So what changed your mind?” asked Val in a loud whisper.
Sansa thought carefully about her response before replying.
“For years I was treated like the prize pig at the county fair…everyone wanted me but few could afford me. After being the whipping girl for Joffrey’s failures and Petyr’s proxy for my dead mother, I finally learned to protect myself and stay three steps ahead of everyone else. I learned how to calculate and manipulate to bend people to my will. I hardened my heart and learned to temper my impulses with cold reason. When I returned north to rebuild my family home, on my own, I resolved never to remarry because I was never going to let any man have that kind of control over me ever again”.
She swallowed before continuing.
“Jon was the first man in a very, very long time that I grew to trust and eventually love. When he said that he would never take it all away from me I believed him with all my head and heart. And when I made a fool of myself in Kings Landing over Arianne Martell, he could have dismissed my fears as the ranting of an unhinged, jealous harpy. Instead, he brought me straight home where I felt safe and loved. And here I have stayed ever since, never venturing beyond the woods that ring this castle”.
She turned to face Val.
“I have made my world a very small place. Jon is the one who goes out to treat with the other lords. Jon is the one who rides out to investigate reports of poaching and resolves property disputes… all in my name”.
She held up a hand as she could see Val about to interject.
“I know I am not like you…like Arya was. I have no thirst to see and experience the world beyond my borders. I am content to stay at home, to care for my husband and children, manage my estate and be a dutiful warden on behalf of the other northern lords. So when Jon offered to take me flying on a dragon my immediate impulse was to say no. I am with child. Dragons are frankly terrifying creatures which are capable of laying waste to everything in its sights within minutes. Is it logical to want to ride one of those fearsome creatures? No! Jon knew better than to ask which is why he did so only at your instigation”.
Val gave her a wry smile and leaned in.
“So, I repeat…what changed your mind then?” she asked softly.
“Well, you did…after a fashion”, she replied. Val looked confused.
“I don’t recall any conversation urging you to take up your husband’s offer to ride his dragon”, she said.
“No, but the conversation about our sisters reminded me of how much I always admired Arya’s spirit of adventure. She never failed to tackle obstacles head-on while I dodged around them. To turn down this opportunity to experience the world from such a height would be a disservice to her memory. Therefore, I have decided to screw up my courage and ride a large, foul-smelling, fire-breathing flying lizard because my sister would have dared me to do. And mocked me soundly if I refused”, she replied.
Val let out a screech of laughter.
“Well, then…I double dare you just in case you try to change your mind again”, she said. “You won’t regret it…I promise you. I remember the first time I saw the world from the top of the Wall and it was an awe- inspiring sight. This…this experience topped that one. You will see the world from a perspective very few ever have and ever will”.
Jon finished buckling the last strap on the saddle while Rhaegal stood impassively, steam rising from its scaly body in the frigid air.
“Ready?”asked Jon, calling over his shoulder to Sansa.
Sansa glanced at Val before taking a deep breath.
“Ready”, she replied brightly.
Heeding Val’s advice, Sansa had dressed herself in a warm fur jacket and leggings for the journey. She pulled up her hood and tucked her auburn hair inside before accepting a leg up from Jon. She held her breath for a few seconds as Rhaegal pitched and took a few steps to the side. Then she steadied herself as Jon climbed up behind her and took up the reins.
She could feel his warm breath on her cheek as he leaned over to give her some final instructions.
“Try not to be afraid. Dragons can sense fear and feed off it”, he counseled.
“How can I not be afraid?” she hissed as Rhaegal shifted restlessly.
“Because I won’t let anything happen to you…I promise you”, he replied before giving her a quick kiss on her bright red cheek.
“I’m counting on it”, she said with a sigh.
She could feel the dragon vibrate beneath her parted legs as it braced itself to take to the sky. Then it spread its wings and took a few steps before leaping into the air and soaring towards the treetops. She felt the wind whistle past her ears and watched the clouds grow larger as the dragon rose higher in sky.
Sansa looked down to watch the great castle of Winterfell shrink to the size of a dollhouse. The people became tiny creatures that skittered across the snowy ground. And as Rhaegal’s wings flapped even faster, the world seemed to pass more slowly.
She was struck by the beauty and majesty of the firmament as the sky spread itself out in hues of yellow, blue and lavender. The trees that dotted the landscape, so large and imposing from the ground, looked like sticks that a child had stuck in the snow. She turned to Jon.
“How far shall we go?” she shouted.
“How far would you like to go?” he asked in response. She thought about for a minute.
“I want to follow the kingsroad to Castle Black”, she replied. “I want to experience the journey you took when we parted ways all those years ago when I went south while you continued north”.
“Done”, he shouted as he pulled the reins to one side to steer the dragon northwards.
In the dead of winter, the kingsroad was seldom traveled. It had become little more than a track of trampled, hard-packed snow. They could see traces of tracks left by the sledges and the horses that pulled them. Otherwise the road was deserted.
As they grew closer to Castle Black, the landscape began to change. Mole’s Town, which was situated half a league south of the castle, had become a barren tract of charred huts and blackened rocks. The trees were barely more than splinters in the ground. Sansa viewed the scene with dismay and she could feel Jon tense up behind her.
“Oh, gods, Jon…I didn’t expect this kind of devastation”, she called out. Jon was silent and she could sense him scanning the horizon for signs of danger. She could feel the dragon lose altitude as Jon took it in lower to have a look. He then spotted a small contingent of wights staggering across the scorched earth before pointing them out to Sansa.
“I…I should deal with this immediately”, he said almost apologetically.
She nodded silently. You do what you have to do, Jon, she thought.
The dragon began to snort black smoke as it circled closer to the ground. The heat that radiated from its body coiled and distorted the air surrounding it. Sansa started to sweat in her heavy clothes as she felt the dragon begin to tremble.
“Shield your eyes”, shouted Jon. Sansa ducked down as the dragon unleashed a blast of fire over the creatures that lurched through the snowy terrain. Remnants of the fire curled up around the dragon’s snout and crackled as they dissipated into the atmosphere.
The wights twisted and dropped quietly to the ground as the flames licked at their ragged clothes and melted what flesh remained. Sansa raised her eyes and gaped in horror at the ghastly sight. Within seconds only smoking ash and a few sooty bones remained as evidence that they existed at all.
Jon had been conspicuously silent during the attack. She knew that warging sometimes took all his powers of concentration, particularly when trying to control a dragon bearing down on its prey.
She heard him gasp as he became just Jon again. He tugged on the reins and banked left. Sansa peered over the horizon where she could see the dim outline of a several stone towers and timber keeps looming in the distance. She raised a finger and pointed towards the buildings excitedly.
“Castle Black”, confirmed Jon.
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