Not long into the banquet, Lady Stark excused herself, leaving her pretty daughter to play hostess, picking at her food to avoid staining her silks and chirping her courtesies at Joffrey and Cersei like a little bird. If only Sandor had been able to leave this sorry feast as well, instead of needing to suffer through an evening standing behind Joffrey, watching him play at being a charming prince. But then Lady Stark had good reason, having been plagued by sickness from bearing yet another wolf pup. A girl, they said, from how wide and how green in the face she’d grown. For the sake of the Starks, he hoped that this girl would turn out normal, like their parents. Most likely too much to hope for, considering how the rest of their litter had turned out.
Right on cue, something smacked into the back of his knees. He growled at the attacker, and it would have had most men cowering in fear, but most men did not repeatedly try to attack the Hound with a wooden sword. The wolf cub grinned at him, and behind him stood the little wolf, looking ever so slightly sorry. At once, he felt eyes on him, and there it was again. If this had been a battlefield instead of the Great Hall of Winterfell, he’d have been ready to expect the swing of steel, but instead, the little bird was glaring at him as if he’d been the one striking the wolf cub instead of the other way round. That was new as well. Fear and disgust, he got plenty of, but this was pure hatred, and the little bird didn’t seem the hateful type, always ready to offer a polite smile to all around her except him. Myrcella spoke of her with such warmth too. So why, in the seven buggering hells, did she hate him? They’d not even exchanged words, so it must be some rumour she’d heard. He swore under his breath. She, of all people, should know better than to trust rumours.
As soon as she saw him look back, she looked away, turning to mutter something to Joffrey instead. Still couldn’t look him in the eye, for fuck’s sake. What did she want? To strangle him with her yarn while looking the other way?
Softly, the little bird rested a hand on Lord Stark’s arm.
‘Father,’ she whispered, ‘I’m afraid Bran and Rickon have managed to sneak in here. I’ll bring them back to their rooms and put them to bed once more.’
The wolf cub must have heard her, for he screamed, ‘No!’
So much for the little bird’s attempt for a quiet exit.
The King turned, beard slick with grease from the boar he’d speared and the wine he’d scoffed, no doubt pausing from a tirade of reminiscence and more and more unlikely reasons to convince Lord Stark to take up the position of the Hand willingly.
‘What’s the matter now?’ asked the King.
‘I’m sorry Your Grace,’ chirped the little bird, ‘my brothers are usually better behaved, but with Mother’s present condition, they are a little unsettled. I was just about to put them to bed. There will be baked apples and lemon cakes to follow. Please enjoy them, and I will–’
‘No! Sansa’s bedtime stories are boring!’ Then, to Sandor’s horror, the wolf cub said, ‘I want a story from the Hound!’
The King roared with laughter. ‘A dog acting wet nurse for a wolf!’
‘Your Grace, my sincere apologies, my brother is still young and–’
‘Why not!’ said the King, ‘Clegane, you have the rest of the night off. Go put the boys to bed. Trant! You come here, I’ve got a standing job for you tonight!’
‘Your Grace,’ said Lord Stark, joining the fray. Poor man, stuck here hosting the banquet. ‘Please allow Sansa to–’
‘Come Ned, I told you none of that Your Grace nonsense! If you’re going to argue about it ‘til the pie goes cold, then you’re both going. Give the boys both a mother and a father, hey?’ said the King with another uproarious laugh.
Lord Stark looked as if the pie had gone down the wrong hole, and the little bird blushed prettily right down to her neck. Joffrey snickered, no doubt amused by the thought that the Stark girls would one day be betrothed to the likes of dogs once the rest of the great houses reject them. Every day since the King expressed an interest in betrothing the elder Stark girl to Joffrey, the little worm and his lady mother had been grousing, saying that the Stark girls had witch blood from Lady Minisa’s family. The Queen had a particular aversion to witches and prophecies. Your own critter have need of both a mother and a father, he wanted to tell fat Robert, but Robert was King, though perhaps they are not yours.
‘Off you go then!’ said the King. ‘Ned, there’s no need to make your face longer than it already is. Clegane will see the boys and your girl back to their rooms safely. Now, where were we? Ah, yes, I swung my warhammer and…’
The wolf cub grabbed his hand and tugged him away from the voice of the King. The little wolf and the little bird followed behind, and as the little bird passed her sister, she whispered, ‘I’ll have to leave it to you. Good luck!’
‘But… I’m no good at that kind of…’
‘You’ll be fine, Arya.’
With that, the little bird left the she-wolf floundering by Tommen’s side. Sandor almost felt sorry for the girl, but this was no time to think of others, for as soon as they pushed through the door, leaving the noise of the Great Hall behind, the little bird started chirping.
‘I… thank you for your assistant with my brothers, ser.’
‘I’m no ser, woman,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ asked the wolf pup.
‘Yes, why not?’ said the little wolf.
Seven buggering hells.
‘Do I look like one of your buggering knights from your story books?’
The little wolf and the wolf cub both turned to study his face. What was wrong with the lot of them?
‘I think so,’ said the little wolf at length, sounding a little unsure, ‘but they don’t look much like Ser Boros. They don’t usually have such big… bellies.’
Sandor snorted. ‘Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger.’
‘Have you seen a real tiger before?’ said the wolf pup.
Before he had a chance to reply, the little wolf cut in, ‘Oh! I heard they have striped horses across the Narrow Sea. Is it true?’
‘Aye, and aye, Lord Tywin once had one brought to Casterly Rock. They say it was gold he’d have spent getting a dwarf, but there was little need of that what with him breeding his own half-man,’ he said, ignoring the way that the little bird’s mouth had pressed into a thin, angry line.
‘Do they have dwarfs in every castle in the South?’ said the little wolf with a frown. ‘We don’t have one here.’
‘They like them in the Reach. Fat lot of use they are.’
‘We just have Hodor, but he’s not here because he’s big,’ said the wolf cub. Then he added, ‘I like Hodor.’
‘The stable boy?’ said Sandor. He remembered catching a glimpse of a giant of a man in the stables when they’d first arrived at Winterfell. For a heartbeat, he’d thought that it was Gregor, but as he’d drawn near, he’d found a man just a little larger than himself, with a kindly face. ‘Seems a friendly sort.’
‘Oh yes,’ said the little bird, finally resuming her chirping. ‘He’s very happy in with the horses. He’s a little simple so we make sure he never learns to fight, else he might hurt someone.’
Now Sandor really had to laugh. Else he might hurt someone! What when through these northmen’s heads? In a different life, the stable boy could have been another brother. Gregor, Sandor, Hodor. Ha! The Lannisters would have trained him every day. Being simple was all the better, as long as he’d understand the command to kill. What helm would they fashion him? Perhaps they’d make Hodor the Hound, then Sandor would have to be something else, though Sandor wasn’t sure he knew how to be anything else. What would be left if he gave away his helm? He tried to picture Hodor’s kindly face peeking through the snarling helm and barked another laugh at the thought.
‘I don’t see what’s so funny,’ the little bird said with a huff, though some of the anger had drained from her face.
But he simply shook his head.
‘Have you ever ridden against Barristan the Bold?’ The little wolf was already on another tangent.
‘Aye,’ said Sandor, thankful that they’d now entered the Great Keep. Not long now until both young wolves would be abed and he’d be free. ‘Old Selmy has unhorsed me many a times.’
‘He’s a true knight! I can’t wait to meet him.’
‘Me too!’ said the wolf cub.
‘Aye,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ said the little bird, cocking her head in surprise.
‘Told you,’ the little wolf said to his sister.
He looked to the wolf cub, hoping for an explanation, and the cub said, ‘She thought you were lying about everything.’
‘What? You did! You told Bran he’s making everything up.’
Was that why the little bird hated him? Because she took him for a liar? And took the likes of Joffrey for honest men? He searched her face for the truth, but she looked away once more.
‘A hound will die for you, but never lie to you. And he’ll look you straight in the face,’ he said. Then he added quietly, ‘That’s more than little birds can do, isn’t it?
The little bird took a deep breath, drew herself to her full height, which was still only to his chin, and looked him straight in the face. Gods, it was worse than being looked at by the two young wolves. Her eyes were so blue, her skin was so smooth, and her auburn hair was so shiny and thick. He cursed himself for making her look at him, his skin scarred and his hair so thin where it had been burned away. Why did he want her to look at him when he didn’t even like to look at himself in the buggering mirror?
She drew another breath, donning a suit of invisible armour and said, ‘I’m not sure what little birds are, but I had believed that you were trying to get in my brothers’ good graces by… exaggerating your… deeds. I was mistaken, and I beg your pardons, ser.’
He wanted to correct her, but there was a more urgent question. ‘Why would I do that?’
‘Because I might be Queen in the future,’ she said.
He scoffed. ‘Very unlikely.’
‘You… think so?’ she said, and for a moment, he caught a look of relief in her eyes.
‘Considering how little the present Queen and your Prince in question take to the idea,’ he said. ‘And it appears that the feeling is mutual.’
‘I… It’s just that… Father promised to find me someone brave and gentle and strong.’
‘And the Prince?’
‘Prince Joffrey is…’ the little bird furrowed her brows, searching for the right words to chirp, ‘… is very handsome.’
Both young wolves chuckled at that as they dashed through a door to the right. Sandor ducked into the room after the little bird, who had already grabbed her brothers and was stripping them for bed. She threw them into the featherbed and tucked the throws around them. The two young wolves huddled together.
‘Can I stay here after the stories, Sansa?’ asked the wolf cub.
‘Of course, just don’t do it every night. Mother will worry,’ she said, brushing the back of her hand across the cub’s forehead.
Sandor turned to leave, not wanting to intrude on more private moments between the siblings.
‘No! Hound! You’re going to tell us our story before bed, remember?’ the wolf cub said. ‘Sansa’s stories are boring. We’ve heard all of them already.’
He swore. What did he know about stories for eight-year-olds? When he’d turned eight, there had no longer been a sister to tuck him into bed, to tell him tales of knights and fools.
The little bird arched a brow at him. A challenge?
‘Tell us one that’s true and not some made-up tale,’ said the little wolf.
There were truths about spilled guts and headless men, but those were not tales the young wolves deserved. He drew two chairs from the other end of the room, pulled them in front of the bed and squeezed into one of them. The little bird glanced at him and took the other chair.
‘Would you like to hear about the prince and the rabbits?’
‘Ooh, is it about Joffrey?’ said the little wolf.
‘It’s about a prince who wanted to hunt rabbits. He doesn’t have a name in this tale, boy.’
‘But it’s not a made-up tale?’
‘No,’ said Sandor. He couldn’t quite believe it had actually happened either, but it did. The young wolves nodded, so he began.
‘There was a prince who wanted to practise his archery skills on moving targets, so he decided that he’d shoot rabbits. Now, there were rabbits around King’s Landing, but if he’d just gone hunting for wild rabbits, he’d spend more time riding and tracking rather than shooting, so he had the bright idea of making one of his men breed rabbits for the hunt instead. On the day of the hunt, he had hundreds of rabbits brought into the woods, and the hunt was supposed to begin once the rabbits were released. Now, when the cages flew open, the rabbits didn’t scatter like they were supposed to. Instead, they suddenly collected, first in knots, then in a body, all as one, and instead of running away, they all turned to face the prince and flung themselves at him. Now, there was a knight with the prince from the Kingsguard, and the knight tried to fend off the rabbits, but one particularly large rabbit knocked his helm askew. It had been difficult to find the target as he’d had to look past his belly anyhow. With his helm askew, he was next to useless. The other rabbits continued to attack the prince in the rear. They piled between his legs and forced him to retreat. To this day, rabbits can still make the prince and the knight turn craven.
‘And that,’ said Sandor, ‘is the tale of the prince and the rabbits.’
Two young wolves grinned at him. Neither of them looked sleepy.
‘Is that it?’ said the little bird. ‘Isn’t there a moral to the story?’
‘True stories don’t have morals, woman.’
‘Exactly!’ cried the wolf cub. ‘Real stories aren’t boring!’
‘And how do you expect them to sleep now?’ said the little bird.
‘Get the fuck to sleep,’ he growled at the young wolves, and he heard her gasp.
‘Another!’ they cried.
‘Make it boring this time,’ she muttered under her breath, ‘and watch your language, ser.’
He was already watching his language, and he was still no ser, but she might look him in the eye again, and he both wanted and didn’t want that, so he turned to the young wolves instead. ‘Last one before you get yourselves to sleep, all right?’
He ran a hand over his face and searched for another harmless tale. ‘This is the tale about a rich lord and some vipers. The rich lord lived in a country full of mountains, and there weren’t many vipers there, but somehow they’d spread into his domain from a neighbouring country, and now he was stuck with an infestation. Now, most of the rich lord’s riches came from gold, which was mined from the mountains, but the vipers were making that difficult, as several miners had been bitten and people didn’t fancy being killed by poisonous snakes, so the trickle of gold slowed down. The rich lord knew he needed to defeat the vipers, so he decided that the best way to go about it would be to use his greatest asset.’
‘Did he send a great knight after the vipers?’ said the little wolf.
‘No,’ he said, snorting at the thought of Gregor slaying snakes instead of men. ‘The rich lord used gold. He put a bounty on the vipers. Every dead viper brought to his castle would earn a big fat purse from the rich lord. How quickly do you think he got rid of his snake infestation problem, hey?’
‘A sennight!’ said the wolf cub.
‘Maybe… a moon?’ said the little wolf a little more cautiously.
‘Well, turns out that it costs less to breed them vipers than what the rich lord was offering to kill them, so the smallfolk took up viper breeding.’
‘So what did the rich lord do?’
‘Stopped giving them those purses?’ said the little wolf.
‘Aye. Those vipers stopped being worth anything, so those smallfolk breeders threw them vipers away. By then, they’d bred thousands of the buggers, so the rich lord ended up with things much worse than they’d been before it all started. And the moral of the story is…’ he added, just so the little bird couldn’t find fault with his latest tale, ‘… even people like the rich lord makes mistakes. And now get yourselves to sleep.’
Gods, too sweet.
Since Sandor didn’t wish to spend his evening off hearing further quips about being a wet nurse, but had yet to partake in food and, more importantly, drink, the little bird had showed him to the kitchens. He’d taken two flagons of sour red, but she’d pressed another flagon of northern wine into his hands.
According to the little bird, it was a rare wine made from grapes grown in Winterfell’s glass garden; the head gardener would open that section of glass and allow the grapes to freeze on their vines before harvesting the grapes for wine. Ice wine, they called it. The result was a wine that was not as dark as a man’s blood, but as fiery as the little bird’s hair.
And too sweet.
She’d chirped a lengthy praise of the glass garden at the north end of the godswood, saying how they housed lemon trees, and how the cook had harvested lemons from these very trees for the cakes they had this evening. She’d said that he must see it before he left Winterfell.
So here he was, in the godswood in the middle of the buggering night, and the moon had gone behind the clouds. Now he couldn’t see a fucking thing.
Gods, too much wine.
The godswood should have only taken a moment to cross, but here in the dark, the great oaks and soldier pines pressed into him, and the air became thick and brooding. His olive-green cloak was made for King’s Landing, but here, in Winterfell… Well, he muttered those Stark words, ‘Fuck, winter is coming.’
At once, he felt eyes on his back. It wouldn’t be the old gods watching, for their existence was as questionable as that of the seven. He spun around, only to be knocked to the ground. Seven hells! He fumbled for his sword. At that moment, the moon remerged from the sky, and sharp teeth descended towards his face. He tried to roll away, but it was too late, and… it licked him across the face.
Then the massive wolf rolled off to lie by his side, belly up. Those yellow eyes gazed at him expectantly.
Did the direwolf want… a belly rub?
He drew himself into a crouch and inched towards it. Her. For even though the direwolf was nearly as large as him, she was the smallest of the litter. It was the little bird’s wolf.
Her light grey fur was thick and soft, and her paws twitched happily in the air. Wolves and dogs: not that different after all.
‘Do you know the way back, Lady?’
She rolled back onto her feet and took a few steps forward, only to stop and look back at him.
‘Looks like you do,’ he muttered.
Of course she did. She was a creature made for this forest. The trees bowed down in the wind as she passed. And soon enough, he saw the steam from Winterfell’s heated pools creep up into the ice-cold air, like ghosts. The guest house where he’d find his room was just through a little wooden gate behind those pools.
Voices came from the other side of the moss-covered walls. They didn’t sound like bats; nor did they sound like they were feeding on the blood of men, so the rumours must be false.
‘I can’t believe I have to wear a dress in your stupid plan,’ came the voice of the she-wolf. ‘Are you sure it’s going to work? Aunt Lyanna’s supposed to be beautiful…’
‘As you are,’ said the little bird.
Yet Lady made no attempts to join her.
The she-wolf snorted. ‘Maybe now that you’ve redrawn my face.’
‘I haven’t! It’s just a little flour to make you paler, and a little beeswax for your lips. You look pretty with your hair properly brushed and pinned.’
‘It feels stupid, as does this dress.’
‘It’s not too tight, is it?’
‘It’s too loose across the chest!’
‘Oh good, you can have it after this then. I haven’t worn it for years! The blue looks very becoming on you.’
‘I don’t want your stupid dress!’
‘It might appease Mother if you wear one occasionally.’
‘Who cares? She hates me anyway.’
‘She does not!’
‘It’s all very well for you to say. Mother and Father would be so much happier with two of you.’
The little bird didn’t reply straight away, and when she did, she sounded far, far away. ‘Father has given me a doll for my namesday for as long as I can remember, and I haven’t played with dolls for eight years now. It was always a doll, no matter how good I’d been. For you, he has arranged secret water dancing lessons with the First Sword of Braavos, he has given you a bow and arrow, and has even ask Mikken to re-hilt a dagger made from Valyarian steel – oh, don’t think I don’t know about that. And you never had to be good. You just had to be you. So don’t say that. Don’t say that ever again.’
‘He just… doesn’t know what to get you.’
‘I have asked for an illustrated book of songs. But let’s not argue. We’re friends now. I won’t have us go back to how we were. Do you want me to go through the words again?’
‘No… I remember them.’
‘Good. Just make sure–’
‘To make everything positive and sparkling, and make sure he’s not angry at their children. Yeah I know.’
‘I know… Sansa?’
Their voices drifted away.
‘What illustrated book of songs do you want?’
And all that was left was a muffled reply and Lady’s panting.
‘Are you planning to follow me to my room?’ said Sandor.
Lady lolled her head.
Perhaps he should get himself a wolf. He’d be happier for it.
It was first light when the pounding from his door materialised inside his head.
‘You are wanted by the King!’