Sandor’s chains clanked as he changed his position, heavy iron manacles pressing hard against his wrists. He cursed darkly and wished he could have done something to alleviate the suffocating feeling of being trapped, but it didn’t matter which way he tried to position himself, the drag of weighty shackles couldn’t be shifted.
The opening of the tent was pushed aside and two people stepped in. Sandor stayed sitting on a lumpy pallet, eyeing the newcomers suspiciously. Had his jailor changed his mind and decided to interrogate him already this evening?
“Here he is. He is chained to the pole so as long as you stay out of his reach, you’ll be fine. You wanting me to stay here just the same to keep an eye on him?”
It was one of the men who had brought him into this confinement.
“Thank you, that is not necessary, I’ll be careful. You can go.”
Bloody hells! The voice was familiar, and when the guard left and the other figure turned towards him and lifted her hood, even before seeing her face he knew who she was. The dark hair confused him at first but there was no mistake; it was her. The Northern girl. Sansa Stark.
She looked older, of course. Not a girl anymore but a young woman. Her face had lost some of the roundness of youth and her eyes…they were not frightened or shrouded in sadness, but gave him a hard look, straight in the face.
“Little bird. So this is where you have been hiding, when the whole bloody kingdom thought you turned into a wolf and ran away to the woods of Winterfell?” he rasped, trying to hide his surprise. “The Imp here too? Mayhap you should invite him here as well so we can sit down and recall the good old days in King’s Landing!”
The girl looked at him, slightly taken aback, then shook her head. “No, Tyrion is not here. And there were no good old days in King’s Landing.”
She moved closer, glancing at the bindings meant to keep him secured. Her cloak opened at the front and he saw the womanly curves of her body, covered by a simple woollen dress. All of a sudden he became aware of how it had been a long time since he last had a woman. There were none at the Quiet Isle, and even before that his travels hadn’t often taken him past a whorehouse. He had gotten used to it, of course, but every now and then he had been disturbed by unsettling dreams, full of images of naked women and him pinning them down, boring into their wetness. Waking up he had taken himself in hand and the groans of his release had echoed around his lonely cell.
When Sandor thought about it, he realised he hadn’t even been in the presence of a woman for a long time. Not this close.
He must have stared at her too openly as the girl pulled the cloak tighter around her and sat on one of the other pallets, too far for him to reach should he attempt to do so.
“And here you are. Not a wolf but a woman grown.”
“And you are not dead, as they say.”
They stared at each other, then Sandor spat on the earthen floor.
“The seven devils are not in a hurry with me, they are certain they will get me one day. Mayhap tomorrow.” He eyed her from the top of her head to her small feet, trying to assess whether she was still a bloody lady or had become a member of one of the mountain clans. “This where you have hidden, all this time?”
“No, I was in the Vale. I was intercepted on my way to the Quiet Isle only a week ago.”
At that Sandor couldn’t help himself. He threw his head back and roared with laughter, the irony of the situation not escaping him. The girl looked at him as if he had suddenly sprouted horns.
“What is so funny about that?” There was a hint of indignation in her voice.
“Gods, woman! You were on your way from the Vale to the Quiet Isle, and I was on my way from the Quiet Isle to the Vale. Yet we both find ourselves here.” Obviously she didn’t share his amusement as she only pursed her lips tighter and stared at him.
“What were you doing at the Quiet Isle?”
“What were you doing in the Vale? Keeping Littlefinger’s bed warm? Good for him; after pining after your mother all those years he finally got the second best thing, didn’t he now?”
Her anger rose rapidly, red spots burning on her cheeks. “I asked you first. Besides, you are not in a position to ask me anything. What I have done or not done is not your business!”
“Why should I tell you anything? Will you let me go if I tell, is that the way?”
The girl blushed – Sansa, her name is Sansa. “I don’t have that kind of authority. I would still like to ask you some questions, if I may. Please, do you know what is happening in King’s Landing? Or Winterfell? Petyr didn’t tell me everything, I am sure, and I need to know.”
Sandor snorted. So she still stubbornly held on to her good manners, chirping ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’. Much good they had done for her, whisked from being Joffrey’s punching bag to becoming Littlefinger’s whore. Of course she had been Tyrion’s wife first, learning to please men with that little fucker. As for Littlefinger, he had always been discreet and hadn’t openly fooled around with his girls, but a cautious man like him surely tested his wares. For a moment Sandor wondered what kind of twisted tastes a man like that would have, and if anything would be left of the innocent girl he had first seen at Winterfell all those years ago.
“Petyr, is it? Just as I suspected. Still, why should I be the one to tell you the news if your lover saw fit not to?” For some reason it irritated him to be interrogated by her, of all people. Indeed, if she couldn’t release him from this quandary, she could go and fuck herself. Or that one-eyed monster.
Suddenly Sandor had a thought. His stomach was already grumbling, he not having eaten the whole day. From what his jailors had said it didn’t look likely that any food would be wasted on a dog.
“Mayhap I have some news that could interest you. Whose arse sits on the Iron Throne, who circles around it trying to heave said arse out of there. Your sister, that little wolf-bitch, I might know something about her too.” He saw Sansa swallowing his bait, hook line and sinker. Her face flushed and she leaned towards him, keenly.
“Arya? You know something about Arya? Please tell me!”
Sandor took his time, enjoying her eagerness.
“If I do, what shall I get in return? You are sure you can’t charm them into releasing me? A woman who has gone through what you have must know how to turn a man’s head.” Again a hurt expression crossed her face, but she straightened herself and answered rigidly.
“I already told you that I have no such powers.”
“What about food, can you get me that? Also wine – the stronger the better. In exchange, I’ll tell you all you want to know.”
Sansa nodded and hopped onto her feet, leaving the tent in a hurry. Sandor heard a muted discussion between her and the guard and soon she returned, sitting on the same pallet as before.
“They will bring some food soon. In the meantime, what can you tell me?”
“Food and wine first, then I shall sing to you. I am not stupid, I know how these bargains work. Mayhap you could sing for me while we wait? I never got my song, you know.”
She watched him with a strange expression but didn’t reply. Sandor shrugged his shoulders. It was clearly not as easy to intimidate her as it used to be. Hells, she was still staring straight at him and it started to bother him.
They sat in silence until the guard returned, carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle and two skins of wine. Sansa took the food and one of the skins, and from the way the guard held on to the other skin it was obvious that he planned to keep it. Sansa had none of it and reached for it and reluctantly the guard handed it to her. Clever girl!
Soon Sandor was eating bread, cheese and cold meat, greedily pouring wine down his throat. It was strong and burned like hell, especially since he hadn’t drunk anything but watered wine and ale since arriving at the Quiet Isle. Sansa observed him from across the tent, seemingly resigned to wait until he had had his fill. On impulse Sandor offered the wineskin to her.
“Care for a drink? Keeps you warm.” He didn’t truly expect her to accept his offer, but to his surprise she nodded, got up and took the skin from his hand. She took a few mouthfuls and the way her face twisted revealed that she was not a seasoned drinker.
“As soon as you are ready, maybe it is time for you to fulfil your side of our bargain,” she said, sitting next to him on the pallet, showing no signs of fear.
Earlier that day
Sandor was thrown roughly to the ground, landing on his knees. Hands tied behind his back, he couldn’t balance himself and fell on his face in the mud. The laugh it elicited from the onlookers did nothing to improve his mood but doggedly he shuffled onto his haunches, spitting silt from between his teeth. The dirt tasted like failure, like humiliation.
He threw a murderous look around him and saw an assorted group of mountain men in a little square among low wooden buildings and animal-skin covered tents. More rushed to the site, attracted by the laughter, and among them he saw women and children, youths and old men. This was clearly not just a temporary camp but a bigger settlement, mayhap even the main village of whatever godsforsaken clan had captured him.
He cursed again, loud and clear; at his current predicament, at his own stupidity for letting his guard down, at whoresons who had come to rob him of his new life before it had even begun. Bitterness engulfed him and he felt bile rising in this throat.
The group that had captured him pointed at him proudly, the boldest of them coming close enough to kick him in the ribs. Sandor tensed the muscles in his stomach and as the man’s foot connected he threw his whole body towards him. This caught the man off guard and knocked him down, Sandor landing heavily on top. Unable to use his hands he butted the man in the face with his head and heard his shrieks of agony and a crunch as his nose broke. That sound and the sight of blood exhilarated him and he wanted to hit the man again and again, until he was nothing but a bloody pulp. However, three others jumped in and quickly subdued him, bound and trussed as he was. Yet Sandor was satisfied; he had shown them that he was not going down without a fight.
The two ropes attached to his neck and wrists were pulled and again he stumbled forward, but maintained his balance and stayed upright on his knees.
“What do we have here – a bear? Isn’t it too early for starved and raging bears to come out of their hibernation?” Everyone in the square, Sandor included, turned to look at the tall man who had spoken. He had emerged from the big building in front of which they had stopped, and walked towards them.
The man looked fierce with long, shaggy hair and an impressive frame – yet it was the dark hole where his eye should have been that revealed his identity. Sandor cursed again, realising that his chances of getting out of this situation alive – however weak they already were – had just taken a nosedive.
“Timett son of Timett! What the fuck are you doing here?!” he growled, determined not to show any weakness in front of him.
“Do I know you?” The man frowned, took a closer look and seeing Sandor’s unmistakable scars he shook his head and laughed. “The Hound! Welcome amongst the Burned Men – you should feel right at home here!”
The others took their cue from their leader and chuckled and sniggered, pointing their fingers at Sandor’s face. Some looked at him with widened eyes and in some faces he could see something he had rarely before seen; respect. He spat on the ground and turned his attention back to their leader. Nobody had called him by his old name for a long time, and hearing it reminded him of who he really was.
He remembered Timett from King’s Landing; one of the Imp’s enforcers. They had loathed each other on sight - if nothing else, for their competing affiliations. Sandor had still been Joffrey’s dog and Tyrion and Joffrey had not exactly seen eye to eye at the time. Besides, he was galled that someone could deliberately burn themselves for the sake of – why the fuck did they even do it? Seeing their scars grated on him, and he hated their burns almost as much as he hated his own.
His captors told Timett how they had come up with their catch, and he nodded.
“Well done, men. Who knows what this dog has in mind, wandering this far away from King’s Landing. Mayhap spying, mayhap planning some mischief. I’ll find out about that – on the morrow.” He threw a look at the still-kneeling Sandor and shouted to the men standing nearby. “Take him away and put him in chains. Make sure he can’t escape.”
At that he turned around and started to walk away, yet shouted across his shoulder, “He needs no feeding, the dog can go hungry tonight.”
The spectators started to withdraw, having concluded that the excitement was over for the time being. As Sandor was being yanked up to his feet he saw from the corner of his eye a slender figure some twenty paces away and something about her caught his eye. She was a woman, that much was clear from her slender form and the long, dark hair tumbling from under the hood covering her head.
He couldn’t see her face but something in the way she moved, turning around and walking back to one of the tents, looked familiar. It didn’t make any sense; how could he have ever met some girl from the mountain clans?
Another tug of the rope demanded his attention and after another string of well-chosen profanities he had no other choice than to follow the men pulling it. Sandor was dragged to a tent set a small distance away from the other lodgings and unceremoniously shoved in. Inside it was sparse, only a fire pit in the middle, two rough pallets with animal skins and tattered woven covers and pillows thrown on them – and a pole.
It was a high wooden post stuck deep into the earth, cut in half lengthwise and the halves combined again with three wide iron rings. Thick, partially-rusted iron chains had been looped through the halves, one chain below each ring. The purpose of the three chains became soon obvious when his jailors lifted heavy manacles attached to both ends of the lowest chain from the floor and clasped them on his wrists. They were locked with a large key and the ropes still attached to him removed.
Once again he was pushed to the floor before his escorts left, laughing as they exited the tent. “Good night, Hound. You can rattle your chains as much as you want now, they’ll hold you.”
Finally alone, Sandor grunted and shifted into a better position. He evaluated his situation and saw that they had spoken true; the pole and the shackles were unbreakable. His chains were just long enough to allow him to move a few paces around the pole, reach one of the pallets to lie on it, and be close enough to the fire pit to benefit from the heat it radiated. It was spring, after a winter that to everyone’s relief had been short and mild, but the nights were still cold and to his surprise the fire in the pit had been lit.
Then he heard rustling outside the tent and the flap was pushed aside.