Her hands were delicate with long fingers and smooth skin – not that he would have felt their touch often on him.
Actually, Sandor could count the times. Two times in King’s Landing; first when he had rescued her from the mob and she had clung to him, clutching his bare neck so desperately that her nails had made him bleed. The second time, when she had touched his face on the night of the green fire. The third time had been when he had sneaked into the Gates of the Moon. He had crept behind her and restrained her by covering her mouth with one bare hand and clasping her wrists with another. She had struggled at first, but hearing his voice she had stilled. Sandor had pressed her back against his chest and felt how frail she was, so small and delicate. Her fingers had twitched and when he had relaxed his grip, she had not pulled them away as he had expected but instead had held on tight, not letting go.
The Warrior Maid of Tarth had sent him there with words of valour and honour. The bag of gold dragons she had given him had clinked its own tale of the many things he could buy with it. Not that the Lannister gold had been his true motivation. Seeing the girl again had been its own reward, carefully considered in his calculations before he had accepted the mission.
Sandor liked to watch her at work in the evenings, when there was nothing else to do but domestic chores in their little shelter. She had found a crude oil lamp and some oil, and she sat next to it, toiling. If she wasn’t picking impurities from their grain, she was grinding it using an ancient hand-mill made of stone. Mixed with thawed horse’s blood it made nutritious and surprisingly tasty meal. Or she was sewing, trying to adjust their scarce garments, made for fairer weather, to suit colder conditions.
He was riveted by the sight of a coarse needle in her supple fingers going through the fabric; in and out it weaved, transforming the horse’s saddle blanket into a sleeveless vest to give him some warmth when he was outdoors. She concentrated hard. The needlework was undoubtedly nothing like her usual embroideries with fine silks and fabrics, Sandor chuckled darkly in his mind. His eyes followed her fingers and how they played with the coarse weave and thread, sure and purposefully, and he remembered the softness of her fingertips.
Every now and then she lifted her eyes and glanced at him. Sometimes she smiled, and when she did, her whole face lit. Sometimes Sandor had to turn away from the sight. Her smiles were not meant for him, he knew.
Nonetheless, as weeks dragged on, she had less and less to do, as they had less and less grain to grind or clothes to fix. They still had meat, but that was it.
Staring at her when there was nothing else to look at but herself made Sandor uncomfortable and so he didn’t. But he missed the evenings when he had just sat and watched her weave her magic.
At what point their roles reversed; when he changed from the observer to one being observed, Sandor couldn’t tell. What he noticed was that whereas before the little bird had kept her eyes cast under his silent scrutiny, lately she had become bolder. He often caught her when she watched him; her eyes on his every movement. She didn’t even turn away or feign that she had not been looking. No, she lifted her head and stared at him in a way no woman had done before: with no fear or disgust.
The change unnerved him but he pretended it had not happened.
“My Uncle Benjen told me that men of the Night’s Watch sometimes lived only on meat on their long journeys beyond the Wall. Yet their health suffered; their gums started to bleed and many lost their teeth.” She startled him from his thoughts one evening. “We need food other than meat. Our grain is gone, and we have no vegetables or fruit.”
Sandor shifted on his seat. He had heard those stories too, shared on camp fires.
“What do you want me to do about it? Turn into a bloody fruit-tree?” he growled. Was he angry at the girl who reminded him of how poor a job he was doing in taking care of her, or at himself – for the same reason?
The girl blushed. She stoked the fire with a stick and the flames made the shadows on her face swirl and dance.
“We could collect needles from trees and boil them. Uncle Benjen told us that’s what the Old Bear made them do.”
Sandor hardly listened to her, submerged in thoughts of what kind of a tree she would be. A peach-tree, perhaps; full of soft, pink, fuzzy peaches, velvety to touch… He would be a prickly gnarled pine tree, standing alone, defying cold and wind.
“…I have seen pine trees near the stream, we could go there perhaps tomorrow?”
Sandor shook his head. Bloody hells! Lately his mind had been wandering in strange directions. He didn’t like it – it took away years of discipline and inner peace he had slowly and methodically built. And it was all because of the little bird, always chirping to the tune of her masters. First the notes had been those of her parents, then the ones set by the Lannisters, then by that bastard Littlefinger. If he succeeded in getting her to the North, whose songs would she sing then?
‘I will sing it for you gladly’, she had once said.
Sandor sneered, but the last thing in his mind that evening just before he drifted into sleep was an image of a peach; round, soft and velvety to touch.
Sansa knew next to nothing about catching fish, but he answered patiently her questions about it and soon she realised she might be able to do something. He has taken care of everything so far. It is time I step up.
Once the notion of the Hound looking after her would have been ridiculous and nonsensical. Yet much had changed since King’s Landing. He was not the same man he had been then.
Sansa couldn’t tell exactly what had changed; outwardly he was still brooding, curt and coarse in his manners. Yet she sometimes caught a glimpse of him when he thought he was alone and saw his features relaxed, his brow smooth, the angry snarl gone and replaced by calm expression. Had his rage truly been quietened?
Sansa was well aware of what the arrangement between them was. He had rasped into her ear the tale about the Maid of Tarth and about the coin she had paid for him to escort her to Winterfell. And how he was there only to fulfil his side of the bargain. If she had hoped for anything more – even for a briefest of moments when she had recognised his voice, the echo of which had permeated her dreams on so many nights – she had soon set aside any such foolishness.
He had told her about Arya. Her little sister! Who had lived against all expectations, escaped and gone across the narrow sea. The Hound kept things close to his chest but Sansa gleaned that they had travelled together for a while and he had intended to ransom her back to her family – but then the Red Wedding had happened. And now the Warrior Maid had taken up Arya’s trail while sending the Hound to rescue Sansa.
She went to the woods and carefully selected young, pliable shoots of tree saplings, took them into the hut and soaked them in water for many days. Then she weaved them into a rudimentary basket with a lid that could be closed in one end. The Hound told her the dimensions and how it should be shaped, but after that it was easy, her childhood lessons in a craft of making baskets for flowers flooding back into her mind.
Sansa was irrationally proud of her creation when it was ready, and the affirming nod and a few muttered words of praise from him made her happier still.
From then on they had fresh fish every few days. No delicacy had ever tasted better in her mouth, as it had been caught partly through her own efforts.
This is just a mission. I am doing this for the gold I was promised and to clear my name of the bloody Saltpans, Sandor reminded himself more and more often as days turned to weeks, weeks to months.
First in Casterly Rock and later in King’s Landing he had learned to discount his own feelings when it came to his masters and the tasks he did at their bidding. Ignore them, don’t think too much, just do what you have to do. That had been his private chant and over the years it had become easier and easier to close his eyes from the travesty of knightly values and false behaviour all around him.
He had counted on those years of practice to get him through this ordeal as well. Keeping his head down, concentrating on what needed to be done for their survival and shutting his mind of everything else. Yet the girl refused him that, pulling him into her world.
She did it by first permeating his existence with her presence; ever courteous, ever unobtrusive, yet invading his world one little step at a time. An innocent question here, a cocked head and a look there, an expectation of his input to many little things their life consisted of. How he wanted his meat prepared? What did he think of the prospects for storm? When was he going to be back from the woods? Worse than that, the little bird started to ask him about things in the past, long forgotten. Had he ever been in the high seas? What kind of games he played when he was a child? Had he ever had a pet? Some of the questions he grudgingly answered, some he ignored, but the end result was nonetheless the same. Slowly but surely her persistence chinked away the armour of indifference he had built around himself, layer by layer. Without admitting to it, he saw it starting to crack, little piece by little piece.
There had been a dog once; a mangy feral dog, one of the scavengers that followed on the trail of an army on a march, many years ago. It had been ferocious and savage, bigger than most, and it had clearly fought as hard as the men it followed. One of its ears had been ripped off, it had born a huge scar on its flank and manifested bare patches in its tangled fur. It had trusted nobody and had only come near when the camp had been quiet, sniffing for scraps of food near the fire pits.
Sandor had often been the only person seeing it as he sat alone, eschewing the company of others. Gradually, over many nights, the beast had started to accept his presence and hadn’t shied away from his shadow. He had thrown it pieces from his own portion, first further away, then gradually reducing the distance, and in its hunger the dog had eaten what he had offered, coming closer, step by step.
When he had finally been able to touch it, despite it still growling and eyeing him suspiciously under its brow, Sandor had felt a strange bond with the creature. One rabid dog meeting another. Since that day they had kept each other’s company in the evenings – still wary but sharing an odd connection.
He felt like that dog at times; not wanting to trust the girl, not wanting to come nearer, but his hunger forcing him to do so nonetheless. It was not only the circumstances that restricted them into such close quarters that saw him giving in – it was his hunger. Hunger for a softly spoken word, for a smile, for a look of appreciation she directed at him when he did something for her.
The army had reached its destination and he had left the camp for better rooms in the keep. He never saw the mangy dog again. Had it ever searched for him among the campfires?
Was that to be his destiny once the winter was over and they reached their destination?
The words fell heavily between them. Sandor knew he didn’t need to elaborate further, the little bird would take his meaning. Yet she said nothing and the echo of his raspy voice reverberated through the silence; ‘going…going…going…’
“Is there no other way? I should at least come with you.” She eventually blurted out and watched him keenly. Her hair was loose and tousled, and as if not wanting to break the eye contact she blew away some of the wispy coils covering her face. That was not a ladylike thing to do and Sandor watched with fascination the way her lower lip jutted forward. No, not a ladylike thing at all.
“There is no other way. And you are not suited to travel in snow, I will make it better on my own.”
He couldn’t sleep that night, calculating the odds in his mind. The small village they had passed on their way here; how far was it? They had been hit by a blizzard soon after and gods knew how much distance they had covered, wandering in whiteness as they had before stumbling into this hut. One day’s walk? Two days’?
The trip was a risk but a calculated one. They had no food other than meat, meat and some fish. They had no salt, no flour nor bread, and the few withered root vegetables they had found in the cellar under the floorboards had been consumed long ago. They had no oil to burn in the lamp and the fire didn’t offer enough light for the many household chores needed. They could do with more clothes and blankets too. The winter’s back had clearly not broken yet and the weather was getting colder. The girl hardly ventured out anymore in her flimsy coat and dresses, and even Sandor in the vest she had made for him was chilled to the bone by the time he returned inside from the cold.
Sandor garbed himself with all his clothes and wrapped a blanket around his torso, hiding a small bag of coins and thin strips of frozen meat in its folds. If he had to weather a night on the road he would burrow himself into snow for protection against elements.
The girl was nervous, fluttering around and helping him to get ready. He could tell that she was terrified about being left alone, but she hid it well. Not a word nor gesture betrayed her – or so she thought. Yet he knew better. He had learned to read her and her moods, his years as an observer in the court helping him in this task.
The way she cocked her head when something caught her interest. The way she frowned when she didn’t quite understand something – or when she didn’t agree with something he said. There was a subtle difference between the two and he had learned to separate them. The way she smiled shyly and happily when something good happened. The way she retreated into herself and stared into the whiteness through the window and he knew that she was thinking of the past; her family, her dreams, her choices and everything that had happened. Aye, he had studied her and knew her better than he had known any living thing ever before. Yet he didn’t call her by her name.
At times when she stared ahead into the nightmares of her past Sandor would have wanted to console her; tell her that everything was going to be fine. Yet he couldn’t, as he was not a liar, was he now? There were to be battles ahead for her still, even if they reached the North as planned. Battles whose outcomes were uncertain. He didn’t have much left in this world, but he had his honesty and dignity and he couldn’t sacrifice them even for comforting the little bird.
As Sandor walked away he fought against turning to look back. Only when he was so far gone that he estimated her surely having gone back inside, he spun around.
She was still there, standing by the door of the hut, so small, so frail, her gaze aimed in his direction. Seeing him turn she raised her hand and waved. He waved back, feeling foolish for doing so, but returning her gesture nonetheless.
At first she had revelled in their humble existence believing its cause to be merely her relief of finally being able to shed away Alayne’s skin and become Sansa again. Now she realised it had been more than that. Sharing her life with one who was honest and truthful and who only sought what was best for her, not for himself, felt as refreshing as a summer rain after a bout of drought. That she had learned to see him as a man, not only as a weapon of war or a menacing presence, only increased fluttering in her belly when she felt his eyes on her.
She missed him. As simple as that.
“I thought of you often,” she had said one evening, out of the blue. Why, she couldn’t tell, but seeing the way he first stiffened and then slumped his shoulders, she had regretted the impulse that made her do it.
“Had nightmares, did you?” the Hound had growled, avoiding her gaze.
“No, not at all! I…wondered what had happened to you. Whether you had survived, whether you had found peace.” How could she have told him that he had been in her mind more times than she could count, always a comforting figure, someone who had tried to help and protect her? If she told him that, would he believe her? Or would he laugh his raspy laugh and think her a stupid girl?
Some madness had made her blurt out a question that was as foolish as it was improper.” Did you ever think of me?”
The silence had continued forever and Sansa had thought he would ignore her altogether. Better that than to be laughed at.
”Might have. Could have.” He had shifted on his pallet and turned his back on her, indicating that the discussion was over.
That night Sansa had thought of all the quips she could have said, what she should have said. Nightmares, my lord? With pity, I am certain? The one that got away, was it? Yet to know that she had been in his thoughts in any manner pleased her.
Every day since his departure Sansa went on with what little tasks she could, mostly confined as she was inside the hut. Her ears were continuously scanning the noises from outside for signs that he was returning. She admonished herself for her stupidity; it would take at least two whole days, maybe three, before she should even start expecting him. Yet every crack of ice, every whistle of wind through the trees and every distant howl of a forest creature brought her heart into her throat in a mixture of giddy anticipation and hope.
Her longing for him was more than only about the matter of survival. Yes, she would face a dire situation if he didn’t come back, but she would survive. She still had plenty of meat, and she had started to brew the bitter green brew from pine needles to improve the monotony of their nourishment. Sansa had started to trust her own strength and skills during her time as a bastard daughter and even more after their life in their forest cottage.
Yes, she would live – and if necessary, she could herself take a one-way journey to the village to seek human company. She had most of the Lannister gold still, left behind by the Hound.
It was the thought of never seeing his scarred face again or hearing his gravelly voice that filled her heart with fear and sorrow bigger than she could have imagined. Slowly he had infiltrated her world, her heart and her mind and for him to leave her again would leave such a gaping hole that she could not conceive how she could ever fill that again.
The Hound. She tasted the name on her lips and decided that it was not fitting anymore. Sandor. His name is Sandor.
Six days had passed since Sandor had had left and still there were no signs of him. Sansa walked around the hut, in endless circles, and slowly descended to a pitch black pit of anxiety and despair.