The morning was like any other, except all of them feeling worse for wear from the wine they had consumed. Sansa was quiet and pale, feeling the constant throbbing in her head, but pressed on determinedly. Jaime appeared thoughtful and subdued, Sandor his usual self: brooding, focussed, serious.
They made good progress and finally entered the lands between the Vale and the Neck. The mountainous ranges had given way to flatter plains a while back, but undulating hills still forced them to ride up and down, up and down. The forests opened up occasionally to spacious clearings covered with craggy moisture-loving plants, heralding the change in landscape from fertile forests to swamps and bogs.
Just past midday on the ridge of yet another hill, Sandor raised his hand and turned Stranger around. Jaime and Sansa stopped and looked in the direction he was pointing. Far below them, in one of the clearings, they could see men on horseback.
It was hard to see the details, but the group consisted of least ten men carrying white and blue banner; the colours of House Arryn.
“It is him, it is Petyr!” Sansa exhaled.
“Not him, of that I am ready to wager my sword, but men from the Vale nonetheless,” Jaime retorted. “I know the kind of man Littlefinger is. He never does his dirty work himself.”
“They must not have noticed us yet, or they would be riding harder. Buggering hells, how did they find us?” Sandor huffed.
“They may have followed the most logical route to the North. Most likely Littlefinger has sent several parties to different directions. It’s possible the visit to the inn led them to our trail. Not many travellers passing by the place these days with the war and everything.” Jaime looked contrite and Sansa regretted the need that had led them there.
“It matters not now. What does matter is how to get rid of them.” Sandor turned to face Jaime and Sansa. “We have to decide what route to take, which is the quickest way to the Neck.”
Sansa thought hard. They were not too far from Greywater Watch, which was famous for its bogs and quicksands that would swallow any traveller not familiar with the way. They only needed to reach it and find the crannogmen, but they were still at least one or two days ride away, and along the way was at least one small tributary to the Green Fork they had to cross.
Jaime and Sandor discussed the situation in muted voices while Sansa stared back at their pursuers, who had by now disappeared into the cover of the forest. Sandor had studied the maps of the region before leaving the Quiet Isle and knew of a crossing and how to get there. He knew the bridge to be narrow, just enough for one horse at a time, but that was good enough for them. If they could get there and across, then make a dash towards Greywater Watch and reach the swamps, they should be able to shake the men following them. All they had to do then was stop, make enough noise for the crannogmen to learn of their presence and wait for them to arrive. Sansa had met Lord Howland Reed at Winterfell several times and was sure she could secure his co-operation and that of his men if she could only meet them.
Time was of the essence now, as they still had to reach the swamplands without getting caught. With grim determination they rode on, urging their horses to the limit of their endurance. Stranger carried Sandor and Sansa effortlessly, but Jaime’s Honor started to tire soon despite its lighter load, stumbling occasionally on the forest paths. Hour after hour they rode, stopping only briefly to allow their horses some respite. Every now and then at a good vantage point they glanced behind to see the other riders, and more often than not saw them riding on resolutely. The pale sun descended eventually and they had to slow down, their only consolation being that the group trailing them had to do the same if they didn’t want to risk their horses losing their footing in the dark.
Shortly after sundown they had to finally stop for the night. The horses’ muzzles had been frothing for a while and even Stranger had slipped a few times. The riders were likewise exhausted, not having had time to eat or rest since noticing the forces following them.
They lit no fires and ate the cold remains of the previous night’s feast. They were quiet, contemplating the consequences of being captured. For Sansa it would mean a quick return to the Gates of the Moon under strict guard. Petyr would likely expedite his plans for her to wed Harry the Heir. She knew Littlefinger would not give away something he wanted for himself easily; the planned marriage would only be a means to an end, to be put aside once that end had been reached. She predicted as much to her companions while staring miserably ahead and chewing her meal. She swore once again she would not go back meekly and accept Petyr’s decisions about her life. Neither Jaime nor Sandor were comfortable about what that might mean, and exchanged worried looks.
For Sandor the outcome would be quick and simple. If he was not killed on the spot during the inevitable fight, he would be killed immediately after. His body would be left to rot where he fell, the Vale men taking with them only the story of how they had slain the Butcher of Saltpans, the famous Hound. Jaime could expect either to be killed defending Sansa, or if for some inexplicable reason he survived, he would be dragged back to the Vale in chains to be used as a pawn to advance Littlefinger’s schemes.
“I have had enough of being chained like an animal. Never again,” he swore to his companions. Sansa suspected she and Jaime shared the same determination to fight to the end rather than yield.
None of them were ready to talk about what awaited them until, just as they were settling down on the hard ground, Sandor spoke.
“Once we reach the bridge, you two go ahead and I’ll stay and wait for the group. I should be able to detain them long enough for you to reach the swamplands. As long as I hold the bridge, they can’t cross.”
“You can’t do that, you couldn’t beat all of them!” Sansa exclaimed, rising from where she had already laid down. She instinctively knew why Sandor had made the suggestion and what it really meant, but she refused to accept it. Not now, when we are so close.
“She is right, there are at least ten men following us. No, we’d better just ride ahead as we planned. We might reach the swamplands in time.” She could see the reflect ion of her desperation in Jaime’s face despite the shadows engulfing them.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. They know where we are heading. Our ride today left enough traces for a blind septon to follow. They ride powerful coursers, that much I could see. It is only a matter of time before they catch us, when we have only two horses between the three of us. They may reach us before or after the bridge, but if I stop there, I can make sure they will not cross – at least not all of them.” Sandor’s voice was low and intense.
“Sansa is right, you can’t beat all of them, no matter how good a fighter you are. I will stay with you. Together we can stop them.” Jaime rose as well, seemingly determined to not allow Sandor’s risky plan to come to fruition.
“And leave Sansa to ride all by herself in the forest, where she can meet stragglers from the war, desperate men who have nothing to lose? Do you think they would stop to consider that she is the last remaining heir of Winterfell, or see only a young helpless girl alone in the woods? What do you think they would do to her then?” Sandor’s voice grated harshly, suppressed emotion thickening it. “No, better you go with her, if one of us stays behind it had better be the one who actually does have a chance.”
“No Sandor, I forbid it. I will not allow you to throw your life away for me!” Sansa leaned towards Sandor and grasped both of his hands with hers. A rush of emotions overwhelmed her, but since she had no words to describe what she was feeling, she just tugged at his hands. She was not stupid, she knew what Sandor was suggesting was a suicide mission.
“All is well, little bird, do not fret. This is why I promised to serve and protect you. This is what I am supposed to do for you. If giving up my life can save you, it will be a life well spent.” Sandor lifted her hands to his face, pressing a chaste kiss on her wrist. Jaime looked away as he saw it. For a moment Sansa and Sandor were engulfed in the world of their own, but then Sandor turned to Jaime.
“You too. I never would have imagined that one day the buggering Kingslayer would get under my skin, but you have proven yourself well. I would rather not leave you either, but I know you will look after her.”
“They may be green boys, unaccustomed to fighting. You and that monster of yours would have a chance then. After defeating them you could just charge after us to Greywater Watch. Once you reach the swamplands, just do as we plan to do and wait for the crannogmen to find you.” Even as Sansa heard Jaime, she knew how hollow it sounded. Littlefinger was not likely to send green boys after the Kingslayer and the Maid of Tarth, and who knew if he was already aware of the Hound’s presence? No, what Jaime said was meant as consolation for her.
“Aye, I do have a chance and if I do get rid of them, I will follow you.” Sansa knew Sandor was as aware as she and Jaime about the likelihood of that happening.
“It is settled then. Now let us all try to get some rest, we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.” Sandor lowered himself and tugged the cloak over himself for cover.
That night Sansa hardly slept. She felt the closeness of Sandor more keenly than ever and the thought of losing it filled her with emptiness. She heard rustling as Jaime tossed and turned, equally unable to sleep. Eventually she reached for Sandor’s arm and lifted it to embrace her. Encouraged by Sandor’s earlier admission, she reached an arm across his waist to meet Jaime’s hand, and Sandor turned on his back so that both Jaime and Sansa were leaning against him. Sansa’s fingers clutched at Jaime’s, and eventually they all fell into an exhausted sleep.
The dawn had emerged cool and grey as they stirred, still clutching at each other. They had no words to distract them from the inevitability of what lay ahead, although Jaime’s mind still raced. He was desperately trying to find alternative strategies that would prevent the certain death of the man he valued – perhaps too much
Jaime had become increasingly disturbed by thoughts and visions he could never have imagined having of another man. When he closed his eyes he saw the image of Sandor’s naked chest and strong arms when they had examined his injuries. He woke up hard, giving up all pretence of it being because of Sansa, only trying to make sure Sandor wouldn’t notice. Sandor surely had no such thoughts; no, his eyes were following his little bird, although he was careful to keep his distance. A dog can dream, and so can a lion.
Their discussion in the barn played out in his head. Sandor had denied ever having a shieldmate but had he actually said he had never considered? Or had he only assumed he wouldn’t have found one due to his appearance? Jaime’s inexperience was because of Cersei; she had always been enough for him so he had had no time for other women, or men. Now Cersei was gone and he had to look into himself to see what he wanted – but he simply didn’t know what it was. Frustrated, he shook his head as if trying to clear his mind. Doesn’t matter - too little, too late. Let go, just let go.
As they were mounting, Sansa approached Sandor. Her eyes were red but she was calm.
“I don’t have much of a favour to give you, but I have this.” She reached for the small dagger hidden in the folds of her dress and lifted it to her head. Before either man had time to react, she cut through a thick lock of her hair, almost nicking her scalp. She took the strand, long and shiny, and tied it around Sandor’s arm. She struggled to secure it as it slipped away from her grasp, glossy and smooth, but after several knots it finally settled in its place. The auburn and brown band shone bright against Sandor’s dark hauberk and he looked at it with an astonished expression. Sansa rose up on her toes and pressed a quick kiss on the good side of Sandor’s face, moving away before he had time to react.
Jaime went to Sandor next, handing him a beautifully decorated long dagger, his favourite that he had been carrying since leaving Casterly Rock for King’s Landing.
“Take this. It is longer than your dagger and you may need something special today.” For a moment they stood in awkward silence. Jaime coughed and started, “Sandor, I don’t know if I should say any of this to you, but…” Sandor leaned towards him and grabbed his arm just above the stump - not hard, but enough to stop him.
“I know. No need to say anything.” They looked at each other and Jaime felt his nervousness leaving him as he looked into those grey eyes: understanding, accepting, not flinching. After a brief squeeze Sandor removed his hand from Jaime’s arm, moved to his horse and rode away without another glance.
They reached the bridge, a nondescript and crude wooden structure, in early afternoon. They crossed it and stopped on the other side. The riverbanks were peaceful and quiet, lush grass reaching to the edge of the stream where small waterbirds were scurrying, disturbed by the presence of humans.
“What if we just hacked the bridge to pieces to prevent them from crossing?” Jaime said in a last ditch attempt to find a way out of the situation.
“It would take too long and they would only swim their horses across. They would be slowed down a bit, but they would still reach us. No, the only way is to stop them.” Sandor was calm, as if he had already left their company. Jaime hated it, but at the same time understood the necessity. Sandor couldn’t afford to lose focus now, could have no regrets. He had made his decision and now he had to follow it through.
For the last time their eyes met and they embraced. If Jaime held on just a little bit too long, Sandor didn’t push him away.
“Good luck, lion. Take good care of her.”
“I will. Good luck, Sandor.”
Sansa said her goodbyes next and Jaime went to check on Honor to give them some privacy. He could see them embracing, and Sansa held her head up high, not giving into tears that would have only made matters worse. Jaime couldn’t help admiring her. She would have been a better queen than Cersei. It hurt to admit, but he knew that to be true.
Sansa came back and Jaime helped her onto his horse. As they rode away Jaime glanced back, seeing the lonely figure of the tall warrior next to his big mount, looking in their direction. Jaime raised his hand in salute and the warrior returned it.