And so it was she caught him unaware. He spun halfway at the creaking of the door, knew her, and squinted with suspicion as she set her shoulder against the frame. She was given only a brief study before he turned back to his task. He dipped his hand into the basin and slowly drew it back up, water sluicing from the cloth squeezed in his fist.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
She took in the breadth of his shoulders and the wide vee of his bare back, laced with silvery scars and pale above the faded black of his breeches. His hair was pulled back in a knot, a dark ball of tangles threaded with gray. He lifted the cloth to one shoulder and pulled it down the length of his arm and then back again, on the underside and to the tuft of hair that grew at the join. He lingered there and then dipped the cloth back in the basin. The sound of the water as it lapped against the edges was a mirror of the heat pooling low in her belly; liquid, rhythmic, elemental.
She tried to speak but found her words disappearing as he wiped down his other arm and then patted at his chest, his movements efficient but unhurried; no differently, she thought, than they would be were she not there. "If you've something to say, girl, spit it out." The next time he rinsed, the water that ran from the cloth was pinked with blood.
"Are you hurt?" She left the door frame and was almost to him before she could stop herself. There was tangible heat coming off of him this close, waves of warmth and scent and she wished to wrap herself in it, and in him. But he was angry and she'd learned him well enough, in the week she'd been there, not to corner him.
"Your wolves," he growled. "I've a bitch gone into heat and they damn near got her before I could lock her up. One of the yearlings was caught in the scuffle and lost his throat for it. It's more his blood than mine. Creatures from the seven hells is what they are."
He rounded on her, quiet fury writ on his features, the burnt side drawn up tight. She met his eyes briefly and then cast her gaze downward. She felt badly for what had happened and should not have know the yearning she did, should've felt differently, but she didn't. And he couldn't know what it was like for her - when the howling had begun, when she had felt the surge of need within her. "They kill another of my dogs and they'll meet the edge of my blade, I swear it. You say you're bonded with them; if that's so, keep them away from my kennels."
"It does not work that way. I cannot command them only … share with them. Grant them a bit of my … civility, if I can."
"Civility? That's rich, considering what's happened. If that's your magic, just now would've been a bloody fine time to put it to practice, don't you think?"
His scorn bit at her and she felt another rush of shame. But even then it was not enough to overcome the stronger emotions pulsing like blood through her veins. "I am sorry, truly. I have tried to tell you. I know what they feel, I can share in it, but I haven't the ability to bend them to my will." She darted a glance up and murmured, "It is more mine to theirs, it seems."
"And if it's me they decide to come after next?"
"That will not happen," she said, and knew it to be true.
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I know. You will come to no harm as long as they are certain I am safe with you. Oh …" she breathed and stepped closer. There was blood welling up through the thatch of dark hair that covered his chest, from three long gouges just below his collarbone. She reached out and his hand snapped up, enclosing her wrist and stilling her fingers a bare inch from his skin. A deep tremor ran through her.
"Don't," he ordered. "They're no more than scratches."
It took only the slightest of tugs for him to relinquish his hold. And then, despite his warning, she tentatively laid her fingertips against him and knew the warmth of Sandor's blood. She pressed her palm over the flat pad of muscle there and felt the slow beating of his heart. He did not move to stop her but she could feel his eyes upon her, curious and ... something else.
Wary, she realized with a start. And then felt a fool that she had not known it sooner. There was a part of him, beneath the scarred and battered warrior, that was afraid of her. It was not simply the oddity of her connection to the wolf pack or the way they had led her to him, somehow finding him hidden away in the once-abandoned crofter's cottage, living a solitary and simple life, just him and his dogs. It was older than that, this fear, and went all the way back to her first days in King's Landing. She wouldn't have been able to understand it then, for she had been barely more than a child. But in the years that passed she had come to know the power a woman possessed, and she was no longer so innocent.
A puff of air escaped her, a soft expulsion of laughter, and she raised her eyes to his. "They're deeper than scratches. They need to be properly cleaned and dressed."
"A healer now too, are you?"
"If you'll sit," she said, ignoring his jab, "I'll see to it." He started to turn away and she held to his arm. "Oh, for the sake of the gods, Sandor, let me do this. You must stop behaving as though I mean to kill you."
He gave a sharp bark of laughter. "And what would you know of killing a man, little bird?" he asked as she nudged him back and onto a high stool next to the window. She opened the shutters for more light and the rays of the setting sun blinded her. As she squeezed her eyes shut, she found herself back on a hillside in the Vale, arms wrapped hard around her middle, shivering as she watched her pack devour the man she'd purposely led there, to his death. Sandor didn't press his question, no doubt believing she knew nothing about such things, and so she shook off the image and got busy filling the basin with fresh water and collecting soap and clean cloths. She arranged them neatly on the table next to her.
"Why is it," she found herself wondering aloud, "that you've not asked what brought me here after all this time, or what happened to me after you left King's Landing?"
"I know enough. Don't want to know more," was his gruff response. "I've enough ghosts of my own; I have no need of yours."
"Aren't you at all curious?" She wet a cloth and scrubbed the sliver of lye soap across it and then turned to him, looking for permission. He grunted in response, gave a slight nod of his head and then drew a hissing breath as she pressed into the gouges with the soapy rag.
"Would my knowing change anything that's happened?" he countered, awkwardly tucking his chin to watch her work.
"No," she admitted.
"Then why are you wasting breath on it? Be quick about this," he added, waving his hand in the small space between them. "I need to get back to the kennels, make sure your wolves aren't circling again. It's going to be a bloody long night."
"You needn't worry. They've gone some distance away and are hunting. Your dogs will be safe. They'll not be bothered again." She wet a second cloth and dabbed at his wounds.
"How do you –" He stopped as if he'd realized what he was about to ask and snorted instead. "Never mind, I don't want to know."
She told him anyway. "It's nothing I've done. They think you the fiercest of the pack after what's happened. They have tasted your anger and will hesitate before doing anything to provoke it a second time. I felt it in them."
"They're not my bloody pack," he argued.
"They are yours now, as much as they are mine, whether you claim them or not. I did not choose them either – they came to me. They found me, just as they found you. My only choice was to follow them … or not."
She was speaking without much thought for her words. They served only as a means of distracting him as she took her time playing at cleaning up wounds already as clean as they would get, relishing the chance to touch him so freely, to have him pliant and accommodating for once. With no effort at all they had begun to communicate with only glances and the lightest of touches: her fingertips against his arm brought the shifting of his shoulder more towards the light, as she wanted. She lifted her chin and he mimicked her, allowing her to wipe away a spattering of blood from his neck.
"It is truly quite extraordinary," she murmured, "to know what it is to be untamed, as they are. To seek out what is desired with no doubts, no thought given to the consequences. They know what they want. And if no one attempts to stop them, they simply take it." She laid aside the cloth she'd used to pat his wounds dry and felt a small tug. Looking to Sandor, she followed his gaze to see the lock of auburn hair he held captive between fingers and thumb. He rubbed at it thoughtfully and then lifted his face until it was level with hers. His eyes were deeply gray, dark and probing, and she found she couldn't look away - and didn't particularly want to.
"Listen to you," he said. "You talk of the wolves as though you're one yourself. Maybe you are. Wolf … and half a wildling, too. You've more the look of them, now, than a daughter of Winterfell."
That much was true. Her hair had grown longer, well below her waist, thick and unruly with curls, her dress rough-spun wool and without decoration, scratchy on her skin without a shift beneath it but warm, with simple laces that tied down the front. Her definition of luxury had changed when she had joined the pack and begun her travels, learning to get by with the barest of necessities and taking small pleasures wherever she could. The man before her in that moment, long legs bracketing her as she stood between them, was to Sansa like the ripest, sweetest fruit, a flesh and blood creation of everything she had gone without until then. With his ravaged, terrible face and the smell of his sweat sharp in her nostrils, the curves and planes of his powerful muscles beneath her hands, his skin softer than it had any right to be. She wanted him with a primal need.
Somehow her mouth was still able to form words, the sound of them filling spaces that seemed suddenly charged with anticipation. "Sometimes I think the wolves smarter than us, or at least more practical. If they are hungry, they hunt and eat. When they're thirsty, they find water and drink their fill. When tired, they simply stop to rest. And when the urge comes upon them, when the cycle of the moon tells them the time is right, they mate. It's all so very … simple."
Sandor released the lock of hair he'd been holding. His knuckles skimmed lightly over the upper slope of her breast as his hand fell away, and she fought the urge to grab it up and press his palm there.
"You're not, you know," he said, his voice settling rough in her ears – the already distinctive rasp even more pronounced. A fresh fission of heat shot through her and she almost lost her legs. She grasped for something to steady herself and her open hand landed on the wide plank of his thigh. They looked down at the same time, absorbing the tableau presented them, and then back up. Their eyes met again and she found she could manage barely more than a whisper.
"I'm not what?"
"Safe. With me. You never were."
"I am not that girl anymore, Sandor."
"Might be you're right. But I am still that man."
"I was once afraid of you. Now I am not."
"You should be."
"Why? What could you possibly do to me that other men have not already done?"
It happened so quickly and without warning that she didn't even have time to flinch. She found her back pressed painfully into the rough timbers of the wall behind her, feet barely grazing the dirt floor, held there by the steel grip of his fingers around her arms.
"I don't want to know," he snarled in her face, each word forced out between clinched teeth. "They were never meant to have you, these men. You were supposed to be mine."
"You left me."
"You wouldn't come."
"You didn't give me the chance to decide."
"Stupid girl," he hissed. "I almost killed you that night, and worse. I still could. Take what I want and then slit your pretty throat before you can even think to call out for your wolves. Is that what you want, little bird? Is that why you're here, so I can finish what I started?"
It is not my death I want from you, she thought, but my life. And before she could think any more, pushed up on her toes and kissed him hard on the mouth. His lips were dry, chapped, and yet oddly supple against hers, except where the edge of his mouth was more scar than not. His fingers clinched harder around her arms, a painful spasm, before dropping away. And when her hands flew to his shoulders to regain her balance, he was absolutely rigid beneath them, as unforgiving as stone. But his mouth moved, a twitch before coming open, and she breathed a single word into him. "Please."
And then his hands were on her again, and everywhere. Tangled in her hair and smoothing down her back. Up her ribs and cupping her breasts, only to leave them so he could palm the flare of her hips, the curve of her backside, frantic and rough, his hands warm through the fabric of her dress and so very large, encompassing. He broke the kiss and she whimpered as he buried his face at her throat, and her arms snaked around his back. She sagged against him as she felt his lips, hot and wet, tracing the path of the blood pulsing heavy just beneath her skin. Then his hands were at her face, cupping it as he drew her to him, and he groaned, "Damn you," before covering her mouth with his.
Their tongues met and danced and he spun them around and grasped her at the waist, lifting her as easily as if she weighed no more than a child. Her legs came up and encircled him, ankles locked at the small of his back. When he eased her down she felt the surface of the table beneath her but kept hold of him, arms and legs wrapped tight. He shoved her away, just enough to get his hands between them, and started fumbling at the laces of her gown, cursing under his breath, a litany of surrender and need. "Why did you have to come here? Why couldn't you leave me be? Damn you."
She silenced him with another kiss and their hands tangled and fought as she reached down and fumbled for the fastening at his waist and his dropped to her legs, the laces forgotten. He shoved at her skirts, pushing them higher and out of his way. And then his calloused palms met her bare skin and his thumbs traced wide paths of fire up her inner thighs as he spread them wide. Sansa yelped, the rough edges of his nails scraping her as he tore her small clothes away, and she groaned as his thumb pressed hard at her center and slipped up her folds. Muttering, "Bloody hells, Sansa," he yanked her to the edge of the table just as she reached into his breeches and freed him. He was hot and hard, heavy in her hand, and she placed him at her opening and squirmed ever closer, pulling at him, desperate to have him as far inside her as she could take him.
"Wait, wait," he rasped.
But she ignored him, retorting, "No, now." Lifting her legs, she set her heels against his backside and pulled up just far enough. And then with a single thrust, impaled herself upon him.
Sansa watched his face go blank for a heart's beat and then he looked down to where they were joined and back at her. His eyes sparked hot, his upper lip curled and he growled low in his throat. Grasping her knees, he pushed them back and further apart and she slumped until she was bent almost in two, her shoulders pressed against the wall behind her, her head thumping against it with every stroke he made. But it didn't matter; none of it mattered. Not the rough surface of the table under her or the way her hair was painfully trapped behind her; not the dull ache that'd started up in her thighs, the muscles stretched taut to cradle his wide hips. There was nothing but her skin and his hands upon it, moving up to finish with the laces and shoving apart the front of her gown, fingers outspread and then holding roughly to her breasts. Nothing but the warm, wet cave of his mouth as he dipped his head and pulled in a nipple, working it with his tongue. Nothing but the sweet fullness where they were joined, wave after wave of heat and light coursing through her with every frantic slap of his hips against hers.
His mouth skidded up her chest, his teeth latched on to her earlobe and he whispered, breathy and disbelieving, "What are we doing?"
"Fucking," she said.
And then he stopped.
He straightened his arms, looming over her, buried deep within her, and they stared at each other. She took in the wildness in his eyes and deeper, beyond that, the subtle mixture of need and caution, so much like the look he'd given her earlier. Then she heard them faintly through the open window, with its sunlight that painted them in a wide swath of gold. Heard her wolves begin to howl. Thoughtless and yearning, she wrenched up, took the join of his shoulder and neck between her teeth and bit down hard.
Sandor snarled and shook himself free. He slammed his open hand against her chest and pushed her back against the wall, his eyes dark and fearsome. And she did the only thing she could. She grinned up at him, wide and toothy and confident. Though she knew he could easily snap her neck before she could blink, she also knew, deep down in every cell of her body, that he never would.
He proved her right when his own mouth spread in an equally toothsome smile and his entire face transformed. And then he began to move again and to touch her again. Gently this time, a slower and more thorough examination of every part of her his hands could reach. And somehow her gown was gone and he'd kicked away his boots and breeches and it was all skin and light and heat. Once more slumped against the wall, her head lolling bonelessly on her neck, he shifted as he lifted her up from the unforgiving timbers, and he made of his arms a cradle for her to lie in. Her head rolled back and he rained kisses up and down her throat, whispery soft and tender.
"Little bird," he whimpered.
"Hush, it's all right," she responded, pulling at his head until he was peering down at her. She cupped his ruined cheek in her hand. "It's all right. Love me, just love me."
And so he did, as the the wolves' song called them home.