“But this is precisely why I agreed to stay”, shouted Val, banging the desk for emphasis. Sansa was startled but regained her composure as she straightened her spine in response.
“I recall you agreeing to remain as my protector, not as my gaoler”, she replied coolly.
Val struggled with her frustration.
“Milady”, she spat out, “I promised your husband that I would stay at Winterfell to protect you and the children in the event of another attack. I merely suggested that you join Tarly and the others in the safety of the maester’s tower when that occurs. If the crannogmen are to be believed, and they haven’t led us astray in the past, then this could be more than just a small skirmish”.
Indeed, the crannogmen’s uncanny instincts for sensing the enemy had always been sound. There had been many a time when the crannogmen, as Winterfell’s first line of defense, had already dealt with and dispatched small mobs of wights long before the horns could be blown. The bonfires that subsequently ensued would often burn long into the night.
“My home, my people, my choice”, responded Sansa firmly.
Val inhaled a noisy breath and let it out slowly while shaking her head.
“He’ll blame me if you are hurt in any way”, she said folding her arms.
Sansa smiled and shook her head in return.
“No, he won’t”, she replied, “Jon is very aware of my mulish tendencies”.
Sansa leaned back, drumming her fingers on her desk while Val stood there audibly fuming.
“Look…I have a compromise”, Sansa offered while leaning forward. Val unlocked her arms and looked at her skeptically.
“I’m all ears”, she growled.
“If the wights are threatening to breach our defenses then I will retreat to the tower. Until then, I will remain on the battlements”, she said. Val still looked doubtful.
“I’ll not pretend that I can swing a sword or loose an arrow”, Sansa assured her, “but it’s important to that I be there, fulfilling my duties as liege, manning the barricades alongside everyone else. I’m no shirker…I can hold my own until the punches start flying. Then, I assure you, I have enough sense to beat a hasty retreat. I’ll not take any unnecessary risks with my life and the life of my unborn child”.
“Duty…you kneelers have a keener sense of obligation compared to the Free Folk”, she said. “Your husband was always banging on about fulfilling his duties to the realm”.
“That’s my father’s influence”, she said. “He instilled a deep sense of honour in both of us, preparing us to make decisions for the greater good over blatant self-interest”.
“However”, she continued after a discreet cough, “we’re not fools. He also made sure that we abided by our instinct for survival…after all, Winter is Coming is my family’s motto”.
Val leaned down, planted both palms on the desk and stared directly into Sansa’s eyes.
“So, do you swear not to try to shake me off when I’m shadowing you on the battlements?” she asked.
“And do you swear that you will leave the scene of battle when I deem it necessary?” Val asked.
“Aye”, replied Sansa meekly.
Val finally looked satisfied.
“Well, milady…I reckon this relationship is going to work out just fine”, she said before spitting on the palm of her right hand and thrusting it towards Sansa. Sansa looked surprised at the proffered hand. Then she delicately spat on her own right hand and offered it in return. Val grasped the hand and shook it firmly.
“We have sealed an oath”, Val explained. “I don’t believe in these stupid blood oaths…spit works just as well”.
The attack came shortly after midnight but they were ready. Even the children had mobilized like battle weary veterans.
They heard the shouts and cries from the battle walls. Then they heard the crackle of fire and saw the flames shoot up into the starry sky. The crannogmen were setting the enemy ablaze.
Val stood by Sansa’s side like a loyal dog while Ghost flanked her on the other. They watched the archers poised on the wall with their fiery arrows nocked and ready. Val was like a coiled spring, ready to hustle Sansa off the walls and into the safety of Sam’s tower while Ghost was prepared to rip to pieces any wight that breached their defenses.
They came lurching out of the woods a few at a time. They clustered around near the entrances and pounded on the gates. On Sansa’s orders, the archers loosed their arrows and set the wights afire. The orders were repeated as others staggered from the trees and piled into the backs of the others.
Something was different about this attack.
“What’s wrong?”asked Val as she observed Sansa systematically scanning the area surrounding the castle with a frown on her face.
“Why do they not try to scale the walls?” wondered Sansa. “They appear to be concentrating their efforts solely on the gates, as if expecting entrance. And where are the puppet masters? Usually by now I have caught sight of the Others watching the battle silently from a safe distance. Tonight somehow feels unlike the other attacks”.
She continued to pace the walls with her guardians by her side, watching the battle unfold. While the adults poured the pitch and set the wights ablaze, the children gleefully pitched rubble over the sides while others, testing out their newly acquired skills, loosed fiery arrows with some degree of accuracy.
This is too easy, thought Sansa nervously. This was more of a massacre than a battle. Surely this is just the beginning of something more ominous. But as the numbers of wights dwindled to nothing, she had to concede that the attack appeared to be finished.
The fires slowly died down until there was little evidence left of the confrontation except for the blackened snow.
She could hear the shouts and cheers from the surrounding countryside before spotting the crannogmen emerge from the woods. She met them with them just as the gate was straining to open to admit them. They were joking and laughing together as they streamed past her. She stopped one of the men, the one she met up with earlier in the day.
“Any losses to report?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Not tonight, milady”, he replied as a smile split his face. “This was more of a dawdle than in the past”.
“Aye”, said Sansa in agreement, “they didn’t appear to be attacking us this time. It was almost as if they came in response to some distant memory…as if they were simply trying to get home”.
“I’ve seen it before”, he said with a nod, “herd instinct…like the animals”.
Sansa could see that the man was impatient to join his compatriots.
“I expect you’ll be celebrating tonight”, she said.
“Aye”, he replied, “it’s over”.
Sansa pondered the ambiguity of his words. They sounded so final and yet she felt the need for clarification.
“So, the battle is finally won” she said.
“Aye, milady”, he replied, “and so is the war”.
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