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Long Winter's Thaw

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At the feet of the stone king, another candle flame sputtered and sighed, extinguishing itself in a pool of melted wax. Sansa was surrounded by the old Kings of Winter who were keeping court in the crypts with their direwolves. As a child, she would have wet herself from fright if she had seen a ghost down here. Today, she would have given her teeth for a glimpse of father and mother to tell them they had survived. Sansa knelt before the tomb that held their bones. The return of Lord Eddard's remains was nothing short of a miracle. The gods keep Hallis Mollen for his devotion. Arya had brought mother's bones back with her to Winterfell, but that was a story she would not speak of and perhaps never would. 

"It's over now, and we are safe," she said, running her hand over the iron sword that laid across the statue's lap. "The maesters say the signs of spring, a true spring, are upon us. A moon turn ago we noticed the snows melting into the streambeds, but dared not give it a name. We dared not hope, fearing bitter disappointment. Then the raven came confirming it. We will allow ourselves to turn our thoughts to the future, now that we know there will be one."  

A warm orange glow poured into the caverns from behind her as she heard the heavy scraping of boots on the stairs. 

"Your horse is saddled. If you want to go to the winter town, we best head out now to be back before nightfall," the rasping voice called out to her. 

Sansa rose, shook out her skirts, and blew out the flame in her lantern. Sandor Clegane waited in the mouth of the passage, holding a torch aloft. Ducking under his arm, she led the climb back up to the surface.  

"Did you hear? Merchants have arrived, ready to trade for our northern furs," she said.  

"Aye. These wildling trappers are worth their salt, I'll give them that. They're asking ten times the old price for snowbear and white fox, and they'll get it easily."

"The nobles in the south are mad for them. A token to commemorate the triumph of men over the darkness and cold. Funny how they do not prize the turnip so. The humble turnip stood between us and starvation many a day. Perhaps it should be anointed Ser Turnip for its valor."  

Sandor Clegane's laughter was a hearty ruckus she enjoyed eliciting. Rough and rich, it felt like a lick from her direwolf's tongue.  

"Not to be an ingrate, but I don't think I could stomach eating another one for the rest of my life." 

She giggled in return.  

He was one of the few familiar faces to return from the war. Since that time, he had been enveloped into the goings-on of Winterfell like a hand in a glove. Whatever needed doing that he could put himself to, he did, without regard to position or title. When fights broke out over rations, he led men to keep the lord's peace. If a sledge needed a runner repaired, he was one of the few still with enough strength left to lift it. He went on hunting parties into the wolfswood so that they could have meat every so often instead of turnips and stale oatcakes. At first, people gave a wide berth to the once mad dog and kept their eyes lowered when he came near. As he made himself of service, the fear gave way to familiarity and acceptance. For her, Sandor would listen quietly to her complaints and upsets, offering a thought or advice when it applied. He was quite sensible. And much changed since he came north to fight.  

He did not take to drinking any more, except what was served for their meals. When a black cloud came over him, it passed as the wind changes. There was none of that festering anger in him anymore. The weary lines around his eyes were as soft as smoke. For a long time after he came back, he could not look at Sansa without betraying his shame, so he kept himself confined to his work. It took her taking the reins, insisting that he accompany her to the godswood, and a determined effort to clear the air. There were many tears, long lists of sorrowful regrets laid to rest, and after which, they were fast friends. He could never bring himself to speak of the kiss he gave her so long ago, but that was fine. Given enough time, she had hoped they could revisit it one day. Except that day never came.                    

Arya tolerated him well enough… but the looks between them at times gave Sansa a sense her sister was waiting for him to falter. All Arya would say was that while they were together, he would occasionally mention Sansa in passing when it was natural to their strained conversations. While she admitted he did provide her food and protection, he was "a wretched sot of the worst kind the entire way."                            

"We shall have a feast as soon as the first crops come in. To give thanks for the return of spring and to honor those we lost. I want to see what goods these merchants have brought with them. We need seed for the glass gardens, and our livestock replenished," she said as they emerged in the sunshine of the northernmost yard. 

She flinched and blinked. The bright light of day could still be hard on the eyes after living so long in darkness. It was scarce much livelier above ground than below. There were so few guardsmen and servants left. The very old and the very young were among the first to die along with the sick and feeble. Slowly their numbers whittled down as disease and starvation claimed more. When a bloody flux broke out, Sandor Clegane, by a force of will that accepted no argument, ordered that she and her sister remain confined to their keep with only healthy servants attending them until it passed. Those were days of heated words between all of them she wished never to revisit. They walked past a broad swath of blackened, charred earth where they had lit funeral pyres for the dead. After a while, one body was the same as any other. Most huddled ‘round the fires not to mourn, but to stave off the fangs of cold that bit right down to the bone.    

Sandor snuffed the torch out in a patch of slush.

"Best hope someone brought barrels of oranges or lemons. Many are losing teeth and crippled with pain," he said.

Sansa's tongue went to a tooth in the back, found she could wiggle it a bit more and shuddered. They had infused their beer with pine and spruce to prevent the withering sickness, but clearly, it wasn't enough. 

"If we find them, we'll buy them all and have them brought here for distribution. My brother provided you with an ample purse of silver, I trust?"  

"Aye," he said, tapping on the breast of his jerkin. "His lordship also gave me dispensation to take on at least fifty more men for the watch, though I doubt I'll find that many fit for it. Still, wages will be high now, with so many positions in need of filling. They'll come soon enough. You would do well to hire a steward."

"Why? Do I not have the household well in hand?" she asked more defensively than intended. 

She had taken to rising early, balancing the accounts, overseeing the servants, taking stock of the cellars, dividing the rations, and inventing workarounds for the latest difficulty. While it was near constant work and worries, she was good at it, she knew. If not just for the satisfaction of it, Sansa was determined that Bran should find her indispensable for keeping his castle… and silence any talk that she should marry again.          

"There's no better mistress that I know, but you have only two hands and so many hours in the day. The rebuilding will be hard, and I won't see it take the life out of you." 

When he saw she was unconvinced, he held her chin in his fingers and tilted her face up to his.

"Get a steward to order about, you obstinate old dowager! He will answer to you alone, and you will accomplish twice as much in a day... and while you're at it, find a lady's maid to do something about your hair." 

He laughed as she slapped him away and strode off. 

"I only meant it hasn't been the same since we had to toss poor Nell on the pyre," he called after her as he caught up in one step for every three of hers. 

"What a wicked thing to say! I should have you put out," she scolded him through a barely concealed smile. Black humor had its virtues for one's sanity after all the horrors one could never unsee. It was the coin of the realm in the north. "Tomorrow, maybe. I have need of you today."                    

So many things had fallen into disrepair, Sansa thought, glancing up at a partially collapsed turret. What they needed was the good sounds of people filling the castle again. The melting snows had turned most of the ground to a thick mud that sucked her feet in as she walked. Thanks be for high, sturdy boots, she thought as she lifted her skirts out of the filth. Sansa had been saving this dress for their first survey of the village. She had altered it to her own design in those lonely evenings after their men had left for battle. It was layered in shades of moss and sage, embroidered with balsam and snowdrops. Wrapped around her shoulders and pinned with a silver direwolf brooch was a thick wool shawl of darkest green.  

When they passed the armory to the smaller courtyard of the Great Keep, she saw a nervous groom holding the reins Sandor's great black stallion who had lost none of his sap. Next to him was her agreeable red palfrey.

Arya was there too, already ahorse, along with her young blacksmith. The first time she laid eyes on the young man Sansa was struck by how he favored his father. Any fool could see it. Thankfully that was all he took after. Shy and sullen as he was industrious, he came alive when Arya was near. He was smitten with her, that much was plain. And why not? Her flowering had been more than kind: lithe as a willow, hair dark and soft as mink, and a gaze that could pillory a man where he stood. It was more than that, though. Where some would see her sister's spirit as a challenge, like the thrill of breaking a wild horse, he seemed quite content to watch her run. Though Arya could be as prickly as a hedgehog if she commented on it, watching the two of them stirred something in Sansa’s breast. Like pease and carrots, they were. After they had lost Jon, Gendry was the first to make Arya smile again.                

Sansa bid them a good morning, regarding them both with sly-eyed awareness, as Sandor helped her mount up. Gendry muttered a m'lady while a blush rose in Arya's cheeks.

"Master Gendry needs more wrought iron to make new farm tools and weapons," she stammered out. "Bran said he could also take on an apprentice or two to help him with the work. I thought to go along to help him. The ironmasters will think twice about gouging him if he has Lord Stark's sister overseeing the transaction."    

"Very wise, sister," she said. "We must meet with as many smallfolk in the village as we can. The people need to see us ready to work alongside them. Oh, and if you see a capable young girl and her parents can spare her, tell her to come to see me in the morning. I am looking for a lady's maid." 

"And a steward," a voice growled behind her. 

"... and a steward," she said through the pinch in her chest.  

"He should know his way around a ledger, but he must not shirk the collar," Sandor said, mounting Stranger. "Lady Sansa has her ways of doing things. No reason to change them." 

At that, Arya rolled her eyes and put her horse to the spurs through the east gate.                   

As their party came down the main road into the winter town, gaunt faces of women and knock-kneed youths lined the muddy doorsteps and market streets. Sandor was right. He would be hard-pressed to find fifty able men. At the start of the war, if a boy was old enough to hold a pitchfork, let alone a spear, he went north to fight with Jon. The greybeards held to the northern way of going out on one last hunting trip rather than steal a morsel from his grandchild's mouth. Despite the state of affairs, the town was shaking off the crushing mantle of winter like an old bear from its lair. Soon they reached the center of the market square and found the first trickle of goods coming in on mule-driven wayns.  

A good third of the market stalls had raised their awnings. Rows of hams hung on hooks along with bundles of smoked fish. There were a few wheels of cheese and potted meats. Bushel baskets were lined up full of red onions, leeks, carrots, beets, pease in the pod, mushrooms, beans, and, of course, turnips. No oranges, but there were pears, dried cherries, and lemons. Those looked a tad overripe but were still salvageable. The whole lot was sent back to Winterfell along with a few sacks of barley seed and some she-goats for milking. The humble, but marvelous selection promised even more of a bounty to come up the road, perhaps only days or weeks away. As expected, there were wildling fur traders about, dressed head-to-toe in skins with their great bushy beards poking out.              

A swaying cartload of noisy chickens and geese bustled by as the warm, yeasty scent from the bakers' ovens wafted through the air. There was even a hint of a greasy pottage bubbling somewhere. Barges from White Harbor sent up several crates of various shellfish, cod, and herring, packed in ice and seaweed. Arya paid the merchant for some oysters, pried them open with her knife, and passed them around. It had been a long time since she had the pleasure of these little jewels. Arya said she liked them best with a bit of hot pepper sauce, but Sandor said he preferred lemon or nothing at all as he tipped the shell back and swallowed it down.

They met with dozens of shopkeeps and farmers along the way. Most said they would be returning to their crofts for planting and lambing. Some had nothing and no one to return to. They desired to start anew working in the castle. One such was a hollow-cheeked girl of fourteen who "didn't know about no lady's hair, but she weren't no thief nor whore and would give m'lady no cause to beat her." That was good enough. Master Gendry still needed to get about his business of sourcing some iron, so he and Arya headed off to another part of town. They agreed to later meet at The Smoking Log.  

As they rode their horses through the center of town, Sansa chattered on about the market and how it was better than she dared hope. 

"All these children look half a corpse. We must keep the gates open to them, set up cookfires and stewpots in the courtyard along with casks of spruce beer. Oh! We could juice the lemons and stretch them further by adding them to the beer," she said, feeling a spark of determination to see it done. 

"As I said… there's none better," Sandor said, looking over at her with that crooked smile of his, the one that met his eyes only on one side. 

 

A little farther down, the dulcet tones of a high harp and a rich, velvety voice drifted into the streets. 

"You hear that? Not half bad at all." It wasn't just an off-hand comment. She could see the wheels of his mind turning. "We can make use of that. Get that singer to sing every northern fighting song he knows. We'll have eager lads filling the training yard in no time at all."                   

 "Just so. I think we'll find him in the inn by the sound of it."   

The Smoking Log served as more of an alehouse than an inn, but it had several well-kept rooms on the floor above. The man who owned it had fallen sick and died, but his widow, Yda, and her daughter, Hanna, ran it now. The common room was mostly filled with locals, both smallfolk and Free Folk, but they also spied some southron merchants among them. All were getting into their cups. The singer was surprisingly grey and grizzled, but he had a charming voice just the same. He was leaning back in his chair, lazily strumming on his harp, no doubt wagering he'd find steady work in the north, long starved of merriment and diversions. Yda curtsied when she saw Sansa and welcomed them to a table that she wiped off with her apron. A fire of peat bricks glowed in the hearth while the air filled with the sweet scent of meat drippings and spice. 

"We have crisped duck, killed and cleaned this morning, in a sauce of cherries and pine nuts, m'lady," she said. "There's also a cheese and onion pie." 

It sounded as sumptuous as any king's feast and Sansa's mouth watered for it, but they would wait for Arya and Gendry. To start, Yda's girl brought them a plate of steaming hot bread, crocks of butter and honey, and two cups of strong ale.  

The cup looked like it was made for a child in Sandor's hand. After he took a satisfied swig, he licked the foam from his lip and declared it good. It almost made her drop the butter knife. Truthfully, she had dreams about that mouth. She prayed that one day he could fully forgive himself as she had, preferably sooner rather than later. Every day that passed felt like their chaste affections, as precious as they were, were in danger of withering on the vine. Yet he still kept under the yoke of his guilt. She was a woman, not a sacred statue. If there was one thing the war and winter had taught her, it was that death was a shadow always on one's heels. He should kiss her again. Soon. Right and proper.      

Just then, the wail of an infant cut through the chatter. Sansa turned to see Hanna pick up a swaddled babe from a cradle tucked into the corner. The crying eased as soon as he was rocked and soothed in her arms. 

"A baby!" she gushed with delight and immediately went over to her. 

This was a blessed sign — the first healthy babe born in many moons that would not starve at the breast of their dead mothers. Hanna said the boy's father, a sweet, strapping farmhand from the Sheepshead Hills, went north and never came back. When the girl saw her eyes dancing over his pretty pink cheeks, she asked if Sansa would like to hold him. Gathering him into the crook of her arm, she cooed at him and played with his grasping little fingers. He was a charmer for true, and he smelled heavenly like the way Rickon did when he was born. Like always, Sansa could sense Sandor's gaze upon her, and she lifted her eyes to meet his. He seemed almost lost in a daydream until he woke himself out of it by taking another long draw of ale.                                     

The boy needed to suckle, so Hanna took him into the kitchens. Sansa returned to her seat and buttered a slice of bread. Sandor was becoming sullen and withdrawn, stealing the smile on her face with it. She sighed. Sometimes she couldn't decide whether she should reassuringly reach for his hand or clout him over the head. Rather than allow this brooding to go on, Sansa reminded him of their business here. 

"Sandor, would you please call the singer over?" she asked.  

"Singer!" he rasped, beckoning him over. The man froze as other patrons gave them nervous sideways glances. "Lady Sansa wants a word." 

Relieved, the man came before her and made his most dashing bow. He introduced himself as Bayard the Bard, as plain and to-the-point as any northern name could be, and he was happy to be of any service to her. She had but to name it.   

"I'm pleased to hear that,” she said. “What I require of you is simple. Perform in this inn every night. Rouse the men with ballads of battle and glory. Stir in them their love for their homeland. Winterfell needs capable soldiers to keep the peace. We also need carpenters and stonemasons, washerwomen, and kitchen maids. I'd like you to put the word out for me. There are food and good pay in it for them."

"And silver in it for you," Sandor added, chewing on a hunk of honeyed bread. "While you're doing all that rousing and stirring, I would mention that Lord Brandon still keeps his father's block for the thieves and rapers. Lawlessness will be put down swiftly. These merchants returning south should be saying the north is a safe place to do business."

The man could barely conceal his excited fidgeting. "Aye, I can do that. You have my word, ser." 

Sandor only nodded, not even bothering to correct him.                

"And if we see the results we hope for, we would be pleased to invite you to entertain his lordship in his hall and enjoy our hospitality," she said. 

Bayard's eyes became as wide as saucers, scarcely believing the opportunity the gods saw fit to drop on his head.  

"M'lady's open hand is only exceeded by her beauty. I shall sing to my last breath the songs of courage and great victories. I could play one for you now, so you may be assured of my skills. Perhaps ‘Iron Lances' or ‘Wolf in the Night?'"

"Later. Could you play something more cheerful to mark the season, if you would be so kind?" 

And with that, he plucked at his harp with renewed zeal, breaking into a rendition of "Six Maids in a Pool" that soon had the patrons drumming on their tables. 

"Honestly, I don't know why you pester me about getting a steward. You and I partner fairly well… don't you think?" she asked, to which he grunted impassively.       

With more customers filling the trestle tables, the merriment soon reached a fevered pitch. Song after song, the room was growing warm enough to sweat. Sansa unpinned her shawl and folded it up beside her, causing Sandor to choke and sputter on his ale. 

"Bloody hells! Are you a tavern wench for true now?" 

Stunned, Sansa looked down and could find nothing amiss. The dress was square-cut across the bodice over a shift, revealing only a small V-shaped suggestion of skin below her throat. It suddenly dawned on her. They'd been bundled in such heavy winter cloaks and furs that it had been long since Sandor had seen the shape of her bosom. Nay, he probably hadn't seen a woman's breasts in years. That is if he hadn't paid a visit to Mole's Town while he was away. She had heard the stories of how men of the Night's Watch were able to keep their vows. 

Before she could think of a response, a wildling man with a braided beard of long golden whiskers took her by the hand to dance with him as Bayard played. The crowd was clapping and shouting as they spun and bounded to the music. He was a graceful dancer, and she might have enjoyed it more had she not seen from the corner of her eye Sandor on his feet, glowering with his hand on his sword hilt. Well, he had no right to be cross. She would have gladly danced with him if he asked. But at least she had his full attention now.        

When the song ended, she curtsied to her partner, but politely declined another dance. Instead, she asked the bard to accompany her on his harp to which he obliged. Sweet and sad, the melody rose like a morning fog. The rollicking in the room quickly dwindled and hushed. With a high, silvery voice, she sang the first verse of a song of Florian and Jonquil, one of her favorite versions. In the far corner, she saw Hanna swaying with her infant son in her arms, eyes closed, no doubt thinking of her love that never came home. The second verse required more intensity as Florian declares his love for Jonquil, but she is hesitant, disbelieving a fool's heart to be true. Just then, she saw Arya and Gendry slip through the door, thoroughly dumbfounded by what they found. The third verse went as much as the second, with Florian imploring Jonquil to accept his love as he swears his sword to her. Again, she hesitates. Her heart is melting to him but fears what ill-fate could come of it.  

Though she sang out over the room, her eyes fell on Sandor for the last verse. He looked as though he'd taken a mace between the eyes. Arya and Gendry sat down at the trestle table, but he did not seem to notice. His eyes glittered, and his chest rose and fell with tremulous breaths. The song ends with Florian suffering a grievous injury while protecting Jonquil. As she weeps and holds his broken body in her arms, she prays for the gods to save him. Jonquil's lament so moves the gods that they answer her with mercy. Florian recovers, and they are wed. In the songs, the gods were always good, and love always prevailed. Sansa's belief in both had never waned. The only difference was she now believed that people must answer their own prayers.  

The crowd lauded her, banging their cups and spoons, begging for another song. She blushed and shook her head, but they shouted "give us ‘The Maids that Bloom in Spring!'" and "sing us the one about the bear!" Other suggestions were so positively indecent that she had to laugh. But Yda had just served the roasted duck and pies, and she was eager for a taste. Even more eager to take the seat beside Sandor. Surely the next move would be his. She made her refusals, but the crowd would not be so easily assuaged. Finally, Arya hopped up on the bench, raising her cup in hand.

"A round of ale for the house, courtesy of Lord Brandon Stark!" she shouted, and the cheers went up, allowing Sansa to slip back to the table.  

"Thank you, sister," she said triumphantly, as she sat down. 

She expected a sign, like serving her the choicest portions with his own fork as sweethearts do. He made no such move. On the contrary, he looked like he was back eating in the barracks, head down over his plate. Arya was tearing the meat off a leg, giving her looks like she couldn't decide if she was mad or an idiot. Maybe she'd been wrong all along. Perhaps what he felt for her was only admiration and loyalty. That anything more had faded long ago. After all, she wasn't the same girl he knew in King's Landing. The heat rose in her cheeks, and she felt like she had just made a spectacle of herself for smallfolk to titter over.                             

"Ahem, you have a lovely singing voice, m'lady," Gendry said to break the uncomfortable silence.   

"Which she's taken to wasting on drunkards apparently," Sandor rumbled while chewing on a piece of crackling.    

Arya snorted as she threw a crust of bread at him, hitting him on the nose. 

"On that, we agree. But she wasn't singing for this lot, you stupid arse. Even Gendry here knows that! Why she'd want to, I haven't the slightest, but that's her business."        

 "Let it be, Arya," Sansa said, shamefaced. "Please accept my apologies, Clegane. I —" 

She couldn't finish. Her voice started quivering, and it took all her remaining backbone to walk outside the inn door with a steady gait and her chin up. From there, she found her horse hitched outside and ran her hand down her smooth neck. Such a clever beastie, she turned her head to nuzzle against Sansa's face. The sun had sunk lower, and the chilled evening air was setting in. She had left her shawl inside, damn it all, but she had already tucked tail. And it would be unseemly to cry out here in plain view; however, she was Lady Catelyn's daughter and would save her tears for when she was alone in her bedchamber. Stanger nickered and lifted his massive head over her palfrey's, his ears alert and searching. The inn door creaked on its hinges behind her. 

"I know what you're going to say, and I want none of your reproaches right now, Arya. Just please get my shawl for me. I want to go home."

"Little Bird…"

Damn him. 

"I especially want none of yours." 

"I'll not reproach you, Little Bird. I mean, I should not have reproached you at all." 

He was standing close behind her, she knew. A chill came over her so suddenly that she hugged herself.    

"Please, let me be. No more ‘Little Birds.’ No more walks or japes or confidences. I grossly misjudged your feelings toward me. From this point forward, I need distance and formality to give my feelings time to cool. I blame myself for this, not you. Now please, go tell my sister I wish to go home."

Sansa stiffened as his strong hands came to rest on her shoulders like a heavy mantle. 

"All common sense in me says I should let you believe that,” he said. “That I should ride away tomorrow. Let you mend so you can have the life you were meant to have. Your sister is right. You were meant for someone of better breeding without all my twisted insides. Someone without the weight of my past. And I realize I haven't changed as much as I thought, because there's a selfish bastard in me that says ‘bugger that' and wants to have everything with you. I would jealously hoard it. Devour it like a starved dog, breaking the bones to shards ‘til every bit of marrow was mine and mine alone. Your precious gift… that is what I’d make of it. And you, you’d be sullied before the whole mean world with nothing but its scorn echoing in your ears. What would that matter to a damned dog, so as long as he gets his? Having you would be the beginning and end to my every reason, the cost be damned. No, Little Bird, you need nothing I could bring you.” 

He sighed wearily. An ache rent her chest. Sansa couldn’t see how he could be made worse for being loved by her. Surely he judged himself too harshly. And let people gossip and sneer if they like. They always do anyway, no matter what. If there was anything she was beginning to hate, it was lists of reasons. Reasons why she must put aside her hopes and desires. Reasons why she must save herself for some dreadful Lord Such And Such and spend the rest of her life pretending t’was a relief she had escaped the folly of loving so low and unwisely. She’d sooner turn old and gray as her brother’s housekeeper. Stubborn, bitter tears rolled down her wind-bitten cheeks as he coaxed her to turn around and face him.  

“What I feel for you can sometimes be a frightful, monstrous thing. It scares me so bad that I’d sooner fall on my own sword than ever see you look at me again the way you did when I… " He shook his head as if to shake loose those bad memories. "My sweet girl, I never hoped for your forgiveness, and you gave me that. That I have a place to just walk beside you has been the most contentment this old dog has ever had. I am accustomed to never asking for more than what my master saw fit to give me. Your goodness and grace strengthened my resolve that you’d never see that vile whoreson again. And now that you tell me, in so many ways, that you’ve tender feelings for me..." His voice sounded brittle toward the end as he cupped her cheeks and brushed the tears away with his thumbs. “I find I’m losing the strength to do right by you and turn away now.”       

" 'Tender feelings,’ Clegane? Do you not see how far gone I am in my condition, you great blockhead?" she sniffled. “My life is enormously better for having you in it. The joy rises in me when you come near. Suddenly every hardship seems more bearable. Every load seems lighter. Haven’t you noticed how I hang on to your every word, how I seek out reasons to talk to you? How I jest with you more than anyone else? It makes me happy to see you smile and laugh so much that I find myself rehearsing clever things to say to you. I want to be the cause of your happiness! And yes, I am even that fool who would sing in a tavern just to get your attention.”

It was embarrassing to admit as much, but it felt good too. Especially as he was still holding her face up to his even though her tears had dried.  

“Sandor, when you were away fighting, you weren't simply in my thoughts, but it was more like I was both heartsick and sick with worry. We hadn't really even spoken yet, but I had an awful fear in the pit of my stomach that we might never have the chance. All I could do was pray for the men beside you to fight fiercely. To keep you safe and bring you home to me. And then I might find a way to start again with you.”     

His eyes were glittery then, and for once, he seemed at a loss for words.  

“A different man came back from the war, though,” she continued. “Not in the way people usually mean. This one was gifted with more patience. He was gentler and wiser too. To my surprise, you managed to make me fall in love with you a second time, Sandor Clegane. So please, I don’t want to go on any longer with these feelings locked up inside me if you love me too. I —” 

She was going to say more, but whatever it was, it blew away with the wind. His lips fell upon hers, and it was all the devouring he promised. He tasted of bitter ale, the tangy sweetness of the cherries, and a faint silky feeling left by the crackling. Her nostrils filled with the clean scent of shaving soap, leather, and horseflesh. All the good things in life converging on a single point, and it induced such a greedy need in her. Her hands slid up the front of his jerkin and bunched the leather in her fists.    

He was the first to pull away, but only to look at her with astonishment, as if still questioning if his senses had betrayed him. So she clarified the matter by standing on her toes and pulling him down for another kiss. 

"Little Bird," he murmured against her mouth after a time. "Little Bird," he repeated, gently quelling her ardor, though he seemed to be hanging by a thread himself. “People will talk. Let’s be off the streets."

Arya not so much understood but resigned herself to the inevitable truth. That her sister was incurably taken with Sandor Clegane and would not be parted from him; however, when Sansa told Arya she would not be returning to Winterfell tonight, she was ready to argue. That is until Sansa reminded her sister that she hadn't told a soul when Arya made a habit of sneaking off to the smithy in the middle of the night. With a weary sigh, she kissed Sansa on the cheek and mounted her horse. 

"I'll just tell Bran you're leading the women in a prayer vigil. Be home for breakfast, please. Come, Gendry, before I lose my supper." 

They paid Yda to have a boy stable their horses and for two rooms as a pretense, plus a few extra coins for her discretion. The singer, as promised, had the ale-soaked room belting out songs that praised the deeds of the great kings in the north and the bravery of the rugged hill clans. No one paid any mind as they slipped away upstairs. The room was the largest in the inn, reserved for nobility and wealthy merchants. It had a low fire crackling in the hearth and the luxury of a few small leaded glass windows. The four-posted feather bed at its center was draped in lush velvet curtains. The sound of the door bolting behind her made her turn around to face him. 

"Not too late, Little Bird," he said as he removed his sword belt and hung it from a peg on the wall. “There's another room for me if you would rather..." 

The apple of his throat bobbed like a lead weight as he tried to casually hook his thumbs on that now absent resting place. Failing that, his arms just dropped loosely to his sides. Sansa smiled. He was trying his best to be gallant about the whole thing, but his wolfish gaze spoke otherwise.     

"Why would I rather be alone in this big, empty room?" 

She went straight to him, cleaving hard to his body. She could feel the relief washing over him as his arms enfolded her. Relieved he must be, to find her still agreeable to being alone with him like this, what should rightfully be considered the ruin of any good woman. She cared not with so much of their precious time lost to war and separation. Every nerve in her body was hot and humming to finally know what they'd been missing. One of his hands was in her hair, deliciously pulling on her scalp. The other was around her waist and sliding up her back.  

"If I’m going to stay, then I need to hear it now from your lips, Little Bird. You must be mine," he growled while bussing up her neck, across her jaw, and hovering over her mouth. “Only mine. From this day forward. Do you understand me?” he asked in hushed tones, yet each word landed with such authority that she felt a powerful tug deep in her belly.

"I am yours and always will be," she replied, their breath mingling. "I want this for us. To love as we like. Please, Sandor, it’s been so cold for so long. It’s time to feel alive again. I’m beginning to, but…”

“But?”

She steeled herself with a deep breath. 

“Virtue feels more and more like something of the old world we left behind. Something I’m shackled to. I would have you free me. Tonight." 

There, she said it. Sansa closed her eyes, offered up her parted lips to him, and awaited his answer. When he did kiss her again, it was painfully tender as if he were swearing an oath to repay the love she gave him tenfold. 

Eventually, though, the man’s passions altered the kiss. He reveled in instructing her tongue to move with his. It felt so good to be loved this well. Better than she ever imagined, as if she could just burst into starlight! He was groping for the lacing on her dress, yanking at the delicate ribbons, forcing them to slacken. 

"Gods, Sansa, let me see you. I need to see you so bad," he begged. 

She helped him shimmy her dress over her shoulders and down her arms and hips. It fell in a lovely green heap around her ankles. Wasting no time, he gathered the hem of her shift and lifted it over her head, leaving nothing save her stockings, shoes, and smallclothes. He was making insensible sounds as he drank in her form, already fumbling for the bows tied at her hips with trembling fingers.  

As pleasing as his lust for her was, it was a bit overwhelming. She hadn't gotten to see him yet, but he was so happy, she could afford to indulge him a little longer. He fell to his knees before her and swiveled her body, so her bottom was level with his eyes. As her smallclothes fell away, she felt his warm, panting breaths against the divide before taking a playful nip and warm lick on one of her cheeks.  Oh…   Well, his appetites were a little unexpected, but curiously charming, in a way. 

"Like a ripe summer peach," he chuckled as he kneaded two handfuls of flesh back there. 

When she gave him a quizzical look over her shoulder, he only laughed harder and gave her a spank just sharp enough to raise some color. It didn’t hurt really, but it pleased him to pretend, so he could softly kiss it away like a skinned knee.        

He then took hold of her hips and turned her around, slower this time, as if he wanted to fully appreciate the next revelation. She couldn’t help but blush as he nuzzled adoringly against her mound of coppery red curls, inhaling the scent of her sex. His long fingers delved between her thighs to explore the wetness slickening the outer petals. Sansa whimpered softly, and her eyelids grew heavy under these tentative stirrings. She had never felt more queenly than now, looking down at this great hulking figure at her feet, all wild-eyed and taken with her ample arousal. When his forefinger was able to slip inside her with ease, Sansa could swear they both forgot to breathe. Her lashes fluttered on her cheeks as she savored the newness of it, this small taste of being filled. His name was about to fall from her lips as she leaned into it except, quite abruptly, she was left empty and bereft of him.                        

To her astonishment, he sprang to his feet, gathered her up in his arms, and rushed her toward the bed in a whirlwind. Standing her before a bedpost, he made her grasp it as if she were about to be whipped. 

"What are you doing?" she asked hesitantly, more curious than alarmed. She had not expected her deflowering to be like this.

"Please trust me, Little Bird. It'll be better like this," he said, rustling with his trousers. 

Then she felt it. His heavy manhood resting on her tailbone. She heard him spit, presumably into his hand, and then a frantic rubbing.  

"Sandor, I don't want to be taken like this."  She thought there would be more to it. A lot more. While the idea did have a certain appeal, with her body tensing up, she was sure it would hurt worse than it should.  

"And you won't be. I just… need to..." 

He hadn't even finished explaining when he had her rear pulled back, and his member sawing along the cleft of her buttocks. It wasn't unpleasant, but not very satisfying. He grunted behind her in time with his rutting, but that only lasted a few seconds as he adjusted to placing himself between her thighs. This time, the head of his manhood brushed against her little pearl. Sansa sighed and squeezed her legs together to prolong the contact; however, before it went much farther, he hooked an arm around her, pressed his lumbering body against her, and withdrew his manhood in time to spill his hot seed on the small of her back. He was heaving and clinging to her, riding out the last of his release.  

After a time, she felt it retreating. Sandor quickly tucked it back down as if to preserve the remains of his honor. Funny how quickly that lusty, single-minded hound turned into a sleepy pup, she thought wryly. That was too unkind, though. She could sense his chagrin without having to look back. 

"I, ah… Sorry if I shocked you, Little Bird,” he murmured against her neck as he recovered himself. “You are the most intoxicating little handful, and I haven't been with anyone in years. I would have shamed myself inside you.” 

He was grumbling something to himself and gave a bitter chuckle, but all Sansa could think about was if she was indeed shocked? No, more like touched that he never sought another woman to warm him, though she could hardly begrudge him if he had.  

He planted contrite little kisses along her spine while his hands glided up her ribcage to fondle her breasts, twisting and rolling the peaks of her nipples between his fingers in the most beguiling way. Instinctively her back arched, pressing herself into his embrace. If he kept on like this, she could quickly come to love being possessed from behind.  

“My sweet girl, the best girl in the world,” he gushed. "You’ve put up with my bloody foolishness long enough. The rest of the night is yours. Whatever you want of me."        

"Sandor, please," she sighed, clawing at the bedpost. 

No silken gowns ever felt so fine as the way his calloused hands clothed her nakedness now.          

“Tell me.” His tongue swiped up her neck to the shell of her ear, nearly robbing her of her sanity. “How do I make it good for you? I’ll play the knight for you if that’s how you want it. Or we can draw the bed curtains closed and call this your wedding night. You needn’t even see — ”

“Sandor,” she interrupted. “I need to see you too.”  

Chapter Text

Sansa craned her neck to look at his face, smiling like a cat that got into the cream. 

“I would very much like to appraise my newly-acquired mount,” she teased. “So handsome that I itch to ride him.”  

He suddenly seemed as unsteady as a spinning top. His fingers stalled over her breasts, no longer sure of themselves. Instead, he hastily reached for a washcloth from the nearby basin and wiped the stickiness from her skin. Most surprising of all was his shy, gawky smile peeking through the hair draping over his face. Perhaps he was expecting her to name something soft and flowery as a girlish fantasy? There would be some of that too, but he did not anticipate being the object of her lusts, she knew. As if somehow the miracle of her love plus the right magical touches allowed her to charitably endure his scars or some such rubbish. Now that she finally had him like this, she was more like to name some ludicrous feat of bedsport.          

“Is that a blush I see, my love? Did I shock you?” she purred, turning to hold his face in the safety of her hands, lovingly brushing her fingers over the ropes and knots of flesh. “I didn’t simply pine away on innocent dreams of us pledging our hearts to one another. A thousand times, I dreamt of your naked skin and how it would feel against me. My lady friends told me how it could be with a man you want. Every time I imagined you taking me, I held a picture of your face and those kind but haunted gray eyes. Eyes that would hold oceans of desire for me and no other.” 

Sansa nipped at his lips once, twice, making him pursue her elusive kiss before continuing. 

Soooo perfect for me. My mind made such a wanton study of you, and you such an unrepentant slut of me. How do you think I consoled myself through all those lonely and fearful nights?”  

Something like a plaintive whine came from him as he held her by the waist, pulling her flush against him. He was hard again with the rudest and most demanding of cockstands behind his loosened trousers. She made her voice as soft as silk as her fingers drifted to the clasps on his jerkin, unfastening them one by one.  

“I have been so good patiently awaiting you, have I not? Shouldn’t you then reward your sweet girl for staying so true and faithful to you, even if not so chaste and pure?”

He chuckled, heavy-eyed and slow-witted, drunk on the honeyed wine flowing from her lips. “Damn me, if the gods didn’t make you for this…” he growled, helping her shrug off his jerkin as they made a war of kisses on each other.  

Yet she was entirely unprepared for the flex of his chest and shoulders as he pulled his shirt over his head. It was a stab so quick and ruthless, but it left the most exquisite throbbing wound down there. Like those first rays of dawn to sting their tearful eyes — oh gods bless, Sansa! What drivel, you pitiful besotted mess!  Nonetheless, he was an undeniable feast for the eyes. Winter had made them all leaner, but half of Sandor Clegane was twice as much as most men. All rough-hewn magnificence like some wild hinterland. A tangle of dark hair beckoning her to follow its path, disrupted here and there with silvery lines of scar tissue. Flattened nipples, dark and tempting as dates. The insolent slouch of his trousers around his hips. She couldn’t help but dive upon him. Her lips and tongue swept through the bowl of salty skin at his throat as her fingers mapped out every ridge of muscle. Sandor gathered her hair up in a heavy fistful, marveling at her southward movements with deep, throaty sighs. When her hands found his waistband, Sansa took a breath and pushed his trousers down, down, down to reveal the base of his manhood. It was thickly-fashioned, duskier than the rest of him, and rooted in a dense, dark thicket. Her fingers slipped inside, light and nimble as a pair of mice, to free him of the lacings.  

“Gods, Sansa!” he shivered.  

She had always understood that a man was sensitive there, and she was hesitant to mishandle him in some unintentional way. Perhaps she was too careful for his liking, for his hands joined hers to help quickly shed the remains of his clothes.   

Sandor’s cock (that was the precise word for it, she decided, as a more modest term seemed woefully inadequate) jutted out to her like a bough of solid oak, strong enough to withstand its own weight. It dwarfed her little inexpert hands that tested its size and smoothness. To her delight, the muscles of his belly jumped at her touch, his hips seeking her like a lodestone. At first, he showed her how to pleasure him there with more roughness than she expected, but then he guided one of her hands to hold the heavy purse of his seed and give it a gentle squeeze. All those churning little heirs just waiting to find a purchase. That gave her two emptinesses in want of filling, one by him and the other by his quickening babe. Perhaps one day. Would he like that? The thought of it made her look up at him with luring eyes and a private smile as she stroked him, root to crown.

She supposed her little musing was what drew his hand to firmly clasp her jaw. Small wonder that a man’s thoughts would be far from bouncing babies and squarely on the begetting part. The calloused pad of his thumb perused the outline of her flushed lips, begging an audience within.  

“Suck,” he commanded, all ragged and edgy.  

The spark of recognition set her insides all aflutter. It was like that pillow trick her dearest Randa had fondly spoken of, except it wasn’t a thumb or finger when she described it. At first, the idea sounded like some savage wildling custom where they oriented their parts all funny, but Sansa soon found herself warming to it. Now it warmed her in other ways to think of pleasing him like that. So she sucked down past the joint as she worked his cock and stones, making a pretty show of it, if not in skill but in eagerness. Eagerness? No, she positively exalted in it. The very air around them seemed infused with a magic that filled her lungs and honed her nipples into tight little buds.     

But there were other love games to be had. Sandor growled as he hoisted her up by her thighs and deposited her on the bed. He made quick work of stripping off her boots and stockings, tossing them about the floor here and there. Good thing there were no shy, frightened maids here. Well, perhaps a little , but that made it all the more exciting, did it not? It was oddly freeing to know that he was too strong for her, that resistance was impossible if he decided he had quite enough of her baiting. That she could simply surrender to whatever pleasure he took or gave. When he had her fully skinned down, he was quick to climb over her and plow her up to the pillows like a cornered mouse. A little squeak even escaped her lips as they came nose to nose. The glorious length and breadth of his body caged her in shadow, heat, and muscle. Firelight danced over his scars and reflected in his eyes like some wild animal of the night. But seeing her face, Sandor blinked and recoiled. Apologies for acting like such a brute tumbled from his mouth, but she hushed him and pulled him back to her.  

“It’s only lover’s play. I don’t mind being afraid with you. In fact, I like it very much,” she said, slowly drawing a line up one of his hairy legs with the tips of her toes. “Sandor, I want you to love me as you will. As you long to.”  

If her reassurances weren’t enough to dispel his misgivings, arching her back to offer up a comely pair of teats at least proved diverting enough. Resting on his elbows with her breasts filling his hands, Sandor’s mouth descended upon the left one, circling the nipple with his tongue. He alternated between gently worrying at it and sucking intently, drawing it up only to watch it fall again. He even seemed to curiously test her response to the scarred side of his lips. Truthfully, it felt much the same. That is to say, divine . She wondered if it were possible for her to be satisfied by teasing her breasts alone. Perhaps she’d ask him to try sometime, but tonight she wanted everything.  

There she held him to her, encouraging him with affectionate touches gliding over his back, behind his neck, and through his hair. Such lovely hair. Like silk threads slipping between her fingers. When he rapidly flicked at the finely-tuned tip, she squeezed and rubbed her thighs together for the pangs he was causing at their juncture. He then made a pilgrimage over to the right with heated kisses blazing a path through the valley between them as his fingers traced the swells and curves. 

The noise from the tavern below seemed less able to penetrate their little world. Here, there was nothing louder than the sounds of the wind buffeting the roof, a fire crackling in the hearth, and the longing that finally found its voice. The years had suddenly melted away to nothing.                         

After leaving her nipple with a last lingering pull, he claimed her lips in a hard, searing kiss that surely left her bee-stung. 

“Did you like that?” he asked after finally releasing her, to which she nodded dreamily. Her hardened nipples shone like pink diamonds in the firelight. “Imagine that on your cunny. Would you like that?”  

Cunny?   Was he tempering his language for her sake, or was he fooling with her? His expression was unreadable. Nevertheless, there was no other answer. Again Sansa nodded, shivering with anticipation.  

But he did not move. He was suspended above her, keeping his lips just out of reach of her kiss.  

“I know you’ve got more of those pretty words in you. The way you say them sends a lance straight down to my cock. I want to hear them now.”

“Kiss me like that, Sandor. Please.” Her knees inched apart a little wider for him as if that would be all the invitation he needed.

He grunted unimpressed.  

“Where’d that shameless little poet go? What, not so bold anymore?” he needled her, his grin cutting a mean slash of white. “Go on, girl. Tell me exactly where you want that kiss, or I’ll leave you here all bothered and wanting.”    

It was an empty threat, of course, but she supposed it was only fair play to be teased by him in turn. The word sounded ridiculous rolling around in her head, like some beardless, baby-faced stablehand’s version of the far more vulgar one. She felt even more ridiculous mustering up how to say it with a whore’s confidence, but if this is what he wanted…  

“Please, Sandor,” she started, all soft, feminine, and admittedly stilted. “I need to feel your kiss there.  On my cunny .” 

No sooner did she say it that her mouth twisted into a sheepish grin as her hand clapped over her face. Her distress clearly amused him by the sound of his unbottled chuckle, but he gently uncovered her mortification to give her a peck on the nose.        

“Still a little bird,” he said. “Always repeating the words —” 

Whoomph!  

“Oh, you unchivalrous lout!” she cried as she pelted him upside the head with a pillow. “Get yourself to the other room this instant! I’ve changed my mind.”  

Oh, Sandor! ” he mocked. The raised pitch of his rasping voice sounded like a braying donkey. “ Sandor! Sandor!  My cunny quivers like a bowl of pudding for you. Please, my good ser, would you be so kind as to lick my adorable lady cock —”        

She tried for another furious blow to avenge her honor, shrieking with laughter and outrage; however, he quickly had her disarmed and powerless under his hungry kisses and the promise within the slow, lazy grind of his body between her thighs. Of their own accord, her legs came up to hook behind his back.  Sandor, Sandor, I want you so bad!   Her mewling and scratching nails urged him to haste as well. The tip of his cock, so engorged and restless, was game to take her now. It pushed into her a little, just enough that she could feel the start of a burning ring. It was he that relented though, growling and breathless as if he had been stung. 

“Not yet. Not yet,” he chastened himself, tossing back the hair off his dampened brow.    

Instead, Sandor roved over the softscapes of her body, his dark form moving like a shadowcat. Touching and tasting. Fondling and kneading. The roughness of his fingers had poetry in them. So tender and possessive, Sansa could not recall the last time she felt this precious to anyone. No stone was left unturned when it came to sussing out her likes and loves. He discovered one such seat of pleasure when he pushed one of her legs up to her chest and ran his tongue behind her knee, sending a dizzying rush through her. He then splayed her thighs apart like an open book, her joints and sinews pushed to their comfortable limits. The exposure was almost too much to bear when he tilted her back, raising her buttocks off the bed. This is wholly unnecessary, she thought, as a prickling heat engulfed her scalp. He was crouched low on his knees with his arms firmly wrapped around her thighs, not a drop of mercy in his veins for her position.  

What he could see ought to remain unseen and unmentioned. If there was a more unflattering side to a lady, she could not imagine what that would even be. She began to protest, but he would have none of it.  

“So beautiful, I could die right now in my little parcel of heaven.”  

As his grey eyes met hers, she found no mischief in them. He was heartfelt in his praise of, well, all her intimate features.  

“Sansa, Sansa… every inch of you a prim and perfect little lady.  My lady ,” he said, savoring the sound. 

Any proper gallant would pale at the idea of wooing her thus, but Sandor was Sandor. Ill-suited for reciting all the conventional courtesies, he would only say what he felt was true and fitting. 

“You can wrinkle your nose at me if you like, but I’ll wager you’re not half as disapproving as you let on.”  

Well… perhaps not, Sansa thought, but — 

“A man’s love must have many faces, I think,” he began as he pressed kisses all around her inner thighs and at the seam where they met her arse. “Mostly, it shows itself as buggering foolishness. A charge you’ve leveled at me fairly on occasion,” he said, pausing to smirk up at her. “To which I’m not ungrateful for that equally-foolish, ever-loving nature of yours. Makes me glad I failed to cure you of all your failings.”  

He then took a considerable breath before continuing. 

“Other times, you’ll feel its constancy. At least, I hope you will with my feeble attempts to put the right words to my feelings. To all the things I want my Little Bird to know. What she means to me. I don’t have a temperate bone in my body when it comes to you. It does me no credit to say so, but I’ll be a right nasty piece of work if another man looks at you with my own thoughts in his head.” 

He bore his teeth and feigned a mean, gnashing bite at her belly as if he would gobble her up.  I would be glad of it , she thought as she giggled.  I want none of them.            

The tip of his tongue then made a suggestive little circle around her navel, sending a shiver through her. 

“... and sometimes my love is downright filthy and wants nothing more than to glory in corrupting some pretty, girlish thing. And to watch you unfold like a flower for it like I think you would. The love that imagines you in hundreds of indecent poses lives side by side with what must be the purer, holier love from my soul. Damn me if that makes any sense! Well, you can run for the hills, but if you let me, I can show you just what I mean by that. I love you in all the ways possible, Sansa,” he said, “Mmmm… though some things best wait for my untested filly. Another night when I get you feeling friendlier to it.” 

He must have seen the look on her face because he threw his head back and barked a laugh.      

All her fretting was forgotten when he brought that wicked kiss down upon her, and the cry was wrenched from her chest. His embrace held firm and steady as Sansa bucked against him. It was like being enveloped in bliss so potent it almost hurt. The heel of her hand pushed on his brow as she made slurring, insensible sounds.  "Gently! Gently!" she meant to say, and thankfully, he was quick to follow. He then licked her with such delicate modulation that Sansa was lost. Done for. She would never be able to look at him again without being stricken with ungainly stupidity. Everyone would know her for Clegane’s doxy, she was sure of it. How could they not when it was written all over her face?  

As she settled into the pleasure, her eyes fluttered open to a rapturous sight. A hound for true, nose down in her mound of curls, seeking, determined, devoted. With some patience and experimentation, he worked out some marvelous pillow tricks of his own. The sighs came easy when his tongue rolled over her nub in between sucking it softly. It felt so heavenly like she were a sweet melting in his mouth.  

“Yes, there. Like that,” Sansa whispered as she held him firmly against her. Her other hand toyed with a breast that ached to be touched again.

“My love… Sssso good. ”  

And it was good for a time, but she soon felt a yearning for a little more variation. Sandor seemed to have a ken of that need as he kept a watchful eye to gauge his efforts. Perhaps it would not be so different when pleasuring a man the same way, she thought. His fingers parted the dew-laden petals of her sex as kisses so warm, wet, and hungry enveloped one side then the other. 

Oh! Was this fantasy secretly behind your eyes those times I caught you looking at me? Did you want to ruck up my skirts and devour me? You always broke away so quickly. 

The flat of his tongue then made several long-drawn strokes before delving deep into her slit. Never in her wildest dreams did she picture him entering her like this, she thought, as a new rush of excitement overtook her. Her hips answered by grinding into it, perhaps a bit too roughly in her fervor. It was almost a little embarrassing. Not that he seemed to mind being smothered, though. By the sound of his happy little rumblings, he had a real penchant for her taste like she was the last honeycomb on earth. He stayed on her move for move, teasing the most guttural sounds out of some strange feral girl she hardly recognized.      

His attention then turned back to licking that ripened bit of flesh again while he gave her the length of his finger, which was a good deal thicker than any of her own. It filled her with the satisfying snugness her womanhood craved more than anything, yet when he moved within her, she was all supple and slack for him. This is impossibly good, she thought as her toes curled and flexed. A second finger joined the other with beckoning strokes. She was so wet that she could not feel their natural roughness. Just their bigness, and the way they frigged this glorious little spot inside her over and over. And that mouth , that mouth bearing down on her! 

“I— I’m close!” she stammered out.    

Steely gray eyes snapped open, trained on catching the moment she broke for him. His growls half swagger and half plea for the song he never thought could ever be his.  

It was always yours, my love. Even before I understood it myself.  

She hoped something in her face conveyed that in the space between them. A love letter, written in sobs and sweat. Something powerful did manifest in that exchange for Sansa could feel it coiling upon itself inside, winding up higher and higher. His shaggy head shook furiously between her legs, the tip of his tongue wagging like a puppy’s tail across her nub. And then... 

Gods be good!   Her peak hit her like the clamor of septry bells, tolling through every hill and hollow. Her body shuddered as she cried out to him. The relentlessness of his mouth was quickly replaced by the exquisite pressure of his palm that somehow felt just perfect over the echoes of a good come. A really good cobweb-clearing come!  Sansa collapsed back on the pillows, a breathless, dreamy heap. Spent and overflowing all at once. The warmth of Sandor’s body covered her again as he brought his open mouth within a hair’s breadth of a kiss. Instead, he softly brushed his lips against her cheek to cheek, the wetness on his face spreading between them.          

When she was mostly recovered, she looked over to find Sandor casually reclined on his side. His calloused fingertips drifted over her belly and between her breasts, leaving a sparkling wake of goose prickles behind them.  

“I take back what I said. I rather like seeing your hair all mussed,” he said as he plucked away a curl that had stuck to her forehead.  

A sight she must be, frizzy and snarled like some half-cracked woods witch. If he sensed her tendency to fret over such things, he paid it no mind.  

“I mean to muss it up as often as I can. You’d like that too, I reckon by the way you were all jumpy and wiggling about like a floundered fish. Must be all that Tully blood in you.  Ha!  A beautiful sight it was. I swear you will never hear another complaint from me again about anything. My girl’s a spirited little thing with a mighty itch for me to scratch!” He was grinning down at her like a moony-eyed fool while cradling her cheek in his palm. “You shine like a pearl, Little Bird.”    

Her heart took wing again, so infectious was his smile.  

“I must be in love and loved well,” she replied as she pulled him down for another kiss.  

Such a small spark, but how quickly her blood was roaring aflame again. The tip of her tongue flicked against Sandor's lips, coaxing his own out to play again, while her hands roamed the expanse of his chest. Shoulder to shoulder, he was a veritable wall of corded muscle, but he moved under her gentle nudges as if she had the strength of a giant. When she rolled him on his back, he conceded to the ridiculous mummery of being helplessly pinned down by his wrists while she straddled him. He always had an appreciative eye for when she donned the mistress’s face, handing out the day’s orders. She wore it now while looking down at him and making a tempting display of her breasts. 

“Perhaps my love can be a frightful thing, too,” she purred. “It wants to see you tremble before me, Sandor.”  

As she sank down on him, the tips of her nipples ghosted through the coarse hair on his chest. Sandor rumbled and shifted impatiently under her. The bed creaked along as if in shared frustration. Without a doubt, he was stifling a tumult in his loins that could hammer a nail through a wooden post. Just to allow her to take her pleasure as she will. Not that she made it easy on the poor man. She was ravishing a raised vein on the column of his neck, fueled by the heady, masculine scent filling her nose. His pulse led her to down to the fiercely beating heart within his breast. A patched-up old heart made good as new, and that had found its way back to her. There was no better place for safekeeping her own. She kissed him there like a bride before taking a nipple captive between her teeth.     

Sandor hissed at the dainty little bite and the slow, deliberate designs of her tongue. The hapless pillow behind his head was in danger of being reduced to shreds and feathers in his wrenching grip. All the while, his cockstand battered against her bottom, twitching to be sheathed in a woman’s warmth. She would not be cruel and make him wait for much longer, but she wanted so badly to spoil him. Make him feel a king.      

So she knelt down between his legs and tossed her hair over her shoulder. A little trepidation twisted in her guts, never having done this before. What if it turned out to be a disappointment? Perhaps there had been others that would make her look a fool child.  Don’t be stupid , she told herself. The man was gaping in awe at her poised over his cock. He loved her and had long and secretly dreamt of her working such charms on him. He loved her and would love this too. If only because he had never been touched this way by someone who loved the soul of him. So it was like a first time of sorts for him too, wasn’t it? She began by clasping her hands around him and stroking him the way he liked. A long basking moan escaped him. 

“That’s bloody good, girl,” he murmured. 

He was hot to the touch and sumptuous as velvet gliding between her fingers. A mouth-watering thing of beauty near the size of her wrist. Irresistible really...    

And tremble he did, like a leaf shivered by the wind, when her lips closed around him. A slight saltiness wept from the tip that was interesting and not at all unpleasant; however, it was the feel of it that she rather enjoyed while she sucked and caressed him. The way he filled her mouth. Every ridge and contour became known to her. It pulsated and tightened like a clenching fist, sending her own sex into carnal fits just at the idea of any part of her swallowing such a thing whole. As her head bobbed on him, she felt the light brush of his knuckles over her temple before deliciously sinking his long fingers into her hair. Always the good girl even now, she burned for these little signs of approval. It made her feel absurdly accomplished and strangely blanketed in the warmth of childhood.  

Winded and writhing, Sandor wove a tapestry of curses, grunts, and praises for her “cunning little mouth.” The slicker she made him, the faster he lost hold on his senses. The more he succumbed to her power, the more she delighted wielding it until there was no telling who had the better end of the bargain. She giddily hummed to herself as she brought the wet plum-like tip to nearly pop from her mouth. Coming back down, her hand twisted up to meet her lips. It was the only way to manage his size and pleasure him fully.      

“Sansa, Sansa,” he moaned. His back arched sinuously off the bed as his teeth bit down on a white-knuckled fist.       

Funny, he never said her name with such a heavy Westerman accent before. It sounded even prettier that way, she decided. Like a kind of wildflower. His response was so heartening that she ventured into gently laving each of his testicles with her tongue to see if it would excite him more.  

“Fuck!”  

It did. Sansa could have kept it going for much longer, but he staid her abruptly. 

“Stop, stop, stop! A moment,” he insisted as he lay flat on the bed with an arm flung over his eyes. “I need to think on… something else. Something cold and sobering. Like that dusty, old septa of yours. Pinch-faced. Teats like withered apples, and fallen near as low to the ground. Truly a woman made for a motherhouse. I bet her legs had those blue spidery things too.”

Sansa bit back the giggles as she wiped the spittle from her chin. 

“You are so mean!” she chided him. 

She granted him a brief moment of respite then nestled up under his arm. Her ear pressed to the thunderous heartbeat that belied his efforts. 

“Well, do as you must, but do not think too long, my love. I fear you will be left unfit for duty, and I shall remain a maid,” she pouted while twirling a finger in his chest hair.        

Sandor shot her an affronted look. 

“You fear that, do you?”  

Quick as a snake, he snatched her by the waist and rolled her under him to her tinkling laughter. The sheets were hopelessly twisted and tangled about their limbs as they tussled into position. Sansa was spread beneath him with his hips slung low in the cradle of her thighs. The proof of his renewed vigor rubbed against her mound.  

“You unmanned me once, brat, but not utterly. There’s plenty more for you, believe that!”  

Suddenly his head dipped down to take her by a nipple, sucking and flicking at the stiffened bit. The merriment dissolved into coos and sighs as his fingers searched between her legs and found her even more lush and welcoming.  

“Ungh,” he lurched. They both knew it was from sucking him off. “Little Bird, my head feels about to split from insanity,” he said through a parched rasp.  

Two eager fingers delved inside her again while his thumb massaged around the hood in tight little circles.  

“Please… please, let me have you now. I’ll be so careful, I promise.”

“I know. I’m ready,” Sansa gasped as she raised her fingertips to the face looming above her.  

Careful as promised, he took himself in hand and rubbed the smooth head of his cock over her nub. Then back and forth along her cleft several times before he felt ready himself. As Sandor lowered his furrowed brow to her, she soothed his nerves with kisses all over.        

“You made it good for me, love,” she reassured him, lifting her knees up to his sides to align herself with him.             

“Little Bird,” he moaned as she felt her body giving way to the first push inside. 

It hurt no more than a pinch that made her eyes water a little. Sandor made to pull back, but she nodded that all was well. So he pushed in a little more, dusting her hairline with kisses lighter than rain. And then a little more. And a little more, until there was no more to give, and she was pressed deep into the mattress.     

“Don’t move yet,” she bid him. “I just want to feel you there.”  

Her body quickly took to the fullness. Soon she could just relax into his intimate presence, one that she was made to hold, it seemed. It made her feel pleasantly overstuffed like a very happy goose. More than that, she felt awash in Love itself. Warm and sheltered under this rare and unparalleled man. Claimed by him. His body heaved like a bellows as lanky locks of his black hair spilled over them both. She pulled them back now to look upon him and found him lost in her warmth too.  

The tranquil glow of the hearth gave a domestic calm to everything it touched. Yet it was the way gossamer shadows attached to his face that made it seem like all the spirits of the night were in love with her Sandor. It made her smile brightly, and sigh “how I love you so.” Before he’d even had a chance to reply, she stole a string of kisses as sweet and yielding as sun-drenched figs. Just so he would know she did not say such things to wheedle from him tokens pleasing to her own ears. She simply needed him to know.                        

As he readily ate up her kisses, she encouraged him with a coltish rocking of her hips. The startling little movement made them both shiver with excitement. When he did take over, though, he kept his movements shallow and halting for fear of carelessly injuring her. It was touching, but he still needed reminding that she was not made of spun sugar. That resolve of his crumbled when her little hands clawed and clutched at his back. When they kissed each other breathless with sweeping tongues and grazing teeth. When she brazenly fucked him back with eyes that he could drown in. It ignited a fire inside him that made him sit up on his heels with her legs hitched up on his forearms.  

“You want the horn for true, is that it?” he asked. 

His strokes were agonizingly slow and fluid, just shy of pulling out before sliding in all the way up to the hilt. He was making it all tangibly clear for a witless maid to see her folly, but with much the opposite effect.                   

“I see no other reason to try the bull,” she panted, the corners of her mouth twitching.  

He made a hearty grunt, floating his eyes over her breasts and down to where he disappeared inside her.  

“This. This is the whole world right now,” he said.  

She was inclined to agree, fascinated with the sweaty trail of coal-black hair from his navel to his bush and how it looked against her copper. Every time he filled her, it thrummed a mellow chord deep inside her, wholly different than the soaring pleasure he gave her with his mouth. Still, it reduced her to a puddle of needy whimpers.  

“Bloody hells, that’s sweet,” he rasped as he kneaded the soft, pillowy flesh of her thighs. “I want to be locked up tight inside you forever, Little Bird.”  

He looked almost ready to swoon himself until he squared his jaw. His expression went hard and focused. A little test of mind over flesh it seemed. Trying to make it last by going slower than he wanted. A man is only so strong, though, and the drive to move his cock stronger. Unable to withstand, he swore and burst into more galloping thrusts that made her breasts jump.    

The legs of the bed swayed and scuffed against the wooden floorboards. Whoever sat at the table below them probably had a decent helping of plaster dust floating in their beer.  

"You feel so good," she said, her voice reedy and ruffled.  

Her head was dizzy with colors beyond count bursting like a field of flowers. From this unimpeded angle, she could hear every kiss of bare skin, every wet whisper, as he plunged in and out of her. His heavy sack buffeted up against her just a half-beat behind like a light flogging of her bottom.   

“Oooh, I don’t think I shall ever recover!”  

Had she said that out loud? Her own voice seemed so distant and unreal to her.  

“I’ll make sure of it,” he smirked, which answered that question.

“Sandor…”  

Sansa's shaky hands reached for his, coaxing their fingers to entwine. Her knees resettled into the crooks of his elbows. Adoration danced with the passion in his eyes, and she supposed it was at her desire to join herself to him in more ways than just cock. It moved him to hunch over her like a hoarded treasure so he could cover her throat in wallowing kisses, his rhythm unfaltering as he did.    

Sansa felt as small as a seed all frog-folded and tucked up underneath him. A memory suddenly surfaced of the last time they had held hands so intently. It was that day in the godswood when they talked, really talked, and mortared a new friendship. How broken and empty his mighty hands were then. How heavy with regret before she enfolded them in her lap. Now he split her delicate fingers apart with the girth of his, as surely as he split her with his manhood. Breaking her in with the most perfect yawning stretch. With just the right amount of roughness that didn’t let her off too easy.                                             

“More, please,” she panted, her head lolling as his mouth savaged a spot under her jaw. “Or faster, something. I don’t — oh! ”     

Suddenly, he was giving Sansa such a stern and vigorous rutting as if her character stood to be improved by it.  Good!  The tight-laced lady in her needed it. Her hungry sex milked him for it until all burdensome thoughts were obliterated. Any other words that might’ve come to mind quickly unmade themselves into sounds dark and primal. All along the slope between her ear and shoulder, Sandor’s teeth marked her flesh. The heat of his tongue always followed, licking the “wounds” from his love bites. A mated pair of animals they must seem, she thought. He grunted away on her with such abandon. His aggression, when put to proper use, tasted of lilac cordial to this other Sansa inside her.              

“Up! Up now!” he growled, freeing his hands to slide them under her bottom.  

Sansa quickly lashed her arms around his neck as he hauled them both upright. She thought he meant for her to ride him, but her feet never touched the mattress. Instead, her legs still slung in his arms, dangled out in the air while her buttocks stayed seated firmly in his hands. Gods bless! He was lifting her and spiking her upon his shaft over and over to her piping cries of astonishment. Why, she felt no more than a ragdoll! There was little choice in her position but to trust him. Her breasts flattened against the hardness of his chest. It was all she could do to cling to him as his hips churned upward to meet her. All the while, his fingertips dug into her cheeks. Her weight spread the halves apart, creating the most inexplicably sensual pull on her…  

Sansa wailed, almost weeping with ecstasy. Her eyes flared bright as stars. She was shaken. Utterly upended. Sandor drank it all in with eyes that made her feel even more naked than before. He could smell it on her, she knew. That burgeoning enjoyment for that side of his love. The open-mouthed kiss he gave her, a torrent of frenzied desire, spoke of every way he would have her if she would let him. That he would never abuse her curiosity, only nurture and reward it. She only had to let him. 

The kiss broke only with the limits of air. 

“Sansa,” he gasped against her kiss-bruised lips. 

His words staggered out between the thrusts as he lauded her as his “beautiful, guileless little slut.” 

Even if she was blushing furiously for being found out, it was only red on red, lost in the blood boiling her inside out. Her pulse boomed in her ears. Beads of sweat slipped down the spaces between them. Though the rise and fall were entirely his to control, Sansa threw her body into it anyway. Their panting was wild and choppy. It made the air seem thinner, and her head swim. Perhaps… perhaps it was all too much, and she would faint? So she braced herself with a deep breath and buried her face against his neck. Her eyes squeezed shut as she held even faster to him.  

She felt a storm-tossed ship through the ride he gave her, her jellied limbs trembling like its banners snapping on gales from hell. Powerless against this maddening lust that he stoked in her! Not just in the things he did, but in the way he did them. It was in the way his muscular arms flanked her, bulging and curling as they guided her between heaven and earth. How they made her feel like a delicate little nothing and his everything. The walls inside her closed in tight around him, desperate to levy a little more bliss from every one of his sliding strokes. It was getting a bit sore, yes, but she could not bear it if he stopped now. Another peak was within reach. She could feel it so close, though he would not last much longer. Not in his suffering state of both fucking her too well and warring against his own completion.

“My love, speak to me,” she sobbed in his ear. “Urge me to come for you, and I will. At your word, I will.”

What he said next was entirely unexpected.  

“You will come for me this instant, Little Bird!” he snapped. His sharp tone reached straight into her lower belly and yanked. “Now! I want to feel it. Come, damn it! Don’t hold back. You hold back on me, I promise you won’t sit down for a week. Come, Little Bird! Come! NOW!”

He could have given her tender encouragement and succeeded; however, this lover’s play was infinitely better! Barking orders and dressing her down as if she were an errant soldier went over like a luscious spread of warm butter. Exhilarating her by making her imagine a few open-handed cracks across her buttocks. She could almost feel the sting dissolving into... into something piquant and titillating. Suddenly it was hard to tell which she craved more: his praise or his discipline? What had come over her? 

“Fuck, Little Bird! Come on me. Make a goddamn mess."

For good measure, he sprinted his thrusts, hanging on a prayer that it would finish her. The shock of it seized her cries, squelching them mid-throat for one, two, maybe three seconds. 

"If I have to tell you again — "                                                 

Her peak erupted from deep within, as full-bodied as any Dornish wine. His name unfurled from her lips on a protracted sigh while the might of her release possessed her. It wasn’t the lightning bolt of the first, but it burned long and all the way to the edges like a leaf of parchment. Her sex beat like a living heart, her pleasure coming down in heavy sluices. Somehow his cock felt even better charging through it, though she was already entirely rung out and satisfied. Thus, her embrace around his neck started to slacken. She would have pitched over if it hadn’t been for his arms coming up around her.     

“Sansa!”  

That’s when he laid her back down in the conventions of the marriage bed and pumped into her with three more robust and punctuated bursts.

“SANSA!”

 Sandor quickly pulled out from her, roaring loud enough to shake the timbers, and not a moment too soon. Propped up on one arm, he grabbed his cock in a veritable stranglehold. His face was twisted in an anguished expression until his body suddenly jerked. Great gouts of hot white seed jetted forth and landed on her mound and thigh to a succession of gruff masculine cries of pleasure. There was beauty in his unraveling too. Though, admittedly, it also looked like he had just barely managed to slay a dragon and live to tell about it.       

The last sticky droplets leaked from the tip and down his fingers. With the final tug, Sandor rolled and crashed on to his back with a leaden oomph.   His chest steadily rose and fell, but he was calm and quiet now. A bit dazed in the eyes too, staring up at the rafters. A sheen of sweat covered him that looked and smelled almost magical. Carefully, Sansa scooted over to him. She laid her head gently upon his chest and draped an arm across his belly. Her leg, too, crossed one of his, laying a comfortable claim to its share of territory. For a long, contented while, they didn’t move or say anything. Only his hand came to rest upon hers, giving her an affectionate squeeze while he aimlessly drew shapes on the back of her wrist.                

Her legs were a little stiff and creaky upon finally stretching them out, but overall she was no worse for wear, really. Yet she felt painfully empty again and missed him already. She wished he didn’t have to pull out so abruptly, she thought, glancing down at his spend that was already starting to dry. Truthfully, it was also a little disappointing to see his seed wasted, even if she agreed with the sense of it. Only such happiness could make her ache so heedlessly for his babe, and that would not be wise at present. She would need to speak to Arya for a remedy if she hoped to play her hand right with Bran. Her calculations were interrupted when he drew her up to kiss her sweetly.    

“Are you well?” he asked.

“Oh, very.” 

She was all smiles, but he gave her a slightly incredulous look. The exertions of their lovemaking were perhaps unusually vigorous for a deflowering. The right kind, at least, where the man wasn’t a heartless brute. Not to mention how big he was as well. There wasn’t even any blood as far as she could see. She supposed it was because she was ready, and he thoroughly made her ready. He wanted her honesty, though.  

“I am a little sore, but it’s a good sore, reminding me you were there,” she said, running a finger along his cheek. A faint raise of stubble was starting to come through again. “It does not overshadow the pleasure you gave me. Not in the slightest.”

An affirmative “hmph” was all he said to that.  

She detected a slight swell of conceit in it. If she were of a mischievous mind right now, she might have told him to ask her that after she delivered him a healthy babe. A Clegane to boot. You are quite sizable, my love, but as big as one of your get? I think not!  But, no, now was not the moment for that kind of teasing. She just wanted to lie there with him in quiet company, lazily basking in the afterglow of the most perfect night of all nights. More light caresses and soft kisses soon followed. Eventually, they drifted off to sleep, though she could not say when.            

Later that night, Sansa woke to a dreadful chill in the room. Her head lolled toward the window to see if her groggy eyes could discern the hour. It was still quite dark outside, not a hint of dawn in sight. There was still at least some time before they must head back. Her love slept beside her like a great big rock, deep and motionless, suitable for gathering a fine coat of moss. He had one arm folded under his pillow. The other fell to his side; the blankets, however, were all pushed down around his waist! By all that is holy, how was he not freezing? She sat up on her elbows, high enough to see clear over his body, and took a gander over at the fire. No wonder, she thought. It had died down to a piddling smolder.    

Wiping the sleep from her eyes, Sansa swung her legs over the side of the bed and got up. She found his shirt amongst the piles on the floor and threw it over her head. It fit like a tent and hung halfway to her knees, but it would serve to keep some of the cold off until she could get the fire going again. Quietly, she padded over to the hearth and knelt down before it. She found the pair of iron tongs and grabbed another peat brick from the stack. It took some fresh kindling, some prodding, and rearranging to get the new one to light. When she was done, she stayed there another minute, huddling near its rising heat undisturbed. That is until she felt his eyes upon her. 

Perhaps he didn’t sleep so soundly after all. Indeed, he was on his side, just watching Sansa serenely from the pillow with a small crooked smile. He was so quiet that she hadn’t even heard his rousing.  

“Your hair,” he said after a moment.

“Is a briar patch?” she supplied, reaching up to fuss with an errant strand.

“No," he said with a little shake of his head. "It’s beautiful. Especially in this light.”  

He was looking at her as if to commit the picture to memory. It was nice to know he still had the gift for making her blush so maidenly — as if she hadn’t just been tupped in the upstairs of an alehouse, of all places!      

“Come back to bed, Little Bird,” he said as he grabbed the edge of the blankets and held them up. “Here, take that thing off so I can warm you.”  

She rose up on her feet without breaking their gaze, the very image of eager obedience. Standing high on her tip-toes and with arms raised, Sansa slowly pulled his shirt over her elongated figure, giving him a generous eyeful of her endowments. As she let it fall to the floor, Sansa climbed in under the covers and sidled her back up against his chest. His very cozy, hairy chest.   

“You really were cold, girl!” he exclaimed, vigorously rubbing his hand up and down her goose-prickled arm. “Such a comely chambermaid. May I keep her?”

“You may.” 

Naturally, he was also compelled to give her breasts the heat of his palm too. 

Mmm…   I feel much warmer already.” 

“As do I,” he said, the tip of his nose nuzzling around in her hair.  

As she wiggled her arse back into his loins, she could feel his cock begin to stir again. Likewise, she could tell she was already sopping just from those mincing movements. Perhaps he could take her from behind this time? While his lips roamed her neck, his hand ventured down, down, down her middle, in search of a little flower in need of frigging.  

That is until her stomach decided to growl. Loudly. They both chuckled at the rude interruption.  

“My lady is a woman of many appetites I’m finding,” he said, patting her belly. 

It answered back again. 

Hush ,” he said. “I can go downstairs. Find something to feed that monster.”  

He tried to get up, but she laid a hand on his wrist and looked over her shoulder at him.  

“I’d rather wait to break our fast, love. There’s probably little time left before we must return to the castle.”  

The moment she mentioned Winterfell, the air between them took a turn. The veil of enchantment lifted back a bit more. They both knew things would become complicated very quickly. So long ago, Sandor was the first to warn her what a castle really was: a viper’s den of prying eyes, wagging tongues, and false friends. Home was not so bad as the Red Keep, but they would still have to be careful. She needed the right moment to approach Bran, and his hand could not be forced by scandal. Nor could she bear the thought of Sandor being sent away. She was undaunted, of course, yet she could not help but smile wanly.  

If he misliked her countenance, he said nothing about it. He only folded her in closer and brought his lips to the shell of her ear.

“When can I see you again?” he murmured. It sent the intended thrill skittering up Sansa's spine. “At least after this, I can count the hours until then.”

Oh, this would be damned difficult as they would want each other often, she knew. The temptation would be unbearable. Sansa thought about it for a moment. Now that spring was upon them, there was always riding or hawking in the countryside. He could accompany her as her shield; however, they would most likely be too chained to their work to steal away like that. They couldn’t keep meeting here, though they would always have a fondness for the Smoking Log. Definitely not in the smithy, she thought wryly.  Oh, the smithy! Of course!   Sansa flipped on to her back to face him. 

 “A night or two from now,” she answered decidedly.

“Where?”  

“My bedchamber. Arya will not be sharing a bed with me then. She’ll be... rather engaged elsewhere. And I do not keep any maids about me late into the evening. Once I am undressed, I send them away.”

She had once thought Arya’s frequent comings and goings to be rather excessive. Not any longer. It was actually quite perfect in its simplicity. As far as anyone knew, the sisters spent the whole of every night together, preferring their own company to servants as bed warmers. Come morning, Arya was always tucked in under the blankets when they came to draw back the curtains. The idea of a man shut up in Lady Sansa’s chamber would be absolutely preposterous.          

“I see…” he said, his knuckles lightly drifting up and down her side. She would never tire of those artful hands, beautifully veined and dusted with dark hair. “Then wear your hair unbound for me at supper, and I’ll know to come.”

Well, that was happily settled. It excited her just thinking about the looks they would exchange across the table with her hair brushed out to shining. And she could rely on Sandor to be as stealthy as her sister. He bowed to kiss her mouth, but, regretfully, she had to bring a cooling hand to his chest. Another matter needed discussing.        

“Sandor. I— I also intend on taking the moon tea,” she said carefully. Never did she imagine herself ever having such a conversation or a need for one. “It would make our coupling better, I think. We may carry on with discretion, of course, but… you could, perhaps, finish in the intended manner? I was quite sorry that you could not. Surely, it would feel a good deal nicer than your hand?”      

The dark of his eyes had blown wide. 

“Gods, yes! Yes!” he growled with a lecherous portend. His hand was drawn straight to her lower belly, gesturing to the womb beneath. “You want me to fill you up even more, is that it? Bloody hells, you really know how to make a man slaver and howl for you! I’ll see that buggering old booklouse of a maester first thing —”         

“No need. My sister has been making her own moon tea for some time now.”

Sandor snorted. 

“Of course she has. Is there any art unbecoming a lady that she doesn’t know?”  

“Be glad of it,” she chided gently. “ Discretion , remember?”

“I’m glad of you, and this. Yes, Little Bird, I hear you. You can be sure no one will ever know of us. So as long as I have you, it is enough.” 

With that said, he shuffled off the covers and slipped down lower on the bed. 

“Now, I must have another taste of you.”

Sandor parted her thighs and latched his mouth around her pearl and its plump mantle of rose velvet flesh. She squirmed and moaned under the slithery caresses of his tongue. He experimented more assuredly and with unfettered imagination. My my my, his library of pillow tricks was growing ever more volumed. When he slapped and ground his palm against her sex, he told her of how much he liked the taste of her sleepy little quim (a much better word, she decided). A little bit sweet and a little bit salty. The way he sucked and pulled, kissed, and licked could make her forget everything. Well, almost. Something did niggle at her. Something about what he said that she could not let pass.

“Sandor,” she gasped, arching off the bed.

A muffled “mmm-hmm” came from down below.

“Sandor,” she said, this time more firmly as she ungainly maneuvered to sit up on her forearms. 

He raised his eyes to her, alert now. His lips cherry wet and shining. 

“I do not mean for there to be any misunderstandings between us.”

He blinked in mild confusion. 

“Nor I,” he said. “Now, Little Bird, may I ?” 

His mouth flattened into a slightly petulant line. She guessed it was at her insistence on frittering away their time with too much talking. Be that as it may.  

“I’m sorry, it’s just… it’s not that I wish for our love to remain secret. I have no shame about us.”

“Good to hear it.” A stony pall came over him that she did not like. “But?”

“But nothing,” she huffed.  

“Sansa, just be out with it,” he said more wearily than angry. “You’re feeling guilty for promising me too much. Now that your thirst is slaked, you can see a little clearer now. Maybe I pushed you too hard to pledge yourself to me, so I can forgive you for being caught up in the moment. I’m in no position to make such demands of you, and you’re a good girl who will eventually do your duty for your brother. Until then, you will still want me to fuck you, which —” He chuckled bitterly. “I am sure I will not be able to resist. I must say, I did not expect you to find the courage to admit it so soon. I flattered myself thinking I could at least keep you diverted until we returned to the castle.”    

Sansa was stricken. Why must he always be so bloody grim and doubtful? About her no less! Could he honestly not know she would want to marry him? Not even guess? She resisted the urge to round on him for wounding her so. 

Patience, have patience, she told herself. Remember, he is accustomed to having naught but only what scraps his masters saw fit to give him — and doubly so for having it all cruelly snatched away in an instant. He is guarded and afraid. She would have to spell it out for him, even wave it about in his face if she must.  

“My love,” she began again, reaching out to caress his cheek, ignoring the curt roll of his eyes. “Listen to me. You are very mistaken to think that of me. I want to be your wife , Sandor. Yours, openly before gods and men. I want that so badly. But for that to come true, there can be no fault found in our relationship. No dishonor that would harm us, as wrong and unfair as it is to call it that. That is all I meant and all I desired to achieve.”

He seemed to understand now. Still, he sighed and shook his head ruefully.

“No, no, listen,” she said as she held him by the chin and made him look at her. “I want to wake up next to you every morning in our own bed. I want to make love, or fuck, or play at any lover’s game we wish. I want to put the moon tea aside for good and feel your child grow inside me. Sooner, rather than later. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

The apple of his throat bobbed as his eyes seemed to search for the right words somewhere in the sheets. 

“You dream so beautifully, sweet girl,” he said after a while, pressing a rather too courtly kiss upon the top of her foot. Now he sounded as if he was trying to let her down gently. “Forgive me for ever doubting the sincerity your little heart. That you promised to be true to me and meant it — gods, how I love you for that. And you gave yourself to me too. I still can’t believe all this is real.”

“Are you trying to say you don’t want to be married or have children with me?” she asked bluntly, and with a courage she did not feel. Suddenly, she felt like her mouth was full of ashes.     

“I… Oh, Sansa, no.” Sandor crawled back up to her side and gathered her to him. They lay close in each other’s arms like children intimating their secrets, without space enough for a needle and thread to pass between them.   

“On my life, I would never say that,” he said solemnly. “As a wife, you’d be a joy to me. As would a whole host of moppets running around. I confess the thought came to me while you were holding the innkeeper’s whelp. Married or not, I aim to spend the rest of my life devoted to your happiness, Little Bird. Believe that. But some things we can’t change and best accept them. Your brother is a great lord, and —”       

“Is still my little brother,” she argued while stroking the length of dark hair that tumbled down his neck. “Let me speak to Bran before we begin the season of feasting and before any suitors can set foot on our doorstep. Am I not a beloved sister who has never asked him for anything? He’ll not deny me this. Besides, he likes you well enough.”

“Your sister doesn’t.”

“Arya will come around.” 

“Your brother loves you well,” he conceded. “And he’s not one for dickering with lordly lords, I’ll give you that, but be sensible, Sansa. Your hand is not something he would just give away to a household retainer.”

She laughed merrily at that, which startled him. 

“Of course, he wouldn’t do that! He’d grant you a lordship, lands, and incomes first.”  

Now Sandor looked genuinely stunned. His mouth hanging open like that was too endearing not to kiss, so she did. Quick and with a buoyant spirit. But the poor man was still just as lost as before.              

“Sandor, how could he do less for one who saved both his sisters’ lives and served in the high command of our hosts? We could not have survived at home without you either. You have more than earned such honors now that my lord brother can give them. Why, it would be a disgrace on our family if we did not! I shall not bear to think of making such a slight!” 

She kissed him again, softly brushing his lips and rubbing their noses.     

“There now, you see,” she said. “My hand is not so far out of reach anymore, is it?”     

The idea was settling on him, smoothing itself out like a pebble as it turned over in his mind. She could tell by the way his thumb began to lazily strum the dip in her lower back.  

“No, I suppose it isn’t,” he admitted with a look of sly admiration. “Woe to whoever gets between the Ladies Stark and what they want.”

“Just so,” she laughed.

“Tell me more about your schemes for me then.”  

Sansa’s heart leapt up. “Well, it would be like how old Lord Tytos did for your grandfather but better. We have holdfasts fit for a younger lordling, large enough to support a company of at least a few hundred spearmen. There are fields for barley and fine pasturelands for sheep. You could have a kennel to amuse yourself if you like. Breed your own stock of hunting dogs. And perhaps you could put your stallion out to stud as well. The foals alone from such a sire could fetch a handsome profit to keep you comfortably set,” she explained, though she felt she may have strayed into silly prattling. He only smiled though, listening quietly, as if she were telling the best story he had ever heard. “Your banners would adorn the ramparts and the columns of your hall. A new House Clegane, or… if you would have me, my lord, you could take the name Stark. Raise up a new junior branch.”

His one brow arched at that. “ ‘If I would have you,’ woman? Really? You’re the only part of the whole bloody business that makes the rest worth anything.”

Sansa's heart skipped a beat as a light mist came over her eyes. That Sandor prized his rewards, even so justly deserved, so far below her moved her deeply.  

“And that is why you are the only man I could ever fathom marrying. You love me for myself. When Bran summons you to discuss your suit, you should tell him that. His heart is not unlike mine: soft and sentimental. He will already know my mind on this, and should be glad to welcome you as goodbrother then.”

Sandor drew the inside of her wrist to his lips, bussing her skin and giving it a scorching lick of his tongue. The leer in his eye said he would brook no more discussion on matters weighty or otherwise. Yet he was entirely happy, she knew. Not at his suddenly brighter prospects, but at what they would make of them together.    

Cupping her nape in one hand, he tilted her chin up to him. Gently and unhurried, he kissed all around her open mouth. Corner to corner. Sucking the pout of her lips and the slip of her tongue like an oyster from its shell. He was inciting her desire once again, and Sansa could not help but obey the urge to run her hand over the smooth, hardened muscles of his back. Over the firm and shapely contours of his arse. Over the bridge of finer, downier hair that joined that lovely arse to his powerful thighs. When her hand came around to his front, she oh-so lightly scratched her fingernails up the underside of his sack. He shivered against her. His cock was flooding with blood, but not yet at its hardest. Sansa wrapped her fingers around him, massaging his aching need to the slow undulations of his kisses. 

“Unghhh… ” Sandor growled against her lips, melting into her touch. “My betrothed... my bride… my lady wife.” His cock throbbed, spurred by his enumerations as much as by her more practiced skills.                        

Though he made a hiss of complaint when she let go of him, it was only to give her palm a wet lick to aid in pleasuring him. When he saw that, he seized her wrist to supply another coat with his own tongue and then quickly placed her hand back on its task. Glassy beads of fluid now flowed freely from the tip, which Sansa also collected and smeared down his length.  

“Yesss, my intended… my love… my lord husband,” she purred against his neck.  “My hand is yours. Take my hand.”             

That earned a small snicker from him, though his heavy-eyed rapture remained undisturbed.

“Clever,” he whispered, slowly rocking his hips into the sweet torture of her snug little fist.     

He was so beautiful that it made her mouth water and yearn to be filled with something suck-worthy. Her nipples were shriveled-up tight, piqued, and searching for relief. Sansa jutted them out to his chest, rubbing the irate little buds around in the cloud of scratchy softness.  

As they swam in a warm sea of passionate kisses, Sandor brought his hand down to her bottom and eagerly pushed into the cleft. With a low moan, Sansa hitched her leg upon his to allow him greater access. He pawed at her sodden sex. Her folds slotted and softly pinched between his fingers as he trenched through her wetness. Despite their mutual arousal, neither cared to hasten their relaxed pace or to go barreling toward completion. Sometimes he hovered over her nub, tweaking it until he had her desperately jamming her body up against him. The next moment, he would slide two fingers inside her while his thumb made circles of light pressure around her rear entrance. Always pushing her right up to the edge of peaking. Always pulling back from it until the denial was a whole pleasure in itself. The eighth heaven if there ever was one.               

From somewhere not so far off came the din of kettles and dishes clattering. The voices of Yda and Hanna as they bustled about. The wail of the baby boy demanding to be put on a breast. They paid it all little mind. Even the cool, milky blue twilight just starting to creep through the window.    

When she did take him inside her, it was in her own time. Sansa guided the head of his cock to her slit and angled herself to mount him. Sandor then pushed homeward as he pulled her on top of him. There was nothing, nothing like that first ahhh of satisfaction when his thickness cleaved through her, and he touched places inside she could not. From the look of love-drunk annihilation on his face, she could see it was the same to be hugged tightly within a woman’s warmth.  

It took a minute to find her footing, so to speak, from inelegant wobbling to rolling her hips with aplomb. Sansa steadied herself by bracing her arms behind her on the tops of his thighs. He watched her glide upon his shaft, offering encouragement through occasional moans and nods. Through the indentations of his fingers circling her waist as she rode him and rode him and rode him. She imagined herself as one of those famed courtesans Arya had told her about from her travels. Some veiled and mysterious, unearthly creature that made love into an art form. Her hair had fallen forward and did so shade her nipples from view, but not their full and pleasing shape. For that which he could not see only made him want to touch more. His hands moved up her body, approaching her breasts like supplicants as he gazed up at her. He caught them up, admiring their weight, their bounce, their suppleness as if he lamented ever having been weaned. As much as she loved these worshipful, calloused-tipped attentions, it only made her want more.    

“I need to feel you around me,” she said while grinding her nub down deep toward the bone beneath his bush.     

“Come then. Turn around,” he said, patting on his chest.

Sansa unseated herself from his cock while Sandor stuffed another pillow behind him and bent his knees. He took her hand with all the gentility of helping her step into a carriage and brought her back on top of him. This time with her back couched upon his chest, her legs spread wide on the outside of his. His unanchored cock, slick and shining, swayed between them. The long reach of his arm allowed him to resheath it inside her as she nestled her head just under his chin.    

“Let me,” he whispered.

Strong arms cuddled her up and kept her firmly in place while his loins bounded and reared under her. Sandor fucked up into her with long, meticulously smooth stokes like some ingenious machine, as his breath puffed in time against her scalp. She was so open, so wet they could hear its comings-and-goings. Sansa cooed and whined as she reached behind her to push her fingers deep into his hair. She could bend like a bow or toss and turn. It did not matter. She was secure to his body. Warm and almost bundled up like a bear cub, even with blankets shoved away. 

Two of his fingers found her pert little nub, circling it round and round, calling up that choir of nerves. His other hand enveloped the whole column of her throat. So massive was the extent of his grasp, it would surely appear quite menacing to an onlooker, yet he only used a gentle pressure to tilt her lips back to his. His tongue tantalized them to open with devilishly subtle flicks, to which he then both supped on her kisses and silvery sighs. 

There were no other pillow tricks. No new love games. Just the constancy of his lovemaking. The sweet invasion between her lips, moist and voluptuous as a glass garden exotic. The humming sensations he spun from her nub. Sansa trembled and moaned, feeling loose as a puppet on severed strings. He turned her head again, this time away so she could feel his swath of scars on the side of her face.                            

With his cheek to hers, Sandor extolled her beauty in low rumbling murmurs, as if secreted from some imagined crowd. His rasp was like an old sawblade's teeth running over every word, tickling her senses as he labored over her carnal delight. It was difficult to not be distracted, but he said something like "from the top of her head to her toes, and all her pink parts in between, she was it for him. All he needed in this world." He spoke of how she felt "as close to him as one of his own ribs and always reminding him where his heart was." How he reckoned he "couldn’t live without her now, his Little Bird."     

That he thought himself no good with words was as tragic as it was untrue! No poet could hold a candle to his gift for uniquely honest tributes. It all added up to professing how much he loved her, and Sansa was duly overcome — oh, and coming! Her peak had snuck in like a thief, taking her unawares. She shuddered against him while blubbering what must have been cock-addled, besotted nonsense. Oh well, there was no help for it. She was plainly a hopeless fool for him, and he certainly deserved to be treated to a little such foolish fawning over him. 

As she came floating down like a feather back to earth, she felt Sandor's breath hitch. His hand fell away from her throat, and instead, he strapped his whole arm across her chest and shoulders. The heat of use from his cock felt almost like an ember on her overwrought nub when he withdrew it. Sansa reached down to finish him off, his hand clamped over hers. Sandor's body convulsed, folding them inward. The arm around her squeezed in almost painfully tight like a heavy rope. With a helpless groan, his head lolled back in surrender, his strength receded. And then Sansa felt the molten pool of seed blossoming on her mound.        

The recovery effort was neither dull nor dismal. There were plenty of looks, smiles, and stolen kisses when they bathed each other from the washbasin. They had also made japes while they hunted about for missing pieces of clothing. Sandor now knelt down before her with one of her feet daintily poised on his knee. He was rolling a stocking up her leg, while Sansa sat on the edge of the bed; however, this was also with her skirts rucked up around her middle. Her rosy quim peeked out like the glory of sunrise over which his eyes did covetously roam. It was only fair after he had wickedly decided to pocket her silken smallclothes since he had found them first. 

"I am suddenly envious of your saddle, Little Bird," he said, planting one last kiss there before pulling her dress down.    

All this pent up ardor would have to keep until they could meet again. Sansa gave him a smile from an oblique gaze, her eyelids blinking slowly like a cat's. This newly awakened Sansa was incorrigible, but damn if she wasn't full of fun. He, too, seemed a man of much younger years this morning, she thought while she slipped into her boots. Almost as if winter had been no more than a dream.        

"I must somehow manage to sit ahorse now, mustn't I?" she replied as she donned her shawl over her unruly, tangled hair. "Well, come then. Let me help you with your swordbelt, my love."

Sandor was half-hard again, making no attempt to hide it while he stood by the door. That he needed her assistance was absurd. She only wanted one last lingering brush with his manhood. As she threaded the leather through the buckle about his waist, Sansa was caught off guard by an intrusive, sobering thought. There would surely come a day when he would be called to go fight again. As his lady, she would be expected to bear it well, without tears or fussing over him. And he could not be burdened with comforting her when his mind must be clear. This is what being married to a lord means. As a child, she had no notion of Father not returning home, but now... Now she knew better. She wouldn't be sitting at home with her stitching, dreaming, and longing for things not yet come to pass. The pastimes of a girl. Sandor was hers to hold now. How would she ever endure it if she could not hold him again?      

Sandor's hands took her gently by the shoulders. "Little Bird? You were far away."

"I love you," she blurted out. She placed her hands upon the breast of his jerkin as if to reassure herself. "I mean, I love you, Sandor."

He beamed down at her, albeit with a queer look.

“I know," he said, taking her face in his hands. "Whatever it was, put it out of your mind, girl. I'll not put up with an ounce of dreary, useless buggery today. I'd sooner go back to living on turnips."

She had to laugh at that. As soon as she did, he was kissing her soundly. If the shade of Lady Cat hovered near, she'd be giving her foolish daughter an amused smile. What is bound to happen will happen, yes. But in between, there'd be years (gods willing) of walks, and japes, and confidences. Bedsport of such memory to warm them in old age. A home. Sons and daughters at the knee.  

"There's a bloody sun in the sky again, and I have my girl," he said as he lifted the latch and opened the door for her. "My greatest concern right now is wedding and bedding you before your brother can regain his wits and send me packing like he ought. Any children of ours will have more Clegane sense than Stark, I promise you that."

"I'm certain you will see to that, my love," she replied as she gracefully swished passed him through the threshold, her green dress a flurry around her. "We are in good hands."

Sansa stood on her toes for one last kiss filled with the promise of their next tryst. With that, Sandor obliged her and closed the door behind them.