The Quiet Isle had fallen, just as he said it would. It had taken longer than he thought, just short of six years to do so, but it had happened all the same. He had wanted the tranquil sanctuary to keep on going as much any man there but he always had kept one foot in reality. The world was a liar and he knew the truth. Winter blew in harsh and brutal only a year after he had arrived. The land had gone to shit and he knew his chosen home could only last so long.
He’d had enough time, at least, to convince the Elder Brother that some of their stashed away coin would be best spent on steel and light armor. It went against their way but when he explained there would be no one left to carry on their teachings if they didn’t try and defend it, the leader of their group had taken heed of his council. Some of the men had taken his training seriously. A small group of them was all that stood between raiders and the Stranger. When the time had come to draw steel again he’d taken no pleasure in it. His sword tasted blood and he wept afterwards for what he had done in order to keep on living. Their numbers had crashed from near one hundred to barely twenty, but they were still there. Still alive. Hope was not gone.
The village on the Quiet Isle had been burnt to cinder and ash. Nothing but a few horses, and what they had on their own bodies remained. They searched the rubble and found a few bits of clothing, some cookware and the dead. Everywhere dead eyes looked at him and there would be no time to bury them. He had one more thing to add to his list of regrets.
They took to the road. The life of the nomad became their way. From town to town and village to village they sought shelter. Most wouldn’t take them. Resources were too scarce to give aid to even the godly. Some gave them a few supplies but stated they had no roofs to house them. Others were beyond kind in those hard times, taking them in for a week or two and letting them rest before gently sending them on their way again.
It got harder as time went on. Six months out in the grasp of winter and they were suffering for it. All had lost weight and many were ill. They’d buried two or three along the way. And still they pressed on. He knew they’d all die soon. His faith was failing him but as they passed by Hornwood and were turned down once again, an idea struck him. He took the Elder Brother aside and told him they should take the road to Winterfell. The Elder Brother had looked at him puzzled. Winterfell was a great estate that was for certain, but would they give out charity to those they didn’t know in such desperate times, he was asked. And why would the Lady of the house have them?
They all knew of the mighty Brienne of Tarth’s peasant raid on the Boltons of Winterfell years ago. It had been bloody and many had fallen but Sansa Stark had been spirited away and Ramsey Bolton lay dead in pool of his own blood. It had taken time, but the Stark girl had rallied a small army of loyalists behind her and taken back what was rightfully hers. Her brothers were still assumed dead. No one had heard of Ayra for many years. Winterfell was now Stark territory once again and the self proclaimed Queen of the North had managed to fend off any attacks for the time being. It was rumored the Mother of Dragon’s was close to gaining the Iron Throne and that peace between the North and South was desired by both parties.
They had no where else to turn. They’d all be dead within a fortnight if he didn’t take action. He still felt a deep shame for the way he had treated the girl but lives were on the line. Lives that he cared about more than his pride. He wouldn’t let the sacrifice of so many thus far end because of him. He knew she would at least hear them out. She might still turn them away but his name should grant them a few minutes of her time to tell their tale. It was time for Sandor Clegane to come out of hiding.
The gates of Winterfell seemed larger to him this time around then the last time he had seen them. But he was also half frozen and beyond starving at this point. They’d lost more men in the week it had taken to get to the gates. Now there were only a dozen left. They huddled in front of the massive wooden doors while two patrol guards eyed them up from a tower.
“State your business,” one shouted down to them.
“We are seeking shelter from the winter,” the Elder Brother called back, “Our lands were taken and our Brothers killed. We come from an Isle just outside of Maidenpool. We seek nothing but peace and warmth for as long as you can spare it. Please do not turn these men of faith away.”
The guards seemed to be debating amongst themselves. The first one yelled down to them again.
“We can offer supplies. Nothing more. Wait there and we will send out a party with them.”
“Please!” the Elder Brother pleaded, “We can’t go on any longer. If we could just rest out of the cold for a night or two. If your Lady would hear us out-“
“We can offer supplies, nothing more,” the guard cut the Brother off, repeating the orders.
He’d had enough. This was getting them no where. They’d all be dead, except for him self, by morning if he didn’t do something. One by one, they would freeze and he would use their corpses as shelter to keep on surviving as he always did. He’d done it before. He stepped up and brushed the Elder Brother aside.
“You tell your Queen that Sandor Clegane, the Hound of Westeros seeks an audience with her,” he growled to the men in the tower. The Hound’s helm had been buried long ago but he knew the title would grab their attention.
The guards were pushed out of the way as a woman’s shape moved to the railing to look at them. Her dress was like frost and her hair was like flame. His eyes had started to go a bit blurred when looking at distant objects but he knew her form. And he would know that red hair from a thousand miles away. The Little Bird had been listening all along. She gripped the railing in front of her.
“Sandor Clegane is dead,” she told him, her voice like ice. “Who are you?”
There was nothing left to do but pull the hood from his head. He shook his hair back from his face as well, holding it up on one side so she could see his ruin and know exactly who it was she spoke to. He didn’t think it possible for her fair skin to go any paler but it did. He’d seen snow with more color than her.
“Still not able to look at me then Little Bird?” he called.
She addressed the guards, “Let them in. Now!”
Then she turned her back in a swirl of furs and was gone. The men around him gasped and prayed in gratitude while he pulled the cowl back over his face. There was a few minutes wait but then they were all ushered into the courtyard by six armed men. Boys really, with light armor and short swords. He felt at the long sword on his back, under his robes. It was hard to get at that way but he had it all the same, just in case.
They were all herded to the main building and led into a hall that became cramped with all of them in it. The guards stayed with them and no one spoke. It was warm. Blessedly so, and they all shivered in the new temperature as their bodies adjusted. A door to the side opened and four servants entered. Two bearing trays of warmed wine and the others carrying baskets of dark brown bread. There was a larger, older guard with them. Older than him but not as large, he noted. He still towered over every person in the hall.
“The Lady Stark will see you shortly. She sends refreshment for you while you wait,” the big man curtly explained to them before taking off through another door.
The food and drink was passed out amongst the men. Many shed tears as they tasted the first decent food they’d had in many days. Time ticked by and when half an hour was up the older guard, clad in black, came back to them.
“Who amongst you is leader?” he asked gruffly.
The Elder Brother first raised his hand and then pointed to himself and Brother Linton.
“I am in charge, he stated, “These two are my council, Brothers Clegane and Linton”
“You’re Clegane?” the guard questioned of him.
“Aye,” he nodded.
“Good, she asked for the leader and Clegane. Bring the other with you as well,” he ordered beckoning them through the doorway.
The door led them to a spacious room, most likely for large celebrations and meetings. To the back of the room, a wooden platform had been constructed. An elaborate white washed chair stood at its center. Sansa Stark sat in that throne, every bit as regal as the Queen she claimed to be. He couldn’t help but grin. She’d grown into her self it had seemed. They neared and he got a better look at her. It took his breath away and every hope, every thought, every brush of disgrace he’d tried to keep buried inside of him for the past half dozen years came rushing back. She was fully a woman now. Her hair was plaited and went all the way down her back. He thought she might be taller but it was hard to tell with her sitting. She was more beautiful now than ever. He was a fool to think he would ever stop yearning for her light.
The three of them approached her but she kept her eyes on him alone. One by one they climbed the stairs to kiss her offered hand and give thanks. He was last. When he took her hand he was certain that hers shook just as much as his. He glanced at her face and his heart clenched in his chest. He knew when his Little Bird was crying on the inside. But was it happiness, sadness or anger that made her feel so? There was no time to ask about it now. He took his place at the Elder Brother’s left hand side. Sansa finally turned her attention on the leader of the three.
“I am sorry for the treatment you received at the gate. As I am sure you can understand, we must all be careful these days. It is not the first time we’ve had raiders disguised as beggars at our door,” she told the Elder Brother. He had to stop himself from snorting. She certainly hadn’t forgotten her courtesies. It seemed she knew his thoughts though anyway. She glared at him before continuing, “I hope the refreshment was satisfactory for now.”
“Indeed my Lady,” the Elder Brother thanked her, “It was much appreciated.”
“How many are you?” she asked, getting down to business.
“Twelve, my Lady. We started with eighteen,” the Brother answered, shaking his head in sadness.
“I am sorry for your loss,” she told him sincerely. “Do your men have skills? Can they be of any service other than preaching?”
“Yes, all of them are used to hard labor. They may need a day or two of rest to get back on their feet but all are useful. Brother Harper is best at wood working, Brother Allen, was a smith in his youth and Brother Tribuckle is an excellent brew master if you’ve any grain to spare. Brother Linton here –he pointed to the man at his right- has a talent for herbs and Brother Clegane is good with horses and swords.”
“I am well acquainted with Sandor Clegane’s use of a sword and dagger,” she said harshly. He winced. That had hurt but he deserved it. She focused her eyes on him.
“These are your people?” she queried. “You would vouch for them?”
“Aye, they are true men,” he stated. “Better men than me.”
She nodded her acceptance. “You are all welcome to stay then. It is late but I have asked the cooks to warm some broth. There should be salted pork and dried fruit as well. You will all take food and rest this evening. Tomorrow we will sort out who will do what to earn your keep. You three shall have guest quarters here in the main house. The rest of your men will take the second floor of the Maester’s long house. They will need to bunk two to a room but it is all I have to offer. Bullis, will show you to the kitchens.”
The black clothed guard started moving them out of the room. They all gave a quick bow and thanked her once again. He turned his back to leave but heard her speak out once more.
“Clegane!” she cried. He faced her once more.
“It is good to see you again.”
Her face was stern but her eyes were soft. His heart soared as he walked from the room.