Sandor threw on his hunting jacket tossing Sansa’s cell phone and compass into his breast pocket. He slipped on his bug out bag and slung his rifle over his shoulder as he bolted out the door.
Sandor really wanted to sprint for the hills, but he suppressed his emotions. He moved to the center of the dooryard closed his eyes, took a deep cleansing breath, listened and waited. No unexpected sounds came to him.
Sandor opened his eyes, removed Sansa’s cell phone and compass from his pocket, and held them next to each other. He slowly followed the compass to the north-east edge of the property. He scanned the tree line looking for some sort of sign.
Thank-you, Sansa, he thought. On the few times he’d taken her hunting, he’d constantly had to remind her to lift her feet high when she was walking. This was to prevent stumbling on hidden undergrowth or roots, and to minimize the sound her footfalls made as they were creeping up on a deer or other wildlife.
Sandor bent to the ground and pressed his fingers into a drag mark in the mud where grass had been torn up. Sandor was no tracker, but he recognized the signs of movement through the thick vegetation.
Before he moved into the treeline, Sandor examined the compass again. The compass needle was pointing due north, even though the scuff mark indicated that Sansa had been traveling east-north-east. Sandor put the two items back in his pocket and stepped into the woods.
For over an hour, Sandor followed scuff marks and very obviously broken branches. He moved slowly and cautiously, often taking moments to stop and listen. He recognized the direction Sansa was heading. She was going back to the spot where Sandor had first found her. A straight climb from there would bring her to the trail – the wrong trail – that she’d been following before the landslide.
Along the path, Sandor came across crumbs from a granola bar, an earring, a nickel, the cap from her tube of lip balm. Sansa was leaving him a trail of breadcrumbs. Sandor was thankful that Sansa hadn’t gotten caught leaving the clues. Following her trail might have been a lot more difficult otherwise.
After checking the horizon carefully, Sandor started up a rocky bluff, frequently stopping to listen for any sounds or checking for movement through the trees. He heard nothing – even the birds were quiet. Near the top, the bluff had a sharp steep edge about five feet high with narrow ridges that allowed for handholds and footholds.
At the top of the bluff, Sandor kicked around the clearing, looking for his next clue, the next sign that would lead to Sansa. He was worried about her of course, but his concern was staring to deepen. It had been three hours of following breadcrumbs but he hadn’t heard one sound. Not a shout, a rustle of leaves, not the twitter of a bird. On the top of the bluff, there was a stiff breeze. If there were any sounds, he should have heard them carried on the wind.
Sandor unslung his rifle, readied his grip and flicked the safety. He walked the perimeter of the clearing, spiraling outward toward the tree line so that he wouldn’t miss anything. When he saw it, Sandor didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it immediately. He started toward a wild blueberry bush. Something was snagged on it and flapping in the breeze. As he got closer, he realized it was a Kleenex. When he was within a few feet of it, the thin tissue tore and blew away.
Sandor came to a dead halt. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Frozen in place, Sandor slowly turned his head, carefully scanning through the trees for the slightest movement.
Sandor sighed deeply and shrugged his shoulders. It was useless, he wasn’t going to find her this way. With a slight shake of his head, he slung his rifle back over his shoulder and turned back toward the edge of the bluff.
Leaping a short distance down to the first wide ridge over the edge of the bluff, Sandor swiftly unslung his rifle again. Just below the top edge of the bluff had been a hollow spot worn into the rock over thousands of years of ice and rain weathering it away. Sandor squatted and slowly backed into it, flicked the safety on the rifle again, and readied to aim.
Sandor waited for almost ten minutes. He’d been positive he was right, but now, he wasn’t so sure. Sansa’s trail of clues had been too perfect, too regularly spaced, and too obvious for her not to have gotten caught leaving them.
Then there was the Kleenex. Sansa didn’t use them. Part of life in a mountain cabin meant not purchasing anything that was disposable. Kleenex, paper towel, and even food wrap were on the naughty list. Those items were too expensive and resulted in too much waste. Instead, they used rags, handkerchiefs, and reusable plastic containers.
Someone else had put the Kleenex there. Someone else wanted Sandor to follow the trail. And they had been very close by. Within moments of him seeing it, the Kleenex had torn and blown away. That meant that it had been placed there only moments before he’d seen it. It’s also the reason Sandor hadn’t seen it immediately. Because it hadn’t been there when he’d first looked.
Sandor controlled his breathing, struggling not to move or twitch. He leaned forward slightly to ease the pressure on his knees. He was almost about to concede that he might have been a little paranoid when he heard a slight scuff. He froze again and listened.
Another two minutes went by. It felt like four hours.
Unexpectedly, a body flew over the edge of the bluff and landed about five feet in front of Sandor. Sansa’s red hair whipped around her as she landed on her back. Sandor stayed quiet, his pulse racing and sweat dripping into his eyes. He wiped clumsily at his brow, careful not to make a sound. Slowly, Sansa moaned and rolled like a log. As she rolled to face him, Sandor brought his finger to his lips, cautioning her to silence.
Sansa’s wrists were bound and her mouth duck taped. Her eyes flashed wide for a split second when she noticed Sandor. Her eyes flicked upward to the edge of the bluff above Sandor. Sandor raised his hand beside him. He showed her one finger, then two, then three.
Sansa kept her eyes aimed upwards, away from Sandor. He watched her fingers. Quickly, she pointed one finger, then balled her fists again.
When she was able to look down at Sandor momentarily, Sandor indicated his gun to her and raised his eyebrows. Sansa again aimed her eyes at the top of the bluff. Sandor watched her hands. In only a fraction of a second, she flashed him a thumbs up.
Sandor took a breath and thought. Whoever was up there had a gun, but was alone. After a few more long moments, Sandor heard someone moving, slowly working their way over the edge of the bluff. An instant later, a man jumped down, landing on his feet between him and Sansa, with his back to Sandor.
Sandor flew to his feet and rushed the short, squat man as he stood looking down at Sansa. Sandor held his rifle sideways in front of him and rammed the much smaller man in the back of the neck. Sansa attempted to roll out of the way, but the two men fell on top of her.
Despite his small size, Sansa’s kidnapper thrashed and struggled making it hard for Sandor to hold him down.
Sansa thought quickly and wiggled herself into a position where she could wrap her legs around the man’s neck. She squeezed tightly as Sandor attempted to wrangle his wrists, but it meant he’d have to set down his rifle. He set the gun down to his left. Pinning the man’s wrists with his left hand, Sandor began punching the kidnapper with his right.
After three hard blows, the man began to sag under Sandor’s weight. Two more punches for good measure, then Sandor began to get up, dragging the man with him. Sansa reluctantly spread her legs to release him.
Sandor dug in his pocket with one hand still squeezing the man’s wrists in his other. From his pocket, Sandor retrieved a jack knife and triggered the spring action to open the blade. He held it out toward Sansa who immediately sawed her bindings over the blade.
With his focus on Sansa, Sandor momentarily eased his grip on the assailant who took the opportunity, twisted out of Sandor’s grip and whirled to face Sandor with a pistol he’d pulled from his pocket.
A demented smile slowly spread across the man’s face. Sandor recalled watching the Lord of the Rings movie while in Seattle. The man that stood before him looked like the evil version of Frodo. Blood oozed from his nose and down over his lips, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Ramsay, no!” Sansa screamed as she peeled the duck tape from her lips. “Please don’t hurt him.” Sandor eyed his rifle lying in the dirt out of reach.
Ramsay turned and smiled at Sansa. “Don’t worry, my love. I am a man of mercy.” Ramsay’s voice grated on Sandor like steel wool. Ramsay spun unexpectedly and fired the gun into Sandor’s chest.
Sandor felt himself stagger back and fall. His chest felt on fire and he couldn’t breathe. He slowly closed his eyes. As he lay there waiting, Sandor did not immediately feel the life ebbing out of him. He wheezed as he struggled to breathe, each lungful of air shallower and quieter than the last.
Sandor heard Sansa scream. He heard Ramsay slap her.
“You said you were a man of mercy!” Sandor heard Sansa cry.
“A quick death is a merciful one, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I hate you!”
“Good,” Ramsay hissed. “You know I prefer it that way.” Sandor could hear the twisted intentions in Ramsay’s voice.
There was a scuffle and Ramsay punched her. Was it in the face? It sounded like a punch to the face. Sansa cried out and another scuffle ensued. The gun went off and then there was quiet.
A stab of pain went through Sandor’s heart. Grief washed over him as he realized that he’d never actually told Sansa that he loved her. She had known it, he made sure of that, but he’d never said the words. Now he would never get the chance.
Sandor lay still and listened to the sound of the quiet, felt the cool fresh breeze on his face as tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He could still hear Ramsay moving around. Sandor was still conscious enough to realize that his hand had landed on a large rock. Maybe he still had enough life left in him. Perhaps, if he focused his remaining strength …
Sandor curled his fingers around the rock, determined to go down swinging. If Sansa had to die, Ramsay certainly deserved it, but he knew he wouldn’t have a chance. He listened as determined footsteps moved toward him.
Wait for it … Sandor suddenly sat up, opened his eyes and flung his arm in an arc a hard as he could. Sansa jumped back just in time.
“Sansa?” he wheezed. His vision started to darken and he fell back to stare at the sky. Sansa ripped open his jacket and his shirt and dragged her hand over the surface of his chest. At one spot, Sandor hollered in pain and started coughing. Then Sansa went digging through his layers of clothing.
“You’re going to be okay,” she told him. Sandor opened his eyes. Sansa smiled at him. Her hair was stringy and disheveled, she had a black eye and a split lip that was bleeding, but her smile was beautiful.
She held up a flat black object for him to look at. Sandor struggled up onto his elbows. His chest felt like it had been hollowed out with a melon spoon and his vision threatened him with unconsciousness, but he pushed up enough to see what Sansa was holding. It was her cell phone with a bullet lodged right through the center of it. The long narrow casing had made it most of the way through the phone before stopping. Sansa’s hand was covered in blood.
Sandor put his hand under his jacket and felt his chest. There was a hole. He pulled his hand out to see the blood on his own fingers.
“It’s okay,” she told him. "It’s a deep wound, but it didn’t go through to the lung. You’ve probably got a couple of broken ribs.”
Sansa helped Sandor off with his knapsack and got him to lie down in a comfortable position. She looked in the side pocket of the bag where he kept the first aid supplies. Sansa packed the hole with gauze and taped the wound. Then she gave him some water and a protein bar to help him get his strength back. After a half hour, Sandor was able to get to his feet.
“Can you walk?” Sansa asked.
“I can, but we’ll never get back before dark. We need to get away from here.” Sandor looked over to where Ramsay lay. There was a single neat hole just under his the left side of his chin. A large pool of blood had formed a sort of macabre halo around him.
“The wolves will smell that. We need to get down the bluff at least.”
Sandor and Sansa took their time, moving slowly until they had reached a safe spot. Sandor tried to help a little, but Sansa did most of the work as she built a large fire and made a simple shelter out of the tarp from Sandor’s bag.
It wasn’t long after dark that they heard the wolves howl in the distance. They were far enough away, and each of them now had a gun. Sansa had Ramsay’s gun and Sandor kept his rifle within reach at all times.
When they finally settled down for the evening, Sansa snuggled close careful not to irritate Sandor’s wound. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
“I thought I lost you today,” he told her.
“I thought I lost you when I saw you lying there not moving.”
“How did he find you?” Sandor asked.
“He threatened Eloise. She was always really afraid of him. He can get pretty much anything out of anyone. He just has this way of – ”
“Not anymore, he doesn’t.” Sandor hugged Sansa as close as he could. He urged Sansa to turn so they could look at each other. “Ramsay is gone. For good.”
Sansa began to cry. Tears dripped slowly down her face. “Sandor, I'm so sorry." She turned her face and buried it in Sandor's shoulder. He pushed her back so that he could look in her eyes.
"It's not your fault." Sansa shook her head and sobbed but Sandor made her look at him. "You did what you had to do to survive. It's the same thing I had to do to survive. Ramsay brought this on himself after what he did to you." Sansa leaned against his shoulder and Sandor held her while she cried. When her tears finally abated, she looked up at Sandor.
"There’s something I want to tell you.”
Sandor shook his head and smiled. “No way. Me first.” He pulled her closer and brushed the hair away from her face. He brought her face close to his so that their foreheads were touching.
“I love you,” he whispered. "I love you so much. I wanted to tell you earlier but I'm an idiot so I'll keep saying it until I make up for how long it took me to do it. I love you."
Sandor kissed her and never wanted to let her go, but Sansa pushed him away. Tears streamed down her face but she was smiling. “I love you more,” she told him.
Sandor shook his head with a grin. “Well … that’s debatable.”