The sleeping girl
The direwolf howled to announce her arrival behind the slavers' fleet, and the distance where it prowled seemed less frightening than before.
The sleeping girl could still cross it if she started walking.
The pack has just arrived from the Riverlands, she tasted it more fully than the air she was breathing. So did the blind dog forgotten in Harrenhal that her two-legged sister used to cradle on the way from the Vale. And the abandoned black horse named upon the god of death joined them in the wood, nostrils wide, with a bewildered hot-blooded horse from the far south in tow. The lesser wolves bent all four hairy knees to their she-wolf leader. The ravens are gone, gone, gone, the girl lamented. Then again, they had always only been following the king. The white-headed eagle and the unruly young mountain hawk would follow the ravens. They would return when the king who did not know he was one, until the old gods helped him to open his eyes and see, would ride to the battle with his newly found northern queen.
The air above the capital smells like spilled blood, and the coming sunset will proudly wear its colours, the girl was certain. All animals would come then, even the cursed kraken if let from his cage. All save the mocking bird, lost in the forest of its own pugnacious mind.
The girl dreamed and dreamed, knowing she would forget all her dreams when and if she ever woke up. In her sleep, to her utmost amazement she found that she could walk! When her stupid bastard stag companion left her under the carved feet of the Blessed Stone Dragon of Old, to scream with rage of his late father and kill his false enemy in the mighty river, the girl stood up from her bed of yellow silks. Yellow was not the colour of the wolf. Her legs were frail but she still had use of them, finding the necessary strength in the realm of her dreams.
She did not look at the crow cage hanging above her.
She did not look at the three huddled figures below her, one shaking with sobs wrenching her black undying heart, when the mummers revealed how the sleeping girl's beloved brother was not only a wolf, but also a dragon. The brother pierced with daggers, his fate hidden from her sight even in her sleep, entrusted to a white wolf and a green dragon.
The warlocks from far away have not brought only their sellswords, slaves and galleys to Westeros from across the sea. They have brought their magic, above all. But the animals of the Seven Kingdoms still remembered their own. Somewhere, behind them, there were the children of the forest, and the children possessed great power, for good, or for evil. It was only that it was forgotten, and lost, with the slow passing of time.
For if the warlocks were allowed to take the dragons away, who would then fly north and attempt to do what even the children could not, thousands of years ago? Instead, they dwindled in number. They turned to exile and to dark places, hiding from the Andals and the First Men, coming forth only when great need arose.
The girl walked to the Dragon Gate, to do her duty, forgotten by all, as if she too was a child of a forest. Swifter than a wolverine, she leapt forward on her two feet. The doors would be shut, yet a true water dancer would find the way to have them open. Even the stupid guards were half of a mind to watch the play. The still water could not be stopped. It would run through the hard stone with enough time.
Time that the sleeping girl did not have.
The look that the single guard tossed her way was an odd thing. He gazed at her as if she had been her two-legged sister, her beautiful, sweet, dishonest sister, in love with the fancy southron gowns of blue and green. The thin freckled man, a commoner by looks, neither too young nor too old, stared at the girl's long face and chest that used to be flat. The girl wondered why all the city guards always looked the same. Unruly and unhappy with their tasks. She had to touch her body to understand that she had grown in the time she had been asleep. And it was not only her hair.
"M'lady," the guard stammered. "Would ye go for a short walk if it please you? Ye won't regret your time, I promise..."
"Say rather that you won't," the sleeping girl said, admiring the colour of her own voice. It was deeper and less strident than she remembered it. She tried hard to remember her name, for hearing her own voice was a start, but as always, her effort was in vain.
The guard slowly opened the door and wrapped his armoured arm around the girl's waist exposing both his sword and dagger to her grasp, one at each hip. The sword would be too heavy, and the dagger would do fine.
"Back off!" she commanded him holding his own knife at his throat. "And keep the gates well closed, as the queen had ordered it!" The man hastened to obey, afraid at the mention of his queen. Alone, the sleep-walking girl looked forward through the purple mist and the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon. She stayed in one place until the gate swerved and was shut again. No enemy spy or scout or evil spirit would find room to sneak in after her. She had been a ghost in Harrenhal. She would be the ghost of the wood now, and her aim would not fail her.
Daenerys' fleet was near, but the dutiful girl had in mind a different road. The shortest one through the army of the dead and to the forest behind. Calmer than still water. She didn't think that the dead would harm her for she was only half alive. And if the night went wrong, she'd soon join their ranks. Burned, ashes flying freely in the wind, she hoped, and not the walking kind. She never wanted to have blue eyes like her pretty sister. Grey suited her just fine.
Only when the new king and queen took each other by the hand, ready to depart from the sept, Jaime dared to look to where his sister had fainted. Tommen still tended to his mother, with tender concern. Will I never be free of you, sweet sister? Jaime thought. Yet his worry was not affecting his senses as it had always done in the past. At least there was that. Ashamed of his yearnings, he glanced at Brienne.
"Go," she tried to encourage him, wearing a startled expression he had never seen in her before, ever since the greatest revelation of the mummery evolved before their eyes, or better said behind their broad backs. They had stood immobile, guarding the new king and queen in the white armour of the Kingsguard, so that they could finish their incredible tale in the undisturbed peace of all the gods in the realm.
"I will be all right," Brienne tried harder.
She was almost chasing him away. Jaime felt a pang of hurt in his chest for he expected something else. Digging deep in his darkened soul, the answer was easy to find. He wanted her to be jealous of him, not generous and openhearted about his past. As if the smallness of her heart would be the utmost proof or her love for him. The love which he so desperately required in order to face what was to come. He supposed he would be judged by the laws of the realm as soon as the more pressing matters of the kingdoms were settled, and the latest siege lifted. And the sentence did not loom favourable. As mad as Aerys II had been, Jaime still killed the king he was sworn to protect.
"But," he said, "it's Cersei that I'm going to see."
The outer edge of Brienne's eyes turned stubbornly blue. She did not say another word but Jaime knew that she made up her mind. Not even his father would be able to withstand Brienne's determination had he been alive to witness the defeat of all his designs for power.
"I will be back soon," he said lamely and walked in the direction of his son, hating himself both for leaving his wife to see his sister and his son, and for resenting the magnitude of Brienne's heart. What does that make you? he wondered while walking.
"Tommen," he said, gently addressing his son when he reached his destination. "How is she?"
Cersei lay on her gown of foreign silks, her arms bandaged with what the kindness of ladies around her had provided. Lady Merryweather, Cersei's latest lover, Jaime thought with distaste, was not far, trying to pay a golden dragon to few undecided commoners, to carry the fainted lady to a place of more propriety and comfort than the cold stones near the statue of Baelor. At least she is trying to help her, Jaime tried to be condescending. Distracted, he picked up a shard of glass from the ground. It was singed on one side. Worried, he smelled it. There was no mistake there: the scent was the same as the open jar Jaime and Rhaegar had been carrying.
So now we know who climbed the stairs from the dungeons to open it, sweet sister, he thought with great sadness. Were you quite mad? You would have burned us all if you could not have what you wanted... Just like Aerys would have done.
"Father," Tommen smiled, interrupting the chain of Jaime's thoughts. "I don't know myself how mother fares. She prattles in her sleep, of things I have never heard of. Of a man called valonqar who nearly strangulated her, and of mistakes she made. I've never heard mother admitting that she had made a mistake."
"Neither have I, I'm afraid," Jaime said, more acutely concerned than before for his sister's welfare.
Tommen and Jaime were interrupted by a sweet voice of a young girl. It descended like light summer rain over their joined backs as they were bending over Cersei. The voice that had already thundered over the sept with the force of a dragon, was now clearer and milder than the morning dew.
"If I may," Daenerys Targaryen said innocently, curving her perfect lips in a beginning of a smile. "I have resided in Essos for a while. Valonqar, I believe it comes from old Valyrian. It means "sibling". Younger or older, brother or sister, it makes no matter."
"Thank you, princess," Tommen was the first to master his courtesies in the ever changing circumstances of who sat on the Iron Throne. Daenerys smiled again. Jaime turned around and bowed his head, not certain what he could say. At least Daenerys Stormborn came alone, without a black dragon to persecute him for his crimes against her house.
"You are Tommen," she said.
"Yes, princess," Tommen confirmed.
"My nephew, Aegon, has just shared an interesting piece of knowledge with me," she continued with marked interest in her now purple eyes, carefully treading on an unknown ground. "He said that the Iron Throne has never cut in your flesh like it did in his."
"I may have been too young and too light to feel the bite of its blades," Tommen had the presence of the mind to respond properly, and diminish himself, stretching taller to appear less plump. The roundedness of childhood was slowly starting to give way to muscle, and he was not much lighter than Aegon despite his younger age. Jaime was proud to see his son fighting for his life and that of his parents with courtesy. "It is merely a meaningless coincidence," Tommen refuted his right to kingship further. "I have not known myself for an Usurper then. Now I know that I have no claim to the Iron Throne. Princess, I bent the knee to the rightful king. So did my Father. Mother, alas, was taken by a weakness proper of a lady."
"Yet, what Aegon said is true," Daenerys continued, unabashed by his pretence. "I wonder… What else is your mother telling about this valonqar?"
"That she has made a mistake," Tommen said carefully, not daring not to respond. "And at times she is begging her little brother for forgiveness."
"Tyrion?" Jaime could not suppress a question.
"Tyrion?" Daenerys parroted after him. "That is your younger brother? Is he… kind of short?"
"You could say so, but he has much bigger wits," Jaime informed dryly. "They come from our father, and I was not blessed with them, I'm afraid."
Daenerys clapped her hands with joy as if she was about to start dancing, had there been music to accompany her steps. "It pleases me greatly to hear all that. Siblings are the greatest treasure for the dragons. I have found an older brother today, one whom I have thought lost forever. Won't you come as well to the Red Keep to take part in celebrations?"
"As soon as Mother is taken care of," Tommen was again the one to respond. "Thank you for honouring us by your invitation, princess."
"Oh, it's nothing," Daenerys said. "I will be on my way now."
She said so, but Jaime noticed she did not leave. The commoners left Lady Merryweather during the conversation, not swayed to obey her by the little gold she offered them. In the end it was Orton Merryweather who came to do his wife's bidding, bringing a simple closed wheelhouse, and a pair of ignoble oxen to tow Cersei away. When Tommen started helping the couple to lift his mother, the Mother of Dragons was still standing patiently behind Jaime's back, waiting for him to say something. His eloquence failed him so completely that he only stared back at her, not comprehending a single thing.
"If this is about justice…" he started, seeing that she would not leave.
"There will be time for that, later, after the siege," she said mirroring Jaime's own thoughts, her demeanour much more serious than before.
"Then I fear I do not understand," Jaime admitted his defeat.
"Viserion," she said then as softly as she could manage, so that no one would overhear them. "You have met him, I believe. What did you think of him?"
"He seemed… young," Jaime said, unable to think of anything better.
"That he is," she agreed. "All my children are younger than me and much younger than you or my brother Rhaegar."
Daenerys Stormborn stood on tiptoes so that she could take hold of Jaime's shoulders from the slightness of her stature.
"I named two of my children after my trueborn brothers," she whispered in his ear.
And as if that were the entire explanation Jaime was ever due to receive, she sank back, and turned around, disappearing faster than the sea breeze, speeding after the long line of people determined to carry King Rhaegar and Queen Lyanna all the way to the Red Keep, only by the force of their rejoicing hands, and not in any carriage lavishly built by an artisan.
As if the force of their gladness will be enough to defeat slavers on its own, Jaime thought, his mood darkening again in a whim. A black tail swept above him in the skies, never far away from his mother. Drogon, that is what they call the black dragon, Jaime remembered. And he couldn't help but wonder who the black child was named upon, for no name similar to that one had ever been recorded in the proud long lineage of the House Targaryen
Brienne remained standing for a short while where her husband had left her. As soon as she was certain that his attention was not on her, she faded in the multitude abandoning the sept as blandly as she could, with her ostentatious appearance and shiny white armour of the Kingsguard betraying her on every step she made.
When the people veered towards the Red Keep, Brienne continued alone to the Mud Gate, in front of which, only a few dreamlike days ago, she had found Jaime in the water where a dragon had dropped him. She thought then that the entire tale of being kidnapped by a dragon and taken to Tarth of all places had been Jaime's mummer's farce, to soften the offence of asking for her hand without telling her first. Yet with every passing too short day and night in Jaime's arms she was less and less certain about her suspicions and fears.
There was no lie in his embraces or it was so well hidden that she would gladly live in it forever. He kept looking at her as if she were the most beautiful woman in the world, more so with each day. Jaime saw something in her that the mirror and Septa Roelle were not able to observe, but which was nevertheless there. She didn't know when she stopped being afraid that he would return to Cersei as soon as he could, but she just did. Just like that.
So maybe the rest was also true.
And while she was impressed by the rightful king coming forth from the depths of time, and while she bent her knee willingly and wanted to serve the kingdoms as a knight if she be allowed, there was something else only she must have heard in King Rhaegar's and Queen Lyanna's confession that wouldn't leave her mind.
King Aerys II, the Mad King, had done something to Jaime's mother. Who would also be Cersei's mother, and Cersei and Jaime were twins, so they could not have a different father.
A suspicion too terrible to imagine crossed Brienne's mind. There was only one way men commonly hurt women who were not their wives, short of murdering them. The Bloody Mummers would have done it to her, not caring about her size and ugliness if Jaime did not shout about sapphires, risking that their captors cut his left hand as well. And she was spared a rape to come a maid to his arms on their wedding night.
Wife and sister are one and the same word in the language of the dragons, she retained that too, drinking courage from that thought. White-armoured, she was steadily climbing the rounded stone stair, leading from the Mud Gate below to the battlement on top of it. Then, husband and brother should also be the same.
Brienne had no living siblings any more, so she felt half-crazy when she closed her eyes, leaning over the high parapet of the city wall, to be almost in the air.
Brother! she hurled inwardly, but no sound had left her mouth.
She hoped that her terrible suspicion may be founded and that the white dragon would come to her, and offer King Rhaegar and Princess Daenerys the proofs Brienne needed to save her husband's life. Further kinslaying would be against the laws of the realm, if committed in full knowledge of the matter.
Brienne closed her eyes again and waited, hoping beyond hope.
The king left the sept and walked through the streets of King's Landing. The Hound watched his back from the danger that never came. The man Sansa loved was buried again, somewhere behind the appearance of a cruel soldier clad in mismatched armour. Everyone wanted to touch the king's garments or his silver hair in sign of good fortune. They brought him the boy whom he helped deliver, called Arthur, a sturdy babe of almost one moon. They asked for reassurance that the siege would not last. The queen walked behind, with Sansa, speechless and smiling. Sansa wanted to ask someone, anyone, where her sister was, and why she wasn't told before that Arya had been found. Found ill, in need of help, if the king's confession was true.
It certainly rang as the truest song Sansa had ever heard.
Then, maybe it was Arya who did not want her help, or for Sansa to be told where she was. Upset, Sansa seized her aunt's arm harder. But under the statue of Baelor the Blessed, the newly returned assurance of having a family was torn away from her. The multitude was of a mind to carry the king and the queen further, high up on their shoulders, without anyone's command. Sandor Clegane followed close after them, in strides worthy of a giant. Sansa could not keep up the pace. She tried, yet soon she was left alone, forgotten by the mob, firmly set on its path from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep. At least no one tried to get hold of her for which she was grateful. The people were in a mood for cheering, and not for killing like when they rioted against Joffrey's heartless remarks, eager to taste the blood of the Bastard King. Sansa waited for the tide to pass, to follow them at the safe distance, holding onto the dais of the statue of Baelor, wondering if he too was as noble as her aunt's husband seemed to be.
Sansa did not want a noble husband. She wanted a burned one.
Her flow of thoughts was interrupted by a plea from above.
"Sweet lady," a dark voice said from the cage under the grey sky. "Help me. If you do not, no one else will. There is a chain at the hip of the stone dragon. Lower me, please."
Sansa raised her gaze until it met the black eyes of Lord Euron Greyjoy and they didn't inspire fear. They didn't seem evil at that moment, only arrogant as Theon's used to be. And Theon was surely reckless, an unreliable ally and a traitor to her brother Robb. But in the end he still saved Jeyne Poole from being forced to lay with animals, and he did not burn Winterfell. "Why would I help you, my lord?" she asked, wondering what she should do.
"Because you want your aunt to live," Lord Greyjoy said with perfect courtesy of a highborn lord. "You want the victory of the wolf and the dragon."
"Why is it that you do not gurgle, my lord," Sansa had to ask, taking offence in his assumptions of what she wanted. "Like the creature my late mother had become. I know what you are."
"And the thing that I am can sense the glimpse of truth in men… when I am not deceived by my own dreams of glory, that is. And those illusions have crumbled to the ground, I can ensure you," Lord Greyjoy rattled the chain of the cage, slightly upset by Sansa's lack of acceptance of his claims. "Lower me, please. I will tell you what I know. Then, you will decide what to do with me."
When her thin hands grasped the cold chain, Sansa feared she was once more being guilty of excessive trust. Surely, there is no harm in talking, she thought. As there was to be no harm in the godswood where Littlefinger nearly caught you, the voice of her awareness answered her. Yet she was unable to follow her own wisdom, although acquired with suffering and pain.
"Littlefinger, that's a sweet name," Lord Greyjoy said as if he could indeed read her thoughts, his black-eyed face arriving at Sansa's height from above. She returned the favour in kind, by staringinto him as she would peek in the mind of the Hound's horse or of another simple animal. All she sensed was great hatred, and the powerful burning of betrayal, but no imminent deceit. Then again, men were crueller than beasts. She never felt hatred within a beast, yet. Mayhaps, only in the black dragon. The dragon who was neither human, nor a beast, nothing, really.
"Littlefinger, my lady," Lord Euron repeated. "He offered me revenge! But it is not the kind of revenge I desire to fill my empty dead heart. I seek vengeance against the one who led me to believe I could win this war! Not against those who were my betters in a fair fight. My false ally intended that I would burn in the end, and he would take the dragons for the foreign lords. I dreamt of gold, my lady, as most boys from the Iron Islands do."
"But all that there is, all that remains, is iron. The price has to be paid."
"The Wall your priest had seen in his fires is far away from the walls of King's Landing," Sansa whispered with comprehension, to hide that his words have moved her, wondering if she was committing treason for lowering the prisoner of the Targaryens to the ground.
"Indeed," Lord Euron said. "And as a man of the Seven Kingdoms before I was a sea captain or a lord, I should have seen it too. Maybe I shall go there yet, for the battle to come in the future."
Sansa still sensed no fraud in the dead lord before her. "If I let you go, my lord, what would you do then?"
"Me? A cursed wight who only kept his voice from his previous handsomeness?" Euron laughed, but the sound of his mirth was hollow, first time recalling the terrible threatening sounds of the Lady Stoneheart. "What I had wanted was the most beautiful woman in the world. She will have my head for what I did to conquer her. Yet before she does, I would bring her a mighty gift. A head to stand with my own on the spikes above the gates…"
"They will open the gates soon," Sansa said, hesitating.
"It would be best if they didn't. Then the cursed candle will leave the city, and the warlocks may be able to use it the same way I wanted to use the horn. The maesters of the Citadel say that the glass candles are only burning because the dragons have come back to life."
"So if one extinguishes such a candle by a work of dark magic-" Sansa assumed, living a new song. As merciless as some songs could be.
"-A dragon, or more of them would die," Euron finished. "Do not ask me how it is done, but you have seen the thick evil shadow that had taken my army out of Highgarden. You were swept by it yourself. Was that natural? Moqorro calls his god the Lord of Light, but the only true force I have witnessed from that god was in creating living shadows of darkness. I was ignorant to accept his guidance. Those who have more power will never bend to those with less."
"I will look for the candle, my lord," Sansa said coldly. Lord Greyjoy may have been lying but she could not risk that he had been telling the truth. The black dragon saved Sandor. It saved her aunt. Sansa was born a Stark. And if dragons were in danger, she was bound by honour to help them. Her late father would expect no less. She took the key from the top of the cage where it was stored, but she did not put him in the lock. She just took it and walked away while Lord Euron cursed behind her in language not even the Hound would have dared using in her presence.
The house of the fisherfolk was far from the sept, but Sansa made good pace through the stone-paved streets, choosing the emptiest ones she could find. She made her braid tighter as she walked. Passing a fountain, she looked at her face in the surface of the water, just like Rhaegar had been doing in his affliction and misery. The image surprised her. The stern expression she wore made her face longer, and her bright blue eyes almost grey in the lateness of the autumn afternoon. A Stark through and through, Prince, no, King Rhaegar had said, and he had thought that when he had first seen her, although devoid of any courage and almost relieved of her own free will on the way from the Vale to the Quiet Isle. An obedient daughter-whore of a very dangerous man. The expression she wore now subdued her natural beauty, and the grey dress she wore helped her to look plain, for the first time since her early childhood. Sansa Horseface, she thought, giggling, content about the change.
You will never learn, sweetling, the voice of the mocking bird said in her head, but she refused to heed to it.
Before continuing to the fisherfolk, at the fountain she saw a cat. An animal Arya would like, no doubt. Part of the dancing lessons her sister took and adored when their father still lived included cat catching around the Red Keep.
"Here," she told the grey furry thing and thought that the cat should bring the key to Lord Euron in his cage. In her mind, she showed the animal the way. A crippled warg, she thought, remembering her dead direwolf, Lady. Only that my stumps and scars are all on the inside. She had no idea if the cat would obey her wishes. At any rate, Sansa was gone far enough from Lord Greyjoy and he did not know where she headed. He could not catch her or hurt her if that was his real intention.
Sansa was too late.
The fisherman's house gaped empty, and the cursed candle was gone. Only the White Book of the Kingsguard still stood above the fireplace, where Ser Jaime kept his treasured possessions. The book was open on an almost empty page that should have been about Ser Jaime himself. Maybe if we all live, the new Kingsguard will write about Ser Jaime and the White Dragon, she thought, and her thought was like a vision of truth. Like when she told father that Joffrey had nothing to do with the old drunken king, being golden of hair, and she was terribly right in her childlike blindness about a handsome prince. What does Ser Jaime have to do with the dragon then?
A figure stirred in the street behind her when she walked out, in the shadow cast by the wall where her aunt had climbed to reach her husband, imprisoned in the high tower of his thoughts. A man's hand was on Sansa's mouth, the skin of it naturally dark, even if it had never seen the sun. Sansa yanked forward, ran, and screamed. The man followed her closely. She was lucky to run into a merry party of commoners and hedge knights walking towards the Dragon Gate with some women of less noble repute. Between them, she was safe, and no one knew her for a lady she was.
"They will open the gates now, the true king will", the leader of the party said. "He will prevail over the siege against us."
In the midst of the warm bodies, Sansa thought of a body she missed, when it was pressed next to hers in the sole presence of the wooden statue of the god of death. He is brave, she thought, he'd want me to be brave as well.
The man who attacked her at the fisherman's followed suit. His face looked empty as if he didn't have one, or as if he took his face off, if that was possible at all. And in a flicker of the last light of a day, it changed. For a short while it resembled the face of Lord's Euron red priest. But all redness was gone from him, sucked out by some monster. Only the grey and the black remained. Sansa watched him on a sly. There was purple glow in his breeches, the purple of King Rhaegar's eyes, the dark purple of the pupils of the dragon, and the evil purple of the cursed candle Ser Jaime used to have…
So you have it, my lord, Sansa thought.
The drunken party stopped in front of the Dragon Gate where a company of knights was getting ready for a sortie. They were mounted, and the tips of their lances adorned with winter roses which have rapidly grown in the streets of the capital in the two days since the mummery has started, Sansa knew. Lord Mace Tyrell was about to lead the riders. His men looked tall and handsome, knowing no fear.
There were scouts on the battlements who announced that the air was clean. The enemy withdrew to the forest behind the galleys, and the dead of Lord Euron were nowhere to be seen.
"Shouldn't we wait for the orders of the king?" a thin boy asked, but Lord Mace just waved his hand.
"The air is clean, you have heard the scouts," Lord Tyrell said.
The air did not smell clean to Sansa at all. Her lungs filled with awful premonition that opening the gates might be the mistake that was going to doom them all. No one she trusted was there, be it a man, a woman, or a dragon. And the knights all looked too confident, like poor Ser Loras when he met his death…
Sansa's attacker, coloured like darkness, crept to the door as an evil shadow. The purple glow was still within his breeches. Sansa carefully abandoned the drunken party, and followed the man on a sly, as she sometimes did in the Vale to avoid both Sweetrobin and Petyr, or recently, when she spied on Lord Euron like a humble slave. The space in front of the gates was filled with people, almost as crowded as the plaza in front of the sept during the mummery.
The huge door went open and a tiny portion of darkness entered the city. Lord Mace and his men rode to the outside, waving their shiny weapons, ignoring the prudent whinnying of their horses. Sansa had no weapon, or shield. So she donned the mask of white weirwood, the tree of the old gods. After all, it burned the priest of the red god serving her mother. She forced herself to exit the city, guided by the fickle purple glow disappearing fast on the left hand side. The gloomy long shadows approaching the riding company avoided Sansa, or her masked face. She too paid attention not to step deep into the dark immaterial shapes hurrying to meet the riders. When Sansa was far from the walls, darkness engulfed Lord Mace Tyrell and his horsmen.
Screams for mercy and help could be heard from a black void, Wild like the cries of the victims in Highgarden when the dead would breach the ring of fires and catch some of the living. But not a single wight could be seen, and the blackness between Sansa and King's Landing became thicker than when the red priest vanquished the daylight in the Reach. Sansa still saw the purple glow ahead of her, resistant to all darkness. She followed it. She would believe later on, when the Long Night was over, that the hope to reach it kept her safe. It must have been important to the invisible enemy, so they let it pass, and with it a grey-looking, stern woman who was not a danger to them.
Far behind, she could hear King Rheagar's iron-coloured voice repeated endlessly by the angry rasp of the man to whom she belonged and the never surrendering voice of Mance Rayder. "Close the gates!" three men bellowed. "They are not to open until further command!"
Not stopping to regret the destiny of Lord Mace Tyrell, Sansa stepped further away from the city. At least I have one suitor less, she thought, following the glass candle. She didn't see another lithe human shape walking after her at a prudent distance: the cursed dragon-stealing wight, released from his crow cage by a stray cat.
Sansa walked tenaciously until the foreign ships came in sight, the galleys which did not belong to Daenerys Stormborn, but to a new enemy. Their lords were waiting in front of them. They were only five, and they were grey, like the sixth lord who approached them before Sansa did, boasting the candle he had stolen to his peers. It shone brightly in the darkness emanating from the lords, and it was welcome by the sighs of his kin.
"We are few," one of the grey lords said. "And one of the dragons has grown powerful. It may prove difficult to weave the spell."
"The orders are clear," said Sansa's attacker who brought them the treasure. "If we cannot capture the dragons, we have to put them to eternal rest."
Sansa did not think it was the kind of rest the dragons would have wanted. Under the deck of the galleys she noticed many eyes. Of slaves chained to their places, afraid and resigned, ready to sink with those ships. Hopeless eyes, mirroring despair from one another.
The grey lords formed a circle holding their hands. The burning candle was in the middle when they started their chanting. The faces of the slaver lords from Essos they wore when Sansa spied on them, and Lord Euron treated with them, were ranged next to the brown hull of the first galley. Skin and bone disguises were hung like gowns in a lady's dressing chamber. They took them off like the knights of Westeros would disrobe of their armour. One of the faces belonged to Moqorro, the red priest.
"If we succeed," said the grey lord who stole the candle, and who must have been Moqorro, "we may loose consciousness for a short moment."
"As long as when we wake up the dragons are dead," answered the other, stronger looking.
Sansa missed Nymeria and closed her eyes. She would be able to leap among the grey lords and run away, far enough, fast enough, taking the candle out of their reach. But no one was there. There was no hero, no knight, no king, no fierce direwolf to stop them. Only Sansa, the liar. Sansa, the coward. Sansa who remained attached to her worthless life where so many brave men and women have died.
With her eyes well closed, she could smell the wood. It was right behind the chanting lords, and its scent was not cursed, or too cold, as the forests in the upper parts of the Riverlands have become, haunted by the terror of the north. Sansa shivered at the memory. It seemed as if the forest had walked closer to the capital and the galleys over night, just like the bushes of blue roses had grown higher around Highgarden when the city was in need of protection, and dry wood to burn. Many rose bushes had perished in the fires during siege, paying their toll to safety. Deep in the wood, there was someone Sansa knew, but the presence was too far away, and she didn't feel it for such a long time, that she could not name it for what, or who, it was.
The grey lords started singing in a low voice. They didn't seem to see anything any longer, apart from the candle between them. Their song would last, Sansa believed, so she walked to the galley first. To her wonder, the slaves were alone, all their masters apparently gathered around the candle. The sellswords were nowhere to be seen. A bundle of keys lay abandoned at the seat where a man drumming the pace of rowing would sit. Sansa took the keys and started opening the chains, hurting her fingers as she did it.
The men just stared at her, some old, some younger, some no more than boys. There were no women.
"Walk to the woods," she commanded them, unaware how at that moment she was every inch a great noble lady her parents had raised her to be. "They have forgotten about you, for now."
The braver ones among the freed slaves moved to the other galleys until a silent army of unarmed men withdrew to the forest, and Sansa dared to approach the grey lords again.
The flame of the candle was less, and she had to do something.
If only she had known what.
"Lady Sansa is not here," Sandor Clegane said timidly in the spacious hall belonging to the small council in the Red Keep.
"Neither is Lord Connington," said the new queen.
"I entrusted Jon and Lord Varys with an errand, while you were about to butcher Mance Rayder using the knife he gave you as a gift," Rhaegar gently teased his wife, purple eyes flaming, and the Hound had to remind himself all over again that the man who loved him as a brother was not a septon at all. More serious, the king told everyone, "Lord Varys was the first one after my wife to recognise me, I'm afraid. According to his words, he saw who I was when I asked my queen's niece in a mummery if she loved Rhaegar, in the last scene. He waited for me in the sept with Jon, as soon as Mance pushed me out of the stage."
"Sansa is not here," the Hound repeated, doggedly forgetting to call his little bird a lady.
"As long as she hasn't left the city walls she will be safe," the king said. "There is old protection in them, against the evil that had followed my sister over the seas. We should not open the gates until nightfall, and Drogon will not fly with us today. It's too dangerous."
"I agree," his sister said, coming out of nowhere, with Aegon and the dead girl from the Riverlands. "The slavers have come for only one thing."
"Dragons," Rhaegar sighed. "Those with tooth and claw, and no silver hair. Beloved sister, how many times have men tried to take your children away for you?"
"One too many, sweet brother," Daenerys returned his courtesy. "So far only Lord Euron has succeeded, with the help of his brother Victarion, the one he had forced to blow the horn in Highgarden."
"I wonder," Rhaegar said, pensive...
"We should ride out at nightfall," the Queen Lyanna said. "Make it for the galleys and gut their leaders."
"Free the slaves," Daenerys added. "The Golden Company and the Unsullied together should be able to overcome the enemy."
"Not if Euron's army attacks us as well at nightfall," Aegon suspected.
"How about... using wildfire against the wights?" Daenerys dared asking.
"No," Rhaegar said. And once again, with more decision. "No."
"Have I missed something?" the Hound heard Ser Jaime Lannister entering the small council chamber. To his mild surprise, none of the Targaryens thought it strange. "I missed all the joy and celebration, I think. So do tell me, what is the battle plan?"
"Go get yourself a horse, white knight," Mance Rayder told Jaime. "The king of you kneelers has spoken. We will ride out tonight and against who, we shall still see."
"Will you come too?" Rhaegar asked Lyanna with liquid soft fire in his voice.
"I would gladly," she said, "but I cannot. Not this time, not in this body. I will fly with you as an eagle."
"Why?" he asked, breathless, uncertain.
"I will let you know when you return," she said. The king opened his mouth to speak, but she put two thin fingers on his lips. "Don't even try to say that. You will return. The gods have not brought us together after twenty years to immediately tear us apart. They may choose to do it tomorrow, but they will not do it today."
"I will take my leave now," the Hound announced to Rhaegar, sick and empty of heart from the tender exchange he witnessed. "I will find the Lady Sansa and stand by your side at the gates before nightfall if you would have me at that place."
"I could not do it without you, brother," Rhaegar said with disarming earnestness, and the Hound knew he could not fail him.
He had to find Sansa first, and he had to find her fast.
He was so obsessed about it at that moment that it escaped his notice how he, Sandor Clegane, the grandson of the kennelmaster, was made part of the small council of the new rightful king. Not even Ser Barristan, silent next to Daenerys, opened his honourable old mouth to voice a single complaint.
The flame of the glass candle was getting less and less. Sansa walked towards it, trying to overcome her fear of the grey lords as she went.
When she stepped in the circle and touched the candle, its surface was pleasantly cold, and the purple glow grew paler by every moment. She exhaled, happy that her own deed of bravery did not require burning to complete the task she set herself to do.
When she tried to move the candle, the warlocks stirred. The one that used to be Moqorro tried to attack her again, but she wouldn't succumb to him, or relinquish her glass prey. Backing away, she ended in the arms of a stronger grey lord, cold and bony like she had imagined the arms of Ser Ilyn Payne would be, when he would wield her father's sword to chop her head off at the Queen Cersei's or Joffrey's command. Lifeless touch took the place rightfully belonging to the warm strong arms she had first known on the kingsroad mistaking them for Father's. She had grown since, and the warmth she felt then turned into a fire in its own right. A flame to melt the ice of her upbringing, courtesy and fears. Sansa struggled to escape the clutches of her captor but he pressed her stomach with one boneless arm and squeezed her thin neck with another. At least her face was safe, for the creature showed no love for the mask of the old gods.
"Let go of the candle! It doesn't belong to you. Let go of it and breathe," the grey lord said. "If you do not, you will not breathe for long."
It was no idle threat, yet she purposefully kept the candle to herself, and contentedly observed the sea behind the galleys. The waves lessened in the gentle evening breeze, almost to a standstill. The sun will soon sink completely in the Blackwater Bay, she thought, admiring the beauty of the very last moments of the sunset, not willing to think of fingers oppressing her throat. With the final disappearance of the sun, Sansa's life felt smaller and on the end. In a blur, she could see the other grey lords hurrying to grasp the skins and faces they had left hanging on the hull of the ship. To Sansa's surprise, their skins were gone, and their lack made them turn into a frenzy of movement and issue shrill cries of murder.
They searched everywhere. Only the one holding her neck did not take part, but his grip slightly weakened. Sansa took a mouthful of air. Clutching the candle to her heart, she looked towards the city.
There, the gates opened.
Great army led by a silver-haired man and woman strode forward lazily towards the galleys, unafraid of the dead marching slowly toward it from the other side of the road, opposite of where the slavers' ships were anchored. The sellswords hired by the galley owners finally made their appearance too, from under the dark green eaves of the forest.
Half of the army which poured from King's Landing carried torches, to light their way through the ever denser darkness. The Targaryens will not attack the dead, Sansa understood. Queen Daenerys must have been more moved than Sansa believed by a sight of a wight who still knew his wife and children. Maybe she has a heart, Sansa thought. Maybe she wouldn't want me to marry a Frey even if she were still the queen... The goal of the army defending the access to city were the empty galleys, the grey lords who whinnied without their human skins, and their well-paid sellswords armed and ready for battle.
Sansa held to the candle as she had never held onto anything in the world, except Sandor Clegane. The sweetness of her memories gave her force. I will be brave, she thought, for both of us.
"You may yet save the dragons," the lord holding her whispered. "But you will not save yourself. Let the candle, and I will let you go."
The horseman she wanted to save her was approaching fast, riding next to his king. Seeing her, he increased his sped. But he rode a different horse, not Stranger, and Sansa instinctively knew he might not make it on time, not before the creature holding her delivered on his threat. Maybe only maidens are saved, she thought. And I am no longer one. She fought the desire to faint, struggling to keep her eyes open, and pay attention to the king and his men.
Her vision blackened for a moment. When she painfully reopened her eyes, the candle in her hand was still burning, a bit brighter purple than moments before, if her vision had not been damaged. A lithe figure in a dark cloak sprang to life as if from nowhere, not far from Sansa. It lopped the head of the grey lord who used to be Moqorro, the red priest.
Than he cried to the army riding from the city, just before it would finally reach its enemies. "Mother of Dragons, if you pity the slaves, tell them in High Valyrian not to take off their collars! They can best stay where they are hiding in the forest ! That way my men will know that they are not the enemy, just like they do not attack their old parents, wives and children... Stay your own army in place, and they will not be harmed! I swear it by the Drowned God, and not only! I swear it by the blood of my ancestors, and the future of their children. May the doom fall on all of the Iron Islands, and kill every man, woman, and child, if I break my oath."
Lord Euron did not wait for the princess to answer. He took the head he wanted, and ran off to take his place at the head of his own army, on the deck of the red-hulled ship, which was approaching the king's army and the slavers' sellswords alike, its black sails unfolded and unforgiving.
After a moment of silence, the clearing before the galley was invaded by a thundering command, given in a strident voice of a woman which was more dragon than human, in a language Sansa was taught by the maester, yet in words she did not understand.
Sansa coughed, choking, hoping, choking again. Never losing hope. If she survived Joffrey and Petyr, she would survive a grey lord from the cities far away. He was the only one of the five lords still living who did not frantically look for a skin to wear, so he must have been as ugly and as grey as he appeared. An abomination fathering evil shadows that swallowed the ignorant knights and their leaders. Sansa almost felt sorry for the Lord Tyrell now that he no longer lived, and could not ask for her hand again.
The grey lord can't be more dangerous than Joffrey or Petyr, Sansa concluded. She gripped the candle even tighter, and she foolishly believed that the black glass object blew some air she was starting to lack in her painfully constricted chest.
"Relase it," the lord said again. "And I will let you go."
He is lying, Sansa was certain. Perhaps not obeying him was the only thing that kept him from choking her to death. That or the mask she wore, she would never know for certain.
The king's army stopped in place, surrounded by torches. Only one man kept riding forward, determined to reach Sansa, maiden or not. Expectation filled her chest in place of air. If she died at that moment, she would have died content. Sandor... she thought as some lady from the songs of her childhood would, to appear more noble in her death. You may not arrive on time to save me, but the candle will still be burning.
Or you just might, she changed her mind, returning sharply from the realm of her illusions to the life she still had. She prayed for salvation, hope going wild in her throat. She fought hard to leave the mortal coil of her attacker, but it only made her loose breath faster. The creature hissed and grunted, displeased with her efforts.
Sandor was only several steps of the horse's hooves away. He would reach her if she could only stand it for a little while longer.
"I would go with you this time," she stuttered weakly, half-unconscious, doubting that anyone could hear her. Tired, she stopped resisting the unavoidable, saving the last portion of air by not moving her body.
Four grey shadows around her stretched their long fingers to catch the glass candle, once it would fall from her weakening hands. As if that were something that the gods would not allow, huge four-legged bodies assaulted the greedy lords, angrier than bees defending their hive. Glistening dark grey fur mingled with the dull life lacking greyness of the godless slavers. And when the grey lords screamed, dying, being eaten to death, they did it like ordinary men, all their power lost in the act of final defeat. There was only one enemy left, holding Sansa. A thin knife blade appeared between Sansa's shoulder and side then, cutting through the grey matter behind her.
The pressure on Sansa's neck was slowly less, and soon it stopped entirely.
The Hound had her in his arms when she fainted, made of honey, and not of sinew and muscle. She could still see his ruined mouth spreading in a wide joyful grin as he said to someone behind her.
"You've become a proper little horse thief, girl," he said rudely. "But at least you still know where the heart is."
A crystal clear giggle of a girl, brighter than the frozen petals of summer snow on the windows of Winterfell, rang behind Sansa's weightless back.
"Shut up, you," the girl said with striking lack of manners. "You had best not let my sister fall. Or I will find your heart as well."
Sansa's heart soared although she could see no more.