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A Premeditated Reunion

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Sandor

Three days Sandor had lingered in Maidenpool, trying to find a ship that would take him and Stranger across the sea. None were to be found though – the same storms that prevented new ships from coming into the harbor also prevented the ones already there from leaving. Even the ferry ride across the Bay of Crabs had been rough and choppy and there were no signs of the weather improving.

He had nothing else to do but to go to the docks every morning to ask after ships, then spend the rest of the day trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The memory of the Saltpans was still too fresh in people’s minds for him to show his face openly, hence he avoided places where people gathered and when he couldn’t, he wore a cloak and hood over his features.

He drank, but sparingly. He could have wenched, but the experience with the woman at the inn a few days back was still bitter in his mind. Fuck, that has never happened before! Fleetingly Sandor wondered if the little bird had cursed him for taking her precious maidenhood. Northerners were known for their magic and who knew what powers the blood of Stark carried? Then he shook his head. If she had magical powers, certainly she would have used them for easing her own lot?

The wench had taken it well and gods be thanked had not dared to laugh. Again Sandor cursed. Not being able to get it up was a sting to his pride but curiously enough he didn’t mind that he hadn’t finished what he had started. He concluded that he would rather carry the memories of the little bird’s lithe body and intoxicating pull a bit longer. For surely, given time, he would get over her and find pleasure with other women again?

Pondering those sombre thoughts he hurried from the docks towards the disreputable inn he lodged in at the outskirts of the town, when he heard a shout behind him.

“Brother!”

Sandor recognised the voice immediately and stopped on his tracks. What the fuck was the Elder Brother doing here? He turned slowly and saw the familiar figure hurrying after him. The old soldier’s step was still springy and he crossed the distance between them in no time.

“Brother Sandor, I am surprised to see you here. Were you not supposed to go to the Vale?” The man spoke in low voice, recognising as well as Sandor that his identity had better be kept under wraps.

“What are you doing here?” Sandor responded to his question with a query of his own.

“I am here to buy supplies and sell the products the brothers have made – you know I come here every now and then, don’t you?”

“Hmmh,” was all Sandor said. It made sense and yet he wondered why they’d run into each other just now.

They had parted on good terms, Sandor having gradually learned to respect the man whom he had initially wanted to strangle with his bare hands, when he had first regained his conscience. He had felt cheated out of death and abhorred the prospect of living the rest of his life as a cripple. Yet the old man had patched him up almost as good as new, and in the process also healed some of the deeper scars of his mind and helped him to find a measure of peace. Until the little bird stirred it up all over again, he thought gloomily.

“Share a drink with me and tell me what has transpired since you left us,” the Elder Brother smiled at him while his eyes, which missed nothing, took Sandor’s measure in that quiet way of his.

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Sandor’s story was quickly told over a pint of cheap ale – although not fully. He revealed having met Lady Sansa Stark, most likely on her way to the North. Hearing that, the Elder Brother was quiet for a long time, scrutinising him sharply over his cup so that Sandor started to feel uncomfortable.

“Lady Sansa Stark, you say? The maid who has been searched for high and wide and nobody has been able to locate her?”

“Littlefinger kept her hidden in the Vale, disguised as his bastard daughter,” Sandor muttered while downing his drink, hoping for a change in topic. The other man obviously didn’t have any intention of doing that, as he continued.

“And you didn’t think she might need some help on her way? From what you say it seems that she is intending to return to her home, but alone, with no bannermen, soldiers or anyone helping her?”

“What of it? I never served her or her house, what is it to me?” Sandor didn’t want to talk about her – he had had enough of her invading his thoughts lately; no need to bring her into this discussion as well.

The Elder Brother fingered the rim of his cup as if deep in thought and after a while, raised his head.

“Did I ever tell you about those early days when you were delirious with fever and I sat by your bedside for days on end?”

Sandor would rather not have dwelled on those times but the other man had an expression he had learned to recognise to mean that he was going to say what he wanted regardless of Sandor’s protestations. It had been the same when the Elder Brother had wanted to talk to him about the rage that churned inside his head. Sandor had resisted for as long as he could, but finally he had given in, opened his soul and to his amazement, eventually found it cleansed by the Elder Brother’s persistent attentions.

Sandor sighed deeply. “You clearly have something you want to say, so come on, out with it.”

They were sitting in a cheap winesink in the seedy part of town in a room that was almost empty at that time of the day. Nonetheless, they spoke in hushed voices and the Elder Brother leaned towards Sandor across the table when he spoke.

Sansa Stark. That was the name that spilled from your lips when you were lingering between life and death, when nothing but complete honesty in front of the gods guided you. Two names you said, over and over again, your brother’s and Sansa Stark’s, and her name many times more than Gregor’s.”

Sandor frowned. He had not been aware of any of this and he felt discomfited by the revelation. Yes, he had thought of her when he had waited for the little wolf-bitch to give him the gift of mercy, but afterwards…? He snorted.

“Ramblings of a dying man, they mean nothing! I am sure I spewed out much and worse.”

“I think you know better than that.” The Elder Brother leaned back and said nothing further, but it was what he left unsaid that irritated Sandor the most. He hated being forced to face the same battle again, whether to go to the girl or not. He had thought he was done with it.

“We didn’t exactly part on friendly terms,” he eventually grunted. “Don’t think she’d like to have me coming to help her.”

The Elder Brother crossed his arms across his chest and reflected his words.

“Did she tell you to leave and never come back?”

“Not in so many words.”

“Did she try to turn away from you, did she want to keep her distance?”

“Not really.”

“What were her last words to you?”

‘Do it’. She told me to fuck her. Sandor stayed quiet.

“It seems to me that unless she explicitly told you to go away, or showed in other ways that she wanted to be as far away from you as possible, there is a good chance that she would be grateful for your help. A young maiden all alone in the harsh world – don’t you think you owe it to her? From what you babbled on your sickbed you didn’t stand up for her when she needed it and you have regretted that ever since.”

Not a maiden anymore.

“What do you care?” Sandor concluded that attack might be his best defence. The Elder Brother only smiled, a slight furrow on his brow as if he couldn’t understand Sandor – as he probably didn’t.

“House Stark is not done yet, I believe. The wolves will rise again and maybe they only need a little help. From what I have heard, Lady Sansa is a kind lady, wise and mature, and she could lead her house back to its rightful place. Besides, she has suffered enough. If you should find it in your heart to go back for her, I suspect that it would be a service not only for her but also to the North, to the realm – and to yourself.”

They discussed the topic no more and eventually the Elder Brother had to return to his many duties. They said their goodbyes again and Sandor was left to sit at the table as the man whom he respected and valued more than anyone in his whole life walked out of the room.

When left alone, Sandor pondered the exchange. There was no way that he would turn back now, after almost reaching his goal of leaving the cursed Seven Kingdoms behind, no matter what the old man said. He was done with Westeros, done with the game of thrones, done with Sansa Stark.

The next morning he packed his things and steered Stranger onto the road towards the Vale.

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This time Sandor was not riddled with doubts, although he had expected them to assault him as soon as he hit the road. No, he rode on with a firm purpose and nothing could cloud it. Whether it was the Elder Brother’s words or that the time that had passed had soothed the sensations roiling inside him, he didn’t know nor care. He was going to offer his help to the little bird and if she turned him down – well, it would have been just his time and coin wasted, the lands across the Narrow Sea were not going anywhere. Should she accept… he would pay back what he owed her from his failure to help her in King’s Landing - and his more recent transgressions.

Sandor didn’t entertain any thoughts about a repeat of the time he had had her on her back. It had been like a dream, a surreal and out-of-place experience on the night when he thought he was going to die, and the little bird – who knew what the fuck she had been thinking? Clearly she hadn’t been herself. Such other-worldly experiences could not face the harsh light of the day in the real world.

Finding his way back to the village was easy enough, and instead of waiting and observing, he snatched a young boy sent to water the horses outside the village boundaries and squeezed what he needed to know out of him. The halfman’s wife had left several days ago with the convoy of traders and clansmen, the boy spluttered. Luckily for Sandor there was only one path through the mountains to the Neck and he would be able to follow them easily. After promising to come back and strangle the urchin if he told anyone about his visit, Sandor didn’t waste time going after the caravan.

The other party travelled slowly, that much he guessed, and indeed, it didn’t take many days of fast riding when Sandor heard the trundle of many wagons ahead of him.

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He took his time, scrutinising the convoy and the travellers, observing their strengths, weaknesses, their morale and the way they interacted with each other. He knew Sansa was not their prisoner and in theory was free to go as she pleased – yet he suspected the mountain men were unlikely to hand her freely to him, as he had just humiliated their clan with his escape. No, his best chance was to grab her and sneak away quietly. Yet how to get to her?

To Sandor’s relief – although he would have been hard pressed to admit it – the girl seemed to keep her distance from the others. She slept alone in the only tent the group had, and although she seemed to interact mostly with the leader of the Burned Men, a young man who didn’t keep hidden his interest in getting to know her better, Sandor didn’t detect any excessive familiarity between them. At night, as he lay under his furs a safe distance away from the caravan, he pondered why should he care? He had advised the little bird to take advantage of any armament she had in her possession, and being coinless that didn’t leave much. Somehow he suspected that any honours bestowed by House Stark in some foreseeable future would not be adequate reward to these men.

She looked different. On the first evening Sandor stretched out on the ground just outside the rocky outcrop where the travellers had set up their camp and watched her. Gone was the timid girl who had been wary of everything and everyone. That much he had gathered already on the night they had met, but studying her from a distance he saw that something else had changed too.

She looked more confident and surer of herself. An air of authority surrounded her and it showed from the way the others treated her – with respect. And she looks even more beautiful than before. Sandor blinked his eyes. Bloody hells, it mattered naught how she looked, not to him.

On the third evening, when he had established the camp routine, he took his chance. He saw Sansa leaving the camp and moving towards a group of boulders a small distance away, presumably to take care of her natural needs. Sandor followed her after making sure that nobody else did – and why would they? They were alone high in the mountains, a large group of able men with strong arms; no harm was able to approach them without ample warning. Or so they thought.

For a moment he wondered whether he should stop her when she first approached, but then pragmatism took over and he concluded that he might as well wait until she was done with her business. Instead of turning his gaze, Sandor watched as Sansa searched for a good spot, hiked her skirts up and squatted behind a large rock. He regretted that the ample skirts prevented him from having a better look, but he had a glimpse of fading bruises on her thighs and felt a pang of guilt.

Even in her current awkward position she looked graceful and her hair flowed freely down her back like a waterfall, still brown but rich and silky. Sandor remembered how it had felt when he had touched it. He pushed that out of his mind and concentrated instead on monitoring the movements of the others in the camp to make sure they wouldn’t be interrupted.

Soon Sansa got up and in a moment of gallantry that surprised him, Sandor waited until she was walking back towards the camp before he seized her from behind and covered her mouth with his large hand.

She froze. Before she had time to react otherwise, Sandor whispered in a low voice, “If I lift my hand, will you scream bloody murder or stay quiet?”

They were the same words he had said to her before, he realised a moment too late, cursing how he had already stumbled. He had decided not to bring up what had happened between them, pretending it never had, in order to save her from embarrassment.

The girl didn’t seem to mind, though, staying stiff as a plank but not resisting. Sandor could sense her soft body pressed against him and felt his cock stirring. Bloody hells! So NOW is a good time to wake up? He stepped back to allow some distance between them but didn’t loosen his grip. Sansa turned her head trying to see him. He allowed her, and met eyes that were wide but calm. She nodded her head.

He let her go and she turned fully, but instead of the barrage of questions he expected, she only looked at him, hard.

“Why are you here?” she asked, keeping her tone low even though they were out of earshot.

Sandor was taken aback. “I am here to save you,” he murmured, meeting her eyes straight on.

“What if I don’t need saving? These men are not my gaolers, they are helping me to reach the North.” She was unnaturally calm. If she didn’t want his help, if she detested him being here, why didn’t she show it?

“Suit yourself. I am not here to save you then – but I am here to offer my services just the same. Take it or leave it, no hair off my arse.” Sandor had not expected this cool reaction and was unnerved by it.

She stared at him and although she was much shorter than him, Sandor shrank under those blue eyes. Then she shifted her weight from one foot to another and he realised that she was not quite as composed as she appeared.

“I didn’t say that I couldn’t use help. What took you so long?”

“You mean I should have come to you on the night of my escape? I happened to be a bit busy then.”

“Not then, but after. I thought you wouldn’t come at all.”

So she hoped I would come for her. It made Sandor feel a bit more confident.

“I had things to do. Besides, I wasn’t sure if you’d welcome me.”

Sansa blushed and Sandor felt he was in charge of the situation once more. Hells, if the only way he could get the upper hand with her was to remind her about that night, he’d use it. Might even jog her memory about who it was who urged him ahead.

“Never mind, I am here now. Do you want to come with me or not? I’ll take you to the North or wherever the bloody hell you want, and I’ll keep you safe.”

She extended her hand and touched him, as if wanting the testimony of her own senses that he was real. Sandor stiffened but let her fingers run across his swordbelt and ghost against his chest. What is she doing? His cock stirred again and he cursed silently. Sansa’s lips parted and she stared at him without saying a word. Sandor followed her gaze and saw that it was directed at his throat. Was she still hesitating about if she could trust him?

“I’ll keep you safe even from myself, you have my word,” he grunted.

Her eyes shot up and she blushed again. “I believe you,” she said in a small voice.

Sandor was aware how time was running low; somebody would soon start to wonder if she didn’t return.

“You had better go back. I am camped nearby, just Stranger and I. He is strong and can carry us until we can get another horse. Do you have any coin?”

Sansa dropped her hand and took a step back. “I have some coin and jewellery that I can hopefully sell once we get into a village or town.”

“Good. Now, go back and behave as though nothing has happened. Tomorrow evening when the camp has quietened, we leave. No argument, no drama, we just leave. If we are far gone by the time they notice, I doubt they’ll care.”

“Why not leave in the light of day? I am not a prisoner.”

“Might be so but I suspect your burned companions wouldn’t like the idea of you leaving with me. Better to leave without the fuss. Pack all that is yours and just before leaving, tell one of those snotty-nosed servant boys that you left of your own volition so they don’t start chasing us.”

“How do I find you tomorrow?” She was all prepared and practical but something in her breathless question touched Sandor.

“You don’t. I’ll find you. Be ready to leave when they quench the fires, and I come for you.”

Sandor started to retreat and pushed her forward, not harshly. She took a few steps, stopped and looked at him again.

“Promise?”

“Aye, I promise.”

Sandor followed her retreating back and wondered what kind of new hell he had just consigned himself to.

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Their departure the next evening was just as easy as Sandor had predicted. Sansa had packed only the necessities, had dressed warmly and carried a bedroll and warm furs with her. After resting for a few days Stranger was eager to run, and before sunrise they were almost past the last peaks of the mountain chain and started to descend towards the flatlands and the Kingsroad.

They didn’t talk much but Sandor felt her presence with every cursed step Stranger took, her breasts pressing against his back, her hair tickling his nose as it flew free in the breeze. She was sitting on top of the bedrolls and furs stacked at the back of the saddle, so high that her chin rested against his back and occasionally against his shoulder when she peered ahead.  Sandor could feel her thighs pressing against his flanks and her slender arms seeking purchase first around his chest, and later, when she found that too uncomfortable, around his neck.

They rested for a while in the middle of the day before continuing further, wanting to have as much distance as possible between them and the mountains, just in case. As they made their evening camp, Sandor wondered how she would take to the fact that they had had to leave her tent behind. Sansa didn’t seem to mind, setting her bedrolls next to the campfire as if she had done that many times before. Sandor put his own roll a respectable distance away, thus indicating that he was under no illusions about the state of affairs.

They conversed about their situation over the campfire, planning their next steps; where to go and who to approach. It turned out that the little bird was not quite as clueless as he had thought, having heard in Littlefinger’s halls about Stannis’s stand against the Boltons and the wildlings. Of the latter the details had been a bit sketchy, but the main thing was that many of the great northern houses were occupied again, their lords having returned from the South to lick their wounds in their strongholds.

“I will make sure that your efforts will be duly rewarded when we reach the North,” she said, cocking her head and throwing a look in Sandor’s direction.

“Hope not. Have no longing to be hanged at the end of the rope for my many sins,” he grumbled, incensed by the insinuation that he was helping her for a bloody reward. Besides, if he was, he would rather settle on the currency she must have been prepared to pay, on her back. Fuck! Sandor shook his head. He really had to stop thinking about it.

As they settled down for the night, he wanted to be sensible and suggest that they at least drag their bedrolls closer together and share their furs in order to preserve warmth. Yet he didn’t do that – but whether that was to assure her of his honourable intentions or to save himself a night of agony close to her, he didn’t know.

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

 

When she felt a strong arm grabbing her from behind and a big hand covering her mouth, Sansa didn’t flinch. It is him. He came back. Not for a moment did she suspect it to be anyone else.

Her first reaction was relief – no matter how much she had resigned herself to the fact that she needed to survive on her own from now on, she knew it would be much easier with a companion. A companion she could trust. And as odd as it might sound, she trusted the Hound. Sandor.

His smugness irritated her though. What had taken him so long? If he was going to come back for her, why let her wait and think otherwise? Sansa had a good mind to scold him for that, but then she got caught by his mere presence, the way he loomed over her and made her feel so small. He looked ragged and well-travelled, but not as feral as the last time. Without realising it, she extended her hand and touched him, gaining confidence from the solid strength she could feel in her fingertips even through his padded jerkin.

Sansa’s gaze was caught by the spot where she had kissed him – if that’s how it could be described; the instinct making her open her mouth and lick the salty taste of him where his beard morphed into the hair on his chest. Knowing how he looked below the collar of his attire made her even more aware of how close he was, and what he was suggesting would mean: the two of them traveling together without the shielding presence of others. No separation between him and her, not even the modicum of privacy she currently enjoyed. Would he assume there would be a repetition of what had taken place? Would he demand his payment in those terms?

Hearing his assurances to the contrary left Sansa with mixed feelings. Her honour – or what was left of it – would be safe. She wouldn’t have to endure another experience of him, or any man, on top of her, wouldn’t have to feel her womanhood invaded, nor live through the moment when he would shudder, yield, grunt and lose control. What had made him do so, she was curious to know – she couldn’t see a woman doing such a thing. There had been a few passing moments when she had felt herself to be drifting into the unknown, but they had been fleeting and surely could not be anything as powerful as what he had gone through?

When Sansa rested in her tent that night it was not the prospect of yet another new phase of her journey back to her home that kept her awake, but distracting thoughts of the man with whom she was to share that journey. She traced her fingers across the fading bruises and lifted them higher still, touching her secret place at the top of her smallclothes. She was wet – what did that mean? Tentatively she pressed harder, and when she felt a jolt go through her core she hastily removed her hand, tucked her furs tightly down and clutched the trim of it against her chin.

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“Tell Toki that I left of my own accord, that he is NOT to follow me. I have met with my bannermen and they will take me to the North, but they don’t want to get involved with the Mountain Men or the traders. Do you understand?” Sansa shook the confused boy by his shoulders as she whispered into his ear. The boy blinked and slowly comprehension lit his eyes.

“Yes, m’lady, I see,” he squeaked.

“Repeat what I said, quietly.” Sansa didn’t loosen her grip.

“I am to tell Toki that your bannermen have come and taken you away with them, and that you left because you wanted to. And that he is not to follow you,” the boy repeated. Sansa smiled at him and brushed his cheek with her hand.

“That is correct. You are a good boy and I’ll remember you well. Now, go back to sleep and make sure you pass this message only in the morning, when they start to wonder about me.” She pressed a small coin into the boy’s palm. “Take this. They may be angry at you for not alerting them earlier, but tell them that I threatened you – or tell them whatever you think may help you. You will have my thanks and this coin all for your own in any case.” To sweeten the deal even more she leaned closer and grazed her lips across the boy’s forehead, before leaving him where she had found him, under one of the wagons.

She had expected to be riding in front of him, but Sandor plunked her unceremoniously on top of the pile of bedrolls and furs he had tied on the back of his saddle.

“Better you ride on the back, at least until we are out of the mountains. I need my hands to be free in case we run into trouble. Just hold on to me and you’ll be fine,” he rasped after seeing Sansa’s confused expression.

As a matter of fact, it was not bad. Her seating was soft and as long as she held tight to him, she felt secure even though at times when she glanced at the ground it seemed to be frighteningly far, and the notion of tumbling down on the hard ground made her tighten her grip. Sandor’s back was wide and solid and fleetingly she wondered why she gained so much confidence from him. Without being able to put it into words, she knew that he wouldn’t let her fall.

Sansa wasn’t used to riding and having to sit astride, so her legs resting against his sides felt horribly vulgar for her – especially as at times Sandor leaned against them when adjusting to Stranger’s gait and unbeknownst to him pressed against her bruises. That reminded her of how she had gained them in the first place – him between her legs. Sansa was glad he couldn’t see the blush on her face and she buried her face against his back and tried not to think about it.

After a brief rest, which she knew to be more for Stranger’s benefit than hers, but which didn’t stop her from dozing in the bleak sunlight, they continued on. Whether Sandor had rested she didn’t know; he had been awake when she had drifted into sleep and he was awake when she woke up, staring at her with a guarded expression on his face.

They had started to descend the mountains and the path became wider and smoother, and Sansa was eager to see where they were heading. She rested her chin on his broad shoulder on the good side of his face and followed the change in the landscape; from rocky ground to scattered fields growing patchy grass to meadows full of lush greenery.

“Where are we going?” she asked, curiously.

“We are heading towards the Twins, but not going that far. I plan to ride along the Kingsroad further to the North. Depending on how busy the road is, we either ride on it or beside it, in the woods.”

His calm response encouraged Sansa so she continued with her questions.

“Where did you go when you left the village? Did you go to the Vale? Did you see Petyr?”

“Not your business, no and no.”

Sansa was dismayed. “Timett was sure you were heading there to tell him my whereabouts; that’s why we left so urgently. If you didn’t go to him, where then?”

Sandor turned his head so that Sansa’s nose hit his cheek. “What did you think? That I would run to him in hope of a reward for telling him where his precious little bird had flown?”

Sansa pulled back. “As a matter of fact, if you must know, I didn’t think you’d do that. Although it would have made perfect sense. You were on your way to offer him your services, weren’t you? What changed your mind? Why didn’t you go and tell him about me?” She stared at him and saw him frown.

“Lost my appetite for serving schemers like him. Had enough of it in the service of the Lannisters.”

“So where did you go? And why did you come back?”

“Quit your chirping already, little bird. I am here, ain’t I? Isn’t that enough?”

Chastised, Sansa stayed quiet and pressed her cheek against his back again while sneaking her hands under his armpits for a good hold. However, not being able to see where they were heading was uncomfortable as she wasn’t able to anticipate Strangers movements, so after a while she raised her head again and this time placed it on his other side, next to his burns. She felt Sandor stiffen and guessed that he was uncomfortable with her being so close to them, but she decided to ignore it.

As they rode on she stole sideway glances at his wounds. They were so very close, she being practically cheek to cheek to his burned flesh. At this close distance she could observe them dispassionately; the hard rubbery surface, twisted flesh and its undulation under the seared skin. His earlobe was missing but besides that his ear looked normal, just the skin surrounding it being of the same gnarled appearance as the whole side. She could see clearly where his hair didn’t grow, despite him having combed his long hair to cover it as usual. On the edges of the bare patch she saw soft white hairs growing, as if unsure whether they had the strength to grow into thick, glossy strands like the rest of his locks.

Somehow the sight of those wispy white hairs touched her heart more than the crude savagery on the rest of his face and for the first time she realised that as horrific a sight as his visage was, it was still the face of a man – only scarred. That he should have held it as a shield between him and the rest of the world, as she had seen and heard him doing, suddenly felt awfully unfair. Without stopping to think she pressed her cheek against his, deliberately so, and didn’t let go despite Sandor’s instinctive shudder and attempt to lean away from her. No, Sansa only curled her hands around his thick neck, leaned closer and felt his rough skin chafing against her own.

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As the shadows grew longer they finally stopped to make camp. Sandor disappeared into the woods and came back with a stack of firewood and soon they had a roaring fire next to which Sansa gratefully warmed her chilled hands. She had packed some fresh food, cheese and salted meat, and Sandor had some dried bread, so they enjoyed a modest but quite adequate meal.

“Where to next? Which of your bannermen will get the privilege of welcoming House Stark back first?” Sandor’s sudden question startled Sansa from the nice drowsiness bestowed by warmth and a half-full belly.

“We might stop at Greywater Watch. Howland Reed was one of my father’s closest friends and I am sure he will lend me his help.” Sansa had thought of this and had plans ready. The only unknown was where to find House Reed. She had worried about it, whether Toki would have the confidence and patience to wander into the famous swamps of the Neck, which were known to be treacherous. With Sandor she had no such qualms.

“The frogmen, eh? Have heard of them. They are said to have strange magic and their houses float so that one is never sure where to find them. How do you propose we meet them?” Sandor was cleaning his teeth with a twig and spat behind his shoulder, but instead of it repelling Sansa she only took as a sign that he was comfortable in her presence. Not that he would have minded his manners in front of anyone, she mused.

“We don’t. We just go there, make noise and wait for them to find us. That’s what my father said he had to do, after all the years he had known him and with them being bannermen for House Stark and all. If it worked for him, I’m sure it will work for us.”

Sandor regarded her with an interested expression. “You have this all planned out, do you?”

“I hope so. After Greywater Watch, where we are sure to hear the latest news, we can decide which house in the North to go to next. Maybe House Cerwyn, which would be the closest to Winterfell. Maybe somewhere else. But we’ll get there. We’ll get the Northmen together again. And we’ll get Winterfell back.”

Sandor leaned against his bedroll, his long legs stretched out in front of him. His mouth was curled into a strange twist and it took a while for Sansa to realise that he was smiling.

“‘We’, eh? So how is it ‘we’? Not you and a man who serves you? Your dog. You think your lords will not see fit to send me packing, mayhap with a pat on the back and perchance a juicy bone, but packing nonetheless?”

Sansa’s stomach lurched at the thought of him leaving her as soon as they reached the North. Part of her knew that he might be right; the lords would not take kindly to his presence, him being known to most of them only as the rabid Lannister Hound. Why did it hurt her so to think him gone, when only a short time ago she had thought him long dead and buried in an unnamed grave somewhere?

“I will make sure that your efforts are duly rewarded when we reach the North,” she said, glancing at him. She was still unsure what drove him. If it was not a monetary reward, and surely not a desire for lands or titles, what was it? Especially if it was not a reward of another kind that he himself had suggested she should be prepared to grant to her champion, but had declined to seek for himself?

“Hope not. Have no longing to be hanged at the end of a rope for my many sins.”

“Not as long as I have breath in my body,” Sansa said, straightening and meeting his eyes. "Anyone who even dreams of touching you will have to answer to me.”

Sandor only looked at her, full of mirth. “Aye, I always dreamt of being rescued by a fair maiden.”

Huffing, Sansa sank back to her seat. Fine. If he didn’t think his chances high, it was up to her to make sure that he could – that he would – stay. Without telling him so.

One more moment of uncertainty passed as she retreated to her bedroll, keeping a close eye on Sandor. He had promised to keep her safe, even from himself. Would he?

He tottered around for a while, added more wood to the fire, made sure there was a pile of more to be added as the night went on, checked that Stranger was securely tied, then settled heavily onto his bedroll a good distance away. He sighed deeply, his broad chest heaving, and threw a glance towards Sansa, who snapped her eyes closed and pretended to be asleep. Then he rolled on his side and soon the only sound she heard was the steady rumble of his breathing.

Sansa stayed awake a bit longer, trying to find a comfortable position on the thin roll, wrapping furs closer to her body. Even though her tent had been thin, it had kept some of the night chills away, and she thought longingly of the warmth of the big man close to her. She knew that should she sneak under his furs, she would be warm and comfortable – yet she couldn’t do that. He would surely take it the wrong way, and then…

Sansa’s sleep was restless and not only because of the coolness of the night.

Chapter Text

 

Sandor

Their days soon settled into a routine consisting of rising early, riding at a steady pace the whole day bar a few breaks to give Stranger and themselves a rest, and evenings and nights in haphazardly erected campsites away from major paths. The food they had was soon consumed but Sandor was prepared and had snares for small game, which he patiently set up each evening and checked in the morning. More often than not he caught a hare or a bird, perfect for their main meal when roasted over flames.

Evenings were initially quiet affairs, but over time some of the connection once felt between the angry man and the frightened young girl, both trapped in their own way in the glittery court, came back. They had changed, but something of the old was still there and gradually they started to talk. Sansa shared more than Sandor, telling him about Sweet-Robin, Petyr’s games and his role in Joffrey’s death. Sandor only snorted at that, not caring about the fate of the cruel youth his charge had turned into. When he had first been entrusted to Sandor’s protection he had been as innocent as all babes are – but that hadn’t lasted long.

In turn he told Sansa about the Quiet Isle, although it took a while before he felt comfortable about expressing his thoughts in words. With the exception of the Elder Brother, Sandor’s interactions with others had consisted only of the barest necessities, of simple words over concrete matters. There were some things he kept to himself, but he found it surprisingly easy to tell her about his life since they had last met. Even more surprisingly, she seemed to be interested in it.

Sandor also noticed that Sansa started to trust his guidance and often asked his opinion or advice, not only about matters concerning their current journey, but also his views about the North and what she should do next. He found it oddly satisfying to be trusted and gave her measured responses, as much as he could.

Still, Sandor preferred to listen to Sansa. He also liked the look of her, all scruffy and unkempt after weeks on the road. She was dressed in peasant clothes and her hair flowed free, and sometimes Sandor found himself wondering what if she was just that; a peasant wench or a camp follower. He had never had a regular woman as so many of his fellow soldiers did, but if he ever entertained such a notion, it would be someone like her – someone who looked him squarely in the eye. Nonetheless, whenever such laughable thoughts came to him, he quickly snuffed them out. He would do exactly as he had promised; deliver her to her home and then disappear from her life. Mayhap to Braavos, mayhap to Pentos.

As they approached the Kingsroad they came across a village, just large enough for an inn to prosper. Sandor wanted to stop only to get some grain for Stranger and food for them and continue straight on. Sansa shyly suggested that they stay for a night to enjoy the luxury of sleeping inside, especially after the rains that had menaced them lately, but Sandor declined, considering it too risky.

“Stay here,” he muttered, helping Sansa down from Stranger’s back. He didn’t want to attract too much attention and hence chose a quiet alley at the back of the stables, not too far away from the inn where he was going to get what they needed.

Sansa nodded, seeking to sit down on an upturned tree trunk resting against the wall, a safe distance away from Stranger and the muddy lane. The horse had started to accept her presence but Sandor still felt better if she kept her distance, especially if he was not there.

----------

Sandor haggled with the innkeeper about the cost of the goods he wanted, waited for the cook to pack their provisions into large bags, then went to the stables and collected a small sack of grain. Carrying all that he turned his steps back to the place he had left Sansa, pleased about the swiftness of his transactions. They still had a good few hours to get away from there and settle down in a place safe from the curious glances of onlookers.

As he approached the alleyway he heard coarse voices and sounds of a scuffle. Breaking into a light run he hurried ahead, a tight knot squeezing his innards when he thought of what it could mean.

Turning the corner he saw Sansa and two men. He immediately took in the situation; Sansa trying to back away from the men, the younger of them having grasped her arm tightly, the older standing further away and laughing.

“Don’t you hurry now, wench, we haven’t negotiated the price yet. Much too pretty to let the opportunity pass – I can’t remember when I last had such a fine young ass as yours!”

The other man chuckled and held Sansa tighter. She had obviously resisted them as her hair had broken loose from under the modest scarf she had used to cover it, her cheeks were flushed and she was panting. Stranger snorted and pawed his front hoof against the ground, but being tied couldn’t do much more.

Gods! Sandor dropped his bundles and hurtled ahead, releasing his sword from his scabbard as he ran. He didn’t waste time or the element of surprise by announcing his presence; he charged directly towards the man who was holding Sansa. At the last moment the man saw him coming and pushed Sansa aside, straight into a puddle of mud.

It was not a proper fight; a trained warrior against untrained villagers could have only one outcome, and as soon as the men saw him they recognised the same. A few strokes, one of them gashing the arm of the younger man, and the men were sent running for their lives.

Sandor felt the familiar traces of battle fury rising in him, and he wanted to follow them and kill them for daring to put their filthy hands on Sansa – but that wouldn’t have been wise. Besides, Sansa needed him. She was still stranded in the puddle, not moving away even though her assailants were long gone.

Sandor knelt next to her. “Did they hurt you? Tell me.”

Sansa’s face was contorted and as he examined it trying to find any signs of injury, tears started to flow down her cheeks. She tried to hold them back, he could see from the way she squeezed her eyes shut as if that way she could prevent them, but inevitably they escaped from under her lashes. The trails they left in their wake were clearly visible on her skin, splattered with mud from the impact of her fall.

Sandor didn’t know what in hells he should do. She had been strong, enduring their travel much better than he had expected, not complaining with word or gesture, doing what he bid of her and more. She was certainly not a noble maiden expecting to be waited on hand and foot anymore. Yet here she was, crouched in mud and looking dejected and defeated.

“Come on, girl. No harm done. They were just louts who thought they could prey on a lonely maid, but they thought wrong. I saw to that.”

Still she didn’t move and tears kept on streaming. Clumsily Sandor placed his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Can you move? Sitting in mud does no good to anyone.”

Whatever control she had had over herself finally seemed to break down and Sansa started sobbing loudly, hunching her shoulders and lifting her equally muddy hands to her face.

“They…they told what they wanted to do with me – that they would take me to the barn and have their way with me… I didn’t know if you’d get back here in time… and I am so cold and dirty and hungry and tired and…” Anything she said after that disintegrated into incoherent sobbing as she sniffled and mumbled into her hands, rubbing her face and inadvertently smearing mud all over it, her crying only intensifying.

Sandor looked at her helplessly. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? Finally he gathered her into his arms, lifted her away from the filthy patch and carried her back to the crude seat. Setting her down he knelt in front of her once again, removed her hands from her face and dabbed it with his sleeve – which only covered any yet bare patches of her skin with a brownish hue, the cloth being not much cleaner than her face.

“There, there. It’ll be fine. Mayhap we should stay here for the night, get you out of those clothes and into a bath, have you sleep in a proper bed.”

At that Sansa stopped her sobbing and lifted her eyes at him. As red-rimmed they were, the hope and trust he saw in them made him flinch.

“Could we? Would that be… safe?”

Bugger that. Sandor knew he would feel safer on the road – but on the other hand, they were not being actively searched for as far as he knew, and this was just one shitty village, one shitty inn. It would be unbelievably bad luck if they were caught here and now. He made his decision. The little bird needed this.

He stood up. “We’ll stay here. Come with me, I don’t plan to let you out of my sight anymore.”

Meekly she followed as he untied Stranger, strapped their provisions onto his back and walked him to the stables. A few barked commands to the stable boy saw his horse settled, and then he loaded Sansa and himself with their belongings and they went back to the inn.

The only room available was one of the better ones, and Sandor was bitter over the coin he was forced to pay. Nonetheless, only one glance at Sansa, who stood forlornly by his side, convinced him that it was worth it.

“Bring a bath to the room as soon as possible. And someone to wash the dirty clothes and get them ready by morning. Later we want a warm meal and a flagon – no, two flagons of wine brought to our room.” The innkeeper nodded to all his demands and called for servants to execute them.

The room was not large but it had all they needed and more. A fireplace, a small table and two chairs – and a four-poster bed. As two servants came carrying a large wooden vat and maids scurried back and forth carrying buckets of hot water, Sandor eyed their lodgings, wondering how they were going to manage the night.

On their second evening on the road Sansa had dragged her bedroll closer to his and suggested that they could share the covers to keep the cold at bay. It was a perfectly sensible suggestion and one Sandor had wanted to make, but he was glad it was she who brought it up first. Not that it changed much; they might have shared the furs but still slept a good hand-width apart, not touching each other. Yet they shared the same warmth underneath and their nights were better from thereon.

The bed – that was a different proposition altogether. Well, there was always the floor, and space enough in front of the fireplace for him to lie if he only moved the table aside. Sandor deposited their rolls and furs on the floor for the time being and turned back to the proceedings going on around him.

“You’ll be as good as new soon, look at all that hot water,” he muttered to Sansa in a clumsy attempt to cheer her up. She had regained her composure but from the way she licked her lips and watched the filling of the tub like a hawk, Sandor saw that she could hardly wait until she could sink into it.

In due course the bath was ready and Sandor prepared to leave the room. “Hand me your clothes when you are undressed and I’ll make sure the maids have them. And lock the door after that. I’ll be downstairs and come back after some time.”

Sansa hardly waited for him to leave, so eager she was, starting to unlace her top and pull down her stockings. Sandor hurried out but not before catching a glimpse of a pale calf, an arresting sight indeed.

He waited behind the door and tried not to imagine her undressing behind it; first removing her top, then the skirt, then stockings, then her smallclothes… He had actually never seen her naked and a twisted remorse hit him anew for not taking the opportunity that night. She wouldn’t have resisted, he knew. Gods only knew what had made her accept him then – maybe the knowledge that he would be dead soon, maybe something else. Sandor had never entertained the notion that she had wanted him for his sake. He was not that stupid. Mayhap she had used him as a tool for punishing herself – for what, again he was flummoxed by her motives.

He had tried hard not to think about their encounter as they had journeyed, knowing it would only make things more difficult. Yet there were moments when memories came back unbidden, especially when she was so close that he could smell her scent…. Sandor shook his head in anger. Not again!

Soon the door opened slightly and a slender hand extended with a tight bundle of clothing in it. He took it, glimpsing through the narrow gap but seeing nothing – she must have been right behind it. The door closed and there was nothing else for Sandor to do but go downstairs to hand the bundle to a maid and drink some sour red to flush the disturbing thoughts out of his head.

----------

After a time he deemed sufficient Sandor returned to the room. Sansa let him in, dressed in fresh clothes and her long damp tresses coiling behind her back. Her skin was pink from scrubbing and still glowing from heat and she was smiling.

“Thank you so much – I really needed that. Nonetheless I am sorry I behaved so childishly, when nothing actually happened.”

“Nevermind that. You deserve this break, I have been driving you hard.”

“It is your turn now, the water is still warm and I left enough soap for you. I could take your clothes down and we’ll get them washed as well. Who knows when we’ll next get the chance?” Sansa pointed at the bath with an expectant look on her face.

“Where would you go? After what just happened I refuse to let you wander on your own. Those men were surely not the only ones noticing a pretty lass like you,” Sandor grunted.

“I am sure if I only went downstairs I’d be safe.”

“There is no guarantee of that. If some ruffian harassed you, what good would I be sitting in the tub up here? No, that’s the end of it, you are not leaving this room unless it’s with me.”

Sandor placed the flagon on the table and started to remove his cloak, determined to enjoy the privacy of the room he had paid good coin for. When he turned he saw Sansa still standing there, her gaze flickering between him and the tub.

“What if I stayed here – I could get onto the bed and pull the curtains closed to give you privacy? It would be a shame for you to waste the opportunity to bathe, that’s all.”

Sandor chuckled. “Do I stink that much? Mayhap I do.” Then he frowned. “You really think that’s so important? I don’t care whether you see my hairy arse or not, but would your maidenly sensitivities be offended by staying in the same room with a naked man?”

Sansa blushed, the red of it mixing with her still flushed cheeks. She glanced towards the bed, which indeed had faded curtains hanging from the upper rails. Sandor wondered how much of her blushing was due to his poorly chosen words.  Maidenly sensitivities, when she was not a maid anymore and they both knew why.

He considered the suggestion for a moment. It was true that he stank and his clothes would benefit from a good scouring. Besides, it was not his modesty he was worried about – he couldn’t care less if she saw him stark naked. Soldiers used to living among troops in camp conditions shed any such notions early on.

Finally he shrugged his shoulders. Why not?

“Go on then, get into that bed and pull the curtains. I’ll take a plunge to make you happy. I’ll take my own clothes to be washed though, just hand me my bag so I can take out new ones.”

Wordlessly Sansa handed him his saddle bag from which he fished out his second pair of breeches and a tunic, laying them on a chair close to the tub. Sansa climbed onto the bed and yanked the curtains into place.

“No peeping, then.” Sandor called for good measure before pulling his tunic over his head and kicking his boots, breeches and smallclothes in a bungled heap on the floor. He glanced at the bed, especially the seam where the two sides of the curtains closed. It appeared closed enough, but just the thought of her possibly peeking at him from behind it made his skin tingle.

His cock reacted too, stirring and stiffening lightly. Bloody hells! He pressed it against his thigh with one hand while he climbed into the tub and sank under the water.

The water felt bloody good. Sandor submerged himself fully, holding his breath and letting his body soak there for a good while before he got up gasping for air, and reached for the soap and cloth. He washed his body meticulously and in an orderly fashion, starting from his upper body and arms, going down to his thighs and legs, not leaving any place untouched. While cleansing his cock and balls he felt the stirring again. The knowledge that Sansa was right there, only a few steps away, gave his cock some ideas of its own, and for a moment he wished she wasn’t there – then he could take himself in hand and let some of the pressure dissipate. In theory he could do it even now, she having indicated that she wouldn’t peep, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it completely silently. Whether she would recognise the noises was another thing – but then Sandor remembered that she had already heard him release once.  That thought did nothing to lessen his arousal and sighing he stroked his shaft fleetingly, just enough to give him a jolt of pleasure. Yes, he knew it was worse that way than ignoring it altogether, but he couldn’t help himself.

After scrubbing and rinsing his scalp and hair under the water he was ready. Mischievously he climbed out of the bath, not trying to hide his nudity, not even his half-flaccid member. If she was stealing a look, let her see something! He dried his limbs and hair casually with the piece of cloth left for the purpose, stretched his arms and body and marvelled at how even that short soak in warm water seemed to relax his muscles.

Again he threw a glance towards the bed – and maybe it was just his imagination but he thought he saw the curtain move, just a little. He sneered. Surely Lady Sansa of Winterfell would not deign to bring herself that low?

“I am done, you can come out,” he called to her after stepping into his fresh clothes and tying his laces. Sansa appeared, calm and dignified, and that was it, they didn’t address the bath anymore.

Sandor took his clothes down, called for servants to empty the tub and take it away, and after all that had been taken care of, their food was brought in. Bowls full of steaming stew peppered with pieces of meat and vegetables, fresh bread and freshly churned butter, cheese and ale and a new flagon of red – life was starting to look pretty good indeed. For good measure he lit the fire in the fireplace. He had paid good coin for the room and hells if he was not going to get his money’s worth.

----------

Food tasted delicious in Sandor’s mouth and the wine sweet – even though in reality the stew was greasy and stringy with meat and the wine was piss-poor dregs from the bottom of the barrel. He didn’t care. The room was warm, they were safe, the little bird was happy again and chirping as she ate her meal with a good appetite. He decided to enjoy it as long as it lasted, the next day seeing them on the road again.

After the meal Sandor stretched his legs in front of the fire, careful not to get too close.

“I hope we’ll get to Greywater Watch soon. Don’t care much for defending you against every man in the Neck,” he grunted good-naturedly.

“No man dares to approach me if you are around.” Sansa was curled on the floor against their rolls, staring into the fire and absentmindedly untangling her hair with her fingers.

“I can’t blame them, you know. If I saw a wench like you in a godsforsaken village like this, I too might have a good mind to ask your price.”

Sansa threw a scandalised look at him, but seeing his grin held her tongue. Then she got serious.

“I thought I could do it on my own. You know, with hired men, with my bannermen when I find them. I thought my blood would be enough to see me through.” She sighed. “What a fool I was.”

“Not a fool. Just ignorant of the ways of the world. There is a difference.”

“Will you stay with me? Until we get to the North?” Her blue eyes pierced Sandor as she turned her head. Yet if he supposed them to be pleading, or her request to be one of a young maid in need of a rescue, that was not the case. The eyes that held his were clear and full of determination.

Sandor realised then that if he expected to be her knight in shining armour that would never be. No, she might realise that she needed help, but she certainly didn’t need a rescuer.

“I’ll stay as long as you need me,” he muttered. “And as long as you pay me,” he added as an afterthought.

They were both tired and soon after the meal Sansa went to the bed and climbed into it. Sandor pushed the table aside and unfurled his bedroll on the floor. Sansa saw that but didn’t comment and he was happy to let things be.

His belly full of food and wine, the admittedly pleasant feeling of being clean for once, and the warmth and relative safety provided by four walls surrounding them saw him soon drowsing off.

“Sandor?”

Hells, what again? Sandor sighed. Sansa was usually not unreasonable with her requests, but what in hells could she still want, at that time of night?

“Aye?”

“Seeing that we have paid for the room with a big bed…and not knowing when we will have a chance again… Would you like to move over here?”

What the fuck? Sandor’s eyes shot open while he digested her words. She wanted him to come into her bed?

“What do you mean, girl? Afraid of sleeping on your own?”

Sansa was silent for a while but he heard her shuffling between the sheets.

“I…just thought you’d enjoy a soft bed as well.”

Sandor wondered if she could indeed be that naïve. Inviting a man into her bed for a soft mattress? Especially considering what had already happened between them? He tried to make sense of it but soon gave up. Aye, she had grown up and matured but maybe deep down she was still a naïve young maid, innocent to a fault? He sighed. If that was the case, he’d better let her know the error of her ways.

Sandor got up and made his way in the faint light of the glowing embers. He separated the curtains drawn around the bed and peeked inside, but saw nothing but darkness. Gingerly he placed his knee on the mattress, where it hit her – what part he couldn’t be sure of, but she yelped and moved aside soon enough.

“My pardons.”

“Here.” Sansa patted the mattress on the side where Sandor was entering and from the sounds made her way to the other side.

Sandor sank down and settled on ‘his’ side. Admittedly, the bed was soft and luxurious and he didn’t mind sleeping in it. It was only her proximity that portended a restless night when he had been prepared for a good night’s slumber.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

 

Sansa found it surprisingly easy to settle into traveling with the Hound. He evidently knew what he was doing, as he always identified the best route, set up their modest camp quickly and efficiently, found drinking water even in the unlikeliest places and trapped small game to supplement their fast dwindling supplies of preserved food. He kept mostly to himself, although gradually over many evenings he started to respond to Sansa with more than only curt, one sentence replies.

Why was she so interested in hearing him tell about his life since leaving King’s Landing? What did it really matter to her, besides the bare bones of his adventures that had been quickly shared? Sansa didn’t have an answer to that and in truth she didn’t even care to analyse her motivations. Maybe it was just to pass time.

She found herself also sharing more about her own adventures than she had initially intended. Something in her companion’s quiet ways, his acceptance of whatever she said without judgment or interference encouraged her. Gods, she could hardly remember the last time somebody had been interested to hear her thoughts! Myranda and Mya, perhaps, but with them she hadn’t been able to share her true identity nor her real concerns.

To her surprise she soon discovered that Sandor Clegane was much more astute and knew a good deal more about politics, war and strategies than she had previously given him credit for. Not for nothing had he stood guard to the royal family for years, undoubtedly paying close attention to what he overheard. Furthermore, it was evident that he was in possession of a quick and sharp mind. Dulled by wine and boredom, perhaps, when they had first learned to know one another, but his time at the Quiet Isle seemed to have cleared his head and swept away years of cobwebs and neglect.

Slowly Sansa started to relax in his company, helped by her early and daring suggestion about sharing the furs. It was a necessity due to the cold mountain breezes, but after the first few nights, when she tensed from his every movement, her initial anxiety receded. That he never referred to their intimate encounter was a relief to her. He must have understood that what had taken place had defied all logic and reason and was never to happen again, and for that Sansa was grateful.

Although – maybe there was another reason? Maybe he simply didn’t desire her anymore once he’d had his way with her body? What if she had been a disappointment, what if she hadn’t been what he had expected, not woman enough, not knowing how to satisfy his manly urges? The thought was so shameful and ridiculous that it shouldn’t ever have entered her mind; the most scandalous was the notion of why she was thinking of such things at all.

Nonetheless, sometimes when she tossed on her roll and accidentally brushed against his large frame or when she pressed against his broad chest now that she rode in front of him, strange feelings and sensations assaulted Sansa. She knew them to be base and shameful; only crude reflections of improper desires. Before Myranda she had never imagined women having any such longings, but her friend had opened her eyes and she couldn’t force them shut anymore.

Yet this man was in her service, still unpredictable and dangerous, and any familiarity between them was utterly out of the question. She needed his help to get to the North and he had his own reasons. Maybe he didn’t want to leave Westeros, maybe he wanted a place in Winterfell. She would help him if he so desired, but her duty was to be strong and look after her heritage - and no man could come between her and that.

----------

The village and especially the inn were a sweet sight to her sorry eyes and Sansa was thoroughly disappointed when Sandor flatly denied her the pleasure of spending the night with a roof over her head. She swallowed her frustration and settled to wait for him where he pointed her. At least they would get some fresh food. Fresh bread, perhaps, maybe some cheese… Her mouth was salivating when her hungry thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two men, who diverted their path from wherever they had been going to come to her. Their clothes indicated them as upper class commoners with tunics made of good cloth and shiny metal buckles adorning their cloaks. The younger was blond and had barely started to grow a wispy moustache, whereas the older had a dark, scruffy beard and a big belly. Sansa didn’t like his eyes, which roved over her in the most uncouth way.

She observed them warily and gave curt responses to their intruding questions. No, she was not interested. No, she most certainly was not there to ply her trade. She was a respectable woman, waiting for her husband to come back from the stores. The part about the husband came to her quickly – surely it was quite believable for her to be Sandor’s wife? She talked in clipped sentences, trying to avoid revealing her nobility through her speech as Sandor had warned her.

None of that was of any help as the young man soon grabbed her, both of them laughing in her face and refusing to believe her story. What husband would leave his wife in such a place alone instead of taking her with him? Surely the duty of a wife was to carry the goods her lord husband bought? If she wasn’t offering her services to passing men, why was she wandering in the seedy part of the village?

“Don’t worry girl, we are decent men and we pay for our pleasures. You will have your coin after we are through with you,” the man with the beard sneered. “There is a barn nearby, no need to go any further. It is empty and as clean as is needed and there we will be safe from prying eyes.” He approached Sansa and revealed stained teeth in an expression approximating a wide smile.

“We’ll have our way with you whether you will it or not. If you come nicely, you’ll have coin at the end of it. If not…” He extended his hand towards Sansa and palmed her breasts through the dress. Sansa started to panic and struggled to get free of the grip, but it was futile. She thrashed and bucked and her heart pounded loudly in her ears. No, this is not possible, this can’t be happening! Where is Sandor?

Then he dashed to her aid like the knight in shining armour he most resolutely refused to be – and yet he drove her assailants away. Relief as she had never known washed over Sansa and she wept; not only because of the scare, but because she was still so far away from her destination, because she was cold and hungry, because the mud in the puddle into which she had been shoved was soaking through her clothes, because next she had to get up and back onto their cold trail and sleep under the stars again - and everywhere around her there were only people who wanted to harm her, wanted something of her or didn’t care a whit about her.

She had tried to be strong and had held any such emotions in check – and yet despite the momentary rush of confidence at the beginning of her journey, in the end she was still all alone in this world, far away from friendly faces and supportive allies.

At the bottom of her misery she felt strong arms around her guiding her to safety and heard a rasping voice promising her a warm bath, a restful sleep, a hot meal… Only when silently waiting behind Sandor as he haggled about the room price did it hit Sansa that as a matter of fact, she was not alone. He was with her. The Hound. Sandor Clegane. The man who had once scared her so much was now her safe haven, keeping everyone who wanted to harm her out.

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The bath was all she had dreamt of and much, much more. Sansa soaked in it, let the hot water flush away the grime and mud, soothe her aching muscles and take her back to a time when she thought hot baths were just a normal part of life, not to be thought much of. She enjoyed it so thoroughly that she didn’t even worry about the night’s arrangements. Of course she had known that it would be a waste of good coin to ask for two rooms – not to mention the suspicions it might raise for a common man and a woman traveling together to ask for separate rooms.

She had glanced at the bed when they had entered the room and to her relief found it wide and spacious. She had no doubt that Sandor wanted to sleep in it. He had just paid money for the privilege of not having to lie on the hard ground; of course he chose the bed. She only hoped she could share it with him. Yes, she was sure she could. He had told her so. ‘…have you sleep in a proper bed’, he had said.

Besides, they had slept many nights close to each other already. This shouldn’t be any different. The thought made her stir, reluctantly. She had better get out and let him have his bath before the water got too cold. Sandor would benefit from it; Sansa shuddered from the thought of him laying down in his tattered travel gear, his forest stench cloaking him. She wasn’t being snooty - she understood that cleanliness was the least of their concerns on the road. As a matter of fact, when she leaned against him in the saddle enveloped in his cloak, the whiff of his sweat made her feel odd but in a good way. Instead of it repulsing her she sometimes found herself breathing it in, deliberately. It was the same scent she had first become aware of on that night when…

Splashing energetically to get out of the tub, Sansa cut her trail of thought then and there.

----------

Sansa would have agreed to anything to make him take a bath – and to be perfectly honest she had felt hesitation about the prospect of going downstairs to the common room all alone after the experience she had just gone through. As embarrassing as it was to be trapped behind the closed curtains when a naked man was bathing right in the same room, it was infinitely better than the alternatives.

As Sansa pulled the shades close, paying special attention to make sure that there were no gaps where they overlapped, she swore to herself that she was going to just sit there patiently until he called to let her know he was done. With that in mind she took a comfortable position, settling down with her knees bent under her body. She could hear the clank of metal when Sandor removed his swordbelt and hung it from a chair post, then thumping sounds when his boots hit the floor and then the rustling of clothes. She tried hard not to pay attention to the sounds or the image of him getting…well, naked.

That night…she had not seen much of him at all. Only a sight of his neck and upper chest from the opening of his loose tunic, and once when she had glanced down, she had caught a glimpse of his stomach and groin and his upper thighs. Only as much as was visible from the opening of his breeches, all covered in dark hair. That, and a vague outline of the base of his member before it had disappeared between their joined bodies. Sansa’s cheeks burned hot and the familiar sensation between her legs came back to her, the same she had felt on so many nights in the Vale when she had touched herself. Except this time there was a new element, an urgency she couldn’t push away no matter how hard she tried. She squirmed on her haunches and hoped that Sandor would be done soon.

It was quiet for a while bar the sloshing of water as he apparently scrubbed himself. Sansa heard him take a deep breath, then sigh. What is he doing? Did he enjoy his bathing as much as she had done?

It seemed to take forever and Sansa’s irritation grew. He owed it to her at least to hurry up. Did he perhaps enjoy the situation, deliberately playing with Sansa’s ‘maidenly sensitivities’? He had grumbled that he didn’t mind if she saw his hairy arse; maybe that was what he actually wanted her to see? Sansa’s thoughts took a sudden turn. Was it hairy? Everything else about him was, why would his…behind be any different?

Curiosity grew inside her and soon she found herself justifying the actions she was contemplating. She had lain with him, and normally people who slept together saw each other naked. She wouldn’t be actually taking any liberties she hadn’t been granted already by default. She only had neglected to seize them at the time. So if she took a peek, it wouldn’t be as if she was spying on something forbidden?

Even while contemplating these thoughts her eyes scanned the curtains to see whether there was a chance she could have a look without him noticing. Oh, she couldn’t endure that! He would let out a snarling chortle and look down his nose at her, and he would surely think most horrible thoughts of her.

Soon Sansa spotted a small tear in the upper part of one of the curtains, so high that she had to stand up on the bed to reach it. The folds of the fabric hid the tear so she hoped he wouldn’t see it.

Slowly she positioned her eye over the tear, swallowing nervously but determined to go ahead nonetheless. It is just a peek. I have already given him my maidenhood, what harm can one look do?

The view was perfect. She could see the bath tub and Sandor in it. He was resting his back against its side, his knees protruding above the water because the tub was so small. His eyes were closed. Sansa could see his broad chest heaving, it being quite as hairy and muscular as the glimpses she had seen had suggested. After observing him a bit longer she noticed his hand moving slowly under the surface of the water. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but his expression and the steady motion of his arm soon left Sansa gulping for air. He can’t!

She pulled her head back and felt a hot flush travel from her burning cheeks down her neck and chest, then concentrating at the bottom of her belly and between her legs. Gods! Almost against her will she pressed her eye to the hole again, daring to face whatever she would see next. Yet all she witnessed was Sandor washing his hair, submerging his head under the water and rubbing his scalp vigorously, then lifting it up again. Water ran across his face and hair and he looked more relaxed than Sansa had ever seen him.

It was strange. Although he looked every bit as powerful and threatening as ever, his thick neck and bulging muscles leaving no doubts about his strength and prowess, something in him at that moment made him look vulnerable. Maybe it was his nakedness? Sansa was transfixed by the sight, her eyes following the curve of his nose and the way his dark hair rested on his shoulders, sleek and glistening.

Then Sandor opened his eyes, swept his hands across his locks and took hold of the sides of the tub. He straightened himself, dwarfing the wooden vessel and making it almost impossible to believe that his long form had just folded itself into it. He was standing with his back to Sansa before stepping out and turning around. Dear gods! Sansa had been prepared to see him fully naked and yet the sight of him felt almost like an assault against her senses. Not in a bad way, he was just so…big. And hairy. And completely unabashed, not hurrying to cover his nakedness as normal people did, but stretching his limbs and flexing his muscular arms, only casually wiping the dry cloth across his body.

Sansa wanted to look away – she had had her fill, her curiosity was sated, there was nothing more to see. Yet she couldn’t. Her gaze swept down his torso, the distinct curve at his waist and how it swept down from his hip in an angle towards his groin. She couldn’t avoid seeing his manhood and although she was sure it was not in readiness for anything untoward, it still looked dangerous laying there thick and heavy against his thigh. For a moment Sansa shivered thinking how it was possible that that thing had ever been inside her.

She saw Sandor looking in the direction of the bed, a slight smirk on his face. Luckily his stare was directed lower, at the seam of the shades and he didn’t see her. When he grabbed his smallclothes from the chair and started to pull them on Sansa finally withdrew and very, very carefully settled down again. Her heart was pumping loudly and blood rushed through her veins and she wondered if he would notice anything when she emerged to face him.

Luckily a sufficient amount of time passed for the colour of her face to return to normal before he called her, announcing that he was ready. Calmly Sansa stepped out, pretending that nothing had happened. As she passed him, she couldn’t help glancing at his impressive frame for a moment longer than necessary. Suddenly she remembered the way he had looked at her when she had greeted him, her hair still wet and cheeks flushed from the heat of the bath. His gaze had been intense and directed at her body as if he had tried to see through her clothes. She had felt uneasy and turned away – now she wondered if her own scrutiny was as obvious as his had been?

Sansa averted her eyes and stared at the ground while he barked commands to the servants and hoped he hadn’t noticed anything.

----------

The rest of the evening was pleasant and Sansa tried to savour every single moment of it. How things can change, she smiled to herself. The spoiled princess who took hot baths, luxurious dinners, warm rooms and soft beds for granted, now fawning over greasy sludge, a smoking fireplace, a musty room and a lumpy mattress.

In addition, she enjoyed the easy familiarity she shared with Sandor, who once even jested with her. One more time he had come to her rescue and Sansa couldn’t help feeling incredibly safe and comfortable having him by her side. Hearing his assurances that he was going to stay with her as long as she wanted him only increased her sense of security. Yes, she still had a long way to go, but she didn’t have to do it alone. He would help her.

Sansa was surprised and somewhat discomfited to see Sandor unrolling his bedding on the floor. She couldn’t have imagined not wanting to use the opportunity to rest in a real bed, so why didn’t he? She didn’t say anything though. The night had been far too pleasant for her to want to threaten it with any discord now.

Yet as she lay on her mattress and saw the large space next to her, she couldn’t help thinking of the absurdity of the situation.

‘Sandor?”

“Aye?”

His voice sounded drowsy and Sansa hoped he hadn’t been asleep already, and that he was not angry at the interruption if he had.

“Seeing that we have paid for the room with a big bed…and not knowing when we will have a chance again… Would you like to move over here?”

The only response to her question was silence. Then he rasped, his voice muffled.

 “What do you mean, girl? Afraid of sleeping on your own?”

Sansa couldn’t exactly admit to that. She felt perfectly safe knowing that he was there, in the room. Yet surely he didn’t prefer the floor if he had a choice of a bed? Also – and this she found hard to admit even to herself – she had already gotten used to his closeness at nights. They had settled into a comfortable arrangement characterised by mutual respect and need, and where the past was not spoken of. What harm could there be if he came to lie by her side?

“I…just thought you’d enjoy a soft bed as well.”

Nothing happened. After a while Sansa accepted that this man was not like others; he truly didn’t care about comforts of the world. Then she heard a deep sigh and the sounds of him getting up and taking uncertain steps towards the bed. Then the curtains were swept aside and in the dim light of the glowing embers she saw his dark form towering above her. Even though she had invited him, for a moment she caught her breath at the intimidating sight. Then she felt him landing his knee on her outstretched leg. Sansa couldn’t prevent a gasp and immediately he pulled away.

“My pardons.”

“Here.” She moved aside and patted the mattress on the side closest to him.

Next she felt him sinking down slowly, the whole bed creaking from the vast weight placed upon it.

----------

There shouldn’t have been any difference between this night and any of the others they had shared, only a small distance between them. They were both dressed, albeit lightly: Sansa in her simple dress and Sandor in only a light tunic and breeches.  Yet everything was different.

Sansa tried to ignore it, closing her eyes and willing sleep to take her. Nothing came of it though; her whole existence was focussed on the man beside her, his tossing and turning. They both had bathed and yet his scent was unmistakably his own, the intimacy of it reminding her about their moments together.

Somehow everything she had imagined, experienced or seen of him came together at that moment. Her nights in the Vale, dreaming of the make-believe Hound, kind and gentle. The harshness of the reality when she had faced him for true in the mountains. The brutality of their encounter, peppered with surprisingly tender moments. His return and the gradually growing understanding between them. And finally the sight of him in the bath. Sansa didn’t know much of men, that was true, but even she recognised the undeniable masculinity and vitality he exuded. She wished… Sansa wasn’t sure what she wished.

“Little bird?”

Sandor’s voice was hoarse and Sansa jumped at the sound of it. She had thought to be the only one still lying awake.

“Yes?” She hated how small her voice was, how timid.

“You are a woman grown, not a naive maiden anymore. Surely you know the dangers of inviting a man into your bed?” Sansa felt rather than saw him turning to his side and facing her. He was so close that she could feel the heat emanating from his body.

“What…dangers would they be?” Again, her voice was much too thin and fragile for her liking.

Even as she spoke, Sansa realised that she knew exactly the dangers he was referring to. To her horror, in the span of a few seconds while he contemplated his answer, she also understood that instead of shying away she embraced those dangers.  The warm feeling that had flooded her earlier that day still burned high in her. More so, it was not only the sensations of that day, but the gradually built tension that had drawn her more and more towards him for many days, even against her will. It had reached its peak when she had seen him in his glorious nakedness and found him against all expectations so pleasing to her eye.

Her mind whirled – could she really want him to do something scandalous to her? How could she? That would be bold and rash and dishonourable. Still, she couldn’t deny the curiosity to know more about the strange rituals between a man and a woman, acts so vulgar and crude when considered in the cool light of the day, but which made grown men do foolish things and women endanger their reputations. She remembered Myranda’s excited stories and the look in her eyes when she prepared to sneak into a meeting with her latest lover. She had felt a strange jealousy then, not for any of the men her friend had charmed, but for her obvious delight and enjoyment in those encounters. Sansa had never experienced anything like that and had had a hard time imagining that something so coarse could ever appeal to her.

When she had lost her maidenhood on that mad and unreal night, she hadn’t expected anything agreeable from it. On the contrary, she had bitten her lip and prepared to endure the pain she knew to be inevitable, all in a state of defiance. Yet although the experience hadn’t been exactly satisfying, it had woken something in her; given her a taste that perhaps, just maybe, with the right man and in the right circumstances, there could be something …

“What dangers? You truly are a little innocent bird still.” Sandor’s tone was jeering and Sansa felt the slight shake of his chest as he chuckled. He was so close, how had he been able to move so close without her noticing it? The tips of his hair brushed against Sansa’s shoulder and she could feel his hot breath.

She knew that surely Sandor was no more the right man for her now than he had been then - but he was good to her, and was her saviour and protector. Even better, he was the only man in the world she could contemplate giving herself to. He had had her already and yet had expressed no desire to rule over her or dominate her and her actions. He was also not a man to boast of his conquests to outsiders, she was sure of it. Nobody would ever know. Furthermore, as ashamed as Sansa was as the thought crossed her mind, he was not her equal. Maybe she could enjoy his company as she had heard some noble ladies did with men in their service?

Sansa wasn’t proud of those unladylike deliberations. Yet she couldn’t deny the practicality of it. She also recognised that the biggest impediment for such liaisons for unmarried maids didn’t apply to her anymore. She was not a maiden and hence had nothing to lose. While she was still sorting out those dizzying thoughts, a low murmur from Sandor demanded her attention.

“Some men don’t take well to just sleeping next to a desirable woman. Some men would take action. You should be more careful, that’s all I am saying.” There was no mistaking it, he had moved even closer. His head hovered just above Sansa’s so that there was hardly a finger’s breadth separating them. Sansa took a deep breath.

“Are you one of those men?”

“Might be. What if I was?” His voice rumbled so low that Sansa felt it better than she heard it.

“What of the women who choose to sleep next to dangerous men?” Sansa didn’t know where those words came from. She sensed Sandor stopping his slow descent upon her and pulling away. For a moment she could only hear his breathing, then a sound as he pursed his lips and chortled.

“Well, those women only get what they deserve, I guess.”

Even through the shadows she could feel his eyes on her, burning with their intensity.

“Are you one of those women, then?” Again, just a low throaty murmur.

“Might be. What if I was?” Sansa held her breath. The game they played was enticing by itself, making her lightheaded. Such male vigour and naked want, only thinly disguised, made her feel like she was petting a dangerous animal who despite being well fed and subdued in its confinement still retained an element of threat and unpredictability.

Once, when she had been a small girl, she had seen a northern bear kept on a leash, dancing at the instructions of its master. Her father had taken her to it and she had petted it and seen that its teeth had been pulled out, making it harmless. Despite that, she had been wary of its strength and wildness, knowing that a single strike of its gigantic paw would kill any man, woman or a girl, if it decided to attack.

Sandor hadn’t had his teeth pulled, and he was every bit as dangerous as any beast in the forest. Sansa closed her eyes and waited. Sandor had stopped, poised for her reaction. Only his uneven breathing heaving his chest broke his otherwise total stillness. Sansa remembered how even that night he had done the same – stopped and waited for her signal. Knowing that calmed her and the momentary fear of losing control she had felt earlier abated.

Surprised by her own daring, Sansa raised her arms and pulled him closer. Strike me with your paws.

Sandor resisted only for a second, his head rigid against her grip. Then he gave in and followed her guidance, pressing his lips against her brow, her cheek, traveling to her lips. Just as they met hers he stopped, his breath mingling with hers. His hand had travelled down her side to the curve of her hip and Sansa could feel its heaviness and warmth through her dress, but it, too, stopped. Sansa didn’t have to think, didn’t have to contemplate.

“I am that woman,” she whispered and slid her hand inside his tunic from the hem, meeting the hard planes of his stomach and the soft bristle of the dark hair she had seen earlier. “Please,” she added, remembering her courtesies.

Sandor let out a muffled sound between a curse and a sigh and yanked her onto her back, descending upon her with his full body weight.

Chapter Text

 

Sandor

Sandor wanted to give her a lesson, that’s all. To teach her that she shouldn’t trust anyone, not even himself. That she should be on her guard and not be deceived by the apparent kindness of strangers, not even himself. That’s how the Lannisters had trapped her in the first place all those years ago, pretending to care about her and luring her to trust them - the despicable lion's spawn! He had tried to tell her that in King’s Landing, frustrated beyond measure at seeing her naivety and lack of skill in the game that was played.

He expected her to draw back. Not in horror, as long gone were the days when she had shrunk from the sight of his face. Yet to draw back nonetheless, disgusted by how a man who now overtly encroached on her privacy more than was decent - and who already had defiled her - dared to approach her again. Sandor knew that she regretted what had taken place between them. He could detect it from the way she stiffened when he accidentally touched her, and from the way she averted her eyes when he was too close.

Let her! Part of Sandor was amused and enjoyed the sense of power it gave him over her, especially after he had found her so changed. She was a woman grown, matured not only in body but also in mind. Yet sometimes, like earlier that evening when he had seen her relaxed and comfortable in his company, to his chagrin Sandor discovered that he enjoyed that even more. Not many people had ever been at ease in his presence. As odd it had been at first, he had noticed that in those moments he too could let his own facade slip.

The girl surprised him though. Instead of pulling away and telling him with her most regal voice to back away, she challenged him with her question about women who chose to lie next to men like him. And she stayed still, only the rapid rise and fall of her chest giving away her unease. Or was that the reason? Maybe she…

Then she pulled him to her.

Is this a jest? Is she paying me back with my own coin? The thought flashed through Sandor’s mind before his lips met her heated skin. She didn’t resist his touch and he absorbed its softness against his cracked lips, clumsily kissing his way across her face towards the plump lips he had eyed so often when she hadn’t noticed. His hand travelled down her body and despite an urge to grab her forcefully, Sandor stopped. Is she leading me on, only to pull away laughing, knowing that I will not harm her? He cursed his own softness. Seven hells, had the Quiet Isle made him a pup, taking all the Hound’s ferocity away?

And then she uttered the most unthinkable word. Please. Sandor’s eyes widened at that soft sigh, released from her sweet mouth so close to his that he could practically taste the word in his own. He cursed and yanked Sansa onto her back, her fingers caressing his bare stomach lighting a fire that burned as hot as all seven hells put together.

Gods, it felt good! It was different to that desperate night, when he had longed for the last flash of immortality and ecstasy only a good fuck could give, not caring much about with whom he was about to achieve it. Although if he was totally honest, even then the thought of bedding the unattainable beauty previously so far beyond his reach had spurred him on more than the lust for the act itself.

Now everything was different. Sansa had become a person, not an object. Dimly, somewhere at the back of his feverish mind, Sandor also recognised that he was in her service now - and no good would come from fucking this chance up if he wanted to stay in Westeros. He swallowed a dry laugh. Fucking up, indeed!

He pressed her down hard, so hard that Sansa had to untangle her hand from the folds of his tunic. As soon as she did it he missed the feel of her fingers on his skin. She didn’t resist him but yielded, moulding herself against his form, her arms wrapped around his broad back, her legs trembling under his thighs.

Sandor was an inexperienced kisser, had never cared much about it. Nonetheless he felt that it was expected of him so he nibbled Sansa’s lips, brushed his tongue against her lower lip and to his surprise, felt her mouth opening and welcoming him.

She tasted sweet. As much as he felt his cock twitching in his breeches, yearning to experience her tight cunt around it, to his own amazement kissing gave Sandor something he had never thought it could. He wanted more of her, he wanted to get inside her secret recesses and invade her soft body…and this was it. Momentarily forgetting his other needs, Sandor found a new world full of heady delights as he delved deeper, tasting, sucking and drinking her, teasing her tongue with his own.

Eventually he had to pull back, to take in some air if nothing else. He braced himself for her refusal, for Sansa to have realised that she didn’t want this after all and that her attempt to act like a woman of the world had backfired on her. He eyed her as she lay there, her hair spread against the pillow and a deep flush suffusing her face and neck. He could see her redness even in the dim light of the room.

“Had enough of danger? Proven to yourself that you can face it?” he growled menacingly. He stopped himself from asking her if he should let her go – if she said yes, he wasn’t sure he could; if she said no, he wasn’t sure he could do whatever it was that she expected of him. Fuck!

“No," she sighed. "Sandor, I want…” She never finished her sentence - she didn't have to. The tone of her voice told Sandor all he needed to know. Who knew how long this would last? Who knew what was going on in that pretty head of hers? It hadn’t made any sense to him earlier and even less now, but gods, he was not going to be the one questioning it!

Sandor shifted his body lower, sliding down over hers. His fingers – he cursed silently when he noticed them trembling – tugged at the neckline of her blouse, pulling it down. It occurred to him that now was his chance to get an eyeful of her – all that he had missed that night and regretted ever since.

Pulling up and rolling out of the bed, he hurried to the fireplace and impatiently threw more wood into its glowing mouth. If this was to be his only chance, he wanted to see all of her, not only shadows. He was clumsy in his eagerness, hoping that the break in their contact wouldn't make Sansa regain her senses and put an end to this…whatever this was. He turned back towards the bed and saw her lying where he had left her, her eyes glittering in the firelight as she observed him.

Forcing his steps to be slow and measured, he advanced on the bed and knelt on it as before. Sansa didn't move and Sandor placed himself astride her, putting most of his weight on his bent knees. She felt so small and fragile under him, but she looked him in the eye, her pupils dilated and gaze steady.

Sandor returned to the task at hand and started to unlace the top of her dress. Sansa was dressed in a garment of the common folk consisting of two separate pieces, which allowed a worn top to be replaced with a new one while the skirt was still usable. A mischievous thought crossed his mind.

“Did you have a peek, little bird? Did you spy on me when I bathed? I would have, had our positions been reversed.”

Sansa gulped and made as if to turn her head, but then stopped. Something akin to shame crossed her face and she whispered, “If I did, what of it? You already had all I had to give. What was the harm in me just looking?”

The thought of her spying on him made Sandor even harder. It also emboldened him.

“It is only right then that I have a look at you, wouldn’t you say? I have seen none of your loveliness, you can hardly call that fair.” All the while his fingers worked and finally succeeded in releasing all the knots. Pulling the fabric aside and revealing her bare breasts, Sandor took a deep breath. They were just as beautiful as he had imagined; full and yet not overly so, her nipples standing erect as if inviting him to them… He lowered his head and this time he didn’t stop to wait for her go-ahead. Gods, she had had many opportunities to call this off and if she hadn’t utilised any of them, he sure as hells wasn’t going to ask anymore.

Sandor’s mouth found a nipple and latched onto it eagerly, nibbling and sucking it. Sansa shifted and sighed, stretching her arms above her head. A moan escaped her lips.

As focussed as Sandor was on the feel of that hard bud in his mouth, Sansa’s satisfied sigh stopped him in his tracks. He understood that to be a sign of her contentment, and instead of that elating him, it raised his dread.

He had never made an effort to satisfy wenches. He had never wanted to hurt them either – he was not the kind of man who gained his satisfaction from the suffering of others, least of all defenceless women making their meagre living by selling their bodies. Still he had always known that they were no more interested in his satisfaction than he was theirs, only wanting to make him come so they could collect their coin and send him on his way. A mutually beneficial arrangement where both parties were looking after their own interests. Making a woman squirm from pleasure under him had never been part of that.

Before his thoughts ran away with him, Sansa opened her eyes and tugged at the hem of his tunic.

“Do you want to…would you like to…take this off?” Without waiting for his answer she rose up and, taking a better grip, started to pull. Sandor raised his arms obediently, helping where she couldn’t reach and tossed the garment aside. In return he took the opportunity and teased the remaining fabric down over her shoulders, sliding it away easily and soon her top followed his, landing in a heap on the floor.

Sansa was still sitting up and now pressed her hands on his chest. Giving into her unarticulated but yet unmistakable command more than her force, Sandor soon found himself on his back, Sansa hovering above him.

“May I?”

Her hands swept down his chest, playing with the curls, her knuckles brushing against his nipples. Sandor tried to suppress the shivers travelling up his spine but failed miserably. The feather-light touches crept further down to the leather twines of his breeches and not stopping, swiftly unlaced them.

“May I?”

Sandor had no words and only nodded his silent agreement, observing in wonder how Sansa deftly pulled down his breeches. When they got stuck beneath him, he took charge, removing them in a few deft movements and kicking them away together with his smallclothes. Sandor was now as naked as on his nameday while Sansa still wore her skirts. The situation unnerved him and he wanted nothing more than to take the upper hand again. When he tried, her hand on his chest pressed against him and for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom, he stayed down.

“What the hells?” he started but a low shushing sound from her lips stopped his protestations. That, and her fingers touching him softly; sliding down his sides, stopping at the groove of his groin, splaying flat against his abdomen, making him breathe in sharply and clench his stomach. Sandor felt helpless - this was not the way it was supposed to be! Yet he was caught in a trance from which he couldn’t break away; nailed to the spot by her bright eyes, darting from his face to his torso to his manhood. Aye, he had been hard as iron from the moment he had first held her, and he could see Sansa’s eyes fixed on his hardness, her lips parting and her pink tongue darting between them.

Helplessness such as he had never felt held Sandor in its grip – and yet it didn’t terrify him. He was a strong man and had learned to stand up for himself from a young age. Being held down and subjected to the scrutiny and touch of another human being should by all accounts have raised his hackles. Yet knowing that it was her, and that she did this of her own accord, raised strange sensations in him. Vulnerability – hells yeah! – and at the same time a feeling of trust that she wouldn’t harm him.

Sandor snorted. Of course he knew that whenever he wanted, he could reverse their situation and gain control of the proceedings. Suddenly, as her eyes raked across his prone form, a completely new thought startled him. His body – always capable and honed to battle readiness - had never caused him concerns besides battle injuries. Before this.

All of a sudden Sandor became conscious of all the welts and scars that criss-crossed his arms and torso, the dark hair that covered his frame like an animal’s, his calloused hands and thick neck. Not a pretty sight to a fair maiden, even without the added insult of his hideous face. At least that she had seen every day and had seemingly gotten used to, but the ugliness of the rest of him was all new. And his manhood – thick and swollen, jutting upwards from the thicket of curly hair. Surely an affront to a young maid sheltered from the ugliness of men like him?

Not being able to stay still anymore, Sandor rose onto his elbows and despite her protestations pushed her down instead. She didn’t resist too much though, settling on her back and pulling Sandor’s head against her chest. He resisted, smirking at her and repeating her own words back to her.

“May I?”

The firm tug at the waistband of her skirt didn’t leave doubts as to what he was suggesting, and hearing no objections he pulled it down, gathering her smallclothes along the way.

Finally! Sandor feasted his eyes on her; her slender legs and the swell of her hips, the thatch of red hair at the juncture her thighs, the curve of her belly and her breasts. He drank in the sight for a moment, the flicker of firelight dancing on her skin making her (if possible) even more alluring. He heard Sansa whispering something, almost as if to herself. Strike me with your paws, again, it sounded, but it didn’t make any sense to him.

Sandor leaned down. “What is it, little bird?”

Sansa opened her eyes and Sandor drowned in their depths. She said the same words as she had voiced before in a similar situation.

“Do it.” This time her voice was soft, her words encouraging and enticing, lacking the sharpness they had held previously.

Sandor’s reaction was different too. Gods, he wanted to fuck her as much as before if not more, but instead of letting himself loose and grabbing the opportunity, he was suddenly paralysed. He wanted to give her pleasure, she deserved it. But how the fuck was he supposed to know how to do that?

Gingerly he placed his hand against Sansa's lower belly, just below her navel. The silken feel of it reminded him of the time after the Greyjoy rebellion when Lord Tywin had rewarded his most accomplished soldiers with a night in the finest brothel in King's Landing. The women there had been clad in silks and velvets, and the one he had chosen had worn a purple shift of the finest and softest material he had ever touched. His hardened fingertips had drawn notches among its threads but still he had marvelled at the sensation. Not for long though, so eager he had been to pull it away to get into her cunt.

Yet that had been then, in his past life. Now he wanted to savour the unusual softness, to let it travel from the tips of his fingers to his head, there to be stored in a secret corner of his mind he would dip into someday when she was gone and he was on his own again.

The sight of his broad hand, covered with coarse hair up to his first knuckles, against her pale skin was brutal and sacrilegious. It was also oddly fascinating, especially when he sensed the subtle quiver of her belly under it and saw the heaving rise and fall of her chest as she exhaled. Time stood still.

Slowly, very slowly he explored the landscape of her body, feeling like an explorer of faraway uncharted lands. Mayhap he was. Supple breasts with firm pink buds. Collarbones so fine and fragile he could have snapped them like twigs if he wanted. Round shoulders, the shell of an ear, a graceful jaw line. All the time Sansa's eyes followed his face, big and blue and guileless.

A tentative lick at her nipple was met with a reaction that seemed disproportionate to the act; Sansa arched her back and let out a whimpering noise. Encouraged by it Sandor licked it again - and again and again. His teeth grazed the hard bud and a new jolt ran through Sansa. Sandor felt something building inside him, the uncertainty giving way to raw unbridled desire. Abruptly he wanted more; more of everything. More of her skin, her taste, her breasts, her belly, what she was hiding between her long legs that he hadn't even dared to touch.

Seven save me! Kneading her breasts with both hands, he slid further down, leaving a wet trail from his tongue across her ribs and stomach and lower belly, all the way to her soft curls. Sandor stopped only to pull her legs apart, overcoming her weak resistance. It was clearly more an instinctive reaction on her part than a real refusal, judging by the eagerness with which she soon cleaved to him.

Sandor had never tasted anything like her cunt; sweet and musky and intoxicating. He got drunk off it, and from the reactions he elicited in her. As he slid his tongue along her folds - pink and slightly wrinkled and opening under his onslaught like the petals of a glorious flower in bloom - Sansa's whimpers grew louder and louder and her hands grabbed his head and tugged his hair almost painfully at times. He was drunk on the sensation that she was reacting like that because of him - that he was the man who could make her sing like that. Sing for me.

The thought made him absurdly proud and at the back of his mind Sandor heard the echoes of his own words from the past. One day I’ll have a song from you, whether you will it or no. When he had said that, he hadn't truly expected that such a day would ever come. And yet here he was, having found an especially tender spot above her opening, a small knot which nibbling and sucking made her chime the most arousing notes - for his ears only. Every sigh and every moan was a new badge of honour for him.

For the next good while Sandor lost himself between Sansa’s slender thighs, all his attention on her making him nearly forget his own needs. Nearly. The building pressure in his cock and balls called for release and almost reluctantly he eventually pulled his mouth away from his feast and knelt between her legs. Sansa had turned her cheek against the pillow and had covered her eyes with her arm - earlier he had seen her tossing her head from side to side, her hands alternately gripping his hair or flailing aimlessly in the air as if she hadn't known what to do with them.

Realising that Sandor had moved away she gasped loudly, then turned her head in his direction and lifted the arm covering it. Gods, if she wasn't the most beautiful thing he had ever seen! Messy hair, burning cheeks, skin glowing in the firelight, half-lidded eyes gazing at him dazedly.

"Little bird," Sandor growled low in his throat. "Are you ready for me?"

Sansa bit her lower lip and to Sandor's amazement, smiled. Not a polite demure smile - the situation hardly warranted it - but a flashing, brilliant smile revealing her teeth and melting away years of discipline and restraint in one glorious second.

She shimmied on top of the mattress to a better position and reached towards him, taking a surprisingly firm grip on his hips.

"Never been more ready," she whispered, and if Sandor hadn’t known better, he could have sworn she was grinning.

Grabbing her almost roughly by the waist, Sandor positioned her right under him, nudged the knees she had instinctively closed apart again and shifted until he could feel the tip of his manhood right at her entrance. A slight nudge and almost without guidance, helped by her slickness, he found his way in.

There was something perverse in the way Sandor fought against his instincts to ram his cock all the way in - how he stopped after having entered only a small distance. There was no maiden's veil hampering him this time, and true to her word, Sansa was ready and willing and recklessly pushed her hips against him. No, this was all his own doing, the agonisingly slow thrust, absorbing each and every sensation of the journey of his cock pushing through her tightness. And that she was, tight as a glove, but her walls gave in as he entered and the pressure squeezing his member was so intense that for a moment he was afraid of losing it right then and there.

Sandor closed his eyes. All this was disturbingly new to him. If their last coupling had been Sansa's first, now it seemed like this was his. Aye, he had fucked many women - he had no idea how many but he hadn't exactly been chaste. He could have fucked many more had he been so inclined, but after the novelty of the act had worn off in his youth he had realised that it was a bodily act just like pissing and shitting - except it was not as necessary. The relief it had given had always been temporary and more often than not he had settled for his own hand rather than endure the ignominy of finding a whore. Or even worse, going with one of the misguided wenches who after his rapid rise to the position of the prince's - later the king's - trusted man, had tried to entice him without expectation of coin. However, he knew those women better. If not coin, they expected something else - and he had never been ready to provide it, whatever it was.

Even as he lay there, his cock buried in the sweet cunt of Sansa Stark and through the haze of his pleasure, he couldn't help wondering what price she demanded of him. Protection? She had it already. For him to fight her battles? That too, she already had. He had no coin nor power nor anything that a high-born lady could need. So what was it that she wanted?

All his doubts were momentarily swept away as he finally reached the limit of the push, his balls pressing against her cheeks. As blood rushed in his ears and little rivulets of sweat beaded on his brow and made their way to sting him in the eyes, he gradually started to increase his tempo. Inevitably, soon it was as if the floodgates had opened and he let go of all his restraint, thrusting in and out with abandon, grabbing her hips with both hands, grunting at his every jerky movement. Sansa responded keenly to his guidance and soon they reached a steady rhythm, the timeless dance of lust and pleasure. It felt fucking amazing, the pressure mounting along his hard length and the bliss radiating along his groin, his spine, his whole body. Sandor groaned, hissed and ground his teeth together, fleetingly lost to everything but his quest to thrust deeper, harder and more forcefully into her slickness. Sansa didn’t hold back either; gone was the shy maid, lost the haughty noblewoman, replaced by the wanton wench who begged for more. As it happened, Sandor was more than happy to give it to her. Fuck the price!

He panted and his growls joined Sansa's delicious little cries of pleasure and much too soon he hit another limit, the point of no return - beyond even the iron-clad control he usually exerted over his own reactions. As he felt his balls tightening and the inevitable release approaching, there was nothing he wanted more than to release inside her. Yet his sensible side won as getting her pregnant would have been beyond stupid. Pulling away and stroking his shaft to finish off, his climax was more powerful than he could ever remember experiencing. With a grunt and a sob he spilled his seed on top of Sansa’s soft belly, every last drop squeezed out in agonisingly slow waves of convulsion travelling the length of his cock. The feel of the warm stickiness between their bodies gave him an additional sense of satisfaction. If not in her, at least on her.

As the last shudders of his peak subsided, Sandor fell down on top of Sansa, yet he was careful not to crush her under his bulk.

Her hands travelled up and down his back, their restlessness in stark contrast with his own dazedness. That she continued touching him - whether she was aware of it or not - was yet one more novel experience to Sandor. He absorbed those caresses, which were not butterfly soft anymore but raking him, the reason for which he did not at first comprehend. Instead of Sansa pulling herself away, or pushing him away as he was used to, she continued to squirm and sigh, her hips bucking against his groin and already softening member.

Finally Sandor realised that although he had found his release, the little bird might not have. What little he had heard of those matters, women apparently needed more attention to come. What could it be? he lazily wondered. It was not as if they had cocks to stroke.

Then he remembered the little bud near her cunt that had given her so much pleasure when he had nibbled at it. Again he surprised himself by rolling to her side and reaching down to touch it again. That she wanted him to was obvious from the moment his hand landed between her thighs; she whimpered and pushed herself forcefully against it. Sandor found that firm bud soon enough, and the combined wetness of her cunt and his seed helped him to establish a steady, fluid motion around it with his thumb. Sansa's teats bounced as she writhed under his onslaught and he latched onto them again, sucking and biting, careful not to maul her too hard.

"Tell me what to do," he mumbled against her breast. "Whatever it is, I'll do it. I don't know how to please you but by gods I will if you just show me how."

"Just...continue...don't stop..." Sansa's voice was muffled and tense.

"Is it there where you touch yourself?" he murmured, blowing a breath of air against her nipple, the thought bringing an almost unbearable flash of images into his mind. The little bird, all alone in her room, stroking her cunt...and now he could do that for her.

Applying his earlier reasoning about cocks and buds, Sandor continued his steady rhythm, stroking it at an increasing pace and never stopping, until he could see Sansa arch her back once more, higher than ever before, taking in a deep shuddering breath and then freezing completely. Some strange instinct made Sandor thrust two of his fingers inside her at that very moment and he was rewarded by a high-pitched wail and the feel of her cunt contracting around them, over and over again.

All the seven devils in all the seven hells! The excitement of seeing her so unravelled almost competed with his own. Fuck, I never knew!

If Sansa had been beautiful before just lying naked against the covers, the way she looked now was beyond this world, Sandor thought. A fine sheen of sweat covering her body glistening faintly, her thighs were still trembling in the aftermath of her climax, her shoulders had pulled back and were pushing her breasts higher, and her arms raised above her head, framing her flushed face and silken hair like a fine portrait... Her eyes were tightly squeezed shut, but even as Sandor scrutinised her she opened them and without missing a beat, speared him with her gaze.

The naked need he had seen in them earlier was gone, replaced with solemnity and peace. Sandor felt an urge to look away. The honesty he saw in them was, if possible, even more intimate than what they had just done and he felt like an intruder in her world. Yet he fixed his eyes with hers and kept them locked with a determination he knew was only a front. Inside he was unsure and hesitant, both being feelings he hadn't associated with himself since...never.

Then Sansa sighed and the moment passed. As if suddenly realising how wanton her pose was she pulled the corner of the sheet up for her cover, but at the same time turned onto her side and burrowed her face against Sandor's chest. A little shifting and arranging of her long legs, some squirming as she tried to find where to put her hands and her head, all the while Sandor lay still and allowed her to find her position and move him this way or that. He was in awe that it was what she wanted to do. To snuggle closer to him, not further away.

As she finally stilled, she took a deep breath and sleepily hummed against his skin, "That was not so dangerous after all, was it?"

While Sandor's stunned mind was still trying to find a suitable riposte, her breathing slowed down to a steady pace indicating that she was asleep. Sandor was left to stare at the canopy of the bed, trying to understand what had just happened and why - all the while knowing that none of it did make any sense.

----------

Something was not quite right. Sandor’s usual alertness had deserted him; the instinct of a man who had been woken up too many times by a kick in the shin or worse, by a barked command from an angry commander, or by the nausea and head pain caused by too much drink. Neither was this morning marked by a rustle of leaves, softly falling drops of an early morning rain nor a chill rising up from the cold ground.

No, when he came to, he felt a soft mattress under his frame and something warm and supple against his side. Fine wisps of hair tickled his throat and a weight that was hardly noticeable pressed against his chest. Slowly, very slowly he opened his eyes only to catch a sight of an auburn-brown cascade flowing under his chin and sensing Sansa bloody Stark’s curvy body moulded against his own.

Fucking hells! Sandor closed his eyes again and hissed silently. The images of the previous night flooded through his mind; her slim figure, her tightly scrunched eyes and contorted face as she let herself go – had she really climaxed in his arms? He had heard of women releasing as men did – in their own way – but he had never seen it and to be honest, had thought that to be only an idle boast by useless wankers who thought their cocks to be some fucking magical wands.

And he remembered her smell. And her taste.

Sandor wanted to linger longer in those memories, but the practical, cool side of his mind demanded his attention be focussed on other things. From the angle of the sunlight streaming through the dirty window he assessed the morning to be well advanced. If they wanted to move along as quickly as planned, they had already wasted enough precious time.

Sandor glanced at Sansa again. Her head rested in the crook of his arm and by lifting his head very carefully he could observe her without waking her up. In the relaxed state of sleep she looked young and vulnerable – almost like the girl-child he had first encountered in Winterfell. Her mouth was slightly ajar and as Sandor studied her face, her eyelashes fluttered as she chased after a dream. The days riding outdoors had woken dormant freckles on her skin and there was something utterly fascinating that Sandor couldn’t explain in those tiny red-brown spots. He knew that ladies of the court used all kinds of remedies to bleach their skin and rid themselves of blemishes like that – but for the death of him he couldn’t understand why.

Sandor shifted, pondering if he should wake her up. Maybe lower his hand - already wrapped around her shoulder, his fingers resting temptingly close to her side only a small distance away from the curve of her bare breast…

Fuck! His lady had been a bit tipsy, having shared two flagons of wine with him – although admittedly he had taken the lion’s share of both. Had she been simply drunk and hence initiated something even the full force of Mad King Aerys’s noble Kingsguard couldn’t have stopped? What if she woke up now and realised her folly? Would she shimmy away from him, politely as ever, but press that sweet mouth of hers into a thin line and refuse to meet his eyes?

Sandor swallowed, although his dry throat made it only an empty gesture. Suddenly the thought of seeing the unabashed and wild woman, who had thrashed in his arms, as a disciplined noble lady again tasted like ash in his mouth. She had hardened, that much had been clear from their very first meeting in the mountains. Maybe even as much as to take her privileges – and her pleasures – as she saw fit. She had yielded to him twice – no, there Sandor had to stop and consider. No, she hadn’t yielded to him, she had commanded him.

Suddenly the slender arms resting on his chest and down his side felt suffocating. Sandor moved carefully, lifting Sansa’s arms and head to rest against the hastily scooped pillows and covers, and to his relief her breathing continued as steady and deep as before, indicating her slumber. He shuffled to the edge of the bed and slid down.

----------

Sandor had already checked on Stranger, collected fresh supplies of food and packed it all into the saddle bags, and was sitting in the common room gulping down a serving of hot cakes when Sansa came down. She had dressed in her travelling gear and her hair – so free and dishevelled during the night – was neatly combed and bound in a tight coil.

“Finally figured that the inn is not travelling to where we are going?” Sandor’s dry words were met with a silence. Weakly Sansa called for the serving maid for some food. Sandor tried to assess her condition as she sat there, staring at the table. The last thing he needed was her vomiting all over him and Stranger, but she seemed fit enough. Not even the greasy stench of bacon, brought steaming hot to the table, raised a reaction in her.

Nor did she react to him. No smile, no recognition that the previous night had been any different from the many they had shared.

Sandor finished earlier and waited for Sansa in front of the inn. He swept his gaze across the yard, wary of anyone who might stare at them for too long or of the men who had tried to take Sansa the previous day. To his satisfaction everything was peaceful; only a few scrawny dogs chasing each other, a stable hand carting a pile of hay to the stables, a serving wench scurrying from the other side of the square back into the inn. She glanced furtively at Sandor as she passed and he recognised her as one of those who had helped them with the bath the previous evening and served them breakfast in the morning. He didn't care - he was used to wenches gawking at his appearance and hastening away from him.

Finally Sansa emerged. Staring at her approach, he tried to figure out what he had expected – if anything. A smile? A bloody kiss? An expression of horror? Regret? She gave nothing away, behaving as if their heated embraces had never happened. As if her cunt had not clenched around his cock. As if he hadn’t stuck his tongue into the deep recesses of her womanhood. As if…

Sandor shook himself violently, squaring his broad shoulders and forcing his mind away from the dangerous track. Broodingly he helped Sansa into the saddle in front of him and guided Stranger away from the muddy yard, towards the woods.

----------

Outwardly there was nothing different in that day to many before. Just steady riding, a few decisions made about which route to take, obligatory scouting whenever the road forked to see what was ahead. The midday break for respite and a bite. Sandor got increasingly agitated as the day wore on and the monotony of the path lulled him into a state of boredom.

Aye, his lady’s curvy ass so temptingly close to his groin had been a concern before. It had been manageable though. Whatever madness had taken place in the mountains had been just that, madness, and it was not as if he hadn’t ever had to contain his desires before. As he had risen higher in the king’s service, he had not been as free to roam as before and sometimes he had been forced to chasten his cock and put his lust aside until there had been a better time to satisfy it.

Yet somehow this was different. It was not only about him anymore - for once there was another person to consider. A woman – a woman who stayed with him, instead of disappearing as soon as their rutting was over.

And not just any woman. Sansa Stark. The little bird who had grown talons.

She had been sitting rigidly all day, holding her head up high, exchanging only a few necessary sentences with him. It had started to irritate Sandor. Aye, of course it had been a mistake. No reason to be so high and mighty though. Dog only does as his master commands, and if the master orders improperly, is it the dog’s fault?

He shifted in the saddle a bit closer so he could be sure that Sansa felt the press of his thighs.

“Well, what is it to be?” he grunted.

Sansa almost jumped in surprise and half-turned her head. “What?”

“What shall I tell my cock? Down boy? Do I have to find a campsite near a stream so I can sit in ice-cold water and cool my balls?”

Sansa turned to stare at the path ahead. Sandor hadn’t truly expected her to respond and continued.

“Twice you have let me between your legs. Once mayhap an accident. Twice - what the fuck is that? Carelessness?” He could see her neck reddening and could imagine how her whole face must have turned pink. Sandor let her stew in her embarrassment, almost enjoying the situation. 

For a long time she stayed quiet. Finally she muttered in a low voice. “It is complicated.”

“The fuck it is. It’s the simplest thing there is. But don’t worry, my lady. I am at your service. I do as you bid. Day and night,” he added mischievously.

She didn’t respond. Not then, nor during the rest of the ride.

----------

The evening was also a quiet affair, both of them cocooned deep in their own thoughts. After Sandor secured the fire and prepared their bedrolls, Sansa slipped silently onto her own side, followed by Sandor falling heavily onto his own.

After everything was quiet and Sandor had started to fall into a deep well of unconsciousness, he felt a soft hand sliding down his ribs and slipping under his tunic.

“It is complicated,” Sansa whispered as she pressed her body against him and guided his hand under her skirt and along her thigh, her lips brushing against his.

Sandor was a dog, raised to follow commands. He obeyed.

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

Sansa had been kissed before, of course. Petyr’s fatherly attentions, which had bordered on indecent, were foremost in her mind but she also remembered a young squire in the Vale, blond and comely in an affable and homely way. He had surprised her one evening as she had walked down the corridor and pressed his chapped lips on Sansa’s before she had had time to react and pull away. She had done just that, naturally, as despite being cast as a bastard daughter she knew her true worth better. Yet unlike Petyr’s advances which had made her shudder, the young man’s lips had been soft and his eyes had twinkled and he had grinned and let her go in good cheer. Later Sansa had thought of that kiss often and concluded that she had much preferred that to Petyr’s. 

All that paled in comparison to what she felt when Sandor’s lips claimed hers and his tongue swept across her mouth. She didn’t think – no, this was not a time for cool consideration – when she opened up for him. It felt like the right thing to do, and when he claimed her fully, all reason left her and that felt like the only thing to do.

Never in her life had she imagined that being so grossly invaded by another could be so… exhilarating. Sansa had never conceived how kissing could be an act of mutual sharing, where neither party was the receiver or the giver, but both gave as good as they got. She was surprised by her own eagerness to tease the tongue that clashed with her own, and how utterly she melted under Sandor’s onslaught. And although her concentration was focussed on the meeting of their mouths, somehow the sensations travelled down her body and manifested themselves in the tingling sensation in the bottom of her belly and the wetness between her legs.

When Sandor pulled away and snarled at her she wasn’t quite sure whether he had been only teasing her. Could he have been so cruel as to just taunt her? Even if that was the case, she couldn’t deny her needs. Whatever he thought of her shameless behaviour, Sansa had gone past caring; she needed more. She had let the beast loose and she had to own up to it.

Whether the beast was the Hound or the wolf within herself, she wasn’t sure.

“Sandor, I want…”

Hardly had she uttered those words when Sandor took up her meaning and acted. The momentary loss of contact startled her, but when she realised Sandor’s intentions she welcomed them – both excited about the opportunity to see better what she had only witnessed from behind the curtains, but at the same time conscious of how he too, likely expected her to reveal herself to his eyes. Her innate honesty made her confess her transgression when he questioned it, feebly trying to make excuses she knew to be weak even before they left her lips.

“It is only right then that I have a look at you, wouldn’t you say? I have seen none of your loveliness, you can hardly call that fair.” Sandor chuckled and his expression was that of a man who could not be gainsaid, as benevolent as he appeared. Not that Sansa wanted to. Even as his fingers clumsily tugged at her laces she could feel a hot flush traveling from her face to her chest and the delicious anticipation that froze her on the spot.

Sansa gasped in surprise when he pressed his face to her breasts and took her nipple into his mouth. Dear Mother and Maiden! she mouthed, although her words ended up as only incoherent hums and moans. Nonetheless, hardly had she recovered from the initial assault when Sandor pulled away as abruptly as he had descended. Panting hard, Sansa wanted him to continue, but she also wanted to feel his skin against her own instead of the coarse cloth. She tugged helplessly at his tunic and to her relief he was not averse to her wishes.

Not knowing where she gathered her courage she pushed against him and despite her strength being as insignificant as the flap of a butterfly’s wing against the full force of a howling storm, to her astonishment Sandor yielded to her.

Let me see you. Let me look upon the monster I have unleashed. The time for Sansa to be a passive recipient of other’s attentions and actions was gone. That it was partly due to the lessons she had learned from this very same man, who was lying prone under her hands, didn’t escape her notice. Sandor’s broad chest moved in rhythm with clearly visible intakes of his breath, the pure force and strength he possessed simmering under the constrained façade. Sansa didn’t entertain any notions that she truly had the upper hand - and hence the fact that he submitted to be held by her made her tilt her head in wonderment.

As she had anticipated, to see Sandor’s honed body up close was altogether different and a much more tantalising experience than seeing him from afar. Sansa marvelled at him as he lay still, his powerful upper body tense and his dark eyes following her every movement. The dark fur covering his chest and belly drew her towards it and she wanted to get lost in that dense forest.

“May I?” She was still a lady and she hadn’t forgotten her courtesies.

Following the path of curly hair from where it gained a consistency of its own from the coarse bristles of his beard, she brushed against his nipples. They were peaked and firm and it felt altogether wicked and exciting to feel them under her knuckles. Momentarily Sansa was distracted by the notion of following his example and testing how they would feel under her lips, but in the end her courage deserted her.

Reaching the bindings of his breeches, her resolve returned as on this matter she was sure he wouldn’t deny her.

“May I?”

Sandor’s half-lidded eyes had not let go of her throughout her exploration and he nodded his head in silent acquiescence. Sansa knew that this was not something she should truly worry about - if he wanted her, he would unlace himself. Yet she wanted to make sure that this time he acknowledged the situation in full. This was not going to be a quick fumble with lowered breeches and uplifted skirts, a hasty rummage and haphazard affair. She had heard of those from Myranda and her first time had been one such situation. Long ago she had concluded that hurried encounters like them were not worthy of her friend and surely not worthy of her. If she was going to give herself to him – again - she wanted that to be true and proper.

She could see and feel the uneasiness with which Sandor received her attentions. Again she was perplexed by his acquiescence. Wasn’t he the Hound, the fiercest warrior of Westeros? The man who allowed nothing and no-one to defeat him? And yet here he was, letting a lithe girl play with him like he was a lapdog to be patted. Somehow the realisation that he allowed her this because he trusted her raised a lump in Sansa’s throat.

When Sandor’s nakedness was fully exposed, Sansa couldn’t tear her eyes away from his manhood. It was thick and heavy and almost possessed life of its own, the way it extended from his groin towards his navel, twitching as she observed it. If she had thought it difficult to believe that it had ever been able to fit into her when she had seen it after his bath, what she witnessed now was almost too much to comprehend.

She found herself falling into an old bad habit that her mother had often chastised her for; chewing her lip when she wasn’t sure of what she should do. Before she had made up her mind Sandor rose and overtook her, reversing their positions, however his expression was not that of anger or frustration but of something else. If it had been anyone else Sansa would have recognised that as uncertainty, but surely that couldn’t be?

So it was Sansa’s turn to be held and scrutinised by him, and after he removed her last remaining clothes she closed her eyes and prepared for what was to follow. She could sense goosebumps on her skin despite the warmth of the room, the delicious expectation of something desirable. Again she felt she was on the brink of an attack by an untamed animal, wild from the forest, which had never been domesticated. Nonetheless, Sandor didn’t make a move but only hovered above her. His gaze on her body was heavy and it burned - it cleansed and made her feel dirty at the same time. Dirty – and she loved it.

“Strike me with your paws…again.” She didn’t realise she had said it out loud before Sandor leaned closer.

“What is it, little bird?” His voice was hoarse but almost tender.

The tone of his voice brought tears to her eyes. A man. A true knight. She opened her eyes and met his, staring into her without anger, sarcasm or mirth – only an exposed need and open desire.

“Do it,” she mouthed, trying to smile although she couldn’t be sure if she had been able to muster her expression well enough for that. What she really and truly wanted was for him to take her gently and kindly, but how could she state such things to him? She entertained no foolish notions of being in a position to tell him what to do. All she could do was ask.

----------

If Sansa had thought to have been indecently possessed by the hands and mouth that had explored her body earlier, what followed was something she couldn’t have imagined even in her most feverish dreams. It felt so wrong – and so right – and she squirmed and writhed and tried to anchor herself to the only thing in the world which was solid and real in the sea of sensations she was being tossed in. Sandor.

The thought of Sandor between her legs felt so shameful, so crude and yet so exciting… Sansa truly felt that she had entered a new world she knew nothing about and was being guided there by someone who was familiar with the landscape. She knew she shouldn’t be doing any of this; that she shouldn’t have encouraged a man in her service to take such liberties. She knew she was playing with fire that felt enticingly hot for now, but could as easily turn around and scorch to her cinder and ash.

Yet she couldn’t stop.

When Sandor asked her if she was ready, Sansa had already made her peace with the doubts that had plagued her earlier. Not that she registered it as such. The shocks that had reverberated through her whole body from her core, instigated by Sandor’s administrations, had made her forget everything and everyone – nothing else mattered but her need to have it all. Have him.

Sandor towered above her intimidatingly, his need obvious and rubbing against her thigh. The anticipation of what was to follow alarmed and thrilled Sansa and she found herself laughing giddily. She wanted him and she wanted him now! Boldly she grabbed Sandor’s hips and tried to position him better, only to be shifted anew by him. She felt like a ragdoll, her limbs and body twisted this way and that, but she yielded, only craving that he would…that she could…

Gods! Once again Sansa felt her core torn asunder as he entered, but only for a moment – when he stopped she soon yearned for more. It didn’t hurt this time, quite the contrary; it felt good…and it only got better and better as she adjusted to the strange and hypnotic rhythm of their bodies rocking against each other – faster! harder! deeper!  Eventually the build-up of a force she recognised from her tentative explorations in the Eyrie started to grow stronger than ever before. She wanted…she needed…she was almost there…

Then Sandor pulled out and left her gasping on the brink of something elusive. Sansa felt as if she had been poised mid-plunge into the pond in Winterfell’s Godswood, never reaching the warm embrace of those deep waters. Her whole body was tense and ready – but she was left suspended in motion.

She heard Sandor’s ragged breathing and low grunt as he spilled his seed, the warm and sticky substance landing on her belly. She registered it hazily, part of her still trying to find her way out of the void he had left in his wake.

This is it. It is all over now. As inexperienced as she was, even she knew that once a man had spilled his seed, the act was over – Myranda had told her so many times. Disappointment made her squeeze him harder than she had intended, and to run her nails across his back and push her hips against his thick thigh, not caring what he thought of her wantonness.

And then Sandor Clegane truly and sincerely surprised Sansa Stark.

Afterwards, Sansa tried to catch her breath and recover from the most amazing sensation she had ever experienced. That a man like him cared enough to secure that for her… Sansa wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. She had guessed that Sandor wanted her – he was a man after all, and men only wanted one thing, both Myranda and Petyr had lectured her, each in their own way.

But he had reached his own peak already. He didn’t need my satisfaction to complete his own. The more Sansa turned it around her head, the more confused she became. She held Sandor’s gaze as if that offered a way to peek inside his head and read his mind, but despite recognition of something new, openness and sincerity, she didn’t find the answers she was looking for in the depths of those grey pools.

Mother and Maiden! Sansa suddenly became conscious of what an indecent sight she presented, sprawling on the bed like that. She nudged the sheet for her cover but what she really wanted was to bury herself into the crook of his arm, nuzzle against his broad chest and hide there. It was an old saying that the best spot to hide was right in the shadow of the predator – except he was not that, nor was she prey. Their earlier discussion of dangers felt silly now.

"That was not so dangerous after all, was it?" she couldn’t help chuckling into the dense hair tickling her face, holding on tight lest he tried to push her away. He didn’t, and after finding a comfortable position in his arms Sansa felt fatigue engulfing her. She felt so safe and secure that she easily gave in to it.

So, being surrounded by Sandor’s arms and inhaling his scent, she drifted away.

----------

When Sansa woke up, she was alone. The bed was still in disarray and crumpled and she was still resting on one side of it, but a quick glance across the room told her that Sandor had indeed left. Their saddle bags were still where they were set down, so he wasn’t gone completely – she hoped.

She stretched like a cat, trying to fathom what it meant. Hadn’t he wanted to wake up with her? The languidness of her body and the ghosts of the feel of his vast bulk on top of it made her blush. She ran her hands across her belly and felt the dry crust covering it – and her blush intensified. His seed on her… such an indecent and debauched notion.

Sansa got up and found a piece of cloth and the water basin and cleaned herself with them. The cold touch of the wet rag made her shiver and she slid her hand across her belly and scrutinised her thighs. This time she bore no bruises or welts but that didn’t make the past events any more unreal. Standing naked in the middle of the room alone made her feel wicked and nervous. What if he should walk in? Would she cover her body or let his gaze roam freely all over her? What then?

She shook her head. Don’t think about it now. Her head was spinning as it was, all that had happened during the previous day and night crowding it, tugging for attention, demanding to be digested, needing to be managed and controlled somehow.

Even more so, as she was rubbing her skin a scary thought crossed her mind that cut through everything else in one clean sweep. What if she became pregnant?

Sandor had pulled away, yes, but Myranda had once casually mentioned that it was no guarantee; she had known a girl who had relied on that and carried a bastard as a consequence. Myranda had drunk moon tea, not only to ensure that no such thing could happen to her, but also to allow her to enjoy her pleasures without undue interruptions. She had told Sansa how to use it and had even offered it to her in case she decided to bestow her favours on a young man, but she had declined, scandalised that such a thing was even suggested. Now, however, she was glad of the things she had learned.

Sansa felt a cold band tightening around her chest. She couldn’t afford that mistake. Why did you lay with him then? a voice inside her head whispered, but she ignored it - too late to cry over spilled milk. Yet she simply couldn’t carry a babe, not now, not in these circumstances. She had be to absolutely sure that it wouldn’t happen. She needed to find some moon tea.

Deep in her thoughts, Sansa stepped out of the room and almost ran into the serving girl who had attended to them the previous evening. A serving wench, in an inn. Intuitively she grabbed the girl’s hand and stopped her.

“What is your name, love?”

The girl looked at her, surprised, but answered, “Hella, miss.”

“Hella, can I ask you a question?” Sansa extended her vowels and clipped the ends of her sentences in a way she had heard small folk in these regions do. Without waiting for the other to acknowledge her question, she continued.

“I would like to get moon tea. My man and I…” she didn’t want to claim Sandor as her husband, as why would a married woman ask after moon tea? She finished quickly, “…we just don’t need a babe to complicate things. I am sure you understand. Is there a wise woman in the village who could help me?”

Hella smiled – this was a matter that was common to all women who took up with men who were not their husbands.

“Aye, there is a woman who helps in such matters. Her hut is at the end of the village, just before…”

Sansa interrupted her. “Could you possibly visit her and get me some, and a cup where I could stew it? I’d pay you for your troubles.”

The girl rocked back and forth on her heels for a moment and glanced uncertainly across the corridor, undoubtedly thinking of all the chores she was supposed to do.

“I’ll pay you well if you go now,” added Sansa. “My man wants us to leave soon and he is not fond of waiting.”

That sealed the deal. A bit of carrot and stick seemed to work better than carrot alone, and Sansa had no compunctions about using Sandor’s scary looks as a stick. Hella nodded and took the coin Sansa retrieved from her pouch, and ran down the hall. 

As she descended the stairs to the common room, Sansa’s thoughts returned to Sandor’s behaviour. He could have woken her up at least. How could he have left as if nothing had happened?

Seeing him behind the table, so intimidating and yet so casually stuffing food down his mouth, stopped Sansa in her tracks. What should she say? Should she refer to what had happened?

His mocking greeting hurt her although she tried her best to hide it. Coolly she sat down and asked for food. She was famished and at least eating offered her something else to concentrate on instead of Sandor. He tapped the table impatiently and remembering where those long fingers had been just a few scant hours ago raised unbidden thoughts in Sansa, but she willed herself not to blush. If Sandor preferred to pretend that nothing unusual had happened – well, she could play that game too. She raised her head and chewed on a piece of bread while studiously avoiding looking at her companion.

Soon he rose and muttered about going to collect their things to get them ready for the journey.

“You stay here, you hear. No wandering about. Eat your meal and then come to the yard.” Sandor scrutinised the common room but seeing that it was occupied only by the innkeeper and a young boy sweeping the floor, he apparently thought it safe to leave Sansa out of his sight for a moment.

Forlornly, Sansa gulped down the mild ale and forced some bacon down her throat although it made her slightly queasy. He truly doesn’t care.  She finished her plate and pushed it away. What did you expect?  He had already been kinder to her than many other men in his position would have. Or maybe it was not kindness, but…duty? For some reason the thought soured her mood.

She knew that Sandor was waiting for her as she had seen him stomping down the stairs and out of the front door. The serving maid had not returned, and the thought of leaving without the moon tea unnerved her. She knew she hadn’t become pregnant from the first time as she had bled since then, but last night…it had been so intense and he had expelled himself so soon after pulling away… Sansa didn’t know all the intricacies surrounding those matters but she wasn’t ready to bet her good name and her future on a chance.

A small nagging thought at the back of her mind – just a tiny whisper – questioned whether she was doing this because she thought she might need it again. Nonetheless, she refused to acknowledge it. No, this was all about the previous night’s moment of insanity and about minimising the damage.

At last the maid rushed in, pale and panting but she had the herbs and the cup that was all that mattered. Sansa hid them in the deep pockets of her skirt and hastened outside.

----------

From the moment Sansa mounted in front of Sandor she knew that she was in trouble. Not because of him – Sandor was brooding and his foul mood surrounded him like a cloud but he behaved civilly enough. If she had been afraid of him taking liberties or behaving untowardly because of what had taken place, the reality was exactly the opposite. The easy coexistence she had already gotten used to as his companion seemed to have vanished, leaving in its wake only two strangers who had nothing to say to each other.

Worse than that; with every step she felt his hard body against her back and the tensing of his thighs when he guided Stranger with subtle commands only the horse could understand. By now Sansa had learned to relax on horseback, but that required her to lean into him and let the motions rock her back and forth. She couldn’t do that now as every time their bodies touched it reminded her anew how he had felt under her hands, against her and on top of her.

Sansa had never known the coupling of a man and a woman could truly be like that - she had been sure that Myranda had exaggerated. That men put such store in it and women risked everything for it started to make more sense now. Maybe her best friend hadn’t been as utterly illogical as she had thought?

As usual, Sandor had collected the reins in one hand and rested it against his thigh, his closed fist dangerously close to Sansa’s lap. It didn’t take a big leap of imagination for her to picture him touching her there… Sansa could feel wetness spreading between her legs and, horrified, she shifted in her seat to chase it away. By doing that she only succeeded in rubbing her behind against his groin and was rewarded with a muffled curse.

The further they rode the more uncomfortable Sansa felt. She racked her brains to find something to say to diffuse the tension but nothing came to her. She couldn’t start discussing the weather, for Sandor didn’t care about such things if they were not directly related to their travel plans. She made a few weak enquires about the route they were taking but Sandor replied in clipped sentences and clearly didn’t care to make conversation.

The midday break was just as bad, Sandor wandering into the woods for heavens knew what business leaving Sansa to stand where he had set her down, a respectable distance away from his bad-tempered stallion. When he came back the journey continued under the same dark shadow.

Hence his question, when it finally came, took Sansa completely by surprise. Oh why did he have to be so crude?

“Twice you have let me between your legs. Once mayhap an accident. Twice - what the fuck is that? Carelessness?” Sandor’s voice was low and menacing – it had been a long time since he had spoken to her so. What new beast have I awakened? ran through Sansa’s mind as she tried to think of a reply. The truth was that she had no answer. The first time had been defiance, a lesson for herself, but how could she ever admit that to him? That she had used him to face her own demons of the past?

The previous night… had it been only curiosity? Some strange urge to feast on something of which she had only had a taste before, just enough to wake her appetite? Sansa blushed. She didn’t want to think of it in those terms; it was not seemly. She was a lady, born and bred to know her duty and what was expected of her. Lying with a man in her service had not been part of her mother and septa’s teachings and should they know what she had done they would roll in their desecrated graves. She couldn’t even justify her actions as a necessary means to an end, as Sandor had already vowed to help her in her quest.

“It is complicated,” was the only thing she could mutter, as that was the honest truth.

“The fuck it is. It’s the simplest thing there is. But don’t worry, my lady. I am at your service. I do as you bid. Day and night.” 

Gods! Did he have to imply that was all it had been? A service? Suddenly remembering her fleeting thoughts about how Sandor was not her equal and wouldn’t tell anyone about her indiscretions, and how some noble women indeed formed indecent alliances with their servants, Sansa felt deeply ashamed. She wanted to protest but once again she found no words in her defence.

Besides, Sandor didn’t seem to be expecting any, as he had withdrawn and sat as far away from her in the saddle as possible. So she stayed quiet.

----------

By the time they made the evening camp, Sansa was resigned to accept the new state of affairs. They hadn’t been exactly friends when they had started their journey together and they had managed. If Sandor wanted to be aloof and distant – so be it.

While Sandor was feeding Stranger, Sansa pulled her new provisions out of her pockets and heated a mugful of water from a skin directly on top of the fire, then poured some tea leaves into it and let it stew. By the time Sandor was back she was done and nursed the hot mug in her hands, waiting for it to stew and cool. She noticed the sideways look he gave her but as he didn’t comment on it, she felt no reason to explain.

Sansa was clean for a change, her clothes freshly laundered, she had a belly full of proper food and she had slept in a real bed – so why did she feel so miserable? The further the evening progressed the unhappier she became. She wanted…she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted. The camaraderie and companionship to return, perhaps? She wanted to jape with Sandor, to hear the low growl of his voice when he refuted her silly notions or challenged her reasoning. She wanted to see him smile his twisted smile that tightened the corner of his mouth and stretched his scars.

To her relief Sandor arranged their bedrolls as before. It seemed that at least she wouldn’t have freeze. She slipped under the covers and observed Sandor as he secured the fire, laid his sword next to his spot in case of nightly emergencies and finally fell down heavily next to her. Without a word he pulled the blanket under his chin and closed his eyes. A few deep sighs and he seemed to be lost to the world.

To distract herself Sansa tried to imagine that she was travelling with Toki, as she had originally planned. Would she be looking forward to his counsel or smiles? And – she held her breath when she contemplated this – would she have offered him a place in her bed at the inn? He might have preferred it also over a hard floor. And she saw clearly that no, never in a million years would she have asked him. Only Sandor.

Suddenly Sansa realised what she truly wanted. The recognition scared her– but it also elated her. It is so very simple after all. He was right. He usually is.

She turned and studied Sandor’s face in the flickering light and tried to fathom what he was dreaming of. Did he think of the previous night at all? Had it been just another casual encounter for him, something he could take or leave? She found it hard to believe. He had been so… good for her. He had wanted her. As much as she had wanted him.

Sansa was nervous and uneasy but she forced herself to go ahead. The worst he could do was to say no, maybe turn his back on her, perhaps laugh or curse. She could endure that. What she couldn’t endure was to lie quietly by his side feeling his overwhelming presence and suffering the agony of her want.

Slowly, very slowly she slipped her hand under the covers to his side, finding her way down to the hem of his tunic, hovering there for a moment before ducking under the coarse fabric. She had to weave her way through the undertunic and its many folds but finally she reached his bare skin and the flat plane of his stomach. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the feel of him, both fearful of his reaction and at the same time wanting to rouse him.

Sandor tensed but before he had a chance to say anything, Sansa grabbed his hand that was resting against his chest and pulled it down, lifting her skirts with her other hand and pressing his palm against her thigh. The act was daringly provocative, as she had meant it – she didn’t want there to be doubts about what she wanted.

“It is complicated,” she whispered against the stubble of his jawline as if it was an excuse, although in her heart she had already accepted that it was, as a matter of fact, quite simple. She wanted him, she needed him – and the devils may care about the rest.

To her relief, Sandor’s resistance was only momentary and soon she found his strong arms around her again, exactly where she wanted them to be.

Chapter Text

 

Sandor

Once again Sandor woke up with Sansa Stark pressing against his side. She had curled her body around him, her thigh lying on top of his and her head resting against his chest. His own arm was bent protectively around her shoulder, his other hand resting on her leg. They couldn’t have been more entwined had they tried, but the reality was that they had ended that way quite spontaneously during the small hours of the night.

It took him a moment to consider why it felt so odd. Pleasant but odd. Then he understood; this was only the second time he had ever woken up next to a woman.

He looked at Sansa and noticed the same vulnerability he had seen the previous morning. Suddenly he had an urge to wake her up and see her reaction close up. It was not as if he had a choice to leave her alone anyway, with only a small clearing as their hovel for the night.

“Little bird?”

“Ummm…” Sansa shifted and stretched herself, rubbing against him in the process. They were fully clothed again – the night’s activities had seen them peeling away only as much clothing as necessary, and after it was over breeches were pulled back on, skirts lowered and tops buttoned.

“Time to wake up and move on.”

“Oh really…?” Sansa lifted her head, her hand patting Sandor distractedly while she squinted her eyes and adjusted them to the early morning light. She looked up and seeing Sandor’s keen stare she smiled. No haughtiness or uncertainty clouded her features. Sandor took a deep breath.

“Aye, really. We still have a way to go.”

“Yes, I see that. Yet…” She stretched again, fidgeting on the spot. Nonetheless, she gave no indication of getting up or moving away, and being trapped under her limbs Sandor couldn’t shift without pushing her – and for some reason he didn’t want to do that. They were not in that much of a hurry, so he decided to lie still and wait.

For a while neither of them spoke. Sansa’s fingers played vaguely with the cords of his tunic under the covers as she remained nuzzled in the crook of Sandor’s arm. He in turn pressed his jaw against the crown of her head and tightened his hold on her. Birds of the forest had started their singing and it ebbed and flowed without interruption. Stranger was nibbling on small patches of green grass a short distance away, every now and then snorting softly. The sun was still low on the horizon and the air was cool and clear.

“You were right – as you usually are,” Sansa finally whispered with a voice so low he hardly heard her.

“About what?”

“That this is very simple after all.”

“Told you so,” Sandor grunted although in his mind he started to wonder if that truly was the truth of the matter. He questioned whether this was going to be simple at all. It is complicated. Aye, the girl had had it right the first time, but he wasn’t going to let her know that, was he?

“So why were you so aloof all day yesterday?”

“Me? It was you who was the high and mighty lady, do I have to remind you about that?”

“I? I was quiet only because you seemed like you wanted nothing to do with me.”

“Bloody hells, girl! How in the seven hells am I supposed to know what to do and say to a noble lady after I have fucked her to seven kingdoms come. Don’t have much experience with that.”

“Sandor!” Sansa sounded scandalised but his name from her mouth was surprisingly agreeable.

“No haughtiness today then, eh?”

“No grumpiness today, then?”

Bloody hells, the girl was starting to answer back. Sandor swallowed a smile that threatened to escape and arranged his features into seriousness.

“Time to get up, in any case.”

This time Sansa got up easily enough and soon they were both busy with their morning routines.

----------

“The Kingsroad is right there, behind those hillocks. It is time we decide whether we risk riding on it or continue through the woods.” Sandor stopped Stranger and pointed into the distance with the hand that didn’t hold the reins. Sansa followed his gesture.

“Is it safe?”

“Buggered if I know. We haven’t heard much about what’s happening in the realm; those gnats at the inn were useless and knew nothing.”

“What’s the difference? Will we still find our way to Greywater Watch?” Sansa turned in the saddle and looked at him with a worried expression.

“Of course we will. Do you think me a fool? It will only take a bit longer.”

For a while Sansa seemed to consider, her brow furrowed deep in thought. “I think it would be better to be safe than sorry. Greywater Watch is still going to be there whether we take a day or two longer. Yes, I say we take the woods.” She looked challengingly up at Sandor.

Their journey had been very different from the previous day’s morose progress. Neither had brought up what had happened between them, but this time it was not because of any tension but rather because there was no need to discuss it. Sandor had concluded that the little bird had simply grown bolder and was learning about the world and its pleasures. He didn’t entertain any notions about her really caring about him, but concluded that at least he had been lucky enough to be there when her curiosity about men had awakened. If she was bold enough to take her pleasures with him, who was he to gainsay her?

Sandor didn’t want to read too much into her choice of prolonging the journey, but it meant that they were going to have a few more shared nights. After they caught up with the crannogmen and House Reed, they would have to fall back into the roles of a noble lady and a man in her service. She would ride with others, reach Lord Stannis and whatever the outcome of the meeting was, he sure as hells wasn’t going to get near her anymore. Aye, he might as well enjoy this as long as it lasted.

Already his mind drifted towards the evening... would she feign indifference again until the last minute before she would turn to him? What if he was the one to reach for her first, would she let him? Even Sansa’s soft body rocking against him with every step was not much of an agony but rather a delicious tease and taste of what was to come – he hoped.

Sandor closed his eyes and imagined her as she had been last night. Darkness had obscured her from his view, but he had felt her curves and slick, secret places, he had kissed her bare skin everywhere he had been able to reach… Having learned from before he had helped her to her peak even before he had reached his own climax. It had been a much more complicated affair with all the clothes and darkness, but strangely at the same time much more relaxed and languid. Gods! He felt himself harden and he knew that Sansa felt it too. Yet she didn’t move away but only kept on pressing against his groin. Aye, tonight was going to be good.

----------

Sandor was testing the small game birds on a stick to be sure they were cooked when Sansa brushed past him carrying the same tin mug he had seen her nursing the previous evening. On impulse he grabbed her and pulled her to sit between his legs, her back to him. If she minded the wholly inappropriate way he handled her, she didn’t let it show but only let out a small surprised yelp and settled down without a fuss.

“What’s with the mug?”

Sansa balanced it carefully in both hands to avoid it spilling. Hot steam rose from it and Sandor saw green herbs floating in it.

“It is moon tea. The serving maid at the inn got it for me.”

Sandor was surprised. “Moon tea?”

“Yes, moon tea. Surely you have heard of that before?”

Of course Sandor had, but to hear Sansa talking about it so matter-of-factly was another revelation indicating how much the innocent young girl he had once known had changed. He remembered the serving wench from the inn and couldn’t help being impressed by how swiftly and decisively Sansa had acted.

“Don’t think I was born yesterday. Just didn’t think that you knew about it, that’s all.”

“Bastard daughters learn things noble maids don’t,” Sansa replied dryly and sipped the contents of her cup.

“Why did you think you needed it? I pulled away, didn’t I?”

“My friend told me it is not always enough. I couldn’t risk arriving in Winterfell with a babe in my belly when the whole realm knows that my husband hasn’t been seen for years.”

Sandor pulled one of the birds into his hands, tossing it in the air because it was still burning hot. “You could have always said that he visited you in secrecy.”

“And alert the Lannisters that I know his whereabouts? I don’t think so. Besides, it wouldn’t be a good time for a babe anyway.”

“I can see that. Wolves are not meant to breed with mere dogs.”

Sansa tensed, the mug hovering in mid-air on its way to her lips. “I didn’t mean that.”

Sandor wrenched the bird into pieces and offered one to Sansa, who took it and started nibbling it daintily. He let the matter slide, he wasn’t in the mood for teasing her. Clever girl she was. And…had she prepared for the future as well? Suddenly the thought of her letting him finish inside her jumped into the forefront of his mind and he felt his blood rising. Soon I’ll find out.

That night Sansa gave herself willingly and Sandor took what was offered - and hissed his thanks to Sansa’s quick thinking and the moon tea.

----------

Three days.

Three glorious days and three incredible nights they journeyed. Sandor tried to keep himself in check. Aye, Sansa yielded to him every night in the sweetest possible way and demanded his body and attentions in return, and they were the best fucks he had had in his whole miserable life. If he sometimes held her tight even after the act; if he found himself wishing that they would never reach the North… Sandor was a pragmatic man and he knew he should not look a gift horse in the mouth. He had her now but he would lose her soon and that was all there was to it.

Sandor caught himself trying to memorise the way she looked, felt and smelled. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to remember it so he could look back on it in years to come – remember the only time in his life when a woman had willingly taken what he had to offer. Or maybe he would do the opposite and try to drown every last vestige of those heated nights into drink? He wasn’t ready to decide which way it was going to be, so he prepared for both eventualities.

That Sansa could look him straight in the eye while he fucked her and kiss his face, even the ruinous side of his marred flesh, left him baffled. He was grateful, a notion he detested when he first realised what it was, but that didn’t stop him trying to pay her back her with his eagerness, his caresses and his meticulous attention to her pleasures. Every time she clenched, shuddered and wailed in his arms he felt proud for having been able to do that for her.

Still they didn’t put into words what it was between them. Sometimes when they lay together Sandor caught her looking at him thoughtfully, tilting her head and opening her mouth as if to say something, but he always made her swallow her words by kissing her fiercely. Why he did so he couldn’t say but somehow he was afraid that whatever she might want to say would only spoil things between them. After a few attempts Sansa gave in and only smiled at him, a smile close to the one he had first seen on her face on the Kingsroad on their way to the capital, but had never seen it again after her father had been arrested. For some reason that made his chest constrict and a lump rise in his throat. When that happened he cleared it by coughing, pushed the memories from the past away and paid her back with the only currency he recognised; with his servitude.

----------

“This is it, then. We are now officially in the swamplands of the Neck. We’d better be careful about our steps.”

Sandor halted Stranger by pulling the reins. Even though they were on a well-marked path seemingly firm under their feet, he didn’t like the feel of it. He had made them dismount a while back, reasoning that the three of them walking separately was better than all of them together.

Sansa followed in his footsteps as he had advised her. Her nervousness had reached new heights since they had encountered the first bogs and seen the old trees covered in dense fungus. Sandor wanted to reach back and take her hand but he couldn’t. In the morning, when they had packed up to start the day’s journey he had told her that since they were now in the realms of the frogmen, they couldn’t risk being seen behaving untowardly towards each other. They couldn’t know who was watching.

Sansa had listened to his words and said nothing. Of course. She was no simpleton and had known all along that the time for their illicit affair to end was coming.  When Sandor had helped her into the saddle as usual, he had slid his rough hand down from her knee, then slipped it under her skirt and caressed her supple ankle and calf for one last time. It is over.

“This is it then, my lady. You’d better try to keep your grubby little hands off me from now on. We can’t let loyal Stark bannermen see their precious Stark princess be groped by – or grope – some lowly dog, can we?” he growled, not feeling quite as bold as he pretended.

“I’ll try,” came the feeble reply. Sansa had bowed her head so her face was covered with a curtain of brown-red hair making it impossible for Sandor to see her expression.

“Aye, we had some good times. You were the best fuck I have ever had, don’t mind saying that. Yet I’d like to think you also had something in return. But it’s all over now. Thank you kindly for the memories and all that.”

As if knowing that it was the last time – and how could she not, when they discussed their progress and strategies daily - Sansa had surprised him once again with her passion that night. Take me, she had whispered and trapped him between her thighs, pressed hot kisses down his jawline and neck and pushed her hips shamelessly against him.

How he had not tired of her after so many times together Sandor didn’t know. He had never had a regular wench and he hadn’t cared to have one either. Women could be so tedious, he had surmised. Yet the more he learned to read her reactions and got to know her body – and the more she learned about him – the more he wanted her. And that was just fucking stupid.

They walked in silence. After half a day Sandor started to wonder whether their plan was so sound after all. Maybe things had been different back before the War of Five Kings? Mayhap there were not enough frogmen to patrol all the lands anymore?

“So how deep do you suggest we enter these godsforsaken bogs? If those bannermen of yours don’t show up soon we’ll make a wrong step eventually and the swamp will swallow us. What then?”

“They’ll come. Maybe we should stop and wait for a while. I could use some rest.” Sansa was calm and collected and seemingly not too worried. Sandor acquiesced and examined the sides of the path for a firm footing, soon finding a small clearance where he guided their small trio.

Hardly had they sat down and shared a water skin between them when Sandor’s trained ear heard rustling in the woods. “They are here – or somebody is,” he whispered to Sansa, not looking towards the noise. Sansa startled and reflectively glanced into the woods.

“Anyone there? Please, we come in peace!” she called, this time not pretending to speak as a peasant. Hers was the voice of a castle-born and bred lady.

“Nobody comes here for peace nor war. You know you can drown in these bogs, don’t you? Are you stupid or what?” A young man stepped out of the woods holding a bow with an arrow nocked in it, his stare darting between the two of them. More men came after him, a troop of half a dozen men all armed with bows or spears. Sandor was still confident about his chances to defeat them, but as things stood, he was happy to let Sansa play out the scene.

“Bannermen of House Reed?” She looked at the man who had spoken first, presumably their leader.

“We are – but who are you two and why do you want to know?”

Sansa took a deep breath. “As it happens…”

----------

Howland Reed was as Sandor had imagined; small and wiry and somehow ageless despite his grey hair and beard. He received them with all the courtesy a minor lord might owe to the representative of his liege lord – but there was something else too. He seemed genuinely happy to see Sansa and during their talks his gaze hardly left her. Once Sansa had given him a brief account of her adventures the old man leaned forward, took her hand and squeezed it strongly.

“So much Ned’s daughter, I see it clearly. You are like your aunt Lyanna too, beautiful and strong. I am so sorry for all the troubles you have gone through, but it gladdens my heart to see you alive and well and on your way to the North.” The older man’s voice almost broke as he spoke and Sandor wondered what it was with the Starks that raised such faith and loyalty in their retainers. If Lord Tywin had been decapitated instead of Lord Eddard, Lannister retainers would have cared about it only as much as it had affected their own fortunes.

When Sansa started to ask about the political situation and tell more about her plans, Lord Howland threw a meaningful look in Sandor’s direction. Sansa reacted immediately.

“Oh, he has to stay! He knows as much and more as I do, and he is faithful to my cause. Sandor has given me good counsel and I need him.” Sandor didn’t miss Howland’s surprise but he hid it well, agreeing to Sansa’s wishes in good grace.

They stayed up late talking, but when Sansa started yawning Howland was alerted to his duties as the host. Sandor was shown a small room on the ground floor in that sprawling, floating castle, the like of which he had never seen or imagined, whereas Sansa was led to the upper levels as the honoured guest she was. Better get used to it, dog.

They stayed in Greywater Watch for a good while, crannogmen coming and going all the while according to quietly stated orders by their lord. Sansa was feted in a modest manner, the best food and drink carried to the table each evening and toasts raised for the return and success of House Stark. Sandor saw and heard people coming from far-away dwellings to witness this with their own eyes, and attested Sansa greeting everyone with unfailing courtesy. She accepted condolences for her losses with poise, kissed babies that were handed to her and complimented strapping lads for their bravery in the impromptu mock battles that were arranged to show their fighting skills. Every man, old and young, vowed to bear arms for House Stark should they be called.

All throughout that Sansa never stopped smiling, the brief moments of joy Sandor had witnessed earlier merging into true happiness. She was almost home and among her own people and it was as if it fed both her confidence and her happiness.

Sandor observed it all from a distance, despite Sansa insisting that he accompany her in some of her rounds. He noticed how people around him were wary of him – and he couldn’t really blame them. His reputation had preceded him as always, and despite Sansa’s faith in him the others were not as trusting. Not that he cared. He had good food, good ale and even some wine to drink on those festive dinners. His place at the feast was below the salt in Howland’s hall but he hadn’t expected anything else. Aye, life was back to normal and he knew his place.

----------

After a sennight it was time for them to move again. They were provided with an escort of three men – Howland offered more but Sandor reasoned with him that one man or ten wouldn’t make any difference to their reception at Winterfell, nor make them any more secure, and a smaller group could better travel unnoticed. That made sense to all and so it was that only five riders – Sansa on her own horse – set out one glorious morning.

They had decided to approach Winterfell carefully and announce Sansa’s presence only after they were sure about her safety. Stannis was still holding the keep and knowing him to be honourable to a fault, Sandor didn’t doubt that he would accept Sansa and her claim – but it was better to be cautious.

It felt strange to be back on the road when things between him and Sansa had changed. Sandor missed the feel of her in front of him, but of course it was a temptation he hardly needed when he was doing his best to erase their shared experiences from his mind. Even drink couldn’t help him as he had to stay alert, so the best he could do was simply try not to think about it.

Sansa seemed to do well enough, the veil of courtesy hiding her emotions. She rode in the front with the leader of their small group, a middle-aged man called Jarman, and interacted amicably with the other two. Sandor was left to lead the tail of their procession and he accepted his role without complaint. For nights they had a small tent for Sansa, the men sleeping on their bedrolls.

The crannogmen were quiet and well-behaved and treated Sansa with utmost respect and politeness. It amused Sandor to think what they would say if they knew how Sansa had cried her ecstasy in his arms, how she had opened her legs for him and trembled in the aftermath of their coupling. He chewed thoughtfully on a piece of straw and stared into the dark night sky and its million blinking stars. They knew what had happened as they had witnessed it all. Nothing could take away from him the knowledge that Sansa Stark had begged for his cock and kissed him as he had never been kissed before. He glanced in Sansa’s direction and saw her turning her head studiously away. Had she been staring at him? For some reason it bothered Sandor. Their exchanges had been amiable enough albeit less frequent than before. As they should be, he being just one of many in her service, nothing more.

Once Sansa had reached for him at the end of one such discussion, when their companions had turned their attention to set up their camp. Her hand had rested on his forearm and Sandor had stared at it, so slender and delicate.

“When we get to Winterfell, what will you do? Will you stay?” Her eyes hadn’t let go of his, and Sandor had to look away to give himself some time to think.

“Mayhap. At least until you pay me the coin you owe me for my services.” He hadn’t meant to incorporate any hidden meanings into that statement but when he had looked back at Sansa she had been blushing. He had chuckled in his mind but hadn’t let it show. Had I ever imagined myself being paid for fucking…

“I will need loyal men there whatever happens. I wish you would consider staying, that’s all. I’d pay you well and you would be well treated.”

“I’ll think about it,” he had muttered mainly to finish the conversation. In truth he had already given it some thought but hadn’t come to any conclusion. A sellsword’s life across the sea didn’t seem as appealing now as it had been only a short while ago – but would life in Winterfell be any better? With her? Or rather, without her?

Bloody hells! He had shaken Sansa’s hand lose and stormed away.

----------

“We may want to avoid Moat Cailin – the Boltons have lost it, but who holds the real power now is uncertain. I doubt Stannis Baratheon would have men to spare to look after it,” Jarman announced at the end of their midday break, addressing Sansa but his words were meant for all of them.

“I see, it makes sense,” she replied but glanced questioningly at Sandor. It made him ridiculously proud that she should still seek his opinion above all the others, and he replied gruffly.

“Fair enough. But if you are not sure who holds the power, shouldn’t you find out? That might help our lady here when she meets Stannis.”

Jarman nodded. “Quite true. Yet we can’t risk Lady Stark for such a mission, it would be too dangerous.”

“It doesn’t have to be she who goes to do some snooping. You crannogmen come and go as you please anyway, what difference would a few more make in Moat Caitlin? You could enter and make discreet enquiries to find out the lay of the land while Lady Stark and I stay here.” Sandor spat on the ground, not disrespectfully but to make his point nonetheless. In truth he didn’t mind the man or the youngsters traveling with them. Sensible heads on their shoulders, the lot of them.

Jarman still looked worried. “I’d hate to leave Lady Sansa like that…” but he was interrupted by a chiming voice.

“I travelled with Sandor Clegane for weeks before we arrived in your lands. I am sure he can look after my safety one more time while you find out this important information.”

Sandor smirked. Their leader nodded his head thoughtfully. “It is true. My apologies, I am not trying to avoid this task, only thinking of what is best for you, my lady. But you are right, you will be safe here with your trusted man.”

With that he stood up and, wasting no time, called for his companions to mount again. Turning one more time in his saddle, he called to Sandor. “We will be back before nightfall. We might as well camp here for the night, then. I leave our lady under your protection, Clegane.”

Acknowledging his words with a nod, Sandor saw them galloping away leaving only a cloud of dust on the road in their wake.

----------

Waiting was harder than he had anticipated. With nothing else to do, Sandor brushed Stranger thoroughly with a brush picked up from the stables of Greywater Watch. With long, even strokes he went over his magnificent warhorse one limb at a time; his sides and hips and loins, stroke after stroke until his black hide shone lustrously in the daylight. Sandor even brushed his mane, untangling the many knots in it.

All the while he was doing that, he felt Sansa’s presence near him. She had settled down into a comfortable spot among the gnarled roots of a big tree. Even without looking at her Sandor knew that she was watching him, but he ignored her. After a long while she got up, took her saddle bags and emptied them on the ground and started organising their contents.

Extra skirts and tops and other garments, a good dress that the ladies of House Reed had given her, little pouches and boxes full of gods only knew what women’s trinkets. Meticulously she went through all of them, arranging them into neat piles, folding clothes and even going through the little pouches.

Throwing her a sideways look, Sandor observed her actions: her long fingers as they smoothed over a piece of clothing or handled her scarce possessions gently but purposefully. The same way she had touched him – what seemed like a thousand years ago.

Sandor saw the small bag of moon tea Sansa had dipped into on many evenings, and how her hands hovered over it for a moment. She had moved some items aside, a broken comb, a torn handkerchief – was she considering putting the herbs away as well? In the end she didn’t, but moved them into the pile of items she was obviously intent on keeping. Doing that she glanced up, noticed his scrutiny and dropped her gaze again. No words were exchanged. Was she still drinking the brew, he wondered? He hadn’t seen it, but it was not as if she was spending her every waking moment with him anymore. Yet even more, why should she use it still? Unless she was already entertaining another man or planning to, once they arrived at Winterfell…

Sandor knew he was being unreasonable and ridiculous, but just the thought of her with somebody else twisted his innards in the worst imaginable way. Being realistic he accepted that it was nonetheless likely to happen. She was not going to marry again, that much she had made clear to him – she planned to enjoy her role as the respectable but estranged wife of Tyrion Lannister and use that as a means to keep away all the men wanting to court her and Winterfell. She had told him that often enough for him to believe that she meant it. Yet she had tasted the pleasures of the flesh and from her reactions had enjoyed it – enjoyed it very much indeed. How long her bed would stay empty was anyone’s guess.

Sandor had a bad taste in his mouth. Not your concern what she does. She is not yours, never was.

The invisible curtain had once again fallen between them, stifling any openness or spontaneity. It had been there when they had first met in the Vale, but even then the recognition of their shared, painful past had soon poked some holes into it. Later it had been pushed aside even more when their days of travel and the growing feeling of camaraderie had made it possible. And finally, the nights they had lain in each other’s arms had stripped it all away, together with all the signs of class, privilege or servitude, leaving behind only a man and a woman.

Yet all that had changed when they had reached Greywater Watch. The curtain had descended once again, leaving them on the opposite sides. And despite there being only two of them now in that little clearing, the partition was clear and seemingly there was no way to breach it.

Sandor was done with Stranger and for lack of better things to do he laid himself on the ground. Might as well rest when he had a chance. He noticed Sansa had likewise finished her task and returned back to her cosy little nest next to the tree.

Sandor stretched his long limbs, let out an exaggerated yawn and closed his eyes. Yet his rest was not easy. Every now and then he peeked through his lids and more often than not caught Sansa watching him outright or just turning her head away.

The tension was becoming unbearable. Seven hells! Yet Sandor couldn’t prevent himself from doing the very same thing, peeping at her when he thought that she wouldn’t notice – although those opportunities were becoming scarcer and scarcer.

Once again he closed his eyes and willed himself to let go of all the troublesome thoughts of what had been, what might be, and what could never be.

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

Sansa observed the tall, dark man who attended to his horse across the clearing. Stranger stood still, his usually fierce temper calmed by the low voice of his master. Saddle, saddle bags, bedrolls – all of these Sandor secured on the horse’s back with steady, purposeful movements.  His profile revealed a hooked nose, high cheekbones and narrowed eyes as he concentrated on the task, his long hair over his face obscuring his scars. For Sansa there was something odd in that picture; this was not the man she had grown accustomed to - not without his disfigurement. As a matter of fact, she realised that she preferred him with his scars. They were such a defining feature of who he was, a sign of his past and what had shaped him as a man, that she couldn’t even imagine how it could be any other way.

Sansa had woken up that morning sated and well rested. The tension of the previous day had hung heavily on her and it having been lifted made her joyous. That…and the undeniable pleasures she had again experienced in his arms. Unhurried, satisfying, exciting. She still couldn’t believe her own reactions or how wanton she had become. Why had her mother - or even Queen Cersei when she had still pretended to care about her - never told her about this part of being a woman?

She sat next to the cooled fire pit and waited for the start of the day’s journey. She had cleaned their eating utensils earlier and packed them into the bags Sandor was loading, and with nothing to do Sansa continued to examine the man who had so thoroughly changed her life. She noticed other things too. His armour, once clean and well-oiled, was now rusty and dented, many of its fastenings broken. His clothes had seen better days, being torn in many places and worn threadbare in others. That was to be expected, he having no squire to look after his mail nor stores of the Red Keep to keep him clothed. What he carried on his person and his bags was probably all he owned in the whole wide world.

The thought made her sad. She had left King’s Landing with hardly anything, but she had been well provided for in the Vale and even after leaving all that behind she could be sure that she would find at least a good set of clothes waiting for her in Winterfell. More than that, she would find a home, lands of her birth with fields and forests and rivers. Sandor – he had nothing.

While she was still trying to get her head around it Sandor called her; it was time to move on.

----------

Sansa could not be sure whether her decision to go through the woods had been truly only about safety and cautiousness, or whether in truth she had simply wanted to extend the duration of their journey.  After the first night it didn’t really matter. In the evenings there was no question about what was going to happen; it was as natural for them to embrace and love each other over and over again as it was to share a meal and drink. Sansa learned more about being a woman than she had thought possible, and much more about men. Sandor was unexpectedly patient and indulging, something she could never have imagined from his rough ways. Even his curses – for fuck’s sake! and Gods, woman! - muttered against the valley between her breasts, sounded more like endearments than profanities. Sansa liked to hear him call her a woman rather than a girl. She certainly felt like one. 

The closeness they shared during the nights carried over to the day, and once again Sandor Clegane surprised her. For a man who had so long seemed to hate everything and everyone, once the barriers between them had been broken, he proved witty and humorous in a dry, sardonic way. Even more, he kept on touching her. Not only lustily, but at every opportunity he brushed her shoulder to get her attention, rested his jaw on the top of her head or let his hand rest on her thigh when they rode. At first Sansa was conscious and somewhat awkward about it, but soon she relaxed and found the idea of returning the gestures oddly liberating. The notion of being able to pat the ferocious Hound; brush his hair aside when it fell tickling on her face, straighten his collar in the morning when he was dressing and unreservedly lean on him when they rode, was wildly exciting.

“Take away your tunic,” she told him the second evening. He glanced at her, a twisted smile slowly forming on his face.

“Can’t wait, eh?” he murmured, slowly pulling the cords.

“I mean to mend that tear in your collar,” Sansa replied, feigning that she misunderstood his meaning. And that’s exactly what she did. A noble maiden never travelled without her sewing kit and for once she blessed her adherence to the ways of her upbringing. Her stitches were neat and tidy and the torn piece of cloth was soon patched up. She tossed the tunic back to Sandor, who watched her sharply.

“Now your breeches.”

Sandor stood up slowly and didn’t bother to turn away but dropped them down right in front of her. “Smallclothes too?” he grinned.

“You can hold on to them,” she replied, averting her gaze from the sight of his arousal, a result of him standing in front of her almost naked. Despite Sandor’s smirk, common sense and cool air dictated that he soon wrapped himself in a blanket and sat down next to the fire. Sansa felt his gaze on her as she cut two pieces from the inside of the waist – how thin he has become – and stitched them onto the knees, just under the nearly transparent section of the thinned fabric. The end result was more than satisfactory, she judged, proud of her ability to do something useful.

“You don’t have to do that. You are not my servant, you’re my lady,” grunted Sandor, continuing to stare at her as if he had never seen anything so interesting as a woman sewing.

“I know. I don’t do this because I have to, I do this because I want to.” Sansa lifted the clothing to her mouth and snapped the thread with her teeth.

“Can’t say a woman has ever mended my clothes, at least since…” He didn’t finish his sentence and Sansa wondered what he had meant to say. Since his mother had done it? Or maybe his sister? Sansa knew both of them were dead but she wasn’t sure about the details or how old Sandor had been when that had happened. She wanted to ask but somehow their newly found intimacy was still too fragile to be disturbed with probing questions that might push him back into his shell.

“Futile in any case,” Sandor continued, moving the discussion away from the topic. “Once we reach Winterfell and I get my coin, I can buy new clothes.”

“We are still a long way from Winterfell and you will be better off in sound clothing. You have defended me, found food to fill my stomach and helped me to make this long journey, so this is the least I can do for you.” In truth Sansa found something deeply satisfying in being able to do this; look after the man who looked after her.  The domesticity of the situation felt comforting.

Yet despite the new, pleasing routines of their travel, she couldn’t forget her mission. They discussed their progress regularly, but even though Sandor still gave her good advice, a new element had crept into those talks. He stiffened and became distant whenever her plans in Winterfell were mentioned and Sansa wondered what that could mean.

----------

Sansa knew it was going to be over soon. She wasn’t stupid or a naïve little girl anymore. Even if theirs had been true love – and how could it have been, when they had nothing in common and Sandor was nothing like the man she could dream of one day marrying? – a noble lady and an enemy deserter could never be. No, they were not living in a song or a tale and such things did not happen. Besides, she couldn’t risk losing the respect of her bannermen and lord of the North and that was sure to happen if she was found consorting with the enemy’s dog.

Sometimes Sansa wondered what she truly felt about him, or he about her. Yes, she trusted him explicitly and had done so already for a while, ever since he had returned to her in the mountains. The Hound might be uncouth and undiplomatic, but he always spoke the truth. She also felt safe with him, and comfortable. The new level of intimacy in their relationship had woken her senses and was both exciting and deeply satisfying in a way Sansa had never experienced, and she revelled in it.

There were times when she was lying sated in his arms and felt brave enough to raise the topic, but Sandor had none of it. Where do we go from here? What does this really mean? she wanted to ask, but before she could even voice her thoughts they were met with a distraction. Usually a pleasurable one and she allowed herself to be side-tracked, and so her questions were soon forgotten, only to return the next day. Then she lost her nerve thinking about the scrutiny of his hard grey eyes and so she ended up keeping her thoughts to herself.

The last night before entering the swamps of the Neck was bittersweet and intense, Sansa clutching tightly at Sandor arms and riding her pleasure until she couldn’t bear it any longer and cried out his name into the night. Sandor followed her soon after, cursing and calling her woman once again, but rather than withdrawing he collapsed on top of her, almost suffocating her in the process. She didn’t mind but welcomed his bulk, a manifestation of how real the moment was, an opportunity for her to imprint his presence forever into her mind.

Sandor hadn’t pulled away and she felt his manhood slowly softening inside her and there was something particularly touching in the sensation. She wriggled and tried to hold onto him but then he moved and was gone. Sansa sighed and felt hollow and forlorn.

“Sandor,” she whispered after a while when he still lay quiet, now on his back, only his hip touching hers.

Is this truly the last time? Will you miss me when we are not together? Did this mean anything to you? Once more all the questions she wanted to ask but didn’t dare. “Sandor, I need to ask you…”

“Go to sleep, girl. We will reach the swamplands tomorrow and it may be a long, hard day.” Sandor cut her off and pulled their furs higher on top of them. His tone was curt and his manner brusque but he pulled her against his chest just the same and timidly Sansa acquiesced.

The next morning was no better. Many times she had the words on the tip of her tongue but there they stayed, thick and heavy, refusing to come out. Will you go back to wenches now? Will you ever look back at this time and me? Was this just a way to pass time for you?

“This is it then, my lady. You had better try to keep your grubby little hands off me from now on. We can’t let loyal Stark bannermen see their precious Stark princess be groped by – or grope – some lowly dog, can we?”

“I’ll try,” was all Sansa could say while being distracted by his strong fingers caressing her ankle and calf. The familiar tingle ran down her spine but she had to ignore it. It is over, she repeated the silent mantra in her head, staring down at her tightly clenched hands.

“Aye, we had some good times. You were the best fuck I have ever had, don’t mind saying that. Though I’d like to think you also had something in return. But it’s all over now. Thank you kindly for the memories and all that.”

Sansa’s head shot up. How can he say such things?! Yet just before Sandor turned aside to mount the horse she caught his expression, and the storm clouds covering it made her swallow the rebuke she might have otherwise expressed.

It was almost as if they had returned to the day after the inn, so gloomy and heavy was the air between them. Sansa scanned the forest for signs of people and as they rode on, saw the landscape changing from dry forests of sparse, tall pines and spruces spanned by rocky meadows to wetlands scattered with stunted trees and bushes with moss and lichen hanging off them. A few times she forgot the new order and leaned against Sandor, always to be sharply pushed away. She tried to balance on a horse leaving at least a hand-width between their bodies, but it was hard and soon her back and neck were aching from the strain.  

When they were eventually accosted by the crannogmen it felt like a relief in her troubled state of mind. As they were being guided towards the mysterious floating castle of House Reed, Sansa was escorted at the head of their small procession, the Reed bannermen following and Sandor trailing at the back with Stranger. Sansa glanced at him and saw his face schooled to an expressionless countenance she remembered from King’s Landing. His eyes met hers and she could almost hear him growl ‘This is how it is and how it will be from now on’. She turned to look ahead but her heart was heavy.

----------

The joy of being among her own people invigorated Sansa. These men, women and children; they all looked to her as someone special, someone worthy of respect and affection even though they didn’t even know her. She basked in the veneration afforded to her simply due to her blood and the love they had felt towards her father.

She remembered Howland Reed from the few visits he had made to Winterfell many years ago. Nonetheless, even if she had never laid eyes on him she would have felt an immediate bond of friendship towards the man who had been one of Lord Eddard’s closest friends.

At the end of the private audience, in which Sandor had participated at her insistence, their host called for a servant to show Sandor to his lodgings. When they had left Howland sat opposite Sansa and took her small hands into his, the gesture feeling familiar and friendly instead of unsettling as it might have, had it been any other man. She looked at him, smiling.

“Lady Sansa, I see you trust the Hound more than many might say he deserves.” His voice was low and pleasant and his eyes gleamed in the firelight.

“I do, I do trust him. With my life and more,” Sansa sighed, pleased that he had raised the topic. She knew Howland was only expressing what everyone thought and that she had to be prepared to answer those questions; some voiced, some left unsaid, but still present.

“Do you mind me asking why?” There was no challenge in his voice, only the genuine curiosity of a man who had seen much in his life and had stopped asking irrelevant questions a long time ago.

“Because…because he doesn’t lie. He is the only man I know who is honest and truthful, even if it means that he is saying unpleasant things. He taught me that life is not a song and that sweet lies and empty words are just that, lies and emptiness.” Sansa wondered how she could convince this gentle man that there was something good and honest in the man everyone despised and feared.

“So he is honest. What else?”

“He has promised to help me even though he doesn’t have to. He was on his way to offer his services to another, to become a sellsword, perhaps.”

“And so he pledged his services to you instead?”

“Yes, even though I couldn’t guarantee him his reward. If Winterfell was overtaken by the Boltons I may never be able to pay him. Stannis being there I trust that he is as honourable as they say and…” Sansa realised that it made Sandor sound like he was doing what he did only for money. Maybe he was? She sat up straighter. Even if he was, there was nothing wrong with it if he served her honourably for a fair wage.

“You think he did it only because of the coin?”

“No!” Sansa stammered. She realised she didn’t fully know Sandor’s mind and why he did what he did. There had to be more into it. Had to.

“I had a dog once,” Howland said, tapping his fingers against each other after releasing his hold on Sansa. Sansa tilted her head, wondering about the sudden change of topic.

“Found it in one of the campaigns of my youth, after we had relieved the siege of Storm’s End and were cleansing the countryside of the remaining rebels. We came across a substantial manor house that had been deserted with only the old and weak left behind.”

Sansa didn’t understand where the story was going but listened intently just the same.

“There was a dog, a huge mongrel, kept on a short leash and snapping its jaws at everyone who tried to come near. The servants told us that it had belonged to a cruel master who had mistreated it, trained it to attack humans and had routinely kicked and cursed it. My men told me we should shoot an arrow into its heart as it was too vicious and too ferocious to be of any use to anyone.”

Understanding started to dawn on Sansa. Howland looked at her and there was sadness in his smile.

“It was a huge thing with jaws of death and more scars than any dog I have seen before or since. I probably should have listened to the advice but I thought I knew better. Those big hunting dogs can be valuable and useful in the North and I wanted one for myself. So I didn’t let anyone touch it but tried to make it accept me. I muzzled it – three men it required – and took it with me when we left the manor. I kept it by my side at all times, fed him by my own hand, talked to it for hours at a time and tried to connect with it. I gave it a name, I gave it dignity – Hunter, I called him.”

Sansa held her breath. She knew this story had nothing to do with Sandor and yet she wanted to hear that it had had a happy ending.

“What happened?”

“The first time I let him out of its muzzle he tried to bite my thumb off. The first time I let him run free he disappeared for three days, only coming back all covered in blood, ear torn and stinking like the back of a stable.”

Howland rose and walked to the fireplace to throw more wood into its mouth. Then he turned and faced Sansa, a mischievous smile on his face.

“Then I brought him here to Greywater Watch and he stayed with me and slept in my chamber and hunted my game and served me faithfully until the day he died of old age. That is the place where he used to sleep, always by my feet when I spent time in this room at the end of the day.” He pointed at a deerskin covering the floor next to a big chair.

Sansa’s relief was palpable and she let out a breath she hadn’t realised she had been holding.

“So he could be retrained? Your men had been wrong all along?”

“Hard to say,” Howland said simply. “It took a lot of effort on my part. Was it worth it? Might be I had been better off killing him and getting myself another one, easier to train.”

“But no other dog would have been as loyal to you, or so important.”

Howland sighed. “Maybe so. We had a connection for sure. But you see why I told you this story? Sandor Clegane is not a dog, though he is often referred as such. He has been treated cruelly by his previous masters and he is just as ready to snap people’s heads off as my Hunter was. Yet he too may become an important part of your household – if you have patience with him.”

“I do,” whispered Sansa, moved to tears by the story of a poor mistreated hound. She could almost imagine him lying there on his masters’ feet, a big furry head resting on his huge paws, tongue lolling out. 

Howland returned to the couch and looked at Sansa, this time sharper. He clearly wanted to say something and Sansa had an inkling of what it could be. She was not wrong.

“He is not a dog but a man. And men have different needs. Did he ever… behave inappropriately towards you? Try to take advantage of your situation?” He looked almost sheepish. “I am sorry to ask you something so private but it will be in the mind of many. I thought maybe you could confide in me if any such thing happened. Maybe I can give you some advice, or maybe my wife could help you if a woman’s help is needed.”

Sansa felt her cheeks reddening. No, she couldn’t tell the truth even to such a trusted friend as Lord Howland. What was the truth anyway? At least this; he had not taken advantage of her.

“No. He never did anything that made me uncomfortable.” That is the truth. The memories of their entangled bodies, the sight of his proud manhood and the feel of his fingers and mouth on her woman’s place made Sansa squirm on her seat but she convinced herself that she was not lying. None of that had made her feel uncomfortable – quite the opposite.

Howland held her gaze for a while longer and then sighed, apparently relieved. Sansa felt only slightly embarrassed and genuinely touched by his concern. She rose to her feet and kissed the weatherworn cheek of the old man.

“Thank you, my lord, for your concern. You are a true friend, just as my father always said.”

----------

Being back on the road felt so different. It was different.  The men escorting her were affable and courteous and every step they took was bringing her closer to home. Yet Sansa missed the informality of her journey with Sandor and often glanced back to where he rode; stern-faced and solemn, the mask having fallen back in its place to hide his emotions. Sometimes Sansa saw an interesting tree or a rocky formation or heard unusual animal noises in the woods, and often she turned to Sandor to tell him, to ask him - but all she could see around her were the polite faces of her new escorts and she quietly swallowed her words.

She exchanged a few sentences with Sandor on their breaks about mundane things concerning their travel. She saw him sitting around the fire with their companions and whether it was Sansa’s clearly expressed trust in him, Howland Reed’s quiet words to his men or Sandor’s own subdued behaviour, the men didn’t shy away from him but jovially exchanged stories with him after evening meals. Sansa noticed that Sandor didn’t talk much but didn’t turn away either. It was only she who was expected to retire to her tent and spend her nights all alone.

The first few nights in Greywater Watch had been like heaven to her after their long and arduous travels; a hot bath every evening, a soft bed, clean linen to lie on. She had revelled in the luxury and slept well, so well that she had hardly had time to rue Sandor’s absence from her side. However, by the third evening she found herself tossing and turning and being miserable and it had taken a while for her to realise that it was his strong arms, his broad chest, his gravelly voice and his touch she missed. The realisation had led her down the path of imagining that he still shared her bed, and recalling sensations as exciting and pleasurable as they had once been scandalous. 

By now any notion of her behaviour with him being shameful or untoward had deserted Sansa and she had accepted it for what it was; lust and desire – and an affection she had a hard time putting into words. Not that she needed to, as whom could she have told about her feelings anyway? So conflicted, delicate and unclear as they were.

The comprehension that any feelings between them were probably one-sided made her alternatively sad and angry, disappointed and defiant. As their little party traversed little-known paths across the Neck and further to the North she brooded on it. Sandor probably never truly cared about me. Didn’t he say as much? That it all had been just a good fuck to him?

Yet she couldn’t forget how all alone Sandor was and how little he had in this world. The lonely life of a sellsword, that of a man without country or kin or affiliation. No, she could not bear sending him away to that harsh existence. So Sansa had offered him a place in her service and had dared to touch his arm while doing that. That touch had sent a jolt through her body and she had blushed and muttered something inconsequential - and in the end Sandor had left her standing there feeling foolish.

Sansa also remembered Howland Reed’s story about the dog. Vicious and ferocious. Didn’t trust men. Again she told herself not to take it too seriously. Sandor Clegane was a man. She couldn’t help wondering though how even during the short weeks they had spent together something in him seemed to have changed. Or maybe it had been there all along, only to be revealed to her because of the circumstances and intimacy? Quiet gentleness, surprising sensitivity, patience. There was so much more in this hated and despised man, and Sansa swore that she would try to help him any way she could. Whether that would lead to the connection that had grown between Howland and his dog – it didn’t matter. Howland had kept the dog because he had wanted a hunting dog. Sansa wanted to keep Sandor for his own sake, for his own good. And maybe just a bit for her own good as well – he was a good soldier and she was bound to need those if she wanted to reclaim her place in the North.

So Sansa bit her lip, squared her shoulders and accepted her duty as so many women before her; to be alone, to be without a companion, to let go of her foolish longings and inappropriate desires. The presence of others helped; it was easier to play her role that way.

----------

To be alone with Sandor again was something she hadn’t prepared for. For a moment Sansa wished the crannogmen had not left or that they would have taken Sandor with them. That was foolish, she knew, but the strain of keeping up the façade was draining her.

It was difficult to fathom Sandor’s thoughts, as usual. He waited until their companions had ridden away, then moved around setting up their small camp. He was clean, his worn armour polished and oiled and he had even tidied his hair and beard, a sight that made Sansa wonder who had done it for him. The servants in Lord Reed’s halls? Or the women near the soldiers’ barracks she had once glimpsed; as inevitable in a keep occupied with young men as mice near the kitchens. Had he asked for more services than that? Back in Kings’ Landing, Sansa had heard whispers about whoring of the members of the Kingsguard, and how everyone knew how little the vows they took mattered. Sandor hadn’t even taken any vows, and he was a virile man and experienced with women - even she could see that. How else could he have learned to do the things he had done to her? Sansa had to look away when strange feelings of resentment started to build inside her.

Despite her antipathy towards the unknown person who had touched Sandor when she couldn’t, Sansa’s eyes were drawn to his every movement when he brushed his horse. When Stranger’s skin rippled under his hands Sansa imagined herself in the horse’s place and shivered. When Sandor stroked Stranger’s mane and spoke soothing words to him, Sansa longed to feel his touch in her hair, on her body. 

To find some distraction she decided to organise the contents of her saddle bags. A shawl, a top, a skirt, a few pairs of smallclothes – those she quickly pushed under the other garments after noticing that Sandor was throwing sideway looks in her direction. Trying to ignore him she went back to her task. A comb with shattered teeth – she might as well throw it away now that she had been given a good brush made of boar bristles. Three handkerchiefs, one torn, which she likewise put aside. A bag of moon tea.

Sansa took a deep breath. Since arriving in Greywater Watch she hadn’t taken it, and she wouldn’t have any use for it now. She couldn’t imagine accepting any other man into her bed even though she knew it could be a possibility. Hadn’t she even thought of it when she had first given in to the temptation, that night at the inn? She should throw it away lest someone saw it in her possession and started spreading rumours, a servant in Winterfell perhaps. I have to keep my reputation intact.

But what if Sandor… Sansa lifted her head and saw his sharp eyes taking in the scene. He didn’t smile or acknowledge her and that hurt the most. Had it been before Greywater Watch, he might have thrown a sarcastic jape, laughed at her tidiness – he might have let the brush drop and come to her, taking her into his arms and muttering about putting the tea in good use. He might have bent her so far back it almost hurt and covered her mouth with his rough lips…

Blood rushing to her face, Sansa moved the tea bag into the first pile. I can always throw it away later.

Her meagre task was soon done and she found herself jittery again despite her best efforts to stay still. Sandor had likewise finished with Stranger and laid himself on the ground, his hands crossed behind his head, eyes closed. Was he going to take a nap? Probably better that way, no need to endure the suffocating tension any longer. Sansa sighed and shifted, hoping that she too could relax as quickly and thoroughly as he seemed to be able to. It was something men learned in their campaigns, her mother had told her once when she had queried why her father had dozed off with ease in the middle of a family picnic. Something to do with taking the opportunity to rest as they could never know when they had move on, march or fight.

Sansa stared at the tall man lying on the ground and envied him for his rest. Nevertheless, it was seemingly not as peaceful as he made it appear; every now and then he opened his eyes and looked at her; every time Sansa turned her head away but always a fraction of a second too late.

Seven maidens! Sansa wanted to scream. He had had his fun with her, he had told her it was over, he had kept his distance. So why didn’t he stop looking at her now?!

She couldn’t stay still any longer and got to her feet. Hearing the noise, Sandor lifted his head and stared at her but said nothing. Climbing first onto her knees, then fully upright, Sansa started to walk towards him. She had no idea what she was going to do but she needed to do something.

Sandor’s eyes narrowed as she approached but he didn’t drop his gaze. Without breaking eye contact he too lifted onto his elbows, then onto his feet. He soon towered over her, as always, and Sansa was now close enough that she had to bend her neck to look up at him. What she saw in his eyes was familiar to her; a storm brewing, a struggle, sullen mutiny as he fought with himself.

Sansa took a step closer.

 

Chapter Text

 

Sandor

Sandor’s faked rest was disturbed by noises coming from near the tree and he looked up, seeing his lady slowly getting up. On her knees, then her feet, all the time staring at him. Her expression was guarded, closed, and he couldn’t guess what she had in mind. Did she want something? Was she angry at him for some unintended transgression he might have committed?

He stirred, rose onto his elbows, looked straight at Sansa and seeing that she didn’t turn away, slowly got up. What he was going to do he wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t bear just lying down when she was approaching him with that odd look on her face. When fully upright he took a tentative step towards Sansa, who hadn’t broken their eye contact, and kept on approaching. One step, two steps, three steps – Sansa walked towards him slowly and soon they were facing each other. She bent her neck to look up to him.

Seven hells! Later Sandor couldn’t be sure whether it was he who lunged at her first or whether she reached towards him, but whoever it was, they were soon grabbing each other with desperation that bordered on brutality. For all his control, Sandor couldn’t have stopped himself from squeezing her arms hard, yanking her against him and lifting her up to press his mouth ravenously against hers. Sansa didn’t resist – on the contrary, she wrapped her legs around his waist and nibbled and sucked his lips, letting out keening noises.

“Sandor, Sandor…”

Sandor carried her a few steps and rested her back against the trunk of the tree, the wood taking some of her weight. Sansa’s legs were still wrapped around him and her hands were tugging at the ties of his breeches. There was no need to stop to consider what came next; their lust for each other was too overpowering. A few deft movements, Sandor lowering Sansa onto the ground just long enough for her to kick her smallclothes away before being lifted up again, was all they needed before he could thrust into her.

“So you missed my cock, couldn’t wait to get more of it?” he hissed between gritted teeth while pounding into her. Sansa had pulled her head back, exposing her white throat, and something about her tightly shut eyes, beautiful mouth twisted in agony – or bliss? – and the deep blush covering her face and chest almost excited him more than the feel of her tightness around his cock.

“It’s…not…only…that…” she breathed in tune with their rhythm. It didn’t matter. He hadn’t really meant to snarl at her, didn’t expect a truthful answer either. He only wanted…

Their tempo intensified and the sounds they made drifted into the woods as a loud testimony to the need that had brought them together once more. Sandor’s fingers seized Sansa’s hips, pressing them hard against the tree while he rode her, grunting and cursing, blind and deaf to any sensitivities he should have considered with the woman who enjoyed languid caresses, soft kisses and tender touches. Fuck that! was all his muddled brain could hazily conjure. If he was too hard on her she had only herself to blame - and this was bound to be the last time anyway. After the way he was treating her, like a common whore, against the tree, legs hitched up.

And then it was over.

As violently their embrace had started, at the end of it Sandor wasn’t able to let her down. He only leant against her and the tree, and for a moment time stood still and he breathed in her scent, felt his knees weakening and allowed the sounds of the forest surrounding them to drift into his stupefied mind. The rustling of a fox or a hare in the undergrowth, whistling of a faraway bird, swish of the leaves rubbing against each other in the wind. He might have stayed that way even longer had Sansa not stirred inside the cocoon of his strong arms.

Reluctantly he released her slowly so she could slide down the tree trunk. Instead of letting her grip loosen as he expected, Sansa held on to him tightly.

“It is not only that,” she repeated, staring at the point in the middle of his chest, refusing to look up.

“Don’t tell yourself lies even you don’t believe, girl. Don’t make this into something it isn’t. What else could it be? You are a hot-blooded woman; as they say, redheads are the fiercest. Nothing wrong with that.” Sandor hated himself for blabbering but he hated the alternative as well, accepting that there could be more.

“What about you then, couldn’t wait to get more of my…cunt?” Sansa looked at him now, and the combination of the crude words pouring out of her pretty mouth and the intense stare she directed at him startled Sandor. “If that is all you are after, why didn’t you have some at Greywater Watch? It is a keep like any other, crannogmen have their paid women just like everyone else. I saw them when I was escorted around. Nobody wanted me to see the women who stayed near the soldier’s barracks but I saw them just the same. Did you visit them when we were there? Did you? If you didn’t, why not? Why now? Why me?”

Sandor was left speechless. The thought of fucking another woman had not even crossed his mind. Who could settle for a piss-poor ale after tasting the sweetest wine there is? Better to be thirsty than taste bitter dregs. Feebly he tried to deter her accusing questions.

“It is not the same. I could, but you as a woman can’t…” He felt the words deserting him as she continued to glare at him.

“Why do you stubbornly refuse to believe that is not all there is to it? A cock and a cunt?”

Sandor blinked once again at her words. In other circumstances it would have thrilled him to hear her using such language, the verbal manifestation of the wantonness he knew she possessed. Yet now…

Before he could formulate anything coherent, Sansa wriggled out of his reach, bent to retrieve her undergarment from the ground and walked to the other side of the camp. She moved so purposefully that Sandor didn’t dare to stop her, had he even known what to say.

Sansa settled back into her little resting place and glared at him angrily from there. After walking to the woods to take a piss Sandor returned to his bedroll and closed his eyes. The heat of their encounter still made his blood course hot through his veins, and he attempted to cool it by trying to decipher what Sansa had truly meant with her outburst. Had he been unbelievably stupid for succumbing once again to the temptation she represented? Why hadn’t she pushed him away? He had just started to accept that it was all over – and here they were, she spewing stupid sweet little words whose meaning she simply couldn’t understand.

Eventually the crannogmen returned with the good news; Stannis had sent a small retinue to take over Moat Cailin and the stronghold had surrendered easily enough. Lord Stannis – or King Stannis, as he wanted to be referred - was firmly in control of the North, it seemed, and was known still to reside in Winterfell.

Sansa didn’t look at him for the rest of the evening and Sandor’s sleep that night was restless and filled with strange dreams of red hair, flushed cheeks and pink lips pouring out coarse words that shamed him and raised his blood at the same time.

----------

The next several days were uneventful and followed the same pattern their little troupe had established ever since leaving Greywater Watch. Sandor kept mostly to himself but their new companions didn’t seem to begrudge him for it. As for Sansa… she was consistently courteous and didn’t seem to deliberately avoid him, but nor did she approach him voluntarily as she had in the early stages of their journey. He, on the other hand, stole glimpses in her direction whenever he could do so without attracting undue attention.

It bothered him that he couldn’t take care of her the way he had gotten used to. How could these droll crannogmen know that she liked her meat lightly roasted and carved onto pieces, not charred and on the bone? Or that she wanted to wake up with the morning sun on her face so that she could open her big blue eyes and take in the dawning new day for a moment before rousing for the day’s activities? Or that when she was smiling and nodding at something but there was that almost imperceptible frown between her eyebrows it meant that she was simply too polite to say that she didn’t agree with the speaker and it was time to change tactics? Sandor knew all these and a hundred other little things about her and these men didn’t and he wanted nothing more than to push them aside and attend to her himself – but it was not to be. It was not his role.

The other difference was that approaching their destination seemed to put everyone on edge, especially Sansa. Her nervousness was absorbed by Sandor and he too started to fidget for no reason – so much that he had to purposefully get a hold of his self-control and shrug it away. Bloody hells!

Finally, on a day that saw a slight snowfall drifting from an overcast sky, they reached the outer woods near Castle Cerwyn, which was only half a day’s ride from Winterfell. This time it was Sansa who suggested that the crannogmen visit the castle and find out once again what the latest news was. They obeyed her and rode away into the grey mist.

Sandor followed them with his gaze and wondered what would happen next. Since the incident near Moat Cailin he had given much thought to what Sansa had said, and as much as he was loathe to admit it, he had started to read more and more into her words. Why do you stubbornly refuse to believe that is not all there is to it? If not, what else? And if it was – if it had been something else – had he lost it already? Had he screwed it all up?

As it was colder than it had been before on their trip, Sandor prepared their camp with care, finding a protected spot near a group of overhanging boulders. He set up a fire, feeding dry twigs and gradually thicker firewood collected from the forest floor into it from a safe distance until it gave up pleasant heat. Sansa settled next to it and observed him under her brow but neither of them spoke.

Next he collected armfuls of soft branches of pine trees to put a protective layer on the ground where they were going to sleep, especially where Sansa’s little tent was to be erected. The tangy smell of pine wafted in the air and reminded him of his hunting trips in the woods when he had been a child – before the fire, before Gregor. Sandor closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

He made quick work of raising Sansa’s lair so its opening was facing the fire, and when it was ready he gestured to her.

“Go on, get inside. No point in you freezing your ass off here. The furs and the fire will you warm you soon enough.”

Sansa stood up and brushed her hands against her skirts. Obediently she took a few steps towards the tent and then stopped, turning to him. Her countenance was not coquettish but calm, like deep water.

“Won’t you… join me?”

Sandor’s heart skipped a beat. Did she mean what he thought she meant? As if reading his mind she continued.

“The men are gone and we have some time to ourselves. There is no point in pretending that we don’t want to, is there? I can keep you as warm as you can keep me.”

Her gaze was steady and instead of the urgency that had grabbed them the previous time, this time there was only soft determination, an admittance and acceptance that what was happening was bigger than both of them and there was no point in resisting it.

So he didn’t.

They didn’t touch each other for a long time, only resting under the furs, chest against chest, arms entwined. Sandor listened to Sansa’s steady breathing and felt how her breasts rose and fell as she breathed in and out. He found surprisingly satisfying peace in that sign of life and in the trust she bestowed on him – once again.

When they eventually did touch, peeling their clothes away layer by layer, it was gentle and unhurried and aided by whispered confessions and at the end of it Sandor felt that something inside him had irrevocably broken; his resistance, his scorn, his doubts.

----------

Sandor was sharpening his dagger, long even strokes on both sides with his tool, swish, swish, swish, patiently over and over again, every now and then testing its sharpness by running the blade lightly across his scalp to test how it caught his hair. He sat in the Great Hall of Winterfell and from time to time he glanced across the room, observing the comings and goings of the Northmen.

Their entry to the ancestral keep of House Stark had been even smoother than he had anticipated. The news from Castle Cerwyn had confirmed what they had heard earlier, with the important addition that Stannis had defeated the Boltons in their own lands, killed the bastard Ramsay and captured Lord Roose. Many great Northern houses had joined him in this mission, however they had made sure to convey that their allegiance to House Baratheon was temporary and only to punish the traitors who had killed their young king.

Sansa had been well received by all. King Stannis treated her with his usual restrained courtesy, but as Sandor had known, he had felt honour-bound to recognise and support Sansa as the last known living heir of House Stark. The Northerners… it didn’t cease to amaze Sandor how grown men could be reduced to tears when they spoke about their departed lords Ned and Robb Stark and welcomed their blood among them once more. Sansa – she cried too but that was only to be expected, she being a woman, not matter how sensible and fearless. Sandor watched her over those first several days when she received the bannermen of her house and felt queerly proud to see how dignified and strong she was. As if he had had anything to do with it!

Likewise, as Sandor had known, his head had been demanded as retribution for his crimes as a Lannister man, for his alleged atrocities in the Saltpans and for generally being a known killer and a Clegane. Sansa had none of it though, refusing any such interventions. Sandor never knew what had been said in the meeting concerning his fate, as he had not been invited, but he saw Sansa emerging from the meeting hall pale and tight-lipped but with a determined look on her face. After that evening he had been left alone and the Stark men had grudgingly accepted his presence, some with more ease than the others.

Greatjon Umber, who had been the most vocal of those speaking against him, had later sought him out and muttered his thanks to him for keeping Sansa Stark out of harm’s way and bringing her back. His expressions of gratitude seemed to be genuine; as sincere as seemingly hard for that old warrior. Sandor’s first reaction had been to laugh in his face and tell him exactly how bloody miserably he had failed in looking after Sansa in King’s Landing, but in the end he restrained himself. Whatever Sansa had said, it had worked, and he didn’t want to jeopardise her credibility and good reputation with his boorish behaviour.

His own future was still uncertain, he not having made his mind up about what to do next. Or rather, if he was truly honest he was simply waiting pathetically for what Sansa had in mind for him. Any notions of leaving had escaped his mind that day in the tent, when he had finally admitted that in truth he didn’t want to leave. Not now, not to leave her. Until she made her wishes clear, Sandor was happy to partake in the activities of the keep in a role somewhat undefined, except that he was known to be faithful to Lady Sansa and Lady Sansa alone.

She was his duty and she was his delight, and he simply couldn’t turn away.

Sandor couldn’t complain, in truth. He had been given his own room in the lower part of the Great Keep, which had surprised many. Where he resided were the quarters of the Master of Arms and other trusted commanders of the keep, but his room was the smallest of them all and right at the end of the long corridor. It was sparse and simple but it suited him just fine. Above that floor were the rooms of the family, in which only King Stannis, his queen and daughter and now Lady Sansa resided. To know that she was so close to him and yet so far was both a blessing and a curse but he took that in his stride like everything else.

Since that time in the tent they hadn’t had a chance to see each other in private, but he endured that well, still nourished by the events of that day. Something fundamental had changed in their relationship then. If their coupling in the woods near Moat Caitlin had been violent, aggressive and passionate, near Castle Cerwyn it had been quite the opposite; it had been reverent, tender and poignant. Sandor had touched her soft skin in awe that he was still allowed to do that, that she hadn’t banished him from her presence for being such a stubborn pig-headed brute. Sansa had smiled at him and pulled him closer and nuzzled her face against him and he had felt her twinkling laugh reverberating against his chest. That she should be joyous was a wonder to him but he had stopped asking questions he knew he would never get answers for a long time ago.  

Since arriving in Winterfell all he could do was watch her as she moved about, sometimes feeling like a dog once again, this time a pathetic hound waiting for scraps from his mistress’s table and a pat every now and then. A few times Sansa had rested her hand on his arm when he had helped her around the keep, and once when they had been out of sight of others she had cupped his cheek in her palm. “We’ll be together again soon, I promise,” she had whispered and smiled and then she was gone.

Just to know that she wanted to see him again and wanted to be in his company was strangely comforting. Sandor had initially had difficulties understanding why Sansa would have cared to give him her body, but after finally accepting that, finding out that she wanted to share even more had been even harder. What he wanted was not any easier to decipher. No, he shook his head. Mayhap it was for the best to have this time apart.

Just then a shadow fell on him, blocking light from the windows. He raised his head and saw Sansa standing in front of him, clad in her courtly dress. Nothing too extravagant, not like the ladies in the Red Keep had worn, but this was made of fine wool and had decorations that looked elaborate and regal as much as Sandor knew about those things. Her hair had been piled up high on the top, the sides falling down freely in the Northern fashion. She looked stunning.

“May I request your assistance in a task, Clegane?” Her voice was clear and she looked him straight in the eye. Some men near them bowed their heads and muttered their greetings in low voices, but Sansa only looked at him. Sandor shifted. It was not unusual for her to ask him to undertake various errands, but this was the first time she had deliberately sought him out during his free moments.  It didn’t matter though, it was not as if he was going to deny her. He nodded firmly and stood up, pushing his dagger into his belt and his pouch of tools aside.

“My lady.”

Without further words, Sansa turned on her heel and started to walk. Sandor followed, feeling the eyes of every man and woman in the hall on him. Never mind. Part of him felt twisted pride in being the one that their lady trusted.

They walked towards the corridor where Sandor’s room was and he followed, his mind puzzling over what Sansa could want. The hallways were empty at this time of the day, everyone attending to their duties elsewhere, and they saw no-one before they turned the last corner and saw the end of the passageway ahead of them.

Sansa walked straight towards it and stopped only when she reached an old door on the wall. Sandor had noticed that before, but from the looks of it the door was not in use; gnarled wood, rusty hinges and a layer of dust and spider-webs built by insects who were drawn to the naturally warm parts of the keep like this one.

Sansa turned to him and angled the small pouch on her hip, withdrawing a rusty key and handing it to Sandor.

“Here. It took me a long time to find it but eventually I did. This door leads to the upper floor, right next to the family rooms.”

Sandor took the key while absorbing her words. He turned it in his hands and noticed its old-fashioned cut, indicating that it had been made a long, long time ago.

“Rodrik Cassel used it sometimes when he needed to see my father late in the night or early in the morning on some important business. I remember running into him sometimes when I was sneaking into my parents’ room when I had had a bad dream,” Sansa explained matter-of-factly.

Sandor slid the key into the key hole, turned it and cranked the door. Slowly it opened, creaking on its hinges. He peeked inside and saw narrow stairs leading up just like Sansa had said. Dust from many years had accumulated on the steps, colouring them with grey. He turned back to her and saw how her cheeks had blushed. Seven hells!

“You are telling me this because…” He was pretty sure of her message but he had to be absolutely certain.

“Come to my rooms tonight after the keep has fallen asleep. My door is the first on the right, you can’t miss it.” She was blushing, and it thrilled Sandor to see her still being capable of that, after everything they had done together.

“What about Stannis and the others? Surely you don’t want me to run into them on my nightly escapade?”

“Their rooms are further down the corridor, and they retire early. Stannis doesn’t visit his wife during the night and Shireen sleeps with her mother anyway.”

Sandor stepped closer to Sansa and as she was already standing with her back against the wall she was soon pinned between him and the wall. He leaned down and lifted her jaw with his thumb and forefinger. His lips hovered right above hers, their breaths mingling. 

“Are you sure, little bird?”

Her lips moved almost against his as she whispered, “I am sure. I would have asked you earlier but I had to find the key first. You understand that I have to be careful…”

The rest of her sentence was swallowed by Sandor’s hungry mouth. Soon, much too soon he pulled away, aware of the risk of being caught.

“Tonight, little bird.”

“Tonight.”

----------

So it was that yet another chapter in their liaison started that night, characterised by late night trysts when Sandor sneaked into her chambers, only to leave again before the first dawn. He understood now the significance of his accommodation and how Sansa had been planning that all along. His respect for her, growing steadily ever since he had first met her in the camp of the Burned Men, grew stronger still – as did other feelings he was more hesitant to name.

“Why do you want an old dog like me in your bed?” he asked one night as they rested in bed, exhausted by their lovemaking. Fucking, he would have called it once, but Sansa had corrected him a few times when he had uttered that word. Not that she minded it in the heat of the passion – Sandor still got aroused by the crude language she sometimes used, but when things settled down she chirped about ‘making love’. Sandor would have laughed at that, had he dared. Love?!

“Why would I not want a man who has treated me with honesty, truthfulness and kindness – in your own way?” Sansa replied, playing with the hair on his chest, twirling it with her fingers and tugging at it.

“I am ugly as hell, I am crude, short-tempered and don’t have a knightly bone in my body, and you know that,” he grumbled.

“You are not ugly. In my eyes you are beautiful.”

Sandor lifted his head and raised an eyebrow at her. To Sansa’s credit she had the good sense to blush before she corrected herself. “I mean, you are rough and your scars are quite prominent, and maybe you are not traditionally fair to the eye. But I don’t see only the outside, I see the inside. Besides, your body is magnificent.” She swept her hand down his chest to his lean stomach and to his hips, brushing dangerously close to his groin. Sandor felt his cock stirring but as he knew he had to leave soon, he resisted and pushed her hand aside.

“What do you expect will come of this? You know you are playing with fire, girl, and it can end badly. If your people knew about us, your reputation would be spoiled. If you need a man – and I dare say you need one badly, you wanton bird - it would at least be better if you took one of the young men of the North into your bed rather than a wind-blown Westerner. I’d bet my last coin that the lot of them fuck themselves in their hairy palms with your image in their minds and you’d have no difficulties luring one of them.” He gained some twisted satisfaction from teasing Sansa with the notion of other men, the pain it caused in his belly being relieved only by Sansa’s protestations that she could never consider anyone else. Why was he doing it? To punish himself or to gain assurance that it would not happen?

As usual, Sansa turned tight-lipped and frowned at him.

“Why are you coming here at every opportunity then, if I may ask in turn? I can’t bestow any special favours on you not warranted by your behaviour outside this room, and you know that. People would notice and suspect something if I did. What do you gain from this?”

“I don’t have to pay for a fuck, that’s one thing,” he chortled, unable to resist the jape. Frustrated, Sansa pushed him away and sighed deeply. Yet instead of retorting with sharp words as he expected she looked at him solemnly and her eyes pierced right through him and Sandor was unable to keep up his mocking pretence. He had to look away while he tried to think of what he could say, how he could explain it to her when he hadn’t been brave enough to face it himself.

“I… you know it, girl. I like you. I like you a lot, you are better than any woman I have had, in more ways than one. I am not a complete moron and I know this must end sooner or later and believe me that I am fucking grateful for every moment you give me.” He sighed too, feeling helpless and disturbingly weak.

“You like me?” her eyes were sharp and didn’t miss his discomfort.

“Aye, I do. I care about you. I like making love to you – already told you once. The best, and all that.”

She let him off the hook that time, but later Sandor played their discussion in his head over and over again. 

Though it was not like he had much time to ponder over such things. In time he was accepted into the inner circles of Winterfell’s troops and as one of the liaisons between them and Stannis Baratheon’s forces. Times were tough and capable men were scarce, and as he made a special effort to curb his behaviour to show people that Sansa’s judgment could be trusted, Sandor gradually settled more and more into the life of the North. Besides, he was needed here. He was a soldier through and through and men with his experience were rare.

There were still many straggling Bolton men-at-arms in the woods causing mayhem in the small holdfasts and villages, and Sansa had insisted that her people had to be protected from their attacks. Sandor had volunteered to chase the most notorious of these gangs and had ridden out together with a troupe of combined Stark and Baratheon forces. Almost a full moon it had taken to find the enemy camp and meet them on a level battle field.

Sandor would have lied had he denied the joy he got from fighting once again, feeling his muscles flex and strain and the exploding energy of an attack. His focus honing on the only thing that mattered in moments like that; to hack down the opponent who was out to kill him and feel alive, sense his blood rushing through his veins giving him the most glorious high he had ever felt. He roared and cursed and knew himself to be a terrifying sight in the eyes of their opponents, and that made him laugh even harder, a crazy, harsh laugh. Killing is the sweetest thing there is.

Only after the fight was over and he retired to his campsite, weary to the bone and nursing many cuts and scratches, did Sandor look into his soul and realise that the only thing that had made him ecstatic before had turned to ashes in his mouth. He traced the lines of dried crumbs of blood still persisting under his fingernails and attempted to clean them in vain with the tip of his dagger. The red-brown stains on his hands gave way reluctantly as he scrubbed them over and over again in a vat of cold water and foolishly his thoughts turned to a strange notion: Can’t touch the little bird with these hands. The fresh scratches on his knuckles started to bleed again and as he watched the bright red blood making peculiar shapes in red-tinged water, a distaste he had never experienced before about his trade hit him. He realised that the superficial joy of the past was nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to cheat death, the enjoyment only a hollow thrill for someone who didn’t know any better. I know what is sweeter than killing, now.

His quandary made him clench his fists and stare into the night long after the fires had died out in the camp.

----------

His arrival back in Winterfell was a bittersweet agony; to see Sansa greeting the returning troops with a smile on her face and the flick of her hair she was probably not even conscious of but which Sandor had witnessed so many times he could see it just by closing his eyes and imagining it in his head. When their eyes met she nodded at him briefly, recognising him as one of many brave men in her service before turning away again. Sandor’s throat was dry and he felt like he was suffocating, but there was nothing he could do but follow the others to the hall for the festivities organised in the honour of their success.

The misery continued when he was forced to sit at a faraway table and see the leaders of the joint forces seated next to Sansa, entertaining her with their undoubtedly exaggerated tales of bravery, leaning in to her, basking in her smile and soft words, breathing the same air as she. Sandor’s countenance was dark and men seated at his table shuffled quietly away from him – the Hound in a bad mood was nothing to trifle with.

Only later that night when he gathered his pluck and rapped softly on her door, for it to be thrown open and have Sansa’s soft arms curl around his neck, did he let out a sigh of relief and felt he had truly returned. Home. He almost confessed as much to Sansa who held him tight and stroked his cheek and the pure unadulterated joy the likes of which he had rarely if ever encountered carried him as if he was walking on air.

The sweetest thing.

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

 

Sansa had experienced feverish and lust-filled nights with Sandor, nights that made her blush in the light of day, and she had thought she had already shed the cloak of a meek maiden. Yet when Sandor pressed her against the tree, hitched her skirts up and thrust into her with a raw ferocity, she reached yet a new level of rapture – or a lower level of depravity, depending on the point of view. She let herself be swept away and ground shamelessly against Sandor’s bucking groin, arched her back and let out keening noises she hadn’t known she was even able to make.

Her release, when it came, was explosive and she rode it for an excruciatingly long time, wave after wave, long after Sandor’s jerky movements had stilled and he panted against her, his huge body still shuddering from the aftermath of his own peak.

Nonetheless, she had roused enough from her exultation to protest against Sandor’s crude words, which so scathingly demeaned what had been happening to them ever since the night at the inn. Whatever it was, Sansa couldn’t believe that only base urges were pulling them together, like two animals driven by instincts ingrained into them over thousands of years.

Sandor was a man who revealed his true self through actions, not words, she had learned, and his deeds had always spoken louder than his curses or resentful denials.  When he held her after their frenzied coupling for much longer than was necessary, Sansa’s hesitant suspicions grew into a firm conviction. A man like him wouldn’t do that, not without a reason. There had to be more than lust. She felt it, she sensed it, only Sandor’s obstinacy prevented it becoming a reality. She listened to Sandor’s laboured breath against her ear and detected how he inhaled her scent.The realisation made her giddy and she wanted to stay as they were a while longer, weightless and engulfed by his big body – but the tree bark was hard and itchy against her back and her legs started to cramp from the strain. She tried to find a better position but as soon as she stirred, Sandor released his grip and lowered her ever so gently onto the ground.

Sansa didn’t let go of him, though. She hated the thought of him assuming that she was only after her own gratification.

“It is not only that,” she muttered to his chest, uneasy about raising the topic again but at the same time determined to correct any misunderstandings.

The exchange of sharp words that followed was not what she had hoped for, but at least she seemed to get her point across, based on the dumbfounded expression on Sandor’s face. More than that, she gained additional satisfaction from learning that he had not seen any other women, and from the looks of it hadn’t even considered it. Sansa left him feeling victorious and bold, finally having responded to him with his own language and having held her ground so successfully. She smiled but concealed it well; there was power in words and she was discovering that power just as she was gradually starting to understand the other forms of influence she had over him.

For the next several days Sansa contemplated the situation and marvelled how it could be so. Yet there was no mistaking it; Sandor had done for her so much more than what their bargain, sealed with a promise of coin, warranted. She couldn’t believe him to be a man who could be made to fuck a woman for a fee. If he was only after that, he wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort in making sure that she, too, found her pleasure. If his own satisfaction was all that mattered, he wouldn’t have stayed so close to her on so many nights and held her so tight. If she didn’t matter to him, he wouldn’t follow her now with a gaze so intense that it burned her skin and made her squirm.

Part of Sansa chastised her own behaviour but part of her enjoyed the almost indiscernible shift in power between them. Not the kind arising from position of birth or riches of land, not even from influence or political clout. More than that, after the events near Moat Caitlin she was sure that their liaison was far from over. It was not a question of if they would lay together again, but when. So as soon as the next opportunity presented itself near Castle Cerwyn she didn’t hesitate to take it.

“Jarman, I think it might be prudent to do some reconnaissance again at Castle Cerwyn, don’t you think?” Her question was innocent enough and not without its own merits. Anything she could learn about how things stood in the North would be useful. Her escorts were only too happy to oblige.

“Clegane can set up the camp while you are gone, I am sure,” she said glancing at Sandor. He was unreadable as always but bowed his head slightly to indicate his acquiescence.

“We’ll be back before sundown, my lady,” Jarman announced from the side of his sturdy horse, ready to mount.

“Take your time, I beseech you. It is more important that I have all the information I need than that I arrive in Winterfell a day or two earlier,” were her parting words to her small party.

As before, Sandor toiled efficiently and in silence, but Sansa didn’t mind. The heady feeling of anticipation was already building inside her and she had to restrain herself not to be too eager and go to him before everything that needed to be done had been completed.

“Go on, get inside. No point in you freezing your ass off here. The furs and the fire will warm you soon enough.” His harsh words roused Sansa from her thoughts and she stood up. Now is the time. Her palms were sweating despite the cold and she wiped them on her skirt. The rough cloth grated on her fingertips and the earthiness of the sensation gave her the courage to proceed. She took a deep breath, confident in her trust that he would not decline her – but her heart thumped loudly in her ears just the same.

“Won’t you…join me?”

Had she been more brazen she would have laughed at the way Sandor blinked his eyes, surprised by her words. She settled on smiling instead, and making room for him on her bedroll, allowing his big form to settle down first and then following him under the covers. It was so different from the previous time and it seemed that both of them knew that without a need to state it. Their companions were going to be away for several hours and they had all that time to themselves – there was no need to hurry.

And hurry they didn’t, only lying there fully clothed against each other under the heavy furs, their breath misting and mingling together in the cool air as they stared at the crude weave of the tent ceiling. Sansa was glad – she hadn’t really expected a repetition of earlier, but somehow having Sandor only resting peacefully by her side was more intimate than any heated embrace could have been.  

Eventually Sansa took his right hand into hers and pulled it closer and he allowed it. Her fingers wound between Sandor’s calloused thumb and forefinger, feeling the hard ridges formed by the grip of his sword and countless hours of practice. She knew that those fingers, as rough as they were, could touch her surprisingly gently, and the desire to feel them on her bare body seized her. Slowly she untangled her grip, and while loosening the laces of her top she drew his hand higher and slipped it under the warm wool. Sandor neither resisted nor rushed ahead of her, only following her lead at the pace she set. His eyes didn’t leave hers for a moment though and only when Sansa shuddered at the chill remaining on his fingertips and momentarily closed her eyes did he move. Even then he let his hand rest where it was, still in Sansa’s clasp, and only nudged a little higher and pressed his nose against her cheek. They continued to lay still, Sansa enjoying the way his touch gradually heated up and his warmth blended with hers. Slowly, very slowly, Sandor started to graze just the tips of his fingers against her skin, hardly touching. That caress, almost there but then disappearing again, teased Sansa with its feather light touch and unpredictability and she found herself tensing and instinctively pushing against it.

“Look me in the eye and tell me that you want from me only what any woman can give,” she whispered and looked at Sandor, whose eyes were as dark as coal in the shadows of the tent. He didn’t turn away but his mouth opened slightly and his brow furrowed. Sansa had learned to read his expressions and knew that he was uncertain, trying to cover it behind bluster and cynicism.

Ignoring that, she extended her own hand and slipped it under the hem of his tunic. The feel of his hard stomach excited her, especially when Sandor took a deep breath and tensed his muscles so they felt as hard as rock. The strength this large man possessed never ceased to amaze her – deadly against the enemy and yet so controlled and measured when he lay with her. It made Sansa feel small and delicate and protected and she cherished the feeling more than she could remember cherishing anything for a long, long time.

“And what about you, little bird? Not any man, is that what you are telling me?” His voice was hoarse but low. The voice that could boom across vast distances, could grate and seethe, was now husky and intimate so close to the shell of her ear. 

“No, not any man. Not any man but you.” Sansa was done with games. Not that she had played any with him – he would have seen through them. After all the ambiguities, after resisting the pull that had drawn her to this man, then accepting it but trying to justify it with superficial and ridiculous notions from another world, she had to be honest.

“You sure? If the Knight of Flowers showed up here, how quickly would you push me out of your bedroll?”

Sansa didn’t rise to the bait, recognising it for what it was; his way of trying to deflect anything that made him uncomfortable. She only pinched the skin above Sandor’s ribcage with her thumb and forefinger and was elated to see him flinch.

“If the Knight of Flowers showed up I would politely ask him to step aside and leave us alone.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“That is not an answer. Quit playing with me, girl.”

It was Sansa’s turn to hesitate. What was the right answer? What could she say that wouldn’t sound contrived or false? Only one thing came to her.

“Sansa. My name is Sansa. You know it, why don’t you use it?”

Sandor stayed motionless for a while, even his hand, still fluttering above her left breast, stopped moving.

“I know your name.”

“It is not ‘little bird’, it is not ‘girl’, it is not ‘woman’. Try it. Say ‘Sansa’.”

He had called her by her name, of course, many times. On the road when he needed to get her attention or when they discussed practical matters over a camp fire - but never when they lay together; then he called her by one of the other monikers. As fond as Sansa had become of ‘the little bird’, it made her feel as if they were still not meeting on an equal ground, and as if she were still just a pretty but useless girl. Suddenly Sansa wanted to hear him address her by her real name; only her family and friends had used it freely, bar Joffrey, but even that sour memory could not sully the closeness it conveyed.

Eventually she felt it even as she heard it; movement of his lips against her cheek, coarse on one side, smooth the other, as he breathed: “Sansa.”

Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and savoured the sound, the touch, the closeness – all of it. Sandor’s acknowledgment broke any last remaining vestiges of tension between them and unhurriedly they started to undress each other. She wriggled her smallclothes down her legs and pushed them aside, taking the opportunity to pull Sandor’s breeches and smallclothes down his long legs. Next he helped her to unlace her top and the waist of her skirt, struggling amidst the many folds of the fabric to remove them. She giggled and instead of helping, only hindered his efforts by tugging at his tunic at the same time, but with some patience and a bit more time they finally succeeded. Sansa shivered and pulled him closer, enjoying the feel of his naked skin against hers once again.

The feeling of something otherworldly didn’t leave her throughout the encounter, so unlike many times before. It was not slow caresses that made the difference – they had exchanged those in the past. It was not tender kisses, not languid, almost effortless thrusts, not the silence punctuated only by sighs and grunts and the rustle of fresh pines under their weight.

No, it was the eyes.

His didn’t leave her face, only flicking from her eyes to her mouth and back. Hers met his and for the very first time Sansa felt she could really see inside his troubled mind into the depths of his soul, barriers he had cultivated so long that they had become an integral part of him finally having been dropped.

“Not any other,” she sighed.

“No other,” he echoed her words. Sansa lifted her head to look at him. Is he saying that only because he thinks I need to hear it? Sandor’s eyes were closed and there was a rare look of resignation on his face.

“Not just…”

“…just a cock and a cunt.” Sandor groaned.

Sansa waited for him to continue but he seemed to have said his piece and fell silent for so long that she concluded that it was all he was going to say about the matter. She stared outside from the opening of the tent and twirled her fingers in his long hair, when Sandor eventually broke the silence.

“But what does it matter? Tell me, Sansa. Are you going to be any less beholden to the lords of the North and the legacy of your house? Am I any more knightly or is my house any nobler? Am I going to be any more welcome in Winterfell?” His questions were cynical but there was no rage in his voice, only weariness. Sansa couldn’t help flinching from the truth of his words.

She had no answers for him but Sandor didn’t seem to expect any, as he cursed and pulled her closer. “Seven save me, but it was better when things were simpler.” Sansa didn’t miss the past tense; were simpler. They are not simple anymore, are they? If they ever were.

She had no response so instead of talking she pressed her head against his chest and listened to the reassuring sound of his heart beating, trying to ignore what he had just said. It still mattered to her, even if it didn’t change anything.

It mattered.

----------

The sight of her home’s ageless grey walls lifted Sansa’s spirits but at the same time served as a sad reminder of better, bygone times. Of the young innocent girl who had ridden out of this very same gate all those years ago, eyes on the glittering lights which later turned out to be nothing but ash and soot. Yet she couldn’t find it in her heart to judge her younger self too harshly. She had been but a child, shoved into the middle of political turmoil with no warning or training.

She looked back and saw Sandor guiding Stranger past the ancient columns. He is the only one from that day who is still with me. It made her feel a bit better although she didn’t miss the irony of the situation then and now. No good comes from looking into the past. She squared her shoulders defiantly in preparation of her official homecoming.

They found Stannis in the practice yard where he was overseeing the training of his troops. Sansa dismounted and approached him cautiously, conscious of the importance of showing deference to his position as the king, notwithstanding that only a few areas in Westeros recognised him as such. She had heard a lot about him from Sandor and had surmised Stannis to be one of those men who were extremely particular about their position, but who as long as they were not slighted, could also be magnanimous and generous.

“Your Grace,” she curtsied in the finest courtly manner she had learned in the Red Keep. That she was still clad in her simple travelling clothes undoubtedly heightened the effect she made.

The king turned and stared at her, his face contorted in a frown that was a permanent fixture on his face according to Sandor. Sansa was glad having heard that, as it lessened the impact it might have otherwise had on her. Slowly she straightened up from the curtsy and faced his scrutiny.

“King Stannis, I am Lady Sansa Stark and I have returned home,” she simply said, letting her words sink in. For a while nothing happened and she couldn’t help wondering what was going on behind those dark blue eyes. Then Stannis bowed his head slightly.

“Lady Sansa. An unexpected delight, but a pleasure indeed. Welcome to Winterfell.” He looked away and for a moment his self-assurance seemed to waver. “I am sorry for your loss. Your father was an honourable man and House Stark has suffered a lot. Please accept my condolences.”

Sansa acknowledged his words with a nod. Always a man of action, Stannis gestured at the men by her side and sent them away with a few terse commands.

He was just as efficient as his reputation suggested, wasting no time to get Sansa and her companions settled. Seeing Sandor he frowned even more than usual, but Sansa gave him the speech she had prepared and practised many times in her head in anticipation of exactly such an event, and to her relief Stannis left it at that. She wondered how many times she needed to defend her decision to trust Sandor. Probably more times than I care to count, she sighed, not the least bit deferred. She would fight to keep Sandor by her side – the idea of separating from him was simply unthinkable.

The next few days flew by in a flurry; so many faces and names, so many bannermen of House Stark and House Baratheon, so many household members she had to meet and greet and get to know. So many condolences, each more heartfelt than the last. To see so few faces she recognised from the past made her heart heavy, but seeing even some of her father’s faithful retainers lessened the pain.

She dearly wanted to share her moments of joy, frustration and sorrow with someone during those first days, but there was only one person she wanted, and she had to keep her distance from him.

As Sandor had warned, her bannermen wanted to throw him out altogether.

“Lannister dog, my lady, Lannister Hound!” Greatjon Umber bellowed, his thickset arms firmly crossed over his chest.

“I am quite aware of his past affiliations,” Sansa replied dryly. She and a group of Northern lords and retainers were gathered in the Great Hall of Winterfell. The discussion had continued for much longer than she thought necessary and she was getting tired of the same arguments being brought forward over and over again. The Lannister man, the famous Hound, the remorseless killer, the deserter and the coward. The shouts about the Butcher of Saltpans had died quickly enough after the irrefutable evidence Sansa was able to lay down on that matter, but resistance against her companion was still fierce.

Sansa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was time for her to assert herself. Bizarrely, she was almost glad that her first challenge was about something that was of utmost significance to her. Had it been about anything less important she would have been tempted to give in and yield to the advice of her elders; men who had served her father and her brother loyally and knew much and more about the affairs of the North than she did. However, in this matter she could not give in.

She stood up from the large chair she was seated in and walked into the middle of the room. All the eyes followed her as she turned to face the assembly. Her throat was dry and she swallowed nervously. These men were experienced and every one of them much older than she. They only looked to her because of who she was, not because they had any real trust in her ability to manage the affairs of a noble house. Well, I had better start somewhere. She remembered Sandor’s words about how a pack of men were like a pack of hounds; they needed a leader and someone to tell them what to do, and that gave her courage.

“My lords, we have talked over this matter since the early evening and seemingly have not moved any closer to an amicable conclusion. I suggested this meeting out of the respect I have for you, the honoured members of my father’s and brothers’ council and inner circle.”

The room around her fell completely silent.

“You have told me your views and I have listened. Now it is time for me to say the last word, as is my right as the lady of the keep. That word is that Sandor Clegane will stay in Winterfell for as long as he wishes, and will continue to serve me as loyally and faithfully as he has done thus far.”

The murmurs increased but before they got much louder she raised her hand.

“Do note that this is the last time I will entertain any discussion about this matter. This case is closed once and for all. Thank you, my lords, for your time.”

Without further ado she walked to the back of the hall and threw the heavy wooden doors open and stepped outside. In reality her knees were trembling as she walked away but she held her head up high and let none of her uncertainty show. She caught a glimpse of Sandor, who had been standing in the outer hall, and wished she could have run to him for strength and succour. Alas, that was not to be. Not yet.

----------

Finally she found it! Literally the key to success, the one that opened the door to the small corridor Sansa had remembered soon after her return. She had searched through hell and high water for it; had gone through all her father’s remaining belongings and scoured the master-of-arms’ cupboards and shelves. Finally she had found an old ring full of rusty keys and after painstakingly trying each and every one of them she was eventually met with success.

During the many hours of her quest she had tried to decipher what drove her and why was she so desperate to try to find a way to resume their relationship. The memory of their last time stayed in her mind and she knew that something had irrevocably changed then. As Sansa methodically went through coffer after a coffer, shelf after a shelf, her mind was free to wander and on one such occasion a sense of clarity hit her so powerfully that she had to stop in her tracks and clutch her throat.

I love him!

Love, which she had dreamt of throughout her girlhood years and which she had painted in her mind to be something glorious and noble. Love, which she had thought she had lost for good when her naivety had been trampled into the ground in the harsh, ugly world. Love, which had sneaked up on her almost unnoticed, focusing around the most unlikely person she would have ever imagined.

I love him.

Hiding the key in her pouch, she could hardly wait to find Sandor. She knew she couldn’t tell him what she had just discovered – it was too soon, he was not ready. Maybe he was never going to be. Despite having finally admitted that their relationship was more than lust, Sansa was well aware that Sandor didn’t see how it could in practice ever be anything else. She had to tread carefully with him, that much was obvious. She hadn’t even told him about her hunt for the key, not that she had had many chances at any rate, so rarely they saw each other these days. In the company of others, yes, under the observant eyes of her bannermen and servants, but only once or twice since their arrival had she been bold enough to lay her hand on his arm or against his back in surety that they were not seen.

“We’ll be together again soon, I promise,” she had whispered to him late one evening when they had unexpectedly found themselves alone in the corridors leading to the kitchens. Her cautiousness had given way to recklessness and she had touched his scarred cheek and had been rewarded with the rare sight of Sandor closing his eyes and leaning into her touch.  

Sansa rushed through the keep, fighting against the overwhelming urge to run but walking briskly instead, like a lady with a thousand and one things on her mind could be expected to. People saw her and moved out of her way bowing their heads, smiling at her and muttering words of greeting, and she responded to every one of them with a nod, a smile, a soft word. Yet as soon as she reached the Great Hall her eyes impatiently swept over it, finally focussing on the dark man sitting in a secluded corner leaning over his task.   

He was still larger than anyone else in the hall, towering over even Greatjon Umber. Some of the dark shadows under his eyes had disappeared and as he had promised, he had acquired a new set of clothes. Good wool of dark grey and dun brown, simple and utilitarian as was the fashion in the North where practicality was valued more than looks. Sansa’s breath seized as she took in the sight of him and the familiar tingle started to travel down her spine. She slowed her pace and walked towards him, serenely as was appropriate.

“May I request your assistance in a task, Clegane?”

----------

The nights that followed were so much better than those on the road. Both of them were clean and warm, for one thing, and their bellies were full and not grumbling after a meagre meal of dried bread and a piece of salted pork fat like on some evenings when Sandor’s hunting had not been successful.

All of that was nonetheless superficial. The real value for Sansa was in the knowledge that they were safe, she was finally at home where she belonged, Sandor was by her side and he had stopped fighting against the connection between them. He still had his doubts, as their discussion one evening proved. That after all they had gone through he should still ask her why she wanted him, an old dog, in her bed, exasperated Sansa. Because I love you. Because you have treated me better than anyone outside my family. Because you are a better man than you give yourself credit for. 

Sansa held her tongue, though, but couldn’t completely hide her frustration when Sandor turned the talk to other men. She gained a twisted pleasure from seeing him squirm on the spot where she had put him, asking why he kept on coming to her.

He likes me. Sandor’s response almost amused Sansa. He cares about me, and he likes to fuck me. Had she taken his words at face value they would have hurt her, but the way Sandor’s eyes darted away, the way he licked his lips before he spoke and the way his shoulders slumped, told her all she needed to know; he was lying. He was otherwise always true to his words about dogs not lying, so when he did, Sansa knew it. Hence she let it go – for the time being.

----------

“Why do you have to go? You don’t even know these woods nor these people. There are many others better suited to join the mission,” Sansa argued another evening when Sandor had announced earlier in the day his decision to join the hunt for the outlaws. ‘With my lady’s permission’, he had grunted, and with everyone’s eyes on Sansa she had had no choice other than grant it to him. Internally she had seethed and now let Sandor know her thoughts on the matter.

“Those are exactly the reasons why I have to go.” Sandor moved across the room with surprising grace for such a big man, shedding his clothing as he went, diverting via a side table to grasp a flagon of wine and a goblet and carrying them to the bed where Sansa was already waiting for him. Unloading his cargo he poured deep red liquid into the vessel and offered it to Sansa, who shook her head, not caring about wine when there were more important things to focus on. Shrugging his shoulders, Sandor took a deep gulp and sat on the edge of the bed.

He had started to wear his hair in the way of some Northerners from the woods, braided into a long plait hanging against his back. From the first Sansa had found it intriguing and somehow exotic and wild, and over time she had started to cherish the opportunity to let it loose when it was just she and Sandor. The intimacy it conveyed delighted her and often she wondered if it was the same for him, when he asked her to let her hair loose and combed his big hands through her tresses. Maybe it was.

Nonetheless, this time even the sight of Sandor sliding the leather cord from his hair didn’t sway her. “The mission doesn’t necessarily need you, there are already enough men to set things right. I need you here.”

Sandor groaned and swiped his brow. “My place is where men fight and defend your people and lands, little bird. Not hiding behind your skirts.”

“But… it can be dangerous. What if you get hurt?”

A flash of strong white teeth and the Hound was back. Sandor grinned. “Don’t you believe that I can still take care of myself? Do you think I have gone soft?”

“No, of course not! It is just that…” Sansa swallowed the rest of her words. She realised she had nothing but the fluttering of her heart when she thought about Sandor leaving and fighting again as her sole argument and reasoning. Many other men were undertaking the same mission, many men would die or be maimed, and it was her duty to encourage them, let them go and when and if they returned, thank them for their faithful service. Why should she treat Sandor any differently?

She had kept her silence the last occasion they had touched upon the ties that bound them together, but was now the time for her to tell him how she felt? I love you, don’t leave me.

Seeing how Sandor flexed his arms, rotated his shoulders and cracked his knuckles, the personification of brute power and skill, a man honed to be a weapon as much as his magnificent horse was, she realised that she couldn’t tie him down. Not with love, not with duty, not with command of any kind but his own choice.

So Sansa kept her silence and watched him ride out of the keep with the others, cold dread pouring over her. She ran to the battlements and followed him as long as she was able to; a black beast and its monstrous rider. If she whispered words of longing and pleaded for him to return to her, nobody heard it.

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One whole moon! Endless nights of tossing and turning, of twirling her sheets into a tangled bundle and then unravelling them again, of forcing her mind to go anywhere else but where it most wanted to travel; to Sandor’s side somewhere deep in the northern woods, to some unnamed campsite, to a skirmish that could be fought any day – or maybe it had already been fought? Maybe there had been many clashes? Maybe Winterfell’s troops had been under attack by a cunning enemy. Maybe Sandor had fought, maybe he was wounded, maybe he was… There were neither ravens nor messengers to bring in the news and all she could do was to wait. And suffer in silence.

Sansa’s appetite waned and she had to force herself to pay attention to the goings on of the keep. Her new maids started to eye her warily, bringing her extra morsels of food and maester’s potions without her asking, mild drops to help her to sleep. None of them dared to ask what was troubling her, still being so new in her service.

Sansa accepted their help with a wan smile and pretended that all that was ailing her was a mild ague, brought upon her by the cold weather to which she had grown unaccustomed after her many years in the South.

The day when the troops returned, she didn’t care about what people might think when she ran to the battlements, to the same spot she had seen Sandor off so many days ago. Her heart in her throat she scanned the column of riders; the red and black of House Baratheon and grey of House Stark. Man after man, some tired, some jubilant, some nursing wounds on their arms or their head wrapped in rags. Stretchers dragged by rugged northern ponies brought back those who couldn’t walk or ride, and although afraid to look at them Sansa nonetheless forced her eyes to sweep over the covered forms lying on them. None were as big as Sandor and a sigh of minor relief swept over her. Yet if he was not wounded, and he was not riding in the column, where could he be?

Just as her knees started to weaken under her weight and she had to support herself against the cold stone, she caught sight of a tall man on a black horse emerging from the woods, almost at the back of the procession. He is alive! She had to lean on the sturdy wall then for sure lest she toppled down on the spot, so overpowering was her relief.

By the time of the welcoming feast she had collected herself and fallen into the role of the gracious lady again. She heard many tales of bravery and cunning and assurances that whatever was left of the deserters terrorising the countryside was too weak and disorganised to cause any real disturbance any more. She smiled and cocked her head, widened her eyes when it seemed a suitable reaction, praised the men and their bravery, promised that appropriate rewards would be doled to those who were deemed worthy. She resisted bringing up Sandor’s name, but even without her prompting one of the Baratheon captains informed her about the battle prowess and major role the old Lannister hound had shown in the field. From the nods of agreement from the other men, including those of House Stark, she concluded that Sandor had been right – this had been what he had needed to do to in order to earn the respect of her people.

Sansa saw Sandor sitting at a table further away on his own, dark and gloomy. She itched to be with him to assure herself that he was real, he had truly returned, to ask him to come to her that very night. Nonetheless, as always she had to curb her behaviour and hope that the encouraging look she had given him earlier at the courtyard had told him what she had wanted to convey. How much she needed him.

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When Sansa eventually threw her arms around Sandor’s neck and felt his solidity under her own hands as the final testimony of her love having returned, she couldn’t contain herself any longer. Tears of relief and joy streamed down her face and after cupping his cheek and looking into his grey eyes she hid her face in the crook of his neck and breathed into his ear. Words tumbled out of her mouth in an unstoppable stream, words that for so long had demanded to be said aloud.

“I missed you so. I love you.”

Sandor’s arms, which had curled around her waist and squeezed her tightly, slackened. Sansa noticed it and immediately regretted her eagerness. Sandor had just spent a month away from her; maybe he had discovered that he was not suited to the role of a secret lover after all?

Then she felt his hold tighten again and the suffocating press forced air from her lungs to escape in a sudden gust – and she knew.

Chapter Text

 

 

Sandor

Sansa’s confession on the night of his return hit Sandor harder than he would have imagined – had he ever thought such thing possible. Love. She loves …me? Her words shocked him to the core but he couldn’t brush them away as the naïve sentiments of a silly girl, as she was neither silly nor girl anymore. He only held her close and a tightness the likes of which he had never felt squeezed his heart. Sandor knew he was probably expected to respond to her in kind, but the words he had never in his wildest dreams imagined to utter stuck in his throat and almost choked him. He opened his mouth but nothing came out, and as if to compensate he crushed Sansa tighter until her feeble attempts to pull herself away alerted him to the fact that he had almost succeeded in choking his little bird.

Sandor lay awake for a long time after Sansa had already fallen asleep and stared into a void, his mind blank except for a swirl of perturbing thoughts he fought to chase away. For the first time in his life he was scared; he who had faced grave danger and scorn for most of his days and had never let that affect him. Yes, he had been angry and hateful but never, ever afraid. Yet all his well-practiced defences were useless against this new threat: a few soft-spoken words from the mouth of a lithe girl.

Sansa didn’t repeat her confession the next morning when they woke up before the birdsong when the world was still painted in hues of grey and black. They had each other again, hunger from the past month still not sated, but no words of love were spoken – only sighs and murmurs and gentle teasing now that the tension of their separation had been broken. Nor did she seem to scorn him for staying quiet. Not that night or the nights after - their stolen time together was just as sweet as before and for a short while Sandor felt at peace.

Until a new threat started to cast its long shadow over them.

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As Sandor had suspected, it didn’t take long before the talk about Sansa’s marriage started. Yes, she had made it perfectly clear that she was still tied to the Imp, no matter how little she liked it, and couldn’t marry another as long as Tyrion was alive. At first her lords had listened to her and agreed with her arguments, relieved to have at least one true Stark back in their midst. Nonetheless, as moons waxed and waned, their mood started to change.

Sandor had been invited to participate in the regular council meetings organised to discuss important matters of the North and Winterfell – at Sansa’s insistence, he knew. King Stannis had initially assumed that he would still run the affairs of the North on Sansa’s behalf as the most experienced leader, but he had his plate full with his ambitions for the rest of the Westeros. When Sansa had first suggested joining the others so that she could listen and better understand the matters important for the bannermen of her house - as she had put it - Stannis had graciously agreed.  So Sansa had joined the lords and knights and important men of the North; Umbers, Ryswells, Karstarks and many others.

At first she had settled into the role of an innocent young maiden who knew little of the ways of the world. She had listened more than talked, had nodded in agreement to any notion that met her approval and withheld her judgment on those that didn’t. However, under Sandor’s observant gaze she had slowly started to take part in the discussions, formulating her sentences politely and seeking an agreement from others before proceeding. Her arguments were reasonable and valid and her suggestions made sense, and so the men of the North started to pay attention to her words. Sandor couldn’t hide his amusement about the way she gradually turned those gatherings around with most of the council members not even realising that it had happened; how those council meetings had turned into Sansa’s council meetings.

He had expressed his admiration to Sansa one night, laughing at the way she had led all those mighty men on a merry ride, and at first she had laughed with him before turning serious and telling him how she had learned a lesson or two about ruling – or to be precise, how not to rule, from Queen Cersei and King Joffrey. Just mentioning those names from the past had deflated their good mood and Sandor had pulled her into his arms and just patted her silken hair, feeling a lump in his throat and cursing for the hundredth time his miserable failures back in King’s Landing.

Despite Sansa now being the un-anointed head of those meetings, lately she had also become the main subject of them. It had started with innocent queries and mild suggestions, but as time went by the voices grew louder and the proposals bolder.

“With all due respect, Lady Sansa, nobody has heard a whisper about the fate of Tyrion Lannister since he escaped the dark cells,” Harrion Karstark announced once again at the beginning of one such assembly.

“It is true, my lady. He might as well be dead, most likely he is dead,” Rickard Ryswell followed. Murmured agreements followed that and Sansa looked around with poorly concealed agitation on her face.

“Might be so, but as long as there is no confirmation, I still remain his wedded wife,” she said aloud.

“My lady, nobody can expect you to stay married to a man forever if he is not heard of,” intervened King Stannis. His usual frown had not left his face but he, too, had accepted Sansa’s strengthened position after having witnessed many of her suggestions leading to good outcomes. “Everyone knows and agrees that it is possible to release the wife from the marriage vows and allow her to marry again in such cases. All it needs is a septon’s word.”

“Or the word of the lord of the land,” Lord Karstark continued. “King Stannis will gladly grant such a notion, I’m sure.” Again shouted approvals followed the statement.

“My lady, if you will excuse my bluntness, the North needs an heir,” Galbart Glover called out, an older man with grey at his temples. Sansa looked around her in desperation and Sandor followed her gaze, seeing as well as she did the uniform enthusiasm of the council members.

“My lords, even if that would pass and I married, what if my first husband returns? I could be put on trial for bigamy!” Sansa pleaded her case. Her face was flushed and Sandor could hear desperation in her voice. Why? Every woman wants children, don’t they? Needless to say, Sansa continued drinking moon tea, now smuggled to her by Sandor from Wintertown. The old hag selling the brew didn’t ask who he needed it for and he didn’t bother to make up any lies. The likelihood of anyone connecting him to their esteemed lady was so remote that as long as they were careful not to actually get caught together, he felt there was little need for him to be secretive about his actions.

“That is not a worry, my lady. Should that happen, and especially if you were blessed with children in that marriage, the king can legitimise them even if they in theory were bastards. Then House Stark at least would be assured of its continuation. Surely you can’t count on Lord Tyrion to be found alive to ensure the bloodline of House Stark?” King Stannis’s words were dry but every one of them was sound and true and Sandor could see how Sansa recoiled at the realisation of the same.

What the North needed was the assurance of its future. As its past did, its future lay with House Stark, just like it had for the last eight thousand years.

Sandor scanned the room and all around he saw smiling faces and nodding heads, firm in their belief that this was a perfect solution to the problem. As happy as the rest of the congregation was, his mood was equally dark when he once more digested the core of the matter.

She needs to marry. Stannis or a septon will say a few words and all the houses of the North will descend on her with their eligible sons and widowers to woo her. And she will wed one of them and your days in the sun are over, dog.

The inevitability of the notion gnawed at his soul as it had done already for longer than he cared to admit. Sandor had tried to ignore it but it had niggled and niggled and cast a shadow over the nights he spent with Sansa. A fool’s dream, that’s all it was. As if a dog and a lady could ever be.  Without anyone noticing he sneaked out of the hall and found his way to the kitchens, snatched several skins of wine and withdrew to his room. There he drank himself steadily into a kind of stupor he hadn’t been in since the night of the Battle of the Blackwater, wallowing in his misery. If Sansa lay awake that night in vain waiting for him, he couldn’t get up and go to her. Not now.

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Besides the heavy hammering inside his skull and queasiness in his stomach, Sandor woke up the next morning with a new resolution that had firmly taken root in his mind. He avoided Sansa’s chambers that evening and for several evenings after that; for so many that he could see the worry and questions on Sansa’s face when they ran into each other during the day. Nonetheless, he couldn’t tell her what kept him away. I am going to lose you soon, little bird, and we both better get ready for it.

After making his decision Sandor’s nights were lonely and often he found himself searching for her soft form by his side, his hand reaching across the empty void only to wake up and realise that she wasn’t there. The habits deeply ingrained in him over the years had dissolved and been carelessly cast away, just like a poor man used to wearing rags because he has nothing better gladly throws those tatters aside when given princely clothes. He, who had lived his life alone and had preferred it that way, was now only half the man without the slip of a girl who had sneaked her way into his life, his soul and into his very core. And now he needed to fight against it and gain control of himself all over again.

Sansa didn’t stray far from Sandor’s mind during those days – on the contrary, she was what he thought of when it took all his willpower to refuse taking the hidden passage and climbing the stairs to see her. He knew that she was waiting for him on her bed, her hair free, clad only in a silken shift, ready and willing to open her arms – and legs – for him should he only go to her. He had to press his eyes with his thumbs so hard that he saw stars to distract his mind from the images floating in his head. It was hard but he did it – and resisted her lure.

Yet it was like a scab that he couldn’t help prodding and scratching. Lowering his guard had led to an open wound being inflicted into his core that now needed to heal and harden – but the poison had seeped under it and it festered, wept and hurt, like all the seven hells together.

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Nonetheless, bit by bit Sandor’s resolution strengthened just as a scar eventually forms on top of the gravest of wounds. He also realised that it was not enough to stay away from her chambers; he had to leave. It was only a matter of time before Sansa gave in to the pressure regarding her marriage; only a matter of time before one of the men already circling around her would be declared her chosen and they got married next to a weirwood tree in the Godswood. Her lord husband would take her to his bed and put a babe in her belly and all Sandor could do was to follow. Once the babe was born, Sansa would focus her attentions on it, as all women did - and rightly so. Sandor knew that Sansa dearly wanted children and of course he couldn’t grant her any. No bastards for the highborn Lady Stark.

He also knew that she would never send him away – she was kind and sentimental in that way - but how could he endure being close to her in that situation? Just a good fuck, and when the time comes, acknowledge that it is over – he cursed and let out a hollow laugh. Bloody fucking hells! How stupid he had been, thinking that. How blind.

Sandor had believed he could accept being her secret lover, have his fun with her and take whatever she was willing to give. He had thought he could take it like a man when it was time for their arrangement to end. Now he knew that it had been a fool’s fancy – he had no such strength. The sooner he let her know that the better; he owed her that much. Then he would ask for the rest of his payment, take Stranger and finally leave as he should have done that first time after escaping the Burned Men, or after he had escorted her safely back to Winterfell.

So it was that the Hound in him asserted itself once more and he closed his heart from the silly dreams he had allowed to seep in. He ordered a new set of daggers from the keep’s smith, visited a saddler to fix Stranger’s gear for the long journey, had his armour cleaned and oiled and gathered all his meagre belongings into his room. Still he didn’t have it in him to seek Sansa out for the final confrontation. Every morning he woke up determined that this was the day he would tell her about his decision, and every evening he went to bed cursing his weakness for not having done so. What the hell he was waiting for? Her wedding day?

It might have stayed that way even longer had Sansa one day not sent him a missive written in her graceful hand, asking him to come and see her as soon as possible on an urgent and confidential matter. The letter specified no time or place in case it was seen by unwanted eyes but he knew what she meant. To my chambers, tonight.

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Sandor had decided to come clean with her right away. He didn’t want there to be any false pretences and as painful as it was going to be, better to get it out sooner rather than later. What he hadn’t calculated was the distraction caused by Sansa’s eager greeting and the urgency with which she pulled him into the room and onto her bed. Not because of a sudden wanton desire, as it soon turned out, but for holding and touching and scrutinising his face in the dim firelight.

“What is it, Sandor? Why have you been avoiding me?”

Sandor felt uncomfortable and tried to push himself up to his elbows but Sansa rested her hand on his chest and he succumbed. While he considered how to start to explain his actions, having lost the edge afforded by physical distance he had counted on, she continued.

“Don’t tell me. I think I know what it is and I don’t want to discuss it. I will not marry another and that is that. Come closer, rest by my side and let’s forget all that foolishness.” She pulled his head down and against his better judgment Sandor gave in, snuggled into the crook of her arm and burrowed close to her, so close that if it had been physically possible he would have shared her skin, her body. As it was not, he settled by her side, his head on her chest and he listened to her steady heartbeat. Thump…thump…thump… No other sound broke the silence of the night bar the crackling of the fire and the slight rustle of the bed as Sansa shifted to embrace him better.

One last time, he thought as the temptation soon became too much when Sansa’s wandering hands awakened him and he responded with their well-used but far from stale routine of caressing, exploring and starting fires that needed to be quenched. However this time was different – he was different. Never had he taken such great care of her needs, nor stilled his motions to almost non-existence in order to enjoy every single moment and movement, every sensation and feeling to its fullest. That night before they entered the Neck had carried a desperate air in it, and so had the afternoon near Cerwyn Castle, but the difference now was the he knew this to be the last time but she didn’t. Sandor felt the biggest mummer and the lowliest liar on earth but he had to have her one more time as she was now; sweet, caring, affectionate – happy.

Afterwards they lay naked under the covers and still the words didn’t come. Sansa kissed him softly on the shoulder and from the way she drew her breath he knew that she was going to speak.

“I have to leave, Sansa,” he stole the moment from her.

‘Surely not yet? The night is still young. Stay longer, sleep with me.”

“I didn’t mean now, from your chambers, I mean I have to leave Winterfell.”

The silence that followed was excruciating. Finally he heard a timid voice next to him.

“Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because you will soon marry some Northern lord or their get and there is no point in me hanging around here after that like some castaway cur. I know it, you know it. Only I will act on it.”

“I told you I will not marry anyone. I don’t care about what the council says. They may want me to but I am a grown woman and I don’t have to adhere to their wishes. This is my land, my house and my decision.” Sansa’s voice got stronger as she spoke, obviously gaining strength from her own convictions. Sandor would have laughed at that had the situation not been so serious.

“It is not their wishes that matter here, little bird. Don’t you see it? It will be your own wish as well. Did you come all this way here just for your own good? Are you repairing the keep just for your own comfort? Are you liaising with Stannis and all your bannermen only to keep yourself safe? Look me in the eye and tell me that you are not doing this because you want to uphold House Stark in its rightful place in Winterfell and in the North, and I will tell you that you are lying.”

Sandor got into a sitting position and turned to look at Sansa. Gods she was beautiful! Lying against the sheets, her long hair spread against the pillow, her eyes sparkling and red spots of building anger emerging on her cheeks.

“Of course I do it for my house. What does that have to do with anything?”

Sandor sighed, suddenly weary. “You are not a silly girl anymore, so don’t act as one. If you don’t get married and have children there won’t be a House Stark any more. You are the only one left, as far as we know, and a noble house can’t count on dreams of little girls lost in the woods making a miraculous comeback.”

He didn’t want to look at her again but got up and started to pull on his breeches. His clothes were armour he needed to don to carry on his unpleasant mission. He expected more arguments and prepared for them but hearing nothing he turned to look at Sansa, wary of her wrath or frustration. What he didn’t expect was what he saw: Sansa sitting up with her knees raised in front of her, clutching at them desperately, staring at him and big tears flowing down her face. Her expression was such an image of misery that Sandor would have faced a horde of Bolton men and bloody Roose and Ramsay themselves rather than this. He cursed.

“Can’t you see that this is the way it has to be? Your plan was good, it was necessary that you were able to hold off marriage schemes until you established your position. Had you been ready to marry right away, you wouldn’t have had this chance to make people see your own strength. Things are different now because of what you did. Whoever you wed will be your spouse but not your lord ruling over you.” Sandor knew that being dominated by someone once again was what Sansa most objected to. She didn’t respond, however, only staring at him mutely, and her tears almost brought him undone but Sandor hardened his heart.

“Besides, you deserve to have children. All women do, and you know I can’t give you lowborn bastards. Doesn’t even matter who you wed, as long as he treats you well, because then you will have a family. A house full of Starks and you will love your children and the North will rise again with them - and you will soon forget you ever met a mongrel like me. I know that’s how it is going to be. Trust me.”

He was now fully clothed and stood in front of her bed, unsure what he should do next. Leave her there, silent tears still rolling down her cheeks? Comfort her and risk being pulled back to her and lose his resolve?

Sansa acted before he did, throwing herself from the bed against him, grasping him with a desperate and hard grip that made him wince as her nails bit into his biceps.

“You can’t walk away now, Sandor! How can you say such things, how can you think that way? You can’t be serious! Not after all we have gone through…” Her voice was shrill and speech thick, her words choked by emotions. “Why don’t you marry me? That way you and I can have all the things we need and desire.”

“Bloody hells, woman, do you think I WANT to leave? Yet leave I must. One of us has to have some sense and clearly that’ll be me. As for me marrying you, you must be soft in the head. Do you think the lords would allow that? That Stannis would give us his blessing?” He spoke more harshly than he had intended – he couldn’t bear Sansa’s pleading. She was deaf to his words though, only clutching him tighter and burying her face against him. Determinedly Sandor reached for the soft arms coiled around him, one after another, and peeled them away from his body. That didn’t deter Sansa who only pressed harder against him and so he had to push her body away as well. Sansa tried to hold on and ended up sliding down him as she would a tree trunk. At the end she was crumpled in a heap against his legs, curling her arms around his knees.

“I plead with you, Sandor, don’t do this. I’m crawling on my hands and knees in front of you begging you not to leave me! Have a heart!”

The sight of the proud daughter of Winterfell naked and begging at his feet pierced Sandor worse than thousand daggers. That he should be the cause of her pain made him hate himself – and for a moment he wanted to hate her too.

“Get up, Sansa! Never crawl in front of a man, least of all me. It wouldn’t help if you crawled all the way from Winterfell to Wintertown, that wouldn’t made any difference.” Suddenly Sandor wanted to be cruel, wanted to make her hate him if that made his departure easier for her to swallow. “Or mayhap it would, mayhap I would reconsider after that. Would you want that? Would you want to abase yourself in front of your lords and your people and for what – for a dog?!”

He leaned down and yanked Sansa to her feet and raised her up, staring at her without flinching. “If you did that, how long do you think your lords would be loyal, huh? If you did that, how soon do you think you’d start hating me? Because you would, mark my words. And that is something I couldn’t take!”

Sandor had to leave, and soon. A moment longer in that room looking at Sansa’s puffy eyes, her contorted mouth and her nakedness which she didn’t even bother to try to cover, and all his defences and resolution would crumble to dust. A minute longer and he would take her into his embrace and kiss and soothe and beg for her forgiveness for hurting her in such an abominable way. He knew that it would only lead them back to where they were, no closer to facing the reality which as sure as hells was ready to face them.

He lifted her into his arms and carried her to the bed, then tugged the blankets up to her chin to cover her.

“Believe me girl, this is best for everyone. You will see it yourself once you get over this. I know you will. You are a strong Northern woman and you have been through worse than this.” Sansa seemed to have given up and only laid there listlessly so he dared to give her a peck on the forehead. His rough lips met her smooth skin and immediately he regretted his decision and pushed up, abruptly.

At the door he turned for one more look but saw Sansa already having burrowed under the blankets so that all he could see were a few strands of red hair peeking from under it.

“I will talk to you later, in a few days. We have to make this official lest there are questions about my sudden departure. If you can find it in your heart to pay me what I am owed and bid me a cordial farewell in front of the keep, that should be enough. For your own sake, not for me. Or if you prefer me to sneak away in the dark of night like the craven everyone thought me to be, that’s fine as well. No hair off my arse. Just let me know which you prefer.”

He lingered at the door for a few more heartbeats, searching for something else to say, but came up empty. He had already said enough.

Sandor turned and walked away. From the only good thing he had ever had in his whole miserable life.

                                            

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

Sansa closed her eyes, took a deep breath and counted to ten. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. And then to twenty. She needed all the schooling she had had in the Red Keep about how to keep her true feelings in check and portray outwardly only what she wanted to, only what she needed to. Her nails dug into the soft skin of her palms as she clenched her hands in her lap, protected from sight by the table.

She had enjoyed the council meetings in the beginning, but as the talk in them turned more and more towards her future marriage she had started to detest them. This particular meeting had been one of the worst, the men in the room blithely ignoring her protestations and squawking about marriage and children as if things were that simple! From the corner of her eye she saw Sandor leaving the room, his large size making it impossible for him to sneak out unnoticed. She knew he too was weary of the talk but he had never raised the topic with her when they were alone.

She longed to follow him and could hardly wait until this farce of an evening was over and she would hear his soft scratching on her door and she could hold him in her arms once more. Sansa made a mental note to force the topic that evening, as unpleasant as it was. She had to let him know that she had no plans to marry and only listened to her lords out of politeness.

Yet when the hush fell over the castle and she waited, cocking her head for Sandor’s steady footsteps, he didn’t come.

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Sansa’s days were never idle, just like her lady mother’s had never been. Cersei and Margaery and other ladies in the South might have had the luxury of indolence but in Winterfell everyone toiled, and after the sack and so much devastation, even more than before.  Hence Sansa had hardly time to wonder about Sandor’s absence the next day. Besides, they didn’t spend every single night together anyway; both she and Sandor sometimes had duties that lasted long into the night.

Sansa worked on the handlooms weaving new covers and blankets to replace the ones lost in the turmoil of the war, and the monotony of the task gave her time to think. She wondered what had happened to Tyrion. Was he still alive or lying in an unmarked grave or in a ditch somewhere? Had the shrewdest of the Lannisters met his fate far away from his lands and family? As much as she had despised their union, she couldn’t deny that Tyrion had shown at least some degree of decency towards her. She knew that he had hoped to find an ally in her, he in his own way also being a pawn for his powerful family. Nonetheless, he was still a Lannister and Sansa hadn’t found it in her heart to forgive him that, nor how he had continued to strive towards advancing his family’s fortunes, not caring if in the process it destroyed everything that was important to her. In the end he had killed his own father…the cruellest fate of all. A kinslayer. Sansa shuddered.

Suddenly she heard a soft voice next to her.

“My dear child, is something the matter?”

Queen Selyse was an odd woman and Sansa had never been able to completely relax in her company, but she was kind in her own way and meant well towards her so she didn’t mind her strange ways.

“No, Your Grace, just a chill in the room,” she responded, glancing at the figure sitting in the chair on the other side of the looms. Queens didn’t weave but she was embroidering an elaborate cloth for her strange god, R’hllor.

“It is cold here, that is true, but at least you don’t have the eternal wind from the sea,” Selyse sighed. If she missed her old home she never showed it, always unfailingly patient and supportive of the two causes she believed in more than anything; her Lord of Light and her husband the King.

In a rare moment of feeling a sympathetic bond with the only woman in Winterfell who had shared a life similar to hers, filled with the obligations of a noble lady and an arranged marriage, Sansa raised her voice again.

“There is much talk about my marriage, as you may know, Your Grace. What are your thoughts on the matter, I wonder?”

The older woman stopped her task and looked at Sansa, contemplating.

“Marriage is a blessed state, especially if followed by children. Your lord husband being likely dead, I’d expect you to be looking forward to a more suitable union.” Her features softened when she continued. “Aren’t you, Lady Sansa? Longing for a babe of your own?”

“I am not sure if I in good conscience could marry another. Who would be a suitable candidate anyway? If ever even a sighting of Tyrion Lannister is confirmed, this man would cease being my husband and his children would become bastards. Not many men are ready to endure such uncertainty.” Sansa felt she had to make somebody understand her predicament and be sympathetic to her position – even if her true motivations were different to those she professed.

“I doubt that matters much. Being wed to the Lady of Winterfell and siring the future Lord Stark is its own reward for sure. Besides, you are a beautiful girl and many men like that in a woman, being ready to forget many other inconveniences because of that. There will be no lack of candidates when the time comes.” Selyse leaned confidentially towards Sansa and lowered her voice.

“Or maybe there is already somebody in your mind and you are worried that he may not be ready to settle to the situation?” Her dark eyes glinted in the last rays of sunlight piercing through the window.

“Oh no, there is no one!” Sansa exclaimed before her curiosity got the better of her. “If there was, what of it? Does it really matter whom I marry, high or low? Excuse my bluntness, Your Grace, but the matter boils down to the need for heirs to my house, and in that one man might be as good as another.”

The queen looked at her thoughtfully for a while. “A man high or low? I have never thought of it that way. We nobles marry nobles, that’s the way of the world.” She let out a stifled noise. “If only my lord husband and I had been blessed with sons, one of them would have been a perfect candidate for you, and you a worthy bride for him.” The woman’s eyes misted over and Sansa shifted uncomfortably in her seat. After a while the queen seemed to have gathered herself and continued.

“Up here there are not many nobles, especially as men of these lands eschew the honours of knighthood. So you may not have much choice, my dear girl. Yet the lordship of House Stark follows the blood, so the next Lord Stark will still be the son you have with your lord husband, whoever he is. The Lord of Light blessing your union, of course.”

The queen returned to her sewing after those words and missed the effect they had on Sansa, who sat up straighter, staring at the wall and the crumbling mortar between the aged stone slabs. She had never seriously considered anyone as her husband, only pushing the matter as far away from her mind as possible. Now she found herself thinking about it earnestly for the first time.

Sansa was not stupid; she knew as well as anyone else the hard facts of the situation. She had accepted that eventually, maybe years away, she would have to marry. She had been brought up her whole life knowing that her life was not truly her own, just like Robb’s life’s path had not been his to determine. Firstborns of noble houses learned those lessons early on, as did their younger siblings. If in her foolishness she had once dreamt of love and marriage with a perfect prince, she had always known it could also go the other way. Her own mother had been wedded to a man she had hardly known and her aunt to a man who was already old and settled in his ways before their union. One of them had been lucky, the other less so, but both of them had nonetheless been powerless to change the course of their lives.

While weaving hues of dun brown and earthy greens into a sturdy fabric, Sansa started to consider all the men she knew to be secretly positioning themselves as her future groom. With regret she had to dismiss Sandor soon enough, knowing how impossible that would be. He was not a Northerner and still only grudgingly tolerated by many, even after his tamed behaviour and many good deeds in the service of House Stark. Sighing and moving away from her lover Sansa estimated each and every other possible suitor by one criterion only; how likely it would be for her to be able to continue her liaison with Sandor after the marriage.  

Anyone already in love with her would not do, as such a man could be possessive and demanding of her attentions. Maybe somebody old and kindly? Maybe Hellion Tallhart, who was a widower, a bulky man still only just past the prime of his life? He was thoughtful and considerate and not known ever to have lost his temper. Even better, he had two adult sons which proved that he could sire them. Or maybe Torstein Karstark, likewise an older man, never married but known to have baseborn children in his keep? Sansa blushed realising that she was assessing her bannermen as a farmer does bulls, based on their ability to breed. Yet she had to be realistic. If an heir was needed, surely it was better to marry someone who could produce one? As much as the blame for barrenness was mostly laid at a wife’s feet, it was known that a husband had a role to play too. Many a maid didn’t carry babes with their first husbands, but produced a brood of them after marrying another.

Yes, someone old and kind…  Not so kind as to endure a liaison with another from his wife, she had to grudgingly admit, as that was surely unthinkable. Perhaps still kind enough to let her live her life on her own and only bother her to ensure the begetting of children?

Sansa shuddered again. The thought of any other man touching her, no matter how nice or gentle, filled her with revulsion. Sandor had been her first and only lover and the pleasure and contentment she experienced in his arms had made her incompatible with anyone else. Without noticing it her weave started to get denser and denser as she worked through her frustration with her hands, and sighing deeply she finally had to undo large parts of the cloth.  She winced at the stiff handiwork so unlike her usual soft and pliable product.  

Oh well. There is still time. I won’t think about this now, she finally concluded, then set aside her looms and started to count the time until she could retire to her chambers. Surely Sandor would come to her this evening?

Their time together lately had been so harmonious and joyful - like a peaceful haven after all the struggles it had taken for them to get there. During the days Sansa longed to see Sandor in the evening, and during the nights she wished she could be by his side in the daylight. His imposing presence in the yard or in the hall sent sparkles of happiness traveling through her body and sometimes she had to turn to hide the smile that spread across her face at the sight of her lover.

Although Sandor never told her that he loved her, Sansa didn’t begrudge him that. Nor did she regret her own confession. He was still so much like the hound in Howland Reed’s story; wary and cautious, unsure whether he could really believe the way his life had turned. Sansa just had to give him more time and show him her love and maybe in time he would start to feel more comfortable about those things. Moreover, who needed the words when his every act spoke of his feelings loud and clear?

----------

Despite her confidence, as days passed and Sandor stayed away, Sansa couldn’t avoid getting worried. He was still there, his presence constant and reassuring, but also a reminder to her that something was not quite right. She followed him with her gaze in the Great Hall during the evening meals, one of the few times they were assured of being in the same room at the same time.

She couldn’t move her eyes away from his large hands tearing into a chunk of bread, squeezing and ripping, showing both delicacy and force. As he does with me. She observed the way he raised a goblet to his lips and drank deeply, the way his braid rested on his shoulder, a few wisps of dark hair brushing his cheeks and forehead. The corners of his eyes wrinkling when he looked up at something on the other side of the hall – but never at Sansa, always turning away if by coincidence their eyes met. Sansa could have walked to him and demanded his attention, but the notion disturbed her.  Why is he not coming to me? What has changed?

She tried to find situations where she could approach him in private, as few and far between they were. One day her steps took her into the training yard where the clang of steel and thudding sounds of wooden swords and war hammers drifted into the castle air from sunrise til sundown. Winterfell’s troops were reforming and there were many wet-behind-the-ear recruits who needed to be taught how to defend their lands. Sandor had taken much of the training upon himself after becoming annoyed by the ineptitude of the youngsters.

He was there, as Sansa had expected, barking orders and foul-mouthed curses to anyone who didn’t respond to his instructions in the way he deemed adequate. She stopped next to the middle section of the fence separating the practice area from the walkway, but if Sandor saw her, he didn’t give any indication of it.

Once again Sansa was captivated by the way he moved, almost impossibly graceful considering his size. Young boys much lighter and with nimble limbs looked like wooden mummer’s dolls with their jerking movements and slow reactions compared to the dark warrior who ducked and weaved, turned and lunged with the elegance and force of a wild animal. How he could do that was a mystery to Sansa.

As she stood there, shivering slightly in the early evening chill in her shawl, she suddenly heard a deep voice next to her.

“So it takes a Southerner to show the men of the North how ‘tis done, does it?”

Sansa startled and threw a quick look at the speaker, recognising him as one of the senior men-of-arms, Roddel; one of the few she remembered seeing in Winterfell before…everything. Then he had been just one of many amongst the troops, but over the years by the grace of his skills and undoubtedly just by pure luck he had stayed alive through the Young Wolf’s campaigns and returned to Winterfell with the few other survivors of the Red Wedding. He was now one of the captains of the garrison and widely respected by all.

“He is not exactly a Southerner, but hails from the Westerlands,” Sansa offered mildly, wondering if Roddel’s statement had been intended as a rebuke.

“My apologies, Lady Sansa, for barging into your presence like this.” The man made a sweeping but unsteady bow, the kind that would have earned giggles and sneers in King’s Landing, but which Sansa received with a genuine smile and a gracious nod of her head. Sometimes it amused her how people thought that she needed to be treated like a highborn lady with sweeps and curtseys. She was one, of course, but no amount of bowing or scraping would increase it or take it away. She knew none of that came naturally to the folk of Winterfell and hence she was especially touched when they made the effort for her benefit.  

“I saw you looked a bit cold and I thought this might be useful.” He presented her with a woollen cloak and after Sansa’s affirmation draped it around her shoulders. It was heavy and smelled of outdoors and horse but it was warm and Sansa wrapped it tightly around her, grateful for the thoughtfulness it conveyed.

Instead of moving away, Roddel stayed where he stood. They both stared into the middle of the yard where Sandor commanded the whole enclosure with his towering presence.

“He may be from the West but your man is becoming one of the North.”

Sansa turned to her companion, delighted to hear someone speaking favourably of Sandor. How he had been received still sometimes smarted, the unfairness of it.

“So he is – although he is not exactly my man, but a man of Winterfell.”

Roddel looked at her oddly but said nothing. Sansa ignored it in favour of fulfilling her curiosity.

“Still, what makes you say so?”

“I am not blind. He came here with a reputation, and a poor one at that. A craven, a turn-cloak, a brutal butcher, a Lannister lackey.” Seeing Sansa’s brow furrow Roddel raised his hands in supplication before hastily continuing, “Yet we have now seen the man for what he is. You know as well as I, my lady, that here in the North we prefer to judge a man for his deeds and words, not for the idle wagging of many tongues that can speak many things for many reasons.”

Sansa observed the dark brown eyes, the stubble of his greying beard and light brown short-cropped hair and in him she saw the honestly and truthfulness she had missed during her years in the South. Roddel looked her straight in the eye when he spoke and she knew that he told the truth.

“I am glad to hear that. He was not exactly welcomed when he first came here.”

Roddel spat on the ground, a big glob that landed perfectly across the fence posts to the sand on the other side. As if realising his uncouth behaviour he shuffled on his feet and threw an apologetic look at Sansa.

“’Tis true, my lady. But minds have changed since then. The men respect him and his skills. A coarse man he is, foul-mouthed and hard to please, but he is fair and he puts his body on the line as not many men in his position would.”

“What exactly is his position, pray tell? You do know that he has never taken knightly vows and is no lord of any lands?”

For a moment it looked like Roddel was about to spit again, but thinking it over he restrained himself, only snorting his scorn through his nose.

“Knights! We don’t really care about them here. There’s a few of them around, most knighted in good Lord Ned’s campaigns during the Robert’s Rebellion, and some of them knighted their sons and bannermen in turn. Nah, that doesn’t matter.”

“What about lordship or the prominence of his house?”

Roddel seemed to think of it for a second. “From what I have heard about Clegane’s Keep, it sounds mightily bigger than many of the wooden hovels some of your bannermen north and east and west from here hold, and that has nothing to do with their standing. Nor if they are second sons, or third. If a man is a good sort, that’s all that matters.”

He turned to look at Sansa and his expression was serious. “When the winter is coming it’s not the titles or the grandness of the house, especially if it is far away, that keeps trouble at bay. No, it is the strong arms and the steady head.”

A rush of satisfaction flooded over Sansa at those words. She had been right in insisting that Sandor stayed – and he had been right in insisting that he fight with the men to establish his standing among them. Yet it was one thing what the men-at-arms thought, and another what the opinions of high lords were.

“Do you know if these are the views also shared by the lords of the North? I am not always sure if they are as free with their words with me as they should. Many think me only a young woman, naïve in the ways of the world.” She smiled to lighten the meaning of her words but pricked her ears to pay close attention to what the man next to her would say.

He was silent for a while and Sansa wondered if he, too, was attempting to formulate something polite but dismissive as a response. Finally he cleared his throat.

“My lady, I hope you don’t mind me being blunt, but the day you returned to Winterfell many might have thought exactly that. You hadn’t been seen here for years, and the last time you were, you were just a young girl, polite and well-behaved but more interested in dresses and cakes than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with that.” Unexpectedly he smiled. “I have two girls of my own, two-and-ten and nine years of age, and I know exactly how frivolous and fleeting a young maid’s mind can be.”

“Oh,” was all Sansa could think of to say.

“Yet that was then and things are different now. Indeed, if you don’t mind an old man speaking his mind, sometimes it is like Lord Eddard himself has returned to us, with you at the head of matters now. He was never one of those lords who had to rant and rave to make things happen. He was quiet, but when he needed something done, there was no mistaking that it was done exactly as he wanted. You, my lady, are the same. Just like your father, you have not led us astray yet and I can’t see that happening in the future either. I am not alone in this, mind you, all your lords feel the same although some of them might be rather embarrassed to admit it.”

Roddel rocked back on his heels with his hands behind his back, a satisfied expression on his face after having delivered his verdict.

Sansa couldn’t help blushing slightly out of pleasure at hearing his words.

“It pleases me greatly to hear you say these things. As my father, I too strive towards the good of my house, my bannermen and all the people in the North.”

“We know that, my lady, and we support you. Whatever you decide, it will be for all the right reasons, I have no doubts about it. Neither do the lords, soldiers or the small folk.”

Silence ensued after that, leaving Sansa to cherish the man’s words in her mind, thrilled about the amount of respect they conveyed.

“’Tis a shame if he leaves, having settled here so well.” Roddel finally commented, still observing the men in their exercises.

She raised her head and blinked in confusion. Who, what?

“What do you mean?”

Roddel pointed at Sandor, who had taken up a wooden sword and was now facing three opponents at once, shouting instructions to them how to best attack him. His face was sweaty from the strain of exercise and he flicked his hair back without letting his eyes leave his opponents. Sansa glanced at him in confusion.

“The saddler told me he has ordered a set of saddle bags and a new saddle and brought his foul-tempered horse’s bridle and reins in for repair. Looks like preparations for a journey. Are you sending him on a mission then?”

Sansa felt a wave of nausea in the pit of her stomach. She lifted her hand to her throat, which was suddenly dry as parchment.

“No, no missions planned nor is he going to go anywhere. I am sure it is just normal maintenance,” she managed to say.

“Hmph, that is good to hear. As I said, he’s a good sort and we need men like him.”

They stayed there for a while longer until darkness started to seep in and the men in the yard started to gather their things. Sansa had planned to wait until Sandor returned to the keep and walk there with him, but suddenly she felt she was not ready for that. She turned away, handed the cloak back to Roddel with her thanks and walked briskly back to her rooms.

----------

The more she thought about Roddel’s words, the calmer she became. Of course Sandor was not going to go anywhere! She remembered him grumbling about the poor state of his horse’s leathers, and here he finally had a chance to look into it. He also had coin, a fair reward for fair work, so there was nothing unusual in him actually attending to those matters.

After what they had now there was no way he would be leaving without telling her. Yes, admittedly he had been behaving oddly lately, but by now Sansa had guessed the reason for it; it must have been because of those annoying demands for her to get married! She remembered him sneaking away from the hall after one especially loud argument about the matter, and after that he had kept his distance. Surely he can’t think I am seriously considering it?

Sansa decided she had to take action to sort the matter before the situation grew any worse. The next day she wrote a neat note with her own hand addressed to Sandor Clegane.

A matter of great importance has come to my attention and I require your assistance in resolving the issue. I trust your knowledge and skills will aid me in this and hence this request. This matter is both urgent and confidential and I ask you to respond to it at your earliest convenience.

She signed the note with flourishing initials “SS”, folded it into a tight square and handed it to a servant boy with instructions to deliver it to Sandor Clegane’s own hand as soon as possible. To sweeten the deal, knowing how children were still frightened of Sandor’s fearsome appearance and intense stare she gave the boy a small coin as a reward. She stared at the retreating back of the boy, hopping and skipping in his delight of an unexpected boon, hoping that Sandor would understand what she hadn’t been able to write. To my chambers, tonight.

----------

A familiar soft scratch on her door confirmed for her that he had.

Sansa opened the door and for a moment her heart fluttered at the sight him on her doorstep after so many nights away. She would have never imagined such a thought crossing her mind even a few months ago, but as she took in Sandor’s appearance she couldn’t help thinking how handsome he looked. Tall, muscular, strong features softened by a dense beard and darks strands of hair, and above all the misty grey eyes that didn’t carry the old rage in them anymore. His scars were the only feature that marred the overall look but even they didn’t matter to Sansa.

He looked ill at ease but Sansa decided to ignore that. Yes, he was annoyed and maybe even angry – but that mattered little now that he finally was here. They had not discussed the threat of her marriage properly and she resolved to clear away any misunderstandings about it in case that was the issue – but not now. Later.

For now she took his hand and pulled him with her to the bed, and not waiting for him even to stop and remove his boots she pushed him against the sideboard so Sandor lost his balance and fell on his back. He landed heavily, his vast mass making the bed boards creak alarmingly, but she followed and fell on top of him. Her weight was easily absorbed by his bulk and she shifted to a comfortable position, her hands crossed under her chin. She studied his face, its familiar lines and cracks, the shape of his nose and his eyes under his prominent eyebrows. Their grey was dark and intense and they stared back at her, giving nothing away.

“What is it, Sandor? Why have you been avoiding me?”

Sandor blinked and made a feeble attempt to rise, but Sansa didn’t allow it.

“Don’t tell me. I think I know what it is and I don’t want to discuss it. I will not marry another and that is that. Come closer, rest by my side and let’s forget all that foolishness.”

Just being near him seemed to flush away all the worries from her mind and Sansa sighed contentedly. When she was with Sandor, everything was right in the world. All her troubles seemed smaller and all her joys seemed bigger when she was able to share them with the one who had grown so close to her, no matter how much he might snort or laugh at her. The sense of feeling all alone in the world and being the only one left from a loving family, which had followed her every day since her father’s beheading, seemed to recede when she was with him. He was now her family, her pack, and the satisfaction Sansa felt went much, much deeper than a simple passion of the flesh could ever do.

Yet she couldn’t deny that part of their relationship either. She never got tired of his body and the reactions he raised in her. She had become much surer of herself and her desires and had learned more about his, and so it was that she had no hesitation in starting the provocation that was as old as the world itself; a wandering hand, teasing fingers, strategic positioning of her body to press subtly against his groin, a slow swirling motion of her hips…  Sansa enjoyed being the one to initiate the act, as it fed into her wanton desire to dominate this large man with his unsurpassable strength, relying on nothing but the power of his feelings and desire for her.

Soon Sandor roused to her game and responded, sighing and grunting but otherwise wordlessly turning her on her back, removing her nightshift with a few sure movements and exploring her curves with his large hands and intense gaze. He invested such care and attention in his mission it felt almost as he was seeing her for the very first time. It amused and delighted Sansa, squirming under his touch. He has missed me too! He is just too stubborn to admit it or come to me after first staying away. She hid the curve of her lips lest he saw it and asked her about it; she was happy to let him think that he was not quite as plain for her to read as he was.

When he entered her it was slow, teasingly so, stopping after every few pushes, and it was then that Sansa could feel Sandor’s whole body trembling, taut as a bowstring under her hands. Why he should torture himself – and her – so, she couldn’t understand, and she whispered soft words into his ear, partly encouraging, partly pleading. When she eventually felt all of him inside her, she sighed and formed silent words with her mouth, not releasing a sound of them but repeating them over and over again just the same. I love you, I love you, I love you.

If she had been worried about his foul mood affecting their lovemaking she was soon proven wrong. Sandor was tender, attentive, his hands and mouth were everywhere and the depth of his need was overwhelming to her. She responded in earnest and once the peaks of their passion had overtaken them both she curled against him and felt happier than she could ever remember being. Whatever it had been that had kept Sandor away was over; he was here now and was going to be with her forever. One way or another, she was sure of it.

Hence his words, when they came, took her so completely unaware.

Sansa’s first reaction was not so much a reaction but a lack of one; it was as if time stopped and she just lay there and a terrible cold dread engulfed her, leaving her utterly frozen and still.

I have to leave Winterfell.

She rejected the words, willed them to go away, refused to accept them. It didn’t help though. She could sense that Sandor, too, lay motionless by her side and held his breath. Was he expecting her to reply? How could she respond to something like that?

“Why would you say such a thing?” Her throat was constricted and she felt she could hardly breathe – no wonder her words were hardly audible. This must be a misunderstanding. He means he has to leave for a while, he has something he has to do. Maybe he wants to visit the Quiet Isle again. Yes, it must be that. He will just go somewhere and be back soon again.  

Sansa’s mind raced, one thought chasing another, going back to Roddel’s earlier comment: ‘Looks like preparations for a journey’.  She hardly registered Sandor next words – but one of them caught her attention. Marry.

That gave her the presence of mind to respond. That was after all what she had planned to do in any case. No marriage for her, not for a long time. You see, you don’t have to go.

Her courage grew as she spoke, and for a brief moment so did her anger. Yet as soon as Sandor got up and started to don his clothes, all that bravery drained away and she was left only with the sight of the man she loved moving away from her, his wall - so thoroughly constructed over decades - falling back in place, piece by piece, along with the clothes he retrieved from the floor. Smallclothes hiding his manhood and his passions. Breeches and tunic covering his human form, and alongside his stern expression transforming him into somebody she didn’t know anymore.

Sansa’s eyes filled with tears and overflowed, forming wet trails on her cheeks as she buried her knees against her breasts and curled into a fetal position to protect herself from the blow.

Sandor turned and watched her sitting there but he didn’t come closer, only continuing to dress. One boot, then another, then his belt where a small dagger dangled – he never went anywhere without some kind of a weapon, not even to Sansa’s chambers – and bit by bit her confidant and companion changed into a steely-eyed warrior who looked at her with a stranger’s cold hard eyes. The Hound. Is back. she registered dully.

There was only one thing to do and Sansa lunged, not knowing exactly how, but her desperation gave her the strength to seize him, wrap her arms around his waist and hold on to him for dear life. Sandor spoke and his voice was cold but all the words flew over Sansa’s head as she clutched him as hard as she could. That was useless though, as his firm grip took hold of her arms, one after another, and peeled them away from him as if he was swatting a fly.

Sansa sank down Sandor’s body trying to clasp anything, anything at all that would prevent him from leaving. His thighs, his knees, his calves. A pain like a thousand daggers twisted in her belly past the initial numbness, and once again she found herself on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor when her father’s head was cut off; in the Great Hall in the Red Keep when the messengers brought the news about the Ironborn sacking Winterfell and murdering her young brothers; in her rooms with Tyrion Lannister when she first heard about the Red Wedding and the deaths of her mother and brother. The same shock, the same pain, the same horrible sinking feeling that left her terribly hollow and empty and the knowledge that she had lost something she could never get back.

She sobbed and pleaded and didn’t care about anything, not the harsh words he threw at her, not the indignity of her situation. All she cared about was holding on and not letting go.

However, her efforts were useless. Sandor yanked her to her feet and carried her like a ragdoll back into the bed and pushed her under the blankets - as if anything in the world could warm her after the ice-cold hit to her core he had just delivered.

Sansa was past crying. She was quiet and listless and maybe it was the shreds of self-preservation that prevented her feeling anything at all, not properly registering even the touch of his scarred lips on her forehead. A slight touch, then it was gone – and after the sound of a closing door, so was he.

Sansa burrowed deeper and deeper into the mattress, hoping she could burrow all the way to the point of non-existence. She shut her mind and refused to let the horrible truth come back to her, but the pain remained.

And that was the way she remained for the rest of that awful night.

                                               

 

Chapter Text

 

Sandor

Sandor drew a ragged breath, gulping down big mouthfuls of air while heaving heavy timber alongside the builders. His arms quivered with tension but he didn’t let go, his whole being focussed on getting the obstinate tree trunk to do his bidding. A few more forceful pushes, a few more tugs straining every man’s arms and shoulders to the point of breaking – and the roof beam of the new hall fell into place with a shattering thump.

He took a step back and crouched down, resting his hands on his thighs and catching his breath. Even for one as strong as him it had been a gruelling exercise. Yet physical activity soothed him and he welcomed the pain. It was like an old friend – the protestations of his tired muscles and the exhaustion at the end of the day helped him to sink into a dreamless sleep. That, and a flagon or two of wine. Sandor was careful about not drinking too much; he was leaving for a long journey soon and lapsing into his old habits wouldn’t be wise.

The unfinished hall belonged to one of the settlements Sansa had ordered to be built around Winterfell to replace the ones razed by the Ironborn. She had promised that Winterfell would help in the effort and had sent men to various sites to assist in the rebuilding.

Not Sandor though - that had been his own doing. He had wanted to get away from Winterfell and the hollowness he had carried around in his chest ever since the night he had broken the little bird - and something of himself too. Ruined his new life in the North just as surely as he had fucked up his old one in the South.

This particular morning he had followed a small group leaving on a mission to this scrap of a village, one of the closest to the keep. Its leader had welcomed an able-bodied man gladly into their midst and hadn’t asked too many questions, which was just fine by Sandor. He recognised most of the party bar a few new faces, beardless young boys.

The workmen settled down quietly around the hollow hall, each to wherever they found a vacant spot. Sandor sat on the ground and rested his sore back against a freshly cut wooden wall still smelling of forest. The boys he had noticed earlier settled down near him and threw curious glances in his direction.  Women shuffled around carrying baskets of food and offering them to the men. Sandor accepted a piece of dried beef but refused the hot broth doled out in simple clay pots.

He chewed the piece of stringy meat without any real appetite, swirling it around and around in his mouth, hardly tasting it. It had been like that for five days now, nothing rousing his appetite or interest. Nonetheless Sandor forced himself to swallow the sinewy meat – he needed his strength.

The first day after that night he had suffered the familiar headache from too much wine, having gone to the kitchens in the small hours of the morning to fetch it. He recognised that he was resorting to his past routine of drinking to quell his pain. He had wanted to be better than that, but after pacing in his room cursing and clenching his fists for hours he had finally admitted defeat and sought solace from the only source that had provided it before – however bitter and short-lived.

He hadn’t seen Sansa that day and after questioning her maids in the evening he had been informed that Lady Sansa had been taken ill and was resting. That had been enough to send him into another swell of impotent rage mixed with worry, and drowning his frustrations in wine again had been a real temptation – but he had abstained. Yes, it was likely his fault that Sansa was suffering. Yes, he probably should have gone to her and admitted that he had been a bloody fool and a mongrel. But he didn’t.

Instead Sandor had forced himself to lay in his bed, stiff as a plank. He had stared into the darkness thinking nothing, letting all thought seep away. “Fuck!” he had said out loud. Then louder. “FUCK IT!” Then he had tried to fall asleep but had of course failed miserably. Only when the pale light of pre-dawn had crept into his room had he finally succumbed to a fitful slumber.

Later that morning Sansa had showed up in the hall as usual, pale but calm. Sandor had shrunk in her presence and although part of him had wanted to go to her, another part had wanted to turn away. She certainly hadn’t thrown even one glance in his way, and as soon as he had been able, Sandor strode out of the hall and to the stables. Stranger had welcomed him with cocked ears and a soft snort and the simplicity of the bond between a man and a horse with no complications or conflicts had had a calming effect on his restless mind. He had ridden out of the gates towards the north to lose himself in the forest and hills and had stayed away until the late evening.

And so it had been ever since. It didn’t matter to him where he went. There were many places he could go to; a camp for the new soldiers in need of a lesson; building sites in need of manpower, keeps and strongholds with messages and supplies to be delivered. He didn’t care what the task was as long as it got him away. At first people looked at him oddly, but as he had always been allowed more latitude than most men-at-arms due to his special standing as Lady Sansa’s man, his requests were taken seriously and he could choose his tasks.

He rode out early in the morning, returning late at night, avoiding meal times in the Great Hall and satisfying his hunger with what he could glean from the kitchens. The head cook, a large woman called Betha, had taken pity on him for reasons unbeknown to Sandor. She was as wide as she was tall and ran her domain with an iron fist, enduring no nonsense from anyone, not even from the notorious Clegane. Yet she let him in and gave him a loaf of bread and cheese, or leftovers from a stew and a tankard of ale when he appeared at the back door. He received them with a grunt but she didn’t seem to mind, only shaking her head and tut-tutting as she watched him wolf the food down.

As deep in thought as he was, Sandor couldn’t help noticing the looks the boys gave to him. There were three of them; all young and fresh-faced, dark of hair and eye. He ignored them for a while but eventually the bravest of them inched closer as if wanting to address him.

“The hells are you looking at!?” he finally demanded, annoyed at the intrusion. The boy flinched but to his credit didn’t shy away.

“Ye the Hound, ser? The famous one hisself?”

Sandor spat on the ground and stared down at the boy.

“Not anymore. Clegane is the name, to you lot.”

The boy beamed and looked back at his companions.

“I tol’ ye so, lads! ‘Tis him!” The others nodded and looked suitably impressed. Sandor glared at them under his brow, hoping that after the confirmation they would leave him alone. Incidents like that happened every now and then, his reputation and unmistakable appearance being a combination to incite the curiosity of some brave souls.

“Might be we live up far, far ‘way, ye we like heard ‘bout the famous Hound!” the boy exclaimed, proud to have made the connection.

“Not far enough, wherever that is. What brings you here?” Sandor grunted, wondering what brought the youngsters, clearly from some remote settlement, to the hurly-burly of the North’s seat of power.

“From the Last Heart, and came ‘ere courting, yesser, courting for m’lady!”

“Our young master Harren came to court the fair Lady Sansa,” added the second boy, a bit older than his companions and with somewhat finer manners.

“Harren Umber?” spat Sandor.

“Aye, the young master. Doesn’t have a wife and came to try his luck with the fair lady.”

“Your master is on a fool’s errand then. The lady is taken, married to the Imp - doesn’t he know that?”

“Nay for long’, all folk knows that! An’ our master be a fine groom for any lady,” the first boy hollered.

“The whole North talks about her being soon free to marry another. Our lord is of old blood and as good as and better than anyone else in the North,” the second boy added with a proud smile and a grin, unshaken in his belief of the value of his master.

“We’ll be Winterfell men soon, I says. An’ serve our lady an’ our master side by side with th’ Hound.”

Sandor chewed his meat, grimacing at this reminder of the very reasons that had forced his hand. All folk knows that. Indeed, even more hopefuls had started to line up for Sansa’s hand. Just a matter of time.

He stood up briskly, ignoring both the curious boys and his aching muscles, wanting to get away from the discussion that had become too glum for his liking and wandered outside to find something to hit, smash or punch.

----------

Sandor stayed around for a while longer but the rest of the work consisted of laying down the roof slats, best left to real builders. The same restlessness that had driven him for the past days burned in him still so he decided to leave. He resolved to ride via Winterfell and seek out some other undertaking for the rest of the day. Anything. Bloody hells, he was ready to go and collect damned firewood if that was the only excuse he could make to get away from Sansa’s presence.

He knew himself to be a craven. A despicable one, the lowliest kind. Nevertheless, he had always been a pragmatic man and picked his battles carefully when he had had the luxury of doing so. In this one he knew that his course of action had been prudent, dictated by logic and common sense. The talk of their lady’s imminent marriage had clearly spread from the council hall to the camps and households all around the North, and the pressure was growing. Sandor saw how people rejoiced about the possibility of the blood of the wolf continuing after all had seemed to be lost. House Stark had ruled the North from time immemorial and the future without them had been an upsetting prospect for all.  He saw it, he heard it, and every time he witnessed it he became more convinced that no matter how unpleasant his decision had been, it had been the correct one.

Stranger’s gait was steady and his pace slow, leaving Sandor time to ponder about his future. The sooner he took his leave the better – a few more days and he simply had to swallow his misgivings and seek an audience with Sansa. He had no doubts about Sansa paying him what he was owed – she was not small-minded like that. What then? He scrutinised the landscape; pine forests with scant undergrowth as far as the eye could reach, rugged and majestic scenery which had started to appeal to him more than he had initially thought. The utility and simplicity of nature in the North resonated with his soul and made him feel oddly at home. He preferred it just as he favoured practical home-spun attire more than elaborate silks and fineries. Yet now he had to leave this all behind for the unknown across the sea.

Sandor had thought it over in his head many times; first a ride to White Harbor, then a ship to Gulltown and from there across the sea. Or if he was in luck, directly from White Harbor to Braavos. That would be as good a place as any to start searching for employment. He could hardly be selective in his quest; he only knew how to kill and protect, so he would either join a group of sellswords or become a guard or a protector for some fat merchant. Do his job, earn his wage, go on living his life one day at a time until the day he was killed in action or a sickness claimed him. A whore every now and then, a drink or two more often. Suddenly Sandor saw his days lined up in front of him in an endless row, one bleaker than the other. The emptiness in his soul felt suffocating and he ran his hand across his face and let his shoulders slump. If he was doing the right thing, why the fuck did everything about it feel so wrong?

Consumed with those sullen thoughts, Sandor entered through the North Gate and made his way to the stables. Might as well give Stranger a good scrubbing before seeking his next assignment. Before getting that far, however, he noticed unusual activities in the main yard; small groups of people gathered together and speaking animatedly. At first he didn’t pay too much mind to it, but after reaching the stables and seeing stablehands likewise having abandoned their posts and talking to each other in raised voices and with waved hands, his curiosity got the better of him.

“The fuck is up? What’s all the fuss about?” he addressed one of the boys who happened to stand closest to where he dismounted Stranger.

The boy looked up, nervously. “We don’t know for sure, ser. It is just that Lady Sansa…”

Sandor’s stomach dropped before he could finish his sentence. What in seven hells?!

“Lady Sansa what?! Speak up or I swear I squeeze it out of you!” In his impatience he threw Stranger’s reins over the fence railing so carelessly that they bounced back and fell on the ground. Ignoring that he stepped closer to the group and the boys shifted uneasily on their feet.

“We…we are not really sure, Master Clegane. People say that she has lost her mind, that’s all we know. I swear.”

Despite a tight knot in his stomach, Sandor realised that he couldn’t get much more out of the youngsters, all staring at him with widened eyes and the wary looks of  frightened animals. Fuck! He turned around and started towards the kitchens at a brisk pace. The head cook knew everything that was happening around the keep; Sandor had witnessed her gossiping with the maids, servants and soldiers alike while he had sat in a quiet corner of the kitchen gulping down her generous helpings. She would know what was going on.

With every step the cold ring around his chest got tighter so that soon all he could do was force his lungs to take in the air. Had Sansa gone and done something utterly foolish? Had she… he refused the thought, increasing his stride to a light run.

As he had guessed, a small crowd had gathered outside the kitchen door, Betha’s imposing presence notable in the middle of it. Sandor pushed through the throng paying no heed to those he shoved aside.

“What about Lady Sansa? The stable boys talked about her - what the fuck is going on?!” His hard eyes honed in on the fat woman, demanding an answer and demanding it now. Betha looked back at him, her round eyes thoughtfully assessing his distress.

“Clegane. So you didn’t know either?”

“Didn’t know what, woman? Spit out what the hells is going on or I swear I’ll beat it out of you with the flat of my sword! From all of you! Is there something amiss with Sansa?” Sandor knew his face was a horrific sight with his lips bared back revealing his teeth and twisting his scars into a frightening sneer. He scowled at the crowd and then Betha, wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she told him what he needed to know. With difficulty he restrained himself, knowing that probably wouldn’t help his cause.

“Lady Sansa is fine and on her way to Wintertown.” The woman studied him from the top of his head to his boots, not the least bit intimidated. It would have irked Sandor had he had time for such thoughts. Hearing the word ‘fine’ settled him slightly though - enough for him to continue his questioning in a marginally less menacing manner.

“And what the bloody hells is so unusual in that? Who is she going with?”

“She started just with her maid but now there is apparently quite a crowd following her.”

Again Sandor fingers twitched to throttle her fleshy throat for giving him answers that made no sense – Sansa going to Wintertown with her maid was nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly not enough to make people gawk and fuss about it as they seemed to do.

“And?” His voice was low and the threat in it so obvious and imminent that even Betha finally seemed to conclude that she had better deal with him squarely.

“It is not the matter of where she is going or with whom, but how. She is crawling there on her hands and knees. Like a babe.”

If Sandor had been on the edge before, hearing this had the same effect as a hammer falling on his head.

“The fuck?” he croaked.

“Not likely to be out of her mind though, no matter what some folk say. Those who have spoken with her say she is in her senses. Very much so, even. Threatened anyone who tries to stop her with the dark cells.” The crowd laughed at that, not a malevolent laugh at Sansa’s expense but one of appreciation of their beloved lady’s determination.

Sandor was frozen on the spot trying to process what he had just heard. Why would Sansa be doing such a thing? Then his own words from the other night came to him. It wouldn’t help if you crawled all the way from Winterfell to Wintertown, that wouldn’t made any difference. Or mayhap it would, mayhap I would reconsider after that.

He felt his head spinning. It can’t be. It had bloody better not.

“Are you telling me she is being allowed to continue with that madness?” he demanded, not addressing anyone in the crowd specifically but looking around at each and every one. Some met his eyes, some looked away, shuffling uncertainly on their feet.  

“You heard it, she seems determined to do it and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.” Betha crossed her arms across her ample bosom and challenged Sandor with her words. “If you think you’ll have better luck than her lords, go for it. I’d pay good coin to see that but alas I had better stay here and make sure there is hot food waiting for her when she returns.” Betha turned and addressed the onlookers.

“All you louts, back to your duties! The keep doesn’t run itself and what our lady does is her business. Move!”

The maids and servants scurried back indoors, muttering amongst themselves as they went, and soldiers wandered to wherever they had been going before the excitement of the news had dragged them away. Soon only Sandor and Betha stayed on their respective footing.

“Some say it’s a promise she made to the old gods, an offering of some sort for gods for helping her to return back to her home. Who knows? Sometimes things between people and gods are private and not for others to know. She was always heedful of them, although before it was mostly her lady mother’s Seven. Yet mayhap she is returning to the faith of her father.”

Betha’s voice was softer now that she addressed only Sandor. Sandor stared at the ground in front of his feet, hardly registering her words.

“…to her?”

He raised his head – the questioning tone and expectant look on the cook’s face suggested she had just asked a question, but for the hells he couldn’t recall what it was.

“Uh?”

“Are you going to go to her before she completely spoils those pretty hands and knees? Might be she listens to you better than others. You brought her back after all, and she seems to respect you a good deal more than she does some of the other lords.” Betha’s expression was soft, confidential even.

Sandor rubbed his jaw pensively, wondering dully if he would have any influence on Sansa considering the situation. Yet if she was doing this because of what he had uttered so thoughtlessly…mayhap?

“You can be bloody sure I will. She can try to threaten me with dark cells!” he growled and moved away with no further ado, stomping back the same way he had come.

----------

It didn’t take long for him to find Sansa after urging Stranger into a frenzied gallop; the crowd completely blocked the path between the keep and the village. Sandor cleaved through it, not caring about those who had to scramble away from the war horse’s deadly hooves.

It was true. In the short time it had taken him to ride like seven devils on her trail he had clung to a hope that there had been a misunderstanding. Yet it was not to be - no such luck.

Sansa was indeed on all fours, putting one hand in front of another, her long legs bent under her hunched body. Her head was down, focussed on the immediate terrain in front and under her, wisps of auburn locks having escaped from the long braid on her back and trailing almost all the way to the ground.

Her maid Lysandra was walking right beside her, adjusting her own step to that of her mistress, with lords Umber and Karstark on her other side. Lysandra was the oldest of the three who catered to Sansa’s needs and the most sensible as far as Sandor could tell. Somehow it made him feel a bit better to notice how she hovered protectively over Sansa and scanned the crowd’s behaviour.

Sandor stopped Stanger but before he dismounted he spotted a handful of men-at-arms walking a bit further away, looking at the lords for their orders and keeping the onlookers at bay. Beside them the crowd consisted mainly of Wintertown villagers and folk from Winterfell. The mighty lords of the North were clearly out of their element, not knowing what to do, glancing nervously at each other, at Sansa and the crowd, but following on foot nonetheless.

As Sandor stepped down and made his way towards Sansa the mob parted in front of him without him needing to ask. Greatjon caught sight of him and curtly nodded his head. 

“Good that you are here. Do you know what this is about? Can you perchance make her stop?”

Sansa seemed to have heard that as her voice rose loud and clear, standing out from the otherwise quiet hush.

“Whoever it is, I will not stop. How many times must I make my wishes known? Any man or woman who tries to move me by force will be thrown into Winterfell’s cells, as surely as I am a Stark and my blood is that of the wolf!”

“Lady Sansa.” Sandor muttered, not knowing what else to say within earshot of so many people.

Sansa stopped, raised her head and leaned back to sit on her haunches. Her face was flustered but her eyes flashed as she regarded the man in front of her. For a long time she said nothing.

“Clegane.” Her demeanour didn’t give anything away, bar the determination so obvious from her words and her tone of voice. “That applies to you too.”

“My lady, I gather this exercise is some sort of pilgrimage or penance for your gods. Surely they have been assured of your intentions by now,” Sandor murmured under his breath. There was a good deal more he wanted to say, but the presence of others didn’t permit him to speak his mind.

Sansa looked at him long and hard. This was the first time they met face to face since that night, and Sandor flinched seeing through her eyes what a coward he had been.

“What I do is a matter for my judgment alone. None must interfere, as otherwise my efforts will be wasted.”

Her voice was not angry although Sandor had expected it to be so. If anything, it resonated with sadness.

“Whatever promises have been made, they have been fulfilled by now for sure. You have shown your strength and commitment and can put aside this toil.” It frustrated Sandor no end that he couldn’t talk to her straight but had to resort to euphemisms and hidden meanings. If she indeed was doing this because of the few poorly chosen words he had lashed out in the heat of the moment, where did it leave him? He had said his piece, not in a million years thinking that she would actually do such a thing.

Sansa wiped her muddy hands on her thighs and shrugged her shoulders. She had leather gloves and under her woollen skirt, the hem of which was tucked under her waist, she was wearing leather breeches. At least she had had some sense in making her preparations, Sandor had to admit.

“It is not up to you to relieve me of this task. I must finish it and only then I can consider my part of the bargain to have been fulfilled. After that it is a matter for the other party to fulfil theirs.”

“Gods, you mean?” Sandor couldn’t help the tinge of sarcasm creeping into his voice.

Sansa looked at him again, craning her neck in doing so.

“The one who demanded this of me.”

Lysandra had followed their interaction and, gathering that her mistress was not to be dissuaded from her folly even by the man who held her lady’s trust more than any other, pushed forward.

“My lady, would you care for a drink?” She proffered a skin towards her and Sansa acquiesced, gulping down a few mouthfuls of the liquid.  She returned the vessel back to the woman with hushed thanks, stretched her back and sighing out loud, settled back to her task. One stride, then another and another. It was slow and tedious, but she made progress.

For the first time Sandor paid attention to their surroundings, noticing a small clearing on the left and a large boulder almost protruding onto the path.  He had ridden this route dozens of times and estimated them to be about halfway to Wintertown. Considering the slow pace he figured that it was to be at least another hour before the journey was done. He swallowed hard and glanced at Sansa, then at his horse who had remained a few steps behind him as a well-trained war-mount is supposed to do. His fingers twitched and he spat on the ground, swaying undecidedly on the spot. He wanted to lean down and grab Sansa by the waist, lift her up onto Stranger’s back and gallop back to the keep – even if it meant taking her against her will, kicking and screaming if it came to that.  Fuck!

The crowd moved forward following their lady, leaving a respectable gap around Sandor but passing him by nonetheless. The lords had taken up their positions in the front row, the men-at-arms on the flanks, and soon Sandor found himself standing alone in the middle of the path. Stranger moved closer and nuzzled his shoulder as if to ask him ‘what next’.

He had rarely felt as powerless as he did now. There was absolutely nothing he could do to save Sansa from the gruelling task against her will - and even less to get rid of his own guilt. He didn’t doubt the sincerity of Sansa’s threats. The cells of Winterfell were mostly empty but a few haggard souls were dragged there from time to time for their crimes, and the keep still had a jail master on its books. Not that the thought of being thrown there bothered him - he couldn’t have cared less. No, it was the knowledge that if he took her away he would once more act contrary to Sansa’s specific wishes, no matter how nonsensical they were. He had insulted her enough already. Too bloody much.

Sandor took a deep breath that made his whole body shudder and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. His anger and frustration returned, aimed at what or whom, he didn’t know or care. Once again he had succeeded in hurting the one person he wanted to protect, this time even physically, and the bitterness of it was a sour brew to swallow. For a long time he stood there not knowing what to do or where to go until a gentle nudge from Stranger woke him from his numbness. Fuck, I have to try. Try harder.

A quick march saw him catching up with the crowd and again he pushed through the villagers until he was next to Sansa. This time she didn’t stop although she must have sensed his presence from the silence that fell around them and from the hushed whispers of Hound and Clegane.

“You mob, stay back!” Sandor barked at the people who were more than willing to move away from the wild-faced warrior. “You too,” he growled, addressing Lords Umber and Karstark. They glared at him but apparently concluding that if anyone was able to persuade their lady to give up her undignified task, it was more likely to be her dog than them. Slowing their stride they, too, fell behind.

Lysandra was the only one not fazed by Sandor’s actions and stubbornly remained by her lady’s side, but even she shrank when Sandor’s glare fell on her. A subtle nod from Sansa, who by now had looked up to see the commotion, released her from her duty and with what looked like an expression of extreme relief she fell back. That left only Sansa and Sandor at the front of the procession.

During all this Sansa had not slowed her pace, advancing slowly but surely on the well-worn path. Her movements were measured and steady; first lifting up one hand and leg on the opposite sides, stretching them forward and landing on the ground at a same time, followed by the same motion on the other side. Hand-knee, hand-knee, hand-knee. She carried her body and head low and Sandor’s experienced eye appreciated the economy of her gait. No useless flailing or energy wasting lifting of her head. Only every ten paces or so she raised her eyes to quickly assert that her direction was still true, otherwise keeping them on the ground.

Despite the modicum of privacy they had been afforded by Sandor’s actions - albeit still in front of the eyes of many - Sandor suddenly was at loss of what to do next. Just moments before he had frothed over things he wanted to say to Sansa, and now that he had a chance his mind was completely blank.

For a while they continued in silence, Sandor’s eyes glued to Sansa’s every movement as if he could lighten her load by simply willing it. Hand-knee, hand-knee, hand-knee. He saw her furrowed brow and how she flinched, however slightly, every time when she placed her left knee on the ground. It left him exasperated and the ghosts of the old wound on his thigh throbbed. She is doing this for you, you fucking idiot! You don’t deserve this, nor her. Never did.

“What the fuck is this really about, little bird?” he finally grunted, hoping against hope that she was indeed fulfilling a promise made to gods; maybe repentance for her childish action of telling Cersei about her father’s plans. Although it seemed like a lifetime ago, Sandor knew that she still blamed herself for her father’s fate. It didn’t matter that he had told her over and over again that there was no way that Lannister bitch would have left the righteous Lord Eddard in peace, with or without her involvement.

“Why do you ask? You know it better than anyone.” Sansa’s constrained tone didn’t betray anything about how she felt.

“If this is about what I said the other night – gods, woman, you know they were just thoughtless words! I didn’t mean any of it, surely you realised that.”

“You mean you lied to me? You told me something that wasn’t true, made me a promise you had no intention of keeping?”

Sandor felt cornered and hissed. “Bloody hells! Since when have you taken my curses seriously?! You are not a silly girl anymore. If you ever were,” he muttered almost as an afterthought.

Sansa just trudged forward, ignoring him. She didn’t notice a sharp-edged stone that was hidden under the otherwise smooth surface, worn fine under the frequent traffic between the two places. When it pierced through her glove she couldn’t restrain an involuntarily yelp. Sandor stepped up in readiness but even the fiercest fighter could do nothing to pebbles and stones.

“Can’t you see what nonsense this is? You will never last the whole way! Look at you, your gloves are already failing you, and I can’t even imagine what state your pretty knees will be in at the end of this!” Sandor knew that he was being unreasonable but couldn’t help himself. If he could rouse her spirit and get her angry enough to interrupt her mission, that would be good enough for him.

Once more he received only cold silence as a response. Hand-knee, hand-knee, hand-knee. Finally Sansa spoke, not averting her eyes from the dirt.

“This is all I have. You come to me in the darkness of night and tell me that you are leaving, giving me no chance to talk it over with you. You allow me no influence whatsoever over a decision that affects both of us. Who was it who always told me that I deserve more than being held as a pawn without a say in my own life? I thought it was you but here you are, doing the very same thing to me. How can you!?” Her voice broke for a second but from anger rather than sorrow.

Sandor had no response to that, nothing but the burning guilt in his innards. What Sansa said was absolutely true – he had made his decision on his own and made her face it as a foregone conclusion. Suddenly he recognised that in that he had been as bad as Joffrey, Cersei or fucking Littlefinger.

“You gave me no chance to have input on your decision. Worse - afterwards you just left and stayed away, like the craven people sometimes called you. You told me you didn’t care about what people think, but I imagined I was worth more than that to you.”

Hand-knee, hand-knee, hand-knee. Sandor had assumed he was to be the one to do the chastising but instead ended up on the receiving end instead. Even worse, he had no defence whatsoever from the harsh truth Sansa laid out.

He scowled at the few eager followers who had crept too close and hastily they retreated back again. For good measure, and to gather some time, Sandor turned around with a hand on the hilt of his sword and scanned the crowd menacingly. Immediately it retreated like a flock of sheep when faced with a bad-tempered sheepdog.

“So this is my last recourse. You said you will reconsider your decision if I crawl from Winterfell to Wintertown and that’s what I am doing. Nothing more and nothing less. I expect you to keep your end of the bargain after I have kept mine.” Sansa’s words were absurdly matter-of-fact, like she was speaking of a routine arrangement undertaken between the lady of the keep and her retainer.

Once when Sandor had been a brash youth, newly grown in size, strength and skill, he had been able to beat any man in Casterly Rock in a fight bar his brother, whom he had refused to go against in a mock battle. He had been proud about the one thing he had over the others – until one day the Lannisters had had visitors from Storm’s End. Among them had been an old soldier, unremarkable looking and of average size. When he had taken Sandor on in practice and beaten him soundly in any way imaginable over and over again, Sandor finally had had to swallow the bitter pill of defeat. Only once though - it hadn’t happened again since then. Until now.

Sandor was not stupid and he knew when he had been overpowered. Nor was he too proud to admit it - he was hardly in a position to be. So accepting this reality he took a few long steps and turned to face Sansa, kneeling in front of her so that she was forced to stop lest she collide with him. She raised her head and without waiting for her next words Sandor took hold of her shoulders – as gently as he could but still forcing her to sit back.

“You have won, little bird. Fair and square, you took me at my word and I am true to them. I will reconsider my decision, and you will have your say and I will listen to you.”

Sansa sat back on her haunches but her body still leaned forward, both hands resting against the ground. She studied Sandor’s face but instead of the relief he had expected her features were impassive.  From the corner of his eyes, Sandor saw that the crowd had stopped. A hushed silence fell over the scene, only birdsong from the distance filling the air with chirruping sounds.

“You can stop this now before you sustain more damage to yourself. You are not used to this, you don’t know it yet but your body will protest against the way you are abusing it now. I know it and I want to save you from further pain. Let me take you back to the keep.” He spoke in undertones and didn’t care if it sounded like he was pleading. He was.

Sansa’s face was streaked with sweat and dirt and for a brief moment she was again the girl Sandor had travelled with on the road; the girl who wasn’t sure of her place in the world and who only clung to her need to get to the North and see if she would find it there. Wary but hopeful. Proud but kind. Young of body but mind as old as a crone who has seen a whole lifetime. Yet she was not that girl anymore; she was the Lady of Winterfell, head of House Stark, the symbol for her people, and in front of all that Sandor’s gaze wavered and he bowed his head.

“It gladdens me to hear this. Still, my task is not done and I have to finish it.” The blank tone of her voice was devoid of any emotion. Sandor snapped his head up, surprised.

“There is no need to finish this! I yielded, didn’t you hear? You got what you wanted!”

“You set me a task and I accepted it. Do you take me for a spoiled child who stomps her foot on the ground until she gets what she wants and then stops? Do you think I will respect myself if I am so easily persuaded? Do you think my people will respect me if they see a few words from you make me abandon my quest?”

Sansa dropped down again, shaking Sandor’s hands off her shoulders and pushed forward, turning slightly sideways to get past him. Seeing that the men-at-arms who had stayed on the sidelines stepped forward, swords half-way lifted from their scabbards. They looked apprehensive, warily eyeing Sandor, but it was clear that whatever their misgivings were about facing a warrior of Sandor’s stature in open conflict, they were determined to do their lady’s bidding.

“My lady?” one of them croaked, removing his eyes momentarily from Sandor to look at Sansa.

“No need. I am not stopping her.” Sandor stood up and stepped aside, lifting his arms in the air in an age-old gesture of surrender. Relief was visible in the faces of the men and they retreated back to their places, tension visibly being lifted off them.

Sansa continued on and admitting his defeat – total and utter – Sandor snapped back to action. There must be something he could do without incurring Sansa’s displeasure.

“You there!” he shouted at the three young men leading horses at the back of the procession. “Ride to Wintertown and get some brooms and bring them here. Hurry!” The men blinked, looked at the soldiers whose horses they were holding, but before waiting to get approval the fastest was already on horseback. A few seconds later all of them were racing forward.

“You lot, don’t just gawk there! Walk ahead and pick the stones away from the path!” It was a testament to Sandor’s standing that without hesitation the people surged forward and started to sweep the path with their hands and feet, crouching over the surface and picking up pebbles and throwing them onto the roadside. The path turned swiftly to a hive of activity and Sandor and the soldiers had to start controlling the crowd so they would in their eagerness allow Sansa’s progress to continue uninterrupted. 

Sandor saw a big man in the crowd, whose broad shoulders and sooty face suggested he might be a smith, and asked if he had by any chance a smith’s sturdy gloves on him. As it turned out he had, hanging from his belt, but when they were offered to Sansa they turned out to be much too large for her dainty hands. With regret Sandor returned them to the man, but after the exchange another villager came forward with another pair of leather gloves. They also were too large, but not so much, and after tying them tight from the wrists they at least stayed in Sansa’s hands without offering too much hindrance. Sansa smiled at him then, a subtle smile that hardly reached the corners of her mouth, but it was there, the first time she showed any reaction at all and Sandor was grateful for that.

Soon the men with the brooms returned and after that there was no lack of volunteers sweeping the path – some men even brawled over who had the honour.

And so it was that Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell, head of House Stark, completed the journey that was to remain in the folklore of the North for time immemorial, surrounded by an ever expanding crowd and flanked by her soldiers and two of her lords - and her dog. For years afterwards those who were present were heard boasting about it and sharing stories about how brave their lady had been, how determined and how committed.

----------

Sandor walked on Sansa’s right side, Lysandra on her left, until they arrived at their destination. He respected Sansa’s wishes and didn’t intervene further, only ensuring her smooth progress as much as possible. An exchange with Lysandra revealed to him that what came after had also been considered; a carriage was waiting for Sansa in Wintertown ready to whisk her back to the keep, where the maids had been instructed to draw a hot bath in her rooms and be ready with ointments and herbal remedies to nurse the inevitable welts and scrapes. A nourishing hot meal was to be sent to her as soon as she was done with the bath. Sandor grunted his approval at all this. It was clear that Sansa had put some thought into this. When had she started planning? If he hadn’t been such a coward and had stayed in the keep these last few days, would she have told him about it?

These and many more questions weighed heavily on Sandor’s mind but there was nothing he could do to get the answers. Not now. Maybe later. There was going to be an encounter between them and it was bound to be difficult. He released his breath, hissing silently while thinking about it. What could he say? Nothing had changed, there was nothing that would be able to turn the situation around. Yet he owed it to Sansa to go through the facts and the reality of the circumstances. He didn’t cherish the prospect or the upcoming discussion but he had to face it like a man.

Being honest, Sandor had to admit that his biggest fear was that he wouldn’t be able stand his ground but would acquiesce to stay and suffer. Nonetheless - he squared his shoulders as if readying to face an invisible foe – if that was to be, if that would make Sansa happy, he would do just that. Didn’t matter what he wanted. If she was absolutely sure and couldn’t be persuaded by reason, that would be it then.

“We are here; look, the first houses of Wintertown. Isn’t this enough?”

Indeed, the first signs of the settlement greeted them. Sansa glanced up but didn’t slow down. Her progress had become slower and slower as they progressed and it was obvious that muscles in her legs and arms were hurting and her knees were mightily sore. Every now and then she stopped to stretch her back and roll her shoulders. A few times Lysandra had massaged them and Sandor’s fingers had itched to push her aside and take care of Sansa himself, but he had refrained and only waited patiently until she was ready to continue.

“In the middle of the village, when I reach the well. Then I will stop.”

Sandor was tempted to argue the matter and point out to her that technically being at the outskirts of Wintertown could be construed to be in Wintertown. However, guessing the futility of such effort he held his tongue and followed Sansa with no further argument.

Finally – finally – the procession reached the old well. The brick-lined structure had become the centre of the village’s activities and Sandor could see why Sansa had set her goal there. The last few strides, the last few steps, and Sansa reached the wooden platform built around it. Sandor scrutinised her intently and saw how her features relaxed and the deep furrow between her eyebrows smoothed. Did he just imagine it or did a coy smile flash on her face?

Sansa climbed up, not to her feet but to sit on the edge of the platform. Lysandra offered her a drink and she accepted it and drank deeply, wiping her mouth with her sleeve after finishing. The crowd had stopped in front of her, having grown even bigger after they had entered the village; mostly children and old folk who hadn’t been able to join it on the road. They looked at Sansa expectedly and despite some hushed conversations, stayed mostly silent.

For a terrified fleeting moment Sandor wondered if Sansa was going to reveal to all and sundry the real reason for her undertaking. From what he had overheard, people firmly believed it to be one of two things; a promise made to the old gods to thank them for her safe return, or an act meant to honour her dead kin. He knew that the old gods were not routinely appeased with acts or offerings, the ancient religion being simple and mostly private. No magnificent cathedrals or even modest village temples were built in the North – Godswoods were enough and there was no need to raise statues or light candles or do any of the damned things other religions required. Sandor had found that much to his liking – better than the endless droning to the Seven he had endured at the Quiet Isle. True, he had made his peace with the Southern gods and gained a new appreciation of the solace religion could give to some people, but he had never personally been as affected as the rest of the brethren.

When he watched Sansa scanning the crowd, recognising that she was expected to address them, Sandor was consoled by his trust in Sansa; she would do the sensible thing and keep her reasons to herself. 

“Dear people of Wintertown, Winterfell and the North. I thank you for the help and support you gave me on my journey. I understand that many of you wonder why I did what I did, and I wish I could disclose it to you. Nonetheless, some matters are so private that they can’t be shared, even with those one trusts and respects and loves. All I can say is that this was about a promise – a promise that was important to me.” Her voice was clear and loud although Sandor could hear the strain in it, a slight vibration and the way her sentences ended at a lower note. She glanced at Sandor when she spoke the words about promise, but so fleetingly that he registered it only because he was paying such keen attention to her.

The crowd cheered at her speech and calls for “Good lady Sansa!”, “Blood of the wolf!”, “To the old gods!” were shouted. Sansa raised her arms and their slight shaking told Sandor’s expert eye that she was on the brink of collapsing. Fuck this!

Sandor stepped up to her and whistled Stranger as he did. His horse had followed him obediently at the edge of the crowd, away from people and other horses, but hearing his call immediately trotted to him.

“You have done enough, even you must admit that your task is done properly and fairly. Now I’ll take you home. Don’t even think about calling soldiers to stop me – I don’t fancy killing or maiming your own men, but I’ll do it if I have to,” he rasped and grabbed Sansa by the waist. Too surprised – and possibly too tired – to resist, she didn’t fight but allowed Sandor to lift her onto Stranger’s back. Lysandra let out a surprised squeak but before anyone else had time to react Sandor mounted, positioning Sansa sideways in front of him.

“I’ll take her back, it’ll be quicker than the cart,” he shouted at nobody in particular while turning his horse around on the spot, guiding him with his knees. Seconds later they had pushed through the crowd which readily parted in front of them.

Having reached an open space, Sandor urged Stranger to a steady gait. Sansa hadn’t said a word but he felt how she gradually relaxed and leaned closer to him. It might have been more for securing her seating in the saddle than for anything else but he was grateful for it nonetheless. Things were not easy between them; too much had happened since the night when he had fucked it all up, so Sandor tried not to read anything into the way Sansa wrapped her arm around his waist and rested her head against his chest.

“There’ll be a hot bath waiting for you. And food. And ointments and other such things. But you already knew that, of course, having organised it all.” Sandor knew he was blabbering but he wanted to break through to her somehow. Strange that – normally he had no difficulties with silence, but now the quiet between them was filled with undercurrents of unresolved tension and it ate at his nerves.

Sandor allowed his fingers to feel her round shoulder, pressing lightly and stroking it almost imperceptibly. It felt almost as if he had never done that before, never touched her, never shared her bed, never been intimate with her... He pressed his face against the crown of Sansa’s head taking in her scent. If she noticed or minded she didn’t indicate it – she still hadn’t said a word to him

When the walls of Winterfell came in sight Sandor reluctantly loosened his hold. Before reaching the gate he pushed a thick strand of hair away from Sansa’s ear and muttered into it, “I am a man of my word and I will meet with you whenever you want. Just say the word.” Uncertainty crept into his heart. Maybe she didn’t want him in her rooms anymore? After the last time…

“If you would rather that we meet somewhere else, I understand,” he continued, trying to act as if it didn’t matter to him where they met.

His doubts didn’t make any sense to him; if she had gone through all this because she wanted him to reconsider his decision to leave, surely that meant that she wanted him to stay? Despite that her calm and confidence unnerved Sandor. When he had said those terrible words he had jeered at her for crawling in front of a man; told her that she should never abase herself for a dog. Well, she had done it and he was the one who had been humiliated, not her. Sansa was stronger than he was, Sandor could see it now, and he wondered whether she too had realised it and had decided that she was better off without him after all.

“Tomorrow night.” At first he was unsure if he had heard it right; just two words, scarcely more than a sigh.

“Did you say tomorrow night? You’ll be too sore, I’ll wager. Tired and sore. Believe me, I know what sudden exercise does to an unaccustomed body, little bird.” Sandor wondered if he was still allowed to use her pet name. Was he being too familiar? Would Lady Sansa Stark scoff at him for such behaviour?

“I’ll rest plenty tonight. I don’t have any other plans to keep me busy and there is a lot I need to tell you.” Sansa’s voice was tired and achingly familiar to Sandor – this was how she had sometimes sounded when he had pushed her relentlessly ahead on their journey. When he peeked down his suspicions were confirmed by Sansa’s heavy eyelids and yawning. A swell of protectiveness welled in his chest, a desire to hold and carry her, remove all obstacles from her way as he had helped to remove the stones that threatened to hurt her soft hands. Without realising it Sandor curled his arm tighter around her and pressed her closer.

“If you say so. I’ll be there tomorrow evening after the lights go down – and I will not leave the keep during the day.” One more brush with his lips on her tresses so faintly that she wouldn’t notice and Sandor straightened his stance.

Tomorrow, little bird.

 

Chapter Text

 

Sansa

 

Otherworldly hollowness ate into Sansa’s soul and hurt her more than any physical pain had ever done. She thought she should have gotten used it by now, having lived through it over and over again. Her whole family, her childhood home and all the anchors of her existence cruelly taken away from her, one after another.

Sansa cried. Her shoulders shaking from muffled sobs she curled inside her bedding like a wounded animal crawls into a hole to lick its wounds. It would not change anything or change what was to follow, that much she had learned, but when the tears came she had no strength to deny them. Once a man had come and pulled her away from her cocoon of pain, a stranger then but with a gentle touch, but now that very same man was the one who made her shed these bitter tears.

The next day Sansa’s head was heavy and her eyes swollen and nothing could have persuaded her to get up and attend to her duties. At least this time she had the prerogative to make her own decisions on that so she sent her maids away, pulled the window shutters closed and lay in darkness trying to think nothing. Maybe those previous experiences had taught her something after all; if she shut her mind from the reality it made her moment-to-moment existence more tolerable. She had become quite good at it in the end, denying that anything was wrong or that anything could move her. Yet they were lessons she had hoped she would never have to resort to again.

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By the next morning Sansa had to accept that life moved on and Winterfell still needed her. Her people wanted her, if not for anything else, as their symbol of stability and for carrying the much needed heir for the North.

Anger roused inside her because of the unfairness of the situation. Yes, her life had never been her own and she knew better than most the obligations of rank. Yet surely there were ways to reconcile the many needs? As much as she detested Petyr she had learned from him too; if negotiations stalled because of two opposing views about the correct means to an end, it was time to stop to think of what was really at stake. Maybe those ends could be achieved by means other than originally thought?

As she was getting dressed, settling on one of her finest dresses as armour to support her through the day, her anger found a new target: Sandor. He came to me and told me what he was going to do. He had already made up his mind. Where was the consultation with me? When did he ask me for my opinion?

In the hall her eyes instinctively sought Sandor and there he was; sullen and brooding at the end of the room. A dull pain thudded in Sansa’s chest but besides that there was something else, a childish desire to hurt him as he had hurt her. Gods forbid, she had begged him not to go. She had pleaded with him. So she turned away from him and pretended that he was not there. If he noticed that she couldn’t be sure as the next time she peeped in his direction he was gone. And stayed away.

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Gradually Sansa’s days returned to normal. Nothing had really changed in them, at least not outwardly. If she missed seeing her lover even from a distance, longed for a glance, a smirk, a private jest that only the two of them understood, she at least had her many tasks to distract her. Wall hangings in the Great Hall were progressing well, she having prioritised them in order to establish the might of her house in the eyes of visitors. Whoever walked through the grand doors had to believe that House Stark had recovered from the ravages of war and treachery and was still very much in control. Appearances counted, she had realised in her time in the Vale, and she needed people to believe that the wolves were back – for good.

More guests kept on arriving and she harboured no illusions about the motives of many. Blustering young men, cautious widowers, bold fathers pushing forward their adult sons. The word of the Lady of Winterfell’s approaching entry to the marriage market had spread like wildfire and as much as it annoyed Sansa, she knew she couldn’t turn away any of her allies. So she smiled at them, invited them to her table and walked with them on the grounds of Winterfell, using her supreme skills of feigning interest when she felt nothing of the sort. To Sansa’s surprise it wasn’t nearly as hard as she had expected and she had to admit that she actually liked most of them, finding their straightforwardness and honesty like a breath of fresh air after the intrigues of the South. Even the clumsiest suitor at least showed her respect as a person and as the head of her house; a concept she still sometimes found novel and intoxicating. For so many years she had been nothing but a prisoner or an instrument to fulfil the ambitions of others.

At the end of the day she fell exhausted into her bed and wondered out loud to her maids how it was possible that there were so many eligible men still left in the North, surely they should have been married already long ago?

Lysandra only smiled at her and offered to rub her back and comb her hair. She was one of the few women who had been in Winterfell already before its ruin, and not long ago Sansa had sought her out from the seamstresses’ rooms as her personal maid. She was calm and practical and Sansa longed for that more than for the breathless admiration offered by her other helpers.

It was Lysandra whom Sansa asked discreetly to find out Sandor’s whereabouts when on the third day she still hadn’t seen any sign of him. She felt confident that he wouldn’t have left for good without letting her know. Not only had he promised to seek her out, and if anything, he kept his word – but surely he also needed the coin for his services for his journey?

The news were more or less what she had expected; so typical for Sandor to immerse himself in action, but how atypical for him to stay away. He was not a craven and for sure Sansa had done nothing to wake his displeasure? And so it was that his absence told Sansa more than his words had. No, Sandor didn’t take leaving lightly either, but he was also dogged and stubborn when he had made up his mind.

That night when Sansa was putting on her nightshift despair came back to grip her stronger than it had for days. It had been simmering under her carefully constructed façade all her days and nights, but she had mostly succeeded in pushing it away lest she completely drowned in it all over again. She hugged herself and despite the chill creeping up her legs from standing too long on a cold stone floor she couldn’t move. If Sandor should leave now when she had finally established herself where she belonged, when they had finally settled comfortably into their odd relationship that defied all logic and sense… The feeling of helplessness transformed her back to the powerless girl kept against her will by cruel captors – and she hated that feeling!

The resentment was also still there, only a small flame flickering, almost as if doubting the reason for its existence, but each day Sansa’s growing bitterness at how blithely Sandor had ignored her say in the matter fed the fire. In time it grew into a blaze that forced itself to be recognised.

Yet Sansa couldn’t find it in herself to hate him – only the manner of his actions. She missed Sandor in a way she could remember missing her family; not less nor more but the longing was different. She missed her companion, her confidant and her lover. If she could only…

The words of the man in the yard, Roddel, suddenly came back to her as she lay in her bed …we support you. ‘Whatever you decide, it will be for all the right reasons, I have no doubts about it. Neither do the lords, soldiers or the small folk.’ Hadn’t he also said that when the winter is coming it’s not the titles or the grandness of the house that keeps trouble at bay, but strong arms and the steady head?

Sansa sat up, gasping. The simplicity of the solution that offered itself to her was so obvious that she chastised herself for not considering it before. Of course!

She stood up and wrapped herself in a long shawl and started to pace the room deep in thought. She went through her exchange with the old man-at-arms again, her discussion with Queen Selyse and the many meetings of the council where the matter had been argued. Never had there been a specific debate about the identity of her future lord husband. As a matter of fact, it had almost been glossed over altogether, the presumed but not articulated assumption being that it was to be somebody from the North, someone whose loyalties resoundingly lay only with the Starks and with nobody else.

I could marry Sandor!

The thought had crossed her mind before but she had always dismissed it as an impossibility. Even that horrible night she had asked him to marry her, but that had been only a reflex, an act of desperate mind – and that’s exactly how Sandor had taken it. Accused her of being soft in the head, told her how her lords would not allow it.

The more Sansa thought about it, the more excited she became. If she could not find a way to marry another man and keep Sandor as her lover, why not find a novel solution and marry Sandor instead?

She could hardly contain the bubble of excitement building up inside her, the thrill of it lightening her steps and making her head dizzy. Just for a moment she allowed herself to dwell in a dream; Sandor wrapping his cloak across her shoulders in the Godswood and the whole keep cheering for the happiness of their lady and her lord and shouting them their blessings… Then she shook her head and returned to reality.

Yes, the more she thought about it the more it made sense. Sandor’s loyalty was to her and House Stark alone. Even if anyone doubted it they could be sure that he had no allegiances to anyone else, the Lannisters least of all. It was well known that the lions had offered a reward for his head, attached or removed from his body, it hadn’t mattered. His own house had been taken back and joined with Casterly Rock lands again, the short-lived dream of House Clegane so soon quenched.

He would never presume to be the leader of the North, and if he would give her a son… Sansa’s thoughts turned to a little boy with dark hair and grey eyes and a hunger stronger than she had ever experienced seized her. A boy… strong and sensible as his sire, and then a little girl, thoughtful and brave… Sansa almost cried from a desire to hold her babes – her and Sandor’s babes. They would be perfect, and they would grow up loved and safe and no horrors such as those visited upon their parents would ever get near them. Relishing this fantasy, she succumbed again to a moment of daydreaming, smiling to herself as she did so.

----------

By the morning Sansa had thought it all through.

Getting up before sunrise she was dressed and ready long before the keep woke up to its daily routines, and she had to try her hardest to constrain the restless energy that was driving her. She could hardly wait; to put her plan in action, to make her dream to come true, to remove all obstacles in her way.

“A word if you may, my lords,” she addressed Lords Umber and Ryswell after the morning meal.

“Certainly, Lady Sansa,” they echoed each other and followed her to a small solar at the ground floor, where she sometimes met with petitioners and other visitors. She had chosen the two because neither of them had eligible sons, nephews or other relatives to throw into the race for her hand, so she trusted them to be objective about the matter.

“As you know, the word has gotten out that I may be looking for a husband soon.” The great lords avoided her gaze, an expression akin to embarrassment on their faces. No official decisions had been made and no timetable agreed for the course of events. They might have thought to subtly force Sansa’s hand on the matter by leaking the information, but she didn’t have the heart to blame them for that. Had she not formed the allegiance with Sandor she would have seen the proceedings as perfectly natural herself. She would have accepted them as a much better option than what she had been afforded so far.

“As you also know, I have been reluctant to do so for reasons that have been discussed abundantly already so no need to repeat them here.”

Both of them stirred as if to say something, but before they did, Sansa continued.

“However, I have a good mind to wait at least two more years before going ahead with this, to make sure that my marriage to Lord Tyrion will not come back to haunt me. Two years sounds prudent, doesn’t it?”

The lords spluttered at the news, Greatjon waving his hands and Rickard Ryswell getting up from his chair.

“My lady, I understand your reluctance, but two whole years!” he protested. Sansa understood him well; two more years of uncertainty, the risk of pestilence and accidents lurking around the corner. Young women in their prime were known to succumb to fevers and womanly ailments and mishaps could not be ruled out either.

“The reality is that I see courting for my hand at this very moment creating unnecessary tension among my retainers. The man who will become my lord husband will be the first among many, and it is difficult to find a house to whom I should afford this privilege.” From the darkened countenances of her companions Sansa knew that she had hit a sore spot.

“It is true. The selection will have to be made very carefully, deliberating all possible considerations prudently. All the lords could have their say…”

“ENOUGH!”

Sansa hit the table with her fist and what the gesture lacked in sound and power it gained in surprise. The men’s wide-eyed stares would have amused Sansa in other circumstances but not now. Too much was at stake.

“My lords, have you forgotten that I was betrothed to a monster when I was but a young girl? And married to a mortal enemy of my house when I was scarcely older? Furthermore, that while still being married I was plotted to marry yet another man who was far removed from my best interests and those of my house? Also, do you not remember that I am the head of House Stark now, a woman fully grown, and I am not to be bartered away by a congregation of lords, no matter how wise and loyal?” She spoke in low voice, punctuating her message with meaningful breaks – a combination of Littlefinger’s negotiation tactics and Sandor’s straightforward command style with an addition of her own courteous manners.

It seemed to work judging by the chastened faces of her lords.

“Forgive him, Lady Sansa. He spoke in haste and was out of line. Of course you will make your own decisions on the matter. I trust Ned’s daughter to make the right choice,” Greatjon Umber grumbled, throwing sideway glances at his fellow lord.

“Absolutely, my apologies. I only wished to be of assistance,” the humbled Ryswell muttered.

“No harm done, my lords, and trust that I will seek your counsel if I feel I need it. For example, I would be curious to hear your thoughts about what manner of man from what manner of house would best serve this purpose? Speak freely, my lords.”

Sansa’s question was a calculated risk, but she took it based on what she knew about the men. Both of them were old blood and of high standing, and should a member of only a slightly lesser house be raised above them by a virtue of a marriage…she counted on them being uncomfortable about it. Although power struggles were not as pronounced in the North as they were in the South, people were people everywhere and hardly anyone could stay completely immune to the trappings of respect, status and eminence.

Her liegemen furrowed their brows and rubbed their chins and eventually Greatjon started.

“As you have rightly said, your lord husband will not wield power himself but is there to assist you in your duties as Lady Stark, and in due course, to help your sons to become the next lords and heirs. So it does not really matter if his house is powerful or small. Might even be better if it is a modest one, so his loyalty will not be divided.”

“Indeed so. An upstanding man, young enough to be a good father and capable enough to earn the respect of other houses, is my recommendation.”

Sansa pretended to ponder the advice, tapping her fingers against the table, hardly believing how easy it had been to get these men to tell her exactly what she wanted to hear.

“Hmmm… your advice is sound and along the lines I have considered myself. Maybe I should consider this earlier than in a two years’ time after all.” Her statement was met with relief. “If I do that – consider a marriage, that is, maybe even find a suitable husband – can I trust your support in this, no matter where my choice falls?”

“Of course you can. Your annulment is just a matter of King Stannis saying the word and the maester drawing up a parchment to be sent to the High Septon. We could be celebrating your marriage before the next moon!” Greatjon was pleased and wrung his hands gleefully together. Ryswell nodded his acquiescence and Sansa let them go with polite words of thanks.

Why is it that I always have to assert myself to my lords when it comes to Sandor, Sansa sighed when they were gone. Yet the satisfaction of the success of her strategy so far stayed with her for the rest of the day.

Another meeting with King Stannis, who was preparing to leave Winterfell to go back to Storm’s End, assured her that she would get her annulment as soon as she wanted, and that Stannis himself didn’t have any particular interest in interfering with her choice of a husband.

That evening Sansa was happier than she had been for a long time, until a dark cloud appeared on her blue sky. Sandor.

How to get him to go along with her plan?

----------

Sansa had heard snippets of Sandor’s whereabouts and new routines from here and there and had concluded that his absence was as intentional as it was methodical. Could it mean that he was only biding his time and planning to leave for good once he was sure that she would not arrange another hysterical scene in departing? Sansa blushed with embarrassment when she remembered her own behaviour that night – yet she couldn’t regret it. Sandor had delivered the cruellest blow and done it selfishly. He had even taken her and let her love him while knowing what he was going to say next, bless Mother and Maiden!

Sansa couldn’t believe that he didn’t have feelings for her. She had learned to know the man behind the mask of a hound and many mysteries behind him had started to make sense to her. An idealistic young boy turned to a cynical man by the betrayal of his own kin, further moulded by the twisted manipulations of Lord Tywin and his brood. Yet none of that had succeeded in altogether quenching what was true and honest in him, and his passions – although under his iron control for most of the time – ran deep as a stream under the mountain; not seen, not heard, but still there, feeding life.

First Sansa considered simply ordering him into her presence and telling him her suggestion in private. Well, I certainly never expected to ask for a man’s hand, she chuckled for a moment before getting serious again.

He will refuse. He will tell me I am dreaming, that I am just a stupid little girl. Sansa hated to admit it but thinking it through she knew this to be the likeliest outcome of such meeting. And she most certainly would not beg him for a second time.

The more Sansa pondered her situation the more hopeless it seemed. Oh, to have everything else lined up so well, only to be thwarted by very person who would gain the most out of it…only because of his pride and his self-depreciation!

She went through their last discussion over and over again in her head – as much as she could remember. There had been moments when she hadn’t paid much attention to what Sandor had said, having been in such a state of shock. He had sounded so final, so convinced that it was the way things had to be. Unyielding and immovable. Had he only discussed the matter with her first, before making his decision… Once Sandor’s mind was made it was much harder to change it, Sansa had learned. A soldier’s training, perhaps. In those matters a man could not afford to be seen as prevaricating and any to-ing and fro-ing about a decision could cost lives.

Sansa pressed her hands on her forehead and rubbed them slowly, closing her eyes and concentrating hard. ‘…do you think I WANT to leave? Yet leave I must.’ Had he really said that? The bright spark that followed that memory was soon quenched by another, the sight of Sandor looking down at her so starkly, his features closed and hard. How he had closed by saying that his actions were best for everyone, as if he really and truly believed it.

If she only could have talked with him about this before! If she just could somehow make him open up his mind and consider the matter again!

Then another little snippet pushed through her blurred memory, something about Sandor saying that he could reconsider his decision. What was that? When had he said it and in what context? Focussing extra hard, sitting at the edge of her bed and swaying back and forth as if that would aid her memory, Sansa recreated the moment in her mind; she was kneeling on the floor holding onto his legs, his voice had been low and cruel… ‘It wouldn’t help if you crawled all the way from Winterfell to Wintertown, that wouldn’t make any difference. Or mayhap it would, mayhap I would reconsider after that. Would you want that?’

She sighed, he had only been cruel! What Sandor had meant was that he would not reconsider his decision; that it was impossible. As impossible as…

Sansa opened her eyes wide and blinked. No, that was plain stupid. She surely was a witless little bird for even thinking about it.

She crawled under the blankets and resigned to think of a solution the next day. Maybe she could contrive to meet with Sandor and gauge from his reactions whether she could try to convince him one way or another.

Her sleep was restless and in it she saw Sandor’s back, retreating from her, and no matter how fast she walked, then ran, he was always ahead and didn’t turn to look at her. Eventually she fell down on the ground on all fours, panting and crying.

----------

The next morning Sansa got up completely drained of energy despite many hours spent in bed. Lysandra delivered her the news of Sandor’s whereabouts as she had done for a few days, not querying her reasons beyond what Sansa had told her; that she had asked Sandor to do some inspections on her behalf and she wanted to keep up with his progress.

“Clegane was seen in the Forest Camp yesterday. The men who arrived with masters Tallhart and Glover from the south said so. They broke bread with him and told him why they were coming here.”

“So we have two new visitors? Where do they all fit?”

“Not a worry, my lady. These were only small parties, on the same mission as everyone else.” The maid leaned closer to Sansa’s ear as she was combing her hair up. “Many wonder when you will be making your decision, my lady? Strong and hearty these two, no better or worse than the others.”

Maiden’s wail! The men had told Sandor about them coming to Winterfell to ask for her hand? That would make it even more difficult for her to get through to him, Sansa moped. He was sure to see her suggestion as even weaker after witnessing all the suitors from powerful houses of the North congregating around her. What she really needed was a wake-up call, something that would convey to Sandor that she was not just a thoughtless young girl; that she really had thought things through and meant what she said.

Impatiently Sansa got up from her seat and wandered to the window. Men and horses in the yard, dogs barking, servants scurrying around – all so harmonious. She rested her head against the cold stone. What can I do to make him pay attention, when he even refuses to be around? How can I send him a message?

The same outrageous thought that had briefly flashed in her mind the previous day returned. What if she were to take him literally? Sandor had said the words. Not for a moment meaning them, but he had said them nonetheless. Surely he couldn’t refuse it if she did as he had bidden?

Deep in thought, Sansa dismissed Lysandra and sat down to think about it in truth.

Later that day she called her maid to her room.

“Lysandra, I have asked you here because I have a special favour to ask of you.” Sansa had practiced her speech many times. She knew she could order her maid to do as she wished, but she needed something more than just blind obedience. What she was planning was going to be highly controversial and shocking, and she needed someone on her side.

“Yes, my lady, anything you need.”

“I have a task I have to do, and it is very unconventional. I can’t explain to you why, but trust me when I tell you that I have very good reasons. And I need some help.”

“I will gladly give it to you, whatever it is.”

Sansa took a deep breath. “What I want you to do is…”

----------

It took them half a day to make the preparations; find suitable attire for Sansa, arrange the cart to be ready the next day, ask the old woman known to be able to tell the weather what the next day was going to look like and many other little things. Sansa practiced crawling in her rooms, finding activity she had not indulged in since being a babe strange and foreign.

Lysandra had been shocked at first, but seeing her mistress’s determination had soon come to accept that she had good reasons. Sansa had deliberately decided not to tell anyone else about her plans, and not to organise an escort to support her on her journey – that would have only complicated matters. Better to deal with the others as the time came and she had already started.

She wondered whether people would think she had lost her mind. Yes, the activity she was going to undertake didn’t make any sense, but as long she executed it rationally and sensibly there was no reason to assume that her senses had been clouded, she reasoned to herself. It was not as if she was planning to run around aimlessly in her nightshift, blabbering nonsense.

It didn’t even matter that Sandor was not going to be there. On the contrary, it was better he wasn’t, as he might be prone to do something foolish. He would hear about it in due course and realise that she had done her bit and it was up to him to do his. It gave Sansa wicked pleasure to imagine his reaction upon hearing the news; if he had thought he had had the last word in the matter, how wrong he would be proven!

The next day Sansa dressed up meticulously: a squire’s leather pants Lysandra had secured from the soldier’s barracks, sturdy woollen dress and a belt, simple loose top with a tightly laced neckline – Sansa didn’t cherish the prospect of wandering eyes being able to see into her blouse. Leather boots and gloves completed the picture, as well as a loose tunic she was planning on wearing until it got too warm.

When they walked through the gate Sansa shivered with anticipation and nerves. She knew that the journey would not be easy. She had sometimes walked the distance and it had taken her almost an hour – it was bound to be at least two or more for her to do it this way. She knew her muscles were going to be aching afterwards and she would have to endure people’s doubts and misgivings. It was not going to be easy, but if it made Sandor take her seriously, it would be worth it.

Sansa had considered long and hard if Sandor would take her gesture as a sign of weakness as he had implied; abasing herself by crawling in front of him. Yet she couldn’t believe that would be the case. Firstly, she wouldn’t be doing it in front of him. Secondly, it was just a practical transaction; she wanted him to do something, he had said he’d do it for a price – it must appeal to his pragmatic mind!

Some ten paces away from the gate Sansa took a deep breath, lowered herself to the ground on her hands and knees, threw a glance at Lysandra who smiled at her reassuringly and gave a weak grin.

“Here I go.”

And so it started. Hand-knee-hand-knee. Hardly had she reached the start of the path when the first people ran to her; the guards from the gate.

“My lady, what happened? Can we help you?” Their clumsiness was endearing as they hovered above her, unsure if they could reach down and touch their lady.

“Just let me be on my way, good men, I know exactly what I am doing,” Sansa replied but didn’t stop. She left it for Lysandra to tell the men about her mission; well-practiced verses about its secret nature and its importance, and how Lady Sansa had empowered her confidant to tell them that anyone trying to apprehend her against her will would be sent to Winterfell’s cells. The men eyed both of them warily and tried to argue with the maid, but a resounding “Let her be and move away!” from Sansa put them in their places. Muttering, they retreated back to the gate.

As she had guessed, it didn’t take long before others followed. The same exchange was had over and over again, and for a moment Sansa wondered whether she would have been better off to take one of the captains of the guard into her confidence to prevent such intrusions. She was still finding it somewhat difficult to find her rhythm, and interruptions didn’t help.

As it happened, she was able to convince – with Lysandra’s assistance – one of the captains who had rushed to her side about the legitimacy of her mission and order him to arrange some kind of protection for her trail on the go, and after that things settled down somewhat. She couldn’t prevent curious crowds following her and didn’t in truth even care to. What was the harm as everyone would know about her adventure soon anyway? Better for them to see her as she was, lucid and serious, rather than make stories later without having seen the reality of it.

When the lords Umber and Karstark arrived, Sansa knew she had to offer them something else. Stopping for a moment – during which she could luxuriously stretch her back – she told them how this was something she had promised to do but could not expose the details.

She didn’t even have to bring the old gods into the discussion as Greatjon raised it first. “Is this something for which even a prayer in the Godswood is not sufficient?”

Yes, that’s it – let them think that if that is their mind, Sansa thought, but out loud she said, “There are things so great that prayer alone is not enough,” and let them believe what they wished. She could have prayed for Sandor’s change of mind, but after so many of her prayers to the old gods and new had gone unanswered before, she felt infinitely better about taking matters into her own hands.

Knee-hand-knee-hand. She had found her rhythm and progress was as good as it could be, when another commotion alerted her.

Sandor!

How was he there now? He was supposed to stay away as he had all the other days, scattered thoughts flashed through Sansa’s mind. He couldn’t, she couldn’t let this end now, she hadn’t made her point yet!

In the few short moments before she had to address him, Sansa gathered her wits. This is not between you and him now – not yet. Now he is only in the way.

Sansa gained grim satisfaction from seeing him so uncomfortable. She had to play with him the same tune she had with the others, there being so many onlookers to their exchange. Of course she knew that Sandor was well aware of what was going on and why, and to see his broad shoulders slumped in rare uncertainty gave her twisted pleasure. As far as Sansa was concerned he could do whatever he wanted as long as he didn’t try to stop her, but just in case she glanced around to ensure that the men-at-arms were not far away. Surely Sandor would not dare to defy her in public? Yet if he did, she had to make sure her warnings to others would apply to him as well.

At first it seemed that he had resigned, but what happened next was so fast that Sansa hardly had time to register it when she found herself alone with Sandor. Well, as alone as it was possible while still being surrounded by dozens of people further away.

“What the fuck is this really about, little bird?”

“Why do you ask? You know it better than anyone.”

“If this is about what I said the other night – gods, woman, you know they were just thoughtless words! I didn’t mean any of it, surely you realised that.”

“You mean you lied to me? You told me something that wasn’t true, made me a promise you had no intention of keeping?” Sansa wasn’t proud of herself but it did feel good to throw Sandor’s words back at him after the way he had treated her.

“Bloody hells! Since when have you taken my curses for real?! You are not a silly girl anymore. If you ever were.”

Was it the piercing pain through her palm or the anger that had simmered in her for days that finally made Sansa to lose her control? She hadn’t intended to do it, preferring to talk with him after his submission to the terms of their ‘agreement’, but Sandor’s indignant tone broke her restraint. There was nobody close enough to hear them so Sansa lashed out at how unfair his behaviour had been and how he had left her no other choice. If you see me hurting it is your doing, she was telling him.

It was surprisingly easy to make Sandor accept his defeat. You won, little bird, he told her.

The words she had hoped to hear made Sansa’s heart flutter. He really means it, she registered while studying him, not being able to detect a tone suggesting he was only trying to placate her with empty words. He looked so terribly serious, eyes narrowed and a frown across his forehead. Even more, the burned corner of his mouth was twitching, a clear sign of his internal turmoil. For a moment she wanted to throw herself into his arms and ask him to take her away, to end this wearisome task…

No, I must not do that. I have started this, and I must finish this. So Sansa hardened her heart. She was not a child who threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, only to be easily swayed by promises. She let him know that and moved ahead, pushing his hands away from her shoulders. A tense moment followed but thank the gods Sandor seemed to accept his loss in this too and withdrew.

Sansa sighed another sigh of relief, tinged with pain brought upon her with renewed assaults to her already sore hands and knees.

And so she continued, each stride heavier than the previous. Hand-knee-hand-knee. At least she was not bothered by pebbles and hard-edged stones anymore, thanks to Sandor’s administrations, for which she was secretly grateful. So typical for him to spring into action and take care of practical things others had not even considered, Sansa smiled internally.

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A thousand fires burned in Sansa’s back and muscles whose existence she had not previously even been aware of ached all over her body. Despite the double layer of leather on her hands the soft pads of her palms were chafed and painful, but at least the pads of her knees were blissfully numb. Nothing but an image of a hot bath and soothing oils had kept her going for a last while, as well as the dream of finally being able to straighten herself. A warm bed, feather pillows…

I did it!

An overwhelming sense of satisfaction swept over Sansa as she rested on the platform of an old well, eyes sweeping across the crowd. So many faces, some curious, some doubtful, some shaking their heads. Not a negative word had been uttered as far as she was aware of, but she had heard many blessings and well-wishes. She was almost ashamed of deceiving her people this way, allowing them to believe that her journey had had an ulterior motive to do with the gods. Yet, did it really matter what the real reason was as long as she had shown her commitment to a cause? A good cause for all of them if she were to be successful, to marry the man of her choosing, raise a family and ensure the blood of the wolf carried on in Winterfell for the future?

She had already turned towards the cart Lysandra had pointed to her when she felt strong arms encircling her.

“You have done enough, even you must admit that your task is done properly and fairly. Now I’ll take you home,” a familiar voice rumbled next to her ear. Sansa felt herself being lifted as easily as if she weighed nothing and it felt wonderful to let go and be carried. For a fleeting moment she considered resisting and insisting that she return to the keep in a manner of her choosing, but Sandor’s embrace was so strong and warm and his body against her so soothing that any words of rejection were soon forgotten.

Being back on Stranger’s back felt so familiar and comforting in an odd and ridiculous way, and soon Sansa found herself slipping into a drowsy rest against Sandor. She had no energy for words, and what they had to talk about was too big and too important anyway, so she didn’t even bother to try. The steady gait, Sandor’s hands holding her and brushing her shoulders, the warm cocoon between his arms lulled Sansa, making her almost forget her soreness.

Only when Sandor gently pushed her away from him and murmured into her ear the question about when she wanted to talk did she rouse from her stupor. Winterfell was already in sight and she shifted further, knowing that when they entered the gate there were going to be curious eyes welcoming her back from her strange journey.

Sansa wanted to settle matters with him as soon as possible, but she had to be well rested and in a condition to do so. Tentatively she straightened her back and changed her hold from around his waist to his shoulder and the flash of pain traveling down her body made her gasp. Maybe not tonight. Tomorrow.

As she had known, as soon as they entered the great courtyard eager people started to mill around them.

“Make way for Lady Sansa!” Sandor shouted and pushed ahead, taking Stranger all the way to the door closest to her rooms, dismounting there and carrying her in. Sansa smiled wearily to those in the yard, trying to behave as regally as possible considering her current situation. Her two young maids rushed to her and clucked like hens, trying to get Sandor to lower his precious cargo and he ignored their attempt. Sansa couldn’t stand the idea of walking herself and so it was that Sandor carried her all the way to her rooms and only lowered her next to a steaming hot bath, ignoring the maids’ scandalised looks.

“This is fine, I can manage now. Thank you for your help,” she managed to say, even waving her hand to him in an attempt to appear gracious. Sandor bowed his head slightly and then looked back at her, and his eyes burned hotter than the steam from the bath.

“At your service, my lady,” he said, and mouthed so the maids could not hear ‘little bird’. One more intense look and he left.

Sansa peeled the dirty clothes off with some help and sank herself into the bath, both blessing and cursing the sting of water. She relaxed only when she was submerged in it all the way to her neck. Her plan was progressing well, one more obstacle overcome.

Sansa smiled to herself.

Chapter Text

 

THE FIRST LETTER WRITTEN BY YOUNG ALDREC OF HOUSE FLINT OF FLINT'S FINGER TO HIS SISTER, MAID ALYSEE

Dearest Alysee,

What a poor excuse for a brother have I been, shamefully neglecting the solemn promise I made to you before I left! My only defence is that I have been very busy here in Winterfell for the whole last month; practising my weapons training with the men-at-arms and other sons of noble houses, meeting with all the friends of our house that Uncle Kennet wants me to get to know, and making little trips around the countryside. That, and trying to court Lady Sansa - but as you know, that was the least successful of my ventures.

But here it finally is, my very first letter - you can wave it in front of Maester Torren who probably never believed I could produce one! To be perfectly honest this is not my first try, but only a cramped hand and blotchy sheets of parchment remain as a testament to my earliest attempts.

This time I have decided that I will finish this even if it takes me all night and kills my sword arm for the next day. I made you a promise and I have to deliver.

Where do I start? Winterfell is truly the outstanding keep people say it is and Wintertown is a bustling hive of activity with all the visitors crowding it. But of course you are not truly interested in such details when all you really want to hear about are stories of knights and fair maidens? That was the only reason why you wanted me to write to you, to tell you more about the famous Lady Sansa Stark and her many suitors…

By now, you have heard the main news from our uncle’s missive to our lord father, as he undoubtedly shares them with you and our lady mother, so I won’t bore you by stating the bare facts again.

As you were all giddy about just the thought of you possibly becoming Lady Sansa’s goodsister, it must have been a disappointment that I did not succeed in my proposal. I personally knew all along that it was not to be, but I had to do our lord father’s bidding just the same. I was glad to pursue her, of course, but I was convinced that a lady of her standing would not look favourably on the second son of a minor house. Yet how wrong I was in that respect, at least!

You have, I’m sure, heard of Lady Sansa’s pilgrimage? There is a song called “Lonely Wolf’s Lament” already being sung in taverns and halls all across the North. Have you perchance happened to hear that? And my dear sister, I was there when it happened! I was lucky enough to see it almost from the start as I chanced to be in the main yard when she started her journey, and I also took turns sweeping the path in front of her to do away with stones and pebbles. I will remember that day for the rest of my life and will tell stories about it to my children and my grandchildren (if I ever manage to find a wife, that is). Let me tell you; she was magnificent! I don’t know how she was able to maintain her dignity even while crawling through the muck, but she did it. I have never seen a maid so graceful and proud and so worthy of respect and admiration as she was that day. If you grow up to be even tenth of the fine lady that she is, I will be a proud brother indeed.

Nobody knows why she undertook that mission and she keeps it close to her chest. I personally believe that it was a promise fulfilled rather than a plea to the old gods. If you wonder why, I think so because she was so happy after that. I had noticed that she looked a bit forlorn in the days preceding her mission, but after having recovered from her ordeal she returned amongst us manifestly radiant, all smiles and happy faces. I suspect a person wouldn’t do that after just having appealed for something in such an extraordinary manner – one would be more likely to behave warily and cautiously while expecting to see the outcome of one’s request. Whereas if a person has fulfilled a promise, one would be accompanied with a sense of deep satisfaction and contentment, don’t you think so? Just as I expect I will be after I have finished this letter and given it to the maester, no matter how much my wrist hurts. At least this is how I reckon it.

In case you are wondering how good a judge I can be about her moods and expressions, I did have the privilege of meeting her several times during my stay here. She granted me a private audience soon after our arrival – well, as private as could be with that big man of hers skulking in the background. She was very kind and courteous and remembered our house and its services to House Stark in times past. She was just as beautiful as people say, and when she smiled at me…Well, I think I fell a bit in love with her at that moment and suddenly the duty I was undertaking for the advancement of our house suddenly acquired a new purpose altogether! Although the presence of that man - the Hound as he used to be called, or Clegane as he is known now - made me quite nervous, the way he was looking daggers at me. As we all know by now, his behaviour makes sense in retrospect, but at the time it was rather disquieting.

After that she has remained kind and genteel with me, greeting me amiably every time when we meet. However, she was like that with all her suitors so none of us could really make anything out of it; whether she favoured any one of us above the others.

Yet it was some time after her pilgrimage that things started to change. Clegane, who had often followed her on her daily walks and chores around the keep, started to do that more often, but not like before. Previously he had always stayed a few paces behind her, yet now he was walking by her side, neck and neck, and talking with her instead of staying silent as men-at-arms on duty are wont to do. Soon they were seen everywhere together, often deep in discussion. People looked askance at first but soon everyone just shrugged their shoulders and concluded that if Lady Sansa wanted to converse with him, that was her right. We all had heard the story of him escorting her through the Vale and the Neck to reach Winterfell, and that kind of deed may allow a man some concessions, we thought.

But then he started to join her at evening meals as well. At first it was nothing unusual, as Lady Sansa had taken the habit of her father, Lord Eddard, to sit a guest or an important member of the household next to her. She rotated that privilege and I too had an honour to sit next to her once. Yet the man Clegane was invited to sit at the high table more often than anyone else, and soon he was seated next to her almost every second evening. I have to admit that I too raised my eyebrows at that; since when have soldiers, even as skilful as he but without a proper position in the keep, been afforded such favours? Nonetheless there he sat, bold as brass, among the good folk of the North.

You know as well as I all the stories about him when he was still the Hound, the Lannister dog. You may recall how none of us could believe our ears when we heard that it was he who brought our lady back to us, although it was already widely known that he had left the lions at the Battle of the Blackwater. The other stories…well, they were later proven wrong but I guess the fact that so many people believed them without batting an eye tells you something about the man and his reputation, doesn’t it?

All us lads were wary of him at first. Promise not to tell anyone but I almost pissed in my breeches when he first came at me in a practice yard! Nonetheless, he was actually quite civil and didn’t drop me on my arse quite as quickly as he could have, had he wanted. He was foul-mouthed and harsh, but also fair and didn’t gloat over a fallen opponent. The second time we sparred I learned quite a few good tricks from him. I asked around a bit among the Winterfell men to learn more about what kind of a fellow he is, and all said the same thing; that he is a hard man but even-handed and pragmatic and had fought well and bravely in the skirmishes for Winterfell.

But things got even more scandalous after that (you love that, I know!). The evenings in the Great Hall were usually quiet and uneventful despite the presence of so many visitors; men sitting in groups talking and drinking (moderately, I may add, only watered wine and ale were served after the main meal), some doing different sorts of crafts or mending their personal belongings and so forth. Lady Sansa used to sit either with her lords or council members, or with other ladies and maids, most of them sewing or doing some other kind of needlework. Yet gradually she started to spend some evenings as well with Clegane, and not in a company but just the two of them sitting in one of the deep window recesses. She could be embroidering and he sharpening his dagger or perhaps a sword. Even I, half-wildling as our Lady Mother is wont to call me, thought it an odd thing to do in the lady’s presence, but she didn’t seem to mind. And so they just sat and conversed, that again being the most unusual thing.

Don’t get me wrong, they were in the view of everyone in the hall at all times, and at the end of the evening she went to her rooms with her maids and he either stayed in the hall for a bit longer or went to his own lodgings that were situated on a completely different floor to hers. So I am not suggesting that there was anything improper in it – it was just odd, that’s all.

And then came the day of the announcement.

I noticed that something was amiss already in the morning when after breaking her fast, Lady Sansa asked two of her stalwart lords, Lords Umber and Ryswell, to join her in one of the small solars outside the Great Hall. I was curious and followed them, lingering outside the door wondering what that was about. I knew Lady Sansa sat in the council meetings in a place of honour and took active part in them, but mostly when she conversed with her council members outside the meetings it took place in the Great Hall. They stayed in the room for a while, but when they re-emerged she looked triumphant and was smiling but her lords looked stunned with eyes as wide as saucers. They were actually quite amusing to look at; two of the most powerful lords in the North shocked and also somehow subdued, which I thought strange at the time.

Even stranger it became when I heard the servants being called to get the whole council together with such short notice. I stayed in the ante hall and saw all the lords and the maester making their way into the big council room. This time Clegane was among them and there was something different in him that I couldn’t place at first – but then I realised it was his attire. He was dressed in all new clothes, good quality black cloth made into breeches and tunic, the front of the tunic quartered into black and grey, with a yellow lining at the hem. I wouldn’t have really paid attention to it if you hadn’t specifically begged me to tell you what people wear, hence I took note. I recall the colours of his house were black and yellow so I guess that was why there was the yellow reference, combined with black and grey.

Lady Sansa had changed as well and wore a blue dress with some kind of frilly grey ribbon decorations in the front. Sorry sis, I am not familiar with these details so that is all I can say! Again they locked themselves inside the council room and I so wished to be able to hear them but alas I couldn’t. I just lingered on and cleaned my sword belt on a bench closest to the door, cocking my ear for anything at all. Yet all I heard were some muffled shouts and then banging as if someone pounded the floor with a staff or something. I got a bit worried at this point as who knew what was going on? Mayhap it was talk of war that was taking place, and with our keep so close to the Neck I think I was justified being curious and worried.

After quite a while longer they finally walked out, Lady Sansa leading the procession with Clegane by her side. If the two lords had looked flabbergasted earlier, the faces of the rest of the council were even longer! By this time I was curious as a cat and knew I simply had to find out what was going on. I thought to approach one of the maids of Lord Ryswell as I am quite friendly with her Oh well, never mind, forget about the last part, let’s just say that I was planning to follow this thing to find out what was really going on. Suffice to say I wouldn’t have stayed away from the dinner table that evening had Lord Tywin himself woken from the dead and offered me half the gold in Casterly Rock!

Luckily though, my curiosity got sated that very same evening, when at the end of the meal Lady Sansa got up and gave a long and eloquent speech to all and sundry. She started saying how she had studied her conscience for a long time and had realised that for the good of her house and people in the North it was imperative that she married again sooner rather than later. She also stated that her marriage to Tyrion Lannister was never something she had wished for, but as they had been joined together in front of the Seven, if he was alive he was her husband still. She acknowledged the revoking of the marriage was possible, but should her first lord husband ever return to claim her, any man she would have married in the meantime would have to step aside and any children born of the union would be technically bastards. Of course everyone knew that already, the prospect of a marriage being the very reason why so many of us were there seeking her hand. Yet I probably speak on behalf of all the other suitors when I say that that didn’t deter me in the least.

At that point it started to look like her speech had something to do with her marriage, and we who had presented our proposal to her started to look at each other wondering who was to be the lucky fellow her choice fell upon. I, of course, knew that I had no hope in that contest, as she had never given me any indication to the contrary, but I had thought that young Cerwyn or maybe Lord Glover could be the one winning her hand. However they both looked as surprised as anyone else when I glanced at them.

Then she turned to Clegane and said – and I remember these words quite clearly: “As my future lord husband and consort, I choose my faithful companion, Sandor of House Clegane. He has proven his loyalty to me with his many deeds and actions and he has earned my respect and affections more than any other. I know he will always be loyal to House Stark and House Stark alone.”

And what an impact those few sentences had! The whole room fell silent as a grave – one could have heard a needle drop, so quiet it was. People were looking at her, at him, at each other and then again at her. I saw some cocking their heads as if they didn’t believe their ears. The council members looked uncomfortable but didn’t say anything, and indeed this must have been what they had been discussing earlier.  

In the end it was Lord Umber who stood up and congratulated Lady Sansa, and after that the spell was broken and people started talking, And talk they did! The way people whispered and nattered with each other, it was like a swarm of bees had descended upon the hall with all the buzz and hum! More and more congratulations were uttered to Lady Sansa and I suppose to Clegane as well, although nobody addressed him directly. I was as stunned as everyone else and it took me a good while to believe that she had said what she just had. I heard some of the bolder ones ask her to specify what she actually meant, but instead of being offended she only smiled and repeated that yes, she had made her choice of future husband and had decided to accept Sandor Clegane’s proposal.

All this time the man himself had been sitting like a stone, not saying anything nor smiling. His face was cold and threatening when he gazed across the hall, and if anyone entertained any notions of challenging Lady Sansa’s decision, just one look at him and the words would have died on the lips of even the bravest man. Mayhap that was one reason why nobody did, or mayhap it was the way Lady Sansa smiled so sweetly when she looked at him. I observed them both closely and as things started to loosen up a bit he also threw a few glances at his (I still find this word hard to spell when thinking back at that moment) betrothed. Although I had never seen him actually smiling, there was a peculiar twist in the corner of his mouth that I suppose was as close to a smile as he can muster.

It took quite a while before the hall calmed down and people returned to what was left of their meal and drinks. As everyone rose and the servants started to put away the trestle tables, I saw Clegane leaving. I was intrigued about where he was going after such a momentous announcement – I mean, it is not every day a man gets proclaimed as the chosen one for the most sought-after beauty of the realm? So I slipped away as well and followed him at a respectable distance. You can imagine my astonishment as his stride took him into the stables of all places. I didn’t dare follow him inside but I peeked through the narrow window and lo and behold, saw him with his monster of a horse, the black beast called Stranger. He was stroking his mane and seemed to be talking to him. I could hear only the tone of his voice that was low and assuring, and a few scattered words here and there, ‘bird’ for one, and ‘yield’ for another, but they didn’t make much sense to me.

I know, dear sister, that he is hardly a man to feel sorry for, especially after what had just transpired, but somehow the idea of a man talking to his horse about his betrothal as if he didn’t have any friends felt a bit out of sorts to me. Nobody had even acknowledged him directly, only Lady Sansa! So once he walked out of the stables I pretended to be on my way there and when he approached, I did offer him my congratulations. “Congratulations, Lord Clegane,” I said to him, “for your betrothal to the beautiful Lady Sansa. She is a fine lady indeed and I hope your marriage will be a success.” I was nervous and probably not quite as confident as I tried to give an impression of, but he stopped and looked at me. For a moment I shrank internally and cursed what on earth made me do it - maybe he didn’t like that kind of attention? “I am no lord, boy,” he grumbled but not unkindly, and then he nodded his head and added “Thanks to you,” and walked away.

It was the most unusual culmination to the most unusual courtship, but also a memorable day and one that will likewise stay in the annals of the North for a long time. I am proud that I was lucky enough to witness all these momentous events, no matter that they spelt the end of my own aspirations.

After the announcement, things moved along rapidly, the wedding being celebrated only a sennight later in the Godswood. That was yesterday and the whole keep and most of the people in Wintertown were there to witness the union. This time, just for your benefit, I asked the maid, my friend, to describe what Lady Sansa was wearing on her wedding day in a language only women speak. To me is was just grey and white and billowy, but this is what she told me; ‘the bride wore a gown of light grey silk with long full sleeves and a high waist with a ruffle of white, almost translucent, silk reinforcing the neckline. Her bodice was embroidered with silvery thread with the motifs of her house, wolves, as well as various leaves and flowers. A figurine of a little bird was sewn on each of her shoulders with wings spread. The skirt was wide and long and was followed by a long train of a darker grey shade.’

Clegane wore the same attire as on the day of announcement, but now with the addition of a cloak. Lady Sansa’s cloak was of course decorated with the Stark direwolf, but Clegane’s was not his true house sigil, said those who had seen it. It carried three dogs, but they almost looked like wolves, and again the black and yellow were interspaced with grey. I suppose that since technically he doesn’t have a house anymore, the Lannisters having annexed his father’s lands, he had a good reason to have an altered sigil now that he is to be a consort to Lady Stark. Again, that was what people said – I wouldn’t know much about these matters.

Many were still in shock at the news, but most had accepted it graciously enough. After all, it was Lady Sansa’s decision, and although nobody can still fully comprehend why she chose him of all men, it was done and they are married now and that is all there is.

The feast afterwards was a jolly event and I had a merry time, eating and drinking and exchanging japes with my fellow jilted suitors. We were all green with envy about that sly dog Clegane and wondered what he had that we didn’t, especially with that face, lack of house and his less than savoury history with the Starks. Well, suffice to say the quality of the talk soon degenerated and most of what was said after that is not suitable for the ears of a maiden, so I will say no more about it. We all waited for the bedding ceremony and although I know many women had qualms about attending to Clegane, who was allowed to retire with most of his dignity maintained, we lads had no such misgivings and Lady Sansa got a good ol’ Northern escort to the bridal chamber!

So here I am now, my head a bit sore but otherwise in good spirits. With my business here concluded, I am joining young Umber to visit Last Hearth and possibly even travel as far as the Wall. We plan to leave tomorrow so this is my last chance to write this letter and hence the need to get this all down on parchment tonight. Umber has spoken to me highly of his younger sister and I am quite curious to see her with my own eyes, so who knows, maybe this courting trip will not be completely wasted after all. Uncle Kennet thinks it could be a good match and he has written about the prospect of it to our lord father as well, so we’ll see how this goes.

Pheeew, what a marathon effort this was! This has taken half the day and most of the evening and my hand is hurting like hells a lot, so I hope you appreciate the efforts of your favourite brother and be nice to me when I am back, little pumpkin!

On that note, I bid you farewell and muss your hair from across the land. Be a good girl and one day you might become a true lady like Lady Sansa.

Your affectionate brother,

Aldrec

Post Script: I promise I will try to write again, but it might be a while and possibly only when I return to Winterfell from my travels. So be patient!

 

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THE SECOND LETTER WRITTEN BY YOUNG ALDREC OF HOUSE FLINT OF FLINT'S FINGER TO HIS SISTER, MAID ALYSEE

 

Dearest Alysee,

It has been a long time since my last (and only) letter, but I beseech your forgiveness. It was not as if there were ample opportunities to write or send ravens from the wilderness where I spent most of this time.

Yet now I am back at Winterfell, only staying here for a few days before continuing my journey home. Four months since I left; four eventful months for me! I travelled to Last Hearth as planned, and also got to the Wall to see the end of the civilised world as we know it. It was magnificent and majestic and the Night’s Watch was very impressive indeed – but knowing you, those matters probably don’t interest you that much so I will save my poor hand and tell you more about them myself once I am back. I also met with lovely lady Ellina of House Umber and I dare to think that she liked the look of me as much as I liked the look of her. More importantly, I think that her father likes me as well, so now it will be up to our fathers to take the matter up between themselves. You will get on with her well, I am sure, if it comes to that. She is very practical and sensible but she is also a woman and as likely as you to be swayed by songs and poems and love stories.

Speaking of love stories, I was curious to see how things had transpired between Lady Sansa and her lord husband since the wedding. Some of the most cynical thought that it had been some kind of ruse that saw her attaching herself to such a man and that eventually it would wear thin and our dear lady would find herself stuck with a second unworthy husband.

Well, I am glad to report that it seems that nothing of the sort is the case. They both received me and my small party in their solar when we arrived yesterday, keen to hear firsthand news from the far North. Lady Sansa was as beautiful as ever, or more so if that is even possible – she had such a glow of happiness all around her that it almost took my breath away. Later I heard that she has a good reason – she is with child and everyone is so excited about it you’d be tempted to think that it is going to be the first babe ever born in the North!

Clegane was not much more forthcoming than previously, but some of the harshness seemed to have worn away. He was silent most of the time, letting his lady wife to do the talking, but he asked a few questions about the condition of Castle Black, the general feelings of the smallfolk and the state of food supplies in the far North. Say whatever you will about him, but he is far from being a mindless brute as some people like to paint him, but rather is quite an astute and knowledgeable man.  

After our meeting the rest of my group left the solar but I hung back a bit, pretending to admire the wall hangings near the door. I think they thought that I too had left as when I glanced at them on the other side of the room, partially obstructed by the high-backed chairs, I saw him leaning over to her and she wrapping her arms around his neck. She smiled at him and kissed his cheek and he whispered something into her ear and placed his hand on her stomach.  Now, I am not a sentimental man and love is something for the bards to sing about – but I confess that what I saw was something quite extraordinary, something I have never before witnessed between a man and a woman. Clegane’s face was transformed into almost affable and she…well, let’s just say that she was the very image of the Maiden and the Mother. I am thinking now that all the speculation about the reasons why she chose him from among all the men in the North may be thoroughly futile and the reason much simpler than most suspect; I believe that they genuinely love each other. Who would have guessed?

As I am on my homeward journey already, I close this letter without further ado – I can always tell you all about my adventures when I see you face to face.

As always, stay a good girl and obey our lord father and mother. Mussing your hair,

Your affectionate brother,

Aldrec