Chapter 1: Prologue
The day was a cold one for autumn, a sharp, biting wind driving down from the north and sending men scurrying home for the comfort of the hearth. The sun was just kissing the horizon when Bendric Goldentongue staggered down the deserted, icy street to the Queen’s Dragon Inn, his breath steaming as he made his way towards the door with the creaking slate above it.
He heaved at the iron-studded oak with his shoulder, breaking the brittle seal the ice had made around the door, and shoved in. Inside, the room was dim to Ben’s eyes, seared as they had been from the bright autumn sunlight reflecting from the frost outside. He stood for a moment, allowing his sight to adjust. As he did so, shapes began to appear from out of the darkness, human forms, though huddled down deep in their layers of wool and skins, most sitting slumped over a bench with flagons in hands. One man sat by the bar trying to tempt the inn’s whore upstairs with him.
Catching sight of the inn’s mistress, Ben called out to her, “A room for the night, sweet lady.”
She eyed him for a moment, a singularly unfriendly expression. “Aye, and how will you be paying?” she said at last.
“Why,” Ben said, producing his harp from the special pocket he had sewn on the inside of his bearskin cloak, “they call me Goldentongue for a reason.”
The mistress spat into the rushes at Ben’s feet. “Piss on that, looks like any other tongue to me. It’s gold coins I’ll have, or you’ll be sleeping in the street with the other beggars.”
These inn keepers, Ben reflected, all the same these days. A whole turn of the seasons since the war, and still counting beans like a Frey.
Before he could speak, however, the whore called out, “Let him give us a song at the least, Pol. Might be he’ll melt even your cold heart.”
Sensing his opportunity, Ben plucked a chord from his harp and hummed the first notes of Jenny of Oldstones, waggling his eyebrows at the mistress. She spat again and retired through a door to the kitchens but said nothing further, and so Ben seated himself by the bar and looked about for requests. Some of the lumpy human shapes at the trestle tables were stirring, turning to watch, drawn inextricably by the soft plucking of the harp.
“A song for my lady?” Ben asked the whore. She laughed at his courtesy, and her partner said, in a voice slurred by drink, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”
Ben looked at him apologetically. “Alas, that is a song to be sung with drink in your belly, and I have none. I could not do it justice in my present state.”
The man did not take his cue, merely grunted and went back to worrying the laces on the whore’s bodice. She swatted at him indifferently, more interested in Ben now.
“You got any new songs? It’s been nigh on a sixmonth since a singer last stopped by here, and I still couldn’t listen to Her Silver Hair one more time without tearing me own hair out.”
Ben stroked his harp and hummed, half in song and half in thought. “Indeed, there is a new song I learnt while travelling the northlands. The Lady of the Gift, they call it.”
“Aye, and what’s it about?”
“A beautiful lady, trapped by her foes and forced into servitude by a wicked prince, obliged to endure great suffering. She is rescued by a man she should not trust, and imprisoned again in a castle atop a mountain.”
“Don’t sound too cheerful,” the whore said doubtfully.
“Ah, yes,” Ben smiled, “but if it please my lady, that is only the beginning of the song.” And he stroked his harp again, and began to sing.
Chapter 2: Sansa
“There is a man coming up the kingsroad,” Brandon Stark said as they broke their fast together in the Lord of Winterfell’s solar.
“To Winterfell?” Sansa enquired politely, though she had little interest. Men had been flocking to Winterfell since the Stark children’s return, many and more, and few with anything useful to offer.
“I hope so,” Bran said, “as he’s travelling with Rickon and Shaggydog.”
“What?” Arya blurted out, though it echoed Sansa’s own shock and delight. “But, how? What about-?”
“Rickon’s body was never found with Osha’s,” Bran reminded them. “I’d always hoped...” His voice trailed off, and Sansa laid her hand across his and gave it a light squeeze. Her brother’s guilt over the fate of the wildling woman might have been something that puzzled her once; now she understood it too well.
Neither sister asked how Bran knew about their impending visitors. He rarely spoke of his time north of the Wall, but the changes that had happened in him – his strange knowledge and unnatural foresight – were clear enough to see.
“Arya,” Bran said, breaking the moment of thoughtful silence. “You will ride out to meet them when you’ve finished here.” Arya nodded, drinking down her honeyed milk in a vulgar, mannish gulp before beginning to rise. Bran was not done, however. He reached over and caught her wrist in his hand. “You are not to kill him,” Bran said carefully, slowly.
“Rickon?” Arya asked, confused.
“The man who is bringing him here.”
Sansa watched her sister’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “Why? Who is he?”
“Someone who is returning our brother to us,” he said pointedly. And then, quickly, before she could protest, “Do I have your word you won’t harm him?”
For a moment Sansa thought her sister had a look about her to protest, but then Bran’s knuckles turned white as he squeezed her wrist and Arya, who could have released herself at any time, sighed and said sullenly, “Yes, my lord.”
Sansa had half a mind to ride out with Arya after the meal was done, but even at the age of seventeen, a woman grown, she was not a confident horsewoman, and she did not like to do anything that she could not excel at. And so the remainder of the morning and much of the afternoon was spent in a strange anxious state, unable to settle to anything useful. Rickon had been three when Sansa went south to King’s Landing, her heart full of joyful anticipation – by now he would have celebrated his ninth name day, older than Bran had been when he had his accident, and Sansa did not know what to expect. All she remembered was a quiet little boy who had peered at the world from around their mother’s skirts, in much the same way as Sweetrobin, though without his quavering bad temper.
The memory of her late cousin served to distract her train of thought for a time, though not pleasantly.
Eventually, as the sun crept towards the horizon marking mid-afternoon, Sansa went to join her brother as he met with the master stonemason in the recently repaired Great Hall. Bran met all but his most trusted advisors in the Great Hall at Sansa’s suggestion. Your lords bannermen, your smallfolk, they must be intimidated by you, even as they love you, if you ever hope to rule them after winter’s end, she had told him, and left the implication of what their current opinion might be hanging in the air.
She looked at him now, a boy of fourteen, sitting in his father’s stone seat. He no longer needed cushions to sit it, which was good, and in sitting his useless legs were unobtrusive, though thin and mismatched with his strong chest and arms for anyone looking closely. It was no secret that Bran Stark could not walk, of course, but her hope had been for people to forget that fact, at least for a short time, when making their petitions to her brother.
She went to his side and sat, unobtrusive but listening carefully. Bran had told her many a time that he welcomed her counsel, welcomed her to counsel him openly, as mother had done for Robb. He had come back from the wild grown in both size and wisdom, and being a Stark and so very easy to love, with his grave Stark features and grey Stark eyes, the people of the north had welcomed him home with their arms held open. Part of it was desperation. Sansa had known that from the very beginning, and though father’s bannermen had fallen over each other to bend the knee to a Stark once more and pledge fealty to Bran and to Winterfell, it would last only as long as Bran could feed them and protect them from the harshness of winter. For he was still only a boy, and Sansa knew enough of men to know that his name and his lineage would not stop their ambitions if he could not win them over.
And so she demurred to tell Bran openly what he ought do. To appear to have a woman giving him instructions... it was no great thing for Bran, who had spent the years of his exile under the protection of Meera Reed, and Lady Mormont would certainly love him all the better for it. But the Umbers, the Cerwyns, even the Manderlys would not stomach it well, and it would weaken Bran in their eyes.
Her brother had accepted it, eventually. One of our easier arguments to win.
The master stonemason was talking of rebuilding the library tower, and the difficulties involved in piping the water of their natural hot springs through the walls to heat the rooms. Sansa was so focussed on the discussion that she only realised how much time had passed when she noticed Gilly changing the candles at the far end of the hall.
She glanced down and met Summer’s eye. The great grey direwolf, lying obediently at Bran’s feet, was looking up at her dolefully. She reached over to stroke the fine soft fur between his ears. “Soon be over,” she murmured.
The stonemason left some handful of minutes later, his parchments rolled up and tucked under one arm.
“He is a skilled man,” Bran said, as Summer rose and stretched and shook out his fur, “but so very expensive.”
Sansa merely nodded – there was nothing they could do about that, there being a dearth of skilled tradesmen willing to travel this far north during winter. The best they could do was to pray for spring to come, when they could reap the riches of the land and refill both their coffers and their storehouses.
Bran glanced at her sideways then, in the slight nervous way he had whenever he brought up the issue they argued on most. Sansa stifled a sigh and girded herself.
“I received another raven from the Dreadfort this morning,” he started. Sansa could think of nothing polite to say, and so said nothing at all. “Tristian renewed his addresses to you. He wrote assurances of your comfort and safety, your every whim-”
Sansa stood abruptly and straightened out her skirts. “I will not marry Tristian Bolton.”
“Nor Harrion Karstark, nor Mathis Locke,” Bran said quietly.
I was once to be the bride of a king, Sansa reflected. And even then a great lord, when Joff no longer wanted me. She pushed those thoughts aside – they belonged to the Sansa who had gone south more than six years ago.
“Bran, if you had the slightest notion-” she began, before cutting herself off. She would not speak of it. “If I marry, it will be a man of my own choosing.”
Bran frowned, scratching idly behind Summer’s ears. “I don’t understand you, sister,” he said. “You say you don’t want to stay here in Winterfell, yet you will not marry a man capable of taking you away.”
Sansa blinked once, twice, and contained her feelings in a smile. “You know where I wish to go,” she said gently.
“And you know that it’s out of the question.”
“Brother,” she said carefully, measuredly, “why not send Arya with me? Or Bors and some of his men? Surely then you could be assured of my safety.”
“I can’t spare you any men, Sansa, you know that. Not with things still so unsettled. And Arya wants to stay here. This is her home.” Sansa heard it for an accusation.
It’s not so easy, little brother, when you have been the lady of so great a domain as the Vale, to content yourself with the Dreadfort.
When she remained silent, Bran added, “I could command you to marry, then you couldn’t run off alone, at the least.”
“The day you force me into marriage is the day you lose a sister,” Sansa said quietly. Bran’s eyes widened at the look he must have seen on her face. He is still just a boy, she reminded herself. A deeper, more treacherous part of her added, Older than I was when… but there were too many ways to end that thought, and Bran had not survived the war unscathed, either.
She knelt by his side and took one of his hands in hers. “You know I will serve you in whatever way I can, my lord – any way other than this.”
“I’m sorry, Sansa,” Bran said, sounding suddenly very young. “I didn’t mean to- I just want you to be safe.”
Sansa leant forward and kissed his cheek. “Come,” she said. “It isn’t my wish to fight with you. Summon Hodor and ready yourself for dinner – Arya will be back soon.”
When Bran had returned to the ruins of Winterfell, not three months after Sansa’s own reunion with her childhood home, he had immediately named her castellan, reasoning that two Starks were better than one. Indeed, she had been keeping her own presence there a secret, attempting to stay out from under Petyr’s seemingly omniscient gaze, but Bran’s return and, more importantly, the crannogmen Bran brought with him, meant that she could finally release herself from Petyr’s chokehold and truly spread her wings for the first time. Now that Bran was older and gaining in experience, however, Sansa often found herself at loose ends. So the opportunity to plan a feast in honour of her brother Rickon’s homecoming was not to be passed up. This was something she knew she was far more suited to than Bran, and he conceded the responsibility without protest.
In truth the fare would be somewhat pitiful compared to the last feast held in Winterfell’s Great Hall, when King Robert had come north with his entire household to ask her father to be Hand. The intervening war had ravaged the land as much as the people, and their stores were worryingly low, but Summer had brought down a boar that morning and Arya had caught a few rabbits in her traps over the last couple of weeks, which the cook had skinned and stored for a special occasion. It would be meagre enough, but no doubt welcome to travellers coming in from the road – this she knew from experience.
She wondered if Rickon would like the spiced apple pie she had asked the cook to prepare from their last crate of apples. Would he wish there was cream to drown it in, as little Tommen had liked to do? If he has been living wild, will he even know how to use a knife and fork? she wondered wryly, remembering the state Arya had been in when Brienne had finally winkled her out.
Her thoughts circled anxiously around her youngest brother as she checked in on the kitchens’ progress, as she climbed the stair to her chamber, as she changed her gown and watched her reflection as Gilly pinned her hair.
It did not occur to her to wonder about the man whose safety Bran had been so concerned for this morning until the very moment the door to the Great Hall creaked open.
A column of their household guard streamed in, their captain Bors Greenleaf at the head, and took their seats on the lower of the two trestle tables. Arya followed close behind, one hand on Rickon’s shoulder, grinning as she pushed him forward to present to Bran. Sansa was only peripherally aware of these happenings, however, because filling the doorway, the last of the party, a large figure had caught her attention.
She frowned as he stepped forward almost reluctantly into the light of the hall, a tall man and broad, wearing the simple dun-and-brown robes of a Brother of the Faith. His cowl was raised, casting his face in shadow, but there was something very familiar about him nonetheless. She realised she was gripping the arm of her chair, white-knuckled.
And then, Bran beckoned him forward, and said, “Be welcome here, Brother Sandor.”
And Sansa’s heart stopped.
Chapter 3: The Holy Man
The Elder Brother of the Quiet Isle stood at the brow of the hill and watched the figure below digging graves. Though the sky was a clear winter blue, the night had brought thick hoarfrost that coated the bare branches of the trees, every blade of grass, in a sparkling white.
He had little thought to admire the sight, however, his mind focussed intently on the gravedigger. Near four years on this island, and he yet wears novice’s robes.
It had been autumn when he’d come across Sandor Clegane dying by the roadside, and autumn it had been when he’d buried the Hound and brought the man back to the Quiet Isle. It had not surprised him that Clegane decided to stay, and he had hoped, in those early days, that Sandor may still be able to embrace the tranquillity of service to the Seven as his salvation.
And yet... The months had gone by, and Sandor’s confessions did not change. He still dreamed of killing his brother, burned with the desire, as other men burned for women or money or drink.
I fear these flames will consume you, the Elder Brother had once said, and Sandor had laughed, a rasping, unpleasant sound, and replied, Then the Stranger will finally finish the job Gregor started.
Gregor Clegane had died, of course, fighting in single combat with the Dornish prince. Years had passed, though, and Sandor still attacked the frozen ground as though it were his brother’s body. Angry, so angry.
Two days ago Brother Sandor had stumbled into Hermit’s Hole in the middle of the night, shouting for Elder Brother. He had not been drunk, though that might have been a mercy. It was as though the man stored up his sins inside until he could no longer bear their weight, and only then, when the walls were already crashing down, would his confession be ripped from his throat. This confession, a year from the last, was somehow worse than the others – Elder Brother had been left exhausted afterwards, but unable to sleep, his mind on a treadle wheel.
Sandor had not spoken of her by name since his first confession, dying by the roadside on the way to Saltpans. And yet Elder Brother had somehow sensed her presence behind Sandor’s words that night in the stillness of Hermit’s Hole; behind his eyes.
“What will it take for you to be at peace?” he had asked as the sky began to lighten. It had been half a prayer, a helpless plea to the Seven as most prayers were. He had not expected them to answer.
A cold breeze blew in from the Bay of Crabs and Elder Brother turned and went back up to Hermit’s Hole. The ground was a mixture of hard-packed ice and slushy mud where the salt-air had melted it, and he walked carefully so as not to slip. The windmill creaked and smoke streamed from the smokeholes of the Isle’s buildings as he walked across the yard between the storerooms, the granary and the kitchen. They had been lucky, here, that the war had not touched them, and their stores were full for winter. The past three years, many of his penitents had been employed in sharing out the bounty of the Seven to the surrounding towns and smallholdings – Saltpans may never be rebuilt, but there were plenty of people in the riverlands who had lost their lands and their livelihoods to the war.
Coming upon the small smithy by the stable block, Elder Brother finally found the person he sought. The boy had washed up on the Quiet Isle after a particularly harsh winter storm, clinging to a great black wolf that looked big enough to ride. At first he would not give his name, scared, defiant, scrawny little thing that he was. Later, he had told Elder Brother that his name was Nat, son of a wildling woman Osha, who had somehow gotten over (possibly around – the boy was unclear) the Wall and had been fleeing south to escape the worst of winter. Osha was dead, the boy confided tearfully, killed by men a month ago for no other reason than that they wanted to kill her. He and his ‘dog’ had escaped, but they had got lost, and were trying to ford the river when it swept them away.
Now, the boy was watching the clink and clatter of the smithy working a horseshoe – heat heat beat, beat beat quench – with rapt attention, curled up with his ‘dog’ close to the furnace. Two months in the care of the Brothers and he still ate like he was starving, still sought warmth like he was frozen through, still watched the world warily from behind his great animal. Elder Brother felt a pang for him, for what was to come.
“Nat,” Elder Brother called, “come here, please.”
The boy slid reluctantly from his perch and came over to where Elder Brother stood in the doorway. As he did so, Elder Brother noticed a bruise on the boy’s wrist.
“Where did you get that?” he asked, crouching down to inspect it more closely.
“Brother Sandor beat me with a stick.”
Elder Brother looked at the boy levelly – he was dramatic and prone to exaggeration, but he could not seem to maintain the pretence when faced with Elder Brother’s stare.
The boy stood his ground for a moment, then his shoulders sagged. “I made Brother Sandor fight me with a stick-sword, and I weren’t very good at it,” he admitted.
“Thank you for telling me the truth, Nat,” Elder Brother said.
“You looked at me like my father,” the boy said sullenly.
Elder Brother straightened and guided the boy out into the yard with a hand on his shoulder. “I thought you said you didn’t remember your father,” he said lightly.
“I don’t,” the boy said angrily, kicking at a stone. It skittered across the yard, into a tall clump of frozen grass growing out of the cracks in the granary wall. His beast snarled, baring its teeth at Elder Brother.
“Come,” he said, ignoring the reactions of both boy and beast, “let us go to the sept.”
“I feel that we should talk.”
After a moment, the boy mumbled, “Mother said you couldn’t lie in a sept, ‘cause the gods could see your heart anyway.”
Your wildling mother or your noble one? Elder Brother did not respond immediately, however, pushing open the door of the small wooden sept and allowing the boy to choose where to sit. He chose the bench by the Smith’s altar and Elder Brother sat beside him.
“Your mother was right,” he said, “it is a sin to speak falsehoods in the presence of the gods. That is why I’ve brought you here, so that you will know I speak the truth.” He looked at the boy, who was kicking his feet carelessly, though the beast stared at him with green eyes, the lines of its body tense. “There is a Stark in Winterfell once more,” he said. The boy’s head snapped around to look at him, but otherwise remained silent. “Brandon Stark has returned and rules there with his sister Sansa. They have bent the knee to the Dragon Queen and the north is at peace once more.”
The silence stretched for many heartbeats. Then, “Bran?” the little boy whispered.
“Bran went home?”
“Yes. And now it is time for Rickon of House Stark to return home as well.”
Chapter 4: Arya
The sun was well past its zenith when Arya first spotted the dark shapes farther down the kingsroad. She had been drifting in her saddle, half-dreaming of snow beneath grey paws, the panting of her pack all around, the smells of the sleeping forest, but she snapped back to herself when Bors swatted her arm and pointed.
As they came nearer she made out a black horse with a tiny boy atop. A dog padded by the horse on one side, and on the other a man led the horse on foot. That can’t be Rickon, he looks an infant. It was only as they came closer still that she realised the boy was not so small after all – the dog was in fact an enormous direwolf, the horse was the great black courser Stranger and the man...
Arya dug her heals into Muncher and galloped at the group, right hand on the reins while she reached for Needle with her left.
“You!” she screamed, leaping off Muncher to level her sword at the Hound’s chest. She saw with vicious pleasure that he wasn’t wearing chain mail or even boiled leather under his pitiful rags. She gripped the sword, ready to plunge the blade into him.
You remember where the heart is?
To her surprise, the Hound released the horse’s reins and went to his knees before her. She hesitated.
Look with your eyes.
The faded, tattered clothes were robes of dun-and-brown. He wore no armour at all, nor a weapon.
“Haven’t you anything to say for yourself?” she demanded.
“Brother Sandor took a vow of silence, stupid,” a boy’s voice said. Rickon, dismounted now, pushed between her blade and the Hound and squinted up at her. “Don’t you hurt him, else the gods’ll get you, ‘cause he’s a Brother of the Faith. Are you my sister?”
“I’ve killed plenty of little boys just like you,” she said. “Get out of the way.” But it was the Hound’s big hand on Rickon’s shoulder, and not her words, that finally compelled him to move.
“You’re godsworn now?” she asked uncertainly. When he did not respond she moved Needle up until the point was poking him under the chin. He lifted his head until their eyes met. He looks the same as ever. “I’m not afraid of you,” she said.
He laughed, then, a short mirthless bark. She didn’t have time to work out if she was being mocked, however, as Bors and his men took that moment to come clattering up behind her.
“Lady Arya?” he called. “Lord Stark said-”
“I know very well what Lord Stark said,” she snapped at him over her shoulder. She huffed in annoyance, then lowered her sword. “I promised my brother I wouldn’t hurt you,” she hissed at Clegane. “But don’t you think I’m not watching you, not for one instant.”
He did nothing but stare back at her silently, grey eyes hard as stone in that ugly face, until Stranger made to bite at the leg of one of the household guard and Clegane rose and took hold of his reins again. When the horse was back under control he lifted the boy back up into the saddle as though he weighed as little as a doll. He might as well. I never saw such a scrawny bag of bones. Arya took a moment to look at him properly – he had the same long face and grey eyes that both she and her half-brother Jon had inherited from their father, auburn hair like Sansa and mother and Bran.
“Yes, I am your sister,” she said belatedly.
“You’re not very beautiful.”
Arya smacked him across the thigh with the flat of her sword, not hard, but the boy squealed anyway. “Don’t be rude.”
“Everyone said my sister was beautiful,” he complained.
“That’s your other sister, Sansa. I’m Arya,” she said, mounting Muncher once more.
“Oh,” Rickon said. Then, “Is that a real sword?”
“You want me to stick you with it, so you’ll know?”
“Can I have a go with it?”
Arya’s mouth twitched upward at his blithe enthusiasm, despite her bad temper. “No,” she said, and turned Muncher’s head for home.
By the time they arrived at Winterfell, darkness had fallen and Rickon was riding pillion with her so that Clegane could ride his devil-horse. As he had chattered away about what he would do now he was a great lord, in an ecstasy of indecision about whether to sword fight first or eat an entire boar, Arya had decided that her little brother might not be too irritating after all, and was in high spirits when they entered the Great Hall for the feast. She had all but forgotten the Hound’s presence in their party until Bran called him forward, but it was not Bran her eyes fell upon. Sansa’s face had taken on a frozen quality that Arya had not seen in some time, carefully devoid of any expression, so much so she barely resembled herself. She looks like an Ashai’i, with their painted masks.
Arya kept half an ear on the words being exchanged, the letters being handed over, Rickon speaking like a common pig boy so that Arya had cause to smack him again – “Speak nicely to your lady sister” – but mostly she watched Sansa, and realised very quickly that she could barely keep from staring at the Hound. He was horrifically scarred, it was true, and Arya herself had never been shy of having a good look when he’d taken her across the riverlands so many years ago, but it was most unlike her sister to be so... discourteous.
Arya remembered then that Sansa had been trapped in King’s Landing much longer than she had been, and that the Hound had become one of Joffrey’s Kingsguard in that time, charged with protecting the young king and his intended both. The Hound had spoken of her now and then when Arya had been in his custody, but she had never really believed that he knew Sansa... or that there was any truth to the awful things he had said.
The thought disquieted her enough that when the food came she seated herself by her sister, who was sitting on Bran’s right, instead of taking her rightful place to Bran’s left. Sansa’s eyes flicked to hers briefly in question, but she didn’t tell Arya to move. The small action seemed to shake her from her thrall, however, as after that she did not look at the Hound half so much, and spoke to Rickon and Bors and Maester Jennion in that light, flowing manner she had that put everyone at their ease. For his part, the Hound sat as far from them as possible, and spent the meal with his head bowed, looking at no one.
Later, Arya lay in her bath and stared up at the grey stone of the ceiling. When she had gone to Braavos and tried to learn to be no one, the kindly man had once set her the task of thinking nothing. “If you are no one,” he had said, “you should have no thoughts.” She might even have managed it a couple of times, but it had been much easier when she’d been hollow inside. Now, her mind was full of family and duty and Winterfell, and tonight, Sansa.
They had not been close as girls, Arya unable to understand Sansa’s unending fascination with songs and dancing and sewing fine dresses when there was riding to be done or snowballs to throw at her brothers. She had even hated Sansa for a while, after she’d had to send Nymeria away. That seemed so childish, now. Nearly six years had passed without sight or word of her sister, and when she had seen Sansa again, all Arya had felt was overwhelming relief.
Didn’t you ever have a brother you wanted to kill? Or maybe a sister? The Hound’s rasping voice floated up through the years, mocking her. No, she thought. That was before I knew anything. There’s worse things in the world than naïve little girls.
She thought of herself as a little girl in this room, and tried to remember what it had been like. I fit in this tub without having to bend my legs, for a start. And now I know how to kill. She had known that even before she had tried to become one of the Faceless. She’d thought that’s what she’d wanted, to be a ghost, an omen of death swooping down on her enemies on silent wings. And then Brienne had come and told her there were Starks in Winterfell again, and she had left the Faceless Men without a single word or a second thought.
You remember where the heart is?
He taught her that, and she’d put it to good use many a time. She had been so angry, all the time, and when the anger boiled away there was nothing but emptiness in its place. I was like him. But I had Brienne to take me home, and family to welcome me. He’d called himself a monster. Arya had gotten used to him, out in the riverlands, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still true. She remembered what he’d said about Sansa, that day Arya had left him dying. And now he was here in Winterfell, and she was sworn not to harm him.
Brienne said it was a terrible thing to break an oath, but if it came to that or protecting her family, she knew what course she would choose. Rickon said the Hound was a Brother of the Faith now, that he spent his days grinding flour and chopping wood and digging graves, and all in silence because he was sorry for his sins. But if Ayra knew anything it was that people would say and do most anything to keep themselves alive.
She would speak with Bran in the morning, and convince him to send the Hound away that same day.
Gilly came in with a towel and a fresh bed gown for her, and Arya sat by the fire for a while, drying her hair. Then she rose and left her room, climbing the stairs half a turn to Sansa’s room.
People in Winterfell didn’t need bedmates to stay warm, the castle being heated through the walls by the natural hot springs, and so Arya and Sansa had never shared a bed as girls except when travelling. Everything was different after the war, though, even the little things like that.
Sansa was lying on her back when Arya slipped beneath the covers. Her eyes were open, but she said nothing, and so Arya curled up on her side and closed her eyes. She must have slept, because she woke with a start to the sound of someone crying. Reaching out, she touched Sansa’s arm, and her sister wordlessly rolled over and curled up into Arya, her body shaking with sobs.
Sansa always tried to cry quietly, as though doing it loudly would be somehow ill-mannered. She never wanted to speak of it, either, and usually that was fine by Arya, who wasn’t sure she even had the words to describe her own nightmares. Tonight, though, Arya stroked Sansa’s long hair and whispered, “Do you want me to kill him?”
“Joff’s dead, isn’t he?” Sansa whispered back, her voice so plaintive that Arya told her yes, even though she knew Sansa had seen him die with her own eyes; even though she had not meant Joffrey Baratheon at all.
Confused, Arya stared into the darkness and counted heartbeats until Sansa fell asleep, and then, eventually, followed her.
Chapter 5: Sansa
It was still dark when Sansa woke, her body aching as though she had spent all the previous day scrubbing the Duskendale septry floors again. Arya was sprawled beside her, twitching in her sleep. Her sister often dreamt of wolves, Sansa knew – a more pleasant dream than her own had been.
In truth she had not dreamt of Joffrey in many years, and she did not know why her mind had circled around and around him last night, only that she had come up to her room after dinner and could not stop thinking of him. Awful, awful Joffrey, the dreadful delight in his eyes when he was having her beaten, the way her skin had wanted to crawl off her body at his touch, clawing at his throat as he died, forcing her to look at her father’s severed head and call all her family traitors. Around and around, beating her and humiliating her and calling her stupid until she began to believe it herself. She had fallen asleep with her tears still wet on her cheek, and even then had found no respite.
In her dream Joffrey had broken into her bedchamber in Maegor’s Holdfast, broken through the bar on the door and come into her room and ripped her gown down to her waist while she cried and pleaded with him to stop. She had tried to fight him off, kicking and scratching in a way she had never dared in the waking world, all the time thinking, It will be all right once the Hound passes his cloak to me. But neither the cloak nor its owner had appeared and she had awoken with a start, cringing and covering her breasts with her hands.
The Hound, she thought, as she tried to catch her breath and let her heart slow. The Hound who had always been there, who had never lied to her but who had never troubled himself to speak kindly, who had never struck her but never saved her from being beaten, who had kissed her and come to take her away and then left her behind for the lions.
How she had wished for him, hidden away in the Vale. A child’s fantasy, which she had put aside when it became clear that the only person who could save her was Sansa Stark. She had not thought to see him again.
She had certainly not thought to see him again like this: silent, wearing Brother’s robes, unable to meet her eye. She had not exactly liked him, before, but he had been unquestionably strong in a place brimming with enemies, and she had wished for some part of that strength for herself. She could hear his voice in her mind, so clear after so many years, sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don't ever believe any different. She had learnt that bitter lesson many and more times, but he had been the first one to say it to her true.
But he is not the man he was. Perhaps he never had been, just the desperate imaginings of a frightened little girl who couldn’t quite bring herself to believe in true knights anymore.
Rising, Sansa lit a candle and went to her dressing table. Removing her bed gown, she washed the night from her skin and brushed the tangles from her hair. She put on fresh smallclothes and selected a gown, warm grey wool with a white vair trim, donning her jewellery and pinning her hair as a knight might buckle on his armour: by the time she descended the stairs, her grief had been carefully tucked away out of sight.
It was early, still, and only the servants were up and about. Spying Old Sam down the corridor, Sansa sent him to the kitchens for some bread and honey to break her fast, then went to her brother’s solar and pulled out the great leather-bound ledger. In her father’s day this had been one of the steward’s responsibilities, but Littlefinger had not stinted in her instruction, and Sansa in her turn had insisted Bran learn too. Now they had no steward, and though Maester Jennion had offered to take the responsibility from their hands, he had been with them less than a year, and she did not trust him yet.
The sun was rising when Hodor brought Bran to join her. He was much grown since the accident that had shattered the bones of his back and caused him to lose the use of his legs, but Hodor was so large himself that Sansa imagined he barely noticed the extra weight.
“Is it all correct?” Bran asked anxiously, glancing at the ledger.
“Yes,” Sansa said. “You have done well, Bran.”
He smiled happily at her approval. “I will never be a knight, but now I may joust with numbers to my heart’s content,” he said, waving a butter knife in the air, more like a sword than a lance, though Sansa did not point this out.
“Would my lord like a favour when next he enters the lists?” she laughed.
“A ribbon from my fair sister! I shall wear it on my arm and it will bring me luck as I sharpen my quill and prepare for battle.”
They carried on in this vein for a little while, teasing each other over their meal, until the conversation inevitably came around to Rickon.
“He spent more years in the wild with Osha and Shaggydog than he ever did here at Winterfell,” Bran said. “I do not know that he remembers any of us, not really.”
“I had thought to speak with Maester Jennion today, about lessons for him,” Sansa said.
Bran smiled wryly. “I don’t think he will take that easily.”
“He is your heir,” Sansa reminded him, then sighed. “Perhaps it is a little soon.” She remembered his manner at dinner the previous night, more like one of their smallfolk than the son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark. She suspected Bran was right in that a boy with an upbringing such as Rickon’s was not like to settle down easily to numbers and history and reading.
“Let him start learning the sword with Arya or Bors,” Bran suggested. “He’ll enjoy that, and it will help him relearn the ways of the castle.”
It was a good idea, and Sansa told him so. He smiled again but as she rose to leave the expression faltered a little and he became more serious.
“There was a message addressed to you,” he said, “in the letter Brother Sandor brought from his septry.” He passed her the small sheaf of parchment. It was folded neatly with her name written on one side, though she noticed it had not been sealed. “I haven’t read it,” Bran added, when he saw her looking, though he was clearly desperate to know what it said.
Sansa forced a smile and slipped the letter into her pocket. “Thank you. I will read it later, when I have some time to spare.”
She left to fulfil her usual morning duties. First, the kitchen, where she spoke with Cook about dinner and the stores and the difficulty of making bread without flour. Next, Old Sam took her over to the granary to check once again on the state of their grain stores, and was relieved to find cook’s fears unfounded and that they were not yet at the stage of adding ground bark to their bread dough, at least for the present. She went up Maester’s Turret to join Maester Jennion for a cup of hot spiced wine and check if any ravens had come in the night, then went back down to the yard to inspect the stone masons’ work. One of the journeymen had a talent for sculpture, and Sansa enjoyed watching him work, even though all he carved were gargoyles and grotesques. The way he could take a slab of rock and release from it such an intricate creature was quite miraculous, and surely a gift from the Smith himself.
Further back, by the armoury, the clash of steel on steel started up in competition to the pick and clink of the stonemasons’ hammers where Arya and some of the household guard were training. That reminded her of her conversation with Bran, and so she waited for Arya to vanquish her foeman before taking her aside to tell her of Bran’s plans for Rickon.
While Arya went to discover if there were any wooden practise swords to be found in the armoury, Sansa went to collect Gilly for their visit to the Winter Town. It was safe enough these days to walk, just the two of them and Gilly’s boy, along the paths cleared between winter storms. She had used to go with her friend Jeyne Poole, but even though she was now the Lady of Winterfell, she had no gently born companions to accompany her, and it was not seemly to walk by herself. It was no matter – she liked Gilly well enough, and Young Sam was a quiet, well-behaved boy of five who was devoted to his mother and liked to bring her flowers from the glass gardens (Gilly always apologised profusely, but Sansa thought it utterly delightful and had once let him in when Old Sam had locked up all the doors).
They walked to the market square, as they always did, more to be seen than to buy anything. It was important, Sansa knew, to reassure their smallfolk after the devastation the war had wrought, and browsing the stalls, exchanging words with merchants and crofters alike, was little enough price to pay.
Sansa had been very young at the end of the last winter, and during summer the Winter Town stood mostly empty, only one dwelling in every five occupied. Now, nigh on three years into winter, and the town was not the crowded, bustling place of her memory. Some of the mountain clans had decided to brave the cold in their deep mountain caves rather than descend, she had heard. That was when the war was still going on, and now most of the mountain passes were blocked by snow, packed down hard as ice under its own weight. But there were others missing too... the miller from Old Lodge whose wife turned baker when the snow fell, and always gave Sansa a honeycake and a pat on the cheek. Gem and Linny Thatcher, who had married in Winterfell’s godswood last spring.
Some of the buildings still stood in ruin from the sacking of Winterfell, but most had been repaired quickly enough when the smallfolk flooded in after Bran’s return. The Wolfswood provided ample resource for timber and masonry, but the straw for thatch had either been burnt in the fields, or stood frozen beneath several feet of snow. Northmen were nothing if not resourceful, however.
“I admired your new roof on my way past,” Sansa said to Will Hopper in the market square.
“M’lady is kind to say so,” Will said, and Sansa listened politely as he explained about the intricacies of cutting wood to make shingles, all the time looking at his thin face, the two skinny children clinging to his legs, and thinking I must try to find more food for the Winter Town.
It had not snowed in a couple of days, and so the snow along the cleared pathways had been only ankle deep when they had set out, but on their return the air took on that peculiar sharp, clean smell and before long large white flakes began to fall. Sansa pulled up the hood of her cloak and Gilly lifted her boy into her arms, and they walked a little faster.
Hodor had just brought Bran into the Great Hall when she returned. She sat beside him and listened to the two quarrelling neighbours who had come before them today, until she could not bear it any longer, and rose and went to the godswood.
Under the heart tree, she took the letter from her pocket with trembling fingers and read it, and read it again when she could not make sense of it. She sat quietly for a time, listening to the soft sounds of the falling snow, the occasional rustle of leaves. Then she carefully folded the parchment again, and went to find Sandor Clegane.
Chapter 6: Sandor
Sandor finally managed to lose the Stark boy in the yard. The child had been clinging to him since they broke their fast, but it seemed the stonemasons and the duelling men were more interesting than a holy brother, even one who had taught the whelp to hold a sword. He wore roughspun breeches and tunic today, with a plain leather jerkin most like borrowed from that stable oaf whose only word was his name. His robes were gone, the things so tattered after two months on the road that they had been fit to be burned and little else. Is this what you wanted, Elder Brother? I am all but myself again.
He had not wanted to leave the Quiet Isle. He had not wanted to accompany another Stark brat across country. But he had sworn the novice’s vows with every intention of keeping them, and one of them was the promise of obedience. Elder Brother had told him little, but the letters he had sent with Sandor had not been sealed, and the bastard knew he could read – a test, most like, but he had not been told not to open them, and so why not?
What will it take for you to be at peace? Sandor doubted the answer was in Winterfell, and the sight of the great granite castle as it rose up on the horizon had filled him with nothing but anger and resignation. He had expected to be met on the road, though he had not known the little she-wolf was still alive. Not so little any more, in truth, but no less ferocious.
There’s one Stark I haven’t sinned against, at least. He had gone out of his way to keep that one safe in the riverlands, not that she was like to thank him. Probably still sore over the axe, though it had saved her life. He had not thought she would kill him, not when she’d refused him the gift of mercy, and yet as she’d held the point of her sword to his heart the echo of Elder Brother’s words pushed him to his knees in the snow: Brother Sandor walks the penitent’s path.
And what a windy fucking path it is, he thought as he skirted the Stark men-at-arms practicing in the yard. Most of them were little crannogmen, sent up from Greywater Watch by Howland Reed to serve here indefinitely. Half his size and half his skill with the sword, if he was any judge, and him not having held a weapon in four years or more. His hand itched for a greatsword, the weight and surety of it, and he glanced into the armoury on his way past, tempted. That was when he saw her, talking to the she-wolf.
He had barely slept for dreaming of her last night, the same dream over and over – him trapped and unable to move while a man in a white cloak and shining armour beat her bloody. How much easier his conscience would lie if that had been the way of it. The Hound is dead, Elder Brother had told him, and yet if that were the truth, why was Sandor Clegane paying for his sins?
He stepped back into the shadows, and though, as at the feast, he could not bring himself to look at her, he listened to the rise and fall of her voice with something like hunger pricking in his chest. She did not see him as she left the armoury, walking straight past him on her way back to the Great Keep, and he told himself that was for the best.
He had not been given any instructions as to what he was to do with himself now he was here, and he would not have asked any of the castle folk even if he could. He would have liked to find a nice dark winesink to drown himself in, but wine was not permitted on the Quiet Isle, and he had sworn the novice’s vows. Instead, he went to the godswood in search of the hot springs that young maester had made mention of last night.
The castle was surprisingly comfortable, but after two months on the road in the middle of winter it would take more than a warm room and a soft bed to shake the chill from his bones. When he found the pools, they stank to the seven hells of fouled eggs, but on climbing in he found himself very reluctant to leave again, old wounds that had knotted themselves up on the journey here finally soothed and unwinding.
It had gone midday when he entered the stables. With nothing else to do, he tended to Stranger, brushing him down, picking his hooves, tending to the little cuts and rubs he had taken on their journey here. He had just returned his bridle to its hook, freshly cleaned and waxed, when the door at the far end of the stable opened, and a figure stepped inside.
She looks different. That had been his first thought upon seeing Sansa Stark again. She was older, of course, no longer a child, but that was not the whole of it. Before, she had gone through the world with her pretty head bowed, barely daring to look up through her lashes in case she should bring disaster raining down. Such a timid little bird. Now, it was she who sought his gaze and he who could not hold it. He felt a bitter laugh welling up in his chest, causing his mouth to twitch though he made no sound.
The stable was gloomy and warm with the horses’ bodies. She had closed the door when she entered and put the bar across it, and now she stood before him, barely an arm’s breadth away, and he stared at her feet and waited to see what she had come for.
Yet she did not speak, simply stood in silence, and Sandor could feel the weight of her eyes on him. Further down the stable, the she-wolf’s piebald courser whickered and Stranger snapped at him from his stall. The air was still and scented with musty horsehair and sweet-smelling hay. She had a small square of parchment in her hand, he saw. The hem of her gown was wet, as though she had been walking in the snow. And still she did not speak.
He struggled briefly with himself before giving in to desire. Sandor raised his eyes and looked at her. And looked, and looked. Little bird.
“Your Elder Brother writes me that you are a Hound no longer,” she said softly, once he had met her eye, “and so I suppose I am to call you Brother Sandor. I am sorry for your loss, Brother Sandor.”
Did she mean Gregor? Had she forgotten? He remembered a dark field dotted with tents, and a frightened little girl putting her hand on his shoulder. The only loss I suffered was not having the chance to put him in the ground myself. She knew that, he was certain, and yet her expression was earnest, and a little sorrowful.
It made him inexplicably furious, and he turned away back to Stranger’s stall, showing her the burnt side of his face that she loved so well. The silence stretched once more, and from the corner of his eye he could see she had not moved.
He had once taken a brutal pleasure in forcing her to look at him. Now, he felt none of that. What will it take for you to be at peace? Elder Brother had asked him. Not this, he thought viciously. Not this.
He froze when he saw her raise her hand, and flinched when her fingers touched the ruin of his cheek, but his hand flew up of its own volition to catch her wrist when she withdrew it.
“Pardons, my lord,” she murmured.
I am no lord, girl. He had pulled her close when he’d grabbed her, he realised, so close that he could count each eyelash fringing those deep blue eyes, feel the flutter of her breath on his skin. She looked up at him searchingly.
“You are just as I remember you,” she said after a moment, a queer look of relief suffusing her features. He could not understand it, and that angered him too. “Though a little quieter,” she added, wry. “Your Septon writes that you are to enter our service. Is that the case?”
Sandor scowled down at her, and jerked a nod.
“Then perhaps you would release me. Unless you intend to break your lady’s wrist on your first day in her castle?”
He let go as though burned, and stared at the red marks he had left on her skin.
“You are not a very good penitent,” she said, and though her voice remained soft, almost gentle, he still heard it for the accusation it surely was. “How is it you came to be on the Quiet Isle? You were never a godly man, before. You once laughed when I spoke of the Seven, do you remember? ‘What gods?’ you said.”
You will not take Septon’s vows, and you do not seem to like to pray, Elder Brother had said. What are you hiding from, Sandor?
“Do you remember when I asked you why you allowed people to call you a dog when you would not let them call you a knight? Last time I saw you, you put a dagger to my throat and made me sing when I could barely speak from terror. And now people call you Brother.”
Protecting, not hiding, Sandor had told him.
“Why did you come here, Brother Sandor?”
Yourself? Elder Brother had asked. Everyone else, Sandor replied.
She was searching his face again, looking freely at him in a way she never had in King’s Landing. “Speak,” she whispered, and he saw tears in her eyes. “Speak. Please.”
He laughed then, the sour desperate taste of it erupting from his throat. She turned her face away at the sound, and that was too much for Sandor to bear. I will see you in hell, Elder Brother.
“As my lady commands,” he rasped.
Chapter 7: The Learned Man
Maester Jennion had added the final link to his chain not six days before he discovered he was to be stationed at Winterfell. It was a good position, hoped for by many of his peers, and although the selection process was said to be utterly fair and random Jennion suspected Samwell’s hand in it somewhere.
He was very grateful for it, too, though at times when the winter storms set in for days on end he had to remind himself that this was so. I never knew cold like this until I came north. Jennion had arrived at Winterfell a few days shy of one year ago, with his books and parchments on a wayn and a relay of escorts from each of the noble houses he passed. Back then it was said in whispers around the Citadel that spring would be on them any day, now that the Dragon Queen had vanquished The Foe north of the Wall and stationed one of her beasts up there permanently. The storm that saw him snowed in at Moat Cailin for two weeks on his journey north had seemed to prove otherwise.
It was snowing again now, just a light sprinkling for the nonce, but that could change. He remembered what it had been like, before the Great Hall or the Maester’s Turret had been repaired, when only the Great Keep had been habitable and they were two to a room. He had shared with Hodor the stable boy, who seemed to have a way with the ravens. I never saw a man even close to him in size, until yesterday.
Lord Stark had called the man Brother Sandor, but Jennion had his suspicions about who he had once been. Many men had come home from the war with burns and scars, but this man... his size and his manner... despite the robes he wore, there appeared to be little holiness in him.
The Stark women knew him as well, of that Jennion was certain. Lady Arya looked at the man like an enemy, and Jennion had overheard her voice raised in anger at her brother this morning, insisting he be sent away. And Lady Sansa... such a sweet girl, so courteous and gracious in all her dealings, she had looked for a minute or two as blank as fresh snowfall, an expression he had never seen her wear before. It spoke to Jennion of tight control, though where she had learned to have need of it he did not know. I must remember that even though I have served them for nearly a year, I do not yet know them. These Starks liked their secrets, and it would not serve him well to pry, yet he could not help but be curious.
Too much curiosity will see you to a bad end, Samwell had often warned him. Maester Samwell was oft times scared of his own shadow, though. Jennion smiled, remembering his good friend, back at the Wall by now hard as that was to believe. It is not so far away, but I am not like to see him soon.
Pulling on his cloak, Jennion steeled himself to go outside. It was his wont, after completing his morning’s work, to climb one of Winterfell’s two curtain walls and walk its circumference. Grandmaester Ayron had drilled into him the importance of regular exercise ever since he’d gone into the old man’s service at the age of three-and-ten. Every morning for years, after breaking their fast, he had escorted the grandmaester around the grounds of the Citadel. Every day they had done it, come rain or shine, right up until the week of Ayron’s death, slipping away quickly from a chest cold. Jennion could not say whether he kept the practise out of respect for the old man, or simply out of habit, but he thought wryly that even Grandmaester Ayron might have balked at some of the weather they were exposed to up here.
The inner wall was more than a hundred feet high, and the wind up there was bitter, knifing through his fur-lined cloak and woollen small clothes as though they weren’t there. It was a shorter walk than the outer wall, however, which looped out and around the godswood, and today was not a day to linger out of doors.
As he walked, he thought about the subject of his morning’s study. Jennion had earned the copper link of his chain some four or five years ago, and had since forgotten many of the finer details of the northmen’s history. Now that it was his responsibility to continue the Starks’ education, he had found himself in need of a little further study himself. And so as the snow fell lightly on his head and the wind tried to freeze his flesh he thought of Starks gone by, old kings of winter, the Wall and the men of the Night’s Watch, the various marriage alliances made between the noble northern families.
Little Rickon was an interesting addition. Since their return to Winterfell, the Starks had searched tirelessly for their little brother, but when his wildling protector’s body had turned up in the woods near Maidenpool everyone had believed him dead. Part of him did die, Jennion reflected, or at the least has been buried. The Starks were the most ancient of the great houses of Westeros, tracing their decent all the way back to the First Men, but while Sansa and Brandon were the very model of northern nobility, there was little of that in Rickon.
It was probably not too late to correct his manner of address, but Rickon’s speech was the least of Jennion’s concerns, based on what he had witnessed last night. The boy had been happy enough throughout the feast, but when it came time to put him to bed he had refused to be parted from the Brother who had brought him north. The disturbance he had caused had been quite enough for Jennion to administer the boy a small cup of dreamwine.
The memory caused his thoughts to return to the identity of the big Brother, and Lady Sansa’s reaction to him, and he thought on that for the remainder of his walk. Later, as he descended the steps from the curtain wall down into the bailey, Jennion saw Lady Sansa emerge from the stables and walk to the small sept that sat nestled between the walls of the Great Keep and the inner curtain wall. Jennion frowned. The roof of the sept had partially collapsed and had not yet been repaired. Lord Stark had put it low on the list of priorities because no one used it this far north – the last Lord Stark had built it for his Tully wife, Jennion had learned, but none of the surviving children seemed to follow their mother’s faith.
Too much curiosity will see you to a bad end, Jennion thought as he reached the bailey floor and followed Lady Sansa into the sept.
There was snow on the floor by the Maiden’s altar, a small drift that went to her knees, but despite that it felt blessedly warm out of the wind. There was a queer ethereal light in there too, and when Jennion looked up he saw that the hole in the roof where the thatch had collapsed had been plugged by snow.
Lady Sansa looked up as he entered, and rose to greet him. “Maester Jennion, this is an unexpected pleasure.” For once, she did not look as though she meant the words she spoke.
“May I sit with you, my lady?”
“If it please you.”
The sept was so small that there was not space enough for benches by each of the altars. Instead a single, circular bench had been made at the centre. Lady Sansa sat facing the Crone. Coming to sit beside her, Jennion found himself facing the Father.
“I did not know that you kept the southron faith, my lady,” Jennion said. He studied her face as he spoke. She looked troubled.
“I... have not prayed to the Seven in many years, but as a child I honoured both my parents’ gods.”
“Something has brought you back to your mother’s faith,” he observed, allowing his tone to make it the faintest hint of a question.
“Yes, I...” she fell silent, seeming to lose her train of thought. “Forgive me, Maester. I did not expect anyone to be here.”
Jennion frowned, starting to become concerned. “May I assist you in any way, my lady?”
He half expected her to ask him to leave her in peace, but after a moment she looked up and pinned him with her gaze. “I have done something awful,” she said. “Have you worked out the true identity of our guest?”
“I have my suspicions,” Jennion said cautiously, thrown by the sharp turn in her conversation.
She nodded. “He was not Brother Sandor when I knew him, but the Hound. You have heard that name, I can see, but half the stories are untrue. He was neither evil nor craven, but he was... difficult. Angry. He was Joffrey’s sworn shield, he... Seeing him again has brought back many memories I had thought forgotten.”
Jennion remained silent, waiting for her to continue. For several heartbeats all she did was look up at the Crone. When she spoke again her voice was barely above a whisper.
“In his presence I feel a child again, frightened and helpless. It is an awful feeling.” She looked back at Jennion, grief writ large across her face. “Do you believe the gods can redeem a man?”
“So the Septons teach us,” Jennion replied. He had never found much solace in the Seven himself.
“Sandor Clegane went to the Quiet Isle because he sought redemption, and I have made him break his vows. I did not intend to make him speak. I don’t know why I did it, and he does not love me for it, I know, but I cannot say that I am sorry for it either. And yet in the eyes of the gods it is another sin laid against his soul, and it is my doing.”
She spoke softly, though Jennion had never seen her so agitated. “If Brother Sandor broke his vow of silence, it can only be his own doing, and no fault of yours,” Jennion said, trying to console her.
“No, you do not understand,” she said, hands clenched into fists in her lap until the skin went white around the knuckles.
“Tell me, then, what did you speak of?” he asked, attempting a different tack.
“Nothing. Nothing important. It was not the words...” She stopped and inhaled deeply, and Jennion watched curiously as she collected herself. “I asked him to explain why he had come to Winterfell, what he intended to do now that he was here, how he came to be a holy brother.”
“And did he tell you?”
“Yes,” she said, an odd smile touching her lips but not reaching her eyes. “His Septon has sent him here to join our household, to do whatever we wish of him.”
“Not the usual penitent’s path,” Jennion observed.
“No,” she said simply, and stood and smoothed her skirts, all traces of her previous distress disappeared. “You must excuse me, Maester, I have kept you too long. We both have duties to attend to that are far more important.”
She was gone before he could reply, sweeping out of the tiny septry and into the cold, her passage stirring the snow at the Maiden’s feet. Jennion sat in silence and stared up at the wooden faces of the gods, lost in thought.
Chapter 8: Arya
She lifted her head and howled, the voices of her little grey cousins joining hers in the night. Around them, the forest was full of smells, thick green pine and light watery snow. A musky-warm doe scent caught her attention, and she turned her head that way, but her belly was full from the boar they had brought down earlier, and she had a different, stronger scent to follow. She struck out, her pack behind her, their pelts and eyes flashing in the moonlight.
Arya awoke kicking her legs as though trying to run. It was the tenth night in a row she had dreamt herself a wolf, but that meant little and less now she was back in Winterfell. Here, the dreams came more regularly than they ever had before, and Arya would not complain because the alternative was usually something unpleasant.
It was also the tenth morning in a row she had awoken to find Sansa already gone. Arya was prone to oversleeping, it was true, but usually Sansa could be relied upon to fuss over her hair and clothing for long enough to allow Arya to catch her up in the mornings.
As she wrapped a shawl around her bedgown to return to her own bedchamber, Arya saw the letter Sandor Clegane had brought for Sansa lying open on her dressing table, Old Nan’s carved bone knife lying across one edge to keep it flat. Sansa had been reading it again last night, gods knew why. Does she think the meaning will have changed if she checks it again? No chance of that. Despite her objections, Bran had said Clegane could stay as long as he liked, and the letter made it clear he wouldn’t be leaving of his own accord.
What does he want? She glanced over the letter again briefly, blunt hand-writing and blunter words.
...I once had the pleasure of meeting Brienne of Tarth when she visited the Quiet Isle some few years past. I hope she will forgive me when the news of Sandor Clegane’s reappearance arrives in King’s Landing. However, what I told her then and what I write you now remains true: the Hound is dead. Brother Sandor walks the penitent’s path, and I have sent him to you in the hopes that he may atone for the sins he has done you and your family. He has put himself under your command, until such time as he has repaid his debt of the soul in the eyes of the Seven. May his service bring him the peace he seeks.
What would this Elder Brother think, if he knew Brother Sandor the penitent had broken his vow of silence before even a full day had passed? Sansa said that was her fault, but Clegane hadn’t been sorry enough to go back to being silent, and that was all Arya really needed to know.
Didn’t take him long to get his hands back on a sword, either, Arya thought as she crossed the yard. Beside the armoury Clegane was sparring with Bors Greenleaf. It was at Bran’s instruction, but he didn’t exactly look sorry for it. What skills have you, that we might make use of you? Bran had asked him. Killing, Arya thought bitterly, and getting drunk. Bran had made him something akin to master-at-arms for the nonce, something Sandor Clegane had taken to with unseemly enthusiasm for a man supposed to have foresworn violence.
Rickon was bothering the masons again. Arya Underfoot, Fat Tom used to call her, but she reckoned she’d never been as bad as her brother was now. He was perched halfway up the great wooden structure they had erected to lift the masonry up to the top of the library tower. Next to him, one of the master mason’s journeymen was seeing the blocks into the correct place, but had to stop every few seconds to yank Rickon back as he leaned out to peer over the edge.
It took some time to call him down – the boy could be very disobedient when he chose it. Eventually she got him, and cuffed him lightly on the head. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Rickon slumped sullenly. “Don’t see why I couldn’t stay up there. Don’t see why I have to listen to you all the time.”
“Because the Starks respect their elders,” Arya said, with a level of dignity she felt even Sansa would be proud of. “Anyway, didn’t anyone ever tell you how your brother broke his back?”
“He weren’t as good a climber as me.”
“Wasn’t. And no, he was better, but that didn’t count for much when someone decided to push him off the top of the Broken Tower.”
She pitched her voice so that it sounded like a threat, and Rickon gaped at her.
“You leave the masons be,” she continued. “They’ve got hard enough work to do without little boys getting in the way.”
“I’m nearly ten,” he said, kicking at a snowdrift, then brightened again almost instantly when he saw where they were going. “Is it time for sword practice?”
The first time they had done this, Arya had wrapped Rickon up in so many layers of padding he’d looked like a fat little hen with two spindly legs sticking out the bottom. He’d quickly noticed that Arya and the others wore far fewer layers, though, and since then had refused to wear any more than her. It meant he was constantly covered in bruises, but that didn’t seem to bother him much.
When she threw his wooden practice sword to him today he snatched it right out of the air.
“Swift as a deer,” he grinned happily.
“We shall see,” Arya said, and started her attack. It had been hard, at first, to remember to go slow for him. Her own lessons with Syrio Forel seemed a lifetime ago, but his words were etched into her bones, so much were they a part of her. “Look with your eyes,” she sang out as Rickon moved his sword to block her, to find he had gone the wrong way. “You’re dead.”
Rickon was skinny and quick, and water dancing suited him well, as it had her. How old had she been when Jon Snow gave her Needle? Was it really the same age as Rickon? The boy was enthusiastic, and learning fast, but she wouldn’t trust him with naked steel for many years to come.
“You’re dead,” she said again, and Rickon made a grotesque sound and shuddered about like a mummer. Arya laughed, leaning on the hilt of her wooden sword as she caught her breath. “You enjoy dying far too much,” she said, pulling him up from where he had thrown himself, snow and frozen mud plastering his back.
“I don’t die near as much as I used to,” Rickon pointed out, and Arya agreed and corrected his stance, evening out his shoulders and strengthening his grip.
“You have to be strong as a bear, but quick as a snake. Again.”
They danced. At one point Arya slipped on a patch of ice, and though she spun quickly out of Rickon’s path, his haphazard attack landed a lucky hit on her rump. The crack it made across her leather breeches echoed loudly from the armoury wall, and someone started laughing.
“The she-wolf brought low by the wolf cub, now there’s a sight,” Sandor Clegane said, his voice like the rasp of steel on stone. “Didn’t know you had it in you to dance so prettily, but what’s the boy going to use dance lessons for?”
Arya glared at him. “Quiet you. I liked you better when you didn’t talk.”
“It’s water dancing, stupid,” Rickon joined in.
“And when some outlaw wants to steal your lordly possessions, you think you’ll stop him by dancing at him, boy?”
Rickon looked up at Arya uncertainly.
“Think you could do better?” she said hotly. “I bet I could beat you with just this wooden sword.” In truth, she wasn’t sure that she could. She had seen Syrio maim five Lannister guards with nothing more than she held right now, and they had had live steel. Sandor Clegane held only a blunted tourney sword, but she had seen him fight.
She rushed him before he could make a response, cracking him across the arm and spinning away before he’d even raised his sword.
“The she-wolf bites,” he said, grinning. It twisted the scarred side of his face to make him even uglier, but Arya did not focus on that. Instead she watched his eyes, waiting to see where he would strike.
Brienne said that there would always be someone out there stronger or quicker or just better than you, and it was best to meet them in practice first, or they would kill you in battle. They had sparred most every night on their way back to Winterfell, Arya’s Braavosi style and quick agility against Brienne’s Westerosi strength and reach. They had learnt much and more from each other. Men will always underestimate you, Brienne had told her. Their pride will make them want to vanquish you quickly. You must use that to your advantage.
Sandor Clegane had seen her fight, though, had dragged her from the Tickler’s body dripping in his blood, had shown her where the heart was. He did not underestimate her and did not try to vanquish her quickly. His movements were spare, economical, and his blows were heavy. He does not fight for glory, Arya thought as she danced backwards from a cut meant to disembowel her, he fights to win.
He was starting to get frustrated, though, that was clear enough. He did not like the way she danced away from his blows so that they failed to land, or only glanced off her boiled leather. He’s limping slightly, too. She remembered the gash on his leg from the inn at the crossroads, the ghastly smell of the wound when she had left him to die. He raised his sword to deal her a two-handed cut that would have opened her up from neck to navel, but even grown as she was Sandor Clegane still towered over her, and so it was easy to dash in under his arms and hit him hard over his bad thigh.
Clegane let fly a string of curses as he stumbled and Arya laughed. Bors Greenleaf was solid enough, but she had not had a fight like this since Brienne left to return to King’s Landing, and there was a certain joy in the rhythm and the movement of it. Smooth as summer silk.
“You should watch your tongue in the presence of a lady,” she said, dimly aware that a small crowd had gathered around to watch.
“You’re no lady,” he growled, and unleashed a furious attack that backed her up almost to the armoury door. He was even bigger and stronger than Brienne, and his blows, when they connected, were not easy to deflect. It took all of her skill, shifting her weight, dancing on the balls of her feet, to keep his sword at bay. She waited and watched his eyes for the right moment to duck beneath his reach again. Too late she noticed the hairline crack along the shaft of her wooden sword, and as she tried to turn his next strike, it splintered with a resounding crack.
It all happened very quickly, then. There was the flash of weak winter sun on a steel blade, the shouts of men and a boy’s shriek of fear. The smell of blood, a grunt of pain, the sound of swords clashing, and a throb in the back of her head that expanded sharply to engulf her in blackness.
Chapter 9: Sansa
The window clattered lightly against the wall as a gust of wind came in. Gilly had stoked the fire too high, and the cold air was pleasant in her over-warm room. The sun was shining and the air held a touch of warmth. This morning she had overheard the servants wondering if spring was coming, though that seemed premature to Sansa. Outside, she could hear the usual sounds coming from the yard, the distant shouts and clinks of the masons at work, the clatter of swords closer by.
Inside, Sansa was writing a letter to the Queen. Bran had taken over Winterfell’s official correspondence with the Red Keep, but this was a personal letter between friends. Pausing for a moment, Sansa wondered whether to make mention of Sandor Clegane. She had already written to Brienne, given the Elder Brother’s mention of her in his letter, and so Daenerys would certainly know of his presence here by now. And yet, what to say?
Sansa had barely spoken to him since asking him to break his vows in the gloom of the stables. Bran had made him master-at-arms, which meant he sat above the salt at dinner (though that meant little and less given their entire household filled but two of the Great Hall’s long trestle tables). He rarely spoke, however, and even then only to answer questions in the tersest form possible. During the day she hardly ever had cause to run into him, and when she did, she did not stop to make conversation. They had met in the covered bridge between the Great Keep and the Armoury one evening, and Sansa had remembered her courtesies and then left him as quickly as was polite. He had not attempted to keep her, though she thought she could feel his eyes following her out of sight.
A drop of ink fell from her quill onto the parchment with a splat, and Sansa tutted at herself. Septa Mordane had always said what excellent handwriting she had, how prettily she wrote her correspondence, but this was something worthy of Arya. Sighing, she rose to fetch another sheaf of parchment to start again.
That was when she heard it, a swelling of noise down in the yard, men’s voices raised in anger, and above that the high-pitched voice of a frightened child. Going to her window she saw four of the household guard wrestling someone to the ground, she saw Arya lying unmoving in the snow with Rickon kneeling at her side, and she saw Sandor Clegane on one knee, leaning heavily on his sword, his left side soaked in blood. Sansa ran.
Later, she sat by Arya’s bedside in the flickering candlelight and thought of her mother. After Bran’s accident, Lady Catelyn had not left his bedside for days on end. She had not slept. She had barely been able to say goodbye to her daughters when they left for King’s Landing. Sansa felt she better understood her mother’s mania now, desperation welling in her heart every time she looked at her sister’s pale face.
Maester Jennion said she would wake, that her brain had suffered a trauma when she hit her head, but that it was not like to be fatal. She lay now with a white linen bandage around her head holding a poultice of ice over the wound, a lump the size of an egg. When the swelling goes down, she will wake, he had said, but he had not said when that would be.
Sansa took Arya’s hand and pressed her lips to it and prayed silently to the old gods of the north and the new gods of her mother both.
“Thought I’d find you here,” a voice rasped from the doorway. Sansa closed her eyes for a heartbeat, before turning to look.
“Forgive me, Brother Sandor, I did not hear you knock.”
He ignored her, moving uninvited to sit in a chair on the opposite side of Arya’s bed, and Sansa suspected that he had not knocked at all.
“That’s the second time I’ve struck her over the head,” he said, nodding at Arya. “She’s not like to thank me this time, either.”
“Arya hit her head on the armoury door,” Sansa said.
“It was me that pushed her into it,” he replied.
“You were protecting her. I thank you.”
He smirked at her, the candlelight making grotesque shadows on his face. “You’re a better liar than you were before, little bird, I’ll credit you that.”
Don’t call me that, she meant to say, but the words froze on her tongue. He was looking at her as he had done in the stables, like she was water in the Dornish desert. She looked away.
“How is your wound, Brother Sandor?”
He snorted. “It’s a cut. I’ve had worse.”
He was not being gallant, Sansa knew. The man who had attacked him had probably never held a sword before today. Just a common man from the Winter Town who had had a sister in Saltpans. He was in one of Winterfell’s dungeon cells now, a more comfortable night than her sister would be blessed with.
“You said this was the second time. When was the first?” she said after several long moments of silence, desperate all of a sudden for the distraction. He seemed to consider her for a long time before speaking.
“At the Twins, the night of the Red Wedding,” he said.
“You were there?” Sansa asked, shocked. “She had not told me that.”
“Aye, we were there, just in time for when the killing started. Had to hit her with the flat of an axe to stop her running in after that mother of yours.”
Partly, she supposed, it was shock. Partly it was because it was just so Arya. She couldn’t seem to stop herself – Sansa laughed. It passed quickly enough, but she felt better for it, afterwards.
“Thank you,” she said, “for looking after her.”
“I didn’t do it for her. I meant to sell her back to your brother,” Sandor said flatly.
“And afterwards, once the Freys had slaughtered him?” Can I find the good in you, as Elder Brother did?
“Afterwards I was going to take her to the Vale to ransom to Lady Arryn, but I took a cut and the little bitch left me for dead on the roadside.”
“The Vale of Arryn?” Sansa asked, sobered. Did he know that was where she had been the whole time? We might have met after all, he might have- no. It served no purpose to think such thoughts again. She turned back to Arya.
The candle flickered, but the room was otherwise still. Sansa watched her sister breath, in and out, in and out, fighting back the exhaustion that had settled on her like a heavy blanket.
“Go to bed, little bird,” Sandor said eventually.
“I need to be with her when she wakes,” Sansa protested, though she knew her eyelids had been drooping.
“I’ll stay.” She looked at him. He had a dark look about him, as though he had been brooding, but he did not look tired. Her room was only half a turn up the stairs.
“I want to know immediately if anything should change,” she said, but got up and kissed her sister and went to the door. “Maester Jennion is in the room below.”
He nodded. Sansa hovered by the door, uncertain of what it was she wanted to say to him. In the end she settled for, “Thank you,” for the third time that evening.
Chapter 10: Arya
Arya groaned when she opened her eyes, the light searing her brain like a hot knife.
“Wouldn’t try to sit up if I were you,” a familiar voice warned her. She turned her head to look at him, and even that small movement sent sparks flying behind her eyes and wildfire through her brain.
“Strainner?” she tried, but her mouth seemed to be stuck down. Water was held to her lips, cool and sweet, and after a couple of swallows she tried again. “Stranger?”
Sandor Clegane snorted. “Not today, little she-wolf.”
“Not today,” she agreed. She closed her eyes and heard footsteps receding, then a moment later two pairs returning.
“Lady Arya, can you open your eyes?” That was the young maester. What was his name? His face swam before her, blurry. He pinned her eyelid back with his thumb and held a candle up to her face and it was like a needle through the eye.
“Pardons, my lady. Just a little test to find out...” his face and his voice fell out of focus again, and she closed her eyes only for a moment but when she opened them again dawn light was streaming through the cracks in the shutters and the only person in her room was Sansa.
“How long?” she croaked.
The bed dipped as Sansa sat on the edge by her side. “You were dreaming, Arya. There are no wolves in Winterfell, only Summer and Shaggydog.”
Arya squinted up at her sister, forcing her eyes in to focus. “You look tired.”
“You look worse,” Sansa replied gently, smiling.
“Was the... Clegane was here, before.”
“Yes,” Sansa said, and Arya noted distantly that she looked more than a little uncomfortable. “He watched over you when Bran and I could not.”
“Head hurts,” she complained. “That whoreson.”
She half expected a rebuke for her language, but Sansa merely stroked her hand, making soothing noises. With her eyes half-closed, Arya could almost believe it was her mother sitting there.
Maester Jennion came in soon after, with some strong-smelling unguent for her wound. He said the lump had gone down but to Arya it felt as though someone had shoved an orange through the back of her skull.
“There was a man! With a sword!” she said suddenly, as the maester cleaned and re-dressed her head.
“Aye, and now he’s a man in chains,” Jennion said.
“What did he want?” Arya asked.
“Vengeance,” Sansa said quietly. “He lost his sister and her children in Saltpans.”
“I thought Brienne said that was someone else.”
“Yes,” Sansa agreed. “The Queen gave Brother Sandor a posthumous pardon, but I can imagine that meant little and less to Jon Carter when he saw the Hound come back to life in Winterfell.”
“Is there to be a trial?”
“Yes, on the morrow.”
“Good. I’ll speak for Brother Sandor.”
No amount of argument would persuade her otherwise. When the following day came she dressed the part in a deep green gown of softest lamb’s wool, with red weirwood leaves embroidered on the bodice. It was her best dress, usually reserved for those occasions when Bran and Sansa united and insisted she must dress like a lady. Today no such pronouncement had been made, but she had in mind what her sister was always saying about meeting the smallfolk’s expectations.
She broke her fast in her room on barley broth and bread still warm from the oven, before descending to the Great Hall. Maester Jennion had come to help her, and he was a young man and strong, but half-way down she could not help wondering if Bran would consent to lend her Hodor for the return journey.
“Are you all right, my lady?” Jennion asked.
My head is pounding, and my legs seem to have forgotten how to walk. “Fine,” she answered, and if Jennion noticed it was said through gritted teeth he did not pass comment.
By the time they reached the Great Hall, Arya was greatly concerned that she may vomit. It was with relief that she sank into the chair placed for her in front of the dais, so that she could concentrate less on what her legs were doing and more on keeping her breakfast down.
On the dais, Bran sat in the great stone seat with Sansa on his right and Rickon on his left. Their direwolves sat at their feet, Summer calm and obedient, Shaggydog tense and occasionally snarling at the gathered crowd. Sandor Clegane sat below the dais as she did, staring out at the hall with hard, impassive eyes. The Great Hall was as full as it had ever been in recent years, people come to Winterfell from the Winter Town to watch the proceedings. It is entertainment to them, she thought, and had a momentary, sickening flash to the baying of the crowd at the top of Visenya’s Hill. No. Justice will be done here today.
Jon Carter was brought before them in irons, though the lack of chafed skin at his wrists told Arya they had only recently been put on. He looked rumpled and tired, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
Things went smoothly enough. Bran was well loved in these parts, and Sansa had done a thorough job of establishing his word as law once the Starks were reinstalled in Winterfell. The problem was Clegane. The rumour of his true identity had clearly gone around the Winter Town. He sat with his arms crossed over his chest, staring out at the smallfolk, his scarred face making him look as if he were glowering, even though he was not. They do not love him, and they do not blame Jon Carter for his actions.
Bran and Sansa must have realised this would happen, because even though it was not Sandor Clegane on trial, the call was made for his defenders to come forward. Arya stood and, supported by Jennion, made her way to stand before the dais.
“Who speaks for this man?” Bran asked.
“Arya, of House Stark, daughter of Eddard and Catelyn.” She forced herself to speak loudly so that they would hear her at the back of the hall, though it made her head pound fiercely. “This man saved my life twice during the war, once when I would have run into danger, and once when I was so sick with grief I did not want to carry on. He’s done terrible things, too – killed people, hurt them – but done on the order of his masters. I’m not saying that makes it right, but he is not the monster Jon Carter thinks him to be. It was not Sandor Clegane who sacked Saltpans. I know because I left him grievously injured not a week before. He couldn’t even sit a horse, never mind go burning and raping.” She turned to Jon Carter, standing apart in his iron manacles. “I’m sorry for your sister, truly, but the man who did it is not in this room.”
After that, Sansa stood and read a letter from Brienne, detailing how she had come across the outlaw Rorge wearing the hound’s head helmet, and the fate that had befallen him and it. When she had finished, Bran spoke directly to Jon Carter.
“I have told you this today, in front of witnesses from your town, so that you may fully understand your error. Your crime is not a grievous one, no one was permanently injured, but I will not suffer any member of my household to be attacked again. A choice is before you. Serve your penance, obey the law, and you may stay in the Winter Town. If you will not swear to keep the Queen’s peace, then I have no choice but to exile you from Winterfell and all its holdings.”
Carter agreed sullenly to the former and was escorted out to the godswood to make his vows in front of the heart tree. The spectators and the Stark household alike filtered out behind, until only Arya, Maester Jennion and Sandor Clegane remained.
“Don’t you say a thing,” she muttered, closing her eyes to stop the world from spinning.
“What’s there to be said after wordcraft like that?” he replied, and laughed, a deep rasping sound that resonated in the empty hall.
Chapter 11: Sandor
Sandor’s room was above the armoury. It was more generous than he had expected, given what he had been used to, containing a large featherbed piled high with furs, a fireplace, even a cupboard for his possessions. He had taken a vow of poverty on the Quiet Isle, and so none of the clothing within was his own, but it was colder than he’d ever known up here and the thick woollens and fur-lined cloak made a definite difference to a man’s comfort. Fed two hot meals a day, housed in softness and warmth. Is this really what you intended for me, Elder Brother?
The boy lord had insisted on paying him. We do not have slaves here at Winterfell, he’d said, sounding every inch his father’s son. Sandor did not know what Elder Brother expected him to do with his wage, and so he kept it at the bottom of the cedar chest that sat at the foot of his bed. I could run away, on that. Go to White Harbour, take a ship to some foreign hell-hole. It didn’t matter where, he thought, so long as it was far from here. When he’d taken his novice’s vows, he’d meant them, but the longer he spent here at Winterfell the further away the Quiet Isle seemed.
Since his arrival, Sandor had given much thought to the Elder Brother’s intent in sending him here, and had been able to come to no conclusions. He had barely known how to be a penitent on the Quiet Isle, where he was just a silent brother. Being a penitent in Winterfell when the whole castle now knew his sins seemed next to impossible. It made no matter. He was here; he had been given useful employment. He would follow orders, and keep the remainder of his vows as best he could. Dogged to the last, aye.
Every day he woke before sunrise and broke his fast on boiled eggs, bread fresh from the ovens and weak, watery ale. Sometimes they got porridge, or a broth of last night’s leftovers, but even with that it was meagre rations. Some kitchen scullion had seen meltwater dripping one morning from the icicles that bearded the kitchen doorway, and gone around telling everyone that spring was coming. Stupid little wench. An empty stomach would not turn the seasons any faster than the Queen’s dragons had, as much as they all may wish for it.
After eating he would go back to the armoury and start from where he’d left off the previous day. There was no smith at the castle, which meant no new steel, and yet no one had thought to care for what was left to them. The armoury, like the food stores, was running disastrously low, though it mattered little for the nonce with so few men to wield the weapons. Ser Stafford Lannister, who he’d squired for as a youth, had often been heard to say a castle unprepared was a castle ripe for invasion. Words were wind, especially where a man like Lannister was concerned, but the armoury at Casterly Rock had certainly never found itself in such a sorry state. If they survived the winter, they might well have need of these weapons.
The blades were well made, at the least, and very few were spotted with rust despite their lack of use. He oiled and sharpened them on the big whetstone at the back of the armoury, longswords and dirks alike. It was good work. Restful, in its way. It made him itch for a greatsword in hand and a foe in front.
As the sun rose higher up the sky he would usually go out to the yard to train. The crannogmen were not at home with longswords, the long weapons difficult for them to wield being near as tall as some of the frog men themselves. When the tedium of quick, easy victories overcame him, Sandor relented and passed them ordinary swords instead, and started the task of undoing all the bad habits of the self-taught. He looked forward to the day the she-wolf was back on her feet, though, so they could finish what they had started.
There was a fierce little fighter. He remembered her well from the riverlands, a dirty, skinny bag of bones, half-starved and full of loathing for just about everyone who crossed her path. She was taller now, of course, of a height with her sister but still slim as a reed and boyish. Not like to draw the suitors in, that one, though it was clear the guard captain was nursing a passion for her. She was still bed bound, however, spending most of her days sleeping off her injury. Sandor had heard it said that a man could only take so many blows to the head before it started to get to him, though he had taken enough himself to know the she-wolf was not there just yet.
In her absence he had gone back to instructing Rickon. He had begun to tutor the boy on their journey north, with swords made from sticks and hardened in the fire. Now that he could talk to the boy, Sandor wagered it wasn’t too late to teach him to fight properly. He was so like Arya had been it was almost unnatural, but where dancing around might suit a woman who would always be slight of frame, the boy would one day be a man and the lord of Winterfell, if Sandor understood correctly. He must be able to wield a longsword.
One afternoon the boy lord Brandon had summoned Sandor to the Great Hall to ask what he thought about training up some of the orphans from the Winter Town, to swell their ranks before winter’s end. Sandor said he would do so when and only when the castle had a smith again.
“You’re fast running out of unnotched blades,” he said, “and you’ve barely enough armour for the men you already have. Training a bunch of mewling striplings will not improve the situation.”
“I can send out ravens,” the boy said, though he looked somewhat doubtful to Sandor’s eye.
“What about your maester there?” he said, pointing at the young man who sat at a small wooden table to Bran’s left, quill and parchment in hand. “He’s got his pale steel ring, unless my eyes deceive me.”
The boy looked at his maester questioningly.
“Your eyes do not deceive you, Brother Sandor,” the maester said, though Sandor was pleased to see his habitual smile had been wiped from his face. “Pale steel is for smithing,” he explained to the boy.
“Would you be able to train someone? The war has left many boys alone and in need of skills and a trade.”
“It is not something that can be learned overnight, my lord,” the maester said, but when he caught sight of Sandor’s face he hurried to add, “but I will do my best, of course.”
The boy lord was not so bad, as lords went, and he was not afraid to look Sandor in the face as the other castle folk were. But he was a cripple who needed to be carried about in a basket on another man’s back... Sandor could not respect him. Nearly a man grown and never held edged steel. And yet, it mattered little. He was here. He would do as he must.
Once the sun had set, all useful work came to a halt. Most afternoons, Sandor took an oil lamp and made his way to the hot springs in the godswood. Oftentimes, on his return, he would visit the sept and sit in the tiny, freezing room staring up at the Warrior, the Crone, sometimes even the Father. He would try to pray, his mouth forming the shape of the words he had learned, but in the end his eyes always drifted to the Stranger, the only one of the seven wooden faces that had ever made him feel anything. Eventually, he stopped going.
He ate dinner in the Great Hall, the Stark household so pitifully small that it failed to fill two trestle tables. He had the very great honour to sit on the higher of the two, with the four Starks, their maester, the captain of the guard Bors Greenleaf, and a small number of other household retainers, such as Tom Kale the master of horse, one-legged and blind as a bat. It was not the old horse master that held his attention, however.
She had always looked beautiful by firelight, the flames catching and setting off her auburn hair. He would watch her in silence as she made conversation with the others at their table, occasionally looking his way though never addressing him directly. He sat himself at the far end of the table from her, so that she would not have to – he had few courtesies to offer, but that he could do.
Look away he would not, however. She had asked it of him, and she could not take it back now. Like as ask him to stop breathing. He had always taken everything she was willing to give, sometimes more than she had willed, and now as before he took it all, her words, her looks, her smiles, and held onto them tight-fisted.
Sleep did not come easy without a flagon of wine to ease his passage, and like as not his thoughts would return to her. In King’s Landing he had thought he’d known her ways, her words, her secrets. But five years had passed since the Battle of the Blackwater when he had fled, drunk and fearful, and failed to take her with him. In that time she had become a woman. It was not just in body, though if possible she had become even more comely, grown in height and filled out in hips and teats. No, where she had grown the most was not visible to the eye, and in the deep dark of the night, a feeling like regret – like terror – gripped his stomach as he thought of the years that could have been his, and what they had contained instead.
Aye, but it’s not as though I meant to be her gallant knight, is it? He’d told her sister that he’d meant to have the little bird right there on her bed, but in truth, thought had not been involved that night. Drunk and half out of his mind, he had sought comfort in whatever way he could take it. But in the darkness of her chamber, with the stink of blood and fear in the air and green wildfire flashing in the sky outside the window, she had shamed him. He had not known it was still possible.
If I apologised, would that be enough for you, Elder Brother? If I knelt before her and begged her forgiveness, would you let me return? Somehow, he did not think so.
Brother Sandor walks the penitent’s path. But what did it prove, asking the faithless to keep faith? Asking a man like him to keep his vows, after the life he’d led? Pissing in the ocean doesn’t change the tides. Already he’d broken the vow of silence, the vow of nonviolence, and when he stroked himself to an empty completion thinking of her... it probably didn’t break the vow of chastity, but he wasn’t inclined to think on it too closely.
For most of his life, Sandor had lived by two very simple codes, the first: loyalty to the Lannisters, the second: be better than Gregor. He had once dreamed a little boy’s dreams of knighthood and valour and doing great deeds, but Gregor had stripped him of his naivety when he’d pushed Sandor’s face into the burning coals, and from then on he had kept his ambitions simpler. Casterly Rock had seemed like paradise after his childhood home, and it had scarce been a decision at all to throw himself entirely into the Lannisters’ service. For the longest time all he had wanted was to prove himself to them, to be the strongest, the most feared... I swore my sword to them and I did it gladly. And now I have seven vows instead.
Yes, the nights were long in Winterfell.
Some of those nights, the little Stark brat would stumble his way over to Sandor’s room. The first time, Sandor did not find out until he woke that morning sharing his bed with a small boy and an enormous direwolf. He had not shared his bed since his sister had disappeared, and the shock of it led him to curse so violently that the boy started crying and the wolf showed him its teeth.
Since then Sandor was more like to wake at the clicking of the door latch – if he carried the boy, he was usually asleep before they made it back to his room. The proctors preached that all children were beloved of the Seven, but mainly Sandor could not stand the sound of wailing.
One night he had been taking the boy back up to his bedchamber in the Great Keep when the direwolf had pricked his ears and growled at something in the shadows. A moment later the door below them opened.
“Shaggydog?” a voice called softly. “What are you doing out there?” Sansa Stark stepped out in her bed gown, a thick woollen shawl wrapped around her shoulders, face soft and flushed from sleep. When she saw him she blinked in surprise.
“Brother Sandor. Is something wrong? Is Rickon-?”
“He’s asleep,” Sandor cut in, before she could start to worry. “Sometimes he wanders to my chamber at night.”
She climbed the steps between them and peered into Rickon’s face, resting slack on Sandor’s shoulder, before opening the door to the boy’s room and preceding them in.
“Why would he do that?” she asked, frowning. “Arya and I are only half a turn down the stairs.”
“Perhaps your pretty manners scare a boy who’s lost everything familiar to him,” Sandor said. That might have upset her, once. Now, she simply looked at him, an expression he could not decipher.
“You should bar your door, if he has been disturbing you,” she said, as Sandor lay the boy down on his bed.
“Think that will make him more like to come to you, little bird?”
“I think it will make you more like to sleep peacefully, Brother Sandor,” she said, her courtesies polished but cool. “Forgive me, I have kept you from your bed long enough on a cold night like this. I thank you for taking care of Rickon. Good night, Brother Sandor.” She sat on the edge of the bed with her back to him, and with that, he was dismissed. Once outside, he stood beside the closed door, for a moment dumbly unable to move, listening to the sound of singing coming muffled through the thick oak.
She did not speak to him often, but he watched her. Watched her as she flitted from kitchen to cold store to Winter Town, such a busy little bird. Watched her filling her afternoons with embroidery and correspondence and walks in the godswood. Watched her sit wordlessly by her brother as he presided over his petitioners. A lady without a castle, he realised, with too little to fill her day.
She would have been heir to Winterfell, before Sandor returned Rickon to them. Now, she was just a castellan whose charge had outgrown his need of her. She will marry soon, he thought. Sandor’s father had been a solitary man who had struggled to find common cause with his noble wife, but even he had known enough to understand that a woman needed her own household to run. She will marry soon, he thought again, though it brought him no pleasure.
Chapter 12: Sansa
Sansa awoke on a gasp, a wordless cry that seemed suddenly loud in her quiet bedchamber. It seemed that recently she could not sleep for dreaming, and though she had never been one for lolling about in bed as Arya did, she often felt her tiredness settle on her shoulders like a heavy cloak.
Her dreams were not of Joffrey nearly so often now, and for that she supposed she should be grateful. But in their stead her mind had taken her back to the dreams she had sometimes dreamed in the Vale, warm and safe as she was like to get sharing Randa’s bed.
Why do you cry out so, sweetling? Randa had asked once when Sansa woke them both. All this moaning and wriggling around... I hope it was a pleasant dream. The words were kindly meant, intended to make her laugh or blush and forget her distress, but instead Sansa began weeping.
She felt like doing so again now. It was not that the dreams were particularly horrible, but they left her disturbed and confused, part of her wishing to return for more. It is only because he is here in Winterfell, she told herself.
She had first dreamed of him in that manner on her journey to the Eyrie with Petyr, sleeping in that old keep on the Fingers. Her wedding had been horrible and it was natural to look back on that night now that she was free, she told herself. As to why she had replaced her grotesque husband Tyrion with an equally unappealing figure she could not say.
That had not been the last of it. Petyr had promised her rescue, but instead of respite from the constant fear and misery of King’s Landing, he had simply moved her from the viper’s nest into the bear pit. As the strain and tension of her days increased, so did the intensity of her dreams. A good thing Randa showed me how to deal with that, Sansa thought as she disrobed and ran the washcloth down her face and neck. She shivered as the cloth scraped lightly over her breasts, and lower down, as she washed between her legs, she lingered for a moment, wanting. But no. She was not living as some baseborn girl anymore, giggling under the covers with her mistress. She was the lady of Winterfell, until one of her brothers married, and what Randa had shown her was most definitely not ladylike. Not to mention that Arya was just over there, still sleeping.
She finished washing with brusque, perfunctory strokes and dressed quickly. Daylight was starting to creep around the gaps between the tapestries and she went to the window. Enclosing herself in the small space between tapestry and shutters so as not to disturb her sister, she opened the window and closed her eyes at the gust of cold air that caressed her face, breathing deeply. Outside, the sky in the east was just starting to turn from deepest blue to pale gold, though stars were still visible in the west. Lights shone from the windows of the armoury and the kitchen block, but the castle was otherwise quiet and still.
There had been a light snow in the night, she saw, the rooftops glittering fresh white. The snow that had melted yesterday would most likely be frozen hard beneath it. I must remind Old Sam to put fresh gravel down on the walkways. The wind gusted again and something caught her eye. Leaning out of the window, Sansa looked at the granite wall of the Great Keep and saw a long green stem growing from between two blocks of masonry, a single white flower at its tip. A winter daisy. Maybe it was true what the servants were saying, that spring was on its way. Old Nan used to say the first flower of spring brought luck to the maid who plucked it. Though she was past believing in Old Nan’s stories, she reached down and pulled the flower from the brickwork, and took it to press between two sheaves of parchment. Maester Jennion will want to see it, I am sure.
The discovery helped lighten her mood, and the afternoon saw her in the godswood to give thanks to the old gods. Snow never seemed to settle beneath the heart tree, despite the loss of its thick canopy of leaves. Its white branches reached into the sky like an old woman’s clawed hand, seeming to catch the snow as it fell, leaving the ground beneath clear. The thick moss where she knelt always felt warm to the touch, almost like the ground was a living thing, though she knew the heat came from the same springs that warmed the castle.
Looking up at the old face carved into the white trunk of the ancient weirwood, Sansa prayed for her father, who had liked to sit here by the pool to think. She prayed for her mother, and hoped that she had found peace at last. She prayed for her brother Robb, her great-uncle Blackfish, her aunt Lysa, her cousin Robert... she even prayed for Petyr, though she did not think the gods would grant him rest.
Pray for the dead at winter’s end, pray for the living at start of spring. Old Nan’s words came back to her, though she had only been a small child at last winter’s end. And so she prayed for herself, too, though her belief in the gods’ ability to affect any change in the world of men had withered many years past. She prayed that her chance might come to take up the position Jon had suggested, though if spring were indeed coming, then that would truly take a miracle.
She remembered her father bringing them all down here to observe the tradition, Sansa, Robb and baby Arya, her half-brother Jon Snow. I should not be hasty, the white raven has not yet arrived. But it would not hurt to pray.
The sun was setting when she heard the sounds of someone walking nearby. Bran liked to come down here, she knew, but Arya would just as soon go into the Wolfswood, Maester Jennion was a southron and the servants did not have time to visit during the day. Whoever it was did not approach her, however, the muffled crunch of their footsteps and the rustling of sentinel branches receding once more. Curious, she rose and followed.
It did not take long for Sansa to realise she was going towards the hot springs, and that gave her pause. Only Hodor really used them in winter, but he would be in the Great Hall with Bran now, surely. Quietly, she walked around to the thicket of sentinel pines that Theon Greyjoy had once hidden in to spy on her and Jeyne Poole. The trees grew so closely together just there that no sunlight reached the centre of the thicket and all the pine needles had died and dropped to the ground. They made a serviceable, if slightly prickly, blanket and Sansa crawled forward gingerly until she reached the middle, well-hidden but with a good view through the branches to the largest of the pools.
Lord Rickard Stark, her grandsire, had had a small stone hut built by the side of the pool, so that the family could bath without dirtying their clothes. A figure was in there now, undressing, though he had left his oil lamp outside the entrance and she could not see past it to identify him.
“This is most unseemly,” she whispered to herself, and was about to turn back when the figure emerged and Sansa found herself rooted to the spot.
It was Sandor Clegane, naked as his nameday. Sansa blushed furiously and lowered her eyes, then raised them again, unable to stop herself.
He stood with his unburned side to her, bathed in the light of the setting sun as it filtered through the empty branches of the trees. Even unburned, he would not have been a comely man, but the warm light seemed to have a softening effect on his strong nose and hollow cheeks, making him... not unpleasant to look at.
He stretched then, raising his arms above his head and Sansa watched his muscles move beneath his scarred skin with close attention. He was a very strong man, that she had always known, but seeing him now, like this, made it all the plainer. The muscles in his back and arms were defined in a way she had not seen before, the lamp light coming from behind him playing off the planes of his body. His thighs were thicker than her waist, she guessed, his buttocks... her mind skittered to a halt as her throat went dry and something warm throbbed deep in her belly.
She watched as Sandor stepped into the pool, letting out a groan as he submerged himself in the steaming waters. For several long moments he simply sat, massaging his right shoulder with his left hand, head tilted back against the edge, staring up at the sky. Sansa told herself she should stop intruding on his privacy and leave him be, but she was not so far away from where he was sitting, and the thought of him discovering her there was terrifying. So she stayed where she was, trapped, and watched him. I wonder what he is thinking about.
The answer to that became clear soon enough. She did not understand what he was doing, at first – he had stopped rubbing his shoulder and both his hands were beneath the water level, though the muscles in his right arm bunched periodically. Is he massaging his thigh? She had noticed that he walked with a slight limp now, but Sansa had not realised it pained him so much. Then Sandor groaned again, a deeper, more guttural sound than before that went right to her core.
“Oh,” she whispered. She felt too warm. The heat in her belly coalesced suddenly into a stabbing ache between her thighs and without thinking she pulled off her glove and pressed her hand there. She whimpered as a hot wave of pleasure bloomed, but her skirts were too thick and in the way.
Some men, the pious ones usually, will try to tell you only slatterns and whores take pleasure in a man’s body, Randa had told her once, the older woman’s words coming to her through the years, but a woman’s appetites can be just as great as a man’s. You simply have to know what you’re doing.
Kneeling back on her heels, Sansa shifted until her skirts came free. A twig crackled under her knee and she froze for a moment, heart pounding, but Sandor was too lost in his own pleasure to hear. Pushing a hand beneath her smallclothes she touched tentatively at that small, sensitive place she had first discovered in the dark of Randa’s bedchamber.
It felt good. More than good. Her eyes fluttered closed but she forced them open again, hungry for the sight before her. He had moved, turning to rest one forearm on the edge of the pool, head bowed and breath coming quickly as he stroked himself. The burned side of his face was towards her, now, but she found, to her surprise, that it mattered little. She had not seen a man do that to himself before, although of course she had heard it spoken of. She could not take her eyes away.
Her climax came on her unexpectedly fast, stealing her breath as she tried to remember not to cry out.
“Gods be good,” she whispered when she could breath again, her body still pulsing with pleasure. In the pool, Sandor’s whole body went rigid before he let out another groan, low and long, and Sansa watched transfixed as he found his completion. She brushed her sex once more and a shiver went up her spine.
She sent Alys to draw her a bath when she returned to her bedchamber. As she lay in the warm water Sansa wavered between shame at what she had done, and imagining what it would have been like to be in the hot pool with Sandor Clegane. The thought was both exciting and disturbing, the same way she had felt after waking from her dream this morning. Would he have wanted to kiss me again? In truth she could barely remember the kiss he had taken the night of the Blackwater. I'll have a song from you, whether you will it or no. His lips were partially gone in the burned corner of his mouth – she felt that she should remember what that felt like.
He is neither gentle nor gallant. I should not think of him in this way. Sansa knew better than to expect men to act like the true knights in the songs, and yet... She had desired his strength, his protection, once. She had no need of that anymore. He was a holy man now besides, and it would not serve to tempt the gods’ anger with impure thoughts about one of their own, and yet... she could not stop her mind from circling around the image of his naked body, the way the lamplight kissed the muscles of his back.
When the idea first came to her, it was so shocking she froze with her hairbrush mid-stroke, staring wide-eyed at her reflection in the looking glass. Sansa immediately dismissed it, but once thought it could not be un-thought. At dinner that night she barely ate, her stomach sour and clenched with the enormity of it, hardly daring to raise her eyes in case she looked at Sandor Clegane.
“Are you well?” Bran asked her in a low voice, leaning over as the trenchers were being removed.
“Yes, thank you. A little tired, perhaps.”
She had thought to leave the table earlier than she was accustomed and escape to the Bower for some quiet embroidery, until Rickon reminded her it was her turn for the evening’s tale. The boy loved stories, and Sansa and Bran had conspired to begin a gentle initiation to his education in this manner. Tonight she was supposed to tell the tale of King Torrhen, the King Who Knelt, but when she opened her mouth what came out was a song.
The Great Hall had fallen silent by the time she had finished, and Sansa smiled self-consciously to see old Tom Kale wiping a tear from his eye.
“It’s good to hear you sing again, Sansa,” Bran said.
“I liked that one,” Rickon said enthusiastically. “It was much better than boring old Bran the Builder. Can you teach it me? What’s it called?”
“The Tale of Florian and Jonquil,” Sansa said, and dared a glance at the far end of the table.
Sandor Clegane was gone.
Chapter 13: Sandor
“Brother Sandor, I would be honoured if you would sit by me this evening.”
Seven bloody hells, Sandor thought, glancing down at Sansa as they filed into the Great Hall for the evening meal.
“If it please my lady,” he said tersely. She smiled prettily for him. He looked away, scowling.
She had asked the same thing of him these last five nights, since he had left the hall in the middle of her song. He could not decide if her actions were related to his own, but the result was as good a punishment as she could have dreamt up.
He seated himself opposite her instead of beside her as requested, but she did not pass comment, only smiled at Rickon, seated to Sandor’s right, and started asking him how his sword practise had gone that day.
The little boy glanced warily up at Sandor before poking moodily at his spoon and muttering something that none of them could hear.
“I’m sorry, sweetling, I did not hear you,” Sansa said.
“I said I want Arya back!” the boy all but growled. “Brother Sandor’s mean, and he won’t even let me have a real sword.” Sandor’s mouth twitched in amusement.
“You think your sister will let you, boy? Even she’s not that stupid.”
“She’s better than you.”
“Rickon, that was extremely unkind,” Sansa chided. “Brother Sandor has been good enough to dedicate much of his time to your training.” When she looked up at Sandor, she was smiling faintly, eyes sparkling as though they were sharing a jape.
“Don’t see why I can’t say it true,” Rickon said.
“A noble lord should always show impeccable manners, especially in front of guests.”
Sandor snorted. “He’s too old to try filling his head with such lies.”
“See?” Rickon said to his sister, turning his cloak faster than a Frey.
“Lies, Brother Sandor?” she said, turning to him. “Surely all men must have aspirations, even if on occasion they fall short of the ideal.” Her tone was playful. Sandor bristled.
It had been the same way the previous nights, smiling and playing with him as though he were some great knight come to grace her table. He knew her to be aware of the truth, that was not what unsettled him. No, it was the change in her manner towards him. She wants something, he thought, not for the first time, but he could not yet see what.
“Have you learned nothing, girl? More men fall short than succeed, and most never make the effort in the first place. All men are beasts, inside, even your gallant knights and great lords.”
Infuriatingly, she laughed. “It would be sad indeed if that were true. But who am I to doubt your word? You have seen a great deal more of the world than me, I am sure.” Before he could respond she had turned back to her brother. “Rickon, you needs must apologise to Brother Sandor,” she said, but the boy’s reluctant and ungracious words were cut short by the arrival of the trenchers, brimming with watery stew, the odd chunk of vegetable from the glass gardens bobbing on the surface.
After the meal, the boy lord told the tale of how the Wall was won. Sandor waited and watched the little bird, and when the story was done he followed her out and up the stairs as she climbed the Great Keep to her Bower.
“Brother Sandor,” she said, smiling when she saw him, “may I be of some service to you?”
“Yes,” he said, and dragged her roughly into a disused bedchamber. There were no tapestries in there, the shutters half-burned and hanging off their hinges, and several of the diamond-shaped panes were sitting empty in the window. The wind whistled through them, vicious and icy cold. Sansa pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
“What game are you playing?” Sandor demanded angrily.
“Game, Brother? I do not understand.”
“Do you take me for a fool, girl?”
“No, Brother, pardons. Have I given some offence?”
Her eyes had always been so wide and innocent that seeing the lie in them was no difficult thing. Now, he looked at her face, her expression of polite enquiry, and realised he could see nothing but a wall of courtesy, impenetrable as armour.
“What happened to you?” he growled. A look of confusion flickered across her face. Genuine, he thought. “What, no pretty words for me, little bird? ”
“I... I do not understand. Nothing has happened to me.”
Sandor snorted and turned away, pacing across the empty room, still angry but for another reason now. Ashes swirled around his boots, rising like smoke. Everything has happened to you! he wanted to snarl. She was not the same girl he had known in King’s Landing, but some strange, shuttered, calculating creature that would have fit in at Cersei’s court far better than Sansa Stark ever had. When he’d first come north he had expected her to be cold to him – it was no less than he deserved – but her reserve was difficult to know how to take. In time, Sandor had come to understand that she was now a woman who showed little on her face that she did not wish to put there. Hadn’t he once encouraged her to become so? But then why, now, show him such warmth?
“Do you know the stories they tell about you in the riverlands?” he asked.
“Yes, some of them.”
“They say you and that dwarf husband of yours poisoned Joffrey. That you escaped through sorcery.”
“Queen Daenerys annulled my marriage to Tyrion,” she said, and that only infuriated him further.
“That’s not an answer.”
“Forgive me, but you did not ask me a question.”
“Where did you go?” His hands itched to shake her until the words fell out.
She looked at him for several heartbeats before lowering her eyes. The words, when she spoke, sounded reluctant. “It is true that I left King’s Landing the night of Joffrey’s wedding, but I did not do it through sorcery, and I did not have a hand in his death. Petyr Baelish took me to the Vale of Arryn, by boat. I resided there with him for over a year until I... left. After that, I was sheltered by the sisters of a septry north of Duskendale, until Brienne of Tarth found me and brought me home to Winterfell.”
“Littlefinger?” Sandor sneered. “That would explain it.”
“I am no lord,” he growled, “and whatever game this is, I want no part of it.” He would have left then if she had not stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“Please, Brother Sandor. When you first arrived I did not act as graciously as was fitting. I hope you will forgive me. I wish only that we might be friends.”
He listened to her words in silence, and when she had finished he did not turn around, but continued through the door as though she hadn’t spoken. She wants something, he thought, not for the first time.
He went back to his room above the armoury and sat broodingly by the fire, scowling into the flames. What I wouldn’t give for a wineskin, he thought, fist bunched.
“Littlefinger!” he said aloud, spitting the word out like venom. He barked a laugh, short and bitter. Looked like that slippery bastard had found the most unlikely of apprentices in the naïve little bird. Now there was a new one for the singers. More than a year at the mercy of Lord Baelish. I should have taken her with me, kicking and screaming if I had to. I should never have left her for the likes of him. Whatever innocence the girl might have kept hold of in King’s Landing – and that depended on whether you believed the dwarf’s version of events with regards to his marriage – would most certainly have been taken by that whoreson. Might be he hadn’t even had to force her, might be he’d simply manipulated her until she thought that was what she wanted. Might be she did want it.
He got up and paced angrily around the room. He had tried to take the she-wolf to the Vale and ended up stuck in that nowhere holdfast building a palisade wall for those ungrateful shits. He’d been that close, though. Had he even been and checked on the pass himself? Might be he could’ve got through it, instead of trusting the word of a bunch of piss scared villagers.
And then what? he asked himself.
And then I would’ve shown her what it was to have a real man.
He stopped by the window, threw the shutters open, breathed in air so cold it felt like a knife in the chest. Seven hells, he thought. I am not my brother. She was better off in the Vale than with the likes of me. At least the war never made it there.
He suddenly felt confined, his generous room suffocatingly small. Donning his cloak he stormed out, down the steps through the armoury, and out into the yard.
This deep in winter the castle was never free of snow, the drifts piling up against the walls, some of them higher than his head. Walkways had been dug clear and gravelled between the Great Keep and its surrounding buildings, and torches sat in sconces to light the way once the sun was set. No one but him used the sept, as far as he could tell, and the snow was knee deep at best. Sandor grabbed a torch from the end of the stable block and made his way over to the tiny building. Once inside, he knelt before the statue of the Maiden and tried to pray for forgiveness, but the words would not come. He remembered a girl singing the Mother’s hymn while he held a dagger to her throat, pale and terrified. What game are you playing?
When the torch began to burn low he made his way back to his room. He had not even removed his boots when Sansa Stark came running up the steps and caromed straight into him there in the corridor. He put a hand out to steady her, instinctive, though he was in no mood to continue their earlier conversation.
“Please, Brother Sandor, forgive the intrusion but is Rickon with you?” She was breathless and her cheeks were pink from the cold, he saw.
“No,” he said, taking his hand from her arm. It was somehow difficult, each finger resisting the motion.
“Damn it,” she cursed, and Sandor raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I was sure he would be here.” She made to run off again.
“Wait,” Sandor called before he could stop himself. “Where are you going?”
“To the stables. Bors is taking a party out to look for him.”
“And you intend to go with them?”
“It’s snowing,” she said desperately, and Sandor understood her. If the boy had been so heedless as to leave the shelter of the castle without proper provision, a snowstorm was more than like to kill him. He looked at her face, her distress making her more open than he had seen her since she came to him in the stables, some weeks ago now.
“Wait there,” he said, opening his door. When he came back out he threw the bundle to her and she shook it out, her expression questioning. “You’ll need that, if it’s snowing,” he told her.
She wrapped his cloak around her shoulders, fingers fumbling with the clasp in her haste. “Thank you,” she said, and when she turned to go back down the stairs, Sandor followed.
The boy lord sent his grey beast with them. Even Sandor was impressed with its ability to sniff out its brother through the snow, and an hour had not yet passed when they found the youngest Stark huddled with his direwolf in a hollow tree south and west of the Winter Town, not far from the road to Torrhen’s Square.
“You’re lucky it’s Lady Sansa who’s found you, and not Lady Arya,” Bors Greenleaf muttered darkly as he hauled the feebly protesting boy out of his hole.
Sansa crouched before him, her hands like claws around his arms. “Where were you going?” she said through teeth chattering with cold and rage and fear, shaking the boy with each word. “Where did you think you were going?”
Rickon looked at her blearily, exhausted from the cold, his direwolf whining at his heels. “I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed,” he said, and started to sob piteously.
Sansa looked torn between beating him bloody and smothering him in an embrace and so Sandor saved her the decision and hoisted the boy up into her saddle. A moment later, he lifted her up behind him, hands around her waist, when it became apparent she was too shaky to mount the horse herself. The cloak he had given her, which she had drowned in by herself, fit around the two of them comfortably.
The snow was coming down heavily now and it took them longer to make their journey back to the castle. They had been forced to slow to a walk by the time they finally straggled back through Winterfell’s tall oaken gate, snow settling on their shoulders and the horses’ flanks. Arya and Maester Jennion were waiting in the stables with blankets and hot wine. They took the boy straight to the kitchens to warm him.
As the household guard saw to the other horses, Sansa walked her palfrey into an empty stall, but otherwise made no move to dismount. Sandor went to her side, took one look at her face, and gently pulled her down.
She was shaking from cold, her body trembling as she tried to hold herself rigid against great convulsive shivers.
“Stupid girl, should have worn proper riding clothes,” Sandor said roughly as she fell limply against him. She was not even wearing gloves. Pulling his own off he took her hands in his and tried to warm them. They felt like ice, the skin white and bloodless.
“At l-least you g-gave me your cloak,” she stuttered, and then laughed, hysterical and trembly. Sandor did not know what she meant but it was clear the boy was not the only one in need of the maester’s attentions. Scooping her up he held her close, hoping the heat of his body would warm her some, and took her straight to the kitchen block.
Winterfell’s kitchens stood separate from the Great Keep, so that the family did not have to suffer the noise and smells such a place engendered. It was one of the few parts of the castle not heated by the hot springs, as the ovens ran all day and most of the night.
“My mother always said a mouthful of raw bread dough would see you right for a chill,” the cook was saying as Sandor entered. He went over to the iron range that lined near half the circular building, where Maester Jennion was pressing hot wine on Rickon. The boy himself was sitting in his smallclothes in a small copper tub filled with water, just beginning to steam from the hot coals arranged around the base.
“Oh dear, another one?” the maester said, as Sandor deposited his charge on a wooden stool.
“I’m fine, Maester Jennion, really,” Sansa said faintly.
“This one didn’t dress properly for the cold, in her haste to be after the boy,” he said. Rickon looked up at him white-faced, his eyes rimmed with pink.
“I d-didn’t think anyone-”
“No, you didn’t think, idiot boy,” Sandor snapped. “Winter kills more people than war, did you know that? You think your family spent two years looking for you, just for you to get yourself frozen to death?”
“He doesn’t understand,” the maester said as he wrapped a steaming cloth around his lady’s fingers. “The boy has not been used to seeking permission for his actions.”
“The next time-”
“Brother Sandor, please,” a soft voice interrupted. Sansa was looking up at him, shivering still and wincing at the maester’s attentions, but otherwise looking her more usual self – calm, utterly closed off. “There is no sense in scaring the boy. He has done that quite well enough for himself, I think.”
What game are you playing?
Sandor suddenly felt very tired. “As you say, my lady.” He turned to leave.
“Wait, Brother Sandor, your cloak,” she called after him.
“Keep it,” he rasped, and walked out.
Chapter 14: Arya
Arya had never seen the point of books. It seemed to her that they were either full of dusty old facts that only a maester could care about, or the type of stupid romances Sansa used to like. If you wanted to have adventures and learn about the world, Arya thought, you should get on your horse and just go. And yet here she sat, in Maester Jennion’s warm turret room, reading aloud from one of the innumerable scrolls he had stored in here while the library tower was being rebuilt.
That was the deal she had done with Sansa, when Brienne had brought her home. No dancing or sewing or singing, and she could train with the guard as much as she pleased, but she must continue her education until she knew her letters and numbers properly.
“That will do for now, my lady,” Jennion said from across a round wooden table scattered with sheaves of parchment and strange little devices. He passed her a blank parchment, quill and inkpot. “Now, copy the final paragraph... without blotting, if possible.”
Arya quirked a sheepish grin at him and took up her quill. Beside her, Rickon watched as she twirled it around her fingers before starting. He was quiet today, watchful. Since his disappearance, Bran and Sansa had decided that Rickon must be escorted around during all his waking hours, passed between his siblings, their maester and some of their more trusted servants and retainers. It was clear he did not particularly like it. But then, Arya thought, if he’s going to act like such a baby, what does he expect? Today, he was to spend his morning with her. Usually, she would have taken him down to the yard and taught him water dancing, but Maester Jennion said she wasn’t allowed to do anything like that until the lump on her head had gone down completely. So here he was in her lesson, despite the fact Sansa said he wasn’t ready to be schooled yet and didn’t have to do anything more difficult than kick his feet and look bored.
Arya sighed at her first inkblot, not two lines into the paragraph, and reached for the blotting paper. Rickon snickered and Arya glared at him.
“Think you could do better, do you?” she said.
“Don’t look that hard,” he replied.
“Doesn’t,” Arya and Maester Jennion corrected together. Jennion looked up from one of his instruments and without a word, passed Rickon a quill, shooting Arya a look of amusement before very pointedly going back to his own work. Following his lead, Arya went back to her handwriting, but watched Rickon from the corner of her eye.
He was looking at the quill like it was some strange, foreign object, holding it delicately and turning it round and around. After some time, he tentatively dipped it in the inkpot and brought the nib down on the parchment. Arya had to bite her lip to keep from laughing, because the boy was holding it in his fist like a spear, and not only had the ink spattered everywhere but the end of the quill had snapped clean off.
She watched as he looked guiltily up at the maester, who made a tsking sound but passed Rickon a fresh quill without further comment.
“Look, like this,” Arya said when she couldn’t stand it any longer, and moved his fingers around the quill until it sat more comfortably. “You know what your name looks like?”
She wrote Rickon across the top of his parchment in big letters, so that he could copy it. He wrote tentatively at first, the letters scratchy and uneven, but it was not long before he had filled the page with his name and was demanding more parchment from the maester.
“This is excellent work, my lord,” Jennion said. “Certainly no worse than your lady sister’s.” He smiled at her to soften his words, and Arya, who had been giving more attention to Rickon’s efforts than her own, examined her parchment and was forced to agree.
The following morning, Arya showed Rickon his numbers. The morning after that, she showed him how to write her own name, then Bran’s and Sansa’s as well. Rickon, who had seen one of Maester Jennion’s illuminated manuscripts, took particular delight in decorating the capital letters, turning the ‘S’ of ‘Sansa’ into a willow tree, the ‘B’ of ‘Bran’ into a tower. They were still at work when Sansa herself stopped by for her usual morning visit to Maester’s Turret, and Rickon was more than pleased to oblige when she requested that he show her his new skill. Their sister was delighted and, beaming, kissed Rickon on the cheek and told him how clever he was.
When it was time to go, Arya took her brother to the kitchens where Gilly would watch over him and Rickon could play with Young Sam. He had become uncharacteristically quiet once more and so Arya stopped just outside the kitchen door and crouched down before him.
“What’s troubling you?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, though it lacked the usual bite his sullen streaks could take. He looked at her uncertainly, eyes flickering to her face and then away again. “Just... is Sansa my mother now?”
Arya felt something hard form in her throat and had to swallow before she could get any words out. “Sansa’s your sister, Rickon. Like I am. She looks like our mother, I know, but Lady Catelyn’s dead.”
“Oh,” the boy said. He didn’t sound sad so much as confused.
“You only get one mother,” Arya added, thinking she understood. “But lucky for you, you get lots of brothers and sisters.”
Rickon still did not speak, just stared down at his feet, worrying a lump of gravel with the toe of his boot. Feeling a sudden surge of emotion for her lost little brother, Arya wrapped him in an embrace, quick and fierce, before sending him on into the kitchens.
She was still thinking on his words that afternoon, when she rode with Sansa to the Winter Town to hand out the week’s rations. Sansa did not like riding, and Arya was not yet allowed to, and so the pair of them shared the seat on the front of the cart while Bors and three of his men rode in escort.
“It should be you,” Arya blurted out as they trundled through the outer town to the market square.
Sansa turned to her, surprised. “I’m sorry?”
Arya bit her lip, but it was no good, she had already started and might as well finish. “It should be you sitting father’s stone seat,” she said. “It was you who re-planted the glass gardens, and brought the stone-masons north and... and worked out the food rations for everyone. It was you who taught me and Bran to write again before the maester came up. You made Winterfell home again. It should be yours.”
Sansa didn’t say anything for the longest time, her smile small and bittersweet. “Winterfell is Bran’s,” she said eventually, “and Rickon’s after him. You and I have grown up knowing we would one day have to leave Winterfell and call a new place home, just as our mother did, and her mother before her.”
It isn’t fair! Arya wanted to say. She loved her brothers, but Sansa was the eldest of her parents’ children still living, and though she had always known how much her sister had done for them all, she had not really thought about it until this morning. There was no good crying about it, though. Arya had seen enough of the world to know how little of what happened to people was fair, and this wasn’t Dorne, after all.
“Will you marry?” Arya asked, suddenly curious. She had never taken much interest in such affairs before – if marrying meant leaving her home then she meant never to do it – but she did know that Sansa had had several offers since her return to the north. “Alys said Tristian Bolton cried himself to sleep when you refused him the last time.”
“And how would Alys know that?” Sansa asked, her smile becoming a little broader.
“Her sister’s husband’s brother is a stableboy at the Dreadfort. She said he said there wasn’t a single rat in the dungeons that didn’t know when Bran’s letter arrived.”
“Is that so,” Sansa said, laughing. People had always said Sansa was beautiful, but Arya thought it most true when she laughed like that, something so very rare and free about it.
“You’re very beautiful,” Arya said.
“Thank you!” Sansa said, her laugh becoming a touch embarrassed.
“All I meant was-”
“I know,” Sansa interrupted, sobering. “I may marry, Arya, but if so, it will be to a man of my own choosing.”
Arya nodded, and chewed on her lip some more. “I hope you don’t go too far away,” she said a moment later. She could still remember her father’s voice: when the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. She did not want them to become so scattered ever again.
“You have my promise,” Sansa said, and Arya thought she caught a glimpse of something in her sister’s eyes, something secret and knowing. It was gone before Arya could order her thoughts, however, and then it was time to jump down and begin handing out food and marking off names.
She remembered it, though, and thought on it much. It felt odd that Sansa might have secrets she was keeping from the rest of them. Not like what happened during the war – they none of them spoke much about it, but Arya never thought of their individual stories as secrets exactly. This was different.
Arya resolved to watch her sister more closely, and that was how it was she came to notice Sandor Clegane’s new position of favour at the dinner table. When had he moved to sit by Sansa? She could not remember. Surely Sansa would not have invited him to sit by her, but he had always seemed perfectly contented to isolate himself at the end of the table and glower at his food undisturbed.
In bed that night Arya worried her lip until it felt sore, before finally asking, “Why does Clegane sit by you now?”
The room was lit only by the dying light of the fire, but Arya was nonetheless convinced that Sansa blushed.
“I asked him,” Sansa said after a pause that seemed to stretch into many heartbeats. “As a guest, it is my duty to make him welcome at our table.”
Arya thought that Sandor Clegane had been with them long enough by now that the time for such things was well passed, but she did not voice her misgivings. Sansa rolled over, putting her back to Arya, but Arya lay for many more heartbeats, staring into the dark of Sansa’s bedchamber.
Two days later, Maester Jennion finally agreed that she was fit to ride and Arya announced that she was going to the Wall to visit their half-brother Jon Snow.
“The Wolfswood will provide sufficient shelter until I reach Last River, and Jon said he would send an escort from there, if ever I wanted to visit.”
“Arya, this is madness,” Bran said. “What if it snows again? The white raven has yet to appear, despite the rumours going around the castle.”
“If it’s bad when I reach the river, I’ll turn back, I promise. I’ll even take a couple of ravens with me if it please you, but I can’t bear to stay cooped up here like a hen for another day.”
Bran looked to Sansa, who sighed. “Arya has been into the Wolfswood before, in conditions worse than this. She knows how to survive,” Sansa said. When Bran still did not look convinced of the wisdom of it, she added, “Perhaps if she took someone with her?”
“Sandor Clegane,” Arya said quickly. “I’ll take him.”
Both Arya and her brother looked at Sansa. Arya had suspected... she wasn’t sure what exactly, but she hadn’t expected a reaction like that.
“Why not?” Bran asked carefully.
“He...” Sansa looked uncomfortable. “He would not care to come face to face with a dragon, I think.”
Arya looked at her sister incredulously. The excuse sounded feeble enough to her ears, but Sansa was giving Bran a look that Arya knew would be hard for him to contend with, and in the end their brother relented.
“He will accompany you until you meet with your escort, and then, if he does not choose to go any further, he may turn back.”
Sansa nodded, looking relieved, and was careful to avoid meeting Arya’s eye.
Arya found Sandor Clegane at the back of the armoury, working at the whetstone. “You!” she called, tossing a set of bear-paws at him.
“What’s this?” he rasped.
“Get Stranger kitted up. You’re coming with me.”
Chapter 15: Sandor
They left the castle at first light, wrapped in layers of thick wool and bearskin, so that they looked more akin to the skins’ previous owners than anything human atop their horses. The she-wolf rode a shaggy little garron instead of her piebald courser, leading a second one piled high with supplies. Stranger did not like the queer snowshoes she had given him, picking his feet up too high as though still wading through snow. They were effective, though, the horses barely sinking in the deep drifts.
So you want to kill me after all, Sandor had said when she’d finally told him where they were going. Madness, to go out on the roads when you didn’t need to. It had been hard enough coming north to Winterfell from the Quiet Isle – going to the Wall seemed nothing less than idiocy. Up here we’re made of stronger stuff than you soft southron weaklings, she’d replied. Sandor supposed the little bird and her brother would not have allowed it if it were truly dangerous, but neither was it like to be a comfortable journey.
The days were getting longer, though, and by midday the air held a touch of warmth. It was sufficient for the she-wolf to push back her hood and loosen her furs. She was staring at him, he knew, and that probably meant she had something on her mind. Sandor did not encourage her. He had little interest in anything she might have to say, but he was certain he’d hear it sooner or later.
It was not until they stopped to make camp that evening that she spoke, however. Arya was laying the fire from the dry wood they had brought with them, while Sandor set up the tent. It was a simple structure, made of wooden poles and robust oilcloth lined with skins and furs to keep out the wet and the cold, but putting it up was more effort than he had exerted all day and he was starting to get warm. Relieving himself of the heavy bearskin, Sandor stopped for a moment to find a place to put it.
“Inside the tent,” Arya said without looking up. “You’ll want to sleep on that tonight.” She paused for a moment while she unwrapped a hare from their supplies and got it onto the spit, before saying, “Sansa said you weren’t to come all the way to the Wall with me because you wouldn’t want to get too close to Jon’s dragon.”
She does remember, then. He could not say why he had told her the story behind his ugly face, the callow child she had been, too fearful to look on him until he forced her. Only that he would’ve rather her know his secret than twitter away any more ignorant pleasantries about his brother. He was no true knight. Sandor snorted, his words bitter. “She’s a considerate one, your sister.”
“So it’s true? I never took you for a craven,” the she-wolf said, looking up at him with narrowed eyes.
“You want to stand before a dragon and admire the pretty colour of its scales, go ahead,” he mocked, “but that’s stupidity, not courage. A living animal, belching fire from its gut? It’s unnatural, and any man who thinks he can control such a creature is a fool.”
“My brother is not a fool,” Arya growled, leaping to her feet.
“You’re a whole family of fools,” he replied dismissively, “but your sister’s the worst, I’ll grant you.”
“Aye?” the wolf girl said, eyes burning into him. “Then why do you sit by her now at dinner?”
Sandor grunted, and turned away from her. “When a great lady asks something of you, she’s never really asking. The rest of us are just dogs to obey.”
“Are you still telling yourself that?” Arya spat, but she sat back down and returned her attention to their dinner.
Sandor saw to his horse and then went in search of fresh snow to melt in the small copper pan they used to make drinking water. They ate in silence on opposite sides of the fire, and as soon they were done the girl wrapped up the bones for later and crawled into the tent.
Sandor sat for some minutes by himself, staring into the flames. He had shared sleeping space with many different types of men in his life, knights and green boys and sell-swords. Brothers in dun-and-brown robes more recently. When he had kidnapped Arya Stark they had slept in the open, or under what shelter could be found, but he had not spent a night in a tent or a bed with a girl since he’d woken from his drugged sleep to find half his face burned off and Elinor gone. The price of my survival. The look on Gregor’s face when he’d asked for his sister still haunted Sandor’s dreams.
He sometimes wondered if Elinor might not have grown up to be something like the wolf girl. It pleased him to imagine her fierce, and they shared the same dark hair and grey eyes. She had a head full of songs, though. In that she had been more like the other one.
Throwing another log on the fire, Sandor crawled into the tent and fell on his back. Beside him, Arya was breathing deep and even, twitching slightly in her sleep. Sleep did not come so quickly for him, however, and he lay awake for some time beneath the pile of furs, listening to the flapping of the tent in the wind, and the distant howling of wolves.
When morning came, Sandor awoke to find an enormous silver-grey wolf sitting by the burned out fire ring. He reached instinctively for his sword before realising the animal was far too big to have come out of the forest. Nudging Arya with the toe of his boot, Sandor drew his sword anyway, slow and careful, just in case. The beast watched him calmly with penetrating yellow eyes.
“Summer!” Arya cried when she poked her head through the tent flap, and pushed past him to throw herself at the direwolf. As they wrestled in the snow, Sandor re-sheathed his sword, but he kept his hand on the hilt.
“What’s your brother’s pet doing here?”
“Bran probably sent him to keep watch over us.”
So it’s true, what they say about the northmen, Sandor thought when they were in the saddle once more. The she-wolf’s garrons didn’t bat an eyelid at the presence of the direwolf, but Sandor could feel Stranger straining at the reins every time the creature came near. Thankfully, the wolf had disappeared into the forest ahead of them for the time being.
“Your brother’s a warg, then,” he said to the girl. “Always thought those stories about you Starks and your pets were made up by the Lannisters.”
“Robb never was. Him and Grey Wind won all those battles because Robb was smarter than any stupid Lannister. And me and Sansa lost our wolves.” Her tone made plain her contempt for his part in that. “But Bran learnt skin-changing north of the Wall, when everyone thought he was dead.”
Sandor remembered Sansa Stark’s direwolf pup, a dainty thing with a sweet, trusting nature. If Cersei Lannister hadn’t demanded the creature’s death, would his little bird have become a warg too?
“Don’t you laugh at us,” Arya said hotly. “Think it’s funny, being able to control a direwolf big as a bear? My brother’d make Summer rip your throat out if I started screaming.”
But he wasn’t laughing because it was funny, especially. “The war’s made skin-changers of us all, girl,” he rasped, “not least that sister of yours. She wears a Stark skin all right, but I see that whoreson Baelish peering out from behind those pretty eyes.”
Arya reined her garron around in sudden fury. “Don’t you ever say that to Sansa. Not ever! Do you understand me?” Her breath panted white and savage in the cold air. The burned side of Sandor’s mouth twitched.
“As you say, my lady.”
For a moment he thought she would go for her sword, but after half a heartbeat’s indecision she turned her garron back to the road.
“Why are you so hard on her, anyway?” she said bitterly. “You've murdered and stolen and gods know what else, and all she's done is try to stay alive."
"Aye, she deserved better,” Sandor agreed, his mood darkening. “Better protectors than the likes of me and Littlefinger."
"There we agree," she said, cutting.
They rode on in silence. It was another clear, crisp day, the sunlight reflecting almost painfully bright from snowdrifts and icicles. The snow was nowhere near as deep this far into the Wolfswood, the sentinel pines that made up the majority of the trees here growing tightly together, their branches still covered in dark green needles, limbs growing interlocked so that in places they all but blocked out the sky. The kingsroad was narrow here, and that too helped keep the snow at bay. They rode side by side with the second garron between them, following the direwolf’s paw prints.
“I should never have let them beat her,” he said as the late morning sun slanted through the trees. “I should have ripped their arms off rather than let them touch her.” Arya did not reply.
The only sounds were the swish of the horses’ snowshoes, the puffing of their breath, the whistle of the wind high in the trees and the occasional patter of melting water as it dripped from the long icicles that bearded the branches. The sun had passed its zenith before the girl spoke again.
"Sansa asked me once how many men I had killed,” she said, voice uncharacteristically soft. She wasn’t looking at him – she might almost have been talking to herself.
“What did you tell her?” Sandor did not imagine that the little bird would’ve enjoyed hearing about her sister’s proficiency with a blade.
“I said I couldn't remember."
Sandor merely nodded. He could not remember either, though some faces stayed clearer in the memory than others.
"I'm sorry about your butcher boy, if it means anything to you," he said that night over the campfire.
Arya stared at him hard for a long time, then shrugged. "I don't even remember what he looked like."
It wasn't forgiveness, he knew, but he would take it. Arya sighed, then, and something seemed to go out of her, some tension that had been holding her rigid.
“I never told Sansa what you said that time,” she said. “I know you were only trying to make me angry so I’d give you the gift.”
Her words took Sandor by surprise and he frowned at her. “Never took you for naïve, girl,” he said, but he sounded uncertain, even to his own ears.
She gave him another long look. “You be gentle to her, else you’ll be begging me for mercy again before I’m finished with you.”
With that, she got up and went to the tent, and left Sandor alone by the fire once more, brooding over the meaning of her words.
The remainder of their journey passed more easily, after that. The she-wolf was no more talkative than before, but she seemed to have become reconciled to his presence and did not raise her hackles to him again. They parted at Last River, where a company of Rangers met them, all mounted on the same shaggy little garrons as Arya.
It would be another week back to Winterfell with just Stranger, the supply garron and Bran Stark’s direwolf for company. He pressed on, eager to be back within the castle walls. It had not snowed since they left Winterfell, and the Wolfswood was now full of the sound of meltwater pattering on the drifts, whispering through the pine needles. The nights were filled with stars and the howling of wolves, and when he closed his eyes he dreamed of Sansa Stark.
Three days in, Summer brought down a doe and dragged it obediently back to their camp. Sandor skinned it and cut it into steaks, all the while wondering if the boy lord was inside his beast now, the blood still wet on its jaws.
The afternoon of the sixth day the clouds rolled in, and the morning of the seventh day it started to sleet. Sandor did not make it back to Winterfell until after dark, icy water pricking the exposed skin of his face like needles.
Sansa Stark met him in the stables. She still wore the bandages over her hands from the night of her brother’s disappearance, he noticed. Her hair cascaded down over one shoulder in a long auburn braid, glinting red in the lamplight. She carried a small silver tray with a cup of hot mulled wine balanced in the centre, her linen wrappings causing her to hold it awkwardly.
“Brother Sandor,” she greeted, “I am pleased to see you returned safely. Will you have a cup of wine, to take the chill off?”
He had thought it would be a relief, to get away from her, but in truth the relief was in laying eyes on her once more. After a fortnight away, the sight of his little bird was like balm on a wound.
“I’ve taken a vow of sobriety,” he reminded her, dismounting. She flushed, an odd reaction, he thought.
“Forgive me. Perhaps a glass of hot milk and honey, instead?”
“What do you want, little bird?” he asked tiredly, passing Stranger’s reins to a hapless stableboy.
“There’s something I would discuss with you,” she said, lowering her eyes.
Look at me, he wanted to say. Instead, he said, “Now? Or would my lady allow me to change first?”
“Of course,” she said smoothly. “Come to the Bower when you’re ready, if it please you.”
“As you say,” he said, and watched her leave before retreating to his bedchamber.
Chapter 16: Sansa
Maester Jennion’s chambers were always over-warm. A southron man, brought up in the Reach and trained at Old Town, he did not seem to be able to countenance the cold. Sansa would have liked to open the shutters, but out of courtesy she didn’t ask. She cradled her cup of hot spiced wine in her hands and stared into its depths as the vapours rose from it, too hot to drink. A great log of applewood crackled in the grate, and beside it her cloak hung, drying.
She only realized she had not been listening to him when the maester stopped talking. She glanced up, an apology on her lips, to find him looking at her curiously.
“You look distracted, child.”
Child, indeed. He is not five years my senior, fresh from the Citadel. She smiled. “Merely thinking, Maester. There is much to consider now that Rickon is showing an interest in his letters,” she lied.
She had hoped that would be encouragement enough for him to start asking her again when Rickon might begin more formal lessons. Instead, he said, “You have looked distracted this last week, since Lady Arya left for the Wall.”
Was it true? Being Alayne Stone for so long had taught her how to hide away inside, a skill she thought she had retained even after her flight from Petyr. She would catch her sister peering into her looking glass sometimes, pulling faces or simply looking blankly. When Sansa asked her what she was doing, Arya simply said practising. Practising what, Sansa did not know, and she had not asked, though she thought she understood.
“Is there something on your mind?” the maester asked. He was a kind man, she knew, good-humoured and intelligent to a fault, but trust did not come easily to Sansa after all she had seen. She was surprised, then, to find herself saying, “Yes,” her voice so soft it was barely above a whisper.
“Tell me,” Jennion said gently. Sansa frowned. Trust the young maester she may not, but she could not, could not talk to Bran or Arya. She was seven-and-ten, a woman grown, the oldest living child of Ned and Catelyn Stark and castellan of Winterfell. They could come to her with their burdens; it did not work in reverse.
Suddenly her mouth felt full of words.
“There is an idea I have had,” she said tentatively. “Something that would... help me fulfil my ambitions. But I am unsure whether the road that would lead me there is the right one.”
“Indeed? In what sense?”
“In the sense that it is selfish. It would benefit no one but myself, almost certainly. It would mean leaving Winterfell, at a time when Rickon seems to take any departure as proof that we will all abandon him. It might even mean going against the will of the Seven.” And it would mean binding myself to a man of whom I am at best uncertain. She tried to smile, but it was a small, wry thing.
“The Seven. Your mother’s gods,” Jennion observed.
“My mother’s gods,” Sansa agreed.
“Whom you no longer worship.”
There was little she could say to that, her thoughts on that matter too twisted and confused, and so she simply inclined her head. “As you say.”
Jennion rubbed his chin thoughtfully, watching her face with the same bright-eyed focus she had seen him bestow on his scrolls and his Myrish eyeglass. “May I offer you counsel, my lady?”
“Nothing would please me more.”
“Very well. I will begin with an observation. Since I came to Winterfell a year ago, I have seen you rebuild the castle, teach your brother the art of governance, help your sister remember her letters, restore the Winter Town, feed the smallfolk, and work tirelessly to protect your lands and people. You have welcomed me, a stranger, into your household more graciously that I could have imagined. I have seen you nurse Lady Arya to the point of your own exhaustion, and put your health at risk to retrieve young Rickon. And in all that time, I have never once heard you complain.”
Sansa lowered her eyes self-consciously. “That is very generous of you to say, Maester, but all I have done is my duty.”
“Perhaps,” the maester said, smiling slightly, “however my point is this: I do not think even the gods would object if you did something for yourself once every decade or so.”
“You are mocking me,” she replied lightly, returning his smile, “but tell me, do you know the circumstances of my father’s death?”
Jennion considered her for a moment before speaking. “He was Hand of the King to Robert the Usurper. The archmaesters tell us he was wrongly convicted of treason and forced to confess under the guarantee that his family would be saved his disgrace. The Queen Regent offered him the black, but King Joffrey the Bastard reneged on the promise. Eddard Stark’s execution is thought by many to be one of the major incitements to the War of the Five Kings.”
Sansa nodded. “And do you know how Queen Cersei came to know of Lord Stark’s supposed treason, and prepare herself accordingly?”
“She intercepted a messenger bound for Stannis Baratheon on Dragonstone.” His tone hinted at a question.
“All true,” Sansa agreed, “however, the Queen Regent would never have known of the need to look for that messenger in the first place, if it had not been for a silly little girl who did not want to leave the pageantry of the court.”
“You?” Maester Jennion asked. He was surprised, she could see, but he offered no platitudes, for which she was grateful.
“Me. So you see, Maester, I have acted selfishly before, and it has without fail resulted in the death of someone I love.” Lady, she thought. Sweetrobin.
“Hmm,” Jennion said, reaching over to refill her cup. “It is true the septons preach that the Seven will punish us for our sins, but I wonder, my lady, how long you intend to punish yourself?
Sansa laughed softly and stared into the fire. “Not nearly long enough, Maester Jennion, I am sure.”
She spoke the truth. Despite her doubts, Sansa had already started down the road she had spoken of and she intended to see it through to whatever the conclusion may be. The opportunity would simply not present itself again, and though she was indeed uncertain of much about Sandor Clegane, she did not doubt that he could and would provide her with the protection she needed.
I could keep you safe, he’d said the night of the Blackwater. They're all afraid of me. No one would hurt you again, or I'd kill them. Many a time since, she had regretted that she had not been brave enough to go with him. He was neither a kind man nor even a good one, by most definitions, but she thought he was at least a better man than Petyr and Joffrey combined, and if she had known then what she knew now, that would have been enough for her. He would laugh at me, if I told him that, but there are worse things a man can do to a woman than laugh at her. It was enough for her now, she knew. It would have to be enough.
Sansa had given up hope of ever winning the kind of love her parents had shared, but perhaps… perhaps if she could work out how to speak, how to act in a way that wouldn’t anger him, perhaps then their life would at least be peaceful. There would be much to occupy them, if Jon Snow honoured the promise he had made her two years ago. And she did not think she would suffer in the marriage bed, given... Sansa blushed in memory of what she had done that evening in the godswood, and on several occasions since. Over the years she had often wished for someone who could want her for the woman she was, and not just the claim to Winterfell she represented – at the least she knew that Sandor Clegane had desired her before the Freys had ever turned on Robb, before Theon Greyjoy had professed to murdering Bran and Rickon. He had wanted her when all her brothers were known to be alive and that gave her a queer sort of comfort.
She must not make him angry again, though. Sansa did not know another way to charm a man, if not to smile and laugh and tease him, but all those courtly refinements Lord Baelish had taught her did not seem to appeal to Sandor Clegane. He did not like to hear me singing, either. In King’s Landing he had said he valued honesty, but men often said things that proved untrue. Still, perhaps she should try to approach him candidly – it could not bring her less success, and if spring truly was coming she needs must move more quickly.
She thought much and more on what she might say to him, on his return, but as the day drew closer just thinking about it set her stomach to anxious fluttering. She knew she should allow him to rest when she finally heard from Gilly that he was coming up the path to the Hunter’s Gate, but the thought of waiting filled her with dread and so she steeled herself and went to meet him in the stables.
Afterwards, as she waited for him in the Bower, she noticed how queer and calm she felt. He will accept, she told herself. He will not like it, but he will accept. A man could not look at her as he had just done in the stables, and then turn her away.
The Bower was a large round room at the top of the Great Keep, and was where Septa Mordane had once instructed Sansa and Arya in the womanly arts and matters of the Faith. The women of the household had always retired up here after the evening meal to gossip and weave until the candles burned down, but the looms had turned to ashes during the sacking, and with Arya gone the only other women were servants. Sansa used it as a place to think and work, much as Bran used his solar, and though she still embroidered up here on occasion, a large section of the room was now dedicated to books and scrolls, money chests and ledgers. Still, the spirit of the room lived on in her heart, and it felt right that she should do this here.
“Will you sit?” she asked when Sandor Clegane arrived, gesturing to a chair by the hearth. She took the chair opposite and sat with her bandaged hands resting in her lap, legs crossed at the ankle beneath her skirts. Septa Mordane had always said what beautiful posture she had. Sandor Clegane wore a simple olive green tunic with a plain leather jerkin lined with fox fur. He slouched down in the chair she had offered him, stretching his legs out towards the fire, and she watched in fascination as the muscles of his thighs tensed and relaxed beneath the fabric of his breeches.
“If all you intend to do is sit there in silence then I am like to go to sleep,” he said, not unkindly, though to her dismay Sansa felt herself blushing deeply.
“No, forgive me, there is something I would ask you,” she began. “You are a novice, are you not, Brother Sandor?”
“I am,” he said and then snorted. “As much as can be said for one with only five of his seven vows left intact.”
“Your Elder Brother wrote me that you had been on the Quite Isle for four years before he sent you to us. May I ask why you never took septons’ vows?”
“That isn’t very courteous of you, little bird.” He was watching her broodingly from those dark grey eyes. Sansa began to question herself, but she had started, and she would see it through.
“It’s about your vows that I wanted to speak with you,” she continued. “I know it was my fault that you broke your vow of silence and... I wanted you to know I am very grateful that you did.”
Sandor Clegane laughed roughly. “Grateful?”
“Yes. I thought of you often after you left King’s Landing, but later, Lady Brienne told me you were dead. So when you first came here I didn’t believe it could truly be you.” His eyes narrowed in suspicion at this last half-truth. Sansa’s heart leapt into her throat and she rushed to add, “I mean that... I questioned myself as to whether I remembered you truly. It was so long ago, the last time I saw you, and... well, the mind can play tricks.” She glanced at her hands, resting with a forced calm in her lap, before summoning up the courage to meet his eyes once more. “I know you took seven vows, and I know you have broken two of them, but I also know that the vows of a novice are not strictly binding. I... I would ask you to break two more.”
He sat forward, resting his forearms on his knees, his gaze boring into her. Her throat was suddenly dry and she had started to tremble with nerves.
“Which two?” he growled.
“Poverty,” Sansa said, her voice cracking to a whisper, “and... and chastity.”
She might have expected him to throw his head back and roar with laughter. She might have expected him to rage at her. Never, in all her imaginings, had she envisaged his stillness, his silence. He is furious with me, she realised, more furious than she had ever seen him. She felt it like a blow to her stomach.
“You once made me an offer, to keep me safe from my enemies,” she continued desperately. “This is your chance to honour your promise.” She could feel tears of frustration gathering in her eyes. He stood so suddenly he sent his chair toppling over backwards and Sansa flinched, but when he made for the door she darted in front of him to block his way.
“Please hear me,” she said, pressing her back to the door. “Please don’t leave yet.”
“If you do not move,” he said, voice low and edged with danger, “I will move you myself. Believe that.”
Sansa’s breath came raggedly but she stood her ground and steeled herself. “Sandor, I am asking you to marry me,” she said, forcing her voice into evenness. “I am asking you to become my husband, with all the lands and titles and rights that entails. I am asking you to give up the Faith, yes, but not your duty to me. If you seek redemption, truly, I offer it to you if you will serve me in this way.”
“I am not some knight from your stories, girl,” he spat.
Sansa took a breath, and another. “I do not require you to be gallant, my lord, only strong.”
He did laugh, then, a harsh, ugly sound. “Will you require me to be comely, too? There’s little and less to be done about that, but I suppose you can close your eyes when I fuck you.” Sansa’s words dried up at that as she realised she had not even thought about his terrible face. He stepped forward, close as a lover, his rage pouring off him in waves, and though Sansa instinctively tried to shrink back there was nowhere to go. “The little bird has grown out of brave knights on white stallions, has she?” he snarled, gripping her chin roughly though she was already looking at him. He would be able to feel her trembling, she knew. He looked at her hard, eyes glittering, so close his image blurred and when Sansa blinked a tear escaped and ran down her cheek. “Didn’t think so,” he said, and made to turn away in disgust.
Sansa did not think. She reached out a hand to his massive arm, feeling the muscles bunched and tense beneath her fingers. He might have easily pulled away from her, but her touch had seemingly rooted him to the spot, and with her other hand Sansa reached up to cup his cheek. At first he would not yield, his body rigid, almost vibrating with barely leashed emotion. Gently, insistently, she turned his face towards her and drew him down until their lips met, light as summer silk.
“I would not need to close my eyes,” she murmured as she drew back slightly, her breath ghosting across his skin.
His hand found its way to her hair, fingers tentative, and then he had pulled her against him, kissing her so hard all the breath left her lungs and her head began to spin. It took her another moment before she realised she was kissing him back with a ferocity she had not known was in her, hands clenched so tightly in the fabric of his tunic that they ached.
He released her as quickly as he had seized her, and wrenched away, eyes wide and wild. Sansa’s legs felt weak.
“I told you I wouldn’t play your games,” he said, breath rasping and ragged.
“It’s no game, my lord, I am quite serious,” Sansa replied, attempting to compose herself. His eyes raked her body in a way that made her feel utterly bare. She was aware that she was panting.
“Then you’re crueller than Gregor,” he rasped, and reached past her for the door latch, and was gone before Sansa could form a response.
Chapter 17: Sandor
The godswood was cold and still when Sandor entered it with nothing but the moon to light his way. He strode through the trees, barely seeing, until, in the deep of the wood, an ancient ironwood loomed up out of the darkness and he raised his longsword to the thick black trunk. The tree swayed and creaked under the ferocity of his onslaught, a raven quorked and flapped out of the branches in surprise, but Sandor did not stop until the sword’s edge was notched and the tree was weeping sap, until sweat ran down his back and his arms shook.
Staggering, he went to one knee in the snow and stared emptily up at the scars he had left on the ironwood’s bark. He didn’t remember leaving the castle, he realised. He hadn’t worn his sword belt to the Bower, and so he must have been back to his room but he had no memory of it. Sandor folded his hands over the pommel of the sword and rested his forehead against them, closing his eyes and trying to catch his breath.
I thought of you often after you left King’s Landing.
“Liar!” he snarled, eyes flying open. She had looked so earnest as she said it, but how could it be true, after the way he had treated her? How could she sit there, so beautiful it almost hurt to look upon her from wanting, and speak such wanton calculation?
To speak to him of something so wildly impossible he had never even dared think it, only to do it with fear in her voice and tears in her eyes. Did she think so little of him, that he would take a woman to wife so plainly terrified of him? She wanted his strength, aye, his reputation to scare away her enemies, but she did not want... she did not want...
I’ll have that song. Florian and Jonquil, you said. Ah, he had mocked her for her pretty songs and her dreams of chivalry, but if anyone had ever deserved such a thing it was her. That she had given up those fantasies, to be replaced by the likes of him, whom she barely knew and could not love...
She kissed me, he thought, but she loves me not. That was the worst of it. Beyond the sense that she was offering herself like the deeds to a mill, or a bag of gold dragons, beyond the sense that she expected him to take it and be thankful, that was the absolute bloody worst of it. Aye, but a man like me isn’t like to get a better offer. Sansa Stark, the jewel of Joffrey’s court, descendent of the First Men and the Kings in the North, and him a kennel master’s grandson, heir to nothing and a monster besides. She probably thought it a done deal, he thought viciously. Well piss on her schemes, a dog still has his pride. He laughed harshly and pushed himself back to his feet, and took to hacking once more at the ironwood.
He slept almost as soon as he fell across his bed, and awoke with a shout from a dream of fire and auburn hair as the sky was lightening outside his shutters. His back ached viciously and his sword, flung discarded in the corner of the room, was almost certainly ruined.
Damn her, he thought. And damn me, too.
He did not see her that day, nor for several days after, taking his dinner in his room in case she attempted to seat him by her in the Great Hall again. In the practise yard he broke a crannogman’s wrist and bloodied another before their captain sent him to the Wolfswood to hunt. But there was little enough game to be found in winter, and Sandor came back as frustrated as when he left.
Eventually, after much whining from Rickon and an inquiry from the boy lord as to the state of his health, Sandor was forced back to the long trestle tables to take his evening meal. Sansa greeted him as they entered, courteous as ever, but she did not make him sit by her, and she did not seek to converse with him, and Sandor ate quickly and left before it was polite.
“Why do you hate Sansa now?” Rickon asked him one morning as they were training.
“Don’t drop your shield, boy,” was all Sandor said in response, and cracked him across the upper arm with his wooden sword when the brat got a look about him to protest. But he could not stop his eyes from following her across the yard that afternoon as she went to inspect the Library Tower.
He slept badly, his nights filled with dreams of her, her screams and pleas as faceless men in white cloaks beat her and ripped her clothing and raped her right there in front of him. He woke sweating, heart-pounding, wondering if he had somehow failed her again, though the thought only served to rekindle his anger. I need wine, he would think, but the thought of what he might do when drunk scared him even more than the prospect of another night of such wretchedness.
I thought of you often after you left King’s Landing. The words tormented him whenever he saw her. She had seen his weakness, and used it for her own sake like a blue-eyed Cersei Lannister, like her tutor Petyr Baelish. Sandor spat on the floor as he sat by the fire in his room, and nursed his resentment and his rage.
And yet he could not seem to be rid of her. She spoke to him constantly, greetings in the yard, a polite enquiry into Rickon’s progress. She did not try to tease him, and she did not ask him to sit by her at dinner, and she did not laugh for him or make any mention of that night in the Bower, yet she acted as though nothing had happened and that, too, was infuriating.
You be gentle to her, else you’ll be begging me for mercy. The she-wolf’s words made a hell of a lot more sense now, he thought grimly. They were ringing in his ears when he passed the little bird in the covered bridge one morning between the Armoury and the Great Keep, and it was that and nothing else that made him dip his head to her and mutter, “My lady.”
“My lord,” she returned, and her smile, though small, lit up her face. Sandor pushed himself onward, wondering at her use of that title and what she meant by it. Though it was true she never mentioned what they had spoken of, Sandor couldn’t prevent the feeling of impasse, and he couldn’t bring himself to believe it forgotten.
It was not. Near three weeks after she had first made her offer, Sandor returned to his room one evening to find a package sitting on the end of his bed, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with hempen twine. Inside, he found one of his cloaks, and it took him a moment to remember he had given it to Sansa all those weeks ago, when they went searching for her brother. He had forgotten she still had it.
Shaking it out, he saw that she had made some additions – the black dogs of his house, cut in leather and sewn around the hem to form a border, their golden eyes and lolling red tongues embroidered in by hand. It was fine work – far finer than anything he currently owned.
On top of the package had been a sheaf of parchment rolled up neatly with his name written on one side. Picking it up he sat heavily in the chair by the hearth, the cloak in his lap, and broke the grey wax seal with his dagger. It was not a lengthy letter, little more than a note in truth, but Sandor stared at it a long time nonetheless.
...My lord must know it was never my intention to displease him so, and yet as this is the result I beg your pardons and humbly seek your forgiveness for the offence that I have caused. And though I do not lightly risk your wrath again, I must beg you also not dismiss out of hand the offer that was so outrageous to you, for even though the bride may be disagreeable, still she may offer you much...
He did not like her words. He did not like to see her so desperate as to beg him for anything. It occurred to him to wonder, for the first time, what she stood to gain from this mummer’s farce. Lands and titles, she had said, but now he thought on it, she had none to offer. The daughters of great lords married men who could provide them with a household and lands – they did not bring those things with them. She might have offered him a fat purse of gold as dowry, but she could not offer any part of her brother’s holdings. And so why him, and not one of her noble northern lords who, if the rumours were true, were falling over themselves to win her?
“Others take her,” he muttered, but sat in his chair, the cloak on his lap, running a finger absently along the edge of the parchment and staring at nothing at all.
That night he dreamed of his sister, two small bodies curled towards one another in their bed, the one the reflection of the other. In life they had clasped hands under the covers and whispered their mother’s songs to each other to drown out the sound of her screaming. But in the dream Elinor spoke the words of Sansa’s letter. He woke reaching for her, weeping and cursing his brother’s name, and when morning came he was none the wiser about how he should respond to Sansa Stark.
Chapter 18: Sansa
The path to the Winter Town was so full of puddles in the melting snow that Sansa and Gilly had both been forced to hitch up their skirts. It was not very ladylike, but Cook had told her this morning about poor Alys, coming back round from the granary with her arms full of sacks of flour and no hand free to hold her skirts out of the way. They was so heavy with water when she got back here I had to send her up to her room afore the whole lot fell down around her ankles! Sansa smiled, remembering Cook’s raucous laughter and the way Alys had turned a deep pink right to the roots of her strawberry blonde hair.
“It’s good to see you smiling again,” Gilly said, glancing at her sideways.
“What do you mean, Gilly?” Sansa laughed, though it sounded forced to her own ears.
“A true smile, I mean. Seems a couple of weeks since I seen one from you, m’lady.”
“Oh,” Sansa said softly, attempting to keep the smile in place. I had not thought anyone had noticed. “Perhaps I have been sickening for something.”
She had, in fact, made a concerted effort to continue as normal, for though the entire castle seemed to realise that she and Sandor Clegane had had some disagreement, the thought of even her brothers knowing what they had disagreed on did not bear thinking about.
Sansa had tried, on many a quiet occasion, to think back on that night and discover how she had ruined it so. Sandor had become so angry she had felt, for a moment, truly frightened of him, in a way she not since they had been in King’s Landing together. She had always suspected that underneath it all he held some resentment towards her, for making him break that first vow. She had thought he would not thank her for asking him to leave behind the simplicity and peace of his life as a holy brother. Even then, however, she found it hard to account for the depth of his rage. Perhaps it is me he objects to, Sansa thought wearily.
Lady Olenna Tyrell had once written to Sansa, when word of her return had spread that far south. She spoke of her abiding wish to unite their two great houses through the marriage they had first discussed in the Maidenvault of the Red Keep. Sansa had not written back, knowing Petyr’s trial to be in the near future, and true enough, once she had heard all that Lord Baelish had said of Sansa, the Queen of Thorns did not renew her grandson’s addresses. Even her thrice-cursed claim to Winterfell had not been enough to entice the sons of the great southron lords after that.
Sansa was not eleven anymore, and had told herself she was not especially disappointed, but she had not thought Petyr’s words would matter so much to a man like Sandor Clegane.
“Sam, come here.” Gilly’s voice brought Sansa from her reverie. Young Sam had found a flower sticking up through the snow in a clump of early wildgrass. At his mother’s call he caught up with the women, pausing only to splash vigorously in a particularly large puddle. The boy, dripping slush and mud down his back, presented the flower to his mother, but Gilly only crouched down and whispered something in his ear. Shyly, Young Sam came over to Sansa, and offered her the bloom instead.
“Oh, how delightful. Thank you, sweetling,” Sansa said, bending to accept. He grinned, dimples appearing in his cheeks, for a moment the very image of his mother, before running giggling back to Gilly.
“The free folk believe the girl who plucks the first daisy of spring will be blessed by the old gods,” Gilly said. “And I’ve just about all the blessings I can manage for the nonce, if you take my meaning.”
“Thank you, Gilly,” Sansa said, smiling, and did not tell her that she had already plucked a winter daisy some weeks passed. “Old Nan used to tell Bran and I the same thing.” A thought struck her, then. “Tell me,” she said, “is it true that wildling men must make a weapon as a gift for the woman they wish to wed? Old Nan once gave me a beautiful knife of carved bone. She told us the King Beyond the Wall had given it to her mother to try and win her heart. Bran never believed the story, but I always thought it very romantic.”
Gilly laughed. “There’s as little romance north of the Wall as south of it, from what I can tell, m’lady. I couldn’t say about your Nan’s knife, though – that’s an old tradition. There’s some clans as keep to it still, but most don’t. More than like when a man wants to take a woman to wife he’ll steal her.”
“Steal her?” Sansa asked, aghast. “Like kidnapping?”
“Wilding women aren’t like you fine southron ladies,” she said. “If a woman don’t want to be stolen a man’d have a hell of a time taking her.”
Sansa remembered the two Umber girls who had been carried away by wildlings in the year King Robert had come north, and thought that Gilly perhaps did not quite have the right of it. Still she could not stop herself from asking, “And if it was the lady who desired the match? Might she steal a husband?”
Gilly laughed again. “I once heard tell that Harma Dogshead had stolen herself a couple of men, but it’s not common, m’lady. Other men would see them as weak.”
Sansa nodded. Some things were true the world over, it seemed. Perhaps that is what offended him so, she thought, although that seemed less likely, done as it had been in private.
Sansa’s first thought, after Sandor had left her alone and bewildered that night, had been to forget the whole thing. She had badly misjudged the situation, and any further attempts could lead only to humiliation. And yet, as the days passed with no sign of his ire lessening, Sansa came to realise how many of her hopes she had pinned on the success of her proposal. He did not even let me explain why I wanted it, she thought despondently as she stood at her window and watched him wreak havoc on the household guard down in the yard. And now he scarce looks at me but to glower. What have I done to wound him so?
Alone in her bed with Arya gone, Sansa felt suddenly lonely. She loved her sister and brothers, and she loved Winterfell, but she had never hoped, as a girl, to live out her days as nursemaid to them, and their children in turn, to die alone without a household or family of her own. She could still marry one of the northern nobles, little as it appealed, and maybe she would if she could not make this work, but she couldn’t yet bring herself to give up on her hopes, and Jon had promised...
Sansa took out the cloak Sandor had left with her and wrapped herself in it. I have done this before, she remembered, though that damaged and bloodied rag had been lost many years before. Of all the men who had wished to drape their cloak about her shoulders, it seemed to her that his was the only one she had ever welcomed.
The thought renewed her somewhat. The idea for this match had been insistent since she had first thought it, laying in her bath that night. The cloak reminded her of the rightness she had felt, that this was somehow meant to be, that Elder Brother had been gifted some foresight to send Sandor to her. And if there was one thing Petyr had taught her, it was the belief that she could have whatever it was she wanted, so long as she was prepared to pay the price.
The price, in this case, was merely her pride – little enough, when it came down to it. So she would apologise, and make a peace offering, and hope that somehow the damage she had caused could be repaired.
“Red and gold thread,” she said to the mercer in the Winter Town, “and two yards of black leather.”
“This swelling is not like to go down again if you do not rest your hands,” Maester Jennion chided her later that week as he re-wrapped her cold-damaged fingers in fresh linen smeared with a paste made of dried mayweed petals. She had not told him how she had re-inflamed her swollen fingers, but every time she thought on it a vivid memory swept through her, the press of Sandor’s mouth on hers, the strength in his arms as he held her to him and the solidity of his chest, the heat of his body and the rough fabric of his tunic. It left her warm in her stomach and more anxious than before. She had just deposited the cloak in Sandor’s room before climbing Maester’s Turret, however, and so for now all she could do was wait. She sensed that if she pushed too hard he would simply push back until the distance between them was insurmountable, but Sansa knew how to be patient.
“A raven arrived this afternoon,” Jennion said as he stood, and for a moment Sansa’s heart sank as she thought he meant the white raven had come. But it was just a letter from the Wall, telling them that Arya was returning earlier than planned.
“I wonder why,” Sansa said distantly, and did not listen to the maester’s response.
That night, sleep would not come and Sansa paced about her room, agitated. Opening her window she could see the dark outline of the castle against the night sky, the only light coming from the torches in the wall sconces and the window of the room above the armoury. He must have read the letter by now, she thought, running through her mind once more the words she had written.
“What are you thinking?” she whispered across the yard to the small square of light, but the night swallowed her words and returned no answer.
She was disappointed, come the morning, to see Sandor Clegane without the cloak she had returned to him. Yet he greeted her of his own volition as she crossed the yard – only the second time in these last three weeks – and his expression seemed to her more pensive than angry.
Sansa waited another day before she invited him to sit by her once more at dinner, half expecting him to refuse. The strength of her joy when he agreed surprised her, though she restrained her conversation to the minimum, unwilling to provoke him. Yet she felt exhausted from constantly checking herself, deciding what he would find acceptable, how fast she might move without ruining everything again. It was never like this in the songs, she thought tiredly, lying awake in her empty bed with the wheels of her mind refusing to stop turning. But it could not have mattered more to her if she had loved him as Jonquil had loved her Florian.
He did not make it easy for her, watching her with the same hunger in his eyes, speaking to her with the same harsh words. He wanted her, of that she was certain, but something held him back and Sansa began to wonder if she could ever be enough for him.
And then the white raven truly did come, and Sansa found she could not speak for the longest time. Stepping out from the stairwell of Maester’s Turret into the bright spring sunshine, she thought back to Jon Snow’s words, the promise he had made her two years ago, and knew her time would soon be up. It must be now, then, or not at all.
Crossing the bailey she saw Bors Greenleaf, who directed her round to the stables. Sandor was inside, tending to Stranger, but he looked up when she entered.
“My lady,” he greeted brusquely. He straightened and put the grooming brush aside, and then crossed his arms over his chest and leant against Stranger’s stall, watching her impassively.
“Sandor, might we talk?”
His silence stretched interminably, Sansa counting heartbeats with a sense of mounting futility. She could feel all her hopes, all her plans, slipping through her fingers like the melting snow. It was hard to believe it had all been for nought, but the taste of defeat sat heavy and bitter on her tongue. She was about to turn away when he shifted his weight slightly and drew in a breath.
Anything he might have said was lost, however, under the sudden clatter of hooves outside. A moment later Arya cantered her garron right into the stables, leaping off him mid-stride and running to Sansa.
“Come outside, quick!” she said, grabbing Sansa by the hand and dragging her behind.
At first Sansa thought it was Shaggydog sitting out there in the yard with wary eyes, and looked instinctively for Rickon. But no, the fur was a shade too light, the eyes yellow instead of green.
“It’s Nymeria!” Arya cried, throwing her arms around the direwolf’s neck and grinning back at Sansa. “She found me all the way on the Wall! She had an entire wolf pack with her, normal wolves not direwolves, the biggest pack I’ve ever seen and Jon said so too. Look how big she is now, Sansa.”
“I am... so happy for you,” she said, her voice halting, wobbling alarmingly. “With all my h-heart.”
And then, abruptly, it was too much.
“Excuse me,” she said brokenly, and though she heard her sister calling after her, Sansa did not stop.
Chapter 19: Sandor
He found Sansa Stark up on the battlements of the Great Keep, the only place in Winterfell high enough to look out over the two curtain walls. She stood with her hands either side of a merlon, gripping the stone white-knuckled, two fingers of her right hand still bandaged though she did not seem to notice. She wore her hair simply today – pinned half up with only a silver comb for decoration, the rest flowing loose down her back and whipping in the sharp gusts of wind. She had never looked more northern, more at home.
Which made her apparent desire to leave Winterfell behind all the more bewildering. Sandor had struggled to understand it, but the look on her face when she’d lain eyes on her sister’s direwolf had said much and more. She no longer fit here, like a girl outgrowing the pretty dresses of her youth.
“Still wish to talk, little bird?” he asked, coming to stand at her side.
He had thought much on her request since she had returned his cloak to him, turning it over and over in his mind, and had come to realise that he did not have the whole of it, could even admit that in his anger he had not allowed her to explain herself as fully as she might have wished. The way she had approached him afterwards, courteous but so tentative, had awoken in him a storm of conflicting desires, and he had remained undecided on whether he truly sought that explanation, right up until he had seen her stricken expression just now in the yard.
Sansa barely seemed to notice him, looking out intently at the horizon. “On a clear day you can see all the way to the mountains from here.”
Sandor looked. They were facing due north out across the Wolfswood, but the trees ended in a white haze that joined seamlessly to the sky, no mountains in sight. “Not today,” he observed.
“No,” she agreed softly. “Today is not a day for getting what I want.”
She was miserable, that was easy enough to see, eyes glistening, composure fragile as an eggshell. It hurt him to see her thus, a knife to the heart. That he was so far gone should have surprised him, he felt, but the realisation had struck him, as he watched her stumble away from her sister, that whatever else she may be mourning, he could have no part in causing her pain.
Sighing, Sandor hesitated a moment, wondering just how much he would regret it, before saying, “You wanted to talk, earlier, and not of the view I’d wager. Was it marriage on your mind again?” The words came hard, like wading through water. Sansa hung her head, looking more the little girl he had once known than the woman she had forced herself to become. Her look was utterly defeated. Gently lifting her chin, Sandor waited until she was looking at him before saying, “Answer me, girl. Do you still want me to marry you?”
“Yes,” she breathed, and her voice held such longing that Sandor was tempted for half a heartbeat to pull her into him once more and allow himself to forget everything else. But this was important.
“Then save your pretty words, Sansa, and tell me the truth of it. I’m near twice your age with nothing to offer you but a borrowed sword and one of the most reviled sigils in all of Westeros. Your family is not like to support the match, and even if they could be convinced they will never love me. And you... you might have had any number of men, a young knight or a son of some noble house. Tell me why you wish this thing.”
To his astonishment, Sansa smiled. It was small and wan, but it reached her eyes. “I think that is the first time you have ever said my name,” she said. Sandor had no reply for that and so he wiped the tears from her face as he had once wiped the blood from her lip and waited for her to continue.
“Have you heard of the Gift?” she said eventually. Sandor shook his head. The name sounded distantly familiar, but he had never troubled himself much with the geography this far north. “Brandon the Builder gave a swath of land to the Night’s Watch when first he raised the Wall, for them to farm and take their supplies from, and many years later Good Queen Alysanne more than doubled it in reward for the black brothers’ service to the realm. They call the land the Gift, but it’s all but deserted now. The Night’s Watch are too few to tend it, and the people who once lived there have long since been driven away by wildling raids.” Sandor nodded, and she turned back to look out to the north. “My father and his brother always intended to put knights back in the towerhouses, refortify the towns, bring the smallfolk back to farm the land, but father went south and Uncle Benjen disappeared on a ranging, and then of course the war and the White Walkers came. My brother Jon Snow is Lord Commander, now. He knew of my father’s plans, and had once thought that Bran might take the responsibility of protecting the land, but that was before Robb was killed. When I came back north, he offered the land to me, with the title Protector of the Gift and all the rights to tax. I would have been bannerman to Winterfell, but any other knights settling there would be leal to me. All he asked in return was a yearly tithe to support the Night’s Watch and keep their larders full.”
“A good offer. Why didn’t you take it?” Sandor asked when she paused, though he thought he saw the shape of this story.
“The Shieldfort, the keep Jon would have gifted to me, is in need of both repair and extension to make it a true castle. It is not currently defensible, and with wildlings still coming over the Wall it simply was not safe to go by myself. My brother has so few men here he could spare me none, and any noble husband I might have wed would have taken me back to his own lands. Jon promised me he would wait as long as he could for me to talk Bran around, but when spring came, if I could not take control of the Shieldfort, he would have to place someone else in my stead, to ensure the fields were planted. After the war and winter, he said he could not wait.” She turned back to Sandor, her expression so despondent it all but took his breath away. “The white raven came from the Citadel this morning. Spring has arrived and I have no way to claim the Shieldfort.”
“But why trouble yourself with broken castles and wildlings?” Sandor pressed. “Why not marry some Karstark or Locke and tend to his lands instead?”
Sansa gave him a queer look. “Perhaps you will not understand,” she said softly, “being strong and skilled with a sword, but I have been little more than a mummer’s monkey for much of my life, doing tricks on command for my masters. I have been instructed in what to say, how to dress and whom to marry since the day I entered this world. It has brought me nothing but sorrow and I’ve grown tired of it.”
Sandor understood her completely. He had been a Lannister dog for seventeen years, after all. And so what now? She had answered all of his questions with an honesty borne of despair. She still did not love him, but she sought to place her trust in him and that might well be the more terrifying of the two. The bitter truth was not near so satisfying when spoken by someone else, he reflected. But he had given up his vow of silence for her, why not his vows of chastity and poverty too? Damn me, he thought, and damn her, too.
He had allowed himself to imagine, in recent days, what it might be like to be wed to her. What it might be like to take her to bed each night and wake beside her each morning, win her smiles and her laughter, see her grow big with their child. Things he had given up on even wanting, since Gregor had seen to his face. Is this what you envisioned when you sent me north, Elder Brother? To break every vow, and still get a third chance where most men don’t get past their first?
She was looking at him again, cheeks and nose pink from the cold, auburn hair blowing about her shoulders, tangled, so beautiful.
“You are no monster,” she said, reaching up to brush light fingers across his ruined cheek. “You have not always been a good man, but if I were a good woman we neither of us would be standing here today.”
“You do not know me,” he warned. “You do not know what you’re asking.”
Her eyes flicked between his, over his face, back to his eyes. “Perhaps not,” she conceded, “but I know you better than a Karstark or a Locke. I have asked you three times to take my hand. Will you not answer me, Sandor?”
He caught her wrist as she let her hand drop from his face and gave her a long look. She stared back, unflinching. When did she become so bold? But it really did seem she had finally discovered there were worse things in the world than a face full of ugly burns. The thought made him tighten his grip on her convulsively, and he knew then that he would not be able to let her go.
“Gods curse you, little bird,” he muttered. “I accept.”
The words, once uttered, gave him a queer sense of relief. The decision had been made, he had sealed his fate, and there was nothing else to be done. Her expression mirrored his feelings. He might have wished for her to smile, but given what had happened the first time she had asked him, her response could hardly be unexpected.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said, so grave that for a moment she looked more Stark than Tully. “I will be a most dutiful wife.”
I’m not your lord, girl. The retort was on the tip of his tongue before he realised that that would, indeed, be the case before too long. He laughed softly to himself, half in disbelief, and changed his grip on her so that he held her hand in his instead of her wrist. He buried his other hand deep in her hair, tilting her head back as he bent for a kiss. It was not like the last time, fuelled on desire and confusion and rage. This time he allowed himself to linger, to feel her soft mouth under his, sweet and pliant. He found himself wondering, what does it matter that she does not love me, if she will give herself to me anyway?
The answer was a sour, empty feeling deep in his gut, but when she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, her body pressed flush against his, he found he could almost ignore it.
Chapter 20: Sansa
Sansa felt light as air as she descended the steps from the roof of the Great Keep, as though some great burden she had been carrying around for the past few months had been lifted from her shoulders. She could still feel the imprint of his hand in the small of her back, strong and warm, where he had held her to him. Her lips still tingled from the pressure of his mouth on her own, and absently she lifted her hand to touch them, her fingers cool in contrast to the heat there. I must tell my family, she thought, though it brought with it an unexpected reluctance, as though hording her secrets could somehow protect her from their consequences. Childish. Still, it could wait a little while. There were other things she must do first.
She was not surprised to find Arya lingering at the bottom of the steps chewing nervously on her lip.
“I’m sorry, Sansa,” Arya said quickly as soon as she saw her. “I didn’t think, I mean, I didn’t realise-”
She cut herself off as Sansa reached out and embraced her. “None of that,” Sansa said gently. She drew back and kissed her sister’s thin cheek. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have got upset, but I promise you it was not about Nymeria, not really.”
“And you’re not upset any more?” Arya asked cautiously, eyes flicking up to the steps Sansa had just descended. “Clegane made me wait down here. He said he knew what the trouble was.”
“I’m not upset any more,” Sansa agreed, a smile coming almost unbidden to her face. “Now, where is Nymeria? I must greet her properly.”
Maester Jennion had already brought news of the white raven to Bran when they found him. Her brother sent the maester off to tell the servants while Sansa summoned Hodor and Arya dragged Rickon away from his drawing by the solar window. Then, together, the last four members of the Stark family, they descended to the godswood.
As the head of the family it should have been Bran’s responsibility to lead them through the spring prayers, but he had not yet been born at last winter’s end, and did not know the words. Pray for the dead at winter’s end, pray for the living at start of spring, Sansa remembered, and for once the memory of her parents and Robb and Old Nan – her happy and blissfully sheltered childhood – did not cause her heart to clench.
Sansa knelt on the warm moss before the heart tree and gestured Rickon to sit beside her, Shaggydog prowling restlessly around the small pond beside the great weirwood, ears pricked and sniffing the air. Bran sat propped against an ancient root with Summer at his side, Arya sat next to him, cross-legged, Nymeria lingering warily behind the rest of them.
“Today is the last day of winter,” Sansa began, “and as we say goodbye to the long dark we remember with love those who went before. Eddard Stark, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark, Benjen Stark, Lysa Arryn, Robert Arryn, Brynden Tully, Hoster Tully. Maester Luwin, Old Nan, Rodrik Cassel, Jory Cassel, Septa Mordane, Jeyne Poole...” Sansa trailed off, overwhelmed for a moment at the sheer number of names.
“Osha,” a small voice added.
“Jojen Reed,” Bran murmured.
“Lady,” Arya said. Sansa glanced over at her and their eyes met for a moment before Sansa nodded, and returned her gaze to the carved face of the heart tree.
“May they find peace in the darkness of the long beyond, and life eternal in our hearts and in our memories.”
Her siblings repeated her words and Sansa allowed them a few moments of contemplative silence before continuing.
“Today is the first day of spring, and as we welcome light and life back into the world we pray with hope in our hearts for the health and happiness of our loved ones. Bran Stark, Arya Stark, Rickon Stark, Jon Snow, Edmure Tully, Roslin Tully, Minisa Tully, Brienne of Tarth, Daenerys Targaryen.”
“Sansa Stark,” Bran said. And then quietly, “Meera Reed.”
“Bors Greenleaf,” Arya said. “Gilly Snow, Samwell Snow, Alys Winterdale.”
“Cook,” Rickon said, “and Brother Sandor.”
Sansa felt her cheeks colour at her little brother’s innocent addition, though it was more appropriate than he knew.
“May their harvests be plentiful, their larders full and their lives filled with sunlight and joy, in the name of the old gods of the First Men.”
Once again, Sansa waited for her siblings to repeat her words, her heart pounding as the silence stretched. Best do it now. At least the servants won’t overhear out here.
“I have something to tell you all,” she said. Arya, who had been rising, re-seated herself and gave Sansa a curious look. Rickon made an impatient sound in the back of his throat and shifted restlessly. Sansa took his hand and patted it, mainly to have something to do with her own hands. “I am to be married,” she said.
Sansa saw Arya and Bran glancing at each other, and next to her Rickon huffed and pulled his hand out of hers. “You don’t know that,” he said scornfully. “You haven’t been stolen yet.”
Sansa couldn’t help the corner of her mouth turning up, remembering Gilly’s words. “That isn’t the custom south of the Wall,” she said. “Here, men and women agree together that a marriage will take place.” Though not always the man and woman to be wed, she added silently.
Rickon frowned and refused to meet her eyes, so Sansa tried her older siblings. Arya wore a resigned expression when she asked, “Who is it?”
Sansa’s stomach lurched alarmingly, but she kept her expression neutral. “Sandor Clegane,” she said.
“Brother Sandor?” Rickon piped, head snapping back to look at her aghast. “But he can’t marry you, he’s godsworn!”
“He never took septon’s vows,” Sansa told him. “There was no obligation to remain in the Faith.”
“But...” Rickon started, looking utterly confused. “But Elder Brother said...”
“Sometimes our lives don’t follow the path we intended them to take,” Bran said gravely to their brother, and then to Sansa, “Are you sure about this?”
Sansa nodded. “It’s what I want.”
Arya sighed. “I hope you understand that if I thought I could talk you out of this, I would be trying right now.”
“But...” Rickon said again, still trying to wrap his head around it, “But why?”
Sansa took his chin gently and made him look up at her. “I love you all dearly,” she said, “but this is Bran’s castle, Bran’s lands to rule, and he no longer has any need of me. It is time for me to move on.” To Bran, she added, “It will mean I can take up Jon’s offer of the Shieldfort.” To Arya, she said simply, “I trust him.”
No one said anything. The sun shone on them through the bare branches of the heart tree, the gentlest touch of warmth on their faces. Rickon’s breathing came shallow and quick, and Sansa didn’t dare look in case she saw that he was crying. The wind gusted, swaying the trees that surrounded them, and then finally Bran spoke.
“I am happy for you, sister,” he said, his smile faint but, Sansa hoped, genuine.
Arya sighed again, then lifted her chin. “As am I,” she said, and though the words sounded horribly forced, Sansa appreciated them nonetheless.
“Is it like Florian and Jonquil?” Rickon asked in a small, bewildered voice.
Sansa touched his auburn hair tenderly, so like her own. “Life is not a song, sweetling.”
She was reminded of those words later that night, when Rickon refused to be parted from her side, crying and thrashing at Gilly when she tried to take him up to his bed. Flooded with guilt, Sansa indulged him, though it took all the patience she had learnt from dealing with Sweetrobin to coax him to sleep. It was past midnight when she finally collapsed into her own bed, sliding in precariously around Arya’s sprawled limbs, thinking wryly that none of the romances she had loved as a girl had taught her to expect anything like this. The wrath of beasts and kings to overcome, yes, but nothing about a confused little brother who didn’t know how to let her go.
She took Rickon up to bed herself the following night to avoid exposing the rest of the Great Hall to such a scene again. She sang to him and stroked his hair and sat in the chair by his bedside holding his hand so that even with his eyes closed he would know she was there.
It was late and her own head was nodding when she felt a strong hand on her shoulder, jolting her back to wakefulness.
“Quiet,” Sandor Clegane warned at her gasp of surprise, “unless you want to go through that whole mummer’s farce again.”
“It’s my fault he’s acting like this,” she explained as they climbed the spiral steps of the Great Keep, his hand a warm pressure on her shoulder, guiding her on. “He fears everyone will abandon him, as they did when he was a child.”
“You are abandoning him,” Sandor observed.
“Yes,” Sansa agreed tiredly. “But then I always was a self-obsessed little creature.” She paused, but when no response was forthcoming, she added, “Isn’t that the sort of thing you would say?” And then, “Oh,” as she realised he had brought her up to the Bower.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing to a chair by the hearth with the flagon of wine he carried in his other hand. She poured herself a cup and drank it straight down while he set about lighting the fire. Only the one cup, she noticed, he does not intend to break that vow at the least. She was not sure how that made her feel, and so refilled her cup to avoid thinking about it.
“Thank you,” she said when the fire was crackling and Sandor Clegane had seated himself before her.
“The fire. The wine.”
He grimaced. “You weren’t the only one in need of escape.”
Sansa tried and failed to suppress a smile. When she had come up from dinner she had abandoned him to her brother and sister.
“Did Arya threaten you?” Sansa asked, allowing a little of her amusement to show through. He seemed... at ease. Or at least, the most at ease she had seen him since his arrival at Winterfell, and it was pleasant indeed to look upon his face and not be met with his customary hardness.
“Aye,” he said, his voice a low rumble that might have been a chuckle. “But not at the table.”
Sansa nodded in approval. “Such things are generally best saved for dark corners, I am told.”
“I can deal with your sister, little bird, that was not the worst of it. That brother of yours chirps almost as much nonsense as you.”
“And did you speak your disapproval so bluntly to him as you are accustomed to with me?” The words came out before she had thought about them, and immediately she regretted it. They were to be married, but... she did not yet know him well enough to be so familiar. That, and he had not liked her teasing, before.
To her relief, however, he gave another low laugh and said, “Never did have the knack for all that courtly bollocks.”
Sansa felt her eyebrows rising in surprise at his coarse language, and attempted to cover her reaction by taking a sip of wine, but her cup was empty again. Rising, she made to cross the room to refill it, but he caught her wrist as she passed him, almost lazily.
“Always such a busy little bird,” he rumbled. “Just sit down for a few minutes and let a man look at you.”
Sansa met his eyes and saw... not warmth exactly, but perhaps heat. Something she wanted to be closer to. Carefully, deliberately, she set her cup down on a nearby table before planting herself demurely across his lap. Petyr had sometimes liked to seat her on his knee in this fashion, but he had been a small man and it had not been long before she overtopped him by several inches sitting thus. Being near him had never been as pleasing an experience, however. Sandor’s eyes widened slightly in surprise as she sat, before he laughed softly once more.
“Not what you meant?” Sansa asked lightly. His body exuded heat, yet she could feel her skin prickling into gooseflesh.
“Not what I expected,” he answered. Sansa didn’t move, and after a moment, Sandor brought one hand up to rest on her waist, lightly running his fingers through her hair with the other. Sansa sighed and let her eyes fall closed.
“My lady mother used to brush my hair herself,” she said absently.
“I’m not your mother, girl.”
“Nevertheless,” Sansa said, hearing in distant astonishment her own voice become low and intimate. “It feels nice.” Was she drunk? She had not had that much wine, but perhaps she had drunk it a little quickly.
His fingers hovered by her neck, fingertips grazing skin that was suddenly sensitive to his every touch. “Aye? What else feels nice?” he asked, a growl of warm breath in her ear. Sansa shivered. Even at the best of times his voice was harsh and rasping – damaged in the fire that took his face, she had always supposed – and yet somehow it seemed to touch her, somewhere deep in her belly.
“Yes, that,” she whispered as his lips grazed the shell of her ear. As he moved down her jaw Sansa tipped her head away, exposing her neck, breath hitching as he placed his mouth there.
“Yes,” she gasped, and then again as the hand on her waist moved up, brushing the edge of her breast through her bodice. She did not know whether to be relieved or disappointed when he did not take her fully in his hand, but continued up her body instead to tease her with fingertips at her throat, her collarbone, the curved top of her breasts, rising and falling as she breathed. Should it surprise her that he was capable of such gentleness, she wondered? He had rarely troubled himself to speak kindly to her, it was true, but she had often felt that his actions were much the more important thing, and he had always handled her with care.
“Look at me,” he said, his voice sending another shiver through Sansa, and she opened her eyes to look up at him, half-dazed with wine and arousal. He made a sound then, low in his throat and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a good kiss, strong but not ungentle, and when he finally moved his hand to cup her breast Sansa moaned into his mouth. She could feel his desire pressing against her bottom through his breeches, and the thought came to her that this was most improper. But it was a distant thought, and soon forgotten when he pushed his tongue against hers.
She did not break the kiss until some minutes later, when a sudden release in pressure told her he had somehow managed to loosen the lacing on the front of her bodice. She jerked in surprise and brought both hands up to stop the fabric falling away. Sandor made a sound that could have been a bark of laughter or a growl of frustration and Sansa blushed crimson.
“I... I do not think...” she started, fumbling with her laces. He didn’t try to stop her, simply watched in open amusement.
“You blush so prettily,” he said, running a thumb along the line of one cheekbone. “Just like a maid. Did Littlefinger teach you that?”
Sansa frowned, knotting the laces more firmly than was strictly necessary. “That was unkind,” she said, and tried not to show her disappointment that he had clearly heard all that Petyr had said of her. Just like everyone else.
“It was unkind to tease a man with no intention of bringing him relief,” Sandor said.
Sansa looked at him. His hands were resting safely on the arms of the chair and she became aware of how very much she wanted him to touch her again. But he was right – despite everything, certain principles must be adhered to.
“I will happily perform my marriage duties whenever you should desire, my lord,” she said. “All I ask is that you wait until the bedding.”
He did not look surprised. “You had best go, then,” he said, but when she made to stand he clamped both hands on her waist, a grip like iron, and kissed her hard.
Then he stood, taking her with him momentarily before lowering her to the ground. Sansa stumbled when he finally released her, head swimming.
“Fly away, little bird,” he said, guiding her towards the door with one big hand at the small of her back.
But not too far, Sansa thought. And not for too long.
Chapter 21: The Noble Man
Those sworn to the Seven Faces of God had seven basic vows that all their number observed, from the lowliest novice to the High Septon himself. Bran Stark had been brought up in the northern tradition to worship the old gods and had never journeyed farther south than Torrhen’s Square, but he had learnt much and more in his time north of the Wall, not least how to watch and how to listen. So when Sandor Clegane had come up the kingsroad to Winterfell, Bran had known what he was, and what he had sworn: obedience, piety, silence, chastity, sobriety, nonviolence, poverty. That the man had broken two vows within a day of reaching them was no surprise, for Bran had learned to watch more than the simple present and already knew the direction of this man’s steps.
That doesn’t mean I have to like him, though, the Lord of Winterfell thought as he watched Hodor heave Sandor Clegane’s massive body over the back of his horse. The black stallion was a fine creature, Bran thought wistfully, but so foul tempered that he was like as not to bite and kick at anyone within range, aside from his master and Hodor, who had a way with animals.
The inn keep was an old man, short and fat with a shock of white hair, and he spat on the ground as Hodor secured their charge. “I knew that bastard were bad news the moment he stepped in here,” he said darkly. “Four men he took down like they was nothing more’an green boys, grinning and laughing like the Stranger himself. Took the last of my wine to get him to drink himself unconscious, and he never paid me.”
Bran beckoned the man closer. “Toban,” he said in a low voice, “you are a good man and you served my father faithfully, which is why I will let your insults to my sister’s betrothed pass this time.”
Toban looked taken aback at Bran’s words, studying his face for a moment in disbelief before stuttering out an apology.
“Forgive me, Lord Stark, I meant no offence.”
“Very well,” Bran said. He passed a small money pouch to the inn keep. “This will cover the damages and the wine. You have my word that he will not bother you again.”
“Thank you, m’lord.”
Bran nodded and turned his horse back towards Winterfell, Hodor leading Clegane’s horse on foot. It was still cold enough at night for the meltwater of the day to freeze solid, making the pathways treacherous, and so it took them a fair few minutes longer than usual to make their return. Time enough for Bran’s fingers to grow cold and his mood resentful.
“Sometimes I find it hard to believe that this man is worthy of my sister,” he said aloud.
“Hodor,” said Hodor.
“Did you see what he’d done to the table? And that man’s face is unlikely to look the same again, even with Maester Jennion’s assistance. I wonder how much he had to drink.”
“Hodor,” said Hodor.
“I think you’re probably right,” Bran said.
Bran had not been surprised when Sandor Clegane had broken his first vow within a day of his arrival at Winterfell, and he was not surprised now to find that he had broken the final vow he had seemed so doggedly to be clinging to. The message had come to his solar just as he was bidding Maester Jennion good night, that one of Bran’s household was drunk in the Winter Town and causing trouble. Bran had guessed immediately who it might be, and summoning Hodor, went with the maester to pick up any pieces that may be left.
He knew, of course, what type of man Clegane had been before his induction to the Faith. He had met the man when King Robert had come to Winterfell before the war, when Bran still had his legs. He remembered watching the man in the soot grey armour training in the morning light with a sort of terrified awe. Bran had still dreamed of being a great knight in those days, but when he had pictured great knights in his mind’s eye he had always imagined men like Ser Jaime Lannister, handsome and charming, with shining gold armour. When Sandor Clegane had vanquished Ser Jaime with ruthless efficiency that morning in the yard, Bran had felt oddly betrayed, because the Hound was a mere retainer and not even a knight, and worse than any of that he was habitually cruel and spoke mockingly of Robb.
Arya, too, had warned him, told him of her friend Mycah and his brutal death, of Clegane’s refusal to help her save mother when they happened upon the Red Wedding. Bran had not been surprised by that either, but he had seen the man’s path and could not send him away.
Still, Bran was no green dreamer as Jojen had been, and the things he saw and heard were not guaranteed to come true. He had found, over time, that it never hurt to provide a little impetus to make sure of their passing in a manner he approved of.
That was how he came to spend the night in a chair in the room above the armoury, Hodor asleep and snoring by the fire, Sandor Clegane blind drunk and unconscious across the bed. He felt dwarfed by their presence – even if he’d had his legs, the two big men would have overtopped him by a foot at the least. He remembered when he was little, how he and Sansa used to be convinced there was giants’ blood in Hodor, how they had begged Old Nan to tell them the story of it even though all she ever did was cackle and tell them what fanciful summer children they were.
And now Sansa was to marry a man of near equal size and probably greater strength, and with none of Hodor’s gentleness. His sister had steel in her heart these days, but still Bran did not think this was the man she might have wished for herself, as the little girl sitting eagerly at Old Nan’s knee begging for more stories of knights and maidens fair. He was what she wanted now, however, and Bran was well aware of the limits of power a younger brother had over a sister three years his senior and ever so much more besides. The thought of her going filled him with dread, for he had never ruled without her at his side to guide him and fix his mistakes. But she had been right that day in the godswood – she was seventeen, a woman grown, and they could not keep her here simply for their own sakes any longer. Arya would be sixteen on the day of Sansa’s wedding, and Bran fifteen but a fortnight later, only a year from coming into his power, and though the war had made them all suspicious by nature they had agreed that Maester Jennion might act as castellan after Sansa’s departure. It was a role in name only – Sansa had been sure to teach Bran what he needed to know, and the things she had not been able to teach him he had figured out for himself by now. I will still miss her, he thought, but she will not be so very far away, after all. It would be a week’s riding to the Shieldfort once the snows had cleared, barely anything at all in comparison to the journeys they had all made to get here.
His biggest regret, really, would be that he was unable to provide the type of wedding he knew Sansa had always dreamed of. She was insistent that she must be gone north as soon as possible, and that meant many of his bannermen would be unable to attend, the snows still deep enough to make long journeys treacherous. Lord Manderly, who was too fat to sit a horse any more, had been the first to reply to Bran’s raven with his regrets, though he had dispatched two hardy wagons from White Harbour, full to the brim with Dornish wines, salt cod, crab and shellfish, frozen side of beef, spices from the Free Cities and many more things Bran had not seen since winter’s onset.
That had not been the only content to Manderly’s letter, however. Bran frowned to think on it, because it had been the first of many such letters, some of which had even been addressed to Sansa. The wording was courteous enough, but the questions ever the same: did his beautiful elder sister truly intend to marry Joffrey’s Hound, a man so disfigured it was said to have been impressed on his soul? Surely Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell, jewel of the north, was not in so great a need for a husband that she had been reduced to accepting a landless, title-less brute such as Clegane? Perhaps she had not fully considered what their own first-born could offer her?
Under their genteel concern for his sister’s wellbeing, Bran saw the affronted scrambling for what it was. Not a one of them was willing to take her on her own terms, and now they have reaped the crop of their reluctance. He was not so young anymore as to think a man needed a noble lineage and a ser before his name to make him worthy, and for Sansa he had eventually realised that the most important thing was the freedom to choose her own fate.
As she had done; as Bran had foreseen; despite the misgivings Bran might harbour, watching over her intended this night.
If Sansa was not the cleverest of them, though, she was at the very least the most worldly and he knew she was fully aware of the reaction her future husband’s name and sigil would bring about in both Bran’s bannermen and any of the smallfolk she might hope to draw back to the Gift. Clegane could not take her name of Stark, for she was not the heir to their line, but she could claim her ancestry and the respect it brought in other ways. She had got the idea from Cersei Lannister, of all people, though Bran knew better than to make much of that. The late Queen Regent had always shied at taking her husband’s stag as her banner, and had passed to her children instead an impaled coat of arms combining the Lannister lion and Baratheon stag. It was an out-dated tradition, the maester had confirmed, though still tenable in law.
And so Sansa was busy at work on her bride’s cloak, on which the field would be parted per fess, the bottom half gold with the three black dogs of House Clegane, depicted couchant instead of the more usual courant to give them an obedient look; the top half in Stark white, with the direwolf passant and facing crosswise to the dogs. Bran had no doubt it would be beautiful – Sansa had always excelled in such things.
For his part, Bran was putting the two boys Maester Jennion had been training in the smithy to good use. Kit, the elder, was slowly putting together a set of plate armour for Bran’s new good-brother. It would not be as fine as true castle-made armour, but it would be better than anything Sandor Clegane currently had, which was nothing at all. Olivar, the younger, Bran had tasked with making a dagger for his sister. He had no jewels to make it as elegant as he would like, but Olivar had shown a talent for ornamentation and Bran would rest easier knowing his sister carried live steel with her into the Gift.
On the bed, Sandor Clegane moaned in his stupor and rolled over. Bran stared at him for a moment before shifting his weight in the chair – despite the fact he couldn’t feel anything below his waist, Bran didn’t think he was willing to get sores for this man.
The fire was nothing more than glowing embers, but it was still too warm for Bran, wrapped up as he was for the outdoors, and he wished he could reach the window to open it. Summer was out hunting tonight, and so Bran allowed himself to slip into his wolf’s skin for a while, the world becoming a riot of smells his human nose would never normally notice. He must have slept, because when he opened his eyes again, the grey light of morning was starting to filter through the cracks in the shutters, and Bran had the taste of raw rabbit in his mouth.
One thing he had learnt north of the Wall was control. Jojen had accused him of allowing Summer’s will to overcome his own, and that had been true once, when he had been so desperate to escape the grinding misery of his days. However, things had changed, he had changed, Meera had given him a reason to want to be awake, and Bran had realised he truly did want to gain mastery of the one skill left to him. Wearing Summer’s skin had always been easy, and even Hodor’s, before he had known better, but now Bran could use most any animal, borrow their eyes and other senses as easily as putting on a cloak. He had been sure to use it most assiduously where Sandor Clegane was concerned, first to ascertain that the man could be trusted, that Brienne of Tarth had been correct in her assertion that Clegane was not the Butcher of Saltpans as most had thought, and after that simply out of curiosity, to see how the man who seemed to glower at the whole world would become his sister’s husband.
It had become clear very early on that Sandor Clegane was devoted to Sansa in his own queer way, and that gave Bran some comfort because it did not escape him that Clegane was also, at times, too harsh with her. It had surprised and worried him that Sansa barely reacted to his lack of courtesy, made him wonder what other indignities his sister must have suffered that words such as Clegane’s did not so much as make her flinch. Sansa didn’t talk about the six years she had been gone, however, and Bran didn’t like to ask.
The man was not all rough edges and snarls, though. There were times when Bran would watch him as he watched Sansa, or catch him in the stables with his horse, or watch through Shaggydog’s eyes when he was with Rickon, and he would see the humanity beneath the bitter shield. He had watched yesterday afternoon through the eyes of a starling that had built its nest in the glass gardens as Sansa tended their meagre crops, pushing feathery carrot seedlings into the moist dark earth while she sang softly to herself. He had spotted Sandor Clegane long before Sansa did, leaning in the shadows of the doorway.
“Oh,” Sansa had said when she did eventually see him. “Forgive me, I did not know anyone was listening.”
Clegane’s face had been impassive when he’d said, “Don’t stop on my account.”
“I thought... you did not like my singing, anymore.”
Clegane stepped into the light, frowning. “What gave you that idea, little bird?” He reached out to brush stray tendrils of hair from Sansa’s rosy face and the gesture looked tender as any courtly lover’s.
Bran had to withdraw from the starling for a little while then, and when he finally judged it safe to look once more, Sansa was standing by the tangle of sweetpeas in the corner, and explaining how she had mistaken the seeds for the edible kind when first she and Brienne had put the glass gardens back together.
“I’ve tried to root them out,” she told Clegane, “but some of them always come back and really, they’re so pretty it seems a shame to get rid of them entirely.”
Sandor Clegane, with his unburned side facing Bran’s starling, had looked almost normal when he’d laughed at her, and though he mocked her for it, Bran saw that Sansa did not appear to mind, and supposed that that might be what passed for affection, from a man like him.
As the sky continued to lighten outside, Bran called Summer back to him, pleased to see his direwolf nosing through the door just as Clegane began to stir. Bran urged the wolf up onto the bed, and so it was to bared teeth and a low, ominous growl that his soon-to-be good-brother awoke.
“Blessed Stranger,” he cursed, voice more of a rasp than usual. Looking past the wolf to Bran, still sitting in his chair, Clegane tried to rise, snarling blearily, “What in the seven buggering hells is this?”
Bran rubbed his chin with his hand, a gesture he knew he had picked up from Maester Jennion, and looked thoughtfully at the other man. “You won’t tell Sansa where you were last night,” he said after a moment, “and you won’t let her see you in this state. I don’t care if you stay abed all day – you will not come down until you are fit for her company.”
Bran did not understand why the man before him had decided now to break his final vow, only that he had, and in the process picked a fight with four of the town’s men, all of whom he’d left in a worse state than himself, before drinking his way to oblivion.
Clegane glowered at him and tried to push the direwolf off, to which Summer pressed more firmly onto his chest. The bed creaked under their combined weight. “It’s your bloody sister-” he spat, but he did not finish the thought. Probably for the best, Bran knew – despite all the actions he had taken to keep Sandor Clegane here this far, he would not suffer his sister to be insulted.
“Who are you?” Bran asked. “Arya warned me that all you were good for was drinking and violence, and yet Sansa assures me you are trustworthy enough for her to take to husband.” Sandor Clegane’s expression hardened at that, but when Summer growled again he kept his silence well enough. “You cannot be both of these men,” Bran continued, “and so I think you will have to choose which it’s to be.”
Bran gave Clegane a moment to think on that before calling Summer down from the bed and sending him to lick Hodor’s face until the big stable boy awoke. Rubbing at his eyes Hodor knelt in front of him so that Bran could lift his useless legs into the basket on Hodor’s back.
“I am well aware that I will have no control over your actions once you leave Winterfell,” Bran said as Hodor rose, “but until you leave my lands you will not drink yourself into such a state again.” He did not wait for a response: he would be watching, and he suspected Sandor Clegane knew that.
Chapter 22: Arya
Sansa was not in her chamber when Arya came to bed. She dithered for a moment, wondering if she should just go to sleep regardless, but it was the night before Sansa’s wedding and something in Arya felt very strongly that she should not be spending it soothing Rickon’s temper.
Yet when Arya poked her head cautiously around Rickon’s door a few moments later, the only thing she could make out was the dark outline of her little brother’s body, fast asleep under the furs. Closing the door quietly, Arya climbed the stairs to the Bower, then descended again and checked her own room before going lower still to Bran’s.
Sansa and Bran were lying on Bran’s bed side by side, talking in low voices.
“What are you doing?” she asked, coming into the room.
“Arya?” Sansa said, raising her head, then beckoned her over to join them. As she got closer, Arya saw they were holding hands. She lay down beside her sister and Sansa took her hand too, gripping her tightly.
“Jory never went near the crypts again, after that,” Bran said, picking up the threads of the conversation Arya had interrupted.
Sansa shuddered, and then laughed softly. “You can hardly blame him. I’ll never forget the time Jon jumped out at us covered in flour.”
Arya snorted – she remembered that day, too. “Mother thought you were being eaten alive, you screamed so loud,” she said. Then, after a moment, “Remember when Robb put snails in Jon’s boots? I never saw anyone leap that high.”
“I never saw Robb run that fast,” Bran said. They fell into silence, staring up at the ceiling, the only sound the pop and crackle of the fire in the grate.
“You will need to have the crypts excavated properly,” Sansa said eventually.
“I know,” Bran said.
“Try to get the stonemasons to do it before they return south. Father’s bones need interring, and mother and Robb should have their effigies beside father’s.”
“Grey Wind, too,” Bran said, and though Arya wasn’t looking, she could still sense her sister’s familiar bittersweet smile.
“You know,” Sansa said. “You do know, Bran. You will be a great ruler.”
“Might I command you to come back to Winterfell for visits, as your liege lord?”
“Of course!” she said, laughing again, but Arya felt Sansa’s grip tighten on her hand. She squeezed back.
There had been much to prepare for the wedding in a short time, and even Arya, who could not sew neatly if the Stranger himself were breathing down her neck, had been conscripted. They had lost near everything of any significance during the sacking of Winterfell, and so it was a nothing short of a miracle to have found their mother’s bride’s cloak on the top shelf of a storeroom off the kitchens. Still, Sansa had needs make from scratch her own bride’s cloak as well as her bride’s gown. Arya had been tasked with some simple stitching of seams, while some of the town’s women had been employed to make banners and barding and all the other raiments a new House would need.
She had also done as much scrubbing as she would ever want to do if she lived to be one hundred. Most of Bran’s bannermen would be unable to attend, but Winterfell still had to provide accommodation for the Cerwyns and the escort Lord Manderly had sent with his wagons, and Bran had said a party from Greywater Watch was coming north, though Arya thought it unlikely they would arrive in time, travelling on foot as they did. Most of the rooms not in regular use remained fire-damaged to some extent, and making them serviceable had been exhausting.
And so she dozed as her brother and sister talked late into the night, lulled by the low rhythm of their voices. Sansa must have roused her at some point, because Arya awoke the next morning in Sansa’s bed as usual, though she could not remember climbing back up the steps to her room.
The morning brought with it more frantic activity. Arya was vaguely aware that it was a southron tradition for the groom and his family to break their fast with the bride’s family, but as far as she knew Sandor Clegane’s family were all dead, and the man himself was not in evidence in the Great Hall that morning.
“You’re late,” Rickon greeted her as she sat to quickly wolf down some bread and boiled eggs. He already wore his finery for later in the day, and now possessed of a detailed understanding of the effort gone into making such a garment, Arya winced at every crumb he dropped into his lap.
“Some of us have been working hard and need our rest,” Arya replied.
“You can sleep tomorrow,” Rickon said airily, sounding so like Sansa that Arya knew he must be repeating her words.
“Aye, but I can box your ears in right n—be careful with that,” she snapped as Rickon’s runny egg yolk threatened to spill from his spoon all down the front of his new doublet. “Sansa won’t let you give her hand if you’re covered with egg.”
Rickon’s eyes widened and amazingly, he took heed of her words and was more careful. That was very clever of Sansa, Arya thought. Since father was dead, it was really Bran’s place to give her over to Clegane’s protection, but he had said he would feel foolish doing it from Hodor’s back, and would prefer to preside over the ceremony instead. Unconventional as it was, Arya herself might have done it, but Sansa had asked her one evening if she would mind very much ceding the responsibility to Rickon. The boy loved nothing better than being the centre of attention, and given a role to play in Sansa’s marriage, he soon became more accustomed to the idea.
Returning to her room Arya bathed and brushed out her hair. She usually took no heed as to how it looked, tying it at the nape like a man, but Sansa had very pointedly passed her a hairnet the day before. Arya stared at it now for several long moments in utter incomprehension before pulling on her gown and ascending the steps to Sansa’s chamber.
“Good morning,” Sansa greeted when Arya entered. She was smiling, Arya saw, looking serene as Gilly wove sweet peas and winter daisies into her hair, and not the least bit nervous.
“Good morning,” Arya replied, eyeing her sister suspiciously. “You look very calm. I thought brides were supposed to spend the mornings of their weddings weeping. That’s what always happened in your songs.”
“Only the ones who went unwillingly,” Sansa replied, still smiling to herself, and suddenly it hit Arya that this was really happening, that her sister was going to marry Sandor Clegane today – actually marry him – and leave Winterfell to start a new House with him and fill it with squalling babies. She sat heavily on the edge of the bed. It didn’t feel real.
“Did you need help with your hair?” Sansa asked. Arya looked up and saw her sister staring at her in the mirror, the same serene expression on her face though there was an unrelenting quality to it, as though she was perfectly prepared to keep Arya distracted from her futile train of thought for as long as was necessary.
Arya got back up off the bed and at Sansa’s instruction, knelt before her so that she could tend to Arya’s hair while Gilly was still tending to her own. It seemed to take an age, and involve much tugging and yanking that Arya felt was wholly unnecessary, before Sansa was satisfied. Bending over, she held her looking glass up for Arya to see the result.
“The hairnet was mother’s,” Sansa said quietly. “She gave it to me before we left for King’s Landing. It’s yours, now, if you promise to look after it.”
To her own surprise, Arya’s eyes filled with tears. “I will,” she said. “Thank you, Sansa.”
Sansa reached over with the hand not holding the mirror, and touched Arya’s face. “You look very pretty,” she said.
Not as pretty as you, Arya thought, but it would probably have been ungracious to say so.
Alys brought food and wine up for Sansa as the morning wore on, and then stayed to help Gilly get her into her bride’s gown. Arya knew little about gowns, and generally tended to care even less, but even she had to admit that Sansa had done a beautiful job. The mercer in the Winter Town had stocked nothing so fine as samite or muslin, and so Sansa had been forced to make a patchwork from her existing gowns, the myrish lace from this one, the freshwater pearls from that one. The result was simple, but somehow perfect, a velvet gown in palest grey with long dagged sleeves and a delicate pattern of winter daisies depicted on the bodice.
She held herself still as Gilly laced her tightly up the back, her neck arching gracefully to keep her hair out of the way, and Arya’s heart lurched painfully. She looks beautiful, just like one of those brides from her songs. She did not say it aloud, however, as she did not think that was kind of thing Sansa would like to hear anymore.
As the sun climbed to its zenith a knock came at the door, and Arya opened it to find Rickon holding their mother’s bride’s cloak, carrying it carefully in front of him as though it might disintegrate if handled too roughly.
“Is it time?” Sansa asked, and found a chest for Rickon to stand upon to clasp the cloak around her shoulders. It was white velvet, with the grey direwolf of House Stark emblazoned on the back, and though it was a little discoloured in places it was still a beautiful thing.
“Did mother make it, as you made yours?” Rickon asked, fingering the vair trim.
“I don’t know, sweetling,” Sansa replied. “Some houses keep their marriage cloaks for many generations.”
And then it was time to go down. By now all their guests and the entirety of the Stark household would be awaiting them in the godswood. It was a cold, crisp spring day when they stepped outside, their breath puffing white clouds into the air around them, the sky a brittle blue.
“My lady,” Kyle Cerwyn said, the first of Bran’s bannermen to meet them outside. He removed his cloak with a flourish and laid it on the ground before Sansa’s feet, the battle-axe of his house soaking through with muddy water as Sansa walked across it.
“My lady,” said Eddara Tallhart, smiling shyly at Sansa as she laid her cloak beside Lord Cerwyn’s. The girl had arrived late last night with a minimal escort, clearly determined to be here for this day.
“My lady,” said Robert Oldcastle, laying his liege lord’s cloak down third in the line, the merman of house Manderly flapping in the breeze before succumbing to the sodden ground.
After that, they were met by their own servants and retainers bearing the cloaks of the northern lords. They had found these, too, in the storeroom off the kitchens, some being used as the bedding for the apple storage, others folded up and forgotten on the high shelves. They were in varying states of repair and fustiness, but Arya felt it hardly mattered, given what they were traditionally used for. Sansa, she knew, was just happy that she could wear her satin slippers without ruining them in the snow and mud.
Finally they reached the godswood and the clearing with the heart tree by the pool. Arya took her place at the front of the gathering by Bran, who was seated in a carved wooden chair brought out here especially. Arya glanced at Sandor Clegane, and was surprised to see his body tense, his jaw muscle clenching and his right hand drifting repeatedly to a sword hilt that wasn’t there. He’s nervous, she thought in amazement, and could only conceive that it was the sheer number of unknown people who made him thus. Then she saw his face the moment he caught sight of Sansa, walking towards them on Rickon’s arm. Oh, she thought. She had not realised... but it made a queer, twisty sort of sense. Arya smiled despite herself, her mood suddenly lighter than it had been in days.
“Who is this woman?” Bran called, when Sansa had come to stand before him.
“I am Sansa, of House Stark, daughter of Eddard and Catelyn.”
“And who is this man?” Sansa turned to Sandor Clegane as he stepped forward, and smiled at him, a composed, almost satisfied smile. He did not return it, though he seemed to relax a little.
“Sandor, of House Clegane, son of Marton and Elenya.” His voice was rough and rasping as ever.
“You have come this day before the old gods to be joined in marriage...” Bran continued, his voice taking on the monotonous tone of one who is frantically reciting from recent memory. Behind him, the weirwood stared back at them all with its carved red face, mouth gaping as though in terror or song.
Sansa had taken Sandor’s hand, Arya saw, as they worked their way through the marriage vows and oaths of fealty and other things of little interest to her. It was discreet, hidden by Sansa’s maiden’s cloak to those who stood behind them, but from her place by Bran’s side Arya could see clearly enough. Sandor was standing with his burned side towards Sansa, almost in challenge, Arya thought, though a challenge to whom was unclear. She remembered Sansa’s face in the Great Hall that first night Sandor had come to Winterfell all those months ago, the way she had wept that night. How differently she looks at him now.
And then Rickon was reaching up to unclasp Sansa’s maiden’s cloak from her shoulders, holding his arms straight above his head to keep the hem from dragging in the mud. Stepping behind Sansa, Sandor replaced it with the bride’s cloak, and as his arms came around her to refasten the clasp he pressed his lips to her cheek. Sansa closed her eyes and smiled. It was a simple gesture but private, something intensely tender, and as she blushed and looked away, Arya was glad that only she and Bran had seen.
Bran waited for Sandor to return to Sansa’s side, and then said, “Will you pledge your love to Sansa, and take her as your lady and wife?”
“I will,” Sandor replied, though he was looking at Sansa.
Bran turned to their sister. “Will you pledge your love to Sandor, and take him as your lord and husband?”
“I will,” Sansa said, solemn but still smiling.
“Then I declare Sandor of House Clegane and Sansa of House Stark to be husband and wife, one flesh, one soul, now and forever, until the darkness of the long beyond claim you. What has been made here today, may no one put asunder, in the name of the old gods of the First Men.”
Chapter 23: Sandor
Sandor watched from the dais as Sansa danced. The high table had been reinstated for the occasion, the Great Hall fuller even than the day of Jon Carter’s trial. Half the Winter Town is here, Sandor thought with distaste as he watched Kyle Cerwyn pass Sansa off to some merchant or other. He had never been to a northern wedding before today, but he did not think the northmen were any more inclined to invite their smallfolk into their halls than the southron lords. While he was certain the boy lord would have any number of reasons why he had broken with tradition, and the hall was undoubtedly a livelier place for the increase in numbers, Sandor could not be happy seeing his fine, highborn wife dancing with tradesmen.
My wife. The word was still so new it felt raw and reluctant on his tongue. But there was her bride’s cloak draped over the back of her empty chair beside him, there was the remainder of her slice of wedding pie in her place setting, and there was the woman herself, dancing with her rough companions, tall and graceful and lovely as the Maid.
Sandor reached for his goblet – one of a matched pair, a gift from Lady Tallhart – and drank its contents down in one long swallow. The watery ale was cat’s piss in comparison to the Dornish red Sansa was drinking, but he did not intend to get drunk tonight. Who are you? Bran Stark’s voice still rang in his ears when he thought back to that morning, hazy as it had been. The boy lord had enjoyed flexing his muscles, aye, but his threats were not the reason for Sandor’s sobriety this night. He might have guessed that a man who could not fight with steel would learn to fight with words. That had always been the Imp’s means of attack, after all. Sandor had simply not expected to feel the blow so keenly, like a bruise that spread under the skin, the full extent of which only becomes clear with time.
Despite his vows and his years without, Sandor had gone to that inn with the full intention of getting drunk. Partly he had hoped to drown out some of the hours until his wedding, when he could finally satisfy the raging want Sansa had ignited in his blood, but there was another, darker reason, that he had reached the limit of what he could take of the inside of his own head. What did a man like him know of marriage? He had never even laid eyes on Gregor’s wives, but he had heard what had happened to them. And the memory of the manner in which his mother had died...
He hadn’t asked those sons of whores to bother him, but neither had he been sorry when fists got involved. He hadn’t fought anyone in earnest for more than four years, hadn’t caused serious harm in all that time, but he’d never forgotten how much he liked it, the feeling of having control over his fate that had been missing ever since he came north. That was what he was good at, the fucking best at. That was why the little bird wanted him in the first place. But when those four men were down, moaning and bleeding in the rushes, the inn keep had looked at him as men had once looked at the Hound, and Sandor had remembered in a sudden rush the night the Blackwater had burned, and the expression of terror he had put on Sansa’s face. Who are you? Lord Stark had asked, and Sandor Clegane had had no answer for him. He knew only what he had always known: that he would be better than Gregor. So he would not drink, because before too long he needs must bed this new wife of his, and even if she could not refuse him he had pride enough to want to make it... not unpleasant for her.
The music stopped and Sansa looked his way, flushed and smiling. She moved to return to the high table, but barely made it two steps in his direction before being waylaid by one of Lord Manderly’s men. It made no matter – Sandor was content to watch her for the time being, his blood on a low burn. It was gone midnight and the dancing could not last much longer before the participants collapsed from the day’s drinking – he would have her to himself soon enough.
Sandor had sent a raven to the Quiet Isle this morning just before the ceremony. The letter to Elder Brother was most like to be considered overdue, but the bastard had put him in the Starks’ power in the first place – all Sandor had done since then was obey the family’s wishes, and he was damned if he would allow the man enough time to come up with some reason to stop this madness. While it was still true that Sandor did not believe this marriage to be wise, he had made his decision and he would abide by it. With all seven vows either broken or soon to be so, Elder Brother would not be so stupid as to insist that Sandor remain in the Faith, but some dark corner of his heart had demanded he make sure nonetheless.
The music stopped again and this time Sansa did not even have time to try to escape before someone had called for the bedding. Sandor scowled. With one brother crippled and the other taken up to bed some time ago, he had hoped to escape this particular tradition, but more and more voices were joining in and the bawdy comments were rising to a clamour. He saw Sansa try to extricate herself from the Manderly man she had been dancing with. Her squeal as the man picked her up and flung her over his shoulder rang across the hall and gave rise to gales of drunken laughter.
Sandor’s hands clenched into fists as the man put his hand across Sansa’s rump, squeezing appreciatively, but before he could rise, the sensation of cold metal at his neck made him pause.
“The stairs’re over there.” Turning his head carefully, Sandor saw a sword and, at the other end of it, Arya Stark. She was red in the face and so drunk Bors Greenleaf was half holding her up, the blade weaving alarmingly.
“Do you mean to behead me on my wedding night?” he snarled, batting the point away from his skin.
“Not on purpose,” Arya leered, “but gelding’s not out of the question,” and quick as lightning the sword point flashed to his lap. The guard captain managed to wrestle Arya away from him, but not before she had slashed the laces on the front of his breeches, shaking with laughter as a tide of women washed up around him in her stead.
Following the crowd of men escorting his wife to the marriage chamber, Sandor tried to ignore the women tugging at his doublet and the breeches he was now having to hold up with his hand, pawing at him as they made ribald japes with one another. Further up the stairs he heard Sansa’s voice, indistinct, followed by a roar of laughter from the men. She seems to have them in hand, at the least.
“Be gone!” he finally roared at the gaggle surrounding him, and as one the women stepped back before bursting into drunken tittering. Sandor was at the top of the stairs by then, however. Pushing roughly through the gathered men, he grabbed Sansa and pulled her quickly through the door before barring it with a resounding thunk and a string of curses.
They had been given the use of the lord’s chamber for their wedding night, Lord Stark keeping his rooms on the ground floor for his ease. It was large, with tapestries on the walls and curtains on the bed. The grate was empty, the room warmed sufficiently by the hot spring water in the walls, and the only light came from the candles in the wall sconces.
“Well,” Sansa said, her voice wavering slightly. “That was an experience I will be pleased not to repeat.”
Sandor laughed. The lacings up the back of her gown were completely undone, the bodice all but hanging from her bare shoulders. Her sleeve was torn at the seam, one slipper was missing and her hair had come loose of its fastenings.
“Aye, I’ll break the fingers of the next man to touch you,” he agreed, and turned to blow out the nearest candle. When he turned back Sansa had lowered her eyes to the rushes, pale-faced.
“Shall I undress, my lord?” she asked, and Sandor felt something uncomfortable in his chest at the way her voice had tightened.
“No,” he said, “I’ll do it myself,” and reached for her, pulling her in for a kiss as he tried not to let his fingers fumble from the raw desire coursing through his veins. When they drew apart Sansa stood topless, her gown pooled around her ankles, her silken smallclothes clinging to her hips. Sandor stepped back to blow out another candle and shove his doublet from his shoulders – she had made no move to divest him of his own clothing, but that hardly mattered when all that beauty was on display.
It wasn’t right, though. Her shoulders were rigid with tension, her arms stiff at her sides, and still she did not raise her eyes.
“Little bird, look at me,” he said, stepping close again, and the tension snapped – Sansa flinched, her hands flying up to cover herself, and something hard sunk like a stone in Sandor’s stomach. She gasped in horror as soon as she had done it, lowering her hands immediately, though she seemed to have forgotten how to look at his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice high and small, words rushing together. “I wasn’t... When the men carried me up here I couldn’t help but remember my wedding night to Tyrion. Joffrey wanted to strip me bare, and then Tyrion himself... it was so awful...”
Be better than Gregor, Sandor thought as he looked down on her distress, and silently added, and that whoreson dwarf as well. He clenched his fists and pulled himself under control.
“Put your bed gown on,” he rasped.
Finally, Sansa looked up, gaze darting to his face in surprise. Her eyes glittered in the dim light even as her brows drew together in a delicate frown.
“Do I not please my lord?” she asked, raising her chin. She looked so concerned and appealing that Sandor struggled only briefly with himself before changing his mind. It’s my bleeding wedding night, I’ve a right to enjoy it.
“Get on the bed, then,” he said.
As she did so, Sandor blew out the last candle before finally pulling his tunic over his head. The room was very dark without a fire, and it took his eyes long moments to adjust, Sansa a faint outline against the bedcovers even when they did.
“Oh. I can’t see you,” she said breathlessly, and then gasped as he laid his hands on her, running his palms up her thighs before untying the drawstring at the waist of her smallclothes and sliding them off her hips. That was the idea, little bird. His body was strong and honed as any warrior’s, but on this first night he felt she did not need to be subjected to the sight of the twisted scars on his shield arm, the deep ridge of puckered flesh on his thigh, the atrocity of his face. He would’ve liked to have seen her, aye, the look on her face as she took her pleasure in him, but there would be plenty of time for that. Let her learn him by touch first, and perhaps the sight would be less terrible come the morning.
Sandor’s breeches had begun to slide down his hips when he’d released his hold on them, and now that Sansa was naked he pushed them all the way down and kicked them off along with his boots. Then, a moment of hesitation. He had not been with a woman in even more years than he had fought with a man, and the women of the westerlands had never exactly thrown themselves at him in the first place. As a youth Sandor would not suffer a lady to reject him, and so his first had been a whore, bought and paid for with the ransom from the tourney at Casterly Rock. Since then, with one exception he thought on more with irritation than any other sentiment, it had seemed easier to toss a silver at a whore than temper himself to charm a lady. And whores did not require tenderness. Even in King’s Landing, when he had had sufficient funds to enjoy the finer wenches of Chataya’s, Sandor had never bedded a woman with her pleasure in mind.
Knights talked, though. And spend enough time in the presence of Robert Baratheon and you couldn’t help but know the intimate details of the man’s every conquest.
“Sandor?” Sansa asked. “Won’t you say something?” Her breath was coming quickly, and when Sandor knelt between her legs and put his mouth on her she let out a gasping cry and clenched her hands in the bed linens. The sensation of her hair was queer on his tongue, and he felt rough and fumbling, but though not exactly well-practised, the topography of her body down there was not entirely foreign to him and he soon found the little knot of sensitive flesh he was looking for. The taste was not what he expected, though not unpleasant, and he found himself oddly stimulated by the action. Sandor spread one hand out on the soft skin of Sansa’s belly, the other curling around the underside of her thigh, feeling the light tremors running through her body as he rubbed her with his tongue. A moment later she whimpered and, encouraged, Sandor ran a hand down her body to stroke a finger around her slit.
She was barely wet, and clenched tight.
The surety he had felt, that she at least desired him on this most basic of levels, evaporated. Barely two weeks ago she had sat in his lap in the Bower, making such pretty little noises as he fondled her teats. Was it all an act, then? A lie, to keep me sweet? She spread for Littlefinger and that monster of a dwarf, but my cock inside her is such a dreadful prospect? A flash of anger, white hot, speared his chest and he sucked on her brutally and shoved two fingers into her entrance.
Sansa cried out in pain, her whole body becoming rigid, and it was only then that Sandor felt it, the queer little fold of flesh at the back of her cunt, noticeable only by its unfamiliarity, vulnerable and warm against his knuckles. Torn and bleeding.
Carefully, Sandor withdrew his hand. Sansa whimpered again. He felt sickened.
For several heartbeats the only sound in the room was her breathing, rapid and unsteady.
“Are you crying?” he asked the darkness.
“Only tears of joy, my lord.”
Sandor sat back on his heels, his desire wilting, confused and disgusted with himself. “Don’t do that. Not with me.”
There was the sound of rustling and a hitched breath, and then Sandor felt her hand on his shoulder, tentative.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. Please, my lord, we can try again. I didn’t mean to displease you.”
Sandor pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, wishing for a whole flagon of wine. Two. “Just put your bed gown on, little bird.”
While she fumbled around in the darkness he climbed under the covers on the far side of the bed and lay on his back, staring at nothing. To his surprise, a moment later Sansa slid close and put her head on his shoulder, one arm across his bare chest.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
For what? he wanted to snap. For dragging myself up to the lowest possible standard of human decency and not forcing you? That she expected so little of him was infuriating, because he was both insulted and relieved. Aye, and why should she expect any better from a dog like me? But I am not my brother, and I am not a Lannister. He remained awake late into the night, long after his wife had fallen into a deep, oblivious sleep, one arm wrapped around her back, breathing in the scent of sweetpeas on her hair and tangled in thoughts that went nowhere.
Chapter 24: Sansa
Sansa did not want to wake. She had slept well, falling quickly into a black abyss of dreamless sleep, the first time she had slept peacefully in many months. But the morning was pushing at the corners of her conscious mind, and soon she became aware of the sunlight through her eyelids, the sounds of someone moving about the room, the sharp sting between her legs.
Last night did not go as I had planned, she thought distantly as she curled up tighter into the warmth of the bed, but we can try again this morning. It will be better in the daylight. Yet when she finally opened her eyes, Sandor was fully dressed, sitting in a chair by the bed and watching her intently. My husband, she thought with a girlish thrill, despite the expression on his face.
“Good morning, my lord,” she said lightly, thinking he may yet be tempted back into bed. The look he gave her said otherwise, and Sansa had a queer moment of relief, because in truth she really was quite sore this morning, and they had a full day’s ride ahead of them.
“I’ve ordered up a bath for you,” he rasped, and when she looked at him queryingly, he added, “You bled in the night.”
Sansa lowered her eyes in embarrassment and resisted the urge to look under the bedcovers at the extent of the mess she had made. “That was very kind of you,” she said, sitting up. She tried not to let it show, but putting her weight on that part of her anatomy was somewhat unpleasant, and Sandor’s expression deepened into a frown.
“You should have told me you were still a maid,” he said, almost glowering at her.
“You should not have assumed otherwise,” she flared, though the brief, sudden anger receded as quickly as it had come. “I seemed to be the only one who thought it important,” she added, “or, indeed, likely.”
At least the old women will have something to chatter over at breakfast, she thought later as she lay in the tub of hot water. The sheet had been taken down to be hung in the Great Hall as was customary, and the spots of blood would likely divert attention from the lack of any other marks of passion. My reputation may even be restored, she thought dispassionately. Most of what Petyr had said of her at his trial had never been true, but the damage it had nonetheless inflicted had been calculated to perfection. It seemed that people loved nothing better than to believe the worst of Sansa, a fact Petyr had used well to take his last revenge on her.
If only Sandor had not blown out the candles. If only he had taken her up the stairs himself instead of letting a hundred groping hands tear at her clothes. If only Lord Baelish had never taken her to his brothel in Gulltown. So many demons to come calling in the dark, and after a long day and too much wine, Sansa had found herself naked on a bed with little more than a hulking shadow over her like the dreams she had first had in Petyr’s keep on the Fingers, and had frozen in a mixture of panic and bad memories.
Had she been naïve, to imagine that the sight of a man’s naked body and the reality of him over her in bed would produce the same response? Sandor had warned her that she did not know him, and in the moment he had forced entry to her body she had feared the worst. But he had stopped when she could not keep from crying out, and had not seemed angry with her, or more angry than usual at the least. In the light of day, Sansa examined her own reaction and thought it stupid and overwrought. But in the dark, with his mouth between her thighs, he might have been Lord Baelish in the dreadful quiet of that room in the Gulltown brothel, and she had had no way to know the difference.
Sansa sighed, and dunked her head beneath the water to rinse away the soap. My future will not be defined by my past. Next time I will simply insist we leave the candles burning.
Gilly came in before long with a plate of bread and cheese and a goblet of wine, and helped Sansa dry off and comb the tangles from her hair. Sansa wondered, not for the first time, who Young Sam’s father had been. She remembered Gilly’s words to her as they walked to the Winter Town: there’s as little romance north of the Wall as south of it, from what I can tell, m’lady. Once, Sansa had lived for romance. Now, she found herself quietly pleased by the simple consideration of a man from whom she had told herself to expect none.
As she laid out her riding clothes, Gilly gave Sansa a knowing look and passed her the soft cloths she used when her moon blood was on her. “Thank you,” Sansa said. There had been no fresh blood this morning, but the extra cushioning would not go amiss once in the saddle.
“Are you sure you won’t let me come with you?” Gilly asked, for what felt like the hundredth time. “Only, you’ll be so much closer to the Wall, and Young Sam is so fond of Maester Samwell and the rest o’ them crows...”
“I’m sorry, Gilly,” Sansa said. “The Sheildfort is no place for a child. Stay here where it’s warm and safe, and in a year or two when summer is on us and the keep is become a castle, then you will be most welcome, you and Sam both.”
Gilly nodded in resignation, and helped Sansa dress, and embraced her shyly before she went down.
“Thank you for taking me on, m’lady,” she said. “You didn’t know me, and you didn’t have to, but me and Sam have been so happy here. We’ll miss you, both of us.”
Sansa smiled. “My brother Jon said that he was in your debt. I only hope we’ve been able to repay you sufficiently.”
Gilly did not confirm or deny, merely nodded in that accepting way she had, and watched with her big, doleful eyes as Sansa gathered her things, absently wringing her hands.
In the yard, the horses were saddled and the wagons packed. Sansa had said her goodbyes the night before the wedding, and so she did not expect to see any of her family this morning. But there was Bran across the yard sitting high atop Hodor’s back. Sansa mounted her palfrey and walked her over to her brother.
“Come to see me off?”
“Of course,” Bran said, smiling slightly, the morning light catching in his grey eyes. “Safe journey, Lady Clegane.”
Sansa couldn’t help the pleased smile that spread across her face. It certainly sounds better than Lady Lannister. “I will send a raven when we arrive,” she assured him, and smiled a final farewell before turning her horse and rejoining her party.
They had been waiting for her, the crannogmen who would escort them, the woman from the Winter Town who was to be their cook and her daughter who was to be Sansa’s maid. Some of the boys Sandor had been training, Tom and Ruby Webb and their daughter Emlyn, to whom Sansa had offered the mill at Smalldale since their own had burned down in the war. And her new husband. Sandor sat astride Stranger at the head of the small train in the plate armour Bran had gifted him, and when Sansa reined in beside him they left together through the East Gate.
“Goodbye,” Sansa murmured as she passed through the outer curtain wall, and did not look back until the kingsroad followed the rise of a hill some half a mile later.
“Take a good look. You won’t be back for some time,” a familiar voice rasped beside her. “Years, perhaps.”
“I know,” Sansa said calmly. “It was never mine. Not really.” But when she turned back, Sandor had ridden on. Sansa knew by now that he was not always a talkative companion, and so she let him alone for the time being, finding it easier to walk her horse beside one of the carts and talk to Ruby Webb of what they could expect to find at the Shieldfort and the mill at Smalldale.
In fact Sandor did not speak to her again until they stopped to make camp in the Wolfswood that evening.
“I don’t like the look of that man,” he said in a low voice as he came over to hold her reins while she dismounted. It took Sansa a moment to realise he was talking of Tom Webb, but before she could say anything he had taken her chin in his hand and tilted her face up to look hard into her eyes. “You’re still in pain,” he said, and Sansa realised she must have winced when she’d slid from the saddle.
“A little,” she confirmed. “But I am not used to riding, either.”
A dark look descended on his face and he stalked off without another word, to help the men set up the tents. And later still, once they had eaten and retired to their tent, Sansa stood by the bedding in trepidation, wondering whether to disrobe. It was incredibly cold, even this little way away from the fire, and coupled with the lingering soreness between her legs, the thought did not fill her with delight.
“Come here and help me out of this armour,” Sandor said. He turned his back on her so she could loosen the buckles, the leather unfamiliar in her fingers and tight from newness. He wore chainmail and a quilted leather jerkin beneath, old and oil-stained, and a tunic and chemise beneath that, though he left those on, sitting down to untie his boots before getting beneath the heap of furs with the remainder of his clothing still on.
“Do... do you want-” she started, before he cut across her with a harsh, “No.”
They looked at each other for a moment, before he added, “If you intend to stand there all night, I’m like to need to find a new wife by morning.”
Nodding, Sansa removed her boots and slid under the furs beside him, shivering. “I have not slept outside of Winterfell’s walls in well over a year,” she said ruefully, curling her legs up into her body for warmth. “I had forgotten how cold the ground can be.”
There was a pause of several heartbeats, and when he spoke he sounded almost reluctant. “It’ll be warmer if you lie close.” When she made no move, Sandor grunted in annoyance. “I’m not going to touch you again,” he snapped, and reached out to pull her near, though not quite near enough to be touching.
He is trying to apologise, Sansa suddenly realised in wonder, how queer. Despite the reason Elder Brother had originally sent Sandor to them, he had never once expressed regret for any of his actions, never asked for forgiveness, and Sansa had just assumed that he had felt it was not something that could be gained by words alone. But of all the things to be sorry for, Sansa had not expected it to be over the matter of a little physical roughness. He had held steel to her throat on two separate occasions, after all, and she had simply been happy that he had stopped once he realised he had hurt her.
“You do not need to be sorry for last night,” she said gently.
The light from the fire pit shone dully through the fabric of the tent, just enough that she could see the hard look in his eyes.
“Aye, you don’t require me to be gallant, I remember, little bird.”
“And yet you were,” Sansa said, reaching out to touch his forearm to soften the teasing tone in her voice. Sandor reacted as though she had put a flame to his skin, flinging her hand away with a violent jerk of his arm.
“I was gallant?” he rasped incredulously. “A true Florian, yes.” He sat up, a shock of cold air coming under the furs, and pushed her onto her back, leaning over her until he was so close she thought he meant to kiss her after all. Despite her discomfort she felt her pulse quicken. “What happened to you?” It was the second time he had asked her that question. His eyes flashed angrily in the half-light. “What did Littlefinger do to you?”
Sansa stared up at her husband and felt like laughing. What did Petyr do to me? Where to begin? He had freed her, he had educated her, he had protected her, and he had taken everything she was from her and kept it for himself. Or at least, he had meant to.
All men, regardless of their own histories, wanted to believe their wives to be pure as winter’s first snow on their wedding nights. Petyr had told her that, and nothing Sansa had seen since had shown it to be false. But Sandor had not thought her pure, and had married her anyway. He had never liked her to lie to him, and Sansa found, to her own surprise, that she did not want to.
Still, she had never spoken of the six years she had been gone from Winterfell, not to anyone, not even Arya in the dark of the night. The thought of putting words to it – of giving it some kind of reality in the here and now – made her sick with anxiety and shame.
“You would not like to hear it,” she whispered, giving him a chance to back down, but Sandor Clegane never had known how to back down.
“Tell me,” he growled.
Chapter 25: Sandor
He could feel her heart racing like a trapped animal, make out the movement of her throat as she swallowed. Her voice, usually so steady and assured, wavered as she spoke, as it had done in their marriage chamber the night before. She spoke for some time, quick and quiet as though, having held back from him all this time, she was now in a sudden hurry to get the words out. She spoke about the kisses Littlefinger had taken from her, the way his touches had become increasingly intimate, the brothel he had taken her to in the guise of teaching her how to please the man he would wed her to, and all the while Sandor watched her and burned.
“When his whores had finished with their... demonstration, he sent everyone away. He made me disrobe, and it seemed at first that he would just look, as he had done before. But then he made me sit and he... he pushed my legs apart and put his mouth on me, and when I could not... find completion... he became very angry with me. He said he would do... that... to me again and again until I knew how to perform for my husband. It was an awful time. I left the Vale not long after, as soon as I was able.”
She had been looking up at him throughout her story, up until the end when her eyes slid away from his. In shame, he realised with a stab of fury, as though it were her fault.
Sandor had realised, not long before he accepted her, that he could have no part in causing Sansa any pain, and so seeing her wincing in the saddle all day and knowing it was because of his rough treatment had left his insides roiling in guilt. He still remembered how it had been between his father and mother, the blood and the screams and the miscarriages that had eventually led to his mother’s death. All men are beasts, inside, he had told Sansa back at Winterfell, and it was true. The only difference was how they controlled that beast on the outside, and he had thought (hoped, really) he would be able to do better. Fallen in the first tilt, he thought bitterly. You told me the Hound was dead, Elder Brother, but you can’t change a man’s nature by wishing it. Then to hear, from her own lips, the torment she had received at the hands of a man like Littlefinger... that she had not been able to distinguish between them last night... there was anger, yes, but mostly he felt defeated.
“Look at me,” Sandor said. “If Baelish were not already dead, I would kill him for what he did to you.”
Sansa smiled slightly, a wry expression that made her look older than her years. “I know,” she said, squeezing the arm that was pressing her back into the furs. “It’s why I married you.”
It was not comforting. Would his life forever be defined by the men he had failed to kill? The numerous ways in which he had failed to protect the woman who now lay, calm once more, beneath him?
With a huff of irritation, he released her and rolled onto his back. She curled up on her side and he felt her eyes on him though she did not speak again.
Sandor had thought, once they were married, that she would not be able to refuse him. Indeed she had not refused him, yet still she remained a maid. He had never bought the story the Imp had told in his quest for his annulment, believing it merely a tale to get himself out of an unprofitable marriage. He had not thought it possible that any man could have the rights to Sansa Stark and not take them. Yet Tyrion Lannister’s story had been true, and Sandor now found himself in the same position of wanting his wife, having every right to take her, and finding himself unable to do so. Damn that dwarf. Damn her. And damn me, too.
Unbidden, Sandor found his thoughts returning once more to his mother, the way she had died; the conversation he had overheard when the maester told his father that another miscarriage would kill her, his relief when his father wept in remorse, and his deep sense of betrayal when, months later, the beatings resumed. He and Elinor had celebrated their sixth nameday just the week before her death, and while he could remember the way his mother had smiled at them as they opened their gifts, his abiding memory would always be of her blonde hair tangled and sweat-soaked, her bloody shift amongst the bloody sheets, the unnatural paleness that death had brought to her skin, and the way it highlighted the deep bruises his father had left. He had vowed that day that he would never treat a woman so dishonourably, and though this along with every other of his childish ideals had gone up in smoke with his face, his little bird had always had a way of reminding him how disappointing his younger self would find him now. Despite the fact that he had killed more women than he cared to remember, butchered them along with the rest on the Lannisters’ orders with not even a twinge of guilt until much, much later – and even that drowned out in his cups – despite all that, in this moment, lying beside his wife on the ground beneath the furs, Sandor knew he would slit his own throat before forcing Sansa to take him against her will.
“Are you angry with me?” he heard her ask.
“No,” he said, but when she reached out to curl her dainty hand around his bicep, he had to fight the urge to throw her off again.
“What are you thinking on?” Her voice seemed small, somehow, vulnerable in a way he had not associated with her since King’s Landing.
Sandor had once told her that he would never lie to her, but neither did he particularly desire to speak of his family. Even after all these years he was not sure he possessed the words to express all that he felt. And yet she had been honest with him, in a way he suspected not many wives would dare.
“My sister,” he said eventually, and told himself it was not an untruth.
“Forgive me,” Sansa said softly after a moment, “I had forgotten you had a sister.”
Sandor snorted. “You didn’t forget, little bird – you never knew. Very few do. She’s dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Usually, that kind of inane chirping irritated him beyond measure, but he could not seem to find it in himself to get angry with her tonight.
“As am I,” he said tiredly, and turned his back on her, and attempted to sleep.
They were woken, come the morning, by a high-pitched scream, over almost before it began though its echo seemed to hang in the misty clearing as Sandor emerged from the tent buckling his sword belt on.
“Over there,” one of the crannogmen hissed, gesturing at the Webbs’ tent with his own sword. Sandor nodded his agreement but had taken no more than a single step towards it before Tom Webb appeared, a look of embarrassment on his wind burnt face.
“Please forgive me if we’ve startled you, m’lords,” he said, gesturing back at the tent’s entrance where his daughter now stood, pale-faced and sullen. “The girl had a nightmare, is all, and cried out in her fright.”
The other men lowered their swords, chuckling amongst themselves as the tension dissipated. Sheathing his sword, Sandor eyed Tom Webb, remembering his first impressions of the man yesterday. He did not miss the way the girl flinched when Webb turned to re-enter the tent.
“What happened?” Sansa asked him as he went back to his own tent to finish dressing.
“The Webb girl had a bad dream,” he said shortly, and tried not to react to the sight of her nipples peaked with the cold through her gown as she rose to help him with his armour.
It took a week just to reach Last Hearth with so much snow still on the ground, and once there Sansa insisted they must stay to enjoy the Umbers’ hospitality for two nights at the least, to avoid causing offence. Sandor thought the Umbers would be more glad to be rid of the Winterfell party if their stores were as low as everyone else’s, but the little bird certainly knew more about the ways of courtesy than him, and besides, it might well be the last chance they had to enjoy warmth and comfort for some time.
His assessment turned out true, when nigh on a fortnight after setting off they finally came to the Shieldfort. The structure itself was little more than a fortified towerhouse, a single barrel-shaped keep in the centre with a smattering of outbuildings and a curtain wall. No motte, he noticed, and the majority of the buildings were thatch-and-timber, half-rotted, but it was not all bad – the keep and curtain wall were made of granite, and though in need of repair it was certainly better defensible than a palisade wall. The position was good, too. The lands of the Gift east of the kingsroad seemed to consist entirely of rolling, snow-covered hills, valleys and sharp granite outcroppings – the Shieldfort sat atop the tallest hill for miles around, protected to the north by a sheer drop into a deep river valley, but flat enough on the south side that the remains of a village could be seen butting up against the curtain wall.
“Do you like what you see?” Sansa asked, smiling slightly as she reined up beside him.
“It’s not as bad as I’d feared,” he admitted, “but you’re right about extending it, if you mean to rule here, and make no mistake, that could take many years.”
“I am aware,” she said, though he thought she looked pleased. “We will also need to move our new smallfolk out of the way.”
“Smallfolk?” Sandor glanced at her, then squinted back at the Shieldfort. She was right – now that he was looking for it, there were signs that some of the village hovels were lived in. “You knew they would be here,” he said, turning back to her.
“I suspected. Spring is finally here after a brutal winter, and desperate men are more like to take a risk.” She was staring at the hilltop before them with a longing Sandor had only ever seen on her face once before, atop the battlements in Winterfell when he had finally accepted her. He found it hard to look away.
“They’ve come seeking crofts,” he said, understanding dawning.
“Yes,” she confirmed, “amongst other things. And it’s a good thing too, as we are in need of crofters.”
Sandor thought they were more in need of a garrison of strong men and a trained blacksmith, but the little bird had already spurred her horse on down the winding path into the valley that separated them from their new home.
There were men of the Night’s Watch in the bailey when they finally rode up, the enclosure filled with the sound of sawing and hammering. Sandor let Sansa make the introductions, content to listen and watch. The crows were mostly builders, it turned out, sent over by the Lord Commander to make the place liveable.
Liveable, aye, but not comfortable, Sandor thought later as he climbed the steep, narrow stairs up the centre of the keep. The rooms were small, with tiny unglazed windows and only rickety shutters to keep out the cold. Their size would make them easier to heat, he supposed, but the whole place had a dark, gloomy air to it.
On the top floor of the keep were the lord’s chambers, the large, circular room divided into several smaller ones including the bed chamber, a solar so small he thought even a crannogman would find it cramped, a stairway up to the battlements and, to his vague surprise, a guarderobe. Sansa had disappeared with the builders almost as soon as she’d dismounted and so, having seen to Stranger and completed the inevitably short tour of his new accommodations, Sandor busied himself with bringing up peat and wood and lighting a fire in the empty grate. He had meant to descend once more after that was done, and have one of the builders take him on a more thorough inspection of the walls, but by then the crannogmen were bringing up the bed and chests and other possessions, and Sandor did not make it back down until someone rang a bell out in the yard for dinner.
The kitchens here were on the ground floor, beneath the hall and the two other levels below the lord’s chambers. The room was in chaos when he entered, men and crates everywhere, but by the walk-in fireplace at the far end, the cook stood stirring an enormous pot with both hands, and though he knew she would not have had time to prepare anything extensive, his stomach still rumbled at the smell of hot food.
“You’re here,” a bright voice said at his shoulder, as though he had been the one to run off at the first opportunity.
“Aye, I’m here,” he rasped, and allowed Sansa to lead him to a small trestle table in an adjoining room, set with candles and wine, and where some of the black brothers were already seated.
“Willem says the hall isn’t fit for use, yet,” she explained at his raised eyebrow, but his surprise had been more directed at his wife and her willingness to eat in such company, rather than for himself.
It was late when they were finally done eating, Sansa more pink cheeked and merry than he could ever remember seeing her. She took his arm as they left the kitchens and leaned into him as they climbed the stairs. She chattered away about her plans for the morrow and how kind it was of her brother to send men down before them. She exclaimed happily when she saw the fire ready-lit in the bedchamber, the furs on the floor and the bed put together and dressed.
In fact, the only thing that seemed to quiet her enthusiasm was when he undressed and climbed into bed and blew out the candle he had carried up to light their way.
“Good night, then,” she said, in a queer tone of voice, yet the bed did not dip with her weight for some time afterwards.
Chapter 26: Sansa
Sansa awoke slowly to a dark room and squinted in the general direction of the shutters, trying to make out any signs of dawn through the cracks in the battered old wood. No, she decided, it isn’t time to rise just yet. She was warm and blessedly comfortable, sunk deep in the feather mattress and having woken to her husband’s body pressed all along the length of her, his heavy arm thrown possessively across her waist, as she had woken every morning since leaving Winterfell.
He had not touched her since their wedding night, and though Sansa had been grateful at first, she now found herself more confused at his disinclination. It had indeed been cold, sleeping in tents on the way here, and it had taken her several days to get over her aching muscles and the soreness being in the saddle brought, but she knew better than to suspect him of gallantry. She had thought, perhaps, he wanted to take her in a bed, and she had been so exhausted by the time they retired during their brief stay at Last Hearth that she fancied she’d been asleep before her head touched the pillow, but last night... well. She was somewhat at a loss for explanations. Especially when he seemed to crave her touch like this, in sleep. Is it just the comfort of another warm body?
Yawning, Sansa tried to stretch without disturbing him, flexing her feet and tensing up the muscles all along her legs before relaxing them again. The slight movement brought her attention to the hardness pressing against her buttocks, and she felt a wave of liquid heat roll down to the pit of her stomach when she realized what it was. Her skin prickled and her nipples drew tight, aching, and experimentally Sansa pinched herself lightly there. She shivered, and behind her Sandor made a low noise in his sleep, tightening his grip on her so that it almost felt like he was thrusting himself against her.
This is madness, Sansa thought as she tried not to squirm with her own arousal. He wants me. I can feel that he wants me. I should wake him and let him have me. But strangely, in the clear-headedness of the early morning, she found she was not quite brave enough. She remembered watching him in the hot springs from her spot amongst the sentinel pines, and being afraid that he would catch her. But we’re married, now. Why should it still feel that way?
She continued to wrestle with herself on the matter for several minutes until, all at once, Sandor awoke and withdrew from her. As he did every morning.
Rolling over, Sansa stared at his broad back where he sat on the edge of the bed. “Good morning,” she said, wanting to reach out and touch the strip of bare skin at his waist where his chemise had ridden up, but finding herself unable to.
“You were already awake?” he grunted. “You should’ve roused me.”
“Pardons, my lord,” she murmured, but he had already risen and disappeared into an adjoining room. Sansa sighed. Why would he not take matters into his own hands? Back in Winterfell, she had merely had to sit in his lap to get his hands on her body – now they shared a bed and the only time he touched her was in sleep. Here she lay, frustrated and damp between her thighs, aching to be touched, and her husband would not take her. You might take him, a small voice suggested from the hidden parts of her heart, but the thought was oddly terrifying. Instead, Sansa reached down between her legs and saw to her own pleasure, quiet and furtive as she needs must be, lest he hear and wonder what she was doing. This is madness, she thought once more as she lay panting alone in her bed, but quickly put it aside as the concerns of the day began to take precedence.
After dressing, Sansa joined Sandor and an assortment of crannogmen and black brothers to break her fast, before taking Ellan, the cook’s daughter and Sansa’s new maid, and walking out towards the remains of the village. Jon’s builders had been working on sturdy new gates for the curtain wall on their arrival yesterday, and now as she came across the bailey, Sansa watched in excitement as they fastened ropes and pulleys to the great wooden panels and pulled them upright into place.
“Might I be the first to pass through the wicket gate?” Sansa asked Willem, the head builder. He was a broad man of middling height with a shaggy brown beard and a head of hair to match, so that he reminded her of the garrons the Night’s Watch rode in the heavy snow.
“Be my guest, m’lady,” he said, laughing, and gestured for one of his men to lift the latch for her.
The village was not much, the dwellings dilapidated from lack of use, half-rotted with their roofs all fallen in. The people living there had made crude lean-tos out of the remaining solid wood, but it looked a harsh environment in which to bed down, and the people, as they emerged, looked frighteningly thin and hollow-faced. I thought the people in the Winter Town fared badly, but they were the lucky ones, she thought bleakly as she saw a girl her own age emerge with a babe wrapped in dirty, ragged swaddling, another skinny child clinging to her knee. She looked too thin to be capable of producing milk. Desperate men are more like to take a risk, she had said, though she had not quite realised just how desperate some of the smallfolk had become.
“I want to bring them inside the walls of the Shieldfort,” Sansa said quietly to Ellan as they walked, “at least until the snows have cleared and the fields can be planted. Is there space enough?”
Ellan nodded. “Aye, m’lady, if we make use of the stables.”
“Perhaps, as they are to lodge there, they might be persuaded to help repair them,” Sansa suggested.
“I daresay these’d do most anything right now for food and shelter,” Ellan said, and Sansa recognized the tone of someone who knew.
Later, Sansa propped up a broken shutter to make a writing desk in the tiny solar and spent some time rummaging around the unpacked chests for parchment and ink.
“Do you think we might get a maester?” she asked Sandor when he came in.
“Perhaps, if they think you important enough,” he rasped, looking around distractedly. “Not until the snows clear,” he added.
“Good,” she said, and sealed her letter to the Citadel. Jon had a maester at Castle Black, a great fat man who had stopped at Winterfell for a few days on his way north to the Wall, and spent it almost entirely with his nose in a scroll. At best he was several days’ ride away, however, and would not be ideal should a more urgent situation arise. I must get some yellow sealing wax, Sansa thought as she dripped a dot of Stark grey onto the parchment. I am a Stark no longer.
Finished, she rose and went to the bedchamber to find Sandor searching through the chests in mounting irritation.
“If you’re looking for your whetstone, it’s in the oak one with the brass banding,” she said, gesturing – she had seen it earlier on her own quest and thought at the time he would be wanting it soon.
He glanced up at her. “Thank you,” he said after a moment. Sansa thought it stupid how pleased those simple words made her. She came a little further into the room.
“You said you, earlier. What did you mean by it?” she asked.
“What?” Sandor rasped, voice slightly muffled as he bent over the chest.
“You said, ‘if they think you important enough.’ And yesterday, you said, ‘if you mean to rule here.’”
“Yes? What of it?”
Sansa tucked the little roll of parchment into her pocket and clasped her hands lightly in front of her. “You are my husband, now. Don’t you intend to rule our lands?”
Sandor laughed, a deep rumble in his throat, and turned to face her. “These will never be more my lands than yours, little bird,” he said. “And what do I know of governance? You didn’t marry me to rule – you married me to protect, which is what I’ll do.”
“What if those who settle here do not wish to be ruled by a lady?”
“Then I’ll enforce your rule, too,” he said, left hand coming to rest on the hilt of his sword.
And what about when I am in my confinement? Sansa wanted to ask, but she didn’t quite dare. By then we will have a steward, she reasoned, but could not stop searching his face, looking for what, she could not say.
Later still, as she once more watched him undress for sleep, standing awkward on her own side of the bed, Sansa steeled herself to speak.
"You have not… the marriage has to be consummated."
Sandor looked over at her sharply, his expression surprised. "Worried some northern lord is going to carry you away in the night and stake his claim to you?" he asked, and then laughed mockingly. "Sounds like some story. Isn't that what you like? It's not so unlikely, either. Third in line to Winterfell with one brother who's never having children and another who might not make it out of childhood."
Sansa’s hands clenched into fists, suddenly angry. She had never wanted to hear of her claim again, especially not now. "I am not a horse to be stolen!" she snapped.
"Aye, you're right, and I'd kill any man who tried to steal you away."
Oh. Sudden as it came, the anger drained out of her. Sansa frowned at the bedcovers, and took a deep, steadying breath. "Then why will you not lay with me?"
Sandor looked at her for a long moment, before huffing a breath that might have been a laugh or a snort of derision. "Look around you, little bird. I have a keep, I have lands, a title. I've never had it so good. No need to sour all that with rape."
"You're my husband!" Sansa said, shocked.
"Naïve little bird,” he snarled. “After all you've seen, tell me, do you still believe husbands never act ungently to their wives?"
"That I know," Sansa said, more sharply than intended, but oddly, Sandor smiled, nothing mocking in it this time, a look more of amusement, though Sansa liked it just as little. Unbidden, her eyes dropped to the front of his breeches where, despite his words, she saw that he was half hard. He wants me. A throb of desire bloomed in her again, but she could not seem to convince herself to go to him, just the thought of it making her feel desperately exposed. And so there they stood, the bed still between them, though Sansa felt it might as well have been a mountain. In the songs Sansa had loved as a child, the knights always swept the maidens off their feet; she could not remember a single instance where a maiden had had to convince her paramour to bed her. Why must he make the simplest things so difficult?
Softening her voice, Sansa raised her eyes to his once more. “Sandor,” she tried, pleading silently for him to understand her, but he was no more able to hear her unspoken wishes than the gods had ever been, and the look he gave her in return was dark.
“I meant it,” he said, voice low and dangerous, and before Sansa could reply he had turned and walked out of the bedchamber, slamming the door behind him. It bounced in its hinges instead of catching on the latch, and so Sansa saw him as he entered the solar, already ripping at the front of his breeches.
This is madness, Sansa thought, but though she laid quietly the better to hear his rasping breath, the faint rustle of clothing and sound of skin on skin, something stopped her from following him. She thought she understood what it was that he wanted, and, surprising as she found it, that something was more than mere acquiescence. In its own way the thought was comforting, but she did not understand why, when she knew that she trusted him completely, it felt so difficult to trust him with this.
When the candles had burned down and Sandor finally returned, Sansa pretended to be asleep, and no more was said of it.
Chapter 27: Sandor
From dawn until dusk the Shieldfort echoed with the sounds of activity. The crows appeared in no hurry to return to their own keeps, and Sandor had to admit that their experience and numbers were invaluable in speeding along the necessary repairs to the walls. The problem was housing everyone – while there had been no fresh snowfall since their arrival, the nights were still bitter and the drifts that had piled up in the long years of the keep’s desertion meant that sleeping large numbers in tents was impossible. Sansa had insisted that the dregs of humanity who had washed up against their walls be brought into their shelter, and though some had been useful in starting the repairs to the stables, many were too weak or too young to work, and served no more purpose than draining their meagre supplies, the vast body of which had been brought with them from Winterfell and were nigh on depleted. She would not hear of sending them away, however.
“We are not like your southron lords,” she’d said, voice becoming so cold he truly saw, for the first time, why her ancestors had been called the Kings of Winter. “When winter comes, the pack survives while the lone wolf perishes. Starks will starve along with their smallfolk if there’s a need for it, and when the spring comes we are stronger together because of it.”
“And what if there’s no one left strong enough to plant the new crop when the snows finally lift?” he’d replied, and not reminded her that she was a Stark no longer, thinking he knew what her thoughts would be on that matter.
Still, he’d spoken the truth when he’d told her he intended to leave the governance up to her. She had been born and raised to the running of a castle, dealing with the smallfolk; he had been born and raised to the sword. He had never been in the business of questioning orders, why break the habit of a lifetime? Except when it came to her. I started questioning orders when it came to her.
Sandor snorted softly to himself, wondering if his father would have counselled him to master his wife, as he had done Gregor. Well, all that had gotten both father and son was a set of dead wives and Sandor felt, as he crossed the bailey in the pale spring sunshine, that if nothing else he could at least do better than that.
And so the smallfolk stayed, their numbers increasing almost daily as new faces appeared. Sansa and that maid of hers were seeing to everyone’s accommodation, but they were now at the point of sleeping some on the floor of the hall. It was a precarious situation, the risk of disease high – Sandor had spent enough time in close quarters in war camps to know how easily sickness could spread when men were living one atop the other – but the crannogmen would be leaving tomorrow to return to Winterfell, which would ease the situation, and another week of weather like this should see some of the lowlands free of snow. It would be enough to allow him to get out and inspect the croft buildings, and begin moving people on. Sandor was very much looking forward to that day. The Quiet Isle had taught him that he placed much less value in the reality of solitude than he had always supposed, but neither did he enjoy the constant press of bodies, the noise and smell – the number of times a day he could be reminded how terrible his face was.
Nearing the stables, Sandor was drawn irresistibly by the sound of Sansa’s laughter. He had heard it more in the days since their arrival here than in all the time he had known her before. Part of him couldn’t help the burning resentment every time he heard it, knowing it was not for him, but another part of him simply enjoyed the sound for what it was.
Entering the stables, Sandor looked down the long length of the stalls until he saw a flash of auburn hair. As he came closer, he heard women’s voices, one he recognised as belonging to the Webb woman, and another he did not know. Sandor had heard it said that women needed the company of other women just as men needed the company of other men. Sandor had at one time prided himself on never much needing anyone’s company beyond a flagon of wine and a whore to warm his bed, but it had become clear to him, as he’d spent more time with her, that the old maxim was very true of Sansa. Still, her willingness to spend time with women so far beneath her had not yet lost the power to surprise him. He thought the little lady he had first met in Winterfell all those years ago would not have been so free with her associations. But then, much had changed since then. She would not have thought to marry him, back then, either.
Knowing that his presence would halt the flow of the conversation, Sandor turned to go once more and leave the women to their chatter. Then he caught what Sansa was saying, and stepped back into the shadows to listen. Her tone had taken on a melodious quality, and it was clear that she was telling a story. That in itself was not surprising; it was the words themselves that caused his incredulity to rise.
When he could take it no longer, Sandor stepped out and into a pool of dusty light slanting down from a high window. On seeing him the women giggled nervously and darted fearful little glances at his face, and Sansa, who was kneeling in the hay with her back to him, stopped her outrageous tale and turned to see what the matter was, a smile on her face.
“Husband,” she greeted warmly – an affectation he was certain was for the sake of her audience.
“Wife,” he returned, “a word.”
Sansa rose, wishing polite farewells to her crude companions, touching the cheek of Ruby Webb’s girl with the same affection he had seen her show Rickon.
She followed him wordlessly out of the stables and across the bailey to the steps that led to the ramparts of the curtain wall – one of the few places they were like to gain a little privacy. Once there she wrapped her cloak more tightly around her against the wind. Sandor paced back and forth in front of her, somehow unable to find the words to speak his mind.
“A word, you said, my lord,” she reminded him. “Preferably before frostbite sets in.”
Sandor turned on her, irritated that she would try to tease him now.
“Why do you make up stories for them?" he rasped. “This isn’t a song, and you aren’t a child anymore. I thought you had more sense.” Sansa looked at him as though she might have wanted to sigh.
"I didn’t make it up,” she replied. “I was telling them of the time you rescued me from the mob in King's Landing.”
“Then you were-”
“No!” Sansa interrupted, eyes flashing angrily. “Do not tell me I shouldn’t have done it! If we are to rule here our smallfolk need to trust us and believe us to be good and just. They need to believe us heroic just as much as they do not need to know that I sacrificed my cousin's life to save my own; just as they do not need to know that you stood by and watched as they beat me."
Sandor stopped, rooted to the spot. They stared at each other for a moment that seemed to sag under the weight of their long association. Then Sansa lowered her eyes and shook her head as though trying to clear it.
"That is nobody's business but our own," she said quietly, before brushing past him to descend the steps.
Sandor remained where he was, glowering at the horizon, and that was why he spotted the wildlings earlier than they might have anticipated.
“Willem!” he bellowed as he ran down the steps. “Get everyone inside and then bar the gate.”
His voice seemed to carry across the entire keep, and there was a queer moment of silence as everyone stopped their work to listen.
“Anyone who can fight, get to the guard room,” he shouted, “everyone else to the keep. The wildlings are attacking.”
The bailey exploded with noise and voices raised in panic, but Sandor had little time to deal with the confusion right now. Across the way he saw Sansa imposing a modicum of order as the smallfolk crowded through the kitchen doors at the base of the keep, and he continued round to the small guard room where they had been keeping their armour and weapons in the absence of an armoury.
Some of the boys Sandor had brought with him from Winterfell were already there and Robyn, the one he had come to think of as his squire, stood ready with his plate and chainmail. There was no time for expressions of pride. Sandor barked orders as he hastened to armour himself, and was a little taken aback, once finished, at how numerous they were – his ten boys and as many crannogmen, an abundance of black brothers but some smallfolk, too. More than he had swords for, in truth, but numbers alone would serve for the situation at hand.
“I counted ten on horseback,” he told them, “and another twenty on foot behind. They’ve bows, but only bronze swords and precious few at that. If you’re armoured, you’re on a horse with me. I want ten men on the walls in case they try to climb. Everyone else at the gate.”
In the end, the skirmish was won more easily than even he had anticipated. Perhaps they had not expected the Shieldfort to be protected, or perhaps they were merely opportunists who had hoped to catch them unawares. Either way, most had run, and of the remainder he had taken four men down himself. Some of his unblooded boys were now blooded, but none of his people had been killed and the only injuries were relatively minor.
My people, he thought with a snort as Robyn helped him out of his armour and took it away for cleaning. But they were his people now, and he had protected them for another day. Paltry as the victory had been, there was a sense of satisfaction as he re-buckled his sword belt around his breeches and returned to the keep.
He spotted Sansa as soon as he entered the hall, the room still crowded with anxious faces. She nodded at him when she saw him, but did not rise from where she appeared to be stitching the slice Allarick had taken to his arm.
“Congratulations on your victory, my lord,” she said as he approached. She was not smiling, but her eyes were alight nonetheless. “I have instructed cook to prepare a feast in celebration, if it please you.”
This morning, he might have brushed aside her words as mere courtesy, but after her outburst on the curtain wall, he thought he understood them now for what they were – shrewd appreciation for human nature.
“You do me great honour,” he said, and saw her slight nod of approval. He had not been worried for her, exactly, but it was still a relief to see Sansa whole and unharmed. Coming from the battle as he had, Sandor was sweaty and blood-spattered. He should leave and clean himself up.
“You sew men almost as prettily as you used to sew handkerchiefs,” he remarked, watching her tie off one last, neat stitch in Allarick’s arm.
“Yes, I learnt from the sisters of the septry I stayed at, before my return to Winterfell. There were plenty of people on whom to practise, I can assure you.”
He watched as Allarick grinned a little dazedly at her and realised with a shock that the youth was the same age as Sansa – he seemed younger somehow. “You can practise on me any time you like, Lady Sansa.”
“That’s Lady Clegane to you, boy,” Sandor said, cuffing him.
“Yes m’lord, sorry.”
Sansa looked away quickly, hiding a smile. “You can go, Allarick, but try not to get the wound wet for a week or so.” Turning to Sandor, she said, “Come, you look in need of a bath. I’ll have one sent up while the hall is made ready.”
Very efficient, my little bird, he thought as he relaxed back in the copper tub by a roaring fire. He thought it again upon descending once more, to find the hall alive with music conjured from who-knew-where. People were crowded in on the trestle tables, the roar of voices near drowning out the musicians, and even the top table on the dais had been set double-sided. A cheer went up as he entered and, at a look from Sansa, Sandor grabbed his goblet and reluctantly stood, raising it to the hall in general before seating himself as quickly as possible.
“Well done,” Sansa whispered to him, and Sandor could not escape the sensation that she was having a jest at his expense.
The fare barely qualified for the term ‘feast’ – with little enough warning to bake sufficient numbers of trenchers, their food came to them in shallow pewter bowls. The stew itself was passable but somewhat in need of fresh meat. There were no fish courses, no desert, but the stew seemed bottomless and many ate until their bellies were bulging, revelling in so much hot food. Sandor wondered what impact this would have on their stores, but that was Sansa’s concern, not his. Besides, it would not be long before he could try a hunt, and maybe they’d be lucky and find some game this early in the season.
The lack of ale was equally noticeable, watered down even more than usual to make it go further, but the music was sufficient to maintain good spirits, and at least this way they wouldn’t lose half a day’s work to the men’s hangovers.
“There’s Lord Manderly’s wine, if you would like it,” Sansa offered. High table only, Sandor surmised. The little bird’s cheeks were glowing pink, her eyes bright. Sandor shook his head. He did not want to consider what actions he may take under the influence of a sour Dornish red, and he did not have a pleasant history when it came to taking things that weren’t his to have.
He half expected Sansa to dance, as she had done at their wedding, but besides there being so little room, the next time he glanced over at her she was swaying in her seat, eyes half-lidded and unfocussed.
“You’re drunk,” he said, amused despite himself.
“I think so,” she said happily. She leaned back in her chair, resting her head on the seatback so that her throat was exposed. “I like it here. Do you like it here? I’m glad we came.”
Sandor wondered if he would be made sorry for asking, but in the end couldn’t seem to stop himself. “You don’t have any regrets?”
Still leaning on the seatback, Sansa rolled her head towards him, her eyebrows drawn into a delicate frown. “No,” she said, and Sandor felt an almost sick squeezing in his chest. Her eyes fluttered closed then, and Sandor stood and wrapped a hand around her arm.
“Come,” he said, “time for bed.”
“As my lord commands,” Sansa nodded, her head looking too heavy for her slender neck. She tried and failed to stand, clattering her cutlery as she tried to catch herself before looking up at him beseechingly. “My legs seem unwilling to co-operate.”
“I’ll not be forgiving if you’re sick on me,” he warned, before lifting her bodily and making for the staircase to their rooms. “A bit undignified to drink so much, wouldn’t you say, my lady?”
“Said the raven to the crow,” she replied, slumping against him and he had to laugh at that because it was true, and because it was the second time today she’d shown him her claws. It was... refreshing.
Reaching the top of the stairs he took her to their bedchamber and laid her carefully on the bed. He unfastened her boots and then watched for a moment, wondering if she would undress herself, before reaching down to shake her shoulder.
“Sansa, get under the covers at the least.”
“Hmm?” was all she said, but she did move, in the end, and lay wrapped up on her side looking at him with sleepy eyes.
“Will you stay?” she asked.
He meant to say no, but the queer reluctance to be parted from her expanded in his chest, and he said, “Aye, alright,” and sank down on the bearskin rug by the headboard, leaning his back against the wall.
“I’m sorry for my words, earlier,” she said after a moment. “I know you only ever tried to protect me. I will never forget the lie you told on Joffrey’s nameday to save me from a beating.”
Sandor glanced at her – he had forgotten that particular incident. She looked sincere enough, but clearly some bitterness remained if she could still get so angry with him. Well deserved, isn’t it, dog? She had the right of it the first time. He should apologise, but somehow he knew, as he had always known, that words would not be sufficient to truly win her forgiveness. Well, perhaps he had started on that road when he agreed to marry her, but today he had taken the first step. Usually, after killing, he felt the kind of restlessness that could only be satisfied with strong wine and a good fuck, but tonight, sitting on the floor beside his little bird safe in her bed, he felt an unfamiliar sense of contentment.
He did not know what to say. Speaking of it seemed too hard. Instead, his mind latched onto the other thing she had made mention of, before the attack.
"What you said about your cousin earlier – what did you mean by it?"
Sansa blinked several times in rapid succession before rolling on to her back. “It’s something of a long story.”
“Everything is with you, little bird. Tell me anyway.”
“Are you certain you wish to hear it? It does not cast me in a favourable light.”
Sandor laughed, low in his throat. “Think who you’re talking to.”
For the length of several heartbeats she made no sound, then she sighed heavily, and spoke. “Petyr married my Aunt Lysa to get her titles, and once he’d pushed her to her death, it meant he was the sole guardian of my cousin Robert, the heir to the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn. Robert was always a sickly boy, but with his mother out of the way Petyr planned to hasten his death – how, I am unsure, but I always assumed it was with some poison or other. He meant to marry me to Harold Hardyng, Robert’s heir, and unite the power of the North and the Vale all under his control, but he needed me to marry Harry before Robert’s death, while he still maintained his power, and he could not do that until Tyrion had been killed. So I hid from him how quickly Robert was failing. I knew that if he died before my wedding, Petyr would be vulnerable, and more focussed on protecting himself and his interests than chasing after me. I let Robert die to save myself, my little Sweetrobin...”
She trailed off and they sat in silence once more before Sansa shifted back onto her side and, reaching out, took Sandor’s hand in her own.
“Do you know what the worst part is?” she asked, interlacing their fingers.
“That you’re not as sorry as you should be,” Sandor said without hesitation, and Sansa squeezed his hand hard before whispering,
“War is hard, little bird, especially for those who are powerless. You survived it with stains on your soul, maybe, but the important thing is that you did survive it.”
“Sharp steel and strong arms,” she murmured. “You told me that.”
The burned side of Sandor’s mouth twitched. That night on the battlements of the Red Keep seemed almost another lifetime, now. He stared at his hand joined with his wife’s small hand. “And now you have mine.”
“Sandor?” she asked, voice slurring from alcohol and tiredness. “Will you kiss me?”
Rising to his feet, Sandor leaned over the bed and kissed Sansa gently on the temple. “Now sleep,” he said, and left the room, and did not return until she was breathing deep and even.
Chapter 28: Sansa
Emlyn Webb looked close to tears as Sansa waved to the departing cart. She was a strange little creature, Ruby’s daughter, silent and pale-faced as a wight, and sometimes near as unsettling. Ruby had beautiful hair of rich, dark brown and eyes to match, but Emlyn was all but colourless with fine mousy hair and pale blue eyes, as though with only a little will she could disappear into the background. Remembering Sandor’s words about Tom Webb on their journey here, Sansa had watched the girl carefully, looking for... something. Something familiar.
Emlyn was thirteen, the same age Sansa had been when Petyr had started demanding kisses from her.
So Sansa had kept Ruby firmly in her company, despite the disparity in their stations – it was hardly as though there were other ladies around to disapprove. She found that Ruby kept Emlyn close, but that was hardly unusual for a mother and her only child, and in the end Sansa had to admit that there was nothing to see. Tom Webb was not a particularly pleasant man, but he was no Petyr Baelish.
The snow was melting quickly now, and with it the bodies crowding the Shieldfort’s stables, hall and kitchens were slowly thinning. With the rivers beginning to thaw, it was time for the Webbs to leave for Smalldale Mill, and despite the reasons she had first kept Ruby close, Sansa had come to enjoy the older woman’s company: she would miss her, and her wispy daughter too.
The mill was less than an hour’s ride down the valley, it was true, but while there was nothing overly untoward about the friendship between Ruby Webb and Lady Sansa in the sweet, musty warmth of the Shieldfort’s stables, it would not be so simple between the Protector of the Gift and the miller’s wife. Sansa sighed as the cart trundled through the gates, and watched it down the hill and out of sight. It put her in mind of the day Brienne had left Winterfell in search of Arya and, in a gloomy state, Sansa returned to the keep and went about her business. It is only because there are so few women here, she told herself as she re-hung tapestries over newly repaired shutters. Even though the crannogmen had returned to Winterfell, the place was still full of Jon’s black brothers and Sansa sometimes felt as though crude language and rough, tattered clothing were become the norm in her life, now. Winter had been hard, and she had learnt to make do and get on with what needed getting on with, but sometimes, Sansa still longed for fine silks, embroidery circles and the sound of women’s laughter.
She was still in this sombre mood when Ellan appeared just before midday with a piece of parchment in her hand.
“A raven came for you, m’lady,” she said, holding the tiny scroll out, and Sansa wondered at how quickly the Citadel had responded to her request. But the twin dots of red and black wax sealing the scroll were not of the Citadel, and Sansa’s heart leapt as she quickly opened the letter.
“It’s from Her Grace,” she explained to Ellan, who was giving Sansa a bemused look at her sudden excitement.
“Her Grace?” Ellan asked, confused.
“Her Grace,” Sansa repeated distractedly, scanning over the short missive. “You know, Daenerys. Targaryen.”
“Her Grace the Queen?” Ellan asked in shock. “You know Queen Daenerys, m’lady?”
“Yes, I do,” Sansa said, looking up finally. “And so will you, it seems. She writes she is coming to visit.”
They stared at each other for several long moments, Ellan blinking rapidly as she tried to absorb this new turn of events. “When... when might we expect the honour?”
“This afternoon,” Sansa said faintly. “She’s coming on dragonback.”
“I had best tell mother to make ready, then,” Ellan said, and all but ran for the steps down to the kitchen. Sansa felt like doing the same – Daenerys had not allowed them much time to prepare for her arrival, and Sansa could only hope she did not bring a large retinue. Oh, but it will be so wonderful to see her again!
She found Sandor up the narrow flight of stairs leading from their chambers to the battlements above, leaning through a crenel to look at the wall beneath while a black brother did the same at the next crenel over. She listened impatiently while the builder droned on and on about mortar, voice appearing and disappearing from her ears with the swirling of the wind, before they finally straightened and took note of her presence.
“Horse hair is best, to avoid cracking from the ice, but you’ll never stop it completely this far north,” she said. The black brother stared open mouthed, and her husband smirked at him. “So the stonemasons at Winterfell told me,” she added, before asking the man to excuse them.
Sandor’s reaction was little enough when she told him of the Queen’s imminent arrival – Sansa supposed he had scant reason to be impressed by royalty, having seen so much of it – but to her dismay he refused to relinquish their chambers for the Queen’s comfort.
“But where will she stay?” Sansa begged. “The rooms below are so small, and the mattresses are straw.”
“But they’re good enough for the likes of us?” he snapped in reply.
“She’s our honoured guest,” Sansa said, her voice hardening – as though that would do any good when he got like this.
“She can bugger herself, same as the rest,” Sandor said, and stalked off, leaving Sansa to hope that against all the rules of courtesy and hospitality, Daenerys did not intend to stay the night.
The sun was barely two hours past its zenith when the cry went up from the yard that the Queen’s dragon had been sighted. Hurriedly wiping her hands on a rag, Sansa straightened from the hearth she had been scrubbing, collected Ellan from amongst the women sweeping the guest chambers and ran upstairs to change into something more suitable. She had returned to Winterfell near three years ago with a pair of roughspun dresses the sisters at the Duskendale septry had gifted her, a handful of things taken from the Vale, and little else. Since then, being winter, Sansa had had little opportunity to refill her chests with the fine gowns she had been used to in her youth. She remembered the Queen’s visit to Winterfell, not long before Petyr’s trial, how Sansa’s fingers had itched to touch the summer silk of her skirts, the soft rabbit fur of her cloak. That day Daenerys had gifted her the grey velvet dress she had made her bride’s gown from, something fine for the castellan of Winterfell and temporary Warden of the North. A strange gift from a queen to her subject, perhaps, but Daenerys had always been more kindred spirit than sovereign to Sansa: the gift had been perfectly chosen and very well received.
Sansa had no such finery for today’s meeting, slipping on a gown of blue linen that was too thin for the time of year, re-pinning her hair in the looking glass as Ellan laced her bodice.
Drogon was still circling overhead when Sansa stepped out into the bailey, shielding her eyes against the grey sky as she looked up for a moment to watch the great black shape of the Queen’s dragon. Near everyone still in the Shieldfort was up on the curtain wall and Sansa ascended the steps to join them, making her way to Sandor’s side as Drogon wheeled and began to descend towards the flatter ground to the south of the fort.
“Unnatural creature,” Sandor rasped, voice low so that only Sansa heard.
“She won’t bring him any nearer,” she replied, watching the great black beast touch lightly to the ground. “Not with so many people here.”
“Is that supposed to be a comfort?” Sandor asked derisively, but Sansa was too excited to pay much attention to his ill humour, running back down the steps to the gate. He had caught her up again by the time she had reached the edge of the deserted shelters propped against the curtain wall, and stood by her side as they waited to greet the figures making their way up the slope of the hill.
“You know, little bird, this is like to do more for your standing in the eyes of the smallfolk than any tales of my valour,” he said quietly, snarling out the last word in disgust.
Sansa looked up at him, studying his scowling face for a moment, before saying, “Queen Daenerys is very dear to me, my lord. Please at least try to make it look as though you chose to marry me, and are not here in enforced servitude.”
She had meant the words as a jest, but they came out more sharply than intended. His eyes flicked to hers and she let the moment stretch before raising one eyebrow archly, half in challenge. Anything he might have said in retort was curtailed by greetings called out by the tall figure in cobalt blue armour and the white cloak of the Queensguard.
“Brienne!” Sansa exclaimed, delighted. Then, behind her, the Queen’s palanquin came to a halt and, smiling, Sansa knelt. After half a heartbeat, Sandor knelt beside her.
Daenerys Targaryen was a young woman of twenty years, small in stature and petite in figure. Brienne of Tarth tended to tower over most, but by her side, Daenerys looked particularly childlike. She wore her habitual expression of youthful innocence as she appeared from behind the palanquin’s drapes – a façade, Sansa knew, but one that had served her well in a world where men were always so willing to underestimate her. All of this, coupled with her silvery hair and violet eyes, lent the Queen an ephemeral quality that was utterly misleading: Daenerys had steel in her spine, forged through many years of hardship and more than one ghastly mistake.
As ever, none of this was on display as the Queen stepped gracefully to the ground and raised her eyes to take in the entirety of the Shieldfort before lowering them once more to its Lord and Lady.
“Rise,” she commanded in her light, girlish voice, and Sansa regained her feet and brushed the wrinkles from her skirts. Daenerys glanced at Sansa with a smile in her eyes, but addressed Sandor first, as was proper.
“Lord Clegane,” she said, looking him directly in the face, “it is a pleasure to finally meet you after hearing so much of your person. You must forgive me for passing your family’s lands to the ownership of others, but I’m afraid the world quite thought you dead.”
Daring a glance at her husband, Sansa saw the small signs in his otherwise blank expression that signalled his discomfort. He does not know how to respond to such courtesy without rudeness, she realised, amused.
“I’ll settle for keeping my head on my shoulders,” he muttered, adding, “Your Grace,” almost as an afterthought.
“Ah, but you were pardoned,” Daenerys smiled, gesturing to the tall woman behind her. “Indeed, Brienne insisted.”
Sansa saw his eyes shift to Brienne, could hear his voice in her head mocking, How noble. Instead, he seemed to stare at her a long time, taking in the terrible scar on her left cheek where an outlaw had bitten the flesh from her face. Then he merely nodded at her, some sort of acknowledgement Sansa did not truly understand but was pleased by nonetheless.
“Lady Clegane,” Daenerys was saying, and Sansa returned her attention to the Queen as she placed her small hands on Sansa’s shoulders and leant forward to kiss her cheek.
“Your Grace,” Sansa returned, and could not temper the wide smile that broke across her face. Daenerys’s eyes sparkled as she smiled in return.
“My sweet Sansa, it has been too long.”
“Your Grace is kind to say so,” Sansa said, “though I am not the one in possession of such expeditious transport.”
Sansa heard a faint gasp from the Queen’s retinue, but Daenerys herself grinned in delight. “You are right, of course. Though the duties of a Queen are tedious and many. I was most unhappy to be forced to miss your wedding.”
“Perhaps if I had given more notice,” Sansa allowed, letting the irony bleed through just a little, knowing that Daenerys had heard the double meaning to her words. “But it is no matter, Your Grace, as we are most gratified to be honoured with your presence now.”
Daenerys laughed and took Sansa by the arm. “Enough,” she said. “I cannot withstand this after so many hours on dragonback. Take me indoors and feed me hot spiced wine.” And tell me how it is you came to marry that man, her eyes begged Sansa silently.
It was the second time in as many weeks that the Shieldfort’s hall had seen a feast, though this one was both more numerous in dishes, the food having been provided from Her Grace’s supplies, and less boisterous in atmosphere, given the gradual decrease in their numbers of late. Sansa spent several happy hours talking with Daenerys and Brienne, barely marking the fine food or the passage of time.
Sansa did not yet have a bower that she could invite the women to retire to as the hour grew late, but Daenerys asked to sit by a fire and did not object to where that fire may be, and so Sansa led her friends down to the kitchen where the walk-in hearth always radiated heat. It was quiet at this hour of the night, just a couple of girls Sansa had taken on tidying the left overs and taking scraps out to the animals.
“Is your husband a good man?” Brienne asked, as Sansa ladled them each a fresh cup of spiced wine from the pan hanging over the fire. “I heard tell of him from one of the brothers when I visited the Quiet Isle some years past, but I think he must be much changed from the man I heard described then.”
“Yes,” Sansa said simply, after a moment’s thought on how best to phrase it. She passed the women their wine and seated herself.
“There was hesitation in your voice just now, sweetling,” Daenerys said. Her tone was mild but she was frowning slightly. Sansa ran a hand down her skirts, smoothing a crease.
“He treats me very well,” she clarified.
“He made mock of your manners this evening,” Daenerys countered.
Did he! I didn’t notice. Sansa smiled slightly. “Our marriage is not one easily defined.”
“But he is... gentle, in his duties as a husband?” Brienne asked, blushing deeply but clearly determined to get her question answered.
Sansa looked between her friends, for half a heartbeat tempted to lie. But Daenerys was too hard to fool and Brienne too easy, and besides she had little taste for it any more. She sagged back in her chair, suddenly tired.
“He does not perform his duties as a husband,” she admitted, staring into her cup at the dark red of the wine.
“He is... unable?” Daenerys asked delicately.
An abrupt laugh bubbled out of Sansa’s chest. “No. No, he is most able. He simply will not.” She looked up at twin expressions of disbelief. She waved a hand at them dismissively. “It’s not like that. He wants to, he just...” Sansa squeezed her eyes closed for a moment, rubbing at the bridge of her nose – a most undignified gesture that she would not dream of doing before anyone less familiar. “Oh, Dany,” she sighed. “He wants something from me. Something I’m not sure I can give.”
Daenerys reached out and took Sansa’s hand in hers, squeezing her fingers lightly for a moment before releasing her. When she changed the subject to her impending visit to the Wall, Sansa was profoundly grateful.
She was grateful, too, that Daenerys preferred to stay in her pavilion down in the valley where Drogon had landed. She did not care to be separated from her beast, she said, and Sansa thought of Lady and understood. It was early morning when she finally bid goodnight to her friends. Taking a candle from her sleepy maid, Sansa sent Ellan to bed and climbed the stairs to her chambers alone.
Sandor was already abed and fast asleep, sprawled on his front, his broad back rising and falling with his breath. Placing the candle on the small table by his bedside, Sansa bent and gently brushed his fine black hair from his face. It revealed his unburnt side, and Sansa remembered the first time she had looked on his face and thought it attractive, in the evening sunlight of Winterfell’s godswood. Lightly she brushed the back of her hand over his cheek, feeling soft skin and the prickle of stubble, before quickly dressing for bed and climbing beneath the covers.
Chapter 29: Sandor
The morning was dull grey and drizzling when Sandor opened the shutters. A gust of cold air came in through the unglazed window, and in their bed Sansa buried herself deeper under the blankets and furs. It was not like her to sleep late, but then the gods only knew what time she had come to bed this morning. He had never seen three women talk so much or so incessantly. Granted that bloody great Maid of Tarth said little enough, but that was hardly surprising with Sansa and Her Grace yattering on. And the Queen wasn’t just satisfied with keeping her questions for Sansa, was she? Daenerys had insisted on speaking to him on numerous occasions throughout the evening and often at great length, her pristine courtesy seemingly designed to raise his ire. She looked me in the face, though. That took more mettle than appearances suggested she was in possession of. Sandor sensed she had enjoyed herself immensely, and largely at his expense.
He grimaced in memory and turned to look at his sleeping wife. It was tempting to wake her out of spite for putting him through that ordeal last night, but he did not, calling her maid instead to begin heating water for her bath. She would have to rise by the time it was ready as they were to break their fast with the Queen in her pavilion, but for now it would do no harm to allow her to sleep on.
Later, dismounting his horse, Sandor was surprised just how many people the Queen had brought with her, seeing them all in one place for the first time and not scattered throughout the Shieldfort’s hall. He had managed to avoid laying eyes on her dragon, but they had heard its roar as they descended the path down the hill from the fort and it had sent a shiver down his spine. It had sounded larger than any creature he had ever seen before, and here was the proof, in the number of maids and cooks and guards who had flown here with Her Grace on its back.
Brienne stood on duty behind the Queen’s seat this morning, and did not join them for the meal. Sandor regretted that. She was a woman, aye, and he had never seen her fight, but there was something about her that demanded his grudging respect. That, and she was the only one who had felt moved, the night before, to speak of anything worthwhile, such as the Shieldfort’s improving defences and the training Sandor was still giving his Winter Town boys.
The food was worth coming for, however. Sandor had not eaten bacon since leaving the Quiet Isle, close to a year ago now, and he had not even seen an orange since King’s Landing.
“Oh, how wonderful,” Sansa exclaimed, picking a segment of glistening flesh from the platter Daenerys proffered. “Wherever did you get them?”
“Winter does not touch Dorne in the same way as the other kingdoms,” Daenerys said, “and the Summer Isles not at all. I am not sure whether they are home-grown or brought from across the sea, but they were from my sweet Arianne as a gift to mark the changing seasons.”
“If there are oranges already, there must surely soon be lemons,” Sansa said, smiling briefly up at Sandor as though he should understand her meaning, though he did not.
“Perhaps you will grow your own,” Daenerys suggested.
“One day,” Sansa said wistfully. “I would like nothing better, but this far north it could not be done without a glass garden.”
“Ah,” Daenerys said in understanding. “Of course. Now, I have something for you,” she continued, seeming to change the subject. Reaching into her cloak she withdrew a small bundle of deep blue velvet tied up with a strip of ribbon. “You must forgive me, I know I am somewhat belated, but I wanted to give it to you in person: it is a marriage gift.”
“Oh, how wonderful. Thank you,” Sansa beamed, and carefully unwrapped the little parcel. When she saw what it was she gasped and Sandor thought at first it was jewellery or some sort of gem, as the light caught its corner and twinkled. But when she passed it to him, he saw instead a clear, flat square, about the size of the palm of his hand: a pane of glass.
“I have found you a man from Braavos with the knowledge to create many more,” Daenerys said. “He should have landed at Eastwatch by now, and will be with you by the new moon. I had thought to gift you with glass gardens, but on seeing your keep, I think I needs must gift you with glazing as well.”
“Dany,” Sansa gasped, glancing at Sandor as though looking for his support, “it’s too much. We can’t possibly-”
“Of course you can,” Daenerys interrupted, smiling her silly, girlish little smile. “We are but women, and know little of the harsh realities of the world. We need comfort to thrive, do we not, Brienne?”
They all turned to look at the lady of the Queensguard, who seemed uncomfortable to find herself under such scrutiny, her armour clinking as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Your Grace, you should not tease Brienne,” Sansa chided. “You know she does not like to lie.”
Sandor snorted. There’s the right of it. I’ve never met three highborn ladies more capable of living without their courtly comforts, he thought, though did not express it aloud, suspecting the Queen may well take it as a compliment.
“Very well,” Daenerys finally conceded. “If it is too grand a marriage gift, perhaps you will accept the glass gardens, and I will gift you the windows for your nameday.”
Sandor paused with his ale halfway to his mouth. “Her nameday?” he said, before he could stop himself.
“Indeed,” Daenerys said pleasantly. “It was last week, was it not, sweetling?”
Sansa did not look at him, though she flushed under his scrutiny. “You are right, but Dany, you know it isn’t our custom in the north to give gifts.”
“Yes,” Daenerys agreed, “however, I am from the south.”
Sandor did not hear the remainder of the conversation, caught in some strange trap of resentment and guilt. What do I care for namedays? he asked himself, but the answer was not one to his liking. He was not paying attention, and that was how he found himself alone in the Queen’s company, as Brienne took Sansa out to admire the Queen’s damned beast.
“I am afraid you do not think much of me, my lord,” Daenerys said lightly as a maid poured her a cup of steaming brown liquid. Koffie, she had called it, but Sandor had not liked the bitter taste.
“One King is much the same as the Kings who came before him, I’ve found,” he said, “and Queens are worse. You’re all power hungry narcissists, desperate for the world to fall at your feet, and more interested in your courtly games and pretty words than planting fields to feed your people.”
“Interesting. You do not fear my retribution for your words,” she said. It was not a question. “Some might consider them treasonous.”
“Why ask, if you’re not interested in the answer?”
“To be flattered, of course,” Daenerys laughed. “To be affirmed. And to learn more of the speaker. I did not know you held such concern in your heart for the smallfolk of Westeros, for example. But come, let us not argue. There is something I would say to you.” Sandor watched her silently as she took a sip of her koffie. He did not nod or otherwise encourage her to continue – Queens did not need prompting, in his experience. She placed her dainty little cup back in its saucer and dabbed at her mouth with a cloth before continuing. “Sansa is one of my most loyal vassals, did you know? She reunited the north in my name, on the strength of little more than my promise that Petyr Baelish would be brought to justice. Oh, it did not take a great deal of effort, I know – these northerners have it imprinted on their bones that there must always be a Stark in Winterfell – but she could have caused trouble for me at that time, and that she did not I will be forever grateful. But it’s more than that, what she is to me. We understand each other, Sansa and I, in the way only two women who have survived what we have survived can. We are sisters, if not in name then in the blood and tears we have shed.”
She stopped and looked at him, blinking her large violet eyes, and Sandor saw nothing but a wall of innocent interest. “Make your point, Your Grace,” he warned.
“My point, Lord Clegane, is that I know Sansa better than anyone, better even than her family, not because we have grown up together, or fought side by side, or shared the secrets of our hearts by firelight. I know her because I know myself. I certainly know her better than you. But, you seem to have a care for my sweet sister-in-arms, and so I will tell you something you do not yet understand.
“Women like us, who have seen rather too much of the world, do not give our hearts away easily, even to those we trust with our lives. But we do have hearts, Lord Clegane, damaged though they may be.”
The Queen left later that day, promising to return on her next visit to the Wall, and Sansa spent the evening pouring over the scrolls on architecture she had brought from Winterfell’s library, trying to work out how best to extend the fort to accommodate the Queen’s needs. Sandor sat by the fireplace in the hall and contemplated Daenerys’s words to him.
I need to get some dogs, he thought idly as he nursed his watery ale. The castle seemed empty without a small pack of hunting dogs lolling on the rushes by the fire, but the rushes sat rotting in the melting fields leaving their floors bare stone, and the dogs themselves were always the first to go into the pot in winter, once the meat stores were gone. Dogs were good company when all you had were your thoughts, though, and too many at that.
The following morning Sandor saddled Stranger and took Robyn and Allarick down into the wooded valley beneath the granite cliff the fort stood atop. They took bows and spears and knives, and caught two brace of rabbits, but Sandor found what he was looking for late in the afternoon just as they were about to turn and make for home: a slender white trunk no thicker than his thumb, spindly branches reaching upwards like skeletal fingers, covered in leaf buds of bright blood red.
“Shovels,” he told the boys, and they carefully dug up the weirwood, wrapping its root ball in a damp square of fabric Sandor had kept balled up in his saddlebags for this very use.
“It looks queer without a face,” Allarick complained as they rode back in the gathering dusk.
“It’s a sapling,” Robyn replied witheringly. “Any child knows that weirwoods only grow in the spring. This one’s nut was probably dormant in the ground since autumn – it don’t look older than a couple of months.”
“Months?” Allarick said. “I planted an acorn in my ma’s kitchen garden once, and it took three years to reach that size.”
“It’s a heart tree, not an oak,” Robyn said, rolling his eyes.
The boy had a point. Even Sandor, grown up in the westerlands, knew the strange growth cycle of the weirwood trees. I had a maester to teach me, though. Fat, useless lump that he had been. Though the man had tended his face after Gregor burned him, Sandor mainly remembered Maester Fyrn as the man who had taught Gregor anatomy, knowing full well what use the young Lord Clegane would put the knowledge to.
They were cold and wet from a hard rain by the time they returned to the Shieldfort, but Sansa’s face could have near illuminated the yard when she saw what they had brought her.
“I will have to add a godswood to the plans,” she said at dinner that night.
“Aye, but the rest of the trees will have to wait for your next nameday.”
“Oh,” Sansa said, and Sandor saw that he’d surprised her. “I didn’t realise... you know it’s only a southron custom to give nameday gifts.”
“Yes, I do know,” he said, “I’m from the south.”
She gave him an odd look then, as though trying to work out if he was japing with her. He didn’t tell her either way.
The snows were melting quickly now. More and more, Sandor was able to get out into the Gift lands to go hunting. There were rabbits aplenty, and the day he brought home a boar the cook near kissed him, she’d been so happy. One day, bright with the glare of sunlight reflected from wet snow, Sandor took Robyn over to the next valley to teach him how to hunt deer. They spent the better part of the day tracking a doe, only to find she had recently birthed a fawn, the thing so new born it was still tottering about on spindly legs.
“No,” Sandor said, staying the boy’s bow arm. “If we take the mother, the fawn will die, then there’ll be nothing to hunt next year. We’re not so desperate for meat as that.”
Sansa liked Robyn because his mother had taught him to read, and she seemed to enjoy passing the boy her old books. Sandor liked him because he scoffed at the tales of chivalry and courtly romance, even as he devoured them. Robyn himself did not know how old he was, but Sandor guessed about eleven or twelve. For one so young to survive winter chiefly by himself... children like him were never so innocent as those who grew up in summer.
They rode home in silence, but Sandor did not notice it until they passed through the Shieldfort’s gates, the bailey unusually quiet. The black brothers were slowly returning to the Wall, it was true, but this quiet had a subdued quality that set Sandor on edge.
“Something’s wrong,” he whispered to Robyn. Jumping down, he passed Stranger’s reins to his squire and looked about the bailey carefully, hand on the hilt of his sword. “Take the horses back to the stables,” he said over his shoulder as he strode quickly to the keep, following the sounds of voices.
The kitchen was full of people, the hum of murmuring voices so loud he could distinguish no single conversation. As he pushed through the bodies the room fell silent, however, and the feeling that something was amiss intensified.
“Someone will speak, or I’ll start cutting out tongues,” he warned, drawing his sword enough to show several inches of steel. Then he saw the cook, sitting on a bench by one of the counters, and at her side, face a damp, blotchy mess of ghostly white and angry red, sat the Webb girl. “What in the seven hells is she doing here?”
“M’lord,” said a woman’s voice, and Sandor swung around to face Sansa’s maid. “If it please you, m’lord, Emlyn arrived not half an hour before you did, clinging to the back of that great carthorse m’lady gifted her parents for the mill, screaming her head off that he was murdering her mother.”
“Her father, m’lord, Tom Webb.”
Sandor glanced quickly around the room, taking in the faces of the girls Sansa had brought on as scullery maids, the black brothers, a couple of his boys, before turning back to Ellan.
“Where’s Lady Clegane?” he demanded, and when she said nothing he grabbed her by the shoulders, digging fingertips into her flesh. “Where is she?”
Ellan sobbed in fright, staring up at him wide-eyed and transfixed. “She rode to the mill, m’lord, took Allarick and was off.”
“And none of these black bastards would go after her,” the cook spat, but Sandor was no longer listening, running back out to the fading light of the bailey and straight to the stables.
Robyn had not yet managed to get close enough to Stranger to remove his tack. Good, Sandor thought, pushing the boy out of the way and swinging straight up into the saddle.
“Get the others,” he said. “Follow me.”
“Where to, m’lord?”
“Smalldale Mill. Bring swords.”
“Wait, Lord Clegane, don’t you want your armour?” Robyn called after him, but there was no time for that. Her words rang in his ears, I know you only ever tried to protect me. She had been wrong, then, but gods be good, he would not allow her to be wrong now.
The path to the mill was pitted with stones and slippery with snow and mud, and the sky was darkening, but Sandor urged Stranger on, no thought for anything but reaching Sansa.
Chapter 30: Sansa
After all you've seen, tell me, do you still believe husbands never act ungently to their wives? Standing in the kitchen of the small mill cottage with her dagger pointing at Tom Webb and Ruby cowering on the floor behind her, face so swollen she was almost unrecognisable, Sansa remembered Sandor’s words to her and felt oddly like laughing. Naïve little bird, she thought bitterly, still needing to believe that marriages end as the songs do. How could I have been so blind? It wasn’t Emlyn he was hurting, but Ruby.
On the floor, Allarick lay unmoving, his arm bent at an unnatural angle and his breath coming rapid and shallow, but Sansa had eyes only for the man in front of her. She had not thought he could be so strong, barely overtopping Sansa herself and slight of build. But he had a wiry strength, and he was drunk – not enough that he was reeling, but enough to make him mean.
“Come no closer,” Sansa warned, and he leered at her.
“Aye, and why is that? You might be a high born piece of cunt, but I’ve a right to do as pleases me in my own home.”
“If you lay a hand on me, you will pay with your life,” she warned, and was distantly pleased that her voice didn’t shake as her dagger did. A solid wood table stood between them, but Tom Webb took a step around it now, and Sansa knew she could not move without exposing Ruby once more.
“Aye? Friend of the Queen, you are, aren’t you? Think that makes you special, I expect, but the dragon bitch isn’t here now. You Starks are all the same.” He spat, and took another step. “And don’t think on that husband to save you. I’ve heard tell your cunt’s as cold as the Wall – probably he’ll thank me for getting rid of you, leave him with your titles.” He took another step. “Lord High Hound of the Gift,” he smirked, “I bet that Lannister dog would like that.”
Sansa did not waste her breath warning him again, but lashed out, aiming to slash at his stomach. He reared back and she missed, not even tearing his tunic, and the motion of her arm caused her to lose her balance. The fist met her face with enough force to throw her sprawling to the floor, and Sansa heard with dismay the sound of her dagger clattering away under the table.
A shadow moved in the open doorway. She blinked and tried to clear her head of the ringing. Someone grabbed her by the arm and hauled her up, and Tom Webb’s face swam back into view as he trapped her against the table.
“You will regret that,” Sansa murmured, jaw stiff and singing with pain.
“Will I?” he leered, and raised his fist once more.
It never fell. A figure loomed out of the darkness behind him and enclosed Tom Webb’s fist in his own bigger fist, before wrenching his arm down and behind his back. Another hand appeared, the blade of a dirk glinting for a moment before Tom Webb was hauled back and away from her.
“Sandor,” she said, weak with relief, barely hearing the tearing sound of steel parting flesh, the gurgle of the miller’s final breaths.
Hard grey eyes shone in the twilight gloom, fixed on hers in something Sansa was tempted to name fear. Big hands ran up and down her arms, her torso, her face, made rough with urgency, and she flinched when he touched her face, the right side half-numbed, half-afire.
“Light,” Sandor called, voice like the rasp of steel on stone, and Sansa thought she had never heard anything sweeter.
“I’m all right,” she tried to say, “someone help Ruby,” but her voice was lost under the clatter of many bodies filling the small room. One of Sandor’s boys brought a torch over and Sandor turned her face towards it, gentle now.
“Nothing broken,” he said after a moment. And then he lifted her in his arms, barked instructions to the others to bring Ruby back to the Shieldfort and dispose of the body, and took her straight to Stranger. The great black stallion didn’t even attempt to snap at her as Sandor placed her carefully atop his back, stooping once to scoop up some snow from the ground before swinging up behind her.
“Here,” he said, passing the snow into Sansa’s gloved hand. “Hold it to your face. It’ll help keep the swelling down.”
You hardly need to tell me that, Sansa thought vaguely, but this was not King’s Landing, and he was no longer a silent figure on the side lines.
Sandor wrapped one arm around her waist before urging Stranger to a canter. Every footfall the horse made sent a jolt of pain through Sansa’s jaw, but the ice was slowly numbing it and the tightness with which Sandor held her against him helped. It might have been kinder on the horse for her to ride pillion, she reflected, but then she would not be able to feel the absolute security of his solid chest at her back, his strong arms surrounding her. Closing her eyes, Sansa leant her head back against his chest, his chainmail cool on her over-warm skin.
“Sansa,” he whispered, and buried his face briefly in the loose hair at her neck.
Gods, she thought, it’s been so long since he kissed me.
She remembered the day in King’s Landing when Myrcella had sailed for Dorne, the day she had spoken of to Ruby and Emlyn and the others in the Shieldfort’s stables. She remembered clinging to Sandor as he took the reins of her horse, sticky with other people’s blood, his plate armour digging into her arms and chest, but she had held on so tightly. She remembered seeing him again in Winterfell for the first time, how the mere sight of him had taken her back so strongly to that awful time that she could hardly remember she was a helpless child no longer. She remembered seeing him unclothed by the hot pools in the godswood, and realising, nonsensically, that he was a man. She remembered how he had looked coming back to the keep after the wildlings attacked, covered in sweat and dirt and the spray of red up his neck that stopped where his armour would have been, and looking alive, so alive. She remembered how the sight of him like that had affected her; how it affected her now.
She did not realise she had been shaking until she stopped. Her hand was steady when she slid it over his big hand curled so securely against her waist, pushing her other hand beneath his chain mail to find his warm thigh, fingers digging into the leather of his breeches like an anchor.
Her hand was steady, too, when she led him from the stables to the keep. Robyn was not yet returned to help him with his hauberk, but Sansa could do that, as she had done on the road.
Ellan was lighting the fire in the bedchamber when they climbed the stairs, Sandor’s hand held in her own so tightly Sansa’s knuckles had turned white. The maid rose when she heard them, wringing her hands and looking desperate to ask a question, but Sansa dismissed her, and barred the door after she was gone.
Sandor’s chainmail was heavy and fastened up the back. Wordlessly, Sansa loosened the ties and helped him drag it over his head. Robyn would have set it on a mannequin for cleaning; Sansa left it in a pool on the floor, and turned her attention to Sandor’s quilted jerkin. But this time, when she reached for the ties, he gripped her wrists with hands like iron.
“What are you doing?” he growled, eyes glittering like his chainmail in the firelight.
“Undressing you, my lord.”
His stare was hard and lasted many heartbeats. Sansa could feel the warmth of his breath on her face, and was glad, for a moment, that he gripped her so hard, as a dizzy wave of want coursed through her.
“You don’t have to reward me,” he snarled, face contorting, and Sansa wondered that she had ever found it frightening when all that he felt was so plain to see.
“Please,” she said. “I want you.” His grip tightened, painful now, even as he pulled her closer. He is at war with himself. I know how that feels. “Look at me,” she said. “Look at me, not through me. Sandor. I know I have given you little reason to believe me, but it’s the truth. I saw you in the godswood at Winterfell, bathing in the pools. I watched you take your pleasure of yourself and I did the same. That was not the first time, nor was it the last.” She pushed against him and after a moment he released her. She placed one hand on his chest, heaving with his near panicked breath, and reached up to touch his face with the other. His eyes flashed in a strange mixture of anger and desire, and for a moment Sansa feared he would rear away, relieved when her hand touched his skin. It was the burned side of his face, and though Sansa was certain that little sensation remained to him there, after half a heartbeat his eyes closed. “I do want you,” she whispered. “Please, please, for once, accept my words for what they are.”
Gently, insistently, Sansa drew him down until their lips met. Just like our first kiss in Winterfell, she thought, except this time he did not throw her off, but wrapped his arms around her, one hand on the small of her back, one at the nape of her neck, possessive. At the feel of his hand on her bare skin, Sansa gasped against his mouth. He caught her lower lip gently in his teeth before soothing it with his tongue, and that along with the hardness Sansa felt pressing against her belly sent a wave of heat to her core, so strong her legs felt close to collapse.
Twining her arms around his neck, she pulled him closer, close enough to kiss him deeply. Her jaw ached, but it was worth it for the hot slide of his tongue against her own. After the pain and horror of the evening, the relief she’d felt when he’d come for her, Sansa wanted nothing more than to be near to Sandor, nearer than she currently was. Without breaking the kiss, she reached for the ties of his jerkin once more, and this time he didn’t stop her, but helped her remove it when she reached up to push it from his shoulders. Beneath that he wore a chemise. Sansa had to pull away to get it over his head, but beneath that was bare skin, and Sansa pressed her mouth to a scar on his chest, breathing in the scent of his skin, wind and steel and leather, and under that, something warm and familiar, something him.
Sansa had been admiring his body since that night in the godswood, and now she touched him everywhere she could reach, his chest, his back, his arms. He growled long and low into her mouth when she rubbed him through the front of his breeches. He was so strong, and to feel that power under her hands gave her a sense of power that she had never known in a situation like this. He is no Petyr Baelish, she told herself sternly, lest some stubborn part of her brain forget. He will not hurt me. He’s mine, and we both know it.
“Sit down,” she said, trying to move him towards the bed.
“Sit down,” she repeated, smiling slightly. “You’re too tall, you’re hurting my neck.”
He paused, reaching up to touch her swollen jaw lightly, before doing as she told him. Sansa stood between his thighs and bent to kiss him again, cradling his head in her hands. He rested his hands on the backs of her thighs, low enough to make Sansa yearn for more. Leaning back she caught his eye and reached for the laces on her bodice. As she undid the knot, Sansa was pleased that he looked away first, eyes falling to her fumbling fingers.
“Will you loosen my skirts?” she asked, turning her back on him. He brought his hands up to her hips, pausing there for a moment, his fingers like hot brands even through the layers of fabric. The skirts were heavy wool, made warmly for winter, and so when he did eventually release the fastenings they fell straight to the floor. Sansa pushed her bodice after it, and then her shift as well. Clad only in her smallclothes, she sat back in Sandor’s lap, tipping her head back against his shoulder, turning her face into his neck. She felt rather than heard his breath hitch, felt the thrum of his pulse beneath her lips. His skin was warm against her bare back, and he turned his head to kiss her temple and hair before she took his hands in hers and placed them on her body. He spread one hand across her belly, holding her tightly to him, and with the other he cupped her breast and brushed a thumb over her nipple.
“You’ll tell me if I hurt you,” he rasped, voice betraying a tremble she was certain he would not like her to notice, his hot breath teasing the shell of her ear. She shuddered in answer, her skin prickling. She could feel his desire against her bottom, and gripping his thighs, she ground down against him. He let out a low groan that vibrated through his chest and into her body, his hand pinching her nipple convulsively. It was a sweet pain, and it echoed the sensation building between her thighs. Sansa had a brief moment of fearing he might think her a wanton, before nudging the hand on her belly lower, but he stopped at her waistband, fingers curling into a fist.
“Sansa,” he said again, a helpless note singing out to her over the thick desire in his voice. Has he never touched a woman for her pleasure? she wondered. The thought did not surprise her, yet it awakened a fierce jealousy of his previous lovers.
She stood, and pushed him back onto the bed before reaching down to unlace his breeches, his breath hitching as she brushed the hard length of him with her knuckles. When he was naked she took a moment to admire him, the thick muscles of his thighs, the hard strength of his chest and belly, his manhood standing erect from dark pubic hair. His left thigh had a long, ragged scar running deep into the muscle, and Sansa reached forward to trace it lightly with her fingertips, brushing a kiss where it ended by his knee, before straightening again. Loosening the drawstring, Sansa pushed her smallclothes from her hips before climbing astride Sandor’s thighs on the bed. She felt vulnerable and exposed with her legs parted thus, naked as her nameday, with Sandor’s eyes devouring her, but she also felt excited – little pleasurable shocks shooting up from between her legs to the base of her spine.
“I don’t know how to touch you, either,” she admitted as she reached forward to encircle his member with her hand. His skin there was incredibly soft, almost silken, and the unexpectedness of it nearly made her laugh – his moan stopped her, a guttural, desperate sound that made her stomach turn over in anticipation. Carefully, Sansa stroked her hand up and down the length of him, watching his face with rapt attention. She wondered how many others had seen him like this, defenceless and open. None, she hoped. I want this to be for me alone.
His hands were on her thighs, thumbs moving in maddening circles on the tender skin of her inner thighs. Sansa slid forward a little, to put herself better in his reach.
“Please,” she whispered, “touch me. I’ll tell you if it hurts, I promise.”
Their eyes met and she felt another stab of arousal to see the flush raised in his good cheek, a fine sheen of sweat breaking out on his skin, and then a deeper ache as he gently parted her lips and brushed his thumb over her most sensitive place.
“Again,” she said, and sucked in a breath when he complied, letting it out in a moan as he brushed her womanhood with his forefinger.
“You’re so wet,” he said, his words nonsensical to Sansa until she remembered their wedding night.
Suddenly, Sandor pushed himself up into a sitting position, a hand still between her legs, pulling her down with the other for a searing kiss. If she had thought he was devouring her with his eyes before, that was nothing to this, the sensations almost overwhelming. She pushed herself down against his hand until he removed it, squeezing her bottom and urging her to work herself against his erection. Stars swam before her eyes and her eyelids fell closed in pleasure. He had her trapped against his body, moving her against him at his will, and it was having a powerful effect on her.
“Sandor, wait,” she begged, “I don’t want to, not yet.”
“Don’t want to what, little bird?”
She wouldn’t normally say it, but right now, rubbing herself against her husband’s manhood, breasts bouncing against his chest, she felt quite past caring for polite words. “I don’t want to climax yet.”
“What do you want?” he growled in her ear.
“I want you,” she moaned, desperate now. “I want you to take me.”
“Seven hells,” he swore and, lifting her up, turned them both until she was lying on the bed, digging her nails into his shoulders as he teased at her entrance. When she realised he was doing it with his member instead of his fingers, she felt the sweet, inevitable tightening of her muscles.
“Oh gods, now,” she moaned, and he pushed into her as her body exploded into pleasure.
When she opened her eyes again, Sandor was above her, breathing heavily, his black hair hanging around his face as he looked down on her. She felt a curious sensation of fullness, of intrusion, unlike anything she had felt before, and when she lifted her legs to wrap them around his waist it brought to her attention a stinging, burning sensation deep inside her.
“Do you want me to stop?” he said through gritted teeth, arms trembling with the strain, and that he would ask her that, now, sent a throb down her body like an aftershock.
“No, but... go slowly.” He lowered his head to kiss her, mouth still pressed to hers when he withdrew – not quite all the way – and pushed back in again. She wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders feeling the muscles straining in his back.
It was intimate. Sansa supposed she might have expected it to be so, but somehow it took her unprepared. She had never been so close to a man. She thought she ought feel vulnerable, as she had earlier, but that was gone now. It still stung a little, but there were other sensations too, more pleasant, and it wasn’t long before she was meeting his thrusts in a helpless search for more sensation, more closeness, just more.
“Yes,” she murmured, allowing her hands to drift down his back to his buttocks, feeling daring despite what they were currently doing. He felt so good under her hands, she had not known it would be like this.
He all but shouted when he climaxed, and Sansa’s cheeks pinked both from excitement and from embarrassment, knowing that someone would undoubtedly have heard. She thought of Randa with her many conquests, and the great racket she had always made. I think I understand her now, Sansa thought, and smiled, stroking Sandor’s hair as he buried his face in her neck.
It felt very pleasant to lie like that, touching almost everywhere they could be, his solid weight pressing her into the bed, but eventually the burn between her thighs became uncomfortable, and she had to ask him to move.
“Don’t cover up,” he said when she made to get under the furs. Lying beside her, he raised the hand that had been idly stroking her belly and ran light fingertips around the edge of her breast.
“Aren’t... aren’t you cold?” she asked feebly, suddenly and irrationally shy.
“No,” he said, and smiled. It was a look Sansa had not seen from him before, and it brought a tightness to her throat.
“I used to dream of you, in the Vale,” she said. She had not meant to say it, but the words had suddenly seemed to be in her mouth. She studied his face, trying to judge his reaction. He said nothing for a long time, gazing at her intently.
“You said before that you thought of me often,” he finally said. “I didn’t believe you.”
“I thought as much.” A small smile tugged at the corner of Sansa’s mouth. “You should not be so ready to think the worst of me.”
To that, he said nothing, merely pulled her close until she could no longer see his face.
Chapter 31: Sandor
Sansa was asleep, her head resting on his shoulder and her naked body pressed all along the length of his. Her hand lay in the centre of his chest, long fingers curled slightly in relaxation and pulling lightly on the black hair there. It wasn’t that that kept him from sleep, though.
Between his own stolen childhood and Robert Baratheon’s fateful journey north, Sandor had never felt much of anything beyond hatred for his brother and a boiling, implacable rage at the world. If nothing else the wine had seen to that. But even as a child, a tiny, frivolous thing made up entirely of manners and dreams, even when too terrified of his face to meet his eyes, Sansa had always treated him like a human being. She had sparked something in him, however withered, that he was only now beginning to see the enormity of, and it scared him more than Gregor had ever been able.
The swelling on her jaw was beginning to bloom into a dark, painful looking bruise. Sandor had had worse himself, but on her it seemed so dead wrong as to be unnatural. But it’s only because Joffrey never went for her face that you haven’t seen something similar before, he reminded himself, and held her more tightly.
He still had Tom Webb’s blood on him, he knew, and that was reassuring. Perhaps I should not have killed him, he thought idly. He was not sure where the law would stand on the matter. Then again, he was the Lord of the Gift now, and in Sandor’s experience, the law was what your liege lord said it was. Perhaps I should have stuck his head on a spike for all to see. He could not deny that for a moment, when he had brought the blade to the miller’s throat, he had imagined it to be a different throat, one with a fine silver clasp at the base of it attached to a white woollen cloak.
Sansa murmured something in her sleep and Sandor looked down at her, stroking careful fingers down her bare arm. Missing the opportunity to hack that whoreson’s head off was less important to him than bringing Sansa home to safety, he knew. Who are you? Brandon Stark had asked him once. Sandor thought he knew the answer to that, now.
Gods, she was beautiful. He still could not ignore the part of him that felt she was wasted on a dog like him, but she had married him for a reason and he hadn’t failed her yet, nor would he. And now they were married in fact as well as in name. He had wanted her almost longer than he could remember, but beyond that, he had needed more than her duty or her gratitude. He could not say whether he’d thought he would ever get it, but if her words and actions tonight had been a lie, it was a better lie than he could detect.
Perhaps she got off on seeing him kill a man who had hurt her. Perhaps in her head he was some heroic knight rescuing his lady from peril. Perhaps she had merely needed a better reason to put her trust in him. Sandor wasn’t sure which he would prefer. It matters not, he told himself, though of course that was a lie.
Even now, he wanted her, his cock half hard against his belly. He couldn’t stop touching her, marvelling at her smooth, unblemished skin, so different from his own, running his fingers and the palms of his hands down her arm, her back, the sensual swell of hips and arse. He had never stayed in bed with a woman after having her, but the thought now of getting up and leaving seemed impossible.
Sansa shifted against him in her sleep, a soft sigh escaping her lips, before rolling onto her back. Sandor smiled, an unfamiliar feeling of contentment coupled with a rush of arousal as her teats came into view. Unable to resist, he turned on his side resting his head in one hand, lightly cupping a teat in the other. Sansa sighed again, her nipples peaking, and Sandor lowered his head to lave the nearest with his tongue.
A hand buried itself lazily in his hair, though her eyes remained closed, and she moved her legs restlessly under the covers.
“Something you want, little bird?” he rasped, moving his hand lower to spread across her belly.
“Mmm,” she said, indistinct, trying to pull him back to suckle her teat. He’d hear her ask for it, first, though. Beg for it as she had done earlier.
Her thighs fell open sweetly when he put his hand to the soft hair between her legs, pressing down lightly with the flat of his hand.
“More,” she murmured.
“More what?” he asked, sliding a finger between her lips to tease her nub. She gasped, and finally her eyes blinked open, warm blue in the fading firelight.
“Kiss me,” she said, eyes on his mouth, her look half-lidded and hungry. He obeyed, pulse leaping when she pushed her tongue immediately into his mouth. His cock felt hot and heavy with desire and he rubbed himself against her hip as he frigged her with his fingers. She was getting wet again, and he trailed his fingers down to her cunt, relishing the sensation, but when he tried to slide a finger into her she winced, breaking their kiss.
“Sorry,” she said, glancing at him sweet and shy, “could you not? I’m a little sore from earlier.”
“Aye, alright,” he said reluctantly, making to remove his hand, but she stopped him with a touch to his wrist.
“I didn’t say stop altogether,” she murmured. Then, tentatively, she brought a finger to his mouth, touching his lips lightly. He drew it into his mouth and sucked as he touched her nub again and her eyes fluttered closed. When she opened them once more they were glassy with arousal, colour rising in her cheeks. “You could use your mouth on me,” she said a little breathlessly. “I think I would like it this time.”
He probably should have asked are you sure? But his cock had surged at her suggestion and he doubtless wasn’t thinking with his head. Yet when he kissed his way down her body she arched into his touch, when he licked between her legs she moaned aloud and dug her heels into his back, and when he reached up to thumb one tight, pink nipple her whole body shuddered, her muscles pulsing against his face.
He half expected her to close her eyes and go straight back to sleep afterwards, but instead she got up on her knees before him, eyes fever bright, and took his dick in her hand. He bent to kiss her mouth and then her neck where he had already left his mark tonight, and then she pushed him back with a hand on his chest and lowered her head to suckle on him.
Gods, the sight of her taking him into her mouth... There was a moment of heightened sensation in which he felt every slide of her lips as they parted over the head, the heat of her tongue as she touched it tentatively to him, the light squeeze of her fingers on his shaft, before he spent in her mouth like a green boy.
Afterwards he dragged her up and watched as she wiped her mouth daintily with her fingers before touching the pad of his thumb to the corner of her mouth.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
She looked at him with warm, languid eyes. “Why not?”
“You’re not some cheap tavern whore. It isn’t-”
“Seemly?” she interrupted. “Ladylike?” Sansa laughed and touched his chest, affectionate. “Sandor Clegane, instructing me in my courtesies. My septa will be turning in her grave.”
Joffrey didn’t give her one, he nearly said, but bit the words back. “If you want it that way, little bird, I could fuck that pretty little mouth of yours all day.”
He waited for her to wrinkle up her face in distaste at his vulgarity. Instead, she merely lay back down and pulled the covers to her shoulders. “Sleep first,” was all she said, and held out a hand to him until he lay by her side.
They both slept late, Sandor not waking until well past dawn, to the distant sounds of activity down below in the yard. He rose and washed and told Ellan to prepare a bath and a mayweed poultice for Sansa when she awoke, remembering the many times hot water and mayweed paste had soothed his aches and pains after a tourney or a fight. There was a strange moment, as he stepped out into daylight, of feeling disappointed that the world was continuing as normal when upstairs, everything had changed so much. But there was work to be done, and Sandor shook it off quickly enough.
Lowborn men and women were still trickling in to the Shieldfort, despite having placed several groups in nearby crofts and smallholdings. Sansa wanted to mark out the perimeter of the eventual extensions they would make before anyone started putting up shelters against the curtain wall again, and that meant building a palisade wall. More immediately, it meant cutting down trees, and so Sandor took the eldest of his boys and some of the men who appeared without occupation, and went down to the woods in the valley.
That was how the time passed. Every day the snow melted a little more until the hills were more green than white. The deciduous trees began to blossom while the sentinel pines’ cones spread open and dropped papery seeds to the ground. The palisade wall began to take shape, and as the earth slowly unfroze, the crofters started to till and plant the land. And when the sun set in the early evening, Sandor was as eager as any man to return to the warmth and shelter of the Shieldfort.
They learnt each other as the nights grew slowly shorter. Sansa hated being held down, he discovered, but loved being held against him, surrendering so sweetly to his hands on her hips, controlling her every move with the strength in his arms. She liked to touch and be touched, hungry for something that he was surprised he could so easily return. For his part, Sandor enjoyed every moment of it, the look in her eyes when she barred the door, the sounds she made when he touched her, the sensation of pushing into her hot, wet cunt. He had never, ever felt like this in his life, the endless, burning desire, the satisfaction she brought him through the pleasures of her body, but more than that, when she went to sleep in his arms humming with contentment – he felt filled up and overflowing with... something. He felt happy.
One morning they awoke to find it snowing heavily outside. Just winter’s last gasp, Sansa assured him, and laughed at his look of disdain.
“In the westerlands, the seasons know their place,” he said. “Winter is for snow and death, and spring is for flowers and fucking. None of this indecision.”
Flowers and fucking, Sansa mouthed, her lips forming the words almost thoughtfully, as though trying out some foreign language for the first time. In bed, under the layers of blankets and furs, Sandor’s prick began to swell.
“Tell me, my lord,” she said from her position by the window, “is it the livestock who... fuck... or the people?”
Wrapping a hand around his erection, Sandor stroked himself idly while watching her and wondering how many more times he could entice her to curse so. She wore a thin bed gown for the time of year, her figure clearly visible through the fabric, nipples drawn to seductive points in the cold.
“It’s the Lannisters’ seat,” he said. “Sometimes the people fuck the livestock.”
She giggled, blushing slightly and covering her mouth with her hand, for a moment looking so girlish it made his heart swell, before her eyes fell to the bed.
“What are you doing?” she said, her voice still filled with laughter, before she walked to the bed and pulled the covers back.
“By the Stranger, it’s cold,” Sandor complained, but didn’t stop stroking himself, shameless.
“Let me warm you,” Sansa said and urged his legs over the side of the bed with her hands before sinking to her knees on the bearskin and swallowing him down.
Her mouth was a single point of heat on his cold skin as she sucked on his shaft, and she brushed her hand down over his balls in a way that was like to drive him soon mad. He watched her face as he wove his fingers into her hair, saw her eyes flutter closed and her cheeks pink. When she drew back for breath he wasted no time in pulling her bed gown up and over her head. Naked, she bent once more to take him in, digging her little claws into the hard flesh of his thighs and raking his skin until she took the base of his cock and his balls in her hands once more. She’s marked me, he thought as her tongue laved over the sensitive head. Good.
He almost cursed again when she withdrew a second time, looking up at him with big, guileless eyes. Too guileless, he realized, bracing himself.
"If it please my lord, may I touch myself?" she asked prettily. Her eyes sparkled playfully but she meant her words, her right hand drifting down her belly as she continued to work him with her left. The thought that what she was doing to him pleased her as much as it pleased him coupled with a shock of irrational jealousy, the realisation that he did not want anyone to ease her but him.
"Not this time," he replied, and pulled her up to straddle his thighs, and sheathed himself in her in one long stroke.
They did not leave their bedchamber that day until the sun had passed its zenith, and then only to summon Ellan to draw a bath and bring a plate of food. Sandor thought he could embrace these northerners’ recalcitrant seasons if this was the result.
“Doesn’t it snow in summer, up here?” he asked later, watching Sansa brush out her wet hair by the fire. “I remember, when I came up with Robert...”
“Yes, it does,” Sansa confirmed, “but not nearly heavy enough to justify a day in bed.”
Sandor thought that as the lord of this fort and all the lands of the Gift, he could do as he damn well pleased.
“You’re leering at me, ser,” she said primly.
“Fuck,” he said, “your sers.”
Sansa’s eyes darkened and she laid down her hairbrush.
They did not attend dinner that night.
Later, lying quiet and warm together, Sansa gave him an apprehensive look before asking, “Sandor, will you tell me something about your past?”
“And why would you want to hear about that? A man’s past is a dark country, best left unexplored.”
Sansa huffed softly. “It seems only fair. I’ve told you all of my secrets.”
“I doubt that, little bird,” he said. “I doubt that very much.”
She was quiet after that, and so he could not say why he spoke, only that once he started, the words would not seem to stop.
“You remember the story of my grandfather’s rise from the kennels? The Lannisters gifted him a keep, aye, and took his sons to squire. They couldn’t read, and were too old to teach, but they could fight, gods yes, and Tywin Lannister had them knighted for it. The younger, he died of blood poisoning after some outlaw cut half the fingers from his hand, but the elder lived to marry and sire sons of his own.”
“Yes. My mother was a Lannister of Lannisport, the fourth daughter of some distant branch, of no importance to the family but with enough of a dowry to attract my father’s interest. She was gently born and raised in comfort, and he was an illiterate knight with barely enough land to support his small keep.”
“It was not a happy marriage,” Sansa said, and even now, a woman grown and thoroughly disabused of her childish notions of courtly romance, her voice wavered slightly at the end, as though fighting an instinct to make the statement a question. As though there could be any question.
“No little bird, it was not a happy marriage.”
“You said you had a sister?”
“What happened to her?”
“I never found out. The maester kept me asleep for a month after Gregor burned my face, and when I awoke, she was gone.”
“I’m so sorry, Sandor,” she said, her arm across his chest tightening for a moment. “What was she like?”
Sandor stared up at the bed’s canopy, unseeing. “She was like me,” he said softly. “My father was only interested in his first son, so big and strong – he left me and Elinor to our mother and her songs and stories. We were six when she died, still too young to tell apart if we chose it.”
“Twins,” Sansa breathed in realisation. “She was your twin.”
“Aye, twins. It runs in Lannister blood. She was dead a year after her mother, and probably better for it.”
Sansa raised her head to look at him. “Don’t say that.”
“No? What kind of life do you think it would have been for a maid in that hellish keep? With the way our mother filled our heads with all that bollocks about knights and princesses, she would have spent her days waiting for a saviour who never came. It would have destroyed her, if Gregor didn’t get there first, and I would have had to watch.”
“It didn’t destroy me,” Sansa said, her voice quiet. She ran soft fingers over one of the scars on his chest, before she asked, “I reminded you of her, didn’t I? When we first met?”
Sandor laughed, soft and bitter. “No, little bird. She was so young; in truth I can scarce remember what she was like. No, when I first met you, you reminded me of me. Enough, now,” he added when he heard her draw breath to speak once more. They neither of them slept easily that night.
Chapter 32: Sansa
They broke their fast in one of the small bedchambers on the floor beneath their own that Sansa had converted into a morning room. Eventually she would convert all of these rooms – they still had need of a decent sized solar, a bower... a nursery – but much of that would have to wait until they had had a chance to build a guest house.
How pleasant it is to sit with the shutters open and not freeze to death, she thought, admiring once again the new glazing Paanio Toralli had fitted to the windows.
“They’re the same as they were yesterday,” Sandor pointed out, seeing her staring.
“Yes, but still worth our appreciation, don’t you think...” Sansa trailed off as Ellan entered the room, bobbing a curtsey in the doorway before approaching the table.
“Forgive me m’lady, a raven came for you,” she handed Sansa a small roll of parchment, then turned to Sandor, “and one for you, m’lord.”
Sandor raised his one remaining eyebrow, but took the parchment from Ellan.
Sansa scanned her letter briefly. “It’s from Arya,” she said, smiling at what was obviously one of Rickon’s illuminations on the A of Arya’s signature. “She writes that the party from Greywater Watch remains at Winterfell – I do hope that means Bran and Meera have become reconciled. Arya has been helping Bran with his duties, it seems – oh,” she paused. “He’s caught a sickness of the stomach, she says. Maester Jennion is treating him. I hope it isn’t serious.” She glanced up at Sandor. He was frowning at his own missive. “Who is it from?” she asked.
“Your brother,” he said.
“Bran?” Sansa asked, confused.
“No. The bastard. He writes that wildlings have scaled the Wall between Rimegate and Sable Hall and are raiding in the Gift. His rangers are tracking them from Castle Black but he wants me to bring men up to join them.”
Sansa nodded – this was expected. Jon had not made them Protectors of the Gift in name only, and Sandor was the most fearsome fighter she had ever seen. That did not stop the little knot of worry that settled low in her gut.
“When do you leave?”
“This morning,” he said, already rising.
He was gone before the sun had climbed a quarter of the way up the sky, taking Robyn and another four of his boys. With the men of the Night’s Watch finally all returned to the Wall the week before, the Shieldfort suddenly felt very empty.
Sansa did not want for occupation, however. With so few men left, she halted the work on the palisade wall and put them to work instead on a number of small tasks within the keep – repairing shutters and doors, ratting, lifting and moving, and all the other things the women were unable (or unwilling) to manage alone. For herself, now that the rooms could be better lit with daylight as well as candlelight, Sansa finally assembled the loom that had been a wedding gift from Lord and Lady Cerwyn in one of the empty bedchambers. In another chest, filled partly with her sewing things, she came across some of the raiments she had had made while still at Winterfell – several banners with the white and yellow field of her new House, and a man’s surcoat with the same device. She had all but forgotten their existence in the weeks since the wedding.
I wish I had discovered this before Sandor left, she thought, fingering the rough wool, the black leather of the dogs, the grey leather of the direwolf. He would have looked most fine riding out in it. That was impossible, but instead, Sansa took one of the banners down to the hall and had it hung against the wall behind the dais. It looked quite magnificent.
“Terryn,” she called to one of the boys who had helped her. “Tell me, do we have wood sufficient for constructing flagpoles?”
He thought for a moment. “Prolly enough for four or five, m’lady, without having to go back down to the woods.”
“Good. You and Rowan are to start work on it immediately.”
“Right you are, m’lady.”
Sansa always visited Ruby around midday. Cook and Ellan and some of the kitchen girls had been caring for her, and so she slept in the servants’ quarters just off the kitchen. Sansa’s own bruised jaw had healed some time ago, though Ruby’s hurts were deeper.
Emlyn greeted her at the door, as was usual. The child had blossomed since her father’s death, colour seeming to seep back into her features, and often she would chatter away to Sansa during her visits as though making up for all the time spent meek and silent. Today, however, she merely bobbed a curtsey before returning quietly to her mother’s side.
“Is something the matter?” Sansa asked, looking between mother and daughter.
“No m’lady,” Ruby said. She sat in her narrow bed, propped upright on pillows. Ellan had said she had a broken rib, and there was little to be done for that until it healed. “That is to say, yes – I needs must ask your permission to marry again.”
“Marry?” Sansa asked, surprised. It had not yet been a month since Sandor had cut her husband’s throat.
“Aye, m’lady. Since m’lord has deprived me of a husband, I needs must get a new one, else I can’t run the mill.” Sansa stared at her aghast. “Forgive me,” Ruby said, seeing her expression, “I do not mean that I’m sorry that demon is dead, but without a man, I’ll lose the mill.”
You won’t lose the mill, Sansa wanted to protest, but if Ruby was unable to deal with the fruits of the first harvest after winter, they would all suffer, they both of them knew it.
“Who is it you would take to husband?” she asked.
Ruby smiled slightly and cast a sideways glance at Emlyn, before saying, “Allarick, m’lady.”
“He is very young,” Sansa said, meaning, he is much younger than you. Ruby was likely no older than thirty, it was true, a comely woman and still capable of bearing children, but Allarick seemed just a boy, not ready for the responsibility of caring for anyone, let alone running the mill that would be so important to all of them.
“Begging m’lady’s pardon, but he is no younger than you, and I am no older than your lord husband.” Sansa smiled wryly – she was correct, of course, but it was still somewhat unusual for a wife to carry so many years over her husband.
“You cannot know him very well,” Sansa observed. “Are you sure you will be contented with him?”
“He’s a good man,” Ruby replied, “brave and hardworking.” She took Emlyn’s hand. “He’ll do right by us, I know he will.” She looked at Sansa, smiling a small, knowing smile that seemed laced with sadness. “Not all marriages are made for romance, m’lady.”
When Sansa realised the comment was directed at her own marriage, her first impulse was to laugh and tell Ruby not to be ridiculous. Something stopped her.
But later she climbed the steps to the battlements alone and stood with the wind in her face, looking out to the horizon, unable to remove Ruby’s words from her thoughts. Not all marriages are made for romance, m’lady.
Of course, Sansa had gone to great pains to make her marriage appear strong, her husband noble and brave, perhaps beyond the point of truthfulness, but she had not realised that anyone would see so much more than was there. She had married Sandor for much the same reason as Ruby intended to marry Allarick, yet Ruby appeared to think it some love match between them. It was true that Sansa had come to feel a certain amount of affection for her husband, and she certainly had begun to enjoy his company more than she might have expected. She was grateful that she had chosen a man she could respect and trust, and that he appeared to return those sentiments. A man who could protect her, and whom she could, after the sun had gone down, welcome to her bed without fear. But that anyone would make more of it than that made her deeply uncomfortable.
What would Sandor think? she wondered. He desired her, of course he did – he always had – but was a man like him even capable of love? The thought disquieted her almost to the point of panic, her heart beating madly, her throat suddenly too narrow to breath. Why am I reacting like this? she asked herself. Love like my parents had, like in the songs – isn’t that what I wanted?
No, her treacherous heart whispered back. Not this. This is nothing like the songs. He is nothing like the songs.
“That doesn’t matter,” she whispered, clutching the cold grey stone and squeezing her eyes closed. “That doesn’t matter any more.” She had left those childish desires behind so long ago it was sometimes as though they were the distant thoughts of a different person, come to her in a dream. She had known what she was giving up when she settled on Sandor Clegane, had married him as a woman grown with her eyes full open.
Sansa’s rapid breath seemed to echo in her ears, but she let the wind carry it away. Opening her eyes, she gazed out once more at her lands, the rolling hills and valleys and rough granite ledges of the Gift, until she was calm again. All of it was hers to rebuild and return to prosperity. I knew the things my marriage would not be. It was worth it for this.
Sandor was gone nigh on a fortnight. By the time Rowan sighted his party coming over the neighbouring peak, four flagpoles had been erected on the small corner towers of the curtain wall and the new banners of House Clegane had been raised, snapping in the wind.
Sansa watched their arrival from the window of the room she had come to think of as her Bower, leaving her loom to peer down into the stable yard. He will want a bath, she thought, seeing the wild tangle sleeping rough had made of his hair, and called Ellan to light the fire and bring up the copper tub.
The water was beginning to steam when he strode into their bedchamber, already dripping wet as though he had just turned a bucket over his head. Sansa had no time to comment, however, before he had picked her up and pressed his mouth to hers. Immediately, desire bloomed deep in her belly, and she kissed him back hungrily, her legs twining naturally around his waist. She had not let herself think on it, blocking it out of her mind along with Ruby’s words, but she had missed his touch as much as the winter forests missed the sun.
“Welcome home,” she murmured when he released her mouth to suckle on her neck, sending shivers down her spine. He did not speak, but made a low sound deep in his throat, and continued assaulting her senses with a single-minded intensity she had only seen from him before in the training yard. It sent a thrill through her so powerful that she could not stop herself from tightening her thighs around him and rubbing herself against his body.
Sandor growled and took a step towards the wall until Sansa was supported there, both his hands falling to her bottom momentarily before he raised one to her bodice, fumbling at her laces. In his haste he snapped them, and Sansa’s breasts spilled into his warm, callused hand.
“Yes,” Sansa moaned when he pressed his face there, scraping sensitive skin with stubble and teeth. She buried her hands in his wet, tangled hair, holding him in place as he fought with his own laces before pushing her skirts up around her waist.
He rubbed her through her smallclothes, Sansa arching her back against the wall convulsively, before she felt his hand at the waistband. When she heard the tearing sound of delicate silk a wave of heat swept through her from her head to the tips of her toes, coalescing between her thighs, leaving her dizzy and wanting, desperate for her completion.
He took her with long, powerful strokes, touching something inside her with each thrust that made her cry out and clutch at his shoulders hard enough to leave marks, but just as she began to reach her peak he slowed, almost to a stop, and kissed his way back up to her mouth. After a moment longer, Sansa pushed him away with a hand on his chest, gasping for breath and ready to beg for her release. His eyes were afire, terrifying in their intensity, yet Sansa was not frightened as she once would have been, but transfixed, unable to look away until her eyelids forced themselves closed as her climax finally slammed into her. His slow, deep thrusts continued to draw the pleasure out of her so that she was still sunk in the sensations of her own body when he peaked, letting out a raw, almost animal sound as his member pulsed deep within her.
He did not let her down for some time afterwards, their bodies still joined, a sweet ache lingering between Sansa’s thighs. Sandor leant into her, squeezing her tightly between the wall and his body, kissing her almost lazily as his hands wandered over the skin of her hips and thighs and buttocks beneath her skirts. Sansa felt as though her body were singing at his touch, a feeling almost of bliss as her skin shivered pleasurably, until eventually, Sandor carefully lowered her to the ground, his expression queer and intent.
“Was that for me?” he asked, noticing the bath for the first time.
Sansa laughed, a touch awkwardly. “It still is, if you don’t mind sharing.”
The tub was a gift from Arya (gods knew where she had got it) and quite sufficiently spacious for a man even of Sandor’s height, but when Sansa climbed in after him it was unclear to her where she should sit. Sandor decided for her, pulling her down to straddle his lap so abruptly that a tidal wave of water washed over the side of the tub, splashing the fire and making it hiss and sizzle. Sandor laughed at her undignified squeal of surprise before leaning back and regarding her with sated, half-lidded eyes.
“I missed you,” he said.
Reaching for the soap, Sansa smiled. “Is that so, my lord? It is good of you to mention it, else I may not have noticed.”
He flicked water from his fingers lazily into her face, making her screw her eyes shut and wrinkle her nose, an expression he seemed to find deeply amusing.
Sansa started with his hair, combing her fingers through until the worst of the tangles came loose, before rubbing soap into the fine black strands. She spared a moment to wonder how long it might be before traders would come north once more with such luxuries as scented soap, but this one was at least made from olive oil instead of animal fat, and did not have an unpleasant odour. He closed his eyes as her fingers massaged his scalp, and by the time she had rinsed him clean, she could feel his body stiffening beneath her once more.
It seemed the easiest thing in the world to take him in hand and slide her body onto his, continuing to rub soap into his chest and arms while he massaged her buttocks and made slow, teasing thrusts up into her. At some point, Sansa stopped rubbing his chest and instead rested her hands there to brace herself as she began to lift and lower her hips. More water sloshed over the side of the tub but she scarce noticed, intent on the slow build of sensation and the look on his face when she pinched one small, masculine nipple.
“Sansa,” he murmured, his eyes and hands roaming over her body. They had not done it like this before, but it was clear that he liked it.
Sansa enjoyed watching him climax. It did not happen very often that his came before hers, and she sometimes wondered if that spoke more of her wantonness or his self-control, but it never failed to give her a rush of power, to see so strong a man come so undone. This time, though, he looked up at her with an expression of such helplessness that Sansa found it hard to meet his eyes, bringing his hand between her legs and closing her eyes to focus on her own pleasure instead.
It was dark when they eventually climbed out and dried off. Sansa was not sure of the exact time, but Sandor looked exhausted and when he fell into bed Sansa felt that she was drowsy enough with her own satisfaction to join him.
He pulled her close, drawing her back into the warm, hard curve of his body, one heavy arm across her waist, possessive. His steady breath stirred her hair in a way that was now deeply familiar, though she could feel that he was not yet asleep.
She was finally drifting into sleep herself when his voice brought her back to consciousness, a rasping whisper pressed close to the skin of her neck.
“I need you, little bird. More than anything I’ve known.”
Chapter 33: Sandor
When Sandor awoke, grey light was starting to filter around the edges of the shutters, and Sansa was gone.
He dressed himself and descended to the morning room: empty. The room she had set her loom up in: also empty. In the hall, a servant was cleaning one of the hearths, but it, too, was otherwise empty.
Ellan stood when he approached the servants’ small dining room off the side of the kitchen. Silence spread across the room like ripples on a pond as the others took note of his presence.
“A word, girl,” he rasped, and walked back into the kitchen proper.
Ellan was tall for a woman, though not overly so – of a height with Sansa, in fact – but this morning she seemed to shrink somehow, some instinct to cringe back from him fighting with the will to stand firm. It put him in mind of the day he had come home to find Sansa gone to the mill, and that only served to stoke the ember that had flickered into being when he woke to find his bed empty.
“M’lord?” she asked, licking her lips nervously.
“You know what I’m going to ask you,” he said, voice dropping low. He could feel the burnt side of his mouth twitching.
“M’lady didn’t leave you word?” When Sandor just stared at her, she faltered a moment, before continuing. “She left before dawn with three of the guard, m’lord, heading for Winterfell. There was another raven while you were gone – her brother Lord Stark continues ill. She said she would go to him.”
“In the dark?” Sandor snarled, though it was scarce directed at the maid. “Without a word of it to me?” She heard. “More like a wolf bolting for the cave, I’d say.” She heard me.
“M’lord?” Ellan asked, confusion tipping over into fear, though Sandor barely saw her through the red haze. He took a step towards the door to the bailey, stopped, swung back with a roar and brought his fist down on the trestle table. Empty bowls and butcher’s knives clattered and fell to the floor as the table sagged on its legs, split down the middle from the force of the blow.
She heard me. He had thought her asleep, but in truth some part of him had hoped that she would hear his words and accept them. Return them. I got my wish. She heard me, aye, and she could not get away quickly enough.
The rest of the servants had come out of their dining room, crowding into the kitchen to see, but hugging the wall, unwilling to come any closer. Sandor merely stood for a moment, chest heaving.
“Clean that mess up,” he growled, before walking out.
His first instinct was to saddle up Stranger and chase after her, bring home what was his – lock her up if needs be to stop her ever leaving again. Part of him had always known that somehow it would come to this, that if, against all his better instincts, he agreed to marry her, he would one day find himself here: forced to choose between being left behind or chasing after her like a hound chases a frightened rabbit.
Why had he done it? Why had he not continued to guard his tongue as he had been doing these last months? She had placed clear boundaries on their marriage when she first proposed it to him, boundaries he had been fully aware of, and he had accepted them. Why should he think anything had changed? He should have taken what she was prepared to give and been grateful. Stupid, stupid bloody dog.
Unbidden, the memory of a young Jaime Lannister came before his eyes, golden and drunk, laughing. Laughing at him. Why had that been? Over some woman? A less prideful man would go after her, Sandor.
I have no pride left, Sandor thought, reaching for the saddle, anger slowly giving way to desperation. If she does not come back I have nothing. Nothing worth having. Titles be damned. It had never been them that he’d wanted, only her.
His hands shook and he stopped a moment, trying to master himself. Gods, he could barely think. He remembered the Queen, sipping koffie in her pavilion. What was it she had said? Women like us do not give our hearts away easily, but we do have hearts, damaged though they may be.
Funny that he had never thought of Sansa as damaged, only himself. Perhaps they were more alike than either of them had ever supposed. Daenerys had said she knew Sansa better than anyone, and the way she had said it, it was hard not to believe her. Hard to imagine the Dragon Queen running away from anything, though. Then again, it was hard to imagine it of the cool, restrained woman he had met back in Winterfell, either. She had changed, he realised, more than he had once thought possible. And it had happened in time because he had never forced her to anything; let her come to her own decisions.
I may not know her as well as Daenerys, but I do know her, he thought, and put the saddle back on its pommel.
It would take her a week to get to Winterfell now the tracks and roads were clear of snow. Maybe less, if she pushed the horses. He would send a raven to let them know to expect her, and ask for confirmation when she arrived safely. And then he would wait, and let her come to her own decisions.
And if that decision were not one to his liking, then he would apologise for offending her, and give his word to say no more of it. She would be back, he knew – the Gift meant more to her than some personal discomfort – and he doubted she would send him away, as she still needed his protection. The realisation calmed him. She would still be his, as much as she ever had been, and he would simply learn to better guard his tongue. The rest is unimportant, he thought, the second lie he had told himself in as many months.
The following days passed in a blur of wretchedness that he did not care to remember in detail. During daylight he took an axe and felled trees for the palisade wall, slipping into a cold fury that was both familiar and distant. After dark he sat by the fire in the hall by himself, glowering into its depths, and was darkly thankful there was no longer any wine to be had. His bed was a cold, miserable place without Sansa to warm it, and he found himself more than once sitting on the edge of the mattress, unable to sleep, with his head in his hands, praying to the gods he had once been sworn to but never believed in for his wife to come home.
Yet it was only four days since Sansa’s departure when the raven came from Winterfell. The letter was written in his good-brother’s neat hand, though terse in content and signed merely Bran, as though written in a great hurry. Its contents filled Sandor with ice.
Sansa will not make it to Winterfell, it said. I have sent Arya north up the kingsroad to find her. Leave immediately.
Sandor did not waste any time.
She had ridden with Rowan, Terryn and Robyn, and with Allarick’s arm still wrapped in plaster that made six of his boys able to swing a sword. He left them with instructions to protect the keep – Stranger could far outstrip any of the other horses on a long ride, and Sandor did not intend to wait once out on the road.
He rode straight through the night on that first night, giving Stranger his head and letting him pick out a path in the moonlight. The second night he had no choice, the horse’s sides blowing in exhaustion and his own eyes gritty and aching for sleep. Around mid-day on the third day, he found them.
Rowan and Terryn lay where they had fallen, dried blood casting a dark shadow on the ground where it had soaked into the mud beneath them. The stink of corruption was incredible. Maggots were already beginning to crawl over the soft parts of their bodies, their eyes and wounds.
A few yards away, amongst the trees, Sandor found Robyn. His young squire was sitting slumped beneath an oak, legs splayed and arms hanging limp and useless at his sides, his right arm ending in a gory stump. Sandor saw the remains of the bandage Robyn had tried to bind his wound with, before the blood loss overcame him.
His eyes stung as he bent to close the boy’s eyelids.
Sandor straightened abruptly again at the clatter of hooves back on the kingsroad. Drawing his sword he moved behind a nearby sentinel pine and watched the approach: one rider on a piebald courser, and a second shape, grey and big as a bear. Arya Stark and her direwolf. He stepped out onto the road.
She glanced at him once before her eyes swept the scene, the bodies, the churned mud.
“Sansa?” she asked, gaze returning to his.
“Not here,” he replied. She cursed and jumped down, throwing her horse’s reins carelessly over a branch before looking around her once more with narrowed eyes.
“There,” she said, pointing. “They went that way.”
Sandor had seen it too, the tracks unmistakable. “Five horses,” he said. “At the least. Armoured, most like – the hoof prints are deep. What direction is that?”
“South-east,” Arya said darkly, “towards the Dreadfort.”
Sandor looked at her, a skinny sixteen year old in her riding clothes and boiled leather, her absurd little sword at her hip. “Where are your brother’s men?” he asked. He had expected her to arrive at the head of the Starks’ household guard.
Arya squinted up at him, scowling. “Six days ago we received word that White Harbour was under attack from Pentoshi privateers. Two days later, broken men attacked Torrhen’s square. Bran sent men to both: we have no guard at Winterfell. As it is, I’ve left my brother in the protection of Meera Reed and the handful of her household she brought with her.” She spat on the ground. “This was planned. I’d stake my life on it. That whoreson.”
“Did you bring supplies?” Sandor asked, mounting up.
“Enough,” Arya said, her voice hard, untangling her courser’s reins.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go.”
There were mountains between the kingsroad and the Dreadfort, Sandor knew. The easiest way would be to double back north and east to Last Hearth and follow the Last River south again, but that would take time, something Sandor was not willing to give.
The she-wolf knew the mountains, she said, and Sandor was happy to believe her. The passes were still heavy with snow in places, but it wasn’t fresh, and their quarry had already cleared the way. They reached the valley of the Weeping Water at sunset on the third day.
She had told him all that she knew of Tristian Bolton on the journey, some member of a distant branch of the family, plucked from obscurity after the war when the main Bolton line had been extinguished.
“He was always careful to be humble in front of Bran,” Arya had said sourly, “so very courteous and grateful. There was always something about him, though. Sansa knew it. He asked Bran for her hand twice, and she turned him down both times. I heard he was furious, but Sansa just thought it was funny.”
Sandor’s knuckles turned white on his reins in remembrance. He’ll pay. The bastard will pay.
“He’ll have guards,” Arya said now as they looked down on the castle. “Not as many as at Winterfell, not after the war and winter, but more than we can handle between us.”
What do I care for guards? Sandor wanted to shout at her. They have Sansa. Nothing else matters.
The she-wolf must have seen something of that on his face, however, as she reached over, quick as a snake, and grabbed hold of the reins by Stranger’s bit.
“If you rush in,” she said slowly, her voice deliberate as though speaking to a child or an imbecile, “they will raise the alarm before you can even cross the outer bailey. You don’t know where Sansa’s being held, and you don’t know how many of them there are. All that will happen is that you will end up dead.”
For a moment, all he could do was glower at her in wordless fury. “I’ve been fighting and campaigning longer than you’ve been alive, wolfbitch,” he growled, low and dangerous. “If you don’t release my horse I will beat you bloody and leave you here for the crows.”
“Sandor,” she snapped, her voice like the crack of a whip but her eyes pleading. “Listen to me. I know you’re afraid for her – I am, too – but this is not the time to act hastily. Fear cuts deeper than swords.”
Stranger tossed his head restlessly and Sandor urged him to take a small sideways step, forcing Arya to release him. Then he stared at her, her thin face and storm-dark eyes, so different from Sansa’s.
“What do you suggest?” he ground out.
Ever so slightly, Arya relaxed. “Give me tonight to slip in and look around,” she said. “By the morning, I’ll know.”
Chapter 34: Sansa
Sansa awoke in a large, light room that she did not recognise, too big to be the lord’s bedchamber at the Shieldfort and too cold to be Winterfell. Blinking, her eyes slowly came in to focus and she glanced groggily around her, flinching violently when her eyes fell on the man in the chair by her bedside. Instinctively, Sansa pulled the bed covers to her shoulders, and the man started laughing.
“You have nothing to fear from me, sweet lady,” he said.
He had short chestnut hair and a neatly trimmed beard, large dark eyes with a beguiling bottomless quality. He sat up straight, his posture immaculate, one long leg crossed over the other, one finger resting on his lips in a thoughtful pose. Standing, he would be one or two inches taller than six feet, Sansa knew, for this was Tristian Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort.
“Where are my men?” she asked, voice coming out a dry croak. He passed her a horn of something, and Sansa regarded him suspiciously until he laughed again.
“Just water, my lady, just water.” Taking a tentative sip, she discovered him to be correct, and then she could not stop herself from gulping it down, cool and sweet. When she had finished, he refilled it for her from a stone jug before sitting back and resuming his earlier posture. “Your men are dead, I’m afraid.”
No. Sansa’s heart hammered in fury, but showing him that was not like to get her anywhere, she knew.
“There was little need for that,” she said softly. “My family will find me with or without those poor boys to direct their feet.”
Lord Bolton stroked his beard. He was a very handsome man, reminding her in some ways of Renly Baratheon whom she had once found so comely. Looking at him, it was difficult to imagine that he was related to Roose Bolton and that terror of a bastard he had given life to – Tristian had none of the insipid Bolton looks, but perhaps more than a little of the Bolton insanity. There was something about him that felt so wrong it made Sansa’s skin feel like it wanted to slither from her bones.
“I expect they will, eventually,” he allowed, “but you see, I’ve been awaiting the pleasure of your company in my castle for quite some time, my sweet Sansa, and so I have taken great pains to ensure that we will not be interrupted for a little while yet.”
“What do you mean, my lord?” Sansa asked lightly, dread coiling in her stomach.
“Your brother’s men are elsewhere, called gallantly to aid, and your brother himself is so ill that I doubt that sister of yours would dare leave his side to come looking for you.”
It came to Sansa with a sudden, cold clarity. “You poisoned him.”
Lord Bolton smiled, looking pleased. “Clever girl. So you see, no one will be coming for you except that brute of a man you name husband, and I confess, I’m looking forward to his arrival almost as much as I did yours.”
Sansa lay back in her pillows, blinking slowly. Whatever drug he had used to keep her unconscious was now making her head pound fiercely.
“You remind me of someone,” she said distractedly.
“And who is that?”
Petyr Baelish, she thought. “My father,” she said.
“You flatter me,” Lord Bolton said.
Yes, I do, Sansa thought. He was much cleverer than you.
Bolton would not be drawn further on his intentions, however, and Sansa was relieved when he left her in the care of a maid, an old woman so mousey she barely dared comb the tangles from Sansa’s hair while she was in her bath. A second maid brought a plate of food, then they left together and Sansa was finally, finally alone.
She wept, for Robyn and the others who had died so needlessly, and for herself, for her foolishness. I’m so sorry, Sandor, she thought, I should never have run. But the panic that night had been like a chokehold on her throat, and Sansa had needed so desperately to breathe. She had thought, back home at Winterfell, she could find the space she needed to sort through the tangle of emotions her heart had become... but Winterfell was not the home she longed for anymore. I will fall on my knees and beg his forgiveness, when he comes for me, she promised herself, and then wiped away her tears, because they could not help her.
Instead, Sansa calmed herself and looked inside her dark places to see if Alayne was still there. When she found her, pushed down deeper than she might have thought, Sansa pulled her back and over her shoulders like a cloak.
That night Tristian summoned her to dine with him, and Alayne was tentative but charming. What he saw must have pleased him, because it was on the following night that his intentions were revealed.
“You must forgive me,” he said, the candlelight flickering on the handsome planes of his face, and though he spoke in intimate tones, his voice carried the length of the empty hall in which they ate, lifted by the height of the ceiling and lack of other people.
“Must I!” Alayne said archly, her eyes sparkling with the promise of mischief. “And why is that, Lord Bolton?”
Tristian smiled, drawing closer. Sansa wanted to recoil; Alayne held firm. “My lack of foresight was... unpardonable,” he said. “When I asked for your hand, I did not fully understand the depth of your ambition.”
“Am I ambitious?” Alayne wondered, appearing to take a sip of her wine, though really just letting it touch her lips.
“Indeed you are, my lady,” said Bolton, his laugh soft and low. “As am I. I have a proposition for you.” He took Alayne’s hand in his and she raised her eyebrow at his impropriety but otherwise kept her silence. “Marry me,” he said, “and join your lands to mine, and together, we will control a larger portion of the north even than Winterfell.”
“Hm,” Alayne said, sliding her hand from his to reclaim her wine. “To what end?”
“My sweet lady... is that not obvious?” he asked, his smile fading into something altogether less pleasant.
“Perhaps,” Alayne allowed, giving him an assessing look. “And what of my current husband, Lord Bolton?”
“That appalling beast? I rather thought you might be glad to be rid of him.”
“Yes,” Alayne said softly, “I rather expect you did.” But when Tristian glanced at her, she met his gaze unflinchingly and allowed a slow smile to creep across her features. He matched it, and Alayne thought once again how very handsome he was, and how very stupid.
He gave her the freedom of the castle (with a guard by her side at all times, naturally), and took her on a tour of the fortress himself. He showed her the torture chambers that he had converted back into mere dungeons, the library he was keen to add to, the feasting hall he was in the process of having redecorated (quite beautifully, Alayne thought), and the storerooms he had kept hidden from Winterfell’s prying eyes and the begging hands of the lowborn.
“How clever of you,” Alayne murmured.
He touched her, on the hand or the elbow, in a way that made it clear he was being restrained. He thinks himself the gallant, she marvelled, yet he poisons my brother and threatens my husband. It was clear that his ambitions ran farther than the Gift in his pocket and Sansa in his bed, however – clear as daylight, and as easy to read as a book. This will scarce be a challenge, she thought, but I’ll enjoy it nonetheless. She looked forward with a grim certainty to what Sandor would do to the man when he found them.
And so Alayne let herself be won over, as Bolton expected her to be, and all the while Sansa controlled her outrage and waited for the days to pass. She knew she could not expect anyone to come for her within the week, but when eight days became nine, and nine became ten, Sansa Clegane began, secretly, to worry.
When she was roused from her bed early in the morning on the eleventh day of her capture by the frantic knocking of the mousey servant, Sansa thought she knew what to expect. Yet what she saw on her arrival at the hall was a most unwelcome surprise.
The hall was dimly lit by the twin hearths at either end and a couple of braziers in the centre, the sky outside only just beginning to lighten for the dawn. Guards stood in the shadows around the edges, liveried in the sickly pink of the Bolton banner, armoured and armed with pikes and longswords. And in the centre with his hands bound behind his back and his sword belt empty stood Sandor Clegane.
Sansa’s skin went cold and clammy. No. Stay calm, she willed herself, and when he turned to look at her, spoke her name, Sansa made herself look away coolly. Something isn’t right here, she thought.
“I am sorry for the guards who captured him,” Alayne called out to Tristian. He was sitting in the Lord’s chair up on the dais, but at the sound of her voice he stood and descended. Alayne walked to stand a few feet before Sandor, met his eyes with a blank expression. He had been beaten, she saw with a rush of fury, though not badly – a cut on his forehead, some dents in his plate armour. And he was seething; Sansa could sense the danger in him despite the bonds. A sane man would not have come anywhere near.
“Them?” Lord Bolton said dismissively, walking up behind her. “They’ll recover.”
So he did not kill anyone, and he did not put up much of a fight, Sansa thought, mind racing frantically. Why? Out of the corner of her eye, a shadow moved, and Sansa forced herself not to turn and look.
“You’ve trained them well, my lord,” Alayne said approvingly.
“Sansa,” Sandor said again. His voice was low and raw, almost savage. With her back to Tristian, Sansa gave him a quelling look. You told me once you could sniff out a lie, she thought forcefully. For the Mother’s sake, play along.
Again, a shadow flickered, and a growl so low as to be inaudible, but Sansa felt it reverberate in her bones. Turning to smile at Lord Bolton, she noticed how the number of guards along the walls of the hall had lessened. It would not be long before the guards themselves noticed. And Tristian.
“If you’re going to do it, you should do it now,” Alayne goaded him.
Sandor’s eyes glittered in the firelight, his whole body making hard, angry lines. When his eyes flicked to hers once more, Sansa willed him to trust her, even as Tristian dealt him a backhanded blow hard enough to make him sway on his feet.
“Again,” Alayne commanded, her voice singing out in the darkness of the hall.
This time Sandor went to his knees, his eyes never leaving hers.
“Again.” But this time Tristian pulled his dirk from his sword belt and Sansa’s heart froze in terror.
“No!” she shouted, stepping quickly to Bolton’s side. “No,” she said again more softly, wrapping her hand around his. They stood close as lovers, his breath gusting over her face, and Sansa forced herself not to shrink away, though every instinct she had was screaming for escape. Sandor had turned away with a sound of disgust. “He fears fire, my lord,” she murmured, threading her fingers through Tristian’s until he relaxed his grip on the blade, laughing.
“Joffrey’s Hound,” he said, grabbing a bunch of Sandor’s hair and yanking it back so that Sandor was forced to look at them again. Sansa felt his gaze like a physical pain, a blow to the chest harder than any mailed fist. “The fiercest fighter in all the seven kingdoms, at the mercy of a man like me.” He laughed again, breathy and excited, and released Sandor, turning back to Sansa and tilting her face up. Alayne smiled at him with her teeth. “Though not for much longer.”
He released the dirk to Sansa’s hand almost absently, still twined with his as it had been, then turned and made for one of the braziers. And Sansa, who had meant to slash her husband’s bindings, instead stepped after Bolton on quiet feet and sunk the blade deep into his back.
“Guards!” he screamed as he staggered, but the only figure to step out of the shadows was Arya Stark.
“I don’t understand,” whimpered Lord Bolton, eyes flashing in pain and fear as he sunk to his knees. His breath gurgled as he exhaled.
“You lost, Lord Bolton,” Sansa said dispassionately. “I chose him.”
“But... but why?”
“Petyr was the same, you know,” she said softly. Sansa leant over and tenderly withdrew the dirk. The sick, meaty sound of a blade in torn flesh curiously had no effect on her. Tristian fell forward onto his hands, the blood blooming dark and wet through his doublet. “He learned the same lesson too late, to his sorrow.” With a precision usually reserved for her embroidery, Sansa crouched before him and drove the blade up between his ribs. Pink froth bubbled from Tristian’s mouth as he fell to his side on the cold stone floor. “You cannot buy people, Lord Bolton. You cannot buy love."
The hall was silent for the longest time. Sansa watched unmoved as a pool of blood spread beneath Tristian’s body, seeping over the flagstones and between the cracks. She heard someone calling her name – her sister’s voice – and the warm rough tongue of Nymeria as she licked the blood from Sansa’s fingers.
And then big hands on her shoulders, strong as iron, pulling her away as the tide of red reached the hem of her gown. She turned into him, trembling. His armour was as cold as she felt, but his arms around her were strong.
“Cry, little bird,” he whispered roughly, warm breath caressing her cheek. “You’ll feel better for it.”
“No, I’m not sorry,” she said, but her body made the lie of her words, hot tears rolling freely down her face. Behind her, there was the sound of something heavy being dragged, Arya’s voice giving quiet instructions to her wolf. Sansa remembered her promise to herself, when Tristian had first brought her here. “Forgive me,” she whimpered, screwing her eyes closed, too shamed to look on his face as her shoulders shook. “I should never have left our h-home.”
“Look at me,” he said, and waited the long heartbeats it took Sansa to gather her courage. When she finally met his eyes they were clear grey, the most untroubled she had ever seen them. “Always, Sansa,” he whispered, brushing the tears from her cheeks with callused thumbs. “You are the best part of me.”
Sansa’s fingers curled uselessly against his armour, looking for something to take hold of, to anchor herself in the storm of her emotions, to pull him closer, and finding nothing but smooth metal and grey eyes.
“I love you,” she whispered, her face cradled in his big hands, and she watched as his eyes fell closed in a look almost of pain before he brought his mouth down to hers and kissed her softly.
“Little bird,” he breathed against her lips, “I love you, too.”
Sansa smiled and cried harder and kissed him through her tears until the hall filled with light as the sun rose.
“I love you,” she murmured again, joy and grief and release tugging her in different directions until she felt shattered, a broken mirror, each shard reflecting back a different Sansa, each with a heart overflowing. “I love you, Sandor.”
“Come,” he said, gently taking her hands from around his neck and leading her out into the morning. “Time to go home.”
And in the pale, hazy light of dawn, looking back one last time on the place of her capture, Sansa saw something that made her laugh aloud. For growing in the cracks of the Dreadfort’s masonry were winter daisies, scores of them, waving gently in the breeze.
Chapter 35: Epilogue
The candle at her bedside was burning low, and so Sansa lit a fresh one before wrapping her woollen shawl about her shoulders and slipping from her bedchamber.
The fire in the hearth of her bower was reduced to glowing embers when she entered, and Sansa spent some minutes building it back up until flames licked around the base of the copper kettle hanging above. She boiled the water within and then, wrapping a cloth around its handle so as not to scald her skin, removed it from the heat to cool. The little bunches of dried herbs Maester Jennion had given her back in Winterfell were fragrant, but the tea they made was all but tasteless. That was all right, however: Sansa didn’t drink it for the taste.
When the drink had brewed sufficiently, Sansa poured it into a pewter goblet and made herself comfortable in the chair by her loom. Sandor did not know about the moon tea. It wasn’t a secret as such – she would tell him if he asked – but finding the right words to simply drop into conversation the reason she did not yet wish to bear him children... she was still searching for them. She did not think he would mind, at the least. Sansa secretly suspected that the thought of children terrified her husband to very depths of his soul.
And as for Sansa herself... It would soon be a year since her marriage and the move to the Shieldfort, and still she found herself capable of looking at Sandor, catching his eye across the yard or watching the rise and fall of his chest as he slept, and being caught breathless with love for him. She cherished that. Children would come, inevitably, and she looked forward to that day, but for now she was jealous of his company, and not ready for their solitude to be intruded upon. She was still only eight-and-ten, after all – a year full younger than her lady mother had been when she birthed Robb. There would be plenty of time for all that.
Sansa cupped her hands around the goblet for warmth and sipped the flavourless tea, before sitting back and looking up at her loom. She had begun a tapestry for their hall some months ago, and it was now nearing completion. At first she had meant it to be a tribute to her family, her mother and father and eldest brother, but however she thought on it, that tale ended in pain and death. Perhaps she would still weave that work in days to come, but Sansa’s heart was wrapped up in happiness for the first time in her adult life, and could not dwell for long on such hurts.
Instead, she had turned her focus inwards and produced something altogether more fanciful. The tale began on the left most edge of the tapestry, where Sansa had woven a demure maid with auburn hair picking flowers in her garden while birds sang overheard. That scene ran into a long journey on horseback, richly dressed women and handsome men all about, the maid riding beside a golden prince, beguiled by his beauty. But behind his back the prince hid a dagger that, in the next scene, he brandished at the helpless maid. But there, between the maid and the prince, a knight in soot-grey armour stood, shielding the maid from harm.
Further along, the lady offered the knight her favour as he knelt before her, but he had removed his helm to reveal the dreadful scars upon his face, and the maid’s expression was caught in a look of terror. There, they parted, the lady running from him in fright. Along the top of the tapestry, Sansa had woven the maid’s misadventures, kidnapped and locked away atop a mountain by a mockingbird, looking hopelessly from her tower for her protector, eventually taking matters into her own hands and stealing away in the dead of night disguised as a septa. Along the bottom, separated from the maid by a vine of white winter daisies, the knight roamed the seven kingdoms, angry and violent, losing his way until, wounded and dying, a kindly septon carried him to a holy place. Restored to health, his spirits renewed, the knight set out once more, and here the two halves rejoined, the knight and lady reunited. This time, when the knight knelt before her, the auburn-haired maid bent to bestow him with a chaste kiss. Yet even as she did, danger threatened, the mockingbird come to reclaim his bright prize, though of course at the end, the knight stood victorious with his lady by his side. The last scene of the tapestry showed the knight draping his cloak about his lady’s shoulders while the wedding party looked on with benevolent expressions, the maid smiling up at her protector, wearing a crown of winter daisies.
Sansa looked on her work and smiled. In truth, she would rather hang it in her bedchamber, for the pleasure of Sandor’s expression every morning when he awoke to the sight of it. But aside from any other consideration, it was far too large, and the hall was in desperate need of ornamentation.
I need a singer, Sansa thought as she finished her tea and set the cup on the floor, a bard to put this tale to music. The thought amused her sufficiently that she laughed aloud, soft and low. I am sure Sandor would love that even better. Lady Manderly had written recently that a bard had sailed in to White Harbour and graced their halls for nigh on a month. Perhaps I will invite him further north, Sansa thought.
The tapestry was not yet complete, however. The borders needed finishing and trimming, and she was not fully satisfied with the detail on the maid’s bride cloak. And it needed a name: just as all the best swords had their names, so did the greatest artworks. Sansa frowned in thought but it was late and she was tired, her body suddenly longing for Sandor’s solid warmth.
Leaving her bower behind, Sansa climbed the stairs back up to their bedchamber. Sandor was asleep as she had left him, his body curved in invitation around the space she had left behind. He stirred as she slipped beneath the covers, wrapping his arms around her body, and Sansa sank into his embrace with a deep satisfaction.
“Your feet are cold,” he complained, voice rough with sleep, breath warm against her neck. The sensation sent a pleasant shiver down her back and the distant ache that their earlier lovemaking had left between her thighs began to heighten.
Sansa pushed back against him, wondering if he could be roused once more. “Pardons, my love. I went down to look on my tapestry.”
Sandor laughed low in his throat, the sound curling hotly in Sansa’s belly. “Such a vain little bird.”
Sansa tutted, running her hands along his forearms, the heavy muscle of his biceps. “It isn’t vanity to take pride in one’s work.”
He was stiffening against her, shifting distractedly against her hip. “As you say,” was all he said, before turning her over and pulling her bodily on top of him, kissing her deeply.
Afterwards, Sansa lay half-sprawled across his broad chest, drifting on the edge of sleep as he stroked her hair.
“Have you named it yet?” he asked.
“Mmm?” she said, stifling a yawn.
“Your tapestry. Have you named it yet?”
Sansa ran her fingers over the scarred skin of his stomach, the dark line of hair that ran to his navel, and smiled. “Yes,” she said with sudden certainty. “It’s called The Lord and Lady of the Gift.”
The inn was silent as Bendric Goldentongue plucked the final note from his harp. Eyes glittered at him in the dingy room, every last thread of attention of that sad mass of humanity focused on him. From out of the dark someone tossed him a copper, and Ben snatched it from the air with the ease of long experience, touching his forelock in gratitude. Across from him, the whore sat with her cheek resting in her hand, expression wistful, tears shining in her eyes.
“Sometimes I wish my life was more like a song,” she murmured.
Ben smiled. “Tell me your name, sweetling.”
“Gaenna, they call me.”
“Gaenna, what a lovely name. It means ‘fair one’ in the First Tongue, did you know?”
“You could tell me it meant ‘High Queen of the World’ and it wouldn’t make it true, now, would it?” she said, though there was a gentleness to her tone that matched the soft dreaminess her expression had taken on as he sung to her.
“Well, Gaenna, let me tell you something. I learnt that song from the man who first made it,” he said to her kindly. “He told me it was the true story of some great northern lady.”
Gaenna smiled back sadly. “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”
“Aye, there’s truth in what you say,” Ben allowed. “But the Gift is real enough, as are the Lord and Lady who rule there.”
“Everyone knows the songs you bards sing are just pretty tales for children, though,” she replied. “I’m not complaining, of course, the gods know I like a bit of prettiness in me life, but it ain’t right to pretend things are other than what they are.”
The silence having been broken by their quiet exchange, the inn’s patrons were once again taking up their conversations, a hum of voices rising in the small common room. Ben raised an eyebrow, adopting an air of mystery, and leaned forwards slightly.
“The lady herself is said to have woven the tapestry the song was taken from. You have no reason to believe me, of course, but you will never know unless you travel north to see it for yourself.”
The whore laughed at that, and Ben saw the pretty girl she once might have been. “And how’s one such as me, who’s never left the riverlands, supposed to travel all that way to the Gift?” she asked.
Ben slid his hand into the same pocket he had sewn into his cloak for his harp, and withdrew a small square of blank parchment with a flourish. “My good lady, fetch me a stick of charcoal to draw with and a cup of wine to ease my memory, and I will tell you all that and more besides.”
Gaenna looked at him measuringly, and for a moment Ben feared he had pushed his luck too far. How was a woman like her to travel all that way north, without friends or coin and with winter breathing its icy winds down all their necks? Yet Ben was in the business of selling hope, and this woman, whatever her reality, seemed in a mood to buy it, even if only for the evening.
“Hmm?” he prompted, waggling his eyebrows at her.
Finally she smiled at him again, more playful this time, and said, “Aye, and what harm could it do? Even a wench like me needs something more than a man to keep her warm on a cold winter’s night.”
And she rose and poured him a drink.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed. Comments are the only payment I will receive for this labour of love, so please consider feeding the author :)