For aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth
--LYSANDER, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,Act I, Scene 1
“Wait. Stay. No, I mean, I’ll come with you. Take me with you. I want to leave this place,” she said.
He stood so still she thought maybe he hadn’t heard her, or that he’d changed his mind when confronted with the fact that she was saying yes.
“Cover your hair. Put on your sturdiest shoes. Leave everything else. As far as anyone will see, you were kidnapped. It’s better for you that way,” he said, pulling down a wall hanging and knocking over a small table by the door to make his point.
She did as she was told. She only had one pair of shoes, so that was easy enough. She quickly braided her hair and wrapped it in a simple black scarf, the way her mother did sometimes when she wanted to keep the wind from snagging her curls. Mother. Will he take me home to my mother?
“Stay close, no talking, no questions. If it goes bad and I set Stranger to running, just hang on until he stops. If it goes bad and I’m captured or killed, you’re a stupid girl who got herself captured and you don’t know why I took you but you’re very glad to be rescued by the kind Lannisters, understand?”
She nodded, mute. “Say you understand,” he growled.
“I understand,” she said.
Everything after that was a blur of grey armor, nickering horses, green flame, the smell of spilled wine and vomit. But Sansa saw that they were leaving the city by the Dragon Gate. No one impeded their exit but for the milling crowd waiting for news of the battle.
The road from the Dragon Gate leads North. North.
* * *
They rode all night. Dawn was occasion for a rushed break; dried apples and bread, water for them both and the horse. She felt that he was angry with her, but she was told no talking, no questions, so she didn’t ask him to do or say anything that would suit her but might distract or disturb him.
King’s Landing, behind them, seemed to glow, glittering gold and green at once like a jeweled scarab beetle from Asshai.
They rode all day. If anyone on the road took notice of the lone warrior and the maiden who clung behind him on the great black horse, Sansa and Sandor never knew about it. The smallfolk and soldiers alike were too consumed with their own fates. Stannis Baratheon and Tywin Lannister were engaged in a battle to the death. The outcome of the scrap would determine so many fates not their own. Who had time to concern themselves with the troubles of two strangers?
* * *
It was evenfall when they rode into a city. Sansa wanted to know where they were, to look around for danger and joy, and to get some hint about what was to become of her, but she was too saddle-weary to do anything cling to the Hound. His armor was ice-cold on her cheek.
They rode through the lowborn parts of town, she could see the merchants shutting their shops and the taverns opening their doors wide and she realized she was finally free. She supposed she was a prisoner of the Hound, in a sense, but she also knew, oddly, that if she demanded they stop and eat at one of those taverns, her wish would be granted.
She wouldn’t be allowed to disappear into the crowd, but anything else was hers for the asking. But she didn’t want anything else. She wanted the cold feel of armor on her cheek and the smell of sweat and blood dried on a man’s skin.
And then the salty smell of a man was overtaken by the moist salt smell of the ocean, and she closed her eyes and realized she could hear seagulls.
* * *
Above her--or was it out through the cabin window?—she thought she heard a shout of “Cargo aboard!” and an urgent kind of scramble above. She was in a large, simply appointed cabin. It wouldn’t be called elegant but it was clean and warm and there was a window that opened and it had a neatly made featherbed.
“The cabin boy will bring you more food shortly. I’m across the hall. See these locks? When I leave, you latch every single one. When the boy leaves, you latch every single one. How many locks, girl?”
“Yes, five. There’s things in there,” he said, pointing a wooden trunk set at the food of the bed. “I probably overpaid, so don’t fucking complain.”
She shook her head. No complaining.
“Ser...” she said.
“What?!” he roared.
“Thank you,” she said. There was more to say, but that was the important part. She hoped he understood.
He grunted and turned and slammed the door behind him.
All around was the creaking of the ship’s timbers, and the fading sounds of the harbor, and the roll of the waves beneath them. She locked her five locks, and opened the window just for a minute just to breathe the cool, moist air of the ocean, and then she sat down in a wooden chair to await the cabin boy.
* * *
On the third day, there was a knock on the door. Instead of the piping voice of the cabin boy, the “It’s me” was the deep, rumbling voice of the Hound. His voice reminded her of the war drums she’d heard beating outside Maegor’s Holdfast.
She opened the cabin door with a joyful smile. She was lonely in the cabin, for lack of any company besides the books in the trunk and the cabin boy, but she had been especially desirous to see the Hound. Her ears were always atuned to the sound of his cabin door opening and closing, the heavy tread of his footfalls coming and going, but she hadn’t seen him once since he’d put her in the cabin that first night.
His face warned her not to speak, and especially not to chirp. She wanted to chirp. She felt...happy?
“There should be something warm in the trunk. Put it on. Come out when you’re ready. I’ll be here,” he said, and she had to force herself not to curtsy to him agreeably. He would hate that.
There was a heavy wool dress in the trunk, pale blue. No decoration to speak of, but well-made, and warm. There was a white cable-knit blanket in the trunk was too small to be of much use on the bed but would do to keep her head and hands covered on deck. Sansa whipped her loose hair into a chignon and hoped she would do. She opened the door and allowed herself to smile at him, and at the look in his eyes.
“Not so much armor,” she said, looking at his different clothes, and taking his arm boldly and ignoring his answering glare.
“You planning to stab me?” he answered.
“No, ser,” she promised.
* * *
The sky and the sea seemed equally glittering. She just closed her eyes, face to the sun, and let Sandor Clegane walk them where he would along the deck. She supposed it was dangerous, play-acting at being a blind woman while aboard an unfamiliar ship, but the sun and wind on her face felt like freedom itself. The sun meant Joffrey wouldn’t hurt her anymore. The wind meant Cersei’s lies were blown out of her ears. She hummed a tuneless, wordless song of contentment.
The Hound stopped moving and she opened her eyes. They were on the stern deck. He set her away from him and she held onto the railing instead. She suspected she’d get her sea legs right around the time they sailed into port.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Close to the Bite, I think,” he said.
“We’re going to White Harbor,” she stated, thinking of fat old Lord Manderley and her friends Wylla and Wynafryd.
“Don’t get too happy about it. The North is still fucked. We’re still fucked. I don’t know where your people are. I don’t know who will keep you. This was safer than hauling you across Westeros by horse trying to find your brother in the middle of a war, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe, understand?” he warned.
“Where did we leave from?” she asked.
“What city, you mean? Duskendale,” he answered.
“I don’t know who you paid how much, but she did a very good job. Everything fits. The clothes, I mean. It’s all just right. And there’s books in there and a hairbrush and even sewing things. I can never thank you enough, but I will repay you, I swear it. I will never forget this, and I won’t let anyone else forget either. We have a saying where I’m from: The North remembers. We remember cruelties and kindnesses equally. The North remembers. I’ll remember. Everything. I want you to know that,” she said, looking into his eyes. She wondered why he looked so frightened as she spoke.
He starred at her for a long while, his face unkind, and she was afraid, and she despaired of ever understanding anything about this strange man. He seemed half-beast, half-prince, and she never knew if she’d be facing the beast or the prince.
“Sing,” he said.
She wanted to reply “What?” but she’d heard it clear enough.
It took her a long time to think of anything at all, but finally a Northern sea shanty came to her, a slow, sweet song about selkies and sadness in the Shivering Sea.
She thought the wind whipped away her voice and yet he seemed satisfied.
Somehow her singing was easier for him to bear than her speaking.
Then they stood in silence for a long time, and then she grasped his great hand and kissed one of his knuckles and said, “Ser, I know I have no right, but there’s something I want, too.” And he looked stricken, but he didn’t tear his hand away, and he nodded, gently enough.
“Will you join me for a meal sometime?” she asked. “I would like to eat and drink in your company, if it please you.”
He closed his eyes and said, “No. Not until we absolutely fucking have to. Don’t ask again.”
She swallowed. She willed herself not to be disappointed that he didn’t want to be with her.
She’d wanted to ask him, also, if he would stay with her always now, because at night she no longer dreamed of a crossbow bolt through her heart but now her dreams were only pictures of a day when the Hound told her was finished with her and left her to return to his wife, his lover, his family, his people. She wandered the world for hours in those dreams, wondering if she would ever be able to find him again.
She wondered what Lady Catelyn would say if she swore a vow to live in silence with the Sisters of the Seven rather than being wed to any man living who wasn’t Sandor Clegane.
“Did you bring your horse aboard, or did you have to sell him to buy us passage?” she asked. The horse was a terrible beast, she saw clear as day, and yet even as she sensibly feared him, she knew that though he was a dangerous soul, it was only her enemies that had to fear his anger.
The Hound snorted, but didn’t answer.
“I’ll return to my cabin as it pleases you, ser,” she said, defeated and resentful at once.
She wished she had in it in her to chirp at him more, but if he wouldn’t bear it, then she would be silent and patient and wait for the gods to guide her.
He shoved her gently forward and this time she did not take his arm but clasped her hands in front of her and after she was deposited in her cabin and locked her five locks, she heard his door slam shut.
* * *
“We’ve sent ravens to Riverrun, Winterfell, Castle Black and every keep in the North. You’ll stay here until we can scourge the bloody Ironborn out of Winterfell. It won’t be long now,” said Lord Manderly’s castellan.
* * *
“Maester Aemon, a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, hereby orders that Sansa Stark, trueborn daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, be sheltered at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea until such time as arrangements can be made to reunite her with her family and bring her home to Winterfell,” read Lord Manderley’s castellan from the raven scroll.
“But the Night’s Watch doesn’t concern itself with the politics of Westeros,” marveled Sansa. Even she knew that. And her every step away from Joffrey had been treason. Enabling treason was certainly a political act.
“This is still the North, child. No one here gives a fiddler’s fuck about the rules when it comes to Starks against Lannisters,” said Lord Manderley’s castellan.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sansa thought she saw the Hound smirk.
* * *
Sansa’s room at New Castle had a view of the harbor, but her favorite part was that there was an anteroom between her bedroom and the hall, and the Hound slept there. She’d shamed herself by throwing a histrionic fit when Lord Manderley’s castellan had suggested that they be separated and that surely she would be safe with guards provided by House Manderley.
The castellan’s sense of propriety was no match for tears and pleas from the princess of the North. She spoke of nightmares--Joffrey and his crossbow, Lady killed, her father’s head rolling off his body--and begged to be left her guard dog, her only friend.
The Hound’s mouth twitched and she knew he knew that she was putting on a show, but she didn’t care. He wouldn’t oppose her publicly, and he didn’t, and when he came in at night, long after she’d blown out her own candle, she felt warm and pleased and hopeful, and she felt sensations in her limbs that she’d never felt before.
* * *
Eastwatch-by-the-Sea was a ruin. But it was their ruin.
No one bothered them. Life was hard and plain, and Sansa always felt filthy, but together they walked the beach and collected driftwood for their fire, and the flames from the salt-brined wood blazed blue and lavender.
At night, they watched the blue fire and she sang him songs before she went to bed--songs in the Old Tongue, hymns, a raunchy marching tune that Jory and Ser Rodrick always sang together, and the sad selkie song--and then they fell asleep, apart, but close by, listening to the sound of the crashing waves.
And then one day a flat-bottomed skiff came ashore, and on it were a boy and a black wolf and woman, and that was Rickon and Shaggydog and the wildling Osha, and then there were two Starks together, and Osha, and a black wolf, and a big Hound.
The raven from Riverrun, with the news that the Lannisters had agreed to a peace treaty, granting the Northern kingdom independence in perpetuity in exchange for cessation of hostilities, arrived a month later.
The last of the Ironborn fled the North then. Roose Bolton’s bastard caught them on the run and slaughtered the whole lot of them, beginning with Theon, son of Balon. Their flayed corpses were angled toward the west so that the crown of salt and rock might see his last son rot away on solid ground, far from the sea where he belonged.
* * *
One by one, they all came back. First Sansa. Then Rickon. Then mother, along with Arya and Robb and his queen. After a time, Bran and Meera and Jojen and Hodor returned from the beyond the Wall.
* * *
He looked fit to die, so Sansa knew she had to be strong. If she screamed or cried or begged, he would submit and a little later, he would hate her forever.
“You don’t have to go.”
“I’ll be here when you come back. I’m yours, so I can’t be anybody else’s,” she said.
And then he was angry and hurt, but mostly angry, so she took his hand and kissed his palm--more than that would be too much. People were watching.
“Goodbye, Sandor Clegane,” she said, speaking every syllable read separately because she’d never said his true name aloud before and she wanted to feel it on her tongue for the first time with him still there to hear it.
“Goodbye, little bird,” he said.
* * *
And then even Jon come back. His own men had killed him and he’d been dead and gone and then he lived. The freefolk thought he was some kind of god. Lady Catelyn said the Stranger was playing with them all.
Jon Snow convicted his own killers of treason and murder, and hanged them, and rode south to Winterfell.
Robb named him lord of Moat Cailin and granted him enough coin to rebuild the ruin and create a legacy for his heirs, in perpetuity.
* * *
The Night King raised an army and threw it against the Wall. The Wall all but shook under the attack.
The White Walkers climbed the Wall with ice spiders as big as Hounds, and crawled and rammed and climbed, but the North held, and the Wall held, and the dead were knocked back day after day, and then suddenly the wind seemed to shift, and the wights and their masters, with their rotting horses and rotting ice giants and rotting children, were sent back from whence they came.
The Wall still stands today.
* * *
When the Dragon Queen landed to reclaim her father’s throne, Jon Snow was summoned to the great hall at Winterfell by the King in the North. Howland Reed told the truth of Jon’s birth and showed them Rhaegar’s crown and ruby-encrusted lyre and Arthur Dayne’s sword called Dawn, all long secreted away in a hiding place in Lyanna’s crypt.
Lyanna’s brown hair still hung on her skull, same as ever, but with a tinge of copper added by time. She was never granted the silvered hair of old age.
* * *
Robb and his queen were delivered of healthy heirs, and the queen and Lady Catelyn and Lady Sansa doted upon them. Lord Rickon was sent south to Riverrun to be raised by uncle Edmure. Lord Brandon all but lived in the godswood, speaking only to the heart tree. Lady Arya went to live with Jon at Moat Cailin. It was the only place she seemed happy.
The King in the North meant to marry his elder sister to a good man, but she would have no man, good or bad, northern or southron, and the queen always spoke for freedom and choice and, in her way, protected her quiet, kind, dreamy sister-by-law.
In the end, no match was made, and Lord Eddard’s beautiful daughter was eventually forgotten, and called odd, and spoken of unkindly by the countless suitors who came to Winterfell to ask for her hand.
The men, to a one, assumed the fault was with the lady, because surely there was no lack in his offer.
* * *
Jon Snow sailed south to Dragonstone to parley with the foreign queen who had taken King Tommen’s throne and put all the Lannisters to the sword (all but for Myrcella, who was a Martell now, and already pregnant with her third son by Prince Tystane).
Somehow, Daenerys Targaryen fell in love with her nephew, and agreed to marry to him. Jon’s stronger claim to the throne was surrendered--Daenerys Stormborn would be queen, alone, and Rhaegar's son would be her consort and father of her heirs--and in exchange, Jon’s homeland, the North, was allowed to remain independent.
The restored Targaryen dynasty, in all its majesty, marched through the whole of Westeros, up the King’s Road, all the way to Winterfell, to sign the treaty and celebrate the marriage in a manner befitting Jon’s Northern blood.
* * *
The first time he saw her again, she was surrounded by children. There was a dark-eyed toddler stationed on her hip, and two gingers, a girl and a boy, one clinging to each leg.
The children were meant to stand still and look proper to welcome their new Queen and newest aunt, but they couldn’t be ruled and only wanted to play with their aunt Sansa, same as ever.
After the pleasantries, the Queen in the North came to gather up her children and usher them inside, handing the baby to her grandmother.
“Aunt Sansa needs to speak to a gentleman, so you can’t bother her right now. Come on, or I’ll have Septa Undine take you to the nursery and you won’t be able to ride Ghost like we promised,” she said.
The children wailed--they had been promised, and they had missed Ghost very much, and it wasn’t fair--and then did as they were bid.
Lady Catelyn stood alone in the yard for quite some time, forgotten, watching her lookalike daughter and the swirling Targaryen host, and then finally sighed and went inside. What will be will be.
“You serve House Targaryen now?” were her first words to him after so many years. She couldn’t hide the edge of jealousy in the question.
“Fuck House Targaryen. Fuck House Stark. I fight for gold. The Second Sons trade gold for blood, and I like trafficking in both...but she’s good to us. She’s a good woman. If your cousin gives her children, she’ll do right by the realm and them alike, even if they do all have the Targaryen madness,” he said.
Sansa was pleased to hear it. She’d had a great deal of time to understand that her bastard brother was as good a man as could be found anywhere on Westeros, and she often regretted the time in her youth when she’d looked down upon him as less--and to think, he was heir to the Iron Throne all along!
“Those your kids?” asked the Hound, eyes downcast.
“No, those are my nieces and nephew. What about you? Have you become a father since I saw you last?” she asked, a light in her eyes.
“Fuck no!” he said, offended at the idea. She suspected that if she asked, he wouldn’t have been able to say whether the offense was at the idea that he wanted children at all or that he had fathered children on another woman.
“Good,” she said.
“You married? Promised? Betrothed? Sworn to some cocksucker your brother needs an alliance with?” he asked.
“You very well know the answer to that, and damn you for asking as if that is how it ought to be,” she said, her chin up and her eyes hard.
He had the decency to look ashamed. And then she saw that he didn’t know what to do, and somehow it amused her, and so she took a deep breath and told him what to do.
“Kiss me now, and let’s be done with it. I’ve been waiting long enough, and so have you,” she said.
And so there in the mud in the yard at Winterfell surrounded by Second Sons and Dothraki and Unsullied and Northmen and Stark bannermen and armorsmiths and farriers, he finally kissed her. She kissed him back.
He murmured that he would be good to her and that he could take care of her and she laughed at him and then they kissed some more, and they were married in the little sept at Winterfell that Lord Eddard had built for Lady Catelyn, and birds sang songs along with the music of the revelers at their wedding.
Lord Stark granted Sandor Clegane lordship of the Dreadfort--all the Boltons and their heirs and all their vassals had died in a local outbreak of suppurating largepox--and they changed the name of the castle to the Dogfort, and they had a happy marriage in the company of many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and puppies and horses, and everyone lived happily and unremarkably ever after.