Her home was gone. Burned to the ground, without a trace of the happy life that she once knew. She had burst into tears when her little brothers broke the news, falling to her knees. It was like some cruel joke the world was playing on her.
Still, she was beyond overjoyed to see Bran and Rickon alive and well. They had been traveling across the country of the North with Maester Luwin and various members of their household, as well as Shaggy and Summer. Bran told her they had seen the Lannister banner hoisted at the small stronghold and investigated. Their men easily outnumbered the Lannister party, and when the Hound was released, he had added the strength of ten men. Bran had told her this with fierceness in his eyes, and it made Sansa sad to see her brothers so grown up when they should still be innocent children.
"We were going to head South and hope to find Arya, then come rescue you," he said to her wistfully. Sansa had smiled at his sweet face and stroked his head as he lay in one of the stronghold beds.
"What is this place?" she asked him, ignoring his previous plan and trying to pretend she was still talking to a young boy. "I don't remember it."
"An old watch-house of sorts," Bran replied. "We used to have scouts here to ride back home if invaders were coming. We're closer to Winterfell now, only a day's ride." Sansa nodded, absentmindedly petting her brother. "Will you come with us?" he asked her quietly.
"Where?" she replied.
"South, to find Arya." Sansa sighed. She was so tired, so unbelievably tired of travelling. Looking into her brother's eyes, she found the one thing she lacked: hope. Winterfell was gone, their family killed, and yet he still had a fire blazing behind his dark eyes, like he knew that somehow, things would be better again. She wished she could share his optimism.
"Bran, little brother, we should stay here. We are safe. Arya will come back to us in time," she said, cupping his cheek. Bran furrowed his brow and moved away from her.
"It's not just about Arya. We will go and rally our bannermen, remind them that there are still Starks in Winterfell!" he proclaimed bravely. Sansa felt her heart break.
"I cannot go any further," she said quietly to him, gently, but with sadness in her voice. She took his hands and looked into his eyes, begging for him to understand. "I have been traveling for months. I am beaten and sore, I cannot go on." Sansa spoke the truth. In her heart, she felt cold and weak. Her parents were dead and her home was burned to the ground, there was barely anything left for her to live for, save for her brothers…and the Hound. He had saved her life enough that dying now would be a shameful way to say thank you.
"But, what will you do?" he asked. "Why won't you come?" His eyes brimmed with tears. Sansa shushed him and wiped a tear away.
"Because I can't," she responded, beginning to cry as well. She tried to think of a way to comfort him, to speak of duty and honor and make him understand. "There must always be a Stark in Winterfell," she said eagerly, feigning excitement at her newfound purpose. "Always."
"Sansa," Bran cried, tears pouring down his cheeks. "There is no Winterfell."
"Not yet," she soothed, giving him a smile. "Not yet, but we will rebuild! We rebuild the castle, brick by brick! We'll make it even bigger!" she said, trying to look excited. Bran's tears slowed, and Sansa continued
"I'll stay here in this stronghold and watch over. The Hound will stay with me and protect me, you go and send back some of our bannerman to help with construction." She wiped his cheeks. "Go and find Arya and rally our friends, and when you return, little brother, you will return to the grandest castle in the realm!" she promised, and even though it was small, she couldn't miss the spark in Bran's eyes.
"Alright," he relented, with lingering doubt in his eyes. Sansa smiled brighter at him and kissed his brow. "We'll leave in a week's time, I think," he told her, looking down, and Sansa nodded. One week to spend with the brother she had been parted from for what seemed like a lifetime. It felt like nothing.
After she left Bran's room, she walked out onto the small stone terrace and looked out over the field. It was grey with a soft coating of snow, but Rickon was out playing with Shaggy with his coat on, so Sansa did not worry about him keeping warm. She looked farther off and saw a tall, rugged man with his back to the stronghold, cleaning his sword. She might go to him later, but not now. She had a feeling he wanted peace and quiet for the time being, as did she.
Her week with her brothers passed by too quickly. One day they were feasting and laughing by the fire, the next she was watching as Hodor saddled Rickon up onto his horse. The wildling woman, Osha was her name, strapped in Bran's feet and patted his leg, and he smiled down at her. Sansa nodded to her in thanks as she walked by, and the woman bowed to her.
"I'll take care of him, my lady," she said quietly, with her rough voice. Sansa smiled and felt the all too familiar feel of tears stinging her eyes. She tried to look as strong as the woman before her, but for all her battles, she was still so delicate.
"Thank you," she choked out, nodding to the woman. Osha nodded back and walked away before hopping up behind Rickon.
"Sansa!" Rickon cried to her, his little cheeks tear-stained. Sansa held his small foot in her hand and shushed him. "I don't want to leave you!"
"Hush, Rickon," she said gently, holding his foot. "I'll be right here waiting for you," she promised, smiling up at him. "You be brave. You be brave for me, and Robb…Mother and Father…they're all watching and they are so proud." Rickon leaned down and she kissed his head. "You're a brave man now, Rickon," she told him, and he smiled through his tears.
Behind her, Sandor stood rigid and uncomfortable, feeling awkward in the midst of such a sentimental moment. Bran looked to him and he bowed his head.
"Sandor Clegane," he said loudly. Sandor looked up at the small lord. "You will stay and protect my sister." Bran commanded. "You will keep her safe and you will guard Winterfell while I am away. If you do this without fail, you will be pardoned of your crimes."
"What?" Sansa whirled around to face her brother. "What crimes?" Bran looked at her with confused eyes, as though it were obvious.
"Sansa, he's killed some of our men…and we heard about the butcher's boy. He served Joffrey," he reminded her. "He was Lannister's man." Sansa walked to him and shook her head.
"No, Bran, no. He didn't have a choice, he didn't love Joffrey! He hated him!"
"Sansa," Sandor put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. She looked at him and he shook his head. "It is fair. My Lord," he addressed Bran, bowing his head. "I promise I will protect your stronghold, your home, and your sister." Bran nodded grimly and beckoned Sansa closer to him, away from the Hound.
"Sansa," he asked her quietly, leaning down and almost whispering. "I worry for you," he said, and Sansa saw his eyes travel to the Hound, who did not notice.
"Bran, he's been protecting me ever since we escaped King's Landing," she explained to him. "He's saved me countless times, and we've become…close. Well, closer. Believe me, Bran, he will not hurt me, nor will he hurt any more of our men." She took his hand. "He's on our side." Bran leaned away and looked at her skeptically, but nodded all the same.
"Very well." He said to her. "Jon wrote and said he would visit and help as much as he could. Look for him in about a month."
Sansa finally let the tears fall as Bran and Rickon, along with few of their party, retreated South, riding away from her. She sniffed and gave them a final wave when Rickon turned in his saddle to raise his hand in farewell. They looked so strange to her now, like old men trapped in young boys' bodies.
Maester Luwin, who stayed behind, gave her a sad smile and turned to go inside with the rest of the party. Sansa found her feet stuck to the ground, unable to leave the spot she stood. She wanted to call her brothers back, make them stay here where they were safe. Sansa began to openly weep then, holding a hand to cover her face and wrapping her other arm around herself.
Sandor came up behind her, placing his hand on her shoulder again.
"Come on," he said to her quietly, gently pushing her forward. "I'll walk with you." Sansa nodded and allowed him to guide her around the stronghold. She shivered, but not from the cold. She felt lost and alone without her family. Why did she let the boys leave?
"Are you alright?" Sandor asked her in his gruff voice. Sansa nodded and wiped away her tears with her coat sleeve.
"I…we've come so far…and my entire home is just…it's gone! And now my brothers are gone, my parents are gone…it's just unfair," she cried, crossing her arms over her chest. "I don't even know where Arya is."
Sandor didn't say anything, unsure of how to comfort her. Sansa sniffed again. "You'll be leaving soon, too," she said, sarcastically raising her arms as if to say thank you.
"I won't," he told her. "I promised your brother."
"Yes, yes, a noble promise to the Little Lord of Winterfell, what a knightly thing to do," she said, shrugging him off. "You may be my knight, Clegane, but you spit on duty and you disregard honor. You will leave when he returns."
"No, Sansa, I won't," he responded, not unkindly. "I have nowhere else I can go." Sansa turned to him with tear-stained cheeks.
"And would you?" she asked him. "If you had the choice, would you?"
Sandor looked at her for a long time, watching those ice blue eyes search his face. The Little Bird…his Little Bird. The image he thought of came rushing back to him; his stronghold, dog banners, his little wife waiting for him. Looking at Sansa, part of him ached for that future, while another felt repulsed. She could never be his. They had shared a few kisses, but he had kissed plenty of whores, and in plenty of places, and they hadn't meant a thing. Looking at Sansa, he tried telling himself that she was just another pair of lips and hips, but he found it hard to convince himself of that. So, finally, he gave her an answer.
"No." He shifted his weight and uncrossed his arms. "No, I would not."
Wordlessly, Sansa walked to him and buried her head into his chest, wrapping her small arms around his broad waist. Sandor froze, unsure of what to do with his arms. He had kissed the girl but he had never comforted her. Not like this, anyway. Slowly, he wrapped his arms and his cloak around her, enveloping her in his arms and holding her tight. This time, the internal battle between holding her close and pushing her away was won almost instantly. Sandor's hardened heart warmed inside his chest as he tucked the girl's head under his chin and shushed her gently. Finally, he felt complete, no longer a broken man missing a very large piece of himself; he had found that piece, and he held it in his arms tighter than he had held anything.
A/N: Hi guys! WOW! Thank you all so much for all of your support! I am so amazed at what a positive response I've gotten for this story, and I really appreciate all of your reviews and PMs telling me how much you enjoy reading! It's coming to an end, but keep your eye out for the epilogue which is coming up soon :) I love you all!