“I don’t need a husband,” Sansa tells her cousin Jon, the King of the North and half a dozen other titles and responsibilities that weigh heavily on his slender shoulders. “I don’t want one.”
“The North needs a Warden,” her cousin observes. Around them, the snow falls steadily from the skies, rendering the castle courtyard white and hiding the scars of its recent sacking by sword and fire.
“The North has one. Me.”
Her cousin-king’s dark eyes grow warm. “I know that. You know that. But the lords and bannermen don’t see it that way. As long as your bed’s empty, they’ll be trying to put a son in it.”
“Maybe I should put Brienne in it,” she says and looks at a stable boy leading a mule.
Jon laughs. “She might take you up on that, for the same reason.”
Three unwed ladies in Winterfell, although between herself, the Maid of Tarth, and Arya, Sansa is the only one who actually wears a dress. Three women of noble blood, unwed, unbred, each with a claim to rich lands. Like flies to honey. “Don’t sell me for some political alliance, Jon.”
“I shan’t.” He leaves the reasons unsaid but they both know. Sansa’s sister-in-law herself was sold, for a Dothraki army. Danaerys rules with a dainty little iron fist and eyes that flare with cold, purple fury at the mention of slavery in any form.
“Thank you,” she says and means it. She still feels gratitude for being treated like a person in her own right, scars on her soul that may never heal.
Jon fixes his dark eyes on her. “I’m not going to force you into marriage, Sansa. But think about it, for your own sake, as well as for mine.”
She dips her head. “Yes, Your Grace. Is there someone in particular you wish for me to consider?”
“I’ll have a list of names drawn up,” Jon says and they both know that she will read it and then toss it on the fire. She curtseys and walks away before more can be said on the matter. Some might have balked at the breach of etiquette but Jon will never chastise her for it.
Sansa’s feet take her to the galleries where one can remain unseen and unheard, but still see and hear. Her lord father had loved them for the same reason. From up there, she has a good view of the entire courtyard and beyond, yet few would notice her looking down upon them. An oasis of quiet in the busy beehive of workers, drudges, and men-at-arms that is Winterfell. She walks here often, for the peace, and because Ramsay never did.
A tall man is chopping wood near the stables. Clegane swings the axe expertly and requires only one stroke to split a log where most men would need several. He does not need to be doing menial work. He could change out of rough homespuns and take a seat in the great hall, letting drudges fetch him wine and meat. However, he is subject to as many whispers and stares as Sansa is, and if she too could chop wood instead of enduring it, she would.
”Have you talked to The Hound yet?” asks Arya.
The younger Stark sister makes a habit out of appearing to have been in that dark, empty corner you were looking at, until you are no longer looking, and then she is there. Sansa cannot begin to understand how she does it. ”Not yet,” Sansa replies, not wanting to sound startled.
”Why not?” Arya has a penchant for surgical precision.
”Because I'm not sure how I feel about him being alive,” Sansa admits. ”They told me you left him to die.”
”I did.” Her little sister shrugs. ”Took his silver, too.”
”He was weak. He could not protect himself. He would be dead before winter, anyway.” Arya is quoting somebody. Probably The Hound himself, at least she is staring at him hard. ”I learned a lot from that man. Did you?”
”I learned from all my men,” Sansa says and lets her gaze follow the axe as it rises high, gleaming in the winter sunlight, and then comes down hard, splitting a block of wood and sending wedges flying. ”But the men around me never seem to learn. Father sold me for an alliance between houses too. He couldn’t know that Joff would turn out such an evil and twisted little monster, but he sold me all the same. Just like Jon wants to.”
”No one is selling me,” Arya states confidently. ”I wanted to be a fighter like Brienne once, you know. Might never gow big and strong enough. I’ll make my own way and maybe some day, I’ll pick a man of my own choosing. Or maybe I won’t.”
Clegane pauses in his wood chopping to stretch his back, hands on his hips. Seven, but that man is tall, Sansa thinks and recalls a moment long ago, when she unexpectedly came face to face with the glare of tongueless Ser Ilyn Payne, the King’s Justice. Terrified, she had turned to make her escape, only to find herself staring up at the even more horrifying visage of The Hound. The golden little lion cub, Prince Joffrey, had been a welcome refuge, then, of less intimidating height and not resembling an angry bear. Of all the wicked, evil men she had met since, that beautiful young boy had been the most rotten, mentally decomposing --
The maiden fair would have been better off with the bear.
Sansa turns her gaze back towards her sister and finds that once again, Arya has disappeared. She wonders what it is like, apprenticing to the Faceless Men. It probably involves adding to their collection of faces. She may never ask.
Sansa rests her hands on the bannister and thinks of the Hand's Tournament and Petyr Baelish years ago, in King's Landing. The softspoken, slender Littlefinger, so courteous and civilized, had been a straw in the well for her to cling to. In the world of Robert Baratheon, the brothers Clegane, Meryn Trant, and other men with tall, heavy bodies and loud, deep voices, Baelish seemed an island of refuge to a young girl of a timid disposition. The thought makes her smirk derisively. The velvety Master of Coin had been a brothel keeper and political player who wanted to fuck her mother by proxy. He, if anyone, taught her that pretty words and courteous manners can conceal poison, too.
Sansa turns and walked back inside. Moving through the great hall she relieves a drudge of a skin of wine without offering any words. She owes none, and the opinions of others matters less to her than ever. She heads straight for the courtyard outside, and the tall man with the axe.
“Ser Clegane,” she says to his back.
The axe stops in mid-air. He straightens his back and turns around. “I'm no –” he rasps before his eyes widen in recognition. “Lady Stark.”
“To my face, and Lannister or Bolton when my back is turned,” she counters and proffers the wineskin. “You look warm.”
Clegane closes a fist the size of a ham around it and hoists it to his lips. He drinks his fill before fixing his dark brown gaze upon her and nodding to the skin. “And what's that for, then?” The courtesy due to a high-born lady is already forgotten.
“A small thanks, for things done years ago,” Sansa replies. “And for keeping my sister safe for as long as you did, and for fighting with my cousin and his men beyond the Wall.”
The tall man grunts and takes another drink. A man-at-arms glances their way and then quickly decides to look somewhere else upon meeting The Hound's fierce glare. “Bunch of nosy fuckers here,” he rumbles.
Sansa chuckles. “Everywhere. I am nosy too, but I'd rather ask than gossip.”
Clegane looks down at her. Unlike years ago in King's Landing, she does not want to crawl away and hide. He does not frighten her anymore. After Ramsay, very few things do. He sees the strength in her eyes and smirks. “Well, fucking ask, then.”
“Where are you going from here?”
“Somebody needs to be killing white walkers. Might as well be me.”
Sansa half-smiles. “Thinking of taking the black?”
Clegane shrugs. “A man's got to eat. I'm not getting any younger, either.” Then, to Sansa's surprise, he asks, “Did you really have Baelish's throat slit?”
“Arya did it,” Sansa confirms. “I asked her to. He was a threat to my family.”
“Fuck,” The Hound says with admiration. “You've grown up, little bird.”
A groom leads a skitty horse past, forcing Sansa to step out of the way. She waves the man's apology off with a polite smile. “I had little choice. Have you talked with Arya yet?”
To her surprise, Clegane nods and takes another swig from the wine skin. “Little wolf told me I'm dead to her.”
Sansa's eyebrows shoot up. “How rude.”
He barks a laugh. “Not really. I was on her list of people she wants to kill. Now I'm not. Heard about what she did to the Freys. Cunts deserved it.”
He's proud of her, Sansa realizes. There is some sort of twisted friendship there. It makes sense. Arya and Clegane are both twisted, damaged people. They were there, watching the Frey soldiers parade Robb's body around with the head of his direwolf sown on instead of his own. The thought of Walder Frey, his family, and his men-at-arms writhing and bleeding and dying from poisoned wine disturbs her, regardless of how much they had it coming.
“I'm glad that you are well, Clegane,” she says. “I am in your debt. If you need anything –”
Clegane brings the axe down, hard, on the wood block. Splinters go flying. “You can fucking not sound like a Lannister,” he growls.
Sansa laughs. She doesn't mean to, but it bubbles up from her stomach and forces its way out her throat. A couple of guardsmen turn their heads to look their way. “I'm sorry,” she finally manages to get out between peals of laughter. “That was just, sorry, that was, oh bloody hells, Sandor –”
Clegane says nothing, just stares at her in bewilderment. She makes a decision.
His expression sends her into another fit of giggles. At the end of it she finally manages to point up at the gallery and says, “Please, walk with me up there. Everyone's staring.”
He throws the axe down and follows her as she walks back inside and through the great hall. Men-at-arms and servants glance after them, already gossiping – what can the beautiful Lady Stark possibly want with the Lannisters' attack dog? As they both step out on the gallery overlooking the courtyard she muses to herself that he is unaware that she just invited him into her inner sanctum, her one place of peace. She won't tell him.
She leans her elbows on the railing and looks out over the courtyard. Next to her, Clegane folds his arms over his chest and looks down. “Nice view.”
“My husband – Ramsay Bolton – never came out here. It's my refuge,” Sansa says and realizes that she just told him anyway.
“Heard he was a cunt.”
Sansa fixes her eyes on a pile of grain sacks far below. “Most people are. You don't have to take the black. You can work here in Winterfell, for me.”
Heavy hands come to rest on the bannister next to her. “You're not short on soldiers here.”
“And you're not getting any younger,” Sansa completes the sentence for him. “I have eyes. Most men wet their pants still at the thought of facing down with The Hound, even if you have never recovered fully from the beating Brienne gave you.”
Clegane bristles but says nothing.
Sansa looks at a cart of potatoes being dragged in through the castle gates by two farmhands. “I don't need another sword. I'll call you sergeant and put you to work training the men-at-arms and picking out new recruits, but what I really need is an honest man.”
“To tell you what? That the world's fucking awful? You've found that out on your own.”
Sansa nods. “I wasn't old enough to listen when you told me that in King's Landing. I am now.” She turns and looks up directly into his scarred, hideous face. “You never lied to me. You stuck out your neck to help me, with nothing to gain from doing so. You're the only man who gave me a cloak and didn't expect me to fuck him.” That's not entirely fair to Tyrion, but then, the little lion had expected it – he just couldn't go through with it.
“I'm a right fucking hero.” Men like Clegane don't talk about their reasons or open up any more than Arya does.
“My cousin wants me to remarry,” Sansa says. “He will not force me, but I can tell he thinks I'm not strong enough to be Warden of the North. A woman cannot be strong.”
“Tell that to fucking Brienne of Tarth,” The Hound rumbles.
Sansa has her doubts about Brienne. The big woman certainly can hold her own with a sword, but if she weakens from injury or grows old, or worse yet, falls for somebody and gets with child, well – the world is not a kind place to a woman with no family. Maybe Brienne will make it work, somehow. Maybe she'll allow that big red-haired wildling to steal her, better a spearwife than a broodmare.
She shakes her head, dismissing the thoughts. “I don't need a lord's son in my bed, Sandor. I don't need a knight and guardian to speak for me while I hide away in the womens' chambers with my embroidery needles. I don't want to have to deal with these things. Maybe ten years from now, when my scars have healed. Maybe never.”
He, if anyone, understands about scars that may never heal. “You want me to run your suitors off.”
Sansa laughs softly. “That's part of it. I also want your expertise as a soldier and military man. But most of all I want you to be honest. To tell me if you think I'm making a mistake, to tell me what you think of all the pretty songs and dances noblemen perform, to conceal the daggers in their sleeves. I can rule the North, Sandor, but I'll never command the respect that a man does, just for being a man.”
“I don't fucking sing or dance. But I'll call a cunt a cunt.”
“Exactly. It's settled, then.” She smiles and walks away, lending her peaceful sanctuary to Clegane for a moment. He might even appreciate it.
Sansa walks through the great hall and up the stairs to the solar where she finds her cousin resting his eyes a moment before the fireplace. Jon sits up, warrior's instinct, as she approaches. She takes the seat opposite of him. “I've taken Clegane into my service.”
Her cousin looks surprised, but nods. “Good choice. The man has a terrible mouth on him but he's too fine a sword to let some other house snap him up.”
Sansa chuckles. “He was talking about taking the black, actually. But I want him here. Between him and Arya and Lyanna Mormont, I won't be hearing more about a woman being too weak to rule.”
Jon sits up proper. “You're the last Stark, Sansa. Marrying Arya to somebody, I might as well sign their death warrant. You're going to need an heir if there is to always be a Stark in Winterfell.”
“But I'm not,” Sansa points out. “You're a Stark on your mother's side. You'll have sons. They can't all inherit the Iron Throne.”
“Dany's not certain she even can have children –”
Sansa feels no pity. “Then be a woman about it, Jon. Women are expected to wed and breed for the good of their house. You can sire and legitimize a couple of bastards if your dynasty depends on it. Daenaerys, if anyone, will understand that obligation.”
He actually blushes. Seven, but Jon is such a child in some matters. “Well, we'll take that bridge when we get to it, I suppose.”
Sansa stands, smiling. “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, and from now on, there'll also be a Clegane to remind that Stark what the world is really like and pull her back to the ground when necessary. We'll be fine, Jon. We'll all be fine.”