Chapter 11: Moat Cailin
Exhaustion conquered Sansa eventually, but the dream that followed was so like what had come before that she never noticed the precise moment reality blurred around the edges and softened into something else.
Calm and content, her horse ambled forward, warm underneath her thighs.
The wind was cold.
With every furious, icy gust of air the old, dead bones surged forward. When it lulled, the living shoved them back, the blood in their veins pulsing hot and powerful. Back and forth they struggled, the wind blowing weaker and milder each time, until finally the men were victorious.
The air grew warm and still.
The bones fell away.
Then the horse was gone and she was in King's Landing. The day was so miserably hot that getting dressed would only mean ruining a gown with sweat stains; Sansa did not bother. In her thinnest dressing gown she stood on the balcony and watched the placid harbor. The heat amplified the stench of the city; its scent was never particularly pleasant, but just then it smelled like a corpse bloating under a gleeful sun.
The servants brought the cool bath she'd ordered. She climbed in without undressing, for her husband might be near, and he was a Lannister. Lethargic in the water, she reclined, her nightgown floating around her knees.
The bath was not cool or refreshing; somehow, it was even warmer than the air. She wanted to get up, but when she tried to move her limbs they were so heavy she could not move. Sweat trickled down her face.
"Sansa," said Tyrion. His unexpected voice was so clear and immediate that she thrashed in the tub; the kicking of her legs sprayed steaming water everywhere.
Too hot. He is stewing me...
Sansa stared up at the canvas ceiling of the tent, blinking and panting. The furs upon her were thick, heavy, and damp with sweat. Sickening waves of heat undulated through her, and she scrabbled weakly at the covers, desperate for cooler air.
Her arms did not want to cooperate, and it took several attempts before she was able to fling some of the furs away. Her right leg slid from the bedroll, and her ankle flopped against the hard ground.
What little strength she had left her then, and she closed her eyes, gasping as great waves of heat rolled from her body. Her nightgown was completely soaked with sweat, and she had never felt anything more blissful than the wonderful coolness sinking into her right side.
"Not dead, after all," said Jon.
The effort to turn her head and look at him was too much, so she only moved her eyes. He sat near her on a chair, his elbows on his knees and both hands wrapped around Longclaw's grip. The point of the scabbard scraped against the ground.
Sansa licked her lips, but her mouth was so parched the effort was futile. "Was I supposed to?" she said. "Was it close?"
The king's dark eyes glittered. "Yes."
Her fingers plucked at the nightgown plastered against her torso. It parted from her skin reluctantly and made a wet little tent. She did not know which question Jon had answered.
"Water," she said. "Please, water."
After a few moments, Sansa heard movement. A gloved hand slid underneath her head; another pressed a skin against her lips. The icy water tasted like ambrosia, and the trickle of the bit that spilled down her neck felt like a friendly, cold kiss.
"I'm sorry," she said when the skin went away. Her head fell back without his hand to support it, and she opened her eyes to look up at him. The brazier was behind Jon as he knelt over her, so that his face was in shadow. "About the godswood. I had to. You know I had to."
Jon said nothing. Sansa wished he would speak; if fetching Beric Dondarrion had cost her a brother instead of saving one, she wanted to know.
The night before, she would have known. The memory of it was still strong, and Sansa reached out with her mind, remembering its odd flexion, trying to recreate it. To sense what he was feeling, and reveal the truth.
But she felt nothing, from Jon or anyone else nearby.
It was only a fever dream, after all. Disappointment filled her. Had any of it been real? Had the dead risen?
Did we march?
"Someday," he told her, "you'll overreach with one of your cold-hearted little schemes. You'll pull the wrong tail, thinking you know best, and they'll turn and eat you alive." The sound of his gloves creaking came to her ears. "I won't help you. Not after this."
Too dry for tears, too weak to defend herself, and not sure she was justified, Sansa could only let the words wash over her. Bringing him back was the cruellest thing I've ever done. But we need him… we can't win without him, I know it.
"I was there too, Jon." Arya's loud voice came directly from her left, and Sansa needed no special power to know that her sister was angry.
The rest of the furs lifted away from Sansa, and she let out a sigh as the left side of her body began to cool. "I helped." Arya continued. "Are you mad at me too? The Hound helped, but you aren't treating him like dirt on your boot." A small, warm hand touched Sansa's forehead. "Bran helped. If you're going to be stupid, get out and do it somewhere else."
A short silence followed this speech. Then Jon rose to his feet.
"They're not far behind us," he said, indifferent to Arya's outrage. "If we're to arrive at Moat Cailin before they catch us we'll leave well before sundown."
Jon strode toward the tent entrance, putting up his sword as he went. The Night King is close. Close enough to raise the Barrowlands around us. Close enough to raise me, if I died here. Longclaw had been for her, and she wondered if he was disappointed there had been no need for it.
"That idiot," fumed Arya, scrambling out of their combined bedrolls. She snatched up another skin and plopped cross-legged onto the dirt close by, to help her sister drink. "I'll sort him," she muttered, but there was a tremor in her voice.
Long before Sansa's thirst was quenched, Arya took the water away. "You'll be sick if you drink too much. How are you feeling?"
"Alive," she said. Her throat wasn't as sore. "Filthy."
With her little sister's help she visited the chamber pot. They peeled the wet clothing off her, and even managed a sketchy sort of wash before tugging a clean, dry nightgown over her head. The effort exhausted her. Sansa was chilled and trembling with weakness by the time Arya got her into the other side of the bedroll, where the furs were dry.
"Don't you want me to brush your hair?" Arya said, reaching out and touching a snarl. "It looks terrible."
She huffed a little laugh and closed her eyes. "I don't care about my hair."
It felt so good to just lie there and not be in much pain. This time she knew she would get real rest, when sleep came. "How long do we have?"
Next to her, Arya stretched out. She pressed her cheek against Sansa's shoulder.
The army around them was so quiet that their tent could have been miles from anyone else's. The only sound was the minute crackling of the fire in the brazier.
The cheek on her shoulder leaned harder, and Sansa felt the hot drip of liquid soak through the nightgown well before she heard the tiny sob.
At once she lifted her arm, and Arya rolled into her, clutching. The dark head was too heavy on Sansa's breast, crushing her, but she didn't mind. She wrapped her arms around her and held her close.
"What's the matter?" she whispered.
"Everything. You almost died, and something's wrong with Jon." A miserable, choked sound came out of her.
"I'm alive," Sansa said, rocking her. "So is Jon. It will be all right."
An small, fierce sniffle followed this. The canvas of the tent snapped in a gust of wind, and she heard a horse neigh and shuffle nearby.
Sleep pulled at her, but she resisted its call. The body against hers was still stiff with tension. Sansa already carried enough guilt where Arya was concerned; sleeping through her tears would only add to the load.
Her hand stroked the curly hair, and by degrees the limbs against hers relaxed. A pattern of checks emerged behind Sansa's eyelids and she watched them dance, feeling suspended in time. Her breathing slowed and deepened. Next to her, Arya sighed, and Sansa thought that perhaps the moment was ripe.
"I dreamed you killed Walder Frey," she murmured.
The dark mop of hair twitched. Sansa smoothed it away from her sister's face and tucked it behind the small ear. It was surprisingly silky under her fingers.
"It was lovely," she added.
When Arya spoke, her voice was barely a shiver in the air. "The hardest part was not eating for three days. I didn't want to break guest right."
All that horror and pain. And he's finally, finally paid for it. A smile stretched her face and she pulled her closer.
"Did he suffer?" she asked.
The story spilled out in a few quick, whispered words, and Sansa savored each one. Her mind's eye saw the pale flesh in the golden pies, and the look of fear and surprise on the old man's face. She saw blood rushing out of a grizzled neck, and sighed with satisfaction.
"I painted a direwolf on the high table in his blood—I wanted them all to know it was a Stark," Arya finished.
Sansa pressed a long, hard kiss against the crown of her head.
"You darling," she murmured.
"I thought you wouldn't like me anymore, if you knew," said Arya, her fingers fiddling with the heavy stitches on the sleeve of Sansa's nightgown.
"That's not true," she said. "Now I love you more than ever."
"You're going to love me a lot. I've killed loads of people."
"I believe you," said Sansa, with a smile, and Arya laughed.
My family is coming back to me, she thought. The warmth enveloping her now was neither too little nor too much. Her body relaxed, until her limbs felt long and loose. First Bran, now Arya. Surely Jon will too.
Sansa twisted in the saddle, rummaging through her saddlebags in search of food. Despite eating before they broke camp, she could not seem to fill the hole in her stomach. In two hours she'd worked her way through three black rounds of bread, a wide strip of smoked goat's meat, and a small package of sliced, dried apples the maester had pressed into her hand.
The horse veered sharply left. Distracted by hunger, Sansa had pulled one of the reins tight. A short squeal sounded as the garron drew too close to Stranger, and she hastily corrected her grip on the reins. When they were more or less pointed in the right direction, she looked up, feeling sheepish. The black courser mouthed irritably at the flat bit in his mouth.
The rider's gaze was on her. Most of Sandor's face was hidden by his hood and a green scarf, but she could see his eyes, crinkled in what she was sure was amusement.
"Sorry," she said.
In response, his gloved hand dipped into his bags. He drew out a small package, and held it out to her. Some invisible command had Stranger stepping nearer, until she was able to take the bundle from Sandor easily.
When she untied the string she found a treasure: two sweet biscuits, slightly crumbled, and a wedge of sharp white cheese, all hard from the cold. Where did he get this?
Sansa looked up at him, wondering. The smile was gone from his dark eyes, but still they were on her. A little thrill ran down her body.
The cheese snapped gently between her fingers, and she tilted it toward him, offering wordlessly to share.
Sandor's eyes flicked up to the sky beyond her. For a moment she thought he was rolling them, but then light splashed his face, a weak golden color tinged with rose.
All around them, faces turned to the west.
When she looked for herself, she found that the blanket of even gray above them had frayed at the edge of the sky. The sun was sinking, a small, golden disc partially obscured by clouds.
Conversation stilled. For a few quiet minutes, six thousand souls contemplated the setting sun. Weeks had passed since any of them had seen it, and Sansa felt sure she was not alone in wondering if this was the last time they would.
Tonight is the test. Tonight, we reach Moat Cailin or die.
The thin colors painted across the army dimmed and faded as the clouds reclaimed the sun. Sansa felt colder at once. When she looked, Sandor's gaze had not returned to her; he looked straight ahead, chin down. His face was hidden by the heavy cloak she had made for him; she could see the tip of his nose, covered by the scarf, and that was all.
A wildfire field waited for them at Moat Cailin, Arya had told her.
Samwell Tarly had been preparing it for months. When they came to the place where white Stark banners stood sentry on either side of the kingsroad, they were to look for the next pair of banners. No wildfire lay in the direct line between them. When they had ridden through, another set of banners waited. In this way had Sam created a safe, winding path through a deadly, mile-deep trap.
Once they crossed, the trebuchets would launch barrels full of wildfire, and the safe path would close. Then it was only a matter of waiting for the Others and choosing the right moment to set the field ablaze.
If the plan worked, it could potentially destroy a good portion of the Night King's army. If it went wrong, they would very likely perish.
Sansa shivered and drew her cloak more tightly around her as the light failed. She rode into darkness, hoping, for Sandor's sake, that they would not burn.
The cheese and biscuits were long gone. Though she could have eaten more, she chose not to; she had bothered her horse enough. Besides, she felt it fitting that her last meal—if that's what it had been—was a gift from someone who cared for her.
The sweetness of the biscuits lingered on her tongue for a good long while, though it did not survive her first involuntary nap. She was still an invalid, and her frail body ambushed her with its demand for sleep.
The first time she woke, it was to song. The men were singing "Seven Swords for Seven Sons," their voices rough and wholesome. Warm in her cloak, she smiled. She would have joined them, but her throat still ached, so she contented herself with listening, and soon sleep reclaimed her.
Later, she was aware of a shout of laughter, but she was very tired, and did not fully rouse. Voices floated around her, swapping stories on the long ride, and though they seemed quite loud she did not understand the words, or try to. She felt very comfortable and safe; the laughing, bantering voices meant that she was among friends.
Unnatural quiet woke her, the third time.
The temperature had plummeted. Her breath had frozen in the scarf; it chafed against her face, rigid and scraping. With numb fingers she pulled at it. Eventually she tore it free, and every breath she took of the frigid air seemed to stab into her like a knife. Rewrapping the cloth around her face seemed to take forever, and she colder than ever when it was done.
Around her, the men were silent; not one voice sounded. Shivering in the saddle, she looked around. They were not asleep; she saw the weak torchlight reflected in many pairs of eyes. Sansa felt wrong-footed, as though she had stumbled into the the middle of a conversation she did not understand.
Then she heard for herself the sound that had struck her companions dumb. Sansa looked down, unwillingly.
On the ground, hoarfrost glowed whitely in the dim light. It hissed as it raced along the kingsroad, growing so thick and fast that Sansa was able to mark its progress with her naked eye. The horses' hooves crushed it underneath, but in each print the frost sprang up again, undeterred.
Every hair on her body tried to stand, and she understood that the quiet around her was the silence of fear.
When she took up her waterskin to wet her dry mouth, she found the water had turned to slush. She shook it before drinking an icy mouthful.
"We're close," Arya said, from her right.
A horn sounded the signal for a double time march from the front of the column, where Jon rode. Sansa touched her heels to the horse. It lurched forward, as though surprised to receive an instruction from its rider.
When snow began to fall, dismay churned in Sansa's belly. Glittering powder drifted down from the sky, thin at first. As the minutes passed, it fell thicker, and the visible world shrank. Sansa could see a few horses in front of her, and that was all.
The banners. Riding on the west side of the column, she stared desperately to the right. Where are the banners?
The worry inside her was growing, and when the wind picked up and whipped the falling snow into a blinding frenzy, the feeling blossomed into dread. She could hardly see the horse directly in front of her. We'll never find the path in this. On the heels of that thought came another, smaller one: They're coming. We're going to die.
The night before she'd imagined herself privy to the feelings of the entire army. Her feverish delusions were gone, but she needed no power to know that every soul riding with her was frightened. No one could ride through this and not fear.
A hulking, dark shape emerged from the darkness to ride beside her. Sandor had lowered the hood of his cloak, despite the cold, and thrown the edges of it back over his shoulders to free his arms. Oathkeeper lay across his lap, still sheathed, but ready in his grip.
Together, she reminded herself, trying to push the fear back.
She heard men shouting in front of her, but did not understand the words until Sandor took them up.
"FOLLOW THE KINGSROAD," he roared, turning in the saddle to pass the message back. He repeated the call several times, until those behind them took up the cry themselves.
We're going to cross the wildfire. With torches.
One stray fall of burning pitch would end them all. Panic shot through her; she trembled in the saddle as though the Stranger's talons were hooked into her flesh. "Mother have mercy," she whispered. "Warrior give us courage. Father give us justice. Please, Smith, make the torches strong. Mother have mercy…"
A tendril of white mist reached over her shoulder. It curled along the horse's shaggy neck, exploring, and crept forward. Another thread of mist followed, and another. The last thing she saw before the cold haze locked her into a world of solitude was the nearest torch illuminating one of the sentinel Stark banners. It flapped in the wind to her right, the gray direwolf only an indistinct smudge on the ice-encrusted cloth.
They are here.
Ahead, the horn howled in defiance.
"RIDE, SANSA," she heard Sandor scream. His horse nearly barrelled into her own, and she caught a glimpse of the horrified whites of his eyes before he smacked Oathkeeper against the rump of her garron.
The horse shot forward, frightened enough to run blind. She clung to the saddle in the near darkness, all prayers but one ripped away. If we die, Mother let it be quick...
The air was so cold that the tears streaming from her eyes froze on her skin. Sansa could only remember being this afraid once before. Ser Ilyn, bring me his head! Stifling a terrified sob, she squeezed her legs tighter around the horse.
Mother make it quick. For Sandor...
Her head began to swim as the horse raced across the wildfire she fainted now, she would bit down on her tongue, hard. Hot blood spurted from the wound, coating the inside her mouth with its coppery taste, and the pain cleared the fuzziness in her head.
She turned her head and spat a great gob of blood onto the ground. When she looked forward again, a torch floated in the darkness before her. The rider who carried it a mere length ahead held it high in the air, and Sansa fixed her eyes on the fire that was death and life both. She watched every lick of flame that clung to its burning head with horrified fascination.
Afterward, she could not guess how long it took to cross that deadly mile. It could not have been more than a handful of minutes, but her skin crawled the entire time and her breath came shallow and short. Not once did she tear her eyes from the torch, and when the mist thinned, she did not notice for long moments.
In the end, it was more fire that caught her attention. A long line of huge nightfires stretched east and west before her, several hundred yards away. Reeds, Manderlys, and a half-dozen black brothers awaited them there, she knew.
Sansa chanced a look behind her, then wished she had not. The tall bank of fog she had seen once in her dreams roiled and billowed behind her, advancing slowly. She had ridden out of it, but nearly all of the column was still enveloped.
Grimly, she bent in the saddle, the better to let the horse run. Its canter quickly turned into a gallop, and when, at last, they shot between two of the nightfires into safety, she had trouble reining it in.
Around her, mounted men milled. She was just starting to wonder where Jon, Arya, and Sandor were when she heard the horn again, sounding the call to form up. The formation had been planned long ago: a wide, thin line along the nightfires, meant to mop up whatever dead weren't destroyed in the wildfire. Each nightfire had barrels of fresh torches next to it, for wights burned as though they were soaked in oil.
Sansa was no soldier, and while knights and wildlings moved past her, heading for their assigned positions, she turned the garron and let it pick its way over the stony ground toward Jon.
The mass of men around the king broke apart when she approached. Ser Davos Seaworth took up torches and rode back up the kingsroad, the better to direct the troops still streaming out of the fog. Tormund passed her with a smile, heading for his wildlings, and three black brothers moved back from the line to the trebuchets.
Jon met her eyes, but turned at once toward the remaining Night's Watch brother. He must be Samwell Tarly. He wasn't as fat as she expected, though he wasn't thin, either.
Sandor joined them, riding from the east, and the relief on his face when he saw her safe drew a weak smile from her. At least someone's glad I'm alive. He stopped to speak to Jon, and Arya must have been just behind him, for she rode directly to Sansa. They both turned north, and surveyed the mist.
The horn shrieked again. It was so close to them that she felt the vibrations in her ears. Form up!
The white fog still advanced, and the relief Sansa had felt at being out of it faded quickly. Men still poured out of it, five and six abreast, but not even half the column had emerged yet, if Sansa estimated correctly.
The slow clink of heavy chains sliding reached her ears. The speed of the clicking increased, and a few moments later three large, dark objects sailed overhead, punching brief holes into the mist. Wildfire barrels.
"They aren't going to make it," Arya said, eyeing the fleeing column.
"They might," she insisted. But she knew better; it was already a miracle that none of the torches had dripped death onto the ground below, that any of them had survived at all. The fog was coming too fast, the dead army hidden within, and the column was too long and thin. Edd Tollett is back there, she remembered suddenly, feeling sick.
Men still emerged from the white in a reckless stream. Sansa could see Ser Davos on the kingsroad, waving a torch in each hand. They split around him, some curving east and others west. The mist drew close to him, and when it began to curl around him he dropped the torches and spun his horse, racing back to Jon.
Sansa glanced behind her. The trebuchets had been rewound, and she could see three new objects in the slings, round, dark, and heavy.
Hoping to see a hint of the end of the column, she looked for black clothing on those riding out of the fog, for the Night's Watch made up the tail end of the army. All she saw were the colors of the knights of the Vale, and as the fog inched closer, she began to despair.
Far too quickly, it was upon them. She watched in fascination as a thick tendril of white reached for Jon. His face was grim, and when the fog touched him his mouth worked in disgust.
For the first time, she heard screaming from the north. They're killing them in there.
"NOW," Jon roared, and the trebuchets launched their deadly cargo. Someone had painted the projectiles with a thin stripe of wildfire; they glowed greenly as they shot through the air.
"Mother have mercy," she whispered. All eyes followed their long arc. They disappeared into the mist, and after a long, still moment Sansa wondered if their fire had somehow been extinguished.
A sound like thunder rolled over her, and the world turned a green so bright she winced against it and closed her eyes.
The screaming was no longer faint; men and horses shrieked together in a chorus of agony. It was the worst thing she had ever heard, and she prayed for it to end
Edd, she remembered, and a moan escaped her. He'd apologized to her once for the quality of Castle Black's food. He was sweet, and he was burning.
It took a long time for the awful wailing to stop. When it did she opened her eyes just a crack, and held her gloved hand up against the virulent green glare. Above them, the clouds reflected the color of the burning ground.
Sansa looked to her right. Jon and Arya bore the same grim expression, but Sam Tarly's round face was wet with tears. She could see the wildfire reflected there, and looked away.
The mist was gone, vanished as completely as if it had never existed. All along the edge of the burning field, figures lurched toward the nightfires.
How many men died for this? she wondered, watching the wights approach. She was full to the brim with heartbreak and horror, and thought that even if there had been enough of them to really trouble them, she couldn't possibly fit any more fear into her night.
All around her, men lit torches, and stumbled forward in weary grief to meet the wights. They took their revenge, but it was hollow. The dead were innocent of intent; they were cold flesh and nothing more.
Of the Others, there was no sign.
A/N: I apologize for the long wait. There will be four more chapters for a total of fifteen, and I would very much like to finish this before S7 airs. If I can keep my act together updates should come a little faster and we will make it to the finish line in good time. Thank you all for reading, and for your kind encouragement with this work. You are lovely!