title: The Tenderness of Wolves

chapter title: from ashes

summary: The game has changed, not ended – and by the time they realise she's playing it's too late to stop what she's set in motion.

dedication: Sara, olive bread and new books.

They call her Alayne in the Vale, but this bastard born girl has never been to Winterfell. She dreams of it though, this great ruined castle in the North. She wanders the halls, and it is quiet. Dead. The smell of smoke hangs thick and heavy on the air, even now. Wolves surround the castle, still and silent.

What am I doing here? she thinks, but does not stop. Her feet seem to know where to take her, even if her head does not. The direwolf padding softly in front of her seems to know the way, too.

Lady, a voice whispers, Lady, Lady, Lady…

In the great hall where the Starks once sat, she finds a Lord with a weeping red line across his neck, still wearing the clothes in which he died.

"Father," the word falls from her lips in surprise and Alayne's head is a tangled mess because father is Lord Baelish, not this man with sad grey eyes and –

Eddard Stark touches her face with cold, dead fingers. "You're lost."

For some strange reason she wants to cry. She used to dream of that day on the steps of the Sept, over and over – will always be haunted by the swing of the sword on his bent neck, before she was Alayne.

"I'm scared."

"There must always be a Stark in Winterfell," Lord Eddard reminds her gently. Sadly. Lady sits by her father's side, watching her. She expects to see betrayal in the eyes of her dead, but there is only infinite sadness.

I don't want to, she thinks. And then, I'm the only one left.

She swallows, blinks back tears.

"Winter is coming." It sounds like a question, even to her. Alayne has taken over so much that she's begun to forget the words. Were they ever really hers, though? The daughter he knew worshiped the Seven, in place of the Old Gods and spent all her days dreaming of the South.

"Winter is coming," her father affirms, voice and expression grave. Somehow the words give her chills in a way they never did before.

He kisses her brow softly and she really does cry then, loud and hysteric, nothing like the delicate tears ladies shed in songs. Outside the wolves start to howl.

"You are a Stark of Winterfell," he murmurs, safe and familiar and gone. Suddenly she is alone in the hall, but his voice lingers. Lady is gone, too.

"Wake up Sansa," her father's ghost whispers.

When she opens her eyes, Sansa can still hear the howling of the wolves.

The Tenderness of Wolves

It's difficult, after that, to slip back into Alayne's skin. During the day, she pulls up the mask over her face readily enough – but not without effort, not without having to concentrate, to pretend.

Her defences from herself have been stripped away.

Other things, scary things, start to filter back in.

"You told me to put the tears in Jon's wine and I did…I wrote Catelyn and told her the Lannisters had killed my Lord husband just as you said!"

The Queen called Sansa stupid more times than she can count – she and Joffrey both – but she's clever enough to recognise her Aunt's ramblings for what they are.

She was stupid though, to think she could trust him.

"King Tommen requires my presence in the royal city," Lord Baelish announces mildly, rolling up the letter in his hands and slipping it into a pocket. "An unavoidable duty I'm afraid, sweetling."

Sansa lays down the brush she has been running slowly through her darkened hair taking care to look uncertain and vulnerable – like the little bird who escaped so fearfully from Kings Landing.

Her face in the mirror is cold and pale, as though her features are made of ivory.

"I hope you will not be away long, father. I'm not sure what to do in your absence."

He smiles and strolls across the room to stand behind her chair. She stares at their reflections in the mirror as he slides hands onto her shoulders, twirls a lock of her hair between his fingers.

"You are such a good, sweet girl, Alayne. There is no need for you to worry," he says, bending closer so that his mouth hovers by her ear. "No one can touch you here."

Sansa sits very still with the mask of Alayne pulled up and over her face. "Yes."

Petyr pulls away, his lips just barely brushing her earlobe. She forces herself to ignore the flash of something distinctly not fatherly in his eyes, before he composes his expression back into that of her kindly protector.

"I will send word of my return," he tells her. "Until then, play with Lord Robert and keep him happy. Do you understand?"

"Yes father," Sansa makes herself smile sweetly, eyes sweeping modestly down to her clasped hands. "I understand."

When he's gone she turns back to her reflection. Ice, she tells herself, not ivory. I am made of ice.

Carefully, Sansa takes a sheaf of paper from the desk of her vanity and begins to write. She wonders if Robb felt like this when they crowned him King; that he was perching on a precipice just waiting to swallow him whole -

(and in the back of her mind, she sets aside a place for vengeance because her brother was honourable and beautiful and hers).

Her words disappear with the dawn. She wonders if the sick feeling in her stomach is why there are no songs about fair maidens saving themselves. It's easier to wait for a man with a sword, she thinks. It's easier to be rescued, than to play the hero of the story.

(All of Sansa's heroes are already dead).

"I wondered about you, child."

Sansa doesn't smile, doesn't move. The dye hasn't washed out of her hair yet, not completely, but she's wearing the Tully colours and when Bronze Yohn looks at her, she sees the glow of recognition in his eyes, bright like the summer sun.

"You were right about Lord Baelish," is all she says, in a voice that, while not Alayne's, is not quite her own either. "You were right not to trust him."

His face is a thunderstorm slowly brewing and it reassures her. She plays it carefully, every word calculated. She lets him read the truth of all she knows in her face, in her Tully blue eyes.

"Tell me what he has done," he commands her. "And tell it true, my lady. No harm will come to you."

Sansa swallows, treading a thin line between who she is and the role she must play to win the support of house Royce.

"The singer Marillion did not push my Aunt, Lady Lysa, out the Moon Door... It was Lord Baelish who killed her."

"Seven hells." It is a curse that slips his lips, black and terrible like the swell of an angry ocean. Sansa watches his hands clench into fists and the dangerous narrowing of his eyes.

"You have to help me," she implores him, before the tide can rise up and drag him under – before he can smash through the carefully constructed plan she has and leave her bare in the ruins. "Please."

Something in her face must reach him, because men – oh, she knows them now, cruel men, clever men, honourable men.

Honourable men do not leave little birds to die.

"You lied," he pointed out, not quite accusing. "You lied for him, child. You got up in front of everyone and swore he told the truth."

Sansa's smile is as brittle as the frost that set on the grass in the Godswood at Winterfell. "And do you think I did so willingly, Lord Royce? Lord Baelish is currently the only man standing between myself and the Queen – and he just murdered his own wife in cold blood. Only a simpleton would have told the truth of my Aunt's death."

"You're telling the truth now." There is a question in there somewhere, one which makes her hide her hands in her lap. The firelight casts shadows across Bronze Yohn's face, and, she suspects, her own.

"Do you know how Joffrey Baratheon died?" she asks, thinking of poison, the hands of a wrinkled old lady and Littlefinger's cold-eyed smile. She thinks of puppets and how she plans to cut the strings.

"Poisoned by the Queen's brother, apparently."

Sansa shakes her head, leaning back in her chair. "Murdered, because of a plot between Lord Baelish and the Tyrell's. I saw him die, choking, clawing at his throat until his fingers were dripping with his own blood. They smuggled the poison into the feast on my hairnet. I had no idea."

"Why are you telling me this, child?"

She's surprised she needs to spell it out; perhaps the finer subtleties of politics and intrigue are beyond him. Or maybe he's too honourable.

Like father, she thinks. Like Robb.

"Lord Baelish murdered the King of Westeros and no one suspects a thing, Lord Royce. How long do you think it will be before my cousin dies, now that Littlefinger is Lord Protector? Sweetrobin is such a sickly child, you know. And of course, Lord Baelish has a lovely, natural-born daughter he can marry to Sweetrobin's heir. How long do you think it'll be before he dies, too?"

For a long moment, the only sound is the crackling of the fire in the grate. His face is unreadable and Sansa has no way of knowing if she has saved or doomed herself.

Then his eyes swing up to fix on her eyes – blue as her birthright, blue like her mother's. Blue like the King in the North's were. She knows, then, that she has him in the palm of her hand.

"What would you have me do, Lady Stark?"

Sansa smiles.

The gown she wears to greet her bannermen is deep blue silk, cinched in tightly at the waist. It brings out the colour of her eyes, the slowly returning red in her hair. This first appearance is everything; Sansa chooses everything with the utmost care, creating the image that will achieve her ends.

In the back of her mind, she thinks of Cersei, who said it was better to be feared than loved. She remembers a riot and a siege, a boy-king who would not be controlled.

Sansa remembers her father – her real father, now reclaimed – and how he had one of his men dine with him every night. The North declared war on Eddard Stark's behalf because they loved him.

I will make them love me, too.

In the mirror she is pale porcelain and big lovely eyes. Beautiful and demure, but not a little girl playing at leadership.

"You look beautiful, Lady Stark," Mya says, from where she stands by the door. "Like your mother."

"You met my mother?"

"Oh, yes," the bastard girl flicks black hair out of her eyes. Her smile is easy, secretive. "She came here with the Imp just before the war started."

Sansa raises a trembling hand to her head, suddenly overcome with the memories; how her mother's actions brought about the start of the war. All those days she spent with Arya in the Godswood praying, and she had no idea what was to come.

I just wanted father to wake up, she remembers. Now he never will. None of them will return to her, not ever and even on the good days, that's enough to cripple her blind.

"She should have stayed here," Sansa finds herself saying without thinking. Here, hidden on the top of the world, her mother would have been safe, would have lived, would have been here to show her the way.

Mya touches her hair gently, as close to a gesture of affection as Sansa is ever likely to get. "A mother does what she must for her children. Your brother needed her, m'lady, just like little Lord Robert needs you. You're his mother, now. Keep him safe."

She nods, bitterness rising in her throat. She would have kept Rickon and Bran safe too, if she could and their ghosts trail behind her, always out of sight, always lurking around the next corner.

"Too many children have died," she agrees softly, thinking not just of her lost family, but of Jeyne Poole, her dearest friend, of Arya's butcher boy, of the starving little creatures in Kings Landing, the dead baby cradled to a hysterical woman's chest.

She thinks of herself, her feet going out from under her on the steps of the Sept as a great yawning blackness rose up to meet her.

"Pass me the white furs please, Mya," Sansa chokes around the acid in her throat Staring hard at a fixed point on the horizon, where she imagines Riverrun lies, she blinks away the moisture in her eyes and searches the depths of her bones for some semblance of strength.

"Put on your Lord's face," Catelyn said playfully and Sansa watched as her father laughed –

and she breathes, sets her features in lovely marble, steel hidden underneath. Beautiful and cold.

Conquer this, she dares them, glowering at the last dregs of pale sunshine. For the briefest instance she imagines whole armies dashing themselves to pieces on her immaculate limbs, broken by the hard cast to her skin. Like the sole ship her husband sent into Stannis's fleet and set alight, she determines then that if she goes down she's going to take the world with her.

"It's time," Mya breaks the silence with a smile like white frost on a late summer morning, crisp and clean. "Your Lords and Ladies are here."

"I don't want to go with him, Alayne," he cries and whimpers and she almost slaps him, shakes him silly to make him understand.

"Sansa," she reminds him patiently. "You must call me Sansa, Sweetrobin. And you will be fostered because I need you safe, away from here. One day, you will be a great, kind Lord who protects the Vale – and your people will love you as they did your father. But not if you're dead."


"Robert." Her voice is sharp as the icy winds of winter. "You don't have a choice. You will be taken care of and protected in a safe place by people we trust. Stay here, in the Eyrie, and you will die."

Bronze Yohn is the first to bow as she descends the steps; the others follow in a matter of moments. Sweetrobin trails along beside her, their hands intertwined. Sansa's made sure they're wearing the same shade of blue.

When the men raise their heads to look at her, she sees a familiar switch flick behind their eyes. She wonders if Joffrey ever looked at her like that, or if she only saw what she wanted to see in the emptiness of his lying Lannister eyes.

It doesn't matter, really. They are half in love with her already, her and her claim. When they look at her, all they see is a title and new orifices to fuck. She can live with that; all Sansa sees when she looks at men now is a way back home, carved through blood and bone by the path of a thousand swords.

"Lord Royce," she greets warmly. "May I present my cousin, Lord Robert Arryn of the Vale?"

Reluctantly, Sweetrobin relinquishes his grip on her hand as Bronze Yohn kneels before his little Lord.

"It will be an honour to have you beneath my roof, Lord Robert," he says, solemn as the grave. His eyes flicker to Sansa, though, as he regains his feet. She nods once, imperceptibly.

That night, they feast on pigeon pie with flaky pastry that melts like butter in their mouths, and the last of the summer wine. Sansa doesn't drink a drop, mindful of drunk kings and drunk queens and the world cracking to pieces around their ears as their speech slurred. And if anyone notices, well, she's just a silly woman, isn't she? Just a girl.

I am saving your kingdom for you, she thinks, sipping at her water delicately, and saying nothing. They can drink the Eyrie dry, if they want. She'll hand the whole thing over when she's done, graciously as the queen she once imagined Cersei to be.

All she demands is that they take her kingdom back in return.

notes: You cannot comprehend the immensity of my House Stark feels.

notes2: also my Sansa feels. Was not expecting to love her so much but WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA'AM. Favourite character happened. And Arya. Expect to see her soon.

notes3: REVIEW OR DIE. (I jest. But review anyway and tell me who YOUR favourite Game of Thrones character is.)