As he listened to the sounds of the older woman’s footsteps fade from behind the door of his chambers, Sandor could not hold back his groan of frustration. This was not at all how he had anticipated things to go over when he arrived. He was not expecting a particularly warm welcome, certainly, but he was not prepared for the Starks’ behavior towards him and his mother.
He tried to be understanding. Given what they had been through, it would have been understandable for them to be on edge and indignant. He was honest enough to admit that if he held a higher title, he too would have been insulted by the idea of marrying one of his daughters off to a man of a much lower class. But he would not have been so hostile towards that man as the Starks were towards him.
Not for the first time, he began to wonder if the betrothal was a mistake. It seemed to have caused nothing but grief for the Starks, and Lady Catelyn most of all. He had no idea how his bride felt about the matter; he no longer believed Ned’s insistence that she accepted it.
Mere acceptance was not what he had been hoping for. The idea of a bride who was only tolerating his touch because she had no choice was not appealing to him in the least bit. An enthusiastic bride was completely unrealistic for him, he knew that; no woman would ever welcome him with open arms, a genuine smile, and a teasing voice inviting him over. But he was only a man, after all; he had hopes and dreams just like everyone else. He wanted Sansa to be happy with him, with being his wife. He never entertained the idea that she would ever have liked his appearance; that was an impossibility for sure. But the idea of spending a life with him would not have seemed so terribly intolerable to her in his dreams. He had enough to offer her to ensure her happiness–in material things, at least.
Out of everything that was said during the dinner, that one sentence was affecting him the most: She accepts it. Ned surely had no idea, but he effectively extinguished the tiny glimmer of hope that Sandor had been feeling in the blink of an eye. When they were still only corresponding through letters, the marriage negotiations had given him a shred of hope that he was finally being touched by luck: after two failed betrothals and so many years without as much as a hint of interest from anyone else, he had resigned himself to his fate as an unmarried Earl with no heirs. In truth, it felt as though a miracle had occurred when Lord Stark agreed to the marriage.
He felt like a coward for it, but he could not help but consider ending the engagement. It was true that only a coward would run away from a situation such as his, but he did not have much of a reputation to worry about. Perhaps people were expecting him to flee; perhaps they thought it would be the honorable thing for him to do, to prevent the lovely Lady Sansa from being humiliated by the marriage.
Then again, it would only add to her humiliation if he deserted her. It would be seen as a rejection, certainly, and for someone like him to refuse her was just unthinkable. She should be the one rejecting the idea of the marriage, not the other way around.
No, he thought, he could not do that. He would not do that to her. He had come this far, and he could not turn back now.
Finally tearing himself away from the door, he began to pace his chambers in an effort to clear his head. Desperately wishing he had a window for some fresh air, he eventually decided to leave his room and wander through the castle in search of a balcony or a door for him to stand outside. He knew the air would be bitterly cold, but he believed that was exactly what he needed in order to gather his bearings and begin thinking rationally again.
He did not bother to grab one of his wool coats before he slipped out the door and into the hall. To his relief, the stretch of corridor was empty; he did not wish to be confronted by another servant. For a moment he felt isolated all over again, as if he was once again a young boy so loathed by his father that he was banished to one wing of the estate with no contact with anyone except the house staff. It was clear to him that there were no other guests or residents living in the other chambers lining the hall, leaving him completely alone.
At that thought, he changed his mind. He did not want to be alone anymore. If there was anyone here who could help calm his mind, it was Phillip.
Upon reaching the stairs, he was greeted by the sight of Morys ascending. The servant looked surprised to see him.
“Is there something you needed, sir? I was just coming up to check on you.”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, yes,” Sandor answered. He stopped and waited at the top of the stairs. “I was hoping to find my servant, Phillip. I cannot stand being alone right now and wish to speak to him.” He did not know why he offered so much information when it was not necessary.
Morys looked somewhat surprised by the request. “Oh, certainly sir,” he said regardless. “Although, you do not have to go to the servants’ wing. I can fetch him and bring him to you if you wish.”
“Does his chamber have a window?”
“Well, yes,” Morys said, sounding every bit as confused as he looked, “but–”
“I would prefer to go to him,” Sandor interrupted with a rueful smile. The servants getting a window while he was isolated in a lonely corridor without one was an unbelievable slap to the face. He realized then that there was absolutely no chance that it was a mere coincidence; it was a deliberate move by the Starks, most likely to keep him hidden from view.
He tried to think of a reasonable explanation for it. They simply did not want to risk someone being able to see him through the window because they believed it would be humiliating for him, he told himself. Surely there were townsfolk who were itching to see him, to get a peek at the least. It would not have surprised him if the man they had encountered on the road was out there right now, trying to figure out how to show his companions what he saw.
It was far more likely that they put him there to avoid humiliating themselves. They could have been planning to keep hi hidden from view until the ceremony. He could not stop himself from thinking about what other extreme measures they were planning on taking. Would they make him wear a mask? Or perhaps a sack to cover his entire head. It would save them all from having to look at the bald patches on his head where his hair never grew.
He shook the thought from his mind as quickly as it came. He had to believe that they would not go that far or else he would drive himself crazy.
Morys led him through the castle to the servants’ wing without much conversation. Sandor noted that unlike the corridor his own chambers were located in, there was only a single door for the servants’ quarters. The door looked to be made of a thin type of wood, and there was a considerably more noticeable draft that seemed to be coming from every angle.
Before he pushed open the door, Morys paused and turned to look at him. “Should I go first, sir? I can tell everyone to clear out until you are ready to return to your chambers.”
“Have they not all seen me already?” Sandor asked, recalling the large gathering of the Starks’ servants that had been waiting for him and his mother when they arrived. He was sure the servant was only asking to be considerate, but the question only reminded him of all the things he suspected the Starks felt about him.
Morys looked somewhat uncomfortable and stammed before he was able to speak properly. “Most of them have, yes, but...” He trailed off and averted his eyes from Sandor’s gaze. He could not say it; it was simply too rude and much too improper for a servant to say.
“But?” Sandor prompted. The way Morys still refused to look him in the eyes and stammered worse than before in response gave him a clue as to what Morys was unable to bring himself to say. “Have I been the subject of gossip, Morys?” he asked, aiming for amusement but his tone came out clipped in spite of himself.
He was not surprised, and in fact, he would have been shocked if the servants were not whispering about him where nobody but themselves could hear.
The guilty expression on Morys’s face was answer enough, but the graying man gave a verbal response anyway. “I will not lie to you, sir,” he began hesitantly. “Some of them have been talking, telling stories and such to the ones who did not see your arrival. They are tasteless and–and immature. I do not approve–”
“What are some of these stories?” Sandor interrupted him. There was a grin on his face but it held no humor. He did not know why he asked; truthfully, he did not want to know. Hearing the words his father used to describe him as a child was more than enough for him; he could only assume that other peoples’ sentiments were similar, or even worse.
Before the old man could answer, Sandor held up a hand to stop him. “Never mind,” he said quickly. “Do what you think is best. I just want to speak with Phillip as soon as possible.” He could feel himself growing agitated again, his mind drifting to unpleasant and distressing thoughts.
“Certainly, sir, my apologies. I will tell everyone to find a chore to do for the time being. There is always something that needs to be taken care of around here.” Morys chuckled, clearly trying to lighten the mood. “It will only take a few moments. Wait here, please.”
Morys barely cracked the door open, giving himself enough room to squeeze through the gap and into the room, denying Sandor a chance to peek inside and see everyone–or rather, for anyone inside to sneak a peek at him.
Ruth had returned to Sansa’s chambers what felt like hours ago, though it was most likely only a quarter of an hour at the most. The older woman was still complaining about her encounter with Clegane, pacing back and forth, her hands flying in every direction each time she got herself more worked up than before. Her accent had grown thicker than Sansa had ever heard it before, and there was no trace of the formalities she usually used even when speaking to her Lady.
“I shall tell you one thing! If I never have to speak to him again, that will be fine by me! In fact, I do hope you never ask me to again. You would be in no hurry to marry him if you had been there, of that I am absolutely sure. To think that an earl should be so–”
She cut herself off, her cheeks coloring pink with shame as soon as the words left her mouth. “Forgive me, miss. I–I should never have said such a thing.” She clutched at the neckline of her dress with one hand while she used the other to reach up and pat down the stray hairs that never wanted to stay in her braid. “My temper got the best of me.”
For a moment Sansa did not say anything, waiting for Ruth to launch back into a tirade. “I noticed,” she said once she was confident the older woman was finished speaking. She was aiming for a teasing tone, but from the way Ruth’s cheeks flamed even brighter she was sure it came out chastising instead. “I must confess I am somewhat confused by your outburst. Explain to me again what happened? And do try to stay on topic this time, please.”
By then Ruth’s entire face was red and so was her neck. She turned away from Sansa’s gaze before she began to speak again, choosing to tidy up one of the desks in the room to keep her hands busy and her mind focused, and to have an excuse to not have to look at her Lady. “He would not speak to me except to tell me as much,” she said with a huff, unable to stop herself from expressing her anger one more time. “I believe he thinks I am a spy, or some sort of nosey old maid whose goal was to run along and gossip about him.”
“In a way, that is true,” Sansa teased, grinning even though Ruth still was not looking at her. “Well, except for the nosey old maid part But you are something of a spy, and you are gossiping. Would you not agree?”
Ruth spun around to face her quickly, embarrassed and ready to defend herself until she saw the glint of mischief in her Lady’s eye and the grin on her face. “Are you teasing me, miss?” She was so flustered the question came out almost breathless.
“Ruthie, please, I was only joking. I was trying to make you smile. You were quite worked up, and you know how I hate when you are angry.”
“My apologies, miss,” Ruth said with a sigh, shaking her head. “He just... riled me up, I suppose.”
Sansa resisted the urge to voice her agreement or that the observation was an obvious one. “Was there anything else? Surely he said more than that.”
Ruth did not answer for a moment, clearly reluctant to repeat it. Finally, when she realized Sansa was not going to budge on finding out, she spoke. “He said if you want to know more about him you must speak to him yourself.” Before she even finished the sentence her cheeks were turning pink again. “I could not believe my ears, miss. Suggesting such a thing... as if you would do such a thing!”
It was true that an idea such as that was preposterous, not to mention improper. Sansa could practically hear her mother drilling it into her head as a child, “A bride must never see the man she is going to marry until they are standing before the priest. It only brings bad luck to both her family and her groom’s.” Sandor must have known this; Catelyn would never have allowed the Cleganes to come if they were not aware of Northern customs and superstitions, and had not given their word that they would abide by them. That they were here, days away from the ceremony, proved that they knew everything that was important.
So, then, why did he say that? Sansa sat in silence for several long moments, lost in thought as she puzzled over it. She attempted to rationalize it, but that only served to remind her of something that she had been painfully aware of the entire time.
She did not know anything about the man she would be marrying in just a few days.
She could not rationalize saying such a thing for him because she simply did not know what he could have possibly been thinking. Did he want her to break the rules and go to him? Or had he said it purely out of frustration? Did he think the customs were outrageous? She would not have blamed him if he did; she thought they were outrageous herself. But what choice did she have? She could not possibly disobey her parents, nor could she risk the superstitions being true and bringing more bad luck to her family. Gods knew they had been through more than enough of their fair share.
Sandor, on the other hand, had a choice. He could choose to ignore the customs, to reject them completely and outright. It would almost certainly cost them both the marriage if he did, knowing the uproar her mother would start, but he would not have to deal with her. Lord Stark would be the unfortunate one to deal with the consequences of their actions, to listen to Catelyn’s ranting and hysterics and try to calm her down.
And Sansa. She had no doubts that her mother would make her equally as miserable, if not more so.
“Would it truly be so bad if I did?” she asked absentmindedly. She was not aware that she had even said it aloud until Ruth gasped and started waving her hands frantically, as though she were trying to fan away the words from the air.
“I did not hear you say that!” she said through gritted teeth. The older woman covered her mouth with both hands for a moment, eyebrows furrowed together. “Miss, please, I beg you. Do not say such foolish things! You know it would be so bad. It would likely be worse than you think!”
Sansa felt her own cheeks heat up this time. She had not meant to vocalize the question; she had known the answer for as long as she could remember. “I was only thinking out loud, Ruth,” she said dismissively. “Of course I know I cannot do that. I do not know why I said it.”
But the more she thought about it, the more she could not get the idea out of her head. It was a foolish idea for certain; she was not denying that. But there could be benefits from it. For one thing, she could clear up the misunderstandings about Ruth. She could prove to Sandor that her maid was not spying on him for her own reasons, but rather acting on Sansa’s behalf. If he was willing to listen to her, she could tell him about herself. Perhaps she would even be able to encourage him to tell her more about his own life. At the very least, she would be able to finally speak to her betrothed.
Forget the customs. Forget her mother’s outdated superstitions about bad luck and doom and gloom. In their current situation, Sansa knew that she would be far too nervous for the ceremony–and to be around her husband after they were officially married. The customs required her to essentially go in blind, with no idea what to expect in terms of what her husband would be like. For all she knew, Sandor was as rude and uncivilized as Ruth accused him of being. Or he was worse.
What if he treated her like that? What if that was his normal attitude? What was she to do if he refused to speak to her after the ceremony? She could be signed up for a marriage that was as cold as the Northern winters.
She made up her mind then. All she needed to do was convince Ruth that it was not as bad an idea as she thought.
Morys did not return from inside the servants’ quarters for several minutes. During that time Sandor could hear muffled voices and the sounds of people moving about. The door was not thick by any means, so he assumed Morys and whoever else was in the room were talking in hushed voices. When the door finally opened again, he was able to see that the room was empty except for Morys, Phillip and Murron.
He was surprised to see just how big the servants’ quarters were. In his bitterness over his treatment, he had convinced himself that the Starks were neglectful and cruel to their staff. He expected to be greeted with the sight of a tiny, cramped space, filled to the bri with beds but not much else. Instead, he saw that the room was large enough for the cots to be lined along each wall with a fair amount of space between them. It was a single room, just as he had anticipated, but there were hearths in three of the walls, albeit small ones, which were all stocked with wood and had decent fires blazing, making the room surprisingly warm despite the draft that could be felt outside the door.
“I see you were able to shoo everyone away,” he mumbled. Morys stepped aside to allow him into the room.
“Yes, sir. I was not sure if you wanted Murron here as well, but I did not want to overstep and make her leave.”
“That is fine. She can stay. Thank you, Morys.”
With a bow, the older servant left the room, closing the door behind him. Sandor slowly made his way over to the far side of the room where his servants were sitting on separate cots placed close to one of the hearths.
“Morys said you wanted to speak to me?” Phillip asked once Sandor had sat down on another cot next to them. “Is everything all right?”
One corner of Sandor’s mouth turned up in a small smile. “You know you are my confidant, Phillip,” he said after a moment. He looked at Murron. “You are my mother’s confidant. I am sure you will tell her everything I am about to say.”
Murron blushed. “I–”
Sandor held up a hand to stop her. “I would expect no less,” he said good-naturedly. “I would be worried if you did not tell her. I would feel like she could not trust you.” He forced a full smile then, fighting the urge to cringe. It was harder to ignore his looks and his almost non-existent confidence now.
“Of course,” Murron said, smiling back.
“I am your confidant,” Phillip said, his gaze never wavering from Sandor. “There is something on your mind.”
“Yes, there is.” For a long moment, Sandor did not say anything else. He could not think of the proper way to express what he was feeling. He knew it would be best to just say it, no matter how it came out, but he could not force the words out. He knew the two servants before him would not judge him; they were his and his mother’s closest companions, and had been serving the Cleganes for more years than he cared to count. Still, he could not shake the fear that they would think he was a coward, just as he already felt.
“I suppose I just... cannot shake the feeling that all of this is wrong. I do not belong here, and I absolutely do not feel welcome. Lady Catelyn has made her feelings crystal clear to me.”
“We heard about what happened at the dinner,” Phillip said. “Some of the other servants were laughing about it earlier.” At the agonized expression that fell across Sandor’s face, he rushed to add, “They were not laughing at you! They were saying Lady Catelyn had gotten herself in trouble with Lord Stark over her outbursts.”
“What kind of trouble?” Sandor caught that Phillip had said outbursts, not at all eager to know what exactly was being said about the dinner. He was also dreading the answer to his question. He wanted to feel somewhat better, knowing that Ned had at least chastised her, but he knew that it would only give Catelyn another reason to hate him.
“Just a verbal altercation, if we are to believe the rumor,” Phillip said dismissively, unaware of the terror and dread Sandor was feeling.
“Let us hope that is all it is, a rumor,” he said quietly, running a palm down his face with a sigh. “To tell you the truth, I am not sure if I want to stick around here.”
“You would break the engagement?” Murron asked in disbelief.
Phillip leaned forward slightly. “You must think rationally,” he said, his voice soft. “I know that this must be a shock for you to be here. I must confess that even I am having trouble adjusting. But... if I may speak bluntly?”
“This is too important to just walk away from it all.” He maintained eye contact with Sandor. “Murron and I–really, everyone back at home, have watched your mother nearly drive herself mad trying to secure a marriage for you.”
“You think I am not aware of that?” Of course, he was aware of it! He had seen it himself for years, watching helplessly as the hope visibly drained from his mother with each passing year, each rejection of the proposition of marriage. She had tried to hide it from him, but she had been noticeably heartbroken after his second engagement was called off. He knew all too well just how hard and for how long she had been trying.
“I know you are,” Phillip said calmly, “which is why I also know that you already know that you cannot simply walk away. Especially not now.”
“You were not there at the dinner,” Sandor said, sounding as pathetic and miserable as he felt. “You did not see the way she looked at me or hear the things she said to me. She loathes me. I have tried to understand it: given all that has happened to them, I expected them to be unhappy and even angry with this arrangement. But I feel it is much more than that. My very existence is offensive to her.”
“I understand why you feel that way. But you must stay the course. Once you and Lady Sansa are married, you will never again be obligated to come here.”
“I do not even know if my bride wants me–truly wants me.”
“We would not be here if she did not.” Murron offered him a sympathetic look. “You are too hard on yourself, and you assume the worst.”
Sandor rose to his feet and began pacing. “Both of the women before Lady Sansa were extreme cases. You and I both know that if Mary had not stolen a dagger from one of her father’s guards and threatened to cut her own throat she would have been forced to marry me. Eithne’s mother interfered on her behalf so that she could call off the wedding. Had that not happened, either of them would have been forced to marry me, in spite of their feelings about the idea.” He laughed humorlessly. “I would not be surprised if Lady Catelyn has been trying to talk Lord Stark out of it this entire time. But Lord Stark... well. He seems to be more interested in the politics of this marriage than what anyone else is feeling.”
Stopping abruptly and turning to face them completely, he continued. “All I have to go on is his word. I hae not had any contact with Lady Sansa whatsoever. I cannot know for sure that he is not lying to me simply to ensure we are married.”
“Do you truly believe he would lie?” Phillip asked.
“When it comes to securing a marriage for his daughter, knowing that there are no other options for her, absolutely. But the most important issue to me is that I cannot marry her if she is not truly willing. I will not do that. Taking a bride, without her consent... You both know me. That is not something that I would ever do to a woman.”
“Then you must speak with her.”
He could not stop the laugh that erupted from him. “If only!” he said loudly, shaking his head. “My life would be easier right now if I were permitted to speak with her, but I am not! These people expect me to marry their daughter in just a few days without giving her a chance to know who, or what, she is going to be bound to for life. It is absurd.”
“If I am not mistaken,” Phillip began slowly, as though he were carefully considering his words as he spoke, “Lord and Lady Stark were married in the same manner, were they not? We cannot fault them if this is the only way they know.”
“You are right, but that does not mean that I can follow these rules in good conscience.” Sandor sank back down onto the cot, covering his face with both hands. “I need more than Lord Stark’s word.”
“And you are certain you cannot convince him to let you speak with Lady Sansa?”
“I do not think I would have to convince him, so much as I would have to convince Lady Catelyn.”
Murron glanced at Phillip, making knowing eye contact with him before she reached out to put a hand on Sandor’s knee. The touch made him lower his hands to look at her. The miserable expression on his face was jarring for both of the servants; it was not often that Sandor allowed himself to be this vulnerable and open in front of either of them, even if Phillip was his closest confidant.
“Perhaps we could help you,” Murron said softly.
“How could you possibly do that?”
“We were given a tour of the castle shortly after we arrived by some of Lord and Lady Stark’s servants,” Phillip explained, oblivious to the fact that Sandor had essentially been banished to his chambers until the dinner and escorted straight back. “We were not shown Lady Sansa’s bedchambers, of course, but we were shown the corridor they are located in.”
“And Agnes, one of the younger maids, pointed out Lady Sansa’s personal maid to me,” Murron said, almost jittering with excitement now at the idea. “I could see if I can get close to her.”
Sandor’s full attention was immediately drawn by the mention of the maid. “What did this maid look like?”
Murron thought for a moment as she recalled the other woman’s features. “She was an older woman, a bit on the plump side. Stern-looking, though not nearly as stern as Lady Catelyn,” she said with a grin.
“What color was her hair?”
“Oh, it was beautiful. Black as the night with not a single gray strand that I could see.”
He felt his heart begin to start racing. “Did Agnes tell you her name?” he asked almost frantically.
Murron glanced back at Phillip, clearly confused. “Ruth,” she said slowly. “Why?”
“I cannot believe it,” Sandor breathed, shaking his head.
He felt like an absolute fool. He had been so rude to Ruth earlier, refusing to listen to her or even consider that she was telling the truth at all. It had seemed like nothing more than a cover story to him; he did not trust her word in the least bit. All he had been able to think was that she was lying to him to avoid getting into too much trouble, and now, it turned out she had been telling the truth!
At the time, he was so caught up in his hurt feelings that he did not see the opportunity that had been right in front of him. He could have used Ruth to talk to Sansa. If his bride truly had sent Ruth out to speak with him, then perhaps she was attempting to reach out to him. Perhaps she was just as desperate to contact him.
He knew he needed to be rational and keep a level head; he knew all too well just how quickly his hopes tended to be crushed. It was not wise for him to allow it to happen, but he could not stop the hope that was swelling inside him again.
“I may not need your help,” he said quickly, standing up from the cot. “I appreciate the offer, truly. But I think I may be able to do it on my own.”
“What?” Murron’s disappointment was evident in her tone.
“Wait,” Phillip called out after him as he started for the door. “Are you still wanting to call off the wedding?”
“Not yet,” Sandor said over his shoulder.
The only thing on his mind was that he needed to find Ruth again.