Finally, after weeks of traveling and enduring hardships, the ancestral home of her mother appeared on the horizon. The castle of Riverrun, at the junction of the Red Fork and the Tumblestone, with its bright sandstone walls and its shingle covered towers looked like one of the castles in the stories she had once loved.
Even the sun had broken through the thick layer of clouds that had been their companion for the last couple of days, after the rain stopped. It nearly seemed to Sansa that even the weather wanted to celebrate her return to her family.
Today, Sansa would finally see them again. She hadn’t seen any member of her family since the day her father had lost his head on the steps in front of the sept of Baelor, and the last time she had seen her mother and brother had been at Winterfell the day she had traveled south with her father and Arya.
Sansas heart swelled at seeing the direwolf banner flying proudly above the towers in the wind.
Sandor slowly led his horse on the muddy wooden bridge that led to the drawbridge.
“Who goes there?” a guard yelled down.
Sandor pulled his horse to a halt.
“The bloody Hound, Sandor Clegane. I demand entrance, to return Princess Sansa Stark to her mother and brother.”
The drawbridge didn’t move and the guard didn’t give an answer back.
“Do you think they don’t believe you?” Sansa asked carefully, turning around in the saddle to face her companion. He looked down to her.
“If they didn’t believe us, we would be dead by now little bird.”
He pointed to battlements and Sansa eyes widened at the sheer number of crossbows pointed at them.
“Open the gates!”
The drawbridge slowly started to lower. Sandor slowly rode into the castle. Sansa looked around and saw many curious eyes on them, trying to spot her mother and brother.
Sandor stopped his horse and dismounted. He grabbed her by the waist and gently lifted her off his black beast.
“Sansa?” a warm female voice called from behind. Sansa immediately knew it was her mother when she turned around.
“Mother!” Sansa squealed and ran towards her mother, flinging herself into her arms. Sansa felt tears well in her eyes and the feeling of her mother’s embrace.
Sansa loosened her embrace when she felt another hand on her back. When she turned, she saw the face of her elder brother.
He had changed. He now had a beard and a bronze crown rested on his head. Sansa flung herself in his arms.
“You are safe now, Sansa.”
She felt him loosen the embrace and Sansa saw a woman she didn’t know.
Sandor hadn’t moved, and was still holding the reigns of Stranger.
Robb turned to Sandor and eyed him from head to toe.
“Put him in chains and throw him in the dungeons.”
Sansa desperately grabbed Robb’s arm.
“No!” Sansa yelped. “Please Robb, he saved me!”
“He can’t hurt you anymore, Sansa”, Robb said looking at her like she had grown a second head.
“No Robb, please let me explain, he…”
Robb interrupted her.
“We won’t talk here about it. Bring my sister to my solar.”
Her mother grabbed her hand and led her to the entrance of the keep. When Sansa looked around, she saw that everybody in the courtyard was watching them.
“Great Uncle, bring Clegane, but keep him in chains.”
A tall man that must be her great uncle, the Blackfish, walked over to Clegane and Sansa shook her head lightly when Sandor’s hand wandered to the pommel of his sword.
Sansa only could hope Sandor wouldn’t do anything stupid. She would explain everything to her mother and brother.
Her mother led her through the corridors and halls of Riverrun up to the solar, that probably had belonged to her grandfather before.
They entered the solar and the auburn haired man and unknown woman followed them. While Robb took his place at the large table, the auburn haired man came over to her and kissed her hand.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Sansa. I am you uncle Edmure.”
Of course, Sansa should have known it.
“It is good to meet you, uncle. I am glad to finally be here.”
“And this is my wife Talisa, Sansa,” Robb said from the table with the woman besides him.
“Your grace,” Sansa said kindly with a courtesy.
“Please call me Talisa, Sansa. We are family, after all.”
The door opened and her great uncle entered with Clegane in tow. He had shackles tying his hand and legs, restricting his movement. It made Sansa’s heart clench to see him in chains.
“Please Robb, it’s not necessary to chain him up. He means no harm.”
“Sansa, he is your King. Show him that much respect,” her mother reminded her sharply.
“Don’t worry about me, little bird.” Sandor said. Robb folded his hands at his chin.
“Why are you here, Clegane?”
“What does it look like? I brought back your sister.”
“If this is the doing of the Imp or Cersei Lannister to get back the Kingslayer, I must disappoint you. He is already gone.”
Sandor laughed. “I don’t give a shit about the Kingslayer, wolfboy.”
“Watch your tongue, Clegane, or you will lose it”, Robb said in a frosty voice.
“Please Robb, Sandor helped me to escape during Stannis Baratheon’s attack on King’s Landing.”
“I didn’t ask you, Sansa, and he is Clegane to you. What is it you want, Clegane? Gold?”
“Bugger your gold. I didn’t save your sister for money. I ask to become her shield, to keep her safe like I did in King’s Landing and during our travel.”
Robb jumped out of his seat.
“You are the Lannister dog and nothing more. You have been the shield of the murderer of my father. I would never make her the shield of my beloved sister! She now has her family to keep her safe.”
“Where was her damn family when the boy king had her look at your father’s head on a spike? Where was her family when he had her beaten at court or when the mob went after her? I kept her safe while you played king, boy, and I will continue to do so.”
Sansa saw that Robb fists clenched as he glared daggers at Sandor.
“You will leave now. I will give you a bag of gold, because of Sansa’s return to us. Take it or leave it, I don’t care, but you will leave and should I ever see your scarred face in the Riverlands or the North again, I will put your ugly head on a pike.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, Sansa thought desperately. The whole time during their travel, Sansa had tried to convince Sandor to stay with her when they reached Riverrun, until he finally promised he would stay and ask to become her shield. She had told him that her mother and brother would listen to her.
“Robb, please…” Sansa pleaded.
“Enough, Sansa. Stop it,” her mother hushed her in a sharp tone.
Sansa desperately looked around for someone to support her pleading. Hot tears of desperation started to pool in her eyes. She felt like she was back on the steps of the sept of Baelor, when she had pleaded for her father’s life, but no one had stepped up to save him. No one would help her now.
“I don’t want your gold,” Sandor finally said calmly in a defeated tone. “I only ever wanted her to be safe and happy.”
Sansa felt her heart clench at these words, because she knew he really meant them. He had never lied to her. Before Sansa knew what she was doing, she ran towards Sandor and flung her arms around his neck crying angry tears against his neck.
“Sansa!” her mother called out, shocked.
“There, there, little bird,” Sandor whispered only for her to hear, trying to rub her back as well as his shackles allowed it.
“Please Sandor, take the gold, for my sake. It will gladden my heart to know I could at least give you something in return once,” Sansa said, her voice heavy with emotions for everyone to hear.
“Aye, I will take it, but only because you want me to, little bird.” His eyes held sadness and resignation.
“Uncle, bring a bag of gold and lead him to his horse.” Robb declared.
“Yes, your grace,” Edmure said and led Clegane out of the solar.
When the door had closed she tried to address her brother again. “Robb, I plead with you, Sandor is a good and loyal man. He will keep me safe and ...”
Her mother interrupted her again. “Stop it, Sansa! Your brother is the King and he has decided. Clegane is lucky he is allowed to live. You are much too close to this man. Throwing yourself at him like a harlot, it seems you have completely forgotten everything Septa Mordane and I taught you about the behavior of a lady. I hope that was only a reaction to the exhausting travel.”
“I apologize, mother,” Sansa said. She had no energy left for another fight.
“May I at least go to the gates and watch his departure?” Sansa asked.
“I don’t see why not,” Robb said with a shrug. “Take our great uncle with you. I will see you at the feast to celebrate your return.”
“Your grace,” the Blackfish said and offered Sansa his arm.
Sansa gave her brother and mother a curtesy, before taking her great uncle’s arm and walked with him to the battlements above the main gate.
“It’s good you are back, Sansa. Your mother and brother missed you horribly.”
“Really? It doesn’t seem that way for me,” Sansa said with some sadness in her voice.
“You came back with the Lannister Hound, after all. His brother committed unspeakable atrocities in the Riverlands in the name of Joffrey.”
“Sandor isn’t his brother. He did nothing but help me since the day my father lost his head and now the only appreciation he gets is a bag of gold and an exiling,” Sansa said bitterly.
“You must understand your mother and brother. They have had a difficult time lately.And your mother caused tension between the Karstarks and Robb by freeing the Kingslayer in exchange for you and Arya ”
“Arya hasn’t been seen since the day the Lannisters massacred our household.”
Sansa still remembered the day. Septa Mordane had sent Sansa to her rooms, when they first heard the sound of the fights. When Sansa had reached the room Sandor had already awaited her and locked her in with crying Jeyne Poole.
“How did Robb and Talisa meet?”
“She was a nurse and they met after the Battle of Oxcross. It was a foolish move to marry her, but I think they fell in love right there.”
Sansa sighed. “Good for Robb. He fell in love after his victory, while I was punished for it in King’s Landing.”
Her great uncle looked intensely at her awaiting further explanation, but stopped when the drawbridge lowered below them.
Sansa saw Sandor slowly ride over the drawbridge. When he reached the other side, he turned to give the castle one last look. She waved at him and he waved back at her giving her a sad smile. Sandor turned around and kicked Stranger to a gallop and rode off into the dying daylight. Sansa felt like a part of her heart and soul was leaving in this moment too.
Sansa didn’t care about the large feast held in honor of her return, but she smiled and greeted everybody, as was expected of her. The Northern lords all told her how much she looked like her mother and Sansa accepted every compliment they gave her for being that brave to go with the Hound.
Sansa unenthusiastically pushed around the food on her plate. After nearly two months of dried meat and stale bread and some hares if they were lucky, she should be excited to eat trout wrapped in bacon with buttered vegetables, but having to say goodbye to Sandor earlier had made her stomach turn into a knot.
Even her mother presenting her a plate of fresh lemon cakes couldn’t lift her mood. Some musicians started to play and Robb and his wife opened the dance.
Patrek Mallister asked for the honor and Sansa danced with him and then with Robin Flint. When Sansa was dancing Smalljon Umber, he made compliments about her beauty and braveness.
Once his words might would have made her fall for him with the blink of an eye, but now Sansa wasn’t that easy to impress anymore. Sandor had taught her that looks aren’t everything and that sweet words can come out of the mouths of the vilest people.
The whole time during her dance with the Smalljon, Sansa couldn’t stop thinking on how she would have liked to dance with Sandor at least once.
The thought of never seeing him again, pained her heart for some reason. Shouldn’t she be happy? She was finally reunited with her mother and brother and as far away from Joffrey and Cersei as possible. Still she didn’t feel as she thought she should be.
Later after the feast was over her mother brushed out her hair, like she had done it when she was a young girl in Winterfell.
“I am glad you are back, Sansa,” her mother said while brushing the auburn curls falling down her back.
“I am as well, even if I dearly hoped Sandor would be allowed to stay as my shield.”
Catelyn sighed. “Sansa, it’s improper to have him as your shield and stop calling him by his name or people will start to talk and ruin your reputation.”
Sansa didn’t answer, but enjoyed the feel of the brush against her hair.
“How did they treat you in King’s Landing. Uncle Brynden mentioned you told him you were punished for Robb’s victory at Oxcross.”
Sansa remembered the day vividly. Sandor had come to her room to make her hurry, so she wouldn’t let Joffrey wait too long.
“Yes, I was punished,” Sansa simply said.
“What punishment did they give you? After all, you were a royal hostage.”
“Joffrey ordered a member of the Kingsguard to tear my dress to shreds. Then, he ordered them to beat me with their swords in front of the whole court.”
Sansa felt the movement of the brush stop.
“Is this true, Sansa?” Catelyn asked horrified.
“Yes, mother. Lord Tyrion stopped it and Sandor gave me his cloak to cover myself after this humiliation. And it wasn’t the only time Joffrey had me beaten by the Kingsguard. Sandor was the only one who never beat me.”
“We didn’t know Sansa. Ser Cleos told us you were healthy and well, when he saw you.”
“Who is Ser Cleos?”
“A Lannister Robb sent to transmit his conditions for peace, but Cersei never agreed to them.”
“Why didn’t he simply exchanged me for Ser Jaime? You had him for so long.”
“Robb couldn’t. It would have weakened his position, to exchange the Kingslayer for a girl.”
For a girl, Sansa thought bitterly. Too bad I was just his sister and not his brother.
“How did it come you left with the Hound then?” her mother asked while continuing the brushing.
“During the battle of the Blackwater, I was with Cersei and the other noble ladies in Maegor’s Holdfast. It wasn’t clear who would win and at some point we got the news that the city was falling to Stannis and panic broke out. Cersei left and I feared Ilyn Payne would take my head. Cersei had told me this wouldn’t be a victory for the North, so I fled to my room and Sandor was already there waiting for me.”
“Why was he waiting for you?” Catelyn asked scandalously.
“Lord Tyrion used wildfire, setting the whole Blackwater ablaze and Sandor fought until he saw that the battle was turning against the Lannisters.”
“You didn’t answer my question. Why was he in your room?”
“He helped and saved me before, so he waited for me to tell me he would leave and could bring me to you. And I choose to take my chance.”
Sansa let out the part in which he held a knife to her throat and wanted to hear a song of her. They hadn’t talked about it during their journey, but Sansa knew that Sandor was disgusted with himself for his behavior that night.
“I need to know some things, Sansa,” Catelyn said placing the brush on the dressing table.
“What is it, mother?”
“Have you flowered during your time in Kings Landing?”
Sansa blushed at this question.
“Yes, shortly before the battle,” Sansa said shyly.
“I am sorry I wasn’t there for you. It’s a time a mother should be there for her daughter.”
“When I saw the blood I was horrified. You always told me it was something magical, but it wasn’t. I panicked and tried to cut the bloody stains out with a knife to keep it a secret. That was when Sandor found me and calmed me down before escorting me to Cersei.”
Sansa had to smile a bit at the memory how he had always treated her like a raw egg, when she got her moonblood during their journey, asking her all the time if she was alright, or needed a break or something else.
Her mother moved the chair she was sitting in, so Catelyn stood right in front of it. Sansa didn’t like the intense look her mother gave her, like she was looking for some flaw.
“You mention Clegane pretty often. Did he ever take liberties with you?”
“Never, mother! Sandor never laid hand on me, he always behaved honorably. I am still a maiden.”
Sandor never had tried anything with her. He had been more honorable than any knight she had ever met. He is no knight, but he saved me all the same, she thought.
“Don’t dare to lie to me, Sansa. You wouldn’t be the first girl to lie about her maidenhood.”
“Mother, he never did anything. He is even the reason I still have my maidenhead. He saved me from being raped in the capital during the bread riots. He was the only one that came back for me.”
“I am glad to hear that, but a maester and a septa will still examine you tomorrow to be sure.”
Sansa was shocked by that. “Why? Don’t you believe me, mother? I am still a maiden.”
“We need to have it official confirmed, to shut any possible talk down. Now off to bed with you, tomorrow will be a busy day.”
After Catelyn had left the room Sansa had been given, Sansa lay in her bed, unable to sleep. The mere thought of being examined horrified her. Silent tears ran down her face. The whole reunion with her family felt wrong and she already missed the feeling of safety she had in Sandor’s presence. She tossed and turned for many hours until she finally drifted off into a nightmare haunted sleep.