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Winter Rose, Growing Strong

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The morning after Sansa’s midnight meeting with Lord Manderly, she sent for Robett Glover and bid him ride out with her letter to Jon. After sending it by raven from a safe castle, he was to ride for Castle Cerwyn, to begin gathering men to take back Torrhen’s Square after Winterfell was back in Stark loyalist control. After Robett departed, she sent for her great-uncle Brynden, to inform him that it was likely her brothers yet lived. To her surprise, tears rose in his eyes at the news.

“I wish your mother was here,” he explained, his voice choked with tears. “She wanted so badly to protect all of you. She would be so glad to know that Bran and Rickon are alive. It nearly destroyed her when she learned of their deaths.”

Now Sansa was crying too. “I miss her so much,” she whispered. The Blackfish wrapped his arms around his niece’s daughter and hugged her tightly, as she sobbed into his shoulder.

When Sansa finally pulled away, she said, “I’m sorry. I know I must be strong. I have responsibilities. I cannot be crying like a child.”

“It’s all right to miss your mother, lass,” the Blackfish said kindly. “You must be strong in public, aye, but you and I are family. I miss her too. We had only just reunited, after many years apart, when she was taken from us before her time. I wish…mayhaps I should have come North more often. But Lysa needed me.”

“What is Aunt Lysa like?” Sansa asked, curious about her mother’s other sibling. It had been wonderful to meet Edmure, even under such unfortunate circumstances and for such a short time. It soothed the ache in her heart somewhat, to get to know her mother’s family.

The Blackfish hesitated. “Lysa…has had a difficult life,” he said slowly. “It…eats away at her. She lost many babes, and though she did not love Jon Arryn, his presence was stabilizing for her. When last I saw Lysa, she was half-mad with grief and worry for her son.”

“How is he? Little Robert Arryn?” Sansa asked, hungry for information about her cousin.

“He is…sickly, unfortunately,” murmured the Blackfish. “If Jon Arryn had lived, Robin would have fostered with Stannis, and I suspect it might have done him good. But with only his mother and Littlefinger there to care for him, I worry about the boy.”

“That is concerning,” replied Sansa, her face pinching into a frown. “Is there aught I might do?”

“Not for now,” he replied, looking thoughtful. “But mayhaps after this trip North is concluded, you might reach out to Lysa. I do not know if she would wish to hear from you, for there was some rivalry between her and your mother, at least in Lysa’s mind…but it could not hurt, I suppose.”

“Then I shall write her once we are back at Highgarden,” Sansa promised. The Blackfish smiled at her, and Sansa was half-tempted to tell him of her pregnancy. She hesitated, because she had not told Willas yet. But she had told Jeyne, and now Jon…

Seeing the pensive look on her face, Brynden asked, “Is somewhat amiss? You can trust me to keep your confidence, you know, for all that I am technically your prisoner.” He smiled a lopsided smile. Sansa gazed at her great-uncle, debating with herself. Finally, she made up her mind.

“I am with child,” she confessed.

The Blackfish’s smile widened. “Truly? That is wonderful, my dear!” Then he hesitated. “It is Willas’s babe, I take it?”

“Of course!” Sansa exclaimed, surprised that he asked. Does he not know that I am an honorable woman, like my mother? she wondered.

“Then congratulations are in order,” he replied, hugging her again, more briefly this time.

“Yes, it is very happy news,” agreed Sansa. “But Willas does not know yet.”

The Blackfish sombered at that. “Why have you not told him?”

“I struggle to put it into words,” Sansa admitted. “A letter does not seem the best way to learn that one is to become a father. I do not know how to put my thoughts to paper on this matter.”

“Just speak from the heart,” he advised her. “I am sure he will be glad to hear the news. But we must get you back to Highgarden forthwith.”

“I know,” Sansa agreed, looking away. “After Winterfell, it is straight to Barrowton to take a ship to Oldtown, and then a barge to Highgarden.”

But it was not to be Barrowton after all. When Sansa explained her plans for returning home to Wyman Manderly, he agreed it was appropriate for her to return to her husband and offered to share the duties of regency with her while she was in the South, but he cautioned her against riding for Barrowton after Winterfell.

“Lady Dustin had little love for your father, and even less for your mother,” he warned her. “And she is a Ryswell by birth –”

“And therefore kin to Roose Bolton, through his late wife, Bethany Ryswell,” finished Sansa. “I had not thought of that, but you are right. From whence would you have me sail, then?”

“If you are looking for a port on the Western side, there are few,” Wyman said thoughtfully. “Bear Island is too far North, and Sea Dragon Point is out of your way entirely. But you could board a ship near Fever, just North of the Neck, if the ship knew where to meet you and if the captain had instructions to send a smaller boat to carry you to it.”

“That will serve,” said Sansa, nodding. “Can you make the arrangements? I shall write to Willas about the ship, but if you could notify the Lord of Fever, I would be grateful.”

“Certainly,” he replied warmly. “I take it you still plan to accompany us to Winterfell?”

“Yes,” she said firmly.

“Then you must needs prepare,” he said in a fatherly tone. “We depart two days hence.”

 

***

 

Two days later, Sansa awoke before the sun rose. Her stomach had begun to settle just as she ran out of Maester Vyman’s potion, but new discomforts had taken its place. She tired so easily now, and her back ached no matter how she positioned herself as she slept. Her sleep, too, had become restless, though whether that was due to her worries or her body’s changes, she could not say.

I hope I can make it to Fever before I cross the threshold of my fifth moon, thought Sansa. Though Maester Vyman did say that it was a slow increase in the danger, not a sharp dividing line. Still, I do not wish to gamble with my baby’s life. Besides, it would not be long before others began to notice her growing belly, no matter what she did to hide it. Sansa quickly dressed, thankful that her travelling gowns did not require the assistance of maids, who might notice her condition. Once clothed, she rang for the servants to take her few belongings to the ship.

 

***

 

The journey to Winterfell was smooth, if full of dread. Many times, Sansa wondered if she was making a terrible mistake. What if Lord Wyman’s plan fails, and I am captured or killed by the Boltons? she wondered, recalling the story of Lady Donella Hornwood and shivering at the dire possibilities that might arise if anything went awry. They could murder my child, or keep me alive until I give birth and take the babe from my arms, to secure their hold over the North. Given how his bastard had turned out, Sansa was petrified at the notion of Lord Roose raising her child.

Willas would rescue our babe, she reassured herself. If he did not go himself, he would send Garlan and the massive armies of the Reach. I must believe it would be so.

She needed to tell him, in case something happened, but how? She could send a rider with a letter to send by raven from a trustworthy castle, as she had done with her letter to Jon, but now that they were already on their way, such a decision would require docking the ship. Lord Wyman would surely wish to know why they stopped.

I should have sent a letter while I was still at White Harbor, as my great-uncle advised, she thought morosely. If truth be told, she had known at the time that she should not wait any longer, but every time she attempted to explain her condition and her decisions with ink on parchment, her words failed her. Willas would be angry with her no matter what she wrote, she knew, but still she searched for the words that might dampen his anger. Whenever she tried to write, she remembered Joffrey’s fury and its consequences, and wondered if Willas might prove dangerous to her if she enraged him sufficiently. Sansa’s father had never raised a hand to her mother, but he was an exception, she suspected. In retrospect, she appreciated Desmera’s reasoning about Tyrion’s dwarfism protecting her from his fury, but Joffrey’s commands to the Kingsguard proved that a man need not use his own hand to brutalize his lady.

Even if Willas did not raise a hand to her – and in truth, she knew she was unfair to believe him capable of such an act – there were other restrictions he could impose on her that might prove even more troublesome. After this trip, I fear Willas shall never let me travel anywhere again. He will not trust me after I lied to him with my silence, she speculated. Yet, if that was so, returning to Highgarden would be a very dangerous choice. She could not rule the North without traveling, at least for a few moons a year in the summertime.

In light of these fears, her fingers fell still when she tried to compose a letter to Willas. Now, she was almost to Winterfell and if the worst happened, he might never know that her body had begun to kindle their child. I have made a terrible mistake, Sansa fretted. I should have told him. Even if I could not find the right words, I should have written something, or gotten Jeyne to compose the letter for me.

Now, however, it was too late. On the morrow, they would reach their stopping point, switching from ships to horses and litters. They would spend one last night aboard the ships, and then travel the final half-day’s ride to Winterfell on the morrow. As much as she dreaded their impending confrontation with the Boltons, a part of her yearned to see her home once again, though she wished she could visit it as it was in her memories of days past, instead of the burned-out shell it was now reported to be.

 

***

 

The final day of sailing and subsequent ride to Winterfell went as quickly as the river voyage. As they rode away from the White Knife, the Manderly party was joined along the way by riders from House Cerwyn, including Robett, and they brought Lady Maege Mormont and a few of her troops along with them, with the promise that more would join at Winterfell itself.

Before Sansa could even stop to think, Winterfell loomed before her, broken and singed. With a sharp intake of breath, she pulled up her horse, tears gleaming in her eyes. Oh, Winterfell, she thought. What have they done to you? 

Though the walls still stood, the signs of damage to her family’s seat were apparent even from outside the gates and beneath the snow. The gates themselves had been replaced with raw, unstained new wood, likely cut from the wolfswoods that surrounded Winterfell. Gone were the sturdy old gates of polished hardwood, inlaid with iron reinforcements and intricate carvings of the wolf sigil of House Stark. Black soot snaked up the damaged library tower, and the bridge between the Bell Tower and the rookery was gone. The Maester’s Turret had been obliterated entirely, and Sansa silently wept for Maester Luwin, who had reportedly died in the sack. Almost as heartbreaking, the glass gardens had been smashed. It will be costly to replace them, thought Sansa with frigid fury, her tears drying on her cheeks as her heart frosted over. Though I suppose that everyone they were meant to feed lies dead, by Bolton hands.

Lord Wyman called out to the men atop the crenellated bulwarks which flanked Winterfell’s main gate, and bid them to lower the drawbridge. The men scurried about, seemingly checking to be sure that these men had permission to enter. After a few minutes, the gate began to creak upwards. Though the sound of swords loosing from their scabbards was too quiet for the Bolton men to hear from this distance, Sansa could hear a gentle snick as the men around her slowly bared their steel, concealing the naked swords behind their cloaks.

Once inside the gates, Sansa choked back a sob. The market square of the Wintertown had been burned to the ground, and it was ghastly to see the once bustling square empty and bereft of life. The Manderly party followed one of the Bolton guardsmen through a narrow passageway, until they reached the Great Keep and the Great Hall. The roof is different, Sansa noticed with dismay. The Great Hall’s roof had once been beautiful, wrought in lovely stained wooden panels that had been installed generations ago. The new one was an unsightly mess of hastily-assembled thatch.

Roose Bolton and his bastard met them outside the Great Hall, and when Lord Wyman caught sight of them, he gave the signal. At his loud, hooting whistle, all the warriors in their party revealed their naked steal. Alys Rowan pulled out her bow and nocked an arrow, and even Jeyne and Sansa held daggers in their hands. As useless as either girl would be in a genuine fight, the precautionary measure gave Sansa at least some small measure of comfort.

If it comes to it, I can always cut my wrists, Sansa reassured herself bleakly. It would be better to bleed out in the snow than to let Ramsey Snow take her prisoner, she figured. At least I would die a Stark of Winterfell, and my bones could rest peacefully in the crypts beside my forefathers. Ashara Dayne’s body was never recovered, but there could be no doubts about mine.

“What is the meaning of this?” Roose Bolton asked softly, his voice a deadly whisper.

“IF YOU CAN HEAR ME,” thundered Wyman Manderly in his loud, resonant battlefield voice, “IF YOU’RE NOT A FILTHY OATH-BREAKING COWARD, COME DEFEND THE LADY STARK!” Sansa hoped the men inside the Great Hall could hear him. Her heart fluttered as the hall’s doors opened, and a few curious faces peeked out.

“I said, what is the meaning of this,” murmured Lord Roose, frowning.

“Can’t you see, Father?” snarled a young man with dark hair and icy ghost-grey eyes, drawing his own sword from its scabbard. “They’ve betrayed us!”

He must be Ramsey Snow, thought Sansa, shuddering at the viciousness in the bastard’s expression.

“I SAID, IF YOU’RE NOT A GODSFORSAKEN TREACHEROUS SON OF A WHORE, DEFEND THE LADY SANSA STARK, AS ALL YOU LOT HAVE SWORN TO DO!” boomed Wyman Manderly, completely ignoring the Boltons.

More men began to filter out of the Great Hall. Sansa spotted some friendly sigils among them, including the giant of House Umber, the grey stone hand of House Flint, and the trio of buckets on a blue field, for House Wull of the Mountain Clans. Sansa’s heart soared at the sight of her bannermen. Perhaps we will not be defeated, she thought. Perhaps this was not a mistake.

“Do you mean to violate guest right?” asked Roose calmly.

At these words, Sansa snapped. “Guest right? You dare speak to me of guest right?” she snarled, tempted to step outside the circle of protection her honor guard provided.

“Sansa Stark?” queried Lord Roose in a soft voice, his milky, ghost-grey eyes flashing.

“I am Princess Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell and rightful heir to the North after my trueborn brothers,” Sansa boldly proclaimed, for now that she had drawn attention to herself, she knew she had to stake her claim. “In the name of House Stark, I claim this castle as my ancestral home and rightful family seat. Let it be known that the Boltons are traitors and usurpers with no host-right to this place, and that none who slay them shall be held to have broken guest right. For you can only be my guests here at Winterfell. Invaders have no right to safe passage.”

“CHOOSE A SIDE, AND DO IT QUICKLY!” Lord Wyman roared, as men began to raise their weapons in preparation for the violence that hung over the courtyard like a thick storm cloud. “STARK OR BOLTON, HONOR OR TREACHERY, THE WOLF OR THE FLAYED MAN!”

The Wulls and Flints crossed the courtyard first, swords still in their sheaths, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Manderly soldiers. The Norreys and Umbers quickly followed, and more began to trickle to Sansa’s side.

We’re winning, she thought. Mayhaps we can retake Winterfell without shedding a drop of Northern blood.

But the thought came too soon. With a howl of rage, Ramsey Snow ran directly at Sansa, sword in hand.

She barely had time to scream before Ser Parmen Crane slew him where he stood, cutting him down with a single slashing stroke, leaving behind a horrible red line from Ramsey Snow’s left ear to his right hip. As his body fell, hot blood gushed out, melting little red rivers into the snow that blanketed the ground.

Sansa realized she was still screaming, and she turned her face away, the screaming turning to sobs. She clutched at Ser Jon Fossoway, the older knight the closest she could come to running into her father’s arms. He held her against him with one arm, the other holding his sword in a defensive position across his body, and her other guards surrounded the two of them, enclosing them in a tight circle of protection as the battle raged around them. Sansa’s eyes were screwed tightly shut as she struggled to calm her breathing and compose herself. She could hear the clanging of steel on steel all around her.

For several moments, the battle raged, with men shouting and arrows raining down and swords ringing as cold steel met cold steel.

And then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Ser Jon let go of her, and Sansa dared to open her eyes, glancing about the courtyard. Men in the pink sigil of House Bolton littered the ground, and everyone else had seemingly either dropped their swords in fealty or turned them against the Boltons. As planned, Lady Alys had taken Jeyne up into one of the remaining towers as soon as the fighting began. Holding her bow and arrow with one hand as it rested against the windowsill, Alys waved, and so did Jeyne, peering over Lady Rowan’s shoulder. Thank the gods they are both safe, Sansa thought, a wave of relief washing over her.

In fact, once they were able to assess the battle site, it seemed that only a few Manderly soldiers had been lost, all of them of the smallfolk. Sansa felt a pang of regret at even this small loss of life, and she asked Lord Manderly to write down the names and villages of the men so that she might send each of their families a heartfelt letter of thanks and remembrance, along with an extra bag of flour, a pound of dried beans, and a few jars of dried fruits and pickles. I wish there was more I could do, she thought, but at least, this way, the men’s families will be well-supplied for winter.

“I would be happy to give you the names of the men and their villages, my lady,” agreed Lord Wyman. “Though I shall have to send a knight with the letter and the goods, since most of the smallfolk cannot read.”

Sansa’s face warmed and her cheeks turned red. “Yes, of course. Thank you for attending to such details. Once winter is over, perhaps we might address the matter of educating the smallfolk, at least enough that they might do simple sums and read simple messages. That would be another way to honor the men who have fallen here today.”

“A wise notion,” Lord Wyman replied. His expression looked cheerful, as if he were amused with her fretting over so few deaths, but the look on the Lord of White Harbor’s face only strengthened Sansa’s resolve to improve the conditions of the smallfolk. They fight and die for us, and send us tithes from their harvests, she thought. We owe it to them to do our best to protect them and improve their lots in return. That is what my father taught me, and I shall endeavor to make it so.

Sansa was quickly realizing that she had no stomach for war. So many lives lost, all because a handful of Lords could not resolve their conflicts civilly. When spring comes, I shall give them a century of peace, she promised herself. I shall give them prosperity – trade and education and diplomacy, not warfare.

But before she could return to Highgarden, and begin asking Willas and the Citadel and anyone else who might know how to bring about such outcomes, Sansa knew she must face the most difficult challenge she had yet faced on her journey to the North and Riverlands. She gathered up her courage as Manderly soldiers dragged a prisoner before her.

“Roose Bolton,” Sansa pronounced evenly, wondering what in the world she ought to do with him now that he was taken prisoner. Why couldn’t he have been slain in the battle? she wondered. But then, hadn’t her father always said that Lord Roose led from the rear? Coward, she thought bitterly.

“Sansa Stark,” the Bolton lord replied from his knees, held in place by the Manderly soldiers. His icy blue-grey eyes stared at her without emotion and his voice was without inflection. She shivered as he said her name, goosepimples rising on her arms.

What should I do with him? Sansa wondered, her back aching and her stomach churning. She knew what her father would have done with him. Did she possess the fortitude to do what must be done, what all the men around her would surely expect?

“Lord Roose of the Dreadfort, I name you a guest-murderer, a kingslayer, and a traitor. Take him to the cells and lock him in,” Sansa ordered, her voice sounding calmer than she felt. “Stay outside the door and watch him until I send other guardsmen to relieve you. Make sure he does not escape.”

“Yes, milady!” the soldiers replied, dragging Bolton off.

The second prisoner they brought before her was more pitiful than frightening. The fat blonde woman was blubbering and struggling as the guardsmen led her out of the castle.

“We found her in a closet,” said one of the soldiers, depositing her in front of Sansa. The woman fell to her knees and began begging, though she was so terrified that her words were jumbled, and Sansa could not make out what the woman was trying to say.

“This is Fat Walda, of House Frey by birth and House Bolton by marriage,” explained one of the Cerwyn soldiers who had joined their forces at the river. He spat on the ground next to Walda after naming her.

“Please!” Fat Walda cried, crying and clutching her plump hands over her pink face. “Please! Please, have mercy on me!”

“Lady Walda, please rise,” instructed Sansa in a kindly tone. The woman tried to struggle to her feet, then fell. She is so terrified that she cannot stand, thought Sansa with pity. “Or remain on the ground, if you prefer,” Sansa added.

“Please,” Walda whispered. She tried to kiss Sansa’s feet, but the Stark woman took a step back, afraid this Frey-Bolton meant her harm.

“It’s all right,” Sansa replied in a tone she usually reserved for babies and pets. “I mean to take mercy on you, but first I shall need to have the answers to a few questions. Can you answer my questions?”

“I…I shall try…my lady…your Grace?...please,” Walda whimpered.

“Did you have any involvement in planning the deaths of my kin at the Twins?” Sansa asked.

“No!” Walda cried, tears streaking down her wind-chapped cheeks. “I am just a girl! It was the menfolk who planned it. I didn’t know what was going to happen! No one told me anything. I have a big mouth, you see. I can’t keep secrets for the life of me.”

That is believable enough, Sansa reasoned. Clearly, this woman is not a threat.

Aloud, Sansa asked her second and final question. “Did you have anything to do with the burning of Winterfell or the murder of the boys?”

“No!” Walda cried again. “Roose did not bring me here until afterwards. It was his son who took the castle, while we were still at the Twins.”

“Very well,” said Sansa, relieved that she could spare this woman. “Then you are innocent of any wrongdoing. I shall have you confined to a bedroom until I have figured out what to do with your husband, and then you shall be free to go home or wherever else it please you.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, my lady, your Grace,” babbled Fat Walda.

“Do you think you can stand?” Sansa asked, smiling a reassuring smile.

“I…I shall try,” Walda whispered, struggling to her feet again, more successfully this time.

“Help her return to the room where you found her, and stand guard outside the door,” Sansa instructed the Manderly soldier.

“Yes, my lady,” the man replied, his nose wrinkling as he gazed upon Fat Walda and dutifully escorted her back to the room she had been occupying.

 

***

 

Sansa looked around the singed remains of her Father’s solar, her heart aching as she compared the dismal reality to the pictures of this room in her mind’s eye. I shall rebuild this place, she thought, the destruction of her home weighing heavily on her heart. When Bran and Rickon and Arya reappear, they shall have a home to return to. I shall restore this place. They do not need to see Winterfell in such a state, a shadow of its former glory, as I do presently.

Ser Jon Fossoway and Ser Gunthor Hightower stood guard outside the door of the ruined solar, as she waited for the most trusted of the Northern lords to gather here, to discuss the fate of Roose Bolton. Sansa did not look on this meeting with anticipation, for all that she had gone North to fulfill Robett Glover’s pleas for justice. Justice was proving to be a hard task-mistress, and Sansa wondered if she was capable of dispensing it.

I feel far more at home when I must charm the court or sue for peace, Sansa reflected. I am not built for war or punishing wrong-doers. I much prefer to deal with situations where one might compromise or strive to please. She doubted that the Northerners would accept peace or compromise, after the slaughter at the Twins. You are not the only one who lost loved ones that day, she could hear Robett telling her at Riverrun.

I wish to be merciful, fretted Sansa. But I do not think my men can live with mercy, for such terrible crimes, and I cannot blame them.

To distract herself from the conversation that awaited her all too soon, Sansa tried to use this idle time to restore her father’s solar to some semblance of order. The fires had wrought too much damage for her efforts to make much difference, but it made her feel better to sweep away the ashes and gather together the chairs or benches that remained intact enough to bear a person’s weight. To Sansa’s regret, the old, beautiful furniture that had once decorated this room was either lost to the fires or looted. Mayhaps it was simply moved to another room, where people had greater need of it, perhaps for the purpose of sleeping, she hoped, knowing it to be unlikely.

Finally, the Northmen arrived. A few sat down on the chairs and benches Sansa had salvaged, and the rest stood behind those who were seated. Sansa looked around the room, hard stares looking back at her. Not a single face looked like to ask for anything but blood.

Can I do this? Sansa wondered again. Do I have it in me?

“Thank you all for coming here to meet with me,” said Sansa finally. “And you have my deepest gratitude for helping to recover my family’s ancestral home. It could not have been done without your admirable loyalty and impressive skills in combat.”

“You are most welcome, my lady,” replied Lady Maege Mormont. “Now, what do you plan to do with Roose Bolton?”

“I assume there is no one here, save his wife, who would plea for mercy?” Sansa asked, hoping she was wrong and that someone would offer her a reason to stay her hand.

“Not a one,” growled Lord Robin Flint of Flint’s Finger.

“Aye, he deserves a traitor’s death,” boomed Big Bucket Wull.

“He murdered my daughter,” added Lady Maege, her eyes aflame with grief and rage.

“And many more,” put in Robett Glover.

Sansa glanced at Lord Gunthor and Ser Jon, who looked at her impassively. Can I truly order a man’s death? Sansa wondered, searching for a way out and finding none.

“Very well,” said Sansa shakily. “How ought it be done?”

“Cut his throat before the heart tree,” suggested Hother Umber, known as Whoresbane.

“A blood sacrifice?” asked Gunthor in an even tone, though his nose wrinkled slightly in disgust. Septon Triston looked rather green, but he also quivered with nervous energy, as if he was dying to find out more. Wisely, he kept his silence, at least for the nonce.

“An execution,” corrected Lady Maege.

“With an extra punch,” added Whoresbane.

“You be needin’ it, way this winter’s goin,’” grunted Big Bucket Wull.

“Roose Bolton violated the laws of the gods as well as men, by slaying guests at a wedding,” explained Robett, his voice making the absurd suggestion sound eminently reasonable.

Sansa glanced at Lord Wyman, wondering what he would think, as a worshipper of the Seven. Manderly shrugged.

“I have no objection,” Wyman remarked, his jovial tone jarring when contrasted with the cruelty of his words. “I follow the Seven, but Roose Bolton’s crimes merit death regardless, so I care not how it is done. If I had my way, I would bake his bastard son into a pie and feed it to him, then shut him up in a tower to eat his boy and hopefully his fingers, as my kinswoman Donella was forced to do. But I know you to be a kind and merciful lass, Sansa Stark, so I shall not ask that of you. A slit throat before the heart tree is as merciful a death as Roose could hope for, I promise you that much.”

Sansa blanched, grateful that Lord Wyman had not asked her to commit such an ugly act. She looked to her Southron counsellors again.

“Lord Gunthor? Ser Jon? What say you?” she asked, hoping they would offer an alternative that would allow her to live with herself.

“The man’s crimes are justly punished by death,” said Lord Gunthor, a disapproving look on his face. He does not like it, but it seems he is not willing to speak against it, Sansa thought with growing despair.

“To sacrifice an innocent human being for purely heathen purposes would be an abomination,” noted Ser Jon. “But I agree that death is a just sentence for these grave crimes, and the execution must take place somewhere. I do not see that it matters whether it takes place before a tree or somewhere else. But mayhaps the Septon could better guide us on whether it be a sin to execute a man in a pagan style. If it is not a sin, I advise doing as local custom decrees.”

“The Seven forbid blood magic and human sacrifice, that much is true,” advised Septon Triston, who could scarcely contain his excitement at this encounter with heathen ways. “However, the Faith recognizes that a lawful sentence of death is distinct from unlawful and unjustified killing. It is rather a gray area of theology, as the Seven do not prescribe a particular place or manner of execution. If your father’s gods require the execution to take place before the heart tree, I think it is defensible to follow local custom in this matter. There is no doctrine directly prohibiting that location and manner of lawful execution.”

Well, it seems my honor guard shall not speak against it, Sansa thought wearily. Which means I either must comply or offer my own objections. As she considered it, she supposed they were right that it made no difference where the execution was to take place, and she had decided it would be best to make a display of respect to the Old Gods while she was in the North… Sansa shivered at the thought, but she could see no other path.

“My father taught me that the one who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” Sansa whispered, looking at the floor and trembling. It made her sick to think of it, but she knew that she would lose the respect of her bannermen if she did not at least speak this truth.

“Aye, it is the old way,” said the Flint, nodding.

“It was your father’s way, and you would honor him by following it,” said Lord Crewyn quietly. He knew my father well, thought Sansa. I think he is right that father would have wanted the Stark who passed the sentence to carry it out, though it would break his heart that it was I who must needs do the deed. Even Arya would have been better. I am a lady, not a warrior. Am I capable of such an act?

“It is justice,” said Big Bucket Wull simply.

“But I cannot swing a sword, and Ice has been stolen from us,” interjected Sansa, still gazing at the floor. Her breathing was speeding up again, and she tried to calm herself.

“It does not take any special strength to slice a man’s throat open with a dagger,” suggested Lady Maege in a tone of bland practicality.

Sansa cringed. That option had occurred to her, but she had hoped no one would mention it.

“If you do not have the stomach for it, any one of us would be happy to take Roose Bolton’s head, I suspect,” commented Lord Wyman gently.

Sansa looked up and searched the faces of the Northmen. She saw distaste on too many of them to accept Lord Wyman’s alternative, as desperately as she wished to do so.

Her heart pounding in her chest, Sansa steeled herself for what must come next. “Very well,” she said in the coldest voice she could muster. “For his crimes against gods and men alike, I shall cut Roose Bolton’s throat before the heart tree.”

A murmur of approval rose at Sansa’s words. I do not know if I can do this, she thought, a pang of terror shooting through her extremities.

“Let us get it over with before I lose my resolve,” the Lady Stark declared. “Lord Manderly, go to your guardsmen and bring them to the godswood. Lord Robbett, please go to the Lady Walda and ask if she wishes to be present to bid her husband goodbye, but do not compel her to attend if she has not the heart for it.”

 

***

 

Every soul in the castle, it seemed, had gathered in the godswood to watch the execution. Sansa clutched her maiden’s cloak around her, trembling from cold and fear alike.

Am I doing the right thing? Sansa prayed to the Old Gods. Is this your will? 

The wind gusted in reply, and Sansa could feel in her heart that this was a sign from the gods. Yes, the wind whispered. Justice, she thought she heard.

Is this justice or barbarism? Sansa wondered. She looked at the cold, hard faces of the Northmen gathered around her, and then looked down at Lady Walda. In the distance, Sansa thought she could hear the howling of wolves.

“Please,” Fat Walda begged. “Have mercy! I do not even know yet if I carry Roose’s son. Please do not kill him, I beg you. Mercy!”

“I am so terribly sorry,” said Sansa, eyes glistening, visions of Joffrey swimming before her eyes. “I have been in your position, and it grieves me to deny your heartfelt request. But unlike my father, your husband is guilty, and the evidence of his guilt is known to all of us who are present here. Your pleas tear at my heart, but I cannot do you the cruelty of giving you false hope. If his crimes were any less, mayhaps I could offer to let him take the Black, but Roose Bolton’s crimes were not committed just against mine own family, but against many Northern families and against the gods as well. What would be a kindness to you would be a grave affront to them. Death is the only just sentence.”

Fat Walda began to sob in earnest, and Sansa was crying now too, silent tears dropping down her cheeks and choking her voice. Am I like Joffrey? she wondered, her heart breaking. Images of her father’s head, falling from Ser Ilyn’s sword, covered in tar, on a spike above the Red Keep, swam in her mind’s eye. She swayed, then caught herself, trying to be strong.

“I am so sorry, my lady,” Sansa managed to say. “I promise, I shall not hold you or any child you may carry responsible by association, and I will ensure you are taken care of. Let it be known that no one is to be held a traitor by blood ties alone, but only by their own acts. If indeed you carry Lord Bolton's heir, your child shall inherit, as is his or her right. Please know, as well, that you may leave. You need not watch this happen. I saw my father’s head struck from his body, and I know well how much it hurts to witness such an act. If you wish not to stay, please go, knowing that you have done your best to save him and that your presence here was surely a comfort in his last moments. I would spare you the pain of seeing it, if you would take it. I know that all of that is little comfort, but that is the only form of mercy I can offer you today.”

Fat Walda nodded, and fled. Two Glover men followed her.

After that heart-wrenching moment before the court, Sansa could not deny Lady Bolton the courtesy of carrying out the sentence with her own hand, though it made her ill to think of carving into a man’s flesh, even the flesh of a treacherous man. Because her family had lost its Valyrian steel sword, and because she was not strong enough to wield a greatsword properly at any rate, Sansa would have to use the dagger as Lady Maege had suggested. In a grotesque echo of the way her mother had been slain, she would slice across Lord Bolton’s throat. It took no great physical strength to perform such an act, though until the very last moment, she wondered if she possessed the courage to follow through. She had selected the fathers and brothers and sons of men who had been slain at the Twins, to hold Lord Bolton in place on the snow before the weirwood.

When at last the moment came, the greatest test she had faced thus far, tears again streaked down Sansa’s face. At first, she closed her eyes, but then she opened them, feeling it was wrong to kill a man without looking in his eyes. She shivered at the cold, calm, almost otherworldly blue of Roose Bolton’s eyes. He did not look afraid.

He killed Mother and Robb and many others, when they believed themselves safe by guest right, she reminded herself, trying to gather her courage. I must be strong. I must be a Stark today.

“I am sorry,” she whispered to Lord Roose. “It must be done. It is justice, I cannot shirk it.”

A faint smile played at Roose’s lips, but he said nothing. That little smile chilled Sansa to her bones. Why is he smiling? She thought with horror. What is he thinking? Does he not regret it, what he did? That smile gave her the strength to do as she must. Choking back a sob before it could be heard by others, Sansa placed the dagger to Roose Bolton’s throat. Before she could plunge it into his skin, he finally spoke, so quietly that she almost did not hear him.

“Get it over with, Stark,” he whispered in a tone that sent shivers down her back.

Sansa nodded tearfully and plunged the dagger home, severing his artery and dragging the blade all the way across his throat from ear to ear. Blood ran across her hands and forearms, and she cringed away in horror. When it was done, she dropped the knife and stood, wanting to flee. Seeing the pool, she plunged her hands into it to wash them clean, crying in earnest now. It is not ladylike to cry like this, she thought ridiculously, after performing the most unladylike act she had ever committed in her life. What must they think of me, carrying on like this? But she could not stop crying. It did not matter that he had planned the slaughter at the Twins. She had killed a man.

I have killed a man, she thought, tears streaming from her eyes. I had no choice. But there is so much blood.

“Burn the body,” she instructed them, before running to her chambers to bathe and sob.

 

***

 

Winterfell’s heating system was badly damaged, so Sansa’s only options for bathing were cold water in the castle or the hot springs beneath it. She washed first in cold water, unwilling to allow the blood to remain on her hands for a second longer than strictly necessary. Then she bathed a second time, in the hot springs, sitting there in silence for hours before someone came to check on her. I killed a man, she thought, the tears pouring out once more.

It was Alys Rowan who eventually appeared, carrying her own towel and slipping into the water beside Sansa. They sat there in the hot water, smelling the faint scent of sulfur, without speaking. Sansa wiped at her face and idly scrubbed her hands and arms with a pumice stone.

“Careful, my lady,” remarked Alys softly. “Your skin is already raw from scrubbing.”

Tears came to Sansa’s eyes. “No matter how I scrub, I cannot remove the feeling of his blood upon my hands and arms,” she said blankly. I killed a man, and I cannot stop seeing his blood running over my hands.

“You did what needed to be done,” Alys told her firmly. “I know how you feel. I never wanted to be a warrior, and my heart is still not in it. The first time I slew a man in battle, I begged my father to let me quit, to let me be a simple peacetime lady. He forbid it, and in time, I made my peace with it, but it still weighs heavily on my heart. I would still prefer to strum a harp rather than a bow, but as your House words remind us, winter is always coming. Even ladies must shoulder some of the burden, when there are no men to do the job.”

Sansa did not respond immediately, but she thought on the Rowan lady’s words. To hear that Alys also felt unnatural in the role she had been forced to play strengthened Sansa somewhat, though she still felt utterly wretched. They call it justice, but I scarcely see how it differs from vengeance, she thought morosely.

“It is good to know that I am not alone,” Sansa said finally.

Alys smiled at her. “Before this winter is over, I suspect there will be more like us than anyone imagines.”

“That is not a comforting thought,” replied Sansa, frowning and splashing a bit of water in Alys’s direction, as she had once done with her sister and brothers when they bathed in the hot springs.

“Oh, are you hungry for another battle already?” teased Alys, splashing back more vigorously. Sansa cried out as the water hit her face, and began to splash Alys back in earnest. After both were drenched and giggling, they both relaxed back into the warm water again, enjoying the heat and companionable silence.

Sometimes it is good to feel like the girl I am, thought Sansa, smiling for the first time since the execution.

Eventually, Sansa rose, ready to leave the pool behind. As she reached for her towel, she caught a glimpse of Alys’s stunned expression, and suddenly sank back into the water.

Oh no, oh no, thought Sansa with growing horror. I am wearing only a bathing shift, and I have revealed too much. 

“Sansa…” said Alys carefully. Wide-eyed, Sansa looked back at her, wondering if she was certain enough to speak what she’d seen aloud.

“Yes?” whispered Sansa.

“Your belly…” Alys whispered back.

“You must not tell anyone!” Sansa hissed, quivering.

“I won’t…but…please tell me the babe belongs to Willas?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Sansa groused. “Of course the babe is Willas’s. He is the only man I have ever lain with, and only the one time, at that!”

Alys giggled, unable to help herself. “You only laid with him the one time, on your wedding night, and he got you with child?”

“It happened to my mother, too, during Robert’s Rebellion,” Sansa said crossly. Alys giggled again. It was odd to see how Lady Rowan switched so easily from battle-hardened warrior to gentle, giggling lady. That is what I must become, Sansa thought.

“I guess Olenna is not wrong to keep remarking on the fertility of the Tullys,” she said with good humor. “Do not look so distressed, Sansa. The Tyrells shall be very pleased with you.”

“Will they?” Sansa whispered, serious again. “You do not think they will be angry that I kept it from them and journeyed all this way while with child?”

“Oh, they’ll be mad, all right,” replied Alys airily. “But that anger should be quickly overwhelmed by the joy at having a new heir.”

“You think so?”

“I know so,” said Alys firmly. Sansa breathed a sigh of relief.

“I need to write to Willas,” she admitted. “I just have not been able to compose my thoughts.”

“Well, you have had much and more on your mind,” Alys reassured her. “Just write the facts for now and you can talk of feelings later, when you can look on one another’s faces.”

“That is a good way to think of it,” said Sansa thoughtfully.

 

***

 

Sansa spent the rest of the day with Jeyne, distracting herself from the gruesome execution by throwing herself into planning the restoration of Winterfell. Together, Sansa and Jeyne catalogued the damage and discussed improvements that could be completed during the winter as well as those that must wait until Spring. It made Sansa feel a little better, but when she lay down to sleep that night, her sleep was fitful.

Her old room had been damaged in the fire, so she did not even have the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. Instead, the limited availability of rooms meant she had no choice but to sleep in her parents’ room, where Roose Bolton had laid down his head only the night before. Jeyne helped Sansa strip away the bedding, replaced with bedding found in an out-of-the-way turret, but it did little to keep Sansa from feeling the ghost of blood on her hands.

 

***

 

When Sansa awoke the next morning, she did not have time to feel guilt over Roose Bolton’s death, because she was overcome with wonder before any negative thoughts could seep into her mind. I can feel our baby moving! she thought with glee, pressing a hand to her belly. It was a strange feeling, just a little flutter of movement, but she was certain of it.

As if the baby’s movements had summoned him, Sansa looked up to see her husband’s face. Am I dreaming? she wondered, staring. Have I gone mad?

“Sansa?” Willas said. “Can you see me? Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” said Sansa softly, convinced she must be sleeping still, and that this was surely a dream. “Are you truly here?”

Willas looked relieved. “No, I am using the glass candle. After I received your last letter, I was worried. I wanted to check in on you, but I feel guilty for watching you without your knowledge. My grandfather told me that the glass candle can be used to project visions across large distances. I do not understand quite how it works, but it seems that it does, if you can truly see and hear me.”

Sansa was startled. Could it truly be Willas? What is he talking about – a glass candle? Is this some strange form of magic? Or am I truly mad or dreaming? Then a thought occurred to her.

“Did you watch me when I was on the ship, to White Harbor?” she demanded.

“Yes,” Willas admitted sheepishly. “I only wanted to know that you were safe. I hope you do not mind. I thought…if you had possessed some means of looking in on me, you might have used it too. But that is the only time besides now that I have used the candle to look for you. I did not want to violate your trust.”

“I do not mind,” replied Sansa. A worried look crossed her face. “Willas, there is something I must tell you –”

“There is much that I must tell you, too,” interrupted Willas. “The Targaryens have returned. They have taken Storm’s End, and my father bent the knee to them. I need to know what you plan to do.”

Sansa’s senses fled, and her mouth fell open as she gazed at the apparition before her. “Tar…Targaryens?” she stammered.

“Yes, King Aegon VI and Queen Daenerys, they name themselves,” said Willas impatiently. “We have only a few moments before the candle flickers out. Now tell me, do you intend to bend the knee, as your ancestor Torrhen Stark did? I think it best, and we can discuss it further when you return, but they have dragons, and –”

“I shall not fight another war,” Sansa replied quickly, thinking of the smallfolk in the Riverlands and those that had died fighting the Boltons the previous day. “I shall try to avoid making any gestures either way until I am reunited with you, but if called upon by a pair of dragonriders, I shall bend the knee as Torrhen did.”

“Good,” said Willas. “I also need to warn you that Euron Greyjoy has taken over the Seastone Chair, and you shall need to be very careful on your return voyage, for the Ironborn are actively raiding the coast. Garlan has taken back the Shield Islands, but we expect further attacks. If it no longer seems safe, you must stop at Casterly Rock rather than continuing on to Oldtown. Desmera will harbor you, I am sure of it, and you have said that Tyrion is friendly with you.”

“Yes, I believe they would do me no harm,” agreed Sansa, her mind whirling.

“Now what was it that you needed to tell me?” asked Willas. “We only have a few moments more – ”

Sansa’s mouth went dry. “I am with child!” she blurted, and then the words began to tumble out. “Our child. I carry our child within me, and I have known since Riverrun, and I am so sorry that I did not write you of it, but I was afraid, and I could not find the right words –”

“You carry our child?” replied Willas slowly, the shock of this news written upon his ghostly face. “You have known for moons and you did not tell me?”

“I’m sorry!” Sansa cried. “I wanted to tell you, but whenever I tried to set the words to parchment, my thoughts went blank and I….I knew you would be angry, and I was afraid, so afraid, I just did not know how to say it. I am sorry. I am so sorry. I hope you can forgive me one day.”

“Afraid? Of me?” A strange look crossed Willas’s face.

“Please,” whimpered Sansa. “Please do not hate me. I…I wanted to tell you, I swear it. I am so sorry, so sorry…”

“I do not hate you,” Willas said, somewhat sternly, but then his expression softened. “Afraid…of course, I should have seen it. You have been so brave, it is easy to forget the scars your heart bears from your time in King’s Landing. Yes, Sansa, I am displeased that you withheld this news from me, but it is joyful news, truly. I am delighted to hear it. And yes, I am angry that you did not feel that you could tell me, but I do not hate you, I could not hate you. We can speak of this when you return, but know that I shall love you and our babe, and that you shall have my forgiveness in due time. I am not a monster, Sansa. I shall not hurt you, even if I am angry.”

“You are so kind to me,” Sansa whispered.

“Tell me, Sansa, did your parents never grow angry with one another? Did they never argue?”

“They did, at times,” Sansa admitted.

“And did your father strike Lady Catelyn, when she angered him?”

“Never,” Sansa said, her voice growing stronger.

“Good. Then you should know that a man can love his wife, and grow angry at her words or deeds, without becoming a terror. I shall never strike you, or harm you in any way. I wish you to be honest with me, Sansa, and though I cannot promise never to anger, I shall never give you cause to mistrust me. You should not hesitate to speak the truth to me, even if you fear that I will mislike it. I can handle it, Sansa. I will not hurt you if you say something I mislike.”

“There’s one more thing, lord husband,” said Sansa quickly, her thoughts suddenly racing, as if his comforting words had melted the sludgy slowness of her mind into a gushing river. “Well, several, actually. Send the ship to Fever instead of Barrowton, to bring me home. I am coming home, truly this time. The Boltons are dead and Winterfell is ours. Also, my brothers Bran and Rickon are said to be alive. I have sent my brother Jon to fetch Rickon from Skagos, and if he returns, I have agreed not to challenge his claim to the North.”

“What – ” That was all Willas was able to say before his image began to fade.

I hope he heard me, Sansa thought, staring at the blank space her husband’s astral self had occupied only moments before. The baby kicked at her, as if excited to hear its father’s voice.

“That is your father, little one,” Sansa cooed, running a hand across her belly. “He is a good man. You shall like him, I know it.”

Collapsing back against her pillow, Sansa lost herself in thought. I had no time to decide, she reflected, thinking of the news about the Targaryens and hoping she had not made a terrible mistake. I must get home so that I might discuss this all with Willas. So that we may have a proper conversation, rather than one conducted in stolen moments, by some magical device.

Eventually, Sansa shook herself from her reverie and dressed. There was much and more to be done, so that she could return home. Getting her thoughts in order, she called first for Jeyne, who was very happy to see Sansa functioning normally again, focused on the important tasks rather than caught up in her worries about the execution and the babe.

“You look much better! Did you sleep well?” said Jeyne as she joined Sansa in the bedroom.

“You might say so,” replied Sansa, knowing she would only sound mad if she were to tell Jeyne that she had just seen Willas. It shall be our little secret for now, mine and his, she thought, her heart warming at the idea that they had grown close enough to hold secrets together.

“Good, I’m glad to hear it,” said Jeyne. “Now, what was it you needed to speak with me about?”

Sansa grew serious. “I have a notion in my mind, but I wish you to know that you may decline, if you do not wish the responsibility or if you have some place you would rather be than here,” she told her friend.

“Oh? What is on your mind?” Jeyne asked, looking curious, if slightly worried.

“I wondered if you might…would you like to serve as Castellan of Winterfell, whilst I am gone?” Sansa asked. “I know it is not the safest place to wait out winter, so you must tell me if you do not want the position until I have returned and can personally see to your safety, but you would have the protection of Cerwyn and Manderly men – ”

Jeyne interrupted Sansa by throwing her arms around her, squealing with delight.

“It would be an honor, Sansa!” Jeyne cried. The two smiled at one another.

“Truly?” asked Sansa. “I thought, there is no one better for the job. Your father was once Castellan, and I know you learned bits of his trade from him. I trust you, more than anyone else to oversee the reconstruction of Winterfell, but if you would rather come South with me as my lady-in-waiting or if there is aught else you wish, I could find someone else – ”

“Don’t be silly, Sansa,” replied Jeyne. “I want nothing more than to serve as your Castellan. It would be good to have a place and a purpose, and I cannot wait to see your face when you return, to find your family’s home restored and improved. I know exactly how to approach the task after our conversation yesterday.”

“Oh, good!” exclaimed Sansa, beaming. “You shall be perfect at the job, I know it! I am so glad you have decided to accept the position.”

“I cannot believe you thought I might not want it!” said Jeyne, laughing.

After Jeyne, Sansa called another meeting of the Northern Lords and Ladies. She granted Robett Glover leave to retake his family’s seat, with the support of Tallhart, Hornwood, and Mormont men. With the exception of those Houses, Sansa requested that each of the leal Houses contribute five men to garrison Winterfell, in addition to half of Castle Cerwyn’s forces and a substantial force made up of Manderly men. Finally, she and her honor guard spoke with Lord Wyman separately, to iron out their plans for Rickon’s regency and what would happen if Jon was not able to locate him. They also discussed Lord Wyman’s plans for taking the Dreadfort, though Sansa advised him that he was to retreat if the plans went awry.

“You have done so much for House Stark already,” she told him. “I would not have you cripple your forces taking the Dreadfort now that the Boltons are already extinguished. It is no longer an urgent task, though I give you leave to fight for it, if you deem it necessary.”

“Someone ought to take it,” Manderly replied. “And if it is not me, I suspect it shall be Stannis. I do not wish for him to gain a toehold here.”

“That is wise,” Sansa agreed. “But please promise me that you shall retreat if necessary.”

“Of course,” said Wyman, impatiently. “I am not a fool. If it does not look as if we shall be able to take it now, we can always do so in the Spring.”

“One last thing,” said Sansa, before she dismissed Lord Wyman. “I wish to tell you how truly grateful I am for your leal service. If you wish it, you shall have a marriage alliance as a reward, or whatever else you wish of me. I cannot say for certain which Stark shall be available – Rickon was always a wild boy, and I cannot promise that he will listen to my advice on marriage – but if none of my siblings are willing and available, I hope to offer mine own son or daughter one day.”

Lord Wyman looked at her with curiosity. Sansa flushed.

“I am with child,” she informed him. “I know not if it shall be a girl or boy, and of course my lord husband must have a say, but I hope to have several children one day, so there ought be ample choices. We need not decide anything now, but I wanted you to know that I am open to the idea, and that my gratitude for all your assistance runs deep.”

“I am honored, my lady,” replied Lord Wyman warmly. “Is this news that I might share with others?”

“It is less of a secret than it once was,” Sansa admitted. “But until I reach Highgarden, I should like for it to remain quiet.”

“Very well,” said Lord Wyman. “Congratulations, my lady! It is good to hear that the Stark line shall continue, and I would be delighted to make a match between your family and my own when the wars are concluded and the snows begin to melt.”

“Wonderful,” replied Sansa. They parted with a hug, and Lord Wyman insisted on sending at least a few men to help escort her to Fever.

With all her plans in place, and the North secured, Sansa gathered her honor guard and began the long ride to Fever.