“Lyra”, said Sansa sharply, “manners”.
Lyra froze with her fingers still in her mouth. Then she swallowed her porridge hastily, wiping her hands on the front of her dress before taking up her spoon.
Sansa closed her eyes and mentally starting counting to ten. Her eyes flew open when she reached four beats.
“Rickon”, said Jon in a low, deliberate tone of voice, “it customary to ask to have the bread passed to you”.
She glanced at the sullen boy who had sunk in his chair, his knees around his chest, cramming the slice of bread into his mouth. Then he broke off a piece and tossed it to the floor where Shaggydog snapped it up and gulped it down.
Torrhen continued to eat his meal with his eyes lowered while Lyra stared at Rickon in fascination, her spoon poised in mid air.
Sansa felt Jon’s hand creep on to hers and as he leaned forward.
“I don’t have to go, you know”, he whispered as he gave her hand a squeeze.
She smiled wanly at him.
“You do have to go”, she replied. “They don’t have enough experience to handle these talks on their own”.
Members of Jon’s newly appointed small council had arrived at the Eyrie for a summit with representatives from Kings Landing to discuss border and trade disputes…plus, what to do with the privateers that were still blocking the shipping lanes and causing havoc on the seas.
Jon had the luxury of traveling via dragon and so could wait until the last possible minute to leave. And that minute had arrived.
Sansa watched Rickon as he dangled a hand before Shaggydog’s snout, allowing the pitch black direwolf to lick off the food that clung to his fingers. Then, without warning, he rose from his chair, wordlessly beckoning to Shaggydog to follow him as he sauntered from the room.
Sansa sat back in her chair and tried to find some humour in the situation but it was beyond her. Jon could see the look of despair in her eyes.
“Well…at least it’s an improvement over the first family meal”, he said in an effort to cheer her up.
“That was a bloody nightmare”, she muttered under her breath.
For that meal, Rickon had resisted all efforts to sit at the table with the rest of his family. Instead, he snatched up his trencher of food and retreated to a dark corner of the kitchen. There he ate quickly, a guarded look on his face as he scooped up his food, his fingers swirling over his plate. He snarled at the kitchen staff as they bustled past.
Sansa was mortified when she noticed their sidelong glances. Clearly this was not how the son of a lord should behave, their looks conveyed.
Torrhen and Lyra were unsure how to treat this newly arrived uncle of theirs. They had a very loose definition of what constituted family and tended to treat everyone at Winterfell as extended family members. But Rickon remained somewhat estranged from them with his bizarre behaviour and his refusal to speak.
Shaggydog’s arrival at Winterfell only complicated matters as he and Rickon would disappear for hours into the woods.
“You can’t just lock him away”, reasoned Jon as Sansa fumed, scanning the surrounding landscape for signs their return. “And maybe it’s better this way…it keeps him out of trouble with the other children”.
Before Shaggydog’s arrival there had been fights…so many that Sansa had lost count. The older children in Winterfell had jeered at Rickon, immediately sensing how different he was. And he retaliated with such ferocity, almost biting the ear off one of them, that Jon was forced to assign a guard to shadow Rickon to avoid further confrontations. So it was almost a relief when he started spending the bulk of his time rambling about the countryside with Shaggydog by his side.
She and Jon made their goodbyes after breakfast.
“Feel free to remind Robert that if they begin to stonewall and threaten to drag out these talks that he should show them the exit through the Moon Door”, she said as she laid her hand alongside of his face.
He reached up to take her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist.
“Only if the situation becomes truly desperate”, he chuckled.
She glanced over at the large tent that had recently been erected as she heard the hammering resume.
“It’s a shame you are going to miss the performance”, she said.
Jon made a face.
“Truthfully, I don’t care for mummers…the face paint, the wigs, the elaborate costumes…all they represent to me is falsity”, he replied.
“Ah…but sometimes within that falsity is a kernel of truth that gives us insight into the human spirit”, she said with an impish grin.
Jon coughed lightly and smiled.
“The queen’s first command performance…I can see that you are totally engaged and more than ready to be entertained”, he said as he pulled on his gloves.
They parted ways just as the dragon announced its arrival with a screech that startled the workers and drove them out of the tent with mouths agape.
As Jon and Rhaegal faded into the sky, Sansa lowered her sight to the treetops that crowded the landscape beyond the castle walls. She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear Sam sidle up beside her.
“Looking for your brother?” asked Sam.
Sansa nodded before turning to him.
“What does he do out there, I wonder? What is he looking for?” she murmured.
Sam shook his head.
“Answers maybe? Trying to make sense of it all?” he replied. “I won’t pretend to understand the mind of a mute, feral boy but maybe he’s trying to find the key to unlocking his memories…trying to figure out how he fits into this world”.
Sansa was somewhat taken aback.
“Thank you for that insight…I think you may be right”, she said.
“War tends to create generations of lost children. They lose all sense of family, home and community. They wander through life looking for connections. Sometimes they are able to form new relationships…sometimes never. Most of the time they just get on with life as best they can with what resources they have at hand”, he replied.
Sam turned his gaze to the countryside.
“Rickon is pretty far gone. I confess I have never seen a boy turn so inward that he would reject his own humanity like that but I do believe that he will come back. He’s made significant strides since Jon brought him home”, he said, “but he’s still going to require a lot of love and patience to make him what he was destined to become as the well bred son of a great house”.
A crowd was gathering outside the tent when Sansa, Torrhen and Lyra arrived. After they had been seated, the gathering began to drift in and stake out a spot before the wooden stage.
The performance opened with a song by a lone musician who sang of the exploits of the kings of Winter, beginning with the renowned Bran the Builder, founder of House Stark and the first King in the North and ending with Jon Stark-Targaryen, the Ice Dragon, and his victory over the Others. He strummed on his lute, detailing the majesty and might of the northern kings in a soothing tenor voice.
He bowed low to shouts of appreciation and loud clapping. Then he nodded off-stage and the audience murmured as a sheet of fabric which served as a curtain was pulled to one side to reveal a puppet theater.
The children laughed and clapped with delight as the puppets popped up one by one. They squealed and hollered back as the antics of the puppets became more frenzied. And when the performance was finished, adults and children alike bounced to their feet and called out for more.
The crowd murmured with impatience as they waited for the next act. Finally the curtain was pulled back to reveal two mummers dressed in children’s garb. They opened their mouths to speak but then stopped and stared at the entrance to the tent.
Sansa heard a small shriek and turned, craning her neck to seek out the source of the woman’s distress. Then she rose to her feet with a frown on her face.
“Rickon”, she announced loudly but firmly, “stay if you wish but Shaggydog must remain outside”.
The atmosphere was hushed as everyone turned in the direction of the boy who stood holding the tent flap to one side. His face was sullen and his haunted eyes were fixed on the scene before him. Shaggydog stood at his side, bristling and growling softly.
And then, without one word from Rickon, the direwolf abruptly turned and left the tent.
Sansa nodded at him and patted the bench before her. She could see the hesitation in his eyes before he began to push his way towards through the crowd.
Lyra beamed at him while Torrhen watched him warily as he sat down between them. Sansa sighed and signaled to the mummers to begin.
The play was based on a cautionary tale well known in the north. Sansa had first heard at Old Nan’s knee. Two children, a brother and sister, are separated from the parents and lost in the woods. They come upon a pretty little hut on the edge of the forest where a warm and nurturing woman takes them in. They know little of the woman other than she is kind and generous. She has a number of animals that she is raising and the children are enlisted in the feeding and caring of these animals. All except the mynah bird that is kept in her bedroom, its cage kept dark night and day by a heavy blanket laid on top.
They are forbidden to go near the bird. She says that it is dangerous and will peck their eyes out. They are obedient to a fault until their curiosity gets the better of them so that, while the woman is out chopping wood, they steal into her room and lift up the blanket tentatively.
The bird becomes agitated and begins to flap its wings. The children recoil and shield their eyes in fear.
“Run”, the bird squawks, “run, run away. She means to kill you both and eat you…run, run run away”.
The children cry and hug each other, uncertain as to whether they should obey the bird or stay put as the woman has only ever been good to them. And there they remain until the woman appears in the doorway with the wood ax still in her hands.
“What did I tell you?” screeched the mummer, a man dressed in woman’s clothes, in a falsetto voice. “I told you never to go near that bird”.
The woman swung the ax menacingly as the children backed away slowly. Then they managed to slip around her and slam the bedroom door shut, trapping her inside as they shoved a chair underneath the latch before making a break for the front door. But the door was barred and they looked around in desperation for another means of escape. In the meantime, the mummer was making chopping noises offstage as if the woman was splintering a hole in the door.
Lyra shrieked and snatched up Rickon’s hand. Rickon remained impassive but his eyes were glued to the mummers portraying the children as they ran around, desperate to escape. As they ran across the stage a loose carpet which had been placed in the center shifted to one side to reveal a door in the floor. The children looked at each other knowingly as they reached down to pull up the trapdoor before disappearing beneath the floorboards.
The woman reappeared looking harried, the ax still gripped in her hands, as she dodged around the stage frantically looking for the missing children. Belatedly, she saw the means of their escape and howled her disappointment as the curtain was tugged across the scene.
The audience rose to their feet to show their appreciation for the performance. As they clapped wildly, Sansa noticed that Rickon had slipped away. She shrugged off her disappointment and sat down again with her children to enjoy the next act.
Halfway through the performance, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned to discover one of the sentries with a look of concern on his face.
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace”, he whispered, “but it is most urgent that you return with me to the castle. Master Rickon is causing a ruckus and the black direwolf won’t let any of us near him”.
She could hear his cries growing closer as the sentry led her down the corridor that took them to the entrance to the crypts. The entry was still sealed and Rickon was pounding on the heavy wood and crying piteously. His knuckles were grazed and bleeding. Shaggydog stood by loyally, forbidding them to come nearer.
Sansa could feel Ghost brush past her, his tail swishing furiously. The two direwolves faced each other, fangs exposed, refusing to back down. But Ghost was the bigger and more resolute of the two. After a few minutes, Shaggydog backed away slowly and lifted his head, exposing his throat, to show his brother that he had won this confrontation.
“Unseal the entrance”, demanded Sansa as she seized Rickon's bloody hands.
“But, Your Grace, the king instructed us to never…” one of the sentries began.
“The king is not here and I am in charge”, replied Sansa. “So you disobey me at your peril”.
The sentries looked at each other before one of them disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a few simple tools. They took turns dismantling the seal, tearing apart the wood planks until there was an opening large enough for them to pass through.
The smell of stale air blew through the opening and Sansa wrinkled her nose at the sour odour. She ordered one of the men to grab a torch and follow her.
She held on to Rickon’s arm as they descended the worn stone steps to the vaults that held generations of dead Starks.
The light from the torch flared up and illuminated the parade of stone faces that lined the alcoves. Rickon took up the lead and tugged on her hand as he led her deeper into the tombs.
Sansa looked around fearfully. She always despised coming down here, unlike her siblings who delighted in hiding behind the statues and reaching out to grab her, laughing uproariously as she shrieked in terror.
They stopped when they turned a corner into a small, dark unoccupied space spread out with straw and littered with small, moth-eaten blankets. Sansa stared uncomprehending before turning to her brother.
“Why have you brought me here, Rickon?” she asked.
There was silence except for the sputtering of the flaming torch and the rushing of the water of the underground stream that flowed beneath their feet.
And then it dawned on her. She stared back at the straw and she knew…
“Is this…is this where you hid when the Ironborn sacked Winterfell?” she asked hesitantly.
Rickon nodded mutely. Sansa felt her eyes fill with tears. Was he here by himself the whole time? Did Bran hide down here with him?
She reached down to pull him closer but he stiffened and pushed her away. She could see him open his mouth.
“You left me…you all left me”, he screamed.
Sansa sank to her knees, unable to reply as she felt her throat close.
“First you, Arya, Jon and Father”, he yelled, his voice echoing around the chamber, “then Mother and Robb. You left us alone…me and our crippled brother. We didn’t have our family to protect us. And then Bran left me…”
Sansa sobbed quietly with one hand placed over her mouth, still unable to respond.
“Why?” he cried plaintively. “Why did all of you leave me…why?”
With the sound of his quavering voice rippling into the distance, Sansa shook her head sadly and struggled to speak.
“I’m so sorry, Rickon…I… don’t know what else to say”, she said finally. “It was a complicated and dangerous time and I truly, truly regret what happened to you”.
She reached out and touched his cold, tear-stricken face.
“Please forgive me…forgive us?” she begged him.
But he stood unyielding before her, staring blankly over her shoulder into the darkness than enveloped them. Then he shifted his gaze back to her face.
“Do you promise never to leave me behind again?” he whispered fiercely.
“Never again”, whispered Sansa hoarsely. “I will remain with you until the end of time if that is what you want”.
He lowered his eyes and raised them again before reaching out to gently touch her forehead.
“Then I forgive you”, he replied.
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