Author's Note: A little while ago, shadow_belle helped me figure out the ending for The Lady of the Gift, and I promised her that I would write her a sequel to Vertigo in thanks when I had finished it. Well, it's been finished a while now, but finally, finally, here is my thank you fic for that gorgeous lady Many heartfelt thanks to girloficenfire for copyediting, and basically all my love (and my hypothetical firstborn) to ownsariver who helped me resurrect this fic and practically wrote certain sections of it herself. Her advice and insight were invaluable. I don't even want to think what shape this thing would be in without her. Finally, thank you to the wonderful ladies of the sansa_sandor community on LJ, whose comments and feedback were so inspiring when the plot just kept ballooning and the end didn't seem in sight. Much love to you all.

First Published: 30th June 2012

Warnings: graphic violence, violence against a child, rough sex (consensual), sexual thoughts about a minor, underage kissing, dubious consent, alcoholism. Please note, this fic contains pairings involving both Sansa and Sandor that are not SanSan.



Five Times Sandor Clegane Listened to His Better Instincts, and One Time He Didn't


He saw what she was going to do the moment before she realised it herself, but when he reached out to grab her shoulder he was too slow; his hand merely brushed the silken fabric of her gown. By the time Sandor took a second step it was already too late for Joffrey, but the girl seemed to teeter on the edge of the walkway, suspended for a moment like a bird poised to take flight.

The rest was mere instinct. He did not consciously decide that he must save her, only that as her body tipped beyond the point of no return he snatched her back with a grip hard enough to bruise.

And then he cut through Trant and the others and took the girl and left behind a trail of blood and screams. He might have said that was a poor decision. A rash decision. A thoughtless, ill-advised and foolish decision. Cersei's fury would know no limits; they would be hunted, he knew that. But the truth was it had not been a decision at all, for Sandor Clegane had had a sister once, and he regretted not saving her every day of his life.


Despite what he'd told the girl, he knew they wouldn't make it far enough north before Cersei's swords caught up with them. The only option was to make for Riverrun, pass the girl into her mother's care and offer the Starks his sword. Sandor Clegane had served the Lannisters for as long as he chose to remember on any normal day. He had assumed he would die in their service. Oh, there was little enough to love in that viper's nest of a family, but they were no worse than any other noble family he had come across and they rewarded loyalty richly. So the thought of giving his sword to the Starks brought with it an uneasy feeling, but Sandor was capable of pragmatism when the situation warranted it, and after King's Landing he had left himself no other choice.

"You intend to fight under my brother's banner?" the little bird enquired, when he told her of his plans one night. The road was long and harsh, and he had not been able to avoid getting drawn into her chatter. In truth, after the way she had offered him her neck that first night, and after the long silences in the following days, he was still too relieved by the return to more normal behaviour to get truly irritated with her. In fact, he had been a little surprised to find her company not entirely unpleasant. Removed from the froth and frills of the court her feet seemed more firmly rooted to the ground, and despite all the tiresome pleasantries he'd had worse travelling companions. She listened. She remembered.

"Yes," he told her, "and he'd do well to take me."

"I'm certain he will," she rushed to confirm. "Everyone knows how skilled a swordsman you are, my lord. Only..."

She trailed off, picking delicately at a loose thread on her skirts.

"Out with it, girl!" he snapped, his annoyance with her persistent use of that spurious title adding a bite to his words that made her jump. Such a timid little creature.

"I thought you would be my sworn shield," she said quickly, abashed.

Sandor laughed unkindly, and watched as the corners of her mouth turned down in dismay. "And why would you think that, little bird? Did it happen in one of your songs?"

She glanced up at him, only briefly before her eyes slid away from the horror of his ugly face. It was easy to forget, sharing a horse, how terrifying she found him to look upon. The thought soured his mood. But her response made him silent with the sharp accuracy of the blow.

"You know it didn't," she said quietly.

That first night, when she had seemed defeated by fright and despair, when he had pushed the point of his dagger into the baby-soft flesh of her neck to force a reaction out of her, any reaction – that night he had laid her down by the fire, heavy-lidded with exhaustion, and put his body between her and the forest beyond. He had awoken before sunrise, curled protectively around her, and spent some silent minutes watching her tiny frame rise and fall with her breath, stroking the callused pad of one thumb over her fragile, girlish cheek.

He should have just got up he knew, but instead he was still lying by her side when she awoke, and so now she felt quite at her ease to make free with his personal space when they bedded down for the night. Oh, he had tried pushing her away, both physically and verbally, and she would retreat and turn her back on him. But on those nights Sandor slept only shallowly, eyes flying open at every sigh and rustle of fabric, and so when inevitably she crept closer once more he always allowed it with ungracious silence.

Still, he was not used to sharing his sleeping space so closely. Sometimes he could feel her eyes on him like a near physical weight. He supposed it made a twisted sort of sense that the only time her gaze could linger on him was in the dying light of the fire, the worst of his scars covered in shadow.

"What is it, girl?" he asked one night, voice rough and rasping with tiredness. "What do you want?"

He expected her to lower her eyes, stammer some apology, but she did not. "I should have thanked you, for saving me," she said. "You were so brave."

"Brave?" His laugh was low, bitter. "A dog doesn't need courage to chase off rats."

"They were sworn brothers of the Kingsguard," she protested genteelly. "And you... you cut through them as though they were mere squires."

"They may as well have been," Sandor sneered. "The Kingsguard isn't what it used to be. There are no Dragonknights anymore, only creatures like Blount and Trant, and a pair of toads if ever I saw them." She lay quietly for a time after that, and he thought she had gone to sleep when he said softly, "Cersei should not have got rid of old Selmy. There was a man who knew how to handle a sword."

Out of the dark, soft, childish fingers touched his face, cupping the unburnt side with tentative fingertips. "I'm glad she replaced him with you," Sansa said. "I'm glad you were there that day."

Sandor enclosed her thin wrist in his hand, a grip too hard for her delicate bones, and pulled her hand away. "Save your pretty courtesies for someone who wants them, girl," he snarled.

He could see the sudden fear in the whites of her eyes. That was good. She seemed to have come to think of him as some hero from her tales. It would do her good to remember what he truly was.

"Pardons, my lord," she said, voice high and tight, and he released her with a shove and closed his eyes so that he would not have to look at her hurt expression.

"Go to sleep," he said flatly, and she rolled over, turning her back on him. But come the morning, Sandor awoke as he always did, with her small body tucked up against his own.

They were three weeks on the road, travelling across country, before the first of the Queen's sellswords found them. Sandor laughed when he saw the two men, come to face him with notched swords and no armour more than boiled leather.

"Shouldn't we bury them?" Sansa quavered when the last of the blood had finished pumping from their wounds, unable to look at the mess he had made of their bodies, unable to look at his face.


"Septa Mordane always said-"

"I've just saved your life for the second time, the least you could do is look at me when you're speaking!" he interrupted, suddenly angry. Taking two long strides towards her, he took her chin roughly in his hand and forced her face up. Her eyes skittered over his scars before taking on the fixed, unseeing quality he had seen once before when Joffrey showed her the heads of her loved ones on the battlements.

"Even now, the little bird can't bear to look at me, can she?" he growled, soft and dangerous. "Am I really so terrifying?"

"You're... you're covered in blood, my lord," she said faintly.

"You mean I scare you." When she did not answer he tightened his grip, pinching her flesh. "Answer me."

Sansa closed her eyes. "Yes," she whispered. When she opened her eyes again they were glistening with tears, her expression accusing, but she was looking right at him. "Does that give you joy?"

Yes, he almost said, though he could not have said why.

They were a day out from Riverrun and fording a tributary of the Red Fork when it occurred to Sandor that it would probably not go well for him if he attempted to present Sansa Stark to her lady mother in a dirty gown, unwashed for nigh on a month with her hair as tangled as a hawthorn bush.

Reining up he dismounted Stranger and lifted the little bird down to the ground.

"Why are we stopping?" she asked.

Sandor pointed at the river. It was wide and shallow here, safe enough for a girl her size to bath without being swept away.

"The water looks cold," she said unhappily, "and the sun's going down. Can't we wait a day and have a proper bath at the castle?"

"No," he said. "You'll go clean to your mother or not at all. I'll not rot in the dungeons for the sake of your comfort. The same result can be achieved by throwing you in there fully clothed," he warned when she looked like to protest.

"Will you at least light a fire?" she asked, giving him a look as cold as the river, her tone so haughty he roared with laughter.

In the end he gave her his cloak, too, hanging it from a branch to preserve her modesty, and when she was sitting by the fire in her shift, he dunked himself in too.

"It does feel better to be clean," she said later, as he watched her unpick the tangles in her long auburn curls.

He put her on the packhorse to ride up to the Red Fork the following day. He'd stolen the beast for her two weeks past, but the girl couldn't ride for shit and it had been faster in the end to keep her with him on Stranger and load their meagre supplies onto her mount.

She looked at him nervously as he helped her into the saddle. "Must I?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. "The horses scare me."

"Everything scares you," Sandor muttered. And then, "It's just a couple of hours, little bird, and he's no Stranger." But he did not think it was really the animal that frightened her.

She need not have feared. Lady Catelyn waded out into the water herself to meet their boat, reaching for Sansa with a sob that came ripped from her chest, the likes of which Sandor had never thought to see from such a fine, high lady. Her eyes met his over her daughter's head as she held Sansa tightly – a brief, assessing glance – before she recovered herself, dabbed at her eyes, and welcomed them into her father's castle.

They were fed and watered and welcomed by the King in the North, but only Sansa was surprised when they were not allowed to wash and change their clothes before the interrogation began: they would have to decide whether to billet him in comfort or in manacles, after all.

"Did this man tell you to push Joffrey?" King Robb asked. Sansa had wept as she told them of her role in Eddard Stark's death, but her eyes were dry once more as she retold her act of kingslaying. She turned to her brother now, eyes wide in surprise.

"No," she said, in all innocence. "Why would he do that? He was Joffrey's sworn shield."

Sandor near closed his eyes in resignation.

"So you have brought a loyal Lannister dog into our grandsire's castle?" Robb said angrily. At the little bird? Does he resent her for bringing down their father?

"No!" Sansa said, voice rising in panic as she seemed to realise her mistake. "I never... He would never..." Her eyes flitted to her mother, who gave Sansa a measured look and a small smile, and raised her eyes to Sandor.

"Are you a loyal Lannister dog, ser?" Lady Stark asked.

"I am as much a Lannister dog as I am a ser," he replied flatly.

"The Hound is not a knight," Sansa explained meekly to her mother.

"And yet you swore your sword to the Lannisters," Lady Stark returned. "You served on Joffrey's Kingsguard."

"Aye, and now Cersei wishes me as dead as the rest of you traitors."

"He rescued me from King's Landing," Sansa piped. "He killed more men than I can count and he took me away from those lions. And he won father's tourney, mother, before... before. Everyone says he's the best swordsman in the seven kingdoms, after Ser Jaime. Not even Ser Gregor the Mountain could best him."

"That's enough," King Robb said, looking as though he had regained control of himself. "My sweet sister is most passionate in your defence, my lord."

Sandor's lip curled at the seemingly inescapable courtesy of these Starks. He did not quite know what to say in response however, as taken aback by the fervency of Sansa's outburst as the rest of them, and so he settled on honesty. "As she should be, Your Grace."

Comfort it would be, then. The boy king did not seem quite so foolish as Sandor remembered him, though that was saying little as all boys were foolish to some degree. He had recognised the value of Sandor's previous loyalties, however, and made clear his intention to plumb every depth of Sandor's knowledge of the Lannisters and their bannermen.

Yet when the knock came on his door before dinner, he was not surprised to find Lady Stark, and not her son, awaiting him.

"Why did you rescue my daughter, Lord Clegane?" she asked, closing the door to his chamber fast behind her.

Sandor laughed darkly. "Not a lord, either, my lady. And I take it you mean 'what did I hope to gain in return?'"

Catelyn Stark's expression, already cool, turned icy. "As you will."

How queer that he had not noticed her comeliness on their first introduction in Winterfell. She was older than Cersei, lacking the queen's refined allure, but there was a splendour in her bearing and in the way she let her long auburn hair tumble loose down her back in the northern style, that suddenly struck Sandor as quite beautiful. He let his eyes travel the length of her body appreciatively. It did not fill her with love.

"If you have touched my daughter," she warned, voice dropping low, "I will see that you suffer."

Sandor recoiled as though she had swung a war hammer at his guts, understanding dawning at how she had just interpreted his actions. "She's a child!" he said in disgust. It was insulting how quickly Lady Stark's body relaxed, an expression of pure relief spreading across her lovely face.

"Forgive me," she said evenly. "My daughter has a generous heart, and I fear it would be easy for someone more... seasoned... to take advantage of her."

"Aye, that was Cersei," he rasped, still scowling at her.

Lady Stark continued to watch him unabashed. "You still have not answered my question."

What could he say? That catching a falling girl had been mere instinct? That drawing his sword in her defence against a city was too? He did not think that Catelyn Stark would like to hear that he had not intended any of this, and that the rescue of her daughter had been a mere accident of fate. But she was still watching him – looking at his face, more courteous than the little bird – waiting for his response. If he intended to stay, he had to tell her something.

"I had a sister," he said eventually. "She fell to her death when I was too young to save her."

It was only half a lie.

There was wine at Riverrun, dear gods there was wine! And after a month drinking whatever piss he could steal, Sandor did not hold himself back over dinner. He dreamed in blue and red that night, cool silver trout sliding against his legs, and awoke to the familiar feeling of Sansa Stark curled up against his chest, her cold feet pressed into his legs for warmth.

"I couldn't sleep," she murmured drowsily. "Don't send me away."

He did not, and brought his arms around her gently so as not to crush her delicate frame. Her hair was brushed and soft once more, sweet-smelling, and she sighed, soft and high, when he ran his hand once down the length of it.

Come the morning, with daylight cracking through the bed hangings and sobriety baring down on him, keeping her with him simply because it felt good no longer seemed such a clever idea.

"Don't let anyone see you leaving," he warned as he pushed her still rubbing her eyes towards the door of his chamber, and remembering her mother's fears, added, "and tell no one where you have been."

"Forgive the intrusion, my lord," she chirped sleepily, dipping him a curtsey without even thinking about it, before slipping from his room.

The following night he barred his door, but despite the wine, this time he did not sleep well at all.

Sandor ate and drank and slept and fought. Edmure Tully was solid enough with a sword, but his real strength lay in the love his men had for him. Love would not save him his enemy's sword, however, and when Sandor rode out with his party to track down some of the Lannister men still raiding in the Riverlands and killed six of the party himself – including the two who had pulled Lord Tully from his horse – the man did not seem capable of curbing himself. In the great hall that night he made free with the wine, as did Sandor, and told all who would listen of the tale of their battle. Sandor hardly felt it worthy of such enthusiasm, especially when he saw Sansa smiling at him from across the hall, a rapt expression on her face as one of the castle's maids whispered in her ear. And yet he had to stop himself from marching to her side to tell her so himself.

Lady Stark requested that he train with Robb, and though the boy still did not like to be mocked, he was not so proud as to turn away the opportunity of a superior opponent. The first time out in the training yard, the boy king's giant wolf had sat watching to one side, seeming to preside over them like some high lord in his seat of power. It showed Sandor its teeth the first time he dumped the Young Wolf on his backside, but by the time they were done – near two hours later – the creature came up to him and sniffed at his hand before scraping his fingers with a hot tongue.

"He likes you!" Robb said in astonishment, squinting in disbelief up at Sandor, and across the yard Lady Stark stopped in her conversation with the steward to stare at the wolf's reaction to him. When, after that, she encouraged him more and more into Robb's circle of advisors, Sandor could not help but feel that it somehow stemmed from that incident on a grey rainy morning in the mud of the yard.

There was scarce cause for him to run into the little bird any more, and yet he somehow found himself often in her company. She seemed bolder than she had been in King's Landing, safe as she was now in the bosom of her family, and some treacherous part of him whispered that he did not entirely like it. Especially not when she came across him on the battlements one evening, already half drunk.

"My brother tells me you fought bravely today, my lord," she said.

"But not gallantly?" he mocked.

"You're being unkind," she said, her voice taking on a hardness he thought she had copied from her mother. Sandor snorted softly to himself.

"I fought no differently to any other day," he replied. "I fight to win, girl. Killing is the sweetest thing there is."

She wrinkled up her face. "That's awful."

Suddenly, the anger, ever-present, boiled over. "Spare me this false piety," he snapped. "Don't tell me Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell never killed a man. I know for certain your King in the North has – I saw him cut a man near in two just this afternoon. I saw his beast rip out the entrails of another and begin feasting on them while the poor bastard was still screaming."

"Why... why are you saying these things?" she whispered, seeming to shrink before his eyes. It reminded him of how she had been, when she had been Joffrey's. Small. Wounded. The animal in him could smell the blood. His hand twitched for his sword hilt, thinking for one crazy moment how beautiful it would look laid against her neck and the auburn of her hair, catching the light of the setting sun. But she was more than like to whine at him over it, and that staid his hand. That and the red-and-blue Tully men all along the ramparts.

"Because you talk to me just as if I were one of those true knights you love so well, child, and you would do well to remember that I am not. What do you think knights are for, anyway? You think it's all taking favours from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing. I killed my first man at twelve, and countless since. Your brother was a killer at four-and-ten, and his wolf is a wild animal with no understanding of mercy." He took a long draw from his wine skin, feeling her eyes on him, heavy with dismay.

"Queen Cersei has put a price of ten thousand gold dragons on your head," she said. Perhaps she had meant it to cut him, as he had just cut her, but her attempt lacked sincerity, for he could still see in her eyes that she did not believe he meant his words. Still, he laughed, harsh and rough.

"Queen Cersei can fuck herself with a red hot poker."

The little bird gasped in outrage at his coarse language and, wordless, turned and walked away with her head held high and rigid – dignified as her lady mother – and left him to his drinking.

And yet, somehow, the feeling persisted that the girl was still his responsibility. He had not risked his life getting her out of the capital and all the way up here simply to see her slender little neck sliced open by someone else's soldiers.

"You should send her back north," Sandor told Lady Catelyn. She had summoned him to her chambers to discuss what Tywin Lannister's next move may be, and he had found himself unable to leave again before speaking his mind.

"While I value your insight on matters of war, ser, I must beg you not to presume to advise me on matters of family." She smiled, though it was edged. "What does a man know of such things, after all?"

"Aye, and what does a woman know of making war?" he returned. "She is not safe here."

"She could not be safer."

"Don't be blind, woman. You've won a few battles; the war is far from over. Do you think Cersei would hesitate to have Sansa killed if Riverrun should ever fall back into Lannister hands? Or worse?"

"Lady Sansa," Catelyn said, her voice a warning.

"The north is well protected by the Neck and Moat Cailin, and Winterfell itself is all but impregnable," he persisted. "You've left your sons there, my lady, why not your daughter? Or have you forgotten you have more children beyond His Grace?"

"You will not speak to me in that tone," she said, her voice low and measured and full of fury. "Sansa is my daughter, she is none of your concern-"

"Then act like her mother," Sandor growled, his own anger flaring in reaction. Catelyn raised her hand to strike him, the colour high in her cheeks, and it would not have been a gentle blow but he caught it easily and held her wrist in an iron grip. Her blue eyes flashed with rage as she pulled fruitlessly against him, nostrils flaring, until Sandor released her several seconds too late.

And then he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her tightly against him, kissing her with a hard savagery that she struggled against, even as she kissed him back.

She turned her back on him when they were done, her earlier cries of pleasure seeming now to ring in the silence of the room. With one of her hands raised to her face, the other resting in the curve of her hip, Sandor knew that she was weeping, though there was no trace of it in her voice when she spoke.

"You will take Sansa north," she said flatly. "Who better?"

Sandor had not intended that he should be the little bird's escort. The fighting was here. He had thought they would want even more information than he had already given them. But by the tone of her voice, the tension in her back, Sandor knew her decision was made. And he found that he was satisfied by it – Sansa was not safe this far south, so closely surrounded by her enemies. He felt it in his bones. If it had to be him who made her safe again, so be it.


Just two months with her family at Riverrun before they were on the move again, but Sansa barely complained beyond worrying over the horses. When he questioned her on it she merely said she was pleased to finally be going home.

"This is all I dreamt of after Joffrey... after he..."

"After he cut off your father's head," Sandor finished bluntly. He remembered how she had taken to her bed for days on end, how he had had to scoop her out of it in nothing but her bedgown to get her up for the king. Such luxury in their grief, these highborn ladies, he thought bitterly. As though the rest of us don't just get up and get on with our lives as best we can.

"Why must you always speak so plain, ser?" she murmured, looking pale, and he wondered briefly if she used that title to rankle him. He remembered her voice, tight with fear. Does that give you joy?

"Girl," he rasped, irritated but less than angry, "if you are going to survive this war, you need to start watching the world through clear eyes. Soft words and pretty songs will not change your life into something you are better able to stomach."

She sighed, and focused her gaze on hands that were clenched uneasily in her horse's reins. "Thank you for your counsel," she replied, almost reflexively courteous, neatly putting the conversation at an end. The thought made the burnt corner of his mouth twitch.

She would ride her own horse north, a fine chestnut filly provided by Riverrun's stables that Sansa had named Mær – 'Maiden' in the tongue of her ancestors, she had told him, darting a disapproving glance at Stranger. The mount was better trained than the packhorse he had stolen for her on the journey from King's Landing, gentle enough not to respond badly to her constant tugging on the reins, but still she did not sit her saddle comfortably and Sandor missed being able to simply pull her up with him, her small body nestling between his own and the saddle's pommel, and just get on with it. But they were accompanied on this journey – ten heavily armed men on horseback and a bedmaid to chaperone Sansa – and what had been a necessity before was now no longer seemly.

Sometimes, before, his little bird would sing for him in her high, sweet voice as they sat by the fire to eat. More than anything else, those were the times when he knew taking her from the Lannisters had been worth all the trouble. When she tentatively suggested on that first night north that he might like a song before sleep, Sandor glanced around the fire at the other men finishing their meals before draining his wineskin, telling her gruffly, "No," and retiring alone to his tent.

Once they were north of the Twins, their way became much safer and consequently much easier. They reached Winterfell in less than three weeks, despite a vicious autumn storm that kept them in the shelter of an inn for several days. When they did finally arrive through the great oaken gates, a queer motley was waiting to greet them in the yard: little Brandon Stark, the broken lordling, sitting atop a horse strapped into a high-backed saddle, grinning brightly; a maester in his grey robes, standing beside the old knight Sandor remembered as Master-at-Arms of Winterfell; a giant of a man, taller even than Sandor, with some sort of basket strapped to his back; a tall, blunt-featured woman in a plain roughspun dress; two small figures he took at first to be boys, one clad entirely in green and the other in a leather jerkin armoured with bronze scales, before he realised that the latter was in fact female; and two more small figures of about the same height, dressed in Frey colours. He laughed darkly to himself at the scene it made, but the sound was lost in the clattering of the horses' hooves.

"Bran!" Sansa cried in delight almost at the same moment as her brother cried, "Sansa!"

Stable boys came to take their mounts, and Sandor stared incredulously as the tall woman helped Bran Stark down from the saddle and into the basket on the giant's back. Introductions were made. Sansa cried, though less than he had been bracing himself for. They were taken inside, fed, watered – all the laws of courtesy observed. He noticed that the youngest Stark was missing, and the boys' direwolves too, but he had clearly missed that explanation as Sansa did not appear to be perturbed. Sandor kept to the back of the group and cast his eyes over the unfamiliar faces, the two little Reeds with their solemn expressions, the wildling woman – who looked him up and down with a leer when she saw him watching her – before coming to rest for a long time on the two Frey boys.

"Sandor?" Sansa asked tentatively when her knock went unanswered, and he noted distantly that she used his name and not another empty title. He raised his glare from the fire to the door of his new chambers, finally admitting defeat and bidding her enter. He feared at first that she had come to seek him as her bed mate once more, though it had been nigh on three months since that last happened, and did not recognise his own response as relieved or something other when she merely seated herself in the chair across from him, her hands folded neatly in her lap.

She did not speak, but fiddled nervously with her fingers, and so he reached for another cup and poured her some of the arbour red he had been enjoying since the feast earlier tonight, laid out in celebration of Sansa's return.

"Thank you," she said, taking small, lady-like sips. She's growing, he thought, looking idly at the way her gown had ridden up her ankles as she sat. She looked so pretty, sitting there by the firelight, that he felt a pang in his chest that he would not be able to keep her so – could not cage her up like the little bird that she was, and keep her this young and this innocent forever. Easier by far to catch a falling girl than to be her keeper.

He was drunk, but not overly so. The maids had brought him a hot bath before the feast, and his room was warm. He felt, against all his expectations, quite relaxed here in the ancestral home of the Starks. At least for tonight.

"I'm glad you came with me," she said eventually. Sandor wondered how long they had been sitting there in silence together.

He grunted, though there was no rancour to it. "I suppose I'm as much your dog now as your mother's and brother's."

She looked up at him, which was rare enough, her eyes flicking over his face with a slight frown. "Why do you let people call you a dog?" she asked. "You won't let anyone call you a knight."

That near made him laugh. Instead, he found himself telling her the sorry tale of his father's father's rise to the landed gentry, and how his house's sigil came to be.

"The three dogs on our banner are the three that died, in the yellow of autumn grass," he said, hearing his own rasping voice grow quiet with the tale. He raised his eyes from the fire to the little bird's face, still looking at his in rapt attention. "A hound will die for you, but never lie to you."

She smiled then, the sweet shy smile he hardly ever saw directed at him, but with the slightest trace of mischief in her eyes. "Perhaps you will be my sworn shield after all, then?"

He snorted softly at that, and her smile widened momentarily before she lowered her eyes. Sandor felt the absence of her stare with a queer twisting in his gut. You hardly need one here, girl, he wanted to tell her. The castle was well stocked and easily defensible, despite the lack of fighting men. Yet he did not wish to tempt the gods he did not believe in to prove him a liar, and so he kept his silence on the matter.

"Did you come here for a reason?" he finally asked, when she did not look like to leave.

She met his eyes once more – briefly – before returning her empty cup to the small wooden table with the jug of wine, and placing her hands in her lap once more. The proper little lady.

"You said once that I should watch the world with clear eyes," she said carefully, "but I have been taught all my life to trust beauty and finery over a person's words and actions, to accept even the most discourteous treatment with grace and without question, to... to be a good lady and a good wife and a good mother, and always, always to please and be obedient."

"I'd say you've excelled so far," Sandor muttered sardonically.

She shot him a brief look, surprisingly sharp, before lowering her eyes again. "How can I see things clearly, when all I have been taught to do is dance, and sing, and sew, and be wilfully blind?" she said in a small voice. "What use am I in a war, other than as a hostage?"

"What use has your mother been?" he countered. She seemed to consider that. Sansa would be unlikely to comprehend the depth of Lady Stark's involvement in the King in the North's campaign, but he knew that she had heard of her mother's negotiations to open the Twins to their forces at the least, remembering the look of relief that appeared on her face for the smallest fraction of a heartbeat that she had still been betrothed to Joffrey at the time.

"My mother is wise," she said slowly. "Far wiser than I." Sandor could not disagree with that, and so he once more kept his silence. "But even she sought counsel from those around her, did she not?"

Sandor smiled mirthlessly to himself, remembering the final counsel he had given Catelyn Stark, and what had happened after. "Do you wish me to counsel you, little bird?"

"You have never been shy before," she returned, and Sandor barked a laugh. She frowned delicately, though not at him, he thought. "I would have you tell me your opinion of Little Walder."

Sandor had not liked the look of either of the Frey boys earlier, but he had neither spoken to them nor overheard them since. "I would not trust a Frey farther than I could throw him," he settled on.

Sansa nodded. "There is something about him..." she murmured, a sudden shiver running through her. "He reminds me of Joff."

"Aye, but we both know what you did to him," Sandor reminded her, though in fact he was impressed that she had noticed anything at all.

"Why are they locked up in here?" Sandor asked the shadow to his left. He had gone to bathe in the hot pools of the godswood he remembered from his first trip north, to ease the incessant cold of this northern wasteland, only to find his way barred by two enormous wolves.

The woman stepped out of the clump of sentinel pines into the daylight, apparently unconcerned by the sharp teeth and raised hackles on display. "The big black one mauled one of the Walders," she said. Her tone sounded amused, but Sandor knew better than to take his eyes off the direwolves to see for himself.

"What did he do to deserve it?"

"Hmm, that is the question, ain't it?" she hummed softly – Osha, his memory supplied. "Bad to the bone, that Little Walder. You keep an eye on him, Hound. He don't look at your lady with friendship in his heart, that's for certain."

"My lady is well aware of what's in his heart, woman," he said irritably, distracted by the hushed snarl coming from the black direwolf's throat, the curl of its lip to reveal white fangs. He'd grown up around dogs, might even go so far as to say he enjoyed their company, but these creatures were something different and he had seen enough of Grey Wind in battle to be wary. He allowed his hand to inch towards the hilt of his sword.

"Want me to call them off?" Osha asked. She was closer than before, the amusement in her voice teetering on mocking.

"Want me to snap your scrawny neck?" he rasped back. He felt the uncomfortable weight of Osha's stare on the burnt side of his face and his hand finally grasped the pommel, but then she threw her head back and laughed, and it was almost tangible, the way the wolves' attention snapped to her instead.

Just like that, the atmosphere was broken. The black wolf sloped silently off through the undergrowth while the grey one approached him, curious rather than threatening now, and sniffed at his fingers as its brother once had. Sandor let it take his scent before ruffling the thick fur between its ears, the beast so big he did not have to bend to do it.

"They ain't pets," she warned him, a sharp edge entering her voice. "I've seen direwolves north of the wall, but never this far south. They're creatures of mountain forests and rivers made of ice – it's bitter survival up there, and they'll eat anything to outlive the cold." She paused. "You ever seen one fight, Hound?"

He glanced over at Osha for the first time. She was tall and sinewy, a hard body for a hard life. And a hard face to go with it, though honest, he judged. "Hunting's a better word for it," he rasped as the grey wolf slinked after its black brother into the sentinel pines.

Osha eyed him interestedly. "Aye, you've seen it all right," she said, voice low in both admiration and fear.

He grunted as he turned back onto the path to the hot pools, done with the conversation. "Whoever decided they should be locked up in here is a fool."

"A fool, is it?" Maester Luwin said at dinner that evening.

"No," Bran Stark said, blushing as he retraced his steps, "she only said Ser Sandor said it was foolish to keep them locked up."

"The Hound is not a knight," Sansa piped up before he could utter the words himself.

"Your maester had it right, boy, I said it was a fool who locked them away," Sandor corrected, uncompromising. The little lord's eyes flicked to his in distress at the betrayal, before the sight of his ugly face was clearly too much and he focused shamefacedly on his plate.

"It was the boy's maester who suggested it," the old maester returned with a frown. He did not like Sandor, that much was clear, and the feeling was mutual. What did a man of books and scrolls know of defending a castle? And where had that fat old master-at-arms been when the direwolves had been put away like puppies pissing in their master's shoe?

"Then," he said, pronouncing each word with care, "the boy's maester is a fool."

Luwin's wrinkled face wrinkled further into an expression of anger. Bran looked shocked, glancing between the two of them as though trying to keep them both within his line of sight. Sansa gasped and looked as though she would like to chide him for his manners. Rickon laughed uproariously.

"And this is how men address one another in the south these days?" the old maester spluttered.

"You will not speak to Maester Luwin that way, ser," the little lordling said, finding his spine. He stared straight at Sandor with furious blue eyes, so much like Sansa's.

"It's merely the truth, my lord," he said, flattening his voice to the bored, disinterested tone he had so often used in King's Landing. "Your lady mother sent me north both as guard to your sister, and as counsel to you. This is a war, and I am a warrior – she thought you would be wise to heed it. Your brother fights with his direwolf by his side, where yours is locked away in the godswood. Aye, I call that foolish indeed. But perhaps I have misjudged the situation," he added sourly, "and your trained garrison of fighting men is ready to come forth from the wolfswood at any moment to defend this castle."

"Ser Rodrik has gone to unlock the godswood gate," Sansa said the next day. "Permanently."

Sandor snorted, and swiped the whetstone down the sword shaft again. "A wise man."

"Maester Luwin sent me to tell you that the direwolves will be released, but that you have to help Rickon train Shaggydog properly, being that you are a kennelmaster's grandson."

Sandor glanced up at her, squinting against the sharp afternoon light cutting through the battlements of the curtain wall and down into the yard. He noted her expression of faint unease and consternation, and concluded that the maester had done some digging into the records of the westerlands without Sansa's assistance. The thought amused him and he barked a laugh. "So you northerners do know how to play the game," he said. "The old man's got more guts than I gave him credit for, I'll say that for him."

"Maester Luwin is from the crownlands," she corrected him quietly. "Will you do it?"

"You did not give me to understand that I had a choice, little bird," he rasped.

Her eyes met his briefly before she bobbed a stiff curtsy and said, "I thank you for your answer," before turning away, her skirts swishing in the mud.

The war continued. Robb Stark won a handful of skirmishes, but his efforts to secure his northern crown were more or less at a halt as troops marched and plans were made. Sansa started lessons with Maester Luwin, in the absence of a septa, and Sandor attempted to instil some discipline into Rickon. It was perhaps easier now to see the sense in the decision to lock up the black direwolf – there was no doubting the creature had the same menace and ferocity as its brother Grey Wind, but wild, undirected, just as the little boy had become. In fact there was only one person the wolf had yet to snap at, and that was the little bird.

"Oh, no," Sansa breathed, looking up from her scroll when she saw him walk into the maester's circular tower room cradling his arm.

"Well, where is he?" Sandor growled when she simply sat, staring round-eyed at the blood seeping from the tear in his leather vambrace.

"Please, don't tell Maester Luwin," she said, fluttering into action, fetching a bottle of Maester's Wine from a store cupboard and the copper pan to boil it. "He went to the library, and I don't think he'll be back soon. If he finds out he'll want to lock Shaggydog away again, and Rickon has been so much happier since his release."

"Your maester might have had a point, girl," Sandor muttered as he sat heavily in a chair by the fire. "That demon's no dog, and can't be trained like one." The wounds the animal had made in his forearm weren't severe, but its pointed fangs had punctured him deeply and he was bleeding freely, his arm stinging like all fuck. And I fucking hate boiled wine.

She cleaned the puncture wounds carefully – too carefully, perhaps, without the brutality most maesters seemed to display in their quest to scrub every fragment of exposed tissue clean of infection. But he knew from experience that a bite that bled as much as his had was not like to become contaminated. He watched in silence as she flushed the injury and wrapped it in layer after layer of clean gauze.

"Do you really think Shaggy should be put away again?" she asked as she tidied the maester's things away, her tone overly nonchalant.

Sandor reached over for the remainder of the bottle of Maester's Wine and uncorked it with his teeth before taking a swig. "If it can't be trained, and you won't put it down, I don't see an alternative," he rasped.

"Put him down?" Sansa squeaked, near toppling the stack of linen as she returned it to its shelf. "Don't– don't say that."

"Why not?" he asked, taking another swig of the strong, bitter wine. "Creature's no use to anyone like this, not to mention its having damaged the sword arm of the only soldier worthy of the name in this entire castle."

There was a long silence. And then he heard Sansa swallow audibly and come back to kneel at his side as she had earlier while tending his wound. "My pardons for your injury, my lord. Truly. I will scold my brother properly as soon as I am able. But please, please don't tell Maester Luwin what has happened to you."

He had no intention of telling the old man of course, but he also had his own opinion on what was wrong with the wolf, and how it might be fixed. That, and Sansa Stark begging him for something on her knees was a sight he had never thought to see.

"And how will you repay me, little bird?" he rasped.

"In whatever way you ask," she replied earnestly.

It wasn't until later that he remembered that Sansa herself had once had a direwolf. And now she has a dog. But the idea was less amusing than he had thought, at first.

Sandor was there when the maester asked her why she had taken over Shaggydog's training, and so he got to watch as she lied through her teeth about it having been her idea. She was a poor liar, but this was not King's Landing, and the maester did not even look suspicious of her. She diligently came to his room every evening to clean and re-wrap his wound – this had not been part of their bargain, but he supposed she could not think of another way he might look after the wound without revealing what had happened to Maester Luwin, and despite the swearing he took no pains to suppress, he did not in fact mind having her company for the half an hour or so it took to boil the wine and see to his arm.

She had on a new dress, he noticed one evening. She had outgrown her fine southron gowns completely by now, but he found he did not like the way her fair features looked in the plain grey wool. She was made for fine fabrics and pretty decorations, he thought before he could stop himself, and then snorted, his mood somewhere between derision and mirth.

She looked over at him questioningly. "Did I do something amusing?"

"Your new dress, little bird," he said, waving his flagon in her general direction. The room swayed for a moment. How much had he drunk? He couldn't say, and he didn't care. Winterfell's wine cellars were well stocked, and he had been making sure to take advantage of the fact.

"My lord?"

"I'm no lord, no more than I'm a knight. Do I need to beat that into you?"

She frowned at him, a delicate expression of distaste. "Forgive me, Hound."

She had called him by his first name, once. When had that been? He couldn't remember! He laughed at her expression, and shook his head, "Drunk as a dog, damn me."

"It's not even dinner time," she said quietly, pretty little mouth turning down at the corners.

"A flagon of sour red, dark as blood, all a man needs." He laughed again and she sighed, rising to bring the little copper pan of boiled wine to his side. He grunted in pain as she probed the puncture marks for signs of infection, and she asked him, "What about my new dress?"

He thought of her on that first day in Winterfell, all dressed up in her northern finery, surprised for a moment at how clear the memory came. Then he thought of her in King's Landing, wearing the frothy southron style, so eager to blend in. This new dress looked all wrong, drab grey feathers in place of her pretty colourful plumage.

But then he noticed how the simple style accentuated her small waist and the newly appeared curve of her hips, the shape of her young breasts clear as day without the fussy adornments he had been used to seeing her wear.

"You look almost a woman..." he mused. "Face, teats, and you're taller too, almost..."

He stopped at the shocked expression on her face, and then laughed once more, pulling long and hard on his flagon until it was near empty.

"I... I do not think that is a proper thing to..." she trailed off, blushing in humiliation, sneaking a glance over her shoulder to the door as if she expected her septa to come bursting through to scold her any minute.

"Ah, you're still a stupid little bird, aren't you? Singing all the songs they taught you... sing me a song, why don't you? Go on. Sing to me, as you did on the road. Some song about knights and fair maids."

"No," she said, voice soft but firm, eyes resolutely on the bandage she was tying off around his arm. "You do not deserve one tonight." But that only served to amuse him further, and he roared with laughter as she rose, back ramrod straight and dignified as all hell, before leaving him alone with his wine.

That was the whole point really, though. She was twelve, the same age he had been when he first killed a man, fucked a woman. He had become a man that year and it was high time the little bird started to act more of a woman than the naïve little girl who had trusted so easily in Cersei and Joffrey merely because they were beautiful and treated her occasionally with kindness. He had wanted her to take on Rickon and his wild beast not just because she was the only one the direwolf appeared to tolerate, but because the boy needed taking in hand, and he only appeared amenable to take discipline from Sansa. Perhaps because she looks so much like their mother.

Whatever the reason, Rickon responded well to Sansa's increased attention, and for her part Sansa seemed to relish the responsibility. He heard from the talk in the kitchens how she had started discussing the meals with Gage the cook, and how that had led to her taking a stock of their store rooms.

"She even told that fusty old lord-of-ravens to increase the share of the harvest going into the storerooms," Osha said, sitting by the edge of the pool as she bent fronds from a nearby clump of bracken into some kind of frame. "I would've liked to have been there to see that, because I know for a fact he wanted to say the same to the little lord, but after she said it, well..."

Sandor laughed softly to himself. "The little bird's finally finding her wings."

Almost against his will – because he was not in the habit of cultivating friendships – Sandor had discovered that he liked the wildling woman. She had a face as lovely as a shovel, and manners to match his own, but she was one of the few people he'd ever met who could drink as much as him without hitting the rushes in a stupor, and the gods knew there was little enough else to do in this godsforsaken castle.

That didn't explain, however, why she was sitting there beside the hot pool while he bathed. He was sitting with his burnt side towards her, and again he felt the heavy, itching pressure of her stare on his ruined flesh.

"What?" he snapped, anger flaring. "What the fuck are you looking at?"

Osha stared back at him, unflinching and unashamed to be caught staring. "Sensitive, ain't you?" she said, placing her bracken fronds down beside her. "I was looking at your face, but I reckon you knew that already, and I reckon that ain't really the question you meant to ask."

Sandor felt the burnt corner of his mouth twitching as he rose up and waded over to where she sat. Gripping her arms tight enough to bruise, he dragged her forwards roughly until they were face to face.

"Why," he growled, "are you staring at my face, wench? Am I so pretty to warrant such attention?"

She grinned at him, all teeth. "You're the ugliest man I ever saw," she returned, "but I definitely seen something I like," and quick as a snake she plunged her hand beneath the water's surface and grabbed his cock in a grip like a vice.

Sandor tightened his hands warningly around her arms, but Osha merely tightened hers in response. He could see she wasn't afraid, wasn't struggling against him, and to his complete infuriation he could feel himself getting hard in her hand.

"Thought you were fucking the cook," he rasped, staring down into unflinching eyes the same blue as water on ice.

"I let him fuck me," she replied, thrusting her hand sharply down his rapidly hardening shaft, swiping her thumb over his exposed cockhead as his sheath pulled back. "There's a difference."

She dug her thumb roughly into the knot of skin just beneath the head and he groaned, cock twitching in her hand. And then he released her and made short work of her simple clothes until she was naked in the pool with him, riding his cock while he squeezed her arse and sucked bruises into her neck.

"I don't share well," he grunted, turning them so that she was pushed up against the wall of the pool so that he could get more leverage to fuck her harder. "Not unless I'm paying for it. And you're too ugly to waste the coin on."

She pinched his nipple hard, her other hand between her legs working herself towards ecstasy. "Aye," she gasped hoarsely, "and it's a good thing you've got a big cock."

"Jojen says he has greensight," Sandor heard Bran saying to Sansa. They were riding side by side in the wolfswood, with Sandor as their guard. The boy had his bow and a quiver of arrows slung across his back, but Sandor suspected they were there mainly to enjoy the weather. It was a beautiful day, perhaps the last one of the long summer. He couldn't deny it felt good to escape the confines of the castle with Stranger for a few hours, the inane chatter of the two children blending in with the birdsong and myriad other forest sounds.

"What does that mean?" Sansa asked.

"He has dreams he calls green dreams and they always come true."

"Oh, like the children of the forest. Remember, Bran? The stories Old Nan used to tell us."

"Yes, but, Sansa – this is true. Even Meera said so."

Sandor watched as Sansa went quiet, her eyes dropping to her hands. "They were just stories," she sighed. "Life isn't a song."

The little lordling ought know that better than anyone, Sandor thought, eyes drifting over the boy's useless legs strapped into his high-backed saddle. How old was he? Seven? Eight? At his age, Sandor had still been unable to pass a looking glass without putting his fist into it in a rage. But it seemed even Bran's misfortunes had failed to open his eyes to the true nature of the world. I never thought I would meet someone more naïve than Sansa.

"I had a dream that came true," Bran insisted quietly. "I dreamed of father's death, before the raven came. Rickon did, too."

Sansa's shoulders stiffened at the mention of Ned Stark's execution, and she glanced sideways at her brother as she said, "And I am thankful every morning that none of my dreams come true."

They stopped by a brook to water the horses before they would turn back, and Sandor went into the trees to take a piss. He wondered idly what had happened to the two little Freys who had insisted on coming with them, only to gallop away laughing the moment they had passed the Hunter's Gate. The way they were virtually left to run wild did not sit well with him, but neither was it his responsibility to deal with them – Catelyn Stark had been very clear on her expectations for his role at Winterfell.

Then a high-pitched yelp shattered the quiet and set the fine hair on the back of his neck on end. He turned straight back around.

By the brook, the Freys had reappeared, and the four children stood in a tableau, unmoving in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Big Walder stood a little way back with a look of dread on his face. Bran, still strapped into his saddle on horseback, had an arrow nocked and trained on Little Walder, arm trembling with the tension. Little Walder himself held a dirk like a scullion would hold a dead rat by the tail, face blanched of all colour, and Sansa stood backed against a tree trunk, chest heaving with shock and dry sobs as she swiped at the blood trickling down her chest from the cut at her neck.

"It was just a game," Little Walder whined in terror as Sandor approached. "I never meant to cut her! We just wanted to play at knights."

But Sandor barely heard him. It's the same place I cut her myself, the night we fled from King's Landing. He went to Sansa, tearing the sleeve from his tunic as he did so, and wadded it up for her to press against the wound. Then he turned to Little Walder.

Sansa's words echoed in his ears. There is something about him... He reminds me of Joff. He saw her blood beading into a single, perfect droplet at the point of the dirk's blade.

And he saw red.

The boy screamed as the first lash landed across his naked back, and Sandor grinned viciously, heart pumping hard. By the time the third lash struck, the previous two stood out red and bloody against the pale skin of Little Walder's narrow back. He felt a weight on his arm, heard Sansa's voice, but they were distant sensations, barely noticeable over the roaring of blood in his veins, and he shook her off and raised his arm once more.

The lash landed with a crack. The boy screamed. The animal in him howled for more – more blood, more fear, his very being was singing with it. Sansa hung onto his arm again, and again he shook her off. Crack. And again. Only this time, when she gripped him, it was tight and she wouldn't let go.

He dropped the belt and grabbed her arms in an iron grip, bending down until they were virtually nose-to-nose. "Get out of my way," he snarled, knowing he was hurting her – knowing it and unable to stop himself.

"No," she whimpered back, eyes wide and staring with fright, "please, Sandor, you'll kill him!"

Only if he's lucky, he nearly said, but got stuck somehow on her wide blue eyes, the cut at her neck still seeping blood, the heaving of her chest in her starkly flattering gown. You look almost a woman. His own words echoed in his memory, and the bloodlust was on him.

And that was how Osha and Maester Luwin found them. Sandor jerked upright at the sight of them, pushing Sansa away from him in something akin to terror, much more rough than he should have been.

He ignored the maester's angry questions and stalked out, leaving Sansa sprawled on the stable floor, the boy still tied to the post at the end of Stranger's stall. Gods he needed to calm down... he had nearly... and the boy... fuck it all...

Osha caught up with him beside the kennels, saying nothing but pulling him into the small supply room at the end of the block with a dark, glittering look in her eyes. He ripped his laces open while she pushed down her smallclothes, and he bent her over the rickety table and fucked her savagely, thinking of nothing but the sheer fucking bliss radiating from his cock.

And later, after he had fucked her again, he dressed himself once more and dared her silently to mention what she had seen. But she merely gave him a grin of animal contentment, and said, "That little shit had it coming."

It was only that night, halfway into his third flagon of wine, that Sandor began to wonder first how badly he had hurt Sansa, and then if he should... apologise. He could not remember the last time he had apologised of his own volition, but the more he thought on it, the more he could not escape the feeling – foreign, unwelcome – that he had wronged her.

He was reeling slightly when he finally got up to walk the corridors to her room. A sworn shield should always be posted close to his charge, but the maester had deemed that Sandor's proposal lacked propriety, and so he had been quartered in the guest wing. Right now, it felt like several leagues from the family's rooms.

Shaggydog was prowling up and down the space outside Rickon's door, muzzle already red with the night's kill. It growled at Sandor softly as he approached, but that was almost friendly coming from that beast, and so he walked on past to Sansa's door.

He was not surprised to find it unbarred, despite what he had told her on their first day here – so sweetly trusting, his little bird. Trying to be quiet, and mostly succeeding, Sandor stumbled into Sansa's room.

It was dark with no fire, but the windows were pushed open, letting the cool night air into the warm room, and a shaft of moonlight fell across the foot of her bed. It was enough to see by, once his eyes had adjusted from the light of the candles out in the corridor. She wore a wide-necked bedgown, and where she had turned in her sleep it had slipped down one shoulder. Just peeking out over the top of the neckline, livid against skin made pale in the moonlight, was a finger-shaped bruise.

He sat down heavily on the bed and stared at the mark he had left. Eventually, he became aware that she was awake, and watching him.

"Little bird," he said, his whole body feeling weighed down in sudden exhaustion.

Slowly, carefully, Sansa sat up and pulled her bedgown back into place. Their eyes met in the half-light, and Sandor tried to speak the words he had gone there to say. But in the end it was Sansa who broke the silence.

"Would you like a song?"

When he made no answer she simply began, only this was no song of knights and fair maids, no Jenny of Oldstones or Florian and Jonquil. What she sang to him was the Mother's Hymn, and Sandor rose to his feet and stumbled back out of her room, before the sudden compulsion to weep could rise up and consume him.

The next morning as he sat in the yard by the armoury door sharpening his sword on his whetstone, Sandor could feel someone watching him even before he looked up into the unnerving green eyes of Jojen Reed. He considered for a moment simply holding the boy's stare until he either came over and said what he wanted, or left. But Sandor had better things to do with his time than play games with the strange little frog lord, and so he ignored him instead.

Several minutes later, the boy finally approached. He moved unhurriedly as though lost in thought, but his eyes when Sandor glanced up were strangely intense.

"What do you want?" he grunted, hoping to get rid of the pup as swiftly as possible. But Jojen merely looked at him again, a strange stare that seemed to look straight past his scarred face and into his head.

"I had a green dream last night," he said. "You were in it."

"Yes? Come to tell me my fortune, have you, boy?" Sandor mocked.

"What happens in the green dreams always comes to pass," Jojen continued, unperturbed. "You can't avoid it. Do you want to hear what happened?"

"No," Sandor said, getting up and going into the armoury. The boy followed him.

"In my dream, you had come across a room full of gold and riches," he said. "Other men rushed in to fill their pockets: a tall man with red-gold hair and lightning on his shield, several others wearing the Stark direwolf, and some with no allegiance at all. Only you stood your ground. Then the gold disappeared and the ground opened up, and those who had run forward plunged to their deaths."

Sandor snorted as he pulled his brigandine from the mannequin and lifted it over his head. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

Jojen regarded him in silence again for a moment, a look almost of curiosity crossing his features. "That when the time comes, you will make the right decision."

He did not see Sansa for a couple of days after the incident with the Frey boy, and it caused him to wonder, fleetingly, if she was avoiding him now or if she had merely been seeking him out before. He was not especially sorry for it, using the time he might have had to spend guarding her to good effect. She went to the Winter Town to make preparations for her brother's ninth nameday without him, ate her meals with her family in their solar, and did not once cross the yard while he practised. It was no hair off his arse. Every time he thought of that night in her bedchamber he felt troubled in a way he did not want to fathom. So what if he had frightened her? He had been charged with her protection, not her happiness, and the ugly, gnawing feeling in his gut could be pushed away with the exertion of the practice yard or a few flagons of wine. The little Frey streak of piss had been confined to bed rest for the next fortnight at least, and he'd be fucked before he was sorry for that.

Finally, he saw her again on the third day. She came to find him mid-morning in the midst of pummelling one of the house guard into the dirt. He had mostly worked off his wine sickness from the previous night by then, but still didn't feel pleased to see her.

She waited by the pail of drinking water until he was done with his opponent, then held out the ladle for him as he approached. He did not thank her, but drank in silence as she darted glances at his face. He turned his burned side towards her when he was done, grinning nastily when her expression flickered for a moment.

"Come to sing to me again?"

She blinked at him and he watched as bewilderment and then hurt clouded her face. He knew he was on shaky ground to mock her for what had happened that night, but equally he knew she would not correct him because she would not admit publicly to him having been in her bedchamber.

"No, I have come to tell you that Bran and Maester Luwin are no longer upset with you and accept that you acted for my protection," she said, and Sandor had resigned himself to her having contained her annoyance with him when she added, resentfully, "ser."

He chuckled darkly before the memory of the bruises he had left on her skin flashed across his mind's eye. Bran Stark would have no reason to know of them, of course, but the maester had seen him push Sansa to the ground. Clearly, she had somehow managed to convince the old man that he'd meant her no harm. Aye, and do you, dog? Little Walder is not the only one to have shed her precious blood, after all. His eyes fell to the red line where the dirk had sliced her delicate skin, the same place he had once held his knife. Gods, it felt like a lifetime ago.

"And what about you, my lady?" he asked, crouching down before her to bring their faces closer. The first time he had done this, on a darkened tourney field after too much wine, it had put them at eye level. Now he found himself looking up at her. Like a dog begging for scraps at the table. The thought came unbidden and he pushed it away just as quickly.

She stared unblinking down at him for the longest time until she said, quietly, "It was not me I was frightened for."

He thought, for the briefest of moments, that she would place her hand on his shoulder again – that she would try to comfort him – and the thought was so unbearable and he rose back up to his full height and quickly turned away from her.

It seemed that all was not truly forgiven by the maester, however. Perhaps it was the boredom up here – while he could not regret being the one to bring Sansa safely home, he had never imagined himself sitting out this war, and the Master-At-Arms did not trust him enough to send him out to deal with any of the minor disruptions amongst the remaining northerners – or perhaps it was merely the looks of distaste the old man kept shooting his way over the course of the evening as he got progressively drunker, and Osha (who was acting as serving wench) spent progressively more time in his lap, but by the time Bran Stark was carried up to bed from his nameday celebrations, Sandor had had enough.

"Perhaps the children are not the only ones who should be taken to bed," he said as he met one of the maester's looks from down the table. Sansa and most of the other occupants of the high table were dancing down in the space that had been cleared after the meal. They were alone. "Allow the rest of us to have some fucking fun."

"You're drunk, Clegane," the maester sighed. "Again."

Sandor stood up, swaying generously. "Of course I am, you bloody fool," he snarled. "It's a celebration – the whole point is to get pissing drunk."

The maester tugged contemplatively on his collar of metal rings, giving Sandor such a penetrating look that he growled at the old man before snatching up another full flagon of wine and drinking near half of it in one go out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

"I suppose you will tell me that getting into drunken brawls with the house guard for no good reason is also part of the fun?" Luwin asked when he was done. "Tanner's arm will take several weeks to mend, and we have precious few archers as it is." He sounded so damned reasonable.

"Tanner got what he fucking deserved," Sandor replied, leaning over the table on his hands, remembering what that piece of goat shit had said about Sansa.

"And the friends who tried to separate you?"

Sandor snorted – 'separate' was an interesting word for it. "Them too."

"And Little Walder? A boy of eight?" The old man's colour was up. Sandor grinned.

"Him too."

"And Lady Sansa?" the old man asked quietly. "Did she deserve it?" That's not fair, I wasn't drunk then, he thought as her bruised arm and cut neck flashed across his vision, before a treacherous voice added, that doesn't make it any better, you dog. The maester was standing now too, a solemn expression on his face. "You are clearly an excellent swordsman, Clegane, and apparently loyal to Sansa if nothing else, but if you use wine to avoid taking responsibility for your own life, how can you take responsibility for someone else's?"

For a moment Sandor was so incensed he couldn't speak. Then he looked down as a small hand covered his, urging his fingers to loosen from the knife he didn't remember taking hold of. When he looked up Sansa's expression was furious, but not directed at him.

"That will be enough, Maester Luwin," she said, her voice colder than he had ever heard it. Luwin was clearly shocked by her tone as well, frowning at her, but Sansa spoke again before he could protest. "The Hound has sworn his sword to this family. He has saved both my life and my uncle's, and fought alongside my brother and his armies. My lady mother sent him north with me as my protector and he has been nothing but faithful and – and devoted to that duty, and you cannot remove him without her word."

Stunned silence settled between them for the space of several heartbeats while the pipe and fiddle and the stamping of feet carried on oblivious in the background. And then Sandor swiped his half-drunk flagon from the trestle table and weaved his way out of the Great Hall.

"Sandor, wait," he heard as he moved as swiftly as he could towards his room, but she still caught up with him before he could close the door on her. "Are you angry with me, too?" she asked as she slipped under his arm and into his room before he could stop her, drunk as he was.

For some reason, that was funny and he laughed. He stopped soon enough, because it made his chest ache. "Why not?" he said, head spinning as he sank down on the edge of his bed because it was the nearest surface capable of taking his weight, propriety be buggered. "Easier that way, and I'm far too drunk to listen to you peeping at me."

"Sandor, please," she said anxiously, bobbing about in front of him, a grey-and-white phantasm to his suddenly blurry eyes. "Please don't drink any more." He considered the flagon in his hand for a long moment before bending forward laboriously to place it on the floor. As he sat back up, she pressed a cup of water into his hand and it took him several seconds to realise it was the one that went with the stone jug the servants brought in every morning.

"I'm not upset about it," she said after the silence had stretched uncomfortably. "The – the bruises. I know you got angry, but you were just protecting me. And you shouldn't have come to my room that late, but..."

"But what, little bird?" he squinted at her, trying to focus. "I'm just your dog, after all." And you're in my room right now.

"You're not a dog!" she said, her vehemence taking him back. "Joffrey called you that and I don't want to be anything like him. You're a man, a – a loyal man, and I know we have not always... agreed... with one another, but it was very wrong of Maester Luwin to say you could not be responsible for my life. He hasn't seen – he doesn't know–"

He wanted to laugh again, at her sheer earnestness, but his chest was also hurting again, and because he was drunk as all fuck – drunker than he'd been in a long time – he didn't think but merely acted on what he knew would feel good and pulled Sansa towards him, leaning back until she was lying by his side on the bed.

To his distant surprise she did not tense in his arms, but relaxed against him with her hand on his chest as if they had not been sleeping apart these last few months. "Little bird," he said hoarsely, breathing in the sweet, familiar scent of her hair, "you're a hell of a lot better than Joffrey, but how can I be if I hurt you?"

"No," she said softly, reaching up to turn his face towards her. "You could never truly hurt me. You saved me."

"Don't lie to me," he growled, wanting to be angry but finding himself instead choked up on wine and unwanted emotion. "Not with my marks still on your skin." He touched the cut on her neck with clumsy fingers and she breathed in sharply.

"That wasn't you," she whispered. "Little Walder – oh." She stopped, searching his eyes. "You mean before. No, don't – don't be sorry for that. I wasn't myself, I needed... someone to wake me from that awful nightmare. You made me realise I wanted to live. You saved me, Sandor."

"You would have fallen," he said, but he wasn't seeing Sansa now, but another girl, black haired and grey eyed, falling, falling... "Just like Serah."


"Serah Clegane," he said bitterly, eyes focusing back on her as she gasped softly.

"You had a sister?" she breathed.

"Yes, little bird, I had a sister. I rode back to my family's keep just in time to see her falling from the ramparts. No one ever saw who did it, but I'd wager you could take a guess."

She had tears in her eyes, he noticed hazily. He did, too. "The mountain," she breathed. "Your brother."

Sandor closed his eyes, astonished a moment later to feel her soft hand cupping his cheek as she had once done on the road from King's Landing – this time he did not brush her off. "For that alone I'd have wanted him dead."

"The gods will see he faces justice," she said with quiet conviction, "in this world or the next."

What gods? Sandor wanted to say, wanted to mock her childish belief in fairness and goodness winning out against a man like Gregor. But his body was heavy from the wine and tired from grief, and Sansa was warm and close and he didn't have it in him to push her away as he knew he should.

That was why, come the morning, he awoke to nausea, a thumping headache and a pair of deep blue eyes watching him cautiously from across the pillow.

Groaning, he released her and rolled onto his back, flinging an arm over his eyes to block out the bright morning sunlight that was streaming through the shutters he hadn't had the wherewithal to close the night before. The other arm was numb from where Sansa had been lying on it, and when she sat up it flooded with a thousand fiery needle pricks.

He heard her moving about the room before she returned to the bed and, sliding one hand under his head to help him up, bid him drink the cool water she pressed to his lips, over and over until he couldn't take any more.

Flashes of the previous night kept streaking through his mind like comets, leaving sick realisation in their fiery wake.

"How are you feeling?" Sansa asked him finally, pressing one cool hand briefly to his forehead, her voice concerned.

"Sick as a dog," he muttered.

Sansa made a soft snorting sound – whether a sigh or a laugh at his expense, he couldn't tell and couldn't bring himself to look.

She said nothing about the night before, for which he was grateful, nor his state this morning, about which he was not sure how to feel. In the blinding light of day it seemed that, just as with the locking up of the direwolves, the maester might have had a point about his drinking. If enemies attacked this morning, he felt as though he would be able to do little more than vomit on them.

"I will tell one of the maids to bring you a bath," was all she said before slipping out to return to her own chambers, and the thought struck him that she deserved better than this.

Though Sansa sent numerous letters to her mother, it appeared that Lady Stark had neither the time nor the inclination to respond. This meant they got most of their news from the ravens passed between the maesters of Winterfell and Riverrun.

Gregor's name was often mentioned, raping and burning his way through the riverlands. Of course. The men Eddard Stark had sent after him had been long ago defeated, although the small folk apparently had a new champion.

"They call him the Lightning Lord," Maester Luwin said at dinner.

"Oh," Sansa said, her ears pricking up. "The arms of House Dondarrion bear a black field with purple forked lightning. I wonder if-"

"Beric Dondarrion is dead, girl," Sandor interrupted. "You can be assured of that if he fought my brother."

"You fought him once, at – at my father's tourney, and you're still here."

Sandor stared at her in disbelief. He wanted to point at his face and snarl You call this winning? Would have done, if they were alone. But Sansa quailed at the look he was giving her, eyes flitting over the damaged flesh of his face as understanding seemed to dawn, and that would have to be sufficient.

The talk moved on – Rodrik Cassel had returned that very evening with a prisoner, and informed them all that the Bastard of Bolton was dead. Sandor had already said his piece earlier about killing this servant Reek, but Ser Rodrik had not wanted to hear it. His thoughts circled instead around the news of his brother.

He had not fully minded being sent up here at the time. Sansa had needed protecting and he had little enough love for the Starks to want to fight for them so badly. But after his recent... conversation... with Sansa, and with every raven bearing news of Gregor Clegane's deeds in this war, Sandor's hands itched to draw his sword and fight something.

Since shaming himself in front of Sansa, Sandor had been making a conscious effort to drink less, and it had left him shaky and even more short-tempered than before. Part of it was likely that, but it was also true that he'd been north of the Neck and out of the fighting for five months now, and it didn't feel right.

"What about your little lady?" Osha asked that night as she walked naked about his room, retrieving her clothing, a teasing edge to her tone that he did not care for. "If you go back south, who's going to keep watch on her?"

"This is one of the safest castles in all of Westeros," he grunted, staring up at the ceiling from where he lay on the bed. "Twenty men could hold it for months, if not years, with the right supplies."

"Little Lord Reed had a green dream that the sea was coming to Winterfell – he says Alebelly and Mikken are going to drown."

Sandor snorted derisively. "Aye, and he told me I'd never be a rich man."

Osha's eyes lit up in interest. "Is that true, now, Hound?"

Sandor rolled his eyes. "No, woman. He had a dream with me and some gold in it, and seemed to think the message was that I would make the right decision, whatever that means."

"Perhaps it means now," Osha said thoughtfully.

A week later, spattered in blood and fleeing Winterfell by horse with Sansa once again clinging to him for her life, he wandered if Jojen Reed had actually meant now. After all, he could not have done this if he had gone south in search of the fighting.

"True knights protect the weak," she wept as he bundled her away from the Iron Islanders' attack.

"There are no true knights," he replied shortly as the cold northerly wind whipped at hair and cloaks, "no more than there are gods. All you have is me, little bird."

"Please, please, we have to go back, my brothers-"

"Won't be raped when the castle is taken," he snarled. "Won't be forced to marry some lordling to consolidate his delusions. Now be quiet before someone hears you." Osha had the boys' lives in hand, he knew – the direwolves had held the attackers off for long enough for them to exchange their plans. But he hadn't had time to explain it all to Sansa right there and then.

"Why are you being so awful," she sobbed as they galloped away from the granite walls he had thought would protect her, beating her fists against his chainmail, so ineffectual he barely felt it.

"I'm honest," he ground out, spurring Stranger on. "It's the world that's awful."


"Where will you be safe?" Sandor asked at midday the day after their escape from Winterfell, when he finally allowed Stranger to slow to a walk under an overcast sky. Sansa had been weeping since they left, clinging to his back and shaking pitifully with sobs in a way she never had when fleeing King's Landing or leaving her mother and brother behind at Riverrun. When she didn't reply he glanced over his shoulder at her, but her head was bowed and he couldn't see her face. Part of it was shock, he knew – she still wore her bedgown beneath her dress and cloak, so hastily had they had to leave. But he was tired himself, and still covered in a man's blood, and more than anything now he needed her to be grown up about their situation.

Sandor directed Stranger over to the brook they had been following and allowed him to drink while he dismounted. Then he stood next to her where she sat still mounted on the horse's back, and forced her to look at him with a hand under her chin.

"Sansa," he said, "this is fucking important, so listen to me – where will you be safe?"

She wiped her swollen eyes and stared at him blankly for a moment before speaking. "Theon – Theon's men went to Torrhen's Square first, so not there. The Umbers have always been loyal... but the Greatjon and his sons are south fighting with Robb, and mother never trusted his brothers. There's fighting in the Hornwood and Bolton lands because of Lady Hornwood's death. I suppose that leaves White Harbour and the Manderlys. My father once told me the story of how the Manderlys came north; he said they would never forget their debt to the Starks. We should go there."

Sandor looked at her with new eyes. She was calm again, straight-backed and clear-headed and he found himself impressed with the way she had collected her thoughts. Her eyes were cool. They remained so after she slid down from Stranger's back without his help and brushed down her skirts before turning to him and saying, "Now tell me what's become of my brothers."

By nightfall it was clear that no one was following them. The Iron Islanders had seemed few enough, though sufficient to overpower the scant number of fighting men still in the castle once they had scaled the walls – obviously there was no one to spare to chase after one Stark when two still remained. Clever, really, the way they had got past the castle's defences – the kind of thinking Tywin Lannister would have appreciated.

Sandor remembered Catelyn Stark advising Robb not to send the Greyjoy boy to treat for them with his father. And then, without warning, he remembered Cersei Lannister trying to talk Joffrey down from executing Ned Stark right there on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor. He felt a sudden rush of anger at Robb Stark's foolishness.

The lack of pursuit meant they were safe to light a fire when they stopped to make camp, which was just as well because the nights were colder this far north than they had ever been down in the riverlands. They had no bedrolls. The forest floor was dry and covered in a layer of pine needles – that would have to do. Sansa lay close to the fire wrapped in her cloak, and once he had seen to Stranger's needs, Sandor lay down beside her for warmth. She did not turn into him as she used to – as half of him expected her to – but lay quiet and still with a discernable gap between their bodies. He considered briefly whether it was worth picking a fight over, but sleep took him before the decision could be made.

Come the morning, she lay pressed up against his side, her head on his shoulder, his arm around her back, his cloak protecting them both from the cold morning dew.

They had no supplies, and only the clothes on their backs. The north was so sparsely populated that he could not even find a horse to steal for Sansa, and so she rode with him – in front, now that speed was less urgent. With no water skins they had to stop at brooks and streams to drink, and the crude snares Sandor set in the evenings caught barely enough to keep them going.

There was no wine, of course.

It had been bad enough at Winterfell when he had tried to cut down; this was something else entirely. The sweats started on the second day, and the nausea hit during the third. On the fourth day they had to stop several hours earlier than usual because he could not stop heaving, even though his stomach was empty. He collapsed into sleep that night before making a fire, and awoke later to the freezing night air, Sansa curled up tightly beside him and shivering in her sleep. She did not speak to him the entire next day, though he remembered her hands on his back, soothing as he retched on all fours.

The weather was beginning to turn, morning dew freezing to morning frost, the light sprinkling of snow that would sometimes fall taking longer to melt. They spent more time on Stranger's back simply to avoid having to sleep on the cold ground.

And then, one morning, Sandor awoke to see a fresh blood stain on the front of Sansa's gown. His hand was on her shoulder shaking her frantically awake before it hit him. Then he stopped, and backed away wordlessly when Sansa opened her eyes and looked at him questioningly before glancing down at her dress.

He watched as she reached around to the back of her skirts, lifting them up so she could see them over her shoulder, a sound like a whimper escaping her lips when she saw that they, too, were stained with blood.

He thought for a moment that she would cry again. She certainly looked as though she wanted to. He had never seen a woman during her... time... before, and he felt the sudden and irrational urge to flee, to get away, though all he ended up doing was averting his eyes while Sansa collected herself. In the end she did not cry, merely sat up and wrapped her cloak around her to cover the stains before turning to him with her chin tilted up, jaw set almost stubbornly.

"My moonblood has come," she said with fragile dignity. "Is there somewhere nearby I can bathe and clean my clothes?"

I should go with her, he thought as he watched her walk into the trees. But last night's snares needed checking and they had yet to see another human in this vast wilderness between castles – she would be safe enough if he stayed within earshot. Besides, moonblood was women's business and the very thought of it set him on edge.

Checking the traps he felt distracted, his thoughts scattered, unable to settle on the idea that the little bird was now a woman flowered. The snares were empty, but one good thing came of it – in the daylight he could now make out a mill on the river, no more than four leagues away.

Sansa's dress was wet when she returned, though the stains were still faintly visible. She was pale and shivering with cold, but when he told her of the mill she nodded and let him lift her up onto Stranger's back.

"Stop here," Sansa said when they were still some way away from the mill. "We can walk the rest."

"And then what?" Sandor growled. This was their first real chance at getting food in several days – it shouldn't be wasted. "You ask them politely for a hot meal and a seat by the fire?"

"Would you have me steal from my own people?" she replied stiffly. "Threaten and bully like a Lannister until they give up everything they own?"

"Asking will get you nothing in war time except chased off the land with pitchforks, and that's if you're lucky," he warned her, but she was resolute. She had to be freezing in her wet clothes, looking utterly miserable, and something in him gave out at the thought of arguing with her further. But as he let her loop Stranger's reins around the slim trunk of an oak sapling, Sandor reassured himself that he at least still carried his weapons. These peasants would be no match for him when Sansa's attempt had failed.

They did not even reach the door before the people within came forth. Sandor had to remind himself that the war was yet to really touch these lands – peasants in the riverlands would not have stood outside their homes waiting to greet an armed stranger. But it soon became clear it was not he who had caught their interest. Three women stood in the doorway whispering to each other as Sansa approached. Two of them looked to be sisters; the third was perhaps a daughter. Sansa paused a few steps away from them. The women's expressions were wary and decidedly unfriendly, though edged with curiosity. Sandor's hand found the hilt of his sword as Sansa waited for some form of acknowledgement, but the women just stared at her stonily.

And then he watched as Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell curtseyed deeply, bowing her head to these people who were her smallfolk, and begged them humbly for food and shelter.

"Stark, did she say?" a voice croaked from inside the mill. A fourth woman – old as the Crone – tottered forward to peer at Sansa with sharp eyes. "This one's grandsire gave these lands to my Allyn. Stand, girl, and be welcome here."

They fed him while Sansa cleaned herself up, and when she reappeared one of the women had given her a fresh dress to wear – simple brown roughspun, but clean. She looked exhausted, but he knew they shouldn't stay here.

Sandor washed quickly while Sansa sat and ate with the family. The sweating and nausea had worn off by now, but he stank worse than a swineherd because of it. There was nothing he could do about his clothes – they were unlikely to have anything his size and they couldn't wait around for them to dry if he washed them.

They left after Sansa had finished. The mill had little to spare, but the women gave them a loaf of bread and a lump of hard cheese, and more importantly the knowledge that White Harbour was only a day's ride away. One of the sisters pressed a small bundle of something into Sansa's arms that made her bend and kiss the woman's hand in gratitude.

"Thank you," she said to him quietly as they rode away. "For trusting me."

"I'm just your sworn shield, girl. I do as you bid."

"When it pleases you, yes," she replied, a gentle, teasing tone in her voice. Before he could respond she had leaned back against him, closing her eyes, and so he merely wrapped an arm around her waist so that she could rest securely.

As they continued south along the banks of the White Knife, he wondered at the stupidity of these northern peasants. In the Westerlands the smallfolk would take in the child of their liege lord just the same, but they would not dare step so high above themselves as to eat with her, or show such familial kindness. He had seen this behaviour before, in the men who fought for Edmure Tully – the Starks and the Tullys appeared to inspire a level of devotion in their bannermen and smallfolk alike that was utterly foreign to him. It did not feel right that they mixed so readily with their inferiors. The Lannisters knew and respected the social divisions, and everyone was better off for knowing their place in the world. But Sansa just wanted everyone to love her, and he was certain it would not always end up so well for her, though they had been fortunate this time.

These were hard thoughts to master, turning round and round in his mind with no discernable conclusions to be drawn. But they were easier than thinking that by rights he should not call her girl any longer.

Sandor had never seen anyone so fat as Lord Manderly. Of course he had heard tell that the old man was too great of girth to sit a horse, but even then his mind had not been able to conjure the sheer size of the man.

"Don't mistake him for stupid, though," he warned Sansa as he walked her back to her room that first night, warm and sated from the gargantuan feast with which they had been greeted.

For a moment her expression screamed affront that she would ever do such a thing, but then he watched as she appeared to consider his words more deeply. "Is it a fabrication, then? He was extremely jovial. But why would he pretend like that?"

"Why would you, little bird?"

She looked thoughtful in the flickering torchlight of the halls of New Castle. "Septa Mordane often said that courtesy is a lady's armour," she replied at length. "I think she meant that one could retreat behind the conventions of courtesy to protect oneself. I think it's a little like that, except Lord Manderly hides behind his façade so that people will not expect him to be... clever, I suppose."

She looked to him for approval and he couldn't help but smile slightly at her eager expression, nodding in confirmation. She smiled back.

"You didn't drink," she said then, her expression becoming more guarded. "At the feast, you didn't drink any wine."

The smile fell from his mouth. "No."

"Why not?"

Mind your own fucking business, he wanted to snarl at her. His self-control had been hanging by a thread throughout the meal, and he was not in the mood to discuss it now. And yet, the words came out anyway.

"Because for at least three days I was as much use to you as a mewling brat," he ground out. If we'd been attacked... "I won't let that happen again."

"Sandor," she said gently, reaching out to touch his arm, but when he glowered down at her whatever it was she had meant to say appeared to die on her tongue. She swallowed. "Do you think it likely we won't stay here, then?" she asked instead.

"I don't know yet," he muttered. "But given your luck so far, little bird, it doesn't seem likely, does it."

Sandor stood still and impassive by the door, arms crossed over his chest, as Lord Manderly sighed and shook his head through giving Sansa the news.

"It was done out of grief for your sweet brothers, my lady. It is a tragedy indeed that the ravens you sent on your arrival here did not reach your lady mother and His Grace before the turncloak's did. And now... I'm afraid... a great misdeed it is that King Robb has done. A great misdeed."

"He married for love," Sansa said quietly, her brow furrowing. A year ago, if Sandor had heard her utter those words, he had no doubt it would have been said with a soft smile and a sigh. Now, she looked confused, uncertain about how to react to this news, and she turned back briefly to look at him before Manderly spoke again.

"Yet he was promised to another, my lady," the fat lord sighed, "and Walder Frey is a dangerous enemy to have made."

"Surely..." Sansa began, licking her lips. Sandor could practically see her thoughts racing. "Surely some amends could be made?"

Manderly sighed again and sat back in his chair. It creaked ominously. "Aye, I imagine it will be offered. Your lord uncle has yet to take a bride, of course... but there is a greater prize the Lord of the Crossing is like to demand, Lady Sansa."

She went pale, her shoulders stiffening with tension. "No," she whispered. "My mother..." She glanced back at Sandor again, a pleading expression on her face. "She would never..." All he could do was shake his head.

"She may have no choice," Manderly said.

"Even if she could somehow prevent your betrothal to a Frey, what of Stannis?" Sandor asked her later when they were alone. Stannis Baratheon had failed to take King's Landing by sea, and what was left of his fleet was now sailing north. To what end, nobody seemed to know, though speculation was rife.

Sansa had been given an apartment of rooms in the south-eastern tower of New Castle, overlooking the sea. She went to the window now, almost silhouetted by the bright white sky and the glare bouncing off the water.

"There will always be someone trying to force me to marry for their own gain – is that what you are saying?"

He didn't need to reply – she already knew the answer.

"Perhaps I should marry this Frey," she said then, turning to face him. "I have a duty to my family, to Robb, the war-"

"Where was his duty when he married the Westerling girl for the sake of a fuck?"

She flinched at his coarse language, but her expression was difficult to parse. "If he had not married her, he would have dishonoured her. By not marrying Lord Frey's daughter, he only dishonoured himself. Robb would see that as the lesser evil of the two."

Sandor growled and turned away from her, unable to explain why he was suddenly boiling over with anger. "He thought with his dick first and his heart second, and at no point did that idiot boy's brain ever come into play," he near shouted. "Honour is as much a fantasy as your true knights, little bird, and mark my words those who cling to it will die from it like a disease. Your father told Cersei of his plan to send you home and reveal all her secrets to the court. Did you know that? Out of honour. He wanted to give her a chance to escape Robert's wrath. Well look what it got him, and look what it got you, girl. Your brother is a fool if he thinks Walder Frey will ever forget this humiliation."

Silence filled the room for several heartbeats while Sansa stared at him in shock.

"Why are you so angry?" she whispered.

Because your brother's honour will trap you in a marriage with that nest of weasels. The words were there on his tongue before he could even fully register her question. He felt his jaw flexing with the strain of keeping them in, grip so tight on his sword hilt it hurt.

In the end it was Wylla Manderly who convinced Sansa to go. Sandor did not know how she had done it but neither did he care. The important thing was that Sansa had finally agreed that they should leave White Harbour before the inevitable raven could arrive.

The ship was set for Pentos. Lord Manderly sent his daughter and a compliment of maids to accompany Sansa on the voyage, along with gold and clothes and other supplies for their party. Wylla Manderly was two years older than Sansa though barely the taller of the two. She wore her hair in braids that she had dyed green in the Tyroshi style in honour of their journey to the Free Cities. Something in him suspected she would not choose to return home once Sansa had set up her household, and while he had no particular desire to spend his days with yet another maiden she at least did not seem prone to the same fits of giggling as the serving wenches and bedmaids.

Perhaps it would not be so bad leaving Westeros, mired in war as it was with winter around the corner. He had little doubt that Gregor would survive whatever was to come, and Sandor would still get his chance at vengeance. Just now, though... Sansa needed him more. He had sworn no oaths to her or her family, just as he had sworn none to the Lannisters... but he had brought her too far to leave now, her safety still uncertain, and so he would stay and be her sworn shield, and maybe survive this winter after all.

The manse was square in the Pentoshi style, a set of buildings and gardens surrounded by twelve-foot high brick walls. It was far smaller than the castles Sansa was used to, but too large a purchase would no doubt bring unwanted attention onto them and Sansa was bright enough to realise that. She was also bright enough to realise that the gold Lord Manderly had sent with them was a finite resource. What he was not prepared for was just how much thought she had put into their new lives.

"I don't think I should be Sansa Stark anymore," she declared on their first morning in their new lodgings. "This is a merchant's home and... I do not think it wise to draw attention to ourselves."

"You want to play at being a merchant's daughter?" he rasped, amused.

"Why not?" she replied. "Saying that my father sent me here with my sworn shield to escape the war is as good a story as any, and better than some."

Showing herself off as an unmarried highborn maid was unlike to be a good idea, it was true, but she still didn't have the least idea. "You act, walk and speak like a highborn Westerosi, Sansa, how do you-"

"Alysanne," she interrupted with a note of finality in her voice. "You may remain Sandor Clegane, if you wish," she added magnanimously. "Wylla suggested that your reputation would be more use to us in tact, and besides..."

She trailed off suddenly, a guilty look crossing her face, and he knew she had been about to comment on the impossibility of hiding his face. He stared back at her, his good eyebrow raised. She flushed and looked away.

"I thought about making you my brother, you know," she said a moment later. The burnt corner of Sandor's mouth twitched, but she never did tell him why she had decided against it.

Sansa's thirteenth nameday came and went, and a fortnight later news reached them of the massacre at the Twins.

Sansa locked herself in her room and would not come out even to eat, though Wylla pleaded with her. Sandor stood guard outside her door, listening to her sobbing. He stood guard for two full days.

On the morning of the third he heard her unbolt the door, though she did not open it. After a few minutes' hesitation, he simply went in.

She was sitting on the edge of her featherbed in the same dress she had worn when the messenger arrived, staring blankly at the opposite wall with red, swollen eyes. Tentatively, Sandor sat down beside her.

"Walder Frey didn't forget," she said eventually, her voice hoarse and still thick with tears. "You were right. I hope you are happy."

He said nothing – there was nothing to say – but when he put his arm around her back she leaned into him, clinging to his tunic like a lifeline.

"I'm sorry," he breathed when she had cried herself out again. But she had fallen asleep, and did not hear him.

He had thought in those first few wretched days that her grief might break her. He still remembered the dullness that had overtaken her after her father's execution, and fear settled deep in his stomach like a stone. He guarded her door when she woke and hacked mannequins to pieces outside the small armoury when she slept.

The house felt grey and stagnant, its occupants looking weighed down and talking in whispers as though it was Sansa herself who had died and not her relatives in a now distant land. After several days, he was almost tempted to do as Joffrey had once ordered him and scoop her out of bed whether she willed it or no. But he was not Joffrey's dog anymore and there were no Freys for her to push to their death to purge herself of this sorrow.

The impasse was only broken when three armed men broke into the manse. Sansa had been in mourning for a week, but that meant little and less to the sellswords when they tried to steal her away.

He found Wylla Manderly slumped on the marble floor of the corridor outside Sansa's chambers, knocked unconscious. Beside her, a man lay in a pool of blood, a dainty little knife sticking out of his chest. He had the olive skin and dark hair of the Myrish, his ear pierced with polished obsidian shaped to look like a dragon's tooth. The Dark Guild, he thought, good. I haven't had a decent fight in ages.

The other two had gone into the garden. Sandor caught up with them as they were trying to haul Sansa's struggling form over the walls. Seeing him, they dropped her and turned to face him, drawing their swords.

Sandor grinned.

"Will you object this time if I call you brave?" Sansa asked as she stitched the gash on his shield arm. She had put on a robe over her bedgown and washed her face but he could still make out the blood spatters from the men he had killed on the fine white linen beneath.

"Bravery didn't come into it," he grunted as she pulled another knot tight. "I'm here to protect you."

She smiled slightly, wry. "May I at least thank you?"

He sighed heavily, but nodded. She rose from her stool and leant over him, and before he could realise what it was she intended to do she had kissed him softly on his unburnt cheek and murmured, "Thank you," before re-seating herself as though nothing had happened. As though pretty little birds kissed his ugly face every day of the week.

He scowled at her, more out of habit than ill feeling, but her attention was fixed once more on his wound and she did not look up.

"Why do you think they wanted me?" she asked a little later as she washed out a cut in his scalp with boiled wine.

"As far as most of the world is concerned, you are the last Stark, little bird. This deception with your name will only work so far – there will always be those who know your true identity, or can guess."

"They think I'm the heir to Winterfell," she said, realisation dawning. To his very great surprise, she laughed. "I came here to avoid a marriage, only to become even more desirable."

"They may have come from Cersei," he replied, suddenly feeling better than he had in days. "It would be like her to want you taken alive."

She looked at him incredulously. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she asked, before collapsing once more into soft, feminine laughter.

Sandor had been to look at a group of Unsullied guards a neighbouring merchant was selling not long after they first arrived in Pentos. There was no doubting that they fought well, but the dead expression in their eyes had put him too much in mind of Gregor and so he had told Sansa he would look elsewhere. Now, after the attack, he bought the ten still remaining with Manderly's gold as soon as he was able.

After spending so many years in the company of Varys, Sandor had developed an innate mistrust of eunuchs, but seeing the number of men staring at Sansa as she and Wylla made their way through the market place, oblivious to the attention they were attracting, he decided that that too could work in their favour.

"They don't have names?" Sansa said aghast when the men had lined up outside the guardhouse for her inspection. On Sandor's instruction, their captain explained the process by which they were assigned a new name each morning, but he could already see the danger signs. True enough it took less than two months before his tender-hearted little bird had given all the Unsullied a permanent name and knew most of their life stories too.

"It's part of their training," he'd warned her, but it had been half-hearted. Sansa had always wanted people to love her after all, and he had seen first hand the kind of loyalty that could engender. Perhaps he still did not understand it, but after watching over her for nigh on a year now, he had growing confidence that it would be effective.

Sansa's melancholy persisted, however – a kind of loneliness it seemed impossible to touch. There was a series of wooden-framed archways down the centre of the manse's gardens where a climbing plant grew thickly, creating a shady tunnel of green leaves and trailing lilac blossoms. She would stay in there for hours sometimes, her delicate northern skin protected from the bright Pentoshi sun while she sat and seemed to stare at nothing.

"You don't believe in the gods, do you?" she asked him one hot afternoon, having bid him join her as she walked the length of her tunnel, picking idly at the blossoms.

"No," he answered shortly.

"I don't think I do, either," she said. "I've prayed all my life and always been good, and yet my mother and father and brother are dead, my sister is lost, Bran and Rickon are in hiding and my home has been burned to the ground. How can that be my just reward?" She picked another purple blossom, sighing deeply. "And yet, if there are no gods then there are no heavens, so where is my family now?"

He had no answer for her – none that she would want to hear, at any rate, and he was beginning to learn just recently the skill of holding his tongue for her sake. She turned to him and tucked the little bloom into the leather brigandine he favoured in this hot weather. He snorted, took it back out, and tucked it into her hair.

"Don't waste such pretty things on me, girl."

She smiled, though it was a small, sad thing. "But I can't see it on me," she said. She took his arm – something she had started doing just recently. All you have is me, little bird, he'd told her once. He had never expected it to become so true. And yet, part of him liked that she leaned on him so, and he wondered if this warmth she sparked in his chest at such moments was what it felt like to have family – true family.

They continued on until the shade ran out and they were back in the bright sunlit garden. She looked around quietly for a moment, blinking against the sun's glare. "This garden always reminds me of the godswood at Riverrun," she said wistfully. "I just wish there were a heart tree here."

Wylla found the youth in the marketplace, an apprentice to one of the city's artisans looking for some extra coin. He could not have been more than six-and-ten, though he was tall, nearing six feet. It pleased Sansa to sit in the garden and watch him work as the boy carved a face into the trunk of a cypress tree.

He had not expected that the carving would take more than a day, two at the most, and while the face was far more comely than the crude etchings on the northmen's weirwoods, Sandor began to suspect that the boy was drawing it out for some reason.

That reason was thrown into sharp focus one afternoon when Sansa sent him back to the house without her. Sandor didn't feel even slightly guilty for ignoring her, loitering in the shadows to continue his watch. For her sake, he told himself.

So he stood and watched and listened as the boy called her Alysanne and laughed with her over her halting Pentoshi and touched her hands and her face and her hair. And the next day, when she dismissed him again, he saw as the boy led her laughing into the shady corner where the marble fountain splashed clear water into the pool at its base. Watched as she blushed in pleasure at whatever it was he was saying to her. Watched as she tilted her face up and shyly accepted his kiss.

He watched all that, and waited for Sansa to say no, or struggle – willed it, in fact, because every instinct he possessed was roaring for the boy's blood. But she looked happy – happier than he'd seen her in a long time, and a voice in his head reminded him mercilessly she is not actually your sister, you stupid dog. Though he watched until the last goodnight kiss, he didn't even draw his sword.


Once, when Sansa was fourteen, he caught her peeping at him in the armoury as he peeled off his chainmail and sweat-soaked padded jacket.

"Had your eyeful?" he called sardonically as he filled a bucket from a nearby trough and poured it straight over his head.

"Pardons, my lord, I did not mean to intrude on your privacy," she said, backing out with her cheeks stained red. "But Victory wanted to speak to you about… um… something about weapons."

At the time, he had laughed about it to himself, because it seemed funny to see her so discomposed.

But it was not long after that he noticed she no longer had any trouble looking at his face – hadn't had any trouble for some time, in fact. And once he had noticed that, he also began to notice myriad other things, like the way she sometimes leant her head against his shoulder when she took his arm; the way she touched his hand, occasionally, for reassurance; the way her eyes seemed to soften when she smiled at him a certain way; the smell of her hair, and how it had become somehow familiar.

He tried to remember how she had behaved with her brothers. Affectionate with Bran and Rickon; almost worshipful of Robb. Was this like that? The thought unbalanced him in some way. He thought he should be pleased that she treated him this way, but underneath the warmth in his chest that meant uniquely Sansa, he also felt a rising irritation, like an itch under his skin that was impossible to scratch.

And sometimes, with the Pentoshi dresses she wore that exposed her shoulders and much of her back, it seemed as though... but no, she was always happy for men to find her beautiful, regardless of who they were.

"Alysanne," he growled, taking hold of her bare arm as she swayed before him. "I think you've had enough to drink."

She was fifteen and the most beautiful woman in the Golden Ballroom. Even the masque that covered the top half of her face could not hide the fact – every merchant's son in Pentos had wanted to dance with her, or so it seemed to Sandor – and after every dance she had been plied with a fresh cup of sweet wine.

"Not at all!" she laughed. "It just looks that way because you haven't drunk enough!"

It was a stupid joke. He didn't drink at all these days. After arriving in Pentos he'd discovered soon enough that it was all or nothing for him, and so he'd chosen nothing. He very rarely regretted his choice, but nights like this would certainly have passed much easier with a flagon or two of Dornish Sour.

"If you're sick in the litter, don't expect me to carry you home," he warned, but released her. She glided away, still graceful somehow despite her unsteadiness, sparkling in her pretty beaded dress. Before long yet another man was leading her to the dance floor. One of the Prince's heralds, in fact – the iron sword of war, by the look of his masque. Sandor snorted at the lack of subtlety.

Sometimes it seemed he had spent most of the last two years watching her fall into some man's arms. No, that's not true, he chided himself, unsure where the thought had come from. She was usually careful with her friendships, almost reserved. After the second attempt to steal her away, she had developed a certain... look... that she put on like a shawl whenever she left the safety of the manse, and he had rarely seen her lift it for anyone but he and Wylla. Tonight she was just enjoying herself as much as any pretty girl would. Even though the whole farce annoyed the shit out of him, there was no reason to begrudge her that.

"Oh, you were right," she moaned as they made their way back along deserted streets. The Pentoshi used oil lamps to provide light after sunset, and Sandor still felt ill at ease walking along these lit streets, unable to see the stars that had always guided his way before, but it was certainly more convenient than carrying lanterns at this hour.

"Stop," he ordered the two Unsullied who were acting as bearers. "Put her down." They were still five hundred yards or so from the guardhouse of the manse, but he didn't think Sansa would survive the swaying motion of the litter that far.

"Come on, little bird," he said, practically lifting her from her cushions. "You'll feel better if you walk.

"I can't see straight," she whined.

"That's because you're pissed out of your mind," he replied slowly, pronouncing each word with care.

She sniffed, surprisingly haughty for her state, and he took her bare arm and steadied her as they started to walk, the Unsullied following behind.

"I hate it when you speak to me like that," she said after a moment.

"Like what?"

"Like I'm a child, a little bird." He could tell from the way she was speaking that her tongue felt thick and heavy as velvet. It was a feeling he knew well.

"You don't like my little name for you?" he mocked. He took her masque from where it had been dangling in her hand. It was decorated in beautiful sapphire blue and emerald green feathers, and the nose suggested a beak. He held it up in front of her face, raising his good eyebrow when she peered up at him.

"That," she slurred, "is beside the point."

The house was quiet when they entered. Wylla was still at the Prince's ball with her own guard of Unsullied, and the girls' bedmaids were probably asleep in the kitchen awaiting their return. Sandor walked Sansa to the door of her chambers for fear of her stumbling over her own feet, and was just turning to go and fetch Nel when she caught his hand, tugging sharply for him to follow her into her parlour. Taken by surprise, he allowed her to lead him in.

"What do you want, girl?" he rasped tiredly. It must be nearing dawn and he had not slept late like she had.

She blinked up at him as though momentarily startled to find him there, and then she giggled drunkenly. And then – achingly slowly – her expression sobered and she looked him up and down, her eyes going dark before she stepped towards him.

"Embrace me," she said seriously.

Sandor stood his ground, though she had very definitely stepped closer than was proper. Most people, on seeing Sandor's height and build and uninviting expression tried to retain a respectful distance – despite her great concern for the rules of courtesy, Sansa never had. "Didn't you get enough attention at the ball, little bird?"

"Little bird," she repeated, her voice low and singsong, "little bird."

She had always been a tall maid, but he had not realised quite how much she had grown until she slipped her arms around his waist and he saw that the top of her head now reached his shoulders. Not such a little bird anymore.

"What are you doing?"

"I told you to embrace me." Her voice was slightly muffled by the fabric of his tunic. She had dressed him in the black livery of her fake Westerosi father, fine soft wool that was nevertheless too hot to wear anything beneath or on top of. It meant he could feel the curve of her breasts as she pressed herself against him – suddenly, shockingly aware of how few layers there were between his chest and hers.

Slowly, as if in a dream, he raised one hand to the small of her back and buried the other in her hair. She sighed and shivered as her skin pebbled into gooseflesh. His heart was thundering. And something in him released a primal cry.

He pushed her away abruptly and stumbled backwards, fleeing her room with a terse "Good night," trying his best to ignore the hardness in his breeches. I just need a whore, he told himself. It had been a long time since he'd last been with a woman, that was all it was. Still, he couldn't get the sight of Sansa's erect nipples showing through the gauzy fabric of her gown out of his mind, and he cursed himself over and over again for a sick bastard.

When she finally rose the following day – well after midday – she looked thoroughly winesick. He found her in the shady corner with her feet dangling in the marble pool.

"You sent for me?"

Her feet and legs were bare, fine silk skirts pulled up slightly higher than was demure, exposing the curve of slender calves. "Yes," she said, without looking up. "Will you join me?"

He crossed his arms over his chest. "Was there something in particular you wanted to discuss?"

She splashed the water with her bare feet, looking somehow curled in on herself. "No."

"Then what did you call me for?"

"Can't I just-" she blurted out, before stopping herself. "Never mind," she said, her voice unusually tight. "You may go."

He stared at her for a moment, trying to figure out what the hell was the matter with her – but when he did turn to go, she stopped him once more.

"Sandor, wait. I... my pardons for my behaviour last night." Still she did not look at him.

He did not know which part of the night she was referring to, and so he settled on as bland a response as he could manage. "You were drunk, girl."

She stroked the edge of her unopened book with her forefinger absentmindedly, smiling wanly. "Then I suppose that must explain it," she said.

"The Dragon Queen has taken the Wall in a great battle," Sansa told him as they walked through the marketplace one cool afternoon. "Jon's maester writes that the great white foe has been defeated once and for all." It was always busy here, the market stalls making narrow, crowded passageways between them, and so when Sansa paused she looked like a stone in the middle of a stream, the water parting and flowing around her. "Do you think she will fly straight to King's Landing?" she asked him.

"Perhaps," he said. They had heard much of this new Targaryen Queen in the past few years, but what the whispers said of her ferocity was not always equal to what they said of her wisdom. "What would you do with three dragons and your enemies on the run?"

Sansa smiled a touch sadly. "I would use them to protect the north so that I could rebuild Winterfell," she said. "That was a foolish question, Sandor," she added lightly as she began walking again, brushing against him as she passed. "Not everyone with power seeks to use it to conquer."

"They do, eventually," he said darkly.

"Whatever it is that she does," Sansa continued, ignoring his comment, "the war will soon be over. Wylla's father sent word that the snows are already receding. I will be able to return home."

"First you will have to find out whether this new Queen intends to chop your pretty little head off as the daughter of a traitor, Alysanne," he said, not sure what he felt about the thought of going back to Westeros after all this time. He had not heard Gregor's name (or the name of the... thing... he was rumoured to have become) in many months – Sandor was beginning to wonder if he really could be dead. And life had been good to them here. Surprisingly so.

Sansa sighed as she cast her eyes over the dates and dried plums on offer from one seller. "Yes, that is true," she admitted. "But don't worry, I have a plan. The Lannisters were worse traitors than the Starks ever were, and I happen to have the Lannister dog to hand as collateral for my life."

"Excellent plan, little bird," he snorted. "You let me know when you intend to return so that I may leave you to take your chances while I join up with the Golden Company."

"Ah," she said, smiling softly at him in a way that made his stomach feel like molten iron, "I see the flaw. Another strategy may be required, then. Perhaps if I simply took the north by force once she has vacated it? A woman such as she may appreciate a bold move..."

They continued to discuss the matter well into the evening, and at many other times over the following weeks.

She did not try to embrace him again, but it seemed to Sandor that she touched him endlessly. His childhood home had not exactly been filled with love, and he had chosen the life of a soldier at the age of twelve – gentle touches were not something he had much experience with. He thought he'd become accustomed to Sansa's casual intimacy over the years, though, even come to find it... pleasant. He thought he could remember at least a couple of instances when Ned Stark had touched his daughters with unthinking affection in King's Landing. This was different.

She lingered: let her fingers stroke his arm when she took it, leant over his shoulder to see what he was reading so that her hair tickled his neck, sat next to him – too close – when there was little or no need for it.

He tried his best to ignore it. The alternative was to ask her what she was up to, and something in his gut squeezed in cold dread every time he came close to doing so. But he was a man – his body reacted to the attention it was getting, even if his mind balked.

One such afternoon, when he came off duty hard and irritated as all seven hells, he simply bolted his door shut and unlaced himself. He would have gone to one of the whorehouses nearby, but the hour was still too early and he'd be damned if he'd be caught sniffing around their closed shutters like a pathetic old dog. So instead he guided his stiff cock out of his breeches, already hot and heavy in his hand, sat down on the edge of his bed and began stroking himself.

He took it slowly, trying to enjoy it. He hoped the better it was now, the slower the need would return to trouble him. He let his mind wander idly over the women he had fucked, highborn ladies who wanted to play with fire, willing serving wenches, whores. He lingered on the pretty, sweet-smelling whores of Chataya's who he'd enjoyed after taking the champion's purse at the Hand's Tourney. Soft curves and easy smiles and so well trained they never once drew back in horror from his face. He thumbed the head of his cock, spreading his wetness around the way he liked before resuming stroking his shaft, slow but hard. He was getting hot, and so after a while he stood and stripped off completely before lying down fully on the bed and closing his eyes.

There had been one pretty little whore who he'd liking fucking above all the others. Sandor couldn't even remember her name now, but he could picture her naked body clear as day – tanned skin, dark blonde hair, not so tall but curvy as all fuck. She'd said she liked her men big and he'd fucked her hard and deep to make her sorry for trying to play him. But there had been no playing the rhythmic pulsing of her cunt around him as her back arched of the bed in pleasure. He reached down and cupped his balls, pulling lightly as he began to speed up the pace with his other hand.

"Fuck," he grunted as a wave of pleasure washed over him. He concentrated again on the memory of that blonde-haired whore, teats bouncing as he thrust into her warm and willing body. Gods, she had known some tricks to get a man shooting his load before he'd barely even started, and stiff again a minute later ready to do it all again. He stroked harder, touching himself on the sensitive skin behind his balls, sweating and tensing as the pleasure built.

And then he made the mistake of opening his eyes. They fell on the wall beside his bed where he had hung a finely wrought dirk in a beautiful jewelled scabbard – far too fine for him to wear on a daily basis. It had been a nameday gift from Sansa. Sansa, who had been a pretty child and was now grown into a devastatingly beautiful woman. Whose nipples had stood erect after she had embraced him. Whom he had pressed against him like a lover, her supple young body melting into his as he wound one hand into her hair and got hard against her belly.

He imagined, unbidden, what might have happened if he hadn't left then – if she had felt his arousal. He imagined her snaking one curious hand between their bodies to squeeze him through his breeches. Suddenly, his mind became flooded with images. Sansa naked, reclining on his bed in invitation. Sansa moaning as he plunged his cock into her. Sansa kissing him and begging him for more as he fucked her. Sansa coming with her legs wrapped tight around his waist, burying him deep within her as she pulsed around his cock. This last image was too much – he came with a long groan, spilling his seed onto his belly in three long, almost painful spurts.

Afterwards he lay on his bed breathing heavily, sweat and seed cooling, frozen with horror at what he had just done, wondering if this was how Jaime Lannister had felt the first time he'd brought himself off thinking of Cersei. Gods, he needed a drink.

That was the last time he would leave his mind to its own devices, he decided. The next time he felt his control unravelling, he bloody well went to the whorehouse.

It wasn't a bad place – not as high class as Chataya's, but not as miserable as some he'd been in. He picked an unenthusiastic looking woman with the same brown hair and bony features as Osha, and wasted no time in flipping her over and fucking her as roughly as the wildling had always liked.

It was not long before his body betrayed him again, though, and he found himself helplessly taking her slow and tender, stroking the skin of her back with his eyes closed, imagining soft young skin and auburn hair – pretty little gasps and moans in place of silence.

"Where were you last night?" Sansa asked as she broke her fast. "Victory said you had gone out, but he didn't know where." Her tone was light, nonchalant, but he could hear an accusing edge to it.

"You don't want to know where, either," he replied shortly.

She flushed deeply, clearly fully aware of the answer, but her expression was hard to read. "Well, Victory taught me a game he and the others play when they're not on duty. It's called cyvasse. I could teach you, too, if you stay in this evening." She looked up at him, something hopeful and almost shy in her eyes. "It was a lot of fun," she added. "Like fighting, but without swords."

Not the kind of game I've been thinking of lately, he thought, glowering at her. But she could be annoyingly unaffected by his dark looks and bad temper when it suited her and in the end she hounded him into submission.

Victory took a beating for his own weak-mindedness later that morning in the practice yard, being as good a target as any. The Unsullied guard captain lay on the floor, bloodied, dazed and awed.

"I have never seen you fight like that before," he said in his strange Astaporian accent.

"You've never seen me really pissed off before," Sandor rasped back.

They sat out on the veranda with the cyvasse board between them as the sun sank towards the horizon and the sky began to turn a soft lilac. She showed him how the tiles could be laid and ran through the rules as she sipped on a rich plum wine that was slowly staining her lips a darker pink.

She had changed her gown from the morning. Not in itself an unusual occurrence, but he found to his displeasure that the plunging neckline of the bodice was distinctly distracting. Especially when she leaned over the table to play her tiles.

She caught him staring a couple of times, blushing a delicate pink while a small, pleased smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. He knew then that she had done it on purpose. He felt momentarily winded.

After that, every touch of her hand on his hand as she offered her advice on his moves, every brush of her toes against his calf as she crossed and uncrossed her legs beneath the table, became harder and harder not to respond to. She doesn't know what she's doing, he told himself. She's barely out of childhood, pushing to find where the boundaries are. But by the end of the game he was beginning to wonder how much more of this he could take without breaking.

Then Sansa caught a sickness. It started when she slept late one morning and woke complaining of an ache in her legs and back. She only picked at her food, and by evening an angry red rash had appeared on her skin.

Wylla sent a maidservant to bring the apothecary, but Sandor knew the man wouldn't say anything he himself did not already know – close the manse, keep anyone away who had not already contracted the pox. It was a common illness in the westerlands and he had had it as a child, but apparently the northerners had never been exposed, and soon the servants too were dropping to their sickbeds like flies.

"I told you not to buy from that silk merchant in the marketplace," he said to her around midnight as he held back her hair while she emptied her stomach into the chamberpot.

"No you didn't!" she replied shakily when she was done.

It was true – he hadn't. But he had thought it, and now he was kicking himself. He could feel her skin burning up through the fabric of her bedgown, a dry heat that alarmed him more than he was willing to admit.

"Come on," he said, lifting her easily from the floor. "Back to bed with you, little bird."

He settled her down on her featherbed and made her drink a few mouthfuls of water from the pewter goblet at her bedside. When he rose to leave she took his hand and asked him to stay.

"No one will know," she said to him plaintively. "And besides, you have already spent half the night in my chambers."

It was true – the apothecary had said he would send his mother over in the morning to nurse Sansa, but for the nonce there was no one to tend her but him.

"Aye, all right," he rasped, sitting back down in the chair by her bedside.

She smiled weakly. "I don't think I could sleep just now – everything hurts too much. Let's play cyvasse. A victory would make me feel so much better."

Sandor huffed a laugh. They had been fairly evenly matched in victories since he had learned how to play, but if that's what she wanted then he would gladly give it to her.

In the end, however, she was too tired and too ill even to complete a game. She grabbed his hand after he had cleared the board away, her long fingers feebly encircling his wrist, and tugged lightly. Understanding her intention, he resisted for the space of several heartbeats before kicking his boots off and getting on the bed with her, steeling himself for a bloody uncomfortable night.

She lay on her side and so he lay behind her, hesitantly placing an arm over her waist, terribly aware of how little she was wearing. But then, just for a moment, he had a vivid memory of her small body tucked up against his for warmth and reassurance as they lay on the hard ground beneath the stars... he remembered the fluttering of her rapid little heartbeat and feeling stunned with the responsibility he held for its continued beating... he remembered comfort and a strange, fierce happiness... and suddenly everything was all right again.

He curled his body around her own with no worse feeling than a deep, warm satisfaction, stroking her cheek briefly with the pad of his thumb as he once had done when she was a child. She made a high, soft sound of contentment and interlaced her fingers with his, pressing their joined hands against her heart before relaxing back against him. He slept well – better than he had in some weeks – and woke to the sight of her lovely face as the sun sent fingers of light creeping across the floor, her auburn hair lying tangled around her like a banner, making her look younger than her years and quite sweetly innocent.

Of course, it couldn't last. She wasn't a child any longer, a point that was driven home mercilessly three days after her sickness had finally begun to abate.

Despite the attentions of the apothecary's mother, Sansa had requested he keep her company in the afternoons while she was still confined to her room. They played cyvasse or sometimes just talked – once, she asked him to read to her. It had become a habit, so much so that after a few days he simply went to her room after taking his midday meal and let himself in.

That afternoon he found her not in her bed or sitting at her window seat, but bathing in a copper tub.

It was larger than the ones he had seen in Westeros so that she was able to recline and submerge her whole body beneath the steaming water. Her eyes flew open when she heard him enter and she gasped, drawing her arms up over her breasts.

Sandor stood, pinned to the spot by the sight of her. Leave, a voice insisted in his head. Turn around and leave. But his legs did not seem able to obey the command.

The water sloshed as, slowly, she lowered her arms. He dragged his eyes up to her face, only to find her looking back at him, lips slightly parted with her rapid breath. And then, she stood.

She stood, wet and naked before him. Stood baring herself to him like some kind of offering. Like some kind of invitation. Her nipples formed tight peaks just as they had that night she had embraced him, except now he could see her flesh in all its glory, perfect pink tips to pert, rounded teats. Water ran down the valley between them, glistening on skin still faintly marred by the rash that her sickness and brought on, caressing womanly hips and the soft patch of hair between her legs, a fairer red than the auburn hair of her head.

"Sansa," he rasped, the word feeling raw and bloody, ripped unwilling from his chest.

"Yes," she whispered back, voice trembling as she hesitantly raised one arm to him in invitation.

His senses were on fire, thoughts tumbling through the gale in his head unanchored. He wanted to go to her so badly he felt it like a physical pain, a mace in the breastplate, but he couldn't... he just... couldn't.

He shook his head, taking a step back through the doorway before turning on his heel.

There was the sound of splashing behind him, and Sansa's voice calling him, "Sandor, wait, please."

And damn him to all seven hells, his feet stopped moving again.

He heard rustling behind him, and the soft patting sound of bare feet on marble, and then Sansa stood behind him.

"Look at me," she said. "Sandor, look at me." He felt her hand on his arm to turn him.

"Are you dressed?" he asked, shamed by the way his voice cracked on the last word.

"Yes," she said quietly after half a heartbeat.

Reluctantly, he turned to face her. She stood in her robe, wet hair hanging down her back and dripping on the floor. In her haste she had not dried her body either, and wet footprints followed her from her bedchamber here into the parlour. Damp patches were forming around her waist where the soft belt was pulled tight and over the swell of her breasts. Water beaded her skin at the base of her throat.

She took a deep breath. "I will say that I'm sorry if you tell me you don't want me," she said. The words were petulant but she sounded anything but. Her eyes shone with barely contained emotion.

"I don't want you," he said, and if he had ever needed more proof that the gods did not exist then this was surely it – how else could he remain unscathed by their wrath after uttering such a thing?

She gave him a piercing look. "You said you would never lie to me, but you're lying now. I can tell."

"What do you want from me?"

She smiled, but it was twisted, made ugly with grief. When she spoke, it was in a small voice, hopeful and defeated and thick with anguish. "Your love, of course," she whispered.

He would have laughed if all the muscles in his body had not been taut as bowstrings. Of course? What in the seven hells does that mean? She made it sound the simplest thing in the world, when in fact it felt like having his face burned off all over again.


"No, listen," she said. "I have stood by as you've taken woman after woman to your bed and never once looked to the one who has loved you and wanted you for years. I saw you once back at Winterfell with Osha and afterwards I... touched myself, as I had seen her do... I imagined it was me you were doing those things to. I know you think me a child-"

"You are a child!" Sandor cut in, suddenly furious. "Just listen to yourself. Loved me for years? You are fifteen – what do you know of love or wanting? What do you know of anything? You may think you want me but your heart still belongs to those shining knights from your songs and if you think me one of them then you know even less than I thought."

"You've saved my life more times than I can count," she replied, pleading now. "You are the truest knight I ever met. The truest friend. I love you. If you know me at all how can you say that I'm wrong?"

"Look at my face!" he roared, bending down and wrenching her close until they were almost nose-to-nose. "Look at my face and tell me again what a true knight I am."

He was snarling at her, apoplectic with rage, his mouth twitching madly and his fingers biting into her arms. The small, rational part of his mind still remaining told him that he must look like a madman, that he was trying to scare her, and yet she remained unfrightened.

"It's just your face, Sandor," she whispered. "Your brother didn't burn your soul along with it."

Slowly, as though reaching out to a rabid animal, she raised her hands to his face, one palm resting on his good cheek, one palm on the scarred.

"Shh," she said softly, soothingly, "Shh. It's all right. It's all right to accept my love."

And then she closed the small gap between them, and kissed him. For a moment he was stunned into inaction by the soft press of her lips, the heat in his chest that scorched away every other feeling. He let her kiss him, feeling like his body was breaking apart with the sweet chasteness of it. But it made him remember another kiss she had once given him, a kiss to his cheek in thanks for her rescue. This was just like that, he realised – the childish favour of a girl who thought she was a woman, a girl who had wished herself into the centre of her own personal song. Oddly, the thought calmed him, and when she was done he pulled back and stood up out of her reach.

"When we were in Riverrun, I fucked your mother," he said, voice flat and expressionless. "I fucked her hard and she cried afterwards. I've fucked scores of women, little bird, and I've never loved a single one of them."

She sobbed helplessly, tears running freely down her face. "If you've been with my mother, why don't you want to be with me? Am I not as– as beautiful? People always used to say how much I look like her."

Sandor stared down at her, crying and desperate over him. It was unbearable.

"You're nothing like her," he snarled. This time, when he turned to go, she did not try to stop him.

That was when he knew he had to leave.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South was the wrong way.

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


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

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

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

"Why don't you come closer and find out?" he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandor... please...

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

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

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

He slept.

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

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

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

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

"Sansa," he whispered, before blackness.

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

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


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

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

"You stupid, stupid dog."

She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

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

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

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

"Tried to reach you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Houses of Bolton and Frey were no more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It made no sense, after all.

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

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

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

She raised her eyes to his almost lazily. "You're awake," she said, smiling slightly. "Good."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You can't tell me, can you?" she said.

"Tell you what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Release me," he rasped, gut clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stop," he ground out again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And will you-"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't," she said gently, drawing one of his hands down. "Don't hide away from me again."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," she breathed back. "Gods. Yes."

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

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

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

"How does it feel-" she gasped, "-for you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sansa," he growled.

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

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

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

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