“You haven’t told me why you left King's Landing, Sandor. Most people think you turned craven. Was that so?” Jaime had wanted to ask that for a while, but had shied away in fear of irritating their short-tempered companion.
They were resting in another nameless, featureless camp. Earlier that day a fox had been startled from a bush by their horses and Sandor had grabbed his dagger, quick as a snake, and thrown it after the escaping animal. It had not been killed, but it had been wounded enough for Jaime to catch up and finish it with a sure thrust of his sword. Sansa had seen the kill and gasped but after the fox was dead she had dismounted her horse and with Jaime’s help gutted and skinned it on the spot.
The carcass had been cut into pieces on their campsite and now the meat was roasting on a crude spit. The scent of it roasting was delicious and their stomachs were grumbling in anticipation.
Sandor was turning the spit and seemed to ignore Jaime’s question. Nonetheless, his jaw clenched revealing that he had heard it. His long fingers were covered in grease and he licked them clean before leaning on his haunches.
“If I had, would I tell you?” He looked at Jaime challengingly. Jaime returned the look, green eyes meeting grey, neither giving ground.
“You know what, Sandor – I believe you would. And what does it matter anyway? I am not really from your liege lord’s house anymore. You don’t even have a liege lord now. We are all free.”
Sandor sighed and turned his gaze back to the meat. “Did I turn craven? Mayhap I did. All I know is that after seeing that fire straight from the seven hells covering the Blackwater Bay and the city gate I was defending, and seeing it roasting almost all of my men, I simply could take it no more. Throw a score of soldiers at me and aye, I’ll fight them. Throw buggering knights on their buggering horses at me and I’ll mow them down. But that fire… it was not of this world.” He looked at the campfire and shuddered at the memory.
Sansa was following their discussion from the other side of the fire. She shifted as she wanted to say something, but a look from Sandor settled her.
“I assume you and fire are not friends. It got you once…where was it?” Jaime didn’t know how Sandor had gained his scars – nobody knew as far he was aware. All he knew was that Sandor had already been disfigured upon his arrival at Casterly Rock as a young boy, so battle wounds were an unlikely explanation. Those scars had repulsed and fascinated Jaime in equal measure. He, who had always been judged so fair of face, could not have imagined the feeling of being so…ugly. Yet he had learned now how deceitful beauty could be. Perhaps ugliness was at least real.
Again Sansa shifted. Sandor raised his gaze back to Jaime as if appraising him. “Might as well tell you. The little bird knows already. Gregor did it, shoved my face into the burning coals. Didn’t have quite as friendly a relationship with my sibling as you had with yours.” His laugh was dry and short-lived.
Many things that had not made sense before suddenly became clear to Jaime. The absolute hatred between the Clegane brothers. Sandor fleeing the wildfire in Kings Landing… but how did Sansa know about it when nobody else did? What happened between them? The question had been bothering him for a while, and Jaime decided he would get to the bottom of it sooner or later.
Sandor scratched unconsciously at his scarred temple. The sound of his fingernails on the hard plate of red, abraded tissue reverberated in the silence.
“You didn’t necessarily have to leave the city for that. As I have heard it told, there was so much confusion on the night that you could have just returned to your duties the next morning. I am sure my father would have welcomed you back with open arms, especially with Gregor gone.”
“I had a mind to go anyway. Didn’t like the way that bitch king was running things. Robert might have been a lecher and a drunk but at least he directed his wrath towards his true enemies and not innocents. Had a moment of madness too that night; meant to do a fucking knightly thing, but that didn’t turn out exactly as I had thought.” Sandor changed his position, sitting cross-legged. There was something hard and unyielding in the way he spoke, but at the same time his tone betrayed a vulnerability Jaime had not heard before. The shadows reflected from the glow of the fire played on his face, making it appear as if several expressions were shifting across it in rapid succession.
Sansa stood up and came to them, lowering herself in front of Sandor and reaching for his arm. “I was silly and childish then. I should have come with you that night. Can you forgive me?” She looked at Sandor pleadingly. The tension simmering between them was so thick Jaime could almost see it. So that was it. He offered to take her away and she refused. Well, who could blame her? No sensible young maiden would follow the Hound.
“I…thought of that night often afterwards. Had I left with you, I wouldn’t have been wed to Tyrion and taken away by Littlefinger,” Sansa continued. The sight of her kneeling in front of Sandor tugged at Jaime’s heart, but he didn’t know why.
Sandor’s eyes had softened as they studied Sansa’s face. He didn’t touch her but let her small hand rest on his arm. “No little bird, it was wise of you not to come. You might not have survived so well, with me the rabid dog I was then. I offered to take you with me but to what end? I can’t even imagine what could have happened to your innocence with me.”
“That wouldn’t have mattered, honestly. Better you than Littlefinger.” Sansa blushed as she seemingly realised what she had just said, and busied herself by fingering Sandor’s sleeve. What arrested Jaime was Sandor’s reaction. He looked at Sansa with astonishment, swallowed hard and looked away.
Having gathered herself Sansa continued, “I should have followed you, but that is all in the past and we are here now. And you are taking me to the North, aren’t you?”
Jaime wanted to object and point out how actually he and Brienne had saved her, but seeing how Sandor and Sansa were still facing each other, he swallowed his pride and protestations.
“Aye, I’ll take you to the North. Or wherever you want to go.”
This was getting to be too much, Jaime decided. He knew he was in danger of becoming obsolete. Sandor could protect Sansa as well and probably even better than he, useless one-handed warrior that he was. But he needed the girl; she was his way to redemption. And he wanted to save her. Ever since starting his travels with Brienne, Jaime had enjoyed the unusual feeling of actually doing something good for a change. He also knew that sooner or later they might face opponents who required a different approach to what Sandor could offer. If Jaime had nothing else left, he still had his name and family connections, his highborn upbringing and his knowledge of the world of nobility and politics. He could still be useful.
“And when we get to Winterfell, what then? Are we going to march to Stannis and offer him two hostages at once? Not that anyone would bother to ransom me anymore, but maybe Stannis doesn’t know that yet,” Jaime smirked. Sansa stood up, returned to her place and sat down furrowing her brow.
“First of all, we will not yield to Stannis. We seek to meet him to converse about the future of the North, and what would be the best way to reach our mutual aims through cooperation.”
“What would those aims be – for you and him?” Jaime was suddenly interested to hear what Sansa had to say. He had assumed all she wanted to do was to get back home to Winterfell but to what end, he had not stopped to consider.
“For me, obviously I want to establish my home in Winterfell again. I should have never left, it is where I belong. As for Stannis, if he still harbours dreams of ascending to the Iron Throne, he needs to secure the North.”
“Why would he need you for that?” Sandor shot back, also following the discussion intently. Sansa turned to look at him and her expression was not that of a young girl but that of a fully grown woman.
“The North can be pacified only if there is a Stark in Winterfell. They can place other lords there, southern or even northern, but Starks have been the Lords of Winterfell and Kings in the North for so long that anyone else is just an impostor. Does Stannis have 8,000 years to establish the new lords, should he choose to appoint them? Does he have even 80 years? I don’t think so. He needs me - and only me, not my husband. Hence the first thing I will have to do is to secure the annulment of my marriage to Tyrion.” Sansa threw an almost apologetic glance towards Jaime. She was getting more animated as she spoke, her eyes shining.
“If Stannis secures my support and I ask them, the bannermen of the North will follow him. Oh yes, they are scattered and beaten after they lost their king, but they will regroup and come back. And they will follow a new war leader if he can offer them something worth following.”
“And what would that be? Another war far away from their lands to support a southern king?” Sandor looked amused.
“No. Think about it; Stannis is probably the most honourable man in Westeros – if possible even more honourable than my father. He has often said that the only reason he took up his cause was because he was the rightful heir and it was his duty. Stannis is not an ambitious man nor vengeful, only just. Once the dragons conquer Westeros, Stannis does not have to be the true heir anymore. And conquer they will, with live dragons and soldiers from across the sea and many of the seven kingdoms, tired of war, joining them.”
Jaime started to understand what Sansa meant. It was well known that Stannis would have never supported Robert’s Rebellion except for his sense of brotherly duty. He had scoffed at the reasons for starting it; Stannis had thought it to be beneath the head of House Baratheon to be drawn into a war because of a woman. He had served the Targaryens well in the past, and if House Targaryen was to return to the throne, he would more likely side with them than keep on fighting for his own rule. Yet Stannis was also a proud man and would not readily submit to conquerors. He needed leverage and Sansa planned to offer him exactly that.
Jaime was impressed. Could this be the same young girl who had dreamt of knights and tourneys and giggled with her friends when he first saw her?
“So you will promise Stannis the support of the North, but only so he can have the leverage in his negotiations with the Dragons to allow him an honourable retreat?” Jaime said slowly. Comprehension had lit Sandor’s face just a moment earlier – he had clearly also grasped what Sansa intended.
“Yes, but as Stannis would be only the war leader of the northern forces and not their true lord, these negotiations would also require my involvement. Being just a weak woman, I would of course listen to the advice of my war leader – or so they would think. I intend to bend the knee as long as the Targaryens offer the North the same liberties we have had since the time of Aegon the Conqueror.”
“What if the dragons don’t win this war? What if King Tommen with the Lannister and Tyrell forces hold King’s Landing?” Sandor leaned closer to hear how she would respond to this scenario. He was a soldier but an experienced one, and knew enough of battle strategies to see this only as an extension of those, only fought with words and alliances rather than weapons.
“That is not a possibility. They may hold on for a little while longer but eventually they will lose. Do you want to know why? Because the Lannisters and the Tyrells don’t trust each other. Such an alliance may work when times are good and there is no real opposition, but when times get hard and their backs are against the wall, we all know that they will turn against each other. Queen Cersei will bear the biggest responsibility for this, of course.”
Jaime cursed impotently, knowing Sansa to be right. Cersei, what were you thinking?
“Even in the unlikely event that they push the dragons back across the sea, the people of Westeros who have unified against King Tommen can’t go back to the way things were. They need a new challenger for the throne and with Stannis they have one. All the other leaders of the War of Five Kings have died; Joffrey, Renly, Balon Greyjoy…and Robb.” At that Sansa’s voice softened and suddenly she sounded like a young girl again, not a grown woman planning political strategies. For a moment she was quiet but then lifted her head.
“If that should happen, I would bend the knee to Stannis and rule as the Warden of the North.”
Both Jaime and Sandor looked at her with astonishment. The plan…sounded like it might just work, but Jaime noticed a weakness in it.
“If you do not marry and your sister Arya is truly lost, what will happen? House Stark is not going to last long without heirs.”
Sansa looked uncomfortable and sighed. “I know. I still hope Brienne finds Arya but if she doesn’t, I will do my duty and marry. Even in that case my husband would only be my consort, not my lord. He would also be of my own choosing, not somebody else’s.”
Jaime looked at her and wondered what kind of man she would pick. Somehow he didn’t think it would be a young, gallant knight. Perhaps an older, wiser man? He would have to be a lord and from an old family, an established house– the North needed strong alliances. He coughed. “It seems we have established that you do have a plan. Rest assured, we will support you.”
Sandor looked at Jaime with an expression he couldn’t read and nodded briefly. Jaime got up and retrieved the first pieces of roasted meat. Fox meat was not considered a delicacy, but beggars were not choosers and in these woods they were grateful for any scraps of fresh food. Soon they were digging into their meals, the only sounds those of bones crushing and lips smacking.
“Why did you come after us?” Sansa and Sandor were riding side-by-side on a rocky path requiring a slow pace to prevent their horses from stumbling. Jaime was riding ahead, scouting the route.
Sandor didn’t respond to her query but stared resolutely ahead. Sansa wasn’t sure if he would answer the question that had been niggling in her mind ever since he joined them, but she had to ask.
“Sandor, you didn’t have to leave the Quiet Isle and you didn’t have to follow us. You owe nothing to either me or Jaime. So why did you come?” Sansa directed her horse closer to his so that their legs were almost touching and turned her face towards him. Sandor’s silence descended over him like a shield and she felt it thwarting her attempts
Eventually Sandor swallowed, his expression taut. His big hands gripped the reins tightly. “What does it matter? I am here now, isn’t that enough?”
“It does matter to me. I…would like to understand. You are not the same man you were at King’s Landing. Your rage has abated. Is it because of the Quiet Isle? Brienne told us you wore the robes. Were you truly a brother of the Seven?”
Sandor snorted. “Hells, the Elder Brother tried to make me one but I didn’t give my vows. I haven’t given them to men and can’t see why I would give them to the gods.”
“Did you find peace there? And will you be risking that peace if you return to the world of men?” Sansa had prayed for the Mother to gentle the rage inside him – had the Mother answered? What would happen if Sandor returned to the world which had shunned him and believed him to be a dog, useful only for killing? She hated to think that his rage would come back because he had chosen to follow her and Jaime.
After another long silence, only punctuated by the sound of horses’ hooves on the soft ground, Sandor continued. “I should have protected you better at King’s Landing. When you were beaten by those bloody knights, I just stood there and did nothing. Even that last night…I put a dagger to your throat. Later I thought you had disappeared and mayhap even died. All that time you were so close. I could have protected you from that fucking Littlefinger had I known.” His voice was tense, restrained, his words coming haltingly.
“When I heard you were alive, I had to come. I did owe you that.” Sandor turned to Sansa and studied her intently under his brow. His grey eyes looked lighter in the bright daylight, moving from her face to her neck, then to her hands holding the reins. She felt self-conscious under that gaze, but not perturbed.
“You did protect me. Many times. You told me about the real world and warned me about the dangers that surrounded me. It helped me then - and later. You couldn’t have done anything more without losing your head. And that night…you didn’t hurt me although you could have. You offered to take me home.” There was something else that tugged at the back of Sansa’s mind.
“Why did you think you had a duty to protect me? I was your king’s betrothed, but if he didn’t care, why should you?” Sansa couldn’t understand why she had this burning need to know what drove Sandor. Could he have thought of her as she had thought of him during their years of separation?
So many times she had looked back at her time in King’s Landing. In addition to the anxiety and unhappiness which still overwhelmed her, she had recognised that in the background there had also been a feeling of someone watching over her. It had been him, she knew. She had seen and felt his proximity wherever she went in the Red Keep and during the events and functions of the court. Always surreptitious, in the shadows. Whenever she had turned to look, he had been there, silently observing. Initially it had alarmed her, his gaze pressing on her heavily, but later she had learned to accept it and to look forward to it. His presence had conferred a peace and calm which was otherwise in short supply. Neither of them had acknowledged it in words, just as they had not acknowledged parts of their past to each other since their reunion. Maybe Sandor was right. Maybe it was enough to just have him there, to have his skills as a warrior in her service. Why do I care?
Yet again there was a long silence. Too long. Sandor looked ahead, refusing to face her. Before Sansa had gathered courage to ask again, Jaime returned to warn them about a particularly rocky patch ahead, and they had to dismount and continue by foot. Amidst all that she never got her answer.
Later that evening, Jaime came to Sansa while she was unpacking their bags for the night. He helped her to unload them and asked in a casual tone: “What did you say to our travelling companion today? He seems particularly irked tonight.” They glanced at Sandor who was attending the horses, checking their hooves for stones. He was usually calm and serene with them, having a natural instinct with animals, but tonight he was snapping at their slightest movement.
Sansa blushed. ”Oh, I only asked why he came after us. I wanted to know why he left the Quiet Isle when he owed no service to either of us.”
Jaime raised an eyebrow. “And what did he say?”
“He…said he owed me for the time he didn’t help me at King’s Landing, or didn’t protect me from Littlefinger. I wish he could understand that is not true – he did help me, more than anyone else. How could he have known about me being in the Vale?” She felt a sudden need to justify Sandor’s actions to Jaime.
“Why did he feel he needed to help you at all? He never served House Stark and you were not even a Lannister at that time.” Jaime showed the same curiosity about the matter that Sansa had.
“I asked him that but he didn’t answer.” They glanced at the focus of their discussion again. Sandor was still pushing the horses around with a scowl in his face.
Jaime leaned closer to Sansa, his voice conspiratorial. “He is, if nothing else, loyal. He has always had a master; first my father, then Cersei and finally Joffrey. He may yearn for a master again. It seems that for whatever reason he has chosen you. So if you want a man like him in your service, you might do well to accept it and bind him to you.”
Sansa looked at him uncomprehendingly. “But I have nothing to offer him! I have no lands, no coin, not even a secure house. Maybe my quest is a folly. If Stannis refuses to hear me, I am nothing but one more displaced soul wandering the realm amidst this war. Why would he want to bind himself to me?”
Jaime considered that for a moment and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe those things don’t matter to him. Maybe what you have is better than what you said you don’t have. I am following you for my own reasons. Maybe he has his own reasons too.”
Sansa thought about her discussion with Jaime for a long time that night. The steady breathing next to her indicated that Sandor had already fallen asleep. She turned to look at him in the pale moonlight; the strong jawline, the stubble covering his good cheek and the mouth that twitched slightly as he slept. His hands were resting under his head, the long fingers slightly curled. They were killer’s hands, strong and skilled. Yet these same hands had also dabbed her bleeding lip gently, and had tugged her tenderly under the furs. She made her decision