Sansa noticed the strangers first.
They had just stopped for a midday break when six men silently emerged from the forest. Sandor noticed Sansa tensing and followed her gaze, stiffening in turn and drawing himself up to his full height
The men were dressed in a motley collection of clothing and armed with a haphazard assortment of swords, war hammers, spears and axes. They were mountain men for sure; big, strong and silent, and their faces bore a wide streak of ochre across the forehead. For a moment Sansa was puzzled: why were these men so far away from the Vale? By now they should already be close to the Neck, well away from the areas where the mountain clans resided.
The arrivals approached them from all sides, wary but not aggressive - yet. One of them, a short man carrying a highly-decorated, old-fashioned sword, spoke.
“Coming from the South, eh? Not often we see southrons in these woods.”
Jaime stepped forward to meet him, raising his arms slowly in a non-threatening gesture.
“We are from the Westerlands, on our way to the North and mean no harm to anyone. We’ll be out of your lands soon enough.”
Sansa admired the way he could spoke so casually and confidently, as if he still were the noble lord among his smallfolk.
The short man gaped at him, his grin revealing an uneven row of teeth. “That you will, no doubt. But you see, the thing is that Hagga here has taken a liking to that woman of yours. Reckons he has never seen anything so small and pretty.” He pointed to a massive man who was indeed staring at Sansa with his mouth agape. He was not as tall as Sandor, but much broader, and his body appeared ridiculously disproportioned. His bulging neck muscles made his head look as if it was planted directly onto his torso, and his chest and arms were much wider than his lower body. Sansa stared at his unkempt blond hair, his painted face and the thick, straw-coloured beard covering it and felt panic washing over her. No, never!
Sansa had only recently started to truly relax in her sleep, despite trusting her companions implicitly. At first, when they had laid down on their bedrolls for the night and she had felt Sandor’s arm brushing hers, or had woken up finding herself pressed close to him, she hadn’t been able to suppress an involuntary urge to pull away. She had tried to summon up what the comfort of being close had meant to her earlier; the nights huddled next to Arya, the rare occasions when Lord Eddard had been away and Sansa had been allowed to sleep next to her mother – even the nights she had shared with good-natured Miranda Royce in her big soft bed. That those few nights with Petyr had poisoned the pleasure exasperated her beyond measure.
Yet gradually her aversion had subsided as she had noticed that Sandor’s touches were not deliberate. If he had woken up and noticed his arm against her or her head leaning against his shoulder, he had withdrawn without saying a word. Over time Sansa’s tension had eased and she had started to feel safe within her own boundaries.
At that point, the prospect of the monstrous man taking her for his own was so terrifying that she felt her innards coiling to a tight knot. The fact that she now knew what it would entail made it even worse. Just the thought of him touching her, pressing his massive body against hers… Sansa swallowed nervously, feeling bile rising in her throat. She knew Jaime and Sandor would not give her up without a fight – but there were six of them! She felt sick, not only for herself but for her companions.
“We are Painted Dogs and have been following you for a while now. We know it is only three of you, and as you can see, we are more. So if you just give us the woman, you two can continue on your way. ‘Tis a fair deal, better than being killed, eh?” The other men moved closer and soon Sansa, Jaime and Sandor were completely enclosed within the circle they formed.
Jaime responded, still in a casual tone, “You see, my good man, we can’t do that. This woman doesn’t want to go with your friend Hagga.” He too glanced at the gigantic warrior and grimaced. “We saw some mountain sheep grazing a while back. I am sure he would find a willing bride among them.”
Some of the men laughed but Hagga growled and reached for his battle axe. The leader – at least Sansa assumed so - furrowed his brow and held his hand up, stopping the angry man.
“Don’t care for your tone, southron. Mayhap we should just kill you here and now and get it over with. But I see that you carry mighty weapons, so it could get messy. This friend of yours looks like he could do some damage. Is he a Burned Man? Looks feisty.” He looked at Sandor, who stared back at him threateningly. Sandor’s arms hung loosely at his sides, ready to draw the sword on his hip at the slightest provocation.
For a moment nobody spoke. Sansa felt her chest tightening as the increasing feeling of terror constricted her breathing.
“I’ll tell you what – no need to be rash about this. We don’t particularly want to fight you when it offers no benefit to us. If the owner of the woman fights Hagga and wins, you all can go. If he loses, the woman belongs to Hagga and you two can go – if there is anything left of the one who fights. Sounds fair, eh?”
Jaime and Sandor exchanged a quick glance, excluding Sansa from their silent communication.
“Which one of you claims this woman?” The leader looked from Jaime to Sandor.
“The woman is mine,” Sandor snarled and stepped forward.
Sansa’s heart skipped. She knew it made sense for Sandor to claim her, as he was stronger and able-bodied and thus had a better chance against the mountain man. Still, to hear him say it… The cold dread engulfing her subsided slightly.
The clearing was soon prepared for a fight. The mountain men stood in a wide circle, Jaime and Sansa held among them at sword-point to make sure they would not interfere. The combatants had chosen their weapons – a battle axe for Hagga, a two-handed broadsword for Sandor – and circled each other slowly in the middle.
Sansa felt a new wave of panic rising. She didn’t doubt Sandor’s fighting skills, but he had resided on the Quiet Isle for years. Had he had a chance to practice? Was he as fit as before, as quick and ruthless? The rage in him had subsided - could that be his undoing? The mountain man was also unusually big and strong. Sansa chanted a quiet prayer to the Warrior in her mind
She saw Jaime staring at Sandor. He looked worried and Sansa was afraid to think that he might share her doubts. She would have touched his hand to assure him, and herself, but didn’t want to rouse the men surrounding them.
The fighters took their time before the first blows were exchanged. Hagga swung his battle axe to Sandor’s left, but he barred it easily enough. The clank of metal echoed through Sansa’s heart and she closed her eyes. It suddenly came to her that all her hopes and dreams might die here, in this field, destroyed by cold steel from the mountains. If Sandor should lose… Jaime would try to protect her, but six men against one maimed warrior could only lead to one outcome. Sansa resolved to fight, no matter how futile it would be. She would not yield, she would refuse to go meekly. She touched the dagger she kept on her waist through the folds of her dress. Her decision would mean certain death for her too, and the thought of dying in this quiet forest in the Vale bothered her. Her legend would live on as the girl who killed the king and turned into a wolf. Sandor would forever be known as the Butcher of Saltpans, and Jaime – what would be his legacy? A Lion lost, the Kingslayer who vanished?
When she opened her eyes she saw Sandor lunging towards Hagga, driving his sword at him surprisingly fast for such a large man. Hagga turned, avoiding the thrust, swung his hand back and let another huge blow fall upon Sandor. Had he stayed where he was, the blow would have cleaved his skull, but he had already moved to the other side of the clearing and now struck his sword at Hagga’s side. He redirected the sword with his axe but Sandor kept the movement going and swirled around, aiming another blow as a continuation of the first. Hagga avoided that, but all the defensive work he had to do meant he didn’t have a chance to mount his own attack. The hairy warrior was breathing like a bull and growing increasingly frustrated.
They continued in the same vein for a while; Sandor attacking, Hagga blocking . Every now and then Hagga swung his axe for what was intended to be a killing strike, but Sandor skipped away, mounting his counterattacks in a series of fluid thrusts, ducks and turns. Watching him, Sansa felt silly about her earlier doubts – this man was still as skilful as ever. The rage had also returned, showing in the way his eyes burned and his bared teeth gritted against each other as he eyed his opponent. Was it due to a threat to his own life or hers, she wondered. She had caught Sandor’s gaze when he was preparing for the fight and although they couldn’t talk, she had tried to express her anxiety, trust and gratitude to him through her eyes. Sandor had narrowed his and looked at her long and hard, before nodding slightly as if understanding what she wanted to communicate.
Suddenly one of Hagga’s blows went through Sandor’s defences – it didn’t hit him blade first, but the flat side of the axe met his right arm and hip hard enough to make him stumble. Sandor fell on his knees and the mountain men started to snicker and shout encouragement at Hagga to finish the southron. Sansa gasped and clutched her throat, horror at what she was seeing jolting through her like lightning.
Hagga approached Sandor with his battle axe poised to strike. Sandor’s arm and hip must have been hurt by the force of the blow as he was still struggling to get on his feet, his sword hand resting on the ground, still clutching the hilt. Suddenly it looked as if he made a decision and stopped trying. A two-handed sword was exactly what the name implied – intended to be held with both hands, but with Sandor’s arm temporarily useless it appeared he wouldn’t be able to retaliate or even protect himself. Hagga drew near him cautiously.
As the spectators cheered at the scene in front of them, Sandor suddenly grasped his sword with his left hand, lifted it and swung it in a wide horizontal arc, cutting Hagga’s belly open. The giant stopped in his tracks and his innards, a tightly-coiled bloody tangle, burst out, dangling from the gaping hole Sandor’s sword had made. The only sounds that could be heard were Sandor’s heavy breathing, Hagga’s surprised grunt and after a moment, a loud thump as Hagga’s lifeless body fell to the ground.
Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and her mouth formed a silent word of thanks to the Warrior. Jaime grabbed her arm and murmured urgently, “Be ready to leave now, the sooner we get out of here the better.” He dragged Sansa towards their horses outside the clearing and helped her into the saddle, mounting Honor himself.
The mountain men were milling about in confusion – the outcome of the fight was clearly not what they had expected. Sandor had gotten on his feet and shouted to the leader. “We will leave now with the woman - Hagga lost fair and square!” He whistled to Stranger who came to him. Sandor mounted him with difficulty and started towards Jaime and Sansa.
The leader was clearly displeased and pointed to two of his men. “Hagga may be gone but I suddenly have a liking for that woman of yours. Small and pretty and has already caused the death of one of my best men. Somebody has to pay for this, and it might as well be she. Men, take her!”
Two men reached for Sansa’s horse, grabbing its reins and pushing Jaime away. Sansa saw that and tried to force her horse to ride over the men, but they were too strong and held the horse too tightly for her to be able to move. She threw a panicked look at her companions. Jaime was trying to get to her but as the mountain men pulled her horse towards the centre of the clearing, they also prevented Jaime’s horse approaching. Sandor on Stranger was still too far away to reach them. She was trapped.
Suddenly she saw Sandor urging Stranger into a canter, careering directly towards her. As they gained speed he bellowed to her, “Trust me, little bird!” She didn’t know what he meant but followed his approach, ready for anything. Jaime had also seen him and, apparently realising what to expect, had directed Honor towards the remaining group of the men, thus effectively blocking their way to Sansa and their companions.
Sandor and Stranger, acting as one, were a terrifying sight. Sandor’s battle rage had not yet left him and there was ferocity in his face that made even the hard mountain warriors hesitate. As they hit the small group Stranger reared up, thrashing his hoofs at the terrified men and Sandor leaned from the saddle and extended his arm towards Sansa. She knew instinctively what he intended and leaned towards him, clasping her arms around his neck and shoulders, and used her legs to push herself from her own saddle. It was all over in a second, Sansa clinging to Sandor with all her strength as they galloped ahead. Jaime and Honor, who had kept the other men at bay, turned and followed them.
Sansa heard angry shouts behind them and as she glanced towards the noise, she saw spears thrown at them. They were nonetheless already so far away that the projectiles rattled harmlessly to the ground behind them. The Painted Dogs had travelled on foot, so she knew they were safe if they just kept going. Sansa was still sitting astride Stranger facing Sandor, who clutched her waist tightly with one hand, the other on the reins. She felt herself pressed so tightly against him she could hardly breathe. I am safe. Once again he has saved me. Relief flooded her veins and she felt weak, as the terror that had held her in its grip gradually subsided. Safe.
They continued beyond the last mountain pass, riding until exhaustion and the need to feed and water the horses forced them to stop late in the afternoon. By then both Jaime and Sandor were confident they were out of immediate danger, but they still wanted to clear the Vale as soon as possible and hence kept the breaks to a minimum and continued at steady pace until the nightfall. If Painted Dogs were far away from their mountains, who knew what else lurked around?
The area they chose for the night was next to a small stream surrounded by a dense forest of pines, a few steps away from the small path they had followed for the last few hours. Having lost everything Sansa’s horse had carried, they didn’t have enough bedrolls or furs for all of them, but Jaime laid what they had on the ground. Luckily Sansa’s most precious belongings had been saved in the deep pockets of her dress. Too tired to worry about eating, they wrapped themselves in furs and cloaks, huddling close to each other. There was no need for words or dwelling on what had happened. They had survived, and that was all that mattered for now.
As Sansa lay next to Sandor, she reached to move his arm around her shoulders, pressing herself into the crook of his arm. Once again this man, a killer and a brute, had come between her and disaster. What was she to think of it? Sansa then stretched across his broad chest to clasp Jaime’s hand, squeezing it tightly. Jaime looked at her, surprised, but seeing her tired smile he reciprocated it and raised her fingers to his lips for a chaste kiss. The feeling of security Sansa had experienced in Sandor’s arms ever since he had plucked her to safety had overwhelmed her and made her forget all her previous reservations.
All she wanted was to be enveloped even further in that protection and forget herself; forget she had ever been afraid or threatened or unsafe. Sansa allowed tears of relief and gratitude to fall upon her cheeks. Her last conscious thought before succumbing to an exhausted sleep was about a wolf pack and how a lone wolf dies, but a pack survives. Her father had said that once to Arya, who had told it to her. She had not truly understood it then, and not for a long time afterwards, but now she realised exactly what her father had meant. My pack.
When they woke up, groggy and still tired, Sansa embraced her companions, once more trying to express her gratitude. Although she knew words alone were not enough, she thanked them in heartfelt sentences, but neither Sandor nor Jaime wanted to hear any of it. Jaime made a jape about usually rescuing only maidens, which made them all laugh. Even Sandor let go of his usual seriousness and grinned.
Sansa insisted on seeing to Sandor’s hurts and he removed his tunic grumpily to show dark red welts, gradually turning to a deep purple hue, on his right arm and hip. As Sansa slid her hand along his arm to check for wounds, and squeezed her hands hard around it to look for broken bones, he winced – but didn’t remove his arm from her grasp. The bruises on his hip continued below the waistband of his breeches but when Sansa insisted he lower them, Sandor resolutely refused. It was a low-voiced discussion between him and Jaime that convinced them that Sandor had not suffered anything more serious than bruising
As Sandor was pulling the tunic back over his head, Sansa could not help letting her eyes wander along his body. She had never seen a man without a shirt in clear daylight, notwithstanding a few field workers - and her brothers, who had hardly been men when she had seen them last. She knew Sandor was big, but had assumed he would appear smaller without his armour, hauberk or tunic. Yet against her expectations the sight of his upper body, with its clearly outlined muscles and the dark hair covering his chest, made him appear even bigger - and even more intimidating.
She noticed that he bore more burn scars on his left arm. They were not quite as bad as those on his face, but bad enough. Sandor had not mentioned those in his story about Gregor, so Sansa supposed they must have been more recent. She tried to recall if she had seen him hurt on the night of the Blackwater Bay, feeling an acute pang of pity that he, who hated fire so much, had clearly been hurt by it more than once. While Sansa averted her eyes, slightly embarrassed at the thought of being caught staring at him so unashamedly, she saw to her surprise that Jaime was looking at Sandor. His eyes had narrowed and there was a hungry look on his face. She thought it odd, but decided he too must have been worried about his companion’s injuries.
They made good progress towards the Neck after clearing the mountains. Jaime and Sandor anticipated that they would make it to the Neck in a week or so, hoping to meet the crannogmen who were traditional allies and bannermen of the North. With their help they should be able to gather more provisions to allow them to continue their journey to Winterfell
Sansa rode alternately with Jaime and Sandor, sitting astride in front of them. When she rode with Jaime, he told her stories and made her laugh, pretending to be a gallant knight rescuing a fair maiden. Sansa enjoyed these moments and felt safe in the circle of his arms, listening to his low voice as he recited tales of long-gone heroes and beautiful ladies. Jaime’s stories always included sarcastic comments and observations of the frailties of even the most stalwart and honourable characters, and by now Sansa was so disillusioned by the ideal of heroic knights that these additional insights only titillated her and made her laugh harder.
Her rides with Sandor were quieter. Initially Sansa pressed her back against his chest and closed her eyes, adjusting to Stranger’s gait and his steady breathing against the top of her head. She felt secure, as she had been feeling since their escape. Fleetingly she remembered feeling the same way after the riots in King’s Landing but then she had attributed it to her relief at being saved from the crowd. Now she thought it was something more, something that only this man was able to offer her. Protection, care, hope. Every now and then she felt his powerful thighs tensing as he guided the horse with his legs, the feeling against the back of her thighs provoking strange sensations in her. Not unpleasant – on the contrary. She wondered idly why she didn’t feel the need to withdraw from the touch as she would have expected. Maybe it was because it was not intentional, and she trusted him.
Sansa also wanted to know more about him, so during the many hours they picked their way through the forest, across the fields and bushland, she asked Sandor questions; small, inconsequential questions about where had he acquired Stranger, did he like horses or dogs better, did he miss the Quiet Isle. She also asked him more important questions; why had he truly stolen Arya, why hadn’t he forsaken her by the time it had become clear that there were no Starks left to ransom her to, how had he found Arya in their travels together? Sansa also ventured to ask the question to which she had not received the answer earlier; why had he protected and advised her in the King’s Landing even though he didn’t have to?
Some of the questions Sandor answered; he had purchased Stranger with his winnings from the Tourney of the Hand; he had stolen Arya in retaliation for the Brotherhood Without Banners taking his gold; he just had not had time to figure what to do next by the time his brother’s men had caught up with them in the Crossroads Inn. And Arya had been a pain in the arse – but even as he said so, Sansa could see a slight smirk on his face telling otherwise. As for the question of why he had protected her earlier, he only snorted and told her that he hadn’t; he had only been annoyed by her chirping and had wanted to teach her lessons about real life.
Most of all, Sansa wanted to ask him about the night when he had come to her covered in blood and despair, and had left in silence, leaving only his cloak and the traces of his tears on her hand. She had the words ready, but could not say them. The small concessions he granted her, the things he told her of his own volition, were too fragile to be disturbed, so she swallowed her curiosity and settled for the little insights she gleaned about this strange man during their rides together.
When they travelled together, every now and then Sansa glanced over her shoulder at Sandor’s face. As always, he looked impassive, grey eyes inscrutable, jaw slightly tensed. She had learned to read his expressions over time and understood that the corner of his mouth twitched because he was annoyed or because he was amused, that his eyes were soft if something pleased him, or that they were slanted and hard in the face of danger. However, over the last several days she started to notice the wall he had carried around him earlier returning. She had first seen the wall in King’s Landing, the barricade that shut everyone out. It had seemed to crumble, bit by bit, as they had travelled across the Vale – but now it seemed to have come back. Why that should be, she could not understand. Had she said or done something that made him retreat back inside his own world?
Gradually the tension between them took hold of them both. When Sansa was riding with Sandor he deliberately moved her further in front so she could not lean against him. She was still safe and comfortable, but she missed the feel of him. Dark thoughts seemed to have taken hold of him and she could not reach through them. If Jaime noticed any of that, he didn’t comment - and Sansa was too uncomfortable about raising the issue. And so they rode on - so close, yet so far.