Sansa glanced at her watch nervously. Fifteen minutes. That’s all the time she had left before she began the most important assessment in her life. Feeling sick at the thought, she took a deep inhale and released it slowly, trying to calm her nerves. It wasn’t working, the churning in her stomach was only intensifying as she watched the second hand slowly ticking by. It suddenly felt unbearably warm in the large room, dampness was creeping in at the fringes of her long auburn hair and her palms were sweaty. Sansa quickly took off her overall and pulled off her sweater, the sudden change in temperature causing a shiver to run down her spine and goosebumps to rise along her pale arms. She hung it over the back of one of the chairs at the side of the room before hurrying to rebutton her overall. It was actually an old shirt of her Dad’s that Sansa had brought with her when she moved to Citadel Fine Art College, it helped her to have something comforting to remember him by. Wearing this shirt gave Sansa confidence and reassurance, it was like wearing a hug from her father and thus it had quite unintentionally become her favourite painting shirt. It had originally been a mid-shade of grey with white pinstripe but was faded now and even had several holes in it, but despite this Sansa would not paint in anything else.
Sansa had been at Citadel College for three years and had painted in many studios, but this was by far and away the best. Light flooded in through a long bank of windows running down the entire left-hand side of the room and reflected off the white wooden panelled walls and high vaulted ceiling. From the ceiling hung three enormous chandeliers with glass candles and decadent crystal drops that sometimes would throw rainbows of light around the room. Sansa stepped slightly to the left, then right, tilting her head critically as she did so. She decided to re-position her easel just a fraction, to ensure the light caught on her linen canvas just right. In front of her was the raised dias where her model would be situated. In the centre was a heavy, dark wooden throne-like chair, the back piece covered in intricate carvings. From one arm was draped a white silken looking sheet, ‘it could almost be a Kingsguard cloak of old,’ Sansa mused. It fell all the way to the floor to pool in deep folds reminding Sansa of the ripples on a pond. Wanting to inspect the carvings on the throne in greater detail so that she could include them in her painting, Sansa stepped forwards, the sanded oak floorboards creaking and sighing under her weight as she went. A large tree was at the centre, an ancient looking tree with a gnarly trunk and covered in five-pointed leaves. Encircling it in a border was a series of similar, smaller trees all woven together with an intricate latticework of vines and flowers. It was an incredibly talented piece of work and was stunningly beautiful, but what really caught Sansa’s attention were the faces that had been carved into the trunks of the trees. Some were peaceful and serene looking, others haunted and tortured. The beauty took her breath away and she couldn’t help running her fingers over the divots and ridges of the carvings.
Glancing at her watch again Sansa saw that she now had eight minutes remaining. Reluctantly pulling her trembling fingers away from the carvings, she turned and headed back to her work station to ensure that everything was ready. Nibbling on her lip she critically scanned her eyes over the art tools and supplies that she had meticulously arranged into neat rows on the table to her right. There were several empty jars neatly lined at the back along with four large bottles of turpentine and two bottles of the finest Dornish Sun bleached linseed oil. In front of them were two long rows of the best oil paint that gold could buy, which she had imported specially from Lys. Sansa had organised these by shade, starting with ‘Stark White’ and running through every colour imaginable; ‘Sunspear’, ‘Wildfire’, ‘Casterly Crimson’, ‘Tully Blue’, finishing with the obsidian of ‘Dragonglass’. At the front were her favourite boar bristle and sable-tipped brushes, artists knives and spatulas, several charcoal sticks and her treasured weirwood palette. This had been hand carved by her brother Brandon as a gift for her 21st nameday. Sansa smiled fondly as she gently ran her fingers over small but fierce looking Direwolf that he had carved in one corner, replicating the ancient Stark insignia. At the side of everything were two tidy piles of newspaper and neatly folded soft cloth rags and finally, a camera. Sucking on her cheek Sansa decided to re-order her brushes in ascending order, ‘yes,’ she decided with a satisfied nod, ‘much better’. She was ready. Or as ready as she’d ever be at any rate. She had everything that she could possibly need, and enough spares to spare, but even so she couldn’t help the ceaseless churning in her stomach.
One final quick check of her watch showed Sansa that she now only had five minutes left to wait, her tutor would be arriving any minute now to announce the final assessment. All that she had been told was that it would be a portrait sitting and she could choose any medium and style she wished. The final piece would be judged in four months time and there could be up to four separate sittings in that time. Everything rested on this assessment. It would be the difference between graduating with a first class degree and a residency with the distinguished and ancient Citadel Guild, or a solid second class degree and a perfectly respectable position in one of the larger Kings Landing art galleries, perhaps even Highgarden. Whilst there was absolutely nothing wrong with the second outcome, in fact it was still a very accomplished and highly respected vocation, it wasn’t where Sansa’s heart and passion lay.
Sansa knew that she was a little unusual for a woman of her age, whereas most of her cohort was driven by the ambition to work in classy, high-end galleries for the wealthy; places full of minimalist clean lines, lots of glass and bright open space punctuated with vibrant, abstract modern art, Sansa was besotted with the great classical pieces from eras gone by; best suited to imposing dark panelled rooms in ancient castles and keeps. Paintings of brave knights and fair maidens, depicting legendary heroic and romantic deeds, paintings that stirred the emotions and spoke to the soul. ‘The Forging of Dawn’, ‘Doom of Valyria’, ‘Jenny of Oldstones’, ‘Kingslayer’ and the heart-wrenching ‘Red Wedding’, all of the great works had been painted by members of the Guild, going right back to the Age of Heroes and the famed ‘Serwyn of the Mirror Shield’ depicting his famous triumph over the dragon, Urrax. The Guild had painted royalty and captured legend on canvas for centuries and membership was both highly coveted and insanely competitive.
Sadly few Guild paintings remained in existence, and those that did were in private collections only viewable by members of the Guild and by appointment only. The vast majority were lost to posterity, the only evidence of their existence the illuminated plate copies bound in the heavy, leather volumes in Citadel College library. Sansa had whiled away many hours dreamily leafing through these volumes, but always one particular plate had drawn her attention. It fascinated her; haunted her. The intensity in the man's eyes, anger and despair burning in equal measure, as bright as the eerie green flames illuminating the background. Despite extensive research over the years, neither the artist, the subject nor the circumstances for the portrait were known, yet Sansa instinctively knew that the artist and subject had shared a deep connection. Tenderness and affection were evident in the hand of the artist and the glistening mix of tears and blood was so lifelike, Sansa expected her fingers to come away wet each time she gently ran her fingers over the faded vellum. This painting touched her on a primal level that she didn’t fully understand. There was something electrifying in the emotion of this picture that made her heart pound and breath catch, though whether in fear or excitement she didn’t quite know. Yes, if anyone asked Sansa Stark about her favourite piece of artwork of all time, she would definitely say ‘The burned man’.
BAM! The slam of a heavy wooden door down the corridor immediately brought Sansa out of her reverie. She sighed and shook her head to shake off her melancholy. Feeling her pulse quicken in anticipation of what was to come she made a quick check of her watch to see how long she had been daydreaming. Thankfully there were still a few minutes before her assessment would begin so in an effort to calm her nerves, she fluttered her hands over her hair to check for any wayward curls. ‘Oh! How embarrassing it would have been to be discovered gaping into space like an empty headed bimbo,’ she thought, her cheeks burning with embarrassment and annoyance that she had once again allowed herself to get caught up in her romantic idlings. Now was the time to focus. Sansa knew that she had to produce a painting of the highest standard if she wished to join the ranks of her idols, and most importantly get the opportunity to view ‘The Burned Man’ in person, and for that she needed a focussed mind.
The brisk tapping of heels and swooshing of silken Dornish skirts and shawls announced the arrival of the eccentric head of Citadel College, Ms Sand. Sansa opened her mouth ready to greet her tutor as she walked through the door, but immediately her jaw slackened and fell right open as she was struck dumb by the sight of the huge man accompanying her. Sansa couldn’t contain her gasp and clutched her hand to her throat in surprise as her gaze took him in. He was huge. Huger than huge. He was ginormous. Easily six and a half feet, if not closer to seven feet tall.
Realising this man must be her model for the portrait, her artist’s eye eagerly began scanning over him, following the lines of his large, hooked nose, strong jaw and brow. He wasn't handsome in the classical sense but there was an undeniable rugged, masculinity to his features which brought an unexpected flutter to Sansa’s tummy. One half of his face was obscured by long raven hair, creating a wonderful play of shadow and light, ‘yes,’ she thought approvingly, ‘I can definitely work with this.’ The tips of his hair reached all the way to his shoulders, ‘his very muscular shoulders,’ Sansa noted and his neck too, she saw, was also corded with thick ropes of muscle. ‘Oh the sevens, there are muscles everywhere!’ Sansa realised as her eyes trailed lower. His biceps and triceps were bulging as he folded his arms across his chest, a very muscular, well defined chest covered in a dense coat of black hair, hair that led downwards in an enticing line all the way to...
‘Oh the Seven Gods!’ Sansa snapped her eyes shut realising that she had quite shamelessly been gaping open-mouthed and felt her face burn in embarrassment. ‘‘Why in the seven hells isn’t he wearing clothes?!’ she thought, a leaden feeling settling low in her tummy as she suspected she knew the answer...
“Good afternoon Sansa,” sang Ms Sand in her lyrical voice. “This is Sandor, he will be your model for this sitting. You are to produce a life drawing on the theme of strength.”
Sansa dragged her eyes back to her tutor. Closing her mouth with a snap, she tried to swallow but couldn’t, her throat had gone inextricably dry. She just nodded to Ms. Sand in acknowledgment, not trusting her voice yet. It was typical of Ms Sand to throw this at her now, on the most important assessment of her degree. She had never drawn a fully nude life model before, ‘as Ms Sand very well knows!’ Sansa thought with chagrin, ‘and certainly not one so...so errrr…. male. And big. Yes,’ Sansa thought ‘ ‘big’ was the only way to describe this man’.
“Well Sansa, what are your initial thoughts?” asked Ms. Sand, her eyes sparkling with mirth as if she could read the thoughts running through Sansa’s mind.
Sansa just squeaked, her parched throat refusing to co-operate.
‘Oh Gods, oh gods, oh gods,’ was what Sansa was thinking, the phrase repeating over and over like the scratch of a broken record. Panic welled up her chest into her throat and she felt like she was about to vomit all over her carefully positioned canvas. With shaking hands she reached under the table for the bottle of water in her carefully stowed handbag, and quickly took a sip.
At her continued silence the man in question emitted a low growl and shifted his weight onto his other foot, his tree trunk sized thigh flexing as he did so. These too had a generous smattering of dark hair Sansa noted, and his calves were strong and shapely. He was like the Warrior made flesh. ‘Yes!’ There was a germ of an idea forming in Sansa’s mind but before it could take root, the man, 'no Sandor,' Sansa corrected herself, interrupted her chain of thought with a rasping grate.
“You're shaking girl. What’s up, do I scare you so much?”
“My apologies Ms Sand, errr Ser, I was just… looking,’ began Sansa nervously, but she realised her slip of the tongue at the same time as the giant man released an amused snort.
“Errr I meant thinking… sorry Ser… thinking that...” she stammered as she struggled to gather her scattered wits. Then with a speed surprising in such a large man, he strode forwards and shoved a meaty finger in her face.
"I’m not a bloody Ser, girl,” he snapped at her, “so you can stop that shite right now.”
Sandor was scowling at her, his steel grey eyes blazing into hers and all Sansa could do was nod mutely, not trusting her voice. She hardly dared even breathe for fear of further raising his ire. For what seemed an eternity Sandor held her gaze and Sansa froze under his intense scrutiny, feeling inexplicably self-conscious, her heart thumping so hard she was surprised it didn’t burst right out of her chest.
When Sandor finally tore his eyes away from hers to take in the features of her face, Sansa used the opportunity to get a closer look at his in return. With difficulty she stifled her gasp of horror as she saw that the left half of his face was ravaged by burns. His brow was twisted and half of his eyebrow was missing and his cheek was a knotted mass of old scar tissue that whirled and folded over each other like a coiled mass of ribbons. Sansa’s fingers twitched as they itched to stroke over them to feel the textures and with great restraint she fisted her fingers tightly into her palm. Sansa wasn’t horrified by how he looked, but by how much he must have suffered. Sansa knew that Sandor must have endured something horrific to receive such burns and she could scarcely imagine the pain that he must have experienced, not to mention the hidden scars and pain that he must carry inside. Her heart went out to him. To survive something that caused this level of physical harm must have taken great strength and resilience and her eyes watered with compassion and admiration.
However, Sandor must have misinterpreted her tears as his scowl deepened and his mouth pulled into a derisory snarl. He stepped closer to Sansa, crowding right into her personal space, so much so that she could feel the heat emanating from him. From here Sansa could also see that the scarring extended all the way down his jaw and even down his throat, all the way down to his surprisingly delicate looking collarbone, before they gradually faded out and became hidden by his thick pelt of hair. Hair that Sansa wanted to run her fingers through it to see if it was as dense and soft as it looked, to scrape her nails against the firmness of his pectorals underneath. Her nipples began to bud in excitement at thoughts of how strong he must be and how exciting it must feel to be pinned down by his weight. She wondered how his ragged lips would feel brushing against her skin if he were to kiss her neck, how his large hands would feel engulfing her breasts. Horrified at the inappropriate turn her thoughts had taken, Sansa turned her head away in shame.
“Look at me!” he demanded.
He was stood so close that Sansa had to tilt her chin up to look into his eyes. When she did she saw that instead of steel grey they had turned almost completely black with sparks of silver glinting around the edges. They were beautiful, captivating. If she mixed some ‘Dragonglass’ with ‘Stark White’ and stippled some...
“Not one of your pretty boy, poncy Sers after all Little Bird,” he growled with a small shake of his head. “No. I’m a mean, ugly fucker who could snap a Little Bird’s neck as easily as snapping a twig.”
Sansa’s eyes widened in horror. Surely he wouldn’t hurt her! Ms. Sand would never leave her unaccompanied with a dangerous thug - would she?
As Sandor finally took a step backwards and looked away, Sansa let out a slow breath of air in relief, only to catch it in her throat again as he slowly, pointedly, roamed his gaze down the entire length of her body. He took his time to relish every dip and curve of her figure, emitting another low growl as he did so. The weight of his gaze travelled over her like a physical caress and her body thrummed with the thrill, or was it fear? She wasn't quite sure.
“Sansa? Mr. Clegane? If you are both ready?” interrupted Ms. Sand, snatching their attention back to the task at hand.
“My apologies Ms Sand, Little Bird,” Sandor rasped, “I was just… looking,” he said, his eyes glinting with mischief as Sansa felt hers widen in shock at his brazen teasing of her.
Sandor smirked and bent in a mock bow, leaning forwards as he did so that his head aligned next to Sansa’s ear. The tips of his hair tickled her neck and shoulders and her nose was filled with it’s clean, soapy smell. She heard him take a deep sniff of her hair, clearly reciprocating her own ‘evidently not discreet enough,’ inhale. Seconds later he released his breath in a hot puff against her earlobe causing a shiver to run down her spine and goosebumps to erupt over her flesh. She hoped that the heaving of her chest and her hardened nipples weren’t as evident as she feared. “Fair’s fair, Little Bird,” he whispered before pulling back and straightening up.
Sansa hastily grabbed onto the table next to her with a white-knuckled grip and silently thanked all the Seven that it was there, otherwise she was sure that she would be a pile of goo on the floor by now, her knees were trembling that badly.
“Well I’m sure inspiration will come to you Sansa. Mr. Clegane, if you would please move to the seating area,” said Ms Sand oblivious to the fact that Sansa had just experienced the single most erotic moment in her life.
Sandor turned around and started to walk over to the throne-like chair, showing Sansa that his rear was just as finely formed as his front. ‘Holy Seven,’ she prayed silently to herself, ‘Please give me the strength to get through this’.
Suddenly Sandor stopped, turned around and shot Sansa a sinful smirk.
“Although,” he said thoughtfully, before pausing and dramatically gesturing at his naked chest, and if Sansa wasn’t mistaken, purposefully flexing his muscles. “One of us is being a little more fair than the other. Maybe next time you’d like to even things up?” he said with a cheeky wink as she felt her jaw fall open in shock.
“Yes of course Se...Sandor,” Sansa self corrected, “Next time I’ll be sure to bring you a shirt,” she quipped back without even thinking. A flush of pride rippled through her at his bark of laughter.
Turning her attention to her equipment table so he didn’t see her shy smile and blushed cheeks, she fiddled with a charcoal stick as she began to think about positionings and lighting. She wanted to produce something along the lines of the Warrior made man. Perhaps she could drape the silk sheet over his lap so that she could concentrate. As her breath evened and hands steadied, Sansa thought that she had finally overcome her shock and nerves at having a nude man in such close proximity and she turned around ready to begin. Well her newly found composition flew right out the window once she saw how Sandor had sat, or more appropriately, ‘lounged’ on the throne, with one foot raised onto the arm so that everything was very much on display to her.
This was going to be the worst sitting, ever!