She is a maid still.
The thought had never even occurred to him – not after the Imp and Littlefinger. He had assumed she was experienced and knew what she was doing, and he had hoped…Aye, he had dared to hope, especially after she had started to sneak into his bed. But this changed everything. And he didn’t want to hurt her. Gods, if he did have her, there would be pain.
Yet Sandor’s resolution had been hard tested the previous night when she had beseeched him, no, begged him to take her. Never in his life had he fought as hard against a foe, the enemy being his own instincts and desires. But as always, he had won – a victory that tasted like ash in his mouth when he saw her that morning; her broad smile, blushing cheeks and sparkling blue eyes. And remembered the taste of her kisses, hesitant and awkward at first, and later, as they both gained more confidence, exploring and daring. That she had allowed him to touch her intimately had almost been his undoing, but he had controlled himself - mostly.
Later that day Sandor fled outdoors. He went to check the fish trap and found a plump, silvery fish, which he killed, gutted and scaled on a flat rock jutting out of the stream. Cold water made his skin tingle but that was good – it took his mind away from the only thing that had occupied his mind the whole day.
I can’t allow her into my bed anymore. Yes, he had kissed and sucked her and felt her round breasts and her slickness and nothing could take that memory away from him. He had felt her soft fingers curling around his cock, hesitantly at first but as he had showed her the rhythm, more forcefully until he had released in a whirling mixture of desperation, bliss and guilt. Yet it had been playing with fire, with all-consuming flames that would burn brightly but bring only ashes of desolation on their wake.
The atmosphere in the hut was subdued and the air thick of things unsaid. Sansa fried the fish and they ate in silence. At the end of the meal Sandor escaped to the chair opposite to the fireplace, avoiding looking at her.
Why he resisted her so hard he didn’t know for sure. Any other man in his position would have ravished her long time ago, willing or not.
Despite his time at the Quiet Isle, which had reduced his rage, Sandor had no illusions about himself. He was still a hard man, uncouth and crude. If he touched her again, he would besmirch her and bring her down to his level and that was something he couldn’t do.
Once on a trip in the Westerlands he had found a young squirrel in the forest floor when he had gone for a piss. It must have fallen from the nest, and what he should have done was to ignore it and let nature take its course. Or if its furry innocence touched him, he should have crushed it under the heel of his boot to end its misery before thirst, hunger or a predator did it. But no, he had picked it up, felt the softness of its velvety fur against his palms, and tucked it inside his jerkin.
He had ridden on, and when in the evening he had reached for the baby animal he had found it dead – crushed between his boiled leather jerkin and the hardened strap of his sword belt. He had stared at the drop of blood in its tiny nostril and cursed. Never should he be trusted with anything as delicate as that – or the girl. If he didn’t literally crush her to her death, he would end up breaking her spirit with his foul moods and darkness that still sometimes threatened to swallow him. No, he couldn’t destroy her by allowing her close.
“Sandor.” He startled. Sansa knelt on the floor and placed her hands on his knees, resting her head on top of them. Her gaze pierced him through and he felt like a fish speared through the gut, powerless and helplessly flapping.
“Please, let go of whatever is holding you back and let me have you. I am not only giving myself to you, I am also asking you to give yourself to me.”
Sandor swallowed. He tried to reason with her; her noble birth, her marriage that could be annulled so she could marry anew to form a powerful ally, how he didn’t want to hurt her. Yet he was talking to deaf ears as she only smiled and drew circles with her forefinger on his knee, climbing higher and higher along his thigh until her hand was dangerously close to his groin. He reacted – and she noticed, her smile widening.
Finally she climbed up and extended her hand to brush his cheek. She leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on the good side and whispered into his ear, “Tonight. Sevenmas is almost here and we shall exchange gifts. Please, don’t refuse mine as I will not refuse yours.”
Later that evening Sandor heard soft steps and rustle of clothes as she approached. He sighed. If this is a battle I have already lost.
Sandor had been right. Everything changed.
It was as if they had been picking on loose bricks on the wall of a mighty dam, one by one, first releasing a thin stream of water to flow through the cracks which gradually widened. He having accepted to be drawn into her sphere had been the first notable crack. She jumping into his arms had been the second. She in his bed the third. And there had numerous smaller fractures; every jape they shared, every story told from the past, every touch of her fingers on him, no matter how innocent or passing. And this, he taking her maiden’s gift, was the final blow.
And so, as when a powerful dam breaks and releases giant masses of water and sweeps everything and everyone on its wake, their life changed, and they bobbed helplessly in that stream, sucked under and whirled around.
Of course he hurt her. There had been no way to avoid it even though Sandor had tried his best to control himself and give her time to relax and accept the strange new intrusion into her body. He had ached from the strain but what had pained him most had been her involuntary gasps of breath, strained smile and tense muscles – and still she had exhorted him to continue.
The only thing giving him some consolation had been that if any other man would have been in his place, he might not have cared as much. If this was his burden to bear, to hurt her and make her a woman, by gods he was going to be as careful and gentle as he could.
And she had sang to him in the end, the most beautiful song he had ever heard.
Sandor could have sworn that from thereon the days were brighter, the weather warmer, the food tastier. Sansa only laughed at him when he commented on it, a throaty, sensuous laugh that suggested that she well knew what had made the difference and wanted more.
Indeed, with almost no fixed schedule and no other people to care about, their days descended on endless celebration of their newfound passion. There were days when they didn’t leave the bed for anything but most urgent necessities. They moved their pallets next to another and Sandor placed a flat wooden board to join them. That gave them more room to explore each other’s bodies in all kinds of imaginative ways Sandor had never known existed, or hadn’t cared about. That everything was so new to Sansa made everything new to him too.
One thing he was adamant about was the he never spent himself inside her. Aye, her lost maidenhood could be explained by her marriage, but not her return with a swollen belly when her husband had not been seen for such a long time.
Yes, everything changed.
Sansa had never been as happy as she was now. The rational part of her mind told her that things could not stay that way; they couldn’t continue as this when the spring finally came and they continued their journey. Yet her heart whispered that maybe winter would never end, or maybe even if it ended and they reached Winterfell, nothing had to change.
I am a woman now. She couldn’t help the giggles that sometimes escaped her in unguarded moments. What would her mother say, what Myranda? What about Margaery, who had thought her taste leaned towards the Knight of Flowers? And she had found her happiness and more pleasure than she had ever imagined to be possible with the Hound?!
Except he was not the Hound anymore; that moniker had been dropped for good already a long time ago. Yet there were times when she was secretly thrilled by his size and strength and the knowledge that he could take down any man in Westeros. Sometimes Sansa felt guilty about it. What she truly wanted was what she had prayed on the night of the Battle of Blackwater; for him to quell his rage and find peace. Nevertheless…the sight of his rippling muscles and scarred torso woke something shameless in her, a primitive satisfaction of a woman who wanted her man strong.
After the initial heat of passion eventually subsided, they found a new and if possible, even more satisfying element in their relationship. They actually got to know each other; learn what had made them as they were. Both had much to share, Sandor’s admissions being harder to come by and slower to emerge. Yet he did give in, gradually, and that Sansa considered to be much more valuable gift to her than her maidenhead had ever been to him.
Sevenmas came and went, and they celebrated it by opening one of the wineskins and serving it with a stew of horsemeat and exotic spices. Sansa’s gift to Sandor was a handkerchief embroidered with a dog of his house sigil. His gift to her was a fox pelt, white as snow, thick and soft. It was yet dry and hard, but Sandor promised he would have it tanned soft and pliable once they reached the North.
Their life consisted of the same tasks as before, but with the addition of an unexpected new element: joy. Also new were quiet nights when fire cracked in the fireplace and they rested in each other’s arms naked, sated from lovemaking. What was also new were lingering kisses the very first thing in the morning, stolen kisses in the middle of the day, and the passionate embraces in the darkness of the night.
They truly lived like a husband and a wife.
Sansa accepted the wisdom of their interrupted couplings although she was disappointed that she couldn’t get his song fully. Finally she understood the meaning of his words in the serpentine stairs that day long ago, and teasingly admonished him for playing such a trick on young and innocent girl. Sandor only smirked that if she had been so innocent to mistake his meaning completely, what was the harm? Defeated, Sansa couldn’t argue against that.
When she started to get queasy from the smell of frying meat, she thought it was only because both of them were getting tired of their monotonous diet. They doubled their efforts in catching fish and the second trap she had prepared was taken into use.
When she threw up after eating a meal of fish and potatoes, she started to worry for real. After confessing her concerns to Sandor it didn’t take long for them to perform simply calculations of her bodily functions before coming to a disturbing conclusion.
She was with a child.
The first signs were the icicles forming outside their window. Sandor watched as they grew and despite his contempt at most pretty baubles, he regarded them as a thing of beauty; so elegant, so clear, like finest glass.
The second sign was days getting longer. Whereas previously by the time they had enjoyed their main meal and Sandor had gone to throw the dirty washwater outside, it had been dark or at least dusk. Yet lately he had found himself stepping out in clear daylight.
Finally, when the snow started to retreat, they couldn’t ignore the inevitable conclusion anymore. The spring was coming.
It had been unusually short winter – and not a real one, in truth. The unusually cold spell had only been exacerbated by the high altitudes in the Mountains of the Moon.
They didn’t discuss what it meant, at first. Sandor was in loath of bringing it up, knowing that the moment they left their little sanctuary, their roles would reverse back to a noble maid and her paid help. Yet he thought about it every day, as he eyed how the snow receded little by little, soon making the mountain paths navigable again.
“Sandor. We can’t leave before I have delivered the babe,” Sansa said one evening as she undressed, bending clumsily to remove her woollen stockings now that her belly was getting in the way.
“That is exactly why we have to leave as soon as possible,” Sandor gritted through his teeth. He knew nothing about birthing and the notion of Sansa having to face alone the battlefield in which many women lost their lives, worried him even more than the thought of leaving the hut. They needed to get to some village, find a wise-woman and stay there until her time came. After that…
“We don’t know what awaits us on the road. At least here we have shelter and food, clean water and a warm hearth. I am young and strong. My mother birthed five healthy babes and she had no trouble with any them. Not even with Robb, her first.” Sansa curled next to him and he made room to accommodate her belly.
Sandor had felt the babe’s movements many evenings; slight ripples through Sansa’s stretched skin, alternating between a mighty kick every now and then. Without intending to, he had already formed a bond with the babe, which made the inevitable even worse. They hadn’t discussed in detail what would happen, but Sandor knew that the only solution was to foster the newborn with a modest family with as little fuss as possible. Nobody needed to know how low the mighty House Stark had fallen.
In the end Sansa’s will prevailed. She was too long gone anyway and dangers of giving birth in wilderness were too real. Sighing Sandor acquiesced and settled down to wait for the birthing with a cold ring around his chest.
The babe was screaming his lungs off but that didn’t bother Sandor the least. He simply couldn’t tear his eyes away from the wriggling creature in Sansa’s arms. Big and healthy, a few wisps of dark hair on his forehead. When Sandor extended his hand towards him, the babe stopped and grabbed his finger, squeezing it tight in his little fist.
That grip sealed Sandor’s fate for the rest of his life. I will never let go. Never. I will not desert my son.
Sansa had never seemed as beautiful in his eyes as now when she laid back, exhausted, strands of auburn tresses plastered on her forehead after a night of labour. Yet she smiled; both when marvelling at the babe in her arms, and when looking up to meet his gaze.
“What do you want to call him?” She cocked her head and waited for his answer.
“I haven’t thought about it. You decide,” he grumbled. “No Eddard or Robb though. Would be too suspicious for a bastard son.”
Sansa frowned. “What do you mean, ‘bastard son’?”
“Well, even if the family who takes him will announce him as theirs, how often do peasant families name their sons after their lords? Better give him an honest but humble name.”
Sansa grew clearly agitated at that. “What do you mean, ‘family who takes him’? Nobody will take my son!” Her arms cured protectively around the boy as if somebody was already trying to reach him.
Sandor winced. Still the little bird, head up in the clouds.
“You know it can’t be known that you had him – especially sired by me. Your people would never tolerate that. This has been a dream, but a dream is all there is, and it is time we both wake up.” It physically pained him to say those words, but say he did.
Instead of Sansa starting to cry or argue with him, as he expected, she turned serious. She changed her position, moving the boy into her other arm and leaned to grasp Sandor’s hand. She spoke in a low voice, slowly and with the gravitas of someone who had thought long and hard of what she was going to say.
“Sandor, listen to me and listen to me well. Once we leave this hut, all three of us, we travel to the North. And we will go to the first Godswood we encounter on our way and we will bless our union the Northern way. The ceremony performed in front of the Seven is less acknowledged in the North than that in front of the old gods, and there my only true marriage will be with you.”
Sandor stared at her and she squeezed his arm and continued.
“I am not stupid. I know it is not going to be easy. I don’t expect anything to be easy – it certainly hasn’t been so far. Yet I can do this - if you stay by my side. Can you promise to do that? Do you swear?”
Sandor was sucked into her big blue orbs and the determination behind them. Not a little bird anymore, but a wolf. His common sense told him that Sansa was foolish, her words only a desperate attempt to hold on to their fantasy before it dissolved in the harsh light of reality. He had already decided that he would settle in the North, near the family fostering his son, and help them in any way he could. Now his heart was pulled towards dizzying new possibilities; to have him and her. Sandor knew it was controversial and dangerous and they shouldn’t even contemplate it, but his trust in the strength of this extraordinary young girl spoke otherwise.
He swallowed hard and said the only vows of his whole life – and he meant them.
“Aye, I will stay. I will take you as my lady wife, and we will raise the boy together. I swear this by old gods and new - you have my word.”
Sansa had never realised what it was to love her own child, just as she had never realised how it could be to love a good man. She had learned both in a relatively short succession, and it left her in awe.
She meant what she had said – she was not stupid. Arriving to Winterfell with a husband of suspicious background and a babe in tow would be an inconvenience to those who might support her return as a symbol of House Stark, a pawn to be married off to the most suitable candidate. Her consolation was that although the Northern lords could be stubborn and insistent, they also respected a man for his character and strength more than for his title or the age of his house. They would accept Sandor – eventually. They only had to stay strong until they did.
Sandor retired to his place by the fire for the evening and didn’t come when she called for him, muttering something about having to finish something. Sansa fell asleep, the babe in a little box next to their bed.
She woke up several times during the night, nursing and soothing the babe, but only when she got up the next morning, she noticed something at the foot of the bed. She lifted it carefully and saw that it was some kind of loose sack of grain, open on its wide side, tied together in the ends to form a large circle.
While she was still trying to figure out what it was, she heard a rasping voice behind her.
“A sling. For the boy. You can carry him in that rather than in your arms.”
Sansa twirled the concoction again and started to make some sense of it. She pushed her head and one arm through it and it rested loosely on her hip – just enough room in its folds for the babe.
She felt a lump in her throat. That Sandor had made that spoke volumes to her about his commitment; more than anything he could have said.
She climbed on the bed, placed her hands on both sides of his face and stared at him. The man, the killer, the lover – and now the father. She pressed her mouth against his lips and savoured his familiar taste.
They waited for a few more weeks until Sansa got her strength back and the boy had survived the first few dangerous weeks after birth. Mountain paths were still covered with snow, but passable, and the temperature had increased to the levels that allowed them to travel for most of the day and stay warm in their furs during the night.
While Sansa took the last sweeping look around the hut Sandor readied the sleigh. He had built crude wheels that could be exchanged for its runners when they would leave snowy terrains. Sansa stepped out of the hut carrying the babe, who was still mostly oblivious to the goings-on around him. Still, the bright light in the yard alerted him and he opened his eyes, blue as sky, and yawned.
Sansa pushed the door closed behind her, the old gnarled wood shutting close to hold the new secrets it had accumulated; the secret of the noble maiden and the scarred warrior.