Sansa was pacing the Great Hall restlessly, back and forth, back and forth. The last participant of the big gathering was expected any moment – the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Since the raven from Castle Black had arrived, Sansa had been counting the days until his arrival. Bastard or not, Jon was her brother. Remembering how she had previously considered him somehow less than her full siblings, she felt deeply ashamed.
She had heard about the attempt against his life, his eventual recovery and how he had seized power a second time with his supporters. Yet all that was wiped away from her mind as she was fidgeting, waiting for him. The anticipation of a reunion with someone who shared the same childhood memories offered her peculiar contentment and acted as a reminder of who she truly was.
Not only was she keen to see her brother again, she also had news for him. The tidings from a few days ago had filled her heart with cautious optimism, and despite knowing it could lead to even deeper misery if they turned out to lead nowhere, she wanted to allow herself at least a little bit of hope.
Before Brienne of Tarth had left, she and Jaime had planned how she could send them occasional updates on her search. The plan had been for her to send ravens or messengers to White Haven, to House Manderly, who in turn would send her messages to Winterfell by a raven. The first long letter from her had finally reached them just days ago. Brienne’s large, bold writing had outlined how she had heard a story of a girl, dressed as a boy, selling a horse much too fine for smallfolk to a stable in Saltpans. The owner remembered the pair as even though she had been sure the horse was stolen, she had also had an uneasy feeling that the girl had spoken a bit too finely for a scruffy vagabond. Further inquiries in the town had revealed the girl had not been seen since, but also that there had been three ships in port that day. Two of them had been local river galleys, but the third had been a proper ship called Titan’s Daughter. It originated from Braavos and did regular business in port towns on the eastern coast, and had been back several times since.
As luck would have it, on its last visit one of its crew had fallen in love with a local lass and jumped ship, settling in a village not far from Saltpans. As unlikely as any further information from a single sailor had been, Brienne had taken a day’s journey to seek him out. To her astonishment he had recalled a passenger the ship had taken around the time Arya had left the Hound. He had described to Brienne a young girl in boy’s clothes, who had travelled on her own and for some inexplicable reason had been granted passage on the ship. He laughed, remembering how he and his fellow mates had tried to teach the girl the language of Braavos. ‘Salty’, they had called her, a skinny brown-haired girl from Saltpans with grey eyes and a long face.
Brienne was convinced the girl had been Arya, and after hearing that the ship had left her at Braavos, decided to sail there. She had sent the message just as she was departing Westeros on a trading ship.
Although Sansa told herself not to get too excited, her heart rejoiced nonetheless. Arya had been alive, she had escaped the war in Westeros! Sansa couldn’t remember much of Braavos, except that Arya’s dancing master in King’s Landing had hailed from there. Maybe he had told Arya something useful of the city, something that would help her to find a place to hide there. Sansa knew Jon had always liked Arya the best, and news of her would be her welcoming gift to him.
Finally she heard sounds from the yard; horses whinnying, servants shouting, the clanking of swords as men dismounted. She braced herself, trying to remain standing on the dais as the lady of the house should. Yet when she heard footsteps approaching the entrance, she couldn’t hold out anymore. She ran down the hall and as she reached the door, it was pulled open and she stared her brother in the eye.
He looked older, a man fully grown, but still the same old Jon with a countenance so much like her father’s. For a moment they stared at each other, then he extended his hands and they fell into an embrace. Sansa sobbed uncontrollably, not caring how unladylike it was. Jon’s hold was solid and he smelled of horse and sweat and snow and home.
For a long time they stood there, finally disentangling when Jon gently pushed Sansa back. She saw his white direwolf next to him, staring unblinkingly at her. Ghost!
“Sansa – Lady Stark - let me look at you! You have grown into a strong, beautiful woman. As I always knew you would.” Jon’s eyes were sparkling and he was laughing. The joy of the moment washed away the years apart, as well as any apprehensions Sansa had harboured in her heart about how he would receive her.
“Jon, I am so happy to see you again! You look well, especially after…what I heard happened to you,” Sansa exclaimed. Jon smiled, took a hold of her shoulder and pulled her closer as they walked together towards the dais.
“I am not so easily killed, and am in quite good health now. Nothing but a few scars to show off. But enough about me, what about you? I can’t tell you how glad I was to hear that you had returned. All I could make of the raven’s messages was that you had been hidden in the Vale before finally making your way back home. You must tell me all about your travels!”
And she did. After Jon and his companions had settled, he and Sansa spent the rest of the day just talking and sharing experiences. Sansa heard about Jon’s adventures beyond the Wall and how he became the Lord Commander, his attempts to reconcile with the wildlings and his latest troubles with rebellious black brothers, wights and white walkers. Jon heard about Sansa’s suffering in Joffrey’s court, her forced marriage to Tyrion, her time in Littlefinger’s hands and finally how Brienne, Jaime and Sandor had brought her back. Jon’s fists clenched when Sansa told him her story, but she assured him that it was all in the past and she had grown stronger because of what she had endured.
Sansa re-introduced him to Jaime and Sandor, remembering they had met before. Jon was initially cold and guarded with Jaime, but seeing Sansa’s trust in him he eventually started to thaw. For Sandor Jon showed cautious respect, one warrior to another.
There was nothing Sansa would have wanted more than to spend time with Jon remembering happier times, but the big gathering of the northern lords beckoned. Sansa and her retinue, including Stannis and Jon were seated on the dais, the lords and their retainers sitting around long trestle tables. Food and drink was brought out, but on Sansa’s instructions only watered wine was to be served until important matters had been discussed.
The great doors were closed. It was time to decide the future of the North.
It was almost dawn the next morning when Sansa finally went to bed, exhausted by the events of the night.
The meeting had been long, full of arguments and counter-arguments, suggestions and objections, laughing and cursing, cheering and jeering. She had known it to be important to allow everyone to have their say. Northern lords did not cower before authority and were famous for being opinionated and strong-minded.
She had talked with many of them in the days preceding the meeting to secure support for the course she desired, and that had certainly helped. She knew some of the lords were likely to favour her because of their designs on her, either for themselves or their sons – but she refused to allow that to affect her.
The strongest arguments for abandoning the idea of the Kingdom in the North were presented by Stannis and especially Jon. Their descriptions of the threat beyond the Wall convinced everyone that Westeros had to unite, as only a unified realm could fight against such a formidable common enemy. In the end that motion prevailed and it was decided that representatives of the North would be sent to King’s Landing to negotiate with the Targaryens. Jaime agreed to join the party and the others were to be selected over the next few days.
There had been one tense moment when Sansa had officially welcomed all and assured them she planned to stay and rule in Winterfell. Her unclear position as Lady Lannister still puzzled many, and she chose that moment to declare her decision to annul her marriage. She presented the document proving her maidenhood and announced that it secured the annulment beyond all doubts, making it impossible for anyone to prevent it. Then she braced herself and took a calculated risk.
“If anyone has reservations about the authenticity of this document, I am willing to submit myself to a re-examination as soon as we can locate a septa to do it.” Sansa stared at the lords defiantly. She hated to bring such deeply personal matters up for discussion – but personal is political, she had learned from Petyr. In her case, however, it was a risky tactic, as it carried the possibility of destroying everything if she truly had to go through with it.
Nobody raised their voice to demand re-examination. Sansa noticed Howland Reed throwing a quick look at her, then at Sandor, who was standing right behind her. She blushed remembering how he had witnessed their reunion in Greywater Watch. The next thing he heard was Howland Reed’s strong voice.
“Lady Stark has suffered enough. For me, her word as a Stark will suffice, but the document from the servants of the Seven may be needed for southrons. No need for her to humble herself any further.” Several voices in the crowd agreed with him and the matter was closed.
Sansa sighed in relief. She had chosen to take the risk for two reasons: her willingness to submit to re-examination would alleviate any fears about the document being a forgery or written under pressure from Petyr. In addition, it would do away with any whispers about her relationship with her sworn men during their travels together. As unfair as it was, people in the North were as likely to gossip as those in the South, and her reputation was important for her success.
She had said as much to Jaime and Sandor the previous evening, and although Jaime had warned her about the dangers of her plan, he had agreed that it might be worth therisk. Sandor had only looked at her with his jaw clenched, and Sansa knew he was still blaming himself for failing to protect her.
The meeting concluded around midnight, followed by more food, strong wine and inevitable stories and laughter shared by the lords, together for the first time after Robb’s death. Sansa planned to retire at that stage - but for her the night of surprises was only beginning.
Howland Reed approached her as she descended the dais. “I know that it is late but there is a matter I need to discuss with you, the sooner the better. Would you kindly agree to this?” He turned then to Jon, who was likewise on his way to his room. “Lord Commander, could you join us? This matter concerns you too, and House Stark.”
Jon and Sansa shared a surprised glance. They were tired, but Howland Reed was an old and trusted friend. If he wanted to discuss family matters, they owed it to him to listen. So they gathered in Sansa’s solar, where she poured them some wine and gestured for them to sit. She wondered what the late meeting was about. Maybe Howland had heard something more about Arya?
Howland twirled the flagon in his hands, appearing to gather his thoughts. He sipped, sighed and looked at them. “What I am about to tell you is something only two people in the whole realm knew, but with your father gone I am the only one left. I swore to protect this secret and have kept that promise – until now. The situation when I made the promise was very different from now, and I judge it is time for those whom the secret concerns to finally learn the truth.”
Sansa listened intently, concluding that the meeting was not about Arya after all. Jon looked at Howland with growing expectation in his eyes and Sansa realised he was hoping to finally hear about his mother. Who she was, why she abandoned him, if she a good woman – anything.
“You both know the story of how Rhaegar Targaryen abducted Lyanna Stark. It is generally thought that he kidnapped her against her will, but in truth she went with him because she wanted to.” Sansa gasped and Howland smiled at her.
“Your aunt Lyanna was a very strong woman, and I see a lot of her in you. Your sister Arya may resemble her more in appearance and passion, but Lyanna had iron underneath her beauty, just like you, Sansa. When she fell in love with Rhaegar, nobody could have persuaded her not to go with him.”
Sansa was digesting the news. She was surprised, but then again, she had heard much about Lyanna’s stubbornness. Abandoning everything for love sounded like something she might have done.
“You have also heard how after the battle of the Trident, Lord Eddard and five of his companions - I among them - fought Ser Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent and Lord Commander Gerold Hightower to get to Lyanna in the Tower of Joy. Despite our victory it was too late, and she died there in Ned’s arms.”
Sansa nodded, as did Jon. They had heard the story several times and when Sansa was younger she used to cry thinking about the sad fate of her aunt.
“That was not all, you see, because Lyanna was not alone. When we entered her chamber, she had a newborn babe in her arms. With powerful lungs and a will to live, although his mother’s lifeblood was slowly draining away.” Sansa raised her hand to her mouth. A babe! Lyanna had borne a son to Rhaegar!
After a moment of silence Sansa asked with a hushed voice. “What happened to the babe? Did he live?”
As if not hearing the question Howland continued. “Your father gave Lyanna a promise. She knew that if Robert heard about the babe, he would kill him. Robert might have loved Lyanna, but he hated Rhaegar more. So she asked Ned to promise to take her son and never reveal his origins to anyone. Ned promised – and then Lyanna died, still holding her son in her arms.” Howland was quiet for a long time, his eyes unseeing, looking into the past.
Sansa shifted and repeated her question. “What of the babe? What happened to him?”
Howland lifted his head and looked straight at Jon. “Ned took him to the North and raised him as his own son.”
Sansa heard a loud intake of breath and then a sob from Jon’s direction. Her mind processed slowly what she had just heard. The babe, his father raising him as his own son… Jon!
She turned to see Jon’s face contorted, his shoulders slumped. Slowly, very slowly, tears started to flow from his eyes. “Lyanna?” he whispered hoarsely. “Rhaegar?”
“Yes, Jon. Rhaegar Targaryen is your father and Lyanna Stark is your mother. You are the blood of the Dragons, the blood of ice and fire.” Howland suddenly looked older than before, as if revealing the secret he had kept for so many years had drained something from within.
Sansa was still trying to understand. Everyone always said how much Jon resembled Ned – but Lyanna was Ned’s sister and had had the same appearance. Had her mother known? Probably not, for why else she would have resented Jon, thinking him to be the proof of Ned’s indiscretion? How her father must have suffered, but he had kept his promise. Just as Lyanna must have known he would. But Jon…what did the revelation mean to Jon?
She reached towards Jon and they embraced. She could feel his hot tears against her shoulder while she murmured soft words into his ear and just held him.
Howland Reed took his leave, seeing that neither of them could continue further. He bade them good night and left, promising to meet them again the next day and answer any questions they had.
For the rest of the night she held Jon in her arms, trying to support him at a time when the world as he knew it crashed down around him. They didn’t talk much and eventually fell into an exhausted sleep on the couch. Only when the early signs of the dawn entered the solar, they stirred. Jon’s face was puffy and his eyes red, but otherwise he had regained his composure. After kissing Sansa on the forehead and accepting her assurances that they would meet again later, he left.
Sansa went to her bed and wished…she wasn’t sure what she wished. For the hurt in Jon’s eyes to go away, for his heart to recover from the lifetime of betrayal. And then she slept.