On the pebbled bank, Robert thrashed and screamed. Tyrek, cursing under his breath, backed away. “This is the Lord of the Vale?” he muttered.
Sansa slid from her saddle. “Sweetrobin, listen.” He ignored her. She bent closer to him. “Robert.” Suddenly angry – furious with all the tantrums and rudeness, furious as she had not been since the day when Marillion when Littlefinger killed her aunt – Sansa slapped him.
Robert wailed once more and sat up, panting and trembling as if he were about to go into a fit. “Take me back!” he cried.
“Not today,” Sandor said, dismounting. “Come. We need to warm the horses.”
“Take me back,” Robert squealed, “and I’ll have her punished!” He waved a stick-thin arm at Sansa. “I’ll make her fly!”
Sandor’s barking laugh rang over the riverbank, contrasting with the wolves’ wail. “There’s a fine lordly speech.” He stood over Robert, almost as tall as his horse. “Do you speak such to a lady?”
“She’s not a lady.” Robert hugged his knees to his chest. “She’s Alayne. She’s a bastard.”
“She,” said Sandor, hands on his hips, “is your lady cousin Sansa Stark. With her brothers dead, Lady of Winterfell.”
The old ice gripped Sansa’s stomach. Robb, Robb. “Sansa Stark,” she said, walking to Sandor’s side. “With my brothers dead – Queen of the North.”
For a moment the only sound was howling wolves. Then Tyrek set down the blanket he’d been using to chafe the horses’ legs and went down on one knee on the riverbank. Moonlight turned his gold curls silver. “My lady,” he said, “– your Grace, my sword is yours.”
“You don’t have a sword,” Sandor said. Tyrek did not move.
Sansa laid her hands on Tyrek’s shoulders. “I accept your fealty.” She looked up at Sandor. He did not move, but stared down at her, the burnt side of his face inhaling moonlight. Just as she thought they would stand there forever, Sandor drew his sword, thrust its tip into the ground and went down on one knee, head bowed and hands wrapped on the sword hilt. She covered his hands in hers, and he looked up at her, and there was nothing more to say.
Sansa stepped back. A beggar queen, with no lands left to her? Where should she go now? “Dry the horses,” she said, as steadily as she could. “We’re riding north.”
“I’m not coming,” Robert said.
Sandor sheathed his sword and pulled a blanket free from Sansa’s pack. “The Freys are watching the river, further north.”
“They cannot watch it all. We’ll find a boat and cross to the kingsroad.”
Tyrek, who had returned to the horses’ legs, looked up. “Travel to Winterfell? In autumn? Winterfell was ruined: Lord Baelish told me.”
“Then no one will look for us there.” This became easier with each sentence: Sansa weighed her words, as she had Alayne’s, feeling their power. “Stone doesn’t burn. Some of the towers will still stand. And in the winter, the wolves will hunt again.” Distant howls answered her.
“I’m not coming, Robert repeated.
“Yes, you are.” Sandor finished chafing Stranger’s legs, tossed down the blanket and picked up Robert. “You’ll ride with us to the Wall if she tells you to do it.”
Robert quavered in his grip. “She’s not a queen,” he whimpered, “she’s a very wicked girl.”
Sandor slapped him. It was not a hard slap, reverberating off his rear into the woods, but Robert stiffened in Sandor’s left-handed grip as if he were about to shake. He did not shake, but whimpered, “You can’t do that!”
Tyrek bowed to Sansa. “Maybe we should leave him here, your Grace.”
Sandor nodded. “He might live till morning.” He dropped Robert into a muddy puddle. “The wolves might not eat him.”
Robert scrambled up. “I’ll come! I’ll come!”
Better her cousin Robert Arryn than the dissolute Harrold Hardyng in the Vale. “You can come, Sweetrobin, if you pledge your loyalty to me – as your queen.”
“I – I pledge.” His thin reedy voice wobbled. “I, Robert Arryn, Lord of the Vale and the – the Eyrie, give you my loyalty.”
Sandor picked him up again and set him in his saddle. “We ride, then, before Littlefinger rides the ferry round here.”
And they rode.
Afterwards, Sansa wondered if the night had been real: moonshadow on the riverside trails, horses’ breath heaving around her, Robert’s fluttering and half-sobbing, and wolves howling around them like distant thunder. Sandor led the way, armed with sword and warhorse. Twice Robert fell from his saddle – twice Tyrek stopped and set him back on – twice Robert cried that he hated it, but Sandor and Sansa looked at each other, and then at Robert, and he quietened. Maybe he feared the wolves more than his horse. Sansa feared them not at all. Each cry sounded like a trumpet.
But she was tired, her head beginning to sag, her legs’ grip on her horse weakening. Dawn found them riding up to a ruined barn, much like the one Alayne and her father’s men had slept in outside Saltpans. Robert was almost asleep in his saddle and Tyrek was swaying. Only Sandor seemed alert.
He entered the barn while the others waited outside, and came back a few minutes later. “It’s safe,” he said. “Empty. Not falling down.”
Tyrek fumbled from his horse and lifted Robert free. Sandor set his hands round Sansa’s waist, ready to lift her down. Big hands, she thought, and as strong as she remembered. But he withdrew them and held them by her stirrup instead, and, biting her lip, she dismounted into his hands and let him set her down. Sansa took a breath. Her heart was racing. “Sandor will take the first watch,” she said. “Ser Tyrek the second.”
They led the horses inside and made them comfortable before settling themselves down for sleep. Robert did not help with the horses, just sat and sniffled, before rolling up in his blankets beside Tyrek in the barn’s most sheltered corner. Tyrek was soon asleep too: Sansa, in the strange twilight of exhaustion where sleep was impossible, rose from her blankets and went to where Sandor was sitting, near the brokendown door but out of sight of passers-by.
He held Ser Shadrich’s sword lightly in his right hand, and was staring at its sharp edge. She sat down beside him, in his lee. He was warm, she felt, warm and safe, though he wore just his penitent’s robes.
“I took a few oaths, to the Seven.” His voice was quiet, so as not to wake the others. “Obedience. Poverty.”
“I have no wealth to give you, and I hope –” What did she hope? What was she doing? “I hope you will follow me.”
“Follow you?” He grimaced. “Oh, dogs are loyal creatures.”
She remembered what she’d called him on the Isle, and flushed. “Did Tyrek take the same oaths?”
“Don’t know.” His eyes flicked to the back of the barn where Tyrek and Robert were sleeping. “He was on the Isle before me. I didn’t recognise him. Didn’t want to.” His lips drew back over his teeth. “I’d pay to know what he was doing.”
“Lord Baelish hid him there.”
He covered her closest hand in his. His heat spread up her arm and through her. “Are you sure?”
Her fingers curled round his. “As sure as I am that if we go to Winterfell, Lord Baelish will meet us at the gate, congratulating us on our journey and presenting me with a few thousand bought swords and the support of the Vale.”
Sandor’s good eyebrow went up. “I thought you were playing his daughter: I didn’t know he wanted to bed you.”
“He loved my mother.” Daylight was spreading in the meadow ahead; a misty daylight, painting the muddy grass deep green and brown, swirling it with silver mist. Everything seemed so much clearer in daylight. “He loved her, and he looks at me... Sandor.” Her chest hurt. Everything hurt. “Why did my father die?”
“Because Joff was a shit.”
She coloured. “No. Someone always told him things, and he did them – or worse. It wasn’t Queen Cersei.”
For a moment she thought he would kiss her again. “Stop, your Grace. Sleep. I’ll watch the day out.”
“No.” She looked back at Tyrek and Robert. “If you won’t trust him, wake me when you wake him, and I’ll – watch him.”
He half-laughed. “The bird sleeps with one eye open –” Robert turned over in his sleep, and they both quieted. “Did you have to bring him?” Sandor whispered a minute later. “He can’t ride. That wasn’t all tiredness: he can’t ride.”
“He’s afraid of horses.”
Sandor snorted. “A sicklier boy I never saw.”
“He was being poisoned.” Sansa watched Robert’s chest move up and down in sleep. The Vale could never love him, Littlefinger had said, and maybe she did not love him either, but he was her cousin, and she cared for him. “He’s the Lord of the Eyrie, and my cousin, and I would see him grow to manhood.”
“Who was poisoning him?” Instead of answering, Sansa rose from his side and went to her blankets.
She must have slept, for she woke with Sandor shaking her, and she lay awake, silent and motionless, while he woke Tyrek and lay down. It was hard – she was so tired – but she had to stay awake, or risk trust.
Play the game of thrones, Littlefinger had told her. Well, if she had a throne, however distant and chilly, best she planned how to keep it.
Tyrek roused her, Sandor and Robert just before dusk. They spoke little, for they did not need discussion: a little hay in the barn, which the horses had eaten, but no food for them, and the well had been fouled, though Tyrek found a spring that was not.
Instead of mounting up outside, Sandor led Stranger – bristling and snapping – over to Robert, who was trying unsuccessfully to pack his saddlebag as the men had. When the destrier stopped before him, Robert quaked. “Don’t like my horse?” Sandor said affably.
“He – he’s big.” Stranger lunged his head at him, teeth bared: Robert jumped back, and Sandor pulled back Stranger’s bridle.
“Big? He’s that.” He reached round and patted the horse’s flank. Stranger shied: so did Robert. “Big, mean fucker who’d bite you in two soon as look at you. Don’t you forget it.”
He walked off humming a tune, leading Stranger. Tyrek passed him in the opposite direction, leading Robert’s gelding. “Your horse, Lord Robert,” he said. “Do you need assistance to mount?” Robert nodded without speaking, and passed Tyrek his badly packed bag too, but did not flinch when he was set into his saddle. His docile, quiet gelding’s saddle. Sansa smiled.
She smiled few times in the next few days. While the moon waned overhead, the four of them rode on north down what paths they could find, taking what shelter they could find, ranging off the roads in an attempt to evade notice. Sometimes they found berries or chestnuts in the river forests: sometimes an abandoned village gleaned a few handfuls of discarded food: once Tyrek and Sandor followed an animal’s squeal into the forest, and came back with a dead turkey and the fox that had been clawing it, and they risked a fire.
Their only constant was the wolves’ howl. Every night, when they rode, the eerie cacophony would wind through the trees around them like a blanket, till Robert shook with fear and Tyrek murmured prayers and Sandor cursed under his breath because, so he said, he could do nothing else. Sansa held the sounds to her like a child. Cold and hunger hurt. The wolves were warm. As was Sandor, she knew, but he did not touch her, and barely looked at her. In the days, when they slept, Robert would often cuddle against her, and she would lie awake and watch Sandor watching her, neither of them speaking.
One evening, as they were breaking camp, Sandor bent over Robert and said, “You’re scrawnier than you’ve a right to be. When did your swordsmaster start training you?”
“I don’t have a swordsmaster,” Robert mumbled. “I don’t want one.”
Sandor looked at Sansa. “If your Grace will allow us to delay our escape?” She nodded, and sat back on a fallen tree while Sandor cut two thin branches from a nearby tree.
Tyrek sat down beside Sansa. Not as warm as Sandor, she noted. “Your Grace, I’ve heard no pursuit,” he said softly.
“Neither have I.”
“A swordsman stands low,” Sandor said, “with his right arm to the front. It’s your strong right arm, Vale lord.”
“I don’t want to,” Robert wailed.
“Do it, or I’ll beat you bloody. Right side to the front. Bend your knees a little. Now, you must keep your arms still while your feet move. Still as death.”
“There is no pursuit,” Sansa said, tipping her head back and watching the sky shade towards night. The moon was brightening again. “Lord Baelish knows we will go to Winterfell.”
A sharp tap from the clearing, landing against Robert’s rump. “No, stand stronger than that. Keep your balance.”
“He knows we’re going to Winterfell?” Sansa watched the stars emerge, wondering if they were the game-board. “Are we going to Winterfell?” She smiled at the sky, and then at him, and an answering smile crossed his face.
Not that her plans were certain. But to have him believing that she had a plan: that was something.
Every evening after that, Sandor cut two more branches and gave Robert his ‘sword’ lesson, and Tyrek assisted while Sansa planned. But now, even if Littlefinger did not pursue them, they were crossing more populated lands, and needed caution and luck to avoid encounters. With every rain shower, Sansa’s hair edged closer to its natural auburn shade, making her more and more obvious.
But still, they encountered no one. The wolves’ howls peaked, though, at intervals. Once, when they rose to a frenzy, Sandor bade the others stay still while he rode towards the sound. He returned an hour later with a badly shying dun gelding, two bloodied woollen tunics and some bread and cheese. Robert squealed in delight at the bread and cheese: Sansa broke him off a quarter while Tyrek and Sandor retired to don the tunics under their none too warm robes.
Another wolf howled, closer to them, and Robert stopped munching with a piece of bread half out of his mouth. “Don’t worry, Sweetrobin,” Sansa said softly.
“You sounded like Alayne then.” He swallowed his bread. “I miss Alayne.”
Instead of answering, Sansa stroked the new horse – badly frightened, but not hurt, and far stronger than hers or Tyrek’s. If the wolves were approaching, they needed Sandor and his sword. She slid into the bushes where Sandor had gone to remove his clothes. He must be dressed by now.
He was not in the bushes, and had not finished dressing. Past the bushes, in a little clearing, he stood stripped to the waist with one leg of his woollen hose rolled up, staring at his injury in the moonlight. That same moonlight glinted off his torso, and the sweat beading silvery along his contours.
She must have made a sound, for he looked up at her. For a moment they stood staring at each other, but then he rolled down his hose, pulled on the stained tunic and slid his robe back on over his head. “Birds shouldn’t peck at the wrong seed,” he advised as he headed out of the clearing past her. “They go blind.” She stood clutching the bushes for a moment before stumbling back to the others.
They ate, or Robert finished eating, with no sound around them other than the wolves’ howl. Sansa’s throat was so dry that she had to concentrate to swallow. She fancied that the deepest cry, the most piercing and lonely, was a direwolf’s. When they rode off again she tried to listen harder to the sounds, differentiating their companions’ voices.
Sandor listened to them too, that night and for several afterwards, and each time he heard a particular note in the calls he rode off again, sometimes returning empty-handed, more often with something useful: another horse, more warm clothing, a sword for Tyrek, a knife for Sansa, food and tinder. Once, after a long delay, he brought a woman. Sansa did not at first realise she was a woman, for she was almost Sandor’s height. Her face was scarred, and her throat had been hurt, for she could not speak, just wept a little: but when she saw Sansa, she went down on one knee as if she were a knight and Sansa queen of more than three men, and the words her crushed throat mouthed were, perhaps, allegiance.
The woman had brought not just her own grey mare but her own sword, and from what little Sansa could see in the night, appeared to use both like a man. The next evening, when Sandor drilled Robin, the woman stepped forward to help Tyrek demonstrate. It became clear even to Sansa before too long that she was more skilled than he was.
Sandor’s detours continued, but now the others would ride on, with the big woman at the head. More provisions arrived and, two mornings later when Sansa and her outriders were setting up camp, Sandor rode into their clearing with Sansa’s great-uncle Brynden Tully riding pillion behind him.
Robert dropped his half-unrolled blankets and ran to Ser Brynden’s arms with a great cry. Sansa longed to follow, but queens did not run. Instead, she waited for him to set Robert aside, and went to him with her hands outstretched. He bent over them and kissed them, and as he straightened and looked down at her, she wondered who he saw.
Sandor hauled Robert away with half a word of encouragement and a few threats: Sansa drew Ser Brynden aside. “I – am most glad to see you, ser,” she said, not hiding the catch in her throat.
“And I you.” He lifted her hand to his lips again. Cracked lips: he was thinner than she liked to see, but hale, and he had his sword. “Your outriders keep you well-guarded.” Sansa’s eyes strayed to Sandor. “Not him,” Ser Brynden said, squeezing her hands. “A pack of a thousand wolves runs around you each night. I’d think they’d seen your banner, if you had one.” Sansa breathed slowly and steadily. I am a wolf. The wolf of the North.
The swordswoman looked up from her mare’s bruised hoof and bowed, clumsily, to Ser Brynden. “Do you know her?” Sansa said. “I asked her name, but her throat is hurt.”
“She is Brienne, daughter of the lord of Tarth.” His hands closed on hers. “She was sworn to your mother.” Sansa bit her lip and looked away.
After a long moment, he said, “Clegane believes you don’t intend to go to Winterfell.”
She slid her hands from his. “I have one brother left. My half-brother Jon Snow is Lord Commander at the Wall.”
“That I know. I also know Stannis Baratheon is there.”
“The Night’s Watch is sworn to stay above kings’ and queens’ squabbles. Stannis cannot threaten me with Jon between us.”
“And you cannot threaten him.”
“I don’t need to.”
“What do you need?” He took her hand again. “If Arya were here –”
“Arya –” Sansa held herself steady. “She’s dead.”
He watched her for a long moment. “Talk to Clegane,” he said in the end. “And with your Grace’s permission, I will eat and sleep.”
“You – you may.” Sandor. Sansa looked across the clearing at him, where he stood over Robert’s blankets. For a moment he met her eyes, but Ser Brynden passed between them, and when he moved out of the way, Sandor was gone.
Sansa crossed the clearing, past the fire where Tyrek was cooking some grain. He looked up as she passed, but did not move. At the edge of the trees, someone Sandor’s height had pushed open a gap in the foliage: Sansa slid through it with ease.
He was sitting on a dead tree a few paces along the next game trail, looking away from her. She walked up to him. He did not move.
“Where is my sister Arya?” Sandor did not answer. “My lord, where is my sister?”
“I don’t know, and I’m not your lord.”
“You can be a lord if I make you one. Shall I grant you the Dreadfort?” Sansa tapped her foot on the ground. She couldn’t lose her temper. “Sandor Clegane – Arya Stark is my sister.”
“And a more aggravating little maggot I never did meet –”
“My lord, I must protest.”
Sandor’s hands raked through his tangled hair. “She was with me. I got hurt. She rode off. The elder brother found me and healed me, but didn’t find her. Is that enough, your Grace?”
Sansa let out a soft shuddering breath. “Arya’s alive.”
“Might be alive.”
“She’s alive. You never told me!”
He snatched her hands. “How’d it have helped you? You –” He stopped talking her hands squeezed against his chest, face inches from hers.
The first cloak sliding round her shoulders had been his.
She leant closer to him, feeling his warmth. Wanting, or needing? But her wants and needs were secondary to heavier considerations. “My marriage was invalid, but I have to marry again.” She spoke below a whisper. “I – will have to marry for my advantage. I would – have you know –” She was very close to him, she realised. “This is not what I might wish.”
His hand slid to her hair. “Sansa.” His voice was low. She tried to remember how often he’d called her by name. “Sansa.” Gentle as the woodland dawn, he drew her towards him and kissed her, soft as raindrops.
And he held her, for long minutes, nestled in his arms and his protection, but the ache in her heart grew second by second, as did the odd uncomfortable heat in her woman’s place. Sandor, so close, so real: too real for her comfort. “I mustn’t love you,” she whispered. “If I love you – I won’t be able to do what I have to.”
He cushioned her against him. “Who’ll you marry?”
“I haven’t decided. I could offer myself to Willas Tyrell: the Tyrells hold the rest of Westeros through Margaery, but they need me to hold the North.” He must hear the pain in her voice, but he made no sign. “Or Quentyn Martell, and pin the Reach and the crownlands between here and Dorne. Or any hungry Lord eager to supplant his Great House...” She suppressed a sob.
His arms tightened around her. “Or Stannis Baratheon, if you kill his wife first. Or your bastard brother, to unite the North and the Wall. Hells, forget Quentyn Martell: marry his sister. She’s the heir.”
Sansa let out a tear-filled giggle. “Sandor, please. It isn’t – a joke.”
“You’re in a forest halfway up the Trident with a force of three men, one woman, one boy and a few wolves. Believe me, it’s a joke.”
And if it were, could she do anything but follow her heart?
She kissed him again, warm as summer, but when his hands crept up her thighs a wolf growled from a few feet away. Sansa looked up in time to see a huge grey back loping away down the game trail. Flushing, she drew away from Sandor, torn between embarrassment and desire, and when they went back to the camp she set her blankets next to Brienne’s, and lay awake beside the big woman as if seeking protection from her own lust.
Maybe she would make the alliance-marriage she needed. Maybe she would marry Sandor, and have children, and when spring came send her children south to make alliances. Maybe none of them would reach the North. Maybe none of them would live till morning.
No. All would be well. They would cross the Trident, or would find a path past the Twins, and would seek the crannogmen’s aid to cross the Neck west of Moat Cailin, and would reach the North gathering allies as they went. She would send messengers to the riverlands and find Arya. And even if she had to enlist Littlefinger’s assistance – even if she had to remove him afterwards – she would find a way to have both the man she wanted and the alliances she needed.
All would, indeed, be well.