Sansa looked at Jon in disbelief.
“But Aegon Targaryen is dead, Jon”, she blurted out. “The Mountain killed him when he was but an infant. My father saw his battered and lifeless body himself”.
Jon shook his head.
“A cuckoo in the nest”, he replied. “He was switched with a tanner’s son whose mother had died in childbirth and then he was spirited away to safety”.
Sansa rolled her eyes.
“A likely story…so where is the proof?” she demanded.
Jon shrugged his shoulders.
“Rhaegal accepts him as its rider”, he replied simply. “What more proof do you need?”
Sansa decided to let issue rest for now. I will reserve judgment, she decided, until I meet him for myself.
The morning was spent cleaning up the debris and gathering up the dead. The bodies were laid end to end and side by side in the yard. The men had asked if the wights should be separated from the rest but Sansa refused to allow it.
“They did not choose to be our enemies”, she replied. “They were conscripted into an army of the undead. We will not treat them any differently”.
In accordance with the rituals of the Seven, some of the children scampered about placing small pebbles on the eyes of the dead while the women, as was the custom in the north, sprinkled the bodies with fragrant herbs gathered from the kitchen.
The survivors assembled around the bodies and stood there silently until an elderly wildling woman, leaning heavily on the arm of her good-daughter, spoke a few words in the language of the old tongue. As they listened to her express her sorrow in a tremulous voice, some of the men and women wiped away tears while others stared at the dead with a faraway expression in their eyes.
When the woman finished speaking, Jon took the opportunity to offer a few words of comfort and give his thanks for their bravery despite such overwhelming odds.
Then he raised his arms as a signal for the gathering to back away to the outer reaches of the yard once Viserion began to descend from the firmament. The dragon soared over the yard, its shadow rippling over the congregation. It circled thrice until Jon nodded and the dragon unleashed a long blast of fire to set the mass of bodies ablaze.
They watched the plumes of black smoke rise to lick at the sky. No sacrifices to R’hllor today, reflected Sansa with some relief… we burn only the dead.
While Jon spent the afternoon supervising the repairs, Sansa slipped out to the one building that she knew was untouched by dragonfire…the sept her father had built for her mother.
Since she had returned to Winterfell she sometimes went to the sept seeking comfort and communion. As she opened the door she smelled the musty air and observed the long threads of dust hanging from the rafters. It has been a long time since my last visit, she mused.
She glanced around the room. It was a very plain design in stark contrast with the more elaborate septs of the south. But she appreciated the warmth and beauty of the wood, the irregular pattern of stonework on the floor and the simple adornments that evoked the north.
She crossed the room to open some of the shutters to let in the bright sunshine and allow the breeze to chase away the cobwebs. She closed her eyes for a spell as she breathed in the cold, crisp air.
She sat on the bench that stood before a long table that served as an altar. She had sat here many a time, offering up prayers for help and guidance. She recalled a happier time long ago attending a service led by a visiting septon. Her mother had warned her unruly brood to be on their best behavior. Sansa and Robb sat on either side of their mother, their backs stiff and their hands folded meekly in their laps. Behind them sat Arya and Bran squirming and shoving each other. It all came to tears when Bran swatted Arya and she retaliated by pushing him to the floor. As his wails filled the room, Arya loudly told him to stop being such a baby and reminded him that he started it.
Their mother rose in exasperation and hauled Bran to his feet while Arya was ordered to sit at the back of the room. Arya scowled and moved to the rearmost bench, dropping on to it with a huff. While their mother comforted Bran in her lap, Sansa and Robb traded barely suppressed smiles over her bowed head.
Her father and Jon never attended the services at the sept. Her father had sat with her mother sometimes for support, if one of the children was ill or if there was a death in the family, but Sansa wasn’t sure if Jon had ever crossed the its threshold. But then, Jon always knew when he wasn’t welcome where her mother was concerned.
Sansa recalled more recent memories of visiting the sept. She remembered when Jon was returned to Winterfell, gravely injured and close to death. She and Sam spent countless days and nights applying salves to his wounds and bathing him in cool water to help bring down the fever that ravaged his body. And she had prayed fervently to the Stranger to please not take the last known member of her pack.
After the fever finally broke and Jon grew stronger day by day, she found herself visiting the sept more often. She gave thanks for the necessities in life…food, drink, family, companionship. She prayed for the end of war and the coming of spring. And when her feelings for Jon were becoming more than “sisterly”, she prayed long and hard for salvation.
When the news was broken to Jon that the man he had known as his father all his life had lied about the circumstances of his birth he was devastated. It mattered not that it was done to protect Jon from King Robert’s wrath, he felt betrayed, regarding his whole life as a sham. He packed up his few meager possessions, strapped on Longclaw and announced that he was leaving the north forever. He would seek his fortune across the Narrow Sea.
“I need to make a fresh start, Sansa”, he said as he saddled up his horse. “Ghost can remain at Winterfell. The free cities are unsuitable places for direwolves”.
She had been begging him not to go ever since he had announced his intention to leave. In desperation, she screwed up the courage to say the words that she hoped would make him stay.
“Jon, please don’t leave me…I love you”.
When he remained silent and refused to meet her eyes, she felt her stomach lurch.
He finds me repulsive, she thought with dismay. He wonders how a woman whom he has only ever known as his sister could harbor such feelings.
He fumbled with the straps on the saddle for a minute longer before finally stilling his hands. He turned to her and she could see the emotions warring in his face until he seemed to find some kind of resolution.
He reached out and drew her into his arms. Then he bent down and kissed the corner of her mouth. Chaste, she thought, but so full of promise.
“I’ll stay”, he whispered into her hair.
Sansa visited the sept for the last time that evening, to offer thanks to the Maiden for giving her the audacity to declare herself to Jon.
The sudden banging of the shutters diverted Sansa’s attention. She rose to close them against the fierce gusts of air that knocked over the candlesticks on the altar. As she closed and latched the shutters she heard the loud guttural shrieks that had become more familiar of late.
“The dragons have returned”, she murmured with some amusement. “It’s time to meet the rest of the family”.
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