Sounds of mayhem penetrated the fog clouding Sansa’s mind and reluctantly she stirred. It had taken until the early hours of the morning before she had been able to finally calm her racing heart and fall asleep. That torpor had nonetheless been only a crude mockery of sleep and had not granted her proper rest.
She came to slowly, sensing novel pains and aches all over her body. The feeling of being deeply invaded still prevailed, although it didn’t hurt any more. When she examined her thighs she could see a string of bruises that were starting to change colour from sharp red to vibrant blues and purples. She traced her fingers across one visible line, knowing it to signify where the Hound’s hard hipbones had pressed against her soft flesh. The imprint of heavy chains was also clearly visible where he had rested his hand. Somehow seeing the physical proof of the previous night’s deeds made it all the more tangible and Sansa blushed at the vulgarity of it.
Yet strangely she had no regrets. The whole incident had felt almost like it was as it was supposed to be - ever since she had first noticed his gaze on her a long time ago and heard his sharp words about wanting a song from her someday, whether she willed it or not. Ever since she had started to dream about a man with the Hound’s countenance, his behaviour softened by her imagination.
Sansa lay on her bed a while longer, listening to noises that abated and intensified as morning went by. Suddenly she felt ashamed of her selfish thoughts; here she was focussing on herself when the man who was larger than life, an unstoppable force on his own, was about to die at any moment. Was that what the voices were for?
She didn’t want to go outside and see his end. Still, as time dragged on and the girl who usually came around in the mornings to see to her hadn’t arrived, she started to get anxious. What is going on?
Sansa opened the door and warily peeked outside. To her relief the girl was just approaching and she gestured at her to hurry up.
“What is happening? What are the noises? Has the Hound…” she found no words to finish the sentence.
“Oh, you haven’t heard, m’lady? He has escaped! Pulled out the prisoner’s pole and disappeared into the night, just like that!” The girl was nervous and spoke breathlessly, her eyes darting outside as if expecting the escapee to emerge any moment to take his revenge on those who had dared to detain him.
Sansa’s heart lurched and all blood escaped from her face. “Escaped? But…how could that be? I was told nobody has ever broken free from those shackles; that nobody can.”
“That has never before happened, not even when there have been three or four men fettered by that pole. Nobody knows how he did it. It would have taken an aurochs to pull it out of the ground, the men say.” The girl was babbling on, exposing her nervousness. Despite her worried tone Sansa could see that she was also excited; this was a tale to tell for a long time still, and she had been right in the middle of it and seen with her own eyes the man who had achieved the impossible.
Sansa remembered her fleeting thoughts about the strength the Hound had radiated when he had covered her body with his. And despite all the force he possessed, he had contained himself when he had touched her. Why? He hadn’t had anything to fear or expect from her. She didn’t fool herself; it might have gone much worse for her, being a maiden taken by a man of his size – everything in the Hound had been so big … She felt a deep flush suffusing her cheeks. Sandor. I have lain with the man, surely I can think of him by his name.
She was glad, she was relieved. He lives. He had crept away in the dead of night, once more gone out of her life as if he had never re-entered it. Fleetingly she wondered why he hadn’t come to take her with him. He had offered it once. And I turned him down. Why would he make the same mistake again?
Later that day Timett came to see her. He was agitated and still bristling from the affront, although in reality the Hound’s escape didn’t really matter for him. Except…
“What did you two talk of last night? What did he tell you?” His question was direct but not accusing or unkind.
“Nothing much. He said he was coming from the Quiet Isle and was on his way to find employment. He had had no contact with the Lannisters or anyone from the South for a long time, I understand.” Sansa had nothing to hide about their discussion – if she left the part about Arya out that was neither here nor there; Timett wouldn’t care about that. Then she remembered something and could feel blood draining from her face.
“He said he was going to offer his services to Lord Baelish at the Vale.”
Timett looked at her sharply. “Littlefinger? That is bad news. He will of course tell about your presence here and the soldiers of the Vale will be sent to pluck you out.” He started walking, stroking his beard deep in thought.
“Not necessarily…I mean, he may not tell him that he saw me,” Sansa muttered. Although she knew it made perfect sense for Sandor to strike a bargain with the information, a small part of her couldn’t believe he would do that. He knew she didn’t want to be found, surely he did?
It was obvious Timett harboured no such doubts. “He would be a fool not to. He may be a brute and a beast but he’s no dullard.” His mouth pressed into thin line. ”You have to leave, as soon as possible. He has no supplies and may be slow in his travels, so we’ll have some days to prepare. I will send for the merchants and organise the escort and they can take you away from here.”
“What about you and the people in the village?” Sansa hated the idea of innocents having to suffer for her sake. Timett turned to her, a grim smile on his face.
“Vale soldiers don’t care to die for a prize that is not to be found. We’ll kill a few of them, tell the others that their bird has flown the nest and send the rest packing where they came from. Baelish is no fool either, he will not waste his efforts on us.”
Sansa’s head spun; it was all happening too fast. Yet she knew she had no choice, no matter how much she wanted to trust the Hound. Sandor.
It took several days to organise everything but finally the small team hastily assembled was ready to leave. Sansa looked around the little hut that had been her home for these past few weeks. This episode, too, would eventually shrink into just one of many in her life, from one woe to another. Except here, high in the Mountains of the Moon, she had lost her maidenhead. A woman could never forget that experience, her first. She knew she wouldn’t.
The more she pondered her position the better she felt. Yes, she was now Tyrion Lannister’s wife in the eyes of the men and the gods – but nobody knew her lord husband’s whereabouts. Maybe he was dead already? Sansa winced. She had never had anything against Tyrion’s person, only his house, and if he was truly dead she felt sorry for him. Nonetheless, it would make her a widow and a member of not one but two of the most powerful houses in Westeros. Maybe it meant nothing, maybe it did – in the game of thrones one never knew what the next turn of events brought. Lord Tywin was dead, Jaime Lannister had disappeared and was a member of the Kingsguard in any case. She chuckled quietly. Maybe instead of the Lannisters gaining Winterfell through her as they had intended, one day she might gain Casterly Rock? How ironic.
Yet even if no word came about Tyrion’s fate, she would be a married woman and not a maiden to be bent to the will of others. The enmity between their houses was widely known and nobody would expect her to yield to the wishes of her lord husband’s kin. Wives and widows held eminently much more power than unmarried girls and best of all, she couldn’t be wedded against her will. Maybe she could finally start living her life as a woman of substance instead of a pawn for others to squabble over?
Maybe Sandor had been right all along – maybe he had done her a favour?
Feeling stronger and better already, Sansa headed towards the caravan ready to embark. Its leader was a young man from Timett’s village, Toki was his name, and he was a man Sansa had personally selected. Not that anybody knew about it.
She had seen him watching her as she moved about. Not disrespectfully but carrying in his eyes a message she had learned long ago to decipher; that of a man who desired a woman. She had discreetly assessed him and concluded that he would do; he was young and strong with the typical appearance of the clansmen with his long, dark hair, broad face, brown eyes and shaggy beard. From her observations she concluded that he was not prone to cruelty or anger and considered his actions carefully rather than succumbing to spur of the moment decisions.
Sansa wasn’t proud of herself for resorting to cool calculation about which man might best serve her purposes, but she had no desire to be left behind at the Neck to make her way with the merchants alone for the rest of the journey.
There were three traders, each with their own wagon and selling different types of wares, who had banded together for strength. She didn’t like the look of any of them; none of them were the jolly, fat storekeepers she was used to seeing in Winterfell or King’s Landing. No, these men were a breed of their own, all wiry creatures with hard faces and narrow eyes, shrewdly assessing everything and everyone around them. They behaved well enough when Timett or his men were around, but Sansa didn’t like her chances if she was left on her own in their company. Sandor’s words came back to her ‘You’d better choose the meanest and biggest bastard in the group and twirl him around your finger’, and to her horror she actually appraised the traders with that in mind. To her disappointment these men didn’t seem the sort who could be easily lured by feminine charms. No, she needed a different type of escort to see her all the way to Winterfell. If she could ask someone like Toki to take her there, he just might acquiesce to her wishes…
Sansa knew that even considering these things would have horrified her mother and septa, but she pushed that out of her mind. She had learned by now that everyone needed to use the weapons they had at their disposal. Had she been a strapping soldier with skill in battle or strength in her arms, she would resort to them. Had she carried lots of gold with her, she would purchase her safe passage. She had neither and so she had to get by with what she had; her beauty and her wit.
Timett had intended to appoint one of his seasoned warriors to lead the group but Sansa knew that her attempts to appeal to that uncouth, hard man would have been wasted. She didn’t say anything to Timett though, but as she knew Toki’s mother, who happened to be Timett’s great-aunt, and often saw her around the cooking fires, she figured her best chances to influence him were to be found in that direction. Women among the Burned Men were known to have much to say about the way things were run, despite seemingly adhering to their traditional roles as daughters, wives and mothers like elsewhere in Westeros.
“Your son is rather old for not having led a raid or a party of men, isn’t he? He looks strong and capable though, so I wonder why it is so?” she innocently asked the older woman. She looked at her sharply.
“My son is as capable as he looks, and ready for any task.” Motherly pride was clear in the older woman’s voice.
“Oh, then I am surprised that he is not even being considered for leading the merchants across the mountains. It is a good task, sure to lead to hefty rewards, offering an opportunity to see what else there is and it would make him ready for bigger responsibilities.” Sansa stirred the pot of vegetables and grain, pretending that was all that she was interested in. Toki’s mother snorted and didn’t continue the discussion but Sansa knew that the seed had been planted.
And lo and behold, later that evening Timett announced his decision to give the leadership to Toki as a chance to prove himself. Everyone agreed and Sansa pretended to be surprised.
Despite what had taken place between her and Sandor; that odd dance of dominance, acquiescence, demanding and giving on both sides and the finality of their departing, Sansa half-expected to see him back in those early days after his escape. Every sound or a broken twig on the ground outside her hut or wind whistling in trees saw her alert, straining her ears and eyes for signs of his presence. Why it should be so when it made no sense, she couldn’t say. He owed her nothing and he could gain nothing from helping her. He was not welcome in the North, Sansa knew, and she had no money or power to grant him favours. All she had was her body and that he had had already.
He didn’t come back.
As their small procession trekked along the mountain paths, over the craggy hills and through lush valleys, stern determination took over Sansa and surety of purpose filled her. For the first time in a long while she felt good about herself and about her future. She looked to the North, glimpsing the vast lands ahead of them every now and then when they reached a high peak, and breathed the crisp mountain air into her lungs. She felt alive, she felt strong. Initially she didn’t dwell too much on what had made the difference; what had changed her from an indecisive young woman vacillating between her desire for the safety in the Vale, as hollow as it was, and her wish to return home to Winterfell. Then one day it hit her. This is all because of him.
Sansa’s initial intention when visiting Sandor had been to free herself of the image of the kinder Hound she had made up in her mind and quash the last bastion of girlish dreams she could poorly afford. That image had dissolved exactly as she had intended when she had seen him as he truly was; a man of flesh and blood, crude, hard and cynical. Yet she hadn’t been afraid of him and faced him with a boldness that had surprised her.
She realised then that his image was now replaced by something much more vivid, something she couldn’t shake out of her head. Behind the storm of his grey eyes she had seen glimpses of a human being with fears, hopes and disappointments just like her own. The hardness of his body against hers had overwhelmed her but had also felt solid and real, and their embrace had been the closest she had been to another person for longer than she cared to remember. That her own body had responded to him the way it had disconcerted her but also made her strangely proud. Not a frightened little bird any more. He had shown her that.
He had also given her advice, harsh, crude but pragmatic. Nobody else would have told her those things so honestly and openly. No, any other man could have asked her to put her faith in him – not that she had believed him at the time, although his subsequent escape had proven her wrong. Any other man could have advised her to ask for help, to plead for another man to provide her with his protection – only Sandor had told her to use her own skills and make men to do her bidding. He had been the only person who had believed that she could do it on her own.
More so, he had made her Lady Lannister, irreversibly. Of Littlefinger’s many schemes, annulment of her marriage had been the only one Sansa had actively desired, simply wanting to erase the taint of association with the hated people who had killed her kin. Now that the deed was done she however understood the benefits it afforded for her and her position. Never a helpless maiden again, a pawn for others.
And gods forbid, if she had to use more than her beauty and her charms to get a man to do as she desired – a fate she wanted to avoid as far as possible, but the pragmatic side of her mind told her that it might not be achievable – she preferred that her first experience had been with the man who had loomed large in her life for a long time already. Rather him than some stranger, a means to a purpose.
Suddenly Sansa was assailed by the memory of how gentle he had been when he had swept her hair away from her face, and the clumsy way he had tried to make her position more comfortable. She remembered his restraint in taking her when he could have cared naught for how she felt. The softness of his touch as he wiped blood from her thighs and awkwardly pulled her skirts to cover her modesty. No, it hadn’t been as she sometimes might have imagined losing her maidenhead, in the arms of her noble and knightly lordly husband. Yet with a clarity of mind she understood that Sandor was more noble and knightly in his own way than any of the husbandly candidates she had been linked with.
So it was that Sansa accepted the realisation that she was alone, and it was up to her to make her own luck. No knight in shining armour would come to rescue her. She was the one who had to make sure that she got to Winterfell safely. She had to convince her father’s bannermen to lend her their forces. She had to choose who to trust and who not, and listen to the advice from the former and ignore the latter.
Sansa shivered and wrapped her cloak around her, following their small procession with her gaze as it trundled forward: three wagons drawn by sturdy wagon horses, with three drivers and three servants, six men of the mountains on their horses and three pack-ponies carrying their provisions. And the last remaining hope of House Stark, the blood of the line of Kings and Wardens in the North extending back 8,000 years running hot in her veins.
She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. I am ready.