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His True Queen

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During all his years serving as Hand in King’s Landing, Davos Seaworth never forgot what true winter had felt like. He remembered the frozen North, and the Great Wall, and the dead things that came during the long night. He remembered what it was like, not to see the sun for days, to go to sleep feeling cold and wake up nearly frozen. Winter is coming, the Starks of Winterfell had always warned, but no one had been wise enough to listen. The red woman had been wrong about many things, but she was right about this- Stannis’ real war had only begun after he had conquered the seven kingdoms.

Winter was, at long last, fading away into spring. Up in the North they still spoke of snow storms, but down in the South the weather had grown increasingly warmer.  Spring was finally returning, and at long last, King Stannis’ true war was at an end. Grand Maester Pylos had received a raven from the citadel almost a moon past, and Davos shared the excitement that had seemingly taken over King’s Landing. The wars of the Great Houses had lasted for years, and by the time they were over winter had come. The small folk were eager to live again in times of peace and prosperity.

Unfortunately, winter was still very much present when Davos woke up in the darkness of his chambers. Alone, without Marya’s comforting warmth, it had taken the ex-smuggler a long time to muster the will to rise from his bed. The stone floor beneath his feet was uncomfortably cold. The water basin, which had been left by the open window by some servant, had frozen over during the night. Unwilling to disturb his attendants at such an early hour, he had settled for breaking the ice with his bare fingers and washing his face in cold water. As expected, the action only served to sour his mood further.

It was still dark, and quite near unbearably cold, when Davos stepped out of his chambers in Maegor’s Holdfast. The tower of the Hand had not been restored properly since Cersei Lannister had burnt it down, and Davos was in no rush to see it rebuilt. The only reassuring sign that morning had, in fact, arrived, was the Blackfish’s presence outside his door. Despite being over sixty, and more than fifteen years his senior, Ser Brynden was always waiting in the corridor when Davos stepped out of his chambers each morning.

“About time, Lord Hand”, the Blackfish’s rasp was a source of odd comfort to Davos, as was his familiar form propped against the wall. Instead of answering, the Hand of the King merely brought his gloved hands up to cover his mouth, and blew hot air in a futile attempt to warm them. Gods, but he was growing old! Every bone in his body had protested when he had tried to climb out of the warmth of his bed. The stubs of his fingers, where Stannis had chopped them off so many years ago, felt completely numb, and the various cuts on his palms and forearms throbbed in a deep, dull ache. Age is catching up with me, the former smuggler thought miserably. Age, and that cursed throne.

Davos raised his eyes to look at the Lord Commander of Stannis’ Kingsguard. As was customary, Ser Brynden Tully was dressed completely in white. Davos admired the craftsmanship of the intricate suit of white enameled scales, only partially hidden by Ser Brynden’s heavy white cloak. The only item of clothing which was not pristine white was the clasp of his cloak; instead it was made of black obsidian, in the shape of a leaping trout.  Family, duty, honor, Davos recalled the Tully words. Here is a man worthy of his white cloak.

Stannis had originally intended to see the Blackfish instated as the Lord of Riverrun, preferring the uncle to the nephew, the incompetent Edmure Tully. The thought of marriage and a castle must have been terrifying for the aging knight, who had begged Stannis to allow him to swear his oaths to the king instead. Stannis had been furious before she had taken it upon herself to speak on her great uncle’s behalf. I should’ve seen, even back then, how great her influence over him had become.

“How long have you been standing here?” Davos asked, before indicating with his shortened fingers that they ought to begin their walk towards the small council chambers. Instead of answering, the silver-haired knight merely pushed himself off the wall and began to walk away. Davos followed belatedly, and had to rush the first few steps to catch up. Ser Brynden was a tall man, especially when compared to his own, slight build. The Blackfish was also fond of a brisk pace, something he shared with his King. The two were often spotted together, walking quickly and speaking in low tones. As he often had to with Stannis, Davos had little choice but to hurry along.

“I seem to have an abundance of free time recently”, Tully’s bright blue eyes peered at him sideways, shrewdly, as Davos finally caught up. “I admit it has made it easier to be at your doorstep each morning, even if I am the only one who does not resent you for maintaining the King’s schedule in his absence”. The only sound to be heard around them was their own shuffling feet and the metal clanging of Ser Brynden’s armor, as they made their way outside the corridor, down the spiraling stairway, and out into the open yard.

Davos felt the wind hit his body suddenly and brutally as they crossed the cobbled yard quickly, both men keeping their heads down in an attempt to avoid the wind’s vicious lashings. Outside it was easy to see that dawn had already gathered far in the east, where lighter shades of grey were becoming visible. The red keep, however, was still shrouded in darkness, and most of its’ residents were still asleep.

The small council of King Stannis Baratheon gathered nearly every day, always before the break of dawn. The King knew it was a harsh requirement he had set forth, but as always, he had left it up to his Hand to appease his grumbling Lords. Davos made sure that the hearth was always lit well before the council gathered, and that food and drinks were readily available. Stannis would never partake, of course. In fact, the King was seemingly appalled whenever one of his Lords chose to eat while in session. But he suffered in silence, and Davos had learned to seek little else in the way of approbation from his stern liege.

In the absence of the King, however, it was exceedingly difficult to convince the council to keep their rigorous schedule. Their form of rebellion had come in their refusal to rise for their regular session. It was the only time in nearly eight years of Stannis’ rule that Davos had resorted to threats. The message he had sent to the Lords of the council had been curt and brief:

Any Lord who finds himself occupied with matters of greater concern than those of the Realm, can consider himself excused immediately from their role on the council, pending the King’s Justice upon his return’.

As the two men entered the Great Hall, Davos wondered if any of the Lords of the Small council would dare test him further. He fervently hoped they would not. He was tired, so tired, of sitting on that damn throne and delivering the King’s justice day after torturous day. The Iron Throne had to be the single most uncomfortable seat in the world, Davos had no doubt of that. It was fortunate that, as Hand to King Stannis, he had rarely sat upon it. Stannis trusted Davos implicitly, but Stannis saw it as his duty to sit on the throne, and Davos was too relieved to try and object. He marveled at Stannis’ ability to do so indefinitely, without showing signs of fatigue or resentment. No man could ever fault King Stannis Baratheon for not doing his duty.

“The King wished for the council to meet early, so that the business of the realm could be carried out efficiently over the oncoming day. His absence does not negate that logic, despite what those honorable Lords say”, Davos’ voice was gruff with anger, but Ser Brynden only laughed good naturedly. Of all the King’s council members, only Ser Brynden had remained silent about the King’s continued absence. The Blackfish was well aware of Stannis’ destination, since two of his sworn brothers had ridden out with the King. If the Blackfish looked upon the situation unfavorably, Davos could not tell. But then, much like his King, the Blackfish rarely argued with her. Davos knew the woman bore a striking resemblance to her dead mother, Tully’s beloved niece. He wondered if that was the source of her thrall over the otherwise indomitable man.

“It is, after all, the hour of the wolf. It is no wonder the King is so fond of it”, Davos’ eyes shot quickly to Ser Brynden’s face, to gauge the meaning behind the jape. Had the man so easily discovered where my own thoughts had strayed? But Ser Brynden’s smile was soft, the crows-feet around his blue eyes crinkled in good humor. His intention was clearly not sinister, but Davos was left feeling discomfited all the same. He bore the Lady Stark no ill will, for sure, but her influence over the King had become... disconcerting. Ser Brynden would never openly object to Lady Stark’s actions, but Davos wondered whether the other Lords of the council would share the Blackfish’s views.

As they entered the chambers of the small council, Davos was relieved to find that the other four men had already gathered around the table. Stannis would be proud of me, Davos thought. Then Lord Garlan Tyrell opened his mouth, and Davos’ pleasure turned to ash.   

“Where is the King?” Lord Garlan demanded to know, his brilliant hazel eyes still seemingly clouded with sleep. No, Davos thought with dread, these Lords will never be as understanding as the Blackfish. If they ever find out, if Stannis does something foolish… We’ve barely managed to survive the last war.

“Lord Hand, I ask you again- it has been nearly a fortnight, where is the King?” Lord Garlan Tyrell, Master of Ships, had a pleasant voice and a handsome face. Davos had taken an immediate disliking to the man upon his naming to the council, following Stannis’ ascension to the throne, but had grudgingly changed his mind over the course of time. Lord Garlan’s family had been a thorn in Stannis’ side throughout the war. First as Renly’s staunchest supporters, then as the Lannister’s. But Garlan had been the first of his family to bend the knee before Stannis, and his proud family had eventually followed. As if they had a choice, Davos scoffed internally, Stannis was eager to have their heads.

Stannis had rewarded Garlan’s surrender by naming him to the council. Davos had objected vehemently, stating firmly that the roses of Highgarden were not to be trusted. He had also recounted Garlan’s role in the battle of the Blackwater- where Garlan had donned Lord Renly’s armor to strike fear in the hearts of Stannis’ men. Stannis’ reply had revealed to Davos a depth of change his King had undergone. “I have to bring them into the fold, if I am to rule peacefully”, the King had spitted the words out as if they were ash in his mouth, and his jaw had tightened visibly before he continued. “I will not have the great houses plot behind my back. Let the roses of Highgarden see how highly I will raise their second son for kneeling before me, and hopefully the rest will follow”.

And they had followed, all of them, led firmly by their new Lord- Willas Tyrell. Together, the two elder brothers proved to be great assets to the throne, and Davos grudgingly learned to respect both siblings. Unfortunately, Garlan was dangerously perceptive, and unafraid of voicing his opinions. Damn Stannis for valuing honest men so much.

 “The King is out hunting”, Davos could hear the lie in his own voice, even as he took his place at the head of the table. After twelve days of repeating the same words, the lie still came out hesitant and weak. One glance at Lord Tyrell’s narrowed eyes told Davos it was also unconvincing. If Stannis wanted his council to believe he was hunting, he should have taken the time to do some actual hunting in the years he has sat the throne, Davos thought darkly, as his eyes took the gathered men in, one by one.

“The King is out hunting”, Davos repeated, this time firmly. “I have received a raven from him yesterday, he and his party are well, and he is uncertain as to when the hunt will be concluded. In the meanwhile, my Lords, we have far greater matters to address”. The Lords muttered and grumbled amongst themselves, but eventually the meeting proceeded. Davos sighed in relief, then forced himself to put aside his concerns for Stannis, and instead- do his duty.

The day went by easily enough after that. Marya arrived shortly before nightfall, and Davos was relieved to have an excuse to sup alone with his wife, away from the curious eyes of the court. He dreaded another encounter with Lord Garlan, and besides, he had missed his wife terribly while she was away. Marya was now the Lady of Dragonstone, and as such was often away from King’s Landing. With her husband serving as Hand, the former commoner had no choice but to learn how to run the great castle on her own. Davos was proud to say she excelled at it, and was much loved by the people there.

Despite her many years as a ‘Lady’, his wife was still as direct and unassuming as ever. Her attitude towards him had never changed, for which he was eternally grateful. He knew the Lords of Westeros still muttered about his common upbringing behind his back, but in his presence they always took care to be polite. More so once it became common knowledge that Lord Seaworth’s good opinion was the surest way to gain the King’s favor.

His wife did not require the King’s favor, nor was she in the habit of being particularly polite. Something Davos appreciated greatly when, before their meal was even finished, his wife dragged him to their bed, demanding he fulfill his duty to her. Davos followed his wife eagerly, grateful for the distraction. His lovemaking was not strictly on the gentle side, but Marya encouraged him with soft endearments, then later with heartfelt little moans. As his pleasure overtook him, Davos thought of nothing except for how good it felt to be embraced so by his common, extraordinary wife.

Afterwards, Davos welcomed the sensation of sated bliss as he held his wife close. Naked under the blankets, sharing each other’s warmth, husband and wife talked in hushed tones of their children, of Dragonstone and Cape Wrath, of the spring that was coming. All were happy things, welcome news. They were cuddled closely together, Marya’s back to his front, and Davos was so close to sleep he almost missed his wife’s following words.

“Sansa Stark is rumored to have birthed a bastard boy”, her words had the same effect on him as the ice water had had in the morning. He was instantly awake, and in a foul mood.

“Careful, Marya”, he growled into his wife’s shoulder, tightening his arm’s hold around her middle. But as always, his wife did not find her husband intimidating in the least.

“I am merely stating a fact, husband”, his wife pinched his forearm playfully, before turning in his arms to face him. She wore a comforting smile, but Davos nonetheless felt trapped.

“How can a rumor be stated as fact?” His voice was rough, and Marya’s smile turned into a scowl. With a resigned huff, Davos disentangled his body from his wife’s embrace, and rose out of the bed. The room was mildly chilly, despite the fire still burning in the hearth. Ignoring his naked state, Davos took a seat before the fireplace, running the short stubs of his left hand fingers through his greying hair. Behind him, he heard the rustling of the bed sheets as his wife too left the warmth of their bed.

“Am I wrong in assuming the King’s mysterious absence is confirmation enough?” Marya, also naked, took the seat across his. Davos stared at the play of light and shadow the flames cast on his wife. Her soft, sagging breasts were illuminated by the fire, her large nipples shining. His wife had never been beautiful, but Davos loved her well. He could never imagine Lady Stark sitting as his wife was now, naked and unconcerned, before her lover. My King, Davos thought bitterly, her lover is my King.

“Is it truly so obvious?” Davos heard the fear in his voice. Lady Stark was the ruler of the North, her brother Rickon still too young to govern in his own right. She was well loved by her sworn banners, and had strong ties to the Riverlands through her Tully mother, and to the Vale due to young Lord Arryn’s keen affection for his cousin. That sickly boy had asked to marry her, Davos recalled grimly, Stannis had grinded his teeth so hard I thought they’d shatter.

Sansa would’ve made a glorious Queen. It was a cruel joke the gods had played on his King, to let him find such a magnificent Queen when he was already bound to another. Selyse Baratheon was not the Queen Stannis needed, but she was the one he had taken. Duty and honor had kept Stannis from casting her aside, despite her inability to produce heirs. However, duty and honor had not been enough to keep him from taking Sansa Stark to his bed, and now, when she has given him a child…

“No”, his wife’s sure voice cut through his grim thoughts. “I don’t think anyone in court can believe the King is capable of fathering a bastard”. Davos snorted at his wife’s dry tone. He too, would not have believed Stannis capable of such things, but that had been before his King had met the She-Wolf of the North.

“He rode out mere hours after this rumor reached him. A black brother was here to recruit new members for the watch, and during our conversation the man innocently mentioned that during his stop at Winterfell he had learned Lady Stark had given birth to a black-haired bastard. I swear, Marya, the King’s face was a storm captured in stone. I thought he might kill the poor man”.

Marya’s hand reached out across the distance between them, and captured his own. Davos was alarmed to find his hands were freezing, Marya’s warmth shocking against his numb skin.

“He refused to hear reason. He refused to write to the woman. He agreed to take only two sworn shields, nothing more. He was… I have never seen him so distraught. I do not know which I fear worse- that Lady Stark’s bastard is his, or that she has taken someone else into her bed”.

They were quiet for a long time after that. Marya stared into the fire, and rubbed comforting circles into the palm of his hand. Davos stared at his wife, trying to draw strength from her presence, but the lines that had gathered on her brow proved that even his wife thought the matter grave.

“Does the Queen know?” Marya’s voice was small, pensive, and Davos knew she was frightened. The last time Stannis went to war, four of their children had died. House Florent was not strong enough to rise against the King alone, but many might join them if they felt the King had offended their honor by legitimizing a bastard boy born outside of marriage. Especially if he was the son of a northern Lady the southern Lords already felt had too much power.

“I believe she is ignorant”, Davos prayed to any and all gods that his words were true. “She cares little for the King’s actions, as long as she feels her honor as Queen is maintained”. The long years of winter had clashed with Selyse’ desire to rival Cersei Lannister’s opulence. She was thwarted by the Braavosi, Tycho Nestoris, who had taken on the duties of master of coin. The banker was a master of walking the fine line between taking every single available coin as recompense on the loans owned by the throne to the Iron Bank, while always keeping the kingdom safe from starvation. There were no feasts, or tourneys, or even fancy clothes in court, but everyone was well fed, and no riots had sprung since the Braavosi had begun his duties. If anything, Stannis seemed pleased by the humble way of living the Braavosi had forced upon his court. Selyse, unfortunately, was not.

“If he decides to legitimize the bastard, what would happen to Shireen?” Marya did not know the princess well, but all her sons were fond of her, and she knew her husband adored his princess with all his heart. While Shireen could never be considered pretty, with her large ears and the scars left by the greyscale, her obvious standing as Stannis’ sole heir had made her increasingly popular amongst the highborn families.

“She would still be a princess, but not heir apparent to the throne”, Davos wondered if all the young admirers Shireen had gained during the past few years would still be so eager then. “To be honest, she might even feel relieved. She does not wish to rule, and there has never been a Queen upon the Iron Throne”. It was not Shireen he was concerned about, not really. The young, gentle girl from Dragonstone had grown into an intelligent young woman, and she was far from naïve. Comes from having someone try to burn you alive to appease a blood-thirsty demon god.

No, as always, he was concerned for his King. Many thought Stannis was made of iron, few believed him capable of emotions. But Davos knew better than most. He knew the King loved his daughter, deeply and beyond reason. He had also seen the fire the red priestess had kindled in his eyes, a fire that had nothing to do with her god. But even those two could never sway Stannis once his mind had been made up. Sansa Stark, on the other hand, had the unnerving ability to stand, always calm and collected, under Stannis’ withering gaze and fight the King for what she thought was right. More often than not, she won.

Marya pulled on his hand, demanding his attention. Davos raised his eyes from the fire, and had to wait a moment until his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. His wife was smiling again, and when she tugged on his hand Davos rose from his seat, unresisting. He followed his wife like a loyal dog as she led him back to their bed, and allowed her to push him back unto it, and under the thick blankets. When she also made her way under the blankets, their cold feet brushed against each other, and they found themselves laughing.

“I wouldn’t worry too much”, his wife said once they quieted down, her voice still playful. “You have always said that Stannis is the most just man you’ve ever met”. His wife reached for his left hand and, raising his stubs to her lips, proceeded to kiss each one in turn. Davos forced a smile to appear, and pressed a kiss to his wife’s greying hair.

Not long after, his wife’s gentle snoring announced she had fallen asleep. Unable to follow her example, Davos rose once again from the bed and dressed as silently as he could. Slipping out of their room, he made the long voyage to the White Tower, climbed to the top floor, and knocked on the door.

When, at last, Ser Brynden opened the door, the man seemed utterly unsurprised. “Can’t sleep, eh?” the Blackfish had a crooked smile, but it was a familiar, welcome sight by now. Davos nodded with a sigh, and the Blackfish moved away from the door, signaling the Hand to follow him inside.

“You don’t sleep at all, do you Tully?” Davos considered the small room, the numerous books and parchments spread across the large table, and the small, untouched bed. He had been inside the Lord Commander’s chambers many times, but he had never seen the bed turned down. If the Blackfish ever did sleep, he did not do so in his bed.

Ser Brynden snorted, and clapped Davos strongly on the shoulder. “The older I get, the less sleep I require”, Tully’s voice was dry, and his small smile made his bright blue eyes sparkle. He poured more red wine into his cup, and offered it to Davos. “Drink, friend, it will make it easier”.

“What?” Davos asked, not understanding.

“The waiting”, Tully replied solemnly, and all traces of his smile disappeared from his wrinkled face. Davos sought some sign of reassurance, but the lines that were engraved into Ser Brynden’s face were grave. These lines were made out of sorrow, out of grief, Davos thought, and his heart ached for his friend, for his King, and for the young Lady whom they both seemed to love so fiercely.

Chapter Text

Harwin had arrived just before dawn, after riding through the night, to bring word that the King was less than a day’s ride from Winterfell. Harwin had been following the King ever since he had crossed the burnt ruins of the Twins, keeping them appraised of his progress. He was the only man in Lady Stark’s service capable of riding faster than the King, given how relentlessly Stannis had been pushing his horses. Standing in her bed chamber, with only a plain grey robe to cover her nightclothes, Lady Stark had smiled at her master-of-horses, and warmly thanked him for his efforts. The exhausted man had blushed so deeply that the color of his face nearly matched the color of his Lady’ fiery hair.

As a silent bystander, Sarella Sand once again marveled at the effect Lady Stark had on men. She had been accustomed all her life to a dark, seductive, warm kind of beauty; had seen it being used many times, by her cousin, Arianne, and her older sisters. But until she had met Sansa Stark, she had never realized the dangerous effects of cold, unaffected, untouched beauty. When Lady Stark offered one of her rare, warm smiles, even the coldest of her northern men melted like snow under the burning heat of the sun.

Harwin departed shortly after delivering his message, in search of his bed. It was not surprising that Sansa’s horseman was worn out. Sarella remembered only too well what a murderous pace Stannis Baratheon could dictate when the stubborn man was in a rush. He nearly killed half the horses and most of the men before we reached the Wall, Sarella recalled with a grimace.

Following Harwin’s departure, Osha quickly emerged from the corridor, carrying two large buckets of steaming water. The wildling woman’s hair was streaked with grey, but she still stood tall and strong. Ever since she had brought Rickon back to Winterfell, from the island of Skagos, she had been the Starks most trusted servant.

Osha filled the large tub, her lean muscles straining to hold the heavy buckets in the air. Sarella’s black, viper eyes followed the woman’s every move, pointedly ignoring Sansa as she undressed by the fireplace. As if sensing her stare, Osha’s brown eyes found the Maester’s, and the wildling woman smirked as though she knew some great secret. Sarella averted her eyes in discomfort. The wildling had an eerie way of simply knowing things. Sarella often wondered if the woman was also aware of her own, private secret.

Osha did not approve of Maesters in general, and she only barely tolerated Sarella. Even the dark shade of her skin, so common amongst the people of the Summer Isles, seemed to displease the wildling. I wonder what she might think, if she ever found out I am not a man, Sarella wondered, would she despise me more or less?

As Sansa sank into the bath with a grateful sigh, Sarella began pacing back and forth across the large bedchamber, unable to remain still any longer. Her heavy grey robes dragged behind her as she moved, and the chain she had forged during her time in the Citadel felt heavy and cold around her neck. The desperate need to move, to do something, was too strong for the Dornishwoman.

“Will you not rest, Alleras?” Sarella paused mid-stride, and cast an angry look at her Lady, before resuming her restless movements. Sansa’s expression remained pleasant under her Maester’s harsh glare, and her voice was as calm as ever when she added- “We have done everything within our power to be prepared for his arrival”.

They were indeed well prepared for the King’s arrival, despite Stannis’ attempt to travel unannounced. Lady Stark had many friends across the Riverlands, eager to gain favor with the ruler of the North. They had known the King was on his way long before he had even crossed the Trident. The castle had been cleaned, and rooms had been prepared for the King and his company. They had hunted game for a feast in the King’s honor, and had taken everything they could spare from their glass gardens. When the King finally did arrive, it would seem as though he had been expected well ahead of time.

 “You have not seen him in over a year”, the Maester finally remarked, and ceased her pacing in favor of staring out of the large open window, down unto the yard below. Despite the early hour, she could see Sansa’s brother, Rickon, down in the yard with Winterfell’s master-at-arms and some of the boys. The young Lord was very skilled for his age, quick and strong and vicious. The Starks had always been well loved in the North, and Rickon’s older sister used that love to rule. Rickon was liked well enough, but Sarella had no doubt in her mind that Lord Stark would grow to be fearsome.

“I thought I would not see him again for the rest of my life”, Sarella turned to look at her Lady once more. Sansa’s face was flushed pink from the heat of the water, and her long auburn hair draped around her like wet seaweed. She wore an expression of utter serenity on her face, as though she could not care less about the unexpected arrival of the King.

Sarella found herself envious of Lady Stark’s ability to focus on the simple pleasures at hand, such as the bath she was currently enjoying. Sansa took joy in so many simple things- a dance, a song, a pretty dress. However, in Sansa’s case, simple did not imply stupid. If anything, Sansa was the most ruthless and most talented player Sarella had ever encountered in the game of thrones. Any woman capable of single-handedly outwitting Littlefinger and rallying the Lords of the Vale to her cause, deserves to be properly recognized and feared, Sarella remembered thinking, back when Lady Stark had been little more than a stranger to her.

“If you did not wish to see him again, you should have taken the moon tea I had prepared for you”, Sarella knew her words were harsh, and she regretted them immediately as Sansa’s face twisted in displeasure. Good, a stubborn part of her mind insisted firmly, pushing aside her illogical need to protect her Lady, she cannot go on ignoring the danger she has put us all in.

“Osha, please leave us”, Sansa’s tone was not to be disobeyed, and Osha gave a mocking bow before hurriedly stepping out of the room and shutting the door firmly behind her. Whatever secrets Osha was privy to, the identity of the father of Sansa’s child was not one of them apparently.

When they were finally alone, Sansa turned her piercing blue eyes back to the Maester. “Choose your words more carefully, Alleras”, Sansa’s tone had grown as cold as winter, and her words held a sharp edge of warning. Sarella knew she had pushed her Lady too far, but she could not help herself from pushing further.

“What other reason does he have for coming here like this, in secret, like some thief?” Sarella watched as Sansa’s expression darkened further, pleased that at long last her indifferent façade was cracking. “He has not written a single word to you since he left, has shown no interest in coming here ever again. He is clearly not coming here because he misses the feel of your cunt, Sansa…”

“You will cease, Maester”, Sansa rose out of the bath in one fluid motion, her arm outstretched before her as though to stop Sarella’s words from hitting her. It was unheard of to see the Lady Stark raise her voice in such a manner, and Sarella forcefully bit back the rest of her words, well aware that she had stepped unto dangerous grounds.

Sansa was not, by nature, quick to anger or to take slight. But her long years of being a pawn in others’ schemes had taught her the important lesson of taking control of her own situation, of never allowing others to dictate her actions. It was the reason why she had vehemently refused all proposals of marriage, though there had been many over the years. It was also the reason why it was never a clever idea to arouse her ire in such a manner. Sansa did not tolerate such presumptions, even from her closest advisors. 

Sarella sighed heavily, and took a step back, wordlessly expressing her surrender to Sansa’s will. Closer now to the open window, Sarella felt the cold air penetrate through her heavy grey robes, making her shiver. It had been snowing softly for the past three days, before the snow had finally ceased to fall the previous evening. The northerners called it a ‘spring shower’, and took it as a welcome sign of the oncoming summer. Sarella, having spent her entire childhood in Dorne, did not understand. She remembered spring quite differently, with beautiful sunny days and warm breezes that would come from the sea and sweep through the Water Gardens.

Sarella wrapped her robes more securely around her slender figure, and watched as Sansa wrapped herself in warm grey furs, choosing to remain naked underneath. In the uncomfortable silence, both women calmed down quickly, both equally aware that the real danger was still outside of Winterfell, but fast approaching. When Sarella opened her mouth to speak again, she made sure her voice was soft, her tone concerned rather than accusing.

“He is coming for Ned, Sansa”, it broke her heart to see the fear in Sansa’s eyes, the tension in her face. “There can be no other reason. He is coming to take your child away”.

Sansa shook her head, forcefully, as if denying the words, and small droplets of water escaped from her wet hair and soaked into the fur. She suddenly seemed so very small, bundled inside her furs, and so very young. They say bastards grow up faster than true-born sons, Sarella thought sadly, but what can they say of those who have lost their entire family to war and treachery?

“He will not take my son from me. He cannot.” Sansa’s voice was clear and strong, and her face twisted into a look of cold determination. Sarella admired her Lady for her strength, for her resolution, but that did not mean she could not disagree with her.

Cannot?” Sarella fought to keep her voice calm. “Sansa, he is the King. He is desperate to have a male heir. He is honor bound to care for the boy, even if he does not legitimize him. He will never let you keep him”. Much like my own father did not allow my mother to keep me, Sarella thought to herself. The Red Viper of Dorne was famous for taking care of his bastard daughters, but only Ellaria’s children had had the pleasure of growing up by their mother. She had been twelve when she had finally realized she could no longer remember her mother clearly. The memories she had had of the woman had been eaten away by distance and time. Sarella doubted whether she would recognize her if she saw the woman today.

“I will not allow it”, there was a defiant look in Sansa’s eyes, and her jaw clenched in a manner not dissimilar to Stannis himself.

“Then you will go to war?” Sarella shuddered as she uttered the question, but it had nothing to do with the cold breeze coming from the window. “You will call your banners and threaten to rebel if the King does not leave your son in peace? It is a dangerous thing you are considering, Sansa. Stannis will fight, have no doubt”. Stannis Baratheon did nothing by halves. Nor was he likely to overlook a perceived slight against his honor.

“I cannot let my son go”, Sansa’s tone was final, and fierce. “Ned and Rickon are all the family I have left in the world, and Ned will be my only child”, there was a small catch in her Lady’s voice, but Sansa’s eyes remained dry, her stare determined. “I will die to keep them by my side, I will go to war to keep them by my side. I will burn King’s Landing a thousand times over before I let Stannis Baratheon take my child back to that wretched place.”

“Then employ your charms, my Lady”, Sarella encouraged, though she held little hope that Stannis was still as susceptible to Sansa’s suggestions as he had been. Stannis was a proud man, a stubborn man, and it was more than likely that he had come to regret his attachment to Sansa. “But be prepared to summon your banners to your side”, the Maester cautioned. She fervently hoped that Sansa would not put too much faith in Stannis’ kindness, such as it was.

Barely four hours later, and much too soon for comfort, the watchers posted on the walls of the castle sounded the alarm, announcing the King’s imminent arrival. Sarella rushed from the Maester’s quarters to the King’s gate, located on the other side of the castle, and tried her best to organize the assembled household into some semblance of order. The large yard, flanked by the two high towers of the armory and the great keep, was completely covered in fresh white snow from yesterday. It was almost sad to see the beautiful sight turning into brown mud as the pristine snow crushed under the heels of the entire Stark household.

She was grateful to see Lord Rickon arriving, clean and impeccably dressed for a change, and thankfully, without his black beast. The direwolf was a vicious animal; loyal beyond measure, but prone to violence. The very last thing they needed was to have the wolf attempting to chew the King’s head off. Sarella was confident the King’s mood would prove to be foul enough without any further provocation.

Lord Rickon Stark was weeks away from his fourteenth nameday, but he was tall and broad for his age, and looked very distinguished in his House’s colors of grey and white. His auburn hair, the same fiery shade as his sister’s, fell to his shoulders, and the boy was not fond of cutting it. His eyes were much lighter than Sansa’s, leaning towards pale grey rather than blue. His eyes could be quite unsettling, and his gaze was often piercing. She felt it keenly now, as it followed her closely, watching her struggle with the Skagosi soldiers.

When Rickon had returned to Winterfell, a small number of Skagosi warriors had come with him, to swear their allegiance to the young Wolf before the Heart Tree of his ancestors. They were fierce warriors, blood-thirsty, fearless and loyal. Sarella recalled their bravery against the army of the dead with great respect. But most of them barely spoke the common tongue, and cared little about appearing presentable before a King they did not recognize as their own. Gods, have mercy; do not let Stannis catch them referring to the young Lord as their King, Sarella prayed as she continued to argue with the leader of the fighters.

Cadeyrn was the fourth son of the Magnar of Kinghouse on the island of Skagos. He was remarkably large, bringing to mind the stories claiming the Skagosi were descendants of giants. Like many of the Skagosi warriors, he shaved his hair closely, and his face was tattooed with elaborate blue markings. Cadeyrn had a good grasp of the common tongue, as did most of the tribal leaders of the Skagosi, but the man clearly enjoyed watching the Maester struggle and stumble over the harsh, guttural words of his native tongue.

Seeing his teacher fail miserably, the young Lord gave a sharp whistle, immediately attracting the attention of the gathered barbarians. A few roughly spoken words from their Lord, heavy with the foreign accent of Skagos, were enough to make the small force form a presentable formation.

For as long as she had known him, Rickon had never spoken as a child should. Whenever he deigned to speak, which was not at all often, he did so curtly, and always to the point, his rough voice completely at odds with his young age. Coupled with the boy’s piercing gaze, the young Lord Stark caused many grown men to shy away in discomfort. The Skagosi admired him greatly, and worshipped his black beast as an incarnation of the Old Gods.

Sarella shot her young pupil a grateful look, thinking how far he had come in just a few years. He had been little more than a savage when he had returned to Winterfell, more likely to bare his teeth at you than smile. Nowadays he still did very little of the latter, but thankfully none of the former. He was still quite unsettling at times, and capable of saying the strangest things.

Sarella recalled how she had returned from the war to tell Sansa and Rickon that their brother, Brandon, was alive and beyond the Wall. The young man she had met, bound to a great weirwood throne, was the last great greenseer left, and the one Maester Tarly and she had been searching for in their attempt to stop the Others. His powers had truly been wondrous to behold, greater than Maester Marwyn had ever presumed; but his crippled body had been so small, and so very thin. It had seemed to Sarella as if he was held alive only by his magical powers. His existence in their own world was a mere shadow, an echo, of what he was in the other world.

Sansa had been thrilled at first, then horrified as she learned what her brother had become. Rickon, on the other hand, had not been surprised at all. “Of course Bran is alive, Maester Alleras”, the boy had been staring at his wolf intently as he spoke, his voice strangely warm for the boy. “He lives inside the Heart Trees, all of them, always”. The boy had then raised his piercing eyes to his sister, who had been struggling to hold back her tears.

“Don’t cry, sister”, it was the first time Sarella had seen Rickon reaching out to his sister of his own will, taking her hand in his. “Arya is alive too, don’t you know? She is far away, and I don’t think she is Arya anymore, but she is alive”. Sansa had cried violently after that, with great heaving sobs that wrecked her body, and Rickon had stood by helplessly, holding her hand in an iron grip.

Sarella was brought out of her reminiscing by the sight of Sansa stepping out of the great keep, accompanied by two of her personal guards. Lady Stark was so effortlessly beautiful, so genuinely pretty, that she needed no jewels or elegant dresses. Sansa’s hair had been brushed so fiercely, that the long auburn strands shone like polished copper. Her face was solemn, but the severity only lent itself to the impression of austere beauty that Sansa exuded so naturally. She wore a grey dress, plain and unadorned, with trimmings of white fur. Over the dress she wore a pristine white cloak, as white as freshly fallen snow, with grey fur trimmings. Her Lady had chosen to wear Stark colors, with no hint of warmth to them. A true Lady of the frozen North.

Brother and sister approached each other and met halfway, standing together in the middle of the courtyard. Sarella, who stood too far to hear what they were saying, suddenly noticed that the young Lord was of height with his sister. He would likely surpass her within months; these days, it seemed as if the boy was growing taller by the minute.

They made a dashing pair, the two siblings. Both were handsome, with their bright eyes and hair of fire. Both looked striking in their clothes of grey and white. For the first time ever, Sarella gave thought to the day when Rickon would take on his duties as Lord and Warden from his sister. Perhaps that day is no longer so very far away, she thought as she watched the siblings exchange words in hushed voices, he is growing to be a great man, a great Lord.

Shouts, coming from outside the gates and from the walls, brought a prompt end to the restless movement in the courtyard. Sarella hurried to take her place at Sansa’s right side, careful to stand a step back behind her Lady. Rickon stood on Sansa’s left, with Winterfell’s castellan, Morgan Liddle, to his own left. The group of four was surrounded by the Skagosi fighters on their left, and a company of Stark guards on their right. The courtyard was filled with nearly every available member of the household, all standing still, awaiting the King. Gods, have mercy, Sarella prayed once more, and then he was there.

Stannis Baratheon, the first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, rode into Winterfell on a large bay destrier, wearing no crown, and accompanied only by Ser Lucas Corbray and Ser Patrek Mallister. Sarella had known both of them quite well during their time at the Wall, and she liked both of them well enough. They were young, and pleasant looking, though Ser Patrek had an angry red scar which marked his face from ear to mouth. He had received the scar during the battle for King’s Landing, when he had thrown himself in front of the King’s body, protecting him from the swinging blade of Ser Meryn Trant.

Both knights seemed uncertain, as they rode in behind their King. Without their white cloaks they seemed vulnerable, and both men observed the crowd with nervous eyes. It was clear to see they had expected to arrive in secret, and the armored forces present in the courtyard made Ser Lucas caress the hilt of his valyrian steel sword, Lady Forlorn, which was strapped to his back. Ser Lucas had received the sword from his elder brother, Ser Lyn Corbray, upon his deathbed. Ser Lyn had considered it his last act of defiance to leave the sword to his younger brother, rather than let Lord Corbray have it at last.

Unlike his sworn shields, the King did not reveal any sign of discomfort or surprise. His deep blue eyes, the only truly handsome feature of the man, surveyed the gathered crowd slowly, and as he pulled his horse to a stop, his gaze finally settled on his objective. Even from a distance of over forty yards, Sarella could see the King clench his jaw, and his brow furrowed in displeasure.

Stannis Baratheon was simply too angular to ever be considered handsome. His form was pleasant enough- he was tall, just under seven feet, and his broad shoulders tapered down to a sinewy, strong body. But he was going bald, and what remained of his black hair seemed to circle his head like the shadow of a crown. His jaw was too large and square, and his cropped black beard only served to enhance the unfortunate feature. His cheeks were hallow, and his skin was pulled so tight across his bones that it reminded her of cured leather. Even his lips were thin and cruel.

Sarella watched Stannis’ carefully controlled movements as he dismounted his horse. Every movement Stannis made was carefully considered, meticulously executed. There was a stern grace to the man, but it was austere and frightening.

As the horses were led away by stable boys, the King turned around and began to march toward the Stark siblings. He walked in his customary brisk pace, his head held high, and his eyes were fixed firmly on Sansa. Sarella, who prided herself on her perceptiveness, could not make out his intentions. The King’s face seemed carved out of marble, unmoving and unfeeling. It was clear to see that Stannis was walking towards her, and though Sansa met his eyes without flinching, her body shook with small, nervous tremors.

Sarella felt her own disquiet growing, but she was helpless to assist her Lady. She had no way of sheltering Sansa from the wave of Stannis’ wrath, which seemed about to break against her and drag her underwater. Unable to help, Sarella found herself turning to her pupil instead. “Rickon”, she whispered urgently, unable to recognize the hoarse plea as her own voice, but it was enough to set the boy in motion. The young Lord stepped forward to meet the King head-on, standing between Stannis’ approaching form and his sister.

Stannis stopped in his tracks, only a few feet from the boy, and stared down at the obstacle in his path with something akin to surprise. For all that Rickon was tall for his age, the King easily towered over him, as he did most people. Anger flashed in his deep blue eyes, but Rickon stood his ground firmly, and his voice rang out clear and strong across the yard. “Your grace, I welcome you to Winterfell”, the young Lord declared, and went down on bent knee, in the crisp snow, before the King. The rest of the assembled crowd followed their Lord’s example, and as Sarella sank to her knee she was glad to see that Sansa had stopped trembling.

The King seemed lost for a moment, before he sighed heavily and signaled Rickon to rise to his feet. Stannis seemed to be searching for something appropriate to say, something polite, but before he could open his mouth Rickon once again interjected.

“Your grace, we have rooms prepared for you and your company”, Rickon’s words were hospitable and respectful, but his rough accent seemed to set the two sworn shields on edge. “There will be a feast in your honor, to celebrate your return to Winterfell and the oncoming of spring…”

“No”, the King finally found his voice, and his gruff tone brooked no argument. “I did not come here for a feast”, the King’s blue eyes stared over Rickon’s shoulder, once again searching for Sansa with his unfathomable gaze. “You will take me to see him”, his words were clearly addressed to Sansa, and when she nodded in assent, the King pushed past her brother effortlessly and made his way to her.

They stood for a long moment, facing each other, slightly too close for propriety. Sarella could see the King clench his hand as if to prevent it from reaching out, but whether the King wished to brush Sansa’s cheek or strangle her pale neck, Sarella could not tell. Sansa gave a graceful curtsy to the King, and turned to address her household with one of her rare, dazzling smiles.

“We will honor the King with a feast after nightfall, and you are all invited. Tonight you are all guests of house Stark, celebrating the coming of our King, and the end of this long winter”. The crowd’s cheers were heartfelt, their love for their Lady obvious. Sansa ordered her guards to have the King’s shields escorted to their chambers, then signaled for Sarella to accompany them as the King and Lady Stark began their walk into the great keep.

They walked in silence, the King a step behind her Lady, and Sarella bringing up the rear. The long corridors were empty, with most of the household still gathered in the courtyard. Sarella stared at the backs of the two as they walked on, thinking she had never seen a stranger pair. Sansa was beautiful, and young, and charming. Stannis was… none of those things. Even the colors of their clothes clashed- Sansa in her brilliant white cloak, the King in his solemn black.

I told her it was impossible, Sarella recalled, she came to me with her ridiculous idea, and instead of telling her it was madness, I told her it was impossible to seduce Stannis Baratheon. She had never been more surprised, or horrified, to learn she had been wrong. Sansa had brought the man to his knees, quite literally. That was your fault as well, Sarella scolded herself, for telling her that a man could sometimes bring more pleasure with his mouth than with his cock.

Osha was inside the nursery when they entered, rocking the baby’s crib in gentle motions, singing some wildling song in her low voice. The room was small and warm, due to the pipes of hot water running through the walls of the castle. Osha raised her eyes from the crib, and the song died on her lips as she saw who came in. “I see the King is here”, Osha rose from her chair, but did nothing else to acknowledge the man’s presence. Sarella was still looking at his back, but she was certain she heard the grinding of Stannis’ teeth. With all four of them inside, the small room seemed overly crowded.

“Are you the wet nurse?” the King’s manner was as abrupt and direct as ever, but Osha seemed to find it funny rather than offensive. “Me? A wet nurse?” the smile Osha wore was predatory. “I was born to the free folk, your Grace. Besides, I am too old and too stubborn to be a wet nurse”.

“Then leave, woman”, this time Osha did seem to take offense, and she turned to Lady Stark with a questioning glance. When Sansa merely nodded her head, Osha turned and lifted the sleeping boy out of his crib. Ned made a sound of displeasure as he woke up, but settled quickly after being placed in his mother’s arms, staring up at her face with big blue eyes. As she made her way out, Osha stopped by the Maester’s side, and Sarella felt the wildling’s rough hand grab her own. The two exchanged a quick glance, filled with tension, and then the wildling woman was gone. For the first time in their acquaintance, Sarella thought she would have felt safer with the wildling woman present.

As soon as the woman was out, Stannis approached the babe and his mother. Standing so close, the similarities between Stannis and Ned were too great to deny. The boy, only seven months old, already had an unruly mane of brilliant black hair. His eyes were the same deep blue as the King’s, rather than Sansa’s lighter shade. His jaw was the same as his father’s, and there was something about the nose…

“May I…” Stannis started hesitantly, and stopped to clear his throat. Sarella suddenly realized that the man was nervous. “May I hold him?” instead of answering, Sansa simply took her child and placed him in the outstretched hands of his father. It took a few tense moments, as Sansa delicately showed the man how to properly hold the boy, and then Sarella witnessed an unimaginable sight- Stannis Baratheon was gently rocking his son, staring deeply into the boy’s eyes, and a small smile of wonder graced his thin lips. After a few seconds, Ned let out a joyful giggle, and his small chubby hand reached out to grab at his father’s nose. At first Stannis seemed alarmed, but as Ned continued to smile and gurgle happily, the man visibly relaxed, his small smile widening further.

When Stannis raised his eyes from his son’s cradled body, Sarella was stunned to see that tears were brimming in his blue eyes. The man she always believed incapable of gentleness, now spoke so kindly that it very nearly brought her to tears as well.

“Sansa”, Stannis’ voice was urgent, full of thick emotion, and Sarella marveled at it. “My Queen, you have given me a son”.

Hearing the unexpected tenderness of his voice, seeing the undisputed evidence of his caring, Sarella suddenly realized that she had been wrong all along. Stannis was so happy to hold his son, so proud of Sansa for giving birth to him… if Sansa plays this right, if she says what he wants to hear…

“Stannis, I am not your Queen”, Maester and King alike stared at Sansa with wide eyes, and Sarella felt a sense of dread spreading through her body. Please, Sansa, the Maester silently begged, can’t you see how much he needs this? How much he needs you?

“I am not your Queen”, Sansa repeated firmly, and Sarella watched in horror as the King’s jaw clenched in anger, his teeth beginning to grind. Sensing his father’s anger, little Ned began to cry. Sansa hurried to remove the boy from Stannis’ grasp, and Sarella saw how difficult it was for the man to let his son go. You silly woman, can’t you see how much he needs both of you?

“I am not yours, your Grace, and neither is my son”. Stannis seemed to stumble back, as if he had suffered a blow. For a moment, the tall man seemed utterly defeated. But Stannis was not a man to be broken by a woman’s tongue, and Sarella watched him as his face settled into his famous expression of cold fury. When the King finally spoke, his jaw was clenched so tightly that it barely moved, and his words were the ones she had dreaded hearing from the very first moment she had learned of his impending arrival.

You may not wish to be mine, and the gods know I will not force you”, the King spit out the words like venom. “But he is my son, and you cannot claim otherwise. He is mine, Sansa, and I will take him with me when I leave”.

Chapter Text

The feast, crowded with so many drunk and merry strangers, was torture enough. Watching Sansa Stark dance happily with any man who dared to ask for her company, was one insult too many. He was well aware that he had not ceased to grind his teeth since he had sat down, but aside from Maester Alleras, who cast an occasional worried glance in his direction, no one seemed overly concerned with the King’s dark mood.

And why should they concern themselves with such boring trivialities, when they have the undivided attention of the Lady Stark? Stannis thought derisively.

The great hall of Winterfell reeked with the smell of sweat, and meat, and smoke. The high table had been set upon the raised dais, and below, between the rows of tables set out for the smallfolk, was a band of musicians with their instruments. The music, drowned by the raucous, barely reached him where he sat, but he could follow the dancers easily enough. Sansa had already danced with both Corbray and Mallister, as well as the castellan, Liddle, and twice with her brother, who was proving to be surprisingly resilient to the ale he was drinking.

None of the Lords of the north had been summoned to attend, for which he was reluctantly grateful. Instead, the high table seated many valued servants of house Stark. While they were all good men, some of which Stannis knew to be far from incompetent, they had a most irritating habit of hanging on Sansa’s every word. If she laughed, they laughed harder; if she spoke, they would lean forward to try and catch every syllable. Even his own sworn shields seemed enamored, often sharing a kind word or a jest with the Lady.

He would have been much happier back in the nursery, watching his son crawl along the floor with enthusiasm. Ned was healthy and strong, much bigger than he remembered Shireen being at the same age. He had had half a mind to refuse to attend the feast, to stay in his son’s company where he was, if not welcome, at least not outright rejected. His son was too young to renounce his father, even if his mother was determined to see him stripped of his rights.

Stannis Baratheon was a man accustomed to being denied the things that were his by right. By right, the Iron Throne should have been his upon Robert’s death. By right, Storm’s End should have gone to him, not to Renly. By right, Robert should have loved him, instead of treating Eddard Stark as a brother while brushing his true kin aside. Robert had even denied him the right to his own wedding bed. His brother had certainly denied him any chance of a happy marriage.

Then again, there was no guarantee he could have been happy with some beautiful maiden from a powerful house. He was certain no such maiden would have been satisfied with him as a husband. In the small hours of the night, when his mood turned as dark as his surroundings, Stannis would reckon that Selyse was oddly suited to his dour personality. At the very least, she made him as miserable as he made her.

As Sansa took to the floor again, this time in the arms of Maester Alleras, Stannis finally decided he had had enough. He was exhausted, and it pained him to admit it. His sworn shields had continuously objected to the harsh pace he had set during their ride north. Now, he began to suspect they had done so on his account. I am growing old, Stannis thought with a grimace as he considered the two young knights. Both seemed lively and merry, and well on their way to being drunk. That wolf she calls a brother can hold his drink better than my own shields, he thought with disgust. He should have never allowed them to partake in the feast as guests. He should have forced them to stand guard. Had he done so, he would have been spared the sight of Sansa laughing so prettily in the arms of Mallister.

He rose abruptly, cutting Morgan Liddle’s remark mid-sentence. The castellan seemed offended, but Stannis offered nothing more than a firm nod of his head. He had no patience for any of it- the feast, the noise, the drunkards, the endless chatter. As he began to make his way out of the hall, Corbray and Mallister rose on unsteady feet, intending to follow their King. Though their gesture helped dampen his kindling rage at the pair, he nonetheless signaled them to stay behind. Winterfell was, in many ways, safer than King’s Landing.

The air outside was refreshingly cold, the biting chill welcome against his sweaty brow, and he stopped for a moment to inhale the clean air. He was uncomfortable. His beard irritated his skin, and the missing weight of a sword at his side caused him to feel unbalanced. Still, there was greater peace to be found outside in the quiet night than inside.

When was the last time I was truly alone? Stannis tried to recall as he took another deep breath, invigorated by the sting of the cold air as it spread through his lungs. Being completely alone was rare for a King, and simply impossible when in King’s Landing. I could go anywhere, everywhere; it will be well past morning by the time they realize I am gone.

Scoffing at his preposterous thoughts, Stannis forced his jaw to unclench, and felt the ache of the overused muscles set in. Standing surrounded by snow, the King of the Seven Kingdoms had to admit that he had no place he would wish to run to, nowhere else he would rather be. My son is here, the thought warmed him, gave him purpose. I have a son.

He had never given thought to the possibility that Sansa could become pregnant. A gross oversight on his behalf, surely, but Stannis had never been completely confident that Selyse’s miscarriages were not, in part, his fault. He had reckoned that, even if his weak seed could somehow find purchase, Sansa had the use of moon tea. He had thought her too clever, too proper, to give birth to a bastard child. Clearly, he had been mistaken.

Stannis resumed his walk towards his chambers, thinking about the infant he had met only hours earlier. Ned was a beautiful boy, as handsome as Renly had been as a babe. Stannis was irrationally proud that the child was so obviously his, with his dark hair and dark eyes. During their afternoon together, he had watched avidly as his son had grabbed a firm hold of the low settee in the room and pulled himself into a standing position. Stannis did not know what the normal age for such an accomplishment was, but he had no doubt that his son was brilliant.

As he climbed the steps leading to the bedchambers of the Lord and Lady of the castle, Stannis thought back on Sansa’s refusal to part with her son, and felt his anger flare once more. The woman was unreasonably stubborn, and he was quickly losing what little patience he had. Yes, she was the mother, but he was the boy’s father, and the King.

Did she expect him to behave as Robert had? Robert had fathered so many bastards, and yet he had failed to put a true son of his on the throne. Stannis was not pleased by the possibility of legitimizing a bastard, yet what choice did he have? He had no male heirs, no male relatives from his line that were not bastards themselves. Shireen was clever and just, but Stannis had watched his kingdom, his people, bleed for the better part of a decade. His daughter was perceived as weak, and if she succeeded him on the Iron Throne he had no doubt that the realm would bleed again. As King, his duty was first and foremost to his people. To ensure their safety, their prosperity, he had to put a strong male heir on the throne.

And so, if he was being forced to legitimize a bastard- let it be his own son rather than Robert’s, Stannis reckoned. A son born to a noble Lady from an ancient line with the blood of the First Men running in her veins. Let the boy be raised as a prince from infancy, let him learn his duties from a young age. Let him grow to be a better King than the three who preceded him: a madman, a drunkard, and a man too grim to ever be loved.

Stannis stepped into the Lord’s bedchamber, the same room he had occupied during his visits ever since Winterfell had been retaken from the Boltons. The relatively modest room was dominated by a large, four-poster bed, which had been set there by the Bolton bastard, Ramsay. Sansa had refused to occupy the same rooms her father had once lived in, that were tainted in her eyes by Bolton’s debauchery. Instead, Sansa had claimed the adjoining chambers, designed for the Lady of the castle.

The two bedchambers were linked by a passageway, allowing for the Lord and Lady of the castle to travel between the rooms without the unwanted attention of the servants. The doorway was concealed by a tapestry, but Stannis was well acquainted with the passage which hid behind. Sansa had emerged from the passageway for the first time on the night before he was set to leave with his forces for the wall.

Stannis sat on the edge of the large bed, his longsword lying in its’ scabbard by his side where he had left it when he had departed for the feast. Feeling much calmer with a sword back at his side, Stannis turned to consider the large tapestry. It was an ugly thing, so old the images of the hunting party it depicted were almost too faded to recognize. Stannis had no idea what piece of art covered the entryway on the other side. He was certain that Sansa’s rooms, which were in regular use, would have to display something more pleasing to the eye. Perhaps even something she had embroidered with her own hands.

Stannis had never been inside Lady Stark’s bedchamber. Sansa had always been the one to approach him. He had never reached out to Sansa of his own will, except for that one time. If he were a better man, he would have sent her away, would have done the honorable thing by her. I tried, Stannis thought insistently, I tried to do the honorable thing but she refused.

Though it had been a great slight against his honor, Stannis had little choice but to accept Sansa’s refusal to become his Queen. She had been adamant about her desire to remain in Winterfell, amongst her people, to rule in her brother’s name until he came of age. In a way, her refusal had been of more use to him than her acceptance could ever be.

The north had become his strongest ally, their support essential to his rule, and he trusted very few as he did Sansa. That Sansa ruled the north ensured that peace would be maintained while Stannis led the charge against the Others. As a King, Stannis knew the Lady Stark of Winterfell was an invaluable ally, a loyal asset of the throne. As a man, being refused by the woman who shared his bed had been more hurtful than Stannis cared to admit. She had wounded his pride, his honor as a man, and Stannis could rarely move past such offenses.

The sound of a door creaking open on the other side of the wall caused Stannis to lean forward imperceptibly, in an attempt to catch any spoken words. Instead, the muffled sounds of a baby crying reached his ears, along with two distinct foot patters. One was the delicate strides of a woman in soft slippers, followed by the sounds of her swaying dress as it swept across the floor. The second was much quieter, barely audible. The soft sounds of panting helped Stannis identify Lord Stark’s monstrous direwolf, Shaggydog. That beast is allowed near my son?

Rising up from the bed in alarm, Stannis immediately reached for his sword. A soldier all his life, it took the King mere moments to buckle the scabbard into place. Hesitantly, Stannis reached out and swept aside the tapestry, revealing the door. His hand on the handle, Stannis paused and waited to hear further noises coming from the other bedchamber. There were some shuffling noises to be heard, as though clothes were being discarded. Then the sounds of crying ceased, as did all other movements in the room. Stannis was about to retreat from the door, feeling like a fool, when all of a sudden a blood curling howl escaped from the beast’s throat.

Gritting his teeth in determination, Stannis drew his sword in hand and pulled the door open. The passageway was barely wide enough to allow an armed man to pass with his weapon drawn, but the King charged ahead, uncaring. Stannis thrust the door on the other side open, with greater force than necessary, and found no other barrier behind it. Stepping for the first time into Sansa’s bedchamber, he found himself faced with a most unexpected sight.

The wolf was indeed inside the room with his son; the black beast was sprawled on the large carpet by the fireplace, looking very much like a loyal dog. The wolf’s mouth was open, its’ tongue lolled out, its' golden eyes reflecting the flames as it observed the King’s sudden entrance. Stannis had the distinct impression the wolf was considering whether this new arrival was a friend, or dinner. That damn wolf could never decide for which I was better suited, Stannis bared his teeth at the wolf in anger, but the giant beast merely panted in return, utterly unconcerned.

Stannis then turned his eyes to the sight of Sansa nursing his son from her own teats, and promptly forgot how to breathe. Sansa stood not five feet from the black menace, the fireplace revealing the silhouette of her body, so poorly hidden by her smallclothes. His son was cradled in her arms, his dark head pressed against one of her mounds. Ned was happily nursing, and Stannis found himself jealous of his own flesh and blood. Sansa’s teats appeared larger, fuller than he remembered them, and Stannis felt a familiar ache twist in his lower abdomen. Want, the word was a bitter one for the King, you always want the things beyond your reach.

Sansa stared at him with wide eyes, her mouth hanging open, surprised by his presence. She appeared to be as unsettled as he felt, a rarity for the both of them. I am standing before her with a weapon in my hand, Stannis suddenly realized, she probably thinks I have come to steal her child away.

With as much dignity as he could muster, Stannis sheathed his sword. Sansa had closed her mouth, and her eyes followed his movements with suspicion. Ned remained at her breast, greedily sucking, completely oblivious to his surroundings.

Stannis struggled to find something appropriate to say. Unlike his blunt manner of speaking, Sansa was very eloquent, her words always proper. Though she always spoke truthfully, she was never harsh as he was, never offensive. She had the ability to temper anything she said, to infuse kindness into the harshest of admonishments.

Stannis constantly struggled with the difference between the way Sansa spoke, and the way she acted. Had he not seen the evidence of her ruthlessness with his own eyes, Stannis might have mistaken her for another simpering Lady of the court, good for nothing more than singing and breeding. But he had seen Sansa’s form of justice, had seen the burnt ruins of the Twins. He had heard how the woman had ordered the castle put to flame while the Frey family were all gathered inside. Women and children had burned same as any Frey soldier, and anyone who had dared to try and escape was cut down by Lady Stark’s host.

“They sought to erase my family name from history, your Grace, for something as small as Lord Frey’s wounded pride”, Sansa had replied calmly in the face of his wrath, upon their very first meeting. “I believe justice is a matter of measure, I merely did to them what they set out to do to me. Were my actions truly so unjust?” her blue eyes had been piercing, unafraid of meeting his own. With a grudging respect, though the deed had filled him with a sense of distaste, Stannis had decided not to fight with Lady Stark on that issue.

“Is there something you needed, your Grace?” Sansa’s voice was kept low for Ned’s benefit, her words polite as ever, but her expression was cold. He was not welcome here. The wolf was tolerated, while he, the father of her child, was not.

Stannis grimaced, and brought his hand to scratch at his beard in discomfort. She always hated my beard, Stannis recalled, and dropped his hand to his side.

“You do not have a wet nurse”, it did not come out as a question, nor was it precisely a statement, and his voice was as gruff and impolite as ever. Stannis clenched his jaw, frustrated with his inability to communicate his thoughts. How does one go about informing a woman that he finds her breathtaking?

“No”, Sansa cast a fond gaze down to her cradled son, and a small smile graced her lips. “My mother nursed all her children, I wanted to follow her example”. Sansa had a fierce love for her dead mother, had often spoken of her desire to be as great a Lady as Catelyn Stark had been.

“Lady Catelyn was not Warden of the North”, he was merely trying to express his amazement that Sansa found the time to nurse his son despite her many duties. He did not mean to belittle the dead woman’s memory, though Sansa’s angry look made it clear she had understood his words as such. He was never any good at giving compliments. He remembered Lady Stark as a strong woman, if somewhat emotional. However, that woman had never led an army, had never ruled in her own right.

“My mother made her own choices; some were harder than you might imagine”, Sansa reprimanded softly.

He had heard the stories, of course, of Lady Stoneheart and the Brotherhood without Banners. Those stories were filled with dark magic and evil deeds, and had Stannis not seen far greater evils with his own eyes, he would have been likely to discard the stories as gross exaggerations. The stories also told that upon seeing the burning of the Twins, the living corpse that had once been Catelyn Stark had died a second death. They said Sansa had had the body of her mother burnt to ashes, and scattered across the river. They also said a giant grey direwolf had emerged to watch the woman burning, howling in grief to the moon before disappearing with its’ pack, never to be seen again.

“You mistake me, woman”, Stannis could not keep the exasperation out of his voice. Sansa had once been an easy woman to reason with, not prone to hysterics as some women were. The woman now standing before him was difficult, guarded, and so very angry. Had he really been so mistaken, to expect his eager young lover to welcome him back with open arms?

“Then make me understand, your Grace”, her use of his title seemed mocking, when he knew how easily she could have used his given name. “I have not heard a single word from you in over a year. I was under the impression you were done with me…”

No”, Stannis’ response was abrupt and decisive, cutting through Sansa’s accusations like a knife. “Even had you not given birth to my son, I am not done with you, Sansa”. During their conversation, his son had fallen asleep in his mother’s arms. At his father’s harsh tones, the babe stirred and gave a meow of displeasure. Responding to the baby's distress, the wolf raised its’ head from the carpet and growled at Stannis, baring its’ large fangs.

“Quiet, Shaggydog”, Sansa’s voice was surprisingly firm, and the wolf calmed down instantly.

Apparently, Sansa’s influence over her brother extended to his wolf as well. Stannis had seen Jon Snow with his own direwolf, Ghost. He had his suspicions regarding the nature of the relationship between the Starks and their giant pets. Skinchangers, the word still made Stannis uncomfortable, but the idea was not so far-fetched. The King suddenly wondered whether his own son might have inherited any strange abilities from Sansa’s northern blood.

Sansa pulled up the sleeve of her simple shift, concealing her teat. The shift was thin, and Stannis could still see her nipples through the sheer fabric. She turned away from him, towards the door situated on the wall across from where he stood. Stannis knew the castle well enough to realize the other room was the nursery. Sansa knocked softly on the door, careful not to jostle Ned around too much. The door opened from the other side, revealing the old wildling woman. As Sansa delivered his son into the woman’s arms, the giant direwolf jumped up and trotted happily into the nursery, carelessly shoving the women aside to make room for its’ massive form. Stannis could only conclude that the wolf served as a guard to the boy, in some fashion. The thought was oddly reassuring.

The wildling woman cast a shrewd look in his direction, and Stannis returned her stare, refusing to be cowered by some spearwife. The woman gave him a mocking smile, then turned to exchange some softly-spoken words with her Lady. Uncomfortable with being blatantly ignored, Stannis took the time to observe Sansa’ chamber.

The room was roughly the same size as his own, naturally heated by the pipes of hot water running inside the walls. Sansa only had a narrow bed, barely suited for one, situated below the room’s single window. By the looks of it, Stannis doubted it was long enough for his tall figure. There was a small table by the bed, with a single candle, overflowing with countless parchments and letters. Clearly she shares Ser Brynden’s fondness for reading while in bed, Stannis thought with distaste. Work was ought to be executed in a proper solar, on a proper desk, with proper attention. Reading letters in bed seemed disrespectful to the King.

There were three doors leading out of the room, and a large fireplace where the fire had been stoked recently. A large map of the north, made of leather and intricately detailed, hung above the hearth. It was a rough thing, made by wildlings rather than a Maester. It was old, probably older than the ugly tapestry in his own room, and the coloring had been reapplied several times. Other than those few items, and the large carpet the wolf had used as a sleeping mat, the room was bare.

The sound of the door closing behind the wildling and his son ended his observations. For the first time in over a year and a half, Stannis found himself alone in a room with Sansa Stark. He was ashamed to realize the thought made his heart beat faster, and it made him scowl fiercely.

“I won’t apologize for giving birth to Ned”, Sansa’s voice was defiant, her chin held high, and Stannis felt his scowl deepen further. The woman was simply impossible.

“Do you expect me to tell you I am pleased?” the anger was creeping into his voice, despite his best intentions. “Should I thank you for making my son and heir a bastard?”

“I see you have not lost your righteousness”, clearly unimpressed by his obvious rage, Sansa’s face remained determined, unwavering in the face of his wrath. Her mocking only served to inflame him further, and Stannis advanced on her, closing the distance between them. Inches apart, he had the benefit of towering above her. He knew her well enough to know that Sansa Stark did not retreat. She had no choice but to raise her eyes up to meet his.

“I do not change, Sansa”, it was a simple, sad truth, spoken in a harsh rasp. He was set in his ways, incapable of disregarding his honor, incapable of opening himself to ridicule. All his life, he had sought to avoid it. He could not overlook the fact that she had made his son, who should have been a source of endless pride, his greatest shame. “I made a mistake when I let you choose. I am your King, I should have forced you to become my wife”.

Instead of the anger he had been expecting, Sansa’s face contorted with sadness. Her delicate hand reached up to touch his rough beard, so warm and soft that he had no choice but to lean into her touch.

“Your reign depended on you maintaining an image of impartiality”, her blue eyes were warm, her voice soft, and Stannis suddenly realized how much he had missed her. No one ever thought Stannis Baratheon needed kindness, not since his mother had died. Sansa made him ache when he was in her presence, her unassuming affection often overwhelming him. He was overwhelmed now; and aching for her in a way that drove him mad.

“Setting your wife aside for me would have made you look weak, as though you hang on my every word”, they had discussed the matter in the past, had argued over it continuously. Stannis had not wanted to admit that she was right. Had refused to acknowledge that even as King, he was unable to get what he wanted.

“Then you should not have made me want you”, it was an unfair accusation, but he could not help the way he flung the words at her. Nor did he stop his hand from roughly ripping her own away from his face, to hold in a vice grip behind her back. “You should not have made me need you. I was perfectly fine before you felt the need to dig under my skin and settle there”.

If he had not been quite so distraught, he might have admitted that his obsession with her had started long before she had approached him. He had been fascinated by her since they first met, had admired her strength and her sense of duty.

But before the night she had come to him, he had never considered that he might actually have her, had never thought of her in such a manner. The idea was so ridiculous, so impossible, it had never even crossed his mind. It was not until she was standing before him, naked and trembling but unashamed, that his need had hit him like a lance. Sending her away had been one of the hardest things he had ever done, and even then his resolution did not last.

Using his grip on her, he twisted their bodies so that Sansa’s back was facing her small bed. Sansa winced and gasped in pain as he twisted her arm, but did not resist as he began forcefully marching her backwards. For a moment, his eyes met her bright blue ones, and Stannis hesitated. His emotions were out of control, and the knowledge that she was within reach, after being beyond his grasp for so long, was almost too tempting. But Stannis took pride in his iron will, and he used every ounce of that will to halt their movement, to stop the spiraling madness.

In the sudden stillness, Sansa blinked twice, rapidly, and her tongue licked across her lower lip. Stannis began to pull away, needing to put distance between them lest he do something regrettable. As he released his grip, pulling his hand away, Sansa reached out with both hands to grasp his face, rising on the tips of her toes. He only had a moment to feel surprised, and then her mouth was on his.

The kiss was at once familiar and brand new. Her taste was the same, the softness of her lips as he remembered; but their time apart had made them unsure, and they struggled momentarily before finding the right angle for their mouths to fit together. As soon as their faces were aligned, Stannis wasted no time and thrust his tongue into her sweet mouth, caring nothing for gentleness or finesse. He briefly gave thought to her pale, delicate skin, chaffed raw by his beard. The thought merely served to excite him further. She is here, she is mine, a primal part of him insisted, and rejoiced when her tongue came out to tangle with his, boldly pushing the kiss back into his mouth.

With one hand anchoring her to him by her waist, his other hand skimmed restlessly, eagerly, over her full teats, down her stomach, before reaching down to cup the sweet place between her thighs. Her shift was in his way, the fabric preventing him from feeling her curls, and Stannis growled in displeasure. Not breaking the kiss for a moment, his hands sought and found the hem of her collar, and it only took a small amount of force to rip the sheer fabric in half.

Sansa stilled at the sound, and pulled back with a dazed look. Stannis stared back, unashamed to let his eyes wander over the exposed skin. He took in her perfect teats, larger than he remembered them. Her stomach too was softer, rounder, her hips wider, and Stannis realized that the changes in her body, the evidence of her carrying his child, aroused him terribly. He closed the small distance between them, bending down to reclaim her sweet mouth, eagerly pressing his hardness against her soft middle.

Sansa’s hands ran down his body, and Stannis worried she intended to grasp his aching cock. Instead, Sansa’s nimble fingers did away with his belt, and his heavy sword fell to the ground without a second thought. Sansa pulled away from their kiss a second time, this time with a broad smile. Her hands reached for her sleeves, pushing the torn garment down her arms, fully exposing her breasts. Stannis was more than eager to help, their hands meeting at her waist to pull the tattered remains of her smallclothes to the floor. It was a matter of seconds before he grabbed her by the waist, easily lifting her up in his arms, only to deposit her on the small bed.

Sansa lay sprawled across the bed, her legs splayed open, displaying her cunt. Stannis paused, frozen in place, unable to do anything other than stare in admiration. Sansa’s long red hair spilled everywhere, surrounding her head like a crown. One heavy lock of hair fell down to cover most of her right teat, with only the large, pink nipple peeking through the auburn strands. He was momentarily overwhelmed by an image of himself, suckling from her breasts as his son had done so recently, his mouth full of her nipple and her mother’s milk. His hand reached down instinctively, rubbing firmly against his cock, trying to relieve the ache. This will not last long, he thought grimly, as his hands unlaced his breeches with shaking fingers, releasing his weeping cock with a sigh of relief.

“I will have you naked, your Grace”, the sultry quality of Sansa’s tone only served to make his cock twitch in anticipation. She leaned back on her elbows, her blue eyes expectant, waiting for him to disrobe on his own. Impatient, Stannis did no bother to unbutton his doublet, but merely pulled it along with his undershirt over his head before tossing it carelessly aside. He sat down to take off his boots, choosing not to embarrass himself by attempting to balance on one foot. As soon as his boots and socks were done with, Stannis rose to his feet quickly, pushing down his breeches to the floor. 

As he straightened up, entirely naked, Sansa gave a low groan of appreciation, her hand reaching out to beckon him to join her. Stannis hurried to answer her summons, his knees sinking unto the mattress, his body covering her much smaller frame with ease. Their teeth clashed momentarily as Stannis attempted to resume their kiss, before Sansa’s small hand cupped his face and showed him where to go. Stannis followed eagerly, pushing her further up the bed, trying to fit his large body unto the small mattress.

They ended up in an awkward position, with Stannis’ feet dangling over the edge of the bed as he lay cradled between her spread thighs, but he was too concerned with kissing her to give the matter further thought.

He had never realized the pleasures of kissing before Sansa had broken his resolve. He had been quite young when he had married Selyse, unaware that such pleasures were available. They had shared short, perfunctory pecks, mainly because they both thought it was expected of them. As their marriage turned colder, his nightly visits had become rare and short. He had not bothered with kisses, as they had only served to make the unpleasant experience longer. In contrast, Melisandre had been quite violent, fonder of biting than actual kissing. There were pleasures to be found through the woman, especially when she sucked on his cock with that vicious mouth, but kissing had not been one of them.

Sansa’s mouth made him think of silk. The way she used her tongue, to run across his lips, to tangle with his, to caress the roof of his mouth, left him breathless and aching. Kissing her often felt like drowning, and Stannis welcomed the sensation, knowing that she was equally affected, equally eager for his attentions. Sansa had come to him a maiden, but the knowledge she had of certain matters had left him astounded at first. He could still recall her words when he had pulled back from their very first kiss, dazed and confounded. “You should kiss me some more”, she had whispered in his ear, licking the outer shell and causing him to shake, “kissing you makes my cunt wet”.

Pulling back from their kiss, Stannis gazed down at Sansa’s beautiful face. She was a great beauty, lovely enough to rival the tales of Shiera Seastar, and certainly more beautiful than any woman Stannis had ever seen. His hand ran tenderly through her hair, feeling the sweat beginning to gather at her temples. Her cheeks were flushed pink, her blue eyes sparkling. But what pleased him most was her chin, raw and red where his beard had irritated the skin, and her lips, wet and swollen from his kisses, smiling at him.

Stannis ducked his head, and Sansa tossed her head back, exposing her pale neck. Stannis traveled the length of the graceful column, leaving bites and kisses as he descended, making his way to the objects of his latest obsession.

Finally presented with her teats, Stannis took a nipple in his mouth, his tongue laving the smooth skin eagerly. Sansa arched her back, thrusting her teat against him, and when he felt the skin pucker in his mouth, growing stiff, Stannis sucked the nipple further into his mouth. A small trickle of milk escaped, and Stannis lapped it up eagerly, enjoying the sounds of his keening lover. The taste was not exactly pleasant, but the knowledge of what he was doing made him harder than he could ever recall being.

Pushing his stiff cock against her thigh, reveling in the added pressure, Stannis set out to kiss and suck at her breasts with enthusiasm. The noises coming from her mouth only served to inflame him, and he could not help the desire to bite down. His teeth closed around the nipple, carefully nibbling, and Sansa cried out, her hands reaching down to grab the short hairs at the nape of his neck, making Stannis wish he was already buried inside her.

Reaching with one hand between her thighs, Stannis once again found the undisputed proof of Sansa’s truthfulness. Kissing her, playing with her teats, never failed to make the woman unbelievably wet for him. With the sounds of her breathless little pants ringing in his ears, Stannis ran a finger from the top of her slit all the way down to her other, puckered hole and back. His finger came back absolutely, wonderfully drenched. The sensation was incredible, intoxicating, and Stannis had to see her cunt with his own eyes.

Unable to go back any further on the small bed, Stannis was forced to climb down, placing his knees on the cold stone floor. His joints protested, loudly, reminding him that he was not a young man anymore. But the reward of Sansa’s cunt, fully exposed and at eye-level, was too great. Ignoring his aching knees, Stannis ran his hands down Sansa’s soft stomach to her thighs, pulling her body closer to the edge of the bed and pushing them further apart to splay her lower lips open.

Pleasuring a woman with his mouth was another thing he had been unaware of before Sansa had suggested it. He had been reluctant at first, certain that such a thing could not be proper. But the pleasure gained from watching Sansa crying out in ecstasy had made him change his mind rather quickly. The taste was unpleasant, musky and slightly sour, but the feel of her cunt around him afterwards was nothing short of glorious.

Stannis bent his head down, eager to bury his mouth between her folds, when suddenly he felt Sansa’s hands on his face, preventing him from advancing. Suspicious, Stannis raised his eyes to meet Sansa’s. Her smile did little to assure him, and when she shook her head he felt a cold stab of rejection. It is too late for her to decide she does not wish me to take her, his mind warned as his teeth began to grind in frustration.

Sansa tugged him up, signaling him to return to his place on the bed. Still feeling insulted, Stannis nonetheless allowed her to lead him back, to cradle him between her thighs. His cock had softened slightly at her rebuff, but as she took it in hand and placed it against her wetness, rubbing it back and forth across her slit, he felt it surge again, eager as before. His cock was weeping, his seed mingling with her own wetness, and Stannis groaned, low and long, eager to plunge inside.

Unable to do anything but focus on the sensation of her hand and cunt, Stannis buried his head between Sansa’s neck and shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut in an attempt to gain some control. He felt Sansa’s face twist towards him, felt her tongue lave his ear, and shuddered deeply, his hips thrusting forward, his cock poking crudely at her cunt, seeking a way inside her blessed heat.

“Sansa”, it was a broken groan, not far from begging, but he was too far gone to be concerned over his dignity. He needed to be inside her, and his hand brushed hers away, grabbing his cock firmly, giving it a good tug before aligning himself with her entrance. Unseeing, beyond rational thought, Stannis found her entrance and pushed inside with one strong thrust, sheathing his entire length in one hard shove.

The painful sob which escaped the woman beneath him brought him to his senses immediately. Still buried inside her, shaking with the need to thrust, Stannis forced himself to lean back, to find Sansa’s gaze. Her mouth was open in pain, her eyes brimming with tears, and Stannis felt like a fool.

He knew he was a large man, knew it took some effort for a woman to accommodate his length inside her. But he had plunged ahead, uncaring for her discomfort, ignoring the pain he was sure to inflict with his brutal thrust.

Keeping himself very still, Stannis bent down to kiss the tears away from her eyes, before moving down and reclaiming her mouth in a gentle kiss. He had no other way of apologizing, he was beyond words at this point, all his efforts focused on remaining gentle, on remaining still.

It felt as though they were kissing for days, for years, and his cock pulsed, demanding to move. Stannis tried to give a small thrust, without withdrawing from her constricting sheathe. Her whimper of pain brought him to a halt again, and Stannis wanted to curse, wanted to cry, but settled for grinding his teeth instead.

Struck with inspiration, Stannis pulled himself up, straightening his back and sitting back on his haunches, still buried inside her wet cunt. One hand reached down to Sansa’s ass, helping her to settle over his thighs, his jaw clenching at her pained moan. The position raised her pelvis off the mattress, changing the angle of his penetration, exposing her cunt to his gaze. The sight of his thick cock, buried inside her to the hilt, stretching her wide, made him shudder in pleasure.

His hand swept from her mouth down her body, stopping to pinch a nipple before continuing down to the top of her slit. His thumb sought out the small nub, the one she wanted him to lick repeatedly when he was devouring her cunt. It was much harder to find with his coarse thumb, but once he did, it was easy enough to imitate the gentle circling motion she preferred from his tongue.

As his thumb continued to rub circles with increasing speed, Stannis was gratified to see Sansa’s expression change into one of pleasure. Her mouth was open again, but this time small pants of delight escaped it, seemingly beyond her control. Her eyes widened in surprise, before closing, her head tossed back as she thrust her hips against his, silently begging for more.

He allowed her to set the pace, remaining immobile as she bounced herself up and down his cock, seeking her pleasure. His thumb continued to rub circles, his eyes watching her face closely as she writhed beneath him and around him. There was pleasure in this for him as well, but the friction was not enough to bring him to the edge. His sac tightened in anticipation, the sensation running up his cock to demand that he move, but Stannis kept resolutely still.

With more patience than he had ever displayed in his entire life, Stannis watched as Sansa slowly pushed herself towards her peak. It was a beautiful sight- her mouth open, her cunt impaled on his cock, her beautiful teats bouncing gently, the nipples leaking with her milk. Wanting to feel her close, to feel her teats pushed up against his chest, Stannis ceased his thumb’s movements. As Sansa opened her eyes, her gaze confused, Stannis quickly bent down, surrounding her small waist with his hands, and pulled her up to straddle him. He rose on his knees, and her legs wrapped around him instinctively to keep her balance, her arms circling around his thick neck.

In this position, Sansa was of height with him, and he used it to kiss her fiercely, his hands reaching down to grab her ass, encouraging her to resume her thrusts. Sansa eagerly followed his wordless instructions, beginning to ride him as she would a horse. Her breasts bounced with greater strength in this position, the sight of them making up for the lost view of his cock buried inside her. The position also afforded greater friction for him, and Stannis helplessly clenched his posterior muscles, wanting greater leverage, needing more speed.

The position was also a strain on his lower back, keeping him from truly enjoying the friction, but Stannis was loathe to change it. Sansa had begun keening again, her movements growing forceful, and Stannis knew she was getting close. Needing her to finish soon, Stannis balanced her body precariously with one hand, his other reaching up to grab one of her teats. Sansa keened loudly, grinding down on his cock with urgency. Stannis fondled the nipple, running his nails across, before pinching it firmly between thumb and forefinger.

Sansa’s eyes opened in shock, her gaze locking with his, before she closed them once more, tossing her head back, her hair spilling down to brush against the arm supporting her. A broken cry escaped her mouth, and Stannis tightened his pinch further, feeling Sansa clench down on his cock, her inner muscles fluttering around him. Not too bad for an old man, Stannis thought in satisfaction, grinding his teeth against her impossible tightness, continuing to thrust to prolong her pleasure.

Sansa slumped in his arms, clearly needing a moment of respite, but Stannis’ patience was at an end, his need too strong to be denied any longer. Lowering her down on the bed, leaning over to press against her from sheen to sternum, Stannis balanced himself on his forearms and began to thrust in short, powerful strokes. The woman beneath him was clearly gone, her body occasionally twitching in small aftershocks. Her wetness, enhanced by her peak, ran down his upper thighs. She was so wet there was hardly any resistance, only the smooth glide of her sheathe against the ridges of his cock.

Stannis buried his face in her shoulder, his mouth biting down on her skin to keep from moaning. The noises he made when he was inside her were often a source of embarrassment for him. Laving her skin with his tongue to sooth the bite, Stannis increased his pace, his thrusts gaining a vicious end to them as he rammed into her.

Beneath him, Sansa seemed to recover, her hands running down his sweaty back to grasp his ass, urging him on. Stannis felt her nails digging into his muscles, heard her mouth beginning to moan his name over and over, her breath tickling his ear. Despite his best efforts, a small, undignified cry escaped his mouth as his sac tightened in response to her cries. The feeling centered in his scrotum, hot and cold at the same time. He kept thrusting, helpless to stop, blind and deaf to anything but the pleasure gathering inside him.

A few powerful thrusts later, Stannis felt pure relief as his sac tightened further, pleasure shooting out from the head of his cock along with his seed, his entire body shaking. What if she becomes pregnant again? Sansa, round again with my child, oh gods… the thought made him thrust twice more, forcefully, as if trying to make sure she received all of him. A stifled groan escaped him, and Stannis slumped down, utterly exhausted, succumbing to the sweet bliss of his release in the arms of his love.

Chapter Text

The Watchtower, the Crofter’s Village, 300 AC

At first, the man appeared so thin she feared he did not possess the strength to rise from his seat. His beard, black and wild and untamed, failed to conceal how sunken his cheeks were, or how terribly tight his skin was pulled over his bones. Stannis Baratheon, the man she intended to crown King, seemed more likely to die of starvation than lift a sword. How disappointing, Sansa thought dispassionately. She had learned long ago that life was full of disappointments.

“You are terribly young”, Stannis’ voice was low and rough, his tone impatient and disrespectful. And you look nothing like your fat brother, Sansa wished to retort, but maintained her composed expression. She was, first and foremost, a beautiful and well-mannered Lady, and she had learned that unattractive men were always wary of such. But even Petyr, for all his cunning and scheming, had been a blind slave to her beauty at the end.

They glared at one another, she with her head held high, he from his seat behind his desk. Though the man would never admit it, not if half the stories she had heard about him were true, she had the power here. His force was barely five thousand strong, most of it more likely to declare for her now that a Stark had returned to the North, and the rest of his men were starving and freezing. She led the entire strength of the Vale and the Riverlands, over forty thousand strong. He could not force her to bend the knee, and she saw the knowledge burn in his deep blue eyes like a madness.

“My brother Robb was only four-and-ten when the Lords of the North had declared him their King; I am six-and-ten”, at the mention of her brother’s name, Stannis’ scowl deepened further. Sansa had no doubt the man was a hair’s breadth away from lashing out. Though the room was barely warmer than the outside, and though Sansa’s heavy furs were not enough to keep out the cold, she refused to shiver before this austere man.

“Your fool of a brother is dead”, Stannis gritted out, and for a moment, Sansa felt her anger flare white and hot.

“So are yours”, she muttered darkly without further thought, and fought not to cringe as Stannis’ expression turned blank. The scowl the man wore faded, leaving behind deep lines in his forehead and between his black eyebrows. Without the scowl he appeared older, weaker. Sansa doubted whether the man had enough strength left in him, enough will, to become King. I did not come all this way to fail, she thought vehemently, I did not come to see him break before my eyes like brittle old bones.

“Aye, both of my brothers were fools, and now they are both dead”, the man’s deep, unsettling blue eyes found hers, and he rose slowly, steadily, to his feet. Out of his chair, it was easy to see how tall he was, how imposing his figure might have been, had it not been wasted away by hunger and cold. Not too weak to stand after all, Sansa thought, fighting to prevent a smile from gracing her lips. She knew Stannis Baratheon was a man who greatly mistrusted smiles and laughter.

He was also a man who did not mince words. “Why are you here?” He asked abruptly, his scowl returning to grace his harsh features. She had been prepared for his abrasiveness, of course, had made it her goal to learn everything there was to know about him before they met. But Sansa also knew the value of courtesies, the strength hidden in the armor of empty platitudes. It surprised her that such a man, whose purpose was to become King, did not.

“I am a Stark of the North, am I not? I am returning home.” Sansa allowed her face to relax, her lips to tilt upwards in a hint of a smile. It was not the answer the man was seeking, and she knew he would not be pleased with it. She saw it in the tightening of his jaw, in the rigidness of his posture. He seemed insulted by her words.

No”, he drew out the word, as though speaking to a slow child. The grinding of his teeth was audible, and painful to her ears. Still, she refused to cringe, standing tall and proud even as he advanced towards her, his hands clenched into tight fists at his sides. “Why are you here, woman, in my tower, requiring my presence? Why do you waste my time, when your sworn banners have already chosen to disregard me entirely?”

There was so much pride in the man, such a vain feeling of righteousness. Sansa struggled not to laugh outright in his face. During her time in King’s Landing, and as Petyr’s bastard daughter in the Vale, Sansa had learned many harsh truths, many valuable lessons. One of them had been that without the power to attain it, and to keep it, a man’s right mattered very little indeed.

“And if I have come to offer you everything you seek?” Sansa tried a different approach, her voice taking on a deeper, more seductive tone. Stannis’ eyes narrowed in suspicion, and Sansa felt the hot burn of frustration run through her.They said Stannis Baratheon was made of Iron. They said the man would rather break than bend. Have they succeeded in breaking him, this proud man? Sansa wondered, is there nothing left inside him I can use?

“You are not the first woman to promise such things”, Stannis’ voice was full of accusation, as though her sex was enough to discredit her. Sansa knew only too well who the woman he was referring to was. She knew the red priestess had a great following amongst Stannis’ men, but she had allowed herself to believe he was above putting his faith in some obscure fire god from beyond the sea. Petyr had always claimed Stannis was a godless man, too practical for faith, too proud to seek help in prayers.

“Your red priestess? I have heard of this Melisandre”, Sansa followed the man’s face closely, looking for a sign of weakness at the mention of the woman’s name. But Stannis remained a frozen statue, his scowl unmoving, his teeth ever grinding. Sansa decided to provoke the man further yet. “I have also heard how she gave birth to a shadow, who then murdered your brother, Lord Renly, in his tent”.

Her words seemed to find their mark, and his reply was quick and vicious. “And I heard how you burnt down the Twins, women and children still inside”, his voice was hoarse, his words spitted out through clenched teeth. He advanced on her further, coming to stand before her, towering above her with ease. “They say their screams lasted for days; that the castle had burnt for almost a fortnight. I regret my sins every day, woman, I do not believe the same can be said for you”.

Sansa knew he expected her to back down, to shy away from his menacing form. But she was not the girl she had been, back in King’s Landing, forever seeking to avoid confrontation, to please others. Instead of retreating, Sansa raised her chin and met his glare without fear. I am Lady Stark of Winterfell, she reminded herself, finding the courage not to wither under his fierce gaze, I am the descendant of the Kings of Winter, and I deliver the justice of the North.

“They sought to erase my family name from history, your Grace”, she did not fail to notice how her use of the title seemed to affect him. “For something as small as Lord Frey’s wounded pride. I believe justice is a matter of measure, I merely did unto them what they set out to do to me. Were my actions truly so unjust?”

In the end, it was he who stepped away, coming to stand against the desk before turning around to stare at her once more. His blue eyes surveyed her body once more, from the soles of her boots to the top of her head, as though he was searching for an answer which eluded him.

“Unjust?” he seemed to genuinely ponder her question, his voice becoming smooth and deep. He has a good voice, a commander’s voice, though none of his brothers’ charm. “Yes”, he finally decided, “your actions were not just. I would call them prudent, perhaps, maybe even clever. But there was no justice in what you did”.

“When you are King upon the Iron throne, I will come willingly before my King to accept his justice”, her words made his eyes glitter, the deep blue orbs full of longing. His eyes were rather beautiful, his only feature that she found truly pleasing. They were as blue and deep as the ocean; and much like the sea, it was easy to tell when a storm was brewing on the horizon.

When I am King?” he sputtered, spit escaping his clenched teeth like some rabid animal. “I am the rightful King of Westeros now, woman, and for as long as I live”. His firm statement was met with a small frown of disapproval. Sansa had had enough of his disrespect, enough of his righteous indignation. I am a wolf, not a fish.

“King by right, you may be”, Sansa allowed her voice to turn cold, her tone to gain a firm edge. “But rights, your Grace, rarely amount to anything. I am Lady Sansa of house Stark, and I bring with me the North, the Riverlands, and the Vale to your cause. More than half of Westeros, within your grasp. Call me ‘woman’ one more time, and I will leave you behind, in the snow, to freeze to your death”.

Her words were met with absolute silence. She could see how desperate he was for recognition in what he truly believed was his right. The man was at war with himself, eager to embrace what she was offering, but too proud to do so on her terms. In that moment, Sansa realized she could accomplish her goal; could play him as she did everyone else. Perhaps not with her beauty, but she was not without wits. “With my wits and Cat's beauty, the world will be yours, sweetling”, Petyr had promised her, believing she would always need his guiding hand at her back. But she had outgrown Baelish, and she was confident that this man, this strange, complicated man, would also bend before her eventually.

“What price do you require for your loyalty?” Stannis finally replied, his voice full of venom. But his shoulders sagged, and his tall figure collapsed to lean against his desk. The fight was gone from him, his strength greatly diminished by the trials he had undergone. “What price will you have me pay for what should rightfully be mine?”

“Your trust, your Grace”, Sansa answered plainly, knowing her words held more truth than he would ever suspect.

“That, I cannot do. I do not give my trust where it has not been earned”, he was brutally honest, to a fault. But she found it refreshing, and a challenge to overcome. I will have your trust eventually, you stubborn brute, and through you- I will have my peace.

“Then let us start together, from a mutual point of agreement”, she relented, infusing her words with a warmth they previously did not possess. The man merely raised his eyebrow at her, indicating with a dismissive wave of his hand that she ought to continue. Sansa fought not to bristle with anger. The man’s lacking manners bordered on insolence.

Respect, your Grace”, she spoke calmly, letting her eyes meet his in a wordless attempt to express her sincerity. “Let us start with a mutual respect for one another. I respect your claim for the Throne, I respect your honor as a man, and I respect your honesty, despite your lack of finesse”, with that, she sank to her knees before him, her eyes holding his the entire time. Stannis’s eyes widened in surprise, clearly uncomfortable with having a woman on her knees before him. So he is not quite as immune to womanly charms as he pretends to be, Sansa thought with satisfaction, noting how the man swallowed convulsively.

“I respect your claim to Winterfell, I respect your willingness to acknowledge the true King, I respect…” Stannis seemed to choke, as though he could not find the words. Instead, the man stepped forward and reached out with his hand, helping to pull her back to her feet. His fingers were pleasantly warm against her numb ones, his rough skin oddly comforting.

“I respect the strength and sensibility you have displayed, though I may fail to express it properly”, his blue eyes bore into hers, their intensity threatening to overwhelm her. “I believe mutual respect will be… a good place to start, Lady Stark”. It was the first time he had addressed her as anything other than ‘woman’, and Sansa acknowledged her title with a demure nod of her head, signaling her approval. Though he did not scowl, nor did he release her hand, Stannis scoffed at her polite gesture, an ugly and guttural sound.

“Then, your Grace”, Sansa carried on, refusing to let the man’s poor manners anger her. “The forces of the North, the Riverlands, and the Vale, are yours to command”, at her words, the man shut his eyes, leaning his head forward as if in prayer. Sansa knew how to read a man well enough to understand he was deeply relieved. His shoulders sagged, his entire posture relaxed, and his chest heaved with deep, calming breaths. Their situation was oddly intimate, with him standing close enough for her to feel the ghost of his warm breath against her cheek, his hand still resolutely clasping hers in an iron grip. I have him, Sansa thought with pleasure, knowing the man was now bound to her goodwill irrevocably, He might not understand it yet, but I have him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Lord’s Solar, Riverrun, 301 AC

“I will not travel south with you, your Grace”, Lady Stark was as courteous as ever, something he strongly despised. The woman was made of fine manners, rather than flesh and bone, he was certain of it. It made her difficult to predict, and impossible to argue with. She did not cower before him, as so many did, but neither did she raise her voice against him. She simply stated her arguments in her calm voice, never angry, always reasonable. Infuriating.

 “Your King commands you”, he knew his voice was too loud, his manner brutish and ill tempered. His fists and his jaw were clenched tightly, his knuckles turning white and his teeth grinding, but he felt incapable of relaxing. Whenever he was so overwrought, it usually meant she had already won, another thing he despised about the woman.

He was so accustomed to being overlooked, ignored, or openly slighted, that it had taken him a long while to realize his situation had changed drastically. It was during a war council, one of hundreds since he had declared himself King, when Stannis had finally realized he was, without a doubt, about to win. The revelation had taken him by surprise, and his eyes had left the large map of Westeros which dominated the table in favor of observing the woman who was entirely responsible for the change in his circumstances.

Lady Sansa Stark had come seemingly out of nowhere, with the full strength of the Vale of Arryn at her back. The massive host had swept through the ravaged Riverlands before turning north, to Winterfell, where he had been unsuccessfully attempting to lay siege against the Boltons. Ever since their conversation in the tower, Lady Stark had become his constant companion, one of his closest advisors. She was young, terribly young, but she was clever, and strong, and so charming it seemed as though she had no need for politics. Lords seemed eager to throw their swords at her feet and swear their fealty to her simply because she smiled at them.

The simple truth was that Stannis did not wish to allow her to retreat back to the North, far from his watchful eye, even if it was indeed prudent to let her oversee her younger brother’s safety. Ever since Davos’ second return from the dead, this time with her younger brother Rickon in tow, the Lady’s interests had widened to include the well-being of her savage little sibling. Before, she had merely expressed her reluctance to return to King’s Landing, where she had been held as a prisoner by the Lannisters. Now, with her brother’s well-being on her mind, she blatantly refused to continue in her duties as his advisor.

But he needed her to control the unruly northern lords, all proud and eager for her hand, and to guide her fool of a cousin, the so-called Lord of the Vale. What good could she bring him, holstered up and isolated in the North? He was about to march on King’s Landing, to finally take his rightful seat from the Lannisters. Her place was with him, at his side, where she had constantly been for the past year.

“You place me in the undesirable position of having to refuse you, your Grace. My place is in Winterfell, with my brother”, her words were sensible, her tone measured. Why did she always have to act so sensibly? Why was she not a proper woman, to be flattered by the King’s favor? Perhaps if I were Renly, or Robert in his youth, she would have been persuaded more easily. Even as the thought crossed his mind, Stannis immediately discarded it as false. Sansa cared nothing for a handsome face, never showing any preference for a man simply for his looks.

“The war is south, Lady Stark, your bannermen will be marching south”, he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her out of her stony expression. He wanted her to go on her knees as she had, back when he thought he would die in the snow before the gates of Winterfell, and reaffirm her loyalty to him. He felt as though she was slipping away, slipping from his grasp. He was ashamed to admit he feared his army, the one he had gained through her, would slip away as well. I have traded one red-headed shrew for another, Stannis thought grimly, and once again my army is not truly my own.

“I will take no more than five thousand men, only what is needed to hold the north and the Wall while you lay siege on King’s Landing. My bannermen will not leave your side until the war is truly over, your Grace, even if I am not there to placate their delicate sensibilities. You have my great uncle to rely upon, and your Lord Hand is finally at your disposal...”

“Damn them both, and damn your empty platitudes” He cut through her words, not wishing to hear her calm reasoning. “They do not offer me what you so effortlessly give. You inspire love and loyalty wherever you go, Lady Stark. A quality I do not, and never will, possess. Because of you, these Lords follow me blindly. Without you, they may yet recall their King is a dour, unpleasant man”.

Lady Stark had chosen to wear her mother’s colors of blue for their meeting. The blue of her gown brought out her eyes, and they pierced through him while she remained silent, seemingly shocked by his frank speech. Despite the fact she often claimed to appreciate his honesty, in truth Stannis had rarely gone to such lengths as he did to try and appease Lady Stark’s sense of decorum. Only on the rarest occasions, when his frustration with her would reach a breaking point, did he allow himself to be as blunt with her as he was now.

Rising from her seat, Lady Stark made her way to the other side of the large round table, coming to settle at his side, where he remained standing, leaning over the large map before him. Stannis did not meet her eyes, choosing instead to keep his gaze down. When did I become a coward? Too afraid to see the look of pity in her eyes.

“You are the greatest war commander alive”, Lady Stark’s voice was soft, intent on appeasing him, and it made his teeth grind in frustration. Does she take me for a small child, in need of kindness and reassurance?

The Lady’s kindness, so foreign to his nature, was a source of great discomfort to the King. He was often unmanned by it, incapable of brushing it aside. She was kind to everyone; to her Lords, to her maids, to the Queen who disliked her immensely, to his daughter who was still recovering from Melisandre’s attempt to burn her at the stake.

“You are their rightful King, your Grace”, Lady Stark insisted, “They will follow you, if you will do your duty and lead them. I will return north, where I belong, and I will do my duty to my King from my proper seat. You do not need me”. Her small, delicate hand covered his briefly, her fingers squeezing in affirmation, before letting go.

“Your duty to your King will be to marry, Lady Stark, when this war is over”, he was not surprised when she stepped away from him, choosing to turn her back on him and face the large windows of her grandfather’s solar. Lady Stark had delayed any marriage proposals she had received, claiming she could not marry while the war was still being fought. Stannis wondered whether her reticence stemmed from her two previous unfortunate nuptials. Her marriage to Tyrion Lannister had been nullified by a septon, on the grounds that the marriage had never been consummated. Her second marriage, to Harrold Hardyng, had lasted even less.

If the rumors were to be believed, something Stannis was loathe to do, Petyr Baelish had secretly poisoned the young man on his wedding night, bringing about his untimely death shortly after the bedding. Lady Stark had revealed the scheme to the Lords of the Vale, supported by her cousin, the sickly Lord Robert Arryn. The Lords of the Vale had never been fond of Littlefinger, and they needed no further encouragement to be rid of the foul man. Stannis had heard the story many times over, from many different people, but never from Lady Stark herself.

“Must I, your Grace?” the question brought the King back to the present. Lady Stark’s voice was as calm as ever, but Stannis could see how tense her body had become.

“Is there someone in particular you would prefer, my Lady? I would not force you to wed someone you would find distasteful”, he thought his offer was kind, but Lady Stark cast him a shrewd look over her shoulder, clearly disapproving of his line of questioning.

“I would rather not marry at all, your Grace. I find I have grown weary of weddings. Now that my brother has returned, the Stark line is secure. I can remain as his steward, to rule in his name until he comes of age. I see no reason for me to wed”, Lady Stark turned to face him, her expression at once reserved and cautiously hopeful. For the first time in their acquaintance, Stannis thought she might actually be requesting something from him, albeit in a roundabout way.

Many were vying for Lady Stark’s hand, and he fully intended to give her hand as a reward to some deserving Lord in the future. That Rickon Stark had returned made it all the more convenient. He could now give her away without abandoning the North to some lesser line, or worse- to one of the great houses, who might one day challenge his reign. Besides, she was a woman of noble birth, the last of her line. It was her duty to wed, her duty to bear children. Regardless of her sentiments, of her plea, he had every intention of seeing her wed again. A proper wedding, this time, no farces involved or intrigues. She deserves the highest honor a Lady of her stature can be awarded.   

“It is your duty to wed, regardless of your unfortunate past experiences”, Stannis answered stiffly, ignoring the odd pain in his chest at the look of fear which flitted across Lady Stark’s fair countenance. “Once my throne is secure I will give thought to finding you a worthy husband, but you will marry. Your King commands you, and I will not be refused on this matter”.

Lady Stark's expression turned grave. She nodded once, slowly, and curtsied deeply, as graceful as ever. Stannis cleared his throat, as uncomfortable as always when faced with the Lady’s perfect manners. She gave him a small, sad smile, before moving towards the door, clearly intending to depart though he had not dismissed her.

“Farewell, your Grace”, Lady Stark finally said, her hand already on the door handle. “I have every faith in your triumph", and with nothing more, she was gone. Stannis turned back to the map, willing his mind to focus on the battles ahead, instead of Sansa Stark’s small, sad smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Lord’s Bedchamber, Winterfell, 303 AC

Perhaps his memory was deceiving him, or maybe she felt more at ease within her own home, but Stannis did not remember Lady Stark being so fond of dancing. Though he refused to keep count, he was nonetheless certain the woman had tried her best to dance with every unmarried highborn in attendance. He knew he ought to be pleased that the woman was finally behaving like a Lady in search of a husband. He had received more than one complaint from spurned suitors over the past two years, complaining of the cold Lady Stark, begging for his interference. They sang loudly of her beauty and her grace, and quietly cursed her as stubborn and pigheaded.

On account of her beauty, at least, they spoke true enough. Lady Stark had been little more than a girl when he had last seen her, though still as beautiful as any maiden had ever been. Two years had done wonders for the woman, and what had once been a promise of loveliness had blossomed into something surpassing beauty altogether. Sansa Stark was radiant. Her auburn hair was long and lush and flowing, her figure fuller, and taller, and healthier. Her face had lost some of its’ roundness and gained a lengthened structure which suited her far better. Dressed in pristine white, it was no wonder the men around him had been lustily referring to the woman as the Maiden incarnate.

He had been a guest at Winterfell for a week, preparing to march on the Wall with the entire force of the realm behind him, united for the first time since Robert’s death. Though he had spoken to the Lady daily, she refrained from the private conversations they had shared in the past. Nowadays they were always accompanied, usually by Davos or the woman’s new Maester, a strange, dark dornishman, by the name of Alleras. They spoke of armed forces, of supplies of dragonglass and food, of the Maester’s wish to attempt to find the lost Children of the Forest.

Lady Stark would listen intently while plans were made, though she seldom offered her opinion anymore. As soon as their meeting was concluded, well before sunrise, the woman would leave with the Maester. Davos informed him the woman spent the majority of each morning with the masons and the builders, making sure everything was proceeding according to plan. Though the castle had been completely restored, renovations and improvements were still being made. The Lady would then join her young brother in his lessons with the Maester, until well past noon. She spent the afternoons in her solar, giving audience to anyone who cared to be heard by the Warden of the North. His Hand had reported with a smirk that, since the King’s arrival, many of those seeking her audience were young, unattached men.

Stannis tossed and turned in his bed, feeling smothered by the heavy furs and sheets. He was set to leave at first light, to finally march on the Wall, and on the enemy awaiting beyond it. He knew he ought to sleep, or at the very least think about the battles ahead. He had no reason to be awake, wondering whether or not Lady Stark had chosen a husband for herself without seeking his approval. He had decided long ago that while she slighted his honor by ignoring his will, he would nonetheless grant her the right to wed whomever she chose, provided he was an honorable man.

Frustrated and sweating, Stannis heaved his body out of the bed, feeling his tunic cling to his damp back. Winterfell had been built upon hot springs, and through an intricate line of pipes, the hot water ran through the walls and kept the castle as hot as a furnace without the need for a fire. At first, Stannis had marveled at the wonder, and was secretly pleased by it. Even his rooms in King’s Landing were cold by comparison, now that winter had finally arrived in the south. Now, he glanced at the window thoughtfully, wondering if the cold air might not be a welcome relief. He needed something to numb him, to lull him to sleep.

Instead of reaching for the window, Stannis settled for checking his armor and blade one more time. Never one for extravagance, the King’s armor was the same plain chainmail and steel it had always been, albeit new and of finer quality. The burning heart which had once graced his chest was gone, but no other sigil had replaced it. Stannis was tired of stags and lions, of wolves and falcons. He was the King; He needed no crown, no stag.

When he had received the sword from Maester Samwell, he had considered refusing the gift. Lord Randyll Tarly, the man’s father, had opposed him until his dying breath, and his heir, Dickon, had done as his father had bid, before meeting his own death. It had seemed wrong to claim the family’s valyrian blade as his, until Maester Samwell had insisted upon it.

“I gave up my family name on the day I took my oaths, your Grace”, the fat man had spoken firmly for a change, rather than stammer as he was wont to do. “House Tarly is gone, but the sword remains. Who better to wield a sword of dragonsteel than the King who will go to war against the Others?”

Stannis had been unable to argue with the man’s logic, and as a gesture to the man, he had not changed the sword’s ancestral name. Heartsbane now lay in its’ scabbard, needlessly but lovingly sharpened by his own hand. Valyrian blades did not need sharpening as other swords did, but he was a man of habit.

A sound coming from inside the walls made Stannis reach for his sword with practiced ease. He required both hands to unsheathe the sword and hold it properly, and as the sound grew louder, Stannis moved about the room, slowly circling the large bed, trying to discern where it was coming from.

The sound of a key turning inside a lock was heard from behind the old, worn tapestry, and Stannis swung around, sword held before him and ready to strike, to see Lady Stark, dressed only in a grey silk robe, emerge from beneath the tapestry. Her eyes first sought the bed, but upon seeing the empty sheets her gaze wandered and settled on his form. A small gasp of surprise left her, and Stannis lowered the sword slowly, unsure of how to proceed. I will not be ashamed, Stannis felt his pride insisting, and forced his shoulders to straighten, what could she possibly think, stealing into my private chambers at such an hour?

The flames of the few burning candles in the room caught in her hair, making the long tresses seem like flowing rivers of molten copper. The shadows danced across her robe, making the King painfully aware of how inappropriately the woman was dressed. As she continued to maintain her silence, Stannis finally felt his befuddlement twist into anger.

“What is the meaning of this, woman?” he barked out, placing the longsword gently across the bed.

“I…” Stannis had never heard Lady Stark stutter before, and the strange display of vulnerability made him tense. Out with it, woman, he wanted to shout at her, but refrained.

“I thought you would be in bed by now, your Grace”. He could not be certain, for the light of the candles was fickle at best, but he suspected the Lady was blushing. Her words made no sense to him. If she believed him to be asleep, why would she seek to enter?

“Clearly, you were mistaken”, Stannis bit out, fighting to maintain a civil tone, hoping it would encourage the woman to speak quickly and be gone. Her presence in his bedchamber was highly inappropriate, and oddly unsettling.

“Yes”, the woman echoed quietly, her voice devoid of inflection, “Clearly”.

As he stared at her intently, curious as to why she was avoiding his gaze, a thought suddenly occurred to him. “Have you come to speak to me of a husband, my Lady?” Stannis asked carefully, feeling his cheeks burn with embarrassment. He hoped the flickering light afforded him the same benefit of the doubt as it did her. “Is that why you sought to meet with me in private?”

Lady Stark shook her head vehemently, and Stannis felt his confusion quickly becoming a headache. Has the woman forgotten how to speak? He wondered, watching her hands fiddle nervously with the ties of her robe.

“No, your Grace, my opinion of acquiring a husband has not changed”, the woman seemed to regain some of her natural eloquence, her eyes finally meeting his. Her words were still barely more than a riddle to him, though he was filled with a strange sense of peace, now that she had confirmed her continued objection to marriage.

“What is it, then?” he spoke plainly, eager now to be done with her. He had never been a patient man.

“Tomorrow you leave to battle, possibly to death”, she approached him slowly, as one did a frightened horse, likely to bolt. Her voice was low and warm and affectionate, and Stannis narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

“I merely thought, well, to be honest, I had hoped”, but instead of revealing what she had hoped for, Lady Stark’s nimble fingers reached to undo the ties of her robe with quick efficiency, allowing the silk fabric to fall to the floor. The woman was utterly naked underneath, and Stannis made an odd, painful sound, as though he had suffered a blow.

It was impossible to look away. Sansa Stark had a tall, womanly figure, with long, shapely legs. Her teats were perfection, tall and firm, with the most perfect pink pair of nipples he had ever seen. Her mound was covered in red curls, a shade deeper than her hair, and though he suspected his mind was betraying him, he could have sworn her curls were glistening, almost as though she was wet for him.

Seeing her advance further, and unable to bear the sight, Stannis forced his eyes shut. He inhaled deeply, but the air was mingled with her natural smell; a clean smell, almost like soap, not some cloying perfume like most Ladies preferred.

Her voice, so close that it startled him into opening his eyes, was deeper than usual. “Will you not look at me, your Grace? Am I so terrible to gaze upon?”

“Yes”, Stannis gritted out, immediately regretting the word as he watched her flinch backwards. Terribly beautiful, terribly tempting. Have I ever wanted anything as much as I want to touch her at this moment? His blood was burning, his heart pounding in his chest, and he was shamefully aware of the heavy feeling in his cock, of the familiar pressure centering there.

“My Lady”, his voice was hoarse, and he had to take a step back, to put distance between them, to think. “Sansa”, he enjoyed using her name far too much, to his great shame. The soft syllables rolled off his tongue like a caress, gentle and beautiful as she was. “This is ill advised”, to put it mildly.

“I want you, your Grace”, Sansa’s blue eyes had a fire burning within them, her voice firm and certain. Though she was only a woman, naked and alone and in his rooms, Stannis felt as though she had too much power over him. His need, previously denied and generally ignored, was demanding to be allowed free reins. But Stannis was a man of control, of discipline.

The girl, the woman, Sansa, was terribly young, more than twenty years his junior. She was alone, and confused, and frightened by an upcoming war with forces she did not understand. He was the King, he was honor bound to her. He would not let her throw away her honor, to waste away her favor on an old, married, bitter man.

“No”, he was proud when his voice did not waver, even as his eyes fought not to stray from her face. Now that he knew he was to send her away, his body seemed to rebel, demanding another stolen glance of her beauty.

“Sansa, you speak of things you know nothing of. What you offer… I have no right to take”.

“You do not want me?” Sansa’s voice was fragile, as though she was made of spun glass, and the woman trembled before him, her hands coming up to try and cover her beautiful teats.

“No, Lady Stark. I do not”, he had to keep his voice firm, lest he be tempted to reach out and embrace her, to pull her hands away and revel in the feel of her pressed against his aching body. “Keep your favors for your husband, and hope he finds them pleasing”.

He was proud of her for not flinching, proud of her as she silently retreated, picking up the silk robe from the ground and wrapping it around her body with sure hands. She did not shake, she did not cry. She was the epitome of poise, and it made it easier for him to let her go. She deserves better than an old, bitter man, he told himself firmly, staying rooted to his place. She will go on to marry a handsome young Lord and be ridiculously happy.

She did not turn to address him again. She merely reached behind the worn tapestry, pushing open the door he assumed was hidden behind. Without a single glance, she left.

As soon as he heard the door click shut behind her, Stannis pulled up his simple tunic and grasped his aching cock with shaking fingers. His grip was slightly too strong, bordering on painful, but the pressure was so intense, the need so great, that he did not even bother to readjust. He closed his eyes, his mind immediately supplying him with images of those beautiful teats, of her wet curls, of her full pink lips. Pumping a hard, punishing pace, Stannis came so quickly that he nearly lost his balance, spilling his warm seed over his hand and thighs, tightening his grip to prolong the feeling. His teeth were grinding fiercely, desperate not to let any sound escape through them.

Several moments later, after recovering some of his sanity, Stannis used the small water basin to wash away the evidence of his weakness, feeling thoroughly disgusted with himself. Despite his agitation, he was worn out, and without further ado the King of Westeros climbed back into bed. He took a moment to consider the irony of sharing his bed with a valyrian longsword, rather than a beautiful highborn Lady. He fell asleep with his hand on the hilt of Heartsbane, wondering if Sansa’s skin was quite as soft as it had seemed in the candlelight.

 

Chapter Text

Castle Black, the Wall, 304 AC

Lord Garlan did not spare a single word for the Lord Hand as he stormed past him on his way out of the King’s Tower in Castle Black. The amiable Master of Ships was clearly in a foul mood, his handsome features twisted into a scowl Davos had rarely seen on the man. Davos sighed heavily, pausing to cast a look at the man’s retreating form. He had come to respect Lord Garlan, who was the kindest, sincerest member of his ambitious family. It pained him to see a good man caught between his family and his King.

The heavy oak door at the entrance of the tower, studded with iron and worn from age, was guarded by Ser Patrek Mallister. The young knight’s heavy white cloak was as pristine as the snow at his feet, but the man’s lips were turning blue and he was shivering from the unbearable cold. Even so, the man stood straight and proud, and gave the Lord Hand a firm nod of his head in recognition.

Davos spared a tight smile for the Kingsguard knight. “Has the King ordered you to remain here, Ser Patrek?” the Hand inquired, pushing the heavy door open. The knight seemed to hesitate, but his voice was steady when he replied, “He did not. But the King must always be guarded by a knight of the Kingsguard”.

Davos’ smile widened a fraction, becoming warm and genuine. The Kingsguard knights were still only five in number, but they were all good, loyal men. They were dedicated to their King, eager to protect him at all times. Davos breathed out a small laugh, imagining how frustrated Stannis would become if he ever knew his sworn shield was outside his door, freezing to death.

“You are dismissed, Ser Patrek”, Davos ordered, though not unkindly. He had become accustomed to giving orders as Hand of the King, but could never imitate his King’s effortless tone of imperious command. When Ser Patrek cast him an uncertain look, Davos sighed. “You will be of no use to your King if you die out here in the snow”, the Lord Hand insisted, forcing his tone to be firm, “The Others are coming for us all, Ser Patrek, I would rather you be alive to protect the King when they do”. Ser Patrek blushed deeply, the color of his skin nearly matching the angry red scar dissecting his left cheek. The young knight nodded once, his eyes downcast, before marching away reluctantly.

The climb up the steep stairs served to warm Davos’ cold bones, and the fire in the King’s chamber was a welcome comfort. Davos hurried to stand near the hearth, his gloved hands outstretched to warm his numb fingers. The King was seated at his desk, dressed in his customary black, his brow furrowed in concentration as he read one of the many letters which were stacked in perfect order upon the large wooden surface. He did not raise his eyes to acknowledge the Hand’s presence, nor did Davos wait to be addressed. He had no doubt the King was well aware what his Lord Hand had come to say.

“Lord Garlan did not seem pleased”, Davos offered cautiously, waiting to gauge the mood his King was in. Stannis huffed a short grunt in reply, his breath misting in the cold air, but the King’s eyes did not leave the letter he was pursuing.  

Davos waited, silently, for the King to finish. A few long, awkward minutes passed before Stannis finally sighed irritably, and put the letter down. Davos’ eyes followed the King’s large, strong hands as they meticulously folded the parchment, replacing it at the bottom of the pile of letters.

“I do not care for Lord Garlan’s pleasure”, Stannis spoke slowly, his voice like gravel, “the man serves his King, not his brother”. Apparently feeling that their conversation was concluded, the King reached forward for another letter.

Frustrated, Davos’ voice came out louder than he had intended. “The Tyrells had hoped to be properly compensated for their losses”, Davos insisted, ignoring the scowl his King leveled at him. Leaving the warm comfort of the fireplace, the Lord Hand took a seat across from Stannis’ scowling form, watching the King’s long-fingered hand which had remained hovering above the letter, undecided.

“Your Grace, if you please, I think Lord Garlan was simply relaying his brother’s frustration with Lady Stark’s interference”. At the mention of Lady Stark, a flutter appeared in Stannis’ left cheek, followed by a quick clenching of his jaw. His hand dropped, and his scowl lifted momentarily. Davos paused, waiting to see if the King would comment, but no reply seemed to come forth. The King merely continued to stare at him, his deep blue eyes sharp and piercing.

“The Tyrells were given to understand that you had given a silent approval to the sacking of the Iron islands…” Davos’ words were interrupted by the sound of grinding teeth. Stannis’ eyes narrowed dangerously, and he leaned back in his seat to better survey his Lord Hand. Davos fought not to squirm under the King’s fierce scrutiny. Why am I here, defending the Tyrells? Davos wondered miserably. Why am I fool enough to think Lord Tyrell desires the help of a low-born former smuggler?

“There was no approval, silent or otherwise”, Stannis announced firmly, through clenched teeth. “Had they done their duty and sailed with my fleet to the islands, as commanded, rather than using my ships and my men to protect their shores, they would have been the ones to conquer Pyke and subdue Euron Greyjoy”.

“Had you not sent the woman they would have eventually succeeded in subduing the Greyjoy rebellion”, Davos objected, though he knew the King would not agree with him. Stannis had ordered Lord Garlan to take the royal fleet and sail directly to the Iron islands. Instead, the Master of Ships had come to his brother’s aid, helping Lord Willas secure his shores, which had been plagued by raids for years. By the time the royal fleet had set sail towards Pyke, Lady Stark’s massive host, which had sailed from Seagard, had already engaged Euron’s ships at sea. It was almost as if Stannis had known that Lord Garlan would disobey his orders, as though…

“You knew”, he accused his King, not caring that his words caused Stannis to grind his teeth fiercely. Stannis was not the sort of man to forgive a blatant disregard for his orders. In fact, Davos had been surprised when the King had not dismissed Lord Garlan from the small council. But if Stannis had known of the Master of Ships’ plans in advance, if the King had had time to prepare…

“You predicted Lord Garlan would come to his brother’s aid; that was the true plan all along. You sent her there to prevent the Tyrells from taking over the Iron islands, to punish them for disobeying your orders”.

“You will refer to the Lady Stark by her title”, the King warned in a low voice, “and I needed someone I could trust to carry out my orders to the letter”.

“To the letter?” Davos repeated, incredulous. “Your Grace, Lady Stark has executed Euron Greyjoy after he had publicly surrendered and declared you his King”.

“Euron Crow’s-Eye was Balon’s brother through and through- dangerous, mad and too arrogant by half”, Stannis spoke calmly, and Davos realized, to his horror, that the King had been well-prepared for Euron’s death. He sent her there to insure the man’s death, the thought sent a shiver through the former smuggler. “Euron would have bent the knee, only to rise again the moment he perceived me as weak”, Stannis concluded, without a hint of regret.

“So you sent the Lady Stark to dispose of him”, Davos’ words were not meant as a question, and Stannis did not deign to answer them. Davos sat back, mimicking his King’s stance, and wondered what had become of the just Lord he had sworn his allegiance to. The Stannis I knew never would have allowed a man to be executed without a fair trial, Davos thought, the woman’s influence is proving to be as dangerous as the red priestess’ had been.

“You could have sentenced him a traitor, you could have charged Lord Garlan with the man’s execution”, Davos tried to reason with his King, hoping against all hope that Stannis would realize his error. At the very least, his King had gravely insulted House Tyrell, who were still a powerful family, and far from being Stannis’ staunchest supporters.

“Perhaps”, Stannis conceded, though his voice implied he had considered the idea in the past, only to discard it as worthless. “Yet I found Lady Stark’s solution far more satisfying”, Stannis’ lips tilted upwards, ever so slightly, almost as if he was fighting to conceal a smile. Impossible.

“If you are referring to her decision to name Lady Asha as the new ruler, surely Lord Garlan could have seen to that as well”, Davos questioned further, refusing to admit defeat.

“Lady Asha’s inheritance of her father’s seat was a simple matter, now that both her uncles are dead”, Stannis replied dismissively, his voice and countenance remaining oddly calm in the face of his Hand’s continued insolence. “The only thing that matters is that the Ironborn will pay their ‘Iron price’, and they will do so directly to their King, as they should”.

“Lady Stark has benefited from the bargain as well”, Davos reminded him, “The Tyrells have complained the ore which was promised to them is now being sent to Winterfell. Lord Willas is insulted, at the very least, to be so publicly humiliated by his King and the Lady of the North”.

Stannis’ smug expression turned into his familiar scowl at the mention of Lord Willas. “Not insulted so much that he would refrain from seeking her hand in marriage”, the King muttered darkly, his scowl deepening.

“Pardon me, your Grace?” Davos asked, utterly confused.

“Has Lord Garlan not shared the joyous news with you?” the King’s tone was mocking, but Davos took no offense. Stannis’ anger was not directed at him. “Lord Tyrell has acquiesced to forgive the slights against his honor if I will award him Sansa Stark’s hand in marriage”.

“That notion is not without merit, your Grace”. It was not the reply his King wished to hear, and Davos knew it by the man’s dour expression, but it was the truth nonetheless. Lady Sansa Stark was a young, unmarried Lady; the finest and most beautiful in all of Westeros, according to some men. She ruled the North in her brother’s name, but through her blood ties she controlled the strength of the Riverlands and the Vale as well. The woman had too much power, and his King depended on her loyalty whether he admitted it or not. Lord Willas Tyrell was one of a very small number of unmarried Lords who could match the Lady’s strength, barely.

“The notion is preposterous and will not be deliberated further, do you hear me?!” Stannis rose from his seat, his voice also rising in volume. Pressing his open palms against the desk and leaning forward on them, the King towered over his seated Hand, his expression one of cold fury. “I owe nothing to Willas Tyrell, and I certainly will not reward his insolence by giving him the hand of Lady Stark”.

“She has to marry”, Davos insisted, meeting the King’s furious blue eyes with his calm, steady gaze. “She needs a husband. You have allowed her too much freedom, your Grace, and people are beginning to talk”.

“And what, precisely, are ‘people’ saying?” Stannis inquired through clenched teeth, his hands twisting into white knuckled fists.

Davos paused, hesitant for the first time since their argument had begun. There were many things being said of the Lady, most of them highly unflattering, and likely to cause the King to react in a fit of rage. Though he concealed it well, Davos knew his King was fond of the Lady Stark, as far as Stannis Baratheon was capable of such a notion. He admired her, and often sought out her council. He allowed her liberties others would not dream of. In some ways, the woman held a higher standing with Stannis than his wife, his daughter, or even the red priestess had ever possessed. I suppose she has earned it, Davos admitted reluctantly, acknowledging Lady Stark’s many contributions to Stannis’ cause. Without her support, my King would not be sitting upon the Iron throne.

“They say”, Davos started, but paused to clear his throat in discomfort. “They say she is to you what Gregor Clegane had been to Tywin Lannister- a war machine, a dangerous rabid dog. They say the King sends her to do his dirty work, while his hands remain clean”.

The sound which escaped through Stannis’ pale, thin lips was somewhere between a grunt and a choked laugh. “Men did not fear Tywin Lannister because he had Gregor Clegane in his service”, the King remarked, settling back into his seat with a thoughtful expression on his face, rather than his customary scowl. “Men feared Gregor Clegane because they knew he carried out Tywin Lannister’s will”.

Davos considered the matter for a moment, before conceding the point with a rueful smile. “I did not say I agree with them”, the Hand teased in a lighter tone. “For one thing- Gregor Clegane had been an ugly giant of a man, and I do believe Lady Stark is quite his opposite in that regard”.

Stannis’ eyes narrowed momentarily, suspicious as always of jests and humor, before his expression turned thoughtful once again. “Yes”, the King offered in a distracted tone, his deep blue eyes straying towards the single window in the room. “Quite the opposite”.

The distracted comment gave Davos pause. He had known his King was as close to Lady Stark as propriety allowed. Yet something in the King’s tone made him suspect a closer, deeper attachment than he had ever imagined possible. Never in his life had he witnessed his King commenting on a Lady’s beauty, albeit in a roundabout way.

“My war is here, Lord Hand”, Stannis’ voice was vehement, causing Davos to startle out of his thoughts. The King’s eyes were trained on him, commanding his full attention.

“But my realm is still bleeding, and I cannot trust some of my Lords to remain loyal when I am too far away to bring them to heel”, a spark of anger flared in the King’s deep blue eyes, his jaw clenching for a moment.

“Is this not what you have charged me to do, as your Hand?” Davos asked, uncertain of his liege’s intent.

“Yes, you guard the King’s peace. But I need them to like you, my onion knight”, there was a warmth in Stannis’ eyes and voice that he rarely displayed openly. A deep emotion of camaraderie, a sense of trust he did not share with anyone other than his Hand. “I want them to come to you, to confide in you, to look to you to mediate between them and myself”.

Davos nodded slowly, beginning to understand. “You use her, the Lady Stark, so that I remain uninvolved”, the Lord Hand surmised slowly, looking at the King for approval. The game of thrones was new to him, having been tossed into it late in life, but he was learning.

Stannis nodded slowly, his voice deep and smooth as he continued. “You are my shield, as she is my sword. As long as the other Lords know I will not hesitate to use her, as long as they fear I will unleash her to ravage their fields and burn down their castles, my peace is assured”.

“You trust the Lady so much?” the idea was even stranger than the thought that his King might be infatuated with the northern beauty.

“The ice of the North runs in that woman’s veins”, Stannis’ warm tone was at odds with his harsh description of the woman. “She never does anything that does not benefit her cause in some way. However, as long as I know what she wants, I trust her implicitly”, Stannis’ tone was final, brooking no argument.

Davos remained silent, not sure what to make of the King’s confession. Stannis allowed his Lord Hand a moment of quiet contemplation, silently rising from his seat and fastening his heavy black furs on with meticulous grace. Davos followed his King’s sharp movements, admiring the dexterity of the stern man.

“Come, my onion knight”, the King prompted as he finished pulling on his moleskin gloves, forcing his Lord Hand out of his musings. “We must see off Lord Snow’s ranging party”.

Davos abhorred magic, had always treated it with a mixture of fear and mistrust, and the mention of Jon Snow caused a feeling of unease to twist in his gut. He had seen the man twice since he had arrived at the Wall, and even those brief encounters had been too much for his sensibilities. The boy had been dead, murdered by his own brothers. Melisandre had attempted to burn princess Shireen to resurrect Snow, for reasons she refused to divulge even after her long incarceration. Snow’s albino direwolf, Ghost, had jumped into the pyre to save the young princess. The direwolf had killed seven of the queen’s men before they abandoned their attempts to retrieve the terrified girl.

But when the flames had died down, Jon Snow stepped out of the pyre, his hair completely burnt but alive and seemingly uninjured. The man Davos met was still very much the honorable youth he had remembered. But the young man, now no longer a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, reeked of magic and it made the Lord Hand uncomfortable.

Now, Stannis had granted Snow’s relentless request to lead a party north of the Wall, in search of his brother Bran, and the lost children of the forest. Jon had asked to take with him both Maester Alleras from Winterfell, and Maester Samwell from the Night’s Watch. Much to Davos’ surprise and Stannis’ displeasure, Jon had also requested to take the red priestess with him as well.

“I still believe it was a poor decision, granting Snow’s wish to take the woman”, Davos muttered in a dark voice, rising to his feet. Whatever sway Melisandre had held over the King, it shattered when he had learnt of her attempt to burn his only daughter and heir. The King had wanted to execute the red priestess himself as soon as he reached the Wall, and only Snow’s insistence that the woman might be of value had convinced Stannis to delay. Davos privately thought the woman was long due for an execution, her attempted murder of the princess being the last in a long list of evil deeds she had committed.

“Perhaps she will finally prove to be of use in this war”, Stannis did not sound particularly convinced. Davos knew the King had never believed the woman’s ranting about Azor Ahai and the rest of her religious nonsense. He had succumbed to her ways merely because he believed he could not achieve his goals otherwise.

“If she fails to do so, at least I know she will die out in the cold snow, as far away from her beloved fires as possible”, there was a hint of vengeance in his King’s voice, but Davos did not resent him for it.

As King and Hand climbed down the steps, Davos’ thoughts strayed to Lady Stark. Despite Stannis’ reassurances, Davos could not bring himself to trust the woman. He said so himself, Davos reckoned, the woman always wants something. Try as he might, Davos could not quite understand what it was that Lady Stark hoped to gain from his King. If I do not know what she wants, how can I trust her? The Hand reasoned with himself, deciding to keep an eye on the Lady’s actions in the future. Stannis must fight his war, but I must maintain his peace. It is my duty.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Great Keep, the island of Pyke, 304 AC

When she had been one-and-ten, Asha had been dragged along with Theon and her mother to bear witness to Balon’s surrender before King Robert Baratheon. Northern men, bearing the arms of house Stark, had marched her into her father’s Great Hall, where the Seastone chair sat ever since the Greyjoys were voted the sole rulers of the Iron islands.

She had never seen anyone other than her father sit upon the chair before then, and the sight of King Robert, sprawled in her family’s rightful seat, had filled her with both dread and anger. King Robert had been a giant of a man, but he sat with his back hunched, his long legs spread out before him. The man had been dressed in his armor and mail, painted crimson and black with blood both fresh and old. His Warhammer, so large Asha had doubted a normal man could lift it, was at his side. Were it not for the antlered helmet, which lay forgotten at his feet, King Robert would have looked like one of the High Kings of old, from a time before the Ironborn had surrendered to the Targaryens. But even as a child, Asha could see how tired the King had looked. He may have succeeded in defeating my father, Asha remembered thinking, but he will never forget the strength of the Ironborn.

Now, for the second time in her life, she was being marched into the Great Hall of Pyke by Stark men, accompanied only by her nuncle, Lord Rodrik Harlaw. This time however, they expected her, not her father, to kneel and declare a Baratheon as her one true King. Asha refused to feel the pain of her people’s defeat, refused to take their shame as her own. They had chosen Euron and his ways, this is his doing. I promised them peace, but they wanted war.

Nonetheless, Asha was disheartened to see her father’s hall full of northern soldiers. Men hurried back and forth, carrying weapons or supplies, wearing the sigils of the North and Riverlands. The merman of Manderly and the eagle of Mallister were prominent, as well as the bear of Mormont, the chained giant of Umber, and the trout of house Tully. Above them all, hanging from every bannister in the hall, was the direwolf of house Stark, grey on a field of white. But no Baratheon stag, Asha suddenly realized, her eyes turning to the raised dais.

The Seastone chair was carved out of a black, oily stone, into the shape of a giant kraken. On both sides of the enormous seat stood knights of the Kingsguard- Ser Brynden Tully, the Lord Commander, on the right, and Ser Richard Horpe on the left. Despite the striking figure they cut, with their white-enameled armor and beautiful white cloaks, Asha’s eyes were immediately drawn to the figure sitting on the throne itself. Though she was far smaller in stature than King Robert had been, Lady Sansa Stark, dressed in pristine white, appeared far more regal than either Robert or her father ever had.

Asha recalled how the Damphair, now her only living uncle on her father’s side, once claimed no ungodly man or woman could sit upon the chair. Well nuncle, you’ve seen an ungodly man sit upon my father’s chair for four years, and now you have survived only to see a woman do the same, the thought brought a grim smile to Asha’s face. She had no fondness for her father’s brothers.

She had expected to see the Lady Stark waiting for her at Lordsport upon arrival, but when her ship had sailed into the harbor there had been no trace of the woman or any of her Lords. Most of the ships were foreign, with only a few recognizable vessels present from the Iron fleet. Only her beloved nuncle had been there to welcome his niece back, his ship, Sea Song, one of the few undamaged vessels. Asha had struggled to disguise her wounded pride, while her husband had failed to do even that.

“How dare she not be here, to see the rightful heir to Pyke return?” Her husband had demanded of her nuncle. Lord Rodrik had cast her husband a withering look, clearly deciding the man was a fool.

“It is by Lady Stark’s grace that my beloved niece is here, Ser”, her nuncle’s sharp wit had not been dulled by the years, though his body was clearly beginning to fail him. “Perhaps it will be wise for you to remember her position, and yours, before you meet with her”.

The woman’s position was indeed hard to ignore, as Asha approached her slowly. Lady Stark sat upon the Seastone chair, tall and proud, looking like a Queen born to rule. Her long auburn hair was piled on top of her head in an elegant and intricate style, serving as her fiery crown, and the white of her pale skin and dress stood out against the blackness of the Seastone chair. This is the woman who has Stannis Baratheon’s’ respect, Asha thought in wonder, recalling the soft spoken girl she had met when she had been Stannis’ prisoner in the north. He allows this woman to conquer in his name.

Asha had pleaded with Stannis to make her his man, had offered to bear arms in his name. The proud, somber King had blatantly refused, insulting her by claiming he could not make her ‘his man’ where the gods had not. She failed to understand why Stannis would allow Lady Stark to serve as his war commander while forcing Asha to marry and settle down like a salt wife.

Her party came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the dais where Lady Stark sat.  Eager to spite, Asha began to ascend the steps quickly, her sharp dark eyes waiting to catch any movement. Oddly enough, it was Ser Richard Horpe, and not Lady Stark’s great-uncle, who stepped forward to prevent her from progressing further. Asha had chosen to wear her chainmail and hauberk, and had armed herself with her beloved axe. She smiled viciously as she noticed Ser Richard eyeing the axe with trepidation, his hand already at the hilt of his sword. I know your true worth, Asha thought snidely. Though Ser Brynden was nearly twice his age, Asha feared the Blackfish far more than she did the man Stannis referred to as ‘the slayer’.

“Ser Richard”, Lady Stark’s voice was indeed as soft and sweet as Asha had remembered, and it seemed to have an instantaneous affect over the Kingsguard knight. “Please allow the Lady Greyjoy through”.

Asha smiled mockingly at the knight, who stepped back with obvious reluctance. She gave Ser Richard a mock curtsy, noticing how the Blackfish smiled at her little show, clearly amused. She briefly considered being insulted that the elderly knight did not consider her a proper threat. Then again, he knows all too well that I am here only because I had agreed to kneel before King Stannis a long time ago.

Four years, in fact. She had been away from home, outcast and unwanted, for four long years. She had waited, first as a prisoner, then as a nobleman’s wife, for King Stannis to take on her uncle. They had reached an understanding long ago, she and the stern King. Asha was to kneel and accept Stannis as the true king, and in return Stannis would make her the undisputed ruler of the Iron islands. To seal the bargain and bind her to his rule, Stannis had declared her marriage to Erik Ironmaker null and void, and gave her as a prize to Ser Justin Massey.

Ser Justin, with his ready smile and glib tongue, had proven himself to be a worthy opponent for Asha’s temper, and passion. She had no doubt she made her husband happy, and if he did seek out other women’s cunts every now and then, well, it was not as if she did not seek other men’s cocks. They were a surprisingly good match, and she appreciated his company and his support during her exile. He was certainly an improvement on the husband her uncle had chosen for her, who had been so fat he could not rise from his seat without aid.

Asha took the last two steps and finally stood before Lady Stark, who wore a coy smile on her lips. From such a small distance, it was easy to notice the brilliant blue shade of the Lady’s eyes. Asha recalled her first impression of Stannis Baratheon, how she had seen an iron ferocity in his eyes, how she had known instinctively that the man would never turn back from his course. The same steely look of determination burned in Lady Stark’s sapphire eyes, and Asha began to understand what it was that Stannis saw in the woman.

“Welcome back to Pyke, Lady Greyjoy”, Lady Stark spoke loudly, clearly meaning for the entire hall to hear their exchange. Asha was acutely aware that all movement had ceased, and that every eye in the room had turned to look at the two women. Let them watch, Asha refused to bow down, determined to prove she could hold her own against the Lady of the North. I am the Kraken’s daughter.

“Do forgive me Lady Stark”, Asha replied, her voice also pitched as to be heard, “I fear I am not quite dressed as a proper Lady ought to be for such an audience”. Indicating her chainmail, Asha was gratified to hear the laughter rising from their avid crowd. If she expects me to simper and curtsy, I will remind her that long before I had a husband, I took a battle-axe for a lover.

Lady Stark’s smile did not waver, but she surveyed Asha’s form from her boots to her short, dark hair, as if she had only just noticed that Asha was not clad in a silk dress. “On the contrary, Lady Greyjoy”, Lady Stark’s tone seemed to imply she was surprised by Asha’s words. “How else could I expect an Ironborn princess to dress?”

Being called a princess never failed to make Asha seethe in anger. “Perhaps you might lend me one of your pretty dresses in the future, Lady Stark, I am certain my husband will approve”, Asha offered in her sweetest, most insincere tone.

“Perhaps”, Sansa’s voice was as sweet as a harp, but her smile was as cold as ice. “Or I can have you beheaded like your troublesome uncle. Which would you prefer, Lady Greyjoy?”

Asha struggled to find a clever retort, but the sight of the Blackfish, all traces of his smile gone and his hand firmly on his sword hilt, gave her pause. For the first time, she considered her husband’s words seriously. Ser Justin had warned her that while Lady Stark appeared to be Stannis’ loyal dog, in truth she was often given free rein to do as she pleased. At the time, she had dismissed her husband’s words as simple, childish envy. Ser Justin was good to her, but like so many men, he was uncomfortable seeing a woman rise so high. Now, too late, Asha recalled the tales of how Lady Stark had burnt down the Twins without a second thought, and realized there might have been some truth to her husband’s warning.

“If there are rocks to starboard and a storm to port, a wise captain steers a third course”, Lord Rodrik Harlaw spoke from his place at the bottom of the stairs, repeating the words Asha had spoken to him years ago. Her nuncle pushed past the Stark men, climbing slowly up the steps. “Surely between putting on a dress and losing your head, a third option can be found, dear niece”, her nuncle’s plain, brown eyes were fixed on her, but his words were clearly meant for Lady Stark’s benefit.

Lady Stark considered Lord Harlaw with a slight tilt of her head, like a little bird, as though she found her nuncle fascinating. In truth, her favorite uncle was indeed an odd sight amongst the Ironborn. He was an avid reader, a scholar at heart, who she highly suspected would have found himself dead long ago had his sister not been wed to the Lord Reaper of Pyke. But Harlaw was the largest of the Iron islands, the most populated, and the wealthiest. Her uncle’s strength was not to be underestimated, despite his own unimpressive appearance.

The silence settled and lengthened, becoming oppressive, before her uncle spoke once more. “I would encourage you, niece, to speak with Lady Stark in a more secluded setting”, Lord Rodrik’s hand swept backwards, indicating their audience. His voice was kept deliberately low, meant only for the two women. “I am sure you will reach an understanding far more easily, if you were to speak privately”.

Asha’s dark eyes sought out Lady Stark’s gaze, trying to discern whether her uncle’s words affected the northern woman in any way. Lady Stark’s face was devoid of expression, remaining a stony mask. This woman will not relent, Asha knew. Swallowing her pride, Asha followed her nuncle’s example.

“I would be honored to be granted a private audience, my Lady”, Asha offered quietly, her tone carefully respectful, and gave a small bow. Lady Stark’s smile returned, as radiant as the sun. The woman was indeed beautiful, in the most traditional sense of the word. Asha had been a scrawny, pimpled girl, before growing into her family’s dark sort of beauty. She had no doubt that the Lady Stark had always been beautiful, even as a small child.

“Of course, Lady Greyjoy”, Lady Stark rose gracefully from her seat, her tone infused with warmth. “If you will follow me”, the woman indicated a door to her left, which Asha knew led to a large chamber her father had used as a map room. Asha followed slowly, allowing her nuncle and the two Kingsguard knights to bring up the rear. The Great Hall remained eerily silent as they left, their crowd wordlessly following their departure.

The room they entered was large and airy, with high windows overlooking the south. After being inside her father’s windowless Great Hall, with only torches and fires to see anything by, the harsh grey light pouring in from outside caused Asha to squint. The maps were still there, organized neatly upon wooden shelves. It was a change from her father’s days, when maps were tossed about in every corner and on every available surface. A large, oval table had been placed in the center of the room, surrounded by simple, sturdy wooden chairs. On it, a single large map of the islands was displayed, various forces marked with small figurines upon it. Asha took in the room, before turning her head towards her nuncle, a tight smile on her face.

“Did Lady Stark allow you to redecorate, nuncle, or had Euron discovered a previously unknown passion for old parchments and ink?” It was blatantly obvious that Lord Rodrik had assisted in putting the room to rights, being the only one except the Greyjoys to know the contents of the room intimately. She doubted Lady Stark or any of her men would have taken the time to sort through the maps with such care, or to reorganize them in such perfect order. Her uncle gave her a small smile, motioning for her to take a seat.

“I may have had a hand in the new arrangement of the map room and library of Pyke”, her uncle conceded, sounding overly pleased with himself. “You know me, Asha, give me an old piece of crumbling parchment and I cannot resist”. Asha wanted to be mad at her uncle, for clearly being a pawn of their northern invaders, but found she could not force a scowl to her face. They were both pawns, it seemed, unable to act freely. There was a greater game afoot, one she had not been made aware of yet.

Feeling her hurt pride twisting in her abdomen like a knife, Asha took a seat across from Lady Stark, who had settled at the far head of the table, her face towards the door. Ser Brynden settled on his great-niece’s right, while Ser Richard remained standing by the door. The last one to sit down was her nuncle, but the infuriating man chose to sit halfway between the Ladies, rather than on Asha’s right. What bargain has my nuncle struck with this northern woman? Asha wondered, incensed by her uncle’s lack of support. Why does she not hold to her King’s terms?

“Are you aware, Lady Greyjoy, that Lord Garlan Tyrell had been charged to take the royal fleet and subdue your uncle’s rebellion?” Lady Stark inquired politely, her delicate hands folded gracefully in her lap, her blue eyes even brighter in the harsh light of day.

“My husband had informed me the royal fleet had sailed on the King’s orders, yes”, Asha conceded, keeping her voice as polite as she could. She did not appreciate being talked to as if she was a child, unaware of the happenings around her.

“You do realize that house Tyrell has suffered immense losses during the last few years, as a result of your people’s relentless raiding?” Lady Stark continued. Asha could not bring herself to give a polite answer, and settled for merely nodding her head. Does her ranting have a purpose? Asha wondered, casting her nuncle a chagrined look. Did no one ever tell the woman that words are wind?

“What you may not have realized is that house Tyrell had every intention of sacking the Iron islands, leaving your people to starve during the long winter, with your fleet shattered and your crops burnt”, Lady Stark’s voice turned cold, her eyes flashing with sudden emotion. “Perhaps you might have been restored to your rightful seat, if your uncle would have managed to die during the skirmishes, but you would have been Lady of a few barren rocks, empty and blackened. The Tyrells are not above seeking vengeance, Lady Asha, and your Ironborn have given them cause to be very, very upset”.

Asha sat back in her chair, her dark eyes seeking any signs of a lie in Lady Stark’s fair countenance. House Tyrell had sworn allegiance to the King, even if they had been the last of the great houses to do so. Surely they would not dare to act so blatantly against the King’s wishes? Surely Stannis would have punished them severely for their actions?

“The King is at the Wall, with his entire strength”, Lady Stark seemed to read Asha’s thoughts, her small smile implying how simple she found the other woman, causing Asha to seethe. “Even if he would have wanted to punish the Tyrells for their actions, he does not have the power to do so. Not now, not while he is defending the Wall”.

“But you do”, Asha spit out, her dark eyes narrowing as she began to comprehend. “Only the forces of the North and the Riverlands combined could provide a fleet which could sail faster than Lord Garlan, and strong enough to defeat the Iron fleet in open sea”. Lady Stark nodded slowly, her smile gone.

“Are you beginning to understand, dear niece?” her uncle’s soft voice was meant to be comforting, but Asha found little solace in his words. Nonetheless, she nodded solemnly, her hands helplessly clenching and unclenching under the table. I have been a fool.

“What bargain did you strike with this woman, nuncle?” Asha’s eyes surveyed the signs of advanced age in Lord Rodrik’s face. Her uncle’s hair, previously plain brown, had turned mostly grey. There were many new lines etched on his skin, the crow’s-feet around his eyes deeper and more pronounced than she recalled. There were heavy dark circles under his eyes, telling of his exhaustion. The years have not been kind to her uncle, and Asha was saddened by it.

“I promised that Harlaw will not go to war, and in return I was given the promise that a man I loathed will be replaced by a niece I love most dearly”, Lord Rodrik’s voice was steady, with no hint of regret. “I chose peace with the North over having my lands sacked by a vengeful house. I chose to be rid of those who would bring me and mine to our doom for the sake of their ‘Old Way’”.

“You risked too much on my behalf, nuncle”, Asha uttered quietly, “And in the end all your plans may very well fail”. Asha turned her dark eyes to Lady Stark, who sat quietly, poised and elegant, observing.

“You green folk think that because my uncles are both dead the Ironborn will now accept me as their ruler”, Asha could not help her dry tone of self-deprecation. “But the Damphair still lives, and he may yet call for a second Kingsmoot. The captains will not follow me, Lady Stark; in their eyes I have no right to sit the Seastone chair. I did not pay the Iron price”.

“No”, Lady Stark’s tone was grave, her expression one of anger. “You did not pay the ‘Iron price’, Lady Greyjoy, but I did”. Lady Stark indicated the map before her with her delicate hand, her gentle fingers caressing a small figurine of a wolf, which was positioned over the island of Great Wyk. “My people bled and died for your precious chair, my ships were battered by your mad uncle. Your captains are defeated, their ships shattered and sunk, their sons held as prisoners. Their opinion does not matter”.

Lady Stark paused, struggling to regain her composure. Asha stared with wide eyes, alarmed by the sight of the fury hidden underneath Lady Stark’s deceptively calm demeanor. The Lady’s cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes flashing dangerously. There was a fire burning in the northern Lady, a fire Asha could understand, could respect.

“If your captains and Lords are wise, they will realize their options are limited”, Ser Brynden spoke up, allowing his great-niece to compose herself. His voice was low and rough, so very different from Lady Stark’s sweet tones. The Blackfish had large, unkempt silver eyebrows, but beneath them, his eyes were the same piercing Tully blue as the Lady’s. “They can accept your rule, thereby gaining the friendship of the North and the King. Or, they can renounce you, renounce their King, and perish by the thousands. Winter is here, Lady Asha, and it will be the end of your people if they do not bend the knee”.

They had bargained for hours, afterwards, debating and arguing over every trivial matter. Lady Stark offered to assist in the restoration of the decimated Iron fleet, but had stipulated that most of the ships be sent to King’s Landing, to serve as part of the royal fleet. Iron and other metals, found in the quarries on the islands, were to be mined and sent to King’s Landing and Winterfell as compensation. In return, crops, wood and other rare commodities the islands could not provide for themselves were guaranteed to be sent. Even the subject of heirs was discussed thoroughly, much to Asha’s displeasure.

“Your husband will, of course, accept the drowned god and the Old Way”, Lady Stark dismissed the matter easily, certain of Ser Justin’s eagerness to comply. On that account, at least, Asha fully agreed with the woman. Her husband was ambitious, his desire to marry her was in no small amount due to his belief he could become the Lord of the Iron islands through her, a higher standing than a knight of his station could ever hope to gain on his own.

“Your people will never regard him as their own, and you would do well to provide a male heir as soon as possible. It will secure Ser Justin’s position as your husband, and give your people hope for the future. Hopefully, the son will be more his mother than his father”, Lady Stark’s eyes sparkled with mirth as she spoke, and Asha felt an urge to smash something. How can Stannis stand her? Asha wondered, as Lady Stark proceeded to dictate her demands, the woman is relentless, and as unmovable as a mountain.

By the time they were done, dusk was already settling, painting the sea with deep crimson hues. Asha climbed down the steep, uneven stairs leading down to the small bay, located on the eastern part of the castle. Every night, the tide would swallow the shore and lap in soft waves against the old, worn stones of Pyke. At this hour however, a small sliver of beach still remained, where Asha found her husband, standing wet and gasping with her uncle Aeron, the high priest of the drowned god.

“What is dead may never die”, her uncle greeted her, his long unkempt hair wet and dripping, his voice as dour as she remembered.

“But rises again, harder and stronger”, Asha replied, nodding at the Damphair in recognition. Her husband was shivering madly, clearly shaken by his Drowning, but her uncle seemed unmoved, standing still in his wet robes, dyed in the green, grey and blue colors of the drowned god.

“Your husband has fully accepted the true god, niece”, her uncle informed her, redundantly, but there was a hint of approval in the man’s dour expression. Aeron had spoken often and strongly of his wish that all Ironborn be submitted to a true Drowning, rather than the more common ritual of merely pouring sea water over a man’s head. Only the drowned priests underwent a true Drowning these days, as the ritual of being submerged in the water while being forcibly held down was known to be dangerous.

Mad priests, and apparently, my husband. Asha considered her husband, tall and broad, his flaxen hair certain to stand out amongst the dark Ironmen. Lady Stark is right, Asha admitted to herself reluctantly, my people will never accept him as their own. Ser Justin struggled to hide the shivers wrecking his body, after being drowned in the cold sea water, but his easy smile was still present. She had grown fond of his smile.

“And he will serve our god with devotion”, Asha assured the Damphair, fighting the urge to reach out and touch her husband, to offer him her warmth and her strength. When Aeron did not answer, Asha continued. “If you will forgive us, uncle, it has been a long day, and we would like to retire”, she was fairly certain she could hear her husband’s teeth chattering.

“There will be no Kingsmoot, Asha”, the Damphair spoke suddenly, slow and certain. “Your return pleases the drowned god, he will use you to carry out his will”. You mean to say that I will carry out your will, uncle, Asha thought, her anger flaring. You mean to say that you can control me like you never could your brothers. Four years ago, she would have given her mad uncle a piece of her mind, but now she knew better than to reply. Instead, she settled for nodding her head, hoping her face did not reveal her wrath.

“Will you undergo a Drowning as well, niece?” Aeron inquired in his somber voice, his arm outstretched to indicate the sea. “Will you renew your oath to our god, and embrace the Old Way?”

Asha hesitated momentarily, her eyes focusing on the very last rays of the setting sun. She glanced at her husband, but Ser Justin remained silent for a change, his smile replaced by a small frown. Asha reverted her gaze back to her beloved sea, then to her uncle. Will you try to kill me uncle? Will you drown me in the ocean and claim your god has chosen to take my soul?

Slowly, hesitantly, Asha took off her hauberk and chainmail, followed by her breeches and finally, her boots. She remained clad only in her smallclothes, her feet bare against the cold wet sand. Her uncle nodded in approval before marching out into the waves, his long hair soon floating in the deep water behind him like a trail of wet seaweed.

Asha followed him in, ignoring her husband’s small sound of protest, gasping as a strong wave of freezing water crashed against her body. Deeper and deeper she trudged, until she could barely stand, the tips of her toes grazing against the sandy bottom, occasionally scraping against a hidden rock. Her tall uncle stood further in, his face mostly concealed by the darkness which had fallen. He reached out a hand, and Asha took it, feeling her stomach twist with nervous anticipation as he pulled her into his body, to a place too deep for her to stand in.

They were very close to each other, their breath intermingling as they stared closely at one another. Aeron seemed to be searching her face, but for what, Asha did not know.

“I loved Balon”, Aeron spoke softly, his voice almost a part of the sea’s natural murmurs. Asha’s eyes widened in surprise, her hand tightening around her uncle’s firm grip.

“It was hard, sometimes, but I loved my brother”, there was pain in Aeron’s voice, a vulnerability she had never seen in her uncle.

“I loved my father same as you, uncle”, Asha spoke breathlessly, her legs beginning to tire from their search for solid ground. “And I swear- I will hold to his way, I will keep the Ironborn safe”.

Aeron cleared his throat, and Asha averted her eyes, allowing her uncle to calm himself. After a short moment, her uncle seemed to regain his composure, one strong arm reaching to hold her shoulder, the other grasping her firmly by the nape of her neck. Asha inhaled sharply, struggling against the instinct to fight, to flee. I am not destined to die today.

“What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger”, her uncle reminded her, and for once his words sounded more like an encouragement rather than a religious rant. Asha inhaled deeply, waiting.

“Asha Greyjoy has come to submit herself to your will”, Aeron’s voice became a chant, his body swaying in the water like a wave. “May you accept her and find her worthy to sit upon the Seastone chair, to guide our people, to lead us in your name”. All too soon, Aeron’s strong hands closed over Asha in a vice grip, forcing her head underwater with a force she did not expect.

She struggled momentarily, her eyes burning from the salt water, her muscles straining against her uncle’s grip. She forced her eyes shut, replacing one darkness for another, the need to rub her sore eyes almost too strong to resist. A few precious gulps of air escaped her in small bubbles as she fought and wriggled, and Asha knew she would not survive if she continued her senseless fight. It was cold, so fucking cold. It was dark and cold and terrible, and Asha struggled to regain a sense of control. I must not fight, Asha forced herself to think, holding on to the precious air in her lungs, refusing the instinct to exhale. I am the Kraken’s daughter, I am the Lord Reaper of Pyke.

By sheer force of will, her body ceased to move, her muscles relaxing until she was floating in the water, held down only by her uncle’s strength. Her chest was burning with the need to draw breath, but Asha forced herself to remain still, to embrace the ritual. To wait. She needed to wait, to endure the cold.

It seemed like an eternity had passed, and the pain in her chest became a terrible, crushing weight. Unbidden, air began slipping out of her mouth in a rush, and Asha found herself helpless to stop it as it bubbled up, away from her lungs, taking her life along with it.

She knew she was suffocating, and it was more terrifying than she had ever imagined. Her body began thrashing violently, struggling to push up, to reach the surface. Her uncle’s grip tightened impossibly further, his strength too much for her failing limbs. Asha’s mouth opened against her will, though a small part of her knew it meant her certain death. She tried to scream, to shout, to give voice to the agony which was taking over, but the water rushed in, filling her mouth, running down her throat, choking her, choking the life out of her. One blackness replaced another.

Chapter Text

Asha Greyjoy, Lady of the Iron islands and the Lord Reaper of Pyke, regained consciousness with a deep, moist cough, her lungs burning. Her dark eyes opened, but the darkness was too heavy, and it took her a long moment to realize she was not dead. Rather, she was back on the beach, lying down on her back, the water lapping around her in soft waves. She was cold, terribly cold, and her lungs were burning. But she was alive.

She coughed violently, twisting around to brace her body on weak forearms, feeling bile rise in her throat. She dry heaved once, twice, before her stomach hurled up a vile mixture of sea water, food, and bile juices.

With her eyes closed, her heart rate finally slowing down, Asha could focus on the sound of her irate husband, shouting at the Damphair.

“She could have died, you crazy bastard! Your tricks almost cost us her life!” Ser Justin’s angry voice seemed to come from a great distance, but Asha felt him kneel at her side, his strong arms clasping her to him. She allowed him to pull her along, sagging against his warm frame, relishing his presence.

“No”, Asha croaked out, her voice failing her. She forced her eyes to open, forced them to find her uncle’s dark form, standing a few feet away from them. She could not see clearly, her eyes were still brimming with tears, but it seemed as though the Damphair was shaking violently in the dark.

“No”, Asha repeated, her voice stronger, though still raw and uneven. She looked up at her husband, such a green fool and yet such a source of comfort to her. His expression was so concerned, and Asha knew he had been frightened on her behalf. What an odd couple we make, you and I, Asha thought, her face breaking into a small, genuine smile.

“Did I not rise again, uncle?” Asha’s smile widened, her gaze straying back to Aeron. It was still hard to see him clearly in the dark, but his voice was full of deep emotion when he replied.

“Yes, you did”, Aeron Damphair confirmed. Perhaps she was imagining it, but Asha thought she could see her uncle’s eyes shining, two bright stars burning brightly in the night. It was hard to be certain when her head was spinning, her lungs burning, and her stomach threatening to turn at any moment. “Harder and stronger”, her uncle insisted, his conviction ringing clear.

“Harder and stronger”, Asha Greyjoy repeated, feeling anything but. Harder and stronger, indeed.   

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Winterfell, 305 AC

Everything was burning. The night was alight with a green, sickly glow. The flames leaped so high up into the dark sky that he thought they might reach him where he stood atop the Wall. The heat certainly did, brushing against his face in warm gusts. Everything was burning, Wights and Others, trees and soldiers. He did not have a dragon, the last Targaryen across the sea had failed him, but he had wildfire, and he was desperate. Everything was burning.

Stannis Baratheon woke with a start, sweaty and breathless, with the memory of the green flames licking at his skin, threatening to burn him. The fire had raged for four days, edging closer and closer to the Wall, the flames caressing, nearly melting the ancient ice. The snow storm had come just in time, saving all of them from burning alive. Saving the Wall from succumbing to the heat of the flames.

Still panting, the King of the Seven Kingdoms sat up in his large bed, his long legs dangling over the edge to find their footing. The feel of the cold stone floor was a welcome relief. He was feverish, he was burning. Everything had burnt so violently.

His men hailed him victorious, claiming it was a glorious triumph over their unnatural enemy. But whenever he closed his eyes, all the King could see were the flames, and all he could hear were the sounds of his men screaming as they burned. Blackwater Bay and the Battle for the Wall intermingled in his memories, becoming one long, torturous nightmare. He had dreamed of nothing else since then.

He had dared to believe he was prepared. He had armed his men with dragonglass, had called every Valyrian steel blade to be sent north. Every soldier had been sent into battle with a dragonglass blade in one hand, and a torch in the other. He had kept the wildfire unwillingly, certain he would never have to use it. But when every man they lost rose again within moments as an enemy, how could he possibly win? The Wights were bad enough, and they were slow and clumsy. The White Walkers, though few in number, were too deadly for mere men. For each one his forces took down, dozens died, only to rise as Wights.

Being in Winterfell soothed him, though it had shamed him to retreat, even for a brief time. The castle had been burnt to the ground, only to be rebuilt, better and stronger. He found comfort in that, strength to push forward. The two strong walls surrounding the castle seemed to isolate it from the outside world entirely, making Winterfell a small kingdom of its own; a haven. The idea caused the King to scoff at his ridiculous notions. He had never been prone to such poetic language before.

He had ridden in silence the entire way from the Wall, allowing the men to celebrate even though he shared none of their merriment. Ser Patrek Mallister and Ser Garth Hightower, his sworn shields, had taken charge of the convoy, leaving the King to his own dark thoughts. They told his squires when to wake him, though he barely slept. They brought him his horse when they wished to ride, and they signaled him to stop each day when they wished to set up camp. He ate if they brought him food, he drank if they gave him water. He was alive, barely, even after so many had burned. Sometimes he dreamed he was burning with them.

Lady Stark was there when they arrived, to welcome them into the home she had rebuilt. Beautiful, beautiful Sansa, with her bright blue eyes and her copper hair. Clever Sansa, who had taken one look at him, and frowned, as if she could see the flames consuming him from the inside. Sweet Sansa, who had then smiled brilliantly at him, as if she was truly happy to see him, and insinuated her arm artfully into the crook of his elbow. “You must shave, your Grace”, Lady Stark had prompted him with a bright, airy voice. “And bathe”, she had added quietly, as an afterthought, and her body pressed against his, lending him her warmth.

He had done as she bid, shaving for the first time in months, bathing in scalding water and scrubbing himself fiercely until his rough skin was pink and raw. He dressed in clean clothes, because she had sent them with his squire, and he came down to sup with her in the Great Hall, because she had asked for his company. He spoke because she insisted on conversing with him, though he was as brusque and abrupt as he had always been.

It became easier, after that first day, to fully resume his duties as King. He took Lady Stark’s solar for his private use, uncaring that he was essentially banishing her from her own home. It was strangely gratifying when, rather than making herself scarce, Lady Stark merely had another desk brought in, forcing him to share the space with her. They spent most of their mornings together, in silence, reading letters and answering urgent correspondences.

Officially, the King came to Winterfell to personally oversee the new delivery of wildfire from King’s Landing Alchemist Guild. In truth, he wanted to be in Winterfell because she was there. Sansa’s presence, more than anything else these days, brought him a sense of peace.

They did not speak outside of council, but she was always nearby. She even came to watch him in the yard, whenever he came down to train at-arms. She pretended to watch her brother, or one of the young northern men in training, but he often caught her observing his movements, before she blushed prettily and averted her eyes. It was not just the kindness and comfort that the woman offered so easily and wordlessly. It was her discipline, her unerring sense of duty, that prompted him to remember his own obligations, to put aside the horrors of the battle and prepare for the war ahead.

It was harder at night, when he was alone in bed with his thoughts. At night he could admit that he did not see a possible victory. The wildfire had caused the White Walkers to retreat, but Stannis knew they had not been defeated. Shadows did not go away; they lingered, waiting, for an opportune moment. The demons of winter had suffered a blow, but he highly suspected they knew he would not dare use wildfire again. He could not risk the Wall’s safety, would not test its’ icy foundations a second time.

More and more, his thoughts turned to Jon Snow and his ranging party. There had been no word from Snow since the night Stannis had set the forest aflame, and the King was a practical man. He knew they were most likely dead, either from his careless fire or from the retreating army of the dead. But Sansa’s young brother, Lord Rickon, had insisted firmly that his half-brother, or at least his direwolf, were still alive. Stannis had seen enough of the bond between the Starks and their direwolves to believe the boy was telling the truth. He had to trust the word of a boy of nine that Snow’s party, now his only hope for a victory, was still out there. The thought made him grind his teeth in frustration.

Sighing heavily, feeling old and weary, the King rose slowly from the bed, moving forward and reaching out to open the large, single window. The cold winter air rushed into the overheated room, causing the King to shiver as the sweat evaporated from his skin. Stannis inhaled deeply once, twice, before shutting the window. It was the height of winter, and the cold outside was too vicious to withstand for long. The King reached for the small jug of lemon water, placed by his bedside. He poured himself a generous amount, and gulped it down in a rush, before refilling his cup to drink again.

Restless, unable to go back to sleep, the King marched the length of the room back and forth, his hand idly running through the stubble on his cheeks. Unintentionally, he came to a halt before the ugly tapestry which hid the passage between his room and Lady Stark’s. The memory of her naked form sprung, unbidden, to his mind, her words of invitation reverberating in his memory, mocking him. “You do not want me?” she had asked, and he had sent her away. Fool.

For a moment, he considered reaching for the hidden door, wondering whether or not he will find it locked. And if it is, indeed, open? His mind taunted. What then? Shall I go to her chambers and ravish her like an ardent lover from a bawdy song?

Even the ridiculous notion of him as a young Lady’s lover was not enough to push away the temptation to reach for the door. Stannis gritted his teeth in frustration, forcing himself to move away from the tapestry. The King pulled off his thin linen tunic, carefully folding the fabric and placing it upon the bed. He pulled on a fresh set of underclothes, placed neatly on the table by his squire for tomorrow. Black lambswool trousers followed, along with thick socks and soft, worn leather boots. His doublet was also black, but made of velvet, covered with golden scrollwork and studded with the golden stag of his house.

After a moment’s hesitation, he chose to leave behind his moleskin gloves and his cloak, which was trimmed with soft sable fur. The castle was warm enough, and he did not need them, despite his wish to conceal the hideous doublet. He would talk with his squire in the morning, and firmly remind him why such items of clothing were not to be laid out for him.

The King opened the door to his bedchamber with a suddenness that startled Ser Garth, who had clearly been half-asleep. Stannis wanted to berate his sworn shield desperately, his jaw already clenching in anger, but realized that the man must have gone at least two days without proper sleep. A seasoned fighter and an able commander, the knight was nonetheless of an age with his King, and far from being an eager youth who required little sleep. Since he and Ser Patrek were the only two sworn shields currently with the King, their shifts were long and uncomfortable, and both men were showing signs of exhaustion.  

 “Your Grace”, Ser Garth’s voice was thick with sleep, his eyes too wide and his gaze slightly unfocused. Nonetheless, the knight stood tall and proud, almost of height with his tall liege, his face a mask of contrition, willing to accept any punishment from his King. Stannis was reluctantly pleased by the display of loyalty. With the exception of the Blackfish, Ser Garth Hightower was the most experienced knight of Stannis’ Kingsguard. The knight was often called Greysteel, and the title suited him well in Stannis’ opinion. There was no spark to the man, no brilliance, but he was sharp and able, and fierce with a blade in his hand. Out of all his sworn shields, he considered Ser Garth to be the deadliest swordsman, surpassing the Blackfish only on account of the Lord Commander’s age.

“Go to sleep, Ser”, the King commanded in a stern voice, refusing to dismiss the knight’s poor conduct entirely without comment. “I will not require your services until after breakfast”.

Ser Garth looked at his King with confusion in his bright grey eyes. Stannis sighed in frustration, struggling to keep his anger in check. “You are exhausted, Ser”, Stannis reiterated, “And are of no use to me in your current condition. Go, sleep, rest. I doubt anyone in Winterfell will assassinate me tonight”.

“Your Gr…” Ser Garth had begun to argue, but his King’s stony expression halted his objection. “At least allow me to go awaken another knight, not of the Kingsguard…”

“No”, Stannis’ refusal came out as a low growl. Ser Garth’s expression soured, and Stannis knew the man had been offended. “No”, the King repeated, forcing a civil tone to his voice. “That would be unnecessary. Good night, Ser”, he nodded at Ser Garth before storming off, not waiting to see if the knight had anything further to say.

It was a short, quiet walk to Lady Stark’s solar, which was situated on the floor beneath the bedchambers. He did not see a single living soul, the corridors wonderfully empty. The bedchambers and solar were located in an isolated part of the castle, with only one entrance, which was guarded by Stark men day at night. After supper, only Lady Stark and her brother could be found inside the wing. No one, not even trusted servants, was permitted entry.

Because of that, Stannis was surprised to find the door to Lady Stark’s solar ajar, a strong light pouring from the inside out into the dark corridor. The sight which greeted his eyes at the threshold was becoming increasingly familiar, though usually not at such an ungodly hour. Lady Stark was sitting in the same chair she inhabited every morning, her figure bent over her worktable as she scribbled sums in one of her many ledgers.

Her hair was unbound, the long auburn strands falling down, concealing most of her face from his view. The woman was dressed in a simple shift made of linen, rather than her customary dresses. Lady Stark preferred unadorned, modestly cut gowns in colors of grey, white and blue. But they were always made of the finest materials; silk and samite, satin and damasks. Seeing her clothed in something so unassuming, so plain, made the woman seem very young. At times, it was all too easy to forget his Warden of the North was a woman of twenty, only four years older than his own daughter. Shireen does not have Sansa’s ruthlessness, Stannis thought sadly as he stared, mesmerized by the play of light and shadow in her long, copper hair. She could never rule these foolhardy northern men as this woman does so effortlessly.

It was Sansa’s beauty, and her standing as Ned Stark’s oldest living child, that had won her the northern Lords’ support at first. Nowadays, it was easy to see her Lords followed her simply because they loved her well and true; the same way they had loved Eddard, the same way they had loved their young wolf King. Stannis envied the deep devotion the north held for the Stark family, a devotion he had never been capable of cultivating. Whatever hesitations the Lords might have had over allowing a woman to lead them had evaporated when they realized Sansa was a far fiercer wolf than either her quiet father or her sentimental brother had been. She is a wolf made for winter, a wolf made from war and suffering.

“Do come in, your Grace”, Sansa’s sweet voice implored the King, making him startle. Stannis was gratified that she kept her head down, missing the affect her voice had over him. “Close the door behind you, if you please, the room is not warm enough without it being shut”.

Stannis took another step inside, embarrassed and incensed by Lady Stark’s ability to unsettle him so. He pulled the door shut behind him, with more force than was strictly necessary, and grinded his teeth as the door slammed into place with a loud thud. Lady Stark shot him a reproachful look, but he ignored her. Instead, Stannis stiffly made his way over to the hearth to check on the fire, not caring that such a task was beneath the King of Westeros. He knelt down before the fireplace, grateful for the thick rug, his hand reaching for the iron poker as he inspected the arrangement of the burning wood logs. Despite her words to the contrary, the fire was still burning strongly, and Stannis tried to convince himself the sweat on his brow was due to the heat, rather than sheer embarrassment.

Clearing his throat, Stannis rose back to his feet and turned around, his hands brushing away imaginary soot from his black-and-gold doublet. Lady Stark had twisted in her seat, her upper torso now turned towards him. One of her delicate hands reached to sweep the auburn strands back from her face, a small, tired smile gracing the woman’s full lips. Her blue eyes seemed intently focused on his chest, and Stannis realized she was engrossed in his ridiculous doublet. “It suits you, your Grace”, the Lady supplied sweetly, no hint of mockery to her voice.

Stannis scowled fiercely in reply. “It is quite hideous”, he countered, fighting to keep his jaw from clenching. “It is most dignified”, she insisted, her smile threatening to widen.  “I believe the word you are searching for is ‘ostentatious’”, he nearly growled, wishing he could rip the offending garment off. The woman relented with a shake of her head, though her smile remained, causing him to feel ill at ease. Lady Stark had a disarming smile; he had seen many proud Lords turned into simpering fools by it. The thought that he might be one of them made him grind his teeth in frustration.

The sound brought a frown to Lady Stark’s face. “Is there a matter requiring your attention, your Grace?” she inquired respectfully, all traces of her friendly banter gone. “Should I leave, to give you some privacy?”

Stannis shook his head, unable to meet her eyes. His lack of social charms often caused him to be perceived as rude or angry, which he strongly regretted whenever his demeanor caused the Lady to act so very formally. He did not appreciate people who had no respect for boundaries, who treated him with unwanted familiarity. But Sansa, of all his Lords and advisors, had come closest to knowing him. He rarely had to explain his meaning to her, and she seemed to take his dark moods in stride, often brushing aside his offending remarks with an easy smile. Yet whenever she offered a friendly overture, his unrefined and blunt manners were sure to put her off almost instantly.

“There is no need for you to leave, my Lady”, Stannis supplied, his voice coming out rough and deep. “I have no business that cannot keep ‘till morning”.

“You cannot sleep”, Lady Stark concluded with a small whisper, but Stannis heard her nonetheless. His deep blue eyes sought her face, his brow furrowing as he noticed her look of concern.

“I sleep very little, as you know only too well”, the King replied, his scowl deepening as he realized the implication of his words. They had never discussed her visit to his chambers, on the night before he had departed for the Wall, but by the way she blushed furiously, Stannis knew she had not forgotten the incident either. The King cleared his throat, weakly adding, “I never did require much sleep”, as a poor attempt to salvage the conversation. Lady Stark merely blushed deeper, causing Stannis to grind his teeth.

“If you will pardon my bluntness, your Grace, I do not recall you shouting out in your sleep in the past”, the blush was still present on her cheeks, running down her neck and disappearing into her shift, but Lady Stark’s voice was firm, her expression determined. He had not been aware that he shouted in his sleep, though it did not surprise him that the Lady Stark was aware of it if he did. Their bedchambers did share a wall, after all. Nonetheless, Stannis’ inherent austerity, his deep need for privacy, rebelled strongly against Lady Stark’s familiarity. Every fiber of his being demanded that he lash out, demanded the he put the woman in her place. He had to distance himself from her earnest gaze, from the sympathy in her eyes. How dare she? Every part of his mind was insisting. I am her King.

“I will not pardon your bluntness”, he succeeded in maintaining a civil tone, just barely. “Do not dare to presume, woman, this matter is none of your business”. Every muscle in his body was tense, his palms sweating, his breathing labored.

“Is it not my business if my King, the man who must keep my people safe, is unable to sleep?” Her voice, sweet and low, was meant to placate him, but instead it only served to inflame his ire. He watched her as she rose from her seat, her shift pulling and stretching over her body as she moved. Her look was of deep concern, as if she genuinely cared for him, and he could not abide it.  

“Speak of something else, woman, or be gone”, he growled menacingly, baring his clenched teeth at her.

For a long moment, Lady Stark neither moved nor talked. Stannis was reluctantly mustering the will to apologize, when the Lady curtsied deeply, lowering her gaze to the ground, the long copper strands of her hair falling to conceal her face. “Excuse me, your Grace”, she muttered quietly, her voice lacking its’ customary pleasantness. She rose up, her eyes avoiding his piercing gaze, and made her way quickly towards the door.

He watched her go, a sense of dread overtaking him, before his body moved without a conscious thought on his part. As her hand reached for the handle, his palm slammed forward to press against the door, his body trapping her own, much smaller frame, against the sturdy wood. He was too furious to allow her a quiet escape, his skin crawling with the urge to berate her. He had half a mind to grasp her shoulders and shake her ‘till her teeth rattled, ‘till she realized how terribly she had unnerved him. Instead, he forced himself to inhale deeply, his nose easily identifying her unique, clean smell.

“What is it that you want from me?” the King asked in an urgent voice, putting his weight against the door as the woman struggled to pull it open. He had to lean forward on his hand, his front almost pressed against her back, close enough to feel the heat of her body radiating through their layers of clothing.

Lady Stark, realizing the futility of her actions, ceased to struggle. “Nothing”, the word escaped her in a rush, her voice as breathless as he felt. “I want nothing from you.”

“Do not lie to me, Sansa”, he brought his mouth to her ear, whispering the threat even as he relished the use of her given name. “Everyone wants something from me. I am the King”.

The woman turned around, her back pressing against the door in an attempt to distance herself from him. Her bright blue eyes were full of anger, her mouth set in a grim line. Stannis resisted the urge to lean forward, to press against her fully.

“Does the princess Shireen want something from you?” Lady Stark demanded to know, her voice as cold as ice. “Did your mother, before she died?” Her words were rife with indignation, and Stannis recoiled back as if she had struck him, his palm leaving the door. Lady Stark inhaled deeply, clearly relieved by his lack of proximity, but she made no move to escape.

“It is not the same”, he muttered, his hands clenching into fists by his sides. “You are not the same”. There was a wealth of meaning to his statement, one too rich for him to fully express.

“Why not?” She inquired, some of the anger leaving her voice. “Is it so impossible that I want nothing more than your well-being? Nothing more than your safety?”

Stannis closed his eyes, unable to look at her earnest expression. He was breathing hard, his heart pounding furiously in his constricting chest. “Why?” the King of Westeros choked out in a pitiful, needy voice.

“Is it so impossible to believe that I simply care for you?” He had not heard her sound so uncertain since the night she had approached him. His eyes opened slowly, drinking the sight of the woman before him. Sansa Stark was beautiful, more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. Even in a plain, linen shift, even with her hair mussed and her face red with anger, she was beautiful.

“Yes”, Stannis admitted, giving voice to one of his primal fears. “Yes, it is quite impossible”.

“Why?” Sansa’s tone was pleading, and he desperately sought any signs of dishonesty in her face, but found none. Stannis grimaced, his teeth grinding as he struggled internally with the answer.

“Because I am dour and unpleasant”, he finally replied, his words pouring out in a rush; a torrent, held back for too long. “Because I am too harsh and unrelenting. Because no one, not even my brothers, has ever liked me. Because nobody wanted me as their King, even though it was my right. Because they will write songs of you, one day, while I will always remain the dour King, the Unwanted. I am unwanted, Sansa. I always have been”.

Sansa was staring at him with wide, blue eyes, and Stannis immediately regretted his ill-conceived rant. This is madness, the King thought. He watched in horror as Lady Stark took two steps forward, closing the distance between them, her body flush against his own. Stannis looked down at her upturned face, at her hopeful expression, and forced himself not to withdraw from her.

One delicate hand, as soft as silk, reached up to caress the coarse stubble of his cheek. Stannis clenched his jaw but remained still, neither leaning into nor retreating from her gentle exploration. This is madness, the thought was unrelenting, echoing in his mind. Sansa cupped his cheek, placing her other hand firmly on his shoulder and pushing herself up on her toes. Even so, she was not tall enough to reach his mouth, and her soft lips pressed against his neck instead, just under his jaw, over his stubble. The King shuddered, his breath escaping in a pitiful groan.

Encouraged by the sound, Sansa’s soft lips ventured further, placing chaste kisses beneath the line of his jaw. When the hand on his cheek exerted pressure, demanding that he lower his head, Stannis followed its’ direction blindly. Sansa’s mouth reached his ear, her breath ghosting across the sensitive skin as she whispered into it. “I want you, Stannis”, her words sent a shiver down his spine, his hands reaching out to grope at her slim waist helplessly. He groaned again, louder than before, his fingers tightening over her shift as his eyes closed against the onslaught of sensations. His head twisted to the side at the same time she moved, and unceremoniously, his lips met hers in a rough kiss.

He did not waste time, crashing her luscious mouth violently against his own, pressing his thin lips to hers as firmly as he could. His hands, still at her waist, guided her body back until she collided against the wooden door. Ignoring her grunt, Stannis pressed himself against her body, relishing her soft, feminine figure. He was spiraling out of control, his heart pounding in his ears with excitement, when suddenly Sansa opened her mouth and bit his lip viciously.

Stannis reared back, his eyes wide open, the sting of her bite causing him to tighten his grip, earning another grunt from the woman before him. Panting, half wild, he stared down at her incredulously, his tongue licking against his bitten lip, trying to ascertain whether she had drawn blood.

“What are you playing at, woman?” Stannis growled, his eyes narrowing in anger. Sansa jutted her chin defiantly, her eyes flashing dangerously.

“Must you bruise me when we kiss?” she asked impertinently, her fingers pinching his hands which still held her waist in an iron grip. “Can we not start gently?” She added, her voice suddenly soft and insecure.

Gently? The word was an odd one for the King. Stannis Baratheon was a hard man, everyone knew that. He had rarely received gentle treatment in his life, he had no idea how to be gentle. “Show me”, he found himself urging, lowering his head until his lips were a hair’s breadth away from hers.

Sansa smiled ruefully, her eyes gazing deeply into his, before reaching for his face with both of her hands. She held unto him with a surprisingly firm grasp, guiding his head slightly to the side. “Like this”, she whispered sweetly against his mouth, opening her lips slightly and pressing them softly against his own.

Her lips closed over his lower lip, making a soft sucking motion, before she released it and moved to repeat the motion on his upper lip. Stannis remained perfectly still, ashamed by the fierce feeling of arousal the soft touch incurred. He breathed raggedly through his nose, unwilling to pull away from her gentle caresses even for a short moment. Hesitantly, he began to move his lips against hers, mimicking her gentle ministrations. Sansa moaned her approval against his mouth, the sound reverberating through his body, causing his cock to throb in his breeches. The sensation was overwhelming, and Stannis struggled not to press against her. Gently, his mind insisted, gently.

As Sansa’s lips closed once more over his lower lip, Stannis suddenly felt her wet tongue slipping to swipe across his lip. The feeling was fleeting but intense, and he groaned into her mouth, hoping she would understand his desire to repeat the experience. Sansa slanted her mouth firmly over his, her tongue licking against the seam of his lips, pushing through them. Uncertain, Stannis opened his mouth to her exploration, allowing her tongue to slip firmly into his mouth. Her tongue licked across the line of his upper teeth, the sensation odd and almost ticklish, before she found his own tongue and caressed it with a wet slide.

Stannis choked as the sensation registered in his mind, bringing forth memories of soft silk against his skin. Sansa pulled back, and Stannis opened his eyes, meeting her dazed expression with one of his own. “Good?” Sansa’s voice was throaty, rich and seductive. Stannis could do nothing except nod like an imbecile. Yes, it’s good. It’s fucking glorious. Sansa smiled brightly at him, pleased by the apparent loss of his eloquence. Before she could become overtly smug, Stannis pressed their mouths together, pushing his tongue into her mouth, exploring the textures and flavors of her.

It was slow and decadent, and at the same time- not nearly enough. They kissed deeply, Sansa’s tongue boldly tangling with his own, licking across the roof of his mouth, inviting him into her own. Stannis followed her blindly, eager to learn. He had shared kisses before, he was far from an inexperienced youth, but not like this. Never like this.

When they finally pulled breathlessly from one another, their lips pleasantly bruised, Stannis realized he was pressed intimately against Sansa’s body, his hardness rubbing firmly against her. Feeling his cheeks burning with shame, he buried his face in Sansa’s neck, breathing in the unique scent of soap and Sansa, trying to regain a sense of control. He felt Sansa twist her head, bringing her lips to his ear once more. “You should kiss me some more”, Sansa whispered in his ear, licking the outer shell and causing him to shake, “kissing you makes my cunt wet”.

The sound which escaped his lips was pained, his cock crudely thrusting forward, as if to seek the wet cunt she spoke of. Her words echoed in his mind, failing to make any sense. Sansa was a Lady through and through. Ladies did not know the word ‘cunt’, and they certainly did not reach down to grasp his aching cock in their soft hand.

He felt lost, unable to focus on anything other than the feel of her hand, rubbing slowly but firmly against his impossible hardness. Even through his smallclothes and breeches, the sensations were beyond words, making him grunt helplessly into her neck, his mouth opening to bite at the tender flesh.

Sansa inhaled sharply and grew tense, her hand retreating, and Stannis hurried to soothe the bite with his tongue, silently apologizing for his crass conduct. Sansa sighed, her body relaxing against his, but her hand did not resume its’ rubbing, much to his disappointment.

Instead, Sansa broke away from him, her hands clasping his much larger ones, pushing his body away and twisting them about until she was pulling him along with her, walking backwards towards the fireplace. Stannis gazed past her shoulder, to the large, thick rug on the floor, realizing her intentions.

“Sansa”. Fuck, but his voice was barely recognizable, low and pleading. “Sansa”, he forced himself to stop, resisting the pull of her hands. “You do not want me to take you, not like this”. Not at all, his mind added, but he refrained from speaking the thought aloud.

Feeling his resistance, Sansa let go of his hands, stepping further away until her bare feet touched the rug. She bent down, her hands reaching to gather the hem of her shift, before pulling it up over her head and tossing it to the side. Stannis inhaled deeply, his eyes raking over her naked form, realizing his ardent memories had not done the woman justice.

Sansa’s body was the fodder of songs and filthy dreams. His eyes raked hungrily over her long, lean legs, stopping at the thatch of red curls at the apex of her thighs, before climbing up to her taut, youthful stomach, and finally pausing at her teats. Her magnificent, perfect teats, looking large enough to fill his palms. He was already having trouble breathing, imagining how they might bounce as he thrust into her forcefully. Reluctantly, his gaze left her beautiful breasts to look at her face. Sansa had a fiercely determined look, one he had seen only when she was about to argue with him over a matter of great importance.

“Do you want me?” Sansa asked, her voice full of certainty. Stannis grinded his teeth in frustration, but nodded nonetheless. There was no use trying to deny his need for her, not when his cock was tenting his breeches so obviously, not when the mere sight of her made his sac tighten in anticipation. Sansa was young and beautiful as he had never been. With her grace and ability to inspire loyalty, she easily represented everything he had once aspired to be, or to possess. Was it truly so surprising then, that he desired her so much? That he wished to possess her, to have her bound to him so tightly that she would never break free?

“Then take me”, Sansa urged sweetly, stepping forward to press her naked body against his clothed form.

Stannis closed his eyes and buried his nose in her thick auburn hair, his arms coming around her waist to crush her in his embrace, relishing the feel of her bare skin. His nose was full of her scent, his mouth full of her hair, but Stannis merely burrowed deeper, seeking the crook between her neck and shoulder. Hesitantly, Sansa’s arms reached up, circling his thick neck and returning the embrace.

They stood together for a long moment, Stannis relishing the warm sensation of comfort found in Sansa’s arms. He could not accept soft words or worried looks, his pride would not allow it; but touching her, being surrounded by her, was a balm for his bruised soul. His chest constricted painfully, his skin felt too tight for his body, but he was content. Stannis Baratheon, King of the Seven Kingdoms, found contentment in the arms of the most powerful Lady in Westeros, a woman of twenty, who was not, and could never be, his.

“You are not mine to take”, never in his life had he allowed his voice to express such need, such want. It was not a simple base desire, the want of a man when faced with a beautiful woman. No, there were far more dangerous hopes and dreams hidden beneath his statement- ones where he was free to take her as his wife, to parade her as his and watch others envy him for once. To watch her grow round with his child, becoming all the more beautiful for it. Sansa Stark was not his, and it was dangerous, so very dangerous, to start craving her, to allow himself to take even the smallest piece of her. He was a man of voracious hunger, of endless obsession. Once he started, once he allowed himself to think of her as his, he might never let her go.

Despite his words, his hands drifted down the arch of her back, cupping her ass and squeezing the generous flesh. A guttural groan escaped him, as his hands kneaded and toyed with her rump, urging her to grind against his hardness. Each large hand cupped a cheek, and Stannis lustily pulled them apart, the tips of his long fingers dipping into the crack in between. He knew if he were to drag his fingers through the crack, over her puckered hole and down between her legs, he would be able to reach her cunt, to thrust a finger inside. The thought made him tremble, the temptation causing him to abandon her ass, to drag his hands back up to stroke the hair from her face, to reclaim her mouth with an ardent kiss.

Their tongues tangled boldly, nothing at all like the hesitant licks and caresses from before. It was incredibly erotic, his tongue mimicking the penetrating motion he so longed to execute elsewhere. A fleeting thought passed through his mind, making his cock jump. Will her cunt be as wet as she has promised? He wondered. Will it be as wet and inviting as her mouth?

Sansa’s hands were around his waist, tugging him, and Stannis willingly went along, eager to stay pressed against her. When she broke away from the kiss, Stannis finally realized they were now both standing on the thick rug, only a few feet away from the fire. His dark eyes sought her own, noting the small smile on her lips. Regardless of his reservations, Sansa seemed absolutely certain of her desire. As she dropped to her knees, her palms still holding unto his waist, Stannis felt his reluctance slip further away.

For a short, overwhelming moment, he feared she intended to take him in her mouth. Selyse had never done so, but Melisandre had performed the act with enthusiasm, and Stannis did not know which of his two previous experiences Sansa would end up resembling. She was far from a shy maiden, if her words and actions were anything to go by, but he still struggled to believe she could be as adventurous as the red woman had been.

Thinking of his wife and the red priestess caused his cock to soften slightly, and he forced himself to put them aside, to focus on the pleasures at hand. Sansa flashed him a brilliant smile, her eyes gazing up at him, urging him to place his hands on her shoulders for balance. She helped him discard his boots and socks with surprising efficiency, but when her hands reached to unlace his breeches Stannis was forced to pull away. He could not bear to have her touch him so, while her mouth was so temptingly nearby. He had no desire to frighten her, and he was uncertain he could display the proper level of restraint should she attempt to toy with him.

Swallowing thickly, his eyes never leaving her voluptuous figure, Stannis hastened to pull his doublet and undershirt off, before unlacing his breeches and pulling them down along with his smallclothes. He straightened up, pushing out his shoulders and trying to remain calm under Sansa’s avid gaze. For the first time since they had begun kissing, Stannis wished for the room to be darker.

He knew all too well that his form was far from pleasing. He was shorter than Robert had been, less broad about the shoulders. He often lost weight during his campaigns, and his ribs were prominent, his stomach caved in. His chest was furry with black, coarse hairs, and his muscles were hard and lean rather than oversized and well defined as women admired. He was not an ugly man, but he was far from handsome.

Feeling his hardness faltering under Sansa’s continued scrutiny, Stannis quickly moved forward, going down on his knees to face the woman, his hands tangling in her hair to bring her mouth back to his. His pride could survive if she found his body less than pleasing, but he would not have her doubt his virility. Not when he was so very keen to fuck her.

His own urgency surprised him, but Sansa made no protest as he forcefully maneuvered her body to lie down, his own larger form quickly covering her own. Sansa eagerly spread her thighs, and he found his place easily, his hardness finally pressed against the curls of her sex. At the first, urgent press of his cock, Stannis drew back from the kiss with a groan, suddenly aware of the force he was exerting. Gently, his mind warned him, and he forced himself to breathe deeply, to slow down. Gently.

Beneath him, Sansa was an unforgettable sight. Her hair fanned around her, like molten copper, and her blue eyes were dark with passion. Her lips were swollen and wet, the skin around them chafed and red due to his stubble. I made her look like this, Stannis thought wondrously, with a touch of male pride.

“Does it hurt?” he asked hoarsely, one long finger tracing her lips. Sansa shook her head fiercely, sucking his finger into her mouth, making him grunt. “It feels good”, she whispered in a husky tone, releasing his finger with a smile. “You feel good”, she assured him, raising her hips and rubbing against him to convince him of her sincerity. The movement of her hips allowed some of her wetness to coat his cock, and Stannis groaned long and low, eager to press back. Eager to push in. Gently, man, gently. Stannis gritted his teeth, holding unto his famous iron control by a thread.

He forced himself to kiss her instead, the chore that it was. He explored her mouth slowly, gently, thoroughly, relishing the small sounds of pleasure she emitted. The woman kept rubbing against him, her hips undulating, testing his resolve. He was aware of how wet she was, how her cunt coated his cock as it rubbed back and forth against his aching shaft. It took everything he had to remain still, to avoid thrusting in with all his strength. Gently. He was beginning to remember why he loathed the word.

He knew his restraint would not last long. He broke their kiss with a groan, forcing himself to move his weight back to his knees, distancing his cock from the temptation of her sex. His hands were now free to move, and he used them to cup her teats, relishing the weight of them. He kneaded the generous mounds, pushing them together, entranced by the sight. As he had hoped, they fit perfectly in his hands, filling his large palms. Stannis was slightly ashamed to realize how much he enjoyed it, how much the sight aroused him.

His thumbs ran over the two pink nipples, large and tempting, earning him a whine of pleasure from Sansa. The nipples hardened under his stroking thumbs, becoming two stiff peaks, making his cock harden impossibly further. Lowering his head, Stannis took a nipple in his mouth, his tongue roughly laving the stiff peak. He kept one hand at the unattended breast, rolling the pert nipple between thumb and forefinger, pinching it lightly. That earned him a breathless sigh of pleasure, encouraging him to tighten his pinch and nibble on the other nipple with his teeth.

The sigh turned into a hoarse cry, Sansa’s small hands reaching to grab the short hairs at the back of his head. Stannis tried to pull back, afraid he had hurt her, but Sansa’s grip tightened, forcing him to remain at her teats. He was happy to comply, continuing to alternately nibble and lick, caress and pinch, watching avidly as the beautiful woman moaned and writhed under his touch.      

His mouth continued to move over her breasts, while his hand ran down her flat stomach, feeling the muscles ripple under his touch. When he reached her curls, Sansa spread her thighs further, eagerly inviting his touch. Stannis inhaled sharply, feeling his chest constrict, as a single finger moved through her folds, parting her nether lips. Moisture clung to his finger as he brushed her folds up and down, and Stannis eagerly thrust it inside, searching for more of her wetness. As his finger pushed deep, he hungrily bit down on a nipple, and Sansa made a sound of surprise, her body suddenly tense and still under his.

Stannis used his tongue to soothe the bite, even as his finger pushed in and out, relishing the tight, wet feel of her cunt. Sansa’s body slowly relaxed, allowing him to concentrate on how she felt around his finger. She was wonderfully wet, and unbelievably tight, her inner muscles already fluttering and clenching. He was eager to feel her wrapped around his cock, imagining how wonderful it would feel as he thrust madly into her, losing himself between her thighs.

He had been stiff for so long that his sac began to ache, and he realized he could not delay any longer. I will be gentle, he vowed to himself, hoping he could keep the promise. He removed his finger, bringing his body to cover hers fully, one hand grasping his weeping cock to guide it into place. The feel of his fist, wrapped around his cock, was overwhelming after being hard and distended for so long. Helplessly, Stannis pulled on his cock twice, trying to relieve the ache, trying to regain a sense of control. He was mortified by the idea of spilling his seed upon his first thrust into her, as if he was a callow youth. Gently, the word mocked him, even as he aligned his cock with her entrance, even as his tip came into contact with her wetness. Fucking gently.

He tried to push inside her with a firm shove, his eyes closing, surprised at how tight she was, how difficult it was to penetrate her any deeper. The woman was wet, unbelievably wet, and still he could not push inside as his body seemed to demand. Frustrated, Stannis withdrew, using one hand to adjust his angle slightly before pushing back in. The angle provided some give, and his aching cock sunk deeper, still unable to push the bulbous head completely inside. Beneath his heavy body, Sansa gave a sharp inhale, and Stannis withdrew, sweat sliding down his back. Again he thrust, this time managing to lodge the head inside her sheathe, grunting at the impossible tightness. Sansa was tense beneath him, unmoving. He hardly noticed.

It was a slow, maddening process. He was forced to rock in small, unsatisfying thrusts, inching inside with barely any progress. The frustration was making his teeth grind, and he resisted the urge to growl at the woman beneath him to relax, to let him in. he was going mad with his need, and still her cunt did not give. Again and again he tried, each time gaining a bit more ground, when finally, finally, her cunt seemed to open wide, drawing him inside and allowing him to push his full length into her. Beneath him, Sansa let out a loud sob, but Stannis did not know if the sound was one of pain or pleasure.

He paused, taking a moment to relish the sensation of being buried fully inside a woman’s cunt for the first time in years. He had no idea whether his mind had dulled the pleasurable memories, or whether Sansa’s cunt was truly somehow better. Regardless, the need to move was beyond his control, and he thrust hard, relishing the friction. He opened his bleary eyes to look down at the beauty beneath him, but the sight made him stop and scowl.

There were tears in Sansa’s big blue eyes, and she was biting her lip so hard that he feared she might break the skin. He had not seen a woman in so much pain in decades, not since his wedding night to Selyse. The sudden realization almost made his cock go limp. Almost.

“You are a maiden”, Stannis stated, horrified. His mind rebelled at the notion, denying the obvious conclusion to the sight beneath him. Two fucking husbands, a wealth of sensual knowledge, and the woman is a maiden still? The rage he felt, at himself, at her, at the world, was consuming. Stannis grinded his teeth, beginning to pull out, his ire dousing his arousal.

“No!” Sansa cried out in protest, her legs locking around the small of his back, preventing his retreat. “Stay inside me”, she urged, her hands grasping at his shoulders, at the nape of his neck. “Stay”, her voice was full of pain, and his gut twisted at the sound. He was the cause of her pain, with his desire to possess her, possess her body. Stannis closed his eyes, fighting to keep his breathing under control, fighting not to cringe as her hands caressed his face ever so gently. The tenderness of her touch was unbearable, knowing he had tarnished her, knowing he had hurt her.

“Why have you not told me?” his voice was stilted, detached. He did not know how to express the maelstrom of emotions he was feeling. He still had half a mind to scold her, even as she lay under him in tears. Foolish woman, what were you thinking?

“This is what I want”, Sansa insisted, her hands running down his back, her touch meant to comfort. “You asked me what I want from you- I want you inside me, I want to feel you as you reach your pleasure, and I want to feel your seed running down my thighs”. Her words nearly choked him, his cock immediately hardening at the image she described. How could a maiden know of such things? How could she talk in such a manner, arouse him so fiercely, even as her pain remained so obvious?

Even as he gave a small, hesitant thrust, he felt like a scoundrel, like a fiend. He was a weak man, to take her even though he had no right. He stole a glance between her thighs, watching his cock as it pulled out a small distance, the blood of her maidenhead coating it with a crimson sheen. He shut his eyes, unable to bear the sight, and pushed back in. Sansa gasped in pain, her grip tightening about him, unwilling to let him go. She moved her hips against his, giving him pleasure, and Stannis found he was selfish enough to take it. Slowly, as gently as he could bear, he rocked into her, too aroused to stop, but too ashamed to thrust any harder, denying his body the friction it craved.

He kissed her cheeks, tasting the salt of her tears. He kissed her forehead, uncaring for the sweat which had gathered on her brow. He kissed her ears, her neck, and finally her mouth. He kept his rocking motion, feeling his sanity slipping, knowing he could not remain gentle for long. He opened his eyes, forcing himself to meet her watery gaze.

“My Queen”, he was babbling, his words made no sense, but he had to make her understand, to make her see. “My Queen, my glorious Queen”, he was thrusting harder now, thrusting properly, and even the sight of her tears, running freely down her cheeks, was not enough to stop the pleasure roiling inside. She was so wet, and so tight, and every time he plunged inside he felt like a god, conquering the world. He was her first, her only, and she was his, his, his.

“My Queen!” Stannis shouted out hoarsely, his sac tightening, his powerful thrusts deteriorating into helpless, uneven jerks as the pleasure seized him. Helplessly, he rutted against her, his seed spilling inside her in what seemed to be an endless torrent. The small tremors continued well after he was spent, his cock twitching, threatening never to stop.

Not wanting to crush her under his weight, yet unwilling to pull out just yet, Stannis wrapped his arms around her trembling body, taking her along with him as he shifted unto his back. His cock remained lodged inside her tight cunt, her legs folded on either side of his thighs, her upper body pressed deliciously against his. He held her tightly, trying to offer comfort through their embrace, his mouth seeking hers for a gentle kiss. They kissed for a long time, an apology offered, and accepted, without the exchange of words.

His cock was not quite stiff anymore, though still far from its’ usual flaccid state. As they kissed languidly, Sansa rocked gently against him, still impaled upon his cock. A small moan escaped her, unmistakably of pleasure, and Stannis kissed her harder, his hands running down her sides, caressing her teats briefly before reaching down and grasping the cheeks of her ass, encouraging her to move some more.

Sansa maintained a slow rhythm, her rocking movements small and far apart. Each one earned him another moan of pleasure, her kisses growing ardent. Her thrusts were too gentle and sporadic to give him any real pleasure, but the sounds she was making caused his cock to harden again, much to his surprise. Has she somehow managed to transform me, to make me young again? Stannis wondered incredulously, fighting the renewed urge to thrust up into her, to hasten her leisurely rhythm. He was a grown man, long past the days of his wanton youth. It was ridiculous, embarrassing, how easily this woman aroused him back to full hardness.

 “Oh”, it was a sound of surprise, a sound of pleasure, and Stannis relished it. Clearly, his new found hardness pleased her, as she ground against him. “Oh”, she cried out again, louder, her movements slightly rougher, losing some of her tentativeness. “Oh, oh!” it became a chant, a song, dictated by the beat of her thrusts. Her eyes were shut tight, and her mouth hung open, moaning and gasping. She arched her back, leaning with her hands against his chest, her teats no longer pressed against him. Stannis watched, mesmerized, as they swayed gently with her movements, bouncing enticingly.

His hands left her ass, leaving her to set the pace, running up her sides and gripping her bouncing teats. He traced her nipples with his thumbs, earning another throaty moan, before Sansa opened her eyes to watch his ministrations, to watch her teats in his palms. It was terribly arousing, watching her watching her own breasts. “Pinch them, oh please”, the words shocked him, making him thrust up, helpless to prevent the deep throb of arousal. “Pinch my nipples, please Stannis, OH!” Her beautiful words turned into a tortured wail as Stannis complied with her demands, pinching both nipples between thumb and forefinger.

She was moving roughly against him, the feel of her cunt almost too good, and Stannis knew he could spill his seed a second time if she maintained her rough pace a while longer. However, a small, decent part of him recalled she was a maiden, and had already suffered a rough fucking on his part earlier.

Despite his selfish desire to feel his own pleasure, he knew she needed to finish soon, not to exert her tortured flesh further. He tightened his pinch, and added his own, shallow thrusts up to hasten her completion. “Oh”, Sansa’s moans were filthy sounds, decadent and wanton, and he could not get enough of them. “Oh!” she cried, her head tossed back, her neck arching beautifully, and still she was bouncing up and down his cock, giving him the most exquisite pleasure. “Oh, oh, OH!”

She was glorious as she peaked, her cunt becoming even tighter, her mouth open in a silent ‘O’ of amazement. Stannis lifted his hips, unable to resist thrusting into her one last time when presented with her undisputed pleasure. He was unable to join her, not so soon, but there was pleasure to be had from the gentle thrusting, from the feel of her cunt fluttering around him, hungrily clutching at his cock.

Her pleasure abated slowly, her muscles continuing to contract involuntarily in small spasms. Stannis embraced her strongly as she relaxed at last, her weight falling against him. His mouth peppered kisses in her hair, on her sweaty cheeks, on her fluttering eyelids. His hands ran up and down her body, soothing and kneading the sore muscles.

“My Queen”, he whispered gently in her ear, nipping the soft skin behind. “My Queen”, he repeated a few minutes later, as he twisted their bodies unto their sides, his cock slipping out of her with a crude sound, causing Sansa to gasp in pain. Stannis glanced briefly at his cock, still half hard, covered with her blood and secretions, and his own milky seed. Despite the knowledge that he had no right to take her, despite the fact he had caused her great pain, the sight filled him with an unreasonable sense of pride. “My Queen”, he murmured, meaning for it to be an apology, his mouth seeking out her own, sharing soft, fleeting kisses. “Sansa”.

Chapter Text

The sound of his teeth grinding, even in his sleep, caused her to withdraw her hand from his broad chest and wince. She watched his face carefully as his brow furrowed, and the crease between his eyes deepened, becoming even more pronounced. She knew he was likely to wake up if she indulged her childish need to touch his body further. Stannis Baratheon slept fitfully, and even when he did, the King of Westeros never truly relaxed.

Careful to keep her touch brief and gentle, Sansa ran her hand over Stannis’ trimmed beard, the black hairs bristling against her soft fingertips. Petyr’s small, pointed beard had mostly tickled her, and Harry had always been clean shaven. Stannis’ beard was rough and coarse, covering his large, square jaw and circling his thin, cruel lips. He rarely bothered with shaving, though he made an effort to keep his beard short and trimmed, unlike his dead brother. Sansa still hated the damn thing, hated how it chafed against her skin when they kissed, leaving it red and raw. She suspected Stannis was well aware of it, but the man derived great pleasure from seeing her bruised lips and irritated skin. He desperately wanted to possess her, to mark her as his. Men, ever seeking to conquer.

Stannis groaned, low and deep, and turned on his side, away from her touch. Sansa huffed in annoyance as his long legs pushed back against hers, threatening to kick her out of her own bed. She had no idea what had possessed the man to come barging through her door, sword in hand and face twisted into a mask of cold determination. Her initial indignation at his presumption had been replaced by the pleasure of having him buried deep inside her, but now she felt her anger rekindle as she fought to find a comfortable position on her small, crowded bed.

The strong muscles of his back caught her attention as he hunched over, his pale skin pulled taught over his shoulder blade, accentuating his broadness. The man was undeniably large, in every way. Perhaps not as large as the hound had been, or even King Robert, but definitely large enough to command attention wherever he went. She, who was considered tall for a woman, had often felt small in his embrace. Rather than feeling safe, as she was told women felt in the arms of a strong man, Sansa often had to fight the urge to push him away. His heavy weight crushed her, the strong arms wrapped around her trapped her, and the roughness of his passion overwhelmed her.

Everything about Stannis Baratheon was rough; nothing soft, nothing gentle. Though he tried desperately to see to her pleasure, his manhood was uncomfortably large, and he required a rough, quick pace to find his release. During their early encounters, when he had been hesitant and she had been terrified, she had often risen from his bed sore and bruised. During those unpleasant days, Sansa had found herself doubting her choices, wondering whether someone else might have proved more pliable than the unrelenting King. Stannis had not been the first man to want her, after all.

Petyr, who had been slight and barely taller than her, had been so very careful with her maidenhead, but he had taken great pleasure in teaching her his ideas of worldly education. Her ever-smiling ‘father’ would pinch and manipulate her nipples for hours, leaving them sore and aching. The day after, they were so tender she could barely stand the sensation of her clothes, rubbing against them. Petyr would smile at her knowingly, and when they were alone he would ask her whether it hurt. By then, she knew better than to tell him the truth, knew all too well what he wanted to hear. “It feels so good”, she would tell him in a low, breathy voice, watching his eyes widen and his tongue licking over his lips. “A constant reminder of your touch”.

It became harder to fool him after her engagement to Harrold Hardyng. Harry, with his sandy hair and blue eyes, had been every inch the Lord-in-waiting. After the announcement had been made, at the conclusion of the tourney for the Brotherhood of Winged Knights, Harry had returned home with the Waynwoods; though not before he had kissed her passionately and vowed to return to her side as soon as possible. It was clear that the heir to the Eyrie was besotted with Baelish’s bastard girl, and even clearer were the signs of jealousy in her dear ‘father’. She had learned, over time, to read Petyr with ease, to notice the smallest change in his smile.

That night, in the suddenly quiet castle, Petyr had summoned her to his solar to teach her how to pleasure his cock with her mouth. She had been prepared for a punishment, but as he held her head down and thrust quick and shallow between her lips, Sansa had a hard time holding back her tears. Her ‘father’ had chocked and gasped in a pitiful manner as his bitter seed filled her mouth, his hands convulsing in her hair, pulling painfully on her scalp.  

Sansa never forgot the sight of his cock, wet with her saliva, quickly softening against his hastily unlaced breeches, the seed she had been unable to swallow staining the rich fabric. Nor did she forget the sight of the slim man, as he wheezed and struggled to regain his breath. That was the night her plan had begun to take form. A plan she had followed blindly, religiously, all the way into the arms of the harshest man she had ever met.

“Woman”, Stannis’ voice, no more than a hoarse whisper, startled her out of her dark reverie. “You will cease petting me”, the King warned, his large, rough hand reaching down to grasp her fingers, to prevent them from running against his hipbone. She had been completely unaware of her wandering hand, lost as she was in her thoughts. Sansa twisted her delicate fingers in his grasp, running the soft pads against his callouses. Despite the coarseness of his skin, Stannis’ hands were beautifully formed, and Sansa had admired their dexterity on many occasions.

Intertwining their fingers together, Stannis twisted his heavy form on the small bed until his front was facing hers. His eyes were heavy lidded, his gaze slightly unfocused, and Sansa suddenly realized her lover had aged considerably during their time apart. The Stannis she had known would have never allowed himself to sleep so deeply in the presence of another. The man had possessed an uncanny ability to wake up in an instant, as alert and suspicious as ever.

As his dark blue eyes opened properly, taking the sight of her in, his deep scowl lifted momentarily, the tense muscles of his jaw relaxing. He brought their laced hands up, to press his lips against her knuckles, his warm breath ghosting over her skin. She shivered at the sensation and his lips twitched, a mere hint of a smile, his eyes sparkling as they roamed over her naked body.

Harry’s eyes had always sparkled brightly, Sansa suddenly recalled, especially when she made him believe he had managed to steal a kiss from her. In truth, she had enjoyed kissing him, had enjoyed his jovial nature and his obvious admiration. He had sworn to love her passionately and faithfully. The passion she had believed; the faithfulness, not so much. Had she met him several years earlier, before she had learned the world was full of monsters and short of heroes, she would have been completely besotted. Harrold Hardyng had been a brave fool, as valiant and brash as she imagined her dead uncle, Brandon, must have been. As Robert Baratheon had been in his youth. Brave fools were bound to meet a premature death.

“Was it very difficult?” Stannis’ voice was soft, hesitant, drawing her back to the present. Oh, but she loved the way his voice changed when they were alone. His gruff, confident manner of speaking always failed him when he attempted kindness. It was simply not in his nature, and yet he made an effort for her.

“Carrying Ned?” the King clarified, his eyes intent upon her face. “I have heard that some women struggle during pregnancy…” his voice trailed off, a tinge of red coloring his sunken cheeks. She wondered if anyone else in the world could make Stannis Baratheon as tongue tied as she could, and reveled in the very likely possibility that she was the only one.

“The first few moons were rough”, Sansa admitted quietly, unable to meet his keen gaze. She knew Stannis would assume she was referring to the usual ailments of pregnant women, mainly sickness and exhaustion. He had no need to know of the fear she had felt, or of the doubts she had had over keeping the child.

“The final weeks were easier, though I was so fat I could barely walk”, Sansa continued to reminisce, a small smile gracing her full lips, earning another small upturning of the mouth from her stern lover. All her doubts had disappeared the first time she had felt Ned kicking inside her. Her beautiful boy had been strong from the very beginning, always moving about, reminding her of his existence. She had known then that she would do anything necessary to give birth to him, to raise him as her own.

“I would have been glad to see it”, Stannis admitted, longing evident in his voice and in his eyes. She had been cruel to keep him unaware, and a coward for choosing to keep Ned to herself for as long as possible. Deep down she had known this man, this harsh King, would love her child long after any feelings of passion he held for her dissipated. She had known he would come for her son, would take him away, and leave her behind, alone and heartbroken. I knew the price, Sansa reminded herself fiercely, refusing to give in to self-pity. I chose this, to love my child for as long as I could.

She had prayed for a daughter, a beautiful daughter with her auburn hair and Stannis’ deep blue eyes. A girl would have mattered little to the King, who already had a trueborn daughter in sweet Shireen. He might have allowed her to keep a girl, might have been persuaded not to acknowledge a bastard daughter at all. But the gods were cruel, and they had given her a son. My beautiful boy, my beloved little Ned. When the Maester had placed the newborn babe in her arms, his hair as black as his father’s, Sansa had felt her heart break anew, after years of careful mending.

“The idea is well and good”, Sansa struggled to keep her voice light, her fingers pressing against her lover’s, seeking comfort from the very man who would bring her sorrow when he took her son away. “But I doubt you would have found my swollen ankles and skin blotches very pleasing. I was fat and miserable, your Grace; more cow than woman”, her dry remark earned her a deep scowl, as Stannis used his superior strength to drag her body closer to his, encouraging her to rest her face in the crook of his shoulder.

“I would have found you even more beautiful”, the King insisted in a rough voice, his chin over the top of her head, obscuring his face from view. “The mere thought of you, round with my child, makes me harden”. As if to prove his words, the man ground against her, making her aware of his manhood, already partially stiff, pressed against her stomach.

Sansa fought not to giggle, an urge she had not felt in years. Stannis’ unwavering passion for her had certainly been unexpected; and the deep pleasure she felt at the discovery of his continued devotion was even more of a surprise. She had no illusions as to the circumstances which had led him to her bed in the first place. The King had been half mad with guilt, haunted by his memories and almost helpless to resist. He had struggled, naturally; his pride could not be put aside so easily. But he had succumbed to her all the same. She had expected the righteous man to resent her for her actions, both her seduction and her choice to birth his bastard.

Sansa pulled back from Stannis’ strong embrace, fighting to unlace their hands and meet his gaze. His beautiful eyes, so dark and blue, were the only feature of the man she found truly handsome. At present, they gazed at her with utter sincerity, nothing of his natural suspicion evident in his countenance. Even his infamous scowl was missing. I never wanted you to love me, you foolish man, Sansa thought miserably, feeling her guilt twist inside her like a living thing.

“Have you found your wife equally alluring, when she carried your daughter?” Sansa asked in a deceptively soft voice, and fought not to cringe when Stannis’ scowl appeared instantly. It was so very easy to prick the man’s pride, to arouse his ire. Even the slightest mention of the Queen, especially when they were in bed together, was enough to make the man pull back from her in anger. It was a crude diversion tactic, but one she employed nonetheless. Stalling for time, Alayne? She could not tell if the voice in her head belonged to Petyr or Harry. Too often, the two intermingled in her memories.

Of course she was stalling for time. Ever since Ilyn Payne had beheaded her true father, she had been stalling for more time. Every second she remained breathing was an achievement, another moment she had defeated the odds. I stall for time until I am ready, Sansa thought defiantly, daring the voices in her head to reply. I stall for time until an opportunity presents itself, until I can strike.

“During her pregnancies, I found a previously unknown patience for Selyse”, Stannis’ honest admission, spoken in his roughest tones, was utterly unexpected. Sansa reeled back, her mind’s machinations promptly halted, and focused instead on Stannis’ troubled expression. “She suffered greatly, both during and after. The least I could do for her was to be... accommodating”.

It was common knowledge that Queen Selyse had suffered many miscarriages, bleeding out one babe after another. Being unable to produce a son for her Lord husband had made Selyse a bitter woman, and Sansa could not resent her because of it. The thought that Stannis might have been similarly hurt by the loss of his stillborn children had never occurred to her before, though it should have. Sansa had witnessed the love the harsh King had for his sweet, ugly daughter. She had known he wanted more children, desperately craving a son. She should have guessed that the pain of loss was not solely Selyse’s burden.

“Would you have found a similar patience for me?” her voice was so small and curious, she hardly recognized it. It was a glimpse of a previous Sansa, now long gone. A Sansa who died once in King’s Landing, under the brutal beatings of the Kingsguard, before dying again, a second and final death, in the Eyrie as Alayne. My name is not Alayne Stone, my name is Sansa Stark. Sometimes she had to remind herself.

Though she did not deserve it, did not deserve his comfort, Sansa closed her eyes and pulled her body closer to the King’s, allowing him to gather her in his arms, to wrap her in his warmth. “Patience?” The King growled in her ear, his rough beard scratching over the delicate skin, making her burrow even deeper into his strong chest. “I would have begged to be at your beck and call, to be allowed to watch you grow bigger each day, knowing it was my child you were carrying”.

She felt hot tears pricking behind her eyelids, and she knew that if she were to open them and see the raw honesty in his eyes, she would not be able to refrain from crying. Blindly, she reached for him, and blindly, she brought his mouth down to tangle with hers. It was a sweet kiss, light and comforting. The fleeting pressure of his firm mouth against hers was a welcome sensation, a blissful touch that had not been forgotten, despite their time apart.

Despite her efforts, she felt the hot tears escape her eyes unbidden, running down her cheeks to intermingle with their kiss. To her great shame, their salty taste invaded her mouth; but rather than pull away Stannis kissed her harder, his tongue invading her mouth as if seeking to fully catch the new flavor. Sansa struggled to keep her breathing steady, but the pressure in her chest and her lover’s insistent mouth made her dizzy. A deep, body-wrecking sob escaped her, causing her teeth to scrape against Stannis’ tongue. Only then did the King pull away from her, and when Sansa opened her bleary eyes she could make out his scowl, expressing his deep concern.

The sight of his earnestness only made her cry harder, as she knew it would. The small hitches in her breath morphed into deep, continuous sobs, becoming a ragged sound highly improper from a Lady. She felt, rather than heard, the large man sighing deeply, his chest rising and falling against her own. Then she felt his strong arms encircle her, crushing her body into his. The constricting grip was, for the first time ever, entirely welcome, and extremely comforting. Sansa buried her head in Stannis’ broad chest, the coarse black hairs tickling against her hot and moist cheeks, and slowly fought to regain her composure.

“I have wronged you so very badly”, Sansa hiccupped breathlessly, after her sobs finally quieted down. She muttered the words against the warm skin of his pectoral, the strong muscle rippling under her as Stannis moved to hold her even closer. She could not sense any anger in his form, his muscles strong but languid around her, not an ounce of tension in them.

“Hush”, the King dismissed her words in his deepest, most commanding voice, the sound rumbling in his chest. If the man only knew how much of a pawn she had made him into, how much of her scheming he had enabled, she doubted he would have continued to show her such kindness. I would lose his love, Sansa knew for certain, though the pain the thought gave her was unexpected. She had never sought his love, had never made it one of her objectives. The realization that she cherished his feelings so much that she was terrified of losing them, was startling.

It never bothered you before, Petyr’s voice slithered in her mind, causing her to shiver. The hound, Harry, sweet Robin, even me… you never cared much what happened to the men who made themselves your willing slaves. Sansa shook her head to clear her mind, but the man pressed against her only took it as a sign of her continued apology.

“Sansa”, the King growled softly. One of his hands tangled in her long hair, his fingers buried in the thick, auburn locks. With a gentle tug, he forced her to raise her eyes to meet his own. Though his scowl remained fixed, his deep blue eyes were full of warmth. “I would not change a single thing, if I thought it meant I would not end here with you, with our child sleeping in the next room. Yes, our names will be tarnished and our honors questioned. But the adultery is mine, my own shame. You have committed no greater crime than caring for a man who deserved none of your attentions”. Except my crimes of seduction, and manipulation, and falsehood, Sansa thought grimly. And plain, cold blooded murder.

It had been ridiculously easy. The Lords of the Vale had never been fond of Baelish. All they required was a very gentle nudge in the proper direction. In the end she had done very little, other than actually pouring the poison into her new husband’s wine goblet. Her cousin, sickly Robert Arryn, was the one to openly accuse Littlefinger, shouting and shouting until a violent fit had taken over his small frame. Sweet Robin had greatly disliked his kinsman, but he had grown to hate Petyr with a vengeance.

When they questioned her, though now with the dignity befitting the Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell, she had played her part perfectly. A frightened girl, so scared of Baelish that she did not have the courage to go against him. Not when he single handedly murdered her aunt, poor Lysa. Not even when he threatened to murder her betrothed, her beloved Harry. She had sounded absolutely sincere when she told them she had never imagined Littlefinger would actually go through with his mad scheme, of course, but she should have known his long standing obsession with her mother might drive him to madness.

They ate up her words like a rare delicacy, relishing every morsel she flung in their direction. All she had to do was tell them exactly what they wished to hear, like Petyr had taught her. Her darling ‘father’ had been thrown out of the moon door before nightfall, his death allowing Bronze Yohn Royce to become the new Lord Protector. She did not attend either occasion, preferring to play the stricken widow, standing vigil over her husband’s corpse in the sept. She allowed the Lords Declarant to bicker and argue amongst themselves, already aware of the obvious conclusion she had set before them. Within a fortnight she had led the Lords of the Vale and their army, over forty thousand strong, down from the mountains and into the Riverlands.

“Whatever ghosts may haunt you, my Lady, I will not become one of them”, Stannis affirmed stiffly, his calloused fingers running down her cheek to grasp her chin with a surprisingly gentle touch. Sansa nodded, too overwhelmed by memories to speak properly. She managed a smile, small but true, at her King. Stannis gave a soft grunt before bringing her face to his, claiming her mouth with a passionate kiss. Sansa followed him, allowing his warmth to wash over her, rejoicing as his passion chased away the guilt and regret.

The kiss was consuming, both sides losing themselves in the act. Stannis devoured her mouth, plundering without hesitation, and Sansa allowed him this viciousness, for once taking pleasure in his need for a rougher touch. Their tongues tangled boldly, and Sansa allowed herself a moment of playfulness, closing her teeth over his tongue and nibbling carefully on the wet appendage.

Stannis growled, deep and menacing, before using his strength to tilt her on her back, covering her naked body with his warmth. Feeling his heavier build, Sansa reckoned Stannis was now the healthiest she had ever seen him. He had gained weight while in King’s Landing, his ribs no longer so very prominent, his cheeks not quite as sunken. His muscles were more pronounced, and she could feel them taut and powerful under her fingers as she ran them across his shoulder blades and down his arms. She spread her thighs wide, welcoming his weight between them. As he settled properly, his manhood pressed against her intimately, Sansa thrust her pelvis up, grinding against her lover, hoping to make him hard enough to take her. Above her, Stannis abruptly froze, breaking off their kiss with a wet sound. His breath hissed out of his lungs as if the man was in pain.   

She opened her eyes to find him observing her face closely, his mouth set in a grim line. “I am not a young man anymore”, the King huffed in irritation, his scowl beginning to crease his high forehead, forming the familiar lines. Had she been an utter fool, Sansa might have made a jest about the King never being a young man, but she knew better than to attempt any levity with the man where his age was concerned. Stannis had already been past the age of forty when they became lovers, long past his prime. The man was deeply troubled by their difference in age, and Sansa knew he harbored a primal fear that she might find him too old to please her.

Instead of offering any words, Sansa merely hummed a deep, pleased sound, her fingers combing through the short hairs at the nape of his neck, urging him down for a kiss. Stannis resisted her pull, and Sansa gave him a small, encouraging smile, wondering at his hesitance. The King scowled deeply, and exhaled a frustrated breath, his teeth momentarily grinding.

“I am willing to lick your cunt, in the interim”, the King finally spit the offer out in a low, uncertain voice, clearly embarrassed by giving voice to his thoughts. His cheeks were tainted red, and Sansa struggled not to blush and giggle, knowing it would only embarrass the man further. She fought to keep her gentle smile in place, nodding encouragingly at the blushing man.

Her lover, her harsh King, was a man of deep, repressed passions. For all that she had come to him a maiden, there was no denying Sansa’s knowledge far surpassed Stannis’ expertise. She had Petyr to thank for that, she supposed, as Stannis had seemed to be utterly transported whenever she had introduced something new into their bed. The only time the man had shown a sign of struggle had been when she had suggested, in a husky voice she knew was sure to drive him wild, that he put his mouth down there.

“You want me to put my mouth on your cunt?!” the King had sputtered incredulously, almost leaping out of the bed. Sansa had blushed violently, her cheeks almost as red as her hair, uncertain whether her embarrassment stemmed from Stannis’ obvious reluctance, or his rare usage of the word ‘cunt’.

But after his initial surprise had passed, the King had grudgingly agreed to try, though he failed to hide the distaste he felt for the idea. His opinion rapidly changed when he had managed to bring her to her peak two times in rapid succession, the sensations coursing through her body even better than Sarella had promised they would be. By the time he had entered her she had been so wet she had not felt any discomfort, and the man’s eyes had rolled backwards as he thrust wildly, clearly overcome by her tightness and heat. He had been an avid fan of the act ever since, much to Sansa’s delight.

At present, the King gave her a small twitch of his mouth, before ducking his head to capture a nipple in his mouth. Sansa gasped at the sudden flood of sensation, fighting not to flinch. Her breasts were uncomfortably full, hours past Ned’s last feeding, and Stannis’ previous rough handling, though pleasant at the time, had made her even more sensitive.

“Gently”, Sansa breathed softly, feeling Stannis’ lips twitch again at the sound of her instruction. Despite his loathing of that particular directive, Sansa felt his thin lips cease their fierce suction, his tongue coming out to lave the nipple instead. The feeling was subtle, barely there, and therefore almost pleasant. Sansa hummed her approval, feeling her heavy teats leaking with the milk they carried. She blushed with embarrassment but her lover carried on, blissfully unaware of her shame. The King was lost in his own world, fascinated by her body’s secretions, lapping up her mother’s milk with broad strokes of his tongue. It was a ridiculous sight, her stern King trying to imitate a babe or a kitten, but the man clearly derived pleasure from the act, and she was loathe to deprive him of it.

She tried to breathe deeply, to bear the slight uneasiness his careful ministrations caused. Nonetheless, she breathed a deep sigh of relief when Stannis continued further down her body, abandoning her leaking teats for the planes of her stomach. Down there, his small bites gave her nothing but pleasure, and she struggled not to think about the changes her body had undergone due to childbirth. She was no longer quite as trim, her abdomen no longer perfectly taut. She had sagged a bit, for lack of a better term. Though many assured her she was now more beautiful than ever, she found herself hoping that Stannis still found her changed body alluring. A vain notion for a vain woman.

Sansa gasped in surprise when two strong hands suddenly pushed her thighs further apart, and held them firmly, allowing her no room for movement. Tully blue eyes opened to watch avidly as Stannis lowered his body from the bed, his knees coming to rest on the cold, harsh floor. His face now of height with her exposed wetness, the King outstretched his tongue to run the full length of her nether lips from bottom to top. She shivered as the broad stroke of his tongue brushed over the small nub, situated just above her opening. The sensation was as jolting as lightning, and the sight only served to enhance the experience.

There were no gentle licks, no playful teasing. Stannis set about devouring her with the same single-minded determination he displayed in everything he did. There was no respite, no place to run, his hands anchoring her body down, making it impossible for her to flee.

She loved it; loved every time his hot tongue swirled, strong and certain, around her little nub. Loved the intensity, the near pain of the spiraling pleasure, so strong she wanted to shy away from it even as it surged higher, bringing her closer to her peak. Loved the wet, slightly cooler sensation of his saliva running freely down her cleft, intermingling with her natural wetness.

She shivered as the wetness ran down, over her other, puckered hole. Her mind suddenly recalled the sensation of Petyr’s small finger delving inside the forbidden orifice, coated with her own juices, causing her to peak violently while his fingers played between her nether lips. That was one pleasure she had never had the courage to share with her King, knowing full well he would be disgusted with her debauchery. Even Sarella had not heard of the way her body had betrayed her, of how the tremors had lasted for an eternity.  

Shuddering at the memory, wishing to enhance the pleasure at present, Sansa boldly reached down with one hand, her fingers splaying the lips of her cunt wide open. Stannis gave a hum of approval as her auburn curls were pushed to the sides, exposing her cunt fully, and sped up the movements of his tongue, flicking it back and forth across her center of pleasure. Exposed in such a crude manner, she could feel his beard scratching against her sensitive skin, adding to the overwhelming sensations of his tongue. She gave a heartfelt moan, bucking her hips, trying to bring him to the right place. He was only slightly off, but she desperately wanted his tongue a touch higher, and she preferred the circular movement, rather than the short, slightly punishing, back-and-forth.

The pleasure abated slightly, her peak pushed away by Stannis’ imprecise attentions. Her moan of frustration merely sounded desperate, and the man answered it with a growl, mistaking it for one of pleasure. “Oh please”, she found herself begging, longing for the sensations to mount up again, “I need circles, Stannis, please”. Her begging was barely coherent, but her lover seemed to understand. He paused for a second, readjusting his grip, before his tongue swept out again, rubbing glorious, gentle circles against her, her pleasure instantly resurging in a violent wave.

The wave crested and fell without her peaking, the pleasure rising only to fall back, but she knew it was inevitable. Once her body was properly primed, the peak became a certainty. The only variables were the time it took her to reach it and its’ eventual intensity. Stannis seemed to realize she was close as well, one hand abandoning its’ iron grip on her thigh to slip the tip of one long, thick finger between her lips. Sansa gasped, enjoying the slight stretch, and Stannis growled, pushing his finger fully inside.

Sansa knew her lover well enough to realize his intention was not to add further stimulus. In fact Stannis did not bother to move his finger, keeping it buried inside her, immobile. The simple truth was that Stannis enjoyed feeling her peak, relished the feel of her fluttering walls. When he used his mouth, rather than his cock, the man liked to slip a finger to feel her climax from within.

She was close, so close. His tongue was at the perfect spot, moving in perfect circles, and his finger only added to the pleasure. But even as her body tensed, even as her back arched and her pelvis thrust forward, Sansa knew she wanted something else. It was a struggle to open her eyes, to focus her gaze on her King, but when she saw the hunger in his eyes she knew that he, too, wanted a different end.

“Inside me”, she whispered hoarsely, breathlessly, her hands tangling in his remaining hair, pulling his face away from her center. Stannis closed his eyes and grunted, but hastened to push his body off the floor. Sansa caught a brief glimpse of his cock, fully hard and flushed a deep red, bobbing ridiculously as its’ owner moved over her on the bed. She smirked as he settled between her thighs, reveling in her power over the man. Not too old after all, Sansa thought smugly, feeling his hand fumble between them, grasping his stiff member and aligning it with her entrance.

At his first slow, firm push Sansa gasped and Stannis groaned, her extreme wetness quickly giving way to the blunt tip of his cock. He was careful this time, penetrating her gradually. It still stung as his length settled inside, but she was so close to her peak, so very wet, that the pleasure easily drowned out any discomfort. The pace he set was brutal, punishing, using small, jerking thrusts. He barely withdrew from her wet sheathe, choosing instead to ram against her, his hips churning against her. Blindly seeking her pleasure, and knowing he was doing the same, Sansa reached down with one hand to spread her lower lips open once more, exposing her nub fully. Every time Stannis thrust, his pelvic bone ground against her nub, sending a jolt of pleasure up her spine.

“Fuck me hard”, Sansa whispered in her lover’s ear, smiling as her words caused him to cry brokenly, keening into her hair. “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me”, she repeated, feeling her lover’s thrusts gain strength, knowing her words were bringing him quickly to his own end. He was panting desperately, his face red, his scowl present even as he was clearly lost in pleasure.

Leaning back against the mattress, Sansa closed her eyes and lifted her pelvis, focusing on the new waves of pleasure gathering in her pelvis, her arousal rising higher each time Stannis slammed violently against her exposed nub. The violence excited her, knowing she was the reason for the harsh King’s loss of control. She was close, so very, very close.

The sound of dim, insistent crying penetrated her ears, barely overheard over the rush of blood. She froze, her pleasure instantly forgotten, her ears trying to catch the sound again. Above her, Stannis continued to thrust wildly, clearly too overcome to notice her sudden tension. Another wail reached her ears, causing her to yelp in agitation.

“Stannis!” she cried out, uncaring that her voice came out as an alarmed shriek.

“Stannis, stop!” she reiterated, curling her hands into fists, pounding them against his broad chest.

The man above her halted, his eyes opening to seek hers, confusion evident in his bleary gaze. She found she did not care, her mind focused solely on her son’s cries. She pushed against him further, violently, until he pulled out, his cock making an obscene wet sound as it slipped from her cunt. He made no move to prevent her escape, allowing her to slip from beneath his body and rise from the bed. She rushed forward, grabbing his discarded doublet along the way as a cover, barely bothering to put it on before reaching for the door of her son’s nursery.

She returned to her room several minutes later with her son in her arms, already suckling from her left teat. The doublet she had carelessly thrown on was unbuttoned to free her teats, but it still offered some warmth and cover. Upon entering, she was greeted by the undignified sight of Stannis, dressed only in half-laced breeches, sitting on her small bed with a deep scowl on his face. His cock appeared to have remained mostly hard, smeared with her wetness, likely making the task of lacing his breeches most uncomfortable. The sight the King leveled at his son was rather venomous.

“He is just a babe, your Grace. I assure you he has no sinister plans against you”, Sansa found herself huffing in irritation, wincing as her son’s teeth scraped against her tender nipple. Stannis blushed hotly, his scowl less pronounced as he averted his gaze from the son to his mother.

“One day he will rise over my dead corpse to take my throne”, the King muttered darkly. “Some would say all firstborn sons have sinister plans for their fathers”.

She struggled not to lash out with a clever retort. Their coupling had not changed the nature of their disagreement, but it had helped to shift the power balance in her favor. She now knew that Stannis was still very much besotted with her, her sway over him only increased by the birth of his son. She had leverage here, and if she played her part well she had a small chance of winning. Idly, she noticed that the King’s cock was no longer quite so stiff. Always stalling for time, Alayne.

“Your base-born son cannot usurp you, not unless it is decreed by your very hand”, Sansa offered quietly, rearranging her oblivious son in her arms. He was a large boy, and he was growing so very heavy. Sarella had encouraged her to begin feeding Ned with soft food, mashed apples and such, in preparation for weaning. The Dornish Maester had warned her that her son will soon need more than her mother’s milk in order to grow strong, but Sansa was reluctant to lose the close bond with her child.

“I have every intention of legitimizing Ned, and naming him my heir”, Stannis answered gruffly, awkwardly tucking his flaccid cock inside his breeches before lacing them up. The strong muscles of his arms flexed as he moved, drawing her attention. Even half-naked, the King’s aura of strength was undiminished. Iron covered in flesh.

“Boy Lords are the bane of any house, let alone the throne”, Sansa kept her voice deceptively soft, her face a cool mask of indifference.

“I am hardly dying, woman”, Stannis’ jaw clenched, the sound of his grinding teeth too loud in the small room. “I have every intention of sitting upon my throne for many years to come”.

“And should your good intentions fail, what then?” It pained Sansa to utter the words, and it pained her further to see the brief expression of hurt which flashed across the King’s somber face. She had no desire to see the man she had come to care for perish before his time, but she was not so naïve as to ignore the possibility. “How long would your heir survive in that den of beasts without your protection?”

Stannis’ deep, blue eyes clashed with hers in a silent battle of wills, his desire to refute her words evident in their depths. Yet it was the King who looked away first, unable to bear the wrath of the Lady of Winterfell.

She balanced Ned in her arms, moving him from one teat to the other. Stannis followed her movements avidly, his gaze hungry as he took in the picture of mother and son. “He would succeed very well without his father’s guidance, if his mother will be there, by his side”, the King spoke quietly, his voice barely above a whisper; but Sansa heard him, and her heart broke.

Once upon a time, before King Robert had ridden into Winterfell, she had dreamed of being loved so utterly and completely by a man. Those were the dreams of a silly little girl, ignorant of the ways of the world, but she had cherished them dearly. The reality of being faced with a man who was nothing without his honor and duty, and yet was willing to set them aside for her, was overwhelming.

Stannis Baratheon was not the handsome young prince she had dreamed of. He was not the man she had prayed for, back when she believed in gods other than death and cruelty and opportunity. But he loved her with the fierce intensity of the sun, burning so hotly that she could no more deny his truth than deny the presence of the large, fiery orb in the sky.

My love, Sansa tasted the words in her mind, accepting them as truth. She would never utter those words aloud, would never give them voice. It was her own, private truth, to be kept hidden from everyone, especially her harsh King. They each had their duties; to their people, to the realm. She would never ask him to be less than he was, to diminish himself for her. No, she would love him by making him strong, by forcing him to do what was right. Our love will not be our doom.

“We are not made of dreams, you and I”, Sansa said truthfully, cradling her son closer, thinking that Ned was the only dream she had allowed herself in many years. Like all dreams, her boy would be ripped away from her eventually. “We have lived through enough horrors, and have committed our fair share of them as well. We know the value of truth, when it is being spoken plainly”. Stannis nodded his head in assent, his eyes still evading hers, focused on the suckling babe.

“I cannot go South with you, Stannis”, Sansa carried on, her words gaining confidence, gaining speed. “Your wife and Lords will hardly take kindly to a bastard, let alone if his Lady mother came to live in court as your mistress. Even my own Lords, loyal as they are, will take it as a grave insult should their Lady and Warden become the King’s kept concubine”.

Stannis bared his clenched teeth, his anger roused by her words, but she paid him no heed, allowed him no room to speak up. She already knew what he wished to propose, had already considered the matter from every possible angle. He wanted her for his wife, but neither of them could afford the risks.

“Setting Selyse aside will be too dangerous. Too many might rise to her cause. The Westerlands, the Reach, too many will see it as an opportunity… We have barely survived winter, we will not survive a rebellion”. Their eyes met and held, the deep ocean meeting the bright sky, sharing the dire truth of her words. “Our duty is to the realm, your Grace, and the realm is weak. It cannot be made to bleed again”.

“The realm will bleed if I cannot put a strong heir upon the throne”, Stannis’ words were blunt, but his voice was strained, his exhaustion evident in his sagging shoulders, in his heaving breaths. Her King was growing old, and tired. “I would make you happy if I could, Sansa, but I need our son. The realm needs our son”. A sad, simple truth, delivered in the sad, resigned voice of a defeated man. In that moment, had she asked for it, had she cried and pleaded, he would have let her keep her son. Her hard, unbending King, finally broken.

But she was as dutiful as he was, if not more so. “Our son will bear the name Baratheon, and he will sit upon the Iron throne when his time comes”, Sansa finally relented, voicing the words she knew the King longed to hear, mentally parting with the son she cherished more than life itself. “But he will be raised here, in Winterfell, far away from lions and vipers and roses”, her voice was firm, brooking no argument, and though Stannis opened his mouth to argue, he seemed to find no words.

“When he is older, ready to learn the ways of court, I will send him to you”, the words caught in her throat, each syllable scratching against her as though it refused to come out without a struggle.

“I will come for him when he is seven, my Lady, not a day older”, the King’s voice was firm, but his eyes shone brightly.

“I will part with him when he is four-and-ten, or not at all”, Sansa argued, feeling Ned stirring restlessly in her arms.

“Your brother was King at four-and-ten, as you so love to remind me”, the King’s expression turned dour, his jaw clenching.

“And my brother died, betrayed by his own sworn banners, as you so love to remind me”, Sansa allowed her voice to turn cold, tilting her chin in defiance. Love or no, the man had no right to use Robb against her.

Stannis huffed an annoyed breath, his teeth grinding in frustration. Simultaneously, Ned gave a small sob, his small face twisting in displeasure. Sansa’s attention reverted to her son, her argument with the King all but forgotten, bouncing the large babe up and down in her arms. Ned refused to be soothed, his second sob coming out strong and fierce. The boy began crying in earnest, his face turning a deep shade of red, and Sansa sighed heavily, exhaustion settling in her bones like lead.

“Woman, hand me my son”. She had not noticed Stannis rising from the bed, intent as she was upon her son, nor had she felt his presence as he approached her. But as she raised her eyes to meet his gaze she realized the King now stood mere feet from her, his arms outstretched to receive his son.

Sansa hesitated, even as she kept bouncing her son in her arms, her lips pressed to the crown of his black head, whispering comforting sounds. Aside from Osha, she had never allowed another soul to touch her son when he was so distraught. But she was tired, her arms aching from carrying Ned’s growing weight, and her soul weary from the tumultuous events of the night.

Slowly, hesitantly, she allowed the King to take her son, his strong arms easily closing around the boy, effortlessly lifting him to cradle against his broad, bare chest. Ned continued to cry, but Stannis did not seem to care. The King gazed down lovingly at his son, his body naturally assuming a gentle rocking motion to soothe the small child. Sansa stared, in awe, realizing she had never found Stannis more appealing than he seemed at this moment, cradling his son and appearing almost content. There was a gentleness in the King she had rarely seen, a serenity she had thought him incapable of.

Stannis raised his eyes to her face, his lips slightly upturned. Her confusion must have been written plainly on her face, because his expression merely broadened, becoming a proper smile. The first she had ever received from him.

“No one would touch Shireen when she was sick”, Stannis kept his voice low for Ned’s sake. “She was little more than a babe, a few moons older than Ned. She cried and cried, but the servants would not touch her for fear of the grayscale”. Ned gave a small cry, prompting his father to begin pacing about the room, all the while keeping his gentle rocking movements. Sansa followed the pair with wide eyes, unable to speak.

“I learned how to soothe her, eventually, though we sometimes spent the night traversing all over the castle”, there was a note of deprecation in Stannis’ voice, but his smile did not waver. The memories he shared with her were clearly precious to the man, and Sansa wondered whether the princess was aware of her father’s deep devotion. It saddened her to realize that Stannis would not have shared such a tale with his daughter, despite the fact that Shireen desperately sought proof of her father’s affection. My son will know that he is loved, Sansa determined, feeling the resolution burn within her chest.

Stannis moved to the door leading out into the corridor. Sansa followed him with a small frown, wondering at his intentions. The King freed one hand, cradling his son with the other, and pulled the heavy door open, allowing a cold breeze to enter the stuffy room. He stood in the doorway, cradling his crying son, and turned to face her.

“Go to sleep, my Lady”, Stannis urged her in his deepest tones, his voice coming out gruff despite his intentions. Sansa smiled indulgently at her lover, despite the unease his request stirred in her. “You must be exhausted, caring for our son and ruling the North at the same time. Even you, the indomitable Lady Stark, require sleep, and dawn is mere hours away”.

The idea of a warm bed was indeed appealing, but Sansa’s mind kept coming back to a single point. “I will part with Ned when he is ten, your Grace”, the Lady of Winterfell spoke with a tone of finality, her hands trembling at her sides even as she straightened to her full height, ignoring her ridiculous state of dress. She knew she looked regale, even so, knew she was the true Queen to this King, the only Queen he would ever bend before.

“Very well, my Queen”, Stannis relented without hesitation, his head tilting minutely in acceptance. His smile was gone, but his face was smooth, no lines of worry or anger carved into the harsh features. He breathed deeply and exhaled, seemingly at peace.

The King of Westeros, dressed only in his breeches, turned to leave with his son. Halfway through the turn the tall King paused, as if he was internally debating some matter of great importance.

“I do have dreams”, the King’s voice was rough, indicating his discomfort. Despite that, he turned to face her fully, his blue eyes meeting hers without fear.

“With every disappointment, with every failure, I tried to purge myself of the useless notion. I tried reasoning with myself that a highborn Lord, that a King, had no use for dreams.” The King paused with his mouth open, seemingly at a loss for words. Sansa closed her eyes, unable to bear the sight of her love, so lost and unsure. Tears were threatening to erupt, but she refused to cry a second time, forcing her eyes back open. She understood, instinctively, that at this moment her King needed her to be strong for the both of them.

“I never stopped dreaming of Proudwing”, Stannis admitted, though Sansa had no idea what Proudwing was. “I never stopped dreaming that Robert would love me as he did your father”, there was a wealth of resentment in that statement, a deep well of hurt which had festered over the years. “I never stopped dreaming that the people will want me as their King, and I fear…” the King paused again, his eyes moving away from hers, dancing over the room restlessly.

“I know”, the King corrected himself, his voice so deep it seemed more vibration than sound. “I know that I will never stop dreaming of you”. For one brief moment, his deep blue eyes held her own, his gaze wide open, his honesty and love shining in their depths like sapphires. Without another single word the King abruptly turned on his heel, and marched out of the room, leaving her utterly alone.

In a daze, Sansa made her way to the bed, discarding the unbuttoned doublet along the way. Numbly, she settled under the heavy blankets, shivering from the cold. Her ears tried to catch any sounds from the corridor, but the King and her son must have gone away, to afford her some much needed quiet. Sansa huddled over, curling her body into a small, tight ball of nerves. The tears were getting closer, and she knew soon enough she would not be able to stop them. Sleep was nowhere on her mind, though she knew she was well past the point of exhaustion.

I will never stop dreaming of you.

Chapter Text

Casterly Rock, the Great Hall, 317

My idea of Rickon

He was suddenly back in his body, with no clear memory of what had happened. Rickon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, surveyed the room through bleary eyes, his gaze finally coming to rest over the seated form of King Stannis Baratheon. Rickon could feel the wolf stirring in him, the blood-red madness which threatened to consume all else. He inhaled deeply, forcing his mind to calm down. The battle was evidently over, it was time to come back. How far have I gone this time?

“Welcome back, Lord Stark”, King Stannis’ deep voice rumbled like thunder in the large, seemingly empty hall. The King was dressed in his grey-plated armor, the metal hinges creaking softly as he passed an oiled piece of cloth over Heartsbane, meticulously removing all traces of blood. He was seated upon a great chair made of pristine white marble, the gilded backrest depicting a roaring, golden lion.

The large hall seemed to be a giant cave, the natural stone hidden by white marble paving. Great marble pillars rose from the marble floor to support the ceiling. At the top of each massive pillar was a golden lion headstone, the flaming torches illuminating the hall held between each lion’s open jaws. The white floor was painted crimson with blood, the thick liquid running in rivulets, spreading from the many dead bodies littering the hall.

It was a massacre of torn limbs and disemboweled guts. Most of the bodies wore the red of house Lannister, though very few had proper armor. These were the men of the household, Rickon realized with a start. Many looked much too old to bear arms, the others far too young, and all of them bore an expression of utter terror.

Rickon stared down in shame, noticing that he, like the somber King, was still dressed in his own armor. It had been a gift from Sansa, for his twentieth nameday. Originally, the steel plates had been white, with a grey wolf fashioned on each of his shoulders, its’ bared fangs biting into the breastplate. His armor was now painted with blood, and the wolf-head was missing from his right shoulder, which was aching terribly. Dislocated, the young Lord knew immediately, though he could not remember how and when he had sustained the injury. Possibly even fractured. 

“How long was I gone?” his mouth felt viscid, heavy, and Rickon struggled to pronounce the words. He tried to swallow, but the metallic taste make him sick. The taste of blood in Shaggydog’s mouth had always been pleasant and warm. In his own, human mouth, it was a foul thing.

Up in the Lannisters’ ancestral seat, Stannis scowled deeply at his Warden of the North, his hand pausing over Heartsbane. The King let go of the ragged cloth, soaked with oil and blood, and reached sideways and down to pick up a waterskin. He tossed it at the young Lord with a nod of his head, signaling Rickon to make use of it.

“It is not the ale you favor so much”, Stannis sounded reproachful, but Rickon hardly paid attention as his hands struggled clumsily to uncap the waterskin. The fingers of his right hand were mostly numb, and even the slightest movement of his arm was agonizing. “But it will wash away the blood in your mouth just as easily”.

Rickon took a deep gulp, grateful for the rejuvenating sensation of the cold, tangy water running down his throat, washing away the blood. What have I done? The young Lord thought in distress. His last clear memory was charging ahead of his men on top of his grey destrier, Shaggydog galloping at his side. They were to meet the far smaller Lannister host, charged with defending Lannisport. The King had given strict orders to advance no further, to allow the Lannisters to fall back and hole up in the great Keep. What have I done?

“Where is Shaggydog?” Rickon inquired instead, his voice gaining volume and confidence. He could feel his wolf, but dimly, as though from a great distance.

“Your pet has been confined to one of the underground cellars”, Stannis spoke dispassionately, but his scowl and glittering eyes spoke of anger. “It very nearly killed three of my men, and tore apart most of the bodies at your feet”.

“I apologize, your Grace”, the young Lord of Winterfell replied, unable to meet the King’s piercing gaze. He was keenly aware of the shame he had brought upon his House. He did not doubt that his bannermen will love the tale, spinning it into an even larger one. But the great Houses, and the King, were not likely to be similarly impressed. He had proven himself the savage they had always claimed he was, an uncivilized brute, unfit to rule. Fuck, what will Sansa say?

“You will look at your King when you ask for forgiveness”, the King ordered, a clear warning in his words. Responding to the threat, Rickon straightened his shoulders, jutting his chin and raising his eyes to the dour man. His right shoulder screamed in agony, but the young Lord refused to cringe. He hated Stannis Baratheon, who pretended to be so very righteous. He would show no weakness before the King, would not cower.

“I apologize, your Grace”, Rickon repeated slowly, his voice ringing in the empty cavern.

“Try not to look so defiant when you do so, Lord Stark”, Stannis advised in a menacing growl, his deep voice echoing deeper and stronger than Rickon’s higher pitch. Rickon bit the inside of his cheek, struggling to keep a civil expression. Fuck you, your Grace.

“Do you understand why I gave orders to allow Daven Lannister to retreat into the Rock?” Stannis inquired in a low voice, his scowl lifting momentarily as he considered the young northern Lord.

Rickon paused before answering, weighing down the possibilities. His sister’s voice rang in his mind, a warning he carried with him always. Know your enemy’s true motives, never assume they mirror yours. Rickon considered the King carefully, sitting tall and proud in the Lannisters’ ancient seat. The King had aged considerably in the seven years since they last met. Stannis was both balder and greyer, his beard more salt than pepper. But he seemed to be as fit as ever, as strong and hard and unrelenting as Rickon remembered him being when he was a child. He was a formidable foe. Know your enemy.

“You meant to give Lord Lannister a chance to surrender”, Rickon surmised slowly, watching the King’s weathered face closely. Stannis nodded minutely, wordlessly commanding his young Warden to go on.

“You wished to keep house Lannister alive, if possible. To subdue, rather than decimate”. It was a struggle for the young Lord to disguise the distaste he felt. Rickon did not share his sister’s gentler nature. He had been wild as a child, as Osha often sought to remind him, and his time with the Skagosi had done little to mellow his hot temper. Vengeance ran in his veins, deep and strong and throbbing. Sansa might feel guilty for the burning of the Twins, but had it been up to him, he would have burned them all- Freys, Greyjoys, Boltons, and Lannisters alike.

“You are now the second Stark to force me to witness the demise of an ancient and noble line under my rule”, the King’s deep blue eyes sparkled ominously, seemingly able to read Rickon’s murderous thoughts. “I will not take kindly to a third, Lord Stark; you have been warned”.

The wolf stirred in him, quick and vicious, responding to the slightest sign of danger. Elsewhere, deep in the underground cells of Casterly Rock, Shaggydog emitted a blood curling howl. “Are you threatening me and mine, your Grace?” Rickon’s accent deepened, his voice becoming a rough growl. “Are you threatening my sister and my nephew?” The young Lord of Winterfell demanded to know, his teeth bared in a manner alarmingly reminiscent of his wolf.

“Never”. The King’s voice remained calm in the face of his Warden’s insolence, but the muscles of his jaw moved convulsively under his thick black beard. His right hand had closed over the hilt of Heartsbane and Rickon knew, without a doubt, that the King would not hesitate to swing the deadly valyrian blade. “You would do well to remember, Lord Stark, that your nephew is my son”.

Rickon inhaled sharply, the sound echoing ridiculously, momentarily taken aback by the frank statement. He had always known who Ned’s father was, much to his private consternation, but neither his sister nor the King had ever spoken the words aloud. Rickon had come to hope that the King would never acknowledge his beloved nephew, would never seek to claim him as his own flesh and blood.

“My nephew is a Snow, a son of the North”, Rickon retorted venomously, smirking when the King visibly flinched. “You do not know him; he is nothing like you”. Stannis scowled deeply, his teeth grinding fiercely, but when he spoke next, his words took Rickon by surprise.

“What is my son like?” the harsh King of Westeros asked, his voice barely above a hoarse whisper. Rickon’s anger withered and died, the flame smothered by Stannis’ obvious yearning.

“He is a fine boy; clever, strong, and happy”, there was a note of smug pride in his voice, but Rickon refused to subdue it. Ned was undeniably a Baratheon- tall and broad for his age, with brilliant black hair and deep blue eyes. He had his father’s large, square jaw, but none of his dour personality. He was a clever boy, introspective and sometimes somber. But he was also undeniably charming, his mother’s natural grace always present in his mannerisms, in his handsome smile. He was well loved by the people of the castle, well loved by his uncle and his mother. Well loved by Shaggydog, who had embraced the human pup as his own from the very beginning.

“Good”, the King huffed distractedly, his posture relaxing. The man’s blue eyes wandered off, his piercing gaze becoming unfocused, seemingly lost in his own, private thoughts. Without his customary scowl, the King appeared much older, the lines in his face hinting at age, rather than anger. Discomfited by the sight, Rickon allowed the King a moment of peace, feeling an odd sense of kinship with the man he had grown up hating.

He had resented the King for having stolen so much of Sansa’s attention in his youth, for his obvious yearning for a woman who was not his wife, who was so much better than the dour King. But the King had not seen his sister in over seven years, and Rickon had stolen from the man something far more precious- his son’s childhood. He had been there when Ned had learned to walk, when he had learned to talk. He had been the one to place a wooden training sword in his nephew’s hands for the first time, had been the one to correct his stance and adjust his swing. Stannis Baratheon was Ned’s father, but it was Rickon Stark who held his nephew’s unconditional love. To Ned, Stannis was a southern King who mattered very little. It was a sobering realization, indeed.

The King seemed to come out of his reverie, his armor creaking softly as he moved about in his seat. As Stannis’ eyes found his own, the King’s infamous scowl returned, much to Rickon’s relief. Without it, the King had almost seemed a stranger to him.

“You are, undeniably, a talented fighter”, the King’s piercing blue eyes held his, his voice devoid of feeling, “but you are not half the strategist your sister is”. He was not being deliberately offensive, Rickon realized with a start. The King was merely expressing his honest opinion, and his unruly Warden was surprised to realize the older man’s opinion mattered to him.

“Go home, Lord Stark”, the King dismissed him, his attention already turning back to the sword in his lap. “And tell her that I require my Warden of the North to be better”.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Godswood, Winterfell, 320

Shaggydog, in his old age, preferred to spend most of his days in the godswood. Ever since they had returned from subduing the Lannister rebellion, three years prior, the massive direwolf had grown weary of the company of men. His closest friend had become the fiend he had always been accused of being, snarling and baring his teeth at anyone who was not a Stark by blood. The servants were terrified of him, and rightfully so.

Rickon approached the weirwood tree with slow, measured steps. The fallen leaves, reddish-brown and crisp, crunched under his supple leather boots, making his presence loud and clear. He had no wish to alarm either wolf or boy, and he could sense, through the bond he shared with his direwolf, that Shaggy was deeply affected by his human pup’s raging emotions.

The weirwood tree had continued to grow during the long winter, undisturbed by the cold. The trunk of the tree, now almost eight feet wide, was as white as bone. The face which had been carved into it by the children of the forest was red, and the eyes were weeping tears of crimson sap. Hello Bran, Rickon acknowledged his brother’s presence, his eyes rising to the treetop, where the red leaves rustled with an invisible wind. Are you crying for our nephew? Are you crying to see another Stark leave the North, never to return?

The roots of the tree had also grown, reaching forward, as if to reach the deep black pool. They were thick and gnarled, twisting on each other to create a wooden maze. Through the white roots, Rickon could glimpse Shaggy’s massive black form cuddled protectively around that of his nephew, as if the wolf was trying to conceal the boy from sight. It was a familiar picture, one he had often come across when Ned was upset. This will be the last time, Rickon realized sadly, feeling the turmoil radiating from his old friend. Direwolves have no place in the South.

“Go away!” Ned’s shout was muffled by the direwolf’s thick black fur. Despite the obvious grief, the boy’s voice was firm, with no hint of sobbing or sniveling. Good boy, Rickon thought fondly, tears will do you no good. They will gain you nothing, other than your father’s disdain.

“You will address your Lord with the proper respect”, Rickon spoke firmly, a hint of reproach in his voice. A memory stirred in him, vague and uncomfortable, of the King chastising him in a similar manner.

Shaggydog gave a small whine, torn between his master and his human pup. Rickon strengthened his resolve, making sure his voice betrayed no emotion when he spoke next. “Shaggy”, the Lord of Winterfell commanded in his harshest tone, his deepest accent, “come here”. Shaggydog cast him a questioning glance, his golden eyes reproachful, and the young boy emitted a small sound of dismay, his hands reaching out to tangle in the direwolf’s black fur.

Rickon waited a heartbeat, his grey eyes locked with his wolf, asserting his dominance. I am the head of House Stark, the leader of the pack, and I will not be disobeyed.  Another heartbeat passed, and Shaggydog gave another whine of protest. But the old direwolf, his brilliant black coat now peppered with white, stood up and walked away from his distraught charge, slow and reluctant, to his master’s side.

Without his beastly shield, his nephew uncurled his body and rose to his feet as well. Ned had always been big and strong for his age, and it was easy sometimes to forget how young he truly was. Bran was eight when Robb rode south to war, Rickon recalled, feeling his gut turn to ice. Direwolves have no place in the South.

Looking at his nephew, Rickon felt unbridled pride at Ned’s rigid posture, the proud jut of his chin. His deep blue eyes were slightly red, but his face was dry, not a hint of shed tears or a runny nose. Sansa was a loving mother, but she had always been demanding of her son, and the boy had never failed to meet her expectations. Ned was shown none of the leniency that had been Rickon’s share as a child. He was expected to be calm and collected, courteous and well read, brave and loyal. My sister could not find her perfect knight, so she gave birth to one.

“Who are you?” the Lord of Winterfell asked in his deepest voice, following his nephew’s face closely as he frowned in confusion. It was an expression he had inherited from his mother, and it spoke of misunderstanding, confusion, and no small amount of frustration. On Sansa, it was oddly charming, but on his nephew- ridiculous. Rickon struggled to contain an amused chuckle.

“I’m Ned Snow, your nephew”, the boy’s voice was hesitant, and Rickon scowled and shook his head, expressing his displeasure. It was not the correct answer, and it was time the boy realized how much his circumstances were about to change.

“No, and don’t you dare use that name within earshot of your father”, Rickon warned, imagining how Stannis would scowl and grind his teeth. “So tell me boy, who are you?”

Ned straightened to his full height, and pushed his shoulders back. Such a brave boy. “Prince Eddard Baratheon”, Ned’s voice rang clear and strong across the clearing, the boy’s eyes shining brightly as he spoke. It was strange to hear the words spoken aloud by his nephew, and stranger still to recognize their full meaning. A bastard yesterday, a prince today, and someday- a King. The Lord of Winterfell nodded encouragingly to signal his approval, and stepped forward, to kneel before his future King.

With Rickon on his knees, Ned stood slightly taller than his uncle, and the boy’s eyes peered down in confusion as two strong arms grasped his shoulders in an iron grip.

“Good”, Rickon smiled sadly, his voice breaking. “Good boy”. His knew his grip had to be painful, but Ned bore it without so much as a grimace, and Rickon found he was too desperate to let go. “Now, Prince Eddard Baratheon, who am I?”

Ned barely hesitated, bearing the smile of a child who knew the correct answer. “You are Lord Rickon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North”, there was a note of triumph in his voice, and Rickon relented, chuckling indulgently.

“And?” the Lord of Winterfell prompted, giving his nephew a small shake. Ned frowned briefly, but seemed to find the answer quickly enough. “You are my Lady mother’s brother, my uncle, and you will always keep us safe”.

It was an old vow, but one Rickon had repeated each and every day for the past ten years. Some nights he said it aloud, mostly when his nephew had a bad dream and was distraught. Other times he would whisper it as a private reminder, carving the words deep into his heart. He was the Red Wolf of Winterfell, the savage Lord feared across the seven kingdoms for his ferocity, and he would keep his family, his pack, safe.

“Good boy”, Rickon choked the words out, his voice gruff with thick emotion. “Never forget this moment, never forget these words”, the Lord of Winterfell insisted, using his grip to shake the boy, willing his young nephew to realize the depth of his conviction. He rose to his feet, towering over the young boy, his hands never leaving Ned’s shoulders. “You will never be alone, you will never be helpless. I will always be your uncle, I will always be there to keep you safe. You give the word, and I will slay every man from the Wall to Dorne in your name, I swear it”.

Ned frowned up at his uncle, his deep blue eyes troubled. “Is this what love is?” the boy wondered, his mouth twisting in displeasure. “If you love someone, does it mean you would kill for them?”

The Lord of Winterfell stared for a long moment at his nephew, and burst out laughing. Ned’s frown deepened into a scowl, an expression he rarely wore, accentuating the similarities between the boy and his stern father. The sight calmed Rickon down, reminding him of the King’s impending arrival.

“Killing is not very difficult, Ned”, the Lord of Winterfell admitted in a somber voice, hoping his nephew will know better than to repeat the words to his Lady mother. Sansa will have my head. “Killing a man is an act of savagery, and it has nothing to do with love. Loving someone means you would risk anything for them, including yourself. Loving someone means you put their well-being above your own”.

Ned nodded slowly, obviously struggling to make sense of his uncle’s strange mood. Rickon smiled sadly, and ran his hand through Ned’s brilliant black hair. His fingers got snared by hidden tangles, and Ned cried out in dismay when Rickon pulled on them, attempting to pull his fingers free.

“You, boy, are unfit to meet a King, and your Lady mother will be very cross”, Rickon sniffed in faux dismay, though his smile remained. Ned ducked swiftly to the side, escaping his uncle’s unresisting grip, but Rickon caught a glimpse of Ned’s handsome, easy smile as the boy flew past him. The love he felt for the boy filled him, sudden and overwhelming, constricting his chest and throat. Bran, Rickon found himself turning back to the Heart tree, seeking his brother’s presence. Will he get to grow old? Will he be safe?

Try as he might, Rickon could not feel the delicate tremor that signaled his brother’s presence, and the Heart tree had ceased to weep, watching him instead with dead, red eyes. Uncomfortable under the tree’s scrutiny, the Lord of Winterfell turned to watch his nephew’s departure.

Boy and wolf walked side by side, the wolf a good head taller than Ned. Ned’s right hand was buried in Shaggy’s scruff, his skinny arm outstretched to reach the wolf’s nape. All around the pair, the trees of the Godswood were shedding their green leaves, defying the summer which reigned over them. The trees of the Godswood were weeping, mourning the imminent loss. Ned kept walking, oblivious. Such a brave boy.

“Are you coming, uncle?” Ned shouted over his shoulder, his face half turned, his smile painfully evident.

Always, Rickon thought vehemently, trailing behind his nephew and his direwolf in a daze. I will always come when you call for me.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Lord’s Solar, Winterfell, 320

It was too good to last, the Lord of Winterfell lamented, watching the King settle awkwardly into the seat Rickon had come to think of as belonging to Sansa. Seven years have passed since his sister had stepped down from her duties on his seventeenth nameday, relinquishing her roles as ruler of the castle and Warden of the North. Back then, Rickon had been fearful of the change, fearful of the vast responsibility, but most of all- he had been terrified by the possibility of letting Sansa down.

In the end, very little had changed. On the morning following his nameday feast, they had met in the Lord’s solar as they did every morning for over five years. When Rickon had entered Sansa had gracefully vacated the large, comfortable wooden chair which had served her for years, wordlessly encouraging him to take the Lord’s seat behind the Lord’s desk. But she had continued to sit with him every day, giving him guidance and council in her pleasant, calm tone. Sansa was his Hand, his conscience, his moral compass. He had curbed his blood lust solely for her, had learnt discipline and patience for her. Had become a proper Lord for her, so that she would be left alone, to raise the son she loved in peace.

It was too good to last, Rickon knew, but the knowledge did not dull the ache in his chest, did not help calm the rabid beast inside, which demanded to lash out. He was losing his family, again. He was no longer a helpless child, lost and confused and unable to stop them from leaving him. He was the Lord of a great house, a Warden with the strength of the entire North rallied behind him. But they were still leaving him, always leaving. Ned was bad enough, but to lose her…

“You can have no doubt as to why I am here”, Stannis’ voice was quiet and steady, his blue eyes appearing like two black, ominous orbs in the dim candlelight. Rickon had sought solitude when he had come up to his solar from the feast, and had not bothered to light more than a few sparse candles, content to dwell in the darkness. The flickering light cast dancing shadows on the King’s features, accentuating the deep lines on his brow and between his eyes, making him look like a stony gargoyle.

Stannis, who had ridden into Winterfell wearing black traveling wear more befitting a brother of the Night’s Watch than a King, had made an obvious effort to appear presentable for the feast held in his son’s honor. He had trimmed his black-and-grey beard carefully, and had donned clothes of the finest quality, though every stitch of clothing the man wore was black. It would have befitted a King mourning the loss of his wife, had Rickon for one second believed the King to be truly bereft.

Rickon had only met the Queen once at Riverrun, very briefly, when he had been no more than seven. His impression of the woman had not been favorable. Selyse Baratheon was an ugly woman, and her expression of constant displeasure greatly enhanced her unattractive features. Her ears were comically large, her moustache alarming, and her manners haughty and cold. Worse of all, in his young mind, the Queen treated his sister with barely concealed disdain, despite Sansa’s noble heritage and her standing as the King’s strongest ally.

Even at a time when he had been uncertain whether he could fully trust his sister, Rickon had instinctively recoiled from a woman who was so clearly intent on harming a member of his pack. He had been more wolf than human back then, after all.

Why Selyse had insisted on accompanying her husband on his journey to Winterfell to claim his bastard son was beyond the young Lord’s understanding, and quite frankly, he hardly cared. Unlike his sister, who had paled considerably when they had learnt of the news, Rickon did not feel the woman had posed a threat to his beloved nephew. When he had sent his mind down the kingsroad in his dreams, he found a brittle, weak soul, its’ light almost burnt out. Selyse had been dying, and her insistence to travel North had hastened her death.

The last time Rickon’s mind had passed over the large wheelhouse where the Queen of Westeros lay dying, he had sensed a deep, unquenchable yearning, and bitter regret. Deep down, Rickon strongly suspected Selyse had been starved for a son of her own. Given the chance, she would have embraced Ned as hers, willingly raising him as her own. Naturally, he did not share his musings with his sister, knowing full well the pain his words would cause her. Besides, his sister was not fond of his strange ‘gifts’, as she called them, finding them unnatural and unnerving.

He had felt nothing over the Queen’s death, neither sorrow nor joy. Life was a fickle thing, something the Red Wolf of Winterfell understood only too well. Since Selyse was in no way a part of his pack, the wolf in him had remained uninterested, dormant. But only until he fully recognized the implications of the damn woman’s death earlier this evening, when the King had done something unheard of, and had asked the Lady Stark to dance.

“You have come to propose a marriage”, Rickon growled bitterly at the King, hiding his grimace behind the rim of his cup. The red arbor gold which had filled it once was long gone, and Rickon regretted the poor choice not to take a flagon with him when he had escaped from the Great hall.

“Yes”, the King stated simply, his thin lips pressed into a grim line. The shadows danced across the King’s massive, square jaw, and the sound of his grinding teeth filled the room. Gods, how I loathe the sound.

He should have known, should have seen it coming. Stannis was a greedy, self-righteous man, and he considered Sansa as his, regardless of the impropriety. The King had wanted to claim Sansa for his own, had lusted after her for years. Now that the obstacle of his wife had been removed, and the threat of ridicule no longer loomed above him, the King had come to claim his heart’s desire.

In truth, the Lord of Winterfell never fully understood Sansa’s strange bond with the harsh King that had resulted in Ned’s conception. Stannis had always seemed old in Rickon’s eyes, always bitter. The King struck him as empty, almost achingly hollow.

Grudgingly, the young Lord had been forced to adjust his perception somewhat after seeing the King interact with his son earlier in the evening. Stannis was so visibly relaxed in Ned’s presence, and Rickon suspected he even caught a ghost of a smile gracing the man’s thin lips when the boy slowly overcame his shyness. There was a hidden depth of emotion in the man, and it shone brightly in his deep blue eyes whenever he gazed down at his son and heir.

“You will refuse your King?” Stannis demanded to know, slighted by Rickon’s continued silence. Rickon leaned back in his chair, and sighed deeply, struggling to conceal his restlessness. Out in the Godswood, he knew, Shaggydog was on the prowl. There will be bloodshed tonight, and a violent death, in retaliation for this very moment.

Stannis’ words, in the end, hit the crux of the matter. Rickon was the head of house Stark, and as such held the right to choose Sansa’s husband. It was a right not even the King himself could ignore. Even after Ned’s birth, with the shame of a bastard hanging over her head, Sansa had never lacked ardent suitors. Too many were willing to put aside their pride for the most beautiful woman in Westeros, or at least- they were desperate enough for her dowry. Rickon had gained no small pleasure from refusing all of them, as rudely as he possibly could. The gleam in his sister’s Tully blue eyes had let him know that Sansa, too, was well pleased by his actions, though verbally she had often chastised him for being unnecessarily abrasive.

Rickon suddenly realized, much to his surprise, that he had never asked Sansa explicitly whether she wished to find a husband or not. Despite the siblings’ deep affection, despite the long hours they spent together each day, certain subjects were never broached in his sister’s presence. Rickon had always assumed, based on instinct and Sansa’s subtle cues, that his sister looked unfavorably upon the prospect of marriage. He had always believed, selfishly, that his sister wished to remain in Winterfell, with Ned, with him, forever. She is my pack, my family, my blood.

But refusing the King outright, for no good reason, was not a simple matter. Stannis had been King now for almost twenty years, and his reign remained unchallenged. The boy who had masqueraded as Aegon Targaryen had perished from the grayscale, a plague he had unwittingly unleashed all over the Stormlands. His army of sellswords had perished as well, and the possible union with house Martell had crumbled when Princess Arianne, Doran’s eldest daughter and heir, had succumbed to the plague along with her mummer’s dragon.

As for the Mother of Dragons… Rickon shied away from those thoughts. Jon had traveled across the narrow sea in search of his aunt, and through their bond Rickon had gleaned pieces and scraps of information. It was hard to see across the water, and it became harder yet when Jon began to change, becoming more dragon than wolf. Daenerys Stormborn seemed content to rule over the free cities, her reign enforced by three fully grown dragons and the largest Dothraki khalasar the world has ever seen. She had not come across the water, not even when the army of the White Walkers threatened to wipe out all of the Seven Kingdoms. It was highly unlikely she would ever seek to reclaim her family’s rightful seat.

“No”, Rickon hastened to spit the word out when he noticed the King open his mouth. Never had a word tasted so bitter on his tongue. “I will not refuse my King”.

Stannis seemed surprised, his eyes widening briefly before his permanent scowl returned. Rickon scoffed humorlessly at the King’s expression. Did the man honestly believe I could refuse him? Rickon wondered incredulously, searching the King’s face for further hints. But Stannis’ mask was back in place, and the familiar lines of anger yielded no great secrets. 

“Do I have your permission to wed your sister?” Stannis inquired in a suspicious tone, seemingly in need of further reassurance. For the first time in his life, Rickon felt the urge to grind his teeth in frustration.

“I will not object”, Rickon admitted bitterly, feeling the wolf stirring inside. “But I will not force my sister to wed against her wishes either”.

“That sounds suspiciously like a refusal, Lord Stark”, the King growled, his scowl deepening further.

“No”, Rickon repeated firmly, running a shaky hand through his wild auburn hair. “But my sister deserves a better fate than that of a highborn Lady. She has earned the right not to be wed and bred like livestock. Sansa has the right to refuse you, if she so wishes, and I will honor her decision”.

“Even if it means war?” Stannis’ voice was deceptively soft, but the threat almost caused the young Lord to lunge at the King with his bare hands. His pulse quickened, his muscles coiling tight, and Rickon had to forcibly restrain himself from lashing out in violence. This man is Ned’s father, and the King. Sansa will never forgive me if I tear his throat out.

“Will you force her to marry you against her will?” the Lord of Winterfell asked, with honest curiosity. “She is the mother of your son and heir; do her wishes truly matter so little?”

Stannis leaned back, his scowl momentarily gone, and his eyes were appraising. It seemed as if the King was seeing him properly, taking his measure, for the first time. The silence engulfed them, long and oppressive, but Rickon could sense the shift in balance. Unwittingly, he had managed to tip the scales in his favor.

“No”, the King finally admitted in his deep, rumbling voice. “I will not force Lady Stark to marry me, if she will choose to refuse my proposal”.

Rickon sighed in relief, feeling the oppressive weight lift from his chest. The King gave a curt nod, and Rickon returned the gesture, knowing their conversation was at an end. Stannis stood up and Rickon followed his example, dismayed as ever to acknowledge that even as a fully grown man, Stannis easily towered over him. He was suddenly struck by the realization that Ned would very likely grow to be as tall as his father. Another thought, even more startling, followed. If the man marries Sansa and makes her his Queen, she would never have to part with Ned.

The King was already at the door, his hand on the handle, when Rickon blurted out his question.

“Do you truly believe she might refuse you, your Grace?” the Lord of Winterfell cringed at his childish, hopeful question. It was highly improper, and Sansa would have scolded him fiercely had she been present.

Stannis paused, but did not turn to face his young Warden. “It is a likely possibility. Lady Stark loves Winterfell dearly, and has refused every other suitor in the past”, the King sounded strangely calm, but even in the dim light Rickon could see how his hand tightened over the door handle. There was so much tension in the man, stemming from his deeply rooted insecurities.

“You are the father of her son”, Rickon insisted, suddenly eager to ask the questions he had never uttered. “She has risked ruin and shame to be with you, to give birth to Ned. Does she not love you?”

“Love me?” the King’s snort of derision was utterly unexpected. The tall King let go of the door handle, and finally turned to face Rickon. Stannis’ customary scowl had been replaced by a lost, seemingly desperate expression.

“Your sister hardly knows me, Lord Stark. We have not seen one another for nay on a decade. She certainly does not love me”, Stannis’ voice was bitter, full of resentment.

“Does that mean you do not love her?” Rickon smirked when the King visibly flinched, though his satisfaction was short lived. If the King could love his sister across such a long span of time, was it not possible that Sansa was similarly devoted to her harsh lover? Was it not possible that his sister truly loved this austere, harsh man?

“Lady Stark loves her son”, the King evaded the question clumsily, voicing a truth that could not be denied. Sansa loved Ned more than anything. “If nothing else, perhaps her desire to stay close to her son will convince her to bear me as a husband”.

Long after the King had departed, Rickon remained in his seat, staring into the flickering flame of a single candle. Even after the flame had gutted out, casting complete darkness over the room, the Lord of Winterfell did not move from his seat. Out in the woods, miles and miles away, Shaggydog was feasting on the flesh of a buck, and the taste of warm blood flooded his mouth, causing the young Lord to salivate. Only you and I, old friend, Rickon formed the thought through the haze of bloodlust surging from his direwolf. There was comfort to be found there, but hidden behind it was a sense of loneliness Rickon had almost forgotten. No pack, no family. He was the Red Wolf of Winterfell, and he was alone. In the end, it will always be just you and I.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

His trance was broken by a gentle hand on his shoulder. Rickon struck, quick and instinctive, his hand closing over a delicate wrist and twisting. A feminine sound of distress served to fully bring him back to his own body. Gasping desperately for breath, Rickon recognized the sound of his sister’s pain. He let go of her hand, struggling to regain his bearings, feeling a terrible headache beginning to form.

“Have you been here all night?” Sansa’s tone was reproachful, and she sniffed the air in dismay. “You reek of sweat and wine”, his sister remarked, taking a step back, giving him some much needed space.

Rickon inhaled deeply, and forcibly opened his piercing grey eyes, willing his body to adjust. It had been years since he had spent so much time inside his wolf, and the sensation of being back in his own body was decidedly jolting. Everything felt wrong, the colors were not quite right, and the smells… the smells were almost gone. Rickon sighed again, rubbing at his aching temples with shaking hands. He felt like shit.

“I was… not here”, the young Lord managed to vocalize, his voice little more than a rasp. Rickon tried to swallow, only to realize his mouth was as dry as a desert. Sansa nodded minutely, accepting the bizarre explanation with her natural grace, and assumed her customary seat. The seat that had so recently been occupied by the King. The King who had come to take his family away.

“I presume Stannis found you last night”, Rickon offered in a neutral tone, finally regaining some of his composure. Sansa arched an eyebrow at his bluntness, but Rickon could not bring himself to care. His bones were aching, which was a new thing. He was too young to be feeling so old, but perhaps a night spent in a chair had not been his smartest idea.

“The King had requested an audience with me, which I granted”, his sister replied in a measured tone, not a hint of emotion on her fair features. Rickon surveyed his sister from head to toe, trying to ascertain her state of mind. Even past the age of thirty, his sister was very, very beautiful. Her eyes, ordinarily so blue and warm, seemed almost grey to him, and her hair seemed to burn in a copper hue. Perhaps it was her dress, the color of a steely stormy sky, creating the effect. Or perhaps I need some time to recover, the young Lord thought miserably. Perhaps I’m simply going mad.

His grace has made you an offer”, Rickon stated mockingly, knowing his words to be fact. His sister gave him one of her graceful little nods, but did not speak. Rickon’s headache pounded at him, and his patience wavered.

“And?” the Lord of Winterfell prompted with a growl, fully aware of his rudeness. Sansa’s eyes met his, her stare cold and determined. His beautiful sister, suddenly made of ice.

Sansa’s voice was deceptively soft when she finally replied, but Rickon heard the steel singing in her words. “He was refused”.

“Why?” the question escaped his lips before he could reconsider, impulsive and rash. Sansa sighed deeply, shaking her head in dismay. Her long auburn locks swayed gently with the movement, a flowing wave of fire. Rickon sunk down in his chair, closing his eyes against the dissonance of colors. The Lord of Winterfell realized he ought to be feeling… happiness? Relief? He hardly knew at the moment. He was not fully himself, too much of the wolf was still awake in him, and his ability to sort out his emotions was impaired.

“Because I will not leave my brother alone”, Sansa murmured softly, but her chin was jutted in defiance, and her eyes sparkled with simmering anger. It was an expression they shared, as siblings, and from both of them it was a warning sign, hinting at a limit which should never be crossed.

“But you would leave your son?” Even as he spoke, Rickon knew he was crossing his sister’s unspoken limit, uttering the most hurtful accusation imaginable. Sansa bore many of his shortcoming with admirable grace, but she had little patience for poor manners, and none for those who dared push her.

“My son will have his father”, Sansa replied firmly, her full lips pressed together, as though her answer settled the matter.

“A dour man, emotionally stunted, prone to anger”. The words were not true, even Rickon did not believe in them anymore, but he had been repeating them for so many years…

But when the Lady Stark was pushed, she eviscerated you in retaliation. “And you are a childish savage, who hides behind his wolf whenever he faces difficulty”, the strike was delivered in the coldest tone he had ever heard from his sister, and it pierced his chest as easily as any blade.

The wolf was silent. There was no anger, no vicious cry for revenge. Rickon closed his eyes, unable to meet his sister’s piercing eyes. Unable to bear the utter contempt in her gaze.

“I am sorry”, the young Lord whispered brokenly. He did not know what more to say.

His sister was silent, but Rickon could hear her skirts rustling softly as she rose from her seat and moved about the room. When he reopened his eyes he found his sister by the window, looking out into the yard beneath them. Her long, graceful figure was rigid, her shoulders hunched over as she embraced herself protectively.

“Sansa, I am so, so sorry”, Rickon repeated, hearing the pleading note in his voice.

“I know, Rickon”, Sansa’s voice was distant, and she refused to look at him. The young Lord watched as his sister silently gathered her bearings, straightening her back and regaining her composure. My beautiful sister, made of ice.

“When Lord Seaworth brought you back from Skagos, you could barely speak”, Sansa’s pleasant voice was unsteady, and she kept her eyes focused resolutely away from him. “I looked at you, a savage little monster, the last of my family, and thought to myself- ‘I am truly alone’”.

It was hard for him to remember, hard for him to think back. The Skagosi had encouraged his abilities, and his loneliness had caused him to seek Shaggy’s mind over and over. He had spent more time in his direwolf’s skin than he did his own, before the onion knight had come to take him away. It had been so hard for him, back then, to remain in his own body, to remain human. He had done it for Sansa’s sake. He had done it because of the sad, desperate look she had in her eyes, whenever she looked at him. The same look he was seeing now, as she finally turned to face him.

“You proved me wrong, Rickon. You proved to me that as long as you live, I will always have a family”.

Rickon struggled to speak, wanting to reassure her, but the words refused to come out.

“You… You live on the borderline”, Sansa gestured vaguely with one delicate hand, as if plucking her words out of thin air. “Halfway between my world and Brans’, somewhere between the game of thrones the Lords play and the green dreams of the Children of the Forest”.

Rickon could feel his gut twist, could feel his cheeks heating up. He had always assumed Sansa was willingly blind to his gifts, that she had no true concept of the depths he could fall into. He was ashamed to realize how much his sister must have agonized over him, how much grief he must have caused her.

“You think I would abandon you… You are afraid I would lose myself in the dream, in the wolf?” the Lord of Winterfell inquired incredulously. Did she not know, did she not understand, that he would never abandon her? Never abandon Ned?

“If I were to accept the King’s offer, if I were to leave you alone and travel south with Ned, would you still resist the call? Would you be able to stay tethered to this world, without our presence to bind you?” Sansa’s tone was not accusatory, but rather soft and imploring. His sister was staring at him with her blue eyes shining brightly, full of water. Full of unshed tears, Rickon realized.

“I…” the Lord of Winterfell started, intent on assuring her of his competence, but faltered midway. “I don’t know, Sansa”, he answered instead, truthfully, and watched as a single tear escaped its’ prison and ran down his sister’s rosy cheek. “I try, I honestly do. I know I have my duties, to Winterfell, to the North, to my bannermen, to my family…”

“But the call is too strong”, Sansa offered as he trailed off, nodding in understanding. “Sometimes you cannot stop it from happening”.

“Yes, sometimes. But sister, you must never doubt me when I promise you: I will always come back for you, for Ned. Always”, Rickon rose swiftly from his seat, ignoring the nausea in his stomach and the headache pounding at his temples. He reached Sansa in three long strides, easily gathering her unresisting body into his embrace. His sister threw her hands around his neck, exerting a surprising amount of force. Rickon exhaled quickly, but hurried to embrace her just as tightly, his strong arms closing around her slim waist like an iron band.

“Always, Sansa”, he whispered into his sister’s auburn hair, pressing a gentle kiss against it. Sansa gave a small sob, but refrained from openly crying, much to Rickon’s relief. Instead, brother and sister remained frozen in place for a long moment, taking comfort in each other’s presence.

At last, Sansa relaxed her strong grip, and pushed herself away from her brother’s embrace. The two siblings stood a breath away, taking each other in. Sansa’s eyes were red, but no more tears were forthcoming. Even so, Rickon reckoned his sister was still the most beautiful woman in Westeros. Even when she cried, Sansa did so gracefully.

“Someday, when you have a wife and children of your own to keep you in my world, I might feel safe enough to leave you”, Sansa was wearing a small, encouraging smile, and her voice was low and soft. “But until such a day arrives, it is you who must never doubt me when I promise you: I will always be here for you, Rickon”.

“You will not go, even if means sacrificing your happiness?” Rickon furrowed his brow, concerned over the price his sister was willing to pay to stay by his side. I am selfish, her staying here would be cruel… Still, he could not find the words to tell her to leave.

“Oh, so now you think my happiness can be guaranteed by a dour man, who is emotionally stunted and prone to anger?” His sister teased him in her lilting tone, her smile broadening, and Rickon could feel himself blush as red as his hair. He had behaved abominably, to be sure.

“You happiness is Ned, sister”, Rickon chastised her softly, watching sadly as the smile slipped from her lips. “Wherever he goes, you should follow”.

Sansa was quiet for a long moment, her gaze drifting back to the window, the blue of her eyes meeting the blue of the sky. There was longing written plainly on his sister’s fair features, along with an iron resolution. His sister had made up her mind.

“And perhaps, one day, I will. But not today”, His sister’s tone was final, brooking no argument. Rickon was deeply ashamed by the intense relief her words gave him. He should have been stronger, should have been able to encourage her to pursue her heart’s desire. Instead he was clinging to her skirts, forcing her to stay. Too afraid to let her go.

His sister patted him briefly on his cheek, her delicate hand brushing against the day-old stubble. Her smile was sad, but true, and Rickon lowered his head in shame, away from the gentle touch, unable to seek comfort when he felt so unworthy.

His sister made to leave, her skirts rustling as she began to turn away from him, when Rickon’s hand closed over her delicate wrist once more.

“I will be better, Sansa, I promise”, Rickon was filled with a burning need to assure her, a fiery resolution to be worthy of her sacrifice. A memory stirred in him, an echo. Tell her I require my Warden of the North to be better. Was that the reason for Stannis’ continued dismay with him? Did the King instinctively know that Sansa would not leave him?

“I will not stand between you and your happiness forever”, the Lord of Winterfell vowed solemnly, willing his sister to see the honesty in his grey eyes.

Sansa nodded slowly, once, and Rickon was forced to let her go. He would make amends, someday. It was enough, it had to be enough, for now.