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One

 

He had not been serious when he’d mentioned the Golden Company. But a brawl at an inn led to a conversation with a man with no front teeth and a trip back across the narrow sea. In a camp outside the walls of King’s Landing he was brought before a tubby little shit of a knight who turned out to be the Captain General – before he’d given himself time to think Sandor had signed two years of his life away to Harry Strickland and his company of sellswords. Never thought I’d find myself back here. But it was money and it was fighting, and if there was one thing Sandor Clegane hungered for right then more than anything else, it was violence.

 

*

 

Sandor...

 

*

 

While Daenerys Targaryen had been saving the seven kingdoms from the threat beyond the Wall, Aegon Targaryen had been busy conquering the Crownlands, the Stormlands and the Reach. With the armies of the Golden Company, he had chased the Lannisters and the Tyrells from King’s Landing and claimed the Iron Throne, and as Sansa had predicted some months ago now, the Dragon Queen had flown directly south. Whether her intention had been to challenge him or marry him no one would know, because in the end the Dragon Queen burned her nephew for an impersonator and a Blackfyre. Fucking Targaryens.

 

Somehow she had convinced the Golden Company to take a contract with her, however, and so Sandor joined them with a raft of other new recruits from the Free Cities as they marched west to bring the Lannisters to heel.

 

*

 

They didn’t go down easily. Even after the war and winter, Lannister pockets ran deep and the promise of gold bought enough loyalty to put up a fight that lasted for months. That, and the sheer desperation of those who had clung to Lannister cloaks, hoping for some of their favour to rub off and now found themselves on the wrong side of the power divide. Much had happened in the last five years, but it was still funny to him how more people saw him as a Lannister turncloak than as the loyal Lannister dog he had been for most of his life. He could thank Sansa for that, if nothing else.

 

At Red Lake, Sandor killed his first man since the Dark Guild had attacked the manse and tried to steal Sansa away more than two years prior. The elation rushed through him like the surging tide – heart beating, lungs bursting, powerful and so incredibly alive while his enemy’s heartblood seeped into the mud and his eyes faded into death. This is what I was made for, he knew. It was a fucking relief to be allowed to do it again. A fucking relief.

 

When the men sat around the fires in the camp that night telling inflated tales of their own part in the victory and drowning themselves in wine, it seemed only natural that he join them.

 

*

 

Gregor was with Cersei at Casterly Rock, of course. Sandor had joined the sellswords because of the fighting, yes, but mostly he had joined because they would take him straight to what was left of his brother. A true monster, straight from one of Sansa’s songs, he thought every time he heard a new tale of Robert Strong’s deeds. No hero’s going to slay him, though, because I’m going to get there first.

 

*

 

Sandor...

 

*

 

The march west was slowed at Cornfield. Ser Steffon Swyft had mustered an army of more than two thousand men to protect the pass to Lannisport. The Golden Company outnumbered them nearly five to one, but Swyft’s army held the higher ground.

 

Strickland’s strategy was little more than brute force. That buggering lump of lard wouldn’t be fighting himself, but he was quite happy to send his men into a battle of attrition that Sandor could see would quickly descend into a slaughter. Wasn’t his responsibility to question his orders, though. He was no more than a weapon to these people, and he liked it that way.

 

The fighting lasted nearly the whole day until Swyft called the retreat as the sun began to sink towards the horizon, locking himself away within the high walls of Cornfield Hall.

 

As his squire unbuckled his armour and took it away for cleaning, Sandor tried to reach for the sense of fulfilment he had felt at Red Lake, but he was too exhausted, and fell asleep the moment he hit his pallet still covered in the blood and gore of the scores of men he had slain that day.

 

*

 

They lay siege to Cornfield Hall for a week or so while the men who had been injured either died or got better. Sandor drank to drown out the aches and pains of the battle, or so he told himself. He made use of the camp followers, forcing himself to feel nothing when they refused to fuck him face to face. And all the while he wondered when Strickland was going to get off his soft arse and light the town on fire – the walls and the fort might be made of strong black basalt, but the other buildings were wood and thatch.

 

Of course, it happened when the wine began to run out. When Swyft saw what Strickland intended, he came out to parlay. Fat, useless Harry Strickland had him pulled from his horse before the knight could even protest the dishonourable treatment, and slit the man’s throat himself. Then he burned the town anyway, to give his men some sport.

 

Sandor could hear the screams of the dying all the way from the camp.

 

*

 

Even this far south they heard rumours – whispers of a lost Stark returned to claim the north, a woman so beautiful men would fall to their knees to serve her.

 

So she went for her bold move after all, Sandor thought as he heard the latest tales of Lady Stark, a feeling of grim pride suffusing his drink-addled brain.

 

He punched the first cunt to make a comment about getting her on her knees to serve him. The following morning, having near destroyed the inn in the ensuing fight, he took vicious pleasure in the way his so-called brothers-in-arms gave him a wide berth, and pushed away the achingly familiar feeling of having woken bruised, winesick and alone.

 

*

 

They sacked Lannisport the same way Tywin Lannister had once sacked King’s Landing. Sandor felt himself slip seamlessly into the cold rage he had once been well accustomed to before taking Sansa from the Red Keep. Body after body slid dying from his sword, leaving a trail of red – they were nothing but meat, and he the butcher. He was covered in their blood, alive while they were dead, powerful where they had been weak, ruthless as the Stranger as he ran down one foe after another.

 

Urging his horse on down the narrow side street he had chased a soldier into, Sandor saw one of his fellow sellswords enter further down, dragging a struggling figure after him. For a moment he couldn’t understand why the man didn’t simply kill his opponent with the shortsword in his hand – only as he got closer did Sandor realise that the struggling figure was a woman.

 

They had heard that Cersei Lannister had hidden away all the women and children with her behind the walls of Casterly Rock, if for nothing more than to spite the oncoming army and deprive it of satisfying its bloodlust. But here was one who had stayed – one with coppery hair who was screaming and crying right now for someone to help her.

 

Before he could even think about it, Sandor had jumped down and hauled the man off, tossing him furiously across the street where he hit the wall of a house hard and crumpled up like a child’s wooden toy. When Sandor looked back down at the woman she screamed even harder at the sight of his face, and he realised she was just a girl, eleven or twelve, on the cusp of maidenhood.

 

He reached out a hand to try and help her, but she thrashed at him and stumbled away, as though she couldn’t tell the difference between the man who would have raped her and the man who had just saved her. Stupid bitch, let her run straight into the next sellsword and see how kindly he treats her, he thought brutally, despite the small – very small – rational part of his mind that told him he must look like a demon from the deepest of the seven hells right now.

 

And yet he couldn’t help but think that Sansa had always known the difference.

 

*

 

Lannisport lay in ruins behind them, and only Casterly Rock remained to conquer. None of them expected the castellan to ask to treat with them – Cersei would never surrender, especially not to a sellsword army.

 

As they soon learned, however, Cersei wasn’t there. She had set sail some nights ago at the invitation of her daughter – gone to Dorne with no more of her household than Tommen and Ser Robert fucking Strong.

 

Sandor laughed when he heard that. Laughed and laughed, and then got drunk until he passed out in some stinking gutter.

 

He awoke the next day in a pool of his own vomit and piss, his dirk and his boots stolen – his longsword only still in his belt because he had apparently wrapped his fist so tightly around the hilt that even the thieves had not managed to loose it from his grip. He had been dreaming of Pentos, of the manse and Sansa in her pretty silks, smiling at him across the cyvasse table. When he opened his eyes to find what his reality was now, he truly felt for the first time the sensation that had been threatening to rear up and swallow him since he’d left her without even saying goodbye – that part of him was dying without her.

 

The Golden Company would be marching south to Dorne. Gregor was in Dorne. But so were the Martells. Sandor did not know what new game Cersei was playing, but it seemed clear to him that Gregor would not survive it this time.

 

South was the wrong way.

 

It was said that no one left the sellsword companies of the Free Cities before their contract was completed. Sandor grinned into the wind as he galloped north and east along the river road. Let them try and stop me. Let them fucking try.

 

*

 

Sandor...

 

*

 

He made it past Golden Tooth and into the plains of the riverlands before they caught up with him – five knights on horseback, come to bring him back to Harry Strickland with or without his head. He could have pressed on to Pinkmaiden or even Riverrun, but his horse was no Stranger and there was no guarantee the poor beast would make it. Besides, the road here was narrow, bordered on one side by a deep, fast-flowing tributary of the Red Fork. It was as good a place as any.

 

Sandor wore only light armour and no helm, but that meant his pursuers could see his face all the better, and the twisted, savage sneer he levelled at them as they slowly came closer.

 

“Will you come peacefully?” one of them called, and Sandor felt a jolt of vicious glee to see that it was the same man he’d pummelled into the floor for imagining Sansa on her knees.

 

“Why don’t you come closer and find out?” he replied.

 

*

 

Perhaps the ease of his victory made him complacent. Perhaps he simply didn’t believe that Strickland cared enough for one deserter to pursue him further. Whatever it was, he had finally managed to ford the Green Fork and get on the kingsroad approaching Moat Cailin when another company of five horsemen appeared from around a turn in the road and tried to do what their companions had not been able to.

 

Sandor sliced the first one open from neck to navel, and cut clean through the arm of the second. He dragged the third sellsword from his horse, shoving his dirk into the man’s eye before dropping him to be trampled by the horses. The fourth man showed more skill, parrying Sandor’s attack, catching him across the back and slicing open his brigandine as they passed. The last sellsword fell from his mount as Sandor’s horse reared up and kicked a heavy, steel-shod blow to the man’s chest. Sandor shifted his weight to bring his beast around, catching the fourth rider on his second pass – an upwards thrust under the man’s arm, where his chainmail failed to provide protection.

 

Sandor was breathing heavily, surveying the damage to make sure his opponents were all down when movement in his peripheral vision made him turn in the saddle. The fifth Golden Companion – the one he had unhorsed – was standing again, a dagger in his hand as he slashed at Sandor’s leg. The fool was so close all it took was a well-placed punch to put him down again, and once on the ground the panicked, riderless horses saw to the rest.

 

Sandor looked down at the gaping slash in his thigh, the raw pink meat of the muscle showing clearly beneath the rush of red blood. Curiously, it didn’t hurt, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it.

 

“Sansa,” he rasped, thoughts becoming distant and foggy. He laughed, short and sharp. I was so fucking close.

 

“No!” he roared, shaking his head to clear it. No. He could still make it to Winterfell, even if he spent his last breath doing so.

 

Quick as he could, Sandor upended a wineskin over his leg and bound it tightly with strips cut from the horse blanket. Then he spurred the horse on to a gallop and forced himself to endure the pain – he refused to come this far, only to fail at the last.

 

*

 

Sandor... please...

 

*

 

He woke in a strange place, from dreams of fire. His whole body was too hot, consumed by flames, and his leg burned with pain. He lurched upright and tried to beat it out, groaning as his body screamed in protest, crying for help to put out the fire.

 

Strong hands forced him back down to lie flat on his back. He tried to fight them but he was too weak. Panic spiked in his chest.

 

Sandor… A voice from his memory, but it calmed him. Something cool was placed over his forehead, something bitter poured down his throat.

 

He slept.

 

*

 

He existed in a haze of pain and heat and nightmares. He was riding down a road with no end in sight, hearing a woman’s cries but unable to find her, looking around only to see that the whole word was on fire.

 

When he woke it was no better than sleeping, his leg an inferno of agony. He was only barely aware of cool hands on his skin, a familiar voice singing, lifting him out of the darkness before he was held up to drink the bitter liquid that carried him back to oblivion.

 

Please live a voice whispered in his fever dreams, and it sounded like Sansa so he tried, he tried, but he fucking hated fire and his whole body was aflame. He had survived every fucking thing his life had thrown at him so far, but this... this was too much...

 

Please, please, don’t give in the voice wept, and he wanted to reach out, wanted to comfort her and tell her it was all right, tell her not to cry over him – not over him. But he couldn’t move, his body heavy as stone as it burned.

 

“Sansa,” he whispered, before blackness.

 

*

 

He saw her sitting in the bright Pentoshi sunshine, dangling her bare feet in the cool, clear water of the marble pool. Her pretty pink silks fluttered in the gentle breeze, outlining her figure. Her hair was loose and long, as she wore it within the manse, and she absently tucked a stray strand behind her ear while she read her book, oblivious to the world around her.

 

“Sansa,” he called, hoping she would look up. Needing her to smile at him. But it was as though he stood trapped behind a pane of glass – he could not reach her, or make her hear him, and that opened such a deep well of terror within him that the part of his mind that knew it was a merely dream yearned for the flames once more.

 

*

 

Sansa!

 

*

 

The world came back in small drops. The sound of the wind rattling the shutters. Daylight beyond his closed eyelids. The warmth of another body nearby. The feel of deep, regular breaths on his skin.

 

Opening his eyes was like a knife through the skull, and he groaned. The sound of fabric rustling. The shifting of weight as the body beside him moved. Something tickled his face and when he risked squinting his eyes open a second time Sansa’s face hovered blurrily over him, loose hair hanging down and brushing against his skin.

 

“You stupid, stupid dog.”

 

She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

 

“Am I dead?” he asked. Surely something so lovely could only exist in the highest of the seven heavens. But his voice was even more rasping than usual, throat feeling thick and dry – a discomfort very much of this world.

 

“You should be,” she said. Even in his disorientated state he could hear that she was trying to speak with the same flat tone she used to talk with strangers in Pentos while deciding whether or not they were to be trusted. But her voice trembled with emotion. “You’re in Winterfell. Howland Reed brought you all the way up from Greywater Watch. His men found you collapsed on the kingsroad.”

 

Distantly he supposed he should wonder why the Lord of the Bogs had put himself to so much trouble, but with Sansa before him he could not bring himself to care. A boy’s serious face and moss-green eyes appeared in his mind for a moment, but that was the son, not the father. When the time comes, you will make the right decision. Something welled up in him, some strange hysteria that made his throat swell and burn and ache all at once.

 

“Tried to reach you.”

 

His head was pounding from the sharp intrusion of the light into his skull. He felt weak, and sick, and tired, and his leg throbbed dully in time with his head.

 

She put a hand on the side of his neck, nails digging in sharply as her fingers clenched. “You should never have left in the first place,” she said fiercely.

 

Sandor closed his eyes and huffed a brief, pained laugh. She sounded so angry. This was not the welcome he had hoped for. But as sleep pulled him under once more, he thought he felt her take one of his hands in hers and raise it up, the light pressure of soft lips on his scarred skin.

 

*

 

“Where did you go?” she asked. The morning light was streaming through the windows – he had thought it was the following morning, but when he’d asked she had told him he’d slept for another full day and a half.

 

He had been out with his injury and the subsequent sickness for nigh on a month.

 

She was sitting in a chair by his bedside, straight-backed and demure, working daintily on her embroidery. At first she did not seem to want to look at him, flicking her eyes across his face occasionally but for the most part staying focused on her needlework. Yet as he told his story he could see she was listening intently, eventually giving up her pretence and resting the square of cloth in her lap to look him full in the face.

 

“Why did you come back?” she asked quietly when he had finished.

 

Because I missed you like a physical pain, he wanted to say. Because I hated who I became without you. Yet there was something so hopeful in the still, grave way she was studying him that left him feeling… overwhelmed. Unprepared. She had told him that she loved him on the night that he left; he had hoped she would have got over that fantasy in the intervening months. If his stint with the Golden Company had shown him anything, it was that he was a brute down to his core – and that she could not comprehend this hurt him in ways he could not explain.

 

He just wanted things to return to normal. He wanted his uncomplicated life with her back.

 

Her posture, her expression were schooled to reveal little of her inner thoughts, but he knew her so well. He knew what she was really asking.

 

She was the one who had taught him to guard his tongue for the sake of another. And so he merely laughed darkly to himself and said, “The food was fucking terrible, little bird.”

 

She frowned, lowering her eyes, and did not say anything for several long heartbeats before smiling tightly, mirthlessly, and saying, “I’m afraid the food here won’t be much better – at least until the first harvests have come in. But be thankful at least that you have a roof above your head as many of the servants are still sleeping in the Great Hall while we make repairs.”

 

And with that, she rose and swept from the room, leaving behind a sudden chill in the air.

 

*

 

There was something different about her. She was sixteen, nearing seventeen – a woman grown – but it was more than that.

 

Since Bran and Rickon could not be found, Sansa was now the lady of Winterfell and sole ruler of the north. She had kept her guard of loyal Unsullied, but Wylla Manderly had been replaced by a retinue of knights and the sons of the northern lords as Sansa sought to rebuild the castle, each vying for her favour and, Sandor suspected, her hand. She had become a creature of politics and statecraft – inexperienced and still more than a little naïve, but learning quickly...

 

The Houses of Bolton and Frey were no more.

 

She truly is a child no longer. Something made all the more obvious by the way she now kept him at arm’s length. Before, he had been the one who stood between her and harm. Now he was one of many – and one who had left her, at that.

 

He had come back for her, made himself live for her, but it had never occurred to him that that might not... please her.

 

*

 

She watched him, though. She was such a busy little bird, flitting from one corner of the castle to the next, forever surrounded by her knights and lordlings. Sandor, on the other hand, could barely limp down to the Great Hall with his arm around Victory’s shoulders to take his meals with the rest of them. But whether it was in the Hall or across the bailey, or even down the corridor, he could feel Sansa’s eyes on him like a prickling on the back of his neck.

 

She does not trust me anymore, he finally realised, a feeling like fury – like grief – welling up inside him. That was the first day he held a sword again, hacking at a wooden mannequin in the armoury until he could no longer stand, before drinking himself into a dreamless stupor.

 

*

 

She did not come to his room again for another three weeks, not until he was able to get up, wash and dress himself, walk around without support and hold a sword for long enough to practise a little each morning.

 

(When she came in, he was transfixed for a moment by the way the spring sunlight caught on her hair, bringing out the red, lost in half a hundred memories of other times he had seen it thus. Then he was disgusted with himself for becoming so distracted.)

 

“What do you intend to do once you are fully healed?” she asked.

 

“Swear my sword to you,” he replied. Her trust did not really matter, he told himself. He would earn it once more if necessary, and in the meantime Sansa needed someone at her back should one of her crowd of would-be advisors turn out to be too ambitious for his own good. She needed someone who would speak honestly to her, and without flattery. Now more than ever.

 

She smiled, a small, wan smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I was afraid you would say that. Tell me: why?” Her expression and tone were both guarded, and he found to his displeasure that he could not read her at all.

 

“You still need me, little bird,” he said warningly, not liking where this was going.

 

She smiled again and shook her head sadly, before lowering her eyes. “More than you know,” she murmured, voice so soft it seemed to get lost in the swishing of her skirts as she turned to leave, so much so that Sandor could not be sure he had heard it at all.

 

It made no sense, after all.

 

*

 

Something woke him in the middle of the night. The maester was still allowing him a small dose of milk of the poppy for the pain, and that along with Winterfell’s generous wine cellars meant he had been sleeping far more deeply that was usual since his arrival. But now he lay still and quiet, feigning sleep as he listened for the thing that had roused him.

 

He was still smashed from the night’s drinking, though, and so it took him a couple of heartbeats to realise it was not down to a sound, but the twingeing in his shoulders. He was lying on his back with his arms above his head, and his wrists had been tied to the bedhead. His eyes sprung open as he tested the bonds.

 

“What is the meaning of this?” he growled. Sansa was sitting in her chair by the foot of the bed, hair unpinned and wearing nothing but a robe over her thin bedgown. She held a silver goblet by its thin stem, turning it idly between thumb and fingers. He thought he could smell the familiar scent of Dornish sour.

 

She raised her eyes to his almost lazily. “You’re awake,” she said, smiling slightly. “Good.”

 

“Sansa,” he warned. “Why am I tied up?” He pulled on his bonds again, only to realise that his ankles too were tied fast to the foot of the bed. “And who the fuck showed you how to tie a knot?”

 

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” she said. “I promised them they would survive the night, you see. You are tied up because we are going to talk, and then you are going to do something for me, and under normal circumstances you would do neither of these things willingly.”

 

He was suddenly very aware of how little he was wearing – only a thin sheet tucked in neatly around his waist to preserve his modesty. How courteous.

 

“This is a lot of trouble to go to, to talk to a man,” he mocked. “I’ve been here this entire time, in your castle, my lady.”

 

“Yes,” she agreed. “And you’ve been drunk and angry, almost without reprieve. Hardly the right frame of mind for the matter I wish to discuss with you. You would have stormed out and I would not have been able to stop you. This way seemed easier.” She gave him a stony look. “I thought you had given up drink. In Pentos, I thought you had changed... I thought...”

 

“You thought wrong, little bird. Men don’t change, especially men like me. You were wrong about my soul, too – it’s as black as maester’s ink and all the wishing in the world won’t make these things any different.”

 

Then why did you come back?” she hissed, standing abruptly.

 

It was clear she too had been drinking, though she did not quite seem drunk. Just enough for courage. He himself felt as though the world were spinning around him if he didn’t concentrate hard on keeping it straight. Two drunken, angry fools, he thought, laughing low in his throat.

 

“You can’t tell me, can you?” she said.

 

“Tell you what?”

 

“The truth.” She sighed, moving to the window and opening the shutters so that her body was limned in moonlight. “I doubt you even know it yourself.”

 

The laughter died in his chest, fury crashing in to take its place. “And you do? Is that it?” he snarled. “Stupid little bird, always making up some pretty story in your head. What in the seven hells do you know, to make you so sure?”

 

“What do I know... you asked me that in Pentos, just before you left,” she said, turning back from the window to face him again. “I have had all these months to think on my answer. I know that you are rude, and coarse, and vulgar. I know that you take pleasure in violence, and that you are very, very good at it. But I also know that you can be gentle when you wish it, and that you have saved my life at risk to your own – repeatedly. You think yourself a dog, loyal to his mistress and vicious in her protection. You think yourself one of my brothers to watch over and protect me. But you are not a dog – you are a man. And I wish to be neither your mistress, nor your sister.”

 

He stared at her, bewildered and angry, but silent. The words were choked off somewhere beneath his throat. Her chest was heaving as though she had been running. When she spoke again, her voice was softer, almost pleading.

 

“Sandor, you hide behind this... this masque as though your very life depends upon it, but it is nothing more than a prison of your own making. I have known you near six years – I know you are a dangerous man. I know your soul has its dark places. I know all of that. But those things are not the sum of your being.”

 

The Houses of Bolton and Frey are no more, he suddenly remembered.

 

She walked to the bedside and placed her wine cup carefully down on the small wooden table there – empty – before looking him straight in the face. “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you,” she whispered.

 

Sandor swallowed and looked away. “Have you said your piece?” he ground out.

 

“No,” she replied. “Tell me why you came back here. Tell me why you defied the Golden Company and broke your contract to come north. Tell me why you called my name as you fought off your fever. Look at me and tell me the truth. Don’t I deserve at least that much from you?”

 

Sandor closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and another. He pulled against his bonds once more and roared in frustration when they did not give.

 

“I’ve already told you! My sister died. I couldn’t save her. I saved you instead. I’ve always tried to do my best by you – because of her. Why do you refuse to see that?”

 

“It’s not me who is blinded,” she replied softly, reaching out to touch fingertips to his bare shoulder. He could not have felt more vulnerable if she had held a greatsword over his heart.

 

“Release me,” he rasped, gut clenched.

 

“No,” she said again, letting her hand trail up his arm to his bound wrist, before returning back down to his shoulder, his neck, his awful face. “I said we would talk, and then I said you would do something for me. We do not seem to be getting anywhere with the first, so perhaps it is time to move to the second.”

 

She lifted her hand from tracing the scars of his face and reached up to untie her robe, shrugging it from her shoulders until it pooled on the floor behind her. Her bedgown beneath was so fine he could see the outline of her body, backed by the moonlit window. The single candle on the table by his bedside illuminated her face. She was smiling, but it had a bitter tinge to it.

 

“I need your help, you see. I had hoped you would give it willingly, but I am not above taking what I need.”

 

“What are you- Sansa, stop,” he near begged as she reached down to pull her bedgown over her head, but she did not heed him, climbing onto the bed to kneel beside him, entirely naked. His head felt hazy with drink and desire, his cock swelling beneath the thin sheet.

 

“My brothers are missing,” she said quietly, “and I am surrounded by knights and lords who refuse to go and search for them for fear that I will accept some other suitor’s hand while they are gone.” She reached out and placed her hand on his belly, tracing the ridges of muscle down towards his navel. He could feel his body responding helplessly, skin rising into goose flesh, cock throbbing with want.

 

“So you intend to ruin yourself on me?” he rasped. “Do you honestly think that will stop a man more interested in your claim than your cunt, little bird?”

 

“No, I don’t, you are quite right,” she said, pushing her hand suddenly beneath the sheet that covered him from the waist down and encircling his hardened shaft. “I do intend to lose my maidenhead to you, but I also intend to make you spill your seed within me, and then I intend for you to worry that you have left me with a bastard in my belly. Because I know you, and despite what you think, I know you have a twisted kind of honour in you. You won’t let me be exposed to the scorn of all of Westeros if you can stop it, and you will stop it by marrying me.”

 

What?” His surprise was so great that for a moment it even washed out the coiling heat of her hand on his dick. “What in the seven hells makes you think that I-”

 

She leaned down and kissed him – not the sweet, chaste kiss she had given him in Pentos, but the passionate kiss of a woman grown. For a moment he forgot himself and groaned at the feeling of her tongue against his, her teats pressed against his chest, before jerking violently away. The room was spinning again, the taste of sour red wine on his tongue.

 

“I know you want me,” she said, squeezing his cock in emphasis. He had to fight every instinct to give in, to thrust up into her hand and give himself over to the raw need for her. “I know you don’t think you deserve me, and that it’s tearing you apart. But if you had had me, if you thought I might carry your child, you would not be able to stand by any longer and watch me be forced into selling myself to the highest bidder.” She started to stroke him slowly but with a firm grip, and it struck him that this was not the touch of an inexperienced maid, but one that had been practised. The sharp flash of jealousy that seared through his chest left him feeling defeated – a bitter confirmation of her words.

 

“Don’t do this,” he rasped as she pushed the sheet down his legs, his voice sounding broken to his own ears. “Sansa.”

 

“I want my family back,” she said. “Whether you will it or no, you are a part of that now, and I will bind you to me in whatever way I can, no matter how much you hate me for it.”

 

She moved to straddle his thighs, his hard cock in her hands, and tentatively tilted her hips to rub his shaft against her slit. He tried to focus on the stab of pain from his wound as she put her weight on him, but gods, she was so wet and the sound of pleasure she made was more like a sob, her head thrown back, fucking glorious in her utter abandon.

 

“Stop,” he ground out again.

 

“Tell me why you came back,” she returned, voice choked, tears in her eyes as she pleasured herself with his member. The words were there, ready, but he fought them back. His eyes stung, his body thrummed with need, his head spun with wine. When she saw he would not speak, Sansa rose up on her knees and positioned his cockhead at her cunt before slowly, hesitantly starting to press herself down.

 

“Fuck, wait,” he gasped, pulling on his bonds desperately. “Wait. Please.

 

She paused, panting. The moment stretched. Tears wavered in her eyes. He felt sick to his stomach. Say it, you fucking coward.

 

“I do want you,” he whispered, shattered. “But please, shit – not like this.” Sansa stared at him, for a moment struck dumb. “I’m drunk and I’m drugged, and I can’t fucking stop you. But you were right, I came back for you. I came back because I couldn’t bloody stand not being with you any longer. And you deserve so much better than this, but if it’s me that you want then I’m fucking yours, I swear it. Just please – untie me, Sansa.”

 

Carefully, she lifted her hips away from his, and collapsed against his chest, sobbing.

 

When his hands were free he held her, tight enough that he was worried he was hurting her, though he couldn’t make himself stop. He could feel her little claws digging into his skin as she held him back, and hoped vaguely that she would leave her mark. It didn’t feel right to escape this night without visible scars.

 

“Foolish little bird,” he rasped hoarsely, half in a daze as he stroked slowly up and down the soft skin of her back. “You’ll make the same mistakes your brother did.”

 

“No,” she said thickly, sniffling. “Robb broke his betrothal to preserve Jeyne Westerling’s honour. I am not betrothed, and your honour is hardly in danger.”

 

He huffed a shaky laugh. “I remember you once told me that if you had you the power, you would not use it to conquer.” She raised her eyes curiously to his. He held up his wrist, the skin grazed red from the rope. “What else would you call this, other than a rout?”

 

She twined her fingers through his and brought her lips to his damaged skin. “I will be happy to share the victory,” she said softly, meeting his eyes levelly. They lay looking at each other for the span of several heartbeats. “I love you,” she said eventually. “Do you accept that now?”

 

Sandor felt the burnt corner of his mouth twitching. He pulled her closer so that she could not see his face, burying a hand in her hair as he kissed her forehead. “Yes,” he rasped.

 

“And will you-”

 

“Not tonight. I told you – I’m drunk. If you wake in the morning and still want to go through with this, I will fuck you hard enough for the whole castle to hear. But bugger me, I will damn well do it sober.”

 

“As you wish,” she said, and kissed him slow and deep so that he almost regretted his words. But she was clearly exhausted from her own little game, and when she finally laid her head down on the pillow, she was asleep in a matter of moments. He did not think he would be able to stop looking at her for long enough to follow – stop touching her skin, stop reminding himself that somehow, he really could have her. The thrum of adrenaline and arousal still coursed in his veins. But in the end his eyelids grew heavy, and so he held her close and let himself drift off.

 

*

 

He awoke to the gentle scraping of fingers in his hair.

 

“You’re still here,” he rasped drowsily. Gods, it felt fucking amazing, almost better than her hand on his cock last night. A bolt of arousal shot through him at the memory, hazy as it was, swiftly followed by a similar jolt of shame. “Little bird,” he rasped, turning his head to look at her.

 

“Of course I’m still here,” she said, smiling slightly. She had put her thin bedgown back on, though it did little to protect her modesty. “You made me a promise. I expect you to keep your word.”

 

Sandor bit back a groan and raised his hands to rub the sleep from his eyes so that he would not have to look at her. He had beaten men into the rushes before for speaking of Sansa the way he had spoken to her last night, and he had done it to her face.

 

“Don’t,” she said gently, drawing one of his hands down. “Don’t hide away from me again.”

 

Sandor sighed and looked up at her. “I’m not. I just... don’t understand you at all.” He sat up, pulling away from her. “I need a piss,” he muttered, all but able to hear Sansa’s outraged expression. That was good. He needed to get himself back on equal footing somehow.

 

Rising from the bed he walked naked to the garderobe in the corner of the room and squeezed himself into the small space. When he was done emptying his bladder he used the jug of water the servants had left on a small shelf to rinse his hands, watching idly as the clear stream fell through the hole down into the midden below. He felt the sudden urge to clean himself up for Sansa, wash the night from his skin and make himself somehow sweet smelling, an unfamiliar sensation of nerves settling low in his belly.

 

Fuck, he thought grimly as he settled on merely rinsing out his mouth, spitting down the chute before drinking the remaining water in several large swallows. She had said she loved him again, and he had said he believed her. But it was madness. He was a beast, a vicious brute... and she wants me all the same. He suddenly remembered how she had used him to pleasure herself last night, rubbing his erection up against her sweet spot. It wasn’t a dream. And she wasn’t thinking of some pretty knight. She had touched his scars and told him she loved him, and been ready to blackmail him into marriage, buggering hells. It was too much to take on board all at once. If he thought on it too hard he could feel himself reeling.

 

Abruptly, he realised he was still standing in the garderobe, getting hard thinking about the woman who was waiting patiently in his bed for him to fuck her. He squeezed his eyes closed and tried to push down the roiling mass of tension in the pit of his stomach.

 

Sansa’s eyes were dark with desire when he stepped back into the room, and she watched him approach with a hungry expression, eyes roaming every inch of his body. He was acutely aware of his own nakedness, perhaps for the first time in his life. His body was strong and well-honed as any warrior’s, but marred and ugly with scarring. Osha had always liked the size of his manhood, which he knew was larger than most, but he suddenly felt uneasy under Sansa’s scrutiny in a way he had not felt even as a green squire. Her eyes lingered between his legs on his rapidly hardening cock and for a moment all he could think of was her soft lips parted around his head, perfect pink tongue driving him mad with pleasure. The whore’s service. Again he felt a stab of shame in his gut.

 

“Had your eyeful?” he said irritably, but she smiled, steady gaze rising to his face once more.

 

“The answer now is the same as it was the last time you asked me that – no. Never.”

 

I wish you could see yourself the way I see you, she had said last night. He suddenly had an image of her younger self sliding a hand up under her skirts to frig herself thinking of him. It made his cock twitch, though he still struggled to understand what exactly it was she saw to her liking.

 

As if hearing his thoughts, Sansa knelt up on the edge of the mattress and put her hands on his shoulders, letting them drift slowly down his chest, scraping her nails through his chest hair as she had done his scalp earlier. His erection pressed against the soft fabric of her bedgown and he took in a deep, shaky breath to try to bring himself under control. He raised a hand to her face, stroking the pad of his thumb along the line of her cheekbone and she turned her face into the touch, capturing his thumb between her lips just as her nails scratched over his nipples.

 

He grunted in pleasure, watching her face, transfixed as her hands lowered further, tracing the lines of muscle and scar alike, past his hips and his straining cock to his thighs and the deep, ragged valley of scar tissue – his gift from the Golden Company.

 

“I will never get enough of looking on you,” she murmured and bent to kiss the ugly scar, still red raw and tender. The feeling of her warm breath as it stirred the hairs on his leg was more intense than it had any right to be, making his knees feel hot and weak with need.

 

“Strange little bird,” he rasped back, though it held no malice, only a desperate, agonised desire.

 

As though in reaction to his words, she kissed back up his thigh to his hipbone before wrapping her hand around the root of his shaft, pulling back his sheath and lapping at his fluid with the flat of her tongue.

 

“Fuck,” he groaned as his knees threatened to give out again, and pulled her off him forcibly, throwing her back onto the featherbed. “You’re overdressed, my lady.”

 

She lay back, eyes gleaming, and spread her arms away from her body. “I am yours to do with as you please, my lord.”

 

He put one knee on the bed beside her hip and leaned over her. “I am not,” he growled, “your fucking lord.”

 

“Not yet,” she replied, voice low and throaty. Her nipples were hard peaks pushing up through her bedgown, and when he brought his other leg up to press against the apex of her thighs she moaned with a raw wantonness he had never thought to hear from her.

 

He bent to kiss her open mouth as her body arched against him, hesitating at the last moment. So few women had ever wanted to fuck him where they could look upon him, let alone kiss his ugly face. But Sansa reached up to wrap her arms around his neck, moaning again as she bucked her hips against his leg, and so he allowed her to pull him down, sinking into her mouth with the deep, strange feeling of familiarity – of finally understanding what it meant to come home.

 

“Oh gods,” she breathed when he eventually released her mouth. She was heaving for breath, flushed red and sweating lightly. “Sandor, please, I’m not sure I’ll last much longer.”

 

He groaned into her neck, thrusting his cock involuntarily against her hip. He could feel how wet she was for him, the bedgown that separated them soaked through with her desire. It was almost overwhelming.

 

“By the gods, you’re not the only one,” he grunted, and forced himself up – away from her – sitting back on his heels so that he could get at her bedgown. His hands were shaking as he untied the drawstring at the neck, the fine fabric slipping off her shoulder so that one perfect teat was revealed.

 

Reaching out he cupped her breast, rolling her nipple between thumb and forefinger making her moan and arch off the bed again, panting and sweating and in complete disarray.

 

“Fuck, you look beautiful like this,” he said as he scooped her up and into his lap, lifting the hem to finally pull the flimsy garment off while she locked her legs around his waist and thrust herself desperately against his hard cock, trapped between them. “How do you want-?” he tried to ask, the words disintegrating into meaningless sounds as she bucked against him once more.

 

“Can we – like this?” she asked breathlessly. He buried his hand in her hair and pulled her forward to kiss him again, the sensation so powerfully stimulating that he almost regretted having to move to give her what she wanted.

 

“Yes,” he finally replied, “but I’ll be able to fuck you deeper from here and it will probably hurt more because I don’t know how much I’ll be able to hold back.”

 

She moaned at his words, closing her eyes momentarily and he kissed her again until she pushed him away. “I want that,” she breathed against his lips. “I want everything. I want you to fill me up and possess me, Sandor. Give everything to me.”

 

“Yes,” he growled, drowning in her deep blue eyes as he lowered both hands to her perfect arse and lifted her up, shifting her until he could feel her slick entrance at the tip of his cock. “Breath, little bird,” he murmured against her throat before slowly, carefully lowering her down.

 

She felt... fuck, she felt exquisite, warm and wet and so fucking tight. She gasped as he pushed his cockhead into her, feeling as her body’s resistance seemed to give suddenly, and realising with jolt of lightning that made his balls tighten that that had been her maidenhead. Her heels dug into his back painfully for a moment before she took a deep breath and he felt her inner muscles relax a little. He lifted her again before letting her back down, and this time he slid in much more smoothly. She was breathing raggedly, eyes squeezed closed and he reached up with one hand to guide her to rest her forehead against his.

 

“Sansa,” he said, his voice raw and harsh as steel on stone.

 

“Yes,” she breathed back. “Gods. Yes.”

 

“How does it feel?” he asked, lifting her up his shaft once more. She hissed sharply, tensing for a moment, but when he lowered her again it drew a long, deep moan from her throat.

 

“It stings,” she panted. “But it feels good as well.”

 

“Put your knees on the bed,” he prompted, gritting his teeth as she followed his instruction, every small movement driving him near insane with the need to find his release. After a moment of fumbling she knelt straddling his lap, still filled with his cock. “Now move,” he said, eyes fixed on the place their bodies were joined, watching her rise up his shaft, now glistening with her desire, before taking him back into her heat.

 

“How does it feel-” she gasped, “-for you?”

 

He swore as she fucked down onto him a little harder, tilting her hips back and forth to find how it felt best. It struck him suddenly full in the chest that he was her first and, if she had her way, he would also be her last.

 

“Bloody incredible,” he ground out, burying his face in her neck, tasting her skin and breathing in her scent, surrounded by her and utterly enthralled. “I’ve wanted you so much, for so fucking long,” he groaned into her skin. “Sansa, I can barely get my head around the fact that this is bloody real.”

 

She pushed him up to look at her, hands either side of his face. She was smiling beatifically. “It is real,” she told him. “I love you, and we belong to each other now.”

 

There was nothing he could say to that, so he pulled her in and kissed her deeply, pushing a hand between them to find her sweet little nub, his own peak bearing down on him fast. The sound she made when his fumbling fingers found the right spot was closer to a wail and she froze, her whole body tensed on the edge of release, before he couldn’t stand it any longer and plunged up into her, sending her crashing into orgasm, her convulsing muscles tearing his own peak out of him with an intensity that made his ears ring.

 

*

 

Osha had told him once of a sight she had seen as a girl north of the Wall – a great crashing and tumbling of snow down the side of a mountain, sweeping all before it in its path. Avalanche, she had called it. It can be started by the smallest thing – a tree falling, a direwolf howling. At first, it’s just a few stones and handfuls of snow, but before long the whole mountain’s falling, and if you’re in its path you can’t do nothing but be swept along with it.

 

*

 

Sansa lay on her back and he lay beside her, head propped up on one hand as he stroked her warm, smooth skin with the other. He could feel her staring at him, studying his face, and he had to force back the memories of all the times he had wished her to do just that. His emotions felt enough of a maelstrom as it was.

 

He bent to kiss her shoulder and then, helplessly, her mouth. Gods, he could spend the rest of the day lying here like this with her, kissing her, and never get tired of it.

 

She smiled at him when he drew back, a soft, happy smile, her eyes shining with affection. How in the seven buggering hells do I deserve this? he wondered, but right now he couldn’t bring himself to really care, content for the nonce to know that he did have it.

 

“Happy now?” he asked, allowing a faint mocking tone to edge his voice.

 

“Yes,” she replied simply, not rising to the bait. “Very.” She reached up to caress his cheek, still smiling – he could not really feel her fingers through the scar tissue, just the pressure of them, but he closed his eyes nonetheless to savour the sensation. “I was unsure whether you really would spill your seed within me,” she said then. “New life could be forming in my womb as we lie here.”

 

He opened his eyes to glare at her, but she had already taken told of his free hand and pushed it down to rest on her flat stomach.

 

“Can you imagine me big with child?” she asked. She was teasing him, Sandor knew, but he found in fact that he could – very easily – and his cock twitched against her hip as his hand tightened on her waist possessively. “One day it will happen,” she added. “One day soon, I hope, and then we will be a family for true.”

 

“Sansa,” he growled.

 

She grinned and rolled onto her side to face him, pressing her naked body against his from teats to toes. “No, there is nothing you can do about it now, I’m afraid,” she laughed, kissing him into silence. When he drew back, however, her expression had sobered considerably. “Do you love me, Sandor?” she whispered. “Can you say it?”

 

He stared into her blue eyes, lost for a moment, wondering what it would be like to be lost forever – in them, in her. It was a terrifying feeling. But he was sick of this cravenness she brought over him. He didn’t want to lie any more.

 

“Yes,” he said, stroking her hair as tenderly as he knew how. “I love you, little bird.”

 

Avalanche, he thought, as he pinned her to the bed with his body and lost himself in her mouth once more. It can be started by the smallest thing – a tree falling... or a girl.