Chapter 1: Stone
“Alayne”, Robert wailed, sharp as the wind in the trees outside. “Alayne!” A scuffling sound followed.
Alayne, busy shivering in her travelling furs before the remains of their fire, looked up at her father. Petyr shook his head. “I’ll go to him. Check the horses.” He withdrew his hands from the farmhouse fireplace and strode to the door at the back. “Now, Lord Robert –”
Alayne stood up, tugged her cloak tighter around herself and went to the door. It stood open, for it would not close. They had been riding for four days and three nights, first stopping in an inn, then in an occupied farmhouse, and now in this recent ruin, scorched and abandoned. A but-and-ben house, a stable block, and a stand of apple trees withered by frost. Nothing else. At least, there had been bodies, but Petyr and the knights had removed them before Alayne could see them.
In the stables, the hedge knights were saddling horses and affixing packs: Alayne walked down the row, inspecting, checking straps. Ser Shadrich raised his head from his girth-strap, watching with a sarcastic smile. He was used to her presence now, however he disliked it.
“We ride in a few minutes,” Alayne said to Ser Byron. He nodded with a bow. “Will we reach the Isle today?”
“We should, my lady.” He tucked his fair curls behind his ears. “Unless the tide hampers our crossing.”
Ser Morgarth heaved himself up from his horse’s hocks. “If we reach the jetty a little after noon, the tide will favour us. We may.”
“If Lord Robert wills it,” Ser Shadrich said with another unpleasant smile. Alayne sniffed, and slipped back outside.
The farmhouse, cold enough, was a good deal warmer than the stable block. Alayne checked the strap on her pack roll, standing as close to the fire as she dared. Just as she decided she had lingered long enough, she heard footsteps in the doorway behind her. She turned. Petyr was leading a drowsy Robert out, with Ser Lothor Brune at his side and Robert’s squires Gyles Grafton and Terrance Lynderly carrying the packs behind them.
“Now, Lord Robert,” Petyr said, “Alayne is here, and will ride with you directly.”
“I don’t want to ride,” Robert muttered, without much vigour. “It’s cold outside.”
“So we will ride somewhere warm, Sweetrobin.” Alayne handed her pack to Ser Lothor, nodded to Robin’s squires and embraced Robert. He was not shaking, not even shivering.
“I don’t want to ride,” he repeated, more quietly.
“I will be with you,” Alayne said, “and so will your lord stepfather.” She looked up at Petyr, who nodded. Alayne kissed Robert’s forehead and gestured for the squires to take him to the stables. Ser Lothor followed, leaving Petyr and Alayne alone.
Alayne did not mention the dreamwine she’d smelt on Robert’s breath, but said, “Will all be well?”
Petyr nodded. “If he is beyond Maester Colemon’s help, we must trust to the Seven. The brothers are known for their healing skills.”
And if the Seven did not bless Robert, Alayne thought, Lord Harrold would reign at the Eyrie. He now lounged at the Gates of the Moon, drinking with idle armsmen and enjoying Myranda Royce’s hospitality. Harrold preferred Myranda to Alayne, she knew, and not just because Alayne was bastard-born. His preferences Petyr would not take into account.
They rode out five minutes later, two lords, two squires, four hedge knights and Alayne Stone. The wind howled in the trees, bitter in the dawn-light, and in the distance, Alayne heard wolves howling. When she mentioned it to Ser Lothor – a gesture, a few raised brows, not wanting to alarm Robert – he said, “Just the wind.”
But the sound followed them as they trotted on and into Saltpans’ ruins, a ghostly wail along the foothills. Alayne listened, pretending not to listen: the squires’ pretence was less proficient, and at one point Petyr called Gyles to his side, to stop the boy frightening Robert. It was unnecessary. Robert sat his horse like a sack of flour, listing in the saddle, staring straight ahead, as if he were dreamwalking. He was failing fast.
Maybe the wolves had frightened away all the bandits, or maybe the bandits feared Saltpans’ ghosts, for none of the past days’ alarms disturbed them. Shortly after noon, with dejected snowflakes trickling from the sky amid the raindrops and mud turning to slush beneath the horses’ hooves, they outflanked a final burned-out dockside warehouse and saw the Quiet Isle ahead.
Alayne laid a hand on Robert’s bridle when he failed to bring his horse to a halt at the jetty. His face, poking from woollens and furs, was pale and waxy. They’d needed to bring him. Even Bronze Yohn Royce’s wise Maester Helliweg had said that they had needed to bring him. He hadn’t had to say that Robert would die without the brothers’ help.
Ser Morgarth peered at the ferry, roped up at the jetty on the high tide, and grunted in some satisfaction. He dismounted and led his shying horse up the ramp, nodding to the lone ferryman, a holy brother robed and cowled. Ser Shadrich followed close behind him: Ser Byron dismounted and assisted Alayne to lead her horse onto the ferry. “Have you been here before, ser?” Alayne asked him between equine squeals.
“Never, my lady. No man would, without need: the brothers are penitents, and most never speak.” He indicated their silent ferryman.
Alayne stepped aside to let Petyr and the squires embark. Never to be able to tell a loved one all there was to say... terrible.
But she was Alayne Stone, raised in a cloister, who had no loved ones save her father.
As the ferry moved away from the jetty, she glanced at Petyr, who had laid Robert on a bed of blankets and was in deep conversation, evidently about the young Vale lord, with Ser Lothor Brune. He cared for her so deeply, and so carefully: he’d intended to leave her at the Gates of the Moon, safe and secure, despite Robert’s predilection for her company, but had changed his mind when he came upon Harry trying to kiss her.
All would be well. The knights had brought them safe this far. The Quiet Isle was secluded: no threat could touch them there, save the spectre of Robert’s illness.
The ferry continued its creep across the river, while Robert moaned on his pallet and mist wavered over the septry ahead. After close to an hour, the ferry slid in to a jetty jutting from the rocks at the foot of the Isle, and the brother-coxswain leapt to the jetty to tie up.
As they disembarked, Alayne saw three more cowled figures picking their way down a pebbled path towards the jetty. Petyr hurried ahead to meet them, speaking in a concerned undertone to the brother in the centre while Alayne and Ser Lothor supervised the horses’ unloading.
Alayne mounted her mare. “Do you think Lord Robert will be well, ser?” she said to Ser Lothor.
“We must trust to the Seven.” His voice was low and gruff. “Here. We’re going on.” Petyr was gesturing for the others to take their horses to a low whitewashed building a little way round the hill. One of the cowled brothers took Robert and Petyr’s horses: a second, at Petyr’s gesture, lifted the Lord of the Eyrie from his blanket bed. He wriggled a little but did not protest. Petyr nodded and walked away up the slope with the remaining brother, deep in conversation.
Alayne rode to the whitewashed building and dismounted. It was a stable block, neat and clean. Another pair of cowled brothers came out to help with the horses. Alayne, lost in the fuss, led her mare inside and into a dry, sweet-smelling stall. A horse screeched from across the stable, and she looked up.
A black horse, kicking and biting at his stall. A familiar black horse – the Hound’s stallion, Sandor’s destrier, Stranger.
Sansa clutched her saddle-bow. No - she was Alayne. Maybe she was wrong about the stallion – no, she couldn’t be wrong, but a stray horse could come to a secluded island in any number of ways.
But, Sansa thought, only Sandor could control him.
Alayne turned. Ser Byron, his fair locks damp with drizzle, was leaning over her stall door. “The stallion seems restive,” Alayne said, gesturing to Stranger. “Maybe he smells my mare.” She looked at the brother leading Ser Byron’s horse into a stall, who shook his head, gestured to Stranger and made a claw with his hand. Alayne nodded to him. “I pray he stays penned.” She allowed Ser Byron to take her pack, and accompanied him outside and up the hill.
Up the hill, and past signs of industry: late apples at harvest, late wheat and silage growing on terraces, cows being milked, sheep being shorn. At the top of the hill, past the brothers’ graveyard, they passed through a gate and into the septry. Cloister, sept and cottages huddled under heavy clouds.
Petry and the brothers had stopped by an odd little door set into the hillside. The leading brother bowed Petyr inside, and the brother carrying Robert followed him. Ser Morgarth and Ser Shadrich, shaking mud off their boots, stepped over the threshold: Alayne was about to follow, when a movement from the gate caught her eye, and she looked back.
Another brother was passing the curtain wall behind Robert’s sulky squires and Ser Lothor hectoring them. A tall man, massive and strong, walking with a pronounced limp. As he sidestepped the squires, lifting his basket of fish over them, he looked up, straight at Alayne.
His cowl covered his head and mouth: she saw only his eyes, glimmering in the gap in the cloth. But she saw him, and knew him, just as she knew he did her.
And Sansa, for too many seconds, stood irresolute on the doorstep.
Chapter 2: Waters
Sansa looked up at Ser Byron. “Those boys,” she said softly, indicating Terrance and Gyles. “They forget their duties too often.”
“To squire for a lord who is as ill as Lord Robert cannot rest easy on their minds.” Sansa made a vague noise of agreement, and turned away from the boys. Alayne. She was Alayne. But even looking away from Sandor, she still saw him, and she knew Alayne was lost.
Littlefinger was facing away from her, speaking to a man who wore his cowl like a knight’s surcoat – the septry’s elder brother. Sansa waited, quiet and decorous, while the elder brother bent over Robert and Littlefinger bowed his head over his hands. She could do little else.
She was Alayne, to the knights, to Petyr. She was Alayne, alone in the world except for her father. But seeing Sandor had woken something in her: memories of times gone when, yes, she had been imprisoned and afraid with her family dying one by one, but she had at least had a family, and a home, however distant and ruined.
Alayne suddenly felt like a gown worn once too often, and grown threadbare at the seams.
“No,” Robert’s voice cut across her reverie. “I won’t. I want Alayne to come!”
The elder brother’s eyes drifted to Sansa. “My daughter,” Littlefinger said with a light bow in her direction. “Lord Robert is fond of her... he is but a boy, brother.”
“A most unwell boy.” The elder brother’s eyes rested on Sansa, and his thick eyebrows furrowed in a frown. “Lady Alayne, pray accompany us. My brothers will show you to your chamber thereafter.”
“I want Alayne to stay,” Robert protested. The brother holding him lifted him mid-wail, and the elder brother rose to lead them to the cloister. Sansa kept her eyes lowered, but when Littlefinger passed her, she knew he saw something other than Alayne in her.
The cloisters were spare and sparse, with two pallets in each cell. The brother entered an empty cell and laid Robert, still full of weak protests, on one of its pallets, but Robert began flailing when the elder brother approached him. Gyles and Terrance cursed, and Littlefinger made a few mild expostulations: Sansa moved to his bedside. “Sweetrobin, the elder brother needs to look at you to make you better. Do be gracious and permit him.”
“No,” Robert sniffled. “I want cakes, and sleep, and sunshine.” Instead of answering, Sansa sat on the edge of his pallet and began to hum a song – she could not sing, for he hated singing, but she could hum. Robert fixed beady feverish eyes on her, but did not move when she began to stroke his hair, or when the elder brother leant in to study him.
Sandor, here. Sandor, and the past. The kiss he’d traded for a song.
“...always sickly,” Littlefinger said, “since he was born. His mother’s passing – he has been so much worse ever since.”
And if she were Sansa now? Sansa would be killed if she was found. Sansa had nobody. Unless the Hound wanted another kiss.
“Sweetsleep?” said Littlefinger. “Yes, the Eyrie maester gave him sweetsleep. Two pinches, I believe.” He fumbled in his pocket. “Here, I have a letter, with all the medicines Maester Colemon gave him noted down.”
“I thank you.” The elder brother’s eyes on Robert were troubled.
Robert drifted into sleep: Sansa stopped humming. Littlefinger bent over him with a fond expression and tucked the blanket around him. “Is there hope?” he asked the elder brother in an undertone.
“If the Seven will it.” He studied Robert’s mulish squires. “I will stay by Lord Robert while I study this letter. My brothers will show you to your accommodations – simple though you may find them.” Littlefinger was all thanks for the brothers’ kindness. Sansa echoed him, fractionally late.
Outside, a brother mimed to Littlefinger to enter the cell beside Robert’s, and led Sansa to a separate whitewashed building containing several simple chambers. None were occupied. Sansa sat on the cot in the chamber the brother indicated, and dug her fingers into the straw mattress, and felt lost.
Light fingers tapped on the door. “Alayne, may I enter?”
It was Littlefinger. “Yes, Father,” Sansa called, and swallowed the ashes in her throat.
He was alone. He slipped inside the little chamber and closed the door behind him. “My daughter,” he said softly, eyes glittering in the way they did when he was planning, “what ails your spirits? Our Sweetrobin’s sickness?”
Sansa beckoned to him to sit on the cot beside her. A little lie, a little truth. “Father, I am so –” Her voice dropped. “There is a brother here,” she whispered, “who knows me. Knows me.” Her hands twined together, and she let herself wring them.
Littlefinger’s smile was understanding. “It’s well, sweetling,” he said, low and soothing. “The brothers are penitents: they do not speak.”
“I thought he was dead.” Tears stung Sansa’s eyes. A name, any name. “But here – Ser Tyrek –”
He covered her hands with his, and lifted them to his lips. “It’s well,” he repeated past her fingers. “He will say nothing, even if he could. Much rests on it.” He lowered her hands to her lap and kissed her lips. “Give it no thought. Save your sighing for our Sweetrobin when you come to sup.” With one more kiss he left the chamber.
Sansa collected her dignity, and a dry overgown, and returned to the cloister by the side path. Sandor was visible in the distance, pushing a wheeled barrow to the mill. How had he come by his injured leg? Sansa tore her eyes from him just as Ser Byron came out of the cloister to greet her, and remained decorously Alayne – as much as she could – through the chapter supper of mutton. Only when she was back in her chamber and in her bed, listening to the wind and rain outside, did she realise Littlefinger had not been surprised when she told him that Sansa Stark had seen Tyrek Lannister.
The morning dawned blustery and chilly. Littlefinger bade Sansa attend him at Robert’s chamber, and welcomed with great effusiveness the elder brother’s announcement that the Lord of the Eyrie had survived the night. Sansa – between carrying out Robert’s sleepy and fretful commands for his increased comfort – watched the men’s bowed heads as they whispered together, and wished herself elsewhere.
“I don’t like it here,” Robert said, wriggling on the pillow Sansa had just turned. “I want to go home.”
So do I, Sansa thought. “But the brothers are so kind, Sweetrobin, and they will make you better.” He did look a little better this morning, less pale and weak, but the journey had faded him so badly that improvement was scant praise.
“My porridge tasted funny,” he grumbled. “And the wind was screaming.”
The elder brother bent over Robert’s pallet. “The winds speak with the Seven’s voices here, Lord Robert.”
“It’s scary.” Robert huddled into his blankets. “It said – said it would eat me –” Sansa jumped clear just as he began to flail.
Littlefinger’s arms slid round her and he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Sweetling, leave us,” he murmured. Sansa fled.
“Lady Alayne?” Ser Morgarth called after her from the door. She kept running, tears spurting from her eyes. Behind, she heard Lothor Brune restraining the other hedge knights.
Out of the cloister, out of the septry: at last she slowed and stopped, panting, in the graveyard on the hill. Drizzle wavered in off the Trident’s mouth, and great grey clouds puffed up on the horizon. Sansa sank to her knees in the grass and stared at the river mist. If she wished hard enough, maybe a ship would come out of the fog with all her family aboard.
Two of the brothers were walking up the hill: one turned aside, towards the mill, while the other continued towards the graveyard. It was Sandor. He was carrying a shovel. He slowed as he passed Sansa, and gave her an assessing look, but when she did not react he passed her and began scoring lines in the sod a few feet away.
“My name is Alayne Stone.” Sandor’s shovel sank into the earth. “I am the daughter of Lord Baelish.” Grass and dirt hit the ground behind her. “I don’t know who you are.” Cut, thud. “I never saw you weeping while the wildfire burned.” Pause, cut, thud. “You never kissed me.” Pause. Longer pause. Cut, thud.
Sansa took a long breath. Nobody but Sandor was here to hear her. “Lord Robert is sick. Dying, maybe. He’s my kinsman now.” Another lump caught in her throat. “He always was,” she whispered.
The sound of Sandor’s shovel had stopped. She looked up at him. His lower face was covered by his cowl, and it mostly hid his burns, but his eyes were bright with questions. He pointed to the new grave with the shovel. “He’s always been sickly,” Sansa said, twisting round to stare at the Trident again. “But since his mother died, he’s been worse. It’s as if – he needed her for all he was, and there’s nothing left.”
After another long pause, Sandor’s shovel cut into the sod again. Sansa climbed to her feet. Moisture from the grass had soaked into her gown. As she stared across the river one more time, she thought she heard a wolf howl.
Sansa Stark. Daughter of a traitor, wife of a traitor, sister of a traitor.
Sister of a king, as was. What had the North been like, for that brief time when Robb played the game?
Ser Shadrich and Ser Byron were watching her from the septry’s gate. She passed Sandor without looking at him and trudged to the hedge knights, drizzle and tears dampening the corners of her eyes. Ser Byron averted his eyes, blond hair hanging lank around his pale face and red-tipped nose. Ser Shadrich merely bowed. “I think his lordship’s stopped his shaking,” he said.
“I am glad to hear it.” Sansa sniffed. “Is my father still with him?” The hedge knight nodded. Sansa dropped him a brief curtsey and passed him into the septry. She fancied he watched her go.
The cloister corridor was deserted. Sansa wandered towards Robert’s cell. Why seek out Littlefinger? Only to prevent him seeing a change in her? He was her friend for as long as it suited him, or as long as she suited him: an ally the like of which she could neither afford to cultivate nor to deny.
Which ‘she’ was at stake?
“You understand, my lord,” the elder brother’s voice drifted through Robert’s chamber door, “that I must keep him here.”
“I understand your words,” Littlefinger answered, “but not your reasoning. You would have me return to the Vale without Lord Robert, and hold his lands based solely on my claim that he is alive? My brother, Lord Robert has enemies, and ones who have sought to prise me from him in the past with false claims that I would do him harm – my wife’s son.” He let out a sigh. “If I do not return Lord Robert to the Vale, it may never again be his to reenter.”
“If you do return Lord Robert to the Vale,” the elder brother said, “it will be to his death. Some foul influence has touched him there. My medicines will not keep him well after he returns.”
“If one potion from the Free Cities has caused his hurts, can another stop it?”
A potion. Sansa held her breath. A poison? The Lannisters had poisoned Jon Arryn. The Tyrells had poisoned Joffrey.
“Who is to say?” The elder brother sighed. “I cannot be sure. Lord Baelish, I beg you, leave the boy to my care.”
“And I beg of you,” Littlefinger answered, “let the boy keep his lands and title.”
... had poisoned...
Sansa shook out her gown, ran the last few paces to Robert’s door and slid inside. She looked to Robert – he was asleep, and turned beseeching eyes on the elder brother. “I thought,” she faltered, “he was stronger. But I see – no.” She sank onto one of the squires’ pallets, swallowing tears.
Littlefinger bent over her and kissed her brow. “All will be well, sweetling,” he soothed.
Sansa studied the words, and turned them around until they suited her best. “All will be well,” she echoed, dutiful to the last, and gave him a faltering smile.
All would, indeed, be well.
She sat by Robert till he woke, and gave Gyles and Terrance a series of highly contradictory orders regarding the proper stowing of his clothes before setting them to hold Robert through a shaking fit while she reordered the clothing herself. The cloister was not too cold: Robert’s thickest furs could well rest in his saddlebags, along with a spare set of his clothing. At another, fiercer fit from Robert, she fled his chamber in tears again and sought refuge in her own, where she indulged in some heartfelt prayers between checking the bestowal of her own clothing.
The brothers supped as the sun was setting. Sansa ate in a fog. Sandor was there, she saw, and she noted when he rose from the table with his brother-penitents to take the used trenchers for the pigs and the poor, but she did not try to speak to him. Instead she kept up a string of questions to Littlefinger: was Robert’s shaking getting worse? What herbs had the elder brother deemed would help him? Had he been able to eat? He answered readily enough, but seemed abstracted, almost too solicitous.
At the end of the meal, the hedge knights withdrew to their assigned cells. Sansa rose still dabbing her lips and heaving heavy sighs. In a fit of abstraction, instead of turning left towards her quarters, she turned right towards the brothers’ kitchens.
She caught herself on the kitchen threshold and babbled in confusion for a moment. Several brothers started away from her. Several more, with Sandor at their rear, filed out past her without reacting.
Sansa slid into the line behind him. “Sandor,” she whispered. His limping stride did not change. She licked her lips. “Dog.” His cowled head twitched. “Meet me behind the cloister.” No longer looking at him, she brushed past all the brothers and stumbled to her chamber.
Littlefinger was waiting for her there, studying her saddlebags, the packed and the unpacked. “Alayne,” he said as she shut the door, “I’m sending you back to the Vale.”
A hard lump formed in Sansa’s stomach. “You – you are?” He nodded. “But, Father – are you coming with me?”
“No. I have to stay with Robert.” He took her hands in his. “You’re distressed – deeply distressed – by Robert’s illness. I understand. But we have to remember his interests, and you must return to promote them there.” He bent and kissed her forehead, then her lips. “And your interests.”
Sansa nodded. “What must I do?”
“Tell the Lords Declarant the truth – that the brothers are helping Robert, but he is still ill. I will return with him when I can. Until then, place Bronze Yohn and Lady Waynwood in charge of administering the estates. For your part – reassure Harrold about his cousin’s condition.”
She nodded again, tasting ash. “When must I leave?”
“Tomorrow, at noon, when the tide rises for the ferry.” He kissed her again, just her lips this time. “Do not fail me now, sweetling.”
“Never,” she whispered, and she gave him Alayne’s dutiful peck on the cheek. She thought about giving him one of the kisses he craved, but Alayne would not have done so. She needed Alayne for just a little longer.
She waited till his footsteps had faded into the night outside, then pulled on a dark wool gown and her fur cape over the dress she already wore – the gown was cut for riding, as were the other few she had brought. A second set of woollen hose: fur gloves. Her blanket-roll was still wrapped in its pack: she scooped it up, along with her water flask, which she refilled from the ewer the brothers had left her.
Outside, the moon was sliding past heavy clouds overhead into a patch of clear sky. Sansa picked her way across the septry grass towards the cloister, avoiding the pebble path. Once at the door, she held her head up, pushed open the door and walked down the corridor as if the Isle were her demesne.
Ser Morgarth stood on guard outside Robert’s chamber-cell. Sansa, her pack obscured by her skirts, nodded to him and slid inside. A single flickering candle still lit the room. The Lord of the Eyrie lay slumbering on his pallet, heavy-limbed in a drugged sleep. Gyles and Terrance slept on cots by the foot of their lord’s bed.
Sansa tiptoed to the window and opened the shutters. Outside, etched in faint moonlight, Sandor’s tall figure blocked out the lamplight from the corner. She dropped her pack out of the window: he turned towards the sound, and she held up a hand – unsure whether he would see her – and lifted Robert’s bag, the one she had packed earlier, and dropped it outside too. One of the squires stirred. Sansa stood silent and still for a few minutes till she was sure he was asleep.
Outside, she heard Sandor picking up the packs. If only Ser Morgarth had not seen her! She could delay him, perhaps. Sansa crept to the door and back out into the corridor. “Lord Robert’s breathing is very heavy,” she whispered. “Is he well, do you think?”
The hedge knight glanced inside, at Robert sleeping in the candlelight. “He’ll be well enough. My lady, you should be abed.”
“I could not sleep for fear he died in the night.” Sansa sniffed, woebegone. “I’ll sit by him for a little while longer. Just a little while.”
He smiled. “Don’t fail to seek your bed. We leave on the noon tide.” She nodded, and slipped back inside.
Still the squires slept, and Robert too, bundled against the chill. Sansa retrieved Robert’s boots from by his bed and slid them onto his feet. He was small, no bigger than Bran before Theon Greyjoy killed him. She tucked her arms beneath Robert’s cocooned body, lifted him and tottered towards the window.
Her foot caught the edge of one of the squires’ cots. She stilled. Across the cell, the candle guttered out.
“Who’s there?” Terrance’s sleepy voice said.
“Alayne,” she whispered. “Be still.” A murmur answered her, and within minutes she heard his breathing return to sleep’s regularity.
Robert stirred in Sansa’s arms – he was becoming heavier by the minute. She crept the last few steps to the window and looked out. Sandor was standing just outside, looking up at her. She leant outside, holding Robert in front of her. Just as she thought her arms would fail her, he reached up and took him.
Sansa sat on the window ledge and swung her legs outside. As she braced herself to jump to the ground, she felt Sandor’s arms slide around her waist, and he lifted her down.
He reached up past her and pushed the shutter to, then gestured to Robert, lying slumbering on the grass. Sansa pulled her cloak tighter around herself. She wished it was the one he’d given her. “We leave,” she whispered, “now.”
His hand crept to her cheek. She felt him leaning over her, close and warm. Then he pulled away and lifted Robert again.
Sansa, trying not to tremble, led the way out of the septry and down the south side of the hill, picking her way across the grass. Moonlight shone over the riverbed around the Isle – low water on the north side, none on the south: bare silt, bleakly shining, rather than the choppy Trident waters she knew. The jetty lurked at the foot of the Isle, on the north bank. With the tide out, no one could use the ferry.
The stable block loomed ahead, dull and ghostly in the night. Sansa pushed open the door. Horses whinnied at her. Sandor’s warhorse snorted.
“Now, what are you doing here so late?”
Sansa started, and stared into the darkness. Ser Shadrich – guarding the horses? From what? “My father tells me we leave on the tide,” she said with all Alayne’s assuredness. “I am seeing to the horses. Light a lamp.”
For long seconds he did nothing, but then a flint struck a spark and a lamp flared at the back of the stables – a shuttered lamp. Pillars of light flickered off the walls. Ser Shadrich was staring at Sansa, she knew, but she did not look at him, or the craze-eyed mouse on his shield. Instead she saddled her mare, and, when he still did nothing, Gyles’s gelding. “Would you assist me, ser?” she said without turning.
“Lord Baelish told me you were leaving us,” he said, not moving. “Said you’d be going with the noon tide, not the midnight.”
“I go where my father bids me, and when.” She looked across the gelding’s back at him. He was leaning against the wall close to Stranger’s stall, still staring. “He tells me I must now travel tonight. I will obey him.” Now she and Sandor had mounts. She lifted Robert’s saddle-blanket onto his gelding’s back, and then his saddle, a child’s saddle.
“I wonder.” Ser Shadrich pushed off the wall and strolled towards her, fingering his sword hilt. Behind him, one of the brothers, rumpled with sleep, stumbled through the stablehand’s door and stood staring at the two of them. Sansa, hands shaking, cinched Robin’s horse’s girth. Sandor was still outside – no, there he was, entering quietly behind her. “I wonder,” Ser Shadrich continued, “how deeply you’re playing the game. Lord Baelish pays me well – too well for a hedge knight, and better than the rest. Maybe because I have eyes to see.” He half-drew his sword. Sansa backed up against the stall wall. “You holy brothers, leave now,” Ser Shadrich said, jerking his head at Sandor and his fellow. “I’ll spill no godly blood here. Not for sake of San–”
Sandor, his hood falling back from his face, straightened up and punched him in the side of the head. He collapsed.
“You!” The voice was hoarse, startling and too familiar. Sansa pressed a hand to her stomach as the other brother pushed back his hood. Gold curls tumbled out around his shoulders. He’d always resembled Queen Cersei, she hazily remembered, before he went missing.
Littlefinger hadn’t been surprised.
Sandor yanked Ser Shadrich’s sword from his limp hand. “Stay out of this.”
Tyrek Lannister opened his mouth, ready to shout an alarm. Sansa stepped between him and Sandor. “What did he promise you?” Ser Tyrek stared at her. “Littlefinger – did he say he would give you Casterly Rock? He has Lord Arryn, he has me – and Robert and I are the last Tullys too – and you for the Lannisters. I wonder which Martell he will suborn?”
For a moment they were all quiet. Sandor lowered his sword-point. Sansa drew herself up, erect as a queen. “He’ll betray you, as he already betrayed my aunt and Lord Robert. We are leaving. Come if you wish.” Without waiting for his reaction she turned and walked out of the stables. Robert, still bundled up and still asleep, was lying on the ground outside with the packs beside him. Sansa retrieved the packs and went back into the stables.
Sandor had removed Ser Shadrich’s sword belt and was buckling it on over his robes. “I won’t kill him,” he kept muttering. Tyrek was bridling Gyles’s horse, and glancing over his shoulder at Sandor’s old warhorse Stranger, who was squealing and kicking his stall.
“Someone’ll come to see what’s upset him,” he said, mounting up.
“Give it a minute.” Sandor retreated outside, came back a moment later with Robert, and passed him up to Tyrek. “Keep hold of him.” He hoisted Sansa into her saddle before she could mount alone, handed her Robert’s horse’s reins, and strode to the back of the stables and entered Stranger’s stall.
Was that a noise outside, up the hill? Sansa edged her horse to the door. Tyrek, arms full of Robert, followed, with a few anxious glances at Ser Shadrich, now twitching on the stable floor. He would have tried to kill me, Sansa told herself, till she believed it.
Stranger’s stall door flew open and Sandor cantered out and past the others. For a moment Sansa breathed easy – he was just a penitent brother on a horse – but then someone shouted down the hill. Ser Morgarth.
Tyrek’s horse shied and cantered out after Sandor. Sansa followed, leading Robert’s horse. Ser Morgarth shouted again, closer this time: Sansa, blinded by the stable lamps, squeezed her heels into her mare’s flanks and rode into the night.
Ahead, she heard Stranger’s hooves squelch into the silty riverbed, and heard Tyrek’s frightened breathing. Would he run? Holding Robert?
“To me,” Sandor called. Sansa urged her horse ahead. With Tyrek at her side, she trotted over the pebble bank and onto the mud. Her sight was sharpening: she saw water winding a finger deep in tiny channels down the riverbed, and saw Sandor’s outline ahead, etched in moonlight. “Stay close, and walk your horses in my hoof-marks,” he said, reining in Stranger when the stallion tried to pace. “Walk or trot unless I say otherwise.” He loosed Stranger’s head and rode off at a walk. Tyrek pulled in behind him, and Sansa followed, leading Robert’s horse.
More noise floated from the Isle behind, and lights bobbed in the stable block. “We need to go faster,” Sansa called.
“We can’t.” That was Ser Tyrek. “A misstep here and we’ll be in quicksand.”
Sansa looked back at the Isle. Could she ride back and claim it had all been a mistake? But no, a thousand times no. She straightened in her saddle and watched Sandor, ahead, leading the way. He would protect her. He always protected her.
Sandor picked up to a trot, still taking a winding path across the river. The moon lit up the damp silt and trickling water, shimmering like spring mists in the northern forests. Sansa glanced back, but her mare took a misstep into some mud that squelched too deep, and she urged her into the clear path.
Halfway across the Trident bed she heard horses clatter down the pebble beach and splash into the riverbed. “Keep going,” Sandor called back. Tyrek, still clutching Robin, urged his horse on. Splashes and cries from behind told Sansa the knights had not found the solid path.
“Alayne!” Ser Lothor’s voice drifted across the river. Sansa did not look back, but kept following the others, Robert’s horse reined close behind her. Water splashed beneath their hooves, now, and wolf-howls floated from the far bank. I am a wolf, Sansa thought, the wolf of the North.
Robert twitched in Tyrek’s grasp, a wriggling worm of blankets. “Alayne,” he called, thin as a reed. “Where are we going?”
“Stay still,” Tyrek grunted.
“No – no – Alayne!”
With one great heave Robert pulled free of Tyrek’s hold. He fell sprawling to the riverbed with a splash.
Sandor let out a curse and hauled Stranger round. “Go!” he roared at Tyrek. “We can’t wait!” As Tyrek forged past him, Sandor slid from his saddle, grabbed Robert and handed him – still shaking, and now shaking muddy water everywhere – to Sansa.
“Sweetrobin,” she begged him, fighting to hold her seat, “be calm. We’re going somewhere safe –” He convulsed again and almost thrust her from the saddle.
Sandor remounted and plucked him from her arms. He shook harder, trying to bite, but Sandor held him fast. For a moment he sat staring into Sansa’s eyes, but then he looked past her towards the Isle. “Two still coming. Ride.” He turned Stranger and rode after Tyrek, towards the riverbank, picking his path less carefully now. Water foamed round Stranger’s hooves.
Ahead, Tyrek’s horse staggered onto the bank, and he slid from the saddle. The wolves howled louder now. Sansa urged her horse on, after Tyrek, after Sandor. Water splashed up to her boots, much higher now. Robin’s gelding snorted behind her.
Sandor cantered onto the riverbank, dropped Robert beside Tyrek and turned back towards Sansa. “Hurry!” he shouted, urgency in his voice. “Fly, little bird!”
Sansa squeezed her heels to her mare’s sides. Black water swirled around her, rising higher and higher, tinted silver in flashes of moonlight. Hurry. Something squealed behind her: Ser Shadrich’s horse, caught in quickmud.
The ground firmed underfoot. Water surged to the mare’s belly. Sansa urged her up the beach, on, up, and Sandor caught her reins and hurried her to the crest.
Behind her, the shouts turned to screams. The moon reemerged from behind a cloud, and Sansa looked back. The Trident’s waters, black and heavy, surged down the channel from the sea, rising faster than man or horse could run. For a moment, Sansa thought she saw Ser Morgarth and Ser Shadrich struggling in the bay, but then the waves rose again and the river swept them away.
Chapter 3: Stark
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.