and when she went to the only window she found it was shuttered from the outside.

Her forehead was throbbing and when she went to touch it a surge of pain shot through her. A large bump had risen from where her head hit the rock and she thought it was cut too, but someone had smeared some sort of ointment over it. Her fingers shone in the firelight from touching it.

I’ll kill him, she swore, I’ll bloody well kill him.

After I get out of here.

She chanced the door, lifting its latch and pushing gently. Her breath caught when it opened but her hopes were dashed when it stopped suddenly, bumping against something hard when the gap could barely fit her fingers.

Then the door slammed back at the frame and she jumped backwards. Noises came from outside and the door rattled as something scratched against it. Then she heard the sounds of rapid footsteps moving away, growing fainter and fainter until they were gone gone.

“Bugger this!”

Arya rushed at the door again and kicked at it, but this time it didn’t budge at all. She’d killed men only days before, so she knew could take care of herself. A flaming log could be a weapon but a quick glance at the fire showed the wood there mostly burnt away.

The chair.

She rushed to it next and while it was barely an armful on timber fitted together it could be a weapon. Arya wasn’t the strongest but the chair was light and with some effort she thought she could swing it powerfully enough.

Her ears picked up the sounds of footsteps again, growing louder and louder. Her heart raced when she realized one person couldn’t make so much noise.

Surprise them, she thought, if I can surprise them I might have a chance.

The scratching began again and the door was rattling as she ran to hide behind it. It swung open slowly but she waited until she heard sound of shoes scrapping upon the earth.

That signaled her attack.

She kicked at the door as hard as she could, forcing it back and striking something hard. Someone grunted and a loud thud followed. The door was already swinging back towards Arya when she pulled the chair around it to see a man in a brown and dun robe laying on the floor and another bending down to help him.

“Yah!” Arya yelled, swinging the chair in a wide arc and striking the standing man square in the chest.

The chair shattered and her victim let out a wheezing sound as he tumbled out the door. She bolted after him, leaping over the crumpled form of the man without as a third man stood stunned, only gaping at her as she ran by him.

Where am I?

It was night but there was a good amount of lighting about. Around her she saw a collection of cottages that looked like beehives and a path leading away from them. It seemed like a good enough escape route as any so she took it.

As she air smelt of salt and it was not so dark yet she couldn’t see the path before her.

It was steep and kept curving about, trying to cut through those curves led her into weeds and briars which cut into her feet. A quick glance behind her showed figures staggering after her but much too slow, and quieter still.

They haven’t made a sound, she realized, and no alarm yet.

I can still escape.

The breeze against her face made her take better noticed of her surroundings, namely that she was still near the water. Most of the lands below her descent were took dark to make out but the flowing water beyond them was clear enough.

As were the flames rising from across it.

The path straightened out ahead of her for a time so she took the chance at trying to figure out what was burning across the water. Maybe it would give her an idea of where she was. At first she thought the river must have been narrower here, the fires burned so bright. Then the breeze brought the smell to her and the truth hit hard.

She’d thought maybe the flames were but simple lamps or torches which meant the river narrow enough to swim.

Instead it dawned on her the flames were far larger. They were wild and so many that even across the great water her nose filled with smoke and the smell of something fouler.

It’s burning flesh, the smell came back to, people are burning over there.

That thought came to her just as something in front of her moved to block her path. Arya was moving too quickly to stop and slammed into the figure before her. Someone gasped and she tumbled to the ground.

All around her shadows and sounds let her know there were more people about.

Many more.

Whatever was happening across the water had attracted watchers, watchers who crowded the path Arya had been running down and fell amongst. Now their hands were on her, trying to pull her up.

“Get off me!” She began scratching and kicking. “Let off!”

“Be at ease child…at ease.” Someone said and she aimed a punch at the sound.

They’d gotten her to her feet and she saw it was more of the brown robed men.

At least a score of them. None moved to attack her and most held up their hands as if to calm her.

It didn’t work.

“Move!”

She kicked hard into the shin of the man blocking the path. He hissed and so did she, kicking without shoes made her foot sing with pain. And he hadn’t even moved.

“Stop…stop this…” A wheezing voice came from further up the bath. The three men she’d escaped from were catching up, the oldest of them was the one calling after her, sweat upon his shaved head.

“We will…not harm you. Men… of the…Faith.”

“Of the what?”

There were too many to fight now even though none made to grab her or hit her still. The ones she’d scratched rubbed at their wounds and the man she’d kicked favored his leg, but none sought vengeance.

Cravens.

“Men of the Faith. Brothers of the septry here on Quiet Isle.” The young man who’d spoken earlier said. “The Elder Brother speaks the truth, we won’t harm you.”

“I am sorry if we scared you.” The old man was before her, sparing a quick glance to where the fires were burning. “I’m afraid it is not an uncommon thing to be afraid tonight.”

“Who are you? Wait, no where am I? How did I get here?” She asked before following the old man’s gaze.

In the silence of the night and how quiet these men around were she could hear things in the wind. The sounds were faint but she thought she heard screaming.

“And what’s happening over there?”

“I am called the Elder Brother, head of our brotherhood here. As Brother Narbert said, you are on Quiet Isle, where the faithful come to contemplate the seven in silent reflection. You were brought here by myself and some others, we found you ailing by the river.” At that he paused as a particular high-pitched scream carried across the river. “And that is the Saltpans…and it is burning. There are good people in that town, women and children and someone is doing evil there tonight.”

The Saltpans?

No, she thought, I was going to take a ship from there.

“Why don’t you help them?”

The Elder Brother closed his eyes, and murmured something silently with his lips. She was about to ask again when he opened his eyes again and looked down at her, with an expression that reminded her of Septa Mordane when the woman would inspect her needlework.

“We are not warriors. When it ends we will offer what kindness and prayer we can but to fight? It is not meant for those such as us. Neither is witnessing such horrors meant for a young child.” With that he turned away from the carnage and gestured back up the path. “Brother Narbert and the others will return you to your cottage and tend to the new wounds you have given yourself.”

Narbert moved to usher her on but she moved away from him and stepped to the Elder Brother instead. She wasn’t afraid of him, what he just said made him a craven and she was no craven.

“I don’t want to go back there! Where’s my sword? And my clothes?”

“Those clothes were ruined and no proper garb for a girl.” Narbert reached for arm again and she evaded just as easily the second time.

“Neither is a sword.” The Elder Brother sighed. “I cannot allow you to wander the island nor leave it with what happens ashore. You could fall victim to those villains and there are other beasts about…wolves…hounds...”

The Hound, she thought, he found me he would’ve found the Hound.

Why doesn't he ask me about that bastard?

She didn't get a chance to learn the answer to that. The men who’d chased after Arya joined Narbert in closing in around her. She almost growled in frustration but it was no use, the three men pushed her back up the path, her feet stinging with every step. What stung more was the idea these cowards had made her their prisoner. They’d taken her sword, her clothes and tried to act like they were helping her.

Back at the cottage one of the men waited without while Narbert had another run off to fetch cloth and a washing basin.

“Don’t think of bathing me again.” She noticed the smashed remnants of her chair in the corner and slowed moved towards them.

“I wouldn’t…I mean to say it was not I who assisted you after your arrival.” Narbert acted offended by the thought. “The two men who accompanied me, brothers Thomas and Judar, they saw to your changing and bathing. We would allow no others to perform such an act.”

He likes to talk.

“Why are they so special?” She didn’t really care, she just wanted to keep him distracted. Among the broken bits of her chair was a wrung, snapped so that it had a sharp edge. Narbert wrung his hands some before glancing to her now ember only fire.

“Judar! Fetch more wood for our guest’s fire.” Narbert called out but left the door open. As he went over to ensure the other man had indeed left Arya reached and grabbed the wrung. She hid it behind her back as she faced Narbert who now regarded her again.

“They are both good men but neither has his…neither have what the seven indeed set us apart from women…”

“They’re eunuchs?” She was eyeing her straw pallet closely and thought it easy enough to hide the rung there if given the chance.

“Yes…such a word to come from a common girl. Where did say you were from?”

Idiot, she thought, say someplace far away.

“Stoney Sept.” Was the first place that came to mind, it seemed long ago she’d been there now. “My family ran a tavern there, I heard many words.”

“And your name?”

“Mordane.” It was the first thing to spring to her mind and the man nodded thoughtfully.

Yet she didn’t think he looked convinced.

That worried her.

The brother she’d learn was Judar arrived soon after with the wash basin and clean cloths, as well as some bread and cheese for her. She’d spurned their help and demanded to be left in peace. Neither seemed willing to press the matter, instead leaving the basin at the foot of her pallet before setting to work cleaning the mess that had been her chair. After Thomas returned with wood to restart her fire they all left the cottage, but not completely.

“The Elder Brother will expect you to rest without worries so Brother Judar will remain outside upon a chair.” Narbert explained before frowning. “Do not try and leave again. Clean your wounds and in the morning the Elder Brother will see to your needs. But do not leave the cottages.”

“Fine.”

After they’d left she began planning her escape. Well first she did as Narbert said, she sat upon the straw and began cleaning the cuts and scrapes left from her run down the path. She’d need foot coverings to try and run again. The cottage lacked for those but did have a good supply of furs and blankets. Tearing apart some of the blankets with her teeth might do for making some shoes, the furs would do better but without a knife it wasn’t likely.

Instead she could use them for a cloak when she needed to sleep after her escape.

Or made into a satchel for her to carry the bread and cheese for her travels. It was then her stomach growled and Arya took notice of how hungry she was already. Even worse were how badly she’d hurt her feet, in the excitement the pain hadn’t meant much but now they flamed.

I can’t run like that, she thought, and I’ll eat that food before I get too far.

And night would have fallen now, she had no idea how to get about the island in the dark. Nor did she have Needle or any coin to use after escaping. More and more it dawned on her escaping tonight was not an option.

Craven was the word that came to mind as she hid the wrung amongst the straw. The blankets and furs she pulled around herself warmed her and she was tired. The thought of the fires across the river and the screams kept her awake.

No sign of that carnage made its way inside her cottage but it was another massacre that bothered here.

The one at the Twins where she lost her mother.

And her brothers.

They’d all been so close. Mother and Robb had left Riverrun together for the Twins.

And Jon had followed in his own way.

“Please! We need to go after him!” She’d begged Lord Beric when they’d told her. “Take me to him! He’ll take care of me and you won’t have to!”

“My lady, Jon Snow has a great lead upon us and travels alone, meaning he can move even faster.” The Lightning Lord had said after the Hound’s trial. “Had I known you were to come here I would gladly have seen you reunited…”

“I don’t care! If we leave now we can find all of them at Riverrun.”

“And so we shall, so we shall.” Lord Beric had told her, the Brotherhood would take her to her family and collect a reward for returning her. She didn’t care about all that, only that they were so close.

When the Hound had taken her from them it hadn’t really changed much. They still travelled to the Twins and she’d had hope to find her mother and brothers there.

All they’d found was a massacre underway. The pounding drums and screams of the men dying in the tents still echoed in her dreams.

Robb had been killed.

And she’d dreamt of mother’s body amongst so many others in the river.

Yet she’d clung to some small hope for Jon.

“Girl…if they didn’t spare your brother the king, your mother the lady, why would they spare your father’s bastard?” The Hound had told her when she’d accepted her mother’s death. “You saw the slaughter in the camps and it was worse in the castle. He’s gone, accept it.”

She hated the Hound.

She hated thinking he was right and she hoped he was dead.

Like the others are.  

Like Jon is.

Arya got so little of what she wanted having much at least would do for now. As would the warm cottage and the soft pallet she curled up on.

I’ll escape tomorrow, she decided, I’ll get off this bloody island tomorrow.

And then I’ll kill them all.

 

 

Chapter Text

JON

 

The man was staring at him again.

It wasn’t threatening but definitely a challenge to Jon’s presence in the room. The Blackfish had been asked to join the Queen’s war council. It made sense,  Willem had also been included as well and excluding the Blackfish would have been a foolish thing to do. He was a storied knight, one of the finest of Robb's battle leaders and had ten times the experience of Jon.

Which is why he should be beside the Queen, he thought, not me.

Jon had been a little uncomfortable when he’d realized  the empty seat next to Sansa was meant for him. Howland Reed sat to her left beside Ser Brynden and Willem while Yohn, Galbart and Maege joined him on the right. He couldn't meet Yohn's gaze out of the shame that he'd been offered a better seat than the man who'd knighted them.

The lord hadn't appeared to mind, in fact the man had patted Jon on the shoulder as he took his seat. The northern lords hadn't even spared him a glance despite how awkward he felt. He gathered that made some sense, they had tried to make him king only a short while ago. Seeing him seated next to the Queen was likely not so offensive after such.

The Blackfish was not as understanding.

I can't really blame him, he thought, the man thinks me a traitor on top of being a bastard.

Indeed the knight's constant glares in his direction were a constant reminder of that. 

“My lords and fierce lady,” Sansa smiled at Lady Maege as she began. “My good knights, I thank you for joining me. I would hear all from you before I decide how we begin righting the wrongs done to us.”

Jon knew both Galbart and Ser Brynden had proposed plans of action to Sansa, which he was glad for. The others were all lords or knights with men or experience at their backs. Jon had seen battle, even had led others in a few but he was not to be compared with these others. He glad Sansa had their counsel.

“As it stands, the Riverlands are held under the thumb of the Lannisters and Freys.” Howland explained their situation. “Roose Bolton may soon reach Winterfell to join his bastard’s forces. There Ramsay Snow will wed a mummer’s wolf and say that the north is bound to them now.”

“Mummer’s wolf?” The Blackfish almost spat out his wine. “It is not your sister Arya that Bolton holds?”

Brynden hadn’t shown the best courtesies in interrupting but many of the others were just as confused.

“During my captivity at Kings Landing I never once saw or heard of my sister.” Sansa answered calmly. “I do not think this was a tactic on the part of the Lannisters to keep us scared and alone. Joffrey would have made me watch him…well I just don’t believe they ever had Arya. They only made it so we thought they did.”

“An imposter then? It makes sense, had they brought the child to Riverrun and threatened to hang her I would not have been able to name her.” Brynden said thoughtfully. “Would many of the North recognize a feigned Arya Stark?”

“I don’t believe so.” Jon answered, earning the knight’s ire. “Most took notice of Sansa rather than Arya…”

Sansa looked hurt at that and Galbart somewhat offended but he continued on.

“Truly Galbart, you visited Winterfell often, could you name Arya by sight?”

The Glover man chewed on that question for a moment, his chin high and appearing a bit put out.

“I would not.” He conceded.

“Nor I.” Maege added.

“After losing one hostage I doubt Tywin Lannister would admit to losing another.” Yohn put in. “I would not put it past him to resort to mummery.”

“Nor Roose Bolton to marry to his bastard to a mummer.” Maege concurred but looked unsure. “But Can we ignore the chance it truly is your sister they hold?”

“I have reason to believe the Queen’s suspicions are correct, that the Boltons hold a feigned heir.” Howland folded his hands before him. “I have it on good authority from an old friend.”

Jon expected him to say more but nothing else came, the lord just sitting there daring any to further challenge Sansa and his claims.

None did.

“Well, I gather that is good for us.” Brynden shrugged. “At least your sister doesn’t have to suffer to marrying a bastard.”

The knight stared right at Jon as he spoke the last word. 

“It means Arya is still missing though.” Jon ignored the jab despite Sansa ruffling beside him. He would keep the peace. “Yet it is some comfort Roose Bolton does not hold her hostage.”

“Alas he holds many more.” Maege said. “Through the Freys Roose holds the Greatjon, Bernard Lake, Marq Piper, and several other northern and riverlords sworn to House Stark. All taken at that wedding and held under the Twins. In dungeons and in chains from what we hear.”

“Thank you for saying so Maege, we cannot forget those men suffering so.” Sansa spoke softly. “We cannot retake the North with so many of my brother’s most loyal bannermen held hostage. I would not try to do so without them at my side.”

“It can be done without them your grace. King Robb wanted us to retake Moat Cailin from the ironmen. A force coming from the south and a force landed to the north encircling the fort.” Galbart pointed to a map of the North laid out in front of him. He drew two invisible lines with his fingers outlining how the forces would come upon gateway to the north. “With Bolton holding it I don’t see as the plan requires much altering.”

“Our forces are greatly reduced Galbart and a counterattack from the north by Bolton would oust us once again.” Howland countered so quickly that Galbart bristled.

“When the lords following Roose hear that Sansa Stark has taken Moat Cailin with an army at her back how long can he last?”

“As long as his Frey allies hold their hostages, I fear quite awhile.”

Howland’s words caused Jon to nod in agreement, an act the Blackfish joined in before scowling in seeing his company. 

“Lord Reed is correct. Let us take stock of our current plight.” The Blackfish pointed to another map of the Neck and the Riverlands, laying his finger at the Greywater Watch. “We are in a strong position here with more than enough men to march. Yet on either side we face strong enemies who can can threaten our rear whichever way we march…”

They watched as the Blackfish swung his finger south to the Twins.

 “Since our enemy to the North depends on the help of House Frey we should give them a reason to abandon that support.” The knight thumped his finger on the map. “We know the Freys marched half their forces north with the Boltons. The other half largely went to besiege Riverrun and Seagard. Those forces will have returned and will mostly be disbanded. I already saw it happening as the siege wore on at Riverrun.”

“They think the fight is over.” Sansa said, earning a nod from her uncle.

“Yes, which helps us your grace. A strong but shrinking force stands at the Twins where your bannermen are held prisoner. With the Freys as the force behind Lannister control in the Riverlands I propose we take their seat from them, as they took Riverrun from the Tully’s.”

“Gods Tully those castles cannot be besieged, you know this!” Galbart shook his head in disbelief. “Our army would be smashed outside those walls!”

“Aye, the Freys built their castles well and command a strong garrison with archers that would cut us to shreds.”

Jon thought that a poor argument yet Sansa seemed intrigued.

“Then how do we take it uncle?” She asked.

“Guile. Trickery. I would have weasel the weasels.” The Blackfish answered firmly before looking to Howland.

“Ser Brynden and I talked earlier to compare what he knew of the Freys and what my scouts have reported.” Howland went on. “When the Boltons and Freys travelled north we could not stop them but we did make them regret using our lands. They lost many a horse and abandoned scores of wagons on their march. Those wagons are ours now.”

“We also have a contingent of men strangers to this conflict.” The Blackfish smiled and turned to Lord Yohn. “I am to understand that the Vale has not openly opposed the throne yet?”

“Not yet, but do not doubt, the Vale has been unhappy to stay out of this fight.” Yohn said with a grimace. “I have been the most unhappy.”

“Genuinely sour in truth.” Willem added.

“Good. That helps us.”

“The Freys built their power from taxing their crossing. Now they find themselves shunned by most of the realm, most travellers now shun using their bridge.” He smiled. “Some gold and good will from a powerful house such as Royce of Runestone would seem attractive to them. I’ve never known Walder Frey to turn down an opportunity to improve his station.”

“He’s been trying to get me to marry one of his daughters for years!” Yohn confirmed before jerking a thumb at Willem. “Wouldn’t take this one.”

"I'm from the Vale, I prefer sheep to weasels." Willem shrugged.

“Ser Brynden proposes the Royces enter the Twins under the guise of making the crossing.” Howland turned to Sansa then. “After they have crossed from the one castle to the next, they would commence an attack.”

“Gods with only a hundred men?” Maege asked but the Blackfish shook his head.

“We hope to double that number with men hidden in the wagons. Skilled archers would be needed especially. I heard the crannogmen have a good number of those pledged to us.”

“What of the other castle. Surely they would close their gates and send help across the bridge?”

“I imagine they would…if they too weren’t under attack.”

Howland explained that a small mounted force of Freys was stationed just south of the swamps.  Men meant to react quickly to any raids the Reeds sent south. He felt it within their power to encircle and take those men.

And their uniforms.

From there they explained that a force of riders would don the Frey armor and be seen to canter towards the castle gate as the Vale men entered. The rest of the northern forces would be behind, using the darkness to their advantage. The imposters would storm the gates when the war horn sounded and, hopefully, be able to keep the drawbridge down and gate open long enough for mounted reinforcements to join them. They would hold the entrance until the foot entered the castle.

Sansa was enthralled by all of this. She sat listening with a hopeful look on her face.

Seeing that made Jon hate doing what he had to.

“It is a fine plan.” He offered. “Yet it will fail.”

“The bastard has become a master strategist!” The Blackfish proclaimed in false awe. “Listen boy I won’t be…”

“Let him continue ser!” Sansa commanded but she looked reproachfully at Jon.

“I am no master strategist but I have seen simpler plans foiled by smaller things.  What if the Freys inspect the caravan as it crosses? What if they question the unannounced return of their men? What if one, if not both, of our parties is crushed before the foot can arrive?”

“Jon speaks truly. I had such doubts and believe this plan needs more to work.” Howland said to the Blackfish’s dismay. “We need some way of ensuring they trust all that we put before them. A turncloak would be ideal.”

“Good luck with that.” Willem reached for the wine. “Freys barely trust other Freys!”

“I want that castle.” Sansa said suddenly. “I want my bannermen. I want justice for my family.”

Her voice reminded him of father’s.

Her father’s.

“We all do.” Maege sighed. “But unless we have a spare Frey willing to help us betray his kin I can’t see how this will work.”

“Maybe I should venture out a kill myself a weasel. If I wear it’s hide maybe they’ll see the resemblance and welcome me as one of their own.” The Blackfish said glumly. “A trout among the beasts.”

While Galbart and Willem chuckled some at the knight’s joke Jon felt chills run down his spine.

And it wasn’t just the knight’s words that caused such.

The words of another came flooding back into his thoughts.

‘When a dark fish would wish to be a beast and be welcomed among its kin.’

Gods, he cursed to himself, it’s not possible.

He’d thought Melisandre mad, the ramblings in her chambers nonsense to be forgotten. Yet he hadn’t forgotten.

He couldn’t forget for the dilemma before fit her predictions so perfectly.

As the others continued to try to find a way to alter the plan Jon tried to find a way around Melisandre’s prophecy.

Jon had never lost the gifts she had given him throughout all his journeys. The bracelets sat in his chambers even now, miraculously untouched. It was an odd thing to think of, that despite all his hardships they’d been by his side ever since the Blackwater.

And then the flood of all he’d recently learned about himself crashed over him.

‘When king’s blood would be offered to the flames’

He stared down at his hands.

I have my father's blood.

Targaryens blood, the blood of kings.

The blood her dark magic craves.

He wanted nothing to do with that blood or any of Melisandre’s sorcery. Yet what he wanted was nothing compared to the need he felt to avenge Robb’s murder.

To his need to protect Sansa.

 And she wants that castle.

“Jon?” Sansa’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. “Jon? Is something amiss?”

He realized he’d been staring at the table, his hands clenched into fists. The others had taken notice and Sansa eyed him with worry.

“I…your grace…I would tell you something of great importance.” He didn’t look at the others, only her. “I’d ask with deepest apologies to do so in privacy.”

Sansa looked at uneasily so he pressed.

“Please.”

She nodded then with little hesitation, then asked the others to allow them some time alone. As her war council stood to leave, the Blackfish glowering at Jon the entire time, he thought again.

“Again, my deepest apologies and it is no distrust the rest you…but if Lord Reed and Ser Brynden could remain.” Jon watched the confusion flash on their faces. “Since my words pertain to their plan.”

“Ser, what is…”

“Galbart, the boy is doing what he thinks best.” Maege nodded. “I think two hale lords and knight could escort a Lady for a cup of wine before we return I think.”

Galbart joined the others in the end, leaving a very confused three all staring at Jon.

Brynden glaring at him once again.

“Alright Snow, what the seven hells are you playing at?”

  


 

 

SANSA

 

“No. I say no and ask you never speak of it again.”

“My queen we have few options but…”

“No!”

She did not mean to yell but she was angry. Furious even.

I cannot let this happen, she thought, it is beyond madness.

She could not believe Jon had proposed it, let alone that the other two men supported him.

Jon persisted at it still.

“Sansa.” Jon spoke softly and she imagined he was trying to meet her eyes but she refused him that, looking straight ahead. “Sansa, you know this is the only way.”

“I do not.” She shook her head. “I do however know how much you chose not to share than you about your journeys.”

Hearing about Jon’s time on Dragonstone and his dealings with the red priestess had been shocking enough. Apparently this red woman frightened him and he appeared pained to speak of her. His tale was of spells, visions and blood magic which had turned Sansa’s blood cold. She thought it worthy of the kind Old Nan would tell which scared her so as a child.

Having Jon swear to its truthfulness terrified her even more. For he would not lie to her. The man she knew had a face that did not take to lying.

Howland had accepted Jon’s words without much questioning which was disappointing.

From her great uncle she had expected derision and mocking. That Jon’s tale would give the knight another reason to mistrust him.

And she was shocked again.

“Your lady mother spoke to me of this red woman and how Renly Baratheon came to die. She named it sorcery.” The old knight was grim as he spoke. “If anyone but Cat had talked of such things I’d have called them mad. I knew her well and she was not one for false tales. In truth she was scared.”

Fine, she thought, I can accept Melisandre has powers I do not understand.

But what Jon thought these two bracelets he carried were prophesized to do, that would be foolish to accept.

Madness to accept.

“Your grace, I know little of this woman’s powers or this red god she professes to serve.” Howland opened his palm and traced a line across it with his finger. “But I know much of the history of my people and of the First Men themselves. Told to me by learned men who were told by learned men in a line that goes back to the founding of your very house...”

“I don’t think she needs a history lesson.” Her uncle grumbled but Howland ignored him.

“We follow the old gods and the old ways as our ancestors did. We trust in them as the First Men and the Children before them had for thousands of years and I can tell you, truthfully, they had great respect for blood magic and its power.” Howland closed his fist then. “And great fear of it as well.”

Something about how the lord spoke left her feeling uneasy. His earnestness troubled her for sure yet it was how she almost found herself believing his words that made her tremble.

“Perhaps the lord is right, perhaps not.” Brynden eyed Howland in a strange manner. “The same can be said for your knight here and his red woman. I do know we must march south at any rate. We cannot act in the North without the Greatjon and the others freed. To do so we’d have to take on that Frey force at the edge of the swamps so I see no harm in at least attempting what Snow suggests.”  

“Do you think we could capture their leader alive?” Jon asked, ignoring her uncle’s choice of words.

“It would not be impossible. Hopefully he’d be someone trusted enough to vouch safe the weaker parts of our plan.” Howland had answered.

“Still, the commander riding alone back to his castle…it would seem odd. Odd does not help us.”

“Unless he brought them something that garnered a return so dramatic.”

Heroes often ride back home alone in songs.

“A victory perhaps?” Sansa said then.

She gasped, almost covering her mouth in shock she’d unwittingly helped them. Help her uncle seized upon.

“Ha! Perhaps he brings a tale of crushing a force of bog devils!”

“Still, he could send a rider for such news.” Howland pointed out. “They would not think it such an accomplishment.”

“What if he brought with him a prisoner?” Jon asked. “A prisoner of some importance?”

She began to regret bringing Jon to this table then. Putting one of their own in harms way was not ideal and now he suggested making it two.

“I can’t spare any of my bannermen.” She said firmly.

“Of course. They are needed to command their forces.” He nodded and she felt relieved he saw reason.

The relief did not last.

“I however command no forces. It should be me.” Jon announced. “I will go.”

“That’s…that’s not a bad idea.” Her uncle said thoughtfully as she choked on rage. “He would have King Robb’s half brother, captured leading a raid against them. Surely something to boast about!”

“I forbid it!” She hissed. “I forbid all of it.”

“Sansa it could be the only way…”

“Using sorcery upon my uncle? Allowing you to be captured? That’s the only way?” She snapped at Jon. “I can’t accept that.”

“It is the best of many poor options your grace.” Howland said then, strangely calm in the face of her fury. “And the one that presents us with the least possible losses.”

“And what if they kill them?”

“Then I die where Cat and my king died. My life given so our army had a chance to bloody the Freys.” Brynden answered.

“And I will have finally fought for Robb.” Jon added. “And I’d be with my family.”

“No.” She did not think a queen should have to repeat herself. “There is another way…there has to be. I won’t allow it.”

Theirs eyes met and Jon had the gall to seem irritated. She was trying to save his life and he was acting as if she was a silly girl. He turned to face the other two men instead of her.

“My lord, ser…I beg a private word with our queen.”

“If her grace permits. We could go and find her fellow advisors.” Howland’s tone betraying his wish to do just that.

Speak with me privately.

Does he think me easy to sway?

She was not a silly little girl any longer. Yet in truth Sansa wanted them gone. Perhaps she could make Jon see reason without the other two there to think he a coward for backing down.

So she let them go, and as soon as the door had shut she rose and looked down on her traitor knight.

“Madness Jon. I name this madness and dark sorcery!”

“Possibly, but it could work.”

“Could work? You are worth more to me than a could work!”

She wanted him to feel ashamed of being so foolish. To accept he’d erred and see reason. Instead Sansa saw something in his eyes she didn’t like. The same look he’d had when he tried to accept blame for Littlefinger’s death on her behalf.

“I was not able to help Robb.” He said quietly. “Nor Bran or Rickon. Father or Arya. I can do this Sansa. I want to do this.”

“So you would leave me alone? Break your vow to me?”

He’s all I have now.

“Sansa, I swore to see you as Queen and returned home. If this is what I must do to make sure that comes to pass...”

“Then it won’t come to pass!” Sansa did not want the crown if it meant sending him to die. “It’s not worth what it could cost! None of it!”

Jon stared at her, appearing almost disappointed in her.

“A queen knows when to ask hard things of her subjects.” He said. “No matter how we take the Twins men will die. Men fighting for you. I could just as easily fall in that fight as any other.”

No I was going to keep you by me.

Safe and away from the fighting.

Quickly Sansa recognized those thoughts for the kind they were.

A foolish girl’s dreams.

Jon would never have accepted that. Nor would she have fought at hard to keep any others from wishing to do as he did now. It was a horrible thing to think but she was willing to lose almost anyone except Jon at this point.

“But if you die there it will be because I let it happen…I let you die…” She was crying now. “Just like I let father…”

He reached out and took her face in his hands, wiping tears away gently with his thumbs.

“If it happens, Sansa, if it happens, it will be a great many people’s fault.” Jon said soothingly. “But never yours. Not my Queen’s. Not for letting me get justice for all we’ve lost.”

The girl in her was screaming against this but the Queen she wanted to be saw his truths.

They had killed her mother. They had killed her brother.

And they'd reaped rewards for doing so, feasting in their castles, comfortable and warm while their friends marched to her home to make it theirs. 

It sickened her to think of. It sickened her more and more Jon's plan felt a path to their enemy's end.

A path that could seal his end as well.

“This plan is so foolish.” She said breathing deeply. “If I believe in it…in sorcery...if I allow it…depend on it...aren't I a fool? A stupid child who wants to believe in tales and songs?”

The last part confused Jon, his grey eyes looking deep into hers.

“The knights always return in the songs…”

He smiled.

Despite how horrible this all was. Despite the danger he asked her to send him to. Despite everything else.

Jon smiled.

“Then I shall try to be a knight of songs.”

 


 

 

ARYA

The first time Arya tried to escape Quiet Isle it had been using trickery.

The aftermath of the Rape of the Saltpans had come to the island her first morning there. They hadn’t let her leave her cottage, apparently the sights she’d see not meant for girls either.

She heard enough of it to know it was bad. Arya was kept in cottages meant for women and girls alone, the men dwelt elsewhere on the island. So it was the crying and screams of the women she heard as they were moved into cottages near her own.

“Let me help, let me be of use.” Mordane had begged of Judar and Thomas in turn. “Even just to do wash, I just want to help.”

The Elder Brother and Brother Narbert hadn’t returned to her, they must have been too busy. Her watchers weren’t allowed to talk, like most of the others on the island, but they could act.

Thomas had brought her the washbasin and dirty, bloody bandages to clean on the second day. Load after load she scrubbed as best she could before placing them outside to be taken for boiling. It was the third day that Thomas had felt comfortable enough to leave her unguarded as he took her newly finished pile away.

The idiot, she’d thought, next time leave me a crossbow as well.

And off she went.

Fleeing the first chance she got turned out to be a mistake.

It had been daylight and trying avoid the path from the night before had been a fool’s errand. Even with the shoes they’d gifted her she didn’t make much progress through the rough country and it was much too steep to climb down.

In the end she’d chanced the path again, still making it as far as the cloisters where the brothers slept before a group had spotted her.

The Elder Brother made time for her after that.

“I beg you not to risk yourself again, you can hear the suffering of the poor women and children from across the river.” He’d lectured Arya as she lay crouched upon her straw bedding. “The fiends that did it are not far, the defenses the seven grant us kept them away but they are nearer than I’d like.”

“I’m sorry...I heard the screams and you didn’t come back. Neither did Narbert…I just want to leave, to find my family…”

“Your family? I thought they were lost to you?” Elder Brother had asked and she’d almost thought of something to say to it before she caught on.

She had never said anything about her family being lost.

Mordane could still have her family.

“I have a family, in Stoney Sept…”

“Ah yes, Stoney Sept.” Elder Brother had seemed to contemplate that before shrugging. “It is far from here and too dangerous for you to travel alone. Be content as our guest until we can arrange your return there and you will be well cared for. I will not have you punished this time but if you disobey again, I cannot promise the same.”

“I understand.”

Mordane had spoken those words but Arya had already been plotting her next attempt. Just because she had been caught once didn’t mean she intended to stay here or be caught the next time.

“Do you wish to pray with me? For your return to your family?” The old brother’s request had been denied, apparently Mordane felt too ashamed for her actions to do so.

She’d behaved for a week after that, mostly because her watchers were back, never leaving the outside of her door. It was another week after that before she was allowed to do more than wash bandages and go to the sept to pray.

In truth she sat before the altar and said the names of the people she wished to die over and over.

The next week she was allowed to start doing chores and moved about the island more. She weeded the vegetable garden, did the wash and helped care for the victims from the Saltpans.

During her chores she’d managed to hide away a stick long and heavy enough to help her pretend it was Needle. In her cottage, every night and often enough when she’d say something one of the brother’s disagreed to and be confined to it for prayer, she’d practice.

Her second escape attempt had needed her to remember how to fight.

For this one she used forced for.

As much as she thought the quiet brothers craven she had grown to like Judar and Thomas. Or at least come to see them as men and not bad ones at that. So when the night came Arya took pity on Judar, only beating him over the head with the rung she’d hidden away rather than stabbing him in the throat.

It was dark but the moon had been out, she’d planned wait for that. She stuck to the path that time, moving quicker upon it than she would have otherwise. The only problem was how little of the lower parts of the island she’d glimpsed. The Elder Brother hadn’t permitted her too go that far, and she’d never seen the ferry landing.

When a bell had started tolling in the sept Arya knew it was for her. They’d found her in the apple orchard. The brothers knew the island better and it wasn’t long before a score of torches were chasing her through the trees. They’d caught her as she glimpsed the ferry landing, between the trees ahead with the river sparkling in the moonlight.

She counted at least two boats tied to it she knew could handle.

The Elder Brother had come to again and he hadn’t lied.

She was punished.

Maester Luwin had caned her many times, but he’d never had the strength of this old man. Tears had almost come to her eyes towards the end and her arse had stung something awful when he’d finished.

“If there was a septon here he’d hear your confession for what you did to Brother Judar. But if there is anything you’d say to me I’d hear it, perhaps why you think you need to flee here so badly?”

“Girls don’t live here.” She’d said remembering what she’d learned from what few conversations she had with the smallfolk visiting Quiet Isle. “And you’ve let other girls leave.”

“You are not other girls.” He’d said, watching her as if waiting for her to explain why that was true. When she said nothing the old man had sighed and made to leave before acting even more strangely. “And your path home is not safe yet.”

“The path seems safe enough.”

“I do not think we speak of the same one child.” The man spoke before turning away from her.

He’d almost been out the door before she asked a question which had been bothering her for some time.

“What happened to the Hound?”

It was a stupid thing to do but her arse had still been raw and she wasn’t thinking straight.

“That man died soon after we brought you both here. Some believe he was to blame for the killing at the Saltpans. Alas, it seems another is using that accursed name now, pretending to a name that isn’t his own.” Elder Brother inspected her face then. “It is an easy thing to take a name that isn’t your own.”

It was not an easy thing to wait another full moon before she’d try again tonight.

The brothers had grown cooler to her since her attack upon Judar. The proctors, when allowed to speak, would preach to her about how wicked she was. They’d tell her to accept the path the seven had set forth for her and how the one she tread would lead to darkness.

Fine by me, she thought, darkness will help me get out of here.

She’d continued with the chores set before her, if only to have a reason to leave her cottage and learn more of the island than she knew. The Elder Brother still refused her entry to the lower parts but she’d found areas on the heights to gaze down towards the ferry landing.

Tonight is the night I’ll get out of here, she vowed, I have to.

I’ll go mad another day with these people.

For some fool reason they’d given Arya another chair and it was key to her plan. They kept her door barred from the outside for some time now so opening and beating one of her watchers over the head with the chair wasn’t an option.

So she set it on fire instead, letting the flimsy thing catch flame and burn bright and tall. The fire in her hearth was too small and weak to collect what she needed of it.

When the chair had burned long enough Arya kicked away at the burning bits of wood and scooped up the coals and embers with her chamber pot.

“Thomas!” She cried out, trying to sound as panicked as she could. “Thomas please!”

The pot was hot in her hands before the brother opened her door and gaped at her wide-eyed.

“I’m sorry.” Was the only warning she gave.

Arya threw the embers full into his face, the sizzle of his skin and his screams were horrible to hear. It didn’t slow her down though.

She was by the screaming man and on her way down the path before she saw anybody else moving about.

Any other place she’d be worried someone would shout down to ring the bell, but she’d learned from her time here. All the brothers allowed to speak would be in the area below her and to raise the alarm the men above would have to break their vows.

Even without the moonlight she made good time down the path. She was well passed the Common Hall before the bell began to ring, Arya even laughed to hear it. Instead of going through the orchard again she ran through some of the terraced fields, the wet soil soaking her feet.

The ferry landing was closer still when she saw the torches in the orchard, she laughed.

I knew they’d think me that stupid, she thought, bunch of fools.

The landing held one large ferry but it was the two smaller paddleboats she ran to. Arya figured she was strong to get one to shore before it took her too far into the bay. Throwing the light fur sack of supplies she gathered into one of the boats she hopped in as well.

She set to untying the first knot and surprised herself how quickly it came undone. The second one was wet and much more taught, so she lowered her head and put her teeth to it, tasting the salt water as she did so.

Just a little more, she thought, it’s almost there.

The moment the knot came loose was when she started to fly.

“Hey!” Arya yelled as she was yanked upwards and thrown bodily onto the dock.

Her breath flew out of her and she was still gasping as she watched the tall hooded figure on the dock stumble some.

His leg’s no good.

I’ll knock the bugger in the water then.

She leapt up to charge at the man’s weak leg when three brothers appeared behind him.

“Fuck!” Arya screamed as they swarmed her. “Stupid craven bastards just let me be!”

This time she wasn’t brought back to her cottage, instead they carried her bodily to the sept where the Elder Brother and all the proctors gathered. He was facing the rest, his back to her, in midst of some sort of speech.

“My brothers…I know many of you have questioned why I chose to accept a strange girl child on our island for so long. You’ve come to me with concerns, ever fears for what it could mean for our septry. And you were right to do so.” The Elder Brother turned to acknowledge her presence. “For this girl can cause more damage than she has to Brother Thomas tonight…”

“If you’d let me leave I wouldn’t have done that!” Arya raged. She’d had enough of all these men. “You’re sheep! Not men! Men would’ve fought and helped the people at the Saltpans! All you did was hide here…”

“Be quiet girl.” The Elder Brother tried to stop her but she spat at him.

“Good people died in the war and you hide here! Good men died! I don’t want to be one of you! I’m stronger than any of…”

“Arya Stark! Be Silent!”

This time the Elder Brother silenced her. Every eye in the sept was on the old man, including her own.

He knows.

“Yes I know you are Lady Arya Stark, I apologize for letting you believe I didn’t. And to all my brothers for not telling them sooner.” At that the Elder Brother turned away from her and began pacing up around the assembled proctors. “Two moons ago the last known member of House Stark arrived at our septry. And for two moons I’ve kept this fact known only to myself, for her safety and for the safety of the realm.”

“Bugger the realm! Let me leave here!”

“I said be silent my lady!” The Elder Brother, if capable of anger, seemed to be showing it now. “We have no High Septon for me to report this to and considering the crimes done against the Starks and the seven themselves at the Red Wedding I dared not reveal the lady yet. For fear of what the Iron Throne would do.”

“Brother…they will see such as treason.” Brother Tambor said, probably the only proctor allowed to speak at the time.

“When our new High Septon was chosen I would have sought his counsel on the matter and presented myself before the crown for judgment.” The Elder Brother turned back to her now. “I tell you now because I could not continue here, asking you all to accept this lady’s behavior without explaining myself. Without explaining her.”

With that the Elder Brother came and stood before here, holding a hand just above her head.

“For I fear the trouble of our lands have destroyed more than just crops. More than the peace of our realm.”

He placed his hand upon her head and she snapped her teeth at him.

“I fear it has destroyed this girl’s goodness. Her light.” The man’s words caused her to stop snarling. “I fear her damaged, I fear she is without the true faith, and I fear for what she carries in her.”

“I don’t have anything in me.” She protested but the Elder Brother only shook his head and walked away from her.

“You do child.” He said softly. “You have a darkness within. Something I fear drives her towards evil...”

Arya froze. Something about all this was familiar.

The Ghost of High Heart.

She called me something, she tried to remember, something about darkness.

The Elder Brother answered for her.

“A dark heart.”

Chapter Text

 

WALTON

 

Where did the fucking northmen come from?

Walton was still asking himself that as they led him through their bloody camp. Men hooted and hollered at him. Some even brandished knifes.

I had almost a hundred mounted men.

Enough to fight off the bogdevils.

Not half the bloody North!

When he ordered his men to give chase to a score of swamp scum they'd spotted at the creek's edge Walton thought he might finally have earned a reason to return to the Twins. He hated that he’d been given this duty. Sent out to fight rabble such as these animas, it had been insulting.

It was Edwyn’s idea of course. To take men away from the Twins to see who they could trust. It felt like Black Walder’s claws were in everything it.

Even Walton’s own daughter.

Once they’d crushed these raiders he swore to return to the castle. He'd give a report and enjoy some days comfort, a serving girl he’d taken to as of late, perhaps even convince his father to send someone else back in his stead.

Then, out of nowhere, spearmen had attacked their right, charging through the trees howling bloody murder. Arrows came soon after, flying from archers who had risen up from below brush just in front of their prey.

As soon as Walton realized it was a trap he tried to retreat. There was nowhere to retreat to though. The creek blocked their left and a great number of horsemen had launched an attack from behind. The battle had been quick and bloody, his men slaughtered around him with little mercy shown for any the Northmen fell upon.

Plenty of mercy left for Walton though. While his men died nary an arrow or sword came near him. In fact a group of enemy men had even formed up around him, defending him from harm.

Despite everything else, that put him at ease. Even offered him some hope.

Until he was pulled from his horse to fall hard upon his arse.

As they dragged through a camp in the making he spotted bogdevils, Northmen and even a sigil of House Royce from the Vale. The tour ended abruptly when they reached one tent in particular, one his captors pulling aside the flaps to throw him within.

He landed face first, his nose exploding in blood and pain. He cried out and a boot slammed into his side for his trouble.

“Enough.” A deep voice commanded. “Get him on his feet.”

Despite the pain Walton thought he recognized that voice. He’d grown to hate it during his march with the Wolf King. He was yanked to his feet and, sure enough, he saw the old knight he expected standing before him.

“Blackfish. You fool.” Walton spat at him.

To his disappointment the mix of blood and spittle missed Tully’s face entirely, landing upon his boot instead.

The Blackfish marched forward and responded with an armored fist into Walton’s gut. He would have doubled over had the men on either side of him not held him up.

“I was wrong, now it’s enough.” The Blackfish’s face was stone as the guards forced Walton’s face to meet his gaze.

“I was right your grace.” The knight spoke to some figures behind him. “They were led by no mere captain but a Frey himself. I give you Walton Frey, son number who cares of another damned son of Walder Frey.”

Your grace?

He half expected to see Stannis Baratheon himself standing before the Blackfish. Instead he found a stern looking young man next to a comely girl. She had long red hair and in her simple gown of grey something about made her seem very familiar.

Then he spotted the crown of bronze upon her brow.

“Your grace? Who is the child?”

“I am Sansa Stark. Queen in the North.” The girl said and the tone of her voice had none of the appeal of the rest of her.

“The Imp’s wife?” Walton laughed. “Following another wolf pup eh Blackfish? Hope to do better this time hiding behind her skirts rather than castle walls?”

Tully’s hand flexed on his sword hilt but he made no move to strike. Something else was moving though. It came from behind the so-called Stark girl and her companion. A giant wolf had now emerged from the shadows and Walton drew back away from it.

No, we killed it.

We cut off its head! Took it's pelt!

It took him a moment to overcome his terror enough to see this was a different wolf altogether.

This one was white as snow but just as massive as the one they killed during the wedding. Its bright red eyes were the worst thing about it, for they had locked upon Walton and had a hungry look about them.

It can’t know what we did, he thought, it’s just a stupid beast.

The wolf bared its teeth in a silent snarl.

“Keep that thing away.” He struggled with his guards but they held firm. “Just keep it away.”

“He is of a size with you ser.” The young man placed his hand upon the beast’s head. “His armor and cloak would fit well.”

My armor?

Are the Starks outlaws now?

The Blackfish grunted and the youth came walked around Walton. Suddenly the man was grabbing roughly at his bound hands, pulling his fingers apart. One by one the rings Walton wore were ripped forcefully from his fingers and tossed at the Blackfish who caught them with ease.

“These will help too.”

They have become bandits.

That meant they were desperate and Walton felt a surge of hope. If they were so eager for armor and gold then perhaps they’d be willing to ransom him.

“Are you sure?” The Blackfish eyed the rings warily.

“I’m sure of nothing. She said as much of the man that made him look as others see him.”

That confused him. When he’d let his men loot corpses they mostly argued about the quality of the gold. This lot should be arguing over how much his ransom could be. Walton prepared himself to lie about his value when the questions started.

“How many men are at the Twins now?” The Blackfish moved to a brazier where a brand lay heating upon the glowing coals. “Answer Frey.”

Walton puffed his chest out and tried to sound braver than he was.

“Two thousand, hungry for battle.”

The wolf snarled again, oddly silent and took a menacing step towards him. Walton had seen first hand what those beasts could do to a man and feared it more than any branding.

Where did they keep finding such foul creatures?

“He lies.” The ring thief said as he went to stand beside the girl. “It would be better to answer truthfully. How many men?”

“Ask Tully, he saw our army and ran.”

The Blackfish made a sound like a laugh and lifted the brand from the fire. It burned a bright orange at the end and the Blackfish’s eyes narrowed upon that.

“Remove his armor and coverings.” He commanded.

Walton’s hands were no sooner undone then the guards went to work stripping him to his small clothes. The girl did not look away, apparently his nudity did not bother her. He’d always said the northerners were little more than savages but it did not comfort him much to be proven right.

As soon as it was done his hands were bound again, in front of him this time.

“Leave us.” The Stark girl’s words caused the guards and to bow and leave the tent.

The Black twirled the brand before Walton, smirking some at his distress, before tossing beside the brazier.

“Won't really be needing that. But I’ll need your help with my armor Snow.” The Blackfish said as he began to remove his plate. “Niece, I’d have you avert your eyes.”

“Of course uncle.” The Stark girl said, turning her back to them as the young man helped the old knight to strip away his armor.

Walton thought to run then but the wolf snapped in the air, reminding him he was still under guard. So Walton watched feebly as the Blackfish’s armor was piled in the corner of the tent, shaking as much in fear as from the chill of being almost nude.  When Tully began to remove his clothing as well he got a sick feeling as well.

It is too foul for him to do.

He’d heard sometimes men would be used as maids as a way to get information from them. When Tully was down to just his small clothes Walton shook his head in disbelief.

“Blackfish…you wouldn’t…all those years you never took a wife but I never thought…”

“By the seven you Freys disgust me.” The old man shook his head as he walked to the pile of Walton’s clothing and began dressing in them.

What is happening here?

He watched as Tully dressed as him, even donning his armor with the Northman's help. Then the rings they’d taken from him were put on the old knight’s fingers. Walton’s fingers were plumper than the knights so they were changed to larger fingers.

Tully walked back over to his own pile of clothes, searching his pockets until he pulled up a silver bauble of sorts which he tucked into his new garb.

“You’re supposed to wear his possessions.” The Northman protested and the Blackfish scowled.

“I’m bloody wearing them. And I’m not leaving this either. We’ll have to hope your red magic is just that good.” He gestured to a bag at the young man’s side. “You have them?”

Answered with a nod Tully turned his attention to Walton again.

“How many men are at the Twins?”

“I told you.” He said through chattering teeth. “An army.”

The knight glanced to his companion who shook his head.

“I warned you.” The young man said. “Ghost.”

That word was the only warning Walton had before the beast jumped up to claw into his chest and snap its jaws a hair away from his face. He cried out and fell backwards onto his sore arse. The beast did not follow his fall but began to pace directly before him.

“How many men?” The Blackfish asked again.

“I’ll never…”

His words became a scream as the wolf’s jaws were on his leg. The pain was a blinding flash as the beast wrenched his leg back and forth. He screamed and kicked but the jaws held firm and were soon coated in blood.

Through all his cries someone spoke and the teeth were suddenly gone.

“Oh maiden save me. Mother save me.” Walton writhed in agony on the ground. His leg below his knee was a mangled mess. “My leg….”

“Tell us. How many men?”

The wolf moved above Walton’s face now, blood staining its snout and dripping from those fangs. He had seen the other wolf tear men’s throats out.

Imagine what it can do to faces.

“Three…three hundred.”

“Why so few?”

“More than enough to hold a castle such as ours!”

The wolf snapped at his face again and he released his bladder in the terror. He was cringing away, snivelling with fear but noticed the Stark girl watching. Her nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Speak Walton. Before we let you bleed to death.” Tully warned and Walton realized he did feel faint.

“Hunting outlaws...Emmet wanted a host to patrol the Tully lands to show strength…the Mallisters aren’t trusted…one last harvest…” He let it all flow out. “Too many problems not enough men!”

More questions followed. Less about the defences and more about who was at the castle. Strange ones about who was related to who, how Walton was treated, things of that like. All the while his leg sat bleeding while the wolf watched hungrily.

“I believe him.” The Blackfish said looking to the girl. “I think it is time.”

“Then do as you must sers.” She replied.

The northman pulled two items from his bag. They looked to be bracelets, each with a single bright red ruby on it. He went over to the brazier and rolled up his sleeve to hold his arm above the fire. The Blackfish joined him, taking a knife out and grasping the young man’s arm.

“Go ahead.”

The Blackfish needed no further encouragement before cuting quickly across the other man's arm.

What is this? Torture?

Is he a prisoner too?

Walton took notice the cut was not too deep, enough for blood to begin leaking into the fire. The bleeding man held the two bracelets under the wound until each had been bled upon. Walton wasn’t sure if it was the blood loss or his fear but the rubies seemed to glow.

“First on him, then you.” The boy said after a few moments of his blood falling into the fire but the Blackfish was unconvinced.

“Are you sure?”

“Sure enough to bleed for it, go on.”

The Stark girl came forward with a cloth, touching it to the cut man’s arm as the old knight walked over and grabbed one of Walton’s wrists.

“What are you doing?”

“In a small way I hope nothing.” The Blackfish said before clamping a bracelet down upon Walton’s wrist.

He was cold and growing weak, but he swore the bracelet felt warmer than it should. The Blackfish hooked the other bracelet around his own wrist and then did nothing. The knight simply crouched there beside Walton’s bloody leg, staring at the bracelet.

A glance to the others showed them watching the old knight, as if waiting for something. Walton was beginning to worry they’d gone mad when he saw it.

At first he thought it was the dim light in the tent.

Perhaps even the loss of blood making him see things.

For the Blackfish was changing before his eyes.

It wasn’t just the old man. The air around them both seemed to be shimmering but no fire cast this light. As he watched the knight’s body began to take a different form. His shoulders rounded, his lean frame widened and bulged some while his grey hair changed style and then color.

Seven hells his face.

That’s not his face.

The Blackfish’s face was being transformer as well. His nose narrowed and grew to a familiar shape and he seemed to shrink a little.

It was over before Walton could say it begun but as the Blackfish rose it was no longer the Blackfish staring down at him.

For now Walton was staring down at himself.

“Gods…uncle…” The girl sounded terrified herself and paled.

“I take it I have become uglier?” The other Walton asked in a different voice, turning to face them.

“Indeed ser.” The other man answered. “You are what we need you to be.”

Not Walton nodded then turned his own eyes on the trembling, bleeding Walton on the floor. His face seemed to darken.

To see his own face looking at him with such hatred caused Walton to forget all else. He rolled to his stomach and began to drag himself to the tent flap.

“Then his part is done.” Other Walton said. “We’ve no need for him?”

“Not as long as you wear what you do.”

His leg was a screaming wreck but he urged himself onward. Another few moments and he’d be without. Away from these monsters.

“Your grace, I’d ask you look away.”

“No, I won’t…I would see this. It’s on my command.”

Walton could almost reach the flap. His fingers close to touching it when he heard the word.

“Ghost.”

The wolf.

He’d forgotten the wolf.

He looked back just in time to see flash of the teeth as they came at his throat. 

Other Walton was there, watching.

Then the man born as Walton Frey saw nothing more.

 


 

 JON

 

“There they are. Won’t be long now.”

The Blackfish pointed ahead at the castles in the distance. Except he wasn’t really Brynden Tully anymore. His face was different. His body was different.

Even his voice is different, Jon realized, can he hear that as well?

To the others it would look as if it was Walton Frey riding beside him. As far as they all knew the Blackfish was scouting other approaches to the castle.

This Frey a mere traitor.

“Galbart was right. An army could never take those things.” He said, squinting ahead at the castle which appeared formidable even this far out. “How long do you think? Within the hour?”

“Likely. Took about that when I rode south with King Robb.” The Blackfish said with a grimace. “When he had to pay homage to Walder Frey before crossing that damned bridge.”

Jon caught the strange look shared between Willem and the other man riding with them.

Walton Frey never rode south with Robb.

“Your grandfather is quite the monster. Like the rest of your family.” Jon said quickly, willing the Blackfish to understand.

The man jerked around upon his horse, appearing ready to spit an insult back at him before catching himself.

“You’re right…of course…lost our way.” The Blackfish shot a glance at the others who scowled that Walton would dare to look their way.

It had taken some convincing from Sansa and Howland for Maege, Galbart and the others to accept that Walton Frey had been a spy the whole time. He thought it unlikely Yohn ever would have believed it no matter what they said. For once he was glad Sansa had sent him back to the sisters to gather his men, just in case things in the south went poorly.

And they surely could

Even Robb’s original army of almost twenty thousand wouldn’t have been able to take that castle by storm. Sansa’s army only numbered a tenth of that.

And they’re two days behind us four.

We’re on our own.

“I wish you well on your journey brave knights.” Sansa had said before Willem and he were to ride out of camp. “You all will be in my prayers. All of our prayers.”

“I’d rather be in the Twins sitting on Lord Walder’s chair when you lot come bursting in.” Willem had joked but even his good humor couldn’t break a smile upon her face.

It shamed him to be glad Sansa hadn’t a chance to say a farewell to him alone, to think it better she had to do so with others about. He hadn’t wanted to see her cry. Not again.

Not like in his dreams.

Those had been strange dreams.

The night after leaving he'd dreamt of Sansa laying upon her furs, weeping and cradling him against her. Jon had wanted to comfort her, to stop her whimpering but he couldn’t speak. Only watch, and allow her to muffle her sobs against him.

When he’d awoken in his tent he’d half expected to be beside her. Instead he’d found himself sharing a tent with the other three men. The damp, cold had made him wish Ghost was there, the wolf often warmer than a hearth, but he'd left his friend behind as well.

The direwolf had been beside Sansa during their farewells and Jon hoped he’d stay there throughout the march. There was no place for Ghost at the Twins and Sansa promised to keep his friend with her at all times. It wasn’t really necessary, lately Ghost had been happy enough to be near Sansa when Jon could not be. She said many nights during the chilly march south the wolf had come into her tent and slept beside her. He believed she could have no better guard while he was gone.

Ghost can be her shield for now.

I must be her sword in this.

“Remember my sword bastard.” The Blackfish interrupted then, speaking in a hushed tone so that the others would not hear. “Do not think to betray us in this. If I get one hint of you hoping to raise yourself up by giving over the Queen to the Freys…”

“You’ll kill me.” Jon finished for him. “If I did betray Sansa I imagine they’d do much the same once the deed was done. Why would a family that cares so little for honor care to honor a deal with a bastard?”

When the Blackfish glared instead of answering Jon answered for him.

“They wouldn’t. So I’ll keep my word and do my part.”

“And if they put you to the question?”

“Then I’ll keep my tongue…or bite it off if I can’t.”

He spoke sincerely in that, for he’d already expected the castles ahead could hold such a fate.

If not worse.

The Blackfish grunted then took a glance at Jon’s face.

“You can take a punch, that’s for certain. How do you fare?”

In truth, poorly.

“I am well.”

Jon sported a broken lip, swollen eye and a cut over his cheek. The eye bothered him the most. With his bound hands he reached up to gently touch his swollen face.

They had been well away from camp when he had asked the Blackfish to do what needed to be done. Sansa would have been pained to see it. If their story was to be believed and Jon captured during a battle he must have injuries. Wounds the old knight had obliged to give him with little restraint.

With bare knuckles, thankfully.

“I fear I am still prettier than you.”

At that the Blackfish actually chuckled a bit. They travelled  with little talk the rest of the short journey. The Blackfish only speaking again when the castle on their side of the river loomed before them.

“They will send riders soon. Everyone remember your parts to play in this mummer’s show.”

“We know our parts well Frey.” Willem said with disgust. His hand went to his sword hilt. “It’s your family with the history of forgetting its place. Do well to remember yours.”

They did not have long to wait for the riders Ser Brynden expected. When they were well within range of the archers standing along the castle walls a party of riders rode from the gate towards them.

He counted six of them, with a hard, ferret faced man in heavy armor leading the way.

“Walder Rivers, damn. He’s a harsh one.” The Blackfish murmured quietly. “Be wary.”

Jon was too busy praying to be wary. Hoping against anything these men saw a Frey beside him and not the Tully knight. The party reined up before them, only Walder Rivers rode on, circling Jon’s group.

“Walton!” The man barked with little warmth and less welcome.  “What are you doing here? Where are your men?”

“Walder, I left my men where they were needed. Watching for more raids, I had safe enough escort with these two good men.” The Blackfish gestured to the Vale men at the mention of good men and then jerked his head towards Jon. “I have a prisoner for our lord and news he must hear. Now bring us into the castle.”

“Do not presume to give me orders.”

“Do not presume to forget which one of us is a trueborn Frey!”

As the Frey bastard glared at the Blackfish over that insult Jon’s face pulsed in pain, someone worsening under the stress. The waiting was the worst agony of all but after a few moments Rivers turned his horse back towards the castle and waved them on. The rest followed after with the Frey men surrounding the group.

We’re in, he thought, we actually made it in.

Why doesn’t that make me feel better?

The answer was plain enough as they crossed the moat. Jon saw archers on the walls and spearmen at the gates. More awaiting within the castle, all in depressingly formidable positions.

If anything goes awry we would die before we had a chance to run.

Within the courtyard the others began to dismount as Jon spied another Frey arriving through stone archway, flanked by two guards. He hoped this was another the Blackfish knew by sight. He’d claimed to know most of the Freys well enough but admitted knowing all of them was impossible.

“Welcome back uncle!” This Frey called happily, clearly more disposed to the Blackfish than the other. “Home so soon, good news I hope!”

The man held out his hand and the Blackfish shook it with just a hint of hesitation.

“Yes…Edwyn…Edwyn! Good news indeed! I have brought guests.” With that he made the introductions. “May I present Ser Willem Royce in service to House Royce of Runestone. I met him on the Kingsroad escorting a caravan from White Harbor through the Neck to the Westerlands. They seek a crossing.”

With that the Blackfish leaned in towards Edwyn.

“And they’re willing to pay for it.”

Edwyn smiled and went forth to greet the Royce men. After that he took notice of Jon still atop his horse, beaten and bound.

“And who is this?”

“This? Why this is Jon Snow. Bastard of Eddard Stark, half brother to Robb Stark and leader of a force of bog devils. I crushed them two days ago and brought this half wolf back so he could answer to our lord.”

With that the Blackfish yanked Jon bodily and threw him to the ground. He landed hard in the mud and his breath flew from him as laughter erupted from all around him.

He still hadn’t recovered when he was pulled to his feet by two Frey men-at-arms. Willem gave him a concerned look and Jon hoped his friend could accept this treatment was necessary. The guards held him firmly between them as Edwyn Frey regarded him with disdain.

“A bastard Stark. That family is just about done for isn’t it? We’d better show our lord your prize and introduce your guests.” Edwyn beckoned them to follow and the guards forced him along behind the Blackfish and the others.

They were led into hall where several weasel-faced men looked to be holding a meeting of sorts. They surrounded a massive black chair carved into a likeness of two towers linked by a bridge. There sat an ancient, pale looking man.

With a grey, wolf pelt warming his lap.

It took Jon but a moment to realize the old wretch was Walder Frey. Another to accept where he had gotten that pelt.

Greywind, he fumed, by the gods have they no respect?

If Ghost was here they’d learn some.

“My lord, your grandson has brought good tidings!” Edwyn announced as he moved to stand beside the old lord, elbowing another Frey from that position.

“Which one?” Lord Walder asked, squinting at the newcomers. “Oh, Walton. Kill some frog eaters? A great warrior you are. Heh.”

“I did my lord!” The Blackfish did his mummery well, bowing and all. “And I…”

“Have returned without your men.” A hobbled man interrupted, his voice thick with distrust as he handed some parchments off to a maester. “To lead a company out only to return without it. How strange.”

“I did as was ordered Lothar. I came upon a force of bog devils, over two hundred I’d say. I crushed them and took their leader captive.” With that the Blackfish gave a wave and Walder Rivers pushed Jon forward. “May I present Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark and brother to the dead Robb Stark.”

“Ned Stark’s bastard. Heh.” Lord Walder pointed a gnarled finger at Jon while shaking the pelt with the other. “Your mother look like this?”

“I’d rather that be true than be a trueborn Frey!” Jon roared before spitting towards the monster.

It had been a stupid thing to do but his fury stripped his reason. He was surrounded by Robb's murderers and wanted to insult them, no matter how feebly. They answer was anything but.

A fist slammed against his cheek and his vision blurred for a moment but the guards held him up.

“Should’ve killed him where you found him Walton. Saved yourself the trip.” Lothar asked. “What’s a bastard to us?”

“He commanded the bogdevils which attacked us. I believe he fights on behalf of House Reed.” The Blackfish answered before shrugging. “And we usually bring Starks here before we kill them.”

Lord Walder answered that with a hacking laughter, one others in the room soon joined in.

“Walton…I don’t remember you being so clever. Killing crannogmen suits you.” Lothar quipped as he hobbled forth to inspect Jon. “His head could be a good gift to send King’s Landing. They weren’t pleased we kept the wolf boy’s…”

That was too much.

And Lothar came too close to let it go unpunished. Jon’s used his guards’ hold for leverage to drive his knee forward and up into Lothar’s groin.

The man doubled, falling to the floor wheezing in pain. Jon didn’t get to enjoy the sight for long, the guards lashing out themselves in vengeance.

Their fists left him bloodied and hanging between them, unable to gain his feet. He fought to stay awake but could not focus on the conversation around him. Barely taking notice when they began dragging away.

For how long they carried him he couldn’t say, his senses returning quite slowly. His feet scrapped along the stone floors as he tried in vain to regain his footing. Soon they were descending, down a winding staircase, the air becoming dank and foul along the way.

When they reached bottom they were in a very dark place with few torches offering any light.

“We’ve got another Northman for you Kevron!” One of his guards yelled and Jon realized were in a dungeon.

Barred cells lined each side of the passage, dark shapes moving within them. Even worse things moving without. 

An ugly, scarred man wearing a bloody apron marched towards them from the other end of the dungeon. He grinned with a green rotting set of teeth as Jon was dragged to meet him.

“Good, haven’t been allowed to touch the Northmen for some time.” He blew rancid breath in Jon’s face. “Too valuable they say.”

“Be careful, Lothar just had his balls shoved up into his throat getting that close. This be Robb Stark’s bastard brother.”

“Jon Snow!” A powerfully loud voice bellowed from off to the side. “No lad no! Not you! Leave the lad be you cowardly cunts!”

A huge bearded man had pressed himself hard against the bars of a cell, trying to force his manacled hands through them. Even with his face as filthy and pale as it was Jon recognized the man well enough.

Lady Stark scolded this lord often as feasts for being too loud.

The Greatjon.

His hair and beard were wild and matted with a filthy bandage covering the side of his head. Yet the man lived. And threatened.

“I’ll tear your fucking hearts out with these hands! I swear it!”

“You keep that up and you’ll be losing another ear Umber!” The Kevron man spat at the Lord of Last Hearth before beckoning Jon’s guards forward.

They took him into a dark, stone walled room not far from the cells. There was nothing in the room save a brazier, a table with tools upon it and chains hanging from the ceiling.

As his guards undid his bindings Jon tried to struggle and earned more bruises for it. They chained his hands above him, stretching him so his feet barely touched the floor. The guards spoke to his gaoler then and Jon could not hear their words.

“Merl! Get in here!” The gaoler yelled as the guards left. A stringy haired brute came into the room then and eyed Jon cruelly. “Get that shirt off him." 

After it was cut away and he hung bare-chested at their mercy Kevron went to the table and tossed a whip to Merl.

"Now we be having some questions for you.”

“You’ll be having no answers from me.” Jon replied.

Gritting his teeth, he steeled himself for whatever would be coming. He thought of the man who had been his father. Of Robb. Of Sansa.

Brave little Arya.

Merl sneered as he walked to take a place at Jon’s back.

“Oh we will. Everyone knows something.”

Kevron took a poker to the brazier, smiling as he moved the embers about. Jon, despite his fear, some humor in that statement.

“Truly, I know nothing.”

 


 

BRYNDEN

 

“This is our chance Walton! How can’t you see that?”

Edwyn Frey grasped Brynden by his shoulders and shook him.

His skin crawled at the man’s touch, struggling to stop himself from beating the Frey to death even now. He could have easily done so.

Save for Walder Rivers they were alone in the chamber, Edwyn and he. The bastard would’ve been a challenge but Brynden had killed better men with worse odds.

Yet he stayed his hand, for these two had had brought him here for a reason and his interest was peaked.

“I don’t Edwyn.” He spoke truthfully. “I don’t follow.”

Brynden had no idea what the man was talking about, nor why it was so urgent. After they’d left the Frey hall he’d wanted to follow after Jon Snow. These whoresons had led him here instead.

“Think Walton!” Edwyn urged. “Black Walder is far away south. Most of the men loyal to Lothar and him gone as well or in the western castle. You must see this is our chance to get them before they get us.”

Walder Rivers grunted in agreement.

“Don’t be a fool Walton, you know full well this was always the plan.”

“He’s not a fool, we’re all together in this after all. We all know this is the only way.” Edwyn clapped his hands together. “Our chance to act and take leadership of this house!”

Edwyn’s words slowly dawned on Brynden.

“You wish to take the castles?” He asked. “Take them from the Freys…I mean ourselves?”

“Just like we planned.” Edwyn nodded.

They plot against their own kin?

He was as surprised as he was disgusted.

But such tidings could only help Brynden and his goal. He’d done well so far but more help would always be needed. Somehow he’d managed to convince Walder Frey to allow Ser Willem’s caravan through the crossing.

It was a feat that shocked him still.

Willem had done as Sansa had bid him, producing a parchment with Yohn Royce’s seal and offering gold in exchange for being permitted to cross at the Twins. The Freys had listened, Lord Walder eyeing the knight greedily before commanding the Royce men to wait without while they conferred amongst themselves.

Which meant bicker like cutpurses.

“We have many enemies and few friends now, why should we let these Vale men through?” Lame Lothar had asked in the hall, still wheezing as he recovered from Jon’s knee.

Brynden had to admit he’d silently cheered the bastard lad’s attack.

All the while Edwyn argued in favor of his ploy.

“Having few friends is exactly why we should let them through. House Royce is a powerful one in the Vale. With Lysa Tully dead we should hope to make a friend of such a House.”

“The Vale is ruled by Littlefinger…our new overlord at Harrenhal…that a man with no sons should rule over me. Mayhaps the finger that counts be too little. Heh.” The disgusting wretch that was Lord Walder mumbled to himself. “That Lysa bitch, no beauty like that sister of hers. Best part of killing her was finally seeing that body she kept covered up. Heh.”

The self-control it took Brynden not to draw his sword and do for that smiling rat was something he’d steadily developed over years.

“And the Royces hate him!” Edwyn said suddenly. “The two outside told him as much. Imagine having them on our side against Baelish? As if that upjumped shit should act as our overlord. It’s us who belong as the lords of the Riverlands!”

He stole my lines.

Words very much like Edwyn’s were meant to have come from Brynden, given to him by Sansa and the others. Yet the Freys were proving more helpful than they could have dreamed. Edwyn was lying about what Brynden had told him but that meant little as he was watched Lord Walder nod in agreement.

“Yes…yes…but we have few enough men here. They will see that. Mayhaps they get ideas.” With those words Brynden thanked the gods for Walder Frey’s deviousness.

He had been prepared to do his best to sway to the argument in their favor and hoped Walton was not such an idiot that it would seem suspicious. In truth he knew little enough of the man whose image he wore.

“Then I'll bid them cross at night. They’d see little and I could have my men ride behind them in case of treachery.” Brynden paused then, acting as if he was coming up with all this on the spot. “We could put serving wenches along the walls and they’d look like archers.”

“You and your serving girls…” Lord Walder chuckled before coughing and pounding upon his chest, finally prevailing is spitting out a thick green glob of filth that he spit on the floor.

In the end the Frey greed prevailed as well. They sent for Willem to return and when he did Lord Walder, the greedy sot, demanded two wagons of his goods as a toll for crossing. It was a high price and Willem acted wroth and even argued a little.

All as he had been told to do before accepting the price in the end.

“And you’ll allow my men to inspect the wagons before entering the castle!” Brynden had added. “To ease my lord’s mind.”

Lord Walder had nodded his assent to that. Ensuring it was Brynden's false force tasked with doing so took such an action away from the actual Frey. The meeting finally ended and the two Royce men departed, Brynden hoping to as well.

Instead he ended up in this room with the earlier events turning out be but a prelude to a greater bit of treachery.

“If we can get word to your men to ride into the east castle and seize it as they do so I can have our men in the west take men loyal to Lothar into custody!” Edwyn’s spittle landed upon Brynden’s face he was so excited. “We’d have the castle with almost no bloodshed!”

Walder Rivers, the piece of filth, proved himself to be more sensible

“What of the Vale men marching through? If fighting breaks out they may think they are under attack and strike.”

Brynden cursed him for sound thinking. He was so close to having these Freys do half the work of taking the castle for them. Edwyn no longer looked as certain as he had when as idea struck Brynden.

“When I send word to my men I can also send word to the Royces. If they help us take the west castle we will allow them to keep their wagons. You saw how angry he was to lose them!” As he said the words the hope sprung again into Edwyn’s eyes again and even Walder appeared impressed.

“Send the rider then! At once!” Edwyn rubbed his hands together and he seemed such a desperate man then. “Walder, you command the west, see that no harm comes to our allies and take it as quickly as you can help in the east. Put all of Lothar’s men on one wall or something. Yes…yes that would work. Do that and Walton and I will be in the west to surprise the others.”

Thank the seven for this man’s stupidity, Brynden thought, or his greed.

Whichever helps us more.

Edwyn looked ready to continue on but Brynden had to put a halt to his. A vow he’d made to Sansa was pounding in the back of his mind every moment they remained here.

“I will Edwyn…we can talk more later but I’d see to my prisoner first. If there’s any surprises awaiting us from the bogdevils I’d know.”

“Yes yes, but see it done soon Walton.” Edwyn turned to Walder and began speaking quickly as Brynden left.

Sansa had made him promise to keep that lad alive.

The girl looks too much like Cat to disappoint her.

Not after failing her mother like I did.

He’d visited this castle several times in his life and knew it reasonably well. Somehow it seemed darker now, as if the crimes committed here had drained it of what good it once held. The thought of Cat dying here made him reach instinctively into his tunic.

There he found the old silver keepsake he’d refused to abandon for this sorcery.

He hadn’t let go off since he was still a young man. It was all he had of his love.

Brynden clutched it all the harder now as he continued his search for the bastard.

It was a small comfort he’d managed to convince the Freys to question Jon Snow rather than killing him. The boy was taken away to the dungeons and he still had a faint remembrance of where they were from his time here almost half a lifetime ago.

It was hard to reconcile Cat’s harsh words regarding Jon Snow with what he’d seen of the bastard so far.

Maege and Galbart had heaped praise upon him. Yohn Royce had gone so far to knight him and that old warrior was a hard man to impress.

At worst he presumes too much with Sansa, he thought, but she encourages it.

Her loneliness shields her to what Snow’s proper station should be.

Whatever it is, it’s not a dungeon I know that.

As Brynden descended the staircase he hoped they hadn’t beaten the boy too badly. He’d acted loyal enough to his great niece and had comforted Jeyne as she lay dying. That memory was hard to think on so he pushed it away.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs a pair of guards nodded to him and pushed open the heavy door towards the cells.

Then he heard the shouting. And the screaming.

“Gods damned Freys leave him be!”

Brynden recognized the Greatjon’s voice. Sure enough the captive lord was off in one of the cells, bellowing through his bars. But the Greatjon’s shouts were different than the cries of pain echoing down the dark corridor.

Those belonged to another voice he recognized.

He moved quickly, practically throwing a guard out of his way as the man swore. A room just beyond the cells was the source of the cries and he wrenched the door open.

Merciful mother…

“Stop! Stop now!”

Brynden’s shout froze the two men in place as they held the limp, bloody body between them. One backed away from the brazier leaving the other one struggling to support their prisoner.

“We were told to get answers…”

“Not to kill him! This is my prisoner! Leave him!” Brynden tried to control his rage and not sound as offended as he was.

The scarred man shrugged and waved at his friend. The fool tossed the wreck of a lad to the hard floor, Brynden wincing to hear the wet smack of his flesh upon it.

He glimpsed the bloody whip on the table as he came to ensure the young man still lived where he lay. A quick inspection proved him alive but Brynden drew away in disgust at what had been done to him.

“He said nothing to the lash so I went to the flame next to…”

The torturer’s words were cut off as Brynden grabbed him by the collar and yanked the monster’s face towards his own.

“He survives the night.” He growled. “Or you don’t.”

He held him there, staring fiercely into the ugly man’s eyes until the monster nodded. Brynden felt a strong urge to stay in the dungeons to ensure his commands were kept yet he knew better.

You can stay no longer. It would seem strange.

“I will return in the morning. Remember my words.” Brynden said as he left. “He lives. Or you don’t.”

He lives or I have to explain why to my queen.

As he passed the cells a hand reached out to grab at his arm. His reflexes were good and he avoided the attempt easily enough, spinning to face his would be attacker with his hand on Walton’s blade.

And he was shocked at the face peering back at him through the iron bars.

“Olyvar?”

Robb Stark’s former squire was much skinnier than he remembered. His clothes were tattered and his Frey face covered in bruises. Little was left of the passionate youth Brynden remembered.

“Walton! Please my brother and sister, are they well?” Olyvar asked fiercely. “I beg that of you! Any word!”

Brynden was at a loss as he tried to remember which of the dozens of Freys were Olyvar’s relations.

Perwyn, he remembered, Perwyn Frey is his brother.

And his sister was…oh seven help me.

“Roslin? Is Roslin here Olyvar?” Brynden asked without masking his desperation.

The girl was his nephew’s wife. Carried his child. His heir.

“Tell me is she here with you?”

It was Olyvar’s turn to be shocked.

“In the dungeons? Of course not! She was in her chambers last I knew but please Walton, is she well?”

Brynden prayed she was.

 


 

SANSA

 

“I beg your pardon, you were saying something?”

Sansa realized that Maege had been speaking to her and she was lost in her thoughts again. Or her worries.

Their two horses were quite close together while the rest of her army stretched out before and behind her. Howland was commanding the front while Galbart the rear, Maege held the center where Sansa rode as her side.

And it was a rude thing to ignore her companion.

Yet the lady was untroubled, she even smiled at Sansa.

“I made some comment about the weather, something to take my thoughts off my worries. Yours are worse than mine I fear.”

“I have never liked this plan.” Sansa admitted, fighting the urge to call it Jon’s plan. It was little comfort to pretend she hadn’t agreed to it. “Too much depends on putting so much I care about in danger.”

“Your brother was nervous as well the last time we rode this way. Much at stake then as well.” Maege said. “He hid it well but I’ve seen more battles than most young men. Just remember that he too worried and yet went on to win a great victory.”

But he still died, she thought, and we sent Jon to his killers.

I sent Jon to his killers.

“You would not be your brother’s sister if you were not daring. Or your mother’s daughter if you didn’t do what needed to be done.” Maege said, putting a hand to her chest. “May we avenge them both.”

This fierce lady often spoke warmly of her mother. Sansa knew many thought ill of her mother for releasing the Kingslayer but this lady had nothing but praise, holding mother to an esteem higher than most.

It gladdened her heart on this long, sad ride.

Maege was the exact opposite of everything Sansa was. A gruff warrior woman at home in armor and commanding in nature. The young girl she had been once would have said horrible things of Maege and it shamed her. Now she saw the lady as a woman who would never let others take her prisoner without a fight.

Who wouldn’t submit to being someone’s plaything.

Sansa respected her for that.

Arya would’ve liked her from the start.

“Jon will succeed. I have to believe that.” She said, willing herself to believe it. “He has never failed me.

Maege nodded at that and for some time they rode in silence, through the lands of the Freys. Swamps and bogs had given ways to fields and trees only just that day. If it was in her to be thankful to see green lands again and not brown muck she did not feel so. These were the lands of her enemies and she’d take the bogs of her bannermen any day.

“I was surprised when you arrived at Greywater Watch. I hadn’t expected how much you cared for each other.” Maege said suddenly looking at Sansa as if her statement was more a question. “How much you cared for Jon that is.”

“Of course I care for him!”

That took Sansa aback. She had come to expect slights against Jon from the Blackfish and others who did not know the truth of him.

But not from Maege who did know the truth of Jon's birth.

The lady eyed her carefully and guided her horse to ride closer to Sansa’s.

“I say so because in many ways you are your mother’s daughter.” Maege said quietly. “Strong, clever and lovely to look upon. In truth being so much like her I had half expected you to regard Jon as she did. And the last I ever heard Lady Catelyn speak of him was to call Jon a traitor.”

Oh mother, she thought, how could you be so wrong?

Her mother’s feeling towards Jon made her ashamed. Less so of her mother than herself for feeling she had to live up to them for so long. More and more she reflected on the kind boy she’d grown up with yet had scorned so often. Even mocked to her friends.

Yet he had always been good to her despite how cruel his life had been to him. It bothered her that, even know, she could not love him as she had Robb.

Or Bran and Rickon. Which was horrible of her because she knew he mourned losing his family. 

But he’s not my brother, she reminded herself, he’s my cousin.

So what I dream of is not so vile.

“Since my captivity and Jon’s rescue of me I have come to see who he is.” She said earnestly. “And what he means to me.”

It was the truth.

She’d stopped believing in knights that came to save fair maidens from the evils of others. Then Jon had come, his sword in his hand, and took her away from all that. During their ride from the Neck she’d find herself staring at him sometimes. Wondering how he’d look in proper dress rather than a knight’s garb.

“To us he was meant to be a king.” Maege replied. “Trust me we are no less overjoyed to have you as our queen but after what we learned at Lord Reed’s table…afterwards I’d worried he would’ve meant less to you.”

She paused and gave Sansa a look she thought bordered on disappointment.

“Now I think he might mean more.”

She knows.

No she can't.

"Maege!" Sansa sputtered. "You think we are…how can you think such a thing?”

It was not unusual for cousins to marry, fairly common among highborns. Yet for the lady to suspect that of Jon and her was scandalous. Sansa couldn't have a scandal, not now.

“After he left that night the men saw you follow him into the swamps. Saw you return some time later hand in hand. Others talk of how you smile when he is with you and how you danced together.” Maege continued to speak softly to her but shrugged near the end. “It reminded me of your parents truthfully.”

“There is talk? Of Jon and I?” The idea shook her deeply.

If such gossip existed it could bode poorly for the morale of her fighting men. They did not know them cousins and thought Jon and her half siblings still.

“They think us like the Lannisters?”

At that Maege chuckled but there was little mirth behind it.

“Galbart and I have seen to any who thought so. We’ve corrected those who needed correcting. But yes. There are rumors.”

“Why wasn’t I told?” She asked, embarrassed and angry all at once. “I must be told such things!”

“I apologize but it was only a small number spreading those rumors and I am telling you now so you might think of your options.” Maege pointed up her crown. “Of the powers a queen has.”

My powers?

She could make laws but had no need to yet. They’d had a feast but with winter coming it would have been foolish to order another. She could command an army to march and she had done so. Sansa struggled to think of what else she could do, what Robb had done.

Then it came to her.

“You mean for me to have those men put to death?” Sansa reached up to touch the crown nervously. “To stop the rumors?”

“By the gods no!” The lady looked appalled. “Some whisper about foolishly but there’s better ways of dealing with such. There is more power to a crown than ordering men’s deaths. There is the ability to legitimize claims to title…to create honest men from the bastard born.”

Of course that’s what she meant.

Why did you not think of that?

It bothered her she hadn’t. Yet it angered her that Maege and the others had kept things from her. That they could be talking of Jon and her with dark intent.

“I think this is not a matter I’d discuss at this moment my lady…nor something I’d have you discuss with any other.” She said turned away from Maege. “I must command you not to.”

“I meant no disrespect…”

“What you meant does not matter, you hid things from me. Things I should know.” Sansa continued. “That must not happen again. Nor must you tolerate any of your men to spread such rumors. As your Queen, I must know you understand that.”

Maege flushed some then and for a brief moment she feared she’d been too curt. Too demanding.

“As you would your grace." Maege inclined her head. "Any further talk will be brought straight to you.”

Silence fell between them after that. The sounds of horses and men on the march truly the only thing Sansa wished to hear at the moment.

Some of Maege’s comments had been welcome. The parts about the kind of queen Sansa could be had been good to hear. It was kind she of ruler she intended to be.

Loyalty and good service to her should always be rewarded.

What bothered her was that doing so meant people whispered about Jon and her.

None served as well or loyally as him. He was exactly the knight she needed beside her. Jon had become tall, strong and gallant. Who else treated her so well and was there when she had need of him. It was Jon who improved her moods when they were at their worst. While he was often quiet and sullen around others with her he became a different person.

With her he made jests.

And smiled.

For me.

Not for the others.

As much as people remarked on how her cousin looked like father she’d taken notice more and more of their differences. He was taller and leaner than father had been, his body firm and comely. Perhaps taking after his mother Lyanna. Or his father Rhaegar.

Blood of the dragon, she remembered, son of a prince.

Who better to keep a queen company?

She reached up and adjusted the crown on her head. The crown of flowers he had made for her had wilted away weeks ago while he memory of him placing it upon Sansa’s head and dancing with her had stayed fresh.

He is the knight of songs and tales.

And like a crash of lightning she remembered where he was.

And what she stood to lose.

“My lady…Maege…” Sansa spoke softly, grabbing her companion’s attention again. “I was harsh earlier but…I would still speak with you. Perhaps you would tell me of your daughters. It would be pleasant to know more about you and your family.”

Maege appeared surprised at the request.

“Your family has done so much for me.” She continued. “I feel as if I barely know them. Please let me hear of them. I think I heard one was named Lyanna.”

The woman smiled then, her eyes even glistened some.

“My youngest daughter.” She laughed. “I named her well. For she’s a wild little thing…”

Sansa felt better to hear Maege laugh. The stories were a good distraction.

Helping her to push away the troubles of her crown. The feelings she could not yet admit to.

And the horrors tomorrow could bring.

 

 


BRIENNE

 

“Let sleep calm your troubled spirit and tomorrow will bring a new day. Always a new day and a chance to do good in this world my lady.”

The Elder Brother’s words were kindly meant but after embarrassing herself so Brienne only wished him to leave her cottage.

You wept like a child.

You came here to save Sansa Stark and ended up crying instead.

Brienne decided to blame it on the tolls of her travels and the shock of what she’d learned this evening. Realizing how much of her recent search had been for naught was a hard thing to accept.

All the time spent tracking the Hound. Praying and hoping to find Sansa Stark held captive by the fiend. Her dream of rescuing Lady Catelyn’s daughter and seeing her away to safety.

It had all been a fool’s errand.

And Brienne the fool to run it.

While Ser Hyle and Podrick had bedded at another part of the septry on Quiet Isle, she’d been given a small cottage to herself. It was there the Elder Brother and she spoke of her quest.

There he told her of the Hound’s supposed death and dashed her hopes for finding Sansa.

“That the man once held a Stark girl captive I believe, but it was not the eldest daughter you seek, but the younger.” The Elder Brother had paused at her shock to learn Lady Catelyn’s youngest girl lived before continuing on to crush her. “On the fate of Arya Stark I cannot say. When I found Sandor Clegane there was no Stark alongside him and no Stark I brought to this Isle…”

“Perhaps she escaped him?” Brienne hadn’t wanted her journey here to be worthless. “When he became ill maybe she fled to safety? Fled to the Saltpans?”

“And to what fate?” The Elder Brother had shaken his head. “To what darkness?”

He’d bid Brienne to return home, to return to father and leave the pains of the war behind. That’s when she shamed herself and broken down in front of the old knight. That he’d come a brother of this order since and a knight no longer spared her little embarrassment.

So even now, as the old man departed, she dried her eyes feeling more the fool.

She lay upon the straw and wondered how she would tell Hyle and Podrick what she’d learned. How it was possible they’d travelled so far only to find where Arya Stark had fallen instead of where Sansa Stark awaited.

Of another folly I led them on.

More embarrassment.

More shame.

She hoped their voices hadn’t carried to the other cottages near her own. Another was in use and had two quiet brothers sitting without, she imagined to tend to some poor Saltpans woman who suffered still. The last thing someone like that needed was to hear Brienne weeping over her trivial problems.

Tomorrow we will inquire of the bodies they found, she decided, about the bodies of young girls.

Brienne had never laid eyes upon Arya Stark, all she knew of her looks was her mother describing the girl as taking after her father. As she’d never seen Lord Stark either she remembered the bastard squire she’d met in the Reach. Renly himself had remarked on how much Jon Snow resembled Lord Eddard and it was his features she’d describe tomorrow.

Dark brown hair, deep grey eyes and a long face.

Brienne put those features to memory as she shut her eyes for the evening.

Yet sleep didn’t come, her mind still too troubled by all she’d heard. Jon Snow’s features repeated in her head again and again. How she’d react if some gravedigger could put a body to her description. The last thing she wanted was to leave this place with Arya Stark’s bones rather than a living breathing girl.

It’s not about what you want, she thought, it’s about what your duty is.

And if you find anything of Arya Stark here, you’ll return her home.

Brienne was still tossing when she heard the scream. She rose, her ears straining to confirm what she’d heard. Again it came, muffled some by the door, but now she was certain it someone outside was screaming. Quickly slipping into her boots she gathered Oathkeeper, still in its sheath and headed for the door as the screaming continued.

Those are a girl’s screams, she decided, someone is being attacked.

Once outside the smell of smoke struck Brienne immediately. It took her but moment to spot the source of it, for it was not far. The cottage she’d passed earlier had smoke billowing from its top. As she neared it another scream sounded and she decided it was definitely coming from within the cabin.

Brienne was shocked to find one of the brothers still there. Standing and staring as smoke wafted out the cottage door. Making no move to enter despite the sounds of coughing from behind that very same door.

She saw the rope then, the door handle was bound tightly from without, the door thudding as someone wrenched upon it from within.

“What is happening here?” Brienne yelled at the short brother who had a face covered in burn scars. “There’s someone in there! Open the door!”

He shook his head and pointed down the path, whether he wanted her to leave or await someone else she didn’t care.

“Help! Please!” A girl cried out. “Please!”

 It was soon followed by some hacking coughs and Brienne had had enough.

“Move aside.” She commanded.

She made to push by the brother yet he tried to stand firm. So Brienne tossed him to the ground as easily as she would a sack of potatoes, him landing little differently. Oathkeeper was unsheathed and she cleaved down upon the rope. With but one slash the knots fell away, freeing the door to be thrown open by the girl inside.

Yet the door didn’t move.

“Child!” She called and pushed at the door, which opened a touch more, sending smoke billowing into her face.

Brienne coughed and threw her shoulder into the wood, the force knocking the girl’s coughing body away enough for Brienne to squeeze into the cottage. Within she saw the fire burning bright at the center of the room. What looked to be every blanket, fur and bit of straw in the room had been piled upon it.

She set this blaze, Brienne realized, is she trying to kill herself?

Brienne’s eyes were stinging as she bent to collect the girl into her arms and lifted her out and into the night. The brother she’d knocked down was on his feet again, staring at them while she knelt down to see how bad off the child was.

“Breath girl. There’s air for it now. You’re safe.”

Despite some ash and smoke stains Brienne saw no burns upon the girl’s skinny body. She was coughing still but sucking in great breaths of the cool night air otherwise.

“Why would you let her burn? Why was she locked in there?” Brienne raged at the quiet brother. Asking questions she knew he wouldn’t answer.

The girl stirred then. Her eyes widening and head jerking towards the quiet brother as well.

“Prisoner…faith coming for me…” The girl hacked and made to shake loose of Brienne’s hold on her, rising to stand and glare at the brother “They’re going to…give me to the High Septon…" 

The High Septon?

What would the High Septon want with some girl?

Brienne was no fool, she knew some men in this world had appetites for young girls, even some men of the faith. Yet sending so far for this girl in particular didn’t seem likely. She was pretty enough but not in a way that Brienne thought would catch men’s eyes for some time.

Perhaps when she aged more the girl would be a beauty but of a harsher kind Brienne suspected. Her dark brown hair was cut short to just above her shoulders, her skin pale but not sickly and her face long. Almost familiar in a way.

Everything stopped for her then.

Dark brown hair, deep grey eyes and a long face.

Deep grey eyes.

She would have grey eyes.

Others were coming up the path as Brienne walked in almost a daze to pull the girl around to face her. Their eyes met and in the light of the burning cottage behind them Brienne saw what she’d hoped to see.

Deep grey eyes.

“Arya Stark?” She dropped to a knee, almost in prayer. “Be you Arya Stark? Daughter to Lady Catelyn?”

“Step away from her my lady!” The Elder Brother called as he hurried forth but Brienne did not heed him, nor did she break her eyes away from the girl’s.

They were wide and full of doubt, flicking over at the group of brothers then back to her.

“I knew your mother, I swore an oath to her and another to see her daughters home. If you are Arya Stark I will protect you, if you are not I will still see no harm come to you, no matter who threatens it.”

She softened her hold on the girl’s shoulders and tried to think of anything else she could add to make her case.

“I rode beside your brother, Jon Snow, I think I know you because of how much you…”

“Jon?” An expression of excitement flashed quickly across her face. “You knew Jon?”

Brienne couldn’t help but smile as well. It lasted only a moment for the brothers were coming upon them so quickly she was forced to act. Brienne yanked the child behind her as the group of men approached.

“My lady that girl is not to be trusted.” The Elder Brother wheezed as a mixed collection of robed men and boys collected behind him. “She is also under the protection of the High Septon and the Faith Militant.”

“Prisoner!” The girl shouted from behind her. “He means I’m their prisoner!”

“This man was content to let the girl burn in her cottage.” Brienne pointed to the scarred man who took up a place beside the Elder Brother. “A poor form of protection brother.”

“He did as he was bid to, we do not allow her a chance at trickery without several of us about. Brother Thomas more than most has suffered at the hands of this girl and I suspect the fire tonight caused by more of her wickedness.”

 A collection of nodding heads among the brothers answered the Elder Brother’s pronouncement. The girl wasn’t backing down though.

“I knew people had come! You wouldn’t lock me up all day for no reason!”

“We did what we had to, the warriors of the faith will arrive soon but until then we could not risk…”

“Risk me finding her?” Brienne interrupted, feeling angry and betrayed by this man for doing now what she suspected he had. “You told me a story tonight, about a girl I sought. You told me you knew nothing of her. I did not think you a liar brother…”

“He is a liar!”

“I did not lie.” The Elder Brother sighed at the girl’s outburst. “I came upon a man and a girl, whose name I did not know, so I was truthful in that. She later named herself Mordane to me and it was only the confessions of a dying man that revealed the truth of her. Again, I was truthful. Regarding her fate? Our High Septon intends to move to her to safety somewhere else, under the protection of good men and septas, so her fate is in his hands after she leaves here. Whether the influence of good people can quell the darkness in her heart I can’t say…”

“Stop saying that!” The girl yelled. “I’m not broken or dark! I just don’t want to be here!”

Brienne was growing worried now. More and more men were joining the Elder Brother’s group. While the brothers here were not warriors it would be a foul thing to have to fight. A harder thing to fight so many.

You must be sure, she thought, you cannot bear arms at a septry if you are not.

“You must name yourself child.” She asked, keeping Oathkeeper pointed at the ground. “Please. I must hear it.”

Instead of an answer she felt hands at her waist. Before Brienne could stop her, the girl had pulled free her own dagger and spun away from her.

“Arya Stark.” The young lady said, pointing the dagger at the men as well. “My name is Arya Stark. Eddard Stark was my father. Catelyn Stark my mother. Just try and put me back in that cottage…”

Lady Catelyn I found her.

Jaime I’ve done well.

Arya’s words and those thoughts did more for her spirits than anything had in some time. Yet as Arya glanced up at her and gave a quick nod Brienne was troubled. Something about the girl’s stance and how she held the blade unnerved her. As if the lady had some idea of how to wield a blade and, even more unnerving, she may not hesitate to.

“Arya Stark you may be but my ladies this is not…”

“Then I am sworn to protect her.” Brienne drew Oathkeeper up before her and many of the men backed away. “I am Lady Brienne of Tarth and I will see her home. No matter what it takes.”

“Ser! My lady!”

Podrick’s cry heralded his arrival at the top of the path. Ser Hyle was following at a slower pace seemingly winded while Pod rushed forward with his own sword in hand.

“Podrick, Ser Hyle, we have found our charge.”

“Brienne what’s happening here? Put your sword away!” Hyle gaped at her and the burning cottage. His eyes then taking in all the drawn blades and the force of brothers arrayed against her. “We finally have a decent place to sleep…”

“This is the Lady Arya Stark and she wants to leave here.” Brienne informed her companions and warned the Elder Brother. “And we’ll be helping her do so.”

“You’re bloody right I do!” Arya cursed at the men while Pod and Hyle appeared dumbstruck at the news. “And I want my sword back! And my coin!”

“As I begged of you earlier my lady, spare yourself this. Spare the young lady this.” The Elder Brother approached them with his palms out, his voice beseeching. “When the Faith Militant arrive I will tell them all of this. How you bore steel on holy ground, how you took from us a lady to drag across a war torn land, and of which way you fled…”

“It’s her isn’t it? We found one of the Starks?” Ser Hyle laughed over the Elder Brother’s implied threat as he pulled his own sword. “Oh we’ll be going alright.”

“Do not try and stop us brother.” Brienne lowered her sword and reached out to lower Arya’s as well, which the girl did reluctantly. “You don’t have to give us your blessing…”

“But he’ll be giving you shelter for the night.” Another spoke, the words coming from a hunched form just arriving at the commotion. “And some food for our journey.”

“Our journey?” Ser Hyle gave the old wandering septon a strange look as the Elder Brother sighed yet again.

“Septon Meribald, it will be dangerous and I fear…”

“Danger and fear have filled these lands for some time now but I wander nonetheless. You and I knew this was a risk, having Lady Brienne and this willful child so close.” Meribald smiled at them all before his eyes fell on Arya. “The High Septon wished you seen after child. If it is not to be here then I will join the lady, the knight and good squire in doing so.”

“I don’t want anymore of you cravens!” Arya hissed at the septon and Brienne was shocked a daughter of her lady could act so rudely.

“Nor does the Elder Brother wish us to leave nor I to be chased about by warriors of my own faith. Yet here we are.” Meribald nodded knowingly before walking towards the girl. “And here you are.”

With that the old septon opened his robe to produce a small, thin sword and Brienne tensed. For a moment she feared he meant Arya harm with it, he’d been a squire long ago and might still be able to wield a sword. She felt foolish when the septon merely offered the sword up on his palms to the girl who snatched it quickly and without thanks.

“The Elder Brother informed me earlier of what he kept so quiet on this island.” Meribald bowed his head. “And I would’ve been bound by our High Septon to keep it from you my lady. You would’ve thought this poor girl dead and to place such a burden on you would be too great to do without some comfort. I was to give you the lady’s sword upon the morrow so you could at least take comfort in finding that.”

Brienne was surprised the septon would have misled her. To think a sword and a false tale would be good coin for her failing in her task.

Arya however was more concerned about a different coin.

“My coin?” Arya asked after sliding the blade through a rope around her waist. “I had a coin too…”

“That coin…I have travelled far young lady and that coin…” Meribald’s face darkened and he pointed out into the blackness of the bay beyond. “That coin was not something I’d have here or with you. It is gone to the depths of the bay where it can lay in the darkness it represents.”

The look Arya gave the septon made Brienne uneasy again.

For it was full of malice and something else.

What had the Elder Brother said?

About darkness in her heart?

“Nonsense.” Brienne said aloud without meaning to.

Arya gave her a confused look as Brienne spotted her dagger still in the girl's clutches.

“It’s nonsense for you to keep that dagger. Give it to me my lady. You’ll have no need of it.”

The girl looked to argue but Brienne held out her hand.

“Do so and you may keep your sword. I may even teach you how to use it properly."

"My lady!" The Elder Brother protested but it mattered little, for the ploy had worked.

Arya quickly handed back the dagger, smiling as she did so.

Brienne thought the Elder Brother wrong as looked upon that smile.

For in it she saw something very familiar. It was pretty, earnest, even a little daring.

And not the least bit dark.

Chapter Text

 

BRYNDEN

 

It was an ugly thing.

Brynden could fool himself into believing much of this world but with this he’d always been honest. As he sat on Walton Frey’s bed, awaiting his coming death he allowed himself this last luxury.

The pendant he clutched had once been a gleaming silver piece, the likes of which men would haggle for. Or so he’d been told.

It’s glory days had long since passed. Parts were chipped away and rust had attacked others. The life he’d led had not been one where precious things could survive unscathed, still the condition of the pendant shamed him.

He imagined few could see what he once had in the bit of jewelry he had all those years ago.

Are you thinking of the pendant or yourself?

The thought brought a chuckle from deep in his chest. His thumbs tried to trace the outline of what the pendant had once been shaped to be.

That of a swan. A majestic silver swan.

There were few things in life he’d ever held so dear besides his own kin. He’d had some bows in his life he’d esteemed enough to name. He’d kept several swords and more horses. Even more friends. Yet this was the only bit of luxury he’d ever allowed himself during all his travels. While Brynden knew he faced certain death by riding into the Twins he’d kept it with him anyways.

Jeyne had commented on it during their journey to the Neck. He’d tried to keep it from her but one night she awoke and found him doing much as he did now.

“It’s special to you.” She’d whispered through her suffering.

“It is.” He’d answered, forcing a smile. “As are you child.”

“No, not like me.” The girl had found the strength to smile despite all her hardships. “Robb would look at me like that. Did someone give you that? Someone you loved?”

He remembered being quiet then, of clutching the pendant firmly and willing Jeyne to sleep. When she didn’t and made to sit up and rob herself of what strength she had he was honest.

“Someone I love.” He’d admitted. “Someone I will always love.”

Jeyne had that truth from him at least. It was more than most others ever did. She was gone now of course. So were his parents. His brother, his nieces were dead as well and likely his nephew would follow them. Brynden had lost his king too but Sansa was still out there, waiting somewhere in the darkness for him to do what needed to be done.

When the knock came on his chamber door he brought the pendant up to his lips and kissed it lightly. He returned it back into his pocket before grabbing the bundle he’d prepared, slinging it over his shoulder and throwing his cloak on.

Such was how Walton Frey presented himself to his caller.

Walder Rivers stood armored and waiting when he opened his door. The bastard had brought four men-at-arms as well and Brynden half expected his deception had been discovered.

“It’s time.”

Those words made Brynden’s heart beat powerfully within his chest. They meant the Vale caravan had been spotted nearing the castle.  

Edwyn’s plot was now put in motion. And his own soon after.

“I am ready.”

“You better be, you look horrible.” Walder said and Brynden didn’t doubt it.

Brynden had barely slept the night before and had spent a day in a castle surrounded by people he’d rather gut than feign courtesy to. Night and day thoughts of what had befallen Cat and her son here had tormented him. Almost as much as the strain of all he needed to do and how many things could go wrong.

He’d been lucky in his mummery. Walton appeared to be a relatively unpopular Frey whom few wanted to interact with. The man’s own wife had yet to seek him out and he’d only had one caller to his chambers the night before. A young serving girl asking if he’d had need of her. Apparently her arrival at such an hour was routine and it had not taken much imagination to think of what Walton would have needed of her. She’d been relieved when Brynden had told her he was weary and to leave him.

No relief for me, he thought, not tonight.

Unless this is finally the night it alls ends.

Their group passed servants and stewards but few armed men. The Frey strength left in the Twins was almost upon the walls and lining the route the Royce caravan would travel through the castles. The armed men awaiting Walder Rivers and his coming were the only ones Brynden saw during the whole journey.

The two men watched their approach uneasily, clutching their spears tightly. They had been charged with protecting some fairly valuable people. Within that chamber Brynden hoped the Royce men were awake and ready. Ready to help in the battle ahead.

It was a hope Walder Rivers clearly shared.

“Are they well? Awake?” The bastard asked.

“They are.” One guard answered hesitantly. “But Lothar commanded that only he or Lord Walder could command their…”

“We’re here to take the Royce men to Lord Walder.” Walder Rivers lied. “So move aside.”

To the guard's credit he was not fool enough to believe it.

Brynden saw it clearly from how the guard shifted his stance and how his eyes took stock of their group. The man stepped backwards as both Rivers and Brynden drew their swords and attacked.

It was quick work. Bloody work. Only but a taste of what the night would bring.

“Walton, it is almost good to see you.” Ser Willem said as Brynden and the others marched into the chamber. Without a word one of Walder's men handed both Royce men their weapons. “I take it I’m free to use these?”

“Only kill those without this.” Walder broke in, pointing to a bit of white cloth tied about his sword belt. The other men with them had also donned similar markers and one offered a bit to Brynden. “I’m going to take my place on walls. When the signal is given we take those first. Walton, you and the Royces…”

“We’re to take the bridge gate. I know.”

“Bloody well do it.” Walder growled. “It’s going to be hard enough taking this castle, if they flee across the bridge Lothar might be able to hold off the attack there. So keep that gate shut.”

A trumpet sounded somewhere outside and Walder grunted to his men.

“They’re crossing, let’s go.”

Brynden stayed back with the Willem and his man as the Freys filed out to begin their treachery. They had their own treachery to discuss.

“So what’s the real plan?” Willem asked as he pulled his two blades and twirled them in his hands. “Which stout is for me?”

“Controlling that gate is key.” Brynden said. “Have your men rally around it but get them up the stairs to the walls as soon as you can. Won’t take the traitors long to realize your men are here to kill them all.”

“And how the hell do we get up those stairs? If it’s anything like the one I saw at the other castle it’s open to fire from the walls and there were men guarding the top.”

“The Blackfish will see to those guards.” He watched the confusion form on Willem’s face. “If you’re quick about it your men should be up those stairs with little blood.”

Another trumpet sounded and Brynden made to leave when the knight grabbed his arm.

“What about Jon? I couldn’t ask about him with the others but you’ll damn well tell me how he fares.”

“He’s in the dungeons. The safest place he could be for what we’re about to do.”  He jerked free of Willem’s hold. He’d spare the man any more details of what had befallen his friend. “Now come on.”

Edwyn’s plan had them meant for different tasks than they set to now. They were already in the western castle so Brynden led the two men to where the rest of the Royces would soon be appearing. As they stepped up to a stone archway and peered out Brynden saw the first of the wagons appeared, just the beginning of a long line ending its journey across the Frey crossing.

He saw spearmen all about the yard, with archers lining the landings and battlements further up. Should the battle start the men up there would be the true threat. One that needed to be dealt with.

“Stay in the shadows until the horn blows.” He hissed to Willem, pulling a hood over his head and preparing to begin his part. “Good luck to you.”

“Where are you going?”

“To find the Blackfish.” He said simply.

As one wagon and a rider passed him Brynden crossed the yard towards the stairs. The lower part was walled all around and after climbing a short way he found a crossbowman standing at an arrow slit watching the wagons roll by. He was a young lad, yet to shave by Brynden’s estimation. Green too, as he jumped to see Brynden coming, his eyes flicking down to the white cloth at his side.

“It’s almost time.” He said as he gestured to the man’s white marker.

The lad’s eyes fell to his own waist long enough for Brynden to pull a dagger unseen.

“Yes. Yes of course m’lord I’m just alone here and…”

The rest of the his words came out as a red gurgle. Brynden’s slash across his throat had left a gruesome spray along the stonewall behind them. The man fell dead as Brynden wrenched Walton’s cloak from his shoulders.

Next came the his tunic and if he didn't need it for the fight ahead Brynden would’ve torn the man’s mail off as well.

“This is more like it.” Brynden said to himself as he pulled another tunic from his bundle.

It bore the Tully trout proudly across its faded blue cloth. There’d been a good number of Tully guardsmen among those slain at the Red Wedding. Some of their killers had taken trophies and Walton had been one. Brynden had found this among the man’s belongings and, as torn and darkened with blood stains as it was, he felt cleaner when he pulled it over his head.

The sorcery hiding his face from the world was helped by wearing Walton’s clothes but if Brynden was about to die a he’d die a Tully.

It was a shame to throw Walton’s cloak over himself again but it would only be for a short while. Time enough for one last charge. He hefted up the crossbow and was thankful to see it already cranked and ready when he heard it.

Far off, a low hollow noise started up.

Someone was blowing a northern horn.

Sansa’s riders are attacking the other castle.

The battle will be on.

Other horns soon answered, some from just below him among the wagons. Through the arrow slit he saw the horsemen pulling weapons and flaps being torn away from wagon tops as archers sprang up beneath them. A castle guard shouted in surprise as he was cut down by one of the riders. Soon after the mayhem of battle began.

Brynden charged up the stairs, the wall to his left gave way to empty air and the carnage of the courtyard lay beyond. Arrows were flying down from the walls and parapets as the crannog bowmen shot their own up at the defenders. It should have been a slaughter but the Freys were a mess.

The idiots were fighting each other all about the castle, some archers were even firing on other Freys. Brynden guessed only half the men that could be fighting Sansa’s were actually doing so.

It was madness

An arrow slammed into the wall behind him while ahead three spearmen barred his path, guarding the way up to the battlements. All bore the white rags marking them as part of Edwyn’s plot yet their spears pointed down at him nonetheless.

“It’s Walton!” He cried, holding up his own white cloth. “Let me pass! I must pass!”

Two foolishly dropped their guard and raised their spears. The third’s eyes were locked upon Brynden’s chest, for Walton’s cloak had flown open. He wondered whether the man was more shocked by the Tully trout beneath or the crossbow he raised.

It didn’t truly matter.

The spearman saw little more after Brynden loosed the quarrel. The bolt slammed into his chest with enough force he fell backwards, knocking him into the next man, pinning that one against the wall.

A good shot.

The third spearmen lost precious time to shock. Brynden didn’t even need to pull his sword. As the man lowered his spear he was there, grabbing it with both hands and pulling hard. It put the man off balance enough for Brynden to drive him sideways and off the stairs themselves.

As that foe fell to his death the last spearman had freed himself from the corpse of his friend and pulled a dirk. A smart move in such close quarters, it made Brynden’s work all the harder. How fast his foe proved to be only made it worse. The man latched onto Brynden’s wrist with a firm grip, staying his hand before he could reach his own sword. All he could do was much the same, grabbing his attacker’s wrist to hold the dirk at bay.

“My brother! You killed my brother you fucking shit!” The man spat in his face. “You traitor fuck!”

Brynden was slammed against the wall and a knee drove up and into his groin. He almost buckled and his arms jerked back in the pain. It brought the blade almost to his throat. The sorceress’ bracelet was torn from his wrist as his attacker’s grip forced it up and off. He watched it bounce off a stone stair.

Once. Twice. Then it was gone, down into the battle raging below.

Bugger me.

“Bugger me!” Brynden’s would be killer cried out.

In the gleam of the man’s halfhelm Brynden could make out his face. Well Walton’s face but even to call it that was wrong as well. For he was changing again, the Frey’s features melting away to display the true man beneath.

His enemy’s fear took hold and he jerked backwards. It was all Brynden needed.

“I’m no traitor Frey.”

He moved fast, the man still had his dagger at chest level so he caught the man’s elbow in one motion, his wrist in another.

“I’ve always been a Tully.”

He did just as Riverrun’s master-at-arms had taught him as a small boy.

‘Last man a knight will ever think to face on the battlefield is himself. You remember that Brynden.’

His teacher’s words came back to him as he forced the Frey man’s dagger up and backwards into his own eye.

“I always have.” Brynden watched as the man stiffened, his mouth open in a comical surprised expression.

As he fell back, following his friend in landing far below in the courtyard Brynden finally pulled his sword and continued up the landing. His parts throbbed in agony but it was a small price to pay for what he’d just accomplished.

The battlements ahead were full of men dead or dying but even more were left fighting. Edwyn’s men had largely taken this part of the wall yet confusion reigned as they watched their would be allies fighting all manner of Freys. He spun to face the outer wall and gazed over the parapet towards the other castle.

Parts of it were aflame and the sounds of trumpets and northern horns filled the night. He thought he could see fighting along those walls. Perhaps even a shout of Stark or Winterfell carrying across the water.

They made it, he smiled, Sansa’s men made it in.

Now I just need to take this castle with one column of men and some swamp archers.

The sound of boots upon the stone steps behind him made him turn and prepare to face reinforcements. He was pleasantly surprised to see they were of a friendly kind.

“Blackfish?” Willem gaped at him from the entrance to the battlements. Behind the knight were a half score of his own men. “By the warrior how the fuck did you get in here? How the fuck did you get up here?”

“Later.” Brynden jerk his head towards the Freys. “We’ll have a harder go of it when they realize we’ve taken the stair so let’s get to clearing these walls before they do.”

“You. Go back and get some of those archers up here.” Brynden pointed at one unknown face before grabbing at the bow of another. “Is that a long bow?”

“Yes ser it is, made by my…”

“You’ll be sharing that with me for a moment, I won’t keep it long.”

The man surrendered his bow and quiver easily enough as Brynden led the group towards the fight. A guardsman helping a wounded comrade took notice of their approach and Willem rushed forward, his first slash pinning the man’s sword against the wall while the second cleaved into his neck. Shouts answered that killing and more Frey warriors began moving towards the small group. Brynden let the Royce men charge by him, they could handle that fight.

For he’d been searching for a specific target along the walls and now he’d found him. Walder Rivers was just around the bend of the wall they stood on. He was pointing below and shouting at a group of his archers, directing the deaths of men below.

Brynden notched his arrow, and made to stand upon the parapet. It was the act of a foolish green boy. Friend or foe could have shot him down just as easily. Yet Brynden wanted the clearest shot possible.

And I want him to see me.

“The King in the North!” He roared, spittle flying from his mouth. “The King in the North!”

Even through the battle the Frey bastard heard it. Walder Rivers stared across at him even as Brynden loosed his arrow.

Hoster used to tease him about preferring the bow to swords but Brynden had never been willing to abandon it. Cat had always been delighted to see the shots he could make during one of their hunts. The picture of that sweet child clapping and laughing was lost to one of her bloodied and screaming.

That all fell away as Walder Rivers himself fell screaming into his men. The foul man continued to wail while grasping in vain at the arrow lodged with his chest. The archers about the dying man were pointing at Brynden but he didn’t care.

He wanted to continue watching but was denied that.

Someone pulled him backwards, off the parapet to land hard upon the battlements.

“How dare…” Brynden started to curse as he heard the arrows fly by overhead.

“Sorry ser! Truly! Ser Willem told me to!” The young man he’d taken the bow off of raised his hands in fear. “Said if you died he’d bloody kill me next!”

Brynden grunted and saw Willem and his men quite outmatched fighting a larger group of Freys.

“Here.” He offered the lad’s bow back to him. “Pick off as many of those archers across from us as you can. I go to repay Willem for his discourtesy.”

His sword was drawn and he was charging towards the fight before the boy could say any more.

Hoster’s voice came back to him.

‘Being able with a bow is all fine and good Bryn, but what if it comes to a real fight?’

He flung a faltering Royce man back and cut at his attacker. His sword crashing against his foe’s shield.

‘A fight where you can’t be far away but right amongst the blades?’

The man was favoring the gash Brynden had left in his leg when his upstroke cleaved half the poor bastard’s head off.

‘What if it comes to real blood?’

A killer was still struggling to pull his poleaxe out of the shoulder of the Royce man he’d killed when Brynden leapt behind him, laying a blade to his throat. He spun the man backwards towards the Freys converging on him, jerking his blade savagely.

Blood splattered across his face and tunic as the foe charged forth.

“Then I’ll get bloody.”

And he got bloodier still.

 


 

 

 GHOST

 

The blood was all around him.

Blood and dying men and men who would die but did not know it yet. He smelt the fear and excitement among the men who did the killing. The fear of the ones who did the dying. Then there was all the noise, all the horrible man noise. Their growls and cries, the harsh clanging of their metal teeth and the whistling of their flying ones.

He was in the den where his brother had been killed. Or was is it the other across the water? That one held a part of him, it held pain and fire and sometimes he forgot he was a wolf.

Sometimes he’d be pulled to a dark place where only pain existed.

He didn’t want to go there. Being beside the girl was where he wanted to be. Protecting her, comforting her when he smelt the fear growing. The pain in the dark was that much worse because he could escape to be with her.

But when he heard the girl’s pack start fighting within the hollow mountain he’d left her side. She was with good men. Men who pulled their metal teeth when danger came near her.

He’d followed their charge through the den’s entrance. He’d had to jump over dead men and horses to be where he was now, in the center of a great space of killing. Around him rose the great flat cliffs where the men’s whistling teeth came biting.

But it was his time to bite.

The flesh of the man’s leg ahead filled his mouth as he tore it from the bone. He would not eat now, this was not a time for eating. The man tried to cut him with his metal tooth and missed so he took one the man's arms as punishment.

That man would die but there were more. He could smell the men he would kill. The girl’s men smelled of the swamps and the long walk they’d made. Their enemies smelt like the hollow mountain and the river water.

A man who stank of fish was cutting a swamp man so he attacked that one next. He came from behind, leaping up and biting at the soft exposed neck. The crack and instant flood of warm blood finished the kill before he’d even landed again.

The swamp man was bleeding. The smell of it thick on him and but there were more prey about and no time to lick the man’s wounds. He needed to find more to kill when something stopped him.

The swamp man’s growls.

“I see you.”

The man clutched at his wound, fighting the bleeding that came from there. Strange green eyes stared at him, challenging him.

“Man and wolf...I see you Jon…don’t be afraid…you’ll see too…”

The strange eyes and growls confused him. Made him feel like someone else was under his skin.

Pain filled his mind then. The burning was horrible. The pain everywhere. The dark around him was wet and hard things wrapped around his paws. But they weren’t his paws anymore. They had become man paws and one was agony. It burned so badly he wanted to gnaw it away.

He didn’t want this body. He wanted to be free of it. Free of the pain.

He screamed.

And when his howl ended the swamp man lay staring at him still. There was still life left in his stare though, still breath in his body.

“Jon we’ll come for you. Just don’t lose yourself yet…Jon…”

The growls meant nothing. This was not the man he sought and it was too dangerous to stay with him. Whistling teeth landed near and men still fought.

So he left the bleeding thing.

The girl’s men were on the cliffs now and men fell now and again, their crunching bones echoing loud within his ears. That fight was not for him. He wanted to hunt here, not on the cliffs.

There was another den entrance ahead and the brother’s killers were fighting about it. A row of men with long, sharp teeth were stabbing at the girl’s men. More killers hid behind the ones stabbing, sending the flying teeth forth from wooden flat mouths. Any man who tried to break their pack fell.

He could hear and smell men fleeing from the cliffs, behind their den walls to this gate and then away. Running to the other mountain across the river. If they ran so far he could not kill them.

They could run to the dark place and make the pain come again.

So he would help the girl’s men.

There was a wooden den near where the men fought, where the smell of horses was strong. It was burning in parts but the top still stood and it was higher than the stabbing long teeth. More wooden things were near it and it was those he used to climb, to leap upon the top of the horse den.  

His prey was ahead of him but the leap would be far. It could be too far.

He backed away from it and the wood den groaned beneath.  The flames from below began to claw upwards. Hot against at his legs, singing his fur.  The thought of burning started to push him away, back towards the dark again.

He pushed back. He saw where he must go and ran.

Ran until the horse den ended and leapt.  His paws felt only air as he flew over the girl’s men.  He chose his prey as he flew over the killers.

The man saw him too and screamed, the sound doing nothing to stop his attack.

The men with their flying teeth trying to run or bite him. Men like these had killed his brother. They needed to time to put their teeth into the wooden mouths. His teeth were at the ready.

He was fast, darting back and forth, biting and tearing, filling the air with as much blood as was in his mouth. Until the world around him was a blur of screams and blood.

The backs of the men with the long teeth were easy to attack. The girl’s men were soon among him, adding more death to the air and earth.

They left him behind as they pushed into the den mouth. Left him to feel the dampness of the earth beneath his paws. The blood was all around him here.  

Something shook him and he jumped, snarling. Warning it away. But there was nothing warn. No man was there to touch him.

Man growls filled his ears but the ones fighting were not so close to do so. Then he was shaking again and the pain filled everything.

“Jon Snow.” A man growled from somewhere in the dark. “Say something you bastard.”

“He’s dying Jon, let him do so in peace.”

“No he’s bloody not Marq. Not the last one, not with me here.” The growls came from a filthy, furry man in the dark. He was above him, small light flickering across his face. “That’s it lad, not here. This place has taken enough of our sons, it won’t be taking you.”

More fire filled the room and he howled at the memory of the pain. He wanted to run, to jump away from it but these men were keeping him in it.

“I’ve got the chains off the others but I think more guards are coming.” A new man had come with more flames. He held a bloody tooth. “We’ve only four blades between us.”

“Then that’s how many we’ll have to do for them Olyvar.” The large man growled. He knew this man. He’d been father’s friend. “I could do for some more killing before this night’s done. Help me get him out of here before they send more. ”

With that the men began to paw and lift him upwards. His back and hands screamed even louder than his dry throat could. He was carried out of the darkness but the agony followed.

Whenever he’d left the darkness he’d left the pain behind.

He’d left his name behind.

So he did so again. He reached for his friend.

And the wolf stood again in the blood soaked battleground. Watching the girl's men running towards the stone trail over the river. Where the darkness was. 

The wolf could save the one he sought from the darkness. So he ran to the stone trail, following the sounds of death.

For the killing could last for longer.

Much longer.

 


 

 

SANSA 

 

How much longer?

How much longer can this madness last?

Sansa twisted her horse’s reins in her hand as she stared out upon the Twins, from where Maege and she bore witness to the assault.

Well, witness to little truly. Torches and flames lit up parts of the castle ahead but she could make out little from where she was.

I can’t even tell if we are winning.

“How long has it been?” She asked, of the score of mounted men about her it was the lady who answered.

“I would say just under two hours.” Maege answered, her face grim. “Longer than I’d hoped.”

Sansa couldn’t believe that. It had felt like an eternity since the whole thing had started.

Her heart had suffered greatly during all of this, jumping several times as the attack against the Twins unfolded. First as the Royce wagons entered the castle, her fearing of their discovery all along. Then when the Freys signaled for her men, disguised as their own, to follow the wagons within. The worst had been when the war horns had begun to blow.

That had meant her riders within had attacked the gate. It sent the rest of her army rushing forward from the darkness. Some had fallen behind the initial charge, finally risking the lighting of torches to escape the darkness they’d spent hours shrouded in.

“Fools.” Maege had said. “Put them out!”

It had been too late and Sansa had cried out to watch some of those poor men struck by arrows from the castle walls. The sounds of their dying had been horrible. Even those who kept charging suffered such fates. The throng of men charging across the drawbridge had been met with arrows and rocks as well. The light from the castle had let her watch as those who fell were shoved into the moat to make way for others following behind.

Some still living as they disappeared under the water.

Howland and Galbart had led her army’s drive through the gate. Those two rushing forth to join Jon and Uncle Brynden in that place which burned and bled before her. Even Ghost ran within to join the thousands of her men fighting and dying in those accursed castles. A howl or two had reached her ears and she imagined Ghost in terrible peril.

Her people falling and dying for her.

All while she watched.

“It’s quieting your grace.” Maege added. “I hear less than I did.”

“Truly?” She asked hopefully. “The battle is ending?”

Maege nodded but Sansa couldn’t quite believe it. In her heard the horns and trumpets still blared. The screams and yells echoing even louder.

Yet she slowly realized Maege was right. Some battle still raged somewhere in the night, far and distant. Upon the walls she spied some movement yet none of it frantic or hurried. All much different than it had been.

“I think our men have the battlements.” Sansa pointed up. “That was the plan wasn’t it?”

“It was.” The lady answered. “The battlements and gate, then the bridge to aid the Royces.”

“Riders your grace!” One her guards shouted, pointing at some dark shapes moving from the castle gate towards them. “Form up!”

Her mounted protecters quickly encircled her while a few brave men rode forward, to deflect any attack.

There was to be none though. For the men riding towards them flew the Stark banner. It’s white backdrop stained red at places.

“Queen Sansa!” A Stark guardsman she knew to be named Rodwell hailed them. “This castle is secure!”

A small cheer went up from her men and Sansa almost yelled in joy herself. For the castle to be secure meant there'd be less death, her men would suffer no more.

“I have been asked to escort you within.” Rodwell continued, turning his horse. “If you would follow us.”

She gladly did. As she rode a smile stretched across her face.

We took the Twins, she thought, my army took the Twins.

Everyone said no one could take the Twins but we did.

Her joy was short-lived for as they rode closer to the castle the brutality of their victory became evident.

She had not prepared herself for how many bodies there would be. For how much blood and death had come from what she’d willed. Dead men lay all about as Sansa rode through the gate of the Frey castle. Bodies pierced with arrows or hacked horribly. She sought Maege’s comfort but the lady was riding at the head of the group, her hand upon her mace. All the other men shared dark expressions as they took in the carnage and Sansa began to feel nervous.

They’ll hate you for this, she thought, they made you a queen and you brought them this.

Within the courtyard it was even worse. Scores of bodies were strewn about on the ground, others hanging from the stairs and battlements. Many and more bore the twin towers of House Frey upon their cloaks but that offered little comfort. She feared for how many were her own disguised warriors.

Some of her losses were plain already.

Men bearing the Stark direwolf, Mormont bear, Glover fist, even the Reed’s lizard lion, all were represented among the slain.

She worried at how many there were laying like this beyond the courtyard. Many of her men had survived the Red Wedding only for her to lead them back here for vengeance. 

Men who’d spent much of the war fighting for the Starks while I did nothing in King’s Landing.

And tonight I did nothing while they died here.

“Oh gods…Torvald.”

Maege’s pained voice cut through all that.

The lady had stopped her horse above one of her own dead warriors. The body was of an old man, doubled over with his pale hands still clutching a spear through his middle. 

“You got what you wanted you old goat.” Maege shook her head. “Damn you for it.”

“My lady?” Sansa asked, somewhat shocked.

“I grew up with him. He was a guard in my father’s days…older than he had any right to be when he showed up to march south with your brother.” Maege chuckled as she wiped at her eyes. “Said he wouldn’t stay behind for one last war. I told him to go home and look to his family…to enjoy his last days with his children’s young ones. He said he’d rather die a Northman.”

Despite herself Sansa pictured the old man surrounded by small children, carrying them about upon his shoulders like father would carry her as girl. It was a hard thing to reconcile with the bloody corpse which lay below. She knew nothing of this man beyond Maege’s words but she had to fight back tears anyways.

“Oh Maege…Maege I’m sorry…”

How many others?

 Her eyes drifted over the dead, old and young amongst them.

How many other grandfathers have fallen here? How many fathers or brothers? Sons?

Cousins?

“The Queen in the North!” The shout cut her off.

It had come from above her. A man standing upon the wall looked down at them and raised his sword before yelling again.

“The Queen in the North!”

“Victory!” Another yelled from beside her. “Justice!”

“The Queen in the North!”

More men all about the yard and fortifications took up the call. They began banging their spears against the ground as they shouted. Others clanging their weapons against shields as they cheered her arrival to the castle.

They fought and won this castle, she marveled, they’re the ones who died for it.

Yet they cheer me.

She waged her own battle against breaking under it all. Her father wouldn’t have cried. Nor would've Robb. They’d have been strong so she struggled to be like them.

Sansa held her head high so her men could see her pride in them.

“I would see this castle.” Sansa said to one of her guards. “If you would help me?”

Soon strong hands aided her in dismounting and men in the courtyard bowed as she turned to face them. Some were wounded and others splattered with blood and gore. Yet she looked at each and did not show weakness.

It was the least she could do.

“I want our dead seen to as quickly as possible. They are to be treated as the heroes they are.”

“I’ll set men to it you grace.” Maege nodded and began to give such orders when she suddenly paused. Her gaze locked on something further ahead.

Another man had entered the courtyard through the bridge gate, stepping over bodies at brisk pace. His face was as stained with blood as his Tully tunic was. Sansa could not contain her join when she recognized him.

“Uncle!” She cried out as she ran forward, stepping over a body to get to him quicker.

Brynden Tully was once again the image of himself, a smile pulling upon his face as she closed upon him. Sansa threw her arms around the man before he had a chance to stop her.

“I’m in no state to be hugged by a queen but I’ll not argue girl.” Brynden grumbled as he returned her embrace. He smelt terrible and trembled slightly as she held him.

“I was so afraid. So scared for you. Are you well?” She eyed his face, it bore some marks of battle but could see no worse upon the rest of him.

“Aye, I’m well enough.” He said grimly. “I put a good number of Freys in the ground for your mother.”

When she released him he surprised her by grasping her hands and pulling her back into a second embrace. This one almost feeling desperate.

“I’m sorry girl, it’s just a good thing to hold family after being here. Forgive an old man this.” He whispered, his face full of sadness and his eyes elsewhere.

“You have my love uncle, always that.”

He gave her a small smile and a final squeeze before releasing her. Maege had joined them now and he held out his hand to her.

“Both our prayers were answered ser. It’s a good thing to see our friends after a night such as this.” Maege smiled but her words did not raise the knight’s spirits any.

“What news have you heard?” He asked them.

“Little.” Sansa said truthfully.

They had won, that much she knew.

But of details of the battle they had heard nothing. Nor of their losses.

Nothing of Jon.

Brynden nodded.

“We have captured several Freys, including Lord Walder. Ser Willem took a party to free the hostages held in the dungeons and reports all are being seen to. Apparently they didn’t need much saving, the Greatjon and the others had staged their own escape attempt when they heard the ruckus.” Brynden shook his head. “The fool was barely unshackled before he joined the battle.”

Maege laughed and Sansa remembered the fierce, almost frightening lord who had visited Winterfell in her youth. Her uncle seemed to puff up like the Greatjon then before loudly making another proclamation.

“We hold both castles and the bridge securely you grace! The Twins and the Crossing are yours!”

Brynden’s words sent up another cheer of joy in the courtyard.

It’s for mother. For you Robb.

She embraced Maege who was laughing happily, the woman had shared in so many of her worries that she must share in Sansa’s joy. It was when Sansa turned back to her uncle she saw his face was still grim.

Her next question was one she feared to have answered.

“And of our losses?”

And then his expression darkened further.

“It was not a bloodless battle. I fear almost half the Royce men dead or wounded. Lord Reed is in a bad way…”

“How bad?” She asked, fearing what the Howland’s loss could mean. She valued him so.

“He’ll live, unlike many others. We lost scores taking the castles…the worst was the bridge.” Brynden’s eyes were on Maege then. “That tower cost us dearly.”

The tower sitting upon the middle of the bridge had been a terrible thing to consider taking during the assault. Whoever attempted it would have to charge across an open bridge which gave archers a clear field to loose upon them. Galbart Glover had asked the honor of attacking it, promising to shout out Robb’s name as he led the charge.

“Of Galbart?” Maege asked.

Her uncle shook his head and Sansa’s hand went to her mouth.

“Galbart Glover was a good man. A brave man. He did his duty and he did not suffer your grace.”

“Oh Galbart…” Maege closed her eyes.

The pair had fought alongside Robb from the beginning. It was thanks to them both she even had an army to command.

“We will do him the honor of returning him home.” Sansa tried to sound strong but this loss was great. “I swear it.”

The man had been great counsel and loyal to the end. She swore the Freys would pay. They would surely pay for the loss of more good northmen. Losses she still did not know the full extent of.

Worse was that Brynden still had not mentioned Jon. And why he hadn’t filled her with dread.

“Of Ser Jon?” Lady Maege asked the question before she could. The woman was priceless to her.

And Brynden’s answer a gift from the gods.

“He lives.”

He lives!

The joy the words gave her was instant. She glanced behind her uncle half expecting to see Jon walking towards her. When he wasn’t there she looked to the bridge gate.

Then the stairs. Then the walls.

It took her a moment or two to realize how her uncle’s voice had sounded. The toneone she only heard from him when something was wrong. Her desperate searching of his face was too much for him.

He hung his head.

“We expect he will live. The Freys…they wanted answers of the man. He could have fed them anything but gave them nothing.” The knight paused before finally meeting her eyes. “I misjudged him Sansa. I thought the worse of him and I regret that. I hope I have the chance to tell him so.”

“Take me to him.” She commanded. “Now.”

“As you wish.” He said as he offered her his arm.

As they walked across the bridge and through the halls of the Twins she saw much but grasped little of it. The journey was a blur or men bowing, cheering, crying out pain or merely laying unmoving in her path. She passed them all, stepped over the ones upon the ground, all as if in a daze. 

She could not keep her thoughts from Jon.

Unspeakable horrors kept jumping into her mind.

They expect him to live, she thought, why is it not certain he will?

She had let him come to this. Whatever happened to him was her fault. They came to a doorway where she saw something which shook her from her fog. For Ghost lay beside the door, his white coat stained red and looking quite miserably. He raised his head just long enough to see it was her, then laid it down mournfully.

Brynden made to open the door but stopped just short of doing so.

“I would warn you this is not something I’d have you see…”

“I would see him. I must. Please.”

He nodded and they entered the room. The first things she saw was a table with a basin sitting atop of it which was full of bloody cloths. Then her eyes found the bed and the form of the man upon it.

And she screamed.

Her cry sounded like someone she did not know. Her hands went to her mouth and she rushed forward to the bed. Jon lay on his stomach, covered only from the waist down by a blood stained sheet. His back was a bloody mess with long, ugly slashes crisscrossing it. It was all so horrible it took her a moment to realize it was worse than she thought

It felt as if cold fingers had reached into her chest when she saw his hand. It was bandaged so that she could not even discern there was a hand still there. His eyes were closed, his skin pale and clammy, and sweat covered him.

But he was breathing still, a rasping, weak sound yet it came again and again.

Like Jeyne, she thought, please not him too.

She willed him to open his eyes. To see her there.

“Jon…I’m here Jon…” Sansa whispered as she knelt to his side. “I have you now.”

His eyes did not open and he showed no sign of hearing her.

“Milk of the poppy.” Her uncle was beside her, his expression filled with concern. “I fear we have little enough but for now he rests.”

“He was lashed…”

“Yes. Forgive me, I could not prevent that. Nor what was done to his hand…you would ask me so I will tell you. They held it over the coals.” He paused, the look of horror upon her face must have stopped him. “They let it burn.”

“Is it still there?”

“The maester said it will mend but the scars will be terrible.” Brynden said. “He should have use of it in time.”

“Where is he then? Why is he not here tending Jon?” She asked angrily and looked accusingly at the man.

Jon lay here suffering and was alone when they’d arrived. Her uncle should have had the maester there beside him. Caring for him and speeding his recovery.

“Sansa, many men are wounded. Many worse than him. I don’t believe Ser Jon the kind of man to ask the healer see to his comfort over their lives.”

She wanted to scream at him. To tell him they could all wait. That more would have died if it hadn’t been for Jon volunteering to be sent here. To be tortured. Her anger was so she wanted to blame her uncle, her men, even the maester for Jon being there.

Everyone but yourself, she realized, none of them gave the command.

They didn't send him here.

Suddenly it was herself she was angry at. For the reasons she'd just thought and for how easily she sought to place blame on those who did not deserve it. Her uncle was right of course, Jon wouldn’t want others to suffer for his behalf. The healers should tend to those who needed it desperately. 

Caring for him could fall to someone less skilled. His bandages would need to be changed and his wounds cleaned. She could do such things, she could care for him herself until the healers were free to do so.

How long will that be?

You don’t even know how many are wounded, what supplies we have to help.

You can’t rule this castle without knowing this and more.

You can’t stay here.

Those were the thoughts of a little girl who had no cares or duties. Her army had taken a castle and her bannermen freed. There were things to be done.

“How long will he sleep?”

“For some time. A few hours, maybe more if he’s fortunate.” Brynden paused but a look from her bid him to continue. “Burns are ghastly wounds, he will suffer.”

She reached out and gently ran her hand down the side of his face, the skin cool despite his sweat. It troubled her but Sansa knew what she must do.

Jon had made her a queen, she would be one for him.

“Where are the wounded being cared for?” She asked.

She would make her presence known there first. To show respect and honor for their sacrifices. To give them hope or comfort before the end.

“The great hall of the other castle.”

“If you would escort me there I would be seen and offer what help I could, I owe them that much at the least. If the head steward of this castle survived the siege I would have him questioned on the state of supplies here. Then I’d have our men confirm those supplies.”

Her meaning was clear, if the man could not be trusted it would be good to know soon.

“I’ll ask Maege to set men to it.”

“Also, if enough are able, I’ll want to see the men we’ve freed as soon as possible. I imagine within the next hour.” She rose from Jon’s side to take stock of the weary older knight. “I know you must be exhausted ser but I would have you awake for the next few hours at least. There is much to do.”

“I wouldn’t sleep if you ordered me to. A cup of wine or three with the Greatjon will be a fair reward for that.” He smiled and spared a glance to at Jon.

Sansa would not do the same for she feared her strength would leave her if she did.

“I will return here to tend to Jon after all else is done, I will be the first thing he sees when he wakes, no matter what.”

The knight offered his arm and they left the room. 

Her fighting the urge to run back the whole time.

 


 

ARYA

Haven’t they seen dead bodies before?

Arya had already been annoyed at the slow pace the others were taking. Now they seemed content to stop at every hanging body they came across. Like dead bodies weren’t common enough in these lands.

It took them long enough to realize who the dead men hanging from the trees were. She’d figured it out after the third one but hoped if she kept her mouth shut they’d move quicker.

She was wrong.

“Mordane, do not stray too far ahead.” Brienne called up to her. She was doing her best to hurry the others along. “Just because these may be the men who did those crimes at the Saltpans doesn’t mean there aren’t more.”

I hope there aren’t, she thought, I hope they are all on trees somewhere.

Brienne rode up beside her while the old septon droned on about the history of the inn they were riding to. Going on about this owner and that owner and what happened to them.

“He doesn’t know everything,” She said quietly.

“I don’t believe the septon claims to.” Brienne shrugged as she had her horse match the pace of Arya’s. “Yet he knows more about these lands than most.”

“I could’ve told you there was an inn at the crossroads. I’ve been there.”

“With the Hound? When he killed his brother’s men?”

“He only killed the one.” She said, eager all at once to tell Brienne the tale. “I killed the Tickler and their stupid squire. The Hound was so drunk they almost killed him. If it wasn’t for me…”

“Lower your voice.” Brienne cut her off before looking out into the trees where another hung man swayed in the breeze. “I do not doubt you my lady, but for the same reason I still call you Mordane I hope the septon is right and the inn run by different people now. The fewer people who know who and where you are the better for us.”

“You mean the Brotherhood?” She asked. “They aren’t our enemies, I rode with them for awhile. Remember I told you Beric…”

“I do remember but even the Lightning Lord sought to ransom you for coin and I hear little of him these days. More talk of a hangwoman called Lady Stoneheart. Who is to say who she would ransom you to?”

“I won’t be a prisoner again.” Arya declared and Brienne nodded.

“Nor would I allow such a thing to happen.” The lady warrior leaned in towards her and began to whisper her next words. “And I’d hear what the septon knows of these lands, before we leave him at the inn.”

That surprised Arya. Brienne had been treating the septon as if he hadn’t lied to her back at the island. Like she’d forgiven the septon for lying. Brienne must have seen her surprise so she continued on.

“I believe him a good man but you are right, we can not trust him. For the journey I plan on making I cannot allow him to follow...or slow us down.”

Hearing that Brienne wanted to move quicker was a huge relief. Knowing she understood who was slowing them down helped too.

Of course she sees that, Arya thought, she's not just another stupid lady.

“But if we leave him behind and the Faith finds him he’ll tell them we’re heading to the Vale.”

“Which is good for us, since I intend we strike for the Neck instead.” Brienne said. “Those lands are far but I believe them to be the refuge we need. It would be hard for others to track in and the people there were staunchly loyal to your family.”

Arya became excited at the idea of heading to the North. The Vale was nothing to her really.

“My father always said Howland Reed was his greatest friend.”

She wanted tell Brienne more of what she knew about the Neck when the lad shook her head quickly.

“There will be time to talk of this further but say nothing to the others. Only you and I know this. I have not yet decided to tell Ser Hyle and Pod I will inform when it is time.”

“Pod? Why him?” Arya looked back at the quiet squire and when he caught her gaze his eyes fell. The swollen eye and cut lip she’d given him probably the reason why.

“Because you do him wrong, he is a brave and good lad. He sought your sister for a good cause and did not balk at seeing you to safety.” Brienne was no longer whispering and seemed disappointed in her. “And he is not the man who killed your father.”

Ilyn Payne did and the boy’s a Payne.

Good enough for me.

They’d been two days riding from Quiet Isle when Hyle had let the name Payne slip. The boy had stuttered he’d squired for the Imp and that made him bad enough. When she’d learned who Pod’s cousin was all she saw was Ilyn Payne pulling forth Ice and closing in upon her father.

Why she’d used fists and not Needle Arya still couldn’t say.

“My lady!” The boy had tried to shield himself from her blows but she was all tears and rage.

“My father…he killed…my father…”

Each punch brought another accusation until she’d been lifted up and thrown away into the dirt. Brienne had been as shocked at the others but had acted quicker than the knight and septon.

Since then the squire had kept his distance and that suited her just fine.

The only person in the group she thought was worth their horse was Brienne. The woman was strong, fearless and led these men because she was the best to do so. No one bothered her about acting a lady and she never bothered Arya to act the same.

Hyle and the septon had given her strange looks when she’d traded the dress the brothers made her wear for a boy’s riding clothes. Hyle had said she was meant for dresses and comfort. He was always coming about her when Brienne was off somewhere. Full of little jokes and comments, always trying to make her laugh and had even brought her some flowers one morning.

Something about him just bothered her.

Brienne’s right not to tell him, she decided, it be better if it was just us two anyways.

The thought of that happening made her happy to arrive at the inn.

The Crossroads was different from how Arya remembered. Instead of whores there were small children about, the oldest a girl about her age, the youngest about two and naked. Most hung about the inn’s porch but passed the stable noise came from what sounded to be a forge. She had her hood up over her face just in case any might remember her yet none looked familiar to her.

Brienne glanced to her and Arya gave a quick nod to signal all was well.

After that the lady and the others began to haggle with the one girl over the state and cost of the inn, it was all so boring Arya dismounted.

She knew Brienne wanted her to stay close but she’d spotted what looked to be a half eaten apple near the edge of the stable. Still good enough for a horse and she figured to reward her own for being such a good ride.

“No one thinks of you lot first.” Arya whispered to the beast as she fed it the apple, stroking its snout the whole time. “No one.”

Suddenly someone else had joined the others in speaking about the inn. It was a voice Arya recognized.

One she knew so well.

Arya whipped around to find who she hoped to.

“My lord?” Brienne asked then.

But standing at the entrance of the stable was no lord. She knew it wasn’t a dream when their eyes met. His blue eyes had been full of anger and suspicion but now widened in surprise. Those muscled arms suddenly falling limp to his sides.

“Gendry?” She asked, pulling back her hood.

He just stood there gaping at her. His hair was longer and he’d grown some more stubble about his face but little else was different. The leather apron he wore was filthy and besides that his chest beneath was bare and sweaty.

Of course he’d find a smithy.

He loves them so.

“Gendry it’s me.” She repeated as if he wouldn’t know her, it felt like it had been so long. “Say something. Say you know me…

He didn’t say anything, instead he started walking towards her, letting the others speak for him.

Shout really.

“Hold!”

“Back away from her boy!”

Gendry didn’t listen and when he lifted her up and into his arms in a powerful embrace she heard more cry out. Not her though, she hugged the big fool right back.

“I thought you died at the Saltpans…we all thought you died there…”

“Almost of boredom.” She smiled before scrunching up her face at his sweaty embrace. “You smell horrible.”

He smiled back and Arya realized how much she’d missed his stupid smile. Then his eyes flickered away and the smile disappeared.

It was the only warning she had before two powerful arms wrenched them apart and knocked Gendry to his arse. Hyle stood between them, his hand pushing her back as he drew his sword and pointed it at Gendry.

“That is not how a smith treats a lady!” The knight barked as the children were shouting at him.

“Leave Gendry be!”

“Stop!”

Arya was about to join in when Brienne was there, slamming her arm down into Hyle’s wrist, knocking his sword from his hand.

“Leave him be! He has no blade!” Brienne then reached to pull Arya to her side as they both glared at Hyle.

“I was to stand by and let some peasant molest the lady? No wonder women can’t be knights…” Hyle fumed as he was watched Gendry gain his feet.

“He’s not some peasant!” She found her voice and pointed at her friend. “He’s a knight and my friend!"

“A knight?” Hyle laughed and Brienne looked shocked as well.

“It’s true! He’s Ser Gendry of Hollow Hill! Knighted by the Lord Beric himself, I saw it!”

“Lord Beric?” Brienne pushed at her again, this time to put herself between them. “You were part of the brotherhood? You served the Lightning Lord?”

“I did.” Gendry brushed off his apron and waved away the eldest girl as he drew up this full size. “Before Lord Beric’s light left this world.”

“He’s dead?” Arya couldn’t believe it when Gendry nodded. It didn’t make sense, the man she’d known had been killed a number of times and every time he came back. “But I thought…where was Thoros?”

Gendry seemed pained then, looking at her in a way that almost bordered on pity, even sadness. His mouth opened but no words came. Instead he began scratching at his arm nervously.

“It’s not a tale I’d tell…but I’d hear yours.” Gendry turned to look at the assembled group before him and the suspicion he’d shown earlier came back. “Are these people your friends or captors?”

“I am the Lady Brienne of…”

“Brienne’s my friend, those two are fools and he’s a liar.” Arya made sure to point to the knight, squire and the septon in turn. “But they all helped me away from the Faith and travel with me now.”

“Arya that is not fair.”

“Bugger fair, it’s the truth. And Gendry’s my friend too so we’ll have rooms and food here tonight.” She said with her hands on her hips.

Gendry and the girl Willow exchanged the same wary look Brienne and Ser Hyle did.

“You are no longer in Lord Beric’s Brotherhood? We’ll have your vow of safety if we bed here?” Brienne asked and Arya couldn’t believe how awkward everyone was being.

“I would never let anyone hurt Arya. But if you’re staying here you’ll have to offer something.” Gendry gestured to the children all watching the events from the porch with worried interest. “Food or coin, there are mouths to feed.”

“A peaceable offer if I ever heard one.” The septon came forward as his dog ran up the porch and the children shrieked as it began to chase them about. “Dog! Dog! Oh well, it’s good for young ones to be a little scared of beasts. I can offer food in exchange for my bed this evening.”

“And us coin…but not too much of it.” Ser Hyle put in and the haggling began all over again.

In the end they took three rooms beside one another, Brienne and her sharing one with a hearth. Pod had seemed disappointed having to share Hyle’s room instead of Brienne’s and Arya couldn’t blame him. After what Hyle had done to Gendry she liked him even less.

She also blamed Hyle for Gendry keeping his distance from them. He hadn’t even come in to the inn afterwards and Brienne wouldn’t let her go anywhere without her.

It was all so stupid, Gendry was right there and after all this time she couldn’t even go talk to him.

What are they afraid of? That one of the orphans might snatch me away?

Only one person had ever been able to snatch Arya from anywhere and it had been the Hound. And he was long gone.

Eating dinner with the others had been a pain, children ran all about, the septon tried to pray and the girl Willow was bossy and reminded her too much of Sansa at her worst. And Gendry hadn’t even come in to share their meal.

Again, it was Brienne who came to her rescue. It was her that suggested someone take a plate out to the forge and Arya had jumped at the chance.

“It would not be proper for the young lady to go alone…” Hyle had started before Brienne rose from the table.

“Then I shall accompany her. Come on now, before he goes hungry.”

It was raining hard outside the inn but they didn’t run, Brienne and her weren’t bothered by a little rain. As they walked across the yard towards the forge, which rang with the sounds of work still, Arya remembered something from earlier.

“Why did you call Gendry a lord?”

Brienne made a face but did not break her stride.

“He reminded me of someone I knew once, I made a mistake is all.” She said before stopping just before the forge. “What do you know of the knight? Do you know where he comes from? Or his parentage?”

“He’s from King’s Landing and he said he never knew his parents. He’s a bastard, like Jon but don’t call him that. He’s a knight now.”

Arya didn’t think Brienne would do that but she had to be sure, things could not get more tense between them. Especially if she was going to convince Brienne to take Gendry with them.

The three of them would make a much better group than the one they rode with now.

“I show respect to all those who deserve it.” Brienne answered. “And Ser Gendry seems to have earned yours.”

Within the forge Gendry was hard at work. He had sweat running down his face and chest, his hair matted about his face as he pounded away at a sword. His eyes seemed to be elsewhere and she thought he hammered harder than necessary, each blow seeming fueled by some anger he held.

Then again she knew little of Gendry’s trade.

“Who’s the sword for?”

Her question caused Gendry to start, his arm pausing mid swing.

“Me.” He said before shoving the blade back in the flames and turning away from them. “A knight needs a sword and this one will be mine.”

“If you say so. We brought you food.” Arya set the plate off to the side of the shop and saw bits of armor and weapons all about, including a spear as tall as Brienne.

Gendry still didn’t turn around but she heard him grumble.

“Ladies shouldn’t be bringing food to the likes of me.”

“It was no trouble ser.” Brienne said, her eyes inspecting Gendry as if trying to figure him out.

Not likely, she thought, I still can’t.

 Arya was in no hurry to leave so she made the best of their silence.

“I don’t know why you want a sword…you swing a hammer like a bull kicks.” She thought Gendry would cheer up at the use of his old nickname but he only shook his head, sweat falling from his dark hair as he did so.

“I’m a knight now, not a smith.”

“So? Robert Baratheon used a war hammer and he was a lord and a king. Tell him Brienne.”

The tall woman appeared at a loss for words, blinking several times before numbly nodding. Gendry didn’t see it, his back still to them. He’d always been a stubborn ass but now he was acting as difficult as Brienne was acting strangely.

“I’m sorry about Hyle.” She said. “I told you he was a fool…”

“Don’t.” Gendry turned to face her finally. “You don’t have to apologize to me. Not after...”

He trailed off then and she knew something was wrong. He wouldn’t look her in the eyes and his fists were clenched.

“Your mother…you know at the Twins…you know she…”

“She died.” She said it so quickly she felt badly for it, but it had been moons ago. Arya had all that time alone on Quiet Isle to accept that. “So did Robb and Jon, I was there but I couldn’t help them.”

“We never found your brother…Jon Snow. Beric had us look for you both. When we searched for you we came on bodies but we never found him. We found...”

“Stop. Just stop.” Arya almost begged.

Just because she’d accepted her family had died at the Red Wedding didn’t mean she wanted to talk about it. She also didn’t want to look weak so she quickly thought of something else to talk about.

“How did Beric die?” She asked.

Gendry didn’t answer at first, instead moving to where the sword was being heated, turning it over. Then he added more wood to the furnace and crouching low to look into the flames.

“Gendry?”

“He died like he did all the other times…giving his life for another.”

It made sense to her, Brienne seemed confused but she didn’t know the Brotherhood like they did. As she pictured Beric she imagined him dying to save some woman somewhere from sellswords or Lannisters.

“I’m glad.”

“What?”

“Arya!”

Gendry and Brienne were shocked.

“I’m glad he’s dead and that he is still dead. I liked him, I mean it. I think he was a good man.” She shifted uncomfortably under their gaze. “But he wasn’t happy Gendry. I heard him tell Thoros he wasn’t. Each time he came back less and less himself. Why come back if you can’t be yourself?”

“Arya what are you talking about?” Brienne was lost.

“But…I thought you wanted that.” Gendry said, his eyes finally on hers and if she thought him angry she was wrong. He was sad, as sad as she’d ever seen him. “You asked Thoros if he could bring back a man without a head? You wouldn’t want that still?”

The memory made her feel weak. When she’d asked Beric for that she hadn’t understood what his powers truly did. Afterwards she saw what Beric was going through, how his wounds remained and how he lost so much of what he loved.

Father would have come back but whether it would have really been him or some horribly scarred ghost of what he was she didn’t know. All Arya knew was how much she loved him and how warm he was when he hugged her.

And that was all gone now.

“Beric said it…said it wasn’t him that came back so it wouldn’t be my father who came back. I loved my father but he’s dead and I wouldn’t want something that only looked like him. I’d want him to be happy.” She wiped at her eyes, the tears had come despite her willing them away. “I hope he’s happy.”

“Quiet.” Brienne commanded suddenly, her hand going to her sword.

She was moving towards the door and Arya was about to ask why when the woman held out her hand, her had cocked as if listening. The rain pounding against the building was all she heard at first, that and Gendry walking back to where his sword was burning.

Then she heard Dog barking, loud and frantically and Brienne shared a worried look with her.

“Someone is coming.”

“Friends.” Gendry said and Arya felt her stomach tighten.

“What friends Gendry?”

“You know them.” He shrugged without looking back.

No, he said he wasn’t with them anymore.

She wanted to scream at him but instead she ran to Brienne’s side as the lady peered out into the rain through the small gap in the door she’d opened. Riders were splashing into the yard and reigning up before the inn. She counted seven of them and at first couldn’t recognize any with their hoods up over their faces.

Until she spotted the last massive rider, his pale ugly head and sore laden cheeks all too familiar.

I do know them.

“They aren’t our friends.”

“Your sword and armor ser.” Brienne spoke to Gendry who frowned. “You’ll need it to protect Arya.”

“To protect all of us.” Arya added as she reached down and was glad Needle was still at her side.

By then Gendry had come over to take a look for himself and swore to see who had gathered outside the inn.

Arya spotted something else familiar, a helm she’d grown to hate.

“He’s dead.” She said. “He said he was dead.”

She cursed the Elder Brother for lying about this as well.

“Not him, another.”

Brienne’s words were almost drowned out in the thunder, Willow’s words were to the riders certainly were. Whatever Arya thought of the girl it took courage to go out onto the porch armed only with a crossbow against a group like that. The man’s voice was louder and though she heard little enough she recognized it.

Rorge and Biter.

The Bloody Mummers are here.

Brienne suddenly turned and pushed Arya back at Gendry.

“Her safety ser, see to it.” Was all the woman spoke before she walked out into the rain and went forth to face the mummers.

All of seven of them?

Alone?

She can’t!

Gendry just stood there, gripping her shoulders and holding her back from helping.

“What are you doing? Get your armor!” She managed to fight him off until he only held her one wrist in his powerful right hand. “She can’t fight them all!”

“No she can’t but I’m not letting you go out there!”

Outside the sounds of fighting had started and she saw Brienne battling off a manic charged by Rorge. The others were just watching and laughing which meant there was still time.

Time for them to help her.

“Gendry I can fight so get your sword! She’ll die!” She used his grip as leverage and slammed her knee up and into his groin.

Gendry wheezed and released his grip enough for her to yank free and turn to the door. She saw Rorge impaled upon Brienne’s sword and almost cried out in joy. Then Biter was rushing at Brienne, smashing into her and sending them both down to the ground.

Arya was running out into the rain with Needle in her hand, heading straight at Biter and Brienne as they brawled in the mud. Someone gave a shout and one of the mummers swung at her with a mace.

Arya ducked beneath his blow, feeling the blow whip by just above her head. His attack had thrown him off balance so as she launched an attack of her. Slashing upwards Needle cut through the man’s thigh and across his groin. He screamed in agony before falling down clutching at himself. Whatever pride she took in that turned to horror as she saw what Biter was doing to Brienne.

The monster raised up over top of her protector, a chunk of her cheek hanging from his mouth as he chewed.

Arya moved to help as others joined the attack against the mummers. Newcomers were riding into the yard and she saw Hyle rushing forth from the inn.

None told the man who ran at Arya this, that or he just really wanted to cut her in two. He was wielding a curved sword and cursed her in some strange tongue.

Arya tried to meet his attack but the when their swords struck together Needle was torn from away her grasp. She watched it tumble through the air, landing in the mud to her side. Arya dove down into the muck too, avoiding her attacker’s next cut and crawling to reach her sword.

She never reached it, the man’s boot catching her in the ribs and causing her to roll sideways in pain.

The rain was in her eyes but she caught a glimpse of Biter still atop Brienne. Blood running down his mouth and the side of her face a bloody ruin.

No please, not her too, not because of me.

The legs of the man who would kill her appeared just to side of her view. Any moment his sword would come down and she hoped it would before Brienne died. She didn’t want to watch Brienne die.

When the lightning flashed she thought it was the killing stroke. She'd closed her eyes against its coming and waited. Yet nothing but the crash of thunder followed.

She’d been spared, and so had Brienne. For Biter died in their place. 

Gendry had saved Brienne, her friend burying spear so powerfully through the back of Biter’s head it stuck out the monster’s mouth a good foot.

Two bodies fell in front of her then, grunting and wrestling. The man who was supposed to kill her was instead doing his best to hold off Podrick, who wielded a bloody meat knife in his hand. Blood spilled from the mummer and stained the mud but he fought on, his fist pummeling Pod’s face brutally.  

Arya didn’t waste time, she dug into the mud and crawled to Pod’s aid. When she was over top the mummer’s face she jammed her thumbs as hard as she could into the man’s eyes. He howled as her nails clawed deep into the softness there. Then howled no more as Pod drove his knife deep into the man’s chest.

They stared at each other after their enemy lay still. Pod’s eyes were dazed, his lips and nose a bloody mess while Arya was a mess of mud from head to toe, her side burning in pain. All around them the yard men still shouted and dying horses screamed yet no more weapons clashed. The fighting was over, the newcomers milling about the bodies of the mummers, some surrounding Hyle who argued with them loudly.

She didn’t care about that, she only cared about Brienne.

Pod was the same.

They helped each other to their feet, Arya doing her best not to lean against him more than he did for her. Together they went to Brienne.

Gendry was there, kneeling over her while another man in a familiar yellow cloak stood beside him. Brienne moved some in the mud and Gendry looked to be speaking to her quietly.

“Gendry, how is she?” Arya asked. “How bad is it?”

“Not bad enough…look at all she did.” Gendry answered. “She fought so hard…she can pull through I think.”

Arya had hope then, hope for Brienne despite how bad off she looked.

Until the other man spoke.

“It go better for her if she dies now. Why waste good hanging rope?”

 

Chapter Text

JON

 

“I confess!” He cried out. “I’ll tell you anything.”

Even as Jon grimaced in pain and surrender his torturer continued. In fact she actually acted annoyed.

“Be quiet!” Sansa said sternly. “And keep still!”

It was a hard thing to ask of him but he did his best as she lay another bandage across his back. That sent a sharp stinging coursing through his body, his left hand curling into a fist as he rode it out. In truth he was thankful for how little he had to endure now.

His back hurt less and less each day, it didn’t mean the pain wasn’t there, just that he was on the mend. The lash marks had stopped their constant throbbing days ago, and for that he was thankful. Yet they had never had hurt as much as his hand.

Sansa had told him when first awoke he had been moaning. That had been the good time, before the milk of the poppy wore off and he’d taken to screaming and writhing in agony. Others had to hold him down so the healers could do their work. Nothing had been done to quiet him though, according to Sansa this part of the castle had endured days of his cries and delirious shouting.  

He could not claim to remember much of that time. It but a haze of pain punctuated by flashes of familiar faces and glimpses of maddening dreams.

Some pleasant. Others not.

He’d seen Eddard Stark, father and uncle to him, showing him how to properly clean a sword. Robb and he playing at swords, before his brother becoming a smiling Robar as he got the upper hand. The sound of a whip and the terror as he watched his skin sizzle and burn. Arya, armored in filth on a muddy battlefield. Bran upon a throne of roots, shrouded in darkness.

And Sansa.

Most often Sansa. Her words cutting through the pain, soft and distant but always there. Those bright blue eyes and flushed cheeks.

Her hair a fire.

All those good feelings were torn away as she laid another bandage across a cut.

“I’ve already been tortured once your grace.” Jon hissed. “Mercy I beg you.”

“Jon please, that isn’t funny.”

This time she sounded irritated. He knew that tone well, a lifetime ago it was how she’d scold Robb and he if she thought them being foolish. It was her ‘lady’ tone.

“It was a little funny.” He smiled at her.

She tried to hide her own smile but it was there anyways. Despite his teasing he was thankful for Sansa. Being stuck in this bed for days had been maddening, at times he thought it was her and others visiting that kept him sane.

Maege and Willem were frequent visitors, filled information of the goings on beyond his chamber. The Greatjon had come as well, bringing wine and shouting so that he often sent others fleeing the room. Jon hadn’t seen him Sansa caught the lord about to slap Jon on the back while laughing at his own jest. Apparently she’d banned him from returning until Jon was better off.

The thought of that meaty hand slapping against his back made Jon somewhat thankful for the banning,

What shocked him was how the Blackfish had called upon him as well. Whatever enmity the man had against Jon seemed to have largely disappeared. He would tell Jon stories of his youth spent fighting in strange lands and of warriors he’d known most only knew by tale.  

Most of all he liked hearing of how Sansa was handling things. The old knight was not easily impressed and wanted Jon to know he was by their new queen. Such news did wonders for him, he felt useless here and needed to know Sansa did well without him at her side.

Yet she was at his more often than not.

A steward had been set to care for Jon throughout the day and the maester visited regularly, Sansa there more often than both. No matter the goings at the Twins she always took her midday meal with him. Throughout the day or evening she would return to see to changing his bandages or just to talk.

Of how he was feeling and whether he was eating or not.

More often of her fears and worries.

“You’d be a fool to think all was well, and a greater one to think you weren’t doing well.” He’d told her after a particularly difficult meeting between her and some prisoner Freys. “You’re being the Queen we made. The Queen we need.”

She’d thanked for that and cheered some. Jon had cheered as well, feeling useful to her. Since then he’d wondered if that was a plan of hers. To make him feel useful when he was anything but.

If it was the girl was a genius, he thought, and us all the safer for it.

Nothing about Sansa’s current mood was feigned though.

He could see the truth of that clearly.

“Lord Umber has offered his sword on the morrow.” Sansa said, taking the basin of dirty bandages away before returning to his side. “As have Uncle Brynden, Maege, and a host of others.”

“That makes sense.” He said. “They all lost people here Sansa. Maege a daughter, the Greatjon his son. And Brynden…”

“My mother, yes.” Sansa quickly said as she inspected the bandages on his hand. They’d been changed before arrival but she always checked to ensure it was done properly. “But it feels wrong Jon. Father and Robb took the heads of those they sentenced to die. It shows me as weak that I cannot.”

“If it were Bran in your stead would expect the same of him?”

His point was clear. In the history of the Starks, in those rare cases where women or children were the heads of the house, the duty of seeing justice done fell to a male relative or worthy replacement.

Or an able replacement, he thought sourly, and I’m not that.

Sansa shook her head vigorously, a bit of her hair coming undone. His eyes followed the strand down the line of her cheek. Ending at her soft, pink lips.

Which were not smiling.

“I am not a small boy Jon!” She snapped.

“A prettier boy would never have lived.”

“This is serious. Be serious.” She said swatting lightly at his face. “I command it.

The small touch of her fingers against his cheek sent a jolt through his body and mind. It was not unwelcome, the opposite in truth. Her touch had felt gentle and her fingers soft and warm. It made his heart beat faster and the feeling so unexpected he must have appeared startled because Sansa became worried.

“What’s wrong?” She asked. “Is it your hand?”

“No, it’s nothing. You are right, this is serious.”

Jon pushed the strange feeling side, it wasn’t useful to think on and he would be of use to her. His body may be broken for now but he still had some wits. He’d had the benefit of being alongside Robb when father had bestowed a lord’s wisdom of how to rule justly, lessons Sansa had never been privy too.  

She did well nonetheless.

“Yes the others lost people here at the Twins but their King, my brother, was killed here. His army massacred outside the walls.” Sansa laid her hands upon her lap and her face determined. “Walder Frey should answer to me for that crime, not another.”

Jon admired her for how set she was in seeing justice done. Unfortunately it would mean little when it actually came to holding a sword and taking a head.

“You cannot wield a sword Sansa. Nor should you try.” He’d speak the truth for that was what she needed. “Botching a beheading would be seen as a sign of weakness as well.”

“Arya would’ve been able to…”

She paused and rung her hands then. They rarely spoke of Arya, mostly because they both feared her fate. She was missing at best and of the worst they would not speak.

But we can hope, he reminded himself, I can hope.

“Arya would have had difficulty swinging a sword too Sansa. Would haves and could haves do not help you. You are a Queen. It does not make you perfect.”

Jon wanted to reach out to grasp her hand but bandaged as his own was it would’ve been like a bear pawing at her. It was also the reason he couldn’t offer her the most immediate solution to her problem.

“I’m far from it. I’m a knight who can’t wield a sword. If I was not so useless…”

“You will mend! You’re still…”

“I would beg the honor of doing this for you and gladly take the burden from your shoulders. Instead I must beg your forgiveness, I am a poor sworn sword.”

Sansa sighed as she reached to brush some hair from his eyes. Again her touch had the same effect and confusion reigned.

“You are my finest sword and have done more for me than any.” She smiled and continued stroking his hair. “Don’t say such things again for I know you will rise from this bed and take your place at my side when you are able.”

“Soon enough I hope.” He pushed up then with his good hand and Sansa gasped.

Pain burned throughout his back but he would not give voice to it. It seemed to take forever with his wounds screaming agony the whole time as he rose. Sansa was staring at him dumbfounded as he swung his legs to come to a sitting position beside her. He wanted to show he was improving and had already done this once before when alone.

“Too much.” Her voice was full of worry. “You expect too much of yourself. Too soon.”

“This from a queen who has has never wielded a sword in her life and expects to be able to take a head?” He struggled to keep a straight face as his body screamed.

Sansa was her own harshest critic and it was something he wanted to cure her of. She plainly did not care for his comment nor his actions. If she saw his point she wanted to ignore it.

“Jon with my bannermen freed how long will they suffer a weak girl as queen?” She said finally. “Loyal as they are they are lords and men before that, if they don’t respect me how can they respect my rule? ”

Sansa’s face grew cold. She met his gaze and those blue Tully eyes seemed to burn.

“And I want to be the one to kill him.”

That saddened him, the girl he remembered was fast disappearing in the queen before him. Sansa may have been a little lady growing up but she was definitely a wolf now.

A wolf.

By the gods, he thought, let her be the wolf.

In his thoughts he saw how it could be done and wondered if she had the stomach for it. There were other cleaner ways and he already predicted she would see those as signs of her weakness as well.

This one is different.

“Maybe a weapon won’t be needed.”

“Northmen dislike nooses as well.” Sansa misunderstood his meaning but he was happy she showed such insight into the old ways.

“No. I do not mean a noose. You think people would talk of you taking his head and you being strong. Yet you’d still be a girl queen and could never face a man in combat to defend your crown. It be a hollow action Sansa and in truth no great story. But if you used a symbol rather than a weapon to see justice done...”

Jon saw it in his head now, how the small folk would spread the tale and it would grow in the telling. He had seen such things during his time in the Riverlands. As tales spread her power would grow and their enemies would fear her all the more.

“A symbol.” Sansa repeated, her eyes blinking as she looked away. “What…oh…like in the tent.”

It amazed him how quick she was. Walton Frey’s manner of death had been a surprise to her. Perhaps she’d expected Brynden or he to kill the man but Jon had felt the overpowering urge to command Ghost to go forth.

Almost as if his friend willed it himself.

“Ghost lost a brother here as well.” Jon reminded her. “He serves the Starks as loyally as I.”

Sansa seemed to have a silent conversation with herself then. Neither spoke and Jon just sat there and enjoyed escaping the prison of the bed for a few moments. It was nothing compared to the one he had planned for tomorrow but there was no way he would speak to Sansa of that.

Then there’d be another head for the block.

There were still details to work out in that plot but they would have to wait. Sansa’s eyes were upon him again and she was nodding.

Her face grim.

“It could be too savage for some to accept…”

“He betrayed us. Betrayed Robb.” Jon said, the memory of Walder Frey clutching Grey Wind’s pelt in his hand filled him with a cold hatred. “He thought killing one wolf was the end of the pack.”

He reached out and grasped her shoulder as he almost whispered the next words.

“Let him see how wrong he was. Let him meet the direwolf he forgot. The Stark he forgot.”

 


 

SANSA

 

“It is time to speak of justice.”

Her great uncle’s voice met murmurs of agreement from the men gathered around the table.

Sansa sat at the head of a long table filled with bannermen both known and recently freed. All gathered here in this great hall to give their counsel and hear her will.

If only my voice carried so much power, she thought, thank the gods for my uncle.

Brynden stood to her right, and it was he she wanted to speak on this matter. She was queen now but she knew that most here thought of her only as a girl, so for now her words could be spoken by men they respected.

Or feared.

“The executions are set for tomorrow morning in the courtyard of the western castle.” Her uncle announced to a murmur of approval. “Each lord and knight given permission by the Queen will see justice done to the Freys in turn. Walder Frey will die last, so he may watch his line wither before him.”

Fists banged on tables and howls of agreement went up from her assembled bannermen as her uncle finished. Food and drink clattered as they did so, a part of her cringing at their poor manners. It was her own fault for inviting her men  to break their evening fast as they discussed these matters.

The food will sit heavy and the wine do more than that.

And tired lords are lords more willing to obey.

“My lords!” Brynden held up his fist to continue. “We have had time to take stock of our situation here at the Twins and the Queen would have Lord Reed and Lady Mormont share what we know.”

Brynden sat as Howland rose, moving stiffly from the wound he’d taken during the fighting with his left arm splinted as well. Yet he acted as though it barely bothered him and he wore the fine green cloak she’d gifted him. It had belonged to whatever Frey whose rooms she’d taken and it looked good upon him.

No matter his stature his voice was not one men could ignore.

“We are well provisioned here. The war in the Riverlands did not touch the Frey lands and these castles were richly supplied despite their support of the long siege of Riverrun and the keeping of large forces in the field. Hence the fare tonight.”

He was referring to the roasted pig and duck her men feasted on. Also warm bread and sweet, yellow corn and squash. She knew winter was upon them and such extravagance unwise but these men deserved such for their loyalty.

“Some of the thanks must go to the Sers Brynden and Willem.” Howland added. “What they have gathered in the last three days leaves any nearby houses loyal to House Frey with little enough for themselves." 

Since the sack her uncle and Willem had taken two forces through the closest Frey lands to the east and west and scoured them for supplies. She would send larger forces to the further lands after the executions but the areas closest to the castles would have been the most likely to hear of their fall.

“We are rich in more than food, the Frey vaults were filled with gold, silver and other goods which they have taxed from travellers.”

“It was always said Freys took an arm and a leg…bout time we took their heads!” Young Ser Marq Piper yelled.

Sansa smiled at that. The fury of the lords of the Riverlands was equal to that of her Northmen and laughter and cheers rose at the jest. Sansa held up her hand and the noise died down, she nodded to Maege who then rose as well. Maege had been chosen to speak this part so her men could become used to hearing such from a lady.

“We have won a great victory here my lords! It will be sung about for years to come but we still have enemies yet to face. Black Walder Frey leads a force hunting outlaws to the south. There is also the Frey force at Riverrun to consider. While no ravens or riders escaped during our attack we must assume word will reach those Freys outside our grasp.”

“Let them come and smash themselves against their own walls!”

“Our walls now!”

She looked to Howland and he gave her a smile and slight nod. This was good. The men were confident, he’d feared captivity would have worn their resolve. Sansa had faith that the Greatjon’s example following his release would inspire them and so far had not been disappointed.

It was her Lord Umber who shouted for quiet so Maege to continue. 

“There are also still Lannisters about. The force commanded by the Kingslayer was last seen headed towards Raventree. We took small casualties for such a task as taking the Twins but we are still sorely outmatched by our enemies.” Maege then thumped her mace against the table, causing it to shake and whispers to die out. “Yet we don’t lose heart! Not this army of wolves! There is power in us yet and advantages our enemies lack! We have gained in horses and provisions for a march while our enemies go without. And unlike the Lannisters and Freys our men are strong and well led.” 

Maege offered a small bow as she said that and Sansa laughed. 

“We have sent ravens to the Riverland houses that bent the knee because of the hostages here. Hopefully we can add their strength to ours." 

“And of the North? What word to them?” The Greatjon bellowed as Sansa had hoped he would remember to do.

The two of them had a long discussion prior to this meeting which had left the Greatjon pleased and Sansa sure of his faith in her.

His booming voice had left a silence in the room so it was a perfect time for her to speak.

“My lord, I would not have word sent to the north yet.” Sansa spoke as loudly as she dared without sounding strained. “Too much is unknown of the state of affairs there. Yes, Roose Bolton may be at Winterfell even now with a Frey host but we know not what level of support he has among the northern lords.”

“It better be little if they like their heads where they are.” The Greatjon grumbled.

Even his grumblings carried across the room and it was time to honor her people of the North.

“The houses of the North fought for my brother and have suffered much for their loyalty. I can forgive them Lord Umber, in their minds there are little options for them. And soon they will have a chance to redeem their loyalty to House Stark.”

“Your grace, what of Stannis Baratheon? I’d heard he had gone north?” A Lychester knight shouted from the end of the table. Others claimed to have heard the same.

She gestured to Howland who had received most of the information on that issue.

“It is true. From what we learned from this castle’s master Stannis answered a call for help from the Nights Watch. The wildlings amassed an army and marched upon the Wall and Stannis either defeated them or brought them to his side. The reports are confusing.”

The men began to talk amongst themselves and it wasn’t the kind of talk she would’ve preferred. Of whether to let Stannis and Roose battle each other and weaken themselves or take the fight to King’s Landing first.

All options she and her advisors disagreed with. She shot a look to the Greatjon who appeared confused. Then he started and brought both fists down upon the table, causing the men beside him to jump back.

“Where are your bloody manners? Our queen wishes to speak!”

Sansa waved away any insult she might have taken.

“We will not be idle. The uncertainty in the North is why we have sent scouts to learn as much as they can, to find out what friends remain in the there before sending word of our actions here.” Sansa spoke loudly and confidently. “Before we take action.”

She expected a grizzled lord of battle marches to call her a silly girl or criticize her for her lack of bravery yet it never came. The Greatjon’s nod of approval may have had something to do with it but it still helped her confidence.

They trust me, she thought, it’s time to reward that trust.

“But there are allies I will speak of.” Sansa gestured to Willem, sitting near enough to the Greatjon and in mid sip of a goblet of wine. “Most of you know Ser Willem and his men fought bravely in the battle by our side. Also that he is in service to House Royce of Runestone and that Bronze Yohn Royce himself has offered us their aid.”

Men raised cups and gave thanks to Willem and she allowed it because she wanted them to be surprised by what she said next.

“And he was not the only one.” She smiled widely. “I would have you know my cousin, Lord Robert Arryn, through his regent Lord Nestor, have promised us support as well. Much and more than support. The might of the Vale itself.”

The room became an uproar with lords rising from their chairs and others beating their fists upon the table. Most yelled at Willem, welcoming him and the Vale to the fight. The Greatjon went a step further and actually raised the knight in a bear hug, lifting him up in the air as if he was a doll.

It became a true spectacle when Willem began to sing.

“Oh I’m a maid! I’m pure and fair! I’ll never dance with a hairy bear!”

Even Howland laughed at that but when the laughter and celebration ended the explaining of the complexities of the Vale involvement took much of the hour. No matter the minor details many were satisfied hearing Bronze Yohn was preparing an army to sail north and swords were gathering to march into the Riverlands even now.

Now she would tell them of the decision she feared they would dislike and sought out the Greatjon’s attention with her eyes. He nodded knowingly and drank so he emptied his cup of wine.

“Before we retire my lords there is something I would discuss, namely the fate of the Twins.” A murmur went up at her words but died down as a scowling alliance of Brynden, Maege and the Greatjon looked about the table.

“Tomorrow we will see justice done to each of the Frey men who took part in the Red Wedding.”  She paused, wanting to make sure these words were taken with the importance they deserved. “But I would see Olyvar Frey pardoned.”

Sansa had met Olyvar and Roslin Frey for the first time only days before, mostly at the behest of her uncle and the Greatjon.

When they’d taken the castle other priorities had come first and she had trusted her uncle to see to the care of prisoners. She had been surprised to learn of the care he had given to these children of Walder Frey. Most of the Frey wives and children were confined to a single wing of the eastern castle while Roslin remained in her own chambers.

The Frey men were suffering a harsher imprisonment, languishing in their own dungeons under the care of the Greatjon. All save Olyvar Frey, who had been moved to chambers near to his sister. Both had been under guard and had not been permitted to see each other, only being reunited the day Sansa visited them.

She had entered the chamber to find the siblings holding each other. The young woman weeping as she cupped her brother’s face. Sansa remembered feeling surprised that Freys could act so warmly.

Act so human.

Only Brynden’s clearing of his throat made them move apart and Sansa had a good look at them. Olyvar was older than Jon and appeared to a fairly handsome youth, at least by Frey standards. His face carried less of the weasel features she had come to expect of Walder’s brood.

Roslin was a very pretty woman by any standards with long brown hair to her waist and big brown eyes. Her belly was quite large and her hands went around it protectively. Both seemed exhausted and the bags under Roslin’s eyes made her seem little better than her brother who had spent weeks in the dungeons.

“Your grace.” Olyvar had gone to his knee and Roslin lowered her head.

“Rise please, I would speak with you both.”

“I thank you for your care and treatment of my sister your grace, and for my own as well.” Olyvar said as he rose. “I know my family has given you little reason to treat us so kindly.”

Roslin nodded but it a furtive movement and Sansa believed her terrified.

“I will be honest with you, it is my uncle you should thank for that. It was he who arranged your lodgings, most of your kin now reside in the dungeons awaiting their fate.” Sansa imagined they endured more than that, remembering how darkly the Greatjon had smiled when she’d given him charge of those prisoners. “And I come here to tell you House Frey will meet justice in the coming days.”

Sansa had looked to Olyvar to gauge his reaction, to search for any anger in him. She’d found none, the young man had not even looked surprised. Roslin was a different matter, she’d uttered a horrified cry and grabbed her brother’s arm.

“Please no! Please not Olyvar! He wasn’t there! He tried to help them after! Please don’t kill him!”

The girl begged desperately and Sansa realized her gaze had been misunderstood.       

She was about to calm Roslin when the girl began to swoon and only the quick movements of Brynden and Olyvar kept her from the floor.

“Get her to the bed.” Sansa said as she moved to help lay the pregnant Roslin gently on the bed behind her.

“Please…not him…” Her wide eyes seemed to have grown bigger and Sansa couldn’t help remembering Jeyne’s cries at Greywater Watch. “Please.”

Soon Olyvar had her soothed and began to tell his tale to Sansa. Of remaining loyal to Robb, of having the truth of Roslin’s wedding hid from his brother Perwyn and himself, of trying to free her bannermen and being imprisoned for it.

Of Roslin they confirmed much of what Edmure had told Brynden. That the poor girl had thought herself to be married to a handsome Riverlord. She’d been excited and only learned the truth of the wedding just before it was to happen. By then her brothers were hostage away from the castle, their lives threatened by their own father to keep her silence 

“I love Edmure your grace, after the wedding I would go to him and at first he shunned me but he came to know the truth. I love him dearly, please don’t let the Lannisters hurt him.” Roslin’s tears were some of the saddest Sansa had ever seen. Her tale as unjust as any she’d heard, including her own.

“That two such pure hearted people could exist in such a family…it gives me hope, and I thank you both for that.” Sansa said as she rose to walk to the large window.

She didn’t know if she fully trusted the two Freys yet but she had uses for them.

The view from it included the bridge, western castle and river moving between them. And the vast green Frey lands. Then she had bid Olyvar to come to her and share in the view.

“The abomination that happened here has shown the Freys to be a vile house. Many of my lords would see your family’s castle torn down and your lands taken away.”

Again she sought for any anger in Olyvar but he showed no surprise and looked upon her sadly.

“For the crimes committed here…how could we expect different?” He asked as he looked out to the lands his family might soon lose.

Other riverlords had already sought her out to speak of stripping the Freys of their titles but Sansa had deferred to Brynden, who knew the Riverlands better than any. Her uncle felt the corruption within House Frey had begun with Lord Walder and perhaps there was hope for it still.  They were not an old house yet wealthy in land and story, and had once been widely respected.

“Olyvar, I would be a poor queen to deny the loyalty you showed my family. Lady Tully and yourself were victims of your family like many here. If House Frey was to survive…I’d have it headed by someone I trust.”

He had nodded as she spoke but soon enough took her meaning and seemed shocked. Olyvar had run his hand though his hair in thought before finally shaking his head.

“I am the younger brother…Perwyn would be a better choice. He remained as loyal to King Robb as I and need only be freed…”

He hadn’t finished, Sansa’s eyes must have spoken for her.

Perwyn marched with the Frey forces away from the castle and in truth there was little they could do for him.

Olyvar’s face paled again and he swallowed.

“I would do my duty, in honor of King Robb and in service to you, your grace.”

Seeing that happen would be difficult and her men’s reactions to her decision to spare Olyvar proved her right 

Men from both the north and south rose in anger and shouted in disbelief. Yet they could not hold a candle to the Greatjon’s roars as he swung a pitcher of wine about and as he rose to his feet 

“The Queen is right! The man was King Robb’s squire! He was not at that bloody massacre and ended up in his own castle’s dungeons for trying to help us!” He began to point at some men. “Sharing that hell with us. I can forgive him for being born into a family of rats. It didn’t make the lad one, he was a wolf to the end!”

Despite the ferocity of his defense, men were still talking angrily. Brynden took up the cause next.

“My lords, I can say truthfully I believe Olyvar was kept away from that wedding because he would have tried to prevent it. He took up the cause of his king against his kin and likely would have died for it.” The Blackfish didn’t elaborate on how he knew such a thing and sat down again. “Let the man be, just let him be.”

“I have made my decision!” Sansa tried to sound strong but she wondered how intimidating a girl of ten and five could seem to these men. “Any man who defies it need only remember that I am the sister to the Young Wolf. And to remember the fate of Lord Karstark.”

The previous mention of Rickard Karstark appeared to have done what it was intended to do as none argued against her. That and how the Greatjon was joined in standing by Brynden, Howland, Maege and finally Willem silenced further argument.

Either way she felt free to continue. She dictated that the Frey women and children would be kept prisoner, some here while they thought to move others who had ties to Freys still commanding in the field to other locations.

“Your grace, even if Olyvar has stayed true do you truly suggest we hand the castle back to the Freys? As weakened as we are?” Lord Smallwood asked and she had expected such.

“No, the Twins may return to Frey rule someday but for now it is vital to our efforts. These castles shall be the centre from which the riverlords can work to retake their lands and castles. It’s provisions shall be open to those in need and while you lords judge the loyalty of Olyvar Frey I plan to name a castellan over the castle and its lands. That honor shall fall to…”

Sansa looked to her side and knew she’d been right not to consult her choice beforehand because he was already protesting. Shaking his head as if willing her to be silent.

She wasn’t.

“Ser Brynden Tully.”

“Oh seven save me…” The grey haired knight said as he put his face in his hands. 

 


 

 

ARYA

 

“You will sit down and shut up or so help me I’ll whip your ass raw!”

Lem’s shouting didn’t scare her. He’d been shouting and threatening for days now and it hadn’t changed a thing.

“You’re not going to hang her and I’m not going with you!” Arya shouted right back at him, her finger jabbing at his chest. “And your face looks like a raw ass!”

“Silence. For her.” Septon Meribald hushed them both.

Brienne moaned and writhed upon the bed below them, causing Arya to hope her shouting hadn’t caused that. It probably hadn’t, Brienne had been delirious since the fever had taken her after the battle with the mummers. She had broken her ribs and a forearm in the fight with Biter yet the septon made it sound like the bites on her face were the worst of her injuries.

“Human mouths are filthy things.” The man had lamented as he cleaned and bandaged Brienne’s cheek. “A fever will come, one a hale person would have trouble fighting and I fear for one suffering as many wounds as her.”

Arya feared as well, as much for Brienne’s getting better as what Lem wanted to do with her.

He was hell bent on bringing Brienne to some lady to be judged as a traitor and then hanged. Lem kept pointing to the parchment Brienne had bearing the seal of the Lannister king or her carrying a sword made for the Kingslayer as proof she was a traitor. It didn’t matter that Arya and Pod both told him that Brienne had sworn to get her back to Winterfell. Nor did he care that she’d saved Arya from the Faith and the people at the inn from the mummers.

“Jaime…Jaime…” Brienne moaned then as the septon dabbed at her sweat soaked forehead. “Good man…”

“You hear that? The bitch is in love with the bloody Kingslayer.” Lem crossed his arms and spat, which the septon frowned at. “And we will be leaving, at first light if I have to strap you and her on the horses to do it.”

“I won’t let you hang her.” She crossed her arms and spat on Lem’s boot, earning a curse from him. “Or Podrick or even Hyle. We don’t need to travel to see a lady for a trial. I’m a lady...”

Lem laughed but she took a step forward and lifted her chin to stare right into his eyes.

“I’m a lady.” She announced. “I’m Lady Stark and I say they all live and you can leave right now.”

Lem laughed again and it wasn’t a nice laugh. It was a cruel one that even the septon seemed upset by it.

“You’re no Lady Stark, not as long as…”

“Lem!”

Gendry’s roar caused her to jump.

He flew from the doorway at the piss cloaked man. His hands wrapped themselves in Lem’s cloak and he heaved him against the wall of the room, laying his strong arm across the man’s neck.

“I told you not to! I said not to!”

“Get the fuck off me boy!” Lem tried to free himself from Gendry’s hold but her friend was too strong. “She’ll see for herself when…”

Lem’s words were choked off as Gendry forced his arm upwards against Lem’s throat and only gagging sounds came out.

“Shutup. Just shut up. You said you wouldn’t.”

“Jaime!” Brienne screamed then and Meribald stood up, fists shaking at his sides.

“Stop this!” He yelled.  “For the same of the peace here and this poor woman! Give her that at least!”

Arya had never seen him look angry before and his words had some effect. Gendry turned to look back at Brienne and then her, a worried expression on his face. Lem’s face was red but he’d stopped trying to speak so Gendry did as the septon asked and lowered his arm. Lem looked like he wanted to kill Gendry but did nothing more than rub his neck and glare at her friend.

“Fine. Have it your way you bloody fool, I’m going to check on the other traitors.” Lem began to stride from the room but stopped in the doorway and pointed back at Arya. “And we leave tomorrow.

“No we don’t.” She tried to argue but he was already gone.

Hyle and Podrick were tied up in the other room and she’d only been allowed to see them the once since the bandits had come. It bothered her because Pod had taken a bad beating and then another when he tried to protect Brienne from Lem and the others.

I hit him too, she thought, I did that and he saved my life.

If Lem’s wrong about Brienne maybe I’m wrong about Pod.

Those thoughts bothered her as she stared at the door. To her surprise Gendry stayed, he hadn’t been around much since the fight and she was mad at him for it. She’d tell him later though, now he was staring down at Brienne as she continued to toss and turn in agony.

She’ll get better, Brienne’s too strong not to.

She went out to fight the Bloody Mummers by herself.

Arya needed Brienne to get better to tell her she tried to help. That she would’ve helped if Gendry had let her go sooner.

That reminded her of what she had to ask Gendry.

“You have to let us go. You can’t let him take us. You can’t let them kill her.” She pleaded with him but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “She saved us. You know she did.”

“It’s not for me to decide Arya…I’d spare you it if I could.” He shook his head before going to the door and closing it gently.

“You don’t have to spare me anything, spare Brienne. Spare Podrick and Hyle. Lem can take me if they want but please, help me save them. Get Lem to…”

“Lem’s changed…he’s not like he was. He won’t let them go, trust me I tried.” Gendry spoke quietly and knelt before her, before glancing to the septon as well. “We both tried.”

Septon Meribald nodded his head and made soothing sounds again as Brienne moaned.

“The knight speaks the truth. The man has hardened himself so that he cannot see the goodness in the lady here. His heart too full of vengeance to feel compassion.”

“Then we escape.” She hissed. “We free the others and the four of us surprise Lem and his men…”

Gendry scowled and crossed his arms but she pressed on.

“We surprise them! You get our swords and free Hyle and Pod…”

“And how many people die doing that? I won’t fight the Brotherhood and Lem will kill your friends before he lets them leave.” Gendry held up a hand as she made to argue. “I know it’s not like the Brotherhood you knew but I can’t fight them Arya, I can’t.”

She didn’t want to fight them either. Lem she could imagine beating upon a fair bit but if they all pulled swords Arya couldn’t picture herself killing him. Or any of the others she’d known from her days with the group.

But you can’t let them kill Brienne.

She’d kill them for you if she had to.

“Perhaps…” Meribald said to himself, then his fingers tapping upon his chin as if in thought. “Yes…yes I have enough…more than enough…”

“What is it?” She asked, annoyed that he was busy daydreaming when they had bandits to beat.

“Oh I was just thinking what if you didn’t have to fight?” The septon asked with a cocked eyebrow. “What if you could leave here without the hangmen even knowing?”

“How?” Arya and Gendry asked in unison.

“I am a healer and a good one at that. To be so good you must have knowledge of potions and elixirs, poultices and herbs, all sorts of mixtures and how they affect our fragile forms. I learned it from many days wandering beside a septon who himself had learned it from…”

“Go on!” Arya hissed.

It snapped Meribald out of it, causing him to lean towards them, speaking in a whisper almost too quiet to hear.

“I mean to say I know which potions to put in a man’s drink to make him sleep a sleep like no other.” He smiled some then. “Some that mix very well with wine.”

“You’ve got wine too!” She almost yelled but clamped her hand over her mouth as the others hushed her.

Arya’s heart raced, the plan so obvious she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it. Meribald dragged about potions on his mule and she’d heard the outlaws muttering about the wine they suspected the septon had with his stores. They could easily slip something into that wine and drug the men and then be on their way with a good lead on the outlaws.

It’ll work, she thought, we can drug them and be halfway to the Neck before they know it.

The plan was perfect before Gendry went and ruined it.

“They’d catch up.” He shook his head, thumping a fist into his head. “With Brienne strapped over the side of a horse they’d catch us for sure.”

“But if we have enough of a lead we could outride them…”

“Outride them? If we needed to escape she’d never make it. Look at her Arya, that hard a ride could kill her.” Gendry pointed to Brienne’s bandaged sides. “Besides we almost caught the Hound when he only had you, imagine how slow we’d be with her wounded and the septon on his mule…”

“Not I ser, I would help in the potion but I would not slow you down.” The septon took note of her shock and smiled. “I said I’d see to your safety and I cannot see handing you to that hangman as fulfilling that goal. So to do so I’d have you leave me behind.”

“What if they want to hang you?”

“They won’t, they’re not so far gone as that.” Gendry said, his brow furrowed as if he was giving the idea actual thought. “Still the lady can’t be forced to ride hard…”

“She will need a place she can rest.” Meribald added. “Days of it at the least.”

“There’s got to be some place, Gendry think!” She urged him but he held up his hands in a helpless gesture.

“Any I know are ones the Brotherhood has shown me, they’d find us. Go ahead and speak up if you know different.”

She knew he was right. Gendry and she weren’t from the Riverlands and all they knew of it came from their travels. Most of those had been far from here. If this was the north Arya could probably think of a place but she felt useless.

Until she remembered something Brienne had said.

“Do you know any place?” She turned to the septon. “You’re from the Riverlands and you’re old as anything…”

“Arya seven hells…” Gendry cursed.

“Shutup.” She snapped. “Come on you told Brienne you’ve been wandering about these lands for years. Is there any place we can go?”

The septon began to stroke his whiskers and looked to be pondering her question. He took his sweet time with it and she struggled to hold back from yelling at the old man because so far he’d been helpful.

Her patience was well rewarded.

“There are three.” He said finally. “A cave towards the Vale, an abandoned sept to the south and a ruin by the riverside to the west. Do you know of any of these ser?”

Gendry shook his head and the septon smiled and rose, his knees cracking as he did so.

“Then I shall make a trip to my mule’s saddle bags. I believe I have enough dreamwine and honey brew to make the hangmen sleep a most peaceful slumber tonight.”  Meribald ushered Gendry forward and leaned on his shoulder as he bent backwards and another crack was heard. “You will inform the knight and young squire while I tell the lady the whereabouts of these safe havens. Also tell the young girl…Willow is it? Yes tell Willow to be sure to offer the men as dry a food as possible. To make their thirst even greater and ensure their slumber meets our needs. Go on now.”

Gendry didn’t argue and was gone from the room to do as he was bid. Brienne was murmuring something over and over again so the septon waved Arya forward to her friend’s bedside. Close as she was it became clear what Brienne was saying so softly yet with such a worried tone.

“Arya…Arya…lady…”

“Your memory is good?” Septon Meribald spoke over Brienne’s delirious ramblings. “I cannot write so you must remember what I tell you.”

“Just tell me one then.”

“It must be the three child. The outlaws will not be the only ones chasing you, the Elder Brother was led to believe a strong force would be sent out by the Faith to take you into their charge. And should they find me I will tell them of the places I offer you now.” The man chuckled as she turned on him, her anger flaring. “It is why I give you three to choose from. If the militant find me my words will send them searching three separate areas, should the seven favor your escape you will do so. Should it be your fate to be taken under the protection of the High Septon, you will not.”

“Then I won’t tell you which one I choose.”

“Clever girl.” The septon smiled. “Pay close attention now…”

He did as he said, giving Arya directions to the three places that she kept to memory only as long as she decided which one to seek. Then it was that one she focused on remembering over the others.

After Gendry returned they put the plan in motion. The septon disappeared closer to dusk and Arya herself skipped the evening meal with the outlaws to care for Brienne. Lem would figure she was just upset and she wanted him to think that.

Later Gendry told her Willow had offered Lem and his men stale bread, salt beef and some nuts which collected amongst the teeth and tongue horribly. Gendry had set the boy Wat to collecting water not from the well but a stagnant pool nearby, to make the wine seem even more attractive to the outlaws.

As she cared for Brienne, listening to Meribald explain what need be to done to keep her healthy, the bandits were busy getting drunk. Below it became rowdy for a time, men yelling and laughing, catcalling up the stairs at the Kingslayer’s whore. Aside from Lem strolling up once to check on them and her hurling an empty cup at him they left her and the others be.

Then everything grew much quieter and only the sounds of Gendry’s heavy steps coming to their room.

“It’s time.” He said simply before leaving to free Hyle and Podrick.

It took all four of them, and as much milk of the poppy as the septon dared use, to get Brienne from her bed outside and upon a horse. The outlaws had been sprawled all about the bottom floor of the inn while the Willow girl raged at Gendry.

“They’ll hang you! You can’t do this you know she’ll hang you for it!”

“Only if they catch me.” Gendry shot Arya a look as he readied his horse and winked. “And they won’t be doing that will they m’lady?”

“If they do they’ll regret it.” She said, patting Needle’s pommel and causing Willow to yell even the louder.

Let her, she thought, it won’t wake the Lem any sooner.

Pod had gone and picked the best horses of the stable for their escape, leaving the rest for the outlaws. As the others continued with seeing to Brienne and their horses Arya slipped away. Since they had laid out the plan for their escape something had been troubling her. A problem they had not thought to fix.

Alone, she made her way to the stable. Within she found some of the horses the outlaws had ridden in on and three of the Bloody Mummer’s that hadn’t been ridden lame. Also the one she’d ridden from the Saltpans, the one she’d brushed and fed the apple to. She drew Needle and came up to the side of it, the poor beast’ eyes looking into her own.

Almost as if it knew what she thought to do. Arya didn’t even like what she thought to do.

“Great minds think alike my lady.”

Hyle’s voice made her spin around to find the knight at the stable entrance, a stupid grin upon his face.

“Less likely to catch up to us if they’ve no mounts to do so.” He said. “Do we slit their throats or just hamstring them?”

He drew his own blade and one of the horses whinnied in a way that almost sounded scared. She hated that the knight knew what she thought.

And that hate drove her to a different decision.

Arya reached out and opened the gate instead, leading the palfrey out towards the stable entrance towards a bemused Ser Hyle. Then she grasped Needle with both hands and, with a mighty swing, slapped the flat end upon the horse’s rear causing it to scream and bolt. The knight barely jumped out of its path before the horse was gone, out and into the night.

“It’ll take them a long time to collect their horses too.” She turned to free another horse. “Maybe by then they’ll find some more mummers to hang instead of us.”

Gendry and Pod arrived and, despite being shocked at what Hyle and she were doing, joined in. Soon enough all the horses in the stable were run off from the inn and the four climbed their own. Willow had gathered the children inside and would not see Gendry off so only Septon Meribald and Dog stood on the porch to bid them farewell.

“Keep her wounds clean and water, as often as possible.” The septon reminded them for the hundredth time. “And say prayers for her!”

The others shouted farewells and began riding. She waited until they did so to turn to the man again.

“I called you a craven…but you don’t know they won’t hang you…”

“They may.” The septon nodded. “But that is not your fault if they do so child. Think nothing of it.”

“I will!” Arya argued, reaching down to grab Needle. “They’re asleep…I could just go in there and…”

“Damn yourself? Do you wish to kill them?”

She shook her head, not meeting his gaze.

“I thank you for that.” The septon continued. “Go on, the others will be waiting.”

“I was wrong about you though…I thought…”

“Were you wrong? Maybe. It’s often the case for the young to be wrong but not their privilege alone.” She met the septon’s eye then and he made a fist between them. “It’s being wrong that makes us learn. Knowing we were wrong and having the strength to do better that makes us better people child. Be that better person.”

“Arya! Lady Arya!” Hyle yelled and she saw the others turning back.

She waved them off and turned her horse but spared one last look at the septon.

“I pray you find peace my lady.” He said, bowing a little. “Go on now."

Arya did her best to smile at him, no words coming to mind for a proper farewell. So she just dug her heels into the horse’s side and willed herself not to look back.

 


 

 

JON

 

“The queen will have my head.”

“There will be enough of that today, your head is safe.” Jon replied through gritted teeth.

It was hard to give a care to Willem’s worries while pain threaded it’s way throughout his body. His friend was doing his best to steady Jon’s journey through the castle and, in fairness, they were finally arriving at their destination. A walk from his chambers to this courtyard should not have taken as long as it did. He was as frustrated with needing help to do so as with the pace he moved at. It was more suitable for the elderly or hobbled than a knight.

“You say that but if she sees how poorly you are I don’t think one more will matter.” Willem grumbled.

“Just stop…just stop talking.”

Jon was doing his best to hide it but every step shifted the position of his clothing and set fire to his back.

Dressing would have been impossible without the help of Willem. Jon had pressed him into service after having the maester send for his friend last evening. Sansa had only just left when Willem arrived and the arrangements had been made.

She’ll be wroth, he thought, but I can’t lay abed while this happens.

Sansa will need me there, no matter what she says.

I need to be there.

He was able to sit himself upright without screaming and see to his pants but that had been the extent of his independence. To his shame Willem had to help with his shirt, tunic and cloak. Every time his burned hand bumped against cloth he had grunted to keep from yelling. When Willem had to tie his sword belt for him Jon swore to begin flexing and moving his burnt hand more. 

He’d wanted to arrive earlier, to avoid being seen entering but a crowd was already present in the courtyard. Lords, knights and fighting men, both northern and southron, all wanted to see justice done.

More to see vengeance.

Jon’s hope for a small profile went unfulfilled as men he had not seen for years approached. Some had never spoken a kind word to him when he had been but a bastard of Winterfell but now came to shake his good hand and congratulate him on the taking of the castle. Others praised him for his knighthood.

Condolences came as well. A good many of those in truth.

He did his best to accept all of it without calling more attention to himself. Willem helped by interrupting often to say Jon was expected somewhere until they found a place among others which could go unnoticed for a time. Yet a place from where the executions could be viewed clearly.

That was why Jon needed to be here. He had not been able to take part in the battle of the Twins. Now he could at least see justice done for the king who would always be a brother to him.

He also wanted to support Sansa in seeing it done.

His strength was hers if she so needed it.

Jon hoped he looked stronger than he felt. He was sweating even in the cool air and the lash marks upon his back were burning hot worse than they had in days. He gritted his teeth and bore it, trying to lose the pain by focusing on his surroundings.

The crowd formed a semi-circle around a raised platform. The block was about ten paces before him and he imagined the crowd would press even closer when the time came. Those standing on the platform would see all the spectators below as well as the condemned.

That’s where she’ll be.

Sansa had sentenced these men to death and would see every one put to it herself. She wanted to appear strong in front of the others and he respected that. Yet she’d shown mercy as well, surprising many by decreeing no Frey women or children would be forced to attend if they did not wish to.

“I would not force a child to watch their father’s death.” Sansa had told him last night and he did not argue.

In truth there was nothing he could’ve said to comfort her on that. She had seen her father murdered in front of her.

Murmurs turned his attention towards a stone archway at the edge of the courtyard. Two guards bearing the direwolf sigil had taken station there as more moved to stand before the platform. Behind them familiar faces emerged from the castle and strode across the courtyard. The Greatjon towered over Howland while Maege followed after, speaking quietly with a Piper knight.

Of the four only Howland would not swing a sword this day, having bequeathed that right to other survivors of the massacre.

One by one they took their place upon the platform. It was only then the Blackfish appeared from within the castle, escorting the Queen on his arm.

Sansa was breathtaking.

It was a strange thing to think but the bronze crown was the most drab thing about her appearance. Her hair was bound in a wide braid across the top while the rest flowed down her back and shoulders in a red cascade. It was a familiar style, one Jon had seen Lady Stark wear countless times at Winterfell, but never worn quite so well.

Sansa’s gown made her even more elegant, modest and simple it showed little skin and less lace and frill. Instead drawing attention to her fierce blue eyes, almost the same shade of the vibrant blue of the gown, which was chased here and there in a deep red.

It too looked familiar.

“They found a chest hidden in one of the Frey bitches’ chambers.” Willem whispered. “Filled with gowns brought for the wedding, the bastards even stole from the dead.”

Her mother’s own gown, he thought, she never told me about that.

It made him angry but not at her. Robb’s remains would be returned to Winterfell with them but Lady Stark’s body had been shown the same dishonor as many of the others. Thrown into the river and denied a proper resting place. Finding her mother’s gowns must have been little comfort to Sansa.

Yet the queen before showed no signs of distress. Her eyes all the bluer, her hair all the brighter, she walked forth on her uncle’s arm sparing nary a glance to any.

Behind Sansa and Brynden followed Ghost, the direwolf eventually overtaking them and padding along in front of her.  Jon was happy to see Ghost do so, he preferred his friend guard Sansa rather than watch him lay abed.

Then the wolf paused suddenly, sniffing the air. It’s ears perked up and tail wagged soon after, the only warning he gave before turning away from Sansa and moving towards the crowd.

Not just towards the crowd. Passing by the entire front row of men as if seeking out someone in particular.

No, no don’t do it.

Don’t you bloody do it, think of all the times I shared good meat with you.

Just don’t.

Sure enough the wolf travelled straight to Jon. Ghost sat before him staring up at his face, mouth open as if to smile.

“Traitor.” Jon grumbled as he reached down to pat the wolf’s head. “Eat off your own plate from now on.”

He had not seen the direwolf in days and imagined this betrayal was punishment for it.

“Good luck Wolf, I’m fleeing.” Willem said as he quickly attempted to lose himself amongst the crowd. “Make way, man with grayscale!”

That confused Jon until he saw the look on Sansa’s face and he wished he could do the same. She had abandoned the Blackfish and was striding towards him with none of the composure she had shown moments ago. Her face flush and hands balled into fists.

Even Ghost backed away slightly.

He thought about avoiding her eyes but decided such was foolish. Instead he met them and regretted his decision immediately.

I was right, he lamented, she is wroth.

“You came?” Sansa choked out as if she couldn’t believe she was uttering them. “You came?”

Compliment her gown. Her hair. Something.

“You look…”

“Are you mad?” She cut off his attempt at distraction.

“I am well your grace.”

“You are mad!” Sansa was livid now and the words were almost yelled at him. Her voice rising so that those who hadn’t already taken notice were watching now.

“I said I would be here…”

“And the maester said that you should not leave your bed.”

“I am no child to be confined to my chamber.”

“You are acting like a child and not a man with grievous injuries!”

Despite the pain in his back he straightened to stare down at her. Sansa was his queen but she went too far now. He could not be lectured like a child in front of these men and command their respect as a knight.

“I am acting like a man who lost his brother and king. I am acting like a man who helped take this castle and will not miss the very reason he did so.” He kept his voice even. “I am acting as a knight sworn to House Stark.”

It was more respect than she’d shown him but Sansa was his queen. He would show her the proper courtesies no matter how irritating her protective nature over him could be. He was supposed to be her sworn sword afterall.

“Ser Jon, it is good to see you looking so well.” Ser Brynden had followed after Sansa and stood just behind her. “I hear you are recovering very…”

Sansa whipped her head to look at her great uncle and Jon could’ve sworn the man almost cowered for a moment. After a moment the old knight smiled at her and shrugged. The Blackfish earned a scowl for it and could’ve earned worse if Jon hadn’t spoken up.

“You did not order me to stay in my room, but if you do so I will go.” He succeeded in pulling her attention back on him. “But truly Sansa, would you rather me not be here? Would you deny me this?”

She’ll see reason, he thought, I know she will.

Well I hope she will.

She still glared at him but suddenly seemed aware that others were watching. And listening. Then her face softened into an expression Jon recognized from their childhood together as a sign her temper was cooling. 

“Of course I want you here.” She admitted. “But I would want you well.”

“I was able enough to dress and get here.” He offered.

“With no help from a certain knight I passed in the corridor this morning carrying that cloak?”

Somewhere from the crowd behind him he heard Willem curse and could not hide his grin. Sansa had heard it as well and smiled but still she eyed him critically.

“If not for you this castle would not be ours today. So if you wish to view the executions you will do so beside me. Then I will personally escort you back to your chambers where you will rest.”

This was not to be a discussion and Sansa turned to continue towards the dais.

“Your grace!” Jon called out, catching her attention again. He held out the arm with a bandaged hand in an arc. “May I escort you?”

Her eyes widened and she looked happy to scold him again. No scolding came though. He swore he saw her blush some before coming back to wrap her hands gently around his arm, allowing him to slowly walk her across the courtyard. Others in the crowd began to whisper then, and not kindly either. For some reason he didn’t care. Her touch on his arm pushed it all away, making the opinions of others seem a stupid thing to dwell on.

The steps leading to the dais should’ve felt more a burden but they didn’t, not with her on his arm. As they took their place between those gathered on the platform she released his arm and took a step forward. The Greatjon stood ready and with a nod from Sansa he turned to yellso even a deaf man would’ve heard him.

“Justice! Today we will see justice done. Here at the place where an abomination against the laws of gods and men took place, we who were wronged will see justice done. Bring out the prisoners!”

Flanked by guards the doomed men appeared from an archway at the opposite side of the courtyard. They came shuffling in a line and it was plain the days of stay in their own dungeons had done ill for these men. Their skin pale and filthy, their hair frazzled and greasy. What clothes they’d worn stripped away, each man naked save for a filthy, ragged tunic with the emblem of House Frey upon it. Jon didn’t want to know what the dark brown stains smeared across the blue towers was. The Greatjon seemed to take pride in their sorry state as he glared down at them.

The crowd parted to let them pass but that was the most decency they were shown. Men spat at them, yelled insults and would probably have done worse had Sansa not decreed no harm was to be done to them.

Their justice would be done at the block.

After the ten condemned men were made to stand in a line to the left of the platform the final prisoner was brought out. His legs too old and gouty to carry himself up from the dungeons two guards had to see to his arrival. Each guard had an arm under one of his, practically dragging the man across the courtyard, his useless feet trailing feebly behind.

Such was how Walder Frey, Lord of the Crossing arrived to witness the executions of his kin.

Sansa trembled as she watched his coming, whether from rage or something else Jon didn’t know. She only relaxed when the Frey lord was unceremoniously dropped in front of the spectators. It was morbid thing to allow him but Lord Walder now had the best view possible for the executions.

It was then Sansa began her speech.

“Freys. I, Sansa Stark, Queen in the North and heir to Winterfell, find you guilty of treason to your king. Guilty of his murder, the murder of our lady mother, his bannermen and the slaughter of his men. By violating guest right you have wrought your own fates today.” Sansa paused as she looked down upon the assembled men whose lives she held in her hands. Jon knew she would not falter. “In the name of my late brother, the Young Wolf, Robb Stark, King in the North, I sentence you to death.”

“Honor? What honor did your brother have? Broke a vow…” Walder Frey somehow still had the strength in his crippled grey body to spout his bile. “He got what he deserved. Better than what you’ll get if the real Queen gets ahold of you wench. Heh.”

Jon winced, not at the words, but at the pain flexing his sword hand had caused him. Men in the crowd yelled insults and cursed the man loudly. Some even had to be restrained by others around them from hurling themselves at Walder.

The whole time Sansa stood, still as a statue, staring at the man with a grace Jon thought beyond her years. She waited until the Greatjon bellowed for quiet and the anger in the crowd subsided.

“Walder Frey, you will have a chance for last words when I give you leave. Until then you will hold your tongue or it will taken from you and I will hold it myself.” 

The grumbling that went through the crowd made clear that most would prefer the tongue just be taken. Yet Sansa refused to let the man shake her and he did not push his luck. Sansa turned to the young Piper knight and signaled the beginning of the day’s gruesome business.

“Let it commence, Ser Marq.”

Marq Piper would be the first to take a head today and walked from the dais to stand beside the block, his sword in hand.

“Danwell Frey, I will see justice done to you.” He called and a man was brought forward and shoved to his knees.

His last words were ramblings of not having killed any, just having drank. His head was pushed forward onto the block and the knight’s sword flashed downward. It took two more strikes and a good amount of blood upon Marq’s tunic before the Frey’s head rolled towards the crowd.

A Royce man unceremoniously kicked it away from himself and Jon flinched.

They brought this on themselves, he thought, they are the monsters here.

Crimes such as these cannot be treated kindly, father would see that.

Jon looked to Sansa, he did not know how she had reacted yet her eyes were fixed on the bloody block, staying so even as the man’s body was dragged away. He reached out with his good hand and lightly touched her arm. Her head tilted towards him with a slight nod.

She is well.

From there it went on. Riverlords, Northern lords, knights, all saw to the ends of various Freys.

Some begged mercy. Others prayed. One even had gall to say he’d see them all in the seven hells. Jon felt the man at least had the honesty to admit where he belonged.

Edwyn Frey, the current heir to the Twins, met his end by Maege’s blade. They’d been told by survivors that Edwyn’s father Ryman was the one who had done for her daughter Dacey.

“Your father took my daughter, I will take his son.” Maege said hoarsely before she separated his head from his body.

The tears on her cheeks did not make the woman any weaker in his eyes. Dacey had been a good woman, Jon may have even carried a torch for her as a boy. He hoped wherever Maege’s daughter was she was at peace with Robb and the others.

The Greatjon was to see to Ser Leslyn Haigh and he seemed eager for it. He’d bitten the knight’s ear off during the Red Wedding. Haigh having returned the favor by cutting off the Greatjon’s while a prisoner in the dungeons.

Surprisingly it was the one man not born a Frey who gave the most trouble.

The guards must have grown accustomed to the condemned men numbly walking to their fate for before they could react the Haigh knight lunged over the dais at Sansa.

Jon moved quickly, throwing his arm across the front of her as his foot lashed out. His boot caught Haigh right in the forehead, throwing it back violently. Ghost had reacted just as fast and the snap of his jaws saw two of the man’s his fingers bitten clean off.

“My queen!” The Greatjon yelled as Howland and Brynden moved to stand before her.

She was shocked yet managed to wave away the chorus of concerned voices. Jon lowered his arm away from her and she grabbed it, seeking his hand and squeezing it tightly for a moment. The attempt had scared her, that was plain, and he squeezed back.

“Your grace, do you need a moment?” Maege asked and Sansa stared into his eyes a little longer before letting his hand go and shaking her head.

“I am well. Pray continue.”

The Greatjon was happy to oblige her. Haigh’s howls of pain were the only last words the lord allowed as he took the knight’s head in a single vicious stroke.

“For my son…” The Greatjon said quietly,  his voice thick with grief. “For my dear boy…”

He stood there afterwards, staring down at the headless corpse as if under a spell. He did not break free of it until the Blackfish came down to put a hand upon his shoulder. Then the Greatjon was back and took notice of the bloody sword in his hand. He handed it off to a man to be cleaned as he took his place back upon the platform.

Sansa reached out and held the man’s huge hand and said something Jon could not hear. The Greatjon’s eyes were wet but he smiled and said his thanks to the queen. Maege put her hand on his shoulder and he reached up to hold it.

The grief of parents.

How much worse is it for them than for the children?

The Blackfish would see to Lame Lothar Frey, the last condemned before Lord Walder. He was known to be one of the planners of their betrayal and the knight had asked for this duty personally.

“I avenged my family’s honour. Nothing done here will change that Blackfish. Our honour was returned to us.” Lothar spat at him before he knelt.

“Your sense of honour is as twisted as your leg Lothar. For my beloved niece.” The veteran of more wars than Jon ever hoped to see took only one cut to for the task to be done.

Then only one remained.

“Bring forth Walder Frey.” Sansa called out and stepped forward to the edge of the platform.

The man was dragged forward but not to the block, instead he was dumped before them. Men had come and dragged the block away so the old twisted man appeared confused as he lay looking up at them with his weasel face. Sansa turned back and waved Jon forward so he came to join her in their final look at the evil man.

“Your last words Frey.” 

Her tone had been cold and to most it would’ve seemed just that. He was sure no one else would be able to tell but Jon heard the tremble of rage.

She wants to scream at him.

To rage at him and t ear him apart.

Just like you.

“I’ve lost ten of mine today. But there are more.” Walder actually smiled, Jon could not imagine such a foul man to smile as the heads of his family lay around him. 

“Sons, grandsons…my line will survive little girl. What of yours? The Starks die with you. Heh.”

A glance to Sansa made him realize she was close to losing her calm so he did it for her.

“The Starks have endured for thousands of years!” Jon shouted. “They were old before your castles were a gleam in your builder’s eye! They will be old when your castles fall to dust. They survived the Others! They survived the dragons! They will survive an accursed old man!”

A cheer went up from the Northmen in the crowd as Sansa laid a hand upon his arm.

“Ser Jon speaks the truth Walder Frey and I would have you know this before you die, your name will forever herald the ruin of your house. Men will say it only to spit it out. Or to speak of how it came to end.”

With that she looked passed the man to the assembled crowd.

“I am no warrior like my late brother. Nor do I have the strength of Lady Maege. But I will let House Stark have justice in the northern way today, let the sigil of my house be my arms to end this man’s life.”

At that Ghost bore his teeth silently and moved from behind Sansa to stand at the edge of the platform, his fur standing up at sight of the lord. Walder must have realized her meaning then for the old man’s eyes grew wide. His sneer turning into an open gape of terror.

Even some among the crowd seemed frightened and backed away.

“For Robb and mother.” Her words were softly spoken and somewhat sad.

It was for him to give the command.

He did not balk.

“Ghost.” 

His friend leapt down and the man may as well have been a doll in the direwolf’s jaws. It was not a pretty way for a man to die.

Nor was it a quick one.

For rather than going for the man’s neck the wolf tore into the screaming lord's belly, spilling his guts out to add to the gore before the block. His one arm was mangled horribly when he feebly tried to protect himself and the old man was still moving when Ghost’s jaws finally went to his throat. Its tearing open in a spray of blood of flesh was the final act of the ugly affair.

Jon thought it a fitting end to an ugly life.

Others disagreed. Some in the crowd retched while others stood horrified. Those who had fought beside Robb and seen Greywind in action had already seen such a kill before and watched grimly. A larger number seemed pleased, some even smiled.

Throughout it Sansa stood tall over the bloody end of Walder Frey. Her head held high looking down her nose at the corpse Ghost scorned from eating.

Jon had never been pleased to witness an execution. When his father would have Robb and him watch one carried out he was never scared but no matter the crime, it never made him feel good.

This had.

He didn’t know if he should be worried about that or not but for now, he could live happily with the feeling.

Yet despite his spirit his body was its limit. Or at least nearing it. The journey here had been taxing and standing for so long had taken much of his strength. The dampness and pain coming from his back made him suspect he had torn open some of his wounds when he moved to protect Sansa. They burned and throbbed worse than ever and he gritted his teeth against it.

But he would not leave her.

Not until this was at an end.

“Jon.” Sansa’s voice had weakened some, it no longer had the strength it had earlier. She was watching as men moved to drag the ruined corpse away and he thought she was shaking alittle. “Jon, would you see me away from here?”

“If you would have me.” He offered his arm once more and she was on it quickly.

Together they walked from the platform, leaving the bloody scene to their backs.

Later Jon couldn’t say who had supported who more on the walk back.

He liked to think they support each other. 

And of the feeling she gave him, he didn’t quite know what to think.

Chapter Text

 

SANSA

 

“We have a chance.”

Sansa spoke barely above a whisper.

So quiet no one at this council appeared to have noticed. Had she yelled it some may not have heard, so loud was the discussion around her.

Her bannermen’s reactions to the news coming from returning ravens and scouts were as diverse as they themselves. Some welcomed it, others lamented it, a few even questioned it accurate at all.

“More riders!” Lord Smallwood fought to be heard. “More riders to ensure the truth of Raventree! We cannot act rashly…we cannot…hear me!”

“We cannot act without Seagard’s strength! Await them then on to Riverrun!”

“We should ride to meet the Arryns! Join for a march straight to the capital!”

“Stannis is the key! Support him and divide the south more!”

“Fool!”

“Craven!”

“More wine!" 

She frowned but not at Willem's contribution, more so at what this spectacle reminded her of.

They bicker like girls at an embroidery circle, she thought, not lords ready for war.

Have none even considered what I have? Should I hold my tongue less it be a fool’s venture?

Doing nothing certainly wasn’t an option. Not with what they’d heard.

The first bit of news which came late last evening had been poor indeed. The Mallisters of Seagard were held prisoner in their own castle by a small Frey garrison, the party of riders they’d sent apparently spotting Freys walking about the walls.

The siege at Raventree had ended, Lord Blackwood forced to bend the knee and offer hostages to the Kingslayer. That prisoner only added to a number of hostages from several houses, limiting how many she could depend on for support.  According to the ravens that had returned only a handful of lords had not given family members over and even those sounded hesitant to raise men for another march.

She didn’t blame them but things in the Riverlands had appeared grim.

Then better news was heard. One that restored her faith in the riverlords.

No sooner had her uncle’s scout returned with news of Seagard than a raven arrived from the Mallister lord himself. Her party had somehow made contact with Lord Jason within the castle, informing him of the Twin’s fall. Apparently the man was all too eager to avenge his honor and stage an uprising to retake his castle.

‘The only Freys you’ll see on my walls are the ones without bodies. Seagard is with you. Seagard is for the Queen in the North.’

The Mallister’s rebellion led to a round of toasts and cheers, as welcome a victory as the one here at the Twins.

Reports of enemy strength came next.

The Lannister force under Daven Lannister had left to return to the Westerlands and the Tyrell army at Maidenpool had marched south to King’s Landing. That left the Freys spread out from Darry to Riverrun and the Kingslayer with a force of just a thousand men.

Emmett Frey, the new Lord of Riverrun had written and seemed as fearful as they’d been told. He trusted the small folk of Riverrun none and saw outlaws and the Blackfish everywhere. Black Walder commanded a strong force which had surfaced at Darry. Apparently Lancel Lannister, new lord of that castle, had forsaken his marriage to Amerei Frey and her family had sought Black Walder’s forces help to protect their claim to the castle there.

Ravens had come from both Darry and Riverrun, and it was this Sansa had seized upon. For the Freys at those castles wrote as if they still believed the Twins in Lord Walder’s hands.

And they await word from us, she thought, word from the lord of these castles.

The more she thought it over the more a plan came to her. It was a simple one, nothing like the plot they’d used to score the victory here.  For that reason alone she hoped it wasn’t just the thought of a stupid girl. So she sat there unsure of whether her men would accept it or if she should even give voice it. 

“If we had King Robb’s army we would make short work of our enemies.” Ser Marq said glumly. “He would’ve had us come on the Kingslayer by night and…”

He speaks as if I am not here, she realized, as if I am not Queen.

She did not think he meant malice by saying so but the knight's words spurned her into a decision.

He forgets you are queen because you do not act as one.

Would a queen stay silent in the face of all this? Would Robb?

“Uncle.” She reached out to shake Brynden from his conversation with Maege. “Uncle I would be heard.”

“And so you shall.” The old knight said as he signalled the guardsmen around the room. The score of them took to pounding the floor with their spear butts until silence reined.

All eyes falling on Sansa.

“I have listened to your wise counsel good men and I would have you hear something which may help us. I think there’s a chance to get some of our enemies to do some our work for us.” Sansa said calmly. “A way to set Lannister against Frey and Frey against Frey. We know they are already at each other’s throats. Had the Freys not schemed against one another to inherit these accursed castles we may never have taken them.”

A glance to her uncle saw him nod at her understanding of his experiences at the Twins.

“Their alliance with the Lannisters was made with Lord Tywin and sealed through several marriages.” He confirmed. “Now Tywin Lannister lays rotting and one of those marriages broken. We all know how they view such acts.”

She followed that by laying out her idea, as simple as it was.

“We shall send two letters, one to Darry for Black Walder and the other to Lord Emmett at Riverrun. Letters penned by this castle’s very master, who has seen the wisdom in cooperating with us. Our letter for Black Walder will accuse the Lannisters of betraying House Frey. Of how the Kingslayer’s army now moves south to destroy his strength there.”

Ser Marq’s jaw almost hit the table it dropped so far and the gasp from Maege had almost given her pause but Sansa pressed on.

“The other sent to Emmett will accuse Black Walder of collusion with the outlaws in an attempt to take Riverrun for himself and the Twins for Lame Lothar. Rather than allowing them to unite against us, we shall set them against each other.”

A stunned silence greeted her plan. One only broken as the enormity of its implications dawned on some. Her uncle the first among them.

“You would have the Lannisters and the Freys attack one another!” Uncle Brynden slapped his hand on the table with a laugh. “If only it were my name day, the gift would be so sweet.”

“Your grace, why would they believe such things even if it came from their own maester’s hand?” Lord Smallwood asked and Brynden answered for her.

“Few enough trust Black Walder and he commands a good half of their forces still on the march. There were already plots coming to a head here at the Twins when we attacked, surely there are others. We are but putting a flame to a pyre they have built themselves.”

“What of the hostages held by the Kingslayer? Should it come to battle the Freys may kill them.” Ser Marq asked and she felt for him, his younger brother was among those hostages.

“Then their fathers should not have bent the knee.” The Greatjon answered fiercely.

That will not do, she thought, they cannot fight amongst themselves. 

“My lords! I can forgive those men who bent the knee under threat to their families. My own father confessed to a crime he did not commit to spare me. Let us replace threat with hope, let us give them a chance to do as the Mallisters have done. A chance to take back the honor stolen from them! A chance to free those they love!”

A ripple of approval went through the men and Howland opted to speak next.

“If an army of riverlords can be put in the field they can claim the Freys have demanded more concessions of them than the Lannisters promised.” Howland added. “We can supply them with evidence through ravens from this very castle. Let the Kingslayer think he has more support than he does. Let the Freys believe they have been betrayed.”

“Even if he doesn’t trust them it would still divide his attentions adding to the chaos.” Her uncle smiled and nodded. “It is risky but it’s still an opportunity for a rescue of hostages.”

Again arguing started, less over the value of her idea than of how to put the plan into action. Much more would need to be said but by the end of the evening it was decided Olyvar Frey would be called upon to help with the finer points of Frey politics while letters drawn up for the Frey maester to rewrite.

Despite the excitement around her Sansa looked forward to this council’s end. Feeling very weary.

You had rest, she thought, more than you needed.

And your own chambers are not the ones you would return to.

After the executions she had helped Jon back to his bed and saw what she had expected to. That he had feigned strength and the day’s activities had done him ill.

When his shirt had been removed and Sansa had seen the bloody bandages there her anger had returned but she said nothing. She sent for clean bandages and water to tendthe reopened wounds. As he laid in his bed he made not a sound but slight movements at her efforts made it clear he was in pain. When that was through they still said little.

Yet she’d needed to be comforted. Needed him to be kind to her as only he was. So she went to sit on the other side of his bed where she could hold his good hand in hers.

Then the tears had started to come and she could not stop them. Nor did Jon try to stop them and she was thankful for that. After a day like this she needed to cry.

Instead of speaking he made to push himself up and she feared he meant to stand again. Instead he moved further to the side of the bed and pulled on her arm. She took his meaning and did not hesitate. She lay down next to him, his arm going around her, holding her gently.

Sansa buried her face in his shoulder as the sobs came. Her hand seeking his, the other clutching his hair.

All the grief she carried came out of her then. The rage. The fear. Those dead men they’d left down in the courtyard had ended none of it. She had tried to be so strong. Sansa been weak for so long to please Joffrey and later Petyr that sometimes she felt the Queen she was a different person altogether.

One Jon had found, she thought, one he had made.

While Jon allowed Sansa her tears he was not idle. He took to stroking her hair softly and running his thumb over the side of her hand. When the tears came no more he had not stopped. His touch warm against her, his breathing a constant, soothing feeling upon her head.

Sansa could not say when she fell asleep but it had been to Jon doing all those things.

Then the dreams had come.

Of her parents smiling as she showed them a new dress.

Of falling and Robb offering her his hand and kind words. Sweet Bran yelling down from a high wall. Holding baby Rickon as he looked up at her with his big bright eyes. Arya running away with her doll and giving chase.

Then Jon was dancing with her but no one else was there and it was so sweet. He moved his face towards her. And his mouth found hers.

She awoke to find his face in front of hers, Jon sleeping as she had been. Looking more at peace than she’d seen him in some time. The dreams had taken hold of her though.

For she sought his lips. Hers were so close, his too close.

I want this dream to come true, she thought as she wetted her lips, I want this.

The knocking ruined everything. The sound scared Sansa so she had bolted upright and to her feet instantly. A cry of pain followed for she had wrenched Jon’s arm as she rose.

Howland had burst in, hand on his sword to see her standing there with her hand to her mouth as she reached for Jon.

“It is alright Sansa, I am fine.” He said wincing as he moved back into a comfortable position.

It was then she saw Howland’s face. The crannogman’s eyes moved from Jon’s shirtless body to her standing dishevelled at his side. His expression turned from one of concern to disappointment.

He had come to summon her for his council meeting and the walk with Howland had been so awkward for her. She knew her hair was slightly undone and her face flushed. Yet the man said nothing and his face gave away no hint of his thoughts.

She spared him a glance now as the meeting drew to a close and decided act boldly once again.

“Howland, if you would I’d have you walk with me.” She said offering her hand to the lord.

“It would be my pleasure my queen.” He answered sincerely enough, taking her hand and leading her from the hall.

Torches lit the way but she did not like the shadows they cast. This castle would never feel right to her. Sansa had learned as much as she could about the castles in their short time here and felt the walls overlooking the river would suffice as a destination. It was a nice view and, more importantly, secluded. 

For she would have no one know of what matter they discussed.

“How did you know where to find me?” Sansa asked as they walked down the corridor. “Before this meeting, how did you know my whereabouts?”

“I saw for myself how Jon fared today, I knew you would tend to him.”

“He pushed himself too hard.”

“If your house did not already have words I would say pushing beyond your limits more fitting.” Howland’s joke was a sad one and he didn’t smile.

Nor did she.

“I would want you to know that nothing improper happened in those chambers. I’d hope I’d not hear otherwise.” She said as they reached the staircase leading out to the wall.

He stopped then and she feared she had pushed too hard. He was a lord, not someone to be threatened by a girl. But she was a queen, sometimes threats were needed.

“I would have none think anything improper of you.” Howland said before gesturing for her to lead the way up the stairs and she obliged him.

As they stared out onto the moving waters of the Green Fork Sansa knew she preferred being outside the castle rather than inside. The cold air reminded her of Winterfell. The sound of the water moving through the bridge was peaceful and set her mind at ease.

Howland appeared set to do the opposite.

“Sansa, I saw nothing that would make me believe anything improper happened in those chambers. Nor would I think anything was improper if something had occurred. We both know the truth. You make Jon happy. I am thankful for that.” Howland expression changed then. “Others would not be.”

“That is why you will say nothing of what you found.” She said fiercely. “Then none…”

“None have taken notice of how often you attend Jon in his chambers? Of how a bastard knight was accorded a place of honor upon the dais while lords watched below?” Howland shook his head as she made to ask for names. “Too many to say. Too many who see Jon as a rival to influence. As an affront to decency.”

“He’s the most decent of any…” Sansa’s anger began to fade to something more like fear. “There’s ill will towards him? Because of how I treat him?”

Howland nodded.

“Many and more respect him for his courage and what he’s done, yet highborns value station above all else Sansa. If Jon was but another knight in your service I doubt many would think poorly of him at all. Yet these men are now led by a young girl, which is hard enough for some, now they see her treating a bastard as her closest counsel.” Howland stared out across the water then. “I ask you to let my men watch his rooms at night from this point on.”

“To keep us proper?” She asked, praying that is what he hoped to do.

It was not.

“To keep him safe.” Howland sighed. “To continue as you do with him forces me to ask this Sansa. I cannot ignore what my old friend tells me. Of men plotting in a cold, dark place, feasting on a white dragon. With Jon’s name upon their blood soaked lips.”

That terrified her.

For half a moment she pictured Joffrey, Cersei and Petyr doing so. Then just as quickly the image changed to any number of lords she remembered scowling as Jon led her to the dais. She cursed herself for not thinking of it sooner. She’d been at court, she was raised by a septa. Bastards got little and less from this world because that’s how people wanted it. With her offering Jon more, well the girl she was would’ve thought that a scandal.

 Others would think worse, she thought, all because they think he's a bastard.

What if he’s not a bastard then?

“You can’t guard him at all times.” She said, wringing her hands in front of her. “And you already said there’s too many to punish. Perhaps it is time…”

“To name him a Targaryen to this group of lords who once fought his father?” Howland answered before she asked. “How many would hate him even more? Those who already support you may question your wisdom afterwards. The Greatjon himself lost kin at the Trident and holds nothing but hatred for dragons.”

“Then what do I do?” She asked desperately. “I can’t send him away, I can’t! And I can’t let them hurt him! Not after everything…please Howland what do I do?”

He answered of course. Howland somehow always had answers to the hard questions which needed them. Yet rarely were they the answers she hoped for.

Answers that would make her happy.

 


 

ARYA

 

“It’s the same two, I swear it.” Pod said as he squinted out at the Kingsroad. “They were by in the morning, now they’re back.”

“How can you tell?” Arya asked.

From their hiding place among the trees and shrubs Arya followed his gaze to the pair of riders north of them. They were ambling slowly down the road, both wearing heavy brown cloaks, looking like a hundred other travellers she’d seen during her time on the road. Except Pod swore these two had only just ridden by hours before and were back again.

“One tall, one short, and one of their horses had a half circle on its nose.” Pod pointed as if she could see it. “And they’re looking for something.”

“How can you even tell?” She squinted. “You can’t even see their faces under those hoods.”

Both the riders’ heads were turned towards the trees along Arya and Pod’s side of the road yet instinct told her to stay low. As if she knew to stand would put her right into their gaze.

“Remember the marker Meribald told us about…”

“Of course I remember.” She scowled at him.

The pale stones piled at the edge of the woods had been the marker the septon told her to search for to find their sanctuary. The first thing they’d done when they’d found it was to take it apart and toss the stones into the brush.

“I think that’s what they’re looking for. The marker for the ringfort.”

Then they’re looking for us.

“Do you think it’s the Brotherhood?” Pod asked and she shook her head.

“I don’t recognize the horses so they’re not from Pisscloak’s group. Besides we haven’t seen any sign of them in a week.” Gendry and Pod had watched the outlaws ride hard up the road giving chase, riding ride on by their camp. It was Pod who’d seen them return a few days later, riding just as hard.

“Maybe they’ve changed horses?”

Or Meribald sold us out like he said he would, she thought, they could be from the Faith.

“We need to tell the others.” She decided. “I’ll go. I’m faster and you’re as clumsy as a mule.”

“Mules are sure-footed…”

“Shut up.” She punched his arm before turning and running off into the brush.

Staying as low as she could and taking care to avoid twigs that might snap in her passing Arya ran back towards their hideaway. Pod’s horse kicked at the ground some as she went by, deeper into the woods and towards the river. As far as their lookout spot was from the Kingsroad the old ringfort was almost the same distance from the Green Fork.

When the weather was fair enough they could see the glimmer of sunlight reflecting off the water. Fish had become a big part of their diet whenever one of them was lucky enough to catch one. There wasn’t a bow among the group and so far none of their snares had netted them game. The dreams she had of eating freshly killed deer or cow made the daily routine of wild berries and stale oats even more unbearable.

Especially since Arya couldn’t understand why they were still here.

The ringfort had been decent shelter but there was no doubt why it had been abandoned. Its crumbling stone walls were so low Arya could see over them standing and encircled so little space it barely held their camp. A tree had taken root just inside the southern curve and Gendry said its roots would do for that part of the wall one day.

“Let it.” She’d said. “It’s giving Brienne some place dry to rest so it can take the bloody fort if it wants.”

Most of the ground inside the ringfort was hard and moss covered, making it damp and terrible to sleep upon. All save the ground around the base of the young tree so it was there they’d laid Brienne. For a few days she’d burned with fever, tossing and turning, crying out in pain and for people that weren’t there. The lady warrior had called for her father, begged for Arya’s mother, Renly Baratheon, even the Kingslayer.

And for Arya.

Pod and she had cared for Brienne the most. When the fever broke it was they Brienne talked to whenever she found the strength.

“Away…we must be away….” Brienne had said when Arya had told her how long they’d been camped at the fort. “Strap me to a horse and bind my mouth if you must…but to stay here so long is too risky…we must move…”

Arya thought that wise, happy to have Brienne back giving orders. Unfortunately she wasn’t completely back and another was still giving orders in her place.

Orders which made Arya furious.

“We can’t leave quite yet my lady.” Ser Hyle had smiled as he leaned against a tree, watching Gendry fish. “Not nearly enough supplies. Nor is the weather good for it.”

“Brienne says we have too.”

“Brienne’s not thinking straight. A day without her crying out for a Lannister and I’d think differently.” Hyle had laughed at his own jest.

“Every day we stay here is another Lem could find us! Or for Meribald to tell the Faith…”

“The Faith!” Hyle’s laughter had made her fists open and close. “How long did they keep you on that island and no one came? We watched the outlaws go south days ago and if some sparrows show up here with their sticks and prayers…”

“There are only four of us and Brienne can’t fight.”

“And we’ll barely be able to ride with her slung over a horse. No, if the outlaws are looking for us they’ll be looking for four riders and an injured woman among them. If it was just the two of us I’d be more than happy to see you away from here...”

Hyle had given her a look then he had several times before. A warm smile and eyes that gazed queerly into hers. She always just glared back and did so then.

“My offer still stands and if you take it we could be on our way north in just a few short hours…”

She’d turned from him and paced away angrily. More and more she hated the knight.

Since they’d escaped the Brotherhood he had taken to ordering everyone about. Pod was supposed to watch the road by day and clean Hyle’s armor by night. When he’d argued he served Brienne and not Hyle he’d earned a cuff to the side of his head and there’d been no more argument. Still Pod had defied Hyle in his own way, cleaning not only the knight’s armor but Brienne’s as well.

Gendry was always sent about collecting wood, fishing, tending to the horses or whatever other fool tasks Hyle could come up with to keep Arya and her friend apart. All the while Hyle came up with any excuse to be around her. Trying to ask her about the North, whether Winterfell was as large as he’d heard, what her favorite breed of horse was, and more stupid questions of the like.

“If you’re to take back your lands you’ll need a husband to do it. A strong one, one as good with words as he is with a sword.” Hyle had slashed his sword in the air and smiled his stupid smile one morning when the others had left. “And I’d gladly be it.”

His smile had disappeared when the rock flew by his head. She’d had another in hand and was lining up another throw when he’d backed away and left her be. He hadn’t brought it up again but everything else had stayed the same.

And last night she’d woken to find him slumbering next to her. Too close to her. His hand on her hip had been the thing to wake her and she’d quickly jabbed her elbow into his side. That put him off and she’d gone to lay beside Brienne for the rest of the night. She’d fallen asleep watching the knight, making sure he made no moves to follow.

Now I need him to move, she thought, they could have bloody found us.

He’ll have to let us leave now.

As if an answer to unspoken prayers Arya found Hyle already preparing for a ride. Coming upon the ringfort she saw no sign of Gendry but the knight was leading two of their horses out the narrow gap in the wall.

“Hyle!”

“Lady Arya!” He called back happily, smiling his stupid smile. “We are of one mind again. I was just about to come and tell you I’ve given your words some thought and…”

“There are riders on the road. We think they are looking for the ringfort.” She said breathlessly.

It was good the horses were saddled, if they needed to fight men on horses it would be good to be on some themselves. It was even better Hyle was already wearing his mail and looked ready for a fight.

“Riders? How many?”

“Only two! If they don’t find the marker we have to ride. If they do we can all fight them together.” She pointed to the river where Gendry would be fishing. “I'll go get Gendry.”

 Gendry wasn’t much of a rider but between the two of them she figured they’d be more than match for one of the pair.

“No time for that” Hyle shook his head and came on towards her, pulling the horses behind. “Get on the horse.”

“Riding down to get him will take just as long.” She couldn't believe how stupid Hyle was. The ground towards the river was full of roots and muck and might trip their horses, it be faster for her just to run down and get him.

“Don’t argue with me.” Hyle reached for her but she twisted away, surprised he’d try and grab her. “Come on now, we’ll yell for him!”

“Stop it. If they haven’t found the marker and we start shouting they’ll come right here! Just let me go…”

Something caught her eye then. Something that wasn’t right.

The horses Hyle had readied were more than just saddled. Both had blankets, supplies and other items for a long ride tied to them. Oathkeeper’s sheath was strapped to hisown horse but Arya saw no other sign of Brienne’s gear. A quick glance tothe ringfort showed the other three horses not even saddled.

Why was he preparing for a long ride with only two horses?

The thought was barely in her head before Hyle made to grab at her again.

“I said stop!” She hissed, pulling Needle free and pointing it at Hyle. “What are you doing? Why did you only saddle two horses?”

Hyle sighed and let the reins drop from his grasp. He put a hand upon his own sword and held out the other, waving her to him.

“I can’t let this foolishness continue. Brienne and those two simpletons are going to doom you my lady and I am too true a knight to let them. Let those searchers find the others and we’ll be well away, halfway to your own lands before any would have a chance to follow.”

The bloody traitor, she realized, he is trying to steal our supplies.

He’s trying to steal me.

“I’m not going anywhere with you!” Arya slashed Needle in front of her as she backed away from the traitor.

“Arya?” Brienne’s weak voice called out. “Arya what is wrong?”

A moment later Brienne’s head rose up from behind the ringfort wall, she was pulling herself up along the tree to her feet. Her face was a mix of concern and pain. 

“By the seven…go back to sleep Brienne! And get over here girl!”

Hyle made to grab at Arya again and Needle flashed, causing him to pull his hand back with a hiss. It was only a small cut but still, it bled and Hyle pulled his own sword free.

“Stop! Hyle sheath your blade at once!” Brienne yelled.

“He has your sword!” Arya warned as Hyle moved at her. This time he expected her slash and his own sword moved quicker than she’d expected. The first blow almost knocked Needle from her grasp, his back swing finished the job, sending the blade crashing into the dirt.

“Gendry! Podrick!” Brienne shouted loudly while Hyle blocked Arya from running to her.

“That’ll bring your riders for sure, we need to be going.” Hyle may have been quick with his sword but she was smaller and faster afoot. She kept dodging his attempts to grab her or pin her against the stonewall. “I’m your best damn hope for ever being Lady of Winterfell!”

“Eat shit!” She kicked him hard in the shin before diving under his outstretched arm and rolling upon the ground.

 “Arya get behind me!” Brienne called as she pulled Oathkeeper from Hyle’s saddle.

Arya did as she was told, running to shelter behind Brienne who raised her sword up shakily. Her right arm was still splinted so she wielded the Valyrian sword with her left. That made Arya worry.

How much a fight can she give him?

“I don’t have time for this!” Hyle yelled, coming at them.

“Hyle the girl is my charge! Whatever you plan to do I cannot…” Brienne’s words were cut off with a terrible cry.

Hyle had swatted aside the woman’s attempt to fight wrong-handed and thrown his shoulder into her chest. Brienne’s ribs had been badly hurt as well and she fell backwards, hard upon the ground. Another cry erupted from Brienne, a choking gasp like there was no air left in her to scream her pain.

Arya took the chance to retrieve Needle, picking the sword up just in time to see Brienne raise her own.

“Don’t be a fool.” Hyle kicked Oathkeeper from Brienne’s grasp before planting his boot firmly down on her chest. “Stay down.”

“Leave her alone!” Arya charged at Hyle but only travelled a short few steps before jerking to a halt.

The knight had seen her coming but rather than meeting her charge he’d pointed his sword down at Brienne’s neck.

“No more.” Hyle pulled his bloody hand to his mouth and sucked at the cut before spitting the blood away. “No more. You care for the lady here, I’ve seen it so don’t act like you don’t. Because I don’t want to hurt her worse than she’s made me."

“If you hurt her again I’ll kill you!” She held Needle with both hands before her, her trembling with rage and fear. “I’ll kill you!”

“Arya run.” Brienne managed to grunt before Hyle pressed down with his boot and she was lost to agony.

“Stop!”

“Drop the sword and get on the horse.” Hyle lifted his boot just a touch from Brienne and Arya squeezed Needle even harder. “Quickly now, we don’t have much time.”

He was probably right.

There was no way their shouting had been missed. Somewhere back towards the road she could hear the sounds of horses. Maybe even yelling. Whether it was just Pod coming to their aid or the men upon the road she couldn’t tell. She hoped Gendry was on his way back, hoping he hadn’t gone further down stream and missed all this.

Hyle didn’t look like he had any such worries. The traitor even smiled.

“I’ll get you far away from all these troubles. You’ll see me for what I am.” Hyle gestured to the horses. “I’ll treat you well and give you sons so one day you’ll thank me for all this. And so will Brienne if you do as I say. Like a proper lady.”

She looked down at Brienne and saw the pain etched across her face. The lady shook her head against Hyle’s words, mouthing the word ‘run’ silently, again and again. Hyle caught that and lifted his foot to bring it crashing down on Brienne’s head. The blow cracked the lady’s head off the ground and her eyes went wild, as if he’d knocked all the sense from her.

“Leave her! Hyle please stop…”

“She’ll thank you when she wakes that is. Drop the blade and the lady will wake. Don’t and…” He tapped the tip of his sword against Brienne’s neck.

Arya wanted to run at him. To run him through with Needle. To beat him bloody with her own fists. Yet she couldn’t make herself move. Her eyes locked on Brienne.

You can’t fight, she realized, he’ll kill her.

“Hyle.” She tried one last time. “Hyle if you don’t stop…I promise I’ll kill you. I swear it.”

In response he flicked his wrist and Brienne gasped, a shallow cut bleeding along her neck. Arya felt very weak then, accepting that Hyle would do as he threatened. So she let Needle fall to her side. She was about to drop the blade when the horses began to spook. She’d barely glanced to them when Gendry came running from out behind them.

“Leave ‘em be you shit!” He shouted, sword in hand.

Gendry ran full on at Hyle, his sword swinging wildly at the knight’s head. Hyle saw it just in time and leapt away from Brienne, catching Gendry’s clumsy cut and swearing loudly as the two began to clash. Arya didn’t hesitate, she rushed to join the fight even as Brienne was shouting something. She stabbed low and Hyle parried it before slashing at Gendry. He wore no armor and Hyle’s sword cut a bloody line across his chest. Gendry staggered some but swung his sword again with both hands, Hyle merely backed away and knocked away another of her attacks.

He’s too good.

“I was hoping not to kill you bastard.” Hyle spat at Gendry.  “It’s worth a lordship though.”

“I’ve seen latrines worth more than you.” Gendry spat back.

That angered Hyle, he cursed and slashed upwards at Gendry, almost cutting his throat open.

He tried to kill him.  The fucker tried to kill him.

Arya saw red.

She charged at Hyle without thinking, only wanting to stab Needle through his gut. To feel his blood on her hands and see him dead for what he’d done. None of that happened as Hyle lashed out with his free arm, sending her sprawling to the ground. Instead of Hyle’s blood on her hands it was her own, having skinned her hands badly in the fall.

I’ll change that!

Arya rose as quickly as she could, just as Gendry was going down. Her friend was on one knee before Hyle, his lip busted and cradling his stomach.

“No! Gendry!”

“Mercy!” Brienne was struggling to her feet as well.

Hyle wasn’t listening. He turned his sword in his hands to point downwards before raising it high to stab into Gendry’s chest.

Everything was moving slower as she gained her feet. She wasn’t fast enough to stop it.

Something else was.

It whistled by her and a moment later Hyle cried out.

An arrow shaft was buried in the back of the knight’s leg and he hopped away from Gendry, cursing in pain. Arya turned to see who was shooting when another arrow flew by her and Hyle grunted loudly.

“Make another move against my friend and, as sorry a man as you are, the next one will make you a lady!” A voice called from among the trees.

A hooded man emerged from behind a tree with, holding a bow with another arrow notched and ready to loose. She recognized him quickly as one of the riders from the road. Yet there was something else familiar about him. His voice was one Arya had heard before.

“Who the hell are you?” Hyle gritted his teeth as he snapped one of the arrows piercing his body.

“Been called the lord o’ the feathers but my name’s for my friends, which you aren’t.”

The man pulled back his hood and with his red hair and youthful freckled face revealed there was no mistaking the archer Arya had met long ago.

Anguy.

“Now be a dear and throw your sword this way so I don’t…fuck!”

Anguy cursed as one of horses chose that moment to seek a drink from the river. The passing animal blocked the archer’s shot just long enough for Hyle to slip behind Gendry. Hyle threw his arm across Gendry’s throat and pulled him up as a shield in front of him.

If Arya hadn’t been filled with such hatred for the knight she might have been impressed. He moved quickly for a man with an arrow in his shoulder and another in his leg.

Not as quick as her. She also took advantage of the distraction and bent low, moving fast to circle around behind the pair.

“Throw my sword? How about you drop your bow instead?” Hyle winced as he tried to raise his sword to Gendry’s throat. He faltered just long enough for her to think Anguy’s arrow had robbed much of the strength from his sword arm.

“I can put one through each eye before you even blink!” Anguy threatened as he tried to reposition himself.

“Try it and I’ll open his throat. You’d be a poor friend to allow that.”

“Loose Anguy. Just loose.” Gendry shouted and jerked at Hyle’s hold.

He didn’t break it but Hyle took the chance to drop his sword and reach for a dagger in his belt. So Arya took her chance as well.

She ran forward and slashed down at the part of Hyle’s calf not covered by his boot. Needle cut through the muscle like it was butter and Hyle screamed, wrenching backwards from Gendry and stumbling against the wall. He fell back against it, his arms spread to hold himself up and she was right there with him.

“Never turn your back on a wolf!” Anguy laughed as he trotted towards them, helping Gendry to his feet.

She could’ve helped as well yet standing over Hyle with Needle pointed right at his chest seemed more helpful. 

His wounds aren’t mortal.

He can still hurt us.

“Arya to me.” Brienne’s voice pleaded from her place upon the ground. The fact she still couldn’t rise from Hyle’s beating turned Arya’s blood to ice.

Hyle’s face was twisted in pain but when their eyes met it softened some. A smile even flickering at his mouth. 

“Put that away, I’m not going to be any more trouble.” 

“Like you were going to do with Gendry?” She rasped, taking a step forward and kicking at the leg she’d slashed. 

He screamed. 

“Mercy!” He gasped through his pain, struggling to keep his leg from touching the ground. His smile was gone but his eyes still sought hers, pleading with them. “Mercy, girl. Mercy please. I did this all to keep you safe. I only wanted…” 

“I know what you want.” Someone else spoke using her mouth. “You want mercy. 

Her cut was quick and sure. Needle opening Hyle’s throat in a spray of red.

Someone behind her gasped. Hyle couldn’t even do that. He spat blood as the life left him, going limp against the wall. Those were the last things he ever did and she watched as the light almost faded from his eyes.

“Arya.” Gendry grabbed her shoulder and turned her away from the body. Blood was stained his shirt as the cut upon his chest continued to bleed. He wasn’t paying much attention to it though, his eyes were on her.

“I had to…”

“Later.” Gendry hissed as he pulled her behind him. Now he was raising his sword towards Anguy, as if to threaten the archer. “Why are you here Anguy?”

“She killed him?” Anguy numbly slung his bow over his back as he continued to stare at Hyle. “Wasn’t he one of you?”

“You saw what he was doing.” Brienne said. "Who is to say what he was."

The woman had regained her feet and stood shakily, her good arm holding Oathkeeper once again.

“Arya. To me.” She commanded, eyes wide and staring at her. “Now.”

Arya left Gendry’s side to join Brienne’s, if only to help steady the woman.

“Anguy why are you here?” Gendry asked again.

“You’re as bloody thankful as ever Bull. And it’s more a we than a me.”

“Pod! What happened to Pod?” Brienne leaned upon her shoulder and she pointed her sword at Anguy. “Who are you?" 

“A friend! We come as friends!” Another voice called out.

Its owner was the second rider she’d seen on the road. He was riding through the trees towards them with Pod riding closely behind. Arya barely registered that the squire looked perfectly fine. 

“Fine watchman you made!” Gendry yelled.

“I…they said…” Pod stammered pointing at the newcomer. "He said he's a..."

“Are all well?” The other rider asked, his face hidden by a hood like Anguy’s had been.

“Can’t tell yet m’lord.” Anguy shook his head and gestured at Gendry’s sword in annoyance. “Nobody has put down their weapons long enough for me to ask.”

“My lady! What happened?” Pod dismounted and rushed to Brienne’s side.

“I am fine. Ser Hyle attempted to betray us and met his end.” Brienne said as she moved to lean on Pod’s shoulder rather than Arya’s

She probably would’ve been annoyed to allow Pod to take her place but she was much more interested in the new stranger. For he’d dismounted and pulled back his hood, revealing himself as no more a stranger than Anguy had been.

He was around the same age as Pod but much better looking. His pale blonde hair had grown since she’d last seen it, almost falling below his shoulders. Yet it was his eyes more than anything which grabbed her attention. Those strange purple eyes of his had always seemed sad.

Yet Edric Dayne was nowhere close to sad as he approached her smiling.

“Lady Stark,” Ned knelt before her with a wide smile. “I almost didn’t recognize you with girl’s hair.”

“I’ve always had girl’s hair! Just like you!” She scowled at the boy she’d met at Beric Dondarrion’s side. “I’m not going to let you hang my friend’s Ned so don’t make me use this.”

With that she raised Needle again and the smile left the squire’s face as his eyes fell upon the bloody blade.

“I don’t...I mean we don’t want to hang anyone! We’re not with Lem’s group, we left after what we saw what the lady became…”

Right, she remembered, Gendry said the Brotherhood split.

“Then why are you following us?”

“Because the last thing we ever did of use was look for you.” Anguy chimed in as he finally convinced Gendry to lower his sword.

“Gendry.” Ned’s smile faltered some as he nodded at her friend. “It’s good to see you. I didn’t like how we left things…”

“It’s done with m’lord.” Gendry shrugged before gesturing between the two newcomers. “I’m glad you’re still alive, we heard things at the inn, about the Freys and an ambush.”

“Black Walder.” Anguy spat. “Caught us just south of Hag’s Mire. I’m sure he’s sent riders bragging from Riverrun to King’s Landing how they did for poor Kyle and Puddingfoot.”

“He set fire to a farm that gave us food. There was no one there save the old widow with the little ones…and when we came to see to the dead…”

Ned trailed off then and Arya felt bad for him. Not so bad that she wasn’t still suspicious of why the two of them were here.

Brienne seemed to read her thoughts.

“While I’m thankful for you help with…that.” Brienne jerked her head towards Hyle’s body, which Pod was now gaping at. “Before you tell us why you are here I must ask you lay your weapons down. We’ve had enough treachery here for once day.

Pod drew his blade suddenly, as if just realizing what a sorry company they made against these two.

“Easy lad, remember what we told you up at the road. We mean no one here any harm.” Anguy tossed his bow down before holding his hands up, smirking. “Just the opposite really.”

“He’s telling the truth, we’re here to help.” Ned said but untied his sword belt, offering it up to Gendry. “There, now we’re both unarmed.”

“He’s got a dagger.” Arya pointed to the side of Anguy’s cloak. In truth she hadn’t seen one but figured it was worth the guess.

Sure enough the archer laughed and pulled a small blade loose from beneath his cloak and tossed it down at her feet.

“I’ll be wanting that back, took it off a Lannister captain I feathered myself. More sentimental value than anything else.” His eyes moved to Brienne, with a raised eyebrow. “As nice as it is I don’t think it would have been much of a threat against the lady warrior who fought off the Bloody Mummers alone?”

“We rode through the Inn at the Crossroads and had the story from Willow.” Ned explained. “You defended the innocent, protected those who could not protect themselves. Willow told us the tale herself, she said for your bravery Lem planned to hang you and your friends…Lord Beric would never have done so.”

“So you are not here to hang us…why follow us then?”

“They said they wanted to join us.” Pod jumped in. “I was trying to get back after I heard the shouting and they caught me. They said they wanted to help us get you home.”

“Words can be wind Podrick.” Brienne eyed the two with distrust.

“It’s the truth my lady.” Ned pointed to his sword in Gendry’s grasp. “I’ve given away my sword to prove we mean no harm. But return our weapons and they will be Lady Stark’s to command. We swear to help her, in whatever way she’d have it. Toright a wrong.”

Someone else would’ve felt grateful, maybe even relieved to hear that. Arya didn’t. Instead it bothered her. She had no idea what wrong the Ned was talking about.

All she knew was how sticky her hands felt. They were bloodied from her fall earlier but it wasn’t her blood that coated her sword hand. Hyle’s had dripped down from Needle and stained her hand red 

And despite everything he’d done to them, the pain he'd caused, looking at Hyle's body made her sick.

It made her bloody hand tremble.

 


 

 JON

 

He hit the ground hard and swore.

“Are you hurt?” Willem asked above him.

 He was but he wouldn't let that stop him. Not while the Royce knight still stood undefeated.

“No. Let’s continue.” Jon got to his feet slowly. “This time I’ll win.”

He took a measure of pride he had not dropped his sword at all today. The cool evening air felt good against his hot skin, some of it finding its way through the cracks in his armor here and there for welcome relief.

“Oh a ten to one day is it?” Willem smiled. “I’d almost welcome it.”

Since returning to the yard Jon had been disappointed in just how out of practice he was. Jon was defeated time and time again by Willem, some days he swore his friend barely broke a sweat. Yet he was improving, that much was clear. His grip was strengthening and his speed and grace of movement were returning to him. It was worth the bruises and aches Jon felt before he slept and more so when he awoke. This past week alone he’d been in the yard more often than not.

And it had been a long week.

His hand was scarred and ugly to look upon but it was still there and its uses were returning to him. The maester said there was hope he could return to his normal self with time, possibly during their march to the North.

Since Sansa had announced their departure a flurry of events had followed. First being the riverlords shouting bloody murder. Of how Sansa was abandoning them and how they needed northern support to throw off the Lannister yolk. The Greatjon had actually come to blows with one who had called into question Sansa’s ability to lead.

Tempers had cooled since. The Blackfish had seen to that by backing Sansa’s plan. He believed the Iron Throne had counted the Riverlands too weak without the North to be much of a threat. That as long as their plans only included the Freys and Lannisters that the Tyrells would not launch another invasion.

To that Sansa had added that she could not ask the northerners to march south as their homes were left to the Boltons no more than she could ask the Riverlands to march north with them. The larger Vale army marching their way probably helped more than any of that. 

However it was done and no matter who objected the decision had been made.

They were going home.

Jon parried a strike from Willem and sidestepped the next. His own attack struck a glancing blow off the knight’s shoulder. Two quick replies had Jon giving ground but he struck back faster hoping to disarm the man before his hand grew too tired. Alas, his opponent’s blade was at his throat by the end.

“Much better Wolf, much better.” Willem grinned and walked to have a drink from the skin of wine his squire held. “You’ll be saving fair maidens any day now.”

Jon watched him gulp at the wine and figured he would likely have some too before he retired for the evening. Sometimes it helped him to rest when his aches were too great.

You’ll never rest as well as that evening, he thought, no matter how much wine you drink.

Or for how long you wait.

It was a hard thing to think on. In the weeks since the day of the executions Sansa no longer called on his chambers alone. When he had a rare visit she always came accompanied by a healer or some other person. Nor would they speak of matters as they once had, most of his information coming from others or from attending councils himself.

Which he no longer did at her side.

Five seats down from her, he thought, where you belong.

You should be happy she finally realized that.

Yet he wasn’t happy, Jon was angry. Mostly at himself for it was plain he had offended her.

He hadn’t meant to. Sansa had just been so crushed after the executions he had wanted to be of any comfort he could. Since Jon could not hold her to him with both arms he did what he could. Having her sleeping beside him had been a sweet thing. The feeling of her breath upon his bare chest him made his pains feel far away.

Wine was no substitute for that. For her.

At the time he had fought against the urge to sleep. Sansa looking so beautiful as she did so that he stayed awake long after her eyes had closed. Just staring at her. Her pale cheeks with just a hint of red. Her lips, full and parted. Running his fingers through her hair put him at peace. If the day had not been so dark and draining he wondered what else he would’ve felt.

He thought he knew.

Sansa may have known it as well. When Howland came to find his arm around her she had started so. He had hoped to apologize that night but Sansa hadn’t returned. Nor had she come the next day to eat with him as usual. When she had come, the Blackfish had been at her side to tell him of the plans they had made and put in motion.

The man had set the about disguising his bands of outriders as Freys so they could move with impunity through these lands. All the while Marq Piper had been meeting with the other riverlords to seek a way to free Riverrun from the Freys. The Northmen under Howland and the Greatjon,  were busy preparing for their march. Only just over a fifteen hundred men would return with them through the Neck to assault Moat Cailin from the south. It was a small army in truth but Maege expected to gather more along the way while Sansa predicted help to come from Bronze Yohn on the sisters. 

All Sansa's battle commanders had tasks and duties, yet she had asked nothing of him.

It left him feeling more than useless. He never truly had men to command but now he couldn’t even ride a horse or fight capably in his current condition. So resolved to do his best to change that, training with Willem so he could serve his queen again. To be worthy of riding in her army once more.

And so it had been a long week.

“Alright this time I’ll try and beat you!” Willem laughed as he wiped wine from his mouth.

The man was a real pleasure.

He was also a skilled swordsman. Jon was hard pressed and blocked maybe two of every three blows. Willem was actually trying now so whenever he managed to avoid a hit his confidence grew. And when he didn’t his body merely accepted another hurt.

Yet when a particularly hard blow landed across his back it forced him to cry out, falling to one knee. Willem paused and dropped his guard long enough for Jon to launch his attack. He leapt forward and bulled into the knight. His shoulder lifting Willem from the ground as he swung an arm out to put his friend down hard.

When Willem looked up Jon’s sword was pointed at his chest.

“You bloody cheater.” He smiled. “Well done Wolf. Care for a rematch?”

Jon shook his head, helping his friend to his feet.

“I’d rather retire with the win, I thank you for the bruises ser.” He turned to leave the yard but stopped at Willem’s squire, taking the wine skin from the lad. “And for the wine."

As he walked away he heard Willem berating the boy for not defending what was dearest to him. The knight could find more wine elsewhere while  Jon expected where he was going none would be awaiting him. Rather than turning towards his chambers he made his way to the stone bridge crossing the river.

He walked along it, only stopping after he'd gone almost halfway across. The bridge tower loomed ahead of him, it was an ugly thing and he cursed it. Galbart Glover had died taking it, and died bravely doing so. The Blackfish had told him that three arrows were sticking out of Galbart before he led the last charge.

“To a good man.” Jon said as he stared up at the tower and drank.

Grimacing some under the weight of his armor he put his hand on the stone ledge and leaned against it, peering over the side and out onto the river. There were guards in the tower and some walking the bridge yet he imagined none would bother him. Jon was but a shape in the darkness and he came to this spot often enough he was confident he’d be left in peace. Left to watch river flow beneath, as quick moving as it was dark, to pretend his troubles flowed away with it.

Jon feared he’d find more waiting when he slept. Waiting for him when he dreamed.

Lately they had become more and more strange of late. More often than not he dreamt seeing through Ghost’s eyes as he roamed the lands near the castle. As he peered out at the lands along the river he imagined Ghost was somewhere out there even now. Hunting a deer or another poor animal unlucky enough to have its scent caught by the wolf.

Those dreams were not so bad, not like the other things he dreamt about.

Melisandre surrounded by ice and calling for him. A boy's fear as a strange, ancient voice coming from a dark place.

Not long past he’d had a strange one about Arya.

Of that little girl he’d loved so, fighting amongst smoke and flame. It had been so vivid despite how absurd it seemed now. Arya had fought alongside a giantess and the ghost of a dead king as they were surrounded by wolves and fire.

Willem dreams of women and glory, he thought miserably, I dream of nonsense.

He drank again and thought to cork the skin then, preferring to arrive in the yard the next morning with a clear head. It also bothered him how often he drank now, in truth he took little pleasure from it. He enjoyed it even less when he realized he was no longer alone.

The footsteps sounded distant and at first he thought it probably guards making their rounds so he did nothing. Then he realized they were not far at all, they only sounded so because of how gentle the person’s walk was.

“Good evening my brave knight.”

As sweet as it was to hear her voice his mood did not welcome it.

Not her, hebegged, not now.

Not like this.

Jon could barely see Sansa in the weak torchlight and when she became clearer he wished he hadn’t. Her heavy cloak covered much of her grey gown but did little to keep her face and eyes hidden. For some reason every time their eyes met since their slumber together he felt a deep empty hurt in his chest.

Ever since you made a fool of yourself, he thought, apologize now before anything else.

“Good evening to you my queen.” He said. “You lack guards.”

His words probably lacked the warmth they should’ve carried and his bow could’ve been better. Yet his back was sore from the last sparring match. As for his tone, well, that was because he was sore at her.

“Guards patrol this bridge.” Sansa replied and moved to join him in looking out across the river herself. “Also two men stand at the end of the bridge awaiting me.”

“Why walk the bridge alone then?” He would have guards with her at all times but Sansa feared it would make her look weak. It was an old argument. When they used to have arguments.

 

“Why do you?” She asked.

“Who’d want to hurt a bastard?” He  watched as her face fell some at that. He shrugged and drank of the wine. “And I like the view.”

“As do I.” Sansa paused and closed her eyes as a gentle wind enveloped them and pulled her hair some. “It’s peaceful, as peaceful at this vile place can be. I try and come here now and again, to watch the water and feel the breeze. How could the Freys ever become so vile with such a view?”

Her words could have been his own. The nights he spent staring out at the river was one of the few things he’d miss about the Twins.

“I don’t imagine Lord Walder was one for taking in the scenery.”

Sansa laughed, it was a sweet sound. It hurt to think how long it had been since he’d heard it.

For a moment Jon was hopeful she’d come to speak of matters between them. Perhaps he’d have a chance to apologize and they could return to how they’d been.

“I watched you practicing in the yard.” Sansa said, giving him a look that bordered on pity. “I saw the last hit and worried for your back. I had hoped you were heading to a healer.”

“A spy and a queen, I did not know you’d taken a second title. I’ll have to get more reports on the goings on around here.” He said crossly and he regretted it immediately.

Sansa appeared shocked at Jon’s words and he was a bit himself. He had nothing to be cross with her about and he was far from drunk so he couldn’t blame the drink.

“Jon…I wasn’t spying, truly. I was told you’re healing well and growing stronger. I just happened to…"

“Oh so others have been spying for you. Giving you reports on me. I’m glad you’re staying informed.”

Gods what are you doing?

Sansa said nothing to that. He wanted to apologize but instead stayed silent, turning away from her. Her hand shot out and grasped at his arm, pulling to keep him in place.

“I did not mean to offend you Jon...I only saw you in passing and I watched because…” She struggled some, her shoulders slumping. “I like to know how able all my knights are.”

He’d been hoping she’d say something else. The pit inside his chest turning into a chasm when she didn’t.

You’re only another knight to her, he thought, she couldn’t pretend you were special forever.

“I am becoming more able by the day." He said. "I plan on being able to protect my queen on the march north."

No matter anything else he planned on doing as he'd done since the Vale, riding at her side and guarding her against all harm. Jon had hope she remembered those journeys as fondly as him and for the briefest moment he thought she smiled. Yet it was probably a trick of the light for her face was blank as she loosed her hold upon him and shook her head.

"There are others for such duties Jon." She said quietly. "Men who could act as my guards so you don't have to ride at my side..."

She doesn't want you. Not even as a guard.

Who would want you?

Sadness and anger filled him so that he knew he could not bear another moment here with her.

"I will ride wherever you ask me then. Speaking of duties there are probably some I should be seeing to, so if you’d excuse me your grace I’d beg your leave....”

He made to remove her hand from his arm but she jerked away before he could touch her. Her face was twisted into a look of fear and he thought the reason for it quite obvious. For he had reached to touch her with his burnt hand. His scarred wreck of a hand.

It sickens her, he realized, of course it would.

Why would she ever want to be touched by something so horrible?

It was sickly to look upon, the skin much too pale. Scarred and stretched strangely as it was he knew it was hideous. He held it up before him, and made of a fist of the ugly thing, Sansa staring wide-eyed as he did so.

“I apologize my queen, I’ll wear a glove to spare you the sight of it from now on. Good night.” He stormed off and away from her, taking a drink of his wine as he did so.

A long one at that.

None of what Jon was doing was how he wanted to act but something was boiling inside him. He even managed to start walking the wrong way, heading towards the tower rather than back to castle where his chambers waited. It didn’t matter, going anywhere was better than facing what she was doing to him.

Sansa said something as he left, he was sure of it. Yet he made out none of it, the words too soft to be heard over the wind and water. Nor he did he give her a chance to repeat herself.

Jon kept walking, he wanted to be away from here. Away from her. Away from her eyes.

That’s not what you want, he thought, you want more than that.

He wanted to hold her face his hands. He wanted her lips against his to ward away the hurt. He wanted to pull her against him to keep away the cold.

I want her.

Instead he only had the wine. And pain.

So when he finished the wine there'd be no pain.

And he'd have nothing.

 

 

Chapter Text

THE WILD SISTER

 

The small cousins didn’t like where she’d led them.

The river ahead was wide and moving quickly. The lands she'd left were flat, full of farms and forests. Her pack had been large and powerful in those lands but she could not stay where she'd been. So she left and many of the small cousins had followed her far from their usual hunting grounds. Others had fallen away during the journey, the smell of prey and the hunger in their stomachs driving them.

The ones who’d stayed were not the strongest, they depended on her and followed her because of it, yet for how much further wasn’t certain. Even now the others sniffed about the river’s edge, dipping paws in to test the current before retreating back away from the edge. Some whined in frustration, wanting to turn back, to move away from the wide, quick water.

They wanted easy prey, sheep, cows, goats…

What drove her here wasn’t the hunt or the hunger she felt. It was a pull, a need she’d ignored in the past but couldn’t anymore. The others were disappearing from the world, disappearing from her dreams. Her sister and the quick brother both lost in these lands. The two in the cold lands had gone even further, the savage brother to some place of salt and strange beasts, the other had just gone. Her dreams didn’t touch him anymore.

The closest had been the quiet brother, but now he was growing distant again.

This was the river where she found the woman she knew from long ago.  The one who’d sung to her when she was scared. The one who’d been cold and still.

It was that pack she sought when she leapt into the water, the cold was immediate but she was already pushing out towards the other side. Others followed but not all, a few could not make the trip she was trying. They followed as the current pulled her and the others downstream, yipping and calling out while she focused on the swim.

They had been carried a long ways down from where she’d wanted to be but when she crawled up the bank she merely shook herself dry and lay upon the soft ground. Letting her legs and heart rest. The ones who’d crossed with her were pulled further but found her after a time. This pack was smaller now, the one across the river howling at her abandonment of them.

She howled back, as did the other bold ones about her.

They moved slowly through the trees, all were tired but the closer they came to where she’d wanted to be the greater the smell grew.

Not just man smell, but dead man smell.

It led her to a circle of rocks near the river. The others went straight to digging at the pile of ground which smelt of meat. Beneath they found a man, dead for some time but the meat still good. Her hunger screamed for her to tear a leg free but she could not. Something about this man was known to her. It made her show her teeth and back away.

To her the meat was tainted. The others smelt no taint and feasted.

She found something else from the dead man. A scent. A scent she'd long forgotten but could smell again. She followed it a little further.

The rock ring was tall but she leapt over it with ease. Inside was the stink of men but it was old and no men were there now. Men had stayed here some time and had left some days ago. Then others had come without staying long. She cared little for most of the smells, save for the one which gave her comfort.

The one she knew from long ago.

The one who was not so far now.

 


 

 

SANSA

 

It’s getting colder.

Every day we get closer, and every day it gets colder.

Sansa hoped that wasn’t an ill omen. They were heading North and winter was coming after all, the cold to be expected. It meant her army’s march through the Neck was slowed less by rains and more by light snows. As of late when Ghost came to her tent she cuddled up even closer for his warmth. Those were the good things.

It was the thought of being another day closer to Roose Bolton which scared her.

She shivered and clutched her cloak tight about her.

“Messenger coming down.” Willem said from his place at the head of her guard, pointing towards the front of the march. “Not alone either.”

Willem had taken command of the company of mounted warriors who acted as her guard during this march. He was good company and she was glad of him most days, yet deep down Willem wasn’t the knight she wanted at her side. Still, with Maege commanding the center and riding alongside Sansa it made staying in good spirits a touch easier. Often Willem and the lady would debate the merits of both the North and Vale. Of whether it was more appropriate to wed sheep or bears.

The Greatjon commanded the rear because she wished a quick pace and gods help the man who fell behind when on his watch. So that meant the messenger coming from the front had been sent by Howland. The crannog lord had command of the front of the column, a sign of respect as much as practicality, it was wise to let the man guide them through his home. 

Realizing the messenger came from Howland made choice of escort following behind the rider very confusing.

“Finally, you’ll see my lady.” Willem called over to Maege. “The Wolf will have my side on this, never met a wolf that didn’t prefer a good sheep.”

“To eat you fool.” Maege laughed. “I think him more likely to marry a wolf than a sheep!”

Sure enough, following right behind Howland’s rider was Jon, carrying the direwolf banner above him. She had to force herself not to stare at him as he came before them. It was a losing battle, her eyes taking in his stern and expressionless face. A face she missed so.

To see him smile, she thought, it would be so much better to see him smile once more.

Jon didn’t smile of course, nor did he join the messenger in riding on to her, instead turning his mount to come alongside Willem.

He’s always ahead or behind now, she lamented, never beside me.

As I made it.

During this march Jon had been given command of the outriders. Howland and Uncle Brynden had suggested it themselves so she could allow it without being seen as favoring Jon. It meant he often spent more time riding about the edges of their army, not at her side as it had once been.

Nothing is as it once was.

“Your grace!” The messenger hailed. “Lord Howland bids me to tell you a company of riders approaches from the north. And they are not of the North!”

That surprised her. Howland had sent word for the crannogmen to seal the Neck as much they could, attacking any traveller or party not of a house loyal to her. So a force of riders coming through the Neck could either be very good or very bad.

“Are they known?” Sansa asked.

The man smiled.

“Ser Jon says it looks to be a company of men from the Vale with Hallis Mullen at the head.”

Very good news indeed.

It had been some time since Hal had left with Yohn Royce to sail to Sweetsister for the rendezvous. His return alongside men of the Vale was very welcome in Sansa’s eyes.

“Lord Reed has sent an escort to meet them and bring them before the queen, they should arrive shortly!” The man continued.

“And who is among them?” Maege asked.

The messenger then glanced back to Jon who was still speaking with Willem.

“I don’t know m’lady. The ser is the one who saw them I was only told to tell you of m’lord’s…”

“Well if Ser Jon’s the one who saw it why isn’t he the one telling us?” Maege asked and scowled at the messenger’s shocked response.

Jon must have heard for he turned his horse towards them. Sansa held up a hand, signaling the stop of the march. She didn’t stop though, continuing to ride until she could almost reach out and touch him.

Instead she clutched the reins even tighter.

“It was you who spotted them?” She asked and Jon nodded.

“It was. I counted almost four score riders, carrying many banners including the one of House Royce. I know sigils better than faces so I was telling Willem of who I saw so you’d know who to expect.”

Sansa was touched by the consideration until she remembered doing such was what a good outrider would report.

“I think he spotted Ser Morton Waynwood.” Willem put in with a sour look on his face. “Man owes me gold…”

“Ser Mychel Redfort as well.” Jon added. “I recognized him well enough.”

“Ser Mychel! It will be good to see him again!” Sansa smiled as the memory of the young knight who had helped them so. “Is Lord Yohn not among them?”

Jon shook his head.

“It was banner of House Royce of the Gates I saw and they have sent…”

“Here they come!” Willem heralded.

Sure enough Sansa saw a large group of mounted men riding down the column towards her. The banners of the Royces of Runestone and the Gates alongside those of House Waynwood.

“Ride back to your lord.” Sansa commanded the messenger. “Tell him to find a place for us to make camp as soon as possible, I would have our guests and the men rest. It is an occasion to celebrate.”

Though the grey skies gave little hint she knew it was only just past midday. Yet an early stop would be welcomed by the army who kept a good pace so far. Maege made to send word to the Greatjon to leave the rear to his second to join her when he was able.

The scout put his spurs to the horse and took off again, Jon looking to do so as well.

“Not you ser.” She said. “I’d have you here.”

“I would go and tell my men to set up watches…”

“I’m sure Howland will know to do so when you don’t return. Stay at my side…” She paused then and a reason for him to do so became obvious. “The Vale lords will be gladdened to see how far their help has taken us both.”

He shifted uncomfortable then but made no more arguments. They both sat upon their horses in silence watching the Vale riders come on. It didn’t matter they weren't speaking, just being this close was good enough for her.

That’s what you thought about the bridge.

Just the one moment and all would be well. Look how that ended.

She focused then on her approaching allies, for they were almost upon them. She saw Mychel first, riding beside a gaunt man in a fine cloak. Beside that man rode a woman, one who suddenly broke away from the others and urged her horse ahead of the rest.

Sansa gave a cry of delight to see her face.

“Myranda!” She called out, not believing her eyes. “My lady!”

Her friend was laughing as she rode up to them, her eyes and smile as full of life. The buxom girl threw aside her cloak as she reached out to grasp Sansa’s hand.

“When I first met this girl she was but a stone, then a lady and now a queen! Such a lovely transformation.” Myranda laughed again before bowing her head towards her. “In all seriousness Sansa, seeing you again, alive and well, makes me happy beyond words.”

“It gladdens my heart to see you too Myranda.” She said. Yet she was also shocked that her friend was here, even more confused as to why she had come. It was a strange thing indeed for the woman to be sent to join a marching, even if they were friends. 

“As welcome at this is I expected maybe your brother or possibly your father…”

Myranda laughed as if she’d expected such a question.

“Those two bores? The Vale can and will offer better to the Queen in the North. I, Lady Myranda Royce, am to be your handmaiden.” She placed a hand upon her breast and said the last word with a note of seriousness. “For a beauty such as you has as much need for a good handmaiden as emissaries. Speaking of!”

By then Ser Mychel and the man she thought to be Ser Morton had joined them. Both bowing from their horses, Mychel shooting a quick nod to Jon afterwards.

“Queen Sansa, we have not yet met but I am Ser Morton of House Waynwood, my mother the Lady Anya sends her regards.” Morton said as he took her hand in his and kissed it lightly. “I am here representing my family as well as Ser Harry Hardyng in all matters of…”

“Oh Morton there’s time enough for that!” Myranda huffed. “And surely better places.”

The knight appeared dumbfounded at the interruption but Sansa was grateful. The mention of Harry the Heir brought back foul memories of Petyr. It also made her wonder why the heir even needed to be represented.

“I was charged by Lord Robert to say he misses you your grace.” Mychel said then, kissing her hand much as Morton had. “I’m to represent Bronze Yohn in any way you’d have me.”

“There’s much we need discuss.” Morton added quickly. “For I bring news and…”

“Good sers and lovely lady.” Sansa interrupted, not wishing to hold court upon horseback in the open. “I have given word to camp for the night and once an area is found I would have us all break our fast together. And speak of the friendship between the North and Vale.”

“As you wish your grace.” Mychel nodded while Morton looked to argue before he caught Myranda shaking her head.

“A good meal would be most welcome.” Morton said instead.

Willem volunteered to help get the sers and their party settled in and began haranguing the Waynwood knight as soon as they rode off. Myranda stayed behind though, riding up close to Jon.

“I pray the good sers will forgive me for being so selfish but I am starved for conversation from a fairer partner. Is it safe to join your queen for a ride?” Myranda asked with a devilish smile on her face.

“I…well yes, if she so wishes and with her guard about…”

“I thought her favorite guard was right here!” Myranda ran a hand along Jon’s shoulder, annoying Sansa greatly.

Randa can act however she wants with others, she thought, she cannot have him.

“Myranda!” She said, struggling to keep a civil tone. “If you would like to ride together it would be my pleasure. Don’t pester Jon so.”

“Pestering is it?” Myranda laughed but rode back to her side anyways, the two young women beginning a slow leisurely ride.

“Am I to follow your grace or would have me elsewhere?” Jon asked from his place beside the much larger collection of guards.

The choice between the two options should’ve been simple. Made using the same detachment she’d struggled so hard to maintain. Yet Myranda touching Jon bothered her so and having him around her again felt too good to end.

“One good knight should be enough Jon, more than enough.” She said, beckoning him to follow.

And with that the two rode away with Jon not far beyond. He kept a respectful distance considering they were still beside the column and as safe as could be. She doubted he could hear much even if he tried.

“Your half brother is as somber as I remember.” Myranda said as she looked over her shoulder wickedly. “As comely too.”

That Sansa did not like either. Myranda Royce had been a woman wed and was much more worldly than she. The lady was also cunning, more cunning than most gave her credit for. And capable beyond that, the lady had run her father’s household for years and knew much and more of the secrets of the Vale.

So while Sansa thought her a friend she knew to think her a rival as well.

“You did not travel through the swamps to look upon Jon, Myranda. Nor just to act as a handmaiden” Sansa said not unkindly.

“Unfortunately no.” Myranda leaned in to whisper. “Men are so sensitive, if the others knew my father entrusted me to act as an envoy they’d think little of him. Inviting us to their beds is one thing, letting us join them at the council table quite another.”

Sansa saw the wisdom there. Myranda was brighter than most of her bannermen it was sad to say and having her counsel would not be such a bad thing.

“I also bring good news.” Her friend continued. “The strength my father and his cousin promised your cause awaits you at Sweetsister. Almost four thousand swords and horse with more being raised in the Vale if there is need of it.”

That meant her army had more than tripled in size. It also meant she could finally put some of her many plans in motion.

“This is wonderful news Myranda.” She said, suddenly full of hope.

“Randa, sweet Sansa, Randa. Remember we are friends. Oh and be sure to act surprised when one of the fine men that accompanied me tells you this news again. It was to be their duty, not mine.”

At that they both laughed. It was refreshing to be with a woman who did not worry so about what men thought. To Myranda men were but playthings yet Sansa could never see them as such, having suffered so at their hands.

“I’m happy to see I’m needed here.” Myranda made a disapproving sound as she looked to Sansa’s hair.  “A queen needs ladies in waiting does she not? I saw but one woman back there and she seemed more at home with a mace than a brush.”

“Lady Maege is a warrior and a dear friend. I’d ask you speak kindly of her, she is ever loyal and good to me.”

“I’d rather not upset such a woman, have no fear your grace.” With that Myranda began to whisper again. “I’m meant to upset others in truth. Ser Morton may be here to represent House Waynwood in battle but it is Harry the Heir he is truly representing. Lady Waynwood stills eye a match between the heir to the Vale and yourself.”

Sansa was surprised at that. She thought the taint of Littlefinger would have put such a plan to rest. It was a hard enough to thing to rule with men serving her, having a husband now could only complicate things.

Her thoughts on the matter were hidden poorly and Myranda laughed.

“I thought you’d be against it.” Myranda said. “I am here to turn you against it anyways. Father would prefer such a match for me, with our newly gained lord status it would suit for us to join to the heir. Lady Waynwood rejected me when I was but a steward’s daughter. Now I am a lord’s daughter whose father also happens to be Lord Protector of the Vale. Add to that the friendship of a queen of course.”

Gods she is even more cunning than I thought, Sansa realized, but is that so foul?

Myranda’s plots could never be compared the dark dealings of Cersei Lannister. She had little use for betrayal and suffering. The lady's intrigue was worn on the skirt of her dress as it spun about during a feast or in a bawdy tale to be shared amongst women.

“The heir is yours if you so want him Randa, my support for the match as well.” Sansa smiled, liking the idea she could help at least one person be happy.

“You wicked girl.” Myranda giggled. “Are you so eager to escape that match because you already have one in mind? Some fine man you’ve met on your travels?”

“Hush!” Sansa said instead of denying it, a mistake she realized immediately.

“Hush? So this is a secret lover?” Myranda gave her a look like cat cornering a mouse. “Dear Sansa, those are the best kinds.”

“I’ve no such thing, don’t speak so…” Sansa willed Jon not to be listening, praying he was not. “A queen cannot just be with whoever she wants.”

“Then what is the point of being queen?” Myranda scowled. “True some lords may disapprove of your choice but they always will. As long as its not them or their brothers or sons they always find suitors lacking. It’s all about them serving their needs and not our happiness. They’re rather feel at ease than let us be happy.”

Myranda’s words hit her hard.

“Scorn him Sansa.” Howland had said. “Let him become just another knight in your service and not some threat to a lord’s ambition or pride. Where you would go to him send another. Speak with him but not alone. Show him no favor you would not show another of his rank. To do otherwise...well my old friend is rarely wrong. If you truly care for him do as your father and I once did. Protect Jonfrom this world…as he would protect you.”

Howland's words had been spoken with such certainty, the meaning so terrible, that she’d been too afraid to return to Jon's chambers that night. Throughout the night her sleep was broken by terrifying thoughts of Jon suffering for her love of him. For she did love him. She'd accepted that as the purest truth she could. She loved him so she wanted to stand up to yell it so all her lords could hear.

Yet she feared Howland was right.

She’d already risked Jon once for her own ends and he still suffered for it. Risking him for a love she carried which he could be disgusted by, it was not in her to do.

To betray someone she loved for the sake of love was not something she could ever do again.

So Sansa had done as Howland bid. She set Jon aside as best she could. Throwing herself into ruling, keeping her mind filled with parchments, meetings and other tasks so her thoughts would not linger back to him. She had even changed her daily routine so she would see Jon less, going so far as to put him in a place at the council table where his face was barely visible to her.

It had fallen to Howland and others to tell her of him. For she had that need. To know he was recovering and was not alone.

Yet reports and words about Jon hadn’t been enough.  Not nearly enough.

Her resolve had broken when she’d seen him in the practice yard. Rather than walking away as she should've Sansa had stayed and watched. Rather than allowing him to walk the castles alone she had followed. Foolishly, selfishly thinking by going to him things would be as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn’t put a wall up between them but now expected to find Jon waiting for her on the other side.

Instead she’d found Jon had put a wall up himself.

He had come to her the day after their encounter on the bridge. He had looked terrible, begging her forgiveness for his foul attitude. While Sansa wanted to tell him there was nothing to apologize for she hadn’t, instead accepting the apology and letting him be on his way.

The worst part had been seeing that black glove upon his hand.

When he’d reached for her hand on the bridge she’d pulled away. Her strength had been so close to breaking just before. She’d feared his touch would destroy all her efforts and send her into his arms. So she’d pulled away.

He’d believed the worst of her for it, and she could not blame him. Most of her life she’d been a foolish girl who hated ugly things. Yet nothing about Jon was ugly to her. To her his hand was a mark of the devotion. 

A mark of love.

“You’re my knight of songs.” She’d tried to tell him. 

Perhaps he hadn’t heard. She liked to think he hadn't, the alternative too much to bear. Sansa had held her tears until she was in her chambers, away from any eyes. Then she had leaned back against her door and let them come in long, body shaking sobs.

She still cried some nights. Blaming herself and the world for it.

Yet Randa's words now opened her eyes to something she hadn't considered.

“You think my lords would give me poor counsel?” Sansa asked her friend. “To meet their own ends?”

Even as she asked the question she felt foolish for doing so.

Of course they would.

“Lords protect castles, lands, and their titles but most of all my dear queen…” Myranda shook her head. “They protect themselves.”

Protect Jon he told me, she thought, like he and father had.

Suddenly it all lay before her. Myranda had merely given voice to doubts she should have had from the start. To love Jon without being seen as monsters would mean the truth of him would have to be known. That a lie would have to be exposed.

And the liar with it.

He used your need to protect Jon to protect himself, she raged, he used your love and trust against you.

She was gripping her reins so tightly the whites of her nuckles showed.

“They have to protect themselves Randa.” Sansa said, barely holding in her anger. “The wrath of their kings and queens can be terrible things." 

“Almost as bad as a woman’s.” Myranda agreed.

 


  

JON

 

“This doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s what the Queen wants.” Howland responded as mounted his horse. “And I serve House Stark in all things.”

“Of course but to send you now? It’s the middle of the night! And we are days away yet…”

“The Queen commands, I obey.” The lord said simply.

A score of riders holding torches awaited Howland’s coming at the edge of the camp. Darkness had long since been upon them and a light snow was falling about. Few in the army appeared to care of the weather though, for the camp was loud and full of cheer at the news of the Vale army set to join their fight. Sansa had arranged an actual celebration, it was being held in a great tent even as Howland and he spoke.

One Jon had been invited to, but not Howland.

Howland’s been by her side since Greywater Watch.

Why send him away during such a celebration?

He rarely questioned Sansa but ordering Howland to ride out of their camp into the dead of night was strange. They had days to prepare for the attack on Moat Cailin and as far as he knew there was no reason Howland himself was needed to inspect matters there beforehand.

Even stranger was who she had chosen to command his forces in his absence.

“My lord you know I did not ask for this. That I would never have asked Sansa for such a thing.” He looked up at Howland. They weren’t close but he had a healthy respect for this man who had served Sansa faithfully in all things. “Your men should not be mine to command.”

“Jon, my men know you, they respect you and I have told them of my respect for you as well. Any man raised by Eddard Stark has my trust in these matters.” Howland turned his horse away then before shooting him a final look. “I was not given the chance to but give my regards to the queen. And be safe Jon.”

With that Howland kicked his horse and was off into the night. The men who closed in around the lordwere not even his own but some of Maege’s. That bothered Jon as well.

It’s more like an exile than a command, he thought, what could he have done?

As he began his journey back to attend the celebration he was very late for Jon spotted another man he knew. One who was almost meant to be at Sansa's festivities yet seemed thoroughly at a loss among the maze of tents.

“Ser Mychel.” He hailed. “I thought to find you at the Queen’s tent.”

Mychel smiled to see him. His arrival among the Vale party had been a welcome surprise. Sansa could always stand more true knights like the man before him.

“And I thought to find the commander of the crannogmen!” Mychel offered his hand. “Congratulations sir, that’s what? A third of this army?”

“It’s Lord Reed’s command, I only serve until they are reunited in short time.”

“It’s still an honor.” Mychel put in. “Not even a surprise to me. You've been pegged as commander by others as well. You knew that Bronze Yohn ordered his men to follow you should Willem fall?”

He hadn’t. Jon was about to say so when he remembered a conversation with Willem long before their attack upon the Twins.

“We’d best hope I survive this bloody thing, I won’t even tell you which ugly sot is meant to take up the charge if I fall.”

I owe that man a beating.

“Is there something you need?” He asked Mychel, he didn’t think the knight was wandering around in the dark just wishing to congratulate him.

“We need to arrange some guides to get the Greatjon and I to the coast so we to take ship to the sisters.” Mychel looked about to ensure no one was listening but the men around them seemed too intent on song and drink to care. “It’s us the Queen wishes to join Bronze Yohn when he sails for the Dreadfort.”

Earlier that day a council had been called to work out the details of their attack upon the North. Jon had taken part of it, and to his shock, had found himself back at Sansa’s side at the table. It had been an awkward thing to sit so far away only for the Greatjon to laugh and pull him up and drop him in his appointed seat.

Sansa had smiled at his confusion.

“I thought being back in the North we would go back to our old seating arrangements.” She’d said. “If you don’t mind.”

He hadn’t but he’d kept his gloved hand under the table the whole time, out of fear of offending her.

During the discussion that followed their strategy for taking Moat Cailin was confirmed with their Vale allies, one fairly familiar to them since Howland and Bronze Yohn had agreed upon it themselves moons prior. It was the siege of the Dreadfort which took up more of the council’s time.

That attack had been proposed by Ser Mychel, on behalf of Yohn and although it had sounded a sound plan Jon had spoken against it at first.

“The Dreadfort is not named lightly.” He’d said. “It is a strong fortress with natural defenses and once held out under a siege for two years when they had no army in the field to threaten their attackers lines. Nor did that siege occur during a northern winter. We should not try and storm it unless forced to.”

Others argued him on that, Ser Morton in particular but the northern lords largely agreed.

“Ser Jon is right, trying to take the castle would be costly and dangerous to attempt.” Maege had said, sounding somewhat irritated having to debate northern castles with men not of the North. “That doesn’t mean a siege there would be wasted though.”

“Just imagine how those standing with Bolton will react?” The Greatjon had asked.  “How strong will Lord Leech look with his seat under siege by our alliance while the queen marches towards her home?”

“You would ask our men to simply stand outside the walls and freeze?” Morton had challenged.

“Some may freeze but more would live than trying to take that castle.” Jon argued right back. “It may even draw some of the Bolton army away on a long march from Winterfell.”

“Let his men fear for their homes for once.” Sansa had agreed. “How it will look and what it could cost Lord Roose matters more than a bloody victory. Let the Boltons bleed instead of the Vale.”

“It’s about time someone bled Roose besides Roose.” The Greatjon had grumbled.

The Umber lord's hatred of Roose Bolton was clear which is why Jon had expected him to be part of the march on Winterfell, not the siege of the Dreadfort.

He'd thought the same of Mychel as well.

“You just arrived, you’re to leave again this quickly?” Jon asked and Mychel nodded.

“That was always the plan. As much as I want to help pull down Roose Bolton and his bastard I’m needed at the Dreadfort more.” Mychel’s face darkened then. “I know much of its defenses and how the Boltons have treated sieges.”

Jon suspected he knew where Mychel got such information from but not why he was so full of anger towards the Boltons. He had never suffered at their hands like Jon’s family had.

Mychel had more reason to be disposed to them in truth.

“Did you know Domeric Bolton?” Mychel asked then.

“I saw him once or twice at Harvest Feasts but I can’t remember ever speaking with him.” Jon answered truthfully, his father at the time had warned him away from doing so. Lest Lord Roose be offended and seek some form of redress, and Eddard Stark plainly had foul thoughts of what that could mean.

“Domeric was my father’s ward. I had three older brothers but I only ever had one brother I chose.” Mychel said sadly. “Domeric was a good man, too good a man for his father or what his family has come to. My brothers and I always knew that bastard killed him…and what does his father do? Legitimizes my friend’s murderer.”

Jon had heard those rumors too when Sansa’s men would speak of Ramsay Snow. It was a foul thing to think but little compared of the crimes he was held responsible for. How Mychel spoke of Domeric reminded him of how Robb would speak of Theon.

Robb was always a brother to me, he thought, I guess he’s the brother I choose now as well.

“Domeric told me much and more of his lands and the history of the Dreadfort. Of the battles fought there.” Mychel continued. “That castle was supposed to be his. I’d rather seen it torn down than given to his killer.”

“I trust no one better than Lord Yohn and yourself to do so Mychel.” Jon said before reflecting on what else he’d just learned. “Still I hadn’t thought the Greatjon would be leaving as well.”

“Yohn always wanted a northerner to guide us in this.” Mychel shrugged. “His first choice was you but when I suggested such to the Queen she preferred to send the Greatjon instead.”

She’d rather keep me than the Greatjon?

The idea shocked him until he thought on it a bit more and felt foolish. Of course she’d rather send the Umber lord. He’d be a good representative of the North and could even try and rally support from nearby houses, including from his own.

He told Mychel he’d find guides for him the coming morning and the two continued on towards Sansa’s tent. Even from afar the large meeting tent sounded with shouts, laughter and singing. Almost on instinct he thought to be elsewhere but being late to this celebration was bad enough, not to attend at all would be an insult to Sansa.

Yet it turned out he was meant to be even later. For standing without the tent was Ser Morton, and when he caught sight of the pair he hurried towards them.

“Mychel! Mychel I heard you sought the good ser and was hoping you’d return with him.” Morton smiled as he blew into his hands to keep warm. “Go on and warm yourself while I have a word or two with Ser Jon. There’s hot mulled wine waiting.”

Mychel did not need to be told that twice and quickly excused himself, leaving Jon with this heir he couldn’t claim to have seen before today.

What would he need to speak to me of?

“Ser Jon, it is a pleasure to meet you.” Morton held out his hand and they shook quickly as the heir returned to warming himself again. “I’m sorry to have not done so sooner.”

“And you ser…how is your lady mother?” He asked unsure of how to proceed. “And your brothers?”

“Well and, I hope, warmer than I. Donnel now has four hundred men guarding the Bloody Gate under him. Yet he envies me this adventure.” The man said with a grin.

An adventure to him, life or death struggle for Sansa.

Are there so many knights of summer even as winter is upon us?

He had heard such talk in Renly’s camp as well. It was an effort not to think poorly of the man for it. Nor did Morton wait for a response, as if in a hurry to get to a point.

“Well truly Jon, if I may call you Jon, my mother bid me to speak to you on a certain matter of our mutual interest.”

There was little he could imagine Lady Anya needing to speak to him about. Jon had barely spoken with her and even less with her other sons.

Taking Jon’s silence as a signal the knight continued.

“As you know Ser Harry Hardyng is the heir to Robert Arryn and thus heir to the Vale itself. He is also my mother’s ward.” Morton seemed proud of the fact and then added quietly, “He is also not yet betrothed.”

It came together quickly then.

Littlefinger’s plot, he realized, the vile man haunts us still from beyond the grave.

In the Vale the proposal had bothered Jon because it had come from that evil man. While he could still claim that as a reason it was not the first one he thought of now.

They want to take her away from you. Give her away to another.

“I have heard this idea before.” He admitted. “You would have Sansa wed to Ser Harry? Why speak to me of it?”

“You are her only living male relative. My lady mother deemed it polite to ask your blessing to propose such a match.” The man said with courtesy he probably hadn’t felt from Jon’s question. “It also binds the strength of the Vale to the North in a much more permanent way.”

It angered him how much that made sense. Sansa could have a great army at her back and an able knight if she married the heir. Whereas Jon offered offered several hundred borrowed warriors and a scarred, ugly body besides.

I have only that yet they still want my blessing.

What more could the gods want from me?

“Sansa is Queen in the North. I believe she needs no ones permission to marry whomever.” Jon said curtly. “Certainly not mine."

“Permission? Well no of course…we just thought to give the courtesy…” The knight said, sounding surprised. “If I gave offense I did not mean to.”

Jon knew how unfair he was being then. Morton was not the one giving offense here. He and his mother were doing the honorable thing in seeking his blessing. More than honorable considering Jon's status. His whole life he had been scorned by most highborns and now, having recently been accepted by some, he was kicking dirt at them.

Worst of all he was acting with anything but honor. They offered Sansa an army and protection and asked simply for his blessing to do so. And he meant to deny them that simply for his own selfish wants.

And she’s not yours to keep, he lamented, she can’t be.

“Ser I apologize for my tone, you deserve better.” Jon bowed some before Morton. “Forgive me, it has been a hard ride and I thank you for this courtesy. Propose any match you wish to Sansa.”

Morton’s face broke into a beaming, satisfied smile, his hand clapping Jon’s shoulder.

“You live up to your reputation ser, you bite yet with honor! A wolf if there ever was one.” The man gestured towards the tent. “Have a cup of wine with me in celebration? It would warm me.”

Jon followed Morton into the tent where his mood could not have been more out of place.

The meeting tent had been turned into somewhat of a feasting hall. While it lacked the food to mark it a feast in truth the long table was filled with lords and knights who argued and laughed.

Some had even taken up a horribly out of tune rendition of The Dornishman's Wife.

At the center of the good cheer, with many gathered about them, were Sansa and Myranda. Myranda’s popularity with the men was obvious, and for more reasons that just the dress drawn too tight about her chest. In the short time since he’d arrived in the tent she’d already caused an outburst of laughter among the crowd. Leading the conversation and attention of several men at a time.

It was the exact opposite of Sansa. While the lady laughed and touched men’s faces and arms Sansa sat serenely while others approached her. She laughed when others laughed, smiled when spoken to and gave each man such attention Jon imagined they felt as if they were the only two in the room.

When Morton waved over a serving man for some wine Jon was almost tempted to drink of it. His resolve held though, the Waynwood knight having to accept a cup of water against his goblet of wine. He had forsaken the drink since the morning after the tower. He’d been in such a foul way he hadn’t even been able to train, let alone forgive himself for his treatment of Sansa.

So he’d scorned it in favor of water, pain and foul dreams.

And in the midst of this merriment he felt like he was the only one who would.

“Only you could be surrounded by such good tidings and keep that long face.” Willem laughed as he thumped Jon’s shoulder. “Morton, do you have my gold?”

“I told you…”

“No? Then away with you, this smelly beast is mine to torment.” Willem laughed as Morton took his leave. “Did you know that man writes poetry? I’ve heard a rumor…"

“Speaking of collecting debts I owe you a beating.” Jon said and was about to explain himself when he got a queer feeling.

Sure enough glancing back down the table he discovered the entire group collected around Sansa was staring at him. That included Sansa.

It made him uncomfortable in the worst way.

“Ser Jon!” Myranda called with a smile and a playful tone. “I was just saying I remembered a somber knight in the Vale yet not one so handsome! A toast to your beautiful queen and her wolf!”

Cheerful laughter rang out and cups were raised up. Willem put his hand on Jon’s shoulder and cheered as loud as any. If it was a jest at his expense he couldn’t tell so he did the safe thing, raising his cup to the lady.

Unlike the others who quickly lost interest in him Sansa’s gaze lingered. When their eyes met she raised her cup again to grin, not moving those blue eyes away. As if on reflex he did the same, and as her smile grew he couldn’t help but smile with her.

Until Morton took a seat beside her and their moment was lost.

She is for the heir.

The thought came unbidden and the smile left his face. He looked downwards towards his now empty cup. Suddenly all the talk and laughter was booming about him and he couldn’t be here anymore. It was too much, almost suffocating to him.

Placing the cup upon the table he walked out, ignoring Willem as he spoke to him.

She will have a castle and the Vale to love her as well as the North.

He burst out in the cold air, breathing it in deeply.

You can be her sword and nothing more.

His hands were fists at his sides and he thought to run from the camp. To go and seek some quiet dark place. Perhaps even some wine.

He had almost decided to do so when a sound off to his side caught his attention and he jerked his head towards its source. There he spotted Ghost rounding the side of the tent, the wolf's large white form a stark contrast to the darkness beyond. It pleased him to see his friend but something was off about the beast.

The direwolf was staring at him and in a different way than usual. And it had tensed some

As if readying to run at him.

“Ghost? What’s gotten into you…”

Loud calls and shouts erupted from the tent then and Jon’s hand went to his sword hilt. He was about charge back into the celebration when the flap suddenly flew outward and someone quickly walked by him. A moment later another followed after.

In the dim light he saw it was Sansa and Willem.

They hadn’t walked out far, both having stopped and seemed to be looking across the camp. 

They’re looking for you, he thought, to tell you about the proposal.

Hide. Find some shadow.

He was about to do so when Ghost ran straight into him, knocking Jon hard against some barrels which rattled loudly. The wolf left him sprawled against them as it turned and took off into the night.

Traitor, he cursed, maybe they didn’t hear.

“By the seven Wolf you made the queen worry!”

Willem, another traitor.

He was standing upright again when Sansa and Willem joined him. She was looking him up and down, as if inspecting him for injury. Willem was looking at him like he was an idiot.

“Willem you may rejoin the others, Jon will guard me as I have some air.” Sansa said without looking away from Jon. “If he is able?”

“I am.” He straightened, meeting her gaze.

Willem’s eyes moved between the two of them several times, appearing very confused. He actually scratched his head before he shrugged and smiled.

“Lady Myranda did swear she had some stories to taunt Waynwood with.”

And with those words and a bow to Sansa he was back within the tent, leaving them both outside.

Alone.

Alone for the first time since his apology to her for the bridge. He remembered a time when such a thing did not make him fearful.

Or nervous.

“Why did you leave?”

“I am not one for such occasions.” He answered truthfully.

“It looks poorly.” She spoke softly. “As if you do not welcome our guests.”

Forever a lady and queen Sansa was. He had not thought of it that way but she saw the effects of his actions far beyond he did. Jon was usually better at such and felt the need to defend himself some.

“Considering I served with men of the Vale I don’t think they doubt my appreciation of them. And the northmen will speak to how I’m not usually a feature at feasts.” He said awkwardly. “They’ll remember Winterfell.”

It was the truth. Many of the highborns within had been to special occasions at Winterfell. Their visits often meant Jon would sit away from his family and his status as an outsider even more pronounced.

“I doubt they’ll miss me too much.”

“I missed you.” Sansa said, taking a step towards him. “And many have just heard the tale of how you commanded such attention at my coronation. That was why Myranda toasted you. She said she’d never heard of anything more gallant…”

He remembered the day well.

They had danced that day, only the once but he thought of it often.

“That was for you. And it would have been hard to stay away, as happy as you were and how beautiful you looked..."

As soon as the words left his mouth Jon knew it was a truth he should have kept to himself. Sansa’s mouth opened in surprise and he thought she even flushed. He prepared to apologize when as quickly as it happened something changed in Sansa’s expression.

“So what has changed that you could not stay within tent tonight? Is it because this occasion is less grand? Am I less enjoyable now?” She said, her eyes wide in exasperation and she gestured at her gown as if he saw something wrong with it.

“No, Sansa…I didn’t mean…you are the picture of beauty.”

He had to find a way out this. She was too clever. She would learn the truth and be disgusted with him. So he decided to speak part of another truth to keep her off the trail.

“My thoughts preoccupied me.” He offered. “Sending Howland away…”

“Was my decision.” She said curtly. “Lord Reed has…proven himself worthy of other tasks for the time being. Not much to worry on Jon.”

He decided to drop that argument, it was clearly not one she wished to discuss. When she was about to speak he blurted out the next thing that came to mind.

“The Waynwoods! I mean Ser Morton…" He felt his strength leave then, speaking this aloud drained him so. "He intends mean to propose a marriage between you and the heir.”

She nodded and waited for him to continue, as if this news did not shock her. He must have looked foolish just standing there with nothing else.

“I wasn’t sure if you knew. I am happy for you… I hope he can make you happy. I was just thinking of the effects and…” Jon started but she moved forward and grasped his arms tightly.

“You’re good to do so but I’m going to reject the match. Myranda told me of it as soon as she arrived, she eyes the heir for herself in truth.” Sansa spoke calmly. “I could not hand the reigns of the north to the heir to the Vale. My bannermen would be wroth, as accepting as they’ve been of me asking them to accept the authority of an outsider would be too much. If I must marry it must be to a man of the North, with the blood of the First Men.”

He marveled at her words. The girl Jon had once thought a silly thing with nothing but knitting and knights on pretty ponies in her head had strategized her way out of the match already. And it had been less than half a day since the arrival of such news.

Soon enough she won’t need advisors or counsel.

“I…I am not half as smart as you your grace.” He said, trying to keep his good cheer hidden. "We're all better off for it."

He felt so at least, for the relief rushed through him, warming him better than any wine ever could.

This means she won't be another’s. She will be here with me.

For now.

“You lack for grace not wits, and speaking of grace…I am Sansa when we are together Jon.” Her hands on his arms slid down and took his hands in hers. “Always Sansa with you…”

She turned her head and began looking about the camp. Despite the celebrations throughout the camp they remained very much alone right then.

“I’ve been a fool.” Sansa stepped closer, pulling his hands to her chest. “To push you away it was the last thing I wanted to do…I didn’t mean to hurt you…I just wanted…”

“Sansa I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He mostly didn’t at least, she had put distance between them but how that saved him hurt was beyond him.

“I’m just sorry…so sorry…”

Sansa shivered then and it was then he saw she wore no cloak against the cold. He pulled his hands from hers and she gave him a look of reproach. Jon unclasped his cloak from his shoulders and gently placed it upon hers. 

When he’d finished she reached to catch one of his hands in hers. His burnt hand.

"One more thing I'd have." She said and before he could stop her she’d pulled the glove from his hand.

“No!”

“Hush. This is not an ugly thing Jon.” Hers words spoken almost as softly as she cradled his hand. “It could never be ugly to me. Nothing about you could.”

Now he met her eyes and they were gazing at him earnestly. Her lips were parted slightly and her cheeks rose tinged. Some strands of hair had fallen across her face and with his free hand he reached up to push them away, just slightly touching her skin. And he thought she trembled then.

She doesn’t feel the same.

She can’t.

He would not have a chance to find out. Loud voices interrupted them and he quickly pulled back from her body and hands. A moment later Ser Morton stormed out of the tent angrily before striding away into the night. Following shortly after came Willem and Myranda.

“My love for you so true, as sure as your eyes blue!” Willem called after him laughing and drinking of his cup.

“Tis' a fine poem ser! Worthy of song! Truly!” Myranda joined in.

“Poem?” Sansa asked looking confused.

“You didn’t know? When our Ser Morton was courting his wife he wrote her some poetry.” She said regarding the two of them coyly. “He did not expect her handmaidens to share it with me.”

“Oh gods you told them his poetry?” Sansa laughed and put her hand to Jon’s arm to steady herself.

“I have manners your grace.” Myranda acted hurt. “I only told the good ser here and…”

The flaps of the tent flew outward again as the Greatjon burst out into the night, two cups in his hands.

“SHOULD YOU BE MY LADY, MY GARDEN SHALL NEVER BE SHADY!” He boomed, his laughter coming out as huge white plumes of mist.

Jon did his best to hide his own at the poor man’s expense but failed miserably. The other three made no such attempts and openly laughed as Willem and the Greatjon did their best to recite more of the knight’s poetry.

He realized then he was happy. For the first time in a long while he was genuinely happy.

He hadn’t been for weeks now but among people such as these how could he not be? When Sansa’s laughter had exhausted her he held his arm out to her and looked to the others.

“I’ve had enough air your grace, I’d join you and the others within." He said. "It would be good to celebrate the arrival of friends.” 

Sansa took his arm eagerly and, before Willem could do so, he offered the other to Myranda who grabbed it and pulled herself tightly against him.

Willem was shocked at this boldness and Jon left his friend gaping as he led the two women back into the rowdy tent.

“You could always escort me you tiny fool.” The Greatjon’s laughter followed after.

 


 

 

BRIENNE

 

“Another week or two would be smart dear, or at least a few more days…”

“Ten has been quite enough.” Brienne winced as she pulled her shirt over her bandaged ribs. Such actions still hurt bring pain but enough for her to bear. “But I thank you anyway oldmother.”

The kindly old woman gave her a weak smile yet her disappointment was obvious. She’d been demanding Brienne call her such since they’d arrived at the village and while the woman had proved capable at tending her injuries she’d resisted doing so. Giving in to that small request seemed the least Brienne could do since she had no intention of doing the other task the healer asked of her.

“You and your men…like a blessing you were. I almost had hope we wouldn’t have to leave for the winter.” Kenna was the old woman’s true name, and her voice was full of worry as she gazed out the window of this cabin. “That we could keep out home.”

Outside lay her village, a collection of small wooden buildings surrounded by a poorly made palisade. Had Anguy not found the well trodden trail leading here they would have rode right by it without every knowing it was there.

Small and unknown, the village was nestled in thick woods at the base of the Mountains of the Moon. It had made a good place for Brienne’s group to seek shelter and give her time to heal.

Their arrival had only been welcomed because of the fear the villagers lived in. The mountain clans had taken to raiding more frequently in the past weeks. The savages had burned two other settlements the villagers knew of and they’d embraced Brienne and the others if only for the extra swords they carried.

“Staying was never an option for us Kenna. We have someplace to be and you could not have fed us for the entire winter.”

She’d seen the state of their stores. These were a simple people, farming rocky lands and hunting game to meet their needs. Such meager earnings would never be enough to support sworn swords or even a group as small as her own. “Travelling to one of the other villages and joining your strength is your best option for fending off the raiders.”

“You and my son have the right of it…I just know the wildlings. What we leave will not be here when we come back. They’ll burn it just to warm themselves and to spite us.”

“It’s better you lose empty cabins than your lives.” She said but felt her words would be of little comfort.

Gendry and the young Lord Edric had spotted the wildlings not a day ago during a ride about the edge of the villagers’ small fields. It was only a small party, a few men on short, shaggy horses who disappeared back towards the mountains. Yet the danger was clear.

Payton, the village headman and Kenna’s son, had thought the same as Brienne. Those men had likely been a scouting party and more could be on the way.

A knock came upon the cabin door and Brienne threw on her cloak before answering. Outside stood Pod, the lad had Oathkeeper and her sword belt in hand and his eyes on the floor, as if fearing to see her in undress.

“I traded the rest of Hyle's things for supplies. Are we leaving soon?” The squire asked as she began to buckle the belt back around her waist.

Her arm was still not well enough to wield the blade but the splint was long gone now so others need not know that.

“Good lad, and we are.” She did not meet Kenna’s gaze as she said so, instead nodding to the woman before guiding Pod to follow. The village was barely ten cabins and a few other buildings, most abandoned, yet seemed to be bustling today as the villagers prepared to take their leave as well.

“The horses are ready?”

“Yes my lady, Arya’s already on hers. So are Anguy and Lord Edric.”

“I believe he prefers to be called Ned.” She herself felt uncomfortable referring to the Lord of Starfall in such a familiar way yet it was a fair trade for him to stop calling her Lady Brienne. “And of Gendry?”

“He knows…I mean I told him…” Pod was plainly uncomfortable elaborating and she could understand why. The two young men had begun to form a bond of friendship during their travels. Yet Gendry’s recent behavior had put it to the test.

If she’d thought the appearance of two of Gendry’s former comrades in the Brotherhood would please the outlaw knight she’d been wrong. Ever since their arrival his temper had been short and his manner withdrawn towards everyone else. It stood in stark contrast to how the rest had taken to the new arrivals and what they’d have to tell them.

Their faction of the Brotherhood had been south of the Trident when, according to Anguy, a septon they’d done good deeds by had shared some interesting information with them. Word had come from King’s Landing, from the new High Septon himself, that Brienne had pillaged Quiet Isle and made off with a highborn lady under the protection of the Faith. The septs of the nearest lands had been told to take notice of any matching her or, more importantly, Arya’s descriptions.

Anguy and Ned had recognized, or hoped at least, that lady to be Arya. They also learned of a force of men sent out from Harrenhal to seek Brienne and the others out.

“When the lord here decided he’d be going after the lady no matter what I figured he needed the best man of us at his side.” Anguy had smiled to tell the tale while young Ned had blushed. “Merritt took the rest along the quickest route from Harrenhal. First they dressed up Swampy Meg like a warrior woman and had her brag of Tarth while keeping small Melly in a cloak the whole time making a big spectacle of themselves. Might as well of hung a sign on their horses saying follow us.”

Hearing someone had been leading their pursuers about the Riverlands had answered many questions for Brienne. Namely how she’d been permitted so much time to rest while camped at the ringfort.

“When we chanced the Inn at the Crossroads we found Willow angry and full of talk. She hadn’t taken kindly to what Lem claimed to have planned for you Gendry.” Ned had said and it was Gendry’s turn to look awkward. “Or that he left so soon after an attack against the inn. She couldn't tell us much but said she'd had word from a fisherman come off the river. He said someone was using an old ringfort along the Kingsroad. He saw your fires I guess.”

After that they’d asked other old folks of the lands and learned of a marker for an old ringfort. It was distressing to think how easily Lem or others could have just as easily learned their hiding place.

Brienne thanked the seven it had been these two to find them.

If they’d done half what they claimed to have done in their quest to help Arya they were allies to be sure. With how poorly her group was faring Brienne could not in good sense turn down their help. Especially since the two claimed months of travelling through the very Frey lands they needed to pass through in their journey.

Arya had been happy enough with her decision.

Gendry had not been.

“Do you trust these men?” She’d asked him during their travels through the forests east of the Kingsroad. “Will they do what’s best for Arya?”

Gendry had not answered right away, instead glancing behind at the conversation between the Ned and Arya. The frown upon his face had made her fear another reason for his poor welcome to the newcomers.

“As long as getting her through the Frey lands and to the Neck is what’s best for Arya I trust them. They will do her no harm. If they keep their mouths shut that is.”

She hadn’t understood that and Gendry wouldn’t speak further on it.

As Pod and she neared the entrance of the village they found the Ned and Arya already a horse.

They were talking and the girl was almost smiling.

No harm in that, she thought, never harm in that child having a reason to smile.

She should do it more often, her mother would want that.

When Pod helped Brienne upon her own horse she hissed in pain. Yet it was still an improvement over what it had been. She’d spent the last ten days at rest or walking about the village willing herself to heal.

Now it is time to put it to the test.

She kicked at her horse and it jumped forward, the jolt sending shots of pain through her chest. It had been more than she hoped but she could tolerate it. Considering the route she’d spoken to Anguy of they’d have no reason to ride too hard.

“It’s good to be riding again m’lady. Better to see you well enough for it.” The archer smiled as she rode up beside him. “And today’s fine weather to begin again, especially the way Payton and his folk will be going.”

“I wish them the best but it is our travels I’m concerned about. Are you sure it’s not wiser to stick to the woods?”

“The Kingsroad is the best for a good while, for how quickly you’d like to travel and what word we could get from any coming south. The Freys patrolled the part near the Twins some but any travelers we’d meet on the way could let us know if that’s changed.”  Anguy pointed to a small purse tied to his belt, he’d bragged of how they’d use Frey gold to outwit the weasels themselves. “That’s when we’d hit the woods again and our travels would get trickier.”

She thought it sounded as good as it had days ago when the outlaw had first proposed returning to the road. The horses could move much faster upon it and the ride would be much gentler upon her. Anguy was seemed confident whatever pursuit they’d once feared would have long ago been abandoned.

“There’s our knight of smiles!” Anguy called out and she saw Gendry coming from the direction of the village storehouse. “Still trying to find a smithy to get me those arrowheads you owe me?”

The young man didn’t respond and if he thought Anguy’s jest funny he did well at hiding it. He went straight to his horse, checking the saddle straps and what had been packed upon it before pulling himself upon it. Gendry gave Pod a quick nod then and thanked him quietly for seeing to his horse.

Arya began ride her own alongside Gendry who quickly responded by riding toward Anguy and herself.

“I’m sorry m’lady, I was helping Payton and his boys load up the last of their oxen. A lot of work for some so old and young…”

“It’s no bother and kind of you to do.” She said, wishing she could do more for their hosts. None appeared to bid them farewell and it was understandable. It had become almost a routine for her to depart a place of welcome under a pall.

“Pod, see to the gate, I’d not prolong this any longer.”

Anguy led the way as they’d arranged, his eyes were sharp and he knew the way back to the Kingsroad. Pod and Ned would ride to their rear while Brienne and Gendry would keep Arya with them in the center. As useless as her sword hand was she hoped the size of Gendry and herself would discourage any attacks near Arya.  

She expected some awkwardness between Arya and Gendry at the start of the ride and had assumed it would drift away. It was soon clear that had been a foolish hope. The only talking the either of them did was to her and the childishness of it became more tiring than the ride itself.

“Brienne can you ask Gendry for the water since he’s too good to talk to me.”

“M’lady should tell Lady Stark she should not have to drink from the skin of a commoner.”

“Brienne ask Gendry what water I should drink then?”

“M’lady might want to suggest the young lord’s water skin, surely it’s good enough for her.”

“Ask Gendry what it’s like to have shit for brains!”

“Enough!” Brienne reached up to touch her head. “Pray enough…”

It hadn’t been of course. For the better part of an hour petty bickering like that continued so much so that the two youths bothered her more than her ribs.

If you confront them it’ll become worse, she thought, they’ve both too stubborn to see reason.

The only time they’re not fighting is when they’re fighting someone else.

It was trying to think of other matters, like having Pod scour her armor, that gave her the idea.

“There’s a matter I’d speak of, between only us three.” Brienne said suddenly with as conspiratorial a tone as she could muster. “And I’d have it stay quiet.”

When she had both their attention her mummery began.

“Even if the Freys do not watch the road there are other things to fear in these lawless times. Wildlings, bandits, broken men, the list is almost endless and I fear how little warning we could have if any await us.”

“Anguy doesn’t miss much Brienne.” Arya spoke before Gendry could. “That’s why he’s riding ahead isn’t it? For warning?”

“Barely a warning.” Gendry muttered. “If we can see him then any in hiding who spot him can see us too.”

“I knew that! I was just saying he’d see them first!”

“You both might be right.” She interrupted the bickering. “It’s not something I’m eager to chance. I’m thinking of having someone ride much further ahead, to draw any attention or attack long before we could be set upon.”

“Like bait?” Arya asked.

“I could do so m’lady.” Gendry volunteered.

“No you can’t!” Arya protested. “You’d be…”

“It would be Podrick if it was anyone.” She said firmly. “Gendry we need your strength if it comes to battle. As we’d need Anguy’s bow and Ned’s knowledge of the Freys. No it would it be Podrick, he’s the only one we could spare.”

“We can’t spare him!” Arya said angrily and Gendry looked just as upset.

“I don’t mean disrespect m’lady but Pod’s shown his worth. Enough squires came by Mott’s forge for me to tell the good ones from the shit ones. Pod’s a true one, he charged the Bloody Mummers with a meat knife of all things. A boy as foolish and brave as that…if any attacked he’d rather fall than flee…”

“Gendry’s right.” Arya’s words made Gendry’s eyes widen in surprise. “He’s too good to be bait. Anybody who wouldn’t attack our group would go after a skinny sot like Pod in a moment!”

She didn’t care for Arya’s description of Podrick but the pair’s defense of the squire was touching. Even better it was uniting the two squabbling friends against her. Brienne surrendered the issue not long after but it had spawned other discussions she was able to guide the two into agreeing on. Like whether Arya should continue to train with Needle or move to a normal blade, Gendry taking Arya’s side in favor of the fine blade her brother had gifted her.

They reached the road by dusk and made camp far enough from it to keep their fires well hidden. When Pod volunteered to keep watch on the road both Gendry and Arya had scolded him harshly, leaving the poor lad confused on how he’d earned their ire.

The villagers had added to their travel supplies greatly and young Ned showed himself quite adept at fireside cooking. They ate some roast pig with grease dripping from their fingers and chins.

“Any of you spot a boar let me know. We’ll eat like kings.” Anguy said licking at his fingers.

“We’ll be watching for wildings or Freys, not game.” Gendry said sourly.

“I think he means if we happen to see…”

“I know what he meant, begging m’lord’s pardon.” Gendry cut off Ned, glaring at him fiercely. “Still doesn’t mean he’s not cocky enough to need reminding.”

Ned could have taken offense to that yet simply nodded and smirked at Anguy.

“You are too cocky."

As Anguy took to arguing in his own defense Brienne rose to join Arya at the far end of the fire. The girl was laying a whetstone against her blade, eyes some where else.

“It is good you take such care of your blade.” Brienne sat next to her, offering the girl some water. “When I was a child I never did so.”

“I’m not a child.” Arya protested.

“You are, even if sometimes you don’t act it, you are still a child.” Brienne spoke quietly. “No matter what you did to Hyle. You remain a child Arya.”

They hadn’t spoken about what Arya done to Hyle. It was Brienne’s shame which had stopped her from doing so before.

That grim task fell to her because of your weakness.

The traitor’s blood should’ve been on your blade, not her hands.

“I don’t feel bad about it.” Arya said simply, avoiding her gaze. “I had to.”

“He betrayed us. Maybe he would’ve even have betrayed you. I can’t speak to what was in his heart.” She spoke softly, wishing the girl to understand what she was about to say was not meant with malice.

“But you did not have to kill him, we both know this.”

Arya whipped about to face her, the girl’s face twisted into one of hurt. Possibly of betrayal.

“I had to. I did for his leg and with all those arrows…even if he lived we couldn’t tie him up and drag him around with us…” She waved about at the country they rode through. “Can you imagine tying him up on a horse in this?”

“I’m not talking about whether you made the right decision. I believe you did.” Brienne sighed. “Had Anguy not arrived Hyle would surely have killed Gendry. Perhaps even me. His death was by his own doing.”

“I knew you understood! If I didn’t fight him he could’ve hurt all of you! I didn’t…”

“You could have let him take you.” She offered. “You could’ve given in, let him take you, find some septon to marry you and had a knight for a husband and protector. You wouldn’t have had to spill his blood, he would’ve lived and you might be better off than you are now.”

“Better off? I’d be his prisoner! I told you, I won’t be a prisoner again! I told him if he hurt you’d I’d kill him and I’d do it again!”

Brienne wasn’t surprised or upset by her outburst, only sad. She raised her hand towards Arya’s shoulder but stopped just short of touching her, letting her arm fall again.

“I believe you did the right thing…and I would have killed Hyle myself if I had been able. It’s my shame to carry that I couldn’t protect you. Killing Hyle would not trouble me nearly as much as the shame I feel now. But I am a woman grown and a warrior beyond that, I do not know how I would feel as a girl of one and ten.”

“I feel fine.” Arya said again but Brienne felt her shoulders slump some.

“It is no easy thing to kill no matter how many times you do it.” Brienne reached to lift Arya’s chin so the girl’s glistening grey eyes looked into her own. “But if you must act strong to deal with such I will allow you that. It is an easy enough thing for me to believe of you Arya Stark. Just know it is normal for it to bother you…”

Brienne was cut off then by the cries of the horses.

They began to rear and show unease, stamping their hoofs and pulling upon their lines. She’d barely had time to stand when Anguy darted to the fireside, bow in hand and an arrow at the ready. His eyes darting about about into the night beyond.

“What’s wrong?”

“Quiet.” Anguy’s joking tone was gone as Brienne and the others all drew their swords.

The rest joined the archer in peering about them, Brienne herself saw nothing save the darkened trees surrounding the camp. Then a twig snapped somewhere in the night. Then another from the opposite direction came a moment later and Anguy cursed.

Someone’s encircled us.

Her first thought was the clans had found them, the growing number of sounds all around the camp made her picture a horde of wildlings closing in. Yet all she made out in the weak light were dark shapes moving quickly here and there.

“Arya behind me.” She pulled the girl between her and the fire, hoping to shield her should arrows come into play.

Almost as if on cue Anguy spun suddenly to his right and loosed an arrow into the abyss. A sharp yelp rang out followed by high pitch whining and a flurry of movement. Loud growls and glowing eyes appeared all about them then and their foe was revealed.

Wolves. 

Fear gripped her then. There would have to be a large number of the beasts circling them to be making the amount of noise they did.

And to be so bold.

 “We need wood.” Anguy hissed as he notched another arrow. “The fire needs to be bigger.”

“Pod! Ned!” She called and the two squires rushed to the wood pile they’d gathered and began throwing sticks and logs into the fire with little abandon. A shadow burst from the darkness towards them and the twang of Anguy’s bow answered the wolf’s attack.

The beast fell and lay to rest with its snout almost at Ned’s boot.

“Brienne…”

“No Arya, stay where you are. Let them come to us.” She tried to sound confident despite how unsure she was of how to handle this. “Gendry to me.”

The horses were in a full on panic and she thought it likely they’d lose some unless they did something quickly. As Gendry ranto join her in sheltering Arya she took a chance. She reached down and plucked a burning log from the fire and tossed it high to land just beyond the horses, a wolf briefly outlined as it landed before disappearing again.

She did it again to the other side of their mounts but knew it only delayed the inevitable. They’d nowhere near enough wood to ring the beasts and themselves to keep at the wolves at bay.

And we are lost without mounts.

“Again, do it that again.” Anguy yelled at her. “Further out, give me something to shoot at.”

She did as he asked and as the fiery log flew through the air Anguy loosed at a wolf she’d thought a hedge. He missed but came near enough she thought it their best chance.

“Brienne! Let me...” 

“Quiet Arya!” She couldn’t deal with the girl and try and follow the beasts the same time.

Another toss sent a log rolling across the ground before coming to an abrupt stop. No wolves ran away this time, instead something much more unnerving happened. Out of the darkness, as if emboldened by their attempts to kill it, stepped a monstrously big wolf.

The beast stood before the flaming log, its golden eyes flashing in the light and staring at them, defiantly.

“Seven save us.” She prayed.

The wolf was of a kind with Jon Snow’s and while his had a coat of white this one had one of grey. Anguy had just loosed an arrow at another wolf when he caught sight of this beast. He swore as he turned towards it, reaching for another arrow and notching it quickly.

“No!” Arya yelled, running forward and throwing her shoulder into Anguy’s side.

They both pitched forward and landed upon the ground as the arrow flew up into the branches above them. Arya rolled further than Anguy and the reaction from the wolves was immediate. Two of them came running at the exposed girl, their fangs bared and ready for to kill.

“No!” Brienne cried out and ran to protect the girl before being jostled out the way by another.

Gendry charged forth, swinging his sword in a wide arc. The closest wolf dodged his attack but lunged upwards at the knight, knocking him onto his back and trying to tear out his throat. She could’ve turned to help him but her path took her to Arya, her heart racing as a wolf closed on the girl much quicker than she.

But not as quick as the monster from the shadows.

Or a savior as she would later view it.

The huge wolf slammed into Arya’s attacker, biting and clawing at the smaller wolf, drawing it away from Arya as Brienne reached her side.

The other wolves were all attacking now as well, possibly sensing weakness. It was chaos after that. Arya attacked with Needle, skewering the one atop Gendry as Anguy, having notched again from only a kneeling position, took another down through the neck.

Pod and Ned charged forth, both with swords and flaming sticks in each hand, each shouting war cries.

"Starfall!"

"The Lady!"

The two youths drove a number of wolves back as Anguy picked them off. Even hobbled as she was she managed to unsheathe Oathkeeper and, wielding it with two hands, fended off a wolf from attacking Gendry’s exposed back.

Gendry, Arya and herself fought back to back as the wolves darted in and out from amongst the burning branches.

It was like no other fight Brienne had ever been in. A flurry of teeth, flame and flashing swords.

She watched in awe as the giant wolf attacked another of its small brethren which came too close to Arya. Mauling it so viciously the poor animal’s head was almost torn from its body.

By the time the wolves retreated back into the night seven lay dead and most of the group bled or nursed scratches.

“Arya move!” Anguy cried as he tried to take aim at the sole remaining wolf.

The giant hadn’t left with the others, instead it paced before Arya, its eyes locked on the girl.

Nor did Arya do as Anguy asked. Rather than helping the girl lowered her blade and held out her hand to the beast, her palm up and open.

“Don’t Anguy…I know her…” Arya spoke softly as she took a step towards the wolf, which covered in blood as it was, made Brienne’s heart stop.

“Arya come away from it.” She took a step towards her but the wolf dropped low and snarled as she did so.

“No, Brienne I know her…she knows me…” Arya let Needle fall from her grasp and clatter upon the ground. "She won't hurt me..."

When she knelt before the beasted Pod and Anguy to gasp. In such a position Arya was forced to look up into the eyes of the wolf which had stopped pacing. It stood looking down at Arya and soon began sniffing at her, its mouth hanging open and those large fangs making Brienne grip Oathkeeper even tighter.

“You remembered me?” Arya’s voice waivered then, her arms reaching out to the wolf. “I remembered you…I’m sorry I left you. I had to or they would’ve killed you…”

The wolf growled and every one of them jerked forward some, each member of the party standing ready to defend Arya should the beast do as they feared. Arya held her hands up, waving them back while never taking her eyes from the wolf.

How did she know we neared then?

“Nymeria…Nymeria please…they won’t hurt us…” Arya reached forward again, as if beckoning the beast to her. “We’re all that’s left...it’s us now…that’s why you came isn’t it?”

Nymeria, she remembered something Lady Catelyn had said, that was the name of Arya’s direwolf.

“Let’s go home.” Arya almost whispered. “Let’s go home.”

The wolf Arya named as Nymeria shot the men a look Brienne didn’t care for. The beast appeared much too wild and threatening for her taste. Yet when its eyes found Arya again Brienne swore they softened some, the direwolf lowering its head to sniff at the girl’s open hands cautiously.

A moment later it began licking at one vigorously. Then the wolf moved to do the same to Arya’s face and while the others became uneasy again Brienne didn’t.

When Arya’s arms wrapped around the neck of the direwolf she knew what she’d seen. The direwolf had been calmed by Arya’s words, maybe even convinced by them. The men stood in shock while Arya hugged Nymeria tightly to her but Brienne was shocked by something else entirely.

For Nymeria's gaze had fallen upon her now. The fire flickering in the wolf's eyes as it looked upon her. 

Staring in a way Brienne had seen before.

Quiet Isle, she remembered, Arya’s eyes when I took her from the fire.

She knows me.

Chapter Text

SANSA

 

“My queen we would have you further back!” Hal shouted.

“No! I will stay!”

Sansa had not been allowed to take part in the battle at the Twins and she was determined to be of some use at this one. So hiding at the back of the lines like Hal wanted was not something she would be doing.

Not as long as her men could see her as they marched onward. Not when she sent them forward to die. Not with so much at stake.

Not with him out there.

The Stark army continued on up the causeway, Jon somewhere at the front leading this attack against the ruined fortress ahead. From the towers of Moat Cailin arrows rained down upon the tightly packed column of men who moved forward at a crawling pace. War horns blew here and there to keep the attack moving, a hard thing to do as the scores of enemy archers loosed death upon her army. Her men staggering behind raised shields, doing their best to deflect the constant fire from ahead.

The direwolf banners behind her flapped noisily as the strong winds blowing south swept across the battlefield throwing dust up into her eyes. She clenched them shut, and cursed the wind for it  gave their enemies extra reach so that even more of her men found themselves targets. The odd arrow would sometimes land less than twenty steps from where she sat her horse.

Another came even closer and Hal cursed.

“Queen Sansa please!”

“Hal I’m not leaving!”

“We are well away from arrows!” Myranda added, the woman beside her atop her own mount. “Safer than those poor souls.”

Myranda was watching the wounded pass by, men who were not so lucky as they to be merely watching the battle. A constant stream of the injured were being carried or dragged by Sansa's party. Some bore it well, clutching wounds with silent grimaces while others were crying out in pain. Or for loved ones.

Sansa hoped most would live yet was not so naive to think all would.

And she knew more would follow. For every man coming back ten more joined the long line pressing forward. Onward to meet such a fate themselves. That was why Sansa wanted them to see her there. She wished to show them that she saw their bravery, their courage, their sacrifice as they marched on.

Or their cowardice should any think to break.

That had been Myranda’s suggestion, her friend believed the men cared more about what their queen would think of them than their own survival. Shame itself a powerful motivator.

I could not think badly of them if they did run, she thought, it looks so horrible up there, so...

“Help! Queen Sansa!” A horrible cry pulled her gaze from the battle to a man staggering towards them with another in his arms. “Help please!”

“Move back!” Hal walked to block his path, his sword drawn. “Wounded to the rear!”

“Please! My boy!” The man she did not know cried again.

When her eyes went to the body in his arms Sansa saw no man there. Only a beardless boy with an arrow through his side.

A boy who, as bloody as he was, reminded her of Bran.

“How dreadful…” Myranda gasped as the man wept and tried to bring the child onward.

“He wouldn’t stay behind me…” He stammered. "I said to..."

"There's no help to be had here!" Hal barred the man’s approach, who stopped as if in a daze. “The healers are at the back!”

He stared up at Sansa helplessly, tears streaming down his bearded face as he held the boy up higher.

“Then he must get there as quick as he can.” She said and began to climb from her horse to the shouts of her men.

She could watch this battle from a saddle but to sit there as that boy died in front of her was to much. Then, in her hurry to dismount, Sansa tumbled and sprawled out in the mud.

“Sansa!”

"Your grace!"

“I’m alright.” She said, pushing up to her knees before Hal was there helping her to stand again. “Thank you Hal but he needs more help than I. Get that poor man and boy on my horse. They can ride to the healer.”

“It’s not proper…” Hal protested but she waved him off.

Soon enough the father was on her horse, his son cradled in his arms as he rode on down the line. As she watched them go she saw how many others walked slowly behind on foot.

It’s all part of the plan, she reminded herself, their eyes must be on the south.

“Here Sansa.” Myranda rode up and reached down to her. “My horse would be honored to carry such a queen.”

She nodded her thanks as others helped her into the saddle. Myranda had moved back to allow her the reins, wrapping her hands about Sansa’s middle and pressing herself tightly against her back.

"I know now why Ser Jon always looks so down. You cause so much worry..."

Sansa paid that little mind, hearing Jon's name drew her attention back the fight. Ahead the battle raged, which more and more she thought a slaughter instead. Her army was making little progress in their advance, it seemed like the only reason men moved forward was because others ahead had fallen.

From where they were Sansa could see much of Moat Cailin and how her army would meet certain defeat. For even if they somehow advanced as far as the fortress’ crumbling walls the lines of spearmen hunched behind them would be more than enough to throw back their assault.

It was utter madness that they attempted this attack. Their enemy had complete control of this chokepoint and were strangling the life from her army with it. Everywhere she looked along the causeway she saw men tumbling down the sides. Whether dead already or just wounded their fate below was the same, all disappearing into the muck of the bogs.

For half a moment she pictured Jon, pierced with arrows and sinking below those dank, dark waters.

“They will be fine.” Myranda whispered softly into her ear. “Jon and Willem both. They made a promise and neither are the kind to break them.”

Myranda was right, the two knights had sworn such when Sansa had allowed Jon command of the southern push. Willem had been forced to make a second promise to her later, that he would see to Jon's safety.

The knight’s vow to do so and Myranda’s words comforted her some, but the horrible sounds of the battle threatened to drive away such good thoughts.

Yet the battle was not so loud to drown out what she heard then. For a half a moment Sansa thought she’d imagined it, until it came again and she turned to see the smile on Myranda’s face.

For her friend had heard it as well.

The sound of trumpets.

Such was how the second attack from the north was launched. Much farther up the Kingsroad small specks begin to appear in the distance. As they came closer those specks quickly and surely took the shape of horses. Horses with armored men atop them. The banners of House Royce, Waynwood, Redford and several others appearing amongst this long charge down the road, moving rapidly against the exposed rear of the castle.

The defenders had heard the trumpets as well and were now rushing their spearmen into a line to meet the enemy charge. Should the Vale horsemen ride into it Sansa feared not only for how many could be lost but if the attack could even succeed.

“It is time.” She announced turning to one of mounted crannogmen among her party. “Give your lord his signal.”

The man did not need to be asked twice. He pulled a horn up to his lips and let go a long, loud blowing of the horn. Then another. Then one more.

And not long after the swamps surrounding edges of Moat Cailin came alive. Muddy patches of moss and reeds began crawling up the approaches of the old fortress, wending their way up barely there trails and climbing over its undefended walls. Such was how Howland Reed’s crannogmen joined the battle.

When they fell upon the barely formed line of spearmen Sansa couldn’t imagine which was more terrifying to their enemy. Whether it would be how much like monsters the crannogmen appeared or how otherworldly their war cries sounded as they leapt forth with their spears and mauls.

Bogdevils is an ugly term, she thought, but I understand it more now.

By the time the Vale riders had arrived few of the spearmen stood ready to meet them and those were cut down quickly enough. The battle was now within the fortress, archers who had been firing at the causeway now turned inward.

With fewer arrows falling upon them her army surged up the land bridge towards the Moat. There was a fight within the fortress and they wouldn't be denied their part in it. The men ran up the causeway, their swords flashing and spears raised high, shouting and yelling the whole time.

“Stark!” Men cried. “Stark! Stark!”

When the forward ranks clambered over the sunken walls one man paused and raised the direwolf banner high. Defying the arrows and waving her banner, signalling to the rest of the army the front's breakthrough. More continued on by and soon the three towers of the fortress themselves had attackers swarming about their gates.

The doors of the Drunkard’s Tower were the first to give way.

Then the Children’s Tower was breached and the Gatehouse Tower soon after.

“They’re done for your grace.” Hal said then. “Inside those towers will be men who did not expect to do anything more than kill from afar.”

Despite his words and her confidence victory was within their grasp the screaming did not abate. Bodies flew from tower windows and Sansa could only imagine the fates archers within met at the hands of those who had endured the causeway. Some of the enemy sought escape by fleeing into the bogs beyond the castle. Most were cut down by her archers as they did so. That was until the archers suddenly stopped, someone most likely giving the order to save their arrows, for the bogs finished those who fled just as surely. She tried not to count how many she watched struggle and flounder in that filth.

Their families and children will have mercy, she thought, let my men have vengeance.

“We will ride forward.” She said, believing the battle to be at a close. “I will go north.”

“Too soon your grace…” A guard tried to argue but she spurred her horse forward anyways.

Her men scrambled to catch up, doing their best to put themselves in front of her as Myranda gripped her middle tightly.

Moving up the causeway was slow going, it being so narrow and much of her army still marching up it. No arrows flew from the towers any longer, all that came from them were the  terrible screams carried in the wind.

As Sansa rode between the three towers she could not believe such poor looking things could cause so much death. Men cheered her arrival even as wounded men still lay about and she directed them to be seen to quickly.

Celebrating can come later. I’d save those we can.

She looked about for any sign of her bannermen but saw none. Others found her quick enough though. An armored man in a black starred tunic rode towards her upon a large horse and at the head of company of knights.

“Queen Sansa!” He hailed from beneath his greathelm as he met her cordon of guards.

She could not name him until he lifted up the visor and smiled at her.

“Ser Symond!” Sansa smiled to see the Knight of Ninestars. “I was glad to hear you’d lead these men!”

“As I pleased as I to see you among these men.” Symond answered, pulling the helm from his sweat soaked head. “It’s a mark of bravery for you to be here. There are still Bolton and Frey men about and I’m not sure all the enemy archers have been done for…”

“And battle is no place for women.” Another said as he too removed his helm.

Sansa almost drew back in alarm when she saw who hid beneath. Of all the men she thought to join her in retaking the North she had never believed Ser Lyn Corbray would be among them. She despised the man and a good part of her wanted to order him from here.

That be a foul thing to do, she thought, he just fought for you.

Is it a fouler thing to wish he’d fallen doing so?

“Ser you’re addressing a queen.” Myranda said from behind her.

“My apologies.” He said shrugging. “Battle is no place for women though, they might dirty their gowns.”

It was then Sansa remembered her fall and glanced down to see her dress quite filthy. Myranda had wanted to dress her in one of her finest gowns for the battle. Something to inspire the men with she’d said. Sansa was glad she’d declined such a thing and worn a bland grey dress.

Northmen would have been as impressed with her wearing a pretty gown during a battle as Ser Lyn looked to be with the mud covered queen before him.

“With such fine men about me Ser Lyn dirtying my gowns is the only concern I had in this battle. Who would dare challenge them?” She said before giving a slight nod to Hal. He answered it by drawing his sword, heralding the many other Stark warriors around her to do the same.

“For House Stark is always wary now, on guard against any threat…or treachery.”

Sansa was enjoying the slight red tinge coming to Lyn’s face when she heard the shouting. Just to her left the knights she’d worried most for were striding towards her. Willem shouting at Jon who was doing his best to outpace his friend.

Her knight wore no helm and had filth all about his face yet the smile he offered her was as bright as it had always been.

It almost made Sansa miss the bloodied cloth he held to his shoulder.

“Your grace tell the fool to seek a healer!” Willem opened his arms in mock defeat. “For he’s clearly under some spell where neither I nor reason can be heard!”

“I would tell Ser Willem and her grace the arrow barely made it through my armor and it is but a cut.” Jon said as he stopped below her horse and knelt. "I am well Sansa, truly.”

“Rise ser, if Willem feels it is worthy of seeing a healer about then so do I.” She said trying to keep the concern from her voice. “I would not risk you, truly.”

“Well the fortress is ours…truly…” Willem added as he noticed at the other Vale men.

He had looked please to see them but his eyes narrowed when they fell upon Ser Lyn. She watched him reach to his swords, as if to ensure they were still there.

Then Jon took notice of the knight as well.

“Ser Lyn, I had not thought to see you here.” Jon said as he glared at the man, wiping the blood from his blade.

“Show me a battle and I will be there to fight.”

“Our side is fortunate to have you then.” He said coldly before turning his attention to the others there. “Good men, we are in your debt.”

“The way I see it we are still in yours.” Symond said gesturing to the Arryn banner flying near them. “Littlefinger and the murder of Jon Arryn is not forgotten.”

“I see only riders here ser, I thought there was to be foot as well? And siege engines?” Willem asked.

“There are. A thousand men await us just up the road. Lord Royce saw fit to send most of the mounts brought to Sweetsister here. Horses are little needed at a siege but since foul weather hampered our crossing we took only the fastest to this battle.”

“Then the force meant for the Dreadfort has launched as well?”

The knight nodded.

“Some time before we did.”

Sansa decided they would speak on that more later, preferring their men begin seeing to the setting of a camp and securing of the fortress as quickly as possible. She thought after that and the clearing of the dead was done there would be time to talk.

She took the Gatehouse tower as her own seat. It still stood straight and had the remnants of walls. The knights of the Vale and lords of the North could shared the other two  between them.

Later as she looked out her window at the fires of the camp she wondered how many men now missed the laughter or singing below. The battle had been kind to them, her army paying a much lower price compared to what it could have cost without the Vale warriors arriving. Yet she knew her commoners had contributed much blood to seeing this fortress won, for the lowborn suffered always in these matters.

A few days without a march is little reward, she thought, the celebrations below will do little to heal the wounds today's fighting wrought.

She took solace in knowing none of her bannermen had fallen today and for that she was thankful. The survival of one lord in particular had gladdened her, despite his anger with the man.

Howland Reed had done well in the task she’d assigned of him, for his had been as dangerous as Jon’s had been. Even for those who knew the Neck as well Howland and his men moving about the swamps and bogs was a deadly affair.

You had to see if he would balk.

A lord worried about his own neck would have argued against such a command.

Howland had not argued. Nor had he been upset when she’d told him Jon would his command men until the task completed. He'd just seemed sad for her to order him away as she did.

He showed loyalty in accepting my will but I must be sure of him.

The true test of Howland's loyalty lays ahead, she thought, I’ll know his worth then.

“I would see to your hair before you rest your grace.” Myranda broke in to her thoughts, the woman having pulled out a chair with a brush at the ready.

“Of course Randa, I’m sorry to keep you so late.”

“A queen needn’t apologize to her handmaidens and I’d sleep better knowing you well on your way to resting as well.”

Sansa smiled at her friend’s words and took a seat in front of the small looking glass as Myranda lifted away her crown. Her friend was an excellent lady-in-waiting, always ready with a story or some new gossip to share. Sometimes when Myranda brushed her hair Sansa thought of when her mother would do so. She would have traded Myranda for her mother in a moment, not that the lady was too rough or lax in any way, Sansa just missed her mother.

“Morton wishes for me to break my fast with him tomorrow.” Myranda grinned as she smoothed her hair. “I dare say he never seemed so eager before.”

“You two are well acquainted, perhaps he merely wishes your company.” Sansa watched her friend’s grin grow even wider. Two days earlier Sansa had formally rejected Morton's proposal for her to marry Harry the Heir as courteously as she could. She had been honest with her reasons and Morton had not been unkind in realizing he failed in his duty.

“Or perhaps he seeks another potential bride to offer when he sends word to his mother?” She added, smiling at her friend. “You may have an ally in your quest for the heir.”

“Quest it is? Interesting word for what I plan for him.” Myranda dragged a couple fingers across the top of her chest. “The man has fathered two bastards, it makes me think there are better ways to lead him into a marriage.”

Sansa laughed then, she wondered how it would feel to be so bold.

Yet Myranda's face quickly lost its mischievous look, the lady taking on a grim expression instead.

“Morton may have accepted your refusal to marry but others may not be so kind. Your lords will press you to marry Sansa, have no doubt of that.” Myranda said darkly. “They sing your praises now but soon they will begin thinking of how they or a relative of theirs could be king.”

She's probably right, she thought, few of the lords I've ridden with so far have had potential husbands to propose.

Yet others here in the North will have sons, brothers or even themselves to offer.

“When the war ends I will take a husband to rule the north with." Sansa said firmly. "One of my choosing."

“Some may not be willing to wait until the end of the war, they may demand it when you need their strength and have little choice.”

Myranda's words were like her brush strokes, considerate while being somewhat forceful. Despite whatever her friend's intention had been Sansa was somewhat put at ease by the topic. Much and more ahead of them lay uncertain. Yet who she intended to marry was as certain as anything could be. Something she'd thought on often of late.

And her thoughts on the matter were not something she would share with Myranda just yet.

“Today we saw a battle where my men died…I would have