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Wolf Bonded

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***

 

SANDOR

 

Sandor could not believe how buggering cold it was. They were far enough north that it snowed now almost every day, although it was still summer. The Neck was a week or so behind them, but it seemed that Winterfell was no closer. Sandor would have cursed his luck if he had ever had any.

 

He had been training in the yard with Jaime, when a page, red-faced and breathless, stumbled in and announced that Lord Tywin required his presence at once.

 

He couldn't remember the last time Lord Tywin spoke directly to him, as his orders almost always came from Queen Cersei. What could require an audience with his liege lord? Sandor remembered allowing himself a brief fantasy of hearing of his brother's grisly death, but Lord Tywin's news had turned out to be much stranger and even more unlikely.

 

Sandor could do nothing but stare in disbelief. Had it been any other man but Tywin Lannister delivering such a message, he would have taken it for a terrible jape. But Lord Tywin did not ever smile, much less attempt to make others do so. The rolled parchment lay innocently on the table in front of his lord, with the Stark direwolf on the broken gray seal plainly visible.

 

Sandor was being called to Winterfell by Lord Eddard Stark.

 

“Some Northern sorcery has named you, Sandor Clegane, as the soul bonded mate for one of Lord Stark's daughters.” Here Lord Tywin sneered at the parchment, “...the elder, Sansa is her name. Let me be the first to congratulate you on marrying far above your station.”

 

Sandor could think of nothing to do but nod, and so that's what he did. But his thoughts were thrust into turmoil. Marriage? To a highborn lady? Such notions were utterly foreign to him; so impossible as to be beyond even fantasy. Whores and serving girls flinched at the sight of his face; ladies of the court couldn't bear to look at him at all. He was no knight and only the second son of a very minor house. The idea that any woman would marry him was so foolish that Sandor had never even wished for it, in even his most fevered wine dreams. His only aspiration had ever been to one day be the one to end his brother's life. But at Lord Tywin's mocking congratulations, he couldn't help but feel a kind of lightness in his chest. Others would call it hope, but Sandor hated lying to himself, and hope was nothing but a lie.

 

“Ned Stark is a savage and a fool besides; he puts the future of his house in the hands of this so-called greenseeing – nothing more than black magic perpetuated by the smallfolk in the North. Nevertheless, if he sees fit to waste his eldest daughter's hand on superstitious nonsense, it is no concern of mine. Sandor Clegane, you are going North. But you will remain a Westerman.”

 

Sandor didn't move, but allowed his good eyebrow to raise just a bit. “My lord?”

 

“The Starks are sending an envoy here to collect you. You will return with them to Winterfell and take part in whatever barbaric ceremony is required of you to 'bond' with the Stark girl. They will expect you to become a member of the Stark household, and of course you must give up your post as Joffrey's sworn shield. But you are no Northman, and the Cleganes are still sworn to Castlerly Rock. Do you understand me?”

 

Sandor understood perfectly. He was to be a Lannister man amongst the wolves of Winterfell. Why Lord Tywin would need to spy on the Starks was beyond him, but also didn't concern him. The Starks were nothing to him. Moreover this soul bonding sounded like just another lie...one perpetuated by tradition and religion, which in Sandor's experience were the worst kind.

 

“Aye, my lord, I understand.” Sandor nodded with a slight bow, and stood again, waiting to be dismissed.

 

“I do not know when we will have need of you, but I expect the fervent loyalty you have shown our house will not be cooled by the snows of Winterfell, no matter how long you stay in the North.”

 

“As you say my lord.”

 

Lord Tywin nodded, and told Sandor to be ready to leave as soon as the Stark escort arrived. His parting words were to remind him that while he would be leaving King's Landing for good, he would never leave the employ of the Lannisters.

Chapter Text

SANSA

 

Sansa put aside her embroidery and smiled up at her brother and his companions. She tried to affect the stately look Mother had when receiving Stark bannermen in the Great Hall, although she could feel the strain in her cheeks that meant she was smiling too widely. It was so hard not to! This was just like in the songs when valiant knights swore their swords to their fair lady!

 

“My dear sister Sansa,” Robb began formally, “may I offer congratulations on the news of your bonding, my lady. This is a great day in the life of a Stark maiden. To see you smiled upon thusly by the old Gods and by the Kings of Winter, our ancestors, brings me great joy.”

 

Robb gave a flawless courtly bow, and Jon and Theon both copied him perfectly. Sansa nearly squealed at the thrill of it, but reigned in her reaction just in time.

 

She replied in the proper manner that would make Septa Mordane proud. “My lords, you do me great honor to share your good wishes with me.”

 

Robb only smiled, but Jon continued somberly, grim faced as ever. “Not just our wishes, my lady. Know that if he is anything less than ideal, we will defend your honor to whatever end.”

 

Sansa rose from her seat with as much of the gravity of a great lady she could muster at age fourteen. She knew this was a mere formality, but it still felt important. This was her first real duty as a woman grown and a lady of Winterfell.

 

Theon smirked, but Jon blushed a bit when Sansa stood on her toes to kiss all three of them in turn on the cheek. Robb nearly ruined it when he pinched her nose, but still, Sansa felt like a queen accepting fealty from her bravest knights. This was a great day! She was to learn the name of her bonded mate, her future lord husband!

 

Sansa thought that this day would never come. It seemed to be years ago now (although she knew it had only been a few months) that she awoke one morning with a dull pain in her belly and somewhat of a mess in her bed clothes. She had been looking forward to her flowering forever – ever since she was told about the Stark soul bonding. She knew the ceremony to discover the name of her bonded mate couldn't happen until she had flowered.

 

Her lady mother had cautioned her not to expect too much too soon, but Sansa could hardly contain herself. The sooner Father called on the Reeds, the sooner she could meet her lord husband! Sansa had begged everyone she could think of to ask for details on the soul bonding; what it would be like, when she would meet her betrothed, whether he would be a great lord or a brave knight, or perhaps a handsome prince from an exotic land across the narrow sea?

 

But Mother knew nothing of the tradition, as southron maids found their husbands in much more ordinary ways – through the treaties and arrangements made by their lord fathers. Septa Mordane only sniffed in disapproval whenever the topic arose. Father only told her that she was too young to worry about such things and that there was plenty of time to learn about her future bond, but Sansa tried to tell him – she wasn't worried about it at all! She wanted to know.

 

Old Nan knew about the traditions, though. She said the great houses of Westeros and the Citadel knew nothing of soul bonding because they knew nothing of the First Men.

 

“The blood of the First Men flows in you, my dear. It is from them that the bond for Stark women originates. The Kings of Winter knew of the bond, and knew its power as sure as they knew of the coming of winter. Be patient, sweetling. Your bond is for life, and will come as naturally to you as breathing.”

 

Old Nan had known Aunt Lyanna and untold numbers of Stark maidens before her. Nobody was quite sure how old Old Nan really was, but she was well versed in the long history of the Starks, even if she got confused about exactly which Stark family members she currently cared for. When Sansa tried to press her about Aunt Lyanna's bonding, she only started talking about what a sweet boy “her little Brandon” had been. But occasionally Sansa could get Old Nan to concentrate, and she would share a little of what she knew.

 

You'll not be able to feel it right away my dear, you must have patience. But the Stark soul bond is strong, and grows more intense with time. And yes, with love! One day you will feel your bonded's presence day and night. You will feel him in your heart, in your mind. You'll know his fears and loves, his wants and needs as well as your own, as you'll be able to feel it in your belly the way the rest of us feel hunger.”

 

Sansa thought it sounded wonderful and terribly romantic. Her father would not say anything about Aunt Lyanna, however. He only said that she had loved her bonded very much, and that he had loved her back, but then she died.

 

Today was the day Jojen Reed would perform the secret ceremony in the Godswood to discover the name of her soul bonded mate. Sansa would not be allowed to be present, however. Greenseeing was a private, mysterious, and secret process. Jojen would actually speak to the heart tree somehow!

 

Father said Lord Howland had done the same for Aunt Lyanna. There had been no greenseers in the Stark family proper for many generations, but the Reeds had the Sight, and were happy to speak to Winterfell's heart tree on behalf of her daughters.

 

Sansa waited impatiently in her bed chamber, knowing that her mother would come to get her once the ceremony was over, and that she and Father would tell her all about her soon-to-be-betrothed. She tried to focus on her embroidery to pass the time, but concentrating was impossible, so she gave up hours ago.

 

Finally...finally the door opened and Lady Catelyn walked into the room, looking a bit pale, but smiling faintly.

 

“Come, Sansa. Your father awaits you in his solar.”

 

Sansa jumped up from her chair by the window, smiling and giddy with excitement. This was a great day!

 

Chapter Text

***

 

EDDARD

 

Seven save us, a Lannister bannerman? Ned stared at the little crannogman, wishing he had misheard, but knowing that he had not. Howland Reed was a serious man, and Jojen Reed was his father's son. This was no jape, the Starks were about to be bound – in the gravest and most permanent way possible – to the Lannisters. Worse, to the Lannisters' vile pet. His sweet, innocent Sansa...with the Hound! If there was a man in the seven kingdoms worse suited for his gentle girl, he had yet to hear of him. Truthfully, the elder Clegane would be worse; but that was too...no, best to not even contemplate that.

 

“You are sure of it?”

 

Ned knew there was no point asking. Although he didn't completely understand the Sight, he knew that greenseers knew their craft and that mistakes were not made. Still, the outcome was so unimaginable, how could he not ask?

 

Jojen did not bother nodding. “My lord, I know it is not the name you hoped to hear. He is not the man you would have picked for your daughter. But her mate is not for you to choose. You are not a southron lord and Lady Sansa is no southron maid. This is the will of the Old Gods.”

 

Eddard knew he was right, but couldn't help but think of the last time the will of the Old Gods was imposed on a Stark maiden. He looked into the curiously green eyes of Jojen Reed and saw only calm confidence. It unnerved him.

 

“The heart tree does not lie, my lord. I know you consider this man your enemy, but the political intrigues of Westeros are meaningless in this. The strength of the bond is as fierce as a direwolf, as sure as the coming of winter. The Sight tells me Sandor Clegane is your daughter's soul bonded mate. If you choose not to call him to Winterfell, the bond is like to grow in strength anyway, heedless of the distance between them. Mayhaps you would like less...what happened next. You know as well as I that resisting the soul bond is pointless, as well as dangerous.”

 

Ned knew all too well what the Reed boy spoke of, and chose not to take offense at his imperious tone. He was right. Resistance would likely lead to disaster. His father had chosen not to pursue Lyanna's bond. Lord Rickard had neither sisters nor aunts, and the realities of the Stark soul bond were unknown to him. Now he and Lyanna were both dead, and Ned had a difficult conversation to have with his eldest daughter.

 

His heart broke at the idea of trying to explain to his sweet Sansa that she would not be marrying a gentle and handsome knight, like in the songs she loved so much.

 

Although Clegane was surely as ferocious a dog as his reputation implied, at least Ned was sure Sansa would be physically safe from him. The bond would make him loyal to Sansa at least, and fully vested in her safety. That at least Ned was sure of. Whether that loyalty extended to her family was an unknown, and whether a man sworn to the Lannisters and related to that monster Gregor could be trusted beyond that was perhaps an even larger question.

 

If she could be happy with him? Sansa, who spent her days dreaming and singing and embroidering flowers? Is there a man in Westeros gentle and kind enough for her? Ned shook his head in answer to himself, although he realized Jojen might think he was denying the truth of his words. Ned knew they were all too true. Winter was coming, perhaps sooner than anyone thought.

 

“Of course. I do know that. It is as you say, then. I will have Catelyn call her.”

Chapter Text

***

 

SANSA

 

Sansa rushed down the corridor, too upset to even realize where she was going. She could hear Septa Mordane calling after her, but only quickened her footsteps until the woman's voice faded away. She knew that Mother would not be pleased with her behavior once she heard about it, but for the moment Sansa couldn't care. Her face felt hot, and her hands ached, where she had tightened her fists so hard that her fingernails pressed into the soft flesh of her palms.


She felt her breath shortening as she continued through the maze of stone passageways, walking as fast as she could without running (only Arya would run inside, like some crude wildling girl), but without any destination. Gradually her steps shortened, and her pace slowed. The hallways narrowed and the air felt suddenly much warmer, and Sansa realized she had wandered nearly all the way to the kitchens.


As she wondered whether Gage would let her steal a lemoncake, Sansa felt suddenly calmer. The peace washed over her as abruptly as vexation had a few minutes earlier. She was used to Arya being insufferable, but she could never remember feeling so
angry at her before today. Arya was just a little girl, after all, and had no interest in proper things like sewing and playing the high harp and doing the things a lady should do. Father said it was the wolf's blood in her. Whatever it was, normally Sansa could ignore her, but for some reason, today Arya's antics enraged her.

 

She continued to wander the corridors, knowing if she went back to her chambers Mother and Septa Mordane would be waiting there to scold her. She kept walking instead, calming her breathing as she went, forcing herself to take the slow, measured steps of a lady. She trailed a hand on the wall as she went, feeling the hot springs Winterfell was built on warm the stone from within.

 

Eventually she found herself at her father's solar. It was here nearly two months ago that he and Mother had told her about her soul bonded mate. His name was Sandor Clegane, and Father said he was a fierce warrior from the Westerlands, in service to House Lannister. When Father said her bonded was only the second son of a minor house, Sansa immediately felt disappointed. She had assumed her soul mate would be a great lord, or even a prince!

 

Father seemed disappointed as well, and when Sansa asked why, he only said a Lannister bannerman was not who he would choose as a match for her. This Sandor Clegane was sworn shield to the crown prince, however, and Sansa felt sure that meant he must be brave and strong, to be trusted with such a charge. Being a Lannister bannerman couldn't be so terrible, either, after all the queen was of House Lannister!

 

Sansa felt her cheeks burn as she recalled her initial reaction. The thought of hoping to marry a lord or a prince had barely finished forming in her mind when she felt an unpleasant weight settle in her chest; it was the same feeling she had on the rare occasions Maester Luwin said he was disappointed in her studies. It was shame. Sansa felt she had already somehow betrayed her bonded mate, and they weren't even married! They had yet to even meet!

 

The more she thought about it, the more it seemed childish to be disappointed that her soon-to-be-betrothed was not quite so highborn as she first imagined. He was far from a commoner, after all, and Old Nan had told her that the bond cared naught for birthrights and family trees. Anyway Jeyne Poole wasn't highborn at all, and she was Sansa's dearest friend.

 

Sandor. Sansa found herself saying his name over and over again in her head. She knew next to nothing about this man, but knew that she liked the sound of his name. She wondered what he was like. Mother had warned her not to expect him to be like the heroes in the songs she loved, and that although he wasn't exactly lowborn , Sandor was likely to be closer to a common soldier than a great lord. Sansa was surprised to feel a sharp stab of offense at her mother's words, but held her tongue. How else did knights become legends but through great deeds in battle? Sansa was sure that a valiant warrior would make a fine lord husband indeed.

 

The door to her father's solar stood slightly ajar, and when she peered inside, her father caught her eye and smiled.

 

“Come, Sansa. What troubles you, sweet one? I know you are hiding from your septa and your mother.” Father's eyes were warm and smiling, and Sansa knew he would not scold her for being impatient with Arya.

 

Sansa entered the room and sat in a chair near the window. “It's Arya, Father. She...oh I don't even remember now. I was angry and spoke discourteously, and then I ran away. Septa Mordane was scolding me and I didn't even stop to listen!”

 

“You were angry? Normally you are more patient with Arya. Why was today different?”

 

The feelings that plagued her earlier were coming back to her in force. She felt the anger well up inside her again, even if she couldn't remember what Arya had even said to her to set her off. She was afraid her father would be upset with her; even though he never raised his voice at any of them and although he didn't even seem upset right now...Sansa's insides felt twisted and bit wobbly, like when Hullen picked a horse for her that was rather too spirited.

 

It was confusing and unpleasant, feeling so many things at once. Fear and anger swirled with her frustration and Sansa wanted it to stop. She twisted her hands in her lap and willed herself not to shout at her father.

 

“Oh Father I don't know why today was different! I can't understand it and I don't think...I mean it doesn't...I don't care that Arya hates embroidery! Her stitches are terrible! She doesn't even like pretty things so why should she spend all day embroidering?” Her heart was racing and she felt her cheeks warm up again. She was rambling about embroidery and it made no sense, and she didn't care. Her father's furrowed brow and concerned look were not at all comforting; for some reason that annoyed Sansa as well.

 

“Sansa...is this really about your sister? Are you...is it worry over your bonded mate? I know I told you that he...”

 

“Oh I don't care about that!” Sansa gasped and covered her mouth, staring at her father with wide eyes, horrified that she would interrupt him so rudely. He looked shocked, which only made her feel worse. To her utter dismay, she suddenly felt her eyes sting with unshed tears and prayed they wouldn't fall. It was so childish to cry over nothing. She was nearly a woman grown and soon to be betrothed!

 

“I beg your pardon, Father, I spoke out of turn.” Sansa whispered her apology and took a deep breath, blinking away the wetness from her eyes and placing her hands back in her lap as Septa Mordane taught her.

 

“I am not worried about meeting my bonded mate.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Sansa heard the ring of untruth. She was worried, but it was somehow not a bad feeling. She was looking forward to it, too. “I...well, I suppose I am a bit worried...but not terribly so, as I am excited as well. I am anxious to meet him, and I feel as though...it's as if I...I mean that – that – I'm hopeful that he will...” Sansa felt her words and feelings getting twisted and confused again, and her throat began to close as she felt the strangest desire to burst into tears. Her hand flew to her mouth again, as if to keep her stuttering words inside.

 

Her father nodded seriously, and stood from his chair. He walked over to the window where she sat and crouched down in front of her, taking her hands in his own, and smiled gently up at her. The patient look in his gray eyes helped Sansa calm somewhat, and she let out a breath she didn't realize she had been holding.

 

“Sansa, I believe you are upset today because you are beginning to feel the effects of the bond. You know that as your bond strengthens, you'll begin to feel the emotions of your bonded mate as well as your own? He is on his way to Winterfell as we speak; as he gets closer, you may start to feel his feelings more intensely.”

 

Sansa was stricken with this news. Did this mean her betrothed was angry with her? Angry at the idea of coming to Winterfell to be bonded with her and eventually marry her?

 

“But Father, why should he be angry?”

 

Her father squeezed her hand reassuringly. “Sandor Clegane is a Westerman, Sansa, the idea of soul bonding and the ways of the First Men are unknown to him. His whole life he has served the Lannisters at Casterly Rock and then at King's Landing. He is probably feeling...confused perhaps, at not knowing what awaits him here, and perhaps a bit angry at having to leave his homeland behind for the North. Winter is coming, and southron soldiers know naught of the Northern winter.”


Sansa contemplated this. It had never occurred to her that Sandor would have to leave his life behind for her. He had to abandon family and friends and all that was familiar to him for a journey into the unknown North. Sansa tried to imagine how she would feel if she had to leave Father and Mother and Jeyne and Winterfell to go to some unknown place to wed a stranger. It would be exciting, but she would miss everyone terribly. And what if she knew nothing about the place that would be her new home? Sansa felt sure that would be unpleasant.

 

“I never thought about that, Father...I will say a prayer for him. And I promise to be more patient with Arya as well.” He smiled at her and gave her leave to pray.

 

Sansa went first to the Godswood, and prayed to the heart tree to protect her bonded mate on his journey to Winterfell, and to help him come to love the North and find a home here, even if his family was so far away. Then she went to the Sept, figuring that as a Westerman he likely kept to the Seven. She lit a candle for the Warrior, remembering that Father said he had been a soldier his whole life, and knowing that as her future husband he would fight among her father's bannermen. She then lit a candle for the Mother, asking her to gentle his rage and help him know peace.

 

Sansa resolved to do everything she could to help Sandor feel welcome at Winterfell. She wondered that if she could feel his emotions, perhaps he could feel hers as well? As she knelt in the Sept, she tried hard to think pleasing, happy thoughts and hoped that her soon-to-be-betrothed could feel her love and concern for him, and that he would one day feel the same for her.


Chapter Text

***

 

SANDOR

 

 

Sandor sat down near the fire and sneered derisively at his companions as they set up camp. Were these buggers the best that Winterfell had to offer? If so, he'd have no one to spar with, and be as soft and useless as a septon in a moon's turn. Apparently Lord Stark had no real enemies, as his guardsmen couldn't be any less fearsome.

 

Lord Stark had sent the Captain of his Guard with a small company of men as an envoy to collect him from King's Landing, and then escort him into the frozen North. Sandor was not impressed. Few men managed to approach him in size or strength, but these men were more baby sitters than guards. Not even their so-called Captain – Jory something – would stand a chance against Jaime. Sandor never thought he'd end up missing the bloody fucking Kingslayer.

 

He shook his head in disbelief. No decent challengers to spar with, likely no chance to kill his monstrous brother, and supposedly bound to marry some highborn lady and be her dutiful lord husband, according to some bloody Northern witchcraft. How had his life turned into a mummer's farce?

 

What did he know about having a wife? Just about as much as being a proper lord for a proper highborn lady: nothing. And now Sandor was three days away from meeting his betrothed. Not just some common girl either; the eldest daughter of a lord. The gods-damned Warden of the North and King Robert's dearest childhood friend. If the situation wasn't so bloody strange – and if it were happening to some other poor sod – Sandor would have laughed.

 

He felt truly unsettled, in a way he was utterly unfamiliar with, and it angered him. His already fierce need for some Dornish sour expanded ten-fold the more he thought on it. He was not used to going into situations totally blind. Even in battle, when no one could know what would happen, Sandor at least had the comfort of knowing the skills he'd spent a lifetime honing would serve him no matter what. In the thick of a good fight, he didn't even need to think at all; his body moved purely on instinct.

 

Did the girl have enemies that needed killing? Otherwise, Sandor couldn't see what good his instincts and training would do him in his new life. He knew nothing of being a husband, and even less of being a member of a noble household. The Starks were mad for sending for him!

 

All he knew of lords and ladies was how to take orders from them, and to dispatch their enemies with either a sharp sword or a strong arm. How could Lord Stark want the likes of him for his eldest daughter? What was this greenseeing and how in the seven hells did his name come up, in whatever seeing took place?

 

Sandor brooded while he tended to his sword, and Tommy dealt with the tent. The Winterfell guardsmen moved about him, settling their camp, keeping their distance while trying to seem like they weren't trying to. They were all polite enough, if not exactly friendly, and the staring at his face had stopped by the third or fourth day on the road, which was more than Sandor had expected. But nobody dared get too close.

 

Sandor figured it was just as well. He wondered whether the people of Winterfell would be the same. In Kings Landing people highborn and low scurried away when they saw him coming, and it was the same at Castlerly Rock, even when he was barely more than a boy. Winterfell couldn't be much different. Sandor laughed bitterly to himself, thinking the Starks and their smallfolk were going to be mighty unhappy with their queer Northern gods for sending an ugly bastard like him to be bonded to their sweet lady.

 

Sandor's sneer deepened, thinking of the horrified looks he was like to receive from his soon-to-be-betrothed. He hoped for the girl's sake someone had warned her about his face. She was no doubt crying into her wine every night anyway, at the thought of marrying some lowborn dog like him. She probably loves some northern knight. Sandor scowled, thinking of a beautiful highborn lady, the kind that never looked him in the face, spending her days giggling with her ladies over some pretty boy like Ser Jaime or Lord Renly.

 

Would she merely hate him for not being her precious knight, or would she be afraid of him as well? Sandor was used to both from most everyone, but a man should not have to see disgust and fear in the eyes of his own wife! The idea of his future wife swooning over some simpering milksop like the Knight of Flowers filled Sandor with a sudden, irrational rage and he was halfway to swearing to twist the bastard's neck when he realized he didn't even know if his so-called soul bonded even had such a paramour.

 

He supposed someone in the Winterfell envoy would know. Guards tended to blend into the background and usually knew more than their liege lords realized. Their captain was the only one who would get near enough to him, so he supposed he could ask him.

 

“Jory, is it?”

 

The man paused in settling down on the far side of the fire, then moved to sit closer, but only nodded in reply.

 

“What do you know of this soul bonding? Why would Lord Stark send for me for his daughter without knowing anything about me?”

 

Jory gave him a shrewd look. “I think we all know a little about you, Clegane. Lord Eddard is certainly aware of the Hound's reputation in battle, if naught else. But as for the bond...a few months ago Lord Jojen of Greywater Watch came to Winterfell. He has the Sight – all the Reeds do – and he says that you're to be bonded to Lady Sansa.” Jory shrugged, as if that was all there was to it. The word of this Jojen.

 

“All I know about the bond is that every Stark maiden has one, and that one with the Sight is needed to find the name of her bonded mate. Turns out, you're the man who was named.”

 

Sandor already knew as much from Lord Tywin, except about this Jojen. Perhaps Winterfell guards weren't the gossipmongers that Lannister guards were.

 

“If Lord Stark is so familiar with my reputation, why would he just accept the word of this Jojen? Surely the girl has other suitors or is in love with some knight. I doubt I'm the type of man a lord dreams to wed to his eldest daughter.”

 

Jory snorted and gave Sandor a look. Even though Sandor knew the truth of it – he was clearly a poor match for a highborn maiden – seeing Jory so obviously and enthusiastically agree made Sandor want to punch him in the mouth. But he started talking again so Sandor refrained.

 

“Lord Eddard only told us that the Stark soul bond is powerful and not to be disputed nor disregarded.” Here, he shrugged again. “And I assure you, ser, Lady Sansa has no suitors nor lovers. She is only four and ten!”

 

Bloody buggering hell. Betrothed to a little girl. What the fuck is Stark thinking! Sandor just stared at Jory in disbelief, too surprised to correct his use of “ser.”

 

But Jory was still talking, oblivious to Sandor's shock. He spoke of Sansa's sweet nature, and how she always had a kind word for everyone, how she was the perfect little lady, and the very image of her lady mother, Catelyn Stark of the Tullys of Riverrun.

 

The other members of their party had settled in around the fire by now, and joined in eagerly, laughing and joking about how lovely and charming the Stark women were, even the wild and unruly younger daughter, who one of them called “Arya Underfoot.” Sandor let their chattering fade into the background, as he tried to make sense of the churning mess in his head and in his gut.

 

He felt like he had downed a half dozen skins of sickeningly sweet Arbor Gold. He was going to be a husband. To a little girl. A sweet, lovely, highborn girl. He was not just going to marry her, but be magically bound to her, whatever the fuck that meant, according to the so-called Sight of some Northern lord. It didn't make any sense, but it was also inevitable. They were only three days away!

 

Nobody seemed to have a problem with it. Jory's snide looks aside, Lord Stark had sent for him, with full knowledge of him as the Hound. He couldn't understand the unshakable faith in this Sight, and why no one thought it was a bad idea for their precious Lady Sansa to be bonded to a vicious dog like him.

 

“My lord, your tent is ready.” Tommy's voice broke him out of his musings, but the unpleasant roiling in his belly continued. Sandor grunted in reply and Tommy scurried off. The Winterfell guards were still prattling on like a bunch of women, and Sandor wished at least one of them was up for bit of sparring; he needed to distract himself from thinking about the bond, and how he was going to face Lady Sansa's disgust and disappointment in just three days. But he might as well swing his sword at one of the nearby trees...now they were talking about Lady Catelyn's hair for fuck's sake.

 

“Sansa will surely be as beautiful as her mother; she's already nearly there, though she is still so young. Clegane, you don't even know your luck, ser!” One of the guardsmen nodded in his direction with an impish smile, and Sandor wondered if the bloody sod was drunk, or just stupid. What in seven hells made him think it was okay to talk about her like that? Did he not fear his liege lord? Lord Tywin would have any man's tongue for speaking about Cersei like that.

 

Sandor just glared at him, but the idiot didn't notice, and went on and on about Sansa's hair, and her pretty singing voice, and how even her pet direwolf was the sweetest of the pack, and how womanly her figure had become of late.

 

Sandor was on his feet and clenching his fists before the conscious thought to do so had even finished forming in his brain. He could feel his face twisting in rage, and hoped the bastards were appropriately frightened of his scarred and bitter scowl. Through the haze of his anger, he heard that the chattering around the fire had given way to deadly silence. He wanted desperately to bury his fist into the smirking face of that insolent bastard, and knew none of the other guards could stop him. But he didn't want to arrive at Winterfell with a dead Stark guardsman; he would have enough trouble earning a welcome as it was. But he'd certainly teach the stupid sod a lesson.

 

“What the bloody fuck is wrong with you?” Sandor wanted to roar at the man, but in trying to control himself, his voice came out as a low, furious growl. “You speak of your lord's daughter, a maid of four and ten, as if she's some bloody fucking tavern wench? Is that what all you Northern knights are like? Disrespectful and lecherous bastards?”

 

The man sat wide-eyed and slack-jawed, and held both hands up in a show of surrender.

 

“I-I-I meant nothing of it, ser, I only meant the Lady Sansa, she...”

 

Don't fucking call me ser, and don't say a word about the Lady Sansa. Not one fucking word...not ever again. Do you hear me?” Sandor glared at the man until he nodded mutely, and then spun around to go into his tent. He needed to be away from the guardsmen before he ripped one of them to shreds.

 

Tommy was already snoring softly on his bedroll, and Sandor was glad for it. The boy was far too cheeky and would be asking impertinent questions if he overheard that exchange. In truth, Sandor wouldn't have known what to say. He had no idea why the man's words had angered him so. Certainly much cruder language was commonplace amongst guardsmen, and it seemed these men had genuine affection for Sansa and her sister, nothing inappropriate at all, really. As he began to undress, he felt the anger drain out of him as abruptly as it had flooded him a moment ago. He was still shocked at the familiar way the guardsmen spoke about the Stark women, but he no longer felt the need to kill one of them over it.

 

He really wanted some wine, but wasn't about to go back out there and find some. He settled down on his bedroll, cursing the snowy ground, but feeling suddenly exhausted despite the cold and the rush of the adrenaline from a moment ago. He fell asleep almost immediately, dreaming of a pretty, red-haired girl smiling at him.

Chapter Text

***

 

SANSA

 

Jeyne and Septa Mordane were talking, but Sansa couldn't hear them, although they were in the same room with her. Their voices were a faint buzzing, as if they were at the far end of a long, echoing hallway.

 

Sansa was in her chambers, and had just finished dressing in her nicest gray woolen dress. The neckline was very modest, but still more bare than what she had been allowed before her flowering. She had finished the dress herself, embroidering a narrow band of tiny flowers, vines, and leaves around the neckline and about both wrists, all in pure snowy white.

 

Her Septa and her mother both were impressed with the stitching, but Arya only scoffed. With all her twelve-year-old wisdom, she announced it was stupid to try and impress a man with embroidery. Jeyne also disapproved, saying she should wear something more colorful, but Sansa felt sure she should wear Stark colors today.

 

She was about to join her family out in the courtyard, to await Sandor's arrival. She was finally going to meet him today! Gariss had arrived early that morning, having ridden ahead of the envoy to announce they were only a half day away, and would arrive soon after high noon. Sansa had been a bundle of nerves ever since. Gariss himself seemed nervous too, and wouldn't look directly at her, and it somehow made her even more anxious. She had such an urge to ask him what he thought of Sandor, what he was like, if he had asked about her or said anything about her, but knew it would be improper to do so.

 

For the last three days, it seemed to Sansa as if she could feel Sandor more and more with each moment, and the intensity made her dizzy. His feelings were so... raw. He was angry most of the time, and Sansa had to work hard to blink away tears every time she felt a stab of his fury. She knew now not to take it out on those around her (although Arya sometimes made it very hard to practice restraint), but mostly it saddened her that her betrothed was clearly so opposed to their match. She was convinced she could change his mind, and vowed to be the perfect lady wife to him. She wanted him to love Winterfell, and hopefully love her one day, too.

 

Old Nan had said soul bonded mates enjoyed a powerful and loving connection, but now Sansa wasn't so sure. The connection was surely there, but Sansa didn't feel love through it at all. Sandor's feelings were so intense and her reactions to them so strong, sometimes she had trouble untangling her own emotions from the echo of his, but she knew one thing: he was angry, and he was anxious. Or perhaps he was angry about feeling anxious. More likely, he was feeling her nervousness, and found the sensation irritable. Why should such a fierce warrior ever feel nervous? Thinking of how Sandor must hate being forced to feel the emotions of a silly girl made Sansa feel more upset and just brought the whole cycle 'round and 'round again.

 

The buzzing that was her companions' voices stopped suddenly, and Sansa looked up to see her father had come to collect her. He smiled at her, and Sansa was happy to see reassurance in his gray eyes. Father had voiced his doubts about Sandor being a Lannister man, but he never doubted the bond itself. He said that if Jojen's Sight revealed Sandor Clegane was her bonded mate, then Sandor would love her more than anything, and she would one day feel the same for him. Sansa desperately wanted to believe him, but her father couldn't feel Sandor's simmering wrath. What would he say if he could? What did Aunt Lyanna feel from her bonded mate when they first met? Sansa would never know, because her father never spoke of his sister.

 

Sansa took her father's arm, and they slowly walked the path that would take them to meet the others in the courtyard outside the Great Keep. Father tried to distract her with a funny tale about Rickon and Shaggydog, but Sansa barely heard him. The heavy pounding of her heart echoed in her ears, and she felt him...Sandor was so close now, only a few minutes away.

 

Once outside, Sansa took her place between her father and her brother Robb. Her mother and her siblings were there too, along with Jon and Theon. Sansa had begged her mother to let Lady stand with her, and when she followed Sansa into the yard, the other direwolves wouldn't be sent away. They each sat at the feet of their masters, and Sansa fancied that she could borrow some of their calm, fierce confidence.

 

Sansa knew it was him long before they were close enough to see faces. Even if he hadn't been bigger than everyone else in the column, Sansa would have known it was him, her bonded mate. When her eyes rested upon him, even from so far away, she felt a jolt in her belly. It was a jab of icy cold pain, like getting hit with a ball of snow when she played with Arya and Bran and Rickon the day after a storm. But then it felt warm. A blaze of heat that curled inside her, right at the spot that had been cold a moment before, and spread over her chest and neck, and lower too. She felt a flush in her cheeks and a flutter down her spine. Her mouth felt dry and her heart pounded at a furious pace in her chest, and she suddenly felt short of breath. She bounced on her toes, forgetting for a moment her Septa's reminders that ladies did not fidget.

 

He was so tall. Sitting astride an enormous black stallion, Sandor was head and shoulders above every other man around him. And such broad shoulders they were! Sansa understood she was seeing a true warrior for the first time. Even his horse looked fierce! As he got closer, she saw that he had straight black hair that reached his massive shoulders, and that it partially concealed his face. Sansa couldn't look away from him. She wanted to turn only to reprimand Arya when she heard her exclaim “what's wrong with his face!?” but then she actually saw his face...

 ...and Sansa's heart broke. One side was a ruin of wicked-looking burn scars. One ear, one side of his mouth, and one cheek were an angry, twisted mass of flesh that his dark hair couldn't really hide. Sansa's already tumultuous emotions were then spiked with fear for her betrothed – what horrors had he endured that could leave such damage? Protecting Lannisters must be dangerous work indeed if this is what happened to their sworn shields. Sansa felt suddenly angry at this unknown Lord Lannister. She felt sure her father would never ask a man to withstand such torture, neither in his name, nor for Winterfell.

 

He was now only a few yards away, and was dismounting surprisingly gracefully from his huge black warhorse. As he walked towards her, she could finally see his eyes. They were dark gray, and piercing. Sansa felt like he could see right through her, and again she felt that hot-cold thrill sweep through her body, making her tremble. She couldn't look away, and she didn't want to look away.

 

They were gray like Father's eyes and Arya's eyes, but so dark. Like a stormy sky, or like the pool in the center of the Godswood. He stared at her, and Sansa wished she could concentrate enough to know his feelings. Was he still angry? Did he regret coming North to meet her? Sansa knew that staring was terribly rude, but she couldn't look away from him, even from his terrible scars. A man with such scars must be utterly fearless. Sansa marveled that he really was like a hero from the songs, despite what her mother had said. Whatever had inflicted those scars, Sandor had survived, and magnificently so. Sansa had never seen a taller or a bigger man, nor one with such a threatening presence. Looking at him made her feel strong and weak at the same time, like she could somehow share his fearlessness, but would never need to be brave with him by her side.

 

Did he take offense at her complete silence? It wasn't fear that held her tongue. She wanted to greet him properly, wanted to impress him, wanted to make him love her, but couldn't think of the correct words, nor how to make her mouth move to say them. Merely thinking clearly was impossible. She heard the buzzing again around her, and wondered vaguely if people were speaking to her.

 

Sansa knew she was in love with Sandor the first day she prayed for him, but now she felt something far beyond whatever it was that settled in her chest that day in the Godswood. It was a desperate want that she didn't really understand. It hurt a little bit, but at the same time, she wished it was a tangible thing she could grab on to with both hands and never let go.

She wanted to tell Sandor this, to ask him if he felt it too; she wanted to say hello to him and tell him she prayed for him. She wanted to know what his voice sounded like and if it was dark and stormy like his eyes. She wanted to know what happened to his face and if his hair was as soft as it looked...she wanted to know what he was thinking.

 

With him so close now, she had to let her head drop back a bit so she could keep looking at him – he really was very tall – and broad. Sansa wondered if he could hear her heart beating, as it was the only sound she could hear. She was more determined than ever to make him love her, and was thankful for the bond that would help her know his feelings, once she could sort them from her own.


She opened her mouth to finally say something, when Lady suddenly let out a little howl. She was usually much quieter than her brothers and sister, and the sound surprised Sansa out of her fog. She had been laying at Sansa's feet, but now stood at her full height. Lady walked right up to Sandor, and for the first time since he rode through the gates, Sansa tore her eyes away from him, and they both looked down at the direwolf. Lady nudged at the folds of Sandor's clothes, sniffing him, and then licked his hand. Sansa smiled and looked up at Sandor to see his reaction. Not everyone took to the attentions of a direwolf, and Lady was already much bigger than most dogs, even though she was still only a pup. But Sandor's mouth quirked into a little half-grin as he rubbed Lady's head, and the sight gave Sansa such a thrill, she forgot what she had planned to say.


Chapter Text

***

 

SANDOR

 

The massive gray granite walls of Winterfell were in sight, and Sandor's guts were in turmoil. He'd never felt like such a bloody jittery mess; not even before his first battle as a green lad. His senses were a tangled wreck and his mind was a fog, as if he had been drinking heavily for days.

 

It was a ridiculous notion – being nervous to meet some little girl and her family. It was their folly that called him here, it would be no concern of Sandor's if they didn't like what they saw once he arrived. Fretting like a woman was shredding his nerves and testing his patience.

He tried to clear his mind, but it was futile. He was increasingly irritated that apparently he no longer had mastery over his own thoughts. The frustration and damnable anxiety twisted together and clouded Sandor's head completely. The guards' happy chatter about returning home and Tommy's endless line of questions about the North did nothing to penetrate it. Their voices were an annoying buzz around him, and easily ignored.

 

Sandor realized, not for the first time on this journey, that his life was about to get incredibly complicated. Before that bloody raven from Lord Stark, his days had been simple and reassuringly predictable. Watch after the golden boy prince. Do whatever Queen Cersei commanded while on duty, drink as much wine as possible off duty. Train whenever possible, and sometimes pay a wench for her attentions, if both coin and desperation were sufficient.

None of that was to be the same, and Sandor was in no way equipped to deal with the change. He had no idea how to relate to a high lord as anything but a sword...would Lord Stark want him to act as...what? A son? One of his bannermen? What the bloody fuck did men married to highborn ladies do with their days anyway? Sandor would be damned to all seven hells before he gave up training and being useful for sitting in bloody council meetings. He snorted to himself at the thought. Unless those meetings were about how to kill people, he wouldn't have much to add anyway.

 

And what of the girl? Whenever Sandor thought of her, he felt a shiver down his spine and an unfamiliar and unpleasant swirl of emotions. It was want, anticipation, and dread mixed together in a grim combination. He couldn't lie to himself any longer; the idea of having a pretty lady wife was a secret desire he didn't even realize he had, until that fucking raven planted the idea in his head. The more he thought on it, the more it was something he yearned for, and the more he hated himself for the wretched yearning.

Sandor couldn't even really imagine what having a wife would be like, but it had to be better than what he was used to from women...fear...disgust...the false smiles of whores...and in one memorable case, pity from an old innkeeper's wife. Jory said Lady Sansa was sweet and kind, so perhaps she would be too polite to be obvious about her revulsion. Sandor thought perhaps that wouldn't be so bad. Simple courtesy from a beautiful girl was more than he deserved, after all, or had ever hoped to get.

 

The dread was still there, however...it was a living thing that thrashed and writhed inside him, making him sick with doubt and increasingly uneasy as the walls of Winterfell loomed larger. The feeling that she would be horrified, that she would flinch away from him, the way the Queen's ladies in King's Landing did when he followed Joffrey into a room. For some reason, Sandor dreaded that flinch from this girl he didn't even know. He was disgusted with himself when he realized how desperately he wanted approval from her. A maid of only four and ten who he'd never even laid eyes on! How could she matter so much to him already? It was foolish and pathetic but couldn't be denied. Neighbor to the dread in his heart, was an empty ache. It was want. He wanted her to...just not hate him.

 

They had reached the outer walls of the castle complex, and the drawbridge was already down. As Sandor fell in line behind Jory, and with the rest of his escort behind him, he could feel the curious eyes of the other Winterfell guards on him. He had been stared at his entire life, and should be well used to it by now, but these stares only added to his distress. He knew his soon-to-be-betrothed was just inside the inner gate, that he was only moments away from seeing her, from her seeing him. The anticipation and doubt churned together in his belly and threatened to make him sick. He tried to steel himself against what he knew was like to happen, but a stubborn hope that seemed to be in the back of his mind for three days now wouldn't let him.

 

He dreaded the meeting but at the same time wanted nothing more than to finally see her, to meet her, the source of all his frustration and confusion since he left King's Landing. What would she say? What did she think of this so-called bond? Would she cry when she saw his ugly face? Although he was used to all manner of rude greetings, Sandor didn't think he could bear a look of disgust on her face. He didn't even know what her face looked like, but it seemed seeing the smallest of smiles on that face – directed at him – was now his chief ambition.

 

The column emerged from the inner gate into the wide open courtyard of Winterfell. He saw the Stark family lined up outside the main gates of the Great Keep, and he knew immediately which one was his future bride.

Even if she wasn't obviously the eldest daughter in a family of mostly boys, he would know it was her. When his eyes settled on her bright head, he felt a stab in his gut that nearly took his breath away. It was much worse than his first battle wound. It was cold and sudden and sharp, and at that moment Sandor knew Sansa Stark would be the most dangerous person he'd ever meet.

 

After the cold, came the heat. It started at the same spot in his belly and swept over his whole body, like being submerged in a piping hot bath after a long day of training and fighting. It felt undeniably good, although underneath was the faint echo of pain, like the sting of water on a fresh scrape or bruise. If just looking at her made him feel this way, Sandor was suddenly afraid to speak to her. Just a word from this woman – a girl, really – could ruin him. He was already enthralled, and they hadn't even spoken.

 

As he got closer, he saw she was tall for a girl – and that the idiot guardsman he'd nearly killed had the right of it – she didn't look like a little girl at all. It was bloody fucking cold up here in the North, and she wore a fur cloak, but it was only draped over her shoulders, and was open to reveal her lovely figure swathed in the grim Stark colors. Her plain and dull-colored dress was so different from the fripperies of the ladies at court, but it wouldn't be fair to put a girl that looked like her in anything else.

If he had not already been speechless and unable to tear his eyes away from her, he would be now. She was beautiful. No amount of praise from the guardsmen could have prepared him for this face. Bards at court sang of legendary beauties, but no woman real or imaginary could compare to the creature before him now.

 

Her fiery red hair caught the sunlight and made everything around her fade into nothing. Now that he had dismounted and was walking towards her, he could see her eyes. Her eyes blazed as brightly as her hair, but they were a deep blue that Sandor was already drowning in. The southern summer sky, the waves on the beach at Lannisport, the jewels in the Queen's crown, all of them paled in comparison to the blue of her eyes.

She was staring at him with those eyes, and it unnerved him and thrilled him at the same time. No woman had ever looked him in the face before, yet there was no disgust there. How could this be? What could she be thinking? Were all Northern girls this bold and fearless?

 

Her skin was flawless...it looked smooth and creamy and softer than anything Sandor had ever touched. She had a perfect, pink mouth with full lips that were ever so slightly parted, and Sandor couldn't look away. He didn't think he'd want to look at anything else, ever again.

Neither of them spoke. She must think me a fool. But Sandor had no idea what he should say. Was there a proper sort of greeting? He wasn't sure he could speak, even if he knew the correct words to say. His mind was still a fog, and he wondered if the buzzing he heard was inside his head, or if someone was saying something to him.


Was she shocked into silence? Did he frighten her with his horrible face? Was she intimidated by his size, had she heard terrible stories about The Hound? But she didn't turn away...nor did she look away. The neckline of her dress dipped modestly to reveal the curving arch of her lovely neck, the faint blush there making her, if possible, even more beautiful.

Her pulse beat frantically there, against her perfect skin, like the wings of the caged little birds from from the Summer Isles that were popular at court. He wanted to feel that fluttering pulse against his fingers, against his lips. But why would such a beautiful creature ever let him touch her? Why hadn't she looked away in loathing, or run away crying from the idea of him as her bonded mate? Surely she had gotten a good look at him by now.

 

Suddenly her massive pet stirred, and let out a little howl. Sandor had never seen a direwolf before, and it was the only thing that could tear his eyes away from the girl. It was just as beautiful as it's mistress, with thick, pale gray fur and wide golden eyes. The direwolf sniffed at him and licked his hand, and Sandor couldn't help but smile and rub the animal's soft head. Sandor looked up at his soon-to-be-betrothed and his heart threatened to beat out of his chest. She looked right back at him with those huge blue eyes and smiled, and Sandor knew he was lost. He cursed his brother tenfold all over again for ruining his face, if this is what it felt like to have a pretty girl look at him without fear, and smile.

Chapter Text

***

 

CATELYN

 

Servants were bringing out the final course, a series of beautiful desserts, each more tempting than the last. There were fruit tarts in deep round dishes, surrounded by warm flaky crusts and full of dark berries that Catelyn knew would be equal parts tart and sweet. Pears poached in strongwine were followed by sliced winter peaches served with chilled honeyed milk. The iced blueberries with sweet cream were set in front of Arya; the cooks were well used to chasing her out of the kitchen for trying to sneak bowls of it. Catelyn herself looked forward to the baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and cloves, and planned to have mulled wine as well. Sansa, of course, only had eyes for the lemon cakes frosted with sugar, which she was nibbling on daintily, in between laughing at Tommy's antics.

 

It was Sansa's fifteenth name day, and the feast that night was just a bit more lavish than usual in celebration. Gage and the rest were all too happy to make all of Sansa's favorites, and even fashioned the lemon cakes in the shape of roses especially for her. Catelyn had offered to have a new dress made for her, but Sansa had begged instead for silk and wool and fine thread in yellow and black, eager to make favors for her betrothed in his house colors, although the man was no knight. She had also asked for white velvet and gray fox fur in order to make her own maiden's cloak. Her father, of course, allowed the purchases, although he made sure to be clear that Sansa would have no need for a maiden's cloak for many years yet.


The children were laughing and clapping while Sandor's bastard nephew juggled lemons and winter peaches to amuse Sansa, and Catelyn had to admit the boy was quite good. She found it curious that although he seemed better at being a court jester than a squire, his uncle didn't seem to mind. Sandor spoke gruffly to Tommy and seemed to always chide him for sleeping late and asking too many questions, but was in truth strangely tolerant of the boy's shoddy squiring. But then, everything about Sandor Clegane was strange.

 

Catelyn looked over at the scarred man, and saw that he was smiling fondly at Sansa's obvious enjoyment, and only grinned more broadly when Arya started shouting that she wanted to learn how to juggle, too. His smile did nothing to make him more handsome; in fact, it twisted the scarred half of his face in a most alarming manner, but Catelyn could not be moved to fear him, not anymore.

 

Despite the initial shock – and yes, despair – upon hearing his name from Jojen Reed's lips, Catelyn had to admit that Sandor Clegane mayhaps was going to be a good match for Sansa. What mother didn't wish for a strong and gentle husband for her daughter? Surely there was no stronger nor fiercer warrior in all the Seven Kingdoms. Catelyn had seen Sandor in the yard practicing with each of Winterfell's best guardsmen, and when he sparred with Robb and Theon and Jon, he took the boys on two at a time, and sometimes all at once. One didn't need to know anything about swordfighting to recognize deadly skill when one saw it. Sandor was bigger and stronger than the others, but also incredibly fast and strangely graceful. Even if she had never witnessed his skill in the yard, his reputation as The Hound spoke for itself.

 

No-one with knowledge of his reputation would think the man capable of gentleness, yet Catelyn had seen it with her own eyes. He was brutish and rude and alarmingly large, as well as muscled like a bull. He stalked about the corridors and in the courtyards with a scowl and a dangerous air, making even the boldest servants grant him only the barest greetings before scurrying away. Yet he treated Sansa with a tenderness and caution that bordered on reverence...it was remarkable. Catelyn was sure that he really only spoke to her and to Ned with courtesy for Sansa's sake. All his gentleness and politeness was reserved for Sansa alone.

 

Catelyn thought back to their extraordinary and somewhat awkward first meeting. Extraordinary because she had never witnessed anything like it. Her sweet and lovely daughter, and this scarred brute of a man, merely stared at each other with an uncanny intensity. The moment stretched on and on, but they never exchanged a word. Their eyes were locked together and it seemed nothing could break their gaze, as if the soul bond connection Old Nan spoke of was a tangible thing linking them together. Sansa's Tully blue eyes met the fathomless gray eyes of the Hound, and there was an identical gleam in both gazes, an indefinable spark shared between them that was nearly palpable. Catelyn knew then she was witnessing something quite unique. If she had ever doubted the truth of the bond before that moment, seeing them stare at each other unblinkingly would have settled the matter.

 

Although her husband did not share the reasons behind his unshakable confidence in the strength and power of the bond, Catelyn trusted his faith and took it on as her own. She desperately wanted to know how Lyanna Stark dealt with her bond and what became of it, but knew better than to ask. Ned never spoke of his sister, and asking would only force him to deny her, which Catelyn knew he was loath to do.

 

Sansa and Sandor's first meeting was just as awkward for everyone else present. Sansa had confessed later that being near him for the first time had been so overwhelming she could barely think straight, much less form any words. It seemed their emotional overload also meant the pair would not – or perhaps could not – acknowledge anyone or anything else around them. Ned had made the formal introductions, and his words had fallen on deaf ears. When he implored Sansa – usually so courteous and eager to say and do the right thing – to say something, anything, he was met with total silence. She didn't even acknowledge her father! He had spoken directly to Sandor as well, and Catelyn supposed he would have been insulted had he not seen Sansa behave exactly the same the moment before: deaf and blind to all, as if she and Sandor were the only two people in the world.

 

Only the attention of Sansa's direwolf broke the gaze that tethered them together, and Catelyn had to concede that could only be a good omen. When Ned and the others had first brought the direwolf pups home, Catelyn had felt uneasy upon learning of the manner of their birth and discovery. She knew Ned put no stock in omens and the like, so she had held her tongue. But over the past few months, her opinion of the animals had changed. The direwolves grew fiercer and more defensive of their masters every day. For the most part, they each kept only to whom they belonged – even the other children were barely acknowledged. Only when the direwolves felt their charge was in danger would they react to others, usually in the form of a low growl or a spine-tingling snarl. The fact that Lady did not see Sandor as a threat to Sansa must be a good sign, not to mention the obvious affection she showed him in the courtyard that first day, and indeed ever since then.

 

Catelyn marveled, not for the first time, how strange life in the North was, compared to life in the Riverlands. She doubted the children of other great Houses had such useful pets, but was thankful to the Old Gods and the new that her children had such an advantage. As Ned was fond of reminding her, winter was coming.

 

“A better fool than a squire, isn't he?”

 

Catelyn turned to her husband at the sound of his voice, and saw that he was also smiling at Tommy's entertainment. She smiled too, thinking it funny she had nearly the same thought only a moment ago.

 

“I thought the same, my lord. But Sandor doesn't seem to mind, does he?”

 

Ned looked thoughtful, and sipped on his wine. “He doesn't. He treats the boy fairly. Nay, in truth he is lenient with him. I suspect he may even have a fondness for him.”

 

Ned's tone was light, but Catelyn knew what he hinted at. He was impressed that Sandor treated Tommy so well, given he was Tommy Hill, a bastard born to his brother Gregor and some unfortunate Westerwoman. But Catelyn had no prejudice against bastard children, and the poor boy was only twelve. She knew no good would have come to him living among Lannisters or near his terrifying father. It was only her husband's bastard she had no love for. It was another topic not worth broaching with Ned.

 

“I suspect you are correct, my lord, and Tommy is a good boy after all. But who would have thought the Hound could be so patient and tolerant?”

 

Ned put down his wine goblet, and his eyes strayed over to where Sandor and Sansa sat together, speaking quietly. Sansa's cheeks were flushed and she was smiling up at Sandor with stars in her eyes, as if he was a hero from her favorite song and the handsomest man alive.

 

He smiled wistfully. “My lady, you speak truly. Much about Sandor Clegane surprises me. But the same is true for our Sansa. Gods, Catelyn, five and ten! When did she grow up? How is it I am seeing my daughter sit and talk with a man who will be her husband?”

 

“She has grown my lord, better than I even hoped. I am proud of her. Never would I have thought she would look on a man like Sandor Clegane as if he was Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. I had oft feared Sansa lived too much in her songs, and would never learn to heed her grandfather's words.”

 

Ned laughed. “Yes, Sansa shall have no trouble keeping to the Tully motto, not if it means marrying her hero.” Ned smiled the indulgent smile he reserved only for Sansa and Arya. “I doubt she thinks on it as a burden, my lady. It seems our Sansa has made her own song.”

 

It was true. No matter what she and Ned thought of the match, it was clear to Catelyn that Sansa couldn't be happier.

 

Ned was still smiling as he watched Sansa and Sandor, but Catelyn could see the gray in his eyes darken. He reached out for her hand and squeezed it, and the act made Catelyn's heart race, for she knew what dark thoughts had suddenly clouded her husband's eyes.

 

“My lady, it pleases me to have this moment with you and our children. I fear the errand we spoke of may take me away from Winterfell and all I love, at least for a while.”

 

He brought her hand to his mouth, and dropped a soft kiss on her fingertips. Fear curled in Catelyn's belly, cold and sharp, and she couldn't help but shiver, although the fires in the Great Hall blazed high and hot. She didn't respond, but merely looked at him with uneasy eyes.

 

Ned's eyes met her own. “I mislike the situation as much as you, my lady. I know your misgivings for they are mine, also. So many hard questions yet no easy answers. The one that troubles me most is why. Jon Arryn was a good man and well-liked. Why would anyone, even...those your sister accuses...want him dead?”

 

Dark wings, dark words, Catelyn thought to herself. Never before had the saying rang truer. Only a few days ago, Maester Luwin received a raven marked for Catelyn's eyes only. Inside was a coded message from her sister Lysa, containing a shocking and dangerous accusation against the Queen.

 

“The answer I would have my lord is why now? Jon has been dead near on a year. Why would my sister wait so long to say something, if indeed she had such suspicions? What does she hope we can do about her claim?”

 

Ned hadn't released her hand, and now used both of his to clasp hers. “Your questions plague me as much as my own, my lady. What worries me is that perhaps none of the answers can be found here in Winterfell.”

 

She and Ned had spoken on this at length already, although it was no disagreement. They were unfortunately of the same mind. The charge that Jon Arryn was murdered on Queen Cersei's orders was too serious to ignore. But neither Catelyn nor her husband knew what could be done about it, nor even if such a claim could be proven. Ned had the right of it, however...the question of motive was a grave one.

 

“Let us speak no more of this tonight, my love. It is Sansa's day; we should enjoy it and let another night be clouded by such dark matters. Tonight let us enjoy...”

 

Catelyn's words were cut off by Robb jumping to his feet to noisily toast to his sister's health. He and Theon had surely indulged too much in the mulled wine, but Catelyn was glad for the distraction. She and Ned both smiled and joined in the toast, while Sansa blushed prettily. Catelyn felt a pang of sympathy for her sister, with only her little boy for company in the high and lonely Eyrie. Catelyn knew she was truly blessed to be surrounded by family.

 

Family. Although she and Sandor wouldn't marry for years yet, Sansa talked about her wedding and future family constantly. Sansa's enthusiasm alarmed Ned, but it was to be expected of a girl of her age. Sandor did not seem to feel particularly rushed, however; he had not even asked about when the marriage might occur.

 

Once they did marry, perhaps in a few years, Sansa would likely have no trouble giving him strong, tall sons. She was a tall girl, and unlikely to have any more trouble in childbed than Catelyn did herself. Bran's delivery took an age, and had been more painful than the rest, but in the end, all she had needed was an extra week of rest beyond what she had with Robb and the girls. Catelyn figured underneath those burn scars was no dashing prince, but probably a fairly handsome man. Yes, their sons would be tall and handsome, and look like Starks, too, with Sandor's dark hair and gray eyes.

 

Catelyn was secretly glad that Sandor was only a second son; she knew that eventually her children would all leave Winterfell, save Robb who would one day be Lord Stark in his father's place, but like any mother she wished it wasn't so. If Sandor's brother was lord of their family's keep then he wouldn't take Sansa away, and Catelyn allowed herself a bit of selfish joy at the fact.

 

After the toast, Catelyn looked over to see Arya sitting with Tommy and Jon, trying to juggle three winter peaches, and failing spectacularly. One was overripe and fell to the table in a soft splat, and another bounced to the floor and rolled away, to be sniffed at suspiciously by her direwolf. Catelyn sighed and shook her head slightly, despairing that Arya would never learn to behave as a proper lady. Poor Septa Mordane tried her best, but Arya was willful if nothing else. Catelyn couldn't help but hope that when it came time for Arya's soul bonding, Jojen Reed would name someone for her that was as equally good for her as Sandor seemed to be for Sansa. After all, winter was coming.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

***

 

SANSA

 

Sansa stood in her bedchamber, sifting through a pile of dresses, as Jeyne dug through her wardrobe. It was the morning after her name day feast, and Sansa was going to have her second formal visit with her betrothed today. Jeyne and the chambermaids were fussing over what she should wear, but Sansa wasn't listening...she was lost in her memories.

 

Last night had been marvelous...so different from that embarrassing scene in the courtyard when Sandor first arrived at Winterfell. It had taken her an age to recover from being so close to her bonded mate for the very first time. She had become speechless and flushed every time she saw him in the corridors, and could do no more than curtsy and smile.

 

Now it was months later, and at her name day feast, Sansa was pleased to have been able to have a normal conversation with Sandor, rather than just stare dumbly at him like some foolish child. It made her smile to think of how easy their companionship had been last night. It hadn't always been so, however. Their first visit had been quite different.

 

~

 

It had been only a few days after Sandor's arrival, and Sansa was not yet accustomed to his nearness. She was still a bit of a jittery mess, but had promised herself to make amends for their first meeting. Failing to properly welcome Sandor to Winterfell was discourteous and inexcusable.

 

They sat together outside the massive wooden doors to the library tower in the courtyard, with Septa Mordane in sight, but a bit of a ways away with her embroidery. Jory and Gariss were also loitering nearby, as Sansa wouldn't be allowed to be completely alone with Sandor, not for a while, as it wouldn't be proper. Sansa had felt very exposed out in the courtyard, as if the whole household was watching them, not just their small escort.

 

Sandor was already waiting outside the tower when she arrived that afternoon, and he stood in silent greeting as she approached. When she reached him, Sansa smiled and stood awkwardly for several moments, waiting for him to offer her his hand. When he merely stared and made no motion to help her be seated, Sansa sat herself down quickly and folded her hands in her lap, just as her Septa taught her. A lady must always remember her courtesies. The thought had helped her settle her nerves a bit. Sandor then sat too, but with far more room between them than Sansa felt was strictly necessary.

 

“Thank you for meeting with me, my lord. I trust your long journey from King's Landing was not too unpleasant, and that you find your rooms here in Winterfell to your liking.”

 

Sandor had just looked at her for a moment, and she knew it was only for a moment, but it was so easy to lose track of time, looking into his gray fathomless eyes. The silence seemingly stretched on and on, and Sansa heard her own heartbeat hammering in her chest. Then he spoke to her for the first time.

 

“Aye, my lady. The journey was...long, indeed. But not too unpleasant, as you say. As for my rooms, they are warm enough. That's all I require.”

 

His voice was deep and rough; a harsh sound, like steel scraping on stone. If a sound could have a color, it would be dark gray just like his eyes. His speech was blunt and had a bit of a mocking tone to it, as if the journey up the Kingsroad rather had been unpleasant, and he thought it somehow funny to imply otherwise. Sansa didn't really know how to respond to that, so she relied on her courtesies, just as her Septa had taught her.

 

“I am glad to hear it, my lord. Please, allow me to apologize for my behavior your first day here. I was – overcome by the – by the moment and failed to properly welcome you.”

 

The furious pace of her heartbeat made getting the words out a trial, but Sansa was determined. She may never be able to calm her pulse while in his presence, but she wouldn't gape at him wordlessly again. “I know you have traveled far and left your family and loved ones behind in King's Landing, and I thank you for the sacrifice.” The burnt side of Sandor's face twitched, and he gave her a hard look that Sansa couldn't identify.

 

“I hope – I hope you will feel welcome here in Winterfell, and that you will come to think of it as home...that – that you will come to love it as I do.”

 

There was a nearly imperceptible change in his countenance. Sansa saw his jaw tense and his eyes looked just the smallest bit darker as they narrowed slightly. If she hadn't been staring at him, she would have missed it. After several long, awkwardly silent moments, finally he spoke again.

 

“Welcome, you say...I wonder. The raven from your lord father calling me here, it said we are to be bonded.” Sandor took a deep breath, and Sansa's eyes were drawn from his when he clenched his fists and pressed them into his thighs. The muscles in his forearms contracted and Sansa marveled that she could see the movement through the sleeves of his plain tunic. “What the – what is this bond? I've never heard of such a thing and you can't mean to want – whatever it is – with me. You're a high born lady, meant for some high lord, even a prince. Surely you don't want to be married to a Lannister dog.”

 

Sandor's voice had grown deeper and harsher with every word. His brow furrowed and what remained of his lips curled down into a scowl. Sansa could feel him getting angrier...it was the same sharp chill she felt occasionally when he was on his way up the Kingsroad, only so much more intense for he was right next to her, and not leagues away. It was pouring off him like heat from an open flame, only utterly without warmth. She could tell he was struggling to speak courteously, that it didn't come naturally to him, especially not in this irritated state.

 

“And aye, the journey was not too unpleasant, but why have me make it all? Surely you can see your Northern gods have played a nasty jape at your expense.” Here he gestured to the burned side of his face, and Sansa's eyes widened, and she felt the first sting of unshed tears. Did he think she did not realize his scars merely proved his bravery and valor?

 

“A jape, my lord? No, nothing like...”

 

Sandor interrupted her with a joyless, barking laugh. “I am no lord, girl. Surely someone told you? I'm the second son of an upstart house in the Westerlands. Whatever this bond is, I know you'd rather have it with some Northern knight, isn't that right, my lady?”

 

His voice had taken on a nasty sneer, and he nearly spat out the words my lady. Sansa had never heard the words sound less like a courtesy. She shivered to behold his anger in person and not just through the bond. But she wasn't afraid of him, rather afraid for him. She wanted so badly to comfort him, but didn't know how. She had the most absurd urge to reach out and touch him...his large, scarred hands that were clenched into fists, or the burned side of his face that was twisted into a scowl. But Sansa knew such a thing would be both improper and most unwelcome.

 

All she feared was coming true. Sansa felt her own sadness press down upon her, and mix unpleasantly with the ire she felt from Sandor. She felt a lump rising in her throat to accompany the sting behind her eyes. He really didn't want to marry her then; he didn't feel the bond as she did, and he didn't want to be here at Winterfell. Sansa took a deep breath to calm herself and hold back the tears. She would not cry in front of him. She was nearly a woman grown, after all. She knew she could make him see, to make him feel what she felt. She looked straight into his dark gray eyes, and let them remind her of the pool in the Godswood, and how peaceful it was there.

 

“The Starks have the blood of the First Men, my lord.” Sandor snorted and Sansa ignored him. He wasn't a knight and she couldn't call him by his name, it wouldn't be proper. And anyway he was going to be her lord husband, what else could she call him besides 'my lord'?

 

“Every maiden in the Stark line since the ancient Kings of Winter has had a soul bonded mate, named for her by one with the Sight. We...we are already bonded, my lord.” Sandor gave her a look that was both skeptical and scornful, and Sansa worked hard to swallow her disappointment. She had to make him see. “The Stark soul bond is strong and will be neither denied nor ignored. Old Nan says it is as sure as the coming of winter. Although – although Father says we won't be married for years yet, the bond is already in place...”

 

Her heart battered against the inside of her chest, and she could feel her pulse fluttering madly and her breath shortening.

 

“...can you not feel it?” The words came out as a whisper, and Sansa cursed herself silently for sounding weak and foolish, but she suddenly felt weak. She didn't want to think what would happen to her if Sandor rejected the bond and rejected her. Old Nan had never said anything like this was possible! Was this what killed Aunt Lyanna? Had she died of a broken heart because her bonded mate left her?

 

“I could feel you, my lord, as you traveled up the Kingsroad. I could feel that you were angry at having to leave your life in King's Landing, and I am sorry for it.” Sansa had the sudden notion that perhaps he was already betrothed and therefore didn't want...? It was too horrible to imagine. “I promise to...I swear to be a good lady wife to you, and I know you will come to love Winterfell, I know it.”

 

She looked away from him for the first time, wanting to hide the wetness in her eyes. She wouldn't let tears fall, however, no matter what he said or what she felt from him. A flush burned down her cheeks and across her chest, and still her heart raced. She felt his dark gray eyes on her, and hoped he didn't think her foolish.

 

A moment later, her eyes flew back up to meet his, when she felt a feather-light brush against her neck. He was touching her, with a surprising gentleness for such a large man. He brushed the back of his fingers against her neck with the lightest possible touch, right where her pulse was beating madly, and it made Sansa feel lightheaded. His skin was rough but it felt wonderful. The air was crisp in the courtyard that afternoon, but Sansa was burning up. Blazing heat unfurled from the tiny point where Sandor's skin touched hers, and Sansa wished she had a name for the feeling...it was glorious.

 

When Sandor spoke again, his voice was raspy and deep, but not so harsh. The look on his face was still incredulous, but not so disdainful. “The bond means you can feel what I feel? You can feel it when I'm...angry?”

 

Sansa was drowning in the sensation of his touch on her skin, although it was so slight she was afraid she was imagining it. But the heat she felt from the contact was real – so real it was fogging her mind. She nodded her head, and wished he would never stop touching her.

 

~

 

Today's visit would be slightly different. Sansa was sure her Septa and a few guards would be nearby, but this time they would be walking in the quiet and relative seclusion of the Godswood, instead of sitting on a bench out in the open for the entire household to gawk at. Sandor had asked if she would show him the heart tree, saying that he would see for himself the “queer Northern god” that had called him to Winterfell.

 

Jeyne and one of the chambermaids were arguing over what ribbons to twist into her braids, and if her dress should show off her figure, or play up her auburn hair. Little Beth Cassel sat amongst the furs on Sansa's bed, touching the rejected dresses with reverence and tying all the ribbons into little bows.

 

Sansa let them decide for her, she was too wrapped up in her memories of their first visit, and reveling in nervous anticipation for the second one. She wanted to find out everything about him. There were hundreds of questions she wanted to ask, but most of all she just wanted to be near him. After spending all evening at his side, Sansa had felt a keen loss when they parted ways at the end of the feast. The urge to be close to him and to touch him was bearable only because she knew it would soon be satisfied.

 

The moment she was ready to leave her bedchamber, Sansa knew that Sandor would be waiting for her on the other side of the door. She could somehow feel his presence nearby, and knew she was moments from laying her eyes on him again. It was such a reassuring feeling, she nearly forgot her earlier anxiety. She stepped out into the corridor, and there he was, leaning casually against the far wall, staring right at her. His heavily muscled arms were crossed over his broad chest, and Sansa smiled. Jeyne let out a little nervous giggle and ran off, nearly colliding with poor Gariss and Desmond, who were waiting at the end of the hall to be their escorts for the day.

 

Without a word, he offered his arm to her, and Sansa smiled again, enjoying the now-expected thrill she got whenever he touched her in even the smallest way. He led her down the corridor and out of the Great Keep to the main gate of the Godswood, the two guards trailing a respectful distance behind them. Sandor scowled at poor Gariss as they passed, and growled something about him being a 'rude buggering bastard.' Sansa swallowed her gasp at his language, but couldn't help but wonder what would make Sandor say such a thing. She always thought Gariss was rather sweet.

 

It was still morning, so it was quite chilly outside. It was a cloudless day and the sun was bright, but that unique smell of impending snow hung in the air. It was a sharp, clean smell, and Sansa wondered what it would be like to live in a place where it never snowed. She was sure she would miss that smell.

 

The trees in the Godswood were ancient and enormous, and although they were rooted in the ground far apart and provided plenty of room to walk amongst them, their branches were massively tall and broad, and intertwined in each other far above the ground, forming a dense canopy that hid most of the blue sky. The bright sun forced its way through the red leaves of the weirwoods and the green of the other trees, giving the inside of the grove a warm, soft glow.

 

They walked a bit together, and Sansa wondered if it was too soon to ask him how he got his scars. She was sure it would be a fantastic story of daring and bravery. But Sandor spoke first.

 

“You say the bond means you can feel it when I am angry. Why? What purpose does that serve you? I warn you, you're not like to enjoy it; I am angry rather often.”

 

Sandor's voice was low and raspy as always, but it seemed to fill the space in the grove. Sansa liked the feeling of being surrounded by his voice.

 

“I imagine that it is good for bonded mates to know what the other is feeling; if you are angry then I can seek to make you happy. If I am...if I am afraid then you could seek to protect me.” Sansa blushed and didn't know why.

 

Sandor stopped walking and looked down at her with those dark gray eyes. “I can feel what you are feeling, too?”

 

“I...yes, my lord, we can feel each other. I thought for sure you could feel how nervous and excited I was to meet you as you traveled north to Winterfell. I pray my anxieties did not trouble you over much.”

 

Sandor was quietly staring again, and Sansa wondered if she would always feel short of breath and fluttery in her chest when she was with him. Still, she decided at that moment she never wanted him to stop staring. His dark, piercing gray eyes made her feel things she'd never felt before.

 

Sansa knew she was beautiful. People had been telling her so since she was a little girl, and men in Winterfell had been looking at her differently for a few years now, but no one had ever looked at her with such intensity before Sandor. She felt like he could know everything about her with just a glance. Sandor's gaze was about more than just her beauty. The thrill that went down her spine when she first laid eyes on him had settled into...something unknown to her before now, something she couldn't quite describe. But she wanted more of it.

 

He reached out and touched her neck again, just where her pulse beat frantically against her skin, and Sansa sighed.

 

Sandor smiled that tiny, nearly-not-there smile of his and they started walking again.

“I'll be able tell if you're afraid, will I? That's good, though I doubt there's anything up in these Northern woods more frightening than me or your little pet. You're not scared of me, and you're not scared of your beastly direwolf...does anything scare you?”

 

You not loving me, Sansa wanted to say. But she only smiled up at him, and hugged one of his massive arms to her chest. She couldn't help but notice how it took both her hands to wrap around his bulging muscles.

 

“I could keep you safe, at least. I may be a terrible husband, and I am no lord and certainly no knight, but I could be your shield, at least.”

 

His words made Sansa nearly swoon, and she was flooded with a wave of something that made her all warm inside. She let a giggle escape her mouth as she snuggled closer to him. The idea of someone like Sandor protecting her, someone so fearless and strong, made her feel like she was the heroine of one of her favorite stories...like when Prince Aemon the Dragonknight defended Queen Naerys against the evil slanders of her courtiers, or when Serwyn of the Mirror Shield rescued Princess Daeryssa from the giants!

 

He gave her a strange look, but also seemed rather pleased, and the sudden spike of...what could only be...gladness from him was so unexpected and new that she laughed out loud. His eyes were so different when he wasn't cross! Still dark gray and deep like the pools by the heart tree, but not so stormy. Sansa hoped she could always help him know this kind of lightness.

 

“Think that's funny, do you? Not very courteous to laugh at a man when he offers you his sword.” Sandor gave her a mock scowl, but Sansa knew he was only teasing her, she could feel it. The notion that he felt free to do so only made her happier. They walked bit more in the soft, glowing light of the Godswood, and a warm, gentle pleasure passed between them in a continuous loop. It was a heady feeling, and threatened to make Sansa dizzy, but it felt too good for her to want it to stop.

 

But all too soon, Sandor's teasing smile fell away, and a grim mood seemed to take over his thoughts. He turned to speak to her, and looked very serious, although not at all angry. “Sansa...” he said hesitantly, and then paused. Sansa had visibly and rather violently shivered at the sound of her name in his deep, raspy voice. It was the first time he said it instead of my lady or girl, and Sansa had no idea, no warning, it would feel like that.

 

“Are you cold? Do you want to go back?” The concern in his voice melted her heart and made it beat twice as fast at the same time. Sansa was anything but cold...she actually wanted to shed her wool and fur cloak but knew her Septa was somewhere nearby and wouldn't approve.

 

“No my lord, please continue.” Sansa smiled and squeezed his arm, and hoped he would say her name again.

 

He paused a moment more, as if to make certain she was truly alright, and then continued. “The world, my world...is nothing like yours. It's uglier and meaner and dirtier than what you know here in Winterfell. I've seen and known fouler things than you can imagine. I've done horrible things. I'm not a knight but I've done all the same nasty work – the only thing knights are good for.” Sandor sneered and nearly spat the words, and Sansa wondered, not for the first time, why he had such disdain for knights.

 

“I've been a sworn shield my entire life and killed my first man at twelve. You...you won't like what you find if you seek to know my feelings. You shouldn't have to know the things I know. I have...unpleasant thoughts and ugly feelings, my lady, I don't want that for you.”

 

Sansa looked up at him and saw sadness creeping into his dark gray eyes, and it nearly broke her heart. It was clear what he was trying to say, that he was trying to protect her, but Sansa's immediate reaction was that she wanted to protect him. She knew instinctively that she would never need shielding from Sandor, as he seemed to fear, nor from whatever it was that tortured him so. He was the one who needed protection from those horrors.

 

Physically he was right next to her, and they were already touching, but Sansa had such a powerful urge to get even closer. To reach out and touch him deeper somehow. She wanted so badly to comfort him.

 

“Father told me you were a fierce warrior from the Westerlands, my lord, I know you have seen intense battles and terrible violence.” Sansa wanted to touch his burn scars, but knew that would be too forward. “And I thank you for wanting to shield me from it.” I love you for it, she wanted to say. “But my lord, we are already bonded. Old Nan says that bonded mates are meant to feel each other the way ordinary people feel hunger or pain. It is the will of the Old Gods.”

 

Sandor snorted in contempt. “The will of the Old Gods? Then what have you done for them to punish you so?” His laughter was bitter and hollow, and Sansa hated the sudden change in his mood. It left a sick feeling in her belly and a bad taste in her mouth.

 

“My lord...it is no...it's not a punishment to share your feelings, it...I – I am to be your wife! We are...we...” Sansa's words were getting twisted and confused in her head again and wouldn't come out of her mouth the way she wanted them to. She felt impatience and anxiety and hurt, and knew at least the last feeling was hers alone. Sandor had stopped walking and pulled his arm away from her. He did it gently, but Sansa felt the loss so acutely and suddenly, and it caused her such pain, that it felt almost like a physical blow. She gasped and took a step back, and suddenly Gariss was standing right beside her.

 

“My Lady Sansa? Are you...is everything alright?” Gariss spoke to her, but was shooting nervously suspicious glances in Sandor's direction.

 

Sansa looked up at him in surprise, wondering how she could have forgotten about their escort. Their exchange must have looked quite curious from afar, perhaps as if Sandor had hurt her, or at least caused some offense. She glanced over at Sandor, and he was glaring at the guard with an alarming fierceness. Sansa could easily understand why the man always looked so nervous around him.

 

“Yes, Gariss, everything is fine, thank you.” Sansa smiled reassuringly at the guardsman, and tried to seem like she wasn't upset. She was, of course, very upset. But nobody would truly be able to understand what had just happened between her and Sandor.

 

“You heard your lady,” Sandor growled menacingly. “She's fine, everything's fine. Run along now, boy.” Gariss shot him a look, but glanced at Sansa one more time before scuttling off. Sansa looked around and saw Desmond several yards away leaning against a tree, trying to hold in laughter. What was that about, she wondered.

 

Sansa turned to Sandor, and reached out to hold his hand. His skin was warm and rough, with callouses on his palm and scars criss-crossing the back. His hand was large and his fingers long and strangely graceful, and Sansa's smaller, paler hands were dwarfed by it.

 

She looked up at him, and saw his irritation at Gariss drain away. He looked down at his hand and back up at her face, as if he was surprised that she would touch his bare skin.

 

“My lord, please do not hide yourself from me. Do not shield me from yourself. I know nothing of being a warrior and I can't imagine what you have been through, but please let me help you...I don't know how yet, but I know that I can. I know I can.”

 

Sansa searched his dark gray eyes and saw something in them she couldn't identify. She was already touching him, but she wanted so much more, to be even closer, if only she could reach far enough.

 

“I...I prayed for you, my lord. I felt your anger as you made your way to Winterfell and I prayed to the heart tree that you would come to love the North. I prayed to the Warrior to protect you in battle. And I prayed to the Mother to gentle your rage. Let me help you, please. Please don't push me away, please don't...pull away from me.”

 

Sandor's eyes had grown wide, and he looked shocked and a bit upset at Sansa's little speech. She hoped he didn't find her too forward. But he took a deep breath and his eyes fell closed, as if he was trying to concentrate. He shook his head as though trying to clear his mind. Sansa knew the feeling, her thoughts could be such a mess when he was near!

 

“You prayed for me?” Sandor's voice was low but had lost all its usual sharp edges. He sounded incredulous and a bit confused, but Sansa was happy to note that she felt no anger from him. Hopefully he could feel how sincere she was.

 

“I did, my lord. Do you not realize what I feel for you? I want to help you, I want to...to ease your pains and…and purge what it is that angers you so. Can you feel that? Can you tell that I mean what I say and…and will you let me?”

 

Sansa seemed to have the opposite problem as she did during their first meeting. Now she couldn't stop talking! The words tumbled out of her mouth unbidden, surprising both of them equally. She had not planned to say any of it, but their truth was undeniable. Sansa wished with all her might she could banish his bitter anger, so he'd never feel it again. She didn't know how, but wanted to desperately, and knew the bond would somehow help her. She stared into his dark gray eyes and tried to let him feel only loving serenity. She had never tried to project emotions to him before, and didn't really know how to do it. But the look in his eyes made her think she mayhaps had succeeded.

 

“I...I do, my lady, I can.” Sandor's low raspy voice was barely above a whisper, but Sansa felt it, warm and soothing and down to her bones. She felt it more than heard it, as if he had whispered it in her ear, or heard it inside her head like one of her own thoughts. It felt wonderful.

Chapter Text

***

SANDOR

 

Sandor had never before seen Valyrian steel this close. It was said the Lords of every great House had a Valyrian steel sword, a cherished heirloom passed from father to son for generations; but Lord Tywin had no such blade. King Robert had always favored his warhammer, not any particular sword, but these days was more likely to be seen holding a flagon of wine.

 

As Lord Stark pulled his greatsword Ice from its scabbard, sunlight danced along its edge with a deadly gleam. The blade itself was dark as smoke, and curiously rippled, but the edges glowed dangerously, and seemed almost silver. Sandor could tell just by looking that the legendary sharpness of Valyrian steel was no fable.

 

The man set to be executed was whimpering and crying, but didn't try to escape Gariss and Desmond's firm grip. Lord Stark had spent nearly half an hour questioning the man, but only heard from him tales of monsters made of ice and snow, and other such nonsense.

 

Matted and greasy furs hung limply off the man's emaciated frame, and were barely recognizable as the black of the Night's Watch. Apparently he was a deserter, and had forsaken his vows as a Black Brother for fear of whatever he thought he saw some snowy night north of the Wall. As Warden of the North, Lord Stark enforced the King's peace, and that meant justice for deserters from the Wall fell to him. Sandor heard the guards commenting idly that there seemed to be more and more of such deserters of late.

 

Sandor waited in silence among the other Winterfell guards, along with Robb, Lord Stark's eldest son, Jon Snow, his bastard, Theon Greyjoy, his ward, and Bran, the second youngest. Rickon was only six and Lady Stark insisted he was too young to witness a beheading. Tommy begged to come as well, and Sandor only relented after making the boy swear to keep his bloody mouth shut. Even now, he fidgeted in his saddle, and Sandor knew he was bursting with questions about this Northern ritual.

 

Sandor had to admit that the Northmen impressed him more every day. Winterfell employed no headsman, a notion utterly unheard of in the South. Lord Stark had explained to Bran that he believed “he who set the sentence should swing the sword,” and so if a man was sentenced to die by his word, he would see to it himself, with his own sword. Sandor couldn't begin to imagine Lord Tywin or fat King Robert feeling that way, much less personally executing some buggering lowlife, and then turning it into a learning opportunity for his sons. Come to think of it, neither Lord Tywin nor King Robert did much in the way of teaching their boys anything, really. But then Lord Tywin and King Robert's sons were nothing like Lord Stark's.

 

The man let out a last few whimpers, and Ice ended his misery quickly and cleanly. The wretch was haunted what what he said he saw, and plainly yearned for the peace of death. His wild story may have been a lie, but the man's fear was real enough. Nobody said anything over the body, and Sandor remembered that the queer religion of the North was not much for ceremony or speeches. With the grim errand done, the party turned northward, back to Winterfell.

 

Most were quiet on the return journey, but the boys raced ahead, Robb and Jon challenging each other, and teasing Bran and Tommy to keep up. The Greyjoy boy did not participate, and only looked on with a pompous sort of smirk. Sandor wasn't fooled. There was no shortage of that brand of bravado in King's Landing, and Sandor was quite familiar with it. The boy pretended to be above such childish behavior, but his burning jealousy was as obvious as the hideous gold kraken on his chest. Lord Stark treated the little shit like one of his own, and not the hostage that he really was, but Greyjoy didn't seem to realize his good fortune.

 

The idea of Lord Tywin treating a hostage – even a highborn one – as equal to Jaime was bloody fucking laughable. Not for the first time, Sandor found himself marveling at how different Lord Stark was from what he expected. He was nothing like King Robert, although the two were boyhood friends and were wards together in the Vale. Lord Tywin's open disdain for the Northerners had Sandor expecting something far different from the serious but thoughtful man that Lord Stark seemed to be.

 

Sandor trained with Robb and Jon nearly every day, and it was clear the two boys had been reared side by side since childhood. Imagining a similar scenario at Casterly Rock or in King's Landing was an unfunny jape. A bastard son being trained alongside the firstborn, and treated equal in nearly all things? Bastard babes were more like to be smothered in their sleep or drowned in a bath! The worst that Jon Snow endured was Lady Catelyn's disdain, it seemed, and the little bird calling him her half-brother.

 

Robb and Jon were both fierce and determined in the practice yard, and as tall and strong as any eighteen year old youths, but Sandor could still fight both boys simultaneously without much trouble. Still, he was impressed. They were skilled but not cocky, and aggressive without being cruel or careless. They both worked hard to best him, but Sandor knew their efforts weren't fueled by their egos, but rather honest desire to learn and improve.

 

Jaime was easily one of the best swordsmen in all of Westeros, but his prowess was well matched by his arrogance and recklessness. Sandor wondered how these boys might match up against someone like the Kingslayer one day. They had much more than a little ways to go; Jaime had both years and experience that these two had only heard about from their master-at-arms. But Jaime had not an ounce of the humility nor discretion they had.

 

Sandor had to laugh bitterly at himself at that...was he himself not a product of Casterly Rock and King's Landing, just as much as Jaime was? Was he not as arrogant and impudent as the golden lion's firstborn ever was – at least when it came to fighting? Sandor wondered how his life may have been different had he grown up in the service of House Stark instead of House Lannister. Would he be the same swordsman, the same fighter with the same abilities? Would he have the same reputation as the Hound?

 

Such musings were fucking pointless, of course...what mattered wasright now. For the last several months, Sandor and his bastard nephew fell into life among the Northmen easily enough. Neither were ever made to feel like outsiders. Most importantly, nobody seemed to hold the actions of his brother against him or the boy. Nor did anyone care one shit whether he was a knight or not. Jory wasn't even a knight, and he was Captain of the Guard!

 

Winterfell was once again in sight, and Sandor felt anxious to return to his new home. The party's journey from the castle to deal with the deserter seemed much shorter than their return. He realized abruptly that this was the first time he'd been outside the walls of Winterfell since arriving all those months ago. He found he didn't miss the filth and noise of King's Landing at all, and might even be getting used to the buggering cold and the summer snows of the wild and empty North. Life until now had been loud, dirty, crowded and sweaty much of the time.

 

Sandor's thoughts drifted to his brother. Would Lord Stark even tolerate a man like Gregor in his service? Much less praise him as a bloody hero the way Lord Tywin always did? Sandor might be Joffrey's dog – or was, anyway - but Gregor was Lord Tywin's favorite pet by far. . .a man who raped and murdered a princess for fuck's sake! Meanwhile Lord Stark has his bastard eat at the same table as his heir, and hosted a different member of his household at the high table every night, from noble bannermen all the way down to the master of horse, and even the little bird's septa. No, Sandor knew a man who had done the things Gregor had done would sooner see the sharp edge of Ice than a seat of honor at Eddard Stark's table.

 

Sandor began to seethe with anger in a way that was now somewhat unfamiliar...thoughts of Gregor had not plagued him lately. Realizing this was strange; burning hatred for his brother had been a natural part of Sandor's daily life for as long as he could remember. But it also made Sandor feel good, knowing that his little bird wouldn't have to suffer the consequence of such brooding. What she had told him that day as they walked in the Godswood was astonishing, but made Sandor's heart race with something like fear as well...fear that he would unknowingly hurt her. Sandor had never worried about hurting someone before.

 

The idea that she could feel every spike of anger and downward swing of his moods made Sandor feel like the lowest and cruelest whoreson. He knew he wasn't anywhere near good enough for her, whatever the buggering bond nonsense was about, but to have her actually suffer because of his ill temper and fucking nightmare of a brother was too much. He vowed to try and rein in his anger, even if old revenge fantasies crept into his thoughts every now and then. It was likely best to not think on the scum at all...Sandor knew he may never see Gregor again.

 

The boys racing on horseback had reached far ahead of the main party, and had been spotted by the guards atop the outer wall. The massive iron gates were opening to receive them, and it was a good thing too, because neither Robb nor Jon seemed inclined to rein in their stallions. Bran hadn't lagged so much, but Tommy's horse had long since given up obeying him, and trailed ever further behind the others...the boy was a bloody awful horseman. Watching them, Sandor thought he knew something of the Greyjoy boy's envy. Had he ever felt as carefree and safe as Lord Stark's oldest sons plainly did? As serious as they could be in the practice yard, they were still just boys, having fun with each other. Sandor wished he had just a few moments like that when he was their age...or ever.

 

Seeing Winterfell within a few dozen horselengths made Sandor's mind turn to more pleasant thoughts...coming back to the castle meant being close to her again, his beautiful little bird. He found he did not like being so far from her; although she couldn't be more safe than inside the granite walls of Winterfell, Sandor still yearned to be near her.

 

He saw her several times a day. Sometimes she watched him in the practice yard with her brothers. Occasionally he would find himself wandering the corridors of the Great Keep in the early afternoon, hoping to glimpse her as she returned from her daily lessons. He sat with her at the evening meal, nearly every night, but still it wasn't enough.

 

She prayed for me, Sandor thought to himself in wonder, not for the first time. More than anything else, that fact astounded him. His beautiful little bird said that she cared, that she wants to help him. Sandor wasn't properly sure what she even meant by that. When she first said so, his immediate reaction was disbelief, swiftly followed by anger at what he assumed was her mocking him. Help him with what? The little bird was sweet and kind, and knew nothing of what made the corners of Sandor's mind raw and dark. How could she help ease his pains, as she said?

 

But Sandor's doubt was no match for her earnest sincerity. She looked up at him with pleading eyes and begged him to feel that she truly meant her strange words. And by all seven hells he did feel something...he didn't know what it was, but it was unlike any feeling Sandor had ever experienced before. It felt good. He was lost in her lovely blue eyes and the feeling of her soft, small hands wrapped around his, and all thoughts of denying her flew from his mind. He still didn't know what exactly she'd help him with or how a young, highborn maiden could help the likes of him with anything, but he believed her that she wanted to try. It didn't much matter to Sandor. Just having her attention focused on him was more good than he ever expected to know in life.

 

She seemed sincere enough in her affection, but how could it be real? It didn't make any sense. The little bird was perfect and pure and beautiful beyond anything Sandor knew was possible. A tender heart like hers could feel some pity for broken things like him, surely, but what of her happy sighs as they walked through the godswood? How could she look up at him and giggle for fuck's sake, like the ladies who fancied themselves in love with Lord Renly?

 

Lost in thoughts of the little bird, Sandor had fallen behind the rest of the party and was last in the line as they approached Winterfell. Memories of his little bird's soft curves pressed against his arm and her shy smile had Sandor as hard as stone in minutes. He was forced to admit to himself, though it shamed him like nothing ever had...he felt an undeniable and powerful lust for the girl.

 

Everything about her was intoxicating...her bright hair, her sweet smile, the pure and delicious scent of her...like honeyed wine. Most of all, the maddening flutter of her pulse thrilled Sandor even as it filled him with despair. It called to him. The urge to touch her there was nearly unbearable. That precise spot transfixed him: where her porcelain skin pulsed as her heart raced, not in fear – his little bird was seemingly fearless – but in excitement. He had never been more aroused in his life, and it terrified him.

 

He was the last man to cross the drawbridge into the inner courtyard. As he dismounted, he saw the steward's daughter, the little bird's playmate, rush towards him from the doors of the Great Keep. She looked frightened and flushed, and Sandor's heart was seized with icy cold fear. If something had happened to the little bird while he was away from her, when he had sworn to protect her, he would never forgive himself.

 

The girl was babbling about something or other, but Sandor couldn't concentrate on the words coming out of her mouth; he instinctively knew he should follow her. He was inside the Great Keep and halfway to the little bird's chambers when he realized he did not even wait for Lord Stark's leave to do so. Stranger was still saddled and loose in the main courtyard, and Sandor hoped none of the groomsmen were foolish enough to try and approach him.

 

The dread that gripped his heart when he first knew something was wrong sharpened into actual pain as he approached her rooms. It was like that moment in the heat of battle, after sustaining a blow so hard you weren't sure you'd recover from it. Long, frantic strides took him past the girl and well ahead of her in no time, leaving her to run after him, breathless and still trying to explain.

 

Finally, he arrived at her door. It stood half open, and Sandor had barely walked through it when he was suddenly struck with the warm weight of his beautiful little bird. She was desperately crying, and clung to him with her face pressed against his chest. Her little fingers dug into his back as she tried to reach all the way around him, and Sandor couldn't understand a word of what she mumbled into his shoulder between sobs. The rush of emotions that hit him was so intense and immediate, he fell backwards to lean against the stone wall next to the door, and still she carried on, with both his arms tightly wrapped around her.

 

The first was relief. She was in her own room and apparently in one piece; she was surrounded by Winterfell servants including the maester and her septa...Sandor looked up and saw that even Lady Catelyn was there. Everyone had the same stressed look that the steward's girl had, but it was obvious that she was in no danger.

 

Next was the echo of the pain in his chest. Sandor realized for the first time he could distinguish his own feelings from those of his little bird...the pain was her fear and anxiety that remained cutting and deep, as she was clearly still upset.

 

Then came the desperation to ease that pain, to take it from her. Sandor had never had to comfort anyone in his life and had no idea how to start. He was on the verge of being violently angry at whoever or whatever had upset her so, but knew anger would do her no good. All he could think to do was hold her and stroke her hair, so that's what he did.He pressed his nose to the crown of her head, and inhaled her honey-sweet smell. He tried to not enjoy the feeling of her pressed against him, and her small form engulfed in his arms, knowing she only clung to him out of fear or desperation, and not affection.

 

Eventually her wracking sobs slowed, and her breathing evened out, but she didn't release him. Her arms were just as tight around him, as if she was afraid he would pull away. Not bloody likely, that, he thought.After several long moments, he felt the delicate muscles in her back relax, and could no longer hear her dainty little sniffles.

 

Sandor looked up and saw they were alone in the room, and that someone had closed the door. Lady Catelyn, the maester, and all the rest were gone. There was no time to ponder why they would do such a thing, because his little bird had turned her pretty face up to him, and he couldn't look away. Her blue eyes were huge and still a bit watery, and ringed in red.

 

She stared for a few moments, face tilted up at him with both hands resting on his chest. Sandor was drowning in her eyes and wondering how she could look so beautiful and so sad at once. He nearly didn't hear her whispered accusation.

 

“You left me! Why did you leave me?”

 

The words made absolutely no sense to Sandor, as if his little bird had spoken some foreign language. Leave her? Why would he do such a thing? When...?

 

“I...what? What are you...?”

 

“You left me. It's been nearly all day and I couldn't feel you, you were gone!”

 

Her voice cracked on the last word, and a corresponding fissure nearly broke Sandor's heart in two. She sounded so distraught, and Sandor wanted to kill himself for making her feel that way, although he still didn't know what he had done.

 

“You were gone, Sandor, I couldn't feel you, you were too far away!” She stood on her toes and placed her hands on either side of his face, and Sandor couldn't control the violent shudder that whipped through him, as she whispered his name for the first time. She was touching him...her perfect, soft little hand was resting against the twisted mess of his face, and she didn't even flinch. She didn't even seem to notice. Her blue eyes never left his, and she wobbled a bit on her toes. Sandor's hands fell to her waist to steady her.

 

“Mother said you had gone with Father and the others but I don't care. I couldn't feel you. You must never leave me, Sandor, please. Do you swear it? Will you promise me? It hurt...it was awful...I couldn't feel you!”

 

A single tear rolled down her pink cheek, and Sandor wanted to kiss it away. Finally he understood. His anxious desire to return to Winterfell earlier today now made much more sense. He certainly felt their separation and longed for it to end, but being apart had actually hurt her, upset her enough to cause real despair. He would never make her feel that again.

 

“Little bird, I'll never leave you again, I swear it.” Sandor's voice was low and rough, and he cursed himself again that he had no idea how to comfort a crying woman. Her eyes went wide, and he realized too late that he had called her “little bird” out loud. She must think me a fool.

 

But one hand slid up into his hair, and the other cupped his burned cheek as she leaned further into him. His hands tightened around her waist, lifting her off the floor slightly, to bring her even closer to him. He felt her warm breath on his cheek, and the faint brush of her wet eyelashes, and then she kissed him.

 

Her kiss was little more than a press of her soft lips against his, but it was enough to taste the salt of her tears. Sandor knew he'd never do anything to make her cry again, and would follow her around like the dog he was until the end of time. He didn't think he'd be able to stop touching her long enough to leave her, even if he ever wanted to.

 

The kiss deepened on pure instinct, as neither of them had any experience with such matters, and Sandor could feel every moment of that day that Sansa yearned for him. He felt her despair at being separated from him, her deep worry that something might have happened to him, her fear that he might not come back to her, and her desperate longing for his return. It made his blood boil and his cock harden. He felt her soft hand on his face, and smelled the honey sweetness of her hair. He felt her tiny waist under his hands, and couldn't believe she let him touch her like this, that she wanted this from him. It didn't bloody matter if her care for him was born out of pity or of true affection, not if it felt like this. He knew he'd never let her go again.

Chapter Text

***

 

EDDARD

 

Ned wrote furiously, determined to commit to paper all he had learned that night. His path lay before him, bleak and dark and bereft of all that he loved, but unfortunately not at all unclear. At this point, there was no other way. He wished he could take a moment and lament the series of events that led him here, but there was no time. These missives must be on their way tonight, for tomorrow would be too late.

 

King's Landing was a pit of vipers; a cesspool of lies and deception. House Stark had only ever suffered from attempting to engage in its machinations. Ned knew now that he should never have come. Whatever intrigues occurred here meant nothing to the North, and Ned should have remembered that. Lysa and her coded ravens be damned, by the old Gods and the new, he thought furiously, but there was no point cursing his good sister and her paranoia; he had always known that winter was coming.

 

Ned had arrived at the Red Keep a week or so ago, amid a tense and chaotic atmosphere. The bells were ringing and the crowned stag of Baratheon flew above the Great Sept of Baelor, and though Ned didn't want to believe it, he knew exactly what they meant: the King was dead. His boyhood friend, hero of the Rebellion and one of the fiercest fighters Ned had ever known, dead long before his time, and apparently only a few days before he would have been able to see him. Worst of all, his death came not in battle as he knew Robert would have wished, but in a foolish accident!

 

The details of the hunting accident were had from Renly, Robert's youngest brother. Robert had always been a bit reckless, but the wanton negligence Renly described seemed so unlike the man Ned knew and loved like a brother. Apparently drinking too much had been the King's main occupation of late, and any warnings to slow down or abstain were met with his bellowing anger or sneering dismissal.

 

Ned did not recognize the man laid out in state at the Sept of Baelor. That man was hugely fat, with a face red and bloated from too much wine, and half-covered with a wild, graying beard that was long and unkempt. The Robert he knew was a warrior, tall and broad and fierce, feared by men he considered enemies, and loved by all else. What had happened to that man?

 

After offering condolences to Queen Cersei and her children (which were met only by frosty indifference), Ned was visited by nearly every member of the small council. Each visit went much like the one before it, with polite inquiries as to Ned's purpose in King's Landing. But tonight's visitor was different.

 

The man came not through the main doors of his chambers, but seemed to materialize out of nowhere; he was attended by no one. He was strangely dressed, wearing livery that Ned didn't recognize and couldn't recall being associated with any great house nor any guild associated with King's Landing or being in service to the Royal family.

 

After assuring Jory that he meant no harm, the man finally revealed himself to be Lord Varys, master of whisperers and member of Robert's small council. He apologized for the subterfuge of his disguise and his arrival via secret passageways, but insisted it was necessary.

 

“The Red Keep is full of eyes and ears, my lord,” he said, “and unfortunately not all of them are mine.”

 

The deception made Ned uncomfortable, but he couldn't deny that Lord Varys knew his trade. He was indeed full of information. It was obvious the man had no love for the Lannisters, and for that alone Ned decided to trust him. If even only half of what he said was true, Ned didn't have much choice but to follow his advice.

 

“I regret to welcome you to the city this way, my lord, but you are in grave danger. That you should arrive now, after the tragic passing of His Grace King Robert, is most unfortunate.”

 

Ned had little patience with melodrama and men like Lord Varys who seemed unable to speak plainly. But he couldn't argue with him on this point. Since he set foot inside the city, not a moment had passed that he wished he had never come, that he was still at home in Winterfell with his wife and children.

 

“Now that Joffrey is king, your safety can no longer be guaranteed. He does not share King Robert's love for you or for your family.”

 

The Lannister presumptuousness, although expected, made Ned suddenly angry. Robert was barely in the ground! "The boy is not king yet. Or has his coronation already happened? Even before his father's funeral?"

 

Lord Varys smiled a mirthless smile. “Yes, well...the man who truly rules the Seven Kingdoms is Lord Tywin, as I'm sure you know was true even in the Mad King's day. He did so after Jon Arryn's death when Robert couldn't be bothered, and he does so now in the name of his grandson. The lack of coronation means nothing in this, and will mean nothing when it comes to you and where your loyalties lie."

 

Ned bristled at this; what right had the Lannisters to doubt his loyalty? The Starks had held the North for the Iron Throne for generations without count. Ned had himself fought for Robert's cause, a cause to which Tywin Lannister committed himself only when it seemed assured they would win. If any House was without reproach in that regard, it was his own.

 

“Lord Varys, there is no reason to doubt the loyalty of House Stark. I fought for Robert's crown, my bannermen died to wrest control of the Iron Throne from the Targaryens and to secure it for Robert and his children. Why should Joffrey or Lord Tywin or anyone doubt my loyalty to Robert? Why would House Stark's loyalty to the Iron Throne change now that Robert has died?”

 

Lord Varys' unctuous smile made another appearance, and Ned's frustration grew. The theater of court politics had never interested him, and he wondered that Varys couldn't manage to abstain from the performance, even now when it was just the two of them.

 

“You have been traveling long, my lord, and again I lament the timing of your arrival. King Robert died more than a week ago, and in that short time, his brother Stannis has been sharing some very interesting information with the great houses of Westeros.”

 

Here he handed Ned a parchment, written in Stannis' spindly, slanted hand. It stated in the plainest language possible that Queen Cersei's children were not the trueborn children of King Robert, but bastards born of incest between her and Jaime Lannister, her twin brother. Stannis claimed the Iron Throne for himself, since Robert left no trueborn children to succeed him.

 

Could Lysa have had the right of it? Did Jon discover this treason and the Lannisters killed him for it? Ned looked up at Lord Varys in shock.

 

“Is this...is this true? Has anyone else...?”

 

“I know what you mean to ask, Lord Stark. You're asking if Lord Arryn made similar accusations? Unfortunately he chose not to confide in me...a pity, as I could have helped him...but it would seem that he knew something he shouldn't know...and perhaps told someone he shouldn't have told.”

 

“So he was murdered, then?”

 

“Oh yes, Lord Stark, most certainly. The tears of Lys, I'd say. I know not why, but I know that was the how.”

 

“They say that poison is a woman's weapon.”

 

“They do say that, my lord.”

 

“Are you saying that the Queen had a hand in the deaths of - “

 

Lord Varys was quick to cut him off. “I am not saying any such thing, my lord. I know not of what the Queen has or has not done, but I do know that without King Robert alive, you do not have many friends in King's Landing.”

 

It was at that exact moment that Ned knew the dread and foreboding he felt upon entering the city was not for naught; he was in real danger. It was that exact moment he knew he'd never see Winterfell again. He'd never wake up next to Cat again, or see her warm smile or run his hands through her beautiful hair. The realization was sudden and painful, like a stab would to the chest he'd never recover from.

 

It became clear exactly what he needed to do, and that's when he began writing. Lannister incest was not the only information that needed to be relayed to Winterfell. Varys shared all manner of news and intrigues, including whispers of Targaryen heirs abroad, whispers which he assured Ned were true, but that were dismissed as mere rumors by the small council.

 

Robb would have to lead the North in the seemingly inevitable conflict, and Ned knew he would need this information. With Lord Varys' help, Jory would return to Winterfell that very night, smuggled on a boat bound for White Harbor. Ned would send letters for Robb and Catelyn along with his greatsword Ice. Would that Valyrian steel could cut through Lannister treachery...but the ancestral sword of House Stark could no longer do Ned any good. Ice belonged to the Lord of Winterfell, and after tomorrow, Robb would have to assume that responsibility in his place.

 

Jory came in just as Ned finished writing. He gave him strict instructions to speak of his mission only to Lord Manderly upon arrival in White Harbor, and to deliver the rest to the hands of Robb or Catelyn and no one else, or to die trying. Ned's heart constricted, knowing this conversation was the last connection he would have with the North. He knew it was futile to dwell on regrets, but it was impossible not to think on them...he'd never get to see Bran and Rickon as grown men with wives and keeps and children of their own. He'd never get to have conversations with Jon that he had always meant to have. He'd never see his daughters marry, would never know who Arya would be Bonded with.

 

Thinking of his girls made Ned think of Sansa's bonded mate. Sandor Clegane was well known throughout Westeros as both a fierce warrior and a Lannister lap dog. But Ned took comfort in the fact that no one knew of the effects of the Stark soul bond except those who had witnessed it. Lord Twyin no doubt believed he had a loyal servant within the walls of Winterfell, and there would be no way for him to know how utterly wrong he was. Whatever Sandor's previous loyalties to House Lannister were about, Ned knew that now his only loyalty was to Sansa. He had seen them together, and knew their bond was just as strong as Lyanna's had ever been. Ned knew with painful certainty that there were no limits to the extremes soul bonded mates would go to for each other. The power of the bond was unyielding, and nothing held sway against it – not oaths nor logic nor reason. Ned had no doubt Sandor would do absolutely anything for Sansa, the same way his sister's bonded mate had done the unthinkable for her.

 

As he sent Jory on his way with a final farewell, Ned recalled the master of whisperer's parting words.

 

“You will be called to court tomorrow my lord, and asked to swear fealty to Joffrey, and to reaffirm Winterfell's loyalty to the Iron Throne. Lord Tywin plans to make an example of you, in the hopes that other great Houses will be cowed into ignoring Stannis' claims...he and Joffrey both are expecting your defiance.”

 

Who am I to disappoint King Joffrey? Ned thought to himself grimly. I will gladly tell him all he expects to hear of Winterfell's loyalties.

 

Chapter Text

***

SANSA

 

Sansa knew now why the singers called it “the song of steel.” She and Jeyne were perched on a shallow bench on the bridge between the armory and the Great Hall, a spot which gave them a clear view of the training yard below. Nearly a dozen of Winterfell's men were engaged in various practice bouts in twos and threes, but Sansa's attention was fixed on only one of them.

 

Jeyne was giggling quietly, whispering words of admiration for both Robb's broad shoulders and Jon's dark curls, but Sansa barely paid attention to her. Sandor was training against the two of them at the same time, while Ser Rodrik and a handful of guards looked on, and Sansa could not look away. The loud clanging and the bright flash of steel intrigued her, and she now easily understood her sister's fascination with sword fighting, though Sansa would surely prefer to watch rather than engage in the activity herself.

 

It was a clear summer day, and although she and Jeyne both wore fur cloaks against the chill of the shade under the covered bridge, many of the men below had stripped off their outer layers, and practiced only in simple, long-sleeved tunics. Sansa watched, fascinated, as Sandor defended effortlessly against aggressive blows from his opponents, and marveled at his grace and strength. Robb and Jon were both tall and strong young men of eight and ten, but Sandor was much bigger than either of them. His arms bulged and flexed under his tunic, making Sansa recall how it felt to have those strong arms wrapped around her...and how she longed for that feeling again.

 

This was not the first day she watched Sandor in the training yard, but for Sansa, being a spectator had yet to lose its appeal. She certainly had a new appreciation for watching the men practice, but truly she'd be happy to watch Sandor do anything – even a chore like cleaning his sword – if it meant she could be close to him. Ever since that day he was outside the walls of Winterfell for nearly a whole day, Sansa was loath to be far from him. The despair she felt that day was easily recalled with alarming clarity, and she never wanted feel that way again.

 

By the grace of the Old Gods and the new, both her lady mother and lord father were understanding about her anxieties in this matter, and did not try and separate her from Sandor more than necessary. Sansa was thankful every day for their concessions, because she didn't know what she would do if they refused to indulge her so.

 

Thinking back on her behavior that day, Sansa's cheeks burned in shame. Crying and carrying on as she had was quite childish and not at all ladylike. If she was going to be married to a great warrior like Sandor, and one day be the lady of a keep of her own, she would have to learn to face hardships with the strength and grace of a great lady.

 

She knew the experience hardly qualified as a true hardship; a lady could not expect to spend every waking moment with her betrothed, after all. Yet thinking back on it, Sansa could not describe the incident in any other way. Being apart from him was simply agony. It wasn't as if she truly feared for Sandor's safety; she knew he was the fiercest fighter in Westeros. Nor was it the fear of the unknown...Sansa knew perfectly well of Sandor's whereabouts and what his errand was about. What she was completely unprepared for, was that she could no longer feel him.

 

She had become so accustomed to being able to sense Sandor's presence and a vague echo of his mood, that when she felt nothing from him, it scared her like nothing she'd ever known. The fear settled deep in her bones, making her immune to the reasoned arguments of her lady mother, Maester Luwin, and all the rest. Sansa knew in her head that her tears and theatrics were both pointless and silly. But that mattered not to her heart...it ached for that connection to her bonded mate. The memory of the lack of that connection was still fresh and painful; she wouldn't risk suffering it again.

 

Sandor's gruff voice shouting at Robb took her out of her memory.

 

“Faster! You think the buggering bastards you're fighting will let you stop and catch your breath?”

 

Sandor easily twisted out of the way of Robb's attack, and seemingly in the same moment swung his sword in a tight arc to parry against Jon. He continued to yell at them both, while some of the guards smirked, and Ser Rodrik nodded approvingly.

 

“You'll never land a blow if you keep showing me your next move. I can see it in your shoulders boy, plain as day. Come on, both of you! Stop making it so bloody easy for me!”

 

It shocked her to see how fierce and strong Robb and Jon had become under Sandor's tutelage. Watching Sandor fight both of them at once was thrilling in a way Sansa couldn't even really describe, and she was glad no one seemed to mind that she was there to watch nearly every day. She worked hard to keep a gentle smile on her face, rather than grin widely and cheer madly for her betrothed. It was foolish, after all, to cheer during a training exercise as if it were a tournament, but Sansa had the urge all the same. She allowed herself a brief fantasy of presenting Sandor with a favor she had made for him, but blushed as she recalled how her latest embroidery efforts had been somewhat of a failure. Unfortunately, Sansa lacked both a good reason to give Sandor a favor, as well as a satisfactory depiction of the Clegane sigil. So far, her Clegane dogs came out looking more like Stark direwolves.

 

The practice bout wore on, but Sansa never got bored. Her brothers fought harder than ever, and Ser Rodrik and some of the guards began to shout out their advice as well. Sansa once again admired Sandor's strength and grace, and couldn't believe that it had been more than a fortnight since she felt his body pressed against hers. She remembered the feeling so clearly.

 

She remembered feeling him shiver when she said his name, and how the feel of his name in her mouth and the look in his dark gray eyes caused that now familiar (but still confusing) sensation. That wave of something that settled low and warm in her belly, that same something she felt for the first time when he told her he would be her shield, that day they walked together in the Godswood.

 

Sansa needed a name for that feeling; she wanted to know it again, to wallow in it. She felt sure that she could drown in it, let it overwhelm her completely and never regret it.

 

Sansa wanted to close her eyes to relive the memory, but she didn't want to miss any of the fighting in the practice yard below. She recalled with a small smile how Sandor swore to never leave her again, and how she nearly swooned at his declaration. Even before she knew what was happening, she had pressed her lips against his, and realized with giddy excitement that she was kissing Sandor! She was having her first kiss!

 

The intense storm of emotions she felt in that moment had threatened to drown her, but Sansa reveled in it. She felt Sandor's protective instinct for her; his relief that she was unharmed; his joy at being reunited with her; and his surprise as she leaned in to kiss him.

 

There was no time to regret being so forward. Instead she focused on touching him, and feeling his hands on her body for the first time. His face was a curious duality...one cheek was twisted and ruined by burn scars, but was soft and smooth compared to the other, which was rough and prickly with his dark stubble. His large hands were warm against her waist, and his chest was so broad and hard under hers.

 

Their kiss was chaste and simple, a mere pressing of their lips together. But the spot where they connected tingled, and sent sparks shooting through Sansa's body in a way that made her press against him harder, and made her lips fall apart in only the smallest way. The memory of that moment was so clear, it was as if it happened yesterday, not more than a fortnight ago.

 

Sansa desperately wanted to kiss him again.

 

She couldn't just ask him to, though, could she? That would surely be improper. But neither did Sansa want to wait until she felt some distress about something or other before he'd think to do it again, if only to comfort her.

 

Ruminating on this dilemma occupied her mind for the rest of the morning, but no solution came to her.

 

~

 

As always, Sansa could feel that Sandor was nearby. She knew he was just a few moments away from knocking on her bedchamber door, she could feel it. She could picture in her mind's eye his hulking figure walking towards her door from the end of the corridor. She could imagine the flickering torchlight reflecting on his dark hair, and the ever-present scowl that would be set on his face, that Sansa knew would melt away the moment he saw her.

 

It had become a habit, in the last few nights, for him to come and collect her this way, and then escort her to the Great Hall for the evening meal. Just as she expected, a moment later came Sandor's knock, and she opened the door with a smile. Sansa liked to think his answering not-quite-a-smile was reserved only for her. He had changed since she saw him earlier in the day, and was wearing a black leather jerkin over a clean gray tunic made in the Northern style, the same type her lord father and Robb and the other men wore. He offered her his arm, and Sansa thrilled at the opportunity to touch him again, and feel his hard muscles under her hands once more.

 

The other habit that had recently developed between them was Sansa's daily barrage of questions. Since the first day they met, Sansa had wanted to ask him so many things, but feared appearing foolish and childish in her curiosity. Apparently the kiss they shared, as simple and chaste as it was, had served as the spark that burned away her shyness.

 

Sansa now took every opportunity she could to ask Sandor questions. She was just so curious about him, his family, his life before coming to Winterfell, and so much more. She realized now how small her universe was compared to the whole world outside the walls of Winterfell and south of her lord father's lands, and she knew Sandor had seen so much of it already, as he was nearly ten years older than she.

 

Sansa's lessons with Maester Luwin that morning were on the histories of the great houses of Westeros, and so this evening Sansa's questions were about the same. She wanted to know about living at Casterly Rock, and about serving the royal family at the legendary Red Keep. Sansa had never met anyone but Sandor who wasn't a Northerner, and was curious about what the Baratheons and Lannisters were like.

 

Whether by chance or by design, tonight Sansa and Sandor had been granted some measure of privacy in the Great Hall, as the closest seats to them on either side were vacant. They were far from alone, however. They sat in plain view of the entire household, including their usual chaperones of Septa Mordane, Gariss and Desmond, as well as her lord father and lady mother. But no one sat close enough to hear what they spoke of.

 

The questions flew from her mouth without restraint...was King's Landing as exciting and glamorous as she imagined? Was the Queen as beautiful as everyone said, was King Robert the great warrior the stories of the Rebellion claimed? What was living in the Westerlands like, and had he ever seen the beach at Lannisport? She was so much more comfortable with Sandor now than she ever had been before, so Sansa made no effort to censor herself.

 

Sandor laughed at her enthusiasm and curiosity, but not in an unkind way. His gray eyes sparkled with amusement, and Sansa realized that when he smiled like that she hardly noticed his scars. He answered her questions about King's Landing, Casterly Rock, and Lannisport readily enough, and was unexpectedly patient when his answers only inspired a seemingly endless stream of new queries.

 

Sandor was surprisingly frank about the true nature of city dwelling, and Sansa was shocked to learn it was not as impressive as stories made it seem. She knew that life was simpler for the smallfolk, of course, but was appalled to learn they often lived on top of one another in squalor and poverty in King's Landing. She had been to Winter Town, of course, and Northern smallfolk lived nothing like what Sandor described. Sandor said that was because Winterfell was a better place, and that the North was cold and empty and clean compared to the rest of the kingdom, and that she was lucky to have grown up away from the crowds and dirt and horror of the capital city.

 

“You'd never have seen the foulness or smelled the stench of the real city, of course. They'd have locked you up in a pretty cage there, little bird. At least here in the North you're free to roam a bit. You'd have no chance to see anything outside of Maegor's Holdfast if you were in King's Landing.”

 

Sansa didn't like the sound of being confined, but still couldn't resist imagining herself at court, resplendent in the same black and gold finery as the Queen and Princess Myrcella (were not the Clegane colors the same as the royal house?). But she knew not to say it out loud. Whenever she voiced such a fantasy, Sandor was quick to assure her that life at court was not like in the songs. He told her once that the worst sort of filth in King's Landing were living inside the Red Keep, and not in the slums of Flea Bottom. Sansa thought that was an awful thing to say, and told him so, but he merely shrugged and said “I'm honest. It's the world that's awful.”

 

No matter what she asked, he would always answer, even if he would also tease her for caring about silly things like what the ladies wore, and what sort of singers came to court. Sandor said that he would never lie to her about anything, because there was no point shielding her from the truths of the world. Sansa knew he spoke truly, because she could feel it through their bond. It was one of the things she loved about him, even if sometimes she felt he was a little too honest.

 

Before she knew it, the meal was ending, and Sansa felt a faint flutter of mild panic, knowing she would soon be separated from her bonded mate for the night. Sandor paused in his tirade on the uselessness of the institution of the Kingsguard, and gave her that tiny, not-quite-there smile. Sansa knew he probably felt the echo of her panic, and was trying to reassure her. He rose and silently offered her his arm, meaning to escort her back to her chambers. Out of the corner of her eye, Sansa spied Garriss and Desmond walking off in another direction, and noted the lack of attention focused on her and Sandor from anyone else in the Hall. Sansa smiled, secretly pleased that apparently they no longer needed a chaperone.

 

They strolled along the corridors of the Great Keep slowly, in no rush to end their nearly-private time together. Their discussion had turned to King Robert's Kingsguard in particular, and its most notorious member, Ser Jaime Lannister, also known by the scandalous and disparaging-but-true moniker of the Kingslayer. Sandor was telling her that the rumors about the Kingslayer, both praise and condemnation alike, were all true.

 

“Aye, a gifted swordsman and dangerous in battle, to be sure. But an arrogant prick like you wouldn't believe. The bloody bastard's skill is matched only by his pride, truly.”

 

Sandor laughed roughly, the sound like steel scraping on stone, but not quite as mirthful as his true laugh. Sansa had long since become accustomed to his crude language, and paid it no mind, but rather it was the bitterness she heard (and felt) in his laugh that made her flinch.

 

“But you'd like him, little bird. Jaime's always winning tournaments, and strutting about in pretty golden armor. The ladies at court can never seem to stop sighing over him and his pretty Lannister hair, as golden as his armor, and his fine white Kingsguard cloak.”

 

Sandor's voice was teasing, but Sansa could tell from the tenseness in his arm and simply...the feeling she got from him that this notion upset him somehow. Sansa wondered why he thought she would admire Ser Jaime, if he was truly as haughty and reckless as his reputation implied. A true knight was humble and gentle and kind, and would never have done what Ser Jaime did to King Aerys.

 

“My lord, I have never seen a tournament, but I have seen you in the training yard. I can't imagine how Ser Jaime or any knight could withstand you in a joust.”

 

Sandor grunted and scowled in apparent disbelief at the sincerity of her compliment, but Sansa could feel the sudden lightness in his demeanor. She smiled a bit to herself, enjoying the fact that she was the only person who could see beneath his gruffness, and only because their bond let her feel the truth.

 

They had reached her door, and Sandor stopped and untangled her arm from his gently, although his face still held a stormy expression. His frown made his scars twist in an alarming manner, but his dark gray eyes looked down at her and gave him away...they were soft and...questioning? Sansa knew he didn't quite accept her faith in him, but that he wanted to. She wished she knew how to make that doubt fade away into nothing.

 

She reached out and took one of his hands in both of hers, a gesture familiar to both of them now, but that never lost its appeal to Sansa. Touching him in any way was always a thrill.

 

“Were I to meet this Ser Jaime, I would not be among his admirers, as he sounds like no true knight.” Sandor snorted derisively, as he always did at the notion of a 'true' knight. “And beyond that, my lord, I am a Northern lady, despite my Tully coloring. I much prefer the look of dark haired men.”

 

Sandor smirked at her then, and the mood between them changed in an instant. Sansa felt the shift like a physical thing, and she could tell, just by looking at him, that Sandor felt it too. The intense look in his dark gray eyes made Sansa's heart speed up and her breath shorten. She felt a heat settle low in her belly, and wondered if Sandor could actually hear her racing heart, as it seemed disturbingly loud in her own ears. She knew in that moment that he wanted to kiss her as much as she wanted him to do it, and wondered why he held back.

 

Using one finger, he reached up and gently tilted her chin upwards. Not to direct her gaze, as Sansa was already staring deep into his dark gray eyes, but rather to expose her neck to him. Sansa knew why in the half a moment before she felt it – that same finger trailed slowly down her jaw, making her shiver, and brushed lightly against that spot on her neck, where her racing heart betrayed her. Her pulse beat visibly there, beneath her pale skin, and Sansa knew that Sandor had a certain fascination with that particular display. He had touched her there before; indeed it seemed to be the only place he was willing to touch her besides her hands or her waist. It was maddening how cautious he was, sometimes.

 

This time, as his fingertip trailed down her jawline to rest on that spot, Sansa's eyes drifted closed, and she heard herself let out a quiet sigh. Sandor's hand was so gentle, and she wanted him to touch her so badly, that this light caress was less a relief and more of a provocation. It seemed the more she got from Sandor, the more she wanted from him.

 

“Is that, so, little bird?” Sandor's voice was low and gruff, and Sansa thrilled at the use of his pet name for her. “You prefer the look of dark haired men?” He took a step closer, and rubbed his thumb in a circle on that spot on her neck. “Like that Greyjoy brat, then?”

 

Sansa inhaled shakily, and looked up at him, meeting the taunting look in his grey eyes. He was teasing her, she knew. But Theon? The notion was more than ridiculous, soul bond or no.

 

Sansa attempted a scolding tone, but her voice came out much breathier than she intended. “You are unkind to mock me, my lord. You know which dark haired man I prefer...I know you can feel it.” With that Sansa took a step forward herself, closing the distance between them, and dropped his hand so she could settle both of hers up on his broad shoulders.

 

Sandor's hand that she released settled on her waist immediately, and the weight and warmth of it did nothing but make her heart beat faster. His other hand left her neck, and soon both were wrapped around her, lifting her against him in exactly the same way she remembered from weeks ago. Sansa stood on her toes, but didn't recall making the effort to do so. All she could think was Sandor is going to kiss me again, and before she could prepare herself in any way, his lips were on hers once more.

 

This kiss was not like their first. Sandor was as gentle as ever, but this was not about reassurance or comfort. This kiss was all about the want that Sansa had been feeling over the last few weeks. She suspected that Sandor had felt the same yearning, but this kiss was proof that she was right. Just as she was loath to be separated from him lately, she had an equally strong urge to get closer to him. With every passing day, Sansa could feel their soul bond strengthening, in a way that only made her want more.

 

This kiss was more, and yet still not enough. It was harder and faster; Sansa felt Sandor's lips and tongue move and press insistently against her own, and the completely new sensation made her dizzy in a way she never wanted to recover from. His large, warm hands squeezed her gently around her waist, and Sansa let out an embarrassingly needy sounding whine...and still she wanted more.

 

She wanted to feel those hands drift downwards...down around her hips and then down even lower. She felt his rough stubble scrape against her lips, and the strangely smooth skin of his scarred cheek against her own, and it made her skin flush with heat. That heat rolled over her chest and belly, making her skin tighten and a curious warm wetness settle between her legs. It was a divine sensation that Sansa wished would never stop, and still she wanted more.

 

She must have said so out loud, because to her utter dismay, Sandor stiffened abruptly, and pulled himself away from her. She instinctively tried to press against him again, but suddenly his arms turned to steel, refusing to yield. With his hands still about her waist, he gently, but very firmly, pushed her away.

 

“Sandor...?” Sansa heard the breathy whine in her voice, but couldn't be bothered with feeling ashamed. She just wanted more from him.

 

Sandor looked down at her with a pained expression for a long moment, and then briefly closed his eyes. Sansa's hands settled on his forearms, and she tried once more to press against him, seeking his warmth, and as always, to get closer to him.

 

“No little bird, no more. You don't know what you're saying.” And with that, he released her and turned away swiftly, and was half way down the corridor before Sansa could reply. She felt the loss acutely, but was too stunned to protest out loud. She felt suddenly cold, although her skin was still flushed and that frustrating heat still curled deep inside her, but there was nothing she could do about it. After taking a few moments to catch her breath, she went inside her bedchamber and readied herself for bed. Sansa couldn't imagine she would get any sleep that night, but didn't know what else to do but try.

 

~

 

They were in the Godswood again. Sunlight streamed through the dense tree canopy, glowing red through the leaves of the weirwood trees, and filtered into a soft, golden green through the needles of the ancient pines. Sansa wondered how many Stark maidens before her had walked through this grove with their bonded mates. How many felt what she felt, this desperate longing she had no name for? How many had these urges that made her blush, and how many knew that same heat that curled low in her belly, making her feel curious and anxious and strangely needy?

 

Sansa didn't know exactly what she was anxious about, only that she knew deep down, the way she knew her own name, that Sandor was the one who would make it better. He stood beside her, tall and broad and dark, in black leathers and white furs, with his long dark hair, and dark gray eyes like the pool in front of the heart tree. She was looking up at him, deep into those eyes, and Sandor smiled his not-quite-there-smile, and Sansa felt her insides melt.

 

He looked down at her and put one massive hand around her waist and pulled her firmly against him. Sansa put her hands on his chest, and could feel the hard muscle beneath the leather, and his breath against her neck. Sandor was fascinated with a certain spot on her neck, and although Sansa didn't know precisely why, she was happy for him to have such a fixation. Sometimes when she caught him looking at her, she could tell his eyes were fixed on that spot. Sometimes he would gently stroke her skin there, with the barest possible touch from the back of his hand, or the tips of his fingers. Sandor's hands were strangely graceful, but also large and obviously strong. She wanted to feel them touch her, somewhere other than her neck and her waist, but didn't know how to turn that desire into words, how to ask him for what she wanted. She could barely articulate her want to herself.

 

Thinking at all was soon impossible, because Sandor's mouth descended on that spot, and he lavished her neck with endless open-mouthed kisses. It was nothing like feeling his fingertips there. She felt his rough stubble scrape against her, a delicious contrast to the soft press of his lips, and the warm wetness of his tongue.

 

Sansa pressed against him harder, and heard herself let out a surprised gasp. Sandor smiled against her neck, and she felt him pull her even closer. His arm muscles bunched around her and the incredible strength of him made her shiver...this was her bonded mate, he was to be her husband! How did she ever get so lucky to be bonded with such a warrior? Was there any evil out there Sandor could not protect her from? Was there any cold of winter that would not be chased away by his solid arms and warm breath?

 

He was kissing her on her neck, over and over again on that spot, and Sansa longed for more. She released her stranglehold on his tunic with one hand, and slid it up into his long, dark hair, pushing him closer to her, and gasping in delight when she felt his hot tongue against her skin. Her heartbeat sped up, and she could feel her pulse racing and beating against the skin of her neck, right where Sandor's mouth and his scratchy chin and his hot, wet tongue ravished her. It was an amazing feeling but also completely mystifying. How could she be so close to him and still want more? How could she get closer to him when their chests were mashed together and their arms wrapped around one another?

 

Between the shivers and sparks and waves of heat that Sandor was inducing in her, she took deep breaths and inhaled his unique scent. It was leather and a cold crispness and woodsmoke and something else she couldn't name but wanted to be wrapped up in forever. Sandor felt so good and smelled so good and Sansa just wanted more.

 

Sansa awoke abruptly as Jenna, one of the chambermaids, entered her room to tend to the fire. She sat up in bed, feeling shocked and sweaty and flustered. The air in her bedchamber was nearly freezing, as the fire had gone out over night, but Sansa was uncomfortably warm under the heavy bed furs, and pushed them away with shaking hands.

 

She stared at Jenna with wide eyes, frozen in senseless fear. Sansa had the sudden and foolish notion that the nature of her dream might be written plainly on her face. But aside from a absent minded “g'morning milady,” Jenna completely ignored Sansa, and went about her chores.

 

~

 

Sansa tried her best to forget her shocking and embarrassing dream, and the confusing feelings it awakened in her. For several days afterwards, she felt just as flustered and uncertain around Sandor as she had when he first came to Winterfell. The first day after her dream, she couldn't even look him in the eye! If he wondered why she was suddenly shy with him again, he didn't let her know, and Sansa was impossibly grateful; she couldn't imagine trying to explain it...she hardly understood it herself.

 

After a little while, however, her daily routine was so reliably the same that some of Sansa's embarrassment began to fade. Then a welcome distraction arrived, in the form of an announcement from her lord father. Soon the household was aflutter with making preparations for him to travel south to King's Landing, and Sansa was ever so grateful for something else to focus on. The day after her father and his small party went south, Sandor invited her to ride with him in the Wolfswood.

 

Sansa protested at first, because riding made her sore and sweaty and horses smelled terrible. But Sandor convinced her in the end, saying riding well was a necessary skill, even for a lady. What if her lord father needed Sandor to leave Winterfell for some reason? Would she want him to leave her behind because she couldn't ride well enough to keep up? That notion changed Sansa's mind immediately.

 

Sandor's enormous black warhorse was mean and ill-tempered, but luckily Hullen found a mare for Sansa that was calm enough to ignore Stranger's aggression. The beautiful white animal (which Sansa had named Sugar) was just as agreeable around Lady, who more often than not refused to leave Sansa's side. Lady was equally unimpressed by Stranger, and even bared her teeth at him once or twice, just to let him know it.

 

They spent the morning riding, and eventually stopped for a picnic lunch. After finishing a meal of cold meats, hard cheese and crusty dark bread, Sansa was eating sliced winter peaches while Sandor poured her a goblet of bright red cherry cordial, and some Arbor Red for himself. Sandor hated sweet drinks, and said he preferred the dark, strong red wine from Dorne that was dry and sour. Sansa loved the taste of the cordial, however, and had several goblets full while interrogating Sandor about Dorne. She couldn't imagine a place so hot that it never snowed, not even in winter!

 

Sansa had only been drunk once before. A few years ago, after a feast to welcome Lord Umber and his sons to Winterfell, she and Jeyne had come upon Robb and Jon hiding with a flagon of wine. She was only interested in sneaking extra lemon cakes from the kitchens, but Jeyne blurted out that she would tell Lady Catelyn what the boys had been up to if they didn't share. For some reason, the notion seemed wicked and daring and suddenly Sansa was game, although she never had much interest in wine before that moment. The tiny sips she had been allowed before never enticed her. Drinking it had only made her lips pucker and her tongue feel strangely heavy.

 

But that evening, the four of them hid in one of the storage cellars near the kitchens and drank an entire flagon of Arbor Gold, wine from the Reach that was brought out only for special occasions. Robb and Jon had already finished most of it by the time they had come upon them, but there was still enough left for three or four goblets each for both Sansa and Jeyne.

 

What she was feeling now was a lot like feeling drunk. She felt light headed and fuzzy; like she couldn't think straight or even see very well. Her lips felt warm and slightly swollen, and she couldn't stop licking them. Her tongue felt heavy in her mouth and slightly sore.

 

But Sansa knew she wasn't drunk on wine; she and her bonded mate had been kissing for what felt like hours, and it was Sandor that intoxicated her. It was impossible to remember exactly how it happened, but one moment, they were sitting against a tree and he was telling her about Dorne and the strange way people dressed there, and in the next moment they were kissing again. But this time, Sandor even tasted like wine, so perhaps Sansa was drunk on a little bit of both.

 

Sandor wanted this as much as she did. She could feel his desire through their bond, and it swirled and blended deliciously with her own. But she could also feel him holding back. He never kissed her anywhere but her lips and that spot on her neck, and his hands never roamed away from her waist, even though she knew he wanted more just as much as she did. Something made him restrain himself...Sansa wasn't sure, but the shade of the feeling seemed like fear. Curious, for such a fearless man.

 

After a while, he tore his mouth away from hers, and stared at her with his piercing dark eyes. Sansa's lips were chapped, and the cold air stung her face where Sandor's beard had rubbed it raw. She longed to press herself against him to relieve the itchy, achey feeling she felt in her chest, but knew he wouldn't let her. They stared at each other, Sansa breathless and perched in his lap, and Sandor squeezing her gently around her waist.

 

He wouldn't let her kiss him again, Sansa could feel it in the tenseness of his arms. The determined look in his eyes hid just the tiniest shadow of that unknown fear, and Sansa wished she knew how to make it go away. She fell against him with her head on his chest and her hands buried in his hair, hoping with everything she had that he wouldn't push her away. Sandor stilled for a moment in response, and Sansa held her breath.

 

All she wanted was to be close to him, even if he wouldn't kiss her breathless anymore. But Sansa didn't know how to say it, how to make him realize what she wanted, what she needed. Instead of trying to find the words, she concentrated on his heart beating heavily in his chest, and how its pace matched her own perfectly. Slowly, Sandor relaxed, and wrapped both his arms around her shoulders, allowing her to snuggle against him closely. At that moment, Lady returned from wherever she had wandered in the forest, and lay down at their feet, with her golden eyes fixed on them. Sansa smiled at her, and closed her own eyes, breathing deeply and letting Sandor's heartbeat calm her. He wasn't pushing her away, he was holding her close, and Sansa knew she had nothing to fear. The sensation of their hearts beating in time was so pleasant, that Sansa almost forgave him for ending their spectacular third kiss (not that she was counting). Without meaning to, they both fell fast asleep.

 

~

 

The thicket of trees gave way to grass, and Sansa found herself on the bank of a mighty river. Sandor was there waiting for her, looking like one of the ancient Kings of Winter in his gray and white furs and solemn gray eyes. Sansa smiled and ran to him, and he gathered her to him in his strong arms and kissed her fiercely. The cuts and scratches from her walk in the woods disappeared completely, and Sansa knew he was the cure for all her pains. Eventually their kiss ended, although Sansa wanted to kiss him forever. He smiled at her, and they walked along the riverbank together.

 

The bank was lush and green with vegetation, and covered in a heavy carpet of snowstars. Sansa smiled, remembering the tiny white flowers she embroidered on the dress she wore the first day she met Sandor. Up ahead along the riverbank, Sansa could see her siblings and their direwolves laughing and running about. Her mother walked alone a bit further on, but looked back on them with a sad smile.

 

The opposite riverbank was very different. Sansa looked down, across the rushing water and seemingly into another world. The ground was scorched and burnt, and no plants nor flowers grew there. There were shadowy figures in the distance, and two tall black towers loomed behind them, with angry red flames licking at their stones. The sight made Sansa feel uneasy. She pressed herself against Sandor, and he wrapped one massive arm around her shoulder, pulling her further away from the riverbank.

 

Flies buzzed about piles of rotting flesh, and big black crows swooped around (or were they ravens?) in wide, lazy circles. At first the gruesome sight disturbed Sansa. She could feel the threads of panic begin to take root inside her. But with Sandor by her side, and her family only just ahead, she knew that she was safe. Truly the foul display was rather ruining her walk, and Sansa began to feel angry that they (whoever they were) dared to bother her and her family.

 

She heard murmurs from those shadowy figures across the river, and somehow Sansa knew that those voices were taunting her, making both outrageous demands and ridiculous accusations. Without warning, a furious anger swelled inside her, and the urge for vengeance was overpowering and strangely seductive. The feeling was alarming in its intensity, but somewhat of a relief as well, as if she had been holding back until now. Suddenly, as if she merely wished it so, Sansa found herself on the other side of the river, running through the underbrush on all fours.

 

It was the same dense bramble she had walked through before, but the thorns and branches caused her no harm this time; they were no match for her thick fur and strong muscles. She reveled in her rage for a bit, not knowing what the target of her anger was, or even what she was chasing, but merely enjoying how powerful it made her feel. Then she caught a whiff of her prey, and the scent nearly drove her mad with bloodlust. Her muscles strained deliciously in the resulting burst of speed, and soon she was upon it. She was snarling and snapping at the heels of a monster, golden and shaggy with red dripping off its muzzle. A lion, she realized, and Sansa knew in that moment, that her mind had somehow fused with Lady's body, and the arrangement seemed like the most natural thing in the world. The lion was huge, much bigger than she, but Sansa was not afraid of it. It roared at her, a deafening noise designed to terrify, but the sound only made Sansa want to laugh.

 

She leapt, and sank her teeth into the throat of the enormous beast, shaking her head fiercely, relishing the feeling of snapping bones and the hot rush of blood in her mouth. She and the lion wrestled violently, rolling around the forest floor. The lion didn't know it was already dead, and even with Sansa's jaws buried in its throat, it fought back. Sansa wanted to laugh at its arrogance. They tumbled through the underbrush, and the brambles and thorns tangled in the lion's golden mane but slid off Sansa's gray fur harmlessly. Finally they reached the river, and suddenly she was herself, back in her own body again.

 

Sansa looked up, to the lush green banks of the other side, and saw her family standing there, looking at her curiously. Somehow she knew they were wondering why she was on the wrong side of the river. Her mother and her sister wore crowns of snowstars, and all her brothers were there too, even Jon. Standing with them was a handsome man with a long black sword, and three dark-haired girls Sansa didn't recognize, though all three wore familiar white velvet cloaks, trimmed in gray fur.

 

The shadowy figures were coming up behind her. Lady wasn't with her anymore, she was on the opposite riverbank with the other direwolves and the rest of the family. Sansa didn't know what to do. The fierce anger she felt a moment ago had given way to panic, and Sansa was too afraid to even want to cry. Out of nowhere, Sandor appeared to save her, riding his giant black horse with the blasphemous name.

 

He was a glorious sight in all white on his black horse, and Sansa knew beyond a doubt that nothing she feared could hope to withstand him. With long sweeping arcs of his sword, Sandor cut through the foul tableaux, and the crows (or perhaps they were ravens) flew away. The piles of rotting flesh were no more, and the roars of the dead lion were silenced. The shadows disappeared, the fires were squelched, and the black towers fell into dust with a swipe of Sandor's sword.

 

Sansa woke up abruptly, and looked about groggily, wondering what had jolted her out of her slumber. She was sitting on the grass and not on Sandor's lap, and guessed it was his movement that had awakened her. She wished he would sit down again, as she was very comfortable curled up on his chest, and was having the most amazing dream. She looked up at him, and was startled to see him staring at her, wide eyed and horrified.

Chapter Text

SANDOR

 

It was nearly dawn, and Sandor felt a bit of relief, knowing the light would help him find her. He looked around sharply, trying to tamp down the unease he had felt in the darkness. Finally, he saw her...she was walking alone along the bank of a river, singing to herself and weaving tiny white flowers into a crown. Her hair blazed gold and red and orange in the growing sunlight, and she was breathtakingly beautiful. She met her sister along the way, and they embraced. Both girls smiled, and the look was dangerous and feral, especially on the face of the younger one. Sansa placed the crown of flowers on her sister's head, and sent her away with a black raven and a white cloak. She turned to face him. Her eyes lit up and she smiled, warmly this time, and the sight made Sandor's heart stutter in his chest. She always looked at him like that, and yet it still surprised him, every time. She ran towards him, her blazing hair streaming out behind her like fire. She's going to get burned, he thought to himself. How could she be so careless?

 

But still she ran to him, and flung herself into his arms. She felt so good under his hands...warm and soft, and he heard her giggling laugh in his good ear. How her blazing hair didn't burn him, Sandor couldn't say. He waited to feel the searing pain, to feel the agony of the blistering heat and smell the stench of his skin peeling away, but it never came. He could only smell her warm, honeyed-wine scent, and could only feel her soft hands on his face. Her blue eyes sparkled and she leaned in to kiss him, but Sandor didn't understand why.

 

The other side of the river was all seven hells put together: scorched earth, dying men, carrion birds feasting on rotting flesh, and fires that blazed out of control. It was a familiar sight, not just from this dream but from his waking life, and Sandor couldn't help his instinctive retreat from the flames.

 

He looked around for Sansa, not wanting her to get burned, but did not see her, and began to panic again. But then, just there on the battlefield, he saw a pack of enormous wolves circling a lion. None paid any mind to the towers of flame burning brightly behind them. The lion roared and snarled, but the wolves were calm and did not react. Suddenly two of them leapt forward, shredding the lion's hide and tearing open its throat, while the others merely watched. Sandor found the sight strangely comforting.

 

As always, Gregor was there. The sword he carried was sharp and deadly looking, and taller than some men. He was surrounded by his vile pets, those whoresons who followed him about and did his foul bidding. This time, though, they were on the other side of the river.

 

The river was wide and fast and deep, with strong currents that made the water foam and churn dangerously. Massive chunks of ice spiked up from the rapids, and Sandor never thought he'd be so grateful for the icy and snowy summers in the North. As he saw Gregor's pets try in vain to find a crossing, he knew that the harsh weather of the North was keeping his little bird safe.

 

She was there again beside him, clinging to his arm and hiding her face in his chest, while occasionally staring fearfully across the river. He knew what was going to happen next.

 

~

 

Sandor winced in pain and cursed out loud. The dull, throbbing ache he had become used to in the last few weeks had suddenly sharpened into something worse, and at first he couldn't tell why. For half a moment he wondered if he was still dreaming, this time about some new, fresh horror, or whether the bright, intense pain he felt was real.

 

Another stab of pain accompanied an excruciating noise, and Sandor knew for sure that he was awake again. He reluctantly opened his eyes, and discovered that the sources of his hurts were very much rooted in the real world.

 

He was sprawled on the floor of his bedchamber in the Great Keep of Winterfell. The good side of his face was flat against the cold, hard stones, and Sandor groaned that he couldn't even have the luck to pass out on the rushes. His head pounded in a familiar way, and he remembered the multiple skins of wine he swallowed down the night before, trying to forget the other types of pain that had plagued him of late. The skin on the back of his hands was raw and bloody, and he wondered who or what he had punched. He hoped that none of the stupidly gallant guards that seemed to fill Winterfell (no wonder his little bird had such foolish notions) had gotten in his way; he didn't want her to hate him even more than she already did.

 

Just thinking of her brought on another rush of agony, because he knew she was hurting too; he could feel it. But the sharp pain in his head had a closer source, it was a loud scraping right there in the room with him, and uncomfortably close to his head.

 

Sandor rolled over and sat up to see a skinny girl dragging a metal tub into his chambers, and the noise of it scraping against the floor was what jolted him out of his dream. His first thought was that a skinny thing like her shouldn't try to move a tub that size; no wonder she had to drag it along the floor, making enough noise to wake the fucking dead. She noticed his movement and glared at him, as if she was the one who had been rudely awakened.

 

“The lads'll be up with water for your bath, milord. Lady Catelyn says you're not to go before milord Robb stinkin' like you do.”

 

His second thought was: how the fuck did this girl get in here? He could have sworn he had barred the door the night before. He growled as much to her, expecting a fearful squeak followed by a quick, scurrying retreat, the way the servants always reacted to him in the Red Keep. But she merely crossed her skinny arms over her chest and glared down at him where he was slumped in his week-old clothes.

 

“Milady said you'd be sour tempered,” she sniffed at him. Her name was Jenna, Sandor suddenly remembered out of the depths of his wine-soaked memory. Jenna was the chambermaid he most often saw when he collected Sansa to escort her to meals in the Great Hall. He hadn't seen her for a while, since he had been locking himself in his bedchamber and drinking more than eating. How many days had it been?

 

Jenna scowled and then pointed one of her skinny fingers right in his face. “I've got a two year old boy, milord, so you'll not scare me off with a pout! Now get up and give me those foul clothes and I'll bring new ones for after you've had a proper wash!” Just then more servants entered the room, with buckets of still-steaming water to dump into the tub. Jenna was frowning at him expectantly, and Sandor dragged himself up, a bit unsteadily. One of the lads flinched when Sandor drew to his full height with a scowl of his own, but Jenna was unmoved, even as she had to crane her neck backwards to keep glaring at him.

 

Sandor's scowl deepened as he dragged his clothes off and dumped them in a heap at Jenna's feet. Wondering how the girl got into the room and why she refused to fear him only made his head hurt more, especially as it seemed he had a new worry: he would be expected to go before Robb Stark today. No doubt the boy would tell him he was no longer welcome at Winterfell, and that he should find his way south as soon as possible. Lord Stark was still in King's Landing, and his eldest was acting as Lord of Winterfell in his absence. It would be completely within the young lord's rights to end Sansa's betrothal if he so wished; the thought made Sandor's insides churn unpleasantly, and he felt very close to being sick all over the floor of his bedchamber. Although it made every part of him hurt as violently as his head, pretending it wasn't a possibility was something he wouldn't do. He had spent his life not lying to himself, he wasn't about to start now.

 

Sandor welcomed the temporary distraction of a bath. He hoped he could focus his mind on his physical pains, like the sting of hot water on his ragged knuckles, and the familiar lancing pain of wine sickness. They were much easier to deal with than the others...wondering on the intentions of the young Lord Stark, and on the dreams he had been having, and what they must mean.

 

He dreamed of her every night, and at least part of the time he found himself inside a dream of hers, and those were the worst. He'd long since given up trying to understand what sort of sorcery made such a thing possible. They were slightly different every night, but more alike than not in most ways. But bloody buggering hell did they all end the same way...with a horrible jape, a cruel mummer's farce...

 

The dreams had become so familiar, he almost always knew he was dreaming when he was in them. Sometimes he could force himself awake before he had to witness the foolishness, but not every night. Either way, waking up was pure agony, and not just after a night of hard drinking (which was nearly every night now, to be true).

 

At no other time did he feel her pain more acutely. The moment he was fully awake, and the fantasy faded, he knew Sansa was waking from the same dream, to the deep disappointment of reality. How could she be feeling anything else? He wasn't the shining white knight that she dreamed of; he wasn't the invincible hero who vanquished every foe and calmed every fear. In waking life he was just a dog, drunken and scarred and ugly and useless.

 

He recalled with disgust the first time he realized his dream was not his own, when they had fallen asleep in the wolfswood after a day of riding. At first, his dream was the usual sort of nightmare: fire, bloody battles, violence, and Gregor. Suddenly something changed, and instead of his brother, he fought shadowy figures he couldn't identify. He was mounted on Stranger, and for some reason wearing white armor and a white cloak, like some fucking cunt in the bloody Kingsguard, like pretty Jaime or that useless toad Blount.

 

He knew – in the way that you can only know in a dream – that this was her dream, and this was the way she saw him. The thought was so disturbing he awoke immediately.

 

The silly little bird didn't even understand why he was so angry. The strangeness of sharing dreams aside – that was just unnatural – she didn't know that seeing him like some bloody hero like Barristan the Bold or Prince Aemon the Dragonknight was a lie, that nobody wrote songs about the Hound.

 

She was mad at him for ending the dream. Truthfully, at the time he had been distracted by how beautiful she looked when she was angry (fucking hell could anyone blame him?), so he didn't really listen to her chirping. But he knew she was only frustrated at not being able to continue living in her little fantasy dream world. She only wanted to see what happened next, like a silly little girl reading a story. He couldn't believe how willing she was to lie to herself!

 

The realization was painful in more ways than one. Sandor had known for weeks that he was falling in love with her. He had no other word for how utterly enthralled he had become, and knew that she would be the end of him, one way or another. But now, after some Northern sorcery made them share that ridiculous dream...now he also knew that whatever the fuck this bond was did nothing but put lies in her head. She got caught up in the romance of being destined for each other or some shit (more like doomed, Sandor thought), and didn't see him as he really was. Why else would he appear in her dream as some storybook knight her wet nurse must have told her about? She probably thought she was in love...and maybe she was. But it was that man in white in her dream she loved, not the Hound.

 

Sandor growled in frustration, recalling how Sansa refused to see reason, and insisted he was the one who wouldn't see the truth. It was pure madness! Why would she cling to such a ridiculous notion? Such a silly little bird...

 

The result of their row was that he hadn't seen her at all since that day, except in his head as he slept, of course. Sadly, no amount of wine made the dreams go away. Sandor had certainly tried to dull his senses enough to end the nightly torture, but he had never had any luck so of course that didn't work. Every night he had to witness the heroics of her fantasy version of him, a man he had never been and never would be – a valiant white knight that only lived in her dreams.

 

Of course, he had dreams of his own. Dreams he hoped to hell she wasn't experiencing along with him, because his fantasies were quite a bit different than hers. They were just as fucking unsettling to him upon waking up, of course, because he knew they were just as unlikely to come true.

 

It was the other reason he had avoided her all these weeks. Her stubborn insistence that her dreams were more than just foolish fantasy was one problem, but the other was that Sandor could no longer trust himself not to touch her.

 

He had touched her, of course. He had held her hand and helped her onto her horse; chaste ways her brothers might touch her. He had also kissed her a handful of times, and Sandor had never known that such an act could be so arousing. She tasted as sweet as she smelled, and was warm and soft and curvy under his hands and against his chest in a way that was absolutely maddening. So far he had managed to only hold her about her small waist, and steeled himself to keep his hands from wandering along her curves and pulling her rounded hips against his, so she could feel how achingly hard she always made him.

 

But damn him to all seven hells he wanted more. And in his dreams, he got everything he wanted. In his dreams, he devoured her. He tasted not only that spot on her neck where her pulse thrummed invitingly, but everywhere. Down her slender neck and deep in between her perfect teats, along her bare belly which he knew would be soft beyond his imagining, and between her long legs where he knew her cunt would be the same orange-red fire of her head, and the sweetest thing he would ever taste...better than the ripest winter peach and more intoxicating than the strongest summerwine.

 

Thinking of her in such lewd ways made him both deeply ashamed and violently aroused. He wanted her, he couldn't deny it. He wanted her, not just for her beauty, or how she would touch him and speak sweetly to him, or how she let him believe that she wanted him. It was something he had no name for; something he feared because he had never before encountered it and knew not how to manage it. It was not unlike the aching hunger after rations ran low on the battlefield; painful and empty and greedy, and more than a little desperate.

 

Such musings made no difference to his cock, however. No matter how often Sandor spilled into his own hand, thinking of her honey-wine scent, the blazing fire of her hair, and the feel of her pulse fluttering under his hand, under his lips, he never felt any relief. It was the same every night...and every morning.

 

“Fucking hell.” He swore out loud, and let his head bang against the back of the metal tub. His head hurt, his dick was hard, and his life was the same bloody, impossible mess it had been weeks ago, since the day they rode together in the wolfswood. Up until that day, he had started to let himself enjoy living in Winterfell. Seeing her every day, practicing with her brothers in the yard, and escorting her to the Great Hall every evening were the simple sort of pleasures he never thought he'd get to enjoy. Not in his life as a sworn shield with an ugly face, and a monster as his only family. He should have known that it couldn't last. Now he knew the truth of it; he couldn't stay here. The Hound was no fit match for Sansa Stark, and he couldn't stand to live the lie that would let her think anything less. But he already knew the agony of being away from her, and that leaving Winterfell might kill him, or at least feel as such.

 

There was simply no answer. The problem was not something he had any experience dealing with. Neither his fists nor his sword offered a solution, and so he drank. The numbness was a welcome relief, even if it only lasted a short while, and never through the night.

 

He was already planning on finding another skin of wine as soon as he spoke with Robb Stark. Sandor had just finished dressing in the clean clothes Jenna had brought for him, when another sudden noise interrupted his brooding. But this time it wasn't a skinny chambermaid, but rather the Lady of the household.

 

Nothing could have surprised Sandor more. He looked up from lacing his leather jerkin, and Lady Stark herself stood in the doorway to his chambers, tall and regal and dressed in dark gray. Her clothing blended into the dark stone of the walls and floors, but her eyes and hair were bright jolts of color, even in the weak sunlight that feebly lit the room.

 

For a moment she merely stared at him. Her hands were folded in front of her calmly, as if this were a social call, but her jaw was clenched and her eyes were flinty and cold. Not for the first time, Sandor wondered at the fierceness of northern women. Lady Catelyn may be from the south, but at the moment she looked as if she had quite a bit of wolf in her.

 

“My son has summoned you this morning, my lord.”

 

Her voice was calm and pleasant, and flawless in its courtesy. The gossiping guards that had accompanied him to Winterfell nearly a year ago had the right of it...Lady Catelyn was a true beauty and a true lady, and her daughter was near a copy of her, in all ways. And fuck it all if she wasn't giving him the same furious glare his little bird had given him, that day they argued in the wolfswood. Sandor couldn't help but wonder if Sansa would one day grow to look at him like this, instead of the way she looked at him in those bloody dreams. That after a score of years and a half dozen children, his little bird might look like the lady standing before him. Still beautiful, but with a chill in her normally warm blue eyes, and disappointment pursing her pretty mouth. That Sandor would manage to make his little bird as resentful and displeased with him as her mother was at this moment.

 

“Jory Cassel has returned from King's Landing, with news from my husband, Lord Stark. A raven has also arrived from King's Landing...from your former master, Prince Joffrey. Or, rather, King Joffrey.”

 

This caught Sandor's attention. King Joffrey?

 

“Robb will discuss the contents of these messages with you further, but the essentials are thus: King Robert is dead. Your former charge is now King, and has arrested my husband on charges of treason.”

 

Lady Catelyn spat out the word in incredulous disbelief, as if there could be nothing more outlandish than such a claim. Sandor found he couldn't disagree with her. Lord Eddard Stark, King Robert's oldest friend, who fought a war to win Robert his throne? It didn't make any sense.

 

“I need to know, before you speak with my son, what your intentions are towards my daughter.”

 

Sandor stared at her stunned and speechless, and suddenly felt completely sober. All the doubts and questions he'd brooded on over the last few weeks swirled through his head, but none managed to settle into words. He knew not what to say to her, especially in the face of her piercing glare...Lady Catelyn's eyes blazed in anger, like the glow of fire from a brazier. What did she want from him? What did she expect from him?

 

“Do you intend to stay locked in your bedchamber and continue to empty Wintefell's wine cellars? Or will you behave like a man betrothed, like a man ready to become part of this household?”

 

“My lady, I...” Lady Catelyn cut him off swiftly, her voice rising slightly.

 

“I have seen you together, my lord, you and my daughter. This thing between you...there is nothing like it in the Riverlands, and had I not seen it myself I would not believe it. But I have seen it. It is as obvious as if you were bound together hand and foot by ropes and chains. How can you deny it? Why do you keep yourself from her, knowing how it pains her? Are not the Clegane words 'bravery, loyalty, truth'? Are you so cowardly as to forsake what you know to be true, that this connection, this soul bond, is real? You wallow in your skins of wine, and over what? Does it matter? I know you can feel how Sansa suffers as well. I know you can feel it! You know how your cowardice wounds her, and yet you persist! How can you be so cruel?”

 

Lady Catelyn's voice grew harsher with every accusation. Her words were as painful as anything Sandor had ever felt. She may have taken a sword and plunged it into his gut, and it would have been a kindness compared to this. Sandor heard her choke back tears and could only imagine his little bird doing the same.

 

Fucking hell, what a fucking mess. The lady had the right of it, of course. Sandor knew exactly what Sansa was feeling; he knew the moment she awoke from one of their shared dreams. He could feel how she longed for him during the day, when he was sober enough to notice, anyway. Being apart from her was painful for him, and he knew she felt the same...he remembered how she cried desperately for him the first (and only) time he had left Winterfell and was far away from her for a whole day.

 

Lady Catelyn composed herself, and took a deep breath. “While you were attempting to drown yourself in wine, my lord, the bannermen have been called. The Glovers and Lady Mormont have already arrived, eager to swear fealty and to avenge this affront to Winterfell and to House Stark. Do you count yourself among them? Robb looks up to you. Is his faith in you misplaced as well as Sansa's? ”

 

Sandor clearly understood Lady Catelyn's challenge. The look in her eyes made memories of Lord Tywin's words came back to him: that no matter what, he would always remain a Westerman. Fleeting thoughts sped through his mind...thoughts of Clegane Keep, and the sack of King's Landing, and the journey up the kingsroad to the cold, empty North. He thought of training with the Stark boy and his bastard brother. He thought on the first time he met Sansa, and how neither of them managed to say a word. Lady Catelyn's barbed words set into him, and he relished the sting they left. He then remembered the words his grandfather chose to accompany the sigil of House Clegane.

 

“You will decide today whether to remain in the North, or to return to your bastard king. Robb would speak with you in either case, but if you choose to return south, my lord, mayhaps you shouldn't trouble yourself.”

 

Lady Catelyn turned and left, her long red braid swinging behind her. Sandor realized there was no choice, and that there never had been, even during these past weeks when he attempted to drink himself out of thinking at all. Given the fierce look in Lady Catelyn's blue eyes, the truth was just as plain to her. He couldn't even blame her for throwing his family's words in his face, because he had been lying to himself, and he had been cowardly. As for loyalty...Sandor had never sworn any oaths to anyone, words were wind, after all. But he could think of one vow he was now willing to make. Sandor knew what he must tell the young Lord Stark, but first he must go to Sansa.

Chapter Text

“Shh, it was just a dream, sweetling, don't worry about Father...come my love, don't be upset now, please Rickon...” Sansa ran her hands through her brother's messy curls, trying to comfort him, but he only cried harder.

 

Rickon had taken to following her around the keep lately, as Mother and Robb always seemed to be busy with one thing or another. Still, when he ran into her bedchamber, wailing and crying, Sansa was more than a little surprised. He had never come to her for comfort after a nightmare before, and Sansa had barely finished shaking off the painful aftermath of her own dream.

 

That was hours ago, and he was still curled up awkwardly in her lap. Although he was only seven, Rickon was quite tall for his age already, and refused to acknowledge that he was too big to be held like this. He sniffled into Sansa' neck and clutched at her hair and sleeping shift, and she was at a loss on how to soothe him. Nothing she said calmed him, nor convinced him to let go of her, not even long enough for her to dress herself. Poor Jenna tried to take him away, and nearly got bitten on the finger for her trouble.

 

He wailed that Father was never coming home, and that he couldn't sleep because there were dead men in his dreams. Sansa didn't know what to say to that, because she had seen horrors in her dreams as well, nearly every night for weeks now. She could recall with disturbing clarity what the scorched battlefield looked like, with corpses being picked at by carrion birds, and towers burning in the distance.

 

While in the dream, she never noticed her father was missing, but upon waking, she remembered the sight of her mother walking all alone, and it seemed an ominous sign. Lord Stark never walked with the rest of her family along the bank of the river. He was never present when the wolves attacked. It was always Sandor who saved her from the shadows and the flames, not her father. His absence must mean something, and Rickon must have seen something in his dreams to make him think Father would never come home...but Sansa was too afraid to ask.

 

Last night, the dream had been more bloody than usual, and Sansa felt particularly bereft. Because of Sandor's foolish vanity, she was once again denied the familiar ending that she found so comforting. Apparently, that which comforted her offended her bond mate. He had some problem with the way Sansa saw him in their shared dreams, and saw fit to avoid her for weeks as a result. If his rejection hadn't been so painful, she would have simply laughed at him for it – he was being so ridiculous!

 

As she had every day since their quarrel weeks ago, Sansa had awoken that morning in pain, dulled only by long familiarity. It was a physical pain, a hollowness in her chest that made it hard to breathe. It was Sandor's disappointment and her own frustration twined together, and like every morning, Sansa wondered why he insisted on doing this to her, to both of them. On any other day, she would try to push the hollowness away with distractions. But this morning's distraction in the form of her weepy baby brother was not much of one; Rickon's nightmares only made her think of her own unpleasant dreams, and what they might mean.

 

Last night, she did not attack the lion alone, and fought alongside her entire pack for the first time. Recognizing the other direwolves in the dream was easy, and not only when she saw them through Lady's eyes. They were not anonymous beasts, she knew them like she knew her own name: they were the familiars of her siblings, even Ghost with his pure white fur and glowing red eyes. She knew Grey Wind in her dreams perhaps better than she knew her brother Robb in waking life, and the same was true for Summer, Shaggydog, and especially Nymeria. Arya and Nymeria were one in her dreams, and Sansa and Lady could communicate with them without any effort at all. It was like the bond she had with Sandor, but then again altogether different: it was as if she and Arya could speak to one another, but never had to use words.

 

With Rickon crying in her lap about lions and darkness and flayed men, Sansa couldn't help but wonder if her siblings had similar dreams. Did they see through the eyes of their direwolves? Did they dream of scorched battlefields and enemies hidden by shadow? Did they dream of their Father? Sansa hugged her brother tightly and shuddered at the thought. If the answer was yes, she wasn't sure she wanted to know what that meant.

 

~

 

Sansa could feel him coming. Although he had childishly been avoiding her for weeks, for some reason she was not surprised that he sought her out on this particular day. They had been torn from their shared dream as usual, when Sandor forced them both awake. But the aftermath felt different this morning, and she could feel some kind of change in him. Sansa couldn't say exactly what sort, but she knew she would soon find out. He was just a few moments away.

 

The door to her bedchamber stood open, and she and her baby brother sat bundled in the furs on her bed. Rickon began to sob brokenly again, and Lady and Shaggydog paced the length of room, as they had been for hours. The other direwolves howled in the distance, and Sansa tried not to think why all six of them seemed so anxious that morning.

 

As Sandor got closer, Sansa felt her frustration try to twist into something uglier, but she was determined to stay calm. She focused on the feel of her brother's soft auburn curls, and how the neckline of her sleeping shift was damp with his tears. She wouldn't row with Sandor in front of Rickon; her brother needed peace right now, and she would see that he received it.

 

She took a deep breath, and looked up at her open doorway the moment before Sandor filled it. Lady paused and spared him a look, too, and then resumed her pacing. Shaggydog snarled and scratched at the floor.

 

Sandor came inside her bedchamber, but didn't close the door. He stood at the foot of her bed, and locked eyes with her without saying a word. She was happy to see him, of course, but seeing him also tested the tight rein she had on her emotions. She did not want to have the same argument they had in the wolfswood all over again, but the anger and sadness she had suppressed for weeks was welling up inside her.

 

It occurred to her how strange their disagreement was...he was so angry because he thought her childish, yet he was the one acting a child. Sandor was supposedly several years older than she, but Sansa had only ever seen her younger siblings behave this way. With the exception of draining the cellars of wine, Sansa was sure she'd seen both Arya and Rickon throw the same sort of tantrum.

 

Rickon pouted that he was only allowed wooden swords in the practice yard (not the dulled steel that Robb and Jon practiced with), and Arya pouted that she wasn't allowed to learn swordplay at all. They were both insufferable about it, even though Rickon was simply too young and it simply wasn'tproper for a lady to sword fight, even though Arya was admittedly hardly a lady in any other manner.

 

Sandor was being similarly stubborn. He didn't like that he appeared as a knight in her dream. He didn't seem to realize that just because he disagreed with her, didn't mean she was wrong. The fact that he avoided her for weeks – to punish her, perhaps? – truly angered her. He knew how much it hurt her, and he did it anyway.

 

Rickon still wouldn't settle down, and snuffled and squirmed in Sansa's lap. She petted him and kissed his forehead, while she and Sandor simply stared at each other. It was quite a bit different from the first time they met, and they stared into each other's eyes without speaking. Instead of not knowing what to say, now there were rather too many words on the tip of Sansa's tongue, some of which she was sure to regret if she let them loose.

 

Just as her control was beginning to fray, Bran appeared in the doorway with his own pet at his heels. Suddenly the room became very crowded, with three massive direwolves all agitated and stressed. Rickon still clung to Sansa, but he had suddenly quieted, and looked at his brother with wide, wet blue eyes. Without warning, all three direwolves became unnaturally still, and simply stared at each other.

 

Bran's calm voice broke the uncomfortable silence. “Rickon, come. Leave Sansa and Sandor alone. We'll go down to the kitchens and get some honeyed milk, and let Summer and Shaggydog outside with the others.”

 

Bran extended his hand, and Rickon scrambled off Sansa's lap immediately, as if he hadn't just been clutching at her desperately for the last several hours. The other two direwolves followed them out of Sansa's bedchamber, but Lady remained, quiet and still. When the others left, she came up to Sandor and licked his hand, as was her habit. She seemed to calm down in the absence of her brothers.

 

Neither of them had yet spoken a word, and Sansa couldn't say how long they remained silent. Now that she didn't have her little brother to distract her, her thoughts darkened, and her mood along with it. Sansa loosened the hold on her anger. Instead of trying to be strong and hold back, she let it all to the forefront of her mind and let it overwhelm her. She wanted Sandor to feel all of it.

 

The hurt, fear and anxiety swirled together in an unpleasant stew. Why would her betrothed want to punish her? What did her violent and bloody dreams mean? What ill will could the boy king have against her father? So many emotions warred for dominance, but one easily won out: Sansa was angry with Sandor, and she willed him to feel it. Suddenly words came out of her mouth without any premeditation on her part, but she found as she heard herself, she didn't want to take them back.

 

“You lied to me, my lord.”

 

Sansa was surprised at how calm she sounded, because she certainly didn't feel calm, not anymore. Sandor clenched his teeth, and curled his hands into fists, but he didn't look away.

 

“I'm sorry I stayed away from you, little bird, but I've never lied to you, I know what I saw - ”

 

“You lied and said you never leave me. You swore to me you never would, and you lied.”

 

Sansa knew it was the worst thing she could say to him, and she didn't care. She wanted to punish him. Isn't that what he had done by staying away? Hadn't he been punishing them both? And all for nothing!

 

“I didn't leave you,” he growled. “You live in a fantasy world, little bird. That man that saves you every night, that's not me. This bond you think we have has let you come up with that pretty little lie; I know you think you care for me, but it's that white knight you love, not me.”

 

Sansa stared at him incredulously, and felt pure rage wash over her. She knew part of what she felt was Sandor's frustration feeding on her own, but she was powerless to stop the downward spiral. She could not believe that he was attempting to deny their soul bond!

 

“The bond 'I think we have'?” She lowered her voice in a mocking imitation of his own. “I've imagined it, have I? Well if this imaginary bond is the only reason I care for you, then I suppose your regard for me is also false. You must not care for me at all, my lord, I must have imagined it!”

 

Sansa roughly pushed the bed furs away from her, and got up to pace the length of the room. Lady followed her with her golden eyes, but remained still and strangely calm, given how upset Sansa had suddenly become.

 

“And what of the dreams we share, my lord? How is it we have the same dream every night when I have merely imagined our bond? I am only a 'silly little bird' so mayhaps you can also explain this to me: why would my fantasy world include bloody battlefields, and death, and fire? Why would I dream of missing my father, whywould I want that?”

 

Sandor had his eyes fixed on the far wall, but looked at her sharply when she spat out the word fire. Sansa knew that detail of their shared dream was from him; she didn't know how, she just knew. Now he watched her pace as well, with his arms crossed over his chest and a stormy look in his eyes. It was the same look he had when he first came to Winterfell, and was surly and suspicious of everyone. He was breathing heavily and scowling, but made no move to respond. Sansa could feel how her words wounded him, and she allowed herself a bit of vicious satisfaction. Good, she thought to herself furiously, I want him to hurt just as much as I do.

 

Sandor was behaving just like her little sister, stubborn and foolish, and so Sansa let her voice take on the proper lecturing tone she used when it was time to scold Arya for behaving like some crude wildling.

 

“You are being vain and childish, Sandor. Not liking the way I see you in our dream is no cause to behave the way you have these last few weeks.”

 

He glowered at her with bitterness in his dark gray eyes, but Sansa didn't back down. His scowl twisted his scars in a way that would likely frighten those who didn't know him. Sansa could tell he was trying to scare her. But she wasn't afraid of Sandor, she never had been.

 

“Calling me names, now, girl?” he sneered. “Not very courteous, are we, little bird?”

 

“Mayhaps I am finally learning something from you, my lord,” she sneered back, and didn't even feel bad about it. Septa Mordane would despair to hear her speak so discourteously, least of all to her future lord husband, but Sansa couldn't care. They now faced each other, from opposite sides of her bed.

 

“I am not cruel at least. You knew very well how I felt every day you avoided me, and you did it anyway. Tell me, how did that feel? Or were you too drunk to tell? No, don't tell me, because I already know: you were miserable the whole time! You yearned for me and despaired for hurting me and yet stayed away anyway because of your own stubbornness. I know because I FELT IT. I felt your despair as WELL as my own, and I know you did too! You can't deny it, Sandor, I know it to be true, whether you would admit it or not!”

 

Sansa was a little shocked at the intensity of her outburst, but just couldn't feel ashamed. Sandor merely stared at her in silence. He was surely just as shocked that she actually yelled at him, but he also had nothing to say; she knew it because she felt his mind go blank. He quickly turned and sat heavily on her bed, with his back to her and his head in his hands.

 

A long, uncomfortable silence passed. Lady settled herself by the fireplace and ignored them both. Sansa worked to catch her breath, and stared hard at Sandor's broad back. His shoulders were slumped and he looked so defeated. Guilt began to eat at her...partly at her petty triumph at provoking him, and partly nurtured by his own regret and self-contempt. Her anger began to drain away, and faded into a kind of dull sadness.

 

Sansa despaired for her bonded mate. Why did he hate himself so? Did not most men go to great lengths to appear better than they were? And yet Sandor insisted on the opposite. Her voice was quiet when she finally spoke again.

 

“Why are you so determined to diminish yourself? Why do you try to make me see you that way? Why would you want that?” Sansa was horrified to feel her throat close up and her eyes begin to sting. The last thing she wanted was to start crying like some silly little girl.

 

Sandor was still facing away from her, but he stiffened at the sound of tears in her voice. She felt his guilt deepen, and she suddenly couldn't stand to be apart from him another moment. Before she knew what she was doing, she was crawling on her hands and knees across her bed, and fell on him from behind. She wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders, and pressed her cheek into his back.

 

“You're so offended by my vision of you...but just because you disagree doesn't make it wrong...maybe I've got the right of it, and you're the one who's wrong...you're not the monster you want everyone think you are, Sandor.”

 

He snorted and shook his head, but wrapped both his huge hands around hers. Sansa sucked in a long breath – he hadn't touched her in weeks – and the sensation flooded her with a whole new set of emotions that threatened to drown her. His reply was sarcastic and rude, but he no longer sounded so angry.

 

“Right, I'm a bloody fucking hero like Barristan the Bold. If only I had known sooner, little bird! Maybe I wouldn't have gutted that man when I was twelve years old. Had I known I was so fucking gallant mayhaps I wouldn't have lost count how many men I've killed since then. Not wastrels and lowlifes, little bird, oh no. Lords, knights, women, children, all just meat for the Hound's sword. How's that for valor?”

 

Although his voice lacked venom, he was still trying to scare her. Trying to make her think him a monster. Sansa scowled, and whispered a scolding “stop that” into his ruined ear. She slid around him and climbed into his lap, and pulled on his chin to make him look her in the face. His dark gray eyes were sad, but not so angry anymore. He wrapped his big, warm arms around her, and just being so close to him helped Sansa calm down even more.

 

Foolish man, she thought to herself. He claimed he thought the bond was nonsense, but Sansa knew that wasn't true. She could feel it working between them even now. They could relieve each other's anxieties just as easily as they could provoke each other's anger.

 

She put both hands on his face, and rubbed at his cheeks, enjoying their contrasting texture, and enjoying how the sensation helped to calm him down. She could sense his foul mood lessen, and pictured it in her mind's eye as storm clouds being chased away.

 

“Truly you think me stupid as all that, Sandor? I know you are a soldier. I know you've seen and done terrible things. Think what you like, but your reputation as a fierce warrior is one of the reasons I love you.”

 

Sandor scowled in disbelief, but he didn't say anything. His mood must be improving if he had nothing nasty to say to that, she thought. Sansa could feel his skepticism, but he was curious, too.

 

“Do you know what I thought the first time I saw your face? I thought any man with such scars must be absolutely fearless.”

 

Predictably, Sandor scoffed and rolled his eyes, but Sansa wouldn't let him look away. She forced him to look back at her, and rubbed her thumbs along his chin...touching him skin-to-skin felt good to both of them, and Sansa didn't want to stop.

 

“I was afraid for you. I couldn't imagine what horrors the Lannisters must have forced you to endure, and I was furiously angry with your liege lord. Such disregard for your safety! I do not think kindly on such recklessness with my bonded mate.”

 

Sandor smirked, but Sansa knew his sardonic half-smile hid real amusement. She could feel it, and it warmed her heart.

 

“I think I'd like to see you take on Lord Tywin, little bird, that would be quite a sight. I doubt he's used to ladies with tongues as sharp as yours.” Sandor shook his head and tried to look away again, but Sansa wouldn't let him. His eyes darkened, and flickered with the faintest shadow of fear. He was reliving that moment that scarred his face and his heart so terribly.

 

“It wasn't Lord Tywin that burned me, little bird. And I was far from fearless that day, believe me.”

 

Sansa ran her hand over his ruined cheek, and then up into his dark hair. She didn't want to talk about Lord Tywin or anyone else who had done horrible things to Sandor, and he was reluctant to speak of it as well. She knew he'd tell her the story when he was ready.

 

They sat in comfortable silence for few moments, just looking at each other. They savored the simple pleasure of being near each other, after being apart for so long. Sansa gently stroked Sandor's hair, and ran her thumbs along his lower lip, curious about when he would kiss her again. His hands drifted from her waist to her hips, and then further down. She felt his rough hands on the bare skin of her thighs, and shivered, wondering if he had actually read her thoughts just then. For the first time, she realized that she wore nothing but her smallclothes and her sleeping shift, while she sat astride Sandor's lap on her bed.

 

The thought should have scandalized her, but her bedchamber door was open. They had been arguing for quite some time now, and it wasn't as if they had been quiet about it; the entire castle surely knew he was here with her. And what did it matter? They were betrothed to be married, they were bonded.

 

She leaned further into him, and whispered into his ear with her arms wrapped around his neck. She wanted to put this argument to rest for good.

 

“Sandor...please promise me you'll stop this. Should not every lady regard her husband as the best man she knows? I shall think of you however I please, and you shall be glad of it.”

 

She pulled away, just far enough to look him in the eye.

 

“Your attempt to make yourself a villain is the lie here, my lord. I won't let you do it, I won't believe it. You can't push me away, Sandor, it's too late, I'm already inside you.” She clutched at his tunic and pressed her fist into his chest, right over his heart. “We are bonded. I know you can feel it. You can feel how I worry for you, how I long for you, how much I need you near me.”

 

Sandor's hands continued to caress her thighs and her hips, and his rough, calloused hands on her bare skin made Sansa feel flushed and suddenly tense. She pushed herself closer to him, and whispered into his ruined ear again.

 

“I can feel your need, too Sandor. I know how you dream of me at night. I know how much you want me.”

 

Sandor's hands tightened on her flesh in response, and it made her arch her back and press her breasts against his chest. Sandor groaned and dropped his head onto her shoulder, burying his face in her tangled hair, still messy from sleep. She felt shame and guilt and an overwhelming need from him, and Sansa felt it was high time for their fourth kiss.

 

She nudged at him by placing tiny kisses on his neck, starting underneath his mutilated ear and slowly making her way along the twisted flesh of his scarred jaw, until finally her mouth met his. When they finally kissed, it was slow and deep, and even better than what Sansa remembered, from either of their dreams. Sandor's big hands clutched at her hips and pulled her flush against him. She felt him, hard and hot against her belly, and reveled in how much he wanted her.

 

She knew what to do next, because she had seen it in his dreams. She buried one hand in his hair, and let the other slide down his chest between them while they kissed. Her hand reached his belly, and she felt his muscles jump underneath her fingertips, and suddenly her wrist was wrapped in the iron grip of Sandor's hand.

 

Sansa barely stopped kissing him, but rather whispered right into his mouth. “Am I not doing it right, Sandor? I thought this is what you wanted, this is what I do in your dreams, isn't it?”

 

Sandor turned his head, and hid his face in her hair, growling out his words through clenched teeth - “Stop that, little bird, it's not right. I never – I didn't want you – fuck.”

 

He took a deep breath and released her wrist, starting again. “I hoped you hadn't seen those dreams, girl, that's not - ”

 

“Sandor, look at me.” Sansa raised his head from where it was buried in her neck, and looked him in the eye. “We are soul bonded and betrothed. There are things we must wait to do of course, but you are allowed to touch me. I am to be your wife! I can touch you too, just show me how...”

 

And in the next instant, he was kissing her again, and Sansa felt herself relax completely and slip into mindless bliss for the first time in weeks. Sandor relaxed too, and Sansa knew the vague guilt he felt for wanting her was overwhelmed by lust, and by something deeper, too.

 

Just like she saw in his dreams, Sandor's mouth fell away from her lips to suck hard on that spot on her neck that captivated him so. She felt the rasp of his stubble on her skin there, and remembered she had a dream like this, too. But in her dream she was bundled up in furs and standing in the Godswood, not practically naked and sitting in Sandor's lap!

 

Soon, she felt Sandor's mouth and tongue move further down, and she knew what was coming next. His big, warm hands slid up her back and pulled her even closer to him, and he buried his face between her breasts with a quiet, desperate moan. His deep voice vibrated through her, and then Sandor was sucking on her teats, through the fine linen of her sleeping shift. Sansa lost all sense of herself, and her entire world was reduced to the completely new sensation of Sandor's mouth on her tender flesh.

 

It was the echo of Lady's growl in her bedchamber brought Sansa out of her stupor. Sandor froze, and hid his face in her hair again, squeezing her waist in that way that meant he was trying to keep his hands from wandering. Lady's golden eyes were fixed on the open doorway, and she scratched lightly at the stone floor, while a low growl rumbled from her throat.

 

“We have to stop this, little bird, or I'm going to fuck you right here with the door wide open and all of Winterfell to see.”

 

Sansa's cheeks flushed at his crude language, but she couldn't deny how it thrilled her, too. A fresh wave of heat flooded her body and settled between her legs, and it was confusing and terrifying, but exciting as well.

 

Sandor pushed her away slightly, but only far enough so he could look up into her face. Sansa felt a bit wanton, still sitting astride his lap and barely dressed, but she felt confident and calm as well. She could feel through the bond that Sandor was done doubting her.

 

“As much as I bloody well don't want to, I have to leave you now, little bird, before I do something truly fucking stupid. Your lord brother has summoned me before him today. I don't know about what, but before I tell him what I want, I have to know what you want.”

 

Sandor gently tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear, and stared into her blue eyes. She felt nothing but determination from him, and the purity of it made Sansa smile.

 

“What say you, little bird? Shall I have your brother cast me back into the pit of King's Landing? Or would you have me as yours, stubborn and foolish and scarred, and disbelieving in your greenseeing and your strange Northern tree-gods?”

 

Sansa smiled, and knew that despite his teasing words, he wanted to stay. He wanted to stay in Winterfell as desperately as she needed him to stay.

 

“You know what I want, Sandor, can't you feel it?” Sansa pressed herself against his chest, and kissed him again.

Chapter Text

More than anything, Robb wished he could slip into the skin of his direwolf, and wander away from this madness. He wanted to feel the crisp cold of snow under his paws, the burn in his muscles from a flat out run through the godswood, and he longed especially for that delirious moment of the first scent of prey.

 

He envied Grey Wind more and more of late. He knew it was childish and indulgent; he had real responsibilities now and no time for day dreaming. Father was dead, and Winterfell's allies, his own uncle's people, were suffering in the riverlands.

 

Robb recalled a few moons past, when his father had first been arrested. Approaching the Great Hall, knowing he was to face his father's bannermen, and act as their liege lord for the first time, unnerved him like nothing he'd ever known. The men and women in that hall had been to war . They were ten, twenty, even thirty years his senior. They knew him as nothing more than a babe at his lady mother's breast. How could he command them?

 

He was sure nothing would ever be as daunting as that first meeting. But he was wrong. He would rather face the Greatjon's steel and Maege Mormont's mocking japes that he could be her grandson a thousand times over. This was much worse: those men and women now looked to him as their king .

 

What madness had overcome his lords to declare him King in the North, Robb could not divine. He understood the outrage at Lannister treason, and of course the rage at his father's murder. But was tearing the realm apart the answer? The King Who Knelt was a Stark, same as Robb and hundreds of Lord Starks before him. That king knelt to a Targaryen, the first in a line that his father fought to end. Where should Robb's loyalties lie? Should he have protested when they declared him King in the North? Would Father have let his men force a crown on his head?

 

Robb felt the anger stir inside him, and struggled to suppress it. Although the anger was easier to manage than the grief, it was much more dangerous. Every time Robb thought of his father's death, the struggle would begin anew. If he let himself dwell upon it, Robb knew he could easily let himself give in to either despair or destructive fury, and be worse than useless to his family – and to his kingdom .

 

In response to his distress, Grey Wind stirred beside him, but none at the table realized how his thoughts had wandered. Robb buried his hand into the fur of his direwolf's neck. The roughness and the warmth against his skin calmed him. He knew not what Father would have done if faced with a crown, but Ned Stark would never let anger or fear induce him to act rashly. If he was to do his duty by the North and her people, then Robb knew he must learn to keep his head.

 

Robb witnessed arguments barely veiled as discussion all around him. The talk amongst the lords and ladies swung wildly from politics to battle tactics to angry swears of vengeance. He watched each debate unfold, and listened carefully to each point of view. Father often said no man learned by talking, nor were private thoughts revealed by listening.

 

Some debated whether to announce support for Stannis. Others felt engaging Lannister forces in the riverlands, thus making Stannis' inevitable attack on King's Landing easier, was favor enough to the Baratheons...that the independent North owed nothing to the Iron Throne.

 

The last was bellowed by the Greatjon, and was met with hearty agreement around the table. It made Robb wonder what his father would think, had he known about Arya's bonded mate. Given Lannister incest and treason, Stannis Baratheon was Robert's rightful heir, not the blonde abomination who now styled himself King. Robb knew his father would have supported Stannis' claim. But with this new information, the matter was not quite so clear. If only Robb could speak with his father one more time!

 

Robb was drawn from his musings by a low growl from Lady. She and Ghost had huddled together between Sandor and Jon's chairs, and lay patiently at their feet during the long council meeting. It was strange...the direwolves generally had no interest in any person but their masters. But of late, Lady could be seen at Sandor's side just as often as Sansa's.

 

Suddenly, Lady was on her feet, and had fixed her golden eyes on Roose Bolton. Her surprisingly deep snarl was a bit startling; she rarely showed any aggression. At the first hint of the noise, Robb felt Grey Wind tense beside him, and saw his direwolf look up and lock eyes on his pack sister. Ghost didn't move from Jon's feet, but his red eyes were fixed on Lady as well.

 

Sandor's rasping, mocking laugh was nearly as low as Lady's growl.

 

“Easy girl, Lord Bolton here doesn't like me as much as you do.” Sandor smirked, and the motion made his scars twist alarmingly. “But I'm quite sure my fragile feelings will survive.”He dug his fingers into Lady's soft gray fur, petting her like a spoiled house cat.

 

The Greatjon roared in laughter, and many others joined in. “Looks like you have charmed the Lady direwolf as much as you have charmed the Lady Sansa, Clegane!” He held up the stubs of his fingers where Grey Wind had bitten him. “Would that we all had your charm with the direwolves!”

 

Although the others laughed, and whatever Lord Bolton had said was instantly forgotten, Robb was not amused. He exchanged a look with Jon, and it was obvious his brother could feel it as well as he – the wolves were still tense. Robb knew the direwolves were rarely agitated without reason, even if that reason was not readily obvious. He had learned to trust the instincts of his wolf, as well as his own wolfish instincts . Whatever had been said made Sandor laugh, but had clearly offended his adopted companion.

 

Lord Roose had been making snide remarks to Sandor almost since the moment they met. Robb could not fathom the cause for it. No man should look at Sandor Clegane and see a man to suffer insults, yet Bolton persisted.

 

The other bannermen were much more accepting, or at least as tolerant of Sandor as they were of each other. None seemed to seriously question his loyalty to the North and to House Stark. Their initial suspicions at a southerner in their midst were apparently appeased, once they found him lacking the affectations often associated with southron knights.

 

Although he never heard such from his father, Robb had learned from other northmen a vague prejudice that some southron knights were more proud than practical. The old gods had no call for knights, and the ceremony and such associated with the title was a pretension of the faith of the Seven. Such knights were supposedly more concerned with courtly intrigue and wearing the favors of ladies, than real warcraft.

 

But Sandor was nothing of that sort. He was extremely vocal in his disdain for knights and knighthood in general, and did not appear especially interested in worshiping the Seven. In that, he had much in common with many of the men who were camped in Winter Town, as well as the year-round residents of Winterfell.

 

He certainly looks like one of us , Robb mused to himself. Sandor had dark hair and gray eyes, like Father and Uncle Benjen, and wore his hair long and mostly unkempt, like most northmen, noble and smallfolk alike. Aside from being clean shaven (Robb imagined his burns prevented a beard from growing in properly), and quite a bit bigger than any man present save the Greatjon, Sandor looked as if he could have been born and bred in the North.

 

But Boltons have always been arrogant and ambitious, and Robb suspected Lord Roose's objection to Sandor had little to do with the man himself, and more that he was an outsider, and not from any House of great renown. What mattered to Robb was that Sandor was obviously devoted to his sister, and strong enough to defend her from any danger. What else could he hope for in a match for a woman under his protection?

 

Had there been no soul bond and it was up to Robb, he might have entertained matching Sansa with a northman like the Smalljon, or one of Lord Manderly's sons. Although they were a bit old, the city life of White Harbor would suit Sansa. Robb shuddered at the thought of his sweet sister at a place called the Dreadfort, and anywhere near a man with the reputation of Ramsay Snow.

 

The conversation had meandered back to tactics, and Robb put aside his uneasiness about restless direwolves to focus on the problem at hand. On one matter all his bannermen could agree: Lord Tywin was attempting to draw Robb, or at the very least a significant portion of Stark forces, out of Winterfell. Whether it was to leave the castle unguarded or to lure northern forces south of The Neck – perhaps both – it mattered not. Lord Tywin had set Gregor Clegane loose in the riverlands, in retaliation for Ned Stark's defiance and so-called treason. The farms and small holdfasts around the Trident were easy targets, and Lord Tywin knew Robb would rush to defend Riverrun and his uncle's people. And that was exactly what Robb was going to do, whether it proved to be a trap or not. What other choice did he have?

 

At the report of the atrocities the people of the riverlands were being subjected to at the hands of the Mountain that Rides, a few eyes strayed towards Sandor. Unsurprisingly, Lord Roose made a pointed comment, wondering about Sandor's willingness to be a kinslayer.

 

Sandor's voice was just as low in volume, but resembled more of a growl than a whisper. He looked directly at Robb. “Nothing would please me more than to present the Mountain's head to Your Grace.”

 

Theon laughed and Maege Mormont smiled grimly, but Lady Dustin looked scandalized, and the other bannermen were pretty well split down those two reactions. Lord Bolton, of course, showed no reaction.

 

Robb chose to ignore the comment itself, and instead accept the offer for what it was: loyalty.

 

“No doubt your familiarity with Lannister tactics will be much appreciated during our riverlands campaign. My thanks, brother.” Robb nodded at Sandor, and saw Lady settle her head on Sandor's knee, and felt Grey Wind relax beside him. The Greatjon smiled and Lord Karstark nodded approvingly.

 

The discussion turned again, this time to the future queen in the north. Some believed finding a wife for Robb was something that could wait until after the war was won. Others believed a strategic alliance now could help win the war. Others thought that talk of marriage was useless either way when there were battles to plan.

 

Still others wanted to stay out of “southron matters” completely, and wanted only to defend themselves from the relative safety of the north. They reasoned that Moat Cailin had guarded the north from enemies since the time of the First Men, why should it fail now, even though its three towers lay in ruin? But that opinion was not a popular one.

 

Lord Cerwyn and Lord Karstark felt a northern girl would be best, but Robb knew why those two were in sudden agreement: they both had daughters of the appropriate age. He doubted they would remain such staunch allies if he showed one of those girls favor over the other. Maege Mormont remained silent, although as Robb recalled she had at least two daughters or granddaughters near his age. Her lack of enthusiasm on the topic nearly made him smile.

 

Those without daughters or sisters to offer were debating the relative advantages of the daughters of great Houses. Robb heard the names Arianne Martell, Margaery Tyrell, and Shireen Baratheon, and thought there were good reasons for the North to be allied with any of those families.

 

Would Father have wanted another Stark - Baratheon match? Robb thought perhaps Stannis Baratheon might agree to peace if Robb agreed to marry his daughter, but not if Robb didn't support his claim to the Iron Throne. And how could he, knowing what he now knows about Arya's bond?

 

A dilemma, to be sure. And nothing he wanted to mention in front of his bannermen, not just yet. Robb had a notion to discuss this matter with family first. It was, after all, going to become a family matter, and not just in terms of who ended up as his queen.

 

The discussion at the table had turned towards the Tyrells, and how helpful their rumored large forces would be against Lannister armies in the riverlands. Now that Renly had been killed and the storm lords had declared for Stannis, the Tyrell forces had retreated to the Reach, though Highgarden had yet to declare for the Iron Throne. More than a few of Robb's bannermen saw this as an opportunity, and urged immediate overtures be made.

 

But Arianne Martell was an interesting option, as well. Sunspear had no love for Casterly Rock, it was well known. Considering the long history between House Martell and the Targaryen dynasty, taking a Martell wife might go a long way to mending relations between the North and far South, as well as gain powerful allies in that region against the Lannisters. There was much to think about on this front, but sadly not much time to think.

 

~

 

The council finally ended after what seemed an eternity. The most important wisdom Robb gained that day, was to realize the amount of talking done had no relation to the number of decisions made. There were dozens of matters that needed his immediate attention, but he felt he couldn't proceed without addressing his sisters' betrothals. Many of his lords claimed strategic marriage was a valid and time-honored war tactic. While he agreed, he couldn't help but hope his sisters' marriages – if not his own – could be more than that.

 

At a signal from him, Jon and Sandor followed him from the Great Hall to his solar. Winterfell was full to bursting with the northern army and all that accompanied them, but the crowds parted easily to let the three of them pass, giving the direwolves an especially wide berth. Grey Wind walked by Robb's side, but Ghost and Lady trailed behind the three men, as if to guard their rear.

 

Robb remembered his first private meeting with Sandor. It was two moons ago, when all this madness began. He had read his father's last letter to him and the royal announcement of his arrest on the same day. Nearly consumed with indignant anger, Robb was ready to cast Sandor Clegane out of Winterfell immediately, cursing him as an ally of the bastard boy king. But his lady mother encouraged caution, and urged him to speak with Sandor first. She shared Father's unshakable faith in the soul bond.

 

Robb knew Sansa and Sandor's connection was real enough, but did love translate to fealty? He had seen them together with his own eyes, and knew there was something unique between them, something that was valuable in a way that Robb couldn't really explain. In truth, he felt a bit of envy at times, observing their bond. But he still needed to know whether Sandor's obvious devotion to Sansa extended to the Stark family, to Winterfell, and to the North.

 

“My lord,” the man had rasped in reply to Robb's challenge. “'Tis true my grandfather was raised to lordship for his service to House Lannister. And you can be sure my brother is Lord Tywin's most favored pet. But I have never sworn any oaths nor vows to anyone. I mean to stay in the north now that I'm here. You want me to prove my fealty to House Stark? I'll do so gladly. But I'll not swear anything to anybody.”

 

But when Robb asked about his wedding vows, Sandor Clegane had managed to look even grimmer than usual, and conceded that the only vow he'd ever make was to Sansa on the day they married. Robb couldn't find it in himself to be disappointed with that declaration.

 

Now Robb sat in his father's solar, sitting across from Jon Snow and Sandor Clegane. He knew there were at least a half dozen men in Winterfell, at that very moment, who felt neither Snow nor Clegane had any right to such a private audience. But Robb was resolved: he meant to share what he learned from Jojen Reed with his family only , at least for now, and these men were his brothers, no matter what anyone said.

 

He told them as much, and if either man were particularly pleased at being so considered, neither of them showed it. They both looked at Robb with their solemn gray eyes and agreed to do whatever was asked of them, and to keep silent about it all.

 

“Jon...in tomorrow's council I will announce that you and Arya and a company of men will travel to the Eyrie to appeal to my Aunt Lysa to join her forces with ours, in defense of Riverrun and her brother's people.”

 

“I...of course.” Jon nodded, even as he furrowed his brow in disagreement. “Though I doubt I'm the best man for such an appeal. I can't see how your mother's sister would truly welcome me for any purpose. I'm sure she would love to meet her niece, but would not it make more sense to send your lady mother on such an errand? Surely hearing from her own sister would be more compelling?”

 

Robb nodded. “It would make more sense. But I only said that is what I shall tell the council. In truth I have another mission for you entirely. And you are by far the best person – perhaps the only person – to accompany Arya on that errand.”

 

His baby sister had flowered, just as the bannermen had begun arriving at Winterfell. When the Reeds came, Lord Jojen offered to speak to Wintefell's heart tree on Arya's behalf, as he had done for Sansa more than a year ago, in order to discover the name of her soul bonded mate. The result of the greenseeing had been alarming indeed. Even Lord Jojen had been surprised.

 

Robb had no idea what he had expected, but hearing the name of the man his baby sister was bound to had been a terrible shock. He knew instinctively this information needed to be protected, as the full implications of such a betrothal was...difficult to imagine. Sansa's bonded mate had been announced to the household, and when Robb's father sent a company of men to King's Landing to collect Sandor Clegane, it had been the main topic of conversation at Winterfell for weeks, among nobles and smallfolk alike. Robb couldn't afford to be so open with the news of Arya's mate, not at first.

 

When he told Jon and Sandor the man's name, they were both appropriately astonished, as well as struck speechless for more than a few moments. Jon's eyebrows shot into his hairline, and Sandor growled that the Red Keep “sure as hell won't see that coming.”

 

“I know my father publicly supported Stannis' claim to the Iron Throne, but I trust you both see why I can't do that now.”

 

They both agreed, and that Robb was right to keep this information within the family for now.

 

Jojen said that Arya's bond with the man would be strong enough to lead her to him, that she merely had to want to find him. He said the soul bond naturally compelled each person to seek out the other. He said his father, Lord Howland Reed, had told him the same had happened with Lyanna Stark. Jojen told Robb that Jon should accompany Arya on the mission for a different reason, but Robb wanted Jon to hear that from Jojen himself. It was news too important to hear second-hand.

 

“When Arya will marry, I can't say; but I'll not leave Winterfell before I see my other sister wed. Sandor, you and Sansa will marry as soon as it can be arranged. It must happen before we leave for the riverlands campaign. Jon and Arya, as well as the first of my forces, will be sent south as soon as the celebrating concludes.”

 

They both looked surprised at Robb's desire to rush things along, but neither man protested.

 

“I need you to stay at Winterfell, Sandor. Jon will be away and all our best men will be at my side. I'll not leave my mother and sister and little brothers with naught but the master-at-arms to protect them.”

 

Robb wondered if Sandor would resist this, but he readily agreed. Robb was glad of it...he knew Ser Rodrick was an experienced knight and quite capable of commanding the 300 men he would leave behind to guard Winterfell. But he wasn't The Hound.

 

~

 

The three men parted ways, Sandor off to collect Sansa from her afternoon lessons, and Jon to seek out Jojen Reed. He and Grey Wind headed towards the godswood. Robb hoped the solitude and the proximity to the heart tree would grant him the same peace it often offered to his father.

 

Grief, anger, warcraft, wedding plans...Robb's head spun with conflicting emotions and pressing duties. It was a wonder he hadn't gone completely mad.

 

As he settled himself by the heart tree, Robb's thoughts turned to his own betrothal. It was not something he could put off. Marrying a northern girl would certainly be popular with certain factions, although some were bound to take offense, as only one daughter or sister could be the new queen in the north.

 

But open war was upon them, or would be soon enough. Robb knew he needed any advantage he could get. Why shouldn't he arrange a match with a southern bride? His father had done the same, hadn't he? And that match was what allied Winterfell now with Riverrun and the Vale, for better or worse. If he was to remain King in the North, and keep northerners safe, mayhaps alliances even further south would have to be made.

 

Robb began composing messages in his head, and made plans to have them on their way first thing on the morrow. An envoy, with a small company of men , he thought; this news was too important to be handled by ravens. Potential allies must be aware of the upcoming alliance that was to be made by Arya's betrothal. Robb was sure at least some great House would be swayed by the news, and would be glad to offer their daughter as his bride. He only hoped that one day, whoever she was, she would regard him with the same affection and care that his mother had for his father.

 

Robb gazed at the face carved into Winterfell's heart tree, and remembered how it used to scare him as a boy. Now he found it strangely comforting. Its melancholy face reminded him of the dreams he had been having of late. He wondered if his siblings had the wolf dreams...if they dreamed of the war he knew was coming, of bloody battlefields, and corpses rotting in the shadow of dark towers.

 

Sometimes he saw a girl with dark hair in his dreams, and wondered if she was the woman he was going to marry. He had no special reason to think that, except for how seeing her made him feel in the dream. She was a beautiful girl, with long curls and dark eyes. He could never recall her face when he awoke, but what did it matter? He knew not what any of the daughters and sisters of potential allies looked like, anyway.

 

His other dreams were equally elusive in their meanings. He dreamed of his little sisters, standing at the gates of Winterfell. They were tiny little things, so young. They smiled and waved at him, and wore cloaks of white and gray, that turned to black while he watched. A fierce blizzard raged around them, but the drifts of snow and violent winds didn't seem to bother them. The walls of Winterfell loomed behind them, tall and dark and imposing, and covered in twisting vines that Robb knew were not there in waking life. At first they seemed threatening, but then bloomed into white and blue roses. Sansa picked the flowers and made them into a crown, and then presented it to her sister with a smile.

 

He dreamed of a huge pack of wolves defending a trio of towers from a horde of soldiers. They were ordinary wolves, not direwolves, but Robb somehow knew they were his wolves. He never recognized the towers, there was nothing like them at Winterfell, but he always woke from that dream with a strange desperation. It seemed of vital importance that he figure out what that particular dream meant, but how? The fact that a war was upon them was obvious. But what of those particular towers? Why should they matter?

 

But divining meaning from his dreams had to wait. Robb knew there was something even more important for him to do: it was high time he had a conversation with Arya.

 

Chapter Text

***

SANSA

 

Sansa sat in her bedchamber and stared in silent awe at the beautiful gift. Lord Wyman Manderly had sent it for her wedding, and also as a lavish sign of White Harbor's allegiance to House Stark.

His younger son, Lord Wendel, had arrived swiftly when Robb called the banners, and had been at Winterfell for weeks already with a large retinue of knights and retainers. Lord Wylis, the heir, would meet the northern army at Moat Cailin with a massive force of mounted men and foot soldiers. But Lord Wyman himself had remained at White Harbor. One of Father's last commands for him – as written on the eve of his arrest and delivered by Jory Cassel – was to strengthen the city's defenses. Lord Wyman was redoubling his efforts to do so, and such a task was the only reason he was not present himself to swear fealty to the King in the North. The Manderlys had ever been proud of their loyalty to Ned Stark, and now made it very clear that loyalty was Robb's as well.

Thinking of her father made Sansa's eyes sting, and her throat tighten. Outrage and sadness would sweep over her in turns, whenever she thought of him and his horrifying fate. Her grief was compounded by her family's, as well as Sandor's frustration at being unable to console her. Even the direwolves seemed to mourn for Lord Eddard. But Sansa knew she couldn't let grief – nor anger – consume her.

Septa Mordane said such behavior was unbecoming of a princess, but that thought just made Sansa more angry. She thought bitterly of how she would have longed for such a title in the past...but never at such a cost! If it meant her father would come home from King's Landing, Sansa would sooner be a milk maid than a princess.

Sansa worked to rein in her grief and anger not for propriety's sake, but because dwelling on it made her so miserable, and feel so powerless. Despair did nothing to ease the pain of her father's absence. Unbridled fury would not bring him home. If she allowed it, the misery would hold sway over her dreams as well, lurking in the shadows of her mind, like some horrid little beast from one of Old Nan's stories. She devoted herself to countless tasks around the castle to keep the sorrow and bitterness at bay, but in her heart, she feared only justice would chase them away for good.

Sansa focused on today's task, completing the embroidery on her maiden's cloak. Her wedding to Sandor would happen as soon as possible, Robb had ordered it so, and Lord Manderly's gift would be the perfect finishing touch. It was a beautifully carved box, made of dark wood polished to a glossy shine. The merman of House Manderly was inlaid into the lid in mother-of-pearl and some blue-green stone Sansa had never seen before. The box was lined in black velvet, and was full to bursting with perfect, luminous pearls, ranging in color from white to steel gray. Some were even pink! She used the darkest gray and the purest white pearls to embellish the snarling direwolf that adorned the back of her maiden's cloak.

As Sansa worked on her needlework, Arya practiced her own variety of Needle work. Sansa couldn't imagine there was any other highborn girl in Westeros who had been gifted with a sword on the occasion of her flowering, but that is precisely what happened to her sister. Jon at least had the sense to be discreet about his gift, but Arya had excitedly shown everyone she saw, without any thought for decorum, as usual.

Mother was certainly not pleased, but she put up only a token protest, because of course Arya always got her way. Everyone who saw it only marveled at Mikken's excellent work, and mentioned nothing of the ridiculous notion of a highborn maiden of four-and-ten with a sword. Even Sandor laughed, and said the little sword suited Arya well. Robb only said she needed to be trained to use it properly. Lady Dacey readily volunteered, and ever since Arya had been completely insufferable. Naturally, she found lessons in swordcraft more thrilling than the fact that she would one day be queen.

“Doesn't that ever get old for you?” Sansa asked mildly, knowing the answer and yet unable to resist asking. Swinging a sword at nobody just seemed so dull. With the long practice of a spoiled little sister, Arya completely ignored Sansa's question.

“Dacey says it's a good thing I'm so small, in truth. That men often put too much stock in strength and not enough in speed. With practice, I'm like to be faster even than boys my size.”

Arya bounded up onto the chest at the foot of Sansa's bed, and rained blows down onto imaginary opponents.

“What if after I get married they won't let me practice anymore? What if they take away my Needle because it's not proper or some other rubbish?”

Sansa laughed. As if getting married would change the fact that Arya always got her way. “I imagine being Queen of all Westeros will mean that you can do any type of needle work you like, whenever you like. Who will tell you you can't?”

“I suppose.” Arya shrugged. “I still don't know if I like the idea of having to get married. You're the oldest, it should be your duty, not mine.”

Sansa rolled her eyes. “It is a duty for both of us, Arya. You've always known you'd have to get married one day, that you would have a bonded mate named for you. Why would – ”

“Yes but this is different! I never thought I'd have to leave home, leave the north! I don't want to leave, Sansa! Look what happens to Starks when they go south!” Arya had jumped off the chest and went to the window. She stood perfectly still for a moment, looking across the courtyard to the gate that led to the godswood. Sansa sighed, knowing her sister was thinking of their Aunt Lyanna, and what happened when she left the north in pursuit of her bonded mate.

Sansa put down her cloak and carefully closed the box of pearls from White Harbor. She went over to her sister and wrapped her arms around her, even as she stood there limp, with her sword dragging on the stone floor. “Firstly, all maidens have to leave their homes when they get married. Mother did the same when she came to Winterfell after marrying father, did she not? And secondly: no matter what anyone says, you are not Lyanna Stark. You are your own person and you will make your own fate,” Sansa whispered in her ear. Father had always said Arya was just like Aunt Lyanna, that they both had the “wolf blood.” As more guests arrived at Winterfell, the same comment was heard nearly daily from some retainer or other who was old enough to remember their aunt. Once news spread that Arya was to be betrothed to a lost Targaryen prince, well. The truth would have to come out about Lyanna's bonded mate, and the parallel would be quite difficult to ignore.

She pulled away, but left her hands on Arya's shoulders, preventing her from twisting away from her. Arya's eyes were serious and gray, and it hurt so much to look into them this way because they were Father's eyes, too.

“The soul bond is...it's ours, Arya, our birthright. It is for maidens of the Stark line only. Do you realize how special that is? It is a connection to our ancestors, a unique gift from the old gods. No one else in Westeros can boast of such a thing!”

Arya scoffed, but didn't pull away. “A gift!? A gift that made Lyanna run away from home! It led to that foolish, pointless rebellion, to our grandfather committing treason, to his and Uncle Brandon's deaths! Now those wicked Lannisters are in power and they killed our father! How is that a gift!”

Sansa locked eyes with her sister, and felt the tight rein on her anger slip away. She felt something well up inside her, simmering and bubbling like stew in a pot. It was an aching, desperate need for vengeance, and she knew her sister felt it, too. Sansa hoped the old gods and the new cursed the Lannisters as lying, treasonous murderers. She knew it was their treachery that would make her nightmarish dreams come true; they send the shadows after her family, and they fill those battlefields with rotting corpses. But Sansa took comfort in her family's words. Winter was coming, but only those of the North were ever prepared to greet it. Only she and her siblings knew how those nightmarish dreams ended.

Sansa smiled gently at her sister. “I know you're afraid of going south, of what happened to the others...but you know as well as I it will be different this time. I had the lion dream again last night. It is the same, every time. We are victorious, every time.”

Arya smiled mirthlessly. “Our wolves tear out the throats of those lions.”

Sansa nodded, “...and the fires never harm them. The shadows never come near them; the crows feast on the dead men and never touch us.”

Arya's eyes went dark, and Sansa knew she was recalling her own dreams. They featured the same images of war and their wolf pack that Sansa saw; but in Arya's dreams, there were dragons, too.

“I had a new one last night. Nymeria was leading a pack of wolves on a hunt. She was...well, she was me, but not really, you know...” And Sansa did know. It was difficult to explain to anyone who hadn't experienced it, but Sansa knew what Arya spoke of, even if she didn't completely understand how it happened. “...she was leading a massive pack of ordinary wolves on a hunt, at a furious pace. The smaller wolves were mad with bloodlust, but I couldn't tell what we were hunting. Bran says he's seen the same with Summer. He has other dreams too, ones he won't tell me about.”

Sansa nodded, returning to her seat and her embroidery. Arya had abandoned her swordplay for the moment, and sat across from her, near the window. War was nearly upon them, and plagued all of their dreams every night. Even poor little Rickon saw flayed men and rotting corpses in his dreams; none of them were safe from that sort of horror. Despite the gruesome and foul nature of their dreams, Sansa can't help but think they mean something good for her family, for Winterfell, and for the North. In all the dreams, the wolves always prevail.

Sansa let that thought calm her, and turned her attention back to her work. She let herself get lost in the meditative state of meticulous needlework, and let the images of war and the yearn for vengeance fade away.

“Although I believe the dreams mean good things for us, we don't need them to know the truth...as soon as the rest of Westeros learns that the King in the North is allied with the true King on the Iron Throne, the Lannisters won't stand a chance!”

Arya eyed her curiously, no doubt wondering at Sansa's suddenly wide smile. “Imagine! The princess in the north, betrothed to the lost prince in the south...reuniting a war-torn land with true love, as ordained by the old gods!”

Arya rolled her eyes, but she was smiling now, too. “You would turn this whole mess into one of your silly songs!”

Sansa laughed, suddenly merry at the notion of her sister's marriage as a famous tale told years from now. “It will be a song! The singers will write epics about the wolf maid and the dragon prince being destined for each other, about the old gods bringing Aegon back from the dead, to vanquish the Lannisters and their false king with his fierce wolf bride by his side! All you need is a few real live dragons and you'll be just like Aegon the Conqueror and Visenya reborn!”

“I don't need a dragon, I have Nymeria!” Arya laughed, and the sound was such a delight to Sansa's ears. She couldn't recall another time when she and her sister laughed together so freely, especially recently. Sansa realized that after Arya and Jon left to find Aegon, she might not see her sister until the war was over. Arya would be living in King's Landing. But surely the queen would welcome a visit form her sister on occasion? Sansa smiled at the thought...her sister, the Queen of Westeros!

“Have you dreamt of him? Surely your dreams can't all be awful? Do you see your future with him, have you dreamt of his face or felt his emotions? I can't imagine what it must be like to grow up in exile, knowing someone else sits upon your rightful throne.”

Arya shook her head, but smiled a little secret smile that made Sansa wonder what she was hiding. “I have all sorts of dreams...some I'm not sure are mine. I dream of places I know I've never been, but somehow in the dreams they are familiar to me.”

Arya's gray eyes strayed out the window again, towards the godswood. “Nearly every night now, I dream of a massive black castle. Sometimes I see it from afar, sometimes I'm inside the castle and looking out onto a gray, stormy sea. It's always at night, and the air is thick with fog or smoke or something. When I see it from afar, there are enormous winged beasts twined around its towers, but I'm not afraid of them. They're beautiful to me, a comfort.” Sansa stared in wonder. She never dreamt of anything so interesting. All her dreams that weren't of kissing Sandor were of burning battlefields and stalking a lion.

“There's another castle, in another dream...but that one is all red. The red castle is surrounded in flames, but it never burns down. It's the strangest thing, as the fire isn't...you know, like fire. It's green.”

Sansa was about to ask more about the flaming castle (she dreamt of burning towers as well), when she realized that once again, Arya ignored her true question. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, recalling the first dream she had about Sandor, and how she awoke feeling anxious and mortified at its...intensity. She wondered if her sister has had that sort of dream yet.

“Hmm. Yes, but do you dream about Aegon? Have you...felt his presence? Do you...imagine yourself with him? Intimately?”

Arya looked up at her sharply, with a curious look in her her eyes that Sansa couldn't identify, and the faintest pink staining her cheeks. “I...I can't recall his face when I wake. Of course I don't know what he looks like, do I? But yes, he's there. He's tall, and I suppose in the dream I think he's handsome, especially his eyes. He wears a long black sword at his hip. He is dressed in black, but still, it seems there is so much color around him too, I can't explain it.”

Sansa smiled. “Once, I dreamt that Sandor and I were walking in the godswood. He kissed me on my neck, just here.” Sansa pointed to the spot on her neck that fascinated Sandor so, and Arya's eyes widened. She touched the same spot on her own neck, and Sansa could see her pulse fluttering wildly there.

“It felt like nothing I'd ever known. I burned from the inside, my legs got weak and it felt as if I couldn't see or hear or feel anything but his lips and his strong hands on me. And that was before I even knew what kissing him like that was really like!”

Arya's blush deepened, and the berry stain on her cheeks only made her eyes look brighter. She has no notion of her own beauty, Sansa thought. But it confirmed what Sansa suspected...Arya had indeed had...similar dreams about her bonded mate, even if she was too shy to share them.

“I – I haven't – there hasn't been any kissing that I remember,” Arya stuttered, and Sansa absolutely did not believe her, “but he – he gives me things. A crown of white flowers, once. And a beautiful black sword. Smaller than his, but broader than Needle.”

Sansa's laughs could not be contained. She couldn't help but be amused that even in her dreams, Arya's most perfect gesture was a gift of weaponry. She said as much to her sister, but with a smile, not at all mocking. It truly couldn't be more fitting! Arya scowled anyway, but Sansa knew she wasn't really angry.

“At any rate I already have a sword, don't I? And I'll run him through with it, if he tries to make me do your type of needlework instead of mine, handsome or not!”

Sansa hadn't laughed this much in weeks, and her sides ached from the effort of it. It was the sweetest feeling. “Arya, I know he will want you only exactly as you are; he will no doubt love that you already have a sword, and gift you with a whole armory if you like!”

Some lords employed singers to entertain their wives, and jewelers and dressmakers to flatter them with beautiful things. Sansa had no doubt Arya's future husband would find her a blacksmith instead, the better to amuse her with shiny, sharp, deadly things whenever she pleased. “You needn't fear that, Arya. Your soul bond means that he'll know your wants and needs as well as his own. He won't try to change you, he won't ever want anything but your happiness.”

Arya nodded absently, still staring out the window with a faint smile, the blush on her cheeks slowly fading away. No doubt she was recalling one of her dreams she was reluctant to speak of out loud. Sansa turned her attention back to her embroidery. Sewing on the pearls was careful work; they were so tiny, and Sansa wanted it to look perfect.

“And anyway it is your duty. Marriage contracts are a duty for all of us, but you and I at least are lucky! We are guaranteed our matches will be well suited. Robb must marry purely for strategic profit, and Jon as well, especially now. When the time comes, perhaps Bran and Rickon will have to as well. Unless they join some order or other, like your Kingsguard or the Night's Watch.”

Arya seemed to snap out of her trance, and took up her sword again. But she only examined the blade, and didn't start up swinging it about madly as she had done before. “Jon was going to take the black, you know. Before...before Robb called the banners. Before Jojen told him about his real father.”

“Well it's a good thing he didn't! I don't fancy you wandering about Westeros without a chaperone,” at this, Sansa studiously ignored Arya's frown – “and now he will at least get to meet his real brother. Jon has always wanted a family, you know.”

Arya rolled her eyes again, and replaced Needle in its scabbard. “We are still Jon's family, Sansa, and I don't care what anyone says, he is still our brother!”

Sansa just smiled at her sister's mutinous tone. “You are welcome to consider him as such, because he will be your good brother soon enough, as well as your cousin!”

As Sansa continued her careful embroidery, she couldn't help but wonder if the old gods had some grand design in mind for House Stark. Why else would Stark and Targaryen be bound together for two generations in a row, if not for some specific purpose? Why would she, Ned Stark's eldest daughter, be bound to a fierce warrior of the Westerlands on the eve of battle with the Warden of the West? There must be some grand plan, even if she herself couldn't see it. Perhaps the gods never meant for anyone to understand, merely to heed their guidance and remember always that winter was coming.

“Let's see your work, then. Are you nearly finished? How you don't go blind with those tiny beads I'll never understand.”

Sansa looked up in shock, being unable to recall Arya showing even the slightest bit of interest in embroidery before, except to mock it (she still remembered her first attempt at the Clegane sigil with some measure of shame). But Arya leaned over the arm of her chair, admiring the thread of silver and panels of silk and velvet that formed the body of the direwolf.

No other bit of sewing had ever been quite this important or this intricate. Even the work Sansa had already done on her wedding dress was not this fine. That dress would be ruined during the bedding, but this cloak was much more significant. The one her father draped over her mother's shoulders was hastily made of wool and leather, and was lost in some dusty store-room at Riverrun. But this cloak would be a family heirloom, worn by Stark maidens for generations to come, or at least that was Sansa's hope. It would be worn by Robb's daughters and granddaughters, maidens that would marry in front of the heart tree. The same tree that had seen the face of every Stark since the ancient kings of winter, since the children of the forest carved it's face.

Arya examined the pearls that formed the direwolf's teeth, and swept her hand down the velvet background. She fingered the fine gray fox fur that trimmed its hem, and looked up at Sansa with eyes that were suddenly shy. “I want to do it here, in Winterfell. I don't care if he's the king and wants a royal wedding, I want to marry before the heart tree, and I want to wear your cloak. Will they let me? Will you let me?”

Sansa laughed again and embraced her sister fiercely. Nothing would make her happier than for Arya to wear her cloak. It wasn't as if she would make her own! She felt her eyes sting with happy tears, and recalled how this moment was just like her dream where she gifted Arya with a crown of snow stars. This would be a much more meaningful gift.

 

~