The night of her eighteenth birthday, Sansa’s septa told her a story.
She didn’t want to listen but she listened in spite of herself, despite the heaviness in her heart that had followed her father’s swift refusal. She listened as she lay there on her makeshift bed by the road to King’s Landing and pretended not to listen, hot-faced with anger and such bitter disappointment she’d never known before. Every day of her life she’d been prepared for marriage, prepared to wed a high lord and bear him heirs, and in one silly, impulsive swoop she’d dashed all of her hopes to pieces.
“Do you want to marry Joffrey, Sansa?” the queen had asked.
“Of course, your grace,” Sansa had replied. “More than anything in all the seven kingdoms.”
“And what would you be willing do to get your wish, my dear?”
“I’d do anything, your grace,” Sansa had said, and meant it earnestly.
And Queen Cersei had smiled then like such beautiful and deadly poison. Queen Cersei told her what she had to do was bring her the head of the Hound.
Sansa hadn’t understood and didn’t even then, but she did understand that her grace the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms had truly meant what she’d said. The king had not succeeded in dissuading her afterwards, over a tense dinner by the wayside, and Sansa’s father Eddard Stark would not consent to even send one man to do the deed for her. Joffrey would marry another. Sansa would not be queen.
That night, Sansa’s septa told her the story of Florian and Jonquil, her favourite though she hadn’t quite the heart to hear it. Then at the end it took a different turn, one that Sansa had never heard before in all her years and suddenly she could no longer pretend she wasn’t listening. She turned and watched her septa speak in the firelight, such a strange smile on her face that she almost seemed a different person then entirely. Sansa was enthralled.
The day they were wed, said the septa, Florian was poisoned there in his riverland keep and Jonquil set out alone to find the cure; she carried a sword at her waist and she used it when she needed to, roamed the lands till an old hedge-witch told her the blood of a dragon was what she would need. Terrified but so full of love, Jonquil faced the dragon; a bargain was struck to save poor Florian’s life. Thanks to Jonquil’s bravery, the pair lived happy for the rest of their days.
The story was somehow all the more perfect then than it had ever been before. And Sansa knew what she had to do.
She waited till the fire burned low and her sister and her septa slept, kept awake by the strange new tale and buoyed by the notion that with a little bravery of her own, she could still wed her prince. Then she took a horse, some food, some coin, her septa’s shining knife, and she left the camp by moonlight.
She’d fight for her Florian just as Jonquil had.
The lands Sansa knew all lay to the north and so north was the way she went, or perhaps it was because the tales she’d heard men tell said that was where the Hound had sent to exile. She followed the kingsroad back the way they’d come, away from her father and away from her love but she vowed to herself she’d return in victory one day soon, even if the thought of cutting off a man’s head made her stomach turn. She prayed to the Warrior that she’d find courage along the way.
She rode through the night, her seat a little unsure as she’d taken the only horse still saddled and it had clearly not been meant for a lady. By morning she was aching and tired and saddle-sore, and when she saw the little band of men at the side of the road she thought perhaps they’d be kind enough to let her water her horse with them and warm herself a little while beside their fire. As she grew closer, however, she knew she’d made a mistake. Less than a day out of camp and she’d forgotten to keep her wits about her. Jonquil would be ashamed, she thought.
“Give us your coin, milady, and we’ll take nothing else,” said the leader, a ruddy-faced and rough-handed man who seized her horse’s reins.
“My father is Lord Eddard Stark of--”
“I don’t give a fuck if your father’s the Father. What we want’s your coin.”
He produced a knife; his chest produced an arrow and he fell abruptly to the ground.
The other men fled, or the ones who were still living did and Sansa looked about their little camp, looked over the three dead men until a further man on the back of a huge white stallion rode down from the wooded hill nearby. Perhaps she should have fled but the man was dressed all in armour, its shine dulled from use, but he had the bearing of a knight and a sigil on his shield. It made her sit up straighter in her saddle, made her smooth down her skirts.
“This is a dangerous road to ride alone, my lady,” said the knight, drawing closer there on horseback.
“I am indebted to you, Ser,” Sansa replied, with a small and very proper smile. “I believe you may have saved my life just now.”
“And other things besides, no doubt.” He smiled ruefully; Sansa thought perhaps she’d looked shocked by his insinuation. “Apologies, my lady. I’ve travelled in my own company for quite some time. You may find me a little coarse.”
“Not at all,” Sansa said, politely dismissive as she’d been taught to be. “Are you by any chance heading north, Ser?”
He was heading north, by happy coincidence, and suggested before Sansa had to suggest it herself that they ride together for a way; he had business at Last Hearth, he said, and so they started on the road again. As he spoke, Sansa could almost forget the small spatters of blood on her skirts, the head of the arrow bursting forth from the robber’s chest. He seemed genteel enough, just a little unpolished; Robb or maybe even Bran could have told her just whose the banner was and hence his name, seven pillars on a stormy sea. She was embarrassed not to know it herself, embarrassed for the knight that she didn’t know, and so she didn’t ask.
Winterfell was days away, and she knew she couldn’t go there; her mother was there and her brothers too, and her father might assume she’d lost her nerve and headed home. They rode all day for three days and then four and she listened to the stories that the brave knight told, then at night they found an inn or an obliging farmer with a bed or two to spare. Then, on the morning of the third day they came to outskirts of village outside Castle Cerwyn.
They didn’t stay because she might be known and though she knew her story was unconvincing the knight didn’t press her for the truth. They rode out to the edges of the Wolfswood and skirted both Cerwyn and Winterfell entirely. They found villages Sansa hadn’t known existed, inns with hay-stuffed mattresses that made Sansa itch but they were better than lying in the dirt by the fire as they had to sometimes. She bought new clothes from her little pouch of coin, changed out of her fine dress and sold that too, put a big fur cloak around her shoulders against the chill as they headed higher into the north. The knight knew his way; she hadn’t even asked his name.
“I thought you had business at Last Hearth, Ser,” she said, when they reached the end of Long Lake, as she’d long expected him to leave her there and say farewell.
“What kind of a knight would I be to leave a lady alone on the kingsroad?” he said, with a hint of a smile. “Especially a lady who doesn’t know precisely where she might be going to.”
“Of course I know where I’m going!” Sansa protested, but of course she knew she didn’t and knew he knew that too - they’d talked very little, though warmly when they had and enough for him to understand her poor direction. Perhaps she should have stopped a while at Winterfell, covertly, found Maester Luwin or at least rummaged furtively through his books, but he had so many books that Sansa could never have known where to start. Even so, she couldn’t just keep riding north and hoping for the best. She hung her head. “To be honest, Ser, I have no idea.”
He smiled. “There are people who can help you,” he said. “I have a friend in Mole’s Town, up by the Wall. If anyone will know, she will.”
Mole’s Town was another day and a half’s ride to the north, up to where the air was clear and crisp even in the last fading days of summer. Sansa had never been so far north in her life but she told herself she was born in the north, in Winterfell, and her northern family stretched back centuries. Of course, said a thought in the back of her mind, half her family hailed from the Riverlands. The way he mother described it, Riverrun sounded like paradise sometimes, warm and green and beautiful, not harsh and cold.
“She’s not a high lady like yourself, but she’ll tell you what she knows,” said the knight, as a dark-haired girl in furs came up toward them. By the look of her she was perhaps Sansa’s age or maybe younger if a little taller. “And here I leave you, my lady.”
“Thank you, Ser,” Sansa said, and wished there were some way she could show her appreciation for all his efforts, keeping bandits at bay by the sides of the road. “When I’m queen, should you come to King’s Landing…”
“Thank you, my lady.” Then the knight smiled strangely. “Remember,” he said, “not all men are knights and not all knights are gallant. Knighthood can’t make you what you’re not.”
“But you are gallant, Ser.”
He chuckled under his breath, just briefly. “My point was somewhat different,” he said. “No matter, my lady. I wish you well.”
She offered him her gloved hand and he kissed it; he mounted his horse and he rode away, seven pillars on his shield in a stormy sea.
Mole’s Town was unlike any place that Sansa had ever seen before, though she wasn’t keen to see much more of it. The tunnels beneath the ground into which the knight’s friend took her reminded her of her ancestors’ crypt at Winterfell, only warmer and damper and filled with people rather than the statues of the dead. Eyes moved over her as the girl led her deeper into the earth, her slim fingers grasping Sansa’s. The place itself was as unsettling as the sounds she heard, and she realised she knew what this place was. She shouldn’t be there, she thought. A lady from Winterfell had no business in a brothel.
“My old friend tells me you’re seeking the Hound, milady,” said the girl, once they were seated in a room behind a door that she locked to keep out visitors, away at least from prying eyes.
“Yes, that’s true,” Sansa replied, ill at ease on the little wooden stool so very close to the unpaved ground. “I was told to find him.”
“And kill him, no doubt.” Sansa blushed and looked away but the girl reached out and turned her face back toward her. “I understand, milady. But many times I’ve known men ride up north of the Wall to take off his head and I’ve never seen them come back this way, least of all with his head.”
“Then what should I do?” Sansa asked. “If I don’t do it, the queen won’t--”
“Hush.” The girl pressed her fingers to Sansa’s lips and then to her own as she smiled at her, and the smile somehow eased Sansa’s mind a little. “I never said you couldn’t do it, just that no one had.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me tell you.”
They ate together in the girl’s small room and she told Sansa a rather familiar story. She knew most of it, of course, the tale men told about the Hound and his brother, the Mountain, and how they’d been cursed and sent away into the north. So many mothers had prayed for their daughters over the years because of Ser Gregor Clegane, prayed to the Maiden for their virtue, that the day he raped and murdered Elia of Dorne the maiden goddess cursed the knight and all his kin. The Maiden sent the Cleganes into exile, and the powers of the Seven kept them there still.
Some of the tales that Sansa had heard put the younger brother in the tower that day, too, or took Ser Gregor out of it and left the Hound to do the deed alone, but this one didn’t. Some tales said the younger brother was more vicious still than the elder; this one didn’t. All that was said of Sandor Clegane was that he too was cursed, was banished, that he’d grown into a man up there north of the Wall, a man so deadly that no challenger survived the fight.
“Then how am I to best him?” Sansa asked, alarmed, dismayed.
The girl smiled again, that reassuring smile. “I have a friend north of the Wall,” she said. “I’ll take you there. She’ll help.”
“But how are we to pass the Wall?”
“My brother is at Castle Black. He’ll let us through, don’t you worry.”
But Sansa did worry. She’d barely sleep a wink, she thought, but the ride had been exhausting. She’d never ridden so far in her life. She’d never wanted to before, and certainly never had to.
When she dreamed, she dreamed of a castle in the cold; when she woke, she knew she had to go there.
Daytime beneath the ground in Mole’s Town was just as dark as night and so when Sansa came out into the light, her eyes stung hotly. The girl had given her a change of clothes, roughspun that felt coarse against her skin that had been so used to the finery befitting the daughter of a high lord, but she’d smiled and given her thanks and the girl seemed pleased.
They took the horse together, the taller girl seated behind and riding like she’d been in the saddle all her life rather than inside a brothel beneath the ground, and in the half-light after dusk they came to the walls of Castle Black. The Wall stood beyond, stretched out for leagues as far as the eye could see and Sansa felt her heart drop deeply, felt her courage wane at the sight of it. She had to go beyond that Wall, into the lands beyond it, but she was so very cold already.
The girl threw a stone at a window as they lurked there, the idea unseemly but Sansa found she had very little option but to trust. A man came to the high window, looked out at the two of them and then nodded down; the girl led on and through a small gate, black and frozen shut before she beat at it with her palms there at the base of the castle’s walls. They crawled through on hands and knees in the mud much to Sansa’s distaste, they crawled inside and tiptoed along the line of the outer wall into a nearby structure that leaned right up against it, full of warmth and light.
“It’s been long enough, sister,” said the man to the girl, and she shrugged her response. He was tall and broad and dark, wearing the thick leather apron of a smith though dressed otherwise in black. The girl’s brother was a man of the Night’s Watch, it seemed; Sansa only hoped she wouldn’t find Jon Snow there with him. Perhaps in the end their father would come this way and all the better if Jon didn’t know she’d ever been there.
“You always complain,” the girl said to the man, with a hint of a smile as she hugged him. With his broad shoulders it was hardly surprising that he could lift her off the ground into his arms like she weighed nothing at all. “We need--”
“I know, I know.” He set her down with a low chuckle, a sort of rumble in his chest. “You’re going north of the Wall. You’re taking the girl to see her.”
“Well of course I am!” She slapped the smith over his chest, against his leather apron. “We should likely sneak through before dawn if we don’t want to be seen.”
“If you’d gone through at Queensgate or Oakenshield you wouldn’t have that problem, sister,” he said, but he was already gathering supplies from the small room, perhaps his own room, and slipping them into a leather bag. “You could’ve left me be.”
“I didn’t take you for a coward, brother,” the girl replied, and the smith bristled just enough to march the two of them out and then into the tunnels just as soon as they had their supplies. Sansa changed quickly while their backs were turned, pulling on a set of warm black clothes, trousers to replace her roughspun dress though the idea seemed absurd to her, daughter of a high-born lord as she was. Still, she supposed she couldn’t go north of the Wall dressed like a lady. She didn’t want to freeze.
“Take this,” the smith told her, and pressed a blade into her hand before they left his room. She already had one like it, almost exactly like it, tucked into her clothes beneath the heavy furs. It was just like the knife she’d stolen from her septa.
It was icy beneath the wall, eerie in the torchlight as Sansa slipped a little and the girl beside her grasped her arm to keep her steady. The smith didn’t look big or strong enough to raise the portcullis alone but he did it, with the winch at the wall, just enough for the two of them to slip beneath and out into the snow.
“Wait five minutes then run for the trees,” he said, and dropped the gate behind them; five minutes passed in the chill of the night beyond the Wall and then the two girls ran, fleet-footed in the snow toward the treeline. Less than two minutes saw them there safe but Sansa’s heart was hammering. Perhaps that wasn’t from the exercise, she thought, but the thought of the archers there atop the wall. She’d seen what an arrow could do to chest all too recently.
“They used to keep the forest cut back at least half a mile from the Wall,” the girl said. “Some places now, it’s barely a quarter.”
Sansa didn’t ask her how she knew. She didn’t ask if she’d been north of the Wall before. She was too cold to ask much of anything, as they headed deeper into the Haunted Forest.
She’d never been so cold and scared in all her life. But there was something there in the north she had to do.
When they reached the house, Sansa had never felt so very glad at all in her whole life. The girl she travelled with seemed never to tire as they walked but Sansa’s feet and fingers were turning to ice beneath wool and leather and her face, she feared, would be ruined forever. The rangers would find her weeks later, she thought, frozen to death in the trees.
And then, there was the house - more of a hut, she supposed, but the smoke winding out of the chimney and the firelight she could see through the seams in the low wooden walls warmed her even before they’d set foot over the threshold. When they went inside, it smelled like Winterfell’s kitchens before a feast and the heady woodland herbs she saw all strung from the makeshift rafters.
“You’re not meant to come here,” said the old woman who was cooking by the fire, but there was no real disapproval to it.
“But you knew I would,” said the girl.
“I knew enough to cook for three tonight.”
Sansa didn’t ask how she knew; she was too busy peeling off the outer layers of furs and woollens in the most unladylike of manners and settling herself down on the floor by the fireside. The old woman laughed, the smile on her face deepening the already deep creases in her skin. It looked like she laughed well, and often, even there alone in the forest beyond the Wall. Perhaps that was how the free folk were, Sansa thought.
They ate together there on the ground, crosslegged by the fire with wooden bowls in their warming hands. The stew was very good, Sansa thought, or maybe she’d just been so hungry or ill-fed since she’d left the king’s camp that she couldn’t tell the difference, which she told the old woman and then blushed brightly when she realised what she’d said. The woman laughed, though, as did the girl, and Sansa let herself smile behind her bowl. Perhaps that was how the free folk were, as well.
“Why do you want to kill the Hound?” the old woman asked, later, as she stoked the fire before they slept beside it.
“Well, the queen said--”
“Queens say many things, my dear. So it’s your duty, is it?”
“No, no,” Sansa said. “I think it’s rather for love.”
The girl and the old woman shared a look that Sansa couldn’t read at all. “She said she could wed the prince in exchange for the Hound’s head,” the girl said. “I think that’s the story.”
“That doesn’t sound like love to me at all.”
“But Prince Joffrey--”
“So you want to be a queen.”
Sansa paused, and then she nodded. “Yes. I want to be a queen,” she said. “But he’ll love me, I know he will. He’ll love our children.”
They shared that look again and Sansa thought perhaps she should ask what it meant, but honestly she was far too tired to tease it out of them. She lay down, warm and full and maybe even safe.
They slept the night in the hut beneath the trees, snug by the fireside under great thick furs, maybe from wolves, maybe something else. There were wolves in the forest, Sansa thought, like there were in the Wolfswood back down south of the Wall, nearer to Winterfell where she’d lived all her life. She wasn’t afraid. She knew what she had to do. But sleep would come first.
When she dreamed, she dreamed of a castle in the cold; when she woke, she knew what was waiting there. It was where she’d find the Hound.
“The brothers live in a castle on the tip of Storrold’s Point,” the old woman said. “It’s in the ruins of Hardhome, on the Shivering Sea.”
“You can be there in a week,” said the girl, and Sansa frowned over her breakfast.
“You’re not coming with me?”
“I shouldn’t have come even this far,” she said. “It’s not really my place.”
“But it’s mine,” said the old woman. “Don’t you worry, child. I’ll show you the way.”
They set off in the snow, heading east as the girl turned southwest, back toward the Wall and warmth and home and all that Sansa had ever known. She almost wished then she could turn back too, go back to Winterfell and her mother and maybe her father wouldn’t be so mad that she couldn’t go south with him after all. She could find someone else, she thought, another lord who would love her like the stories all said he would. There’d be tourneys and feasts and the warmth of the sun, rivers that didn’t flow heavy with ice, days where the sun shone through the clouds sometimes like it hadn’t in the far north for days. Perhaps she could be happy in King’s Landing.
But she wanted Joffrey’s hand. He was her beautiful blonde-haired prince, and their children would be so very fair that the thought refocused her mind entirely. She’d get there. She’d take the Hound’s head. She’d wed Joffrey and one day he’d be king and she’d be queen and maybe they’d ask Robb to be his Hand. Her mother would be proud of the woman she was. She’d be happy.
“The Maiden made a mistake, you know,” the old woman said as they camped at night, as she kindled a fire in a clearing so bright it stung at Sansa’s eyes. “One of the brothers didn’t quite deserve his fate. She’s regretted it since.”
“Which one?” Sansa asked, as she took a piece of spit-roast rabbit, frowning at the grease it spilled on her gloves.
“Well now, that’s the question,” the old woman replied. “No one knows that but the Maiden.”
“Then why doesn’t she just let him go?”
“Oh, it’s out of her hands now, my dear,” said the woman. “We all pay for our mistakes, even goddesses do, so the Father says she can’t lift the curse. Only a mortal can do that.”
The woman chuckled and passed Sansa the water. “I don’t have all the answers, child,” she said. “I’m not the Maiden, and I’m certainly not the Father.”
They moved on after that, through snow that blanketed the forest floor till Sansa’s feet were disappearing into it entirely with each and every step. She ached right through, right down to her bones, knew she’d never walked so far in all her days and supposed most high-born ladies hadn’t, and they never would. Arya would have been better fit for the long journey, she thought, though her little sister would have had nothing like so clear a goal in mind; Arya would have gone just for the sport of it.
And then the forest thinned and fell away. The snow grew deeper; Sansa drew her furs in tight around her, pulled up her scarf and they continued out across the plains.
“It’s Storrold’s point,” the old woman said, as the winds whipped snow through the air that would have bitten at Sansa’s face if she’d been able to feel it. “We’re getting closer now.”
Through the blinding white air a shape started to emerge, darker and larger as each moment passed, as they strode closer. And then there it was: they reached the ruins of Hardhome, the only city the wildlings had ever had, or so said Maester Luwin. There on the clifftop above the little sheltered bay that held the city’s charred black ruins was a castle that seemed made as much of ice as stone.
Sansa had dreamed of it; the old woman smiled as if she knew. But out of the snow behind them came a group of men on horseback.
“Sansa!” her father called. “Don’t you go another step!”
The lecture was inevitable but thankfully brief and then Sansa was left alone in the hastily constructed pavilion, out of the snow. She’d failed. Of course, her father had seemed at least faintly impressed that she’d come all the way north from the Barrowlands and past the Wall to Hardhome without having died along the way. Something in his face even seemed a little proud. She’d never seen him look like that at her before.
She slept on furs that night by the fire, as best she could in her embarrassed disappointment; her father came in and shook off snow from his cloak but in the morning he wasn’t there. One of the men brought her wine and meat to breakfast on and she asked where the old woman had gone to, but no one seemed to know, not even the handful of rangers of the Night’s Watch they’d brought with them. She asked where her father had gone and they knew but wouldn’t tell her. She thought perhaps she knew exactly what that meant, and the thought should perhaps not have cheered her the way it did.
Evening came and when her father had not returned by dinner Sansa’s cheer waned strongly. The canvas of the pavilion shifted in the wind and Sansa huddled closer to the fire, pretending not to listen when Ser Rodrik spoke with her father’s men just inside the flap that formed the entrance. He’d come up from Winterfell as her father’s search passed through, Sansa thought, since he hadn’t been with the party on their journey south; he sounded agitated, even more so when his nephew Jory came to the tent with an icy, sodden bag there in his hands.
“They killed Symon,” Jory said, lifting the bag in his hands, and Sansa’s stomach lurched quite sickly; all of a sudden she understood what was inside it.
Ser Rodrik sighed heavily. “They have Lord Eddard, yes?” he said, and Jory nodded solemnly, half-anxiously.
“There were wildlings at the castle gates,” he said. “We were outnumbered, uncle. Lord Eddard was wounded and taken inside; he needs a maester, I’m sure if it.”
“The nearest maester is back south at Castle Black,” said Ser Rodrik. “And so now they have an injured hostage.”
Sansa knew what to do, and felt it keenly. She’d done it before; slipping out of camp this time was a little more difficult, perhaps, but only because of the snow. She could see the castle’s fires in the distance and she made toward them once she’d stolen herself away from the camp, clutching her furs around her, keeping her scarf up high. She was scared, of course, her heart hammering hard, but her father wouldn’t be. Or perhaps he would, she thought - he always said that was the only time a man truly could be brave. Perhaps he’d meant that counted for a woman, too.
There was no sign of wildlings outside the gate and Sansa supposed the snow had swept away any sign of the struggle. She went on to the gate, fighting through the beginnings of a drift to make her way right up to it; there were people inside in the courtyard there, and three wildling men came close, rough axes drawn from their belts.
“Who are you and what do you want?” one asked.
“I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell,” she replied. “I’m here to trade myself for my father.”
They laughed, told her to go, get lost, their masters wouldn’t hear of such fucking rubbish. But then another figure came up closer, taller than the rest by a head or more at least, covered almost head to toe with a tight-knit woollen cloak.
“I’ll take that deal, girl,” he said, in a tone and in shadows that made Sansa shiver like the cold did. “But you’d best be sure you mean it before you come inside this gate.”
She nodded. “I mean it,” she said, and she did mean it, as earnestly as she’d meant her wish to wed Prince Joffrey. She could only hope this time wasn’t quite as foolish as the first.
The man strode away, then minutes passed or maybe more before the gates began to open. Two wildling men brought her father from the keep inside, held him up between them, a gash in his calf that they’d only roughly bandaged. When they opened the gate, she went to him and his eyes opened only briefly.
“What have you done, Sansa?” he asked, but she didn’t reply. She was looking at the man in the cloak, now his hood was turned back over his shoulders, now his face was lit by torchlight. She could see bone in his jaw and her heart leapt up; he was one of the Cleganes, she was sure of it, dreadful and huge and he’d accepted her in trade and now, suddenly, she had not a clue why, why he’d done that and why she had, either. She wasn’t an assassin with a tricksy clandestine plot, she was an eighteen-year-old girl with an aptitude for needlework and song. Her father was right: what had she done?
“See he’s taken to his camp,” the man said and the wildlings muttered but started out in the snow. Then he turned to Sansa. “Get inside before you freeze to death,” he told her, and she tried her very best to step inside with all the grace her septa had ever taught her, in her strange borrowed clothes, though she was chilled right to her bones. Perhaps she managed it.
“You’re a brave one, I’ll give you that,” said the man as she passed him.
She truly hoped she was. She didn’t doubt she’d need to be.
Inside the castle it wasn’t cold at all, like someone had stoked a fire beneath it and the heat had spread all through the walls there inside the keep, though the outer walls that ringed the grounds were tall and white and icy.
For the first time in weeks, Sansa slept on a feather bed. When she was taken to what the wildling woman told her was her chamber, there were candles lit already and a fire in the hearth, a nightdress laid out there on the bed, a huge copper bath filled with steaming water all waiting for her arrival. Once the door was closed she pulled off all of her borrowed black clothes and left them in a heap by the fireplace, climbed into the bath and washed herself from head to toe, warmed herself through in a way she could barely recall being warmed before. She’d expected a cell in a dungeon with bars and maybe even rats; after this, she wasn’t sure what to expect of the place.
She slept the rest of the night, warm in bed but starting awake, barely resting. There were noises like raised voices, like shattering glass, like steel, and she buried her head beneath the thick fur bedspread like she’d done as a girl when Robb and Theon told their ghost stories, after dinner in the dark. These weren’t ghosts. She’d given herself over to men who lived under a goddess’s curse.
In the morning, there were more clothes there for her and a hairbrush on a table by the window, though the view from it was stark and white out into nothing until the snow died down just long enough for her to see the sea. The Shivering Sea, she thought as she dressed, though she’d never seen the sea before. She’d imagined seeing it for the first time south in King’s Landing, standing by the Blackwater Bay with Prince Joffrey.
Dressing was different without a maid to help but she could manage now, she thought, if she had to. Perhaps Joffrey would appreciate a wife who could take care of herself, though she doubted he’d have appreciated the clothes she’d worn before, taken from the Night’s Watch back down south at the Wall. The dress was better. She could still be a princess.
The door to the room was locked, of course, though she tried the handle just to see. They’d left her her two knives and she sat in a chair in the pale light from the window to study them now she had the chance to, the way the blades curved, the way the hilts were woven in soft brown leather, the weight in her hands. Identical, she thought. Arya would have loved them. Perhaps when she arrived in King’s Landing she’d let her have them, or perhaps just one. She needn’t give away all her best things, after all.
The door opened; a wildling woman in a roughspun dress brought her fruit and cheese on a tray with a flagon of wine and called that breakfast before she left the way she’d come, apparently immune to Sansa’s rapid questioning. She ate by the window, alone, wondering how a place like this had fruit and not just a sad, sorry diet of fish from the bay, maybe berries from the woods if there were any places where the winds and snow didn’t blow in all year round. Grapes were unexpected. They were very good.
She heard voices outside the door perhaps mid-morning and she pressed her ear tight to it, the way people did in tales.
“Ned Stark was my prisoner!” roared a man’s voice, deep and dark and rumbling.
“Ned Stark was our prisoner,” said the other man, the man she’d met the night before, the man with the scars who’d traded her. “She’s mine. And I’ll have your head if you go near her.”
The first man laughed, deep and abrupt and hard like a rockslide. “Keep the little bitch,” he said. “See how long you can.”
Footfalls echoed away down the corridor so she moved away, and then the door swung open. In stepped the scarred man.
“I’m no fucking knight, girl,” he snapped. “Don’t you ser me.”
“Then what do I call you?”
“Whatever takes your fancy,” he said. “Call me cunt if you like, makes no difference to me. Might even make me laugh a bit, coming from a pretty high-born lady.”
She blushed and folded her hands to keep them still as she looked at him. “What’s your given name?” she asked.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Sandor,” he said, suddenly measured and careful. “The other sod you heard’s my brother. But I think you know that.”
“I’m Sansa,” she said, quickly, and took a quick step closer.
“I know who you are, girl. I heard you at the gate last night.”
And when he turned his back was when she did it. She took a knife in each hand and she strode across the room and she meant to put them both into his back but it just didn’t happen. He turned, more quickly than she would have thought he could, and he caught her wrists in his hands, squeezed till she dropped both knives to the stone floor with a clatter and a sob. When he let her go she went down with them, on her knees on the stone in her pretty skirts and he laughed at her. He seemed genuinely amused so perhaps the laughter wasn’t specifically or intentionally cruel, but it still bit at her anyway.
“Don’t you try that again unless you’re sure you can kill me,” he told her, as he reached down to tilt up her chin, pinching hard enough that she couldn’t turn her head away. “I’m not my fucking brother but that doesn’t mean I can’t be hard. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t hit a woman.”
She looked at him, looked up from her knees and really looked at him, how his hair fell over his face but couldn’t hide the scars like maybe he’d been burned once, a long time ago. He looked right back at her, grey eyes sharp, and he pulled back his long hair from his ruined cheek with his free hand, went down into a crouch right there before her to get up close, to show her exactly what was there and what wasn’t.
“It was my brother, when we were young,” he said, and she watched his jaw work as he spoke, watched the patch of bare bone she could see where there was no skin or muscle to cover it. “I took a toy of his and he held my fucking face over the fire till it melted. Didn’t even want the toy. You think on that, girl, next time you try to kill me. I’m all that’s between you and him.”
Then he left. He marched back out the way he’d come and locked the door behind him.
Sansa took a shaky breath. She’d failed, but he’d left the knives right there on the floor for her to try again. She’d have to, or she’d have come all that way for nothing.
Three days came and went, passing slowly as Sansa paced across the room from the vibrant tapestry all covered in flowers at one side to the hearth at the other and then back again. The only living soul she saw was the wildling girl who brought water and food and clothes, the girl who sneered at her every time she tried to speak or asked a question.
“I thought you called yourselves free folk,” Sansa said on the fourth morning.
“From where I’m standing, milady, I’m freer than you,” said the girl.
Sansa supposed she was right.
That night she heard noises outside the castle, through the window. She went to it, peered through the glass into the dark but all she could see was snow in the edge of the courtyard by the cliff face and a few stray wildlings with their spears and clubs, then out strode the Hound in a full suit of armour, hound’s-head helm there covering his scars, his sword in hand. He took charge of the wildlings and he led them out and no more than a half hour later he returned with the men, his armour shining red. She hoped he hadn’t killed too many, but supposed he probably had.
When he came into the room just a few minutes later, she said, “I thought the curse meant you couldn’t leave the grounds.”
He huffed, not quite laughter, as he set his helm down on the table where Sansa took her meals, then sheathed his sword and rested it against the wall there by the door. “Someone’s been telling you tales,” he said. “The castle grounds stretch half a mile toward the forest. Just because the walls came down in the frost doesn’t mean they were never there.” He paused, watching her in her chair by the window, one knife in her lap and the other on the table. “Put those down and help me with this bloody suit.”
She put down the knives and she stood. “Don’t you have someone to do that for you?” she asked, perhaps a little petulant about it, smoothing down her dress.
“I’m asking you.”
“I don’t know how to.”
So she let herself forget her manners and she sighed as she crossed the room to him. He went down on one knee in the firelight and he told her what to do, gruff commands to unclasp this piece or unbuckle that until his gauntlets slid off and then besagews from by his shoulders, then his breastplate, down on her knees for greaves and sabatons with who knew whose blood on her hands, maybe it belonged to someone that she knew but she pushed that thought away. And when all the armour lay at his feet in an unruly heap - he hadn’t told her how to do that and so she'd left it purposely haphazard - she stood up tall and she looked him in the eye as best she could at his great height.
“Are you going to keep me caged in here like a bird forever?” she asked.
He took a step forward, perhaps a half-step toward her, and she managed not to flinch at it.
“You’re a pretty little bird, I’ll give you that,” he said, down to his maille shirt and leather boots and woollen breeches. He pulled off the maille, standing so close then that it caught at her dress and pulled a thread that he plucked out between his fingers and blew away before he dumped the shirt down to the floor with his armour. “My arsehole brother’ll be down in the caves tomorrow. I’ll get a girl to show you the sights, little bird.”
“No, you do it,” Sansa said quickly, and he did something very close to smirking as he unlaced the collar of his undershirt. She folded her bloodied hands. “I mean, if it please you.”
“No need for your niceties here,” he said, and her eyes strayed down to the unlaced collar, open over his collarbones, down to the middle of his chest. The key to her room was around his neck, or at least she assumed that was what it was, the metal there against his skin, and she bit her lip.
She wasn’t sure if she was scared or not, if she thought he’d take advantage of her then or not; no one would ever tell the girls the rules of warfare and hostage-taking and if she should fear for her virtue or if she’d be safe, and she supposed that none of the rules and regulations would mean a thing in the home of a man who wasn’t even a knight because what rules could he have? How she longed for her Joffrey’s easy smile and good graces. Her eyes widened his moved over her and then, in the end, the Hound just patted her cheek.
“Don’t you worry,” he said. “That’s my brother’s sport, not mine.”
He left her there then, turned and walked away and locked the door behind him. He left her with his armour at the foot of her bed.
In the morning, she was woken by wildlings removing the armour from her chamber, piece by piece. She pulled the sheets up to her chin and she watched them do it, from her bed. There was still blood on the floor from the armour when they left and no one came back to scrub it away. Maybe wildlings didn’t scrub. Maybe he’d told them to leave it there.
She washed and dressed and made up her hair, sat down by her window and waited. Her father would come for her, she thought. The previous night’s attack couldn’t have been him; he was the best swordsman she knew of. He couldn’t have died.
The door opened and the Hound appeared there in the open doorway, his long dark hair tied back away from his face, perhaps just to scare her but she wouldn’t be scared, or at least wouldn’t let herself show it.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Don’t need a written invitation, do you?”
He turned and walked away and all Sansa could do was scamper after him, hardly ladylike behaviour but she supposed he wasn’t used to that anyway. All he’d have were memories of the Westerlands near Lannisport where he’d grown up, men said, and years in the north after that, with wildlings in the snow.
They walked through the castle, Sansa sometimes struggling to meet his pace down the long stone corridors and tall stone staircases. It was just as circuitous as Winterfell, she thought.
“How is it so warm in here when it’s so cold outside?” she asked, a little out of breath as they lingered in the doorway of the kitchens, where several wildlings worked. It looked like they were cooking enough food to feed thirty or more, and Sansa thought perhaps they were. Why else would wildlings tie themselves to one place and to a master if not for food and shelter, and perhaps a little safety? Food had to be scarce in the cold. Shelter had to be scarcer.
“There’s hot springs in the caves all this stands on,” he told her. “There’s even a sept down there, for all the fucking good it does us up here.”
Sansa frowned as he started to lead her away, to yet another staircase. “I thought the Maiden cursed you,” she said. “You’re not of the Faith?”
He snorted, glanced back at her over his shoulder with the scarred and twisted side of his face. “Bugger the faith,” he said, and he mounted the stairs. That, she supposed, answered her question.
The castle was vast, larger even than Sansa had suspected, with great long corridors and wide, high halls, towers, little winding spiral staircases and great sweeping steps that led down to the gate of the keep. She shivered as he opened up the gate onto the snow-swept courtyard between the keep and the walls; the Hound sighed and shook his head and wrapped his cloak around her shoulders as they went outside. She steeled herself not to feel grateful.
There were more wildlings there than she’d thought at first, maybe sixty of them sharpening axes and grooming horses, a blacksmith at an anvil, children running here and there all clad in furs. There were animals, too, cows and a pen full of pigs, chickens, three dogs barking viciously though the children chasing them didn’t seem to mind. It was a whole community, like Winterfell in miniature.
Once the snow had started to soak in through the leather of her boots they went back in through another door, a secret door that wound down through the rock of the cliffside and Sansa’s heart began to quicken. She could hear a voice, low and dark and rumbling, coming from the caves below, couldn’t quite make out the words but something about it all unsettled her. But they took another turn and twisted and turned their way back up into the castle, and he pushed up a hatch that let them out into a great glass garden, humid and bright despite the snowy sky above.
This, apparently, was where all the fruit came from, from trees and vines and plants that grew there lacking any sort of general order in the wonderfully warm air. And there were flowers, so many of them, flowers with names she didn’t know but then some bright red roses with a scent that made her smile as she bent to give a sniff at them, a gesture that likely wasn’t quite the epitome of ladylike. Her septa had taught her better, but she thought perhaps Jonquil would have approved.
The Hound plucked an apple from a tree and sat himself down on a bench nearby to eat it, long limbs sprawling. Sansa went down on a patch of grass, all pretense of propriety apparently abandoned, and lay down on her back to look up at the butterflies flitting through the branches of a lemon tree, grass stains on her pretty dress be damned.
"Why didn't your brother go with you last night?" she asked, not so much as looking at the Hound as he ate his apple noisily.
"He was so drunk he couldn't stand," he replied. "Like me, an hour after I left you. You ever been drunk, little bird?” He chuckled when she didn’t answer. “Of course not. You high-born girls and your fucking manners.”
Sansa gave a little shriek as an apple core bounced off her forehead. The Hound laughed as she sat up quickly and frowned at him. “That wasn’t very--”
“Lordly?” he said, raising his good brow. “Knightly?”
“You’re mocking me.”
“You could use some mocking, girl. You’re too uptight.”
She huffed and lay down again, rubbing juice from her forehead with the back of her hand. “You’re a pig.”
“Most call me a dog, not a pig.”
She heard the wood of the bench creak as he rose but stubbornly didn’t sit up to see him do it. He went down on one knee on the grass beside her, looked at her lying there and for a moment with her heart in her mouth she wondered what he was going to do. But he just leaned on his thigh and cocked his head at her.
“Who wants my head this time?” he asked her. “You don’t seem the usual type.”
“The queen said I could marry the prince if I took your head to her.”
“Well, that’s different, at least,” he said, looking faintly amused. “It’s usually some bloody horseshit about the Warrior’s favour. As if killing me means anything to a god.”
Sansa sat herself up, folding her legs under her skirts. “Do many men come to kill you?” she asked.
He smirked. “Half of them come for my brother, not me,” he said. “Different tales say a different one of us is the horror in the north so we both do our fair share of the killing. But he’s the sick cunt who takes their heads down to the sept, like Stranger-worship keeps the Maiden and the rest away.”
Sansa’s eyes widened. “What does he do with the rest of them?”
The Hound chuckled. “The wildlings like to feed them to the dogs.”
He stood then and held out a hand to her; she frowned at it and remembering her manners for a moment she finally took it. He pulled her up so quickly and so hard that it almost wrenched at her shoulder and his hand didn’t leave hers when she was back up on her feet. He kept her there, his free hand going to the long braid in her hair to keep her there, not quite hurting, not quite not.
“You think the royal bitch would keep her bargain even if you did it?” he asked her. “Think anyone would believe it if you took them my head in a bag?”
“I think the queen--”
“--would say the head could be anyone’s, it’d rotted so much on the way down to King’s Landing.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Ever seen a head after it’s been off a week?” he asked. “I have. It’s not pretty. My brother’s got plenty of them down there in his fucking sept, so yes, your majesty, I know.”
He let her go and he walked away. All she could do was follow as he led her back up the stairs to her room, and hope to the gods that what he said wasn’t true.
In the morning, he brought her an apple. It was crisp and tart and he watched her eat it, standing there in the open doorway as the juice ran over her fingers.
In the evening, he brought her a pear. It was soft and sweet and he watched her eat it, leaning back against the door he’d locked behind him. She licked the juice from her hand in a manner of which he mother would not have approved and she watched him watch her do it. Perhaps she should have used a damp cloth to clean it away instead, perhaps she should have cut the fruit with a knife and speared the pieces, but that didn’t occur to her till it was much too late, till he was looking at her with eyes that seemed darker in the candlelight. But he left her there, untouched as always.
The next morning, he brought her grapes and those seemed safer at the very least, but still he was watching. He hadn’t touched her, no, but that didn’t mean he never would. She stitched her manners back into place and she asked him for some cloth and some thread for embroidery, to keep her busy if she had to stay there in her room. He laughed at her and her cheeks blushed red but in the evening, he came back with a basket full of threads and needles, cloth and a frame for her to work with. She thanked him but he just gave a derisive snort on his way back out, like he’d never known a woman sew much more than clothing.
“So, how are you planning to have my head off?” he asked her the next morning, once he’d dragged a chair noisily across the room to join her by the window for breakfast. He had one of her knives in his hand, tested the point of the blade with his thumb and pushed till a pinprick of blood welled up. “They’re sharp, I’ll grant you, but do you know how long it’d take to saw through my neck with this?” He put the blade up to his throat and mimed the action, and Sansa was sure she paled at the thought. He put it back down with a clatter on the tabletop. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through, girl. But you’ve got balls coming here, I’ll give you that.”
He brought lunch with him next, on a silver tray, tore into his bread and cold meat with an appetite Sansa couldn’t have matched if she’d tried. He came back for dinner, with chicken and fresh vegetables and lemon cakes for afters. He laughed at her when she said they were her favourite. Maybe he hadn’t killed her yet or done any of the other things she was sure her father feared he’d done, but he wasn’t exactly pleasant. Of course, he’d also been right that morning: she hadn’t thought through how she’d do it. She hadn’t thought how she’d get his head down to King’s Landing even if she managed it. She hadn’t thought things through at all.
The next day, he took her back into the wonderful big glass garden. It was just like summer in there, hot and seeming almost sunny with it even though it couldn’t be, warmed by the hot springs there beneath the ground. Whoever had built the place had made a pond there, too, filled with fish and a couple of frogs that made Sansa shriek then get down lower to look at them more closely. The Hound watched her with amusement, his hand on the hilt of his sword, but he wasn’t so very fearsome, she thought. Her father could kill him and take his head and her father would know how to get the head to the queen before it rotted down to bone, then she’d be wed before the year was out. But she looked up at him as she sat there on his borrowed cloak by the pond and she hated the queen for asking it of her. Perhaps he wasn’t a good man but he wasn’t the worst.
Of course, for all she knew his brother was the pleasant one, the one exiled there by the Maiden’s mistake. Perhaps the Hound was just softening her up. Perhaps he had plans for her. She shivered there despite the warmth and looked away as he helped her to her feet; she could imagine what those plans might be and told herself not to. As she stooped to retrieve his cloak and he went down on one knee so she could fasten it back up there at his shoulders, she told herself she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to think about his hands, about his mouth. She didn’t want to think of him at all.
“So that’s the little cunt you’re hiding, brother.”
The voice was deep and thorny and hard, and it matched its owner well, Sansa thought, as she and the Hound both whirled around to see him across the hall by the keep’s big wooden door. Her heart leapt. She’d thought the Hound was tall but the Mountain was immense, a stature she’d never seen before though some of the men in the north were still tall like the tales said the First Men had been. She’d felt small in the presence of the Greatjon Umber and his kin and even her father wasn’t very small but she felt like a child again, or might have but for the way Ser Gregor looked at her. It made her skin crawl. It made her stomach sink.
“And I told you what would happen if you laid a finger on her, brother,” the Hound replied, and he ushered Sansa behind him as his fingers found the hilt of his sword.
“You think you can keep me from her?”
“Why don’t you try it and see.”
Sansa wanted to run but she couldn’t. She thought perhaps she wanted to plunge the knife she’d hidden in her dress into the base of the Hound’s scarred neck but she couldn’t have done that, either. Ser Gregor drew his greatsword, a huge thing, longer than Ice and she remembered how she thought once, when she was younger, that Ice was the biggest sword in all the seven kingdoms. The Hound drew his next, and he looked at her sharply.
“If he kills me, you run,” he told her, and she just nodded tightly in response.
It wasn’t a quick fight, like she’d imagined it might be, or at least it wasn’t over quickly. They were both big men but the Mountain stood at least a foot taller than his brother, thicker and broader and stronger; they were both big men but they moved quickly, not even just quickly for their size, and Sansa watched them move, watched the clash of swords as they circled. She’d seen the tourney melees back at home in Winterfell, where jousting was rare because jousting was a thoroughly southron affair, but that was always out in the fields and not in the middle of a hall where Ser Gregor’s huge greatsword split a table clean in half and the Hound’s brought down half a candelabrum suspended from the ceiling as they yelled and pushed and swung and dodged, both lacking armour completely. And Sansa watched.
They got in close and the Hound got a knife in under the Mountain’s armpit, pushed and twisted and made him shout. But the Mountain had his sword down at the Hound’s thigh and slashed with it as he staggered back. That was the end of it and Ser Gregor bellowed for his wildling servants as he stalked away. The Hound swayed as he stood, then went down heavy on one knee.
“Thought I told you you should fly away, little bird,” he said, with a grimace.
“You said if he kills me, you run,” she pointed out. “And you don’t seem dead to me.”
He laughed but he was bleeding and she was sure Ser Gregor would return to finish him soon.
“Get up,” she said, and when he didn’t move: “I said, get up!” She shoved as hard as she dared at his shoulder and he laughed and he pushed himself up to his feet. She wrapped an arm around his waist and he wrapped one arm around her shoulders and they moved as quickly as they could, which wasn’t quickly, each moment strained. They went to Sansa’s room and she pushed him over onto the bed as he bled and bled and bled, fished out the key around around his neck and locked the door behind them.
She’d wanted him dead since the moment they’d met but not this way. Not this way. She was going to save him.
In the morning, there was a knock on the door and the wildling girl brought in breakfast and fresh water. Sansa thanked her tiredly and she locked the door. Five minutes later, all the fresh water was red with blood, too.
The night before she’d used some strong liquor he’d left on the table to clean out the wound and the cloth from her embroidery to bandage it. Her hands were bloody right up to the elbows and her dress was stiff with dried-in blood, like the ends of her hair that had dangled down in it. He lay there pale and barely moving and Sansa sat on a chair at the bedside, no idea what else to do, wishing for a maester or her septa or anyone who could help him more than she could. She’d only rest her eyes for a minute, she thought, and then she’d look at the wound again, but it was lunchtime when the next knock came at the door and woke her.
An old woman was at the door, the old woman, the one from the hut in the forest with her strange smile and thick furs.
“Let me see him,” she said. “I can help.” And so Sansa locked the door behind her and hovered there by the old woman’s shoulder as she poked and prodded at the Hound’s wounded thigh. “We need to get these dirty clothes off him, my dear,” she said next, with a twinkle in her eye that Sansa ignored as she went to the bed and unlaced the collar of his tunic, frowning as she did so. “He won’t bite, you know. He’s out like a light, will be for hours.” And so they pulled off all his clothes from head to toe and Sansa tried so very hard not to blush and not to look and not to think and failed heartily on all counts.
“I think you should stitch this wound,” said the woman, and though Sansa felt a little dizzy and a little scared she fetched her needle. The woman heated it over a candle flame till it glowed bright, bent it curved between her leather-gloved fingers then let it cool and returned it to Sansa - it looked strange to her, the curved shape of it, but it helped her when she started to stitch the edges of the wound together, as her fingers got slippery with blood and her stomach turned with every pull of thread through flesh. She hadn’t been meant as a healer, after all. She’d been meant as a wife for a lord.
The old woman bandaged the Hound’s leg up again after, with an approving nod, then tilted up his head so she could let a little thin, pungent liquid pass over his lips. He sighed, still unconscious.
“I’ll be going now, if you’ll let me out,” the woman said, gathering her things as she stood. “Remember to change his bandages. And make him eat and drink something when he wakes, dear, won’t you.”
“You can’t stay?”
“I’m afraid not. But he’ll be right as rain, my dear, don’t you worry.”
She didn’t ask why Sansa hadn’t killed him, didn’t ask why she’d kept him alive or rather why she’d saved his life, just gave her a little vial of milk of the poppy and patted Sansa’s arm as she left the room. Sansa wasn’t honestly sure she could have answered any of those questions had she asked them, not even to herself.
He slept the rest of the day and Sansa sat there watching him. She changed the dressing in the evening, by candlelight there by the bed, the sheets all arranged around and over him so she wouldn’t be able to look at any part except his injured thigh even if she’d wanted to. Not that she wanted to, except she felt anxious as she touched his skin there by the little line of small, neat stitches, little jolts as she wet a cloth in a bowl of fresh water and cleaned the area around it, caught a little more dried blood a little lower down his thigh and by the time she realised just what she was doing she’d already discarded the cloth, her hands on him.
She knew she shouldn’t and by the time she knew she shouldn’t she also knew that she should stop. But somehow she couldn’t, or maybe just wouldn’t, as she let one hand move up over his ribs that rose and fell with his regular breaths, over his chest to trace the lines of his collarbones. She sat herself down there next to him on the mattress and she brought up her hands to his face, hesitant at first, touching only the right side, the stubble at his jaw, his cheek, but then her fingers strayed to the other side as she worried at her lip with her teeth, fingertips tracing the twisted lines of scars, touching that short stretch of visible jawbone and it made her stomach clench, made her take a shaky, unsteady breath.
He wasn’t so frightening, she thought, not so very frightening at all. He was big and warm and really just a man when it came down to it, vulnerable as any of them if you found the right places, flesh and blood and bone. Her hands moved down, traced old scars over his muscled torso, pressed at them as she wondered what he’d done to get them, what the man who’d left them there had meant by it. Maybe the hand of the woman he loved, she thought, maybe just the Warrior’s favour, and the thought made her sad somehow.
Her hands moved down. She told herself not to, told herself it wasn’t what proper high-born ladies did, but she’d been so far removed from all things courtly for so many weeks that in a way that didn’t seem to matter; there’d be time for court and smiles and dances when she left, however she left in the end. She pushed the sheets away and let her hands stray even lower still, over his thighs, over the coarse dark hair that trailed over his belly, right down to the base of him where she paused, unsure. She’d never touched a man like this before, and certainly never touched a man like that, perhaps she found it thrilling in a way because she knew he couldn’t see what she was doing, because she knew he wouldn’t know.
“That’ll come in handy when you’ve wed your prince,” he said, unexpected, and she jerked her hands away in horror. “Wankers, the lot of them.”
She turned away, stood and walked away, over to the table by the window so he couldn’t see her blushing so bright she felt her cheeks might melt the ice. “You’ve known a lot of princes, I suppose?” she said, willing her voice to sound even and in a way it did, if a little tight.
“Don’t need to. All think they’re better than the rest of us with all their fancy titles.”
“And you think you’re better than them because you have none.”
He chuckled sourly as he started to move, pulling himself up to sit back against the headboard. “I’m no better than anyone,” he said. “I’m just more honest about it.” He pulled up the sheet to his waist and she glanced at him, still appalled with herself but he had the gall to look amused.
“You were awake all the time, weren’t you,” she said, tugging on the bloodied ends of her braid that she still hadn’t washed.
“Since the part where you touched my face,” he said. “You could finish the job if you like.”
She looked at him, horrified, but he was smiling, teasing her or seeming to. All she could do was laugh and laugh and laugh till she was spilling the wine she tried to pour for him all over the floor because there was no wonder the queen didn’t want her for a daughter; she was some bawdy-house harlot, not the daughter of a lord. He looked at her oddly as he drank the wine and then a cup of water then a drop of the milk of the poppy with some salt beef because the old woman had told her to make him eat. And then he dozed and Sansa dropped her head into her hands.
In the end, she crawled into the bed beside him, exhausted so it was that or the floor. She might as well, she supposed, since she’d failed so utterly in every other respect.
She woke before dawn, when he woke. He murmured something and she moved and he moved and in the fading firelight she opened her eyes and he opened his. They’d moved closer together in the night than she’d thought they’d be by morning. She had one hand resting on his chest and underneath the sheets she knew he was naked. In the half-light, her eyes widened.
At some point in those first few seconds she might have had a multitude of choices: she could have closed her eyes and drifted softly back to sleep, could have left the bed and curled up in furs over by the dying fire, could have gone to the window to light a candle and sew though her eyes would regret it. But as seconds passed by without a clear decision, her choices began to dwindle. They were whittled away one by one until there really only was one left.
“You’d have died for me,” she murmured, still there close and warm beside him.
“I’d rather live instead,” he said, and she smiled at that as she lay there. She smiled as she reached up, tentatively, to brush back the hair from his face, away from scars and an ear that lacked an ear that should maybe have been horrible but it was all familiar to her now.
“I know what he’d have done to me,” she said, and he took her wrist in his hand, sudden and tight.
“You don’t know a fucking thing,” he told her, his voice low but fierce. “Pray you never do. Elia Martell would tell you that.”
“I know you’d save me.”
He frowned, her wrist still in his hand, and then he nodded sharply. “Yes, maybe I would at that,” he said. “Do you like dogs, little bird? I always liked them a lot better than knights. A hound will die for you, but never lie to you.” He reached over to stroke back the stray hair from her long braid, callused fingertips against her cheek. “My brother’s a knight, little bird. You saw what a shit he is.”
She nodded; he let her wrist go and she set her hand back down on his chest as she looked at him.
“I bet you had a septa,” he said. “You Starks seem the type for that. I bet she tried to keep you away from men like me.” He tilted up her chin just for a second so she’d meet his gaze. “I bet she had no problems like that with you, though. After all, you don’t get to be a queen by spreading your legs. I think that traditionally comes after.”
Sansa felt herself blushing but there was something else to it, too, a sort of warmth between her thighs she sometimes felt when she thought about her wedding night, whenever that might be. She worried at her bottom lip and he chuckled lowly, reached up a hand to stop her, the pad of his thumb at her lip just a very gentle pressure. He traced the bow of her lips with that thumb, ran his hand to the back of her neck beneath her braid and she shivered and he laughed.
“You’ve never bedded with a man, have you,” he said, though the look he gave her said he knew he hardly need ask.
She shook her head. “Not unless I can count this.”
And that just made him laugh again. “Count this if you like,” he said. “I’m happy to oblige.”
“What would you do?” She frowned at herself because that wasn’t at all what she’d meant to say, she was pushing too far but it made her heart race so wonderfully, her pulse quick and light and thrilling. “Your leg’s far from healed and you’ve taken milk of the poppy.”
“That just makes it more of a challenge.” He trailed his hand down under the sheets, down her clothed back to rest hot at her hip, over her bloodstained dress. “Is that a challenge, little bird? What would your Joffrey say?”
He gathered up her skirt with that one hand, inch by inch, handful by handful till his palm grazed her thigh. He squeezed there lightly, made her eyes widen just a fraction more because she hadn’t really meant this and she had. Then he pushed her down onto her back and went up on his side with a groan and a grimace at the pain in his injured leg. She wanted to tell him to stop and she’d check his wound but he looked down at her, no hint of mockery there in his face as he ran one hand up under her skirts, higher and higher, palm skimming up between her thighs until she parted them a little with a look that probably said that she was terrified. She was and yet she wasn’t. She’d never wanted anything as much in her life as that big scarred man with his foul mouth and fouler manners, not even a wedding, not even Joffrey, not even a crown.
His fingers went between her legs and she took a sharp breath in surprise, as his fingertips brushed the most secret parts of her, brushed against the lips there, dipped between just a fraction and she could feel how wet she was, blushed brightly with embarrassment. Then his thumb found the little nub between her thighs and rubbed there slowly, teasing little circles as she took another shaky breath and then another. Maybe she wasn’t meant to be queen, she thought, squeezing shut her eyes, if she’d let him touch her like he touched her then, but his fingers moved to strum across that little nub, again and again. Her hands tightened into fists around handfuls of the bedsheets, her hips shifted up against his hand and all she could do was gasp and spread her legs for him as she shuddered, as she pressed one hand over her mouth to keep from crying out aloud.
“Go back to sleep, little bird,” he told her after, as he brushed his nose against her cheek, brushed his mouth against her neck. And there was so much she wanted as she shivered through after, wanted to wrap her hand around him, wanted to have him push inside her, wanted his mouth and his hands and wanted, wanted, but she was so very tired. There’d be time, she thought, in the morning or a week from then when his leg had healed enough for more.
“I’d like to stay with you, I think,” she told him, as she started to drift into sleep.
He chuckled. “I’ll settle for that,” he said, beside her there in the half-light of the fire. “A week ago you wanted my head.”
She woke before dawn, when the shouting started.
At first, on waking, she thought it was Gregor at the door and he’d finally come to kill his brother. She left the bed and went for her knives but it wasn’t Gregor at the door, the noise was the wildlings in the courtyard down below. They’d been overrun by her father’s men and the Hound came awake with a groan.
“My sword,” he said, reaching out.
“We left it in the hall,” Sansa pointed out. “And you couldn’t walk if your life depended on it.”
He sighed tensely. “It just might,” he said. But she was right; he couldn’t stand at least couldn’t keep standing for more than a few seconds together. The best she could do was help him into his bloody clothes and hand him one of her knives.
It didn’t take long. They kept the door locked but he said that wouldn’t be much help at all and ten minutes, perhaps fifteen, proved him right. The yelling came closer, echoing down the long stone corridors, and then the door came in with an almighty wrenching of metal on stone. It was her father’s men faces she thought she recognised, and with his leg injured the way it was, through the after-effects of the milk of the poppy, the Hound couldn’t even wound one of them. She was glad of that, perhaps, but not of the way they ignored her pleas. They took him, hauled him out and dragged him down the stairs while they gagged her to shut her up and then carried her off with them.
They couldn’t get him past the half-mile mark from the gates, as if there were something there that stopped him passing, and only him. Of course, there was.
“Did you think the curse was an old wives’ tale?” Sansa said, as she pulled the gag from her mouth, glaring at Jory Cassel as he stood there baffled in the snow. “You can’t take him any farther. This is where the castle’s grounds end.” So they dropped him in the snow.
Of course, all they did was bring the camp up closer, the proximity much simpler now half the wildlings were dead out in the courtyard snow, or fled at least. And she pleaded with Jory and pleaded with Ser Rodrik, pleaded with her father as he stood there with a cane for his injured leg.
“He was kind to me,” she told them. “He didn’t hurt me. Please, just let him go.”
“He held you hostage, Sansa,” he father said. “You know what we have to do. And then you’ll have your wedding after all.”
She didn’t say she didn’t want the wedding now. They wouldn’t have listened to her if she had.
They kept her in her father’s pavilion, under guard, by a fire but the air wasn’t near as warm as it was inside the keep, as it was inside the great glass garden at its heart. She washed herself behind a screen, washed the blood away, changed into fresh clothes that weren’t thick with Sandor Clegane’s blood. She heard them speaking outside, over the howl of the wind; they said they’d have his head in the morning and see if that bit wouldn’t pass the Maiden’s mystical walls, then they’d set off back down south where frostbite wouldn’t take their toes one by one. She couldn’t let them do it. She couldn’t let him die, not just because he’d saved her.
She sneaked out in the night, before her father returned, wrapped up in furs as she ran for the jail tent. There was one man there on duty, just one and perhaps that wasn’t even his job because he sat at a table with a small set of scales, weighing little ingots of silver.
“I don’t think you’re meant to be here, milady,” said the man, looking up from his table, though he didn’t seem entirely perturbed by her presence.
“I don’t think you ought to stop me,” she replied, and glanced away toward the hound there in chains. They’d driven a big wooden pike into the icy ground and chained him to it, hanging from his arms so his toes could barely touch the ground and he looked at her, hair hanging over his face, then looked away again. Perhaps he was ashamed for her to see him. Perhaps he didn’t want to see her at all, but that was his poor luck.
“They say he’s dangerous,” said the man, as he sat back and stroked his beard.
“He won’t hurt me.”
“Are you sure?”
She smiled a small, faint smile. “I’m sure,” she said. “I don’t think he ever meant to.”
“I heard you came this way to take his head,” said the man. “They say the queen asked for it so you could wed the prince.” Sansa nodded; it was true though that seemed like years ago. “What’s he like, your prince? Is he gallant? Brave?”
“I don’t quite know,” Sansa admitted. “I suppose he must be. He’s the son of a king.”
“The son of a queen, at least,” said the man, “and not all princes are gallant, or knights either.” And Sansa thought it best she not ask what he meant by that. What she did instead was take a step toward the Hound, and toward the man’s little table.
“I wish you would let him go,” she said. “He did nothing to me.”
The man shrugged his broad shoulders. “He’ll be right here till justice is served, milady,” he said, and Sansa sighed, because she knew exactly what her father’s justice was. She’d witnessed it once, because he’d said when she was the lady of a great house one day she’d have to see it done without flinching. That was the northern way, that was northern justice.
Justice, she thought. Her father’s justice or the Father’s justice, and it was then that she knew exactly what to do.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She meant it, for what that was worth, but she wouldn’t let it stop her.
The man didn’t ask what she was sorry for. He didn’t even seem surprised when she took the flagon of wine from the table, broke over his head and knocked him out cold, slumped over his table of silver.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, girl?” said the Hound, as Sansa stooped to find the jailer’s keys.
“Well, I thought I might save your life,” she said.
“And what about your cunt of a prince?”
She unlocked his shackles, stood on a chair to reach the chains up there at his wrists and then hopped back down what she hoped was rather gracefully. “Well, he was never really my prince,” she said, by way of explanation.
“And what makes you think I won’t kill you?”
She caught him as best he could as he staggered down from the pike full onto his feet, his injured leg still as good as useless.
“You won’t kill me,” she said. “I know how to lift the curse.”
As they returned to the castle through the snow, Sansa thought perhaps she ought to feel ashamed. Instead she felt thrilled, exhilarated; she had a plan. They might die in the unwinding of it, that much she knew, but she didn’t think they would. The Maiden wanted Sandor’s curse undone. All her gods did.
With his leg bandaged tighter he could walk, at least, leaning on her a great deal more than she’d have liked were she honest, more than was proper but she’d lately grown accustomed to the fact that she was just as wild and wilful as her sister always had been, beneath her dreams of courtly love. If they lived, she’d tell her father how sorry she was for all the trouble she’d been. Perhaps she’d apologise especially for stealing his sword, their house’s huge greatsword Ice that hung over Sandor’s shoulder.
The remaining wildlings let them inside, past the pyre on which they were burning their comrades’ bodies. And they went in through the small door, the secret door that led down through the ground and into the stone, wound down and down into the caves below that shrieked as the wind blew through them. There were torches and candlelight and she could hear Ser Gregor’s voice speaking lowly; they passed the portraits of the seven or at least the first six of them, dusty and neglected, so familiar though her father still kept the old gods, a heart tree in a godswood.
“He worships the Stranger?” Sansa whispered, though the answer seemed obvious when she saw Ser Gregor kneeling there before the Stranger’s altar. She understood the foul smell when it hit her, when she saw the heads there rotting on the stone, the skulls about it. She knew about the Silent Sisters who swore their lives to the Stranger, of course, the women who tended the dead, but bringing him death as a tribute seemed unhealthy, seemed unnatural.
She expected a fight once they were there. She expected Ser Gregor to hear them coming and stand up to his full height or at least as high as he could because Sansa was sure if she’d stretched up her arms and jumped a little she’d have reached the roof of the cave herself. She expected shouting and profanity and probably bloodshed but Gregor didn’t move till they were almost there, so intent he was. His sword was feet away against a wall and he reached for it finally as he turned and he bellowed but Sansa was faster even if Sandor wasn’t; there was a knife in Gregor’s belly before he could reach his sword, the other pushed deep into his side, and he went down to the floor, dragging Sansa with him by her skirts. She cried out, but Ser Gregor’s shouts were louder.
Sandor wasted no time putting Ice into his brother’s back. He wasted no time dragging him up and away from Sansa, pressing him over the altar, and Sansa watched wide-eyed as he lopped his head clean off his body, right there before the Stranger. In the flickering light, the Stranger seemed to smile as balance was restored among the Seven.
The wildlings dragged the body up and out of the caves once it was finished, into the courtyard in the snow and Sansa stood back with the Hound, watching as they heaved Ser Gregor’s great bulk up onto the pyre with all the other burning bodies, and that was the end of the Mountain. She slipped her hand into the Hound’s as they stood there, ash in the air as thick as the snow was. He didn’t turn to look as she did it, for once he didn’t laugh at her, for once he didn’t say a word. He smiled after a fashion; his fingers tightened around hers.
“Do you think it worked?” she asked, as they watched Ser Gregor burn.
“Let’s find out,” he said.
They could have gone to Clegane’s Keep, Sansa supposed, now that the curse was lifted. It had a fearsome reputation, perhaps not wholly undeserved, but it lay in the west out by Lannisport and she was sure the weather would have been much milder than the north. Sandor laughed when she mentioned it, but sat farther from the fire that night at dinner. Memory was such a powerful thing.
They could have gone down to King’s Landing to see the queen. There was nothing to stop them, not really, since the queen’s request for the head of the Hound was really what the law called murder south of the Wall and there was no proof at all he’d ever done wrong. Sandor scoffed at the idea but Sansa found she didn’t have the stomach to see Queen Cersei anyway. Then she wondered just how much like his mother Joffrey was, beneath the surface. King’s Landing was not a good choice.
Her father suggested Winterfell, once Ice was back in his hands, once Sansa had stood there between her lord father and the Hound and with every bone in her body meant the words when she said he’d have to kill her, too. Her father frowned and Sandor wrapped his arms around her; perhaps she blushed but she looked her father in the eye despite it.
“You’ll want to wed her, then,” her father said when he looked away from her, and she could feel it more than see it when Sandor nodded his response.
“If she’ll have me, Lord Stark,” he said. He didn’t even sound mocking, at least not in that moment.
She rested her hands over his there at her waist, leaned back against his chest. “I’ll have him, father,” she said, and the head of her house nodded his reluctant approval to the match. He told her after that the old gods worked in mysterious ways sometimes, and perhaps the new ones Sansa’s mother followed did that, too. There were gods in the world and they knew that, magic beyond the powers of nature, and even Eddard Stark would not deny them.
Of course that meant Arya would have to marry a lord and she’d hate it, Sansa thought. But maybe one day she’d sail north to visit and they’d play in the snow like they’d always been taught not to in their childhood. Perhaps they both had a little of the wild wolf’s blood in them after all, as much as their father had always hoped they hadn’t.
Sansa and the Hound were married in the sept beneath the keep, there up by Hardhome on the Bay of Seals by the Shivering Sea. Sansa had always thought she’d be the lady of a noble house and her father’s bannermen had argued the point sometimes after too much ale or not enough, that his eldest daughter was old enough to marry and perhaps one of their young lads and heirs would do - she could be Lady Karstark of Karhold or Lady Umber of Last Hearth. She’d not so very long ago set her heart on being Queen Sansa Baratheon, wife of King Joffrey the first of his name. Sandor Clegane took her hand and she smiled; she’d had a change of heart since then.
Sansa’s septa performed the ceremony, though all the men would have sworn she hadn’t ridden north with them. The girl from Mole’s Town picked flowers in the garden and wove them into Sansa’s long red hair. The old woman from the forest stood with them as a witness at the wedding and Sansa smiled and smiled. She understood.
“I know who you are,” she told the woman, later, away from all the others. “I know who all of you are.”
The old woman nodded, a twinkle in her eye. “You were always meant to,” she said. “In the end, at least. Perhaps now Gregor’s gone, we can all come home.”
“You’ll stay this time?”
The old woman smiled. “My dear, we’ve never left you,” she said.
As the northmen prepared to leave the way they’d come, Sansa’s hard-eyed father hugged her tight. He promised there’d be visits in the future, by sea next time, they’d make the ride out to the Dreadfort and then down the Weeping Water, up past the Grey Cliffs up to the Shivering Sea, or else they’d come up from King’s Landing all the way past Braavos and the Vale of Arryn. Maybe her father would help rebuild Hardhome, or maybe Robb would do that in his stead. Maybe when the summer came and Storrold’s Point wasn’t quite so bleak with snow, they’d open trade for their good stone for castle masonry and timber for ships along the northern shores. Sansa liked the idea. Sandor seemed to find it amusing, the free folk beyond the wall trading openly with northmen, but he said they often didn’t mind kneelers as long as they weren’t crows.
“You know the gods hate a kinslayer,” Sansa’s father told her, straightforward even then, and she knew he meant well by it. Eddard Stark had never been meant for politics and somehow that warmed her.
Sansa smiled. “I think they’ll forgive it this time,” she said.
They watched the men leave from the castle gates, watched them ride back out into the biting wind and snow to make their way south to the north and the notion of that made Sansa smile against her husband’s chest.
“Not all men are knights,” she murmured to the wind. And not all knights were gallant. But in this man who had no knighthood there was something else entirely.
“If you want one of those sods who’ll bend the knee, little bird, you came to the wrong fucking keep,” he said, with a hint of a smile as they went inside.
She went up on tiptoe, pushed right up and pulled him down to kiss him quickly, propriety be damned. “I’m where I’m meant to be,” she said, and then they closed the doors. They’d go to bed, she thought, and she’d check his wound before she’d let him help her to take off her dress. They’d go under the sheets and the furs in the pale light and he’d take her for the first time of what was likely to be many and she wanted that, wanted him, wanted this place and this life and his hands on her, wanted him inside her, might even have liked to listen to him curse. He wasn’t pretty golden-haired Joffrey but he was just as brave as Florian in his own strange way. She wasn’t quite Jonquil but Sandor said he’d teach her how to use a sword. He said sometimes it was just like dancing and besides, they knew a smith who could help make a sword in just her size.
Perhaps it wasn’t happily ever after, and perhaps it wasn’t proper in any way that she’d been taught, but she’d love him from that day until the end of her days. Her Hound would die for her but never lie; everything he did told her he’d love her too.