The inn had not been crowded, yet Sandor's face had darkened and twisted with aversion at the voices rising from within, and she had known instantly he knew the men those voices belonged to.
Sansa's own blood had seemed to freeze within her; not for cause of knowing these men, but simply for how wary the road had made her. Each time they neared travelers or encampments, she'd instantly recoil within herself and would pull her hood closer about her, tucking back auburn locks already safely put away behind her ears and well-concealed by her hood. When she had gazed upon Sandor's face, her fear had only aggravated; if perfect strangers upon the road might mean them harm, men he knew and seemed to loathe could only herald worse.
And her fears had come to pass.
Sansa was still with the horses as Sandor had bid her. She remained concealed behind Stranger, hoping his build might shield her from prying eyes, and then, the loudest raucous had exploded inside the inn.
At once, she retrieved the stallion and her mare's reigns and led them both away, nearing the exit, yet not daring to fully step out. Instinctively, she tapped at the blade stashed in her sleeve, and hoped if the worse came to pass, it would suffice. She had little faith it would, however. The stables gave her a clear view of a window, and the unbarred inn's entrance, so, she shrunk within herself, recoiling and pressing her body against the great stallion, hoping to turn as small and unnoticeable as possible, and peered ahead.
Sansa could only distinguish the swift blur of figures passing near the window, slashing and parring, and amongst them, finally, she spied the imposing figure of the Hound, retaliating, responding with his own blows of blurred silver. Her sight did not grant her much, so instead she chose to focus on the sounds resounding within, and all was groans and pained grunts, until...
Her heart both lept and sunk as she watched the Hound emerge stumbling from the inn, battered and bloodied and wounded. Panic seeped through her as her eyes jumped from cut to cut. Sansa watched, her breath frozen in her lugs, and when no man seemed to be on his tail, she too emerged from the stables, leading the horses with her.
"Little bird," he rasped, his voice was rougher than usual and the strain in it layered her name with tension. He's too injured, she thought, and he knows it. "You've taken out Stranger. Good, come with me."
Wearily, her hand let go of the reigns and she cast nervous looks about as she followed after Sandor. In spite of his stumbling, he almost breezed through the inn, yet Sansa had paused at the doorway, taking note of the carnage inside and heard gurgles, and faint, choked curses shouted to the air. Her eyes followed the source of the sounds; the man dying upon the wooden boards was youthful, and underneath the blood coating his face, she noted a collection of pimples starring his face. He begged and sobbed and cursed in turn, and all the while his voice only grew fainter and weaker.
"Come, girl, help me get wine," Sandor's voice resounded from behind the bar's wooden planks, and she set after him.
Sansa held tightly what he handed her; thin leather skins, a flagon, and when he turned to empty the dead men's pouches and search them, she rushed outside to load it all onto Stranger before darting back inside. She found him leaning over the youth; his whimpers had died out, though his chest still heaved in quick and abrupt motions, and he ripped the mantle of his shoulders before tearing it apart. Sandor handed her the greater part of the cloak, which she held in a bundle in her arms and she watched warily as he tied the cloth around his neck, pressing as hard as he could without choking the air out of him, and then tying another band of it about his thigh. The cloths' shade instantly darkened, and when she handed him the cloak again, the piece he tore from it and pressed at his ear stained crimson as well.
"Here, let me..."
Ripping off a larger piece, she let the cloak drop to the floor as she folded the cloth she held and rolled onto the balls of her feet, outstretching her arms to reach Sandor's ear. He had thrown away the stained piece to the floor, and Sansa was glad to see him lower his back towards her, allowing her hands to touch him. Still, she tiptoed to reach the side of his face, and as she pressed the cloth to his ear, their bodies met as well, and an arm came to meet her shoulder, laying there for support. She sensed the weight of him rest against her. Sansa applied as much pressure as she could, and because she had folded the cloth, it did not redden as quickly as before.
"There's no time for this, girl, more of his pets will be around, we must leave."
And suddenly, the strength of his weight against her shoulder was gone. She'd have almost dropped the cloth from his abrupt leave, but his hand had come up to grab it and put it back onto its place. Sansa peered at him, but his gaze intently stared into the distance and his face had become the hardened mask he had donned so often at King's Landing, so she simply followed after him.
There was a stillness within Sansa, and for a moment, she was not certain how to respond. Then, she remembered the tale of the Hound's scarred face, and her steps quickened.
Once they made it to the horses, it became apparent Sandor needed help climb up Stranger, and so his arm had returned to her shoulder as he propped himself up the horse, and again the touch was gone as quick as it had come. She climbed onto her own mare and they set out.
— ✦ —
Sansa's heart was drumming, beating frantically within her chest.
She urged her mare forward, her knees digging into her sides as the horse's gallop quickened. Still, it was all she could do to remain near Stranger; it was as if the stallion had sensed their need and had grown wings to carry them away from the Crossroads. And besides, she had never been as good a rider as her sister, if she had been a rider at all. She knew only the rudiments, and trusted the rest to the mare.
Anxiously, Sansa peered ahead at the figure mounted atop the stallion, and her heart raced faster still. Droplets of blood continuously dripped away from the Hound's wounds, staining the saddle and marking the ground blood-red as they raced away. His posture was hunched and he did not appear as imposing that way. Sansa feared he might collapse, yet, somehow, as wounded as he was, he still could bear the gallop's cadence. They rode on for hours, and this time had rerouted themselves; they had avoided the river road and the kingsroad, and all that stood before them were endless fields and humid marshes. Sansa felt glad the Queen had seen fit to order new garnements be made for her; underneath her cloak, she wore a plain, unadorned dark gown of wool which kept her dry. They had had to rip off its ends, for it had been too long and had dragged against the ground, leaving it uneven where the seams had once been. Sansa thought, one day, she simply could sew the edges herself.
It was hours before they seemed to reach a safer place, and the sun had nearly begun dipping below the horizon, setting the sky to all shades of pink and gold.
"Where are we?" Sansa piped up. Sandor had skidded to a halt, so she immediately dismounted off her horse.
They had emerged from a canopy of weeping willows and now stood on a river bank. She remembered her maps and those he had showed her, and based on their destination, they should be at the Trident.
"The Trident." The Hound confirmed and set to dismount too. He slid off his horse dangerously and almost collapsed to his knees had she not reached for him, his torso meeting hers with full force. It was all she could do not to collapse herself, yet somehow, she remained firm on her feet. Sansa wrapped her fingers around his arms to steady him.
"Are we still headed to Saltpans?
"We are, or rather, you are." He stood straighter, as much as he could. His words alarmed her. His voice too; it slurred, and his eyes almost rolled, unable to keep their focus. Sansa could swear her heart had only set to beat faster.
"We must see to your wounds," she affirmed. Her voice had almost trembled, but a quiet resolve had formed within her, and she had made her decision. So, she drew a long breath to steady herself. No.
The Hound only chortled at her determination, but she paid him no heed; "We will first clean them with river water, then with the wine."
She remembered scrapes of knowledge gleaned from her Septa and Maester Luwin and the men-at-arms all the way back at Winterfell, and stolen moments of her father speaking to Robb. She was sure she could help. She must.Boiled wine and moldy bread, she remembered. They had run out of bread, moldy or fresh from the oven, so she hoped wine would suffice. Sansa cast about, retrieving any stick and piece of wood she could find. She tried to bend some of them to see how they cracked and picked them up if she was satisfied or otherwise let them fall back against the grass, and when she had gathered a sufficient amount, she returned to the river's bank to find Sandor propped against a rock and struggling for balance. He had not sat, yet seemed to be on the verge of collapsing.
"Get the wine, I'll take care of that." His voice was heavy with restrained pain, and she immediately dropped the kindling at his feet, discarding one of the sticks for later and rushed to Stranger and retrieved all the wine stolen from the inn, then she cast about almost furiously, unsure what to use next.
Sansa did as bid. She was not entirely certain what was this desperate feeling, urging her on, but she was not about to pause to question it. Sandor had taken his helmet, the one she had seen so often and remembered from her first tourney at King's Landing, and somehow propped it above the fire he had lit. Once he had verified it held well, her fears only grew as she watched Sandor slump to the ground, his back hitting hard against the rock behind him and his eyes instantly slipping shut.
Sansa set to work; she emptied the wine skins onto the inverted helmet and let it there to boil. Then, she picked up the youth's cloak, or what was left of it and rushing to the river, washed it out as thoroughly as she could. Had she been back in Winterfell, or even King's Landing, she'd have had washcloths and toiletries to help in her task, but the water itself would have to suffice. At least, the river appeared clean; it had taken on a pale shade against the sunset and she had went deep enough to avoid mud. When Sansa had sufficiently rubbed and washed, she returned to their meager, make-shift camp, droplets of water flying at her sides and dripping from the end of her gown, and placing the cloak against her mare, she tore at the seams, creating as long and lean strips as she could and larger ones too. Setting the cloak aside, she carefully deposited a portion of the strips onto the already simmering wine, leaving the other squares of cloth atop the cloak, then she hurried to Sandor... and her eyes met his, and Sansa realised his gaze had been intently set on her the whole while. Sansa could feel her colours rising, yet that was overshadowed by her anguish; his eyes were half-lidded as if he struggled to keep awake. She continued on; she neared the gash on his thigh, tore further at the seams of his already ripped clothing and exposed as much skin as she could, then she neared her horse to fetch the squares of cloths, pleased to find them still soaked, and returned to the Hound's side. Still holding the torn pieces, she undid the knots he had done before they had left the inn, threw them aside, and drew a sharp, anxious breath at the sigh underneath; the gash was alarmingly deep and stretched on his outer thigh, almost from knee to groin —she tried not to think of that— the flesh around was raw and red and pink, and moments after she had removed his make-shift bandages, rivulets of blood formed around the slit and begun dripping down the already stained hair of his legs. She immediately wiped it away, brushing the wet cloths repeatedly onto the wound and each time, Sandor would grunt horribly and his hands would dig onto the ground and rip tufts of grass, while water and blood merged and turn a paler shade of red as it ran to meet the ground.
Sansa pressed as hard as she could, hoping all her strength would still the blood flow at the skin's surface, and Sandor let out a pained groan. She repeated the same actions with the wound at the nape of his neck as well as his ear, brushing his hair aside, minding the knotted scar tissues of his burns and circumventing them when she could.
She was done with this part.
"The stick." He gestured with his chin, and Sansa picked up the wooden stick she had discarded earlier. She had been about to run to him again, when she noticed dirty patches all over its length; mud covered the bark and she found bugs as well, so once again, she practically ran to the river and rinsed the stick as thoroughly as she could before returning to Sandor.
"Get the cup from my bedroll." His voice had grown rougher and fainter.
Sansa did. She reached to Stranger, undoing the pack she had seen him laying against the ground all these nights, and retrieved the cup he meant.
She knew what to do, but she felt frightened.
Over the space of a heartbeat, Sansa remained perfectly immobile, fearing what she was about to do. The wine had been brought to a full boil and countless bubbles reached the surface before bursting.
Her motions were as deliberate and conscientious as she could; she dipped the cup onto the helmet, retrieved enough wine to fill it without hurting herself, and moved her hand away from the searing vapors climbing onto the air.
Sansa keeled over Sandor once again, keeping her hand steady. As she had suspected, he had placed the stick between his teeth, biting down on it to the point his jaw blanched under the effort.
Sansa felt frightened. She did not want to burn him. She did not know whether the heat would leave a scar, or if all that would remain would be a faint line of raw flesh. She did not wish to for him to bear another wound of seared and burnt flesh.
The wine fumed high into the air, the scent was sharp against her nostrils, and the extreme heat of it burned her palm. Tipping the cup over, she poured its content over the wound stretched on his thigh. The sound that came out of the Hound could have sent her arm shaking, but she remained as steady as she could, and when she moved to his neck, the sounds turned to anguished screams and she heard a crack. It felt as though every nerve in Sansa's body shook in panic. She tilted, and saw that Sandor had bitten until the stick had snapped in two. Withdrawing, she set the cup aside and found her hand was trembling after all.
"I— I will find another—"
And Sansa stepped near the willows, in search of a replacement stick. When she had found something adequate, she entered the river again —surely, she was foolishly losing time, yet the Hound never voiced a complain— the cold water reaching to her ankles and knelt as much as she could to wash the stick again, before she returned to hand it to the Hound. His breaths were short and ragged and his limbs trembled worse than hers, and though he was pressed against a rock, he seemed to lose his balance and had begun dangerously tilting to one side. Sansa had to help place the stick between his mouth and went to refill the cup.
Again, she drew a long, steadying breath. With deliberate, prudent motions, she gently tilted the side of his head and poured the liquid onto his ear. And again, Sandor let out a throaty scream through the stick until his voice grew fainter, and fainter, and he fell dully to the side and his head thumped against the ground.
Sansa quivered too much; when pouring back the wine, the cup banged against the iron of the helmet, some of the wine spilled over and she barely avoided it burning her foot. Finally, she managed to dip it all back inside, shudders still running through her. The fire still raged underneath and the surface still broke wildly with bubbles. She knew what to do next; dragging the bands of cloth out of it, Sansa made her way to Sandor once more, carrying the strips by her fingertips. She applied them on each wounds. Struggling to pass underneath his leg, she rolled the strips several times over the first gash, and went to do the same for his neck, wrapping the strips tightly about his head to cover his ear as well.
A slim measure of relief seeped through her, quailing the shaking of her hands and arms when she noted the blood flow had somewhat abated.
She hoped it had been enough.
Around them, the sun had fully set, leaving crimson strips to colour the sky.
She tidied up around camp, removing Sandor's helmet from the fire using the sad and torn remains of the youth's cloak before stocking it in her mare's saddle. She replaced the wine in a flagon and together with the cup, put it away on Stranger's saddle before bringing both horses together and hobbling them close to camp. Then, she unfurled her own bedroll. Perhaps it was foolish, perhaps his brother's man might fall upon them in the dark of night and it was wiser not make herself comfortable, but she feared Sandor might not possess the strength to drive them away should that come to pass.
For an instant, Sansa hesitated. Her bedroll still in hands, she looked upon Sandor's face; his features were twisted from the pain even in sleep, and his chest heaved painfully; she could almost hear a whizzing sound coming from him each time he inhaled.
She crept closer to him, just a few steps.
The fire still burned bright at her back, and though the sun had set, it was amply enough to watch the shadows dance upon his face.
Sansa drew closer still, and very slowly, laid the bedroll at his side.
Time seemed to stretch infinitely before she finally knelt, and more time elapsed before she laid down.
Her eyes had not left his face, and still she could not explain what had pushed her.
The autumn air had a slight chill to it, so she huddled close the Hound.
Sansa had never found herself in such proximity to him, not while his eyes could not see.
She had never dared to look too long, not since that day in the Red Keep where he had made her and told her his secret. Some instinct pushed her to look at him. In the stillness, she found she was free to drink in each details; twisted and cracked flesh wound its way down his face, and she noticed for the first time that the scars ran down his neck and underneath the plate —she had never been this close before. Sansa remembered how frightened she had been when he had made her look; she had been entirely unused to cruelty, and before knowing the grim tale of these scars, before her father had died upon the steps of the Sept of Baelor, she could have never imagined in her wildest nightmares such things were possible.
Inexplicably, a strange impulse made her raise her hand. It hovered for a moment, then, she laid it against his scars. It was just her fingertips, at first; they brushed subtly against the raw, seared flesh, they ran across the wounding skin, tracing each hollow, and reaching from hairline and all the way to his jaw where she only lightly laid her fingers at the edge where bones were apparent. Sansa wondered if he'd have felt it, had he been awake. Sansa wondered if he could feel it now. He only twitched in his sleep, yet she attributed it more to the pain than her touch. The sensations were odd and new; his skin felt as soft as fresh healing and as naked as an open wound.
Thin strands of black hair barred her way. Sansa gently brushed them aside. She could sense a flush creeping up her, and her heart beating almost madly within her chest... and her hand came to lay fully against his skin, palming the side of his face. His skin was warm underneath her hand.
A pained moaned escaped Sandor and his eyes snapped open —it felt as though Sansa's heart had ceased to beat for an instant— but he did not see, he only begun to trash in confusion. Sansa kept her hand where it laid, and soon enough, the Hound collapsed again.
— ✦ —
Dawn's first sun rays found her dazed.
Sansa rubbed at her eyes, lifting a hand to shield herself from the light filtering through the weeping willows.
She blinked several times to chase away the drowsiness, and suddenly became aware of a weight against her and at her back, of an arm wrapped around the curve of her body and of a hand resting against her tummy.
It seemed Sansa had done no small amount of blushing in the last day, and she could sense the colours rising from her cheeks once again.
As she laid on her side, Sansa could not see his face and was unsure whether he still slept, and so, she remained perfectly still as her senses grew more aware of the touch against her. She was clothed, and Sandor's hand was gauntleted, and the combination of both protective layers attenuated the sensations, yet still, she could sense undeniable warmth emanating from his arm and from the body pressed against her.
They remained thus, for a moment, and then she sensed him stir behind her. Sansa immediately shut her eyes tight and quietly listened in as the Hound roused from sleep.
Though she could tell he had risen to a sitting position, Sandor's hand had not left her side. Sansa was certain she did not wish to be caught in such a position and so she continued to feign sleep. She could almost feel his gaze weighing against her, though his hand remained quite immobile.
Finally, the warmth left her and he was up, grunting through the pain his leg no doubt caused him, and she heard the rustling of leaves underneath his boots and the sounds of his steps grew distant.
Sansa took that opportunity to rise as well. She was still a little bit drowsy and needed time to adjust to the light of day, but once she did, Sansa immediately packed her bedroll, retreated into the wounds to make her water, and by the time she returned, Sandor appeared ready to leave.
He voicelessly stepped towards his horse, but Sansa stopped him.
"No, we must see to your wounds first." She was not about to let him climb up without changing the dressing.
Sandor scoffed at her, but Sansa only said, "We will clean your wounds in the river." She felt as determined as she had the evening before.
His reaction then was quite unexpected; he begun to laugh. It was not a mirthless sort of laugh, though more of a chortle and his leg made it that he had to hold himself onto Stranger not to lose his footing. Sansa was not sure what was funny, and simply frowned in confusion, and the Hound only set to laugh harder.
Finally, after a minute had stretched, he stopped; "We'll do as you say, Little Bird."
Though she was still puzzled, Sansa went to her mare to fetch the cloak. Only, she found it was too damaged and torn to serve any purpose, now; the Hound's wounds had required nearly all of the mantle, and only shredded parts of the hood remained.
She paused to consider what to do next. It felt as though the answer emerged itself from a muddy pond, but once she had it, Sansa begun to fumble at her own things, and extracted one of her own gown. She had not taken many, just enough to provide for a change should she need it. She surely smelled like death herself, now, and could use a bath, yet she found she was almost pass the point of caring, though. The younger Sansa would have glared at her the way she'd usually reserve for Arya.
Before she had time to turn around, a large, calloused hand went to rest against her own. The touch startled her, and she felt just as she had upon waking up and finding his hand splayed against her tummy. Somehow, she remained firmly rooted into place as she questioningly gazed up at him.
"We'll use one of mine," He rasped.
Had he taken anything from King's Landing? Sansa wondered.
Yet, sure enough, his hand was gone and he pulled a faded, brown tunic from his own things.
Bemused, Sansa realised she felt a little bit dejected.
Very slowly, she walked to him and her hands came to grasp the tunic, gently taking it from his grasp.
Once that was done, they both neared the Trident. Again, his arm came to wrap around her shoulders for support and they both immersed themselves slowly. Somehow, she had not noticed how cool the water had been, the evening before, yet now she gasped as she entered. At her side, she heard Sandor grunt too as the water lapped at his knees. They reached deeper within, and though he had been struggling against the water's force, suddenly she sensed the Hound sink. She turned her head in panic, but realised Sandor had simply let himself go against the current, he had ceased to offer resistance and simply floated against the surface, letting it carry him.
Because her arms were still about his shoulders, she begun by unfolding the strips of cloths wrapped around his neck and head, letting the deep cut breathe and the water gently lap at it. The bleeding had stopped, yet the sight still sent shudders down her spine; the cut was of a deep red and the flesh bordering it was swollen and pale and pink.
Repeating the same process from evening passed, she dressed his wound with strips of the tunic he had given her.
As she moved to the wound of his thigh, a little squeak of dread threatened to pass her lips; a nasty, yellowish fluid gouged its way out of the cut and oozed onto the tender flesh bordering it. Carefully, Sansa wiped and brushed at the wound, doing her best not to inflict further harm onto Sandor. He had already begun grunting and gritting his teeth at the pain and continued doing so as she scraped away the foulness until nothing remained but the shining depth of the gash. Belatedly, Sansa realised it had been pus. What did I not do? She wondered. The other wounds had appeared to be in a finer state, and she did not understand what had she done wrong. Perhaps if she'd had her needles and threads with her... Now exposed, fresh blood begun to bead within the cut, and Sansa cursed herself for a fool for pausing, for forgetting her sewing needles, and hurried, meticulously wrapping strips of tunic around the wound.
Sliding her hands underneath his arms, she beat against the water's strength with her legs to bring them both back to solid ground. For an moment, she thought the Hound would not rise from the water and simply continue laying there, yet he did rise of his own accord the minute they reached the bank, and before long they were both mounted on their horse and they were on their way.
— ✦ —
Again, Sansa found herself watching Sandor intently, remaining alert to any sign which might show the strength had truly gone from him. They rode on for a while. Each hour that brought the sun past its zenith saw Sandor teetering and wavering, until came mid-afternoon, when he called for a halt and truly did collapsed from his horse.
Fear flew through Sansa and sent shudders down her limbs, making them tremble again. Bringing her mare to a halt, she dismounted and ran to Sandor's side, and this time she grasped his arm herself to wrap it around her shoulders, straining under the weight of him. That alarmed her the most; a modicum of vigor had remained to him, the day passed, and so he had mostly stood on his own, resting on her only as much as she could carry. Yet, now, she shouldered him entirely as he cursed and hunched and careened to the side as if on the verge of falling again. She brought him to rest against a wide tree trunk and sat across him.
Sansa's eyes stung her, and half a heartbeat later, hopeless, burning tears welled from her eyes and made their way down her cheeks. She had only recently changed his bandages, and as meager as her care had been, she did not know what else she might do.
A feeble, desperate thought surfaced in her mind; Mother, have mercy. Perhaps she ought to pray to the Warrior, or perhaps to her father's gods, the old gods. Sansa shook her head; It was pitiful of her, when had the gods answered her prayers? The old or the new, it made no difference.
Sandor's eyes blinked open, "Little Bird," he rasped feebly, his chest heaved with difficulty and when she rose a hand to touch his brow, his skin was sticky with perspiration and burning under her touch.
"Little Bird." His voice broke strangely and Sansa was stunned to realise he was sobbing. It only worsened the flow of her own tears. Brutally, his hand came to clasp hers and press it hard against his brow, "Little Bird," the sudden force of his gesture weakened her balance and she collapsed onto him. Sansa knew she would have blushed furiously had it not been for the urgency of the situation. Minding his leg, she moved to peer into his eyes, and could see her own reflection in his pained, hazy gaze.
"I have failed, I couldn't bring you—" His voice died and a grunt escaped him, "I couldn't bring you home."
The words stung Sansa as much as her own tears. No. She refused to believe it, she refused to believe it was the end of him. As inconceivable as it had been just a year passed, The Hound had become an unlikely ally, and an unlikelier friend. Though he had taken no vows, swore her no oaths, and in spite of being no knight, not truly, he had been a better knight to her and had cared for her better than any knight had. It had been so, since the day he had given her his cloak and she had accepted to flee King's Landing with him. She could not let him go now.
"You have not. I am home."
Her tears blurred her vision and the strength had fled from her. The sun still shone through the trees bordering the path they had followed, yet all the same, she huddled close to him as if it had been a cold night. She sensed the weight of his arm pressed against her back, nudging her closer to him and she laid her head against his chest.
Mother, have mercy.