Sansa felt as if everything moved in slow motion. After she had realised what Sandor intended to do, she sensed part of her going numb. That last night she had pressed her face against Sandor’s neck as they laid down, whispering into his ear. She had asked him one more time if there was any other solution, thanked him one more time for coming to her aid, apologised one more time for not going with him when he had asked on the night of the Blackwater. All that Sandor had accepted but then hushed her, telling her everything was as it should be, and he was happy he had seen her again and could correct the wrongs he had done to her.
Sansa knew there were still unresolved issues between them, but now saw them slipping away, never to be addressed. She couldn’t describe what she truly felt for him. Trust and respect, just as for Jaime – but with Sandor it was more complicated. He was a crude, hard man, not easy to understand. The rational part of Sansa’s mind had been grateful for his promise to stay at her side and support her claim, but had also known that later he might have been a liability. The Northerners didn’t take kindly to Southrons and once her position was secure, she would do well to surround herself with the traditional House Stark bannermen.
But the other part of her mind wondered why she felt so safe and secure only when he was holding her, however unintentional it was? Why did she feel his closeness much more keenly than Jaime’s? Why was it that wherever he was, she was always aware of it without even looking, and when he was away from her sight life seemed just a little bit duller until the moment he was back? Why was it that after seeing him without his tunic, he had been in her head these many nights in strange, veiled dreams, which had gradually taken over from the night terrors she had had since Petyr had claimed her innocence? She remembered thinking of Sandor often in the Vale, but then she had been looking back on the part of her life she thought she had left behind, colouring the past events with a sense of understanding only obtained with hindsight. Soon he would be in her past again, never to return. The thought hurt.
Sansa tried to rationalise her thoughts as being just a result of a natural bond forming between those who experienced hard times together. War often forged such links between the unlikeliest of people, high lords and lowly retainers alike. She knew the connections between her father and his closest companions from Robert’s Rebellion had endured through the times of peace. She tried to rationalise that Sandor was her sworn shield and had been her saviour more than once, and she was grateful for him and hence sad to lose him. Yes, that was all it was.
Sansa decided not to make matters worse for Sandor by crying at their parting. After giving him her favour – the only thing she could think of – she kissed him quickly and moved away, already feeling that he was not fully present. After their last quick embrace by the bridge, she climbed in front of Jaime and when they rode on she didn’t look back, her eyes brimming with tears. She sensed Jaime turning in the saddle but she couldn’t do so, afraid if she did, she would break down without even knowing why.
They reached the first swamplands just after sunset. Jaime had to slow Honor down in order to avoid being swallowed by the infamous quicksands, and at times, dismount to lead him on foot. Everything around them was bleak and gloomy, the trees with their gnarled limbs covered by dark threads of fungus swaying in the wind. Jaime made sure they made enough noise for anyone in the vicinity to know of their presence.
Sansa had been crying silently most of the way. She had not complained nor slowed their progress, but her silent tears pressed heavily on Jaime’s already dark mood. He prayed silently for the Warrior to ensure that the fight at the bridge would go well for Sandor. He was a formidable warrior but even he could not defeat a group of ten. Jaime prayed for a clean, honourable kill and smiled sadly to himself. The Kingslayer praying for the Hound.
They camped for the night in a small clearing, where Jaime lit a fire to keep them warm and to draw attention. He hoped those seeing it would indeed be the crannogmen and not any of the homeless, masterless men hiding in the woods. They ate the last remains of their supplies in silence, both staring at the flames, clearly trying not to think about their missing companion. Is he still alive? Is he still holding the bridge?
Jaime slept restlessly against Sansa, who tossed and turned and settled down only as the early signs of dawn filtered through the leaves.
They woke to the morning sun, packed up their small camp and continued their journey. They were following a clearly marked, stable path and made good progress, going deeper and deeper into the woods. As the path narrowed and their footing became more unsteady, they decided to stop and establish their night camp despite it still being only late afternoon
When Jaime and Sansa were collecting firewood from the forest floor, Jaime suddenly had a feeling someone was watching them. He lifted his head, looked around and saw a young boy sitting on his haunches staring at them. He had dark brown eyes and short shaggy brown hair. He was dressed simply in mostly green and brown garb and carried a net on his waist and a spear in his hand.
“Who are you?” Jaime muttered, dropping the dry branches in his lap and raising his arms to indicate he carried no weapon.
“I am Jonne Peat. Who are you, and the woman?” He pointed at Sansa who had turned and stared at the boy.
“We are innocent travellers, on our way to the North. Are you alone or do you have company with you?” Jaime wanted to talk to someone with a bit more understanding of the current political situation before revealing their true identities. The intensity of the boy’s stare made the hair on his neck rise.
“My father is coming right after me with some of our kin. He is the head of House Peat, who are bannermen of House Reed.” Just as the boy stopped talking they heard more voices as the group of men reached them. Their leader – clearly the boy’s father from his looks – was a short wiry man who quickly took stock of the situation. Concluding that one man and a woman didn’t present a threat, he addressed them as his men settled down.
“Who are you? We don’t see travellers from the South often in these woods. And what is your business?” His tone was not unfriendly, just cautious.
“You may have heard of me. I am Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer.” Jaime raised his stump for all to see. He had learned a long time ago it was better to address people head-on, put them off their balance.
“Who I am doesn’t matter, but who is with me, does. This lady here,” he pointed to Sansa, who had dropped the kindling she had gathered and straightened to her full height, attempting to appear as dignified as possible in her current situation, “is Lady Sansa Stark, of House Stark, the Kings of the North and the liege lords of the House Reed.”
The men looked at them with astonishment. The leader was as surprised as the others but hid it better.
“If what you say is true, we welcome Lady Stark to our lands.” He bowed to Sansa and after a moment his men followed. Even the boy Jonne bent himself in a poor imitation of a courtly bow.
Sansa nodded her head in recognition of their gesture. “I thank you, my lord…?”
“Jowley Peat, my lady,” the man hastened to add.
“I thank you and your men, Jowley Peat. I have come a long way in my attempt to reach Winterfell, assisted by my trusted companion, Ser Jaime Lannister. However, before that I need to reach Greywater Watch and speak with one of my late father Lord Eddark Stark’s dearest friend, Lord Howland Reed. Can I rely on your assistance in this?”
Jaime was impressed by her composure, after having just gathered herself together. This young woman kept on surprising him. Naturally her request was granted immediately and soon they were on the move again towards Greywater Watch.
Lord Howland Reed greeted them warmly in his stronghold, a strange contraption consisting of several houses built on floating islands. Jaime had never seen anything like that and was glad they didn’t have to come here on their own. How to find a place that was constantly moving?
They were soon seated comfortably in his solar, accompanied by some of Lord Reed’s closest men. Jaime saw them looking at him at askance and although he was used to people’s distrust, it still irritated him. I have just returned your liege lord’s heir to you and still you won’t look me in the eye. He nursed a flagon of ale while Sansa described to Howland their journey from the Vale, not forgetting to mention the roles Brienne and Sandor had played. When talking about Sandor, her voice wavered. Jaime felt the pain of their loss anew as a physical agony, and his glance at Sansa told him she felt the same.
Sansa asked in a quiet voice if Howland could send men to the bridge to detain possible survivors and collect Sandor’s body, if it was found. Jaime knew Sandor was not religious and would not care if his body was tossed to the dogs. He probably would have thought it quite appropriate. Nevertheless, both he and Sansa wanted to see Sandor be honoured properly, his bones laid to rest as was fitting.
While they talked, a substantial meal was placed in front of them containing meat, bread and greens which looked as if they had been raised straight from the depths of the swamp, but tasted surprisingly good. After the meal Lord Reed sent his men away. The next discussion was clearly going to take place just between the three of them.
Sansa and Jaime told their host more details of what was happening in the Vale, Sansa sharing what she knew about Littlefinger’s plans. Howland told them the news from the North and how the Bolton-held Winterfell had finally surrendered to Stannis Baratheon’s army. Both Roose Bolton and his bastard had been caught, the latter being executed on the spot by Asha Greyjoy. Despite this feat most northern lords were still wary of Stannis, staying in their keeps instead of rallying to his cause. It was as if they were waiting for something.
The second conquest of Westeros had been completed. Rhaegar Targaryen’s son Aegon and sister Daenerys had marched to King’s Landing with their troops and dragons to put an end to the War of Five Kings. The Lannisters and Tyrells had quarrelled with each other, not offering any real resistance – just as Sansa had predicted. Tommen, Margaery and Cersei were kept under strict guard in the Red Keep while Myrcella stayed in Dorne under Prince Doran’s care. Most southron lords had bent the knee to the Targaryens once again, one after the other.
The biggest surprise to them was the identity of the man who rode with Daenarys as her trusted advisor: Tyrion Lannister of Casterly Rock, also called the Imp. Jaime laughed out loud when he heard that. Always a survivor, little brother! Sansa turned pale but otherwise didn’t show any emotion.
After the exchange of the most urgent news, further discussions were left for the following day. Jaime and Sansa were escorted to their separate lodgings in a guesthouse on another floating island. The nights of sharing their bed were over. It would simply not be proper.
Jaime found a bathhouse and had a luxurious wash – his first for as long as he cared to remember. The hasty plunges into cold streams had been nothing like this long soaking in a big tub filled with hot water that had been infused with fragrant dried herbs. Jaime laid back, closed his eyes and tried to empty his mind. He didn’t want to think of anything; not of Sandor, not of Sansa, not of what they still had to do. All he wanted was to slide into oblivion.