Chapter Ten

"How did this happen?" Sansa exclaimed.

"Ser Clegane seems to have gone out for a ride last evening," the maester apologized, wringing his hands. "He seems to have re-opened his wounds and developed a fever. One of his wounds has also begun festering, despite my efforts. He really should have stayed abed. I asked for his mail and armor to be hidden. Mail is prone to chafing the wound."

"Sandor is far too stubborn to listen to reason," she sighed. "Will he be alright?"

"I've leeched the wound, and we'll have to keep at it for a few days until the wound is healed. The rest needs time and rest. I've given him milk of the poppy so he should be quite calm for a while."

"I'll make sure to keep him abed if it means roping him to the bedframe," Sansa replied. The maester gave her a smile and a nod and scurried down the stairs. Sansa took in a breath and entered the room. The window was cracked open, but only slightly to keep the snowstorm that raged outside from piling onto the floor. The hearth was filled with glowing embers and small, wispy flames that clung to a blackened log, a testament to the lodger's aversion to fire. Sandor was covered in furs to his chest, snoring softly. His hair was soft and glossy and dark, his face finely shaved and clean. Sansa sat on the cushioned chair she'd pulled up beside his bed and picked up her dress. She was nearly done adding the vines along the sleeves and was working on elaborating the trail down the center of the dress when someone knocked softly on the door and entered. She looked up to see Patrek and smiled, offering him a seat on the maester's chair beside her.

"I only came by to let you know that my father will be arriving this afternoon," he said, declining the offer. He paused, then continued. "Have you considered my offers?" he asked.

"I've thought on them, but I will need more time. Sandor and I are trying to decide where would be safest for us."

"Sandor?" Patrek's eyebrows shot up. "He's staying with you?"

"Yes," Sansa smiled. "He's been most kind and loyal to me, and I trust him." Patrek did not appear pleased with this prospect but resigned himself with a sigh.

"I suppose I will have to allow it then. I can't say I will ever like the man, but he certainly proved himself. When we found you on the Kingsroad, he wouldn't let anyone approach him or help bind his wounds until he was sure you were safe and unharmed. Wouldn't let you out of his sight the entire time we rode to Seaguard." Sansa flushed and looked down at her feet.

"He is very protective, I suppose," she mumbled. Patrek snorted.

"Like a hound. I can't say I didn't suspect him when we first took him in – he had already betrayed his last master – but even a dog will bite the hand that whips it. He seems loyal enough to you. Still, he may not be enough to protect you out there. Wherever you choose to go, please allow me to offer you a few escorts, at least."

"I will discuss it with Sandor," Sansa replied with a smile and a curtsy. Patrek shot Sandor a look and left the room, closing the door behind him. Sansa turned back to her dress, taking apart the last few threads that had become messy in her lapse. In all honesty, Sansa was becoming quite bored. Seaguard was not a very large castle, and the only ladies inhabiting the court were the serving maids, all of who treated her with a kind of wary reverence most likely due to the way she was able to tame the beast of a guest. She was never able to get more than a few polite words out of them, and none would dare linger long in Sandor's chambers – not voluntarily anyways. She took mule out for a ride occasionally, but Patrek wouldn't let her leave the Castle walls for her own safety, so she was limited to circling the courtyard at a trot until her fingers started to numb from the cold. The Mallisters worshipped the old gods, so Sansa was allowed to pray at an old weirwood at the edge of a small wood to the north of the castle – but only if she was accompanied by a garrison of at least eight soldiers. Sometimes she would climb the western roundower and look out over the endless sea and wonder what lands lay ahead.

Sansa sighed and put the dress down to reach for a pin when she heard a muffled sound. She looked up at Sandor, but his eyes were shut. He twitched again, eyebrows furrowing as if in anger, and jerked his head to the side, grunting. Sansa put aside her dress and stood, approaching the bed. She touched the man's brow, and realized he was feverish. The maester had left a basin of water cooled with snow and a small towel, which she soaked, wrung, and folded and patted Sandor's brow and face with. He mumbled a few unintelligible words and quieted at the cool touches.

"Such a fool," Sansa murmured. Then, struck by a sudden urge, she leaned down and placed a chaste kiss to his lips. They were warm and dry, and one side was smoother than the other. She pulled away, slowly and reluctantly, and moved to sit back down when something caught her sleeve. Sandor looked up at her straight-faced and almost curious.

"Why did you do that, little bird?" he asked. Sansa bit her lip and looked down.

"I wanted to," she said simply. He looked at her, and then nodded, blinking groggily.

"That damn maester gave me poppy again, didn't he?" he growled.

"Only because you made him, opening your wounds again like that."

"And you're here to make sure I stay in bed, are you?"

"I am," Sansa replied. "And don't you try anything."

"Because you'll stop me if I do?"

"Well, I can't say I won't try," Sansa replied. "But if I fail, there are two well-armed guards outside this door waiting to clap you in chains and rope you to the bed should you try to leave before you're healthy." Sandor stared at her.

"Well damn me but I think the little bird's grown a mighty sharp beak all of a sudden," he grinned, then grunted. "That buggering poppy's tearing my head apart. Fetch me some wine." Sansa sighed and put and stood to call for a maid but Sandor waved her down. She raised her eyebrows in confusion. "You're too obedient, girl. You can say no once in a while."

"It's no trouble," Sansa replied with a small smile.

"You know, you're a lot more chipper when I'm injured," Sandor remarked. Sansa grinned.

"Well you're far less intimidating abed," she quipped. Sandor shot her a deathly glare, but Sansa only laughed it off.

"That's a pretty sound you make when you open your mouth there, little bird," Sandor said, and Sansa thought she heard a hint of fondness in his voice. She hid a smile and called for the wine.

As she passed through the corridors to retire to her chamber, Sansa heard Patrek call her name.

"My lady," he said politely and slightly out of breath as she turned to greet him. "My father has come. He has gathered council, and I am sure he would be delighted to meet you."

"I would be honored, my Lord," Sansa replied and followed the man into the great hall. There, Patrek's usual councilors and officers surrounded a table, though there were some Sansa did not recognize. In particular, she noticed a tall, stern-faced man with balding, pepper-gray hair with a face that could once have been handsome save for a crooked nose and cold, dark eyes.

"Father, I would like you to meet the lady Sansa Stark, heir of Winterfell." Sansa blinked at the introduction, and a hollow throb pulled at her stomach. With Bran and Robb and Rickon dead, and Jon at the wall, she was the rightful heir of Winterfell. The only heir of Winterfell, Sansa thought bitterly. Instead, she smiled politely and curtseyed. "My Lady, this is my father, Jason of House Mallister, Lord of Seaguard."

The Lord of Seaguard gave Sansa a stiff nod, glancing her over. He then turned to look at his son.

"I hope you do not make it a habit to house fugitives of the Kingdom in my castle when I am away, Patrek," Lord Jason said, his voice low. Patrek flushed and frowned.

"The lady was being assaulted by the King's men, a hapless maid held at knifepoint by the Queen's Mountain threatened with rape and butchery. I wasn't simply going to ride by, father." The last was spoken with bitter forcefulness. Sansa felt another throb at the description. She sounded like a useless child. A pity case. Lord Jason pursed his lips and sighed.

"I'm not faulting you for your actions, Patrek. Only your recklessness. The Iron Throne has likely heard of your attack on the Queen's men, and open rebellion against the throne does not go unpunished. We will either have to find allies or bend the knee, for the King's wrath will be strong when he hears what you have done."

"We still have allies," Patrek said. "Sworn bannermen to Robb. Not all of them attended the wedding."

"Most of them did. The lords, in fact. And with the young wolf dead, the north will scatter, ripe for the taking."

"There is still Stannis –"

"I would sooner bend the knee to the Throne than to Stannis," Jason bit. He shook his head. "Pardon me, my lady. I am not displeased by your presence. We've lost more than I could say with the death of your brother. He was a fine leader and a brave man."

"To his dying moment," Patrek swore. "A sword in his hand and the blood of his enemies upon it." Sansa nodded, looking down. The throbs turned into a wave of tears she fought to keep hidden.

"The Frey's will be upon us soon," Lord Jason announced, glancing back at his map. "They are close, and the Queen knows the value of Seaguard by the Sea. She will take no time in dispatching her new turncoats."

"Will we be meeting them in battle then?" Patrek asked. "Or guarding the castle."

"It will have to be battle. The Castle is sparsely supplied – the war has cost us many men who could have been tiling fields and supplying crops and game. We wouldn't hold a siege for long, and the Frey's will come prepared for the possibility. I will leave with the majority of our garrison."

"I will lead the vanguard," Patrek offered, but Jason shook his head.

"You will stay here. Should the battle fail, you must send word out to the last of the Northmen by raven." Patrek made to protest but his father cut him off. "The Frey's will collect the majority of the living survivors and try to ransom the castle. You will meet any demands they ask of you. This means that your esteemed guest must not be here when that happens. Should they find you here, it will be straight to the queen. Have you a place to go?" The Lord addressed her.

"Sandor and I are weighing the possibilities," Sansa replied. "It is unlikely that we will trouble you further. I only ask for the hospitality you have provided until he is fully healed."

"Ah yes," Jason appraised her. "Patrek told me you were accompanied by the rogue hound. Did you know I've crossed blades with the man before? No, I supposed you wouldn't. It was during one of the king's tourneys – you would have been very young. A fine lance and a better swordsman. As a man, he always remained a mystery. Full of power and hatred, he only knew to kill and to obey. It is good to see that he has found something to protect. Suprising, but good." Sansa smiled meekly.

"I will see to her protection," Patrek replied grudgingly.

"Good," Jason replied. "We will march within the fortnight."

Either by sheer force of will, or Sansa's constant care, Sandor managed to heal well enough within a fortnight. The maester still insisted that he keep from extraneous activity, but the man was allowed to walk the premises, accompany Sansa to eat in the dining hall, and even ride if he promised not to wear his mail or armor and avoid swordplay. He was generally rather quiet, but to Sansa's surprise, seemed rather comfortable around Jason, especially at the table – filling his cup and inviting him for another bout until she reminded him that he wasn't supposed to wield a blade yet.

"Perhaps after this damned battle, if we survive the thing," Jason replied and a small grin.

"It's likely we'll be long gone by then," the Hound replied, taking a long draught of a strong red.

"Have you decided where you will be going then?" Jason asked.

"I'm rather certain, aye. But I won't be telling you. Safer this way."

"Suit yourself," the Lord acquitted. "We can offer an escort of ten soldiers, should you will it."

"Half that number will do. We'll send them back once we get off the Kingsroad." Jason accepted this negotiation with a nod and, finishing the last of his wine, left the table.

Lord Jason Mallister departed with the entire garrison save for two dozen men stationed at Seaguard to guard against any ambushes against the castle and send out a raven should anything befall it.

Patrek was less than pleased as his father marched away at the head of an army, but kept his jaw clenched shut and saw them off from the ramparts.

"He'll be back soon," Sansa reassured him, placing a hand on his arm.

"Yes, and I pray it isn't just his head atop a pike." Patrek swept away and down the stairs, across the courtyard before disappearing inside the castle. Sansa sighed and descended, looking up as Sandor crossed the courtyard to greet her. He was dressed in full mail and armor, sword sheathed by his hip with a hand settled comfortably over it. Sansa would have chastised him had she not felt an enormous sense of relief at the sight. Despite the comforts of Seaside, the castle had done little to make her feel safe.

"We will be leaving soon, I think," Sansa admitted. "Ser Patrek does not seem very optimistic about the outcome of the battle."

"I wouldn't be either," the hound growled. "They're off to get slaughtered, the lot of them."

"Why do you say that?" Sansa frowned.

"It's true," Sandor grunted. "The Frey's will have them outnumbered two to one, not to mention they'll probably have some Lannisters join their cause. Seaguard is defeated – it's the last openly treasonous stronghold in the north. The Lannisters will take up the castle and put its occupants down like dogs."

"That's terrible," Sansa whispered. A sudden chill overcame her and she wrapped her arms around herself. "Isn't there anything we can do?" The hound shook his head.

"We can't help these people, little bird. Only pray the Lannisters are more merciful than the Freys. We'll need to leave, and soon."

"Yes," Sansa sighed. She followed Sandor back into the castle. As he made to go up to his room, Sansa reached out to clutch his tunic sleeve. Sandor stopped and looked back at her, eyebrows raised.

"Stay with me tonight?" Sansa asked in a soft voice, looking up. Sandor searched her face for a while, then sighed and nodded. Sansa smiled and led him to her room.

"Would you mind a fire? I can keep it small," Sansa said. Sandor glanced at the dimly burning coals in the fireplace and nodded. Sansa fed the fire a few stick and logs and a handful of dried pine needles, prodding at the hearth until a warm, steady fire crackled in the hearth. By the time she turned around, Sandor had already stripped out of his mail and armor, and was bent over to untie his boots. Sansa changed into her nightdress in the privy and emerged, brushing her hair back into a braid. Sandor was sharpening his dagger with a whetstone, the fire dancing and glittering over the soft steel. Sansa recognized the dagger.

"I'm sorry for taking that from you," Sansa said as she approached him. Sandor glanced up at her.

"I would've been angry if you hadn't. If there's anything I hope sticks to that empty skull of yours, it's the fact that swords are used to kill people." He held the knife up, allowing the blade to bask in the firelight. "A good knife can kills just as well as it can protect. It can take life as well as it can provide it."

"What do you mean?" Sansa asked, confused. The hound snorted.

"How would you kill a rabbit if you had no bow, little bird?" he asked. Sansa flushed and looked down.

"Well, I tried once. But I scared it away."

"You tried to kill a rabbit?" Sandor looked impressed. Sansa looked away.

"Just once. I was so hungry, and it was so close to me, so I… I picked up the knife and approached the rabbit all quiet but then the wind blew and it ran off."

"You'd have better luck sneaking up on me that you would a rabbit, little bird," Sandor said. "The small animals, the fast ones, you have to trap them. Though a well-aimed throw kills just as well."

"Could you teach me?" Sansa asked. "How to kill a rabbit?" Sandor grinned.

"I'll even teach you to trap 'em, little bird. Skin them, gut them. You'll be sick of rabbit by the time we get to Dorne. Here." He offered her the sword, hilt first. Sansa stared, glanced up at him then back down at the knife, and took it.

"For me?" she breathed. He nodded.

"You'll be needing one. I've got my own," he patted the sword sheathed across his knees.

"Thank you," Sansa said, curtseying politely. She picked the sheath up from the ground and encased the dagger, setting it on her bedside table before returning to stand by Sandor. He had resumed sharpening his sword with the whetstone, and Sansa noticed a slight wince as he reached out to slip the stone over the tip.

"You're still hurting," Sansa said. The hound shot her a glance.

"I'm healing just fine. It's only sore is what. Don't you mind it, if you know what's good for you," he growled. Sansa almost smiled at the defensive retort. And tugged at his tunic. He stopped, sheathing his sword and setting it aside, placing a hand over hers.

"You're always trying to prove how tough you are," Sansa sighed. "It's not a crime to hurt, Sandor. And if you can't show the others, you know you can show me. I won't tell. You will always be strong to me." Sandor looked at her, then removed his hand. Sansa lifted his tunic up and over his head, setting it on the bed. She inhaled sharply. Scars dotted Sandor's body like painted decor, pinkish welts in knots and slivers dabbed here and there. The most recent were still tied together by black thread like morbid seam work. Sansa ran a finger over a long pink welt that ran from the center of his chest to his belly button.

"I was stupid enough to refuse proper armor when I got that one," Sandor murmured. "A stupid kid." Sansa smiled softly.

"That stupid kid hasn't died yet," she said, looking up.

Then, she kissed him.

Sandor immediately stiffened, but made no move to shove her off. Sansa pulled away seconds later, eyes everywhere but meeting Sandor's gaze.

"Little bird," he said quietly, touching her chin. She flicked her gaze up to meet his, but there was no anger or contempt or amusement.

"I…" she started, then quieted, fumbling with her hands. "I really like you, Sandor. I know I am only a child, and my body is not yet grown nor appealing, but I..." she blushed a beet red and bit her lip, forcing herself quiet and awaiting his response. Sandor was silent for a short while, then sighed, and rubbed at his neck.

"You're no child, Sansa," he admitted. "You've long since grown into a fine lady. And I mean that in every sense." Sansa flushed deeper. "But I'm not the right person for you to be testing your… developing interests on."

"I'm not testing you," Sansa retorted. "If I wanted a pretty face and a title I would have accepted Patrek's offer to stay at Seaguard with him. I'm not that little girl anymore. You said so yourself." She hesitated, then reached out and touched his face, sweeping the hair away from his scar. "I chose you a long time ago."

"You're out of your mind, little bird," Sandor shook his head. Sansa smiled sadly and pressed her forehead against his.

"Maybe. But I've never felt so sure about being crazy," she whispered. She withdrew, and looked at him, waiting. He looked strained, uncomfortable almost. Sansa feared she may have thrust herself on him, while he still did not desire her. Her heart skipped a beat for one frightened moment until his lips met hers.

Sansa felt a warm glow fill her chest and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, opening her mouth and allowing him in. It was nothing like kissing Joffrey. That in itself had been rare, but when it had been, it was chaste or forced or cold. He smelled of flowers and tasted of spiced wine and sugared dates. Sandor was warm and passionate, and he tasted of sharp mead and meat and blood. She pressed herself against him until the lack of breath made her dizzy and she forced herself to pull away. Sansa slid her hands onto Sandor's shoulders, breathing heavily and glanced up at him.

"What's wrong?" she asked, noticing his pained expression. Sandor exhaled and stood up, forcing Sansa to step back a few paces, though she kept her hands on his chest.

"This… isn't right," Sandor muttered.

"What isn't right?" Sansa demanded, frowning. "I want this, you seem to want it. Why are you rejecting it? I am no child."

"I know," Sandor sighed. "But I don't think you do."

Sansa narrowed her eyes. "I know what comes after," she muttered. "I'm ready."

Sandor shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "You're not ready yet."

Sansa felt a pang of hurt in her chest at his words, but only sighed and rested her head upon his chest. "Can we work up to it then? Slowly?"

"Only if you are absolutely sure this is what you want," he said. Without a word, Sansa pulled Sandor to the bed and sat him down. She kissed him on the lips, then kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his scarred face. She kissed the knotted arrow wound on his shoulder, the welt on his stomach.

"I want you," she breathed, looking at him directly. Sandor touched her face and nodded, accepting another kiss. Sansa urged him over and they clambered into bed, throwing the covers over themselves. Sansa snuggled up against Sandor's chest, placing a last kiss on his collarbone before closing her eyes. He slung an arm over her waist, and Sansa smiled, falling into sleep.

When she awoke, Sandor was no longer beside her. Sansa sat up, glancing around groggily, until a loud creak made her jump. Sandor strode into the room, buckling his swordbelt on.

"Get up, little bird," he grunted. "It's time to leave. Sansa nodded, sliding out of bed and hunting down her dress. "Make sure to pack only what you need," the hound ordered, gesturing at a leather bag on the ground.

Sansa nodded, glancing at Sandor, who inspected and sheathed his sword into the scabbard. Last night felt like some kind of hazy dream, and Sandor's nonchalant attitude brought up a throb of fear that perhaps it had been nothing more than a dream. Sandor glanced at her, scratched his neck awkwardly, then stepped forward and planted a short kiss on her cheek.

"You'd better hurry up or I'm leaving you to rot here with your pansy prince," Sandor growled and strode out of the room. Sansa couldn't keep the silly grin off her face.

.:Author's Note:. Finally a little sweetness! The second kiss was actually totally not supposed to happen but Sansa decided in a spur-of-the-moment to do it anyways and I went along with it.

Aside from that, it's been a shitty week and I've pretty much exhausted my outline for this story, so from here on in it's kind of improvisation. Updates may not be as frequent either, because I'm involved in a retarded amount of stuff at uni (organizations, classes, meetings, etc), and I have a midterm on monday already, so please bear with me. My homework list is literally as long as my forearm. No kidding.

Anyway, please review. There's nothing like some literary feedback on a shitty day, or a good luck note from Midnightdawn67.

'till next time,

- Kerrigas