The list of petitioners had been as long as Sam’s forearm so Sansa was unsurprised that after the better part of the morning they were still cloistered in the great hall. The midday meal was almost prepared so she decided that an intervention might be in order.
When she entered the hall, she saw that Jon had slid down in his chair and was leaning his head on a hand, gamely trying to look attentive while listening to the man standing before him. Sam was scribbling furiously on the parchment, looking up only occasionally, while Bran sat inconspicuously off to one side with a large book of jurisprudence open in his lap and his head bowed.
Sansa leaned against the wall, waiting for a moment when she could catch Jon’s eye. But the petitioner before him was not going to let this opportunity go to waste so he continued to drone on about hunting rights. She glanced at Bran once more and noticed that he hadn’t moved for several minutes. She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head to one side to get a bead on what she already suspected…her brother had fallen asleep.
Jon finally noticed her staring at Bran and raised a finger, signaling to the petitioner to halt his speech for a minute. He then rose from his chair with a concerned look on his face while Sansa walked quickly across the floor and crouched down beside her brother.
“Bran”, she whispered, shaking him gently. “Are you unwell? Shall we send for the maester?”
Her brother jerked awake and wiped away the spittle from the corner of mouth with the back of his hand.
“I’m all right”, he slurred. “Just a little tired, is all”.
Sansa took a whiff of his breath and looked up at Jon with a shake of her head. There was no indication that the fatigue was due to an excess of wine.
“It’s time for a break, ser”, she said briskly as she moved behind Bran’s chair. “Please join us for our repast and the king can continue to hear your petition in his solar this afternoon”.
The man bowed and left the room to join his companions while the servants arrived to lay out the tables.
During the meal Bran appeared to be listless as he pushed his food around his plate. Arya nudged him.
“What’s ailing you?” she asked.
“Nothing”, he replied irritably as he took a small bite of his meal before pushing the plate away. Then he nodded to his attendant that he was ready to leave. Sansa grabbed his arm as he was wheeled past her.
“I’m coming with you”, she said in a tone which indicated that she would brook no argument. He nodded silently.
When they reached his rooms, she dismissed the attendant. Then she wheeled him over to the fireplace and pulled up a chair before him before sitting herself down.
“You’ve been moody and withdrawn for a few days now”, she said as she took one of his hands. “I know I’m a poor substitute for Mother but if you want to talk, I’m available”.
He gave her a lopsided smile before leaning forward.
“Don’t shortchange yourself, Sansa”, he said. “You’re a perfectly adequate substitute for Mother. But the bonus is that I don’t have to talk to you if I so choose”.
Sansa winced at first. Then she began to chuckle softly.
“Right…point taken”, she replied as she released his hand. “Then I’m willing to listen as your sister and your friend…if you choose to share, that is”.
He gazed off with an expression on his face that was difficult to read before turning back to her. Then he dipped his head.
“I’ve been plagued by nightmares as of late”, he said quietly. Then he raised his eyes.
“I keep seeing the face of a man…a very cruel man”, he continued.
“Do you know who he is?” asked Sansa.
Bran shook his head.
“No”, he replied. “I don’t know who he is nor where he lives. I do know that I have seen him before…the tree showed glimpses of him from the past committing unspeakable acts of horror”.
His head swayed from side to side as his brow furrowed and his mouth tightened.
“I no longer sleep well at night”, he blurted out. “I cannot drive the image of this man from my mind. I have taken to warging into owls and other night birds when I cannot sleep…flying over shadowy hills and dark valleys trying to find a clue to his identity”.
“Oh Bran”, she said as she reached out to stroke his hair, “perhaps I could have the maester prescribe a sleeping draught”.
He shook his head fiercely.
“No”, he replied, “I have to find him”.
“To what end?” she asked.
“He must be destroyed”, he replied, glowering as he crossed his arms. “Because I won’t sleep until the world is rid of such evil”.
Jon was waiting in her solar when she entered the room.
“He’s overwrought”, she said. “He says he is haunted by some demon of a man and that he cannot sleep until he finds him. The man’s identity is a mystery…one that he says he must solve before he is able to rest easy again”.
“Can we help?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“He says not”, she replied. “He’s determined to forge ahead on his own”.
She hesitated before continuing.
“If he finds this man and he is a criminal, he assures me that he will inform us so that the man can be brought forward to face justice”, she said.
The gods will surely punish me for lying, she realized silently, but I promised Bran I wouldn’t tell Jon what his real intentions were. There must be plausible deniability, he whispered. As the king, Jon must never know otherwise it could be construed as countenancing murder.
“Then you must be discreet in your actions”, she had replied. “This act must never be traced back to us...do you understand?”
He swallowed and nodded.
Keeping a secret from Jon was difficult but she knew that this was the price she would have to pay for hearing her brother’s confession.
The days passed and Bran grew no better. Dark circles underscored his eyes and his skin became spotted and sallow. He became thinner as his obsession grew.
Sansa approached him near the stables late one afternoon. One of the groomsmen was strapping Bran’s customized saddle on to a placid garron while Bran sat with his hands raised as if cupping the warmth of the summer sun. Rickon was mounted on his horse already, waiting patiently for his brother to join him.
Sansa leaned over him, both hands planted firmly on the arms of his chair.
“You look like you’re finally at peace”, she whispered.
He opened his eyes and glanced sideways at Rickon who was watching some birds with a bored-looking expression on his face.
“It is done”, Bran replied cryptically.
Sansa nodded and straightened up. There was nothing more to be said.
The news came a fortnight later by a rider sent by Lord Manderly.
“We found the body of a man who appeared to have been killed in a hunting accident, your Grace”, said the man as he rose up. “There is evidence that he was mauled to death by one or more of his own hounds”.
Jon looked puzzled.
“If you give me the name of this man then I will be more than pleased to send condolences to his family”, he said, wondering why Lord Manderly had taken the trouble of sending a man to deliver such news when a raven would have sufficed.
The man took a few steps forward and then halted.
“Well, your Grace…therein lies a revelation”, replied the messenger, “the dead man appears to be Lord Ramsay Bolton”.
Sansa could feel the blood drain from her face and she glanced at Jon who was leaning forward, his brows knitted in anger.
“I was led to believe that the man was already dead”, he barked. “I was told that he died when Stannis attacked the Dreadfort”.
The messenger began to break into a sweat as he was faced with the king’s ire.
“Yes…well…that is the story that was passed around for years”, he stammered. “But then the truth gradually began to emerge that the body that was identified as his was…incorrect”.
Jon glared at him.
“How long has it been known that he might still be alive?” he asked.
“Not…not long, your Grace”, he replied. “I brought the instigator of this deception with me at Lord Manderly’s insistence. He was one of Bolton’s loyalists…he admitted to harbouring the man all this time”.
Jon leaned back, his lips forming a thin line.
“Bring him to me”, he growled.
The man nodded at one of the sentries who backed away into the corridor only to return seconds later with an elderly man who whose wrists were cuffed and chained together.
The man was dragged before Jon and thrust to his knees. Sansa recognized him as Lord Willam Dustin, good-brother to the late Lord Roose Bolton.
“Explain yourself, ser”, said Jon, his voice charged with emotion.
“I swore an oath, your Grace”, he replied in a feeble voice, “I swore an oath to protect the Bolton clan when Lord Roose Bolton was declared Warden of the North”.
Sansa flushed with anger. The Boltons’ rise in power had come at the expense of the Starks’ fall from grace.
Lord Dustin’s eyes were downcast as his head shook and he repeated the same phrase in a feeble voice: “I swore an oath…I swore an oath”.
Jon sighed deeply and nodded to the sentry.
“Release him”, he said. "Much as it pains me to say, I cannot fault the man for honouring his pledge of protection".
Sansa looked at Jon, her eyes blazing, and then brushed aside the sentries posted at the door as she swept from the room. She could still hear echoes of Lord Dustin offering his thanks and promises of fealty in a quavering voice as she charged down the corridor.
Arya caught her arm.
“You look like you want to murder somebody”, quipped Arya.
“I don’t want to discuss this right now”, replied Sansa as she continued to walk rapidly towards her chambers.
Arya lagged behind and caught the door before Sansa could slam it shut.
“What did Jon do?” she asked.
Sansa paced agitatedly before the window and chewed on a nail.
“He let him go”, she replied.
“Who?” asked Arya.
“Lord Dustin”, Sansa replied as she paused. “It turns out that Ramsay Bolton survived Stannis’s assault on the Dreadfort and had been safely hidden away by Lord Dustin all these years”.
“You said “had”…past tense…” said Arya, her eyes seeking confirmation.
Sansa reached out to place a palm against the wall.
“He’s finally dead…killed by his own hunting hounds”, she replied after a quick intake of breath.
“Well”, said Arya with a small smile, “there’s a form of poetic justice”.
Sansa scrubbed her face.
“After what the bastard did to Jeyne…after what he did to all those poor wretched girls…I thought the least Jon could do is throw the old man in the dungeons for a few days to teach him a lesson”, she said. “Or lock him away with Shaggydog for a few hours”.
Arya folded her arms and shifted her gaze to the window.
“I expect he’ll be explaining himself to a higher power soon enough”, said Arya.
Sansa stared at her.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Arya cocked her head and frowned slightly.
“He’s an old man”, she explained. “Why…what did you think I meant?”
Sansa shook her head.
“Nothing…I…I didn’t mean to imply anything”, she stuttered.
The raven came a week later with the news that Lord Willam Dustin had passed away peacefully in his sleep while resting for the night at a roadside inn. Jon expressed his terse regrets to the Dustin family and reminded them that it would be advantageous for them to abandon past allegiances and make amends if they intended to enjoy continued favour with the King and Queen of Winter.
Sansa knocked on her sister’s door, the note still clutched in her hand. When Arya answered she thrust it at her.
“Did you have anything to do with this?” she asked bluntly.
Arya read the note and glanced up at Sansa with a look of incredulity.
“How could I have done this?” she hissed. “Did I suddenly sprout wings? Do you think that Jon summoned Rhaegal for me? Because, in case you haven’t noticed I haven’t been gone from Winterfell for more than a couple of hours at a time…not nearly long enough to seek out and do away with the lord of an old and distinguished house”.
Sansa’s face fell when she realized how foolish she had been in suspecting her sister had a hand in Lord Dustin’s death.
Arya pulled her into the safety of her room and closed the door gently.
“Do they suspect foul play?” she asked in a more urgent tone of voice.
Sansa eyed her warily.
“I’m not aware of any misgivings”, she replied slowly.
“Well", said Arya looking slightly relieved, "then there is nothing more to be said".
And that is as much as I will ever pry out of her, thought Sansa. She made her excuses and left to seek out her brother, Bran.
She found him in the library poring over a dusty tome. He looked up and smiled at her when she entered but then the corners of his mouth drooped when he saw the look on her face.
She glanced around the room before speaking.
“Are we completely alone?” she asked searching for signs of one of his attendants.
He nodded and pushed the book aside. Then he patted the chair next to his.
“He won’t be back for another hour”, said Bran. “I told him I needed to be alone for a little while”.
Sansa swallowed before asking the question that had been burning on her soul.
“Did you have anything to do with Ramsay Bolton’s death?” she whispered.
She could see uncertainty clouding his eyes and his lips quivered before he finally spoke.
“Yes”, he said in a small voice.
She nodded slightly before continuing.
“Do…do you know if Arya had anything to do with Lord Dustin’s death?” she asked hesitantly.
She could see his face set into stony stubbornness but she was desperate to know the truth.
“Please, Bran”, she whispered, “I promise not to tell a soul. Not even Jon…especially not Jon”.
She could see him struggle with his emotions. Then he gave a brief nod.
“But she didn’t do it personally”, he said hastily. “She called in a favour…I…I looked after the master and she took care of the minion. She said he deserved to die for his betrayal. He had already pledged himself to another, Sansa…long before the Boltons…when he swore an oath to Robb”.
She looked him squarely in the eye.
“Then we will never speak of this again…not to anyone”, she whispered fiercely as she leaned over to give him a hug.
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