They all stood in the yard waiting. Arya was missing as usual but the rest were all dressed and sombre. The king was arriving after all. Him and all the knights and ladies, all the way from the capital.
Sansa could hardly contain her excitement. She was trying to stifle a smile when Robb nudged her and jutted his chin out in the other direction.
"Where's you sister?" Her mother whispered urgently. Sansa shrugged. This day won't be spoiled why anyone, not even Arya, she had decided.
The first of the king's bannermen were through the portcullis when Arya ran to take her place beside Sansa.
The king and queen where greeted first. Her father was the king's best friend she'd heard. They had embraced and the king spoke to the Stark children before going away to the crypts. The queen had protested but all sansa could think about was how beautiful she was.
The Prince was behind them. Golden haired and handsome, he rode a white horse. He smiled at her and Sansa's heart quickened. She smiled back shyly. Beside her Robb stood with a questioning look of his face.
That's when sansa saw him. He rode a black stallion, towering over everyone around him. He wore a dark grey armour with a black cloak and his helm- a snarling hound with teeth bared. He looked frightful to her like midnight sky walking among daylight dreams.
The visor was down yet sansa peered to look at his face. Robb was muttering something which sounded like appreciation but she wasn't paying attention. She scarce looked at anyone else, the black rider fascinated her so.
A beautiful man with golden hair like the prince's said something to the man in the dog helm and he began to remove it.
Sansa's felt her breath catch in her throat so excited was she to see who he was.
He removed his helm as she stole glances at him. His hair was black too. It came down to his shoulders and the wind was blowing it onto his forehead. His brow was heavy and his nose was hooked. The lines from his cheekbones cut sharp towards the corners of his mouth. She couldn't see his eyes, but she imagined they'd be black too.
His gaze swept across the yard and he pulled up beside the prince.
He was so close now, just a few feet in front of him,
Sansa felt a blush creeping up. She felt hot all over suddenly.
It was around dinner time when Robb and Arya and Jon had told sansa that the prince was asking about her.
Their guests form king's landing were shown to their rooms. Sansa wondered where the black knight was.
She couldn't stop thinking about him even though he looked awfully older.
But his hair and his cloak, the way they flowed about him. She felt herself flush at the thought. He was so tall too, Sansa had seen him walking behind the prince.
"Do you think he's taller than Hodor?" Sansa asked Jeyne Poole once they sat away from the rest, in their corner by the window.
"No.. but he is awfully tall. Did you see the Queen's brother? He was so handsome.." Jeyne went on about Jamie Lannister while Sansa was still preoccupied.
".. They say he's the best swordfighter in the seven kingdoms," Sansa heard Jeyne say as she looked outside the window. That seemed to catch the other's attention.
"He's not. He's been unhorsed in too many tourneys," Robb said.
"Ser Barristan Selmy is the best swordfighter," Jon added. "Barristan the Bold they call him."
"Aren't there any girl knights?" Arya asked.
"No, little sister," Jon said messing up Aryas already messed up hair.
They had to go to dinner soon, Sansa got up to fetch a hairbrush before they were called for dinner. She wouldn't have her mother embarrassed.
"Then I'll be the first one. All great fighters are knights." Arya said.
"Not all.' Jon said. "The prince's sworn shield isn't a knight and the queen trusts only him to keep her son safe."
Sansa was beside Arya brushing out the tangles as delicately as she could.
"Leave me be."
"We've to go to the feast soon and I wont have you take this rats nest to dinner. Now hold still."
Arya muttered something then said to Jon, "Was he the one wearing the dog helmet?"
Sansa's hand stopped mid brush. She looked up then down again trying to cover up the flush in her cheeks.
"Yes. He's Lord Gregor Clegane. Bannerman to Lord Tywin, the Queen's father," Robb said.
Sansa's ears were perked up, "Lord? Nor Ser?"
"He's not a knight. They say he hates knights so he won't say the vows even though they've been wanting to make him one for years," came the reply from Jon who was stroking his chin like a wizened maester.
"Oh," Sansa had hoped he'd be a knight.
"I heard he tried to kill his brother," Robb said.
Sansa's eyes shot up, "He wouldn't," she insisted.
"And you know this because?"
"Well because.." because he's too handsome to be so wicked, and so... mysterious "-- cause the queen wanted to knight him, so he must be good."
That seemed the funniest thing to them and Robb and Jon burst into laughter. Arya joined in though Sansa didn't know if she understood what they were laughing at.
Gregor is such an ugly name, she thought. He doesn't look like a Gregor.
"Who told you all this?" Sansa asked once they were don't laughing.
"The squires and the stable boys," Jon said.
"Though most were new in their service, not everyone came from King's Landing," mused Robb.
"So you don't know for sure then," Sansa said happily. She finished putting Aryas hair in braids and the little girl flitted off to get her practice sword as soon as it was done.
"I suppose we could ask him ourselves tonight," Robb said.
"No!" Sansa squealed. It would be most unseemly to inquire Lords about their plans to murder their own brother.
Robb and Jon exchanged a look and laughed again.
Singers had come today. They were singing a northern song the wisps on lips, an old song about a spirit who lived in the forest who fell in love with a prince. Sansa loved the song.
She sat with her siblings, except for Jon who was seated among the household guard.
She looked around for Lord Gregor but couldn't find him. Few things had made her so disappointed.
Her parents sat with the king and the queen on the top dias. She looked and the pPrinc Joffrey wasn't there either.
Jeyne sat next to her, whispering the whereabouts of comely knights in the hall.
Sansa nodded and looked but only for Jeynes sake.
Sansa was looking at the queen when she felt a light hand in her shoulder, "My lady, may I join you?" The Prince asked, his emerald eyes twinkling.
Sansa got up hurriedly, "I'd be honoured, your grace," she said.
That meant he's here too, he is the prince's sworn shield, she thought. The thought made her blush again.
The Prince was gallant, He told her of the dishes in kings landing and the jokes of their party.
They shared some food and Sansa had a little wine.
When the queen called her, she could scarce keep drom skipping all the way up.
"How are you little dove?" The Queen's voice was silky and kind. "Why you are but a beauty."
Sansa couldn't have kept her smile demure for the life of her. She felt herself grin from ear to ear.
"Thank you, your grace."
"How old are you?"
"Thirteen your grace."
"She is lovely as the winter flowers we saw," the Prince was beside her.
Sansa turned to curtsy for the prince when she backed into something hard.
He stood behind her, a hand on the hilt of his sword, on the cramped dias.
He was so close but she hasn't heard him come up. How can someone so large be so quiet?
"I'm sorry My Lord," she said immediately flushing scarlet.
"He's not a lord, he's the Hound," the prince laughed.
Sansa didn't understand, She looked at her mother, who gave her the smallest shrug of confusion.
"Clegane has been Joffrey's shield for years, his loyalty is unquestionable," the Queen said.
Lord Clegane only made a gruff sound, like a grunt.
His loyalty is unquestionable, surely he's a true knight, Sansa thought as she drifted off to sleep that night.
The next morning, after Sansa got dressed, she went to find Jeyne and her siblings. She saw them standing at the balcony watching something in the yard.
"What are you watching?" She asked sitting down between Arya and Jeyne.
"They're having sword fights, look." Robb replied.
Tommen and Bran fought with wooden swords in the corner but the main attraction was the knights.
They hadn't any armour on but they fought just the same.
The ones fighting were two men she hasn't seen while coming, one wore a white cloak, the other a blue one.
Their swords crossed and made a clinking noise Sansa didn't care for. Her eyes searched the audience down below, they all were strangers. Lannister men, she realised.
She searched in the audience for a while.(How can someone so big be so hard to find?) Every black object caught her attention.
"The Prince isn't here, Sansa," Jeyne said.
Before Sansa could answer, Arya said, "she isn't looking for the Prince. She's looking for Lord Clegane," loud enough for half the yard to hear. They all looked up to where the voice came form and reflexly Sansa pushed back in her chair falling over with a thud.
There was some laughter but she didn't think anyone in the yard saw her fall.
Robb helped her up, all of them silently laughing.
Tears stung in her eyes and she hurried off.
It wasn't until a few hours later that she calmed down.
She took Lady for a walk, trying to forget the embarrassment of the morning.
"Sansa," her father called.
"Did you hurt your head little one?" Lord Eddard rubbed the back of her head.
"No. It doesn't hurt now," she picked at the leash in her hand. "What did Arya tell you?"
Her father's smile betrayed the truth, he knew! She was aghast.
She felt another hand, large and heavy rest on her shoulder. Her heart skipped a beat.
It was the King, she saw and curtsied immediately.
"Clegane," the King bellowed, his hand rubbing Sansa's shoulder.
She looked up at her father desperately asking for help but he was doing his best not to laugh.
Sansa felt herself blush harder and harder as the clink clink of touching steel to steel grew louder.
"Yes, your grace," came the voice behind her, rasping and deep, it reminded her, vaguely, of the way Shaggydog growled.
Sansa wouldn't forget her manners. She curtsied to him too though he'd have paid more attention to a flea on his horse.
"Someone was looking for Lord Clegane this morning," the King said. Sansa was horrified, but she was determined to not let it show. She stared at his large boots, black. Black black and so much black.
Suddenly she was wondering again if his eyes were black too. She only had to look up and see. Just look up, but she couldn't.
"Send them to my father's grave then," he said crassly. Now Sansa's eyes shot up unwittingly.
She must have looked terrified because he caught a glimpse at her and started laughing, another deep rumble. Like someone tamed thunder.
The king laughed too, at her or his answer, she could not say.
"Take the Lady Sansa to see sword fighting," the king commanded.
"There are no sword fights. Ended this morning," he said.
"Well find an opponent then," the king waved him off. He gave a curt nod as the king walked dragging her father with him.
"Come, quick now," he said, turned and started walking, She had to almost jog to keep pace with him, Lady too.
He seemed to notice and slow down.
They'd taken the long way around but her heart was in her throat, and all her life blood was in her face.
At least he hasn't noticed she thought, half relieved half sad.
She peered up to see his eyes but the sun was too bright and him too tall.
"I'm sorry," she said after what felt like extremities of silence.
"For what?" He sounded angry.
He hates me for embarrassing him.
"For your father," she said truly.
He stopped suddenly and looked down at her.
"You said he passed on," she ventured, desperately wanting to but not daring to put her hand on his.
"Was a long time ago. No matter all that," he said, walking fast again.
She tried her best to keep up with him but her dress got caught in a loose nail and the fabric tore a little.
She bent down to free it but it just tore more and more.
He was walking away, too fast, "my Lord," she called to him but around three men turned yet he did not, "my Lord.. Ser!"
She tugged at her skirt, "Ser Gregor," she called out desperately. He stopped stiff in his tracks.
Good. He heard.
He started walking back to her and she fumbled about the nail again.
A gloved hand yanked her up, he was there quicker than she expected. "What did you call me?" He snarled.
"I'm sorry, I meant no offense ser," she began, clawing at his fingers. "Please it hurts," she said.
He loosened his grip and squatted next to her, his face inches from hers.
"Don't you call me that," it sounded like a threat.
"I called you 'my Lord' but you didn't hear, so I used your first name," she started saying by way of explanation.
The corner of his mouth twitched and he threw his head back laughing bitterly, "and who told you my name?" He asked amused more than anything else now.
"Robb," she said, "He said you were bannermen to Lord Tywin, the Queen's father. And your sigil is -"
"I know what my sigil is," he cut her off letting go of her arm. "And who told Robb my name is Gregor?"
"I.. I don't know my Lord, must be one if the stable boys or.. or the squires.."
He looked into her eyes now.
Grey. Not black. Her heart gave a little flutter.
"What did you say?" He raised his brow.
"The the squires must have told him, my Lord."
"No, after that. You said grey?"
Sansa's eyes widened for a second and a hand went up to clamp her mouth shut. She'd said that out loud.
"What's grey?" He hissed, angry again.
"Nothing.. nothing my Lord," she said wanting to be anywhere else other than under his searching eyes.
"Don't lie," he growled.
"Y.. your eyes, m.. my Lord," she stammered out.
He blinked as if he didn't register for a second, then an icy chill spread over those grey eyes of his.
"You don't worry yourself about my father-" he tugged at the nail," and my name," he pulled her towards him stretching the skirt, " and my eyes," finally he pulled it out and she stood up smoothing down her skirts.
It all felt so cold now that he was walking beside her again, not kneeling in front of her.
She tried to say something but all words were lost.
"Santagaar," he said to a tall man but not nearly as tall as the Hound, with reddish brown hair. "Bring your sword, little lady wants to see a sword fight." He walked off without waiting for an answer, she half jogged to keep up with him.
In the yard, Ser Rodrick, Jon, Robb and the Imp stood talking. Sansa peered at the Queen's other brother. Why he's shorter than Bran.
"Not babysitting today Clegane?" The Imp called out, his mismatched eyes twinkling.
"I wasn't but looks like I am again now that you're here," Clegane shot back.
"Lady Sansa," the Imp called, "you look lovely as a rose. And as red too might I say. Is our good dog giving you grief?"
"Did they kick you out of the brothels here Imp? Can't imagine you outside one willingly," Sansa looked up to see Clegane's mouth twist in a mocking half smile.
Tyrion Lannister ignored him, his gaze still on Sansa. "I.. no my Lord, I missed the sword fights this morning so Lord Gregor is kind as to have another one.." immediately she kicked herself for saying Gregor instead of Clegane. "I'm sorry my Lord, I forgot," she said quickly.
The Imp's eyebrows shot up at the name and he looked over at the hound.
"Didn't tell me you've changed your name Lord Gregor," the Imp said to Clegane.
She saw Robbs eyes widen in alarm and she knew she'd messed something up.
Before Clegane could respond, the man with brown hair arrived.
"Go sit there," the Hound said to her, pushing her gently in the direction of the chairs.
She obliged, Robb, Jon and the imp joined her. Ser Rodrick handed the hound a long sword that looked so heavy Sansa wondered if she could lift it with both hands.
He grabbed it and bounced the hilt in his hand as if trying to weigh it.
"He's testing the balance," Jon said.
"Lady Sansa," the Imp said tentatively, "What did the Hound say when you called him Gregor?"
"He was angry my Lord," her eyes flitted to Robb. "And he asked me who told me his name."
The Imp nodded. "He didn't.. He didn't threaten you or anything?" He ventured.
Sansa shook her head no.
"Well he must like you a great deal then to let you get away with it twice," his eyes twinkled and Sansa's heart fluttered at the words.
She felt herself flush again and looked at her feet beside Lady's paws. She suppressed a smile biting her lip.
"If you wanted to count your toes why'd you drag me all this way here?" Clegane rasped..
She looked up wordlessly, paying full attention.
Santagaar had taken his position too.
Once they began it was mostly the clink clink sansa disliked but she started anyway. Stared at his form and grace.
There were several cross cuts, then a large swing from the Hound and Santagaar's sword lay on the ground.
"Join in Arys," the hound called to someone behind her. A small group had formed behind her and from them a handsome knight all in white stepped onto the field.
The other knight was leaving when the Hound said, "pick up your sword Aron. Come on my grandmother's faster than you."
The Hound stood on one side and the other two knights on the opposite, two against one they fought.
The cuts were coming from both sides now, and he twisted and lunged twirling his sword in hand like it was a wooden stick.
"You know he is showing off for you," Lord Tyrion said leaning in, as the Hound swatted the sword high from Ser Arys's hands and caught it mid air.
Sansa flushed again. She could believe he was one of the best fighters in the realm.
A strange feeling if pride bubbled up inside her.
The day had been wonderful, Sansa decided.
He's showing off for you.. He must like you a great deal.. She sang in her head, again and agian.
Then during dinner the queen had praised her stitching. They were talking fine till the prince came and started calling him dog again.
Sansa didn't like that but she kept her mouth shut lest it get her in trouble.
Then he'd come up to the dias again, so close to her that she was certain he could hear her heart pounding.
After the prince and his guard had left the queen said, "my goodness little dove you positively red," then she looked after the receding form of the Hound. "Well I suppose he does have a deadly sort of charm," she mused.
That was about as much as Sansa could take on the matter. She excused herself at dinner and went to get Lady so they'd go on a walk.
When she reached the kennels, someone was already there, she peeped inside but it was too dark to make out the face.
"Lady," she called, untying her wolf and hugging her neck. "It was such a wonderful day," she told her.
"And why is that?" A voice came from inside the kennels. A deep voice, like winter winds.
He emerged from the kennel with a large dog at his heels - old Bruno.
"I.. I didn't know you were here my Lord," Sansa said.
He scruffed old Bruno underneath his floppy ears.
The dog whimpered agreement.
He looked at her as if waiting an answer still.
"It was a lovely day, and they had lemon cakes and.. And I taught Lady to shake hands.." Her voice trailed off. "I also liked the sword fights, you were very good my Lord."
"Can I touch her?" He asked nodding at Lady. Her answer hung in the air unacknowledged.
She nodded consent and he got on one knee, holding a hand up for lady to sniff it.
He went on the pet her, gently at first then like he'd known her for years, he used both hands, ruffled up her fur and took her paws in his hands. Even when she put her forepaws on his shoulders, he didn't send to mind.
"It's like shes known you all her life," Sansa said admiring him.
"My grandfather was a kennelmaster. It's in my blood I suppose," he said.
"Kennelmaster?" Sansa said, incredulous.
"Aye, used to work for Lord Tytos Lannister."
"No wonder," now that she had him in a good mood she'd wanted to get some answers.
"My Lord may I ask you something?"
"Why.. Why won't you let people call you by your first name?"
"You haven't called me by my first name."
Then it dawned on her.
"My Lord another question," she said softly.
"Yes," he said as if he was expecting this.
"What is your name?"
Her heart fluttered again.
Sandor is much better than Gregor.
A smile bloomed and she in her head she sang: Sandor - Sansa - Sansa - Sandor.
"What do you mean she's not in her chambers?" Catelyn shrieked at the handmaid, her palm pressed flat against her forehead.
"Are you certain she didn't just go to play with her wolf?" Eddard had to be the calm one today he knew. If it were Robb or Theon or even Arya, he'd not be this worried. They'd run off at night with their wolves and would be found in the morning asleep in the godswood or in the yard with messed up hair and childish secrets not to be revealed to him or Cat but this was Sansa. The most willful thing she'd done was eat uncooked cookie batter. Even then she'd confessed, afraid of getting sick and dying of the motions. So his heart was in his mouth but he couldn't let it show.
"No, m'lord, I done checked the kitchens and the yard and even the Jeyne girl's chambers. She isn't there.."
"And what about last night? Did you not help her get dressed for bed?" Catelyn's eyes were filled with angry tears. Ned ached to hold her close.
The handmaid looked down at her feet, guilty.
"You did, didn't you?" Eddard asked.
"I'm sorry, m'lord, m'lady.. I.. I was with.. my friend . Lady Sansa left the feast early so.. so I thought someone else must have helped her…"
"That means she's been missing the whole night! Gods! Ned, you must send riders! Make haste! Please, my poor girl.".
Ned obliged. He asked Jory to form eight search parties and sent them in each direction.
"Left the feast early?" Ned looked to Catelyn.
"Yes, she spoke to the queen. The went back to her seat and after a few minutes she asked to be excused."
Ned frowned. Anything to do with Lannisters made him inexplicably uneasy.
"Did she go with prince Joffrey?"
"No, by herself. I don't know.."
"I'll talk to Robert and let him know. I'll talk to the Queen too, see what she knows."
Catelyn nodded, "I'll talk to the household," she said more to herself than Ned.
Catelyn was still scolding the handmaid when Ned left.
His heavy cloak made flapping sounds as it beat against his calves. It was snowing, the cold winds blew right through him. It was well after dawn but the sky was still overcast.
Cersei Lannister sat with her children - all her children - in the solar of the tower that was meant for Ned's royal guests.
Her brothers were there too, Ned saw with dismay.
"Your grace," he said when he entered. The children rose up to greet him, Joffrey only after his mother nudged him subtly.
"Lord Stark, how kind of you to call on us this fine morning," the Queen's tone was as chilly as the air outside but she smiled sweetly.
"Your grace," Ned started, not knowing how to proceed best, "I heard you spoke to my daughter last night. May I know the topic of your discussion?"
"Why?" Jamie Lannister sat lounging in an armchair, smirking.
"Sansa is missing," it wasn't a secret, not after he had the entire castle looking for her. "She left the feast early and no one's seen her since. It seems you're the last person she's talked to."
"Oh," the queen looked surprised. "I confess I don't recall saying anything of import, Lord Stark. Did you speak to her Joffrey?"
Ned looked to him. He knew how fond Sansa was of those wretched love songs and he wasn't blind.
Good she asked him. Wasn't sure how I'd have questioned him without getting them all riled up.
Joffrey gave a snort, "Didn't talk to me, she was all red in the face as usual when I left. Ordered my dog to show me how to do the backhanded twister," he grinned patting the golden hilt of the sword at his hip.
Ned groaned internally. He'd be damned if he'd let Sansa marry this brat.
But he looked truthful enough.
"So you went to the yard. You didn't see her outside?"
He shook his head no.
"Must've went for a walk Stark, she'll be back," Tyrion said. "And pray tell where is your dog now, nephew?"
"Hmmph, probably getting drunk somewhere, 'tis his day off."
"We'll send our men out too, Lord Stark," Cersei said.
Gods. "Thank you, your grace," Ned said and sped off to the yard.
She's only a child. Clegane wouldn't do anything, he thought, but it rang hollow. He'd heard many unsavoury things about the Hound.
"Jory," he called,"Find the Hound," he continued not waiting for an answer, "and ask him to lead a search party Southwest. The queen wants to help." It wouldn't do to give anyone wrong ideas if he was wrong after all.
He checked his children's rooms for what felt like the tenth time that morning. Gods, the Hound has made off with my daughter. He shuddered.
Then he went to the he crypts. Sansa wouldn't be here, she doesn't like it, he thought but had to check anyway.
An old cleaner carried the torch in front of him, Ned stalked clean past him unable to slow down his pace to match the man's. He grabbed another torch at the entrance of the steps and made his way down.
Someone lay face down by the statue of his great great granduncle. He made out a large shape, black hair covered his cheek.
He nudged the man with his foot impatiently.
"Bugger off!" A hand swatted his boot away.
"Clegane! Wake up," he crouched down, "where's Sansa? Did you talk to her last night after the feast?" He shook the man's shoulder as violently as he could squatting and with one hand.
"Get up!" He used his best Lord's voice. The one that commanded respect.
Clegane wasn't immune to that either. "Find someone else, wasn't near no beast," he barked, standing up painfully slowly. Ned backed off to give him space.
"Lord Stark," he said once he stood up to his full height and peered down, "My pardons," he reeled and his hand grabbed Ned's great great granduncle's.
There was a scraping sound of stone against stone.
"What beast?" He asked.
"Not beast. Feast . Did you speak to Sansa after the feast?"
He seemed to recall. "Ah. The redhead. Yes, saw her by the kennels with that wolf of hers."
"Where'd she go then? What did you say to her? Where-"
"Get that away from me," Clegane pushed back the hand holding the torch. He fell back again into the statue. He sat with a slump on the grave. Ned wanted to punch him.
"What, by the old gods - " he said, same time as Clegane said something.
He composed himself again. "Repeat."
"She asked me my name and then went away," he said. "All but skipping in the snow," he added with an insolent smirk.
Ned's palm itched. He knew his daughter had taken a fancy to the Hound. Near everyone in Winterfell knew.
"And what are you doing here in the crypts?"
"Passed out. Too much wine," he laughed mirthlessly.
"Yes, but how did you get here?" Ned pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to keep his voice even.
"Can't say. Met some girl," he recalled something, "come to think of it she had red hair too."
That was it. The back of Ned's hand was acquainted with Sandor Clegane's cheek for the first time, in the crypts.
"Seven hells, what the fuck do you think your doing Stark," he spat grabbing Ned's tunic. His pupils were blown, face contorted with fury.
"You'll rue the day you set foot here," Ned dropped the torch and pushed Clegane. He stumbled backwards but was at Ned faster than he could imagine.
His back was pressed into the stone wall.
A moment passed and he let him go.
"Where is Sansa?" Ned said, every word scraping it's way out.
"I. Don't. Know." He had the same tone. "She asked me my name, then went off without another word."
"You'll lead a search party south west. The men are in the yard. Leave. Now," he commanded.
Clegane looked at him a long moment.
"Fine, but not by your orders," he said trying to stalk off towards the steps stumbling and swaying. It was dark again, in the crypts.
Robert sat with a dagger in hand tapping the lamination off the wooden table. Ned paced in the room.
All his children were gathered.
He'd questioned them all many times over.
"The dogs will find her, m'lord, I've trained 'em good, you'll see," Riggens had said. They'd sent ten men and four dogs in each search party.
"Jon," Ned started again, " you were sitting by the door. Did you hear anything?" It was useless, he knew, he knew the answer too. Gods know I've asked the same question hundreds of times.
"No father. I spoke to Lord Tyrion, then I went to the godswood. There was a singer near the old gate," Jon repeated his answer with admirable calm. Ned knew it by heart now.
"What singer?" The king asked.
"He had a harp. Slight man with brown hair. He was singing some song about.. " Jon struggled to remember.
"What does it matter what song it was?" Ned was nearing the end of his rope. He called for a guard.
"About some boy who could become a wolf or go into its body or something like that," Jon said at the same time.
"Wargs," Bran said. "Old Man said there are people who can become animals beyond the wall."
"Gods," Ned swore.
There had been more deserters from the night's watch than ever before. Wildling's raids had become more frequent. More brutal. Villagers from higher North had been settling in winter town. The Umbers kept asking for more men to defend their lands.
"Ned," Robert started. "Those sheepfuckers won't come down this far. They daren't fight a knight, let alone kidnap a Stark of Winterfell."
"And what if they have?" Catelyn said. "You, you sure you heard right?" She'd turned to Jon.
He looked scared.
"Yes, my lady. He was heading towards the back gate, maybe he -"
" Enough," her voice put a chill into even Ned's heart. "Ned, send more people North. Please, I beg you-"
He lifted a hand. "Your grace, pray excuse me, I must talk to Luwin."
Wildlings! Of all things. Ned could've sworn trouble was coming from the south not the north
Rough hands undid the blindfold. The light was almost assaulting after the long stay in darkness, but she drank it in.
In the past few days her world had condensed into a wagon, a tent and a bowl.
Sansa had tried to be brave and composed, like a true lady, but when a man warged into Lady and sent her away, she was lost. She had cried and moaned, and prayed. She prayed always, for someone to save her.
Father will have sent search parties! We are still in the North, wolfswood perhaps. Someone will come save me, she told herself.
Beads of sweat formed in her brow and lip despite the endless snowfall.
The girl, Ygritte - she had learned her name was - touched a cup of water to her lips and dabbed the remaining droplets off once she was done and returned the gag to its rightful place to do its rightful duty.
Sansa scooted and shifted in her corner, trying to get into a comfortable position. She'd been knocked out cold by that concoction they'd fed her the night before, or was it two nights? She couldn't tell anymore. It could have been a week and she wouldn't have known.
The rope dug into her wrist and she squirmed again.
"Be still, girl. That'll only make 't worse," Ygritte said, her crooked teeth peeking through the frown. "It ain't pretty, but we wouldn't've done it if it weren't for your kneelers' rules."
"I'm sorry," Sansa mumbled through the gag, her saliva wetting the cloth.
"You could help us," the girl crouched down. "You could make him understand- your Lord father and he the King - 't let the Freefolk in.
Once the dead march south, won't make n' matter to 'em where you live. You Southerners may make it for a while longer than us, but you'll be just as dead once they getcha," she laughed.
The words sent a chill through her heart but Sansa held on. She nodded and Ygritte lowered her gag.
"I'll convince him, my lady. I will do my best. Just let me go home," her lips quivered. "I just want to go home."
"Shut! Ya wanna be gagged again? Is that it?" Her expression, a mix between pity and disgust. Sansa couldn't bear it.
"You think you're so brave because you don't cry! You aren't bound and captured! Were you in my place, you'd be scared too!"
"Tis not us you should be scared of! They're coming, I tell you," she sneered.
"There's no such thing as White Walkers! They've been gone a thousand years, everyone knows that."
"Got a thick skull, haven't you? Fine, Sansa Stark, if that's so then turn us away and we'll come back for you," she grinned as Sansa paled. "You know nothing."
The shadows showed it being morning, just shy of noon. Another girl, a pretty, gentle, one with hair like candlelight brought in her breakfast. Val.
"Thank you," Sansa said, when Val placed the food in front of her.
Ygritte laughed. "T'is us that hold her captive and she thanks us for her meals!"
"Ygritte," Val said softly but sternly. "Wait outside. I'll talk to the lady."
"Lady, my ass," Ygritte muttered as she left. "Never seen a lady whimper for her pet."
"You've never seen a lady!" Sansa huffed.
"I'm sorry about this," Val said, loosening the ties and rubbing Sansa's hands. "Here, this'll help." She brought a small pot filled with some kind of cold paste.
Sansa couldn't help the sigh of relief as she applied it on her rope burns.
"Thank you," she murmured, grateful. She feasted - for it felt like a feast - on the husks of bread and apples and rabbit. Or at least she hoped it was rabbit, she wasn't one to ask questions she didn't want answers to.
"Will we be here long?" She asked in an attempt to get anything out of them.
"When can I go home?"
"Soon. Once Mance can arrange a meeting with the King, we will go with him."
What if… what if I'm not important enough for the king to care about my safety? No, father will make him meet Mance. Father will save me! She thought.
"Who is Mance? Your Lord?"
"Our King," Val laughed.
"King?" She frowned. "Ygritte keeps saying how you don't kneel to anyone. How do you have a king then?"
"We chose him to lead us, sweet," she explained. "We don't kneel to him, and he doesn't want us to. The free folk… we don't live as you do, with your customs and classes. We don't serve for life or grovel at others' feet. We live as we like!"
Sansa listened eagerly, appalled and fascinated at the same time.
"You have no rules then? What if there are rapers or thieves? Or killers? Don't you punish them?"
"Our clans have rules, of course. And leaders. We aren't savages as you believe. We're more similar than you think, you know."
"And the girls… Ygritte has a bow…"
"Yes, and she's good with it too. Killed a moose halfway across the field, that one. Straight through the eye."
"But… how will she find a husband if she's out hunting! Surely the men won't find that acceptable!" She said, scandalised.
Val laughed. "Acceptable? They love it! A spearwife and she's kissed by fire! They all want to steal her away, I bet!"
"Yes, when a man wants to make a woman his wife, he steals her away. They live together then. It proves that he's strong enough to take care of her."
"So he just kidnaps her?! What if she doesn't like him?"
"Kidnap?! Oh, well I suppose that's how you'd see it. Girls don't wander around for that same reason, not to be taken before they are rea-
"-if she doesn't like him, be easy enough to get rid of him," Ygritte entered, running her index finger across her neck.
Sansa gasped. Surely, she doesn't mean that!
Three days. Three stupid shivering days he'd spent trying to find the stupid, pretty girl and her utterly useless puppy of a direwolf.
Sandor had split up the search party, after hearing the news of the new suspects. The command came from Lord Stark himself, he was to take his people North and continue the search but his instincts bound him south.
He took three men and three dogs with him Westward, while the other six men and one dog trudged towards Winterfell.
"There," one of his men pointed, "smoke!".
"I see it," he reigned in Stranger. Puffs of grey clouds rising from the area in the middle of the Northern plains covered in trees. The canopy stretched out about a league more, then dissolved into the plains again.
His vantage point on the mountains gave him the upper hand. The hounds had tracked the girl to the South gate of Winterfell from where it appeared that she was taken.
He summoned the men he'd not bothered befriending.
"Bane, go and find the others in our party, lead them here. Ryan, ride back to Winterfell and let them know this place. Harwin, you're with me," he commanded and the men scurried.
He drew his sword and led Stranger down the steep hill, dogs following.
Barely he could spy a canvas triangle was erected in a clearing. Several men prowled the perimeter in grey furs.
"Clegane," Harwin hissed nodding towards the rear.
A bird stared at them, suspiciously focussed.
"What of it?" He snapped.
"Could be a warg! Wildlings have old magic in them," his eyes darted from the bird to the Hound and back again.
"What a load of shit," Sandor muttered, dismounting to get a better look.
The dogs were skittish now, and alert, as if expecting an attack any moment now.
That did it. He didn't care for stories and curiosities but an animal's instinct, he trusted more than his own.
"Back up," he told Harwin. "Patrol the area, blow this whistle if you get caught."
"Aye," he said, taking it reluctantly. "What about you?"
"I'm going to get the girl."
Sansa was sniffling again. She tried to stop her weeping but she missed home so terribly.
They hadn't hurt her, Val promised. She was out there but had done nothing to attack Sansa's captors.
Someone must have warged into her! She thought. My poor baby.
It was unnaturally quiet suddenly, as if all the critters had gone. Her tent seemed darker than usual. She could make out shadows of some men just outside.
"... You sure?" One was saying.
"Others take you! Of course, I'm sure! A knight, mounted with the biggest black horse you've ever seen! Right at the edge of the forest.
Sansa's spirits soared. She was saved!
Oh, could it be him?! I'd die of joy, if it were! Riding down the forest, come to save me! She smiled to herself, suddenly giddy.
I'd be grateful to whoever it is. Thank you gods, old and new. She prayed and corrected herself. But the flame of hope that it could be him was burning too bright now for her to suppress it.
"...cut him down then! One of him and four of you!"
She bit her lip to suppress a gasp.
"And the dogs?! Hounds! Three of them!"
"You have a direwolf, fool! Take Orel. Ask him to ditch the bird and take the wolf."
Orel… Gods that's the warg! They mean to use Lady! To kill him! Her chest constricted and suddenly it was hard to breathe as the gravity of the situation smacked her right in the chest.
Suddenly tenacious, she inched herself into sitting position. Her hands were tied behind her back, her legs beneath her, mouth gagged.
She made a noise, kicking the ground as hard as she could.
"What?" Ygritte hissed.
Her gag prevented her from saying anything. Ygritte pulled it down.
"Water, please," Sansa pleaded, hoping she wouldn't give anything away.
Ygritte fetched a skin of water and tipped it at her lips. She drank deeply, breathlessly.
"Thank you," she said.
Ygritte frowned. She was just about to return the gag -
"Wait!" Sansa burst out.
"Shhhh!" Ygritte said, giving her a little smack across the head. It didn't hurt though.
"What've I tol' you, girl!"
"Sorry," she started, "it's just that I… I need to make water…" she lowered her lashes, ashamed.
"Make water… you know… go ," she pressed.
"Look girl, now's not the time for your fancy talk. Whaddya want?"
"I have to use the privy…"
Ygritte didn't understand.
Sansa steeled herself and squared her shoulders as she said, "piss. I need to… piss."
Ygritte threw back her head and laughed. She quieted down, saw Sansa's tomato shaming blush and toppled over again.
"Piss? Piss you wanna, piss you shall," she said, wiping tears with her pinky.
She untied her legs and led her out back in the bushes.
"Hey! What're ye doing with the Stark gi-" a man started shouting at Ygritte. He fell over with a thud before he could complete his words, a knife stuck out at the nape of his neck.
A scream cut through the air forcing the birds to take flight. A scream Sansa vaguely registered as her own.
Ygritte tried to drag her back to the tent but she fought her off, and fell into the bushes, hands still tied behind her back.
They're here! I'm saved! Thank the Seven and the old Gods!
She scrambled to her feet and just before they could catch her again, Lady bounded up from the foot of the hill and took down a wildling man. The bones his armour was made of a scattered in the snow.
The ropes were too tight for her to take off on her own. She ran towards the direction the knife seemed to come from, Lady following close.
The cold wind cut through her deeper than the low hanging branches. It was harder to run with hands tied, she felt like she'd fall off any second.
A great black stallion galloped through the woods to the barking of dogs. The Hound! Her heart soared.
"My lord! My lord, here!" She called out, panting. His Hound helm turned at her voice and he paved his way towards her.
Instead of stopping he lifted her up like she weighed nothing and set her in front of him.
"Try not to fall," he said. His voice didn't fail to get her heart fluttering even in a time like this.
"Lady, run" she called and the wolf ran behind the stallion dwarfing the three dogs he'd brought.
The woods seemed to stretch forever and yet we're over as soon as they began. She kept glancing over his shoulder to see if they were following but other than the occasional missed arrow, there was nothing.
The wildlings were poor , she thought. They hadn't any horses or even proper bows and swords.
For some reason instead of giving her comfort, the thought made her uneasy. The moment before the man fell over sputtering blood kept flashing before her eyes. His eyes had rolled back, only the whites visible while he most definitely saw only black.
She cut off her thoughts and focussed on the wind. I'm going home.
Once they were out of hills and had bounded across a meadow, he stopped under a tree covered field.
"You alright?" He asked. "Girl!" He shook her thoughts off her.
"Yes, my lord."
"Have they hurt you? Why are you crying?" He asked looking her over frantically. Finding her condition satisfactory, he untied her hands and rubbed the rope burns with his giant ones, his calloused touch somehow alleviating the pain.
She whimpered in agreement. "No, my lord," she said trying to cover up the unladylike noise she made.
"We have to get as far away from their camp as possible," he told her. They mounted and rode ahead.
She couldn't say for how long they rode, she couldn't say she felt any of it either, just that it was close to nightfall and they were still on horseback. The only sound disturbing crickets and hoofbeats were the occasional grumbling from the Hound.
"It all looks the bloody same!" He said in disgust as they neared a forest. "Just pray we didn't come around in one big circle, little bird."
"No! We couldn't have!" She pointed at the weeds by the foot of the larger trees. "We are further south, these flowers didn't grow in those woods. I think the camp was near the wolfswood."
"We must needs go North then. But can't chance running into them, not when I've got to keep you safe all by my bloody self," he frowned like it was her fault.
"Why are you all by yourself?" she asked. "Did my father send you alone?"
"No." He admitted but gave no further answer. "We need to make camp. Brace yourself, little bird, you won't be going home just yet," the corners of his (very distracting) lips turned up, mockingly. "Do you mind sleeping rough or have they made a wildling of you yet?"
"I don't mind, my lord." A night in the woods alone, with my saviour. This is the stuff of songs. She almost smiled, pink from cold and joy.
He narrowed her eyes at her, "now don't go blushing over this. I didn't do this purpose I'll have you know. Your bloody North is huge. And empty. T'is not my fault we're stranded."
"Of course, my lord," she said, biting down a smile.
They made camp at a clearing. The moon reigned over the sky.
The three dogs and Lady had curled up together for warmth under a big willow. The pond beside it was frozen but small fish could be made out just under it. Barely any ground remained uncovered by snow, but the small leaves grew stubbornly showcased the perpetual spring that seemed to breeze through the south of the North.
The wind whistled through the trunks and ran its hands through his hair, like it had done when she'd first laid eyes on him.
She blushed at the memory.
He was hunched over the map he had placed on a big boulder. "Think we might be here," he said more to himself than her. "There should be a pass up the mountain. We cross it and get to this town, here" - "from there it's a straight road to White Harbour. You'll be back in your nest soon enough, pretty bird."
Fortunately for Sansa, that wasn't what happened.
The pass he'd spoken of was shut off with mud and snow. "Fuck this," he cursed loudly. The sound loosened a bunch of snow which promptly fell on him.
She laughed. He groaned.
"Looks like I'm stuck with you now," he said.
"Yes, my lord," she said, failing to keep the joy out of her voice.
"Seven hells," he muttered, almost smiling.