“You know I’m right”, insisted Jon.
Sansa let out a long, slow breath and looked up at him. His eyes glittered in the brilliant sunshine and water vapour escaped from his nostrils like puffs of steam.
“Indulge me for a minute”, she said drily. “Let me believe that we could accomplish this without the aid of a dragon”.
He smiled and wrapped his arms around her.
“It won’t be the unmitigated disaster that was the first campaign”, he assured her.
“How can you be so sure?” she asked as she pulled back slightly from his embrace.
His fingertips rested lightly on her cheek.
“Because this time we are going to do my way”, he replied firmly.
She shook her head ruefully as they continued to walk together hand in hand into the denser part of the woods until Sansa found a suitable tree. Jon produced a knife and began to cut off branches of fragrant cedar while Sansa held a small blanket underneath to catch the falling boughs. When she decided that they had enough she bundled up the blanket, picked the small bits of foliage out of Jon’s hair and then they trudged towards home, the snow crunching under their boots.
The boughs were for a feast that Sansa was planning.
“What’s the occasion?” Jon had asked.
Sansa hesitated before replying.
“Lyra’s birth, Torrhen’s nameday, your homecoming, your rebirth…take your pick. Do we really need an excuse to gather together and eat too much food and drink too much ale, especially when the nights are long and bitter and our enemies are at the gates?” she answered.
“Well, when you put it that way…”he chuckled.
“I’m tired of living each day as if it might be my last”, said Sansa in frustration as she stopped and dropped the bundle to the ground.
She stooped down to pick up a handful of snow.
“I need to feel like a child again with my whole future laid out before me. I need to feel lighthearted…full of hope with grandiose ideas and dreams of better things to come”, she sighed as she tossed the snowball she had formed at the trunk of a nearby tree.
Jon gave her a look of sympathy as he pulled her in closer. Then he slyly slipped some snow down the back of her cloak. Sansa shrieked while clawing at the snow as it started to melt and slide down the back of her neck.
“Jon”, she sputtered, “I swear to all the gods that I will get you for this”.
“You’ll have to catch me first”, he shouted as he scooped up more snow before sprinting behind a tree.
They dodged in behind trees and bushes, pelting snowballs at each other until Jon, panting heavily, called a truce. Then he knelt down on one knee before her and bowed his head.
“I pledge fealty to the victor”, he said in mock reverence with a hand held to his chest. Then he raised his face to meet her imperious gaze.
“I await my fate”, he said solemnly.
“Then so be it”, giggled Sansa as she washed his face with a handful of snow. Jon grimaced as he wiped the icy slush from his face. Then she knelt down before him to help brush away the snow from his chest and shoulders.
“Thank you”, she whispered. He leaned forward and gave her a tender kiss. Then he rose to his feet and held out his hands to help her up.
“I can’t promise us a brighter future, Sansa”, he said as he retrieved the bundle of cedar boughs. “But I can promise you that I won’t stop trying”.
The kitchen was abuzz with preparations for the feast. They parted company in the corridor outside with Sansa heading to the great hall to supervise the setting up of the tables while Jon found his way to the maester’s tower to confer with Sam.
Sansa was tying the last of the cedar arrangements with ribbon when Jon entered the room bearing a message.
“Alys sends her warmest regards”, he announced. “She just recently gave birth to another son”.
“Sigorn must be feeling very proud”, she said as she smoothed out the tablecloth. “How many men can they send?”
“Alys promises us at least a thousand men and most likely more. Sigorn is currently drumming up support among the mountain clans to follow him”, he said. He chuckled as he read further.
“Alys says that Sigorn’s rallying cry is that The Ned’s little girl needs them to follow her if they want to survive this long winter”, he reported.
It warmed Sansa’s heart knowing that the rugged clans of the northwest still held her father and her family in such high esteem. She mentally counted up the number of men and woman who were pledged to follow Jon when he ventured north again.
“That’s just over six thousand strong so far”, she concluded. “Do you think it will be enough?”
“We have yet to hear from the crannogmen but they have always pledged fealty to the Starks. Once the Blackfish finds them then we should have a final tally”, he replied.
The revelries began shortly after sundown with people putting down their tools and gradually drifting in to participate in the festivities. The relentless cold and darkness was banished for the evening as the tables were festooned with many lit candles and brightly coloured decorations.
After stuffing their faces with too much food and drink, the tables were pushed to the edges of the room and the dancing began. Anybody who possessed a musical instrument was urged to dust if off and accompany the small band of musicians.
Amidst the roars of laughter and the thumping of feet, Sansa hummed as she swayed in time to the music with Torrhen resting on her hip. She felt a light tap on her shoulder.
“May I have this dance, my lady?” asked Jon, bowing slightly.
“You may, ser, as it appears my current partner has had enough dancing for tonight”, she replied. Torrhen was flushed and his eyes were heavy with sleep as he reached out to his father with a little whimper.
Jon took his son in his arms.
“Methinks it’s time for you to join your sister, little man”, he said as Torrhen collapsed against his father’s shoulder. Sansa gave Torrhen a kiss good night before Jon bundled him out of the hall and off to bed.
Jon returned a short time later to lead Sansa in a couple of reels and a waltz before they took to the sidelines, tapping their feet, to survey the scene of the passed out, the nodding off and the still going strong.
As the merriment began to die down, Sansa organized the clean up while Jon supervised putting the furniture back in place and packing the drunkards off to bed. As the last vestiges of the feast had been swept away, one of the guards approached them both.
“Milady, milord…there is a party of very curious looking men at the gate requesting admittance”, he reported.
Sansa wrinkled her brow and Jon frowned.
“At this hour?” complained Sansa. “Are they refugees seeking sanctuary?”
The guard shook his head.
“No, milady”, he replied. “The older gentleman who speaks for them said to tell you both that Lord Howland Reed has arrived, as requested”.
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