Sansa watched Jon dismount Rhaegal first and then reach up to gather up the small bundle of furs that still clung to the dragon’s neck. As the boy slid into Jon’s arms, his hood fell backwards, revealing a tangle of matted red curls and piercing blue eyes.
Sansa’s hand flew to her mouth as she stifled a cry. She looked at Jon with tears welling in her eyes and he nodded in pained acknowledgement.
The boy stood stock still as Jon unbuckled the saddle. His small hands were balled up into fists and his eyes darted around the yard with suspicion. There was no sign of recognition in his eyes.
He does not remember us, thought Sansa sadly. He looked tense and fearful, like an untamed animal backed into a corner and looking to escape… until Jon laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder and she could see him relax slightly.
He was small for his age so she could understand why the Skagosi chieftain thought him to be a much younger child. He appeared to be malnourished and wore the skins of small animals that had been bound together by unskilled hands. And when the breeze picked up, she could detect the whiff of rotting flesh that still clung to the pelts he wore.
Jon leaned down to speak quietly in the boy’s ear and then gently pushed him towards Sansa. She sank to her knees, trying to make herself look smaller and less threatening. Then she opened her arms wide and forced her mouth in a small, quavering smile.
“Welcome home”, she said in a tremulous voice.
She could see him stiffen with resistance as Jon pushed him closer to her. She dropped one hand to her side and then held the other out, palm up, as if coaxing a wild animal into drawing near. She glanced back at Jon whose eyes shone with encouragement.
Then the boy let out a strangled cry of surprise as Sansa felt the warm fur brush past her as Ghost trotted over to the child. The boy howled with pleasure before throwing his arms around the direwolf’s neck.
Well, it’s a start, thought Sansa , brushing away the dirt from her hands and skirt as she rose to her feet.
“Give him time”, said Jon softly as he gave her kiss on her cheek. “He was taken from us so long ago and his memories are still buried deep within”.
She glanced at the boy again as he buried his face in Ghost’s ruff, inhaling deeply the direwolf’s smell.
“How does he accept you already?” she asked.
Jon gave Ghost a pat.
“He senses that small part of Ghost that I still carry inside of me”, he replied. “It has been just he and Shaggydog for a very long time according to the Skagosi”.
Jon held out his hand to the child who took it tentatively.
“Come, Rickon…it’s time to become reacquainted with your home”, he said as the boy followed.
Sansa brought up the rear, stopping briefly in the kitchen to leave instructions to have food and fresh clothing brought up within the hour. When asked what his favourite foods might be, she shook her head as she realized she didn’t have a clue.
“Just provide whatever looks tasty and tempting to a young boy”, she answered helplessly as the cook nodded sagely.
“We’ll figure it out in time, milady”, the cook said as she patted Sansa’s hand in a show of comfort.
Jon, accompanied by Ghost, took Rickon to his own chambers. There, he and Sansa wrestled with the boy to remove layers of filthy skins as the servants poured a hot bath. Then she instructed them to take away the furs and burn them. The boy growled as he stood shivering before the tub, his emaciated little body quivering in fear and anticipation.
Ghost slowly circled around the tub and stood before the boy with his teeth silently bared in display of dominance. He nudged at the boy.
A flash of defiance crossed Rickon’s face before he climbed gingerly into the water and sat there rigidly awaiting his fate.
Sansa knelt down beside the tub to watch Jon pour water on Rickon’s hair and watched it trickle down his bony back. Then she passed the soap to Jon who lathered up his hands and began to wash his hair vigorously.
Rickon recoiled at the tugging sensation and let out a loud shriek. He began clawing at Jon’s hands, trying to pull them down and bite them.
Sansa reflexively reached out to grab Rickon’s hands and struggled to hold on to them. The boy was surprisingly strong as he slipped out of her grasp and sloshed water over the sides as he reached up to pull himself out of the tub. But Jon was stronger and pressed down on the boy’s shoulders while Ghost rested his snout on the tub’s edge and glared at the child.
“Rickon”, said Jon firmly, “sit still and this won’t take long”.
The boy let out a soft growl as he slowly sank down in the tub once more. His eyebrows were knitted together in barely suppressed rage as he grudgingly allowed Jon to continue.
Sansa gathered up some towels before moving closer to Jon.
“Jon…does he speak at all?” she asked as she passed him a basin.
Jon grimaced as he poured water over the boy’s head.
“I have yet to hear him utter a word”, he replied as he accepted the bottle of oil from Sansa’s hand.
As Jon smoothed the oil through Rickon’s hair and gently removed the dirt from his face, Sansa rocked back on her heels and studied the child that was emerging from beneath the layers of filth.
“He…he looks like Robb when he was a child”, she commented. Jon lowered his eyes and nodded as he picked up a towel.
“Aye”, he replied with a quick intake of breath before motioning to the boy to rise up.
Rickon scowled as he clambered out of the tub and stood obediently as Jon dried him off and wrapped him in a larger towel. Then he picked up the boy as if he was no heavier than a feather and sat down by the fireplace with Rickon curled up in his lap.
Sansa answered the knock at the door and granted entry to the maid who brought in a selection of pastries and sweetmeats on a tray and set it before them. Surely any child would be tempted by such an array of delicious treats reasoned Sansa.
Eventually she was rewarded when, after a surveying the food for a few minutes, he snatched up a sweetmeat and stuffed it into his mouth. Then, without waiting to swallow first, he shoved a pastry between his teeth.
“Whoa, little man”, exclaimed Jon as he pushed away the tray. “Slow down…make sure you get them down your gullet first before you have another”.
She leaned forward and smiled at him as he slowly chewed and swallowed his food before offering him more. Then she looked wistfully at Jon.
“He’s going to need a haircut”, she commented as she reached out to graze his curls with her fingertips. Jon rolled his eyes.
“One battle at a time, Sansa”, he replied.
Then they both chuckled as they shared memories of Rickon squaring off against his mother when it came time to cut his hair.
As Jon helped the boy dress, Sansa summoned the servants to tidy up the room. She tried to send the tray of unfinished food back to the kitchen but Rickon grunted frantically and tried to grab it from the maid’s hands.
“Just leave it for now”, instructed Sansa before they backed out of the room and closed the door.
“He can sleep with me and Ghost tonight”, said Jon as he patted the bed. Ghost leapt up on to the top of the furs and settled down beside Rickon.
After a few minutes of staring silently at the ceiling, Rickon eventually rolled over on to his side and fell asleep with one hand gripping Ghost’s fur.
Jon and Sansa stood together quietly watching his small chest rise and fall.
“How long was he alone, Jon?” she asked finally.
“It’s hard to say,” he replied. “When the villagers found him they speculate that he had been caring for himself for up to a year. At least he had Shaggydog to hunt for him and protect him. They think that Osha may have died many moons before when a fever swept through several of the villages, wiping out entire families in some cases. Some of the villagers tried to take him in but he kept running away. And Shaggydog was completely out of control and terrorized them. Eventually they took to leaving Rickon parcels of food when they had glimpses of him in the bush. Once I arrived with the chieftain, it took several days of searching before we finally tracked him down. Needless to say, he was frightened when we found him. If it wasn’t for my connection to Ghost I could never have persuaded him to come with me”.
“And what of Shaggydog?” asked Sansa.
“He’s coming…no doubt barreling across the tundra as we speak. I made arrangements to have him transported across the water before setting him free. He’ll not be parted from Rickon for long”, he replied as he glanced at sleeping direwolf. “I expect Ghost will pick up his scent soon enough. He will be very pleased to be reunited with his brother again”.
As am I, thought Sansa.
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