Sansa watched with amazement as Val strode across to the tanner’s son, snatched the bow from his hands and snapped it in two across her knee. Then she said a few unladylike words, punctuated by wild gestures, and sent him off with a flea in his ear. She was still fuming when Sansa approached her.
“I did warn him”, said Val. “I told him that if I caught him aiming his arrow at his sister again that I would take away his weapon and tell him to clear off”.
“He’s a handful, that one”, agreed Sansa as she watched the sulky boy saunter off, no doubt to find his equally disagreeable father to complain. Oh to be a fly on the wall if a confrontation were to occur between Val and the tanner, thought Sansa gleefully. The tanner was an inarticulate oaf while Val’s tongue was often sharper than the weapons she carried.
Val had become an unofficial master of arms at Winterfell.
“Or perhaps mistress of arms would be more appropriate”, said Sansa, correcting herself.
“Whatever you like”, sniffed Val. “It doesn’t really matter…I don’t hold much with titles anyway”.
Val had been focusing on the children, training them is the proper use of bow, knife and spear. She deferred to the official master of arms for tutelage in swordplay.
“I know nowt about how to use a sword”, she grumbled when a young lad presented his wooden training sword to her for inspection. “But I can teach you to take down an elk from a hundred paces with just one arrow”.
Both Sansa and Val watched Sam with great interest as he approached them with a big grin on his face.
“I saw the raven, Tarly”, shouted Val. “What is the news from the front?”
“A message from Lord Reed”, he replied happily as he unfurled the message and passed it to Sansa.
She started to read it silently until Val poked her.
“Read it aloud, milady”, she whispered. “We could all use a bit of cheer”.
“My dear Lady Sansa”, she read. “We continue to slash and burn the enemy as we push further north. The wights no longer outnumber us because, as a weapon of mass destruction, the dragon is unparalleled. The sight of Jon on his dragon, bearing down on a field of wights and laying them to waste with a single fiery breath, is a vision of such terrible beauty that it fair takes my breath away. I never thought I would find myself singing its praises but I humbly thank the gods every day for the awful beast.
Jon has become an exceptional leader. In close combat, that bastard sword of his glows like a red beacon, imbuing us with renewed energy and determination. I truly believe that he is the one who was promised, the one who is going to lead us out of the darkness. The sun is due to rise again soon, my dear, and spring will come again.”
Sansa carefully folded up the letter and passed it back to Sam with her thanks.
“Spring still seems like such a distant memory”, she said to both of them as they trudged through the snow. Brutal winter storms had lambasted the countryside of late, coating the surroundings in a cold blanket of snow.
Even the crannogmen were driven indoors, shivering and quaking in the face of winter’s wrath.
But, for the past three days, the sun chose to share its warmth with the world. The inhabitants of Winterfell were crawling out of their dens to breathe deep the fresh, clean air and raise their faces in thanks.
“It’s not as far off as you might think”, claimed Val. “I swear the sun feels warmer every day. And Tarly here has been tracking the times the sun rises and sets and says the hours of daylight are increasing”.
Sansa glanced at Sam who screwed up his face.
“Well”, he admitted, “it’s not by much… maybe a minute or two each day”.
“And…”Val continued, “one of the old crones says that if you press your ear against the trunks of the trees you can hear the sap trickling already”.
Sansa began to laugh at these claims as mere wishful thinking. Then, she thought more soberly, perhaps I am dismissing these signs too readily because I fear having my hopes dashed.
They parted ways with Sansa deciding that she and Torrhen were going to take advantage of such a fine day by going for a walk in the godswood. She helped him don the snow contraptions that Val had made for him when the deep winter snows were making it increasingly difficult for him to navigate the terrain. She had fashioned the creations from the branches of young saplings, bent them into the shape of a teardrop and bound them with crisscrossing strips of leather. Then she tied them to his boots. The result made it easier for him to pad across the surface of the snow instead of sinking down to his waist.
Torrhen’s first few attempts to walk in the snow shoes had ended in tears. He had tried to tear them off in frustration until Val patiently showed him how to walk using a wider stance. Gradually he learned the art of snow walking while clinging to his mother’s hand until he was finally able to master it on his own.
The godswood was alive with the twittering of birds and the gusting of the wind as it passed between the trees. While the fresh snow swirled and danced in the breeze, the branches shook and waved. Then, with each flash of colour and lilting song, the birds shyly revealed themselves to them. Torrhen scattered seeds on the snow for the ground feeders and then held out his pudgy little hands to the birds bold enough to come close.
While Torrhen drew pictures in the snow with a stick, Sansa leaned against a tree, closed her eyes and listened to the symphony of sound that surrounded her. For a few minutes, she heard the familiar chorus of the birdsongs until she was startled out of her reverie by a song she had not heard for so many months.
She opened her eyes and searched the branches of the sun dappled trees arrayed before her. When she heard the call again she steered her gaze in its direction and was rewarded by a sight of a bird with a reddish-orange breast and dun-coloured wings fluttering between the branches of a tall pine.
“Look, little love”, she called out excitedly to Torrhen, “it’s a robin”.
A robin, she thought happily…traditionally the harbinger of spring. If, indeed, the robins were returning to the north, surely spring must be shouldering winter aside. Sansa and Torrhen sought out the weirwood tree and leaned against it to offer their prayers for continued warmth and the promise of rebirth.
A loud rustling in the nearby trees drew them from their prayers. They could hear the snap of branches bending and breaking and then a cloud of snow floated up. They moved closer to investigate and discovered a small man brushing away snow from his heavy clothes. Then he paused to sniff at the air, like a dog sensing game before turning to greet Sansa and Torrhen.
“Good morning, milady”, said the crannogman.
Sansa returned his greeting.
He continued to sniff at the air, ducking and turning all the while. Sansa watched him quizzingly, her head tilted to one side. She glanced at Torrhen who was sniggering at the sight of the peculiar little man. He finally stopped and turned to them again with a grave look in his eyes.
“You need to double the guard tonight, milady”, he said. “And I will have all my men stationed around the castle on high alert”.
“What is it that has alarmed your senses?” asked Sansa.
“Death”, he replied grimly.
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