Warriors and men alike scrambled out of his path as he walked up the front steps of the Stark Mansion. Heavy shit-kicking boots moved with surprising grace as he returned from yet another assignment. Missions and assignments seemed to be one after the other these days, the hierarchy of their worlds in turmoil as leadership was continually called into question.
‘A time of flux’ the Pack leader, Eddard Stark would assure him. ‘It will pass.’
Sure, he’d merely grunt in reply, if you say so. Times were always changing, there was nothing new about that.
The gawkers, however, were an unending constant. He paid them all no mind as he moved, knowing that each one of them was scared shitless at the mere sight of him.
They’d been like that his entire adult life; staring, gaping, gasping...all of them terrified of him. He could hardly blame them, he supposed. He didn’t go out of his way for courtesies or manners, didn’t give a fuck about them, truthfully. He didn’t spend his time drinking with the other males of the pack, didn’t try to pretty himself up to impress the females. Any spare time he did have was spent training or running through the woods--those were the only two things that seemed to help him keep his mind from slipping into madness altogether.
But all of those factors fell into the sidelines in the light of the real reason they ran from him; as far as anyone knew, he was the last of his kind. An incomparable weapon. A tool of violence.
In the world of what the humans would call ‘the supernatural’, there were many things that went ‘bump’ in the night. Some were scarier than others, some were more dangerous too. Like everything else in nature, there was a hierarchy and a place for each species. While there was usually a peace between them all, that didn’t stop each group from rebelling and fighting amongst themselves.
Vampires, buggering pale little cunts that they were, could be found in dark alleys or abandoned buildings looking for a quick meal. They’d spent years hammering out their royal houses and destroying any who opposed the tyrannical rule of the ‘Great Lion’, Tywin Lannister. He’d been King for centuries now, earning his nickname through the violent way in which he tore out the throats of those who spoke against him.
Witches, mangy madwomen, the lot of them, were often in the woods of Highgarden or sifting through antique stores for items that had lost souls attached to them. Lost souls gave them power, gave them indentured servants to send to do their bidding. They tended to lean towards poison to handle their dirty work and they were always spinning their next spell.
Like their female counterparts, the Warlocks also always had their noses in spell books, but the difference was that the Warlocks were more mercenary than the Witches. No spell was ever free, they’d assure their customers, there was always a price to pay--monetary or otherwise. They never belonged to any great historical houses and travelled the realm gathering information that could be used to blackmail. They would double-cross you for a penny and he personally did all he could to avoid ever being indebted to one.
And then there were the Wolves--Werewolves if you were being picky, though they had evolved beyond the sway of the moon and were able to change whenever they liked. Shapshifters was perhaps a better term, though he didn’t care much to argue semantics. Sure there were Skinwalkers in the Southwest and feral Werebears in the Far North, but it was the Werewolf packs that were closest to the top of the supernatural hierarchy.
And the Starks were their royalty, as they had been for many centuries.
Nearly a half-century ago, he had been a lone wolf--no pun intended, hunting only to survive and doing everything that he could to avoid the politics of the supernatural and their social gatherings. He had never been a part of a formal Pack, not until the day he bent the knee to Lord Eddard Stark. He’d been asked many times why he’d sworn to House Stark after centuries of living as a ‘free man’, but he’d never shared his motives. His reasons were his and his alone. He promised his services as both a feral male and mercenary, but also as the last known ‘Berserker’ in the realm.
If there was a ‘food chain’ in the Wolf world, the ‘Berserkers’ would be at the very tip-top. There used to be more of them, nearly a dozen at one point in time, but they’d either fallen in battle, been hunted down for some little shit’s bragging rights or they had taken their own lives, unable to bear their burden any longer. They were larger, stronger, faster and more powerful than any other male Wolf, and only a few things in the world were considered more dangerous. Those things were called ‘natural disasters’.
Berserkers were the angriest bastards on the planet for the most part. They felt every emotion, good or bad, more deeply than the normal wolves and because of it they were always restless, ill at ease, walking right along the edge of sanity and madness.
The Clegane males, while not a well-known or well-respected house, were all Berserkers and the day Gregor fell in battle alongside hundreds of Scotsmen in yet another human war, Sandor became the last. Just another burden to bear, he inwardly growled, like his damned scarred face.
Grimacing as he entered the foyer proper, his movements slowed at the sight of nearly everyone in the Pack gathered in the Great Hall. All wore some shade or combination of black and a few of the women were weeping openly.
“Clegane,” the eldest Stark son, Robb, crossed to meet him. Like most of his siblings, Robb was every inch a Stark--dark hair, dark eyes and a large build that was reflected in his wolf form. He was a good strategist, if a bit naive. He was young though, only a few hundred years old, he’d grow out of his idealistic nature. Hopefully.
“Sir” he said simply as Robb spared a glance at the severed head in Sandor’s right hand, one likely dripping acidic vampire blood onto the antique marble.
“I see that Reyne gave you no trouble” Robb chuckled but the sadness in his eyes did not abate.
“None at all” he agreed. “What’s happened?” he glanced around the room.
“Come with me” Robb said, turning to walk towards the private solar at the western edge of the room. Sandor followed without question, tossing the head into the umbrella stand as he went. He’d been carrying it since White Harbor, someone else could deal with the dead bastard now.
Safely ensconced in the solar, Robb poured them each a few fingers of scotch before he leaned against the mantle. Sandor watched the younger man in silence for several minutes, wondering what sort of tragic happening had taken place while he was away.
“By now I am sure you’ve heard of the human epidemic, the one they’re calling ‘Scarlet Fever’,” Robb began. “It’s already killed thousands. Normally we don’t pay much attention to the illness of humans, after all why would we, they don’t affect us?”
Sandor nodded, “Aye.”
“But as the Bolton Pack would never have us forget, my Mother was born a human and turned into a wolf when my Father took her as his mate, she was not born ‘pure of blood’.”
“Buggering cunts” Sandor muttered.
“Myself, Arya, Bran and Rickon all took after Father in look” Robb said softly and Sandor felt his blood run cold. “But Sansa...she is so very Tully.”
“What’s happened?” Sandor asked, his voice all but a feral snarl.
“My sister has taken ill,” Robb said softly.
“There has been a steady parade of doctors and any Witch or Warlock that would answer the summons. All of them are desperate to fix her—to cure her” Robb continued. “It would seem that the beauty my Mother has gifted her with has proven to be her weakness. They do not know if she will live.”
“So all those cunts are gathered in the hall to watch their Princess die?” he growled.
“They gathered when High Warlock Petyr Baelish arrived, likely in hopes of seeing him in the flesh” Robb said and in a flash, Sandor threw his crystal tumbler into the fireplace.
“Why him?” Sandor argued. “He can’t be trusted! You know this--”
“We don’t have a choice” Robb cut in, his tone booking no argument and Sandor had no choice but to silence himself. “Whatever price he demands, if he saves her, it will be paid.”
“And if the price is Sansa?” Sandor countered.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it---Clegane!” Robb called after him as Sandor stormed from the room, but he didn’t stop. Fury coursed through him, firing his every nerve ending and he had to escape—he had to run.
Those gathered scampered from his path as he made his way to the back of the house and out the kitchen door. The forest lay before him, dense and dark, and tonight it would provide his escape—his sanctuary.
Kicking off his boots, he didn’t bother with his clothing and simply shifted, landing on four massive paws in the grass. Pushing forward with all his fury, he ran headlong into the trees.
He was out of sight before the last tatters of his clothing fell back to earth.
Lord Eddard briefly looked away from his eldest daughter as a mournful howl tore through the skies beyond the mansion. He knew the cry well, it echoed the one that had torn through his heart this night.
His wife, Catelyn, was crying softly on the chair beside Sansa’s bed, both of them watching as High Warlock Petyr Baelish wove his magic. His disdain for the Warlock who had once tried to steal his wife away was obvious, but there was no other choice, Sansa must be saved.
It was a hard pill to swallow, to know that while he was the leader of the most respected and most dangerous Pack in the world, he was powerless to save his daughter. Several days ago when she’d complained of feeling dizzy, they had all looked at her in confusion. Arya had even mocked her, all of them laughing along. But when Sansa set aside her book and stood to storm from the room, they were barely able to reach her before she collapsed entirely.
Wolves weren’t susceptible to human disease--at least they’d believed that to be true, but Sansa had contracted their ‘Scarlet Fever’ and it had taken a swift and firm hold of her. She had not regained consciousness since she’d collapsed and with each passing hour, her lungs grew more and more burdened until her breathing was labored and her skin felt as if it were on fire.
It was no real secret that Sansa was his favorite child, it was the Stark family’s biggest non-secret. He had doted on her from birth, indulged and spoiled her any chance he could. While his other children were dark of hair, dark of eye and built like powerful Stark warriors, Sansa was the image of his wife, a woman he loved more than anything in this world. Seven Hells, he’d broken a dozen wolf laws just to marry Catelyn and turn her, he’d have broken a hundred more to keep her at his side forever.
Slender, delicate and beautiful, with fiery hair and a vibrant personality, Sansa was his little Princess. He knew early on that on the day he declared her able to accept suitors, every male in the realm would arrive to prove themselves worthy of her. He had once dreaded handing her to the care of another man, now he was praying for that day to arrive at all.
“I have done all that I can,” Baelish announced, turning from the bedside to wipe his hands on a linen cloth before tucking his vials and herbs back into this sleep black leather bag. While not a tall or large man, Baelish was still imposing in that he never looked perturbed. He hardly looked human at all. The only display of emotion Eddard had ever seen the man betray was the stormy night Catelyn had chosen the life of a wolf over an eternity at the Warlock’s side, and even then it had only been a small twitch of an eye.
“Thank you” Catelyn whispered, wiping her eyes. “Will she..?”
“She will live,” Baelish said simply, running his fingers over his ridiculous facial hair. Eddard had little patience for Warlocks and their schemes, but he did find it amusing that they all seemed to ‘dress the part’ of the sinister sorcerer. Though, the Witches took that fashion to the extreme. “However, she will always be weakened,” Baelish continued. “I can only restore so much. Her Stark blood is all that saved her in this.”
“You have my thanks” Eddard extended his hand to Baelish and the man carefully--coldly shook it.
“From what I know of your kind, Sansa’s best hope for a full recovery is to find a mate as strong as she is weak” Baelish closed and locked his bag. “She will be able to draw, from him, any strengths she needs.”
“She is young--” Eddard protested. Too young. Wolves didn’t develop the ability to shift until they reached their majority, approximately two centuries or so. Sansa would have been immune to this fever should it have arrived two years later than it had, the ability to shift would have made her stronger.
As it was, their eldest Robb was still learning the ropes of shifting and his role as Heir. Sansa had been excited at the prospect of finally being able to join a hunt with the rest of the pack.
His heart ached for his Little Princess.
“She has time,” Baelish assured him. “With her Mother’s beauty, I am certain that a suitable suitor will not be hard to find.” Eddard ground his teeth, doing his best to stop himself from tearing the man’s throat out.
“And children?” Catelyn asked. “Will she be able…?”
“That I cannot tell” Petyr bowed his head slightly. “As I said, a strong mate will be her best source of strength. Regardless of species, it is the strength she needs. I removed the fever from her blood, but the damage to her body was extensive.”
“Thank you Petyr, we are in your debt” Catelyn sniffled, moving to take Sansa’s hand, whispering softly to their daughter.
“Yes, I would say that you are” Baelish’s smile was far from comforting and Eddard knew that his current position was one he definitely did not want to be in.
“Your fee, we can pay---”
Baelish raised a slender hand to cut off his words, “We need not worry about it just now,” he assured. “When the time comes, I will call in the debt, but for now I am pleased to have helped such a lovely young woman” he looked to Sansa and the heat in his eyes made Eddard’s hackles rise. “She is the very image of her Mother.”
“Indeed” was all he could choke out.
“For now I will take my leave” Baelish smoothly lifted his bag and moved towards the door. His robes, a deep sinister burgundy moved like a river of blood beside him, nearly as Scarlet as the Fever he had just defeated. “Good evening, Lord Stark. Lady Catelyn.”
“Thank you” Eddard nodded and in the blink of an eye, the Warlock was gone. Silence filled the room, all that could be heard was Sansa’s ragged breaths and Catelyn’s soft whispers of assurance.
“Father” he heard Robb speaking from below the stairs.
“She will live,” Eddard informed his son, though with the supernatural hearing in the mansion, surely everyone knew by now.
“And the cost?” Robb asked.
“I don’t know,” Eddard sighed.
“He will come for her,” Catelyn said softly. “For Sansa.”
Eddard shook his head, “He cannot have her.”
“A debt must be paid” Catelyn frowned.
“I will not let him have her,” Eddard promised. “She deserves better than to be attached to the Mockingbird himself.”
“We must protect her from him,” Catelyn whispered.
“I haven’t figured that out yet” Eddard admitted, crossing to his wife’s side to rest his hand on her shoulder. “One step at a time. First step is to get Sansa through this.”
“Alright” Catelyn nodded, lifting Sansa’s pale hand to her lips. “My darling girl…”
“She is a fighter,” Eddard whispered. “Like her Mother.”
“I am so sorry--”
“Stop” Eddard interjected, crouching beside Catelyn’s chair. “This is not your fault, not at all.”
“Another argument that my blood is not pure,” Catelyn whispered.
“Regardless of your birth, you are a wolf now” Eddard told her. “And the Boltons’ opinions have no place here. You have been my wife for centuries, I have loved you just as long, nothing will change that. Am I understood?”
“Yes” Catelyn gave a watery smile.
“First step, we get Sansa through this” Eddard repeated. “The rest we will take as it comes.”
“Alright” she turned back to their sleeping daughter, their fear abating with each breath that came easier to her burdened lungs.
“Lord Stark, I am Sandor Clegane” the deep, almost angry voice of the largest man he’d ever seen rumbled through the Great Hall.
“I admit” Eddard approached, offering his hand. The wolf King took in every detail, from the stranger's scars to the bright grey of his eyes--so cold they were almost made of ice. His beard was dark and well kept, his hair long but clean and his clothes were suitable for a man of his station, if worn. “I never thought I would see a Berserker in the flesh.”
“There are not many of us left” he replied, adjusting his shoulders as the stares of all around them settled on him. Their attention and gawking must be a heavy weight to shoulder every day, Eddard mused.
“Your brother?” Eddard prompted.
“He has been dead these two years passed.”
“I am sorry for your—-”
“Gregor was a cunt” he said on a growl. “His addiction to human savagery was his end. The world is better off without him in it.”
“As you say” Eddard agreed. “What brings you to the North?”
“Passing through” Sandor said. “I sought to pay regards and give you the courtesy of letting you know that I would be crossing your lands. Didn’t want any...misunderstandings.”
“That is appreciated” Eddard nodded. “I would insist that you join us for dinner.”
“Lord Stark--” Sandor’s words were cut off as a door opened at the back of the Great Hall and laughter danced through the room. A moment later, Sansa appeared with a book in-hand, and Eddard watched her with an indulgent smile as she gracefully moved to his side.
“Father--oh” she paused, looking up from her book to notice he was not alone. She glanced over Sandor’s form for a brief moment before she smiled at the large man. “Good afternoon!”
“Lemon Cake, this is Sandor Clegane, from the West” Eddard explained. “Clegane this is my eldest daughter, Sansa.”
“Hello, Ser Clegane” she bowed her head in greeting. “My word, you’re a Berserker, are you not?--forgive me, that was rude” Eddard noticed, however, that Sandor seemed unable to form a reply. Interesting.
“I have just invited him to join us for dinner, though I believe he was about to refuse our hospitality,” Eddard said.
“Oh, but you really should stay, Ser Clegane” Sansa smiled up at him. “Perhaps you could share stories of your travels with us, I fear Father’s tales of wars gone by have grown rather stale” she teased and Eddard shook his head as he laughed.
“Aye, I’ll...stay” Sandor replied and Eddard did well to hide his smirk.
“Lovely” Sansa beamed, moving to take the stranger’s arm, careful to set her hands on the cloth of his jacket. “Come, I will show you where you can clean up and prepare to join us” she looked to Eddard and then escorted the Berserker from the Great Hall. He watched the mismatched pair, Clegane’s large form moving with uncertainty beside Sansa’s slender beauty. She was talking happily, regaling him with some tale of their past feasts and he listened intently. It was clear that his Little Princess had tamed the warrior in a single moment.
The instant Sansa had appeared, everything about the Clegane man had seemed to soften, and even his impending refusal of dinner had halted in its tracks. It was just further proof that Sansa could charm anyone she met.
Even a Berserker, who were rumored to feel nothing but violence at all. Interesting indeed.
“Clegane” Eddard lay a stack of folded clothing on the cement bench at the edge of the woods. Movement whispered in the trees and a moment later the enormous form of the Berserker appeared in the shadows.
He would readily admit that the Clegane man terrified him. Berserkers were never one to be trifled with and he still was not sure how to handle this unexpected sworn man. No wolf King had ever had the sworn service of a Berserker before, it was unprecedented and something that he knew his enemies sought to use for their own agenda.
In both human and wolf forms, Sandor Clegane was larger than any he’d ever seen. The scars, three perfect claw marks that trailed down the side of his face, from his scalp across his brow and cheek to his collarbone in human form, manifested the same way as a wolf, serving to make him even more intimidating. It was fortunate that he did not lose his right eye completely. Wolves generally did not scar, and many times the question of the wounds would reach the tip of Eddard’s tongue, but he was never brave enough to ask after their origin.
Without Sandor they would not have been able to beat back the Bolton’s the last time they made a power move to take control of the Wolf world. Sandor was the key to keeping everyone safe, and Eddard had done his best to assure the large man’s relative happiness here.
The large wolf looked from the clothes and then up to the windows of the third floor, Eddard understood the unspoken question.
“She will live” he sighed, sitting on the cement bench beside the clothing. “But the price remains unspoken--” Sandor growled and Eddard fixed him with an alpha’s glare. “I did what I had to, I had no other options. You tell me, Clegane, what you would have done to save a most beloved daughter!?” he demanded. Several seconds passed and then Sandor’s muzzle lowered in supplication, a reluctant apology to be certain. “We must keep her safe,” he continued. “She will likely always be weak now, we must keep her safe.”
Sandor shifted on his feet and then emerged from the woods fully, his black pelt melting away into human flesh. His hair, a big shaggy and tangled from his run, covered the scarred half of his face, but still he stood proud, even in nudity. Not that the man had anything to be ashamed of, Eddard looked away, clearing his throat.
“She’ll be safe,” Sandor promised.
Eddard nodded, pushing to his feet, “Dress. Breakfast will be served shortly” he instructed and Sandor nodded. “Afterwards you can tell me about Reyne.”
“Aye” the reticent man grumbled, grabbing the clothing from the bench to cover himself. While Eddard was certain that Sandor didn’t even realize it himself, he watched the man's pale eyes continually return to the third story windows.
Turning back to the house his brain returned to racing around the predicament they found themselves in. Sansa would need to be protected now, and he feared the day Baelish returned for her.
If only, he absently thought, Clegane was a compatible mate for her. Surely a Berserker was strong enough to keep her safe. Sansa was young, she hadn’t shifted or experienced her first fertile heat just yet. Perhaps that would change as she aged.
Footsteps followed behind him and Eddard’s thoughts returned to Sandor. As soft as Clegane seemed around Sansa, he always held himself in reserve and Berserker’s rarely took mates--if ever. Though he’d sworn himself for the Stark Pack, he did not warm to anyone and held them all at a distance.
Eddard was not naive, he saw the way that Sansa had tamed the man. Clegane had intended to pass through the North and never return, but all of that changed the moment Sansa had appeared. A sennight later, Clegane had bent the knee and sworn to House Stark, changing the entire course of their futures.
He knew that Baelish would come for her, it was only a matter of ‘when’, now. He couldn’t have Catelyn and Eddard swore with every fiber of his being, he would never have Sansa.
One step at a time, he reminded himself. One step at a time.
Sandor stared at the embroidered fabric in his hands, rough thumbs tracing over the delicate thread. He’d never owned anything so lovely or elegant, but this...
Beyond the room, the party could still be heard, even as it wound down. All of the Stark wolves and their sworn men had enjoyed the feast, the occasion an official welcome for himself, having sworn his fealty to Lord Stark. The last known Berserker had made his allegiances known, for the rest of his days, he was sworn to House Stark. This was a cause for raucous celebration.
Fealty, he scoffed to himself. He was a buggering fool, that’s what he was. He wasn’t here out of some misplaced honor or duty, he was here for a very simple reason, one he’d never admit aloud. Could never admit aloud.
His eyes traced the embroidery, a finger trailing along the silhouette of the black wolf that was howling against a deep blood-red moon--a bad moon. He’d forever remember the soft words of welcome that Princess Sansa Stark had spoken to him as she placed the gift in his hands. He would never forget the way her eyes held such a soulful kindness that it had nearly torn him apart.
Fealty. Vows. Oaths. Bullshit, all of it.
She was a woman he could never hope to have, could never be worthy of, was worth staying for. Even if it was just to steal glances of her beauty, to hear words of kindness and be looked upon without fear. Sansa—Princess Sansa was the only one to ever look beyond the ruin of his face or into his eyes without fear.
She was so strong, so lovely and beautiful, a delicate little bird that flitted from tree to tree, singing a cheerful song for all to hear. She spread happiness wherever she went and she had pulled him from his life of solitude with a few simple words.
And so, he broke his own embargo on attachments and vows. Just to stay close to her.