“Alayne” listens when Father talks. Alayne does as she’s told. Alayne runs the household, cares for poor, helpless Robert, and endures the lingering looks and questionable touches of Lord Littlefinger.
But Sansa hides, way down deep, and Sansa rages. Sansa knows that she is not some baseborn girl, she is not simply the caregiver for a brat of a child, and she is definitely not the plaything of a man in love with a woman now dead. Sansa pretends, because she is waiting. Biding her time. Winter is coming, and it is coming slowly.
Alayne’s life is all-encompassing, and if it weren’t for a tattered scrap of dyed-while wool, Sansa might have been lost. But she is not. Each night, when she is sure that Littlefinger will not come back, when she is sure that Sweetrobin’s wet nurse is asleep in the adjoining room, when the door is barred and the moon is high, high in the sky…
Each night Sansa, not Alayne, opens the chest beneath her bed and takes out the cloak, holds it close, breathes in its scent of blood and sweat and fire. Each night Sansa presses her face into the scratchy wool and whispers the words that keep her sane.
“You are Sansa, of House Stark. You are the last living daughter of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn. You are the only living sibling of the King in the North. You will survive. You will endure. Winter is coming, and you must be patient.”
She’s playing with Robert when the maid comes running, gasping about guests newly arrived, guests who have come all the way up from the Gates of the Moon, through Stone and Snow and Sky on Mya’s donkeys just for the pleasure of Littlefinger’s company.
“Sweetrobin, go and dress in your finest,” she tells the boy, standing and brushing off the knees of her skirt. “You’ll get to sit in your High Seat today, won’t that be lovely?”
The boy seems poised to argue, but she preempts his fight by leaning down and kissing his cheek, smiling. He nods, then, and murmurs, “Yes, Alayne,” before being led off by one of his ever-present handlers. Sansa-Alayne squares her shoulders and moves off toward the entrance hall, knowing Father will want her.
She recognizes him immediately—how could she not?
He’s huge, towering over the other Brothers of the Faith by at least two heads, and so bulky that even long-limbed Sansa would never be able to fit her arms around his shoulders. His face is hidden by a dark-dyed cowl, but as he eats (and as she watches him raptly) she catches glimpses of his black hair, of the burned corner of his mouth. When he walked to the table she noted that he favored one leg over the other, and now she wonders what happened to cause this; did he take an arrow? Was he stabbed or badly cut in a close fight?
She remembers the quick, sure strength with which he sheared a man’s hand from his wrist simply because the man had dared to reach for Sansa, and she shudders. One would have to be very strong and very quick to deliver a debilitating blow to the Hound.
He catches her staring as the serving girl comes around, refilling Littlefinger’s cup with wine, Alayne’s with honeyed milk, and the brothers’ with water or, when they’re amenable, the weak ale everyone drinks in the Eyrie.
He catches her, but he does not acknowledge her until Petyr is distracted, speaking with the eldest among the brothers, who also appears to be the only one with permission to communicate.
Or perhaps the Hound can as well, because he reaches across the table and touches her wrist, murmuring just loud enough for her to hear in that familiar, rasping voice of his, “Godswood. Midnight.”
She nods with her honeyed milk at her lips, and after she’s swallowed she risks gaining the attention of her “father” by whispering, “I’ve missed you, Ser.”
He snorts, and over the din of voices she’s almost positive she hears it: “Fuck your Sers.”
The godswood is not, in fact, a godswood, because the soil is not thick enough to support a weirwood. It is, however, the place in the castle where Sansa feels safest, and for that reason she considers it an appropriate meeting place.
His first bout of words to her is, “What the fuck are you doing here, girl?” and his second, before she can even attempt to respond to the first, is, “Seven hells, if Littlefinger’s so much as brushed against you—”
She interrupts him with a derisive sound that reminds her, painfully, of Arya. Arya Horseface, Arya Underfoot. But gods, what she’d give to have her little sister underfoot again.
“He’s done much more than that, Ser, and I’m here because I had nowhere else to go. It was flee with Ser Dontos or face Cersei’s wrath—for a crime I did not commit, I might add. It was that conniving Margaery and her grandmother, the Queen of Thorns, I’m sure of it.”
He levels her with a cold look and asks, “You were suspected of Joffrey’s death?”
“They suspected my husband.”
“Husband-no-more,” he corrects her, the burned corner of his mouth twitching. “Little imp’s been disavowed, banished from the Seven Kingdoms and had any and all connections of his severed—including his marriage to the Lady of Winterfell, which I’m sure got the queen’s knickers in a twist.”
“Queen in the North,” she corrects him.
“What’s that, Little Bird?”
“My brother is dead.” She’s proud of the way her voice doesn’t waver on that, not one bit. Small victories. “All of my brothers are dead. Robb was King in the North. His pretty little wife has cut all ties with her kingdom, so the crown is mine, should I want it.”
“Do you?” he asks.
“Want your crown.”
Briefly, Sansa marvels that this is the longest and most civil conversation she’s ever had with this man who has been strangely kind to and protective of her in the past few years of her life.
“I want what belongs to my family,” she tells him.
He cocks his head to the side—to his burned side—and looks rather like an actual hound as he does so. His eyes are quizzical, brows drawn down over them, mouth working slowly as if he’s gnawing on his lower lip.
“You’re not the frightened girl I left in King’s Landing,” he observes.
Sansa sniffs haughtily. Joffrey’s death, her flight, Petyr’s actions and his lessons—they’ve made her grow up. She’s not the same naïve girl who once preened while her mother brushed out her hair, who sighed over stories of knights and gallantry. There are no true knights, she thinks.
“I’m not anybody’s little bird anymore,” she informs him.
Sandor Clegane laughs, then, and from beneath his begging brother’s robe he pulls a longsword, lovingly cared for. It’s familiar, in the same way he is familiar, and between one second and the next he drops to one knee before he and lays the sword at her feet.
“You’re wrong there, girl. You’ll always be my Little Bird, and from here on out I’ll be your sword. I pledge it to you. I’ll protect you, I’ll fight for you. I promised once to keep you safe, and I failed. I’ll not do that again.”
Sansa stares down at him, shocked. Why—how? He can’t expect to be allowed to stay here, not if Petyr finds out who he is. And he can’t expect to take her away, surely. It would be impossible. They’d never make it past Sky.
But something in her wants his sword—wants him. She reaches out and lays her hands on his shoulder, leaning over him, smelling him. Blood and sweat, after all this time. It’s encouraging.
“I accept your oath,” she says, unsure if the words are correct, but they seem to work for him, because he rises and re-sheathes his sword, and then he folds his arms behind his back and gives her a long, searching look that makes her tingle from the roots of her hair (which is nearly back to auburn; it’s been fading steadily since the dye Aunt Lysa used on her ran out a few months ago) down to her toes.
A hound will die for you, but never lie to you, she hears him say, deep down in her memory.
Sansa Stark would rather have a hound than a knight any day.
— a vengeance.
The slim, silvery blade shakes in her pale hand as she holds it at his throat, staring down into those cruel, calculating eyes.
Littlefinger is still beneath her, bleeding already from a cut in his lip and wheezing from what Sansa suspects are several broken ribs from when her Hound slammed him into the stone wall of his solar. He seems to be trying to beseech her, trying to catch his breath, and when he does, he whispers, “Alayne—”
“Sansa,” she snarls, like the she-wolf she so wants to be, like Arya, and her grip on the dagger tightens. “Lady Sansa Stark is my name, not Alayne. I am Lord Eddard Stark’s daughter, not yours.”
He blinks, and something seems to go out of him, all at once.
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” he asks, voice quiet. Dull.
“I should,” Sansa says. She thinks back to his touches, his kisses, the way he’d pulled her into his lap here in this very room, the way he’d toyed with the laces of her gowns. “You tried to dishonor me, and for that alone my father would have had your head.”
Behind her, quietly, Sandor murmurs, “You don’t have to bloody your hands, Little Bird. I’ll kill him… gladly.”
She looks back at him, her faithful Hound, and shakes her head. “I want to.”
She doesn’t say, I need to, but he seems to understand.
“Make it quick, at least,” Littlefinger requests, and when Sansa pulls the blade across the flesh of his throat her movements are jerky but determined. Petyr cries out once—it sounds like he’s saying, “Cat,”—and then the light leaves his eyes, slowly, as his body slumps back against the desk.
Sansa steps back and feels her Hound behind her, the metal of his breastplate warmed by the room’s fire, stoked too high. He takes the blade from her hand and steadies her at the same time, competent as always, knowing exactly what she needs from him.
“Well done, Little Bird,” he praises.
She whimpers, only once, but she does not cry.
Three days later he kills one of the men of the Mountain Clans and reins in his horse, a fierce and beautiful thing, auburn-haired like she is, with wide, intelligent eyes. He unloads the clansman’s gear and slings a saddle, a blanket, and a single bag over the mount’s back, and then he walks it over to Sansa.
“A steed worthy of a queen,” he says, oddly poetic, but then ruins it by adding, “Or, at least, one well-fed enough to get her to safety. He’ll need a name.”
Sansa takes the reins and glances back at Stranger, who has been (admittedly unwillingly) tolerating her weight for the past several hours. Despite his blasphemous name and his foul temperament, she’s already oddly fond of the horse.
“Warrior,” she says decisively.
“I believe that’s blasphemy, Your Grace,” Sandor says, but he’s grinning as he helps her into the saddle.
“And I believe that that is the pot calling the kettle black, Ser.”
“—’s not much,” he’s saying as he opens the door to the small cabin, Sansa’s rucksack thrown over his shoulder, “but it’ll keep you warm until we can get enough food together to get to Winterfell.”
She stops short upon stepping over the threshold, a frightened sound escaping her throat at the sight of the robed man standing before the fire. Her noise alerts Sandor, who sweeps her behind him and draws his sword in the span of a single breath. Sansa has long since concluded that his sabbatical from violence has made him no less deadly, and for that she is immensely grateful. The Old Gods have received many thankful prayers from her.
“Elder Brother,” Sandor says, relaxing all at once after actually taking the time to look at the perceived threat.
“Brother Sandor,” the man replies in a calm, soothing voice. He gives her Hound a once-over and lifts one eyebrow, adding, “Or, perhaps not, anymore?”
Sandor sheathes his blade and explains, “I’ve returned to the sword, but not to all of my old ways.”
“And what, I wonder, could inspire the youngest Clegane to take up arms once again?”
Her Hound turns to his lady, then, and says, simply, “Her.”
Sansa’s eyes lock with the brother’s, and for a long moment she feels as if she is looking not at a stranger, but at her father. The knowledge there is the same, as is the kindness. The honor.
“Seven blessings,” the man finally murmurs. “Sansa Stark. The Queen in the North.” He bows. “I’m honored, my lady.”
Sansa isn’t sure she actually likes people bowing to her. It makes her feel like Joffrey.
“Please, this is your home,” she says, and when the brother straightens, she curtsies. “If anyone should be showing respects, it should be me.”
The man smiles. He moves toward the door, and Sansa moves out of his way. He slips past her with another small bow, and he’s halfway up the path when he turns back and calls, “Sandor, this isle belongs to the gods. They’ll not tolerate a man and a woman sharing a one-room cottage without being married, and neither shall I.”
Sandor’s mouth twitches in that way that she’s starting to think of as his smile when he mutters, “Guess I’ll be sleeping with Stranger, then.”
Sansa is putting the final stitches into the hem of a new cloak—dyed-yellow wool with three carefully-crafted black dogs racing across it—when one of the novice brothers with speaking privileges knocks on her door. She barely has time to heft it open before he’s shouting at her, saying over and over again, “You must come, my lady! You must come!”
She follows him down to the shore, where things are always washing up. She’s running, struggling with her skirts, and she catches sight of Sandor first, and then—
Two huge, soaked wolves are sitting on the banks of the river, shaking out their coats. One is black, midnight black, with luminous green eyes; the other is more neutrally colored, shades of brown and grey, with yellow eyes and a swollen, pregnant belly.
Sandor is helping someone to their feet, someone small and waterlogged. He straightens the boy up, and Sansa notes features quickly—too-long hair, the same color as her own; wide, sad, Stark-grey eyes; long face. It can’t be, she thinks desperately. It can’t be, he’s dead—
But then she’s screaming, screaming, “Rickon! Rickon!” and rushing down the hillside, the brother who summoned her entirely forgotten. Rickon looks up, and when he spots her he starts to shout, too, and runs to meet her.
She falls to her knees among the grasses and clutches her brother to her chest, sobbing into his dripping hair. He holds her, too, and says her name over and over like a prayer. His voice is deeper, his body taller. He’s eight, she knows that, but he looks older—ten, or ten-and-two, at least. He’s tall, and lanky, and he looks so much like Robb and Father—
“Oh, Rickon,” she gasps. “Oh, my sweet brother, my sweet boy—”
“’S’okay, Sansa,” he tells her, his hands fisting in her gown and in her hair. “We’re together now. Osha’s dead, but Bran’s alive. He’s Beyond the Wall. Arya’s alive, too, Nymeria can feel it. Shaggy can feel it. She’s learning how to make new faces.”
While her brother chatters, Sansa looks up to her Hound. He’s watching her carefully, ready to come if she calls him, and when Rickon falls silent she finds herself whispering, “Sandor—what do we do now?”
He lifts his eyebrow and replies, “What do we do now, Queen in the North?”
Rickon answers for her, though, quickly and fiercly: “We kill Ramsay Bolton, and we take Witnerfell back.”
Sandor is still looking at her, though, so Sansa nods. Her Hound nods back.
The Last Hearth is alive with shouts—no, roars—of “King in the North!” as Rickon stands before the High Hearth, Shaggydog and Nymeria on one side, Sansa on the other. There’s a crown on his head, sunk down low against his brow and flattening his hair against his ears, a crown of bronze points just like the one Robb wore. Sansa wears one of her own, a circlet, carved in winter roses and fit perfectly to her temples.
Behind her, Sandor seems both bored and exhilarated, somehow, with one hand resting against the pommel of his sword and the other touching just slightly against the small of her back.
“My sister and I are all that remains of House Stark in Westeros,” Rickon says, once the shouts have quieted down. This is, technically, true; Arya is somewhere Across the Narrow Sea, and nobody considers the lands Beyond the Wall part of the Seven Kingdoms.
The bannermen watch him with rapt attention, as does Sansa. He may be young, but there’s something… almost frightening about the smallest Stark. He was reared, she now knows, on Skaagos, by a wildling woman who taught him first to be a man by wildling standards and second to be a king by moral ones. Most of the bannermen here – Umber, Cerwyn, Dustin, Flint, Hornwood, Manderly, Reed, Ryswell – have sons who are older than the boy they’re calling King, and yet not a one of them has challenged him.
Not a one.
“We will take Winterfell,” Rickon says, slowly and surely, “and from my Father’s seat I will govern the North. We are removing ourselves from this Game of Thrones the rest of the realm’s high lords are playing. We are the North, I say, and we do not need their politics and their wars!”
The bannermen cheer as Rickon continues, “We are the North, and we bow to no one. We kneel to no one. If the Lannisters and the Freys and the other Southron swine want to fight amongst themselves, we will let them, but winter is coming, brothers, and the North will prepare for it. We will close off the Neck, we will draw out borders at Moat Caitlin, and we will endure!”
The hall quite literally shakes with the force of the cheering, the shouting, the chanting of “King Rickon,” and “Winterfell,” and “King in the North,”—with the chanting, louder and louder, solidifying, unifying, of, “Winter is Coming! Winter is Coming!”
Sansa touches the circlet at her brows—her crown—and sways back against her Hound, who catches her easily.
“This is everything I want, Sandor,” she tells him. “I cannot help but feel that something will go wrong.”
Ramsay Snow’s bitches lie in the snow of Winterfell’s yard, each and every one of them torn to shreds in Shaggydog and Nymeria’s rage, and all around them are the bodies of Bolton men, and a few of Rickon’s as well.
The Great Hall is alive with the sounds of celebrating, but in the antechamber Sansa cries, loud and desperate and anguished, as Sandor swabs at her skin with a wine-dampened cloth.
“I’m sorry, Little Bird,” he whispers, leaning over her so closely that she can feel his breath fluttering her hair, the heat pouring off him. She knows, in that way that she simply does where he is concerned, that he wants more than anything at the moment to block out the entire realm, to lock her up in this room and make her safe.
“You are not at fault,” she tells him, fingers tightening around the wrist of his free hand as he brings the cloth to her again.
“I am,” he snarls. “I never should have left you.”
When Rickon’s men had stormed the castle, Sansa had been left behind with a handful of competent guards and Nymeria. The direwolf had been drawn into the bloodbath between her mate and Ramsay’s dogs, and not long after a handful of Bolton men had massacred Sansa’s guards and taken her captive. They’d carried her through the woods to a small camp where she’d been dropped at the feet of none other than the Bastard Bolton himself.
He’d been in the process of introducing her to his flaying knife when Sandor had appeared, sprayed waist-to-crown in blood and gore, and literally ripped Sansa’s captor’s arm from its socket.
“You’ve more than made up for it,” she tells him, gritting her teeth as he dips the needle into her skin for the first time. It’s been torn open (rather neatly, at least; flaying knives are nothing if not delicate) but not removed, and while she’ll have a disgusting scar on the right side of her chest, she will live.
Thanks to her Hound.
“I’ve not,” he argues, pinning her carefully with his free hand as the stitches start to take form, marching a neat, dark line that mirrors the line of her collarbone.
She reaches out and cups his cheek, his burned cheek, and tilts his face up until he’s looking into her eyes. Slowly, deliberately, she leans in and kisses his burned flesh, dangerously close to that marred corner of his mouth, and assures him, “You have, Sandor. You protected me. You tore him to pieces.”
“I’m your sworn shield,” he tells her, very carefully not reacting to her kiss. “I promised to never leave your side, and I never will again—no matter how much your blasted brother wants me at his.”
“Rickon worships you,” she grumbles. “Of course he wanted you at his side.”
“Well he’ll have to learn to live without me, because this dog will be sleeping at his lady’s feet for the duration of his stay in Winterfell.”
Sansa smiles at him, somehow managing to feel coy, even while she’s in agonizing pain. “Silly Sandor, why in Westeros would you sleep at my feet when there’s plenty of room in the bed?”
His astonished expression has her laughing well into the night.
Her Hound comes into her bedchamber (hers only in name, as he sleeps there most nights, too) with a bundle of fur in the crook of his arm. Sansa is behind her dressing screen, struggling with the laces of her gown, sure that she’s going to find a dark red stain in the thick cloth she’s been wearing in her smallclothes for a full week now, in expectation of her moon blood.
“Nymeria’s litter is finally weaned,” Sandor says, dumping the pup on the bed and sinking down after it, bending to unlace his boots. His position as Master at Arms keeps him busy most days, but he enjoys it, Sansa knows.
“Are they?” she calls over the screen, shedding the out layer of her dress and starting in on the laces of the inner, which are much easier to handle, worn and soft as they are.
“Mm,” he grunts, reaching over and patting the young direwolf, a curious, bright-eyed male that he’d known from the moment he saw it would be perfect for Sansa, on the head. “Rickon named them all—one after Grey Wind, one after Lady, and the other two are called Winter and Midnight.” Midnight is the one currently nosing Sandor’s thigh, whining quietly like he wants a treat.
Sansa doesn’t reply, too intent on sliding out of her smallclothes now that the inner layer of her gown is gone. Her moon blood is always on time, always, and she’s six days without it now. Her eyes are closed as she steps out of the cloth, but she knows before she opens them that something is wrong—she doesn’t feel the warmth, the wetness, the heavy ache in her belly or the pain in her back that usually accompanies her bleeding.
She picks up the pad, the one Sandor had groaned at six days ago when she’d pulled it from the wardrobe, knowing there would be no sex until the cloths were out of use, and steps out from behind the screen.
“I’ve got a pup for you,” he says, smiling in earnest, looking up toward her and expecting her to smile back.
Instead she holds up the thick cloth, completely clean, snowy white, and murmurs in a somewhat shocked voice, “It would seem I’ve got one for you, too.”
Rickon doesn’t take much convincing—not when, technically, Sansa is his Queen Regent until he turns six-and-ten and, therefore, has the power to order his approval anyway—and the wedding is a small affair, held in the godswood.
Sansa’s belly is already starting to strain against her favorite gown, but her maiden cloak is so large that nobody can see it. Rickon walks her up to the heart tree with Midnight at their heels, and Sandor gives her another one of those genuine smiles when she lays her hand in his.
He unfastens her Stark cloak and throws his own, the one she stitched so carefully for him on the Quiet Isle, around her shoulders quickly. Rickon, beaming, turns back to the scant few bannermen and castlefolk who are crowded among the trees and announces in what Sansa thinks of as his King Voice, “Sansa Stark is no more; I present to you the Lady Sansa Clegane.”
Sansa turns to her Hound—her husband—and he catches her face between his huge hands, brings her mouth to his, and kisses her as he has only kissed her in the privacy of their bedchamber before.
When he releases her she’s breathless and beaming like her brother.
Sometimes, it appears, there are happy endings, after all.