On the second day after their escape they came across a modest settlement situated at the crossroads of several tracks meandering between the villages of the Vale and the Neck. Due to its critical location it boasted a welcome sight to all of them - an inn. The building leaned every which way and was covered with the green patina of countless years, but it was a place for food and drink, and they had coin.
Although the thought of soft mattresses and a warm fire was tempting, staying the night would have been too risky. Fresh provisions for them and their horses were what they needed so they debated who should get them. All three were easily recognisable; a one-handed blond nobleman, a huge scarred warrior and a beautiful highborn maiden. In the end Sansa won the argument about who would be best suited to play the part of a commoner. After all, there could be other pretty servant girls on the road, but men like Jaime and Sandor were sure to stand out.
Jaime felt his worthlessness once again, not being able to perform even this most mundane of tasks, but shook it off, focussing instead on helping Sansa. Her clothes were modest enough, but a few extra rags from Jaime’s saddle bag completed her appearance. She smeared her face with dirt dug up from the ground and Jaime taught her a few sentences of crude common speech.
“Say ‘m’lord wants food and drink’. Call the serving boy ‘lad’, or if it’s a serving girl, ‘wench’. No harm to be a bit haughty – you serve a lord who is better than these people, and you feel superior by association. Be sure to count the coins you give them – servants are always extra cautious when handling money.”
“And don’t forget the wine,” grumbled Sandor. “Gods, what I wouldn’t give for a sour Dornish red, but any cat’s piss they have will do for now.”
“Wouldn’t we be better off buying more food with our coin?” Sansa eyed Sandor doubtfully.
“Food will not last, wine will.”
“Not with you, I suspect,” Jaime added, amused by the look on Sansa’s face as she tried to decide whether she should assert herself on the issue.
“You will get us wine and that’s all there is to it. You will notice yourself there’s nothing like a drink to loosen up after a hard ride, little bird.”
“I would never!”
“Aye you will, and see for yourself. Now, hurry up or does your master have to go and get his own supplies?” Sandor pushed Sansa towards the inn, not ungently
Jaime played the part of the lord, waiting outside on Honor with his hair and maimed hand hidden in the folds of his cloak. At a respectable distance from him waited Sandor on Stranger’s back, hood covering his features, his hand on his sword hilt. Although they had seen no signs of soldiers, he had insisted on being on his guard. When Sansa entered the inn, Jaime shouted impatiently with his most commanding voice: “Fetch the food and drink quickly, girl, I don’t have the whole day to wait!”
Soon enough Sansa returned with two hessian bags on her shoulders and two sacks of horse fodder being carried behind her by a scrawny-looking young boy. After securing the bags to their saddles they rode away, Sansa in front of Jaime, and laughed like children after a good jest, mouths salivating in anticipation of a feast after monotonous meals of rabbits and forest birds. They scouted for a spot to enjoy the spoils of their mission until Sandor sighted a partially-collapsed barn a good distance away from the settlement. It was worn by many winters, but its slanted roof offered them the luxurious feeling of being inside four walls for the first time in weeks.
The feast they enjoyed that evening was superior to the best banquets in King’s Landing, Jaime thought: fresh bread, spicy sausages, pastries filled with bacon and peas, soft cheeses… and wine. Several skins of cheap strongwine, which tasted better in Jaime’s mouth than the finest Arbor red.
Jaime and Sandor shared a few skins between them and even Sansa drank some, urged on by Sandor. Unaccustomed to wine after being without for so long, they soon found themselves pleasantly drunk. That, combined with the abundance of fresh food and the roaring fire in the corner of the barn, rendered them in high spirits. Jaime gave a rendition of ribald tavern tunes which made Sansa blush, and in turn Sansa sang the song of Florian and Jonquil. Sandor cringed when Sansa started the story of famous lovers, but listened intently to all the verses all the way to the tragic end. After, he requested the Mother’s Hymn and Sansa sung it softly, her eyes on Sandor all through the song
Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray.
Stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know a better day.
Gentle Mother, strength of women, help our daughters through this fray.
Soothe the wrath and tame the fury, teach us all a kinder way.
Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray.
Stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know a better day.
Jaime felt a sting in his eyes; the familiar song seemed to have taken on a new meaning somewhere along the way from Casterly Rock to this ramshackle barn. War was familiar to him, but he had always been protected from its true consequences and the suffering it caused. Now he had seen the broken sons and daughters left behind when the glittering, heroic army had passed through. Glancing at the others to see if they had noticed his sentimentality, he saw to his surprise that Sandor’s eyes were gleaming. You too! Hells, are we becoming soft?
Sitting on the floor, wine coursing pleasantly through his veins, Jaime felt companionship as he had never felt before. He saw Sansa nibbling her pastry, fingers greasy from the filling oozing out. She laughed at something Sandor had said and threw her head back, hair glimmering in the firelight. She looked young and carefree and so much like the wide-eyed maiden Jaime had met at Winterfell all those years ago, it would have been easy to forget the dark path she had travelled
Sandor sat on the floor leaning against the wall, long legs bent at the knees and arms crossed over them, looking relaxed. Unlike in King’s Landing, wine had not made him sullen. He didn’t even seem to tense when Sansa placed her hand on his arm in an attempt to catch his attention. She explained something to Sandor - what, Jaime could not hear - but he saw her drawing figures in the air with her hand and Sandor leaning closer to hear her better.
Jaime had had good companions before; childhood friends, fellow adventurers in his youth and honest soldiers during his many campaigns. Yet never had he shared so much brutal honesty around the fire in the evenings as he had now – as they all had. Jaime had disclosed the shame he felt about his role in Tyrion’s brief first marriage. Sansa had squeezed his hand and cried, confessing how she wished she had known that before and how she regretted not being kinder to Tyrion.
Sansa had revealed being the one who had passed her father’s plans to Cersei, and that she blamed herself for his death and for the whole War of Five Kings. She had cried pitifully and both Jaime and Sandor had moved to comfort her, Sandor awkwardly patting her back and Jaime taking her hands in his. They had exchanged glances over her head and something unsaid had passed between them; recognition that their fate was now linked with this young girl, the bond also tying two of them together
Sandor had told them about his sister and her early death, and how he was convinced it had been Gregor’s doing just like the death of their father. Jaime hadn’t even known he had had a sister and felt sorry all over again for the lonely young boy arriving at Casterly Rock. Both he and Sansa had reached for him and although no words were said, he accepted their silent gestures. Moments like that had been fragile but perfect; three people from different backgrounds meeting across boundaries of class divide and enmity
Late in the evening Sansa retired, tipsy but happy, snuggling under her furs in the corner of the barn. Sandor had teased her about her inebriated state, but she had only laughed and stuck her tongue out at him. Jaime smiled, thinking about how she might regret accepting Sandor’s challenge come the morning, but was glad she had been carefree for at least one evening.
Jaime and Sandor stayed back, swapping a wineskin back and forth for one more drink, and another, and another. Jaime felt comfortable, his head spinning just enough to make him view the world and his position in it positively.
“So dog, looks like you and I have ended up shields for the little bird, the new head of the enemy of our houses. Not something we might have imagined back in King’s Landing, I’ll bet. How does that make you feel? Do you mind sharing?”
Sandor looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes. “Depends what you mean by sharing, lion.”
“I actually meant sharing the burden. But now that you brought it up, I have seen the way you look at her when you think she will not notice. Should I now be threatening you and questioning your intentions regarding her?”
“I might look at her but that means nothing. She is high above me and I know my place.” Sandor shifted, extending his long legs in front of him and crossing them. “Aye, she is a noble lady but she has grown to be a woman and this is not the way it should be, lying next to me at night and sitting in front of me during the day. Seven hells, what does she think? Just because I lived on the Quiet Isle doesn’t mean I became a brother of the Seven!”
Jaime realised then the reason for Sandor’s apparent withdrawal. Luckily he seemed to understand the impossibility of the situation.
Sandor played with the cord of the wine skin and lifted his head. “Why don’t you look at her? Hells, isn’t she the prettiest girl you have seen? Not only pretty, but… good. Or did Cersei and Robert have more in common than they thought, a brother leaning towards Dornish ways?”
Jaime winced, knowing he referred to Renly and his tastes. He thought long and hard as he wanted to give a truthful answer. He owed nothing less. Finally he muttered, “What if they did? All I know is that I have never wanted any woman other than Cersei.”
Sandor took a long swig from the wineskin, swilling the wine in his mouth for a while before swallowing it.
“Aye, what of it indeed. Nothing. Some of the best men I have known were like that.” Jaime looked up with surprise while Sandor continued.
“In war some of them were the best fighters I have ever seen. Mayhap because when other men fought for duty, for money or for their wives and babes at home, these men were fighting for their loved ones then and there. Nothing as fierce as a warrior protecting his lover.”
Sandor took another swig. “Perhaps that is the only chance for love for some men. At least for anything longer lasting than a quick tumble with a whore.”
“Have you…ever felt so?” Jaime held his breath, wondering if he had gone too far. The wine had lowered his guard and although he felt he was on a thin ice he could not help himself.
Sandor turned, his half-closed grey eyes locking into his, searchingly. “Have I taken a lover or a shieldmate myself? That’s what you are asking, isn’t it?” Jaime nodded.
“No, I haven’t. Do you think men would be any keener for this than women?” He pointed mockingly to the scarred side of his face.
Jaime had an irresistible desire to reach out and touch it. He had sometimes wondered how it would feel. Would it be hard as wood, or tough as leather? Would Sandor feel it? Jaime had grown so used to Sandor’s appearance that he hardly noticed his scars anymore. Forcing himself to sit still, Jaime resisted the urge.
“What about you then? Is the warrior maid of Tarth a woman after all?”
“Oh yes, she is a woman – or at least I think so. Never examined her quite well enough. She has breasts, small as they might be, and her eyes and hands – no matter they are big and calloused – are a woman’s. I laid next to her many nights but was never stirred to examine her further.” Jaime realised he was blabbing. Did he want to avoid answering the question? He sighed.
“No, I have never had a shieldmate. There was a man once, in my youth…he held me and I didn’t mind. He did nothing more. He was just trying to save my life after we had fallen into the sea and needed to keep warm. Yet sometimes I have wondered…” Jaime reached for the wineskin Sandor held in his lap. His hand curled around it touching Sandor’s fingers, his arm leaning on Sandor’s thigh. It went rigid for a moment, the powerful muscles twitching, but then relaxed again.
For the longest moment they stayed so, hands touching, Jaime’s arm on Sandor’s thigh. Then Sandor stirred, breaking the spell.
“Time to go to sleep or we won’t get far tomorrow. I have to take a piss, you feed the fire.” Sandor stood up, swaying slightly on his feet before crouching through the narrow door to go outside.
Jaime was already under furs by the time Sandor returned and lowered himself between him and Sansa. He yawned loudly, turned towards the little bird and fell asleep, snoring lightly. Jaime stayed awake for a long time, staring unseeing at the roof of the barn. His head was full of emotions; apprehension, yearning, hope and despair all in a tangled mess. When he eventually fell asleep, his dreams were full of restless, rousing visions and sensations he was reluctant to recall when he woke up.