EPILOGUE—17 years later


With every new northern Spring he saw, Sandor liked them all the better.

He woke in his bedchamber, the grandest in the castle, with the Queen Regent, his Little Bird, still asleep in his arms. The sung was long risen, he could tell from the brightness of the yellow light—he woke his Little Bird with a long, deep kiss, and called for their baths.

"I think I am looking forward to being a simple Lady again," Sansa chirped happily, scenting her wrists and her neck.

"I know I am, Little Bird. But you will always be the Queen of my heart," he replied as he buckled his armour slowly, trying to delay the inevitability of putting a comb through his hair. It was a big day for his stepson and his wife would have him looking nothing short of immaculate. Once he might have growled at the thought, but Sandor had seen enough formal occasions as King Consort in the North to only dread it slightly.

She smiled at him, the familiarity of her beauty and expression dulling none of the radiance of it. As she aged, she seemed only to get more beautiful—her auburn hair, once a bright copper, had darkened, only making the contrast between it, her white skin and her blue eyes all the more striking. Even still, seven-and-ten years after wrapping his cloak about her shoulders in her Godswood, her beauty would suddenly occur to him and render him speechless, often to his inconvenience.

"Do you think Elinor has arrived yet?" she asked, picking up his comb and beckoning him to sit before her, bypassing any attempt to get him to groom himself. Sandor chortled.

"If Elinor had arrived, we would know." She was his daughter to the bone, Elinor. Sansa had always insisted she reminded her of her sister Arya, half-wild as she was, but his daughter had all the ferocity and loyalty that his house was famous for. Though she had her mother's beautiful white skin and sharp, high cheekbones, and something of a long face as he understood was characteristic of the Stark line, her thick, black hair and winter-gray eyes were his. She took after her father in build, long of leg, broad of shoulder and narrow of waist, and was bustier than her mother had ever been, even at five-and-ten as she was. Just as Sandor had ever refused to be a Knight, so his daughter had refused to be a lady—never had his wife been so cross with him as the day she heard her eight-year-old darling girl snarl "piss on that" at her younger brother Brandon, only five at the time—but the young heir of house Umber had not seemed to mind. They had been married in the Godswood in Winterfell during a light winter snow, the colour of her cloak, emblazoned with the three black dogs of his house, whiter than the ground around them.

It had been his son Artos' idea to change their sigil. As honest as he had ever been with his Little Bird, so too was he honest with their children. One day, as he explained (rather calmly, he was proud to admit) some of the...differences he had with their late uncle Gregor, his eldest son, bearing the most striking resemblance to his wife, had said "Why do we not have our own sigil, then, father? If you want to separate yourself from Uncle Gregor?"

"What would you have our sigil be, son?" Sandor had asked him. The boy shook his waving copper hair out of his face, screwed up in thought. Though his eldest son's eyes were the same colour as his own, as well as the shape of the boy's face and body, his white skin and delicate features were all a tribute to his mother's beauty. The boy was very comely, Sandor knew, though was entirely confused as to how someone so handsome could be his trueborn son. Artos had posessed a cherubic beauty at the age he had declared their sigil be three dogs on a white field, because he had never seen an autumn any other colour than that of fresh-fallen snow, but as he grew his beauty matured to a sculpted, classical handsomeness to rival that of the Knight of the Flowers. He was an excellent swordsman, too—Sandor had seen to that personally—light on his feet but strong, his favourite weapon the two-handed greatsword his mother had seen forged for his twelfth nameday, his boy already tall and strong enough to wield it. Sandor was proudest, though, of his son's good heart—never in his sixteen years had he heard him so much as utter a single word to hurt another person, his honour as natural and dear to him as breath. If a truer Knight had ever been born, Sandor had not the pleasure of his acquaintance, yet like his father Artos refused to speak the vows of Knighthood—not out of disdain, as Sandor had, but because, as he put it, "I need no vows to keep my chivalry, honour or truth."

A knock came from the door and a tall, lanky child with a shock of long black hair swept himself into the room. Smaller than his brother had been at twelve, Sandor's youngest son Brandon was the quietest and cleverest of the bunch. He was quicker than his brother with a sword yet preferred the bow, his aim as good as Sandor had ever seen. Brandon was the only of his children to take after Sansa in build and Sandor in the face, though he had her shocking blue eyes so truly that sometimes Sandor found himself confused when he looked into them. And though he had his same thin lips and sharp nose as his father there was a beauty in the boy that was inexplicable to Sandor—his radiant innocence, perhaps, or curiosity, the way his fastidious attention to the world around him animated his features. Or maybe it was just that he too was born of Sansa, and the Little Bird could create nothing that was not completely and utterly breathtaking in its beauty, even if it looked, as Brandon did, like him.

"Brandon Stark Clegane. Why does your hair look as though you slept in the stables last night?!"

He glanced at his father and smirked, ever so gently, before he spoke, ignoring his mother.

"Edwyn has been sick with nerves," he announced, his voice soft, gentle and dulcet—it had only broken that year. "He would see father."

"Me?" Sandor asked incredulously. Brandon only nodded, looking him right in the eyes. Gods, but he does have her eyes, he thought.

"I am his mother, I should go to him," Sansa insisted, setting down the comb on her vanity thank the Gods but their son stopped her, shifting back onto his heels.

"He told me specifically to bring father, my Lady."

Sandor shrugged to his wife and stood, clapping a hand onto his son's bony shoulder, his black leather jerkin making him look smaller than he was. "You had better stay here and look after your mother, then, boy. Let her at that...mane of yours," he taunted, tossing a lock of the boy's hair over his shoulder, it reaching halfway down his back. Neither of his sons were particularly taken with keeping their hair sheared above their shoulders—even Edwyn wore his reddish-blonde hair longer as of late—but Brandon's refusal to cut his hair was beginning to get ridiculous, even by Sandor's fashion standards.

The King Consort in the North strode out of his chambers hastily, making for those of his stepson. In Harry's absence, Sandor had happily played father to the Little Bird's hatchling, the little King calling him "papa" even years after he came to understand his natural parentage. The whole winter of his birth Edwyn had spent against Sandor's breast to keep warm, and over that winter as he groped with his little hands to pull at his protector's long hair, Sandor had become extremely taken with the child. Even before he could speak the boy had charm, something in his light blue eyes universally endearing, and that charm had grown into a legendary charisma that left every maiden from the Wall to the Dornish Marches pining for young King Edwyn. Beyond charm, he had a cool head and a warm heart, measured judgement and an equal hand in justice and mercy—he is Sansa in masculine form, Sandor had once concluded when he had yet been a boy-King of four years, watching him stand by his mother to address their people, their postures identically erect. Lord Robert Arryn had died not long after Edwyn's third nameday, and yet he had been regal even then, holding Sansa's hand but standing upright of his own accord, his expression uniquely serene as she placed the little iron circlet on his brow. Edwyn had seen four-and-ten namedays since his first coronation, ruling the Vale expertly with the grace he was born with, and yet here he was, sick with nerves on the morning of his second.

Artos was in audience with his half-brother in the King's chambers, wearing the same splendid gray and white armour his father wore, and the woollen gray cloak of the Kingsguard-in-the-Vale. He stood to attention when his father entered the room— Gods, he will be taller than me before the year is out, Sandor could not help but think. Artos had always been tall, but lately he had grown broad, filling out and bulking up seemingly without any effort, his figure forming to something out of a maiden's most lascivious dream. Though he kept his copper hair long, unlike Brandon it always seemed to be artfully mussed and clean. Artos nodded to his father and cleared his throat, wrenching the King from his intent pacing in the opposite corner of the room.

"Sandor," he breathed, relieved.

"Your Grace," Sandor bowed. His stepson crossed the room and seemed to shrink beneath him, the closer he was viewed. It was another remarkable aspect of Edwyn's character—from across the room or below the dais Edwyn could appear a God, yet when one drew up next to him (especially if either of his brothers stood nearby) one realized just how petite the King actually was. Not scrawny or weak, but petite. "What would you have of me that is of such import we must keep it from your mother?"

"I would have your honesty, My Lord." Sandor raised an eyebrow at his stepson, who exchanged a glance with his brother before they continued. "I must have your opinion on the matter—I know how mother would answer, regardless of truth. This one would answer no different," he nudged his younger brother playfully with his elbow, and towering over the King, Artos tried to suppress a smile. Edwyn's light blue eyes met Artos' grey ones for a moment before they looked to address their mutual father figure.

"And what question would that be, Your Grace?" Sandor rasped, trying not to sound amused.

Edwyn drew breath slowly, all playfulness disappearing from within him. "I want to know that I am strong enough to hold the North. Not in force, but in character. I...I cannot help but feel unworthy of it. Look at me—do I look like a Northman, Papa? Do I look like the sort of man the Greatjon could bend his knee to?"

Sandor looked at his son. Artos' armour squealed as he shrugged.

"He refuses to listen to me, father."

"I mean—"Edwyn sighed. "I just...I know I have been raised in the North. I was born during the worst Winter in living memory, and I bear the Stark name. But, I just—Papa, I just feel like—maybe if I were more..." Sandor brought up a finger to the boy's lips and took his shoulder gently, crouching down to get on his level, like he had always done when the boy began to fret.

"Edwyn Stark. Are you the first King in the North to bear that name?"

"Well, no, but—"

"When you pray to the Gods, do you go to the Godswood or to the Sept?"

"To the Godswood, but I—"

"And if you sentence a man to death, do you hand your brother the sword to swing?"

"No, I do not, but Papa, I—"

"Edwyn, listen to me. You are the last of a line that has ruled the North for more than eight thousand years," he swept a lock of hair away from the boy's face. Eight-and-ten, a man grown, but he would always be a little boy to Sandor, deep in his heart. "Your people love you. I was in the North on the day of your birth—you gave them hope child, on the blackest day of Winter, you brought them light. Any man or woman older than you will remember the feeling in the country on the day you were born. It was bitter, bitter cold, yet everyone's hearts were warmed. You brought them the Spring, Edwyn. To a Northman, there is no greater gift than Spring."

"But am I strong enough, Sandor? I...I just feel...times like these, I wish I were your son..."

"Hush. Never say that," Sandor barked softly, taking the boy's chin. "Your father was a good man, a better man than me. He died fighting for your mother's respect, and mine. He had all the honour one could ask for in a father to a King. He was a good man, Edwyn, and he was well-liked by Northmen and Valemen alike. Your likeness to him only reminds us of his sacrifice, and it only adds to your worthiness of this crown."

Edwyn gave Sandor a small smile. "If you're sure, Papa."

"I'm sure, son," he said, shaking his hand firmly.

"...I told you, brother," Artos murmured, his deep voice rumbling quietly from where he stood, smirking, a few yards off.

"Oh, go bugger yourself with a hot poker!" Edwyn growled at his brother, laughing.

"Your Grace!" Sandor exclaimed, feigning shock at his language.

"Quit stealing my lines, brother," came a feminine snarl from the door. A moment later, Edwyn was staggering back, a tall woman in a dark red gown with long, shiny black hair having leapt into his arms.

"You always did know how to make an entrance, little sister," Artos said smiling, bending to scoop Elinor into his arms once she had let her half-brother go, swinging her around in a high circle. Skittering footsteps rang in the hallway behind them, and Brandon slipped into the room, his hair, now combed, nearly as long and beautiful as his sister's.

"I heard profanity," Brandon cracked, hurrying to open his arms to his older sister's enthusiastic embrace.

"Seven hells Brandon, who told you that you were allowed to grow?!" She swore. Sandor laughed.

"Had you been born a boy I would have beat you bloody for that mouth of yours," he rasped when his daughter finally turned to him, her coy smile as much a part of her face as any of her features. "How does our Lord Umber find it?"

"I should think he rather likes my mouth, father."

Sandor shuddered, chuckling darkly. "I have half a mind to beat you bloody anyway. Don't try me." And he caught her as she launched herself upon him, throwing her arms up around his neck, clinging to him fiercely. She kissed his burned cheek—she had always favoured his burned cheek—and whispered to him.

"I miss you, Papa."

"Miss you too, little one. Glad you came home."

After a long moment, he dropped her to the floor, his heart sinking just a little. "Where is mother?" She demanded.

"In her chambers. She would want to comb your hair too, I suspect," Brandon said cynically.

"Oh yes, what is this?" Elinor teased, toying with the little plaits Sansa had put trailing back from her son's temples. "You look like a bloody tourney horse all ready for the joust!"

"Shut up!" Brandon whispered, shoving her. His sister cackled with glee.

"Pardon my tardiness, I was accosted by stewards," Sansa offered, all grace as she appeared in the doorway. "Oh, Elinor, my sweet!" His daughter had always been gentler with her mother, wrapping her arms around her delicately, kissing each cheek affectionately.

"Hello Mother. It is so good to be home."

"It seems wrong to call it home without you here, dear sister," Edwyn said. "Now come. Hug me properly."

"As Your Grace commands," she said, mock-bashfully, going through another round of embracing her brothers. Sandor pulled his wife against him, holding her hand over her shoulder. He looked around at his children, suddenly overcome with joy.

There were days he felt as though he had tricked fate, using some cunning he knew not he had to procure for himself a life he did not deserve. He had been a boy born in fire, lived by his sword, enjoyed his killing, and thirsted for his brother's blood. A grievous sinner he had been, and yet somehow he had tricked the Gods into sending him to heaven when he died of his leg wound outside Saltpans. And what a splendid heaven for him they had wrought—they gave him the woman of his wildest dreams to wife and let her give him three healthy (beautiful!) children. Though he had been born the son of a petty lord and kennel master, he would die a King Consort to Sansa Stark, first of her name, the Redeemer, Queen in the North. He had tricked her into loving him and bearing him children, and in turn tricked each one of them into thinking he was a good and loving father. He was not good enough to deserve it—the happiness, the love—but he took their love nonetheless.

Other days, he felt justified in his fate. He had suffered long and deeply enough that he figured he had earned the great happiness he was granted. After years of scornful, disgusted whores, the gods owed him the love of a beauty like Sansa. After years mourning the death of a father, mother and sister at the hands of a monstrous brother, the gods owed him the close-knit, affectionate family he had. After years of violence and ever-simmering hatred, the gods owed him the peace of Winterfell.

But the best were the days when he realized—usually sharply, at some ordinary moment of no evident import—that this was his reality. He had neither tricked the gods nor taken his due from them; this was simply how his life had turned out. He had the love of a sublime beauty and idyllic family because he built it, ground up, by being himself and doing as he would. These days were truly great—sobering in the best way possible—he could hardly remember what it had felt like to be the Hound, his peace steeped deep within him. She is my peace, he had told the Elder brother; never had he spoken truer words. She twisted around in his arms and stretched up on her tiptoes to kiss him—even still, he had to pull her up into the air to reach him. Gods only know what I ever did to capture the love of Sansa Stark...

Sansa Clegane, he thought to himself, her lips soft and familiar beneath his. Seven-and-ten years she has been yours, dog; you've got to remember her name...