The hall quieted from the unwelcome outburst. Two inmates scuffled, and a guard laughed. The commotion infiltrated the small room where Sandor hunched over a table too short for his hulking frame. The rickety thing wobbled on a metal base.
With his back to the door, his skin crawled and the hair on his arms stood on end. The guard loitered outside, as if that paltry distance should suffice as privacy. Every word Sandor said was privy to prying ears. Pry they did, and in search of something that could be used against him later.
Part of Sandor didn’t care if the guard heard how he spoke to Sansa. Sweet as can fucking be, her dulcet voice sent him closer to heaven than any living creature could get without crossing the great divide. The sultry edge to all the soft tones encapsulated what he knew about her already—a good, faithful woman who loved just as passionately as she probably fucked, eager to please and easy to love.
The other part of Sandor recognized the sanctity of this conversation and loathed that anyone here knew about her. Sansa Stark didn’t belong in a place like this, even if her presence only manifested on others speaking her name or seeing her face in photographs. That alone threatened to send Sandor over the edge, and the mistake he’d made had been in showing that hand. Misery reigned supreme in these walls and some here would weaponize that knowledge.
With the phone pressed to his ear, Sandor scooted closer to the table. A smile creased his lips as he listened to Sansa talk with renewed nervousness. She’d gotten herself tongue-tied and twisted and Sandor found it wholly endearing. She spoke now in one long sentence about coming to see him and barely took a breath until the very end.
“I only live a few hours from you so I wouldn’t mind at all making the drive if it meant I got to see you and finally put a face to the man I’ve been writing to and now to your voice too, which is very nice; I should have said so in the beginning.”
Sandor hadn’t smoked in years. A decade, even. Longer than he could remember. This feeling now—floating out of his body, smiling like a fucking lovelorn idiot, and twisted up in his own right over the woman on the other end of the line—he likened to getting high. Sandor eased back in the chair. He lifted the arm crossed over his middle and rested it behind his head.
“You don’t owe me any compliments. The biggest one you’ve paid me is right now. Of course, I want to see you.”
When he was a younger man, he might’ve turned her away to preempt judgement at the thorough wreck that was his face. Older, wiser, and less inclined to giving a shit, he’d gotten better about fussing over his scars. They’d itch and twitch whenever he thought about them too long or worried what others might think.
He’d learned to cast those concerns aside. There wasn’t shit he could do about them other than manage his own self-consciousness. He accomplished that feat during the war. Sandor had seen too many mangled bodies or soldiers heading home short a few limbs. He counted his blessings and shut the fuck up about his scars because some poor bastard in the world had it worse.
He waited, but the line fell quiet. Perhaps Sansa was gathering her composure again. She’d spun herself up into a flustered and entirely enticing tizzy, and now Sandor waited for her to come back down again.
But nothing came; not even the alluring little sighs she made that he’d take back to his bunk later. He’d overlay those sounds with visions of her writhing beneath him, moaning and gasping and begging for more.
When she didn’t answer, Sandor sat up straight and leaned against the table. The guard hadn’t given a two-minute warning, but the line held only dead silence, not even a toll of a hung-up call. Sandor twitched at the presence of someone lurking close behind him.
He spun around in the chair and found Boros leaned against the wall right above the phone jack. In his grubby hand, he held the disconnected phone cord and twirled it in circles with a shit-eating grin.
“Time’s up,” Boros taunted with smug self-satisfaction gleaming in his beady black eyes. “Hope you weren’t getting to the good part.”
Sandor observed the expectant glee on the man’s chubby face. Boros clearly anticipated getting the better of Sandor. His jabs functioned like stones tossed at a worn-out monolith and Boros waited for Sandor to crumble from the relentless assault.
It wouldn’t happen today.
Sandor huffed a derisive laugh and slowly stood. He shoved the chair hard and relished the way Boros flinched as it slammed into the table. Where normally Sandor might’ve counted this as yet another annoyance in his run-ins with Boros, today the anger came hard knowing that Sansa Stark was in Devil Creek waiting for an answer to her question.
“I see you didn’t bother to spare a two-minute warning,” Sandor rumbled but capped the volume of his voice. It filled the small room anyhow.
“Not for you.” Boros shook his head but backed away in a shuffled step as Sandor closed the distance between them.
He approached Boros but knew if he came any closer, the man and his cohorts would take it as an invitation for a beating. They’d say he asked for it to justify three or more armed guards beating him senseless.
They were no better than some men here. In some ways, they were worse; thugs granted the power and means to brutalize in the name of order. As it stood, Sandor had a point to make, so he pushed the line as far as he could. That meant looming just a foot away from Boros. Sandor let his gaze close the rest of that distance with a scowl on his lips and a searing look that could catch fire and burn a hole right through Boros.
“I suppose it’s too much to ask a back-country inbred like you to read a clock,” Sandor sneered.
For a moment, Boros looked rightfully overcome with fear, but must’ve quickly remembered the upper hand. His incipient cowardice fled behind a facade of bravado. He patted the billy club hanging from his hip and his mouth split with a smile.
“Careful now. We wouldn’t want news to travel to your parole board that you’ve been making trouble.” Boros stepped to Sandor and lifted his chin, perhaps to feign height and bravery now. “Or maybe I should enlighten them anyhow. What do you think about that?”
Menacing laughter poured from Boros’s crooked mouth and crimson flooded his fleshy cheeks. Week after week, the man had dangled this over Sandor’s head. The omnipresent threat grew and gained traction. Other guards had written Sandor off as straddling the divide to freedom, one foot in this world and one foot out. Boros seemed in denial and promised that he’d watch Sandor sabotage his chance at freedom.
Still, Sandor couldn’t quite help himself and got his digs in where he could. He nodded with deliberate and dawdling ease and sized Boros up. There wasn’t much to the man who was almost as wide as he was tall.
“I think that would require you to do your job for once,” Sandor sniped with a snide smirk. “I won’t hold my breath.”
If Boros’s face was red before, it looked almost purple now. The rare shade of anger warned that Sandor was close to the precipice and could back off now. He reminded himself that in this battle of wills, there would always be one winner who came out on top and it wouldn’t be him. It was the way the scales of justice worked around here.
“I’ve had enough of you!” Boros seethed through gritted teeth. Spittle flew out one edge of his mouth. “Get the fuck out of here!”
Boros shot one furious finger towards the door. On the way out, Sandor winked at the man and retreated into the hall where another guard escorted him back to his cell. Along the way, inmates hooped and hollered as Sandor passed.
He supposed it came with the territory. His freedom was on the horizon and the warden had the right of it. Misery loved company and word spread like wildfire. Men who Sandor scarcely knew had heard about his parole hearing. They hassled him for details. They taunted him about it. A few even wanted the name of his lawyer. One day, Sandor was apt to disappear, bunk emptied and desk cleared. The others didn’t know when that day might come, so they treated Sandor as if every day might be his last.
He had no friends here. For the few he tolerated, Sandor still had to read into passing pleasantries for them to resemble a friend. The rest took their shots where they could and, for some of them, right now must’ve been that moment. A few hung from the bars at the front of their cell with everything from mischief to pure hatred in their eyes.
Any day now.
He held fast to those three words. The anticipation that the promise of freedom brought took on a feral quality, like a restless animal pacing a cage.
His parole hearing was done. Sandor’s lawyer supplicated the judge and the warden and Griff spoke on his behalf. Both men said a great many things that bore shades of truth, though some colors were truer than others. No outright lies, though—Sandor was honest; a soldier who’d done his duty and served his country during the worst years of the war; he worked hard and would live a simple life. He hadn’t broken the law before and didn’t intend to again.
As Sandor understood it, the judgment would come down as soon as the board got off their asses and talked it over. If the system wasn’t broken, then it sure as hell was slow as molasses in the dead of winter. The silver lining—the judge seemed keen on granting Sandor’s parole, and Griff was certain that counted as a victory by any other name.
Where that bit of insight might’ve sent him prematurely packing up his belongings, Sandor knew better than to hang his hopes on it. He wasn’t a superstitious man but tempting fate in the eleventh hour felt awfully dangerous. He didn’t speak of his parole and wouldn’t until it was a sure thing. He hadn’t even mentioned it to Sansa; something about putting it in writing and having it ripped away felt unusually cruel, and he knew enough of this world to understand it wasn’t all that kind, and certainly not to men like him.
Back in his cell, Beric perched against his bunk with the Bible in his hands. The work bell would soon ring, signaling an end to their miniscule free time. Sandor’s size and strength meant he was assigned hard labor, the back-breaking work that men with weaker temperaments couldn’t handle. Those men got sent to the kitchen to bake cookies while Sandor nearly broke his body out in the heat, hauling scrap metal to patch up holes in the fences or digging out concrete to repave roads.
With little time left before work, he disregarded Beric’s gaze as it followed him. His focus remained unwavering and singular, eclipsing everything else that might’ve drawn his attention away from the task at hand.
At his desk, Sandor even ignored the muscles in his back protesting yet another awkward position he sat in. He didn’t give a fuck about Beric or his back as he retrieved blank paper and a fresh golf pencil.
He wrote more haphazardly than usual. His thoughts were less deliberate, and his handwriting was rough. The letter was shorter too, only long enough to explain the abrupt end to their phone call and assure Sansa that he wanted nothing so much as to see her. The thought of being face-to-face with her stilled his movements, and Sandor dropped the pencil to the desk.
He’d give the notion only passive entertainment and usually dismissed it as a pipe dream. Sansa was a nice girl, but he’d debated if her good graces extended from Devil Creek to Wichita Falls. The ideal outcome was Sansa suggesting it herself, without him prompting, cajoling, or flat-out asking, though he eventually would have.
With a faint smile tracing his lips, Sandor indulged the urge to read her letters and the sweet words she’d been paying him twice a week. He had the luxury of her voice now, the sound of his name on her mouth, and the captivating nuance in the way she spoke.
Her courtesies had waned too, but not for the ruse being up. Instead, Sansa shed a layer of shy reserve that asked polite questions and kept the tenor of discussion in the realm of the appropriate. Beneath that reserve and mask of polished manners, Sandor usually found the worst parts of people. Sansa was different and possessed a wealth of intriguing complexities.
With most women, he didn’t bother excavating the layers. He got what he needed from them in trysts that felt more transactional than intimate. He didn’t care about their family, what they did for a living, or if their boss was an asshole or not. He didn’t give a shit about their hopes or dreams. And they didn’t give a shit about him either. Only a few women had ever held his fascination long enough to plumb the depths, but the enchantment eventually wore off. He’d either find them rotten at the core or the relationship would run its course.
With Sansa, the ineffable existed in her letters. He struggled to place it and hoped it’d reveal itself if they ever met. She left more on the page than just pretty words and enthralling details of herself. One thing he knew for certain—kind and compassionate strength prevailed in her. Funny thing, she never boasted about it, but Sandor had pieced together the mystery of this girl who fascinated in unexpected ways. For the parts that remained missing, he wanted more and sensed they’d soon reach the bounds of their correspondences. Eventually, certain things could only be revealed in person.
Sandor dug through the papers on his desk. He flipped through parole paperwork and the few books he had to his name but hadn’t yet read. Notably absent were the letters from their usual place in the back corner. He’d remember if he’d moved them. Of course, he would. He wasn’t prone to forgetting something as significant as Sansa’s letters.
He retraced his search in the same spots. Once, then twice. With rising panic, he tore through the papers. His hands trembled, and he wracked his brain at where he might’ve misplaced them.
The faint smell of cigarette smoke wafted towards him, innocuous at first, but then the horror sunk in.
Sandor turned to Beric who perched against the wall. He’d ditched his Bible for a cigarette and matched Sandor’s eyes as he took a long drag.
Sandor flew from his seat and bound the scant distance across the cell. Beric didn’t flinch, only smirked in that same sickening and knowing way that Boros did. Sandor grabbed Beric by the front of his shirt and shoved him hard against the cinderblock wall.
“You son of a bitch! Where are they?”
Sandor didn’t care how loud he was or that his voice echoed through the cell block. The inmates in surrounding cells cheered and pounded on the bars in a rising and bellicose cacophony. Pressed against the wall, Beric spared enough breath for a quiet laugh but saved the rest to blow smoke in Sandor’s face.
He dumped Beric to the floor where the man broke with maniacal laughter. It rose above the savage howls that ripped through the cell block now with blood lust bursting at the seams.
Sandor shook his head. It was a bluff, a ruse. Beric wasn’t so fucking stupid to have pawned off Sansa’s letters for a pack of smokes. This was just another jab, a way to pull Sandor down into the depths. Beric didn’t need to. Sandor eagerly descended into rage, riding right into that fire as soon as he toppled his mattress to the floor.
Gone. The pictures were gone.
He ripped off the bed linens and tore the pillow from its case. Sweat beaded his brow and his head swam in a frenzied daze. No. Please no. Not this.
“Eye for an eye,” Beric goaded and pushed himself from the floor with the cigarette still between his lips. He lifted the corner of his mattress to reveal not one but three packs of cigarettes. “You took what was mine, so I took what was yours.”
In one violent motion, Sandor upended Beric’s mattress to the floor and ripped through the piles of letters underneath; hundreds, maybe more, in uneven stacks of lunatic ravings. With frenzied urgency, he searched for anything he could find. Her picture. One letter. Whatever could be salvaged from the carnage of this injustice.
“You ain’t gonna find any of it here,” Beric chuckled and the depraved undercurrent running through his voice said this was no bluff.
Sandor stopped. He stood and slowly turned to Beric. His stomach roiled with nausea, and bile hit the back of his throat in a horrid combination of wrath and loss. They worked in tandem, tearing at his resolve and what little of his composure remained.
“Who has them?” Sandor demanded on a panting breath. His nails cut painfully into the flesh of his calloused palms. “Who has them?” Sandor screamed when Beric hadn’t answered.
The man placidly took another drag from his cigarette and cocked his head to the side. He devoured the sight of Sandor unraveling with chest heaving and body trembling, wound up like a spring with no avenue for release.
“The boys have been out in the yard, talking about all the things they’d do to that girl, whether she likes it or not. Don’t matter to them.”
Sandor spared Beric only a moment of heinous reverie. The man stared fondly out the cell bars, but Sandor hurled himself at Beric. When his body slammed into the man, the cigarette flew from Beric’s mouth. With the wind knocked out of him, Beric gasped for breath.
A tangle on the floor, Sandor landed hits in the soft flesh of Beric’s belly. A crack came across Sandor’s face and with it the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t care. He rained fists down on the freak, fueled by pure rage and the notion that Sansa—beautiful, sweet Sansa—was the subject of such obscenity.
“I’ll fucking kill you!” Sandor raged, matched now in lunacy with the monster beneath him.
Straddling Beric, Sandor’s fist slammed into his cheek. The skin split with a spray of blood and the crunch of broken teeth. More. He wanted more. He’d squeeze every inch out of the maniac who wailed for help.
With one hand, Sandor pinned Beric to the ground by the neck. The man flailed and screeched. The cigarette had rolled to the edge of the cell, just in reach and its cherry ember beckoning. Sandor snatched it up.
Blood and sweat rolled down Sandor’s cheek as he lifted the cigarette and inched it nearer to Beric’s remaining eye. Only now did Sandor register the cell block in chaos; the blaring echoes and Beric’s voice lost in the sea of chants and cries. Madness. It was absolute madness.
Walk the line.
It wasn’t the thought that plucked Sandor out of the pandemonium. It wasn’t even a recollection of the warden’s words. The inner voice wasn’t his own. It was Sansa’s.
Disoriented and reeling, Sandor dropped the cigarette to the ground and let it roll through the bars and to the cell block beyond. He let go of Beric and stood, but the man’s bewildered stare turned dark and unnatural. Beric expelled something that sounded like a demonic growl, heaved himself from the floor, and tore across the cell to his own desk. With one arm, he swept off the disorganized and dusty stacks of books and papers.
He spun towards Sandor with the spork clenched in one trembling fist. His knuckles had gone white and his face appeared possessed with rage. The vein at his temple bulged and his eye had gone dark blue.
He wielded the utensil, and Sandor lifted his hands in defense, but the assault he expected never came.
Beric turned the stubby prongs towards his own face.
The walls pulsed. The fury rose, pounding and howling. The cellblock would split the earth itself open.
“What are you doing?” Sandor demanded over the horrible din. His blood pumped cold in his veins. The contrast to the heat still rolling off his skin left him dizzy. “What the fuck are you doing?”
With one quick jab, Beric buried the spork into his good eye and twisted hard. Something gelatinous spilled down his cheek, and Beric collapsed to the floor with a blood-curdling shriek.
“No!” Sandor screamed.
“Guards! Guards!” Beric cried and writhed like a man possessed in front of Sandor who froze with shock rendering his limbs useless and his mind stalling to comprehend.
Boots pounded against the ground outside Sandor’s cell, and three guards tore inside.
“No,” Sandor heaved, but his voice came rasping and thin. “I didn’t. No!”
“He blinded me!” Beric yowled between hyperventilated breaths as two guards dragged him from the cell.
A blinding blow cracked across the back of Sandor’s head. He collapsed to the ground but fought like mad for his consciousness. A tremendous force yanked him backwards and a guard forced him to his knees.
Before Sandor could fully register Boros in front of him and wielding his billy club, the man swung the club with all his might and landed a blow at Sandor’s ribs. The pain exploded through him and bone surely broke. Sandor doubled over, but a guard held Sandor’s arms up. Another hit cracked his side, but this time from the steel tip of Boros’s boot.
Whatever came over Sandor possessed him with red wrath. He wrenched his arms back and sent two guards tumbling to the floor. Sandor jumped to his feet and dodged Boros’s club with unusual grace. Boros stumbled backwards towards the open cell door. More guards sprinted in and the inmates descended further into the inky depths of abhorrent madness.
Grinding teeth and wild eyes, Boros swung again, but the club landed against Sandor’s palms. He gripped it hard. His strength was unmatched and Boros knew it as fear rippled through his wide eyes that gaped at Sandor.
War. This was war. He’d have to fight. He wouldn’t get out alive if he didn’t at least try. He’d come back in a body bag like those boys missing limbs.
With one hard yank, Sandor pulled Boros towards him and head-butted the man. Boros’s nose exploded open with gushing blood. He dropped the billy club and lifted one trembling hand to his face.
The other guards descended on Sandor quicker than he could respond. He whipped his body back and forth to break their hold. A flurry of fists and clubs seized on him and forced him to the floor. He shielded his face but screamed when another hit slammed into his ribs.
Sandor lifted his head for only a moment. The ghastly fluorescent light blinded from up above and he squinted against it, but not before a fist came into focus and collided into the bridge of his nose. With a sharp pain between his eyes and the bitter taste of blood in his mouth, Sandor’s vision faded to black.
Usually, that black void held nightmares and visions from the hell he’d endured during war. This time only silence came, and the distant sense of being weightless and floating. A vision surfaced. In a two-toned Chevy, Clyde had killed the engine and stared with somber dread at the prison looming outside the windshield against a slate gray sky. Sandor sat in the passenger seat with his Stetson on his lap.
“This place ain’t about fixing the wicked,” Clyde had warned with a tremor in his voice. He sounded tired too. “You’re not wicked and they won’t try to fix you. Don’t let them tell you who you are. Just keep your head down and survive.”
The parting advice had been eerily similar to what Sandor had heard before being shipped off to war, and he wondered when it would end—the concerted effort it took to survive. Some folk didn’t have to think much about it. He supposed he wasn’t fated to be one of them. He’d nodded, handed off his hat to Griff, and figured the man was probably still young enough that Sandor would see him again in ten years.
The vision faded, and the sensation returned to Sandor’s legs that dragged along a concrete floor. His side screamed with pain and his face throbbed to the point of numbness. Sandor’s eyes cracked open as they tossed him to the ground in another cell half the size of his normal quarters. The lights flickered, and he rolled to his uninjured side. With his hands shackled in front of him, he grunted and struggled to sit.
Sandor squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, wide enough to take in his surroundings. He’d never known this place personally but had heard plenty of stories.
“No,” Sandor groaned. His throat was dry. He’d give anything for water. “No, not here.”
The others called it the gray palace on account of its dark gray walls, a metal slab sticking out of cinderblock to suffice as a bed, and the stainless-steel toilet in the back. The height of the ceiling created a haunting echo. No window, not even on the door, meant the room had no light except the feeble and fading fluorescent bulb up above.
Rumor had it a man once stayed in here for ten years and got his yard and shower time on his own but feared open spaces so thoroughly, he damn near had a heart attack out in the yard by himself. Another man spent five years locked up alone, no one to talk to and not much to do other than plan his own death, which he successfully carried out by slaughtering a guard.
Sandor had done nothing so vile, but he knew where he was and knew what it meant. The implications careened into him like a violent wave. Boros hovered near the door of the musty cell that reeked of piss. In his hand was a bucket he dropped to the floor.
“Warden ain’t too happy with you,” Boros informed with pleasure, positively in raptures. His eye would surely blacken from Sandor’s hit, but he had already wiped clean the blood from his face. “He’ll send word to your parole board about the stunt you pulled.”
A hollow sense of defeat ravaged Sandor from within. It’d eat him alive in here and hound him in the darkness. He’d face a devastating reality all alone—the taste of freedom within reach, just a breath away, but gone on the fickle wind and by fate’s cruel hand.
A soft laugh escaped Boros but gained some weight and volume in a throaty chuckle that descended into his belly with booming hilarity. The man nearly doubled over. His jowls shook and, just when the echo had become unbearable, he lifted his head to Sandor.
“You’re locked up for beating a man within an inch of his life and…” Boros choked on sharp chortles and tears streamed down his fat cheeks. “Days of being granted parole you…” He gasped for breaths, barely able to speak. “You pluck out your cell mate’s eye and beat a guard!”
Sandor pushed himself against the back wall of the tiny, squalid space. “You know I didn’t do it.”
The insult to injury wouldn’t soon be over and he’d be forced to swallow it down, every fucking drop. Devastation came quick on the heels of heartache.
He once told Sansa Stark that no woman waited for him on the outside and she’d responded, with all her graceful and tender-hearted compassion, that that wasn’t true. She was on the outside; thinking of him, waiting for him, worrying after him. If only he’d held on for a little longer and not reacted the way he had, perhaps he’d know the flesh and blood comfort of the woman herself.
Boros composed himself and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He patted his forehead and ruddy cheeks stained with tears.
“Don’t matter what I think. No one saw what happened. Just you and Beric. It’s your word against his. What kind of lunatic would carve their own eye out?”
Sandor’s gaze snapped to Boros. “You know exactly what kind.”
“No. What I know is that you’d crack,” Boros gloated. The joy departed his eyes and left behind vicious hatred. “You’ve always put yourself above everyone else here. Turns out, you’re no better.”
Don’t let them tell you who you are.
Boros paced the width of the cell, all four feet of it, in staccato steps, and he stared up at the ceiling.
“Whaddaya got? Another five years plus whatever comes from maiming Dondarrion?”
He halted and crouched in front of Sandor. Voice just above a whisper, every word came slow.
“Tell me again who the back-country inbred is. Your momma fuck that brother of yours to make you or what?”
Sparing no thought, Sandor spit in Boros’s pudgy face. The man sucked in a sharp breath and, in one quick motion, the back of his hand cracked across Sandor’s cheek. Shooting pain ripped through Sandor’s head.
Boros stood and turned to the metal bucket near the door but didn’t pick it up. Instead, he nudged it along the concrete with his foot until it was a few feet from Sandor.
“I tell you what,” Boros said. “I thought about sparing you this as a last gesture of goodwill. Seeing as how you just don’t know when to quit, I think it’s fitting we do this together.”
Bent over, Boros reached into the bucket and pulled out a matchbox. He gave it a shake as his lips peeled in a salacious smile. “Just you and me.”
Sandor’s heart plummeted past his stomach now sick and through the floor where the cold seeped in. It must’ve gotten in his blood that now pulsed through his veins with a grim chill.
He dropped his eyes. He didn’t need to see. He already knew what this was and, in the periphery of his down-turned vision, Boros produced a bundle of envelopes. The border of roses was familiar to Sandor now and unmistakably Sansa’s letters. When he glanced up, Boros had her photographs too.
He might’ve begged and pleaded that the letters and pictures be spared. He’d do his time, whatever it ended up being, but he needed those to get through. And though solitary confinement was a cruel punishment in its own right, Sandor would gladly do his time in here too if it meant something of Sansa was waiting for him after.
He didn’t beg, but only because it was what Boros so clearly wanted. The man waited a beat longer than he should and stared at Sandor with silent anticipation of pleas for mercy. When that didn’t happen, the man slowly pulled Sansa’s letters from their envelopes, balled them up, and tossed them in the bucket. When he had a sufficient layer of kindling, Boros lit a match and dropped that in too. Slow at first, the flames consumed the letters and Sandor closed his eyes.
All her sweet words—the one’s that brought him comfort, the only thing here that made him smile and reminded him he wasn’t forgotten—were gone. With the scent of burning paper, Sandor’s heart pounded a faster rhythm, drumming an awful beat that pulsed at his temples. He swore he felt the heat too; the flames close to his face.
Most of the time, Sandor ignored his scars, the worst of them having healed up with medical intervention but the lasting damage still visible. With the fire came the memories he pushed aside to live his life—the feel of flesh burning from bone; the smell; the sound of screaming. In the years he spent in war, those screams echoed again, louder and with more voices joining the choir—women burned alive, their bodies covering children who suffocated from smoke and a mother’s sacrifice. All these years, he fought a silent war inside himself.
I can’t do this. I can’t.
The memories threatened him and gathered behind the levee he’d built to keep them away. It’d topple over in here. All this time, he held it together and now it was coming apart. The levee would break, and he’d get swept away.
When he thought that time might be now, Sansa’s words surfaced within him.
“I think life brings us the things we need, when we need it. You mentioned whatever has grown between us. I too think of it often and how I had been wishing for you, Sandor Clegane. All this time, I wished for you. What a gift you are.”
It occurred to him then that Sansa’s letters didn’t just exist in the tangible that burned now. Just as much as she’d written them on linen stationery, she’d inscribed them in some haven of the heart, a place where fire couldn’t reach. That was the ineffable quality, he realized now; her words imperishable and, more strikingly, the compassion behind them had started to bring his wrath and pain to heel.
With a crumpling sound, Sandor cracked his eyes open. The flames had reached the top of the bucket where smoke billowed out. Boros set in with the rest of the letters, balling up each and tossing them in. On the last letter, he skimmed the page as Sandor looked on. His throat burned and chest ached with a heaviness he hadn’t felt in years.
“Last you’ll ever hear from her,” Boros said and held the letter above the bucket. “Hope you memorized all those words she wasted on a piece of shit like you.”
Don’t let them tell you who you are.
He dropped the letter, and Sandor watched it drift to the bucket where the flames eagerly consumed it.
“You ain’t getting letters from her no more. You won’t be sending them either. As far as she’s concerned, you died on this day.”
Sandor shifted uncomfortably in his spot and stared at his lap. His mouth filled with saliva and his eyes stung. The letters were gone now, and he would’ve been happier if Boros had just gutted him and left him on the floor to bleed out. It seemed a kinder fate.
Boros reached for the Polaroids but took a moment to study them, stoking Sandor’s fiery hatred once more. He must’ve given himself away. Boros’s eyes snapped to him with a silent warning.
“Last you’ll ever see of her,” he mumbled and jabbed both pictures towards Sandor.
“Take a good look at that pretty face. You’ll never see it. Maybe I’ll make a trip to Devil Creek to that bar she sings at. Might be she needs a man. Awful shame, her being there all alone. You heard about what’s happening? A killer on the loose; ripping apart young women just like her. A girl’s already gone missing in her town. They haven’t found the body yet.”
Sandor would’ve laughed—long and hard—at the thought of Boros rumbling into Devil Creek and slithering up to a divine creature like Sansa, as if she wouldn’t see right through his bullshit. That didn’t matter. He barreled past the opportunity to get his dig in and sat up straight, ignoring the searing pain at his side. He hadn’t heard about a killer and didn’t rightly care about Boros’s taunts either. They rolled right off as Sandor stared down the man.
“A killer,” Sandor repeated. “How long has it been going on?”
In an agitated huff, Boros tossed both Polaroids into the metal bucket with no further pomp and circumstance. “None of your concern now. Not like you can do anything about it.”
Boros watched Sandor and waited. A long bout of silence stretched between them. Small at first, a faint smile lifted the corner of Sandor’s mouth and Boros gaped at him in irate confusion.
“What the fuck do you have to smile about?” he snapped, but his outburst wasn’t that of a man incensed. It was the outburst of a child who hadn’t gotten his way. This was it. Something Sandor could sink his claws into, and Boros was stupid enough to walk right into it.
“That it?” Sandor tipped his head to the bucket and smirked, but not because the hole running through his chest hurt any less. He’d flipped the script to take back his power.
Boros seemed to recognize now that he’d just burnt up the only thing he had over Sandor and had rendered all that satisfaction to nothing more than ash. Sure as the sun would set on Sandor’s heartache and loss, he’d gained something too—the upper hand that only a man who has lost everything can claim. With nothing left to lose, Sandor was more dangerous now than ever, and that realization seemed to dawn on Boros. The man picked up the bucket of dying embers and backed towards the cell door.
“Enjoy the silence,” Boros seethed and spared one final glance at Sandor, perhaps hoping to find a paper-thin bluff in tatters and Sandor in tears.
Instead, Sandor lifted his shackled hands and raised one middle finger in a last stand of defiance. Furious at having lost the last word and possibly this battle, Boros slammed the door shut.
The shifting tide brought with it another unexpected blessing—Sandor had conquered a piece of those flames and they too had lost a bit of their power. He’d might’ve lost the letters, but not the sentiment behind them. Somewhere in Devil Creek, sweet Sansa Stark was thinking of him and waiting for him, and all he’d really lost was the physical rendering of that blooming affection.
If he closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall, he could still hear her voice, trace her face in his memories, and conjure what she might say to him now, the comfort she’d give.
Sandor climbed onto the metal slab and spread out. He stared up at the void above him, but a grisly thought lingered. By the time a guard came, unshackled his hands, and served him a meal that could scarcely pass as food, the thought still haunted him. A killer in a small town meant Sansa might be in trouble and that above all else, including his own freedom, galvanized Sandor’s resolve.
“I think life brings us the things we need, when we need it.”
He’d crossed paths with Sansa for a reason, and it wasn’t for their end to come like this. For the first time in so long, Sandor surrendered to fate and, more significantly, to faith. Not faith in God or some other bullshit, but in her; faith that she was right, faith that this wasn’t the end, and faith that he’d find his way to her come hell or high water.