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Thank the Maiden

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The stones slid in front of him, in and out of focus. He reached for one with his hand, his brain seeming to sway against the current of his vision. The solidity of the wall threw him more off balance, which was the opposite of his intent. The light drag of the flagon hanging from his left middle finger was useless as a counterweight. Sandor Clegane was well and truly into his cups.

**“You look almost a woman . . . face, teats, and you’re taller too, almost . . ."

Gods. Had he said that? It was true but had he actually slurred out the words?

**“Ah, you’re still a stupid little bird, aren’t you? Singing all the songs they taught you . . . sing me a song, why don’t you? Go on. Sing to me. Some song about knights and fair maids. You like knights, don’t you?”

Sansa Stark was courteous, as ever, but she was afraid of him, he could tell. She'd chirped out her usual nonsense about true knights but that's not what he wanted from her. A song would have been just the way to greet oblivion but she chose not to catch his meaning. Damn fool girl. When was she going to wake up? He was the least of the dangers she faced, whatever she thought.

He'd walked her to her room and then gotten another flagon on his way to his own quarters. It was no song but it would do the trick. He drank it as he veered through the halls. He didn't remember getting into bed but he found himself there nonetheless. Sandor closed his eyes and fought to keep the contents of his stomach from spiraling upwards and out of his mouth. He gripped his straw-filled mattress and kept one booted foot anchored to the floor. Unconsciousness claimed him quickly.

But then he was awake. And not drunk. It was morning and sunlight was streaming into his face. He squinted and turned away but the light seemed to move with him.

"Sandor Clegane" said a breathy voice.

"Little -"

It was not the Stark girl. Another girl, older but still a girl, was before him. She was beautiful, if you liked blondes, but she had the sort of passive face that Sandor Clegane had always interpreted as arrogant. Golden light seemed to radiate from within and behind her.

"Who are you?" he asked rudely.

"I am the Maiden."

"You won't be if you stay here."

She gazed at him serenely and said nothing.

"I always thought the Stranger would come for me," he rumbled, irritated by her lack of response.

"Oh, you'll meet him in due time, Sandor. You all will." She didn't seem at all troubled proclaiming the ruin of the entire human race.

"I'm drunk," Sandor said more to himself than her.

"You often are."

"Bugger off."

The glow around her flared orange before settling back into its placid shimmering gold. "You believe I mock you."

"I don't believe you do anything. I don't believe you ARE anything. Go away and let me sleep in peace."

"And what of my peace?"

"What of it? The gods have everything their own way, to hear it told in the septs." Sandor could scarcely believe he was arguing with a drunken vision. He wondered why his head wasn't throbbing.

"Your prayers disturb my peace."

"I don't pray."

"Your heart does."

"Lies."

"I don't think so." She raised her arms and the light-filled air rippled out away from her. A golden mist filled the space between them, little flecks coalescing into the form of Sansa Stark.

Sandor tried to look uninterested though the sight of the girl curled up in her bedding was one he'd imagined but never seen. He'd not forgotten the sight of her in her nightclothes, though he knew that memory was unworthy. Tainted. Joffrey had tired of her defiance.

"You desire this girl."

Sandor's mouth twitched and he fought not to agree. "A girl in bed? Few wouldn't."

The faintest flutter of the Maiden's fingers caused the flecks to take the shape of Lollys Stokeworth. She was clutching her pillow with one hand, her other vaguely pushing her dreams away as her head turned and her face twitched.

Sandor looked away but a shift in the light brought his gaze back to the Maiden.

"You do not pray for this girl."

"I haven't prayed for Sansa Stark, either. I don't pray at all."

"The quickening of your blood speaks for you."

"That's life, not prayer."

"They can be the same."

Sandor glared at her. "Well strike me down already, if that's what you're here for, or send for the Stranger."

The gold flakes twinkled themselves into the shape of his horse. He was restful in his stall. This pleased and relieved Sandor.

"You love this animal."

"He's a good horse."

"You are kind to him."

Excuses for his perceived weakness streamed through his mind. "Training," was all he managed to rasp out.

"Do not lie," the Maiden observed in her cool voice. "I hear it when you talk to him quietly."

"You're a damned spy."

More quickly, the mist spun into the shape of Sandor's sister.

"No-"

The young girl was not dead, as Sandor feared when he recognized the face. Nor was she sleeping. She was in a field of flowers. In her hand was a crown woven of blossoms. Sandor remembered seeing her just so once.

"I have watched over you," the Maiden said.

"Why didn't you watch over her?" he asked, angry.

"She preferred to commune with the Warrior."

"Did you eavesdrop on him, too?"

"We seven are one, and she prayed for you."

Sandor shifted uncomfortably.

"You did not pray her for. Not until it was too late."

Sandor kept silent. It was true.

The goddess simply waited. Sandor was irritated and wanted to end this bizarre interview. "You didn't answer."

"It was not time."

"And now is? Bugger that."

The flecks settled back into random mist. Sandor glared at it. He longed to see something else. His mind skipped to his mother but then he forced away memories of her as he always did.

"You have been praying more frequently of late. The blood has been surging through your veins. You burn more brightly."

"I've burned enough."

"As to that . . ."

The mist gathered into the likeness of his own face except both sides were equally smooth. The flesh of his ear was intact, his jawbone concealed by skin as it should be. Sandor gaped at himself. His heart leapt with a desire of the sort that wishes to cast off an unbearable burden. The face before him wasn't handsome but it was unravaged. He simply looked . . . ordinary. Unlikely to draw stares or scorn or unfair assumptions.

"You like what you see."

Sandor tore his gaze away. "You're wasting my time."

The glittering motes formed the face of his brother. The golden eyes rolled back and the Mountain that Rides collapsed into a heap. Standing above him was a figure with long hair that blew in the wind when he removed a helm that resembled a dog's head. He pulled a sword out of the fallen man's heart.

The Maiden opened her hand and the flecks dispersed back into mist.

Sandor swallowed a mouthful of saliva. He liked this image as well. His sword hand flexed.

"You're a man of varied desires."

"My tastes are simple."

The Maiden looked at him. Through him, it felt like. A wave of her hand showed him Sansa Stark, his repaired face, and dead Gregor.

"If that is so, you may choose only one."

"Where's my sister?"

"She is with the Stranger."

"Can't you bring her back?"

"I am not he."

"Then you're the weakest of all the gods. Why didn't one of the others come?"

"You long for innocence."

Sandor scoffed. "Did Lady Sansa send you? She prays." Too much.

"She did not. Could not."

"Because she prays to the Mother."

"For you."

"How do you know?"

"Her blood quickens as well."

"Bloody nosy, aren't you?"

"I am attuned to purity."

Sandor laughed. "You'll get none of that from me."

"Your desires are pure."

Sandor didn't believe her.

"As is your doubt."

"So what do you want? For me to pray more?"

"I have shown you your options."

Sandor considered the shapes in the mist. Watching Sansa sleep scrambled his feelings. Desire, anger, frustration, a need to protect. "What am I to do? Say 'Gregor' and he'll appear in front of me to be killed?"

"Indeed not."

"Speak plainly!"

The light around her flared orange again. "You will live your life as you have done."

"Then why are you here?"

"Your better nature has been awakened. You have protected that girl at risk of peril to yourself. You have borne the scars of your brother's brutality yet did not avenge yourself even when the opportunity arose. The gods, with me as their representative, have chosen to reward you."

"I won't be a septon -"

"Your actions will speak to our power. You exerted yourself too little for too long but now your ire is in service to a worthy cause. You know this. It betters you. This is why your prayers have resonated with me."

It seemed shaky logic to Sandor but he did not argue. "So if I choose the girl, then what?" Sansa Stark's long waves were scattered over her pillow. Her pretty face was relaxed in a way he knew it never could be in his presence.

"Then you marry."

"You'd see her punished," he said sarcastically.

"Her blood quickens as yours does."

"The girl wails over her father's death."

"And this makes you want to avenge her, to take her despair upon yourself," the Maiden said without inflection.

Sandor snorted.

"Choose your brother and you will kill him."

"And myself at the same time? Only fools and young girls believe offers like this have no strings attached."

"Choose yourself and your scars will be healed."

"You didn't answer me."

"You have only to honor us with your actions."

"Isn't that what brought you here? You said -"

"Yes," was all her reply.

"Prove to me you can do it."

"It is not I who must be tested."

"Bloody figures," Sandor muttered under his breath. "So I'm to be tested?" he added more loudly.

"You have been tested since you were born."

"These aren't answers!"

The goddess fluttered serenely and looked away. "You must continue to protect innocence to receive your reward, no matter how strange or difficult or long the path."

Sandor saw the loophole. "So I'll spend my life doing this and you'll reward me ten minutes before I drop dead. Is that it?"

"You may decline, of course."

Fear spread through Sandor's chest. It was surely a dream but even so. "No . . ."

He thought, fleetingly, greedily, that an improved face might draw Sansa to him and then he could have two of his three desires but he didn't trust the shiny lady and felt he should not risk it. Seeing Gregor dead before him filled him with a satisfaction that was frayed at the edges. Gregor deserved to pay for all that he ever was but it wouldn't restore Sandor's face or earn him Sansa's affections. It had to be the girl. Since that night in the field, it had to be the girl.

"You have chosen, then."

Before Sandor could react at all, the room lurched sickeningly. The golden specks spun around and around, crashing together into images he didn't understand. Sansa with a torn dress. Him holding his dagger to her throat. The little she-wolf glaring at him with murder in her eyes. The goddess lied! This is all wrong! His leg was torn open. He was wearing the robes of some holy order. No! He wanted to scream. He squeezed his eyes shut, the speed of the images making him nauseous. It's a dream. A drunken dream.

He bolted upright up in bed. The light was plain, gray even, in the early dawn. There was not a single speck of gold in the air.

"Daddy?"

He looked down and saw the arm of a small child stretched toward his face. He never could feel anything on that side.

The world seemed to snap back into focus. He pulled the child against his chest. Sansa was sleeping next to him, her hair scattered over the pillow in a familiar way. A coo arose from the cradle next to the bed.

"Were you having a bad dream?"

"No, thank the Maiden."

The child giggled. "You always say that."

Sandor sank back against his pillow, the child curled in his arm. He exhaled slowly to still his racing heart. "And I always will."