Sansa had been weeping a lot. She should have been looking forward to seeing her family again, but her grief about parting from Sandor had outweighed any other feeling. The nights without his huge, warm frame at her side had been the worst.
Arya hadn't been of much help and had been gloomy herself. That was a bit of a surprise for Sansa. True, her little sister had left two friends in Harrenhal, but even so, she should have been happier about the imminent meeting with Robb and her mother.
They had travelled for a few days and now, early in the morning, with a sparkling sun rising above a misty sky, they were nearing the meeting point. It was a bridge across a little river Sansa didn't know. On the other side, there was a grove close by. Were Robb and her mother already waiting for them, hidden by the trees?
“Ser Cody?” Sansa addressed the knight who was riding at her side.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Are we in time?”
“Even a little early, my lady. Luckily, we didn't have any problems with the cart wheels, so we didn't lose any time.”
“I see. Thank you, good ser.”
Finally, Sansa's heart started to flutter. Yes, she was looking forward to seeing her brother and mother again, but she was also nervous about how they would treat her and think of her, now that she was a married woman. Married to the Hound. She sighed, and slowly, but surely she started to fidget.
They all got off their horses and the cart and made a makeshift camp where they could eat and drink something, and Ser Robett and his men could relax their sore feet. Sansa and Arya had exchanged some friendly words with the northern prisoners over the last few days, and while they got along well enough together and the men were nothing but respectful, there was also some polite distance as well.
“Ser Robett doesn't know exactly what to think of me. Or perhaps he only sees little more than a child in me, or just a woman who has married an enemy, not much better than a collaborator,” Sansa concluded gravely. Well, she could only hope that visiting her family would restore her good reputation in the north. She didn't only wish so for herself, but also for Sandor. If she was received in good graces, so might he one day.
After having waited for approximately six endless hours, there was some movement under the canopies of the trees.
A rider emerged.
Now, it was Ser Cody who spoke up: “Ah, someone is checking on the situation to report whether we have already arrived. Please stand on the cart and wave your hand, my lady – you are tall enough and your hair can be seen even at a distance.”
At once, Sansa obeyed and waved her arms. Arya jumped onto the cart as well and jumped and hopped and thrashed her arms around wildly at her side.
The rider had obviously noticed them: after a moment, he turned on his horse and galloped back into the forest.
Some minutes later, there was some more movement amongst the trees: a unit of soldiers emerged – and amongst them was a man with the same hair colour like Sansa. For a moment, she thought the man had to be uncle Edmure... until she saw a big direwolf next to the horse.
Robb!? Oh! How he had grown! He was a man in armour now! A real warrior! Sansa squealed in delight, and an increasingly excited Arya next to her yelled at the top of her lungs: “ROOOOOooobb!”
The soldiers advanced, swiftly, but also purposefully and orderly.
So did Ser Cody and his men.
When they came closer to the bridge Sansa could also detect a very weird-looking figure on a bony crock. Seemingly, it was a man, but dirty and grimy, in tatters, and only skin and bones. After a moment of inner puzzlement it dawned on Sansa that this had to be Ser Jaime Lannister, who was to be exchanged against the northern prisoners, Arya and her.
What a shock his sight was! She had seen an impressive, radiant, handsome man in Winterfell... and now she didn't even recognise the wretched person an that old horse! Sansa wasn't sure, if her feelings were adequate, but her heart went out to the poor man, who had obviously not been treated well. She told herself that Sandor's men would take good care of him from now on, and she saw another reason for why it was good that she had come to meet her family again.
Her heart was beating wildly.
And then they were at the opposite ends of the bridge. Arya looked as if she'd start to run towards Robb any moment, so wild was she. From here, Sansa could see that Robb was excited, too, but he controlled himself and looked grave.
“So you have come indeed and brought us what is ours,” he called and went on: “Where's the Hound?”
Ser Cody shouted back: “I am in command here. Due to his ailment, Lord Harrenclegane had to stay behind in Harrenhal, but as you can see he is true to his word. Here are our northern prisoners with Ser Robett in the lead, and here are Lady Arya and Lady Harrenclegane.”
“Harrenclegane? Ailment? What is this rubbish?” answered Robb, clearly annoyed.
So Sansa spoke up: “Robb! Let's talk about these things later! There is no trap here. Let's just come to your side, and send Ser Jaime Lannister over here!”
At once, Robb's eyes turned brighter when he heard her, and he ordered the dirty figure on the old mare: “Right, Kingslayer. Ride ahead. And don't do anything stupid. My arrows are pointed at you.”
Sansa couldn't believe what she was hearing. The man even still seemed to be in chains, was about to get his freedom back, was visibly weakened – and yet, he was being threatened with arrows?
Sharply, she called to Ser Cody, so that everyone could hear it: “You won't point any arrows at anyone. I forbid it.”
The knight didn't look happy, but inclined his head dutifully.
In a much smaller voice Sansa said to him: “Thank you for everything you've done so far. See to it that Ser Jaime is well-cared for from now on. And tell my husband that I love him and that I'm looking forward to the day I'll be coming back.”
“Can we go now?” Arya cut in, unnerved.
Ser Cody just answered: “I will, my lady. The Seven be with you.”
Now, it was Sansa, who inclined her head, smiled... then turned around, let Arya pick up the reins (when had her sister learned how to navigate a cart with mules?) and off they trotted, towards her waiting brother.
When they reached the middle of the bridge they passed Ser Jaime, who had started to move as well.
Sansa looked at the man, smiled and said politely: “Ser Jaime, I wish we had met again under different circumstances. Under better ones.”
The ragged man answered sardonically: “Spare me your lies – I'll hear enough of those again once I'm back in King's Landing. And now – have fun with your “lovely” family. By the way, I don't intend to enjoy their “hospitality” again any time soon. The nest of vipers, which King's Landing clearly is, is still quaint in contrast to the whereabouts of wolves and trouts.”
And with those words Ser Jaime averted his face and rode on.
Sansa's gaze followed him for a moment. How bitter the man was! Well, given that this proud Lion looked like the lowliest sod from Flea Bottom it was hardly a surprise.
Arya only shook her head about Ser Jaime's words, wrinkled her nose, flicked the reins, and on they rolled with their cart.
And then they were there. At long last!
“Robb! Robb! Robb!” Sansa and Arya shouted. Tears of joy were already streaming down Sansa's cheeks, they jumped up from their cart, and the next moment, her younger sister was pinned to the earth by a whining Greywind, while Robb was clutching Sansa to his mailed chest.
Gods! Oh gods! How he had grown! He was a man now! And he looked so proud, so fierce, so regal!
His voice was thick with emotions when he stammered: “Sansa! By the Old Gods! Let me look at you! Oh, how relieved I am! You look so good! So very good! You've become a woman! And so beautiful! Mother will be overjoyed to see you safe and sound!”
Sansa was laughing freely now and threw herself at her brother again.
“Where is she?”
“Mother is in a camp about a mile away. She's already waiting impatiently, as you can imagine. In the meantime – look who has come to meet you as well!”
While Robb was turning to a merrily crowing Arya now, Sansa faced an elderly man with an armour that showed a sigil with a dark trout. It was the Blackfish! Her mother's brother!
“Uncle Brynden?” she called, and the man grinned widely.
Sansa noticed at once the spark of friendliness, but also of intelligence and cunning in his eyes. Yes, this was a man right after her heart!
“Surely, Sandor would come to like him, too,” she thought.
The next moment, it was Sansa's turn to be thrown to the ground by Greywind's huge, furred paws, and the direwolf licked her face wildly. She could only squeal and wriggle and laugh.
What a merry reunion it was!
When they had calmed down after a few minutes, Sansa noticed that on the other side of the river Ser Cody and his men had already left after they had obviously sent the northern prisoners across the bridge as well. She sighed inwardly for a moment, but then smiled again brightly when Robb offered her to lead her to a palfrey he had brought along.
“Or do you want to travel on the cart again?” Robb asked, obviously remembering that she had used to dislike riding.
This had changed, however. Ha, she had ridden Stranger! After they had arrived in Harrenhal she had even sometimes taken it upon herself to move him a little since Sandor couldn't do this, due to his blindness. She had been afraid of the wild, black courser for quite a while, but over the last two to three weeks she had gotten more or less accustomed to the horse, also thanks to Ser Gilroy's good advice. To ride a gentle palfrey now was harmless in comparison!
With an animated motion she wanted to mount the horse, but then, she noticed two things: unlike Stranger this animal was wearing a saddle for women... whereas she wasn't wearing her riding clothes! Since her husband's steed only accepted saddles for males she had simply parted her widest skirts and had sewn the new edges together, so that she had had a mixture between skirts and trousers, so that she still looked female and didn't show her legs either. The more relaxed riding position had also helped her to learn riding better.
Here, however, this was all out of the question. She sighed again and mounted – without needing anyone's help, much to her brother's obvious surprise.
For Arya, things were easier: she was still wearing trousers and simply rode double with Uncle Brynden. Together with the accompanying soldiers they cantered back to the camp Robb had talked of.
“Sansa! Sansa! Oh, my sweet little girl! And Arya! Oh, the Seven be blessed that they have given you back to us!”
Sansa laughed and weeped and laughed and couldn't stop, threw her arms around her mother's neck, and they both clung to each other like mad. Arya's embrace was fierce, too; true, she had had some conflicts with her mother in the past, but after all the hardships they had been through it all didn't count at the moment.
After the first blissful minutes, Lady Catelyn stepped back a little, dabbed at her eyes and looked at her daughters, her Tully blue eyes big and round with wonder.
“Sansa! Arya! How much you have grown! And how good and healthy and strong you both look!”
Sansa cast a side glance at her little sister and thought that her mother was right with regard to Arya, too. After her imprisonment, her little hellion of her sister had put on some weight in Harrenhal, thanks also to Hot Pie who had kept imposing delicacies on her each time she had been lurking in the kitchens again; it had been Ser Gilroy, who had told Sansa that little detail, and she had been happy to know of it.
At that moment, a grinning Rob cut in and teased them: “If I wasn't a married man now and the brother of these two young women besides I would be very intrigued.”
Arya thumped him as if she wasn't dealing with the King of the North, and Sansa giggled and asked: “Where's your wife? Will we get to know her soon?”
“Jeyne is in Riverrun at the moment. The same is true for uncle Edmure, by the way. Anyway, Jeyne is already looking forward to getting to know you. You'll like her; she's lovely.”
Sansa clapped her hands together happily and exclaimed: “Sure! Oh, I can't wait to meet them both!”
Robb laughed back: “Everything in due time. And now, tell me: do you need a break, or shall we start to travel back to Riverrun?”
Arya retorted: “We had been sitting on our behinds and waiting for six hours before you arrived. No, no, let's ride on now.”
Their brother chortled: “Now, if this isn't the unruly little sister I remember! Well, I certainly don't mind to use the rest of the day and to travel some more. Sansa, do you agree?”
In no time, her mother's tent and some utensils from the camp were packed and stored on the cart. Lady Catelyn intended to travel in another, smaller cart.
In the past, Sansa would have sat with her without thinking twice, but now, she said to Robb: “I am still so very excited from the trip, I simply can't sit still. May I ride on the palfrey again? We could talk so much better then. And I think there is a lot we have to talk about.”
Her brother could only gape at her for a moment, but then he uttered: “Well, dearest sister, you surprise me! I didn't expect you to have developed such a liking for horses, but yes, of course you can come along with me. I had intended to converse with Ser Robett, but I guess that it can wait until later. Arya, you'll travel with mother then.”
“Can I have a horse, too? I'd ride next to mother, of course.”
Robb was a little embarrassed now.
“Arya, we don't have a horse left, if Sansa is going to ride.”
Her little sister wrinkled her nose in distaste then.
However, the reunion with her family was still having a gentling effect on Arya, and at least for once, she didn't start to argue, which was a relief.
Robb called out some orders to his men, and once again Sansa thought that he looked like a king. A true king. Unlike Joffrey back in King's Landing.