Sansa watched Jon climb off Rhaegal and then present his hand to the woman who still sat astride the dragon. The woman waved away his offer and proceeded to climb down on her own. While Jon removed the saddle, the woman took a few paces, lowered her white fur hood and gazed around the yard with a look of awe shining in her light grey eyes.
“So…to think I could have been Lady Muck of this place”, she drawled.
“Jon”, yelled Sansa. The woman turned and fixed her gaze on Sansa as Jon rushed towards his wife and crushed her in his embrace. The two clung together, murmuring endearments and pressing kisses upon upturned faces, until Jon made his excuses and pulled away to introduce his travelling companion.
“Sansa, I want you to meet…” he began.
“Val”, finished Sansa as she graciously offered her hand to the woman. “I knew it was you from Jon’s letters. Sam has filled in the rest”.
Val, dubbed the wildling princess by Stannis, was tall, blonde and beautiful. Sam said she was a warrior and that her courage and ranging skills were renowned. Val took Sansa’s hand in hers and shook it vigorously.
“I’m really pleased to meet the woman who finally captured Lord Crow’s heart”, she said heartily.
Sansa invited Val to join her and Jon for a light supper in Jon’s solar after showing her to her room. As they turned to go indoors, Sam met them on the doorstep with his arms outstretched. After clapping arms with Jon, he greeted Val with an uneasy smile.
“Val”, he said, “it’s nice to see you again”.
Val laughed and swatted at Sam’s rotund belly.
“Tarly”, she replied. “I see you still enjoy your food and ale. Read any good books lately?”
She didn’t wait for his reply as she strode into the castle and looked around with great interest. She watched the servants bustle about the corridors and the kitchen as meal preparations were being made.
“Would you like a tour?”asked Sansa politely.
Val wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
“Truthfully, what I need right now is a hot bath. I need to wash off the stink of that dragon your husband is so fond of”, she replied.
Sansa motioned to one of the maids to accompany Val to her room and to arrange for hot water to be brought up as soon as possible. Once they departed she turned to Jon.
“You will also need a bath”, she murmured as she slid her arms up and down his.
“And will you be my personal handmaiden?” he asked, leaning forward to whisper into her ear.
“Count on it”, she replied as she took his hand and led him away.
As Jon lay back in the steaming tub and closed his eyes, Sansa ran her hands through his damp curls, pulling them off his forehead and smoothing them behind his ears. Then she leaned over him and kissed him. He reached up and tugged on her hand.
“Will you not join me?” he asked suggestively. She shook her head.
“Not now…there will be time for that later”, she said as his face registered his disappointment.
She shifted so that she now knelt over the edge of the tub to face him.
“I have a confession to make”, she said as she subconsciously reached down to place a hand on her belly. “I am with child”.
Jon reacted by sitting up immediately, letting the water slosh over the sides of the tub. He grabbed her face with his meaty hands and planted a bruising kiss on her lips.
“Oh, gods, Sansa…I don’t know what to say”, he said breathlessly. A big smile split his face.
“Yes I do…I love you so much. I can’t believe we’re going to have another child”, he said gleefully. He reached up, wrapped his arms around her and hauled her into the tub.
“Jon”, she shrieked with outrage and laughter as she swirled helplessly in an attempt to clamber out, “what about my gown?”
“Oh sod the gown, Sansa”, he replied. “I’ll get you another one…prettier than that one because we’re going to have another baby!”
Val was already ensconced in Jon’s solar when they joined her for supper. She was nibbling on some cheese and swirling some good Dornish wine in her goblet while looking about the room with an air of satisfaction.
“I could get used to this”, she said with a sigh. “This is much nicer than any of those poxy castles up north”. She laid the goblet aside and turned to Jon.
“So, Lord Crow, does she know our history?” she asked jerking her chin in Sansa’s direction.
“Some”, admitted Jon.
Val turned her gaze to Sansa.
“Your kneeler king, Stannis, offered this one”, she said glancing back briefly at Jon before returning to Sansa, “this castle and I was thrown in as his wife to seal the bargain. But he was too noble to accept”.
Sansa knew the story…everyone knew the story now how Jon had turned down his chance to become Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North because it meant taking it away from Sansa. It wasn’t right, he had told her later…it wasn’t fair. It made her love him even more.
But of Val’s part in the story he had said very little. Sam filled in some of the gaps. She now knew that Val had been Mance Rayder’s sister-in-law. And since Mance was the self-proclaimed King Beyond the Wall, that made Val a very valuable hostage indeed in Stannis’ eyes.
“I was a little miffed at first”, said Val with a broad grin. “To think that maybe I wasn’t good enough for his lordship here. But I got over it. After Jarl I wasn’t looking for a new husband, much less one that was being foisted upon me. But me and Lord Crow here…we got on after a while so that I grew quite fond of him in the end. We came to an understanding of sorts”.
She reached out to take another sip of wine.
“By the gods you people do make the best wine”, she declared enthusiastically. She cast an eye on Jon again.
“I don’t suppose he told you that I tried to steal him before my escape”, she said boldly. Jon flushed and looked down at his boots. Sansa’s lips curled in surprise.
“Oh, look at him blush…he’s so pretty when he’s embarrassed”, laughed Val. She raised her goblet in salute. Sansa looked at Jon with amusement before looking back at Val.
“No, he certainly didn’t. Perhaps you could share that particular story”, she replied.
Val took another sip of wine before continuing.
“It was after midnight. Gilly’s son had mercifully died that morning of the fever that had ravaged him for days. I was tired of being cooped up in that tower and with the child’s death my reason for staying was at an end. I had been plotting my escape for weeks and now was my chance. But I didn’t want to go it on my own. So I crept into his room and when he woke up he felt a knife at his throat. I told him that I was stealing him. The stupid man refused and in the ensuing ruckus woke up that pretty boy steward who came flying in to rescue his beloved commander. And, in doing so, alerted some of Stannis’ guards. I barely managed to get away…I had to slit a few throats before this one helped me escape during the confusion”.
Jon looked sheepish and ill at ease. Sansa wondered at his temerity.
“I wandered around south for a while…hunting, fishing …doing what I could to survive. I finally built a little home on the edge of the Gift, far away from prying eyes. But I lost it all when those damnable wights showed up and we all had to flee”, she continued. “I ended up at Last Hearth. I made peace with Sigorn and I helped Lady Alys birth her last child. And that is where I was when I heard when you had called the banners”.
Val reached out to grasp Sansa’s hand in her own calloused one.
“First of all I want to reassure you that I have no intention of trying to steal this one again”, she said, her eyes sparkling. “He belongs to you and you only”.
“But”, she continued as she glanced at Jon, “him and me have a bond that goes way back. When I heard that he and that dragon were coming to get rid of those fuckers then I knew I had to be there with him”.
Sansa looked at the brash, plain spoken woman who sat there before her and knew, in her heart, that her words were sincere. She squeezed Val’s hand in reply before turning to Jon.
“You know, Jon…you do have a habit of attracting strong, independent women to your side”, Sansa observed. “I don’t know whether I should be jealous or impressed”.
Jon chuckled as he rose to answer the knocking at the door. Sam had arrived with a servant bearing their supper.
The meal was a lively affair at first with Jon, Val and Sam entertaining Sansa with their shared memories of life at the Wall. Then Sam told Val that Dalla and Mance’s son was now being raised by a farm family near Horn Hill. Nobody there knew he was the son of a king and, if Sam had anything to say about it, nobody ever would. Eventually the conversation grew more melancholy when they realized how much they had all lost over the years.
As the fire died down to glowing embers, it became apparent to all that it was late and they were exhausted. Sam had already made his excuses and left for his rooms while Sansa dozed lightly against Jon’s shoulder. She could hear Jon and Val speaking, their voices low so as not to disturb her.
“Have you asked her yet?” questioned Val.
“No”, replied Jon. “Besides, she is expecting again so she’ll not risk it in her condition”.
“Ask her anyway”, insisted Val. “She might surprise you. From the tales you’ve told me she has a lot more fire in her than I expected from a southern girl”.
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