Sansa had been going through the motions for months. She did everything that was expected of her, trying to smile and be polite and saying beautiful lies, all in an effort to please the monster that sat upon the Iron Throne. The lies were the easiest part, she found out, saying the meaningless platitudes and pleasantries. The small talk was designed for lying and Sansa had been trained her whole life so the courtesy and its lies came to her easily. It was keeping the smiles on her face that had proven difficult. Cruel words and crueler punishments for wrongs imagined or done by someone else were heaped upon her seemingly every day and there was nothing to smile about for her. Not with her father dead and her family far away.
Sansa lowered the embroidery she was working on into her lap and looked out the window. Her room was high in the Maegor's Holdfast and she could see the sprawling mass of the King's Landing all around. The people were but moving shapes, tiny and insignificant and yet freer than she could ever hope to be. It was like the Hound had said. She was just a little bird in her cage, singing on command as her masters wished.
"Once there was a bird in a red cage," she whispered to herself, ignoring her handmaids' questioning looks. A song could have started that way but Sansa doubted anyone would ever sing about her. There were songs about princesses being held in high towers or imprisoned by cruel kings but none were sung about stupid little birds chirping to please their masters.
She hadn't been to the godswood for almost a fortnight. She had no desire to listen to Ser Dontos' false reassurances and bids for patience. She had fancied herself a Jonquil once, back when she had talked to him for the first time and named him her Florian. And yet, months had passed and her freedom was nowhere in sight and she started to doubt if her chosen Florian could save her after all.
Life is not a song, little bird.
Sansa could imagine the Hound scolding her for her fancies in that rough voice of his, telling her things that hurt at first but were more true than anything else in her life. She had promised to sing for him, she remembered but had yet to fullfill that promise.
In fact, she hadn't sung in a very long time. She had always been told she had a clear, nice voice and she was skilled at playing high harp and bells but how long had it been since she had done any of it? There was nothing in her life to be happy about but not all songs were for the happy times. Rhaegar Targaryen was said to have been writing and playing mostly sad songs. Why couldn't Sansa sing one?
"Bring me my harp," she told one of her handmaids, standing up abruptly and dropping her unfinished work on the table. "I wish to play."
The woman obeyed, bringing Sansa the instrument as she sat down again. Sansa only strummed the strings lightly at first, refamiliarizing herself with the feel of wood and strings, calling forth the movements of her fingers from memory. She felt clumsy at the beginning, the notes harsh and false but as her hands remembered, the sound gentled and smoothed out. She didn't play any particular melody, letting her fingers tease and play, her mind going to Winterfell and her first lessons with harp, her mother's approving smiles, Septa Mordane's praises, Arya's jealous glances...
Sansa lowered her head, half-wishing she hadn't had her hair styled in the southron fashion so that she could hide her face behind them. She felt tears stinging at her eyes but suppressed them as best she could. Longing for her home wasn't going to help her. Her life was not a song. If it was, she would be stronger and braver. She would be a she-wolf, like Arya or Aunt Lyanna, not a chirping bird fit only for the cage.
But weren't there songs like that, too? About people changing in the course of their life into someone better? Someone stronger? Why couldn't she change from a bird into a wolf? Joffrey had her beaten regularly but all she could do was to endure it and hope for the end. She never tried to take courage from it. She never tried to store the memory of those beatings to fan the flames of her revenge. If she wanted a song to be written about her, she needed to start acting like a heroine, not a scared little girl.
Her fingers stilled even as her tears dried and Sansa raised her head proudly. She would no longer cry at the beatings. She would smile and thank them because they were making her stronger with their cruelty, even if they didn't know it themselves. She would shed her feathers and cloak herself in fur. She was of the North and to the North she would return and songs would be made about her. And she would write the first verses herself.
A knock on the door heralded an arrival of her escort. It seemed that Jofrey desired her company to torment her a little more. Sansa smiled to herself again. The evil king was summoning the captured princess. The first lines of her song were writing itself already. Sansa stood up and with more courage than she had possessed since her father's death, she walked forth and into her own song.
Something was different about the little bird, Sandor noticed. She walked straighter somehow. She had always had a good posture, like a proper lady but now she held her head more proudly. And she was smiling. Not the insincere twist of her lips that had always looked forced but a genuine smile. And she looked him in the face without prompting and took his arm like a well-bred lady, choosing to walk on his left side, the scarred side that had always repulsed her before.
He wanted to ask her what it was all about but didn't know how to start. She looked almost happy and he knew that Joffrey would have that happiness destroyed soon enough, whatever its source was. Let the little bird enjoy herself for those few brief moments.
And brief moments they were, for as he escorted her down the Throne Room, he could see the frown on Joffrey's face as the boy sprawled himself in the Iron Throne, seemingly heedless of the sharp points of the swords all around him. The King had gone hunting in the morning but brought nothing back, his aim worse than bad and his mood dark because of it.
"There is my lady," he said as the girl curtseyed and straightened up, her head lowered deferentially but not brokenly. Sandor took his customary place at Joffrey's side but he kept watching the girl. Something was very different about her and it bothered him that he couldn't pinpoint what exactly it was.
"Your Grace," she greeted the King but said nothing more. She must have noticed his bad mood, too but she didn't cower as usual.
"You are late," the Boy King proclaimed.
"I apologize, Your Grace. It shall never happen again."
"I don't want your empty reassurances," Joffrey spat. "I know how stupid you are. You will forget unless you have something to remind you."
"As you say, Your Grace," the girl agreed meekly but she didn't look scared, even though she knew very well his words were a prelude to yet another beating. Joffrey frowned at her lack of fear but shrugged it off as all the things he couldn't understand and gestured Trant and Blount forward. They were his favourite men to beat on the girl, since they never protested and they had a ruthless streak in them.
The little bird didn't resist as Blount seized her arms harshly and kept them behind her back. She stood there, tall and proud, a half-smile on her face. The first blow was aimed at her stomach and she curled forward in pain before Blount's hand in her hair forced her to straighten up again. Sandor expected to see tears on her face but she kept smiling, her eyes bright in her pale face. Trant frowned which made him even uglier than usual and drove his fist right into her sternum. She gasped as the air rushed out of her lungs and Joffrey leaned forward eagerly.
"Hit her again so she remembers her lesson well. My lady must not be tardy."
"Thank you, Your Grace," the little bird spoke up, still breathless and everyone in the Throne Room froze. She was clearly in pain but there was no resentment in her voice as she continued. "It is very kind of you to take the time to instruct me. I know that I am far from being your ideal lady but your help shall surely improve my manners. And I thank you as well, gallant sers," she addressed the two men who had just been beating her but now stood just as confused as everyone else.
The words sounded sarcastic but there was no hint of falseness in her voice. She meant them, Sandor realized. And yet there was still something off. Something about her complacency rang false as if she only pretended to submit. It was in her manner, in the proud tilt of her chin and flashing depths of her eyes. She wasn't as weak as before. Something or someone gave her strength.
The King was just as unsettled by her behaviour as the others but he struggled not to let it show.
"You seem to finally understand," he forced out, his uncertainty about how to deal with this new Sansa Stark obvious. "Good. Just remember what you learned today."
"I will, Your Grace," she replied and when Blount released her arms, she dropped into a curtsey. Joffrey waved her off.
"I don't wish for your company today, after all. Go back to your room. Take her there, Dog, and make sure she stays inside until dinner."
"As it please Your Grace," she said and looked directly at Sandor as he descended the steps to escort her back. She was still smiling and Sandor was certain by now that she must have gone mad. That was the only likely explanation for her behaviour.
"Has he finally broken you, little bird?" he rasped once they left the Throne Room and started walking the empty corridors. She looked up at him, her eyes guileless and innocent.
"I beg your pardon?"
"That business back there, with smiles and thanks. Do you think he's going to be less cruel if you pretend to like his punishments?"
"I know he is not going to be kinder," she replied, her smile growing wider. "He has to be cruel to me otherwise the song wouldn't be right."
Sandor stopped in his tracks and looked down at her incredulously.
"The song?" he repeated and she nodded. "Have you gone mad, girl? Life's not a fucking song."
"I knew you would say that," she chirped brightly and Sandor had to resist an urge to grab her shoulders and shake her until she came back to her senses. The girl had gone mad, broken by Joffrey's words and doings. His little bird was broken and the thought unsettled him more than anything.
"I should kill you where you stand," he growled. "It would be a mercy."
She shook her pretty head and looked up at him, taking in his face, scars and all.
"A false mercy, now that I have finally found a way to be free. Life hurts more than songs, I know that much but I can finally put myself together. Can't you see? I shall write my own song."
His hand moved before he realized what he was doing. He put it on her forehead, trying to determine if she was feverish but her skin was cool to touch and aside from her nonsensical chirping, she looked perfectly healthy. She leaned into his touch, her own hand raising to keep his larger one against her face and her smile could have blinded the sun.
The Hound, Sandor, was an important part of her song, too. The man was ugly and cruel on the outside but with a surprising wealth of gentleness and kindness when it came to her. He served the evil king but he pitied the imprisoned bird nonetheless. It was like in the songs. The knights who had said the vows and been blessed in the sept proved false and yet the man who denied the knighthood was the one who came closest to being one in truth.
Even his cruel words were meant well. He warned her, he advised her, he seemed to care for her. When he put his hand on her forehead to check her for fever, Sansa almost shivered. He had big hands, one of them easily covering half of her head and she leant into it and put her own hand over his to keep it in place. He had strong hands and could break her easily but he had never touched her ungently.
She smiled at his surprised expression and stepped closer to him, feeling brave and reckless in the midst of the corridor that, though empty for the moment, could be filled with people anytime soon.
"I shall write my own song," she repeated, taking his other hand and threading their fingers together. "A song of a bird imprisoned by a lion cub and of a dog who was the only one who would take pity on the bird. And the bird will grow into a wolf and run away from her cage because she was never meant to be caged."
"And what of the dog?" he asked, his voice rough and grating but he wasn't putting distance between them and Sansa took it for an encouragement.
"The dog will go with her, if he wants to. Dogs are closer to wolves than to lions, are they not?"
He was regarding her with a strange expression on his face and Sansa finally identified it as an indecision. He wanted her words to be true but didn't want to give her false hopes.
"You're talking about a treason," he rasped at last.
"I am talking about a song ," she corrected him before stepping back from him, his hand sliding down her face, neck and arm before he pulled it away. "One I will sing to you gladly, if you want me to."
"You have gone mad, girl."
"Maybe I did," she agreed pleasantly as she put her dainty hand on his arm and started walking again. "But it is a madness of my own doing and that is the only thing that matters."
And there was nothing he could say to that and they walked in silence until they reached her room. At the threshold, well aware of the prying eyes and eager ears of her handmaids, Sansa turned to him, smiling again.
"Thank you for bringing me safely back."
"Save your thanks for the men who want them," he replied as he was wont to do but Sansa wasn't deterred by his roughness anymore. He couldn't show his better side before witnesses. The song demanded he played his role until well into the story and she understood that.
"Have a good day," she said and slipped into her room, listening as his heavy footsteps faded away before moving further into her room and asking her handmaids to fetch her a quill, an ink and a parchment. She couldn't waste time. She had a song to write.