Wynn ground the dried raspberry leaves in the mortar and pulled a stoneware jar closer. She tipped the pulverized dried leaves into the jar and pulled another bunch down from the rafter, where numerous bunches of dried plants of varying types were hanging.
"Tell me why I'm making this?" she asked. Antha stopped stirring the small pot over the fire and wrinkled her brow, frowning.
"Raspberry leaf tea is good for expectant women?" she answered hesitantly.
Wynn sighed and shot the girl a look. "Yes, but why is it good?" She had drilled the girl on the benefits of the tea while they were collecting the leaves, and then again while they prepared them for drying. Antha was a sweet girl, very willing, but Wynn wondered at her.
"Wynn! Get out here; you're needed!"
She jumped up and ran to the door. Throwing it open, she called out, "Who? Brielle isn't due for two more moons!" The bright sunlight caused her to squint as she looked around. Ray stood in the dirt lane before her hut with four other men holding a litter between them. She rushed to the litter, and then took two steps back from it.
"You've brought me a corpse?"
"No, I was going to bury him, but he coughed. He's not dead, but he's not far from it," Ray answered.
Wynn scanned the body on the litter. He was filthy. Caked in dirt and dried blood, it seemed, from his stringy head of hair to the soles of his boots. What flesh she could see was brown to black, stained by the grime. The scent of rot wafted from him. Her eyes settled on his right leg, where his thighbone protruded from his skin. She felt frozen, viewing such destruction. She wasn't sure where to even start.
She rounded on the Septon. "Ray. I'm a midwife, not a maester. The Stranger already has him; I don't think even a maester could prevent it. What do you expect me to do?"
Brother Ray smiled sadly at her. "Whatever you can. Either help him towards life, or towards death. You're more than a midwife. I've seen you set bones and cure fevers. He deserves the Mother's mercy, and you're here to provide it."
She stared at him, then turned back to the body laying on the litter. "Antha!" she cried, "Clear the table. Karven, bring some planks and a sawhorse to extend it; he must have giant's blood to be so tall," she ordered one of the men, then stood aside as they carried him into her small dwelling. The table was quickly lengthened so that his feet laid on the makeshift extension.
"Joren," she said, looking at one of the young men. "Go get Mairi. Tell her to start heating as much water as she can. I don't know how many buckets I'll need before nightfall. Tell her to send as much linen as she can spare. I'll replace it later. Go." The thin young man sprinted away.
"Antha, bring me.... Gods, I don't know. Bring me hot water, a knife. On the side table, lay out..." she surveyed the body again, her hands climbing up to lace over her head in consternation. "Calendula," she said finally. "Rosemary, comfrey, and yarrow. At least five bowls. Soap, and as much linens as you can find. But the knife first."
The knife was handed to her and she made quick use of it, slicing the leather thongs to remove his armor and then through the seams of the tunic and breeches he wore beneath, which were all lifted away and discarded into the corner. The skin revealed was less heavilly soiled, but clearly hadn't seen a bath in ages. She stared at the body laid out before her and despaired. What first? she thought. This isn't - I don't -
"Wynn," the septon's voice was soft and stared at him, hopelessness filling her gaze. "Can you make it worse?" She shook her head. "Then try to make it better, and if it fails, you know you tried," he said. She took a deep breath and blew it out, staring at the man's many wounds.
"Come here. Hold his leg at the hip."
As the Septon held the man's leg, she felt along the length of the bone, along the fracture and past it to the knee. The bone was stable from the hip downward, then protruded towards the outer thigh. Her fingers dug into the muscles, trying to test their stiffness. The man groaned and one hand flung out at nothing and stilled near his shoulder.
"This is folly. He's too tight for this to set properly and I have nothing to relax him."
"You'll have to be quick, then."
"It's not a matter of being quick. His muscles and tendons are wound too tight; the bones will never align properly. I'd need milk of the poppy for that-- for even a chance of that. I could take the leg, but look at him. Does he look like a man who would be a cripple?"
"No, he doesn't. Have you nothing that would do the same?"
"No. No, I don't. Milk of the poppy might relax him enough, but I can't say that would work with any certainty. Without it? There's no-"
"What did you do for Shayla?"
She stared at him, her breath catching in her throat.
"No," she breathed.
"You made her sleep, and you did-"
"That was completely different and I won't do it again. I'll not do it here."
"You did what needed to be done. As you should here."
"There's no life here needing to be saved. This man is as good as gone and I'll not be using some Maester's experiments to prolong his suffering. I'll give him as much mercy as I can, but I won't use that."
"Yes, you will. To save his leg, or to take it. Your choice." The man stared at her.
She stared back, then looked back at the man on the her kitchen table. She looked at his legs, hanging off, held only by the makeshift supports. One leg lay normally, if overly large, covered in dirt and hair. The other was a twisted destruction.
"Here, hold his leg at the knee so I can take his boots off."
Ray held the leg still and she removed the boot from his right foot. She grasped the lower leg by his ankle, then the top of his foot. Strong pulses greeted her in both places and she drew a deep breath. He might keep his leg, might even retain some use of it, if she could set it properly.
"Antha, set the small pot over the fire, full of water, and bring me the brown bowl, the one with the the ridges," she said, pulling his left boot off as well and tossing them both into his pile of clothing. She pushed herself away from the table and pulled a certain box from one of the many shelves in her home. Her actions from there might have been that of a farmer's daughter. The root was cleaned and chopped, then dropped into the simmering water. She watched it simmer as Mairi and Antha moved back and forth in the small space. He was being washed, the bowls of water growing more and more dank as the filth was cleaned from his form. Antha made a small noise and held his hand up to show her a laceration that crossed the palm. His other hand bore a matching cut.
She left the fireplace and moved to the table to look more closely at his hands. They would need to be stitched, and she wondered if any tendons had been severed. There was a wound to his shoulder that looked older, suppurating pus from the edges. Stitches held the wound closed, barely, and she could see that some effort had been made, but it was clearly not enough. The wound was killing him faster than even his leg was, and had been there longer.
She poured water, still nearly boiling, from the bucket that Mairi had provided into one of the bowls Antha had set out, then measured out a generous amount of calendula. As it steeped, she cut the stitches away, then used the same knife to pierce the freshly knitted skin apart. Pus ran down and she washed it away as quickly as she could, then pressed the flesh to express more of the noxious fluid. She washed this away as well, then flushed the entire area with the calendula infusion, trying to get every bit of the rot out of the wound. Once it was cleaned, she stitched it again.
Mairi and Antha had managed to wash him almost entirely. He was large, much taller than anyone in the village and broad of shoulder. His hair was long, dripping water from where it overhung the table and trying to coil back up in small curls and waves. Her own hair curled the same way, when it wasn't twisted up and out of the way as it was now. Nearly half his face was taken up with scars of a burn long healed, the ravaged skin twisting over his cheekbone and into the hairline. She looked briefly at the ruined ear, the weeping area where flesh had been torn away, but there was really nothing to be done. She spread a bit of honey salve across the area and nodded at Antha to bandage it.
Wynn checked the decoction simmering in the pot over the flames. It smelled right. She didn't have a better way of telling if it was correct or not than the smell. She poured it into the brown bowl and then moved back to the man on the table, wishing the medicine would cool more quickly so this could all be done with and over.
"Mairi, tell Joren I need two lengths of rawhide, one wet for later. And two small planks, this size," she said, indicating with her hands.
Mairi ducked out of the hut to give the orders, and Wynn moved to hold the man's head up and start trying to give him the decoction that would bring deeper sleep, and more importantly, relax his muscles so that she might try to set the leg. She fed it to him in sips and prayed to the Mother to grant mercy, the Crone to grant wisdom. She prayed to to the Smith to let her tools and medicines work. I'm working on the Warrior, she thought. Stranger, keep away.
Kill me, he shouted. Kill me.
He was being lifted into the air. His leg screamed in protest and he screamed as the agony hit him from far away. The pain was a ravening animal, set on devouring him. A rabid dog. No, a wolf. It gnawed at his leg and growled. He felt his body being carried.
The wolf snarled and took another bite. It growled and subsided. He heard the wheels turning beneath his body before he felt the jostles of the road. The wheels creaked and turned into the wolf's growling. He didn't mind it. He wouldn't mind it. Here, boy, he thought.
"You've brought me a corpse?"
No, I'm not dead yet, he thought, but he couldn't move, couldn't string two thoughts together to tell anyone that he was there, that he was listening. And he could barely do that, as blackness overtook him once again and from some far-off perspective, he wondered how many times he'd slipped unconscious.
Warm water was being poured over his head. He could feel it, could feel the warm cloths being rubbed against his skin and then the rinsing; he could could smell the acerbic scent of rosemary. He felt the sharp pain as his his shoulder wound was lanced and wanted to push them off, to throw them into the corners of the room he could barely see, but his arms were too heavy. Firm hands were relieving the pressure there, and he submitted himself to them, knowing he couldn't fight and in any case, they were right, they were releasing the tension he'd been feeling there for days, they were burning... burning... burning him there but it wasn't fire, it was water and he wanted to scream but couldn't.
His brother's face floated before his eyes, before being replaced by Sansa's. The Blackwater was burning and her eyes were staring at him but why were they brown?
"Drink this," she said. "Swallow it down now, so I can help."
He swallowed. The brew hit his throat and he choked, but he swallowed. His little bird had asked him to. It tasted fetid, this wasn't wine, and he didn't want to drink, but she had asked. He drank, and drank, and the bitter liquid hit his stomach like a charging horse and the blackness pulled him under where there was nothing.
Sip by sip, she fed the injured man and waited for the medicine to make a difference. She wasn't sure how much to give him. He was so much larger than she was accustomed to, and his injuries were so severe, dosages had gone right out the window. Antha was prepping his hands for stitching, having already cleaned and dressed the minor cuts and abrasions on his body.
"...bird," he breathed.
He'd opened his eyes, she saw, but they were glazed, unfocused. She pressed a hand against his feverish forehead, then ran her fingers through his hair. "Drink this. Swallow it down now, so I can help," she said, pressing the spoon against his lips. He drank the spoonful she presented to him, and then the next, greedily. A bit more, and his eyes closed again.
"Birds?" Antha asked, tying off a stitch on his left hand.
Wynn shrugged and placed a hand on his chest, feeling a heartbeat that was slower than she'd have liked. His breathing was much slower and shallower as well, and she wondered if she'd given him too much. "You'll hear stranger things than that from patients," she answered.
She looked over at Ray, who was sitting with his back against the wall by the door. The other men had long since dropped off the items she had requested and left, and Mairi had gone back to her own hut, but the septon was still there, watching quietly. He raised his eyebrows at her.
"I'll need you to help. Antha's too small and she won't be strong enough," she told him. "Antha, strip those comfrey leaves from the center stem and then shred them. Pour a little hot water into the bowl as well, but not much; we're not making a soup." As Antha turned away, she draped two more short lengths of cloth on top of the one already spread across his hips and tucked them between his legs. "He may lose his bladder," she said quietly, and Ray nodded. She prodded the muscles in his thigh, and they were lax instead of the rigid tightness she'd felt before.
"Right. Hold his leg at the hip as you did before, but make sure you've got a good grip. If you don't, I could dislocate his leg when I pull."
Ray adjusted his stance slightly and then nodded at her. "Ready."
Wynn grasped his thigh below the break and pulled. Even with the relaxed muscles, it was difficult, and she was beginning to think it wouldn't work when the bone finally slipped past the broken edge and settled into its rightful place. She held her breath and relaxed her hold.
"Looks right to me," Ray said with a small laugh. She shuddered, an almost silent laugh leaving her lips.
"Yes, it looks right, and he may even keep some use of it," she answered, feeling the pulses at his ankle and foot that were fainter than before, but still there. "If he lives."
She flushed out the jagged wound where the bone had broken through with the same calendula preparation she'd used on his shoulder and began stitching it up. The stitches were loose; she didn't want them to rip as his leg swelled more that it already was. Antha brought her the bowl of comfrey and she poulticed the leg with the shredded leaves, then set to work splinting the leg with the small planks and strips of linen.
"I'll get Joren and Karven to help move him," Ray said, heading to the door. Wynn nodded, then turned to Antha.
"You can go, too. Ask your nana if she can send some mutton soup over, please? I won't have time to cook." Antha nodded, then frowned at the small pot she'd been stirring earlier in the day.
"The beeswax is all stuck in the bottom," she said, tipping it sideways and holding it up to show Wynn.
"Leave it for now," Wynn sighed. She sat down on a chair, suddenly exhausted.
After the girl had left, blonde hair bouncing against her back as she hurried out into the afternoon glow, Wynn took a deep breath and looked around her small dwelling, eyes darting from familiar object to object, lighting on anything except the cause of her anxiety. The panic she'd felt earlier was starting to fade, and with it faded the coppery taste in her mouth, leaving only a sour reminder. The muscles in her arms and legs felt twitchy, weak, and she washed her hands and splashed the water on her face, trying to will away the turmoil she felt. She poured the washwater into the barrel set in the corner and began throwing the soiled fabric Mairi and Antha had used to bathe him into it. She turned to his pile of clothes, but quickly threw the tunic, breeches, and smallclothes into a pail. They were too torn, too bloodstained, and more than anything, too filthy to be salvaged. It's just the dirt holding them together, at this point, she thought.
It was only then that she felt ready to turn back to the man still laid out on her table.
She noted his heartbeat and breathing again, which were both still much slower than she'd have liked. I gave him too much. She noted the purple bruises spreading across the left side of his chest, ran her fingers along the ribs and felt the swelling, the slight depression along two ribs, although both sides seemed to raise and fall with each slow breath. I missed it. She looked once more at his face, at his gradually darkening eyes and the swelling around his nose, and sighed. Carefully, she spanned her fingers along both sides of his face, pressing her long thumbs on either side of his nose, and canted it back to center. A salved but not bandaged wound on his right temple caught her eye and she winced. Her fingers ran across the area, the scar tissue feeling foreign under her touch but the bones underneath were familiar, the fracture unmistakable. I failed.
She lifted each each eyelid, pleased to see that at least his pupils both reacted normally; neither had taken over the dark brown irises leaving them the black of oblivion.
"One moment," she said. Ray lingered in her doorway. She checked the linen lengths between his legs quickly, noting that they had been soiled but only a little, the scant dark stains evidence of dehydration. "Alright. You can come in."
She moved to the bed in the corner of the room. Her husband, Graeme, had been a tall man, though not as tall as the man laid out on the table and not nearly so broad, but a tall man nevertheless, and the bed in the corner reflected his size. She pulled back the blankets and linens, exposing a long soft expanse. She shifted the pillows, tucking the one closer to the edge under her arm as she moved the one closer to the wall over, and then turned away as they moved him to the bed and settled him into the strawtick. She saw Ray grimace, and gripped up more lengths of linen toweling as she set the pillow aside.
She quickly washed him down and replaced the toweling, then drew the covers up and turned away.
The soiled linens were thrown into the barrel. She stood at her table, taking a brush and beginning to scrub. Ray touched her forearm.
"I'm alright," she said to him, her arm reaching out to scrub the worn wood. The table seemed the most important thing in the world in that moment; making sure that it was scrubbed as clean as possible and free from anything even remotely dangerous. She began to rinse it carefully.
"Aye, you're alright," Ray said. Joren and Karven left the dwelling, mumbling courtesies she didn't hear. "But can I help? What can I do?"
"Can you reach his strawtick down?" she asked, staring up at Patrig's strawtick, stretched along several rafters overhead. She barely registered his nod as he reached up and brought it down, dislodging two bundles of herbs as he did. She chucked both into the pail, not caring, then went to the chest tucked into a dim corner in the corner behind the bed. She pulled out two blankets, a length of linen. She bundled them into her arms, then turned back to the strawtick laid out on the floor only a pace from the bedstead. She dumped the fabric in a pile there, and turned back to the septon.
"Not your fault," he said, letting her bury her forehead into his chest, where she sobbed, clutching at him, apologizing again and again. It was her fault, more than he'd ever know, but he patted her back as she cried. Her eyes were still wet when she turned from his chest to start to make up the narrow strawtick into a bed with the sheets and blankets. When she had tucked the blankets square, the coverings tight against the loft of the bedding, he reached his hand back to hers and squeezed.
"First watch or second?" he asked, listening to the pause, the hitch in her breath before she could bring herself to answer.
"First. He likely won't wake. If you can get him to swallow liquids, I've a fever tea he should drink. It'll help the fever and the pain: it's mostly willow bark, but not enough really...... but he needs liquids before anything else. He's dehydrated...," she said, her voice falling off.
"I'll see to him. Sleep, now. I can't help him if he takes a turn, and you're no use to him if you're exhausted," he said. She stood, then, eyes darting between the man in her bed and the man on the chair between her bed and her pallet. "If his breathing changes, I'll wake you. But you need to sleep," he said.
She laid down then, only vaguely aware of Antha bringing in a pot of soup in an earthenware crock, of Ray settling himself on the chair. Of basins of water being changed as the man on the bed was sponged down as his fever raged. She slept in interrupted hours.
The birds were singing but the sun was not yet up, the sky a dark blue while his voice broke the silence more and more. The gravel-voiced growl she'd heard before reached her ears as he cried for a little bird, for a wolf girl. He cried for mercy, also, his rough voice breaking like a child's as he begged before changing back to his own voice again, low and that of a man's, the words not begging but the sounds still impossible to hear for anything else.
Wynn sat up, remembering that Ray had woken her before leaving. She moved to the fireplace, stirred up the embers and added a few pieces of wood. She set water to boil and put the crock of soup in a bed of coals to heat slowly. A few minutes later, she had changed her dress, washed her face, and raked wet fingers through her hair, detangling the curls. She lit a straw in the fireplace and used it to light a few candles. Fever tea, and mutton broth, maybe yarrow and peppermint later, she thought.
The sound of retching had her charging to the bed before she could even think. She grabbed the chamberpot from under the bed and positioned it just in time for the man, who had sat halfway up, propped on one elbow as he heaved. Wynn was pleased that little actually came up; his body was clinging to every bit of fluid it could. When he coughed and spat a final time, she pressed a cloth to his mouth, but he grabbed it and pushed her away in the same motion, and she almost stumbled as one foot connected with the strawtick on the floor. Her heart jumped, but she forced herself to stay calm. Not much he can do from the bed.
"Woods witch?" he asked, and coughed again.
"No, just a midwife. You're very hurt. Do you remember?"
"Aye. Will I live?"
She almost chuckled at that. "You seem to be trying to. Any blood on that?" she asked, indicating the cloth still in his hand. He stared at it a moment, then shook his head. "So much the better, then. You've a broken leg. Your nose. Some ribs cracked, I think, and you took a blow to the head. Are you in pain now?"
"I've had worse." He was settling back into the pillow. His eyes closed, and she moved forward to press her hand to his forehead, but he grabbed her wrist and wrenched it away from him the second her hand made contact.
"Let me go," she whispered. The panic was starting to rise in her chest.
He released her, and she swallowed hard.
"I just want to check if you're still fevered," she said, each word measured. "You've been here since yesterday midday, and you'll need to be here a while longer if you're to heal. Will you let me?" In the faint light from the fireplace, the candles across the room, and the slowly lightening sky, she watched as his face convulsed, with myriad emotions flooding it to be replaced, each in turn. Finally he looked up at her, the first time he'd really looked at her, and he nodded.
She nodded back, then felt his forehead. "Still feverish, but not as much as yesterday," she said. She turned his head to examine his temple, but it did not seem any more swollen than before. "I'll look at the rest once the sun's up."
She turned away then, busying herself with preparing fever tea and dipping a waterskin to fill it. She returned with both. "Drink this, but slowly," she said, offering the cup.
He sipped at it, then turned away. "Slowly," he said, his lip curling at the bitter taste.
"Yes, but if your stomach rejects it, it's your ribs that'll suffer. And then this," she said, holding up the waterskin before placing it on the floor beside the bedstead. "Three sips, then wait, then three again. You don't want to sick up." He growled at her, and she would've moved away, but he'd caught her wrist in his grip again.
"Where are my clothes?"
"In the middens by now. They were more filth than fabric."
His face worked, pain followed by hope, skepticism, resignation, longing, "The wolf girl? My horse? My sword?"
"They didn't say anything about a girl or a horse. And you didn't have a sword when they carried you in. You had only your armor."
Only my armor, he thought. He released her wrist and took another sip of the tea she'd given him, grimacing, wishing he could down it at once and be done with it. Everything hurt, and he knew willowbark when he tasted it. But his ribs were still plaguing him from when he'd vomited and he knew the witch was right. He didn't want to puke again. A herd of horses were stampeding in his head and his leg seemed to throb in time with their hoofbeats.
Unless there's a maester hiding behind that rock... aye, well, she's no maester, but I'm still alive. Arya took the silver, so no coin to buy a sword. Stranger... Stranger wouldn't fare well, still saddled and bridled, taciturn as he was and without decent pasturage. He wished he could have done better for the courser. Didn't deserve that. He needs a decent stable and I need my saddlebags. He shifted in the bed, bringing his head up again as he propped himself on his elbow. "Fuck it," he said, and drained the cup.
He laid back down, waiting to see if his stomach would rebel or lay quiet. The fever that raged through him had left his mind confused, and he understood that on some higher level, but for now he had needs which included hunger, and thirst, and pain. And the need to piss, which was becoming stronger the longer he waited for his mind to clear. The cloths laid against him chafed, cold. Fucking wet my pants like a gods-damned child, he thought, and lurched sideways, his left foot finding the floor even as he dragged his right leg toward it, a bolt of pain shooting up his leg as the wooden splits caught at the sheets.
"Stop! What are you doing? Stop!"
The woods witch was pressing him back, but he needed to get up, to go take a piss, and he shoved her back easily. He threw the covers back, but before he could drag his injured leg out, she was back again, pushing his shoulders back towards the pillow, and the adrenaline that had propelled him was already starting to fade as his right thigh screamed in almost incomprehensible pain. He hissed a breath in and out, fighting it.
"What is it?"
"Need to leave."
"Why? Why do you need to leave?"
"The fuck do you care? I need to LEAVE."
"Yes, but why? Your leg is busted, you can't. So what can I do?"
"Would you fuck off, woman? I need to leave, I need to go take a piss," and he hated the way his voice whinged on the words, hated the need for help.
"Stay put. One moment, just stay. Yes?" and gods help him, but he stayed, with one foot on the floor and one stretched out useless on the bed. He took deep breaths and forced the pain down.
"Here," she said, pressing something into his hands.
It was a gourd, the narrow neck cut off mid-shaft and hollowed out. "If you tilt it down when you make your stream, you won't swamp the bed," she said as she moved away from him. He positioned himself at the opening, tilting the gourd slightly down, and let himself go. When she took it from him a few moments later, he hated her, and when she emptied it into the chamberpot and returned the gourd to him, he hated her, and when she left with the chamberpot, going outside and then returning a few minutes later to stow it back under the bed, he hated her.
"Fucking woods witch," he said, watching her move back to the fireplace.
"No. I pray to the Seven, when I pray at all," she answered. "I don't have have the sight. I just catch babies," she answered. "You're a soldier? By what name should I call you?"
He didn't answer. After a few moments, she sighed and went back to fiddling with the fire, stirring pots. He turned away and stared out the window, watching the sky gradually lighten and dark shadows outside took shape as trees and a corner of a building. When he turned back to get a drink from the waterskin, she was sitting at the table, eating. In the near dark earlier, he'd thought she was an old woman, with scraggly hair hanging down. Instead, she looked somewhat younger than him, with long messy curls of light brown. She'd tied the top part away from her face.
"You planning to let me starve, woods witch?"
"My name is Wynn. I wasn't sure you'd be ready to eat," she said, rising from the table. She dipped something from the crock at the fireplace into a bowl, then tipped liquid from another pot into a cup and placed both on a wooden tray that she set on the table, along with a spoon. She moved from there to the small bed on the floor, picking up the pillow and coming to him with it.
"Try to sit up," she said, and as he did, she tucked the second pillow behind him. His leg, which had quieted, woke up and throbbed, but his headache seemed better at least. He was confused when she went to a shelf and pulled down two wooden chests, placing them on either side of his outstretched legs. She put the tray across them, and understanding dawned. He couldn't hold it on his lap.
"A child would eat more than this," he growled, slurping at the soup. Goat? Mutton? he thought, chewing the root vegetables and swallowing. She had returned to her own breakfast.
"If you keep that down, you'll have more at mid-morning. You had a head injury and you were dehydrated, and both can cause vomiting. Add to that the pain from your leg, plus the medicine I gave you so I could fix your leg, more cause for vomiting. I don't think your ribs would take it, and I don't want to clean it up."
He grunted. "And this?" he asked, holding up the cup and sniffing it. He could smell the mint, and something underneath that was more like flowers.
"Will hopefully help your stomach, and prevent festering. And it tastes better than fever tea, in any case," she said, shrugging.
He took a sip and then drank the rest, tasting honey and mint and whatever the other flavor was, but it wasn't unpleasant.
"Do you have ale?" he asked, and she stiffened, but took the tray and then put his dishes and her own into a small washing tin. She picked up a pail and a length of linen and returned.
"No," she said, but he could tell she was lying. "Here, put the cloths into this pail and take this one and cover yourself. Antha will be here soon."
"Who's Antha?" he asked, dragging out the damp fabric that he'd pushed aside earlier and dumping it into the pail she held. He took the cloth she gave him, but didn't move.
"My apprentice. She's a child, Ser, and while she needs to know how to treat-"
"I'm no Ser."
"Ser or no, she'll need to see your leg but I'd have her see no more of you. I'll sort you out some clothing, but until then, be decent." He dragged the fabric under the bedclothes and tucked everything away as she took the pail away and started washing up their breakfast dishes. Stupid bitch. Kept Sansa Stark of Winterfell from being raped and murdered, protected Arya Stark from the same, and this stupid bitch thinks I'm going to just let some Riverlands girl look at my dick. Like I'd just attack anything at hand, and I can't even take a piss without help. Gods help me when I need to shit; this is...
His eyes darted to the open door. The girl stood hesitating at the door, blonde hair tied back in two braids. Older than Arya, but younger than the little bird. She looked at him lying in the bed, then at the woods witch, then back again. He lifted his upper lip in a snarl, and she quickly looked away. He scoffed and closed his eyes, settling back into the pillows.
"Calendula," Wynn said.
"Calendula planted to border an herbs bed will drive away many insects that might destroy them. Calendula flowers can be steeped to prevent infection? Make a tisane, and use it to wash with," the girl recited.
"Aye, good. And how much would you use for a wash, in this bowl?"
The Hound tuned them out as they prattled on. He even dozed off for a bit, waking when the blankets lifted from his legs and were thrown back. His left arm shot out, catching the witch across the belly, and she stumbled back more than he thought was necessary. He hadn't hit her that hard.
"The fuck're you doing?" he growled, staring at her. She was crouched, nearly sitting on the bed she'd slept in on the floor, every muscle tense. He watched her take a deep breath and stand up as she looked at his legs and not him.
"Tending your leg," she said slowly. "Or would you rather it rotted off?"
He made a noise low in his throat and felt the young girl begin to unwind the bandages holding the splints to his leg.
"So. Clear the poultice away. You see how the edges have swelled? That's to be expected, but if it were dark red, you'd know it was festering." He felt the wound being washed carefully, and his leg throbbed, but he let them clean it and re-wrap it. They moved on to his shoulder, and then his hands.
"Antha stitched these," the woods witch said, holding up his left hand so he could examine the slashed palms.
"Do you like to sew, child?" he asked. "Like to stitch flowers into hemlines for your mother to admire? Or just skin to be sewn up, like so much mending?"
Antha's bottom lip trembled, and he was glad his words had hit home, until a finger pressed against the wound at his shoulder and he looked into the brown eyes of the woods witch. There were amber bits there, circling the dark pupils. Her eyebrows were furrowed, and she was staring at him without flinching.
"Antha, go tend to the herbs beds, and then go home. You're done for today," she said. The girl fled, and the woods witch still stared at him, her finger pressing into his shoulder, pain sparking through his mind in a fiery spear.
"She's not your plaything. I'll treat your wounds, and I'll teach her how, but if you ever speak so to her again, I'll let you rot." The finger pressed deeper, and he gritted his teeth against it.
"Aye, cunt, and what would your Seven think of that?" he growled.
"I don't actually care." Her eyes raked across his face, harsh and unforgiving and speaking truth. The Hound caught his breath.
The sky overhead was clear, but a bank of clouds to the west boded storms later in the day or perhaps the night. Wynn stepped out of the cottage, needing to be away from the man laying in her bed, and went around the corner of the building to southern side, where the majority of her garden was planted. Antha knelt between sage and thyme, carefully uprooting weeds.
"I'm sorry I dismissed you like that."
"He was being mean," Antha said. "Wish I could show Mama what I'd stitched. This apron, I did the gathers just like she showed me." Her fingers pulled up a small clump of chickweed and she set it on the small pile she'd already gathered.
"I know. I shouldn't have lost my temper that way, though."
"He was being mean."
Wynn sighed. "Sometimes people are, but what matters is how you respond to it. Pain can make people mean. I shouldn't have added to it, and I don't want you to think that's how it works. If you're to follow me as a midwife, you'll dispense the Mother's comfort and the Crone's wisdom, and what I did in there shames them both." For a moment, her mind flashed to Graeme. Not just pain makes people mean. Ale can, and sometimes a streak of meanness just winnows through a person, blowing away the good bits and leaving nothing else behind. "We don't pick our patients. What's this?" she asked, pointing her booted toe at the tall, dark green plants set with white flowers.
"Thyme," the girl replied.
"And.. .Nana uses it in soup?" Antha asked, grinning up at her.
Wynn chuckled. "Yes, but it can also make a wash, much like calendula, but stronger. If he gets worse, we'll try it next. Some people react badly to it, though, and wind up with a festering wound and a rash besides. I was also taught that drinking a cup of thyme tea will ward off nightmares."
"So I was taught, and so I'm teaching you. Never worked for me, but I keep the knowledge as a possibility. Would you hesitate to use it, if someone needed it?"
"No, I guess not. Will I ever flower? Saira already did."
"Certain as sun rises in the east. Go home, child. Tomorrow you can rest, as all do who can, and the next day, you'll come back to me. I'll send your nana's crock back to her then."
She stayed in the sunshine a few minutes after Antha had left, then threw the uprooted chickweed onto the compost heap and re-entered her home.
The man had disturbed things.
He couldn't do much, confined to the bed as he was, but it was enough. Two years had passed, as the village had been added to and huts and cottages had been raised, crops had been planted and the sheep had been sheared, the wool carded, woven, fulled and felted. She'd grown accustomed to her wide, empty bed. She'd resented the smaller strawtick nestled overhead in the rafters, propped there along other items too large to store below. Two years of quiet, with the cycles of planting and reaping, sowing and preparing her medicines. Two years in which only women had passed her threshold except for Septon Ray, and she had resented his intrusion as well, but endured it for the transient peace he had brought. The last day had brought too many men into her domain, and the one that remained brought her no peace at all.
Wynn looked at him, sleeping in her bed. I should be more careful. If he can already shove me backwards, it won't be long before he can do worse. She sighed, remembering all too well how to set her face so that no expression could offend, how to keep her words and voice neutral. They were skills she thought had been left in Maidenpool. She added wood to the fireplace, set a pot of peas to soak, then moved to the chest that held clothing and pulled two linen tunics from it. Graeme had been tall, and men were just rectangles. It was short work to rip the seams. She pinned them back together, reforming the linen lengths into a tunic for a broader form and widening the sleeves, arm and neck holes.
When he awoke, she brought him another small bowl of soup and a mug of fever tea. He didn't speak to her, and she didn't care. She sat sewing under the window, rocking the needle back and forth and then backstitching at every fifth stitch as she'd been taught. Mairi stopped by, bringing more bread and taking away moon tea and a concoction for earache. Wynn was trapped in her thoughts, waiting for Septon Ray to show himself.
It was late afternoon by the time she threaded a thin leather thong through the eyelets at the tunic's neck. She set it aside, then went to the fireplace and put some salt pork into the pot of peas simmering over the fire. I'll need to examine him again before the light goes, she thought, dreading waking him up. She gathered up the pot of calendula wash Antha had made earlier, along with the small crock of honey salve and the last of her bandages, putting them all on the tray. Have to do the washing tomorrow. Some restday.
When she turned around with the tray, Wynn realized he was staring at her. She hesitated a moment, but when he made a scoffing noise in his throat, she strode forward to put the tray on the floor beside the bed.
"Hands first? Or your leg?" she asked.
"Do the leg last," he answered, looking away.
It was almost funny, the way he flinched away when she perched her left hip on the bed beside him and reached across to bring his right hand closer. She wiped the palm down carefully, then smoothed the honey salve across the cut before wrapping it. She did the same for his left hand. "Try not to stretch the palms too much, but can you move all your fingers? Make a fist?" He did, and she nodded. "Good. No tendons cut, then."
The shoulder wound was worrying. She'd cleaned it out the best she could the day before, but it was still very red and the surrounding skin was too warm, and her fingers could feel the swelling and the gathering pouch of pus. She washed it carefully, thinking. He didn't seem feverish overall. I'll give it until morning, then lance it again and try thyme, if not.
"Thought you'd have burned it out."
"No. I know they do, and I will if I must, but I think they're too quick to burn. It creates a larger injury to treat. I don't think a larger injury is better, in most cases..," Her fingertips explored the area again. "This is older than the other injuries." He grunted and shifted away from her a little.
The swelling at his temple had almost completely gone down, leaving a bruise that merged with the black eye that had developed from his broken nose. "Any headache?"
"Some. Not as bad as this morning. This itches," he said, flicking at the strip of bandage tied around his head. She unwrapped it and leaned in, pushing his hair away when it fell forward. He twisted his head away from her, eyes narrowing. "You like looking at that, do you?"
"Like doesn't enter into it. I do what has to be done. In any case, if you'll keep your hair to the other side, we can dispense with the itchy bandage," she answered, seeing that the scabs where his ear had been were well-established. A ridge of flesh curled around the hole, with cartilage thicker at the top, the old scar tissue on the side of his face gnarled and furrowed. She spread a bit of honey salve across the scabs, feeling the depth of the old scars. Not a battle wound, not with the way the scars have stretched. He's had these most of his life. She sat back. "How much remained after...?"
"Less than before. Maybe a third," he rasped. "Now?"
"Less than before," she echoed. "But healing cleanly." She pretended she didn't hear the shuddering exhale as she turned her body and started unwinding the lengths of linen that bound his leg. The splints fell away, and she she scooped the comfrey poultice from his leg carefully, setting the wilted mess of shredded leaves on the edge of the tray and wringing out the washing cloth. The leg was swollen still, purple and green with bruises from his knee almost to his hip. The jagged gash she'd stitched shut strained against the knots, but it was all normal swelling and she could see no signs of infection there.
She began to wash his leg, trying not to press any harder than absolutely necessary. Between the broken bone and the torn muscle, she knew it must hurt like the seven hells. Muscles twitched and rippled under her eyes as she bent to the task, but while she heard him hiss in a sharp breath once, she never heard him cry out.
"Just a midwife?" he growled, and she turned to look him in the eye.
"Aye... caught my first baby when I was eleven," she said. "Mam said send for the midwife and Willen ran, but she was too late. I was her second born, and caught the fifth. Didn't know what I was doing; I was lucky it was an easy birth. By the time she arrived, Mam and Lil were tucked up warm and I was almost puking over the afterbirth. But she said, 'Any girl can keep her wits would do well to learn more.'," she paused then, thinking. "So she took me for an apprentice. She probably was a witch, come to that. But she taught me." Wynn began to rewrap his leg, thinking about Tharli. The old woman had been almost cruel in her pragmatism, never crying even when women bled out and died.
"Will I walk?" Thunder rumbled in the distance.
"Probably. You'll have a limp, and I can't say now how bad it will be, nor how long it will stay. You may have it until you meet the Stranger. I should be able to wrap this tomorrow or the next day, so you can get up, if we have help. I thought Septon Ray would visit by now, but you'll see him tomorrow if not today."
"Why can't she show her mother her apron?"
Wynn's head jerked up at that, her eyes fastening on his face. He heard us, she thought. She kept her face carefully neutral and her voice even. "She hid under the docks, in the water, when Harroway Town was raided last year. Stayed there through the afternoon and the night, then got out when the sun was coming up. Her father had been gutted, and she never found her mother. The Mountain's Men had ridden through," she said.
"And you? Did you bring her from Harroway?" Lightning flashed and a low rumble of thunder made everything vibrate, and she met his eyes unflinchingly.
"No, I came here from Maidenpool, the year before."
"Hmmph," he said. Thunder rumbled again.
She got up and dipped him a bowl of split pea soup and buttered a piece of bread. There were two cups on the tray, one of fever tea and the other a tastier, more floral brew. Lightning flashed again, but the rains still held off.
"I'll go outside once more tonight. If you need the pot... better now than later," she said. She moved to shutter the first window.
Updates will likely come a little more slowly after this, but hopefully not less than weekly, and twice weekly would be ideal. I like fast updates, so I try to accommodate my readers with the same avarice.
In case it wasn't apparent, while I'm drawing from book canon in some areas, this portrayal of Sandor Clegane is almost entirely drawn from GoT, so Rory McCann's age and appearance at the end of Season 4.
I read a comment on Reddit a long time ago, to the effect that we see so little of the smallfolk in general on the show, there is probably a goat herder in Dorne that thinks Robert Baratheon is still king. Wynn isn't quite that uninformed, but she really doesn't know much about what goes on outside of their general area. The village is somewhere between Saltpans and the Bloody Gate, on the Riverlands edge of the border with the Vale. Anyone want to volunteer a name for the Village?
The sound of water dripping woke him. It was very dark in the room with the shutters still closed and only a small fire in the fireplace, and at first he thought it was the sound of rain outside, but a slight movement to his left quickly disabused that notion. The woods witch was silhouetted by the fire and he watched her fumble a wet cloth into the open neck of her shift as she washed under her arm. He could see the heavy swell of her tits as a shadow through the fabric. She dipped the cloth, wrung it out, and worked on the other side. When she started to lift her hem, he closed his eyes again. It was one thing to admire her ass as she bent over the soup pot and arranged things on a tray. But she wasn't washing as a show for him, and he knew she'd never have done it if she'd known he was awake. Man's got to have a code, he thought, and as he lay there, he tried to ignore the tightening in his groin that had woken up the pain in his leg. Tried to ignore his leg as well, for that matter.
He waited until he'd heard the soft rustling of fabric as she'd exchanged her shift for another, and then a heavier rustle as she'd put a dress on over it. She was scrubbing her teeth with a linen cloth and spitting into a bowl when he opened his eyes again, and the room was a little brighter. She'd opened one of the shutters and outside had the grey-blue tinge of a dawn overcast by heavy clouds. He shifted a little in the bed and ripped a fart. Pea soup, he thought.
"There'll be tea for the pain ready soon," she said. "And breakfast in a bit. Do you want to wash?" and she brought him a bowl of warm bay-scented water, a second bowl of plain water, a small square of linen, a comb, and a small container of clove powder mixed with salt. She laid a tunic on the bed beside him. He eyed her a moment as she went back to the hearth. Looked better in the half-dark, he thought. She had a rectangular face and a squarish jaw, straight eyebrows and a nose that was slightly crooked. Maybe thirty years; she didn't have crows feet or any grey in her hair that he could see. A wide mouth, with a thin upper lip and a plumper lower one. No, not really worth looking at.
He washed quickly, swiping his eyes and dragging his wet fingers through his beard and mustache, but scrubbed the linen across his teeth with vigor. It had been a while since he'd been able to see to his teeth, and the cloves both numbed his gums and freshened his mouth while the salt cleared away the furry scum. He rinsed and spat four times. Dragging the comb through his hair might have made him laugh, if he had been in any mood for laughing. It had been washed, and he couldn't remember the last time it had been so clean. The curls fluffed out immediately into frizz and chased the wooden comb, crackling with static. He cupped up a palmful of water and wet the ends so they would lie still. He pulled the hair that sprang from the top of his head away from the burned part of his face, remembering what she'd said. It was strange, not having hair hang down over that side, but he still hadn't managed to touch the remains of his ear and he wasn't sure he wanted to know with his fingers how much of it remained just yet. He tugged the tunic over his head, wincing when the movement pulled at his ribs.
It was good to be clean for once, even if his leg and ribs still throbbed. It was good not to have the stench of his armpits and rot in his nose. It was good, even if he couldn't get up, and it surprised him, this feeling of satisfaction.
But he still couldn't look at her when she took the tray away, nor when she returned with it. There was a small bowl of the leftover pea soup with a good chunk of salt pork, and two hardboiled hen's eggs as well, and bread and butter. There were the two different kinds of tea. She left these with him and took the water skin away to refill it. When she leaned down to pick it up, he felt his groin tighten again, seeing the belt she'd tied around her waist against the dusty blue wool of her dress and remembering how her tits had shifted in the darkness.
It was boring, laying in bed.
He'd watched her wash up the breakfast dishes and sweep the floor. He'd watched her go outside and come back in a few minutes later. She'd built the fire up afterwards, and hauled bucket after bucket of water inside to dump into a large cauldron over the fire, using the swing-crane to maneuver it. A good many bandages had gone in, and he wondered at the number after he realized they'd been used on him. Larger cloths, probably towels and washing cloths. Her shift, some other smaller items, the top sheet from his bed which she'd replaced with another (the new one had a rent in the center, mended with neat stitches but the seam was scratchy), and the pillowcases. Her own sheets from the small bed on the floor. All went into the cauldron, and she stirred them from time to time. The water boiled, the cloth cooked, and he ... just laid there, unable to do much else.
It was infuriating.
She was standing on a chair, pulling down a large wooden wash tub from the rafters. "Soldier?" she answered, hopping lightly off the chair.
"Are there no men? I heard women outside earlier, but that's it."
"Men don't come here," she said flatly, using a wooden paddle to lift the laundry from the cauldron and dumping it into the wash tub. He thought her jaw tightened, but the expression disappeared as quickly as it arrived and she pulled a sheet from the cauldron into the washtub, dripping water across the flagstones. "If they need medicine, I give it to their wives. Or I'll see them at their home, if necessary. It rarely is." She bailed water into a bucket so she could get the last of the bandages without scalding herself, then picked up the washtub and carried it outside.
"I'll be able to hear you, should you need something," she said when she returned for the bucket and a block of lye soap. He grunted and pulled the second pillow from behind his back. Easing himself back down made his leg ache and he gritted his teeth. The splashing of water as she washed and wrung the laundry and the flapping of the sheets she hung over the line mixed in his mind as he fell asleep.
Wildfire blazed green across the water and flaming arrows arced through the sky above him. He slashed at the men who charged at him, fighting one after another, the battlefog narrowing his focus until all that remained was base instinct. His sword swung and men fell; he was a lumberjack clearing trees that tried to fight back. Beric stood before him with his flaming sword and he lifted his shield to block the attack, but the shield caught fire instead and he fell to the ground, first trying to smother the flames and then hacking at the shield with his own sword. But if it was burning his arm, why did he smell burning hair, why had his face erupted in agony? Gregor was laughing.
He woke up with a jerk that shot a bolt of lightning down his leg. His stomach rose and he swallowed hard. His mouth tasted like copper. He focused on a basket perched in the rafters and tried to slow down his breathing. As his heart stopped pounding, he realized that bright sunshine was slanting through the open windows and the clouds from earlier were gone. He could hear the woods witch outside talking. He tried to focus on what they were saying, but his mind felt odd, almost as if he'd been drinking, and it was cold in the cottage.
"-- and once the storm hit, I knew you wouldn't come yesterday."
"No, but I'm here now. How does he seem?" a man's voice asked.
"He won't call me by name, nor give his. Yesterday was a trial, but he's barely spoken today. He ate well, though, so I'd say he's on the mend. He was asleep the last I looked."
"Well, I'll come in while you put that away, and if he wakes, good, and if not, I'll take a mug with you and return later. Here, let me take that."
The Hound turned to look as the doorway momentarily darkened. The woods witch came in with a basket of garden pickings and was followed by the man carrying the wash tub. He set it on the floor as she took the basket to the table. The older man moved slowly, squinting a bit as his eyes adjusted from the sunlight outside to the darker interior. He was dressed in plain smallfolk clothing, but he wore the seven-pointed star of a septon. He stopped a few feet from the bed.
"Clegane," the septon said.
A small shriek came from the corner along with a small thud as the woods witch dropped the lid of the trunk where she was putting away the clean laundry. She stood up, pale as milk as she stared, her eyes first boring into his and then landing on the septon. Any hint of softness was gone from her face; she was all sharp cheekbones and clenched jaw and tense muscles, the cords standing out in her neck. Like when she was crouched by the bed, he thought.
"You brought the Mount-- the-- you brought the Mountain That Rides into my house?" she hissed, stumbling over the words.
You said I'd be safe here, she thought as she stared at the septon, every muscle tense. You said I'd be safe, and then the words were tumbling from her mouth and she couldn't stop them, the mask had fallen, and she could hardly see him through the tears that had welled up in her eyes, could barely see him as she advanced on him.
"You said I'd be safe here. You said I'd be safe , and that no men would come here, and I wouldn't have to worry," she said, choking on the words, grabbing his shoulder only to push it away. "You said I could heal here, and then you bring me this ?" A sob left her throat and the tears streamed down. "You bring me the Mountain? Is this my penance, my punishment? You bring him into my house, into my BED ?" and her throat rasped as her voice rose into a scream at the last, and she ran from the cottage and found herself at the small river a few moments later, staring at the water as it rushed past.
She sat on the bank and shook as the tears fell. Not safe, not safe, not safe, reverberated in her head and she knew she couldn't return to the cottage that had been home for two years, knew it wasn't safe anymore and she had nowhere else to go and no coin to get there, knew she was trapped in this hell, taking care of the most hated man and feared man in the Riverlands, the dreaded Mountain. Stupid, stupid, should have known, a tall, large man like that, chest like two men, should've known, those huge arms and legs and he asked for his sword and he had the armor, I should've known.
She cried and she waited, knowing he would come and hating him for it. A twig snapped and she barely startled before turning. "You said," she gasped, her voice hoarse.
"Yes, I said, and I meant every word. No men have bothered you here." he answered. She could have disputed that, but let it pass. "He's not the Mountain."
"What?" she asked into the fabric between her upraised knees.
"He's Sandor Clegane, called the Hound. Not the Mountain. Second son, once a member of the Kingsguard, but he... Left that service. And he doesn't appreciate his brother's activities. You need not fear him."
"As if I'd trust him."
"No, I'm not saying that. But I'd trust him enough to leave him where he is. And you can trust him enough to tend his wounds. I don't think he'd hurt you. Has he? I thought he could stay."
Has he? echoed in her head. No, he hadn't. Not really. She'd helped battle-scarred men before, and he was the same. He didn't want her touching anything that brought pain before, but she understood that. He'd only lashed out when he was half out of his head with pain or fever. He'd been still today. Has he? and she remembered the forearm to her belly and being crouched by the small strawtick on the floor. But he hadn't known what she was doing, and he'd laid still afterwards. That forearm to the belly, throwing her backwards, he hadn't shoved with full force, not even the force he could have found from the bed. Just enough to shrug anyone off but not enough to hurt. Not enough to hurt her.
She still didn't want him in her house.
"I'll see to him, but as soon as he's well enough, I want him gone. House him with someone else, one of the other men."
"Fine. He seems fevered, though. I thought you said he was on the mend?"
"He was," she said, getting up with a frown. "He didn't look feverish this morning."
They walked back, past the small pen where her goat bleated at her, to the cottage door where she hesitated a moment before going in. Ray followed her after she nodded at him. She approached the bed warily, her trained eye noting the sheen of sweat across his forehead, the tension in his body. His eyes were closed, but he wasn't asleep, and his breath rasped in and out in uneven hitches. He had his head turned on the pillow, though he was still on his back, the burned side facing upwards with the hair pulled away. What had Ray called him? She couldn't remember.
"Clegane?" she asked, hesitating before pressing her palm to his forehead. It was too hot, and she drew breath between her teeth and she pulled aside the opening of the tunic to show the shoulder wound, where red lines had begun to show moving up towards his neck and down towards his heart. The abscess she'd noted the day before was larger. His eyes opened, and she could see the fever-glaze as he stared at her.
"Woods witch?" he answered.
"I'll have to reopen it. I may have to burn it out. The infection is--"
"No fire," he rasped.
"The infection is spreading," she said quickly. "I have to reopen it. Medicine or fire, it's going to sting and burn either way."
"Medicine, then, but it'll burn almost as badly and may not work."
His eyes closed once more and she turned to look at Ray, shaking her head. She darted outside to pick thyme, roots and all, and back in to stir up the fire and begin the process of extracting the oils from the plant, boiling it to make a decoction of the roots and stems, along with the leaves. Ray watched from the corner. She added more wood, wishing it would heat faster, and then drew a whetstone down her best knife methodically. The healer in her was taking priority, the woman beneath banished.
"l may need you to hold him down, if you can. I'd feel better if he'd let me burn it, but it may be too late, even then," she said.
"Can you not just burn it anyway?"
"He said no, Ray. Would you have me do it against his will?" She pulled the pot of thyme extract from the fire and poured it into a bowl to cool. "He's been burned before. I won't do it to him again unless I have to, and at this point, either method could save or condemn him. It's up to the Seven."
Ray didn't answer her. She gathered bandages, cloths, all of the freshly laundered linens she'd pulled from the drying line earlier in the day, and looked at the man laid out on the bed. The scars from his first burning shone livid in the afternoon light as she tucked linen behind his shoulder and used the knife to first cut the stitches holding it together, and then the wound itself. The pus ran down and she pressed her fingers against the pouch she could feel, pressing it so that all was expressed. She set the knife aside and pulled the wound open, looking at it, then picked the knife back up and began trying to find the edges of the thin membrane that held it, delicately excising the sac. It was exacting work, and she had to flush it with the thyme mixture repeatedly as blood seeped in to obscure things and as her own vision (never the best for close sewing) blurred, and she pulled away to try to focus on the small tendrils of tissue attaching the membrane to his flesh and cutting each. When it was done, she washed the wound repeatedly, trying to to remove any remnant of blood or pus from the area, and then cut away the flesh that looked dead already. She sprinkled geranium root powder liberally over the area and ran bandages over it, around his neck, and under his arm.
"You're not going to stitch it?" asked Ray. He'd stood ready the entire time, but the man on the bed had hardly twitched and he hadn't had to hold him down as she'd asked.
"No. It'll have to heal from the inside out, since it wouldn't from the outside in. The edges won't meet now, so there's nothing to stitch, and would just trap corruption at this point," she answered, moving to the fire and heating plain water. She washed her hands in a bucket and turned back to look at him.
"You're sure?" she asked. "That he won't hurt me, that he's not like his brother?"
"No, not entirely sure," he answered. "I know what I've heard and what I've seen. He's one of the best swords in the country, but he refused to take a knight's vows. I don't understand how he became Kingsguard without them. Or how he comes to be here now. When I asked... he wasn't forthcoming," Ray answered. "His estrangement from his brother is well-known, though, and I've never heard tell that he was needlessly cruel or violent, just... very accomplished in battle, and very loyal to the crown. But he apparently doesn't serve the crown anymore."
"I'm not sure how he can serve anything in this state," she answered.
Seven days had passed since she'd called him the Mountain, and it was restday again.
He'd slept for two days after she'd cut into his shoulder, burning with fever and haunted by dreams where Bronn's arrow never flew and he was frozen while the flaming soldier charged him and bore him to the ground. Dreams of Gregor chasing him through the Keep, shoving him into a pigpen, and jerking Aleanor to the ground by her braids. Sansa's face as she took two steps forward on the parapet. The sick gleam on Meryn Trant's face when Joffrey said, "Unburden her!" and having to turn away from the shame on her face as her dress ripped. Arya shouting, "You are the worst shit in the seven kingdoms!" Over and over.
In slightly more lucid moments, he was vaguely aware of bitter medicine dripping down his throat. The woods witch talked constantly, her low voice wouldn't let him sleep and kept urging him to drink, be still, it's alright, there's no fire, drink this now.
When his eyes finally opened and his mind felt reasonably clear, afternoon sunlight was pouring through the windows and open door, and she'd been sitting at the table grinding herbs and looking haggard. He'd made a small noise, and she'd come at once. He didn't like the wariness on her face when she brought a mug of broth; it was took much like the ladies at court who had looked at him in fear, if at all. She at least did look.
The pain in his leg, ribs, shoulder and head was less than when he'd woken before. He was shocked, though, by how weak his arms felt when he struggled to sit up and bring the mug to his lips. He'd drunk it and gone back to sleep. She'd woken him to drink a bitter brew later, and he'd done the same.
The next few days had passed with him intermittently sleeping and waking, watching the routines of the cottage. The girl arrived each morning and talked to the woods witch about plants and how to make teas. He wished they'd shut up and let him sleep. The witch's voice was low, but the girl's piping reminded him of Sansa. Once, a pregnant woman had come to the door, and he'd turned away from her stare and dozed off to a conversation of swollen ankles and headaches. Once, the septon had returned, but he only stayed a few minutes. The woman cleaned, cooked, and fussed over his wounds like a gnat. He answered in gruff, one word sentences and waved her off when it became too much.
It was boring. Standing at Joffrey's side had been more boring, but at least then he could retreat to the sparring yard, or to a tavern or brothel, in the off hours.
He knew it must be restday again because the girl had not come.
She brought him a cup of fever tea, and he drank it down, but was a little confused when breakfast didn't show up soon after. He watched her sweep the cottage, go outside with the chamberpot, and return to busy herself at the table. When she came to him with a knife and a small plate, he eyed her distrustfully and finally spoke.
"What are you doing?"
"The stitches need taking out," she answered, bumping his left hip with her own as she sat down on the edge of the bed. She was always doing things like that; touching him and sitting against him like she didn't care his face was a burned ruin and that he could tear her limb from limb if he wanted to, and if he could stand upright. "Give me your hand?" she asked, gesturing at his right. They'd been unbandaged the last day, and he lifted his right hand and held it out to her. As she cut the knots and pulled the threads, he looked more closely at his left palm. The stitches were neat; the seam where the skin had split was dark pink and slightly scabbed, but smooth. He gritted his teeth at a particularly sharp tug and looked at her. She was putting another bit of thread onto the plate to join the clippings already scattered there.
"Just a midwife?"
She glanced over at him, then continued on. "Aye. My name is Wynn, as I've said at least a dozen times. Not 'woods witch,' " she answered, and did she just roll her eyes? "Antha did these stitches, in any case." She let go of his right hand and turned her body slightly to take the left. She cut the knot closest to his thumb, and he set his face so to not wince as she pulled the thread from his skin.
"But you taught her. Midwives don't set bones and stitch up. You don't have any books," he said.
She stopped, then, and stared at him with a look of incredulity, her upper lip pulling away from her teeth and trembling a bit before she pressed them together and bent her head over the next knot. She glanced up at him again as she plucked the thread free and put it on the plate.
"My father was a thatcher. What use would I have for books? Make a fine doorstop, I'm sure, but unless there were pictures drawn, they'd be no use to me." She started on the next knot and continued, "Qy- a maester... well, a sort of maester, once tried to teach me my letters but I couldn't pick it up the way I pick up herbal recipes. Too many little scritchings and they all looked the same. You grew up in a fine keep, Clegane Keep, aye? Son to a landed knight, you were, with a septa or a maester to teach you your letters and how to talk to your betters? We were six, and eventually ten, in three rooms." She washed his hands with some concoction from a wooden bowl. "Big rooms, in your grand keep, nothing like our three little ones...,"she said.
"You can't read, then," he said, and the withering look he received almost made him regret the statement.
"How could I?" she answered, and she set the plate aside and shifted a little to start probing at his shoulder. He moved his his head away and clenched his teeth at the feeling of her cleansing the raw flesh there.
"So how'd you learn how to do all this? I'm no pregnant woman."
She didn't answer. Several moments passed as she cleaned his shoulder and rebandaged it.
"Tharli was very thorough," she said eventually.
He made a noise through his nose that told her exactly what he thought of that statement.
"How do you learn sword fighting, and joust, and .. spear, I guess, and mace? Someone says, do this, and do that. And your muscles learn the movement. And you practice and you build on those skills. It's not so different," she said, as she dumped the bowl outdoors. "Same way as I teach Antha, really. This plant looks like this when it's sprouting, and then when it's flowering, and then when it's fading. It does this and that, and the other. Teas, and why, decoctions, and why," she shrugged. "And then backwards from the need. The patient needs this, and that, and what do you do? You drill, over and over, the same information, until it's instinct, yes?"
"Killing is an instinct. It's the sweetest thing there is. There's a big difference between a battle and this, though," he said, as she unwrapped the linen bindings from his leg. The wooden slats fell away as the limb was exposed, and he looked at the limb. His thigh was dark purple, almost back in places, green in others. It was swollen. The stitches were uneven against a jagged gash and while it laid straight, the muscles ached constantly, a different pain from the bone that lay underneath, keening constantly. He watched her move the knife to cut the first stitch, and looked away.
"Is there what?" he answered, holding his teeth together.
"Is there a difference between a battle and everything else?"
"Yes," he said, taking deep breaths as his thigh was shifted and moved. She was cutting away the bandages and removing the splints and cutting and pulling the stitches and asking how it was different, and his leg was throbbing and he'd rather be gritting his teeth than trying to talk. "Because in a battle, you push everything else back. And you fight, and men bleed, and shit themselves, and die."
"Oh?" she asked as she wrapped the wet rawhide around his leg and tied it on.
"Aye. Women don't understand this."
He heard her laugh, a low chuckle with little mirth in it. "You're amazed I can handle battle wounds, when I've been trained up for a woman's battle? A bed is a woman's battlefield. They get what we're told is the sweetest thing there is, which can be sweet but is oft no more than a quiet indignity in the dark, and they give birth, and it's the same cycle over and over. It's the same outcome. They bleed, they shit themselves, they die sometimes. I've seen too much of both battles to be shocked." She tied the wet rawhide around his thigh and sat back, but he couldn't think of a good response. He remembered the terror on Sansa's face, the blood on her sheets, the desperation in her eyes as he'd turned to go inform Cersei. He'd known what it meant.
Later in the morning, after breakfast, the rawhide had dried enough and she rolled him, pulling the sheet free from its moorings and replacing it with another, older sheet under his body. She added the used sheet to the heap of washing.
Two days later. She had her hair piled on top of her head. She pushed a chair towards the bed. "You'll get up today."
"Put your good leg on the floor, sit up and let me support you, and shift over onto this chair. It'll hurt, probably, but you'll be alright. Don't, under any circumstances, put weight on that leg. Don't touch your foot to the floor, even. Keep it propped on the bed."
He stretched his right leg out as she put a shoulder under his arm, and put his left leg on the floor. The chair was close enough, her shoulder under his arm was bearing him up and turning him, and when he felt himself seated he relaxed, surprised that she had been able to move him that way. "How?" he started to ask, and she handed him a plate with two soft boiled eggs and eight strips of toast.
"Because I know how," she said. "Eat your breakfast."
He demolished one egg, dipping the toast strips into the runny yolks, then started on the second one. "Ye've got eggs," he said. "Do you have chickens?"
"I have a goat. I trade her milk, and Mairi has chickens so she brings me eggs. We all trade here, so I get wood, and they get milk and medicine. Sometimes I make cheese, also."
"Aye, but can you roast a chicken?" he asked.
"I don't have a chicken to roast," she answered, looking uncomfortable. "She gets eggs, and that lasts longer than a chicken in a pot."
A day later, and why was she being so bossy about how he was going to get out of the bed? The woman had more instructions and commands than anyone he'd ever known except for Barristan Selmy.
"I know how to stand up."
"Aye. But you need to keep that leg flexed and not put any weight on it at all. And you need to hold still. So you'll hold onto this chair and the bed post while I get the measure," she said.
He growled and stood up, holding onto the bedpost and keeping his right foot off the floor. She came at him with her knotted string.
Armpit to floor. Waist to floor. Around the waist, then she had one hand at his crotch and the other at the floor. He grabbed her wrist.
"What are you doing?"
"D'ye want to sit bare-arsed on my chairs? You need breeches and smallclothes and hose." He let go of her wrist.
"Need another tunic, besides," she said. "Graeme was shorter than you, and this is too short." She tweaked the hem of the linen tunic he wore.
"Where's he, then?"
"Dead, at Maidenpool." Sandor nodded at that; the city had been sacked three times since the start of the war of five kings.
"He died in battle, then?"
"He died fighting," she answered. He thought her jaw clenched again, but it could have just been a trick of the light. She finished taking his measurements and let him stay in the chair long enough to eat supper.
Wynn pulled the needle through the cloth and watched the thread as it tried to catch in the thick fabric. Her eyes were tired and the stitches were blurring against the fabric as she worked. The dark grey-green wool was heavy against her lap, and as she sewed, she pictured the breeches she was making as they'd be worn on the man she was making them for. She'd cut the legs a bit wider than necessary, to accommodate the the rawhide that encased his leg, but not so wide that they'd look ridiculous later, when the extra bulk was removed.
Mairi stitched as well, dark brown wool laying across her lap, and Wynn watched her set down the half-finished breeches and stand, twisting her neck with a sharp series of cracks, before she swooped up her young son. "Are you hungry, then?" she asked, and nuzzled her face into Albert's neck, kissing and making him chortle. She gave him a plate of buttered bread, sliced radishes and cucumber, and Wynn turned her face away, trying to shove back the feeling of jealousy. Mairi didn't deserve it. Albert certainly didn't.
"Do you want anything?" Mairi asked, and she shook her head.
"No, I'm fine," she answered. It had been two days since she'd measured him, and the numbers still stood out in her mind as she sewed the woolen cloth, rolling the raw edges together and sewing it down to hide the seam, protecting the first set of stitches. She told the flutters in her stomach to stop. I'm not protecting him, she told herself. I'm just sewing him clothes so he isn't naked. He needed clothing and I'm sewing it. That's all.
Eighteen days. That was how long it had been, how long she'd been stuck in her cottage but sleeping on a strawtick on the floor, not even in her bed. How long she'd catered to every need he'd had, feeding him and bathing him and taking his chamberpot to dump into the privy she shared with four other houses. How long she'd watched him clean his teeth and wash his pits. How long she'd felt his eyes on her as she'd gone about her daily routine. How long she'd felt his eyes on her as she'd made his supper and carried it to him, and then taken the tray away.
His shoulders were broad, but sloped slightly when he was tired, she'd noted. It gave him a more non-intimidating air, and while he did still move suddenly and startle her, he didn't seem as fearsome as he once had. She hadn't been frightened in a week. She wore the calm, expressionless mask she had in Maidenpool most of the time, and he answered her in clipped sentences, rarely saying more than a handful of words at a time. He never struck out as he had before.
"Up," Albert said, and she laid aside the fabric and drew him into her arms. His toddler weight pressed into her and she cuddled him, thinking of another whose weight had been similar, and pressed a kiss to his temple. "Whassat?" he asked.
"Breeches. Big breeches, for a big man."
"Mine," he said, struggling against her arms, and her heart clenched in her chest. She let him go, but didn't let him take the half-sewn project away as he intended to drag it off.
"No. These belong to Sandor," she said as he tugged. He screwed up his face in indignation and she lowered her mouth to his ear. "Men don't cry about breeches," she whispered. "Where's your hammer? Show me how you can work like your father." And he darted off, finding his little wooden hammer and tapped it on the floor and the wall and a few small blocks of wood, looking to her for approval every so often. She nodded at him and kept sewing.
"So what's he like? I'd be afraid to have him in the room all time, like that, never knowing what he would do." Mairi's face was a picture of concern. Inwardly, Wynn smirked. The younger woman had led a sheltered life, if a mostly bed-ridden man could frighten her so. But she kept her face neutral and shook her head.
"No, he's quiet for the most part, now he's not feverish. Funny at times, even."
"Funny?" Mairi scoffed. "Terrifying, more like. Those scars-"
"Aye, funny," she said, cutting her off. "He's got a lot of scars, not just the ones on his face. But for all that, I don't think he's ever been laid up in a bed like this, not since he was small. It's driving him crazy, not being able to get up, especially now that he's actually been able to stand for a bit. But he won't stay out of bed as he is. I offered him a drying cloth to tie around his waist like a skirt, but you can guess his reaction."
Mairi's laughter rang through the cottage, but she sobered after a moment. "Still, though, you can't tell me he's a lamb to tend. Wynn, he's the Mountain's brother. Certain he can't do much as it is, but once his leg has healed? Who knows what he'd do? What if the Mountain came here to get him, and the village fell?"
"Ray said he and his brother don't get along," she said, shaking her head. "And they've never ridden this far north, so we'll pray they never do. Truly, though, I don't think he'd hurt us. He talks a hard line now, but you should hear the way he speaks when he's out of his head with fever."
He was speaking with Ray again when she returned home, and she wouldn't interrupt them. She'd left Mairi's cottage with a long tunic, two pairs of breeches, three of smallclothes and two pairs of hose. She set them on the woodpile and went around the corner to the garden. She and Antha weeded the vegetables and herbs as often as possible, but a number of the herbs had a tendency to self-seed and so spread from their designated areas. She knelt amongst the cucumbers and began pulling up the mint and wild strawberry that had invaded. She could hear the rumble of men's voices from the cottage, but she turned her mind away from it.
Two days prior, she'd called him Clegane and he'd grimaced and turned his face away, the corner of his lip twitching. "Sandor," he'd muttered, and she had carried away his tray and felt such an upwelling of ... something. But he hadn't spoken for the rest of the day, not until she'd blown out the candles and taken off her woolen dress and settled into her own bed in her shift.
"Good night, Sandor," she'd called into the darkness.
"G'night," had come back, quietly, a low rasp. And her stomach had flipped, and she had cursed her own weakness.
It's just foolishness, is all, she thought, pulling up mint by the roots and piling it at her side. Like if there was a baby to tend, soon enough I'd be feeling like its mother, even if it wasn't mine. So no reason to be looking closer at this. I'll tend him, and I won't think on it, and soon enough I won't feel this way. I'm not some maid of fifteen anymore and I won't act like I am.
She startled and looked towards the cottage, but no more sounds came from it. A few moments later, Ray walked around the corner. He nodded at her and then walked on past, towards the other cottages and his own. She picked up the weeds she'd gathered and tossed them into the compost heap, and then gathered up the clothes she'd left on the wood pile and walked back into the cottage.
It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the darker interior and she put the clothes on the table more by feel than by sight. He was on his side facing away towards the wall, and she ignored him and set the mutton stew she'd made the day before back on the coals to heat. Stale bread was sliced into two trenchers. Talking with Ray could be hard, she knew all too well, and she tried to be quiet as she put away the clothes she and Mairi had sewn, except for one pair of smallclothes and the grey-green breeches.
"Have you joined the Silent Sisters, then?" he asked, and she smiled.
"No. Will you turn over? I'd like to show you something."
He did, and his eyes widened a little when she held up the breeches she'd finished earlier. She tossed them and the smallclothes onto the bed and turned her back, stirring the stew and then examining the various boxes and bundles stacked on the shelves around the hearth while she listened to the straw and blankets rustle as he fought to dress himself. When the sounds stopped, she turned around. He was sitting up with the sheet and blankets thrown back, his long legs stretched out on the bed and covered in wool. His feet stuck out of the pantlegs, dark hair fuzzing their tops.
"Better," she said, and pulled a clump of dried tansy down from the rafters to grind it. She glanced over occasionally as she worked, and he was always watching her, and it made her feel unsure and fumble-fingered. Her hands spilled some of the dried grindings as she tipped it into a crock and she had to scoop it from the table and then brush the rest over the edge into her cupped palm.
There was a knock at her doorpost at the same time Karven's voice spoke, "Wynn?" She looked up, and the older man stood there but did not come inside. She went to the door. "Do these look right?"
She took the crutches he'd made to the measurements she'd given him. "Aye, these should work fine. Thank you."
He gave her a nod that was almost a small bow, darted a curious glance at the man in her bed, and then back at her with an expression she had hoped he wouldn't aim at her again. "Would you care for a walk by the river, restday afternoon?" he asked.
"I'll probably be busy. We'll see," she answered tersely.
He nodded once more before he turned and walked back towards the main settlement. She watched him from the doorway. His loose-kneed gait took him quickly towards his own cottage further down the narrow lane and he paused momentarily to look back at her before going inside. Wynn sighed, then turned back around.
"So. Fancy eating at the table tonight?"
He'd already swung his body around and put his good foot on the floor. She handed him the crutches and stood on his right as he stood and caught his balance. He took three experiemental steps forward and then stopped, repositioned the crutches under his arms, and headed for the door. "Where's the privy?"
A man could learn a lot by watching.
In King's Landing, he'd stood watch over Joffrey, both before and after his coronation. The perverse fascination the boy had for causing pain to others and boasting of his own unproven prowess had rankled, as had the boy's habit of calling him Dog. Hound was one thing; it was based on his family sigil, after all, and hounds were noble hunters, trained to find and kill. But to be reduced to a mangy cur, begging for scraps and cringing away from kicks? No.
Everything seemed upside-down in King's Landing, though, not just the bratty cunt he served. They took one of the best fighters in the kingdom and made him play nursemaid. Not even a nursemaid, actually; he wasn't wiping noses and fetching sugartits. Just standing, watching, and doing what he was told. Kill a boy? Sure. Only because he was ordered, and because they'd have done worse had he brought the boy back alive. He'd made it quick, at least.
They were all like that, though, the noble lords and ladies and knights that flocked around the Red Keep. They lied, and they feasted, and they lied, and they danced, and they lied and they schemed and he watched them. He'd watched Sansa being broken by them, until he was nearly broken himself by fire, but she wouldn't come with him and now, in this cottage at the ass-end of nowhere, he supposed he understood why. She saw them too, but she thought he was like them. He couldn't blame her. He'd done what he could, but bound by orders, it hadn't been enough to protect her.
Her sister had been another thing entirely. The little bird had been fragile, but she sang the right songs and so avoided most danger. Only when her family's rebellion had outshone the cunt brat he served had she been in true danger. The wolf-bitch had none of her graces, nor the delicate beauty her sister possessed. I didn't want her that way, he told himself in the dark, and knew the lie for what it was but refused to examine it closer. At least with the wolf-girl he had no such conundrum. Children held no draw for him, and she seemed less a girl and more a feral boy-child than anything else, something ferocious and fey and defenseless and vicious, all wrapped into a neat little package that carried a sword she called a needle.
The woods witch... Wynn... He'd given her his given name, not wanting to be called Hound anymore, certainly not Dog; he was done hunting and killing for others. Clegane meant his family, and the brother who'd maimed him and the father who'd allowed it. He'd spoken with Ray only a little on what that meant, on the dark rage he felt at being at everyone else's command, their beck and call, their names for him and the roles he'd served. He was done serving. She, at least, expected nothing from him but that he would heal and then he'd move elsewhere. That was simple enough. She didn't command, like Joffrey or his thrice gods-damned mother. She didn't ask questions, like Septon Ray. She just was, and with a lack of anything else to do, he watched her.
She was usually up before he was, in the pre-dawn, and he'd ignored her morning washing session more often than he liked to think about. She was tall, although he didn't realize how tall until she'd stood him up to measure him for clothing and realized her head hit at shoulder-height. She was plain. Her face seemed to be all harsh angles, sharp cheekbones and a sharp jawline that cut off a rectangular face with a hard jut of chin. Her hips were good, though, when he watched her bend over the fire and stir something in the cooking pot, and the curve from her waist to her hips was revealed. Her nose was a bit crooked, and he realized after studying it awhile that it looked like the noses of men he'd known, men who'd fought and lost and had it broken. Set well, yes, but broken nonetheless. She had eyes that were brown with flecks of amber that had never hesitated to meet his. She came back from bathing somewhere else with her hair wet and dripping, and he watched her put oil on it and twist it into many ropes that dried in an orderly cascade of long coiling curls that hung in regiments, surrounding her face and hanging down her back, but by the next day, it was a mess of waves and curls and tangles again. It was the only messy thing about her.
He liked the way she moved. Whether she was walking around the cottage, or bending in some household chore, there was a surety to it that stirred something in him. It was her domain and she moved in it. He liked the way her hands moved when she kneaded bread. Her hands were large, and a part of him itched to lay his palms against hers, to measure the difference. She had broad palms and long fingers, and he thought they'd be smaller than his, but still larger than the whores he'd been with who had laid beneath him and sighed and moaned until he told them to shut up. He'd be able to curve the ends of his fingers over hers, and her palms would look small against his hands, but not like a child's, and he'd thread his fingers through hers and wrap his thumb around to hold hers still. She moved her hands against the dough and turned it and kneaded it, and then the large hands had scooped it up and placed it to rise, and later she'd taken it away to be baked elsewhere. She had hands that could do more than just needlepoint and hold goblets of wine. They'd set his leg and wrapped his injuries and bathed him when he couldn't move.
Antha came in the mornings, and they talked about various plants. After she'd gone home, Ray would come and Wynn would disappear, and they'd talk. Ray seemed to be taking him apart, like he was a barn or a keep, skeletal framework that he was nailing new cross-braces to. Ray made him angry, and he hated his questions, but late at night he'd think things over, and find some kind of peace. Or if not peace, he might find a new way of looking at his past transgressions and those done against him.
But he'd leave as well, and then it would just be her, in the dimness of the cottage, and her face would be set with that mask that reminded him of Sansa's when she'd chirped her courtesies and it turned his stomach. When he was still angry at Ray and yelled at her instead, he watched how her body tensed and braced, and how her face set and he listened to the measured words she said. It was similar to the little bird's, albeit far more practiced and effective. Sansa had chirped her courtesies and no one could ever have been fooled by them, but the woods witch spoke so calmly that it would be hard to find the lie. It was hidden underneath, in the tension in her shoulders and the twitch in her jaw, the way she would twist her fingers under her thumbs to make the joints pop. He wondered who had played Joffrey or Meryn Trant to break her calm, to build that armor. Who had made her build a wall between herself and the world, so that she'd hidden herself away in this cottage she rarely left? Because she did have one, even if she pretended she was living in this village where no one came to her door but women and a septon, and he knew it.
"Men don't come here," she'd said, and he remembered. And no, no men had come there. The tall, rangy man had delivered the crutches, but he wasn't invited into her house. Ray came in, but he almost always left moments later, or Wynn left and he stayed. She didn't let men in. He was there, and she didn't shy from him. But she had, early on, he remembered, and at night he considered how she'd shied away from him. A mental image of her crouched by the strawtick on the floor haunted him, muscles tense and looking like she'd been poised to either receive a blow or to attack and yet she didn't.
She could have killed him then, but she hadn't. And there was that look she'd given him with her finger pressed into his shoulder, hurting him, and knowing she was hurting him, not caring what the gods might think. She'd stared him straight in the eyes and said it, and he couldn't find a lie in her face or voice.
She was like three women in one. The Wynn who took care of him and sometimes spoke freely, quirking her eyebrows and speaking to Antha, to Ray, to the women who came for her medicines, but he didn't think he'd ever seen smile, although she had laughed that one time. The Wynn who'd been blazing in her fury but hadn't hurt him (much). And the Wynn who hid behind her act of placid calm, placating, revealing nothing and everything at the same time. He thought the first version to be closest to truth, but still not all of her.
It was good being dressed in clothes again, fully dressed. He pulled the clothing on and pulled the crutches under his armpits and stood upright and it was good; his leg felt like it was healing.
But days passed, and he was trying to get accustomed to the crutches and to not putting any pressure on his right leg. He got up and walked around, taking walks back and forth across the village to regain his strength, and he watched how she startled when she wasn't expecting him, and his thoughts were consumed by it. She reminded him of badly broken horses he'd seen, ones that invariably wound up sold for cheap because they were too unpredictable: meek as lambs one moment and kicking and rearing at the bit the next, products of the overuse of the whip. She did it with him, with Ray, even with Antha sometimes. It hit him one afternoon, when he'd been walking and she'd jerked with a little eep leaving her lips when he rounded the corner to find her in the garden, that he didn't want her to do that with him ever again. It was foreign. It was unexpected and unwanted. He'd seen her mouth twitch, the bottom lip broad and almost pouting, and he wanted to grasp her hips and kiss her and tell her that she didn't have to ever feel afraid again, but he couldn't. She wouldn't want him to and he knew it. She wasn't his. She held herself apart from everyone, and she was untouchable, a woman standing at a hearth that he couldn't reach for, and he knew he'd be moved to a different house soon. He'd been there nearly a month and didn't need such care anymore.
Ray came in the early evening, after they'd eaten, to tell the woods witch that a new group of refugees had arrived, and that one woman among them would need her skills soon. Saltpans had been sacked.
"Likely more than just her will need me, then," she said, her voice grave. "I'll start seeing them tomorrow."
Sandor stood at the open doorway after Ray left, staring into the night, wondering how far north his brother's men would go. An owl hooted in the distance and he pictured Gregor riding north, chasing the trail of the refugees as they fled before him. Setting the Riverlands on fire. Finding this village, far off the main thoroughfare but not unknown. "For the night is dark and full of terrors," he said quietly, remembering the words spoken so often by the Brotherhood.
"Is he?" she asked, coming up behind him.
"The knight. Is he dark and full of terrors?" and the look on her face was a mixture of confusion and concern, and her dark eyes were staring into his, and he thought then that this was the moment, and his breath caught but as he started to lift his hand from the crutch, she turned and stepped away to put more wood on the fire, and the moment disappeared like the sparks and smoke that flew up the chimney.
Wynn felt the fingers in her hair, the strands moving and pulling gently against her scalp. I'm sleeping, Graeme, she thought drowsily. There was a faint scritch scritch noise behind her and she felt her hair moving again. She stilled, becoming more fully alert, just in time for the sensation of tiny scurrying claws running across her neck. She bolted upright with a little shriek and sat clutching the neckline of her shift, breathing hard and feeling disgusted.
"Nightmare?" Sandor rumbled.
"No," she said. "I think... I think it was a mouse."
She heard the staccato breaths and realized he was laughing at her through his nose. She looked over at him. With only the glow from the fireplace, he was a darker shape against the dim of the wall, brighter where the sheets and his eyes caught a bit of the light. He was on his side, looking at her.
"Don't laugh," she said, taking a deep breath and blowing it out. "It was in my hair, and then it ran across me. You'd have been startled, too." But she chuckled a little then, as well, the shock wearing off.
"Aye, likely. It's colder tonight than it has been."
She nodded and threw her blankets back. It is colder. Not quite enough to see my breath, but not far from it. She was putting two pieces of wood on the dying fire when she heard him.
"There's no mice up here."
She turned and looked back. He didn't seem to have moved, but she could feel his eyes on her and she didn't like the fluttery feeling that had developed in her stomach. Stop being ridiculous, she told herself, and looked back at the narrow strawtick on the floor.
"I --," and broke off, not knowing what to say. She moved back to sit down next to her pillow and brushed off the soles of her feet with her hands before pulling them up onto the sheet. A cold draft came through a gap in the shutters and she shivered.
"It would be warmer, anyway," he said quietly.
Wynn didn't answer. If I crawl into the empty space between him and the wall, it'll be too much like sleeping with Graeme, with him between me and the door. If he moves over.... Shouldn't be in a bed with him anyways. But he can't do anything with his leg. Back and forth, yes and no, she would, she shouldn't, the pendulum swung. She broke out in gooseflesh as another gust of cold air washed over her. She looked over at him. He hadn't moved.
"Can you move over?"
He grunted and shifted backwards towards the wall, then dragged his pillow across. Wynn stood up with her pillow and climbed into the bed. The spot he'd vacated was warm. She shifted a little, hearing the straw rustle when she tugged the hem of her shift down past her knees as it rode up and then tried to get her shoulders into a comfortable position. The tension refused to leave and she stared up at the flickering shadows on the ceiling.
"Had to share blankets a few times with the wolf girl," he said. "She didn't like it any more than you seem to."
She turned her head to the right. His features were indistinct in the gloom, and only the missing eyebrow stood out as an anomaly. "I haven't shared a bed since my husband died," she answered flatly. A memory - snuggling with Patrig on the trip from Maidenpool and pointing out the Crone's Lantern - drifted up, and she shoved it away.
"You miss him."
She shook her head slightly. He meant Graeme, but it was Patrig she missed. "What was she like?" she asked, instead of speaking of either.
"Pain in the arse," he said after a pause. "I was going to ransom her, but her kin kept dying. A fighter, though. Scrappy little thing, smaller than Antha. She had a list of people she meant to kill. I was on it. Saw her cross a name or two off it, too. I thought she'd be glad to cross my name off when the Tarth bitch knocked me off that cliff, but she wouldn't. She robbed me and walked away." He was silent for a moment, then made a sound that was almost a laugh. "Dead men don't need silver."
Wynn rolled over onto her right side and tucked her arm under her pillow. He cared about the girl, she thought, but if she'd killed him then, he wouldn't be alive now. She wasn't sure how to respond. A knot popped in the fire and the room brightened for a second. She had thought he might've gone to sleep, he'd been so quiet, but in the momentary glow, she saw his eyes were focused on her face. The flutter in her stomach that had died down before woke back up and warred with the tension in her shoulders and limbs, the cause an arm-length away.
"So. I answered a question, and I'll ask one. Whose bed is that?" His arm, bare as he'd tucked the blankets beneath it, lifted and gestured at the room at large. His voice was quiet, though, and still a bit rough, reminiscent of the waves washing over the mix of gravel and broken shells east of Maidenpool when the tide came in.
She drew a breath and exhaled. "Ask a different question," she said. If I'd known this was a tit for tat, she thought, I'd never have asked about her. He seemed unmoved, though, a wall before the wall of wood and stone, a shadow looming large under the blankets.
"Fine," he answered. "How did you break your nose?"
The tension in her body increased and bone turned to steel. She fell away from him, her shoulders touched the pillow beneath and the shadows flickered across the ceiling. She licked her lips and took a breath that came out in a shudder.
"I didn't know it was that obvious."
"It isn't," and was his voice slightly closer? She thought it was. "But it has a small bump and it's the slightest bit crooked." She sighed.
"My son, Patrig. It was his bed. I used the frame outside to plant things like mint and pennyroyal, to keep them separated from the rest. They'll take over a garden if you're not careful."
But he ignored the gardening talk and asked, "What was he like?"
Tall and skinny with hair bleached by the sun and sea. Toddling after her, one hand hitching up his clouts and the other holding a half-eaten biscuit. One moment declaring he'd be a knight for House Mooton, the next that he'd be a stonemason and build more things than Brandon the Builder. Tugging her curls as he nursed. Running inside to show her a fish he'd caught, proud he brought home supper.
"Alive," she whispered. She waited for the prick of tears, but it didn't come and she was glad.
He didn't say anything, and Wynn stared at the ceiling. After a moment, she heard him shifting and when she looked, she saw he was holding a lock of her hair, dark strands coiled around his finger. Her eyes lifted to his face, but she couldn't tell if he was looking at her or not. She rolled back on her side, facing him again.
"After... after Graeme died, I sold his tools and bought cart-space on a caravan headed north. With all the raids, lots of people were trying to go elsewhere, some coming to Maidenpool thinking they'd be safer, and others leaving for the same reason. I brought the two bedsteads, my cooking pots and bowls, herbs and seeds, our clothes and bedding, and left the rest of it. When we reached the Trident, it was flooded. I was tired and wanted to rest in the small cabin on the ferry, but Patrig wanted to watch the ferrymen. He was nearly eleven. They'd already fished him out of the water by the time anyone thought to get me."
"A boy bred in the Bay of Crabs? He could swim like the salmon on Lord Mooton's sigil. No. He had... there was blood in his hair. I think he must've hit his head on the side of the boat when he fell, or just after. It was enough."
The fire crackled in the fireplace, but they were quiet. Wynn watched his hand, his thumb moving against the curl he still held, touching a part of her that couldn't feel it. Touching her, without actually touching her. Perhaps it's fair, she thought. I've touched him daily, but only when I had to for a healer's purpose.
Her left arm had drifted out before she was even aware of what she was doing, and she watched her hand run fingers through his hair and lift it so that it fell away from the burn-scarred skin. She trailed them down towards his beard, and then tilted a bit to let her thumb graze over the missing eyebrow, the hooded eyelid. His skin was warm beneath her questing fingertips, and she realized she'd moved closer to him only when part of her forearm and elbow were touching his upper body as well, and he was holding himself as tense as she'd been earlier. She considered moving her foot towards his. His leg wasn't far, she knew. Oh, I shouldn't be doing this. I really shouldn't.
"You did that on purpose, those questions," she accused, but her voice was quiet and oddly hoarse. She could feel the heat radiating off him as if he were a roaring fireplace, and the straw crackled beneath her as she shifted her right arm from under her pillow to touch just under the healing scar where his flesh had been torn on his shoulder, closer to the bed. Her fingertips skidded over it and against the sensitive skin below and behind his ear.
"You lie, sometimes," he growled as she felt his arm snake around her back and pull her in closer. "Lie with your face, lie with your words. I don't want lies and mummery." Wynn felt him pressed against her, his chest against hers and the hard rawhide against her leg and a darker heat pressed against her thigh. "Whores lie. The nobles at court lie. The Kingsguard is a lie. The whores lie when I give them coin and they make their noises at me but look away. Those fine ladies gossip but won't look me in the face. And you look me in the face, but you don't see me."
Don't I? she thought, but he was still speaking.
"Be just and protect the weak," he was muttering, and his lips were trailing down her neck and she could hardly think, but she pushed him back with both hands, not far. She could feel the hair that covered his chest under her palms and struggled with herself for a moment. Graeme had only had a few sparse hairs around his nipples and a small patch between them, and this downy forest under her hands was entirely different, and entirely enticing, but she had a point to make.
"Don't you? I don't remember exactly - be strong, and just, and protect the weak? You did, with that girl." And he growled, and his arm pulled her close again.
"Aye," he said. His hand was on her shoulder, and she felt it drift down and cup her breast. His thumb grazed against her nipple and she felt it harden. The linen of her shift suddenly seemed rough, and his thumb moved against her again. "I tried to, and she's likely dead all the same. Trant and Boros Blount beat her sister, and I couldn't protect her either. Orders from a cunt king. Knights," he said, the word sounding more like a curse than the way he'd ever said bitch or cunt or fuck. His hand slid lower and gripped her ribcage but not painfully, only firmly, holding her in place. Her heart thrummed in her chest, but she wasn't afraid. A strange sort of certainty had claimed her, a clarity of mind, and her left hand rose again to ghost over his nose and across his lips. Well met, she thought, and her fingers drifted into his beard as she pressed her lips against his.
He barely moved, at first. Her lips coaxed, finally centering on just his bottom lip, and his eventually parted, and the kiss deepened into a fever-dream of need. If he'd accused her of lying before, this laid bare any illusions of falsehood. Two years of solitude and twelve of pent (longing? grief? a mixture of lust and shame) instinct burst forth as she kissed him, and she took and swallowed the groans he voiced and was satisfied. His hand was back at her breast and hers was pressed against his shoulderblade and she felt the heat and tension gathering as he kneaded and pinched.
He broke the kiss with a ragged breath and pulled away.
"Go to sleep, woods witch," he said.
She rolled away from him and looked at the pallet on the floor, the strawtick where she'd slept for weeks, and tried to calm her breathing. She tried to quiet her mind. Tried to ignore the heat between her legs and the tension in her body. After a very long time, she fell asleep.
So. Twenty-five years ago, or thereabouts, I had the singularly unpleasant experience of waking up to a mouse moving around in my hair and then running across my neck, laying on an air mattress on the floor of a Kentucky farmhouse. It's not a pleasant way to wake up, and I didn't get to make out with Sandor Clegane afterwards.
If you're liking this fic, why not leave me a little note to let me know? Or if you hate it, tell me that. Comments are like potato chips; I want them all, and they keep me fed for the next bit of story. :D
I'm playing very fast and loose with what plants are in season, and animal migration patterns, and all sorts of natural phenomena. But when seasons last for years, I think I can be forgiven for taking a little artistic license. Google Lave Nets, if you'd like more information on what I've poorly sketched out below. And trigger warnings for mentions of past domestic violence and gaslighting, if that bothers you. This will probably be the only time I put up a trigger warning in a note, please be advised. Wynn's backstory is not pretty, and Westeros doesn't have trained psychotherapists even if Ray is attempting to fill that role. She has completely internalized the blame and is NOT emotionally healthy.
The pottage she'd spooned onto the stale bread trencher wasn't as good as some of the things she'd fed him, and Sandor ate it like a man doing work. It was heavy on vegetables, light on meat. He thought about the roasted chicken he'd eaten after he and Arya had killed the Lannister soldiers. He thought about roast boar at a feast in King's Landing. He glanced across the table at Wynn, who was eating and looking at anything but him.
She'd been awake, dressed, and fiddling with her cooking pot when he woke up. When she left to milk the goat, he had dressed and was washing up when she came back in. Her skirts had brushed past the crutch he'd leaned against the table, and as his hand darted out to catch it before it could fall, she had jerked sideways away from him. She'd paused, head downcast, then turned away and started dishing up their breakfast.
She'd eaten less than half before she was up and scraping the remains into the slop bucket. She crossed the cottage floor hurriedly and pulled her pillow from the bed and put it back on the small pallet on the floor, then made the larger bed up and smoothed the blankets and put his pillow back into its customary spot. She was washing out the cooking pot and her own plate and spoon when Antha arrived.
"I'm going to the Hall, to see to the refugees. I should be back by midday," she said, and taking a basket over her arm, she left with the girl. She still hadn't looked directly at him.
So. He was right, but it was little comfort. She'd turned to him in the dark, missing her husband and son. She didn't really want him. What woman would? And now, with the sun coming up, she was regretting what she'd done, and she couldn't even look at him and say so.
Seven hells, I'm as bad as the little bird, he thought. Florian and Jonquil, my ass. I'm a big ugly fucker and no woman in her right mind will ever see me as anything else. I can't even fight like this, and no sword besides. And then a deeper meaning for that struck him and he slung his plate towards the washtin on the floor in one harsh motion. The wooden plate clanged off the side and split in half. Shit!
He got up, grabbed hose that stretched to his knees and pulled them on, then pulled on his boots. She'd cleaned the boots and oiled the leather at some point. Didn't even have hose before. He hobbled over to the washtin and picked up the broken plate, then tossed the pieces into the fireplace. He wanted to fight someone. Instead, he closed the door behind him as he hobbled on the crutches into the morning light.
The Hall wasn't a great hall in a keep or castle. From the outside, it looked like it could be a tavern or inn, adjoining stables and all. He'd been there a few days prior, when he was still trying to get used to the crutches. There was a main room downstairs that was large enough to hold nearly all the villagers, and two rooms off to the side. One held the ovens where the village's bread was baked, and the other was a sort of solar for Ray. There were rooms upstairs where people could sleep, if they visited or didn't have their own place yet.
Sandor walked the length of the village twice, trying to burn off the anger and energy that consumed him. When he felt calm enough (not calm, but not like throwing someone across a room anymore), he pushed the door of the Hall open and stepped in. He was a little surprised by the number of people inside. Three children were playing in one corner. Five men stood off to the side. Wynn huddled next to a very pregnant woman who was sitting on the floor in the corner opposite, with Antha standing at her shoulder and three other women nearby. Ray was at the far end of the room, talking to another man. He looked up as Sandor approached.
"Sandor Clegane," Ray said. "Your walking has improved. Do you know Karven, here?" He gestured at the thin, older man. Sandor recognized him as the man who'd brought the crutches. His reddish hair was peppered with grey and he had blue eyes set over a beakish nose.
"We haven't met, but your crutches were made in my shop," the man said, holding out his hand. Sandor clasped forearms with him briefly and then let his hand drop.
"We were actually speaking of you a little while ago," Ray said. Sandor felt his hackles go up at that, but Ray was still speaking. "I was telling Karven, you've been cooped up inside too long with too little to do. There's things you'll want and need if you stay here, and we barter for most. Do you have any tradeskills, beyond fighting?"
Sandor thought for a moment. "I was good in the kennels, when I was a boy. I could take care of the horses, if I wasn't on these," he said, shrugging and pushing the crutches forward a bit before settling them back under his arms. "But I was a squire since I was twelve. I never learned to smith or farm. Might as well be Ironborn."
Ray chuckled a little at that. "We have a few dogs but they're for the sheep, not hunting, and the stables are well-tended. No, I think something that will let you rest your leg would be better, at least for the time being. Karven here is our best carpenter. The salmon should run once more before the colder weather sets in, and he's been making nets, but he should really be working on other things. So do you think you could learn to weave?"
"Weaving's for women and cripples," he growled, feeling his chest rise. His earlier anger was rekindling and Karven took a step back, then another.
"You are a cripple, at the moment," Ray said.
"I'm not some boy whore sitting ready to take on all comers and do fiddly-fuck, nancing about with a loom."
"It isn't nancing," Karven said through clenched teeth, although he was still several feet away. "It's bad luck for women to weave nets. And they try to make them pretty, besides. Like tapestries, instead of strong and even for fish. It's fisherman's work," he said, indignantly.
"Shut your cunt mouth before I shut it for you," Sandor growled.
"TIme you were moving on, Clegane," Ray said, drawing his attention back. Sandor turned and looked at the septon, not quite understanding. He couldn't move on when he could barely get around on the crutches, and he'd just been offered work and refused it, and he was still as mad as seven hells. Karven had slunk away and he'd barely noted the door of the Hall opening and closing again. "I'd house you upstairs, but it would be difficult with your leg. You'll come stay at my place. There's an extra room, an extra bed."
Oh. Wynn had talked with him and wanted him out of the cottage and Ray was taking him in. It figured. He grimaced and refused to look at the corner of the Hall where she was still with the pregnant woman, three other women and the girl clustered nearby. Inwardly, he seethed. Bad enough that it had happened, but now the septon knew about it as well. Bloody woods witch.
But he'd followed Ray back to Wynn's cottage, and gathered up the rest of the clothing she'd sewn him and the remains of his armor and riveted leathers, and then back across the village to a different cottage. It was built much like hers, except instead of only one room, it was a main room with two leading off from it. Ray showed him into one, and it had a bed and a window and nothing else. He piled his clothing in one corner and his ruined armor in the other and left again. The bed in the corner looked too short.
"You said you were through with being someone else's weapon. That's fine. But to build a life, it's not enough to know what you don't want. You have to figure out what you do. And to do that, you have to earn trust from others, and leave behind some better impressions than you have in the past.
Ray took him back down the lane and gave him a look that Sandor couldn't quite interpret, but he was feeling calmer at that point and knew he had work to do, even if it was poncy. Karven's workshop adjoined his cottage, the building was bisected for the purpose. He was working on a small cabinet when Sandor arrived. It was built to fit into a corner, triangular in shape so the open doorway would span the wide side, and the carpenter was staining the wood a deep reddish-purple with a cloth that he dipped regularly into a small bowl of dark liquid.
"Pokeberries," the man said, throwing down the rag as Sandor came in. "My hands will be red for days."
He showed Sandor into a corner where a chair was set up and a partially finished net was tacked to the wall. The demonstration that followed was simple enough to copy. A stick was held beneath a section of the net, and a spindle of twine was passed around it, then through the loop above it, then back around the stick again. Karven corrected him twice; once for the distance he'd put between the last finished loops and the stick he was weaving around, and then later for the tension when he'd tied it off to start on the next section. He worked steadily for a few hours before he spoke again.
"How many nets for a plate?"
The thin man cleared his throat. "One net would do you eight plates, or mayhap a quarter-side of cured mutton on a good day. Or some other combination. A good fifteen marks. They're large nets, you see, and need to be woven well. The salmon's as important as the sheep, here, along with the grain we've hauled in for the winter. A good net is costly."
"Were you a fisherman, then?"
"As a boy, before I was apprenticed to a carpenter. I grew up near Riverrun."
At midday, a woman brought them mugs of ale and plates of cold mutton and hot cooked greens along with sliced raw radishes. When they were finished eating, she took their dishes away. She didn't look at Sandor as she passed. He tilted his head towards her as she went back into the cottage. "Your wife?"
"No. She cooks for a few of us that don't have wives for it, and brings it around at noon. She leaves a bit for supper and then we're on our own for breakfast."
Sandor nodded, thinking it seemed a strange arrangement, albeit efficient.
"She cooks for Ray, too, Valri does. She's better at it than some. Canna can't cook worth a fiddler's fart."
They got back to work. By the time the sun was low in the sky, the net was about three-quarters done. Karven's cabinet had a wooden door fixed across it with a floral motif in a lighter color than the surrounding wood, dark as Dornish sour.
"Can I get a plate in advance on this?" he asked, gesturing at the nearly finished net.
"Don't see why not," Karven answered, and brought him one. "You'll be back tomorrow?"
"Aye." He carried the plate out of the workshop and headed towards Ray's cottage.
But from Ray's doorway, he looked down the lane at Wynn's cottage, which was the last before the the countryside took over. Karven was at her doorstep, holding the cabinet. There was a brief pause, with Wynn barely visible, and then she disappeared, and Karven went in, too.
She had just drawn herself a mug of ale and sat down at the table when there was a knock on the door. The second unexpected knock of the evening, this was. Karven had been standing there the first time, and she hoped he hadn't doubled back with further ideas and entreaties. "We've been dancing around this for over a year," he'd said. Dancing around what? He wanted her, and she felt... indifferent to the idea. He wasn't a drinker and he didn't seem violent, but a lack of awful in him didn't automatically become a strike in his favor. He was... just Karven. She wished he hadn't brought her the cabinet. It was hung in the corner now, ready to be filled with precious items - as if I had any - or clothing - mine barely fills two trunks, even with the bedclothes - or medicaments - got plenty of shelves for those.
It was a beautiful cabinet, truly. She imagined such a cabinet being hung somewhere in Lord Mooton's castle. She'd never seen the inside of it, but she thought it must be filled with such pieces. It was almost ridiculous that it hung here, in her one room home. Her wall seemed heavier for the weight of it, the debt that it implied. It hadn't been his first gift. Much as she'd tried to turn away his offerings, he'd always been able to talk her into accepting them, and this more than anything was a strike against him. She didn't trust men who could talk her into things that way. No gifts came free of obligation. And when he calls those debts in? What then?
She hadn't been at the hall five minutes that morning before Ray had been there at her elbow, pulling her aside. "I'm moving Clegane out of your cottage today," he'd said, and she'd asked why. "Because he's been there long enough, and he'll never really talk if he thinks you can overhear him," the septon had said. It made sense. She couldn't argue with it. But once she was home again, and saw the empty bed in the corner and the small one on the floor, and she'd shut the door against the the world, she'd felt very alone for the first time in ages. She put her pillow back into its accustomed space and moved his over towards the wall. Her bed looked both normal again, and completely wrong.
The four women from Saltpans had left her confused. Two had asked if they could come to her, if their courses didn't come as usual. This was expected, and reassurance was given. They'd bear no bastards as souvenirs of the event. One had apparently escaped attention, although Wynn wasn't sure how, as she was young and quite pretty. The last was within days of her time, with the babe already dropped low in her pelvis. Her pains could start at any moment. It was her third child, and she'd had four false pains over the course of the morning while Wynn was there, varying in strength and duration. Wynn made certain she and the other women knew exactly where her cottage was, so that she could be sent for when the time came. This was all too normal, of course, but they whispered the horrors they'd seen and it was the Hound, the Hound, the Hound who had led the attack and had killed and reaved.
But the Hound was Sandor. And he'd been asleep in her own bed when Saltpans was being sacked.
The knock came again and she drew herself up from the table and answered the door. Her shutters were already closed and the night outside was the soft dusk that lent shadow to everything. His form in her door was a dark blot against the violet. Crickets chirped and a bat skittered by, impossibly fast, a small dart of violence in the background.
"Here," he said, thrusting something into her hands. It was a wooden plate.
"What is-?" she asked, turning with the plate to set it on the shelf where it joined a stack of three.
"I broke mine. Earlier. So there," he said, as if that was any explanation at all. He hadn't moved from the doorway.
"Will you come in, or do you plan on letting fifty moths inside to flit against my candles and hearth?"
He shut the door behind him at that, but didn't move from the entryway. Wynn looked at him and he seemed uneasy or hesitant, as if not quite knowing where to go from there. Wynn wasn't sure where to go, either. She'd set the plate on the small stack on the shelf and turned away from it, but this was unknown territory. She pulled down a mug.
"Ale?" she asked, but she'd pulled a draft and set it on the table across from hers before he ever answered. He stared for a moment, then took a seat and drank half at a go. She sat down and sipped hers. He'd set his crutches aside, leaning against the table beside him. The silence was becoming unbearable.
"Ray's taking you in?" she asked.
"Aye," he answered, and it was hard to mistake the glower. "Said it was time to move on," but the last words were spoken heavily, with some extra meaning that she didn't quite glean. "Said I needed to earn some and leave some. Guess I've left some."
Is he drunk? I don't quite follow. "Well. Ray usually knows what is the best course of action," was all she could come up with, and his dark liquid eyes met hers and her thighs clenched under the table as an unbidden thought of a completely different course of action flicked through her mind. Oh, this is ridiculous.
She still couldn't believe she'd acted the way she had the night before. Caring for a patient was one thing, but caring was something else entirely, and she'd crossed a line. Of course he'd responded, he was a man, after all, but that didn't mean he felt anything towards her. He'd been trapped in a bed with a broken leg and with her acting like a whore, besides. She'd almost snorted at the thought when she'd been cooking breakfast that morning, before he had woken. A whore with as plain a face as hers wouldn't have fetched much custom. There were a few tavern girls who came to her for moontea in Maidenpool, and while Wynn knew she wasn't ugly, she certainly had none of their charms. She wasn't sure if she'd ever been so embarrassed by her own actions. She couldn't even look at him, certain he'd have given her some sneering look that would tell her for once and all, that she was was exactly as Graeme had said: too tall, too bony (though he'd mocked her for the weight she'd gained with Patrig as well, when she kept the few curves the pregnancy had brought), too plain-faced, and just lucky he'd paid any attention at all.
Running underneath all of that, though, was the disquieting thought that while she didn't want Karven in her home any more than was absolutely necessary, she didn't mind Sandor there. He still made her jump sometimes, and her anxiety was never far from the surface, but she knew it was just a holdover from before, habits too deeply ingrained to break all at once.
"First time I've seen you where you don't look sort of like the little bird," he said, taking another drink of his ale. "No, I take that back. The third time."
She stared at him in confusion. He'd mentioned little birds before, when delirious with fever, but she'd never really thought about it enough to realize he meant a person.
"Who was the little bird? You used to talk about a bird when you were so sick."
He huffed, drained his mug, and tipped it towards her with a silent question on his face, his head tilted slightly to the side. She nodded and stood, drained her own, then took both back to the small cask. One more, but no more after that. Don't know what he's like if he's too deep in his cups, and he can't go staggering on those crutches.
"This is all, though. You have a hard enough time walking as it is," she said, setting the ale on the table and sitting back down.
"Take a lot more than that to leave me legless, woods witch," he said. He paused, took a drink. "The little bird," he started, then breathed out a little silent laugh, but his lips twisted into a mirthless smile. "Lady... Sansa... Stark... of Winterfell. A little bird with red plumage, trapped in a lion's den. Betrothed to King Joffrey, long may he eat shit. Wolf girl's sister, but I never really saw the wolf girl back in those days; she was too young for the court and her father kept her out from underfoot, and then after Lord Stark was executed, she disappeared. But Lady Sansa," and the words sounded as if they'd been ripped from his throat, "she was still there, in the Red Keep. Singing her pretty songs and chirping all the right words, when she could. And when she couldn't-" he broke off there and took a sip from the mug, a much smaller one than before.
Wynn drew a breath and took a drink, herself. She had known, on some level, that he had a name, but she'd never really thought about it. She was Wynn, and that's all she would ever be: daughter of a thatcher, widow to a journeyman stonemason, mother to a dead son, midwife to women in need - just Wynn. He had a family name, though, and had rubbed elbows at feast tables in grand castles, with kings and princes, lords and ladies. He'd seemed almost shocked once that she couldn't read, and she thought now about grand keeps with maesters and servants fetching and carrying things for him, fine clothes and food, and all the bowing and curtseying and proper language of which she had learned only a little, and she felt embarrassed. His world was one of tournaments and castles and betrothals. She'd seen Ser Arthur Dayne once, as a child, from a distance. When Graeme had come for her, he'd had a few minutes of conversation with her father, and they'd gone before the septon the next day. What was he doing here, in this one room cottage, drinking her ale? In this village, surrounded by smallfolk?
"When she couldn't?" she asked, instead.
He grimaced and shook his head. "When she couldn't, she paid for it. And I stood there at his side, and I let--" he broke off, took a swig of ale and set his cup down a little too hard. The amber liquid sloshed, but didn't spill. "You don't know what it's like. I was his sword shield, and I watched him grow up. This tiny little boy, and it was my job to never let him come to any harm. But he was also the prince, and no one could tell him no. So he grew up with no one ever telling him no, and do you know what happens when a boy isn't corrected? When he's inclined to be cruel, and limits are never set, and he thinks the world is there for his own amusement?"
No, she thought, but I know how a man acts when people are just possessions that don't behave the way he wants them to.
Perhaps some of what she was thinking showed on her face, because he nodded and continued. "Couldn't do a bleeding thing. I stood there, while he pointed a crossbow at her. A crossbow. Ser Meryn Trant ripped her fine dress down the back and he beat her with the flat of his sword. And I just stood there. Right there in the throne room, him sitting on the Iron Throne and ordering his Stranger-blasted knights to beat this girl, hardly older than Antha she was, and they did it. And I just stood there and watched, and turned my eyes away. When the Imp stopped it, I covered her with my cloak, but covering something up doesn't make it go away."
"No. It doesn't," she said. She'd covered up too many things herself.
"Most of the time, you look like her," he said. "Same flat expression on your face. Same measured words. She had her fine courtesies. All those pretty lies they spoke, the lords and ladies and Queen Cersei and Joffrey and all the rest. You just speak plain, but flat. She had reason. She couldn't get angry or she'd be killed as a traitor. They were always calling her a traitor. So what's scaring you?"
"Nothing is scaring me."
She startled and leaned back as he stood up and moved, grabbing one of his crutches as he did. But instead of moving towards her, he turned away and ripped the blankets and sheets off the small pallet laid out on the floor and tossed them onto the big bed. The strawtick was laid bare and he leaned down carefully and grasped the fabric, then hoisted it up under his arm against his chest.
"Where does this go?"
"There," the word escaped her in a whisper, and she pointed to the empty spot in the rafters, where other things perched on the wooden beams. He shoved it up into the space, swaying a little when the bulky mass balked against the rough wood, but soon enough it was back in position. She stood and grabbed one of the crumpled blankets from the bed and started to fold it, then shied away as his arm reached past her to grab another. He brought two corners together and lifted his eyebrow at her.
"Not scared? Then why do you duck?" and his voice was harsh.
She turned away, shaking her head and bringing the blanket up under her arms against her chest, making the last fold. It was a matter of a few steps to the trunk, and she had opened it and knelt and was placing the blanket back inside before she felt able to answer him.
"You said before, that I didn't understand. What it was like, being there. I don't. I saw the outside of Lord Mooton's castle, and I've never lived anywhere but the Riverlands. I've never spoken to anyone who had a second name. Before you, I mean," and she took the second blanket he was passing to her and put it into the trunk, then walked past him to pick up the sheet still lying in a wadded pile on the bed and started to fold it as well. Ray has a second name, she thought, what was it? She shoved the thought aside. It didn't matter.
"But you don't know what it's like, either," she said. She bit her lip, trying to think of how to express what she was thinking and feeling in as few words as possible. To say enough, without saying everything, but anger was roiling in her stomach. "You grew up in that fine keep, and then lived in a castle. You don't know what it is, ten living in three rooms. Da and Mam and the youngest in one, five crowded into another, and two more in a room like this, only smaller. Never enough blankets or wood. Scraping your bowl, but there's none left and the little ones are crying and you give any extra up for them. You don't know how when you think you can leave, and make it easier... one less mouth? And then you go from cold and sometimes hungry, to everything on a tilt," and the words were pouring out of her mouth now, and she felt helpless to stop it, and she knew she was saying too much but fury was pushing the words out of her.
"Like being in a joust. I watched one once, when I was a little girl. Saw the Sword of the Morning. You don't know what it's like, never knowing if the next words you say will bring destruction down on you. If something you had done hours before and you'd already forgotten, would mean a harsh word, or a bruised arm, or a beating. Or death." She shoved the sheet into the trunk, not caring that it wasn't folded properly, and slammed the top down. "Not being able to keep your child safe. Living, when HOME isn't safe? You don't know that," and her throat felt dry and she was trembling with anxiety, knowing she'd shouted the last words and she waited for him to descend on her. He'd beat her for shouting at him like that. She deserved it, for shouting at him like that. She'd been punished before, for shouting like that. She felt frozen. But. She'd done this before, and she stood there braced and ready.
And he was advancing on her, and as she watched him it was as if time had stretched out. He had one crutch propped under his arm, his gait somewhat wobbling, and then he had ahold of her left arm, but his fingers weren't pinching. And he pulled her against him, but his hands weren't hitting her. And his face came down towards her, but he wasn't calling her names, wasn't shouting, and she felt untethered, not knowing which direction to brace against.
His breath passed across her ear, and the shiver came simultaneously with comprehension of the words he spoke.
"I do know."
Seven hells! I've been here a month, and she waits until I've been moved out to offer me ale?
But the strangeness didn't stop there. They'd sat at the table, and were talking about Ray, and he watched her face as it stilled and the mask slipped as her mind wandered off into places unknown. The candle on the table flickered and he saw her cheeks turn pink, making her almost pretty for a moment as a hint of a younger version of herself showed through, before the blush faded and was replaced by shame and then worry. Of course, he had to remark on it, and quick as anything she was hiding again, turning the conversation back on him to talk about Sansa and being Joffrey's shield.
I probably should have seen it before, he thought. I grew up with Gregor and I watched the creation of another monster. Same thing. Gregor had size and strength and no limits. Joffrey had power in his position and no limits. I stood there and did nothing. At least the Imp tried. Probably would've turned out even worse than my brother, if he hadn't died at his wedding.
Suddenly, he was sick of it all. The lies and fakery in King's Landing, the lies he'd grown up with. The lies by omission from the woman sitting across from him, who had kissed him the night before as if she actually wanted him and then refused to look at him that morning. He had goaded Arya into understanding about Meryn Trant and the need to protect herself, and that piddling sword wasn't going to do it and she needed to be more careful, the overconfident brat, before she got herself killed. He'd pushed Sansa to see the truth about hateful things. It didn't keep her completely safe, but it was better than the alternative. But she'd been living in a constant state of peril. He didn't understand why the woods witch would have all of those defenses up and more, here in this little village where as far as he could tell, nothing threatened her. This village where she existed, but wasn't actually living. She acted like she was under siege. So, he decided to push her.
He felt oddly divided when she finally got angry enough to actually speak. One one level, he was watching her, watching the calm mask fall as she spoke and listening as her voice grew more and more strident until she was actually yelling at him. Finally. Rage. He knew she couldn't have been that placid, that unshakable. And then, quicker than he could even see it, the wall had gone back up. Portcullis slammed shut. She was standing there, a fortress with all defenses raised, ready for assault. She might as well have had tiny archers in her hair and tiny men on her shoulders with rocks and barrels of oil.
She thinks I'm going to hit her, he thought, and she wants it over and done with.
On another level, her words were sinking in. Grew up poor, bottom of Flea Bottom poor, bowls of brown and too many mouths to feed and when she thought she could get out, she took it. And then she couldn't go back, because she'd be a drain, a burden. And he.. that Graeme, what did he do? What did he do, to make this? And her words were echoing in his head, and he flashed on his father talking about the bedding that had never caught on fire, his sister's pale face, never knowing when Gregor would appear or what he would do next, hiding because he couldn't do anything else, there wasn't anywhere that was safe. Years of it. Years.
She thinks I'm going to hit her.
It was five ungainly steps across the floor to get to her. The crutch bit under his arm, and he couldn't move the way he wanted to, but he reached her anyway. His right hand came up and caught her left arm just below her shoulder, and he pulled her against him. Her body was stiff, and she was trembling all over with the effort of it. He could feel her jittering against him as he pressed her more closely against his chest. He bent his head and the scarred ruin of his cheek ghosted across her hair as he whispered, "I do know."
He still had one hand on her left arm, and he drew his other arm around her back and held her as she was molded against him. Her head was pressed into the hollow at his shoulder. It felt right, her pressed there. He tightened his arms, and felt when she stopped fighting against it. He wasn't sure how long he held her like that. Long enough that some of the rigidity had faded from her stance, at least, and she had stopped trembling. Long enough that he could press his face against the top of her head, and her hair smelled of rosemary and something else herbal, and a different smell that was just her, that he remembered from the night before and the ghost of a scent that clung to the pillow he slept on, the bed he'd slept in. Long enough to realize that her hand was clenched into his tunic, pressing into his side and the other was laid along his chest under her chin. Long enough that he felt her take a deep breath and let it out in a shuddering exhale, and heard her sniff.
He relaxed his arms and planted one kiss into her hair, somewhere near her temple.
She pulled back slightly, and tipped her face up to look at him. Her eyes were wet and one tear had escaped to run down past her nose to her lips and she whisked it away, one quick motion with that pouting bottom lip and it nearly undid him. He threaded his fingers through her hair at the nape of her neck, keeping her jaw in the palm of his hand and brushed his thumb against the wetness just below her eye, but she stepped backwards and shook her head, as another shuddering sigh escaped her.
"Nah, don't trouble," she said. "As they say, I've journeyed long... 'Twas cold there, warm here, so natural I thaws a little and t'runs out t'eyes.' " **
He huffed, recognizing the words but only somewhat registering her meaning. He wanted to grab her again, but she had turned away to wipe her face. When she turned back, her eyes were dry, but the mask was still gone and she was looking at him with a silent question that he didn't understand. There were a thousand things he wanted to say to her, but he didn't know the question she was asking with her face and he didn't know what to say. He settled on the most basic.
"I should go back to Ray," he said. "I was only supposed to give you a plate."
He wasn't prepared for the slightly hysterical giggle that escaped her as they stood there between the table and hearth.
"Did you think I cared that much about plates?"
"No. But I didn't like that I'd broken one of yours." He took a step back and then settled the crutch under his arm and went back to the table to retrieve the other. She was still standing between the table and the hearth, and any mirth from her earlier giggles had been wiped away by an expression of confusion mixed with a little pain. He wondered at it, but it was getting late; he really did need to leave. But it felt strange. Any other night, he'd have gone out to the privy, and then undressed for bed while she went out herself. And then she'd blow out the candles and get ready for bed in the dark, with him pretending not to watch. The familiarity of the routine had been destroyed.
He paused at the door, then turned back to look at her again. She still hadn't moved.
"Um," and he cleared his throat and tried again. "Well. Good night," he said, and gave her a small bow and then opened the door and hobbled through it. He heard her faint reply before the door shut with a tchk.
Ray was still up, sitting in the main room when he came in.
"Long time to replace a plate," he said.
Sandor stood there a moment, not knowing exactly what to say. His leg was aching and he wanted to lie down and take away the pressure of holding it flexed.
"She offered me ale. We talked a bit."
"Did she?" Ray's eyebrows had climbed into his forehead.
"Aye." He hauled himself across the room to the door where his new bed was.
He stopped and turned back, eyeing the man warily.
"She's a good woman, but she's been through the wars, and I don't just mean the kingdom's."
Something in his chest clenched. He had an idea of what she'd gone through, and while he'd once thought to protect a little bird, time had softened the interactions, and yes, he'd wanted to have her for his, but she was little more than a child and he knew it was just the urge to protect something innocent. He couldn't protect his sister. He had tried to protect her. But Wynn... that was something else. Similar, yes, but different. 'They're all afraid of me. No one would hurt you, or I'd kill them,' he remembered, and knew that while he had truly meant it when it he'd said it to Sansa, it was nothing to the intensity he'd experienced when the woods witch had been in his arms.
"I know," was all he said.
Two days later, he was sitting once more in Karven's workshop. The second net he'd worked on was nearly completed, and he let his mind wander as his hands went about the business of threading the spindle of twine around the stretcher bar and through the loops above. It was mindless work and he couldn't say he didn't enjoy it. The repetitive monotony was oddly soothing. It was like sharpening a blade on a whetstone, or currying a horse.
Stranger had been found. He wondered if one of the men that raided Saltpans had been able to keep his fingers clear of the horse's teeth and if he'd ridden the huge warhorse amongst the houses and fleeing people, or if the horse had been killed as an unmanageable beast before the saddlebags were plundered. For someone had taken his saddlebags; that couldn't be disputed. There was no way someone had worn his Hound's helm, otherwise. The refugees from Saltpans had been very clear on one thing, at least: the Hound had done these things to them.
Except he hadn't. Wouldn't have, actually. If I'd been ordered, aye, would've cut down any that stood in the way, but I wouldn't have done that. I'm not Gregor. But the smallfolk didn't know that: one Clegane was the same as another, it seemed, just like the Brotherhood. Ray had been very careful the day before, presenting him to two of the surviving men as Sandor, but they regarded him with suspicion and open hostility, and then confusion as he swung himself around on his crutches and hobbled away. They knew he wasn't the man they had seen, but he was too easy a target for their blame and anger. It didn't seem to matter that he'd been here a month when it happened.
"Good morning, Karven," piped a voice at the door.
Sandor glanced up and saw Antha there, then turned back to his work. He tied off the section he was working on, cut the twine, and set to work on the next part.
"Good morning, young Antha," Karven rejoined. "And what's a fair maiden like you doing in my shop this lovely day?" Something about the man's voice made Sandor's hackles rise a little. He set his jaw and kept working. Not my concern.
"Wynn sent me," she said, giggling. He could see her approaching him in his peripheral vision, but it wasn't until she said, "Good morning, Sandor," that he turned and looked at her. She dipped down into an ungainly curtsy, wobbling somewhat, and bending forward so that the top of her square bodice gaped a bit and he got a glimpse of barely-there breasts before he averted his eyes and frowned at the net. Did not need that this morning, he thought.
"Did I do that right, milord?"
"Nm not a lord," he answered, and kept his eyes fixed on the net.
"But your father was."
"No. My grandfather was a landed knight. And my older brother inherited the keep. I'm just a second son."
"But you knew the King and the Queen and all the rest. So did I do that right?"
He glanced over at her and her face was like that little flower he didn't know the name of, the one that had three petals that were yellow and purple and always tipped up towards the sun, but grew low to the ground where they were too easily crushed. Anger roiled in him, but it wasn't directed at her. He tried to swallow it down.
"Not quite. Don't tip forward that way. Never again, understand? Men bow. You keep your back straight."
Her little eyebrows had furrowed together, and she pushed back the wisps of hair that had escaped her braids and were brushing against her forehead and then nodded.
"Are you making a net?"
"No, I'm knitting a bloody scarf. Why'd she send you?" What did the woods witch want - too much of a mouthful to say.
"Wynn said, she wants you to come tomorrow morning. She needs to look at your leg and probably change the leather."
That was welcome news, at least. He hadn't seen the woods witch since the other night when she'd finally railed at him. He couldn't think of a good reason to see her. And his thigh was itching horribly under the stiff leather, and he could smell the stench of unwashed flesh when he moved. Once, it wouldn't have been such a problem, but he was getting too accustomed to being clean, and the smell bothered him as much as he assumed it offended others.
"She couldn't tell me this herself?" he asked.
"No," the girl shook her head. "She was going to have you come today, but Sansa is having her baby, and-"
"Sansa. That woman from Saltpans? She's having her baby today, and I'm supposed to go help later."
Just a coincidence of names, and he felt his heart start beating again.
"She's lucky her husband is still alive," the girl said. "Do you have children?" and she was almost at his elbow, the blasted girl, hovering beside him like a gnat or mosquito.
"No," he answered. None that I know of, he thought, but whores took care of things like that, didn't they? Bad for business.
"A wife then?" she piped.
Sandor couldn't take it anymore. "Are you proposing, girl? Run and get Ray, tell him to bring a ribbon so I can carry you off," and laughed at the expression on her face, even as she blushed. "No, I'm not married. I've got no money, no lands, and not even a name after deserting the way I did. Run along, girl."
She did. The Hound laughed a bit more, then settled down.
"Think someone's sweet on you," Karven said from across the room.
He growled and shrugged his shoulders. Empty-headed silly girl nonsense.
"All went well, then, with the birthing?"
He was standing in his tunic and smallclothes and the woods witch was taking a sharp knife to the hardened rawhide that encased his right thigh. He had one hand propped against her bedpost. He watched the knife as it sliced through the tough leather, coming ever closer to himself. It felt dangerous.
"Aye," she answered. "Fourth child, she almost could've done it by herself, really," she continued, and slit the leather further. "Be still, now," she said, as he - no, he was not trembling about a knife - moved a little. She sliced the leather apart and it fell away, leaving his thigh exposed.
The warm water felt good, and the soapy lather she rubbed against his skin felt even better. He held onto the bedpost and watched as she scrubbed his thigh down, along with his knee and even down his calf, which wasn't even injured, and then dipped into a different basin to draw scented water to rinse the soap from his leg. Her fingers replaced the wadded up rag she'd used to scrub him. The jagged scar where his bone had torn through muscle and skin was dark pink and closed, a jagged depression against the rest of his leg, still covered in hair, and she was touching all of it. He could feel himself stiffening in his smallclothes, tenting the fabric and he couldn't do anything to hide it. He didn't want to.
Again and again, she cupped water into her palms and applied it to his leg and he stood there with his manhood pressing his smallclothes outwards, getting harder and harder, and she didn't seem to notice, and he thought he would go insane.
She drew a drying cloth against his leg, starting just above his ankle, chafing where the water had run down in rivulets to wet the skin there. She rubbed the cloth back and forth, then moved the cloth higher, and when she reached just above his knee, he couldn't take any more. She was kneeling on the floor before him, and her head was at the perfect level for what she didn't seem to be noticing at all, and he wasn't thinking coherently anymore. He delved his fingers into her hair at the base of her skull and pulled her forwards a bit.
The hairs on his thigh stood up as she exhaled, her breath washing against him, and goosebumps broke out over other parts of his body. She turned her face and nuzzled it into the fabric covering him as his hand pressed her head more closely. His fingers tightened into her curls and then she was breathing against him, through the linen, and he couldn't think.
At some point, his smallclothes joined the rest of his clothing, but he wasn't sure when or how that happened. Her mouth was on him, and the wet heat was welcome in a way that he'd never expected but he wouldn't give up, and she moved against him, back and forth, taking and receiving, and he thought he might die from it. She was still on her knees, the drying cloth on the floor near her legs, and then those amber-flecked eyes met his and he thrust against her, felt her tongue against him again, and again, and--
Reality snapped back in place. He jerked away from her hands and the drying cloth she was chafing against his shin, then leaned down and plucked the fabric from her fingers. "I'll do it," he all but growled, and when she turned those amber-flecked eyes up to meet his, he had to physically turn away. He heard her stand up and didn't look at her as she moved back towards her fireplace. Once he was done (and had mastered himself, thinking about the Hand's Tourney, specifically his brother's decapitated horse, so that he wouldn't think of the flash of fantasy that had shot through his mind earlier), she'd wrapped a new piece of damp rawhide around his leg and tied it on. He sat at her table, awkwardly perched on a chair, in his tunic and smallclothes with his leg held out in the air so the leather could dry into a hard sheath around his thigh, and he drank the mint tea she had made and ate the honey-infused biscuits she placed before him. I will not think about it.
"They've got me making nets," he told her.
"Ray mentioned it," she answered. "We'll be thankful for the smoked fish, come winter. This will be my fourth, though I don't remember much of the first. I was winterborne."
"My fourth as well but I remember the first. I remember the snow," he said. He looked across the table at her, at the way she was sitting almost hunched over her cup. Her hair was hanging down onto the table in loose coils. He wanted to stick his fingers into them, wind them around his fingers and pull her hair back and make her lift her chin and bare her throat. He wanted that sharp line of her jaw and chin pointed to the heavens so he could kiss every inch of it. Her face was all sharp angles and he wanted to see them soften, if they ever did. Soft like the tits he'd seen that had swayed in the firelight. Enough! Winter. Think about winter.
"Do you remember any of it?" he asked.
"Not really. Cold, and snow, and me and Willen and Rhys all together in bed like a pile of puppies. I had maybe four or five namedays when that winter ended, and Lyman was in the bed with us by the end of it," she said, then smiled faintly. "Willen, me, Rhys. Lyman, then Lilyann, but we never called her aught but Lil. Emmon and Evon were twins, but they didn't look alike. And then Merry. She'd barely passed her first nameday when I married, and three the last time I saw her. Strange to think she's a young woman now. I can't quite picture it."
"Why so many? I thought you women could keep that from happening." Maybe I do have a bastard out there somewhere, he thought. Hope not.
"We do, and she did. That's why there was such a gap between Lyman and Lil. But it made her ill, and after what happened between Lil and the twins, Tharli thought it was more dangerous to drink the moon tea. Sometimes that happens. We were... too many," she said, and she pressed her lips together in a hard line before she relaxed and shrugged one shoulder. "But then it's strange to think of growing up with only one brother, to me."
Sandor was considering the implications of a woman who grew up in a large family choosing to have only one child, connecting the dots between what she had said the other night. By all rights, she should have had more. Not the brood she'd grown up with, but two or three at least, what with how she tended to fuss over him and how she was with Antha. But then her last sentence caught him, and the name escaped his mouth before he could stop it, barely audible, "Aleanor."
"Hmm?" just a small sound, and when he looked up at her, her eyebrows and forehead showed concern.
"Aleanor. My sister. Between me and Gregor." The words felt like they were strangling him. "I was ten. He killed her, and my father covered that up, too. Said she fell down the stairs. But I saw her, after. That was no fall." The tea and biscuits roiled in his stomach and thought he might puke.
"..vered that up, too," she said, barely under her breath, and he could feel her eyes on him and cursed himself for having said anything to lead down this path. "The burns," she said, hesitant and quiet. "That was Gregor, too, wasn't it? And your father--"
The screech of chairlegs scraping across the flagstones either covered what she said next or cut her off entirely. He was suddenly standing, palms flat on the table as he braced himself, leaning forward to hover over her as she sat frozen, staring up at him. "Shut. The fuck. Up," he said, low, menacing. He turned away as she blanched and pulled on his breeches over the rawhide cast that was still damp in places. He shoved his feet into his boots without stopping for the hose, grabbed the crutches, caught a final glimpse of her face, and hobbled out of the cottage without another word.
It took four laps across the village and back before he realized that the look on her face when he left hadn't been revulsion. It hadn't been pity. He thought it might have been understanding, but that wasn't any better. If that kiss had been genuine, and of course it hadn't been, but if it had, she'd be singing a different song, now. Gregor had fixed his face so that no one would want him around, had killed the one person who had cared about him, and when even your own father doesn't care, it said a lot about what the world would think of you. No. Better to remember what is, than to start thinking he could ever have something else. Ray was wrong about that. He'd seen the harsh truth of it too many times to start lying to himself now.
** Quoted from The Revenants by Sherri S. Tepper, which is a seriously fantastic high fantasy novel that I encourage everyone to read. It's truly marvelous. I was going for a shared understanding, here, almost like a meme. Like if she'd said, Grandma, what big eyes you have, and him getting the Little Red Ridinghood reference. A Darmok and Jalad moment, if you're a Trekkie. A quote from a story they'd both heard growing up.
So sorry, but I originally conceived this story idea from a mental image of a partially healed Sandor trying desperately to not sport a hard-on, half dressed at what is basically a tea party. *shrugs* I got a weird streak.
The first person who posts a comment knowing what flower Sandor didn't know the name of, will receive much love and possibly the gift of a one-shot of their choosing.
Sorry for the very late update. Between my depressive tendencies, internet issues, and my first grandchild trying to arrive a bit earlier than usual, I've had some impediments to writing and posting. Also, not going to lie, I'm still so upset over S8 that I've slid over to the Good Omens stuff because I needed the comfort.
Lemme see. Childbirth warnings for this chapter? I tried not to be graphic. And also memories/reference to past domestic abuse.
Updates may be slower over the next month, because I've got real life stuff. I haven't abandoned this, though. Just, I'm supposed to morph into a Nana in the next few weeks, which is weird and my weird self isn't completely cool with it.
Sansa in this chapter isn't Sansa Stark, but an oc with no relation barring the same name. Not Sansa, sansa..
Wynn wrung excess water out of the rag she held and sponged down Sansa's sweaty forehead and arm. Dina (the young, pretty woman who'd escaped being assaulted) had fetched her two hours before, when Sansa's pains became too much to talk through. She was lying on her left side now, on a pallet in one of the rooms above the Hall, groaning as the contraction peaked. As it subsided, she swung an arm out against Wynn, pushing her away.
"I need to get up. I'm not ready to do this. We'll do it tomorrow," she said, out of breath and shaking. Wynn shifted out of the way as the woman turned onto her hands and knees, but as she started to shift off the pallet, another pain began and she stopped, taking deep breaths and then crying out as the pain built, a high shriek escaping her lips.
"I know," Wynn said, pushing the heel of her hand down against the woman's lower back. "Better stay here for now, though, aye? And try to groan with it. Those high notes just put the energy in your chest," she said, soothing. Wynn knew from the shaking and wanting to leave that she was getting close, and she wasn't surprised when Sansa began to gag and retch a bit, but Antha's eyes were huge in her face. It was the first time she'd been allowed to stay from start to finish.
"Grab that," she told Antha, nodding towards the chamberpot with a quick jerk of her head. Antha did as she was told, but little came up, and the woman subsided, rocking forward and back on her hands and knees and taking deep breaths. Dina was on the other side of her, pulling her hair back and out of the way and whispering to her.
A few more pains passed in this fashion, and then Wynn heard the woman's voice change to a deep, almost lowing sound that cut off as she held her breath. Wynn flipped her shift up and looked. The tissues were starting to bulge as the baby's head descended.
"Aye, just like that," she said, and motioned for Antha to hand her the linens she and Mairi had donated for the cause. Sansa moved again, pushing herself forward on her hands and knees, before she started breathing deep again and swaying her weight back and forth. She made a strange cry as the next pang hit and jerked the shift off over her head and threw it against the pillow before breathing into the next pain. Dina moved it out of the way, turning it right side out as she did.
Not long after, she was tying off the cord in two places and cutting between the ties. The baby girl had cried before she was even completely delivered, and seemed furious at the indignity of it all as Wynn wiped the worst of the fluids from her before handing her to her mother. Once the afterbirth came, she and Antha cleaned Sansa and tidied the bed and the room. Assured that all was well for now, and telling them that she would return later that afternoon, she gathered up the soiled linens and her apron into a basket and left, smiling at a man and three children as they passed her on the stairs on their way up.
Ray was in the main room. "I kept them down here as long as I could, but it was hard after we heard the crying," he said.
"It's fine; we'd finished up. Here, Antha, drop this at mine and then you can go for the day," she answered, passing both her kit and the basket to the girl, who hurried out of the Hall. We'll have a lot to discuss, tomorrow, she thought, watching her leave. She turned back to Ray. "It's a girl. Good set of lungs on her and quite a headful of hair."
"That'll be nice, then; they have two of each. You let Antha stay?"
"Figured for a fourth one, it should be a simple one. It's better, I think, that she start witnessing the simple ones first." She followed him as he went into his solar off the main room, leaving the door open.
Ray fixed them each a small mug of ale and they sat down at the table. She toyed with the mug in her hands, but only took a sip and looked at everything in the room before sighing and looking at him sitting across from her. He'd waited. "Been awhile since we talked," he opened.
"It has," she said quietly. She wasn't sure where to start, or if she even wanted to talk about all of it, or which parts, if any. The mess with Sandor, the mess with Karven. Fear of the raids coming North. Fear and confusion over what Graeme had done, and what she had done, and how none of that was matching up with now and nothing made sense. Worry over Brielle, whose feet and ankles and hands were still swelling, no matter how much dandelion tea she drank, and who was having blinding headaches on top of it, which she knew could be dangerous, and still wasn't due to deliver for another moon. Missing Patrig, and feeling guilty because she didn't hurt as much over it as she had last year. She took a deep breath and another sip of ale.
"Karven brought me a cabinet the other night, after... when it was just me in the house again."
Ray's face was impassive. "I think he wants to make a declaration," she continued, hesitantly.
"Likely so. What do you think? Any changes there?"
She shook her head. "No, no changes. I've tried to tell him as much, but he doesn't hear me. I know I'm not a maid of five and ten anymore, and I know what it cost me last time, but shouldn't there be at least a spark of something? And there's nothing when I'm around him. He's not a bad sort, I know. He'd be good to me, I think. But I still don't feel comfortable around him, and after two years here, I should, shouldn't I?"
"Should, shouldn't. I don't have an answer for that," Ray said, shrugging. "Feelings aren't the same as duties. You don't have a duty to Karven. You're under no obligation to return his feelings."
She nodded and drank a little more of her ale. It would be easier if she did love Karven, but she didn't. She tried to imagine what it would be like, waking up with Karven and getting ready for the day, having supper with him and settling down for the night. Laying in a bed next to him. The imaginary Karven in her mind kept morphing into a much larger form.
"I kissed him," she blurted.
"No. Sandor." She felt herself redden.
She looked at the table, but she knew Ray was looking at her. She was embarrassed; she hadn't meant to say it. The whole thing was embarrassing.
"The night you told us about Saltpans. I shouldn't have. Tharli told me it could happen and to be on guard against it. She said, if you take care of someone long enough, the feelings can get mixed up, either by the healer or the patient. Sometimes both. But once the need for medicine and care is over, there's nothing really there. Not usually a problem, since it's pregnant women that I take care of most. But men... babies. That can get complicated. I shouldn't have done it."
"Is that what it is, then? Some castle in the sky, built on a distortion of the caretaker relationship?"
Wynn sat silent for a minute. She'd turned to say something to Sandor several times over the last few days, only to remember once again that he wasn't there anymore. She thought about laying next to him in the dark. His big hand holding a lock of her hair. Kissing him. The fear she had felt when she had known he was going to beat her. The steady beat of his heart when he'd held her, his arms pressing her firmly against his chest. She'd felt almost dainty then, after she'd stopped being afraid. It wasn't a feeling she'd experienced much, as tall as she was, but more, she felt... protected. She wasn't used to that, either. The feeling of his hand against the back of her head and his thumb against her cheek. But then there was his stiff departure.
"It must be," she said faintly. "It doesn't matter, anyway, when it's all on my part. I'm no better than Karven, there, and once his leg has healed enough, he'll be off to wherever he decides to go, to be a sellsword or something."
"Maybe so. I'm more interested in that you felt something like that to begin with. It's a far cry from you forswearing all men, as was your position before."
"One thing puzzles me a bit. Graeme broke things, sometimes, when he got angry. My bowls, mostly. Ripped out an herbs bed. Once he threw a chair at me and it smashed when it hit the wall. I was so scared that day. Patrig was only toddling and one of the chairlegs nearly hit him. But it was always my fault that these things were broken, and he'd ask me if I was sorry that I broke my things? I felt like it really was my fault. Sometimes I still do.
"But Sandor apparently broke one of my plates. I don't even know how it happened. And he replaced it the same day. It was just a wooden plate."
"First off, it was never your fault. Graeme made the decision to do those things. You don't get to shoulder the burden of blame for his actions. And second, Sandor Clegane may be a lot of things. Can't tell you how many people he's killed, either in battle or on orders from the Crown. I wouldn't want to tangle with him, and I was a soldier for much of my life. But he was with the Lannisters from the time he was a boy. A Lannister always pays his debts. I'd imagine Clegane would, too. I don't see him breaking your things to punish you, though."
Two days later, and she found herself back in Ray's solar. If he was surprised to see her there, he gave no sign. He just followed her into the room and when he sat down, she shut the door that separated the room from the Hall. That did make his eyebrows go up, but Wynn just shook her head and looked down at the floor. It was the first time she'd been in a shut room with him, ever. Always before, the door had been open, an escape route already planned out. Even when he'd kept watch over Sandor while she had slept that first evening. She didn't care, now, and she wanted no prying eyes or ears.
"You're alright?" he asked.
She nodded, but paced back and forth across the floor, twisting her hands together so that the joints in her fingers and wrists popped. She could feel him watching her do it, but he still said nothing as she fidgeted and worried her lip with her teeth. She stopped mid-stride and spun to face him.
"What if you're wrong?"
"About Sandor. What if you're wrong... If he really is like Graeme? Or his brother? And if it's not completely one-sided, just me behaving like a silly maid? What then?"
He studied her impassively, then nodded at the chair across the table from him. "Sit down. Where's this coming from?"
She told him. In halting sentences, long pauses, and uncomfortably stilted phrases, she told him exactly what had happened when she had changed the leather casing on his leg that morning. That he'd stiffened was normal enough; men would do that even when asleep, and he'd done so himself when she'd tended him while feverish and unconscious. Nothing to worry about, much less remark upon. But the look in his eyes when he had grabbed the towel and she'd finally looked up at his face was something else entirely. Her face had felt like it was on fire when she'd moved away, and the stirrings of want that she'd been fighting had flared up to a nearly unbearable level. She knew her face was red as she told Ray this, but she told him anyway. He couldn't fix it if she didn't tell him what was wrong.
She told him of their conversation afterwards. Winter, and her family. His sister. Her realization. His reaction, which had scared her so badly that she'd sat there at the table for nearly an hour, shaking. The rage in his eyes had been like nothing she'd ever seen before, not even in Graeme when he was as deep in his cups as he'd ever been. Not even when he'd cursed her for a whore and wrapped his fingers around her throat and she had lost consciousness staring into his face, with his eyes burning into hers and his face nearly purple and his teeth clenched together. Not even the rage she'd seen in him the night he died. She told Ray all of it.
"People jape and say, 'If looks could kill,' she told Ray finally. "But honestly, I could've died from fright right there, had a brain storm or my heart choke in my chest, with the look on his face then."
Ray was quiet. Time stretched out lazily in the small room, stretched and rolled its shoulders. Wynn huddled in the chair, arms wrapped around her middle. She'd told the entire tale to the corner of the table.
"Wynn," Ray's voice was gentle. She looked up at him, finally.
"So he cursed at you. Has he not done so before?"
"...yes? He's got a colorful way with language on a good day. Nevermind when he's angry." She wondered where her voice had gone. The thin sounds coming from her throat didn't sound like herself.
"Yes," he answered, and he stood and poured them both a small mug of ale. "He swears, and he hoards his words like they were gold dragons and silver stags. Did he act like Graeme? Did he push you into a wall? Throw things at you? Slam his fist into your face and break your nose? DId he punch you in the stomach until a little hope died and seeped out of you?"
"Stop it," she whispered. She heard all the confessions she'd made to him being thrown back at her and felt betrayed. Tears rose and she blinked convulsively and wouldn't let them fall. "Just stop. I shouldn't have come. Shouldn't have said anything." She struggled to her feet and across the room, barely able to see.
"No, you stop. He did nothing. He got angry. Yes, he swore at you. And then he left, Wynn. He didn't hurt you. He left."
She paused at the door. Tears had fallen when she hadn't wanted them to, and she wiped her face and nose as she had her back to him. She waited until she had a better grip on things before she turned around. "He left," she said, but it sounded like a question.
"Aye, he left. And you're alright. Nothing has really changed. You are still you."
Somehow, she found herself seated again and taking a sip of ale. Everything was still a whirl of confusion in her head, but she focused on the table and the mug before her. Ray's voice was quiet again when he spoke once more.
"You know how to swim?" he asked, and when she nodded, he continued on. "I think... You've been treading water for a long time. Just treading water, keeping your face out of the depths. Now, you can continue to tread water for as long as you want. That's your decision and no one will fault you. Or you can retreat a little and step back out onshore. Or you can swim towards what you want. It's your decision. You've got as long as you want to make a decision. I don't think that you want to tread water forever, though."
"No. No, I don't," she said, the words coming out faintly and without conviction.
"It's not a choice you have to make, you understand? Between them, I mean, you don't have to choose. Either, or neither. Karven is a good man, but he's himself and only you know if you would be happy with him. Sandor has history to rival yours, and no happier. I don't think he can give you what you need, what you want, but I'm not you. I can't make that decision for you. You don't have to make a decision right now is my point. There's no time limit on this. You need to feel safe to make a decision. Do you feel safe, right now?"
"No," she breathed. "No, I don't. I just... I thought, if ever again...," she stopped, drew a deep breath and let it out. "I thought it would be different."
Not really a chapter, but an update.
I'm back. Thank you to everyone for your well-wishes. This chapter is currently under construction and should be available by 11/2/19
Week late, and way shorter than intended, but here you go. My daughter's health is fine. Granddaughter's health is ok, considering she was born with pulmonary atresia. Two weeks in the NICU, pediatric cardiologist did two fully-anesthetised catheter procedures... she's doing well. And so far is meeting her weight markers, nursing well and smiling, cooing, and giggling a little. Still on periodic pulse-ox monitor, but doing well. Thank you for all the well-wishes. I am back, slowly but surely, and while this is just a teaser, more is on the way!
Waking up was a little like drowning.
Not that he'd ever drowned before. He'd avoided deep water with less compulsion than fire, but it had never been an issue.
One experience in a stream, age eight and struggling against his brother's hands, and one at twenty, the surface of a pond, a panicking horse churning mud that had clung to his face, his nose, his clothes, until he could claw himself to the shallows, fingers twined around the reeds and plants at the waters edge as if the stems were a life buoy.
This was nothing like that, and everything like it. It was darkness that he came to with no memory and too many.
Cool dim light but he fought against it, didn't want the awareness that drew attention to the pain in his chest, the pain in his head, the thudding, thudding, THUDDING in his head that crowded out thought, that superseded everything except a desire to sleep, to not feel. Cool water traced his forehead and a low voice spoke, but he didn't catch the words. Darkness followed once more.
Pain, so much he couldn't bear it. He wouldn't scream. Fire in his head, in his chest, and it culminated and concentrated in his chest just over his left nipple. Stupid heart, just stop, won't you? But it didn't. It hurt. But it didn't stop, and flicks of red hair and dark tangles, lithe limbs and childish ones, fled him.
Singing. Aleanor was singing, high treble, lisping syllables, soprano notes fading into nothingness that faded back into a low alto that underlined the march of a cloth as it edged along his legs, spreading wet warmth. When the feel of linen touched his chest, reality sharpened; wet linen stroked along his collarbone and he knew it, heard the last tones, low alto edging into a man's range but still a woman's voice, "forest love, and me your forest lass." There was a humming of the refrain, and then darkness swept over him again.
He couldn't breathe. Lungs struggled to catch breath against ribs that wouldn't expand, wouldn't stretch for the inhalation. He threw out his arms, pushing against anything that might be constraining, and felt nothing but a quick glancing blow of something soft against his left wrist. Something that gave and shied away, something that inhaled in a gasp and a whimper. Remorse. Anger. Remorse, what was that? Shouldn't. But oh, the pain! Clawing into his bones, into his chest, biting into his center.
"Thirsty," he grated, the voice sounding foreign to his own ears, it was so hoarse and quiet.
Water in a cup was pressed against his lips, an arm behind his shoulders helping him to sit up a bit, and he swallowed reflexively as the liquid hit the back of his mouth. He felt like a desert. Like Dorne. Like something dried and desiccated for preservation. The water seemed to spread into his mouth and tongue before he even swallowed. He found his voice, but it was a rasping, inhuman sound. "Wynn?"
"Two days, almost three," the Septon said, misunderstanding. "You took down six."
It took a few moments for the words to make sense. They seemed to circle in his mind, like vultures looking for carrion to land around. He swallowed cool water again. Circling, circling, oh, yes, there was a group, no, not going to think of that, think of the net he'd been weaving. He'd been weaving a net in Karven's shop. Passing the shuttle with the twine connected to it back and forth, in and around the cross hairs, whatever they're called, the bits he wove against. There was a scream outside. Men, some on horses. He'd grabbed Karven's mallet, the one he used for driving pegs when he built houses. Karven drove pegs for houses. He took the mallet, and the men were...
Sandor had seen a sack before.
Cacophony and chaos. The mallet swung and made contact and he didn't look at the aftermath but only at the next target. Pain in his chest, his ribs, and then to his head, making him vomit stew onto the ground beneath him, before darkness claimed him.
"I didn't...," he breathed. "Six... good," the last came out in a breathy whisper, and more water was urged against his lips. He swallowed it, trying to get his scrambled thoughts in order. "Was 't Gregor?"
"No," and the voice sounded surprised at the question. "The Brotherhood, I think. They kept shouting about the Lord of Light at least. Don't think your brother would be doing that, no?"
Sandor found his hands, and forced his arms into movement. It hurt, and when he gripped Ray's fingers, it hurt worse, but he held on regardless and looked into the Septon's eyes.
"Wynn? Little Antha?"
"No, they're fine. Wynn's been switching off with me so we could both sleep while you were unconscious. And Antha didn't even see it; her gran put her in the cellar the moment she knew anything was wrong."
The painful strength he had found left him as quickly as he'd found it, and he sagged as his fingers left Ray's and fell back against the narrow bed.
"You need to get mehhh," he slurred, before he fell unconscious.