The news was sudden but not entirely unexpected. He had written a few scant weeks before, complaining of the cold which had set into his bones.
“I can no longer sit a horse for long”, he wrote. “So it is not possible to escape the grey specter of death, who beckons me with bony finger to join him in his kingdom of endless night”.
At first Sansa dismissed his words as the grumblings of a man unaccustomed to a more sedentary life as a retired warrior and vowed to visit him as soon as the twins were a little older and they could make the journey to Riverrun with the rest of the family. But now it was too late as the Blackfish was dead.
She managed to keep her emotions in check as she fled to the safety of her solar which is where Jon sought her out once Sam broke the news to him.
“I should have to gone to him”, she wailed as she gripped Jon’s shirt. “I should have been with him when he took his final breath”.
Jon wrapped his arms around her tightly and stroked her hair as she sobbed into his chest.
“You weren’t to know, Sansa”, he said. “He might have gone on for years…complaining about the damp, the mushy food and the bright young bucks who know nothing of how difficult it is to grow old and be pushed into the background of life”.
She clung to him until she had no more tears to shed.
“You know…it’s not too late to say farewell”, he said.
She stared up at him, her senses too dulled to comprehend.
“Sansa…his body lies in state until tomorrow. If we leave shortly we might reach Riverrun before night falls”, he explained.
She glanced around the room with a look of dismay.
“But…we still have to pack…rearrange our schedules…make arrangements for the children”, she said as she waved one hand lightly.
Jon folded a hand over hers and pulled it to his chest.
“You’re over thinking this, Sansa. We have servants and advisers who are prepared to step in and look after our affairs until we return”, he replied. “Have your women make the necessary preparations and be ready to leave within the hour”.
As they departed Winterfell, they were accompanied by Rhaegal’s two young charges. The young dragons, as yet unnamed, flew in the wake of the older dragon, crisscrossing and calling to each other as they left trails of smoke drifting behind them.
They reached Riverrun just as the sun was beginning to sink behind the trees. As the dragons began to drop in altitude, Sansa studied the changes in the landscape that surrounded her mother’s ancestral home.
The war had taken a severe toll on the Riverlands during its reign of terror. As troops rampaged through the region they torched the fields and felled many a tree. The farmers were left with muddy fields that turned into clay, baked by the midday sun. And when the blessed rains fell, the water rolled off the hardened soil and headed directly for the rivers. The magnificent waterways, swollen beyond capacity, spilled angrily over their banks and drove people from their homes, forcing them to seek higher ground.
Sansa recalled a time when the rivers grew so high that they threatened the high walls of Riverrun itself. Anxiety reached its peak as everyone watched and prayed for the waters to recede and become once again the placidly flowing waterways that had always been the heart and soul of the region.
Edmure Tully greeted them effusively but Sansa detected some nervousness when she saw him glance towards the dragons that circled ominously overhead.
“Will they require housing and feeding?” he asked, pointing a shaky finger at them.
Sansa could see a mischievous gleam begin to form in Jon’s eyes and she knew he was tempted to torment the poor man by demanding that he make room in the yard and empty his pens of pigs and goats so that the voracious creatures could feed. She caught Jon’s eye and gave him a look of warning which reminded him that although her Uncle Edmure was an ineffectual man, he was still family.
Jon looked up into the sky that was settling into hues of indigo and nodded slightly. Rhaegal shrieked and began to beat its wings more rapidly as it turned away with the smaller dragons flapping furiously in its wake.
“That won’t be necessary…they will remain a short distance away until we are ready to make our return journey”, he replied.
Edmure visibly sagged with relief as he watched the dragons’ silhouettes shrink against the fading light of the sky.
Edmure accompanied Sansa and Jon to the small reception chamber located above the Great Hall. There they found the body of the Blackfish lying on a carved wooden slab, resplendent in his battered armour and wrapped in a cloak of red and blue. And although his body had been drained of all fluids and anointed with fragrant oils, the whiff of decay hung in the still air of the closed off chamber.
Sansa knelt by body and held the lifeless hand of the man who had been like a father to her since releasing her from the Eyrie.
While Jon stood stiffly by her side, his hand resting on her shoulder, she was aware of another presence in the room. She heard her uncle murmur a greeting and the rustle of skirts as she observed, from the corner of her eye, a shadow emerge into the flickering candlelight. It was Roslin Tully.
She felt Jon’s hand gripping her shoulder more tightly as if to hold her fast as she took a quick intake of breath. Sansa closed her eyes briefly before rising to her feet.
“Your grace”, murmured Roslin, curtseying before them.
The years had not been kind to Roslin. Her once soft, dewy features had hardened into sharp planes and her chin quivered as she regarded Sansa and Jon with sorrowful eyes.
“He…he was a good man”, said Roslin, barely meeting their gaze as she twisted at the handkerchief clutched in her hands. “He was always…kind to me”.
Sansa sighed and glanced at Jon before extending a hand to her uncle’s wife.
“That he was…good and brave. He will be sorely missed”, she replied warmly.
Roslin flashed a wan smile before linking her arm with her husband’s.
“We will show you to your rooms and then I expect you will want a bite to eat before you retire for the night”, she said as she gestured to them to follow her.
The evening air was warm and sweet, heavy with the scent of the wildflowers that grew along the river. Sansa dragged Jon out for a walk, accompanied by two of the Tully guards.
“That was not as awkward as I feared”, said Jon quietly as they strolled along the path that bordered the water. The moonlight shimmered and danced on the surface while the rushes swayed in the breeze.
“Truthfully…I forgave her years ago when I realized that she would have been powerless to stop the slaughter”, replied Sansa. “So any guilt she still bears is self-imposed…I have nothing to do with it”.
Then she stopped and turned to face him.
“But what of you?” she asked searching his face. “Do you still harbour any ill will? You and Robb were as close as brothers could be…do you forgive her for being born into a family of murderers?”
He cupped her face and leaned in to kiss her forehead.
“Anger and rage have a habit of eating away at you from the inside. So while I will never forget the part her family played in Robb’s death…your mother’s initial death…and the death of hundreds of Stark loyalists…I have no choice but to reconcile my feelings and offer her forgiveness”.
As they lingered for a few minutes longer to admire the stars that clustered in the sky, Sansa recalled from the recesses of her memory lessons on astronomy with Maester Luwin.
“Castor and Pollux”, she said tracing an invisible line between the formations of stars that burned so brightly in the firmament. “The twin brothers that loved each other so dearly that they were permitted to spend eternity together. Now they act as beacons of light in the sky to help guide weary travelers home.”
Jon gazed solemnly into the sky and repeated the names softly.
“Do you think they would serve as suitable names for Thing One and Thing Two?” he asked, a smile forming on his lips.
Sansa looked at him in astonishment.
“Well…this is a turn up for the books”, she exclaimed. “Are you actually bestowing on me the honour of naming your new dragons?”
He grinned and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“They are our dragons, my love”, he replied. “And yes…feel free to name them as you please”.
“Then Castor and Pollux shall be their names henceforth”, she said with a note of satisfaction in her voice.
The family gathered by the river the next morning as a cool mist rose off the water, shrouding the pale sun as it peeked above the horizon.
The Blackfish was laid out in a wooden punt that was tethered to the shore. The pommel of his sword was tucked under his crossed arms while his bow and a quiver full of arrows rested by his side.
He has all that he needs for whatever afterlife awaits him, thought Sansa, as she listened to the waves lap at the side of the boat.
Edmure recited a few somber words to commemorate the Blackfish’s accomplishments and then stood silently before them. Minutes passed before Sansa leaned over to speak to Jon.
“What is he waiting for?” she whispered. “Surely now is the time to set the boat ablaze and send Nuncle off to his reward”.
“There has been a change to the proceedings”, said Jon as he raised his eyes to sky. The wind picked up and she deduced what was to come.
Rhaegal came roaring out of the sun with the younger dragons in hot pursuit. Edmure gave the signal to cut the line and shove the boat towards the fast-flowing current as the dragons bore down on it. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the dragons as they formed a trident and skimmed over the surface of the water in their final approach before Rhaegal unleashed a blast of flame to set the grave boat afire as the river carried it downstream. Then they flew off into the sky and disappeared as quickly as they appeared.
After a few minutes, the boat turned a bend in the river and drifted out of sight. And when they could no longer see smoke curling over the reeds they knew that the boat had finally collapsed and sunk to the bottom of the river, taking the Blackfish to his final resting place in the waters that surrounded his home.
“When?” asked Sansa, turning to Jon as the family began to disperse.
“Edmure came to see me before breakfast”, replied Jon as he took her hand to help her up the steep embankment. “He said it was the Blackfish’s fondest wish that his grave boat be finished off by dragon fire”.
“A likely story”, she said. “I think Edmure took advantage of our presence, knowing full well that the spectacle the dragons would provide would be vastly superior to the humiliation he was bound to suffer trying to set the boat on fire himself. His lack of skill with the bow is legendary”.
“Well”, said Jon with a shrug of his shoulders, “at least you can’t accuse him of lacking showmanship”.
Sansa laughed and then sighed.
“You were duped but in the end I think the old codger would have approved…every ancient warrior wants to go out with a bang instead of a whimper. And what could be more glorious than to be set ablaze by dragon fire before taking your final rest beneath the calm, blue waters of home”, she said as she paused to gaze at the river one last time before passing through the castle gate.
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