The deer was a yearling buck, the buttons on its skull still resembling fat, fuzzy thumbs. The young direwolves nipped at the tendons in its legs and bit into its belly while keeping a wary eye for the quick flick of a hoof that could send them flying. Nymeria circled the scene, keeping watch over her sons and daughters as they became more persistent in their attempts to take down their prey.
The direwolves took turns pursuing the animal with a couple of them driving the deer at a fast pace while the others hung back to conserve their energy. They were learning fast how to wage a war that was slow and patient, proving yet again that the wolves were not only frightening because of their claws and their sharp teeth but also because of their ferocious intelligence and hunger.
The deer hung on, past the point of total exhaustion, in the vain hope that it could escape its fate…that what its gut was telling it was untrue. But as it began to stumble, the wolves closed in like shadows, growling directions to each other. Nymeria held back to allow the younger ones to maintain the deer’s attention before latching on to the deer’s thigh as hard as she could, penetrating the thick hide that still bore traces of the coarseness of its thick winter coat.
The deer screamed and tried to bolt away through the middle of the pack of young direwolves but Nymeria hung on firmly, her teeth gripping the strap of skin and muscle. The deer collapsed to the ground, its flank still firmly lodged in Nymeria’s jaws. As her children descended on their prey and began tearing at its exposed belly, Nymeria released the buck and backed away slowly, allowing them to enjoy their first kill together as a pack.
As the young direwolves ripped into the soft flesh of the deer, Sansa held on to the reins tightly as her horse danced nervously in the face of such carnage. The direwolves had now gone into a full state of frenzy as the taste of blood drove them to snap and rip some more.
“Magnificent”, said Arya with a clap of her hands.
Out of the corner of her eye Sansa could see Ghost, Summer and Shaggydog emerging from the surrounding trees and edging closer to their sister.
One by one the young direwolves drifted away from the remains of their prey, their tongues flicking at the last bloody vestiges of the deer until all that was left were gnawed bones and bits of fur that wafted into the air as the wind began to rise. Nymeria growled softly at her children as they gathered around her, their tails swishing in triumph. She licked at their ears and nudged their behinds as they proudly circulated around their uncles.
Sansa watched the scene silently, her stomach roiling, while Arya dismounted her horse and strode over to Nymeria’s side. She patted the direwolf’s head and stroked her back while murmuring words of approval. Then she glanced at her sister.
“Are you all right, Sansa?” she asked with a furrowed brow, noting the look of distress on her sister’s face. Then a look of understanding passed over Ayra’s face.
“Sorry…I expect you’ve never seen the direwolves hunt before”, she said as she gave Nymeria a final pat.
Sansa shook her head, her face pale and still.
“I had heard the stories… mainly from Jon… but I have never witnessed such bloodlust before now”, she said, tripping over her words slightly as they burst from her mouth.
Arya flashed a crooked smile.
“Aye…it is a savage sight to see them tear into their prey. But did you notice the level of cooperation that it took to corral the deer…how they stalked it relentlessly and waited for that perfect moment to take it down when it was in its most vulnerable state?” she said before kissing her fingertips. “That…was poetry in motion”.
Sansa looked away into the trees for a split second before turning back to her sister.
“They’re able to hunt successfully because they are family, Arya”, she said. “A lone wolf, separated from its pack, will never survive as long in the wilderness. Lone wolves may be stronger and more aggressive, but they are more susceptible to attack and will always have more difficulty bringing down larger prey”.
Arya frowned at her before remounting her horse.
“We’re not really talking about Nymeria and her pups any longer…are we”, she said as she turned her horse towards home.
Sansa gathered up the reins and kicked at the flanks of her horse in pursuit of her sister with the pack of direwolves bringing up the rear.
“You know how I feel about you leaving us again”, said Sansa as she caught up with her sister.
The air was filled with the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves and unspoken words as the horses trotted amiably side by side. Sansa signaled Arya to stop as she pulled on the reins.
“Arya…please reconsider Jon’s offer to accompany him on his trade mission to Dorne”, pleaded Sansa. “They still want you to come and I won’t be able to rest knowing that you are out there wandering the roads alone”.
Arya twisted her mouth in reflection and stared at tree tops before returning her gaze to her sister’s face which was brimming with anxiety.
“It was a half-hearted offer at best. Besides, to what purpose…he can’t seriously expect me to participate in these talks because I can’t think of anything more boring than endless chatter about trade regulations and tariffs”, she replied.
“I’m sure you could be occupied elsewhere for the duration”, said Sansa brightly. “You could offer him extra protection…an adjunct, in a way, to his kingsguard”.
“Sansa, he is a man with dragons…how much more protection could he possibly require”, she replied, “unless, of course, you are hoping that I’ll act as a barrier between Jon and the ample charms of Princess Arianne”.
Sansa felt her face burn as she flushed with embarrassment and anger.
“Did he tell you?” she sputtered. “Because I swear…”
Arya shook with laughter.
“No…Jon is the soul of discretion. You should know that by now”, she replied in between chuckles. “Your face betrays you every time her name is mentioned. Your reaction now simply confirms what I already suspected”.
As her laughter subsided Arya reached out and took her sister’s hand.
“While I am fully aware of Jon’s many attractions, I sincerely doubt Arianne is interested in seducing a shaggy-haired, taciturn northern monarch whose love and devotion to his wife and family is well known so put your mind at ease”, said Arya, squeezing her hand lightly. “Never forget, Sansa, that the two of you managed to marry for love…not for political advantage”.
Sansa gave her a grateful smile as they urged their horses forward.
“I’ll go with him on one condition”, said Arya suddenly. “After the mission has concluded, I will accompany him on a journey of self-discovery…a pilgrimage of sorts. We will visit the site where the Tower of Joy once stood and then we will move on to Starfall to visit with the Daynes. I’m sure Jon has a lot of questions surrounding his birth that they might be forthcoming in answering after so much time has passed”.
“I will present him with your proposal when we return”, she said.
She cornered him in his solar after the midday meal after Sam had deposited a pile of papers on his desk for his perusal. Jon was grumbling and glaring at the mountain of paperwork. His face brightened when Sansa entered the room.
“Come to help me?” he asked with a sly look on his face.
Sansa faltered for a second as she remembered the last time.
“Hmmm…tempting but I’m needed in the kitchen shortly to plan the menus for the week”, she said briskly.
Jon looked disappointed until she leaned forward. She shoved the papers aside and whispered that he was welcome to meet her in her chambers later that afternoon for a quick tryst. He rose from his chair and walked around the desk so that he could pull her towards him and brush his lips against hers. Then she squirmed with pleasure as he tickled her ear with his hot breath, murmuring all the things he wanted to do to her later.
“Stop it”, she hissed as she struck his chest in mock anger. “You’re distracting me from my real purpose for coming to see you”.
He drew back, a broad smirk still on his face. Then he gestured for her to continue. She proceeded to outline Arya’s proposal.
“So”, she concluded, “do you agree to her bargain?”
He looked at her thoughtfully before nodding.
“I can agree to those terms”, he replied, “as long as she is prepared to behave as a member of the royal retinue and act accordingly”.
Sansa gave him a wry smile.
“You might need to better define such behaviour because, based on what I witnessed in Kings Landing, the royals do not behave much better than the small folk”, she said. “Perhaps you could start with rule number one being don’t embarrass your good-brother, the king, with stories of his wayward youth…such as the time he got drunk at a banquet in honour of the Karstarks and ended up passing out in the glass gardens after pissing all over my mother’s prized roses”.
Jon shook his head ruefully.
“Arya and I have enough shared history that she could destroy my heroic stature and easily turn my feet into clay”, he said with a laugh.
Sansa leaned against his shoulder.
“Alas…such are the perils of being a living legend…people are bound to find out eventually that you are simply a living, breathing person who eats, sleeps and passes wind just like everyone else in the world”, she said.
After a fortnight’s preparation, Jon, Sansa and Arya stood outside in the pre-dawn light, a prelude to the journey ahead. Jon had already made his goodbyes to his children, waking them one by one from their deep slumber for a last hug and kiss. Torrhen tried to look stoic but his trembling lower lip betrayed his sadness over his father’s departure. Lyra sniffled loudly and clung to her father’s neck until he managed to gently disengage himself with the promise to bring her back exotic Dornish sweets. Edwyn and Alysane, curled up tightly together, raised their heads briefly as Jon bestowed a kiss on each of their brows and then immediately fell back asleep, their pink, plump lips slightly parted.
“Wine”, said Sansa when asked what gifts she preferred from Dorne. “Oh…and bolts of silk…in bright colours”.
“Do you intend to start a new fashion trend at court?” asked Jon.
“Maybe”, she replied. “We need a change from the dark, dreary colours of the past. This is a new world, a new regime…it’s time to make a few, albeit gradual, changes”.
They stood together on the battlement with their arms wrapped around each other. The air was warm and heavy with the scent of summer flowers that were in bloom. They were serenaded by the birds that were now awake and calling to each other as they flit from branch to branch. And in those few moments of tranquility, Sansa was reminded of a similar morning on a cold, winter’s day almost three years ago.
While Val and Ayra spoke quietly nearby, Ghost appeared to doze at Jon’s feet, his twitching ears the only sign that he was still alert to any dangers that may arise. Sansa raised her eyes to the sky that was rapidly changing colour as the sun rose over the horizon.
“I have no regrets”, she said without preamble.
Jon gave her a puzzled look.
“About what exactly?” he asked.
“Bringing dragons to the north”, she replied. “They saved us, Jon…without them we would have died”.
Jon sighed heavily and turned away briefly.
“No”, he said, “we saved ourselves because we chose to believe that dragons were the answer to our prayers”.
Sansa looked at him blankly.
“Faith is never giving up hope despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Sansa”, he explained softly. He picked up her long braid and brushed the end against his cheek.
“The dragons were a gift from the gods that we chose to accept”, he continued. “It was our faith in each other, our family, our friends and our allies that saved us in the end. We chose never to lose hope because the alternative was to lie down and die. I know we have had our doubts along the way but we had to make a leap of faith into the unknown, hoping against all reason that the choices that we made were right and just”.
She nestled closer and rested her ear against his chest to listen to pounding of his heart.
“I never doubted you for a second”, she whispered fiercely. “Though sometimes I felt like a small child taking her first steps. But I learned to banish fear so I could march forward with you in lockstep all the way”.
He smiled as he rested his chin on her head.
“You are right to not let fear rule your life”, he said softly, “as long as your actions are tempered with caution”.
She tilted her head up so that her eyes met his.
“When have I ever been the rash one?” she complained poking a finger into his chest.
He grinned and shook his head.
“You will always ground me when you believe I’m flying too close to the sun, Sansa”, he said with a chuckle. “You keep my worst impulses in check”.
“That is the fiery side to your temperament”, she replied. “Nevertheless, I will remain open to the notion of having dragons in our midst as long as you can keep them under control”.
Jon then surprised her by sinking to one knee and taking both of her hands in his. She could hear Arya and Val’s barely stifled giggles behind her.
“You are an amazingly tolerant woman, Sansa Stark”, he declared loudly. She yanked impatiently at his hands.
“Jon…get up”, she hissed. “You’re making a spectacle of yourself”.
As he scrambled to his feet she could feel the winds begin to rise. She grabbed at her skirts as Jon held on to her tightly. The dragons’ screeches filled the air and bounced off the walls of the castle.
“Promise me you’ll come back as soon as you’re able”, she said breathlessly as she gripped his shirt with both hands and pulled him closer. “Don’t let Arya drag you all across Dorne just to fulfill some misguided sense of wanderlust. You belong here with me, Jon Snow…with me, your children and the rest of your family. I don’t give two figs about anyone else…just us”.
She glanced at the three dragons as they winged their way closer to their destination, dark shadows against the brightening sky. Jon raised her hand and kissed her fingertips and stroked her hair.
“I will always return to you”, he replied. “That is my solemn promise”.
“Good”, she replied, “because when my faith waivers, I have to know that I can still count on you”.
“Always, my love”, he replied softly as he held her hand to his heart. “I will never let you down…our faith in each other will always sustain us no matter what life throws our way”.
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