Ser Garlan Tyrell and his companions arrive at Winterfell when the sun is high in the sky. The early spring sunlight turns the castle to glowing gold and lustrous silver, interspersed with patches of darkness – the rough granite used in the rebuilding process. Once perfect, Winterfell has become like the North itself: piecemeal, battle-scarred, held together only by the iron will of Sansa Stark.
Ser Garlan, despite himself, finds that when he stands in the Great Hall of Winterfell, his mouth is quite dry and there is a constriction in his throat. He knew Sansa Stark when she was a slip of a girl, a terrified thirteen-year-old in Kings Landing, lovely but fragile, her every step haunted by King Joffrey. Joffrey, who they now call the Abomination, who leered horribly at the Stark girl at her wedding to the Imp, and if the stories are true, set his Kingsguard to strip and beat her before the whole court.
Back then, Garlan had felt a deep pity for Sansa Stark, forlorn and helpless. But now Joffrey is dead, the marriage between Lady Stark and Tyrion Lannister is annulled, and the Imp is Hand to High Queen Daenerys. And the once-terrified girl sits before Garlan on the throne of the Kings of Winter, red hair down past her waist, a band of steel about her brow, draped in furs and white wool, her face perfect and remote and pale, a sculpture of ice. At her right hand stands Brienne of Tarth, at her left Alysane Mormont, at her feet lies a gigantic grey direwolf: the three famous bodyguards from the songs.
When he kneels, it is as much instinct as it is courtesy. The North may have been devastated by the Others, it may have been forced to ally with wildlings and been brought near bankruptcy, Winterfell may be only a shadow of its former glory, but – Sansa Stark. Sansa Stark was all that stood between the North and obliteration, was all that sustained them through a five-year winter of war and starvation, and though she wears no diamonds or silks, the Queen in the North is every inch as majestic as the High Queen in King's Landing.
She is nineteen years of age, daughter to Ned Stark, sister to the Young Wolf, cousin to the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, comrade-in-arms to the Dragon Queen, scion of an eight thousand year old line, the Rose of Winterfell, the Angel of the North. She is a living legend.
He kneels on the cold stone floor, as Greatjon Umber announces him, feeling his cheeks burn under her gaze, waiting.
After what seems like an age, a voice rings out, "Rise, Ser."
He gets to his feet, murmurs, "Your Grace."
When he dares meet her eyes – blue as the roses blooming over the castle walls – he sees that though she does not smile, her expression is mild. Far milder than he had feared. This is, after all, the same woman who had Brienne of Tarth take the heads of Petyr Baelish, Black Walder Frey, Ryman Frey, and every Frey man who was present at the Red Wedding. The same woman who sent her army to encircle the Dreadfort with Roose Bolton and Ramsay Snow inside, burn it to the ground, and sow the earth where it stood with salt. The same woman who set her direwolf on Euron Greyjoy, who stood unflinching at the top of the Wall before the onslaught of wights and Others, who stared down the three Targaryen dragons, who knelt to Daenerys but kept her crown, who personally sailed to the shores of Skagos to retrieve her brother.
Garlan knew the girl, but he does not know the woman. And if his grandmother, his sister, and his High Queen have taught him anything, it is that sometimes it is prudent to fear a woman.
So he does not speak further until Sansa Stark says, "Ser Garlan, you have travelled far to reach us. Pray tell me what brings a knight of the Reach to Winterfell."
He wets his lips, clears his throat. "Your Grace ... many years ago, my late grandmother, the Lady Olenna, spoke to you of marriage, of a wedding to my brother Willas. Since then –" he falters. To say there is water under the bridge since then is a vast understatement. Suddenly he feels incredibly foolish, standing before the Queen in the North and expecting her to remember conversations that took place in the court of Queen Cersei the Harlot, a lifetime ago. Damn my father and his never-ending quest for grandeur.
When Garlan falters, the Queen says smoothly, "Much and more has happened since then, Ser, but I recall your grandmother most fondly."
The Queen of Thorns, recalled fondly? Seven hells, Garlan thinks, no stranger to his grandmother's sharp tongue. Aloud, he says, "I thank you, Your Grace." He swallows hard before the great test. "My father has sent me as emissary to you, to humbly renew House Tyrell's plea for your hand in marriage."
There is a long pause, broken by Greatjon Umber's abrupt belly laugh. Blood rushes to Garlan's cheeks, and he clenches his jaw, wishing to strike the wretched northman to silence. Behind him, one of his companions starts, "You dare –"
"Peace." The Queen's voice rings out, high and clear, like a bell tolling through the Great Hall, leaving silence in its wake. She raises one slim hand from where it rests on the arm of the great chair, and says calmly, "Lord Umber, you do our guests a discourtesy."
That is all she says. That is all she has to say. Umber's response is gruff, and curt, but immediate. "Apologies, Tyrell."
Garlan inclines his head in acknowledgement, then looks back to Sansa Stark, whose beautiful face betrays not a hint of what she may be thinking. She meets his eyes, and smiles gently. Now her voice is no longer a tolling bell but a satin-soft murmur. "Ser Garlan, House Tyrell does me a great honour, but I am afraid I cannot accept."
It is, truth be known, no more than he expected. Sansa Stark is one of the most powerful women in Westeros, second only to the High Queen, and a famous beauty besides. She could have her pick of any man in the Seven Kingdoms, but remains unwed. He had told his father it was hopeless, that if the Queen in the North desired a King, she would have one already, but Mace Tyrell was never one to listen to reason.
Nonetheless, he was sent to Winterfell with a task.
"My lord father sent me to persuade you, Your Grace, and I –"
Brienne of Tarth cuts across him. "The last man who tried to persuade Her Grace was Euron Greyjoy." Her eyes are spitting fire, her broad face set in harsh lines of rage.
On the other side of the Stark throne, Alysane Mormont laughs, tossing her hair. The gesture may be girlish, but her smile is fierce, barbaric, more a baring of teeth than a genuine grin. "Nymeria put a stop to that – didn't you, girl?"
The direwolf lying before the Queen lifts her head up languidly, great golden eyes blinking solemnly. If Garlan didn't know better, he would swear there is intelligence behind those eyes, savage and quick and sure. Suddenly his mouth is bone-dry. What if –
"Brienne, Aly, you horrors, enough." The Queen claps her hands, and her words are stern but her eyes are twinkling, her lips curving in a smile. An expression of mischief, so for one moment Garlan thinks he can see the carefree child she must have been, once, long ago. Then she turns back to him and she is Queen in the North once more. "My apologies, Ser Garlan, my lady guards are a little over-protective. I hope you will forgive us."
What else can he do? He gives a shallow bow. "Of course, Your Grace."
"But what they say is true. I cannot be persuaded." Sansa Stark rises to her feet in a cascade of skirts and furs and auburn curls, rises to her full height of near six feet, rises with the grace of a dancer. The direwolf – Nymeria – stands up, and the Queen buries her hand in the thick ruff of fur at the beast's neck, level with her waist.
She meets his gaze, and her snow-pale face is calm, collected, utterly confident. "You must give your brother my apologies, Ser Garlan. I cannot marry him, nor any other man, for I have wed the North."
There is no doubt in her eyes, no flicker of humour at her lips. She is perfectly serious, means every word she says.
Half of Garlan thinks she is mad, the other that she is magnificent.
"Do they ever tempt you?"
It is late, and Sansa is sitting on the edge of the bed in her solar, brushing her hair methodically, the way her mother taught her to: one hundred strokes each side. Sometimes Alysane brushes it for her – Aly is part the older sister Sansa never had, part the mother she lost, always her protective she-bear – but tonight Aly is off with Nymeria, running a few circuits of Winterfell to burn up some of the direwolf's energy. Sansa loves Nymeria, trusts her completely, owes her life to her, but she will always be Arya's wolf, and Aly is more like Arya than Sansa ever will be.
So tonight, Sansa is brushing her own hair, humming to herself absently, watching Brienne shed her leathers and furs in readiness for bed. It's a routine as old as their partnership, Sansa waiting for Brienne to join her in bed, beds in Winterfell and Pyke and Castle Black and Greywater Reach and Riverrun and a thousand pavilions and wayside inns between. Candles, a hairbrush, sitting on the edge of the bed, gaze lingering shyly over the nape of Brienne's neck, the freckled arch of her shoulders, breath coming quickly in anticipation...
And then the question jolts her out of the moment.
"Do they ever tempt you?"
Brienne's voice is so quiet she might almost have imagined it. But there is no imagining that tone – the rawness, the flickers of an age-old insecurity that Sansa thought had been vanquished.
It will never cease paining her that Brienne can only see herself as the awkward freak cruel men named her, cannot look through Sansa's eyes to see her dearest friend, her true knight, her most beloved.
Sansa stands, pads over on bare feet to stand behind her lady knight, slides arms about her waist, holding tight. She presses her face into the firm curve of Brienne's throat, inhales deeply, savouring the familiar scent of her, the smell that means safety, and home, and love. Brienne catches her hands, links their fingers and slides them under her shirt to lie at her hips, thumbs gently stroking over Sansa's knuckles.
Beneath her hands, Brienne's skin seems to burn – she runs hot, and Sansa, whose fingers and toes were always cold, even before the winter came, craves her heat. It brings her alive, melts through the protective layers of ice she wraps around herself, tears away her armour of queenly composure, thaws her out and makes her a girl again. That warmth, that fire, it lets her believe in an end to winter, an end to fear and pain; it lets her breathe. Sometimes she thinks she is a moth, ever drawn to Brienne's flame.
Tall she may be, but Sansa has to go on tiptoe to rest her chin on Brienne's shoulder, press a kiss to the corner of her mouth. "No, dear heart," she whispers, and lets her fingers dig in at Brienne's hips, just a little. "Not ever. Not any of them."
And she's had enough suitors, enough knights and lords, even princes, all seeking her hand. Some praised her beauty, waxing lyrical about the Rose of Winterfell; others professed themselves awed by her courage, calling her the Steel Queen; some of the southron lordlings dreamt of unifying their Houses to undying glory; one or two through-and-through northmen had spoken with tears in their eyes of how she had brought the rule of justice and honour back with her, the Angel of the North, and while they had moved her, they had not persuaded her.
Almost every noble House in the North with an eligible man of even remotely marriageable age has tried to woo her, from Last Hearth to White Harbour they have all tried their luck in turn. Half the Houses of the Vale, even more from the riverlands, Euron Greyjoy, Garlan Tyrell in the name of his brother Willas, Princess Arianne Martell on behalf of doe-eyed young Prince Tristane. Even High Queen Daenerys herself has tried to sway her, first in favour of her nephew King Aegon VI, the second head of the dragon, and after he perished, to renew and consummate the old vows between Sansa and Tyrion Lannister.
From the hedge-knights to the Mother of Dragons, Sansa has refused them all. For in the end, words are wind, and despite their pretty words, what they truly want is Sansa of House Stark, the First of Her Name, Queen in the North. They only know the Rose of Winterfell, they only love the Queen, the She-Wolf of the songs.
It is Brienne alone who wants, and knows, and loves Sansa.
Tristane Martell is handsome, and Aegon Targaryen was valiant, and Willas Tyrell is wise, but not a one of them can hold a candle to the Maid of Tarth, who loved her when she was penniless and fleeing for her life.
"I will never want any man, not when I have you," she breathes, running lips and a hint of teeth down Brienne's jaw, and Brienne tips her head back and gives a little gasp, and for a heartbeat Sansa thinks her knees will give way beneath her.
That noise, that noise and the sharp desire behind it, the need and the promise of more –
Then Brienne turns around, taking her face between strong broad hands and tipping it back, pressing their mouths together in a deep, deep kiss. That sends a thrill of heat running through Sansa's veins, dizzying, and she arches against Brienne, slipping a leg between the lady knight's, raking fingers across her back, running up her sides, upwards to savour the soft-silk of her nipples.
That draws a moan from Brienne, gasping and low and long, breath stuttering into Sansa's open mouth. Sansa presses their hips together, thinking yes, this, more, and then Brienne's strong hands are at her waist, lifting her. It takes her a moment to catch on, mind reeling with arousal, but then she understands, wraps her legs about Brienne's hips, clings to her shoulders with one hand, so her lady knight can bear her over to the bed.
If it's not quite what she pictured in her thirteen-year-old dreams, it's still romantic enough to make her heart flutter, still has a grace to it – and then they topple over onto the bed, and Brienne knocks her elbow on the bedpost, and Sansa is sprawled inelegantly under her, and they are both giggling fit to burst. And then Sansa reaches out, and Brienne is on top of her, and between one thing and another, they are both naked, and Sansa's back is arching and she is crying out and all her thoughts and her poise and her words are gone, burnt away.
Brienne wakes with a start, suddenly aware that she is alone in the bed and automatically shifting into battle-readiness. When she sees that Sansa is standing on the other side of the solar, gazing out of the window, the relief that washes over her is so intense for a moment she feels giddy.
It's been over a year since last they were at war, since Sansa was in danger from White Walkers and pretenders and grudge-carriers and men who thought they could carry off the Stark Queen and make her submit to them. It's been over a year, but old habits die hard. Some part of Brienne knows that, however many loyal men and thick stone walls surround them, however strong and stable the Queen's peace seems to be, she will never stop worrying about Sansa. The strength of that protective instinct, which keeps her ever-alert in public, ever-alarmed to wake up with Sansa missing from the bed, that will never fade.
She loved a king once, and failed to protect him. She loves a queen now, more even than she loved Renly, and by the old gods and the new, this time she will not fail.
Wrapping herself in the fur-lined robe lying on a chair beside the bed, Brienne walks over to stand beside Sansa, sliding one arm around her waist. The Queen is wearing nothing but her night gown, hair in a sleep-messy tumble to her hips. She lays her head on Brienne's shoulder.
The windowpane used to be stained glass, before Ramsay Snow burnt Winterfell, and Sansa sold its treasures to the Free Cities one by one to keep them fed through the winter. The view is spectacular, though the dawn haze obscures the mountains beyond the castle walls. Even so, in the pale early-morning light the snow glitters like diamond, the first brave green shoots are deep viridian.
"Everything is thawing," Sansa says, and her voice is small, soft with sleep. The light voice of the girl, not the commanding voice of the Queen.
"Spring's made it here," Brienne says. They got the white raven months ago, but after five years, she still hardly dares believe it. Five years of furs, and six-feet icicles, and men freezing where they stand, eating rats and burning tapestries, and praying Sansa and her old gods would see them through. And after all those years, here they stand, on the other side.
She kisses Sansa's cold throat, smells her heavy soft hair, thanks the Mother – and the old gods – that they both survived. Sansa strokes her head, leans into her. "Winter is coming," she says, and Brienne stills. There is something ... wild in her tone, something raw and of the untameable North. For a second Brienne sees her Queen kneeling before Winterfell's heart tree, cutting her wrist, swearing herself to the North and its gods, white-faced and unrecognisable.
Then Sansa laughs, light and airy and bringing a smile to Brienne's lips. "But not for many, many years," she says. She turns, takes Brienne's face in her hands, gazes into her eyes, her smiling face as open as Brienne has ever seen it. "We made it," she says.
And the knight of summer and the bride of winter kiss in the light of spring.