This is my gift to irismoongarden, to fulfil her holiday-exchange prompt – happy holidays!I gather this might be the one prompt you really want… The first hint was your original holiday-exchange post, although modestly only as the 3rd in your list (“would love it if someone would write a story where San/San leave the Vale and head to Winterfell, but get trapped in the snow and find a cabin and have to spend winter snowed in”.) There was “anything” and “Jaime and Brienne too” - but then I saw your wish again in sansaxsandor LJ (“I want a story where San/San get snowed in a little cozy cabin somewhere on their journey north post QI or something. Whatever could they do to pass the time”). Well, then I knew I simply couldn’t let this prompt pass…
I hope you enjoy it… I tried to avoid too much fluffiness, but may have succumbed to it in the end. *le sigh*
Sandor pushed the door open, the old gnarled wood giving in reluctantly as if wanting to hold on to the secrets it held behind it.
Damp smell, musty whiff. Coarse wooden furniture knocked over, dust settled on surfaces. That mattered not.
His feet felt leaden when he stepped across the threshold and collapsed on the floor, the girl in his arms almost crushing under him. Deep ragged breaths filled his lungs with stale air. Safe.
After gathering his breath for a moment he scrambled onto his knees by pure force of his iron will – the same will that had seen them through the snowstorm and never-ending wind and howl. Slowly he climbed to his full height, supporting himself against the wall. He felt too weak to lift the girl but he dragged her from shoulders just the same to the pallet at the back of the room. She looked like a broken doll lying there, face paler than snow. Sandor leaned in slightly and saw her lips quivering, her face screwed in pain or cold or both. Good. She is still alive.
A tired tug at the reins of the horse, pulling him too into the only room in the hut. With his last remaining strength Sandor released the saddle strap and let it fall. Then he let himself go and his tall body crumpled on the floor.
Darkness took over him.
Snow was their enemy, yet it was also their friend. It had stopped them and stranded them in this no-man’s land, into an existence consisting of basest of needs; food, water and warmth. Sustenance and survival.
Still, snow enveloped their hut from all sides insulating them from cold and wind. When it was too stormy to go out even to fetch water from the stream that run downhill from the clearing, Sandor carried big blocks of it inside to melt for drinking.
Firewood they had plenty; Sandor had examined the woods nearby and found a storm had passed the area some years ago and left in its wake abundance of fallen trees. Not too far gone to be rotten and mushy, and not too fresh to not burn properly. He hacked the stumps with his sword and carried the pieces to the hut, one by one. The girl joined him and picked the branches and the bark, and so, over time, they gathered a good supply of wood behind the fireplace.
Sometimes Sandor watched as the snowflakes danced down from the sky, soft and innocent, whirling in the wind. How could such softness be the death of men?
Once, many years ago on a campaign to the mountains he had seen new snow falling at the site of a skirmish, covering pools of blood, turned earth and mutilated corpses of slain men. The scene of horrors had transformed into a vista of strange beauty and peace.
Snow was like the northern girl; his curse and his blessing.
Blood trickled from the jugular to the vat, splashing on the Hound’s face as he held the vessel. He didn’t flinch – surely he was no stranger to blood on his face, on his hands, on his body? Sansa shivered, the realisation reminding her anew with whom she was stranded in this lonely place. The remorseless warrior. The man who loved killing. Yet this blood – unlike others – was a giver of life, not a sign of life taken. For them at least, the horse not having been so lucky.
They had had no choice but to kill it as they didn’t have enough hay or grain to keep it alive. A shame; he had been a sturdy stallion, had done as he was bid and Sansa could see sadness crossing the Hound’s face as he cut the horse’s throat. She turned away but at his command she handed him the tub.
She was staring at him now, biting her lower lip. They didn’t talk much, not since they had recovered their strength and wits after stumbling into the empty hut. Without him commanding her, Sansa had gone through the place and all it contained, assessing what useful items she could find.
Life was full of surprises even for someone who had seen as much as Sansa had. The two of them: the noble girl, castle born and raised, and the crude soldier, more at home in barracks and in cheap winesinks, sharing a house and existence. She cooked and cleaned and carried water and washed their crude mugs and plates in a pail of ice-cold water without a complaint. He let her.
“Take this to the hut and leave it outside the door. Take some inside, we let it set and fry it for supper. The rest can freeze over, it keeps better that way.” Sansa grabbed the vat, too heavy for her to carry, and dragged it behind her across the tightly packed snow. It glided easily and the blood inside sloshed back and forth in tune with her steps.
She could feel how he followed her with his gaze.
The horse having been cut to manageable pieces they were well set. Sandor built a crude cage next to the hut from timber he took from a derelict barn to protect the meat from hungry scavengers – from other hungry scavengers.
A steady supply of water from the stream or snow, frozen horsemeat and the remains of the supplies they had taken from the Vale; dry bread, hard cheese, grain meant for the horse but now used by them – they were well set indeed.
The previous inhabitants had fled in hurry, taking only their most prized possessions with them. Had it been the threat of mountain clans, the approaching clash of the kings or the anticipated arrival of winter, he didn’t know and didn’t care. They had some blankets and two crude pallets with mattresses thinly filled with crumbled straw.
Sandor didn’t mind; he was used to sleeping on hard surfaces, but in the darkness of the night he could hear the girl turning on her bed restlessly, trying to find a good position.
She spun away and said to him, no featherbed for me.
I’ll wear a gown of golden leaves, and bind my hair with grass,
But you can be my forest love, and me your forest lass.
Sandor shook his head, irritated. Why did that stupid song come into his head, unbidden? Gods, he cared naught for soppy love songs, couldn’t remember when and where he had heard the ballad the last time, and didn’t care if he never heard it again.
The next day he wandered into the woods, shovelled the snow away near some rocks and found what he was looking for; moss growing densely on the forest floor. The girl looked surprised when he threw a sack full of it in front of her but soon understood his meaning.
It took several days for the moss to dry out but in the end dry it was and she stuffed it into the mattress she had emptied.
She sent him back several times asking for more. She never raised her voice or made him feel like she was a highborn sending a servant for an errant. No, she always asked shyly and courteously, dropping her sers and lords even though he had warned her against wasting such titles on a dog.
Bloody princess, Sandor thought while he picked more and more moss. That much about ‘No featherbed for me’. His mood was foul and got fouler still when he realised he didn’t really have to do her bidding - but he did it just the same.
In the evening he retired to his pallet near the door – the girl’s being against the back wall – and felt the softness of the mattress under his heavy body. The girl had filled them both with moss.
That night he heard only her deep, steady breathing as she slept. The sound filled him with satisfaction, as did the soft bed under him.
Sandor took a deep breath to fill his lungs with cold and crisp air. He felt at peace. Routine had been integral part of his life for many years, the rhythm of his days at the Quiet Isle punctuated by mealtimes, services in the sept and calls for time of rest in the evenings. He found himself settling into this new routine easily enough, and it consoled his soul.
What he hadn’t gotten used to was her presence. Brothers had never bothered him as much as the little bird did; wherever he was, wherever she was, Sandor was always aware of her proximity. Without having to turn he knew that she was in the yard, doing something. What could she be up to? It was very quiet, only the steady hacking of his sword cutting through the wood echoing through stillness as he broke tree trunks into more manageable pieces.
Without his command the girl appeared next to him when he had finished with the fallen giant and started to pick up the pieces. Sandor helped her, lifting lighter logs onto her outstretched arms until he judged she could bear no more.
“One more. I can carry it.”
He glanced at her and saw her earnestness. In front of his scrutinising eyes her lips curled into a cautious smile. He saw it reaching her eyes, which sparkled like diamonds – like blue jewels. Sandor had once seen exotic jewellery gifted to Cersei by foreign dignitaries, and among them had been stones blue as a deep lake on a sunny day, bluer than summer sky. Her eyes were like those gems, except they had been cold and her eyes were warm.
Sandor bent down and picked one more log, hardly thicker than his middle finger, and placed it on top of her pile.
It was a clear, dry day – no signs of turbulent storms that blew from the north and turned the landscape to such whiteness that they could hardly see from the front door to the barn. Sansa had ventured out and her cheeks were numb from cold, but for the first time since they had fled the Vale she felt joy bubbling inside her. The sensation of being free, for so long repressed, made her light-headed. The day reminded her of Winterfell and a minor winter they had experienced when she had been a child. It had hardly been a proper one but there had been cold and snow and she had enjoyed it with gaiety of youth.
The Hound was picking on the remains of the barn again, looking for suitable pieces of wood to connect an old outhouse to their small hut. He had already dragged the modest wooden structure opposite to the backdoor, and now desired to secure it so that they didn’t need to walk across the yard for their natural needs. Sansa was embarrassed about the whole notion, but practicality spoke in its favour.
She had found living in close quarters with the Hound surprisingly agreeable. When he had come to her, she hadn’t needed to think twice before following him. Nonetheless, their plan had been to travel straight to the North, not to get stranded in the mountains. Yet, she trusted him. He was every bit as intimidating as she remembered, but she wasn’t afraid of him - not anymore.
He gave her privacy when she needed it, spending hours in the woods hunting and gathering or doing gods knew what. In the evenings they retired to their pallets, he next to the door, she behind a curtain she had hung across the room, made of the remains of empty grain sacks she had found from the barn.
Sansa followed the Hound with her gaze as he toiled, marvelling at the effortless way he carried piles of heavy planks across the yard. His breath misted in front of him and every now and then he brushed snow away from his collar where it had fallen. There was peculiar purposefulness and tranquillity in his movements; every bow, every lift and every throw appeared to be carefully measured for minimum exertion and maximum impact. Every so often he stopped, took a deep breath and wiped his brow with the back of his gloved hand. Sometimes he glanced in her direction and despite her instinctive reaction being to drop her eyes and look away, she didn’t. There was nothing else or nobody else she could pretend to be paying attention to; it was just the two of them. If she ignored him, her saviour and protector, what would it say about her? She owed him. The least she could do was to look him in the eye.
He never acknowledged her but soon returned to his task without a word or a gesture.
Sansa pushed the snow on the ground with her foot and saw how malleable it was. She couldn’t resist the temptation and knelt right then and there, in the middle of the yard, and used her hands to shape walls and squares to form buildings. Without a conscious thought she worked the snow until she paused and saw what she had created.
A castle. She had built a castle of snow; walls and turrets and ramparts, a small bailey and a cluster of tiny buildings inside the walls. Winterfell. Sansa was so focussed on her task she didn’t notice him approaching, only stopping when his shadow fell on the construction. She looked up, startled.
The Hound studied the structure for a moment. “Walls are not high enough. You don’t want enemy streaming in that easily, do you now? Also,” he pointed at the highest turret, “don’t build that so close to the outer wall. In case of an attack, you need to have a place where you can retreat as a last resort, far away from the invaders.”
Sansa’s lips curled into a cautious smile. When he noticed that, the corner of his mouth twitched and for a moment it appeared as he was smiling too. Not a smile she was used to seeing in the faces of those she had met in the Vale; not courteous, not eager to please nor lecherous, but a subtle one, yet reaching all the way to his eyes. The grey hardness in them seemed to melt and for a moment he was not a hound but a man.
Then he turned on his heels and went back to his chores.