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Master and Commander

Chapter Text

Opulence could be sewn into usefulness.

Everything Sandor Clegane spied in this solar was crafted with the intent of finery in everyday use. Highbacked chairs with fine wolves snarling at the edges of the arms and thick legs with wide, sturdy seats. A foreboding table made of the deepest cherrywood squatted in the middle of the room, flanked by matching overstuffed bookcases that reached their top shelves towards the vaulted stone ceiling. A large log that perched atop the embers of its predecessors popped and burned within the wide-mouth fireplace and cast an almost stifling heat across the room. As tall as this room was, with windows far above his head that filtered the weak winter light through its leaded glass, it felt cramped and well-used. A thick, black cloak trimmed with grey and black fur was thrown over the back of one of the chairs bolstering the fireplace and Sandor looked it over without touching it while he waited.

His midday meal had been interrupted by a mousy servant girl who had stuttered that he needed to follow her at once and he'd be afforded more time to eat later. Used to such demands after years of regimental servitude he'd scraped himself up and lumbered through the labyrinth that was the fortress of Winterfell. What he was unused to, however, was being shown into such a room, shut in and then left to his own devices to think.

The cloak looked to belong to the Bastard King, liking his dark furs the way he does.

Sandor sighed and shifted, comfortable to neither sit and rest nor to stand at attention. The time that had passed since he arrived was of no consequence but still felt like a waste of itself. His primary interest within the walls of this place was to keep to himself, his quarters, the Wolfswood hunters and the training yard. Thus far, the Bastard had managed to keep his wild clan of human wolves away and Sandor had no intent to change that before he managed to finish training his soldiers and leave for his post at Last Hearth, the Umber stronghold in the North. He knew this to be the Bastard's wish as well, the man focused solely on the preservation of the entirety of Westeros as a personal quest.

As long as he didn't die in King's Landing, this Clegane did not care.

Just as Sandor moved to the window and looked out at an internal view of a courtyard, the heavy door opened again. He turned to greet the Bastard King and stilled as he looked into the stoic and drawn face of the Lady of Winterfell, Sansa Stark. If Jon Snow was focused on the fight against the White Walkers, his sister had been left to focus on preserving the lives of their people. Fortunately, this seemed to be a task that the young woman excelled at.

A maid ducked in to close the door behind her Mistress and then a thick silence descended. Sansa stood by the fire, hands falling on the cloak over the chair and Sandor inhaled noisily as she bore holes into him with her sapphire blue eyes. Jon Snow had failed him.

"I want to ignore your presence here," Sansa announced and he noted that not only had her face, body and bearing transformed but also her voice. It bore the noble authority her Father had once spoke with, which on him had appeared terribly serious.

"I want to ignore my presence here," Sandor grumped in reply, as if her words hadn't stung. She nodded, tilting her flame coloured head towards him in agreement and sweeping towards the desk at the center of the room. Sandor rotated in spot, watching her like a wary stag. Her hair was only half braided, keeping it free of her face but falling wildly down her back. Her dress was high-necked and black, stiff and unyielding like armor; a deadly looking chain cinched her torso. The diamond-tip sleeves were the only girlish flair on what would otherwise be a decidedly war-like frock. Idly, he wondered when it had happened.

It didn't surprise him, at all, as it had been a fate he foresaw for the frightened little bird she'd been growing up in King's Landing under the Lannisters. It hadn't been a guess as to if she'd be taken and forced against her will, but who and when. What did surprise him as a result was that she was not the puddle of travesty he'd thought she'd be, or at least, not broken to the point of uselessness. Her demeanor in dressing indicated Sansa had remade her bones with Valyrian steel as a response. There were whispers that the battle of the bastards and reclamation of Winterfell was both started and won by Sansa Stark and until this moment, Sandor had been wont to believe it. The woman in front of him was showing those rumors to have been at least half true. Something in him was irritated by her attitude, despite the glow of respect it elicited in him.

She was looking down at a book of ledgers, her fingers trailing absently over complicated writing Sandor could not and was not interested in deciphering. A map was laid out on the table, heavy pieces pinning the edges of the scroll open crudely. Sandor sighed loudly and then turned to the door.

"Lady Stark," He grunted tersely in parting, her last name coming out hard and steely. He was almost to the door, his hand extending for the handle when she spoke again.

"Where did you go?"

He paused, not turning. The question had been small, barely uttered and only heard because the room was silent. His chest clenched with how young she suddenly sounded. Visions of her during the Bread Riots, dress ripped and head bleeding as she looked mournfully up at him while he'd been covered in blood, danced behind his eyes. Cutting through the arm that had grabbed her, he'd felt his place in the world like a stone in a wall, as if he'd been born and made to protect her in that moment. A child he constantly envisioned as a goddess she'd never be given the chance to become, the Maiden alive. A child he'd tried to teach to protect herself.

"I shouldn't have gone to you. It risked your life," Sandor finally ground out. His deepest shame, a couple hours stretch of wretched blind fear, the night of the Blackwater. His impulsive decisions, blunderous execution and blind drunkenness had roiled in his soul for years. His explanation to the wolfbitch that he'd intended to ransom her was a lie and his compulsion to return the brat had only been borne out of guilt for how he left Sansa that night and every night after. News of her marriage to the Imp had gored him worse than the boar that got Robert Baratheon. News of Joffrey's murder and rumors she had transformed into a wolf and disappeared into the night had only deepened it. What horrors could turn a little girl into a regicidal shapeshifter? He could only guess.

"My greatest regret in life would cost me everything I have now and yet, I long to go back and change my mind," Sansa said quietly and Sandor clenched his jaw as he glared at the back of the closed door. He dared not turn around and look at her, else he will be lost.

"They would have caught us and killed us. Me first, to punish you."

"I wish I could say I knew that and didn't want to risk you. But my motivations in all regards are selfish."

"Are you sorry for it?" Sandor asked. There was a pause and he heard her sigh.

"Although I want to be sorry for it, I cannot change it without changing the nature of who we were. A terrified girl and a terrified weapon."

"Speak for yourself," Sandor snapped at the assessment, finally turning around to glower at her. Sansa looked at him evenly with emotions he didn't know how to name dancing in her eyes. Despite her hard shell, she was still the well of anxiety and confusion she'd been the first time she had her moonblood. Her face was now that of a woman's though, with high cheekbones and pretty eyes the colour of the sky she was born under. A touch of the deepest summer on a woman raised to bloom in the cold like a winter rose. She was perhaps more striking now than she'd been in King's Landing, with a claspable jawline and gentle mouth that was now pulled into a hard line. Her eyes flashed at him.

"You left me."

"If anyone owes anyone anything, my lady, it is you," Sandor barked at her and Sansa almost flinched, her eyes instead narrowing into a dangerous glare. They were quiet a moment, Sandor trying to work out how badly he'd misstepped and Sansa clenching and unclenching her jaw, a tic she'd had since childhood. The fire popped and part of the log collapsed, sending a flurry of sparks up the chute.

"I owe you nothing either. If you were dead, I would cry upon your grave for the injustice you were handed but you stand in front of me now. Whole and alive," Sansa said as she walked around the desk. The mask had slipped back on and she was closed off, speaking through some rehearsed prose. She approached him and it was everything he could do not to back away.

She drew near enough she could touch him, as she had always done, and stopped short of actually doing so. Despite her height, she still tilted her head up to look into his face and some place deep inside him noted she looked upon him unflinchingly. In fact, her eyes seemed to travel the features of him like she'd done so a million times but was only really seeing it for the first time. He could see the flecks of green in the pools of blue and could smell the soft, floral oils in her hair. A long-buried instinct roared up in him like a wave against the surf, all kinds of want rushing through his limbs and chest, no different from the wicked cravings he had of her as a depraved guard. Sandor clenched his fists to remain impassive, not daring to inhale her scent any further.

"I'm a hard cunt to kill," He said staunchly and watched frustration flutter across her features before she stepped back and shook her head twice. He almost swore he saw her eyes roll slightly but she'd already turned away.

"Stupid man, I prayed for you. I – you, you left me in King's Landing and I figured it out but I never – you were going to die being the way you were," Sansa said angrily and her voice was rough with emotions as she cast about for the words. Sandor watched her with surprise mingling in him but his face impassive, a guard's trick. She gave him a heated, raging expression and threw her hand wide as she spat, "I prayed to Gods I'm not sure I believe in anymore, to gentle you. To save you from battles you cannot win but would go fight anyway."

He sneered at her, deciding that that desire was from the same mind that painted Knights as heroes. Songs and poetry with her, always.

"You prayed to gentle one of the only cunts willing to go with your brother north of the wall," He informed her flippantly and was pleased when Sansa bared her teeth at him.

"I prayed to save one of the only people who never sought to use me for himself. I was right, you didn't go to help Jon – you went because you lacked cause and you're still the same savage animal you were trying so hard to be under Joffrey," Sansa raged at him and he smiled cruelly as she got closer again and glared up at him, cheeks flushed with temper.

"Maybe your Gods don't care about your pitiful attempts at atonement but instead focus on their war on the living," Sandor gloated with a smirk. He knew was causing hysterical fury to claw up the back of her throat. She got the same look on her face that her Lady Knight Brienne did when she wanted to gut a man.

"I just wanted to thank you and as always you turn it into something as horrible and twisted as you," Sansa hissed at him and Sandor snarled a laugh, the same one he uses on enemies he hunts down.

"You wanted to look upon your gentle giant and feel better, little bird? You wanted to thank me for not doing what? Pinning you down, spreading those nice white legs? Ripping those summer silks clear from your body?" He laughed again and her face shuttered and closed down, eyes going hard and her lips pursing in disdain. He leaned closer to her, keeping her eyes with his and knowing how crazed he probably looked.

"Every rape and ravage that I've ever seen I've done to you a thousand times in my head. Sometimes you scream, sometimes you sigh. And only now am I meeting you as a woman. Does that help you, little bird? Does that remind you that I am a wild animal, a dog, and that I'm not your fucking pet?"

Her Tully blues widened and her mouth was left slightly open in a soft 'o' as she stared at him. Sandor all but panted from the effort of finally spitting those words and he clamped down on the instinct to want to take them back. He relented as he took a deep, shuddering breath.

"Forgive a man for wanting to run from that," He finally said as an afterthought. She was looking hard at him, her eyes going from place to place on his face in desperate search of something and he found it excruciating to look back at her after what he'd said.

"...but you didn't," She replied lowly and Sandor's eyes slid closed as his chest throbbed, his heart expanding in the face of her acceptance of his demons. As soon as those words had slipped from his mouth he thought – hoped – that he'd lost her. That she would shut down and wall him behind the ice she'd built up around herself, in her dark castle and darker gowns. Put him in a place he deserved, which was not a place where he could be prayed for.

"Sansa," He breathed in exasperation, opening his eyes to find her looking at him with new determination on her face. He didn't like that.

"Out of everyone in the world, you didn't. I may have been a girl but it's not like I didn't know how trapped I was, how dangerous they were. I didn't think you were just following me around, taking me to Joffrey's tantrums and covering me after because we were friends but don't you see that I hoped that we'd be so in spite of it? Because you were the only person I had left! It doesn't matter to me – what you said, what you did, what you thought – because it's what you didn't do that matters," Sansa flung at him and he felt it like she'd splashed water in his face.

"Flinch all you want, you never so much as made me feel like you cared about me as a person but you also made me feel that you didn't want to crush me. You...you always saw something else," She explained softly and Sandor did look away from her then, shooting daggers into the fireplace with his eyes.

"Songs for your storybook, little bird," He rebuked and envisioned the hurt in her eyes that he wouldn't look to see for truth. He wanted to leave this room, leave this castle and breathe in the sharp snow of the woods for clarity. Everything in this room was hot, scented and complicated and he suddenly longed for the simplicity of mercifully wringing a rabbit's neck.

"Maybe so but the nights after I left King's Landing, whenever I could see the sky I would think of you and where you might be, what you might be doing. Stories of the Saltpans made it to where I was and I had to listen to them talk about you as if -," She trailed off and chewed her lower lip, a wrinkle of concern appearing between her eyebrows.

"As if I was Gregor," Sandor said stiffly, cold anger solidifying in his belly. She nodded and he watched with more interest than he'd admit as she worried her lower lip with her teeth absently before speaking.

"That's how I knew it wasn't you. You'd never be like him. But they had your helmet and...the only reason I could think of that they had your helmet is that you were dead and then...then I cried. One night for... every time you saved me," She whispered and peeked at him, eyes round and almost fearful that he would become enraged that she mourned him.

"If I had taken you on the night of the Blackwater like I wanted, I would have killed you rather than let the Imp have you or Cersei send for my head," Sandor told her bluntly and Sansa stepped closer, looking fiercely into his eyes. She crossed her arms over her chest and he got the impression she wasn't at all cowed by his words as intended.

"Why do you try to scare me? You know it won't work."

"Why does a dog bark at thunder, little bird? It's what we do."

"If we're going by animals, I am not a bird. I'm a wolf," Sansa tilted her head, her eyes probing the shiny red scars taking over one side of his face gently. "Which is why I can run with dogs."

"This dog has running orders. From your brother, the Bastard King," Sandor reminded her instead in an attempt to create distance. She was already too close, saying things that sounded too close to something a very deep, dark part of him wanted to hear.

"Are you such a monster that you only lust after little girls?" Sansa asked him pointedly and Sandor inhaled sharply, backing away from her and swiping a big hand over his face in stress. He wanted to throw her practical, reliable chairs across the room and tear the tapestries and maps from the walls.

"What," He snapped through thinned lips, "are you asking me?"

"Do you still think of ravaging me?" She asked in such a calm, imperious voice that he wanted to hit her. This entire situation was painful, humiliating and she wouldn't leave it alone. His hackles were going up because she had backed him into a corner and only half of him wanted to fight it. He glared at her, mind warring with itself before he finally bit out, "Yes."

Incredibly, she seemed to relax and her eyes softened. The fire cracked and snapped loudly, flickering light across her dainty features. Sandor couldn't process what was going on and he jerked away from the hand she was moving to touch his bare forearm, unable to stop the rising well of panic over her insanity and how close he was to following her into it.

 "Don't," He warned her and Sansa frowned at him.

 "Don't what? Touch you? Shall I hold a dagger to your throat and demand a song?" She challenged him and he swallowed thickly, anger passing through him at her accusation.

 "You could sing Florian and Jonquil and still not understand what song I have been asking for," Sandor quipped at her and she caught the insult as readily as he sent it, eyes slitting at him.

"Is that not a song of touch?" She asked him in that same direct, pointed way that she used to ask where the Godswood was when she first kept getting lost in the Red Keep. Sandor cursed and stepped away from her, a hard expression slipping over his features as he realized how badly he wanted her to touch him. How all his thoughts were slowly starting to rotate around her, freshly awoken from their forced slumber years prior and his instincts were making wild images and thoughts from her words.

"You are no longer a child but I'm an old fucking man. Some things in this world are the way they are because they can't be anything else," He told her flatly and Sansa looked at him pleadingly, her blue eyes shining with things Sandor wouldn't even allow himself to think.

"I thought you hate liars. Do the rules of the world count when it's ending?" Sansa demanded of him, ire in her face as she couldn't find purchase in his defense. Sandor thought of men and boys, screaming in agony as they died on the battlefield and the times he'd given the gift of mercy. He thought of the women he'd pretended not to see escaping into forests with babes on their teats to stifle their cries. He thought of the permeating cold and sightless eyes of wights, marching on a frozen tundra. He thought of Sansa, of her red hair and smooth skin and the tears she'd already shed for him at the thought of his death. He thought of all the ways she made him weak, willing to die for the stupidest things, including her.

"We still live in a world where ladies do not fuck their retainers, lest they lose their position and become common whores," Sandor lashed at her with his words and they landed true. Sansa blanched, paled and then collected herself into a silent fury. If the room hadn't been so warm, Sandor would have assumed ice spread across the glass panes of the windows at the look she gave him.

"Loyal to the end, Clegane. You must always protect the Seat, as you do."

"I'm protecting -," He argued back and Sansa turned and swished back to the desk, looking disinterested and waving her hand dismissively while she interrupted him.

" - thank-you. You may leave."

The tone of finality in her voice shut the entire book on the subject. He stared, flummoxed for a brief moment as she sat and pulled material towards herself, positioning the candle so she could bow over the scroll to read it. It was as if he wasn't there and this conversation hadn't happened, a feat of emotional acrobatics he hadn't seen even Cersei be capable of. Something in him went cold with dread at the realization of what had transpired and then been crushed and how she would handle that. Rage simmering under his diaphragm, he wrenched the wood door open and let it boom shut behind him as he stormed through the castle and out into the slowly descending dark. So powerful was the pounding of his blood in his ears that he didn't hear the strangled sob that followed him from the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

Even though his hands were numb, he'd cleaned and oiled his armour so many times that he could probably do it with two of the Kingslayer's stumps in the bitter cold.   

As it was, both of his hands had digits attached still – as stiff as they were. Sandor Clegane now found himself lurking in the wooden stables, sharing a box with his haughty steed. Stranger huddled in the corner, brushed and blanketed and upset he wasn't free to wander a field. Warhorses weren't used to containment and privacy and Stranger had grown up with nothing like it.   

"It's not a punishment," He grunted at the animal once again. Stranger snorted and his ears flattened slightly, the beast feigning interest in an offering of food instead of his master. Sandor regarded him with disdain for a moment before rolling his eyes to himself and returning to scrubbing. His assumption the stable would be warmer was incorrect – outside of offering direct shelter from the screeching wind, the only fires burning were heaters for the water troughs. Even though he would not admit it to himself, Sandor Clegane was hiding and his hiding place was miserable if one wasn’t wearing a horse blanket.   

It had been two days since his conversation with Sansa in the solar and both days he'd vacated the castle to hunt in the woods or patrol the peaks at first light. He mostly remained out until nightfall, returning to his quarters in the guard’s tower. When he couldn’t leave the castle, he found dark and abandoned places to do menial tasks. Oddly enough, both nights following their argument  he'd stayed his hand before locking the door as he went to sleep. He was also not ready to admit that it wasn't because Winterfell felt like the world's safest place.   

He smelled  sandalwood  oil and the faint trace of lye soaps over the horse ,  hay and bitter ly cold air and stiffened, knowing what was now lurking silently in the stable. Sandor sighed and stopped his work, tossing the rag irritably to the side as the King of the North materialized at the door of the stall.   

“Snow,” He grunted in recognition as he stood and winced, stretching his gimped leg as it protested having to support him after so long. The man looked deep in thought, his face pulled into the expression of noble suffering worn by every blood Stark for thousands of years. He looked at Stranger with deference and the large warhorse knew it, swishing his long tail irritably.   

“He’s a beast, isn’t he?” The King asked without preamble and wisely made no moves to reach for the stallion’s velvety black snout. Stranger had been a Clegane horse since he bought him shortly after he was made Kingsguard , a prized destrier that struck onlookers with both awe and fear.   

“Aye,” Sandor grunted in agreement. The animal developed a reputation for being fiercely untamable, not unlike his rider. Sandor hadn’t needed to tell the Northern horsemen how little to interact with him – the North is where the horse had been bred and they were familiar with the attitude. Short of water and a stall clean, Stranger’s maintenance was entirely up to Sandor and everyone preferred it that way.   

“Walk with me.”  

The Bastard King jerked his head and turned on his heel, indicating he wished Sandor to follow and begrudgingly, he did so. The son was shorter than Ned Stark had been and yet seemed the same size; Sandor distinctly remembered Lord Stark’s head having reached the top of his shoulder. Snow’s was just short of it yet he somehow had less of a problem with simply talking to him – everyone else turned their face up to yell up to him.   

Only two people in the whole world spoke to him while looking straight ahead and they were both Nobles of bloody Winterfell. It both pleased and annoyed him.   

This effect was enhanced when Sandor lumbered out of Stranger’s stall, secured it and fell into step with Jon outside the stables. They set off, walking almost pensively across the courtyard towards the Hunter’s Gate. The sun was cresting midday, beating down blindingly on the snow and providing no warmth. The castle was alive with life, maids scuttling about and animal hands coaxing herds this way and that. Ice and snow coated every shadow, braziers blazing under the grey and black banners bearing the sigil of the Wolf.   

“Arya told me where to find you,” Jon began as they walked and Sandor kept his face impassive. He suspected the man was looking for some sort of answer in that and he didn’t know nor care to provide one.   

“Makes everything her business that one,” Sandor commented flatly and pointedly stepped over divots in the mud that had frozen over.   

“Good thing, it’s been hard to keep track of you the last couple days. The men say you’ve been out learning the land,” Snow observed as he followed suit. His long cloak made him appear wider than he was and he gave himself away with the way he walked so gracefully. It was hemmed with the finest of furs and Sandor noticed it was indeed the cloak from the study.   

“Can’t fight in it if I don’t know where anything is,” Sandor sai d d ismissively. The other man was nodding his agreement and sighed loudly saying, “True. That’s why I feel comfortable saying I need a favour of you.”   

Pe ople don’t find me to ask how I take my tea,” Sandor grumped and then fell silent as a signal for the other man to continue. Snow seemed to be chewing on something, like he was thinking deeply and wasn’t even fully aware of where he was as he ambled alongside. Finally, he seemed to settle on a decision and nodded to no one in particular.   

“My sisters and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. Coming back here with  Daenerys  and the Unsullied and beginning the work that needs to be done... Sansa has always been for the good of the people. She knows her duty and is a good sister, a good leader even, but she’s never been far from her temper,” He admitted with a gush of resentment and Sandor almost smirked.   

Wildings didn’t teach you red’s a warning label,” He groused in return and the Bastard King heaved a dramatic sigh as they walked on, crunching over ice and splashing through the tiny rivers of snow melt.   

“I thought she’d be more understanding of duty – and the duty I have now. She’s already talking about after battle like there’s no chance we could possibly lose to an army of undead. She’s pushing the Stark in Winterfell like she’s not here, like Bran isn’t here. I have a duty to the entirety of Westeros. So, I fulfill it now by focusing on the invasion and fighting the undead and she...,” He cast his arm out in frustration as they approached the Hunter’s Gate and Sandor spied a small gathering of men and horses.  

“She's worried about the collection of Little Lords,” Sandor said in understanding and the barest of smirks tinted the King’s features. Snow himself was a little naïve and insufferably noble, much like his ancestors before him . He was s o focused on the war with the White Walkers that he forgot politics never slept.   

Politics never slept and Sansa Stark was often  seen haunting the halls of Winterfell in the early hours of the morning like the ghost incarnate, thinking deeply about their next move . Her quiet acceptance of the new Targaryen ruler and her brother’s surprise bow to the dynasty was undermined by her absence at many meals, Hall gatherings and strategy talks. Instead Sansa was known to be marching the grounds and woods surrounding Wintertow n - directing and preparing what already wasn’t underway to fortify, reinforce and set traps in the surrounding land.  

“If I fail, all of this will be gone. I don’t have time to be worried about silks and offenses , when and where to hold Court because if I do those things will cease to exist anyway,” Snow said in a low voice that was thick with virulent frustration. The eddies of political intrigue had never suited this man and his grandiose counterpart was equally unawares that the people she came to rule were tired of the goalposts being moved. They regarded everything new and unknown as dangerous and untrustworthy and a blond woman riding mystical beasts topped that list, regardless of her intent to help fight a war against the Living Dead.   

Snow fell into a moody silence and Sandor followed his gaze watch ing the group of men, finishing lashing the last of their supplies together. The horses were saddled, plumes of breath billowing from their snouts in the morning chill. Sandor straightened up and twisted, his back crunching and popping in the movement before he regarded the morose leader with a bored expression.   

“Is there a point to the story where you tell me what you want?” He asked bluntly and the shorter man nodded and pointed his chin at the cluster of soldiers.   

“They’re heading South. Arya had a hunch based on where they used to ride when they were girls with Robb. She left a little bit ago so they’ll follow her tracks,” Jon informed him without any further preamble and the pieces clicked into place in Sandor’s head and he grumbled a low laugh.   

“Little Bird’s flown away, has she?”   

“Since she was a child, every time she had a fight with Father or her Septa all of a sudden Sansa didn’t mind horses and being on them. She hates them the rest of the time,” Snow all but complained and Sandor nodded with his words, seeing Sansa’s ramrod straight posture and her mare tossing her head against the bit. Horses hated Sansa in return.  

“Stubborn as the mule she won’t ride, eh?” He commented and Jon nodded, the dark look on his face tinted with worry.   

“She’s been gone hours now,” He said tightly and cold dread coiled in Sandor’s belly at the realization. That’s hours that Sansa was alone, on horseback, riding in lands that could have wights traipsing through, without any type of Valyrian steel or dragonglass or any knowledge on how to use either of them. His jaw clenched as he tried to tamp down the sheet of panic that layered itself on him, watching the borderline anxious hysteria play itself out on the face of the King of the North.   

He sucked his teeth decisively and nodded once, turning around to head back to the stables.   

“Where are you going?” Snow called after him.   

“I’m going to get my horse and then I’m going to hunt your bloody bint of a sister,” Sandor tossed hotly over his shoulder as he stomped away. Arya might have her suspicions and be handy with her little blades and shadow tricks but hunting and tracking wasn’t something she excelled at, being far too impatient. Patience and the fruits of that virtue was the gift of her older sister, the thoughtless idiot that had him in all but a panic as he stalked back into the barns and gathered his things.   

The collection of soldiers’ backs was still visible following Arya’s trail as Sandor and Stranger cantered out the Hunter’s Gate – he sat tall, looking at the oncoming clouds and smelling the sharp winter air. The Bastard King had gone with the soldiers in pursuit of Arya and as he stood outside the behemoth walls of Winterfell, Sandor stared curiously at the trees. If she’d left earlier, the sunlight from the East would have lit up the edges of the Wolfswood invitingly and there was a well-worn path that ran to a series of shallow hot pools. They weren’t as hot as the ones in Winterfell’s Godswood and were mainly used for the smallfolk’s cleaning purposes but the trail leading to them was meandering and wide.  

The search party had headed South but Sandor’s gut said to go West towards the Wolfswood, surmising the Little Bird would have followed the direction of the sun. When he got to where he thought the trail head should have been, he peered into the trees and saw half-covered horse tracks disappearing into the shade. They were under the cover of the forest and hadn’t been buried by the casual snowfall of the day. Sandor grinned to himself as he plunged down the path after her.  

Nothing can hide from a dog.    

Chapter Text

The sun was preparing to go down by the time he reached the pools.  

Shadows stretched longer on the snow and the eerie blue of twilight lent a sense of foreboding to the usually pleasant area. The pools were vacant, hissing and steaming in the cold air like green puddles of acid amidst pale snow. He dismounted and left Stranger untied at the trail mouth, tail swishing languidly. Sandor investigated the edges of every pool, coursing over the ground with his eyes; intent on finding any disturbance, disruption or step made by dainty leather soled feet.  

When he found none, he stalked back to the path where the hoof prints had trailed off. He followed them to a nearby tree that was tetherable and stopped, leaning closer to look at a mark halfway up the trunk. Bark had been ripped off and a quick glance down found the crumbled evidence of damage on the snow around the foot of the tree – like someone had ripped the reins free of the tree in a hurry.  

Sandor frowned and stepped back, looking at the forest floor around him and his mouth going dry.  

Horse tracks, some smaller treads here and there but also larger, bolder tracks that featured the ball of a human foot, as if there was a person who wasn’t wearing shoes in the arctic snows.  

Horror solidified in his gut and without hesitation he went back and drew his sword from his saddle before following the horse prints blindly left, off the path and away from the pools in a straight line. They coursed mainly straight, sometimes stamping to the right and other times to the left as if they were being followed. As he tracked, he found snapped branches and the deep frenzied prints of an animal in panic. Sandor saw it at the last second, almost walking into a strand of golden fire that hung from a branch – a single hair of Sansa’s illuminated by the shards of setting sun.  

The barefoot tracks seemed to circle the mare here and then the hooves were seen panning a frantic right. Sandor found himself stumbling down a small embankment and then breaking into a small clearing and stopping short, spying the bloody stain of a horse in the center.  

“Fuck!” He bellowed and cleared the distance in less than a few strides, frantically searching for any evidence of its rider. Her mount was dead, its belly dashed open and ribbons of purple intestine gushing through the wound. Blood from other cuts and slashes on the flanks stained its hair and the ground around it crimson; its lips were peeled back from its teeth in a final, silent cry. A horrible end for a palomino rouncey as beautiful and gentile as it’s master.  

It was so cold and still in the forest that the shrill scream that shivered through the air was unmistakable as soon as it reached his ears. It sounded as if it came from his right and he spun immediately, charging into the brush with the grace of an angry bear.  

“Sansa! SANSA!”  

He blindly ran with branches tearing at his face and tree trunks looming suddenly in his vision, jaggedly changing direction and aiming himself at where her terrified screams were coming from. His breath came in panting gasps and panic threatened to close his throat – if she was screaming, she was alive. He wouldn’t allow himself to think about the possibility of her being hurt.  

The snows were deeper the farther into the forest he got and the shadows longer. Her screams were breathless and terrorized and sounded intermittently, causing him to stop multiple times and whirl around. He listened over the rush of the winter winds in the treetops and the hiss of granular snow sliding along the icy drifts and banks. Dark trees seemed to sway and creak, echoing ominously as he heard her again – the screams were growing hoarse and desperate. The forest was an endless series of grey and blue trunks, some plastered with snow on one side and others buried thickly in mounds of white. He plunged in between, running parallel to the bottom of a cliff face to his left and listening for the Stark girl on his right. He zigged and zagged, large boots kicking up clumps of snow as he ran past like the shadow of the Stranger, moving deeper into the dizzying maze of the Wolfswood.  

Then without warning, a small shadow stumbled in front of him and he nearly collided, stopping short and grabbing outwards for it. Sansa’s hair was tangled, branches and snow stuck in thick clumps and her eyes were wild as she screamed in terror at the contact and the heel of her small white hand struck upwards at his face. Sandor just barely dodged the strike as they grappled and he claimed dominance of her forearms.  

She threw her weight away from him, letting out another ear-piercing scream before he dragged her to his chest and covered her mouth with his hand as he hissed, “Shut up!”  

She struggled violently against him, a small bird in the talons of a hawk before she stilled in recognition. A muffled noise vibrated his hand that he realized was a sob and he released her mouth hesitantly, not letting her away from his clutches.  

“S-Sandor? Run! Run! We need to run, we -,” She begged him, her voice hoarse from screaming and tears choking her to the point of panting. Her hands gripped the fabric covering the mail on his arms, knuckles turning white in the dimming light.  

“Fuck woman, I’m listening!” He snapped at her as he clapped the hand back over her mouth and pulled her face against his chest as he strained his ears. He could feel more than hear her muffled hysterics through his furs and felt her entire body shaking violently. 

At first, it was silent.  

Then, the more he listened the more he heard them. From seemingly every direction there was the steady stilted stagger of the living dead moving through the snow. Dispassionately following their prey at a fast pace, they were sweeping through the forest like the icy fog that preceded them and their White commanders. Sandor’s brain whirred and spun as he thought furiously about their predicament – the sun was definitely down by now and the sky was darkening swiftly. Within the next half hour the moon would rise and the forest would become the domain of the Old Gods; where nothing and no one would be safe. His experiences hunting in these woods the weeks prior told him he did not want to overnight here and he realized that with Stranger back at the pools, Winterfell was impossible to flee to.  

He inhaled raggedly as his pulse pounded in his ears, listening to the crunching grow closer and louder. Sansa pulled away from his chest, face shiny with tears and grabbed the front of his cloak urgently so he looked down at her.  

“There’s too many. We’re both going to die unless we run,” She begged him and moved to run past him but he held her fast, nabbing her small chin between his two fingers like he’d done since she was barely a child and forced her to look him in the eyes.  

“You’re not the Lady of Winterfell out here, girl. You want to live?” He demanded of her, watching her pupils dilate in fear and her mouth fall slightly open.  

“Yes,” Sansa breathed back at him, blue locked on stormy grey.  

“Then you do everything I say. No questions. Just doing.”  

“Yes.”  

The word had barely left her mouth before he seized her hand and started moving, all but dragging the flame haired woman behind him. They moved as quickly and as quietly as possible, Sandor calculating the state the wights would be in. Any they’d seen since the breach at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea had been shambling, rotting and fetid and easy to hack into twitching pieces.  

They moved tree to tree, stopping in the deepening shadows to listen and then scurrying largely alongside the bottom of the cliff face. The ground sloped increasingly downwards as they made their way and there were a few moments where Sansa slipped, having to be grabbed and steadied by Sandor as he stopped and listened intently. To her credit, the little bird stopped when he stopped and listened when he listened. He could tell she was actively trying to dampen the sound of her panting as she struggled to keep up.  

His concern deepened because as much as they fled, within minutes they could hear the crunching and occasional growl and hiss of the wights pursuing them and he knew within a single heartbeat the dread he was feeling was right.  

“Fuck,” He cursed as he heard them again, a good way behind but definitely still following.  

“I’m okay, we can keep going,” Sansa whispered back to him in misunderstanding and he debated just not telling her, just letting her keep going with the thought they could outrun them.  

“They’re not just wights. Wights don’t think, don’t hunt. We’re being tracked. They’ve got a Walker with them,” He explained tightly as he let her hand go to slide down a steep embankment, jumping the last 4-foot drop and landing in the snow covered leaves below. He motioned for her to follow and looked up, catching Sansa craning her head to look behind them. He snapped his fingers to get her attention and watched her whip her head to where he was pointing and immediately slide after him, falling ungracefully over the edge. He anticipated this, her skirts more voluminous and her boots less sturdy and caught her easily as she tumbled into his arms with a squeak.  

“Pay attention. I move, you move,” He hissed at her sharply as he quickly set her down, not having the time to savor the feel of her slender figure in his arms again. The last time had been during the Bread Riots and he’d been steeped in guilt over reveling in the feel of her body against his as he returned her, blood spattered and shaken, from nearly being raped by enraged peasants.   

She didn’t answer him but he found he didn’t need to tug when he grabbed her hand as they continued to flee. She was like a ghost at his elbow and he needed to be careful not to get her in the face when he was slowing to listen, but eventually she seemed to learn that too and was slowing and crouching down beside him at the same time.  

As they pushed through the thicket and bushes, he thought furiously. They couldn’t keep running, deeper and deeper into the Wolfswood. They were likely to encounter more or other enemies.  

Just as that thought crossed his mind, Sandor’s blood seemed to seize in his veins as he spied the hazy glow of eyes peering at him from the darkness. They weren’t wolf-height at a quick glance and he cursed to himself as he pulled Sansa abruptly to the right, changing course and doing his best not to look over his shoulder. He saw no body attached to those eyes and had heard enough Northern stories about the monsters in these woods that he saw no need to get any closer.  

As they ran, the forest itself seemed to come alive. The trees knocked and groaned as their branches rushed to thunderous applause in the wind. Ice and snow littering the ground cracked and sparkled under the light of the rising moon. It was a hair shy of a full one and the pour of white, somber light onto the land did little but deepen the growing blackness.  

Owls hooted and cast harrowing, sharp shadows as they swooped above. The dark night sky twinkled mischievously like the Gods were enjoying watching a specially arranged jousting match and Sandor mentally cursed them as Sansa once again crouched in the thicket with him, breathing shakily. She was tiring quickly and it was becoming harder and harder for her to keep up in the cold.  

“Look,” Sansa panted weakly and pointed to his left. A glimmer of bright moonlight illuminated the waxy grey bark and deep, blood red leaves. Sansa left his side in an almost trance-like stagger despite him hissing her name. When she didn’t listen, he ground his molars and followed her like an angry badger. She hurried, casting a worried glance over her shoulder and slipped between the trees as he followed.  

The weirwood tree was in a relatively large clearing and its branches took up the most of the canopy space, as if the firs and cedars ringing the enclosure were respectfully giving it room. Sansa swept into the area with a relief Sandor did not echo as he paused at the clearing’s edge, eyes darting from shadow to darker shadow. He was on high alert, swearing he spied the flash of more eyes but seeing none when he blinked and looked harder. 

Sansa put her hands together in front of the tree, looking to begin a prayer and Sandor’s head snapped around as he heard the calamity of pursuit pick up somewhere behind them, the noise carrying in the quiet. With one more glance out into the darkened forest, he took a deep breath and followed her in. 

 

 

Chapter Text

It was eerily silent in here, as if the ambient noise from the forest was muted by walls.  

“Sansa, we need to go.”  

“We’re safe here,” She protested as she turned around and he shook his head, looking over his shoulder suspiciously. They didn’t have much time.  

“We’re about as safe as a whore in the Red Keep. We’re leaving,” He announced and took three steps forward to grab her wrist but she stumbled as she resisted and his temper was fraying with his fear for their safety.  

“This is a home to the Old Gods! You think they’ll save you?” He snarled at her and watched her face contort angrily.  

“They have powers you don’t know about. No one does!”  

“They’re the ones who made the fuckers! The Children or whatever, they worshiped the Old Gods and they made them. They made the White Walkers!” He yelled back at her, his words falling on shocked silence as she stared at him. Her breath came in short gasps as she searched for a response.  

“It’s a heart tree. It was said the Children themselves carved the faces to be their Shrine to the Gods, because they’re the only ones who’ve ever seen them,” She protested meekly before turning to look up at the tree.  

Indeed, there was a face. It was drawn and pinched, twisted in a grimace.  

“The Gods don’t look like they give a fuck,” Sandor observed harshly and watched Sansa’s shoulders sag in agreement. He stepped forward, taking her hand in his instead of grabbing the entirety of the appendage by the wrist and dragging her.  

“They’ve done nothing for us this far. We can’t need them when we don’t,” He said as reassuringly as he could, his weight set to move into a crouch and throw her bloody Highness over his shoulders if she was going to totally lose her mind and die at the foot of a stupid carved up tree. He found himself looking into her eyes as she turned to gaze up at him and there was a tender type of pain etched deeply in them, even as she raised her hand and he felt the cold tips of her fingers touch the waxen pits on the burned side of his face.  

“I don’t want you to die for me,” She whispered to him and he snorted angrily down at her, batting her hand away irritably. He knew it hurt but she made no noise, instead focused on looking at him with something akin to an apology on her face. It just rankled him further.  

“If you just do everything I tell you out here, I won’t. Put Cersei away. I need a Stark,” He rasped plainly and the shock that passed over her face at his words told him he got her where he wanted. She sucked in a deep breath and nodded to him, her formerly watery and apathetic face now closed and determined as she straightened her shoulders.  

“Let’s leave,” Sansa said and he felt her slip her hand into his. He didn’t have the time to dwell on it, tightening his fingers and hastening out the way they came. He didn’t at all enjoy the glints of orbs that were winking at them from everywhere in the forest. Sansa hadn’t noticed and he wasn’t going to alert her, especially after that little display of wavering hope but all his instincts were positively screeching at him that they were in unparalleled danger.  

As they slipped back into the oppressive dark of the forest, they were silent as they both strained their ears. Sandor could hear water, the violent rushing of a melt stream. He was familiar with the shallow runoff rivers that leaked onto the tundra that Winterfell overlooked and pulled Sansa towards it. He’d like to go back for Stranger but didn’t know the route they’d taken and didn’t want to risk losing them farther by trying to loop back behind the wights.  

Their pursuers themselves could be heard shambling loudly through the woods, branches snapping and snow munching and what sounded like one of them wearing rusty, unoiled and seized armor that screeched with every step. Sansa whimpered at how close it was and moved faster, all but jogging alongside Sandor as they skipped over roots and slipped down snowy holes and climbed icy mounds. They stayed together; hands fused as if their lives depended on it. Sandor’s other hand was braced on his sword unless he had to help Sansa over something, having simply ripped her snared skirts free of entanglement a few times already.  

He could spy the moonlight through the trees again, casting its light down on a snowy dell that was bisected by what appeared to be a frigid river.  

A twig snapped to his right and Sansa let out a shrill scream as a skeletal shadow lunged at them with a growl, its chin meeting the business end of his blade as he drew it and slashed cleanly upwards. The head thumped to the ground with a crunch and continued to hiss and grunt, its undeterred body stumbling forward with a dagger in its hand.  

“Run,” Sandor instructed, shoving Sansa towards the river gap unceremoniously before slicing at the headless ruin. He half expected her to protest, to second guess him and argue against leaving him but she did as she was bid and with what sounded like a sob took off towards the light. The wights were everywhere, their petulant grumbles and gross clicking noises aggregating around him in the darkness as they descended from their hunt. He took a deep breath, adjusted his two-handed grip and listened intently.  

His eyes were mostly adapted to the dark by now and as such, could make out the darker forms in the night as they lurched forwards. They were clumsy and desperate and aimless in their intent to fulfill their orders. One rushed forward as Sandor stepped backward and jerked his blade up gracefully; the wight fell in two pieces where it continued to writhe. He kicked the torso half away from him and stepped back again. Another lunged from the right and Sandor feinted, whirling around it until it crashed into the one that attacked from the left. He elegantly ran them both through with his blade, which would kill any normal human in a mess of ribs, before pulling it out and brutally hacking the two now stuck together into pieces.  

He took them on, one or two or three at a time as he backed towards the tree line. A more open space was better than having to dodge and group them up to hack at them, the closed spaces in the trees making wielding a longsword difficult.  

Sandor stumbled out of the woods whilst a wight followed him, exposing a ghastly view of rotted black flesh plastered to grey bones. Muscle and sinew hung limply from its limbs like ragged clothing and Sandor barely felt it as he cut the corpse down just above the knees and used his right foot to kick its head clean off the spine. He turned and slashed diagonally, cleaving yet another almost in half from shoulder to hip.  

More were grunting and groaning as they followed the din and he knew if he stayed here he’d just wind up backing himself into the river. He turned and searched for Sansa’s tracks in the snow. He followed as fast as he could, glancing behind him when more wights stumbled from the woods and screamed after him. There were easily 6 behind him, not counting the half of one he’d hacked up that was simply a pair of spindly legs.  

There was a bend in the river and it appeared Sansa had done what he’d hoped she would and followed it, not attempting to cross. He rounded the bend and spied Sansa mere feet away and almost stopped short as the breath left his body.  

On a black horse whose flanks were pulled back to expose its ribs and rotted lungs, was a White Walker, stopped a short distance in front of her. It was looking at Sansa with victory in its glowing blue eyes, gaze snapping to Sandor like an icicle breaking as he appeared suddenly. It didn’t appear to wear anything other than black trousers, it’s grey and white leathery skin clinging to sunken cheekbones and ropey muscle. Long, thin snow-white hair dangled down it’s back and added to the look of an ancient man preserved in ice. It had thin, disapproving lips and an inhuman stare.  

A gaggle of wights clamoured behind the Walker, blocking Sansa’s path back into the woods and farther down the riverbend. He could hear his pursuers advancing behind him but his eyes were on Sansa in disbelief.  

She was on her knees, her face looking up at the Walker.  

“Sansa,” He called and took three steps towards her as she looked back at him, her face ghostly with fear but pinched in something he didn’t recognize.  

The walker lifted a hand and signaled. The wights surged forwards like a wave, running towards her with gleeful abandon. Sandor didn’t hear his own scream as he responded, rushing to get to her first or die trying.  

As they bore down on her, Sansa sat on up on her knees and threw her head back. Her hair, a river of burnished copper, coursed down her back and he could see her throat flex as she let out a loud, high pitched howl.  

It was a single, shivering note that continued as Sandor ran towards her.  

Then it morphed, taking on a deeper tenor and vibrating all around him and he found himself and the wights sliding to a stop as he realized Sansa’s howl had erupted into a horrifying chorus. They were in a shallow valley that filled with the varying levels of calls – deep and mournful, higher and energetic, rough and powerful from every direction. It built into a harrowing din that drowned out all other noise and he watched her lead the howl the entire time as gooseflesh rose on his skin. Even as some died out, it was replaced with the building crescendo of others from farther up the mountains around them.  

They howled and growled and whooped in a dizzying frenzy he’d never heard before. Glowing eyes of every shade opened up around the roots of trees, surveying the scene hungrily.  

The White Walker itself seemed perplexed, moving its head as it listened to the swirl of angry calls. It hesitated and so did its soldiers; that’s all that was needed. The biggest wolf Sandor had ever seen in his life burst from the trees with a snarl and made straight for the Walker – it was grey and had a mostly white face, with a darker grey body and fangs as long as his fingers. Sandor kicked into high gear, running towards Sansa and reaching her just as some of the wights did, swinging his sword narrowly over her head to sever the hands and weapons they reached for her with. Just as he did so, a grey wolf lunged past his shoulder with a snarl and latched onto the face of one of the wights.  

Sandor moved back and forth in front of her, hacking and slashing and stabbing with abandon. Sansa scrambled to her feet and shrieked as she was just barely dodged by another black wolf as it flew into the fray from behind her. The animals erupted from the forest roots, streaming out into the clearing around the river like water pooling in a cup. He’d never seen so many beasts of so many colours – brown and black and tawny and grey. Large and smaller and the one giant beast in the middle that was circling the horse with the Walker, which was pointing its icy spear at it. The wolf’s ears were flattened and its orange eyes focused hungrily on the Walker, teeth bared as it growled and snapped at it.  

Sandor reached into his pockets, finding the small square and hastily withdrawing it. It was a square of boar skin, the inside of it filled with tar and firesap. He flipped it open and with little more than a grimace of disgust, wiped his blade with the black goo. A wight jumped at him – Sandor dropped the blade and caught it’s torso as it swiped at Sansa. Roaring with frustration, he picked up the wight’s wriggling body and threw it back at its comrades, bowling a few over. He picked up his sword and was about to use it again when Sansa appeared, grabbing his wrist to stop it and cracking two small snowy stones together.  

Fire burst to life from the smallest spark, traveling up the length of his sword in the space of a blink and casting bright orange light around them. He himself grimaced at the explosion of heat and then waved it wide, watching how they shrunk back in front of the flames before he charged them, snarling.   

They sounded like wet kindling, the pressurized shriek from their bones as the fire enveloped every single wight he sliced through. He slashed and parried, stabbed and staggered, whirled and speared with his teeth bared as he cleared a radius away from Sansa, who stayed far enough back to remain out of his range but close enough he didn’t have to double back for her. At one point, she kicked out at a half-rotted wildling in matted furs just as a young timber wolf wrenched it’s arm off. A tawny brown canine nabbed a shin bone as it charged past the same wight, dragging the corpse away on its face. Some of them fell apart as they burned, others blindly reeled into their compatriots, sharing the blaze. Sandor didn’t slow down as he aimed himself towards the Walker.  

The light and screaming from his minions had attracted the creature’s feral gaze to his, half focused on Sandor and half focused on the snarling, snapping Direwolf. The beast had taken what appeared to be one of the dead mounts’ rear legs in their skirmish. Cold fury howled through the valley on a wind directly from the North. The Walker’s hair blew gently in the gale as he straightened to his full height and raised his spear; a noise akin to the splintering of the thick ice on a lake came from his open mouth and the wight soldiers reveled in it by echoing its scream frantically.  

A haunt of howls rose around him in response and Sandor raised his sword, surging forward with a horrible rasping laugh. He could feel the beat of paws beside him as a large brown wolf lumbered to his right and heard the cracks and snarls of others as they fought on contact. He could hear Sansa call out to him, following at a distance and trying to stay out of reach of anything not already occupied.  

They would have to mulch every wight to dust before they were no longer a threat with this Walker presiding and that Sandor would not allow. He moved through the few shambling bodies that attempted to intervene and approached the Walker with the faltering fire of his blade burning in his eyes. It seemed to appraise both him and the shaggy monster snarling at it before it moved into a ready position, legs apart and spear held jauntily.  

The big direwolf attacked first – sharply veering left and then leaping right and sailing over the Walker’s shoulder as it ducked and landed on the snow in a slide, righting itself with a growl. Sandor stabbed openly as he stepped inwards, watching the crystalline spear swipe for the metal blade and feinting out of its arc. The Walker inclined its head at an angle that was reminiscent of an owl as they circled one another and the wolf launched a secondary attack. The Walker braced the long middle of its spear in the gaping maw of the beast, hurling the furry body over its own just as Sandor made a sweeping cut for its midline. Instead, his blow was blocked with a reverse jab from the blunted end of the spear – which was then spun off his blade and rammed into his chest with the strength of a kicking horse. 

Sandor teetered as the ice creature swung the opposite end of the spear downwards in an overhead motion, just barely managing to throw his blade up in time and sidestep. The bones in his sword arm felt like they shattered just as the metal of his blade did when it made contact with the clear, dagger sharp end of the Walker’s spear. He didn’t feel losing his footing, only noticed hitting the ground as the world tilted. The Walker grew taller as he advanced upon him with intent burning in its painfully cold eyes.  

The black fabric of skirts moved into his vision and Sandor choked her name in horror as Sansa placed herself between him and the Walker. He didn’t hear what she shouted at it, rolling onto his knees with a groan and trying to climb to a stand. He blindly groped for her, his fingers catching the edge of her sleeve just as he watched the Walkers free hand shoot out. Sansa stiffened as it seized her by the throat.  

Breath was trying to return to him and Sandor’s chest burned as much as his arm throbbed but this didn’t deter him from staggering up towards them. The Walker knocked him back with one arm; the body of the spear sent him sprawling back again and he watched two wolves make separate airborne launches only to be bumped away carelessly in the same manner he was.  

Her feet left the ground, the tips of her boots kicking furiously. Sandor watched her hands reach up to scratch at the frigid claws wrapped around her throat and he screamed in fury, attempting to get up yet again.  

His legs were confounded and refusing to move, his bad leg shaking violently under his weight as he reached for her. Sandor looked up at them in dismay just as Sansa’s right arm jerked in and out of her cloak.  

Sandor saw the flash of silver just as the dagger imbedded itself below the Walker’s diaphragm. 

Surprise etched itself onto the ancient face before it exploded. Unceremoniously, Sansa hit the ground and rolled over - coughing and writhing a bit in the splash of dark blue shards that had once been the Walker.  

The wights littering the area screamed until they faded into nothing, falling to the ground and into peace. Sudden silence cloaked the snowy knoll beside the river all at once.  

Just as quickly as they appeared, the wolves fled in a storm of snowy steps, victory yips and chirps. As they fled through the forest, one final call went up – high, exhilarated and enthused. It was echoed heartily; a song of victory and territory being sung all around them as Sandor forced himself to crawl to Sansa.  

She sat up, one hand massaging her neck tenderly. Her face was drawn, her brow furrowed and just as he reached her she was casting about in the snow. She plunged her hand into the white and withdrew the dagger, long and wickedly sharp. It had a large ruby deeply inset into the onyx and gold accented handle and they took a moment to gape at it.  

“That’s why. That’s why...dragon glass. Valyrian steel,” Sansa said with understanding thick in her coarse voice. Sandor cleared his throat and reached for it, closing his hand around the grip and examining the razors edge of the weapon before he nodded.  

“They’re the only things that work,” He confirmed and Sansa shakily got to her feet, glaring at him as he lumbered through the process of doing the same. By the time he brought himself to his full height with a grimace, her eyes were blazing with anger.  

“You absolute doddering fool !” She yelled at him and her voice cut sharply into the night like a hot knife through butter. Aside from the well trampled snow, heaps of tattered furs and clothing and the splashes of blood here and there from the wolves, they were completely alone. Sandor balked, his temper coming in hot. She took an angry step forward, grabbing the fronts of his furs as her voice broke and she shouted, “How could you attack him?” 

“What were you going to do? Howl at him more?” Sandor spat back at her, indignant that she was so angry that he’d merely fulfilled his job and duty to her. He took the open-handed slap of her answer with little more than a noisy exhale through his nostrils. He opened his eyes as she turned and angrily stomped away from him, skirts lifted in the snow.  

Sandor watched her go for a moment before he looked up at the sky. The stars winked and shimmered and he glowered at the merriment as he sheathed the dagger in an empty belt in his furs. One last unhappy look at the sky and he followed the redhead, muttering to himself about nobles.  

 

 

Chapter Text

The moon wasn’t powerful enough to reach through the canopies of the forest and Sandor found himself squinting after her as he paced Sansa through the forest. She remained ahead of him, shoulders stiff and steady in her furious march.  

“Winterfell is that way, by the by,” He called after her as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the river. Her crunching footfalls slowed and turned and he found himself walking into a cloud of her anger.   

“I’m going back to the tree until the sun comes up,” She announced to him and he bristled at her tone as he approached her.   

“We had an agreement. While you’re out here, you do as I say,” He reminded her gruffly and watched her cross her arms over her chest in the darkness between them. “Or was that just when you needed me to save you?”   

“Sandor,” Sansa sighed and suddenly aged a score of years as she said, “I’m exhausted . Unless you want to waste the last of your strength carrying me, we need to see if we can find someplace to rest.”   

There was a ringing silence as he stubbornly chewed on her words – she was right, his chest was tight and sore and his arm felt more battered and bruised than it had the first time he’d done a shield bash incorrectly. His feet and hands were rubbery with cold, skin windburned and there was a dog-tired ache emerging in his bones.   

“That clearing did stop the wind,” He mused aloud and mentally clapped himself as Sansa breathed an exhale of victory.   

“Oh, Master agrees . What joy,” She intoned dryly and he made sure to knock her slightly with his elbow as he brushed by, soaking smugly in her sputter as he did so. She waited a beat before following him and together they slowly made their way back up the slippery incline, vaulting rocks and sprawling roots. Sandor had to use his other arm to clasp Sansa’s hand and help haul her up a four-foot drop, his sword arm being used eliciting a hiss of pain.   

By the time they got back to the eerie calm of the Heart Tree, he could have crawled into a grave and had the best sleep of his life. Somehow, it was darker as the moon had crested and the snow here was shallow and crunchy in front of the tree.   

Sandor startled himself as he passed it , noting the face on it now appeared prim and unbothered. Sansa instead fell to her knees in front of it and began whispering a prayer. He studied her a moment, her eyes closed, face blank and her hands open in front of her with her pale palms face up in supplication. His mind roved to the wolves and the peculiarity of their presence, regarding her like she was a bottle of mysteries he would like to drink and discover.   

At this point, he was used to the complicated and varied magics of the Stark clan – he’d seen a direwolf before there was an indication of living ‘magic’ and it was because of the Starks . The last ones he’d seen were adolescents, still gangly and unsure of their strength. The beast that had come to Sansa’s aide was anything but – it had been confident and vicious and unafraid. He knew it wasn’t hers, for obvious reasons but he did find himself suddenly wondering about the others – Robb's body had been afixed with the head of his wolf, Sansa’s had been executed for Joffrey’s ego and he’d seen the enormous white monster that shadowed the Bastard King.  

That direwolf had been none of those and was somehow bigger than Snow’s companion.   

If he had to guess out of all of them, the feral thing he’d seen rip off an undead horse’s leg was probably the incarnation of the Wolfbitch herself, Arya Stark.   

He found deep drifts of snow behind the tree, climbing the edges of the clearing against the conifers ringing the pasture and he paused a moment before setting to work. Like a dog, he used his legs and arms to fling snow into a massive pile as quickly as he could, searching for any large piles or banks and adding its volume to his mound. It grew quickly and occupied him from dwelling on everything that happened by the river.   

It was when Sansa appeared and was adding her own awkward handfuls of snow to his pile without questioning what he was doing with his doglike behavior that he sighed and paused.   

“We need sticks. Here,” He interrupted her and took her arm, extending it and indicating from her elbow to her wrist with his own fingers, “About that long. Probably at least a score. Can you do that?”   

Her eyes caught his like a fish on a line, his fingers suddenly slow to release her and something deep in him clenched at the connection. Spooked, he dropped her hand and waved her off as nonchalantly as he could muster. She nodded wordlessly and without another word, set off around the clearing. She either kicked the snow away and found white-encrusted sticks or at one point during his labour he saw her measuring and then snapping the naked branches off of trees. When she returned, she had a large bundle that he then set about showing her how deeply to jab into the mound of snow after he’d slightly compacted it.   

As she did so, he got on his knees and began digging out the mound. He’d shrugged out of his furs and his undercloak and stripped off his wool jacket – he couldn’t risk sweating himself into hypothermia as he got deeper and deeper into the mound. He used his hands, his feet and his shins to move and push snow out behind him, scraping and smoothing until he found the bottoms of Sansa’s sticks. He heard her make a startled noise when he punched a hole in the very top from the inside and then he climbed out and shook himself off, wiping his forehead on his forearm and gasping the icy night air.   

Sansa stood to the side, arms tightly wrapped around herself and pulling her furs snug. Her face was covered in shadows but he could see her chewing on the inside of her cheek as he layered his jacket and thick winter cloak on. He shook out the enormous furs that served as his outer layer, the trim and lining made of a pa c k of c oyote s from the Neck ; the outside was heavily oiled against water. He bent down and haphazardly spread it on the inside of their snow hut and then backed out, mockingly giving her a short bow and indicating the entrance.   

“I will guard,” He told her shortly as she took a hesitant step towards it. Sansa stopped and crossed her arms again as he stiffly limped to the base of the heart tree and looked for a place to sit. He’d rather a root than the frozen ground and was looking for one when her voice interrupted  

“You need to rest as well. And you’re freezing, I can see you shivering from here,” She protested and Sandor found himself suppressing a growl from the back of his throat.   

“You promised no questions,” He bit out as he attempted to hide any quaver of cold from his voice. The sweat on his skin was quickly cooling and he was suppressing violent tremors.    

“I’m not questioning, I’m observing. I can’t listen to your instructions if you freeze out here,” Sansa rebuked him after a moment and Sandor let his head thunk forward against the tree as his eyes slid closed in frustration while she added, “ T he first thing Northerners are taught about cold is always sleep together.”   

“I’m not a Northerner,” He rejected flatly.  

“Consider this your first lesson then,” Sansa volleyed back almost cheerfully and Sandor ground his molars together as he looked at her to glare fiercely. She pointed to the shelter and said, “It’s unfortunate I’m right.”   

“Fuck,” He grumbled to himself and with great showmanship got on his knees in front of her and resentfully crawled into the small space. Sansa followed him and he found himself with even less room, awkwardly settling on his side. Thankfully, his furs blanketed the entire bottom of the shelter save for a few inches to the wall. Small hands touched the ground beside his head, then the wall above it, his shoulder and then felt blindly in the space in front of him. She sat back and he watched her form in the dark, hesitating and unsure. He lifted his head and reminded her.   

“I offered to sit by the tree.”  

He swore he heard an angry growl before the Lady of Winterfell gently settled beside him, her back to his chest. The opening they’d both crawled through let in a shaft of frigid, chilly air but within the space of a few silent, agonizing minutes they both found themselves plenty warm.  

Sandor felt the edge of Sansa’s furs get thrown over top of both of them. It barely reached the crest of his shoulder but it fully tented her against his chest and the simple volume of her skirts spread out over both of their legs added much needed material and bulk. He lay carefully in almost a C, legs bent and angling his head so he exhaled towards the hole he’d punched in the roof. It was from here he began doing his best not to think about this ridiculous situation.   

Stuck god-knows-where in the Wolfswood , sharing a shelter at the base of a weirwood Heart Tree with Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell and Queen of Stabbing White Walkers. He smirked in the darkness, wondering at her ability to constantly surprise him. This insisting on sharing the shelter had been the next event in a series of almost delusional goings-on that was occurring between him and her and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He knew what he hoped and he knew what he said and Sansa was one of the few things in his life where what he said and what he thought contradicted one another.   

“I haven’t been this close to a man for so long since I killed Ramsay,” She whispered.  

“Did you kill him or did you just watch him die?” Sandor grunted out loud, less to pacify her and more to downplay the supposed enormity of snuffing out the waste of life that was the Bolton bastard.  Sansa was quiet at that, not turning her head and not doing anything. She just lay there, close enough for him to smell the sweet, lemony scent of her hair but not close enough he could imprint the feel of her body against his.   

“Is there a difference?” She finally asked him, her voice carefully woven together and Sandor let out a grunt of amusement beside her.   

Of course there is. There’s putting poison in Joffrey’s cup and there’s watching him turn purple over his wedding pigeon,” Sandor chuckled with antagonism, enjoying the mental image that had been regaled throughout Westeros.   

“I had more to do with Ramsay’s end than I did with Joffrey’s,” Sansa told him sadly and Sandor lifted a shoulder dismissively.   

“Joffrey tortured you as a girl. Ramsay made the mistake of torturing you as a woman. You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes,” He sighed as he settled mostly on his back now.   

“Does that make me a killer?” Sansa whispered again and he could feel the tears in her eyes and sighed heavily. He raised his hand, hesitated midair and then gently laid it on her shoulder.   

“It makes you a survivor, little bird .”  

She didn’t say anything, so he retracted his hand and placed it by his side, staring ahead in the dark and breathing the closed yet snowy air. Even as Sansa’s breathing deepened, he found himself unable to sleep. While she seemed to have relaxed a fair bit, they were far from out of danger. There was no guarantee there weren’t other Walkers and the like sweeping through the area, or that they hadn’t triggered a mass entry by murdering a scout and his troop. While it was incredibly reassuring to know he had Valyrian steel on him, it was concerning that it was merely a dagger. His sword, useful against all foes not otherworldly ice-bastard, lay in that field in shards.   

While helpful and harrowing in the moment, he was now aware these woods were positively teeming with predators - which also didn’t bode well for them, Stark blood or not. As soon as the sun came up they were going to have to start their trek and hope that the river led where he thought it would – the tundra. Once he reached Winterfell he’d have to double back to the pools, go and look for Stranger.   

He didn’t like having left his mount. He was reasonably sure Stranger could handle himself and he’d left the stallion freely like he had before on prior campaigns, only to return and find a pissed off warhorse loitering for him. He could only tell himself that’s what would happen this time.   

His action plan was return Sansa to Winterfell, go get Stranger back and eventually have a long, hot bath.   

It was fantasizing what that nice hot bath would feel like that led him to sleep.  

 

Chapter Text

It was chill that woke him.   

Not chill necessarily, but a lack of constant warmth.  

Suddenly, Sandor’s eyes snapped open in horrified clarity and the hand that shot out clenched nothing but coyote fur. He sat up violently, grazing his head on ice and snow and littering the latter all over his lap. With a curse he grunted as he got on all fours and crawled out of the shelter in a panic.   

His leg, cold and seized like a slab of marble, barely supported him for a good moment and he almost staggered onto his knees. As soon as he managed to bring himself to his full height, her name died on his tongue when he spied her.   

She sat in the snow, her skirts buffeted around her and streaked with dirt. Her hair shone brilliantly in the morning sun. Her hand rested on the snout of the unimaginably large direwolf and was stroking its white fur tenderly, even as the giant fixed him with a menacing orange glare. Its hackles shivered to life and he heard the thunderous growl as Sansa turned to glance at him and then placatingly chastise the animal for its threat.    

“What the fuck is this?” Sandor demanded raggedly as his first words of the day and Sansa touched her forehead to the beast’s, stroking its face once more.   

“Thanks again,” He heard her say a s she stood. I t rose from its sitting position and with one last ugly look at Sandor, cantered out of the clearing and slipped between the trees like a shadow in a rift. Sansa turned back to him and he noted her face was lined with recently dried tears. He pointed one finger in the direction her ancestral dog had gone.  

“What the fuck was that?” He reiterated once more and Sansa shrugged helplessly and opened her mouth before he held up a hand and interrupted her with, “You know what ? Later. Now, moving.”   

With that declaration, he turned back to the shelter and bent down to rip his furs out and shake it raggedly before swinging it onto his shoulders. He paused to survey the shelter one more time and then reared one leg up and gave it a satisfying, crushing kick just as Sansa made a noise of disapproval.   

“What?” He demanded of her as she pouted and looked down at it in dismay.   

“I liked it, that’s all.”   

“I’ve got a surprise for you – it's gonna melt,” Sandor grunted in reply as he adjusted the weight of the fabric on his shoulders and jerked his chin in the direction of their departure, catching her eye meaningfully. She gave him a dull look, falling into step at his elbow as he set off.   

“Would it really though? What with Winter and all?” She asked him sarcastically and Sandor grinned at her spirit.   

“Winters end,” He rasped dismissively over his shoulder and caught her rolling her eyes at the trees as they passed.   

This time they walked at a much slower pace, in much lighter conditions, without holding hands. Sandor was only happy about a few of those changes, something he almost didn’t admit to himself. The forest was awash with life – sunlight punched through the thick canopy in individual shafts of gold, birds sang and chirped from above , darting from branch to branch as squirrels and hares scampered to and fro. Strange noises were always present - ranging from long, mournful calls to frantic, shrieking squawks in the distance. Each time he expected Sansa to startle or hurry and each time he found himself more impressed that she seemed to glance towards where he’d deduced the sound came from and then continue on their way.   

He followed the route they’d taken back from the skirmish, surmising it would cut off a lot of walking the riverbanks and was pleasantly surprised when they emerged on the scene from the night before. Sansa gasped, finally noticing the blood and the amounts of human clothing littered about.   

He took a quick glance and grunted to himself before carrying on, walking straight past the spot she’d stabbed the Walker with full intention of forgetting its location for good. His arm and shoulder seemed to twinge with the closeness, even as his bad leg threatened to start to quaver no matter how far they walked. She followed without a word and they set off track ing the river. The sun wasn’t yet out of the infancy of the day and for that, Sandor was grateful. At best estimation they might hit the tundra by afternoon but he wasn’t sure how far that was in general.   

Instead, they kept walking. He kept in his head, occasionally checking on her and her position, but mostly searching the brush and snow top for prints, eyes and signs of life. He was also keeping an eye for indications that hunters had been through the area – Winterfell's hunters were excellent trackers and even better navigators and often left signs of their traps or directions notched into trees or out of strategically broken branches. He swore he’d seen a whiteknot , a thin strip of cloth they tied on higher branches to indicate the way home, across the river. That meant if they continued on this path, he’d better keep an eye out for some shallows.   

They were going to have to cross the river and this made Sandor nervous. They had yet to come across a part where the waterline was low enough for rocks to jut from the surface.   

“Look for rocks in the river,” He finally told Sansa, whose eyebrows knitted together over her nose.   

“Are we crossing?”   

“We’re going to have to.”   

He thought he heard her sigh out loud and she paused, drawing him to a curious stop. She was staring behind them at the forest and cliff and the mountains beyond with her hand flat over her brow to brace against the sun. She turned around, face still twisted in a frown.   

“How did we get to this side of the creek?” She asked him suddenly and Sandor found he didn’t have much of an answer so he shrugged.   

“Could have come down into the area from North of the creek mouth. U nderground system that it came out of somewhere below where we were last night, best guess,” He grumbled as they continued on their way, Sansa now abreast him.   

“You don’t want to double back and go over it?”   

“When is the last time you ate, woman?”   

“Lunch, shortly before leaving yesterday.”   

“In a few hours that’ll have been a full turn of the day that you haven’t eaten and I’m only a few hours behind you. What’s worse is we only have one canteen - mine,” He grumped and tried not to give her a withering look.   

“I had one! It was on my saddle for...oh, poor Maiden,” Sansa said dejectedly in remembrance and Sandor’s brain showed him a flash of flayed horse in the snow as she piped up hopefully, “Shouldn’t we fill the canteen while we’re here before we cross then?”   

“No,” Sandor grunted as he squinted ahead of them. He could see the beige-blue tops of some rocks ahead of them – about 6. He needed to be closer to see if they were spaced enough that they could cross on them.   

Sansa stopped again and it was with gritted teeth that he did as well, fixing her with an impatient look. She was glaring at him, blue eyes narrowed and arms crossed tightly over her chest.   

“What?” He barked at her and she didn’t flinch, meeting his eyes mutinously from her spot in the snow.   

“Why?”  

“What?”   

“WHY? Why! Why do we have to go this way? Why can’t we get water here? Why are you being so horrible? Why do we feel like we’re still running from something? Why are you the one who found me? Why were there even Walkers so close to Winterfell without us knowing? Why?!” She shouted at him and Sandor’s shoulders sagged in exasperation as he glared at the sky whilst she ranted. When she finished, she was staring at him expectantly and he sighed heavily, irritated at her for pulling this now and almost equally as confused.  

“I want to get to Winterfell some time before I die, aye? It’s wiser when following a river to be on the side your destination is because, as anyone who's ever followed a bloody river knows, they’re unpredictable. The river could be poisoned upstream by some dead animal carcass and I don’t have scouts, my lady , to check so the canteen is stuffed with snow and will melt in my cloak. Your weapon of a little sister and fucking King in the North aren’t hunters, nor politicians, nor scouts. Those are all the things I bloody well know so can we please get a fucking move on?” He spat back at her in a rough, stone-on-stone tone that belied the storm of frustration thrashing in his chest. She regarded him a moment and for once he met her gaze openly, suddenly losing himself in the twinkling of understanding that he saw reflected back at him. His breath hitched at the intensity of how openly they connected , the argument dying away. A part of him knew their current predicament wasn’t the only reason they were at each other’s throats; how deeply he saw his own pain echoed on her face caused him to break the spell and look at the snow, the river – anything else.   

“I am tired and cold and scared and hungry too,” Sansa finally said softly and Sandor threw his hand dismissively in her direction before walking away . S he rushed after him and intoned , “I should thank you for coming to find me. I would have perished last night had you not.”   

“Stuff your thanks,” Sandor snapped back , uncomfortable with his reaction to her, as always.   

“We’ll have to arrange a payment,” continued Sansa as if she hadn’t heard him and he growled in the back of his throat.  

“Thank your brother. He asked me.”   

“The way you make it sound many were searching but only you found me.”   

“You remember what I think of your songs and poetry,” He reminded her coldly, glowering ahead of them as they approached the shallow scoop of the river. It was wider but not nearly as deep, the water going from icy black to a painful clarity that displayed the dark rocks beneath the surface.   

“Also,” Sansa said in a matter-of-fact voice that quickly went hard and steely, “My brother is apparently actually my cousin . My cousin who has now lain with his...Aunt.”   

Sandor stopped and gaped at her.   

“What the fuck are you talking about?”   

“Jon’s parents were my Aunt Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen. They had a secret tryst and produced him . My Father lied to my Mother and the rest of the world for his entire life to hide it. This would make Queen Daenerys Jon's Aunt,” She explained glibly as the one eyebrow Sandor could raise in surprise did so before she fixed him with a sharp look and finished with, “I’ve been married twice and told I’m beautiful all my life. I know what it looks like when a man has lain with a woman.”   

That was a hard punch to his gut he spent a few brief seconds struggling through, just barely able to keep the play of emotions off his face. Her marriage to the Imp had always been especially sore for him and he refused to call her captivity with the Bolton bastard a marriage but he never thought she’d be so frank about the marriage bed, having always been in the habit of blushing furiously.   

“So that’s why you fucked off and we’re out here now? Being a Lannister made you familiar with family fucking, aye?” He commented blithely and heard her gasp in outrage as he stomped away. He dismissed the entire conversation, it being entirely too much information at once. It did honestly confirm a lot of the talk he’d heard amongst the people of Winterfell; coupled with his own observations of Snow and the Dragon Queen; Sansa’s instincts were uncomfortably keen. H owever, h e was not going to deal with mental images of Sansa in her marriage bed, exciting or nauseating.  

He surveyed the rocks and decided they would be easy for him to cross, but perhaps a little spaced for Sansa. Despite her height and long legs for a woman, they were just a little too precarious for him to be comfortable she wouldn’t wind up making a splash.  

Sandor turned back to Sansa , whose face had gone hard and impassive and something twinged regrettably in his chest for lashing out at her. She was obviously struggling with this Snow revelation as much as he was, the parentage being something he had many questions about. He closed around the feeling of remorse like a hand on a moth – later.   

“I’m going to take a piss and you will wait here. When I get back, I will carry you over the river.”   

“You will do no such thing,” Sansa replied primly and he snorted at her as he turned his back.   

“You can be carried like a lady or a whore - up to you,” He said bluntly as he strode away and cleared the short space to break past the first couple of trees. Whether she knew what the difference s were made no bones to him, he decided. He strode deep enough in the trees that he could see her if he craned his neck but he could clearly still hear the water and anything that might decide to make itself known while she was alone.   

He quickly withdrew his empty canteen and did as he’d told her he’d already done, filling it with pristine and untouched snow. He stored it on the inside of his cloak to hasten the melt and found a spot to relieve himself, which he did so with a muted groan.   

A few moments later, he moved back through the trees and broke out into the clearing, giving a small start when he didn’t immediately see Sansa. Frantically, he glanced around before he heard her call, “Over here!”   

Across the river, she stood with her hips cocked , her arms crossed and a look of noble smugness on her face. She was perfectly dry. Sandor glanced up and down the river suspiciously.   

“You’re lucky you didn’t fall in,” He admonished her loudly as he watched the smirk on her face break into an all-out smile. He didn’t like that he was equally impressed and cowed by her smiling.  

“Ladies don’t fall ,” Sansa said airily as he picked his first stone and then vaulted the creek in five quick, sure steps. He climbed the snowy bank she stood on once he reached the other side.   

Impulsively, he gave her a short purposeful shove and Sansa toppled into the snow bank behind her with a shriek. Immediately she popped up with a loud gasp and was staring at him with her mouth hanging open in a wide ‘O’. He felt the corner of his mouth contract and watched her surprised and rage hesitantly melt into a grin as he turned to follow the river, leaving her to struggle herself to her feet and follow.  

Within half a minute he heard her strange skirts-lifted gait as she ran, catching up to him with a huff.   

“What if I’d been stuck?” Sansa demanded haughtily before adding, “Brute.”   

Sandor chuckled.   

 

Chapter Text

“Aren’t you going to ask me?”  

“Ask you what,” Sandor all but groaned as she began talking yet again while they struggled to navigate the landscape. It was well into the afternoon when they crested the hill that looked out over the treeless plain and could spy the faint dark shape of Winterfell lurking on the blinding white horizon.  

The trek downhill was difficult, with large rocks that verged on boulders, snaking slippery roots and piles of loose snow-covered leaves. There were pits and chasms between the trees that jutted out of the ground due to the incline. The river they’d been following had turned into a virulent stream, with many waterfalls and places of rapids as the water poured down into the flatlands. 

All of this made travelling excruciatingly slow going and Sandor was becoming more concerned by the hour. His stomach had started to growl around mid-day and they’d emptied and refilled his canteen three times, drinking water the temperature of the arctic as soon as it melted. Sansa was tiring and the farther they walked and climbed, the slower she got. Shortly into the afternoon she had started requesting breaks and had developed a limp that he noticed. She didn’t complain about it so he didn’t ask as they pressed on.  

He surmised talking was her way of coping, regardless of how grating he found it. Sansa paused, leaning heavily against a canted tree trunk and he frowned at the pained exhaustion she looked at the sky with as he hopped down unsteadily beside her. He used her pause to rest his leg and gingerly flex his sword arm, rotating the wrist and pulling back the fabrics to glance at the ugly purple mess of his skin underneath. He did so furtively - making sure she didn’t see the ruin of bruises lest she start yelling at him about not telling her about something she could do nothing about. His chest also hurt but he found he was able to breathe to the top of his lungs and exhale to his farthestmost point without it seizing so he concluded he hadn’t broken any ribs. Perhaps a crack in one, told by the constant fiery twinge, but nothing broken.  

“The wolves,” Sansa finally said dryly and nodded when Sandor produced the canteen and offered it to her. He met her eyes and for a moment over the canteen as she tipped it into her mouth. His stomach lurched as the same channel of connection from earlier opened up, holding his gaze to hers as she finished her swig and handed it back to him.  

Sandor broke the spell, all but snatching the canteen from her and stashing it automatically.  

“What the fuck’s with the wolves?” He grated instead and she huffed half a laugh as he leaned against his own tree. A crow cawed from deeper in the woods somewhere.  

“I don’t know. I kept seeing them when we were running through the forest. I didn’t tell you because you already had enough to think about,” She cautioned and Sandor didn’t make any reaction, mentally rolling his eyes about the poor decision making that would have been if he hadn’t noticed. She took his silence as a good sign and carried on.  

“I just...I thought I was going to die and you were going to die trying to stop it. It just came over me. Like when you’re sitting someplace and you feel someone looking at you and when you look up, they look away? I knew if I howled, they’d answer,” Sansa explained and a line thin appeared between her delicate brows as she recounted it. She gave a breathy, stressed laugh and raked a thin hand over her pale face as she muttered, “I mean why not? Jon’s apparently died, Arya is an assassin, Bran is...the...the Three Eyed Raven? Why not? Why bloody not?”  

“You’re starting to sound like me,” Sandor grunted as he pushed off the tree, satisfied with her answer and the confusion still on her face about it as he asked, “What about the big one?”  

“Nymeria,” Sansa said immediately in a wistful voice.  

“You know it?”  

“She was Arya’s,” came the tired reply and Sandor nodded to himself as he extended his hand and she accepted it, slipping hers into his and standing with a small wince.  

“Why isn’t she at the castle like the white one?”  

“Ghost will never leave John. Arya is too wild to expect something as wild as her to play companion,” She answered thoughtfully and then shrugged as they artfully slid down a slope before adding, “She looks so much like Lady did.”  

“I remember.” 

“Do you?” She asked, sounding surprised. He nodded as they walked, ducking under angled fallen trunks and hopping down another fairly steep drop. They were heading as directly downhill as possible and despite the lateness of the hour, making decent headway for how tired and hungry they both were.  

“A girl with a beast as big as she is? That’s a picture you don’t forget,” He grunted as he peered over a ledge at the forest below. They could continue no more on this shelf; he was going to have to scale down. Sansa would, unfortunately, have to be convinced to jump.  

“I wasn’t a girl,” She retorted indignantly and he snorted as he reached out to a tree that grew alongside the drop he was going to take, finding the branches brittle but sturdy. He could use the tree and the drop-face to scoot down between the two; he positioned himself to do so, propping one boot against the bark and crouching on the ledge.  

“You didn’t have teats. Girl,” He argued back absently and Sansa scoffed audibly as she watched him begin to shimmy down the gap between the edge and the tree. He got halfway down, lowering himself about the entirety of his own height before pushing away from the wall and jumping the last bit, landing on the hard-chill ground below. He winced slightly, letting out a slight cough as his chest ached warningly and his leg burned like unholy fire, wobbling threateningly.  

“When about did I get breasts again?” Sansa called down at him sarcastically and he glared up at her, pointing one thick finger at her sharply as he punctuated his words.  

“Don’t make things something they’re not because they suit your storybook,” He rasped at her and watched her roll her eyes and nod to the no one she had up there with her.  

“You know, I imagine dogs are the same as humans,” She called down to him as he stepped back and opened his arms and gestured to himself. Her eyebrows both raised incredulously and he watched her size up the tree route he’d taken down before reconsidering. He sighed as she slowly lowered herself to her seat, hanging her legs cautiously over the dirty edge and scooting nervously to the precipice.  

“Oh, yeah? How so?” Sandor prompted. 

Sansa looked down and he watched her face focus as she steeled herself and stared intently at his chest. He bent his legs slightly just as she pushed herself off and plummeted, the skirts buffeting up in a mess but landing surely in his arms like a tossed sac of flour. His chest only twinged minimally, as he’d made sure she was braced away from him. She blew the wild strands of red hair out of her eyes and pulled the fabric of her cloak off his face to look into his eyes with a smile. He paused, suddenly transfixed as she laid a hand on his cheek. It was surprisingly warm and he wanted to lean into her palm as she smoothed her fingers over the meeting of burned and unburned skin, studying his face with that small smile on hers. 

“Dogs are the same as humans - as much as they can smell the stink of a lie, they can’t smell their own shit,” Sansa told him in a whisper, mere inches from his face. Sandor blinked and she awarded him a slightly wider smile before she wiggled free from his arms, hopping down and brushing the fabric back into a semblance of proper place.  

He didn’t know what to make of that but Sansa seemed very pleased with herself, despite the increasing severity of her limp. They continued in silence, the ground much more forgiving the closer they got to the tundra. The forest was mostly quiet and empty, the wind knocking through the upper branches being the only noise aside from their alternating footsteps – Sandor's heavy thumping tread followed by Sansa’s daintier, limp-swishing steps. Her skirts were destroyed; tears and rips and stains and spatters went from the hem to about her waist and her fur cloak was caked in thick balls of snow and ice as well as frozen hunks of mud. Her hair, which had been plaited for riding, had long since started to come free and now waved around her head like a fiery halo.  

They trudged on and didn’t speak much, Sandor focusing on finding the straightest most convenient path and Sansa apparently focused on keeping up. He tried not to notice how hard she was breathing or how her face was steadily getting paler and more pinched as she concentrated while they walked. His own body was falling into riot – he had various periods of feeling sleepy, he hadn’t felt his feet since some time that morning and his temper simmered just beneath the surface. His chest hurt and his arm felt like someone had tried to break it with a rubber mallet. He wagered if his travelling companion hadn’t been the little bird, he would have left her for dead long ago. He’d done worse to soldiers in better condition.  

The biggest issue was his bad leg – cold never agreed with it and having to work in constant exposure to the elements was causing it to shake under his weight with every step, threatening to give out. That, and as they came down and finally started to see breaks in the trees that indicated they were almost out of the woods, the sun was once again going down. The temperature was starting to drop once more, except this time they didn’t have wights and adrenaline to keep them warm.  

Eventually, her limp became so pronounced that he cupped her elbow and assisted her. It earned him a curious look from big searching eyes that he artfully avoided, lest he find himself lost in her gaze yet again. She was a succubus, trying to get confirmation and emotion from his soul. After long last, they found themselves unceremoniously deposited on the open expanse of the Northern Tundra. They could see the hulking shadow of Winterfell and Sansa finally made a forlorn noise.  

“It’s so far. We’ll never reach it by nightfall,” She cried and Sandor didn’t comment because he agreed. He’d long since given up hope that they would run into a search party – even if there was one out, let alone a few, there was so much land to search the likelihood of them finding where Sandor and Sansa wound up was slim to none. Still, he occasionally searched the horizon. Very faintly, they could see the distant cut in the land that indicated the King’s Road, on its own half a day's walk away.  

While the snow wasn’t as deep out in the open, it was topped with hard slippery ice and featured a scorching, icy wind that did it’s best to ghost through their layers. The sun was sinking, going a deep coppery gold and Sandor started as Sansa took her arm from his and replaced it with her hands. Her right slipped into his left and his wrist was then braced with her other hand. She inhaled shakily and gave him a wan expression as he looked down at her, her reassuring smile weak and concerning.  

“I should carry you, Little Bird.”  

She gave a short, mirthless laugh before saying, “Then we will both surely die.”  

“Don’t be insulting,” He bristled and she patted his wrist apologetically as they walked, now going the stilted pace that Queen Cersei and her maids would traipse the King’s Gardens at.  

“I just meant you’re tired too.” 

“I know what you meant.”  

“Sandor?”  

“What?”  

“What will you ask for as payment?” She queried in an airy, innocent voice. He gave her a sidelong look she didn’t return, facing forward into the sun and bathing her delicate features in golden light. Ice crunched and shattered under their feet as they staggered over a slight hill and through the re-frozen pools of snow melt on the other side.  

“Payment for what?”  

“Saving my life?”  

Sandor grunted, mulling over the question and weighing his replies. There was only a minute number of things he could request of the Bastard King, in a time of war and all of them paled in comparison to some of the incentives he was offered to do horrible things by the Iron Throne.  

“A private bath, I think.”  

“Is there a tub big enough for you?” Sansa teased with a laughing voice and Sandor found for once the comment on his size didn’t irritate him instantly. He grinned as he pictured himself squatting in a copper tub, his knees around his ears. One casual glance at the redhead’s amused face told him she was entertaining similar thoughts and he did his best not to let the predatory part of his brain seize upon that.  

“That’s why it’s a favour. I should like to bathe, clear the Godswood,” Sandor said, attempting a lofty and noble voice for his final demand and found something deep in him glowing when she let out a soft, tinkering laugh.  

“My, how nobility suits you,” She replied playfully and Sandor found himself grinning sharply, even as he paused to lend her a hand as she shakily skated over an entire sheet of ice. He followed her across less daintily, his bulk causing the thick ice to groan and crack loudly.  

They made slow progress and watched the sun sink lower and lower, the sky turning from bright pink to blood red to a faint orange glow. The constant wind ripped at their furs and rioted Sansa’s hair, reddening both their cheeks. He eventually wound up wrapping both her small hands in his in a faint attempt to protect her skin from windburn. If possible, they wound up going even slower as the darkness fell and the wind picked up. The moon, blocked by grey scuttling clouds, would only shine weakly once totally up.  

With every step, his thigh muscle started to seize and eventually he was hinging forward on his leg from the hip - a gait that Sansa no doubt noticed. She’d stepped closer a few times as if to brace him when he’d stumbled, as if his entire being wouldn’t crush hers to the ice. They awkwardly moved, using one another to alternate their weight.  

Sansa’s feet were slipping every which way, giving her the appearance of a deer on a frozen lake. Within an hour, she was but a triangular shadow bumping beside him in the growing darkness. The snows were too icy and granular to build any type of shelter out of and the wind was too aggressive to stop for long. He found Sansa was pressed up against him and when she stepped away the loss of heat was enough that she came right back, shivering. They didn’t want the sun to come up and discover they were now East of Winterfell and still too far to make it, he realized and stared into the dark to find the faint glimmer of torches. Winterfell’s braziers normally winked and sparkled at night, to be seen as a beacon when the snow storms were weakest but were often completely eclipsed by darkness and snow.  

He placed one foot down and found his leg finally wouldn’t support it. With a curse, he staggered to one knee. Sansa attended him in alarm trying to weakly pull at his arm as he tried once, twice and thrice to regain his feet. Each time, he slipped harshly back down. Each time his knees burned as they cut on the ice. His strength was running from his body like water from cupped hands.  

“Let me help you,” Sansa called over the wind. He felt her body weight behind her nudge under his arm, a fruitless task.  

“Sansa,” He told her warningly as he realized she’d not accept what was happening. She’d keep trying until she froze to death on her feet and she confirmed his fears by shaking her head at his tone in the dark. 

Banging on the seizing muscle with the side of his fist didn’t seem to make any difference, he wasn’t going to be able to get up. He fought the wave of frustrated despair that welled up under his diaphragm, actually accepting Sansa’s help and slipping with further punishment back onto the ice. The entire leg felt like numb, frozen stone.  

“It’s okay, you can do it. Up!” Sansa tried again anxiously, pulling at his bicep uselessly.  

He’d estimated it would turn into this when they left the Heart Tree that morning and set his jaw. It was most likely a death sentence and most definitely a torturous one. He’d been trying to figure out how to go about it but found in the moment, he’d long since accepted his fate. He’d been tempting the Stranger his entire life. Hell, he cheekily named his mount after the Specter of Death, it would be unseemly for him to find oblivion peacefully in his bed.  

However, he could not risk Sansa.  

The downside was now he was out of options on how to save her - this angered him most as she tried once again to help him and he stopped her, pulling her close so he didn’t have to yell over the shuddering winds.  

“You have to take my furs. Wrap them around yourself, pick a light and follow it,” He told her urgently and the sound she suddenly made was one of a wounded animal, pushing him away as she tried to look into his face to argue. He impatiently shook her once as he said, “You promised.”  

He thought she was just staring at him, motionless in the darkness before the wind changed direction. Then he could hear her, plain as a peasant woman, sobbing.  

“No! No, please! Sandor, don’t do this! Don’t send me away!” She begged him and his chest burned as he suppressed a heaving breath, his heart breaking in the face of her agony. There was fear for himself, as there always was, but not as acutely felt as the first time he’d waited to go to battle or saw one of the Dragon Queen’s monsters flying overheard or woke thinking Gregor was in his bedroom in the dead of night. His truly overwhelming, hysterical panic was that she wouldn’t survive and their bodies wouldn’t be found until after Winter ended, trapped however many leagues from one another in death.  
 
“Little bird, you know I wouldn’t ask this of you unless I had to.” 

“You don’t have to! We can get you up,” She protested vehemently, once again trying uselessly to haul his crippled body from the ground and he grimaced as the shaking in his leg got painful. He shrugged out of his furs, handing them and the dagger within to her. When she tried to push it back into his hands, he swung it up over her shoulders. Without the furs, the wind had easier access through his cloak and the wool layers underneath. Impossibly hard, painful goosebumps rioted on his skin.  

His fingers shook as he did the clasp around her throat and grabbed her hands while she shook her head and tried to take it off, stooped to attend him as she was.  

“It’s not a debate. No one will miss the Hound. They need the Lady of Winterfell,” He told her harshly and she shook her head again, yanking on her ensnared appendages like a petulant dog tied to a tree.  

“That’s not true! I would miss you.” 

“You will survive. You did the first time.”  

“No! Please don’t make me go. Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter if I do survive because I won’t want to! Not without you,” She told him fiercely, meaning every word of it with every ounce in her whippet thin body. His eyes sunk closed and he loosened his hold on her hands, surprised and yet not at all when they gently cupped his face and then slipped around his neck. She hugged him tightly, clinging to him with the stubborn refusal of a child. He could smell the oils from her hair faintly mixed with the smell of ice and fear and he inhaled deeply, giving in to the understanding that this was the last time he’d be able to do so. He’d already made his decision and the sand was running through the hourglass on the time he’d bought her and lost for himself.  

“Please,” He said in her ear as she hid her face in his neck, “You can do this for me, little bird.”  

“Don’t make me do this. Please. I promised I would never beg again and I’m begging you. Please. I really don’t want to do this, Sandor, please!”  

“Ask me again,” Sandor grunted as she let him go and he fully sank onto the ground, knees under him excruciatingly. Sansa kneeled beside him, her hands fluttering from his face to his hand and pressing carefully on his shoulder, his abdomen and his biceps in nervousness.  

“Ask you what?” She demanded thickly, tears heavy in her voice. His own fingertips raised and found hot rivets of water running down her cheeks.  

“About my lordly payment.”  

She tried to laugh through a sob she tried to suppress at the same time and choked out, “What is your payment going to be? For saving my life?”  

“Nothing from a King.” 

“From who?”  

“I would beg my lady’s favour,” He rasped and she shuddered through another racking sob, looking up at the sky in anguish even as her hands found and clasped his tightly. She looked back at him, leaning close. 

“Please don’t do this to me,” Sansa begged him again between shaking pants. Her fingers tremored under his and he fought to keep his own lips steady and breath sure.  

“I would ask her for a kiss,” He forced out as her hands again found the sides of his face, fingers stroking his jawline tenderly.  

Sansa exhaled heavily and he imagined the war of emotions on her face, one corner of her lower lip probably pulled in as she chewed on it. An old tic.  

“Bastard,” She finally declared of him, not unaffectionately.  

He almost grinned as she swept her lips over his. Her hands splayed, fingertips bracketing his ears and the joint of his jaw as she kissed him deeply - exploring what was left of his lips with the frantic frenzy he poured back to her. His hands seized her neck, fingers twining in the half-free braid and clutching her Tully hair possessively.  

With the last strength left in his will, he pushed her back and rasped, “Go.”  

He watched her figure reluctantly stagger away, turning to stare in his direction before he pointed in the direction of the castle again. She turned, orienting herself in the night, and he watched as she bent herself against the wind and took measured but slightly slipping steps over the snowy mounds that made up the plains. He watched her go, his eyes drinking in every last moment and thought of her he could as they coursed the outline of her shape endlessly.  

Finally, she was gone.  

He was alone.  

Only then, did he allow himself to collapse onto his side. He lay on the sheet ice, eyes peering up at the steel grey clouds in the faint light. They appeared to be whirling and churning in the endless gale of ice and sharp, stinging snowflakes. His bones were sore and tired, muscles stiff and frozen. He never wagered he’d die, alone in a field, while his brother still lived.  

If the world were to fall to the Walkers, he would only find satisfaction in Gregor’s end.  

As his shivering became so violent his teeth started to hurt, an odd warmth spread. It started from his toes and moved steadily up past his knees. Death was crawling languidly up his body, whispering its cold words of sleep and peace.  

Blue – eyes, ice, sky. The cruel cold blue of the Walkers’ eyes flashed into the welcoming, summerlake warmth of Sansa’s as she’d looked up at him in the last few days. Her lips moved in his mind’s eye, whispering his favourite thing for her to say; his name.  

Lips she’d kissed him with, honestly and openly.  

He thought of the worst parts of his life - all the people he’d killed or watched die, bellies dashed open and throats slit or tongues swollen, eclipsing their mouth. Joffrey screaming and his own father’s smirk. The excruciating agony of Gregor laughing as he held his face in the fire, screaming while his flesh burned and he felt the liquid in his eyeballs boiling with the heat; toy knight forgotten on the ground. Burying his mother. Burying his sister, getting beaten for crying. Teenage Cersei, drunk on wine and sending her brotherly lover to war, demanding to see if his cock was as big as the rest of him in front of what felt like all of Casterly Rock; the violent humiliation that wrought. Whores grimacing and making no noise as he fucked them dispassionately. A separate humiliation having to pay extra silver to get one to make noise. Being whipped as punishment for things his brother did in training, the Maesters wrongfully assuming one Clegane would feel guilt for the other. Countless barfights, sleeping in the ditches of Flea Bottom, marching until blood gushed from between plates of armor.  

Red. 

The colour of Sansa’s hair, red. Red was a warm colour and he found comfort in how warm it was against how cold he was.  

He lay in the dark black of the night, savouring the colours of blue and red; the colours of the woman he loved but didn’t deserve. His single regret, his greatest fear and most powerful weakness.  

The only thing for which he would lay in a frozen field, and die.  

 

Chapter Text

Thunder.  

Riotous, violent thunder like the Spring Storms in the Westerlands he grew up in, raging against the world with cracks of lightning and booming, rolling rage. It grew so loud it vibrated his ribs and tickled his skin.  

It was dark and there were small suns, burning brightly. Many suns.  

The storm had a screaming, keening wind like a woman’s plaintive cry. He could hear shouts, the calls of men and braying of animals. A hysterical spring squall, always followed by shy warm sun, clumps of brilliantly green grasses and darkly stained rocks.  

The thunder began again, louder and closer. It never ended, drumming and crashing endlessly. Instead of lightning, the suns bobbed with the thunder until everything was swallowed by the dark again.  

 

                                                                                            .  .  

 
In the Riverlands, they had a sacred river that was warm and flowed with the gentle, meandering pace of grazing deer. It was the only stream he’d ever floated down, coursing gently along the current on his back. The forest around him had been lively but gentle as it was in full Spring, trees with riots of leaves and green bursting forth from every space in the ground. Birds flew over him, paying no mind to his still form as it twirled absently in the water.  

His body felt relaxed, muscles heavy and warm, ears submerged to hear nothing but the muted rush of the river. The water hummed and sloshed in his ears and his toes flexed gently. Then, like knocking the water plug from his ear after a swim, a hole bored into his hearing and he could hear the still gasp of air.  

He was still so heavy and warm he could have believed it was a mistake until the water was lifted from his chest.  

Sandor’s hand shot out, clamping tightly around a fragile wrist and was rewarded with a startled scream and the hand getting yanked out of his grasp.  

He groaned, rolling his head as he heard the muffled voice of a woman hurriedly explaining something. He was so heavy and the water – was there water? No. He was hot, smothered and felt pinned down all at once. Not the water of the riverlands - not soft, warm and inviting like Sansa’s eyes. Blue.  

Ice - cold blue.  

Ice cold blue all around him, alone on the frozen steppe sprawling around Winterfell and his little bird, gone.  

“Sansa,” He rasped as he felt like he was swimming faster and faster towards the surface of a deep lake. The ringing of air got louder and closed at the same time, the noise of a room.  

“- definitely awake,” A woman’s voice finished whispering urgently.  

“No need. I’ll stay.”  

“M’lord.”  

The clunk and grind of a heavy wooden door was heard and then a short sigh. Booted feet crossed the room and Sandor acutely heard the creak of a wood chair and the grunt of a man as he settled into it.  

Sandor struggled as he became more and more aware – he was on his back. The tickle of hairs from furs irritated his chin and he felt like one giant bruise. Based on the depth his body had sunk into the surface, he surmised he was on a surprisingly well-built bed.  

Slowly, he tried to open his eyes and found blinding light coming from his right and groaned, slamming them shut. On the second try, he angled his head left and slowly opened his eyes. The room was dark, no candles burning and mercifully no flames in the fireplace. The light came from a depthless cloudy sky outside, fat white flakes falling past the window. The waning light of late afternoon and early evening. 

On his left, in the corner of the room facing the bed with his legs splayed wide, was Jon Snow.  

“She was sent away or she’d make herself sick,” He said in lieu of a greeting when Sandor’s scrutiny fell on him.  

Sandor looked around and struggled to get up, falling back on the pillows once he’d wiggled himself into a loose sitting position. The King of the North merely watched - Sandor realized this situation could be familiar to him. His arm was wrapped in bandages so tightly the material was stiff and rigid. His fingers felt cold and useless when he tried to flex them, bound as they were.  
 
“Grateful to be alive but confused as to how that is,” Sandor admitted after a moment of silence from both of them.  

“The guards atop the tower during nightwatch. They look for torches in case anyone is trying to signal from the King’s Road. We’d been looking for Sansa, and then you, for an entire day and night,” He explained and Sandor shook his head as he interrupted.  

“We didn’t have torches. They couldn’t have seen us.”  

“They didn’t,” Jon said and lifted a single shoulder, “They saw a curtain of fire, like a person was lit, waving back and forth.”  

Sandor stared at him, his mind blank and confused. 

“Sansa. She’d burned what we later found out were furs with firesap trying to get their attention. The odd thing is, when they got to her she was hysterical and wouldn’t allow anyone to bring her back to the castle,” he explained and Sandor stared guiltily at the forms of his legs under the furs. He could only imagine the pitch her voice would have gotten to. Jon gave him a long, calculating look that almost put Sandor’s weak hackles up before he continued, “She could barely stand when she led us to you.”  

“She found me in the dark?”  

“Like a Lannister on gold,” Jon opined and Sandor figured that was an apt assessment. He sighed heavily, the relief entering his body like a giant dog cozying up beside the fire.  

“She’s alright?”  

Jon lifted a shoulder dismissively and Sandor’s brows contracted as he frowned.  

“What does that mean?”  

“She’s had worse, she says. She had inches of blood in her boots from blisters on her feet and some frost bite. She’s refused to rest like I asked her. I’m mostly in here because it’s the only way to get her to agree to stay abed. That, and following all her instructions. You are to her what that monster of a destrier is to you,” Jon told him affably, gesturing towards the empty fireplace. The eyebrow Sandor was able to raise in question did so.  
 
“No fires in the fireplace, no candles. Just bedwarmers. If we gave you a wine for pain it was to be red, your arm doesn’t appear to be broken but was bandaged anyway. On and on,” Jon explained, winding his open hand in loose, exasperated circles.   

“Hardly needs to be so much fuss,” Sandor grunted irritably and the King gave a controlled sigh as he regarded him with something akin to respect on his face. It made Sandor uncomfortable so he charged on stiffly saying, “I need to go get my horse.”  

He attempted to sit up again and was cut off.  

“No need,” Jon said admonishingly, frowning deeply. “He was back at the Hunter’s Gate the morning after you left. Then not only was Sansa missing, but so were you.”  

Sandor breathed a laugh, both relieved at the animal’s forethought and also amused at how indignant Stranger probably was at being left behind – so he’d gone and done the same to Sandor. Considering what had transpired, he found he was mostly grateful the stallion hadn’t encountered any of the wolves. Although, it was a toss-up as to who would be on the losing end in that fight.  

“Want to tell me what happened?” Snow asked innocuously. 

“You haven’t asked your sister?” Sandor blocked, mentally correcting the term ‘sister’ to ‘cousin’ and looking over the other man with a differently critical eye. Perhaps that had something to do with how intense and focused he seemed – he had even  more  riding on this war than previously thought. 

“So, there are Others in the Wolfswood,” Jon confirmed gravely and Sandor nodded.  

“Aye. If there’s one, you know there’ll be more.”  

Jon was silent, glaring out at the snow past the window. Sandor understood, could see how hard he was thinking about what his next move would be. Their only refuge could become a collective death trap if things didn’t go according to plan.  His  plan. It was a position Sandor didn’t envy – it was scary enough trying to make sure Sansa survived. He couldn’t imagine having to think for an entire populace.  

“It’s going to happen soon,” Sandor wagered and the dark-haired man’s face didn’t change from its mask of concern, bobbing stiffly in agreement.  

“The night you both disappeared; the castle didn’t sleep. We tried until the howling started. I’ve heard the Northern wolves but not like that. Never like that,” he told Sandor and then fixed him with a dark, pointed expression as he said, “It was like they knew there was a Stark out there.”  

Sandor snorted, wincing as his chest hurt with the action and clarified, “They did, believe me.”  

Jon was looking at him with a peculiar expression he didn’t enjoy but recognized; it was similar to the nosy, pushy expression he’d seen on entitled maids and Septas who knew they were being lied to. Sandor clammed up - if Sansa hadn’t seen fit to recount that part of the story then he wasn’t going to. He didn’t know what that had been any more than she did and suspected they’d both rather not let it be common knowledge.  

Jon stretched as he got up from his seat before standing in a strong pose, arms crossed over his chest.  

“You saved the life of my sister by sacrificing yourself. Don’t bother denying it,” Snow informed him finally, speaking slightly louder as Sandor tried to cut him off and continuing, “Sansa told me what you said your favour would be.”  

One side of Sandor’s face and the back of his neck suddenly flared hot at those words. He felt the hands on the side of his face and the play of her lips on his, plush and gentle. He struggled to keep his face impassive. Smirking at the King of the North when mentioning favours in reference to a cousin he considers a sister is a dangerous game at best. Instead he carefully chose his favourite trick he’d witnessed the Little Bird use often and said, “Did she?”  

It didn’t come off quite as coy but Snow seemed not to notice.  

“She said you’d like a bath in the Godswood. After you’ve eaten, I’ll see that done.”  

Sandor felt himself relax slightly at that. He imagined the hot, bubbly mineral water and the refreshing gasp of crisp air. It wasn’t stifling hot in the room and thankfully the little bird had the forethought to skip a smothering fire but he suddenly found he longed to stand and walk and marvel at being alive. His stomach was oddly absent of claims, silent and uninterested in hunger as sometimes happened when he went too long without eating. The appeal of slipping into real water, a bath he’d been fantasizing about for what felt like an eternity had him shaking his head.  

“I think I’d rather the bath over the bread,” He groaned as he threw the covers back and sat up. He was thankful he was still wearing britches but grimaced at the prospect of putting his feet back into the mangled boots that were on the floor.  

“As it please you,” Jon replied absently and loitered by the door, presumably to escort him.  

His chest was darkly bruised and he paid it as little mind as possible as he slipped a coarse shirt and cloak on and with pursed lips stamped his bare feet into the still-soggy boots. Snow gestured to a pile of what looked like clean clothes – another long-sleeved shirt, tunic, britches and what looked like drying cloths accompanied by a shard of soap. He resisted rolling his eyes before he snatched them up. His bad leg was functioning but weak and he found his limp was way more pronounced than it had been before, gritting his molars as he scuffed by the Northern King who politely held the door.  

They made their way slowly, the short King seemingly nonplussed by the occasional stagger and rest against the stone walls that Sandor made. He talked of snow traps and pits lined with spikes that had been tipped with dragonglass shards. Spin shields with dragonglass inlays, daggers and broadswords newly made with dark, glistening blades. Arya had recently come up with glass orbs that could be thrown filled with tar and fire. Sandor made what weak points he could in-between the deluge of information, offering reminders on how to kill the dead and ways to effectively block the view of the wights without impairing the ability to fight them.  

“You don’t want them to fall to pieces. When they see they’re really fighting dead fuckers they might freeze, have to keep them engaged until they’re too deep to panic,” Sandor was saying in his rumbling, bedrock tenor as they approached some guards stationed outside double doors. Snow slowed to a stop and Sandor followed suit, leaning heavily against the wall as his leg spasmed sharply.  

“The Godswood is empty, yes?” He addressed the men directly and both of them rushed to give an affirmative answer. Jon gestured towards Sandor and the two men looked at him quickly, faces both awed and fearful before they looked back at Snow questioningly as he said, “Clegane is to bathe alone. No one will enter until he leaves.”  

They both nodded and then snapped to attention buffeting the doors. The King turned to him and leveled him with a contemplative look; suddenly his air was heavy with knowing. He seemed to inspect Sandor, not with any malice or suspicion but as if he were appraising him.  Unbidden, Sandor knew that just as Sansa had suspected Jon of his affections with the Dragon Queen, Snow had his own suspicions about Sansa’s affinity for the Hound. Sandor found himself briefly wondering if he would try to do something about it until his hand reached up to clap Sandor affectionately on the shoulder as he declared, “Thanks again.”  

Sandor nodded and with great, sweeping steps Snow disappeared up the stairs they’d come down and Sandor glanced at the guards, who stared forwards. Almost muttering to himself, he pushed off the wall and started forwards as one of the guards stepped in and pushed open the door for him – letting in a short flurry of snow. He glared at the metalhead briefly before limping through the doorway and slamming it shut behind him. 

Sandor’s stomach clenched as he stepped into the snow and the now overly familiar scent of ice and trees assaulted him. The difference was behind Winterfell’s walls, the flakes fell gently to the ground with a soft ‘pat’ and the wind was nonexistent. It was still and tranquil. He glanced upwards, spying the wooden bulk of the window seats of the Lord’s chambers. One of the windows was open and he spied the flicker of a fire inside. Part of him ached knowing how they’d parted and the fear he’d put her through. He knew Jon was being matter-of-fact but the picture he painted of the worry Sansa had made Sandor feel guilty – she should be worried about herself and her people and the coming battle. Not him.  

The Godswood was silent and he made his way through untouched trails of freshly lain snow until he found the hot pool. Sandor spent a moment to pause and look at the face on their Heart Tree. This one was stern and morose-looking, not unlike the faces Starks themselves made regularly. The main difference was the dark red stains of bloody tears. He shifted his weight and glanced around quickly, seeing nothing.  

“Thanking you doesn’t mean I believe in you,” He cautioned the tree as he put his bundle down on a large rock and limped to the pools edge. He flipped up the cuff of his shirt and begin unwinding the bandages on his arm as he explained over his shoulder, “But the enemy of my enemy is useful. The girl probably thinks the wolves were you too, so. Thanks, I suppose.”  

He glanced at it half expecting some freaky face change to happen but the tree remained resolute and unsmiling. Deciding that was enough religious fuckery, he took a deep breath and kicked off his boots. There was a rather wide space around each pool where the snow had melted and this is where he stepped. His bandages came away and revealed the same bruising he knew was there, twinging sharply as he flexed his arm. The cold air made undressing a matter of speed – tunic, britches, undergarments all piled around him quickly and he made an audible shuddering noise as he slipped into the surprisingly hot water.  

At first, it was too hot. He gnashed his teeth as the heat seared at flesh already over-familiar with the temperature, finding moving in the water increased the pain. His bad leg, however, soothed with such immediate and sudden response that Sandor sagged onto a rock ledge and extended it with a long-suffering groan. Even his chest felt slightly better with the water lapping at his collarbones. He tilted his head back and shut his eyes as he slipped deeper into the drink and his limbs half-floated, fully extended under the surface.  

He’d not had the chance to soak in water in this manner for almost a decade – public bathes were horrible places for him to visit. He was both equally feared as well as scrutinized because as much as people cowered in the face of his temper, they’d all been trying to see him naked since he was a teen. At first he thought they were just gawking at his cock but at a later date realized it was his form - forget trying to find a copper tub built for a man of his size anyway. He loathed to bathe in anything but screened areas or alone in streams, creeks and rivers.  

This opportunity did feel like pure luxury. He reached over and plucked the scab of soap up – it boasted an elderflower scent with something tangy he couldn't place, which would have to suffice. He rose to a stand and started to scrub, washing himself with nonchalant vigor and enjoying the way the milky lathers of soap met the water as it ran down his body and curled away from him on ripples. He raked his nails over a silty scalp and enjoyed the feeling of being clean. Dunking himself for a rinse, he rubbed his head underwater and swam free of his soap cloud under the surface. He emerged with a short burst and blew the water from his mouth and nose, wiping his face. 

Water was still dripping off his elbows as he wrung out his beard when he became aware that the prickling feeling wasn’t just the goosebumps from the cold air on wet skin but also the weight of eyes. He stiffened and crouched lower in the water, moving away as he turned around sharply.  

He should have expected Sansa, but she still made his stomach lurch and his breath catch seeing her mere feet from the pools edge in a long, deep red cloak. She looked like a lick of fire and he swallowed thickly as he backed towards deeper water, canting his legs protectively.  

“I know this is improper, I – a maid told me you were up,” She said uncertainly and Sandor almost wanted to smirk at her. He would wager more golden dragons than he truly had that said maid had directly disobeyed the King of the North. Sansa had a way of inspiring insipid loyalty – he was a prime example.  

They looked at one another awkwardly, Sansa appearing to be chewing on the inside of her cheek and Sandor frozen in both mind and body. She took a step towards the pool and stopped to make a short, frustrated noise when Sandor backed up again and bumped against the roughly hewn pool edges. Rocks and stones piled in the slanted corners under his toes.  

“If you’re worried about your modesty, the spring darkens the water naturally.” 

“I’m worried about your modesty. Alone in a Godswood with a naked man.”  

“A naked man alone in my Godswood,” Sansa shot back primly and he gave her a flat look before he simmered down, eyes tracing the way her hair was loose and tumbled down over her shoulders. The cloak was thick but trimmed with darker satin – a bedgown. He remembered someone commenting that only the Starks of Winterfell could move about the castle without being seen and it would appear Sansa had simply left her chambers. He stared at her and the way she almost teetered near the edge of the pool, like she was keening to move closer to him and he felt the part of him that wanted to go to her in return. 

His control slipped as he met her eyes, finding them trained on him apprehensively. He could almost hear his comment about fucking retainers echoing between them and something in him crumbled. He looked at her thin shoulders and cupids bow lips and fine jaw; felt how his body seemed to fizz and sing for hers. Sansa Stark had been a plague on an otherwise bored yet contented drunk mind – she kept him up at night thinking during patrols, the thought of her had kept redheaded whores well paid after he left Kings Landing, she poked holes in everything he was and believed in by simply looking at him in a way no beautiful woman ever had before. It hadn’t started that way but over time Sansa had proved to be one of the few people who genuinely was not afraid of him.   
 
Despite what she’d been through, she’d flowered into a true Stark; loyal and noble and painfully honest. Her male brethren carried this as a lordly trait but Sansa and Arya were women of stature and danger – far harder than they appeared.  

He remembered with painful clarity their discussion in the study. It clashed violently with how he ached with the regret and longing believing he was dying on the ice. Regretting everything he’d not only denied himself but as he realized in this moment, her. His self-imposed isolation was only pertinent when no one wanted to be around him but this woman had plainly stated otherwise. He’d just never believed her and until that moment, it had never occurred to him how he was ensuring she remained alone as well.   

“I should thank you I suppose,” He finally rasped and tried a weak smirk as he added, “Even though you burned my furs.”  

Her face finally morphed into a smile and he watched a single tear fall from her eye, which she hastily wiped away.  

“I wasn’t going to just let you die,” Sansa scoffed. 

“That wasn’t the promise.”  

“I promised to do as I was told, not that I would let you freeze.”  

“Stupid little bird,” Sandor commented.  

“Dumb stubborn dog,” She retorted immediately and he showed his teeth, which made her huff out a breathy laugh, shifting her weight in place. The hem of her gown puddled on the wet, melted ring around the hot pool and they both noticed how she’d gotten closer. Sansa looked at him again, eyes nervous as she crossed her arms under her cloak.  

“Being as I saved your life, I would beg a favour,” Sansa said quietly and Sandor’s skin prickled with sudden awareness. He inhaled through his nose; eyes trained on hers as the understanding of what she was implying soaked into the air between them. Everything she’d said to him in the study came rushing back in a roar, only this time he found the fear was gone. Suddenly he found he understood what she meant about rules when the world was ending – her supposed brother was a Targaryen, sister an assassin, White Walkers were marching through Westeros, there was a Queen with Dragons, a raven with three eyes and apparently some sort of fire god somewhere in the mix. The lines he’d lived his life between had been erased and the same for her.  

He sucked in a breath and in a last-ditch effort to give her a chance to change her mind, did his least favourite thing and stood to his full height, showing her the true expanse and horror of his body. The water was deep enough it reached his hips but as he waded slowly towards her, the bottom of the pool tilted up. The water line pulled down his body and he watched her eyes follow it until it reached mid-thigh. He stopped and found he had to tilt his head back to look up at her, tall and standing on the ledge as she was and her eyes snapped to his, pupils blown wide and breathing shallow.  

The hot water being wicked off his skin in the cold air made his nipples pinch tight and him shiver slightly, despite it feeling surprisingly refreshing instead of uncomfortable. The absolute lack of wind made the temperature less of an issue when he was standing in water so hot it made his skin red. Sansa’s hand appeared out of the folds of her cloak and they both watched as she reached out and gently touched the bruising on his chest, tracing the edges with her fingers. She followed the purple stain until she met the bubbled, waxy spill of scar tissue that poured over his shoulder. She trailed her fingers up the wreckage, ghosting over his shoulder and up his neck to finally, blissfully rest along his jaw.  

“Ask your favour,” He rumbled after a moment as his heart pounded loudly in his chest.   

Sansa mashed her lips together momentarily before she whispered, “I’m afraid.”  

“I cannot deny you again,” He told her honestly and she exhaled shakily before covering her lips with a thin hand and shaking her head. Fresh tears had sprung to her eyes.  

“I thought you would make me feel better about...me. I thought we were the same but I’ve seen in the last couple days I couldn’t have been more wrong,” She said and he could hear the threat of an open sob in the strain in her words. He looked up into her face, aghast with confusion and she gave him a suddenly pained, angry expression.  

“You’re not ashamed of your scars. If anything, they complete you. Look at you!” She cried and gestured to his body, which he glanced down at. He was thick, barrel chested and with a stomach that while heavily padded with muscle had never had the flat tautness of young men. The same chest was marred with scabbard slashes, knife wounds, arrow punctures and burns varying from the palest white to angry, thick ribbons of scar tissue. His cock, not hard but not oblivious to her closeness and scrutiny, lay heavily between thighs which were also thickly muscled and covered in dark hair. He glanced at her quizzically as she gestured helplessly again before she finished with, “You’re...you...you look like the statue of the Warrior.”  

He failed to respond to that observation, unsure of what to say or what he’d done to elicit this reaction- let alone how to process the compliment.  

“Say what you mean,” He finally struggled out, brows drawing together as something deep in him started to sink. It came out rougher than he expected and she made an audible scoff of anger.  

“I see. I’ll explain things like you, shall I?” She snapped at him and before he could react one of her hands shot to her throat, twisting the clasp and letting the red cloak fall free. Sandor watched as the red material slipped down her body and revealed the gossamer silk of a nightshift. The light cream of her skin was visible through the flimsy material and her nipples had puckered to create twin notches in the fabric. His eyes barely had time to rove and memorize the sight before she bent and snagged the hem around her calf, crossing her arms gracefully as she stood and pulled the shift over her head, dropping it beside her. Immediately her eyes found his, blazing with something akin to a challenge.  

Arousal scorched through him, shooting straight to his crotch as she was suddenly naked as her name day on the edge of the pool. She took a step back, standing on her cloak and balled her hands into fists in what he could only assume was an attempt to stop herself from crossing her arms.  

He saw Sansa first and foremost – unending creamy skin with perfectly dotted moles occasionally gracing her skin. Perfectly round, sloped breasts featuring pinched pink nipples on a taut ribcage that led to her flat stomach. Despite her slim build, she had a gentle womanly curve to her lower stomach; her hips flared gracefully into impossibly long slim legs. A triangle of russet red lurked between her pale thighs.  

The most prominent scar was the biggest one. It roamed from the top of her right hip, across the pane of her abdomen, between her breasts and ended sharply across her collar bone. It consisted of many wide, ugly marks to make one large disfigurement and he knew immediately from a similar scar on his back – whip.  

She had a series of notches like prisoners make on walls etched into the soft skin on her left hip, fine white lines with a diagonal line through each group of four. She had roughly 12 groups, extending from just under her belly button to the border of where her pubic line started.  

Other random slashes and gashes – white and red, some finely healed close to the skin and others puckered in the unnatural, spidery thick scar tissue. They were on her clavicles, ribs, inner arms, shoulders, hips – one red slash bit into the gentle tissue of her nipple. Either they’d been cut open deeply again and again, got infected or been agitated repeatedly during healing. Circular burns on her collar bones, ribs and the tops of her thighs completed the carnage.  

By the time he was finished looking, her skin had hardened into a sea of goosebumps and Sansa’s jaw was clenched as she stared over his shoulder at the trees behind him with insolent, vacant eyes. Sandor felt a calamity of things – overwhelmingly rage but despair at her treatment and pain, disbelief over the carnage and screeching guilt that she was sharing this with him and all he could think about was burying his face between her thighs.  

“You look like the Warrior you’re supposed to. Your scars speak of a legacy of battle that you’ve won. I’ve been raised to be a lady and wife and my husband gave me a scar for every day he spent married to me,” She finally told him bitterly and one of her hands moved unconsciously to the grouped notches.  

“That Bolton cunt was your jailer, not your husband. It’s good you fed him to his dogs or I would’ve spent moons torturing the fucker,” Sandor finally managed raggedly and met her eyes to make sure she saw that he meant it.  

“I killed him because he deserved it and it’s what you would have done,” Sansa said coldly and Sandor didn’t find any fault in her declaration – it was true. He knew they would have burned the body but fleetingly entertained the idea of dropkicking Bolton’s chomping wight head off Winterfell’s parapets.  

“Damn fucking right it’s what I would’ve done,” Sandor muttered angrily and finally saw something like a smile curve the corner of her mouth, even as she started to shiver. He guiltily noticed her dainty feet, finely boned with delicate ankles now marred with angry red welts – circular chunks of ripped skin rubbed completely off in blister. He dunked his hands in the hot spring and then impulsively reached up and wrapped them around her cold calves, causing her to jerk slightly at the contact and hiss at the temperature difference. He met her eyes, searching their depths for anything like fear or hesitation and found nothing, even as he moved his paws upwards over her knees to cup and squeeze the muscle on the backs of her thighs. Sansa didn’t move, didn’t flinch or pull away; she watched him with darkened eyes and a slightly open mouth as Sandor slowly pulled her closer to the ledge and himself. He hesitantly kissed the lowest point of the whipping scars on her stomach just as his hands swept up over her hips in admiration.  

He kissed her again and again, falling into peppering the puckered skin with gentle kisses before a wicked thought crossed his brain. He made eye contact again before using his tongue and making a gentle stripe over part of the scar, his crotch throbbing to full life as her eyes slid shut and she uttered a soft moan. Immediately, her thin fingers slid into his wet hair and he squeezed his eyes shut pleasurably as she scratched the tight skullcap and clenched her fingers, pulling hanks of his black hair taut. He continued kissing her, nipping gently at the notches on her hip with his lips until the pressure in his hair forced his head back so she could look down at him.  

“I would like you to have me – any way you like, I just – I'm tired of it hurting. I want to want this and I think the only person I’ve ever really wanted was you,” Sansa explained breathlessly and he related to that only too well.  

He tightened his grip on her thighs and pulled her towards him, her knees hitting his pecs and her hands bracing on his shoulders with a squeak as he turned in the water. His arm burned and smarted sharply with the pressure so he let her slide down his body, using his good arm to pin her in place when her breasts were in his face. Greedily, he rubbed his face over them and claimed her pebbled nipples with his lips, tugging and rolling with his mouth and nuzzling the globes affectionately with his nose. To her credit, she gasped and clutched his hair and at one point with a particularly sharp suck to her left breast rocked her hips against his stomach, ripping a shocked groan from his throat.  

He released her as she grabbed the sides of his face and she slid down his body, her face flickering pleasurably as she sunk into the water. She opened her dark blue eyes, iris completely eating the ring around it and she hummed contentedly as her fingers touched his burned cheek on one side and stroked his beard on the other. He gazed back at her, nonplussed that she was in his arms. Something in him wanted and had been wanting for a long time and finally snapped. Sandor found himself scooping her against him and tilting her jaw with two fingers  to  hungrily seal his mouth to hers. The energy between them seemed to arch between their lips, searing his nerves as  he kissed her for the first time and found her more than willing; she was responsive and eager – a gift he’d never had.  

She sucked his lower lip in between hers and he hissed as he pulled it free to attack the soft skin on the underside of her jaw – trailing hot, open mouthed kisses to the fragrant slope of her neck as she sighed at the sky. Her hips jerked towards his under his fingers and he openly ground her against what she was obviously seeking for purchase.  

Sansa’s chest heaved up as she whimpered, pressing the gentle globes like an offering his greedy palms accepted. She barely filled his palm but he could afford to grasp it and gently pinch a nipple with two deft knuckles. Sansa moaned breathily in the remains of his ear and he felt teeth scrape the join of his neck and shoulder, the sensation shooting a jolt of desire through him. He grunted sharply when she seemed to notice and repeated the action with more ferocity.  

He turned his head and caught her mouth with his again, pushing her deeper into the water and spinning them around as she muffled a short laugh into his kiss. A warmth burned inside his ribs like her laugh was an ember in a long dark hearth – he broke free to breathe the air between them as he admitted, “Our talk – before, was fucked. I - you were right.”  

“I usually am,” She replied as a smirk appeared, curling the edge of one corner of her mouth and her eyes shrugging mischievously. It was a very feline expression and he found himself grinning at her impishness. Her hands placed on his shoulders and she kissed him briefly before whispering to him, “You make me feel safe.”  

Sandor chuckled as his hands ran down her back under the water, gripping a heavy handful of her rear as he lifted her easily in the water against him. Shaking his head as he briefly kissed her back he muttered, “I regularly want to swallow you whole.”  

“You would never hurt me,” Sansa sang into his mouth as he growled and ended her smiling words with another kiss, the weight of them bobbing as he let them float languidly through the water. Underneath the surface, his hands roamed – from her supple butt, down her long legs even as she wrapped and unwrapped them around his thighs, hips, stomach. Her breasts were sandwiched between them and it was work to worm a paw in to cradle and tease one.  She released his mouth to look down through the almost black water, her little hands eliciting more growls and rumbles as they traversed his abdomen, pressing questioningly down his chest. Her fingers traced the divots between muscles and tickled the cuts of his hipbones. Sandor groaned, causing her eyes to flick up to his and hold his hooded gaze while her hand wrapped around the one appendage of his begging for the most attention.  

She was unsure at first, the hold around him loose and timid. As she moved her hands, she became bolder and watched his face intently as her grip tightened. He grunted and shuddered through the movements, struggling to control the waves of wanting more, harder, faster. A large part of him was an animal on a chain, wanting to rip free and enjoy the entirety of her that she’d offered him. He wanted to suck and nip and taste and grab so tightly he could watch his angry white fingerprints turn into red ones on her perfect skin. Hell, he found himself wanting to bite her and leave his own mark on her skin for her to carry the rest of her life and the thoughts were cloying and dizzying as she drove him higher in his madness. Sansa watched his face, a mask of concentration slipping over her own while she experimented and mined sounds of pleasure from him while he stared helplessly back at her. Finally, he reached between them and reluctantly stilled her while he swallowed thickly and cast about for his voice as she all but pouted at him.  

Sandor found he didn’t have the words for the single want raging through his brain so he impulsively reached out and touched the edge of the pool – the rock was not hot but was warm enough he gathered her and lifted her up to rest her on the rock ledge with an uproarious splash.  

“Wh-oh!” Sansa was cut off as she was unceremoniously pushed slightly onto her back and elbows and Sandor used one hand to carelessly part her legs. He dove between them before she could stop him and close her thighs in shy protest. She tried anyway, calling his name once and her hands questing down to push at his head but he ignored them, delving into the nirvana he knew lurked behind the curls.   

At first, she tasted like metal and grit from the water of the hotpool but as she relinquished control and he explored her folds hungrily with his tongue, her embarrassed noises slowly turned into pleasurable ones. She gave a sharp cry when he sealed over a sensitive hidden nub and he almost grinned as finally her hips were ground into his face – progress. He set to work almost gleefully, working her softer and harder and tracing an interesting oval shape that made her squirm and pant. Her taste changed into something more  her  until suddenly he found himself drowning in it – a sweet yet coy in flavour. By the time he used his fingers on her he moaned in surprise into her cunt, his digits coming away slick and glistening in the light after being easily accepted. Sansa sang a song of little sighs and chirps, her thighs twitching beside his head and one foot placed on his right shoulder that occasionally felt like it was trying to drag him closer.   

It was when one of his hands went questing up her body that he felt the goosebumps rising on her skin and he stopped with a reluctant noise, looking up into her dazed and flushed face and grinning at her.  

“Cold?”  

“Not fair,” Sansa whined at him as she raised her arms and he leant forward so she could wrap her arms around his neck. She sat up and he pulled her off the ledge and back into the water with him, earning both of them a heat shiver shared between another kiss. When he broke away, he bore into her eyes with his as he held her to him and used a great paw to swipe away the wet tendrils clinging to her neck and collarbones and she reached up to cup his cheek again. The waves and noise from their re-entry finally fell silent as Sansa’s fingers slid past his ear and into his hair, drawing her closer to him until they were sharing the same air millimeters apart.  

He felt the ledge that he’d sat on earlier with the back of his calf and gently lowered them down onto it, the water level rising between them as he settled heavily. Sansa straddled his lap and wiggled herself higher on his thighs after they were settled so she could reach his mouth with hers again. Sandor was more than willing to sit in the water with his naked redhead in his lap, jaw clamped by both her tiny talons to let her plunder his mouth relentlessly. He could scarcely believe the situation he was in, never having had a woman willingly climb into his lap let alone attach herself to his lips to drink every ounce of passion he poured into her. Her hands were hungry, touching over his shoulders and soaking through his hair and running down his chest and fluttering on his biceps. She was breathing hard and seemed to be trying to reach every part of him, squirming around in his lap as she was.  

He stilled her, clamping two hands on her hips and forcing her to sit still as he kissed her back earnestly. Sansa relented and eased up, finding his insistence gentling and following his lead. . He broke away from her to murmur, “I don’t want to hurt you.”  

“You haven’t at all,” Sansa hummed and smiled down at him. Her cheeks were rosy with heat and the majority of her hair was wet and plastered to her alabaster skin while her lips were swollen and kiss-stung. She looked every inch the lustful nymph he’d heard the majority of Joffrey’s Court hypothesize she would be and there was something sparkling in her eyes, like triumph.  

“You’re not a common whore to be fucked in a hotpool,” He advised and she shook her head as she reached between them and grasped his hard cock, knowingly smiling at him as he exhaled noisily through his nose.  

“Common whores don’t get fucked in this hotpool,” She informed him as she rose slightly on her knees and his brain clicked in to what she was doing. He braced himself as she guided him to her entrance and pressed slightly on the give of her opening.  

“The water could -,” He began but was cut off mid-protest to groan, long and loud, as Sansa merged their bodies and he was foisted into the tight heat of her with little resistance. She shuddered through her exhale as he bottomed out in her and they met each other's eyes languidly, staring at one another in smug shock.  

“Do you still think of ravaging me?” Sansa whispered to him and slowly circled her hips on his cock, stirring him in her deliciously and causing his thighs to twitch and spasm. Sandor’s mouth had gone dry and his brain was silent, focused on not losing himself in the moment.  

“Yes,” He grunted as he watched her, notch formed between her delicate eyebrows as she circled more and started to move up and down questioningly, a dizzying combination that had him resisting fucking up into her for more. After half a minute of clumsy undulations, she found a rhythm that quickly stole moans and lustful growls from his throat, his hands grasping and gripping any curve he could find. The water gently rocked away, causing waves that rippled away from them with Sansa’s movements. Sandor was watching with the desperation of someone trying to see something permanently - her eyes were half closed and mouth half open, face flickering with different levels of pleasure. It occurred to him that this was possibly the first time sex had felt good for her.  

He was fine with being fucked by Sansa Stark, it was less scary than fucking her.  

It meant he knew his role here too; one he’d longed for after trying for too many years to please women who only wanted him to finish so they could leave. Sansa was going to stay and torture him until she was done and that realization alone almost drove him over the edge, rumbling her name almost like a curse as she sighed his like a prayer. Sandor was beholden to her, savaged in the best way possible as he did all that he could to simply remain present to watch her in her glory – the red blush had spread to her chest and flushed her pretty teats, water dripping off her peaked nipples as she rode him. He reached between them in almost a daze, finding that same nodule just inside the top of her slit and pressing backwards and forwards gently, like he was trying to worry a stone in his pocket.  

She threw her head back as she rocked and a let out a deliciously depraved, whining moan. Sandor breathed a curse in response, gritting his teeth as he watched her and pleasure perused his mind.  

This was everything he’d ever wanted and he drank in the abandon that they found in one another and felt a sting of pride as he wanted her flex her jaw in pleasure, her breasts heaving with abandon and water splashing up only the run down her collarbones. Any flakes of snow that fell melted instantly as they touched the semi-soaked top of her head, just as they ceased to exist within inches of the water's surface. For once Sandor relished in the overwhelming heat – anything to keep the cold fingers of death at bay while he blatantly buried himself in one of the most purebred women in the entirety of Westeros, out of wedlock, in front of a shrine to her Gods. The tree would be crying tears of envy by the time they were done as Sansa began a simpering whine, gently tilting her head forwards until it rested against his as they worked together – eyes closed to breathe and feel one another. Sansa’s hips twisted and her thighs flexed as his fingers worked her into a breathless frenzy, small wet hairs stuck frenetically to her sweaty forehead. He was becoming more sensitive with every thrust and his breathing hitched as he rasped her name. Sansa replied by fucking him harder and groaning, “Yes.”   

He wanted to stand and throw her against the edge of the pool, wrap her hair around his wrist to hold her in place as he violently fucked her but he couldn’t lose what he was seeing as he watched her face slowly screw up as she built her own pleasure with reckless abandon. He held on to the mounting feeling like a rider half-thrown from their saddle on a charging steed, with desperately moving fingers and shuddering breaths.  

“Be my sworn shield. Protect me and never leave my side,” Sansa begged suddenly in a tight, panting voice. Sandor gaped at her and found her heavy-lidded blues eyes inky and serious like the night sky as she finally added in an almost-whine, “Please.”  

He groaned, his brain half hearing her words and almost not recognizing what they meant as they swam through the fog clouding his mind. His movements grew desperate and she let out a high, shrill noise and prompted him by breathing his name sharply.  

“Yes. Yes, I won’t go anywhere.”  

The lip she was biting was released and the frown flickered as a deep shudder started and her walls clamped violently around him. Sandor moaned as he watched her silently come apart, her face frozen in an adorable almost expression of subdued shock. The only noise that stuttered out of her open mouth as she shook in his lap was almost a choke of disbelief that melted into a keening sigh.  

He couldn’t keep it together and before she could even fully open her eyes he moved, swinging them around as he took to his feet and gently leaned Sansa’s shoulders on the rock ledge. He pulled her hips towards him until her abdomen almost surfaced the water and watched as she extended her arms on either side and gripped the rock ledge instinctively as he savagely drove himself into her. He started a violent, frenzied pace and hungrily watched her small breasts bounce with every thrust. Sansa’s eyes rolled shut in overstimulation as he quickly climbed the peak he’d been riding with her. It built swiftly, finally able to boil through his veins and sear whites into his eyes as his pleasure exploded; he finally went over – shuddering and cursing and clutching her hips to his, selfishly emptying himself as deeply into her as he could.  

His leg twinged irritably with the abuse and he regretfully released her as soon as his release ebbed, sliding free of her to sit beside her on the rock ledge with an almighty sigh. Sansa rolled her head on the ledge to look at him, face slack and satisfied and she finally uttered a low giggle. 

“What’s so goddamn funny?” Sandor grumped halfheartedly, a smile already tugging at the good corner of his mouth at as he was swayed by her laughter.  

“That’s why men only think about fucking,” She told him conspiratorially and he rolled his eyes as he chuckled, settling deeper into the water and startling when Sansa moved closer to him, boldly nudging his arm to slip under it. It was strange at first, sitting with his arm around someone – a feeling he’d never had before unless he was carrying something unconscious or moving a royal through an angry crowd. It was stranger still doing it with a woman he’d just had sex with, who wasn’t redressing hastily and stranger still that this person was Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell and his Little Bird.  

“Thank you,” Sansa sighed happily, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved I’m not broken yet.”  

Unconsciously he pulled her closer, a slight frown twisting his mouth.  

“Why sworn shield? You have a sworn shield,” He asked instead of trying to figure out how to respond to her thanks without yelling and screaming about what an absolute cunt that Bolton shit was.  

“Brienne is loyal but she has other priorities and I’d like to help with that. I owe her.”  

“And I’m just as big?”  

“Better in the bath too,” Sansa told him teasingly and Sandor’s remaining eyebrow twitched at the mental scene that that brought up before he found himself shrugging.  

“Not a bad image, I suppose.”  

Sansa’s laugh was sudden and full-bodied before she gasped and said, “Stop.”  

He chuckled and grabbed her hand before she could quest and dig her little claws in to something that she’d discover was ticklish, instead being surprised when she used the connection to claim his mouth with hers. She hummed into the kiss as he slid his hand along her throat and then released him, looking down at him with an expression in her eyes he’d never seen before. They seemed to shimmer and dance, winking and twirling with affection almost as palpably as if she’d voiced it and he found himself swallowing a large knot in his throat.  

“I won’t watch you marry,” He told her brusquely and she gave him a wary smile that said she’d assumed he’d say something like that and sighed.  

“I’m tired of marriages. And vows.”  

“And yet, you demand a vow of me?”  

“Silly dog, what vow? I asked and you answered.”  

Sworn shield. Swearing indicates vows.”  

“Why bother? We both know we’re going to find a way around it.”  

He looked at her and she looked back at him, lifting one slim brow of her own imperiously as if she dared him to disagree with her and he searched through his memories of the past few days and found she was, as usual, right.  

“Fine,” He agreed before he added, “but the next time you run off in a fit, I’m going to let your furry friends in the forest walk you home.”  

“What if I just became one?”  

He snorted and replied, “And make lemoncakes in your cave?”  

“Yes, I suppose that would be difficult.”  

“Well, scrap the plan then.”  

“You’re very agreeable post-coitus,” Sansa laughed and he made a grunt of annoyance.  

“This bath is my favour? From the King? Do you mind if I enjoy it?” He growled sarcastically and Sansa all but cackled as she stood in the bath and cupped her breasts before leaning down to kiss him. He followed her departure with a confused look and she smiled warmly at him as she waded to the shallow end towards her puddled cloak and nightshift.  

“You know where the Lord’s chambers are?” She called to him. 

“Aye,” He said as he tried to conceal the disappointment that she was leaving as she stepped out of the pool and made her way to the garments. He took the opportunity to shamelessly peruse her form – the curve of her ass and the shape of her thighs. The way her breasts moved in the seconds she freed them to swing the cloak around her shivering body. She stooped to scoop them silk garment and then looked at him coyly over her shoulder. 

“Once you’re done your bathing, ser, you’re to report to the kitchens for your meal and then I’ll expect you in my chambers to discuss terms of your service,” She dictated to him and he watched with a sharp eye as the ever-famous Sansa blush finally appeared, staining her cheeks pink.  

“In your chambers?” He challenged archly. 

She managed to give him a sultry look, her eyes travelling the parts of his body she could see before she looked up at the clouds above them and inclined her head before saying, “We’ll start there.”  

His bark of laughter is what carried her and her satisfied smirk out of the Godswood.  

Sandor tilted his head back in the water and stared up at the empty, churlish clouds and thought of the looming threat against them. Should the world end, he found, he wouldn’t mind as long as Sansa wasn’t in pain. The glowing ember in his chest had caught alight and there was a small flickering fire – something like hope or love or faith had started to struggle to live. He’d almost died  again  and finally discovered his true regrets in the world. He’d also managed to fix one of his biggest wrongs. He thought of all the people around them, with all their stories and connections and tales untold that they were probably racing to try to fix from all walks of life – Snow and his Dragon Queen, Wolfbitch and the Bleeder Boy.  

Himself and the Little Bird.  

He admitted to himself of wildly imagining taking one vow – secretly, probably. The two of them with an important cloak, deep in the Wolfswood, at a tree known to only them.  

That was a promise he would keep; she was the master he would obey.