Their story began on the day of the battle for Winterfell.
Bleeding from half a dozen wounds, so sore he could barely walk, he'd limped down into the dungeons to be alone. No, he hadn't followed her. Hadn't thought of offering her protection when she met her monster. He'd only wanted a place to sit and drink in silence. Somewhere he could drown out the battle still raging in his head.
He'd settled in a shadowy corner, drink in hand, head against the cold stone wall, and fallen into a half-sleep, so that at first he didn't see her enter. Their conversation, held in low tones filtered in through his dazed mind slowly at first. His cold menace and her soft vengeance.
It was the growling of the dogs that startled him out of his stupor. Low, and mean in the darkness. And he'd stood, staying concealed in the shadows. He could see her form, a little ways ahead, cloaked in heavy furs, red hair afire in the torchlight.
The screams followed shortly after.
Screams of terror and pain and frustration. And Tormund had seen her face in the torchlight as she glided away. The perfect lady, all cool and calm and collected, except she'd smiled a little half smile, one side of her mouth lifting ever so slightly up at the end.
He'd seen her smile a hundred times, seen her face alight with joy at being reunited with Jon, seen the fond way she looked at her lady knight, Brienne, and the polite smiles she gave to the little people like himself, the ones he knew were bred into her—trained by septa and lady mother—so that they were more reflex than feeling. But he'd never seen this smile before. This smile that would not have been out of place on a spear wife standing over her fallen opponent on the battle field.
And it got him thinking. That maybe—just maybe—there was more to the perfect lady after all.
She hadn't seen him there, hadn't felt his eyes watching her, and so after her form retreated up the stairs and out of sight, he'd gone to the iron bars that had housed her lord husband, the Bolton bastard, and watched as the dogs fought over his remains. A worse sight he'd never seen. Not even among the Thenns.
Good for her, he'd thought. Good for her.
That night, in the great hall, there was feasting, though the stores were meager and many of the men wounded or battle weary. Still, there was spiced wine by the barrel and hot food. Hot! And cooked through. Not salted and cold or burned over a spit fire—charred on the outside and raw in the middle—as he was used to.
And the lady had gotten drunk.
He'd never seen her have more than a glass of wine, never seen her poise slip except earlier in the dungeon. And this made twice in one day.
Tormund was intrigued.
And so he'd watched her. Interested to see what she'd do next.
She'd changed out of her furs. In the crowded common room, several fires burned in stone-lined hearths, and no outer layers were required. Her dress was the color of fir trees, deep and dark, and cut low, revealing ample amounts of milky skin.
Tormund tried not to let Jon see where his thoughts were leading whenever his eyes landed on her form.
At one point in the evening, Jon had offered to accompany her to her rooms, but she refused. She didn't want to be alone, she'd said. If she'd been anyone else, Tormund would have offered to keep her company for the night then and there, but of course he couldn't. Not only because she was a Southern lady in her ancestral home surrounded by men sworn to serve her (and thus, butcher the wildling fool who affronted her), but also because she was Jon's little sister.
Jon who was like a brother to him. Who he'd never want to betray.
Jon who was also the best swordsman in the room. And Tormund did not want to die tonight. Especially after fighting so hard and so long to survive the day.
So he watched her, and drank, and expected nothing else to come of it.
It was only after Jon left the table to speak with Sir Davos that she spoke to him.
"Ramsay Bolton is dead," Sansa said, taking a sip from her goblet and promptly hiccuping.
"Good," Tormund replied.
She nodded, her eyes on her goblet. She didn't seem happy with his response though.
"He deserved it," he added.
Her eyes snapped to his face then, searching.
"He did, didn't he? She paused for a moment, the silence heavy between them. "Tell me, Tormund, do all men who deserve to die, die?"
She knew his name. That surprised him for some reason, though he'd been in her company for weeks and it shouldn't have. And for some reason, he wanted to lie to her. To comfort her.
What the fuck was wrong with him?
"No. Not in my experience. Some of the worst shits I've ever met just keep on living. And some of the best…"
He trailed off thinking of Mance. Thinking of the men they'd lost today by the score. Good men. And bad men. But men all the same.
And her face was sad.
She was thinking about her brother. She must have been. The little one, not yet a man, who'd died with an arrow in his back. Slain by her bastard husband. She hadn't been there when he fell, but she'd seen his body laid out in the crypt. She'd seen to his burial services. And maybe she was thinking of the others. Her sister—what was her name—Arya, maybe? And her brother, the King of the North whose head had been chopped off at his own wedding, his dire wolf's sown on and paraded around the castle. And her other brother. The cripple. Who no one had heard word from in months. Was he dead too?
Tormund had spent his life believing that the Southern lords were weak. That their lives were so much better and easier beyond the wall. But tragedy seemed to hit here just as it did in the North.
"Did Jon tell you how horrible I was? When we were little?" She asked a few minutes later.
Tormund didn't reply. Jon hadn't told him anything about his half-sister until she'd arrived at the wall, and then he hadn't spoken of their past at all.
"No," she said, answering her own question. "He wouldn't have."
She took another gulp of her wine.
"I hated him. Well, I thought I did. I didn't really know anything about hate then. But I called him bastard and was unkind any chance that I got. I felt sorry for my mother, you see. She was so ashamed of Jon. He was the reminder of my father's infidelity that followed her around wherever she went. So I was horrible to him. And it wasn't his fault."
Tormund was surprised to see tears in her eyes. The last thing he needed was a drunk crying woman.
"Jon only told me good things about you." It wasn't a lie really. Just a half truth. For some reason, he didn't think she would like to hear how little Jon actually spoke of her.
"That's sweet of him," she said, draining her goblet. "But you don't have to lie to me, Tormund. You aren't very good at it."
She smiled at him then and he felt his chest tightening for some reason.
"Get a grip, you idiot," he told himself. "Jon will skin you alive."
"Why do they call you Tormund Giantsbane? Are you a great slayer of giants?"
Her chin was in her hand and she was still smiling. This one was new to him also.
Devilish and a little mocking.
And Tormund wondered, just how many smiles did this girl have?
"Aye," he replied.
"And could you teach me to fight?"
He stared at her.
"My septa always said that words were a lady's weapon," Sansa said. "And I've learned the truth in that. But I want to learn to defend myself with more than words."
"You should ask Jon. He is a great swordsman."
"I don't want to learn the sword. I couldn't even pick one up let alone wield it properly. And besides, Jon doesn't have the time."
"And I do?"
She looked at him for several long seconds, debating how honest to be.
"Jon won't train me properly. He'll go easy on me. He won't want to hurt me. You know it's true."
"And I would? Hurt you, I mean?"
"Yes, I think you would. You don't care about me—you don't care if you split my lip or ruin my dress or make me black and blue all over. And you fight dirty."
For some reason her assessment brought out a bark of laughter. Deep and booming. Several people nearby turned and stared at the two of them.
At Sansa Stark and Tormund Giantsbane.
The lady and her wildling.
"Aye, I could teach you to fight dirty. With your hands and your elbows and your knees. With knives and rocks and whatever other sharp thing you could get your hands on. But your brother would never allow it."
"He will." She was resolute in her answer. "Jon may be my brother, but he is not my husband. And I am lady of this castle. I outrank him. And you are a free man. Unless what I've heard of the wildlings is untrue."
She sat up straighter in her seat. Some of the wine haze cleared from her eyes.
"So will you teach me to fight, Tormund Giantsbane?"
He stared at her for a moment. Took in her pretty face. The green eyes, the auburn hair, the perfect skin. Her smooth little hands that hadn't done a days labor in her life. Could he really teach someone like her to fight like a wildling?
Then he remembered her secret smile in the dungeons and the pulpy remains of her former torturer.
Remembered that there was more to this lady than the face she showed the world.
"Aye," he said, holding out his hand for her to shake. "I can try."
Her answering smile was slow and sweet as she took his hand and at that moment Tormund knew that no good would come of this.