Alayne had stoked the small fire in the hearth, crawled under the furs in her bed, and closed her eyes as her tummy and her mind were aflutter. They would leave the Eyrie tomorrow. Though glad to quit the stilled castle, she somehow found herself in a wistful state, dwelling on things lost. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything that’s happened will turn out to be a horrible dream, she told herself as her heart sunk low and her thoughts were enveloped by a red-edged slumber.
And then she did.
“You’re avoiding the crown prince,” Septa Mordane says, giving her a stern look from across the table. “You’ve been acting increasingly strange during these last few weeks on the kingsroad, Sansa. Is there something you need to tell me?” The inn is crowded and noisy, so the older woman doesn’t feel the need to keep her voice down.
Joff is a monster, Sansa thinks, but she’s not stupid. Not anymore. “I still feel wretched after my…ill spell,” she confides, training her eyes on her food and taking courage from Lady’s warmth, who is curled up at her feet. “I fear the Prince will be appalled by my appearance.”
Her father had chalked it up to a sudden bout of homesickness when a fortnight ago she woke up sorely distressed and disoriented. Sansa still wasn’t sure what exactly had happened. In the evening she had slid under Alayne’s blankets in her tower room at the Eyrie, the next thing she saw was Jeyne Poole, shaking her gently to get up. It had taken her some time to realize where she was, when she was, who she was. Being able to hug her father again, laugh with Jeyne, and roll her eyes at her sister, had been even more surreal than finding out she had shrunk a few inches and that her chest had flattened somewhat.
Sometimes she wondered if all of it had not been an awful, horrid nightmare…but her memories – she was certain they were memories – were too vivid to reject.
Septa Mordane shakes her head. “You look as beautiful as always. I have no doubt you will please the prince. You didn’t forget the queen’s invitation to join her in the wheelhouse, did you?”
Sansa had been dreading it for weeks. Up until now, she had successfully evaded both Joffrey and Queen Cersei and only engaged with them in the most terse and innocuous of conversations. She knows it would be better if she just pretended – knows she could do it ably – but even thinking about facing them makes her hands go clammy.
Instead of searching for Arya as the Septa had asked, Sansa exits and rounds the building. A sting of guilt for disobeying her chaperone pricks her as she walks, but she has planned her next steps for a while, even scouted the area in a fashion when they arrived some days ago.
After telling Lady to wait on her not far from the door, Sansa enters the inn again through the kitchens at the back. The busy scullery maids give her curious looks as they go about handling pans and cutting vegetables but, gratefully, refrain from talking to her. From the hallway she takes the creaking staircase up to her bedroom, careful not to run into Septa Mordane. Inside, everything is still as she and Arya left it that morning, the blankets on the bed in disarray, a dirty tunic of her sister carelessly thrown over a chair. Best be quick, she tells herself. I won’t need much. Sansa crouches next to the chest with her belongings and extracts a satchel made from supple deer leather from it. After some more wrestling with the clothing and items in her oaken chest – what she needs is at the bottom – she succeeds in fishing it out. Satisfied, she stuffs it away.
It’s a difficult task not to let her anxiety show on her face as she passes a few guards when she backtracks. In the warm kitchen again, she approaches the friendliest looking maid, a fair-haired and rose-cheeked woman who reminds her a bit of Myranda Royce.
“My septa asked me to fetch some food for my sister,” Sansa tells her the story she deemed was safest, “she wasn’t at the table to break her fast.”
The maid smiles. “Your sister’s the wild one running around with a wolf pup and a peasant boy in tow, no? She was here this morning, m’lady. Spooned up some broth on the spot, together with her friend, before dashing off again.”
Sansa strings her hands around the satchel’s strap, trying to hide her fidgeting. Of course. At Winterfell, Arya frequently stole off to the kitchens, pilfering food from Gage and cavorting with the kitchen boys. “Even so, I would like some bread and cheese to bring to her," she says, using her lady's voice.
The woman masks her puzzlement with a laugh. "Very well, m'lady."
After securing the food, bulging in her satchel now, Sansa exits the inn once more and slips away from the bustle around the building, Lady trailing beside her. Together they head out of the camp, through the low brush on the northern side and a patch of birches, till they find a quiet clearing, populated with blue morning glories and yellow yarrow. The perfect spot. Her path sloped gently upward, so when she nestles herself against one of the bigger trees in the open space, she can still see the outlines of the inn on her horizon. Lady's fur brushes her leg as the direwolf nestles beside her mistress. Sansa scratches her behind the ears, which earns her a contented yip.
This is the day when it happened. She couldn’t persuade her father to return to Winterfell, but Sansa is determined to make sure Lady survives. After inventing and discarding a dozen complicated plans and intrigues, she realized there was no need for it. She would simply make herself scarce for the next few hours. That way, Joff won’t get the chance to invite her for a ride and they won’t discover Arya and her butcher boy. She would even excuse herself personally to the queen afterwards for missing her engagement.
The hardest part is over, she assuages herself. Her hideout, food, and pastime are secured. From her satchel Sansa fetches the book she recovered from her stuff, a favorite she couldn't leave behind in Winterfell, Histories of Love and Chivalry. A contented sigh escapes her as she thumbs through the book. She has learned now that in life beautiful princes aren’t always heroes, nor knights always valiant, but the stories still move her all the same.
Try as she might, the oaken door in front of her refuses to budge. She knocks on it, one, two, three times. Nothing. “Hello?” she shouts.
It’s no good. She turns around and clacks with her boots over the marble floor in the hallway. Another door appears, as stalwart and unmoving as the previous one. At a swift pace, she flits further through the badly lit passage. Every few passes a door cleaves the solid walls, but none seem to offer a way out. The hammer of her heart is starting to fill her ears, when she hears a bark far off to the right.
“Lady?” she cries.
A howl answers. She gathers her skirts and runs towards the sound. The swish swish of her cloak dragging across the ground accompanies her hurried steps, and it’s only then that Sansa notices what exactly she is wearing. Ivory samite, cloth-of-silver and silvery satin covers her sides and hips, Myrish lace her low-cut bodice. Her stomach drops, her feet slow down. My wedding gown. She quickly glances to both ends of the hallway, as if expecting the armored figures of the Kingsguard to appear and drag her to a sept to wed the Imp once more.She is still alone in the unending marble passage.
Something’s not right, though. When she runs a hand over her cloak, it’s not soft velvet she feels. She takes a slip to study it closer, a warm light filling the space aiding her. The coarse white weave is splattered with mud stains and a red-brown rust –
“Wake up, foolish girl.”
A hard voice cuts through her drowse. Someone is shaking her. Surprised, Sansa opens her eyes.
The burned face of Sandor Clegane hovers above her. Why is he in my bedroom? she thinks, before she feels something solid digging in her back, the weight of her book lying in her lap and the tickle of wet grass beneath her legs. Oh. It’s dark in the clearing, with only a sliver of moonlight gathered with the stars in the sky. Coldness has seeped in her skin yet the air around her is mild, a summer’s draught.
“I fell asleep,” she says lamely, more to herself than Clegane. The Hound is not alone. Behind him are three other men-at-arms, Lannister guards in crimson cloaks. Two of them are holding torches, the other one has his hand on his sword hilt, as if some wildlings could burst out from the woods at any moment.
Clegane arches his good brow. His warm hands release her shoulders and he stands to full length. “Bloody strange place for a highborn lady to bed down. Got lost picking flowers, did you?”
A blush creeps up her neck, but before she can put together a believable story in her mind, the big man turns and speaks to one of the Lannister men. “You, head back to the camp and let them know we found her. That should calm down Stark and that shrieking septa.”
I made them all worry. Sansa lowers her head and cradles her book to her chest. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. She swallows. How can I make this right?
Mayhaps she wouldn’t need to do anything. She could say she got lost. She gave them a scare, that’s all. If she’s to be punished, it will be her Lord Father or Septa Mordane who will mete it out, not the Queen or Joff. I am safe. Lady is safe.
As if she heard, her direwolf’s wet nose touches her leg, making Sansa look up. Sympathy seems to shine in Lady’s yellow eyes. The animal releases a low whine.
“Your little she-wolf helped you.” Clegane’s approached her again. “She came to us as we were searching for you in the brush." He looks like he has more to say, but refrains.
Slowly, Sansa gathers herself and rises from her sleeping spot, a bit wobbly on her legs. She takes a moment to rearrange her satchel and to put away her book. A peek at the back of her skirts tells her there is a large green stain where she sat. Septa Mordane won't like that, she thinks. Not at all. A giddiness suddenly spreads through her chest. She puts a hand to her mouth to mask her laughter as a cough.
Looking up, Sansa becomes aware that the Hound is watching her. An urge to thank him bubbles up. He’d only laugh at me or scorn me, though. She does it anyway. "Thank you, my lord, for finding me."
“Keep your pretty words, girl.” Clegane’s dark eyes gleam in the torchlight. “It was the queen who tasked me to find you. It wouldn’t do to lose her son’s betrothed in some backwoods. Your father’s northmen are combing the area too. I should ask Stark for a finder’s prize.”
“You won’t have to ask. Father will reward you handsomely for your help, regardless.”
“I am sure he will. What lordling would want to be indebted to me, the prince’s dog? He won’t be glad about it, though.”
“You’re wrong,” she says defiantly.
The good corner of his mouth pulls down and he’s about to deliver his reply, when one of the Lannister guards interrupts them. “Clegane, we should go. The horses are getting restless. Wolves are prowling about.” The man eyes Lady accusingly, as if she’s called her animal cousins.
The Hound growls at him and grabs Sansa’s arm. “Come, girl. You’ll have to suffer my company a few minutes longer.” He pulls her through the dark clearing to his mount. The two guards are already climbing theirs.
When she stands before the large shape of his bristling horse, clothed in shadows, she flounders. “How can I…?” she says, before his hands cinch her waist and he picks her up effortlessly, seating her on the saddle. Like he’s lifting a pillow, she thinks. He releases her, and she shivers slightly at the loss of heat of his fingers. The Hound must have noticed, because the next thing she hears is the swoosh of his woolen cloak as he places it around her shoulders. The cloth is of a rough scratchy weave, but blessedly warm. She thanks him again, and wraps herself tightly in it. And then he is at her back, his body pressed to her, his arms around her as he takes the reins. She feels herself heating up a tad too fast and is grateful that he can’t see the flush on her cheeks. Something down in her tummy stirs. The smell of his cloak doesn’t help either, pulling at tangled memories. He kissed me once, she remembers as gooseflesh forms on her arms. He saved me once.
The last and only time she had ridden a horse together with Sandor Clegane, he rescued her from the rioting mob at King’s Landing, who had been ready to drag her off to a horrid faith. Her gratefulness afterward had received as little regard from him then as it had now. I wish he wasn’t so awful. She had even told him so after that first botched attempt of thanking him, on the roof of Maegor’s Holdfast. Where that recklessness had come from, she was unsure. Maybe it had been the dreadful sight of the fires in the city and knowing that Stannis’ army was waiting on the far bank of the Blackwater, preparing to run over King’s Landing.
A tempting idea pops into her mind as she reminisces. He might sooner throw me off his horse for this…Yet it feels right to her.
She starts humming the age-old tune as they trot towards the lights of the camp through the brush. His breath hitches and his strong arms tense around her, but he doesn’t ask her to quiet. Taking this to heart, Sansa softly begins to sing the first verses of Florian and Jonquil. “On Maiden’s day gold and bright, Florian the Fool passed a hamlet’s trail, drawn in by a pool’s dappled light, he spied fair Jonquil…”
“You are no knight, I know you…Florian the Fool…As great a fool as ever lived…” She is not far into the song when they near the boundaries of the royal party’s encampment, the place abuzz with movement. The Hound suddenly pulls in the reins, stopping his mount. Sansa’s voice trails off. Did she displease him after all? She’s about to ask him when his hands embrace her waist once more and he puts her down from the horse.
“My lord?” she says, confused, his cloak still draped around her. His face is unreadable in the darkness as she tries to catch his gaze. She believes there might be something glistering on his face, but he turns his head away before she can be certain.
“Have I offended you, my lord?” she asks again.
After a short strained pause in which neither moves or speaks, he shakes his head and silently says, “Enough,” muttering it more to himself than her. Taking one long look back at the woods they emerged from, to gauge where the two other Lannister guards are – fifteen feet behind – he speaks up, never facing her. “Keep the bloody cloak,” he rasps, and gives his horse the heels.
Sansa watches Clegane ride away. A nearby bush rustles, and Lady bursts forth. With a happy bark, she greets her mistress. Petting her direwolf, Sansa decides she’ll make sure she won’t lose his cloak this time.