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The Coldest Winter

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When he woke he wondered as he always did why he bothered to get up at all. But he did everyday nevertheless. Wrapping himself in one of the furs from the bed, he sat up and reached for the cane so he could stand with a groan.

"Seven buggering hells," he grumbled.

He made his way slowly to the cupboard and found a clean shirt and tunic and breeches and woolen smallclothes that he knew would be almost as itchy as they were warm. He brought them back to the bed so he could sit down to dress, a necessary practice now but it still rankled as an indignity. A man should stand to get into his own bloody smallclothes.

"Come," he rasped as a knock sounded.

"'Morning, m'lord," his squire said to him. "I've fetched hot water. Will you eat in the hall or shall I have your morning meal brought to you?"

He paused momentarily. "I'll eat in the hall," he decided.

"Yes, m'lord. Will you go to the yard as well?"

"I will," he replied firmly and almost defensively, "as always."

"Very good, m'lord," the young man told him smoothly. "Shall I ready armor or…"

'Just mail; and a leather jerkin…where's my swordbelt?" he asked now. The young man found it on top of a table inside the door. He had taken to putting it down in odd places instead of by the bed where he had always kept it within reach, even on his wedding night. I was sworn to protect her, even then. He tore his mind away abruptly.

He sat silently at the end of the high table, surveying the hall: many young faces filled the benches now, to replace those lost. Most from the long war, the War of Five Kings they had called it until it became a fight against the Others. The North had been decimated, and a long winter reigned over them all and they had fought to survive and those that did had bred children and grown old and died. It was those grown children that peopled the Great Hall of Winterfell now.

They had grown up with him, they knew him as Lord Clegane and never as the Hound as some of the old men had. He remembered their hard looks, suspicious and resentful of his presence when he brought their lady home to them. She had faced them unflinchingly too, the little bird, never wavering in her respect and affection for him so that they had no choice but to accept him, however grudgingly.

Little bird.

The young lord had welcomed and accepted him unreservedly though. Wild himself, he was grateful for a man who would teach him to wield a sword and fight alongside his men and not correct his speech or his table manners or make him wash so much.

My brothers are gone. Will you be my brother? You could marry Sansa…if you like; then you could stay with us.

He had kept a somber face though his eyes had flickered to the little bird sitting on her little lord brother's other side, barely suppressing a secret smile as she gracefully brought her wine to her lips.

Shall I marry you then, little bird? He had growled hungrily when he had slipped into her bedchamber that night.

A panting laugh as she straddled him, her auburn hair loose and her blue eyes dark with desire, then a barely suppressed teasing smile.

If you like…

"My brother," Rickon greeted him now, clapping him on the back as he sat over the remains of his morning meal, some eaten, some pushed around; he ate more from duty than from appetite now, but it warmed his belly at least. "I'll be joining you in the yard this morning; then I needs hold court in the hall." He sounded less enthusiastic about the hall.

"My lord," he replied formally, as he always did with others about them. Rickon or brother were for the solar, when they were alone or with theirs sons, and in the crypt.

No stonemason could capture her true likeness, her beauty; nor any stone her fire.

Stone was cold.

Gods, it was cold: he had seen many winters now and this one was as cold as he could remember since the Others came. Even the clash of steel sounded colder than ever. If only he could still fight, he might be warm. But a man could not wield both a sword and a cane. This blasted cold stiffened his leg until he felt he was dragging it around with him. He could still call the drills though, still spot their weaknesses, their mistakes and berate them into fighting better, into proving themselves to him. He could even demonstrate some moves, if he did not have to move his feet too much. And he could still look fierce, that had never changed.

It was the fighting that had made them accept him, in the end: made commander, he nevertheless consulted the Northmen about their land and terrain and the best strategies and then heeded their advice and fought alongside them in the vanguard. The little bird's courtesies may have kept them in line in the keep but it was the fighting that made him one of them. Lord Clegane, commander of the garrison at Winterfell and master-at-arms; every man had many responsibilities then, there were fewer of them then, before the Spring and the children came.

Come and stay with us, Papa; your grandchildren will love you, and you'll be warm.

His daughter had written to him after, begging him to come live in the Reach; not wanting him to stay in the North with what she knew would be his grief. But how could he leave when she was still here? He only needed to look around: on the walls where she stood to watch him ride out and return, in the yard where she would come to him with any urgent business. My lord, she called him in front of his men; Sandor with their family in the solar; my love in their chamber or the godswood when the moon was bright and they slipped out of their clothes and into the hot springs, when the pale light on her wet hair made it look as inky black as his own.

Red.

His wife's hair was red. Even when the silver strands became numerous, it still looked like fire, the only fire that enflamed him, the only fire that he would get close to, that beckoned him so that he sank his hands and pressed his face into it and breathed like a man coming out of a dark cell hungry for air. The fiery hair that stuck to her brow with sweat when the fever followed the chills, the chills that racked her body until her lovely face, gods still lovely, was pinched with pain and her lips were colorless and dark smudges appeared under her Tully blue eyes.

It was a chill that had taken her, and in summer. He had not known how to protect her then; he had not known what or who to fight for her that time. He'd taken his sword to the sept, meaning to hack at the Stranger for killing him. Instead he'd stared a long time and then gone down on his knees.

You're her protector now. Guard her well, or you and me will cross swords when we meet.

Their respective younger sons were returning on the morrow or the day after, Rickon told him. The patrol up to the Gift had met with no troubles and Sandor's boy, now a man, was leading his men back to Winterfell. House Umber had sent a raven the day the host had stopped at their keep. He nodded but had been wondering if there were still jonquils in the glass garden, for her.

He climbed the stairs after his evening meal, dismissing the squire after making sure he placed the swordbelt by the bed, refusing the offer of wine. He had drowned himself in wine a lifetime ago when he hadn't wanted to feel anything but he wanted to feel now; if he didn't he'd have nothing left.

Besides, too much wine meant getting up in the night to piss and it was too fucking cold for that.

Back to the cupboard for woolen bedclothes. He paused and leaned closer to the shelf, the one that still held her gowns and shawls, and breathed deep, deeper every time as her scent faded away.

Sansa.

He set the cane next to the swordbelt and had to pull his leg up onto the bed, grunting as he had when he'd stood up, and would again tomorrow. He settled under the furs and blew out the candle, alone in the big bed.

"Goodnight, little bird."