Myranda Royce had been Alayne Stone’s best friend in the Vale, and although her unconventional and unladylike behaviour had sometimes scandalised Sansa, she had also admired her. As a daughter of a noble house, Randa’s path was expected to be the same as that of any highborn lady’s: defined by life choices dictated by others and demure submission. Despite that, she had risen above those expectations and taken lovers, snubbed the convention and lived her life as she wanted.
Sansa found herself thinking of Randa more and more as she pondered her new situation. As if she had been granted permission, all the thoughts about Sandor she had previously pushed out of her mind flooded back. A slow realisation came over her that Sandor’s presence was what she had craved during their travel; his acceptance, his rare smiles and his touches. How thrilling it had been to ride with him and feel his muscles tensing against her, or to examine the criss-cross pattern of scars and veins on the backs of his big hands as they held the reins. To sense the warmth of his breath against the crown of her head. To bait him with inconsequential questions just to hear his rasping voice when he responded to her.
Sansa was realistic enough to know that part of her yearning could be physical. She was a young woman and women had needs as much as men did, according to Randa. Yet her experiences had scarred her to the point she had thought she could never willingly yield herself to a man. All the same, those concerns seemed to have faded from her mind as she imagined herself in Sandor’s arms.
It was more than that - he had always had such a strange effect on her. It was almost as if she had known him in an earlier life; the simmering recognition only temporarily obscured by their diverging paths. That he had asked her to come with him that fiery night, and she hadn’t, had always been her one true regret.
Sansa considered her options as rationally as she could. She admitted to herself that she wanted to be with Sandor, in all ways a woman can be with a man. How could she do it? She couldn’t marry him – his status as the second son of a minor house, his well-known association with the enemies of her house and his personal reputation as a man without honour or conscience would severely affront the nobility of the North and might even cost her their support. As little as she cared about the rules of propriety, she had to be realistic. Her bannermen would never accept Sandor as their liege lord nor their liege lady’s consort. Besides, would he even want to marry me?
She could send him away to resolve the situation that was starting to exasperate her. She could ask him to follow Brienne on a quest to find Arya…and when he eventually came back, maybe she would have outgrown her emotions. By then she might have married for political convenience and would not be disturbed by his presence anymore. Yet the thought of him departing left her hollow and aching. She also suspected her feelings could not be so easily dismissed. They had already been apart for years, she alternating between thinking him to be lost or dead, and all it had taken to flare them up had been for her to travel in his company for a while. She knew she had been his long before she had finally admitted it to herself. Sandor had captured her mind and soul and she couldn’t free herself any more than she could push him away.
The only solution Sansa could see was to take him as her lover. No, she immediately corrected herself; he was not a man to be taken. Maybe she could become his lover instead, be his secret lady love? He was her sworn shield after all, and they already spent a lot of time with each other. She had neither father nor brother to guard her honour, nobody to prevent her from doing what she wished.
The idea took hold of her and she allowed it, familiarising herself with the concept that had initially scandalised her. She was the head of her house, had lost all respect for the conventions she had been taught as a child, so she would be the one to decide what was appropriate. Besides, she would be discreet – nobody had to know. The more Sansa allowed her thoughts to linger on that new notion, the more she started to relish the prospect. To have him, to be allowed to touch him and tell him how much she cared …to banish the ghosts of his past and prove to him that he was valued because of who he was, not only as a tool for a purpose.
Soon the doubts started to circle her. What if he doesn’t want me after all, what if it is just an enormous misunderstanding? What if he wants me, but his honour doesn’t allow him to take me? It was clear Sandor had taken his pleasure with his own hands while thinking of her, and he didn’t have a woman as far as she knew. Could she read something into it? Despite Randa’s entertaining stories about how men in general lusted after any woman, Sansa had seen how love could twist men as badly as women. Petyr could have had any woman in his employ and undoubtedly many others besides, but he had pursued only Sansa in the name of his misguided love for her mother.
Sansa went even as far as to make subtle enquiries about Sandor from Lenore one evening, when she was in her rooms organising her clothes. Using Lenore’s brother’s new baby as a starting point, Sansa told her how happy she was to see new babies born, and how a keep was not a happy place without the voices of children. She had then proceeded to ask if she knew of other new babies, marriages or relationships amongst Winterfell residents. After listening for a long time to Lenore’s account of which man was seeing which woman, who had honourable intentions and who was only after a secret tryst, she threw in the question she had been itching to ask the whole night.
“What of my sworn shield? I believe some wildling women have expressed interest in him. Should we be expecting little pups any time soon?” she asked as nonchalantly as she could.
“No my lady, not from him, I believe. At least he is never seen with anyone.” Lenore leaned closer to Sansa and continued in a conspiratorial tone, “There are some who say that he is not even interested in women, and that he spends far too much time with Ser Jaime. You know, that it is not normal that both of them are never seen to entertain female company, being such strong and manly men as they are …” Lenore shrugged her shoulders.
“Really, is that what some say? Have they been…seen together?” Sansa continued in a casual tone although her heart skipped a beat.
“No my lady, nothing like that. Just…they even shared the room and all. But I am sure that was all idle chatter. He may just not care about women, or women may not care about him. He is, after all, quite ugly. Pardon me, my lady, I shouldn’t be saying such things of your trusted man,” Lenore added quickly.
“Don’t worry, Lenore, I am very well aware of his looks. I have been spending quite a bit of time in his company after all, as you know,” Sansa made light of it, secretly relieved to hear that Sandor didn’t seem to have a paramour. The comment about Jaime interested her though – had others noticed it as well?
After Lenore left, Sansa remained seated on her chair and continued brushing her hair. With satisfaction she saw that all remaining traces of the dull brown colour had faded, and it glowed as fire in the candlelight. Her mind wandered back to their evenings on the road, when she used to sit on her bedroll and brush it, silently observed by her traveling companions.
Initially she had done it out of necessity to prevent her tresses tangling into an unmanageable mess. She had seen that happening to Arya back in Winterfell, and how in the end the only way to defeat the twisted knots was to cut her hair short. Arya had loved it, of course, delighted by her boyish and practical new hair-do. Still, Sansa was not Arya and she had but few things left of her past – and she wanted to keep her long hair.
At first both men had tried to hide their stares, but as time went by and the trust between them deepened, it had become one of their unspoken nightly rituals. Sansa had been painfully aware how useless she was on their mission, Sandor and Jaime carrying all the burdens. So she had reasoned that if her companions enjoyed observing her, the least she could do was to allow them that. Without first daring to admit it to herself, she had also started to relish the intimacy of the ceremony, and the way both Sandor and Jaime’s eyes had followed her, light grey and emerald green shining in the darkness.
Warmed by pleasant memories Sansa smiled, laid the brush down and went to her bed. She didn’t want to go to sleep yet, so she sat down, folded her knees against her chest and wrapped her arms around them, staring at the candle flame flickering in the draft circulating her room.
She wondered what Jaime would think of the situation. Could she – could they – keep a secret from him, should anything actually happen between her and Sandor? Would they want to?
Her mind went back to the kiss she had bestowed on the golden lion at their parting. She had meant it as one from a close friend to another, but to her surprise it had raised in her sensations she had not expected.
With a shudder Sansa realised that had Jaime persisted beyond the tender and compassionate kiss they had shared, she would not have stopped him. The touch of Jaime’s lips against hers had reminded her of what she had only glimpsed in Greywater Watch. There she had laid her hand on his bare chest, sensed the tension in him and for the first time wondered how it would feel to know him as a man, not only as a companion.
Sansa shook her head, bewildered. Thinking of Jaime like this, with her emerging awareness of her feelings towards Sandor still so new, only confused her. How could she be so wicked as to think of both of her companions in such worldly manner - when in reality she should not think of such matters at all?
She recognised she didn’t have the same connection with Jaime as she had with Sandor, just as she knew that Jaime’s true desires resided elsewhere. Nonetheless, she was equally sure that they did share something. Something very special.
Sansa sighed. Whatever happened, she hoped that she would be able to keep her pack together.
Even Sandor seemed to notice something odd in her behaviour.
“What is it, little bird? Is something amiss?” Sandor asked her one day as they were in the Godswood. Sansa had wanted to visit the pools again, and sitting in the same spot where he had found his release while breathing in her scent like the dog he used to be, made her unusually contemplative. She closed her eyelids and saw it again in her mind’s eye; the rhythmic movement of his hand on his shaft… To hear him so close to her brought the same butterflies into her belly she had felt the last time when peeking at him from behind the bushes. Her cheeks reddened and she opened her eyes, avoiding his gaze.
“No Sandor, nothing is wrong,” she replied, too quickly.
“You are still worried about the lack of news from King’s Landing? Or is it those building works in the Maester’s Turret? I will have words with the builders, make sure they’ll be quick about it. We need it done for the new maester Jaime will bring from the South.”
“Yes, quite so, but I am satisfied about the pace of the works. We’ll be ready when it is needed.”
“What is it then? Have those young fools made inappropriate passes at you?” Sandor’s face became grim and his jaw clenched.
“No, not at all!” Sansa tried to think of how to reassure him that she was fine and nothing was bothering her. Except that wasn’t exactly true. And he could smell a lie.
“I do have something on my mind and I promise I will discuss it with you later. Just…not quite yet.” Sandor grunted but let her be.
Sansa’s resolve hardened. I have to tell him. Soon.
Sandor could see that something was bothering his lady and it irritated the hells out of him. Sansa was more restrained than before, and to his surprise Sandor found himself missing her chattering. Hells, who would have guessed that one day I might miss the little bird’s chirping?
Over time Sandor had started to teach Sansa how the strength of a noble house was built and maintained, having observed those matters for most of his life. In turn Sansa had told him about the intricacies of running a lordly household. Sandor had never known or cared for such things before, and although he would have been hard-pressed to admit it, he had actually started to enjoy their discussions. None of that, however, seemed to interest Sansa anymore.
Instead Sandor noticed Sansa was pale and uneasy as they went about their business. She also had the unnerving habit of observing him, glancing in his direction under her long eyelashes when she thought he wouldn’t notice. That made Sandor self-conscious and annoyed. Hells, if something was amiss, why didn’t she just blurt it out? He itched to do something about it; to punish anyone who might have done her wrong, to set things straight for her - anything. Yet there was nothing he could do as long as Sansa only sighed and fidgeted without telling him why, and it was driving him mad. All he could do was to follow her in quiet frustration and feel as useless as teats on a septa.
Was it because of those bloody lordlings? Sandor’s mood darkened. As much as he wanted to guard her at all times, he had other duties to take care of and Sansa often spent time with one or another young noble on her own. Had she thoughtlessly flaunted herself to them… and had some fucking fool dared to act on it?
Sandor gritted his teeth. He was aware of how much store Sansa set on good relationships with her bannermen. He also knew that if any of them as much as glanced impudently in her direction, he would geld the offender and stuff his manhood down his throat. Mayhap Sansa knew that too and hence kept her silence.
Silently cursing, Sandor went to find Sansa’s maid. He didn’t mind the woman, who had a sensible head on her shoulders and seemed to genuinely care for her lady.
He headed towards the kitchens, scanning the crowded rooms. Servants and kitchen staff made way for him as he approached, slinking away like a school of fish in a shallow stream from the approaching fisherman. He was accustomed to it. In King’s Landing he had always been given a wide berth, nobody wanting to stand in the way of the vicious Hound. Yet unlike there, the eyes that trailed him in Winterfell were not filled with hostility but with only a degree of wariness, mingled with respect.
He saw Sansa’s maid in a quiet corner, putting a tray of food together. Good. The little bird will be supping in her rooms tonight. One less thing to worry about.
“Anything amiss with our lady? Any of those buggering scoundrels giving her a hard time?” he grunted to Lenore without preamble. He loomed large over the short but wiry woman, but she cared nothing for that, looking up at him boldly without the slightest sign of intimidation.
Initially Lenore, like most people, had been perturbed by Sandor. Gradually, after much suspicion on both sides, they had reached an unspoken understanding, recognising that their lady’s welfare was the cause they both shared.
“You mean the young suitors? Not as far as I know. Oh, they try to charm her but don’t seem to be making much progress,” she chortled.
“She is so bloody naive in the ways of the world that she might give those snotty-nosed idiots the wrong idea simply by being too kind,” Sandor continued, helping Lenore to fill a pitcher from a heavy barrel of beer. He didn’t do it out of politeness, but he simply preferred activity over inactivity whenever possible. When he felt the exertion of his muscles and exhaustion of physical strain, he felt most alive.
Sandor had concluded that he simply couldn’t approach Sansa directly about restraining her behaviour in his company. Just talking about it would indicate that he had had inappropriate thoughts of her, and he didn’t want Sansa to look at him with revulsion. They still shared some of the closeness of the road, but as the lion had correctly predicted, in Winterfell his position had irrevocably reverted back to that of a man in her service and hers to that of a high lady. He knew his place and for once in his life, he cared about keeping it. And since Sansa didn’t have a mother or other female relative to tell her such things, the next best thing was her trusted maid.
Sandor knew he had to be careful with her too. Lenore was a clever woman and should she detect the real reason behind his suggestion, she would either laugh at him or feel sorry for him – and he couldn’t decide which option was worse. No, nobody must know what a bloody fool he was; it was bad enough that Jaime was aware of it. Oh yes, the Kingslayer had detected his conflicted feelings towards their charge on their journey and had prodded him mercilessly as one would pick at a sore wound. ‘She can’t be seen disgraced by the likes of us…’ Fucking hells! Yet Jaime had also been oddly sympathetic. And with him it was different anyway – sharing things with the lion didn’t irk Sandor anymore.
“What do you mean ‘too kind’?” Lenore was cutting loaf of dark bread into chunks and arranging them on the tray.
“Someone should tell her how a maiden must guard her behaviour in the company of men, lest they get the wrong idea. You and I know that the only thing in any man’s mind is to get into a woman’s smallclothes, no matter how much they prance and preen and pretend otherwise. Makes no difference if they are lowborn or highborn, they’re all as bad as each other,” Sandor grumbled.
“With Lady Catelyn gone and the crazy bitch of Arryn being a bloody lunatic, she has not had mother nor other kin to advise her, and she sorely needs that,” he finished, trying to act nonchalant as he heaved the barrel into a corner.
“And what is it to you; why are you suddenly so concerned?” Lenore’s sharp eyes studied him.
“Nothing much – I just wouldn’t care to run one of those lordlings through with my sword should they get any ideas in their thick heads. Wouldn’t do much good for the peace in the North our lady is trying so hard to build.” The last argument was the best he had come up with, and that seemed to be the one that convinced Lenore. She wrinkled her brow and considered for a moment.
“True words. She is so young and innocent after all. It is of course not my place, but since she has no living kin, maybe it wouldn’t be amiss for me to talk to her about these things.”
Sandor shrugged his wide shoulders as if he couldn’t care less, but internally he smirked. If Lenore should succeed in making Sansa correct the foolishness of her ways, he might finally be able to restore his peace of mind.
Only much later, as he was sitting in the Great Hall brooding over a goblet of Dornish sour, another notion hit him. With it came a gut-wrenching feeling and tightness in his chest that left him short of breath. What if I am the problem? What if she wants to get rid of me but is too bloody courteous to say it to my face?
At first he refused to consider it. Not after all they had gone through together, not after what they had shared. Buggering hells, he had been ready to die for her! Yet all that was in the past and she didn’t need him to lay down his life for her anymore. Not now that she had the pick of bloody Northerners to do her bidding. And especially not after the way he had reprimanded her …It would be no wonder if she thought it was time to put her rabid dog away. Yes, they had resolved their quarrel and she had said genteel words to him…but when Sandor thought about it, he realised it was after that incident that Sansa had started to behave oddly.
He cursed, finished the drink and called for more. The serving wench poured it obediently, Sandor’s thirsty eyes following the stream of blood red liquid filling his goblet to the brim. Seven bleeding hells, stop it! You are only imagining things. You are a pack now, and she would not dismiss her pack. That made him feel somewhat better, as did the drink he gulped down in a few keen mouthfuls. Still he couldn’t shake the doubt that had crept into his soul. He wondered what he would do if Sansa truly wanted to let him go. Would he slink back to Quite Isle with his tail between his legs, or would he stay in Winterfell and serve her from afar, training guards and looking after its defences? Was this the way his wish of not being tempted by her was being thrown back in his face?
Suddenly the price he might have to pay for his peace of mind seemed too bloody high.
Sansa planned her moment carefully. She sent Lenore to visit her brother’s family, demanding that she stay the night. She requested that the servants set up a meal for her and her sworn shield in her solar, as they had important matters to discuss. She had received a raven’s message from King’s Landing earlier, and although she had already shared the news it had carried with Sandor, she could use it as an excuse for a private meeting. None of that was unusual, and neither Lenore nor the other servants thought it odd. Sandor accepted her invitation curtly but without suspicion – they had had private meetings before to discuss issues of the keep.
Sansa’s nervousness increased as the evening approached. She felt at a loss; she had no experience in seduction and didn’t know what she should do. She couldn’t simply say it out loud - just the thought horrified her - but she didn’t want to play any games with him either. She didn’t want anything from him, or him to do something for her. She only wanted him.
Sansa decided against dressing more finely than usually. She glanced longingly at her newest dress; a dove grey with flowing skirts and a tight bodice. The sewing women had made it for her in preparation for stately occasions, and she had embroidered the bodice herself. It contained finely stitched birds and wolves, which she had intended as symbols of her two incarnations; the wolf for her people and the little bird for him. She sighed and put it away. No, if he desired her he would want her in a simple woollen dress just the same.
She combed her hair until it shone and let it hang loose around her shoulders. She took a quick look at her bed and blushed, wondering if he would come into it tonight. Or maybe they would just hold each other? She chided herself for being childish. Dreams of holding hands and gazing into the eyes of one’s beloved were for silly young girls who didn’t know better, for courtly stories of knights and fair maidens. For a moment she hesitated. Was she really ready? If he did take her, would it hurt? What if all she could feel was the same cold detachment she had experienced with Petyr? What if he was brutal, what if he only sought his own pleasure?
Yet soon after these thoughts started to race in her mind, Sansa felt calm descending on her. He will be kind, he will not hurt me. That much she was sure of.
When the time for Sandor to arrive drew near, she started to panic for other reasons. What she was going to do would change the situation between them irrevocably. If she was wrong and he did not desire her, how would he take her proposal? Would he laugh at her, scorn her for her wantonness and stupidity? Even if he behaved civilly, would he think less of her? Could he even refuse to serve her any more, after she had shown herself to be as bad as Cersei, using her womanly charms against men in her service? She knew that what she was planning was a point of no return. Things would change between them – but how?
A knock on the door interrupted Sansa’s thoughts and she startled. It is not too late. I can just have a meal with him, talk about the news from King’s Landing and bid him good night. Nothing has to change. The thought gave her momentary relief before she realised she was only fooling herself. There was no going back to the way things were - she was already in too deep.
Sansa squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and went to the door.