Three days Sandor had lingered in Maidenpool, trying to find a ship that would take him and Stranger across the sea. None were to be found though – the same storms that prevented new ships from coming into the harbor also prevented the ones already there from leaving. Even the ferry ride across the Bay of Crabs had been rough and choppy and there were no signs of the weather improving.
He had nothing else to do but to go to the docks every morning to ask after ships, then spend the rest of the day trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The memory of the Saltpans was still too fresh in people’s minds for him to show his face openly, hence he avoided places where people gathered and when he couldn’t, he wore a cloak and hood over his features.
He drank, but sparingly. He could have wenched, but the experience with the woman at the inn a few days back was still bitter in his mind. Fuck, that has never happened before! Fleetingly Sandor wondered if the little bird had cursed him for taking her precious maidenhood. Northerners were known for their magic and who knew what powers the blood of Stark carried? Then he shook his head. If she had magical powers, certainly she would have used them for easing her own lot?
The wench had taken it well and gods be thanked had not dared to laugh. Again Sandor cursed. Not being able to get it up was a sting to his pride but curiously enough he didn’t mind that he hadn’t finished what he had started. He concluded that he would rather carry the memories of the little bird’s lithe body and intoxicating pull a bit longer. For surely, given time, he would get over her and find pleasure with other women again?
Pondering those sombre thoughts he hurried from the docks towards the disreputable inn he lodged in at the outskirts of the town, when he heard a shout behind him.
Sandor recognised the voice immediately and stopped on his tracks. What the fuck was the Elder Brother doing here? He turned slowly and saw the familiar figure hurrying after him. The old soldier’s step was still springy and he crossed the distance between them in no time.
“Brother Sandor, I am surprised to see you here. Were you not supposed to go to the Vale?” The man spoke in low voice, recognising as well as Sandor that his identity had better be kept under wraps.
“What are you doing here?” Sandor responded to his question with a query of his own.
“I am here to buy supplies and sell the products the brothers have made – you know I come here every now and then, don’t you?”
“Hmmh,” was all Sandor said. It made sense and yet he wondered why they’d run into each other just now.
They had parted on good terms, Sandor having gradually learned to respect the man whom he had initially wanted to strangle with his bare hands, when he had first regained his conscience. He had felt cheated out of death and abhorred the prospect of living the rest of his life as a cripple. Yet the old man had patched him up almost as good as new, and in the process also healed some of the deeper scars of his mind and helped him to find a measure of peace. Until the little bird stirred it up all over again, he thought gloomily.
“Share a drink with me and tell me what has transpired since you left us,” the Elder Brother smiled at him while his eyes, which missed nothing, took Sandor’s measure in that quiet way of his.
Sandor’s story was quickly told over a pint of cheap ale – although not fully. He revealed having met Lady Sansa Stark, most likely on her way to the North. Hearing that, the Elder Brother was quiet for a long time, scrutinising him sharply over his cup so that Sandor started to feel uncomfortable.
“Lady Sansa Stark, you say? The maid who has been searched for high and wide and nobody has been able to locate her?”
“Littlefinger kept her hidden in the Vale, disguised as his bastard daughter,” Sandor muttered while downing his drink, hoping for a change in topic. The other man obviously didn’t have any intention of doing that, as he continued.
“And you didn’t think she might need some help on her way? From what you say it seems that she is intending to return to her home, but alone, with no bannermen, soldiers or anyone helping her?”
“What of it? I never served her or her house, what is it to me?” Sandor didn’t want to talk about her – he had had enough of her invading his thoughts lately; no need to bring her into this discussion as well.
The Elder Brother fingered the rim of his cup as if deep in thought and after a while, raised his head.
“Did I ever tell you about those early days when you were delirious with fever and I sat by your bedside for days on end?”
Sandor would rather not have dwelled on those times but the other man had an expression he had learned to recognise to mean that he was going to say what he wanted regardless of Sandor’s protestations. It had been the same when the Elder Brother had wanted to talk to him about the rage that churned inside his head. Sandor had resisted for as long as he could, but finally he had given in, opened his soul and to his amazement, eventually found it cleansed by the Elder Brother’s persistent attentions.
Sandor sighed deeply. “You clearly have something you want to say, so come on, out with it.”
They were sitting in a cheap winesink in the seedy part of town in a room that was almost empty at that time of the day. Nonetheless, they spoke in hushed voices and the Elder Brother leaned towards Sandor across the table when he spoke.
“Sansa Stark. That was the name that spilled from your lips when you were lingering between life and death, when nothing but complete honesty in front of the gods guided you. Two names you said, over and over again, your brother’s and Sansa Stark’s, and her name many times more than Gregor’s.”
Sandor frowned. He had not been aware of any of this and he felt discomfited by the revelation. Yes, he had thought of her when he had waited for the little wolf-bitch to give him the gift of mercy, but afterwards…? He snorted.
“Ramblings of a dying man, they mean nothing! I am sure I spewed out much and worse.”
“I think you know better than that.” The Elder Brother leaned back and said nothing further, but it was what he left unsaid that irritated Sandor the most. He hated being forced to face the same battle again, whether to go to the girl or not. He had thought he was done with it.
“We didn’t exactly part on friendly terms,” he eventually grunted. “Don’t think she’d like to have me coming to help her.”
The Elder Brother crossed his arms across his chest and reflected his words.
“Did she tell you to leave and never come back?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Did she try to turn away from you, did she want to keep her distance?”
“What were her last words to you?”
‘Do it’. She told me to fuck her. Sandor stayed quiet.
“It seems to me that unless she explicitly told you to go away, or showed in other ways that she wanted to be as far away from you as possible, there is a good chance that she would be grateful for your help. A young maiden all alone in the harsh world – don’t you think you owe it to her? From what you babbled on your sickbed you didn’t stand up for her when she needed it and you have regretted that ever since.”
Not a maiden anymore.
“What do you care?” Sandor concluded that attack might be his best defence. The Elder Brother only smiled, a slight furrow on his brow as if he couldn’t understand Sandor – as he probably didn’t.
“House Stark is not done yet, I believe. The wolves will rise again and maybe they only need a little help. From what I have heard, Lady Sansa is a kind lady, wise and mature, and she could lead her house back to its rightful place. Besides, she has suffered enough. If you should find it in your heart to go back for her, I suspect that it would be a service not only for her but also to the North, to the realm – and to yourself.”
They discussed the topic no more and eventually the Elder Brother had to return to his many duties. They said their goodbyes again and Sandor was left to sit at the table as the man whom he respected and valued more than anyone in his whole life walked out of the room.
When left alone, Sandor pondered the exchange. There was no way that he would turn back now, after almost reaching his goal of leaving the cursed Seven Kingdoms behind, no matter what the old man said. He was done with Westeros, done with the game of thrones, done with Sansa Stark.
The next morning he packed his things and steered Stranger onto the road towards the Vale.
This time Sandor was not riddled with doubts, although he had expected them to assault him as soon as he hit the road. No, he rode on with a firm purpose and nothing could cloud it. Whether it was the Elder Brother’s words or that the time that had passed had soothed the sensations roiling inside him, he didn’t know nor care. He was going to offer his help to the little bird and if she turned him down – well, it would have been just his time and coin wasted, the lands across the Narrow Sea were not going anywhere. Should she accept… he would pay back what he owed her from his failure to help her in King’s Landing - and his more recent transgressions.
Sandor didn’t entertain any thoughts about a repeat of the time he had had her on her back. It had been like a dream, a surreal and out-of-place experience on the night when he thought he was going to die, and the little bird – who knew what the fuck she had been thinking? Clearly she hadn’t been herself. Such other-worldly experiences could not face the harsh light of the day in the real world.
Finding his way back to the village was easy enough, and instead of waiting and observing, he snatched a young boy sent to water the horses outside the village boundaries and squeezed what he needed to know out of him. The halfman’s wife had left several days ago with the convoy of traders and clansmen, the boy spluttered. Luckily for Sandor there was only one path through the mountains to the Neck and he would be able to follow them easily. After promising to come back and strangle the urchin if he told anyone about his visit, Sandor didn’t waste time going after the caravan.
The other party travelled slowly, that much he guessed, and indeed, it didn’t take many days of fast riding when Sandor heard the trundle of many wagons ahead of him.
He took his time, scrutinising the convoy and the travellers, observing their strengths, weaknesses, their morale and the way they interacted with each other. He knew Sansa was not their prisoner and in theory was free to go as she pleased – yet he suspected the mountain men were unlikely to hand her freely to him, as he had just humiliated their clan with his escape. No, his best chance was to grab her and sneak away quietly. Yet how to get to her?
To Sandor’s relief – although he would have been hard pressed to admit it – the girl seemed to keep her distance from the others. She slept alone in the only tent the group had, and although she seemed to interact mostly with the leader of the Burned Men, a young man who didn’t keep hidden his interest in getting to know her better, Sandor didn’t detect any excessive familiarity between them. At night, as he lay under his furs a safe distance away from the caravan, he pondered why should he care? He had advised the little bird to take advantage of any armament she had in her possession, and being coinless that didn’t leave much. Somehow he suspected that any honours bestowed by House Stark in some foreseeable future would not be adequate reward to these men.
She looked different. On the first evening Sandor stretched out on the ground just outside the rocky outcrop where the travellers had set up their camp and watched her. Gone was the timid girl who had been wary of everything and everyone. That much he had gathered already on the night they had met, but studying her from a distance he saw that something else had changed too.
She looked more confident and surer of herself. An air of authority surrounded her and it showed from the way the others treated her – with respect. And she looks even more beautiful than before. Sandor blinked his eyes. Bloody hells, it mattered naught how she looked, not to him.
On the third evening, when he had established the camp routine, he took his chance. He saw Sansa leaving the camp and moving towards a group of boulders a small distance away, presumably to take care of her natural needs. Sandor followed her after making sure that nobody else did – and why would they? They were alone high in the mountains, a large group of able men with strong arms; no harm was able to approach them without ample warning. Or so they thought.
For a moment he wondered whether he should stop her when she first approached, but then pragmatism took over and he concluded that he might as well wait until she was done with her business. Instead of turning his gaze, Sandor watched as Sansa searched for a good spot, hiked her skirts up and squatted behind a large rock. He regretted that the ample skirts prevented him from having a better look, but he had a glimpse of fading bruises on her thighs and felt a pang of guilt.
Even in her current awkward position she looked graceful and her hair flowed freely down her back like a waterfall, still brown but rich and silky. Sandor remembered how it had felt when he had touched it. He pushed that out of his mind and concentrated instead on monitoring the movements of the others in the camp to make sure they wouldn’t be interrupted.
Soon Sansa got up and in a moment of gallantry that surprised him, Sandor waited until she was walking back towards the camp before he seized her from behind and covered her mouth with his large hand.
She froze. Before she had time to react otherwise, Sandor whispered in a low voice, “If I lift my hand, will you scream bloody murder or stay quiet?”
They were the same words he had said to her before, he realised a moment too late, cursing how he had already stumbled. He had decided not to bring up what had happened between them, pretending it never had, in order to save her from embarrassment.
The girl didn’t seem to mind, though, staying stiff as a plank but not resisting. Sandor could sense her soft body pressed against him and felt his cock stirring. Bloody hells! So NOW is a good time to wake up? He stepped back to allow some distance between them but didn’t loosen his grip. Sansa turned her head trying to see him. He allowed her, and met eyes that were wide but calm. She nodded her head.
He let her go and she turned fully, but instead of the barrage of questions he expected, she only looked at him, hard.
“Why are you here?” she asked, keeping her tone low even though they were out of earshot.
Sandor was taken aback. “I am here to save you,” he murmured, meeting her eyes straight on.
“What if I don’t need saving? These men are not my gaolers, they are helping me to reach the North.” She was unnaturally calm. If she didn’t want his help, if she detested him being here, why didn’t she show it?
“Suit yourself. I am not here to save you then – but I am here to offer my services just the same. Take it or leave it, no hair off my arse.” Sandor had not expected this cool reaction and was unnerved by it.
She stared at him and although she was much shorter than him, Sandor shrank under those blue eyes. Then she shifted her weight from one foot to another and he realised that she was not quite as composed as she appeared.
“I didn’t say that I couldn’t use help. What took you so long?”
“You mean I should have come to you on the night of my escape? I happened to be a bit busy then.”
“Not then, but after. I thought you wouldn’t come at all.”
So she hoped I would come for her. It made Sandor feel a bit more confident.
“I had things to do. Besides, I wasn’t sure if you’d welcome me.”
Sansa blushed and Sandor felt he was in charge of the situation once more. Hells, if the only way he could get the upper hand with her was to remind her about that night, he’d use it. Might even jog her memory about who it was who urged him ahead.
“Never mind, I am here now. Do you want to come with me or not? I’ll take you to the North or wherever the bloody hell you want, and I’ll keep you safe.”
She extended her hand and touched him, as if wanting the testimony of her own senses that he was real. Sandor stiffened but let her fingers run across his swordbelt and ghost against his chest. What is she doing? His cock stirred again and he cursed silently. Sansa’s lips parted and she stared at him without saying a word. Sandor followed her gaze and saw that it was directed at his throat. Was she still hesitating about if she could trust him?
“I’ll keep you safe even from myself, you have my word,” he grunted.
Her eyes shot up and she blushed again. “I believe you,” she said in a small voice.
Sandor was aware how time was running low; somebody would soon start to wonder if she didn’t return.
“You had better go back. I am camped nearby, just Stranger and I. He is strong and can carry us until we can get another horse. Do you have any coin?”
Sansa dropped her hand and took a step back. “I have some coin and jewellery that I can hopefully sell once we get into a village or town.”
“Good. Now, go back and behave as though nothing has happened. Tomorrow evening when the camp has quietened, we leave. No argument, no drama, we just leave. If we are far gone by the time they notice, I doubt they’ll care.”
“Why not leave in the light of day? I am not a prisoner.”
“Might be so but I suspect your burned companions wouldn’t like the idea of you leaving with me. Better to leave without the fuss. Pack all that is yours and just before leaving, tell one of those snotty-nosed servant boys that you left of your own volition so they don’t start chasing us.”
“How do I find you tomorrow?” She was all prepared and practical but something in her breathless question touched Sandor.
“You don’t. I’ll find you. Be ready to leave when they quench the fires, and I come for you.”
Sandor started to retreat and pushed her forward, not harshly. She took a few steps, stopped and looked at him again.
“Aye, I promise.”
Sandor followed her retreating back and wondered what kind of new hell he had just consigned himself to.
Their departure the next evening was just as easy as Sandor had predicted. Sansa had packed only the necessities, had dressed warmly and carried a bedroll and warm furs with her. After resting for a few days Stranger was eager to run, and before sunrise they were almost past the last peaks of the mountain chain and started to descend towards the flatlands and the Kingsroad.
They didn’t talk much but Sandor felt her presence with every cursed step Stranger took, her breasts pressing against his back, her hair tickling his nose as it flew free in the breeze. She was sitting on top of the bedrolls and furs stacked at the back of the saddle, so high that her chin rested against his back and occasionally against his shoulder when she peered ahead. Sandor could feel her thighs pressing against his flanks and her slender arms seeking purchase first around his chest, and later, when she found that too uncomfortable, around his neck.
They rested for a while in the middle of the day before continuing further, wanting to have as much distance as possible between them and the mountains, just in case. As they made their evening camp, Sandor wondered how she would take to the fact that they had had to leave her tent behind. Sansa didn’t seem to mind, setting her bedrolls next to the campfire as if she had done that many times before. Sandor put his own roll a respectable distance away, thus indicating that he was under no illusions about the state of affairs.
They conversed about their situation over the campfire, planning their next steps; where to go and who to approach. It turned out that the little bird was not quite as clueless as he had thought, having heard in Littlefinger’s halls about Stannis’s stand against the Boltons and the wildlings. Of the latter the details had been a bit sketchy, but the main thing was that many of the great northern houses were occupied again, their lords having returned from the South to lick their wounds in their strongholds.
“I will make sure that your efforts will be duly rewarded when we reach the North,” she said, cocking her head and throwing a look in Sandor’s direction.
“Hope not. Have no longing to be hanged at the end of the rope for my many sins,” he grumbled, incensed by the insinuation that he was helping her for a bloody reward. Besides, if he was, he would rather settle on the currency she must have been prepared to pay, on her back. Fuck! Sandor shook his head. He really had to stop thinking about it.
As they settled down for the night, he wanted to be sensible and suggest that they at least drag their bedrolls closer together and share their furs in order to preserve warmth. Yet he didn’t do that – but whether that was to assure her of his honourable intentions or to save himself a night of agony close to her, he didn’t know.