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The Ghost and Lady Hardyng

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The Ghost and Lady Hardyng

 

The Ghost and Lady Hardyng

 

 

The Abbey, Quiet Isle, 1882

 

Her Grace the Duchess of Arryn, Sansa Hardyng-- formerly the Duchess of Stormlands, and née Stark-- was recently widowed for the second time and, frankly, rather pleased about it.

Her deceased husband's heir, one Bronze Yohn Royce, had waited until just the correct side of decency before arriving at Arryn's ancestral pile, The Aerie, to take residency. He'd paid lip service to the offer he knew he must make to the widow of his very distant relation, Harrold-- that of a dower house for her to live in-- and hadn't expected her to reply that, yes, she would like to take one of the dependent properties, thank you very much.

He'd expected her to want to return to her very own ancestral pile, after all. Winterfell was the beloved seat of the ducal Stark family, and positively seethed with humanity, most of it related to her. Starks were well-known for taking too seriously the advice that couples should be fruitful and multiply. Sansa herself was one of five (six if one counted the bastard cousin, and Starks always counted the bastard cousin). The eldest, Robb, had married and was seven-ninths of the way to having a third child. The bastard cousin had wed a Highlander and gotten started on what surely would be an absolute passel of ginger-headed wildlings, his wife recently delivered of their second. Even the younger of the Stark daughters had produced a child with her strapping-big husband (yet another bastard).

Bran, in his last year of university, and Rickon, yet in his teens, were both too young to have added to the collection of grandchildren yet, but the former was already affianced so it was a mere matter of time before he, too, contributed to the ever-expanding number of Starks infesting the North.

That left Sansa. Wed not merely once, but twice, and neither marriage had produced so much as a single late day in her woman's cycle. In view of who her husbands had been-- the monstrous Joffrey Baratheon firstly, then the less-monstrous-but-still-not-stellar Harrold Hardyng thereafter, this lack of offspring was generally considered to be a boon, for the rest of the kingdom if not for Sansa herself.

Oh, she knew it was for the best. Joffrey's blood had been tainted by greed and malice, and Harry was just, as her sister Arya deemed him upon their first meeting, a 'smarmy rotter' with no concept of marital fidelity. Still, she rather thought she'd like to have children.

She'd like more to have a husband who actually cared for her, however.

Most of all, she wanted everyone to stop hounding her to 'get back on the horse' and find herself a third husband. Married the first time at eighteen, she'd scarcely been out of her mandatory two years of mourning for Joffrey before she'd married Harrold just after turning twenty-two. Now twenty-six, she yearned for some time to herself, some space, some quiet to think and decide how next to proceed.

One thing was certain: she would not be remarrying again for a very long time. Not until she was at least thirty. If her mother's persisting beauty was any indication, Sansa would keep her youthful appeal for many a year yet to come. She had plenty of time.

And so she chose the most remote, far-flung, and boring of Arryn's dependencies as her dower house: the old Abbey, home to a monastery a thousand years ago, on a small island squatting just where the Bay of Crabs began to tighten itself into the Trident. There were rumors it was haunted, which Sansa fervently hoped was the case-- would it be a ghostly brother stalking the hallways in his homespun robe? Or some long-slain reaver who'd sailed up the river in search of easy plunder?

Sansa eschewed the train, preferring to make the trip the old way, by coach-and-four, stopping each night at a roadside inn before carrying on the next morning. Sansa enjoyed the mindlessness of staring out the carriage window at the landscape as it rolled by. Rocks and trees and water, the odd hamlet and farm. It was restful, rejuvenating, and after a week's travel, upon her arrival at The Abbey, she felt better than she had in years.

At long, long last, she was free.

~*~

Quiet Isle was a small place, grown up to support The Abbey back when it had been an actual abbey, the home of monks dedicating their lives to the Seven. After all the monasteries had been closed a few centuries back, and their assets seized by the crown, it was granted to the Duke of Arryn, and had been one of the duchy's holdings ever since.

Sansa had visited only once before, an overnight stop while traveling from King's Landing after Joffrey's death, on her way to The Aerie to marry Harrold. She'd loved the cries of the sea birds, the gentle lapping of waves against the shore, how the little causeway connecting the island to the mainland disappeared underwater during high tide.

She'd loved the feel of the place, how deeply restful it was, how easily it seemed to accept her. The ancient stone walls, a yard thick and draped with ivy, made her feel as if she had a sworn shield as her bulwark against all dangers, in a way she hadn't felt since childhood, long before she'd ever met Joffrey and had her innocent love of romance and chivalry wrenched away by brutal force.

It was the first thing she'd thought of, the first place, when Bronze Yohn had asked to where she wanted to remove, and now as the carriage rumbled across the slick cobbles of the causeway, she was glad she'd picked it.

A telegram had been sent to The Abbey as soon as she'd decided to come; she knew, as she stepped from the carriage toward the line of servants waiting to greet her, that the place would have been made ready for her.

"Your Grace," intoned the butler. "I am Narbert. We are honored you chose The Abbey as your dower house."

"Thank you, Narbert," she replied, nodding briefly at each maid and footman, each potboy and tweenie, all of whom bobbed a bow or curtsy at her before fleeing back to their duties. "I will change out of this traveling costume and then have tea in the parlor in one hour."

Narbert bowed and left to direct the staff to her wishes. Sansa followed his wife, the housekeeper, up the long, curving stairs, her maid Poppy and a trunk-laden footman trailing in her wake.

The room that had been prepared for her was the lady's suite, meant to be occupied by the mistress of the house. It was elegantly papered in cream flowers on a cerulean background, echoing the colors present elsewhere in the room, in the silks on the bed and the velvets at the windows. Everything was a decade out-of-mode, nicely shabby and lived-in. It felt wondrously comfortable to Sansa, a welcome departure from the stifling perfection of claustrophobic, lavish plushness that characterized her home with Joffrey, and the austere sparsity of bare floor and naked walls and unupholstered furniture she'd suffered at The Aerie.

She felt like Goldilocks: this worn old abbey was just right, and once again, Sansa was stricken by how appropriate her choice had been to come here. Oh, how giddy she felt, to be in her own home, no cold-eyed mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, no husband countermanding her every command and directing every aspect of her life. She could dress as she liked, eat what she liked, sleep and wake when she liked. If there were a day she wished to walk to the village, she could do that. And if there were a day she felt like doing nothing but sitting at the parapets atop the tallest tower, staring at the water, watching the local fishermen ply their trade, why, she could do that, as well!

With a smile directed down at her feet, Sansa thought with glee of the huge box of chocolates and racy novel she'd brought with her for her first days at The Abbey. She fully intended to establish herself in the house's most comfortable chair, by a cozy fire, with a cup of steaming tea at her elbow, and do nothing but read and eat.

That ideal day was not to be for some while, alas.

By the next morning, Sansa soon realized that the ambiance of genteel neglect had not been carefully cultivated, as per the current fashion, to show a sort of exasperated resignation for one's ancient ancestral home and furnishings. No, The Abbey had genuinely been forgotten, and had scraped by with the bare minimum for a decade or more. Narbert and his wife had not taken salaries in years. Some of the shopkeeps in the village had been extending credit for months, and their patience had begun to wear thin. Sansa's advent to Quiet Isle had come at a fortuitous time, it seemed.

This would not do at all.

Sansa asked Narbert for a telegram blank and wrote out a demand to Bronze Yohn for the entirety of her dowager's portion in careful language and precise lettering. Then she went down to the village and observed it being sent before visiting each and every shop and paying a token amount toward The Abbey's burgeoning debts, to indicate she intended to fully compensate them.

By the time she trudged back up the rain-slick hill, her skirt's hem was damp to her knees and her boots caked in cold mud, but she felt a fine warm glow of satisfaction for having done her duty by the townspeople. Her father had always admonished her to never take advantage of them, that they lived closer to the bone than the upper classes realized and could scarce afford to wait when nobs decided they needed to fritter away funds better spent on fulfilling their obligations.

However, it meant that she was now down to her last two dragons, eight stags, and a fistful of copper stars. She hoped that Bronze Yohn would be prompt in wiring the money to her, and that the larder was well-stocked enough until he did, because there would be few purchases made until then.

"The Abbey is financially embarrassed at the moment, Narbert," Sansa told the butler while unbuttoning her damp pelisse. "We'll have a lavish party once more funds arrive, but until then, we're on rations."

"How do you mean, Your Grace?" Narbert asked, wary. He took the pelisse, holding it with ginger fingertips so as to not transfer its dampness to his pristine self, and handed it to a nearby maid to launder.

"Light meals, no coal at night, and do any of the footmen have talent at fishing? Perhaps one or two could try their hand and see if they can catch us some supper."

In counterpoint to Narbert's dour expression at this, Sansa was feeling rather light-hearted. No one ever starved for eating sparingly a few days, and if it were the price she paid to be mistress of her own home, so be it.

"I'll inquire, Your Grace," Narbert intoned, and made his dignified way down the hall.

Sansa ascended the stairs to her suite, enlisting the assistance of a passing maid to help her into another plain black day gown. How glad she would be when her mourning period was over and she could wear colors again! But losing Harry meant she was to be imprisoned in black for a full year, then in gray for another year beyond that.

Twenty-two more months... Sansa wondered if, being so far from anyone she knew, she could chance wearing colors. Nothing bright or pastel, of course, but something drab... brown, camel, perhaps a muted green? She looked terrible in black, and worse in gray, for all that it was her family's official color. And since the main reason she was worth anything to anyone was her looks, when she looked pallid and sickly, it depressed her mood.

Yes, she decided as she smoothed her dark bombazine skirt, tomorrow she would try it and see if the servants would be hopelessly offended by her irreverence.

Then Sansa frowned, because it sounded as if a snort of laughter had come from the other side of the room. A masculine snort, at that, which made no sense because how could there be a man in her room? The only male persons in the The Abbey were the footmen who had taken their unfortunate selves off to try catching fish in this torrent, the gardener and coachman playing cards in the stables since it was too rainy to work, and Narbert, who likely didn't even want to see his own wife in a state of undress, let alone his employer.

It must merely have been her imagination.

She plucked her novel from the bed, the box of chocolates from the table, and settled in for a cozy afternoon.

~*~

A light supper of poached fish with potatoes and carrots was brought up, and Sansa ate while continuing to read, even after the fire went out. She had come to a particularly exciting part of the book, where the heroine was being ravished by the pirate by whom she'd been abducted. He was described as a tall and strong man, fierce and brave, and she thrilled a bit at the idea of being embraced by such. Both Joffrey and Harrold had been handsome, but slight, and no taller than she.

How would it feel, she pondered, to be held against a wide chest, and gaze up at the man who was about to kiss her so masterfully? Thoughtful, she closed the volume on a bookmark and wandered to her bed while unbuttoning her shirtwaist. She'd already told her maid that she'd undress herself, and made quick work of it, rubbing briskly at her ribs to sooth the reddened marks left by her front-closing corset.

She stood, nude, in the rapidly cooling air of her bedroom, and enjoyed the freedom from all those encumbering layers. Nighttime was the only part of her life when she felt at ease; no eyes upon her, no constricting clothing. Behind that door, she could be herself. She drew a long linen nightgown over her head and turned the damper on the oil lamp at her bedside.

Sansa lay in the bed for a long while, relaxed but awake. The mattress cradled her body nicely, the sheets were crisp and the quilt, soft and warm. Still her mind felt too active for sleep, her thoughts returning to the romance scene in her novel. What would it be like, to be desired for herself, instead of for what she brought to a union? And more, what would it be like to actually want a man, to be affected by his powerful body, to long to run her hands over his strong limbs, instead of submitting out of obligation?

She pictured herself in place of the kidnapped heroine of the novel, clasped in the passionate arms of her pirate lover. He was dark, she decided, with long unruly hair and a face more saturnine than handsome. There was a cruel set to his lips, but his eyes were blazing with desire. He pulled her close and kissed her deeply, as if he were starving and she the last morsel of food in the world.

Sansa covered her breast with her own hand, pretending it was his that cupped and caressed her, his fingers that rubbed and pinched her nipple. She and her pirate were laying down now, his big body looming as he kissed her, his tongue playing sensually with hers. Her breath came faster and heat streaked through her veins. Desire twisted her belly, and her legs moved restlessly until he covered them with one of his own.

Her hands-- his hands-- flung off the covers, then slid down Sansa's legs and began rucking up her nightgown. Warm palms skated over her thighs, parting them while she gasped. Long, thick fingers arrowed straight to the heart of her, sliding easily.

Sansa was drowning in heat. Impatiently, she wrenched the nightgown over her head and tossed it to the floor. Her reward was a hot, wet mouth on her nipple, and a finger slipped deep inside. The pirate sucked on her breast, hard, and it was as if there was a red-hot wire connecting her nipple to the locus of nerves between her legs. Her hands tangled in his hair, and she bit her own lip viciously to keep from making noise.

The hand withdrew from between her thighs, pressing them wide, and the pirate's body came to rest there instead. He was so large, it seemed as if he were everywhere, surrounding her. The blunt, rounded head of his shaft stroked up her center and she keened, arching up, begging for more contact.

The pirate chuckled in her ear, a low, sensuous sound, and then he was sinking into her. Sansa struggled for breath; his penetration was masterful, complete, straining the bounds of her capacity. She was shocked, and wildly excited. The pirate's long hair fell around their faces as he leaned in to kiss her again, and his tongue found hers just as his hips began to piston.

Oh, but it was good.

It had never approached this with Harry, though he'd tried, and certainly nowhere near it with Joffrey. Not even touching herself, in the past, had compared to the way lust pulsed through her body, stronger and stronger until she was clutching around his chest, fingernails digging into the rippled muscles of his back as she moved her hips in counterpoint to his thrusts.

Every withdrawal was agony, and the split second before the next penetration seemed like an hour. Sansa had never realized how empty she had been, all this time. Now that she knew what it was to be truly filled, how would she endure going back? She clamped her arms around her pirate, sliding against his chest, slick with his sweat as his pace quickened.

The scent of their sex was thick in the air, and Sansa should have been mortified by the vulgarity of it, the bawdy slapping of flesh against flesh, the way each of his thrusts pushed a cry from her lips. She felt the escalation of her passion, felt the red-hot wire pulled tighter and tighter, and strained against him, chasing after him every time he withdrew.

His big hands framed her face and held her for his kiss, another near-brutal invasion. She nipped his bottom lip, sucked on his tongue, moaned into his mouth. It was about to happen, she was so close, and he never faltered, never slowed down or finished too soon as Joffrey had been wont to do. Sansa realized, in wonderment, that he was going to power right through her climax instead of leaving her twitchy and frustrated, as had been Harrold's usual habit.

And then it was there, it was crashing over her, and she was writhing against him. She could not have stifled her outcries of pleasure if she had tried, and her voice echoed off the room's stone walls. Above her, the pirate was shuddering, driving deeply into her so that her pleasure stretched far longer than she had thought possible. He threw back his head, neck corded with thick muscle that Sansa wanted to bite, his harsh face a rictus of ecstasy.

His hips flew between her thighs, making her flesh feel like it was aflame, and she felt shock as she came again, suddenly, flung headlong into it with no warning at all. She sucked in a breath, needing to scream her satisfaction to the heavens, but her pirate threaded his fingers into her hair-- the braid had come undone around the same time as her nightgown-- and pressed her face to his shoulder. Sansa took the rounded cap of muscle between her teeth and rode out her climax with the salt of his sweat strong on her tongue.

"Oh, God," she panted when her limbs unlocked and she could breathe again. "Oh, God. Oh, God."

The pirate's feel and scent faded, and Sansa became aware of herself once more. Had she fallen asleep? That had been the most vivid, realistic, and arousing dream she'd ever had. She was damp with perspiration, completely nude, with her legs wide and both her hands between them, one still resting on the button at the top of her split and the fingers of the other-- all four of them-- plunged deep inside. As soon as she realized, her body clenched around them once more.

"Oh, God," Sansa groaned again, and quickly withdrew them. They were soaked and she desperately wanted to wash them, and wipe off her sweat, but her legs were still quivering and she knew she'd never make it to the wash stand.

She lay there a long time, and flinched when she realized how noisy she had been-- might the servants have overheard her? But the walls of the Abbey were a foot thick of stone, and the doors all solid wood. Unless they'd had their ears pressed to the keyholes, they would not have been able to hear her rough wails and harsh gasps. She felt her face flame, embarrassment rolling in a wave over her.

But why should she be embarrassed? she thought contrarily a moment later. She'd been a good and proper wife-- twice-- hadn't she? Never so much as peeked at another man despite her aversion to her own husbands. And if she sought satisfaction for herself after they'd disappointed her, well, that was only sensible, wasn't it? Wouldn't do to go to bed all achy and unfulfilled, feeling sordid and used after they'd left her in her damp, mussed bed.

Finally, Sansa's breathing returned to normal, and her skin was covered in goose pimples from the chill of the night air on her bare, sweat-damp flesh. When she felt her legs would hold her, she stood and made her wobbly way to the wash stand. The water in the pitcher was cold, but it felt refreshing as she sponged off her body. Once dry, she pulled on her nightgown for the second time, ran a brush quickly through her tangled hair, and braided it again.

Sansa had just enough strength to fall back into bed and pull the covers over herself. Her last thought was dreamy amazement at how incredibly, wonderfully realistic her pirate had been. The book had not seemed that excellent a story, nor the characters so compelling, but clearly when inspired, her imagination was up to the challenge of improvising quite a splendid bed partner indeed.

She decided not to donate that book to the lending library as planned.

Chapter Text

The next day was a good one for Sansa. She felt quite relaxed and rested, and the reason why— her shameless fantasy and the activities it had inspired— brought a flush to her face each time she thought of it.

A telegram from Bronze Yohn indicated he would be transferring the promised funds to her account within days, to her relief. It was a considerable sum and, once all debts and back-pay had been satisfied, she would be investing it to ensure it could last her the rest of her life, for she fully intended to remain unwed a third time. Perhaps it was ludicrous, a woman of twenty-six swearing off husband and family, but the alternative thus far had been beyond disappointing, and she felt comfortable with sacrificing her dreams of children if it meant she had agency over her own person, finally and for once.

If only it were not such a lonely prospect…

A frisson of sensation ran down the back of her neck. Sansa stiffened, where she was seated at her desk, writing letters to her many siblings to assure them of her settlement in her new home. It were as if a current of cool air had been displaced by someone’s movement. But that was not possible, was it? She was alone in her sitting room…

…wasn’t she?

No.

Someone else was there. She was certain of it, could feel the person’s presence as if they— he— were standing right beside her. Her breath came shallowly, from between lips parted in thrilled terror. Ghosts and spiritualism were all the thing in the cities now; being out in the country with Harry, she hadn’t heard of many séances taking place, but when she’d been in King’s Landing with the bestial Joffrey, she’d attended one a fortnight, or even more often.

She hadn’t really believed in them, but they were a nice excuse to spend time with others, and most importantly be out in public where Joffrey couldn’t insult or strike her. But, like a sponge, she’d heard and absorbed some things from the mediums conducting the séances. The air around her was becoming colder, misting before her face as she exhaled. Hands shaking with excitement, Sansa seated herself at the desk and gathered her courage before speaking.

“H-hello,” she began, feeling very stupid. “I know you’re there. I can feel you.”

Surprise. Sansa could feel that the spirit had not expected any response from her.

“You thought I would not be able to tell you are there?”

Yes.

She marveled that these impressions were forming in her mind so clearly. Was this how mediums communicated with the dead?

“Are you going to hurt me?” She had no idea what she would or could do if so, but thought asking might not go amiss.

Amusement. No. No, he would not hurt her, and thought it was funny that she’d ask. She scowled, because it was a very reasonable question, she felt. The amusement grew in response to her pique. The spirit, she decided, was a pest.

Wry laughter. She could almost hear it. The spirit was acknowledging, with humor, that he was indeed a pest. And that Sansa was understating it, in fact. She was startled enough to let out a laugh of her own, quickly stifled behind her hand.

“I am Sansa,” she announced. Her mind had an impression of the swirl of a cloak, the sweep of an arm, as a man offered an old-fashioned bow of greeting, with a sharp edge of mockery.

“You don’t have to be rude about it,” she sniffed, and again came the amusement. “Do you have a name?”

Yes, but with a tinge of contempt; of course he had a name; was she stupid? Sansa was half inclined to give this pesty spirit a piece of her mind, but she didn’t want to lose the opportunity to actually communicate with him. She withdrew a sheet of paper and drew the markings of a ouija board across it as accurately as she could recall.

“I have seen spirits guide the hand of mediums with boards like this,” she said in a hushed voice. “Will you do that with me? It will be easier.”

Yes.

Sansa didn’t have a planchette to rest her hands on, and was sitting there, pencil still in hand while she wondered how to compensate, when she felt something encompass her hand. It felt exactly as if a large man had surrounded her hand with his own. She only had time to gasp before her hand was moving without her instruction, under the aegis of the spirit.

Her hand slid across the paper until the pencil’s point rested on the S she had written. Then it was moving to the left, to the A. N, D, O, and R followed in swift succession.

“Your name is Sandor,” she whispered.

Yes.

Sansa barely stopped herself from squealing in delight. Squealing was so inappropriate for a twice-made duchess and young lady of her age. But elation raced through her, and it mingled with the amusement of the spirit as she became aware of it.

“Sandor, you must tell me about yourself,” she gushed. “I know you’re a man— you feel quite manly—” she broke off, blushing a little, because underlying all the emotions she’d sensed from him was an powerfully masculine undertone, something dominant and intensely strong. Genuinely strong, not the cruel bullying Joffrey had used to pretend at courage, nor the indiscriminate whoring Harry had engaged in to ‘prove’ his masculinity. No, her ghost had nothing to prove, and no need for pretense. There was something of the apex predator in him, supremely confident, and Sansa liked it.

A lot.

Pleasure. He was fiercely pleased not only that she had understood so much about him, but that it had affected her so. She felt uncomfortable for the first time, realizing that her ghost had access to her thoughts, will she or nil she.

“This,” she murmured, “will not do.”

Questioning.

“Tell me how to hide my thoughts,” she said. “I do not want you able to stroll through my mind as you like.”

The big male hand covered her own once more, and started zipping across the paper so quickly that Sansa soon could not follow, and started laughing.

“Slower, slower! Again, from the beginning!”

But the hand made her flip over the paper and began manipulating her pencil into words, uneven and jagged.

I dont think theres a way to keep me out

No one ever knew I was here before so no need to try

Sansa sat and stared at the wobbly letters he had scribbled across the page. She was unsure if she should feel uncomfortable by the way he had taken control of her hand that way, but before she could work herself into a dudgeon, he wrote another line.

“I’m the first one you’ve ever been able to communicate with?”

Yes.

“Has it been a long time?”

Yes, with emphasis.

“How long?”

what year is it now? scrawled under his previous lines.

“It is eighteen hundred and eighty-two.”

There was a long pause.

been near to a thousand years then

All by himself for a thousand years? Sansa’s heart contracted.

“How lonely you must feel!” she gasped. “How awful for you, to be alone so long—”

Anger.

chirping platitudes like a little bird, he scribbled. I don’t want your fucking pity. And then he underlined the words, pressing hard enough to snap the pencil’s point.

Sansa jerked in surprise, cringing back in her chair. She felt awful for upsetting him, and then she became angry.

“Don’t you yell at me,” she told him, her voice low but furious as she tossed the broken pencil to the surface of the desk. “I’ve been yelled at quite enough by men for whom I’m a convenient target, and I won’t have it again.”

Shock. Then a cold little tendril seemed to thread its way through her mind, and she knew he was exploring her memories. Her first instinct was to cringe more, to feel shame for how she’d capitulated to Joffrey’s rages, how she’d justified Harrold’s infidelities. But no. No longer. She’d survived the beatings, the screaming, the innumerable humiliations. She had nothing to be ashamed of.

Shock shock shock.

He really was amazed to learn of her ignominious history. Sansa smiled grimly; served him right, for prying when she’d told him not to, and for being rude and vulgar in response to her compassion.

But then she was the one in shock, because the channel between them was going both ways. It had loosened some seal, had opened some door, that kept his emotions in check, and for a moment she felt as if she were drowning in him. He was stoicism and practicality, determination and strength, confidence and vigor. He was, most poignantly, loneliness and yearning— though those two were hastily swept back out of sight in hopes she’d missed them.

And threading throughout the intricate tapestry of him was anger, anger, anger. Sansa gasped again, to feel it. She thought she’d been humiliated, had experienced betrayal, had felt pain, but she knew then that her own past held nothing in comparison to how Sandor had suffered.

She reached out— with her arms at first, like a ninny— before recalling she was conversing with a non-corporeal being, and trying to stretch the bounds of her mind to him. The first tentative touch was rebuffed as he recoiled from her, but Sansa persisted, crowding him with a courage fueled by her need to soothe another person who knew torment. She wrapped her mind around him, her heart throbbing in response to his misery.

Shock. Panic. Confusion. And then, “No. No.”

Sansa sucked in a breath, stupefied. He had spoken. She’d heard him as clearly as if he’d shouted in her ear.

“Yes,” she said, fighting to maintain her mental grip around him. “I won’t hurt you.”

“As if you could,” he rasped, right behind her, and she leapt from the chair to spin around.

There, behind her, was a silvery outline of a man, hard to discern because of the room’s dim light, but when she squinted, yes, there he was… tall and massively built, but so faded it was difficult to make out his features.

Shock shock shock.

His, and her own. He was as astonished as she that it had happened, she could tell from the poleaxed expression on his face.

Oh, his face

A huge scar covered one half of it from hairline to chin, mottled and raw-looking. For a moment, the smell of seared flesh was pungent in Sansa’s nose, and she realized with horror that she was still in his mind, and that wasn’t her vivid imagination.

It was his memory of his own face cooking.

She took an aborted step forward, wanting to protect him from the flames, though they had already touched him, or wanting to comfort him, though his wounds had already healed. She could scarcely breathe past the lump in her throat, and just stared at him, speechless even as his features contorted in fury and he began a litany of the most profane curses she had ever had the misfortune to hear.

He said words from other languages, words that had gone out of use centuries ago, even words that Sansa suspected had not been invented yet. When she was able to unlock her knees once more, she parked herself upon the settee and waited for him to finish. His stamina was impressive, too, because she stared at him patiently for at least a full minute, and his tirade did not falter for even a moment.

When at last her teeming emotions had calmed, she decided it was time to interrupt him. Sansa gave a genteel cough and a pointed look. He didn’t appear ashamed as he ought to have done, to have spoken so in the company of a lady, but at least he stopped, clamping his mouth shut and glowering at her from under a heavy brow.

“I don’t want your fucking pity,” he repeated, verbally this time instead of on paper. His voice was deep and soft and hoarse, putting her in mind of velvet over gravel, which made no sense but she was in no mindset to figure out the blatherings of her own thoughts just then.

“Fortunate, since I was not offering any,” she replied tartly, and was gratified to see his eyes narrow a bit. “I would not waste my time pitying you, since you have no appreciation for it. No, I was feeling empathy, since the tiny amount that I could comprehend of what you went through must have been appalling. Compassion, since I am very sorry you had to endure that, and wish you had not. And admiration, for you to have survived it. You must be very strong indeed, both in body and spirit.”

He squinted at her, clearly suspecting a trap.

“Believe me or not, as you will,” she said, waving a breezy hand. “Will you have a seat?” She gestured to the squashy armchair across from her settee. “I am very excited that we can communicate, and I have many questions. Will you answer them?”

He nodded slowly, suspicion gleaming in his eyes, and took a seat, sprawling in it in a way that rather amazed Sansa— she’d never seen a man so relaxed in her presence that he’d sit with his legs all over, crowding her space. She made a mental note of how fine those legs were, long and muscled in the snug trousers he wore with knee-high boots and a tunic.

“This will be a short and unhappy chat if you refuse to ever speak again,” she said, teasingly, leaning forward to meet his downcast gaze, trying to coax a smile from him.

He lifted to her a piercing gaze that seemed more gray, somehow, than the rest of him, and the faintest smirk curled his lips.

“Are you trying to flirt information out of me?” he rumbled.

“Will it work?” she shot back. “I am very determined to have my way, you see, and will be shameless in the attempt.”

He shook his head briefly, as if in resignation, but she had the sense of his cooperation.

“So, first things first, yes?” she began. “You said your name is Sandor. Do you have a last name?”

“Clegane,” he replied easily.

Sansa committed it to her memory.

“And what years were you alive?” she asked. “Oh, dear, is that insensitive of me, to reference your death? I’m terribly sorry, if so.”

Sandor shrugged. “Death is part of life, and I’ve had long enough to get used to the fact that I’m gone.” He frowned a bit deeper, then, as if thinking hard. “I don’t remember when I was alive, exactly. Not anymore. Been a while, y’understand.”

“Is that a frequent characteristic of ghosts?” she inquired.

“As I’m the only ghost of my acquaintance, I could not tell you,” he replied with a hint of humor.

“Ah, so there are no others here in the Abbey?”

“None others on the entire isle,” said Sandor. “And believe me, I looked. I don’t think I was a man much for companionship, when I was alive, but after the first few centuries with only myself to speak to, I went looking.”

He had been staring down at his outstretched legs while speaking, but now raised those piercing eyes to her once more.

“I’m very glad you can hear me,” he said, gruff but sincere, and a little embarrassed, Sansa suspected. “You’re the first person who could.”

She thought of centuries of speaking and speaking and no one hearing a word, and felt a pang in her chest at how alone he’d been, totally lacking for fellowship, for hadn’t she also been calling for help for years, only to receive silence in return?

“Well,” she said briskly, “here I am, and here I plan to stay for the foreseeable future. I would like for us to be friends.”

He did not say a word, but she sensed a strong current of relief coursing from him. She relaxed back into the corner of the settee and surveyed him more closely. Was it her imagination, or was his form seeming more solid as time passed? He had been barely visible at first, but now he seemed less translucent, almost as solid as a living man, and the grayness was fading as well, leaving behind the natural colors of life.

She could see his features clearly now. Excepting the scar, they were unremarkable: a broad forehead, thick brows capping deep-set eyes and a proud nose over a mouth with surprisingly full lips. His chin, she noted, was stubborn, and she would hazard a guess that he was argumentative, as well. When his glower deepened, Sansa perceived that he was still monitoring her thoughts.

“We must discuss that as well,” she said. “I would very much appreciate privacy in my own head, if you please. In return, I promise I will stay out of yours, as well. Are we agreed?”

“I don’t know how to stop it,” Sandor told her. “I’ve spent all this time trying to have people hear me. No idea how to get them to stop.”

“We shall just have to try to be respectful of each other.”

This was met with a grunt that promised nothing in either direction, and then silence fell.

She continued to study him. He looked familiar, somehow, though she was quite sure she’d never before encountered a man such as he. Certainly she’d have remembered him: despite her own unusual height, he had towered over her in those few moments they’d both been standing while he cursed the air blue. He had shoulders an elk would envy, a deep chest that tapered into narrow hips and long, well-muscled legs. His hands, resting on his knees, were immense.

A fine physical specimen, then. He must have died in his prime. There was a grimness about his eyes that spoke of warfare, she fancied, having seen it before in the many gentlemen of her acquaintance who had taken the king’s shilling and gone off to make their fortune in the name of building an empire in exotic climes. Sandor seemed like a man who knew his way around a sword and shield, and those shoulders could easily bear the burden of a mail shirt and plate armor.

Sansa surfaced from her little reverie to find that her new friend had been surveying her as well, his gaze raking slowly up and down her form. When he finally met her eyes once more, she felt oddly breathless, as if his stare had left little icy trails in its wake.

“Will I do?” she said, managing to imbue the words with a jaunty tone while hoping he was honoring his word to keep from poking about in her mind.

“Aye, you’ll do,” Sandor replied, his voice pitched even lower, his gaze resting on her mouth, and a little shaft of… something… darted from her breastbone to her navel at the sound of it.

Oh, this was madness; this made no sense at all, she thought, with a flicker of alarm. She knew what that dart of sensation had been. She’d felt it once or twice in the past, for the Duke of Highgarden’s third son, Loras, until she’d been made aware of his alternative preferences, and for Joffrey, before she’d realized his true, hideous character. And even after all she’d been through with Joffrey, she’d even felt it, a bit, for Harrold… until their wedding night, when she drew the conclusion that marital relations were vastly underwhelming in general.

Until last night’s fantasy, that was. She’d brought herself to satisfaction many times since that second disappointing wedding night, but always thinking of men in an abstract way, nothing specific or personalized. Last night’s pirate, so tall and strong… with long dark hair… and piercing eyes…

Sansa gasped as she realized just why Sandor seemed familiar to her. It was because he was identical to her pirate, the pirate who had ravished her so thoroughly in her mind.

had it been only in her mind?

Chapter Text

How did one go about asking a man— a ghost— if he were her fantasy lover? Was such a thing even possible? There seemed no way to go about it without bursting into flames of mortification.

But she could not banish it from her mind. In fact, now that she recalled the pirate, she was having trouble thinking of anything but how masterfully he had touched her, how completely he had penetrated her, how thoroughly he had brought her to climax. Excitement thrummed down Sansa’s body and, beneath her dowdy black mourning skirt, she pressed her thighs very tightly together.

To her absolute horror, she realized he was watching her closely, had seen the movement of her legs, and knew that he was aware of everything she was feeling.

“I told you,” said Sandor in response to her expression of dismay, “that I don’t know how to keep out of your mind.”

He’d been staring at her since she gasped at her realization of his role in her pleasure the previous night. Sansa blinked several times in a row, as if clearing her vision could also clear her head.

“But you’re thinking so hard, it’s like you’re shouting,” he continued. “Bloody stupid to be embarrassed, after—”

Sansa leapt to her feet, arms rigidly straight at her sides and hands clenched while she panted, hectic red patches on her cheeks.

“Don’t say it,” she cried. “I can’t bear if you say it aloud.”

He got to his feet, lazily, with a very male satisfaction painting his face so arrogant that she wanted to slap him.

“You can do it, but you can’t say it?” he scoffed. “Not so brave after all. Just a chirping little bird.”

She did slap him, then, before she knew what she was doing. Even in the grip of her embarrassment and anger, though, there was still a part of her that wondered at how she had made physical contact with him. Should her hand not have flown right through his incorporeal form?

But he was not incorporeal in fact, she realized first from the sting on her palm, and then in the way he crossed to her in one long stride and slid his big hand into her hair, carelessly disordering the painstaking coils and loops her maid Poppy had dressed it into that morning. His other hand slid around her waist and pulled her tight against him, and Sansa was shocked to feel that his body was hot instead of the coolness she had expected. She could even feel the thump of his heart against the pounding of her own.

“How are you—”

“I don’t know. Don’t care, either.” His face, craggy with scarring, loomed over her own, and she could be nothing but delighted about it. This was what she had literally dreamed of, being clasped to a masculine form, with passion shimmering in the air and each breath a pulse of desire expressed. “All I know is that you wanted me last night, and you want me now, and I’m going to take you.”

It should have horrified Sansa. She should have been screaming bloody murder, to hear of his intentions to ravish her. But the time for raising an alarm was long past, and the only impulse she found within herself, quickly indulged, was to slide her arms up that broad chest and lock her arms around his neck. How could she be embarrassed or ashamed with this man, when they’d already revealed their darkest secrets to each other?

His eyes blazed at her, bright as diamonds, and Sansa realized that colors had come to him, with his solidity. His flesh was tan, his long hair black, and his eyes were like polished pewter.

“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes on his lips, desperate to feel them against her own once more. “And I’ll take you right back.”

With a groan, Sandor bent his head and kissed her. It was just as forceful as it had been last night, except this was no fantasy. He tasted like spring water, clean and the slightest bit metallic, and the velvety texture of his tongue sent shivers through her. He had waited a thousand years for this, she gleaned from his thoughts, which were just as chaotic as her own.

Well, she thought, if he has waited this long, let it be something he’ll remember for a thousand more.

She kissed him back just as passionately, threading her fingers into his hair before sliding her hands down to rub his shoulders, feeling the bunched muscles beneath his tunic as he groaned into her mouth. A hot, vertical ridge pressed against her middle, and Sansa knew that his member— the same one that had pierced her so utterly the prior night— was asserting its presence.

Sansa pulled away, panting, and glanced at the carved clock on the mantel. She noted it was late enough in the afternoon that none of the servants should bother her for several more hours at least. It made her feel reckless, in her lust, and she sent him a series of unspoken questions about what they might do together.

“Yes,” rasped Sandor, his hands trying busily to divest her of her shirtwaist. “Let’s do them all.”

She yanked on his tunic as well, and he took an impatient step back to yank it over his head before returning to the puzzle of how to extract her from her attire.

He was just as magnificent as her pirate had been last night, brawny and broad, dusted with silky dark hair that was tantalizingly crisp against her questing palms. He hissed when she found his nipples with her fingertips, and yanked on her skirt. A few stitches ripped, but the bombazine floated to the floor, leaving her only in the dratted corset and pantalettes over filmy stockings of pale blue, tied just above her knees with silk ribbon.

“A bed,” Sandor rasped. “I need you on a bed.”

He swung her up into his arms and carried her into the adjoining bedroom, kicking the door shut behind him before chucking her without ceremony into the center of her mattress.

“Make sure all the doors are locked,” Sansa instructed breathlessly, swiping an errant lock of hair out of her face. “It wouldn’t do for the maid to ohhhhhhh…”

Sandor had obediently locked both the door to the sitting room and to the hallway. Making his way back to Sansa, he began sliding his hands up her legs, ankles to thighs, his rough hands snagging on the delicate fibers of her stockings.

“I think,” he rumbled, “that we’ll leave these on, this time.”

Sansa imagined sliding her silk-clad legs over his skin, around his waist as he covered her, and felt like she was melting into the coverlet.

“Get this corset off me,” she commanded, rolling to her front so he could have access to the strings. He was remarkably deft with his hands, big as they were, and in no time he was stripping away the whaleboned monstrosity and tossing it to the floor.

Now she wore nothing but a gauzy shift, diaphanous and translucent, hiding nothing that lay below as she rolled again to her back. Her nipples thrust wantonly against the fragile cotton, their pink clearly discernible. Below were pantalettes in the same thin fabric, and when his hand cupped her between the legs, its heat scorched her easily through the insubstantial veil.

Sandor’s face was alight with lust as he reared over her. She had an impression of tearing cloth just moments before he reached for her, but she had time to pant, “No ripping. I can explain a few ripped stitches, but not anything completely ruined.”

He grunted, clearly displeased, but helped her to disrobe until the last barriers had been peeled from her.

“You, too,” Sansa protested, panting as he covered her with his body. “I want to feel all of you against me.”

It was madness, this near-crazed desire she felt for him, but oh, he was everything she’d always wanted in a man. His weight and heat were intoxicating, and the texture of his breeches felt almost painfully abrading against her sensitized skin. He smelled like musk and spices, the clean taste of his skin salty on her tongue. Sansa reached to push his breeches down his hips and found something even hotter than the rest of him, something hard and swaying and damp at the end.

She knew what it was, of course. She had encountered two of them in the past. Three, if one counted her fantasy with him in the starring role of privateer. But those previous two paled in comparison in every way possible: shorter, slimmer, lesser in heat and firmness and even in color, being pallid in a way that had repelled her from the blessedly few occasions she’d had to observe them.

Sandor’s shaft, however, was a splendid thing, thick and long and so, so hard. The head resembled nothing so much as a ripe plum, succulent and impatient to burst upon her tongue.

He groaned again, sounding as if he were being horribly murdered.

“Stop thinking about that or it will be over before it begins,” he told her, sounding a bit grim as he settled himself between her legs. “It has been centuries, and I don’t want to shame myself.”

“I doubt you could,” Sansa replied dazedly, and meant it: she was already impressed so greatly by him that even if he finished in her hands she’d count it a satisfying experience.

“There is so much I want to do to you, little bird,” Sandor said in a shaking voice, “but I have to— I have to—”

He seemed to run out of words as he sank into her body. His eyes clamped shut and he turned his face to the side, concentration stark on his features as he fought to control himself. Sansa knew how he felt, because she was so well-primed that she felt her own climax would soon be upon her, and he had yet to even move.

At one level, she was amazed at the extent of her own arousal. Always in the past, she had required extensive efforts to become even nominally prepared, physically, for mating. The result was that she had had to resort to oils of an intimate nature to ease penetration, for even her husbands’ smaller manhoods could hurt her without any lubrication.

This time, however, bore no resemblance to anything in her experience. She hadn’t had to resort to anything; she hadn’t even really been touched, there, and yet Sandor thrust easily, effortlessly, through her. There were, she noted with a touch of shyness, noises coming from where they joined, slick and wet noises that should have mortified her but instead just flamed her need higher.

Sansa wrapped her legs around Sandor’s hips, just as she’d envisioned, and slid her stockinged calves against him. He shuddered in her embrace and leaned to kiss her. His thrusting, plundering kiss combined with the powerful movement of his shaft within her and suddenly she was tossed into a cataclysm, crying out in shocked pleasure as waves of sensation crashed over her. She raked her nails across his straining back, and with a hiss he pressed himself so deeply inside that she could feel it nudge the very heart of her. With a growl that set the tiny hairs of her nape on end, Sandor poured himself into her as climax overwhelmed him.

Shaking, panting, Sansa clasped him with all her limbs, coaxing the last shudders of passion from her lover as he laid open-mouthed kisses across her throat and shoulders. She felt her own pleasure, of course, but realized with wonder that she also felt his, and a deep sense of peace and repletion. She welcomed his heavy form atop hers and stroked his hair, not bothering to stifle her impulse to comfort him, since he seemed so affected by their coupling.

After several minutes, he lifted his head and shocked her by grinning. It transformed his severe face into something almost charming, definitely roguish.

“There’s my pirate,” she murmured, smiling, and craned her neck up to kiss him.

“Does that make you my wench?” he asked when their lips parted. She only quirked a russet eyebrow. “No, you’re not exactly the wench type, I suppose.”

“Is it not enough that I be your lady?” Sansa asked, her tone arch. He was softening within her, a strange sensation she’d never felt before, since both husbands had always extracted themselves from her person and her bedroom with alacrity once the deed had been concluded.

“I think I can settle for that.”

Sandor withdrew from her, rolling to the side. She felt the hot spill of his seed for just a moment, and then it was gone. Frowning, she reached down a hand and found that the copious fluid she’d expected was not there, only the lingering traces of her own desire.

Turning back to Sandor, she opened her mouth to comment on it, only to find he was fading away before her eyes.

“I think I used up all my strength. Can’t hold my form anymore,” he told her, his tone wry.

Sansa felt unaccountably bereft. Without realizing it, she’d counted on laying beside him, enjoying some moments of intimacy and relaxation.

“Ah, don’t feel that way, little bird,” he said gruffly. She realized he was trying to soothe her in his own clumsy way, and felt a pang in her chest at how dear he was. “I’ll… you won’t be able to see me, but you can still feel me. I’ll still be here.”

And he vanished from sight, but his long body was, as promised, still beside her on the bed, and muscle-roped arms came around her to hold her tight against a chest she could feel but not see.

Sansa tucked her face into the hollow of his neck and inhaled the brine of his sweat. Even with passion expended, he still clasped her to him as if she mattered, as if she were important to him. It was intoxicating, to feel so needed. She gave in to her soul’s thirst for affection and softened against him, drowsing until she fell happily asleep.

Chapter Text

Thus commenced the love affair between Lady Hardyng and the ghost of a man who had been dead for a millennium. Their first months were fraught with a delicious tension, because as prickly as Sandor was— and he was very prickly indeed— Sansa seemed to have a preternatural ability to jolly him into a better mood, even if she had been the one to put him in a foul one in the first place.

It had much to do with her methods, because she found little as arousing as Sandor in a rage: chest heaving, shoulders bunched, jaw clenched and eyes spitting sparks at her. She could barely keep her hands off him at those times. She adored their long, slow encounters, but there was nothing so satisfying as a fast, hard romp where they were clawing each other’s clothes off in their hunger to get to each other.

Sandor became her constant companion, day and night. No one else could see or hear him, and he took ruthless advantage of that fact to crack jokes and tease Sansa when others were present, knowing she had to pretend he weren’t there and disguise her amusement. She had been caught repressing a laugh or hiding a smile several times, and not only her staff but most of the inhabitants of the Quiet Isle were convinced she was more than a little mad, but Sansa found that she simply could not care. For the first time in her life, she was loved out of more than duty. For the first time, she was wanted for her own character, not for how she could be used. For the first time, she did not need to adapt herself to the preferences of someone else.

Sansa tried to keep up with her correspondence, truly she did, but it was difficult to settle down to write letters when she could be taking a walk around the Abbey with Sandor, or sunning herself on the rocky strand with Sandor, or reading aloud an overwrought romance to Sandor and laughing when he excoriated the author. Or, most importantly, when she could tell the servants she had a headache and needed to lay down, and then spent the entire day in bed with Sandor.

She was not ashamed to admit to herself that having relations with her ghost was the best part of their relationship. He was a superb figure of a man, facial scarring notwithstanding, and had vast reservoirs of desire, never exhausted. He also had no sense of shame and did not scruple to avoid any particular practices; if Sansa wanted to try something, try it they did.

He also did not pressure her to do anything she did not like the sound of, and that very patience and acceptance had made her willing for quite a few things she might otherwise have avoided. Some had pleasantly surprised her; others had not, never to be attempted again.

But all good things must come to an end, and thus it was at the start of Sansa’s second year on Quiet Isle that her mid-afternoon bout of lovemaking with Sandor was interrupted by the clatter of hooves on the drive twisting up the hill from the village below. Since Sansa’s own horses were the only cattle that usually trod those cobblestones, she felt a frisson of apprehension and detached herself from Sandor’s impassioned embrace.

“Help me dress!” she exclaimed after swiping a damp cloth over herself, and in short order was attired as properly as she had been when her maid had left her that morning. Nothing to do about the hair, though, Sandor’s lusty fingers having thoroughly disarranged it, so she brushed, coiled, and pinned it, and hoped for the best.

Sansa rushed to her adjoining sitting room so she could be innocently found by Narbert to be reading quietly by the fireplace.

“Yes?” she answered in response to the butler’s silent request for her attention.

“You have guests,” the butler intoned. “It appears that your—”

“Sansa!” exclaimed a female voice, and Sansa was less-than-delighted to see her sister Arya burst into the room, having decided against remaining in the receiving parlor downstairs until Sansa came to greet her. Leaning against the door jamb to the bedroom, Sandor raised an eyebrow, and Narbert slunk back out of the room with an injured glower.

“Arya!” she said, standing and pretending her hardest to seem welcoming when really she wanted to turn her sister right around and boot her out the door. “Why didn’t you send word you were coming?”

“Didn’t want you have a chance to tell me I couldn’t,” replied Arya, blunt as always. She stepped right up to her older sister and embraced her, one hard, almost impersonal squeeze, before releasing Sansa and going to warm her hands by the hearth. Arya had always been uncomfortable with displays of affection.

“Aha,” said Sansa, her default reaction in an awkward moment where there was not really anything to say. “Did you come alone?”

“As if I would!” Arya declared. “Gendry is wrangling everything downstairs.”

‘Everything’ presumably included their son, Jonnel, as well as the luggage. Hard to tell with Arya.

Across the room, Sandor snorted in response to that less-than-charitable thought as he dropped into the squashy armchair, and Sansa shot him a repressive glance.

“Are you planning a lengthy stay?” she asked, her tone light.

“As long as it takes,” Arya replied airily.

“To accomplish what?”

“To figure out what has happened to you since that smarmy rotter died.”

Sansa went still. Arya was incredibly perceptive and could smell a lie at twenty paces. Sansa’s reaction to this line of questioning could either make or break the situation. She drew upon her long years of social polish and verbal subterfuge and said, “I don’t think I know what you mean,” with just the right amount of puzzled innocence, no hint of defensiveness or craft.

Arya ran a gimlet eye over the room’s furnishings before choosing the chair currently occupied by Sandor. It was a bit of a scramble for him to leap up and away before the diminutive young woman plumped herself into the chair and leaned back, eyes closed, with a sigh of relief.

“Finally, a seat that doesn’t rock and jolt all over!” she exclaimed with bliss. “You don’t know what it’s like to be in a train that long!”

“No, indeed,” murmured Sansa. “I’ve never had to travel the length of Westeros from Winterfell to King’s Landing before. Tell me, was it terribly awful?”

Arya opened one eye and glared it at her sister, clearly unappreciative of Sansa’s efforts at sarcasm.

“Fine,” she conceded, “you don’t know what it’s like to be in a train that long with a baby and Gendry. He vomited at least once an hour. The compartment stunk.”

“Who was vomiting, Gendry or Jonnel?” Sansa felt a morbid curiosity.

“Either. Both.” Arya waved a weary hand. “Jonnel inherited Gendry’s motion sickness.”

“How ghastly,” Sansa said in sympathy, but inwardly she was laughing. Sandor had come to stand behind her, hands on her shoulders, and he gave them a squeeze now, amused by the mental images she was sending him.

There was a rap on the door, and Narbert again presented himself, but before he could say a word, a large form slipped past him, a baby in his brawny arms.

“There you are,” said Arya, her tone impatient but the expression on her face full of gladness.

Arya was more a force of nature than a young woman, stopping at nothing to ensure her will be done. She had expended considerable energy and, some said, more than a small amount of blackmail to ensure her now-husband, the formerly-illegitimate son of a previous Duke of Stormlands, be able to inherit his father’s wealth, if not his title, as the duke’s sole living biological heir.

Gendry gave Sansa a one-armed hug and offered Jonnel to his aunt for a kiss before going to his wife. Their marriage had been a scandal the shockwaves of which still rattled the kingdom even three years after it had taken place. Looking at them now, as Gendry sat on the arm of Arya’s chair and watched as his wife wiped their son’s tiny face with her handkerchief, she could see that it had all been entirely worthwhile, if the joy and peace on their faces were any indication. Gendry wedged his brawny self between the wings of a big armchair and installed Jonnel on one wide shoulder, where the infant promptly fell asleep.

“You do so know what I mean.” Arya took up the trailing end of their conversation with the dogged persistence that characterized her, much to Sansa’s chagrin. “You’ve always hated to be in the country, away from society… the balls, the opera, the house parties and Ascot… I thought you’d be furious when they stopped the croquet at Wimbledon earlier this year, but nary a peep was heard from you!”

“You liked all that rubbish?” Sandor thought to her just as the butler arrived bearing a tea service.

Mostly because Joffrey couldn’t hit me when we were in public, Sansa replied. Those days are long gone now, though, and good riddance.

She was relieved that the refreshments had arrived just then, because it meant Arya would stop talking in front of the help, and Sansa could busy herself with serving her sister and brother-in-law instead of answering.

“Narbert, is Lucy free?” she inquired. Lucy, one of the downstairs maids, was known to be good with children, as the eldest of nine siblings.

“Yes, Your Grace,” Narbert said. “Shall I fetch her for the wee’un?”

“Yes, please. And more of everything straightaway,” she replied.

The butler bowed and took himself back to the kitchens for another round and to tell Lucy to present herself for nurse duty. Sansa felt Sandor’s presence fade away, then, and knew he had left her to her family. Out of boredom, or respect for her privacy? Possibly a bit of both.

She heaped a small porcelain plate with ninety percent of the tiny sandwiches, cakes, and biscuits accompanying the tea and handed it to Gendry, who accepted it with a nod that was closer to that of a servant than a family member; he did have trouble remembering he was no longer a servant. With a cup of scorching-hot, brutally strong tea, he sat back in his chair and proceeded to devour the lot.

Sansa placed a single sandwich and biscuit each on plates for Arya and herself before making their tea; the barest touch of cream and sugar in her own, and heavy lashings of them for her sister. It had always amused her, how much of a sweet tooth Arya had, when her outward demeanor was always so sour.

“Well?” Arya demanded before the door had entirely shut behind Narbert. “It’s not like you, rusticating like this. And we hardly hear from you! You used to be the most loyal of correspondents, sometimes writing even daily if you were excited to share your thoughts about something, but now we scarcely get a letter once a month.”

Sansa gave a practiced shrug, but inwardly, she bristled. What right had Arya to demand explanations of her? Arya knew what Sansa had endured with Joffrey and Harrold. Her entire family had. And not one of them had lifted a finger to extract her from either situation, mumbling banalities about ‘her duty to her husband’ and ‘lawfully wedded’ and ‘a woman’s lot in life’.

“What do you really know about what I am like, Arya? You take care to spend as little time with me as possible, and have done since you were ten years old.”

Gendry blinked and pressed himself further back in his chair, as if trying to merge with it in avoidance of the row that seemed to be brewing. Arya, just taking a sip of her tea, froze with the cup at her lips. Her gray eyes were huge as she stared over it at Sansa, and she set the cup back in its saucer with a rattle, her mouth opening to respond, but Sansa pressed on.

“And yes, when I was young, all I cared for were social events and dressing prettily and dancing. But a lot has happened since then, as you are well aware,” Sansa continued. Her voice was perfectly modulated, never rising in volume or pitch. She had perfected everything about presenting a flawless exterior that belied nothing of what seethed within.

Arya flushed at that, in guilt, Sansa thought with a touch of satisfaction.

“And I beg to remind you that you had no compunction about flouting convention regarding inheritance, and the propriety of wedding a natural child. Everyone knows that the sole reason you and Gendry were permitted to marry, and that he was able to inherit anything at all, was due to your relentless pursuit of both goals. You had no care of society’s censure then. It did not matter if you were cut by every single member of the ton so long as you married your blacksmith, and he had his rightful inheritance.

“But,” she continued smoothly, mercilessly, even as Arya blanched, “when you learned that my first husband was beating me unconscious, I note you did not lift a finger to break any rules or defy any authority to save me from what amounted to a living hell.”

Now it was Gendry’s turn to freeze, his last sandwich halfway to his mouth. He replaced it on his plate, looking a bit green, and stood.

“I’ll… just go bring Jonnel to the maid,” he mumbled, and left in haste.

Arya tried to speak again, but Sansa had been holding this resentment back for years. Now that she felt brave enough to give throat to it, she was going to be heard.

“And when it was known that my second husband was getting bastards upon every fertile woman in the duchy— while informing the world that it was my fault he did so, due to my barrenness and frigidity— I do not recall hearing of your passionate objection to those who would repeat that slander until the entire kingdom believed it. Nor did I receive even a single letter from you in comfort.”

She paused, stirring her spoon in her tea, and glanced up when Gendry slipped back into the room.

Rickon wrote to me when it happened, Arya,” she said, the words clipped. “A nine-year-old boy, whom I had not seen in five years, wrote to tell me how angry he was to hear what had been done to me, and offered to stab Joffrey for me. And when Harrold’s antics became known, Rickon said he’d stab him, too.”

For those offers, Rickon had won eternal devotion and loyalty from Sansa.

“But not you. Not even a telegram.” She took a dainty sip and allowed herself a tiny grimace; it had gone cold already, so she poured a bit more from the pot to warm it up. “So I hope you will forgive me if I do not feel obligated to sate your curiosity, for I am sure that your presence here is due to that sentiment instead of anything of a more sisterly variety.”

Hot color spilled over Arya’s cheeks, flooding down her throat and into the neckline of her grimy traveling dress.

“I was busy,” she mumbled, staring down at her plate.

Sansa flicked a dismissive glance at her before turning to Gendry. “I apologize for speaking unkindly of your situation,” she told him. “I have always felt warmly for you, and hope you don’t think of me poorly, having heard all of this.”

She meant it, too. He was a fine young man, devoted and unswerving in his loyalty to Arya and the entire Stark family. She was not quite sure what drew him to Arya, but he had gone far in calming down his wife’s more boisterous tendencies.

Gendry cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable.

“I— I don’t think poorly of you, no,” he said in his soft, lower-class accent. “I didn’t know about any of these… abuses on you, Your Grace. If I had, I’d have come and done something to help.” Something a bit bloodthirsty entered his vivid blue eyes. “The one who hit you— I’d have twisted his head off his neck. It’s not right to strike a woman.”

Tears clouded Sansa’s vision. It was the most overt display of protection and concern she’d received from anyone upon learning what she had endured at Joffrey’s hands. She blinked and blinked until her eyes were dry once more.

“Thank you, Gendry,” she managed to say around the lump in her throat. “And I would have enjoying watching you do it, too.”

He shot her an uncertain grin before dropping his gaze to his plate. Appetite restored, he finished the rest of what was on it, so Sansa simply tipped last of the serving platter’s contents onto it and allowed herself a small smile as he happily indulged.

There was something to be said for uncomplicated men, she thought.

“And so,” Sansa concluded, feeling weary and deflated now that she’d said her piece, “I really don’t feel like I need to explain myself to you. I am a twice-widowed woman of six-and-twenty, a duchess twice over. I have more money than I shall ever be able to spend, my own home far away from everything I have come to despise, and need not reveal my motivations or actions to anyone.”

“You despise us?” Arya asked. Asked, not demanded. She seemed wholly taken aback by Sansa’s unprecedented vehemence and plainness of speech. “Your family?”

“No,” said Sansa after a thoughtful moment. “I just feel none of the connection I used to feel to you or Mother or Father or our other siblings. Except for Rickon.” She looked down at her hands, clenched tightly in her lap, her gaze softening, before carefully uncurling her fists and reaching for her teacup. “I wish he had been able to stab Joffrey and Harrold.”

Sansa finished her tea and set the cup down gently, with nary a sound. “I don’t really feel much of anything for the rest of you, anymore, besides disappointment.”

Narbert entered the room with the second tray. Sansa constructed another monument of food for Gendry, freshened everyone’s tea, and sat back in her corner of the settee, feeling quite cleansed.

“I trust you will report to everyone that there is no need to fret I am losing my mind out here in the deepest, darkest wilds of Arryn?”

Arya stared at her a long time before giving a short, jerky nod of agreement. Then she dug in her reticule for a rather crumpled letter, and handed it across the table to Sansa.

“It’s from Mother. She wanted me to give it to you since you never answer any of the questions in her letters, just write empty pleasantries about the fineness of the weather and the freshness of the salt air.”

Her tone was heavy with derision, but Sansa was beyond caring. She opened the letter, unfolded it, and began to read.

Chapter Text

 

Dearest Sansa,

I have sent Arya to deliver this letter personally because I know she will ensure that you read it. She has been instructed not to leave without a response from you. I expect you to fully comply with this request, for this unprecedented stubbornness of yours has gone on long enough.

Sansa felt anger, just recently subsided, rise up within her again. 

I insist you provide an explanation for your lack of communication over the past year, for your refusal to take your place in society in King's Landing, and your failure to return to Winterfell for Sevenmas and other holidays despite repeated invitations from your father and myself.

Her heart leapt, just the tiniest little leap, at the idea that perhaps her family had actually missed her over the past months she had kept to herself on Quiet Isle, but any hope that might have struggled free was firmly quashed upon reading the next paragraph.

Your absence has been remarked upon by most of those of our acquaintance; you are beginning to acquire a reputation for peculiarity. I have always relied upon you to be the calm and proper girl of the family, since Arya is clearly incapable of anything approaching either of those adjectives. I am at a loss for words in explanation when questioned about whether my eldest daughter is to become a recluse, and do not like that situation, you may be certain.

Ah, there it was: the true reason for Catelyn Stark’s concern. The ton had begun wondering where Sansa had gone, and why she was avoiding the keen and judgmental scrutiny of an aristocracy that enjoyed nothing so much as the opportunity to spread rumor and innuendo, especially when it was at the expense of one who had always been so highly esteemed. From the moment of her debut at eighteen, Sansa had been envied by women who lusted for her high birth and beauty; her husbands had been envied by men who lusted for her body, and the wealth that would come from marrying her.

She was well used to being an occupant of the viper’s nest that was society, and had no intention of returning to it, especially not to sate the curiosity of those who would like nothing better to see her fail for little more than the sake of their entertainment, or to alleviate her mother’s embarrassment.

Also noted by others is how young you are to be widowed a second time, and conjecture about your fate. I flatter myself that your excellent looks are, like my own, still fresh despite the advancements of age. Few young ladies have debuted in recent years that can touch you in beauty, grace, and accomplishment. Thus I feel certain that we shall have no trouble at all to find you a fine new husband.

After not one but two disastrous alliances, her mother wanted to marry her off a third time? She was not yet even out of half-mourning for one husband, and Catelyn wanted her to take another?

In that vein: the Duke of Highgarden has confided that his son and heir, the Marquess of Blackhaven, still speaks of you with admiration, and disappointment that you spurned in favor of first Stormlands and then Arryn. But Blackhaven has asked twice before, and there is something gauche about so openly declaring one ’s devotion. I do not encourage you to accept him, should he offer a third time.

Sansa blinked in disbelief. Why was her mother blaming her for spurning the Marquess of Blackhaven when it had been Catelyn herself who had accepted each of her daughter’s husbands over the marquess’ suit in the first place?

Granted, the Blackhaven— Lord Willas Tyrell— was a lovely man, with no indication that he was secretly a demon or an indiscriminate lecher. And Highgarden was a beautiful area, warm most of the year, and fragrant with roses.

However, his brother Loras and sister Margaery were two of the worst tricksters and gossips in the whole of the ton. Sansa had thought them her friends until they had shown themselves for the sneaks that they were. Margaery’s plot to displace Sansa in Joffrey’s affections, so he would choose Margaery as his bride instead, had been a particular betrayal. She did not even want to speak to either of them again, let alone have them as goodsiblings.

Do not despair, however, for there are still several other eligible candidates for your hand: the Duke of Lannis is ailing, and we expect to hear that his heir, the Earl of Casterly, has inherited, any day now.

Lord Jaime Lannister is accounted a fine match, and you would make an exquisite couple, the envy of all. If your inclinations lie in this direction, we must make haste, for there are lately the most absurd rumors that he is keeping company with the giantess of Evenfall. Absurd, of course, without a speck of likelihood to them, but no point in taking chances.

She stared in horror. Her mother knew quite well that Sansa counted Lady Brienne Tarth, daughter of the Viscount of Evenfall, as a friend. Sansa was perfectly aware of how madly in love Brienne was with Casterly, and that he returned her affections. Their engagement was imminent once Lannis died, since the duke would never countenance the marriage of his heir to a woman of… as minor birth, not to mention as special dimensions and appearance, as Brienne.

If we are too late to engage the interest of Casterly, then there is one last candidate before we go looking farther afield to Essos: the Prince of Dorne ’s younger brother, while a bit older than you, is yet unwed and would be a splendid match. You would be a princess , Sansa. Can you imagine? My daughter, a princess.

Prince Oberyn of Dorne? Catelyn must have gone deeply, critically, gothically mad in the past year, if she thought he would be a good match for Sansa. The man was almost twice her age. He had a dozen daughters, several of them older than she, and not a one of them born on the right side of the blanket. Her mother wanted to marry her to a man who didn’t know the definition of fidelity, after what Sansa had gone through with Harrold?

There was more to the letter, but she did not bother to read it. Her blood was pounding in her head, and she had nearly bitten through her lip to keep from venting her opinion aloud.

Instead, she stood and folded the letter back into its precise rectangle with shaking hands. Gendry hurriedly set down his twice-emptied plate and rose, as manners dictated, looking mere moments from tugging at a forelock in the way of peasants of old. Three years of marriage had clearly not been long enough to disabuse him of a lifetime of deference to the higher-born.

“I will consider writing a response to take back with you when you leave tomorrow,” she told Arya, in a voice that was amazingly serene when contrasted to her mental state.

Arya got to her feet as well, and took Jonnel from Gendry, holding him to her chest as if he were a shield.

“Tomorrow? That’s much too soon, we can’t possibly—”

“You can, and you will,” interrupted Sansa, with exquisite gentleness. She sidled to the bell pull and rang for Narbert. “You have accomplished what you came here to do, and can now return, triumphant.”

Her sister stared at her a moment before turning to Gendry. They exchanged a long, silence glance as the butler stepped into the room.

“Narbert, put my sister and goodbrother in the green room, if you please.” Sansa turned to Arya. “Do you need a separate room for Jonnel? Lucy would not mind sleeping with him in the nursery.”

“I’d like that,” ventured Gendry. “After the past few days, it would be grand to have a full night’s sleep.”

“I will speak with Lucy immediately,” intoned Narbert. “If you will follow me, my lady, sir?”

He left, Arya and Gendry following like so many ducklings after their parent, and Sansa was left alone.

Or so she thought.

“Awful lot of bastards,” Sandor muttered.

Sansa turned to see him flopped onto her settee, his sheer size overwhelming the petite furniture.

“I used to wonder when my family had become like that,” Sansa said with a sigh, “until I realized they always had been that way. I was just so stupid that I didn’t realize it.”

“Not stupid, little bird,” he said. “Innocent. Idealistic. You thought they were good people. That they loved you, wanted the best for you. You’re not the first person to make that mistake.”

There was a world of experience in those bitter words. She sat down on the other end of the settee and rubbed her hand on his knee, in what she hoped was a soothing motion.

“They’ll be gone soon,” she murmured. “Everything will be fine again.”

Sandor sat up and pulled her into the circle of his arm, his hand proprietary on her hip as he drew her close. She dropped her head onto his wide shoulder, inhaling the earthy scent she always associated with him, and let out a sigh. She had long ago— around the time when Joffrey had left off slapping her and begun punching-- come to believe that the gods had forsaken her, but apparently one of them had granted her the mercy of meeting Sandor. To whichever one of them it was, she sent a heartfelt prayer of thanks.

“You’ll make me blush,” he said, voice rumbling in his chest under her ear.

“Yes, you blush so frequently,” she teased back. “Such a bashful chap you are.”

“I’m very bashful,” Sandor replied. “Just a simple soldier, I am, and you a sophisticated duchess. How’m I supposed to manage when you’re turning my head with such compliments? Undeserved, I might add. You’re just trying to take advantage of me.”

“If you’re lucky, perhaps I’ll let you take advantage of me.” Sansa sent him a very saucy mental image that had to do with her being on her knees and his big hands in her hair.

Sandor groaned. “I’d have to be very lucky indeed. Or very deserving of such luck.”

“Goodness. What can you do to become that deserving?”

“I have a few ideas.”

And so later, once a tense dinner had been had and all retired to their bedrooms for the night, Sandor shared with her a few of those ideas. And Sansa did find them extremely deserving of the sort of luck that would inspire her to let him take advantage of her.

~*~

It was almost noon before Arya, Gendry, and Jonnel were ready to leave. Arya kept trying to convince her sister to let them stay longer but Sansa was politely, smilingly immune to all pleas for clemency. She gave Jonnel one last hug, kissed a bashful Gendry on the cheek, and nodded coolly at Arya instead of doing something unconscionably rude as she would have preferred.

“It’s quite chilly out here,” she lied, pretending a shiver for the sake of being convincing. “I’m sure you won’t begrudge me my fire while you take your leave.”

And she turned and went back into her home, leaving the footmen assisting Gendry to load the carriage with the last of the luggage. Once upstairs, she went immediately to her writing desk and began a letter to her half-brother Jon, only pausing when the clatter of hooves on cobblestones spoke of her visitors’ departure.

Once the usual pleasantries had been disposed of, Sansa turned the topic of the letter to apology. She keenly regretted all those years she had scorned every overture Jon had made to her. How shallow she had been! How petty! She had modeled her rejection of him after her mother’s, and had only lately come to the realization of how cruelly she had treated her kind, gentle brother.

He had been the only one who had spoken a warning against her marriage to Joffrey. As yet unspoiled to the reality of her future husband, Sansa had taken Jon’s words as heresy, his attitude one of presumption, even reverse snobbery. She had not known of his keen perception of human nature, how he had seen in a glance what it had taken her a year to accept.

She poured out her guilt and contrition into the letter, heedless of the damp smudges caused by the errant falling tear. She admitted her errors, and begged his forgiveness. The final result was a hodge-podge of confused emotions, but Sansa felt it the most honest, and thus the most graceful, thing she’d ever written. She didn’t even copy it to clean sheets of paper, but stuffed the whole sloppy missive into an envelope, franked the postage, and handed it off to Narbert.

Sansa stood in the window of her sitting room, watching as one of the footmen loped off toward the village postmaster, and sighed as Sandor’s hands came down on her shoulders. She leaned back into his big warm body and sighed.

“What was that about?” he rumbled in her ear.

“I hadn’t ever realized, until I read my mother’s letter, how important appearances are to her,” Sansa replied tiredly. “She was terrible to Jon when he was a child, and for what? Merely existing, nothing he could possibly be blamed for. Because it made her look poorly. And now that her displeasure is turned toward me— now that I see how conditional her affection is upon how good or bad something makes her seem to society— I also see my own mistakes.”

She turned in the circle of his arms, clasping the huge roundness of his biceps as she gazed up at him, feeling lost.

“How can I have thought myself deserving of protection, of salvation, from Joffrey or Harry when I never did anything to protect and save Jon? I was a terrible person, but perhaps it’s not too late to make amends.”

“Never terrible,” Sandor contradicted. “I know terrible. You’re not it.”

Sansa smiled tremulously up at him. “You’re too good to me.”

His grin was rakish. “Then you should make it up to me. I have an idea how.”

Sandor tossed her over his shoulder and carried her back to her bedroom, which they’d just left a few hours earlier.

They didn’t come out the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

To say Jon was shocked by Sansa's outreach would be an understatement. His response came within days, and was very brief, only saying that there was a lot they must speak of, and requesting her permission to come visit. She granted it, gladly, and one month to the day that she had sent her letter, Jon and his family were exiting their carriage at The Abbey.

Sansa hurried down the front steps to meet them, her hands outstretched. Jon clasped them in his own, a sweet smile curving his lips, and then he tugged her into an embrace that was quite gauchely emotional, especially in public, but Sansa found she could not care.

When he released her at last, it was to usher forward his wife, Ygritte, and their three children. Lorra, the oldest at four years of age, was a blending of her mother's fiery hair and father's gray eyes. Daeron, though, at two, had odd, white-blond hair with Ygritte's green eyes, and baby Lyanne's amethyst eyes were vivid against her dark curls.

Sansa had only seen Lorra when she was newborn, and but briefly; it was her first time meeting the younger children, and her gaze was bewildered when it met Jon's over their curly heads.

"We have much to discuss," he told her easily, and she led them inside to the warm parlor, to ply them with hot tea and luncheon.

Sandor's presence, insubstantial but as familiar to her by then as her own soul, was welcome as he stood behind her chair.

"I have learned of my parents," Jon began.

"You mean... your mother...?" Sansa replied, confused, but he shook his head with a smile.

"Not just her, my sire, too." He sipped his tea. "Father... your father... was not mine. He only told everyone so to protect me. My mother was his sister, your Aunt Lyanna, and my father was a Targaryen."

"A Targaryen!" Sansa's mouth dropped open in a hopelessly vulgar way, but she could not manage to close it. "Which one?"

"Rhaegar. And what's more, they were actually wed when I was born." He exchanged a look with Ygritte. "This news is not for anyone else's ears."

"I swear it," Sansa breathed. "But why will you not tell the world? Why not let everyone know you are legitimate, after all?"

He shrugged, helping Lyanne balance as she tried to stand up in his lap. "I don't care to deal with the fuss that would result. And Ygritte doesn't care which side of the blanket I was born on." He flashed his wife a fleeting grin.

"We prefer our life easier," Ygritte agreed, spooning some weak, milky tea into Daeron's mouth, open like a baby bird's.

"Mama, I'm hungry too," Lorra pouted. Her carroty braids were unraveling and there was a fearsome scowl furling her brow. A doll, sadly travel-stained and missing one button eye, was hanging limply from one tiny, grimy hand.

"Come here, darling," Sansa found herself saying. "I'll help you."

She drew Lorra into her lap and wiped the girl's hands clean with a handkerchief before doctoring a cup of tea to her taste and holding a plate of sandwiches and biscuits for her to eat from.

"She could be your daughter, so alike do you look," Sandor rasped from behind her.

Sansa, ever-vigilant to keep from reacting to him in front of others, still could not prevent the tremor that shook her at his words. She had always wanted a family, and the inability of both husbands to give her children had been her sole regret upon their deaths.

Our daughter, she corrected, for she has gray eyes, as you do. I've always thought you had the look of a Northman to you. And isn't it funny that Jon would marry a woman with red hair? We shall keep it in the family.

He did not reply, but she was aware of an odd tension thrumming within him.

As the afternoon wore on, the children tired, and Ygritte enlisted Lucy's help to tote them all to the nursery for a nap. Left alone, Sansa poured Jon and herself fresh cups of tea and drew a breath in preparation for the talk they must have.

"Sansa," he began, but she interrupted him gently.

"Jon, I know I said so in my letter, but please, permit me another apology for my terrible treatment of you when we were children. You have been... the only one in the family who did anything for me. Father was too paralyzed by his desire to please Duke Robert by granting the marriage, and unable to believe his friend's son capable of such a thing. Mother was too entranced by what a coup the match was, that she was blind to the signs that there was something wrong with Joffrey."

She gave a sad little laugh, looking down at her cup as a tear splashed into it. "As was I. You were the only one who could tell how rotten he was, behind the golden facade."

"I wish I could have done more," Jon said passionately, dark eyes bright with lingering anger. "I should have--"

"You could have done nothing more," Sansa interrupted him again. She leaned forward to place her hand on his wrist. "Please do not blame yourself. Truly. I was stupidly romantic, and still following Mother's lead in behaving horribly to you. You could have told me the sky was blue and I would not have believed you."

Jon's lips quirked in a little smile. "And now?"

"Now, you could tell me the sky was orange and falling down around us and I would swear it to the world," she replied quickly, liking that it made him laugh. "I have learned the error of my ways. I have learned who deserves trust and who does not, and how to make choices for myself instead of letting Mother and Father do it for me."

He eyed her over the rim of his cup, and then ate a biscuit in one bite, chewing pensively. She waited, patient, for him to decide which words to use. He had always been one to select his words with care.

"What choices are you making for yourself, then?" he said at last.

"Do you mean, why am I here? What shall I do in the future?" At his nod, Sansa continued, "I am quite content here. It is peaceful, and far from the liars and parasites of society. I don't have to look over my shoulder every few moments to see who is coming at my back with a knife."

At his wide-eyed expression, she clarified, "... metaphorically speaking. I find I have wearied of that sort of life. Such a waste of time and money. Existing only to impress others! Marrying, buying more homes and horses than one could possibly need, gambling and dancing, and none of it for any true enjoyment or sentiment! I was repulsed by it once Harry died and I was able to distance myself, but then I had a letter from Mother that truly revolted me."

She briefly told him of the letter's contents, feeling the warm glow of validation when Jon's eyes lit with ire to hear of Catelyn's indefatigable machinations. His jaw clenched against his clear desire to disparage his aunt, and he stood to stare sightlessly out the window at the overcast day outside.

"Good man," said Sandor. "He's almost as angry as I am about that buggering letter from your bloody mother."

Language, she admonished him, but lovingly, and he just laughed. He knew that she liked him a bit crude.

"It is all in the past, now," Sansa said softly. "I have decided not to answer her, nor will I. As I have said, the Quiet Isle suits me to the ground. I'm staying. I'm not lonely or bored. I have good servants. You and Ygritte and the children may visit whenever you like, for as long as you like."

Jon tensed. "Hm, about the servants..."

Sansa tensed, too, at his tone of voice. "...yes?"

"I believe Arya was feeling guilty at the tongue-lashing you gave her when she was here," he said slowly. "She wanted me to tell you that your maid Poppy is... well, for lack of a better term, a plant. She is your mother's creature, paid by her to observe you and report back, ever since you wed Harry."

At first, the words didn't make sense. But one by one, they fell into place, and when Sansa finally understood their meaning, anger rose in her like a blood-red wave. She felt like she was choking on it, and pushed herself to standing in a rush, shaking with rage and betrayal.

"Little bird..." Sandor began, and he put his hands on her shoulders, squeezing. His touch helped ground her, made the fury recede to something manageable.

Thank you, love, she thought to him, and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, feeling the violence within her drain away, leaving only cold purpose as she strode to the closed door.

Narbert stood outside in the hallway, waiting to execute his mistress' commands.

"I'll see Poppy here," Sansa told him briskly. "This moment."

A flash of surprise flitted across his hawkish face, quickly stifled. "Of course, Your Grace."

In moments, the guilty party had appeared in the parlor. Sansa returned to her seat, her hands resting lightly on the arms of her chair. Jon merely stood and watched, looking curious and uncomfortable.

"Poppy," Sansa began, "I understand you have been playing spy in my household for some time now."

The maid's brown eyes widened. "Oh, no, Your Grace, I--"

"Since my marriage to the Duke of Arryn, in fact," Sansa continued, as if Poppy had not spoken. "And quite good you are at it. I would never have suspected, had my brother not seen fit to inform me of your subterfuge. Tell me, were the two paycheques enough to silence your conscience?"

"Your Grace, it's not--" Poppy tried miserably.

"It will have to have been," Sansa plowed on, "since one paycheque, at least, will be ending immediately. Narbert?"

The butler slid open the doors, clearly having been listening at the keyhole, and glided into the room. "Your Grace?"

"Poppy is leaving my employ. She will not be receiving her last week's pay, nor a reference. She is to depart immediately. If she is not gone within one hour, call the constable and have her arrested for trespassing. Mrs. Narbert shall search her before she leaves, to ensure she has not taken anything that does not belong to her."

"As you say, Your Grace," Narbert replied, his voice betraying the tiniest quaver of shock.

Poppy, pale as milk, sketched a sad little bow and dashed from the room, not quite silencing a sob as she went.

Sansa turned to Jon, sure she would see some kind of condemnation, but his face was carefully blank.

"I will not judge you," he said. "I know how it is to feel betrayed."

She recalled how his company had mutinied, when he had served on duty with the Army over in Yunkai, and how narrowly he had survived their cowardly attack. "Thank you."

Sandor's hands came to her shoulders once more, and she idly reached up to stroke one big paw until she saw Jon watching her, brows drawn together. She stopped her slow caress of the hairs on the back on Sandor's fingers, purposefully reaching for her teacup instead.

"Be more careful, little bird," he growled, "lest they think you've gone mad. They're already wondering."

Yes, yes, she told her ghost, and fixed a smile on her lips for the sake of her brother.

Chapter Text

Jon and Ygritte had planned only on staying a few days, long enough to settle the difficult issues between the siblings, but Sansa pleaded for them to make it a more lengthy holiday. The weather was fine, they had a pretty length of sandy shore for the children to play on, and Jon could go off by himself to do some lazy fishing while Ygritte enjoyed baths without constant interruption by their offspring.

As a major in the Royal Army, currently on an extended leave, Jon made a comfortable salary but not enough of one to afford a nurse in addition to their maid-of-all-work and so it was rare for them to have time to themselves. Thus they happily agreed, and settled their little family in for the better part of the summer.

Sansa was thrilled to be surrounded by relatives once more, not having realized how lonely she had become for familiar faces and voices. And she was especially pleased to spend time with the children, more often than not being the one to care for them while their parents were otherwise occupied. Daeron was a fine sturdy lad, always exploring, and Lyanne an adorable little mite, very affectionate. Sansa loved holding the baby's sleepy weight, inhaling the milky scent of her skin.

But Lorra, with her auburn hair and flint-gray eyes, was her favorite, simply because of how she looked as if she could have been the issue of Sansa and Sandor themselves. Every time the girl looked at her with that pewter-colored gaze, Sansa felt a pang of longing, and then despair. If there were anything more futile than wishing for a marriage and children with someone far beneath her in station, as Sandor surely had been in life, it was to wish the same with someone who had been dead for centuries.

For Sandor was dead, dead and buried and somehow, miraculously, made a ghost. A ghost who could set her aflame with his touch, who put wings to her heart and sent it soaring with his attention and support and love.

Oh, he never said the words. Nor had Sansa to him; for whatever reason, though they spoke to each other constantly, even about unpleasant and painful memories, still they had not mentioned anything about how deeply ran their affections. It didn't seem necessary, when it was so incredibly obvious. They perceived each other's thoughts, and could hide nothing. Why bother saying the words, when they could feel them?

And so Sansa talked herself out of her desire for children, because the alternative was to leave Sandor, to take up with another man-- a third husband-- and she felt sure she did not have the fortitude to endure another loveless marriage. Not when she had known the ecstasy of actual passion and sentiment and respect with Sandor. He had become the touchstone, to her, of what a man should be. How could another ever measure up to him?

He snorted and rolled his eyes at her maudlin thoughts from where he stood behind Ygritte, arms crossed over his wide chest as he surveyed their surroundings. The whole family was at the beach that day, and Sansa had been indulging her mute longings while trying to restrict Lyanne's explorations to the blanket upon which they sat. Ygritte was trying to get Daeron to finish his lunch when he dearly wanted to chase after his father and older sister, who were at that moment scampering down the strand in an attempt-- futile, Sansa feared-- to coax a kite aloft.

It's how I feel, Sansa sniffed back at Sandor. Do you prefer I lie?

"I prefer you have a balanced view of me, little bird," was his retort. "How'm I supposed to live up to those expectations?"

He had been subdued lately, Sansa felt, ever since Jon and Ygritte and the children had arrived. She supposed it was reasonable, since they had much less privacy and freedom than when Sansa was alone with just the servants. Once their situation had returned to normal, however, she was sure his usual attitude would assert itself, with her the happy recipient of his restored spirits.

The same way I live up to yours, she therefore thought archly at him. I am aware of your appreciation of my looks. You somehow think I'm the most beautiful woman in the world-- patently untrue, considering my state when I wake in the morning, as well as the sad extent of my freckles. Perhaps I prefer you to have a balanced view of me as well?

"I do," he replied stubbornly. "It is a balanced fact that you are the most beautiful woman in the world."

Sansa burst out laughing. You're mad, she thought, but fortunately, I like you that way.

Ygritte slanted a glance her way, so Sansa quickly sobered, pressing her lips between her teeth to keep them from twitching into a smile. It was entirely possible that Ygritte thought she was losing a bit of grip on reality. Damned hard to pretend Sandor wasn't there when he was such an enormous presence, both literally and figuratively, in her life.

"I just had a funny thought," she same lamely, relieved when Ygritte's expression relaxed. "Of how silly it is to try to fly a kite when there's not a breath of wind."

Ygritte gave a laugh of her own, at that. "Lorra insisted, and Jon can't refuse her." She gazed affectionately at her husband. "He's a fine parent."

"He is, at that," Sansa agreed. "He reminds me of Father-- a serious man, not given to much laughter, but willing to participate in the most ludicrous of schemes for his children."

It made her sad to recall how Ned had not come to her rescue when she had most needed him.

"None of that," Sandor barked. "Stop stewing over things you can't change."

Yes, dear, she told him, her tone giving it irony. Below that irony, however, she meant it, grateful for his reminders not to brood over the past.

Jon and Lorra finally gave up on the kite and made their way back to the blanket. Jon bit into an only slightly sandy biscuit, while Lorra sank her teeth into a juicy red apple; Ygritte gave up on the hope of Daemon finishing his lunch, and Lyanne fell fast asleep in Sansa's arms. Jon washed down the last of his meal with some cool lemonade before turning to his sister with a crease between his dark brows.

"Have you replied to that telegram yet?"

For the Marquess of Blackhaven, one Lord Willas Tyrell, was showing himself to be far more persistent a man than his slender, academic exterior would suggest. Once her year of mourning had come to a close, he had begun discreet inquiries as to Sansa's location and receptivity to a suitor.

Though they did not know for sure, Sansa felt certain that Blackhaven's queries to Winterfell had been met with delight on Catelyn's part despite her assertion that she did not care for him as a potential husband for her daughter.

Who else would impart her address, despite knowing Sansa's extreme reluctance to be wooed once more? She felt certain none of the others would have revealed anything to the marquess. Jon had shared how dismayed Ned had been, upon hearing Arya's account of how her visit with Sansa had gone. He said that Arya herself seemed much changed by it as well, and that Robb and Bran were openly ashamed of themselves for their own inaction, as well.

"Not ashamed enough to write me, though," Sansa had replied tartly.

And so she was sure Blackhaven's telegram, in which he had threatened in his exquisitely mannered way to make an appearance at The Abbey, had been Catelyn's doing.

"Noooo," she answered Jon at last, drawing it out on a sigh. Lord, but she felt weary of it all. How she wished she had Sandor's blithe disregard for the social obligation of politeness, but the burden of having to reply to Willas' message weighed heavily upon her. She had to respond. But how?

"I don't know what to say," she eventually said. "I don't want to say anything that might make him think I want to see him, or accept his proposal, or leave the Quiet Isle. How can I word it to ensure he doesn't hold onto any hope I will change my mind?"

"Sansa," said Jon, slowly, "are you sure it is a good idea, rejecting him so completely?" At her expression of outrage, he hastened to continue. "I just mean... you are so young, still. Not even thirty years old, yet. And I can see how fond you are of the children. Are you sure you don't want to even consider that it might be a good match? A way for you to have some happiness, a family? Blackhaven is a good man, from what I've seen. He wouldn't... treat you as the others did."

Sansa stared at her brother-- for he would always be her brother, no matter his true parentage-- for a long moment. He was clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter, but just as clearly wanting the best for her. The quick retort faded from her lips.

But before she could answer, he hurried to speak again.

"I won't say any more about it, but however you reply, you should do it soon. I know how desperate men in love can be--" he gave a laughing glance at his wife, who grinned back at some shared secret-- "and you might just find him turned up on your doorstep one morning like a stray begging for scraps."

Jon's suspicion ended up being prescient, to Sansa's chagrin, when not two days later, whose carriage should come clattering up the cobblestones but that of Lord Willas Tyrell. She was immensely glad of Jon's and Ygritte's excellent manners, for they took one look at her pale face and stepped forward to do the pretty in welcoming the newcomer.

"Buck up," Sandor told her, watching curiously as the slight young marquess alighted from his vehicle, the cane in his hand clearly needed as he wobbled a bit on the uneven pavement.

I don't want him here, she snapped back. What presumption, to just show up as if he'd been invited! The cheek!

She sensed his mental shrug.

"That's the aristocracy for you," was his lazy reply. "They do as they like, and sod anyone who must scramble to accommodate them."

Sansa narrowed her eyes at him. You certainly don't complain when this aristocrat accommodates you.

"Ah, but you're in a class by yourself, little bird," he laughed, then sobered abruptly, nodding at the others. "Look sharp."

Sansa blinked and found the three all standing there, staring at her, Blackhaven looking confused, Jon and Ygritte rather resigned, used as they were by this point to Sansa's gazing off dreamily at odd moments.

"Ah, I am sorry. Hello, Your Excellency. I'm quite surprised to see you here." She couldn't resist a tiny dig at his impromptu arrival at her home. "I trust your journey was a pleasant one?"

There were three little stress lines between his brows, forming a W over his nose. W for Willas, she thought. Worried Weary Willas.

"Er, yes, Your Grace, it was pleasant enough, I suppose," he replied. He had a fine tenor voice, but Sansa couldn't help thinking it a bit flute-like compared to Sandor's rich baritone. "Took the train from Oldtown to King's Landing, then on to Darry, and hired this hack to carry me here."

The driver had just finished unloading a considerable amount of luggage from the carriage's roof, and Willas was turning to pay the man and send him off when Jon must have spied the mutinous expression on Sansa's face.

"Perhaps you would agree to stay an hour or two more?" he murmured to the driver, slipping him a few bank notes in the guise of a handshake.

"Right you are!" the man agreed, having no problem with getting paid to sit around for a while.

"Oh, but--" Willas began, but Ygritte wound her arm through his and began to lead him inside, nattering on in such a cheerful way that manners dictated his attention to her instead of any subterfuge on Jon's part. As soon as they entered The Abbey's hall, Sansa turned to her brother and began hissing.

"You have the driver return all that luggage to the carriage, and tell him to be ready to take Blackhaven away before nightfall!" she told him through gritted teeth. "I will not be... be invaded like this! Made to endure sad-eyed pleas of marriage from a man I wouldn't have twice before!"

"Sansa," Jon said, his tone placating, "I don't disagree that his presence is an imposition, but... perhaps just listen to him before you toss him out on his ear? He has never been anything but kind to you. Surely that deserves at least the small benefit of doubt?"

Guild made her ire flee in a rush, leaving her feeling deflated. "Fine," she agreed, but it was sulky and grudging, making Jon flash her one of his rare grins as he cocked an elbow and led her inside.

Ygritte had already rung for tea, and the tray arrived just as Sansa and Jon took their seats in the parlor. Sansa played mother, uncaring if the silence was stretching a bit thin as she poured and stirred. When everyone had their cups, she sat back and fixed a steely gaze on her newest guest.

"So, Your Excellency," she began, "what brings you to this remote area? Stopped over from Darry on your way to The Eyrie or Winterfell, have you?"

The marquess winced and placed his cup in its saucer on his knee. "No, indeed, I came to see you in particular, Your Grace. After having received no answer to my telegram of a week ago--" was that censure she heard in his tone? "--I became worried that perhaps not all was as it should be. Finding myself with some spare time, I thought I might come to... see if you needed any assistance," he finished lamely.

Sansa stared at him a long moment, at his guileless hazel eyes, and realized that no, there was no censure there. The only emotion she could detect in him was concern, and her irritation drained away, leaving her weary.

"The man's made of twenty-four carat gold, isn't he?" rumbled Sandor from behind her, flat mockery edged by true admiration.

What does that make you? she quipped to him. Just a sad eighteen carats?

He laughed. "I'm naught but pure lead, my lady."

Sansa forced a laugh. "As you can see, Your Excellency, all is well here. My family is visiting and with the little ones, we've our hands full."

Her smile froze, though, when she saw how intently Blackhaven's gaze roamed over her face. She knew that look, had experienced it on many prior occasions: it was the determined, faintly calf-like expression of a man set on courting. She barely managed to suppress a groan.

"So since you see I'm fine-- that we-- we're all fine," she continued awkwardly. "Surely there's no cause for concern, and of course we couldn't ask you to delay your trip or inconvenience yourself by staying."

There, that's as blatantly unwelcoming as I can manage, she thought.

Sandor hmphed, and she saw in her mind's eye a memory of his tossing an armored opponent over a stone wall into a moat far below. She stifled a giggle at the idea of doing the same to Blackhaven, imagining his slender limbs and the cane flailing as he tumbled from The Abbey's highest parapet...

"Oh, but..." Blackhaven seemed at a loss for a response. The polite thing to have done, at such an obvious suggestion, would be for him to agree at once, request his hat from the butler, and be on his way.

It seemed that the marquess was made of sterner stuff, however, for instead of that, he said, "N-no, Your Grace, I would not feel as if I'd done all I could for you if I did not see with my own eyes, for several days at least, that you are indeed well and not in need of... anything."

It was clear from the trembling of his hands that it physically pained him to have to ignore her verbal cues to depart and instead persist in remaining. Sandor laughed and laughed and Sansa carefully bit her lip to keep from reacting unwisely.

"Well, then," she said at last, "we must endeavor to put your mind to rest, mustn't we?"

Poor Blackhaven was ill-prepared to detect the faint note of derision in her voice and just gazed upon her in his besotted manner, but Jon was not, and shot her a warning glance.

"If you're to stay, then, Your Excellency, we must keep your strength up." Sansa gave her brother the slightest of eye-rolls before reaching for the plate of baked goods. "Biscuit?

Chapter Text

Sansa ended up permitting the Marquess of Blackhaven to stay several days. She found his company unobjectionable as long as he spoke of his horses, his interests, his family-- but not any hopes he might have harbored for Sansa to reconsider her prior answers to his proposals. To avoid any such awkward scenes, she made sure that she was never alone with him, always having one of the children with her, if not Ygritte or Jon themselves.

Blackhaven was a charming man, pleasant and kind, and Sansa had long regretted allowing her mother's choice of first Joffrey and then Harrold over him. If she didn't have Sandor, she would certainly have entertained the idea of encouraging Blackhaven to propose yet again. Perhaps she would even have accepted.

But she did have Sandor, and he was everything she could ever have hoped for in a man. He was strong, both of mind and of body, but gentle and loving with her. He was fiercely intelligent, with a biting wit that both shocked and delighted her by turns. He was passionate in his appreciation of her, not only of her form and beauty but of her mind as well, which led to engaging conversations that sometimes led to energizing arguments and even more frequently to lengthy, sensual interludes of profound intimacy.

Their ability to read the other's thoughts was an amazing boon to their bed sport; Sandor could discern what Sansa wanted almost before she did, and likewise she knew his desires as soon as they formed in his mind. Never before had her needs, both emotional and physical, been so perfectly met, and she awoke each morning in a state of great peace and joy to have another day to spend with him.

Well, perhaps not all her needs were met...

Sansa wanted a child. Two, perhaps. Certainly no more than three. Maybe four. Surely not five?

The presence of her nieces and nephew had sharply highlighted the sole aspect of her life that was lacking. She wanted little ones that reminded her of Robb or Rickon or Arya, a bit ragged from mischievous explorations, or else sober little creatures like Jon and Bran and she herself had been, adorable in how serious and intent they behaved. She wanted to feel them grow within her, and teach them their first words and steps, and observe how they grew from enchanting little infants to sturdy toddlers, from lanky children to accomplished young ladies and gentlemen.

But it was not to be. Sandor was not able to give her any babies, and she was unable to do without him. It would be a grave sacrifice on her part, but one that was worth the pain, she felt. How many women had the good fortune to meet the love of their lifetimes? A man who brought them to the pinnacle of love and ecstasy on a daily basis?

And how many were the women who, for reasons of biology or merely grim fate, were not able to have children despite having a living husband instead of a ghostly one? Those women accepted their lot, certainly with a few tears of grief, and made the best of it.

And so would Sansa.

She smiled down at Lyanne, who had fallen asleep in her arms as they drowsed beneath the leafy boughs of a big maple tree. The child's head was resting sweetly on Sansa's shoulder, one thumb tucked securely between rosebud lips, and her dark curls were damp from the midsummer heat. Not far away, Ygritte was pretending to lose to Daeron in a footrace across the sunny lawn, formerly an extensive herb garden when the holy brothers had stewarded The Abbey.

On the far side of the space, Jon had Lorra on his shoulders and was helping her to investigate the squirrel's den midway up the immense bole of an ancient oak. Not far away, Willas was stretched out on his back, fast asleep, a book resting forgotten on his waistcoat. His light breaths were a soothing punctuation among the rustlings of the breeze through the leaves overhead.

"You're a natural mother," rasped Sandor from where he sat close by, his back to the maple's trunk, long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankle. His piercing eyes traveled over Sansa and her little burden. He looked uncommonly contemplative, and Sansa knew he was aware of her musings. She gave a shrug.

For some, it's just not meant to be, she thought to him, and flashed him a smile, hoping to reassure him. I've made the choice knowing what I was giving up. You are worth it to me.

She thought he would make some rude remark, as he often did when ill-at-ease, or send her a lascivious expression, or at the very least snort in derision, but instead Sandor just peered at her from beneath dark, lowered brows. It was a look that confused Sansa, and woke a little niggle of concern in her breast.

After several more days, Blackhaven announced that he was needed back at Highgarden and would be taking his leave in a matter of days. Jon and Ygritte's exclamations of regret were genuine; Jon and Blackhaven were kindred souls, both of them quiet and intense and deep, and Jon confided in Sansa that he felt the other man had become a friend. Ygritte, only too aware of how few real companions her husband counted, was thrilled to have him make another, and she liked Blackhaven just for that reason.

Sansa too had enjoyed the marquess' company. To his credit-- and her relief-- he had not made a single peep about wedding, and thus she was glad that they had renewed their acquaintance, and hoped they might remain friends. She intended to correspond regularly with him, and even invited him to return for Sevenmas, when Jon and Ygritte would be returning with the children for a lengthy winter holiday.

"If I can find a convincing reason not to join my own family, you may count on me," Blackhaven replied to that. "Garlan and Margaery have had such extensive litters that the house--" the Tyrells lived in a glorious rose-filled palace, but they called it a house "--feels like we've been invaded by a Dothraki circus, complete with a thousand horses stampeding about.

"Though," he continued, with exquisite delicacy, "if some of the acrobats and fire-eaters were my own, I believe all the fuss and noise would not seem so trying."

Ah. There it was, the hint that he was still interested in taking Sansa to wife, and that comment a test of the waters to see how receptive she might be. She dared to glance to where Sandor stood by the window, gazing out into the unusually gray and rainy day keeping them inside, and permitted herself the barest roll of the eyes.

But instead of giving her an eye-roll of his own in return, or sneering at Blackhaven's back as he had taken to doing along the course of the man's visit, Sandor heaved in a great breath, and faded away.

That was... curious. Was he angry at Blackhaven's persistence? Sandor was aware of the man's impending departure in just three days' time. Surely he had to know that he was in no danger of losing Sansa to the marquess.

And he had no reason to be in a bad mood, for they had had a fairly typical day so far: waking early to make love, then a leisurely bath together before breakfast, then a morning with her guests, mostly keeping the children entertained until lunch. After that meal there was some frolicking in the big empty sept at the rear of The Abbey, the only place large enough to run around indoors, and now a relaxing tea while the little ones napped.

Soon they would deliver the children to the nursery to be fed and put to bed, the adults would have a cozy dinner, and off they'd all go to their respective beds. Sansa and Sandor would enjoy another bout of love-making. There was little that could be improved upon in such a day, she felt.

Feeling troubled, she sipped her tea, refused Ygritte's offer of a biscuit with a quick smile, and wondered what Sandor was thinking.

Chapter Text

The evening passed as per Sansa's expectations. Right on schedule, she was shooing away her new maid, Sally, after the girl had helped extract her mistress from the devil's contraption that was her corset. Sansa ambled from the dressing room to her bed chamber, where Sandor awaited her as always to brush her hair one hundred strokes. She divested herself of the rest of her clothing while he worked her curls free of tangles.

His big hands were deft as they drew the engraved silver brush through the auburn locks, and when he was done with that, they were a welcome warmth on her poor skin, soothing away the red marks left by the whalebone stays. She felt arousal spark within her as his hands left her ribs and climbed to her breasts, cupping from behind, fingers pinching and rolling her nipples, making them bud like little red berries.

"Ssssandor," she sighed, leaning back in full knowledge that his brawny frame would easily support her weight. Against her bottom, his shaft was long and thick, and she swayed from side to side to tease him.

He rumbled in her ear, a wordless growl that made heat build between her legs. His hands left her breasts to clamp her hips, and he drew her back against him so closely not even a whisper could have fit between them. Would Sandor take her this way, tonight? From behind, her hands braced against the wall as he pounded into her?

Or perhaps he would bend her over the arm of the settee, and curl his big body around her and claim her utterly, in the way only he could do.

"No," he gritted out, spinning her to face him. "I want to look at you while I fuck you."

Heat streaked through Sansa's belly, leaving a trail of fire in its wake.

"Yes," she breathed, and brought her arms around him, her hands restless as they caressed the robust hills and hollows of his muscled back and shoulders. His mouth claimed hers, fearless, demanding, and she answered his demands with some of her own. She wanted to see him too, wanted that beloved visage a mere inch from hers, within kissing distance as he stroked into her, and so she pulled away, panting, and took his hand to lead him to the bed.

She lay back, expecting him to climb up her body like the sleek predator he was, but instead he merely parted her legs and positioned himself comfortably between.

"Ah," she said with a smile, "you're in the mood to take your time, tonight."

"I've wanted the taste of you in my mouth all day," Sandor declared, and ducked his head to take a long lick up the very center of her.

Sansa mewled, head tossing back as her hips undulated in response. He was so good at this, and seemed to actually relish it, just as much as she enjoyed lavishing attention on that splendid male part of his, lashing it with her tongue and watching as he relinquished control to her. Sandor shaking in climax was the most beautiful, arousing sight she'd ever been privileged to observe.

He groaned into the wet pink folds beneath his tongue and drew away, sitting back on his heels while he wiped her essence from his chin.

"Sansa," he said, his tone darkly commanding, "suck me."

She went to him willingly, settling herself between his knees before filling one hand with his erection and the other with his heavy balls, rolling and squeezing until he hissed. Then she deigned to take him in her mouth, fitting the smooth bell of his cock-head between her lips and sucking delicately.

Sandor groaned and threaded his fingers through her hair, displacing any order he might have given it while brushing it, and guided the motion of her mouth around his shaft. She loved when he set her pace, loved noticing the slow build of speed as his desire burned hotter. When he could no longer bear it, he pulled her off and brought her up so he could kiss her lips, tongue thrusting in imitation of his cock's motion just moments before.

"I want you," Sansa gasped into his mouth, her hands clutching at his wide shoulders, at his hair. Her nails dug into the firm rounds of his buttocks, so frantic was her need.

Sandor tumbled her back into the pillows. Their limbs, so finely attuned to each other by that point, arranged automatically so that her thighs were spread wide around his hips and their arms wound around the other.

When he sank into her, they both moaned in abandon, giving themselves entirely over to passion, wholly submitting to each other in love and desire. They were not capable of conscious thought, just rutting mindlessly against each other in the desperate pursuit of pleasure.

"Sansa... god, I... Sansa, l-love, love y--" Sandor's climax hit with the force of a train, his lips flying between her legs as he pounded himself toward rapture.

His words slammed her into her own crisis and she writhed beneath him in a frenzy of sensation and elation. Her nipples beaded almost to the point of pain, dragging against his chest as he thrust and heaved against her. She could feel her body clench and clamp around him, could feel the hardness of his shaft filling her so exquisitely as she claimed paradise.

"Sandor!" she cried. "Sandor, Sandor!"

When it was over, they lay there, damp and exhausted in each other's embrace, for long minutes. Sandor was careful to prop himself on his elbows, not to crush her with his considerable weight, and Sansa busied herself with tracing his features with her fingertips, feeling as if she were glowing with the force of a thousand candles.

"You are everything to me," she whispered.

But instead of answering in kind, Sandor shut his eyes and turned his head to the side in a wince, sitting back and drawing himself out of her. Sansa's hips danced at that last drag of his hardness within her still-sensitive tissues and the way his fluids seeped from her, and he groaned at the sight, his big body shaking as he fought for control.

"Little bird," he began when he had mastered himself once more, "I have made a decision."

She blinked up at him, concern springing to life at the flatness of his voice, usually so rich.

"That sounds serious," she replied lightly, trying to preserve the mood.

"It is." He got off the bed and handed Sansa her dressing gown, a gorgeous confection of azure silk that Sandor usually preferred to take off rather than put on her.

Worry began to sour her stomach, and she stood, pulling the robe's sleeves up her arms and wrapping the silk tightly around her waist.

"What is wrong?" She took a step closer to him and lifted a hand to cup his ruined cheek. "Sandor, you're frightening me."

He took her hand in his big rough paw and pressed his mouth to her fingers, kissing them in a single scorching press of lips.

"Sansa, I've decided that you must marry Blackhaven."

Her mouth fell slack with shock. For a long moment she just gaped at him in utter disbelief.

"But... I love you," she whispered. "I love you, as you love me. I know you do."

He flinched back as if she'd slapped him in the face.

"Yes," he rasped. "You're the only good thing that has ever happened to me, and in another world, you'd have been mine, truly mine. But in this world, I am dead, a thousand years or more, and you..."

"And I, what?" Sansa demanded, her voice clogged with tears. She swiped at her cheeks as the tears rolled down, smearing the moisture around more than drying it.

"And you are not."

"I can't help that." She felt defensive, like he was accusing her of an error she had no way of erasing. "I would do anything to change our situation, you know I would."

"As would I," Sandor replied. He sounded infinitely weary. "But there is no remedy for it. It is beyond either of us. Neither my strength, nor your wealth, or all the willpower we can muster, will change the fact that you are alive, and I am dead."

"And," he continued, when she opened her mouth to speak, "it doesn't change how wrong it is that you waste yourself with a dead man instead of building a life with a live one."

Now it was her turn to flinch, feeling as if he could not have hurt her more if he actually had struck her.

"Sandor," she began in a low voice, striving for a state of calm she did not feel, and doubted she might ever feel again. "I am not wasting myself with you. You have given me more happiness and fulfillment than any dozen men could have. Yes, I will have to relinquish my hopes of motherhood, but that is not so much of a sacrifice in comparison. I do it willingly, even eagerly, so that I can be at your side."

His jaw was set in the way men do when they are bracing themselves for an amputation; rigidly, resigned to the agony to come.

But his voice was tender as he said, "I know, and that is why I must do this. For you, because you deserve it. You should have a life filled with children and grandchildren and the kind of joy I cannot give you."

"No," she declared, her hand slashing out to the side in agitation. "I will not agree to it."

"I know," Sandor repeated, and gave her one of his rare smiles, a curve of lips so sweet it would have brought tears to Sansa's eyes, had she not already been crying.

And then he just... faded away. There was a sharp pain in her chest, and a shattering sense of loss. He was gone.

And not just gone from her sight, but gone from her heart. She reached out to him with desperate supplication, but he was only the faintest hint at the far side of a wide ocean, unreachable.

"What have you done?" she cried. "Oh, Sandor, what have you done?"

Her strength waned abruptly and she sank to the floor.

"Don't do this," she whispered, begging him, shameless. "Don't do this. Come back to me. Please come back to me."

But he did not.

Not then, and not hours later, as sunrise began to burn away the dew. Sansa was exhausted from sobbing raggedly all night, her voice hoarse from pleading with him to return. At last, depleted of all stamina, she swooned where she had remained collapsed from the night before.

That was when Sandor reappeared, going to his knees by her side.

"You'll make yourself sick, little bird," he murmured with sorrow, and lifted her into his arms. "This is why I'm going away. You won't let me go, so you'll have to forget me."

Sandor carried Sansa back to the bed. He pulled back the coverlet and arranged her under it, tucking her in tenderly with hands that shook with anguish.

"I can't make your life what it should be. I can only confuse you more, and destroy whatever chance you have left of happiness. You must make your own life amongst the living."

He kissed her with a yearning that would never be fully sated.

"Sansa, listen to me. Listen, little bird."

His voice filled her ears, her mind, her very soul.

"You likely won't remember me, but if you do, it will have been in a dream. You've just been dreaming of a pirate who haunted this place. But you imagined him, Sansa. In the morning and the years after, you'll only remember me as a dream, and it will die... as all dreams must die, at waking."

Sandor kissed her one last time, with exquisite tenderness.

"Goodbye, my little bird."

~*~

Sansa awoke the next morning with a sense that she'd forgotten something terribly important, and a faint memory of a nightmare that slipped away the moment she tried to grasp it. As she made her way through her morning toilette with Sally's help, she wracked her brain to recover it, but the matter always danced narrowly out of reach, so close it was maddening. She didn't feel especially rested, and found herself yawning throughout breakfast, to her embarrassment.

Jon and Ygritte, too, seemed sleepy, but by the glances they kept giving each other, she could tell the reason for their lack of rest was not the same as hers. It was clear they were taking advantage of Lucy's nighttime care of the children and exploiting their privacy to the fullest. It seemed likely that another Snow would be making an appearance before the year ended.

Sansa was glad for them, though at the same time, that lingering impression of misery she had been able to glean about the nightmare made her feel lonely, as if she'd had a taste of that deep bond of love but lost it somewhere along the way.

The sensation lingered all that day, and the next. On the third day, feeling preoccupied, she smilingly refused when her brother and goodsister invited her to come with them to fetch the children from the nursery after lunch. Once they finished their meal, Jon and Ygritte went up to the nursery to fetch their offspring from poor Lucy, and the Marquess of Blackhaven escorted Sansa out to the garden for a walk in the sunshine.

"You seem sad the past few days, Your Grace," he commented before they had gone a dozen steps. He was very perceptive, Sansa had already noted. "Has something happened?"

Yes, she wanted to reply, but what? She strained and strained and could not recall a thing. Just that dratted nightmare, where something had fallen away and left her feeling so very alone...

Her automatic reaction, finely honed through over two decades of maintaining a bland facade, was to deflect such a personal question with a neutral assurance that she was fine, but something reckless stirred within her.

Why should she not answer him honestly? What great secret was she keeping? How could it possibly shame her to admit something to a man who had proven he had only her best interests to heart?

"Do you ever wake up and feel like a great part of you is missing?" Sansa therefore asked Blackhaven by way of response as they continued to stroll. "Something you knew had been there, had been important, but now is just... gone? And that you will never get it back? And that you will be forever poorer for its lack?"

He looked circumspect as he leaned on his cane, his free hand coming up to hold his watch fob in a way he tended to do when deep in thought.

"I believe you're describing grief, Your Grace," he said at last. His pleasing face was thoughtful and he kept his eyes downturned on the path as he spoke. She liked how he seemed to ponder every time he spoke, the care he took with his words. It quite reminded her of her father and Jon.

"Do call me Sansa," she told him suddenly. "After this past week, have we not Your Grace'd and Your Excellency'd each other quite enough?"

"Indeed. And I am Willas to you, as well. " He gave her a quick smile before sobering to his topic once more. "Yes, that sounds very much like grief, or at least grief as I understand it. I was very fond of my Grandpapa, and when he passed, I had many such mornings as I recalled I would not see him again.

"Also, when I suffered the fall that left me with this." He motioned with a pale, slender hand toward his leg and cane. "I had loved riding, loved horses. Still do." In fact, he was regarded as one of Westeros' finest minds where care and breeding of horseflesh was concerned. "And it had been my habit to rise early each day and go for a brisk ride round the house and grounds. The day I woke with my leg in a cast, unable to even leave my bed, let alone ride anywhere... and that I would never be able to ride again... that was a hard day."

Willas looked away and blinked rapidly, just once, but it touched Sansa and she gave his arm a pat for lack of anything else she could do. He slanted her a little half-smile but kept his gaze out toward the gleam of the sun over the bay.

"And again when I heard about the direction your marriage to Stormlands had taken," he said quietly, deliberately avoiding meeting her eyes. "When I learned of your mistreatment at his hands, and the neglect of his family, I felt a very deep grief indeed."

Sansa was all astonishment.

"If I had known what had gone on... but Margaery never said a word until his death... I would have come to you, Your G-- Sansa. I would have taken you from there. Do you believe me?"

She nodded stupidly, feeling a more than a bit stunned. All that time, she had thought herself alone, and--

"There was little I could do after the fact, of course," Willas continued in a conversational tone that belied the tension of both the subject and his slim frame, scarcely an inch taller than her own, "but when I learned of your goodbrother's identity, and how your sister was trying to legitimize him and get his proper portion from old Duke Robert's estate... well, I'm not proud of it, but I did whatever I could to hamper Her Grace, Lady Cersei, in her fight to keep her children's legitimacy established. There are more than a few appeals court judges now in possession of prime summer homes in Highgarden, for example, and that number happens to match how many voted against the Lannisters in favor of your goodbrother."

The smile he gave her was somehow both mischievous and sheepish. Sansa kept blinking through her shock and thought she probably looked very sheeplike, herself.

"It was a small revenge, in comparison to what had befallen you, but it was all I could manage," he finished. "I hope you can forgive me--"

She shocked him, then, by grasping his hands-- making his cane clatter to the gravel path-- and gripping then with fervor.

"Forgive you?" Her voice was thick, and it hurt to push it past her throat, but she persevered. "You are one of only two people who ever did anything to help me during that time. You don't know what a gift you've given me."

The tears came, then, and Sansa found herself bowing her head, pressing her forehead to their clasped hands.

She did not weep for long; Willas was transparently horrified and commenced stammering all manner of apologies, offering handkerchiefs and smelling salts and cups of tea. Soon she was bright-eyed once more, having blotted her cheeks and given her nose a discreet honk (into her own handkerchief).

"What a fright I must look!" she said while tucking her hand back in the crook of his elbow and tugging to resume their walk. "Some women look pretty when they cry, but my red eyes clash with my hair, I'm afraid."

"Your Gr-- Sansa--" Poor Willas was all at sixes and sevens, at a total loss to understand her, and truly Sansa could barely understand herself. All she knew was that the heaviness that had burdened her since wakening those several days ago had lightened a bit.

"I'm quite well now. Thank you, Willas," she said warmly, with a smile that had him pinkening as he stooped to retrieve his cane. "I'm sorry for falling into such a state. Do you forgive me?"

"I think you know I would forgive you anything, S-Sansa," he replied, and even the stutter couldn't lessen the suaveness of it.

Jon hallooed from behind them, then, and they turned to greet him and Ygritte as they ushered the children along the garden path. Lorra skipped to Sansa's side, taking her hand and chirping a good morning. Not to be outdone, Daeron squirmed down from Ygritte's arms and waddled toward his aunt, arms extended in a wordless demand to be lifted.

She obeyed, of course, and settled his sturdy weight on her hip as she pressed a kiss to his plump cheek. He smelled soapy and warm, and she smiled at the scent, only to find Willas watching her with a soft expression.

He didn't say anything, but when they resumed walking, he was perhaps an inch closer than before, and when he left the next day for Highgarden, it was after she had made him promise to return far sooner than Sevenmas.

Chapter Text

The Abbey, Quiet Isle, 1924


"Mother. Mother? Mother!"

The new Duke of Highreach's voice rang off the gray stones of The Abbey as he strode around the foyer, then up the curving stairs, in search of his wayward parent.

"I'm here, Xander," Sansa replied, her tone one of mild censure as she poked her head out her sitting room door into the hallway. "No need to shout."

"I just wanted to be sure you heard me," her son said as he entered the chamber. "Your hearing has begun to fail, you know, in your old age."

She sniffed and turned to the window. Despite the cold winter day, she had opened it a crack and a chill was seeping into the room. He could hardly blame her; the place had been shut up since the previous summer and must was heavy in the air. "I'm hardly in my dotage. You're a terrible son. I shall disown you."

"Can't," said Xander with a grin. "I'm the boss, now."

"A boss who screeches like a fishwife at his own mother?" Sansa's brow, now more white than auburn, arched. "I declare myself ashamed at the poor upbringing I've given you."

He plopped himself down onto a fat armchair before her hearth and grimaced.

"By Gad, this thing is ancient. Sprung and worn. You should have it redone." His gaze flicked over the room's shabby furnishings, mostly unchanged since his mother's first arrival nearly forty years earlier. "Or better, scrap the whole lot and get new pieces in. Don't fret about the expense."

Sansa reached out and smoothed a hand over the carved frame of the old settee. "No, I like it this way. I remember how..."

Her voice faded out and she stared off dreamily, a faint smile curving her lips. Xander watched her with patience, well used to his mother's propensity to get lost in some deep thought. Sure enough, she was soon back with him, her gaze sad, and he wondered, as he had since his childhood, what she had been thinking of.

Long ago, he'd asked her why she called him Xander when everyone else used the nickname Alex or the full Alexander. She had replied that she did not know, but that it had come to her in a dream, that it seemed like a good strong name, a name for the finest of men. He knew she'd been married twice before she had wed his father, and wondered if perhaps she still mused about them when she became lost in her cogitations.

Did she pine for one of those long-dead husbands? Had Alexander had been one of their middle names?

She looked surprised to see Xander sometimes, her eyes tracking higher, as if she expected him to be as tall as a giant, and often said how she wished he'd had the look of the North instead of the typical Tyrell fair hair and hazel eyes.

Had either of her first two dukes been a very tall and dark fellow, with steely eyes like his Aunt Arya and Uncle Jon?

"What did you want, dear?" Sansa asked him, looking more focused on the present. "Aren't Elyn and the children waiting in the carriage?"

He compressed his lips to keep from grinning. "I think you mean the motorcar, Mother."

"Yes, yes." She waved a careless hand, unconcerned that she was hopelessly old-fashioned in how she could not be accustomed to how the times were changing. The telephone continued to elude her, as well. "You should go. The children will become restless."

"It's only a short trip to the station." Quiet Isle had finally received its own train station a decade ago, boasting one whole stop there each day, and twice on Saturdays. One of The Abbey's footmen would drive Xander, his wife, and their children to the station, from where they would take the train to Darry. They would then make their way back to their ancestral home, ready to begin their new lives as the Duke and family.

"But a long trip to Highgarden," Sansa quipped. "Was there something else you wished to say?"

For they had said their farewells a quarter-hour past, down in the parlor, amid a flurry of bundling up against the gray and dreary February morning and gathering up various toys and pets that the little ones could not have borne to part with, and directing the entire group into the 'car.

"Just to repeat that I am reluctant to leave you here in this... backwater."

"I thought you liked this backwater," she protested, sounding a bit pride-injured.

"When I was a child," Xander allowed, "and all I wanted to do was play at being some medieval warrior, chucking people over the parapets into the moat."

He'd had dreams when they had stayed at The Abbey during his childhood, of someone who would rasp tales of glory and battle into his bloodthirsty young ears. But then he'd gone away to school, and with new interests, so too had faded his obsession with old historical battles. The next time he returned to the Quiet Isle, the dreams had faded, never to return. "But it's far too threadbare and remote for me to feel comfortable about you living here alone."

She gave a delicate snort, and he knew she was amused at the idea of being alone when she had a dozen servants in residence, all waiting breathlessly to do her bidding. The duchess was known for the liberal salaries and holidays she provided her employees.

He leaned forward and took her hands, only the slightest bit less smooth than in her youth, she was proud to say. "But Father has only been... gone... for a month, and you are the sole person of your station on the whole of the island. I worry you will fall into a black state without some socializing. Please, won't you come back with us? You'll have the children to keep you cheerful, and you can help Elyn run the household matters-- you know them like the back of your hand, after so long--"

Sansa withdrew her hands, patting his gently before sitting back and folding them on her lap.

"You are a dear boy," she began, "and I thank you, but there is nowhere else I would rather be. I've been... waiting, I suppose you could call it. Waiting for so long to be able to return."

Xander frowned in confusion. "But we've come here every year since I was an infant."

"I meant by myself," she clarified. "As I had been before I married your father. The few years I spent here, between one duke and the next, were the best of my life."

He looked affronted, and she laughed.

"I know children all prefer to think they are the lone reason for their parents' happiness, but unfortunately for you, I lived nine-and-twenty years before you entered my life. Some managed to be quite wonderful, even if you were not in them."

Xander disregarded her gentle mockery and pressed on.

"I know you did not care to deal with Grandmama Olenna," he said hesitantly, "nor Aunt Margaery or Uncle Loras. And that once Father inherited from Grandpapa, managing Highgarden and all the other properties was a chore. But you had a husband who adored you, and children you doted upon. And now grandchildren you spoil terribly. Surely it has not been such a trial?"

He gazed around the weary room, at the faded wallpaper and velvet drapes beginning to tatter and how the stuffing was beginning to peek through the worn spots on the back of the settee. "Would you truly prefer to be here instead of with us?"

She did not answer right away, and Xander wondered if she'd gone into her memories once more.

"I love you dearly, and will always want to spend time with you and your sisters and brothers," she murmured at last. "But it has been a very busy few years, with your father's illness, and then all the fuss of the funeral... I have been longing for some peace."

Sansa stood and made her way to the window, ignoring the puff of dust emitted by the drapes as she pushed them aside with a finger.

"I was at peace here," she continued, her voice slow and soft. "I became strong here. I healed here. I was loved here. There were no demands upon me. No one tutting about how I had misspoken, no one admonishing me so lovingly that I must do this or that better."

She turned from the window, smiling, blue eyes sparkling with humor. She looked decades younger, suddenly.

"Do you know what? It always ended up that their way was no better than my way. Just different. That was another lesson I learned here-- to trust in myself, to never again give in to another's pressure to change. That I was good enough just as I am."

She returned to her seat and patted her son's hand. "So, Xander, yes, I would prefer to be here. I need to be here. It is a long time since I was able to be myself. I was the daughter of one duke, then the wife of three others, and now am the mother of a fifth. I've always been known in relation to someone else, and now I want to... just be..."

Sansa trailed off again. This time, she was peering through the door linking the sitting room and her personal chamber. She appeared to be staring at the bed, and to Xander's discomfort, an oddly seductive little smirk curved her mouth.

He'd seen that kind of smirk before, but always on the lips of someone who earned her living in a way one did not mention in polite company. He slid a finger between his throat and his suddenly-tighter shirt collar, and began to wish he'd simply departed with his family instead of coming up here to press her one last time to join them.

One should never see a smirk like that on the face of one's mother.

"To be what, Mother?" he prompted hoarsely, exceedingly uncomfortable.

"To be... a bird," she finished at last, and when she met his gaze again, that smile only shone brighter. "Such dreams I've had, Xander, and in them all, I was just a little bird, and I was so free..."

Xander was at a loss to understand what she meant, but she didn't elaborate and only gazed down at her folded hands, her expression wistful.

"I... I will go, then," he said, standing. Perhaps this place would be best for her after all. A restorative period of quiet contemplation might do well to purge her of this peculiar mood. "But do 'phone or telegraph me if you need anything. I can be here in hours."

"I know, darling. You are the best of children." She offered her cheek for his kiss, and watched fondly as he took his leave. She listened to his footfalls as he thumped down the stairs, and heard the slam of the door. The motorcar's engine roared, and then they were gone.

"Your Grace?" inquired a voice from the door.

"Yes, Narbert?"

This was the son of the original, but no less stoic and proper. He had taken pains to inform her, upon her arrival a week earlier, that he was training his own son to replace him should that need present itself. She assured him that she had complete faith in his abilities, and he had preened before taking himself away to terrorize the footmen and count the silver.

"Would you care for some refreshment, Your Grace?"

"I'm brimful of tea already, Narbert, so I don't think so. But could you send up Martha? I would like to take a nap."

"Right away, Your Grace," and within moments the maid was there to help Sansa untangle herself from her mourning dress and the hated corset, and into a soft wrapper over her shift.

Nora went to turn down the bed, but Sansa waved her away, a book in hand as she sat in her favorite squashy armchair.

"I think I want to sit and read," she said, "not sleep the day away. I'm tired, Martha."

She closed her eyes, her head resting against the chair's soft cushion, the book resting on her lap. The maid slipped from the room, drawing the door shut behind her. "I'm just... tired."

The words were spoken to no one, but the drapes shifted as an especially brisk wind pushed in through the window, sending the velvet slithering over the floor.

The gas lamps, only recently installed, dimmed to the glow of candlelight.

Unopened, the book slipped from her knee to the floor.

"And now you'll never be tired again," said a voice...

...a rough male voice she had once loved...

...that she had always loved, though perhaps only in dreams.

Sansa opened her eyes, and there he was.

In a wild rush, her memories of him-- of them-- returned to her, all the moments of glorious lovemaking and emotional communion flooding back. For a moment, she was furious, that he would presume to know best for her, had taken the choice from her hands. But just as swiftly, she realized that he had done it so she could have the children she'd wished so strongly for, and who had truly made her life complete. She could not be angry or resentful at how he had made the decision for her.

He'd been right, dammit.

Now, with their thoughts and hearts attuned once more, she understood everything.

"You did that for me," she said wonderingly. "But how alone you've been all these years, my love."

"Waited a thousand years for you," Sandor replied, his voice gruff as always, but there was a lightness to his tone that she had never heard before, as if centuries of darkness had left him, and perhaps it had. "Figured I could wait a few decades more so you could have what you wanted so much."

He reached out and she placed a hand in his. She came to her feet, smiling up at him. In his eyes she could see her own reflection, and in it she was as fresh and lovely as she had been in her youth.

Sansa drew him down for a kiss, and the heat flared between them just as brightly as ever. When they drew apart, Sandor tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and covered it with his own.

"Come, little bird."

Wordlessly, in total synchronicity, they left her aged body in the sitting room and descended the stairs. They passed Narbert at the newel post, where he was instructing Martha to awaken their mistress in time for dinner. The maid's head bobbed in obedient agreement.

The big oak doors swung open before them, but instead of the usual cobblestoned drive and steep embankment leading down to the bay, there was just a dense haze, white and filmy.

Sansa paused, looking back at her servants.

"But they'll find me, and..." she began.

"They'll cope," Sandor interrupted, but gently. "Come, Sansa. It's time."

She smiled up at him, trusting wholly in him. She squared her shoulders and faced forward, and together they walked out and become one with the mist.