On Sandor Clegane's twenty eighth nameday, Winterfell was humming with activity as the Stark family made the final preparations for the celebration feast planned later that evening.
As usual, starting weeks before his nameday, he growled and barked to Lord Eddard, Lady Catelyn and anyone else who would listen that it was nothing to celebrate, but as with every year, the preparations continued without regard to his wishes. In truth, the day haunted Sandor Clegane, for it not only marked the day of his birth but also commemorated his arrival at Winterfell.
At dawn he eagerly rode out to the highlands, the young man preferring the quiet peacefulness of the sweet clover meadows to the raucous goings on inside the castle. It was a tradition of sorts, for Sandor to spend time in the alpine pastures north of the castle on his nameday. After sending his fierce warhorse Stranger out to pasture, Sandor lay back in the tall prairie grass. Watching the clouds swirl in the sky above him, he thought back on the day King Robert personally gave him as ward to Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell.
The trip north was arduous, especially for a boy of seven and grievously injured. After he was burned by Gregor, King Robert insisted the Lannisters punish his sadistic brother, but the queen would not consent, and instead her father took him into service as a squire.
His mother, gods rest her soul, feared for his life and begged his father to send him away into the service of another noble house. Presumably to keep their favorite pet to themselves, they gave Gregor Clegane Keep and granted his father a small keep outside Wintertown known as Winterfrost Keep. Soon he was put into the service of House Stark as kennelmaster, where Sandor worked alongside him.
Sandor had never felt as relieved as he did the day they finally arrived at Winterfell's granite walls, but that feeling faded soon enough. Most of the smallfolk in Wintertown and Winterfell alike feared his appearance, made even more intimidating as time when on. Sandor developed both height and a heavily muscled frame, and by the time he reached his fifteenth nameday, he was a head taller than Lord Eddard.
Over the years Lord Eddard brought maesters from each of the Seven Kingdoms to treat his burns, and even consulted several Free folk healers, but despite the ointments and salves, the left side of his face healed into a twisted mass of gnarled flesh.
At twenty eight, he had no wife or lands, and no hope for them, either. At times it seemed everyone feared him except the little bird, Sansa Stark.
He gave her the nickname as a babe, for her red hair and pale skin gave her the appearance of the little snow birds that flitted outside his bedroom window every morning. She was such a tiny and delicate creature, he could not help but stare at her at every opportunity.
Both Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard noticed he was fascinated with her and many times tried to get him to hold her, but Sandor always declined, afraid he would accidentally hurt her.
One day Lady Catelyn plopped Sansa down into his lap and said flatly, "Just go on and hold her. She loves to be held. Treat her as you would one of the pups and you'll do fine."
Startled, Sandor stared into her beautiful eyes and offered her his finger, waiting for her to begin wailing in fear. Instead, she quickly took hold and crammed it into her mouth with a shy smile. That day was the happiest he had known since before he was injured, and though Sandor tried to hide it, it forever secured her as his favorite among Lord Stark's children.
As she grew, Sansa often gave him that same sweet look, seeking him out at every opportunity. While the rest of the children shied away from him, the young girl seemed genuinely unaffected by his scarring as she grew into womanhood.
During the past year, the little bird blossomed into a startlingly beautiful young woman. Walking about the castle, she moved with a delicate grace that drew the attention of old and young men alike while her body took on the curves of womanhood that even thick woolen gowns could not conceal.
Her beauty called to him, as did her sweet nature, and Sandor found her shy smiles now sent a wave of lust coursing through his veins, making him feel like the worst whoreson imaginable. She was not meant for the likes of him, he knew, and her father had already been entertaining offers of marriage for her.
One day soon she was expected to announce her choice, and Sandor expected on that day he would become the most miserable man alive. So, day after day he made himself scarce around the castle, taking solace in tending the dogs, training in the yard, and drinking himself every night into a stupor at the wine sinks in Wintertown.
For a time his plan worked well enough, but three moons past, matters took a turn for the worse. Growing up, Lord Eddard trained him in the arts of war alongside Jory Cassel and Smalljon Umber, and Sandor had quickly become one of the fiercest fighters in service of House Stark.
When Lord Eddard called him into his solar, Sandor was certain he would be appointed as one of his men at arms, but such was not to be; in fact, Lord Eddard had a far more dangerous assignment for him.
"You have noticed how my wee daughter Sansa has grown, Clegane?" Lord Eddard grinned at him, gesturing him to sit down.
"A proper lady she is now, my lord." And honey sweet, he added silently.
"That she is. Have you seen the way the men now look at her?"
Sandor did notice and he did not like it one wit. "Aye, I'd be blind to miss it."
"Let us speak plainly," Ned stared him in the eye. "I need a man I trust implicitly to look after her, keep her safe. You have watched her grow and treated her with respect, and you are the only man with whom I would entrust such a task. Protect her, watch over her and keep her safe, both in the castle and outside its walls. Will you do it?"
"I serve at your pleasure, my lord." Sandor bowed low, his heart pounding wildly in his chest.
"Swear it," Ned laid out a Stark banner beside Ice on the weirwood desk before him.
Sandor had never sworn anything before but he readily bowed low. Kneeling before Lord Eddard, Sandor raised the Valyrian sword and lightly ran his palm over the blade, slicing a shallow cut into his calloused flesh.
"I shall never fail you, Lord Stark, my sword and arrows are yours to command. I swear it on iron and steel, ice and fire." Then he wiped his blood on the banner, folded it and handed it back to Ned.
Smiling, he gestured for Sandor to rise. "I offer you lordship, Clegane, as reward for your loyalty."
Gritting his teeth, Sandor nodded curtly. "I want no titles, my lord."
"Still, Winterfrost Keep is yours to inherit. Would you like that?"
Though pleased, he merely shrugged. "Thank you, my lord."
Ned patted his shoulder. "That eases my mind greatly. You will start tomorrow."
From that day on, Sandor spent his days escorting the little bird around the castle to her lessons and occasionally Wintertown. She always chattered to him about knights and maidens, and sang him songs that he secretly enjoyed. He was careful to never reveal his growing feelings for her; iIt both annoyed and frustrated him, for being in such close proximity to her only increased his desire for her. If Sandor was honest with himself, his feelings had moved beyond mere lust and it scared him like nothing had before.
If not for being given the day off for his nameday, Sandor would be following her around at that very moment.
"Sandor, there you are!" Sansa chirped as Robb lifted her out of the wagon. After picking a nearby flower, she came bounding up to him.
"Bloody hells, girl, what are you doing out here? You're supposed to be planning my feast, remember?"
"It was meant to be a surprise!" Sansa pouted, twirling the wildflower in between her slender fingers. "Actually, we were sent out here to keep you busy."
"I don't need a passel of brats to entertain me, believe that," he snarled, glaring at the Greyjoy boy. Sandor never trusted that one and it galled him to see his little bird escorted by the slippery youth. Her brother Robb shifted uneasily under Sandor's intense gaze.
"We'll stay out of your way, dog," Theon called. "We are going to race that hill over there while Sansa picks flowers for your cake."
"I don't want any buggering cake!" Sandor shouted, scaring the horses.
"Oh, Sandor, you will like this one, I promise," Sansa purred, her sweet demeanor instantly making him regret his harsh tone. "I made it especially for you. It is lemoncake, extra sour, just the way you like it."
"Hmph," he grunted, standing up to brush off his breeches.
"Please, do not trouble yourself for my sake, I beg. I will be right over here. Go on with your nap." Sansa gave him another one of her sweet smiles, making him groan inwardly.
"Stay close to me," Sandor barked roughly.
As she moved through the colorful wildflowers, Sandor found himself staring at her. The afternoon sun set her crimson hair ablaze and her alabaster skin glowed pink from exertion.
"What is it?" Sansa asked quietly, the young woman self-consciously smoothing down the front of her gown. When he remained silent, her blue eyes stared directly into his own, and a soft smile played upon her full lips as she regarded him curiously.
Swallowing hard, Sandor's words stuck in his throat until the shouts of the two young men startled him out of his stupor.
Thundering hooves vibrated the ground beneath him, and all at once Sandor was on his feet, lifting Sansa into his arms as he jumped out of the way of the runaway cart.
The little bird lay underneath him, her eyes wide with fright. Immediately he rolled off of her, but Sansa clung to his tunic, holding Sandor firmly in place. "You're alright now, little bird, you're alright."
Trembling beneath him, she whispered, "The horses-Sandor, you could have been killed! You saved my life without a thought to your own!"
"Sansa! Clegane! Are you both alright?" Robb and Theon ran up to them, both men visibly shaken.
"You could have killed us both, you buggering fools!" Sandor shouted angrily, lifting Sansa in his arms as he rose to his feet. "How many times has your father told you not to run those animals hitched to the wagon? You take that team and go back to the castle at once before I skin you both alive."
"What about Sansa?" Robb quietly asked, keeping his eyes averted.
"I'll get her back, never you mind. Now get out of my sight, the both of you!"
The sound of the wagon wheels faded into the distance as Sandor settled her on a fallen log. "Are you alright, little bird?"
"Yes, I think so," Sansa touched her hand to her forehead. "Oh, I am bleeding!"
Sandor retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket and gently dabbed the wound. "Tis but a small scratch, lass."
Reaching up to his face, Sansa cupped his burned cheek in her hand. "Thank you, Sandor, for saving me." With that she tentatively brushed her lips against his own.
"Shh, it's alright," she murmured, leaning closer. Lightly she flicked her tongue over his lips, and Sandor eagerly opened his mouth to her. At some point during her maidenly explorations, Sandor laid her down among the wildflowers and leaned on his elbow beside her.
Beneath him, Sansa was soft curves and tender caresses, her small hands tracing the musculature of his back as he kissed her. Slowly he traced his finger over her cheek, down the slope of her neck and around the curve of her breast. Arching into his touch, she whimpered and sighed contentedly. Breathing heavily, Sandor finally managed to tear himself away from her, the man realizing what little control he had left was quickly wavering.
Staring dazedly at him, Sansa's breath came in short gasps, her cheeks flushed pink with desire and her luscious mouth swollen and deliciously red. "What is wrong?"
"Sansa," he rasped deeply, wanting nothing more than to kiss every inch of her. "We needs head back now, before I do something stupid."
"Like fuck you right here in this meadow," Sandor growled, the man suddenly angry. He was fool to even start this with her, and now that Sandor had a taste of her, he knew he would never be able to stand by and watch his little bird become a high lord's get.
Rubbing his hands over his face, Sandor cursed under his breath until the feel of her soft hand pulled him out of his thoughts.
"Sandor," Sansa whispered. "Would it be so foolish for me to give myself to you?"
"Sansa, don't fucking play games with me. You know your father would never allow me to wed you."
"Is that what you want?" Sansa quietly asked. "Do you want to take me to wife?"
"What bloody fool wouldn't?" Sandor laughed, the sound empty and mirthless.
Taking his face in her hands, Sansa smiled at him shyly, just as she always did. "Then I will tell Father I have made my choice."
"Who have you chosen?" He choked the question out, the young man both hoping for and yet fearing her response.
"I choose you."
He stared deep into her eyes, searching for deception, but Sandor found only affection and a deeper, warmer sentiment he could not name. "You want me?" Sandor asked incredulously. "Think on it, now. You aren't just doing this out of some bloody sense of gratitude?"
"No, I have cared for you for some time," Sansa's face took on an air of determination. "That is why I did not choose from the suitors Father brought to the castle. I want you and no other."
"Your Father will never allow it. The northern lords will never allow it."
"You are as much of the north as any of them. They are bound to abide by my choice, it is our custom," Sansa kissed him lightly on each cheek. "You will be mine."
Scowling, he held her hands still. "Little bird-"
Placing her fingers on his lips, Sansa shook her head. "You have always been good to me, far better than any other man, and you keep me safe. Father entrusted me to you, why should he not agree to this union?"
Speechless, Sandor shook his head. "It will never be, lass."
"Do you love me?" Sansa pointedly asked, taking him by surprise.
Love her? He wasn't certain he knew what love was, but this feeling he had for her was far deeper than Sandor had ever known. A hound will die for you and never lie to you, he once told her, and that was as near to love as anything in his mind. "Aye," he finally admitted, averting his eyes.
"And I love you. That is all that matters. Come, we will speak to Father and Mother, and then make the announcement at the feast."
After much debate, Lord Eddard did indeed stand behind Sansa's decision, and just as the little bird promised, that evening she made the announcement at his nameday feast. Later, by the light of the moon, they said their vows beneath the Heart tree, forever securing Sandor's nameday as his favorite day of the year.