Well guys. . . this is it. As I said many times, I promised to never abandon the story and to see it through to the end, no matter how long it took, and now I have. I'm quite emotional about it, actually. I realize that I could probably write another whole book about Westeros in the years after the war, but this is the end of the story I wanted to tell with this fic, and hence where I leave you. Obviously, not every single tiny question is going to be answered, but feel free to fill in the details as you like. If you'd like to hear more about future projects and book publishing, follow me on Tumblr (lady-silverblood or thedeadkings, the former is my main account and gets updated much more frequently). It has been an absolute joy and pleasure to work on this project, to hear your comments and questions and kind words, and I hope this brings you at least some of what it has brought to me.
With no further ado. . .
The great walls of Winterfell had borne the years well, the queen thought as she stood on the balcony overlooking the bailey, the stables and the smithy and the kitchens, but the scars would always stay. The giants had done their best to rebuild the castle from the broken ruins, but the blocks remained faintly stained with soot, chipped and roughened, seamed black in the joins. The destruction of the Library Tower and all its manuscripts could never be replaced, it had taken months to get anything to grow again in the glass gardens, and the wind whistled forlornly through cracks that had never existed in its thousands of years of history, so that in the very deepest dark of winter it sometimes turned unbearably cold. But on this cool and pleasant autumn day, it looked serene, the trees of the godswood rustling gold, the gates and towers festively bedecked, and a steady stream of lords bannermen, vassals, knights, and dignitaries issuing through and into the Great Hall. Most of the North had come, and she could see the black bear of House Mormont, the mailed fist of House Glover, the merman of House Manderly, the roaring giant of House Umber, and more. Conspicuously absent was the flayed man of House Bolton, but it was rare that anyone even spoke their name. If nothing else, for now and for all time, the north remembered.
Sansa turned and began to walk along the ramparts, the wind tugging tendrils from her auburn braids. Or mostly still auburn, she thought, though more and more she found strands of grey in her looking glass. She was not quite fifty, but the past decades had not been easy. And now, alone at night, they felt still harder. Oh, Willas. They had had thirty good years together, four children, survived diplomatic intrigues and battles and the death of their second son, learned to love and cherish one another even if their life was no song, but he had rebroken his bad leg just a few months past, and despite the maesters' best efforts, it quickly festered, went purulent, and a fortnight later he was gone. She had sent him home to Highgarden for his burial, in the company of their eldest son, now Lord Brandon Tyrell in truth, and today. . .
Sansa paused to sit, gazing out over the shadow of the wolfswood. She had not started out as she now was. After the war had ended and she, Arya, and Rickon had finally gone home, with Willas and a great company of Tyrell men and the armies raised by Lady Maege Mormont and Lord Galbart Glover, Rickon was proclaimed Lord of Winterfell, and Sansa governed as his regent, managing the affairs and overseeing the day-to-day operations of what justice could be dispensed as Lady Maege and Lord Galbart were fighting in the field to return it to the broken, barren north. But as the years went by, Rickon only grew wilder and wilder – the wolfsblood, folk whispered, the sort that had led his uncle Brandon into so much misadventure – until it was finally plain that he would never be able to rule in his own right. He was just as pleased to be let back into the mountains with his wolf, to go back to the free folk who were at heart his own people, and quietly, without fuss or ceremony or spectacle, or even much change from what she had been and what she had done, Sansa became Queen in the North.
It was that, truly, and not merely Lady of Winterfell. The unity of the Great Houses and the Seven Kingdoms in standing together against the invasion of the Others had not long outlasted the end of the threat, and within a few years of Daenerys' ascension to the throne, they were back to scheming and jockeying against each other, trying to gain more favor or patronage. The song never ends, merely sings on in a different key. The game of thrones will always be played, in the courts and halls of power. Daenerys was left in the unenviable position of needing to assert some sort of authority, but always knowing that any overt application of force would instantly label her another mad Targaryen, so her rule teetered along on a series of lukewarm compromises and half-hearted treaties that never pleased anyone for very long. Princess Myrcella, who had taken the name Lannister and become Lady of Casterly Rock, in particular was not interested in bending the knee, and additional difficulty had been encountered with the Tyrells. Margaery seemed to think, not without some reason, that she had served her time in the shadows, playing a dutiful wife, and that if there was to be a sovereign queen of Westeros, it should as well be her.
Sansa, not without misgivings, had sided with her husband, though Willas was just as ambivalent about the prospect of starting a fight with dragons. There had been months of tension that never quite erupted into an open conflict, but as a result, Highgarden and Winterfell had both pulled increasingly out of the court's orbit. With Casterly Rock asserting its independence, Myrcella proving to be much like her mother in some respects, that circumscribed Daenerys' actual authority to the crownlands and some, though less, in Dorne, where Princess Arianne ruled with Aegon, who she had eventually taken to husband. The Iron Islands, under the rule of Lady Asha Greyjoy, also remained outside royal purview, and the riverlands and Lord Edmure Tully were willing to accept whoever was bloody willing to promise to leave them the seven hells alone. The Vale and Harrold Hardyng mostly stayed out of it, as usual. Lord Gendry Baratheon of Storm's End was likewise apt to do as pleased him, though some years ago he had sent an envoy to Winterfell, asking if the Lady Arya would see fit to consider a match between them. Arya, however, had not been interested. Here and there she had recovered bits of her memory, but she remained distant, independent, a Faceless Woman who served no mistress but herself and of a time, Sansa. The sisters had built an odd, tentative relationship, learning to know each other again, and Sansa had spent many hours telling her the things about their childhood she did not remember. But whenever she saw Arya, she always had the sense of a wild thing in a cage, aching to run free again, to catch whatever shred of her soul remained among the stars and snows.
Yet all was not lost, Sansa supposed. There had been no more full-scale wars, whether supernatural or political in origin, and Daenerys had eventually arrived at some balance of authority and acknowledgment of its limited scope. After years of living with him at court and relying on his advice, she had finally married Tyrion Lannister, though it was more a dynastic arrangement than a love match. A prince had been born – Rhaegar, with his father's wit and his mother's beauty, and on that day, the queen's dragons had died. It was a prophecy, some whispered, that she could have children of flesh or children of fire, but not both. Now she was no more and no less than a mortal, flawed woman, and without the lurking threat the dragons had posed, there was an upswing of unrest and politicking and manipulation, culminating in several minor rebellions that had to be put down with force.
That was the conflict in which Sansa and Willas had lost their younger son, Eddard, who she supposed bitterly was eventually doomed to share the fate of his namesake. Brandon, the heir to Highgarden, and their two daughters, Catelyn and Elinor, remained. The only Stark children. Arya and Rickon had neither spouses nor offspring, and the only other continuation of their House's line was her blind nephew, Robbie. Though he now was gone as well. Jeyne, her brother's widow, had married Ser Addam Marbrand and gone to Ashemark with him, where they raised their own children and had lived, so far as Sansa knew, quite happily. Yet one day Robbie had started to insist that he had to go north, that he had to find his uncle Bran, who lived under the hill as prince of the green. Had to go and learn from him, that Bran was calling to him, that he must be the heir of that strange and fey place. And so he had left, never heard from again. My girls are all that is left. It always gave Sansa an odd feeling, half pride and half terrible grief.
She rose from her seat and continued to walk. The sky was dazzling blue, the air crisp and sharp. After the Others had been defeated, the imbalance of the seasons had changed: now spring, summer, autumn, and winter came each in turn and passed away in the course of one year. Grand Maester Samwell, at the Citadel, had written some treatise explaining why this was so, the fundaments of magic that had been altered, the forces of the world. Eddard wanted to be a maester. I hope he learns it, wherever he has gone. Sometimes Sansa could bear it, the pain of his loss. Other days she could not get out of bed, or stand up, or remember how to write her name.
Having reached the terminus of the wallwalk, she was about to give up her moment of peace at last, and go down into the castle to see if there were any last-minute preparations she could help with, when she spotted a small silhouette on the northern horizon, winging toward her. Then it gained shape and form, and she gasped like a little girl and waved as hard as she could, signaling. "Here! Here!"
Rhaegal circled once more – he, up in the far north, had escaped the fate of his brothers, Drogon and Viserion – and landed, Jon Snow swinging off his back as Sansa laughed in disbelief and ran to him; she had not seen him in fifteen years. In contrast to her, her greying hair and her lined face, Jon looked not a day older than when they parted. As if, having borne the terror and transformation of death, he was now destined to endure past all memory and time, forced to live and watch as all else passed away. He hugged her hard; he felt and looked human, was a man, but still something more. "Do you think I'd miss this?" he asked, grinning, when they stepped apart. "Of course not."
"I. . . didn't expect it, is all." Sansa looked him up and down, taking him in, as he did the same with her. "Where is Val?"
"She chose not to come. Not much one for ceremonies." Jon smiled wryly. For years, he had resisted having anyone else at his lonely guard post in the north, and once he had realized that he was no longer aging, he refused to take a human companion who would grow old and die; over and over, he would have to lose them all. But at last, Val's stubbornness had worn him down, and he had married her before the heart tree in Winterfell – the last time Sansa had seen him, in fact. They lived together in the farthest north, burning their fires together, guarding the realms of men. She would die one day, and he would bury her there. After that. . . Sansa did not know what he would do, and did not want to. The idea of having to face it herself frightened her. Life unending, immortality, was as much a curse as blessing.
"Well then," Sansa said after a moment. "Come down. Everyone will be delighted to see you, I am sure."
"No doubt." Jon himself looked less enthused by this prospect, as living in near-complete isolation with only a wife and a dragon for company did not give one a taste for boundless socialization. But he gamely linked his arm in hers, and they descended the stair to where Brienne stood waiting at the bottom. The captain of Sansa's Queensguard and her most loyal and reliable servant, Brienne had passed the years here at Winterfell with a quiet, upright dignity and exceptional prowess, but Sansa did not think she had smiled more than a half-dozen times in all of them. When they were younger, Catelyn and Elinor had used to make a game of it, teasing her and playing with her and running circles around her, trying to get the big warrior woman to crack a grin or laugh, but it rarely worked. As she did now, seeing her mistress and Jon, she bowed correctly and fell into step behind them, guarding them from any threats that might lurk nefariously in the sunny courtyard, full of children running and shouting before their parents would come out to shoo them into the stuffy, crowded Great Hall.
"It looks better than I expected," Jon said, gazing around at the walls and towers of the castle, some quite a bit shorter than they had been, but still standing. "You have done well. I am sorry for the loss of your husband, by the way."
Sansa nodded, but did not quite trust herself to speak. Then a door opened across the way, and Arya emerged, looking more or less presentable. She smiled and came to greet Jon; what she had recovered of her memories were mostly to do with him, and Sansa slipped off to let them have a few moments alone. She could see the last stragglers filing into the hall, and knew that she too had to go within soon. But she too was not yet wiling to go inside just yet, wanted to bask in the sun. Or perhaps –
She was still standing there, gazing through the open South Gate, when to her considerable surprise, she saw one more rider trotting up it. They bore no standard or heraldry, no finery or identifying mark at all, looked like a wandering vagrant. But then he passed under the shadow of the portcullis, trotted to the center of the bailey, and pulled up, dismounting and limping to hand the horse off to the overworked stable-boys. Then he turned, and she knew him.
He was still big, tall, imposing, through he was grizzled and grey-haired, the burned side of his face looking more hollowed out and scarred than ever. He was missing an eye as well, and likely other parts of him, but he had done his best to clean up for the occasion, put on a yellow tabard with the three black dogs of his House. Stumping and cursing under his breath, he made his slow way toward her as she stood stunned, then reached her and, as if not daring to look into her eyes, stared fixedly at the ground as he bowed.
"Little bird," Sandor Clegane rasped. "I hope you have one more place left for me."
Sansa nodded, still wordless. They stood across from each other, grown up, grown old, decades since she had left him in King's Landing after ordering he be saved. She didn't know what his life had been in the space between, or if she ever would, but she felt grateful, deeply so, that he had had it. "Come, my lord," she said at last, quietly. "It's soon to begin."
Sandor followed her into the hall, sliding unobtrusively into a position in the back, as Sansa walked alone to the front, each row of lords and ladies rising respectfully to their feet as she passed, the sunlight drenching her from the windows and dazzling in her jewels. The banner of House Stark was hung at the front, stitched heavily with pearls and silver, the direwolf with claws upraised. And before it, on the dais, waited Catelyn Tyrell Stark, eighteen years old, cool and dignified, in full command of the moment. This is not too much for her. I have trained her well. She is ready, and then I will rest, at last.
Sansa reached her eldest daughter, and they stood facing each other. Northerners had no priests or septons or elaborate ceremonies, no words to say, and none were needed. She reached for the rune-engraved crown of bronze and iron that sat on the plinth nearby, and Catelyn sank elegantly to her knees, bending her head. Then Sansa raised the crown on high, and with every eye upon them, the very world seeming to hold its breath, set it on her daughter's brow.
The world remained silent for an eternal moment more. Then, as Catelyn rose slowly to her feet, its breath began to let out, to a whisper, then a hiss, to a murmur, to a roar. A great din of spear and shield thundered from the courtyard and beyond the walls. Birds flapped in the rafters. Sunlight fell in daggers, the skinpipes of the clansmen sang and skirled, high and wild, and Catelyn raised her arms, gathering in the tumult that formed itself into words, over and over, rattling at the stone walls of Winterfell, shouted and shouted, with all the days before them.
"The Queen in the North!"
"The Queen in the North!"
"THE QUEEN IN THE NORTH!"
"THE QUEEN IN THE NORTH!"