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The Queen of Ice

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Winter is coming. The Stark words played over and over in her mind as she watched the thick snowflakes flutter down from a steel grey sky. Sansa smiled gently when a few of those flakes brushed over her warm cheeks and nose.

More like winter is upon us, she thought while she glanced around the courtyard. Great drifts slanted up against the surrounding walls even higher than the already ankle deep snow that covered the ground. She pulled her grey wool cloak tighter around her shoulders and felt the softness of the thick white fur that lined it brush against the exposed skin of her neck. They were Stark colors, grey and white. Colors she was always proud to display, although the gown she wore was a deep sapphire blue that matched her Tully eyes almost perfectly.

A young woman of almost six and ten, Sansa may be a Stark, but her look was all Tully, after her mother. Creamy skin, fiery auburn hair, and deep crystalline eyes only enhanced her natural and undeniable beauty. Yet that beauty was often subdued, for her clear eyes were constantly tinged with sadness and the corners of her lovely mouth almost never turned up into a smile. Only in moments of sheer contentedness, moments like these, where she could forget the heartbreaking reality she lived in nearly every day that her true radiance shown through in one of her smiles.

Enjoying her lightheartedness, Sansa walked around the curve of the library tower in the direction of the kitchens. The noises of her home, Winterfell, danced around her like a comforting melody. It filled her with memories of a childhood spent chasing butterflies, weaving crowns of daisies with her good friend Jeyne Poole, and reading tales of knights and their lady loves under the shaded trees of the Godswood. Sansa was a child of summer, born in the spring, but living so far north meant that she was more than familiar with snowfalls and stormy weather. But the days of late had become much shorter, the nights colder, and wind had a bite to it that she had never felt before.

“Lady Sansa!”

She turned her head towards the deep voice that called to her and allowed another small smile. Farlen, the kennel master at Winterfell, trudged forward through the snow wearing a grin that he seemed to only save for her. Directly at his heels was her direwolf, Lady. Her grey fur looked freshly groomed and bore no trace of the elements that continued to pile up all around them. Like her owner, Lady possessed a quiet grace and refinement. For a beast she had impeccable manners, which was why Farlen tolerated her presence in the kennels from time to time.

“My lady, I thought I would ensure your guardian’s safe return,” Farlen gave a short bow of his head before reaching up – for Lady was the size of a pony – and patting her shoulder.

Sansa’s laughter was light but full, and rang like tinkling bells through the icy air. “I doubt very much that Lady is in need of any protection.”
“As you say, my lady. Out enjoying the snow, I see,” he observed jovially. Lady padded over to her side and licker her hand. Her tongue was warm and wet, the roughness a contrast to Sansa’s silky skin, but she welcomed the contact.

“Yes. And the peace and quiet, while it lasts.” She tried not to frown.

“Aye, my lady. It won’t be quiet around here for some time, once the royal family arrives and all the houses and knights follow for the tourney. But I thought all fair maidens enjoyed the company of knights? Are you not looking forward to it, my lady?” Farlen rubbed his hands together before huffing warm breath into them.


And just like that, her cheerfulness evaporated. Her countenance settled into a cool mask of courtesy, practiced and honed to utter perfection. For a lady’s armor are her courtesies, as Septa Mordane had told her during her years of training. Sansa straightened her back and lifted her chin, her eyes fixed on some unknown point over Farlen’s shoulder.

“As a lady of Winterfell I will fulfill all the duties of my house. I do not think I should have the time for any enjoyment, but I hope to try,” she said evenly.

Farlen noticed the switch in her demeanor and his eyes became sad, his smile falling from his lips. Sansa ignored his pitying gaze and inclined her head towards him slightly. “Good day, Farlen,” she whispered before gliding away, Lady at her side.

She knew she had been short with him and she honestly felt badly for it. But she knew that if she told him what she really felt about the tourney that her lord father, Eddard Stark, would be hosting within the week that it would draw more questions that she was too personal and too depressing to answer. And she wasn’t prepared to discuss those feelings with anyone, let alone a man. Not that her predicament was a secret here in Winterfell. Dwelling on that fact only darkened her mood further.

As a child Sansa had filled her head with stories of gallantry and her heart with longing for her own brave knight or dashing prince. But those girlhood dreams were slipping away from her with each passing year. Or more accurately, with each passing month. For a young woman of nearly sixteen, Sansa had yet to have her moon blood. Maester Luwin had tried assuring her that some women bloom later than others, and ever her lady mother had kind and gentle words for her when each month would pass without occurrence. But Sansa could not be appeased. Jeyne had gotten hers when she was but two and ten, which resulted in her ability to marry last year when she turned fifteen. Sansa truly missed her dear friend, but she understood that Jeyne needed to go and live with him on his lands near the Bolton’s. And then, as if the Gods meant to add insult to injury, her little sister Arya had gotten her moon blood last year when she was three and ten. This would normally mean that she would then have been betrothed to a proper knight or lord, but Arya was wild as her direwolf, Nymeria, and would not consent to marry until Sansa had.

But no one will offer marriage to me anymore. No one of true worth, of high enough birth. They are too afraid I am barren, she thought with a strong surge of pain laced with a bitterness she often kept beaten down inside of her. The marriage offers had started pouring in when she was still a child of two and ten. Knights, lords, hedge knights even, but her lord father and lady mother would not even entertain the latter as a thought. She was a highborn girl from a line of two of the oldest and most respected houses in the Seven Kingdoms. There were few ladies that could make such a boast. Their bloodline is what secured her older brother’s engagement to Princess Myrcella of house Baratheon. Though she was only recently flowered and still a girl of only three and ten, he was a man of nineteen, and heir to Winterfell. That and the fact that King Robert and her father were childhood friends. Sansa had often hoped that perhaps her fathers or mothers high connections would secure her a good marriage as well.

But it matters not if I am not able to bear my lord husband any heirs, she reminded herself sadly and she made her way out the South Gate with Lady still at her side. No one had stopped her from venturing beyond the stronghold stone walls. She was used to wandering a little ways outside of the great walls that protected her home. She wasn’t nearly as adventurous as Arya, or her younger brothers Bran and Rickon, but as whispers about her circumstances floated around her she found that she needed the tranquility of the forests that stretched out across her father’s lands.

As Warden of the North, Eddard Stark was responsible for all the towns and keeps in the North all the way to the Wall. Sansa decided to stick to the woods since Lady often made people nervous with her size, even though she was far gentler than the tales of direwolves would have anyone believe. Sansa saw the Kingsroad off in the distance, filled with travelers that approached the outer walls of Winterfell. She could make out a huge wheelhouse from where she was and deduced that it had to be at least two stories to be so clear from this distance. There were scores of men in armor on horseback, all dressed in varying colors and holding banners of their great houses. Red with a gold lion for House Lannister. Gold with a black crowned stag for House Baratheon. And then the houses of her father’s bannermen: Karstark, Bolton, Flint, Umber, Hornwood, Mormont, and so on. Pretty soon there would be numerous camps erected around Winterfell, and the guest house filled to the brim with royal visitors and their guards.

“With me, Lady,” Sansa commanded her direwolf as she headed out further into the naked trees.


With no notice on how long she wandered or in what direction she ambled, Sansa let her mind wander. Stories filled her conscious; romantic tales like Florian and Jonquil, and other such nonsense where valiant knights rescued swooning ladies. For a time she let herself get lost in her fantasies where she granted her favor to a brave and worthy knight and return he would give her lovely words and promises of great and undying devotion. That no one would ever harm her lest they have her knight to contend with. And he would name her his Queen of love and beauty, falling to his knees and pledging himself to her always. A soft dreamy smile graced her full lips and she sighed while she tried to conjure up an image of what her noble lord would be like. He would be handsome for sure, but kind as well. Brave, gallant, chivalrous; these were the qualities she required in order to be worthy of her love. Worthy of the eldest daughter of Winterfell.

The sound of approaching hooves tore her from her thoughts. She turned in their direction and saw that Bran approached on his chestnut palfrey. Bran was younger than her, a boy of nearly two and ten, with a kind nature not dissimilar to her own. But Bran loved life with a zeal that she hadn’t possessed for some time. Often seen climbing the walls of the great keep or the trees of the Godswood, Bran would commonly venture beyond the walls with Robb and Theon, their father’s ward from the Iron Islands, to accompany them hunting. His bow was slung over his shoulder as he approached her, a quiver attached to his saddle, only half full with arrows. A few rabbits were tied to saddle horn and dangled down on his right side. Summer, Bran’s direwolf, loped gracefully beside him.

“Sansa, what are you doing out here alone?” he asked with a surprised smile.

“I would ask you the same thing, little brother but I see the evidence of your hunt from here. Gage might put those into a stew for our visitor’s small folk.” There would no doubt be richer fare for the lords, ladies, and members of the royal court. But Sansa knew there were always many mouths to feed when great houses came to call and not all of them noble.

Bran beamed at her observation. He did so love to be helpful. “That was my intention. I tried to get Robb and Theon to join me but Robb was preparing to meet his betrothed and Theon…” he trailed off for a moment and flushed slightly before coughing and looking away. “Theon is occupied.”

Sansa frowned and sighed before clearing her face of the expression. It was well known that Theon Greyjoy had a love of women, both high and low born, and often frequented the inn at Winter Town. There were several women that peddled their flesh there and were well known around Winterfell. Sansa knew a man had need of a woman and seeing as her father was having difficulty securing a proper marriage for Theon with any of the high born ladies of his bannermen, she knew he would seek the company of less…savory individuals in the meantime.

“I see,” she replied while smoothing her skirts and adjusting her cloak around her.

“You should probably ride back with me now. The King has just arrived and you know mother and father would want you there to introduce the whole family properly,” Bran went on to smile again as if the unpleasantry had never been mentioned. She couldn’t help but smile at him. He was turning into such a proper little gentleman that it warmed her heart.

He will be an excellent lord one day, or mayhaps a knight. Either way he will make a fine husband for his lady wife. He is so much like father. Her thoughts made her smile grow as she approached him. He extended his gloved hand to her and helped her up onto the horse behind him. They were nearing the same height even though she was tall for her age.

“Hang on to me, sister. I like to ride fast,” he called jovially over his shoulder and kicked his horse into action. The mare jolted forward and thundered back towards the South Gate. Sansa let go of her ladylike pretenses and just let herself feel free and childlike for the ride back. By the time they cantered back through the entrance she was giggling as Bran chuckled deeply in front of her. Her smile was so wide and stretched so tight across her face that it almost hurt. It was a foreign feeling in the recent years as joy wasn’t something that Sansa felt very often. After her last few potential matches had turned her father down she had lost the will to be the happy, carefree girl she once was.

Their pace slowed due to the number of people that ambled about in preparation for the throngs and masses that has already started to arrive. Bran turned to look at his sister over his shoulder and continued to grin.

“It’s good to hear you laugh. You’re so serious anymore,” he said with a little shake of his head.

Her smile fell a little but she tried to keep it in place. She would need to play her part soon enough, might as well start now. “Yes, so I’ve heard. I’ll try to be more pleasant with our guests here. Do remind me if I become a sourpuss again.”

Bran frowned after he dismounted and shook his head. “No, you’re not sour, you’re just unhappy. I can’t understand why. You know you’re the favorite.” He was grinning up at her again.

Sansa rolled her eyes and sighed. “No, that would be our dear older brother.”

“Jon?” Bran teased with a chuckle. This time Sansa frowned.

“You shouldn’t jest like that, Bran. Jon can’t help it that mother never liked him.”

“But everyone else likes him so much I think it makes up for it,” Bran sighed.


Sansa gracefully swung from the saddle and leaned down slightly to kiss her little brother on his cheek. “Don’t think on it. You’ve always been my favorite, you know.” She smiled affectionately at him.

“Not Arya? She’ll be so heartbroken to hear that,” he joked again.

“You’re terrible,” she laughed and ruffled his hair. Bran had always been able to bring her out of her somber moods. His humor and affection were more pronounced than hers had ever been, but he was so kind and genuine that his remarks were never taken badly. He never failed to bring a smile to her face and she loved him dearly for it.
Bran handed his horse off to one of the stable boys and whistled for Summer to come to his side and Lady approached as well. He then turned to Sansa with a bright smile and offered her his arm like a true gentleman. Grinning, she took his proffered arm and walked with him towards where their family was gathering at the East Gate for the arrivals of all their guests. Everyone was dressed in their warmest finery in honor of the royal guests. It would be the first time any of the children had met King Robert and his family. It would also be the first time Robb was to meet his future bride.

“Sansa, come and stand by me,” her mother, Catelyn called. Sansa nodded and made her way over to join the remainder of her family, minus one. Jon wouldn’t be part of the gathering for a royal introduction even if he still resided here in Winterfell. As it was, Jon had joined the men of the Night’s Watch two years prior, so his lack of presence had become less noticeable lately.

Robb had taken his place by their father’s side while the rest of the children, in the order of their births, lined up alongside their lady mother. Each of the five remaining direwolves (Ghost had accompanied Jon to the Wall) sat directly in front of its master. Only Shaggydog was taller than his owner, Rickon, who was a mere 8 years old. While Sansa noticed that her father looked excited and her mother looked slightly anxious, the rest of the family wore the common expression of anticipation. Everyone except for Arya, naturally. She portrayed the same bored indifference she did for anything that held formality or required her to wear a gown.

The procession was slow through the main gate, but lead by none other than the King himself. Sansa’s courtesies served her well when she took in the sight of a grotesquely obese man that sat upon a large warhorse. Her face was a mask of cordiality that betrayed nothing of the dismay she felt when looking upon their noble King. He was raven haired and fully bearded, and once may have been quite a handsome man, but now he was ruddy faced with sagging jowls and bags under his eyes, although those twinkled merrily when they spied upon her father.

“Ned!” he roared and laboriously clambered down from his steed. The bone crushing hug he gave her father made her smile.

“Gods, it’s good to see you man! Too long, it’s been too bloody long. When will you leave this frozen wasteland up here and join us in the decadency that is Kings Landing?” he inquired with a loud laugh and stomped in snow.

“I happen to love this frozen wasteland, and I’ve no love for the climate in your part of the Kingdoms,” her father responded with a grin and stepped back to rejoin the line of family.

“They’re all mine, you stubborn fool but you can bloody well keep this part for yourself. Warden of North. Seven bloody hells it’s colder than the crone’s teat up here. Cat, you’re from warmer places than this, how can you stand it?” King Robert asked her mother good naturedly.

Lady Catelyn smiled widely and laughed despite the informal way the king addressed her. “It grows on you, Your Grace. Although we haven’t had a winter here in so long I may just take you up on your offer before this one truly sets in.”

“Always welcome, you and yours, know that my lady. Now, I believe this is to be my future goodson?” King Robert turned to face Robb who immediately puffed up for his royal inspection. Next to Sansa, Arya snorted indelicately and nudged Bran with her elbow.

“Hush now you two. This is a big day for him. Let us not spoil it,” she chided her siblings softly, but not unkindly.

“He can have it, believe you me. But you and I are the ones who will have to entertain the Princess when he is off playing boy lord in training. Seven hells,” muttered Arya under her breath.

Sansa sighed and turned her attention to the massive wheelhouse that finally passed under the large portcullis of the East Gate. It stood two stories high and was pulled by many large draught horses. Eight knights surrounded it on horseback, seven with gleaming white cloaks, and one who was larger than the rest with a plain grey one. The men in white were undoubtedly members of the Kingsguard, and she guessed the other man, who was fully helmed so unidentifiable, was most likely the sworn shield of one of the royal children.

“Come, Ned and let us pay our respects before supping.” The king placed his hand on her father’s shoulder and started to walk in the direction of the crypts when Queen Cersei, clad in layers of white fur, emerged from the wheelhouse.

“Would you be kind enough to make our introductions before descending down to visit the dead?” Her voice was colder than the snow on which they all stood, and her emerald eyes flashed.

“Everyone knows who you are, woman. You can make nice without me for a short time. In fact, I hear you’re quite accomplished in that area,” King Robert replied curtly before turning on his heel and stomping away. Eddard gave Catelyn an apologetic look before trailing after him towards the crypts.

“Your Grace, may I welcome you to Winterfell,” Catelyn curtsied deeply and smiled kindly at the other woman. Cersei, to her credit, handled the rebuff of her husband well and responded kindly to the Lady of Winterfell.

Moments later the crowned Prince Joffrey, Princess Myrcella, and Prince Tommen were being welcomed into the Great Hall for refreshment, followed by the eight knights that accompanied them for their journey. They gathered before a roaring fire and were served mead, wine, ale, and cider alongside fresh breads, lemon cakes, tarts, meat pies, and pastries hot from the kitchens. There would be a grand feast later that evening but this was customary when visitors of high birth came to Winterfell. The north may be cold, but the same could not be said about the hospitality of its lords and ladies.

While her lady mother made polite conversation with the Queen and Princess Myrcella, Prince Tommen was busy inspecting Summer and prattling on excitedly to Bran since they were of a similar age. Robb sat and talked with a white haired knight who wore a strange fist shaped clasp on his cloak near the head of the table, and occasionally with an attractive blonde man who bore a striking resemblance to the Queen.

That is what a king should look like. Handsome and well mannered, healthy of body. Her thoughts must have shown on her face because they were interrupted by an observer.

“Got eyes for the Kingslayer, girl?” a deep voice rasped from behind her.

Sansa whipped around and saw the man in the grey cloak had removed his strange helm, which she now saw was in the likeness of a snarling dog, was sitting right next to her at the long table. He was facing her head on and staring right through her with hard grey eyes. Half of his face was set in a deep scowl while the other half was a twitching mass of scars. She knew who he was on sight. She doubted there was anyone in all of the Seven Kingdoms who hadn’t heard of Sandor Clegane, most commonly known as the Hound. His prowess on the battlefield was as legendary as his temper and brutality. He was almost as notorious as his brother, Ser Gregor, who was known as the Mountain that Rides.

Sansa had to dig deep in order to maintain eye contact with the Hound and not flinch at the sight of his scars, or the sheer hatred that shown from his eyes. She hid her revulsion and fear behind her neutral mask and answered back, “No, ser. I was just noticing how closely he resembled the Queen. I didn’t realize it was Ser Jamie until just now.”

Clegane snorted and took a long drink from his wine cup. “Aye, she’s him in skirts. Twins. And keep your bloody sers. I’m no buggering knight, girl.”

“My apologies, my lord,” she said while watching him tear into another pie.

He swallowed thickly and shook his head. “Not a lord either. Just a dog.” He drank deeply again and refilled his cup from the flagon in front of her.

Sansa frowned before she could catch herself and smooth her face back into an impassive mask again. She decided to change the subject. “I trust your travels went smoothly. Is this your first time in the North?” She knew how to be a good hostess and proper lady, no matter how gruff and lowly the person she was addressing.

“Is this really what your Septa teaches you, girl? You’re a well-trained, proper little bird aren’t you?” he bit out and glowered right at her. To her credit she didn’t lower her eyes or turn away. In fact, she stared right back at him until he broke eye contact and turned back to his wine.

“Be careful with that one, my Lady. He isn’t house broken,” a smooth voice said almost next to Sansa’s ear.

When she turned around she came almost nose to nose with Prince Joffrey. While he was handsome to look at, there was something about him that made Sansa’s skin prickle uncomfortably. He was fair like his Queen mother and had her bright green eyes, but they shone with a sharpness that reminded her of Theon when he was being particularly cruel or vulgar in her presence. She mistrusted him immediately.

“We were just discussing your journey here, my Prince. Was it an enjoyable one?” Sansa deftly turned her body both to allow more space between them, but also made sure she didn’t present her back to the Hound. He’d done nothing to earn such disrespect from her despite his roughness.

“I would love to tell you all about it, my Lady. Why don’t you show me around your charming keep and I’ll regale you with tales of my travels.” He leered at her over his offer, not even disguising the way his eyes roamed about her womanly curves. She suppressed a shiver and smiled sweetly at him.

“It would be my pleasure, my Prince. But you might wish to wrap up warmly before we venture back out,” she said kindly and rose from the bench. “Lady, to me.” Her direwolf silently appeared behind Joffrey and sniffed at him before daintily snorting and sidling up between him and Sansa. His eyes went wide and he took a large step backwards, bumping into a member of the Kingsguard.

“That beast isn’t coming anywhere with me,” he snapped angrily as he righted himself and smoothed out his crimson doublet.

Sansa reached over to gently scratch Lady between the ears, smiling gently at her. “She’s completely docile, my Prince. I assure you that no harm will befall you so long as she is present.”

“I have my own protection. I have no need of yours, my Lady. Isn’t that right, dog?” he all but shouted at the Hound.

Sandor bowed his head once and simply said, “As you say, my Prince.”

“Joffrey, do be careful out there. The North is a wild sort of place,” Queen Cersei called out from her place at the head of the long table. Her voice was soft, but the warning notes rang clear and echoed through the vast hall.

“Women with their worries,” Joffrey remarked with a sneer before he turned and offered Sansa his arm.

“We will stay within the castle walls, Your Grace, you have my word,” Sansa placated with a curtsy.

“We’ll go wherever I damn well please,” Joffrey muttered as they exited the Great Hall.

Sansa chose to ignore the comment and turned towards the Godswood. She would start there before showing off the rest of the grounds. It was closest to the glass gardens as well, and those always seemed to impressed guests from the south. The conversation was light and simple. Joffrey talked of how he planned to win the tourney and how he’d been training for such glories since he was a babe. Sansa was well practiced in the art of conversing with lords and knights about such frivolities that no longer held her interest. But interest could be feigned, and Sansa had become an expert of it of late.

When they entered the Godswood Joffrey scrunched up his face into a rather unattractive frown. “What are we doing here with all these strange trees?”

“The Starks keep the old Gods, my Prince. Here is where we go to worship. Well, except my lady mother. She uses the sept to worship the Seven,” Sansa explained patiently.

“You northerners still bow down and pray to trees? What an archaic way of life,” he commented with a snort. Sansa contained her frown and continued towards the heart tree and hot pools.

“What is that smell?” Joffrey gasped and coughed loudly.

“That would be the hot pools. They stay warm no matter the season, and can be quite pleasant for soothing travel weary muscles,” she offered sweetly, knowing very well that the crowned prince would never dare bathe out of doors. But her polite and innocent expression made it look as if she expected exactly that from him.

“And come out smelling like fouled eggs? Are you mad?” he practically shouted and gestured towards the steaming pockets of water derisively.

Sansa kept her expression in place flawlessly even though she seethed inside. His rudeness wasn’t something she had been prepared for. Most gently born people would at least pretend to be interested and politely decline rather than display such behaviors.

“The smell is something you grow accustomed to, my Prince. Much like the odors of city life, I am told,” she added with a beatific smile that beguiled her mildly insulting words. She had heard from many folk who had travelled to Kings Landing that the smell of the city was nigh unbearable in the heat of summer. Excrement and filth flowed in the streets and having a great many bodies packed in so tightly made for quite a stench when it baked in the summer sun. Luckily the prince seemed none the wiser to her veiled insult.

“I suppose you might be right, my Lady,” he relented reluctantly before turning to leave the Godswood again.

When Sansa turned after him she thought she caught a glimpse of a smile tugging at the corner of the Hounds half ruined mouth. But when she looked again the expression was gone, replaced by a light scowl that seemed to be a permanent fixture there. Lady kept close to her as she continued her tour for the prince and Sansa could sense her unease around Joffrey. Strangely enough though, Lady seemed perfectly comfortable being within close proximity to the Hound.

As they walked slowly back towards the Great Keep Sansa became more aware of the large, scarred man behind her than the handsome young prince at her side. There was something intriguing about the way he held himself, even though his constant state of anger and hateful continence scared the wits out of her.

Mayhaps there is a good reason for his behavior, she mused. It could have something to do with those horrible scars he carries on his face. Or it could be that he doesn’t care for those he serves. She glanced over and saw that Prince Joffrey was once again talking loudly and gesturing wildly as if in a great sword battle. She did her best to stop her mind wandering and focus on what he was talking about.

“. . . not that she would have known anything about it. She was from Highgarden after all,” he muttered somewhat bitterly.

“Yes, we were all so sorry to hear about the loss of your lady wife, Margaery,” Sansa interjected quickly in the hope that he would think she had been paying attention all this time. Joffrey stiffened slightly before he nodded once. Sansa continued, “She died in childbed, my Prince? You must have been devastated to lose both your lady wife and your heir.”

Out of the corner of her eye Sana saw something shift in the Hound’s demeanor. His eyes narrowed slightly and for a moment he grimaced but the expression cleared almost as soon as it had appeared. She wanted to ask him if she had said something wrong but thought it unwise to address him in front of his master.

“Yes, it was very sad. I was quite fond of her, short as our union was. I will mourn her loss for some time I should think.” The prince spoke with a tone of regret, but Sansa could plainly hear the false notes in his feigned grief. At her side Lady whined slightly and pushed between herself and Joffrey. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice.

As they approached the door to the Great Keep their walking slowed. Loud voices could be heard from within and the thunderous laugh of the King echoed off the stone walls. Joffrey scowled in the direction of the sound, but then cleared his expression before he turned back to Sansa. He bowed slightly at the waist and brought her hand up to his lips, placing a cold, slimy kiss on her smooth skin.

“I thank you for your company, my Lady. Mayhaps you would be so kind as to attend me tomorrow? I have been quite lonely these past months in my grief and your presence has been very pleasant.” While his words were genial and held all the propriety that befit his station, his eyes were lecherous. Something in the way he caressed the hand he continued to hold made Sansa’s skin crawl.

Still, she was a lady and knew her courtesies well. She curtsied deeply and bowed her head as to break the unnerving eye contact he tried to hold. “It would be my pleasure, my Prince, to serve you while here in the North.”

Joffrey grinned widely before he headed back into the hall where the rest of his family were feasting and making merry. As soon as he was out of sight Sansa wiped the back of her hand on her cloak and stepped back towards Lady, finding comfort in the simple gesture of stroking her warm, soft fur. She was suddenly reminded that she wasn’t alone when a voice rasped behind her.

“If you’re a smart little bird, you will stay as far away from Joffrey as you can manage.”

He was so quiet that she thought she must have misheard him. For why would he speak in such away against the man in whom he served? But when she turned to meet his eyes she saw that they were cold steel, his face set in a serious scowl. She was about to ask him just what he meant by that when he grunted at her, spun on his heel, and walked after the Prince into the Great Keep.

Chapter Text

 

Over the past weeks, many and more poured through the gates of Winterfell in honor of the King’s celebratory tourney. Lowborn and highborn alike made their camps in and around the high stone walls. Luckily, hunting parties had been busy gathering enough game to keep the masses fed well enough. Although Sansa knew that while the lords and ladies ate quite well, the same could not be said for their squires and pages, whom often appeared much thinner than their masters.

            Sansa had been extremely busy with her duties as a lady of the castle. Most of her waking hours were spent entertaining the ladies of court with her wood harp, her songs, and helping the younger ladies with their needlepoint. But outside the privacy of their chambers and the Great Hall, she also assisted her mother attend to the needs of the royal family. Myrcella was the easiest to please, but Sansa suspected that was due to how much she wanted to her future good sisters and good mother to love her. Joffrey, on the other hand, was the most difficult.

            Sansa had tried to heed the Hounds words and avoid him as much as possible, but that was becoming more and more troublesome as of late. It seemed like every time she had found a quiet moment alone, he would magically appear. She suspected that he sought her out when he noticed her absence, but she wasn’t sure how to avoid him when he seemed so determined. And he wasn’t the only one who had gone out of his way to occupy her time.

            Everyone, the Queen especially, had been very surprised when Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, had turned up days after his father’s host. The youngest of the Lannister children and a dwarf besides, Sansa quickly learned he was openly despised by much of his family, save the Kingslayer, Jaime. The reasons were never discussed or eluded to, but Sansa saw and heard much in her time spent with the King and Queen. King Robert seemed unaffected by his presence, but Cersei was always in a foul mood whenever her youngest brother was about. But her open disdain was much more easily stomached than the cold indifference shown by their father, Lord Tywin Lannister.

Still, Lord Tyrion had travelled with Lord Tywin from Casterly Rock, but decided to stop off in Winter Town for a few days. He claimed it was because he wanted to meet the local small folk and venture into the woods with his own hunting party, but there had been whispers about the Imp’s lascivious appetites. The assumption was there that he had found the company of a whore – or perhaps many whores – for which he chose to stay and enjoy for a time.

            But once Lord Tyrion arrived in Winterfell, Sansa had been his main companion aside from his sworn shield, a hired mercenary named Bronn. She quickly deduced that the only thing small about Tyrion was his stature. The same could not be said for his personality. He was witty, funny, intelligent, and charming when the mood struck him. He was also immensely clever, and seemed to enjoy the jesting barbs he threw at his nephew, Joffrey, more than he should. But since he had rescued her from having to spend too many hours with the Prince, she knew she thought a little more highly of him than she believed she normally would have.

            It was those thoughts she was lost in when she heard him call to her from across the yard. She was on her way to watch the knights and lords sparring with the Princes when she spied Sandor Clegane trailing after Joffrey towards her brothers. Tyrion’s voice was a slightly welcome distraction since she often felt strange when she thought of or was around the large man.

            “My lord, how are you this day?” she turned and greeted him and with an incline of her head and a smile.

            “Very well indeed, my lady. It is one of those rare days in the north when the sun actually shines,” he commented with a grin. While Sansa sometimes felt he was leering at her, she found him to be relatively harmless.

            “You’re shadow is missing,” Sansa said with and arched eyebrow. She grinned openly when he looked at his feet for a brief moment before he snorted and returned her smile.

            “Dwarves have no shadows, haven’t you heard? Or do you refer to my fearless companion, Bronn?”

            “I do, lord Tyrion,” she admitted.

            “He is having a turn with one of your kitchen wenches, I believe.” He observed the blush that graced her cheeks with relish. “Oh, many pardons, lady Sansa. Have I offended your delicate sensibilities?”

            She fought the urge to roll her eyes at him. This was the game he always played with her. He would say the most outrageous and inappropriate things in an effort to embarrass her, and she would, in turn, do her best to act like nothing was amiss. There were times that were more challenging than others. Blessedly, this was not one of them.

            “You may find that we northern women lack the delicacies of our southron counterparts, my lord. What with our barbaric heathen ancestry,” she replied airily and widened her stride. Tryion’s small legs struggled to keep up, but he tried not to let it show.

            “Oh, I am sure that up here in the cold and harsh climates you northern ladies find wonderfully creative ways to keep each other warm,” he countered suggestively.

            “Yes, I had have heard that our needlework and quilting is far superior to that which you southron lords have become accustomed,” she quipped without a second’s hesitation.

            Tyrion laughed good-naturedly, so she decided to slow her gait in order to make keeping pace with her a little easier. When they reached the edge of the training yard they both seated themselves on one of the benches that had recently been erected there. Because of the tourney, this area had been transformed for the combat portions, while the joust would take place outside the walls of Winterfell.

            Men and boys alike were in many fashions of armor, swinging tourney weapons and training hard for the upcoming events. Sansa could make out the knights and lords on the field by the symbols on their surcoats, or identifying features of their armor. Her brother, Robb, wore Stark colors under boiled leather and chain mail. Prince Joffrey was garbed in golden mail similar to that of his uncle Jaime, but his bore the crest of Baratheon, not Lannister. There were so many men that Sansa had trouble keeping track of those she knew.

            “Is there some handsome knight who has caught the lady’s eye?” Tyrion questioned with a jesting smile. Sansa shook her head.

            “I was only admiring the great strength that these men possess. I used to be of the mind that there was nothing more splendid than a royal tourney.”

            “Oh? And what happened to change your opinion? Was your love spurned by some foolish lordling? Were your favors refused by your fancied knight?” He was teasing her again, but this time his words hit too close to her heart. She was unable to maintain her pleasant expression.

            Tyrion noticed how her smile faltered and frowned in turn. He reached forward and gently clasped one of her hands between his own. She noticed that despite the cold winds that blew around them, his hands were soft and warm. Still, she fought the urge to withdraw from him.

            “My lady, I apologize for my careless words. I did not mean to offend you,” he said with a sincerity she thought he may have lacked. Lannisters were not known for their kindheartedness.

            “Do not think on it, my lord. I was but a silly girl with frivolous dreams of knights and ladies and true love,” she said in a controlled voice and pulled her hand carefully away.

            “I take it you no longer believe in such things?” Tyrion looked up at her questioningly.

            She didn’t know why, but Sansa was comfortable talking with him. There was something unguarded about him that put her at ease and made her believe he would not mock her for her honesty. So, for the first time in some years, Sansa opened up to a man and spoke her true thoughts.

            “I no longer believe these dreams apply to everyone. I am a lady, born of a great house and respected family. I should, by rights, be married to some equally regarded lord and providing his heirs by now, but I am not. I had been courted my many, but that was years ago. Now . . . now I am very uncertain what my future will bring, but I know it will not be the beautiful story I had created in my mind as a little girl.”

            Tyrion stared at her with something akin to compassion on his face. For a man he was not uncomely, but nor was he handsome. Still, he did not repulse her the way that other ladies claimed.

            “If I may be so bold as to inquire . . . are you still a maid, my lady?” he asked carefully.

            Startled, she turned to him with wide eyes. “Yes, of course,” she blurted out.

            Tyrion frowned in confusion and shook his head. “Then I fail to see what the problem is. You are a beautiful woman, Lady Sansa. Tell me truly; are your northern lords blind? Have their eyelids frozen shut? Or do they prefer their women ugly?”

            As hard as she tried, Sansa could not repress her smile or the slight giggle that followed. He had this way of drawing those reactions from her without her bidding. It annoyed her at times, but this was not one of them. She sighed and decided to simply speak more truths in an effort to make him understand.

            “They do not believe I can give them what they need,” she tried to explain with some delicacy. This wasn’t exactly proper conversation.

            “And what is it they need? Mayhaps us southron lords have simpler needs than our northern counterparts. A woman to warm our beds and heirs to fill our halls with laughter is all that we require from a wife. If she is comely, more the better, but it need not be so. From where I sit, you will fill all those needs and many more,” he commented with a wave of his hand in her direction.

            He had missed the point she was trying to make. She could not stop the blush that covered her cheeks, and she tried to look anywhere but at him while she formulated her words very carefully in her mind.

            “A lord needs a lady for many things, but what is the most important consideration for any lord?” she asked, hoping he would draw his own – correct – conclusions without her having to explain further.

            “This lord would require a lady whose wits were a close match to my own, thought I regret to say I have met few who would fit that description. Present company being the exception, of course.” He grinned amiably at her. It faltered when she did not return it.

            She was getting frustrated with his lack of understanding to her plight. When she turned to look at him again her face was burning hotly with shame.

            “I have not . . . what I mean is, I do not get . . . ” she paused and drew in a deep breath, “I may not be able to have children.”

            Tyrion blinked in surprise before he nodded slowly. “I see. You have not bled yet?”

            This was most improper to discuss with a man. Sansa sucked in a breath and turned her attention to the warring figures in front of her. She tried to think of a way to change the subject, but her thoughts were failing her.

            “You are still young. It would be incredibly foolish of these frozen lords to dismiss you outright.” He tried to comfort her, but she would not look at him. He sighed and moved a little closer to her.

            “What if I asked for your hand?”

            Sansa’s jaw dropped and her head whipped around to stare at him in shock. Had he really just asked me that? Is he mocking me? she thought, aghast at the prospect.

            Reading her thoughts on her face, Tyrion rushed to assure her, “It is not a jest, I swear it. Just . . . think about it. I know I am not what a young girl dreams of when she pictures her future husband, but I am not the root of all the world’s evils either.”

            Sansa continued to gape at him foolishly. He had teased her so often with a straight face that she could not be entirely sure that was not what he was doing in this moment. He continued despite her silence.

            “I, too, am from a great house and one of the wealthiest families in Westeros. I, too, have been dismissed by the puffed up lords and ladies of court due to something that I cannot control. We have much in common, lady Sansa, not least of which is our love of a good tourney.” He winked conspiratorially at her.

            She had closed her mouth sometime during his entreaty of a good match, but continued to stare at him blankly. She could not think of one thing to say. Not one argument for or against his request. She was still so stunned by his proposal that she nearly missed the rather stealthy arrival of his cutthroat companion. Bronn looked at her expression and smiled wryly, but said nothing. She absently wondered how much he had overheard before making himself known to them.

            “I believe I have well and truly taken you by surprize. While you are sitting there in stunned silence please, hear me and believe my words. Aside from all the comforts in the world that I could offer you as my lady wife, know that I would make you a good and proper husband. I would treat you kindly. Actually, I would most likely spoil you rotten, but I cannot see that being an issue for either of us. I . . . I think I could truly come to care for you, lady Sansa.” He reached forward and clasped her hand between his again.

            They sat there like that, staring in silence until Tyrion huffed out an exasperated sigh and smiled nervously up at her.

            “My dear lady, please say something. Or have you swallowed your tongue?” he tried to tease, but his nerves made his voice tremble slightly.

            Sansa swallowed thickly and shook her head, but did not withdraw her hand this time. Her thoughts whirled around in her mind so quickly she had trouble grasping on to any of them for long. When she finally was able to form any kind of response, it was not the one either of them had expected.

            “You will have to speak with my lord father,” she managed to whisper.

            Now it was Tyrion’s turn to stare in shock. His mouth opened and closed several times before he cleared his throat and spoke. “You consent then? To marrying me?” He hardly seemed to believe her.

            Sansa smile timidly. “I agree to let you talk to my father about it. I know how these things usually go, so I will reserve my thoughts and feelings until such a time as our fathers have spoken.”

            She was proud of her ability to maintain her courtesies and eloquence in a moment such as this. She saw something shine in Tyrion’s eyes that she had never previously noted there: hope, with a touch of pride. He hopped down from the bench and bowed grandly to her, eliciting another smile, wider this time.

            “My lady, I must ask your leave. I have to go see a man about a bride. Bronn, I believe you may have trouble keeping up with me this fine day. This lady has given me wings.” Tyrion walked taller than any man she had seen, followed closely by his grinning shield.

            Bronn turned to her as he passed and muttered, “Just what he needs.”

            Her mind tried to make sense of what just happened. Tyrion Lannister had proposed marriage, of that she was certain. What had her so befuddled was what had possessed her not to turn him down. She was not a stupid girl or even a foolish girl. She knew what kind of man he was. His antics with prostitutes were well known. But he had promised to be a proper husband and to be kind to her. He even stated that he could care for her in time.

            She thought about the prospect of being Tyrion’s wife. She had never been out of Winterfell, but could plainly see the grandiosity in which the Lannisters lived. It surrounded them in their travels and their expectations. As a girl she had often dreamed of travelling south and seeing the parts of Westeros where the long summer months meant intense heat and sweet fruits, light silks and bathing in the sea, warm breezes fragrant with exotic flowers. It was everything she had always wanted, offered to her on a golden platter. The only concession was the man himself.

            Tyrion was a dwarf, and there was no getting around that fact. He was also a man and a lord. He was not as grotesque as some people had occasion to say, and he was one of the only people in the world who could make her laugh. He was the only man who had sincerely tried in so long that it made her appreciate it more. But he was still a high lord, and his father would want him to produce heirs for Casterly Rock. And that was something no one could guarantee she could provide him.

            Sansa sighed and tried to refocus on the combat. When she looked about the field she noticed a helmed figure staring straight at her. She recognized the helm immediately as that which belonged to Sandor Clegane. Her heart fluttered strangely when his attention stayed on her for some time. She tried to ignore him and watch Robb as he went up against a knight who wore the grotesque pink flayed man of house Bolton.

            Sometime during the battle a deep discomfort settled over Sansa. Believing it had something to do with the Hounds continued blatant staring, she shifted her body away from his so that she only saw him far in her periphery. It was then that she saw a crop of dark hair quickly disappear behind the tower of seats. Her eyes narrowed and she leaned forward slightly to try and see who was hiding around the corner. She was able to discern slight movements and could even feel someone’s eyes on her, but was too far away to get a clearer view. When she rose to investigate she was startled to a stop when a firm hand clamped down on her arm.

            “Careful, little bird. There are more dangerous things than direwolves that linger in the darker corners of this world,” a deep voice rasped from behind his helm.

            Sansa looked up at him with a frown before glancing back to where her mysterious watcher had seemingly vanished into thin air. When she made to move in that direction again, the Hound’s grip tightened. She huffed out a deep sigh.

            “Kindly release me, ser. You are hurting my arm,” she said in a tight, controlled voice.

            He pulled his hand back quickly, as if burned by her touch, and it balled into a fist. She hadn’t meant to offend him, but she did not appreciate the way he had restrained her. She turned to face him fully and gave him a small smile.

            “I am sure it was just Arya trying to sneak up on me, but you are right. I need to be more cautious with all these men about. I thank you for your candor and your protection, my Lord.” She inclined her head slightly and controlled her features when he scoffed loudly at her.

            “Save your chirped courtesies for some little shit lordling; I’ve told you before, girl, I am no lord,” he ground out harshly before turning on his heel and stalking back into the fray.

            Sansa stood and watched him for a while as he beat any man who dared approach him into oblivion. He was merciless, and powerful, and frightening to behold. When she could stomach the violence no more, she turned and walked back towards the Great Hall. Upon passing the place where she had briefly spied her watcher, she noticed something that turned her stomach. Little droplets of bright red blood stained the pure white snow that covered the ground. She hastily retreated back to the safety of the hall, constantly replaying the Hound’s words of warning over and over in her mind.

Chapter Text

“What do you mean ‘no’?”

            Tywin Lannister cast his sharp green eyes down at his youngest child, barely concealing his disdain. His face was a mask of chiseled stone, and that was being generous.

            “No means what it has always meant. Have all your years of drinking and whoring diminished your mental capacities? Pity. You’re quick wit was the only thing you had going for you,” he grumbled around the edge of his wine goblet before taking a healthy drink.

            Tyrion sat back in his seat and abandoned his charred bacon. His appetite had all but left him at that one little word. And for the life of him he couldn’t understand what the man was playing at this time. Surely he wouldn’t be so daft as to deny him this just to spite him.

            “My wits are as sharp as they ever were, not to worry. But I fail to see what the problem with such a match would be for you. She is a lady from one of the noblest families in Westeros. She is young, proper, well mannered, well respected, and beautiful on top of all of her other accomplishments. We will have lovely little Lannister children with my coloring and her towering height,” Tyrion stated with a grin. Tywin was unmoved, as always.

            “And how will you come by those Lannister babes, pray tell, when she cannot provide them to you?” His father asked in a low, tight voice.

            So he’s heard, then. Not that I am surprised. The man pays generously to be well informed, Tyrion thought, but shrugged languorously.

            “She is still young. Her moon blood may come to her at any time,” he provided casually. He would not show how much this match would mean to him. Not to this man.

            Tywin was unimpressed and shook his head only once. “She has had no match and she is a woman grown. She cannot bear heirs, so she is useless. If you are so determined to settle down to wife, I will find you a proper bride.” He paused to cut his meat before lifting his eyes to Tyrion again. “I will give you this: she is a much finer choice than I thought you were ever to make. At least your standards have improved.”

            Tyrion stiffened slightly before he relaxed in his seat, determined to look unaffected. The reference to his first wife was enough to rattle him, but he wouldn’t give Tywin the satisfaction of knowing he got to him.

            “Whose standards have improved?” Cersei’s voice suddenly wafted into the solar. Tyrion inwardly cringed. Of all the people in Westeros, his sister was the last person he wanted aware of his potential match.

            “Your brother seems to be in a rush to wed. He made a rather large oversight in choosing a bride who cannot provide children, however,” Tywin informed her, much to Tyrion’s dismay.

            Cersei’s laugh was almost childlike, except for the malice that tainted it. She sat down at the small, round table and helped herself to some Arbor Gold. She never took her eyes off Tyrion as she drank from her goblet, and he greatly misliked the wicked glint within their emerald depths. His discomfort increased by a hundred when she opened her mouth to speak.

            “And what doe eyed little creature have you found in the local wine house now, little brother?” she asked in a sickly sweet voice that dripped with sarcasm.

            “Actually, I am quite impressed with your brother in his choice. Lady Sansa would make an ideal choice as a wife for him, if she were able to produce heirs for him.” Tywin blatantly ignore the icy stare Tyrion cast his way before turning his mismatched eyes back to Cersei. She looked positively gleeful.

            “You cannot really believe such a beauty would ever want you, dear brother. How would you even hang your cloak on her shoulders? We would have to get you a stool.” She grinned wickedly at her own jest.

            “Apparently, she had consented to the match. Tyrion came straight to me to work out terms.”

            Damn you to the Seven Hells, and take your precious daughter with you. Tyrion’s thoughts were bordering on violent when Cersei’s shocked expression made him grin wryly.

            “Is something amiss, sweet sister? Had you thought our little lady was taken with your Joff? What a blow it must be to his young mind to know that he was not the preference of the young lady after all his efforts, but his grotesque uncle.” Tyrion knew he shouldn’t provoke her so, but it was simply too good and opportunity to pass up. He very seldom got one over on Cersei to such a degree that it left her both speechless and infuriated. Now he seemed to have accomplished both at once. But the Queen soon recovered herself and sat back to regard him coolly.

            “She is not a proper match for your son, either,” Tywin said with a degree of finality in his voice that brokered now argument. But is seemed his sweet sister was not inclined to disagree.

            “Of course she isn’t. The girl has no worth as a wife if she cannot give sons to her husband. However, Joff seems quite taken with the little dove. Since she cannot have children, we wouldn’t have to worry about any bastards running around the Kings Landing court,” she said with an evil glint in her eyes that immediate set Tyrion on edge.

            “Yes, there are quite enough of those floating around,” Tywin said in a harsh voice while he stared pointedly at Cersei. Her eyes flashed angrily, but miraculously she held her tongue.

            Interesting. I wonder which bastards our father refers to. There are so many …

            Tyrion had been the first to come to the conclusion that royal children were, in actual fact, not royal at all. A fact that was a closely guarded secret, which would result with heads on spikes, if it were ever to be revealed to the King and court. He had never acknowledged the obvious to any member of his family – to anyone, really – but he knew that Jaime was aware of his suspicions. He had hinted at them when speaking with his elder brother on many occasions, only to be ignored or laughed at.

            But Tyrion needed to focus on the proposition at hand. What Cersei was proposing wasn’t unheard of in noble families, and the King himself was well known for his whoring antics. He could put Tyrion to shame with the sheer number of women and maids he had bedded, much to his sweet sister’s embarrassment and infuriation. However, he had no doubt that the Lady Sansa would suffer greatly and needlessly if she were whisked off to court as his nephew’s newest plaything.

            “Oh, can I please be there when you present this lovely idea to Lord and Lady Stark? It has probably been there greatest aspiration to have their eldest and most beautiful daughter become the personal whore to the crowned prince. Especially given how gallantly he treated his late lady wife. ” He laid the sarcasm on thick, but needn’t have bothered. No one could miss the intentions behind his words. Cersei’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

            “She died in childbed. It happens to women all over the world. It is one of the risks we take when trying to bring babes into the world,” she informed him icily.

            “I am sure your brother was not suggesting otherwise. To accuse a member of the royal family of something so dishonorable would be treason, and punishable by death,” Tywin said, his voice heavy with implications.

            “And you cannot afford to get any shorter, dearest brother,” Cersei added in a harsh whisper.

            Tyrion waved his hand at her in dismissal. “I said nothing of the sort. My nephew seems positively heartbroken at the loss of his wife and babe.”

            “He prefers to grieve in the privacy of his own chambers. He knows his emotions cannot be seen by the public so easily when he is King,” she bit back.

            “Enough, the both of you. It is only the start of the day and already you have given me a headache I didn’t need or want. Cersei, leave the child be. Joff can have his pick of suitable women from the Seven Kingdoms; he does not need a concubine. Have his father teach him the value of whorehouses if he needs the release,” Tywin said acerbically before turning back to Tyrion. “And you will go and explain to the Lady Sansa that you are not permitted to marry her. You gave her this false hope; you will be the one to take it away. And in the future, you will discuss your marital prospects with me first, and then wait for terms to have been reached between the two families, as is proper in these situations. You are both dismissed.”

            Cersei looked downright rabid at being ordered about, but knew better than to argue with their father. She gathered her skirts and with one last glare of contempt at Tyrion, departed in stony silence. Tyrion, who was used to being ordered about like a common squire, slid down from his seat and walked unevenly toward the door. But he could not depart without one having the final word on the matter.

            “Barren or not, Lady Sansa is too good to be used up and abused by our dearly beloved crowned prince. You and I both know that poor girl did not die in any childbed. He needs to be taken in hand before he does irreparable damage to our families names and honor.”

            Tywin said nothing but Tyrion saw him nod once in acknowledgement. That was something, at least. He sighed inwardly and headed out into the bracing cold that seemed to be a constant up here in the north, despite the blazing sunshine. Bronn waited for him, casually leaning up against the stone wall near the door to his father’s apartments. He took one look at Tyrion and shook his head.

            “You know, you could always take her maidenhead. Then she would be forced to marry you. Isn’t that how you nobles work? Preserving everyone’s honor and all that shit,” he provided with wry grin that Tyrion did not return.

            If only you knew what shit for honor the Lannisters actually have.

            “Actually, no. My father would rather leave the dishonor purely on the lady’s delicate shoulders as to not taint his house in any way.” Tyrion stomped through the snow in the direction of the Godswood.

            Bronn easily kept pace. “All the more reason then. Her father has the ear of the King. Royalty stands above all us, making even the most rigid of lord bend to its will.”

            “Except when that lord keeps the Crown rolling in gold. And my father never bends,” Tyrion grumbled as he trudged through the mounting drifts.

            “Does he have a rod of solid gold shoved up that noble arse of his?” Bronn jested drily. Tyrion snorted.

            “I have it good authority that my father shits gold, so you may not be far off,” he conceded.

            They found Sansa under a giant faced weirwood. Her fiery hair was nearly a perfect match to the leaves that remained on the branches, even during these long, cold winter months. She sat gracefully on a fallen log, resplendid in a thick grey and white fur cloak. Her eyes were closed, most likely in prayer, leaving her face lovely and serene. Tyrion’s heart clenched a little in his chest as he thought about his next move. His mind froze completely when he was suddenly nose to nose with her large, gray direwolf.

            “Hello . . . Lady,” he stammered slightly. He saw Sansa smile wryly from her perch.

            “Lady, to me,” she called gently. The direwolf sniffed once at his face before loping off to lie at her mistress’s feet. When she raised her sapphire blue eyes – Tully eyes – to him he had to stop himself from looking away guiltily. She read him like an open book, and smiled wanly.

            “Do not blame yourself, Lord Tyrion. We both knew my father would be a difficult man to convince,” she provided graciously. Tyrion colored slightly and shifted on his feet. Something changed in her expression before she softly said, “Oh.”

            “If there was anything I could do or say, my lady,” he started when she raised her hand and smiled.

            “No, my lord, you have done more than I ever expected. I thank you for your consideration,” Sansa replied. There was no malice in her voice or her expression, but a slight sadness dimmed her lovely smile.

            “Lady Sansa, if I may be so bold –” he started when she unexpectedly giggled and cut him off.

            “You, lord Tyrion? How unbelievably out of character,” she teased easily. He grinned at her jovial manner.

            “My septon will be thoroughly shocked, but I will bear the shame somehow,” he countered with a mock bow of consternation. She laughed merrily and the sound was full and lovely. He wished he could hear it every day, but wishing and wanting would not make it so. He walked over and sat close to her, taking her hand in his and planting a light kiss on the top.

            “You and I are not meant to be joined in marriage, so it seems. Perhaps you would consent being joined in another way?” He knew what conclusion she would draw from his vague turn of phrase, and was not disappointed when her eyes narrowed slightly at him. He grinned wickedly before winking and finally adding on, “Friendship, my lady.”

            Sansa huffed out a little laugh, but nodded and smiled genuinely in return. “I do miss having good friends,” she said wistfully and looked past him to an unknown point in the distance.

            “I would be a very good friend for you, Sansa, as I know you would be for me as well,” Tyrion said while staring at her meaningfully. He hoped she would ask the right questions now and drop some of their more formal pretenses. She did not disappoint.

            “What benefits would befriending you provide me?” She cast him an appraising glance and a sly smile. He liked her more for it.

            “For starters, the undeniable pleasure of my company!” He made it sound like that were obvious and was rewarded with another giggle.

            “That goes without saying, my lord,” she said once she’d settled.

            “Tyrion,” he provided, hopeful. She blushed slightly but nodded once.

            “Tyrion.”

            “The real benefit is what I am able to do for you, not give you.” Now he had her full attention. He turned to face her fully and pulled her other hand into his. He needed to form his words very carefully.

            “I hope to gain your confidences in the future and to assure you that I am someone you can trust in return.”

            She nodded in understanding. “I do believe that is a possibility, Tyrion. It will take some time, of course.”

            “Oh, of course, Sansa, I would expect nothing less. And in the spirit of gaining your well-earned trust, I offer you a small piece of advice.”

            She was very focused on him now. He was pleased to see that the past few weeks he spent around her had taught her when he was being serious, and when it was imperative to her that she hear everything he was no able to say.

            “Find yourself a strong lord or knight to grace with your lovely presence for the remainder of the tourney. Anyone else might wish you harm, or try to take advantage of your kindness and generosity.” Like certain members of the royal family.

            Sansa eyed him for a moment before she arched and eyebrow and looked over his shoulder. “What about courageous sell swords and sworn shields? Are they too lowly for my company?”

            She had a smile on her face, but unlike the previous ones it was not real at all. She was cleverer than he had thought, with her way of asking who was safe and who wasn’t. He would have to give her more credit in the future. It really was too bad they could not be wed. She would have made the perfect wife for him.

            “You can borrow Bronn at any time you wish, just bring him back in the same condition that he left me in,” he jested and winked at her. She relaxed a little and smiled conspiratorially at him.

            “So if I were to grant a participating knight my favor, who would you recommend?” She chose her words carefully, but delivered them with such ease that Tyrion could not help but be impressed with her. He sat back and regarded her with a contemplative look.

            “The Hound,” Bronn offered with a smirk. Tyrion snorted and shook his head.

            “Not a good idea. He’s likely to wipe his arse with her favor and hand it back to her in contempt. Clegane does not think highly of knights or the ways of court.” Bronn’s suggestion was not a bad one in theory; he simply picked the wrong man to draw Joff’s attention away from Sansa. What he did find peculiar, however, was the way Sansa hadn’t reacted at all in response to Bronn’s choice. In fact, she had expertly controlled her expression to remain decidedly neutral.

            Once she has more faith in me, I must discover what all that is about.

            “Sansa!”

            The three of them turned in the direction of the loud call and saw young lord Brandon making his way toward them with his own wolf at his heels. He waved amiably at them and smiled. Aside from Sansa, Bran was Tyrion’s favorite Stark. He was sharp as a blade, kind, and jovial. And no matter how tall the boy was, he never seemed to look down on him. Bran walked up to them and gave a slight bow to each of them, even Bronn, who found that greatly amusing.

            “Mother has sent me for you. We are starting the tourney tomorrow, so tonight the feasting begins. She needs your assistance,” he told his sister with a hint of sympathy on his face. Sansa rose and turned back to face him.

            “Please excuse me, Tyrion, Bronn. A lady’s work is never done,” she said with a roll of her eyes and an easy smile. After she had taken her leave with her brother and was well out of range, he turned to Bronn.

            “Keep an eye on her. She knows she is in danger, but I do not think she fully grasps the severity of the situation.” He only hoped he could do enough to ensure her safety.

Chapter Text

SANSA

            She pried her swollen, heavy eyelids open only to be greeted with more darkness. There was a sour taste in her mouth, a pain in her head, and a twisting in her belly that brought back the series of events that had led her to this place. She shivered from cold and fear as she recalled them.

            She had taken Lady to the kennels. It was past time she was fed and Farlen was always kind enough to assist in that task. He knew of her distaste when handling raw, red meat. Lady was only to remain there while she helped her mother in the Great Hall. She always spent her nights curled by the fire in Sansa’s bedchamber.

            It was on her way past the kitchens when it had happened. She had ducked and weaved through the loud, boisterous group of bannermen and soldiers that crowded around the great kettles of stew provided for them. Somehow her footing had become unsure. She nearly tumbled into the stone wall, but was spared by a large pair of rough hands around her waist. She waited to be released after being righted, but it never happened. Instead, she received a sharp blow to her head. She had instantly succumbed to the pain and her eyes fluttered closed.

            And now here she was lying on a freezing stone floor in the dark of night. Shifting, she could feel and smell the moldy straw strewn about beneath her prone form. She pulled herself up to sit, resting her back against brick and wood, while squinting into the dimly lit space. Her head throbbed painfully as she peered around in near blackness. It was a small room. A cabin or cottage possibly, but it had not seen much use in recent time. The cold and damp of the air settled through her thick cloak and chilled her to the bone.

            Where am I? She could hardly see more than a pace or two in front of her. A single narrow window granted pale moonlight, but it only illuminated enough to give shadowy outlines. She shivered again and pulled the wool tighter around her body. With no concept on how long she had been asleep she could not fathom how far from her home she now was. And yet fear was not present as she thought it would be in such a predicament.

            She rose unsteadily to her feet and shuffled around the space, hands groping and feeling their way along chilled stone walls and rotted beams. The sounds of her boots scuffling along and her measured breaths echoed through the quiet of the night. Outside there was nothing, not even the howling of the wind. Swallowing thickly, she moved and felt her way into the darkest corner. Once reaching the end of one wall she slowly followed the edge of another. And then another, until she was under the window. It was high above her head and granted no access to the outside. She kept moving, slowly, deliberately. Another wall met her fingers, but this one was interrupted by the thick decaying wood and rusted iron of a door. Her fingers crept along the splintery beams until they happened upon a latch.

            It opened easily, the clinking of the metal ringing through the still air. She paused, waiting for someone on the outside to stop her. To shout, to hit her again, to acknowledge that his captor was escaping, but there was nothing. No sounds, no movements. Drawing in a deep breath, she pushed through the door and stepped out into the icy night.

            Trees surrounded her on all sides. There were no other buildings save the shack she had just emerged from. Turning slowly in a complete circle, she looked for a sign of whence she came. There was nothing. No prints on the snow, no tracks to follow home. All around her was the same; woods and snow in every direction. She froze on the spot, closed her eyes, and listened. She strained to hear anything that might guide her. Silence was all she found.

            Now her heart started to thunder in her chest. What if she went the wrong way? She could end up further from home and lost besides. Surely someone at Winterfell had noticed her absence. Surely they had sent someone to look for her. She should stay here and just wait. It was safer than trudging through the ankle deep snow. There was shelter here, of sorts.

            But there is no food, no water, and no way of knowing who will find me. She shivered again, but tried to still her thoughts from heading in such directions. Despair is what kills more surely than nature. Her father had taught her that. If she kept her wits about her she would see herself through this. She squared her shoulders and drew in a deep, calming breath.

            I am a Stark of Winterfell. These are my woods. This is my North. I will not perish here among my Gods.

            Once calmed enough she looked back over her shoulder. Remaining here might be her best option. There was no telling when the next storm might hit, no matter how clearly the stars shone down on her right now. Her chances of survival were lessened greatly if she were caught out in a blizzard.

            But he could come back. Still unsure of whom ‘he’ even is this thought gave her pause. She had been placed here for a reason. He could be coming back for her at any time. Indecision stayed her feet, but only until her ears detected the first sounds of an approach. It was not quiet or stealthy. No, this was meant for her to hear. The heavy pounding of boots crunching across the frozen ground spurred her into action.

            Determination drove her forward as she hiked up her skirts and cloak, breaking out in a full sprint. Her destination was unknown even to her, but it was clear that her body and mind wanted to be as far away from the one who had knocked her unconscious and spirited her away from her home and family. Mindful of her footing, she darted between bare trees and over frozen rocks like a jackrabbit trying to outrun a fox. She never looked back to see if he was gaining on her. She did not dare.

            No words were spoken; only the heavy breaths of pursuer and prey dancing on the wintery night air. Sansa flew through the woods, twisting and turning around tree and shrub in an effort to outsmart and outrun her abductor. Gasping and nearly breathless, she finally slowed when she noticed that the sounds of pursuit were no longer behind her. Puffs of white mist escaped her parted lips while her eyes darted around the now silent forest. It was in this moment she longer for Lady.

            No harm would befall me with my great direwolf at my side. If I ever make it back home I’ll not be without her protection again.

            She stood still as stone and listened, holding her breath. Her heart beat furiously against her ribs, more from fear than exertion. A snap of a twig to her left sent her whirling off in the opposite direction. She’d only gone a few paces when she thought she glimpsed a shadow move directly into her path. With a breathy shriek she turned again and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. A malicious laugh curdled her blood and made her stomach lurch. She pushed harder, faster than she’d ever gone in her life.

            It came out of nowhere. She had been looking every which way in an effort to escape her pursuer and had not seen the branch directly in front of her. It caught her high across her chest and sent her sprawling to the frozen ground. Pain radiated from her right shoulder, but she struggled to her feet and was off again. Each movement stabbed her through, but she dare not stop.

            There was no mistaking the figure that lunged at her from behind a large fir tree. Her scream bounced around the many obstacles. It gave her no direction though. Blinded by terror, out of breath and out of energy, she stumbled into a clearing.

            “No,” she gasped, cradling her arm to her chest in an effort to lessen the agony that rippled through her body. She sank to her knees in defeat.

            Directly in front of her was the little cottage from which she had fled; only now it was occupied. A man stood in the doorway with his head slightly bowed. A cowl wrapped precisely kept her from seeing his face, but his eyes seemed to glow maliciously from within. Movement on both sides briefly drew her attention away from him. With a sinking heart she counted as three, four, five more men emerged from the forest, their strides slow and purposeful.

Gathering up what little courage and dignity she could muster, she rose to her feet as gracefully as was possible and stared straight ahead with her chin lifted. It took more than a few attempts for her mind to convince her body to move towards the man in the doorway, but eventually her legs obeyed her, shaking only slightly as she daringly approached him.

I am a Stark of Winterfell. She repeated the words in her mind like a mantra, drawing what strength she could from them. By the time she had reached the hooded figure her voice was steady and sure.

“I am Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and friend of the King. I demand to know who you are to keep me captive.”

Raucous laughter rang loudly around her, but she kept her head held high. She knew what was at stake here. She knew what her options were as a high born maiden, just as she knew the dangers of her situation. Determination to bear it all with grace and regal pride was all that kept her from shaking in fright.

“A thousand most abject apologies my most gracious lady,” the stranger mocked. He swept into a low, exaggerated bow. “I know very well who you are. It was I that arranged for your little excursion from the castle. May I present to you my bannermen. We have Gideon, Wexler, Fry, Lachlan, and the good man who damaged your arm is known only as Reek. Quite the pungent fellow, he is. Now that we are all acquainted, I would request that you join us in this fine little home for some warmth and comfort. You see, we have travelled a long way with only each other for company and are sorely missing the graces only a lady can bestow.”

Her stomach in knots and her heart in her throat, Sansa did her best to remain stoic. She knew all too well what ‘graces’ he was referring to. Though outnumbered by many, she did not intend to go willingly or quietly.

“And what banner is it that you carry?” she challenged quietly.

Her captor laughed jovially and smacked his hidden forehead with the open palm of his hand. “Of course, how forgetful of me! I cannot believe I did not introduce myself properly. I am dealing with a well-bred, impeccably mannered lady of the North, after all. The bannermen would be mine. Lord Ramsay Bolton, my Lady, at your service. Although, you will be the one doing all the servicing this fine evening.”

Her eyes narrowed on their own accord and her demeanor hardened further. She knew it was not wise to invite further harm, but in her anger she forgot herself.

“You mean Snow, do you not?” She corrected in a low voice.

Ramsay yanked the hood from his head and cleared the distance between them in seconds. His features could have been considered handsome if not for the way they were twisted in fury. He was young, not too much older than Sansa, but very clearly a man and not a boy. The Bastard of Bolton was well known in Winterfell, and she could see why his reputation preceded him.

“Forgetting your courtesies, aren’t you milady?” he spat through clenched teeth.

Sansa stared back unflinchingly. She knew her comment might cost her greatly. There had been stories among the washer women in her keep of the atrocities Ramsay was known for subjecting whores and low born women to when he bedded them. Whispers were that some had barely survived. Still, she was above him and they both knew it. She would not cower.

When he saw the resolution in her eyes he smiled malignantly. Wrenching her arm in his pinching grasp he hauled her up to him. His lips crashed roughly down onto her mouth, slimly tongue parting her lips and nearly choking her as it slid to the back of her throat. She desperately tried to pull away, shaking her head this way and that in an effort to escape him, but he pulled her tighter against his lean body. His stiff manhood jabbed into the soft flesh of her lower belly and a cold sweat broke out on her brow. Her teeth clamped down on their own accord and the coppery taste of blood quickly filled her mouth before Ramsay withdrew with a howl of pain.

“Fucking whore!” he screamed. His hand flew and sent her sprawling into the snow.

Cheek ablaze and swelling, she glared balefully up at him. “My father will have your head,” she said coldly.

He hooted with dark laughter that was quickly joined by that of his men. Grabbing her by her long braid, he made to drag her behind him. She scrambled up to her feet to lessen painful pull on her head, stumbling blindly after him towards the cabin. Kicking open the door he hurtled her through the portal and into the far wall with a strength Sansa had not realized he possessed.

“You’ll pay for making me bleed, cunt,” he swore while wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. His men filed into the dank space, jeering and chuckling among themselves.

“Let’s make it the first part of her that bleeds, my lord,” one man suggested with an evil glint in his eye. He was already loosening the laces on his breeches.

“Aye and I’ll take that sweet little arse o’ hers, too,” another rasped.

“Now my good fellows let us not be hasty in our pleasure. Remember, the Gods saw fit to bless a whore with many holes for us to fill. A lady is no different,” Ramsay uttered darkly. He began slinking towards her like a wild cat sizing up its next meal. Fear shook her body, but she managed to keep her voice steady.

“I am worth far more to you with my honor intact,” she informed them evenly.

“Honor,” one of them scoffed. But it was Ramsay’s words that filled her with dread.

“That you are, my lady. You are also worth your weight in gold alive, but I have no intention on delivering you back to Winterfell in either condition. In fact, I have no intention on delivering you anywhere at all. Lads, I believe the lady is overdressed for this occasion.” Rowdy cheers and evil laughs filled the small space as they all converged on her like a pack of hounds.

At that, all pretense and courage fled from her mind. She screamed as loudly as her lungs allowed and tried to flee from their grasping, groping hands. Fabric shredded while she kicked, striking out at anything that approached her. Laces tore from their bindings while fur flew and stuck to her sweaty exposed flesh. The sound of her skirts being ripped up to her hips seemed to drown out the ruckus, demanding that she focus solely on that sound. Her terror multiplied when she felt rough hands suddenly on her bare legs. Twisting and turning every which way in an effort to free herself only seemed to spur them on, but she could no longer contain her desperation and panic.

It wasn’t until her arms were pinned above her head with her legs being held wide apart that Sansa began to beg for mercy. Sobbing hysterically, she pleaded over and over again for them to stop. Her bodice suddenly tore open leaving her breasts exposed to the freezing air. It only heightened their frenzy and hers.

“PLEASE! PLEASE!” she screamed, voice cracking painfully as the full weight of a man settled between her thighs. Her small clothes were yanked roughly away and hard fingers probed her virginal flesh.

“NO!” she hollered and struggled with all her might. A fierce blow to already aching cheek rattled her teeth and momentarily rendered her dumb. In her silence she could swear she heard the furious whinny of a horse.

Chapter Text

SANDOR

            The castle was in a bloody uproar. The little bird had been missing for only a few hours, but in that time the entire fucking keep had been turned upside down in an effort to locate her. It was that sniveling little shit stain excuse for a prince that first brought her absence to everyone’s attention.

            “My lady Stark, how wonderful to see you this fine evening,” he complimented with such arrogance that it was a small wonder woman had not set him right in his place. It seemed the little bird had learned her courtesies from her mother.

            “Well met, my Prince. How are you enjoying the festivities?” she asked. Her smile was wide and easy, but there was tightness around her eyes that Sandor immediately noticed.

            Good, he thought. Better that she see the little prick for what he is and protect her daughter from him.

            “I would enjoy them far more with your beautiful daughter by my side. Pray tell me, where might I find the lovely Sansa?” His smile was so lecherous that Sandor looked away so as to refrain from knocking his teeth down his royal throat. Ever since he was made to clean up the last mess Joffrey had made of a lady like Sansa, he could barely stomach the sight of him.

            “I will find what is keeping her, my Prince,” Lady Stark acquiesced and curtsied before exiting from the room.

            It had not taken all that long to discover that no one had seen the girl since late that afternoon. Word spread like wildfire around the different encampments. Before long there were long queues of soldiers and lords alike all vying for the opportunity to rescue the fair maiden. The rotund King even offered a reward for the return of Stark’s precious whelp. The little bird was beautiful, Sandor would agree to that any day, but no woman was worth risking your neck over. The skies, which had cleared briefly during sunset, were darkening with storm clouds again. It would not be wise for anyone to be caught out in such weather when it finally struck, especially in the dark.

            “Drowning your sorrows, Clegane?” Lord shorter-than-all quipped at me from near his hip.

            “A man must first have a heart if he is to have sorrows,” Sandor growled in an attempt to discourage further conversation. It did not work.

            “Not joining the sortie then? Rescuing a lady too far beneath you?” Tyrion baited in a clipped tone.

            “Most like she just wandered off for some bloody peace and quiet,” he grumbled and resumed his drinking, trying to ignore the niggling feeling in his gut.

            “I highly doubt a lady of Sansa’s caliber would neglect her duties while royalty is present,” Tyrion argued. His mismatched eyes bored into the larger man. Sandor shrugged him off.

            “Don’t know what all the fuss is about. She’s protected by a fucking direwolf. You’d have to be insane to go up against such a beast just for a piece of her c–“

            “I would mind your tongue if I were you,” Tyrion hissed lowly and looked around. “These north men do not take too kindly to the besmirching of their nobles honor. And the wolf is in the kennels, not with her mistress.”

            That brought Sandor up short and he found he could not hide his anger or concern. Had he not told her to never be alone? That she needed to mind her step every damned minute? What in the seven hells had the bloody bird been thinking?!

            “I see you have finally caught on, Hound,” The Imp remarked snidely. “Now, if you’ll be a good dog, go and fetch the lady before any harm befalls her.”

            Sandor snarled at him, giving further credence to his reputed name and nature. “What is she to you, Imp? I thought your taste ran more towards common whores and chambermaids?”

            Tyrion regarded him suspiciously with narrowed eyes. “The same could be said for you, Clegane. And yet your reactions to this news suggest otherwise.”

            Sandor shoved away from the table and strode from the room without word or glance at the lowest Lannister. Exiting the Great Hall he wandered over towards the stables. He was still of half a mind to just allow her own countrymen to search her out, but upon his arrival he overheard the mutterings of Lord and Lady Stark. Despite the flurry of activity around them, they spoke as if they were the only two people in the world.

            “She never goes anywhere without her, Ned. And she would never be caught out of the castle after dark. You know this,” Lady Stark whispered. Her naked desperation was cloaked only in fear and it turned Sandor’s stomach. Fear led to irrational, stupid decisions which often resulted in deadly mistakes.

            “We’re gathering our best to go out and look for her, Cat. The boys have mounted up already. I even had to have Arya locked up in her rooms to keep her from joining us. We will bring her back, love.” He pulled his wife against his mailed chest and pressed a kiss to the crown of her head.

            “The storm –“she stared to worry again when he hushed her.

            “We know these lands well. If needs be we will make camp for the night once we have found her, but not a moment before. We will not rest until we have found her, Cat. I swear it by the Gods.”

            Sandor stepped out of the shadows and stomped towards them, making his presence known. Lord Stark turned and nodded once in his direction as he drew out of his wife’s embrace.

            “Clegane,” he addressed him evenly. “Is there something you require?”

            “More like something to offer,” he responded gruffly.

            Eddard’s face showed surprise. “You wish to assist us?” Sandor nodded once. “Right, then go speak with Ser Rodrick. He is organizing the search parties.”

            Sandor shook his head. “I work better alone. Easier to sneak up on someone that way.”

            Eddard regarded him for a brief moment before nodding once. “The Gods be with you, Clegane.”

            Sandor snorted. “Piss on your Gods. I have no need of them.” He turned and stormed off towards the stall that held Stranger, his great black destrier. He led him out and saddled him quickly. Before setting off an errant thought crossed his mind.

            “Lord Stark,” he rasped. Eddard turned. “Has anyone thought to release her wolf?”

            Derisive chuckles went up all around him. Eddard remained impassive, but answered. “Yes, Arya loosed her some time ago. She shot out of the gate and we have not seen her since.”

            Sandor nodded and hauled himself up into the saddle. He looked over and saw that the two older Stark lads were readying their own mounts, their wolves panting and pacing not far behind them. Without another word he charged out of the gate and through several encampments, stopping only to seek information.

            “Seen any hunting parties leave here earlier?” he asked gruffly when he came upon the camp that sat nearest the gates.

            A young squire shook his head, so he ventured on to the next group. It went like that for some time until he happened upon a cluster of drunken men gathered around a bonfire. He made sure to keep his distance from the jumping and dancing flames.

            “Aye, Wex went off with some lads. Said they might’n be back ‘till nightfall.” He paused to belch loudly. “Took off in tha’ direction.” He waved his hairy hand toward the woods on the north side of the castle.

            Sandor wheeled Stranger around and set off at a full gallop, wool cape snapping behind him in the wind. The clouds had started encroaching upon the full moon. He knew time was limited before he was wandering around in dark and doing no one any good at all. It wouldn’t serve to be another lost. At least he wasn’t some defenseless little maiden.

            The deeper into the wood he became, the slower he kept his pace. Listening to the sounds of the sleeping forest he studied the ground for any disturbances in the white drifts. After a shorter time than he had expected he came across several sets of prints. It was immediately clear to him that someone had been chased by many foes, and that they had corralled the unfortunate person into the direction of their choosing. He followed the tracks slowly and quietly until a howl of sheer terror tore through the serenity of the night.

            Sandor knew what that scream meant. He had been in wartime during his youth and bore witness to the savagery that men succumbed to when the bloodlust was sated and a different fire burned within them. With a severe kick into Stranger’s sides, the warhorse let loose a cry of his own, rearing up before charging through the darkness. Twisting and turning through the trees, dodging and weaving between thick, heavy bows laden with snow, Sandor hacked his way through the dense foliage until he stumbled into a small clearing. A tiny hunter’s cottage stood alone at the far end, its door cracked open. Men’s cruel japes and laughter spilled forth, mixed with the pleadings of a woman so terrified she was nearly incoherent.

            “STOP! PLEASE! NO! STOP!” she shrieked, but the men only taunted her more.

            In one swift movement Sandor dismounted and drew his sword. Even distorted in fear her voice was unmistakable. His gut clenched and his teeth ground together as pure fury spread through his veins and sharpened his vision just as the last of the moonlight was snuffed out. Silently, with stealth that defied his monstrous size, he approached the cabin door. Another wordless scream echoed off the trees. He doubted he would ever forget such a tortured sound.

            With a roar of his own he slammed through the door and began swinging. With little light to guide him, Sandor sliced at anything that moved. The metallic scent of blood filled his nostrils as wails of agony and shouts of surprize rang in his ears. A flash of light illuminated the small space as the moon broke free from the clouds. In that brief moment what he saw fuelled his ire so completely that he lost all semblance of control.

            Sansa laid bloodied and naked on the stone floor, a man with his breeches down around his knees kneeling between her thighs while another man held her arms to immobilize her. Her face was bruised, lip cracked and bleeding, eyes wide in horror. When darkness reigned again he strode over and wrenched the vile creature away by his neck, only to impale him with the tip of his sword when he released him. A gurgled cry bubbled from the man’s lips, but Sandor knew he had already hit the floor and would bleed out quickly. He turned his attention to the short man to his left when he heard the unmistakable sound of steel being drawn from a sheath. Sandor swung low and was rewarded with a sickening wet crunch. The man wailed loudly and dropped the blade without any more encouragement. Brief seconds of illumination helped to guide Sandor’s deadly hands until no man was left standing save himself.

            His breathing was labored when the darkness took over again and locked them all in its inky grasp. Kicking at the bodies he heard the sounds of shuffled movement in the far corner of the small building. He felt along the walls, slick and sticky with blood and gore, until he was close enough to hear her quick, panting breaths. He knelt down and reached his hand out in the darkness, grazing along the stone floor until it encountered soft skin. She jerked away at his touch and let out a keening wail that made his heart clench painfully in his chest.

            “Little bird,” he said as gently as his rough voice could manage.

            The moon broke through the clouds again. Pale, blue light filtered in from the only window and wide open door, bathing the space in misty gray. Sansa lay on the filthy floor shaking and naked as her name day. Her gown and cloak in tatters all around her abused body held together in so few places he knew the garments would be utterly useless. She made no attempt to cover herself. Her wide blue eyes stared off at some unknown point in the distance, slightly glazed over.

            “Lady Sansa,” he tried again, her name but a whisper on his lips.

He leaned forward to catch her eye and was startled by a sudden flash of metal. Her arm whipped up and pressed an icy blade to his throat, eyes wild and now completely focused on his face. He stilled his movements completely and locked eyes with her. Wild blue met stony gray and held for an unfathomable amount of time. Slowly, very slowly, Sandor raised both of his hands. The blade pressed harder against his rough skin and he felt a trickle of warmth, but he did not stay his movement. He unclasped his cloak and pulled it from his shoulders, holding her gaze all the while. As gently as he could manage he draped the course fabric over her shaking body. Her lower lip began to tremble and her Tully eyes filled with tears as she finally lowered her dagger. Easing back on his haunches he regarded her warily until the light was extinguished once again. Her breath hitched and as he made to retreat her hand shot out in the darkness and clamped down on his with strength he did not think she possessed.

“Do not leave me,” she pleaded tremulously.

“Not leaving, little bird, just going to get my horse. I’ll be taking you back to your castle now,” he said calmly. His wrath was far from spent, but she had suffered enough. He would not add to her nightmares if he could help it.

She loosened her grip, but just barely. In the end he had to pull free from her grasp. It rankled him to do so, though he could not reason why. Shaking his head he stomped out the door only to stop dead. A cruel wind had picked up and thick flakes of snow swirled around his head, taunting him.

“Bloody hells,” he cursed and strode over to where Stranger stood waiting for him. Guiding him towards a bank of thick brush he began the quick task of unsaddling him. He spread one of the blankets out over his back and rump before carrying the remaining back into shack. Once inside he dumped them in a corner he hoped weren’t as covered in gore and human remains before he set to rid the tiny shelter of all the death he created there. In the end he removed five bodies, either whole or in pieces. He’d let their lord sort out what to do with them in the morning.

A snap off to his left had him spinning, sword in hand, ready to kill. Eyes narrowed, he glared into the darkness. After waiting a few moments and seeing nothing, he went about collecting wood for a fire. With an armful of kindling and a pile of logs he trudged back into the shack, careful not to knock his head on the low ceiling.

Sansa had moved to the farthest corner of the room and sat huddled under his cloak. He could hear her shivering and set down to start a fire. Luckily none of the copious amounts of blood had flowed into the hearth. Using cloth scraps he found – most likely from her gown – he got a blaze going in no time at all. It lit the room up with a warm orange glow and crackled loudly in the tense silence.

Now that the space was lit up enough that he could see much more clearly, Sandor noticed how hard the little bird was shaking. Her tears streaked down her pale cheeks as she continued to sob silently. Never in all his years did the sight of a broken and tormented woman tear at him so. The feeling was so unsettling that his natural response was usually anger, but he could not bring himself to lash out at her with biting remarks as he would anyone else. No, the little bird did not need his vitriol. Not tonight, maybe not ever.

“I thought you said you were taking me home.” Her eyes were closed, tears still dripping from her thick lashes. Her voice was soft and hoarse from all her screaming. He had to swallow down his fury in order to answer her.

“There’s a storm raging outside. It would do neither of us any good to get caught out in it. Warm up by the fire. As soon as it passes, we’ll be on our way,” he informed her in a quiet tone. When she made no move to comply he tried again. “You’ll freeze to death if you stay over there. Come closer, girl.”

“I am no girl,” she suddenly snapped. Hey eyes flew open, blazing mad in the clearest blue he had ever seen.

“Aye, then woman, move your arse closer to the fire before you lose it to frostbite,” he growled back. His tone softened along with his expression. “I should think you would want to preserve what you can, little bird.”

“Why?” she rasped bitterly. Fresh tears spilled over her swollen, bruised cheeks.

Anger renewed, he didn’t know how to answer her. Instead he made quick work of removing his ringed mail, leaving him in only his tunic and breeched. He strode over to her and knelt by her side, watching her as she eyed him warily. Hesitating only a moment, he scooped her up in his arms and rose.

“What are you doing?” she squeaked and clutched at his shoulders. He said nothing, but got as close to the blazing heat as he dared before tucking his legs underneath him and resting on the hard floor. No sooner had he settled did she practically fling herself from his grasp in an effort to scurry away. He redoubled his grip on her waist and legs, pulling her roughly against him in his haste.

“Hey! That’s enough squirming. I only mean for you to get warm. Can’t go returning you in more damage than I can help,” he bit out. When her body began to tremble again he growled under his breath and sighed heavily. He wasn’t good at this. High born ladies were a delicate bunch with absurd expectations and their heads full of bloody stories. He didn’t know how to make her see sense, but he tried anyway.

“Easy now, woman,” he said in the calmest, softest voice that had ever passed through his damaged lips. Her struggles lessened somewhat, so he kept on. “You have nothing to fear from me. I’ll not hurt you, little bird. You are safe now. I’ll not hurt you.”

She finally stilled, but her tears continued to pour like the summer rains. Sandor felt a sharp tug at his heart as he pulled the quaking girl closer to his chest. She turned her head just enough to stare straight at him. It wasn’t something that women did often, ladies even less so. It unnerved him, her ability to see him, to stare without grimace or flinching away from the horrific sight of face. Still, she had seen much horror in her young life. Perhaps he was not the most terrifying thing she had ever laid her pretty blue eyes on. He contemplated the girl in his arms while the storm raged outside.

Chapter Text

 

            “We will find her, Ned.”

            King Robert leaned over and placed his meaty hand on his truest friend’s shoulder in comfort, but he felt none from the gesture. The bags under his eyes proved that he rested as little as Ned had the previous evening. Dawn had come, but news of his oldest daughter had not. Nearly every man whom had ventured out in search for his missing child had returned once the snows were too heavy to see through. The sky was too black, the air too cold, the prospects too bleak. Even Ned had succumbed to his own mortality and dragged himself through the Hunter’s Gate. He was bone weary, frightened, and saddened by Sansa’s absence. Cat had been beside herself with grief and fury when he had returned empty handed.

            “Who is still unaccounted for?” Ser Rodrick asked while passing a flagon of spiced wine around the table. They all sat in the solar of Ned’s private chambers in an attempt to escape the whispers and prying eyes.

            “Farlen went back out this morning with Arya and Bran,” Ned answered tiredly. “Lady has not returned, so the children wanted to take the wolves and search for her themselves.”

            “Your boy, Robb?” Robert asked after swallowing a healthy mouthful of wine from his chalice. Ned shook his head.

            “He came back later, half frozen. He’s being attended to by Maester Luwin and Cat. And Myrcella,” Eddard added with a wry smirk. Robert laughed heartily and slapped him on the arm.

            “Let the women fawn over the lad, Ned. He outlasted every last one in the hopes of finding his dear sister.”

            “Not everyone. Clegane is still out there, too,” Rodrick provided.

            “The Hound, eh? Most likely he’s found a brothel to visit once the weather turned. I would not count him among those with valor,” Robert dismissed with a wave. “Bloody good with a sword, though. He’s more a soldier than a savior.”

            “I need to go join Bran and Arya,” Eddard stated as he rose. Ser Rodrick’s heavy hand pushed him back down into his seat.

            “My lord, you are dead on your feet. You’d not make it fifty paces before falling off your horse. Stay here and rest. I will gather the men and resume our search for the little lass. We’ll not return without her, Lord Stark.” Ser Rodrick kept his face hard, but his impassioned voice gave Eddard some peace from his turmoil. He nodded once and watched, pained, as the master at arms strode purposefully from the room.

            “We are not the same men we were in our youth.” Eddard sighed and turned to Robert. He knew his childhood friend felt his grief nearly as much as he did.

            “She is a smart girl, your Sansa. She’s got your clear head and her mother’s bull-headedness,” Robert remarked with a grin. He slapped Ned’s shoulder again. “She’ll be fine, my old friend. Mark my words. That child of yours is a survivor.”

            A sudden cry rose up outside the window and drew their attention. Before either man could rise to investigate the door to the solar slammed into the wall as Bran burst in. His cheeks were flushed and he was puffed from exertion, but it was the excitement in his eyes that brought Ned to his feet.

            “We’ve got her!” he exclaimed. “She’s being brought to mother and Maester Luwin now.”

            “Thank the Gods,” Eddard uttered lowly and closed his eyes for a brief, silent prayer. He followed closely on Bran’s heels as they ran out into the yard. Many people had gathered around, but the crowds parted as Lord Stark pushed his way through the masses.

            He spotted them as the large warhorse trotted through the East Gate towards the Great Keep. A grey cloak was wrapped tightly around her body with only her booted feet visible. Sandor Clegane kept one arm firmly wrapped around her shoulders as she leaned against his massive form, while the other maneuvered the giant animal by the reins.

            “Fetch a Maester!” he barked in a rough voice. His face was tired and drawn, but as they drew closer Eddard noticed far more alarming details about their appearances. Gore and blood splattered the Hound’s armor and stained her grey fur boots.

            “Seven hells,” Ned cursed in a hushed voice and practically collapsed at the sight. Dread filled him when he noticed how still and lifeless her body lay against the strong warriors’.

            Sandor pulled the horse to a stop before he swung down with unexpected grace. He pulled Sansa’s limp form from the saddle and cradled her against his chest once more, his large strides covering the distance between them.

            “She’s alive,” he muttered and continued towards the Great Keep. “I’m not sure I got there in time. She’s not talking much. She needs a bloody Maester.”

            “Luwin is upstairs attending Robb.” Eddard reached for his precious child, but Sandor stepped quickly towards the large doors that stood open.

            “Show me the way, my Lord. I’ve not dropped her yet, chances are I can manage a few stairs without much trouble,” he snarled.

            Eddard practically ran up the stairs and led Sandor to Sansa’s rooms. They were met in the hall by a frantic Catelyn and harried Master Luwin. Cat’s face drained off all color and she steadied herself against the granite wall for a brief moment before striding forward and showing Sandor to Sansa’s bedchamber. Ned watched as the behemoth warrior lowered Sansa’s body down with a tenderness that defied his nature. As he went to right himself Sansa’s pale hands shot out from within the filthy cloak and latched onto the front of Clegane’s armor as if her very life depended on it.

            “NO!” she wailed suddenly. “DO NOT LEAVE ME!”

            Her cries pierced Ned’s heart and he fought to keep tears from his eyes. He wasn’t an emotive man, but he struggled now to keep himself calm and collected. Cat would need him to be level or she would fall apart.

            Sandor leaned back down and began whispering lowly while he disentangled her little fists from his mail. “Easy now, little bird. Your lady mother is here with you. I’ve brought you home,” he rasped. When she still did not relent he kept on. “I’ll not be far. Let your family tend you. I’ll not be far.”

            Her hands finally loosened enough for him to gently pry them away. He watched as Sandor kept eye contact with the huddled mass of grey wool as he backed from the room. Determined to seek the man out later and inquire as to the condition and state his child had been found in, Ned turned his attention back towards the bed. Cat was already clutching her long body against her chest; sobbing and rocking them both while she stroked her hands over Sansa’s bruised and swollen face.

            “My darling girl. My sweet, sweet Sansa. You are safe now, my love. You are safe,” she whispered. Her cries were soon joined by Sansa’s and Ned found that his eyes were wet as well. He knelt at her bedside and looked into Catelyn’s deep blue eyes, knowing the pain there mirrored his own.

            Maester Luwin cleared his throat and walked very slowly over to stand at the foot of the bed. “If you would be so kind, Lord Stark, I believe this might be easier if you waited outside.” His tone was apologetic, but there was no mistaking that this was not a request.

            “Sansa,” Eddard murmured. Her head turned enough that he was able to see her face clearly for the first time. Her cheek was swollen and purple, her lip broken and crusted with dried blood. Tears stained her porcelain skin and dripped into her matted copper hair. All of these were enough to feed the anger building up within him, but they were also enough quietly break him down in irrepressible sorrow. He swallowed thickly as her mother’s Tully eyes bore into him. He knew she would forever be haunted by what she had survived this past night. The men who caused her pain, however, would not.

            He was unsure how to comfort his daughter so he merely stated, “I will be right outside if you need me. It is a relief to have you back home where you belong.”

            The only acknowledgment she gave was a slight nod before turning back to her mother’s embrace. Ned stood and walked stiffly out of the room, closing the door behind him. King Robert stood in the hall waiting for him. Surprizingly, so did Sandor Clegane. They were speaking in low tones.

            “Bugger your knighthoods!” Clegane spat derisively. “I have no need of your up-jumped titles.”

            “Stop being such a stubborn arse, Clegane,” Robert groused. “You’ve been Joff’s sworn shield since he was a babe. I know your merits, few as they may be. Take the honor when it’s bestowed upon you.”

            “Honor!” Clegane scoffed and shook his head. The conversation halted when they noticed Ned’s presence.

            “Tell me everything,” Eddard demanded quietly. Clegane eyed him warily, but then nodded.

            “Found out that a group of soldiers had gone hunting late in the afternoon. They hadn’t returned before dark. Thought that might be my best bet in finding your girl.” He eyed Eddard warily as if weighing up how much the other man could take.

            “Out with it, Clegane,” Robert commanded, but his words were soft. He knew his friend was teetering on the edge of his restraint.

            “I tracked them to a little stone shack not far from here, maybe an hour’s ride to the north. Looks like they let her loose in the woods just so they could round her up again after scaring the seven hells out of her.” His face was darkening by the second as he recounted the details sparingly. “They had the poor girl stripped and restrained by the time I reached her.”

            Ned paled and had to hold onto the wall to keep himself upright. “How many?”

            “Five at my count, but their bodies were in so many pieces that might be a little off,” Sandor relayed with cold indifference.

            “All of them dead then?” Robert asked. His face was almost purple from the anger he tried to contain.

            “I’m not in the habit of leaving my victims alive,” Sandor bit back.

            “Do you know who they were?” Ned choked out. If Clegane hadn’t deprived him of the right to avenge his daughter by beheading the men who defiled her, he was certainly going to take it up with their liege lord.

            “Aye.” Sandor’s grey eyes hardened. “Flayed men, the fucking lot of them.”

            “Bolton’s? He’s one of yours, isn’t he?” Robert looked at his friend and measured his anger.

            “Yes, Roose has always proven to be very loyal. Apparently the men in his charge need reminding,” Eddard said through clenched teeth. His musings were interrupted by the arrival of the Maester in the hallway. He closed Sansa’s door and mopped the sweat from his brow with a square of embroidered cloth.

            “What news, Maester?” Ned asked immediately. “Will she live?”

            “For many more years to come, the Gods be willing.” He sighed. “She is bruised in more places than a woman need ever suffer, but her innocence remains.”

            Shock colored the features of the men in the hall.

            “She’s still a maiden?” Eddard breathed a sigh of relief while Robert clasped him tightly in a manly embrace. His worst fears for his daughter had not been realized, and he felt as some of the tension melted away from his body.

            “Horse shit!” Clegane spat furiously. Maester Luwin turned to him with a grimace.

            “I have been a healer longer than you have been drawing breath, Clegane. If I say the child remains intact, then you will believe me. I would not hide such truths from my Lord, nor from the father of a traumatized daughter.” He sniffed in annoyance, but Sandor shook his head while his body shook in anger.

            “I know what I saw. I had one to pull one of those animals off of her before I gutted him. There was barely a stitch on her,” he seethed.

            “Then we owe you much and more, Clegane. It appears you staved off her rapists before they could complete the act. She suffers many injuries, it is true, but her virtue remains.” The Maester’s eyes held contempt, but there was respect there as well.

            Overcome by the news Eddard turned to Sandor and regarded him evenly. He owed this man more than he could ever hope to repay, but that would not stop him from trying.

            “Whatever your reward, if it is within my power as Warden of the North, I will grant it.”

            King Robert scoffed. “I tried that already. It seems Clegane is too good to for knighthood.”

           “Whatever you ask of me, I shall grant it happily. You have my sincerest gratitude.” Eddard nodded solemnly, but Sandor was unmoved.

           “There is nothing I require,” he rasped. “Your precious wolf pup is home, and seemingly in one piece. I did not fetch her for a pat on the head or spot by your fire. This dog already has a master.”

           “Why did you rescue the girl, Hound?” Robert challenged with narrowed eyes. Sandor never responded. He merely turned on his heel and stomped out of the Keep.

Chapter Text

            The days since her return had been bleak, cold and frozen with snow coming down so fast and thick there were times you could not wander outside without fear of becoming lost in it. But the nights had been far crueler. Sansa had scarcely slept since she had been returned to Winterfell. Her screams of terror bounced and echoed off the stone walls of the keep. They never failed to draw others into her rooms, oft in such a panic that the first time it happened she had screamed all the more when seeing armed shadows moving around her in the dark. After that she insisted that tall candles be lit about her rooms and remain to burn throughout the night. She would have allowed Lady into her bed, but her wolf was too big. She settled for keeping her within sight at all times.

            Every evening before she slipped between her furs and blankets she would check the halls. There were always guards posted outside her rooms now. Her fathers’ own bannermen, she knew, and yet the sight of them brought little comfort. No, her sense of safety only truly came when she noticed that among the changing faces of her guard there was always one constant after the sun went down.

However, even the presence of Sandor Clegane outside her door did not keep the nightmares at bay. This was especially true after it was confirmed yesterday that Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton, had escaped the Hounds’ savagery that frostbitten night. And still, he had been the one to answer her screams last night, the only one who could calm her when even her lady mother could not.

            “I’ll be here until the sun come up, little bird. You rest now.” His voice was always rough and harsh, but she heard the gentleness there.

            “He could come back for,” she had gasped between sobs.

            “He’ll not survive me again,” he had growled in response. “No one will ever lay a hand on you, or I’ll fucking kill them.”

            His words, however brutal, had brought immense comfort. It was what she held onto when she felt the darkness creeping in and saw danger in every doorway. He stood off to the side in the halls, often hidden in shadow, but she saw him there and it helped her settle to sleep.   

But today she must be presentable. Today is the start of the tourney. Archery will take place this morning, tomorrow would be the joust, and the last day would hold hand-to-hand combat. So Sansa tried to shake the horrific thoughts that had plagued her dreams in the night as she set about letting one of her ladies fix her hair and lace her into a warm but elegant grey gown edged with white fur and decorated with white pearls. It would not hide the remaining bruises, but might help to distract from them.

            When she gathered her cloak about her shoulders and summoned Lady to her side, she took a steadying breath and crossed the threshold of her rooms. She had not been outside since she had been returned.

            “My lady, you look a true northern vision.”

            Sansa turned slightly and saw Bronn slip from the shadows in the stairwell at the end of the hall. A smirk came to her face unbidden when she saw how startled the young knight who stood guarding her door became at his sudden appearance. Bronn ginned widely.

            “I have come to escort you to your tourney, my lady.” Bronn offered his arm in a rare gesture of chivalry.

            “I will be escorting young lady Stark! She has no need of you, ser,” the young man blustered when Sansa made to accept his arm.

            “Aye, and just how to do plan to do that when you are relieved of your legs?” Bronn menaced with a raised brown and a hand on his sword hilt.

            “I do not believe that will be necessary,” Sansa cautioned him with a hand on his sword arm. It would not do for him to attack one of her own, under her own roof, although she believed the threat to be an empty one. “What is your name, ser?”

            “Hallace, my lady,” he stammered, flushing slightly. She smiled kindly at him. He did not appear much older than her.

            “Ser Hallace, Bronn is sworn shield of lord Tryrion Lannister, who is a dear friend of mine. He means me no harm, and is able to see me safely to the tourney. I thank you for your service, but I will not need you as of now.” She leaned forward and touched his mailed arm, offering another warm smile. The lad flushed scarlet and nodded jerkily.

            “As you say, my lady. If you have need of me later, I will not be far,” he tried to assure her, but his voice broke. She pretended not to notice as he quickly made his way from the hall. Bronn offered no such courtesy as he snorted loudly.

            “I take it Tyrion has sent you to watch over me?” she inquired dryly as they made their way out into the grey morning. There was a biting wind that blew her hair about, but at least the snows had ceased falling.

            “He is very taken with you, as you no doubt already know. It really is a shame you are not to be wed. I would have enjoyed watching you slap him around a little,” he jested and patted her arm genially.

            She chuckled in surprise. “What makes you think I would need to strike him?”

            Bronn stopped and regarded her with raised brows. “Have you met our little lord?”

            This time Sansa laughed freely. She had not done so since she was taken and it felt better than she had imagined. She stopped when she felt eyes on her. Unbidden, her gaze swept across the yard until it found the source, hidden as it was under a snarling helm. The smile that stretched her mouth was full and genuine, and it held even after he turned away to bludgeon a knight with a tourney sword. When she turned back to her companion she saw his head shaking.

            “You know I was jesting before when I suggested the Hound as your almighty defender,” he japed.

            “And yet he was the only one who managed to find me after I was taken. He even put my attackers to sword,” Sansa responded, trying very hard to disguise the naked admiration in her voice.

            Bronn snorted. “You make it sound like a song. The truth of it is much uglier. There were so many pieces of them it took full day to identify the number of victims.”

            “I know the truth, thank you. I was there to witness it firsthand,” she snapped with more ferocity than she intended. Bronn merely laughed.

            “And yet you do not cower as most fair ladies would. Or turn away repulsed. I give you credit for that. He does not cut a handsome figure.” He pulled her along towards to stands where she spied Tyrion waiting with her brother, Bran.

            “There are more important things. Beauty fades. Character often grows stronger.” Her observations were hard come by. Sansa knew many comely lords and knights. None of them showed half the honesty as her unlikely guardian.

            “This is true. You are smarter than most of these puffed up lords and ladies. And here is the most puffed of them all,” he added in a loud voice as they took their seats with Tyrion and Bran. Lady sat by the edge of the risers, her head at a level with Sansa’s lap.

            “If only being puffed up added height, I would gladly hold my breath for as long as possible,” Tyrion retorted before taking Sansa’s hand and placing a soft kiss on top. “My lady Sansa, you are a vision as always. It is good to see you with a little color in your cheeks.”

            Tyrion had been kind in his frequent visits. He was never put off by her lack of attention and he did his best to make her smile. It was nice to have such a friend. She had missed having someone to confide in. A wave of sadness washed over her as she realized he would be leaving shortly after the tourney. And then she would be alone once more.

            “Did my compliments fall short, my lady? I do not believe I have ever seen you so melancholy.” The concern in Tyrion’s voice caught her attention. She did her best to smile.

            “You must not pay enough attention. She always looks like that,” Bran teased. Sansa kicked lightly at him and turned to Tyrion.

            “Not at all. You are always more than generous, my lord. Do not mind me. I will cheer up once the festivities begin,” she tried to assure him, but the words sounded hollow even to her ears.

            “Speaking of that, I must be going. It would not do if I missed my only opportunity to show up Robb,” Bran joked again, his smile widening as he saw Sansa shake her head in dismay.

            “You’re terrible today, Bran. Whatever has gotten into you?” She scolded, but there was no heat behind her words and she could not disguise her smile.

            “I have been spending too much time with your new friends,” he countered, much to Tyrion and Bronn’s delight. They chuckled heartily as Bran departed with a swagger she had never seen.

            “I think you have been bad influence on him,” Sansa mused as she watched him go. In truth, it was good to see such confidence in her brother. With Robb around he sometimes felt overlooked.

            “Then my mission is complete. I shall have to find a new one to occupy my time lest I die of boredom.” Tyrion leaned towards her and whispered conspiratorially, “Is there anyone else worth corrupting in this frozen wasteland? Or I have sullied that last true innocent of the North?”

            Sansa laughed and shook her head. “I am sure there are many of us that remain impervious to your evil intent. But do keep trying. It amuses me to watch your attempts.”

            “I have something that could tickle your fancy,” Bronn commented offhandedly, but he was interrupted by a most unwelcome voice.

            “My lady Sansa, how wonderful to see you again. I trust you are recovering well from you little adventure?”

            It took every ounce of her practiced courtesy to keep her immense displeasure from showing on her face. She even managed a polite smile.

            “I thank you, my Prince. I am feeling much better after a few days’ rest.” The words came smoothly, easily, but she could not disguise the coolness in her voice. He seemed not to take notice. Or he did not care to.

            “My mother and I would like to extend a royal invitation to you, once this pathetic jape of tourney has concluded, to accompany us to King’s Landing. We will show what true luxury is like in capitol.” Prince Joffrey stepped closure and lowered his voice in what she imagined was his idea of seductive and intimate. “Perhaps we could find solace in each other during these difficult times.”

            Lady growled lowly while Sansa swallowed reflexively to keep the rising bile at bay. “How kind of you, my Prince,” she stammered. Her mind whirled while she tried to think of something, anything that would get her out of this mess gracefully.

            “Mayhaps you should discuss this with her lord father, nephew,” Tyrion said evenly. “You may discover he is most reluctant to part with his lovely daughter so soon after near death escape.”

            Joff waved his hand dismissively. “He won’t even notice she is gone, what with all his other children milling about. Plus, Myrcella will be here and occupying his attention.”

            When his hand ventured too closely to Sansa Lady’s ears flattened to her massive head and she bared her teeth. Joff finally took notice of the warnings from the normally gentle giant and took a step back in genuine fear.

            “Your beast will stay here, of course,” he commanded with a derisive sneer.

            “Lady never leaves my side,” Sansa countered, her voice hard as ice.

            “I don’t recall her being at your side when you were stupid enough to be taken by a bunch of unwashed peasants,” Joff bit back, frowning.

            Sansa tried not to appear affronted by his callousness. She smoothed her skirts to in an effort to control her features before lifting her eyes to him again. Smiling she said, as calmly as possible, “I thank you for your wonderful invitation. I will discuss it with my lady mother at my earliest convenience. Please enjoy the festivities in the meantime.”

            She did not mean it to sound like the dismissal that it was, but she was desperate for him to take his leave of them. She did not want to anger him, however. Lucky for her he did not seem to take offense.

            “I shall await your response eagerly, my lady. But see that you do not keep me waiting too long.” With a lecherous smile he turned on his heel and strode away. Sansa could not contain the full shudder that shook her frame.

            “Well, he certainly thinks highly of himself,” Bronn remarked drily.

            “He’s vile,” Sansa said before she could think to stop herself. Her hand immediately shot to her mouth and she looked around her, afraid someone had heard besides them. When Tyrion began to laugh uproariously she glared at him. It could have meant trouble for her if she had been caught speaking out against a member of the royal family.

            “This one sees people for who they truly are, I think,” Bronn observed with a look of appraisal in his eyes.

            “The Seven save us all then, for we are doomed,” Tyrion jested with a full smile that Sansa could not help but return.

            “As much as I hate to agree with that little shit on anything, he made a fair point.” Sansa and Tyrion stared up at Bronn in open shock. “Where was that wolf of yours? I heard they loosed her from the kennels. Can she not track like a normal wolf?”

“I do not know exactly. All I was told was that she returned shortly after I did. Farlen did mention something about her having recently hunted.” She would not say what she truly thought. In this company, she did not have to.

“Maybe you can rest easy then. Perhaps she did what a Hound could not,” Tyrion said gently. He knew of her nightmares.

“She does not have that kind of nature. She is too gentle,” Sansa disagreed as she stroked Lady’s head.

“She is her mistress in animal form,” Bronn concluded with a knowing nod. He gave Lady a scratch behind the ear that she seemed to enjoy greatly.

“She keeps her secrets much as you do,” Tyrion murmured around a smile.

“I shall need to guard my thoughts more closely from now on,” she confided quietly, looking around again.

            “Only when we are in public. I pray that you will always feel free to tell me exactly what you think. I find it extremely refreshing, if not highly entertaining at times.” Tyrion did not even try to dodge her hand when it struck out at his arm, lightly.

            “See, what did I tell you? You’re beating him already and you’re not even wed.” Bronn nodded towards her. She rolled her eyes but laughed again.

            “You will need to speak to your father if you do not want to go to court,” Tyrion said with a note of seriousness. It seemed to dull the mood slightly.

            “Yes, I have a feeling this will be a tricky invitation to refuse. Mayhaps you can help me with that?” She lifted an eyebrow at him.

            Bronn snorted. “If anyone can come up with a scheme to save you, it’s this man here.”

            “What are you calling me?” Tyrion challenged with a slight frown.

            “Nothing fit for a lady’s ears,” Bronn retorted.

            “You might be surprised what my ears have been exposed to. I have four brothers, if you remember,” she remarked with a smirk. “And my sister puts them all to shame.”

            “Yes, she is a strange sort of lady, that sister of yours,” Tyrion said, not unkindly.

            Sansa let out a most unladylike snort before covering her mouth with her hand and blushing slightly. “Um, yes, she would argue that she is no lady, but a lord born in the wrong body,” she stammered as the men laughed openly at her gaffe.

            They sat and traded japes and pleasant conversation as the archery competition went underway. Sansa stood and cheered loudly for Bran, but unlike her companions, did not heckle or boo those she did not like. Not even when there were Flayed Men who competed.

            “You are far nobler than I,” Tyrion stated plainly as he glared openly at the pink man sewn to the back of some knight’s doublet. Sansa said nothing as she clapped quietly until a thin shadow fell over her. Lady’s head whipped around, but she made no other move.

            “My lady Sansa,” lord Bolton’s papery voice carried to her on the wind. She tried to contain a shudder. The slight man squinted his eyes before nodding in acknowledgement at Tyrion and Bronn. “Lord Tyrion, ser.”

            “Lord Bolton,” Tyrion managed in a clipped voice. “Come to watch the festivities? Is there nothing else that demands your attention? The current location of your bastard, perhaps?”

            Sansa said nothing, but placed a calming hand over Tyrion’s. It would not do for him to provoke lord Bolton. He was not known to allow a slight to go unpunished, no matter who gave it. Tyrion patted her hand gently, but did not lower his heated glare. Lord Bolton ignored him entirely, his grey eyes latched onto Sansa’s blank face.

            “My lady, I wanted to offer my deepest and more heartfelt apologies for the actions of my men. I hope that you know I would never condone such atrocities against a highborn lady, like yourself.” Lady growled, as if sensing the lie. Sansa had heard the tales. How lord Bolton’s bastard had been conceived. How he used leeches to rid himself of his ‘evil’ blood. How he allowed his men to rape the low born women – and even young girls – in their lands without punishment or even acknowledgment.

            Words are wind, she wanted to say, but it would not have been proper, or necessary. Her father had made sure to command that Ramsay be brought directly to him to answer for his crimes should he ever turn up on his fathers’ lands. Lord Bolton had acquiesced, but Sansa could hear the falseness in his tone. She wondered if her parents had heard as well. She was still not entirely convinced that Lord Bolton was not hiding his son to save his skin. Or more accurately, his head.

            “That’s not what I’ve heard,” Bronn said plainly. Sansa noted his dagger was out. He used the tip of it to clean beneath his nails. Lord Bolton did not even look his way. He continued to stare unblinkingly at Sansa. It was most unnerving, but she did not allow herself to look away.

            “I am sure you will see to it that no others under your banner make the same mistake, my lord,” she said in an unwavering voice. Her heart thrummed so quickly in her chest that she was beginning to feel faint. Her condition did not improve when he merely inclined his head. She saw his jaw tighten before he spoke again.

            “You have my word, my lady.”

            “Does she also have your word that your wretched bastard will be brought to justice when he turns up on your doorstep?” Tyrion challenged. Sansa did not know where his bravery came from, but she admired him all the more for it.

            “I do not answer to you, Imp.” Lord Bolton seemed to be reaching the limit of his tolerance for Tyrion’s questions. Or possibly even his presence.

            “No, you answer to my lord father,” Sansa blurted without thought. Her cheeks heated but she held his eyes.

            They stared at each other in stony silence until Lady made a sound similar to a low groan. It was not quite a growl, but it broke the spell all the same. Roose straightened his back in an effort to look down his nose at Sansa, but she stood taller than he.

            “Enjoy the tourney, my lady.” He turned abruptly and stormed off through the crowd. It was only after he disappeared from sight that Sansa was able to catch her breath and begin calming herself.

            “I do not think your wolf likes him,” Bronn noted, gesturing to Lady. When Sansa glanced down at her she saw that she had stood fully sometime during the exchange. Her fur was standing up on her neck and over her rump. No sound came from her, but her bright eyes still watched the crowd alertly.

            “No one likes him,” Tyrion said plainly.

Sansa nodded in agreement while trying to focus on something else. She found her eyes unwillingly seeking out her newest source of comfort. She heard Bronn and Tyrion continue discussing the lack of honor Flayed Men held, as well as their own personal thoughts on how to deal with Ramsay should he ever turn up. Sansa’s eyes swept the crowds hopefully, searching. She may not have been as discreet as she had hoped. When he thought she had spied his distinctive helm, her breath caught.

            “Is there someone particular you are looking for, lady Sansa?” The coyness in Tyrion’s voice set her on alert. She feigned ignorance and looked at his with wide eyes.

            “I’m just enjoying the events, lord Tyrion.”

            “The Hound won’t compete until the morrow,” Bronn said casually, crunching loudly on an apple.

            She flushed. “I wasn’t –“

            “You were,” he cut her off, grinning.

            “You must be joking,” Tyrion intoned flatly.

            “She’s not,” Bronn quipped before she could respond.

            “I was not looking for him and I do not . . . I was not . . .” she floundered for an appropriate response, but came up empty. What was she arguing? She was not so sure herself.

            “From a stunted man to a burned one. Your tastes have not improved, my lady.” Tyrion wrinkled his nose in disapproval.

            “He is taller though,” Bronn contributed.

            “You are not helping,” Tyrion snapped, to which the sell sword merely shrugged. Sansa managed a light laugh.

            “It is not what you think. I am merely grateful for his earlier assistance in saving my life. That is all.” She did not know who she was trying to convince more; herself or the two men who stared back at her dubiously.

            In truth she knew that was all it could be. Sandor Clegane was not a kind man or even a noble man. He was brave and honest, but a known drunk and aggressor. Besides, she did not think he even liked her. He seemed to scowl whenever she spoke to him, no matter what she said. But he is gentle when it counts, a little voice whispered in her mind. She shook her head to silence it.

            She cast a sidelong glance at Tyrion only to see, much to her dismay, that he believed her words less than she did herself. She spoke no more of it and instead focused on the remainder of the archery competition. When Bran bested them all she stood and cheered, smiling so proudly she thought her face might split in half. It faltered only slightly when a very comely maid presented Bran with a favor and a kiss. The crowd roared its approval and for a moment Sansa tried desperately to be happy for him.

            She would never have men present her with winter roses and declare her the queen of love and beauty as Rhaegar Targaryen had her late aunt, Lyanna. All the better, really. You do not want to be the cause of another war, the little voice taunted her. This time it was harder to ignore.

Chapter Text

           “Must there be so much damnable snow?” Tyrion grumbled as he wadded in the nearly hip deep – for him – frozen tundra. In the days that followed Lady Sansa’s kidnapping there had been nearly non-stop storms. They continued to roll over Winterfell with such regular occurrence that a day hardly seemed complete without a blustery snowfall. And still the tourney had commenced yesterday. It had been quite a sight to behold; all the Southron lords and ladies, along with all of the royal court – save the King himself – bundled up in so many layers that it had been troublesome trying to distinguish one from another.

            “I believe this is somewhat normal, what with us being in the North and all,” Bronn quipped before finishing off a cup of hot spiced wine.

            “Let’s see how amusing you find this when I have you carry me while we are out of doors,” Tyrion snapped back as he pulled his fur cloak tighter around his neck.

            “Bugger that. I’ll find you a nice pony if you so require,” Bronn retorted with a smirk. “Or perhaps a wolf would suit you better.”

            “I have tried my hand at wolf taming. I nearly lost a finger,” Tyrion reminded him as they finally made it through the doors of the Keep. Stamping off the ice and snow from their boots, they made their way up to Lady Sansa’s chambers only to be prevented entry by one very aggressive and scowling face.

            “What in the seven hells do you want, Imp?”

            “Arya!” Sansa scolded from within.

            The youngest of the Stark women was a force to be reckoned with, as Tyrion had learned the hard way. It was on his last visit that he had attempted to charm her the way he had her lady sister. He quickly found himself looking down the rather sharp edge of a blade.

            “Lovely to see you again, my lady.” Tyrion gave a slight bow, but never took his eyes off hers. Her frown deepened.

            “For goodness sake, Arya. Let him by,” Sansa called again, exasperation clear in her voice. With a growl that would have made her direwolf proud, Arya slid away from the door, but kept her glare burning. They made their way into the brightly lit solar.

            Sansa was seated in a chaise next to a gloriously roaring fire. Tyrion made short, hasty steps and climbed up beside her. He shed his cloak and extended both hands and feet towards the blaze. Sansa smiled.

            “Would you care for some hot spiced wine, my lord?” He could plainly hear the suppressed laughter in her voice.

            “Mayhaps after I thaw out a bit more. I would hate to stain your fine embroidery with my clumsy frozen hands,” he remarked and tried to get a better look at the cloth in her hands. A faint blush appeared on her cheeks as she made to tuck the items away, but Arya snatched them from her sisters’ delicate hands and examined them with a frown.

            “You always have been better at this than me,” she grumbled. Sansa made to take back her embroidery with a wordless protest, but Arya nimbly danced aside and turned it around to take a better look. “Your weirwood is lovely, but what kind of bird is that? And why would you put Shaggydog on a handkerchief? Is it for Rickon?”

            The blush on Sansas’ cheeks deepened. “It is not Shaggy. It is not a direwolf at all.” She finally stood and plucked the stitching away from her sister, tucking it out of sight.

            “Looked more like hound, if you asked me,” Bronn contributed with a barely interested tone. Tyrion heard the thinly veiled accusation in his voice. Clearly, so did Sansa. The look she gave him could have turned a lessor man to stone. Or ice.

            “I do not recall asking you,” she sniffed and turned back to Arya. “Have you nothing better to do than to pester me? I am sure there are chores aplenty with all of these people still milling about the grounds. Why not go make yourself useful?”

            Rather than be affronted by her very obvious dismissal, Arya grinned widely.

            “Forgetting your courtesies, oh sweet and most perfect sister? Next you’ll be cursing me and throwing books at my head,” she jested with a chuckle.

            Try as she might, Sansa could not stop the smile from tugging at the corners of her mouth. “I may yet surprise you. Now go. Help our brothers prepare for the joust. After Bran bested everyone in archery I would expect there to be sore feelings in the armory. They may require some additional assistance.”

            Tyrion heard what she did not plainly say. Be sure no one is targeting our brothers. And keep her eyes and ears open for any talks of retribution. There had already been enough of that perpetrated on House Stark. Arya nodded in understanding and quickly made her way out of the room.

            “I do believe I will take that wine now, Lady Sansa,” Tyrion requested pleasantly. She did not miss the shrewd look in his eyes though and narrowed her own as she passed him a goblet.

            “None of your schemes, Tyrion. I’ve had quite enough of those these past few days,” she warned before idly smoothing her skirts.

            Tyrion placed one hand over his heart in mock injury. “My lovely lady, you wound me. Can not a friend simply come to for a visit? A little wine and a simple inquiry or two after one’s health?”

            “A friend can. You, however, seem far less capable,” she deadpanned. Tyrion grinned.

            “You know me well, my lady.”

            “Yes, and while I would like to discourage whatever plotting you have done I seem to be the better for it so far. So let’s have it. What great plan have you now?”

            “Actually, it’s more somber news I’m afraid. I thought it best to come to your straightaway so that we might put our heads together to come up with a solution.” Best to get right down to business, he thought sadly. This was not going to be pleasant.

            The mirth quickly left her eyes. “There are none here but us three. Speak plainly, please.”

            “There are always wild things lurking about when we least expect it. We are never truly alone.” Tyrion knew better than to trust that Cersei had no spies about this great castle, even though it was not hers to command. He would not put it past his lord father, either.

            Sansa nodded once, her eyes intent on his, but waved a hand and said with a convincing air, “Of course, but none that would betray our secrets.”

            “I have been made aware that your lord father attempted to politely decline my dear nephew’s generous offer for you to accompany him to the capitol.” His voice was light and conversational, but his eyes held hers in warning. He hoped she could read between the lines.

            Much to her credit, Sansa’s eyes widened in understanding, but her voice was controlled and pleasant.

            “I’ve always dreamed of seeing the capitol. But my father wants me close by after what has happened. At least until Ramsay Snow is apprehended.” She held herself together, but Tyrion detected the tremble in her voice and noted that she hid her hands from view.

            “You may yet get your wish, my lady. It is said the King waved off your father’s concerns and vowed on pain of death that you would be well looked after and treated as the most honored guest his house has yet to receive.” Tyrion leaned closer and placed a gentle hand on her arm. His eyes held hers in an effort to calm the rising panic he saw in their azure depths.

            She nodded once and began to wring her skirt in her hands; the only outward sign of her mounting distress.

            “His Grace is most kind and generous to us. I must go and thank him properly,” she said in a tight voice.

            Tyrion could not suppress a shudder as he considered all the harm that would surely befall this dear lady if Joff were to get his slimy hands on her. He would do everything in his power to stop that from happening, but even he knew that his influence would only go so far in this instance. When Cersei set her sights on something, it usually was within her grasp before others even knew that she desired it.

            “A lord father can only refuse the King so much without insult. A lord husband, however . . .” he let the statement hang.

            Sansa was brought up short and her confusion clearly showed on her lovely face. She sat back and regarded him with open curiosity.

            “But I am not betrothed, Tyrion,” she said plainly, forgetting herself for a moment. There was a sadness there that she did not disguise, and for once Tyrion believed he could see down to the depths of her soul in her beautiful blue eyes. There was an insurmountable amount of sadness, but longing as well.

            Damn you to the seventh circle of the deepest hells, he silently cursed his father. I could have replaced that sorrow with joy and affection if you had but granted me the chance.

            “There are many fine knights and lords around, Lady Sansa. One can hardly throw a stone without hitting a dozen or more at the moment,” he teased, trying to win a seldom granted smile from her. He half succeeded, but that was enough for the moment.

            “You know my situation, Tyrion. One that has not been made better by my latest predicament.” She frowned.

            “Ah, but let us say there was a suitable man just waiting for your favor, my lady. A brave man. A strong man. Mayhaps not as noble as one would like, but with a sort of honor that is hard come by.” The idea was taking shape in his mind as he flew through images of all the Knights and lessor Lords he knew to be currently within the walls of Winterfell. He knew she had already been dismissed by those of the greater houses, but surely there had to be someone worthy of such a fair maiden with lands and titles and great ancestry that would benefit he and his house.

            When Sansa’s eyes slyly shifted to Bronn, Tyron could not help the pang of jealously that flared up within him. He quashed it quickly as Bronn let out a loud laugh, joining him only a moment late.

            “Not quite what I had in mind,” Tyrion said good naturedly.

            “As I am neither noble nor do I have honor,” Bronn contributed with a wry grin.

            “I do not believe that, ser. You seem to guard your lord here well enough, and are kind and respectful as well. There is honor in that,” Sansa countered.

            Bronn shrugged. “He’s easy enough to like. But it’s his gold that buys my loyalty and my sword. And I am only respectful to you, my lady.”

            Sansa looked a little disappointed but she covered it well with a sage nod before turning back to Tyrion. “Was there someone in particular then?”

            This time it was Tyrion who decided to play coy. “You tell me, my lady.” When she cocked her head in question he pressed, “Who is the favor for that you have embroidered so beautifully.”

            Her face flushed scarlet then and Tyrion knew he had hit his mark. He grinned wickedly.

            “Do tell, my lady,” he pried with mock sweetness.

            She shook off her embarrassment well, but could not rid her cheeks of color. “I have grown bored shut up in my rooms these past few days. Needle work keeps my hands and mind busy.” Bronn snorted in disbelief and did not cower in the slightest when she openly glowered at him.

            “Neither your company nor your comments are required, ser,” she said icily.

            “I’m here to protect my liege lord, as you so kindly pointed out only moments ago,” he reminded with smirk.

            “He is not in any danger here, unless you think I might stick him with a sewing needle,” she responded with heavy sarcasm.

            “He’s small enough that could do serious damage,” Bronn said straight faced.

            “That is more than enough out of you. I think the lady had the right idea dismissing you.” Tyrion grimaced at his hired sword, a man he had come to count as a friend these past years. Sometimes he had to wonder though if his friendship was bought and paid for in the way his protection was.

            “I do not believe leaving you alone with the lady would be proper,” he retorted dismissively. Tyrion barked a laugh. Being lectured by a sell sword on matters of propriety was highly amusing to him.

            “Besides, I may have the answer to all your woes, my fair lady,” Bronn said with a sly look in his eyes.

            “Well it must be good, seeing as we have ruled you out as a potential husband,” Sansa teased easily.

            “Do not weep, lass. I am sure there is a man half as fine who will have you, titles and all.”

            “I did not know you were so droll,” Tyrion quipped in an effort to steer the conversation away from the idea of them paired up. He misliked it more than he should, as she would never be his.

            “The lady needs more laughter in her life. She is too serious.” Bronn winked at her. Sansa tried to scowl at him. He laughed loudly. “Not nearly as impressive as your sister.”

            “I shall have to take lessons then,” Sansa retorted with a delicate sniff.

            “Why not have the Hound teach you? Now there is a man who can put the fear of the Gods into a person with a mere look.” Bronn grinned widely when Sansa flushed again. “Your blush betrays you, woman.”

            “I am merely embarrassed at the impropriety of what you are suggesting.” She was quick, Tyrion gave her that much credit. But she was a terrible liar. He could not tell if she fancied Clegane, but she regarded him highly, that much was obvious.

            He had to know the truth of it. “What do you think of the Hound?”

            “I think he deserves to be called by his name, just as you do,” she replied so tersely Tyrion almost felt as though he had been scolded.

            Fair point, he thought. I mislike being referred to as halfman, dwarf, or Imp.

            “He calls himself a dog. Why should the rest of us do differently?” Bronn shrugged. Sansa grimaced and shook her head.

            “I do not think he values himself very highly,” she said quietly.

            “No, I would think not. It is difficult for those of us who are treated badly by nearly everyone we come into contact with. And yet you seem to bring out the best in us all,” Tyrion provided with a wry smile. “What sorcery is this? Something only northern maidens are capable of?”

            “A lady has many secrets, Lord Tyrion.” She smiled knowingly.

            “Would that I could riddle them all out for myself. Alas, it is not to be. Mayhaps I shall help an honorable knight win your heart? Would that earn me a secret or two?” He enjoyed this, the way they bantered. He would miss it immensely when he went back to Casterly Rock.

            “Mayhaps. It depends upon the quality of the man,” she allowed with a small smile. He noticed she did not say ‘lord’ or ‘knight’.

            “You did not answer my question, Sansa,” he said with a tone of seriousness.

            She sighed deeply and looked out the window for a time before speaking softly. “I do not know what to think. I know what kind of man he portrays himself as, but what he has shown me is so different. In a way he would be the ideal match for someone like me.”

            “Yes, I have heard that beautiful women prefer the company of ugly men to keep them humble.” Bronn rolled his eyes.

            Sansa frowned deeply. “That is not what I meant. He could protect me from anyone, anything. I would never feel fear again with him near. And since I seem to draw foul luck and danger he would be an ideal countermeasure.”

            “You would fear no one else, I can understand that plainly. But would you not fear him? He has a terrible temper when provoked. I have seen it myself; though luckily have never been on the receiving end.” Tyrion shuddered slightly at the memory. He did not know a man could take a beating like that without dying.

            But Sansa’s voice was not alarmed when she spoke. “I have seen it too. And I know he would never harm me.”

            “How can you know that?” Tyrion wanted, needed to know how she was so sure of him. A man that was known for brutality and hostility by nearly all who came across him.

            She turned and locked eyes with him. “He gave me his word. And Sandor Clegane is not a liar.”

            “This is true. He loathes liars,” Tyrion conceded after a moment. “It’s a wonder he has lasted so long in the service of my family.”

            Sansa turned her attention out the window again. “Everyone does what they must to survive. Why should he be any different?”

            They sat in silence for a time while Tyrion quietly chewed on a ripe red apple and considered what options his lady friend had before her. Granted there were not many that appealed. Only one that truly guaranteed her safety. But would it result in her happiness as well? For that was what Tyrion desperately wanted to grant her: all the happiness in this wide world. But if he could not manage that, he would at least try to give her what she needed.

            “If I could arrange a way for you to be joined with him, would you accept it?” he asked carefully.

            Sansa looked at him, the surprise on her face undisguised. She blinked rapidly a few times before drawing in a deep breath. “My father would never permit it.”

            “What if he did?” Tyrion countered.

            “He is not a lord or a knight,” she reasoned again.

            “What if he was?” he pressed.

            “He is the princes’ sworn shield.”

            “What if he wasn’t?”

            “He does not want a wife.” There was defeat in her voice.

            “What if he does?” Tyrion knew he could make this happen, but it would have to be done carefully. So carefully. And it would have to be done quickly.

            Sansa swallowed and looked up at Bronn who raised his hands in surrender. “Don’t look at me. I’m not looking to marry him. This is all about you, lady.”

            Pulling a deep breath she met Tyrions’ mismatched eyes and smiled slightly.

            “What would you have me do?”

            “Nothing as of yet. Finish your favor. Be sure it is completed before the joust today. Can you manage that?” Tyrion started plotting. She nodded once. “Good. Bronn, I have need of you.”

            “Shall I braid her hair and help her choose a gown?” He looked far too content with that idea.

            “Nothing so fun as that. It’s time you earn the mountains of gold I pay you. You are to keep the Hound from shortening me by a head when I approach him with this foolhardy plan of ours. I am short enough, thank you.” He did not relish the idea of a conversation with Clegane. He had never taken a liking to him. The feeling was undoubtedly mutual.

            “You think he will attack you for suggesting . . .” Sansa seemed disturbed by that idea.

            “He will most likely believe it is a trick of some sort. That is why Bronn will be there. I have no wish to die today.” And he was entirely sure the Hound would see this as cause to open him stem to sternum.

            “Please do not fight him,” Sansa begged, grasping Bronn on the arm with both hands.

            Bronn nodded and turned to Sansa. “I will do my best to leave him whole enough to consummate your vows, my lady.” Sansa flushed so scarlet she nearly matched the shade of her hair.

            “It was not his safety I was concerned for,” she stammered around her embarrassment.

            “Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Bronn muttered drily as she pulled away and stalked from the room.

            Tyrion tried not to laugh as he made his way out of her solar and back into the biting cold. He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. It was still warm from being so close to fire, but that would evaporate soon enough. He only hoped it got him through what was sure to be a very difficult conversation.

            “It would be a very interesting fight,” Bronn said as the started towards the training fields where the competing knights and lords were readying themselves.

            “One we would do best to avoid. I’ll not wager on either of you, and the lady is in need of a hero, no matter how unlikely he is.” Tyrion tried not to sound too bitter. He could not be the hero that wed her, that much had already been decided. Perhaps he could be the kind that secured her happiness instead. He would settle for that.

Chapter Text

 

            He should be exhausted. He spent his nights guarding the Little Bird, his days the shit of a Prince. He did not care that Joffrey had made mockery of his double duties. He could not give two shits what whispers he hears in the halls as he takes his place outside her quarters and reassures her back to sleep each night. He would not see her taken again. It was his fault the Bastard still lived. He must have slunk away in the dark to save his own neck. Sandor would not let that happen again. He would not allow anyone to hurt the Little Bird. He would slaughter anyone who tried, he has said as much to her. It was the closest thing to a vow he had ever uttered. So he stood and watched while she slept. Even during the waking hours when he guarded the Prince, he kept one eye on the Little Bird.

            Today though, he prepared for the joust. He had no squire to assist him, but it was better that way. Stranger did not take to anyone but him. A foolish lad would soon find himself short a few fingers or with a number of broken ribs from a sound kick. He brushed the courser with even strokes and spoke calmly, softly.

            “So a beast can be tamed.”

            Sandor growled lowly as he rounded on the voice behind him. The lord Imp stood with his hired man, both too close for comfort. He glowered at the little Lannister and turned back to his task at hand.

            “Be gone, Imp. I have no time for your shit.”

            Tyrion tsked. “Not very welcoming are you? Perhaps if I had red hair and sang pretty songs?”

            Sandor rounded on him with a speed that belied his size. Tyrion had the good sense to appear startled, but did not step away. Bronn, the Imps’ man, nonchalantly cleaned beneath his nails with the point of a dagger. It had not been in his hands before. He would have to keep a keen eye on this one. He was crafty and looked too calm for his liking.

            “Fuck off!” Sandor spat.

            “Where are your courtesies, Clegane?” Tyrion shook his head.

            “Fine. Fuck off, my lord.”

            “I have needs to speak with you,” Tyrion seemed to be struggling with his patience. Good. He misliked the Imp a great deal. He would not be ordered about by half a man.

            “I do not answer to you, Imp. Go find a whore to tell your secrets to,” Sandor snapped and made to turn back to Stranger.

            “It is about Sansa.”

            Sandor cursed under his breath. Those were the only four words that could make him converse with the stunted shit bleating at him. Eyes narrowing dangerously he turned to face them fully again. “Has she been harmed?”

            “Not as of yet. We need privacy. I will be as quick as I can. I assure you I have no wish to be in your company any more than you wish to be in mine.” The Imp raised his hands, placating.

            Growling again, he tossed the brush down and stomped towards the pair. “Lead the way then!”

            He followed them a distance into the Stark’s Godswood until they stopped near the ancient Weirwood tree. Sandor tried not to be unsettled by the face carved into it as it seemed to stare straight through him. He wheeled around and advanced on the Imp, stopping when he was close enough to hear his hushed voice.

            “Have you heard your master’s new plan, Hound?” Tyrion did not bother with any more japes or false pleasantries. All the better.

            “What do I care for royal plans?” Sandor spat.

            Tyrion sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Joff plans to bring Sansa back to King’s Landing.”

            “Let her lord father sort that out. He has the King’s ear. He can keep his precious wolf pup away from the lions if he so chooses.” Sandor crossed his arms over his massive chest. He failed to see why this had anything to do with him.

            “Lord Stark has already tried. It seems His Grace would welcome the lady’s company in the capitol. He believes she will be a gentling influence on the Prince.” Tyrion nodded once when Sandors’ expression became stormy. “I see I do not have to spell the troubles out for you. Good. That will save us precious time.”

            “I am the one who cleaned up the last mess that little cunt made. You don’t have to tell me a fucking thing!” Clegane snapped. Tyrion shushed him with frantic hand gestures and looked around wildly. Sandor’s head began to ache. He didn’t have the patience for the intrigues of court.

            “I will keep an eye on the little bird. She will not meet the same end as the Princess of flowers.” He would never sleep again if it meant protecting her.

            A strange look passed over Tyrion’s face as he and the sell sword had a brief, wordless exchanged. When the Imp looked back at him he appeared slightly uncomfortable.

            “I think we have come up with a safer alternative.”

            “You think I would let harm come to her?” Sandor advanced menacingly.

            “Easy now. Do not make me geld you. The lady would be greatly put out,” Bronn warned in an easy voice. That brought Sandor up short. Not the threat, but the part about Sansa.

            “What horseshit are you spouting now?” He did not think he liked the direction this conversation was about to take. He felt his temper mounting quickly.

            “Take the lady to wife. It is the only way to save her from Joff. She needs a husband to demand she stay behind. Even the prince cannot covet another mans’ wife.” The buggering Imp was completely serious.

            Sandor stood still for a few moments before throwing his head back and laughing harshly. When he stopped he leveled a glare at the Imp that had been known to make greater men piss themselves in fear. “You’ve lost your fucking mind.”

            “I assure you, my wits are still very much in tact,” Tyrion countered calmly.

            “Then your drunker than usual,” Sandor tried again.

            “More sober than a Septon.” Tyrion shook his head. “We have been trying to find a way around this since discovering the plan yesterday. There is no other way, I assure you.”

            “Find another fool for your games, Imp. I have no wish to play in them.” He turned on his heel and began to stomp away before he gutted the little shit where he stood.

            “You were her choice, not mine,” he called out. Sandor froze midstride. He turned slowly, her anger mounting to a dangerous peak. The Imp may not survive after all.

            It was Bronn who stood before him, long sword out. Sandor had no doubt the man knew how to use it. He had not thought to bring his own. Not even a dagger in his belt or boot. He glared malevolently at them.

            “Very brave, advancing on an unarmed man,” he ground out. The sneaky shit did not look nearly afraid enough.

            “I’m standing still. You’re the fool coming closer to my sword,” he replied blandly.

            “Let’s see how funny you find yourself one I’ve removed your –“ Sandor never finished his threat.

            “This is no jest, I swear it on my dearly departed lady mother,” Tyrion tried. Sandor spat at him. Rolling his eyes he amended, “Fine. I swear on my glorious cock. Something I hold in great value, I assure you.”

            “You think the lass would allow us to provoke you? She knows you guard her. She trusts you,” Bronn said plainly. It was true that the little bird was kinder to him than anyone had been in a long time, but what they were suggesting was folly.

            “I am not worthy of such a lady,” he said with as much venom as he could muster. The words were bitter on his tongue. He knew this deep down, but it pained him to say it aloud.

            “You have been offered a knighthood, have you not?” Tyrion inquired.

            “Piss on your knights vows,” Sandor returned, but it lacked the venom he was known to use.

            “Hear me out. I know you do not respect knights, lords, or even royalty. But think on this. You saved this lady when no one could. You can save her again. More to the point, you are the only one she would allow to make such an offer.” Tyrion spoke patiently, but his words still rankled. There were hundreds of knightly shits that would give their left arm to have a beauty such as her as their wife. She could do far better than a scarred old dog with no lands, no titles, and no honor.

            “She turned me down flat. Kindly, mind you, but we all know that she is kind to everyone.” Bronn shrugged one shoulder and looked at him meaningfully. “I told her she was witless to put her faith in you though. Because you won’t save her, will you? You’ll leave her fate to some other shit for brains lordling that would mistreat her.”

            Sandor had advanced on the armed man before he even knew what he was doing. The tip of the sword pressed over his heart made him stop, but he trembled with barely suppressed rage. Tyrion approached cautiously, hands up, as one would an aggressive and fearful animal.

            “No, I do not think so, Bronn. I believe you care for the lady already, Clegane. I am not saying in what manner you care for her,” he rushed to add when Sandor turned his wrathful gaze on him. “But even a blind man could see that her safety means something to you.”

            Swallowing his anger took a great deal of effort, but he managed it. Barely. He took a step away from the blade. Then another. He never took his eyes off the half man. He could not believe the words that finally tumbled from his lips.

            “What would she have of me?” This was folly. He was a damned fool.

            Tyrion visibly relaxed, but his man stood at the ready. Smart of him. Sandor still had not ruled out killing them both.

            “Go to the glass gardens and procure a winter rose. Hells, take as many as you like. But you will present them to her before you ride. You do not have to say anything. Grand speeches are not your strength. You will accept her favor, Clegane, and you will do so with kindness. She has put a great deal of work into it.” His voice brokered no argument, but Sandor barked anyway.

            “What need have I for frilly bits of nonsense embroidered with my house colors?”

            “You would humiliate her then? Has she not suffered enough?” This time it was Tyrion who snapped. His anger was nowhere near as impressive as Sandor’s. But his words hit their mark. He would not bring shame to the girl. There would be more than enough of that if this food hardy fucking plan went ahead.

            “You will also approach the King and take him up on his offer,” Tyrion commanded, but his voice had lost the surety it held before. “Do it quietly, without ceremony if you prefer. But you must be knighted before you approach Lord and Lady Stark for the hand of their eldest daughter.”

            There did not seem to be any way around this particular detail. He would have to just get it over with. But he would be damned if people starting referring to him as ‘ser’.

            “I need to be there when that happens,” Bronn remarked in all seriousness.

            “What in the seven hells for?” Sandor snapped. He did not require an audience for such an event. The less people around for that particular conversation, the better.

            “I just want to know how you plan on convincing him to let his most beautiful and adored child marry a man such as yourself. Especially with your brothers’ reputation for how he treats his wives.” Again, the hired hand had hit too close.

            “I am not Gregor,” Sandor growled lowly. “You’ll do well not to forget that.”

            Bronn regarded him for moment before nodding once. “Good,” was all he said.

            “Yes, we will have to come up with a way to convince the noble Lord Stark.” Tyrion began pacing around, as he often did when he was plotting and conniving.

            “Do not trouble yourself. I can handle her father,” was all Sandor said on the matter. They did not need to know about the debt of gratitude Eddard Stark had endowed him with.

            “It would help if you won the joust, at the very least. You will need to gold once you leave Joff’s employ.” The Imp was scheming out loud. Sandor had quite enough of him for one day.

            “Let me worry about how I will provide for the little bird, Imp!” he snapped and started back towards the tourney grounds. He would need to stop and get the damned flowers on his way.

            “Do not make me regret this, Clegane!” Tyrion called out as he stomped loudly away from them.

            “Aye, or me,” Sandor muttered to himself.

            He made his way to the glass gardens and slipped inside unnoticed. The winter roses were easy to find, blue as they were and covered in thorns. Just like a woman; fair and soft, but with the uncanny ability to wound if you are not careful. He had no doubts the little bird would be such a woman.

            What the fuck was he thinking? Marry a great lady like Sansa Stark? He had given up on the idea of ever taking a wife when he joined up with the Lannisters. It was immediately after Gregor was knighted and made Lord of Clegane Keep. He had rode off as soon as he was able, never to look back at his ancestral lands, such as they were.

            Where would he take the girl once they were wed? Not to King’s Landing, that was certain. It grieved him to acknowledge that the Imp had the right way of it in many of his suggestions. He would need new employ. Something that paid enough for him to keep his wife in comfort. And he would. It was the one kindness he could guarantee her. He was not a good man or a gentle man, but he could be sure she wanted for nothing, even if that meant working himself to death. If I die sooner than later, all the better for her, he thought bitterly as he plucked a single bloom from the bush.

            He trudged back to his horse and readied him quickly before donning his armor and helm. Clutching the rose carefully so as to not crush it he rode off to take his place in the lists. As he guided Stranger neared to the stands he felt his heart begin to hammer within his chest. He spotted her sitting between her lordly brother, Brandon, and the Imp. Cursing, he urged the great black steed closer. Once he was within reach he simply thrust the flower in her direction. He knew he should say something kind, something from the songs that great ladies always filled their heads with, but his tongue felt thick in his mouth. He swallowed convulsively as her pale, delicate hand brushed his mailed fist.

           “Thank you, ser. It is lovely.” She flushed deeply as she tucked a small piece of embroidery into his clenched fingers.

            He did not correct her term. He would be a knight soon enough, after all. And coming from her the word lost a bit of its disgrace. He inclined his head and guided Stranger away, not once looking back. He had seen many and more gawking at their exchange. He was afraid he would strike more than one down if they had the misfortune of speaking ill of her in his presence. Before lining up to joust against the first of many for the day he examined the bit of fabric still in his mailed hand. What he saw made his heart slam to a stop before beating harder than ever before.

           A small grey bird was perched atop a Weirwood branch, its white tipped wings extended slightly. Below sat a great black dog. It faced away from the little bird, watching the surrounding woods. Guarding, protecting. Just as he would.

Chapter Text

             It was growing difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. She had already removed several sets of stitching only to have to go back and remove them again when she saw that the same mistakes had been repeated. Her constant glances out the solar window finally annoyed one of her companions.

            “You’re awfully twitchy this evening,” Arya remarked with a suspicious glare. Sansa did her best to shrug off the comment.

            “It is just the remains of my excitement from this afternoon. It will die down soon.”

            She had meant the words to be reassuring, but for the life of her she could not figure out who she was trying to calm. Herself? Her mistrustful sister? Or mayhaps her lady mother, who had been far too quiet on the subject of the tourney for her liking. She glanced nervously at Lady Catelyn who seemed to be peaceably sewing away nearest the fire. She did not even lift her eyes to acknowledge that her children had spoken. Her silence was maddening. She had expected a barrage of questions when Sandor had presented her with the winter rose, but there had been none. At least not from her mother. Her sister, on the other hand, had plenty to say on the subject.

            “I still don’t know what the Hound was playing at. You didn’t seem all that surprised by his flower.” Arya voiced her thoughts again, more loudly than before. Sansa sighed and went back to her embroidery. “Is that for him as well? Do you fancy him now?”

            “Arya,” Sansa’s weary voice held a note of warning. She would not discuss this now. It was not yet the time. There was still much to be done.

            “You do!” Her sister was aghast. “Seven bloody hells, Sansa! Did the Bastard of Bolton rob you of your wits instead of your virtue?”

            “ARYA!” Their mother shouted suddenly as Sansa felt herself go pale. Lady Catelyn’s sudden fury was something to behold, but nothing compared to the storm that raged inside of her when reminded of Ramsay Snow. “You apologize to your sister this instant! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

            Arya ducked her head somewhat under the weight of their mothers’ glare and mumbled a quiet, “sorry.”

           “You may take your leave now. Go and find one of your brothers or assist your father.” No sooner had the words escaped their mothers’ lips did Arya bolt from the room as if her skirts were on fire, her failed attempts at stitching quickly abandoned.

           “You do realize you have just given her what she wanted,” Sansa said shakily as she attempted to settle her nerves once again.

           Her mother sighed and looked back down to her own needlework before setting it aside and locking eyes with her remaining daughter. They sat that way for a long while, not speaking, just holding each other’s gaze. As usual, Sansa cracked under the pressure of the silence first. She never had been good at lying, especially to her mother. But she could not risk telling her their plans too soon. It could destroy everything. She decided she was safest in half-truths rather than flat out lies.

          “It has been a long time since someone has presented me with a gift at a tourney.”

          Her mothers’ sharp blue eyes narrowed slightly. She began to regret bringing it up at all when the older woman finally said, “Yes, it has.”

          “I am just relieved it was not Prince Joffrey who offered me the bloom.” There was no lie in those words at all, and they came easily enough.

          Lady Catelyn regarded her daughter carefully before simply saying, “You know, don’t you?”

          Sansa said nothing, but nodded once. Her mother sighed. It was a weary sound that matched the concern in her brow. “Your father has already tried to decline as respectfully as possible. Kind Robert will not hear him, I am afraid.”

         Sansa knew this much already. She tried to pretend otherwise. “Is there nothing that can be said or done to prevent it? I do not like the Prince. He has a way about him that makes me very uncomfortable.”

        “You are not the only one with misgivings,” her mother murmured cryptically.

        “Would it help if I spoke the King myself?” She knew it would not, but she did not want to be seen as too accepting of this scheme.

        “No child, I do not believe it will. I have already tried. He dismissed my concerns the same way he did your father’s. I can understand his reasoning. We are keeping his daughter here, after all. He thinks it a fair trade for a time.” Her mother sounded so worried that Sansa nearly began revealing all.

       “We had a thought to send Arya with you, as well as a few knights from our own house for your company and protection,” her mother added suddenly. It became frighteningly clear just then how definite her relocation would become if Tyrion’s plan did not succeed.

       “No! Please do not do that,” Sansa rushed to argue. If Arya was involved in this in any way it would be a disaster. “Arya would hate the capitol. She is most like to be dragged the entire way down the King’s Road kicking and screaming. And she would no doubt do something that would have her beheaded before the end of the first week.”

       Her lady mother laughed around her frown. “Yes, she is very capable of causing trouble. Would you not feel safer with her company? She does know how to use that blade of hers.”

       It is true that Arya was more than competent with the small sword their brother, Jon, had fashioned for her before he left for the wall. And if she was to make any kind of journey without the protection of her father or brothers, Arya would be her choice for companion. But she had no intention of making this voyage at all. It was best not to rattle her sister without good reason. She was not like to live it down for some time.

      “I will think on it. Please do not make mention of this to her just yet. I may come up with another alternative,” Sansa tried to sound calm and confident without alerting her mother to her secret planning. It was a difficult balance that she had never been capable of in the past.

      “You are not going to tell me what is transpiring between you and Lord Tyrion and the Hound?” her mother asked in a quiet voice.

      Sansa schooled her features into a mask of surprise and innocence but she could nothing to stop the traitorous blush from seeping into her cheeks. She went back to half-truths.

      “Lord Tyrion does not like Sandor Clegane. I cannot picture them planning anything together.” She tried to give a convincing smile, but may have come up short.

      “And what of your feelings for the man?” Her mother’s keen eyes missed nothing. She would have to tread carefully here.

        “For Tyrion? He has become a good friend. I enjoy his company.” She tried feigned confusion. She did not think she succeeded.

        “For the Hound,” he mother pressed.

         “I do not really know him, mother.” She cast her eyes back down to her embroidery. This one was a small grey and white bird surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers. A large black dog guarded the bird from a short distance away. Mayhaps she should be less obvious with her future needlework.

         “Sansa,” her mother came and sat beside her, taking her hands in her own. Sansa’s hands were cooler than her mother’s, but of a comparable size. Lady Catelyn smiled down at them.

         “I remember when your hands were so tiny. You were the loveliest babe I had ever seen. And now,” she paused to tuck a stray lock of fiery hair behind Sansa’s ear. “Now you are a beautiful woman grown. But the age of child does not matter to the mother that loves them as I do you. We will always protect our children with a ferocity that would make even the most seasoned knight tremble in fear.”

         “Mother,” Sansa whispered as tears gathered in her eyes.

         “Listen once,” her mother continued. “I know you are grateful to Sandor Clegane for rescuing you from the Flayed Men. Believe me when I say he has my eternal thanks along with your fathers’. But please do not confuse that with something . . . more.”

          Sansa released a breathy laugh. “Is that your concern? You fear I may be in love with him?”

          She could laugh because that was not the truth of the matter. She was grateful, as her mother said, but she was also intelligent. She had learned long ago that life is not a song. The handsome knight or lord may not be a good man, just as an ugly one was not always evil. This large scarred man was one of the most feared in Westeros. A marriage to him would practically guarantee her safety in the future. No person who had all their wits would ever antagonize such a man.

           Beyond that she could not deny there was gentleness in him that she longed to see more of. He had been so careful with her when he saved her from being savaged and butchered by those men. Not exactly tender, but she could see that he was trying. He had even gone out of his way to see that she remained protected after returning her home. It meant a great deal to her that he would put himself out like that for nothing in return.

           “You have not answered me in how you feel,” her mother reminded her.

            With this she could me almost entirely honest. “I am thankful for him and the kindness he has shown me, so I show him kindness in return. I do not believe he has been on the receiving end of such gestures in a great while, if ever. Should I not show my gratitude for all he has done? He is not a bad man as people would believe.”

            “He is not a good man either,” Lady Catelyn countered.

            “Not everyone can be like father,” Sansa whispered and looked out the window. Her father was the most honorable man she knew of. She had often longed to marry a man just like him when she was a little girl. But now she knew better.

            “No, but I would rather you had eyes for someone who at least pretended to be,” her mother said drily.

            Sansa giggled a little. “I bet you are relieved that the marriage to Tyrion was never brought to you and father. I cannot see you taking kindly to him.”

            Her mother made a face and shook her head. “I will admit that he is not the choice I would make for you, but in saying that I do not believe he would treat you badly. He truly seems to regard you highly.”

            “I am so much taller than he is, you see,” Sansa japed before she could think better of it.

            “You have been spending too much time with the Imp,” her mother said though she laughed slightly.

            Now it was Sansa who frowned. “Please, I cannot make others guard their tongues. I would ask that you not call him that. He does not like it.”

            Her lady mother regarded her tenderly for a moment before nodding once. “Forgive me. I will be more mindful in the future.”

            “Thank you.” She closed her eyes and rested her head on her mothers’ shoulder as she had when she was a young girl.

            “You should rest now, my sweet girl. Tomorrow is another long day,” Lady Catelyn said kindly.

            “I have to visit the godswood, but then I will turn in for the night.” She stood and sought out her warmest fur cloak.

            “Sansa, no. It is nearly dark,” her mother objected. Sansa paid her no mind as she readied herself.

            “I will take Lady with me,” she assured her. “And I will not be long.”

            “I said no. I will not have you wandering around alone again,” her mother said as she opened the door to her solar.

            “Mother, please, it is only the godswood,” Sansa argued as she tried to pass through the doorway. Lady Catelyn’s arm suddenly blocked her path. Lady gracefully pressed her large body between the two women, but did nothing else.

            “Good evening, Lady Stark and Lady Sansa. Might I be of assistance?”

            Both women ceased their staring contest with one another to seek out the voice, although Sansa knew at once to whom it belonged. Her lady mother grimaced slightly.

            “Why are you not with your lord?”

            “Forgive me, I was sent over by Lord Tyrion to deliver a message for the lady.” Bronn turned and regarded Sansa with a knowing grin. “It seems that ser Piss-On-Your-Vows has been forced to eat his words, as it were. Lord Tyrion would have brought you the news himself, but he was making plans to visit your baths.”

            Sansa grinned widely as she saw the man’s timely visit for what it was. “As it so happens, I have need of your services myself. As your lord is otherwise occupied I do not believe he would be bothered if I borrowed you for time.”

            “Feel free to keep me, if you so desire,” Bronn jested. Sansa giggled but her mother frowned.

            “I fear we cannot afford you, ser. And my daughter has no need of a sellsword.”

            “But I do have need of an escort to the godswood this evening,” Sansa cut in with a mischievous look.

            “Is your direwolf too lazy?” he asked genially and scratched Lady between the ears.

            “I am afraid she is insufficient protection, at least according to my mother,” Sansa returned and looked happily at Catelyn.

            Lady Catelyn pursed her lips for a moment before conceding defeat. “Fine. Ser, you will not leave her side at any point. If any harm befalls her there will not be a safe enough distance for you to escape my wrath, are we clear?”

            “Crystal, my lady,” Bronn said with a deep bow before offering Sansa his arm. She took it while trying to smother a laugh. Once they were out of the building and on their way Bronn turned to wink at Sansa. “Ever seen a raw cut crystal, my lady? Murkier than even the Trident.”

            Sansa let her laugh free and pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. She did enjoy her times with Bronn and Tyrion. Mayhaps she would have to invite Tyrion back after a time. Or she could make her way to Casterly Rock. But she could not focus on those thoughts now. She had much more pressing matters to attend to.

            “He has been told to meet me here?” she whispered nervously as they crossed into the godswood.

            “He was informed a short while ago. Don’t know if he’ll come or not. Dogs are usually only obedient to their masters, much like wolves,” Bronn quipped before Sansa stopped short, pulling his arm as roughly as could. It did not seem to bother him as much as she would have liked.

            “Do not call him that,” she insisted. She did not know why it bothered her so much. The man referred to himself as a dog often enough. But should could bring herself to do so after his actions towards her.

            Bronn regarded her with a sly smile. “Apologies, my lady. I will do better to guard my tongue . . . in your presence, at least.”

            She huffed a sigh and continued towards the heart tree, her breath escaping in great clouds of mist before her. The setting sun made the red leaves of the heart tree that much brighter and reflected off the hot pools in vibrant hues. She spied him standing alone wrapped in a thick green cloak, the hood up so as to disguise his face. His grey eyes peered out of the depths at her. They were bright with suspicion and twice as wary as her own. She swallowed thickly before releasing Bronn.

            “We need a few moments alone please, Bronn.” He looked at her and nodded.

            “I’ll just be admiring your lovely hot pools,” he told her and strode off in the opposite direction. She knew he would not be far, but appreciated the attempt to give them some privacy.

            In truth, she had no concept of how this conversation was going to proceed, but it was one that must be had. She would not go forward without the assurances she needed, or without revealing truths that this man deserved.

            “Ser Sandor,” Sansa said and gave a small curtsey.

            “Save your courtesies for someone who deserves them, little bird,” he snarled, but his voice was not near as harsh as it had once been. “What reasons do you have for depriving a man of his well-earned sleep?”

            Sansa smiled slightly and raised a brow at him. “I did not think you slept anymore. I see you either guarding the Prince or standing outside my door. That is when you are not winning jousts.”

            He had been magnificent to behold as he unseated one knight or lord after another earlier that day. He never lost a tilt, but that did not stop Sansa from holding her breath every time another man charged at him.

            Sandor shifted from foot to foot, looking away from her. He is embarrassed by my attention, she concluded and stepped a little closer. Lady remained a few paces away where she sat demurely, regarding the situation with her wise eyes.

            “Thank you for the rose,” she said shyly. She had already placed it in a vase by her bed.

            “Not my idea,” he grumbled. “Thank the Imp.”

            “He did not give it to me, you did. So I will thank you,” she tried again. She had not expected this to be easy. So far she was not disappointed. He simply shrugged at stared silently into the trees. She decided to get right to the heart of matters.

            “You do not want to marry me.” He did not need to say it. She could read it in his reluctance to be near her. Yet her words seemed to startle him. His head whipped around and he stared at her evenly. He almost looked angry. It took her a moment to realize that he thought this to be some cruel jape at his expense. She waited a few beats before speaking again. She must choose her words carefully if he was ever to believe her.

            “This was not a game or a jest at your expense. I truly did ask Lord Tyrion to speak with you regarding my situation. But if you would rather not be part of it –“

            “Bloody hells, woman, why would you choose me as part of your scheming to begin with? With all the buggering hedge knights and little lords that are prancing about you could have your pick of the litter! Why taunt an old dog?” The roughness died away at the end. It left him sounding a little confused and somewhat vulnerable. She could tell right away when his hands twisted his cloak tighter that these were feelings he was unaccustomed to and did not like displaying openly. She was determined to be completely honest with him. It was the very least she could do for him after all he had done for her. Still, the words did not come easily.

            “Have you not heard the rumors, ser?” She could not keep the bitterness out of her voice. “I have been turned away by nearly every house in the North. They believe me barren. The Queen of Ice, they call me because I am beautiful but of no real use. I am said to be as cold and heartless as the winter. Who would want a maiden like that?”

            A dark laugh rasped from under his hood. “So why not offer the scraps to a mangled hound? He is the only one who would be grateful for such a gift, is that the way of it?”

            Sansa felt as though she had been struck. Heat rose to her cheeks as she lifted her chin and regarded him with a blazing look. Behind her she head Lady shifting ever so slightly.

            “No, ser, I thought that perhaps you were as tired as me of being regarded as less than you are worth due to something you have no control over. I believed that you may want a chance to be your own man and possibly assist me in escaping the cruelty of the men in your employ. I can see now that I was mistaken to put my faith in you.”

            He laughed again, but this time it lacked the malice it held before. It still irked her and she clenched her teeth against the urge to shout at him.

            “The little bird has teeth,” he said with what sounded like a hint of pride. He stepped closer to her in the dying light. Sansa had always been a tall girl, but she still had to crane her neck to look into his eyes with him so near.

            “What makes you think I would have any part of this? It is my master that you are scheming against,” he said evenly.

            “Why save me from one cruel fate just to watch me forced into another?” she countered.

            He growled lowly but made no argument. It further proved her worst fears about what would become of her in the Prince’s care. She pressed on.

            “You continue to guard me here when you are not doing your duties, but how do you expect to protect me from your own Prince?”

            “You are not mine to protect,” he said roughly.

            She pulled in a deep breath. “I could be.”

            The sun slipped down below the tree line and the shadows of the woods engulfed them fully. They did not have much longer to linger here.

            “In a perfect world I would not need to ask anything of you. But life is not a song and I am only a woman. I cannot save myself in this, just as I could not before. So I am asking you to save me again.” She inched forward until they were practically touching.

            “A dog is not worthy to run with wolves.” His argument was feeble to even her ears.

            “I do not need a dog, I have a direwolf. And still that was not enough to keep me from being attacked,” she said in a slightly teasing voice. “I need a husband who is capable of instilling the kind of fear that will ensure my safety.”

            He snorted. “And what of your fear?”

            She shook her head in confusion. “I do not understand. I would have nothing to fear if you were at my side.”

            He growled loudly this time and threw his hood off, leaning down so they were practically nose to nose. The anger in his eyes made her want to flinch away but she knew she dare not. He was testing her resolve. She must not fail here. The scarred side of his face twitched as his scowl deepened.

            “You have never given me cause to fear you. You will not hurt me, Sandor,” she said gently. Slowly, very slowly, his angry countenance melted away to something much more passive.

            “Aye, little bird. I will not hurt you,” he conceded.

            “I would know this before we go any further with our plan.” She did not move away from him, but she could not bear to look him in the eyes while she spoke. It made her feel too exposed. Too weak.

            “Out with it then, woman,” he commanded softly.

            “Do you think you could ever . . . come to care for me?” She would not ask about love. She did not need love. She could do without it if it meant she was safe. But she did not want to be a ghost in her own home.

            “And what of your regard, little bird?” he snapped suddenly, eyes blazing once again. His mood swings were dizzying. She idly wondered if she would ever learn how to manage them. “Or am I to take what I am giving and be grateful for it?”

            She felt her own ire rising. “That depends upon the manner of your actions towards me, ser. I might find myself too exhausted from battling with you every other moment to ever consider looking on you with a softer mood.”

            He smirked slightly before nodding once. “As you say, little bird.”

            She noticed that he had not answered her, but with him still standing so close she had trouble not looking at his mouth and wondering how it would feel against her own. The words slipped away before she could stop them.

            “I would ask one more favor of you.”

            He snorted softly but held her gaze. “Another besides marriage?”

            “Yes.” Her voice was losing its strength.

            His steely eyes bore into hers intensely. “What is it?”

            The words were nearly a whisper. “Kiss me, Sandor.”

            If she had startled him before it was nothing compared to the open shock in which he regarded her with now. She had to stifle a giggle when his eyes shot open so wide she feared they may fall from his face. The smile she fought fell away completely when a completely new emotion clouded his gaze. Her stomach fluttered nervously as his eyes burned.

            “You should be careful what you ask of a man, little bird.”

            “I know exactly what I ask of you, ser.” Her mouth seemed to have run away from her again, controlled by some unknown part of her mind that spoke more boldly than she ever dared.

            Before she had time to react or take the words back two large hands flashed out of his cloak and clasped her face between them. She scarcely had time to draw a breath before his mouth roughly descended onto hers. However, rather than try to pull away she found her own hands winding tightly into his woolen cloak and pulling him impossibly closer. His tongue parted her lips and invaded her mouth, but instead of repulsed by the action as she had been when Ramsay had done the same, she found it strangely pleasant and tried to respond in kind. Their breaths became heavy and labored as she felt one of his massive hands tangle in her long hair while the other gripped tightly at her waist. Her own hands wandered up to clutch at his wide shoulders as she continued to cling desperately to him. She did not know what she expected, but this was not it. The scars that ruined half his mouth were not as rough as they looked and did nothing to impede the smooth movements of his lips on hers. With no real experience to guide her she decided not to think at all, simply to feel. She did not expect the excitement and warmth that spread through her as his large fingers gently played in her loose hair.

            It was only when she struggled to draw breath that he started to pull away. He did not hold her to him, but stepped back away from her completely. She had been leaning into him more than she believed and momentarily lost her balance, wobbling on her feet. His hands shot out to help steady her as he chuckled.

           “That was . . .” she stopped herself from saying it was not what she had in mind, because if she was being honest, it was exactly what she was hoping for. The man before her may never love her the way her father loves her mother, but at least she knew he desired her, and that was no small thing.

           “Was what?” He was regarding her warily again, his moment of levity seemingly vanished. In an effort to get it back, she straightened her back and began primly smoothing her hair.

           “Satisfactory,” she said with so false an air of propriety that she had trouble containing her smile. When she chanced a look at him again he seemed to be fighting a smirk of his own. It was enough to force the wide grin to break from her hold.

           “Glad to be of service,” he remarked evenly, but his smirk became more pronounced. She laughed lowly at that before looking around and smoothing her cloak.

           “I should be heading back. I would hate for my lady mother to send out a search party.” Though the words were said in jest, there was an ounce of truth in her concern.

           “I believe the sellsword can see you back to your rooms,” Sandor said in a voice loud enough to carry through the trees. No sooner were the words out than did Bronn appear from the shadows.

           “I thought I would surely freeze to death before you two were finished your . . . negotiations.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively at Sansa. She did not look away despite her blush, but tilted her chin up defiantly.

           “What a lady discusses with her intended is none of your concern, ser.” It was only once the words were out did she realize the full weight of them. Her eyes quickly shot up to seek out Sandor’s but he would not meet her gaze. She prayed she had not overstepped in stating that so boldly.

           “Well, I will just be on my way then. Come, wolf,” he tried calling to Lady. She did not budge until Sansa turned with a simple nod. And then she merely loped gracefully over to her mistress’s side. Bronn rolled his eyes and headed back towards the entrance of the godswood.

           When Sansa moved to follow him she noticed that Sandor did not move. She slid her hand down his arm in her passing, pausing only momentarily to squeeze his fingers tightly before releasing him. His parting words were so quiet she nearly missed them.

          “Aye, little bird, I could care for you.”

 

Chapter Text

The tourney was finally over, Gods be good. As Warden of the North it was his place and responsibility to host such a great event for all his banner men, but he could not deny how he longed for the quiet to return to Winterfell. And as much as he loved his boyhood friend, the King, he could not wait to see the back of that obscenely large wheelhouse.

The only unresolved piece that still gave him heartache and worry was the Prince’s insistence that Sansa accompany them back to King’s Landing. Try as he might he had not been able to deter Robert from the notion that his daughter needed to see the capitol.

And so he sat in his private solar with a cup of ale, trying desperately to come up with a way to preserve the innocence and life of his eldest daughter. He knew without a doubt that Prince Joffrey had been responsible for the death of his young wife, Lady Margeary. He would be damned if he allowed the same fate to fall upon Sansa.

 When a loud knock thumped against the solid door Ned frowned but bid entry. To his surprise it was not one of his Northern lords seeking his council, but Sandor Clegane. Ser Clegane, he reminded himself. He has been knighted after all. He addressed him as such.

Clegane grimaced, but Eddard noted his usual blasphemous remarks about what knights could do were absent. “Lord Stark, I have come to discuss terms with you.”

His surprise at Clegane’s visit quickly turned to suspicion. While this man had given him back Sansa – whole and unspoiled no less – Eddard still mistrusted him. His elder brother, Gregor, had an infamous reputation of brutality that the Hound seemed to have adopted as well. Just this morning Eddard had watched as the Hound beat every knight and lord he came up against in the melee, including the Kingslayer. He only stopped pounding them into the ground when ordered to by the King himself. There had been whispers among the lords that Jaime Lannister had lost the melee on purpose, but each rumored reason was more absurd than the last. Still, he had given this man his word. Ned was nothing if not a man of honor.

“I am indebted to you, ser. Name your reward and I shall grant it if in my power.” He tried to sound as grateful as he had been the morning he had made this vow.

Sandor grunted and shifted foot to foot. He appeared nervous, an emotion Eddard did not think he had ever seen the Hound wear. “The first would be a place in your guard.”

Shock lifted Ned’s brows. “You wish to remain in the North?”

“Aye,” he responded simply. When it became apparent no further explanation was coming, Eddard nodded.

“It will be done. Resign your post with the King and I will place you in our personal guard. Ser Rodrick and Jory will find you a place. They will be happy for your sword and your knowledge, ser.” It was unexpected for the man to make such a request as he was a Lannister man from his days as a squire. The Lannister’s were known to reward those in their employ handsomely. Eddard wondered what would make the Hound want to find a new master. He did not relish the idea that it would be him.

“You said the first. I take it you mean to request something else from me?” A place on his guard was not enough to make this seasoned warrior so unsure of himself, Eddard thought as he watched Clegane swallow reflexively.

“The hand of your daughter, Sansa.” He said the words as plainly as if he were requesting new mail or a better courser. Eddard sat very still and let the request sink in fully.

Something is amiss here. Some scheme I have been unable to ferret out, he thought to himself as he rubbed his forehead to ward off the approaching ache. He stood and leveled a cold stare at the Hound.

“You ask too much, Clegane.”

Sandor’s impassive expression melted into a deep scowl. “You gave your word to grant me anything in your power. No one else holds power over who your daughter will marry except you.”

Eddard loathed to be reminded of his own honor by such a man. “You are not fit for Sansa. You have nothing to give her.”

“I can give her safety and protection. Something your northern shits haven’t been able to provide of late,” Sandor snarled.

His own ire rising swiftly, Ned took a step forward. “You dare to insult the men you just asked to join? You will not win yourself many comrades here with such words.”

“It is not their regard I need, nor are they my concern. You said you would grant me anything I wished for if it was in your power. These are the rewards I want. Will you not honor your word, Lord Stark?” Clegane sneered.

“How will you provide for her?” Eddard returned. “You have no lands, you are only recently knighted, and –“

“I have just taken two large purses for winning a fucking tourney!” Sandor shot back. “And I have just received an offer of employment in your own personal guard. I can keep your daughter in the manor she is accustomed.”

“She cannot bear you sons.” It pained him to utter such words about his own precious child, but his desperation grew with each argument presented.

Clegane snorted and shook his head, the scarred side of his face twitching. “Some of us have no need for pups. A wife is good for more than child bearing.”

Eddard paused at his words, the wheels in his mind turning rapidly when a softer voice carried from the doorway. “You are part of this, are you not?”

Cat strode into the room, her gait slow and measured as she regarded the Hound warily.

“Part of what?” Clegane rasped. He met her glare unflinchingly and did not back down, even after she turned her blue eyes to Ned.

“You brought this upon yourself by swearing before the Gods and the King to give this man anything within your power, Ned,” she admonished him.

“Now is not the time, Cat,” Eddard replied tersely before turning his attention back to the large man still glaring his way. He was interrupted again before he could speak.

“You will stay in the North. She will not go to King’s Landing.” His wife’s tone brokered no argument. To his merit, Clegane did not offer one. He merely nodded.

“Gods, Catelyn, you cannot seriously be considering this.” Ned was floored by her ease of acceptance.

“You will do everything you can to make her happy,” she continued solemnly as if her husband had not spoken. “And no harm will ever befall her at your hands.”

Clegane’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You’ll do best to remember who saved her precious skin from the Flayed Men.”

“You will address Lady Stark with respect, Clegane or I’ll give you wounds to match Ilyn Payne,” Eddard threatened in a tight voice.

“You want a way to keep her from the Lions? Give her a husband,” the Hound retorted with a growl.

“You want me to believe you are doing this for her well being alone?” Ned could not keep the disbelief out of his voice. He did not really try. The Hound was not known for his chivalry. He did not want to give his sweet, considerate, kind daughter to a beastly soldier from a much lessor Lannister house.

Clegane seemed to consider his words. His struggle to reign in his temper was obvious. “I want what was promised me. And I have no wish to see the lady I saved served up to that shit of a Prince. There would be less of her when he is finished than the Bastard would have left for your wolves to find.”

Catelyn paled but held his gaze. Eddard always did have an amazing respect for the strength his wife always managed to display. He watched as Clegane composed himself carefully before settling into a more neutral countenance.

“I can keep her safe. She would remain here with her family. I have the means to acquire a modest keep for her and will treat her well. She will have nothing to fear from me,” he swore solemnly.

Eddard tiredly resumed his seat by the fire. He did not see another way. When he felt Cat’s hand rest on his shoulder he knew what he must do. Before speaking he said a silent prayer to the old God’s asking for their wisdom and protection over his child. There was no way to get out of this without breaking his word.

“As you wish, ser. I will make the arrangements for you to wed Sansa and for you to join my guard. Go resign your post, and then see Ser Rodrick for a place in the barracks until your wedding. We will find more suitable accommodation after.”

“Many thanks, my lord.” Clegane seemed to choke on the words as he made to retreat, but Cat stopped him with a word.

“You will protect her with your life.” Again, this was not a question. Again, the Hound did not hesitate.

“No one will ever lay a hand on her again.” They nodded silently at one another before he took his leave, closing the door loudly.

It took a few moments before Cat came over and placed herself across his lap. A contented sigh escaped him as she ran her fingers through his hair. They stayed in silence a while before Eddard could speak his fears.

“How can we give Sansa to a man such as Clegane? She deserves so much more than he can provide.” He could not keep the sorrow from his voice.

“It may surprise you what her thoughts on the matter are.” Cat answered cryptically.

Eddard turned to her expectantly, hope and surprise in his voice, “Oh?”

She nodded. “Have you not noticed how he has shadowed her since arriving here?”

“I have only noticed the attentions of the Imp, if I’m to be honest,” he returned with a hint of disgust.

Cat sniffed a laugh and nodded. “Yes, be glad Lord Tywin decided Sansa was not capable of populating Casterly Rock. Otherwise you might have had Lord Tyrion as your goodson instead of Clegane.”

Eddard snorted. “The Imp or the Hound. Are these my only choices?”

“Do not let Sansa hear you call them such. She will have angry words for even her most adored father.” Cat kissed his brow and rested her smooth cheek on his bearded one.

“If there was another way,” he started to say, but could not finish. There was no use in bemoaning what will be.

“First a royal tourney, now a northern wedding. Gods be good, how will be feed everyone and still be able to last the winter?” Cat worried aloud. “And Robb is to marry Myrcella when she flowers, but that could be anytime now as she is three and ten.”

“So young yet,” Eddard mused. “Compared to Robb who is nearly twenty.”

“Yes, my love, but she will grow. Say prayers she grows more before they wed,” Cat said around a small smile.

“My prayers are of a different nature.” His tone was serious again. It was not in his nature to jest as much as other men often do.

“She is nothing like her mother. She has a sweetness that is nigh impossible to fake. And she is so taken with Robb. I do not see them being unhappy. She will be Princess of the North in his eyes.” Cat smiled warmly as she spoke of their eldest child.

“You have surprised me of late with your consents regarding who our children marry.” It was true. He expected her to rail and scream when Robert had approached him with the match of Robb and Myrcella. Cat had no love for the Queen. ‘That Lannister woman’, she always called her. While Eddard shared her sentiments, it would not do to provoke Cersei if their houses were to be joined.

“It is not a mothers’ place to give consent,” Cat said bluntly. “You hold that burden alone, my love.”

Ned snorted a laugh. “What a burden it can be. To have to choose who your child will spend their days with. In truth I would wish them their own choices, but that can have troubles of its own.” He tried not to think of Lyanna.

“Wait until it is Arya you must make a match for,” Cat teased with a knowing smile.

“May your Seven save us all when that day comes. I do not think the Old Gods will hear my prayers over her objections,” he replied wearily, but Cat laughed warmly and kissed his cheek.

“You do not give yourself enough credit, Ned. You always think of your children’s happiness rather than your own gain. Otherwise Sansa would have been married off to some lessor lord years ago so that you might have more squires and swords to swell your ranks.” Her words did little to soothe him, but he saw the truth in them.

“We will need to make haste with this wedding. I do not want that Lannister woman to find some clever way to abscond with Sansa on the merit that she is not yet a wife,” Cat murmured against his cheek.

“Let us speak with Sansa first. If she holds strong objections I may yet have to find another way to keep her in the North.” As much as Eddard intended to honor his word, even to a man such as the Hound, he would not send his daughter into a marriage that she feared or detested. He could do that much for her at least.

“Do not hold out hope for her to fight you on this,” Cat said drily. “Or has it escaped your notice the types of characters she surrounds herself with these past weeks?”

“It has not,” he answered in a measured tone. He had been made more aware of the whispers circulating the camps about his daughter than he cared to of late. Gossip and tales of the small folk about their daughter had spread through the camps like wildfire.

“This will, at the very least, settle many of the rumors.” Even as his wife spoke the words he could tell that she was not pleased. Truth be told, he was not either.

They walked the halls quietly as they reached Sansa’s chambers. The rooms were quiet, her solar empty, the fire long extinguished. A chill lay in the air that felt entirely unnatural, even with winter setting in around them.

“Sansa?” He called, trying to ignore the fear that began to take root inside of him. He was at the door to her bedchamber before it eased open a crack. One wide blue eye peered out at him in the near darkness of the solar.

“Father?” Her whispered voice was high and frightened. Behind her he could hear the steady panting of her direwolf, Lady.

“Your mother and I crave a word with you,” he said calmly, gently. When she opened the door fully he surmised that they must have roused her from sleep. It was still early in the night and the last feast of the tourney continued in the Great Hall. He had noted how she had retired quite early, begging off with an ache in her head.

“Are you well?” Cat asked, brushing him aside and placing motherly hands on their child’s brow.

Sansa smiled softly. “I am now. I fear I had too much wine before the feast in my celebrations. My head is feeling much better now,” she assured them.

Eddard walked across her room and added more wood to the dying fire as Sansa flitted about lighting candles and lamps. The room was soon bathed in a warm orange glow as the wood hissed and popped merrily in the hearth.

“You wished to speak with me?” Sansa asked after taking a cup of water from the pitcher on her windowsill. All traces of sleep gone from her bright eyes, she regarded him with open interest.

“I have been approached for your hand . . . by Sandor Clegane.” He thought it best not to dally. Time was a pressing matter in this instance.

Sansa made no move to speak nor changed her expression. She had become far too proficient in schooling her features to hide her feelings and thoughts in the past few years. He disliked it immensely.

“You knew he would seek your hand, didn’t you?” Cat asked wearily as she sat upon the rumpled bed, massaging her brow.

“I do not claim to know what a man would think or say or do. Especially a man as guarded as ser Sandor.” Eddard heard the lie in her words as plainly as if she had spoken it aloud.

“Do not give us falsehoods, Sansa. We are your parents and deserve your respect,” he scolded sternly. She tucked her chin as her cheeks flushed pink, but she offered him no apologies.

Instead she asked, “Did you give your consent?”

“What are your feelings if I have?” he asked shrewdly.

“My feelings bear no part in the brokering of a marriage. I am a woman and your daughter. I will trust your judgment.” The words were delivered with so little enthusiasm that Ned could not contain his laugh. Cat and Sansa both looked up, startled by his reaction.

“If only I were guaranteed this response from all your siblings, I could be spared the sure headaches that are to come.” He smiled ruefully and shook his head. Sansa’s demeanor finally relaxed. She smiled wanly.

“I do not object, if that is your worry. I do not believe ser Sandor will make a bad husband for me. Pray tell me, where will I reside once we are wed?” A shadow of doubt finally crept into her Tully eyes.

“Here,” he answered her shortly. Her eyebrows shot up in shock.

“Here? In Winterfell?” He could see her surprise was genuine.

“Clegane Keep belongs to the Mountain. And Clegane –“

“Ser Sandor,” his daughter corrected lightly. He grimaced at her interruption and continued as if she had not spoken.

“Has asked for a place in my personal guard, which I have granted him. He has assured me that he will use his tourney winnings to set up a suitable home for you after you are wed. You will reside here until he has decided on a place. It will be near Winterfell, but you will not live within the walls.” In truth, he did not know where they would live. It would have to be close enough for Clegane to report for duty every day. There were several keeps within a short riding distance as well as many large farms surrounding the Keep. How much he could afford was his business alone, although Eddard would be well within his rights to request that Clegane acquire property before wedding his daughter.

“I . . . can stay in the North?” Sansa’s voice quivered with emotion.

“It appears that way,” Cat answered softly. “Sansa, please be honest here. Do you want to marry this man? We can find another way to keep you from King’s Landing. You may yet receive a better offer of marriage from a more respectable knight or lord.”

“I will marry ser Sandor,” she said somewhat evasively.

“Sansa, I will rescind the match if you are not truthful.” He was trying to use patience with her, but she was making it difficult.

“I am being truthful. What do you need to hear?” she replied calmly.

“Your feelings!” Cat cried. “Your real thoughts on this matter. Sansa, do you not understand that once this marriage is set there is no way out? We only want what is best for you.”

“I know that, truly. And I do not want you to think me ungrateful. So few women have parents that would consider their feelings as you do mine.” She stared up at him with wide, beseeching eyes as she took his hand. “I love you both for it, so much.”

She seemed to consider her next words carefully. “I do not think I will be unhappy with him. He has never given me reason to fear him. In fact, I have never felt safer than in his company. And I believe he will be kind to me . . . in his own way.”

“Do you care for him? Or he you?” Cat asked plainly. Sansa bit her bottom lip pensively.

“I hold him in high regard and am grateful to him. But I believe we could come to care for one another after a fashion.”

“You should have a man who loves you and cherishes you,” Eddard argued quietly.

“There are worse things to be condemned to than a loveless marriage,” Sansa murmured gravely before her expression cleared again. “Besides, we are worrying about things that may change with time. I get to stay close to my ancestral home and my family. How many young women can make the same boast?”

After Sansa sat down next to her mother he watched as Cat began stroking her long auburn locks lovingly.

“Will you be announcing our engagement tonight?” Sansa inquired quietly. He detected a note of nervousness in her smooth voice.

“Would you like me to?” He did not want to draw more attention to this situation than necessary. A public slight on a royal invitation would be difficult for him to explain away gracefully.

“No,” Sansa said firmly after only a moment. “Do not misunderstand, I am not ashamed of my betrothed, but I do not wish to make a spectacle. I have had enough of courtly gossip to last a lifetime.”

“You have your mothers’ wisdom as well as her beauty,” Ned remarked kindly. Sansa blushed under his compliment. It was too seldom that he handed out praise to his children.

“Did you have your heart set on a large wedding?” Cat whispered as she continued her delicate ministrations through Sansa’s hair.

“In truth all I want is to be wed before the heart tree.” Her confession took him by surprise. For as long as she could make her own decisions on the matter Sansa had chosen to follow the Seven, as Cat did. That she wanted to say her vows before old Gods filled him with warmth and pride, especially after she explained her reasoning.

“I want the other northern lords to accept ser Sandor as one of us. I do not want them feeling like a traitor or outsider is among them.”

“He has the look of a north man, I will grant him that much,” Cat acknowledged.

“More than I do,” Sansa agreed with a small smirk.

“But you have northern blood. He does not,” Eddard reminded her gently. This sounded too much like a child’s dream and he wanted her to be realistic. Many of his men would not care to have the Hound in their ranks, married to the Lord of Winterfell’s daughter or not.

Sansa opened her mouth to reply before shutting it quickly and gazing down at her lap. He had a feeling what her response would have been. That any children she should bear would be northerners as well. But that day may never come, and she knew as much.

“I am sure it will all work out. Men are much less complicated than we are. It is easier to come to understandings with a sword than with words,” Cat added in a teasing tone. Sansa smiled tremulously and nodded once. “Now, cheer up sweet girl. We have a wedding to prepare for.”

“Mayhaps we should wait until all the Southron lords have taken their leave,” Sansa said carefully. Ned did not need to read between her words. She wanted to wait until the royal family had departed before her nuptials. He could not agree more.

“I will need to inform the King no matter what we decide. He will be most put out to not only lose a good warrior from his guard, but your company for his son.” In truth, he was not worried too much about Robert. He could handle his old friend if needs be. He only needed to speak with him alone to avoid any entanglements of the Lannister variety.

“Will they be departing soon?” Sansa asked as she leaned sleepily into her mother.

“I believe Lord Tywin leaves early on the morrow with his men from Casterly Rock. I have been made aware that Lord Tyrion has made arrangements to travel north to the wall.” The news was astounding to him when he heard it, but it did not compare the astonishment on Sansa’s face as she sat upright in alarm.

“Tyrion is taking the black?” she asked loudly.

Ned snorted a laugh and shook his head. “Gods, no. He only means to see it while in the North. Something about finally being able to really look down on others without assistance of horse or ladder.”

Sansa grinned and settled back down. “That does sound like Lord Tyrion. I would not mind if he were to attend the wedding.”

Eddard held his tongue and bit back him grimace. He the pretended not to notice Sansa’s disapproving gaze. Just because she like the Imp did not mean he must. Nor could he see his stance on the matter ever changing.

Chapter Text

            "What in the seven hells do you want, Imp?”

            Such a pleasant man to deal with. Tyrion openly frowned at Clegane as he carefully approached the large man cleaning his great sword.

            “Your manners could do with some improvement,” Tyrion replied deprecatingly.

            “So could your height,” the Hound rasped back, unfazed.

            “Too true,” Tyrion conceded with a small smile. “But it is easier to teach a man courtesies than to teach him to grow.”

            “Otherwise our little lord would be larger than you,” Bronn contributed offhandedly.

            Clegane grunted, but offered nothing else in the way of response. Tyrion gritted his teeth slightly as he contemplated the difficulties that came with speaking to this man. He decided the usual niceties would be wasted here and proceeded straight to the point.

            “You need to come to the godswood and meet with someone.”

            The Hound ceased the scraping of steel on stone to level him with a wary look. Tyrion waited a few beats and when it became apparent Clegane was not speaking he continued on.

            “Now, if you please. It is a matter of some importance. That is, unless you do not wish to make your future wife happy.” He did not want to give too much away. In truth, he did not believe Clegane would agree to meet with their honored guest if he knew what they would converse about.

            “It would please me if you were to bugger off,” he growled out before returning to his sword.

            “Gods, Clegane, must you always be so bloody difficult? Can you not once just go along with something?” Tyrion griped as he fisted his cloak in his hands. “Have I done anything – recently – that you have not benefited from?”

            That gave the large man pause. Scars twitching, he rose with a grace that belied his behemoth size and tucked his sword away.

            “Fine. But make it quick, Imp. I have important matters to attend to before the day is done.” He seemed resigned for some reason. Tyrion could not understand his melancholy. Within a few short days this man would be joined with one of the most beautiful women in all of Westeros. He should be dancing around Winterfell like a motley wearing fool. It was a far better lot than he would have ever achieved on his own. Tyrion could not help his bitterness as he scowled and led the way with Bronn at his side.

            The only sound that accompanied the trio was the crunching of the snow beneath their boots as they trudged quietly across the crowded grounds and through the gate. A few of the great houses had already departed after the tourney feast. Many and more were preparing for a long trek while there was a break in the snowfall. Besides the royal family, only a few houses remained; Manderly, Glover, Umber, Karstark, Reed, and Bolton. Why the Flayed Men continued to stay on was something of a mystery, especially after the wayward actions of the Bastard and his boys.

            Tyrion’s thoughts were disrupted when a sudden snarl arose from behind him. Nervous that one of the direwolves has suddenly decided he would make a nice morsel he whipped around with his hands up. He discovered the sound had come from Clegane, who was now glaring overtop Tyrion’s head malevolently. It quickly became clear that he not only knew their honored guest, but he did not appreciate her presence there.

            “Easy now,” she said around a chuckle. “You know I don’t bite, ser.”

            “I’ll have none of your games, Imp,” Clegane threatened with a menacing step in his direction. Bronn did not move to protect him as swiftly as he would have liked. He would have to talk to his sellsword about that later. Right now he was worried about being shortening by a head.

            “Don’t act like this isn’t a game we have played before,” the soft voice called merrily from over Tyrion’s shoulder. He huffed in frustration and shot her a look.

            “Ros, sweetling, you are not helping,” he chided. She grinned widely.

            “You did not pay me to help you, m’lord,” she replied with a cunning smile.

            “Perhaps you should have,” Bronn contributed helpfully. Tyrion ignored them both and focused on the Hound, who was nearly rabid as he took in the scene unfolding before him. He was not the smartest of men, but even could deduce that he had been set up.

            “Clegane, allow me to explain before you pound me into the snow.” He put his hands up pleadingly, his tone placating.

            “Shit on your explanations, dwarf. I have no need of your whore!” he spat.

            “You had plenty need of me before, m’lord. If I remember correctly, it was only me you were interested in enjoying,” Ros said evenly, raising a brow in challenge.

            The unscarred side of Clegane’s face flushed slightly as he sneered. Tyrion took advantage of the monstrous mans’ distraction and edged out of his reach. The movement brought his keen grey eyes right back to him.

            “This is not what you might think. I have not bought her for you. Well, not in the simplest sense,” Tyrion tried to explain, but it became obvious the Hound was uninterested. He turned on his heel and began stomping away, growling loudly.

            “By all means, flee m’lord. That is if you want to kill your little wife on your wedding night,” Ros called out at the massive retreating figure. The Hound froze midstep and turned his head very slowly until he had her trapped in his baleful glare. To her credit, she did not cower. In fact, she smiled widely and winked at him. “Knew that would get your attention.”

            She strode forward until she was within striking distance. It was not a move Tyrion would have suggested she make, but she did not quell beneath his stony stare. Instead she arched a brow at him.

            “Have you ever bedded a maid before?” she asked bluntly. Clegane did not answer, but that seemed to make little difference to Ros. She continued on as if he had. “We are quite delicate in our first encounters. And not just the very first, but in many times thereafter until we are accustomed to your . . .” she looked him up and down before smirking wickedly, “considerable charms.”

            It was clear that Ros had personal experience with Clegane, a thought which made Tyrion slightly uncomfortable. He, too, had spent time in her company. She was very talented. She would do well in one of the pillow houses in the South. But he did not want to think he had bedded the same woman as the Hound. He shook off the thought.

            “Speak plainly, woman,” Clegane all but spat.

            “No need to be so hostile, m’lord. You were never ungentle with me, but if you were to be so vigorous with your lady wife before she was ready you could do some very serious damage. All I offer you now is the benefit of my wisdom. I can teach you to please her and how to handle such a delicate creature so that she never needs fear your marriage bed,” Ros said simply. A strange look crossed her face for a moment as she murmured, “I would think it would be especially difficult for her after what she has suffered.”

            Clegane’s expression cleared and took on a somewhat thoughtful countenance. Scars twitching slightly, he nodded once at her.

            “Aye, fine. Tell me what you will.”

            “As you say, m’lord,” she turned to Tyrion, “no extra charge for that. I happen to like the princess of Winterfell. But first, the information you wanted me to impart.”

            “Yes, if you please.” Tyrion was wise enough to know that Clegane would have questions of his own regarding this matter. Ros turned back to the Hound, her face now serious.

            “He still seeks her, your wife to be,” she said evenly. “The Bastard.”

            Clegane straightened to his full, impressive height. “You’ve seen him?”

            “Aye. He frequented the brothel before he slunk off into hiding. Truth be told, we were glad to see the back of him. Handsome, no doubt, but he has a cruel streak that none of us could satisfy. He permanently scarred two of our sweetest girls.” Her eyes flashed angrily. “Showed up not two nights ago to seek refuge from the storm. I had him run off, but not before he stole away with a week’s earnings.”

            She reached into her cloak and withdrew a crumpled parchment. “Found this in the room he was hiding in.”

            Tyrion had already examined the document. It was a hand drawn map of the Winterfell. Sansa’s bedchamber was marked, as was the clearest path to her windows from the roofline. He watched as Clegane’s brow furrowed deeply.

            “You should know he was not alone,” Ros continued. “Had at least four others with him.”

            “Flayed men?” Clegane rasped.

            She shrugged. “I only saw the cloaks, and none carried banners. No telling who they belonged to really. One of the girls overheard him making plans to steal away with your bride. He seemed especially put out that you were the one who would be taking her to wife. I think you may have injured him during your rescue.”

            “He never should have lived,” the Hound spat angrily, but this time the rage was self-directed. Ros placed a hand on his arm, but there was no pity on her face. In fact, her stormy expression closely matched his.

            “A mistake you will not repeat should you see him again.”

            “Not a fucking chance in the seven hells,” he agreed. She nodded once and stepped back.

            “Now, let’s talk of your lovely wife and how you can keep her lovely.” Her mischievous smile was back once more. Tyrion took this as his cue to leave.

            “No need to thank me, Clegane. Your gratitude is ever present on your face. Bronn, let us go find something more entertaining to attend to.” He waved to his companion as he began walking away from the quiet exchange that began to take place between Ros and the Hound.

            “Well, that went better than expected,” Bronn muttered as they wandered off towards the Great Hall in search of a warm fire and some spiced wine.

            Upon arrival they found much more going on than anticipated. There seemed to be a great dispute that had erupted in their absence. King Robert was bellowing loud enough that his mighty voice echoed off the stone walls and seemed to make the whole foundation shake.

            “You have taken leave of your senses, Ned!” He roared.

            “Your Grace,” Lord Stark said in a much more reasonable tone, but the King was having none of it.

            “BAH!” he waved him off. “Fuck your courtesies, Ned! Speak plainly, for the love of the Gods. You want one of my swords to guard your house, fine! Take your pick. The Hound is yours if you want him. But to marry him to your daughter? What in the seven hells are you thinking?”

            “I gave the man my word,” Eddard responded evenly. He did not seem to be affected by Robert’s mighty tantrum. In fact, he was extremely calm and self-assured. Lady Catelyn, on the other hand, looked somewhat embarrassed. He could only imagine what marrying her beautiful daughter off to the large scarred brute of a man was doing to her.

            Probably no more or less than if she were to have married you, he thought wryly.

            “He asked too fucking much!” the Kind hollered, waving his hands emphatically. “A place in your guard is honoring enough!”

            “He saved my life.” Her soft voice seemed to echo louder than any of the King’s shouts. Sansa appeared from within the crowd and floated up to stand next to her father, a slight smile on her face.

            “Your Grace, I am honored you think so highly of me. Truly, you are too kind to me.” She gave an elegantly perfect curtsey before raising her utterly beguiling eyes back to the ruddy face of their King.

            “I would not be standing here today if not for ser Sandor’s bravery and kindness towards me. I owe him everything. There is nothing he could ask of me that I would not willingly give if it was in my power. I will marry him and do so quite happily. No one would dare harm me with such as man to contend with. Please, do not needlessly worry yourself for me. You have many and more important concerns that require your attention, your Grace.”

            Tyrion grinned fully and shook his head. In a few short sentences she had not only ended the King’s tirade, but she had done so in such a flattering manner that the puffed up man’s anger seemed to deflate with every word she spoke. She truly had a gift when it came to calming the rage in men.

            King Robert regarded her for a moment before shaking his head slightly. He looked to Eddard again and grinned wryly. “She looks nothing like you, but has your bloody honor.”

            Eddard grinned. “She’s got far more of her mother than me, thank the gods.”

            They continued to speak more conversationally now, but Tyrion’s attention was diverted by the clearly disgusted and quietly infuriated gaze being cast by his lovely sister. It was obvious that their brother was trying to placate her with whispered words, but Cersei was having none of it. She seethed silently while glaring daggers at the backs of the Starks. He was so focused on his sweet sister that he nearly missed his devious little nephew slip past him out of the Great Hall.

            “Wonder where he’s off to in such a hurry?” Bronn muttered around the lip of his mug.

            Tyrion frowned. “From the looks if it, somewhere he’d rather not be followed.” Now that Clegane wasn’t his personal guard, Joffrey had been able to give the other members of the Kingsgaurd the slip whenever they were assigned to him. In the past few days Tyrion had taken note, rather amusedly, as the men in white cloaks searched all over Winterfell for the wayward Prince.

            “Should we follow him?” Bronn inquired with a nod at the closing doors.

            “No need. Sansa is right in front of us, so she is no danger from him. Let him get into some trouble. Mayhaps he’ll accidentally take the black. The wall could use more warm bodies, or so I’ve been told.” Tyrion downed the rest of his spiced wine and grabbed a passing flagon.

            “Speaking of that frozen hell, do you really mean to venture to the Wall?” Bronn’s disdain for the idea was made clear on his expression.

            “Not until after Sansa’s wedding. I enjoy a good wedding as much as a good tourney,” Tyrion informed him as he continued to gulp down the wine. With any luck he’d be stone drunk by the end of the hour.

            “I do not understand your desire to visit a desolate wall of ice inhabited by only men.” Bronn shook his head and gulped more wine.

            “I want to piss off the edge of the wall. Perhaps some passing wildling will mistake it for rain,” Tyrion quipped. In truth, he could not give good reason for visiting the wall other than his desire to see one of the most magnificent structures man had created before his days were done. He was already this far north, what were a few more weeks in the snow and ice?

            The doors burst open, allowing a swirl of arctic wind to whistle through the gap as the Hound stomped the snow from his boots. He made eye contact with Tyrion and Bronn as he passed them by, but did no more than grunt in acknowledgment. Bronn snorted into his cup.

            Tyrion watched as he carefully approached Ned Stark, who was still speaking with the King, albeit much more jovially than before. He watched as the King’s face soured slightly at the large man’s intrusion, but whatever words they exchanged must have been of some importance, for Sansa had quickly curtsied and retreated towards the large hearth where Tyrion and Bronn still sat warming themselves. It saved him the trip of requesting her company for the second part of Ros’ services.

            “Is something amiss?” He inquired as she approached. He knew the truth behind it, especially once the Hound withdrew the parchment Ros had given him. There was no need to frighten Sansa with such information, though. Best to let her future husband take care of her protection.

            “I am not sure. I was asked to make the rounds and check on the remaining guests before Sandor could say a word.” She looked somewhat put out by that fact, but Tyrion could question her about that later.

            “Do you have a warm cloak with you, my lady?” He inquired simply.

            “I do. Would you care for a walk, my lord?” She arched a brow at him. She knew of his disdain for the current blustery weather that raged on outside.

            “Actually, I have needs to visit your godswood. I wondered if you and your direwolf would accompany me?” He looked around but did not see Lady anywhere.             “She is at the kennels right now. With the gates being kept open we didn’t want them to wander off too far. Shaggy is the worst. He once went missing for two whole weeks. Rickon was beside himself with worry.” She donned a grey cloak with thick fur and looked at him expectantly. “Whenever you are ready, lord Tyrion.”

            He downed the remained of his wine and once again pilfered a passing flagon. He was sure Ros would appreciate the gesture for standing outside all this time. As he and Bronn led Sansa towards the giant weirwood he was more nervous than when he had guided Clegane this way.

            It is because you fear she will not respect you for this. That she will dislike you after this is done, he thought fretfully. He pushed the ideas aside and continued ahead in similar silence as before. When the cloaked woman came into view he felt his heart pick up its cadence, especially when, like Clegane, Sansa froze midstride. She whipped around to look at Tyrion in confusion.

            “Before you shout or throw things at me, let me explain,” he pleaded in much gentler voice than he used with the Hound. In truth, he was more afraid of Sansa than he was of Clegane.

            “I am listening,” she said in a tight voice.

            “Ros works in Winter Town,” he started to say when Sansa lifted her chin.

            “I am well aware of what she does and where she is from, Tyrion,” she snapped.

            “This one’s got bite,” Ros commented as she strode closer. As before, she grinned widely. She appeared to be enjoying his discomfort more than she aught, given that it was he who was paying her. “That’s good, milady. It will help you keep that new husband of yours to heel.”

            Sansa turned her cool blue eyes on Ros, giving her a measured stare. There were clear implications to what the other woman had just said, though they were very subtle. Still, Sansa did not miss them. He saw her bristle slightly, but noted that she said nothing. It would not do if she did not at least take to Ros enough to hear her out. Then all was for naught.

            “I have asked Ros here to help explain a few things to you, my lady.” He shifted nervously from foot to foot. How many times had he jested with her? Thrown bawdy song lyrics her way, exchanged loaded remarks, or plainly sought to illicit a blush with his indecency? This was different, and he knew it. This was him assisting her with something very intimate and personal. Something he would give anything to do himself in a very ‘hands on’ sort of way. But that was not to be. This would have to be the only lesson he ever gave her in such regards.

            “I have had plenty of instruction, thank you,” she uttered between clenched teeth. Her fury was something he had never seen before. The flush of her cheeks and the rigidness of her posture spoke volumes.

            “From who, milady? Your matronly Septa?” Ros laughed. “Forgive me, sweet girl, but how many men has that shriveled up old maid ever lain with?”

            Sansa scowled at the other woman before looking away. He could see her stony countenance beginning to crack. Gods, she is more like the Hound in personality than I had ever given thought to.

            “Have you plans for that wine, m’lord?” Ros flounced over and withdrew the flagon before he could offer it. She took a healthy drink before offering it to Sansa with a look of friendly challenge. After a moment Sansa too partook of its contents, but with far more grace. Ros chuckled and tucked her arm through the taller girls’.

            “If more ladies were to seek our advice before their weddings – hells, even after their weddings – there would be far fewer lords in our establishments.” She laughed as Sansa’s cheeks colored deeply and began to walk them towards the giant face tree. When Tyrion made to follow she turned and gave him a pointed look.

            “Bugger off now. You’re not like to be of any help here, much as you may know of pleasing a woman.” She winked suggestively and this time Tyrion flushed. He could not remember the last time he felt embarrassed by a woman and was curious by how much he enjoyed the feeling.

            “Come, my lord. Give the ladies time for their confidences,” Bronn instructed with a short bow. “Listen to her closely, my lady. She has much knowledge to impart.”

            Tyrion glanced up at his fearless companion with a look akin to consternation, to which the larger man simply shrugged. “She came highly recommended.”

            Tyrion sighed loudly as Ros laughed, pulling Sansa farther away from them. As he turned to leave he heard her say, “What would you like to know, milady?”

            To which Sansa replied, “Everything you can teach me before the sun goes down.”

 

Chapter Text

The wedding had been a simple affair by the standards of the northern lords and ladies whom attended. However, it was all Sansa had wanted and needed. Her maiden’s cloak had been used for many generations before, though her gown had been masterfully whipped up in mere days. White velvet heavily adorned with pearls and intricate silver stitching. She had been equally as impressed with her wedding cloak in the house colors and emblem of Clegane. It was remarkably lighter than her maiden’s cloak had been, and when Sandor had fastened it over her shoulders, she nearly sighed in relief.

He had been almost comely in his yellow and black doublet with black breeches and embroidered boots. She could see the immense discomfort he was feeling with all the ceremony, but also saw the look of naked awe in his face when she pledged to honor him and forsake all others. He delivered his vows quietly, but held her eyes with every word. The truth she saw in their grey depths caused her to feel lightheaded and her tummy to flutter nervously.

The kiss they shared had been far different from their first. He seemed almost hesitant in his approach. He settled on placing one hand on her cheek and gently brushing his lips across hers. It was brief and so soft that Sansa nearly missed it. She had almost leaned in for another, one more reminiscent of their first, but the loud applause of those around them dissuaded her from doing so. Instead, she allowed herself to be led from the godswood by her new husband to the Great Hall where they now sat for the wedding feast.

Music played merrily all around them and yet Sandor was stoic in his place of honor next to her father. He barely spoke more than five words to her in such a length of time that she decided she would have to make her own enjoyment on her wedding day. She drank her wine far too quickly and was rewarded when it rushed right to her head, making her cheeks flush and her smiles come very easily. She ate only her favorite dishes and danced with any knight or lord who asked her. It was only after her brother, Robb, had twirled her around so quickly she feared she would faint that she fell back into her seat giggling like a young girl. She gulped down a little more wine and turned her beseeching gaze on Sandor.

“Will you not dance with me?” she implored again. He had declined four times already, but she was determined to share at least one dance with her husband on their wedding day. It may be the only time she ever convinced him to do so.

Instead of becoming irritated at her insistence he seemed more amused. His uncharacteristic mirth did not stop him from shaking his head, however. “You seem to be doing a fine job without me, little bird. Go enjoy your young northern lords while I allow them near you.”

She pouted and reached for her goblet again, but it seemed to have mysteriously vanished from the table. When she looked about the surface in confusion she heard Sandor snort a laugh.

“I believe you have had enough wine, wife. It would not do for you to be sick on me in front of all your guests.” His voice was rough as always, but there was no malice in it. For the first time since she had laid eyes on the great man, he truly seemed to be at ease.

“I am not drunk,” Sansa protested with a great huff, folding her arms. He barked a laugh.

“You are a great deal drunker than I am,” he said with a knowing nod.

She had noticed that he had barely partaken in the wine or ale as the other men had. She did not understand his restraint. He had always been known for his drinking, yet she could not say that she saw him with more than two cups the entire evening. Still, his mood was not soured by her overindulgence, so she would not push the matter. Instead she shrugged.

“Mayhaps you need to catch up then, ser.” She was proud when her words did not run together as they had earlier in the night. In truth, all the dancing was helping the effects of the wine wear off somewhat. She still felt warm and happy, though. It helped to distract her from what awaited her at the end of the night.

“Lady Clegane, may I have the pleasure of this dance?” Theon stood before her, bedecked in northern finery, bowing deeply at the waist. Usually, Sansa would acquiesce only out of politeness, but Theon was a very good dancer. She smiled widely at him.

“You may, good ser!” And they were away twirling and laughing. By the time she made her way back to the table again she was tired and breathless with a great thirst. A flagon of water had been placed at her seat and she eyed Sandor suspiciously, but he was busily engaged in conversation with Ser Roderick. She was so focused on trying to hear what was being said that she had not noticed the man standing right beside her until he spoke in her ear.

“You make a beautiful bride, my lady.”

She turned to him, startled at his proximity until she saw who it was. An easy smile crossed her face. “Thank you, Tyrion. I am so happy you stayed for the wedding. It would not have felt right without you.”

He smiled kindly, but it did not reach his eyes. She had a feeling she knew the reason, but it would not do to speak of such things now. What’s done is done. There is no going back. Besides, she did not really believe she would want to if given the choice now.

“Will you not dance with me?” She looked hopefully at him and tried not to look too disappointed when he shook his head.

“I would need to be seated on Bronn’s great shoulders in order to reach the correct heights for a lady such as yourself. But I do thank you for the invitation. I was actually just coming to bid you farewell. Bronn and I are heading off early in the morning to see the Wall. It will be some weeks before we will return.”

Momentarily saddened by the prospect of her only friends venturing far away she felt her face fall. Tyrion looked sincerely moved by the shift in her mood. He leaned forward and clasped her hand in his as he was wont to do in moments such as these.

“Dear Sansa, you need to smile more. You truly are the most beautiful woman in all of Westeros when you do.” She flushed with his compliment, but he continued anyway, seemingly happier than before. “I will promise to visit you at length once your new husband has set you up in your own home. No need to burden your generous father with my presence more than I must.” He winked.

“Come back to Winterfell on your journey south again. I will extend you my personal invitation to our home whenever you feel you might brave our northern winters!” She promised him happily.

“You are far kinder than you know, and a greater lady than I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I will truly miss you on my adventures.” He kissed the top of her hand gallantly but she would not stand on ceremony with someone she had come to be so close to. She leaned down and embraced him warmly before placing a delicate kiss on his cheek. He seemed to need a moment to collect himself before stammering his thanks and walking swiftly from the hall.

When she turned back to the table she saw Sandor staring intently at her. It made her cheeks darken guiltily, but she could not place why she immediately felt as if she had done something wrong. Before she could open her mouth to ask him if something was amiss a great voice boomed through the hall.

“The time has come for the bedding!”

Sansa wasn’t sure which of her fathers’ bannermen had made the decision, but she wished he would have been too drunk to speak. This was the part of the evening she had been drinking to avoid thinking about. She looked around in sudden fear as men cheered and crowded towards the high table where she sat trembling with fear. Each bawdy comment and raucous bout of laughter brought back that horrible night in paralyzing flashes.

Grabbing, pinching hands. Tearing fabric. Jeering laughter. Her cries. Pain. Terror.

A sudden, deafening bang echoed through the Great Hall. Sansa whipped her head around towards the source of the noise and saw Sandor leaning over the table, both hands fisted on the wood as he glared balefully out at the crowd.

“There will be no bedding,” he uttered in a menacing voice. A few of the men chuckled nervously, but all had stopped in their approach.

“Come now, Clegane. It’s tradition!” called a man in House Umber colors.

“She’ll be all yours after tonight!” added a Karstark.

Slowly and deliberately Sandor withdrew a long dagger from his belt. He stared challengingly out at the crowd until no one was uttering a single word. It was only then that he spoke.

“Lay hands on her and I’ll fucking cut them off.”

Several moments passed in tense silence until the very large lord Manderly burst out laughing, raising his goblet to them. “Get to it then, Clegane! The night is getting no younger, and neither are you!”

Laughter rang out at the joke as the tension finally dissipated. Sansa nearly collapsed against the back of her chair in relief. She squealed in shock as she was suddenly swept from her chair and up into Sandor’s arms.

“As you say, my lord,” he replied to Lord Manderly and strode through the Great Hall as men cheered and whooped and women cackled and whistled. Sansa buried her burning face into his broad shoulder and clutched him tightly as he carried her across the snowy yard to their temporary home in the guest quarters. It took a great deal of effort to make her body stop shaking from fear.

She felt him ascending the steps to their rooms, but still did not lift her eyes. She was having trouble fighting off the nightmarish images that swam before her eyes after the suggestion of a bedding. It took her some time to notice that he had stopped walking. She slowly lifted her gaze to take in her surroundings.

They were in a large bedchamber that had been lit with dozens of candles as well as a roaring fire in the large hearth. The massive bed was piled high with soft furs and feather pillows. In the corner was a privacy screen for her to undress or bathe behind if a tub were brought up. Her eyes danced around the room taking in each intricate detail before eventually coming to rest on the unscarred side of her husband’s face. He was not looking at her, but she could tell that he was as uncertain as her. After a moment he set her back on her feet and took a step back. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to speak she decided to break the silence.

“Thank you for stopping them,” she whispered and looked directly into his eyes. She wanted to be sure that he saw her gratitude. Some of his nervousness seemed to evaporate with her words, but he merely shrugged a massive shoulder.

“I meant what I said. No one will touch you but me.”

“Good,” she whispered in relief.

She took a moment settle her nerves before smoothing her gown and stepping towards the privacy screen. Her gown was very simply laced and she would not need assistance getting out of it. The nervous fluttering in her tummy became more pronounced with every step she took until she was practically trembling as she took shelter behind the divider. With shaking fingers the unpinned her hair and shook it out, letting it flow freely down her back. Untying the ribbons on her gown took more effort and as she struggled with one knot in particular she noticed that the light in the room was growing dimmer. She peeked her head around the shade and saw Sandor walking around the room blowing out candles. Deducing that he meant to extinguish all light she began to panic.

“No!” she practically shouted as she tripped over her sagging gown in an effort to cease his actions. She had startled him with her outburst and his eyes immediately widened in alarm.

“What?” he rasped, clearly confused.

“Please,” she stammered slightly, feeling very foolish for her behavior. “Let them burn. I – I do not like the dark.”

Sandor regarded her carefully before moving to put out the remaining candles around the bed. In her desperation to stop him she dropped her gown completely and placed herself between him and the bed in only her silken small clothes. She placed her hands on his chest and pushed with all her might.

“No!” she yelled again. “Please, my lord.”

“Not a lord, little bird,” he grumbled, but made no move towards the candles anymore.

Chest heaving with anxious breaths she continued to look beseechingly up into his grey eyes. Trying desperately not to acknowledge her state of undress and close proximity to a man that now had all rights to her in any way he pleases, she started babbling nervously.

“You are a lord, actually. You inherited my titles when you married me. So now you are lord Clegane, not ser Clegane. Quite a change for you, I am sure, going from soldier to knight to lord in so short a time, but I imagine you will get used to the –“

She was forced to stop speaking when he placed a large, calloused hand over her mouth. It was not an aggressive move, merely one meant to silence her ramblings. She flushed embarrassedly and cast her eyes down. She was making a great mess of this night with her uncertainty and lack of confidence.

“I thought you would prefer the dark is all,” he said quietly. “I can sleep no matter the lighting.”

Sleep? Now she was truly baffled. Did he not mean to consummate their union? It was his right as her husband. She could not think why he would not take her as he was meant to, unless . . .

“Do you not . . . find me pleasing?” she choked out in quiet horror.

She had thought surely he wanted her after their kiss in the godswood, but perhaps she had read him wrong. He had not pressed his advantage at all since that night. She lowered her eyes as her cheeks burned in shame. Her eyes darted back up to his when he barked a loud laugh.

“I thought you were a smart little bird,” he chided her. When her confusion did not clear he sighed and ducked down to look her in the eye. “I will not force myself on you, wife. You have had quite enough of that in the prior weeks.”

“I am yours to do with as you will,” she blurted out, still mystified by his statements and lack of action. She nearly pulled away from him when he growled loudly and grabbed her chin.

“And what would you have me do, woman? Close my eyes while fucking you so as to not see your fear?” he snarled. Rankled by his accusations she glared openly at him as her mouth ran away with her.

“I have never feared you, despite your brutish manners! You could try a little kindness, for a start. You may have done this a great many times before, but I, ser, do not know what I am doing!”

Once the words were out there was no taking them back. So she ignored the heat in her cheeks and stared at him with as much intensity as he did her. After a few moments the scowl on his face changed into a gentle smirk.

“As you say, wife.” He stepped so close to her that she could feel the heat from his body seeping through the thin silk that still clung to her skin. Despite the fiery look in his grey eyes she was not afraid. Her heart stuttered as she desperately tried to control her breathing and school her features into something that resembled calm.

He lowered his head and pressed his mouth to hers. Softly at first, but with each renewal the intensity increased until she felt his arms wrapping around her back, pulling her tightly against his solid frame. He kissed her deeply, as he had in the woods. Just as she had before, she met him with her own intensity. The wine had emboldened her and she allowed her hands to wind into his dark hair. She remembered the instructions Ros had given her and tried to keep her body and mind relaxed. It was the only way for her to enjoy her first time in any way. She allowed herself to become carried away with the kiss and leaned fully into his warmth. Therefor she was startled and nearly lost her footing when he broke the kiss and pulled away slightly. She frowned up at him as he chuckled.

“You have a habit of doing that, ser,” she scolded, breathless.

He smirked at her, but his eyes burned with amorous intent. In a few sure movements he had rid himself of his doublet and tunic, standing before her only in breeches. She gazed in amazement at his muscled torso and had nearly gathered the courage to trace the lines of his many scars when he did something so unexpected she nearly gasped out loud. Slowly, he lowered himself down to his knees before her. She felt her eyes widen in surprise as she adjusted to look slightly down at him now – even on his knees he was nearly the same height as her. The mere sight of him on his knees before set off a burning in her lower belly she had never felt before.

She did not think, she merely acted. Grasping his face in her hands she renewed their kiss. Her fingertips delicately traced along both sides of his jaw until she ventured upwards and tangled one hand back in his hair. It was softer than she thought it would be, and she wound the strands around and around as she scratched her other fingers down his shoulder to his chest. She stopped with her hand over his heart and was immensely comforted by the hard, fast thrumming she felt beneath her hand. It told her that he was as nervous and excited as she was becoming. It told her that he wanted her.

He responded to her intense and insistent kisses for a time before pulling away again and trailing his mouth along her neck and shoulder. Her breath stuttered when she felt his fingertips graze the bare skin of her belly as he rid her of her small clothes. He seemed to stare at her nakedness forever, not saying anything, stormy eyes glazing over. She was moments away from modestly covering herself from his gaze when he leaned forward again and began placing slow kisses across her stomach while his hands firmly gripped her back.

The onslaught of sensations she had never before experienced unnerved her slightly, but it was such a pleasant feeling she allowed herself to enjoy it. The softness of his lips across her sensitive skin made her shiver and she found herself urging him upwards, pulling his hair slightly. It was when his lips closed over the tip of her breast that she first felt her knees buckle from pleasure. She remained standing only by gripping his strong shoulders and leaning into him again, clutching his head tightly with both hands now. She was panting in an effort to keep her mouth closed. Ros had said that noises of passion would encourage a man, but Sansa did not think she could be so wonton. She also did not think she would be able to remain standing for too much longer if he kept up the delicious assault on her body. His hands alternated between caressing her back and buttocks to trailing up and down her thighs towards her woman’s place. She was shaking so hard in an effort to stay upright that she was afraid she might collapse soon.

“Sandor.” She had meant to whisper his name, but instead it came out in an embarrassing whimper.

When he pulled back to look her in the face she saw the brightness in his eyes and the way he, too, was breathing heavily. He rose fluidly and guided her back to the edge of the bed, helping her to sit carefully on the side. She was now eye level with his hips and could not help but to stare at the large bulge behind the laces of his breeches.

“Take control of him. Men want to feel desired. Do not fear his cock. It can bring you great pleasure.”

With Ros’ words burning in her mind she tucked her knees underneath her and rose up on the bed. Locking eyes with his she extended her hands and gently caressed up his heaving chest and down to his tightening stomach. She repeated the motion several times before gathering the nerve to lean forward to place small, delicate kisses on his heated skin. Almost immediately she felt his hand in her hair, fingers tightening over the strands. It was not painful, though. In fact, the sensation gave her a small thrill and emboldened her further. She reached across with trembling fingers and began pulling at his laces. Her hands were shaking so hard that she struggled with them, but in her attempts her fingertips brushed along his very obvious arousal. Her confidence was given a much needed boost when she heard him suck in an unsteady breath. It helped still the shaking enough for her to undo his breeches fully and look up into his eyes. The purely predatory look she saw there turned her insides to molten liquid, burning through her at an alarming rate and causing her entire body to flush hotly. She held his eyes as he rid himself of his remaining clothes, not yet ready to see his manhood so closely.

He leaned down and lay across the bed next to her, pulling her against him as he kissed her hard, biting her bottom lip slightly. Sansa shivered as bolts of pure pleasure shot through her with each touch of his rough hands over her sensitive skin. When his course fingers found their way between her thighs to her woman’s place and began stroking her softly she could no longer think to control her reactions. Her eyes shot open as she gasped wildly and gripped his arm tightly with both hands. There was no stopping the whimpers and moans of ecstasy as each new movement of his hand brought her closer to a feeling she both chased and ran from in fear of its intensity.

Her body shook with each strained breath as she buried her face in his strong shoulder and cried out when he began gently pulling on the tips of her breasts in turn. There was too much for her to bear, the pleasure too intense, too overwhelming. She began to fight off the all-consuming feelings that threatened to engulf her, but it was too little, too late. She felt herself reaching a devastating peak she did not think she could survive and could not contain the cries that erupted from within her when she was finally flung from the ledge and fell so gloriously. She clung to him with all her strength, digging her nails into his flesh as her body shook over and over.

It took some time before she found her wits again. She pulled away from her hiding place tucked within his side and peeked up into his face, sure she would see admonishment there. There was nothing of the sort. In fact, he looked nearly as satisfied as she felt, if not a little smug. She shifted a little to lean up and kiss him when she encountered his very obvious need jabbing her in the belly.

Flushing at her selfishness, she continued on her previous course as she tried to recall the instructions she had received days ago on how to pleasure a man with her hands. He accepted her kiss eagerly, but when her hands began to wander down his chest she found herself quickly rolled beneath him, her hands gently pinned up beside her shoulders. She gasped into his mouth in surprise – not fear – but all his movements froze. He pulled away from her and studied her face intently. He quickly released her wrists, but she simply slid her hands down and wove her fingers through his. Still recovering from his blissful attentions she found no words to offer him, so she settled on smiling lazily and lifting her head in an effort to recapture his lips.

“Do not stop,” she whispered against his twitching mouth. She was rewarded with a deep groan and nearly smiled from the satisfaction of causing such a reaction in him, but her lips became busy again as they danced with his.

When she felt his leg nestle between her own she knew that the next part would not be as wonderful as what she had already experienced. Ros had already warned her that the first few times with a man, no matter how generous a lover he was, would be at least a little uncomfortable if not downright painful. She had assured Sansa that the pain was bearable if the man was careful and that it would not last forever. Sandor had already proven to be very considerate this evening, so she tried to push her nervousness aside as he settled his weight between her thighs. Instead she focused on doing the few things she had been told might help. She tilted her hips up towards where his manhood rubbed her woman’s place, gasping when his hardness brushed against her sensitive spot. As he shifted towards her entrance she raised her legs and wrapped them around his waist, opening her eyes to search for his. Keeping eye contact could help him read her better and might encourage him to take this slowly, according to Ros.

“Little bird,” he rasped, his face suddenly clouded with uncertainty.

“I know,” she hushed him, because she truly knew his concern. He had sworn to never hurt her and this was most definitely going to hurt. While she had not seen his member, she could feel its impressive length against her skin and knew this would be no easy fit. Still, it must be done, and so she would bear it with as much grace as she could muster.

“It’s alright, Sandor,” she whispered before planting light kisses on his cheek, neck, and shoulder in encouragement. She tried to relax her muscles, unsure how he would proceed. She had been told it could be done swiftly or very slowly as both had their merits. She did not know what to expect but knew he would not cause her harm for the sake of his own pleasure. He could have done that ten times over by now.

He released one of her hands and slid his fingers down the length of her body, caressing her breast, pulling her peaks gently, repeatedly while she moaned and whimpered into his mouth. She was too far gone to control her embarrassing bodily reactions and was not able to still the rolling of her hips as she ground against his manhood. She felt the tension building within her again, but was far too nervous to attempt chasing down the same ecstasy she experienced before, even when Sandor’s thick fingers slid against her womanhood again for a time.

She was more than a little relieved when she felt him slowly pressing into her. The relief was short lived as her innocent body tried to accommodate him. In an effort to keep from crying out she bit down on his shoulder and clutched his hand and shoulder as tightly as she could while trying to relax her lower body. He eased out of her a little before pushing in more. The painfully strange sensation of being stretched in such an intimate place filled Sansa with a confusing mixture of feelings; accomplishment, fear, yearning, and intense discomfort being only a few.

Sandor grunted and finally stopped moving within her. Thinking that their coupling was over, Sansa released her breath and pulled her knees up slightly in an effort to lean up to kiss him once again. She was therefor surprised when he started moving within her again as he moaned softly in her ear. Even though his movements were slow and careful, Sansa could not help the way her breath would catch as each twinge rippled through her. She bit her lip to keep from whimpering again, but this time it would be from pain. At the sound he lifted his head from where it lay against her shoulder and looked deeply into her eyes before shifting slightly and placing a hand between them.

“Oh!” Sansa cried out loudly as she suddenly felt pleasure shoot through her when he touched where their bodies were joined. It did not drown out the pain completely, but it made his movements much more bearable.

After a few moments she felt him gliding within her with much greater ease and even could make herself relax a bit more. The pressure on her nub created sharp feelings of bliss that echoed deep within her, but it was not enough to fully chase away the throbbing pain between her legs. Still, she found she was able to rock her hips in rhythm with his until he found a pace that he appeared to be enjoying. She fought to keep her eyes open and not lose herself in the sensations that continued to wash over her. He alternated between holding her gaze and losing himself in his own pleasure, shutting his eyes and resting his forehead on hers.

It was not too much longer when she saw his jaw tighten and his eyes slip closed above her. His hips jerked roughly against hers once, twice, three times before he groaned loudly and settled his weight onto her fully. Thankfully it only took him a few moments to catch his breath and he rolled off of her, slowly withdrawing from inside of her. She was grateful for the ability to breathe again, but winced as he pulled away from her and closed her thighs against the ache between them.

They were both quiet for a time, their mingled breaths the only sound aside from the hisses and pops in the hearth. Sansa had begun to close her eyes as both the wine and events of the day pulled her towards sleep, but startled back awake when she felt soft furs being placed around her naked skin.

Sleepy blue eyes met wary grey and for a moment, neither of them moved nor spoke. Sansa decided she had not shown him nearly enough gratitude for his kindness this evening, which could have gone so much differently with someone who did not concern himself with her feelings or pleasure. Pulling herself up across the bed, she snuggled down against his side, placing her head on his broad shoulder and absently caressing the skin over his thundering heart. After a moment’s hesitation she felt him settle the furs over them both and turn his face towards her. He said nothing and she finally closed her eyes when his breathing evened out in sleep. Exhaustion overtook her as she sunk into her first dreamless sleep in weeks.

Chapter Text

The first thing she noticed was his absence from the bed. The furs were still warm, tucked all around her naked body, but she was the only one warming them. Prying her eyes open against the filtered sunlight she rose up on her elbows and glanced around, blinking rapidly. She saw him near the silk screen directing a chambermaid who poured steaming water from a large bucket. He was already dressed in boiled leather mail, his hair clean from a recent bath.

“She’ll need someone to help her with dress,” he rasped quietly.

“Yes, m’lord,” the girl demurred with a subtle curtsey. When she turned she briefly caught Sansa’s eye and smiled shortly before scurrying from the room.

“Good morning, my lord,” Sansa greeting in a sleepy voice.

“Little bird.” He nodded at her once but avoided her eyes. She frowned.

“Is something the matter, Sandor?” She sat up fully, bringing the furs with her to keep her modesty.

Still avoiding her gaze he cleared his throat before speaking again. “I had a bath brought for you.”

She smiled at him. “Thank you. That was very considerate.”

“I need to report for duty,” was all he said in response and started towards the door.

“I will see you tonight –“she started to bid him farewell when she heard the door close swiftly, “– then.”

Her frown deepened as she sat on the bed feeling quite alone. When the quietness of the room became too much she threw back the furs and planted her feet on the cold floor. When she went to rise she felt a deep ache between her thighs and winced slightly. Hissing out a breath, she crossed the floor and stepped into the gloriously hot water. With a contented sigh she settled comfortably against the back of the generous tub and allowed the heat to soothe away her soreness. The door opened again and Sansa turned, expecting to see the same handmaiden as before. She was surprised and somewhat delighted when she saw her mother approaching her tentatively.

“Good morning, my love,” she said around a gentle smile. “I thought I would assist you this morning, if you would permit me.”

Her words were easy and light, but Sansa saw the stress lines around her eyes and heard the tightness in her voice. Confused as to what had gotten into everyone this morning she merely nodded once. Lady Catelyn sat gracefully on the floor and began filling a small pitcher with water to wash Sansa’s hair. Sansa could not help but notice the way her mothers’ eyes swept over her exposed skin as if examining her closely for some flaw, or . . . She sat up so swiftly water sloshed over the side of the tub, soaking her mothers’ dress, but she did not care.

“You think he hurt me!” she accused loudly. Her mother had the decency to look slightly abashed.

“Sansa,” her mother said in a placating tone as she set the pitcher down. “I merely wanted to see how you are this morning. A woman’s wedding night can be . . . a time of uncertainty. It is rare for a mother to see her own daughter after she is wed. I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

Sansa frowned a little but deep down she understood. Sandor did have a brutish reputation, and his little display last night would not have helped matters much in her mothers’ eyes.

“So, if you are not too embarrassed, will you tell me how last night was . . . for you?” her mother questioned delicately as she poured the pitcher over her hair, taking great care not to spill it on the floor.

It was not embarrassment that flushed Sansa’s skin as she recalled their coupling last night. In truth, she had not known what to expect, especially after speaking to Ros. But she could be completely honest when she whispered, “It was . . . wonderful.”

Cat did not bother disguising her great sigh of relief. “So, he was gentle with you?”

Sansa turned and smiled widely. “Oh, yes. He was very good to me.”

Her flush deepened as she recalled how he had touched her so intimately, how he had kissed nearly every part of her, how he brought her so much pleasure she thought she might go mad with it. She bit her lip as she discreetly tried to move in the tub to assess how sore she still might be. Her mother missed none of it and gave a half smile.

“This may seem a little late, but do you have anything you would like to ask me?”

Sansa thought for a moment before sucking in a great breath. “Will I always enjoy it?”

Her mothers’ eyes widened in slight surprise. “You were . . . able to find completion?”

Sansa’s skin was so hot that she considered fanning herself in an effort to cool her cheeks. “Yes. Well, no. Not during, but before . . .” she trailed off feeling suddenly shy.

Catelyn sat back and regarded her daughter with a tender expression for a moment before nodding once. “Yes, if your husband is as generous to you every time you lay together then I see no reason why you would not find satisfaction. And after a time it will not hurt so much to have him inside you.”

Sansa nodded a few times, too embarrassed to speak for a while. She washed herself as her mother rinsed her long hair. After helping Sansa to dress her mother sat with her by the fire and brushed her hair dry. While most of the time was spent in companionable silence, there were questions that would bubble out of Sansa from time to time. How many times would a man want his wife in any given day? Was it safe for them to couple more than once in a night? Would she always be sore the morning after?

Lady Catelyn was patient with her answers, containing her laughter very well at her daughters’ sudden eagerness to know all about the activities between a man and woman. It was far more comfortable for Sansa to discuss these matters with her mother than it was with Ros. For starters, her mother spoke discreetly and properly. And perhaps more importantly, she knew that her mother had never lain with Sandor, as Ros most definitely had. There was a part of her that was rankled by that knowledge, but she tried to push her mounting jealously aside. She would drive herself mad if she thought about all the women that Sandor may have lain with over the years.

“Tyrion departed this morning for the Wall,” her mother informed her after a lull in their conversation.

“I know. He bid me farewell last night at my wedding feast,” Sansa replied glumly. She was very much going to miss having Tyrion around. Bronn as well. They had become the closest friends she’d had in a great while.

“You are quite fond of him,” her mother observed with a strange expression. Sansa sighed and, in a very Arya-like move, rolled her eyes skyward.

“I know you do not care for him, you or father, but he is not as bad as people have led to believe. You should not trust in all the rumors you hear. He is very kind to me, and very funny. I do not remember ever laughing so much,” she reminisced warmly. “Especially when he and Bronn banter.”

“Yes, I have been witness to that on several occasions. It can be very amusing indeed. But what I was always happy to see was how much they made you smile. You really came out of yourself with them around,” she recalled as she tenderly fastened braids up in Sansa’s hair. She had left most of the fiery locks loose, flowing down her back in a coppery curtain.

“Now, you do not have your own household to run as of yet, but perhaps you would care to assist in running ours for a time? I could use the assistance as the last of the visiting houses depart this morning,” Catelyn requested genially. Sansa gave a full and genuine smile.

“I would be glad to.” And she truly meant it. There would come a time in the near future in which she would no longer reside within the walls of Winterfell. Until that moment, she meant to take advantage of her continued stay here and enjoy everything she could.

She dutifully followed her mother about the grounds, bidding farewell to her fathers’ bannermen as they made their ways out the main gates. After demurely enduring several bawdy jokes about how she was able to still walk after her massive husband had taken his rights last nights she found herself gripped in a rather fatherly embrace from lord Manderly.

“You know, I was there when your honorable lord father married your lady mother,” he informed her with a sly smile. Sansa notices her mother flush slightly around her merry chuckle. “I seem to recall a similar challenge to any man present who dared to touch his new bride for the bedding ceremony.”

Her mother nodded once and laughed somewhat embarrassedly. “Yes, Ned thought it would be bad form for him to murder someone the same day of our union.”

Lord Manderly slapped his meaty thigh and laughed loudly. “Aye, my lady. It seems your good son may be cut from the same cloth after all. Gods, who would have thought the Hound could be so bloody noble?”

Sansa tried not to scowl at the lords’ use of Sandor’s previous title. He was not a hound or a dog, and he did not belong to Joffrey anymore. She wondered how long it would take before her people started looking on him as his own man; as one of them. Would it ever happen? She truly hoped so.

“Where is the man, Lady Clegane? I wished to bid him farewell before my long journey.” Sansa could not detect anything nefarious about lord Manderly’s intent, at least not outwardly. Still, she was not certain Sandor would want to stand on ceremony any longer.

“I believe he is in the training yard with ser Roderick. He has joined my fathers’ personal guard,” she informed him proudly. Manderly nodded his head, a look of approval on his round face.

“Very good, very good. Do pass along my regards, my lady.” He kissed her hand before striding off towards his men.

It was a long afternoon of farewells and repeated conversations, but Sansa did not truly feel it was over until Roose Bolton made his way towards the gates with his company of Flayed Men. He stopped only to speak with her father, but there were clearly times when Sansa saw his mean, slanted eyes locked on hers. She fought off a chill at the malevolence she found in his face and tried to keep her chin raised. She had done nothing wrong, and she would not allow this man, or any other for that matter, to make her feel otherwise.

“Sansa, are you alright?” Her mother appeared at her side after a particularly vicious shudder had wracked her frame.             “Yes,” she said faintly before clearing her throat and tearing her eyes away from lord Bolton’s retreating form. “Yes, I am fine. I think I will head over to the Great Hall to help prepare for supper.”

It was on her travels from the South Gate to the Great Hall that she heard a commotion in the courtyard. Picking up her skirts she hurried through the snow only to halt in her tracks at the hilarity of scene before her. Sandor stood among Robb and Bran – who were doubled over in laughter – all dusted in snow about their heads and shoulders. The culprit, it seemed, was a hysterically laughing Rickon who was being suspended midair by one ankle by a very cross looking Sandor. Sansa placed one hand over her mouth to contain the giggle that threatened to burst forth. The scarred half of Sandor’s face twitched rapidly as he scowled at her littlest brother, who only seemed to laugh harder at his good brother’s ire.

“Think it’s funny to attack a man twice your size, pup?” he snarled, but Sansa heard no malice in his rough voice. Rickon squealed loudly as Sandor gave him a little shake and nodded furiously, but laughed too hard to form an actual response.

“Oh, come on, Clegane. You’re at least five of him,” Robb jested. Sandor did not seem amused.

Bran caught Sansa’s eye and winked slyly at her, nodding down at the pile of snowballs that Rickon must have been stockpiling for some time. There was no containing the devious smile that slowly spread across Sansa’s face as she bent to retrieve one of the frozen orbs. As stealthily as she could in full skirts and cloak, Sansa snuck closer to them. Lucky for her she was approaching from behind Sandor’s upraised arm, and he seemed too focused on shaking the laughter from her squirming brother to notice her. When she knew she was close enough to have accurate aim she pulled her arm back and let the snow fly. It was like watching something happen in slow motion. The white sphere flew through the air, arcing at the perfect angle before landing with a loud pfft directly on the back of her husband’s neck.

The action seemed to catch him so unawares that when he startled he nearly dropped poor Rickon on his head. This only made her brothers laugh all the more and she found that she could no longer contain the girlish giggles that erupted from deep within. The plain look of shock he sent her only sent her off into fits of her own as she wrapped her arms around her waist in an effort to contain herself. Her laughter soon cut off in a loud shriek when she saw his eyes narrow at her as he lowered Rickon to the ground and make large, quick strides in her direction.

“Run, Sansa, run!” shouted Rickon around his bursts of laughter. Receiving the same instructions from her other brothers, Sansa quickly gathered her skirts in her hands and bolted away from the scene.

Her laughter could be heard echoing off the stone walls as she flew across the grounds as fast as her legs could carry her. When she chanced a glance over her shoulder she gasped at just how close on her heels Sandor was. A thrill coursed through her as she wove and darted around passing men and women, all laughing at their display, some whistling and whooping, as she gasped around her laughter. The entrance to the godswood was directly before her when she felt a strong arm encircle her waist. She squealed loudly, giggling helplessly as she was tossed over Sandor’s broad shoulder while he continued into the trees.

“Sandor, put me down!” she tried to command in a strong voice but it morphed into an indignant and shocked yelp as he smacked his hand across her rump. She laughed out of surprise as a new thrill twisted in her belly.

He walked between a copse of tall trees before finally setting her down. They were completely sheltered from view here. As soon as her feet hit the ground she began backing away from him, biting her lip nervously. When she dared to look up into his eyes she gasped slightly. Humor lit his grey eyes, making them lively and bright, but she saw the passion there that had been in them last night.

“The little bird likes to play games,” he rasped lowly, taking slow predatory steps towards her.

She giggled nervously and continued to back up, meeting him step for step. Her eyes darted around in search of an escape route, but rushed back to his when his deep chuckle reverberated off the surrounding trees.

“Do not run from me, woman. I will catch you and you will not like it,” he threatened. His words contradicted the heat in his eyes. She dug deep and tried to sound as bold she could.

“I believe I will like it very much.” She did not recognize the slightly husky tone her voice had taken on, but noticed immediately when Sandor’s eyes darkened and his breaths came harder.

His reaction made her heart thunder and her cheeks flush wildly. Before she could antagonize him further with more brazen words she tried to dart past him. She had not made it more than two strides before she was swept up again, squealing much as Rickon had. However, her laughter quickly died away when she was roughly backed up against a large Oak. His heavily muscled body pinned her in place as his mouth descended roughly onto hers, stealing her breath in a searing kiss. Large hands gripped her hips tightly, squeezing and rubbing along them indecently. His raw desire sent a thrill straight through her entire being. She clasped his face in her hands and returned his fervor with her own. It wasn’t until she heard Rickon’s voice calling for her through the stillness of the woods that she remembered where they were. Try as she might she was unable to slow Sandor’s assault on her mouth. She had to truly fight the desire to simply lose herself in him, in the sensations that sparked through her at every touch, every groan against her lips. But she could not bear for them to be discovered in such a position. It would not be decent.

Placing both hands on his firm chest she pushed him away with all her might. Even then she knew the only reason he budged at all was because he knew it was what she wanted. She did not operate under the delusion that her strength was any match for his. He growled lowly, but took one step back from her. Then another, and another until they were a few feet apart, both breathless and flushed.

“You should not tease a man, little bird. We are not known for our self-control,” he said in a tight voice, panting slightly.

“I did not mean to, truly,” she tried to assure him as she slowed her own breathing. She stepped towards him and offered a small smile. “I can . . . make it up to you . . . later,” she said around a gulp. She had never been so forward, so brazen. She hoped she would not offend him by speaking so.

His eyes trailed over her body in such a way that she felt she was bare before him again and she flushed deeply. He seemed to take in her sudden shyness and schooled his features into something cooler. The disappointment that washed through her was unexpected.

“Come, little bird. Supper calls,” he said, not unkindly and offered his arm. Perplexed by his sudden change in mood she took it and walked silently by his side. Rickon and Bran were waiting for them outside the godswood.

“Sansa! Did he get you?” Rickon asked excitedly. Sansa tried to keep her feelings in check as she smiled and nodded at her little brother.

“But do not worry, he only made me beg forgiveness and swear never to do it again,” she assured him. Rickon looked horrorstruck at the prospect.

“Does that mean I cannot throw snow at him?”

Sandor said, “Aye.” at the same instant she told him, “No.” Bran laughed heartily and pulled a very confused looking Rickon away from them as they walked into the Great Hall.

Chapter Text

The little bird was making this much harder than he thought she would. He was trying to be a good husband, a caring man. It did not come easily to him. No one had shown him much care in his life. Putting the needs of someone before his own was not something he did naturally. However, he found that it came to him with less difficulty when it came to his little wife. Like last night.

After he had nearly fucked her up against that tree in the godswood – only barely managing to heed her when she pushed him away – he had done his best to keep her at arm’s length for the remainder of the night. It had been damn near impossible when she had lain across their bed and looked up at him with those wide blue eyes and bit her lip. It took every bit of restraint to extinguish the candles, despite her protests, and roll away from her to try and sleep. It was the last thing he had wanted.

He recalled the whore’s words before he wedded. “You’re a big man. She’ll need a few days to recover after you fuck her the first time. Give her that and she won’t be so afraid to let you do it to her again. If you please her every time you lay together she may start coming to you, m’lord.”

And so he’d tried. He left the room after getting a hot bath for her, not wanting to be tempted by her nakedness. He had taken out his mounting frustrations on the men he trained with, something that seemed to impress his new lordling good brothers. And then the youngest pup had to go and start that snow fight. Sandor had every intention of scaring the wits out of him, but no matter how threatening he tried to be it only seemed to amuse the little whelp more. He’d had the situation firmly under control until the little bird had joined in the fray, enticing him so completely by the way she laughed and fled from him. He’d had her backed against that tree before he could stop himself.

 And now this shit, he thought as he dodged another blow from some limp dicked little squire. In his easy maneuvers to pummel whomever danced his way he would see her out of the corner of his eye. She just bloody stood there watching him in the training yard. She would come and go every so often, but it seemed like every time he stopped for a moment or changed up tourney swords she was right fucking there.

Sandor had begun to relax into his new routine after the last of the Flayed Men had left the castle walls. Now all that remained were wolves. It helped to ease him mind a little, knowing it would be less difficult to keep his new wife safe without so many shits running around the castle.

“Eyes up, Clegane!” Roderick barked at him, but it was for naught. He dodged the swords that came from either side with little effort, batting their owners away almost lazily.

“You’ll have to do better than that if you want to best me, boy,” Clegane rasped after smacking one lad hard across the arse, sending him sprawling into a bank of snow and mud. Loud guffaws rang out as the boy stood, spluttering angrily.

“You’ll pay for that one, Hound!”

Sandor hit him again, this time across the thigh. “That’s Lord Hound to you, boy.”

The little shit sneered at him in contempt and charged him again. Sandor’s laughter rumbled out of him as he easily twisted and turned away from strike after strike, the tourney sword only meeting the empty air surrounding him. When he grew tired of toying with the hopeless squire he landed two well-placed blows, knocking him onto his noble arse.

And so it continued as the afternoon sun began to descend in the greyish purple winter sky. Man after man, green boys and squires, he bested them all. He even went a few rounds with the younger Lord Stark. He would give the lad credit where it was due; he was not half as bad as the others. Sandor just might have someone worth sparring with in this yard of useless shits. At least he could defend the castle he was to inherit.

Once dismissed for supper, Sandor noticed the absence of the little bird for the first time in many hours. He used this time to visit the baths and get cleaned up. He found it was not an original idea as young Lord Stark was already there with his younger brothers. Sandor made to ignore them and headed towards a farther pool when Robb called him over with a shout.

“Join us, brother!” He gestured around them. “There is more than enough room.”

He had promised the little bird he would try and get on with her family, knowing it would make her life less difficult. Still, his own brotherly experiences had never been good ones and he had no desire to make up for those now with boys who were no kin of his. He was just about to turn his back on them without a word when the youngest, Rickon, called to him.

“Afraid we might gang up and try to drown you?”

Sandor turned to him, his mouth twitching in a barely suppressed smirk. He paced over and lowered into the steaming water closest to the small boy. Rickon did not shrink back, however. Instead he grinned challengingly at the much larger man.

“Better men have tried, wolf pup,” Sandor grumbled.

“All of them together?” Rickon countered with a raised eyebrow.

“Rickon, leave the man be,” Bran scolded slightly before dumping a bucket of water over his lordly locks.

“They are all afraid of you,” Robb said suddenly. Sandor turned on him but said nothing. The comment required further explanation and the younger man didn’t make him wait long. “The other men. It’s why they performed so poorly today in the yard. They are not usually so hopeless. Otherwise we never could have held the north for as long as we have.”

Sandor snorted. “None have met me in battle. What do they fear from a tourney sword? Splinters?”

Robb snickered and sank lower in the water. “You have quite the reputation. None of them want to see your legendary temper for themselves. Give them some time. They will find their footing against you.”

“I may die of boredom while I fucking wait,” he growled before cleaning his hair.

“Are you and Sansa going to stay in Winterfell?” Rickon asked after a few moments peace.

“Only until I find a suitable home for her nearby.” Sandor didn’t know why he was answering the child. What did it matter where his sister went? Ladies never did remain in their homes, unless they were the only heir a lord had. Lady Stark had whelped her husband five pups, three of them boys.

“And you’ll be here every day?” He was growing tired of the pups yapping.

“Aye,” he growled out, hoping to end the line of questions. It didn’t.

“Who will look after Sansa while you’re here?” It was an innocent enough question, but one that gave Sandor pause. He closed his eyes and tried to block out the annoying child.

“Rickon, enough,” Robb said quietly and Sandor heard him exit the pool.

“But it’s his job to protect her! He’s her husband, right?”

“Yes, Rickon. And I’m sure he’ll look after her,” Bran contributed in a placating tone.

“He’d better. She needs looking after,” Rickon said almost to himself. Despite himself, Sandor snorted a laugh.

“Aye, boy, she certainly does.” He finished washing in relative peace before donning a clean tunic, doublet and breeches. Pulling on his boots he ventured to the Great Hall behind the others. He vowed to bathe in his rooms from now on, no matter how tight the tubs were. It was better than answering all these bloody questions.

Sansa was already seated next to her lady mother with her sword toting sister in his seat. They appeared to be deep in conversation and he took advantage of her distraction by slipping into a seat nearest Bran. He nearly growled out loud when Rickon popped up behind his elbow, pleased to have a new dining companion. By the time the little bird located him he was already tucking into his meal and ale. He tried to ignore the displeasure that twisted her lovely face and focused on his food. He was still determined to allow her time to heal before taking her again. And again, if possible. He did not want to do her injury. He’d just as soon cut off his cock than cause her harm with it.

“More ale, m’lord?” A serving wench with massive teats leaned down in front of him, practically shoving his face in her ample flesh. He glared up at her, but she winked audaciously and squeezed his arm before standing up again.

“Saw you in the yard, I did. You let me know if you need more of a challenge than those green boys gave you,” she said saucily and sauntered away looking mighty pleased with herself.

Sandor sat there utterly baffled by what had just transpired. Women did not approach him as if he were some comely knight they would gladly fuck. And yet only a fool would not have gotten her meaning just now.

Shaking his head and cursing the stupidity of frozen wenches from the north he went back to his cups. He sat there nursing his third drink when he decided he’d better stop. If he got drunk he might do something he’d regret later; like fucking his wife. Well and truly fucking her the way he’d thought about since that thrice damned Imp suggested that she might actually want him. His thoughts had not gentled any after their first bedding. Her sweet moans and innocent kisses and nearly driven him to madness. He was still unsure how he was able to be so careful with her after his lust had practically claimed his mind when she peaked. She did seem to enjoy his fingers playing with her cunt.

He never thought he’d be one to listen to a whore past, “leave the money on the table”, but Ros had more than proven her worth. Her advice had been sound and he would be taking more of it once he believed he could safely do so.

Just give her another fucking day, he snarled at himself. If she can bear the sight of you while you fuck without closing her eyes or turning away the least you can do is let the little woman heal.

But he wanted to do more, so much more with the little bird. Things he knew her proper breeding probably prohibited, but that did not stop him from wanting. He wondered if she would scream and shout and slap him away if he tried to do half the things he really wanted. As he began to feel his breeches tighten painfully he cursed under his breath. He would have to walk this off before heading to their chambers. He did not think he could resist the temptation again if he was already so aroused.

When he rose to leave the same serving girl was suddenly blocking his path. She smiled widely at him, showing the small gap between her teeth. She was comely, he could not deny that. It was not as if women threw themselves at him often. He was contemplating how to deal with this newfound situation when he became aware of a trembling presence at his side.

“Randa, you are needed in the kitchens,” Sansa practically spat. The servant eyed Sansa with open amusement, but gave her a small curtsy and sashayed away proudly, winking at him over her shoulder as she went. Sandor snorted slightly and shook his head at her audacity.

“My lord,” the little bird’s voice was tight as she spoke between clenched teeth. “I wish to retire for the evening. Please see me back to our rooms.”

Sandor watched the crimson stains on her cheeks deepen further as he stared at her for a moment. He realized she was furious, and damned if he didn’t find that one of the funniest things he’d ever seen. Arousing, too.

“Aye, little bird.” He went to gallantly take her arm, but she snatched it away as if he’d burned her.

Seven bloody hells, it’s not like I was going to take her up on the offer! He growled slightly at her childish display and grasped her arm in his hand more tightly than he probably should have, yanking her along with him. She stumbled along as he half dragged her across the courtyard to their quarters. Once the door to their solar was slammed closed she wrenched her arm from his grasp and stomped over to their bedchamber making like she would slam that door on him as well. Before the wood could connect with stone he reached out and stopped it with his hand, glaring balefully down at his huffing wife.

“Get ahold of yourself, girl,” he admonished roughly. The outrage lit her face so clearly that he had to smother a harsh laugh. Judging from her swift fury he’d done a piss poor job of it. She charged him, hammering her tiny fist on his chest. He barely felt it.

“Don’t you dare laugh at me!” she shrieked. Having had enough of her outburst he grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her hard, once.

“Enough, Sansa!” he shouted, not at all pleased when she froze in fear, blue eyes the size of the moon.

He removed his hands quickly and made to back up, cursing himself for his carelessness. She would fear him now for certain. He opened his mouth to utter an apology – something he can never remember doing in his entire life – but was stopped when she suddenly flung herself at him. Preparing for another harmless beating he raised his hands to capture hers, so he was taken completely off guard when her arms wrapped around his neck and her mouth crashed into his. Teeth clicked as she clumsily tried to entice him with her gentle nips and beckoning tongue while he stumbled back a step, nearly losing his footing altogether.

His arms encircled her tiny waist without his permission and he pulled her trembling body flush against his. She gasped loudly in his mouth as he lifted her clear off the floor and walked her back towards the bed. When he felt them collide with the edge he set her down with greater care than she had just shown him. Pulling away from her sweet mouth he tried to calm his rapidly rising blood. The sight of her flushed, swollen lipped and heavy lidded did nothing to smother his lust. He tried to step back from her, but her eyes went wild and she flung herself at him again.

“No!” she practically shouted and captured his lips again. Sandor was not fool enough to believe that she was desperate for him the way he nearly always was for her, but something was driving her actions. He reached up and pulled her off of his neck, breaking their kiss with some difficulty.

“What in the seven hells has gotten into you, little bird?” he panted.

“I – I,” she stammered, wide eyed. When words failed her she tried to embrace him again, but this time he rebuffed her with ease.

“No, woman.” He eyed her sternly. What the fuck is going on in the beautiful head of hers?

“Do you . . .” she stopped to pull in a stuttering breath. Horror washed through Sandor when he realized she was trying to contain tears. “Do you not want me?”

He barked out a laugh at her foolishness and shook his head. She had said something equally stupid their wedding night about him not finding her pleasing. Where did she come up with this shit?

“Do not laugh at me you great bloody aurochs!” She shouted and stamped her little foot, her hands fisting at her sides. She was such a sight that he could not help but laugh harder. He did not mean to, seeing how it angered it, but she was being fucking ridiculous. When she raised her hands to hit him again he did not try to stop her, allowing her to get a few well-placed strikes in before capturing her ineffective little fists in his large hands.

He half expected her to start crying, but she surprised him by lifting her chin and staring at him with stormy blue eyes.

“What would you do if some squire or knight were to proposition me like that?” she challenged. All laughter died from him in an instant as he felt his ire start to rise.

“After I cut out his fucking tongue and fed it to your wolf?” he growled threateningly. “Or after I cut off his cock and rammed it down his damned throat.”

“So I could cut off Randa’s teats?” she countered with a completely straight face. It finally hit him why she was acting so strangely. Her jealousy was not something he was prepared for.

He watched as she flushed deeply and her chest rose and fell with her rapid breaths. He stepped forward and brought his hand up to slowly tangle his fingers in her long silky hair. Breathing in her scent, he leaned down until his lips were at her ear.

“What needs do I have of a whore, or any other woman, when I have you to warm my bed?” he whispered.

It was not uncommon for men to seek the company of whores, even after they were married, but Sandor doubted their wives were half as pleasing as is own. He smirked when he felt her shiver. Her fingers uncurled as she reached up to place her open palms on his chest. Turning towards him, she wet her lips slightly.

“Why did you not take me last night?” Her words were quiet, breathy, but they carried with ease to his ears.

“I thought you needed your rest,” he told her as he began pulling the laces from the top of her dress.

“But not tonight?” She sounded so unsure. He rasped a laugh before nuzzling her neck, nipping at the delicate skin there. His cock strained when she whimpered.

“Not tonight, little bird.” Tonight he would make her call out as he had before, gods willing.

He made quick work of her dress, discarding it along with her small clothes until she stood gloriously naked as her nameday. There were few candles lit around the bedchamber, but the warmth and light from the blazing fire was enough. He pulled her tightly against him as his hands explored the silky skin that covered her body. He did not think he could take things as slowly as before. He did not have the restraint. He would try, though.

Her hands began pulling at his doublet before falling to tug the laces of his breeches. Hells, but she is eager! The thought thrilled him and he practically tore the garments from his body before lowering her to bed as carefully as he could manage. Her sighs and breathy moans encouraged him as he explored her perfect teats, sucking her pink nipples into his mouth. But the greatest sounds came when he slid his fingers down to her cunt and stroked her the way he had before. He was still shocked by the wetness he found there. Moans and cries could be faked, but this could not. She truly enjoyed his touch. She enjoyed being with him.

It took no time at all until she threw her head back and called out loudly, thighs clamping over his hand as her hips rocked against his palm. She rode out her peak as he nipped and kissed his way down her stomach and across her hips. The taste of her skin was better than any wine he’d ever had. He did not cease his movements until she began pushing his arm away insistently.

When he positioned himself between her legs she stared up at him unflinchingly, one hand lazily caressing the taunt muscles of his stomach. He hissed at her touch but did not move to stop her. Lowering down and guided his cock into her, meeting less resistance than before. It was still a tight fit and it nearly killed him when she contracted around him and her eyes fluttered slightly. He would not last long, much to his shame. She was too much, too perfect. The way she pulled his face to hers and kissed him unashamedly while he thrust into her heat and moaned when he remembered to press his thumb against her sensitive nub, it was like a dream. No, it was better. Even in his dreams she had only ever tolerated him. Here and now she touched him freely, kissed him wantonly, and looked on him with heat in her blue eyes. Her hips had even started to rock with his towards the end and what started out as quiet gasps of pain and slowly transformed to low moans of pleasure.

When he could hold it off no longer he allowed his peak to overtake him. His hips jerked hard into hers despite his attempts to still them. He leaned forward a moment on shaking arms, forehead pressed to her shoulder before he withdrew and rolled off to the side. Before he could think to say anything she curled into his side with a small, contented smile on her face, looking very much like the cat that got the cream.

Chapter Text

She lay on his broad chest listening to the comforting thump of Sandor’s heart beneath her ear. Lazily tracing the raised flesh of battle scars that littered his torso, she asked about each one she came across. While they had been married and coupled for nearly a week, she still knew very little about the man who shared her bed.

“This one?” she asked, following the smooth line as long her finger that trailed across his side.

“Dagger. Little shit didn’t know how to slash properly. Got mostly cloth,” he rumbled quietly.

“It cut through your armor?” She had trouble believing a dagger could cut through mail like that.

“Wasn’t wearing armor,” he replied and shifted a little beneath her.

“You went into battle without –“

“No battle, little bird. Not all wounds are given during a war,” he cut her off.

She rose up on her elbow and looked into his steely eyes. While she was only just learning to read him, she was almost certain this was a wound he did not want to discuss. Knowing that he would not lie to her, she decided he must have good reason for keeping the tale to himself. She didn’t press him. Instead she went for broke and slid her palm up his chest, along his neck, and came to rest on the mass of burn scars on his face. Stroking the skin gently she tried for an easy question before asking the more difficult one.

“Does it hurt when I touch you?” She did not want to cause him discomfort. He had been unbelievably cautious with her lately.

He shook his head once but said nothing. She delicately ran her fingertips up over his forehead and into his hair. Her eyes never left his, and though the question remained unspoken, his rasping voice filled the silent air.

“Gregor was given a toy, a wooden knight on horseback. He was too old for such trinkets and never even looked at it. I wanted it. I’d dreamed of being a knight, being one of the bloody fools from the stories that made the ladies swoon. One day when he was down in the yard practicing his swordplay, I snuck the figurine from his cupboard. I was playing with it by the brazier when he came up on me from behind. He said nothing, just shoved my face into the burning coals, holding it there while I screamed. It took two of my fathers’ men to pull him off.”

Horror washed through Sansa, turning her stomach and stinging her eyes. She hadn’t realized she was gripping his arm so tightly until she felt her fingers tingle. She released him, letting color flood back into her white knuckles. She swallowed to clear the tears from her voice.

“What happened to him when your father found out?” She knew the Mountain obviously survived whatever punishment was doled out.

His gravely laugh was humorless. “Not a fucking thing. I was hidden away to be treated by a maester. The story was that my bedding caught fire. Gregor was knighted soon thereafter.”

It all made sense to her now. Why he hated titles and thought so lowly of knights and lords. They had come to represent everyone who had hurt him, who had failed to protect him.

“How old were you?” she whispered.

“Seven,” he rasped. Of an age as Rickon. She tried not to picture her sweet, precocious brother being brutalized as Sandor had. The images brought a lump to her throat. She cleared it twice before being able to speak again. She tried to change the subject.

“How long ago was that?”

The haunted, faraway look left Sandor’s eyes as he once again came back to the present. He smirked at her slightly.

"Twenty three years. In all that time, I have never told a single soul.”

He’s thirty? She eyed him as discreetly as possible, surprised by how many years he had. Her nameday had just passed, but mayhaps so had his. When she asked after it he shrugged.

“It comes up near the end of the year,” was as much detail as he gave her.

“So that would mean you are nearly 15 years my senior,” Sansa reasoned out loud.

“Aye. Regretting your choice, lass? Did you think I jested about being an old dog?” He sounded amused.

“No,” she replied quickly. There had been men of much more advanced years whom had courted her before her condition became apparent. “I am just surprised is all. I did not think you were so young,” she blurted without thinking.

He raised his eyebrows. “You thought me to be an old man, little bird?”

She tried to keep a serious face as she began tracing the scars on his shoulder again. “You are just so sour all the time. It creates lines on your face.”

He snorted, capturing her hand. “When is your nameday?”

“In the spring,” she told him.

“I will try to remember,” he said quietly. She smiled and leaned in shyly, placing a small kiss on his scratchy cheek. As harsh as he could be, he continued to please her with how gentle he was with her. How kind.

“Why are you only nice to me?” she asked suddenly.

His eyes widened slightly before he began to rise from the bed, carefully pulling out from under arm. He rose fluidly and began dressing. Though she had seen him bare before, she flushed delicately and averted her gaze. The sight of his nakedness did funny things to her.

“I should be back by supper this evening,” he informed her bluntly. Startled by the transition in their conversation, she rose up slightly.

“You are leaving?” She did not like the idea of him outside of Winterfell.

“Calm yourself, wife. I go with your brothers and the rest of the hunting party to the wolfswood. We need to replenish the stores before winter well and truly sets in.” He donned a thick tunic, hiding his solid back and arms from her view. He turned back to her as he laced his boots. “I am also looking at the surrounding farms and keeps for a suitable home.”

That piqued her interest greatly, and her face brightened. “Truly? Will you tell me if you find one?”

His eyes darted to hers suspiciously before his expression softened somewhat. She had only seen him look at her this way and began to think of it as his way of showing affection.

“Aye, little bird. You’ll need to pick a few handmaidens and servers to employ. Your father has already sent to Gulltown for a maester and to the Twins for a smith. He seems to have struck that bargain as a sort of wedding gift to you.” His mouth twitched a little and Sansa wondered if he would have not preferred to choose their staff, rather than have her father provide them. At least no one was being sent from the Dreadfort.

She rose up onto her knees with the thought of bidding him farewell with a chaste kiss, but her furs fell away, leaving the top of her bare. She watched as his eyes darkened, sending tingles across her exposed skin. It was as if his gaze was caressing her.

“You tempt me, woman,” he growled lowly, but there was no anger there. Only desire.

“To give you reason to return,” she countered boldly.

Before she could consider where her brazenness had come from all of a sudden, she was swept up into strong arms, her breasts pressed against soft wool. His mouth conquered hers in a far more sinful way than she thought was proper in the light of day, yet she did not pull away. She was dizzy when he finally released her, setting her back on the bed. He gripped her chin to make her look at him, the corner of his mouth lifting slightly.

That is the closest thing to a genuine smile that I have ever received from him, she noted as he briefly trailed his fingers over her cheek. He turned without another word and was out the door before she could gather her wits.

Sansa rose from the bed, arching her back in a great stretch before disappearing behind the screen to obtain her garments for the day. A simple gown of yellow wool and modest embroidery along with her warmest cloak and boots adorned her womanly frame as she set to the task of brushing her hair. A knock at the door roused her sleeping direwolf from her usual spot by the fire in the solar.

“Enter,” Sansa called over her shoulder. A moment later a woman of an age with Sansa pranced into the room. She was tall and willowy with soft golden curls and large brown eyes.

“Name’s Lydia, milady. I’m to be your handmaiden from here on. I’ll be travelling with you to your new home when the lord finds one suitable for ya.” She curtsied and snatched the brush from Sansa’s fingers, immediately taming her auburn locks into submission.

“Did my mother hire you?” Sansa had never seen this girl before, but that was hardly uncommon is a place such as Winterfell. Small folk came and went all the time. They often changed servers and kitchen staff with the shift in seasons.

“No, milady, but I was hired by her handmaiden, Darra.” She began to braid her hair with swift, nimble fingers.

It made sense. Sandor had told her to choose new handmaidens. Mayhaps her mother had simply wanted to help her with that. She supposed she could not share with Arya anymore. She did not think on it any longer after departing from her room with Lady by her side. Making her way through the courtyard she saw her sister practicing archery. She only did this when her brothers were away on a hunt. They always did get a bit sore when she could outshoot them.

The storm swept in out of nowhere, as they are wont to do in the North. One moment the sky is full of fluffy clouds and light wind, the next there were gusts that cut like steel and thick snowflakes swirl through the castle grounds. Finding shelter in the Great Hall, Sansa was relieved to see her father up at the head table pouring over maps with Farlen. She approached them with a smile.

“What can I do for you, sweet girl?” Her father placed a kiss on the crown of her head as she peered at the map in front of her. It was a detailed account of the surrounding keeps and farms from Winterfell all the way to the Wall.

“How was your hunt?” she inquired lightly, trying to put the map out of her mind. If she was meant to know about it someone would have told her.

“I did not go this time,” Eddard said as he rolled the parchments and handed them off. Startled, Sansa’s head whipped towards the nearest window. She could see the raging snowstorm beyond the misted glass.

“Take heart, my love. This is naught but a passing storm. Nothing any Northman hasn’t seen before,” he tried to comfort her.

Sandor is not from the North. She began to worry her lip between her teeth as she rung her hands nervously.

“Who led the hunt?” Her voice was a tense whisper.

“Your brother, Robb. Bran is with him, as is your husband, ser Roderick, Theon. Not to mention the new squires being trained. They will be fine,” he hushed her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You should not worry so. You’ll get wrinkles like your mother.”

Her father jested so infrequently that she turned to him with a shocked expression before smiling widely and letting herself giggle. “I will tell her you said that.”

“I’ll deny it,” he countered with a wink.

She sighed and leaned into his should, finding solace in his embrace. Keeping herself busy required more effort than she was used to. She helped her mother as they embroidered a new cloak for Myrcella. She helped Farlen round up Nymeria, Lady, and Shaggy for feeding. This proved a daunting task because it seemed the storm had whipped them up into a lather. They paced and growled and howled at the Hunter’s Gate. Had the gate been open Sansa had no doubt they would have taken off outside the walls. It was Lady’s unrest that upset her the most. She was usually so calm and well-mannered. It was unusual to see her so agitated.

“It was the same the night you were taken, my lady,” Farlen told her after another unsuccessful attempt at wrangling them into the kennels.

That brought her up short as alarm bells began ringing in her head. “Really?”

“Aye. She came back right after the Ho –“ he stopped and cleared his throat, “Lord Clegane returned with you. Blood on her muzzle, but didn’t appear to be harmed at all. Just thought she might have gone for a bit of a hunt.

Sansa stared at her beautiful direwolf while she paced with her siblings along the walls by the gate. It was a split second decision, one she hoped would serve well.

“Open the gates!” she cried loudly as she advanced on the remaining pack. She took Lady by the nose and ducked to meet her eyes.

“Go find them. Bring them home. GO!” she commanded, too frightened to feel foolish.

As soon as large enough opening appeared, all three wolves darted out into the whipping snow. Their howls rang through the biting air, chilling Sansa to her very bones. She was so focused on the space beyond the gate that she hadn’t noticed when Arya had joined her.

“It’ll be fine,” she said in a low tone, although who she was trying to convince remained a mystery. She looked near as worried as Sansa felt. When her icy fingers wrapped around Sansa’s she gripped them tightly.

They stood there a long while as the storm continued to swirl and blow around them. After some time, Sansa’s face and hands went numb from the cold. Still she stood, watching, waiting. Her eyes began to sting with despair when Arya suddenly stepped forward, arm raised.

“LOOK!” she shouted before taking off outside the gates.

Then she saw them. Men and horses trudging through the rapidly dimming light. Relief washed through her so heavily that she nearly crumpled to the ground. That was until she saw that someone was thrown over the side of a horse, obviously injured or unconscious. Sansa’s heart slammed to a stop before beating wildly in her chest. She lifted her skirts in a very unladylike manner and dashed towards the advancing group.

Not Sandor. Please, not Sandor! The thoughts circled over and over and she made her way to them in what felt like slow motion. It wasn’t until she saw the large warhorse, Stranger, being led by his master that she felt she could truly breathe again. Without thought or care she flew at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and colliding with his massive body.

“Easy, little bird,” he said through gritted teeth. She released him, stepping away and really looking at him. It was then she saw how he favored his arm. It was bleeding.

“You’re . . . you’re hurt!” she nearly yelled in horror.

“Just a scratch, woman. Don’t fret,” he growled. “I was luckier than some.” He jerked his head to indicate somewhere behind him. That’s when she saw them. Men being dragged back on the sleds meant for game. Sansa gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Are they . . .?” she couldn’t ask.

“Dead? Aye,” he responded. Whipping around, Sansa began searching the remaining men. Robb was atop his horse with Grey Wind at his heels. Arya stood with the rest of the wolves, inspecting them. Nymeria seemed to be injured as well; blood flowed from her front leg. Summer was clearly limping, favoring his right hind leg. She went over the group twice more before dread welled up inside her.

“Bran? Where is Bran?” she asked, turning her wide eyes on her husband. He was quiet a moment before nodding towards one bodies slung across the back of a horse.

“He’s there,” he rasped.

Blood dripped from the cloak wrapped around her brothers’ unmoving body. It was the last thing Sansa saw before darkness took her and she went down hard.

*

Where am I? My head hurts. Her eyes fluttered open, but she could not see any better than when they were closed. She rose up slightly before falling dizzily back down onto something soft. That’s when she realized she was completely naked. And utterly freezing. She groped around in the darkness for something to cover herself. Her breathing sped when she couldn’t locate a single stitch of clothing. Panic began to set in as images swam before her eyes and voices echoed in her ears.

“Look at those teats!” Pinching. Sharp pains.

“Spread her wide!” Probing fingers.

“Hold her still!” Hands like manacles, cold and hard on her soft flesh.

Rough palms on her face trying to silence her screams.

“Little bird.”

A scream tore from her lungs, echoing in silence. She lashed out, kicking, scratching, hitting everything she came into contact with.

“NO!” she shouted when hands went to restrain her. “NO!”

“SANSA!”

His roar so close to her face snapped her back to reality. No one else had a voice like his. Steel on stone; rough, harsh, but usually so gentle with her. Her body shook so violently her teeth chattered.

“Easy now,” he rasped quietly. She allowed him to tuck her against his chest while she trembled, tears cascading down her cheeks.

“It’s too dark!” she squeaked out. “I can’t see you!”

“I’m here, little bird. You are safe,” he said more softly than she had ever heard his voice become. His large hand stroked down her arm repeatedly.

“Please light some candles,” she begged. She could not shake the images from her mind. Even the strong arms of her fearsome husband could not chase them away.

He heaved a great sigh before pulling away from her. Not speaking a single word, he made his way around the room and stirred the coals in the hearth, adding wood until a blaze kicked up and cast shadows across the cold, dark space. Sansa felt more warmth from that little fire than she did on the longest days of summer. Pulling furs up under her chin she smiled tremulously at Sandor. The best he offered her was a grimace. As he settled back into bed beside her she saw the bandage wrapped around his right bicep.

“What happened?” She reached out to touch him when the events of the evening came rushing back. She bolted upright in panic. “Bran!”

“He’s here,” he rushed to assure her. “With the maester since we returned. They say he should survive.”

“Survive what?” she practically screeched. Sandor placed a meaty hand on her shoulder and pushed her back almost roughly.

“Seven hells, woman, calm yourself!” he barked. She bit her lip and felt her cheeks heat under his admonishment. She watched him struggle to reign in his temper enough to speak.

“We were set upon while hunting. Fucking cowards shot us full of arrows before we even knew we were under attack. The lad took an arrow to the chest, as well as two to the leg before the shits finally advanced on us.” Sandor looked furious as he relayed the events of the day to her, his hands fisting tightly between them. Sansa reached out and took one between her palms, caressing it gently in an effort to soothe the beast rearing up within him.

“Do you know –“she starting to enquire, but the sharp shaking of his head stopped her speaking.

“Never saw their faces. Wrapped in cowls. Wore all black. Could be deserters from the Wall.” Even as he said the words Sansa could hear the doubt in them.

“You don’t believe that though.” She watched him warily for a moment, and then he shook his head slowly.

“We think it was the Bastard,” he rumbled. Sansa’s blood ran cold.

“Why?” she choked out. Sandor regarded her carefully, as if measuring up her ability to handle what he had to say.

“Do not lie to me,” she warned. She could abide many flaws in men, but dishonesty was not one of them.

“Never,” he vowed. He looked away from her, seemingly staring off into the flames.

“One of them left a message with the little lord,” Sandor growled, the anger seeping back into his voice. He turned back to her, eyes flashing like live steel. She did not even need to ask.

“Give my regards to the Queen of Ice.”

Chapter Text

“Tell me everything,” he commanded as gently as he could.

Bran lay in his bed, his chest and leg wrapped in bandages. Maester Luwin tended to him with his expert hands while Cat sat by his bedside clasping one of their sons hands in both of her own. He hand been given milk of the poppy some time ago and was starting to come round. Ned had already gotten an account from their eldest, Robb, but now he wanted to hear Brans’ version of events.

“Summer?” was the first word to pass through his dry lips. Cat pressed some water on him.

“Being treated in the kennels. Arya had to sit with him in order to calm him enough for Farlen to remove the arrowhead.” Thank the Gods his youngest daughter had a way with the wolves. Farlen could have lost a hand, or worse.

“We started to head back as the storm rolled in. Game must have gone to higher ground. There was nothing in sight for hours, but Summer and Grey Wind were clearly tracking something. We think now it was the men in the trees.” His voice died away as he looked down at the empty spot on his bed. The spot where Summer usually lay.

“Arrows came first. The snow was coming down too fast to see them at all. We just circled up and drew swords. The wolves tried to guard us, but there were too many, or they were too fast. I went down after the arrows pierced me,” he sounded ashamed.

“You did very well. You survived against terrible odds, my lord,” maester Luwin stated kindly.

“Bran, did you see anyone? Hear anything that would tell us who it was?” Ned had already asked Robb, who was certain it was deserters from the Wall. It was not unheard of for desperate men to attack a hunting party this far North, especially when caught out in a storm. But something about this seemed too well planned, too organized.

“I – I remember one of them. He came close with a dagger in hand. He whispered something to me before Summer dragged him away.” Bran looked haunted, though he tried to put on a brave face. He turned his grey eyes on his father. “Give my regards to the Queen of Ice.”

Cat closed her eyes and let loose a deep, pained sigh. Bran hung his head as if shamed to have uttered the words. Ned was somewhat lost and confused.

“What is that? The Queen of Ice. Does that refer to someone?” He’d never heard that title before.

Bran and Cat exchanged secret glances. Something was happening without his knowledge. He did not care for it at all. Since Bran was injured he turned a stern eye to his wife. She had the decency to look contrite.

“She did not want you to know, my love,” she began in a grave voice. “They have been calling her that for some time.”

He thought about the name again. “Arya?”

A pause. “Sansa,” Bran whispered.

Eddard stood quietly, seething. His sweet, precious child reduced in reputation like the Imp, the Bastard of Bolton . . . the Hound.

“Who came up with this name?” he demanded quietly. Bran shrugged on his uninjured side.

“No one knows. It just appeared one day after the failed match with the knight from Deepwood Mott.”

“She dislikes being reminded of it and asked that we not tell you,” Cat tried to placate him. It was not working. He would have words with her later in the privacy of their rooms.

“How did I not hear of this sooner?” he wondered aloud. His wife snorted indelicately.

“You are the Warden of the North, and their high lord. Did you expect them to use this name in your presence? Would that have endeared you to them, or temped you to shorten them by a head?” She had a good point.

“You should speak to Sandor,” Bran instructed quietly. “He has this own ideas as to who this was.”

“Aye?” He was not surprised to hear this. Clegane was cleverer than most gave him credit for. Eddard himself was guilty of this from time to time. Bran just nodded, his lids drooping again.

“Sleep now, sweet boy,” Cat said and pressed a kiss to his brow. Bran murmured incoherently and started to doze.

“I must go speak with Clegane,” he informed his wife and maester. “I want to know immediately if there is any change, better or worse.”

“Of course, my lord,” Luwin assured with a bow of his head. Without another word Eddard exited the room, making his way to lord and lady Clegane’s chambers in the guest house. He only hoped he was not disturbing any . . . nighttime activities.

Sandor’s face appeared as the door was pried open a crack moments after Ned had knocked. He stood bare chested, breeches barely laced. Ned cringed inwardly but kept his face passive.

“Sorry to disturb you, but I must speak with your at once regarding Sansa.”

Sandor said nothing, gave nothing away, but held the door open and moved from its path. Ned crossed into the dark solar and spied light pouring out from under the bedchamber door.

“She’s awake,” the Hound rasped before walking over to stoke the fire and light the scones on the walls. He disappeared into their bedchamber again and returned with a fresh tunic, closing the door behind him. They sat in stuffed chairs nearest the fire, neither saying a word as they sized the other up. Ned decided to break the silence first. He was the one to come calling at this late hour, after all.

“Bran informs you do not believe it was deserters that set upon you.” Ned always had been a man of few words. It was easier than riddles and intrigues.

Sandor regarded him intently before nodding. “Aye. The name they used for her, deserters would not have known it.”

“You think this was a message.” It was not a question. He could read the other man as clearly as written words. Clegane nodded before leaning forward in his chair.

“What did lord Bolton say when you told him to send you his bastard?” he rumbled. Eddard closed his eyes briefly as he rubbed his forehead, trying to ward off the ache. Roose had been less than forthcoming about his son, Ramsay. If Ned was being completely honest, he knew Bolton would not send his son to receive the King’s justice.

“As I thought,” Sandor bit out, a scowl twisting his already mangled face.

“After speaking with ser Roderick and my sons it seems I am in your debt again.” The words did not come easily. The last time he was indebted to this man he ended up giving him a lordship through a marriage to his own cherished daughter.

“You owe me nothing. I am in your guard. I protect my own,” he argued evenly.

“The way Robb tells it, Bran would not be here without you. We would have lost everyone in that attack.” He did not know why Clegane did not take the praise when it was due. He was reluctant the first time around as well, if Ned remembered correctly. Most men would be basking in the role of hero. Not his good son, it seemed. He watched as the scarred side of his face twitched rapidly.

“I did not need to help Robb at all. And the younger one could have held his own if not for the three arrows he had taken.” He did not look at Ned as he spoke, but the man had no reason to doubt his words.

Clegane may be many things, but flatterer or liar is not listed among his accomplishments or faults.

Eddard went to speak again when Sandor’s head jerked slightly towards the bedchamber. He watched as a smirk tugged at the unscathed corner of his mouth.

“Listening at doorways, wife? What would your septa say?”

Ned was more than a little surprised at the way Clegane was teasing. He had never known the man to have good humor. Honestly, he did not know much of him beyond what rumors he had heard from battle. He would try to make a point in getting to know who the man really is, if only for the sake of his beloved child. He watched as that ‘child’ – a woman grown and wed now – emerged from her chamber with her chin in the air, cloaked in defiance. He found it impossible to contain his own half smile.

“You are discussing things that pertain to me. I ought to be here to give my opinion,” she reasoned in a haughty voice.

“You grow more like your mother every day, lass,” Ned informed her around a smile which she returned. Sandor continued as if she had not joined them.

“You should thank whoever released the wolves. They took out a few of those sneaky shits. Couldn’t see far enough in front of us to track them properly, but that doesn’t stop a beast. Saved your sons, too,” he informed Eddard with a knowing look.

“I thought it might help,” Sansa whispered. Both men regarded her in surprise. She flushed, but continued on. “They were pacing the wall and howling. Farlen said it’s how Lady was when I was taken. So I thought, ‘what if they are in trouble’? I knew they could track you; find the rest of their pack.”

“That was very smart of you,” Ned commended. She glowed under his praise, but her eyes kept flitting to find Clegane’s.

“As I was saying before, Sandor,” he nearly stumbled over using the man’s given name. He would have to refer to him this way from now on, lest he accidentally insult him. “Ser Roderick and I have decided what you need is a promotion.”

Clegane sat back and regarded him warily, so Ned pressed on.

“There is a keep half a day’s ride to the North. It’s been abandoned for some months. The last lord who lived there died with no heirs. It sits unused, but would make a suitable home for you both. It would need a full staff to run it, and a garrison.” He let his words sink in as Sandor seemed to grow more wary with each one. When he finally spoke his voice was tight.

“You want me to captain a garrison of your men?”

“Aye, and oversee the training of new squires. Manage the local hedge knights. Be sentry between the Wall and Winterfell. You are more than qualified, Clegane,” he said honestly. The man was known all over Westeros for his battle skills. He instilled fear in men without even being present, much like his barbaric brother.

“You’ll be paid accordingly, but will still need to pay fealty as the other lords in the North do. You’ll display Stark banners as well as those of your own house.” It was rare for a man to marry above his station, but not unheard of. Displaying both banners would only confuse those who were not from the North, and Clegane was more than capable to dealing with unwanted visitors. Sansa could handle those meant to be there.

When Sandor didn’t readily agree, Ned looked at his daughter. She was staring hard at her husband. He could see the words just waiting to escape her, but she was holding her tongue. This was Clegane’s call and she knew it. She kept her silence until the big man snorted and glanced up at her.

“Out with it, little bird. I know you have your opinions.” He sounded resigned, but the use of a moniker surprised Ned again.

His daughter had clearly endeared this man to her, with his famed temper and notable warrior’s skills. While he was not what Ned would deem soft or gentle, there was a quietness about him when she was around. Like her mere presence soothed the beast within him.

Once granted permission, Sansa pounced. “I want to go. I want to get out of here as soon as we can round up enough troops and staff to run such a place.”

Eddard was shocked at her urgent desire to leave her home. Clearly, by the look on her husband’s face, he was not the only one. Sansa began pacing, wringing her hands.

“I cannot be responsible for attacks on my family. If Ramsay is truly behind all of this, then I must go. We can draw him away. He won’t need to hurt anyone else if I am . . .” her voice trailed off when she glanced back at the two men who stared at her. Ned with concern, Sandor with raw anger.

“Hells, woman, we are not going anywhere if you mean to sacrifice yourself like some noble shit for brains maiden from the songs!” Clegane barked at her. While Eddard did not approve of the language he chose to use in front of Sansa, he found he could agree with the sentiment.

“Sansa, you are not to blame for what happened to Bran, nor what happened to you before the tourney.” He rose and took her hands in his to keep her from rubbing them raw in her angst.

“I am not about to sacrifice myself, thank you,” she bit back, looking at her husband with contempt. “But I will not stay here and draw danger upon everyone I love. We were going to leave once you found a suitable place anyway. Why not now? Maybe my absence will be noted and they will think we have moved south?”

“You are better guarded here with all your father’s men,” Sandor snarled. Sansa looked like she might argue back, but then closed her mouth. A certain look crossed her face that Eddard recognized right away: it was the same look Cat expressed when she was devising a plan to get her way when arguing with him. Ned sat back down and watched the scene unfold before him with no little amusement.

“You said you would keep me safe, did you not?” She said quietly as she approached him.

Clegane’s eyes narrowed as he bit out, “Aye.”

“That no man would ever touch me again or . . .” she trailed off in a whisper. Sandor leaned forward, eyes burning.

“I’ll fucking kill them,” he swore. Rather than be put off by his vulgarity, a small smile stretcher her full lips.

“As would any northman under your command, my lord,” she murmured, placing a delicate hand on his shoulder, stroking softly down his heavily muscled arm. “I do believe that between you and all the men in the garrison I will be more than adequately protected. Do you not agree, husband?”

Eddard had to bite his tongue to keep from smiling openly. It was very clear that Sansa was more than capable of taking this seasoned warrior in hand and getting exactly what she wanted from him. Exactly like her mother, in practically every way. With no desire to watch the mounting intimacy unraveling before him, Ned rose from his chair.

“I’ll leave you two to discuss the details, then. Sandor, see ser Roderick tomorrow to discuss the new members of your garrison. Sansa, see your mother about finding enough small folk to staff your new home. I will make sure it is inhabitable before your arrival.” He walked over to the door, taking once last look over his shoulder. He slipped through the entry, closing the door behind him as Sansa curled up in her husband’s lap, whispering reassuring words with a triumphant smile.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after the attack on her brothers Sandor had arranged everything for their move. There were wagons piled with supplies, at least twenty men under her husband’s command, and the few servants her mother had been able to round up with such short notice. Lydia was more than happy to accompany them to their new keep, which gave Sansa at least one familiar face. She had grown quite found of the bright, talkative girl in her service.

“I have laid out your warmest cloak and gown, milady,” Lydia informed her with a smile as she finished brushing Sansa’s hair dry by the fire.

The sun was not yet up, but they were to get an early start if they hoped to make it all the way to their home by nightfall. Sandor had already left to be sure everything was ready for their travels. Sansa rose from her seat and allowed Lydia to assist her pulling on so many layers. It was necessary, Lydia reminded her, unless she wanted to lose parts of her to frostbite.

“Don’t think m’lord would take kindly to his wife missing a teat,” she teased. Sansa had long grown accustomed to the other girls’ vulgar humor and no longer felt scandalized by it. On the contrary, it was so much like her husbands’ that she found herself amused more often than not.

“No, he does seem to be rather fond of them,” Sansa said around a girlish giggle. Lydia gave a mock gasp and gently swatted Sansa on the arm.

“Careful, milady. Keep up talk like that and you’ll soon be mistook for one o’ us.” The smile the other girl gave was so genuine that she could not help but return it.

“There are worse things to be mistaken for,” Sansa said with a wink.

Gods, I have spent too much time with Tyrion! Thoughts of her friend wilted her smile somewhat, but she was determined not to let her longing for good companionship foul her mood. Straightening her back, she took one last look around the room that had been her home for a small time. Lady seemed to know it was their last farewell, for she too seemed to be longing for her spot by the fire in the solar that had not been lit. No need to waste wood if they were leaving before the room would even get warm.

“With me, Lady,” she commanded. Her wolf and handmaiden followed her wordlessly out into the frigid morning air. She was grateful for how calm it was. Fast winds would have cut through even the warmest of furs on such a long journey.

She had bidden her family farewell the previous evening. There was no sense in them all rising so early when they still had their duties for the day. Myrcella had actually cried, despite the fact that Sansa had not gotten to know her very well. With all the craziness that had erupted around her during and after the tourney, there had not been too much time for socializing with the princess.

I shall have to remedy that once I am settled in my new home. Mayhaps I will have her come for a visit before she weds Robb. It would not do if Myrcella felt distant from her betrothed’s family, and Arya was not like to be much help in making her feel welcome and included.

Despite her pleas for him to remain abed, her father stood clad in furs at the North Gate. He embraced her warmly, asking for a raven once she was safely ensconced in her new home.

“I think you will like it, Sansa. Its lands border the south end of Long Lake and there are little villages scattered around. You’ll not be wanting for help, I assure you. People come together in winter, especially the small folk. What have I always taught you?” Lord Eddard asked as he pulled her fur hood tighter around her face.

“The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” she recited from memory. She had grown up hearing those words. It was not until now that she truly appreciated their meaning.

“That’s my girl,” Ned said with a smile. “Off with you now, lady Clegane. I’ll expect that raven before the week is out.”

Sansa graced her father with one last kiss on his bearded cheek before striding forth towards Stranger. Sandor stood near his mount waiting for her, wrapped heat to toe in boiled leather and furs. He looked like a true northern warrior with the snow crusting his boots.

“You’ll ride with me until the sun comes up,” he informed her. “No sense in you freezing to death on your own.”

“As you say, my lord.” As it happened, she did not mind being so close to him for the journey. Being in his arms often made her feel safe and cared for. She had grown much attached to him since their union nearly one month ago.

He helped her up onto his steed before settling into place behind her, taking the reins with one hand while the other settled low across her waist. There were guards on horseback carrying Stark banners as well as squires on the ground with those of their house. Sansa called out to Lady as the procession slowly made its way out of the gates. It was with one last tearful look that she bade farewell to her childhood home.

It did not take long for her to settle against Sandor as the cadence of the Stranger combined with the earliness of the hour lulled her back to sleep. By the time her eyes fluttered open again the sun was high in the sky, brightly illuminating their path along the King’s Road.

“Rise and shine, little bird,” he rasped with a slight smile on his lips.

She had noticed an improvement in his temper these past weeks. She believed it was due to how passionate their couplings had become . . . and how frequent. She flushed slightly just thinking on it. When he shifted in his saddle she noticed how stiff his manhood was, as it pressed firmly against her rump. Sansa bit her lip while wriggling back against him further. He froze for a moment before the hand on her hips squeezed tightly.

“You’ll do best to sit still,” he warned lowly.

Turning her face into his cloak to hide her smile she shifted again. She had only just realized the power she held over this mighty man. Ever since, her discovery had taken to teasing him when they were alone. It usually ended in her being taken to bed, sometimes repeatedly. But they were not alone now, and it seemed that he did not enjoy her tormenting him on the open road. He pulled Stranger to a halt and dismounted in one swift movement before yanking her off the saddle. Glowering darkly, he pulled her along until they reached the white spotted mare that had been gifted to her from the stables at Winterfell. Without word or warning, he lifted her onto a cold saddle before stomping away.

Lydia was at her side, adjusting the straps for her feet as soon as his shadow was out of sight.

“What’s gotten into him?” she whispered, barely daring to look over her shoulder. Sansa pressed her lips together to contain her frown and shook her head.

“It is nothing. I do not think he slept well is all. His mood will improve once we are within sight of the keep.” Sansa had no idea if that was true or not, but she did hope. She had not meant to provoke him to the point of anger.

The ride was long, but the day was bright and glorious. Light winds and a cloudless sky meant good spirits all around. Well, nearly all around. Sandor still looked sour every time she glanced back in his direction. She tried to ignore him and just enjoy the brief reprieve in was expected to be a brutally long winter.

“Your hair looks lovely in the sun, my lady,” a deep voice came from behind her right shoulder. Sansa started slightly and turned towards it.

A young man in chainmail and a fur cloak sat atop a dappled grey mare. He was dark of hair with hazel eyes and a dimpled smile. Very handsome. Sansa smiled in return and thanked him demurely.

“I’m ser Darren, originally from Deepwood Mott. Lovely to make your acquaintance, my lady.” He nodded his head over her hand before placing a delicate kiss over the fabric of her glove.

“Well met, ser Darren. What brought you to Winterfell?” Sansa asked, noticing the eyes that Lydia was making at him from the back of the wagon she rode in mere paces in front of them.

“I was a squire for your lord father some years ago. After I proved myself against a pack of wildlings he thought it right to have me dubbed. When Lord Glover heard the call for interested knights and squires to find employ to an upstart house in the north, well I just knew I could not pass that up.” He puffed up proudly. Sansa gave another smile but misliked the way he spoke. He sounded foolish. He sounded vain. He sounded much as she had when she was younger.

They continued with small talk for a while, and though he was very much in love with himself, he was quite droll. Sansa had not remembered laughing half so much since Tyrion had departed for the Wall. Her thoughts strayed to her friend as she wondered how much longer it would be until he began making his way south again. He would need to pass right by her new home on the King’s Road to head back to Casterly Rock. Perhaps she could persuade him to stay with them for a while.

“My lady?” Her companion seemed to have noticed her lack of attention. She pursed her lips and looked down.

“My apologies, ser. I am becoming quite tired and fear I may start drifting off in my saddle.” It was a poor excuse, but believable as any. He seemed to accept it, anyway.

“Of course, my lovely lady. Should I tell them you need a break?” His smile was a touch too personal, as was his hand on hers. It was very presumptuous of him. Sansa discreetly nudged her horse to step sideways away from his so that his touch was broken.

“No, I think I can manage. I know my husband is eager to reach the keep before night falls.” She absently began to search over her shoulder for Sandor. When her eyes locked on his she saw them flashing like live steel. Guilt welled up inside of her but she could not reason as to why she felt that way. She had done nothing to deserve his wrath. She had not acted untoward or inappropriately towards ser Darren. She decided that Sandor was simply determined to be in a foul mood and ignore his glaring.

They continued down the King’s Road as the blazing white sun moved across the sky, making the snow and ice glitter like crystals on a bed of white velvet. Ser Darren continued to accompany Sansa on the long trip. He did have some remarkable tales and could be quite amusing. She decided that besides his tendency to think far too highly of himself, he was not such a bad young man. It was in the middle of a particularly hilarious tale about how his brothers had stolen a sow from the neighboring farm and then meant to sell it in the village that Sansa noticed the dimming light.

“. . . we had no idea how to get this great fat beast to move, you see. We tried pulling her with a rope, enticing her with food. Nothing worked. Not until Wes decided to try and ride her into town.” Ser Darren shook his head as Sansa and Lydia giggled. “I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen an animal actually try to trample someone into the mud before, but I would swear on the God’s that she knew she had knocked him into a massive pile of pig shit!”

Lydia laughed uproariously while Sansa covered her mouth, eyes wide as she pictured it in her mind. It sounded very much like the same kind of mischief Arya and her brothers would have gotten into.

“I would be willing to bet that you were not half so much trouble when you were a wee girl, my lady.” The young knight winked at her. Sansa blushed slightly and turned, seeing Sandor in her periphery again. He was staring hard at her, his face clear of any expression.

Sansa had no idea what gave her the sudden courage or desire to provoke a reaction from the warrior she shared her bed with, but she felt immensely mischievous. She leaned forward as if she was confiding in the comely young knight and spoke in a low voice.

“Well, you see, it is no secret back in Winterfell how much I adore lemon cakes. My mother made a point to have them made for my nameday every year. When I was turning two and ten I decided I could not wait for the rest of the night to have one, so I snuck out of bed and down to the kitchens. There they were, a whole tray of perfect little lemon cakes. There were dozens of them. I can’t tell you how many I ate, but it was at least half.”

“That is not nearly as bad as falling into pig shit and stealing from the neighbor,” Darren scoffed at her.

Sansa grinned. “Did I fail to mention that after I had eaten all those cakes I began to feel quite ill?”

Lydia covered her mouth to smother her shout of laughter. “You were sick?”

Sansa laughed and nodded. “All over the remaining lemon cakes, no less. My mother simply followed the puddles of sick all the way back to my room where I tried to hide.”

The three of them had a good chuckle and Sansa noticed that ser Darren had leaned towards her and touched her arm. Sansa could almost feel Sandor’s eyes burning holes in her cloak as she allowed his hand to remain there for a beat too long.

Serves him right, being so abrupt with me this morning. I wasn’t doing him any harm, she thought to herself as a way to squash down her rising guilt. She knew deep down she should not antagonize him, but he often sought to rile her up for his own merriment. He maintained she was highly amusing in her fits. Let us see how he likes it.

A shout up ahead drew their attention. A rider cantered past her, flashing a wide smile while tipping his head in a nod before heading straight to Sandor. They spoke very briefly before he trotted back up to where Sansa still rode alongside the knight and her handmaiden.

“Milady Clegane, the keep is just up ahead. We’ll be within the walls before much longer. A fire and feast await you there,” he informed her jovially. Sansa smiled thankfully at him and finally succumbed to her freezing, achy body. She turned to Lydia.

“Would you please ride ahead with,” she turned and arched a brow at the man.

“Vance, milady.”

“Ride ahead with Vance and see that a bath is waiting in my bedchamber. I am sure Sandor would appreciate a chance to clean up a little before supping,” she requested kindly. Sansa tried to ignore the snort that came from ser Darren.

Lydia nodded once and hopped off the back of the wagon before extending her hands up to the soldier on horseback. He pulled her up and placed her in front of him before setting off up the road at a hurried pace. Once they were out of sight Sansa turned to the knight.

“I must ride in with my husband. I thank you for your company, ser,” she said kindly.

“It truly was my pleasure, my lady.” His voice was a touch too low and his tone too intimate for Sansa’s liking, but she brushed it off. Guiding her horse, she wheeled around and approached Stranger carefully. He seemed to be of the same mood as his master.

“I have sent Lydia ahead to prepare a bath,” she told him in an upbeat voice. When he turned to glare balefully at her she responded with a bright smile. His mouth twitched madly, like he was trying to keep his face set against his will. She batted her lashes at him wildly. He finally snorted and shook his head.

“Tell that buggering knight that if he enjoys use of his hands he’s to keep them away from you,” he growled.

Sansa stared up at him owlishly. “Was he touching me? I do not recall.”

“Do not play games, woman. I will not hesitate to slaughter anyone I see sniffing around your skirts.” He was serious. Sansa sighed and shook her head.

“You should try to be civil when we ride through the gates. It will not do if they believe their new lord is some terrifying monster they must fear rather than respect,” she reasoned in a gentle voice. He grunted but said nothing in return. Sansa sighed, remaining at his side.

The keep came into view after they broke through a clearing and passed over a small hill. She gasped, eyes going wide. It was much larger than she had expected. A great stone wall surrounded a wide square tower, but everything was lit with torches for their welcome. Beyond the far side of the keep she saw the colors of the setting sun reflected beautifully off Long Lake. With the snowfall piled up around the walls and the weirwoods lining the path to its gates it was like something out of a story.

“Do you like it?” Sandor asked quietly.

“Oh, Sandor, it’s wonderful. Truly. I do not even have to see the inside to know I am going to love it here!” she gushed, smiling so widely it made her frozen cheeks hurt.

For the first time in days she watched her husband regard her with something akin to warmth and affection. She did not receive that look very often and found herself craving it more than any other. It sent heat spreading through her and made her heart pound hard in her chest. She reached out for his hand and after a moment he took it in his. They could not stay that way for long as it brought Stranger too close to her mare, but she remained as close as she dared while they rode through the gates of their new home.

The first face that greeted them was of their new maester, a man named Bryce. He was of an age as her father, with kind yellow eyes and long greying hair. His maester’s chains hung from his neck over a rough spun robe of black wool. Behind him hung the Clegane banners, three of them flanked by two Stark banners. It made Sansa smile all the more.

“Well met, my lord, my lady,” he said in a kindly voice. He grabbed the reins to Sansa’s horse as Sandor dismounted. Before anyone else could step up, Sandor was there helping her down from her horse. She welcomed his hands around her waist and smiled down at him.

“I trust your travels were pleasant,” maester Bryce asked courteously.

Sandor seemed to take a deep breath before responding. “As pleasant as a day in the saddle can be, maester. At least the weather held.”

It was as kind a statement as she’d ever heard him make to anyone, save herself. She was so proud she thought she might burst from the happiness that filled her with. The maester seemed to relax somewhat and he looked her husband directly in the eye as he spoke to him.

“Gods be good, we will have a few more days like it so that we may properly stock up. There is excellent fishing in the lake and the game is plentiful here,” he told them as he guided them through the courtyard.

On either side of the large square tower there sat stables and kennels, as well as a small armory. Sansa heard the loud sounds of metal being worked and saw the deep red glow of embers but could not make out the figure hammering on the anvil.

“There is a modest meal awaiting you inside. You’ll find kitchens, wash houses, a great hall, and the barracks on the ground floor. Next holds your personal chambers along with solar, library, sewing room, and private bath house. Above you are the servants’ quarters, and at the top are the rookery and my chambers.” The maester pointed to sets of windows in the tower of stone as he explained the details of their new domicile.

“We would like to clean up a little before supping,” Sansa informed the maester with a tired smile.

“Of course, my lady, of course,” he agreed readily. “I will see Wren, the head cook, to inform her that you will be down soon.”

“That would be wonderful, thank you maester Bryce.”

Sansa wearily walked with her husband through the large wooden doors into a warm great room. There was a massive fire blazing away in the hearth as well as two huge chandeliers covered with dripping yellow candles dangling from the ceiling. They were suspended over two long tables that sat in the middle of the room. Up three stone steps there was another table, this one smaller, but it overlooked the entire room.

That will be for us, she thought. We are lord and lady of this keep. The table was long enough to accommodate at least eight, but she knew it would only be the two of them, unless they had honored guests. There will be no babes to fill these halls with laughter, she thought, momentarily saddened by the thought. She shook it away quickly as they followed the maester up the stairs that led to their chambers. We can make our own laughter.

They were shown into their solar. It was very sparsely furnished, but that was mainly due to the fact that their personal affects – mostly gifts from her parents – remained in the wagons. They would be brought up in the morning. When they ventured into their bedchamber Sansa gasped. Against the far wall was a gigantic poster bed. Heavy curtains of black and yellow velvet hung from the canopy and it was piled high with soft furs and feather pillows. After a full day of riding nothing ever looked so inviting.

Sandor’s snort drew her attention away from the bed. He was looking at her with no small amount of amusement. Pursing her lips, she narrowed her eyes in annoyance.

“Is something funny, husband?” she challenged. He nodded once.

“Aye, little bird. You,” he said simply and chuckled at her indignant expression. Glad to see his mood so improved she decided to test her luck.

Turning her back to him she began peeling off layer after layer of clothing until she stood in front of him naked as a babe. Glancing over shoulder she suppressed a giggle when she took in his wide-eyed stare. She stepped towards the bath house, hoping that Lydia and set up her bath and then made herself scarce.

“Am I still funny, my dearest?” she teased. The words were barely passed her lips when a slight squeal erupted from her. In three long strides Sandor was at her side. He swept her up into his arms and paced over to the bed where he very unceremoniously dropped her in the middle. Sansa’s laughter rang out as she try to scurry away from him.

Three loud raps on their solar door echoed through their chambers. Sansa sat up, pulling a fur around her middle to preserve her modesty. She arched an eyebrow at her husband when he made no move to answer it.

“Someone is at the door,” she said as sweetly as she could. Sandor growled lowly, but turned away from her. He stomped off towards the door, muttering.

“Someone is about to be beheaded.”

She heard low voices speaking – thankfully calmly – for a few moments and decided it was best to at least throw on her small clothes. Wrapping a fur around her like a cloak, she went to retrieve them from the floor. Sandor returned before she could reach them.

“Best have that bath, wife,” he rasped. “The small folk are restless to sup and the maester seems to think they should wait until we are ready.”

Sansa frowned. She did not want people, her people, going hungry just so she could enjoy the attentions of her husband. She walked over to a large wardrobe and sifted through the few gowns that had been made for her arrival. She chose a simple black velvet gown with slashes of yellow silk and embroidery around the arms and bodice.

“You should wear your own colors,” Sandor said lowly when she removed the garment from the cabinet. She turned and blinked at him.

“They are my colors now, my lord,” she reminded him softly. He regarded her roguishly before smirking.

“Not to them. These are northmen. They want to see you in your Stark colors.” She opened her mouth to argue, but he raised his hand. She bit her lip and waited until he spoke again. “You will have plenty of opportunity to remind them who you belong to. Tonight is for making them remember where you come from.”

He was right, of course. She had not met most of these men before. If they meant to secure their loyalty she would need to do as Sandor had said and show them that she was of the same North they were. She – they – needed their love and devotion if they hoped to last the winter. She placed the gown back in the cupboard and pulled out one just as lovely, but grey with silvery leaves along the bodice and white satin laces. She would look every bit the Stark in this dress.

She bathed quickly, choosing not to wash her hair until the morrow, instead pinning it up on her head to keep it out of the water. The washtub was large, but she doubted Sandor would fit in it very comfortably. Still, she left while the water was still hot in case he wanted to use it before dressing. When she emerged from the washroom she saw that he had already dressed for their meal. He wore a simple black doublet with his crest embroidered on the breast. With his black breeches and boots he looked much as he had on their wedding day. It made Sansa’s heart flutter to see him as such.

Sandor sent for Lydia to assist lacing Sansa into her corset and gown while he helped some of the soldiers bring their belongings up to their rooms. She readied herself as quickly as she could manage, not wanting to make her people wait too long.

“Let them wait. You are the lady here,” Lydia reminded her as she pulled down half of her hair in the northern style.

“I do not want them to think me frivolous or selfish,” Sansa confided softly as she made her way to the solar where Sandor was waiting. Lydia grabbed her hand and pulled her to a sudden stop.

“If it please milady, no one could know you and not love you immensely,” she said with a note of seriousness. Overcome by the kindness of her statement, Sansa tugged her handmaiden into an embrace. Lydia responded warmly before pushing her away slightly.

“It won’t due if I wrinkle you, milady,” she objected, but Sansa could see how touched she had been by her gesture. “Now, go meet your people before they become so hungry they start gnawing on one another!”

 

Chapter Text

It had been only three days since their arrival and already there were problems that needed attending to. The roof on the stables looked rotten in places and the small folk had been turning up in large numbers in need of their Maester, better guard against the few wildlings that had managed to come down past the Wall, or just some extra food. It had been surprisingly easy stepping into the role of Lady of the Keep. Every so often she had to be sure and defer to Sandor for his view. It would not do for their people to see her as the authority figure rather than her husband.

This was why she had decided to come to him when two of their local farmers turned up begging for more protection.

“Wildlings came down nigh a year ago and ran off with me eldest girl!” One man called Chestar told her.

“And more turned up last month to steel the crops we’d stored for the winter,” a younger man, Patrik, claimed in a plaintive tone.

Sansa was sensitive to their plight. Wildlings were a force they had long dealt with in Winterfell. She did her best to assure them.

“We will go right now to speak with my husband. He will know how to handle this.”

She smiled and bid them follow her across the grounds to the training yard. Snow blew around them in thick, feathery flakes on a light wind. With the cold biting at her cheeks and stinging her eyes she stopped on the edge of a muddy plane and watched as Sandor instructed two young men who swung violently at each other with blunted swords.

“Move your bloody feet, Shane,” he barked when one man stood as if rooted to the ground.

Sansa watched them carefully for a time. While no one could call Sandor kind or misconstrue his orders for praise, it could not be said that he wasn’t patient in his instruction. Each misstep was corrected, each countermove displayed. It was interesting to watch. At least, that was until one of the older soldiers took offense to one of the colorful words her husband kept tossing about.

“I serve the Warden of the North, not some mangled rabid dog.” He spat in the snow before glaring over at Sansa. She hadn’t realized she was crossing into the yard until she was midway between the two men.

“You will take care to speak to your lord with more respect,” Sansa said in a frosty voice. She would not suffer fools under their own roof. They had quite enough to deal with without fighting among themselves.

“I do not take orders from women, no matter whose bitch she may be.” He sneered.

No one spoke. The only sounds came from the whistling winds and soft pattering of snowfall. Sandor moved with a speed and grace she did not know he possessed. Before anyone could say a word he pushed the soldier up against the beams holding the roof of the smith’s shop, a dagger pressed against his throat. Neither man said a word; they merely glared malevolently at one another.

Sansa did not hesitate once the first trickle of blood sent droplets into the slush below their boots. No one tried to stop her as she stepped up to Sandor’s side and placed her hand on his arm. The blade twitched slightly, but the restrained man did not wince or show fear. He continued to glower balefully at his captor. Slowly, very slowly she pulled Sandor’s dagger away from the mans’ throat. Carefully placing herself between her husband and the fool whom had spoken so disrespectfully to them both, she eyed him with open contempt.

“Taunt my lord again and not even I will be able to save you, ser,” she said with as much venom as she could inject.

“He’s no knight,” Sandor growled. “Just some up jumped fucker in need of new employ.”

This time when the man stepped forward to challenge Sandor several soldiers and knights moved to his defense, drawing steel. Ser Darren stepped forward, a look of pure malice transforming his handsome features.

“Lord Clegane has dismissed you. Leave while you still can,” he warned imperiously. The man spat at them once more before casting his tourney sword aside and stomping away from them alone. Ser Darren came right over to her, grabbing her shoulders and holding her at arm’s length.

“Are you hurt, my lady? Can I help you back to your rooms?” He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering far too long on her chest.

She made to pull away from him when she was suddenly yanked forcefully back by her arm and thrust behind Sandor. Sansa began speaking loudly and quickly in an effort to avoid another confrontation.

“There are some men here in need of our protection, my lord.”

Every muscle in his back tensed as he brought himself up to his full height, towering greatly over ser Darren. She thought she heard him growl under his breath, so she grabbed his hand, squeezing tightly. She did not have the confidence to stop him from beating ser Darren into the snow as she had with the unfortunate lad just cast from their walls. He responded finally, albeit much more slowly than she would have liked. Pulling him away from the remaining armed men – some of whom were doing their very best to hide smiles – she guided him over to the two farmers.

They were only halfway back to the Great Hall when the same banished soldier stumbled through the gate. He grabbed onto a passing washerwoman, earning a shriek of terror and indignation as he pulled them both down into the mud. That was when Sansa saw the arrow sticking out of his back.

“Wildlings!” a guard at the gate hollered across the courtyard.

“To arms!” Sandor roared, striding over to the smith and pulling a shiny new two handed sword from the top of a pile. As he made his way towards the stables he grabbed her by the arm, unceremoniously dragging her along with him. It was the most ungentle he had ever handled her before.

When they passed the doors to the Great Hall she saw Maester Bryce. Sandor called him over and thrust Sansa at him like a sack of goods.

“You will bar her into our rooms and place guards – competent ones – at the doors. If anyone gets in, I’ll fucking kill you. If she gets out, I’ll fucking kill you. Her life is more important than anything else in this miserable northern wasteland, understand?” he snarled.

“No need for threats, my lord. I would give my life for either of you gladly. She will be well looked after in your absence,” he vowed solemnly.

“She’d better be,” he retorted before turning to look at her. His eyes sparked like flints.

“No games, little bird. You’ll stay in our rooms until I return.” It was not a request.

“Of course,” she said softly. “Sandor!” she called after him when he turned to leave. Stepping closer she leaned up and kissed his scarred cheek.

“Come back to me.”

His mouth twitched madly but after a moment he nodded. He stomped off into the stables, reemerging on Stranger’s back. Eight more horses followed and a dozen soldiers on foot charged out of the gates before they were closed and barred behind them. Maester Bryce suddenly appeared beside her and very gently guided her by her elbow.

“I will escort you to your rooms, my lady. I believe Lydia is already waiting with your midday meal.” He was so kind. She had come to really like him in a very short time.

“Thank you, Maester.” Once in her solar she thanked him again. With the worry for her husband gnawing fiercely at her gut she could think of nothing else to say.

“I must go and secure what is left of our forces around the keep. There will be men at your doors until the lord returns. Where is your wolf?” He looked about the solar.

“Lady,” she called softly. Her direwolf padded noiselessly from within her bedchamber, stopping at her side and looking up expectantly. She stroked her head lovingly.

“Good, you are well protected should the worst happen, then.” They were not comforting words, but they were honest. He bowed slightly before departing. She lowered the bar in front of her door and stepped back, continuing to stare at the wood until Lydia came and placed an arm around her waist and guided her towards a chair by the fire.

“Are you afraid, milady?” Lydia asked. She disappeared into the bedchamber before Sansa could think of how to answer. She returned almost instantly with Sansa’s brush.

“I am, but not for myself,” she finally replied. Her eyes closed of their own volition as Lydia stroked through her hair.

“You think anyone can hurt that great man o’ yours?” She sounded amused. Sansa opened her eyes again and saw a grin spreading over Lydia’s face.

“I reckon he’s one o’ them white walkers in disguise,” she teased. Confused and slightly insulted on Sandor’s behalf, Sansa turned on her.

“How do you figure that?”

Lydia arched an eyebrow at her challenging tone. “I swear tha’ man can’t be killed. A few of the men have tried, or haven’t ya noticed?”

Sansa’s half smile did not reach her eyes. She was too tense, too worried. Anyone can be killed, she knew. Sandor was no different than any other man. He was stronger than most, a better fighter than most, but he was still just a man.

They sat in silence while Sansa listened for any sign that their home was under siege. Any time there was a clamor from below she would startle, staring intently at the door, waiting for it to be broken down. Each time it did not smash into splinters she felt her nerves fray just a little more. So when a heavy hand pounded on the other side her heart jumped up into her throat, preventing her from answering. Lady leapt to her feet but made no sounds of warning.

A dagger she had not seen before was suddenly in Lydia’s hand. She stepped in front of Sansa, pushing her back towards the bedchamber.

“Who is it?” she called loudly.

“Open the door, little bird.”

Sansa released a great breath she did not even recall holding as relief washed through her. Lydia remained on guard, her weapon at the ready as she lifted the bar and made to open the door. She had to jump back to avoid being clobbered when it slammed open and bounced off the stone wall. Sandor’s massive body seemed to fill the room. He did not outwardly appear to have just come home from a great battle. There was no blood, no damage to his jerkin, and he did not look to be injured. If not for the mud on his boots and the wetness in his hair she would have thought he had simply been out in the training yard the entire time.

His eyes searched the space for only seconds before landing on Sansa. She nearly took a step back at the intensity she saw there. He was usually so guarded that the naked emotion in his eyes did strange things to her insides. Her heart beat furiously as he stalked slowly in her direction.

“You, out!” he ordered Lydia. “Take the beast with you.”

“Yes, m’lord. With me, Lady,” Lydia called. The direwolf looked to her mistress. When Sansa nodded and motioned towards the door, Lady trotted off without further command. Lydia pulled the door shut behind her, but not before shooting Sansa an encouraging smile that she had trouble returning.

“Were there many –“ she started to ask as she nervously fidgeted with the sleeve of her gown. Her words disappeared with a gasp when she was suddenly gripped up in his strong hands and pressed against the stone wall.

His rapid breaths fanned over her face as she stared in bewilderment up into his stormy gaze. He said nothing while pressing his body to hers indecently. She felt his bulging manhood against her stomach and immediately knew what she was in for. Men often sought female company after a fight, this was common knowledge. Once bloodlust was sated, a different fire burned within them.

No words were spoken as Sandor’s hands travelled possessively over her face, her shoulders, her waist. She shuddered under the heat of his gaze, her hands fluttering nervously against his chest as his continued down her hips. There was no warning, no sign for what he was about to do. So when he gripped the fabric of her bodice and ripped it wide open she gasped loudly, her fingers clutching at the leather beneath them. There was no time to breathe before his mouth crashed onto hers, his tongue invading. She whimpered lowly when she was pushed further against the wall. His lips were demanding on hers, teeth roughly nipping at her swollen lips. His fingers, still cold from the outdoors, deftly untied her silken small clothes baring her breasts for him. The roughness of his warrior’s hands worked over her sensitive peaks and sent delicious shivers down her spine.

His mouth worked down her neck, sucking and biting harshly until he reached her chest. Lowering down to kneel before her she felt his hands leave her hips. Her body shifted away from the wall ever so slightly as she placed her hands on his shoulders for support. She drew deep breaths in an effort to steady herself somewhat, but it was for naught. She cried out, in surprise more than anything else, when Sandor gripped the hem of her skirts and ripped them clear up to her ruined bodice. Strong hands rubbed up her trembling thighs as she watched his movements intently. He had never been so hurried before. It both thrilled and unnerved her. He was a never so rough with her, though often passionate in their coupling.

And yet his hand never brought her pain. The nips and bruising kisses felt amazingly good, better than she would have thought. She had never felt so desired. When his face pressed between her thighs and she felt his mouth on her woman’s place she called out in shock before pleasure rippled through her. Her head fell back heavily against the stone wall as her hands struggled to find purchase. One anchored her to him by tightly gripping his hair while the other flung out and gripped the window sill beside her, helping her to remain upright.

She felt his tongue dance along her skin, pressing into a sweet spot he often found with his fingers. Her eyes rolled back in her head as shivers of ecstasy wracked her body. Her earlier anxieties were quickly replaced by the overwhelming desire to feel his hands, his mouth, every part of him pressing into every part of her. She needed it, craved it. She needed him.

Far past caring about the wanton sounds that fell from her lips as he doled out such exquisite torture, Sansa could also not stop the way her hips bucked against his face or the way her thighs shook violently as her peak quickly approached. Practically dizzy from her quick breaths she called out a wordless protest when he suddenly pulled his mouth away from her body and he rose up in front of her.

His breeches were nearly fully unlaced when he pressed between her legs, gripping her buttocks in his hands and lifting her up so that she was nearly eye to eye with him. Her arm wrapped tightly around his shoulders while she held her balance on the window sill with the other. One swift thrust and he was deep inside her. He pulled back slightly before slamming into her again. There was no mistaking his intentions. This was not the kind of coupling she was used to. There was no other word she could use to describe the wild, uncontrolled actions that both were guilty of at this point except one: fucking. It was not a word she ever thought she would use. It was also something she never thought she would enjoy, but she was. Thoroughly.

She cried out loudly each time she was slammed against the wall by the jerking of his hips. Her nails gripped his armor, clawing deeply as her insides started to sing. Her mouth found his for mere seconds as she was too lost in sensation to maintain her kiss. Her peak ripped through her unexpectedly, tearing a scream from her lungs. He seemed to pound into her harder, faster after that. She clung to him desperately, whimpering as each movement sent shocks through her oversensitive body. He finished with a low groan, his hips finally stilling against hers. It was only after he ceased all movement that she realized just how hard her body was shaking.

They stood there panting, eyes closed. A sudden wave of emotion overtook Sansa, filling her so full to bursting that she felt something inside her give way. It momentarily dulled all of her senses rendering her deaf, blind, and dumb before everything was thrown into such sharp focus that she did believe she could contain it. The words were there, her lips beginning to form them when they were captured by her husbands’ mouth. Gone were the demanding, devouring kisses. They were replaced by the ones she had come to expect and always welcome. No less arduous, but far more gentle.

Shifting her weight in his arms, he carried her over to their bed and set her down carefully. Her ruined dress did nothing for her modesty, but she supposed it did not matter so much. He had seen her naked many times before. There was something in the manner of his touch and the softness of his gaze that set her completely at ease. Whereas he had started out wild and seemingly uncontrolled, he now was the picture of serenity and kindness. At least as much as he ever had been with her. Only her. So she allowed him to attend to her, removing her clothes and boots before draping a fur over her bare shoulders. He pushed her gently back against the pillows before disappearing into the wash house. He was not gone long, but when he returned he only wore small clothes and his hair was freshly washed. He slid into the bed next to her before pulling her head to rest on his chest.

They were quiet for a while, communicating only with touches and soft, contented sighs. She thought about what she had almost said to him before he stopped her with a kiss. Before her wits returned to her fully. She wondered how he would have responded. Would it be with a similar declaration? She hoped, but did not put much faith in that hope.

It is obvious he cares for me, she thought. That is enough. It is all that I need.

His voice, though low and quiet, still cut through the silence like a blade.

“Did I hurt you, little bird?”

She smiled, hearing the uncertainty in his tone. “Not at all.” My love.

“Would you tell me if I had?” She could tell he did not fully believe her. She lifted her head and made sure to look him directly in the eye.

“I promise to always be honest with you, Sandor, just as you are with me.”

He regarded her quietly for a moment before nodding once. “You asked how many there were.”

She thought back to when he first entered the solar and nodded. “I did.”

“Only six. We took care of them quickly and without loss,” he told her plainly.

“Then why were you gone so long?”

“Searching the woods for others. Didn’t want to be surprised again so soon,” he rasped.

It made sense to her, but even if it did not she trusted him on these matters. She was not a warrior, after all. She nuzzled close to his ear, placing soft kisses there. He hummed lowly, making her smile.

“I am happy you came back to me in one piece,” she said, sorely tempted to call him love. She did not know how she would ever be able to keep such a revelation to herself. She was no good at secret keeping, and it had been pointed out by none other than her husband that she was the worst liar in all of Westeros.

He nodded at her words but said nothing else. They lay together as the sky darkened and shadows overtook the room. Sansa felt her eyes flutter with the start of sleep when Lydia knocked and bid them come down to supper. She had half a mind to stay right where she was, but then thought better of it. There would celebrations waiting for them below. The men who fought with Sandor would want to congratulate their lord on vanquishing their foes. It would do him good to be seen as strong and capable to his men, his people.

They dressed quietly and though Sansa tried to school her features into something that did not appear disappointed, she could help her frown as she bundled up the ruined gown.

“Did you like that one?” Sandor asked with half a smile. His eyes were much lighter, softer than before. Despite her displeasure at losing her garment she could not help but smile back.

“I did, yes,” she confirmed somewhat shyly.

“I’ll buy you a new one, little bird.” He held the door for her to exit the solar before him. She nodded at him with false imperiousness.

“See that you do, you brute.”

His laugh was loud and rough, but full and more genuine than she had ever heard before. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it gently.

“A brute, am I?”

She blushed a little at the heat in his gaze. “Most definitely. One of the best I’ve ever met.”

“Is that so?” His amusement was palpable. It was also contagious. She barely suppressed a giggle as they ascended into the Great Hall.

A loud cheer greeted them as they walked up to their table and took their seats. Sansa beamed merrily at all the men – their men – that raised their tankards and goblets in a salute to their lord. She had never felt so proud in her entire life.

“There he is!” a man called Grey hollered over the din. The others quieted somewhat so he could be heard.

“The very man who scared the piss out o’ wildlings,” he yelled around a grin while others laughed loudly.

“Aye! They saw him bearing down on them atop his hellish steed and fled back towards the Wall,” another soldier added merrily.

“Not fast enough, though!” Boisterous laughter echoed off the stone walls as the men cheered.

“You should be proud, milady,” one particularly drunk knight slurred with a lopsided grin. “Never showed an ounce of fear. A fine lord for any man to follow.”

“Hear, hear!” Shouts went up and glasses clanked. Sansa smiled so widely her cheeks were beginning to ache. When she turned to her husband she could see how uncomfortable he was with all the praise from the soldiers, but also saw the effort he was putting in to smiling and nodding good naturedly. She was therefor very surprised when he rose up and raised his own goblet.

“I did not go alone, so the glory is not mine alone. You all did your part, whatever that may be. For that you have my thanks.”

Sandor was not a man of many words, or pretty words, but when he spoke he did so honestly and with meaning. The people of his lands and keep were learning this about him, and so respected and honored him more when he chose to speak his mind. This time was no different. Their cheers became a deafening roar that vibrated Sansa’s very bones and filled her so full of happiness she felt she would burst from the feeling.

For the first time in a great while she felt herself begin to relax. All her fears, all her doubts and self-deprecation seemed to seep right out of her and float away on the cheers and laughter of her surrounding people. As she raised her own glass to toast her husband she allowed herself to delight in the moment. Here and now she was safe. She was protected. She was loved. They both were.

Chapter Text

There had been much to do in the weeks following their arrival. The tower itself was in good enough condition, but the stables and armory needed to be repaired before long. Not to mention the wildlings that seemed to materialize out of nowhere ever week or so. Sandor had been impressed, if only just, but the quality of men that had turned up looking for work. Most worked for meager enough wages that he could afford to hire a few extra hands here and there. The rest worked for trade; food, a decently forged weapon, medical treatment from Maester Bryce. Those things were easy enough to come by. It was harder to make shrewd deals with his wife present. She was far too generous for his liking.

“Winter is coming,” she kept saying whenever he would argue she gave too much, accepted too little.

“Aye,” he growled. “And we’ll not survive it if you keep giving away all our stores!”

Still, she never feared him, even in his fits of temper. Not that he ever truly lashed out at her. She still had her terrors now and again. Woke screaming in the night only to calm when he spoke softly to her. He never thought himself to be a kind man, but it was getting far too easy to soothe her nerves in a voice he would not have recognized a year ago.

He thought about how she had finally begun to relax into her duties as Lady of the Keep. She dealt with the small folk more effortlessly than he ever could, but still would seek his advice on any matter that the men brought to her. Like when a man turned up from King’s Landing with a large lad in tow this morning. Sandor had been training new soldiers and squires in the ways of heavily armored combat – they still wore boiled leather and furs when battling up here – when Sansa had walked calmly into the fray.

Nearly every man had stopped immediately. Some had even taken a knee like she was the bloody queen. One, a young knight with decent sword work, must not have seen her approach. He swung wildly at his opponent, clipping his shield, sword rebounding off the side. The wielder’s arm flung to the side uncontrolled on a direct path to Sansa’s shoulder. She flinched away slightly as another blade, one more measured and incredibly sure, blocked her with a single swift movement.

Sandor stood before her, his body tensed in fury as he advanced on the stupid shit that had almost maimed his wife. He delivered blow after blow until the sword was knocked from the damnable knight who finally had the good sense to drop to his knees.

“Mercy, my lord!” he pled. “I did not see her, I swear it!”

Growling loudly, Sandor sneered. “Save your fucking excuses! They would not have given the lady back her arm had I not been here to stop you!”

He made to lift his sword again, not to kill the idiot, but maybe to beat some sense into him. It would serve to remind him to keep his fucking eyes open when battling in the future. He never had the chance. Sansa’s hand landed on his own, soft as a summer’s breeze. She placed herself between them and looked down at the man cowering in the mud.

“It was a mistake, my lord,” she said softly. “One he will never repeat?”

The last statement was said like a question, and the bloody fool nodded his head so rapidly his helm slipped forward to cover his eyes. He made a pathetic sight. Sandor shook his head in disgust before flinging his sword to the ground.

“You’ll practice with tourney blades until I’m convinced you can handle live steel,” he rasped angrily before turning to stomp away. If he hadn’t left then he might have kicked the whimpering shits’ useless teeth in.

Sansa had caught up with him easily. “It really was an accident, Sandor.”

“Accidents can kill as surely as intentions,” he countered gravely. She was being too kind again.

“Not with you here to protect me, it seems.”

He turned to glare at her nonchalance. He was met with that smile she only gave him; secretive, sweet, slightly scolding. He held his anger by mere threads. It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain his fury with her. She always seemed to know exactly how to diffuse him. It rankled and soothed him to see how she had come to understand him so well in only a few months. He often felt unsettled around her. Anger and hate were all he had before she had been thrust upon his life. Now he found he had other stirrings within him. He would not put names to them; he was not brave enough.

She continued to grin at him until the last shreds of his anger fell away. Huffing in annoyance, he looked at her expectantly. She never interrupted training without reason. She watched him often enough, but was usually well out of the way and silent.

“We have a new blacksmith, it seems,” she said cryptically.

“What happened to the old one?” He turned to see the forge now being manned by a black haired youth.

“He wished to retire. Claimed he had too many aches and his hands were becoming unsure.” He could hear the doubt in Sansa’s voice. “He had sent for a replacement before we arrived. It seems my father thought this young man would serve our needs.”

Sandors’ eyebrow lifted in disbelief. “He sent for a smith from King’s Landing?”             “Not exactly,” Sansa conceded. “His letter claims that Gendry, that is the man’s name, was delivered to Winterfell as a wedding gift for Robb from the King. But since Mikken is already there, my father decided to send him here to us.”

“There is something you aren’t saying.”

The little bird frowned, shaking her head slightly. “Something is missing from this story. Mikken would have liked an apprentice, and this young man seems to have great skill. I do not know why he was sent here, but it is not as simple as our newfound requirement for a smith.”

Sandor snorted, drawing her attention and deepening her frown. “You are near as suspicious as me.”

She smiled slightly. “I am a fast learner.”

“That you are, little bird,” he said suggestively. She flushed deeply, drawing a chuckle from him. He had quickly begun to enjoying mocking her courtesies lady’s manners. She was not near so proper when he was fucking her. And she was right; she learned very quickly.

“As are you, my lord,” she murmured so quietly he almost did not hear her. He roared with laughter then. She did not usually make jokes like these where others could hear. Her shy smile belied just how bold she could be. Before he could say as much she strode purposefully towards the new smith.

“I trust you have everything you need, Gendry?” she inquired politely. When the lad turned Sandor saw that he was not as young as he had first believed. He saw something else of note, as well. His eyes narrowed.

Gendry cleared his throat and nodded. “Yes, milady. You are very well stocked and equipped here. I will be able to do some fine work for your soldiers, m’lord.” The smiths’ blue eyes barely met his own before lowering.

“How old are you, boy?” Sandor demanded. Something was amiss. He knew this smith. He never forgot a face.

“Eight and ten, m’lord,” he mumbled.

“You trained in King’s Landing?” he rasped. It was less a question than a demand for more information.

“Yes, m’lord.”

“What part are you from?” His suspicions increased as he saw the boy shift slightly.

“Flea Bottom,” he said finally. Sandor’s jaw tightened.

“Tell me how some piss ant whelp from Flea Bottom could afford to apprentice as a smith in King’s fucking Landing.”

“Sandor!” Sansa turned to him, eyes wide. He held up his hand to shut her up. He did not need her correcting his manners right now. There was a devious scheme brewing and he would not be part of it.

“I don’t rightly know, m’lord. My mum’s a barmaid. One day a man in the King’s colors came and brought me to master Tobho, told me I was to learn to smith.” He shrugged a shoulder and looked away uncomfortably.

Sandor cursed lowly and regarded the bastard before him. “Who’s your father?”

“Don’t know, m’lord,” he muttered before squaring his shoulders and looking Sandor in the eye for the first time. “Being a bastard ain’t a crime, m’lord, and it don’t stop me from being a damn good smith.” His eyes suddenly darted to Sansa’s. “Begging the lady’s pardon.”

She smiled at him and nodded, but Sandor’s scowl deepened. He did not seem to know whose bastard he was, or he was not willing to say. Either way, it answered some of the questions regarding his sudden appearance in the North.

“Why did Ned Stark send you here?” The question seemed to startle the lad somewhat before his cheeks colored. He shifted again before clearing his throat again.

“I do not know, m’lord. I was to work with Mikken, but yesterday was told I would be here instead.” Sandor could hear the lie in his voice. He was hiding something.

Sneering, Sandor straightened his back to further tower over the lad. He was a large boy, heavily muscled as a smith should be, but not near the size of Sandor. Taking pleasure in seeing the younger man retreat slightly from him, Sandor almost did not notice the sudden commotion at the gates. His attention was immediately diverted from beating the truth out of the lying shit with his own hammer when Sansa suddenly flew from his side.

“Arya!” she called happily as she ran gracefully up to the figure sliding from horseback. In truth, he would have thought it one of her younger brothers, the way the girl was dressed in breeches and tunic beneath her cloak. He saw the hilt of a small sword poking out from her hip.

“Fucking hells,” he grumbled before turning back to Gendry. “I’ll deal with you later.”

He stomped through the muddy snow over to where the girls stood hugging. A dark grey direwolf loped over to him, sniffing at his hand before Lady came running into the courtyard. The two beasts circled each other playfully before running off together. Shaking his head, he continued towards where the little bird was happily chattering away with her sister.

“Did we miss your raven?” he asked bluntly. He would have thought they were too great a distance from Winterfell to encourage unannounced visits. Sansa smacked his chest, but he barely felt a thing.

“I didn’t send one,” she snapped back, eyes narrowing.

“You do not need to. You are always welcome here,” Sansa told her while glaring harshly at her husband. He was unfazed and met her glower with one of his own.

“Who else is here with you?” he demanded. Might as well be sure there was enough space for his new ‘guests’. Sansa would expect nothing less. He noticed that the usually confident and smug demeanor of the she wolf had all but disappeared. Instead she looked somewhat shamefaced. The little bird gasped loudly and took her younger sister by the shoulders.

“Tell me you did not ride all this way by yourself!” When the girl grimaced he thought his wife might actually strike her. Not that she didn’t deserve it. Fucking foolish to come all this way without an escort.

“Arya!” Sansa yelled and shook her slightly before the she wolf broke away angrily.

“I had to!” she shouted back.

“Why? What in the name of the Gods was worth risking your life for?” Sansa inquired shrilly. He tried to hide his smirk. He always found her temper amusing.

Arya looked ready to argue with her most fiercely until she spotted something behind them. Her face twisted in fury, grey eyes flashing, as she shouted, “Hey, you!” before pushing past her sister and stomping off towards their new smith. Sandor and Sansa followed closely until she reached him.

Gendry had stopped stoking the fire, stepping away with his hands up high. His expression was wary, but resigned.

“Milady,” he started to say, but she cut him off with a mighty shove. It sent him stumbling away from the forge.

“You stupid bastard!” she yelled and pushed him again. Sansa made to stop the scene unfolding, but Sandor grabbed her by the arm, pulling her to him. This looked like it could get interesting. The she wolf was feistier than he had given her credit for.

“Milady,” Gendry tried again, but this time her shove sent him stumbling backwards into the snow. He kept his feet, but only just.

“Might be we’ll find out just why he was sent here,” he rasped in Sansa’s ear. Truth be told, he was seeing it clearly. Only one thing would anger a woman so much.

“Stop calling me that!” she hollered again and bent to throw a handful of snow in his face. To the lad’s credit he did not seek to retaliate or restrain her. He merely wiped the wetness from his eyes and continued backing away submissively.

“Did you think you could just disappear without a word and I wouldn’t fucking notice?” Arya challenged. The little bird groaned quietly as she turned her face into his chest. He snorted a laugh. She was either offended by her sister’s language or had just figured out what made her ride for hours through the freezing morning.

“It was not my choice to leave –,” he started to explain but was silenced by another shove.

“Not your choice? Did they drag you off in chains? Tie you to a horse? Bind and gag you until you were out of Winterfell?” Each question was punctuated with a blow to his arm, shoulder, chest. Sandor found himself grinning. He was beginning to have some respect for the girl, not that he would ever admit it.

“Arya, enough,” Sansa tried, but her sister stoutly ignored her.

“Now that’s not very ladylike,” Gendry jested around a smirk when Arya flashed a rude gesture over her shoulder. His voice softened and his voice sounded sad. “Arya, you can’t outrun a marriage.”

That explained it. The lad must have been a distraction from some shit lordling looking to make a match with the Warden of the North’s remaining daughter. It also explained why the she wolf had appeared so suddenly. Odds were she had left without word to her father.

“Oh, Arya,” the little bird sighed. He allowed her to pull away from him this time, but followed closely behind her in case her willful and wild sister began throwing punches again.

“Oh yes I can. I’ll go to the fucking Wall if I have to!” Arya screamed and kicked over a pail of coal.

“Dressing like a lord with not give you their rights, milady,” Gendry said sternly, folding his arms across his chest. He seemed as unimpressed by her tantrum as Sandor.

“I’ll do whatever I have to,” she countered with less force than before. “I will not be sold off to some shit-for-brains Umber, I do not care who is father is!”

“You can’t stop them,” Gendry argued feebly. Sansa shook her head. Clearly, it was the wrong thing to say to the she wolf. Her back straightened.

“I can and I will! No one will want me if I tell them you took my –,” she said with a sly look. Sandor clamped a hand over her mouth before she could finish her threat.

“Enough, girl! You mean to have him beheaded?” he snarled at her before lifting her up and dragging her away from the growing crowd. The little bird scampered after them. He kicked open the door to the Great Hall, hauling his struggling captive along with him. At the first hint of teeth on his flesh she shook her good and hard.

“If you bite me I will knock out half those pretty teeth, bitch!” he threatened lowly. When Sansa squeaked in protest he turned to give her a look that promised retribution if she dared interfere. She did not even balk, instead choosing to glare frostily at him, which only infuriated him further. He continued to pull the squirming girl up the stairs until he reached his rooms. Sansa hurried to open the door before them and closed it tightly again after he crossed the threshold, practically tossing the rabid little beast away from him.

She stood there, tiny chest heaving in fury before she drew her thin Braavosi style blade on him. He laughed heartily at the sight of it. When she lashed out he made to block with his arm, but she was fast and nimble, spinning away before he could think to move. A thin ribbon of blood appeared on his forearm, a tear in the fabric of his tunic that had not been there before opening up. Growling menacingly, he stepped forward to teach the little shit a thing or two about fighting against an unarmed man. Sansa appeared between them, hands spread wide towards both fighters.

“Stop! Stop this right now!” she shouted. It was a tone her voice seldom reached, but he knew it well. She was on the edge of something he did not wish to see, and for that reason alone he stood down. Taking great breaths in an effort to calm his rage, he turned to locate a flagon of red that always sat by the hearth. He downed half of it before setting it back on the table.

“Arya, if you wish to stay here I must insist you do not attack my husband. Are we clear?” The little bird’s voice was hard as ice and just as cold. Her sister mumbled a reply too quiet to reach his ears.

“And you would do well not to try and kill my sister. Seeing as she is the only one I have, I would be very put out.”

He looked over at her and saw that she had begun to thaw somewhat. Glaring at the she wolf sulking behind her, he bit out, “No promises.”

She rolled her eyes at him, making him snort in aggravated amusement. He was just about to go back down to see the smith about the she wolf’s claims when Sansa asked a most important question.

“Does anyone even know you are here?” Her voice was gentle, but exasperated. He imagined it sounded much as his did when trying to soothe her fears in the night.

The look on the Arya’s face was answer enough. Sandor cursed and shook his head. Stupid girl. The bloody castle would be in an uproar. First her sister goes missing, now her. He wondered if the Dreadfort would be attacked before long. He made to storm from the room when Sansa stopped him.

“Sandor?”

“I’m going to send a rider to your lord father before she starts a fucking war,” he informed her shortly. No need for another Stark girl to cause thousands to die for her stupidity. Before he left he needed a bit of truth.

“Did you fuck him, girl?”

Sansa whipped around and stared at him in open-mouthed shock. To her credit, the she wolf didn’t bat an eye. She crossed her arms and looked away from him.

“That’s none of your business, dog,” she spat.

“Arya,” Sansa said in a warning tone. She did not permit anyone to call him that. Not even himself. He was in no mood for the games high born ladies played. He stormed over to her and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look him in the eye.

“You think this is a fucking game, girl? Your words could be the death of him! Is that what you want?” he growled.

She wrenched her face from his grasp, eyes narrowing. “No one’s killing him while I’m around!”

He laughed without humor. “You going to stop them, then? With what, that little blade you scratched me with? I’ve done worse to myself shaving. You’re a fucking girl, high born or not. Unless you’ve got a cock, no one cares what you have to say or what you want.”

It was a harsh truth, but truth was all that mattered. She could fill her head with all the romantic nonsense she wanted. It would not make the sun rise in the west. Best she learn that now when she was still young.

“Arya, what happened?” Sansa asked quietly.

The younger girl turned her back to them and paced over to the window stiffly. It was a few moments before she spoke again. Her voice was clipped, determined.

“Nothing happened with Gendry. I just liked spending time with him. He’s funny and honest. He isn’t offended by how I dress or what I say. I thought that maybe . . .”

Sansa sighed and took a few steps towards her sister. “Arya, you cannot marry a bastard.”

The she wolf whipped around, her eyes red rimmed, face set and angry. “Why not? You married the Hound!”

Sandor’s mouth twitched slightly, but he did not comment. This was quickly becoming a conversation that he did not need to hear or be part of. He turned and headed for the door.

“I’ll be sending that rider now. I’ll tell them you’re staying a while.” It was a small kindness, one that the little bird would appreciate, which was all that mattered to him. In truth, he did not mind the girl so much. She was not a liar and had a bigger pair of bollocks than most men he’d known. She was, however, a giant pain in the arse.

When his wife made no move to stop him he finally escaped their rooms and headed back to the training yard. He knew exactly who to send on this fool’s errand. Lord Stark would not be happy to receive this news. Hopefully he would take it out on the lecherous shit delivering the message.

“Darren,” he barked at the knight. He knew it annoyed him not to be addressed with his title. It gave Sandor pleasure to deny him that.

“Yes, my lord,” the shorter man said as genially as possible. Sandor could see the contempt in his eyes. It made him all the happier to send him away. He did not like the way he stared at Sansa at given the opportunity.

“Lady Arya has arrived without her father’s leave. Ride to Winterfell and inform Lord and Lady Stark that she is here and will remain for the week to visit her sister. Tell them to send back any message they wish with you.” He had to restrain a grin when he saw how the man wanted to argue.

“Of course, Lord Clegane. Am I to depart right away?” His courtesies were strained, but he still used them. Sandor nodded once and pointed to the clumsiest squire in sight.

“Aye, and take him with you. I’ll not have anyone out alone,” he instructed. Darren was a whoreson, but decent enough with a blade. He could not afford to lose good soldiers.

After that was taken care of he stomped off towards the forge again. When Gendry saw him approach his hands immediately flew up in defense as he backed quickly away.

“I never laid a hand on her, I swear it m’lord,” he stammered.

“Calm yourself, lad I know the truth of it,” he interrupted. The boy relaxed, but only slightly.

“Am I still to work here, m’lord?” he asked quietly.

Sandor nodded. “Aye. Do your job well and I don’t give two shits who you fuck.”

The boy started spluttering a protest, but Sandor cut him off with a look. “You can talk to the she wolf all you want. I don’t want the headache from trying to keep her away from you. But if you take her head I will take yours,” he warned. He would not make an enemy of Ned Stark if he could avoid it.

Sandor spent the rest of the day avoiding his rooms. The little bird and she wolf did not emerge until supper. Somehow the younger had wound up in a dress, which amused him to no end. She looked ready to murder anyone who spoke to her, so naturally he talked to her more than anyone else that evening. Sansa made no attempt to hide her smiles whenever the two would argue around bites of food.

He found his way back to their solar and went about bathing while waiting for the little bird to return to their rooms. She would spend more time with her sister, he knew, but he hoped she would not keep him waiting too long. He stretched out beneath the furs to rest for a few moments before she returned. He must have truly dozed for when he was roused again most of the candles were out and only embers glowed in the hearth.

His wife was in her nightshift, her body wrapped tightly around his. Even in the dim light he could see the frown creasing her brow. Gently, he leaned forward and kissed the creases smooth. She hummed lightly. It was a contented sound she often made when he did that. He did not think any woman would ever be happy with him, let alone one such as her. In the darkness of their rooms he would watch her while she slept. Only then would his guard come down completely and he would marvel and the great beauty she truly is. He often ran his course fingers through her silky hair, reveling in the clean smell of her, the softness of her skin. This time was no different. His fingers trailed across her cheek lightly, but he drew away as her lips parted. Murmured nonsense spilled forth in breathy whispers. He smiled. It was not often she spoke out of anything than fear while she slept. Her thoughts were funny at times, all jumbled by sleep.

“Sandor . . .” she breathed. Sensing she was about to wake he closed his eyes, feigning sleep. He did not wish to be caught by her.

He felt her stirring beside him, rising up slightly to look around. Her fingers played in his hair, much like his did in hers before. He tried to control his breathing. Soft caresses on his cheek, his chest; her palm rested over his heart. He heard the words as they slipped from her lips in the smallest of whispers. Torturous words. Impossible words. Words never meant for him.

“I love you.”

Chapter Text

She watched them shrewdly at breakfast. Sansa with her perfect courtesy and delicate grace. The Hound with his brutish manner and quiet disposition. Complete opposites to one another, and yet they moved with seamless harmony. He was more attentive towards her than she had witnessed before. Maybe their time together outside of Winterfell had allowed her to gentle him somehow? Arya did not know, or really care much; she just knew she was unbearably jealous.

She had envied Sansa when they were growing up. She was always prettier in everything they did, more perfect than Arya could ever hope to be. When her condition had been revealed Arya had, quite shamefully, taken a secret pleasure in it. At last, something she could do – as a lady – which Sansa could not! It was short lived. Once she saw how miserable her sister became she no longer wanted to have this over her. In fact, when her own moon blood came, she did her best to hide it. She succeeded for a few months before their mother had found her out.

And yet, here she was married to a lord – of her choosing no less – and living the kind of life she had always wanted. The lady of a Keep, adored by all who set eyes on her. And here was Arya, once again set to live in the ways of a ‘proper’ lady simply because that was the way it was done. Scowling down at her bacon she pushed it around her plate.

“What is it, little bird?” she heard the Hound rasp in his ruined voice. He was staring at Sansa with worry in his eyes.

Little bird. She wolf. He certainly has a thing for pet names, doesn’t he? Maybe he named himself the Hound.

Arya trained her eyes on her sister. She was paler than normal and had her hands over her stomach. Afraid she was about to retched on, Arya leaned away slightly. Sansa looked as ill as she’d ever seen her.

“Seven hells,” she muttered.

“Arya, do not use that language.” She sounded so much like their mother that Arya had to smirk. Even in her discomfort she was bloody perfect. After a moment though she sat up fully and brightened a little.

“I am fine, really. Just feeling a little off today. I am sure it will pass,” she tried to assure them. Arya merely shrugged, but Sandor still eyed her warily.

“If you’re feeling up for it later I thought we could go for a ride to Long Lake,” Arya suggested. Sansa had made it quite plain that she was not to harass Gendry while he was working, which meant keeping herself busy during the day. Once he was finished working, all bets were off. He owed her some answers.

“That would be lovely.” She seemed genuinely pleased by the idea. Sansa never had been much of a rider as a young girl, but had improved somewhat in the past year or so. Bran had a lot to do with it, she supposed. He always was the patient one of the lot.

“Take the wolves with you,” the Hound grunted around his cup.

“Of course,” Sansa agreed readily, as if this was a given.

“I think they’re already off hunting,” Arya told them before tearing off a great chunk of brown bread and dipping it into her soft yolks.

“What do you mean?” Sansa asked as she dabbed her mouth with a cloth.

“I released them at dawn. They seemed to have something scented before I even opened the side gate,” Arya said through a mouthful of food.

Sansa frowned, either at her lacking table manners or her news. She didn’t know which. She didn’t care much either.

“You’re not to set foot outside the walls without a guard,” Clegane growled, pointing his finger at the both of them. Arya scowled at his orders, but Sansa smiled before snapping her teeth near his finger. His scarred mouth twitched into what Arya imagined was his hideous version of a smile.

“I promise to take at least two capable men with us on our ventures,” she vowed solemnly. Arya could tell she was trying to restrain her grin. She had not seen her sister be this playful in quite some time. It brought her an unexpected joy.

“My lord, the men are assembled and awaiting instruction,” a man wearing a surcoat with the Clegane banner sewn onto the breast said from near the end of the table. He stood there waiting expectantly. Arya could see that he did not look nervous or resentful to be commanded by the Hound. In fact, she had seen how much his men seemed to respect him and work well with him. It had baffled her at first, but after seeing the change to his behavior towards her sister she had to wonder if his mood had improved towards people in general.

Sandor rose, guzzling down what remained of his wine before wiping his mouth on the sleeve. He turned to Sansa with a last look that she supposed could resemble affection before grabbing his sword and marching out of the hall, the other man at his heels.

“Where is he going?” Arya asked as she pushed her empty plate away.

“He is overseeing the construction of our granary, assisting in the harvesting of timber for the new storehouse, and then will spend some time instructing the new soldiers in ways of combat.” She could see the pride shine in Sansa’s eyes as she spoke.

Arya rose with her, both ladies donning warm cloaks over their woolen gowns. Arya’s was too long for her, but only just. Sansa said it belonged to her handmaiden, but the girl would not mind her borrowing it. She had not thought to bring any of her own things when she had fled after Gendry. The only possession she never was without was Needle.

They strolled out into the blazing sunshine and she followed her sister to the stables. It took them past the forge where Gendry was manfully pounding out a new piece of armor with his smith’s hammer. Arya managed to catch his eye as they walked by and was more than a little relieved when he stopped briefly and offered her a small smile and a nod. She was surprised he was still being so civil with her, especially after her display yesterday. She was more than a little embarrassed about the way she had behaved now. Her careless words could have cost him greatly.

Sansa greeted the horse master, an old stooped man named Leif, and asked that their horses be made ready. Then she turned and headed off towards the training ground. It was back by the forge again, but around the far side. She could not see Gendry from this angle. As soon as they stepped into a muddy clearing the lounging lads in armor and cloaks scrambled to attention. Arya snorted a laugh as one of them nearly face planted in the slush.

“Mornin’, miladies,” the oldest of the group said with a dip of his head.

“Good morning, Wyler. My sister and I are going to ride out to Long Lake. I need a few capable swords to accompany us. My lord husband’s orders,” she added the last part in a false whisper and gave a wink. The man named Wyler grinned. A few of his teeth were broken, but his face was rugged and merry anyway.

“Aye, milady. Take Arron and Gareth. Strapping young lads with quick feet and steady hands.” As he said the names two men stepped forward and nodded, smiling at her sister. One was tall and thin, much like Bran, with the look of a northerner about him. The other was shorted and broad shouldered with a baby face, dimples and all. Both were already armored in boiled leather and wore sword belts.

“That will do nicely, thank you Wyler. Please tell Sandor I will return before our midday meal,” she politely requested.

“Of course, milady. I will relay your message as soon as I see him,” he assured her with a nod.

“You sure seem to have them well trained,” Arya jested as they walked back to the stables. Sansa frowned over her shoulder.

“They are not dogs, Arya, they are men. And yes, they are very respectful towards Sandor and me,” she corrected.

“Of course,” Arron piped up from behind Arya. She turned to see him nodding with his comrade. “Lady Clegane is the kindest mistress one could ask for. Very generous to everyone. Very kind, as well. She is well loved here.”

Arya saw Sansa blush before pulling up her hood and murmuring a quiet thanks to her guard for his kind words. She could tell that the man had been sincere, not just paying service to his lady in an effort to please her.

“Good.” It was all she could think to say. She had always seen men respect their mother in Winterfell; she just never drew the parallel between what she grew up seeing and what she might expect for herself if and when she was ever married to a lord who commanded his own men. Sansa seemed to enjoy being lady the castle, so to speak.

They rode out of the main gate slowly, but once out in the open took it to a canter. Sansa’s hood fell off as they rode through the trees, her fiery tresses loose and wildly whipping around her face. The wind was harsher outside the tall stone walls that surrounded her home, but Arya relished the smell of the snow and the scent of the lake carried on the air. She soon found herself trying to outrun her sister’s spotted horse with her own brown mare. Their whoops of laughter and girlish giggles bounced off weirwoods, ash, and oak as they played like children.

“Thank the Gods you didn’t want to spend the day indoors embroidering,” Arya said after they slowed to walk along the frozen edge of the lake.

Sansa laughed. “I had no desire to torture you with something you are so awful at.”

The boy soldiers had stayed a few lengths back to offer the ladies some privacy, but were close enough to hear Arya’s voice as it carried loudly. Their guffaws echoing around them. Arya turned and scowled at them.

“Let’s see you stitch something then!” she challenged. They sniggered and shook their heads.

“Leave them be, Arya,” Sansa scolded, but her smile took all seriousness away.

“Your riding has improved,” she complimented Sansa. It was the truth, after all. Before she had left Winterfell Arya could hardly remember Sansa riding at all, and then only when she must.

“I have taken the time to learn,” she said simply, but smiled widely as her mare leapt gracefully over a fallen branch. Her musical laugh swirled around them and brought a full smile to Arya’s face.

“You seem happy,” Arya replied bluntly.

“I suppose I am happy,” her sister replied as the horses stopped to drink from a small stream.

“You love him, don’t you?” It was less a question and more an accusation. Sansa’s deep blush was all the answer she required, but moved her mare closer to hear her quiet confession all the same.

“I do, yes. I think I have for some time now, although I have only just realized it.”

“Does he love you?” It was hard to tell with a man like the Hound. He was gentler with her sister than with anyone else she had seen him with, but his manner could never be described as loving or affectionate.

Sansa’s smile fell somewhat and she fiddled with the reigns. “I believe he has come to care for me in his own way.”

Arya rolled her eyes. “Is that a yes or a no?”

Sansa lifted her clear blue eyes, their mother’s eyes, to meet Arya’s. They were wide and uncertain. “I do not know. He has never said.”

“Have you?” She asked, genuinely curious. Sansa’s blush deepened.

“Only once . . . when he was sleeping,” she added almost reluctantly.

“Well that hardly counts!” Arya laughed. Sansa grimaced at her before nudging her horse forward.

“Have you told Gendry?” she asked carefully.

“I don’t love Gendry,” Arya answered automatically. Her sister’s pitying gaze annoyed her, so she chose to look at the lake instead.

She did not know what she felt for Gendry, not truly. She had only known him a short time. She did know that he made her laugh and never made her feel inferior for being herself. Was that love? She did not think so. She liked him, that much she was sure of. But love? She did not think that’s what her feelings were. The thought of him did not make her heart pound or her cheeks flush, as she had heard from many silly girls professing to be in love. No, she more respected him and saw him as a friend. Someone she could count on and trust. She likened it more to what Sansa told her she had with the Imp rather than what she felt for her husband.

She was just about to tell all this to Sansa when something whistled past her ear, ruffling the cloak and catching a few hairs. She turned in that direction, startled by the sudden movement. It was then that she saw the arrow sticking out of Arron’s neck. His blood came out in thin ribbons as he choked and pink spittle dribbled down his chin. Her sister’s screams rang through the stillness of the winter woods. Knowing his fellow was beyond saving, Gareth charged forward, sword drawn.

“My lady,” he yelled, “ride for the gates! Ride now!”

Sansa and Arya put heels to their horses, spurring them into action as more bolts tore through the air around them. It was difficult to force a gallop with the woods so dense and the ground uneven, but they did what they could. Arya had begun to feel hope that they would make it back to the safety of the Keep when Sansa’s horse stumbled, pitching her rider off her saddle and into the frozen ground. Her sister landed with a muffled cry before almost immediately pulling herself back to her feet, but the beast had fled from her reach, leaving her stranded in the snow. Arya wheeled her mare around and rode back to her sister’s side, extending her arm with a thought to pull her up on the saddle with her. That was when the forest erupted around them.

Men shouted and whooped as they converge d on the ladies from all sides. At Arya’s count there were ten. All were clad in black. All faces were hidden by cowls. Some carried crossbows while others carried swords of all lengths. Arya slid from her saddle, forced her sister behind her, and drew Needle from her belt. She would be thrice damned if they took her or Sansa alive. Loud harsh laughter rippled around them. When she heard more steel being drawn she saw Gareth from the corner of her eye. He remained on horseback, moving in front of them.

“These are Lord Clegane’s lands. You would do well to bugger off!” he shouted in warning. There were a few derisive scoffs about the word ‘lord’ bantered about the group.

“We know who your master is,” a cold voice rang out from within the trees.

A wordless cry fell from Sansa’s lips and she locked onto Arya’s arm in a grip so tight she began to immediately loose feeling. At least it was not her sword arm. She tightened her hold on the hilt and angled her body so that Sansa was between her and the horse.

A shadowy figure emerged from behind a massive pine, pulling his hood off and slowly unwrapping his face. Arya felt her blood begin to boil as his features became clear. The Bastard of Bolton stood smug only feet from her, grinning proudly up at Gareth. She could feel dread building in her gut along with her fury. This was not going to end well for any of them.

If only I could call to Nymeria. She could not risk it. It took too much concentration to connect to her direwolf, a secret she had long kept from her family. There were many names for what she believed she was. The old ones of the North would say ‘warg’ while Wildlings would call her ‘skinchanger’. Whatever it was, it would not help her now. She was not that skilled at it.

“We can’t have you running off to warn him now, can we?” The bastard tapped his lips with his finger thoughtfully. Before anyone could more or breathe he snapped his fingers and an arrow pierced right through his eye and poked out the back of his skull. Sansa did not scream this time, but tightened her grip on Arya’s arm. Gareth was dead before he hit the ground, his blood spreading a red stain through the snow beneath him.

The men converged on them like a pack of dogs. The horses were pulled away as they were encircled by sneering men, weapons pointed at the two women standing at the center. Arya noted how Sansa’s back straightened, her chin lifted defiantly as Ramsay made his way to them with practiced nonchalance. When his eyes fell upon Arya he laughed uproariously.

“Well, well, well. What have we got here? Two wolves for the price of one!” He clapped his hands with glee. “But of course, your presence is not really a surprise. Not like it was for your sister and her hideous husband.”

Out from behind him stepped a comely knight still dressed in Clegane colors. Sansa stiffened and her eyes narrowed. Clearly she knew the man as he was obviously in her husband’s guard. But there was something else, something personal about the offense her sister seemed to take by his presence.

“Ser Darren,” she said icily.

The men around them laughed as he joined them, his handsome face twisting cruelly.

“Not really a ser, my lady,” he said with mock courtesy. “Neither was my brother, Wex. Remember him? No? Maybe that is because your husband slaughtered him like a fucking deer,” he spat angrily. She saw her sister’s eyes widen slightly.

“He was one of the men who attacked me.” It was not a question, but the man named Darren nodded once anyway.

“Then he got what he deserved,” Sansa replied lowly.

Fury lit Darren’s eyes as he made move to strike Sansa. It was his last mistake. Once he moved within her reach, Arya lashed out with Needle, plunging it into the flesh of his belly before withdrawing it just as quickly. A river of blood flowed from the narrow wound as he clutched as his side, screaming in pain and rage. He staggered back as he tried to staunch the flow with a gloved hand. It did little, but Arya knew he would not survive the wound. She hoped he would suffer greatly.

Ramsay clicked his tongue in mock pity. “If you are going to arm yourself, you should know how to use the blade, my lady.”

“Come a little closer and we’ll see how much I know, you cockles bastard,” she taunted.

“Arya, no,” Sansa whispered desperately. She tried to ignore her sister. She could not kill all of them; she was not that skilled. She could, however, take as many with her as possible.

“Ask your sweet sister about my cock. She got a very close look at it, didn’t you, my lady?” He grinned malevolently as Arya felt her sister shudder against her back. “You’ll get reacquainted with it again very soon, don’t you fret.”

“Is that before or after I slice it off and feed it to you?” Arya challenged with a raised brow. If only she could keep his attention on her, maybe he would torment her sister less. Maybe she could steer his wrath in her direction. She could take it. She could take anything. She was stronger than Sansa. She would do that for her.

Ramsay sneered at her, opening his mouth to speak when he was cut off by a deep snarl that echoed through the dense trees. Hope filled her as she grinned wickedly at the men surrounding them.

“You hear that? That’s your death coming for you, all sharp claws and pointy teeth,” she shouted. Her wolf was coming after all, and it did not sound as if she was alone.

A cry of outrage stormed around them and Arya readied herself for a fight to their deaths. Men loaded crossbows and turned their backs to the two women while others drew closer.

“No, Lady!” Sansa called, the fear in her voice causing it to shake. “Stay away!”

She was so distracted by the sound of howls closing in that never saw the hilt of the sword that landed on the back of her head.

 

Chapter Text

It is nearly sundown. Where in the seven fucking hells is that girl? With his furious thoughts raging like a winter storm, Sandor paced the Great Hall of his keep, stopping every few feet to glance out one of the windows. He kept hoping to see her horse trot past towards the stables. Each time he was met with nothing but the encroaching darkness. He growled lowly and resumed his pacing.

I’m going to lock her in our chambers for the rest of her fucking life when she gets back, he silently vowed to himself.

“My lord?” Maester Bryce approached him cautiously.

“Any sign of my wife or her sister?” he snarled.

The Maester shook his head solemnly. “Not as of yet, my lord. The wolves have not returned either, so there is some hope they are guarding their mistresses well.”

That was something, at least. He had seen how the wolves protected their masters when her brother’s hunting party had been set upon back in Winterfell. It brought him some comfort, but not nearly enough. There was no guarantee that Lady was with Sansa, or that her brat of a sister had her beast either.

“If it please my lord, we have riders waiting to go search near Long Lake. I believe that is where Lady Clegane and Lady Arya were headed today,” the Maester continued calmly.

“I will ready Stranger. We ride as soon as –,”

His orders were cut off by a cry from outside. “OPEN THE GATES!”

Sandor and Bryce rushed outside into the icy wind and diminishing daylight to see the wooden gates part. Shadowy outlines drew slowly closer until it became quite obvious what approached the walls. Sandor strode purposefully towards the struggling figures, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Cries of pain and fear bounced off the stone and wood surrounding them. He stopped a few paces away, eying them carefully. A few of his guards had followed closely but took his lead and stayed back.

“Lady, to me,” Sandor rasped quietly.

The great grey beast released the arm of the man she had been assisting her pack mate with and slowly trotted over to him. Her muzzle was wet with fresh blood but she did not look to be injured in any way. The other wolf, Nymeria, growled deeply and gave another vicious yank on her captives’ leg. He screamed, but Sandor paid him no heed. He examined the trail of blood they had left behind. It appeared that his injuries were more than just wolf inflicted. He stroked the wolf’s head gently as he considered his next move.

“Good girls,” he praised softly. He ignored the nervous mutterings of those around him. He knew from spending so much time around this animal that she would never attack a man unprovoked.

Ser Darren choked on another scream as Nymeria adjusted her grip on his lower leg, shaking him roughly as he tried to drag himself away from her dripping maw. Sandor did not care about his suffering, but he wanted answers. He drew a few steps closer and withdrew a dagger. Nymeria growled lowly, but he ignored her and focused on the bleeding shit before him.

“Where is she?” His voice was dangerously, deceptively calm.

Darren spat a mouthful of blood into the snow at Sandor’s feet and sneered up at him. “You’ll never find her. But don’t worry; after they’ve finished with her she’ll be sent back to you. Piece by noble piece.”

Sandor delivered a swift kick to his side. It already appeared to be bleeding and the agonized cry the poured from the fucking coward beneath him only encouraged him to deliver another, and another after that. Nymeria ceased her growling but did not release her prize. She could have it for all he fucking cared. Darren had started sobbing in pain.

“If you tell me where they have taken my wife,” he paused when he saw Gendry approach with his smiths’ hammer and a look of violence shining in his blue eyes, “and the little Stark lady, I will grant you a swift death. If not, I will make your death takes weeks. You will be begging for release before I have really even started.”

Darren laughed maniacally around his hacking cries. “A death like you gave my brother? You slaughtered him like a fucking goat! My father could not even bear to look at the remains! If that is your mercy you can fucking have it!” he screamed.

“I’ve killed no one from Deepwood Mott,” Sandor snarled.

“Not from the Mott, you burned bastard! We’re of the Dreadfort,” he hollered before coughing up pink foam.

Shocked gasps could be heard from the ever growing crowd. This news angered them nearly as much as it did their lord. Sandor seethed silently as he cursed his own foolishness for allowing this to happen on his watch. And this whoreson shared the same blood as a man who had terrorized the little bird. That alone was enough to condemn him in Sandor’s mind. Sandor took one step back, then another and another still. He sheathed his dagger, never breaking eye contact with the moaning and bleeding shit shaking in the dirty snow. He fought his urge to kill this poxy cunt with his bare hands. His mammoth body shook with barely repressed rage. He needed more information in order to find his little bird. He needed him alive . . . for now.

The crowd began jeering at the fallen man. His prone form was pelted with rocks as cries for vengeance, cries for their lady, and cries for blood rang through the small square. Even the Maester, a usually pleasant and most even tempered fellow, had joined the fray. Sandor was barely able to contain his own ire; he did not know how to calm those around him if he could not even manage himself.

Then Gendry stepped forward. The large lad strode with purpose still clutching his hammer. He stopped near Nymeria, looking at the large beast calmly, respectfully. He gave no command, but she seemed to sense what he wanted. She released her hold on Darren’s lower leg and backed away. She stayed in a low crouch as if preparing to attack again at a moment’s notice. Gendry nodded at her before turning back to the man attempting to drag himself away with only one good arm and leg to propel him across the frozen ground.

Lightning fast, the smiths’ hammer slammed down onto the ankle of the leg that already gushed blood. A satisfying wet crunch filled Sandor’s ears only to be replaced by howls of pain and terror.

“WHERE ARE THEY?” The lad bellowed.

“Get fucked!” Darren wheezed out through clenched teeth.

The hammer landed again, this time crushing a hand on the uninjured arm. “WHERE ARE THEY?”

Screams and sobs erupted from Darren, but still the stubborn fucker shook his head. Gendry went to raise his arm again, this time taking aim for cunt’s knee when the battered man finally raised his only remaining hand up in a plea.

“N-NO! NO! STOP!” he begged. The lad did not heed him. Darren’s wails were diminishing even as Sandor knew his pain had to be increasing. There was only so much a man could take and still remain conscious.

“A few hours . . .” Darren gurgled around a lungful of blood. He coughed and choked and spluttered as Gendry drew closer. “A few hours ride to the east. Abandoned between here and the Dreadfort.”

There were many and more wasted properties between Long Lake and the Dreadfort, Sandor knew. It could take days, even weeks to search them all. He needed more. Gendry looked up to him and he gave a small shake of his head.

“Where?” The lad’s voice was deathly quiet now. It would not be long before he snapped. As far as Sandor was concerned, this boy always had a place in his halls. He had more than proven himself.

“There’s a village on the Kings Road,” he gasped and coughed around the words. “A small mill can be seen from the highest –“ his words cut off as he choked violently. His eyes rolled back in his head as his body jerked in an attempt to draw breath.

“The name of the village!” Gendry urged, but Sandor sensed it would do no good. Darren was fading fast. Too much blood lost.

Sandor had been so focused on the dying man he had not heard the others approach. When a man all in black moved through the crowd, hands up in a non-threatening gesture, Sandor nearly gutted him on sight. He had enough from men he did not know or trust. He drew steel and stepped towards him.

“I’m from the Night’s Watch,” the man called out calmly. “I know of the place he speaks of. I can help you get there if you tell me what is going on here.”

“Who the fuck are you to demand answers on my lands?” Sandor demanded as Gendry rose and stepped to his side immediately, hammer at the ready.

“Is that how you welcome guests, Clegane?” A voice called from the darkness beyond the gate. Sandor barely withheld his biting reply as the owner waddled into view.

“Imp,” Sandor sneered with barely concealed malice.

The shortest Lannister shook his oversized head and frowned deeply. “Come now, Sandor. I thought you would receive me better than this. After all, I am partially responsible for all you have acquired.”

The damnable dwarf was right, but Sandor was not in any mood to humor him. He nearly threw the little lion out on his noble arse until he saw that fucking hired man of his saunter forward with exaggerated nonchalance. Another man, much younger than the others, also bedecked in black strode purposefully towards him. He had a familiar look about him. Black hair, grey eyes, definitely of the North. His suspicions were all but confirmed when a massive beast white as snow with shining red eyes padded silently after him. He only knew one family who kept such creatures.

“You are Sandor Clegane?” he asked directly as he stared Sandor right in the eye. A begrudging respect surfaced for the boy.

He nodded. “Aye. Who the fuck are you?”

“Jon Snow. This is my uncle, Benjen Stark. We are on our way to Winterfell to see my father and seek out more men for the Wall. Lord Tyrion said we could expect to find hospitality with my half sister and her new husband.” He said all this evenly, no anger, no pride, no judgment. Sandor looked him over again.

“You’re Ned’s bastard.” It was not a question. He’d heard of him plenty during his time in Winterfell. To his credit, the boy did not balk at the term. He merely grimaced slightly before nodding.

“Thank the Gods, old and new!” Maester Bryce breathed a hearty sigh of relief and stepped forward. “My good men, my lord,” he acknowledged them respectfully. “Our lady has been kidnapped by the Bastard of Bolton.”

“Again?!” Tyrion shouted in dismay. “All that muscle and still shit for brains, Clegane! How could you let this happen?”

Sandor snarled as he stepped towards the Imp to shorten him by a head. He would not have his nose rubbed in his mistakes by the likes of that walking shit stain. Bronn stepped between them, sword out, while Jon Snow placed himself in the middle, hands up calmly.

“We cannot save her if we fight amongst ourselves!”

He is every bit as fucking noble as his bloody father, Sandor thought with disdain, and every bit as commanding. Everyone stopped and listened when Eddard Stark spoke. It seemed his son had inherited more than just his Northern look.

“I . . . apologize, Clegane.” Tyrion seemed to choke on the words.

“Piss on your apologies, dwarf. I have no need of your empty words,” he growled in frustration. They were wasting time standing around here holding their cocks in their hands instead of hunting down the shits who had his wife.

“How long has my niece been missing?” Benjen asked calmly. It did little to settle Sandor’s rapidly fraying nerves.

“She went out riding with her sister and a few guards late this morning,” a house guard, Vance, informed him.

Jon whipped around and studied the other man in alarm. “Arya was taken as well?”

“Aye, it seems that way,” Maester Bryce confirmed. “But the wolves returned with that man not long ago.” He pointed to the nearly dead ser Darren – if that was even his name or title. Sandor did not give two shits either way. Dead was dead. The Stranger did not care what your title was when he came for you.

Jon’s fear registered on his face. Benjen’s expression was more schooled, but the same emotions stirred in his Stark eyes. He strode forward and spoke only to Sandor.

“I will ride on to Winterfell and raise the alarm there,” he started to say when the Stark bastard interrupted.

“I will go. You show them where my sisters are being held.” He started towards the gates again and Sandor was just able to make out the shapes of the horses they left there.

“No, Jon. I will need to show my brother’s men where to go. You know the place. We stopped in the village for a few nights on our last trip south. Pip was thrown from the tavern by that large wench with the beard.” Benjen tried to conceal his smile at the memory. Now was not the time for levity.

“Take a few of my men with you,” Sandor rasped as a few of his soldiers stepped from the shadows. The Stark from the Watch shook his head as he strode towards the horse he had left by the gate.

“No need, my lord. I will not be taking the King’s Road and will not be stopping to help your men navigate by moonlight,” he said with finality as he wheeled the horse around.

“You could get lost or captured!” Maester Bryce yelled in dismay. Benjen merely laughed.

“Not a bloody chance! This is my North and these are the lands from my youth. I could find my way home without eyes,” he countered confidently. He looked to his nephew. “Take Ghost and help your good brother. The ladies will need you. Remember, while the lone wolf dies . . .”

“The pack survives,” Jon finished with a hint of pride in his voice for the first time since he’d arrived. Benjen nodded once and kicked his stallions’ flank before shooting off into the darkness beyond the gates.

“Ready your mounts,” Sandor shouted as he turned toward his new companions. He grimaced as his gaze fell on Tyrion. He would be no use against the Flayed Men.

“Stay here and help the maester in any way he sees fit.” The words did not come easily, but he knew what merits the dwarf held, few as they may be. He was a clever man, and even though it irked Sandor to admit it, he did care greatly for the little bird. He would do anything he could to see her returned safely.

“Glady, Clegane. Might I offer one last bit of assistance before you depart?” He noted how the little Lannister was trying mightily to show him some respect. He grudgingly nodded.

“Take Bronn with you. He’s excellent at not being seen until a pile of bodies are all that’s left in his wake,” Tyrion said without a hint of humor. Sandor glanced at the sellsword before nodding once.

“Aye, but I’ll not be responsible for your man getting killed if that’s how it falls,” he warned.

“Bronn is very capable, trust me,” Tyrion dismissed his warning with a wave. He strode over to the maester and began discussing ravens and messages. Sandor left him to his scheming.

“Can you control the other wolves?” he asked the Stark bastard pointedly. He believed he could keep Lady well enough, but knew better than to try and control Nymeria. He would lose a land that way.

“They will stick together as we go after the girls. They may even lead us right to them,” Jon said with some certainty. He seemed to see what Sandor was considering before he said anything. “I would not try leaving either of them here. It will not work and you are like to lose a man or three in the process.”

“Keep them with you,” Sandor commanded roughly. He could not deal with wild beasts when containing his own rage, fear, and uncertainty was going to take his full efforts. Snow nodded and called to the wolves. They immediately congregated at his heels. For the first time in many hours, Sandor started to feel useful and the first signs of hope began rising up within him.

Chapter Text

It was cold. So cold. Her teeth chattered as her breaths made wisps of fog around her face, barely visible in the dim candlelight. She clutched Arya closer to her, trying to share the heat of their bodies so as to not freeze to death. The sun had set some time ago and with each passing hour the temperature dropped more and more. Even though they had dressed warmly enough for their afternoon ride their woolen cloaks did not help them now.

They had been left alone since arriving at sunset. Locked up in the top of an old mill, it made any ideas of escape impossible. Arya had already tried everything. She was still small enough to fit out the narrow windows, but said there were not enough stones to use as hand and foot holds to descend the side of the building. Even Bran could not manage it, according to her sister. She declared that short of them sprouting wings and flying away, they were stuck there until the trap door was unbolted from below.

The room smelled of damp wood and rotten hay. Moss climbed the stone walls and great silken spider webs clung to every corner. There was no hearth, so even if they had the means a fire would not be possible. So they huddled together under their cloaks and tried to fight off the chill in the air.

“Sandor will come,” Sansa assured her sister again.

“He fucking better,” Arya muttered before tucking her face back into hood.

A sharp pain in her belly suddenly drew Sansa’s attention and she hissed, doubling over and rubbing her abdomen with her icy fingers.

“What is it?” Arya asked sharply.

“It is nothing, just a muscle pain from riding too hard,” she said. In truth, she was not so sure. She had been feeling pains for the past few days, but only just went riding today. The pains seemed to fade after a few minutes, so they were easy to forget. She wondered idly if they had anything to do with the vigorous way she and Sandor had been coupling since the Wildling attack.

“Are you sure?” Arya did not seem convinced. Sansa tried to shrug but her shoulders were shaking too hard to separate that movement from any other.

“What else could it be?” She truly had not been expecting an answer. It was more a way to end her sister’s worry. So she was surprised when Arya blurted something out that was impossible.

“Perhaps you are with child?”

Sansa laughed shakily. Arya seemed to remember herself and frowned. “Oh, right. Sorry.”

They sat in silence for a time before Arya opened her mouth to speak again. Before she could form words a loud bang filled the air, shattering their barely preserved calm. The trap door flew open and slammed into the stone wall loudly. Hazy orange light poured from the opening, glowing brighter as the lantern that contained its flames peaked up over the edge of the hole in their floor. A pair of glaring yellow eyes shone in the light as a bearded man rose fluidly into their space. Sansa pressed closer to the slippery stones at her back.

“Ramsay craves a word with you,” he said gruffly and reached out with one meaty hand, clamping down on Sansa’s ankle. He roughly yanked her towards him.

“Release me!” she shrieked as Arya darted forward and slammed her boot into the mans’ sneering mouth.

“Fucking hells!” he roared and suddenly dropped from view.

Sansa scuttled back and tried to curl into a tight little ball to avoid the same treatment again, but it was all for naught. The man raised up again moments later, blood dripping from his split lips, and pointed a crossbow at them. Both girls froze in place.

“Try that again and I’ll have your hide to decorate my wall along with your wolfs’,” he growled menacingly.

Arya sneered openly at him, but wisely said nothing and kept her feet to herself. He leaned towards Sansa again and gestured for her to come closer. Wary of the bow that he had aimed at her face, she shakily scooted across the floor towards him. Terror made her heart gallop wildly in her chest, but she was determined to try and not show him how afraid she was.

“Easy now,” he said roughly as she dipped her feet into the portal and rested them on the first rung of the ladder. She believed he was more concerned with her kicking him like her sister had and less with her safety on the climb down the ladder. Before she could move one step he barked up at them.

“You too, bitch!”

Arya moved more quickly than Sansa had and was eye to eye with her as she began lowering herself down the passage.

“He won’t kill you, Sansa. You’re worth too much alive. Just . . . let him do whatever he wants. Stay alive. It’s all that matters,” she hissed in her face. Her eyes were wide and beseeching. It was all Sansa could do to nod once. In truth, she had no intention of letting anyone do anything to her. She could not bear it. Not again.

She descended on trembling legs until she reached the creaking wood floor the middle of the mill. There were several rooms here; old storage quarters, she guessed. More men were scattered around the wide circular space, leaning against the walls and glaring at her with open hostility. She only counted five, including the one that had fetched her and Arya. She stepped away from the ladder slightly to allow space enough for her sister. As soon as her feet were on the floor she was forcefully thrust behind her sisters’ tiny frame. Even without her sword, Arya was still trying to protect her.

“No,” she said softly and made to move in front of her again, but Arya was stronger than she looked. With her arms spread and elbows locked, Sansa could not move past her. She huffed a sigh, but placed her hands on Arya’s shoulders.

“Think you can save your sister without that little blade ‘o yours?” The bearded man sneered.

“I’ve already made you bleed once without it. Care to try your luck again?” Arya bit out despite the crossbow he still pointed at her. Two more men stepped forward threateningly but were stopped before too long by a voice floating from within the darkness.

“Not playing nice, I see,” Ramsay said as he emerged from within one of the rooms. The fury in his eyes belied the calm way he approached them. Sansa felt a shiver run through her body.

“Normally I have ways of dealing with difficult women. I introduce them to my girls, you see, just to show them they are not half the bitch they think they are.” Evil laughter echoes around them, but Sansa cannot understand the joke. She knew she was missing something important, but did not have the ability to focus on it. She needed to dedicate all her attention on staying alive. On keeping one step ahead of him at all times. It was her only chance. Arya’s too.

“In the absence of my usual methods, I think I will allow Karl here to dole out his own punishment. How does that sound, my lady?” Ramsay looked right at Arya, his eyes alight with cruel glee.

Arya murmured something so quietly that even Sansa could not hear her. Ramsay smiled wider and stepped closer.

“What was that?” When the same whispered reply came the Bastard made a great show of putting his hand to his ear and leaning more closely still, much to the amusement of his men.

Arya did not hesitate. She spat right in his eye. No one moved a muscle as the Bastard slowly, purposefully wiped away her saliva while staring straight at her. Finally, his lips quirked in a small, cold smile.

“Take a piece for me, Karl,” he commanded softly.

All hell broke loose around them. The men cheered cruelly as Karl locked an arm around Arya’s thin neck and dragged her into the room farthest away. She kicked and screamed and cursed the whole way, clawing at his hand and arm, but to no avail. The door slammed shut and Sansa heard Arya cry out loudly once as the struggle continued out of her sight.

“ARYA!” she screamed and started after her when she felt a strong hand clamp down on her upper arm like a manacle. She whipped around and came eye to eye with the Bastard of Bolton.

“You can’t save her skin, my lady, but you might be able to save your own. Come with me nicely and we may allow you live yet.” His words were delivered smoothly, with the same haughty cockiness she remembered from the shack.

“What do you want from me?” she asked, thankful that her voice did not shake with the fear that spread through her body like wildfire.

“It’s not you that I want something from. You are just a means to an end, my dear lady.” His expression hardened and his eyes iced over with his words. Sansa swallowed loudly.

Keep him talking. Indulge him. Make him feel important.

“What end are you hoping to achieve, if I may ask, my lord?” She controlled her voice and spoke softly. She did not want to come across like she was challenging him. That had not worked out well the last time.

He sneered at her and pulled her by the arm into another room and slammed the door behind them. There was a crude straw pallet made up on the floor in the corner and a few candles lit the small space. He practically threw her onto the straw heap as he paced like a caged dog in around the room, his eyes never leaving hers.

“I will teach him never to overlook me again. He should have just granted the application. He should have never said I was not worthy,” he muttered, seemingly to himself. He was getting more and more agitated with each word. Sansa tried to find a way to calm him.

“Who overlooked you, my lord?” she asked gently, trying to keep the contempt out of her voice. He stopped moving and leaned towards her slightly.

“Your father,” he hissed coldly and bore down on her. His sudden vitriol silenced her completely as she stared at him in open shock. This was all about her father?

“My father was trying to have me legitimized, you see. He wanted me to be his heir. He has said that I had proven myself as a true Flayed Man of the Dreadfort. He wanted to reward me,” he said as he continued to stalk around the room, his movements measured, precise. Then he whirled around and locked eyes with Sansa, dropping his voice dangerously low.

“But Lord Stark,” he said the name mockingly, “said I was nothing more than bastard. That he would never support me becoming a true Bolton. I knew, as my father knew, that without his backing the other northern lords would never see me as their equal. I would never have land or titles. I would never bear my father’s name. He would either have to marry again and have a son with his new wife,” he said with a disgusted twist of his mouth, “or die without an heir to the Dreadfort.”

“My father tried to argue with him. He said that even a child born as a bastard could one day be worth more than one born into lordship. He knew,” Ramsay said with a crazy smile, “that I was special. He knew he would never again have another son like me.”

The words were out before Sansa could stop them. “He had another son before you.”

His eyes did not narrow in anger or rebuke as she thought they would. Rather they glittered with pride and a secret knowledge of words never spoken aloud. “That he did, my lady. That he did.”

Sansa swallowed thickly and tried to wrack her brain for a way to keep him talking. She knew that if she could feed his ego he might be distracted enough to put off whatever cruel punishment he planned to dole out to her. Before she could organize her thoughts a tortured scream rent the air and chilled her to the bone.

“ARYA!” she cried and flung herself towards the door. She was restrained before she even made it halfway, but kept calling out for her. “ARYA! ARYA!”

Ramsay laughed coldly and swung her around so that she faced him. Tears threatened her vision as her hands curled into angry fists. Someone was hurting her sister and she was unable to do anything to stop him.

“It always amazes me how much stronger some women are than even the toughest of us men. There was one girl, Sheri; I had to practically flay off half her skin before she started screaming the way I wanted. Why do you think that is?” he asked with unconcealed, sick delight. “Does the ability to whelp make you more able to handle pain than us burly men?”

“I would not know, my lord,” she choked on her tears as she tried to rein her terror in. She could not think around it. She needed a clear head.

“Oh, that’s right!” He made a gesture like he had just been reminded of something rather obvious. “You cannot have children, can you, my lady?”

She did not bother to answer him. It did not seem to matter much as he continued to taunt her anyway.

“It would mean that your purpose, your reason to exist is voided, would it not? For what purpose can you have if not to fill your lord’s hall with wailing brats that will carry on his family line and name? And yet,” his voice hardened again. “You do not have your titles stripped. You do not get called useless, worthless. You are not cast aside and discounted by the righteous Warden of the fucking North!”

Sansa did not know how to respond. In truth, she had felt exactly that way. Discounted, cast aside, but never by her father. No, it was the other northern men who saw her that way. She did not think correcting Ramsay would help him to see it that way, however. She wisely kept her thoughts to herself. When her sisters’ screams filled the air again she bit down on her tongue until she tasted blood in her efforts not to cry out as well. The pain, rather than help her focus better, only fueled the anger that had steadily been building within her. She glared up at Ramsay from beneath her lashes. Fuelled by her rising ire, her mouth ran away with her.

“So this is all about you not getting your way? You kidnapped me, planned to rape and kill me, all for . . . for what exactly? Did you think him more likely to give you your way after you have insulted him by daring to harm his family?” By the end she was shouting at him, her hands fisted at her sides.

He eyed her speculatively for a moment before his hand flashed out and slapped her across the face. Her head whipped to the side but she did not call out. Slowly she turned her frosty stare back to his and held his gaze without flinching. He smirked.

“I will admit that was my first impulse. You are just as worthless as a bastard when it comes to the politics of family advancement. So I would make my point by taking you and sending you back to the Honorable Lord Stark in bits and pieces. See how long it takes for him to figure out it was his dearest daughter that had been flayed alive and delivered to him piece . . . by . . . piece.” He moved closer to her until his lips were practically touching her cheek. She tried not to look repulsed, but her traitorous body trembled as she held his harsh gaze.

“But then I was given a much better directive. I was to hold you for another. He paid so handsomely, too. You would never know it from looking at him, that he was so sick and twisted. Between you and me, you should be thrilled that he never showed up that night in the woods. I have been told that the last woman he took a fancy to was destroyed in the most disturbingly exquisite ways. He spared no details on our meetings after your escape. I think the fact that you had fled once only made him all the more determined. Too bad you had to go and marry his dog. It ruined the fun once that old, scarred cunt got involved.” He grinned manically as her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Prince Joffrey,” she whispered without though.

Ramsay laughed, but there was little joy in the sound. “You should have heard the things he wanted to do to you!”

Her stomach roiled dangerously and for a moment she was afraid she would be ill all over him. Believing he would punish her for such an act, she swallowed down the bile rising in her throat and closed her eyes in an effort to settle herself somewhat.

“I’ve often heard that children born of incest can be vile creatures incapable of love or remorse. Well, we certainly had plenty of that with the Targaryens. Of course, no one will admit that the royal children are not actually royal, but there are those of us who suspect,” his words trailed off and suddenly Sansa felt him suddenly pinch her nipple through her gown, twisting violently. A screech of shock and pain burst out of her before she could contain it, and she pulled back from him, crossing her arms over her throbbing chest.

“Do pay attention, my lady,” he admonished her with a grimace. “Or I will have to get more creative.”

As if to punctuate his meaning Arya’s screams rent the air again. Tears filled Sansa’s eyes and slipped down her cheeks in hot rivulets. She was just starting to really grasp how much trouble she and her sister were in.

“But if the prince is not here now, if he no longer is paying you . . .” she began reasoning, but stopped when an evil smile stretched Rasmay’s mouth.

“I was pain in advance for my services,” he informed her darkly. “Just because he is not here to enjoy the spoils with me does not mean that I will not follow through with our agreement. I am a man of my word, after all.”

Sansa’s stomach twisted and her heart pounded in her chest. He was never going to let her live. It was never his intention. He had said so from the very start that night in the woods. It did not matter what she said or if she begged or bargained. She sucked in a deep breath, steadying herself and raising her chin defiantly to him. If she was going to die this night, she would do so with dignity. He could not take that away from her, at least.

“I believe you and I have a great deal in common, my lady,” he said suddenly and reached out to trace a line down her cheek. “We were both cast aside as unimportant by men who think too much of themselves and not enough of those around them.”

“You are a fool if you think you are anything like me,” she said in a low voice. “I am a lady of a great house, born from a line of kings and queens. You are an ill-begotten bastard that resulted from a cruel man raping a helpless woman. The only reason you still draw breath and weren’t drowned in a well the day you were born is that your mother knew that any Hell you descended into would spit you back out again.”

She would have said more but his hand flashed out again, this time wrapping tightly around her throat as he slammed her into the stone wall. Her head knocked against the hard surface before he tossed her down onto the straw and began tearing her clothes from her body. His face was contorted in rage, eyes burning as he viciously shredded her skirts with his bare hands. She tried to fight him. She scratched and kicked and slapped out at anything within her reach, but it did nothing to assuage him. She was so convinced he was finally going to rape her this time that when his hands clamped onto her knees and pried her legs open she finally let loose a wail of fear and shame and anger that seemed to shake her entire body. His hands ripped away her small clothes . . . and then everything stopped.

She had not realized she had closed her eyes until she fought to open them again, peering up at the monster that hovered over. In his hand was a small scrap of silk from her undergarments. A look of cold fury seemed to have washed over him for a moment before it melted into something else entirely, something far more frightening.

“Well, well, well,” he murmured in a hushed tone while peering at the exposed flesh of her womanhood. The softness of his voice scared her more than if he had screamed at her. “Not without purpose after all.”

Chapter Text

The moment she was flung into the tiny, filthy room she knew she was going to be in for a rough night. Not only had she already injured this man, but then she just had to go and taunt him in the hopes that her sister would be spared. It had not worked as she had planned. Now she was alone with him, watching warily as he circled her like prey. She turned with him, never allowing him to be anywhere but directly in front of her. After a few rotations he grinned malevolently.

“We’ve got all night, cunt,” he ground out. His mouth was swollen from being kicked, but the bleeding had stopped.

“You might be surprised. People are looking for us,” she countered in the hopes that he would think about the harm he obviously wanted to do her. She was discouraged by his laughter.

“Aye, let them look. No one will find you here. We’ve got a few men standing guard just in case someone happens upon us. No one,” he muttered darkly, “will be disturbing us.”

His hands flashed out and locked around her slender throat. She went wild like a rabid animal; kicking, scratching, spitting, biting. It did no good. He hauled her across the small floor and threw her against the external stone wall. Her head bounced off the rock, causing her vision to double and her ears to ring. Her momentary loss of senses gave Karl the upper hand. She staggered as he pulled her a few feet to the right and yanked her arms up over her head, securing them with rope. By the time she had gotten her bearings again she was helplessly bound to the ceiling, stretching up on her toes slightly to stop the rope from tearing into the delicate flesh of her wrists.

“Not so fierce now, are you?” he baited her while she glared balefully back at him. She proved him wrong when he came close enough for her to aim a swift kick at his cock. He managed to dodge the blow somewhat, although still winced slightly.

He didn’t speak again as he rose to his full height before her. He was tall, but lanky. Not much muscle to him in comparison to Gendry, Robb, the Hound . . .

The first blow to her ribcage stole the wind from her lungs. The second to her side made her pull her legs up in an attempt to block him. It was the third to her lower back that drove the cry from her lips unbidden. She clenched her teeth together in an attempt to keep her screams contained. She would not give this whoreson the satisfaction of hearing her scream.

She very nearly hollered again as he savagely kicked her hip and she heard Sansa screaming her name through the wooden walls. Fear, rage, and pain welled up inside her as she attempted to twist and writhe to dodge the coming blows. A few glanced off her body with little to do damage done, but this only seemed to enrage her attacker further. He disappeared behind her back before she could try and turn with him. A sudden ripping sound filled the air as she felt her bodice loosen and cold air hit the bare skin of her back.

Seven fucking hells! A cold fear like she had never known consumed her body and mind and she felt her gown being forcefully torn away from her frame. A shriek of sheer fury poured from her as she felt his sweaty, meaty hands grip her small clothes. She kicked out wildly, the motion causing pain to radiate through her shoulders as all her weight was now held by the ropes around her wrists. Flailing, twisting, and turning did nothing to stop him. In fact, he seemed more amused than anything else.

“That’s right, whore. Fight me. It’s so much better,” he taunted as he slowly walked back to the front of her, trailing his dirty fingers along her pebbled skin. He reached up and grabbed her nipple, pulling it painfully until she squealed through her tightly clenched teeth.

He chuckled lowly and gripped her thighs, pulling them apart as he stepped between them. Mind whirling with panic and rage, Arya pulled against her restraints uselessly. She could not accept what was happening to her. She would not allow it. She would . . . she would . . .

Her entire body suddenly went limp, grey eyes dull and unfocused, vacant. Karl stopped briefly, frowning at the sudden change in her. He had been hoping for a real challenge this time. The last one cried too much, lain there too pliantly. There was no fun in breaking an already submissive woman. He released one skinny thigh and slapped her face, hard. Nothing. Her eyes were glazed over and staring at some spot on the floor below them. He backhanded her again, harder than before. Her head bobbled on her shoulders and her eyes welled slightly, but again she remained silent. Cursing, Karl leaned forward to try and catch her gaze.          

She moved with a swiftness seldom seen in a captive. Her teeth clamped down viciously on his upper ear before he could recoil, and then when he did try she refused to let him go. He screamed loudly as he felt her teeth work and her head yank away from his, taking a piece of him with her. She spat the bit of flesh and began kicking out at him savagely again as he reeled away from her, hand up to staunch the flow of blood that began trickling down his neck. Blood that was slick on her sneering lips and trembling chin.

It took him a few moments to collect himself, but Arya saw the evil glint in his eye when he very slowly stalked towards her again. She knew it was not the smartest move, and that she would most likely pay for it dearly, but everything in her demanded that she fight him off. If she could not tear him to shreds with her own two hands, then she would use any means necessary. She simply could not be idle while someone threatened her in such a way.

“You’ll be sorry for that.” His voice was deadly calm. The hairs stood up on the back of Arya’s neck as she tried to brace herself for impact again.

It never came. Instead, he slid up beside and moved slowly, purposefully until he was at her back. One hand fisted in her hair and pulled her head back enough to expose her throat. It made breathing more difficult, but she managed. At least until the felt the sharp sting of a blade’s edge against her neck. She froze, all breath lost from her lungs.

“I could slit that pretty throat of yours,” he whispered against her cheek. His breath was rancid, like something had died in his mouth and rotted away in there. She stayed perfectly still.

“But where would the fun be in that?” The blade trailed along the column of her throat, down along her collarbone, and around the curve of her shoulder. She felt the point prick into her flesh ever so slightly before it was pressed in with more intention. There was no containing her shrieks as the blade cut a shallow path from her shoulder, along the side of her breast, and down to her hip.

Her body shook with pain and effort to remain still as she felt the point right above her right arse cheek. Screeching and cursing, she writhed away from the steel cutting through her as tears began making unwanted tracks on her face.

“You’re a fucking coward!” She hollered at her assailant.

He only laughed menacingly and dug the point of his dagger into her side bellow her bruised ribs and sliced along her stomach. She bit back her cries this time, determined not to let him hear her anymore. It did not work. The more she tried to contain herself, the more of her skin he decorated with thin, red ribbon-like patterns. By the time he faced her again she was sweating and panting with her exertions while he was cool as a winter’s night.

“Coward, am I?” He leered at her naked body, dragging the dagger along the tops of her heaving breasts. She glared hatefully at him.

I should have taken more than just part of an ear. I should have ripped his throat out with my teeth! She thought viciously as his cruel hands pinched and groped along her nude body before settling between her legs, palming her cunt roughly.

“Your kind is the most well-known cowards in all of Westeros. You high born shits send us in to fight your battles and wage your wars, while our women clean your chamber pots and wash your linens,” he sneered in disgust as he slid the flat edge of the blade under her nipple.

Her knees and thighs began to shake with the strain of holding her weight on her toes, causing her entire body to shake slightly. It could have been mistaken for shivers of cold or fear, but she had a feeling from the glint in his yellow eyes that Karl knew exactly what her problem was. His swollen mouth split into a hideous smile as he simultaneously sliced the skin under her breast and over her ribs while violently shoving a finger into her womanhood. Sweat broke out on Arya’s brow and upper lip as she gritted her teeth against the blinding pain. She refused to scream for him, refused to look away, refused to give him the upper hand.

“I’m gonna have fun stretching you out,” he informed her maliciously, punctuating his words with sharp thrusts of his cruel fingers.

The pain was blinding, but she still managed to spit out, “You’ll have to kill me first!”

He laughed softly before bringing his face in so close she went cross-eyed in an effort to keep his gaze. “Oh no, lass. I’ll kill you during.”

A chill swept through her as she tried to figure a way out, a way to survive. In her rising panic, she tore her eyes away from him. He was impossible to look at as he leaned his frame into hers, pressing the blade to her soft belly and his teeth into her shoulder.

It was barely noticeable, what with everything unfolding around her, but she saw it. The slight flutter of a shadow in the corner, the door silently closing . . . and him. He seemed to fill up all the space in the room.

Her eyes closed as some madness took hold of her and her body began to shake fully now. The sounds of her manic laughter echoed around them, soft and breathy at first before building fully and loud, thickening the room with tension. Karl’s head whipped back and he stared at her in open shock before fury twisted his features. All his cockiness melted away as he pulled his hand from between her thighs and pinched her cheeks tightly in his grasp.

“What the fuck are you laughing at?” he demanded quietly. When that only seemed to spur her on he gave her a harsh shake. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?”

Arya wheezed as tears of levity filled her eyes, replacing the drops of terror and pain she would never admit to. It took a full minute before she could collect herself long enough to finally whisper her reply.

“The Hound is right behind you.”

Yellow eyes widened as he released her face, but he was too slow, too late. A large fist connected with the back of Karls’ head, but before he could fall onto the dangling girl he was yanked back again. Clegane did not utter a single word as he emerged from the shadows, his scars twitching madly and his eyes black with cold fury. He reached forward and gripped the man by his throat. His hand could easily wrap around the entire thing, but Arya saw he only held a small portion. She watched curiously when Clegane’s hand contracted suddenly, crushing Karls’ windpipe. The smaller man wriggled and squealed in his grasp as blood began running in thin rivers from his throat. The Hound shook him once, hard, ripping the thin column from his body, tossing it wetly off to the side. Karl dropped to the floor and twitched spasmodically while gasping and gargling sounds erupted from his dying body. It took longer than she would have thought and yet nearly not long enough to satisfy her bloodlust.

Clegane rounded on her, his grey eyes burning with barely suppressed rage.

“Your sister?” was all he said to her, his voice deep and rasping.

“In the next room,” Arya whispered brokenly. Her voice had been damaged with his abuse and her screaming. “She’s with the Bastard.”

Clegane made to slip from the room again before stopping suddenly. He turned back towards her but kept his eyes averted as he reached up and cut away her bonds, catching her nude form as she crumpled towards the stone floor. In one swift movement he covered her with a cloak and pressed the dagger into her hand.

“She knew you would come,” Arya said quietly while wrapping the thick wool around her nakedness.

His only acknowledgment of her comment was a slight nod of his head. Instead he asked, “You hurt badly?”

“Not as badly as he would have liked,” she retorted with disgust. She lifted her Stark eyes to his and scowled. “What in the seven hells took you so damned long?”

His steely gaze studied her far too closely for her liking. “He rape you, girl?”

She felt her ire rise swiftly as she glared at the bloody pile that used to be her tormentor. “I’d have ripped his throat out myself before he got the chance.”

He snorted, giving her a nod. “Can you walk?”

Not daring to speak again for fear that she would scream in her rage, she simply nodded and rose to her feet. There was pain between her legs and in her side, but she would not sit idly by while some sick twisted shit tortured her sister any longer. She would drive the dagger into his eye and out the back of his skull herself.

Hobbling as quietly as she could manage she came out into the open hall to discover Clegane had not come alone. The Imp’s cutthroat held one man at sword point while two others were secured by men in her good brothers’ house colors. There was one that stood alone off to the side. He was by the door Ramsay had come out from earlier, clad all in black. His grey eyes met hers as he placed one finger up to his lips to ask her for silence. That was something she could definitely give as a sweet sense of relief and safety finally washed over her. It had been nearly 6 months since she had seen her brother, but that did not mean she trusted him any less. She knew he would die before letting any more harm befall either her or Sansa.

Everyone seemed to have been waiting for Clegane before advancing on the other room. Jon indicated towards the closed door with a small nod. It seemed to be all the encouragement Sandor needed as he suddenly strode over and kicked the door inwards. He stepped into the inky blackness beyond without hesitation. It was quiet a beat too long and Arya found she could not stay her feet. Fearing the worst, she darted forward; narrowly escaping Jon’s outstretched hands preparing to restrain her. She was through the doorway before anyone could stop her.

The smell of blood hit her before her eyes could adjust to the lack of light. It made her stomach roll, threatening to overflow as she glared into the darkness searching for its source. The image was hard to make out at first, but once she had locked onto it she had no trouble deciphering what lay before her. It nearly brought her to her knees.

Sansa lay naked as her nameday, shivering, trembling with fear on a musty bed of dirty straw. Blood smeared her thighs, staining her milky skin with its macabre hue, practically screaming out in the loaded silence that floated around them like heavy thunder clouds. A hand was clamped tightly over Sansa’s mouth while another clutched possessively around her waist.

“That’s far enough now. Unless you would like me to snap her pretty little neck?” As if to punctuate his words, the Bastard jerked Sansa’s head to the side slightly. Tears slipped silently down her swollen cheeks. Arya could see bruises already forming on her sister’s pale, delicate skin. Fury shot through her limbs like lightening. She stepped forward without thinking, only to freeze in her tracks when Sansa whimpered.

“You’re not leaving here alive,” Sandor promised lowly, his voice filled with menacing promise.

“Oh, I do believe I will, Hound,” the Bastard sneered at him in disdain. “See, I am the son of a lord. There are rules that must be obeyed here. I have to be taken to the Warden of the North for a trial. If you kill me, it could start a war.”

Sandor’s snarling laugh came out in short bursts while he slowly drew another dagger from his belt. “No one fucking fights for bastards or whores. You are one that came from the other. Your absence won’t even be noticed.”

Ramsay’s eye twitched slightly as the hand on Sansa’s belly suddenly fisted, a great handful of skin pinched tightly in his grasp. Her back arched and she wailed against his palm, eyes clenching shut against the pain. Arya made to step forward again when she was suddenly pulled back. She whipped around and looked up into her brothers’ eyes. Wide with a silent warning, he moved to stand in front of her. His gaze found Ramsay’s and held it.

“Leave,” he commanded quietly. At first no one said a word. All eyes were on the man in black with the stern brow and stoic presence.

“The Night’s Watch is taking sides now?” Ramsay challenged with a raised brow.

“As a ranger in Watch, I take no sides,” he said plainly as he took one more step into the room. He never took his eyes off Ramsay. “As a bastard of Winterfell, I want only to save my sister.”

There was silence for a beat before Ramsay threw his head back and laughed uproariously. When he looked back to Jon, Arya could see the evil glint there.

“One bastard’s advice to another? You’re the Warden’s embarrassment? I’ve heard of you, Jon Snow.” He seemed to be appraising Jon in a way Arya had not seen him regard another person before.

“And what should I do once I flee? Join the brotherhood?” he sneered at the suggestion.

“The only way you leave this mill is in pieces,” Sandor snarled. Neither man so much as spared him a glance. They remained staring at one another. Arya edged a little closer to Clegane. He had the right idea of it. This stupid cunt had to die.

Jon stood calmly, not addressing his questions directly. “No one cares where you go. We only want Sansa.”

Ramsay seemed to consider this for a moment before zeroing in on Sandor for a moment. An evil grin stretched his mouth as he slowly turned back to Jon.

“My men?” he inquired politely.

“Belong to us now,” Jon replied evenly.

“The ones who still draw breath,” Arya rasped as she narrowed her eyes at Ramsay. She could not believe her ears. He was going to escape again. He would get away and Sansa would spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder and fearing to be out of her Keep’s walls. No. She would not allow that to happen. And with one look at her good brother she could tell they were on the same path.

Ramsay seemed to consider this new development for a moment before grinning in Jon’s direction. He rose up, more clumsily due to his unrelenting grip on Sansa, and skirted around the edge of the room as he made their way towards the open door. Sandor twitched slightly and Ramsay froze, his eyes darting towards the sudden movement. He pulled Sansa’s trembling body tighter against his as he jerked her towards the entrance.

Growling like a rabid dog, Clegane moved lithely towards Ramsay with a look of murder in his eyes. Jon darted forward at the same time as Bronn – Arya had not even noticed his arrival in the small room – in an effort to restrain the massive warrior ready to tear them all limb from limb. Seeing her chance, Arya slid forward and readied her dagger. She would sneak up behind him while the men’s struggle distracted him and slice his vile throat.

Sansa’s tortured scream rent the air and froze everyone in their tracks. All eyes on the sobbing, bleeding woman saw the same horror at once. Ramsay had removed his hand from her mouth and was pressing a small blade to the pulse point in her neck. A trickle of blood carved a path down her shaking shoulders to her heaving bare chest. Her blue Tully eyes were wide with fear as she locked them onto her husband.

“P-Please, Sandor. J-J-Just let him g-go,” she stuttered around her tears and frantic breaths.

The Hound stood there staring at her like she had just asked him to fetch the moon. Arya could tell that he desperately wanted to do anything other than what she asked, but the pleas from her lips and her large, begging eyes had him trapped. Time stood still and no one dared even a breath except the captive woman who would not look at anyone but her husband.

“Please, Sandor,” she whispered again. There was no mistaking the defeat in his eyes as he dropped his dagger to the floor and kicked it away. Cold fury bubbled beneath the surface of his stoic presence as he tore his eyes away from his wife at last.

“Run,” was all he rasped. His monstrous frame shook with barely suppressed ire, but he stood a step back towards the wall. And then another, and anther still until the path was clear to the small door. Arya was yanked away by Jon as the Bastard dragged their sister out of the small room and towards the set of rickety stairs that hugged the wall, spiraling down to the bottom of the mill. His eyes darted around nervously as he took in the positions of his own men being held by Sandor’s.

Clegane stomped out of the room, sword in hand with a wild sort of determination in his eyes that made Arya hopeful. It looked as if he had changed his mind about letting Ramsay escape after all. Her hopes were dashed when Jon stepped in his path and shook his head, hand raised slightly to block the blade.

“He will kill her,” Jon whispered as Ramsay continued to tug a naked and shaking Sansa down the steps towards the exit of the mill.

“You’ve got to stop him!” Arya tried to shriek, but her voice faded in and out around her frantic words. She did not care what Sansa had said. She did not care that she could get killed in the process. Someone had to help her! She whirled around with half a mind to try and take him down herself when she was suddenly lifted into the air and pressed against her brother’s chest so tightly that escape was not possible. Still, she struggled with all her might.

“Trust me, Arya!” he whispered into her ear. The vehemence in his voice still her hands and calmed her thundering heart, but only a little. She stared up at him and saw their father’s eyes gazing down on her beseechingly. She was nearly convinced by his heartfelt plea, but all of that faith was wiped away when she heard her sister’s fearful, broken sobs echo around them as she was dragged towards the exit of the mill.

Arya twisted out of her brother’s grasp and found that while she was not the first on the stairs she was so close to Sandor’s heels that she might as well be the man’s shadow. He was just as conflicted as she was, and that gave her more respect for him. At least he would not just stand aside while her sister was dragged off into the frozen night to be torn to pieces at this whoreson’s leisure. She peered around his aurochs frame in time to see Ramsay yank the door open and drag a struggling Sansa out into the wintry night. Sandor flew down the steps in pursuit, Arya hot on his heels. Before he could duck his massive body out of the short archway Arya snaked around him.

She exploded out of the arched door of the mill into the freezing night air, but skidded to a dead stop in near shock. Suddenly her brothers’ willingness to let Ramsay leave made perfect sense and the wide, vengeful smile that pulled at her lips did not feel expressive enough. She pulled the cloak tight around her shaking and practically naked body as a warmth filled her from her toes to her crown.

Ramsay stood frozen a few feet in front of her, his back to her, heaving with quick breaths. Deep, menacing growls flowed like beautifully terrifying music on the icy wind. The moon broke free of the clouds enough to illuminate five pairs of glowing eyes emerging from the darkness. She spotted her brothers wolves, all bared teeth and raised fur, along with Lady advancing in attack formation. Nymeria was nowhere to be seen. A sudden fear at Karls’ words came slamming back to her.

I’ll have your hide to match your wolfs’.”

“Call them off.” For the first time since this whole ordeal, Arya thought she heard genuine fear in Ramsay’s voice.

“No,” Sansa rasped through her chattering teeth. The arctic winds whipped her hair around her naked frame as she shook violently from the cold. Arya crept forward, dagger at the ready.

“Call them off!” he commanded again, this time with more of a panicked edge than before.

That was when a different light came, soft and orange. One shone at first, but then another, and another, until they were surrounded by it. From beyond them stood a semi-circle of knights in mail and furs; some on horseback, some carrying torches, all bearing steel. Atop a great white steed, wrapped in great furs and brandishing Ice was her lord father. Relief so acute that it nearly brought her to her knees washed through her and caused her chin to wobble embarrassingly.

“Unhand my daughter and we will call off the wolves. Harm her in any way and I will see you ripped to shreds.” Her father’s voice carried over the growls, over the howling of the wind, heavy with its finality.

“Shall we see who is faster?” Ramsay threatened while yanking savagely on Sansa’s hair, bearing her neck to his blade.

Arya suddenly felt movement behind her and turned to see Sandor and the Imp’s man skulking through the darkness, flanking the Bastard from both sides. She started creeping forward once more, determined to help them. To help Sansa. She barely made it two steps before a soft huff of hot air blew her hair about her face. She did not even have to turn.

“Nymeria,” she breathed. She closed her eyes and smiled. “Help her.”

The large wolf darted forward silently. She gave no warning at all before sinking her teeth into the arm that bore Ramsay’s blade and ripping her head to the side. With a scream of fear and disbelief, the Bastard was tossed like no more than a ragdoll into the snow at Sandor’s feet. He scrambled up quickly, holding his injured arm with his good one, stumbling back from the murderous gaze of the Hound.

His foot flew out, connecting with Ramsay’s stomach. The blow sent him doubled over into the frozen earth. Sandor dropped down wordlessly and gripped his jerkin, pulling him up slightly before wailing him back into the snow with a bone shattering punch.

“Clegane!” she heard someone holler. It did no good. Sandor continued to savagely beat Ramsay snow until half a dozen armored men pulled him forcefully away from the blood soaked – but still alive – moaning near corpse. He continued to lash out at any who was foolish enough to remain within reach.

“Sandor,” her sisters’ quiet voice, trembling with fear and pain, seemed to break through his violent haze. His fists stilled, arms frozen midair as his wild eyes searched for the source of the pleading whisper.

Jon had Sansa wrapped in a cloak, lifted up out of the snow in his arms. Her bare feet were all that could be seen from within the cocoon their brother had forged for her. It brought Arya’s own nearly frozen toes into sudden awareness. The pain from the snow on her bare skin lanced through her, making her hop from one foot to the other in an effort to alleviate some of the ache.

The Hound charged forward, stumbling slightly as he all but yanked Sansa from Jon’s grasp. Clutching her sobbing frame to his massive body, he fell heavily to his knees, his forehead resting against hers as he muttered words against into her hair. Arya felt her eyes sting with tears as she turned away, suddenly feeling like she was watching something immensely private and not meant for everyone to see. If she had ever doubted Sandor’s feelings for her sister, those concerns were all but wiped away by the scene before her.

“Arya!”

Her head rose slowly and her smile stretched as she saw Robb securing the Bastard while Bran quickly approached her with another cloak. He gingerly wrapped it around her shivering shoulders and began guiding her towards a waiting horse when she was suddenly swept up in someone’s arms. She did not need to turn her head to know who it was. She would know his embrace anywhere. Turning into it, she finally allowed herself to feel the fear that had threatened to eat her alive while trying to simultaneously survive and save her sister. She would not cry, that was not her way. Instead, she allowed herself to be held and comforted by the one man she had learned to trust outside of her family.

“Are you hurt, milady?” Gendry asked quietly as he placed her atop a horse.

“I will live,” she responded softly while making room for him to join her in the saddle. She could not bear to ride alone, cold and undressed as she was. Sitting sideways, she tucked her frozen feet under the fur cloak.

“Your sister?” he asked, but she didn’t have time to answer before Sandor strode from the mill will Sansa still wrapped in his arms, now covered in several cloaks. Jon, Bronn, and several other men followed, dragging their captives out at sword point.

“Is she . . . was she. . ?” he seemed unwilling to ask the pertinent question, so she helped him out.

“I do not know,” she replied honestly. Sadness and grief welled up in her so strongly she thought they may crush her from the inside out.

“Arya, are you alright?” Ned appeared suddenly beside them on foot. She lifted her head and nodded a little. Over his shoulder she saw her uncle Benjen talking to the men. He seemed to be giving directions.

“Do you need a maester?” her father inquired delicately. For the first time since she was a small child she actually felt her cheeks flush in shame. Her eyes filled with tears and though she wanted desperately to tear her gaze away, she could not turn away from her father.

“Yes,” her answer was barely audible. She watched as her father seemed to age before her eyes, his Stark eyes weighed down with immeasurable sadness. He swallowed thickly before nodding once.

“And . . . Sansa?” he asked quietly.

Images of her bloody thighs flashed through her mind and she shuddered, nodding. Ned sucked in a shaky breath before his eyes seemed to ice over, his stance becoming rigid. He made one move towards their captive when uncle Benjen and her brothers seemed to appear from nowhere, encircling him. They whispered in rushed, tense tones, eyes darting to the Bastard repeatedly while trying to keep their father contained.

“Ned, we need to get the girls indoors. They will not make it back to the Keep nor Winterfell without frostbite. I suggest the inn up the road. We can have a maester brought in; the ladies can bathe and dress in fresh clothes. The men need rest. You,” uncle Benjen said with no small amount of understanding and warmth, “need some rest. You’ve been looking for this one since she fled her betrothal.”

Arya suddenly felt like she was drowning in her guilt. She never should have left Winterfell. But then again, if she had not than no one would have been with Sansa when her knight betrayed her and Ramsay kidnapped her again. She might even be dead by now. No, she could not regret her choices, no matter how much pain she was in. She would simply have to make it up to her family later.

“Aye, we’ll go to that inn. Send riders ahead to prepare rooms and rustle up a maester, some clothes for the girls,” Ned said wearily. He seemed to trudge towards his steed like his feet were weighed down with steel.

“Come now, milady. Let’s get your wounds seen to,” Gendry said kindly as he urged their horse forward. Finally feeling safe, Arya closed her eyes and tried to ignore the jabbing pains as they rode through the moonless night.

Chapter Text

The inn was not crowded, thank the Gods. With her head still on Sandor’s shoulder, she was brought up to a large bedchamber. It was clean and tidy, with a fire cracking away in the hearth. A large tub had been brought up and placed near the fire, but it lay empty. As Sandor a placed her gently on the lumpy bed she noticed that her body was still shaking. It took some time to realize it was not from cold but rather the pain in her belly and head that made her tremble.

Everything seemed to be happening around her in slow motion; her eyes sweeping around her as if trying to penetrate a dense fog. Even her mind moved slowly. It seemed to take too long to form thoughts, for those thoughts to become words, and for her body to feel anything. She was too numb too feel frightened, too tired to be confused. She just wanted to sleep.

“Little bird?” His familiar rasp brought her a sense of comfort, but it took far too long for her to actually feel it. Her mind knew before her body could respond. Her eyes lifted to his. Her mouth seemed to be the last part of her to respond.

“Yes?” Her voice sounded flat to her ears. She wanted to frown, but was not sure if she could make her face contort the way she wanted.

She heard a sharp intake of breath and felt a large, warm hand rough with callouses move across her icy cheek. Her eyes fluttered closed as she leaned into the heat, the safety her body instantly recognized there, even if her mind was slow to catch up.

“You came for me,” she breathed in a soft whisper. Another hand joined the first, cupping her other cheek and lifting her chin slightly. She opened her eyes and saw his flash like silver lightning.

“I would walk through the Seven Hells for you. Fight the Stranger himself if it meant returning you to my side. I would die for you,” he said with such vehemence she found no room for doubt in his words. A consuming sense of calm began fighting its way to the surface when a sudden loud knocking on their door sent it retreating back into the depths.

Muttering a curse, she felt him pull his hand away and heard heavy footfalls stomping away from her. Eyes barely opened as she heard hinges groan and voices carrying through the silence.

“I’ve brought a maester,” a low, soft voice murmured. Sansa felt her heart jump. She knew that voice. She fought to make her mind and mouth work as one. Turning her head slightly, she managed a whisper.

“Father?”

She lifted her eyes to see Sandor step aside from the entryway and allow her father passage. He was kneeling in front of her before her mind could catch up with his quick movements.

“Sansa,” he breathed with a sigh of relief. He reached out and tucked a lock of her hair away from her face. “You’re alright. You’re going to be alright.”

Am I? Will I? Her mind seemed to taunt her. In truth, she did not know. She did not know much of anything right now. The fog was too thick. She could not think clearly.

“Maester, come inspect her, please,” Eddard called over his shoulder.

A man approached from her periphery. His black hair caught her eye first. Then his face. It was young. Too young for a maester. His eyes gleaned malevolently. They seemed to mock her. She felt her heart slamming against her ribs. All at once the fog seemed to lift, her body flying into action as fear shot through her veins and propelled her into the furthest corner of the room.

“STAY AWAY!” she screamed, her voice cracking with the strain.

“Sansa,” her father tried calmly, raising his hands towards her, but her eyes were on him. He still advanced. He still stared at her with his cold, blue eyes. An evil smile pulled at his lips.

Sansa slowly withdrew a hand from within her pile of cloaks. It shook wildly, but clutched a dagger which she pointed at the men staring at her in open mouthed shock. Sandor had not even felt her remove it from his belt as they rode to the inn. She had hidden it in the folds of the cloaks in case . . . in case . . .

“No one touches me but Sandor,” she rasped lowly.

“Little bird,” Sandor tried as he stepped forward. The other two men had frozen. Her wide blue eyes locked on his steel grey as she searched for reassurance, pleading with him to understand.

“You said . . . you said . . .” she began to gasp around sobs that seemed to have taken over her lungs. She did not remember when she started crying. “. . . no one would touch me . . . or . . . or . . .”

She could not continue. Her breaths were too short. Not enough air was getting into her lungs. She felt them burning as her heart beat wildly in her chest. Her head spun and her mind whirled out of control. Closing her eyes, she raised her hands to grasp it, trying to steady herself once more.

She heard them gasp loudly. Heard curses uttered. Heard a slam of a fist on wooden walls. Whispered words.

“Mother, have mercy.”

When she opened her eyes again she saw their eyes wide with horror. She saw her father’s tears. She saw her husband’s fury. Lastly, she saw the maester make the sign of the seven in the air before him. He looked different than before. His hair was still black, but thinning with obvious age. She noted he was older now, though knew it was not possible that he aged in the moments before. His eyes were green, not blue. Quaking with confusion and fear, she stepped back, bumping against the wall. It was then she noticed that she now stood naked, her cloaks pooled on the floor around her feet. Her eyes sought out the only pair she knew would bring hers comfort. His throat pulsed as he swallowed thickly, but returned her gaze while cautiously stepping forward.

“No one will hurt you, little bird,” he assured her. She felt her lower lip start to tremble.

“But . . . they already did,” she squeaked as tears blurred her vision. She heard his breath hitch and saw his movement halt.

“Sansa,” her father called to her softly. She tore her eyes away from Sandor’s anguished stare and met her fathers’ calm gaze. “The maester only wants to know if you were injured and need treatment.”

Sansa shook her head. “I am not . . . I was not . . .”

“You are bleeding, child,” the maester spoke in a soothing voice. Her eyes darted to his and saw him indicate to her lower body. Slowly, cautiously, she lowered her chin and let her eyes do a cursory sweep over herself before lifting them back up to be sure no one had advanced on her. The men were perfectly still, giving her time to process what she had seen. There was blood on her thighs, a great deal of it, though she did not understand why.

“I . . . I . . . I,” she stammered, unable to come up with an explanation. Swallowing hard, she wracked her brain for something, anything that would give reason for her bleeding.

“Did anyone touch your woman’s place?” the maester asked gently. He was trying to be kind, she could tell, but she flinched all the same.

Violently shaking her head, she spat out, “No!” She would have remembered that.

“Are you with child?” he questioned. Again, she shook her head.

“I cannot . . . I,” her breathing became tight again. She raised her free hand to her chest, trying to rub the tightness away.

“She does not bleed,” Sandor snapped impatiently. The maester cocked his head to the side while his eyes roamed over her thoughtfully.

“Have you had pain in your back or belly, my lady?” he inquired, stronger this time.

 She nodded sharply. “Y-Yes.”

“For how long?” His eyes narrowed on hers.

“Days,” she wheezed through frantic breaths. Her teeth began to chatter again.

Much to her surprise, the maester suddenly smiled at her. He clasped his hands in front of him and nodded his head once. “I do believe you have gotten your first moonblood, my lady.”

Everything seemed to screech to a blinding halt around her. Her ears rang around his words and she found she had to play them over in her mind repeatedly before they made any sense to her. She lifted her gaze to his, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Truly?”

“I believe so, yes. All of the symptoms fit, and since you claim that you were not defiled in any way this is the only explanation.” He seemed satisfied with himself for giving her this news, though she could not rightly understand why.

“Are you in any pain, my lady?” The maester asked kindly. “I have many remedies that would assist you in getting a restful night’s sleep.”

Sansa did not want them. Anything he would offer could dull her wits, slow her reflexes. She could not leave herself so open to attack. Not while the Bastard still drew breath. She shook her head as she crouched down and retrieved a cloak, wrapping it around her nakedness.

“Where is he?” she asked tensely. She did not need to be more specific; they knew of whom she spoke.

“Out in the stables being guarded by your brothers, your uncle, and half a dozen other men,” her father informed her tightly. Something about his tone caught her attention.

“You think he will escape.” It was not a question. Her father snorted derisively. It was not a sound he made often, so it surprised her.

“Not a bloody chance. Even if wasn’t incapacitated with his injuries, the wolves would be on him before he made it out of the village.”

“Injuries?” Sansa asked confusedly. She could not remember him being hurt. She strained her mind in search of the memory.

Her father’s eyes narrowed with concern. “Aye. Do you not remember? Nymeria bit his arm before your husband nearly beat him to death with his own fists.”

Her eyes flitted up to Sandor’s as the images slowly began to emerge from within the recesses of her mind. Growling wolves. Torch light. Men on horseback. Naked and freezing with a blade to her throat. Collapsing in the snow. Howls of rage. Screams of fear. And blood. So much blood. Then warmth, safety, comfort.

She nodded slightly but would not relent her watching. He matched her gaze unperturbedly, his breathing slow and steady. She was the first one to break away.

“What of Arya?” She was almost afraid to ask. She noted the way her father’s face darkened.

“She will heal eventually. She had many cuts that required stitching, but most were not too deep. Only a few bruises besides,” his voice seemed to give out. Blessedly, Sandor spoke up before her mind could run away with her fear.

“She was not raped. Violated, but not raped,” he told her, eyes heavy with meaning. Sansa felt her stomach drop. She did not want Arya to have her nightmares.

“What happened to the man?” Her eyes floated towards the door as she wondered if he was one of those being held captive.

“Dead,” her husband growled.

She arched an eyebrow at him. “How?”

“I ripped his throat out,” he replied evenly. She nodded after a spell, satisfied with his answer.

“You should get some rest, Sansa,” her father suggested gently. She shook her head, knowing sleep would not come easy to her this night, or for many nights yet to come. It was that way before, too.

“I am not tired,” she said quietly. It was a lie. She was exhausted and knew it showed plainly on her face.

“Perhaps a soothing bath? You could wash away the blood,” the maester said kindly.

She did not look at him, but nodded all the same. A bath would feel nice. She could feel her mind starting to cloud over again. She did not even try to fight it. Instead she allowed the men to speak and move around her without so much as an upwards glance. She did manage to hum and nod when her father bid her goodnight. She did not think she was capable of much else.

When a knock once again sounded at the door Sansa looked up and found that she had somehow ended up perched on the edge of the bed. Not knowing how she had gotten there, she glances slowly around. Sandor moved aside as a few young women brought in pails of steaming water, sloshing them into the empty tub by the fire. Soft fabrics and nightclothes were left behind as Sandor assured them that he was capable of helping his wife bathe. One woman seemed less convinced than the rest, but the glower that Sandor leveled at her sent her scampering from the room in fear.

He knelt down in front of her, moving with exaggerated slowness and caution. Lifting her eyes to his face she saw his expression blank, almost impassive. Before she could think of what that meant he began speaking in low, quiet tones.

“Let’s get you cleaned up. Can I lift you into the tub?” His voice was hesitant, his tone unsure. Feeling her brows pinch together slightly she nodded at him.

Cradling her so carefully you would think she was made of glass, he rose up with her tucked in his arms before turning and setting her very slowly into the hot water. Sansa sucked in a deep breath and sighed in relief as her battered body began to soak up the heat surrounding her. Leaning forward to rest her head on bent knees, she closed her eyes as Sandor delicately worked over her skin with a soft rag. With each gentle pass she felt her body slip further and further into relaxation.

It barely captured her attention when she felt his hands shake against her frame as he slowly brushed soap over her back and arms. She noticed it again as his large palm settled on her shoulder. It was only when she felt herself suck in a jagged breath of much needed air did she realize it was her that trembled, not him. She had begun sobbing before even realizing that the tears had formed.

Her emotions slammed into her with the force of typhoon. Panic, anguish, pain, fear, and relief all battered against her and fought for space at the forefront of her mind. She tried to pull herself into a tighter ball in an effort to contain it, to keep her feelings from overwhelming her, but they pulled at her like an ocean’s tide. She hardly noticed that she was being lifted from the tub, wrapped in softness and warmth, and lain down. She gripped onto something solid, something firm, and tried to anchor herself there. If she could just hold on she could keep from drowning. Strength wrapped around her, pulling her into a tight embrace where whispered words floated by heavy with sorrow and grief.

“Forgive me. Please, forgive me.”

She did not know how long she battled the swells of emotion that continued to roll through her. She heard howling winds, but never felt the bite of cold. She felt wetness on her cheeks, but never choked on the waters. After a time she could feel her breathing come easier, her heart slow its cadence, and her mind come back into focus. With her body too worn out to shake, she knew it was not her that trembled this time. The arms still wrapped around her tightened as she lifted her swollen eyelids and gazed upon her anchor.

While her tears had stopped, his continued to flow silently down his taunt face. Beneath her hands, still clenched tightly in his tunic, she felt the thrumming of his heart. It was his eyes though, that captured her attention. She had never seen so much remorse in his steely gaze before. He was positively weak with it, and it shook her to her core. Slowly, she released one fist before placing her open palm over his scars. They twitched madly beneath her skin, and she felt the wetness of his tears there.

“I do,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “I do forgive you.”

He closed his eyes, tears dripping from his lashes. He pulled in several deep breaths while she continued to stroke his face. She finally saw how heavy a burden he had placed on himself, how responsible he felt for all she had endured. It was not fair to him. Not fair at all. She leaned into him, pressing her lips to his briefly before finally giving him the one thing she had withheld for fear he would not accept it.

“I love you, Sandor.”

She felt him gasp quietly against her before his arms clutched her to him so tightly that she could scarcely draw breath. Something between a whimper and moan came from the back of his throat as he nuzzled into her neck, burying his face in her hair.

“Sansa,” he breathed, his voice shaking.

She stroked his face, feeling the scars twitch and jump beneath her touch while his massive frame quaked around her body. She closed her eyes and allowed the feeling to fill her up completely. It chased away everything else until there was nothing left but security and warmth that she had only ever found in his arms. She whispered the words against his skin repeatedly while she pressed delicate kisses to his brow, his cheek, his hair. She knew that loving him was only half the battle. Convincing him of her love was the rest. She would do it, she knew she would. Eventually he would be as confident in her devotion as she was herself. Maybe then he could allow himself to love her back.

Chapter Text

“I trust you found the guest quarters comfortable, m’lord?”

Tyrion looked up from his seat at the breakfast table to see Sansa’s lovely handmaiden smiling genuinely down at him.

“They were wonderful, Lydia. My most sincere thanks for arranging that featherbed. After staying in Castle Black I was woefully in need of some warmth and comfort.” That was true enough. He had thought to have some company as well, but while he did not know how Sansa fared he found himself most incapable of . . . entertaining at the present.

“It was good of you to travel so far, Lord Tyrion. Will you be able to convince His Grace to send more men to man the Wall?” Maester Bryce asked around a mouthful of bacon and toast. Tyrion nodded.

“If I find him in a listening mood, then it could be possible. The trick is finding him sober enough to remember the next day,” Tyrion jested, though it was the truth.

Bryce was just about to speak again when a shout from outside nearly caused a stampede to the exit.

“The lord and lady are back! Open the gates!”

Tyrion shot to his feet so quickly that his head spun slightly, but it didn’t stop him from running after the maester out into the courtyard. The gates were pulled wide as people dropped everything and bustled toward the approaching horses. Jon Snow rode ahead with Bronn while members of Clegane’s own guard and Stark men encircled the massive war horse holding both Sandor and Sansa. The behemoth warrior had Sansa wrapped in furs and pulled tightly against his mailed chest with one arm while the other guided his beast forward. Great cheers went up as they trotted towards the stables. Tyrion caught Sandor’s eye and received a silent nod. It was the most benevolent gesture he’d ever received from the man.

He quickly followed the throng of people towards the stables, but then thought better of it. He would be lucky if he wasn’t trampled to death by all the small folk waiting to greet their lord and lady. Instead, he turned on his heel and headed up to their chambers. He would await them there with a flagon of red and a nice warm fire.

Upon entering the chamber he immediately noted he was not alone in his ideas. Lydia busied herself preparing the fire seemingly unaware of his company. Tyrion made his way over towards a small where a flagon sat with some cups.

“Don’t even think about it, m’lord,” the maid suddenly snapped without even bothering to turn around. He blinked several times, unsure if she was really addressing him. There was no mistaking her pursed lips or narrowed eyes when she whipped around to scold him again.

“That’s spiced wine for Lady Sansa. She’ll need it after her time out in this weather. Go and fetch your own drink,” she challenged with a raised brow.

Unaccustomed to being ordered about by a servant, Tyrion couldn’t help the wry grin that pulled at the corners of his mouth. He gave a mock bow and made a great show of cowering back from Lydia in fear.

“My apologies, my lady,” he said with a heavy note of sarcasm.

Lydia flushed scarlet and stood, smoothing her dress and looking down at the floor before clearing her throat. “Begging your pardon –,” she mumbled, but he would not hear it.

“No, I do not think I will pardon you,” he said with false sternness. He walked closer as to catch her eye. “Nor should you ask forgiveness for looking after your lady so diligently. If only all handmaidens were as dedicated as you, my dear.”

Lydia eyed him suspiciously, but then relaxed when she realized he was being entirely sincere. She was not given the opportunity to say more as the room was suddenly filled with people and noise. Bronn slipped in through the chaos, gliding silently to Tyrion’s side with a cursory nod. He would have to sit the man down in the near future and get all the gory details from him. At least Sansa was alive and well.

“We are all so relieved to have you back with us, my lady,” the maester simpered as Clegane strode into the room with his wife swept up in his arms. Her arms delicately circled his shoulders, and Tyrion could see how beaten and weary she really was. His heart clenched painfully as he took in every mark, every bruise on her pale skin.

Her eyes opened slowly as her husband made his way towards the chaise in front of the fire. As he leaned over to gently place her on the cushions, her gaze locked on his. Shock lit her beautiful face before it morphed into a brilliant smile.

“Tyrion!” she said hoarsely. His responding grin faltered slightly as he pondered what had been done to this poor woman. Again. Would she never know what real safety felt like? Was that not the point of marrying such brutish man as the Hound, to keep the crazies like the Bastard away from her?

Sandor backed away from his wife to allow Tyrion closer. She continued to beam at him unreservedly as he stepped up and grasped her hand, kissing the top affectionately.

“My lady, it is good to see you back in one piece. I trust you are well?” He did not want to ask indelicate questions, especially with so many ears about. He could wait until later for them to speak more plainly.

Sansa lowered her eyes demurely and shook her head. Her smile was smaller, but remained. For that he was grateful.

“I will be just fine, thank you, my lord,” she responded easily. “There is nothing that will not heal with proper care and rest.” She eyed the maester and crowd of people congregating at her door meaningfully. Knowing it was a subtle hint at wanting the well-meaning masses gone, Tyrion opened his mouth to gently suggest they come back another time to visit their lady.

“Bugger off you lot and let the lady get some rest,” Bronn commanded loudly. He turned and eyed a group of armored men with open challenge at their clearly affronted expressions.

“Aye,” Sandor agreed gruffly. “She needs to heal. Leave us be for a time.”

When no one made to move Lydia stormed across the room, waving her arms in aggressive gestures. “You heard the lord! Get goin’! Lady Sansa needs her rest after all she’s been through. You can come back and visit her later. In smaller groups,” she hollered after them as she all but chased them from the room.

The maester remained along with Jon Snow, his wolf, and Bronn. Sometime during the ruckus Lady had padded silently over to her mistresses’ feet and lay down protectively there. Lydia slammed the door and barred it shut with a great huff.

“There. That’s more like it,” she grumbled before turning back to Sansa with a bright smile. “Can I get you anything, milady? Would you care for a bath or a meal? I’ve brought up some spiced wine to help warm you.”

Sansa smiled gently at her and nodded. “Wine would be lovely, thank you. I may have a bath in a little while. First,” she said calmly as she eyed Tyrion and maester Bryce, “I believe there are a few minds that need to be put at ease.”

Lydia rushed to get her wine as Sansa patted the cushion on the chaise next to her, bidding Tyrion sit beside her. With a cursory glance up at Clegane – not wishing to incur the man’s wrath so soon after his return – he sat beside her and waited patiently for her to begin speaking. He noticed that Jon Snow watched her pensively from his spot near the mantle, stroking the great head of his white beast absently. She even had Bronn’s rapt attention.

“I am so sorry for making you all worry. I fear Arya and I were quite foolish when we set out to see the lake. We did as you asked, Sandor, and brought men with us. They . . .” she stopped and seemed to gather herself as tears filled her eyes. It took a moment before she stopped speaking. “They died trying to protect us. They were very brave.”

“You only had two,” Sandor rumbled lowly. He seemed to be doing his utmost to keep his legendary temper in check. It did not go unnoticed. Sansa flushed and ducked away from his gaze, focusing on the hem of her sleeve.

“We thought we would come across Lady and Nymeria once we were outside the walls. Arya has this way of calling them; Bran, too. It turns out they were nearer than we thought,” she added wryly.

“How many set upon you?” Jon asked quietly. She turned to him, biting her lip.

“Eight or ten . . . I think. You will need to ask our sister. She trapped me between her body and our only remaining horse. She tried to protect me, too,” she whispered, shame clouding her features as she lowered her head. She startled and frowned when Sandor’s snort echoed throughout the chamber.

“Foolish wolf pup could have been butchered along with the men,” he snapped derisively. Sansa glared openly at him, her face flushing deeply.

“But she wasn’t. She stayed with me, kept placing herself before me in every effort to keep me from harm. She provoked them, hurt them, all to save me,” she said emphatically as the tears she had been keeping at bay finally slid down her cheeks. “They never would have harmed her the ways they did if she had only been looking out for herself. You have her to thank for my getting off so easy!”

EASY!” he suddenly roared, throwing his cup against the wall. The metal dented from the force and clanged against the floor.

“Yes, easy!” she shouted back. “They had far worse in mind for me! You did not hear them! You do not know! You were not there!” she practically screamed the last word, her hands balled into tight little fists. Her ire was not anything Tyrion could have ever predicted. It seemed even the girls’ own brother seemed at a loss for how to handle her.

Everyone was silent for a time as the couple continued to glower angrily at one another. To Tyrion’s utter amazement, Clegane was the first to back down. His baleful expression seemed to melt into one of repentance before a mask of neutrality slipped effortlessly into place. Sansa’s anger seeped quietly from her as her breathing slowed and her body relaxed before she fell gracelessly back onto the chaise.

Jon cleared his throat before speaking quietly again. “I need you to tell me everything you can remember. Did Ramsay ever tell you what his reasons were for going after you? Was he acting under orders?”

“What the fuck does that matter?” Sandor snarled angrily. Despite his good brother’s open hostility, Jon remained cool and calm.

“There will be a trial in a few weeks. Our father wants as much information beforehand as he can possibly get. We do not want any surprises when it comes time for Ramsay to be held accountable for his actions,” he explained evenly.

“I don’t see why Clegane wasn’t allowed to just chop off his head and be done with it,” Bronn said airily and shrugged.

“Because his father is an important lord here in the North. We have to allow our nobles a chance to defend themselves when wrongs have been committed, otherwise each territory would constantly have internal conflicts and battles waging as one house fought another. Not a great way to rule,” Tyrion said wryly.

“But he’s a bastard!” Lydia exclaimed loudly. All eyes turned to her in surprise. She flushed slightly, but kept speaking. “If one ‘o us broke the law and hurt the lady, we’d be executed without question or delay. Why is he different?”

“A very good question,” maester Bryce murmured, seemingly in agreement with the handmaiden.

“Because his father is a lord and has recognized him as his son. It’s less about who he is and more about who is father is,” Tyrion explained patiently.

“They’re both cunts,” Sandor growled lowly. Tyrion did not disagree with him. No one did.

“He did tell me why,” Sansa whispered before swallowing hard. “Though I fear that if I tell you everything that it will only make matters worse.”

“I do not see how it could,” Jon countered kindly.

Sansa huffed out a humorless laugh, shaking her head. “Just remember you asked for it.” She pulled in a deep breath and spoke in quiet, rushed tones. The more Tyrion heard, the more the pit in his stomach twisted uncomfortably. When she finished he sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead in an effort to stave off the ache that had begun to settle behind his eyes.

“So my shit of a nephew was behind it. Somehow this does not surprise me as much as it should.” He would be sure to deal with this once he got back to King’s Landing. Damage control would need to be done. He could not allow this to ruin his family.

“You know that father is going to want to go straight to the King with this,” Jon said matter-of-factly.

“I know,” she concurred softly. “That is why I said it would make matters worse.”

“I don’t know about worse,” Tyrion said thoughtfully. “Certainly more complicated, but possibly not worse.”

Sansa did not look convinced, but she carried on with her story anyway. Tyrion noticed he was not the only one who looked relieved when she said the injuries both she and her sister suffered. There were some missing from the list that everyone had been most concerned with; not that what either of them had endured had been easy.

“Thank the Gods, both old and new, for your safe return, Lady Sansa,” the maester said with deep sincerity. Sansa smiled softly at him, but did not speak. Instead she looked up at her husband with worry shining in her Tully eyes.

“I am so very sorry for everything, Sandor. I should have known better. I truly thought I would be safe so close to our walls and guarded by a few of our men. You have no idea how much I regret it.” She shook her head solemnly.

At first Clegane said nothing, just stared blankly down at his wife. After a few moments uncomfortable silence he finally spoke up.

“It is done now. He will never bother you again. No need to speak of it again,” he rasped without malice. He appeared to have calmed down considerably and for that Tyrion was thankful. He had no wish to witness that man’s temper up close.

“I need to get back to Winterfell to report all you have told me,” Jon informed her softly. Sansa merely nodded but did not look gladdened by the prospect. She stood and embraced her brother before sighing exhaustedly and turning towards Lydia.

“I do believe I will have that bath now,” she requested quietly before turning to Tyrion. “Could we perhaps postpone our visit until tomorrow? I am so tired and I fear I would not make good company today.”

“Of course,” he said with an easy smile. “Take all the time you need. I will just go read in my chamber a while. Mayhaps I will wander around your keep and get to know the small folk. They are of a different ilk than in the south.”

Sansa smiled and hugged him as well. “Thank you, Tyrion.”

After watching her disappear into her washroom, Tyrion turned to Bronn and nodded once. The sellsword followed him as he quickly chased after Jon Snow, who was speaking to the maester.

“I would be more than happy to document the lady’s story for you,” maester Bryce offered. “It could prove useful during the trial.”

“I know my father would appreciate any assistance, thank you,” he murmured as they made their way out the door.

“If I could request something myself,” Tyrion interrupted. Both men turned to look at him expectantly.

Tyrion chose his words very carefully. “I would ask that the Prince’s involvement would be left out of the documentation.” When he was met with shock and outrage he rushed to continue. “Do not misunderstand, I want to see the little bastard held accountable for his actions as much as you do, but you do not know my sweet sister. She will lie, manipulate, even kill to protect her son, and she will do so with a smile on her face.”

“The King will not let this go unpunished if he loves my father as much as he proclaims,” Jon argued hotly. Tyrion shook his head.

“The King will be powerless against Cersei, no matter what he dictates the punishment to be. I tell you truly, Joff will not be held accountable for anything if we go through the proper channels,” Tyrion argued.

“What are you suggesting, my lord?” maester Bryce eyed him suspiciously. In the past few days he had come to respect the man for his quick wit and attention to detail, but now Tyrion could see that he was quickly falling out the of the mans’ good graces.

“All I ask is that you keep it out of the documents. If that fool Ramsay wants to present it as his defense, then by all means let him. However, it would be very dangerous for Sansa to be the one who claims it was the Prince who set out to see her harmed. I do not wish for Cersei or Joffrey to have any more reason to target her, would you not agree?”

“He needs to be held accountable,” Jon insisted angrily.

“And I am telling you he will not be if you go about it this way,” Tyrion reasoned. “Trust me when I say that you do not want to provoke him. You have no idea what that little monster is capable of.”

“How would you see him punished then?” Jon shot back.

Tyrion once again considered his words before speaking. He would not say too much. He could not risk it. “It is not my place to punish royalty. However, there are those whom he has already wronged that would see him brought to their own form of justice.”

Jon went to argue again, but to Tyrion’s surprise, Bryce held his hand up to silence him. The taller man stared at him shrewdly for a moment before nodding once.

“I agree with Lord Tyrion. We will leave those details out of the documents. I would also suggest you do not tell Lord Stark anything about the Prince’s involvement.”

Jon’s face was a mask of disapproval. “I will not keep things from my father.”

“Not even to save your sister’s life?” the maester challenged, arching his eyebrow. “The Prince may be a careless fool when it comes to assassination attempts, but I assure you that the Queen is not.”

Tyrion was glad to see at least one of them understood the delicacy of the matter before them. It saved him the time and headache of having to spoon feed it all to them.

“Sansa will not be happy if we do not tell her story in the way she expects.” The argument was a feeble one, and Tyrion could tell that Jon knew he was bested.

“I will speak to Sansa and make her understand what is at stake here,” he assured her brother. After a moment Jon nodded begrudgingly in agreement.

“Let us go and prepare the documents so you may return to Winterfell.” The maester ushered him away as Tyrion turned and made his way to his room.

Once the door was closed tight Bronn walked over and helped himself to Tyrion’s flagon of Dornish red. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand he eyed the smaller man perceptively.

“The Prince will not be getting away with this, will he?”

“No,” Tyrion said without hesitation. Bronn’s confidence was more than bought and paid for, as he had seen on many occasions. He could tell the man anything and know his secrets were safe.

“This is the last time my nephew will be tormenting anyone.”

Chapter Text

            The wind howled viciously outside the stone walls of her bedchamber, though thankfully not blowing through the cracks and sending its icy chill throughout the heated room. Eyes on the blazing fire across the room, Sansa snuggled down into her pile of furs and featherbed in an effort to cocoon herself in softness and warmth. She had nearly succeeded when she heard the unmistakable cadence of Sandor’s footfalls approaching from within their solar. The door creaked as he eased it open a fraction, drawing her eyes to his in the dim firelight.

            “You’re not sleeping.” It was a statement, not a question. Sansa smiled a little in response and shook her head.

            “I am very comfortable though,” she offered in an effort to appease him. He had been in a foul temper ever since their return, but seemed to make it his personal mission that she was pampered and fussed over as much as possible. She was the only one spared his wrath even though she was almost entirely certain she was the cause of his anger.

            “Good,” he grunted and turned to go.

            “Will you stay with me?” she asked hurriedly. He paused in the doorway, his massive body filling the frame. Grey eyes swept over her face momentarily before he looked away.

            “I’ve got some things to do still, but I won’t be long,” he rasped quietly before ducking out of the room, closing the door with a soft click.

            Sansa sighed and snuggled back into her pillows as she stared at the moon through the window panes. It was a bright, clear night, but the bite of the wind and the frost in the air was enough to freeze anyone unlucky enough to be caught out of doors for too long. She was thankful that Ramsay was under lock and key in Winterfell, and that the men who served them did not need to guard the walls through the freezing night.

            No matter how much she knew she was safe now, it was still difficult for her to relax. The direwolf sleeping in the solar certainly helped, but it was not enough. She could not truly settle enough to sleep unless Sandor was there. As he often had duties that required his time and attention she did not usually see him until late into the night. After three nights in a row when he returned to find her waiting up for him she had no choice but to confess her weakness. He had handled it far better than she had expected. There was no dismissal, no judgment, no anger. He simply nodded and stated that he would try not to be out so late in the future. That was two nights ago. So far, he had lived up to his word. Not that Sansa had expected any less. Sandor was always true to his word.

            He returned sooner than she anticipated. She heard him in the washroom for a short time splashing around before emerging in clean small clothes with damp hair. Without a word he slid into bed next to her, thankfully leaving the candles burning brightly around the room. He kept his distance, as he had since their return to the Keep. The last night he had held her, even touched her at all, was at the inn. Tonight she vowed to change that.

            Scooting her body across the wide space between them, she wrapped her arm lightly around his chest, pulling herself flush with the side of his body. His eyes opened very slowly before turning to look at her across the pillow. He said nothing, just stared silently with a slightly furrowed brow.

            “You are angry with me,” she said simply. It wasn’t an accusation; it was a mere statement of fact. She knew how to read his moods by now. Still, it stung when he did not disagree with her. She took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice even.

            “I do not know what I can do . . . how I can make this right . . .” She bit her lip and tried to keep her tears at bay.

            “You can’t,” he said gruffly. The words weren’t sharp or harsh, but they delivered a blow to her heart that left her reeling.

            What will it mean for us if he can never forgive me? She wondered as the tears finally slipped down her cheeks. Will we never get back to where we were?

            “It’s not for you to fix,” he continued, confusing her. She lifted her head and wiped her cheeks.

            “What do you mean?” He was not making sense. “If you are angry with me, you have not denied that –,”

            “I’m angry with everyone!” he growled. She quieted down, but did not resume lying next to him. He needed to say whatever was on his mind. She knew she would not like it, but he could not keep it inside anymore.

            “You were too careless. That sister of yours dragged you outside these walls and nearly got the both of you raped and butchered by that entitled cunt,” he spat angrily. She felt his muscles tense under her hand.

            “I am so sorry –,”

            “No!” he barked. Sansa fell silent, biting her lip.

            “I didn’t keep my word. You were hurt because I didn’t kill that fucker the first damned time he took you. I didn’t . . .” he stopped and rubbed his hand over his face in frustration.

            “We have been over this,” she said gently. When he shook his head she reached up and stilled it with a hand to his scarred cheek. She waited until his eyes met hers before she continued.

            “We need to stop blaming ourselves for this. You will have your chance for revenge when the time comes to execute Ramsay.”

            “It’s not enough!” he boomed suddenly, causing her to jump. Before she could think about pulling away from him she felt his arm snake around her waist and secure her to his side.

            “That shit needs to suffer. I want . . .” he stopped and looked at her guardedly. “What I want is not fit for your ears. I’ll not add to your nightmares, little bird.”

            “I can imagine just fine on my own,” she murmured as brutal images flew through her mind.

            “No, woman, you can’t. You aren’t capable of knowing what true horror looks like. I hope to keep it that way,” he rasped softly, reaching up to trace the contours of her face with his calloused fingertips. Her eyes fluttered closed as she melted into his touch. They shot wide open again as she felt him pull her down, bringing her face to meet his.

            The kiss was careful, hesitant. Like her, he kept his eyes open, watching her warily. Knowing he was out of his depth, she closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his with more heat, more passion. It was slow building, the intense way his mouth moved against hers, and she eagerly accepted him when he slipped his tongue against hers. She shivered when his hands began travelling over the exposed skin of her arms, moving down her back and over her sides. When he rolled them over and pressed her into their bed she arched against his body, gripping his shoulders tightly.

            Everything felt so good, so intense, that the complete feeling of panic came out of nowhere. She did not truly recognize it until she felt him press his arousal against her center and groan in need into her mouth. Shock froze her body, causing her eyes to fly open and her breathing to stop in a sharp gasp. She did not understand. She wanted this, wanted him. She craved him, needed him. So why did she feel like she was either going to burst into flames from the raw desire that threatened to consume her, or run screaming from the room in sheer terror.

            She did not have time to mull over the confusing absurdity that flowed through her mind and muddled her body. Once she had ceased responding to him Sandor had stilled over her, pulling back to look into her eyes. Even though he had stopped she felt her heart still hammer in her chest, her breaths coming shorter, her chest feeling tighter. She began shaking her head as he pulled away further and made to roll off of her.

            “I – I’m sorry . . . I don’t know . . . please . . .” The words flying through her lips did not even make sense to her, but somehow Sandor understood.

            “Little bird,” he rasped, silencing her ramblings. She thought his patience would give her comfort, but she only felt guilt.

            “Let’s try again. I can do this. We can –“

            “No,” he said firmly, but not ungently.

            “But –,”

            “No,” he repeated softer than before. “You need rest. This can wait.” He made to roll off her again, but she gripped his shoulders with all her might and pulled him towards her. Anger flashed in his eyes for a moment before a bemused expression settled on his face.

            “You mean to have me suffocate you after keeping you alive this long?”

            Sansa’s eye widened in surprise before narrowing in indignation. “You are mocking me.”

            “Better than yelling at you,” he countered evenly.

            “Are those my only two options?” she inquired, her voice suddenly sad. Sandor sighed heavily, rolling off to the side, but pulling her along with him so that she was practically sprawled across his upper body. Her hair spilled over her shoulder in waves momentarily capturing his attention as he ran his fingers through the silky strands.

            “I’m doing my best,” he finally murmured. “I’ll be angry until that piece of shit is dead and rotting.”

            “I will be scared until then as well,” she confessed with her eyes downcast.

            “You should know I received a raven today from Winterfell,” he said carefully. Sansa sucked in a breath and nodded knowingly.

            “They are ready to have the trial,” she murmured before sighing heavily and resting her forehead on his chest. She felt him stroke her crown once before lifting her chin to meet her eyes.

            “The maester wrote your story down. We don’t have to go. Let your lordly warden father handle this.”

            “I thought . . . what about your revenge?” His proposition was startling. She knew how badly he wanted to be the one to swing the sword.

            Sandor stared at her in brooding silence, his stormy grey eyes darting from hers with every breath he expelled.

            “It doesn’t matter,” he said through clenched teeth. “We can stay if you need to.”

            “But, Sandor . . .” she shook her head, confused. “You need this.”            

“I need you,” he said so quietly she almost did not catch it. “I . . . I . . .”

            Sansa felt her breath catch in her throat as it dawned on her what he was trying to say. Biting her lip, she tried not to stare too longingly at him as he obviously struggled to say the words. When he pursed his lips and his scars began twitching she knew they would not be forthcoming.

“Little bird,” he began apologetically. She reached up and stroked his face sweetly, kissing his lips with fervor.

            “I know,” she breathed against his mouth before kissing him again. “It’s alright. I know.”

            He allowed her to continue kissing him, but the fire from before was obviously lacking. She settled for folding her arms on his chest and resting her head there, looking into his eyes while they continued to talk about the upcoming trial.

            “When do they request our presence?”

            “As soon as we can get there. Tomorrow, if possible.” He shrugged as if unaffected by his own words.

            Sansa nodded once before surprising them both by saying, “Tomorrow it is, then.”

            “There’s no rush. Let the fucker rot in his cell for a while.”

            Sansa shook her head. “No, I want this chapter of my life over. I want to move on. I want . . .” she paused as she considered the next words before they came pouring out of her mouth.

            “Babes,” Sandor finished knowingly. Sansa’s eyebrows shot up.

            “How did you know I was thinking about that?” She had not even voiced the wish out loud since the discovery that her bleeding was her moon blood. Her husband snorted and rolled his eyes.

            “Every married woman wants brats. Only a fool would think you were different, little bird,” he replied drily. Sansa crinkled her nose.

            “I hope you will not call them that?”

            “Call who what?” Sandor asked warily.

            “Call our children ‘brats’. I do not like it,” she replied measuredly.

            “I don’t like children,” Sandor blurted out gruffly.

            “You like Rickon,” she countered.

            “He’s not a child!” he argued. “He’s just a small pain in the arse.”

            Sansa withheld a smirk. “As I am sure any son of yours would be.”

            “I don’t want sons,” he growled. Sansa bit her cheek to keep from smiling.

            “Your daughters will not be much better.”

            “Don’t want them either,” he bit back, but it lacked venom.

            “It is one or the other I am afraid,” she said around a giggle before pretending to look thoughtful. “Though I supposed I could have both at the same time. I know that has happened before.”

            Sandor’s eyes widened in alarm. “No. No babes. A definitely not more than one at a bloody time.”

            Sansa sighed as she absently scratched his chest. “Do you think I would be a bad mother, Sandor?”

            He froze. She could tell by his expression that he was trying to find a way out of this conversation without offending or hurting her, but also without agreeing to be a father. She found it amusing, the way this fierce warrior could take on any man in battle, but was downright terrified of fatherhood.

            “That’s not it and you fucking know it,” he finally rasped. She sighed again and nodded.

            “We did not think this would ever be a possibility,” she said softly.

            “Aye,” he agreed gruffly. She raised her eyes to his and bit her lip.

            “Would you truly find it so horrible?” She had to know the truth of it before she went and got her hopes up. Before she started to dream. Her heart sank when she saw his eyes narrow.

            “Children fear me. I am a monster to them,” he uttered emotionlessly.

            “Your own children would not unless you gave them cause,” she argued gently, but he was riled anyway.

            “Isn’t this fucking cause enough?” he nearly shouted, gesturing to his twitching mass of scars. Sansa refused to back down without making him see sense. If he still did not want them, she would not force them on him, but she needed to dispel the notions in his head.

            “Your child would not know any different. Your scars are not what make you frightening, Sandor. It is your rage, your hatred that people fear the most. Why is it, do you think, that I have never feared you?” She reached up and stroked both sides of his face lovingly.

            “Because you are a foolish little bird with no sense of self-preservation,” he grumbled without malice. Sansa grinned.

            “The fact that I chose you disproves your theory, ser,” she teased.

            “Fuck. Your. Sers.” He punctuated each word with a soft kiss on her hands and one on the tip of her nose. She giggled. His expression softened considerably at the sound and she found herself doing it again. It had been too long since they had enjoyed a playful moment together.

            “Would you not want even one?” she tried again, fluttering her lashes dramatically. “Not even if it I begged?”

            When his eyes darkened she thought she had taken things too far, but almost immediately recognized that they were not stormy with anger, rather with desire. She bit her lip. She had not wanted to tease him so since she knew she was not ready to follow through.

            “Hearing you beg would be worth nearly anything,” he rasped deeply. Her cheeks flamed as she considered his meaning. He grinned knowingly. “But you’ll have to do your begging my way.”

            “And what way would that be?” she whispered as she felt her heart begin to race and heat spread throughout her body. Perhaps she could do this after all. If they went very slowly and he was very careful, she might be able enjoy it. She has ceased bleeding only yesterday . . .

            A loud knock at their solar door interrupted the moment as surely as if someone had doused them both with cold water. She felt Sandor’s growl rumble beneath her before he gently lay her back on the pillows and stomped into the solar, pulling a robe on and grumbling as he went. Listening intently, Sansa heard only the low murmuring of men’s voices before the solar door slammed shut and Sandor returned as angrily as he had left.

            “What is wrong?” she asked, immediately frightened of the answer. Dread welled up in her stomach as she took in the ominous expression on Sandor’s face.

            “You’re bastard brother has news from Winterfell.”

            “Jon? He received a raven at this hour?” Sansa rose up in the bed, pulling furs with her to keep the chill from her heated skin.

            Sandor shook his head. “A rider. Seems the lord of the Dreadfort didn’t take the news about his sons’ actions too well. He’s demanding the cunt be released for him to deal with as he pleases.”

            The color drained from her face. She felt sick and dizzy and faint all at once as she struggled to fill her lungs with air. This was never going to end. Ramsay would be freed to his lord father and she would continue to live in fear for her life for as long as he still had his. Her vision began to tunnel and blacken around the edges. She felt him next to her before his voice came roaring back to the forefront of her mind.

            “Easy, little bird. Breathe,” he demanded softly as he took her by her shoulders and gave her a tiny shake. She sucked in a breath and felt her sight returning. Another breath followed by a third calmed her thundering heart somewhat. Sandor hooked his finger under her chin and lifted her face to meet his eyes.

            “You father refused, but sent a rider to inform us. We’re needed there tomorrow.”

            Sansa calmed considerably. She had already decided that they would go to Winterfell after daybreak. This news simply reinforced her choice. Satisfied that Ramsay was still safely locked away in Winterfell she tugged on Sandor’s arms.

            “Hold me,” she gasped as she tried to pull him back into bed with her. He quickly shed his robe and wrapped himself around her, settling beneath the furs. His hold was comforting, but she needed more.

            “Tighter,” she pleaded as she wound her arms around his massive chest and squeezed her body as close to his as she could. He tensed slightly before giving a soft snort.

            “I’ve a better idea,” he murmured before calling over his shoulder. “Lady, to me.”

            The great direwolf seemed to materialize from thin air directly beside the bed. Sandor gave a quick jerk of his head and commanded, “Up.” Lady circled around to Sansa’s side before gracefully leaping up onto the bed and curling her colossal furry body around Sansa’s back. She took up nearly half of the bed.

            Sansa had never felt so safe and protected in her entire life. Finally feeling her body relax enough to sleep she pressed a kiss to Sandor’s face and bid them both goodnight. The last words she heard before giggling herself off to sleep was her husband’s gruff instructions.             “Don’t bloody get used to this. She sleeps on the floor tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

            “Are we sure this is a good idea?” the sellsword asked for the fifth time as he and Tyrion rode slowly behind Lord and Lady Clegane. A long caravan of knights and warriors surrounded the highborn travelling to Winterfell for the trial of the Bastard of Bolton. At their core rode Sansa and Sandor, with her own bastard brother and their two wolves close at hand.

            “She needs to be there for the trial. If she does not give her own testimony, if she does not face her attacker, it will mean he has a greater chance of escaping with his head still mounted firmly on his shoulders. As I have no desire to see that sniveling little cunt ever draw breath again, yes I am certain,” Tyrion all but spat as he glowered into the silently falling snow. There was very little breeze to disturb the feathery flakes, and they fell thickly on everyone and everything within sight.

            Tyrion sighed and shook his head. “It is the only way. She cannot escape this unless she means for him to live.”

            Bronn snorted derisively. “Even she’s not that soft.”

            “There is more truth in that statement than you know,” Tyrion muttered cryptically while avoiding his hired mans’ questioning gaze.

            The little lord had spent a fair amount of time in the redhead’s company since her return from captivity nearly two weeks prior. It had taken a good while for her to heal enough from her injuries that she was able to travel back to her home town for the trial. During that period Tyrion was a frequent visitor, both with and without Bronn, trying to lift her spirits and assure her that while he had scrubbed his nephews name from this grisly tale, he would by no means go unpunished. Tyrion had been very secretive about his plans regarding that shit Joffrey, but Bronn – who was used to making himself invisible when required – saw and heard much more than was probably intended. The ravens constantly coming and going from the maester’s chambers and messages handed off discreetly to Tyrion had captured his attention. As did the seal on those messages. His friend and employer was playing a very dangerous game; one which he was unsure he would be able to save him from should the truth ever come to light. He vowed to give it his best try, though.

            The ride was long and arduous with the mounting snow and frigid temperatures. It took them the better part of a day to reach the towering outer walls of Winterfell, and by the time they had the sun had already begun its languorous descent. The portcullis was open, awaiting their arrival, and Bronn did not mistake the hurrying of footsteps and hooves for the merriment of a trip to the castle. No, it was necessity that drove them all here, not desire. That fact that it was significantly warmer inside the Great Hall did help, though.

            “Colder than the crone tit out there,” Bronn grumbled as he shook icy and snow from his cloak and hair. Tyrion snorted in agreement before waddling off to fetch a flagon of hot spiced wine. Bronn preferred Dornish red, himself. A trait he seemed to share with Lord Clegane.

            Goblet in hand, Bronn quickly made himself invisible within the crowd as he stealthily made his way towards the high table. Slinking noiselessly back into the shadows he watched and he listened as the Warden of the North greeted his traumatized daughter and her great warrior husband.

            “Not the best day for your travels, I’m afraid,” Ned murmured apologetically, but Sansa shook her head and kissed her father’s bearded cheek.

            “As good a day as any,” Clegane gruffed from his place beside her as he clasped hands with his oldest good brother – Robb, if Bronn remembered correctly.

            “Myrcella would love to see you if you are up for visiting,” Robb informed her with a wide, easy smile that the redhead returned.

            “I will make sure to spend some time with her as soon as I have changed from my time on the road,” she promised. Knowing she would keep her word, Bronn knew it would be an evening of needlepoint and girlish giggles for him. Tyrion paid him well to look after the lady while they visited, but if he was being completely honest with himself (who was really the only person he was ever one hundred percent truthful with) he did it more out of genuine affection for the lady herself than the gold he received for a job always well done. After all, she was never taken or harassed on his watch.

            Bronn knew he was lethal with a blade. He had more than earned his reputation as one of the most feared sellswords in the Seven Kingdoms. He also knew that the main reason he was so effective was that he was masterfully skilled at blending in, escaping notice, and being exceptionally observant of his surroundings. Which is why he was shocked to suddenly find himself clutching a small scroll of parchment in his previously empty fist. The picture of unaffected discretion, Bronn tucked the paper away in a secret pocket sewn into his tunic while glancing furtively around his immediate vicinity. There was not so much as a flutter of fabric or twist of a shadow to indicate where the mysterious note had come from.

            While he pondered this he noted that Tyrion was once again glancing about with a slightly pinched brow, more than a head shorter than nearly everyone else in the loud, crowded Hall. With quickened steps Bronn suddenly appeared beside him, leaning nonchalantly against a thick wooden table as he sipped his wine, acting as though he had been there all along. Tyrion started slightly when he finally took notice of his presence.

            “How do you do that?” he snapped somewhat irritably, but Bronn did not miss the look of relief on his face.

            “Do what?” Bronn played innocent quite convincingly.

            “Appear as if from thin air. One minute you are nowhere to be seen, the next you have materialized right beside me as if you had never been anywhere else. Are you part apparition? Was your mother a ghost?” Tyrion questioned as he gestured for the man to follow him outside.

            “My mother was a Septa, bless her heart. My father, a shadow come to steel her virtue, if you believe the way she told it,” Bronn counters easily. It’s one of his many stories, and this a particular favorite of his.

            “That explains much,” Tyrion muttered as they ventured out into the deep drifts and headed to the guest quarters. He was unsurprised that Tyrion’s room was a distance away from Sansa and Sandor’s. As much as he cared for the lady, he did not care for the noises she made in the throws. Even less for her husbands’.

            “Oh look, they provided me with my own featherbed this time,” Bronn noted as they walked into the comfortable guest quarters, hanging their cloaks up on pegs to dry.

            “They probably have run out of space everywhere else and thought it would be preferable to putting you out in the stables,” Tyrion quipped, but Bronn noted that he did not look displeased at the prospect of bunking down together.

            “Don’t knock the stables. Some nobles treat their horses better than their servants,” Bronn said knowingly.

            “Some nobles treat their horses better than their children,” Tyrion muttered bitterly, but Bronn didn’t take the bait. He refused to indulge his friend when he was feeling sorry for himself.

            A sound thumping on the solar door roused them both and Bronn was quick to cross the room. A man in Stark colors stood with a grimace and heavy brow. Bronn turned and called over his shoulder.

            “It’s for you.”

            Tyrion scoffed, “How in the seven hells could you determine that just by looking at him?” as he hopped down from his seat and made his way over.

            Bronn shrugs. “I haven’t been here long enough to get into trouble.”

            “We both know that isn’t true,” Tyrion muttered under his breath before looking up to address the soldier as pleasantly as he could. “How may I assist you this fine, wintry evening?”

            “Beggin’ your pardon, m’lord Tyrion, but Lord Stark craves a word wit ya,” he said evenly, though his face had lost some of its sternness.

            Tyrion sighed heavily before reaching for his recently discarded cloak. “I was just starting to get warm.”

            Bronn made to follow after his employer when the soldier raised his hand up, shaking his head slightly.

            “No need for you, ser,” he informed him. “Not yet anyway. They’ll be callin’ you soon enough.”

            Bronn nodded. “I’ll just stay here and keep the home fires burning.”

            “You’ll just stay here and drink all the wine,” Tyrion grumbled, but smirked at his friend. Bronn grinned, shrugging.

            “That too.”

            As the door closed behind him he sauntered back towards the hearth. The glowing embers were bright enough that the few lit candles scattered around the room provided ample light. He reached into his tunic and withdrew the tiny scroll. Unfurling it swiftly, his eyes took in the neat scrawl before committing to memory the instructions left there. Anyone watching would not have seen him casually cast it into the flames before venturing back out into the darkness of night.

            An interesting turn of events, he thought, though in truth he was not surprised in the slightest. Money always was the deciding factor in cases like this. Still, I cannot imagine Lord Stark will be pleased to be robbed of his ‘justice’.

            He shrugged off the thought as easily as he the falling snow as he silently made his way across the courtyard, keeping to the shadows. It came as naturally to him as drawing breath. Stealing through the night, he moved swiftly through the grounds until he found the entrance to the tower where the Bastard was being held. Guards were usually posted there, and yet their absence did not seem to cause alarm. He saw them approaching form the corner of his eye and slipped into the tower before they had the chance to see him.

            He crept swiftly up the stairs without pause, only stopping when the floor finally came into view. Voices echoed down the stone halls, reaching his ears without delay.

            “Can’t wait ‘til this shit is over. Freezin’ my cock off guarding this worthless cunt,” one grumbled.

            “Not like you’ve got anywhere else for your cock to be,” another shot back before the sounds of rough laughter and a scuffle bounced around. The sharp howl of wolves broke through the air, silencing the ruckus coming from above.

            “What the fuck is that?”

            “It’s them direwolves.”

            “What are they howling at?” The shouting of men from down below could now be heard mingling with the hair rising din.

            “Maybe we could . . .” The sound of shuffling and heavy footfalls moved away from him.

            They really are making this too easy. The thought was nearly enough to give him pause, but then he ventured forward, keeping his eyes on the backs of the two men who were focused on the shouting and howling. Their intense attention even gave him time to pick the lock on the door and ease himself into the room with a quiet click.

            It was dark; only two candles to cut the inky blackness, but he saw him huddled on a straw mattress in the corner. Dark eyes shone brightly from the shadows and Bronn could see the mirth dancing in them. A raspy, dry chuckle cut the tense silence of the room.

            “I knew he would send someone,” the Bastard croaked, though he still sat unmoving.

            “Always heard you were a clever one,” Bronn quipped. “You might want to get a move on it. Those guards will only be busy for so long.”

            Ramsay leans into the light and shrugs one shoulder. “So kill them. I happen to know you are more than capable.”

            “This is true, however I only kill when paid to. No one’s paid me to kill Stark men on Stark land, only to bust you out of the Stark prison and set you free.” This was taking too long. They would not be able to leave if this spineless, brainless shit didn’t get off his nearly-noble arse and follow him right this minute.

            “He’ll pay you,” Ramsay countered assuredly. “He’s always up for killing off a few Starks.”

            “Talk while you walk,” Bronn instructed as he threw his cloak at him. It was more important that the lad was disguised than he was warm. The Bastard rose unevenly, favoring his left leg slightly.

            “Keep up,” Bronn barked lowly before opening the door. “You’re not worth dying for, gold or no.”

            “There are those that disagree.” Ramsay’s smile was so lecherous that Bronn actually had to repress a shudder.

            “There’s no accounting for taste,” Bronn shot back. “Now shut the fuck up before you get us both killed.” Not that there was any chance of that happening. He already knew he would sell the kid down the river, pretend to have stopped him from breaking out in order to save his own neck. They would believe him, he was Tyrion’s sellsword. Why would he be helping the Bastard of Bolton?

            The idiots supposed to be standing sentry were still leaning out the window, but Bronn could hear the howling decreasing in volume.

            “They’re crazy to let the pack out like that!” one guard said as Bronn and Ramsay hurried down the winding stair.

            “We’ll have carcasses from ‘ere to the wall,” the other agreed as their heavy steps indicated they were once again taking their place at the door. There was no such luck with the men at the entrance to the tower. They stood unmoving, undistracted, making their escape entirely unlikely.

            “You have a sword, use it!” Ramsay hissed his foul breath in Bronns’ ear. Bronn batted him away with a glower. Grimacing slightly, he reached for the hilt of his dagger.

            “Oy! You lot! Get over to the gate and help Lord Robb!” a shrill, demanding feminine voice screeched.

            “We’re guarding the Bastard,” one informed her stiffly, but Bronn could hear her indignant huff and stamping of little feet as she approached the outer door.

            “You’ll be guarding THE WALL if you don’t move your sorry arses and help Lord Robb!” she hollered so loudly it vibrated off the inner stone walls.

            “I’ll stand watch,” a calm, smooth voice offered. “Go help Robb round up the horses and the dogs. I have a feeling some Flayed Man loosed them to ensure poor hunting over this cruel winter we are sure to have.”

            “Well . . . I don’t . . .” one stuttered before the other interrupted him.

            “Let ‘im. One bastard can guard another,” he all but spat before chuckling to himself and the two of them stomped off in the snow.

            Ramsay grinned evilly. “Even better.”

            Bronn gave him a quick look of warning before easing the door open and shoving him out into the cold. This was no coincidence, a fact that was confirmed when he met the eyes of Jon Snow briefly before yanking Ramsay into the shadows and quickly making their way towards the Hunter’s Gate. With everyone rounding up the animals at the South Gate they were able to slip past without notice.

            Off in the distance the dim light of a single torch glowed between tree trunks and snow laden boughs of firs. Ramsay began stomping towards it will confident purpose, a maniacal laugh bursting from his cracked lips. Bronn, on the other hand, sidled towards a large copse of trees and bushes at the base of a hill. He peered back through the branches just in time to see Ramsay turn and pause when he noticed that his jail-breaker was missing. His paced quickened slightly, but he continued, undeterred up towards the lone light.

            Bronn turned and quickened his pace up the hill. The snow had ceased falling while he was in the tower, so there would be nothing to cover his tracks. He would have to hide them afterwards. It didn’t take too long to locate the cloaked figure that stood at the peak in a small clearing. He made his approach less than stealthy so as to warn of his arrival. The hooded figure did not turn his way, but began speaking lowly.

            “Any casualties that will need explaining?”

            “Not one,” he assured.

            A curt nod. “You are as good as they say.”

            “It’s why you came to me, I assume.”

            Howls rang through the air again, more vicious than before. The hazy white moon finally broke free of the remaining clouds and cast an eerie glow on the surrounding trees, beams bouncing luminously off the snow in the clearing just below them. It was bright enough that they could see with utmost clarity when a fleeing figure burst from the woods into the glade. Guttural growls reverberated off the trees, filling the night air with their savage song. Cloak billowing wildly behind him as he ran, the Bastard flew determinedly towards the hill on which Bronn and his companion patiently stood.

            Glaring at his nearing proximity, Bronn reached for his sword, but his hand was stayed when Ramsay suddenly froze, whirling around in circles on the spot. They emerged from all directions, one by one with hackles raised and wisps of vapor rising from their open maws. Teeth bared and gleaming like sharpened steel, they bore down on their prey with slow, purposeful strides, snapping and snarling. All he could do was whip around in circles; nowhere was safe.

            As if alerted by some silent signal, all six direwolves suddenly sprang into actions, jaws clamping down, massive heads ripping from side to side. Blood curdling shrieks of terror and pain rent the air, mingling with the sounds of ferocious growls, the snapping of jaws, and the ripping of flesh. There was something immensely satisfying about the way redness seemed to seep out in an ever widening circle from the deathly mauling down in the dell below. Even after the gurgling screams had quieted down and all that could be heard was the feasting of the wolves, Bronn continued to watch. He would stay to be sure the job was done. There would be no escaping this time. No second chance. No fucking trial. This Bastard had taken his last breath.

            “How will it be explained?” he asked. He was not truly concerned, more curious.

            “A jailbreak during the commotion.”

            “No investigation then? The honorable Lord Stark will allow for that?”

            There was a pause before the hood was lowered and Bronn was met with two bright blue eyes. Tully eyes.

            “Ned is a great man. A noble man. An extremely just, fair, and honorable man. It is what endears him to all who know him. It will not be easy for him, but once presented with the remains of the Bastard, he will have no choice but to let the matter rest.”

            Bronn considered her for a moment before nodding once. “If he all these things, and you have done all this,” he points out to the field where the wolves have now disappeared from, “then what does that make you?”

            Squaring her shoulders, Catelyn Stark lifts herself up to her full height while staring him unblinking in the eye. “A mother.”

            Bronn grinned before giving a small bow and turning on his heel to head back down to the warmth of his room.

            “I will arrange for your payment before you and Lord Tyrion depart,” she called after him.

            “No need,” he called back. “Some things I am happy to do for free.”

            This was definitely one of them.

Chapter Text

He stormed angrily into the Great Hall, slamming the massive wooden doors open as he entered. The wood crashed off the stone walls, echoing loudly through the cavernous space. The din of voices receded immediately as the towering warrior stomped purposefully up to the dais. Despite the threatening nature of the man before him, Ned Stark looked quite calm.

“Where the fuck is he?” Sandor snarled.

“Clegane,” Ser Rodrik said with a note of warning in his voice. Lord Stark raised his hand to the master at arms, but held Sandor’s gaze.

“He is dead,” Ned said simply.

Brought up short by this news, Sandor’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Dead how?”

“Does it matter, Lord Clegane? The beast no longer haunts the North, thanks be to the Gods,” maester Luwin extolled.

Sandor spat, “Fuck your Gods.”

Luwin shook his head at such blasphemy, but Ned was unfazed by the large mans’ vitriol. He knew what drove his fury. He could empathize in a way. He too was denied the ability to see justice served.

“He escaped the tower,” Eddard began explaining when Sandor seemed to have lost what little of his composure still remained.

“How in the Seven Hells did he manage that?!” he roared before turning and flipping a chair away from him. Ned kept his temper; cool as the snow the fell outside the frosted windows.

“We are under the impression that someone aided him, though we have no proof of such treachery. His remains were found out in the Wolf’s Wood this morning by a hunting party.”

Sandor stewed on this information while glaring balefully at everyone at everything in his midst. He still didn’t have the one detail he needed. Stark seemed to realize this and stepped closer, lowering his voice somewhat.

“He seems to have been savaged by a pack of wolves or perhaps a bear. There was enough of his face left to identify him, but little else. His remains are being sent back to his father at the Dreadfort.

Pausing to consider this, Sandor looked for any signs that his good father was being deceitful. When he was satisfied that there were none he nodded once and his posture relaxed slightly.

“I’m not sure how she’s going to feel about this,” he rasped.

“I’m not sure how I feel about it,” replied Ned evenly.

“Lord Bolton is sure this was a conspiracy and his son was murdered,” Rodrik muttered heatedly.

“Lord Bolton can go fuck himself with a red hot poker.” Sandor sneered. No one disagreed.

“I was just on my way to go visit Sansa and deliver the news,” Ned said gravely. Sandor did not envy the man his position. He knew Eddard to be a just, honorable man when it came to the law. As a father though, he was nearly as protective as his Tully wife, and Sandor knew what it cost him to not be able to bring the man who harmed his daughters to his version of justice.

“I’ll save you the trip,” Sandor grumbled, wiping his hand over his face. “Was on my way back to our rooms anyway.”

“I can come with you,” Ned began to offer when the larger man raised his hand and waved him off.

“Not necessary. I can handle it fine. It might be better coming from me anyhow.” In truth he had no idea how his wife would react to the news. He did not see her taking it well, but he had been wrong about her responses before. She oft surprised him with her tempers.

“Good luck, Clegane,” the maester wished him with a knowing smirk.

“The man’s a seasoned warrior! I think he can handle the little lass,” Rodrik countered, incredulous.

“You’ve obviously never seen my daughter in a fit of anger,” Eddard stated with a wry grin. “There are some things all the warring in the Seven Kingdoms won’t prepare you for.”

The three other men enjoy a good chuckle as Sandor turns on his heel and stomps out of the Great Hall. He’s trudging through fresh snow, heavy and wet from the raging storms still battering the North when he’s stopped by a delicate hand on his shoulder. A glimpse of red hair makes him assume it’s Sansa, but he notices almost immediately that she isn’t the correct height. A hood falls back and reveals a pretty, familiar face, eyebrow cocked sardonically.

“We meet again, my lord,” she purrs, her hand now stroking his upper arm. Before he can respond or step away from her touch another voice floats on the stinging wind to his exposed ears.

“Not exactly the place for a clandestine business meeting.”

This is not fucking happening! He thought angrily as panic at his current situation being misinterpreted. He moved away from one woman and closer to the other.

“My lady,” the first greets with a wide grin.

“Hello, Ros,” Sansa returns, the corners of her lips twitching slightly. “What brings you to Winterfell?”

“The pleasure of seeing old friends,” she replies with an easy air. Sansa’s face takes on a knowing expression as the smile she’s been suppressing threatens to break free.

“I see,” she murmurs before linking her hand through Sandor’s arm. “Give Theon my best.”

“Of course, my lady.” And with a slight curtsy she floats away, melting into the crowd of men meandering around the grounds.

“I was coming to find you,” Sandor blurts out stupidly in an attempt to make it clear he had not sought out the whore’s company. The little bird’s lips finally pulled up into a full grin.

“I am sure you were,” she said with a teasing note to her voice. He tried to glower at her, but did not think he succeeded by the small tinkling laugh that sent puffs of mist into the air from her parted lips.

He led her silently back to their rooms, and it wasn’t until the doors were closed and she was settled on a chaise next to a roaring fire that he began speaking.

“There won’t be a trial,” he practically spits out. She looks taken aback by the venom in his voice, so he puts more effort into speaking calmly.

“Lord Bolton . . –“ she begins questioningly before he cuts her off with a wave.

“Had nothing to do with it. It’s . . . he’s dead.” He tries to say the words evenly, but they come out flat.

“Lord Bolton is dead?” She is clearly confused, but he sees so much more than that bubbling beneath the surface of her large Tully eyes.

“No, lass. The Bastard. He’s the one dead.” He manages to deliver this news with a tone that is neither aggressive nor passive. It’s a balance he rarely achieves, yet finds it coming out more often when speaking to her.

All color drains from his wife’s already pale face. A breathy little, “oh” is all that comes from her. He gives her time to digest this information and they sit with only the pops and hisses from the fire filling the silence between them. It is some time later when she finally speaks again.

“Do you know what happened?” The words are no more than a whisper. She does not look at him, choosing instead to stare at the dancing flames.

“He escaped his cell somehow and ended up in the Wolf’s wood. They found just enough of him to identify.” He wants to spare her some of the grisly details, but can see almost immediately that she craves more information when she turns her eyes beseechingly on him.

“It looks as if animals got to him,” he says cryptically. He has no wish to add to her nightmares.

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Animals?”

He huffs in annoyance and growls out, “Wolves, most like.”

Surprise flickers on her face before it becomes an impassive mask. “Wolves,” she repeats. “I see.”

When she turns back to the fire he’s baffled by her seeming lack of response. He moves a little closer and sits beside her, taking her icy hand in his, rubbing warmth into her flesh. Before he can say another word she turns to him and eyes him shrewdly.

“Tell me truly; did you have any hand in this?”

He’d expected this question, but it still rankles when he has to shake his head in denial. “Not I, Little Bird. Not for lack of wanting, mind you. But no, his blood is not on my hands.”

She nods before sighing heavily and leaning her head on his shoulder, he whole body slumping against his. “It is really over, then.”

He leans down, lips against her shiny hair as he breathes in the scent of her. “Aye,” he rasps, “over.”

He surprises both of them when he suddenly asks, “How are you feeling?”

 Sansa’s head comes off his shoulder and the shock at his question is clear in her eyes until it’s replaced with something he has only just started to recognize. Something he still denied the existence of no matter how often she said the words. Having it stare him right in the face made it much harder to disbelieve.

 “I regret not seeing it done with my own eyes,” she says somewhat haltingly, as if thought is difficult to admit aloud. “And that you have not been given your chance at vengeance.”

 In truth that was his biggest regret as well. He wanted to be the one to take the little cunt’s life while he shit himself with fear. But as he imagined all the torturous ways he could have made the sniveling prick suffer, he pictured how horrified his little wife would be upon seeing that side of him. How disgusted she would be with him if she knew the depraved things he had in store for the man who tried to take her from him. He shuddered at the thought of ever seeing fear and revulsion replace the looks of affection and trust in the little bird’s eyes.

“Maybe it’s better this way,” he admits begrudgingly.

“Perhaps,” she allows slowly, her expressive eyes still boring into his. “At least I know it is finally finished. There is no chance of him getting away again. No chance of him coming after me anymore.”

 He heard the fear she did not share. “He never should have gotten close enough to hurt you,” he spat, still furious with himself for failing to keep her safe.

“You did everything you could. If I am not allowed to blame myself for my stupidity, then you are not allowed to keep being angry for not being everywhere all at once,” she states matter-of-factly. It makes him smirk.

“As you say, wife,” he agrees somewhat amusedly. They have had this discussion before.

Sighing again, she resumes resting her body against his side. As if of its own volition, his arm winds its way around her small waist, pulling her more securely against him. She makes a contented noise and nuzzles into his neck. The action was innocent, yet he feels his blood begin to rise. He shifts slightly in an attempt to hide the evidence from her. She had not been able to go through with it the last few times he’d thought to take her. It left him dissatisfied, but never frustrated. He could not fault her reluctance. She had suffered too much.

His shifting did not seem to have fooled her one bit though as he felt her body shake with breathy laughter before her soft lips kiss up his neck and move against his ear.

“You are not fooling me, ser,” she whispers teasingly before nipping on the lobe.

He is up and across the room with a squealing woman swept up in his arms before she can draw another breath. He all but drops her on the bed before swiftly lifting her skirts and yanking away her small clothes. A small yelp draws his attention away from the inviting pink flesh between her thighs. He is concerned he may have been too rough, but the flush of Sansa’s cheeks and smile she is trying to hide by biting her lower lip assure him he is doing nothing she does not want.

There are times when he is slow and gentle, almost sweet with her, but this is not one of them. He licks and sucks at her cunt while fingers push carefully into her. Some of the tension in his body relaxes when he feels her responding, the slickness making his movements more fluid. It isn’t long before one of her hands is clutching desperately at his hair, the other over her mouth as she calls out during her peak. He wipes his lips before claiming hers, hands fumbling with the laces of her bodice before her firm tits spill into his hands. He can feel her hastening to pull his breeches away and is relieved that she is as desperate for this as he is.

Her hands are no longer cold when he felts her fingers slide over his cock, stroking him expertly. Groaning loudly he practically bats her hand away, ignoring her burst of giggles as he sinks into her. Her laugh turns into a moan, bringing him so much satisfaction that he nearly humiliates himself. Sandor stills over her, lifting up to pull in a few deep breaths and steady himself. His forehead rests on hers a moment before he feels her hands slide up his chest under his tunic, her long legs winding around his waist while she rocks encouragingly against him. His breath stutters as he begins to move, slowly at first, but it builds into something more powerful. Despite the hurriedness of the moment, there is much meaning in it. So lost in the sensations flooding through him, he has no time at all to prepare for his own peak. It slams through him as he shouts, clutching to her to keep himself grounded. He is shaking, heart rattling in his chest when the words slip through his ruined lips, unbidden.

“I love you.”

It is more breath than voice, but he knows she has heard him by the way her body freezes beneath his. Not a moment passes before she squeezes him with more strength than he believed she possessed. Chancing a look at her he is rewarded with a radiant smile. She laughs, kissing every part of his face she can get to. He huffs, making only a half-hearted attempt to extricate himself from her grip, but she will not relent, and he does not really want her to. He settles with a most unimpressive frown which only serves to make her laugh more.

“I love you, too,” she says finally, breathless from fucking and laughing.

“I thought you would never admit it out loud,” she jests with a mischievous grin.

“Keep laughing and I’m not like to do it again,” he grumbles unconvincingly. Her face softens as her eyes sweep over him.

“You do not have to say the words for me to know. Truthfully, I have known for some time now,” she admits somewhat bashfully. “Still, it is nice to hear now and again.”

Calmed by the knowledge that she will not expect him to be spewing forth sonnets and declarations every other day, he kisses her soundly. He can feel his cock stirring to life again as a loud knock interrupts them. Growling irritably, he shuts the door to their chamber, tucking himself back into his breeches and stomps away from his chuckling wife.

When he yanks open the solar door he is greeted with a pair of sharp grey eyes set in a defiant yet surly face. The she wolf does not even ask to be let in, merely slips through the frame and beside his massive body without a word. He all but slams the door before rounding on her in annoyance.

“Am I interrupting something?” she asks with a knowing smirk, eyebrow raised in challenge.

“Do you care if you are?” he shoots back.

She shrugs, “Not as much as you’d like, I’ll wager.”

Before he can snarl at her the door to their bedchamber opens and Sansa emerges. You would never know what they had just been up to by the look of her. She is flawlessly put back together with not even a hair out of place. Yet he can tell her sister is not fooled as she snorts indelicately before flopping gracelessly back into a chair.

“Has father been to see you?” she asks evenly, and Sandor immediately knows why she has come.

“I told her,” he rasps. Arya regards him for a moment before nodding once.

“Farewell to the Bastard of Bolton, may he roast on a briny spit,” she mutters bitterly. He knows what she is feeling because he too feels it. Both have been denied the chance to send him the Seven Hells themselves and it rankles.

“I still do not know how he could have escaped the tower,” Sansa murmurs.

“Does it fucking matter?” Arya spits out, her face contorted in anger.

“It does to me,” Sansa defends, looking wounded. “I do not want to fear for some unknown accomplice coming after me.”

Arya glares at her for a minute before scowling unhappily at the dying fire. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Whoever let him out will be long gone by now. If anyone did let him out,” she hurries to add. For just a moment Sandor can detect a flash of deception in those usually cool grey eyes, but it is gone before he can be entirely certain of what he sees.

“I am still to be married,” she mutters unhappily.

Sansa crosses the room and kneels daintily beside her on the floor. She pulls the younger girls’ hand into her own and gives her a sympathetic smile.

“Marriage is not so horrible, you know,” Sansa says kindly.

“Says the woman who chose her own husband,” her sister grumbles. Sandor cannot help the snort that escapes him. When both women look at him expectantly he shrugs.

“It’s not like I’m the fucking prince of Westeros.”

Sansa wrinkles her nose in obvious distaste. “No, you are a far better man than he will ever dream of being.”

“Young Tommen is not so bad,” Sandor informs them evenly.

“Too bad he won’t be King,” Sansa mutters before turning back to her sister. “Have you met him?”

“Tommen?” Arya asked, clearly confused. Sansa laughs, shaking her head.

“Your betrothed.”

“Oh,” Arya makes a face somewhere between a grimace and a smirk. “Once, at your wedding feast. He was alright I guess.”

“You never did tell me who it was. Just that he is an Umber.”

Arya sighs and shakes her head. “His name is Crystof. He’s the Smalljon’s younger brother, second in line as Lord of the Last Hearth. He’s going to be twenty before the end of the year.”

“What he . . .” she pauses to consider her words. “Personable?”

Arya snorts. “He was funny like the Imp, but better looking, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not too great a feat,” mutters Sandor, ignoring the glare Sansa shoots him. Arya chuckles though and he finds that he is glad to have lifted her spirits somewhat. Before he can wonder when he became so damned soft Arya’s face reddens slightly as her arms wrap absently around her waist.

“He’ll think I’m ugly,” she whispers, staring off into the lowly flickering flames in the hearth. Again Sandor found himself understanding her even if she was trying to be cryptic.

“There’s nothing wrong with a few scars,” he rasps firmly. When her wide Stark eyes meet his he nods once. “They show you’re a fucking survivor. Umbers appreciate a strong woman.”

 A smirk pulls up half her mouth, so he goes on. “And if he’s a dumb shit just jab him with that sharp little blade of yours.” She’s grinning now.

“Or threaten to feed him to Nymeria,” Sansa offers with a laugh that her sister joins in on.

“He’s too big,” she says around a snicker before she stops suddenly and her face flushes scarlet. Sandor throws his head back, laughing loudly.

“You’ll get used to it,” she says bluntly. It appears that Arya has reached her limit for sisterly bonding. She springs to her feet and darts to the door.

“Right, that’s my cue to leave,” she splutters before flinging herself out of the room. The echo of the slamming door drowns out Sandor’s laughter as Sansa shrugs.

“Well, it’s true,” she insists.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty (SANSA)

 

            The warmth of the sun’s rays brought a golden glow the bedchamber, lightening it with the promise of a more temperate day than they had seen in quite some time. Her eyes fluttered around the large room, noting the small details here and there that truly marked the space as their own. His heavy plate and shield shone near the window; her winter fur cloak hung from a hook by the door; hand sketched pictures of Winterfell that adorned the walls. Taking it all in make her feel a contentedness she had never thought possible only a year ago. She could hardly believe the Bastard of Bolton had been dead over six months now. She and Sandor had settled into a comfortable life in their little Keep. They made regular visits to Winterfell and had just returned from the Last Hearth where Arya had indeed married Crystof Umber. They didn’t even have to drag her down the aisle kicking and screaming. She had walked with their father, a sweet smile lighting her face.

           So much can change in such a short time, she mused with a soft smile before she threw off the covers and padded across the cold stone floor towards the washroom. Lydia always seemed to know when she would wake and had a hot bath waiting for her. The water was fragrant and inviting as she slipped into the steaming tub. She could have stayed in there all morning, but knew there was much to be done about the Keep. Sandor would already be in the training yard, but Sansa had pressing matters with maester Bryce.

            She found him in his study, pouring over an ancient looking tome with rapt interest. He was so entranced that she had to clear her throat rather loudly in order to gain his attention.

            “Lady Clegane,” he gasped, startled by the interruption. “How lovely to see you this morning. I trust you are well?”

            Smiling, Sansa nodded. “I am, thank you for asking. Maester, I wanted to speak with you about Gendry.”

            His brow creased with concern as he rose from his desk. “Is there a problem with the young blacksmith? Has he taken ill?”

            “No, no,” Sansa hurried to assure him. “He is well. More to the point, he is doing very well here. Sandor says he has rarely seen such craftsmanship as in the metalwork done by Gendry. That is why I wanted to speak with you.”

            The maester offered her a seat, which she took before leaning forward and speaking animatedly.

            “I want you to teach him to read and write. If Gendry can document his blacksmithing technique he could train other smiths to make weapons and armor of similar quality. We could have to most well protected and armed North that Westeros has ever seen. He could even train the smiths at the Wall!”

            The maester smiled indulgently at her, but seemed to consider his words with care and caution. “Is the young man willing to be educated, my lady? It would take away from his duties as the smith.”

            “I have not yet approached him with this idea. I wanted to see if you had the time to take on a student. I know it can be a very demanding task to teach someone.” Sansa was more than aware of how trying it could be. She helped to teach Rickon, and he was a young boy who had no interest in learning anything besides swordplay and archery.

            “How does Lord Clegane feel about this?” Bryce asked delicately.

            Sansa smiled. “You leave the Lord to me. He will come to see the profit and the sense in this.”

            “But he does not see it yet,” Bryce countered dubiously.

            “He does not know of it yet,” Sansa informed him with an unconcerned shrug. “But after all the grousing he did in our early months here about the cost of feeding and housing all the small folk, I doubt he would complain about the extra income from the Northern lords purchasing Gendry’s wares or sending their smiths to apprentice under him. There really is no down side with this plan.”

            The maester raised his hands in surrender, his face breaking in a genuine smile. “You have me convinced, my lady. You know I happily serve you and Lord Clegane in any way I am able. It is a wonderful home you provide you people, my lady. One I do not wish to lose by displeasing Lord Sandor.”

            Sansa smirked knowingly before nodding once. “As I said, maester, you let me handle my husband. I will speak to Gendry right away so that he may start his lessons at a time that would be easiest for you both. Good day.”

            With that she rose fluidly and swept from the room, making her way out to the armory across the busy square. She was sure to greet and smile at all she passed, stopping to speak with the midwife about one of the seamstresses who was due to birth any day now. She wanted to be sure the young mother was well cared for a looked after; she had lost her husband in a Wildling raid. There had been blessed few of those since she and Sandor moved to the Keep, but Wildlings were always the most unpredictable threat any Northerner could encounter on the roads between towns and castles.

            The clanging of metal striking metal ceased the moment Gendry spotted Sansa through the flames. Wiping his brow, he approached with a wide smile.

            “Milady,” he greeted with a bow.

            “How are you today?” she inquired politely. Gendry was usually of a genial mood, but everyone had their bad days. Judging by his relaxed demeanor, this was not one of them. She was glad to see he was not as vexed as he had been upon her return from Arya’s wedding.

            “The weather is cooperating, so I will be able to finish the armor Lord Sandor has asked for.” He wiped his arm across his dripping brow and gave her a half smile. She nodded while glancing out at the bright sunshine.

            “Yes, it is a rather nice break from all the snow and sleet,” she agreed before turning back to him and grinning widely. “This was not what I wish to discuss, however pleasant a topic it may be.”

            Gendry’s brow arched quizzically. “I’m all ears, milady.”

            Sansa bit back a naughty reply that formed in her mind with such ease that she felt her cheeks burn hot. Sandor always complained about how much Tyrion had rubbed off on her. She had not agreed with him until this very moment. She cleared her throat and her mind before continuing as if nothing had distracted her.

            “I would like you to spend some time with maester Bryce,” she said, careful to ease him into the idea. By the way his mouth twisted and his brow furrowed she did not think he was keen.

            “You wish me to learn healing?”

            Sansa laughed, shaking her head. “My goodness, no. I wish you to learn your letters and numbers, to learn to read and write confidently.”

            “I read and write well enough, milady. As for numbers, I am quite at those already.”

            She could tell she had wounded his pride and tried for a different approach.

            “You have done beautifully in your letters to my sister, and obviously you know numbers enough to be very successful at your craft. This is different. What I have in mind requires a higher level of education than is usually afforded to a smith.” She was careful with her words, but still did not want to gloss over the fact that he needed to learn so much more for what she had in mind.

            “Smiths don’t need a lot of learning,” he replied mulishly. Sansa restrained a smile. It would not do if she laughed at him. She had learned that men were so much more sensitive than women in that respect.

            “Not usually,” she agreed. “Not unless they are to teach others their craft.”

            His eyes went comically wide. He seemed to have trouble swallowing before he breathed out, “You wish for me to be a master smith?”

            “I do.” Sansa nodded. “I also wish for you to record your methods, but not everything about them. You need to keep some of your secrets. At least for right now.”

            “Will I . . .” he seemed hesitant to continue until she prompted him with a small hand gesture. “Will I be taking on an apprentice?”

            “Oh, most definitely. Several of them, in fact. What I wish is for the lords of the North to send their smith’s to you to learn some of your skills. They will, of course, pay you quite handsomely for the honor and the knowledge.”

            Gendry looked as though you could knock him over with a feather. A small giggle escaped Sansa before she could stop herself, and she silenced it by placing her hand over her mouth until she regained her senses.

            “Are you agreeable? Will you take the time to learn from maester Bryce so that you can in turn teach others your craft?” Sansa believed she already knew the answer, but was relieved in no small way when his head bobbed up and down in rapid agreement.

            “Fantastic!” She clapped her hands together. “Now, all you need to do is speak with maester Bryce around when you are available and the two of you can work out a schedule.”

            Gendry had begun to smile when the expression suddenly disappeared and turned wary.

            “What about Lord Sandor?” he asked carefully.

            Sansa shrugged. “What about him?” When his eyes narrowed at her she knew she had not come off as unconcerned about her husbands’ response to all this as she had hoped.

            “What does he think of this idea?” he questions suspiciously.

            Sansa huffed and crossed her arms tightly over her chest, scowling over her shoulder in the direction of the training field.

            “Why is it that I am the lady of this Keep and yet no one simply needs my word on matters?” she grumbled.

            Gendry snorted, drawing her attention back to him in surprise. He was shaking his head, a look of pure exasperation on his face.

            “You and Arya are so alike it’s frightening,” he said wryly. When he saw her expression he hastily added, “milady.”

            She stared at him expectantly until he heaved a sigh and gestured for her to look back towards the training grounds from which three fully grown – and rather large – men emerged looking much worse for wear than when they had gone in.

            “That is why no one takes you as the final word. You are not capable of instilling the kind of fear your great lord husband can just by waving his little finger in your general direction,” he informed her with a look of utter seriousness.

            Sansa turned back to him, the distress she felt surely written on her face plain as day. “Does everyone still fear him? Even after all this time?”

            “Only an idiot would not fear that man,” Gendry muttered before sensing Sansa’s worry. He quickly rushed to assure her, “There is no man here who is not completely loyal to Lord Sandor. It’s not just you they look to now. They found a leader in him, a true leader that they will follow anywhere for just about anything. He has more than proven himself to these Northmen, and I know from experience just how hard that is to do.”

            Sansa breathed a little easier and nodded, smiling a little.

            “But, milady, there is not a man alive in our region who does not still harbor fears of the man once known of as the Hound. Especially after he avenged you so completely,” he finished.

            Deep down Sansa understood. She knew that decades worth of a reputation could not be wiped out completely by a handful of good deeds and honorable moments. It would years before men stopped referring to him as the Hound. Maybe longer. Maybe never.

            Gendry shot furtive glances around before leaning in close and lowering his voice to a whisper. “Those same men also know that when it comes to putting the lord in his place and reigning in his legendary temper, there is none more capable than you.”

            Sansa barked a surprised little laugh before covering her mouth. She would have to be more careful in the presence of their men. It would not due if the little lady of Keep was thought to keep her husband on a short leash.

            “I will handle Sandor in this, do not worry. In all honesty, I do not think he will object. It is something we all can benefit from. Even Sandor cannot argue with that.” At least, she did not think so. She would find out one way or another, and very soon. The men were breaking for their midday meal.

            Eager to discuss her plans with her husband, Sansa set out towards the training grounds. The usual sounds of clashing steal and breathless vulgarity were suspiciously absent as she made her way towards the lone figure hunched over a water bucket, splashing his marred face. Though Sansa knew she had a very light tread on the impacted ground, she was not surprised when Sandor growled over his shoulder.

            “If you’re here to get your revenge, learn to walk more fucking quietly.”

            “What revenge have you invited today, my love?” Sansa teased, placing a hand on her hip and shaking her head at him in mock consternation.

            Sandor shot a glance back in her direction before rinsing his face one last time. He stood slowly, straightening his back and rolling his shoulders before turning to face his bemused wife.

            When he offered no answer to her question she prompted, “Well?”

            “Nothing I can’t handle,” he grunted before making long strides towards the courtyard. Sansa easily kept pace with him, a smile still playing at her lips.

            “I have matters to discuss with you,” she informed him breezily. Seeing his wary glance she grinned wider.

            “Aye?” he hedged.

            “Walk with me to the Godswood?”

            “We don’t have a fucking Godswood.”

            She sighed, rolling her eyes skyward. “Then walk with me to the Weirwoods I visit in place of a Godswood.”

            “You’d better not be visiting without an escort,” he grumbled as they turned towards the main gates.

            “Yes, husband,” she replied in monotone. She was still not allowed anywhere on her own. Sansa considered it a bit of an overreaction to have nearly a full guard every time she ventured into the woods or visited the lake. If it kept his mind at ease, she would do it without complaint.

            He shot her a look of annoyance at her tone, but said nothing more on the subject. Rather than trudge along in silence, Sansa decided to simply cut of the dragons’ head – so to speak.

            “Are you going to speak anytime soon?” Sandor rumbled. He sounded irritable, which she was not prepared for.

            “It is about Gendry,” she told him haltingly.

            “Did you catch him fucking the serving girl?” he asked with a sideways glance.

            “He is?” Sansa gasped, her eyebrows shooting up in surprise.

            Sandor nodded. “Caught them in the barn last week.”

            “No wonder his mood has improved,” Sansa observed out loud without thinking it through. Sandor snorted a laugh. Though slightly shocked of this new development, Sansa did not wish for them to get sidetracked. She cleared her throat and started again, more self-assured this time.

            “I have spoken with maester Bryce about educated Gendry.”

            Rather than sharp words or admonishments, Sandor looked on her with confusion. Encouraged, she ploughed on.

            “Gendry has a skill that not many smiths have. You have said it yourself that he can do metalwork to such a quality that you have seldom seen. If we have him taught by the maester, then he could become master smith and teach others. For a cost, of course,” she added on knowingly.

            They had stopped walking. Sandor stared at his with open appraisal. She knew his moods and his expressions very well by now – he was pleased. More than that; he was impressed. She practically glowed with knowledge that she was the only one whom he ever looked on that way.

            “What does the boy think?”

            Sandor never called Gendry by his name, even though Sansa knew that he held a deep respect for the younger man. She had heard many a tales from their people about how Gendry had helped Sandor beat the truth from that loathsome false knight whom betrayed them. The fact that he was unusually skilled at his craft seemed to reinforce that veneration.

            “He is agreeable.” Sansa then thought to add, “He wanted to make sure it was alright with you before giving me his final word on the matter.”

            “Did he?” Her husbands’ rough tone did not fool her. Still, she waited until he finally grunted once and nodded.

            “As you say. I’ll work it out with the maester as to the costs.”

            Sansa began walking through the trees again, trying in vain to hide her triumphant smile. She only made it a few paces before she was whirled around and pressed up against a large Oak.

            “Don’t think I didn’t see that,” Sandor rasped as he gripped her hip in one hand while brushing her long hair over her shoulder with the other. His fingers brushed the sensitive skin on her neck. She tried to hide her shudder, but failed miserably.

            “See what?” She never was very good at being coy with this man. He always saw right through it. Still, she tried.

            “You will not always get your way, Little Bird,” he informed her gruffly. Sansa’s smile only slipped ever so slightly, but he caught the subtle change. He was too observant for her to get away with hiding anything, especially her feelings.

            He sighed, shaking his head. “Sansa . . .”

            She did not want to talk about it. Not like this. Not with an air of negativity. Not before she really knew his feelings on the matter. So she grabbed the front of his jerkin with both hands and tugged his face down to meet hers, kissing him soundly. He was hesitant at first, careful, but soon gave in to her like he always did when he pursued him. The full length of his great body pressed her into the rough, cold bark at her back. She threw herself into the embrace, kissing him deeply, fisting a hand into his dark hair. By the time he pulled away from her they were both flushed and breathless. Sansa could not help the satisfied smile that pulled up the corners of her swollen mouth as she felt his desire pressed into her hip. She bit her lip to try, but fooled no one. Sandor snorted before withdrawing completely and stepping away from her, shaking his head.

            “You should not tease a man, Little Bird,” he informed her with no malice.

            “It is only teasing if I do not follow through,” she tossed back, waggling her eyebrows.

            Sandor barked a laugh, shaking his head at her bawdiness. He offered her his arm, which she readily took before heading towards the large Weirwood she oft visited to pray. When she went to pull away he held fast to her arm. Confused, she looked up at him expectantly, but he continued to stare ahead at the fiery leaves.

            “It’s what you want?” he rasped.

            She did not need to ask what he was referring to. “Yes.”

            His face remained impassive as ever. “You’re sure you are capable?”

            A knowing smile began, but she stifled it. “Yes.”

            He huffed a heavy sigh before wiping his hand down his face. There was a slight grimace on his face when he finally turned to look at her. She could all but taste victory.

            “Fine,” he relented. He tried to look defeated, but she could plainly see the love in his eyes, the hope that burned there.

            She threw her arms around his neck, but he pulled back, lifting his finger in her face. He was trying to be stern, so she in turn tried not to laugh.

           “One, Little Bird. Perhaps . . . perhaps two,” he trailed off with a growl. He knew the battle was lost, but did not want to admit it. They both knew he would deny her nothing. It was only a matter of time before he was going to relent and give her whatever she wanted.

           Sansa laughed loudly as she peppered his face with kisses. He pretended to be put out and merely tolerating her jubilant affection, but she knew that he enjoyed it. She stopped and looked into his grey eyes.

          “I love you.”

          “You’d better,” he replied with a grunt. She laughed again and began to pull away. He held fast and his expression changed to one she easily recognized.

          “We should get started. Could take some time.” His voice was deep, nearly a growl that sent shivers down her spine, but she pulled back to look up at him fully. She had waited two full moons for this. It was time.

          She smiled knowingly, placing his hand on her lower belly. “Yes, about that . . .”

Chapter Text

Epilogue

 

Four years later . . .

            The first notes of dawn played on the frosted window panes. It has been a serenely peaceful night, the first in some time. Sansa tried not to stir as she watched the grey light pinking up. Before long it would be a fiery orange against the vivid azure sky she loved so much. Sansa sighed contentedly, eyes roaming about her dimly lit bedchamber. The silence was only punctuated by the rumbling snores of both man and beast. She stifled a giggle as she idly wondered who was louder; Sandor or Lady?

            “What’s so amusing at this ungodly hour, Little Bird?”

            Startled slightly by his rasping voice in her ear, Sansa turned slightly to look at the great hulking figure of her husband lying next to her. She had never once in her life feared him, but in the years since their marriage took place she had come to truly and deeply love him. It was something she scarcely believed would happen when her friend Tyrion had come up with the plan for them to join, but when she thought back now she could not figure where her doubts came from.

            “I was just enjoying the lovely serenade you and Lady often treat me to in the wee hours, my love,” Sansa teased around a yawn. Even though she had been early to bed the night before, she did not feel she had slept more than a wink or two. And yet she was still up with the sun. It had been that way for years now, and despite her exhaustion she found it a difficult habit to break.

            “You should rest more,” Sandor admonished her gently. Well, as gently as he could. He’d always had a rough edge to his voice, but Sansa found early on that she did not mind it so much. She was not the only one.

            “I am fine,” she assured him.

            His massive arm wound around her waist, one giant hand splayed warmly over her growing belly. She smiled. He did this often. It was as if he wanted to be sure the child they had created was still there, that they had not dreamed it up. Sansa placed her hand atop his and stroked his rough skin while his fingers played on the thin scars that decorated hers. She felt herself start to doze when a deafening slam echoed off the stone walls. Sandor groaned into his pillow while Sansa giggled into hers.

            “Papa!” called a high, singsong voice moments before a tiny body flew gracefully through the air and landed roughly on Sandors’ chest. The great huff of air he expelled was overdone, and she knew it was purposefully so by the sound of musical laughter that tumbled from their early morning intruder.

            “Who let you in here?” Sandor snapped gruffly. No one was fooled by his vibrato.

            “Uncle Tyrion!”

            Sansa did not hide her laugh one bit as Sandor growled in earnest this time.

            “That blasted dwarf is not your uncle.”

            Sansa turned over just in time to see their daughter, Beccah, as she gave Sandor her frostiest look. With her Tully blue eyes and raven hair, it was like watching a little Arya stare down her great warrior husband. She was the best parts of them both, and Sansa knew that despite his roughness, he absolutely adored her.

            “Not nice, papa,” she scolded.

            “Too true, my little lady,” Tyrion chimed in as he sauntered casually into the room. “Your manners have not improved, Clegane.”

            “Neither has your height,” Sandor quipped back, but it lacked the venom their interactions of the past had always been laced with. Sometime over the years since Sansa and Sandor’s marriage, the two men had come to a sort of truce. They would never be the dearest of friends, but they got along fairly well.

            “Lady Sansa, I fear we have disturbed your rest. Come, Beccah, let us go pester Bronn. Maybe he will let you brush his hair,” Tyrion said with a devious smile.

            “And put flowers in?” She batted her great doe eyes at him and Sansa watched as Tyrions’ smile grew more indulgent.

            “Let’s find out, sweet one.” He extended a hand towards her.

            And with an energetic squeal, Beccah bounced off Sandor once more and scampered back across the room and excitedly followed Tyrion out the door.

            “Who invited him here?” Sandor groused.

            “I told you when I got his raven that he was on his way. I did not expect him so soon, though,” Sansa added thoughtfully.

            She had been very pleased to hear from Tyrion, and even more delighted that he was coming North for a long stay on his way to visit the Wall. But that raven was scarcely a week ago, and it took a considerable amount of time to travel from Lannisport. He must have been near the Twins when he sent her word . . .

            “You’re thinking too hard,” Sandor stated as he smoothed the crease between her brows. “You’ll wrinkle like an old crone.”

            Frowning more deeply, she swatted his hand away and pursed her lips in annoyance as he rasped a deep laugh. Over the years she had become accustomed to his teasing, but it still irked her at times. He sounded just like Arya.

            “What would that make you?” she inquired with a raised brow. He merely chuckled again before he nuzzled into her neck and murmured something she could not make out.

            She shoved his shoulder hard, but knew that he only moved because he was giving into her, not because she was actually capable of moving the brute. It was her turn to snort with laughter as she slid from their bed and heard his very disgruntled groan at the loss of her.

            “We should rise, Sandor. We have guests and matters to attend to.” The latter statement was putting it mildly. Sandor, like every other lord in Westeros, had received the raven not a week past that delivered the news of Joffrey’s death. No doubt it was what had brought Tyrion to them so swiftly.

            “Like I care what killed that shit of a prince,” he all but spat. Still, he threw the furs and blankets off and stalked to the washroom. Sansa may have taken more than a moment to admire his naked form as he stomped away.

            “Quite staring, Little Bird,” he tossed over his shoulder before he shut the door. “It’s not very ladylike.”

            Sansa giggled as she recalled just how ‘unladylike’ she had been the previous evening. Septa Mordane’s hair would have stood on end.

            “Lydia,” Sansa called as she donned a thick robe. The handmaiden bounded into the room with a glowing smile.

            “Milady,” she greeted with a slight bob. Her grin stretched impossibly wider as she patted Sansa’s growing belly. “He’s getting big!”

            Sansa laughed. Lydia had predicted Beccah would be a girl, and was under the notion that this time Sansa carried a son. While all she truly longed for was a healthy babe, Sansa was secretly hopeful that the maids’ prediction was true. She wanted very badly to give Sandor a beautiful little boy he could raise and train to be lord of their little keep one day.

            And they said this would never happen for you . . . let along twice.

            As they were wont to do these past few months, tears flowed swiftly down her cheeks without warning. She tried to brush them away without bringing them to Lydia’s attention, but did not succeed. The girl smiled a little and handed her a kerchief to mop her face.

            “Happy or sad this time, milday?”

            Sansa rolled her eyes and laughed through a sob. “Who can tell at this point? It’s all so ridiculous.”

            “Just part of the wonder, Lady Clegane,” Lydia replied airily as she helped her don a gown with enough room for her stomach.

            That was another change these past years. Before she had birthed their daughter she was ‘Lady Sansa’. Since becoming a mother she was only addressed as ‘Lady Clegane’. It did not bother her in the least, but it did show her where she stood among their people. She was no longer a girl in their eyes, but a woman, a bonafide lady. Beccah had changed everything for the better, especially Sandor.

            Before she had the opportunity to dwell on her memories of those early years with their daughter as a babe Sandor beckoned her from their solar. Once Lydia completed fastening her dress she went to join him. They made their way down to their great hall, greeted all manner folk as they broke their fast, and made their way out to where Sansa knew she would find Tyrion and their daughter.

            Sansa had fully expected to see Beccah directing both men in that imperious yet endearing way she had about her, but the picture before her was more than she had anticipated. They were just outside the gates of the keep, partially hidden by a copse of birch and weirwood trees that surrounded a tiny meadow. Wildflowers had bloomed there early in the year once the frosts and snows had melted away enough. There were still patches of ice here and there, but that was to be expected in the North, even in spring. Still, it was a place of unique beauty and Beccah begged to visit as often as she and Sandor could arrange.

            Beccah stood high on a felled log as she tapped both Bronn and Tyrion with a long stick wrapped in shiny, bright ribbons. Behind her, Stranger stood tall and proud with ribbons and wildflowers braided into his mane and tail. Sansa tried to stifle a giggle as Sansa spluttered in outrage next to her. Leave it to their wild, loving daughter to tame the beast that only her father could handle.

            “Now rise knights of West . . . Westa . . . of the North!” Beccah stuttered before she shouted gleefully. “Queen Beccah has spoken!”

            “Still can’t say it,” Sandor muttered in comment to her inability to correctly pronounce their country. Sansa snorted lightly and shook her head.

            “She’s not yet four, Sandor. She will get there eventually,” she chided him.

            “Before or after she conquers the Seven Kingdoms?” he shot back with a smirk.

            “I’d say the hard part is already done if she’s conquered your fearsome steed,” she countered around a chortle. Sandor’s face darkened and Sansa tried not to double over with laughter.

            “Could have lost her fingers that way, or worse,” he muttered darkly.

            Sansa did not bother to disagree with him. Stranger still bit and kicked at anyone but the three of them. It was a wonder the stable boys had gotten him saddled and bridled.

            “Papa!” Beccah squealed suddenly, and her face lit up brighter than the midday sun.

            “Come to play, Lord Clegane?” Bronn asked as he picked the wildflower wreath off his head and tried to conceal it behind his back. Tyrion did not bother with such a charade, but merely smiled crookedly at Sansa.

            “Oooh, yes! Please play with us, Papa. Please?” She clasped her hands together in front of her and batted her large blue eyes at him. As he always did when faced with a begging Beccah, Sandor gruffly cleared his throat and tried to look as if it was not his hearts’ greatest desire to give in to hers.

            “Later, perhaps. Run along now and play. We’ve got grown up business to attend to.” He was not too gruff with her, but still her little shoulders slumped.

            “None of that now,” he tried to scold, but it fell short due to the look of immense guilt that shadowed his face. In three long strides he had her up in his arms so that she was nose to nose with him. “I’ll come find you when we’re done here. It won’t take too long.”

            “Can I make you a flower crown, too?” She looked up at him through her thick lashes and sniffled a little.

            Sandor eyed her warily but nodded. “Aye, you can.”

            Her little chin lifted slightly. “And you’ll wear it?”

            Sansa tried not to snicker openly at the way their daughter expertly stared her war-worn father down without as much as a blink.

            He heaved a heavy sigh and gave her a weak glare. “Aye.”

            And just like that the little girls’ grin was back in full force. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed with all her might before peppering his face with her tiny kisses. Sandor pretended to be put off by the display of affection, but no one was fooled, least of all the tiny tyrant who had him firmly wrapped around her finger.

            He set her down and lightly swatted her backside. “Off with you now. Take Sir Shithead with you.”

            Beccah clucked her tongue at him and shook her head. “Bad words, Papa.” But she grabbed Bronn by the hand and led him away.

            Sandor grumbled as he pulled flowers out of Strangers tail and took apart the braid left there by their daughter. Sansa laughed openly as Tyrion wisely stepped closer to her.

            “She will be crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty someday, mark my words,” he warned half-heartedly as he finally reached up to remove his crown.  

            “I will deal with that once it has happened,” Sansa replied before she turned to give him her full attention. “Now, please tell me to what we owe the pleasure of your company?”

            “Can a friend not visit a loved one? It has been too long since I graced you with my presence and drank your wine.” He winked.

            Sansa thought she heard Sandor mutter something along the lines of ‘not fucking long enough’, so she started speaking to cover up for his rudeness.

            “Of course you can. It just seems peculiar that you were able to get here in such a short amount of time. Lannisport is at least a week’s ride for you, and yet you were here in a matter of days. Did you acquire a dragon and not tell me?”

            Tyrion gave a wry smile. “I always wanted a dragon when I was a small boy.”

            “You’re still small,” Sandor called over his shoulder as he detangled the flowers from Strangers’ mane. Sansa flicked her hand at him and rolled her eyes.

            “This is true, but though I have long dreamed of such a wonder I still have no dragon. What I do have is information about a certain tyrannicide that has happened recently.”

            Sandor was suddenly back at her side, his face set and angry. Even after all their time together, it still startled her at times how fast and silently he could move.

            “Aye, we got the raven.”

            “Yes, the whole of the Seven Kingdoms got that raven,” Tyrion said cryptically. “What did you take from those dark words, Lady Clegane?”

            Sansa eyed him suspiciously as she relayed the short message she was sure Tyrion already knew. “The crowned prince Joffrey was killed during a hunting accident. He was gored by a wild boar. The beast was slain by the prince before he took his dying breath and was served at the funeral feast. Prince Tommen will now be the new crowned prince and heir to the throne.”

            Sandor gave a disbelieving snort and shook his head. “Knew that shit since he was a babe. He never hunted. Never cared to. Always said that if he wanted a beast he could snap his fingers and have one brought to him.”

            “Ah, yes, my nephew never did have the stomach to slay a beast,” Tyrion agreed.

            Sandor sneered. “No, he saved that for high born ladies.”

            “I do not deny what my nephew was, Clegane,” Tyrion said evenly, his mismatched eyes narrowed on Sandors grey ones. “There were more than just the three of us who were aware of Joffrey’s shortcomings.”

            Sansa knew Tyrion well enough to decode what he did not say aloud: this was no accidental death. She drew in a sharp breath and eyed him in anticipation.

            “Walk with me,” she requested before she strode deeper into the woods. She heard Sandor’s muttered curses but chose to ignore them when she could also hear his heavy boots as he stomped after them.

            “Spring seems to be in the air, even up here in the North,” Tyrion mentioned casually. “You have many flowers in bloom already. Perhaps you’ll soon see a rose or two.”

            Sansa’s eyes darted to his as she hummed in agreement. “Roses are lovely. I wouldn’t mind at all if they were to suddenly appear.”

            “Lovely indeed, but do mind the thorns,” Tyrion warned with a half-smile. Sansa nodded once to show she understood then bit her lip as she considered her next statement carefully.

            “The worst a thorn can do is prick you,” she hesitated. “It’s not as if they are deadly.”

            Tyrion stopped and looked meaningfully at her. “You may be surprised what a rose is capable of.”

            “Enough, Imp,” Sandor growled menacingly. “Keep your intrigues to yourself, I want no part in them.”

            Tyrion stared at Sandor for a few beats before his gaze shifted back to Sansa. “If that is your wish you need to say it now. Otherwise you might need to prepare of sudden outcropping of flowers.”

            “How many?” Sansa breathed.

            “More than you have fish, but less than you have wolves,” he answered cryptically before Sandor finally snapped.

            “ENOUGH!” he roared. His voice echoed off the bare trees and startled a flock of birds into sudden flight.

            “Sandor,” Sansa chastised only to be met with an angry scowl.

            “No,” he argued. “We’re not getting involved in this shit.”

            “Even if it was done to avenge me?” she challenged quietly. He was not deterred.

            “The Queen of Thorns doesn’t give a flying fuck about you, Little Bird. This was about her granddaughter and the babe she carried. It has nothing to do with us.”

            Sansa could not mask her surprise at his words. Not that he was vulgar – that was a daily occurrence – but that he had followed their conversation so easily. Sandor’s scowl deepened at her expression.

            “Do you think me so simple? I may not be a highborn, but even I know the banners of the great houses, wife,” he snapped. “Your code could be cracked by any squire or whore in Kings Landing or the Vale or even your beloved Winterfell.”

            Sansa had the decency to look abashed at his words. She did not think him stupid, truly, but she had not thought he was listening too closely either. She reached for him, but he withdrew before she could make contact and instead turned away from her angrily. The rebuff stung, but she knew it was best to let him settle down a bit before she spoke to him again. His fits of fury no longer lasted as they once had. She simply had to wait them out.

            “Will they definitely come this far North?”

            “They will go to see your father first, as he is Warden of North. It will be under the pretense of never having been to visit Winterfell before,” he replied while carefully eyeing the way her husband tensed at his words.

            “When?” She knew she was taking a chance and pushing Sandor too far, but she wanted as much information as possible.

            “No more than a month.”

            Sandor swore under his breath and Tyrion huffed in annoyance at him.

            “You do realize it is part of your duty as lord of a keep to be hospitable to those of greater houses than you? Surely even you are capable of that,” he quipped.

            “Only when that company is welcome,” Sandor snarled back.

            “It is not like they are fleeing from the crown!” Tyrion cried in exasperation. “They are merely getting some distance from Cersei in her heightened state of paranoia. Trust me, they are not the only ones.”

            “For fucks sake, who else should we expect to barge through our gates?!” Sandor kicked at a dead log in frustration.

            “No one!” Tyrion shot back, equally as annoyed. “Good Gods, Clegane, get a fucking grip on yourself. If I didn’t know better I would think you were –“

            “Be very careful with you next words, Imp,” Sandor threatened as his eyes flashed dangerously. “They could very well be your last.”

            “Sandor, that’s enough!” Sansa finally stepped between them and stared her husband unflinchingly in the eye. She had let his go on long enough. Deep down she knew that Tyrion was right in his assessment of her husbands’ behavior: he was afraid. It deeply upset her to see him that way since it was such as rare emotion for him to feel, let alone express.

            “Is the Queen the only one who believes they could be responsible?” Sansa asked carefully.

            “It is not even as dangerous as that. Cersei wants someone to blame and since Joff was out hunting with Mace Tyrell and the Knight of Flowers, she is quick to place his death at their feet. BUT –“ he practically shouted when Sandor opened his mouth to speak again. “There were at least a dozen other men there to witness what happened, including the King himself. Everyone agrees that the men, Joff included, had drunk too much and were being careless. That is what killed my nephew: wine, not roses.”

            “Why come up here then?” Sandor grumbled, but Sansa could see that he had already calmed considerably at the news.

            “Because they had planned a visit anyway. It would be more suspicious for them to run back to Highgarden than to continue on their tour of the Seven Kingdoms,” Tyrion explained wearily while he rubbed his brow. “I thought you were cleverer than this, Clegane.”

            “That’s enough out of both of you,” Sansa scolded. “Honestly, you are worse than me and Arya.”

            Sandor gave a loud snort. “No one is worse than you and the she wolf.”

            Sansa glared icily at him for a moment but gave up when only stared back at her impassively. A sudden jolt in her belly sharply drew her attention and she gasped loudly as her hand flew to rub a sore spot off to the side. Both men snapped to attention, ushering her over to a fallen tree, helping her to sit carefully, all the while they peppered her with worried questions tense looks. It would have been laughable if she was not in so much discomfort.

            “You’ve been on your feet too long,” Tryion muttered as he shook his head. “I apologize, my lady. I should not have kept you outside for so long.”

            “I am fine, really – ahhh!” Her assurance was cut off with a squeal when Sandor suddenly lifted her into his arms and headed off towards his courser.

            “Put me down!” she practically shrieked. “Sandor, I can walk, I do not need to be carried like a child.”

            “You’re having a fit like a fucking child,” he groused as he tossed her up in his grip more, which pulled another startled cry from her mouth.

            “Indeed,” Tyrion agreed from a few paces behind them. “Really, my lady. Your daughter is better behaved than this, and she’s only three.”

            Sansa gave a very unladylike gesture to Tyrion. She would have slung a few curses his way except that the pain came back to her belly again and she could only groan and clutch Sandors’ shoulders tightly until it passed.

            “Your time is not near, is it?” Tyrion suddenly asked, worry clear in his voice. “Surely I had not miscalculated by so much.”

            “No,” Sansa panted around the pain. “Not for another month at least.”

            “You need to rest more,” Sandor snapped at her, but she knew he was only worried. Like any great beast, when he was afraid he would lash out at the world around him. Despite his harshness he set her down with extreme delicacy atop Stranger.

            “Which is what I intend to do for the rest of the day,” she assured him. “Right after I have the maester and the midwife take a good look at me,” she added for good measure when his glaring did not cease.

            He huffed heavily as he took Stranger’s reins and led them back through the gates. He did not even let her walk the stairs to their rooms, but carried her despite her protests. He carefully set her down on their bed but then leaned down so close that she practically went cross eyed as she tried to stare at him.

            “You will stay here,” he growled at her. “You will not move, you will not get up without my help, and you will not fucking argue about it.”

            Sansa scowled back at him but threw her hands up in defeat when she realized she would get nowhere by fighting him.

            “Fine,” she relented mulishly. “Then you will send Tyrion and Bronn in here to keep me company while you tend to our home and people, my lord.”

            “It’s not decent to have men in your room that aren’t your husband or kin,” he argued half-heartedly.

            “Fuck what’s decent,” she shot back, and enjoyed very much the way his eyes darkened at her use of that word. She did not utter it often, but she knew to expect a glorious reaction when she did. She was not disappointed.

            The kiss he laid on her was indecent in its own right and made her toes curl with want and anticipation. His tongue did wicked things inside her mouth and when he pulled away from her she was glad to see it was not only her that was left panting and desperate.

            “Again, Little Bird,” he all but crooned in her ear as his hands pulled at the laces of her gown. Sansa grinned evilly as she pressed her hands against his massive chest and pushed him away from her.

            “You’ll not hear that word from me in a way that pleases you ever again if you dare manhandle me that way again,” she threatened.

            His answering smile was wolfish as he slid a hand into her bodice. “Seems you like the way I handle you.”

            She could not deny that in the way he meant it. Still, she would not give him the upper hand.

            “Be that as it may,” she argued as she swatted his hand away and primly adjusted her gown. “I’ll not have you treating me as if I am a child.”

            “Then do not act as one,” he growled hotly before pressing his lips to hers again before she could respond.

            “Stay up here with me and I’ll show you how much of a woman I am,” she panted against his mouth after he pulled back again.

            “Can’t,” he replied shortly and struggled to breathe normally. “Too much to do. Especially if I’ve got more visitors coming.”

            “If you are just a little bit more welcoming to our new guests, I promise to wake you in a way that has proved very popular with you in the past,” she vowed as she slid her hand up his thigh.

            A string of curses flew from his mouth before he crushed her beneath him in another heated embrace. They remained entangled long enough for Sansa to consider keeping him locked in their rooms with her until the end of time. When Sandor drew back for the final time he looked slightly wild with passion, but straightened his jerkin and adjusted himself within his breeches.

           “Little bird, you make good on that and anyone can fucking visit. Flowers, Trouts, Stags, Lions; all of fucking Westeros could parade through gates. I’ll greet them with a smile and even wear one of Beccah’s crowns,” he swore as she giggled at his vehemence.

           Despite the fire that raged deep within her Sansa sighed in utter contentment as she stared up at her husband.

           “I love you,” she whispered.

           His expression softened slightly as he reached down and gently stroked her flushed cheek. “I love you, wife.”

           A little voice sang from the solar, “Papa!”

           “Your queen beckons,” Sansa teased.

           “She’s my princess,” he corrected. “You’re my queen.”

           “That was a nickname of mine, you know,” she mused quietly as she stared up at him. His expression hardened and he grasped her chin carefully in his calloused grip.

           “Said by stupid fuckers who never felt your heat,” he snarled. She melted a little more into his hand.

           “No, that is a gift I only give to you.”

            His eyes shone brightly as he tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “Better fucking be. I’d hate to have to geld someone.”

            Sansa giggled. “Do not lie, Sandor. You would actually enjoy gelding someone very much if you thought they had tried to lay even one finger on me.”

            “Let’s not find out,” he warned darkly.

            “Papa!” Beccah called more insistently.

            Sandor hung his head in defeat and sighed. When he lifted his gaze again he briefly laid his hand across her swollen, but thankfully calm, stomach.

            “You’d better be a boy,” he grumbled half-heartedly. “I can only wear so many flowers in my hair before the men stop taking me seriously.”

            “I take you seriously, you big, tough, warrior man,” Sansa said with mock pity.

            She instantly knew their daughter would have to wait a few more minutes when Sandor growled playfully at her and pinned her down on the bed. It was no matter. It was time that their child learned a little patience. The Gods knew her father didn’t have any.