After they had established their camp the following evening, Sansa made her preparations. She retreated into the woods to hide them from her companions. If I am going to do this, I will do it as well as I can. Although she had few belongings, she had taken at least one good dress and some jewellery from the Vale. Among the trinkets were a simple gold and silver circlet her mother had worn and her own silver direwolf brooch. Sansa changed into the good dress; a heavy, warm dark grey with lighter grey-and-white embroidery depicting leaves and trees around the hem and neckline. After brushing her hair until it shone and tying it back from her face in the northern fashion, she cautiously placed the circlet on her head. She then used the brooch to clasp the Kingsguard cloak over her shoulders. His cloak. Sansa recalled the expression on Sandor’s face when he had seen it; surprise, incredulity, then something akin to shame. Despite his reaction he had nonetheless never mentioned the cloak to her.
Sansa entered the clearing where Jaime and Sandor were preparing their meal. Another hare caught that day was now roasting and wafting a delicious aroma all around them. First Jaime, then Sandor lifted their heads, both stopping what they were doing to stare at her.
She felt nervous but approached Sandor, who was kneeling on the ground next to the fire, stopping only a few paces in front of him.
“Sandor, of House Clegane of Clegane Keep, with Jaime of House Lannister of Casterly Rock bearing witness, I ask you: Do you want to transfer your allegiance to me – as Lady Lannister or Lady Stark?” If he accepts me as Lady Lannister, I have to ask him again once my marriage is annulled. “Do you want to be my sworn man, always have a place at my side as I will have at yours, always have room in my hearth and house, meat and mead at my table, and do service to me, but only such service that will not bring you into dishonour?”
Sandor stared at her open-mouthed. Then he studied her appearance from the top of her head all the way to her feet. Sansa swallowed nervously, feeling his eyes burning on her body. Will he refuse? What if Jaime was wrong? Jaime had stood up and was now watching them, a half-smile on his face.
After a silence during which the only sound Sansa could hear was her own heart thumping loudly, Sandor nodded solemnly.
“Aye, I will. I will swear you no oaths or vows, as you should know, little bird. What I can tell you here and now is that I will shield you, protect you from harm, keep your counsel and offer you mine, and give my life for yours if need be. I will promise that to neither Lady Lannister nor Lady Stark, but to you, Sansa.” He remained on his knees. Sansa knew Sandor to be uncomfortable about traditional oath-giving, but as he was already bent down, he seemed content to stay as he was.
She was unsure what she should do next. She had seen men swearing fealty to her father, but hadn’t paid attention to the details – and clearly Sandor was not going to do it traditionally anyway. Nervously Sansa pointed at his broadsword, still in its scabbard on his back. “Do you want to give me your sword?”
He smiled crookedly, but reached to remove the weapon and placed it on the ground in front of him, the hilt pointing towards Sansa. She bent to take it and was surprised at its weight. The death of so many. Is that what makes it so heavy? She lifted it, struggling. “Please accept this, and arise.” She had to bite her tongue as she caught herself almost saying Ser, the title he hated.
He took the sword back from her, slid it back into its scabbard and rose. Sansa suddenly felt very small, dwarfed by Sandor as he looked down at her. He still wore that crooked smile and nodded solemnly to her. “Let’s eat.”
Jaime came to her later to offer congratulations. “That was well done. You truly look like Lady Stark, and behaved accordingly. Lord Eddard would have been proud of you.” Sansa smiled, still slightly nervous about her first act as the new Lady Stark, but light-hearted about her success
“Do you know why he didn’t accept you as Lady Lannister or Lady Stark?” Jaime continued. Sansa shook her head; she had wondered about it.
“It means he intends to stay with you. If you get married – or gods forbid, get back together with my brother – he could be taken away from your service to serve the house of your husband. Maidens with a sworn shield usually lose them once they wed, as it is considered the duty of a husband to protect his wife.” Sansa nodded, curious about what that revelation meant.
“By choosing to give his promise to you alone, without the allegiance to your house, he intends to remain with you and you alone even after you get married. Which is interesting.” They both turned to look at Sandor, who was now removing the roasted hare from the fire. Jaime started to whistle under his breath and wandered over to join him. Sansa stayed standing and stared after him, considering the implications of what she had just heard.
“Where do you think the little bird got the notion of staging the whole bloody knighting and oaths ceremony?” Sandor asked Jaime the next day as they were riding next to each other. They were crossing a wide clearing in the middle of the forest, a natural opening formed by a forest fire many years ago from the looks of it. Sansa was a few paces behind them, just out of earshot.
Jaime looked at him sharply. His tone had been neutral, his behaviour controlled. Jaime found the fact that he had asked the question interesting.
“You didn’t like it? You could have declined, you know.” He tried to avoid answering directly and revealing his own role.
“I would have thought her to have outgrown all that buggery by now, that’s all. Grown up to see the real world.” Sandor didn’t sound angry, but rather matter-of-fact.
“She didn’t actually ask you to cite any vows and didn’t refer to you as a knight. I suspect that had you not already been kneeling, she wouldn’t have asked you to do that either. All I heard was her asking for your allegiance and service.” Jaime felt bolder and continued, wondering if Sandor had noticed the same subtleties he had.
“If you didn’t happen to notice, she not only asked you to stay at her side, but also pledged to stay at yours. If you made a promise to her, she also made a promise to you.” They rode in silence for a while. Jaime had learned that this man was not quick to respond to such revelations - he took his time. Whether it was traces of the Quiet Isle and the silence expected from the brothers, or he simply did not care to converse in the swift courtly manner, Jaime didn’t know nor care. He had learned to adapt to Sandor’s pace, enjoying company where silence was comfortable and not something to be avoided and filled with pointless chatter.
“Has she asked for your oath? Or why do you still follow her?” Sandor grunted. Jaime realised that he had never discussed his role with Sansa or how long he would stay with her. Once they returned to Winterfell his oath to Catelyn Stark regarding Sansa would be fulfilled. Would he turn around and go after Brienne to help her find Arya Stark – or would he stay? Would she ask him to stay? And if she asked, would he?
“No, she hasn’t,” Jaime admitted. “She only asked you.”
“Would you give it to her if she did?” Sandor glanced at him questioningly. Jaime considered for a long time.
“I believe I would. My lord father would roll in his grave if he heard a Lannister promising allegiance to a Stark!” he laughed. “If she doesn’t ask me, mayhap I’ll ask her someday. My word wouldn’t probably mean much to her, as I am a known oathbreaker, but I would give her a promise just as you did. What would you say to that?” Jaime wondered if the continuing presence of a Lannister would bother Sandor. He had, after all, left his house on bad terms.
“It would be up to her. If she accepts you, I suppose I would too.” Sandor’s grey eyes were taking his measure now. Jaime was acutely aware of his stump and the fact that his best fighting days were over. “I have served with worse. Much worse. The bloody Kingsguard, most of them fools and cowards and spineless bastards. You would be a step up from them for sure.”
Jaime couldn’t help the relief flooding over him. He had started to feel close to this brooding man over the last few weeks, as strange as it was. They were both outcasts now, serving the same cause: Sansa Stark. The nights they had slept next to each other had heightened the feeling of closeness.
“Why did you choose to help her anyway? The Maid of Tarth muttered something about an oath made to her mother, but as you say yourself, they don’t mean much.” Sandor’s question was pointed and Jaime had a feeling that much depended on his answer. He sighed.
"I am not sure if I can explain this to you. I haven’t been very good at explaining it to anyone else; not to her, not to myself. I think Brienne understood, but she is such an honourable knight even she might have mistaken my meaning.” For some reason it was important for Jaime that Sandor was aware of his reasons, and didn’t judge him.
“This is not about my honour as the knightly code defines it. I have broken many vows, and this one was extracted under duress anyway. So it is not about fulfilling my oath. I piss on that!” Jaime smiled but soon became serious again, trying to find the words before continuing.
“All my life I have held on to one solid truth, to something that anchored me in my reality. It helped me through my time with the Mad King Aerys, all through Robert’s rule and the chaos of the War of Five Kings. This truth was not my own choosing. It just was.” Jaime realised his tone was almost pleading. He had rarely spoken with anyone about his relationship with Cersei, first out of necessity to keep it secret, later because most people were disgusted and didn’t want to know. And he hadn’t wanted to talk about it. Until now.
“You mean Cersei.” It was not a question but a statement. This time there was no pity in Sandor’s eyes, just silent understanding.
“Yes, Cersei. She was my anchor, now lost to me. Oh, save your breath - I always knew it was wrong in the eyes of the world. I also know that she has made many mistakes and done outright horrible things. Yet she was not always like that. She was fearless, strong, smart and beautiful – much like Sansa is now. When she was still young, she was sold to a man who didn’t care about her, and she was put into a mould she couldn’t break, for all her courage. So she changed. Over the years she transformed from the brave young girl I knew to a bitter woman whose only concern was for her children. Who were never mine,” Jaime sighed.
They rode on, crossing the clearing and entering the forest again. Sandor glanced back to see that Sansa was still following close to them, and Jaime was silently thankful that he stayed with him instead of going to her.
“So I have no truth in my life now and I feel lost. I suppose I am looking for something in which to anchor myself again, be it a cause, a place, a person or an ideal. Maybe I will find it in my honour as some men seem to do - as Barristan the Bold always did. Somehow he seemed to get away unscathed for abandoning his oaths to one king and swearing allegiance to another. Must be all that righteousness in him.” Jaime knew his voice betrayed a slight bitterness, not targeted specifically at the old man but at anyone whose life truths were simple and uncomplicated.
“You say ‘person’. Do you think Sansa will be your new Cersei?” There was a dangerous undertone in Sandor’s voice.
“No, she will not be my new Cersei. It is true that Sansa is all that Cersei used to be, and something more. I don’t want to see her forced into a life not her own choosing, losing all the good she has in her. She is not for me, that much I am sure of.”
Jaime wondered if Sandor entertained some wishful thoughts of her in his mind. It was clear he cared for Sansa, probably more than was appropriate for a sworn shield. Surely he knew that could never be? They were all close to each other here in the midst of the forests and mountains, but as soon as they returned to the world of men, he would go back being a sworn shield and she back to being a noble lady. Sansa would be expected to marry a high lord of standing equal to hers. Even if all that would not be deterrent enough, he was still a hideous-looking scarred warrior and a brute, and she was a woman of exquisite beauty and manners. What could they ever have in common?
Sandor did not respond nor change his expression, but Jaime thought he saw the tension in him relaxing ever so slightly.
“Aye, I think I understand what you are saying. For what it matters, you may not be alone in trying to find an anchor in this life,” Sandor said after a while. If that was an admission he found hard to make, it did not show in his countenance, as inscrutable as always
Jaime, encouraged by the intimacy of their discussion, changed the subject.
“You know, I never realised it was Gregor who burned your face. I always thought it was an accident of some sort.”
Sandor turned to him, slightly amused. “What difference would it have made? Gregor was always Lord Tywin’s chosen champion, the monster who did all the dirty work everyone else refused to do or couldn’t.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything, except for me. I wanted to be your friend when you first arrived at Casterly Rock, but I had to leave for King’s Landing.”
“I know.” That was all Sandor said before continuing as the words would have required an immense effort to come out. “At the time, I could have used one.”
Jaime thought about the angry young boy, shunned by his peers because of the way he looked. Would they have become friends had he stayed? Would Sandor’s life of hate and anger taken a different turn if he’d had even one person looking at him as a human rather than a beast?
“Is it too late now?” Jaime felt strange – this was not how men conversed. Men were competitive, they contested each other, or even if acting together, stood side-by-side and not facing each other like they were now doing.
After his customary long silence Sandor simply said, “No,” before turning around and moving to ride behind Sansa, as was their habit when riding single file to make sure she was protected from both sides.
Jaime was quiet for the rest of that day, still immersed in their discussion and the way Sandor had allowed him to make a small chink in the wall surrounding him.
As they rode, Jaime made a habit of observing his companions. Sandor was always alert, his eyes scanning the forest, the sky, the path in front of them. He sat erect on his black beast, controlling it with light hands on its reins. Man and beast were merged as one, a highly-strung creature designed for fighting and killing. His expression was passive - not angry, but focused, eyes slanted under dense brows and mouth set in a slight scowl. Every now and then Jaime saw him turning to glance at Sansa and his expression changed, his features softening imperceptibly as his eyes lingered on her before turning back to his endless scouting of the surroundings. Sometimes – but only rarely - Jaime felt he received an approving look from Sandor as well, if he had done something especially clever such as catching their evening meal or finding a shortcut through a difficult patch. The look was different but somehow similar, and he felt ridiculously pleased when it happened.
Sansa was getting better on a horse, starting to adapt to its rhythm and pace. Her hold on the reins was light and she had a habit of patting her horse slightly on the neck whenever they passed a particularly difficult stretch; a deep ridge, a fast stream, a narrow path with tree branches scratching them on both sides. Sometimes she hummed a quiet tune to herself that Jaime never quite made out. Her expression looked more contented, even happy sometimes. When Sandor turned to look at her, she smiled at him, a small but bright smile. Now and then she turned to look at Jaime and gave him the same smile, which lightened his mood. Jaime always smiled back at her, sometimes bowing at her, sometimes offering an encouraging comment about the distance they had travelled, how the weather looked favourable or some other comment intended to make her smile. Then Sansa’s grin increased and sometimes she laughed out loud at some jape Jaime made. When she did that, it only made him try harder to make her laugh the next time.
Sandor looked at them both then, initially frowning and sullen, but over time he started to participate in their cheerfulness. He didn’t laugh quite as loud as them but the twitch on his lips was a smile, and sometimes even a snort he couldn’t contain escaped him.
Their sleeping arrangements had not changed. They always tried to find the most sheltered spot for Sansa, Sandor lying next to her, then Jaime. Their initial reservations about the enforced closeness had melted away as had so many other remnants of their old lives and positions. The nights were mild and snuggly and the feel of warm human bodies was comforting.
Jaime woke up on several mornings with an arousal he couldn’t explain. He didn’t remember his dreams – had he imagined being with Cersei again? Or was it Sansa’s presence that affected him this way? He noticed Sandor having similar difficulties. One morning Sandor had turned on his side facing Jaime’s back, and he woke up feeling his hardness against his buttocks. Instead of moving away, Jaime stayed still. His mind raced; this was normal for any red-blooded man. He was sleeping and had probably dreamt he was pressing against his little bird. Jaime knew he should be repulsed. Yet Sandor was warm, his body felt strong and soothing at the same time, his hardness thrilling. Jaime closed his eyes and imagined how it would feel without clothes on. His mind wandered back to those cold nights on a rocky island in Ironman’s Bay many years ago. Then Sandor moved in his sleep, turning onto his back and the moment was gone.