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Sevenmas

Chapter Text

“It’s called Secret Septon. Once a year you honor the gods by exchanging gifts. It started out as small things, something you could carry with you as a reminder of the seven-sided god, but over time, it’s evolved into . . . something less holy. It is not unusual now for large gifts to be given or received,” explained Septa Mordane.

"What kind of gifts?" Sansa liked the idea of presents very much.

“A small scale or counterweight for the Father. Now it can be as much as a fish dinner, sometimes called the Feast of the Father. Scales, you know." Septa Mordane shook her head at this blasphemy. "A scrap of cloth for the Mother has turned into clothing. A bit of kindling or tinder for the Crone became a lantern but has now evolved into anything that gives light, even precious gems."

Sansa couldn't help but gasp, earning her a stern look from her septa. Joffrey had given her a beautiful necklace upon their betrothal. The thought of her golden prince giving her another piece of jewelry, so personal yet suitable for public display, sent a thrill through her.

Septa Mordane continued in a dampening tone, "One thing that hasn't changed is the Stranger's gift - usually a piece of fruit or food, to keep the recipient healthy and delay her meeting with the Stranger. It's a reminder of one's mortality."

Sansa wasn't interested in anything so dark. “But why is it a secret?” Sansa was eager to participate in this southron tradition. Her mind was racing, her heart pounding in anticipation. Oh, the idea of Joffrey smiling at her as he opened her gifts made her heart flutter and a delicious heat flush her face. A half a hundred ideas flashed through her mind. A new doublet, perhaps? A handsome cape? Surely her father would allow her to spend amply on Joffrey. He was to be the king, after all, and it was only fitting that his future queen see him properly honored with gifts. Perhaps the right gift would calm the unease that had existed between them since that day by the river on their way to King's Landing a year ago. . . Sansa pushed the thought away. Her prince tolerated her most days but, others, was cold and cruel. She could not seem to make him love her. Sansa raised her chin. Her future would be bright and sparkly and it would begin again on Sevenmas.

“Because godliness can be found in anyone, even where it may be unexpected.”

“How does it work?”

“At the start of the Seven Days, families get together, it’s best if there are seven of you but any number will do, and each person puts a small item of theirs into a bowl. It has to be something small enough to be concealed in the palm of one’s hand, mind you, so the others can’t see what's drawn from the bowl. You become the Secret Septon, or Septa, for that person and your task is to select seven small gifts, each representing one aspect of the Faith, to remind the recipient of the gods’ graciousness and power. These gifts were meant originally meant to humble and inspire but, as I said, Sansa, that was the old way.”

Surely the gods would see to it that she pulled Joffrey’s trinket from the bowl, and he hers. They had to! As soon as was seemly, she rushed to the sept to say a brief prayer to all of the gods but the Stranger, who frightened her. She considered stopping at the godswood to enlist the old gods’ help, too, but decided that the old gods and the new might not get along and she did not want to upset any of them, especially not when such an important outcome was resting in their hands.

The evening meal crawled by but finally, at last, it was time to meet in the royal family's solar. Sansa had eaten carefully, making sure no speck of food or drink marred the perfection of her beautiful dress. A blue silk, the color of her eyes, with a wide neckline extending almost to her shoulders that showed off her collarbone and graceful neck, it was nipped at the waist and fell in a narrow column to the floor. Small silver beads adorned the neck and hem while around her waist she’d tied a shimmery sash. On the sash she’d affixed a small silver pin in the shape of a direwolf that she meant to use as her Secret Septon trinket. Sansa’s maids had brushed her hair until it shone, and she’d left it mostly down, knowing her father thought the neckline of her dress a bit mature for her 17 years.

She entered the solar and swept a gracious curtsy to the king, queen, and her betrothed. Her father and Arya were there and she went to stand beside them, excitement sending shivers down her spine. It was like a dream. Everyone, even Arya, was so beautiful and perfect, they fairly twinkled. How enchanted it all would be! Her marriage to Joffrey would make them all so happy. Her father and his best friend would finally be united as family. The queen would look upon Sansa as her own daughter. They would spend every Sevenmas together, laughing and singing, and the ugliness of the past would be forgotten. Sansa wanted it so much it nearly hurt! Surely it would take more than a mere year for them all to make their way with each other? Surely, once they did, everything would be all right.

“Ah, Ned, it’s good to have you here,” said King Robert, who lifted his glass toward Sansa’s father.

“Thank you, your grace. We’re pleased to be included.” Her father inclined his head toward the king, who smiled broadly, and the queen who pressed her lips together and looked away. Sansa felt a ripple of discontent but couldn't put a name to it. Arya had hotly contested having to attend this gathering at all but their father had reminded them both that it was an honor. Robert was an old friend, Ned was in his service, and it was for the best if everyone could get along. Sansa had nodded in agreement with every word while Arya glowered darkly.

 

Robert gave a booming laugh. “Missing your trees, are you? You didn’t seem to, that one Sevenmas we spent in –“

“I’ve kept to the old gods as faithfully as I could, even when my friends would have seen me stray.” Here he gave the smallest tip of his head towards Sansa and Arya.

Robert laughed and poured more wine into his goblet. “Fair enough, Ned, fair enough but you're in the south now.”

"I've not forgotten."

“Shall we start?” said the queen curtly from her seat near the fire.

“Yes, let’s start!” said Joffrey, walking to a sideboard where a pretty enameled bowl was resting.

“Shouldn’t there be seven of us?” Sansa cried. If any one of the gods felt slighted, her fervent prayer to exchange gifts with Joffrey and Joffrey alone might go unanswered. There had to be seven!

Joffrey’s eyes snapped to hers and, for a moment, Sansa’s blood ran cold with the thought that she might have angered him, might have ruined her best chance to repair the rift between his family and hers and secure a future filled with happiness. “Perhaps Myrcella . . .,” she started to say before Joffrey cut her off. Without looking away he called, “Dog!”

A large shadow separated itself from the darkness near the door. Sandor Clegane stepped forward. Sansa had not noticed him when she’d entered the solar, though he must have announced her arrival. “Your grace?”

“My lady wants seven of us to participate in Secret Septon."

"Who shall I summon?"

"You’ll be the seventh.”

“I don’t practice, your grace.”

“Practice obeying your prince’s orders, dog.” Joffrey laughed at his play on words.

Clegane gave a stiff nod and then stood so still Sansa believed him half-frozen.

Joffrey put the bowl on a table in the center of a room. From his pocket he pulled a golden Dragon. “Whoever pulls this had better give it back to me,” he said, not quite joking, as he dropped it into the bowl with a loud clang. The queen stepped forward and quietly slipped an earring, dangly, golden, and bearing a large emerald, from her ear. Her gaze fell on each of them before she returned to her seat. There was no question the earring would be with its mate again at the end of the week.

“Seems I’ve forgotten something,” chuckled the king. He looked around and grabbed a cork from a nearby cart, tossing it into the bowl, where it promptly bounced out the other side. Joffrey gave a disgusted look as he plunked the cork back into the bowl.

“Go ahead, Arya,” prompted her father.

Sansa’s sister stepped forward and turned over her hand so everyone could see her trinket. It was a rock. “I found it on the Kingsroad!” she said proudly as she dropped it on top of the Dragon and the priceless earring. Sansa’s face burned with shame. What must Joffrey be thinking? Why did her sister constantly have to embarrass their family with her wild, unlady-like behavior?

“Sansa?” Her father’s kind voice recalled her. Sansa took a deep breath, striving to appear calm though her nerves were jangled. She stepped forward and turned to unfasten the pin from her sash. Her fingers couldn’t seem to work the clasp. Her frustration was mounting. Her sister, the clasp, Joffrey’s cold look, the queen’s inexplicable displeasure. Why couldn’t her first Sevenmas be perfect? Sansa’s disappointment was nearly getting the better of her when the pin finally cooperated and came loose. She worked the sharp end back into its holder and looked up. Her gaze fell on the burned visage of the Hound. She hadn’t realized he’d been paying attention to the proceedings at all but he was looking at her, an odd, somehow pinched expression on his ruined face. Startled, she looked away and held out her hand so they could see her trinket. She hoped Joffrey would note its irregular edges so he could distinguish it from the rest of the items in the bowl.

Her father produced a scroll from within his cape. “It appears I came as prepared as you, your grace,” he said to his friend with a smile as he pried the seal off the scroll and added it to the other trinkets.

“I suppose your memory hasn't thawed yet,” Robert said, reaching for some grapes.

An awkward pause followed.

“Dog,” said Joffrey, when his sworn shield didn’t move. Sandor Clegane stepped forward and paused. Surely he has no trinket prepared, Sansa thought with pity. He unfastened the pin holding his cloak, a blunt, round, jeweled thing, dropped it into the bowl with a glance at Sansa that did not reach her face, and moved away from the table, draping his cloak over his arm as he did so.

Joffrey swirled the bowl around, the contents making a rough metal-on-metal sound that suddenly reminded Sansa of the Hound’s voice. “Who’s going to pick first?” Sansa’s heart leapt. Surely he’d honor her by letting her select the first trinket. It would give her the best chance of choosing his, after all.

“Mother?” he said, and Sansa’s heart fell. Cersei approached, reached her long elegant fingers in the bowl, mixed the contents around a little, and withdrew with a satisfied look.

What if she’s chosen the Dragon? Sansa could not risk it. Her chest felt constricted with worry. “May I, your grace?”

Joffrey looked surprised but said, “You may,” thrusting the bowl at her so he could choose next. Sansa concealed her own surprise but held the bowl as her prince dipped his hand in and quickly retrieved a trinket. Feeling as wicked as Arya, she reached for the bowl as soon as it was back in Joffrey’s hands. Please, she prayed, please, pleeeease. Her fingertips glanced off the cork and she pushed it away, rattled by her near miss. They next touched on something hard and smooth and she seized it and felt the cool roundness of it in her palm. She stepped away, nearly breathless. Joffrey had only to have selected the direwolf pin for her prayers to be answered.

Arya chose next and then the king, her father, and, last, the Hound. Sansa scarcely paid them any attention, concentrating only on the feel of the coin in her hand. She ran her fingertips over it, the metal slick from the dampness of her palm.

“In seven days we’ll meet here again for the Secret Septon exchange,” said Joffrey.

Sansa hoped her prince would escort her back to her rooms but the queen had claimed his attention. “Ned, about the hunt . . .,” the king said to her father, leading him towards the door. Arya was already gone. Sansa stood helplessly until the queen noticed her.

“Sansa?” she inquired, a bit impatiently.

“Yes, your grace?”

“Clegane will see you to your chambers.”

Sansa could do nothing but thank her and move to leave the solar, the Hound falling in line behind her. She walked along the corridors without seeing, her breath slowing. It occurred to her that she was being discourteously quiet.

"Is this your first Sevenmas, my lord?"

"The first in many years," he answered, looking at her from the corner of his eye.

"Are you pleased to celebrate again?" Why was it so hard to talk to him at times? He made her feel like her courtesies were a fly hovering in his face.

"It was for your pleasure that I have to celebrate at all."

That stung. Now he would have to bear the expense of gifts and . . . Sansa flushed. How could she have known Joffrey would make his sworn shield be the seventh rather than his own sister or brother?

"I'm sure whoever pulled your broach will give it back to you."

"So it wasn't you."

Sansa's cheeks burned even hotter. The Secret Septons were supposed to be a secret and she was ruining it already!

When she didn't answer, he said, "It's just a pin. I'll get another."

"Of course, my lord." She felt terrible for insulting him and fell into a troubled silence.

When they reached her rooms, Clegane stood to the side of the door as he always did. Suddenly inspiration seized her. "Your cape, my lord."

He eyed the cloth hanging over his arm and looked at her questioningly.

"There's a chill in the air tonight. You'll need your cape. Use this to fasten it." Sansa reached for the sash at her waist.

Clegane began to protest but quickly ceased to speak as Sansa's shoulders moved back and forth as she worked at the knot. She held up the sash and smiled as though bestowing a favor upon him. "My thanks," he said, wryly.

"Good night, my lord."

He inclined his head. "Good night, little bird."

She stepped into her room and closed the door behind her, leaning against it. She heard the Hound's heavy footsteps move down the hall, followed by a low, raspy laugh. Her eyebrows drew together in confusion. What was so funny? Sandor Clegane always left her feeling bewildered and clumsy. She thought she'd made amends for her slip in courtesy so why would he be laughing?

At least one thing had gone right tonight. She squeezed the warm, round, hard trinket in her hand and smiled. She would enjoy selecting gifts for Joffrey. He would see their alliance as a thing to be valued again. She opened her hand and stared in disbelief. In her palm was Arya's stone, a small round river rock, polished smooth by silt, water, and time. No! She was sure, so sure, it had been the Dragon! Tears welled up in her eyes and she hurled it to the floor where it skittered away under a chair, mocking her with its dull grayness. She sent her maid away after she was undressed and flung herself on her bed to cry bitter tears.

Chapter Text

The next morning Arya joined her at the breakfast table, late as usual. "Who did you draw for Secret Septon?"

"It's a secret, Arya," she answered gloomily.

"I want to trade."

"Arya! You can't do that!"

"Why not? No one knows whose trinket I pulled."

"You can't trade with me."

"Why not?"

Really, her sister could be so stubborn. Suddenly an idea took hold of Sansa. "Who do you have?"

"The stupid old Hound. I'm not buying him anything, not after what he did to Micah."

Sansa knew her sister really would show up empty-handed. That embarrassment had to be avoided, but still. "We can't trade. I pulled your rock."

Arya's face lit up. "That's perfect! You take the Hound and I'll trade my stone for whatever Father pulled."

Another idea came to Sansa. "If Father's pulled Joffrey's Dragon, you have to give it to me. Have to." She held her sister's eye intently to show she really meant it.

Arya rolled her eyes and huffed. "Fine. If there's anyone I'd rather exchange with less than the Hound, it's Joffrey."

Hope swelled in Sansa's heart. There was still a chance! A chance she and Joffrey might exchange with each other, and no one would ever have to know that she'd chosen something so ordinary as a stone over something so valuable as a Dragon.

*

Later that day she passed Arya in the bailey. "Father didn't have Joffrey," she said, handing over Clegane's broach before running off. Disappointment fell heavily over Sansa. A new beginning with Joffrey had been so close! Tears threatened but Sansa took a deep breath and got a hold of herself. She murmured a quick prayer to the Seven and concentrated on the matter at hand.

Five days, she thought. Five days to come up with a suitable gift for Sandor Clegane. Her enthusiasm was low but she chided herself for being ungenerous. He hadn't wanted to participate at all. She would make it up to him. He was Joffrey's sworn shield, chosen by the queen herself, and he'd always been . . . well, not unkind to her. She felt under his care already and she wasn't even wedded to Joffrey yet. With a sense of determination, she made her way back to the Tower of the Hand. She'd go to the market this very afternoon, as soon as she could find an escort.

*

With Jory in tow, Sansa made her way down one of the better market streets, people stepping aside for her as the prince's betrothed and the Hand's daughter. She'd been to the market but rarely. Whatever she needed was brought to her, and her father didn't think she was safe enough in the streets. She was safe with Jory, though, and the Seven had answered her prayer with an idea: she'd get Joffrey a gift anyway. She didn't like breaking the Secret Septon rules, didn't like it at all, but winning back his regard was too important. She'd stopped at the tanner's and made a very specific request. It cost her but if it made her future marriage happier, it was a small price to pay. That done, she tried to consider what Sandor might like.

Thinking of him as "Sandor" was still new. She'd accidentally called him by his first name once when she'd floundered over avoiding "ser", and, though he'd raised an eyebrow, he hadn't corrected her. She still called him "my lord" in public but he'd gradually become "Sandor" in her mind and occasionally when they were absolutely alone. It was almost like having a friend, now that Jeyne Poole's lower status mattered more than it did at Winterfell. On the days when Joffrey felt like being particularly unpleasant, she'd found herself somehow comforted by Sandor's solid presence.

Looking at the stalls of goods, of cloth and leather, perfumes and colognes from across the Narrow Sea, of various fruits, nuts, tinkers' wares, armorers' goods, and countless other things, it suddenly occurred to Sansa that she had never thought of Sandor apart from his interactions with her. What did he do when he wasn't on duty? He'd told her he liked killing but she couldn't very well line up victims for him. The thought made her shudder despite the fact that she'd dismissed his bold words as mere bluster. Suddenly she felt at a loss. She simply had no idea what he might like. She very much doubted a jar of fig preserves was the key to his happiness. A few stalls down a wine-seller was loudly hawking his wares. Wine! Her hopes soared. No! Her hopes plummeted. The Hound was a temperamental drunk and, frankly, she thought he drank a shade too much as it was. Perhaps she could have his armor polished. . . ? No, his squire took care of his armor and, if Sandor wanted it to be shinier, it would be shinier. She frowned.

"Jory, maybe the next street will have-" A shadow fell across Jory's face.

"See anything you like?" rasped a voice from over her shoulder.

She spun around to find Sandor and his huge black horse, Stranger, close behind her. They were like a boulder in a small stream, the way the smallfolk flowed around them.

"I'm not sure, my lord. Are you looking for your Sevenmas gifts as well?"

"No, I'm getting Joffrey's gifts."

"He told you whose Secret Septon he is?"

"No, he told me what to buy."

"Are you expected back at the castle right away? Maybe you could help me, since you know the market and sellers better than I do."

"You mean I know the brothels and winesinks better than you do. Spare me your empty courtesies, girl."

Sansa was taken aback by his words. Was he angry with her from the night before? She thought they'd parted on good terms. He'd been laughing . . .

"Lady Sansa knows nothing about winesinks and brothels, Clegane," said Jory with an edge on his voice.

"You let her come to market with only yourself as guard, Cassel. I'd say you know nothing about King's Landing."

"She's safe with me."

"I'm safer with you both. May we continue to the next street, please?" interjected Sansa. If the two of them wouldn't stop bickering, she'd never get a chance to figure out what kinds of things Sandor liked.

Sansa, flanked by the captain of her father's guard and one of the most feared fighters in all of Westeros, to say nothing of his horse, made her way to the next street, at the head of which was the stall of a leather-worker. "The tooling on those greaves is very well done," she commented.

"Aye, it is," said Jory with a hint of wistfulness.

"You can admire them for months waiting for your shins to mend," said Sandor sourly. "They won't stop a sword, no matter how pretty they are."

No greaves, Sansa thought. It had been a foolish notion, she realized. Sandor's armor was of the best quality. Suddenly she remembered that he'd won the tourney held in her father's honor nearly a year before. Sandor would have enough gold to buy nearly anything he wanted, yet he continued to dress plainly. Why was it so hard to find a present for a man who had almost nothing to call his own apart from his armor and his horse? Because he doesn't like anything. No, that's unkind. Everyone has something they take pleasure in. You only have to find out what that is. The earlier exchange with Jory came to mind. Brothels and winesinks. Sansa pulled in the corner of her mouth. Surely there's something else.

At a baker's stall, the wonderful scent of fresh bread wafted on the air. "Oh, look!" Sansa cried, pointing at some buns studded with raisins and nuts and crowned with a seven-pointed star of white icing.

"For the Seven Days, my lady," said the baker. "Allow me to offer you one."

"I'll be happy to pay you for it."

Jory immediately offered to treat her but she declined, offering to buy him one instead, which he refused.

"Of course there would be no charge for my lady's friends."

Sansa shook her head. She knew well which way generosity was supposed to flow between those who had plenty and those who did not.

"My lord," she said to Sandor, "would you like to try one?"

Sandor dug into his pocket and reached to hand two pennies to the baker. Maybe he likes sweets! Sansa thought, immediately cataloging all of the delicious things to be had from the castle kitchens.

"No, my lord, I'll treat you and Jory for spending your time in the market with me today when you must have more interesting things to do."

Both Sandor and Jory immediately contradicted her. In the end, they each handed over a penny and ate the buns while watching the throngs of smallfolk pass by, some staring at them openly, others stealing only glances. People gaped at the Hound most of all, until he turned his back to the street. His lank black hair hung over his scars. A thought came to Sansa's mind so abruptly that she was astounded it had never occurred to her before. He does not wish to be seen. The hair, the plain clothing. He only draws attention to himself though his helm, and then because his face is covered. Sansa wondered that she hadn't thought it before. She, who was used to being admired for her beauty, felt that it must be a terrible burden to be unable to escape your skin.

After that, nothing in the market appealed to her at all. She was troubled by her new insight. Claiming weariness, she asked to return to the castle. Sandor immediately swept her up into Stranger's saddle and led them through the streets, Jory walking on Stranger's other side. Being so high made her visible to the smallfolk, who called out to her and wished her a blessed Seven Days. She returned their greetings but craved solitude to consider what she thought she now knew about Sandor Clegane.

*

Upon returning to the Red Keep, Sansa gave Jory leave to return to his duties. Sandor guided Stranger to the stables and, not ungently, pulled Sansa down from the saddle, setting her on her feet in front of him. "Wait here and I'll take you to your rooms." Sansa waited as he gave instructions for his horse's care and then they walked into the sunlight together.

"Thank you for escorting me through the market. I hope I didn't keep you from your other duties."

"I'm off-duty this morning."

"But then why were you getting Joffrey's gift?"

"The prince ordered me to."

Joffrey's selfishness did not surprise her but his lack of consideration for his most faithful servant did. At Winterfell, retainers were completely free of obligations on their days off. Sansa had always assumed the servants liked their work but the unfairness of Joffrey's order cooled something inside her. When I am queen, I shall make the people love me. Her kindness would offset Joffrey's insensitivity. Another thought struck her. I won't be queen until Joffrey is king, and not even the queen can gainsay the king. The thought saddened her. Despite her best efforts, she had not been able to recover Joffrey's affections. They would not rule together. Joffrey would rule and she would spend most of her time trying to appease him and limit the damage he inflicted on his people. The alliance was desired by both of their fathers but Sansa could not deny that her former enthusiasm for the match had been slowly deflating the better she got to know her intended. She'd been foolish to think a Sevenmas gift would change who Joffrey was at heart.

She could not overcome her depression of spirits for the rest of the day. She sought out Jeyne, who was happy to see her. They watched the knights in the training yard and Sansa laughed with her friend over cake and tea but her heart was not truly in it. Jeyne's concerns ("Willard looks best in his blue doublet, don't you think? Or the red? But maybe not, with his hair . . .") were no longer the same as hers. Sansa spent the evening trying to sew but, after pricking her finger for the third time, gave up. She grabbed her cloak and a lantern and left for the godswood. She was on the Serpentine when she heard his voice.
"Where are you flying off to, little bird?"

She spun, surprised, and lost her balance. Sandor reached out and grabbed her arm with a firm grip. "You shouldn't be out without an escort, not at night."

"Will you escort me?" she heard herself say, unaware of any intention of speaking those words.

"Where are you going?"

"The godswood.'

"The godswood. At night. Alone. When will you learn, girl? If you want to pray now, go to the sept."

"I wasn't going to pray. I just . . ."

"You just what?"

"I just wanted to be alone."

"Then why did you ask for an escort?"

Sansa found it difficult to explain. "Haven't you ever wanted to be alone, but with someone? To have someone to talk to, but to be quiet with, too?" She frowned. She wasn't making sense and she was certain he would scorn her.

"Come with me."

"Where are we going? Please, not to my father . . ." He was already displeased with her for venturing into the market with only one guard, and he'd certainly not been impressed when she suggested Sandor Clegane had been a suitable addition to their party.

"Your father? Gods, girl, do you take me for a wet nurse?"

"No, I -"

"I'm on duty, little bird. I can't listen to you chirp all night." He started down the Serpentine. "Do yourself a favor and stay out of the godswood at night."

Sansa skipped down the steps and fell in beside him. "Did you mean it when you said I could come with you?"

"I told you before a hound will never lie to you."

"What do you have to do?"

"Tonight? Not much, with any luck. Check the gates, make sure the sentries are awake, call on Joffrey and the queen."

"Will I be in your way?"

"You'll be safe, but if anyone asks, I'm escorting you back to your rooms.

Sansa nodded.

"If I tell you to do something, you do it, or I will be escorting you back to your rooms."

Sansa nodded again and they continued on their way. Sandor seemed to know every doorway and passage in the Red Keep, and took her along several paths she hadn't known existed. When they came to one sentry point, he said, "Stay here," and walked toward the sound of the sentries' laughter. Curious, Sansa crept along the deserted stone corridor toward the doorway leading outside. As soon as the men became aware of Sandor's presence, the laughter stopped. The men reported what they'd seen and who was on the next shift and answered a few other questions before Sandor's footfall indicated his return. Sansa hurried back a few paces down the corridor and looked like the soul of patience when he reappeared. Without a word, Sandor led them to the next sentry point with a similar result. When they came to one of the gates, Sandor said, "Put your hood up," which she did before she accompanied him to the guards' small shack.

"All quiet?" he asked the gold cloaks.

They eyed Sansa but didn't recognize her or pay her the courtesy of a greeting.

"All quiet?" Sandor repeated.

"Eh, just some peasants earlier, crying about food. We got rid of them."

"I'll tell the queen."

The guards remained silent after Sansa and Sandor left them. "Why would the peasants need food?"

Sandor cut his eyes to her. "Because they're hungry."

"There's plenty of food."

"Only if you have money to buy it or land to grow it."

"But you'll tell the queen. She'll make sure they have food."

Sandor snorted. "She'll make sure they don't disturb the peace."

Sansa knew Queen Cersei could be short-tempered but to let her own subjects go hungry? An uneasy feeling uncoiled itself in Sansa's stomach and she shivered.

Sandor looked at her directly. "You're cold."

"No."

Sandor snorted again and led her through a door that took them deeper inside the castle and away from the night air.

"Where are we going now?"

"The kitchens."

"You have to patrol the kitchens, too?" That didn't make sense.

"No, little bird, we're going to get some wine. It'll make us both warmer."

Sansa was going to protest but something stopped her. She suddenly realized she was enjoying herself. It felt daring and exciting to be doing something out of the ordinary. It felt good. The castle was a different place by night.
They entered the kitchen through the servants' entrance, scaring a couple who, a moment before, had been entwined in the dark, quiet laughter and the rustle of fabric accompanying slurpy kissing noises. Sansa was shocked and couldn't help but stare. Sandor took hold of her elbow and steered her forward. She turned to ask him what the couple was doing in the kitchens but saw he was smirking and so said nothing.

"I'll get the wine. You wait here." He disappeared through another doorway.

Sansa looked around and realized they were in a hallway behind the main dining room. She'd never seen the dining hall from here, behind the royal dais. She wandered into the empty hall and looked around with new eyes. Usually the room was crowded with people she knew and servants she'd come to recognize but now the empty tables and benches seemed lonely. There were murals on the walls she'd never had an opportunity to inspect. One farther along caught her eye and she moved closer to it, lowering her hood. As she marveled at the detail of the painting, she heard footsteps behind her. She turned and was surprised to see a man who wasn't Sandor. He seemed surprised to see her, too, but then grinned and sauntered closer to her, weaving a little as he approached. Sansa smelled the wine on him. He was a knight but she didn't know his name and he wasn't wearing a house sigil or colors.

"You're a pretty one."

"Thank you, ser." She hoped he would pass by but he seemed inclined to stay.

"All alone?"

"No, ser." Where was Sandor?

He looked up and down the hall and grinned again. Sansa was trapped between two tables with the wall behind her and this man in front of her.

"What's your name?"

Was it better to tell him her real name or to make one up? Her brain felt fluttery. Which answer would save her? Would either? "Sansa Stark," she said, just as she heard Sandor rasp, "What's your name?"

The man's eyes bulged out of his skull and he couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted to figure out if she really was Sansa Stark or whether he should run from Sandor who was advancing up the aisle with long strides, his hair blowing behind him, his mouth twitching. "Your name," he said when he was upon them.

"I didn't touch her, I swear it."

"I didn't touch her, I swear it," Sandor repeated, slow and flat as he rested three flagons of wine on a table without taking his murderous gaze from the man's face. "Not much of a name." Faster than Sansa would have thought possible, his hand was around the man's throat.

"William!" the man squeaked. "William Dench."

"Your house?" Sandor tightened his grip and dragged the man a few steps down the aisle, giving Sansa room to step from between the tables. She passed behind Sandor as he wrung an answer from the man and moved back towards the servants' door, frightened and aghast.

Sandor flung William Dench to the floor, where he crab-walked backwards away from Sandor, horror-struck, before he turned and sprinted out the main door. Sandor rounded on Sansa and was in front of her in an instant. He grabbed her arm roughly and shook her, "Are you hurt?"

Sansa could only gape at him, eyes round, voice caught in her throat.

"ARE. YOU. HURT?" he barked at her with another shake.

"No. No, I'm not."

"Do you still want to go to the godswood alone?"

That wasn't fair. "I'm not in the godswood.” She held his eye. “Or alone." Did he just flinch?

"If it was known you went there alone, what's to stop him or someone like him from following you?"

She had no answer. Sansa knew he was right, though she resented having it thrown in her face. Her last comment had been unkind. He’d just ridded her of Ser William’s attentions. To suggest Sandor bore some responsibility was unworthy.

He released her arm and walked back to the table holding the flagons. He uncorked one and took a long swig from it, eyeing her the entire time. He uncorked a second and brought it to her. "Drink. You'll feel better."

Sansa took the flagon in trembling hands and sipped the wine. It was sour and dry and caught at the back of her throat. She sputtered and coughed.

"Never had Dornish Red before?"

"No."

"You don't drink much wine, do you?"

"My father lets us have a cup at feasts."

Sandor gave a mirthless laugh. "I guess I can spare that much." He picked up the remaining flagon and handed it to her before resting his heavy hand on her shoulder and guiding her back into the servants' hallway.

"Where are we going now?"

"To Joffrey's quarters."

"Will you tell him about that man?"

"Do you think he'd care if I did?"

It hurt her to admit it but she had to say no. "What about the queen?"

"What about your father?"

She knew her father would take her part in anything that mattered to her but something inside her resisted.

"Listen, girl, in all likelihood he'll be gone by morning."

"Why should he be?"

"He offended the prince's betrothed, in front of the prince's dog. Whose side do you think the king would take?"

That made sense but it still didn't seem right. The man had scared her, nothing more, but she wasn't sure that's all he would have done had Sandor not returned when he did.

They zigzagged along another corridor before they started moving through a part of the castle with which Sansa was not familiar. Here there were no Sevenmas decorations, the hallways narrower and more poorly lit. A dog was sleeping in a doorway but it perked up at the sound of their approach. Sandor gave two low quick whistles and the dog bounded over to him. Sandor stooped, setting aside the lantern and a flagon, and ruffled the dog's ears, crooning, "There, boy," rubbing the dog with playful vigor. "I got it, you ungrateful mutt." Sandor stood and pulled a paper-wrapped bundle from his pocket. He stooped again and unwrapped the bone the packet contained, earning a cheerful, "Woof!" from the dog.

"Is he yours?" Sansa asked, surprised that Sandor might have a pet.

"No, but he knows I'll bring him food, the shameless beggar."

Sansa watched the dog hunker down with his bone, holding it with his paws and gnawing on it with a contentedness that suggested he could want for nothing more from the world. She stole a glance at Sandor. He'd told her before he liked dogs better than people but she was still surprised to see the soft expression on his face. After a moment she became aware of voices drawing near. Sandor turned toward the sound when it struck Sansa that she recognized one of the voices.

"Father!" she said.

Sandor pushed open the door the dog had been lying against and pulled her into the room. Her heart was pounding. Father would not be pleased to find her out so late at night, alone with Sandor Clegane. Sansa pressed her ear to the door and could hear her father's voice getting closer. What if he found her here? She spun around. What if someone was already in this room? Her reputation might be damaged. Joffrey would have reason to despise her then and her father's alliance with King Robert might be irreparable. Sansa's throat constricted. She tried so hard to be good but this one moment could do away with her every effort, forever, and shame her family as well. Panic rose in her chest like flood water.

"What if they come in here? Where are we?" she despaired, looking around wildly but not seeing anything.

"They won't come in here, little bird."

"How do you know?"

"This is my room."

Sansa's jaw fell open and her eyes took in what she was seeing.

"Why . . . why are we here?"

"I can't very well go on my rounds carrying three flagons of wine, can I?" He sounded amused.

"Shh!" Ned Stark's voice and that of another man were just outside the door now. They seemed to have stopped. Had he heard her? Was he even now drawing his sword to come to her rescue?

Sandor seemed to be almost smiling as he set about taking a flask from the inside of his tunic and refilling it from one of the flagons. Then he came toward Sansa and took the flagons she'd forgotten she was holding. He leaned past her to listen at the door and Sansa breathed in the scent of him. Night air, wine, smoke, and something else, something earthy and musky and male. Something in his smell beckoned to her and she was unnerved by the pull of it. Her body was responding even as her mind swirled with fear of detection, embarrassment at her reaction, and a desire to somehow get closer to him. He leaned away. "We'll give them a minute," he said, looking down at her and seeming to notice her changed demeanor. His eyes narrowed. "Have another drink," he said, handing her one of the flagons before retreating to the other side of the small room and sitting on a wooden chair, one of a pair at a round table on which sat two more flagons, apparently empty, and her lantern.

Sansa took a sip of the wine and then clutched the flagon to her chest. Sandor watched her as she gazed at his belongings. The room was rectangular, with the door behind her in the middle of one of the long sides. A bed with somewhat rumpled bedding was pushed up against the wall in the far left corner. Next to it was a nightstand which held another flagon, a book, and the sash from her dress that she'd given him the previous evening. Past the bed, almost directly across from her, was a window that seemed to overlook the courtyard. Next was the table at which Sandor sat. On the short wall was the fireplace, a charred log on the hearth. On the mantle was a framed drawing of a girl and a tinder-strike, both of which were in front of a shield with the three black dogs on a yellow field that was the sigil of House Clegane. Against the wall to her right were a chest, and then a rack holding a few swords and some spare pieces of armor. To her left was a wardrobe, a small table holding a basin, and then the bed again. She looked back at Sandor who continued to watch her in silence. Sansa held his gaze, her mind awash.
He stood and took up the lantern. "Your father should be gone now. I have to see Joffrey and the queen and then I can take you back to your rooms."

Sansa nodded and moved to put the flagon on the table.

"Had your one cup?" he asked with a slight smirk.

"You kept my sash."

Sandor's face darkened. He walked to the other side of the room and took her sash from the nightstand. He all but thrust it at her and then held open the door. She hadn't meant to imply he couldn't keep it. In truth, she hadn't meant for him to keep it but he was taking her statement as a request for its return when, really, it was just an observation. She felt clumsy again and followed after him in silence as they made their way to the royal apartments.
"You'll be known in this part of the castle. There's a storage room at the end of the hall. You'll stay there until I've spoken to both of them."

"Yes, my lord." Sandor gave her a look at the 'my lord' but then turned and continued to stalk down the hall.

The storage room was lit only by the weak light of the moon. Sandor had made sure it was empty before leaving her with instructions to lock the door behind him and the signal for his return. Sansa looked out the window and saw torches and men on the walls. Someone was walking a horse through the bailey below. She wound the sash around her hand and then unwound it, slowly, over and over. She spent a fair amount of time with Sandor Clegane. She'd known him for a year now. He was trusted by the king, queen, and prince. He was trusted by her father not at all. He was feared by everyone else. It felt like all of this should mean something, should lead her to some conclusion about him, but it didn't. Perhaps she was too tired to think clearly. She'd done a lot of walking today. The minutes crept by and she stared out the window, wrapping and unwrapping the sash around her hand. Her eyelids were growing heavy when she heard a soft rapping at the door.

She rapped back twice, and he answered with a single knock. He looked angry.

"Is something wrong?"

"Bloody prince," he muttered but said nothing more.

They made their way back to the outer wall. Sandor saw her stifle a yawn.

"Tired, little bird? I'll take you back to your rooms now."

"No," Sansa heard herself say. She was tired, it was true, but she wasn't ready to be by herself just yet.

"No?"

"I'd like to walk with you a little longer, if that's alright."

He looked at her for a long moment before agreeing. "There are two more sentry posts between here and the Tower of the Hand. I'll look in on them and then you'll go to your rooms. Put your hood back up."

"Thank you, my lord."

They walked in silence for a minute. "Sandor?"

He looked down at her.

"If you're Joffrey's sworn shield, why do you have to do this?" She waved a hand in front of them, indicating the patrol circuit they were taking. "Shouldn't your only task be to guard him?"

"I'm Joffrey's shield because that's what Cersei wants. She doesn't trust all her men so she gives me other tasks."

"She trusts you?"

"Yes."

Sansa mulled that over. "I believe my father trusts all of his men."

Sandor looked doubtful. "Your father is a trusting man," he rumbled.

"His men trust him, too."

That seemed to interest Sandor, who asked about the rule of Winterfell, which they discussed for the rest of their walk along the outer wall. As was the case with the first two posts they'd visited, Sandor's presence put a halt to any levity as the sentries reported the night's happenings to him. They passed a few guards who nodded to Sandor but none stopped to talk. As Sansa always had a few words ready for anyone she might encounter, this struck her as strange, and somewhat sad. Soon, though, they were approaching the top of the Serpentine.

The heaviness of her eyelids and flickering light of the lantern made the steps seem to shift and, gathering up her skirts, Sansa hoped she wouldn't fall down the stairs. By instinct, she reached for Sandor's arm, curling her fingers around his lower bicep.

"Here." He turned his hand palm up and moved his arm back so she could grip his hand and rest her forearm on his. With his solid arm supporting her, she felt there was no way she could stumble. They descended the stairs slowly and, at the bottom, Sansa released Sandor's hand and tucked her own into the crook of his elbow, struck anew by the sheer size of him.

Before they came within the light of the torches outside the Tower, Sansa stopped and turned to face Sandor. "I'll tell them I was with the queen, if asked." She looked into his eyes to see if he would object but he merely gave a small nod. He made to drop his arm as they entered the Tower but Sansa held firm to it. They were nearly to her room when they came across Jory.

"Lady Sansa! Are you unwell? What are you doing out of your rooms so late? Clegane, what is the meaning of this?" He cast an unfriendly eye toward Sansa's arm in Sandor's.

"The meaning of what?" Sandor growled.

"I was with the queen," said Sansa calmly. "I didn't realize the hour and became fatigued. She offered me the services of Joffrey's sworn shield as an escort back to my rooms. I'm quite well and safe, just tired. Thank you, Jory."
"As you say, my lady." He dipped his head and the two parties continued in their opposite directions.

When they reached her rooms, Sandor stood to the side of the door, as usual.

"Thank you for letting me come with you."

The corner of his mouth twitched. "I'll make sure that William Dench is gone."

Sansa had forgotten about him. "Thank you."

A pause began to stretch between them. "When does your shift end?" Sansa asked. She was sincerely interested. She'd never before given much thought to how the people around her spent their time.

"In another hour."

"It will be quite late then."

Sandor rolled a massive shoulder in a half shrug.

Sansa remembered her sash then. She pulled it from her pocket and offered it to him. "You can keep this. If you want it." She thought he might, if only because of how he reacted when she mentioned it in his room.

"No, little bird. It's yours." The fact that he didn't need it to secure his cape was evident.

"Then please keep the lantern to light your way back."

"That's yours as well."

"You can return it to me tomorrow."

Sandor nodded and they looked at each other for a moment.

"Good night, little bird."

"Good night, Sandor," she said quietly. She entered her room and shut the door behind her. It was a second or two before she heard him move back down the hall toward the stairs. An odd feeling of gloom settled over Sansa. She moved through her nighttime preparations lethargically. Once she got in bed, her mind wandered over the evening's events. She'd only spent two hours with Sandor Clegane but she felt changed for it. She'd spent time in his presence while he was on-duty before, of course, but tonight she'd stepped into a part of his world from which she was usually absent. She reflected again that the castle was a different place at night. Where were all the women? The only one they'd encountered was in the shadowy hallway by the kitchens. Sandor's world was a world of men. No, that wasn't quite right, either. Lady Sansa knows nothing about winesinks and brothels, Jory had asserted. That was true enough but something else niggled at the corner of her mind. Sansa yawned and turned to press her cheek into her pillow. The sentries and their laughter. The men they'd passed on the wall. Sandor's half-hidden face and plain clothing. Apart. He's holding himself apart. And he's alone. The thought swam lazily through her mind and then sleep closed in on her.

Chapter Text

Sansa slept late the next morning and awoke feeling like there was something important just beyond her memory. Her mind couldn't seem to land on it. She impassively watched her maid dress her hair in the looking glass when - 

"Lady Sansa." There was banging at her door.

A pause.

"Lady Sansa." Bang, bang, bang.

She recognized Sandor's voice and asked her maid to answer the door. Sansa was dressed but for her hair.

"Sandor Clegane," Lucy announced a little breathlessly, clearly startled by the arrival of the notorious Hound in her lady's chambers.

"Good morning, my lord."

"Prince Joffrey has requested your presence in the throne room

"I'll be happy to wait on him as soon as my hair is done."

"You'd do better to come now."

"Is something the matter?" She'd been summoned by her prince before but usually because he'd suddenly decided he wanted her company, though sometimes Sansa thought he merely enjoyed sending for her for its own sake.

Sandor glanced at Lucy, who disappeared into the next room. "Come, little bird."

Sansa hastily pinned back the few remaining strands of her hair and left with him, walking as quickly as she could to match his long strides.

"What is happening in the throne room?"

"King Robert is almost finished hearing petitioners for the day."

It was mid-morning, then. "Are you on-duty again, so soon?"

"Aye." He didn't look at her but continued to walk down the hall.

Something about his demeanor unsettled her. "Have I done something wrong?"

"Joffrey seems to think so."

"What?"

He stopped walking and looked at her. Sansa's breath hitched in her chest. She knew his absolute loyalty to the Lannisters and King Robert. If he was going to tell her anything at all, it must be bad.

"He thinks you're trying to steal my services from him."

Sansa was aghast. They'd only walked together and talked a bit. Was someone spying on her? She felt betrayed by a thousand nameless accusers. "I'm not! He must know that."

"It doesn't matter what he knows. It only matters what he thinks," he said in a voice thick with contempt. 

They quickly crossed the courtyard and made their way through the castle to the throne room. Sandor kept a step behind her as she entered and was announced and then moved to stand behind Joffrey. The room was close as petitioners and members of the court stood to listen to the king give his rulings.

"There she is," Joffrey's sharp voice cut through the murmurs of the crowd and people turned to stare at her as she made her way forward. Her father was seated at the front of the room with the Small Council, and he stood and came forward to bring her to a chair.

"What is this about?" she whispered.

"It is nothing. Nothing but folly," he answered quietly.

The room came back to order and Robert decided on a few more matters before calling an end to the proceedings for the day. "Father, make her answer for what she's done!" Joffrey demanded. The whisperings of the crowd became a roar and Sansa heard words like "treason" on their lips. Her heart fluttered madly and she was finding it hard to breathe though she kept her face calm and her spine straight. She folded her hands in her lap and stole a glance at Sandor, who was looking stonily ahead. She did the same.

"Your grace," her father intoned, a slight edge in his voice.

"Joffrey, you'll be heard. Now be quiet," said the king as he reached for a cup of wine.

"May we be of assistance, your grace?" Varys asked.

"No, you can go. All of you. Go."

It took several minutes for the room to clear out and then they were five. Sansa looked at Sandor again, who remained as still and silent as an oak. She turned toward her father who resumed his place at the table with a look of irritation. "Sansa," he said, "come here, please."

She sat beside her father as the king took his place at the head of the table. Joffrey sat across from him, his lip curling and his eyes bright, clearly eager to vent his dissatisfaction. Sandor remained with his back to the wall, gazing out into the empty room as though he were entirely alone.

The king heaved a great sigh and said, "Alright, Joffrey, what is this about?"

"It's about her!" He jabbed a finger in Sansa's face. "She's trying to . . ." He struggled for the word but then brandished it proudly, "Usurp my power! And she's starting with my dog!"

Despite Sandor's warning, Sansa was still shocked by the vehemence of Joffrey's accusation and wanted to defend herself. "Your grace," she began, looking at Robert. He was such a big man; not as big as Sandor but still powerful and intimidating. He was usually loud and laughing but now he seemed pinned by something unpleasant.

"Don't deny it! I sent him to the market and you ordered him to walk with you while you . . . while you shopped!" He made it sound filthy and depraved.

He doesn’t know about last night! "I ordered him to do nothing. Jory and I -”

Her father laid a hand on her wrist under the table. "Was Clegane on urgent business for you, your grace?"

Joffrey seemed affronted by the question. "All of my business is urgent, Stark," he answered haughtily.

"Sansa," Robert interjected. "Did you know Clegane was on an errand for Joffrey?"

Sansa froze. She had. Sandor had told her. Would he be punished? He already had to participate in Secret Septon because of her. Would she make things even worse for him now? She resisted the urge to look at him. She had to answer. Now, or else her silence would be taken for guilt. "Yes, your grace. He told me. I -"

"I told you!" Joffrey said with a satisfied smirk.

"Clegane," the king cut in, resting his head against his fist, elbow on the table.

Sandor faced the table, nodded his head, and waited to be addressed.

"Did you finish Joffrey's errand?"

"Yes, your grace."

"I might have had something else for him to do!"

The king looks tired, Sansa thought. Though he's awake enough for feasts and hunts. The thought was uncharitable and she cut it off.

"Clegane, why did you accompany Lady Sansa through the market rather than return to the castle?"

Sandor's face didn't change expression. "Her escort was inadequate," he said flatly.

Ned drew in the corner of his mouth but remained silent while Robert seemed eager to grab on to Sandor's words. "So for her safety and to show allegiance to your prince, you escorted her. There. It's done. I knew we could settle this quickly."

"It's not settled!" Joffrey looked almost hurt before anger contorted his features again.

"Lady Sansa," the king said sharply, "Did you try to lure Clegane into your service?"

It was a ridiculous question. Sansa heard her father exhale slowly next to her. "No, your grace."

"Fine. Clegane, did you offer your services to Lady Sansa?"

"No, your grace."

"Now that's an end to it." The king rose.

Joffrey glared at Sansa and then stalked toward the door, calling, "Dog!" over his shoulder. Sandor immediately fell in step behind him.

Tears pricked at the backs of Sansa's eyes. She knew the king was watching her, though, so she composed herself and rose to leave, bidding farewell to her father and his friend. She returned to her room and gave in to her tears. How could he accuse me like that? Why didn’t he just talk to me about it?  Upset though she was, she was growing tired of crying over Joffrey Baratheon. Exhausted, she lay on her bed and fell asleep for a few hours, awaking in the afternoon feeling resigned if not entirely refreshed. Joffrey was lost to her and it was for the best. She had tried her very hardest to please him but her husband-to-be was selfish and unpredictable, and the best she could hope for now was to help him be a good ruler to his people. Loving him was no longer possible. It saddened her to think that she would spend her life in a loveless marriage but she pushed the thought from her mind. Sevenmas was in five days. She felt worse than ever that she'd caused Sandor to have to participate and wanted to give him a gift that would make up for the unpleasantness she'd caused him lately.

But what?

What do I know about him? The thought that had escaped her this morning still lingered in the corner of her mind. Sansa thought back over the past day. She'd run into Sandor at the market and joined him on his rounds later that night. They'd walked the wall, nicked some wine from the kitchens, he'd saved her from that man, she'd been (how could she have forgotten?) to his room where her father had almost caught her, and then they'd eventually returned to the Tower of the Hand. There were no apparent gift ideas. His room, though . . . He'd seemed angry when she mentioned the sash but he'd found another pin to hold his cloak and, on Sevenmas, she'd give back to him the broach he'd worn the day they'd chosen trinkets. Who was the girl in the picture on his mantle? A lover? A lover didn't seem likely. Brothels and winesinks. She'd never heard the Hound's private life discussed as part of court gossip. He was alone. Alone. Her thought from the previous night crashed over her. Despite being a highly recognizable figure at court, he withdrew and didn't interact with anyone more than he had to. It pained Sansa to think of him as lonely but he didn't exactly seem to invite friendships. Nor would something in the marketplace help ease his feelings of isolation, if she was correct in her judgment. Sansa frowned. 

Suddenly an idea struck her. Stranger! His horse! He liked his horse! She threw on a cloak and hurried toward the stables. People in the courtyard seemed to be looking at her more than usual but she was not to be deterred.

Sansa stepped into the shadows of the stables. At the far end were two stable-hands. "Excuse me," Sansa called.

They turned in surprise at the sound of a female voice. One recognized her and said, "M'lady," causing the second to follow suit.

"I would like to see San-, the Hound's horse, please."

The two young men exchanged looks. "No one goes near that horse, m'lady. Hound's orders."

"You wouldn't want to, anyway," said the other man. "Nasty temper. Likely to kick and bite as not."

Sansa, feeling desperate as she had no other ideas, said, "Your concern is very sweet but I would still like to see him." She added, "I rode him just yesterday." That was a bit of a stretch. She had, indeed, ridden Stranger . . . while Sandor had a firm grip on his lead the entire time.

They stared at her, mouths agape. "I - , m'lady -, he said -" They were clearly torn between risking Sandor's wrath and denying a request from their future queen. 

Sansa didn't want to cause them trouble so she said, "It's Sevenmas and I thought maybe something for his horse . . . but please don't tell anyone."

"Oh no, m'lady! Not a word! We can show you his tack, sure enough." They did so enthusiastically, relieved to be of service. As they showed her Stranger's saddle, girth, leads, and stirrups, they explained the quality of each piece, noting that Clegane had replaced everything after winning the Hand's Tourney. 

Sansa was disappointed. "Is there nothing Stranger could use?"

They looked at her, struggling for an answer. "It's all new, m'lady," said the younger one, apologetically.

Sansa nodded, thanked them for their help, and walked out of the stables. Aimless, she wandered around, hoping an idea would come to her. She was near the smith's when she heard a loud voice.

"Because it looks like a bloody teat, that's why!"

Sandor. She thought about looking in but he sounded angry and, after the morning's ugliness with Joffrey, she thought it best to keep moving. Why would he be talking about - ?  Sansa's face flushed red as, unbidden, the scent of him rushed forth in her memory. A prickly feeling ran over her insides. Suddenly she felt exposed, as though everyone knew her thoughts and the strange thrill they'd sent through her body. She lowered her head and returned to her room with haste.

*

Sansa's sewing sat in her lap but her eyes were on the opposite wall, her mind even farther away. She'd been pondering Sandor for some time. The only thing he ever asked from me was a song. That had been months ago. He'd called her a 'pretty thing' and commented on her growth but she'd never really thought much about that, drunk and scary as he'd been that night. She'd told him she would sing for him gladly but he'd called her a liar. How had this slipped from her memory all this time? Sansa pursed her lips. She'd been sincere. Sevenmas gifts were supposed to reflect the Seven and he'd asked for a song about knights and fair maids. Would a song be a paltry gift? He'd scorned her choice of Florian and Jonquil . . . A frustrated sigh escaped her. Think! What would you give a friend? Suddenly she laughed. She'd been so frightened of his scarred face when she'd first met him, she could never have imagined talking with him or being comfortable alone with him as she often did and was. He might not always be pleasant but he was honest, a trait she found lacking at court. He was one of the few people who spoke to her without trying to curry favor. She trusted him. He'd become something of a friend. Why was he always looking at her, if not to ensure her comfort and protection? What a relief! A gift for a friend was a far less onerous task than a gift for the mistreated servant of a petulant prince.

Sansa's thoughts returned to Stranger. Besides the girl in the drawing on his mantle (because why else would she be there?), Stranger seemed to be the only living thing to which Sandor had an attachment. What kind of personal gift could she make for Stranger? Then it hit her: a saddle blanket. The stable-hands hadn't shown her Stranger's saddle blanket specifically but the sturdy, plain brown cloth had been amongst the other items they had shown her. Sansa wasted no time in calling her maid and instructing her to bring a variety of fabrics to her room. Inspiration finally having struck, Sansa was eager to begin right away. Septa Mordane always praised her stitches as the finest she'd ever seen so appliquéing some fierce-looking dogs along the border of a saddle blanket would be well within her abilities. The thought that Sandor might not like anything fancy began to cool her enthusiasm but then she thought, I'll just put a different design on the opposite side. It will be like two gifts!

Her maid having delivered the supplies, Sansa selected her fabric and set to work. She took her evening meal in her room, agreeably occupied and relieved to have a direction at last.

 

Chapter Text

"What are you giving the Hound?" Arya asked the next morning at breakfast.

"It's supposed to be a surprise! You already know who I have; do you have to know what I'm giving him, too?"

Arya shrugged. "I just wondered."

Suddenly Sansa wanted to know if her idea had been a good one. "I'm making a saddle blanket for his horse."

Arya looked mildly impressed. "That's a good idea. And it's not actually a gift for the Hound, which is even better."

"Arya," Sansa admonished.

"Sansa, Arya," their father said, entering the room. "I need to talk with you both." He looked unhappy.

"What is it?" Sansa asked.

"The king has decided to go hunting and he's insisting that I go with him. We'll leave the morning after Sevenmas."

"Can I go?" Arya wanted to know.

Ned Stark gave her a tired smile. "No, you can't go. You'll be under Septa Mordane's care while I'm away." Arya made a face.

Sansa knew her father thought King Robert hunted too often and governed his kingdom too seldom but he seemed more worn down by it this time. "Is that all, Father?"

"It's enough for now." He bid them farewell and left.

"What's bothering him?" Sansa asked her sister.

Arya rolled her eyes. "The hunt. Weren't you listening?"

*

After breaking her fast, Sansa returned to her room and resumed work on the saddle-blanket. It was a rainy, windy day yet she felt warm and cozy by the fire. She'd decided on a border of House Clegane crests for the saddle blanket, giving the edge of the blanket a serrated look that she thought Sandor might like. As she stitched small black dogs onto the crests, Sansa felt immense satisfaction that her work was turning out so well. She tried to image Sandor's face when he saw it. He rarely smiled and when he did it was a fearsome sight, but he was capable of a happy look, if one knew how to recognize it. She thought of the dog outside of his room and smiled to herself.

His face had frightened her so at first. Coupled with his anger and his size, he'd seemed a violent, hulking brute. As she came to know him better, she thought him ugly rather than unhinged. He looked like one of Old Nan's monsters on the only side of his face that drew the eye. One couldn't help but recoil from the raw, red flesh and exposed jawbone. Sansa knew he was dangerous, of course, but no monster. He could be gentle and would protect her. Now, though, she realized that the features of his face, the craggy flesh, the hooked nose, the heavy brow, didn't attract her notice they way they used to. She had simply come to appreciate him. She'd erred, yes, in insisting on seven people during the Secret Septon exchange but she would do her best to help him enjoy it. And if his eyes took on a softer look and crinkled at the edges, she would know she'd succeeded.

The memory of his scent came back to her then, causing her to gasp. What had that been about? The Hound wasn’t handsome but something about him, so near, had pulled her in at that moment. She’d wanted to get closer. And what? Inhale until she could figure out what it was that attracted her? Sansa’s face flushed and she was glad she was alone. These were not proper thoughts. Sandor might think her pretty but surely he wasn’t entertaining such invasive thoughts about her, or thinking about her at all. Her cheeks warmed at the very idea. The most she knew about men was from Joffrey, who had kissed her a few times early in their acquaintance. The memory of his fleshy wormlips on hers now made her wrinkle her nose in disgust. How had she ever thought him beautiful? Could two people be more different than Joffrey and Sandor? Sansa had such mixed feelings on them both that it quite unsettled her. It took a great deal of concentration to stop thinking at all and focus on her sewing.

*

Lucy brought her soup for lunch as Sansa continued stitching black dogs. Hours later, she was surprised when Lucy reappeared to ask if she wished to get dressed for the evening meal. Sansa's fingers were tired but she was nearly done with the first side and eager to continue making progress. As nothing special was planned, and since things were going so well, she decided to keep working. For the opposite side of the blanket, she'd decided to embroider a ferocious dog's head in each corner and base her pattern on Sandor's helm. It was late in the evening when she finally finished the first one. The silvery-gray thread was a subtle contrast to the black fabric but, she thought, Sandor might find the yellow of the first side to be too eye-catching. Sansa finally conceded that she would have to stop for the night. Tomorrow she would finish embroidering the dogs' heads, sew the borders to the stronger material she'd chosen for the middle of the blanket, and then stitch the entire thing together. Sansa smiled as she put away her supplies. It had been a good day's work and things were firmly under control.

 

Chapter Text

Rather early in the morning, Sansa was called upon by Jeyne. "Sansa! You keep to your rooms! Don't you know what they're saying?"

"Who? What is there to say?"

Jeyne grew alarmed. "Everyone! They're saying Joffrey accused you of treason and the king held a special trial for you two days ago! It's whispered by some that you're in the dungeons!"

It was as though the air had been knocked from her lungs. "What? Trial? Treason? Jeyne, you can see for yourself I'm not in the dungeons. I've just been sewing." Had the world gone mad while she'd slept?

Jeyne looked just slightly abashed. "Yes, I'm glad for it but what happened? I heard you were summoned to appear before the king and you haven't been seen since."

Sansa wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it but she knew the power of gossip at court. Its power was second only to its speed. She remembered Joffrey's exclamation at her arrival in the throne room and the murmurs that had followed but how had his lack of manners grown into this? She explained to Jeyne that she'd seen the king, but that her father, Joffrey, and the Hound had also been there. It had been a discussion, not a trial, and she was most certainly not being punished for anything. If her own friend believed this, what must everyone else think? Sansa pressed Jeyne for every detail and then ushered her out the door as soon as was reasonably polite. She then called for her maid and, once she was dressed in a flattering gown of light violet with her face scrubbed pink and her hair swept up in the southron style, she went out herself. Sansa knew the best way to refute her alleged imprisonment was to demonstrate her freedom and so she moved through the castle, smiling, head up, a kind word on her lips for everyone she passed.

People stared and whispered but Sansa would not be cowed. She would much rather have been working on Sandor's saddle blanket but, if she was to be queen, she must lead, and, she supposed, that included leading the thoughts of the court on occasion. She was both hopeful and fearful of encountering Joffrey but a successful exchange with him would be the best way of quelling the outrageous rumors about her. Sansa eventually found him in the training yard. Sandor was with him, as ever, and so were a small group of knights.

"Good day, your grace," she said pleasantly as she curtsied.

Joffrey eyed her suspiciously but said, "Good day."

She greeted the others and then stood to the side as Joffrey prepared to spar against Tommen. As a squire helped Tommen adjust his padding, one of the knights said in an undertone to Sansa, "It's good to see you out, Lady Sansa." The other knights chuckled knowingly.

Sandor moved closer and the group fell silent. "Thank you, my lord," she murmured.

Joffrey rounded on Sansa, "What are you telling him?"

She couldn't very well tell Joffrey that she was thanking Sandor for putting a stop to jokes that Joffrey's own behavior had started. "Nothing of consequence, your grace."

"You never say anything of consequence. Dog, go get my sword."

Sandor walked over to retrieve the sword that was in a rack a mere foot from where Joffrey stood.

Once armed, Joffrey counted to three quickly and set upon Tommen before the younger boy was ready. Tommen’s padding was so thick his arms lacked a full range of movement. It didn't take long before Joffrey knocked him off balance and gave him a couple extra whacks when he was down. Joffrey turned toward the onlookers with an expression of defiant triumph and the knights clapped. Sansa covered her mouth with her hand, looking in anguish at poor Tommen, who continued to roll in the dirt unable to get up, red-faced and huffing. Sandor crossed to him in a few quick strides, hauled him to his feet, adjusted his helmet, and handed him his sword. He said a few low words to him before walking back to Joffrey's side of the yard, where some people had gathered to watch.

Tommen looked so dazed by the needlessly ruthless attack that Sansa couldn't stop herself from calling to him. "Tommen, are you hurt?"

"I'm-"

"Don't you speak to him! The yard is no place for women. Dog, stand in front of her if she can't bear to watch."

Sandor moved to block her view but, rather than turn his back, he faced her. Sansa's cheeks were burning with shame. For all intents and purposes, she was penned in like a hog. She looked up at Sandor and saw he was staring at her intently. He gave the smallest shake of his head, disgusted. “You should go,” he said, barely above a whisper.

“No. Don’t you know what’s being said about me?”

“I heard.”

Sansa’s anger flared. She would not confirm the rumors by allowing Joffrey to punish her. She stepped around Sandor in time to see Joffrey advance on his younger brother with even more fervor. Tommen started to back away but Joffrey ordered him to be still. Tommen raised his sword in defense but Joffrey made to knock it away and sliced open his brother’s temple, sending a wash of blood down Tommen’s chubby cheek. Tommen touched his fingers to the gash and looked at them, horrified by the red, sticky mess. The sight seemed to make him woozy.

"Help him!" Sansa cried.

Sandor was already hurrying toward the younger prince. The knights were silent and still under the gallery where an even larger crowd had gathered.

Joffrey hurled his sword to the side and made for Sansa. "Don't. You. Tell. My. Sworn. Shield. WHAT! TO! DO! I knew it! Stealing from your prince is treason!"

"I'm not! I didn't mean-" Her mind reeled. What did she call Sandor in public? It was beside the point. "He's hurt!"

"He's losing!"

Sandor turned and started back toward Joffrey.

"Sansa!" called a voice from the balcony. It was her father. Joffrey stopped a few feet short of her.

"It's just a lovers' spat, Ned. They'll make up soon enough," said the king, next to him.

Sansa had never seen her father look so angry. He snapped something at Robert and then stalked back inside the castle.

"You there," Robert called to the squires. "See to his wounds." Then he turned and disappeared into the darkness of the castle as well.

Joffrey lowered his eyes back to Sansa, pure hatred burning in them. Sandor reached out to grab him by the shoulder. Then a hand was on Sansa's elbow and her father was escorting her from the yard. The onlookers had multiplied in number and chattered loudly as she was drawn away.

*

“That boy,” her father muttered angrily.

Sansa’s mind was in a spin. She’d failed at turning the tide of gossip. Joffrey had actually accused her of treason now and had very nearly physically attacked her. Sansa knew enough of people to realize that she must reassert herself as someone to be respected, and soon. She’d tried before to win back Joffrey’s love but she now knew his love wasn’t what mattered, it was his acceptance of her as his queen. Horrid though he might be, the people would not accept her if the king didn’t.

“Sansa, I want you to stay in your rooms for the rest of the day.”

“No! I didn’t do anything wrong! People already think I’m in the dungeons; to disappear from sight would only confirm that I’m guilty of something!”

“Sansa, I don’t have time to argue this right now. There’s a small council meeting in a few minutes and then I’ll be having a few words with Robert. Or maybe Cersei, since she’s the only one the boy seems to heed at all.”

“Lord Stark. Lady Sansa.”

Sansa and her father both turned at the sound of Sandor Clegane’s voice.

“Clegane.” Sansa was discomfited by her father’s curt tone.

Sandor glanced at Ned but spoke to Sansa. “Prince Tommen thanks you for your concern and invites you to join him and his kittens for the midday meal.”

“And Prince Joffrey?” her father inquired angrily.

“Prince Joffrey is on his way to see the queen.”

Ned seemed loath to speak but bit out the words, “I saw that you tried to stop the prince from attacking my daughter. You have my thanks.”

Sandor kept a neutral expression but inclined his head briefly.

“Please tell Prince Tommen that I accept his invitation.” Being seen on good terms with the prince’s family was crucial now, and she sincerely liked Tommen.

“Sansa, we just discussed –“

“San-, my lord, will Prince Joffrey be dining with Prince Tommen?”

“He never has.”

“Father, I’ll take Jory with me, if he can be spared from his duties. Joffrey’s sworn shield,” here she gave a questioning look to Sandor, “will be guarding him the rest of the day, is that not so?”

“It is,” confirmed Sandor flatly.

“I’ll be perfectly safe, Father. It’s not fair to punish me for Joffrey’s actions.”

Ned sighed. “Fine. Take Jory with you. We’ll discuss this again later.” He paused, looking like he’d swallowed glass. “Clegane, would you take Lady Sansa to the Tower of the Hand and see that she finds Jory Cassel, the head of my household guard?”

“Aye.”

Ned gave a last look at Sansa and then exited down another corridor with an air of being miserably overwhelmed.

Sansa looked up at Sandor who regarded her neutrally.

“What will the queen tell him?”

“That he still has to marry you.”

Sansa frowned. Joffrey would never become tractable if he resented her.

“Save yourself some pain, girl, and give him what he wants.”

“What does he want?”

The corner of Sandor’s mouth twitched. “He wants you to smile and smell sweet and be his lady love. He wants to hear you recite all your pretty little words the way the septa taught you. He wants you to love him . . . and submit to him.”

“He hasn’t earned those things.”

“When has a prince ever had to earn anything?”

*

Dining with Tommen lifted Sansa’s spirits. He was such a sweet boy, and so excited to show off his kittens, that the hour with him passed quickly and pleasantly. Feeling calmer, she began to think again on how to repair the situation with Joffrey. Sandor had touched on a truth: Joffrey’s demeanor was the result of his position and upbringing, but her very soul rebelled against the thought of debasing herself for the sake of Joffrey’s pride. Who is being prideful now? As queen, she would have to handle difficult situations with grace and finesse. She knew her father, on occasion, had to find common cause with men he didn’t like, trust, or respect, and she would, too. She would start with the future king.

Sansa walked to the royal apartments and asked the guard to be admitted to Joffrey’s chambers. When she entered the room, Sandor gave her a look of warning. Joffrey glared daggers at her but Sansa curtsied and began to speak before Joffrey could have the first word, as was customary. “Your grace, I’ve come to apologize for upsetting you this afternoon.”

Joffrey shut his mouth for a beat. “Then do it.”

“I apologize for upsetting you this afternoon. I was concerned for Tommen and requested help from anyone willing to give it. It was not intended as an order for your sworn shield.” That was true enough. She did not look at Sandor.

Joffrey didn’t seem to know what to say.

“I hope you’ll permit me to watch you spar again in the future.” Sansa had no such desire but if he could be cajoled into conceding that small point perhaps she could entice him to go a step farther and unwittingly help restore her reputation.

“Perhaps.” He looked at her suspiciously.

Sansa gave him a brilliant smile. “You are very generous, your grace, and fearsome to behold with a sword.”

Joffrey didn’t quite succeed in not looking mollified by her words. In a haughty voice he warned, “I can’t abide the wailing of women and I won’t spare my opponents on your account.”

“Nor should you.”

He seemed surprised but pleased by her ready agreement.

Sansa went on before her nerve failed her. “My prince, may I accompany you to the dining hall this evening? I should like to hear more of your opinions on the correct conduct of fighting men.” Sansa’s heart beat wildly in her chest. Her words sounded hollow and false in her ears and she prayed to the old gods and the new that he would not see through her.

Joffrey considered that for a moment. “You may. But you’ll come here. I’m not walking all the way to the Tower of the Hand to collect you.”

Relief flooded Sansa. Her smile was genuine this time. “Until this evening, your grace.” She curtsied low and left Joffrey’s chambers while she was ahead, avoiding Sandor’s eye the whole time. In the hall, she grinned broadly. She’d done it.

*

That evening Sansa swept into the dining hall on Joffrey’s arm, wearing the necklace he’d given her and a gown she knew he favored. Their entrance was met with a brief, shocked silence. Sansa paid Joffrey a compliment just at that moment and he drew himself up and smiled. Let them all think he’s proud to have me as his betrothed, she thought, looking out at the stunned faces of the court. Sansa paid rapt attention to Joffrey’s untested opinions throughout the meal and from the corner of her eye saw the courtiers wonder at the change between them. Farther along the dais, she saw the disgruntled face of her father. She tried to convey to him with a glance that everything was under control but he wouldn’t look other than displeased. At the end of the meal, Joffrey declared, “Dog, you can see my lady to her rooms now.”

“I can have my septa escort me, your grace. Your sworn shield’s place is at your side.”

Joffrey liked that and Sansa felt buoyed by her achievement. As queen, she would do right by her people, and the first step was being able to guide Joffrey, which she just might be able to manage after all.

 

Chapter Text

"Sansa, it's for the best." 

"Father, no!"

"This betrothal was a mistake. Prince Joffrey has no regard for you and Robert won't take him in hand."

"I'm meant to be queen!"

"I'll make you another match. There are worse things than not being queen."

"What about your position as Hand?"

"Another mistake. Robert ignores my counsel, allows Littlefinger to borrow money without a thought as to how to repay it, lets his son to dishonor his future queen, and cares about none of it so much as feasting and," he seemed to remember he was talking to his daughter, "and other things," he ended flatly.

"Maybe if you told King Robert your feelings, he'd be willing to do more."

"Sansa, I've known Robert a long time. He likes challenge and conquest on a grand scale. Everyday matters don't interest him. More and more of his subjects are going hungry and, what does he do? He organizes a hunting party.”

“What about the queen?”

“Cersei thinks the boy can do no wrong,” he said with disgust. “Joffrey knows no boundaries and shows no restraint. Only his mad dog seems able to contain him, and just barely.”

“He’s not mad.”

“Sansa -“

She was not going to give up. "Father, I know Joffrey will be a poor husband but even married to another lord I'll still be his subject. At least, as queen, I might be able to do some good. I might be able to help him be a better ruler." Hadn’t he noticed her coup last night?

Ned sighed impatiently. “One evening of civility doesn’t make him Azor Ahai. You’re old enough to realize that.”

"Please, Father, it's Sevenmas. Please talk to King Robert again before you break the match. Maybe he doesn't understand how strongly you feel."

"All right, Sansa. I'll talk to him. But if nothing changes, we're going back to Winterfell."

Sansa nodded. "Thank you, Father."

*

After talking with her father, Sansa took a walk along the outer wall. The day was cool but clear and she tilted her face up toward the sunshine and breathed in the fresh air. A crisp breeze was rolling in over Blackwater Bay and she looked out at the ships. After so much sewing, it was good to look upon things that were far away. As she leaned against the stone, she heard the chink and rattle of an armed man approaching. Turning, she saw it was Sandor.

“Good day, my lord.”

“Out celebrating your victory?”

She fell in step beside him. “What do you mean?”

“You took my advice, little bird. I didn’t think you would.”

“Gloating makes you sound like Joffrey.”

Sandor barked out a laugh and two sentries at the post ahead poked their heads out at the unexpected noise. He called their names and asked them to send him the two sentries who were posted clear on the other side of the Red Keep. They appeared confused by the order by went, leaving the apse empty for Sandor and Sansa. After stepping into the shade, Sandor leaned up against the wall and looked out at the water, pulling a flask from his tunic as he did so. “So you’re not as enamored of your prince as you seemed to be last night.”

“I know what he is now and, thanks to you, I know how to handle him.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, girl.”

“Now you sound like my father.”

Sandor’s face grew serious. “How so?”

Sansa explained about her father wanting to end her match with Joffrey and return with her and Arya to Winterfell.

Sandor looked out over the Blackwater again. “You would be safer there.”

“I could do more good here.”

“You couldn’t do good at Winterfell?”

“I could, but here I could help rule.”

“So you want to be the one to tell the pretty knights who to kill.”

“No, I want to make sure the smallfolk have enough to eat, and -”

“And Stannis will drop his claim to the throne, the Ironborn will be happy with their islands, and Joffrey will never imagine a slight. Simple little bird. You really think last night changed anything? How long do you think you’ll be able to keep Joffrey in line?”

“Forever, I hope.”

Sandor snorted. “That’s a long time. Hardly seems worth the bother. You won’t be queen for years. You think you can keep him happy all that while?” He studied her face.

“Over time –“

He pushed off the wall and came to stand close to her, looking down into her eyes. “Over time he’ll still be what he is. King’s Landing is a nasty place, and it’s not going to get any better when Joffrey is king, no matter how pretty his queen is.”

“So you think my father’s right to end the match.”

Sandor set his jaw. “Your father’s doing what he thinks is best for you.”

Sansa looked down in frustration. Did no one appreciate how well things had gone last night?

Strong fingers squeezed her chin as Sandor tilted her face upward. His eyes were the gray of storm clouds. “Don’t be a martyr, girl. They don’t live long, and it’s not worth the songs they might sing about you.”

His wine-soaked breath was gone on the breeze but the intensity of his look remained and Sansa raised a hand to smooth his hair away from his scars. He released her chin and stepped away. He took a long pull from his flask and rested his forearms on the ledge, looking down. Sansa approached and put a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at her and looked away again. She dropped her hand. She couldn’t think of a thing to say. She realized she’d miss Sandor if she had to return to the north.

After a long moment, he looked at her and said, “Listen, girl, your father . . . some men can’t resist the lure of power and would be willing to sell more than their daughters to get it. Not Lord Stark, no. Your father’s ready to tell the king and his warhammer to bugger off just to keep you safe. It’s no small thing.”

Sansa thought of Sandor’s own father and flushed. “I-” She had a sudden urge to throw her arms around him. How had she ever found him difficult to talk to? He spoke readily enough when he wanted to and, what’s more, he was honest and caring .  .  . and nobody knew it but her, which tugged at her heart. “I thank you for your kind counsel.” Her jaw trembled just slightly and Sandor regarded it with apprehension.

“Don’t thank me. Your father can thank me with a cask of Dornish red when you’re back freezing up north.”

Sansa gave a weak laugh. Finally, after all this time, he’d mentioned something he’d like for a gift. “Is that what you’d want? More wine?”

Sandor grew serious again. “No, but it’s all you could give.”

Sansa didn’t understand.

Just then the sentries arrived. Sandor gave them some orders and then said to Sansa, “Come on. I’ll take you back to your rooms. Keep you safe for the prince.”

She took the arm he offered and leaned into him. He looked down at her, his brow furrowed as though pained. He laid a hand over the one on his arm and squeezed it for just a moment before conducting her back toward the castle.

*

After the evening meal, Sansa finished her work on the saddle blanket and thought about Sandor. As she wrapped the blanket in gray cloth and secured it with a white ribbon, she wished she could give him something more.

 

Chapter Text

"I never thought I'd have to come to the Tower of the Hand to avoid seeing the Hand." Robert laughed and looked around Sansa's room. "Comfortable here?"

"Oh, yes, your grace. Everything is just lovely, thank you," Sansa smiled, unsure why the king had come to see her, and alone at that.

"Good, good," he answered. "Sit down, if you would, my girl, I have something serious to discuss with you. It seems your father is mad at me and is threatening to end your match with my son."

Sansa wasn't sure if she should look surprised or not. Fortunately, Robert wasn't looking at her and went on without waiting for her response. "I say, he made a deal and should stick to it. It's good for the realm for our Houses to be united. Now you," he looked at her, "are more reasonable than your hot-headed father, I hope. Women don't like to be gossiped about unless they've made other women jealous, is that it? Your father tells me you were very upset by your argument with Joffrey but I think you're a smart girl and can rise above it." He gave her a coaxing smile. Sansa remained still. The queen did not think she was a smart girl and she doubted very much that the king had an opinion on the matter at all.

The smile slid off Robert's face and he straightened up in his chair. "Joffrey can be difficult but you'll learn to get along with him. You were all smiles the other night . . ."

"He accused me of treason and nearly attacked me, your grace.” She hesitated to criticize the king but she thought of her father and added, “Surely that merits some reproach."

The king shifted his bulk and glanced at her and then away again. "What would make it up to you, then? I can have one of Cersei's seamstresses make you a new dress. Maybe some jewels to go with it?"

Sansa was disappointed. Apparently the king had an opinion of her after all. "That's very generous, your grace, but I have another idea." She told him and he laughed uproariously.

"You must not let him know it was my idea! Please. Your grace."

The king looked at her, amused. "Alright, Sansa. I can't say it's not fair. I'll tell him before we leave for the hunt."

"I . . . I hope the queen will not be very angry."

The king's look darkened. "The queen is not likely to like it, but she and Ser Jaime will be visiting their father at Casterly Rock and they leave in two days as well."

"You are very generous, your grace. I thank you."

Robert smiled, pleased. "Tell your father you're happy. I don't want his long face ruining the hunt."

 

Chapter Text

Sevenmas morning dawned overcast and chilly. Sansa attended the service in the sept, happily adding her voice to the hymns. Afterwards, she dashed back to her room for Sandor's saddle blanket, but that was not the gift she most looked forward to giving him. With nervous anticipation, she made her way to the royal family's solar. King Robert had invited her family to celebrate the Feast of the Father at midday followed by their Secret Septon exchange. To her chagrin, Sandor was not invited to eat with them. No one seemed to care as he stood while they dined on a stew of fish, clams, scallops, and lobster. Lamprey pie, eel cakes, and octopus poached in ink and served with a rosemary bread followed. Roasted carrots, boiled potatoes. Crisp white wine. Iced peaches, lemon cakes. Had she not been so eager for the exchange, Sansa might have wanted a nap after all the rich food.

They eventually moved away from the table to a sitting area near the fire. "Who chose my Dragon?" Joffrey demanded right away.

Everyone looked around until the king said, "I did – and I got you a Dragon!" He pinched the coin between two fingers and laughed.

Joffrey's eyes narrowed.

"Ah, learn to take a joke, boy. Your gift is in the cupboard over there."

Joffrey crossed the room and opened the cupboard door. "A crossbow!"

Robert seemed pleased that he liked it. 

"Your grace?" Sansa said. "I wasn't fortunate enough to draw your token but I got you something anyway."

Joffrey looked annoyed at first but then nodded, seeming to decide that she should, indeed, have gotten something for him. Sansa brought forth the quiver she'd had made. On checkered red and gold leather were yellow lions and black stags. The corner of each square was studded in brass. It was truly fit for a prince. It's a shame to waste something so beautiful on him, Sansa thought.

"It's empty -" Joffrey began just as Ned noted, "A handsome quiver, your grace. It will serve you well during the hunt."

The prince looked displeased but gave a nod. "I had you, Stark. You'll find your fig preserves over there," he said, waving a hand at a table in the corner of the room with an air of absolute indifference.

"Thank you, your grace." Sansa felt badly for her father. He hated figs.

"Alright, who had me?" asked the king.

"I did!" Arya said, setting a bag on the table in front of him.

King Robert pulled the bag down to find it contained an enormous tankard. He laughed from his belly as he picked up a flagon of wine and poured it into the tankard, which he raised in salute before taking a long draw from it. "Thank you, my dear. It's just the right size to take the edge off a king's thirst."

“I’m glad you like it, your grace,” said Arya. Looking around in anticipation, she added, “Who had me?”

"I did,” said her father. "I've arranged dancing lessons for you."

"Dancing lessons?" Arya's face fell.

"Yes, like we discussed." Ned winked at her and Arya's eyes widened in surprise.

"Thank you, Father!"

He squeezed her shoulder.

"Who's next?" Arya asked. "I already gave King Robert his gift."

"Cersei?" Robert invited. The queen gave him a venomous look and held out her hand. On her palm was her own earring, which she threaded into her earlobe with a sinuous grace.

"Mother! You're not supposed to choose yourself!"

"Let that be a lesson in being more specific, Joffrey."

An uneasy pause followed, which the king broke by saying, "Clegane, what do you have for Lady Sansa?"

Sandor handed her a rectangular wooden box, the top of which was carved with a direwolf on a snowy outcropping of rock, a weirwood tree in the background. She smiled at it. Home! She opened the box and on a bed of fleece laid a delicate silver bracelet. Small charms hung from it: a scale, a cradle, a lily for the maiden, a hammer, a sword, a lantern, and a lemon. "It's beautiful, thank you!" She held it up so the others could admire it before fastening it around her wrist.

"Great gift," muttered Joffrey. "Your turn, dog," he added, louder.

Sansa moved to retrieve Sandor's gift from a side table. He unwrapped it and the hint of a smile passed over his face. The corner of his mouth twitched.

"What is it, Sansa?" her father asked.

"It's a saddle blanket," she said, as Sandor unfolded it.

"Fine work," said the queen.

"Thank you, your grace."

"My thanks, Lady Sansa," the Hound said stiffly before turning to place it on the side table, his back to the room. He fingered the stitched dogs and turned the blanket over to look at the other side.

"This crossbow could take down a boar!" Joffrey said loudly, turning the talk to the morrow's hunt.

"The lemon didn't -" Sandor started to say quietly.

Sansa blushed. She suddenly knew what he thought of the lemon. "Lemon cakes are my favorite. It was kind of you to remember. Oh! I have your broach." She pulled it from her pocket and offered it to him. His rough fingertips brushed against her palm as he took it from her. He held her eye as he flipped back his cloak and affixed the broach to the inside of it. Her direwolf pin was there, too. When his cloak fell back into place, both were hidden from view. Then he looked away and slowly began to refold the blanket. The others were distracted by Joffrey's enactment of exactly how he would clear the forest of game with his new crossbow. If she didn't speak to Sandor now, she might miss her chance. "Are you on duty tonight?" Sansa asked under her breath.

"Yes."

"May I join you?"

"No, it's cold and looks like rain."

She had to give him his gift tonight or tomorrow Joffrey would ruin the surprise for sure. It sounded terribly forward but she couldn't think of a better way. "Would you come to my chambers on your rounds?"

Sandor flicked an eye toward her.

"I have another present for you," she said to explain away any implied salaciousness in her request.

He snorted. "As it happens, I have one for you, too."

"Oh no, the bracelet is more than enough."

"The bracelet was for them. I have something else for you."

*

Sansa attended the afternoon services at the sept and the feast in the great hall that evening. She took a long bath and put on a heavy woolen gown. Surely Sandor would be along any time. She found she couldn't settle to anything, expecting his knock every moment. After a couple of hours, she began to wonder if he was coming at all. Had something happened? Maybe I should go find him. No, he'll be angry if he comes and I'm not here. She eventually stopped listening for footsteps in the hall and sat by the fire with a book, the day's excitement and the late hour making her eyelids heavy. She dreamt of Winterfell. She was reclining in one of the spring-fed pools, the warmth soaking into her bones, when the water seemed to press more heavily against her, weighing her down just slightly. It was pleasant but unexpected and roused her a little. A noise. I thought I was alone . . .

Sansa's eyes fluttered open and before her was a hulking shape. Sandor was in the chair opposite hers, his elbows on his knees, one hand clasped over the other, just his nose and eyes visible above his hands. His long hair was wet, as was his cloak. He was staring at her.

"How . . . how long have you been here?" she asked, straightening up and adjusting the blanket that hadn't been covering her when she'd fallen asleep.

"Not long."

"What time is it?"

He dropped his hands between his knees and sat up straighter. "It's late. My shift is almost over."

Sansa struggled to figure out what time that meant it was but her mind was still wooly with sleep.

"Where's the box your bracelet was in?"

"On the mantle," she said as she made to stand.

Sandor motioned for her to stay and stood to retrieve the box himself. He knelt on one knee before her and opened it, angling it toward the fire so she could see. "There's a false bottom," he said, removing the fleece lining and pressing an edge of the floor of the box, causing it to shift as though on a fulcrum. He lifted out the wood and below was another compartment in which rested a small sheathed dagger and a length of silken cord.

Sansa stared. The Hound raised his eyes to hers. "If you're going to stay in King’s Landing and continue to go out alone, or without a proper escort, you should carry steel."

He stood and pulled her to her feet. He rested the box on a table and withdrew the dagger and cord. He stepped close and brought the cord behind her back, his arms encircling her. As he pulled the cord against her lower back, swaying her body toward his just slightly, the scent of him reached her nose. The rain had stripped away any smell but his and she was almost overwhelmed by the desire to taste that scent on his skin, to breathe it in and lick the rainwater from the side of his neck. There was something so clean and natural in it yet something else, something strong and defiant and dominant. Stop it. What is wrong with you? Sandor was kneeling in front of her again, drawing the end of the cord attached to the dagger through a loop at the other end.

"The length is off. You took your sash before I could use it as a measure."

Sansa knew she had to say something, needed to say something to cover the distraction she was feeling. "What am I to do with a dagger, my lord?"

"Once the length is right - ," he unsheathed the dagger and cut off some of the cord, "- you can wear it under your cloak. You could wear it with a dress and put the dagger in a pocket, maybe cover the cord with a sash . . ."

Sansa nodded. He was reknotting the cord to the sheath, causing it to tug against her waist. He stood again and looked at her, evaluating the length of the cord and seeming to decide it was long enough to reach a pocket but short enough not to show if she chose to hide it. Then he stepped toward her and placed one hand on her waist to hold the loop in place while he pulled the dagger-end through. Sansa didn't doubt his concern for her safety but she seemed to be alone in finding his outfitting her with a weapon to be somehow intimate. She couldn't stop herself. She laid a hand on his forearm, so thickly roped with muscle, causing his eyes to travel from her waist to her face. "Thank you."

He stepped back and started to rewind the cord to return it and the dagger to their hidden compartment. "I can show you how to use it when I come back from the hunt. It's late and we leave early."

"I still have a gift for you."

Sandor returned the box to order and put it on the mantle before turning back to her. "You should go to sleep. Joffrey will want you to look pretty to see him off."

"Joffrey will likely want my head on a spike tomorrow because you're not going on the hunt."

Sandor drew himself up to his full height and crossed his arms over his massive chest. "Explain."

"My father told the king he wished to call off my betrothal to Joffrey because of, because of his treatment of me lately," she said in a rush. "King Robert wants to preserve the alliance between our families so he treated with me privately."

"Treated with you."

"Yes. And," heat flushed her face, "and I requested that you be put in my service while Joffrey is away at the hunt. I made King Robert promise to tell Joffrey it was his idea, that it was a punishment for accusing me of trying to steal you, your services, that is, from him in the first place and for his . . . behavior this week."

Sandor regarded her for a moment. "A better punishment would have been to make him miss the hunt."

"Having him here would be a punishment for me." It was treason but true.

A flicker of amusement crossed the Hound's face. "In your service while half the court is on a hunt? And what would you have me do? Escort you to the godswood? To the market?"

"No, my lord." She hadn't explained clearly. "I'd have you do nothing. Nothing but what pleases you, that is. You wouldn't have to patrol the walls, or be on-duty all the time, or at all . . ."

Sandor snorted but didn't say anything. She thought maybe he was displeased. He wasn't a toy to be passed around, after all. "And . . . and I could sing you the song I promised you, if it please you."

"You'd sing for me." He was looking at her with something akin to appraisal.

"Daily, if you wish it."

"In exchange for nothing."

"Yes. It's what I thought you'd like best for Sevenmas."

He chuckled and rested his hands on his sword belt. "I like it, little bird, but they could be on that hunt for a fortnight. I’m sure you didn’t think –"

"I think you’ve been on-duty for nearly twenty years. I hope you will enjoy the freedom."

He laughed. "Your father will be on the hunt as well, and some of his men."

"That's true, my lord."

"You won't be very well protected."

"I've recently acquired a handsome dagger."

"Which you don't know how to use."

"You can teach me when they come back."

"I'll teach you while they're gone.”

Sansa smiled broadly; she couldn't help it. “The time is yours to spend however you’d like.”

“Is it mine to spend with whoever I'd like?” He looked down at her, waiting.

For just a second, Sansa froze in surprise but then, emboldened by his directness, she leaned in to brush a kiss against his cheek, murmuring, “Happy Sevenmas, Sandor.”

He turned and caught her lips with his, pulling her towards him. She tingled all over.

“Aye, it is.”

*

The End!

A/N - Not really. There's a sequel: Seven More.