The Mountains of the Moon were the wall of the world. Gazing at them where they consumed the horizon as far as the eye could see, crooked horns buried in icy clouds, Sansa could not help but think of her brother Jon, so far away on the Wall that guarded a realm even more savage than this one. The more she'd learned of the Vale, the more Sansa understood how her aunt Lysa could feel completely confident sitting out the war, protected by a natural barricade stronger than a thousand swords. Any invading army would rip itself to pieces, but a small party with native guides, assuming the guides were of a temperament to help and not fatally hinder, would have a chance – if only just.
Sansa turned back to her companions. "I shall not ask any of you to come farther, if is not your will," she said, forced to raise her voice over the wind searching to snatch her words away. "You are free to turn back here and now, and I will not think less of you. I know this was not your grievance, and if you do continue, you may well have to – "
"Don't be foolish, girl," grumbled Jack-Be-Lucky. "You and m'lady go on alone, you will end up decorating some Stone Crow's miserable little pisspot hovel somewhere. We're none of us abandoning you now." He leveled a pointed glare at his peers. "Are we."
"Certainly not," said Thoros. "It would be the height of dishonor and cowardice. But it is well done to offer us the choice, Lady Sansa. There is a good deal of your father in you."
Sansa's throat felt suddenly thick. "It was him who sent you out from court in the first place, to avenge the injustices wrought on the realm. Perhaps this is merely bringing matters full circle."
"Perhaps it is, my lady," Thoros agreed. "R'hllor brought you to us for a reason, and you need have no fear that we will turn back before we see it through. Do you think we have supplies enough for this?"
"I. . . don't know." Under Sansa's direction, the Brotherhood had scavenged as much food from the frozen countryside as they could, but she knew that it would wind up being irrelevant if they couldn't secure the assistance of the mountain clans. Nor was there any real chance of approaching them on equal terms, to civilly propose an alliance and fair barter. The wildlings would find them first, and then only Sansa, her plan, and her ability to articulate it under fire would save them.
For a moment, Sansa almost backed down. It wasn't too late to order the Brotherhood to smuggle her to the Bloody Gate, leave them to make their own way in and go on to deal with Petyr herself – however she would, it was still a blur of conflicted emotions. But without her, the wildlings would have no reason to let the outlaws pass, would just kill them out of hand, and she would be utterly alone again, at Littlefinger's mercy – especially if he felt inclined to hold grudges for her tattling on him to the Faith. Elder Brother had warned her that the Lord Protector would not suffer such slights sanguinely, and Sansa's own knowledge of his character confirmed it. Though if the way was shut, the Bloody Gate held fast, the inquisitors Elder Brother had promised to send might well have got no further; Petyr could be merrily thumbing his nose at them as they starved or froze to death. Stronger than a thousand swords.
Sansa shivered, and not from the rising wind. No, she thought. Gods help me, this is the only way.
Her face must have told the tale to the rest of the Brotherhood, for they squared their shoulders, tugged their cloaks tighter, and adjusted their swordbelts. "We're with you, m'lady," Gendry announced. "After all, s' like Jack said, they're only goat fuckers."
Sansa gave them a grateful look. They were rough and uncouth and ungently spoken, outlaws and murderers and broken men, never the sort of champions she'd imagined as a little girl, but they were hers, and she was no longer a little girl. Just then, in fact, she wondered if she had become a monster herself. She was still involved in Petyr's game, moving pieces around on him, striking back, but without the visionary certainty that guided seemingly everything he had done. If he and Aunt Lysa had in fact poisoned Jon Arryn and framed the Lannisters, then he was orchestrating a long con far beyond what any other player would ever dream. That is why he is winning. But why? Why? It couldn't have been just to marry Lysa. He'd never loved her. Only Cat. But as clever and amoral as Petyr Baelish may be, would he really have turned the Seven Kingdoms upside down into the worst war since the Conquest, in the hope that the childhood woman of his dreams would miraculously swoon into his arms? He told me not to believe in stories, but there could be no greater fairy tale than that.
Or Littlefinger's only blind spot in the world was Catelyn Tully Stark. And I am bringing her back to him.
It had been early morning when they set forth, and Sansa held out hope that they would reach the mountains by nightfall, but she swiftly discovered just how deceptively close they had appeared. The Brotherhood rode all day across the chilly moraine, occasionally dismounting and picking through the boulders to spare their already decrepit mounts further grief, but the white peaks never seemed to get any closer. Instead the ground got rougher, till their breath burned in their throats and ribboned like silver scarves in the air. Gendry slipped once and fell, crashing down so violently that Sansa feared he had broken an arm, a leg, or his neck, but he just got to his feet with an expression even more stubborn than usual and began picking his way back up to them. Apparently all the japes about his hard-headedness were rooted in firm factual certainty.
Dusk came stealing up like a cold purple mantle. The rising moon gilded the spurs of the mountains to ivory and bone and porcelain, and they were near enough that Thoros forbade a fire; the Lord of Light would hear their nighttime prayers even without one, he reassured them. There would certainly be wildling watchers in the heights, nay doubt Arryn men as well – who were by now, more than likely, Petyr Baelish's men in every way that mattered. But the night was so clear, after the intensity of the snowstorm that had forced them to uncomfortably bivouac with Podrick Payne and Ser Hyle Hunt, that there was strong sentiment for sleeping a few hours and then continuing on; they needed to wring every drop of cooperation from the winter weather that they could. After a brief and spirited debate, the issue was finally voted on in favor.
It was hard for Sansa to drift under. Unexpectedly, she found herself thinking of the Lady Brienne, and the risk she'd taken in letting Pod and Ser Hyle loose to find her. She broke her oath to my mother on behalf of the Kingslayer. . . am I mad? But that was too late. And another reason to reach the Vale with godspeed. It felt at times to Sansa as if she was already asleep and could not wake up, as the nightmare grew ever more twisted and consuming.
Sansa wondered and worried, teeth chattering, until it was time to go again. Sore and stiff, she rolled up her blankets and allowed Harwin to help her to her feet, though she thought he could use the courtesy more; the journey had gone hard on him with his wounds. Brienne's work. Ser Hyle had sworn that the warrior woman would die sooner than hand Sansa over to her enemies, but how on earth did that make any sense?
It was a frigid, silent, and difficult moonlit climb. Glacial waterfalls clattered down the rocks, ghosting everything with a treacherous spray; higher up they were frozen fast altogether, grotesqueries of lucent blue ice finely wrought as Myrish lace. The towering spar of the mountain edged farther and farther overhead, eliding any other sight or sound or comprehension, anything but the knowledge that they were about to be in the heart of darkness itself.
The eastern horizon was flushing a gauzy, glassblown pink when they emerged from a maze of toppled boulders, directly before a slender cleft valley that disappeared between two formidable buttresses and into the wilderness beyond. From here, the Eyrie and the Gates of the Moon lay north and east, as close as twenty miles in crow's flight or as far as a hundred. They would need to climb to much higher ground to get a better sense of the lay of the land, and just how dangerous the route through the interior would be, but that entailed exposing themselves to every one of those dangers. Including –
"Look," Gendry said, pointing at a weatherworn petroglyph etched into the rocks. "What's that?"
Sansa squinted. "It's a man with a red hand, missing an eye," she said, studying the crudely painted figure. "It means that these lands are under the claim of Timett son of Timett, war chief of the Burned Men. I saw him of a time in King's Landing. He was dangerous then, and fearless after he led his clan through the battle of Blackwater. One of my – my lord husband's especial favorites."
"That's good then?" Harwin said dryly.
"After a fashion." Sansa's stomach knotted. Timett. . . yes, she remembered him, the dark young wildling who might have been handsome if he'd not decided to burn out an eye in place of the customary nipple or finger required of his savage brethren. If he is their chieftain, the Hound would be their god. Repressing a sudden urge either to laugh or to weep, she returned firmly to the task at hand. "We would be wise to get what sleep we can before we start up that valley. Once we do, we must constantly expect an ambush. Timett may know of me by repute as I know of him, but whether as Alayne Stone or Sansa Stark is hard to say. That is what we will have to wager everything on."
The outlaw band snatched a few winks of fitful rest as the frosty sun crawled up the horizon. Once again, Sansa felt as if she had just closed her eyes when Thoros shook her shoulder, rousing her from murky dreams. It was midmorning, and while it was still clear and fair, an anvil of iron-shod clouds piling in the north hinted ominously that it wouldn't last forever. "My lady, it is time."
Sansa nodded, struggling to her feet and accepting the rock-hard wedge of bread that the red priest handed her to gnaw on. They turned loose the horses, as they could take them no further, and Thoros said a brief prayer to the Lord of Light, imploring that he walk by them as they passed into the valley of shadow. With no more ceremony than that, they started in.
The way quickly turned into a bewildering labyrinth of stone and snow. Seracs of frangible ice loomed overhead, shadowing out the sun, and sometimes they could hear the roar and thunder as they collapsed. Anguy had the surest and lightest footing, so he went in front, carving out the safest route. Sansa followed mechanically. Her hands had great chunks ripped out, even through her gloves, as old blisters broke open and bled. She'd simply never had to exert herself this hard before, and every muscle she had burned with a dull, constant ache. Still, she held her tongue. Their task would get no easier.
Past noon, the lurking clouds began to close in. The temperature dropped precipitately, flurries scraped across the rime-blasted rock, and the wind whistled eerily in a way that made the hackles stand on Sansa's neck. We need shelter, and soon. The alpine landscape was pocked with shallow caves and steep overhangs, enough to cut the worst of it but no prospect for permanent refuge. Their resources were threadbare enough as it was. Being snowbound could well prove mortal.
"Keep together!" Thoros shouted, his tatty red robes whipping like pennants. "The wildlings might not be hunting in this tempest, but we'd best not take anything for granted. Careful. Careful now!"
In single file, looking like a gaggle of blind men out for a lark, the Brotherhood shuffled and slid across a carapace of driven snow and slippery ridges. Sansa groped at Gendry in front of her; his solidness was reassuring. One foot after the other. She could do this, they wouldn't let her fall. Step by step by step by step. The cold was even deeper now; she imagined she'd never be warm again. Bones as brittle as frost, a winter queen. A Stark of Winterfell. A wolf. That was, if they ever made it through this –
Sansa only caught it out of the corner of her eye. There was a flash of grey through the whiteness, and all of a sudden she saw her mother fall. Lady Stoneheart uttered no scream, no sound from her ruined throat, as her footing went out from under her. Her fingernails clawed furrows through the snow, her bandages unraveling as Harwin made an abortive grab for her. And then, just like that, she was gone.
Sansa knew that Lady Stoneheart was only the shell and husk of Catelyn Stark, already dead once, her resurrected sinews strained and tortured by a climb excruciating enough for the living – but none of it mattered. There was nothing, no chance, if she came back to the Vale without Lady Stoneheart, the only trump card she had. And she is my mother. I cannot lose her again.
Ignoring Jack's lunge for her, Sansa leapt down the slope. She skidded, spun, picked up momentum, nearly launched into thin air, and felt her breath leave her in a rush as the ground punched it out. She managed to get her fall under control, snow sloughing breathtakingly cold down her bodice, blood dripping queerly warm in her eyes. She reached another outcrop, grasped hold, thrust her head and shoulders over –
And saw her. There. Below. The corpse-woman lay in a crumpled heap at the foot of the rocks. She did not seem to be moving. No – no –
"Mother," Sansa wept, reaching out as far as she could. Her fingers batted ineffectually at the abyss. "Mother, take my hand."
Lady Stoneheart stirred faintly. Her head lifted; it was impossible to say what, if any, emotion lurked in the red eyes. Slowly, jerkily, she wriggled forward, then stopped. Old dark blood stained the bandages that had managed to cling to the pale dead hand; it lay inert on the mountainside as the snow and wind lashed them both. The winter was almost a lover's embrace.
Sansa crawled still further forward, almost losing her own balance. "Mother!" she cried again. "I'm here! Reach for me! Please!"
Lady Stoneheart seemed vaguely confused. She still made no attempt to save herself or answer her daughter's pleas; there was no knowledge or care for that in the thing she had become. And even if so, the verge above them was perilously steep. Sansa didn't know if she could get them both back up it, tried to fill her flattened lungs to shout for Gendry or Jack –
At that very moment, in what Sansa madly thought was an answer to her prayer, hands seized her from behind, hauling her into the air. Thinking it was one of the Brotherhood, she tried not to struggle, almost sick with relief – and then her head wrenched back violently, and a knife pressed in a steel kiss to her throat. Wildlings. They've found us. But on her own – if they caught the others without her – her entire plan, her hope –
"A girl!" her captor was shouting in guttural Common Tongue, somewhere over her head. "This one's a girl!"
Horribly conscious of the blade scraping her neck, Sansa nonetheless – she was never to know how – managed to keep her head, and suck in just enough air to speak. It came out in a strangled squeal. "Timett! Timett!"
A moment of utter silence. Then she was turned about and thrown on her back, knocking her wind out for the third time in nearly as many minutes. Sparks fizzed in her eyes, but she was able to make out three or four massive fur-clad forms towering above her, united in uncompromising suspicion. Beneath their pothelms of boiled leather and ill-fitting plate, their bearded faces showed no glimmer of recognition or sympathy. "Timett?" one of them growled, and dug Sansa smartly in the ribs with his bone-spurred boot when she failed to answer immediately. "What d'you want with the Red Hand, you milk bitch?"
"I want. . . to talk to him." Sansa tried to roll out of the range of further kicks. "It's about Tyrion. The Halfman. Please!"
The Burned Man looked briefly inclined to put her truthfulness to the test, but a sharp glance from one of his companions stopped him. So there remained at least something to conjure with in her little lord husband's name – the first time Sansa had ever been remotely glad to be accounted Lady Lannister in any capacity. Then, while she was still straining for any glimpse of her mother or the vanished Brotherhood, she was bundled up and dragged away, her feet bouncing uselessly underneath her.
The Burned Men shouted to each other as they charged through the deepening snow, more and more of them appearing from the murk like spirits. To judge from the size, it had to be a full raiding party, and Sansa had heard all sorts of tales in the Eyrie as to how brazen and bloodthirsty the clans had become. The moment of truth was now at hand. Either she would convince Timett of her veracity, or it would all come to an ignominious end and Littlefinger would rule the Vale unchallenged until the end of time. Sansa focused on the one thing she could control, getting her breath back, as she bumped and rattled in her captors' wake. Oddly, she didn't feel as scared as she should; there was not much left to be scared of. She did pray fervently for the others, though, and that she was able to explain to Timett before his henchmen took gleeful advantage of the opportunity. Her lips and face were quite numb, she felt as if she could barely think, let alone speak. But she had to, it was –
The wind cut off abruptly as the wildlings frog-marched her into a slot between two rocks, frozen lichen spidering up the walls and a trail blazed through to the firepit at the center. It was here that they pitched her negligently facedown before the man sitting on an ossified log, gnawing on a haunch of some unidentifiable animal. The smell of roasting meat made Sansa's empty belly ache, but she pushed herself to hands and knees, wincing; she'd caught her wrist beneath her when she fell. Meeting the gaze of the man across from her, one dark glowering eye and one burned pit, she armored herself in her courtesy, her only weapon to hand. "Lord Timett."
He snorted, startled both by her formal address and the fact that she'd done so by name. "I know you?"
"She was asking for you," one of the raiders informed his chief. "Thought we'd best see why before we started enjoying her. Pretty bit of a thing, if her cunt's not all froze up, but she said something about the Halfman."
Sansa considered it a testament both to the Burned Men's healthy fear of their leader and Tyrion's notoriety that they'd given her an actual audience before they commenced raping her out of hand. She did hope that they never got around to it. "No, you don't know me," she admitted, "but I do you. We were in King's Landing together, but you left after your heroism in helping save the city from Stannis Baratheon. Before – before I wed the man you served in doing so."
Timett scowled, taken further aback. "Bloody what? The Imp? Married to a chit like you? Another of his whores?"
"No," Sansa said. "His lady wife."
"I heard the Halfman wed the Stark girl," one of the other Burned Men put in. "But then she turned into a winged wolf and flew away after she poisoned the king."
Would that I had. "I am her. But I did not fly away, and I did not poison the king. I was carried off here to the Vale, by Lord Petyr Baelish."
Dark looks were exchanged; the wildlings had no cause to love Littlefinger, who had strengthened the defenses of the Vale more in months than Lysa Arryn had in half a dozen years. Still, this was by no means evidence enough for them to believe her, and another took a firmer grip on his knife. "We are no groveling servants of the little lion man any more. We are a free and mighty folk. Why listen to a milk bitch? Kill her and send her head to Baelish. He'll get that message right quick."
An agreeing rumble went around the clan, and even Timett's thin lips seemed to pluck upwards in approval. To Sansa he said, "The Halfman is not with you?"
"Yet we are to think you are his wife, the Stark girl? The Imp is no more use to us now. My brother is right." He glanced over to his men. As offhandedly as if remarking on the foul weather, he said, "Rape her. Kill her. In either order you prefer."
An unholy roar went up. As they startled to jostle forward, as Sansa's terror became almost a living thing surging up her throat, all she could see was the eating knife Timett had left by the fire, his staring eye socket. Burned Men. Saw, and knew what she had to do.
As the first wildling pawed at her ankle, Sansa threw herself forward. She squirreled and struggled, and – one hand desperately outthrust – managed to get hold of Timett's knife. But rather than try to use it against her attackers, she flung her sleeve back, laying bare the smooth pale flesh. "Burned Men!" she screamed. "I swear it!" And clapped the broad blade of the red-hot knife across the back of her hand.
The pain was the worst thing Sansa had ever known, worse even than Joff's countless amusements. She could smell her flesh sizzling like crackling, feel the fire eating into it, could only think of what it must have been like for the Hound, when his brother shoved his face into the coals, the reason he'd left her to ride for King's Landing and his vengeance. Perhaps now I understand. Her fingers had locked, she couldn't let go, her hand was raw and blistered and hissing, smoke rising as she heard herself crying. She thought she was about to pass out, but then someone got hold of the knife and pulled it away, and she reeled back in the snow, shaking and retching.
One of the wildlings cursed in an almost awestruck tone. There was a brief and vehement discussion that Sansa couldn't follow, and then a sharp voice. "Girl? Girl!"
Sansa weakly opened her eyes, avoiding looking down. "Yes?"
Timett son of Timett was staring at her, apparently without a single thing to say. She had done her best to become a Red Hand in literal fact, and there was no question that he realized it. The rest of the wildlings who'd been so eager to deflower and dismember her a moment before were likewise holding at a superstitious distance, and a few fearful glances were exchanged, as if by even entertaining the prospect they would call down the wrath of some provincial deity upon their heads. They remained absolutely silent.
At last, Timett broke it. "Lady lion," he said. "What do you want?"
I am no lion. Sansa struggled to sit up. "I am returning to the Vale with some dozen companions," she managed, swallowing the nausea. "We. . . meant to deal with Lord Baelish, and I. . . I had hoped for your protection and assistance. . . in guiding us through the mountains. . to the high road and the Gates of the Moon. To make the Vale again free. . . for its rightful masters." Let them think that was them. She prayed they did.
"We'd never get so far as the Gates of the Moon," Timett said, scowling again. "That bloody pup has been leading sorties against us every chance he gets. He's so green he pisses grass, and one day soon we'll feed him his cock and balls for supper, but he's been a wretched nuisance all the same."
Bloody pup. Something about that pricked at Sansa – aside from the fact that for all the wildlings' bluster and bellicosity, they could still be chased off, scattered like roaches, by the discipline of a mounted attack. "Who?" she blurted, before she could think better of it. "Who's leading them?"
"The Hardyng whelp," Timett said succinctly. "Him and that other suckling knight – though that one's a viper, drinks poison from his nurse's teat instead of milk. Harlan Hunter."
Harry and Ser Harlan? Sansa's head was still cloudy with pain, but at that, her suspicion began to cohere ever more clearly. Given what was known or at least very strongly suspected about Harlan Hunter's involvement in his father's death, and the fact that leading attacks against the barbaric wildlings was exactly the sort of heroically and potentially fatal activity to appeal to a young man of Harry's sensibilities, she suddenly began to wonder if Littlefinger's plans for the Vale had drastically changed in the wake of her disappearance. I would be a fool to doubt it. She had been Littlefinger's key to the entire thing – assuming he had been telling the truth when he claimed his intentions to have her and Harry rule the Vale and the North together, never a certainty. And one with no reward for him, except for the knowledge that he'd altruistically restored his beloved Cat's daughter to her rightful place in the world. But Littlefinger didn't have an altruistic bone in his body. And what better way to deftly rid himself of the only claimant still capable of mounting any sort of challenge to his protectorate, now that the Lords Declarant had fallen into step behind him? Clean hands, Sansa. Whatever you do, make sure your hands are clean.
Save for her smoking fingers, Sansa felt cold to the bone. Harry would have accidentally stumbled into the grave regardless. As soon as we were established. . . as soon as it made sense for the Lord Protector who had supported him so generously to wed his widow and keep the rule as strong as it was before. No one would utter a peep of protest, it would be solid, respectable, sensible. . .
She could not be sure. Of course she could not be sure. But she'd observed Petyr Baelish intimately for months now. Between this or the notion that it was all a noble self-sacrifice in Catelyn's loving memory, the former won in a landslide.
The Burned Men were exchanging confused looks, and Sansa tried to think of what in the world to say. "My companions. . ." she succeeded in at last. "If you come across them. . . I will not have them harmed." She could not tell whether her act had won her any lasting reverence or obedience, but she had to take what she could. "Bring them to me. . . the Gates of the Moon."
The clansmen glanced unhappily at Timett, apparently rooting for him to gainsay this, but he didn't. Dull relief splintered through Sansa, one of the first sensations to make it through the pain, as the chieftain raised his head and looked at her searchingly. "All right," he said at last. "We'll take you."
Sansa was too grateful to ask any questions or struggle against the hairy troll of a man, with hands the size of smoked hams, who picked her up and slung her around his neck like a muffler. A barked command from Timett made him alter it to his shoulder, and Sansa closed her eyes as the wildlings began to move out. I can't return on my own – I need Mother, I need the Brotherhood – but what if all her struggle had won her was her life alone?
Her burned hand hurt terribly, and the constant jolting and gamey odor of her faithful steed was equally unpleasant, but Sansa was exhausted enough to slip into a feverish doze. The hours lurched and reeled and staggered away; it was impossible to tell how many, as the moon was still hidden by clouds and sheeting snows. To the wildlings, however, it might have been a fine spring day. They plowed through waist-high drifts without appearing in the slightest bit perturbed.
The snow finally stopped as the light was turning a weak, watery grey. The entire world seemed clad in its virginal veil, a strange muffled quality to the air, Sansa's blood thumping in her ears. The Burned Men were descending a steep trough on the far side of the peak they'd earlier been scaling, and although visibility was sharply curtailed in the fog, Sansa could make out just enough familiar geography to realize with a start that they were in the barrens just above the high road, perhaps only a league or two off from the Gates of the Moon. Which meant that surely the wildlings wouldn't be going much further. There'd be Arryn men, Royce men –
This conclusion had barely made it through Sansa's head when it was speedily borne out in practice. The Burned Man who'd carried her all this way dropped her flat in the snow. "We go no more," he announced. "You alone from here."
Slowly, fiendishly cramped, Sansa got to her feet. "When I reach the valley floor. . ."
"The bastards will find you, like as not." Timett stared at her hard enough to put those with two good eyes to shame. "If not, it's four miles on your right. To the castle."
"Thank you," Sansa told them, meaning it. "My companions. . ."
"We will remember what you said." For an instant it looked as if Timett was actually about to make some respectful gesture, but that thought died aborning. He turned sharply, his men at his back. "Good luck, Red Hand." And with that, the wildlings melted into the mist as if they had never been.
Sansa blinked hard, then made the sign of the star on herself, thinking that just now she could use all the divine protection she could get. She had no idea how she was going to make it down the rest of the mountain, much less the four miles to the Gates of the Moon, but the only thing more impossible than going on was going back.
She began to walk. Every step was agony, a knife stabbing her in the small of the back and twisting, and she had very little use of her burned hand, but she began to sing, first in her head and then under her breath and then in cracked murmurs, her voice thin and stolen in the winter silence. All the songs she'd loved as a girl, all her fair maidens and handsome knights, all her happy endings and all her dreams and hopes. The snow castle of Winterfell she'd built in the Eyrie, before Petyr had appeared and kissed her and Aunt Lysa had tried to kill her. The songs she'd clung to for so long. Her last friends now.
At long last, she reached the high road. The sun was somewhere out of sight behind the Giant's Lance; she peered up at its dizzying heights, trying to make out the Eyrie, but couldn't. Yet here she was, at last. She'd come back to the Vale. One girl, footsore and battered and burned. One girl against the might of poison and plots and politics.
Sansa stood in the middle of the snowy road, too tired even to fall. She couldn't trust that the Burned Men were truly finding the Brotherhood, or if they were on their way to back her up even now. She couldn't imagine either that that would be a seamless alliance. Or if there was any time.
There wasn't. She had to keep going. She put one nerveless foot in front of the other, her legs shaking. She thought she could smell smoke from a chimney. And then, on the very brink, she caught sight of something moving, down and up and then up again, closer and closer. Despite the fact that it was still very likely to herald her death or entrapment or final defeat, she had never been so glad to see the blue-and-cream banners of House Arryn in her life.
It was an hour later when Sansa Stark rode through the portcullis of the Gates of the Moon, mounted pillion behind the knight who'd rescued her on the high road: Ser Godfrey Waynwood, some sundry relation of Lady Anya's, no doubt dreaming of heaps of gold for his service. He and the Arryn men riding patrol had already sent one of their number ahead with the news, and she had been trying to brace herself the entire time for the reunions now at hand. Yet even when Ser Godfrey dismounted in the chaotic bailey and helped her down, she found nothing left, no readiness. Only fear.
"Alayne!" Myranda Royce elbowed vigorously through the gawking crowd and caught Sansa in her arms just as her knees started to give. "Sweetling, we've been so worried! After that bloody little weasel Shadrich – we all heard – "
Sansa nodded mutely. Yet she was aware that Myranda's warm welcome had been by no means replicated among the rest of the Gates of the Moon's household; they were staring at her with a blend of confusion and hostility. One of them openly made the sign of the horns, and another muttered, "Come back to gloat, has she now?"
Myranda glared at them. "You'll keep your filthy lies to yourself," she said, half-carrying Sansa through the throng and into the shock of the warm castle beyond. "Anyone who carries on with that will get the same."
"Carries on with what?" Sansa muttered. "What?"
"Nothing, child. No one thinks it was you." Myranda paused. "No one who matters." The strained levity in her voice told Sansa at once that it, whatever it was, was a lie.
Still Randa didn't answer. She led Sansa up the tower stairs to her private chambers, shut the door firmly behind her, stripped Sansa's wet clothes off, and put her straightaway to bed. Sansa struggled to stay awake just a few moments longer, to ask, to demand what was wrong, but it was beyond her. She collapsed into a sleep like death and did not even dream.
It was sometime indeterminately later, an hour or a day, when she opened her heavy eyelids again. Pale, battered sunlight slanted through the window, and she finally registered that she had been woken by a cultured but insistent tapping at the door. And then, before she could understand that or what it meant, hoping blurrily that it was Randa and yet knowing it was not, it opened.
She squeezed her eyes shut. It didn't make him go away.
"Sweetling," Lord Petyr Baelish said at last. "Returned to us from the dead. Such a miracle."
It took all her courage to open her eyes and look him in the face. "My lord."
A corner of his mouth twitched. It wasn't quite a smile. "So courteous as always. Good, that's good. It'll serve you well in your trial."
"Trial?" Sansa was only clumsily grasping at the sword he had just unsheathed, but she could feel its cut now. Her heart began to pound. "Why?"
Littlefinger paced across the room to her and sat down on the bed. "My darling," he said, chucking her gently under the chin. "You'll know, of course, that your sweet cousin is dead. May the gods assoil his innocent soul."
"Robert?" As if it could have been anyone else, but Sansa still felt it like a blow. He was only eight. He was powerless. He never deserved this.
"Robert," Littlefinger confirmed. "A tragedy beyond all measure. The folk of the Vale are, as they should be, distraught. To lose the last heir of Jasper Arryn's bloodline, and in such a way. . ."
"Such a way?" Sansa tried to move away, but there was nowhere to go. "My lord. . . how dare you, he was – he was p – "
"Poisoned." Littlefinger leaned forward and kissed her lingeringly on the lips. "By the very one in whose best interests it was to have him out of the way, so she could claim her inheritance and her marriage to the new heir. The one who is already well known to have murdered King Joffrey, and the one who needs the Lord Protector now more than she's ever needed him before, if she is to have a hope of escaping conviction on this most terrible charge, who fled with an unsavory hedge knight after her deed was discovered and is now known for who and what she is across the realm." His hand drifted down from her chin, across her stomach, and came gently to rest in the quilts between her legs. "You."