Feb. 16th, 2013

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Sansa

By the time they were close to Winterfell, Sansa had prepared and shared her plans with Jaime and Sandor. She knew she had to look the part of a great lady if she wanted to be taken seriously by her own folk and Stannis alike. Therefore on the morning after their last night of camping she dressed in her new courtly dress of sky-blue with black ribbons embroidered into its bodice and sleeves. She donned her mother’s gold and silver circlet over her freely flowing curls, knowing how well the colours matched her eyes and hair and would make her stand out.

Exactly as she wanted it to.

Everybody knew about the Tully colouring of Sansa Stark, and it was important that she be easily recognised. She secured her by now almost grey Kingsguard cloak with her direwolf brooch, remembering her preparations earlier and hoping that the outcome with Stannis would be a resounding success as it had been with Sandor.

Jaime and Sandor were dressed in matching pairs of sensible black and grey tunics, breeches and cloaks. Sandor had shaped a tree sapling into a pole, to which he had attached the Stark banner. They mounted and Sansa examined her honour guard: Jaime, looking handsome and every inch a nobleman, and Sandor, appearing imposing and fearsome while carrying the direwolf sigil. A small flame, which she had been guarding inside her since she had started the journey from the Vale, flared and started to burn bright. We are ready. I am going home.

The first person to see them was a young woman on the roadside, staring at them with her mouth agape. Sansa beckoned her closer.

“Good woman, don’t be afraid. I am Lady Sansa Stark and I am returning home.” The woman gasped but recovered enough to drop into a cumbersome curtsey, murmuring “My lady.”

“Please go to Winter Town and tell everyone you see that a Stark is returning to Winterfell. Those who want to welcome me are invited to join me on my way to my ancestral home.” The woman rose and stammered something incoherent about everyone assuming all Starks to be dead, and promising to run as fast as she could to spread the message.

Sansa leaned forward in her saddle and gazed deep into the woman’s eyes. “Tell me your name and go with my blessing. Remember this moment and recount it to your children and your grandchildren; how you were the first person to welcome Sansa Stark back to Winterfell. Tell this tale to everyone you see.”

Again the woman dropped into a curtsey that was, if possible, even deeper than the one before. “My name is Sarita, and I will recall this day until I die. Gods be thanked, Lady Stark, for your return!” She gathered her skirts and ran, peeking over her shoulder once as she sped towards the town.

Sansa rode slightly ahead with Jaime and Sandor behind her, the direwolf banner fluttering proudly in the wind. The day was bright and sunny and Sansa silently thanked the gods for it – rain or hail would not have permitted the grand return she had in mind. Soon people ran to meet them; at first they were quiet and respectful, but as Sansa waved her hand and called out her greetings in a loud voice, the crowd got noisier. The murmurs changed into shouts of “Stark!”, “Lady Sansa!” and “Winterfell!” The sound of their voices carried Sansa when she squeezed her eyes shut and for a moment she almost felt her father’s arms around her. Home.

Then she opened them again and regarded the thin faces in the crowd, reminiscing about her father’s teachings on how the foremost duty of any lord was to take care of his people, and how the bond between a lord and his people was a sacred one. Sansa nodded and smiled and waved her hand and smiled again until her face hurt. The closer they got to Winterfell the bigger the crowd grew, consisting of hundreds of people by the time they reached the East Gate. Two soldiers in Baratheon colours approached them.

“Who are you and what is the meaning of this?!” shouted the first man. Sansa drew her horse in and raised her hand to halt Jaime and Sandor.

“I am Lady Sansa Stark, returning to Winterfell. Let us pass and tell your master I am coming.” The men stared at her incredulously but obeyed, stepping aside, one of them hurrying towards the keep. Sansa continued to the large courtyard and stopped in front of the Great Hall. She slid down from her horse, while Jaime and Sandor dismounted theirs.

Sansa avoided examining the damage clearly visible in the once powerful keep, afraid that if she did so she would start crying - and that simply wouldn’t do. Taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders defiantly, she climbed the stairs and entered the Great Hall.

----------

The hall was almost empty at that hour of the day. Only Stannis Baratheon and a few of his commanders were seated at a long table, studying scrolls and maps. The soldier Sansa had sent ahead had just finished his report and she could see Stannis furrowing his brow questioningly before turning his head towards the commotion at the door.

Sansa moved towards him, dropping into a deep curtsey at a respectable distance. “Your Grace.” She stayed down, not too briefly to appear disrespectful, but not too long to appear submissive. Then she rose and moved to the dais, turning towards the group.

“I greet you warmly and apologise that I haven’t been here to offer you the hospitality of House Stark as you deserve, having relieved us of traitors. Please accept my sincerest gratitude.” At that she curtseyed again, but only briefly. Stannis had not said a word but followed her with his gaze. For a while both of them were silent but then Stannis moved.

“Dear Lady Sansa, it gladdens me to see that you are alive and well, and have returned to the North.” He stepped towards her. “Pray tell me, how is it that you have arrived? I had no word of your coming.”

Sansa gestured towards Jaime and Sandor, who approached and bowed their heads slightly. She knew how uncomfortable they were, but she had insisted they had to show their respect to Stannis if they wanted to turn him into their ally.

“I have travelled a long and dangerous road to come here, and have not been in a position to send ravens. Fortunately I have been ably assisted by my companions, Ser Jaime Lannister and Sandor Clegane. Without them I would not be here today.” Stannis stared at the men sceptically before turning back to Sansa.

“My apologies, I forgot. I should be addressing you as Lady Lannister, of course.” Sansa recoiled at the implication.

“Not Lady Lannister. Although it is true there was a ceremony between Tyrion Lannister and myself, the marriage was never consummated and as such never became valid. In the eyes of the Seven I am still a Stark. This will be soon rectified in the eyes of men as well.” Stannis considered her, then Jaime and Sandor. Sansa answered the question he did not voice.

“Sandor Clegane left the service of the Lannisters and is now my sworn shield. Ser Jaime joined my company of his own free will and is my trusted adviser and protector. Although he can’t change his family affiliation, his loyalty is now with House Stark.” Jaime flinched. Sansa knew he had agreed, but hearing it said out loud must still have affected him.

“Am I right to assume that you welcome me as the heir of House Stark and as the Lady of Winterfell, Your Grace?” Sansa turned her eyes to Stannis. Although she knew him to be impervious to womanly charms, she hoped even he would be touched by her position as an innocent young maiden whose family had been cruelly murdered, and who had finally arrived back at her home after being long lost. She didn’t fool herself though; she could see Stannis thinking furiously. Undoubtedly his strategic mind was already assessing the new possibilities the situation presented. Stannis Baratheon wasn’t stupid. It wouldn’t take him long to realise the advantages the situation offered.

Soon enough Stannis bowed to Sansa and lifted her hand to his lips. “My dear Lady Stark, welcome back. Please allow me to be the first to recognise you as the Lady of Winterfell. My lady wife will be delighted to see you and will make sure you are received in a manner suitable to your station.” He turned to one of his men and ordered him to take a message to Lady Selyse.

At that Sansa felt the strain she had suffered since the morning ease. She smiled brightly to all those gathered and made her way back to the outer steps, where she addressed the gathered crowd.  In a clear voice she thanked them for their support, assured them that she had truly returned to stay and expressed her gratitude and friendship to Stannis Baratheon and his brave troops for their help in recapturing Winterfell for her. She promised to meet her people and hear their grievances soon, but first she had to make herself at home and learn all that had happened in her absence.

The crowd listened to her intently before erupting into cheers and shouts which lasted a long time. Sansa glanced at Jaime and Sandor standing behind her, side by side, giving her their support in the form of a unified stance representing strength and loyalty. She noticed Sandor studying the crowd under his brow. He had done as they had agreed; carried Sansa’s banner, examined the smallfolk and Baratheon soldiers alike for any disturbances and stood in attendance ready for any eventuality in case Sansa’s meeting with Stannis had turned sour.

Only now Sansa realised he had been even more reserved than normal. Isn’t he happy about us finally reaching Winterfell? Could Sandor be feeling as she did; glad to finally arrive at their destination, but also disturbed about what that would mean for them? Sansa wanted to ask him, but something in his demeanour shut her out. The wall around him had truly returned.
Sighing, Sansa turned to go back inside.

----------

As she approached the dais, Stannis rose to meet her. He beckoned her to sit next to him and waved his men away.

“Lady Sansa, you addressed me as ‘Your Grace’. Does this mean you recognise my claim to the Iron Throne?” His dark blue eyes were scanning Sansa’s face for her reaction.

“It means that I am happy to reconcile with the rightful King of the Seven Kingdoms. Although I could maintain my brother’s claim and continue the rule of Kings in the North, I choose not to. Starks have been faithful to the central rule since King Aegon I, and only the most grievous aggravation from the Iron Throne has swayed that. When Lord Rickard and Brandon Stark were murdered by the Mad King, the North rebelled and the King was dethroned. When my Lord Father was cruelly executed by King Joffrey. the North declared itself again.” Sansa looked at him seriously, holding his gaze. It was important that Stannis saw her point.

“Joffrey was not a rightful king,” Stannis muttered.

“True. He was an impostor, claiming to be of the blood of rulers when he was not. Yet as the head of my House, I attest that I am ready to bend the knee to the true King.” Sansa let that sink in for a while.

“I am glad to hear your position on this matter. It is as sensible as I would expect from the daughter of Lord Eddard.” Stannis leaned back and looked into the distance.

“My own situation here is uncertain. I have fought for the good of the realm at the Wall, yet I am likely considered a traitor by the Targaryens. I am far away from my own lands, amongst people who, although they consider me as their saviour, are not ready to be led by me.” He looked at Sansa and gave a faint smile.

“These matters are surely not of interest to a young maiden. You must be happy to just have returned to your home.”

“On the contrary, these matters are of enormous interest to me. I see your dilemma, and I think I may have a solution for you.” Stannis’s eyes narrowed but Sansa continued before he could stop her and suggest she join the ladies to do her needlework.

“I see that our aims are aligned. We both want what is best for the realm and to end this futile war. Yet we also want to secure our own lands and the security of our people. The Targaryens have landed and taken the Crownlands, but Westeros is more than that. Resistance from the rest of the kingdoms can still severely damage any reconquest and unification attempts.” Sansa could see that Stannis’s interest had been piqued from the way he leaned closer to hear her better.

“Hence I suggest that we unite the North and Stormlands, not for war but for peace, for an honourable peace for both of us. The Targaryens would have to seriously consider our joined forces. What more, we know about the true enemy beyond the Wall, and can educate them about that. Most people in the south still believe them to belong only in scary children’s stories. Together we can attest to their existence and how fighting against each other while a more dangerous enemy is gathering strength is pointless.” Knowing how naïve she might have sounded, Sansa continued.

“Morality aside, the Targaryens have only limited forces and they have to act quickly to secure Westeros. External forces are good for short-term campaigns, but years of protracted warfare against troops fighting for their own lands are likely to lessen the ardour of most committed sellswords and foreign fighters. It is also well known that there is nothing better to unite old foes than a new, common enemy. As for the dragons, they are lethal, but even they can be killed, and they can’t be everywhere at once.”

Stannis regarded her for a long time without saying a word. Sansa held her breath - much depended on whether Stannis had truly accepted his claim to be redundant now that the old royal line had returned. Eventually Stannis sighed.

“Lady Sansa, that is a sound strategy. Do you mind if I ask if it is of your own making?”

Sansa smiled. Of course it made sense that a leader more used to dealings with other men would find it difficult to accept that a woman could think strategically.

“I assure you it is. I have discussed it with my companions, and irrespective of what you think about Ser Jaime or Sandor Clegane as individuals, they are both experienced battle commanders and strategists, and they see merit in my plans. I have also observed the game of thrones up close over the last few years, and I take my responsibilities as the head of my house seriously. I have to give these things all due consideration, Your Grace – or would you prefer Lord Stannis?”

Stannis stood up, raised Sansa’s hand to his lips and gave it a dry peck.

“You have given me much to think about, and we shall discuss it again. Now if you will allow, I believe Lady Selyse is eagerly awaiting you in her rooms.” He led Sansa towards a soldier waiting at the door.

Later, after Sansa had been warmly greeted by Lady Selyse and young Lady Shireen, rooms prepared for her and she had finally retired to them, she let out a big sigh of relief. The first stage of her plan had been initiated. No, she corrected herself, not the first, the second. The first part had already been completed; to get back to her home. Home.

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