Chapter 22

The next few days involved the two of them in long talks with those that were still in charge, trying to more completely understand the situation that they found themselves in. They were lucky that not all of the supplies had been depleted, and that people were still supporting the Stark family; at least, what little there was left of them.

Her father and mother were both dead. Robb was dead. Jon was north of the Wall, Arya was still missing, and Rickon had been hiding off in the weir wood but had reappeared the first morning after they'd arrived. Sansa would never admit it out loud, but she was sick with worry over Arya. Out of all of the Stark siblings, however, she had to begrudgingly admit that he younger sister was the one most likely to survive on their own. Being fiercely independent since before she could walk, and having constant "dancing" lessons, she was very likely still alive…still. Sansa was worried.

Before Sansa had even stepped foot into the first meeting three days earlier, however, her uncle had stopped Bronn from following her, and she was incensed.

"He is to stay with me," she had softly demanded, trying to maintain her temper, and her uncle had scoffed and said, "He is not one of the family, nor is he a member of the council of elders, therefore he has no claim to be in council," and Bronn had muttered under his breath, "Thank goodness for that," and she'd softly reprimanded him with a look.

She'd then said to her uncle, "He is to be with me at all times. He is my guard."

Her uncle laughed and said, "Sansa, he is but an up-jumped sellsword who holds no position or power here! I know he has been your companion, thus far, but you are no longer in King's Landing, nor out in the wilderness. You are home, niece. You are safe."

He'd put his hands on her shoulders, trying to reassure her, and, unable to keep it under a simmer, she'd exploded.

"Safe? You expect me to believe that I am safe here? Under our own roof, Bran was almost killed by a Lannister! Under our own roof, father let our wolves be murdered for crimes they did not commit! Under our own roof, people we considered friends and allies conspired to try and let our home be taken away from us! I no longer look at any place as safe, uncle," she'd spat out his relation as if it were a curse word, "Unless Bronn is at my side at all times. If he is not permitted to enter, then I will not go."

And that had been that. No more argument.

Bronn had even looked impressed.

But in every meeting, even if she didn't see the looks, she could feel the silent judgment in everyone's eyes as he stayed next to her, always on her right side. Occasionally, his hand would slip into hers under the table, and he'd tug at her fingers until she pried them open and let him slip his fingers between hers.

It was a silent admonition that he was with her. No matter what.

Whenever the men began talking about something that Sansa was unsure of, instead of asking her uncle or another council member, she would glance at the sellsword and squeeze his hand, and he would lean in and whisper into her ear until her brow unfurrowed and her hand went lax with understanding.

The whispers followed them for the three days, unrelenting, and soon she learned to tune them out, only focusing on the problems being put before her and how best to proceed. It soon became an afterthought to reach out and put a hand on Bronn's wrist, shoulder, or arm and for him to return the gesture. When she began including him in some of the dialogue, she knew her uncle was angry with her, but several others on the council seemed to be pleasantly surprised by the sellsword's sharp observations and intuitions and began to treat him with more respect.

Bronn, of course, relished in it, relaxing a bit more, but also taking an even closer interest to what was being said at the councils, while still keeping a close and wary eye on all who entered and left the room and how they treated her.

At the moment, it was late afternoon four days after they had arrived, a day from their last council, and they stood on one of the ramparts that looked out over the courtyard.

Sansa, knowing they were out of view of prying minds and ever-accusing eyes, leaned into his shoulder as his left hand lingered in the small of her back, tracing circles that she could feel even through the thick cloak of fur. The temperature seemed to get colder every day. She said nothing, and neither did he, as they both watched Bran and Rickon playing in the snow, Bran on Hodor's shoulders, using the height to an unfair advantage to throw snowballs at his younger brother.

After a long moment, Sansa mused out loud, "Bronn…am I doing the right thing?"

He said nothing.

And then he let out a sigh and answered, "As far as I can tell, yes. You are." He pulled back slightly to look down at her and she looked up as he said, "You seem to have a fairly good grasp of what's going on here in the North and in Winterfell, and you're the only one here who knows what's happened in Kings Landing, so yes. You're doin' the right thing."

She settled her head back on his shoulder, which was warm, and found her thoughts going back to the night before. Bronn had once more brought her pleasure; this time, however, with his mouth on other parts of her body, and she shivered and felt her face flush as she remembered the way it had felt: his strong hands holding her hips down against the bed, his weight heavy between her thighs, pressure in all of the most wonderful places as he'd driven her body temperature higher and higher until she'd shuddered to completion.

He seemed to feel her reaction and murmured, "You're thinkin' 'bout last night…"

"N-No," she said, unconvincingly, and he rolled his eyes.

"You're a horrible liar."

She pulled away from him and adjusted her cowl and retorted, "Yes, because that's such a good trait to have, lying flawlessly."

Bronn shrugged and replied, "Well, it depends on your profession. Most of the time, it is, but say you're someone who treats a person's health…no, never mind. It's always a good skill to have," he finished, grinning smugly, his thumbs tucked into his belt. He hadn't even layered for the cold, but it didn't seem to affect him. Sansa wasn't all that surprised. He seemed to run hot. Just standing next him, she was able to feel the heat coming off him.

Her father and older brother had been the same way, so she didn't think much of it when she'd first met him, assuming it was one of the differences between males and females that she didn't know about, but since they'd come to Winterfell, she noticed that he ran much warmer than either of the men in her family.

The thought entered her mind that it might have something to do with his Targaryen bloodline. She was honestly still reeling over it, though slowly coming to terms with it. It was a wonder that he'd gone so long without being discovered, but after all, that was what he was good at: not being seen. It was practically second nature to him, Sansa mused, wondering how he'd felt over the past few days being under almost constant scrutiny. It must have been quite the change.

She looked at him a second time…and then asked, incongruous to her thoughts, "Do you think they would listen if I suggested a plan?"

He shrugged again.

"Depends on the plan, I guess."

She took a deep breath and turned to face the outer wall, looking out onto the large expanse empty field that led up to a dark tree line nearly a mile away. She licked her dry lips, her hair almost torn from its braid by a sudden gust of icy wind, and then tucked it back and finally said, "I want to find a way to send word to Jon. I also want to reach out to someone that no one in my family trusts, except for me. A cousin from my mother's side."

At that, Bronn's eyebrow shot up and he sidled up next to her, turning himself sideways against the wind.

"Sending word to your brother, I get. But bringing in blood that no one trusts? Might not be the best plan, girl," he finished grimly.

Sansa swallowed.

"I know. But I trust her. Implicitly."

She knew that he was still staring at her, and she could practically feel the uncertainty in his gaze, but she let out a sigh of relief when he said, "If you trust her, then I will." However, it was immediately followed with, "But if I remember correctly, your mother only had one sibling, her sister. I met her, unfortunately," he drawled, leaning further onto his arm, "And she seemed to be a bit foaming at the mouth, if you pardon the expression."

Sansa nodded, not disagreeing, and said softly, "She had a…a half-brother no one talked about. He wasn't much older than her and died young." Bronn nodded, and she continued, saying, "He…he wasn't, you know…quite right in the head. He took a stable girl when he was fourteen, and she had a daughter, and he died of consumption barely six months after. My mother's parents sent the girl away when she was born. My mother was ten and was told to never speak of it to anyone as it would bring even more shame to the family."

Bronn nodded again and commented, "A bastard son bearing a bastard, non-male heir in an already unbalanced home. I can understand that."

She licked her lips and added, "Her name is Essa. I met her several times when I was seven or eight, when she came to see my mother to find her family. She was around fifteen and she was…different." His eyebrow shot up at that, and Sansa quickly explained, "Not, not like my aunt, or her father, for that matter. She was…smart. She travelled alone, could figure things out quickly, and had taught herself to read when she was a child, and mother trusted her enough to let her read to me sometimes…" Her voice faded as she remembered. "Essa...she was the first girl besides my sister that I had met who liked swords and fighting. And was good at it." She paused. "Father liked her."

She turned to face Bronn, her face red and wind scraped, her eyes bright.

"The last time I saw her was just before we left for King's Landing. She told me, should I ever need help, that I could come to her. She said she would always stay in sight of Winterfell and only needed to see the House Sigil on the front gate, and she would come."

Bronn gave her a long look…and then said, "Why her? And why now?"

Sansa hesitated.

"Because from what I've heard today, Riverrun remains leaderless…and she could claim it in our name."

Bronn's eyes went wide.

"The half-brother…was through the father?" Sansa nodded, and he swore under his breath. "Fuck girl, lead with that and don't worry about the rest!" he barked out, standing up straight, his hand going to the hilt of his sword. "If you trust her and think she can claim the land, then bring her."

Sansa smiled at hearing his support and said, "It's settled then."

But just as she turned to head back down the ramparts, Bronn tugged her to him and asked, "The family name she'll claim. Which will it be?"

She paused for a moment, digging through her memory of the family lines on her mother's side, and then finally answered, "She is a Tully. My grandfather is also hers, and she will be Lady Paramount of the Trident and Lady of Riverrun." She softly smiled and added, "It will be nice to see her, again."

Bronn commented grimly, "If she's still alive, Sansa."

Sansa set her jaw and looked him dead in the eye.

"I know she is."

And she turned and head back to the keep, Bronn following behind her like a permanent shadow, her strides long and sure. She had a plan. And she was going to make sure that it came together for the people of Winterfell, and for the North. They would take it back.

Part 22/?