A/N: This story uses details from both the books and the show, though it generally exists within show canon. While I found the method the showrunners used to bring Sansa to the North in Season 5 problematic, I think the position they left her in at the end of Season 6 is extremely interesting and worth exploring. This story is set directly after Season 6.
Wherever possible, character backgrounds spring from the books. Sandor Clegane's visit to Sansa Stark on the night of the Blackwater comes wholly from the books, and you will find other references to their book interactions as well.
Reviews are cherished, and criticism is welcome.
Many thanks to hardlyfatal, who consented to beta for this story. Her thoughtful comments have greatly improved it.
Chapter 1: The Stark in Winterfell
She would receive them with naked steel across her lap, for in her brother's absence she was the Stark in Winterfell. In truth, the sword was borrowed, and unlike Jon, she had no skill with blades to remedy matters if these men proved false. But the sword's owner stood just to her right, in easy snatching distance of the hilt. Sansa had no fear of the newcomers, in any case. All her fear was currently reserved for what lay north, and for Petyr Baelish; she had none to spare for strangers.
A band of forty men had been spotted at midday, riding hard for Winterfell. She hoped for an instant that Jon returned, but when she heard the riders flew no banners the idea died at once. Soon after, when Fostler begged her pardon and told her a red priest rode with them, she knew she would need a sword—for Ser Davos Seaworth's sake, if not for Jon's—and called for Brienne to attend her.
Now she sat, back straight and legs still, for Valyrian steel was famously sharp. She had no wish to cut either her skirts or her flesh. Brienne eyed her sidelong, and fondled her dagger restlessly with her left hand, keeping her right free for any potential trouble. Sansa frowned down at Oathkeeper on her knees. Its conspicuous red and gold offended her, but Ice could no more be restored than her father could. Both the sword and her father had been ruined long ago, and she had a duty now.
Sansa lifted her gaze from the steel in her lap and caught Fostler's eye at the back of the hall.
"Bring them in," she said.
The doors swung wide under the hands of two of the Vale guards, and four men stepped into the hall. They approached her two by two under the watchful eyes of Winterfell and Vale swordsmen, and as they grew close she realized that she recognized the first men. She had seen them a lifetime ago, at the Hand's Tourney in King's Landing.
The priest sported a red ringmail coat over his worn gear; it split at his neck and fell to his boots. His hair was drawn up in a high topknot, and he was fiercely bearded. He looked much thinner than he had when she had seen him last, and she noted that neither the sword on his back nor the one at his hip appeared to be on fire at the moment.
His companion was even more changed. Beric Dondarrion wore an eyepatch, and was so scarred that Sansa doubted her friend Jeyne Poole would still find him handsome, were she present.
"Thoros of Myr. Lord Dondarrion."
They knelt before her, though their guards did not. One wore a bow and quiver, and seemed small, though perhaps that was only in comparison to his companion, who was a giant of a man. That one wore a studded leather jerkin, a helm, and a greatsword on his back.
"My Lady of Winterfell," said Dondarrion.
"Lady Stark. The honor is ours," said the priest.
They had not called her Lannister or Bolton, at least. She lifted her hand to indicate they should rise. "We have little love for your red god, here," she said, eyeing Thoros of Myr. "What do you want?"
The two glanced at each other, and she knew that they had hoped to meet Jon, not her. Her anger rose and she raised her right hand from her lap, deliberately curling her fingers around the hilt of the sword on her knees. Around the room, her men's hands grasped hilts.
"The King in the North loves you less than I do," she told them. "And Ser Davos Seaworth less than that. Be glad it's me you face; I will hear you, for the life your god gave back to my brother. Tell me what you want, or go."
Thoros merely watched her. Sansa held his gaze, and did not break it when Dondarrion began to speak.
"The Long Night is here," he said simply. "A great storm comes from the north. We wish to help."
"Melisandre of Asshai helped." She ignored Dondarrion and spoke directly to the priest. "She killed innocent men with blood magic. She told Stannis her visions, and smashed his army to pieces. Thousands of men dead, who could have been here now, ready to fight what is coming. She burned men alive—she burned an innocent child. And Stannis still died. Is this the kind of help you offer?"
"I am not Melisandre," said Thoros, "of Asshai." They stared at each other until Sansa had nearly decided to confine them until Jon's return.
Then the guard behind Dondarrion removed his helm, tucked it under his arm, and stepped forward. He shook the hair out of his scarred face.
"These fools don't burn people," he said with contempt. "They hang them."
Sansa knew that rasping voice. She tore her gaze from Thoros of Myr, but Sandor Clegane was not looking at her; he was scowling at Beric Dondarrion. "I still say it's better than they deserve."
Beside her, Brienne tensed, and murmurs flew around the room.
"They've been prancing around the Riverlands for ages, stealing from the Lannisters and the Freys. And from me," he spat, giving Dondarrion another filthy look. "They give it all to the smallfolk, like they think they're in a bloody song."
"They're fools." He shrugged. "But I've met worse."
"Sandor Clegane," she said. He finally raised his eyes to hers, and her hand clutched the hilt of the sword. The last time she had seen him, he had held a knife to her throat and forced her to sing. He also offered to save her, but she declined, sure that Stannis would prevail and she would be safe. When that dream died, and each day in King's Landing seemed to bring a new horror, she often wondered if she would have been better off with the Hound. As much as he seemed to relish terrifying her, he never actually harmed her. He was strong, and ferocious, and he might have gotten her away safely. He might also have gotten them both killed.
"Lady Stark," said Sandor Clegane, and she was almost surprised he didn't call her 'little bird,' as he used to. She wondered if it had occurred to him.
The burned half of his face was more hideous than she remembered, and his armor not as fine as it once was, but otherwise he was much the same. She studied him, her face frozen in a smooth mask of courtesy, until he could not seem to stand her gaze; his eyes slid from her and settled upon Sansa's guardian. To Brienne he gave a look so evil that the woman took a half a step toward him, her armor creaking. Then she seemed to remember herself, and froze upon the step. Sansa could almost feel her sworn shield vibrating, like an arrow ready to fly.
"I am glad to see you well," she said finally. "I owe you a debt, and mean to make it good before you leave." She glanced at the others.
A grimace was etched on Beric Dondarrion's face, but Thoros of Myr's was smooth and expressionless, though he watched her closely.
"The hospitality of Winterfell is yours," she said to them. She stood, and handed Oathkeeper to Brienne, who did not seem to know whether to put up the sword or kill someone with it. "Be welcome here, and bring your men inside. We will share bread and salt, and find you rooms. You may rest in Winterfell until Jon returns."
She strode out the back of the hall, Brienne dogging her heels. She would return and feast the Brotherhood Without Banners, as duty demanded, but first she wished to be certain her poise was fully recovered, and for that she needed solitude and time to think.
Sansa was grateful that Littlefinger had not been present for the interview, for she did not know what her face might have shown. She only knew that if she had inadvertently revealed anything of her inner thoughts, he was the last person she would want to know of it.
She had thought that she had no fear left, that the Others had claimed the greatest part of it. Her worry for what Littlefinger might be—must be—planning for Jon accounted for most of the rest. And she even reserved some for herself, and what she might suffer at Lord Baelish's hands. But she had been wrong; forty new swords stood between her and the Night King, yet she was more afraid than ever before.