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No Ensnared Bird

Chapter Text

For generations the Clegane family had been the very definition of beauty and grace. With an immense amount of wealth, numerous titles, and property spanning across several territories, anyone lucky enough to bear the name had been privileged from the moment they were conceived. The last two generations had added to the appeal, both physically and politically, of the family by going against the social norms of noblemen and training to be proficient in combat. Although they certainly had no intentions of ever reducing themselves to a lowly knight, they were physically capable of doing so, and were considered to be worthy opponents in sparring matches. The brute strength of the men also made them popular among women, and most noble families wanted to marry a daughter off to one in the hopes that those traits would be passed on to an heir.

Marcus Clegane, who had inherited the title of Duke and was well-known for his good looks and charming personality in his younger years, had been one of only a handful of male Cleganes born in his generation and the only one to actually bear the Clegane name. Having descended from a long line of equally attractive men, combined with the enormous wealth and power the House gave him access to, as well as the rigorous physical training that his own father pushed him through as a young boy, he had the luxury of being able to choose who to marry as opposed to being forced into an arranged marriage. The Cleganes had not participated in the practice for at least two centuries by then, but it was still commonplace and there was a steady influx of hopeful fathers of noblewomen from foreign territories who wanted to negotiate a marriage contract between their daughters and Marcus.

He had developed a reputation early on for being more than a little flirtatious. Wooing any girl or woman he felt like wooing in that moment was an activity he would happily partake in. Occasionally he did it to impress friends, or to stoke his own ego in front of the masses, or even on the rare occasion just to see what shade of pink the object of his attention would blush at his words, but the majority of the time he did it simply because he wanted to; because the lady had caught his eye.

His reputation had been that of a flirt, but not a heartbreaker – at least, not an intentional one. He was known for being kind enough to never allow his flirting to go beyond that. His interactions with women never dragged on long enough for any of them to develop a real attachment to him. A few of the younger women had been so thoroughly wooed that they became infatuated with him and struggled to let go once they realized he was not genuinely interested, but Marcus would try to persuade them to move on as gently as he could.

He remained a bachelor for many years, but by the age of 28 he had begun to feel the pressure to marry and produce an heir. Two years earlier he had already made his decision on who he planned to marry, though he had not acted on his feelings then, choosing instead to indulge in the freedoms of an unmarried man for as long as he could. The woman he chose to marry was a mild-mannered, almost timid, but exceptionally beautiful young woman named Anne. Her family had been of a lower social rank, but the union had been supported by the Clegane family on account of the land her family owned, particularly a 6000-acre stretch of fertile fields ideal for agriculture. Marcus’s mother, Adelina, had also favored her due to Anne’s more “traditional” behavior; unlike the other girls and women Marcus had spent his time with over the years, her virginity had never been a question.

As soon as the engagement was announced, they had been dubbed a darling couple by high society. The union had ignited anticipation for equally attractive heirs, with frequent talk of what features the boys would inherit from either parent.

The first decade of the marriage had seemed promising enough, if only Anne could have produced a child capable of surviving. As the years passed, there were growing concerns that she had inherited the so-called curse of her mother’s family: her grandmother had produced over a dozen children, though all but Anna, her mother, had been too sickly to survive infancy. Anna had just barely survived her childhood, plagued by sickness after sickness; a pattern which repeated itself through her adulthood as well. Anne herself had been the first live child born to her parents following at least four recorded miscarriages, and it seemed that she was following in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps.

The first Clegane child, a son named William, was born within a year of the marriage but quickly fell ill before his half-year and died. A second son, Gregor, was born three months premature and clung to life for less than a day. Their first daughter had been stillborn; Adelina had adamantly opposing the naming of stillborn children, believing that it would only make the loss more painful, but Anne always referred to this daughter as Isabella. Two more daughters, Maria and Marden, had followed in quick succession, although Maria died before her fifth birthday and Marden did not live past the age of three. A fourth daughter, Beatrice, was born two years after Marden, conceived around the time Marden fell ill, but seemed to thrive, despite nearly costing Anne her life during childbirth.

Feeling trapped in a constant state of mourning from the loss of so many children so close together, Marcus and Anne had been grateful for Beatrice’s survival and considered her to be a welcome blessing. However, the pressure to produce a son, the only child who would be able to inherit the entitlements of the family and produce an heir of his own to continue the Clegane line, had only continued to grow.

Unfortunately, following the birth of Beatrice, Marcus and Anne experienced several years of unsuccessful attempts at conception. There had been numerous attempts, each one more degrading for Anne than the last as the elder Cleganes began to insist on servants being posted outside the door to ensure that they were in fact trying, but there were no signs of a pregnancy. Concerns grew, and some members of the royal court began to suspect that Anne had been rendered barren from the difficult birthing of Beatrice. A life-threatening illness that lasted for over a month in her late-30s had caused Anne to stop menstruating altogether for a year, which had initially reignited hope of a pregnancy, but effectively extinguished it when she failed to show any other symptoms.

Another pregnancy finally occurred a few months shy of Anne’s 40th birthday. It didn’t take long for her to realize that something was different; after experiencing the ordeal seven times before, she knew what to expect.

Unlike his siblings, who had all shown movement in-utero, this child had not been energetic in the womb. Anne only felt a few kicks here and there during the final weeks of her pregnancy, and while the lack of movement seemed to improve slightly before the birth, it was still significantly less than normal. This caused enough fear and anxiety for Anne that she began to wish for movement, even if it meant having her bladder kicked at the worst possible moments. She would have happily accepted the humiliation she had experienced during her pregnancy with Maria and had an accident in front of her servants and husband again over the chilling feeling of placing her hand on her stomach and not feeling a single twitch from the fetus.

The size of the fetus had also been a cause for concern, even though it was the only reason there was no doubt that it was alive. At only four months she was already much larger than she had been with any of her previous pregnancies, looking closer to a woman in her sixth month. She had been rendered almost completely immobile by the end of the eighth month due to the size of her stomach and the pain she experienced. Her abdomen had distended to the point that it was purple, far heavier than normal, and felt as though it would tear off of her body if she stood up.

The final days leading up to the birth had been the most challenging and frightening. Anne was more scared than she had been during childbirth, terrified of the agony she knew she would feel and the uncertainty of what would happen with the child after it was born, fearing that the situation would end up similar or identical to Gregor or the stillborn daughter she called Isabella.

To everyone’s surprise, the birth had been strange in the sense that it was uneventful. If Anne hadn’t already been suspecting something was wrong, she knew it without a doubt when she went into labor and, within only two hours of feeling contractions, the child was born. It had not been an easy birth by any means: she had been in excruciating pain and had truly feared that she would die, but it was over quickly. The strangeness of the birth was only rivaled by the fact that the babe did not cry; instead, he only made soft gurgling sounds.

Chaos ensued immediately after that. The midwife was unable to control her facial expression upon seeing the newborn’s features. The look of disbelief, horror, and disgust had been clear as day to Anne, which only served to confirm her belief that something was terribly wrong with the child. Although the midwife had been quick to recover and even quicker to loosely wrap the infant in an oversized blanket and turn away from her, Anne had gotten a glimpse of his abnormality. The too-loud hiss of Compose yourself, wench! directed at a servant girl who gasped and covered her mouth was further confirmation.

The child’s face was horribly disfigured. She had only gotten a brief look at it, but she knew immediately that it was ugly. She could not stop the sob that crept up her throat and threw one forearm over her face to cover her eyes. At that moment, she could not bear the thought of seeing the full extent of the deformities, if there were more. She did not lower the arm until the midwife offered her son for her to hold, and even then she kept her eyes shut. The trembling in the midwife’s voice had been just as noticeable as the way her hands trembled when she passed the newborn to his mother.

“My lady,” the midwife had whispered shakily, “I feel that I must warn you… The child is…” She seemed to be unsure, or unable to continue her sentence, but it did not matter. Once Anne finally opened her eyes and saw her son, she screamed.

Marcus, who had not been present at the birth at his wife’s request, was alerted by her screams. Fearing that she had given birth to another stillborn, he rushed into the room, prepared to comfort his wife and deal with his own grief. He had been expecting to see Anne holding a dead baby, perhaps clutching it tightly to her chest as she had Isabella, but instead he was greeted with the sight of his wife sobbing hysterically and desperately trying to shove their child into the arms of someone else.

After quickly taking the child from her so that she would not drop the infant on the floor in her despair, it only took a single look for Marcus to understand why she was so distraught. He had not been prepared to pull back the blanket which had been tossed up over the silent infant’s face as though to hide him and see the almost mangled face that the child possessed. One side appeared to have been formed perfectly: a soft brown eyebrow, thick eyelashes, a dark bluish-grey eye that was oddly free of the usual tears that newborn babes shed, a gently rounded cheek and nostril, and proportionate lips. The other side, however, was a frightening mess of twisted tissues: the eyebrow was completely missing along with the eyelashes for that eye; the eyelid seemed to be malformed and the eye appeared to be set lower in the socket than the other. The nostril had the appearance of something that had been stabbed with a fork and twirled around the tines. The corner of the mouth drooped as though the infant had already suffered apoplexy.

These features, which Marcus had been quick to deem “monstrous” and “offensive,” resulted in the baby, who would eventually be named Sandor, being handed off to a wet nurse immediately. The first few weeks of his life were spent entirely with this young woman as no one else was willing to volunteer to relieve her of her charge for even a moment. Neither Marcus nor Anne wanted to have to look at him, but they also did not want to throw him out on the streets; not because of some deepfelt, secretive sense of parental love for the boy, but because of the fear that he would be the last son.

This fear proved to be the reality, as future attempts at producing a “healthy” son proved futile. Not that it came as a surprise to anyone. Anne was well past her childbearing years, and no amount of pressure from the elder Cleganes would change that. With no children to name as their heir, they had no choice but to choose Sandor.

His childhood had been complicated, to say the least. The first couple of years of his life were spent with his wet nurse; the deformity of his lips hadn’t spared the inside of his mouth, causing him to be slow to graduate from milk to solid foods. As soon as he was able to eat enough on his own without becoming too malnourished, the wet nurse quickly passed him on to the governess who had been employed by the Cleganes specially for Sandor. She did not last long, too repulsed by the child’s appearance to stomach teaching him, and he spent the next three years being passed off to numerous governesses, often in quick succession.

After his fifth birthday, which had been spent in the company of Martha, the only governess who had been able to adapt to his appearance and did not abandon him, Anne began to have second thoughts about abandoning her son. She had been watching him in secret, initially because she was unable to wrap her mind around his deformities, but eventually she began to do it out of genuine interest in his life. After witnessing the dejected expression on the good side of his face every time one of his governesses would leave, she decided that she would take on an active role in her son’s upbringing.

This was not the normal practice of noble mothers at the time. The upbringing of children was considered a joint effort performed by the house staff, with very little interaction between the children and their parents. Anne and Marcus had both been raised by governesses and servants, and they had participated in the practice with their own children up until then.

The more time she spent with her son, the more Anne genuinely bonded with him, and her feelings towards him eventually shifted from disgust and horror at his appearance to an intense feeling of maternal protectiveness over him. Steadily, these feelings progressed to the complete and undeniable love for her child, which was rivaled only by the love she had felt for her own governess.

Once the bond was established, Anne did her best to ensure that Sandor remained unaware of his affliction for as long as possible. He had been separated from Beatrice his entire life, as ordered by Marcus who wanted to spare his daughter from what he believed would traumatize her. This effectively meant that he was quarantined to only a specific area of the estate where his only contact with other people had been with the members of the house staff who were given the duty of raising him. Whereas Beatrice was permitted to have a mirror in her chambers, Sandor had never been allowed that privilege; his servants were given strict instructions very early on to make sure that any mirrors he could have gotten to were hidden during the day. Servants were ordered to sculpt cups and bowls from clay and plates from wood specially for him to decrease the chances of him catching his reflection.

A number of other great lengths were taken to protect Sandor from his appearance, including shielding him from the public. He had already been exposed to the shock he elicited from others by his appearance, but the extreme measures that were taken to prevent him from seeing it for himself also prevented him from knowing the reason why they reacted that way. The servants had long since become accustomed to the boy’s looks by the time Anne decided to step in, but threats of violence that had been used to ensure that they never spoke a word to him about his looks and did their best to make him feel “normal” when he was younger had played a major role in this.

Although Anne grew to love her son, Marcus did not. He grew more and more disgusted by the existence of Sandor, and as the years went by, he became disgusted with his wife for caring for the boy. He would refuse to listen to her talk about Sandor’s achievements with his tutoring, how intelligent he was or what his interests here. Every time Anne would try to talk to her husband about their son, Marcus would change the topic to Beatrice. Eventually, he forbade her from talking about Sandor in his presence altogether.

When Sandor was around the age of six, he made a fateful mistake. Martha left him alone for only a brief moment to collect some papers for his tutoring which she had left in her chambers, and Sandor used that moment to sneak away and wander through the halls as quickly as he could in search of his mother. Essentially made a prisoner in his own home, more or less walled off to one part of the castle, he had never ventured beyond the so-called border to his domain and so he did not know what any of the doors opened to or what the rooms in the estate were used for.

He made the mistake of bursting into a meeting that Marcus was holding with several of his peers, none of whom had ever seen what the youngest Clegane boy looked like. The horrified expressions that instantly took over their faces, combined with one man’s disgusted exclamation of My god, Marcus!, and the pale but furious expression on his father’s face caused an unsettling feeling to twist in Sandor’s stomach.

Moments later, before Marcus or Sandor could utter a word, Martha managed to catch up to the boy and whisked him away quickly, apologizing profusely. Sandor had just barely been able to hear the softly muttered apology his father directed at his guests.

Martha’s apologies had not been enough to stop Marcus from reaching his breaking point. Following the meeting, which ended not long after the interruption, he stormed to the room where he knew Sandor and Martha would be, remembering the schedule for Sandor’s tutoring that he had developed together with the governess, and grabbed his son by the arm in a tight and painful grip before dragging him away. He marched Sandor to his mother’s chambers, where they found Anne sitting at her own mirror and brushing her hair.

The sound of the door suddenly openly had startled her, causing her to nearly drop her brush. She looked at them through the mirror, and the frightened and confused look on their son’s face instantly alerted her to Marcus’s intention. Despite her efforts to stop it from happening, Marcus carelessly shoved her aside when she tried to block her mirror with her own body and shawl. Anne attempted to pull their son away, desperately trying to wrench him out of Marcus’s grasp, but to no avail.

“Get out of the way, Anne,” Marcus had bit out harshly before lifting Sandor so that he was high enough to see the mirror. He hardly flinched when the boy screamed at the reflection.

“You mother may feel it necessary to shield you from the truth, but I will not allow this fantasy to continue,” he spat through gritted teeth. “Take a look at yourself, boy. Look at what you are.” He shook the child as if to prove his point and only tightened his grip when Sandor struggled to get away from him. He adjusted the child so that he was holding the boy tightly against him with an arm around his abdomen and used his free hand to forcefully turn Sandor’s face so that he had no choice but to continue to look at himself.

Following this incident, Sandor spent weeks hiding whenever he could. He became combative with Martha, refusing to obey orders from her or the other servants. Whenever it was time for meals, he would refuse to come out of his chambers, even going as far as to jam the door so that John, one of the larger servants who had been a fighter for an illegal gang before redeeming himself and joining the Clegane household, was forced to break down the door just to retrieve him so that he would not starve.

Anne did all she could think of to brighten his spirits, spending more time with him and attempting to rebuild his now destroyed self-image by reminding him of the person he was, but it was no use. The damage had been done, and it had cut deep.

At night, Marcus and Anne would fight about what had happened.

“You think pretending he is not hideous will help?” Marcus would shout. “What do you plan to do when he decides to try to socialize? When his condition becomes public knowledge because he walked up to someone – a goddamn girl – and frightened them? We are lucky enough that the men who were present that day are all honorable men who keep their mouths shut, otherwise everyone all over Westeros would know!”

“He is a child, Marcus!” Anne would always say, at a loss for how else to defend her son from her husband’s violent and cruel disgust. “He cannot help the way he looks.”

“No, I suppose you are to blame for that, aren’t you?” Marcus had begun to blame Anne for Sandor’s appearance, accusing her of anything he could think of that could have caused the deformities, regardless of how unlikely or unrealistic they were: that she ate too many sweets while pregnant, that she had not eaten enough red meat, that she had been dabbling in witchcraft, and even that she had intentionally deformed him in the womb.

“You cannot expect to keep him locked away forever.”

Except that was precisely what Marcus tried to do. Sandor’s privileges were greatly reduced: he was moved to the northern-most facing side of the estate, where the windows were visible only to the private garden of the grounds. A towering stone wall surrounded this garden, and beyond it lay nothing but dense forest. The only reason he was allowed to open the curtains during the warmer seasons was because of the isolation of that section of the estate which provided no room for an accidental sighting, as Marcus had taken to calling it. To prevent Sandor from venturing beyond the boundaries of his wing, armed soldiers were assigned at any and every possible exit point, equipped with their swords, brute strength, and orders to physically restrain Sandor if he were to try to get past them.

In addition to this, Marcus also forced Sandor to train as a soldier. He used the tradition of his grandfather, his father, and himself as the reason for this, claiming that he believed if Sandor was strong enough it might help secure a marriage for him in the future. In reality, Marcus forced the training for a very specific reason: to prepare Sandor for battle enough that he would not make a mockery of the Clegane name whenever Marcus decided to send him off to battle with secret hopes of his son being killed.

This continued for many years. Gradually, Anne’s visitations with her son became less frequent due to Marcus becoming more controlling over her. He eventually assigned guards to closely monitor his wife’s activities while he wasn’t around. The visitations were permitted for a while, but once one of the guards informed him of a conversation that he overheard Anne having with Sandor, in which she had promised to find a way for the two of them to run away, Marcus once again snapped.

A catastrophic fallout followed. For the first time in their nearly three-decade long marriage, Marcus beat his wife – brutally. She was able to hide the bruising around her neck from everyone but her maid by wearing high-collared gowns, and the bruises all over her torso were completely hidden from everyone including her maid as she never allowed anyone to see her without her slip on. The bruises on her face, however, were impossible to hide: they were large, dark, and took nearly two months to fully disappear. Her right eye had also hemorrhaged during the beating, and it was especially unnerving to the point that Marcus temporarily forbade his wife from being seen by anyone but the house staff.

His message had been loud and clear – that Anne was never to visit their son again – but to ensure that she would not attempt to disobey him, Marcus increased surveillance on her. She was followed by at least three soldiers everywhere she went, and similarly to her son, she was quarantined to one portion of the estate which was opposite to Sandor’s.

The beating had not been well hidden from society. Anne’s sudden absence at all formal and casual events was immediately noted. Rumors spread quickly, fueled by Marcus’s overly-casual excuses for his wife’s newfound reclusiveness. The rumors were eventually confirmed after a month, when Anne made an appearance at a formal feast before the facial bruises had fully healed; despite putting on several layers of powder to try to hide the lingering green and brown splotches around her eyes and jaw, the discoloration had been visible enough that all of the attendees had seen it.

The cause of the sudden cessation of his mother’s visits was not kept secret from Sandor. A younger servant by the name of Eleanor had been assigned to his wing of the estate as a housekeeper, and while she was cleaning out the fireplace in the inner ward she overheard Sandor attempting to get information from Martha. She waited until the older woman grew tired of the teenager’s questions and refusal to do his lessons and abandoned him in exasperation before catching Sandor’s attention by loudly whispering across the room.

“Come here,” she said, motioning him over. Once he was close enough to hear her, but not too close to give away that she was talking to him in case one of the soldiers happened to peek into the room to see what was going on, she motioned for him to stop.

“What is it?” Sandor asked in a whisper.

“I overheard you pestering Martha,” Eleanor said, smiling just a little so that he would know she was only teasing. “I hope you know she is only trying to protect you. That’s why she would not answer your questions.”

“Protect me from what?”

There was only the briefest moment of hesitation from Eleanor before she said, “You deserve the truth, sir.” And then she told him about the beating and the extent of his mother’s injuries.

Sandor had been shocked, devastated, and most of all, furious. At just barely 14 years of age, he believed he was capable of taking on his father to defend his mother, but he was quickly reminded just how foolish this belief was and the reality that he was, in fact, just a mere child: incapable of making it farther than a foot past the guards posted at the entrance to his wing before they jumped him, violently tackling him to the ground and beating him until he was too weak to stand before dragging him back to his chambers. After being carelessly tossed onto his bed, he laid there in pain from the numerous contusions covering his body and wondered if the beating he had just sustained was similar to the beating he now knew his mother had received at the hands of his father.

Two months later, Sandor and Anne were handed a welcome blessing: an aggressive bout of consumption killed Marcus, effectively freeing his wife and son from his abuse. To their surprise, Marcus had failed to rewrite his will, which had been originally written shortly after his and Anne’s marriage. Upon his death, both Anne and Sandor inherited the family estates that Marcus held claim to, and Sandor inherited the title of Earl.

Although Anne had never held a significant amount of political power, she was permitted to retain what little she did have. This power included the duty of securing a marriage for any of their heirs and their daughters. She had been quick to assume this duty, beginning the process of opening marriage negotiations with other noble families only a few days after Marcus’s death. Within weeks, she had successfully married Beatrice to a wealthy prince in Braavos, and she was able to focus solely on securing a marriage for her son.

This proved to be a difficult task for two reasons. Due to Marcus’s extreme disgust for his son, Sandor’s mere existence was unknown to most people. Many of the noblemen were surprised to hear that there was an heir to the Clegane family, as the official announcement following Sandor’s birth, unbeknownst to Anne at the time, had been that the “unnamed child” had been stillborn. In addition to this, negotiations tended to end very quickly upon the discovery of Sandor’s appearance. The majority of the noblemen Anne spoke to were unwilling to marry their daughters to someone who they referred to as “grotesque” and “repulsive.”

There were two betrothals that initially seemed to have potential: first to a young girl named Mary, and then to a young woman named Eithne shortly before he turned 30, but both fell apart before any steps were taken to officially marry. Sandor had insisted that the portrait that was to be painted and sent to his potential betrothed be as realistic as the painter was capable of. Mary had taken one look at the portrait and adamantly refused to be married to him, threatening to elope with an elderly and low-ranking soldier or slit her own throat to prevent the marriage. Eithne had been somewhat calmer, initially agreeing to the wedding and attempting to ignore Sandor’s appearance, but as time passed and the wedding date drew closer she backed out.

Sandor was not surprised by their decisions, but his self-esteem hit a new low, and even lower after he and Anne had a heart-to-heart and she informed him of how many negotiations had fallen through before those two. The fear and realization that there was a very high probability of Sandor never being able to marry was a heavy weight on their shoulders, but Anne refused to give up and spent almost two decades trying to find a noble family willing to marry into House Clegane. Failed negotiations were so common that she stopped keeping count.

Over time, Anne acknowledged that there was no hope in a marriage to a lady of a high social class. She began trying for a marriage to lower class nobles, including those who had poor reputations and had fallen out of favor among the other noble families. It was through this act of desperation that she finally secured a marriage for her son: his wife-to-be was a young woman named Sansa, the eldest daughter of House Stark.

Chapter Text

The portrait was more of a shock than anyone, including Ned, had anticipated. Anne Clegane had gone to great lengths to describe her son’s appearance in full detail, careful not to leave even the smallest, seemingly insignificant feature: the shade of his skin, especially the difference in color between the mangled side of his face and the untouched side; the different directions and angles that the skin seemed to be pulled in; the resulting lumps and bumps and scar tissue that gave the side of his face an unevenly textured appearance; the color of his good eye and the gradually forming cloudiness of the other; the shape of his mouth and the way the abnormalities affected his speech, or at least how she thought it affected the way he spoke; the thinness of his hair on the disfigured side of his skull. Every aspect of his physical appearance had been described in precise detail in an effort to lessen the inevitable shock and undoubted disgust of seeing him.

Just as she warned in her letters, the portrait that arrived was exceptionally detailed. It had to have taken months, if not well over a year to complete with all the painstaking effort and care that had to be taken to accurately create such a high level of realism. Rather than looking like nothing more than oil on canvas, the painting almost gave the admirer the illusion that they were looking directly at the real Sandor. Every physical feature that Anne had described was portrayed in the portrait, and it did not appear to any of the Starks that there were any attempts to cover up or fix any of these flaws - which was unusual in and of itself, as noble portraits almost always portrayed their subjects in an idealized manner.

It was unveiled in the parlor. The two men who operated the wagon that had been used to transport and deliver the painting took the time to carry the easel and canvas into the castle and set it up. Per Ned’s request, a sheet had been tossed over the painting to hide it until he and his wife Catelyn were present to see it. Once they arrived to the room, one of the house servants dutifully pulled the sheet off and clumsily bundled it up in his arms to prevent it from touching the floor.

The silence of the room was finally broken by a loud gasp from Catelyn, who found herself incapable of appreciating the artist’s skill. Recoiling in disgust, she stared at her husband wide-eyed in disbelief. “She cannot marry him,” she whispered.

“She can and she must,” Ned said firmly. He was transfixed by the painting, unable to look away from it for even a second. “What other choice is there? After what our sons did--”

Do not talk about that,” Catelyn snapped, raising her voice. “I do not need you to remind me of what our son and your bastard did. You speak as though I could ever forget.”

Ned ignored that, choosing not to engage his wife so as to avoid the fight that would inevitably happen if he did. “Sansa does not have many options for marriage. The Cleganes are the only nobility willing to marry a Stark’s daughter. We no longer have the luxury of choosing from a pool of potentials; this is our only option, and if we do not take it I fear we may never find another.”

“She cannot marry him,” Catelyn repeated. She was no longer raising her voice but she was still speaking loudly. “You cannot expect her to agree to this once she sees him. How could you? Look at him.”

“I am looking at him.”

“How can you marry our daughter to someone like that?”

“Enough,” Ned said shortly, finally looking at his wife. “We shall let Sansa decide for herself.”

Another servant was instructed to fetch Sansa and bring her to the parlor. The sheet was once again thrown over the canvas on Ned’s orders.

Sansa immediately sensed that there was a tension in the room when she walked in. She brought along her maid, an older woman named Ruth, for support after the servant sent to bring her in had warned her that the sight was horrible and to prepare herself. The warning made her anxious suddenly: she had read the letter in which Anne described her betrothed’s appearance, but she had never seen a man with such an affliction before and did not know how to imagine it in her mind. She feared that it was worse than she could have possibly anticipated, which caused her to worry about the possibility that she would not be able to go through with the marriage and what kind of reaction that would cause from her parents.

“Hello, Mother. Father,” she said politely as she entered the room, bowing her head slightly in respect. She quickly glanced at Ned and Catelyn’s faces and tried to ignore the expression on her mother’s.

“Come here, Sansa. You too, Ruth,” Ned said. The soft tone of his voice was betrayed by his deep frown.

Sansa did as she was told, as did Ruth, standing closer to the covered portrait. Sansa could not take her eyes away from the white sheet, too curious about what it was hiding, fearful of how she was going to feel once she saw it. “Is this it?”

“Yes. It arrived only a little while ago.”

“Sansa,” Catelyn said urgently, suddenly grabbing her daughter’s hand tightly. “You must prepare yourself. It is--”

“Enough,” Ned interrupted her sharply. “She knows what to expect, just as we did. Are you ready, Sansa?”

She was not so certain anymore, but she still nodded her head. She looked to the servant standing behind the easel, and the man dutifully stepped forward to pull the sheet off the painting again. Sansa continued to look at him for a moment after the sheet was removed, watching the look of pity that came over his face as he made eye contact with her, before she finally looked down at the painting of her betrothed.


Sandor Clegane’s face was certainly more than she had anticipated. For a brief moment she was struck more by the detail of the painting and how lifelike it looked, but this quickly passed as she remembered who she was looking at. Just as she had suspected, every possibility that she had thought about in the weeks leading up to this was wrong; she did not have the references to properly imagine what he would look, to accurately envision the ruined face that she would be looking at for the rest of her life.

“If you refuse to marry him you must say so now, Sansa,” Catelyn said quickly. “We must let them know as soon as possible, before any more arrangements are made.”

“I can say no?” Sansa asked almost absently.

“You can,” Ned assured her, though he sounded reluctant to say so. “But you must also remember how few options we have. This is the only marriage offer that we have gotten for you. Our family is not in the place to be--”

“Do not try to guilt her into saying yes,” Catelyn snapped fiercely.

“Lady Clegane has assured me of his character. I have even exchanged a few letters with the man himself. He seems to be a decent man. That is far more important than whether a man is handsome.”

“Please,” Catelyn whispered, letting go of her daughter’s hand to cover her face with both of her own.

Sansa was attempting to ignore them, but it was proving to be an impossible task. She stared at the painting of her soon-to-be husband’s face for a moment longer before turning to look at her father. “It’s okay,” she said, briefly looking at her mother to make sure she was paying attention. “I will marry him. You do not have to worry about me.”

“Are you sure?” Catelyn asked, clearly in disbelief.

“Yes. There is no need to end the betrothal.”

Catelyn only shook her head and turned away from her daughter now. Sansa looked back at Ruth to gauge her reaction as well; the older woman stood with a blank expression on her face, looking neither disgusted nor pleased. Looking back at her father, Sansa found that he was somewhat shocked, no longer frowning and now raising his eyebrows slightly.

“Okay,” Ned finally said. “We shall begin the formal preparations.”


Over the next several weeks, the details for the wedding were carefully discussed and planned out. As was the custom, everything was taken care of by Ned and Anne: young women who were engaged to be married were essentially shut out of any and all negotiations and preparations while the parents of the couple dealt with everything.

This gave Sansa more than enough spare time to become properly acquainted with her husband’s face before they officially met. She had requested that his portrait be brought back to her chambers, insisting that she wanted to familiarize herself with his features so that she would be less likely to visibly recoil from him at the wedding. She appealed to Ned’s fears of public opinion about House Stark even further, reasoning that it would be all over the papers for weeks on end if she were to look disgusted by her husband in front of the guests.

Staring at the portrait so much only made her more aware of the possible problems that would arise from her own portrait, which had been sent out only a week after Clegane’s arrived. It had been painted over a year ago, so it was not current by any means; she felt as though her looks had changed considerably in the time since she had last sat for the portraitist to note every last detail of her features. Not that it mattered much: unlike Sandor’s portrait, Sansa’s had been idealized as the insistence of her mother, so that her flaws - or rather, the flaws that the painter saw in her features - were more subdued and subtle.

It was more uncommon for nobility to allow their exact appearance to be copied onto a canvas. Most portraits of nobility did not accurately portray their subjects: flaws that could be omitted were while others were merely corrected; those with a permanent redness to their faces were painted with an even complexion; large ears would be shrunk down to a proportionate size, and crooked noses would be straightened; those with too much extra weight would be slimmed down while those without enough would be painted plumper than they really were. The portraits of the Stark ancestors which lined the walls of the crypt where they rested were no different: Sansa could still recall what her paternal grandmother looked like, and she had never felt that the painting that hung above her tomb looked anything like her.

Still, she worried about what her betrothed would think once he saw her in person. Surely she looked nothing like the painting he had been sent. What if he was unhappy with her? What if he wanted her to be prettier? What if he chose to end the engagement on the day of the wedding? It would be deeply frowned upon, but he would be allowed to do so.

She was broken from her thoughts by Ruth entering her chambers.

“How much longer do you plan on staring at it, miss?” the older woman asked as she began to change the bedclothes. “You must have his face burned in your mind by now. I know I do.”

“I had always hoped I would marry someone handsome, you know,” Sansa said absently, completely ignoring Ruth’s question. “Foolish dreams of a young girl, I suppose.”

Ruth allowed the quilt she was attempting to straighten out to fall from her hands. “I had similar dreams when I was your age, and so did my sister. Most girls do.” She finished changing the sheets, and then walked around to where Sansa sat at her mirror. “Stand up for me, please.”

Sansa obeyed. Ruth had picked up her corset, and she lifted her arms to make it easier for her maid to put it over her head and lace it up. She tried not to wince as Ruth pulled on the laces tightly, knowing that her mother had instructed that they be laced up as tightly as possible. She lowered her arms once the final knot was secured, practicing her breathing for a moment until she got used to how restricted her ribs were; a sign that the corset had been laced up to Catelyn’s standards. The wedding was still weeks away, but Catelyn had insisted that Sansa try harder to shape her figure.

“Have you heard anything of my brothers?”

The silence that followed her question was enough of an answer for Sansa, but she waited to hear would Ruth would say. Finally, the older woman quietly said, “No, miss. I have not. I am sorry.”

Sansa made a vague sound of acknowledgement. “Do you think they might show up for the wedding?”

“Likely not,” Ruth said shortly. She tapped under one of Sansa’s arms to signal for her to raise them again before coming her front to slip the bodice up her arms and across her torso. Returning to her spot behind Sansa, she began working on the laces at the back again. “You had best get the idea out of your head, too. I don’t believe they would dare show their faces around Winterfell for some time, especially not on your wedding day.”

Sansa knew the older woman was right. The shame that Robb and Jon had brought to the Stark house was the sole reason she was being married to a man like Sandor; the chances of them coming out of hiding, if they were even still alive, even for such a big occasion as this, were practically non-existent.

Still, she mourned their absence. As a child she had dreamed of her wedding day and what she would have liked for it to entail. She had favored the romantic stories that her maids would tell her when she was younger, and though she had quickly accepted that it was unlikely to happen for her, she always held on to a small bit of hope that she would marry a man like the ones in the stories: handsome, strong yet gentle, noble, honorable. Her family, whole and free of the pain and disgrace that now lingered over their heads, would be present in the room. Ned would sit in the first row of seats, crown on his head and a proud smile on his face. Catelyn would be sitting next to him, graceful and commanding respect even when no one’s eyes were on her. Her siblings would all be present, too, probably scattered throughout the room: Robb and Jon would be situated somewhere with their own wives (she never imagined being the first child to be married); Arya and Bran and Rickon would be near their parents, probably bickering quietly and needing to be hushed. She would be standing in front of her soon-to-be husband, filled with excitement and some nerves. Her betrothed would have been some wealthy, powerful prince who was only a few years older than her. Ideally, he would have been handsome, or at least handsome enough.

That had been her fantasy, her dream when she was a young girl, though. The reality now was, of course, much different.

“Do you know how many people are supposed to be in attendance?” Ruth suddenly asked, lowering her voice like she was telling a secret.

“No,” Sansa said, briefly trying to turn to look at her. Ruth sighed loudly in exasperation and Sansa quickly turned back around to allow her to finish her task. “How many? And how do you know?”

“Well…” Ruth hesitated.

“Oh, just tell me, Ruthie. I’m not my mother.”

“This is all just kitchen gossip, so do not put much stock in it,” Ruth said quickly. “Tristan says he overheard some folks in the village talking about it when he was at the market the other day. Says there is supposed to be over 10,000 coming from all over Westeros.”

Sansa nearly lost her breath. “What?” she whispered.

“I know,” Ruth said lightly. “Like I said, Tristan is the one who said it, so it is probably not even true.”

Once Ruth finished lacing up the bodice, Sansa could no longer hold herself up to stand and sank back down into her chair. She looked at the portrait of Sandor for a moment before staring at her own reflection in her mirror. Her mind was not racing; it was focused on a single thought that she could not shake.

“It is a public spectacle.”

“What was that?”

Sansa met Ruth’s eyes in the mirror. “Ten thousand people? They are not coming here to see a wedding. They are coming here to stare at a curiosity,” she spit the word out like it was poison. “My wedding is going to be entertainment for these people.”

Chapter Text

In August, it was formally announced that the wedding that would bring together House Stark and House Clegane would take place near the end of November, just before winter began and the coldest days in the North arrived. Negotiations on the date had been completed as early as July, but Ned and Anne were reluctant to announce it too soon, before they were finished devising some plan to ensure that things did not get out of hand. Both families had heard the rumors regarding the number of possible attendees and decided that, given the shy nature of both the bride and groom, it would be best not to put Sansa and Sandor through the chaos of such a large audience. They believed that if the wedding occurred so late in the year, and so close to the time when the passageways leading to the North would become dangerous and more likely to be closed off from snow or frozen over with ice, that most who were planning to attend would opt out of making the journey to witness the ceremony.

They could not announce the date without also including information regarding the location of the wedding. It quickly became apparent that everything about the union would be untraditional: while the custom was for the bride to travel to her husband’s homeland and marry in a chapel of his choosing, Sandor and his mother agreed to make the long journey North, thus allowing for the ceremony to take place in Wintertown. Ned had received word sent directly from Sandor himself that the idea was his; he did not want to distress Sansa further by forcing her to travel to a foreign land and be surrounded by people she did not know, and felt that she would be at least somewhat more at ease being in her own village, in a chapel that would be familiar to her, in the presence of family and childhood friends.

It was no surprise that this information shocked everyone. The engagement itself was scandalous enough, but for the two families to continue to defy tradition and customs only served to amplify the perception that the marriage was indeed a public spectacle. Beyond this, there was widespread disbelief that Sandor would venture out into the public at all, let alone travel so far from his home. His existence had been revealed after his father’s death over two decades ago, but he had remained a recluse, so seldom seen by common folk and nobility alike that he was considered by many to be more of a mythical creature than a living, breathing man. Few people outside the Cleganes’ house staff had ever seen him in person, which was perhaps the main cause for most, if not all of the rumors regarding his appearance and character.

Because the two Houses were deviating from traditions, all of the potential attendees had to do the same in order to announce their plans to attend the ceremony. Rather than letters being sent to the groom’s family, they were sent to the Starks. They came from all over the continent, from various noble families ranging from barons to dukes and princes, all of whom were eager to witness the marriage for various reasons.

As head of the family, Ned dealt with reading these letters, pointedly barring his wife from knowing anything of just how many they were receiving to avoid sending her even further into her despair over the situation. There were so many that he no longer bothered to thoroughly read the majority, simply skimming the pages until he saw the words he was looking for: “We would be pleased to attend such a wonderful and happy occasion! We shall see you then.” A large part of him hoped that he would see more declinations, but there were few of those.

Many of the letters came from people who had publicly slandered House Stark after the scandal. He recognized many of the names as those who had kept their lips moving following the Starks’ fall from grace, gossiping and spreading rumors and ensuring that everyone knew just how they felt about the once-powerful and respected family. The gossip had quickly turned cruel, the rumors more absurd and hurtful, and these people had only continued to talk. It made Ned sick to think that any of them would have the nerve to attend, but if he were to reject them the guest list would be incredibly short.

He thought about it, of course. He was desperate to find Sansa a husband, but the idea of putting his family in the position to be gawked at was as unappealing to him as it was to his wife. He genuinely entertained the idea of responding to every one of the people who had spoken so poorly of their family and informing them that their presence was not wanted nor was it welcomed. But in the end, he felt it was better to allow such people to come, if only to avoid yet another scandal due to angering or offending a family that was currently much more prominent than the Starks.

An estimate of the number of guests was established the give the cooks an idea of how big of a feast would need to be made for the day; an official count was not going to be taken as it was deemed a futile effort that would take far too much time. Large amounts of food were already being stockpiled in Winterfell, stored away in cellars in the hopes that the freezing cold would preserve it. An entire herd of sheep and their lambs was brought in from somewhere down south. Shearing had been put off for some time so that the sheep would have enough wool to stay warm and survive in the harsh Northern climate. An old farmer offered half his livestock, including his hogs, which were kept in a large barn just outside the castle walls. Spices and herbs were brought in as well, while arrangements were made for fruits and vegetables to be sent to Winterfell closer to the date to prevent them from spoiling.

There was much excitement around the preparations, but Ned was smart enough to employ only those he trusted most to be involved, emphasizing the need for his daughter to be kept out of the loop; one of the few traditions he was willing to follow. Things were being kept so carefully hidden that Sansa was forced to rely on Ruth to fill her in on what she heard from other members of the house staff, all of which was, as the older woman had put it before, little more than kitchen gossip. Ned had made sure that no one Ruth might have encountered throughout the day was involved, just to be sure she would not hear anything reliable.

Even so, Sansa had seen some of the food stocks being brought to the castle, and so she was beginning to suspect that perhaps Tristan had been telling the truth when he claimed that ten thousand people would be coming. Though she desperately wanted to believe that it was unlikely that her wedding would stir up so much curiosity that tens of thousands of people would travel just to see it, the more whispers and rumors she heard the more inclined she was to start questioning it herself. She supposed that it was entirely possible that all of Westeros would attend – unlikely, but still a possibility.

If she were honest with herself, with the wedding now only a few weeks away, she was beginning to feel the first real sense of fear. Not because she was afraid of her husband; she firmly believed that her father would not marry her to a man who would hurt her in any way. Her fear stemmed from how overwhelming the entire situation seemed to be. She could not shake the feeling that she was being viewed as some sort of curiosity for the masses to gawk at, and it was simply too much for her. The thought of being watched by so many people she did not know who would only be there to witness a young woman like herself, who was still regarded as a physical beauty in spite of her family’s fall from grace, be forever tied to a man like Sandor, who she knew was seen as a monster by most, made her feel sick.

In addition to her anxiety, she could not help mourning the reality that she was not going to have the marriage she truly wanted. She was not going to experience a courtship like the girls in town were blessed with: there would be none of the shy flirtations, the giddiness of romance, the passion of a blossoming love. She would have been married to a man she did not know even if the scandal had not happened, she knew that, but her father’s insistence that Sandor was a good man was not enough to stop her from wondering if her soon-to-be husband would bother to put in the effort to woo her. For all she knew she was weeks away from being trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who would only be able to tolerate her and force himself to touch her long enough to produce an heir and then ignore her for the rest of their days.

The thought, once it crossed her mind, terrified her more than anything. She could remember hearing stories when she was younger of other girls whose husbands never loved them and the horrors of their marriages. At the time, she thought they were little more than scary stories that were told to her for the sake of making sure she would be grateful for whoever she ended up marrying when her time came, but now she could not stop thinking about them and wondering if there had been any truth to the stories. Girls who were married off when they were younger than she was to men who were older than her father, who were said to be drunks and brutes who saw nothing wrong with raising their hands to their wives. Countless stories about women who were forced to provide as many heirs as their bodies could handle, and countless others who were tossed away by their husbands once they were no longer useful and replaced by younger women who were then put through similar treatment.

One story that stood out so much that Sansa could remember it word-for-word to this day was that of a young woman who was so hated by her husband and his family that they tormented her whenever they felt like it, regardless of where they were or who was watching, until she finally produced a son. Once he reached the milestone age of six, when her husband’s parents were certain that the child would survive to inherit his titles and money and land, she was sent away to a secluded place for hysterical women, quietly divorced and forbidden from ever remarrying, while her husband went on to remarry twice more.

Oh, god… what if that was her fate, too?

What if Sandor turned out to be like those men? What if he was brutish and inconsiderate? Would he hit her? Would he attack her with words meant to break her spirit? Was he a drunk? When she thought about it, she realized that no one really knew her betrothed. He had been the boogeyman figure in so many stories meant to cause nightmares, so many rumors and legends of what he purportedly did in his spare time, that she could not say with any real certainty that she knew any truths about him. Surely her father was in the same boat. What if he was wrong about this man?

Sansa desperately wished she had someone to confide in about these fears, but the only one she could think of was Ruth. She enjoyed Ruth’s company and was grateful for all the older woman had done for her over the years, but there was only so much comfort the maid could give her. Whenever Sansa did try to breach the subject with her, Ruth’s response was always to remind her of her family’s character: “Your father would not allow you to marry a man he believed would harm you, miss. And as much as your mother loathes the idea of all this, deep down I think she know it’s true, too.”

Though she had believed this herself before, as the date loomed over her head and her mind was running wild with all these fears, Sansa was no longer certain of this belief.

Like her father, she had noticed that Catelyn seemed to be growing more distraught as the days passed. Sansa feared that any mention of the wedding or her betrothed would only succeed in sending her mother into a spell like the one she had when she heard what her sons had done. Vocalizing any fears about what kind of man her husband was would surely be just as upsetting, Sansa thought. She wished she could turn to her mother for this, as she had done for so many things as a child, but she knew this was something she just could not put her mother through.

She supposed that if she grew extremely desperate she could confide in one of the older servants who were married or widowed, but the idea was just as unappealing as going to her mother and would likely be just as unhelpful. Weddings in the lower class were nothing like noble weddings, so the older women would likely be just as clueless as she as to what the ceremony would be like. Divorce was not illegal in the North, but it was seldom ever granted and carried an immense amount of social stigma; a divorced woman was considered ruined and undesirable, and anyone who was seen associating with her would be deemed the same. There was no chance that any of them were divorced or would be willing to offer her reassurance that it was an option. Discussing an unhappy marriage was frowned upon as well, so she knew it was highly unlikely that any of the women would discuss it with her if they were trapped in such a marriage.

Ruth did her best to ease Sansa’s mind by arranging trips to the market with Ned’s permission. They were forbidden from certain places, particularly those that were close to the chapel, but it was still a welcome distraction just to get away from the castle for a few hours. The two would often meander aimlessly through the market streets, looking at all the goods the townspeople were selling but rarely buying anything except a beautiful hairpin Ruth managed to talk her into buying by telling her it would be perfect for the wedding.

These trips were not always successful at helping Sansa relax and forget everything for a moment. There was gossip in the town, and she overheard many comments made by men and women who were unaware she was in their presence and could hear them. It did not take her long to learn that the opinion of her people was similar to that of the majority of the servants: that she was marrying a hideous thing and she was someone who should be pitied for being so unfortunate. Rumors of his appearance and character were rampant and ranged in severity from being a man who was only mildly scarred and mean to a horrifically disfigured creature that attacked innocent children.

Most of these rumors were, of course, far too outrageous for Sansa to feel they had any merit, but it was still disheartening to know that people were talking badly about her betrothed. It also made her wonder what people were saying about her. What rumors were going around in the Cleganes’ home about her? How did her husband’s people feel about her appearance, her reputation, her family? Were they talking about her brothers? What were they saying about her father? About her mother?

While she and Ruth were preparing for their trip one afternoon, Sansa spoke up about her reluctance to go out.

“I have no desire to listen to another person speak so poorly of my betrothed or our marriage,” she said, tying her fur-lined cape around her neck aggressively. “Sometimes I wish I could make them say such things directly to my face. I wonder if they would even be able to say it if they had to look me in the eye while they did it.”

Ruth cleared her throat softly. “I am sorry, miss,” she said, “I mean no offense when I say this, but I just cannot understand why you said yes. I am sure they are all thinking the same thing. Even without considering his looks, you knew how your mother felt about it. If you ask me, I think she is the biggest reason why this whole thing is becoming entertainment for some people. I know you can hear her during the night, and Madeline says—”

“I know all about it,” Sansa interrupted her. Everyone in the castle could hear Catelyn during the night, wailing away in her own private chambers. “What choice did I have? We all know my mother is holding on to a fantasy when she insists that another marriage offer will come. It boiled down to marrying him or becoming a spinster, did it not? What was I supposed to have said?”

Ruth kept her faze lowered to the floor as they left Sansa’s chambers and made their way out of the castle. “I think it would have been better for your mother if you had said no,” she said quietly, always so honest with Sansa. “That is just my opinion.”

“I have always wanted to be married, Ruth. Ever since I was a girl. I never even considered the possibility of not having a husband someday. Every tutor my parents hired for me made sure to remind me that I was going to be someone’s wife and that I needed to learn how to be a proper one.”

“Miss, I feel quite uncomfortable discussing this with you,” Ruth said, voice somewhat strained. “It is not my place to speak of these things.”

“You are my confidant, Ruth,” Sansa said, gently linking her arm with Ruth’s. “I do not mean to make you uncomfortable, but you are the only one I can talk to about this. And I do value your opinion, you know. Even if we do not always agree.”

“Even when I forget my place?” Ruth grinned a little. She seemed to be deep in thought for a few minutes, and the two women walked in silence until she spoke again. By then they were already out of the gates of Winterfell and entering the town.

“Perhaps it will not be that bad,” she finally said slowly, like she was thinking the words over as she spoke them. “I know what everyone says about him, and I know how scary it must be for you to hear all of it, but perhaps it truly is just rumors. He could very well be a gentleman.”

“That is my hope,” Sansa said softly.

They walked the rest of the way in silence, both too far in thought to start or maintain a conversation. When they finally reached the marketplace, Sansa suddenly stopped, causing Ruth to stop as well and look at her with a confused expression. Sansa contemplated for a moment before taking a deep breath.

“I want to go to Rutherford’s stand,” she said.

“We cannot. Your father says—”

“I know what he said, but that is where I want to go.”

Ruth looked scared now. “We cannot,” she said again, this time in a whisper. “You know you will be recognized the moment someone sees you. If your father finds out—”

“Then I shall hide my face,” Sansa said confidently. “Please, Ruth, I just want to see what he has today.”

The Rutherfords owned a stand from which they sold blocks of wood carved into different shapes, as well as soaps that the missus made. Sansa had always thought the carvings were beautiful and had purchased a few from the man over the years so that she could decorate her bedchambers; the soaps smelled so good she would use them sparingly. But those were not the reasons why she wanted to go there. The stand the elderly couple owned was directly across the street from a chapel. It was the perfect excuse to finally get a glimpse at what the preparations for the wedding were so far.

The chapel was the largest in Wintertown, so even though she had not heard anything regarding precisely where the ceremony would be taking place, she felt there was a good chance it was there. She was not entirely certain, but she was making an educated guess partially based on her father forbidding them from going to that part of town.

Ruth did not look convinced: her eyebrows were still furrowed, and her lips were still pulled into a tight frown. “Miss…” she said uncertainly.

“I promise, everything will be fine. If we do get caught, you know I will tell Father it was my idea and I talked you into it.”

“Well, I should hope so!” Ruth said indignantly. “I would hope you would not even have to tell him. He knows I would never—”

“Come on.” Sansa pulled on the older woman’s arm, urging her to duck behind the wall of one of the old buildings they were standing near so that no one out in the market would be able to see them. These buildings were not being used as they were too close to the castle walls, too far away from the town center and the townspeople’s homes to ever receive much business.

The two women quickly worked on hiding their identities. They both pulled their capes up closer to their necks, loosening the broad scarves they were wearing to pull them up around their chins. Sansa pulled hers up so that it covered her entire mouth up to the bottom of her nose. She then threw up her hood, tucking her hair behind her ears while Ruth helped smooth down any strays. Her red hair would certainly give them away and neither wanted to take that chance. Once they were finished bundling up, they checked each other’s appearance to determine if they were hidden enough to avoid being recognized; they both looked like two average women who were over-prepared for the weather, but not out of the ordinary to cause any suspicions.

As they made their way to the Rutherfords’ stand, Ruth kept a tight grip on Sansa’s arm. The older woman was worrying her lip and glancing around anxiously, which defeated the purpose of hiding their identities.

“Relax, Ruth,” Sansa whispered. “You look too suspicious.”

“This is not a good idea, miss,” Ruth whispered back. “We should go back. We should—yes, we should go back. This was a horrible idea. I cannot believe you—”

Relax,” Sansa said again a little louder. “As long as you stop looking around like a thief trying to make sure she was not caught, no one will suspect a thing and my father will be none the wiser.”

“He could have knights posted to keep an eye on us, you know.”

Sansa had to scoff at that. “In all the years I have known you, Ruth, you have never been this nervous.”

“Because I have never been in a position that carries as severe repercussions as this!” Ruth practically squeaked.

Sansa wished the older woman would stop fretting, but she did understand why Ruth was acting this way. Her reasoning was sound: Ruth had never been one to take any risks whatsoever, least of all when it came to her job, and Sansa had never been adventurous enough to try to talk her into breaking any of the rules. She also knew just how important this job was for Ruth, considering she was essentially alone in the world: abandoned by her husband years ago with no surviving children and no other relatives whose whereabouts she knew. It did not surprise her that Ruth would be so adamantly opposed to what they were doing now.

Once they reached the old couple’s stand, Sansa feigned interest in some of the little wooden sculptures that were placed around a wooden table. There were various other wooden projects around the small space the Mister and Missus Rutherford operated out of, consisting mainly of logs that were stood upright and came up to Sansa’s shoulders, with complex faces both human and animal carved into them, and firewood with similar pictures. There was also a few bars of soap left, an indication that their customers had been more interested in the Missus’s items.

Ruth stood by her side and tried to appear interested as well, but even with part of her face covered it was clear that she was worried. She continued to look around like she was waiting for someone to jump out of the shadows somewhere and snatch them up to bring them back to Ned for punishment. Sansa knew they would not be able to linger for long or they would risk being discovered.

After a couple minutes of pretending to be contemplating a purchase, Sansa finally looked over her shoulder at the chapel. The exterior was astonishing in its own right: towering over every other building in the town, with an intricate arch around the entrance, stained glass in every window, and a steeply pointed roof. The walls were a nearly flawless shade of light grey. She supposed that it would be an ideal place to be married; she thought she might have chosen it herself if she had been able to do so.

She could faintly hear the commotion going on inside the chapel, and from where she stood she could barely see in the windows. She did not dare move closer to get a better look, knowing it would only draw attention to herself and increase the chances of someone recognizing her.

Even standing so far away she could see enough to reignite the fear and uncertainty that she had been dealing with. Extra pews had been brought in, likely from the smaller churches in the town, and were all rearranged to accommodate the anticipated volume of guests. If the gossip was correct, there certainly would not be enough room for everyone to sit; most would be forced to stand, if they would all fit inside the church to begin with.

Sansa watched a few men leave and reenter the church, giving her a clear yet brief view inside. The building seemed to be packed with people, many of whom were servants of the Starks. Sansa knew better than to ask any of them anything, least of all any questions related to the wedding. She knew that at the very least her questioning would raise suspicions which could start gossip that a woman had been in town asking about the wedding, but it was far more likely she would be recognized. Both possibilities were certain to lead to Ned finding out, and Sansa was not sure what her father would do if he knew.

Still, she craned her neck to try to get a better look, to see more of the goings on. She did not seem to realize that this action caught the attention of Mister Rutherford. She felt Ruth grab her wrist a second before the old man cleared his throat.

“Were you planning on buying anything?” he asked gruffly, staring down at her with an unamused expression. It was slightly off-putting to Sansa, as the old man was usually much friendlier.

Sansa began to panic. “Um, no, thank you,” she said, deliberately pitching her voice lower in the hopes that Mister Rutherford would not recognize it. “We were just leaving.”

The relief Ruth felt once they began to walk away was visible in every aspect of her body language: her facial expression relaxed, she was no longer standing with her back perfectly straight, and her grip on Sansa’s arm relaxed considerably. She even stopped trembling.

“We can never do that again, miss,” she whisper-shouted once they were far enough away for no one to hear her. “That was far too risky! When your father tells us to stay away from some place, I think it would be in both of our best interest to do as he says! I saw one of the stable boys, you know. If I could recognize him then I know he could have recognized me too!”

“I just wanted to see,” Sansa said. “No one saw us. If they had, they certainly would have caused a scene.” She sighed and began walking with her head down. “I have no idea what to expect, Ruth. You know I have never been to a wedding.”

“I know, miss, but you must trust that everything will be taken care of. I see no point in trying to find something to get all worked up about. And if I am not mistaken, no woman knows what to expect for her wedding, especially not one in your position. No one has died from it, you know.” She tried to laugh but it was not convincing.

“Well, what was your wedding like? I have been telling you of my fears for weeks now. I thought you would have told me at least a little bit about it by now.”

Ruth’s fake laughter immediately stopped. When Sansa finally raised her head to look over at her she saw that the older woman looked upset, not quite to the point of crying but clearly trying to fight some strong emotion. Before Sansa could begin apologizing, Ruth spoke.

“My wedding was a small affair, miss, and it was not grand in the least bit. I was married to a man I barely knew. The only reason we met each other was because his father knew my father – our family had a long history together through farming, see – and they felt we would make a fine match. He courted me, tried to woo me, make me fall in love with him, and it worked, to an extent. We got married a month later.” She stopped for a moment to sigh softly and shrug her shoulders. “As I said, it was a small affair. It could hardly be called a wedding by noble standards. The priest said what he was supposed to say, we said what we were supposed to say, and then we were married. Our families ate together afterward, and that was that.”

This information was of little use for Sansa, although she had not expected it to be. She simply nodded her head in acknowledgment. “Perhaps mine will be like that,” she said despite not believing it.

“It is possible,” Ruth insisted, reaching out to grab Sansa’s hand and squeeze it gently. “No point in worrying yourself sick over it, now, is there?”

“I suppose not.”

The two continued walking in silence for a moment before Ruth attempted to change the subject. “Abigail is nearly finished with your dress. I saw it the other night on my way back to my room. It looks beautiful…”

By nightfall, Sansa was nearly ready to confront her father and demand that he allow her to know what she should expect on this grand day of happiness. She could not stand to be kept in the dark any longer. All of the uncertainties that were running through her mind were making her ill, and it seemed that the longer she thought about them the sicker she felt.

She could not help hoping that her mother would come to her first, though. She did not know how much longer she could bear to listen to Ruth’s unsuccessful attempts at comforting her or worrying away in silence, but she was not willing to bring up the topic first. For almost a week she had been feeling that Catelyn was working up to confront her: Sansa had caught her staring with a look of pity more than once over the last several days, and although her mother was in an uncharacteristically low mood, she knew it was only a matter of time before Catelyn finally decided to speak up about whatever was on her mind. Her mother preferred to keep her thoughts to herself until they became truly troubling, and it was clear to everyone that this situation was deeply troubling to both mother and daughter.

It was not entirely unsuspected, but also not completely welcome, when Catelyn finally visited her daughter in her chambers that night. Ruth was helping Sansa prepare for bed, fluffing out her bedsheets and warming up the blanket that would be closest to her body by the fire in the hearth. Sansa’s bedchambers always got exceptionally chilly even with a large fire roaring in the fireplace, and the fire had died down quite a bit while they were out at the market. The two women only managed to revive it enough to start heating up the chambers again an hour earlier, and so the room was still too cold for comfort.

Ruth left the chambers for a short moment to fetch some soap for Sansa to bathe with the next morning, and when she returned she seemed to slip into the room in a hurry. Just as quickly as she entered she whispered a warning, “Your mother is coming.”

Sansa was still brushing her hair out in front of the fire, trying to keep warm and save herself the trouble of trying to detangle a rat’s nest when she woke up. She simply nodded before mumbling, “Thank you for letting me know.”

She did not know what Catelyn was going to say. Was she coming to tell her more about her betrothed? Or would she only end up launching herself into another fit about the Cleganes? She would not have been surprised if that were the case: everyone in the castle could hear her mother sobbing in the night about Sansa’s predicament.

To her surprise, however, her mother came alone. Catelyn rarely went anywhere without her guards, even inside the castle. And like Ruth, she entered the chambers quickly after looking over her shoulder to make sure there were no servants who saw her. She immediately looked at Ruth. “Please excuse us,” she said stiffly. “I wish to speak to my daughter privately.”

Ruth hesitated, glancing warily at Sansa, but did as she was asked. “Yes, miss,” she muttered politely before leaving the room again. She left the door cracked, but Catelyn promptly closed it the rest of the way.

Once she felt that Ruth was out of earshot, Catelyn surprised Sansa again by casually asking, “How are you feeling?”

“Perfectly fine.”

“I want the honest truth from you, Sansa,” Catelyn said sternly. Her mouth was now pulled into a frown as she watched her daughter closely.

“That is the truth. I feel fine.”

Sansa could not look her in the eye. There was an intensity in Catelyn’s gaze that made her uncomfortable.

“How do you truly feel? And I do not mean physically, Sansa, and you know it. I mean about that Clegane.”

There it was.

Sansa subconsciously began to brush her hair a little more aggressively. “What about him?”

“Your wedding is in a few short weeks, Sansa.”

“I did not forget, Mother,” Sansa said carefully, mindful of her tone. She recognized from every bit of her mother’s body language that she was not amused. “In fact, I am rather anxious about it,” she continued, glancing over at her mother in time to catch a genuine emotion flash across her face, but Catelyn was quick to resume feigning indifference before Sansa could determine what that emotion was. “No one has told me anything – about my betrothed, about the ceremony, about marriage. Is it really necessary to keep me this far in the dark? I thought I was the one getting married. I think I deserve to know what I need to be prepared for.”

“It has always been the custom that the bride’s father takes care of all the arrangements,” Catelyn said. “The groom, however, is involved in every aspect, of course. Your… betrothed has been corresponding with your father to ensure that everything is… up to his standards.” She began to frown again. “Every woman is kept in the dark until the time comes.”

Sansa quickly realized that Catelyn was not going to give her any tips on what to expect regarding the ceremony. She had been foolish to hope that was the reason for her mother’s odd visit. She finally placed her brush back on the mantel and turned her full attention to the older woman, remaining by the fire to keep warm. “What did you wish to speak to me about? Surely you do not want to talk about my betrothed.”

Catelyn moved closer to her and lowered her voice. “I can help you,” she said. “I will find a way to put a stop to this.”

“What are you talking about?”

An expression that looked to be a mixture of pity and anguish contorted Catelyn’s face as she grabbed her daughter’s hands and brought them closer to her chest. “You trust your father’s word too much,” she said frantically. “There will be other offers of marriage. You must believe me. You do not have to settle for this.”

Sansa tried to pull her hands away. “Mother, please, stop it.”

“I cannot allow my daughter to do this to herself!” Catelyn cried. “I will not allow it!”

She suddenly looked as disheveled and unhinged as the old witches in the stories children were told to scare them into behaving. She did not look like Sansa’s mother, the kind woman who raised Sansa and her siblings with a firm but gentle She had been acting like a madwoman and now she was speaking like a madwoman. She continued her frantic rant. “This family is already ruined. Do you truly believe marrying a Clegane will help us? You might as well marry a Lannister! He will certainly destroy us as much as any of them would.”

The comparison to the Lannisters made Sansa’s heart lurch in her chest. Everyone had heard the tales of the men in that family, how cruel and brutish they all were. Sansa had narrowly avoided being betrothed to Joffrey, the eldest son; the only thing that had saved her was a letter from a young woman named Bragnae who turned out to be his former wife. Her existence was largely unknown in Westeros, as the wedding had taken place in secret and the two were not married long enough for the scandal to go public. She had written to Ned to inform him of the cruelty she suffered at Joffrey’s hands during their brief marriage: how he beat her on their wedding night, nearly choked the life out of her while exercising his right as a husband, and how the marriage only ended when it did because she managed to sneak away during the night while he slept and hid from him and his men until he finally had the marriage annulled. Ned enlisted the help of some of his spies to look into the allegations made in the letter, and though there was no evidence they could find to verify the woman’s claims of abuse, they did find proof that the marriage had taken place and was annulled within days and quietly swept under the rug.

Oh, Gods, what if they came to the wedding? The thought suddenly made Sansa feel sick to her stomach.

“Stop it,” she repeated, firmer and louder than before. She had never raised her voice to anyone, least of all to her mother, in all her life, but she could not stand to listen anymore. “I am sorry, Mother,” she quickly apologized, “but I cannot listen to you say such horrible things to me. You are trying to scare me.”

“I am trying to protect you,” Catelyn insisted quietly, suddenly losing all of the hysterical panic from a moment ago. “Do you know what people will say? What they are already saying? If you marry that man you will be ruined.”

“Stop saying such things to me!” Sansa cried. “You have no idea what I have been thinking about. I am already terrified, Mother, and I do not need you putting these ideas in my head. You are supposed to be encouraging me, telling me what a joy it is to be married, reassuring me that my husband is a good man. I cannot tell you how afraid I am that I may soon be married to a brute. Why are you trying to scare me like this when you should be trying to comfort me?”

Catelyn’s frenzy seemed to be reignited by the confession of fear. “I can find a new match for you,” she said, her voice once again picking up the frantic edge from before. “I will write to any and every family I know in search of a man who will suit you better than this. I swear to you, my dear Sansa, you do not have to marry Clegane if you do not want to. No matter what your father tells you, it does not have to be like this. You can marry a man who does not look so—a man who is of a higher class than—”

Sansa immediately caught the slip up. This little spell was all about Sandor’s looks. A part of Sansa had already known, long before now, as early as the day they first saw what her betrothed looked like, that all of the gossip and bets and pity that was aimed at her was because of what the man looked like. She knew that the so-called concern here was not caused by any real fears that Sandor was a cruel brute who would mistreat her, but because of what he would look like standing next to her.

“You finally said it,” she said quietly, barely a whisper. The way her mother froze, eyes wide like an animal who has come face to face with a predator, further confirmed it. “All of this—these theatrics—it is all because of what my fiancé looks like.” It was not a question, and Catelyn did not try to argue.

Sansa shook her head and could not look at her mother anymore. “What is it about his appearance that you find so offensive, Mother? What specific feature bothers you so?”

“It is not like that—”

“Did you not tell me once, when I was a little girl, that beauty is not everything? That I could be married to the ugliest man in the world and all that would truly matter is how he treated me? Was that a lie?”

“No, of course not.”

“And yet here you are, working yourself into a fit over my fiancé’s looks,” Sansa said, emphasizing fiancé every time she said it. “That really is all you care about. If we marry, we will certainly look like quite a pair, I suppose,” she added with a rueful smile.

“Stop it,” Catelyn now said. “You will not marry him.”

“Yes, I will,” Sansa said firmly. “I have accepted that this is the reality of my situation, Mother. This is what I must do, if only to secure an heir, but it is also what I want to do.”

“How can you say that?”

“I am not a fool, Mother. If there were other options for me I would have been married off years ago. I am older than you were when you married Father. I know enough to know that the older I get the less prospects I will have for marriage, even if our family were in different circumstances. You know as well as I do that unlike my betrothed, I cannot go so long without a husband and children without my political value diminishing.”

She felt like she was going to vomit. She knew, just as everybody else knew, that a woman of noble ranking was considered less valuable the older she got. Less attractive, certainly, but most importantly, less fertile. Marriages between nobility were seldom made from love, after all. Women who were young and whose mothers had delivered numerous children were the most valuable as they were considered the most likely to provide multiple heirs, which was preferable to a single heir: titles and property and wealth could be distributed between more than one person, preventing any one from receiving the bulk of the inheritance, which was something that parents estranged from their heirs especially enjoyed.

Sansa had once been considered highly valuable for this reason due to her mother giving birth to five children, but she was growing older. The older she got the less likely it was that she would become pregnant, as well as more likely to miscarry or die in childbirth. Women like her only had a short window of time during which they could be married off to wealthy and influential men, and every year after that would bring fewer and fewer propositions, if any. As it was, Sandor was the only proposition she had received since the scandal.

Catelyn shook her head. “No, I will not—no,” she said, voice rising slightly. “I will continue to search for a more suitable husband. I will write to… to the—” She faltered as she tried to think of a House that would be willing to do even the bare minimum of considering the prospect of marrying a Stark.

“There is no one else, is there?” Sansa asked despite knowing the answer. “Mother, I am begging you, please just stop this. Please. I can make my own decisions, and I have. I will marry Sandor and I will be just fine. If you feel you must worry about my reputation, there is nothing I can do to stop you, but you should be comforted to know that I do not care what people say. They have already said worse.”

She sighed and gathered up the blanket that was still warming by the fire. It was now almost unbearably hot from being left there for so long, but she did not flinch; she simply walked over to her bed and tossed it over the bedsheets before pulling them back so that she could climb into bed. She turned to look at her mother again before doing so. “May I please go to sleep now?” she asked softly. “I am dreadfully tired.”

Catelyn looked even more distraught than before, but for once she did not push to continue the conversation. She approached Sansa and kissed her on the cheek very quickly, mumbling a soft goodnight, and left the chambers without saying another word.

Sansa collapsed onto the bed with an exhausted sigh, burrowing under the covers. She still felt ill and shaky from the conversation, and it seemed impossible for her to comprehend her mother’s behavior. Why was she acting like this? Why would she deliberately try to scare her? Why could she not just be supportive? Tears began to burn at Sansa’s eyes the more she thought about it.

Ruth reentered the room a few moments after Catelyn’s departure, looking concerned. She rushed over to Sansa’s bedside and placed a hand on Sansa’s shoulder over the blankets. “I was trying not to eavesdrop, miss, honest, but I heard some of what you two were talking about,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. It was nothing I was not expecting. There is no need to fret, Ruth.”

“Surely she is just frightened, miss. Your betrothed is still a mystery to us. She must be concerned about what kind of man he is—”

She clearly had not heard all of the conversation, Sansa decided. “She is concerned because of how he looks,” she interrupted the older woman. “If he were normal looking, she would not have anything to say about it.”

“That cannot be true, miss…”

“It is.” Sansa sat up in bed to look Ruth in the eye, not bothering to wipe away the tears that were still gathered in her eyes. “She is more concerned about our reputation. Or what is left of it, at least. I do not believe she is concerned about me at all. She thinks this marriage will someone ruin me even more than I already am. And to tell you the truth, Ruth, I think she forgets that. Whether she wants to admit it to herself or not, I already am ruined.” She slouched forward and dropped her forehead into the palm of one of her hands with a sigh. “I just cannot believe she is worried about anything other than how the masses will view our family if I marry him.”

Ruth began to look visibly uncomfortable, but she bit her tongue. “Let’s go to bed now, miss,” she said timidly. “You could use some rest.”

Sansa did not have to be told twice, immediately dropping back down into her blankets. She pulled them up over her head with a small space for her to breathe from. She never wanted to leave that spot – her only place in which she could pretend reality was not happening.

Before Ruth left the chambers to go to her own sleeping quarters, she leaned down closer to Sansa again to whisper: “Are you sure everything is fine?”

“Yes,” Sansa answered. “Everything.”

If she were honest, however, she did not truly believe that.

Chapter Text

The wedding was a little over two weeks away now, the preparations for the long journey to the North were nearly finished, but all Sandor could think about was how much he could not do it. He was not sure if he could go through with the wedding at all anymore.

He wanted to—Gods know he wanted to. He had spent so many years more or less locked away from society, alone besides his mother and their house staff, and he was tired of it. He was tired of it when he was a child and realized that everyone else on the Clegane estate had friends and he did not; he was tired of it when he was a teenager, reaching maturity into manhood, and realized that he still had not felt the touch of a girl or a woman. Some of the older servants in the house would tell raunchy tales of their own boyhood, how they had bedded pretty girls when they were younger than he was. Hearing the maids and their girlish whispers of their husbands, or their own betrotheds, and how much they swooned over those men had made him yearn for years for someone to feel that way about him.

For many years he had tried to look at it the simple way: it was ultimately his duty to get married and produce an heir. He was the sole heir to the Clegane name, and it was up to him to continue the bloodline and ensure that the family’s estates and titles did not end up in the possession of relatives who did not deserve them. Gods willing, he would have a wife, at least one heir, and an easy and comfortable life on an estate of his choosing. That was just the luck that was afforded to men of his status.

But it was undeniable that his appearance had put a massive damper on performing this duty. He was not blind nor was he a fool; he knew that he would always have fewer options and chances than other men, even with the luxuries that he could provide a wife. Fewer, but not none; he was still nobility, after all, and it was inevitable that someday, with enough determination and persistence, he would be married. His mother had gone above and beyond to achieve this.

He should have been ecstatic, or at the very least relieved that this engagement to Sansa Stark seemed to be heading towards a real marriage, but he had been burned before. Two failed engagements could do quite a bit of damage to a man’s pride and ego, even one who had so little self-esteem as Sandor. He had been prepared for the eventual refusals, certainly: it was clear from the beginning that neither of his former fiancées would be able to follow through with marrying, and that was difficult enough to handle, but the confirmation that he was right in his assumptions was the final blow.

Who could go through with it? He supposed if he were more attractive, perhaps even simply average looking, he would likely say no, too, if he was faced with the possibility of marrying a woman with the affliction he was cursed with. He could not expect any woman to be truly willing to give herself to him for the rest of their lives.

Which was precisely what was making him second-guess this engagement. Why should he expect Sansa Stark to be any different? There was, of course, the obvious theory: perhaps the Starks were just as desperate as him. He was not overly concerned about the rumors surrounding their family scandal. People were not interested in the truth when it came to most things; gossip and rumors were far more entertaining than reality. Knowing how it felt to be the subject of often outrageous and relentless gossip, he had no interest in passing judgement on someone who was innocent of any wrongdoing. Who was he to decide who was a guilty party and what they were guilty of when he did not personally know any of the facts?

Despite his suspicions that she would eventually back out just as the others had, Sandor had been happy to accept Sansa as his bride. He could sympathize with her situation to a degree, and it certainly helped that she was beautiful. He was only a man; he was not immune to physical beauty. But therein lied part of his problem: Sansa was as an attractive woman, and under different circumstances, she could have had any man she wanted. Sandor knew she would never have accepted him if she had better options. He knew he was her only choice, and it was glaringly obvious to him, and likely everyone else, that he was the lucky one; Sansa, on the other hand, would have the misfortune of being trapped in a marriage to a beast. Whatever reputation she had left would be ruined because of him.

Even so, he had been hoping, however foolishly, that perhaps there was a small chance that she felt differently. Ideally, she truly was not repulsed by his appearance and she either had not heard or did not care about the rumors about him. Perhaps she would be a blushing bride who would smile at him as they said their vows to each other; she would not look like she was close to bursting into tears or vomiting on their boots. She would give him the opportunity to show her who he really was, or the man he could become if he were only given a chance.

He knew better than to allow himself to entertain such unrealistic fantasies, but he could not help it. He was a man, certainly, but he was not immune to hopes and dreams of beautiful women who could see beyond his looks. It would certainly have to be a dream for a woman like Sansa to look at him and see a man she wanted, rather than a man she would prefer to never have to look at again. Realistically, he knew the chances of their union turning into one of love were nonexistent.

The entire situation was bringing out thoughts that Sandor had swore to himself long ago that he would never have. He convinced himself that he accepted his condition; he looked the way he looked, he avoided forcing others to look at him because he knew it would disgust them, and he would never have a woman who would be able too look at him without being repulsed. That was just his poor stroke of luck. He accepted it. But now, with a wedding finally looming over his head, he was beginning to think that perhaps he had not accepted it. He felt hideous, and to his surprise, it hurt. He did not think he could bear a third public rejection.

Ever since the negotiations were finished and the preparations for the wedding began, Anne made sure to maintain frequent correspondence with Lord Stark. She did not say it to him, but her reasoning for this was to receive reassurance that Sansa was not backing out, and so far Ned had not mentioned any changes in the plans. The ceremony was still going to take place in November at the same church that was originally picked, and the Cleganes were still going to travel to Winterfell in two days’ time to avoid encountering other guests on the road who would surely want to catch a glimpse of Sandor and to have enough time to acclimate themselves with the Starks’ hometown. Sandor was doing all he could think of to make his bride feel more comfortable, breaking traditions for her and trying his damnedest to come across as a gentleman rather than the evil brute he was certain she had been told he was. Ned’s letters were full of assurances that Sansa was willing to marry him and was not having second thoughts, but Sandor could not shake the feeling that something was not right. Something was not being said. Something was being kept a secret from him, and he had a feeling he knew what it was.

Sansa wanted to back out. Surely. It was becoming more obvious to him the more he thought about it. Perhaps she wanted to back out but could not. Perhaps Lord Stark was forcing her to marry him. Perhaps she felt pressured to produce an heir, just like he was. Perhaps she had seen his portrait and was so repulsed by the sight of him that she was currently plotting a way to flee just as her brothers had and never look back. It would not have surprised Sandor if she did, and he could not say that he would blame her.

His mind ran through a million different thoughts and questions. What if their marriage only brought her pain? What if she spent the rest of her life married to him and miserable because of it? Sandor did not know how he would feel if she refused to consummate the marriage, though he knew without a doubt that he would not force her—and if she refused, would that not make the union pointless, if they could not produce an heir? He felt as though it would be worse if she did not refuse, because she would almost certainly be consenting out of a sense of obligation. She had likely been taught by her governesses and perhaps even her own mother that it was her duty as a wife to submit to her husband. It was believed by many that women simply could not enjoy lying with their husbands; it was considered normal for the woman to be unenthusiastic, almost stone-like, sprawled on their backs while their husbands grunted above them.

Sandor was not a rapist. He was not the kind of man who enjoyed the thought of hurting women. He doubted he would even physically be able to lie with her if she did not want it. The idea of his wife not enjoying his affections made his skin crawl. Images flashed through his mind of her sobbing as he touched her or trying to hold back her vomit; her eyes squeezed shut as tightly as possible, face turned to the side so that she would not risk seeing even a glimpse of his face. It made him feel sick to his stomach, bile rising in his throat at the mere thought of his soon-to-be bride being so unhappy with him.

With these thoughts and others constantly running through his mind, Sandor’s behavior had been changing and Anne soon noticed that her son was beginning to withdraw, growing more and more anxious as the days progressed. Initially, she brushed it off as the normal nerves that one felt before marriage. This was a major event, especially for him; it was undoubtedly terrifying. But it was not like him to act like this: sullen, indecisive, preoccupied with his thoughts. He was usually one to think a lot, to never make rash decision without first considering all the options, but this was unlike him. Where he had initially been pleasant to be around, he was now hardly saying a word, even to help with planning the wedding or trip, simply tossing out a dismissive, “Whatever you think is best,” whenever he was asked for his opinion on something.

Anne bit her tongue for a while. Sandor was not the type of man to speak about things before he was ready and pushing him would only risk causing him to close up completely. The best choice was to allow him to say something when he felt like it, but it was simply too close to the wedding for this kind of behavior from the groom-to-be. Anne feared he was panicking and was only a breath away from announcing that he had changed his mind. Whatever he was thinking about was clearly affecting him, and Anne knew she had to step in before it was too late. She could handle whatever fallout may occur from pushing him: he was not his father; he could remain levelheaded and nonviolent.

When the two of them were in the parlor alone together. Anne trying to piece together the last few details regarding their trip to the North, she had to speak up. Sandor had been pacing between two of the windows in the room, one hand raised up near his mouth and the other arm crossed under his ribs to balance his elbow. He fought the urge to bite at the callouses on his fingertips and palm, opting instead to tap his fingers against his lips. He stared out at the gardens, wishing more than anything that he could be out there walking through the paths that twisted between the rows of flowering bushes: the place that had been his refuge so often during his childhood.

“I do wish you would stop pacing so much,” Anne finally said after the third time in a row he dismissively answered a question.

He stopped as soon as he heard her and turned back around to face her. “Sorry.”

“What were you thinking about?”


“You should not hide things from me, Sandor,” Anne said, offering her son a small smile in the hopes that it would ease his mood somewhat. “Something is eating you up.”

Sandor hummed in acknowledgement but said nothing for a moment. “I am going to have a wife in less than two weeks. I suppose my nerves are catching up to me.”

Anne sat up straighter in the cushioned chair she was sitting in before beckoning Sandor to sit in the one across from her. He hesitated briefly but stepped away from the windows to sit down anyway. He did not look at her, keeping his eyes on the floor, still half lost in thought.

“Sandor. Look at me.”

“Listening,” Sandor mumbled.

“I know you are scared,” Anne said, “but that is normal. I was nervous before I married—”

Sandor glanced up at her then. “Before you married my bastard of a father?” he finished for her. “That hardly reassures me.”

Anne took a deep breath. “How about you tell me what exactly you are afraid of then.”

Sandor gestured at his face. “What are the odds she faints the moment she sees me in person?”

“She saw your portrait. You know she does not find you offensive to look at.”

“I seem to recall Lord Stark mentioning something about her keeping the painting in her room, to stare at it until she could stomach the sight of me,” Sandor said bitterly. “It is comforting to know my bride respects me enough to get her vomiting over with before we meet.”

He did not mean to say those things out loud, least of all say them the way he had, but the words just came out. His true feelings, he supposed. Martha once told him of her beliefs that the most truthful words are the ones that are said without thinking; words that are carefully picked out before speaking are more likely to be lies or watered-down versions of the truth. He had never really put much stock into that belief himself, but now it seemed to be proving true.

“Do not say that,” Anne said, doing her best to keep her tone calm. It had been years since Sandor had spoken of himself in such a way and she had hoped he never would again. “What is this about?”

Sandor sighed and rubbed a hand down his face. “I apologize. I just…”


“I fear she will not have me,” he finally said, very slowly and quietly. His lips were turned up in a rueful half-smile.

“She will.”

“I wrote her,” Sandor blurted out. “More than once.”


“I wrote letters to her. A few letters, actually. I wanted to speak to her personally, get to know her and give her a chance to get to know me a little before we take our vows. I thought… it would be easier for her that way. It would have been easier for me, certainly. I know so little about her aside from what she looks like. I cannot imagine what she has heard about me, what she must think of me. She must be—” he scoffed and shook his head. “Scared to death of me, no doubt.”

“Well, what has she said to you?”

“Nothing.” Sandor tipped his head back against the chair. “She has not written me back. Not once. That is my problem.”

“There must be some explanation.”

“Aye. She does not want me. We shall arrive at Winterfell and my dear bride will take one look at me and call the whole thing off. It will be a wasted trip, I tell you.”

“Lord Stark has repeatedly assured us—”

“Do you truly believe she would tell him if she were having second thoughts?” Sandor interrupted her yet again. “I have no doubt she knows we are each other’s last option. I do not believe she would tell him. And if she did, do you think Lord Stark would tell us? How can you be certain he is not arranging this whole marriage without her knowledge?”

“He would never,” Anne said firmly. “The customs of the North are different than our own. It could very well be that she is simply not allowed to speak to you before you two are wed.”

He was not convinced. Such a custom was not associated with the North, as far as he knew. He had to stop himself from scoffing. “You think so?”

“Well, I do not know for certain,” Anne admitted, “but it is a possibility. You must try to look at it that way. She is not deliberately ignoring you; she simply cannot write to you.”

Sandor decided to let the matter go. He could tell that his mother was trying her best to reassure him, and he did not feel like discussing the subject any further. He realized it did not matter one way or the other: either he would arrive in the North a bachelor and leave with a wife or he would not. Fretting over it would do him no good. He was not sure if his pride could handle another blow if Sansa did reject him, especially if she did so directly to his face, but that was an issue that he could deal with if and when it happened.

Two days later, right on schedule, the Cleganes were on the road to the North. The journey had been extensively planned, down to every last detail. Any and all possible complications were considered, and solutions worked out. A main route was mapped out along with several alternatives just in case any problems arose. A disguise was also made for Sandor to wear if they encountered anyone on the road who might get a look at him; it was little more than an oversized cloak with a large hood that could be pulled down to cover his face, but it was better than nothing. The last thing they needed was for a crowd to gather around to gawk at him before he even made it to Winterfell.

The first half of the journey went by without incident. Despite being so late in the year, the weather in the southern part of the continent was still mild enough that Sandor had the option to skip out on taverns and inns in favor of sleeping in the wagon. Anne, her maid Murron, and Donald, their escort, slept in rooms wherever they stopped; it was far too dangerous for the women to sleep outside, and Donald was an elderly man who would be of no use for protection. Sandor’s own servant, Phillip, chose to stay out in the wagon with him, if only to ensure that he would not be too outnumbered if a group of troublemakers came around.

The trip took a turn once they reached the Northern border. The weather was much colder than they had anticipated. Donald and the servants sat in the front of the wagon, bundled up in their thickest coats over several layers of clothing, while Sandor and Anne stayed in the back under blankets and furs. Where there had been little traffic in the southern part of the continent, the Northern roads were surprisingly busy. They passed twelve different carriages and wagons in an hour, not including individuals on horseback and on foot.

Worried that someone might see him, Sandor was forced to don the cloak and hood and kept the blanket pulled up over most of his face, hoping to pass himself off as a man who was simply too cold and trying to sleep to anyone who might have been able to see inside. He hoped that no one would bother to try to look; Murron and Phillip were acting as their cover, playing the part of a couple and blocking the view from the front of the wagon.

Several people tried to stop and talk to them along the way, attempting to extend a conversation beyond polite greetings. The servants were quick to decline, insisting that they needed to hurry to their destination, and most of the passersby would accept their excuse and move on. There was no hostility or aggressiveness; no demands to stop and talk, no violent reactions to being brushed off. It seemed as though they would be able to make it to Winterfell without any problems besides the cold.

When they were within a mile of the city of Wintertown, Sandor was just beginning to doze off, exhausted from the stress of the journey and sore all over from the lack of a decent bed. Anne was snoring softly beside him, slumped over with her head cushioned on a folded blanket she had placed against the wooden siding of the wagon. There was a silence that was only broken by the sound of the wagon wheels and the horses hooves for several miles as they had not passed anyone in some time.

Donald cursing not quite under his breath caused Sandor to stir back to full consciousness. When he strained his ears, he could hear what sounded like an approaching horse coming towards them from the front, followed by a distant shout that he could not make out. He shifted on the floor of the wagon, scooting himself down a little more so that he would be fully hidden by the luggage that was strategically piled up near the front of the wagon.

“Here comes another friendly local,” Donald said sarcastically. “Smile and wave, now. Let us not be impolite.”

Whoever was approaching was now close enough for Sandor to hear. The voice sounded rather young but undeniably male, perhaps belonging to a man in his late teens or early twenties, and the tone of voice seemed to be overly friendly.

“Good afternoon! Hi, miss. Pleasant day, would you agree?”

“Bit cold,” Donald responded gruffly.

“Ah, just some good Northern weather for ya,” the man said cheerfully. “Where are ya from? And where ya headin’? I was just on my way back to my cottage, see. You passed the fork near a mile back. Did you see it?”

“My sincere apologies, sir,” Murron said quickly, repeating the phrase she had used dozens of times already. “We really must keep the pace.”

“Sir?” the man repeated, clearly amused. “Now, miss—”

“I was raised to be respectful to all. Nothing more.”

Something about the sudden change in Murron’s voice caught Sandor’s attention; she sounded uneasy. There was a long pause during which no one spoke. Then, “Tell me what a pretty lass like yourself is doing with an old bastard like him?”

Sandor felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He could feel Anne start to stir and quickly put a hand over her mouth. She jerked awake, wide-eyed and frightened as a rabbit caught in a snare, until her eyes focused on her son. He put a finger to his own lips to signal her to be silent before letting her go and scooting as quietly as he could across the floor.

There was a small gap in the fabric covering the wagon on the left side that was just big enough that one could see through it if they pressed their face up close to it. Sandor peeked through, trying to get a look at the man who was now pestering their driver and servants. As he suspected, the man looked young, but he was completely filthy. His hair was scraggly and fell past the bottom of his chin, and it was so matted and oily that Sandor guessed he had not washed it in weeks. His fur coat was caked with dried mud covered with frozen chunks of snow and ice. He sneered, most likely at Murron, and Sandor could see that he was missing all four of his top front teeth as well as a few on the bottom.

“I asked ya a question,” the man said, sounding less friendly now. “You best answer me, bitch.”

“We mean no trouble,” Phillip spoke up then. “Let us just go our way and you can go yours.”

“Oh, is that how it works? What, you give me permission to do things? You are not from these parts, are you? I can tell from that nice little scarf you have round your neck there. Where are you from? Are ya rich, by any chance?”

“Sandor,” Anne whispered suddenly, drawing his attention away from the scene outside.

“Stay quiet,” he mouthed back, once more gesturing for her to be silent.

“I think,” the man was saying now, “that you lot had best stop where you are and let me have a lil’ look around.”

“Not going to happen,” Donald said. His tone was flat, making him sound like he was completely disinterested in what was happening around him. “Best get on your way now, lad.”

Sandor looked out through the gap once more to see what the man was wearing. He could not see any weapons: no sword at his hips, though it was possible he could have a knife hidden up one of his sleeves or jammed down into one of his boots. No bow or arrows, either. If he was planning on robbing them, he was grossly ill-prepared for a fight.

“Well, certainly, sir,” the man said suddenly. He smiled again and pulled back on the reins of his horse to bring the animal to a halt.

The wagon passed him by, and Sandor crawled over towards the back to peek under the cloth to see what he was doing. He cursed when he saw that the man had fallen back into step behind the wagon. He was none-too-subtly looking the wagon over before he kicked his horses sides to make so that he could catch up to it.

Sandor turned back to look at his mother. “Hide,” he said quickly. “Get as far to the front as you can.”

“What is going on?” Anne cried, scrambling to do as he said.

Just as he was about to answer, there was a loud thump from the very back of the wagon. Sandor turned around just in time to see the man’s shadow through the cloth; he had jumped onto the back end and was now trying to untie the covering.

“Thieving bastard!” Donald snapped, twisting in his seat to try to get a look.

Sandor jumped into action. He rose to his feet, pulling his knife out of his boot as he did, and took up a defensive stance as he waited for the man to succeed at getting the wagon cover open. He knew he could shove the man through the cloth and easily knock him off before anything happened, but a part of him wanted the man to get in so that he would have an excuse for a fight. He wanted to release some of his pent-up bitterness now, before they reached Winterfell, so that there was little chance that any of it would creep out when he finally met his bride.

The cloth was finally pulled back, and the two men were now face-to-face with each other. The man seemed taken aback to see that there was someone in the back of the wagon, and just as he noticed the knife in Sandor’s hand the earl lunged at him. Sandor punched the man across the face with the same hand that held the blade, deliberately striking him with the bit of the handle that was not enclosed in his fist. There was a crunch and the man’s face was covered in blood, but he did not fall off like Sandor had hoped; he reached out with one hand to grab the frame of the wagon while the other flailed wildly for purchase.

The man’s hand closed around Sandor’s shoulder, and both men would have tumbled out of the wagon if Sandor had not braced himself. The other man’s grip on the frame loosened at the jolt and he slipped off, though his other hand was still clutching at the cloak. As the man fell, he took the cloak—Sandor’s disguise—with him.

Sandor suddenly found himself standing there, face completely exposed. The man he had just knocked out of the wagon was quickly scrambling up to his feet, already trying to run towards him again. The moment he looked up and saw Sandor’s face, however, he stopped, mouth gaping open as he stared. Then his face twisted in disgust for a brief moment before he started laughing, suddenly turning to run back to his horse. He climbed up into the saddle, but instead of chasing after the wagon like Sandor was anticipating, the man turned his horse around and took off in the other direction.

Sandor quickly pulled the cloth back down over the back of the wagon and secured it with a knot. He hurried over to Anne who seemed to be frozen in shock.

“He saw you,” she whispered. It was not a question.

“Aye. He did.”

“Did you get him?” Donald asked over his shoulder. “I heard him fall.”

“Aye,” Sandor repeated. “He got back on his horse and went on his way. Perhaps we should speed this up a bit, Donald? We will be needing to get into the city quickly.” Donald obliged, snapping the reins.

“Are you all right, sir?” Phillip had climbed into the back of wagon at some point during the scuffle and was now trying to look at Sandor’s hands to check for any injuries.

“No need to worry about me, Phillip,” Sandor said, though he let the man look anyways. He could see blood on his palm, and when the servant turned his hand over he saw the gash; the knife must have slipped when he threw the punch.

“We shall take care of it when we reach Winterfell, sir,” Phillip said as he examined the wound. “We are nearly there.”

Sandor reached out with his uninjured hand for Anne to hold onto. She squeezed him tightly. “I fear we will not have much time before a crowd forms now.”

“Why do you say that?” Phillip asked.

“He saw me,” Sandor said simply. “Before long, everyone and their grandmother will know about it. They will want to see the beast in person. You can be sure of that.”

Chapter Text

One of Anne’s blouses had two strips torn off already for Sandor to use as a makeshift bandage for his wound. He bled through the first strip and a bloodstain was slowly forming on the second one as they reached the gates of Winterfell. Donald had taken a path that was less traveled in the hopes of avoiding having to take the wagon through the middle of town, but it was somewhat unmaintained and difficult to travel on. Although nothing else had happened since their encounter with the man on the road, the incident still had everyone shaken up and on edge, and the last thing any of them wanted was to risk more trouble by going through such a heavily populated area.

“Make yourself ready, lad,” Donald called over his shoulder as they waited for the gates to be opened for them. “And if I were you I would tell them about that hand immediately. Last thing you want is to be fighting with a festering hand when you should be focused on your bride.”

“Thank you, Donald,” Sandor grumbled.

“I cannot stop thinking about it,” Anne said very quietly. “What will happen when that vile—”

“Best not worry about that yet, Mother,” Sandor said. “Let us not think about what could happen. We made it; that is what we should focus on.”

The gates slowly opened, and several guardsmen walked out. They stood in a formation several yards in front of the wagon while one approached them and asked for a name.

“Clegane. We—” Murron began.

“This way,” the knight interrupted. He stepped aside to allow the wagon to pass, face remaining stoic. Sandor was mildly surprised; he had not anticipated for anyone to not be curious about him enough to try to see him. Perhaps it would not be so bad here at Winterfell, he thought with some relief.

They were greeted with the presence of the Lord and Lady Stark and several other men and women who Sandor assumed were servants based on their attire. He was immediately aware that his bride was not there. He looked around as he climbed out of the back of the wagon, carefully helping his mother down as well, but still did not see anyone who matched Sansa’s description or portrait. Not taking Donald’s advice, he clenched his injured hand into a fist and tried to keep it discreetly hidden by his coat sleeve; he was a grown man who could take care of his own wounds.

The Cleganes approached the Starks; Phillip and Murron stood several paces away near the wagon. There was a strange tension in the air as the two families were finally face to face. Ned was offering them a friendly smile, but Catelyn would not even look at them, staring down at their feet with a frown on her face. It was odd to Sandor, but he did not dare say anything; there was no sense in causing problems with his bride’s family before the ceremony, and above all, they were the Starks’ guests. He knew he must bite his tongue.

Anne was quick to break the silence, using a formal tone. “It is an honor to finally meet in person, Lord Stark, Lady Stark,” she said, smiling and nodding her head slightly.

“The privilege is ours,” Ned said. He looked at Sandor. “I trust the journey was not too difficult?”

Sandor briefly considered telling him the truth, but ultimately decided not to. “Yes. I was pleased to be able to see the countryside. I did not know just how beautiful this land is.”

Ned’s smile widened. “That is good to hear. I hope you will find your stay here just as pleasant. The scenery of Wintertown is just as breathtaking, if I may say so.”

“Oh,” Anne interjected awkwardly, “we—we had hoped not to—” She cut herself off and looked up at Sandor.

He forced a tight smile and raised his chin in false bravado. “Perhaps it would be best if I stay within these walls until we can leave for the Westerlands. I fear my face may…” He trailed off, hoping he would not have to explain further.

“I understand,” Ned said quickly. He put an arm around his wife who still would not make eye contact with either Sandor or Anne and made a sweeping arm gesture at the people around him. “Our staff will help with your things, so do not worry yourselves with that. This is Morys and Elinor.” He pointed out two specific servants. “They will show you to your chambers. I hope they will be to your standards.”

As they were escorted into the castle, Sandor tried not to be too obvious trying to see if Sansa was anywhere in sight. It occurred to him that she could be there, hidden from view, so that she could see him. He was once again gripped with the gut-wrenching worry that she would call it off any moment now. He half-expected to hear a scream and the loud protestations of his bride as she shrieked her disapproval of their match and refusal to marry him. He would not blame her, but the humiliation would be too much to bear, on top of the pain of getting this close only to watch it all be ripped away from him again.

If she was hiding out of sight, she must not have been too repulsed by the sight of him in the flesh, Sandor tried to comfort himself as they reached the upper floor where he presumed the bedchambers were located without incident. Elinor led Anne down the hall to the right of the stairs, explaining that the guest chambers were divided into separate wings for the men and the women, while Morys led Sandor down the opposite hall. The servants had thus far been rather quiet, though this was not unexpected; neither of them made eye contact with him, so Sandor could only assume it was due to his appearance.

The two men walked down the hall for what felt like several minutes. Sandor realized that the interior of the castle was much larger than it seemed on the outside. The corridor ended in a fork, and Morys led him down the right side this time before he finally stopped in front of one of the closed wooden doors near the end and gave it a small push. He gestured into the spacious room and stepped aside respectfully.

“Here we are, sir,” he said quietly, still looking everywhere but directly at Sandor. “The bedclothes have been freshly washed, and there is a basin of warm water and some lye soap if you wish to bathe. Your belongings will be brought up as soon as possible. Should you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“Where will Phillip and Murron be staying?” Sandor asked. “Our servants,” he clarified.

“Chambers have been prepared for them in the servants’ wing,” Morys explained. “They are permitted to be wherever you are throughout the day, but they may not sleep here.”

Sandor nodded. “Thank you, Morys.” When the servant simply nodded but did not move, growing visibly more uncomfortable as the moments passed, Sandor realized the man was waiting for permission to leave. “You can go. You are dismissed.”

Morys moved quickly, turning the corner without so much as a glance back over his shoulder. Sandor entered the chambers and immediately walked over to the bed and collapsed on it, grateful to find that the bedclothes did indeed smell fresh. The mattress was soft enough to be comfortable, and the pillows were adequately stuffed with down. The room was warm thanks to the fire that was lit in the hearth. There was a table against the wall where the door was with the water basin placed on it. He was disappointed that there were no windows; he had assumed that at the very least he would be given a room in the side of the castle that was facing away from the town, similar to the room his father had given him as a child, so that he could have sunlight and a better view than just the dark stone walls, but he knew that this would have do: he could not complain when he was a guest. Besides, there were plenty of candles and rushlights in the room which provided more than enough lighting.

Though he wanted nothing more than to stay in the bed, Sandor knew he needed to clean his hand. The pain had dulled to an ache, but the cloth was now tacky with drying blood, and he knew that if he did not clean it soon the wound would soon begin to fester and ooze and stink. Pushing himself up and off the bed, he walked over to the basin and carefully began to unwrap his palm. The cloth was stuck to the gash; he had to peel it off with even more care so that it would not bleed again.

Once the cloth was off, he examined it under the candlelight, and was relieved to see that it was not nearly as bad as it had appeared to be in the wagon. It was not exactly a shallow cut, but it would only need to be dressed for a few weeks at the most to keep dirt and grime out of it. He submerged his hand in the water then, feeling another wave of relief that the water was, in fact, warm like Morys had said it was.

After the wound was properly cleaned and he had torn another strip of cloth from his own tunic to wrap it with, he laid back down in the bed. He was not sure when his belongings would be brought up to him, but he desperately needed a nap. Even if he had wanted to stay up he would not have been able to; as soon as his head was on the pillow and the quilt pulled up over his body, he was asleep.

Sansa could not stop pacing around her chambers. Every few moments she would peek her head out from around her door to check if Ruth was on her way back yet; it felt like it had been hours since the older woman left under the guise of fetching more soap for Sansa. The reality was that the woman was on a sort of spy mission for Sansa: to catch a glimpse of her betrothed and report back to her on his condition.

She had been forbidden from being present at the Cleganes’ arrival, which surprised her as the idea was her mother’s, not her father’s, and Lord Stark rarely seemed to agree to his wife’s terms recently. Citing some ancient tradition that Sansa was not sure had ever existed, Catelyn claimed that it would be improper for her to see Sandor before the ceremony itself. The bride and groom should only see each other for the first time when they are standing side by side before the priest.

It was a disappointment for Sansa; she wanted to see him. His portrait was still in her chambers, in the same spot it had been since it arrived, and it was etched in her memory so well that she could recall every last detail: every one of his features, and every unique brush stroke the painter had made. If it truly was as realistic as it appeared to be, she knew what to expect of Sandor’s appearance. It would not shock her, nor would it repulse her. She did not want to see him in the way that she was sure their guests would want to see him: in the way that they looked at the poor oddities that were shown in traveling caravans throughout the continent; toss a coin at the well-dressed man who told the story of the creature he was hiding in the wagon, and he would open the doors and present any wide range of misfortunate people: dwarves and giants, ladies with beards and men with no hair at all, men who were as thin as twigs and ladies who were claimed to be heavier than a horse; one man supposedly traveled through Dorne and presented a young man who had no arms and no legs; another presented a man who looked almost completely normal, until he opened his cloak and revealed a malformed twin that seemed to have grown from his torso.

Sandor was not like those people. He was not an oddity; he was not something to be gawked at.

No, Sansa did not want to see him for the reasons she knew others wanted to see him. She did not want to stare at him with disgust or some twisted sense of astonishment at his appearance. She simply wanted to see him, to see the man she was soon to be married to.

She wanted to speak with him, too; ask him about his travels, what he thought of the North, if the people he had encountered on his way had been kind to him. She knew nothing about him besides what he looked like, and she wanted to get to know him. She did not want to marry a stranger, but that was simply not her luck. It was clear to her that her mother was going to do everything in her power to make her marriage an ordeal.

She was finally distracted from her thoughts when the door to her chambers opened and Ruth entered, looking somewhat disheveled and out of breath. Before Sansa could question her, the older woman was quick to begin explaining herself.

“My apologies, miss,” she said with a huff. “I was nearly caught by your mother and had to make a run for it. Young Eliza asked for help with a stain on her dress, which I believe is the only reason Lady Stark did not wring my neck for not being where I am supposed to be, mind you. I ran back here as quick as I could. I knew you would be getting antsy waiting for me, so I do apologize for taking so long, miss.”

“Never mind that,” Sansa said. “Did you see him?”

“Yes, indeed, I did,” Ruth said. Her face twisted into an uncomfortable expression then, but the way she paused before speaking told Sansa that she was trying to think of the right thing to say. “I would say that he looks exactly how you are expecting him to look, miss.”

That was not helpful. “What else did you see?”

Ruth shrugged. “I believe he came with his mother and two of their servants,” she said. “I could not hear very well, miss, as I was hiding so I would not get caught. Your betrothed looked, to me, just like that painting over there. He is quite tall, too. But I did not stay long enough to see how he acted, if that is what you mean.”

Sansa sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I see,” she said after a moment. “Thank you, Ruth. I appreciate your efforts nonetheless.”

Ruth scoffed at that. “Well, thank you, miss.”

“I just wish I could… see him myself, or talk to him, something.” She sat down at her mirror and stared at her reflection. “I want him to see me,” she said quietly. “I want—do you think I could leave my room now?”

“You must think me a fool if you think I would let you run off now when I know you just want to try to find him—do not try to deny it, miss, I know you too well.” Ruth’s voice was stern, but she was smiling. “He is not going anywhere; you can be sure about that. They just arrived, miss, and I do not believe they will want to turn around and go home already. There will be plenty of time for you to do your running around later, just wait until your mother is not watching you or me quite so closely.”

Sansa looked at her in the mirror and returned the smile. “Are you saying you will let me ‘run off’, then?” she asked knowingly.

“I cannot be blamed for what you do when you are out of my sight,” Ruth said simply with a shrug and a laugh. “If I were to be, say, asleep when it happened, well… I would not be responsible, now would I?”

“No, I suppose you would be innocent in that case,” Sansa played along. She felt almost giddy now whereas moments ago she was fretting so much she was nearly driving herself mad.

“You should be preparing yourself for dinner now, miss,” Ruth said, still smiling. “The cooks are already busy with the meal. Who knows; perhaps your betrothed will be there.”

Sansa knew better than to get her hopes up on that. If she was banished to her chambers until dinner under the excuse of not being permitted to see Sandor until it was time, there was simply no possibility that she would be permitted to eat in the same room as him at the same time. She would not be surprised if it turned out that his meal was going to be served after hers. It was also very likely that she would just be sent back to her chambers to eat her meal completely away from everyone else.

A short while later, she learned that the former was the case: she was summoned to eat with only her siblings, Arya and Bran, present with her. There was no sign of her parents or the Cleganes, and when she asked one of the servants about it her hopes of seeing him were effectively crushed.

“The Cleganes will be eating with the Lord and Lady Stark, miss,” the young woman explained. “Lady Starks’ orders.”

“I saw him, you know,” Arya said matter-of-factly when the servant left the room. “Do you want to know what he looks like?”

“I already know what he looks like, Arya.” She did not mean to snap, but she hated feeling like she was being kept completely in the dark about her own husband. It was unfair, in her mind, that everyone else could see him and even speak to him if they wanted to while she, the one who was going to be married to him in just a few days, was kept away from him.

“I think he looks m—”

“Do not say it,” Sansa raised her voice. “Whatever it is, I do not want to hear it.”

“I was just going to say he looks mean,” Arya rushed to say before she could be interrupted again.

“Well, I would too if I was stared at everywhere I went.” Sansa put down her spoon and pushed the bowl of stew away from her; what little appetite she had had before then was gone. “Not another word of it, do you understand?” she said to Arya, looking at her sternly. “I do not wish to talk about him, or the wedding, or Mother, or—I do not wish to talk about any of it.”

She rose from the table and motioned for another one of the servants to clean her place before she left to return to her chambers.

Chapter Text

The servant that woke him from his nap was a small thing and looked almost frightened as he informed Sandor that dinner was ready and his and his mother’s presence was requested by the Starks. This reaction confused Sandor momentarily; this servant did not look familiar, so it was unlikely that the man had seen him earlier, and the way Sandor was lying in bed kept his face hidden, so it was also unlikely that he was reacting to Sandor’s appearance. Unless he had been told, no doubt by another servant, how hideous he was. For all he knew, the servants were whispering to each other all over the castle about the ugly monster currently sleeping in this room.

The nap must have made him irritable, he supposed; it was not like Sandor to think so bitterly.

“Sir, I am afraid there is not enough time for you to wash up,” the servant said sheepishly. “We are not used to guests here anymore, otherwise I am sure I would have been sent up sooner to wake you so that you could change into cleaner clothes.”

Sandor mentally cursed himself. That must have been why the servant looked so scared; he was afraid Sandor would be angry that he did not have a chance to freshen up. He was foolish to believe that every person’s odd behavior around him was directly related to him. It was likely, but he could not continue to assume, without any proof, that he was the cause of every change in tone or lowered gaze or hushed whisper. It would surely drive him mad. But, having spent so long with little contact with anyone but his mother and their staff, he knew it would be difficult to change this belief. He did not know how to be in society; he did not know how to respond to others or deal with their reactions to him properly.

“Do not fret yourself,” he said with a huff as he pushed himself upright. “I should have known better than to fall asleep.” He glanced around and saw his belongings had been brought in and placed neatly near the bed. He must have slept through the noise somehow. “When did this happen?”

The man looked at the sacks of clothing and then back at Sandor. “Your things were brought in about an hour ago, sir,” he said. He seemed to be putting in a great deal of effort to look Sandor in the eye. “Morys instructed the other servants to be quiet and not wake you.”

“Right,” Sandor mumbled. “Well, I should be able to find the dining hall by myself, so you may leave, if you want. Or am I to have an escort?”

“I am supposed to take you so that you do not get lost, sir.” The man looked like he wanted to say something else but hesitated a moment. “I would—if it is okay for me to say this, I mean,” he stumbled over his words.

Sandor mentally prepared himself. “Just say it.”

“I do not mean to make you uncomfortable,” the man rushed to say. “I mean no offense, sir, but I fear that you may think my behavior now is because of your appearance, but I assure you it is not. I am a… nervous person. I have an aunt with one eye, so I am used to, uh… unusual appearances.”

Sandor had to stop himself from scoffing or laughing at that. He had to applaud the man for at least trying to find a connection with him. “My face is far worse than a missing eye, though, right?” he said, hoping he sounded casual. “Your aunt can cover the missing eye with a patch. There is not much I can do about my whole face, lest I wear a bag over my head.”

The servant did not laugh; he looked even more uncomfortable. Sandor mentally cursed himself again. He was not aware of just how badly he was lacking in socialization. He was now worried about how the dinner would go. What if he said something wrong? What if he behaved in a way that was considered uncivilized?

“Lady Clegane is waiting for you,” the man finally said, clearly eager to leave. “I believe she wants you two to go down together.”

“Then we shall not keep her waiting.”

He stood up from the bed then and, after checking to see if the water in the basin had been replaced and being greeted with crystal clear, if lukewarm water, he splashed some onto his face in an attempt to brighten up and not look as exhausted as he felt. He made sure the bandage on his hand was not soiled, and then he and the servant left the chambers and met with his mother. Anne was waiting for them patiently with another servant standing near her; nothing in her demeanor conveyed any sense of a rush. She smiled at Sandor when she saw him.

“Shall we go now?” she said even as they began to make their way down to the dining hall. “I must say, I am looking forward to speaking with Lady Stark,” she muttered to Sandor, lowering her voice so that the servants might not hear her. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure they were maintaining a respectful distance behind them. “I have not been in contact with her at all, so it will be nice to finally get to hear from her. I do hope she is a bit more talkative than she was when we arrived.”

“I have some things I would like to talk to her about as well,” Sandor said, choosing his words carefully. He was still confused and, in truth, aggravated by Catelyn’s behavior earlier that day. The memory made him worry less about his own behavior for a moment; if she could act like that as a proper, well civilized lady, then surely he would not be too bad.

Anne put a hand on his arm. “Remember what we discussed,” she whispered. “You must keep a level head. You cannot be combative with them, or anyone else here for that matter. The marriage cannot be jeopardized.”

“You act as though I will turn into a rabid animal and attack them,” Sandor snapped. He immediately apologized. “Forgive me, Mother. I fear I am more stressed than I thought I would be, and I am not handling it well.”

“So am I,” Anne said gently. “Just try your best. That is all we can do.”

They were pleasantly surprised when they reached the dining hall. A rather large meal had been prepared. The table, which was far too long for only four people, requiring their seats to be clustered together, two on each side, was covered in food. There were at least two types of meat on the table, duck and hog judging from the smell, several plates with various fruits and vegetables, both raw and cooked, a variety of breads and cheeses, and a plate with a delicious-looking lemon cake. The Starks were sitting next to each other on one side of the table.

Anne could not suppress a laugh as she took in everything in front of her. “This is more than I was expecting. Should we be expecting more guests, Lord Stark?” she teased. “This is quite a lot of food for just the four of us, if I may say. Is Sansa—”

“Oh, no, no,” Ned said, waving his hand as if to dismiss the idea and smiling at the Cleganes. “I just thought that we could do a bit of taste testing for the wedding feast. Please, take a seat. And you may call us by our names, if we may do the same.”

“Of course. Thank you, Ned.”

While they took their seats, Ned continued. “We did not discuss this much in our letters. It is always better to know if the food will suit your tastes as much as it does ours. It would be foolish to have a wedding feast that the groom cannot eat.”

“Aye, that is a good point,” Sandor said.

“These are all popular dishes here in the North, including some of our own personal favorites. Please, feel free to ask your servants to pass alone any of your recipes for us to try tomorrow. I would like to ensure that there will be something for everyone to enjoy. There is no point in having a feast if the two most important people in the room do not like the food choices.” He looked at Sandor as he explained further, “Plus, I imagine it may be helpful for you and my daughter to become better accustomed to each other’s favorite foods. Speaking from experience, it makes the adjustment to being husband and wife easier to be able to sit down for a meal together that you both enjoy.”

There was not much conversation while they ate. The Cleganes still wanted to discuss other things with the Starks, but both parties were simply too busy tasting each dish and deciding which ones should be included in the feast. They all agreed that the main meat would be a variety of pork, with a smaller quantity of duck, goat, and lamb. As soon as Anne tasted a particularly sweet red wine, she insisted that it be served for the feast. The discussion of desserts was short: as soon as Ned mentioned that lemon cake was Sansa’s favorite, Sandor immediately agreed.

“It is delicious. I see no need to add a second dessert if this is her favorite. Perhaps we should have a whole table full of lemon cakes.”

Ned laughed. “The guest list is quite long,” he reminded him. “There will be more options than what we choose here. It is very likely that we will need to include everything you see here, depending on how many people attend.”

“How many do you anticipate?” Anne asked, taking another long sip of the wine.

Ned considered for a moment. “I suppose it is possible that they all will,” he said slowly. “To tell you the truth, I am worried about that possibility. Where will they stay? How will we accommodate them? Is there enough food in the city to feed my people and them?” He rubbed his forehead and shook his head. “I suppose I should not start worrying until I have to, right?”

“I do not see a problem with serving everything,” Sandor offered, a bit awkwardly. “It would certainly be best to have too many options than to have too few.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Ned said with a small smile. “I am quite sure the servants would be happy to have leftovers to take back to their own chambers afterwards.”

Several servants entered the dining hall and began clearing away the empty plates and bringing the uneaten food back into the kitchen. Once they left, Ned spoke up again. “Now that that is finally settled, perhaps we could—”

“I would like to hear more from Catelyn,” Anne interrupted him. She was somewhat tippled from all the wine, otherwise she would have never been so rude. “If that is permissible,” she added, more than a little delayed.

Catelyn looked surprised. She had not said a word throughout the entire meal, simply eating her food next to her husband in complete silence. “What do you mean?”

“We have never met or even communicated through letters,” Anne explained. “I would like to know more about you.”

“Well, I—I am usually out of sight, when it comes to politics,” Catelyn began. “There really was not a need for me to get involved when I was never meant to be.”

“Oh, yes, I have heard about your customs regarding betrothals and marriages. Why is the mother not allowed to have a say in the matter?”

“Mother, please,” Sandor said quickly, horrified at the implication. And to think just a short while ago he had been afraid that he would be the one to act inappropriately.

“I meant no disrespect, Lord Stark,” Anne said to Ned. “I am simply curious.”

“The customs are old,” Ned said simply. “I am not sure why or how this custom came about, but it is the way things have been done here in the North for centuries.”

Anne did not look happy with that answer. It was a ridiculous custom, in her opinion. Thankfully, she held her tongue. “Has Sansa had any say?”

The sharp glare that Catelyn gave Ned was all the answer she needed. Ned’s quick inhale and the way he adjusted himself in his chair was further confirmation. “No,” Ned said tightly. “The custom—”

“Right, yes, the custom,” Anne mumbled.

“Please, forgive her,” Sandor quickly interjected. “I think the wine may have gone to her head already. We do not have wines that sweet in King’s Landing.” He pushed the full cup of water closer to his mother, urging her to take a drink. “Perhaps we could discuss something else?”

Catelyn seemed to hesitate before speaking up. “I think Lady Clegane and I had the same idea,” she said. “I have some questions for you, Sandor.”

Sandor leaned back in his chair, hoping he did not come off as arrogant. “I am listening.”

“Why did you accept the proposal?”

“Catelyn—” It was Ned turn to reproach his wife.

“No, let me speak. If he wishes not to answer that is his choice.”

Catelyn fixed Sandor with an unwavering stare as she waited for him to answer. In truth, the question had caught him off guard, even though he knew he should have been expecting it. There were various factors surrounding both of their families that would have been a decent enough reason to accept. But surely Catelyn was aware of this; there had to be another reason for the question.

“This marriage will help ensure that our Houses continue.” His answer sounded just as rehearsed as it was. It was a weak reasoning, and he had no doubt that Catelyn would see through it. “It will allow both of us to maintain our titles—”

“Is that so? Because I would think that this marriage will only help give you a more powerful title.”

The atmosphere in the room instantly became almost unbearably tense. Sandor, Anne, and Ned all reacted at the same time, equally as taken aback by the comment.

“I beg your pardon?”


“What did you just say?”

Catelyn barely flinched at their raised voices. “I am simply stating a fact,” she said calmly.

“This family holds titles that are far more powerful than your own. My daughter is a princess; you are an earl. She will not be gaining anything politically through your marriage; while you stand to gain far more than you should otherwise be entitled to.”

Ned started to speak but was once again interrupted by Anne, who was no longer interested in feigning politeness. “If I may also simply state facts here, Sansa’s title is now completely useless. She may be a princess, but she has no more power, politically speaking, than I do. I would almost wager that she has even less power than Sandor, given the circumstances. Your kingdom is no longer—”

“That is enough, Mother,” Sandor said firmly. He had to stop her before she went too far. She was angry with Catelyn, he knew that, and so was he; but what she was about to say would only serve to offend Ned as well. That could not happen.

Thankfully, she did not try to continue that sentence. “You ask why we accepted this proposal, when the real question is why did you?”

“Before you answer that,” Sandor interjected again, looking directly at Catelyn, “I would like to answer your question. I accepted because I believed it could be mutually beneficial for both myself and Sansa. There is still gossip regarding your sons and how their actions disgraced the Stark name—”

“What do you know about any of it?” Catelyn snapped.

“Even locked away as a recluse I heard what others said, Lady Stark. I never put much stock into hearsay, but the main story remained the same no matter who told it.”

Catelyn laughed, but it was clearly forced. “You should know better than to believe anything you have heard.”

“Did I say I believed it?” Sandor did not give her a chance to respond. “No, I did not. I simply reminded you that people are still talking. The reputation of your family has not improved. Surely you are aware of that.”

Catelyn looked furious then. Sandor had never seen such pure rage so plainly evident on anyone else’s face but his father’s. It was unnerving to see it on a woman’s face. Her cheeks were turning pink, her brows furrowed together and her nostrils flaring as she tried to control herself. It was obvious that she wanted to raise her voice: yell, shriek, scream, perhaps a mixture of all three.

“Do you think your own reputation is any better?” she finally asked very slowly. “Do you know what people say about you? This may be the North, but word travels far, as you are apparently so very aware of.”

Sandor was unnerved by her anger and did not know how to calm her down. He glanced at Ned and found that the man was staring back at him, clearly with no intentions of interjecting or addressing his wife. Taking a deep breath, Sandor looked back at Catelyn to answer her questions.

“There is not a doubt in my mind that the rumors about me are just as bad,” he said carefully. “They could be worse, even. I do not know what others say about me; I try to avoid hearing it, and the staff at our home make sure to never speak a word of it when I am around. I can only imagine what you must have heard about me.”

“It is worse,” Catelyn said bitterly.

Anne scoffed. “Worse than murder?” she asked incredulously.

Sandor rushed to continue speaking, hoping to steer the conversation to the original question. He could see that Catelyn was moments away from having a full meltdown. This suspicion was confirmed when Ned reached over and quickly grasped one of her trembling hands, raising it to his lips to press a gentle kiss to her knuckles.

“Regardless of rumors,” he said a bit forcefully to make sure everyone was listening to him again, “I thought that given the circumstances of both of our families, marriage would be the best option for us. It may not improve anything; it is very likely that our reputations will remain as poorly as ever. But at the very least, we will still have the marriage. Everything that is mine will become Sansa’s once we are married. You may think of me as a mere earl, Lady Stark, but I have substantial properties and estates. I intend to give her full access and rights to every inch of it. If she finds being married to me so miserable, she will have the freedom to live elsewhere, with her own staff.”

There was a moment where no one said anything. Then, very quietly, Catelyn spoke. “Why?”

For a moment, he did not know how to answer. It was a strange question. Why? Why would he not? Why would she be surprised by that? He realized that Catelyn, the mother of his bride, likely believe he was a horrible man. Perhaps the gossip, at least in the North, far away from anyone who may have known even a little bit of truth and could have set them straight, was worse than he thought; perhaps Catelyn had not been lying when she said it was worse than the gossip about her own family.

“I have no desire to make her unhappy,” he finally said softly. “If she… I am not going to keep her locked away as a prisoner just because she is my wife.”

“My son—” Anne began.

“Mother,” Sandor said, raising his voice just enough to silence her. He returned his attention to the Starks once she was quiet. He was somewhat surprised to see that Ned was silent, listening to him intently with genuine curiosity rather than staring at him as if he were waiting for Sandor to make the wrong move. “I was treated like a prisoner in my own home,” he continued. “I know what it is like to have your freedom taken from you. To not be able to go outside. To feel uncomfortable and unsafe in a place that you cannot leave.”

He had to stop, then; he felt exposed and vulnerable. He had never spoken of these feelings before, not even to his mother. It left him feeling raw and open in ways that he had never been before. Finally, he was able to softly say, “So, no, I do not intend to make her feel like that, no matter what you may have heard about me or what you may think of me.”

No one spoke for a long moment. The atmosphere in the room had changed; where there had been a thick tension lingering over the four of them only moments ago, there was now a sort of thick silence, the kind that occurred when everyone is uncomfortable and unsure what to say. The longer the silence dragged on, the more Sandor regretted opening up the way he had. Perhaps it had been inappropriate. He did not know if people often spoke of such things, or if it was considered improper or even impolite to do so. For all he knew, he had just ruined everything.

Anne finally broke the silence, sounding much more sober. “My son is not a bad man,” she said firmly. “He was raised better than that. Whatever you have heard about him, forget it. All of it.”

Ned cleared his throat, glancing at his wife. “I will be honest with you,” he began, “especially since you have been so… honest with us. We have heard a lot about you, and the Clegane line as a whole. I will not repeat it; most of what has been said has been alarming, to say the least. I was very hesitant in the beginning myself. I had doubts about this match. I feared for my daughter’s safety, just as any good father would, I am sure. But the more we talked in our letters, Sandor, I felt more comfortable with the idea. I did not get the sense that you were the way others said you were.”

“How does Sansa feel about this?” Sandor seized the opportunity to turn the discussion to the matter he had been wanting to bring up since they first arrived.

“She accepts it.”

The way Ned said that, the word choice and the simple, matter-of-fact tone, bothered Sandor. She “accepts” it? He did not ask if she accepted it; he asked how she felt about it. He wanted to know what she thought of him, how she felt about marrying a man who looked like him. Did she fear him? Was she repulsed by him?

Truthfully, he wanted to know if he was going to have a bride who would not be able to look at him or if he could expect at least some eye contact before she inevitably left to live away from him on one of the other Clegane estates.

“What exactly has she said about it?” he pressed.

“To me? Almost nothing.” Ned laughed as if it were a joke.

“What about you, Lady Stark?” Anne chimed in. “Girls tend to be more open with their mothers.”

Catelyn did not answer for a long moment. “She has said nothing to me, either. She seems to be staying quiet. I do not know what that could mean.”

Sandor had to fight the urge to tell her that he knew she was lying. The pause gave her away: thinking up a lie and deciding whether to tell it or the truth took longer than just telling the truth. “I would like to speak to her, if she would agree to it.”

Both Ned and Catelyn tensed up. Catelyn looked almost panicked while Ned looked plainly uncomfortable. Neither of them said a word for a brief moment, looking at each other, before Ned finally spoke. “I believe you will find that many of the customs of the North are different than those in the Westerlands, and even those in King’s Landing,” he said, sounding rehearsed and unnatural. “We are following the tradition of excluding the women, including the bride and, as we have already discussed, her mother from the wedding preparations. It is quite common here. Catelyn and I did not meet or even speak to each other until our ceremony.”

Sandor could not believe what he was hearing. These excuses were truly the most absurd he had ever heard. Even when he was isolated in his family home when his father was still alive, he was not given such noticeably fake reasons for why he was living in isolation. His childhood had been full of rules and regulations that were far beyond any logical reasoning, and yet now, listening to the Starks trying to come up with an excuse to refuse to allow him to speak with Sansa, he almost felt as though his father had had more believable reasons.

“Forgive me for saying this,” he said with forced calmness, “but how can I be certain that she wants to marry me if I cannot even speak to her?”

“Our word is not good enough for you?” Catelyn sounded indignant.

“No,” Sandor said bluntly. He quickly explained himself further, not wanting to cause problems. “I have no reason not to believe you, of course. You have given us no indications that you have been telling us anything other the truth so far. But I would simply feel much better if I knew without a doubt that she is willing, and the only way for me to feel so would be to speak to her and hear the words coming directly from her.”

“That is just not possible.”

He could not lose his temper; they were already on thin ice. He was sure that showing too much emotion, especially now that he was feeling so many negative emotions, would likely be the tipping point. He could not risk it.

Taking a quick breath in, he said, “With all due respect, I do not see why not. In fact, I believe it would also put you more at ease to know that she is truly accepting of our union.” He looked directly at Catelyn. “Would you agree that I look worse than my portrait?”

Catelyn at least had the decency to look flustered and slightly offended by the question. “Pardon me?”

“We hired the best portraitist we could find; we knew we needed one who could capture, as close to real life as possible, my appearance. I assume you have looked at it at least once. It is highly detailed and closely resembles me, but it is not quite what I truly look like. Our painter was good, better than good, but even he could not get everything right. He tried not to fall into the fashionable trend of idealizing me; I specifically told him not to, but I know he did in some places. The man in that portrait, if that were how I looked, would not be nearly as sore of a sight as I am in the flesh.”

“I do not—this is improper,” Catelyn said, shaking her head.

“I must agree,” Ned said softly. “What are you trying to say, Sandor?”

Bitterly, Sandor noted that neither of them denied it. He was only human; it hurt to know that they thought he was uglier in person. It made him worry more about what Sansa would think when she finally saw him. The thought of her having no idea what he truly looked like until they were face-to-face before a priest and an unimaginably large crowd was even more unappealing.

“I am simply saying that it might be best for her to see me before the ceremony. Everything about our marriage is unconventional. Would it be too far to break just one more rule?”

“Yes,” Catelyn said before he even finished the question. “We have already said—”

“No, just wait a moment,” Ned interrupted. He looked like he was seriously contemplating what Sandor had said. “You make a fair argument, Sandor,” he said before turning to look at Catelyn. “Truthfully, I do not see the harm in it. These are exceptional circumstances, and you must remember how we felt about being kept apart and then suddenly thrust into this life together.”

Catelyn began shaking her head continuously. “No,” she whispered before speaking in a normal voice. “If you are asking for my opinion, I do not think they should see each other—yet. I think we must follow at least one tradition. This marriage looks bad enough already. The only thing that would be worse would be an elopement.”

“High society will be none the wiser unless someone told them,” Sandor pointed out. “I understand that we all have poor reputations. That is simply a fact I cannot forget. You are concerned about ruining yours further, and if I am judging correctly, you are also concerned with restoring your old reputation. I can understand that, as well. But I do not understand why my request would affect either of those things.”

Before Catelyn could respond, Ned spoke up. “I hope I am not coming off as unkind in saying this, but I must ask you to respect my wife’s decision. If she does not wish to allow you to speak with Sansa, that is final. Now, if you wish it, I will discuss it with her further—”

“I am not going to change my—”

“—but that is a conversation that I must have alone with my wife.” Ned acted like he did not hear Catelyn’s protest. “I would also like to remind you that attempting to sway our decision in our home comes across as rude and unbecoming. I know you are not familiar with social customs and norms due to your past, but try to remember that, especially if you wish to avoid causing any miscommunications.”

Sandor felt a wave of shame crash over him. This what exactly what he had been fearing since they began the trip to the North: he had crossed a boundary without realizing it. Now he no longer seemed like a polite and respectful gentleman; he was a persistent and offensive nuisance.

“I apologize,” he said quietly. “I did not mean to offend either of you. You are absolutely right. I was being rude.”

Ned simply nodded. “No need to apologize.” He suddenly clapped his hands and rubbed his palms together before pushing his chair away from the table. “I do believe it is time to end this. I appreciate the two of you joining us this evening. I look forward to tasting your recipes tomorrow, Lady Clegane.”

As they walked back to their respective chambers, Sandor found himself unable to focus on what his mother was saying to him. He could not think of anything other than how uncertain he now was about everything: if he was truly welcome here at Winterfell anymore, if his bride truly wanted to be his bride, if this wedding would be helpful to either of them or if he was only going to end up making Sansa’s life harder. He was not a fool; he knew she deserved better, and he knew without a doubt now that the Starks, particularly Catelyn, felt the same. If their luck had been different, he would not even be here right now; they never would have considered him.

Also on his mind was just how badly the dinner had gone. It started out on the right foot, he thought, but it had quickly went downhill. He felt that he could blame no one but himself; if he had just kept his mouth shut, or if he had been able to control Anne a bit more, or if he had not allowed to drink as much wine...

Anne put her hand on his arm, snapping him out of his thoughts. “I am sure your mind is racing right now,” she said very gently. “I do not believe you are listening to a word I am saying.”

“I am sorry, Mother.” Sandor did not bother to explain himself; he knew she would understand.

Anne patted his arm. “They are stressed, my dear, just like we are. Try not to judge them too harshly—”

“Do you think they are giving me that same courtesy?” Sandor could not stop himself from asking. “Lady Stark has made it very clear that she does not approve of me or House Clegane as a whole. I am quite sure that if she had had any say in this matter, if Lord Stark had given her the opportunity to voice her opinion and to have that opinion considered, she would have said no and thrown all of our letters out—or burned them, more likely. If she regards me so poorly, I can only imagine how Sansa must think of me. I cannot—perhaps this was a mistake.”

“Stop it.”

Anne tightened her grip, forcing him to stop walking. They had reached the top of the stairs and were now standing on the floor where their chambers were. It would have been easy for him to escape her grip and retreat down his hall to his chambers so that he could wallow in his self-pity in peace, but he did not. Anne was staring at him with a deep frown and troubled eyes, which made him feel guilty for what he had just said.

“I know that this is less than ideal for you right now. But you are a good man.”

“Being a good man does nothing to improve my face, Mother.”

Anne took a deep breath and then exhaled heavily. “I will not pretend to know what you go through. I know how life has treated you, and I have apologized to you countless times for not being able to protect you from it. But from my perspective, and just in my opinion, you are far too harsh when it comes to yourself. Sansa will not be shocked by your appearance. You do not look that different from your portrait, despite what you seem to believe.”

“All right.”

“I am not trying to lecture you,” Anne said in a lighter tone. “I am simply trying to reassure you that you have nothing to worry about. If Lord Stark says that she is willing, I see no point in worrying yourself sick because you did not hear it from her. There is no point in arguing with them about speaking to her, either.”

“All right,” Sandor repeated. He was exhausted and he did not want to argue with anyone about anything now. All he wanted to do was go back to his chambers and sleep, preferably until the wedding.

Anne seemed to be able to sense this. She sighed again and pulled him into a hug, lightly kissing his cheek. “I will stop bothering you now,” she said lightly. “Make sure to clean your hand again. I was surprised they said nothing of it earlier.”

Sandor glanced down at the bandage. “I kept it in my lap most of the time,” he said absently. “I did not want to have to explain it.”

Anne hummed in acknowledgement. “All right, then. Well, goodnight, dear. I am sure you are going to go to sleep as soon as you get cleaned up. Sweet dreams.” And with that, she turned away and began walking towards her own chambers.

Sandor did the same, rubbing his uninjured hand down his face as he walked through the dimly lit hall. The lanterns that lined the walls were not burning as brightly as they had been when Morys had brought him to his room earlier; it must have been later than he thought it was. It was not so dim that he could not see where he was going, but he could just barely make out the shapes of the boards on the doors or the stones of the walls.

As he turned the last corner to the hall where his bedchambers were, he was surprised to see the shadow of someone else at the end of the hall where his door was. He could see that it was not a man; the person was wearing a plain dress and, judging from the shape of her head in the poor lighting, a bonnet. She had to be a maid, he determined. She seemed to be standing with her back to the wall, leaning against it with her arms crossed. Also surprising was that she did not seem to notice he was there, despite his heavy footsteps that, to his ears, sounded loud in the otherwise empty hall.

“Are you all right?” he called out once he got a little bit closer to her.

The woman started, jerking off the wall with a small surprised gasp. “Oh, my apologies, sir,” she rushed to say, shaking her head repeatedly. “I was not—there was—I did not mean to—I know what this must look like—”

“What are you talking about?” Sandor asked. He was perplexed by the woman’s behavior. It was almost as if she believed she was caught doing something she was not supposed to be doing. But… what could that have been?

“I was simply curious—”

Oh, he thought. Of course. A nosey maid. Why else would she be here? There was no doubt in his mind that the other servants in the castle had been whispering to each other ever since he arrived. Perhaps Morys or Elinor told someone where he was staying, and the news had simply spread amongst the servants throughout the day. It could have been the servants who were given the orders to bring his belongings to his room. Regardless, it was now obvious to him that the servants here at Winterfell were much different than the ones back at home: gossiping, sneaky, and far too curious to not try to get a look at him.

He held up his hand to interrupt the maid’s rambling. “No need to say anything else,” he said gruffly. “You can run along and tell your friends that you have seen the hideous beast now.”

The woman was finally silent after that comment. For a moment she said nothing at all. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

Sandor gritted his teeth as he reached for the handle of his door. The woman was now standing behind him and he kept his back to her as he spoke again. “You were simply curious, is that right? Curious to see what I looked like? Curious to see if all the rumors you have heard are true?” He forced out a brief humorless laugh. “Now you have seen for yourself that it is all true. I am sure your friends are eagerly awaiting your return so that you can tell them all about it. Run along now.”

To his surprise, the woman did not move. She cleared her throat, prompting him to look over his shoulder at her. Now that they were closer, he could see some of her features and saw that she did not appear to be very young; she looked to be older than him, perhaps. She also had a look of defiance on her face, which was even more intriguing to him.

“With all due respect, sir, I will have you know that I have absolutely no interest in spreading gossip,” the woman said indignantly. “I am far too old for such foolish things, and even if I were young enough for it, I still would not do it. Whispering about others behind their backs has never interested me in the slightest, not once in my life. I was not here to see what you looked like or to—” She cut herself off then, suddenly looking a little unsure.

Sandor turned around to face her completely. “Well?” he encouraged. “Go on, then. Say whatever it is, lass.”

“I am here to see what you look like,” the woman said quickly. “But not for who you must be thinking. I am Lady Stark’s maid—Lady Sansa, that is.”

It took effort for Sandor to keep his facial expression neutral. “Is that right?” he said with forced casualness. “Why should I believe you?”

“What reason would I have to lie to you?” the woman countered. “My name is Ruth. Lady Sansa has had me bustling about this castle since you got here trying to get a look at you. She sent me out this time to try to speak with you.”

“What?” He was unable to control his reaction then. “You are trying to tell me that after all this time, she wishes to speak with me now? I assume you are not part of the kitchen staff, then, otherwise you would know what was said during dinner.” He laughed again and turned his back to her once more, pushing his door open.

“You are right,” Ruth said quickly, taking a step towards as though to hold him back from entering the room. She stopped herself before she touched him. “I do not know what happened. I do not know what you are talking about at all. What I do know, and I swear to you that I am telling you the truth, sir, is that Sansa asked me to speak with you if I could.”

Sandor did not enter his chambers for a long moment while he contemplated what the maid had said. He had no reason to believe her, he told himself. For all he knew she was lying just to avoid making him angry. If he humored her she would have even more things to say to the other servants once she finally left. But if she was telling the truth…

He could not take the risk, he decided. After learning that Catelyn believed what she had already heard about him, he refused to give anyone, least of all servants whom he was never going to see again after the wedding, more things to talk about. He did not want to imagine what Catelyn would say or do if she found out that he had tried to learn more about Sansa through one of her supposed maids.

“Well, you cannot,” he said coldly. “I have no interest in speaking with you. You can tell her I said that. I am going to get washed up and go back to sleep now, and you are going to leave.”

“Listen to me—”

“No,” Sandor said a little louder. “I told you I do not wish to speak with you, even if you claim to be acting on Lady Sansa’s behalf. You can tell her—” He paused, wondering if he should say anything more. “You can tell her that if she wishes to learn more about me, or whatever her excuse is for sending you to me, she can come to me herself. I am sure you will go to her and tell her where my chambers are, correct?”

“Sir, if you would just wait a minute and let me—”

“Must I repeat myself again?” Sandor finally stepped into his chambers and turned to face her again, one hand on the door, ready to close it. “My answer is no. I am telling you to leave now.”

He shut the door, ignoring Ruth’s protests. He could hear her footsteps as she finally walked away, but it was only once they had faded until he could no longer hear them that he finally sagged his shoulders and sighed, leaning his forehead against the door and closing his eyes.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Go ahead.”

“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.