Jaime was not surprised to see Sansa. He had almost expected her to come, not into his own bed – not when Sandor is here – but come nonetheless.
After she had left, Sandor sat up and crossed his arms against his chest. Without intending to, Jaime heard himself saying, “She came to me last night. She said she was lonely.” Sandor turned to look at him and he felt an urgent need to explain more.
“We missed you, both of us. That was mainly what we talked about. I pushed her out, just as you did. It was not appropriate, and would hurt her position if she was discovered.”
Sandor kept staring at him. Their pallets were so close there were hardly two full hand-spans between them. Jaime moved to sit on the edge of his pallet, lowering his feet to the floor.
“We thought you were dead. I am sure you thought you were going to die. We mourned for you, thinking of the times we shared our bedrolls on the road.”
Sandor shifted. “Aye, I thought I was going to die for sure. Didn’t want to, particularly, but it would have been worth it to keep her safe. Better that than to die on the banks of the Trident for no reason whatsoever.”
“Did you miss…us?” Jaime moved slightly closer, just to see him better in the dancing candlelight. Without realising it at first, he was holding his breath. Had Sandor’s wall of indifference started to crumble after all? Had he started to care?
“Did I wish I was with you two again, riding towards the North? Did I miss the only time in my life when I was trusted; when someone actually believed I was good for something? Aye. Tywin, Cersei and Joffrey trusted me to swing my sword, to kill for them when needed – but did they ever place their life into my hands or ask my advice on anything, as the little bird has done? Fucking unlikely!” His voice betrayed a depth of emotion Jaime hadn’t heard in it before.
After a while Sandor lifted his eyes to meet Jaime’s. “And you – you treated me as an equal, not as a dog. Both of you even looked me in the eye. You know, a man can get used to something like that. Of course I bloody missed you!”
Jaime was unsure how to respond to such an outpouring of emotion. Had their trip truly been the first time Sandor had been appreciated as a person rather than a weapon to wield against an opponent, a dog to be commanded?
Sandor was quiet for a long time before continuing, “Never been so close to another human being either, as when we huddled against each other when the night came. Whores only rent their cunts, nothing more. Took some time to get used to it.”
In the dim light of the room Sandor’s face looked unfamiliar. The shadows fell on him so it appeared he had no disfigurement at all – as if he were whole, unspoiled. Jaime couldn’t decide whether he liked the new face better than the old one. Mayhap it was a touch comelier, but then again, it was not him.
“You are not a dog, you are a human being. You should know that by now,” was all Jaime could say. The realisation of how broken this man had been and how poorly he had been treated pierced through him like a dagger.
“The Elder Brother tried to tell me so, but that’s what one would expect from a brother of the Seven. Not many things they say turn out to be true in the real world, though.”
Silence descended between them again. After a while Sandor lowered himself onto his mattress, pulling the covers on top of him. Just as Jaime was resigned to lie down as well, Sandor lifted the corner of his blanket. Jaime looked at him, unsure of what he meant, and Sandor nodded. His heavy-lidded eyes flashed but he said nothing.
Emboldened, Jaime sank down next to him. They hardly touched each other, only their arms coming into contact. They both felt the tension; they were not in a forest camp, their closeness was not driven by necessity, and neither of them was fully clothed.
Jaime breathed in Sansa’s lingering scent and the thought of her having lain in the same spot just moments before made his heart beat faster. That, and Sandor’s closeness, had its inevitable consequences and with alarm he noticed his body betraying him once again. As he tried to adjust his hardness as surreptitiously as possible, he wondered if Sandor shared his condition as a result of Sansa’s visit. The thought titillated Jaime and he had to resist the urge to casually brush against him.
“So you missed me?” Sandor’s voice was low and harsh. “Can’t say I have heard that said before.”
“I am sure both of us have experienced things on this journey we have not come across before,” Jaime murmured. “Yes, we missed you. Our lady cried most of the way here.” Jaime felt slightly embarrassed about the previous night and how he had responded to Sansa – almost as if he had betrayed Sandor, as ridiculous as the notion was.
He lifted himself up, leaning on his elbow. In his current position he had the unusual opportunity to look down at Sandor.
“She has a gentle heart and knows as well as you and me how this trip has formed bonds between us. She is also young and inexperienced, and she is the lady of Winterfell. She can’t be seen to be disgraced by the likes of us.”
Sandor turned his head and stared at Jaime. “I understand that. Haven’t forgotten for a moment. I have no plans to disgrace her, you should bloody know it.”
Jaime sighed. “I know. I am just not sure if she truly knows what she wants. Or that we won’t be able to give it to her, whether we would like to or not.” He slid lower again, taking a more comfortable position. He started to relax, savouring the moment.
After a long silence he heard Sandor’s voice. “Just as you may not know what you want. Or that I won’t be able to give it to you, whether I would like to or not.”
Jaime stiffened. Sandor didn’t continue, but didn’t push him away either. He only leaned over to blow the candle out, brushing himself against Jaime as he did so. Then Sandor stretched himself and his breathing deepened, slowed and became more regular. He was asleep.
Jaime’s thoughts chased each other wildly inside his head. What do I want? What does he think I want? What did he mean? He lay there for a long time trying to decipher the meaning of Sandor’s words, but eventually the events of the day overwhelmed him. He fell asleep, his golden locks mixing with Sandor’s black hair on the pillow.
It took them two days to reach the Kingsroad, guided by a party of crannogmen, Jonne Peat and his father amongst them. Sansa had grown fond of the lad, who was clearly awed by the opportunity to escort the liege lady of his house - the Queen in the North by some people’s reckoning. After saying her goodbyes to their escorts, Sansa turned to Jonne and pressed a chaste kiss on his forehead.
“Should you ever come to Winterfell, rest assured you and your kin will always be warmly welcomed.” The boy blushed, but for someone of such young age he held his composure admirably, swearing always to be true to the Lady of Winterfell and serve her faithfully.
After they were alone, Sansa studied the Kingsroad spread in front of them, empty and quiet. She recalled her journey in the opposite direction all those years ago. The circle she had completed had been wound with pain, sorrow and loss, and had left her a changed woman. Perhaps wiser than the naïve young girl she had been, but the price she had paid had been high
“This is it, then. If we stay on the road and ride steadily, we should reach Winterfell in half the time it took us to get to the Neck.” Jaime approached and woke her from her thoughts. He spoke surely, the experienced battle commander and expedition leader taking over. Sandor nodded and Sansa could see they had already discussed it and agreed on the best strategy.
They settled into the rhythm of the road again: long days of riding with Sandor in the front, Sansa a small distance after him and Jaime leading the packhorse at the back. The arrangement allowed them the best chance to detect other travellers, but also ensconced each of them in their own little world. They stopped only for necessary breaks, and even their nights’ rests were short as for once they could journey late into the night on a well-kept road. Despite their direction being north, the weather was milder than it had been in the mountains of the Vale. The ground was rarely covered with snow and Sansa fervently hoped that the threat of winter had passed.
The first two nights on their journey from Greywater Watch had been lonely for her, the company and propriety forcing her to sleep alone. She knew that to be only a taste of what was to come; in Winterfell the intimacy of the road would have to be put aside for sure. For that reason when they finally shared their bedrolls again, Sansa tried to snuggle next to Sandor to relish the closeness of his body. Sandor allowed her that, but she could sense his reserve in the way he made sure there were always furs or blankets between them. She saw Jaime reclining on Sandor’s other side and bestowed him a smile. Jaime reciprocated it and lifted his brow as if to indicate he knew what she was thinking, and agreed.
Most nights, however, they were too tired for anything but a deep slumber.
As they journeyed, it was as if a veil that had hung before Sansa’s eyes had been lifted. The intimate moments she had shared with Jaime had awakened her senses, and she became attuned to his presence as she hadn’t before. She noted the feline way he moved, smoothly and gracefully as befitting a lion. She observed the straw-coloured stubble on his chin as it started to grow again after being cleanly shaven, and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. And he smiled often - an open smile that was vastly different from his previous sardonic smirk. Sansa liked the new smile better, especially as she saw it directed equally at her and Sandor.
Sansa scrutinised the two of them together, trying to figure out what stood between them. All she could see was camaraderie and trust, and the familiarity in the way they worked together almost without words. What Jaime started, Sandor finished, or the other way around - whether it was packing their camp, attending to horses or hunting game whenever they had a chance.
Every time she saw Sandor, she experienced a renewed jolt of joy about the way he had returned to them. After experiencing the loss of him, the thought of being deprived of either of her companions filled her heart with dread. She wished she could keep her pack together, always.
Yet there was something even bigger demanding her attention, something which made her push all other thoughts aside as her mind focussed on what lay ahead. She would soon be back at Winterfell, and the closer she got, the more anguished she grew. Would it be the home she had missed so much, or would it be only an empty shell, a pile of crumbling stones
Sansa also contemplated what she should do when they finally reached it. She had said she wouldn’t yield to Stannis, but how to make sure Stannis would listen to her? She simply couldn’t be pushed aside to join the other ladies and be forgotten, if she wanted to see her vision of the North prevail. So she spent many hours in deep thought, deliberating what she would do, trying to recall Petyr’s lessons in the game of thrones.
“What do you reckon will happen once we get to Winterfell?” Jaime asked Sandor one evening as they were tending the horses. Sandor was checking their hooves for pebbles and loose shoes and Jaime was measuring grain for their feed.
In the morning when Jaime had woken after sharing the bed with Sandor, he had already left. They had not discussed that night since, and Jaime didn’t want to disturb the fragile state of affairs, being content to let things be
Sandor dropped Honor’s leg to the ground and straightened up, wiping his dirty hands on his breeches.
“Well, Stannis is a man of honour and likely to acknowledge Sansa’s claim. She is the last Stark, after all. Whether he will do anything else to her is anybody’s guess. Depends how stubborn the old man is, I suppose. Can’t see him bending the knee in a hurry though, especially after claiming to be the King.”
“He was always irritatingly obstinate and Robert had continuous trouble from him. A good man, yes, and an honourable one – but sometimes they are the worst kind,” Jaime grinned. “Nonetheless, I agree with you. Sansa will be well received but I am not so sure about us. What do you think you will do there?”
“That’s up to Lady Stark,” Sandor scoffed. “I am not stupid enough to believe I will be welcomed there, but if she has some use for me, I’ll do as she bids.” He moved to Stranger, leaning on him to make him shift his weight and lift his front leg.
“I had enough of a reputation before, but after the bloody Blackwater and that son of a bitch who stole my helmet and used it at Saltpans, I will have a hard slog to fit in anywhere.”
Jaime was caught by surprise by the barely hidden irritation in Sandor’s voice. He wouldn’t have guessed he could be so irked to be known as a craven or a mindless butcher. The old Sandor wouldn’t have cared, he knew. What had changed?
“Lord Eddard ran a just household. Even I could see that during my visit to Winterfell. Of course most of his retainers are now dead or scattered to the four winds, but it tells us something about the place. If Sansa can revive those beliefs, you will be treated fairly. Maybe we could help her.” Jaime hoped it would be true for his own sake as well; he knew he wouldn’t be met with open arms either.
Sandor snorted, “Help her! What would we know about just households? Contempt, bullying and terror were the ways of Casterly Rock. How else would a monster like Gregor have thrived there? Lord Tywin knew how to forge a fighting force, men who were ready to descend on the weak without scruples. After being raised there, who are we to advise anyone on fairness?”
Jaime winced, knowing Sandor’s statement to be accurate. He knew some lords kept their hounds hungry and beat them, thinking that would make them better hunting dogs. Other lords treated their animals fairly and rewarded them, believing their actions to lead to the same outcome. Lord Tywin had certainly believed in the former, as much as Jaime hated to admit it.
The next day as he was making his way along the quiet Kingsroad, Jaime wondered how he would fit in. Would the people of the North accept him, or would they ever only see the Kingslayer? Would he even have a chance to try, or would he be expected to leave as soon as he had secured Sansa safely in her home?
Just the thought of it made his heart heavy and killed the joy of being so close to their goal