When the letter came from the Dragon Queen herself, Sansa tried to hide her excitement. You are no longer that girl, the one who wanted to live a song, the one who believed in true knights and hoped to be crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at a tourney, she reminded herself. But in the end she couldn't help it. Westeros had not seen a tournament like this since before Robert's Rebellion - in more ways than one.
She was Lady of Winterfell now. Bran had never returned from beyond the Wall. His choice, he said, to stay with the Children of the Forest. Rickon would be Lord of Winterfell one day, but at the moment he was too young and almost barbaric, having been raised by a direwolf and a wildling.
This meant that she got to decide whether they would attend this upcoming tournament at Harrenhall...and they would, of course they would.
Once spring had come to Westeros, Harrenhal had been rebuilt by Daenerys Targaryen. The War of the Five Kings and the fires of her dragons as they helped her regain her throne had rendered it a ruin that all believed cursed, but the Queen made it into a beautiful palace that supposedly mirrored some of those she had seen in Essos. Daenerys had then offered it to House Wode, once sworn to the Whents of Harrenhal, whose halls had been destroyed and who had been of the first to flock to her upon her return. They'd had to be reminded that its supposed curse must have had nothing to do with the fall of its former Lords - after all, neither Janos Slynt nor Petyr Baelish had ever stepped foot inside, and the new walls and keep were not even a shadow of what the place had formerly been.
"I do not believe in curses," Queen Daenerys said, one delicate hand resting on her heavy pregnant belly, the other pressed into that of her husband - and nephew - Jon Targaryen. "And neither should you."
And so the Wodes had taken Harrenhal, though they had not wanted to be Lords Paramount of the Trident. "Foolishness," scoffed Ser Willas Wode, and so they swore themselves to Edmure Tully and to Riverrun. And apparently the Queen would now hold a tourney on the fated grounds of Harrenhal, to celebrate the new palace she'd built and the rise of the loyal Wodes. House Stark had no sons of its own to send, but mayhaps some of Winterfell's knights or men-at-arms would relish the chance, Sansa mused. The champion's purse would be impressive, after all...
She announced it at dinner the very day that the letter arrived, to much excited murmuring and a decidedly un-Lordlike "whoop" from her baby brother. Only one member of the household did not seem happy about the plan to travel south to the Riverlands for this historic event, and when his hard gray eyes met her Tully blue ones Sansa set her jaw and nodded. Yes, she thought, you will come. You must, as my sworn shield.
She wondered what Sandor Clegane would say if she admitted to him her desire to see him win another tournament.
Fucking Sansa Stark, fucking Winterfell, fucking Dragon Queen, fucking Riverlands, fucking tournaments.
Sandor swore and swore and swore again, because he wanted one of those things and none of the others. He would have asked to remain in the North, but he knew that as soon as she decided to go, he was bound to follow.
You swore your sword to her, dog. What did you expect?
After that little shit Joffrey, he'd never thought to pledge his loyalty again. Not to a lord or lady, anyway. To coin, to summer, to survival...these things were worth pledging one's life to, he thought. Yet then he had somehow ended up in league with that fool wench Brienne of Tarth, and one thing after another and Sansa Stark, the little bird, was there in front of him, in dire need - yet again - of someone to keep her safe.
How many years had it been, now? Two? Three? The winter had been shorter than expected but the North's predicament far worse. Yet he had weathered it all just the same, and hoped that at the end She would release him, send him home. Was that really what he wanted? Perhaps not, but he certainly didn't belong here.
Except...she would not let him go. In fact she asked him to stay, asked him as if he'd really have a choice in his answer.
And now this damned tournament. Some upjumped Riverlands Lords jousting and fighting...against who? Against what? The best knights in the Seven Kingdoms were either dead or so far beyond such a competition that Sandor could not fathom why the little bird insisted that they attend...and yet she left Winterfell with dozens of folks in tow; her feral brother Rickon and her dangerous sister Arya, her maidservants and manservants and her Master-at-Arms and above all, her sworn shield Sandor Clegane.
You, you, even you dare not defy her, something deep inside him resounded.
Yet he knew that she wanted him to fight, and that he would never agree to.
He still wanted her; she was intuitive enough to understand this. But what did he want her for? Did he want her for a title, or for Winterfell, or because he desired her but thought he could never have her?
Somehow she knew that who she was made no difference to Sandor Clegane, and yet...and yet...
Petyr Baelish had taught her much and more, but little of it was...good. Sandor Clegane had always been honest to her.
Yet he held a dagger to your throat. Don't ever forget that."
And still she kept him by her side; kept him there, and felt far less than safe when he was not around.
He was honest to her.
He had always been honest to her.
So perhaps he didn't want her anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, she had merely dreamed of him wanting her all those years ago in King's Landing.
Still, while traveling the kingsroad south to Harrenhal she had approached him and said, "I hope my lord will compete in the tourney."
He'd scoffed at her as always, but Sansa tried to believe that there had been something like recognition in his eyes.
To Sandor's surprise, there were in fact a few decent men in this tourney. The jousts were not quite as pitiful as he'd expected, and somehow he let the little wolf-bitch goad him into fighting in the melee. He'd won, of course; few could withstand his combination of strength, size, and stamina. And the look on the little bird's face when he'd vanquished his last foe had been worth the cuts and bruises he earned that day.
There was even a mystery knight; a tall, lithe fellow in plain but quality armor who unhorsed one man after another after another and did not show his face until he whipped off his helm upon defeating his final rival and Sandor could barely choke back his laughter.
"Podrick Payne?" Sansa gasped.
"Who's that?" Arya asked, squinting at the knight.
"He was the Imp's squire," Sandor chuckled. "An ugly, pimply, stuttering little fool. Rode with the Wench of Tarth for a while as well, and apparently now he's styling himself a knight."
"No, he is a knight," Sansa corrected him. Sandor grunted his annoyance and caught the wolf-bitch eying him and her sister in turn, a wicked grin on her face.
"Doesn't look ugly or pimply anymore, either," Arya observed.
"Yes, he's grown quite handsome," admitted the little bird.
Sandor found himself wanting nothing more than to leave them to this inane conversation and go find a nice jug of Dornish red, but before he could retreat Podrick Payne approached their seats.
Oh, seven hells, tell me he's not going to -
But before Sandor could even finish the thought, Podrick was holding out a crown of winter roses to Sansa Stark.
He was still very young, Ser Podrick Payne, but he was quite handsome, as she'd said. She vaguely remembered the boy from King's Landing and she never would have expected him to grow so tall, so graceful...Sansa blushed at the thoughts she was having. Her first husband's former squire, really...
But then he approached her with the crown of roses and for a moment Sansa felt like her old self, that naive child who had so loved tourneys and songs. Still she couldn't help herself - she glanced over her shoulder at Sandor Clegane. But his eyes were on Ser Podrick and the burnt corner of his lip was twitching more madly than she'd seen it do in quite some time.
Of course Sansa graciously accepted the honor and was presented to her cousin Jon and Queen Daenerys as the Queen of Love and Beauty. "A fitting choice, Ser Podrick," the Queen smiled. "I would have you and Lady Sansa sit with us at the high table at tonight's feast, if you so desire."
Sansa smiled and curtsied her agreement to the invitation, and when she turned to Ser Podrick she saw that he was watching her with something close to reverence in his eyes. "Of course, Your Grace," he replied to the Queen - but he never took his eyes off Sansa.
He has grown so much, she thought, but in the back of her mind she was wondering what it would feel like to have Sandor Clegane look at her like that.
Ser Podrick Payne was panting after the little bird like...well, like a dog, Sandor thought, a low growl rising in his throat. The boy may not be an ugly little stutterer anymore, but he was still a boy.
Yet when that "boy" had come to their pavilion to ask if Sansa would walk with him before dinner, she had readily agreed - and Arya would not let him ignore or forget that. "Sansa's found her 'true knight'," the she-wolf teased.
"'Spose so. Too bad he's a lowly Payne, not fit to wed the Lady of Winterfell," Sandor shrugged.
"Lowly?" Arya asked incredulously, and then she laughed in his face. "Once, maybe, but Tyrion Lannister rewarded Ser Podrick greatly for his loyal service. He's now a wealthy landed knight, and there has been talk of his becoming a lord of the Westerlands. It would be fitting, don't you think, for Sansa to marry a man who was once squire to her first husband and to Brienne of Tarth, who rescued her from Littlefinger..."
"Bit soon to be speaking of marriage, don't you think?" Sandor growled.
Arya cocked her head and tapped a fingertip against her chin. "Is it? This is Sansa we're talking about. She 'fell in love' with the bastard king after taking one look at his handsome little face. She didn't even put up a fight when they insisted on marrying her to the Imp, because he was 'kind to her'. Ser Podrick may be young, but he's handsome and landed and wealthy, and he knew enough to crown her Queen of Love and Beauty to win her favor."
As usual the wolf-bitch knew how to rankle him. The little bird isn't that much of a fool. Not anymore, Sandor told himself, but even as the words passed through his mind he heard the tinkling sound of Sansa Stark's pretty laughter and saw her returning with Ser Podrick, her hand resting lightly on the boy's arm as she looked up at him and smiled, her face awash in happiness. Bugger it all, he thought, and tried to ignore that pressing desire that once, just once, the little bird would look at him like that.
She'd been surprised when Ser Podrick arrived at their pavilion to request her company in a stroll around the tourney grounds. Having him crown her the Queen of Love and Beauty had been sweet - almost exciting if Sansa was honest with herself - but it appeared that he'd actually taken an interest in her.
And that was something else entirely.
She had been very clear to her family that if she were to ever wed again, it would be to a man of her choosing. Ser Podrick was handsome and in the short time since he handed her the crown of winter roses, plenty of people had approached Sansa to tell her of his courage, his valor, his good fortune. A landed knight, possibly a Lord soon, with the riches that came with serving a Lannister and serving him well.
Tyrion. Thinking of her first husband never failed to pain Sansa. He was Lord of Casterly Rock now, having played quite a large part in bringing the Dragon Queen back to Westeros and asking only for his family's seat in return. He'd protested little when Sansa had asked him to annul their marriage, and even that small protest had had a ring of falseness to it. He may have thought her a beautiful girl, but he'd never truly wanted her. Not even for Winterfell. He'd only wanted Casterly Rock, in fact, and now he had it and was holed up there with his books and the memories of his travels.
Sansa had to ask about him, had to. "Ser Podrick...I...does Tyrion know you're here?" The unspoken question - does Tyrion know you are attempting to court me - hung between them, and by Podrick's sudden blush and the momentary return of his stutter, Sansa knew he heard it buried beneath the words she spoke.
"M-my Lord Tyrion d-does know, in fact. I...I explained w-what I would be doing..."
"I wager he found the idea of your being a mystery knight quite...refreshing," Sansa smiled encouragingly. Ser Podrick nodded vigorously.
"He...he d-did. And...if I may..." he made a helpless gesture with his hands and Sansa couldn't help but chuckle.
"We are not children anymore, Ser Podrick. Say what you desire to say."
Ser Podrick breathed deeply. "My lord told me that I was welcome to try to win your heart. That if anyone could do it, I could, because I am a handsome and kind and courageous knight and that is the type of man you desire and deserve. I do not know that he is quite right in all of that, my lady, but I must say that you have been a seemingly unattainable dream of mine since I first knew you in King's Landing. You were sad then, and out of place, but I thought you perfect and pretty and I...I wanted to help you. To protect you. I couldn't, but I...I wanted to."
Tears pricked at Sansa's eyes. She'd hated Tyrion Lannister and cared for him all at once...and he'd never, never understood her. The Sansa who arrived in King's Landing at eleven, an empty-headed fool of a girl, had wanted those things. But those dreams had been stricken from her, taken when they took her father's head, taken when they beat her, taken when they forced her to marry the Imp in the first place. Courage and strength and honesty she wanted, and she did not doubt that this young man possessed all of those things.
But the face that haunted her dreams - before and now and forever - was not handsome. And the person who wore it was certainly no knight.
And she could not imagine having anyone but him.
As Sansa Stark's sworn shield, he was forced to stand behind her at the feast that night and watch as she talked to, flirted with, touched that damn Podrick Payne. Every sweet word that spilled from her mouth, every gentle brush of her fingertips on the boy's hand or arm, bit through Sandor like the sharp edge of a good sword.
Thankfully he had acquired a few wineskins earlier that day. One was gone before they sat down to eat and he brooded while he nursed the second throughout the feast. Then there was dancing and though the little bird stood with several gallant fellows, most of her time was spent in Ser Podrick's arms - and by the time she approached Sandor, breathless and grinning, and asked him to escort her back to the Stark pavilion so that she may go to bed, he had finished the third wineskin and was drunker than he'd been in quite some time. He grunted his assent and turned his back on her, expecting her to follow him - but then he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Aren't you going to offer me your arm?" she asked when he spun to face her, furrowing her brow in confusion. Sandor rolled his eyes as he held out the appendage and she took hold, her hand light as - well, as a bird - in the crook of his elbow.
"Did you enjoy the feast?" she asked as they walked. He tried to ignore her, but she pressed him again. "And the jousting? We've not had a tournament like this since..." She trailed off, and he knew what she was thinking about because it was the same thing that was on his mind. The last true tournament in Westeros had been held in honor of her father, the new hand of the king, and Sandor had escorted Sansa back from a feast that time as well. He'd been just as drunk and she'd been a little girl afraid to look at him, and he'd told her about his brother and his scars. When he felt her hand tighten on his arm he knew she was remembering that conversation as well, but the words that left him then were not the kind ones he should have used.
"You've got your 'true knight' now, girl," he grunted.
She'd walked and talked and laughed with Ser Podrick that afternoon, but her mind had been in another place. Then came the feast; she drank too much wine, the dancing left her light-headed and nearly euphoric, and all Sansa wanted was to be alone with Sandor Clegane. Unfortunately he was being even more frustrating than usual - making her ask for his arm, and then that nonsense about Ser Podrick being 'her true knight'...The boy was a true knight, that much was clear, but he was not hers - nor did she want him to be.
"If I'd wanted a knight for myself I would have had one by now. The same goes for a lord. You've been with me all these years; you've seen the proposals I've refused. Did you ever once wonder why I did so, when so many of them were from well-meaning, well-looking men who would have made perfectly proper husbands for me?" The wine had made Sansa bold.
"I'm sure I neither know nor care, little bird," Sandor rasped.
She stopped short, squeezing her hand around his arm with a ferocity she'd not known she possessed. "You should care," she hissed. "I was very clear to my family that I would one day choose the man who would become my husband. That I was tired of being a prize or a pawn. All this time I've been waiting for the only man I desire to feel the same way, yet so far he has failed me."
"And if he never feels the same way, little bird? What will you do then?"
His words cut through her like a knife and combined with the wine they made Sansa feel like crying. But she was a wolf, and wolves didn't cry, as Arya so often reminded her. So instead she set her jaw and let him tug her into walking again.
She remained silent for the rest of their walk back to the pavilion.
He didn't know what had possessed him to say those words, to be so unkind to her when she'd been nothing but a sweet little chirping bird to him all these years. He supposed it was the idea of her wanting some man, gods knew who but apparently this man was out there somewhere and fool enough to not want her back. He felt a bit better knowing that it wasn't Podrick Payne, certainly, but if this other man wouldn't have her than who's to say she wouldn't turn to Ser Podrick in her hour of need?
Despite the drink Sandor slept fitfully that night, and the next morning did not bring any sort of relief. As they made to strike their pavilion a message arrived, and its contents caused such an uproar that Sandor set aside his duties and went to see what was wrong.
"I don't want to," Arya was whining, sounding every bit like the petulant child she'd once been.
Sansa sighed and held out the parchment with the broken Targaryen seal on it. "Arya, we have to. The King and Queen request our presence. They want to speak of the North and the Wall, and none of us have visited King's Landing since Daenerys Targaryen's return. You will have time with Jon, Arya...can't that be enough to convince you?"
The wolf-bitch curled her lip and crossed her arms over her chest, but her not answering seemed to fortify Sansa's resolve more than a refusal could or would have. "It's settled then. We ride for King's Landing with the royal party this very morning." Sandor couldn't help but snarl his displeasure at this change in plans, and only then did the Stark sisters turn and notice his presence.
"I agree with the she-wolf," he said immediately, and for once Arya gave him an appreciative look. "Do you really want to return to King's Landing, little bird?" Once she'd told him she never meant to go back to that place; what could have possibly changed?
"What I want has little bearing on this situation," Sansa sighed. "The Queen has requested our presence; it is our duty to go. I will send the majority of our retinue home with Rickon - we will be quite safe with Sandor and Ser Pod and the rest of the Queen's men."
"I'd feel better if Clegane went with Rickon," Arya mumbled. Sandor shot her a look. He'd rather return North than go to King's Landing, though that realization left a strange feeling in his chest - and of course, he was the little bird's sworn shield. There would be no returning North without her.
Sansa leveled a cool gaze on him. "I would as well," she said, "but I fear that in this I must be selfish. I would feel better if he was guarding Rickon, but I would prefer him to come with us."
Aye, you'd not want to visit King's Landing and re-live that experience without me by your side, Sandor thought as he met her eyes, wondering how in Westeros his presence there in the Red Keep could be a preferable thing in her mind.
Sansa Stark never did fail to surprise him.
Arya could never possibly understand how very much Sansa didn't want to go to King's Landing...but go they must, and go they would. This wasn't the first of the Dragon Queen's invitations, nor would it be the last - and as they were already over halfway to the capital city there was no better time to finally accept. Still, the idea of being back in the Red Keep made her stomach clench so tight she thought she'd be sick.
Sandor will be with you, she reminded herself. His presence would steady her, she was sure of it.
The sun was high in the sky before the long line of Targaryens and Starks and knights and guards began to finally creep away from Harrenhal, a winding train of people and horses and carts that would take weeks to reach King's Landing at this rate. Ser Pod rode beside Sansa; she didn't have the heart to shoo him away, and he was after all a sweet young man. And so fair to look upon, she thought, and she couldn't help the small smile that played across her lips. Sandor rode behind them, scowling, though Sansa did not quite know why. It could be the idea of returning to the capital after so many years, she knew, but somehow she didn't think that was the case.
As they rode that day Sansa thought - not for the first time - about her current situation. Many times she'd considered never marrying at all, but in light of her past and how few of the Stark children still lived, she knew that not doing so was the wrong choice for everyone but herself. Family, duty, honor.
Ser Pod may be no more than a landed knight, but thanks to Tyrion he was wealthy. And there was that possible lordship in his future...
He thinks you perfect. And pretty. He thought so even when you were sad and lonely in the Red Keep all those years ago. He wanted to protect you. Ser Pod did not want her for Winterfell or for the supposed riches others imagined her to have. He simply wanted her.
It was settled, then. If Sandor would not have her, she would agree to marry Ser Pod before they left King's Landing.
Was it just him, or was the little bird suddenly far more receptive to Podrick Payne's advances? As their large party slowly traveled south to King's Landing, Sansa Stark rode beside that damn boy every day. They conversed, she laughed frequently, and she would at times reach out to brush her fingers over the back of his hand or down his arm. Ser Pod would help her from her palfrey's back at the end of the day, and back onto it the next morning, and Sandor suddenly realized how much he'd relished those moments when he'd done that for her. His hands itched and burned with the desire to wrap themselves around her tiny perfect waist, a gesture he'd apparently taken for granted these past few years.
The nights they stayed in inns, Sandor would wait for Sansa to go to bed and then position himself outside the door to the room she would share with Arya. Of course Ser Podrick was an honorable knight and would certainly never come a-knocking in the middle of the night anyway, but still Sandor felt better knowing that she was sleeping peacefully just on the other side of the wall.
What will you do when she says she will marry him, dog? Will you speak your mind, tell her she shouldn't?
And if she asks why not, will you tell her the truth? Will you take her in your arms and try to kiss her, though she'll possibly struggle and attempt to pull away? And if she does neither of those, you'll know it's just those buggering courtesies of hers, letting you take a proper reward for your years of service...
It didn't bear thinking about, especially when they finally saw the cesspool of a capital city on the horizon one afternoon, stretching out against the bay, hazy with filth and heat and memory.
The journey had been almost a pleasant one, and the more time she spent with Ser Pod the more she found that he was nearly exactly what a young Sansa would have wanted in a husband.
She almost wished that she wanted those things now, for as much as she enjoyed Ser Pod's company, his flattery and his sweet words, she found herself missing Sandor's blunt conversation. And when Ser Pod carefully lifted her back onto and from her palfrey every day, she often wished that the hands around her were larger, rougher, warmer.
And when King's Landing stretched before them and panic seized her, left her chest tight, so tight she could barely draw a proper breath, Sansa found that she wished it was Sandor beside her. Even if he looked down on her and told her to stop being a silly little bird, somehow she knew that would make her feel better about this.
As if he'd read her mind, Sandor did suddenly ride up on her other side. He brought his destrier quite close, but for once the ill-tempered stallion did not snap at her palfrey or paw at the ground in his haste to move on. Instead Stranger stood at attention, looking at the city with ears pricked in what could only be remembrance. "There it is, little bird," Sandor rasped softly. "Still sure you want to do this?"
When Sansa looked up at him she saw that he was gazing at her, something like concern hiding behind the usual cold unfeeling look in his gray eyes. "Will you ride with me?" she whispered, hating how her voice shook with held-back emotion. He gave a curt nod and then glanced at Ser Podrick before fastening his gaze straight ahead along with that of his horse. Sansa sighed and turned to the handsome young man, whose face was awash in happiness at seeing King's Landing again. "If you would excuse us, Ser Podrick," she said, forcing a smile, "I would have a word with my sworn shield as we ride into the city."
Ser Pod nodded gallantly as only handsome and happy men seemed to do. "Of course, my lady," he grinned agreeably, then spurred his own mount forward, leaving her alone with Sandor for the first time in far too long.
He'd seen the steely set of her shoulders from behind when she stopped her palfrey and in the work of a moment he was beside her, unable to do this without her, not wanting her to do this without him. And when she'd asked him to ride with her he'd felt his heart go light for the first time in weeks, months even, and he'd had to look away before she could see how pleased he was that she did want him there.
Despite her excuse to Ser Pod about wanting to talk to her 'sworn shield', the little bird remained silent as they approached the city. Sandor suddenly found himself wishing he could reach out, perhaps touch her, perhaps comfort her somehow...but how could she want that from him, when he had stood by and let them beat her all those years ago? When he had fled and left her there to be first a Lannister captive and then a Littlefinger pawn?
"It's strange, seeing this place again. And under such different circumstances," Sansa finally said as they crossed a drawbridge and entered the Red Keep.
Sandor merely grunted his acknowledgement. He was sweating profusely in his armor, no longer used to the Southern sun or heat, uncomfortable in every way a man could possibly be.
It was Jon Snow - nay, Targaryen now - who came to see them to their guest chambers. "I'm afraid the journey has weakened Dany considerably," he said.
"Oh, Jon! Already?" Sansa cried, wringing her cousin's hand in a decidedly un-ladylike manner. Why in the seven bloody hells is she happy about the Queen being ill?
Jon Targaryen smiled and glanced around. "Don't tell Arya yet or the whole Keep will know. She's not far along and we want to be...sure...before we let word spread."
Sansa waved him off. "Little Rhaegar is quite healthy and the Queen carried him well. You've nothing to worry about."
"Yes, but still..."
"Oh, all right," the little bird relented, her face all aglow. So a baby is all it takes to make her forget the horrors that happened in this place, Sandor thought with derision. But almost immediately his annoyance was displaced as Sansa stepped closer to Jon and said - loud enough for her cousin and sworn shield to hear, but soft enough that no one else could - "I have a bit of an...unconventional...request regarding the arrangement of our guest chambers."
Jon cocked his head and regarded Sansa warily. "You are not usually one for the 'unconventional', Sansa."
The little bird blushed and bowed her head. "I know," she began. "But you see...this place...I do not have good memories of it. You must understand that it was a difficult choice for me to return here at all, and I did so only for the love I bear for you and the Queen. First I ask is that I be given my own chamber, anywhere but Maegor's. And if you would please grant Sandor a bedchamber next to mine, so that I would have him close and so that he will also be comfortable of his own accord, I would feel much better about...all of this."
Sandor couldn't have been more shocked if Sansa Stark had...had what? Nothing. He simply couldn't have been more shocked, so much so that he was almost able to ignore the look of distaste the King gave him just then. But it appeared that Sansa had played her hand well, for Jon agreed to her requests - though ironically insisted on housing them in the Maidenvault. As they made their way to their newly assigned chambers, Sandor mumbled, "I could've just slept outside your door, little bird."
"No," she replied fiercely. Then again, "No." When he looked at her out of the corner of his eye he saw how pale and sad she looked, and for once Sandor couldn't bring himself to say another word.
She'd meant to talk to Sandor as they rode, really she had, but the more she thought about it the more she realized that he would try to talk her out of what she was going to request...so she decided instead to say nothing and simply let him find out when she asked Jon or the Queen. She could not bear the thought of being in Maegor's, or of sharing a room with Arya when it was likely she would end up having nightmares and thrashing about and then having to deal with her sister's scornful pity. And Sandor...
He will not pace the hall or sleep on the floor outside my room like a dog. Whether or not he cared about such things himself, she wouldn't stand for it. Thankfully the deed was now done, and he'd barely even argued. So unlike himself, she thought, giving him a queer look.
What had she hoped for, in having their rooms beside each other? Sansa truly could not fathom what she'd thought would come from this, but nothing seemed to change. Their first few days in King's Landing, she spent time with the Queen while Sandor drilled in the practice yard with Jon and other members of the court, vanquishing every one of his opponents as he always did. The day that he and Ser Pod finally faced each other, though, Sansa insisted on being present. Podrick - so skilled himself with a sword - looked quite cowed to be facing the ferocious Sandor Clegane. Ser Pod fought well, yet he was no match for Sansa's sworn shield and she knew it. She yelled herself hoarse for both of them, which amused both Arya and Queen Daenerys, who had finally left the comfort of her chambers for some fresh air.
"With two such fierce men beside you, Sansa, you need never fear for your safety," the Queen hinted.
"Two men?" Sansa asked, and then realized the Dragon Queen's meaning. "Oh." I do not need them both, and I only want the one, she thought, but she couldn't say such things aloud. Not when the Queen herself so obviously approved of a match between Sansa Stark and Podrick Payne.
Arya was staring at her and Sansa did not like the look in her younger sister's eyes. "I could best them both, I bet," Arya bragged.
"You'd better not try," Sansa warned. But before the conversation could go further Sandor knocked Ser Pod to the ground and held the blunted edge of his sword against the other man's throat, and Sansa found herself standing and clapping madly in her approval of his triumph. Poor Podrick looked a bit taken aback that she was so happy when he had lost, and Sansa blushed fiercely as she rushed into the yard to comfort him. He is kind and good and if you wed him, he will not remember this moment fondly if you don't do this, she knew.
"Well fought, Clegane," Sansa said brusquely as she passed Sandor on her way to Ser Podrick's side - but Sandor's gray eyes were empty as he looked down at her.
"Yes, Ser Sandor, well fought indeed!" Queen Daenerys cried, clapping softly. "We will celebrate your victory at the feast tonight with plenty of good wine and rich food." Arya responded by rolling her eyes and scuffing her shoe into the dirt. For his part, Sandor bowed his head in respect to the Queen but mumbled, "I'm no 'Ser'." The usual complaint made Sansa smile, and she turned her head to hide this expression from Ser Podrick.
"I've never known a man to withstand him," she whispered to her new friend. "You came quite close."
Ser Pod smiled good-naturedly. "I do not have his experience, I suppose." He turned to his opponent. "We'll meet at a tourney or in a yard again, Clegane, and next time I will best you."
"Fat chance," Sandor growled, tossing a disgusted look at Sansa before stomping out of the yard. Ser Pod looked both concerned and affronted.
"Did I offend the man somehow?" he asked. "I'd not want to be on bad terms with your sworn shield, my lady."
"I am sure you did not offend him, Ser Podrick," Sansa sighed. I fear that it was me who did the offending. "He always gets a bit...feisty and bad-tempered after a fight.." Not all lies.
Arya scoffed. "After a fight? He's always bad-tempered." Sansa looked toward her sister, but also through her, really. Not always, she mused. Sometimes he was quiet, in a way that made her think he was holding back, trying not to hurt her feelings; even when he let loose his harsh words they usually had a kind undertone that she couldn't help but notice. On the rare occasions that he'd touched her since they'd found each other again, Sandor was so gentle she wondered if he feared to break her. And though the anger still flashed in his eyes quite regularly, more often than not he looked at her with...with what?
"My lady? Sansa? Are you...are you all right?" Ser Podrick was asking, but Sansa did not know how to answer him, did not know what to say.
Gods...how have I been so blind?
Oh, how he'd relished beating Ser Podrick, even if it had only been in the practice yard.
Sandor had to admit that the boy was good. Just not good enough. Of course it had helped that the little bird was just off to the side watching them, chirping out her encouragements, but he liked to imagine that she called out louder for him. And then when he'd knocked the little bugger to the ground - finally - she'd stood and clapped and smiled so brightly...
Only she'd ruined it by rushing to Podrick Payne's side, barely giving Sandor a passing glance as she said "well fought" to him. Said it as if he was of no import at all.
He stormed away from the yard with one thing on his mind - drink. And a lot of it. He went back to his room to bathe and dress for the feast after picking up a wineskin and a jug of ale from the kitchens on his way, though he could not stop himself from glancing at her door as he walked by. You're a fool, dog. A damned fool.
Some time later he was lounging in the large tub she'd had brought up for him on their first day when there was a soft knock at his door. Taking a long pull from the wineskin, Sandor remained silent. He knew who it was and he hoped she'd go away. But Sansa's second knock was more insistent, and with a growl he stood and reached for a nearby blanket when suddenly the little bird pushed his door open and caught him naked as his name day, still standing in the barely knee-deep water of the tub.
Sansa's mouth hung open for a moment, before she threw a hand over it and looked away, face red as the coals glowing in the brazier.
He could not help but grin wickedly at her. "Got an eyeful there, didn't you, little bird?" he rasped as he wrapped the blanket round his waist and stepped out of the tub.
She still would not look at him, though he wasn't sure why that was any sort of surprise. "I hoped to...to speak with you...Ser Podrick will be escorting me to the feast tonight, but -"
This was too much. Of course Ser fucking Podrick would be escorting her to the feast. "You'd best go ready yourself then, little bird," he said, and turned his back on her, his muscles nearly trembling as they tensed in anger. He reached for the wineskin again and drank deeply. It was several moments before she whispered, "Of course. Excuse me," and left his chamber, shutting the door behind her.
He waited until he heard the not-so-distant knock at her door sometime later, then the low voices that told of her soon-to-be-betrothed's arrival. By then he had finished the wine and ale, but he waited until he was sure they were gone before exiting his own room and making his way to the Great Hall. Once there he positioned himself behind her chair as usual, but in the shadows against the wall, as far from Sansa Stark and Podrick Payne as he could get. He ordered the nearest servant to bring him wine and to keep it coming. He meant to get good and drunk tonight.
She kept turning to look at him while she ate and drank, Ser Podrick on one side and her wolf-bitch little sister on the other, but Sandor stared straight ahead and ignored her glances, even when the dancing started and she turned one last time before accepting Podrick's arm and there were tears glistening in her eyes.
Let her weep and think you angry with her. It's better this way, he told himself. Eventually Sansa pasted that fake smile that he hated so much on her face and threw herself into the dancing...but suddenly Ser Podrick was bending to whisper in her ear, and she nodded, and they retreated to a corner where the young man began talking in earnest. Sansa listened, smiled up at Podrick Payne, allowed him to take her hand and kiss it gently. She leaned forward and whispered something in his ear and he nodded solemly - and then she suddenly turned and fairly fled from the hall.
Buggering hells. He had to follow her; she shouldn't be wandering the Red Keep at night. Sandor set down his cup and yanked a jug of wine from the hand of the servant who had come to refill his drink, then strode after the little bird.
She fled to the godswood.
She knew it had been coming; how couldn't she have known? She had spent much of every day with Ser Podrick for well over a month now, accepting his advances because she knew she should. She knew she should be glad for them, want them even, but she'd hoped...especially after today...
She'd hoped to speak with Sandor, hoped to ask if she was wrong to believe that he cared for her, mayhaps enough to be more than her sworn shield. To be her beloved, her betrothed, her husband. But then she'd walked in on him in the bath and she'd been embarrassed into silence, his nakedness shaming and exciting her at the same time. The words she'd meant to say gathered and jumbled on her tongue, and then he'd turned his back on her and willed her away. She could feel him willing her away, wanting her to leave. So she had.
But now the dreaded hour was at hand. Ser Podrick Payne had asked her to be his lady wife. And he'd done it as she knew he would - sweetly, humbly, gallantly. The way little Sansa Stark had dreamed of such a thing happening.
"I am honored, Ser. Truly I am. Might I ask for a night to myself before giving you my answer? I feel I must harken back to my ancestors and go to the godswood to pray."
Of course Ser Pod had been understanding, and now here she was in this place of ghosts and bad memories, the godswood of the Red Keep. Sansa paid no mind to her fine gown and knelt by a tree that she somehow found she remembered from before, but she did not pray as she'd claimed she would do. Instead she wept and thought of how silly she was being, to believe that Sandor could want her, could care for her...to desire him at all when she had a fine young man like Ser Podrick falling in love with her. He'd even said those words - "My lady Sansa, I am smitten with you. I have been falling in love with you from the moment I saw you in your seat above the jousting field at Harrenhal and remembered you well from King's Landing all those years ago."
You are a fool, Sansa Stark. She knew that for some reason Sandor was angry with her, knew that she should - nay, that she must - accept Ser Pod's proposal. It's better this way, she told herself, and as she looked up at the tree in front of her she willed it to give her the strength to stand, to leave this mere shade of a godswood, to return to the feast and the dancing and Ser Pod and announce their betrothal to the King and the Queen and to her sister Arya and to all the court.
Sansa Stark set her shoulders and pushed herself to her feet.
When he saw where she was going he stopped himself from following. Instead he retreated back to the serpentine and leaned inside a doorway on a landing, feeling somehow that he'd been here before.
He nursed the jug of wine but did not have to wait long for her return. Eventually the little bird came flitting down the steps, walking faster than he thought was necessary. Sandor stepped out in front of her at just the wrong moment and Sansa ran headlong into him. Quick as he could he caught her wrist in his hand and steadied them both, and when she looked up at him his heart caught in his throat. In the dark, for just that moment, he thought he was seeing her as a girl again, a girl just budding into womanhood but a child nonetheless, a little bird, his little bird.
All of this has happened before...
"You should watch where you're going," he growled.
Sansa's lip began to tremble, but she didn't look away. Not now. Not anymore. "I'm sorry I almost knocked you over. I...I didn't expect you to be here."
"Of course I'm here," Sandor scoffed. "When you wander the Red Keep in the black of night, your sworn shield needs to watch over you, little bird." His tone was condescending, but he did not bother to hide it. "The godswood couldn't wait until tomorrow?"
Now she did look away. "I needed to pray for...for guidance." A pause, and then came the truth he was expecting yet dreading nonetheless. "Ser Podrick has asked for my hand in marriage."
Sandor stared at her for what seemed a very long time. When she did not speak he heaved a drunken sigh and said, "You're a grown woman now, little bird. You should be married, and Ser Podrick Payne is exactly the type of husband you're expected to have. Wed him and continue your silly little chirpings. I'm sure you'll be happy - he's obviously one of those true knights you respect so much." It pained him to say these things, truly it did, but it was for the best. For her, if not for him.
She suddenly looked angry and twisted in his grasp. "I've told you I don't care about true knights anymore. And what about you, Sandor? Since you apparently know so much about what I want, shall I guess what you desire?" She stopped, the perfect creamy-white tops of her breasts heaving from her tantrum, distracting him and attracting him so that he couldn't have looked away from her if he wanted to. "You're drunk again," she accused. "So is that all you need? Plenty of Dornish red in your gut and a whore in your bed?" Tears were spilling down her cheeks now, but her words had made him even angrier than she was, he guessed.
"Aye, I'm drunk, little bird. But what's it to you? I think it's time I took you back to your chambers. You can rest and prepare yourself to announce your betrothal in the morning." He released her wrist, finally, and gave her a gentle shove. Sansa continued down the steps and he stayed on her heels, their walk silent until they reached their rooms in the Maidenvault. When they stopped in front of her door, it was the little bird who spoke.
"Do you want me to marry Ser Podrick, Sandor?" she asked. He didn't like the glint in her eye and he forced a chuckle.
"What I want has no bearing on the situation, little bird."
"Perhaps it does. You once told me that a hound will die for you, but never lie to you. So tell it true, Sandor Clegane - because I must know this before I accept Podrick's proposal - do you love me?"
She didn't know what had possessed her to ask such a thing, to use those words exactly. The only explanation or excuse was that she had to know, had to, before she promised herself to a man she may come to love someday and in the process gave up the man she'd loved for years and years.
Sandor stared down at her in silence for a long moment, then two, then three.
And then suddenly he reached toward her, almost tentatively, a gesture so unlike him that she automatically stepped back, away from his hand. "What are you doing?" he rasped.
"I...I don't...what are you doing?" Sansa couldn't help but repeat his question.
"You know," Sandor chuckled, "I'm not quite sure, little bird." And then quick as a cat he slid his hand around the back of her head, tangling it in her hair as he pulled her toward him and bent to kiss her. Sansa found herself tipping her head back, the rushing, swooping feeling in her stomach making her dizzy with its strength as their lips met. Finally. Finally.
The right side of his lips felt curiously soft on hers, while the left side was rough, almost prickly. For just a moment the kiss was nearly a chaste thing, and then he ran his tongue over the divide of her lips and she opened for him automatically, sighing into his mouth, relishing the feel of him holding her head in his palm, of their bodies pressed together, of Sandor wrapping his arm about her waist, the brush of his fingers through the thin silk of her gown sending a shock of energy up her spine. He pushed her back against the wall and Sansa found herself clawing at his doublet, wanting, wanting...
With a ragged sigh Sandor broke their embrace, placing his hands on her shoulders and holding her at arm's length as Sansa gazed up at him through a haze of lust and desire. "You want this, little bird?" he asked, his expression pained. She knew that by this he meant him, them. She nodded her response, a resolute gesture that apparently amused Sandor; his laugh a hoarse bark of a thing as he stepped toward her and kissed her again. This time it was hard and passionate right from the start and Sansa arched her hips toward him and could feel the bulge of his erection against her. The door to her chambers was right there beside them - no. Not now, not like this.
This time Sansa pulled away, and Sandor's eyes were hard as the stone wall against her back as he gazed down at her. "Will you marry Podrick Payne, then?" he growled.
Sansa shook her head, and Sandor smiled - ugly and ferocious as always, and she loved him all the more for that.