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Bones and Rubies

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A moan coming from her bedmate was what roused her from sleep. Too much wine from the revelry last night no doubt. Motes of dust floated in the sunlight breaking through the edges of the window coverings. Lazily, she turned to the head of chestnut curls that laid beside her and yawned. Myranda Royce had taken as many turns on the dance floor as she, but her friend could probably match Lord Tyrion in a duel of cups. Alayne sat up on her forearms and rolled neck. The servants would be arriving soon and the day ahead would be riveting and mercilessly long.  

 

           It was late into the night when they had finally retired from the feast. Alayne had seen little Lord Robert to bed before escorting Myranda to their chambers, giggling and stumbling the whole way back. The firelight flickered low as they continued to whisper their appraisals of their dance partners. Myranda conceded that the knights from the Sisters had their finer points.  After she mentioned Uthor Shett of Gulltown had trampled her feet as well, Alayne had jested a seagull had shett on their shoes. They would never be able to look at the ginger-haired knight again without that image.  Praised for taking her first foray into cursing, Alayne reminded Randa she had not truly said the word.  

 

“Do not think I have forgotten the pillow tax, you septa. I’ve given you a reprieve long enough on account of all that blushing and I can see I’ve finally dragged you to the seven hells with me. Come now, tell me truly… which of those gallant men do you wish was giving you jousting lessons right now?” Randa nestled tight into her pillow, bracing herself for a revelation.

 

She is a dog gnawing on a bone , Alayne thought. Yet, she did not feel the prickles of discomfort as she ought and the warmth of the spiced wine still blossomed throughout her. Even though she could not think of any particular knight, she knew she had to give her friend a morsel of the bawdy gossip she craved. If she were truthful with herself, she wanted to confide in the older girl some secret of her heart as she would have done with Jeyne Poole. She heard Petyr’s warnings in her mind, but there would be no harm in it if she delicately chose her words.

 

“Not a one here. Not even stupid Ser Harrold.” She began. Randa scoffed, but she continued. “There was someone once… He wasn’t a knight, though he could have been. He was as tall as Lord Royce, but lean and built like a bull and his kiss was just as fierce. You would never have called him comely, Randa, but he had a way about him. It was only the one kiss and then he was gone. Just one hard, cruel kiss.”  The spell broke after that, but she added: “I sang him a song once too.”

 

“I’ll wager you did.”

 

“No, I mean I really did sing to him. The Mother’s Hymn .” She realized how ridiculous that sounded as soon as she said it. Myranda turned her face into the pillow to stifle her peals of laughter.  

 

“I’m sorry, but somehow I can believe it from you,” she said between breaths. “Is it this bull you think of when you are alone at night?  Sometimes I send my maids away when I’m in my bath. Thinking on the hard snapping of a well-muscled, young arse between my thighs like a whip cracking serves me every time.” Alayne did not know what to say to that. Myranda must have noticed the look on her face because she asked: “You do know how to make yourself sing?” She should be horrified, she knew, but she wasn’t.  This time Alayne settled in closer for a revelation.

 

The maids arrived that morning with trays filled with fried eggs, sausages, and slices of fresh oranges to break their fast. Whirling about the room they drew back the curtains, stoked the fire, and laid out their gowns. Alayne quickly splashed her face with cold water and nibbled as she dressed. Myranda looked like a sweet confection in a gown of pink and rose velvet despite her declaration that her mouth felt like the bottom of a birdcage. “Not to worry,” she said as she waved around a bite of sausage. “By the time my hair is up, I’ll be feeling fit to receive the High Septon. This isn’t my first tilt.”  Alayne’s head was surprisingly clear, thank the gods.

 

Even the bastard of a Lord Protector could still not presume to dress above her station at such a grand event with highborn ladies in attendance. Alayne had chosen her dark wool gown with the gold vines embroidered on the bodice and sleeves and a cream-colored linen shift underneath. Her maid had arranged her hair in a coiled braid at the back of her head. A faint amount of copper was starting to show through the dull brown dye under the morning light, she noticed. “The autumn yellow ribbon please.” It was her only concession to ornamentation, but it looked so fine with her blue eyes when it was in her hair and tied in a bow at her nape. There was no more time to tarry with Randa. She had to settle some business about a favor. Swooping her deep green cloak about her shoulders she headed down to the tourney yard.

 

She remembered the opulent spectacle of her father’s… her real father’s tourney that seemed another lifetime ago when the world was splendid and full of promise. Still, Lord Petyr aspired to an event that would be remembered like Harrenhal and Ashford. An array of colorful banners snapped in the autumn breeze with the great falcon and moon of Arryn taking the center of the stands. Serving men rolled out great casks of ale, Dornish red, and Arbor Gold to keep the cups full to overflowing.  The wood fire pits were already ablaze again for another round of roast aurochs. Other guests in their finery strolled the grounds and surveyed the competition, already placing their bets. Squires flitted about like dragonflies carrying pieces of plate and mail while their knights barked orders and honed their swords. Some had already donned their armor, some were sparring with practice swords, and few were heaving last night’s feast behind the hedgerows where they thought no one would notice. Mychel Redfort was among those readying their sword arms. He had a sure aim at the quintains yesterday. She considered him earnestly for a moment. No, she could not do that to Mya with a heart still bruised and battered.  She continued on.

 

She spied Ser Lothor Brune, the Apple-Eater, checking the shoes of his horse and looking hungry this morning. “Good morrow, ser!” she called cheerfully as she approached. A wicked idea occurred to her. She lowered her voice when she stood near him. “A pity Ser Robar Royce isn’t here for a rematch.” His brows furrowed like he meant to chastise her, but a small smile betrayed him. Lothor had been unhorsed by Yohn Royce’s son at the tourney of the Hand— a tourney Alayne Stone wouldn’t know the slightest about. Ser Lothar knew the truth of it, though.

 

“Good morrow, my lady.  And I do not intend to win any matches today by forfeit either.”  He was referring, of course, to sad and foolish Dontos Hollard.   And I thought that drunkard was my Florian.  Who was the bigger fool indeed?  “Can I be of service, my lady?”

 

“Not to me, ser. I have decided today is your name day and it’s high time you sowed. I have saved a seat for Mya near me in the stands.  You should ask her for her favor.”

 

Lothor laughed heartily. “Beg your pardon, my lady. Mya does not seem like the sort.”

 

“She will. I have already spoken with her.”  When she finished here she would need to fly to the stables and find Mya without delay. She gave her most winning smile as she curtsied and strode away.

 

She steered clear of Lyn Corbray, who leaned against a tree and spoke with Oswell Kettleblack. He need not be tested again today.  On and on she wove her way through the yard.  Her tummy fluttered with her first pangs of trepidation. Truthfully, she had not considered until now that so many of these knights had been squires a few moon turns prior. Harry was among them, but her only hope was a decisive win.  Father said don’t appear too eager.  Give your favor to another. Yes, father.  Another who will thoroughly trounce Harry the Heir. My champion will knock your arse in the dirt, Alayne will laugh prettily, and you will seethe. At least that was the idea.

 

“You seem to be seeking something. Can we be of assistance, my lady?” Odd little Ser Shadrich and brawny, red-nosed Ser Morgarth were standing under a nearby tent oiling their sword blades. The Mad Mouse had been the one to call out to her. They had been among those she had danced with the night before and found no fault with their courtesy. Still, with their handsome third they were as funny a motley lot as one could ever meet.

 

“Perchance you can, sers. You see, I have wagered ten stags against Lady Myranda’s champion in the jousts. I seek my own to vanquish hers, else I’ll find myself plucked clean by day’s end. Alas, as I recall you will only be in the melee, Ser Shadrich. Is that also true of you, Ser Morgarth?”

 

“It is, my lady.” The hedge knight paused a moment then looked to the rear of the tent. “Might I suggest our Ser Byron? He’s tilted many a time and won his share. I’d put my coin on him.” Ser Byron came out of the shadows and gave a short, easy bow. He had not even put on a quilted doublet yet. He still wore a loose linen shirt over his tall frame and around his neck a small leather bag hung on a cord just inside his collar.  

 

“Are you up to the task, ser?”

 

“I did not enter to leave empty-handed.  You’ll be ten stags richer, my lady. Believe that.”

 

She studied him a moment. He was comely enough to warrant being called Byron the Beautiful with his straight blonde hair and elegant manner. In another life, she might have even swooned over this hedge knight. Not today. She was bastard brave and no one’s fool. In the most unsentimental way she could muster, she pulled the bow loose in her hair and thrust her hand out toward her champion. Something in him must have shaken because he reached out and took the yellow-gold ribbon tentatively. “A share of my winnings then.” She curtsied and whirled away, her green cloak flapping behind her. She heard him ask who Lady Myranda was favoring but she pretended not to hear. These were still Petyr’s hired swords. They need not know everything .    

 

Gretchel had Sweetrobin looking like a proper lord in a dark blue velvet doublet with silver detailing. To her relief, he was beaming ear to ear, delighted the day had arrived he would have his own Winged Knights. She had read him every tale of Artys Arryn she could find twice over.  Sweetrobin took his place in the center dais. The Lord Protector, Petyr Baelish, was beside him in grand fashion with a plum-colored cape secured with a mockingbird brooch over a black doublet.  Lady Waynwood, Lord Nestor and the Lords Redfort, Belmore, and Grafton took their honored seating nearby. The rows soon swelled to capacity and horns blared the commencement.  The Lord of the Eyrie had the first row of seats for his retinue. Tenderly, she kissed Sweetrobin on top of his head and pecked her father on the cheek. Alayne sat on the opposite side of Lord Robert with Myranda quickly joining her with Mya Stone in tow, straight as a spear and in her riding leathers.  

 

“I don’t want cousin Harrold to win any wings,” Sweetrobin told her. “That means he’ll be here all the time.”

 

“Don’t be troubled, my lord. Only true knights could be Winged Knights,”  Alayne whispered to him. If only she believed that herself.  Still, her little cousin was in fine form despite his worries. She did not sense he was in danger of a shaking fit.      

 

It was not long before she saw Lothor Brune striding toward them. Seven hells!   She abruptly grabbed Mya’s hand. “Give Ser Lothor a favor.”

 

“What?”

 

“You must trust me. Give him something, anything. I swear it, Mya, you won’t regret it.”

 

Him?” She did not sound opposed, merely cautious.

 

“He’s a man, Mya. Not a witless boy playing with swords or hearts. Nor does he indulge in silly, empty gestures or suffer fools. A man like that would only make himself a fool for one reason alone. I tell you, Mya, Ser Lothor is as solid and steady as the Wall.”     

 

Mya stared at her a long moment as if she couldn’t decide if Alayne were completely mad or just half, but praise the gods she softened by the time the Apple-Eater arrived. “Lady Mya…” he began, though she was no lady. Before he could finish the bastard girl pulled a dagger from her boot and flipped the blade around so the pommel faced him. A smile spread across his square jaw as he took the dagger from her hand.

 

The rest of the day went off as well as she could hope. She only pretended to fervently watch most of the jousts of untried green boys and often slipped into wistful little daydreams.  Ben Coldwater triumphed against one of the Sistermen. Andrew Tollett had barely stayed ahorse to defeat Myranda’s brother, Albar Royce.  Mychel Redfort performed as well as expected earlier but was later unhorsed by Ser Byron. Lyn Corbray’s lance exploded in a cloud of splinters on some poor boy’s chestplate and the lad had to be carried off the grounds with a broken leg.  Alayne found herself in the odd position of silently rooting for Ser Uthor when he faced Harrold Hardyng, but the would-be Young Falcon managed to beat the Shett out of his saddle. She felt a little sad when Ser Lothor soundly defeated Ser Roland Waynwood, who made her laugh and swept her off her feet. A man with his lady’s favor and in love could be unstoppable if the songs could be believed. She scoffed to herself at that… yet, Ser Lothor rode tall and proud in the saddle with single-minded purpose. She looked over at Mya and saw a softness in her gaze and a somber beauty in her profile. Arya’s eyes would be gray, though . At least Roland’s sweet, stuttering uncle, Ser Wallace Waynwood, won his match.    

 

As the first day dwindled down, the competition eliminated most of the original sixty-four. She had almost lost track of who was left when one of the last matches of the day was called. Ser Harrold Hardyng would face Ser Byron.  The hedge knight sat atop a red courser, visor down, and lance held firm. Faintly, she could see the autumn gold ribbon tied around his vambrace.   Though she could not see his face, Ser Byron raised his lance arm up in her direction it seemed. Harry was all gleaming in silver plate with a blue moon and falcon detailing. His surcoat bore the quartered heraldry of Houses Hardyng, Waynwood, and Arryn. So presumptuous . Harry glanced up her way and flashed a cocksure smile.  Sweetrobin shifted around in his seat as he glared down at him. Alayne quietly grasped his hand and stroked her thumb over his fingers.   

 

Her breath bated as the two opponents lowered their lances. Their horses suddenly erupted into a full gallop, sending the dirt flying behind them. She prayed hard that all she had heard about Harry’s skill was the truth— that he truly was only an unjumped squire and that Morgarth was right about Byron’s experience. At the last possible moment, the hedge knight shifted in his saddle which effectively caused Harry’s lance to take only a glancing blow, but Byron’s lance took Harry square in the upper chest. Wood shattered and the crowd gave a palpable groan as the clatter of plate armor mixed with the thud of hitting unforgiving earth. The Young Falcon moved his limbs slowly like a dazed turtle on its back as a few squires ran out to attend him. She couldn’t help but wince a little for his pain, but then she remembered her father only needed Harry’s approval to seal this betrothal for true. Lady Waynwood would not force her ward.  Those were her terms to help her sleep easier after her debts were paid by Lord Littlefinger.  

 

Suddenly whoops of cheer burst from the little lord beside her and he stood to clap his hands. The rest of the stands followed suit with a polite and restrained applause. As the squires helped Ser Harold to his feet and removed his helm, he looked up at the stands. His mouth was bloody where he must have bitten himself when he hit the ground. A large dent marred his resplendent breastplate turning one falcon into a misshapen beast. Ser Byron turned his courser about and came up beside the railing. He lifted his visor and gave Lord Robert a bow, but never shifted his eyes away from hers. He can’t expect his share of the silver now, can he? Those stags I plucked from pure fancy. Alayne rose from her seat, leaned over, and meant to chastely kiss her champion on the cheek to put him off for the time being. At the last possible moment, he turned his head to claim it boldly on his lips. He lingered only a second to spare her further embarrassment. Gods, Sweetrobin will surely have a fit, possessive of her as he is. To her relief, he did no such thing. Still, she felt prickling heat blossoming all over her face as she could hear the amused tittering behind her. She overheard Lord Robert declare to Petyr Baelish that Ser Byron was surely a true knight and will have wings by tourney’s end. Myranda gave her a sly look that said the pillow tax has just been raised. By the time she had the nerve to look back down the field, Ser Byron was dismounting his saddle and Ser Morgarth came up to clap him upside his head with one of his massive paws.  

 

After most of the stands cleared to head back for the second night of feasting, Littlefinger slipped an arm through hers and gently guided her behind a cluster of sentinel pines.  Alayne knew what was coming and put on her sweetest, most dutiful smile. “Lady Waynwood tells me Harry is frothing. No one expected him to perform that well, but he’s more upset you openly favored the knight that spanked his proud arse. Just last night he was eating out of your palm. Now he’s speaking bitterly of holding out for a highborn match when he inherits.” His tone was even and patient, but his grey-green eyes told it differently.   I did have him quite in hand, but I did it my way, not yours. I didn’t eat your stupid cake either.    

 

Alayne widened her eyes in disbelief.  “Father, you told me I should not appear too eager and that I should give my favor to another.  How was I to know some sell-sword would win in a proper knight’s contest? The kiss was only meant to be a chaste one on the cheek, but Ser Byron was too bold by far.” She turned her eyes downcast and worried at her lip like Arya would do. “I’m sorry, father.”

 

Petyr kissed her forehead and stroked her arm soothingly. “All will be well, sweetling. It’s not too late to right this. No permanent harm was done. Lady Waynwood will remind him he was never truly here for the wings and she will tell him it was Ser Byron that overstepped. I will have Lothor Brune speak to him. In the meantime, you should feign exhaustion and avoid the merriment tonight. No need to salt the boy’s wounds.” Lord Petyr’s attention was drawn to Lord Nestor and he left her there beneath the branches.  

 

Turning back toward the dais to find her little lord, Alayne saw him enthralled in conversation with Ser Byron, who had taken a knee in front of him. He was Sweetrobin's champion as much as mine . Myranda and Mya stood idly against the railings talking among themselves, while Robert was likely bombarding the knight with all sorts of questions. She would have to borrow a few stags from her friends.  When she handed them over she intended to chew his ear off and then he could get a second helping from his captain. Why, though? Hadn’t her plan worked and Harry was now hopefully put off of marrying her? Truthfully, that bit of ungallantry was the icing on the cake and had served her well.  It may have been the one kiss she ever had that wasn’t a disappointment and it had naught to do with desire. She couldn’t even recall what it felt like.

 

“My lady.” She turned to find someone’s squire approaching her. She’d seen him before, but there were so many darting around. He had a weak mustache that looked like bread mold.  “Maester Colemon sent me to find you. The knight that broke his leg earlier…the maester worries he might have a swelling in the head too.  It could be fatal. He wishes to confer how to handle this.”

 

Mealy-mouthed Maester Colemon always preferred dealing with Alayne rather than the Lord Protector, who plowed over the man like a tractable piece of land. “Lead on then.” The boy brought her to one of the last tents in the row.  Inside she met neither an ailing knight nor Maester Colemon. Standing before her was Lyn Corbray who dismissed his squire. The ruby in Lady Forlorn’s pommel shone a dark, thick red.  “This is irregular, ser.” She could feel the sweat on the back of her neck. Courtesy is a lady’s armor .

 

“Apologies, my lady.” He measured his words carefully to not frighten her, but she could almost feel the pulsing in his veins from where she stood. “We have but a moment, so we should speak plainly. I know who you really are. Do not be afraid. I’ve brought you here to offer my help, Sansa Stark.”

 

Something told her denial would be unwise. She swallowed hard and nodded.  Kettleblack must have told him. Why now, though? I must be brave like Robb . “Why would you help me?”

 

“You know Littlefinger has crossed me before more than once. We both know what that whoremonger really wants from you, betrothal or no. It’s only a matter of time. There’s no limit to his ambition. I could see you safely to Runestone and Yohn Royce.”

 

Her breath hitched. Take a good whiff .  “Lord Royce was ever my father’s friend. How, though?”

 

His eyes glittered at that, taking it for encouragement. “On the morrow before day breaks. The castle will still be sleeping off their wine. My squire knows which guards can be bribed and will ready the horses. The mountain passes will be slow with heavy snowfall, but we can take the longer way of the High Road. Then take a ship to Runestone. Royce has been waiting to seize an opportunity to pry Littlefinger off the high lord’s seat. Taking his pawn away from him would be a good start. Lord Royce wanted to fight for Robb. He would do everything in his power to keep Ned’s daughter safe…maybe even rally behind her once Littlefinger is sent packing to Harrenhal.”

 

She couldn’t help the quaking within her.  A part of her wanted to believe it, but the best lies are nestled in truth. The High Road also meets the King’s Road and Sansa Stark still had a bounty on her head. Dead or alive. He would have his vengeance and one hundred dragons are no small things for a second son. He couldn’t hope to drag me out. He must have me quiet and willing, but if he gets desperate enough... I must tread carefully .  “Ser, I share a bed with Lady Myranda. How will I be able to leave the room without being seen?”

 

“There’s a few lads here no doubt that could keep the lady occupied. I could see to it. A clever girl like you escaped one castle. This should be child’s play.”  

 

“I make no promises, ser. I can only try, but if I see a guard or a maid about I won’t risk it.  He has eyes and ears everywhere. I only move so freely because he trusts me like a daughter.”

 

“I trust you will succeed, my lady. We must seize the opportunity. We’ve been talking too long.  It’s high time you’re off and back to the feasting.  Go now.”

 

Her legs felt as wobbly as a new fawn as she started back. Her heart was a bird beating its wings wildly against a cage, mad to escape. I mustn’t cry. I need to think. All day she had been playing at courtly games. Lyn Corbray was no cyvasse piece. He was volatile, impatient, and deadly. Her head in a sack would serve just as well as her whole body. She felt so hot and flushed. It might have been Ser Morgarth that called out to her to ask if she needed an escort, but she waved her hand dismissively as she picked up her pace. She could not abide the company right now.


Chapter Text


Alayne was glad of Petyr’s command to retire early.  She didn’t need to feign exhaustion.  Her only desire was to hide in some dark, silent place far from the madness of the main hall.  The lower castle was such a small thing compared to most others.  The echoes of the harps, pipes, and drums below reverberated through the stone walls.  Maddie had a bath and some food brought up to her chambers and as soon as she helped her out of her dress and corset, Alayne dismissed her.  She requested only some bread, butter, and mulled wine be left on the table, though she doubted she would be up able to eat tonight.  Her tummy felt like a knotted rope being pulled tighter from both ends.  She slipped in, sank down low and still, and let the hot water come up to just below her nose.  Her breath made little ripples on the surface.  The sun had just set not long ago and dawn was still several hours away.  Still, it felt like a perilously short amount of time to work out what to do about Ser Lyn.

          

It rang true that Lord Royce would have helped her if he knew who she was.  It occurred to her she might just be the biggest idiot that ever was.  Bronze Yohn knighted Harry and counseled him against trusting Littlefinger.  Perhaps she should have taken him to some dark alcove and let him have her maidenhead.  She could have revealed herself to Harry and he would be struck dumb that the gods had dropped the heir to Winterfell on his manhood.  That would have hastened him to the sept out of the fear of Sansa Stark giving birth to his bastard.  She could have swayed him to take her to Runestone and away from Petyr.  Lady Anya may still call him her ward, but he’s a grown man and no one could stop him.  But she just had to harbor ideas of holding on for someone that would love her for herself.  She had to keep carrying around like a sack of stones the foolish memory of man that was the basis for comparison against anyone else.


Harry was so angry and bitter now.  She would have to act in ways that would shame her lady mother or take care that her wit never exceeded his, but she could have been herself again and ended this nightmare.  What matter did it make if her husband would have bastards littering the countryside or if he disdained her appearance after birthing made her fat?  Why should she be any different than other highborn wives come before?  But that plan would also leave her little cousin alone… and she couldn’t rid herself of the nagging feeling that she could not truly endure such a marriage, selfish and childish though it may be. Stop it.  This is not helping the matter at hand .


What if she just went to Lord Petyr and told him of Corbray’s designs?  He was so fearless and clever, he would know what to do…  but then he might move her to some unknown, isolated place out of caution, away from the few friends and freedoms she had.  If Kettleblack had betrayed him, he might decide Lothor Brune could as well and be rid of him.  He may be Petyr’s man, but she called him a friend just the same.  At least Alayne Stone of the Gates lived a modest little life, a lie though it may be.  Sansa Stark has nothing and no one but a claim that’s brought naught but grief.  No, Petyr Baelish’s help could only benefit one person.

She would dress and go downstairs, discreet as a mouse.  She must somehow ensure Randa’s stay with her tonight.   At least she could do that much.  It would put Lyn off for one night and buy her more time if Randa didn’t dally with a man.  She didn’t want her astute friend to raise any questions about it either.  It was not as if she could claim a need for a sympathetic ear over Harry.  Myranda knew she had no feelings toward him.  It would be unkind as well since Myranda had once had hopes of a match.  


Thinking of the older girl had led to some other thoughts as well.  She remembered the things she shared with her the previous night -- things to do with making herself sing.  She had heard ribald japes before about boys tugging themselves, but she didn’t imagine girls could do anything like it.  She stretched her limbs out to relieve this awful tension and settled her head against the back of the tub.  The water was far from growing cold, but in this position her breasts formed stiffened peaks breaking the surface like twin islands.  Her skin was so pale her nipples were scarcely darker than the pink of seashells.  She remembered the times she had been groped before:  by Joffrey and even by Lord Tyrion who she had come to think of as kinder than others.  She wanted to replace those unpleasantries once and for all.  Slowly she brought her hands up her body and imagined the way she would like her breasts to be held.  From cupping them and pushing them slightly together she then delicately moved her fingers to caress the underside and traced the seam where they met her ribs.  She strummed her thumbs lazily over the tips of her nipples like harp strings.  There was an easy warmth taking hold like the first rush of wine hitting her head.  


She felt almost skittish turning her thoughts to him .  She had her memories etched in time and her dreams that could go anywhere they may, but this was far more deliberate.  She held the reins and the spurs.  The honesty of it was unsettling, but thrilling as well.  She wanted those cruel lips branding her throat while she imagined her small hands becoming his large calloused ones.  This was so lovely.  She wondered if men liked their nipples touched this way.  She wondered if he would like it.  She suddenly had the urge to pay him in his own coin.  Her mouth could be just as fierce on his neck and chest.  There was a pull down in her lower belly like being led around by a hook.  Rivulets of water trickled down as she hitched one leg over the rim of the tub.  Tentatively she traced the outline of her sex with the tip of her middle finger.  The petals held their own sensations, but nothing prepared her for the awakening of finding the kernel Randa had described.  She spent a long time experimenting with different pressures, fingers, and movements before settling into a groove that felt right.  She had felt so small standing near him before that it was hard to imagine what his weight would feel like cradled between her thighs.  She didn’t want to think about the pain of taking his manhood inside her, but she remembered she was mistress here.  She held the reins and the spurs.  She had no idea what form that particular pleasure would take, but for now, his manhood remained a nebulous thing that only fit like a glove.  Her mind commanded him to move over her as languidly as a shadowcat while his saw-blade voice murmured against her neck.  Somehow his familiar harshness excited her, strange as that seemed.  Only a moment later she felt something reach the peak of its crescendo before jerking her back down in the sweetest pulse of her sex.  Her thighs quivered uncontrollably and she had to remove her hand because the sensation became too much to bear.   Gods ...        


After she had collected herself and put  a clean shift on, someone gently rapped on her door.  Fortunately, it was the maids come to remove the bath and Mya Stone to check on her.  Mya sat on the edge of the bed while Alayne combed out and rebraided her hair.  “I’m feeling a little better, thank you.  I had a few bites of buttered bread.  I think I might go down a just watch the dancing from the stairwell.  Have you seen Myranda by any chance?”  The last maid closed the door behind her.


“I saw her at dinner, but after the trestle tables were moved to clear the floor I lost sight of her.  I was a little occupied myself...”  Alayne turned back to her friend after a pregnant pause.  Mya was fiddling with her dagger and pretending to prick her finger with the tip as she reclined back on the pillows.  She lifted her blue eyes pointedly.  “I let him kiss me.”


Alayne beamed.  “What did you think?”


“I think he was nervous,” she shrugged.  “He came to the stables to return my dagger.  He said he wouldn’t leave me without defense.  We talked for a bit.  I asked him to kiss me, just to see how I’d like it.  It wasn’t bad.  It got better when he pulled me in closer.  He had to leave for his guard duties walking the balconies, though.”


“Would you kiss him again?”


“I suppose I would.”  She smiled. “His arms are strong.  I was thinking… since the upper castles are closed for Winter we won’t be using the mules as much.  We could use the time before the snows reach us to make Lord Robert a better rider.  Perhaps you as well.  I know you aren’t comfortable above a trot or riding astride instead of sidesaddle.  Maybe after all these nobles finally go home.   What do you think?”  


“That’s brilliant, Mya.  I’ll talk Lord Robert into it.”


“Good.  I’m going to check the stables before heading to bed.”


After Mya had left, Alayne put on a deep gray wool dress that was easy to lace in the front.  She feared Myranda might have already left the hall with Corbray’s accomplice, but she may just be dancing.   There was a draft that chilled the marble halls so she put on her dark green cloak again.  When she tucked her hands in the cloak pockets for warmth, her fingers touched something at the bottom she had long forgotten was there.  It was as thin and fine as a spiderweb, but her fingers could still feel the hard, dangerous little stones.  She didn’t even know why she had kept it.  It made her only recall her waking nightmares.  She would have to remember to get rid of it.  


From the bottom of the steps that met the main hall, she surveyed the room and turned up nothing.  She saw Harry, even with his scabbed and bruised lip, looking quite recovered as he charmingly entertained some younger ladies.  Luckily for him, he hadn't broken those lovely teeth.  The musicians were playing a lively rendition of “The Maids that Bloom in Spring” -- without the singing of course.  She saw Lord Petyr speaking in Lady Waynwood’s ear as she gazed at nothing in particular, sipping her wine.  A sleepy Lord Robert was being led out his chair by Gretchel to be put to bed.  When he was far enough away from most eyes, Ser Morgarth lifted him into thick branches of his arms to carry him the rest of the way. He had done so well today.  He had behaved like a proper lord in front of everyone and not trembled once.  


She sighed.  She would need to search the empty chambers upstairs.  Before she could ascend, Ser Wallace spied her and asked her if she’d like to dance, only stuttering a few times on the d.  She smiled sweetly at him and begged his forgiveness.  She was still so drained, yet she only wanted to listen to the music a bit.  She touched his arm and congratulated him on his victory in the tilts.  


Up she went through the corridors servants usually used.  Her slippers were quiet on the floor, though she must keep her breathing hushed.  These halls echoed something fierce.  She paused at each door listening for any sign of Myranda’s voice… or sighs rather.  She searched one tower then another, ducking into alcoves and shadows whenever she heard the footsteps of servants.  She suddenly froze and flattened herself against a wall.  Around the corner, she heard the low laughter of men mixed with rustling and heavy panting.  Very carefully she eased out to take a look, but the lighting was poor.  It was indeed two men in a passionate embrace… no, a man grown and a slim, comely youth as far as she could tell.  Perhaps a year or two younger than Harry.  The man had turned away from her, halfway out of an open doorway with a flagon of wine dangling from his hand.  The younger one was at his neck with reckless abandon and fondled him through his pants.  “Enough of that,”  he said low and husky.  You need to get back down there.  Do this right for me.  On the morrow, we’ll have our quarry.”             


“I just need something to get my blood up again is all.  What she’s got doesn’t exactly inspire me.”


The older one pushed back on the other.  “I could manage even with Lady Lysa when I needed to.  I’ll have you again on a bed of dragons soon enough.  Go on now.  I’ll be down shortly.”  


Duly chastised, the younger one straightened his breeches, ran his fingers through his hair and made his way down the hall toward her.  Alayne ducked back behind the wall and held her breath.  She saw the back of his head as he strutted past her and descended a stairwell.  She could not see his face or any sigil, but he had wheat-colored hair and wore a bright cardinal doublet.  She prayed hard because this was either a stroke of luck or her biggest mistake.  There could be no doubt she found Lyn Corbray’s chamber and at least she knew his lover had not been around Myranda yet.  She heard his door close so she took the opportunity to duck into an empty guest chamber with the door cracked in order to see when he had left.


It felt like a lifetime had gone by before she finally saw Ser Lyn striding down the same stairs.  The rumors were true then.  He was all composed as if he hadn’t just been tupping a boy in his room, not that she understood exactly how that worked.  Her heart was hammering away and the perspiration was rising on her forehead and chest.  Lyn Corbray would indeed kill her or take her to King’s Landing for execution.  A mad thought seized her.  Oh-so-lightly she made her way to Corbray’s chamber and opened the door.  


As a member of an ancient and noble house, he had been given a moderate-sized room with a small adjoining chamber for a servant and private privy.  There was a low fire crackling in the small hearth.  He had a feather bed with four tall posts and blue and white curtains and canopy.  Lady Forlorn hung in his sword belt on a peg in the wall.  The flagon of wine sat on the table beside the bed.  It was still half-full of red.  She reached into the pocket of her cloak and pulled out the hairnet.  She studied the tiny black amethysts of Asshai, how they glowed purple in the firelight.   Do I simply drop them in?   She fiddled with one of the stones until it popped loose and almost dropped it.  She wasn’t sure if one was enough so she pried loose a second and into the flagon they went.  It was so hard to see, but after sloshing the wine around they appeared to be dissolving.   He’s going to kill me.  He knows who I am.  Cry about this later.     


She suddenly heard heavy footfalls of boots outside.  She returned the flagon to it’s position on the table hurriedly and dashed into the adjoining chamber.  She barely managed to crawl under a small, low servant's cot and tucked in her dress and cape before the door opened.  Her breasts were crushed down painfully from the corset and press of the straw mattress above.  The vantage point allowed her to see it was the young man that returned to the chamber.   What’s this about?   Apparently, he left something behind, something he found partially under the bed— a soft leather glove.  It’s twin was tucked into his belt, which was a simple, well-worn thing that contrasted with the splendid detailing of his doublet and the quality of the gloves.  Instead of simply leaving, he squatted down next to the chest at the foot of the bed and opened it.  She could hear the sound of rifling through a bag of coin and she saw him tuck a few pieces into his own purse.   Oh, I see…  Ser Lyn would break your pretty face if he knew you for a thief, especially after gifting you such finery above your station.  And to think he was going to spoil you silly with my bounty.  

After closing the chest he stood and hesitated a moment.  She saw his feet turn to the table, she heard him take a long draw from the flagon before setting it back down.  Her hands trembled wildly and her eyes widened.  What if it didn’t work or what if he made it back down to the feast before it worked?  She got her answer after he only took a few steps toward the door.  A dry cough overtook him and he meant to wet his throat with more wine.  Only seconds later his breathing turned thick and wheezing.  Before long he was on his knees, scratching at his own throat.  She could barely see his face, but there was no doubt his lips grew pale and horrifically violet.  He fell on his back, so muffled were his cries and his legs twitched and danced.  She clamped a hand over her own mouth to stop the scream and felt her own hot tears running over her fingers.  Now, as they both lay on the floor together, his teary, bloodshot, brown eyes were looking directly at hers.  His lips parted again and again in vain like a fish stranded on land.  No air was going in or out.  Then the light was snuffed out of those eyes.


Alayne almost wanted to retch, but she willed herself to shuffle out from under the cot.  She still didn’t recognize who he was or where he was from.  Her breath was ragged as she wiped her eyes with her sleeve.   I need to think .  Ser Lyn will be back eventually.  He nearly split the skull of his sparring partner a day ago, what wouldn’t he do when he found his lover dead?   Seven hells, this was supposed to kill the truly dangerous one first!  Slender though he was, Alayne could still not move him herself, try as she might.  She felt like an idiot.  Where would she move him to anyway?  She had no choice but to ask for help.  There was only one person she could think of that already knew the truth.  She refused to involve Mya or Myranda.  The less they knew meant they would never have to lie or be forced to constant vigilance playing this game with Littlefinger.  Alayne could barely keep her own head above water.


The evening was still young and the music and revelry below had not yet reached their full swing.   I’ve murdered someone for true now.  She buried that nagging thought down deep as she flew through the corridors.   I’m already in hell.  I’ll cry about it later .  She came to an open balcony overlooking an inner courtyard below.  A few torches flickered about and the faint glow of moonlight was dimmed by cloud cover.  Lothor Brune was there walking another balcony across from her, just as Mya said he would.  She stood where she thought no one else would be able to see her from below and silently waved his way to catch his eye.  It took a few tries before he finally stopped and looked her way.  She prayed he recognized her and wouldn’t raise an alarm.  She held her finger up to her lips and he nodded back to her.  Then she gestured him to come before returning to wait for him near the stairwell.


Alayne thought she’d wear a hole in her cloak with the way her thumbs rubbed a fistful of fabric.  It felt like forever and a day by the time he found her.  Again, she motioned for silence as she led him to Corbray’s room.  “The fuck?” he mouthed when he saw it.  She closed the door behind her and suddenly it all came pouring out in a mad rush like Alyssa’s Tears.  She held back nothing.  To his credit, he did not call her an idiot out loud.  “Kettleblack’s sons, the ones Lord Petyr had spying for him, are on trial by the faith in King’s Landing.  They will likely die.  Either he could do nothing or would do nothing.  Oswell may not be able to save his sons, but he knew he could fuck your father out of his prize piece, beg your pardon, my lady.  He knew a man such as Ser Lyn would bite the bait.”  


“You know everything Oswell does.  If he found out about this betrayal, I feared he would see to getting rid of you as well.  He doesn’t leave things to chance.  I don’t want to be sent away to some strange place, isolated all over again.  What do we do?”


He rubbed his square jaw thoughtfully for a long moment.  “Help me get his clothes off and get him on the bed.”  Lothor had him laying face down, naked as his name day, with his limbs sprawled.  He took the belt from the pile of clothing and looped it around his neck, pulling tight enough for the buckle to dig into this flesh.  He tossed the last of the wine down the privy hole and set the flagon back.  


“Do you know who he was?”


“Some get of a poor landed knight.  A third or fourth son, I believe.  I want you to go back to bed now.  I will deal with Ser Lyn.  Whatever you hear in the morning, as far as you’re concerned, you were asleep all night.”  He held her gently by the shoulders and gave her a firm look.  “If anything like this happens again, even if they just give you a funny look, you come tell me.”  He might have done this for her anyway, but nudging Mya his direction probably didn’t hurt.  She nodded and silently vowed she would never attempt something so mad again.


“The squire, though… he’s only a boy,” she said as she stood at the door.  It was bizarre to look upon a dead, naked form.  It looked wax-like and unnatural.  She shivered.  


“I’ll put the fear of the seven hells in him.  He’ll say nothing and count himself lucky.  Oswell need not die, it would raise your father’s suspicions if he did, but I’ll make sure he sees the sense in going back to Gulltown and staying there with his fool mouth shut.”


   Alayne allowed herself to sob and yell uncontrollably into the pillow when she was down to her bedclothes and curled into a ball under the covers.  She wanted to be left alone.  She wanted to be held.  She was so tired, yet how would she sleep again?  When she had no tears left in her she just laid there unmoving.  Some time later, it was her father that came and sat beside her on the edge of the bed.  She could smell the wine on his breath.                       


“Your eyes are red and swollen,” he said as he stroked her tangled hair.  She must look like a mad woman.  “What upsets you, sweetling?”


“I came down earlier just to watch the dancing for a bit.  I saw Harry with some other ladies.  He enchanted them.  He’s already forgotten me, he’ll never want me again, and it was all for naught.”  She wove this tapestry of dung so easily now.


“I told you all would be well.  Lady Anya says he’s already starting to come around.  She made him understand.  You are so beautiful when you are sad.”  His thumb ran down her cheek.  “You must look at him longingly and forlorn.  Still, it doesn’t do to have your eyes thus.  I will send for Maester Colemon to bring you some dreamwine.”  His hand drifted down to the delicate little ribbon that held her bedclothes together in front.  His smile did not touch his eyes.  


“The dreamwine would be good, father.” she said flatly.


He rose from the bed.  “I see Lady Myranda is elsewhere.  I believe she might be giving Ser Andrew Tollett a good ride this evening seeing as he proved he can stay on his mount today.  Goodnight, sweetling.”


The dreamwine was a blessing of dreamless, weighted sleep.  She had at least closed her eyes knowing Myranda was unharmed.  It was Myranda that woke her in the morning, vigorously shaking her shoulder.  “Alayne, you must wake.  You won’t believe what has happened!”  Alayne’s heart lept up and wedged itself in her throat.  “Ser Lyn murdered his lover in his bed late last night.  A landed knight’s son up near Heart’s Home, naked as his name day.  He strangled him with a belt in some fit of rage.  The purse was too rich by far for that boy.  He might have been caught as a thief.  The servants found Ser Lyn hanging by the bed curtain cords half-naked himself.  He must have offed himself out of grief or fear when he came to his senses.  The scandal would have ruined him.”   


Alayne gaped and stared.  She had no idea what to say except “Does my father know?”


“Of course he knows.  Everyone is talking about it.  It’s already mid-morning.  You’ve slept so late.  The Lord Protector has already sent for the silent sisters to take him and his Valyrian steel sword back to Heart’s Home.  He’s already declared the final jousts will be delayed until tomorrow while he and my father settle this business.  They’ve moved up the melee to this afternoon to keep the guests entertained.  A raven has also been sent to Lord Lyonel.  He will not miss his brother too much I think, but he will appreciate it if Lord Petyr settles the matter quickly and quietly.”


“How is Sweetrobin?”  He must be frightened at the thought of a murder happening so near him.


“He’s quite well, though a little cross that the jousting was put off.  He held no liking for Ser Lyn.  Maddie should be up soon to help you dress.  You should wear something a little more cheerful to put some color back in your face.”


Myranda prattled on about Ser Andrew Tollett, including all the obscene details of their night.  Alayne was lost in thought and still a little hazy from the dreamwine, feeling like swimming through milky water.  Ser Lyn was quick and powerful, but not so much if he’d been drinking and Ser Lothor was much stronger than he appeared.  He could have hidden in the room and waited until Corbray returned then garrotted him from behind with the curtain cords.  All that would be left is to remove his doublet and shirt and string him up.  She wondered what Petyr must have thought of the whole thing.  “Gold and boys...” he said it himself about Corbray.  And gold and boys had been his undoing.   Somewhat.  


The most cheerful thing she owned was another wool gown of a deep shade of wine.  She did not exactly feel cheerful, but she no longer felt so bad either.  She would be ever grateful to Lothor Brune though he’d probably prefer she never broached the subject again.  When she saw him downstairs standing by Lord Petyr and Nestor Royce whilst they were engaged, she gave him a little curtsy as she passed.  Her steps felt lighter and less burdened.  She had donned her green cloak again, but today she left her hair unbound save for two small combs holding it off her face.  As she passed a brazier, she discreetly tossed the cursed hair net into the flames and briefly watched the delicate threads and stones shrivel and melt away.  The whole castle was indeed alight with gossip.  No one even seemed to notice her.  Myranda would be waiting for her somewhere in the yard, but she had one piece of business left.


It didn’t take long to find the motley hedge knights.  She could see Ser Shadrich’s shocking orange hair from afar, his funny shield with the white, red-eyed mouse painted on it rested against a nearby tree.  He and Ser Morgarth sparred with practice swords, preparing for today’s melee.  They stopped and greeted her when they saw her approaching.  “Beg your pardon for our friend yesterday, Lady Alayne.  I saw your distress when you left the tourney grounds.  He won’t be bothering you again, I promise you that.” said Ser Morgarth.


“On the contrary, Ser, I’m here to see Ser Byron.  That was not my distress, I assure you.”  She smiled weakly.  


He hesitated a moment.  “Pity about this business with Ser Lyn.  This is Lord Robert’s tourney, but you were also to meet your betrothed, is that not so?  I’m sorry you’ll have such an ugly memory associated with it.”  


Courtesy is a lady’s armor.   “A pity indeed.  It will not soon be forgotten, but we’ll have grand and happy memories as well.  In truth, the betrothal is not yet official.  Ser Harrold must come to know me a little better first before he consents to it.”

“How modern these noble matches are becoming.”  The Mad Mouse interjected drolly.  Alayne thought that odd.  The Hardyng’s were no higher than landed knights.  She sensed someone behind her and turned to find Ser Byron standing there.  No elegant bows or words.  Simply quiet and waiting.  She reached into her pocket and held out five silver stags in her palm.  She had nicked them off the young man’s purse before finding Ser Lothor.  Might as well add theft and murder to her growing pile of sins.  


“Your share as promised, ser.”  She thought he moved to take it, but he gently closed her fingers over the coins.


“It was enough to serve you, my lady.”  She looked down at his wrist and saw the yellow ribbon tied around it.  It was a little worse for wear, smudged with sweat and dirt.  She hadn’t noticed before but his eyes were a soft blue, almost a little gray in the overcast daylight.  She felt a small quivering of desire in her lower belly, but blotted the thoughts out quickly.  It was only natural, she reasoned, as she was coming into womanhood.  


“If you will excuse us, my lady,” said Ser Morgarth.  “We have a melee to win.”


“And the time is drawing shorter.”  added The Mad Mouse.


        




            














Chapter Text

The tight-lipped annoyance of his companions was plain on their faces when Ser Byron had offered her his arm to escort her back.  She meant to refuse him, but some wanting, some insistent curiosity, made her slip her arm through his.  “So who does my lady want beaten bloody today?” he said as they slowly strolled through the tent rows.

 

“I think it wise for a gambler to know when to be satisfied with her winnings.  I counted myself lucky yesterday.”   In so many ways .

 

“Luck?  Is that the way of it?  Not a thing to do with skill?” he prodded her.  

 

“Lucky for me I placed my bet on the most skilled.”  She saw no need to swell his head, though, and went for her own jab.  “However, the competition was lacking.  Truthfully, I’ve seen more rousing jousts,” she said imperiously.  Her thoughts drifted to her father’s tourney of the Hand and the memory of the Hound unhorsing Jaime Lannister.  Then how Loras yielded the victor’s title and purse after he had saved him from his brother, the Mountain.  That was a slip up, though. Realistically, how many tourneys would a merchant’s bastard daughter get to witness?  She hoped that her blunder would go unnoticed.

 

“Aye, my lady.  Gnats mostly, but a few with some promise if they got their heads out of their --”  

 

“Careful, ser.  One of those gnats could be your high lord one day.”

 

He scoffed.  “Not bloody likely.  That one is cut from the same cloth as Robert Baratheon.”  Perhaps he didn’t know how frail Lord Robert truly was.  It pained her to think about it, her Sweetrobin’s pain unknown to all .  Unless he managed to live to sire his own heir, Harry would always be a looming likelihood.  Still, a curious comparison to make to the dead king.  She knew he meant the reckless fathering of bastards and couldn’t argue with that assessment, but that sounded more like a wife’s concern, not a hired sword’s.  Her father always said Robert was well liked by most men.  Unless… he was sussing out her feelings about her supposed betrothed.  She wasn’t sure what to say to that, but a hedge knight shouldn’t have such ideas about even the bastard daughter of a Lord Protector.  “I don’t see myself serving here that long,” he added.   Oh…       

         

“Yet you compete for a three-year position in the Winged Knights?”

 

“I compete to win.  That’s all.”

 

“Now there’s a lie, ser.”  She said as her finger tapped on the autumn-yellow ribbon around his wrist.  

 

He chuckled low at that.  “You have me there.  I should apologize for seizing an improper kiss yesterday,  but I won’t.  I am not sorry for my behavior.”  This was getting to be a dangerous, albeit enticing. game.  It was already foolish enough to walk with him.   If Lord Petyr or Harry saw...

 

“You should apologize.”   Somehow she couldn’t stop herself.  “You call it improper and I agree.  It was no proper kiss at all.  I barely remember it.”  She had never bantered like this before.  With Harry, it had all been an act and felt as ill-fitting as someone else’s clothes.  This made her feel powerful and grown.  He stopped and gave her an almost disbelieving look.  A gust of chilled wind had stirred the oaks and pines surrounding them and she clutched her free arm close to her body.  The frenzied squawks of crows echoed from some distance away and leaves of gold and russet twirled and drifted down.  One had landed and snarled itself in her curls and another caught itself in the lowered hood of his cloak.  His fingers plucked the leaf out, but not before touching the curl that held it.  A darkening of desire descended over his eyes, deepening the gray in the blue.  It would be so lovely to press her cheek into his hand if not for the screaming in her head that this could go no further.  Just when he made a move to correct the barely remembered, improper kiss, she turned her face downward and damned herself for it.  They were both suspended in a brief moment with his face so close, a puff of breath on her skin, and a twitch in his mouth she burned to still with her own.  To her relief and regret he mercifully backed away when she could not look him in the eyes.  She would be completely undone if she had.  Instead she quietly curtsied and excused herself.  Anything so nice is never meant to be.    

 

  Alayne briefly returned to her room to retrieve her fox-fur cloak, gloves, and warmer stockings.  She sat on the edge of the bed with her dress hitched up to her thighs as she drew the knitted wool over the contours of her legs and tied the garters prettily.  The corners of her mouth were turned up in an almost imperceptible smile as she hummed “Six Maids in a Pool.”  She was not particularly attracted to his looks; beautiful, yes, but that kind of beauty seemed so commonplace.  He did have a way about him that wetted the silk of her smallclothes, yet she could still walk away from him.  A darker ferocity that could loose the ties of her smallclothes was what she dreamed of.

 

Myranda had said he was well, but Alayne wanted to look in on Sweetrobin herself, to see him with her own two concerned eyes..  She found him in his chambers sitting on the edge of the bed while Maddie put on his boots.  “Make sure Lord Robert has his bearskin cloak on.  The sun is not so bright today and there’s a chill wind blowing.”  Alayne instructed Gretchel.  They had him dressed in a silver-gray doublet and dark blue breeches.  Around his skinny waist was a belt studded with moonstones and a sheath for a small, jeweled dagger.  The layers and quilting puffed him up and made his frame look fuller than he was.  She had to admit his eyes seemed less rheumy as of late.   That hair, though .  She wondered if she could now convince him to allow her to cut it a little, for it had grown longer than any boy’s hair she had ever seen.  “My Sweetrobin, you are looking strong today.  Are you excited for the melee?”              

 

“I suppose,” he conceded.  “I like the jousting better.  My cousin was defeated in the joust.”

 

“Indeed he was.  I’m certain you will enjoy the melee just as well.  The swords will sing and those not competing for the wings will have their chance to prove their worth to their high lord.”  

 

“Will Ser Byron fight today?”  The boy held the knight who bloodied and unhorsed his heir in such high esteem, as if he were the second coming of Artys Arryn.  

 

“I do not know, my lord.  We could simply ask him.”

 

“I could command it.  I should like to see him fight with a sword.”  Robert bit his lip, deep in thought.  “If he proves his worth I could ask my lord stepfather to appoint him master-at-arms.  He could teach me then,” he said, the last part trailing off in a mumble.

 

Alayne smiled at that.  She wasn’t sure if he’d ever get the chance or if he’d ever calm his fear of blades enough to learn to wield one himself, but it was good to hear him speak of it.  “A most honorable position,” she said as she sat down beside him on the mounds of fur blankets.  “He will surely continue in the tilts.  They resume on the morrow.”      

 

“On account of Ser Lyn… and his lover.”  Sweetrobin said matter-of-factly as if he were privy to that kind of gossip all the time.  Children his age relished showing off their forbidden knowledge.  It would have made her feel deliciously grown up too.    

 

Alayne looked around at the servants pointedly and they quickly lowered their eyes.  She quietly dismissed them as she took up the hairbrush to finish attending Robert herself.  Perhaps it could not be helped and maybe it was time he grew accustomed to some realities of life.  By his age, her little brother Bran had already accompanied their lord father to administer justice.  For a brief, painful moment she thought of Lord Eddard’s sad eyes boring into her if he knew what kind of justice she had done.  I can’t swing a sword, father.              

 

“Yes, my lord,” she said as she stroked his hair.  “Lord Lyonel will be greatful for the respect and decency showed his family in their grief.”   He’ll appreciate the return of Lady Forlorn even more.   “I know you never loved Ser Lyn, but good lords must sometimes put those things aside and do what is right and proper.”  She brushed his fine brown hair until it shone.    

 

Robert sighed.  Just as she braced herself for a petulant response, he said “Alayne, I am sorry I spoke of dishonoring you before.  What my cousin does is unchivalrous and I would not be like him.  I promise you that if you don’t marry him one day, I will marry you to someone who loves you as much as I do.  I will command him to never dishonor you or he risks my anger.”

 

She dared not laugh at his earnestness.  He sounded so different from the boy who had trampled her snow castle.  If she ever thought him foolish or wanted to slap him, it was only that she saw so much of her younger self in him.  She didn’t know what to say to that except she drew him to her and kissed the top of his head.

 

Again the stands filled as they master of ceremonies announced the melee competitors.  This time Lord Petyr bade her sit beside him and Sweetrobin, with Myranda and Mya, taking a seat on the other side.  Petyr Baelish always looked as though he sat upon a high perch, untouchable and able to see far beyond the horizon of men on the ground.  Still, she could feel the tension in his hand as he held hers.  It was this business with Ser Lyn.  He didn’t like surprises as much as he boasted he thrived on chaos.  She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Are you so troubled, father?  Nothing has changed, has it?” she asked as she intertwined her fingers in his.  The coquettish smile she gave him sickened her inside, but the more he turned his attention away from Ser Lyn the better.  She knew he burned for these little signs.     

 

“No, nothing has changed, sweetling,” he said as he gave her hand a squeeze.  He called for cups of hot spiced wine to be brought to them as he gave her an approving look.  “You look like a snow maid in your furs.  The wine will flush your lips and you will be irresistible to Harry.”  His eyes flitted over her shoulder.  “He comes now with the Waynwoods.”  Rolland and Wallace gave her a cheerful greeting as they helped Lady Anya to her seat.  Harry’s face was unreadable, as if he were looking at nothing at all.  He had donned his armor again to try his hand at the melee.  With all of them so close, Alayne had no choice but to be as sweet as honey and innocent as a lamb.  She looked up at him through lowered lashes and with just the proper amount of humility.    

 

“Good day, Ser Harrold.  You are looking quite triumphant already.  None shall be able to stand against you, I’m sure.”  Her scalp burned.   I am the daughter of two paramount houses.  It is only an absurd accident of fate that you are heir to one.  He studied her for a moment before placing a kiss on her hand and giving her a superior grin.

 

“And none can stand against your beauty, Lady Alayne,”  he said.  It could have been taken as a sincere compliment if he wasn’t already heading to the field before he finished her name.  She smiled dutifully and sipped her mulled wine.  His squire rushed to meet him with his falcon-winged helm, quartered shield and blunted sword.  Due to the limited size of the field, the melee would be on foot and to the last man standing.  The ranks were mostly soldiers and hedge knights from the surrounding lands hoping to ransom the finely polished plate of those who had been eliminated from the first day of jousts.  The top prize was enough gold to buy a fine destrier and even finer whores for a year, so Petyr had told her.  Most brandished blunted swords and shields, but there were also polearms, axes, and maces as well.  There were shields of plain, unpainted wood as well as the red castle of Redfort, the black portcullis and crescent moon of the cadet branch of Royces,  the green snakes of Lynderly, the golden wings of the Gulltower Shetts, the seagulls of the Gulltown Shetts, the candles of Waxley, the bells of Belmore, the ridiculous pink lips of house Lipps, the funny white mouse of the Mad Mouse, and so many more sigils of minor houses she could not place.  Ser Morgarth was there as well bearing an oak shield of paint so old and chipped the sigil was unrecognizable.  

 

Once the fighting began, it was a cacophony of singing steel, blunt force thuds and scraping metal.  A few formed small alliances to overcome more challenging opponents and combatants that found themselves singled out on the edges.  They started with forty in number.  After an hour into the battle, little more than twenty remained.  Harry was holding his own and was doing surprisingly well.  He had eliminated five by himself.  As men fell, squires rushed in to drag them off the field or ransom armor for their masters.  Maester Colemon was there to examine any serious injuries, but so far it was only broken noses and smashed fingers.  Alayne glanced over at Sweetrobin and smiled as she watched him bounce with excitement on his pillowed seat every time another knight fell.  Shadrich and Morgarth kept each other’s backs.  The Mad Mouse was quick and precise where the powerful, brawny knight was splintering shields and denting armor.  

 

After another hour the remaining nine were growing slower with fatigue.  Harry seemed to have caught a second wind as he managed to drive Morgarth apart from Shadrich and took the big man down with a well-placed strike to his flank.  Dutifully she clapped as Rolland and Wallace cheered behind her.  Shadrich was managing to dodge most attacks with speed one would expect from someone half his age.  As one knight lunged at him with a polearm, the Mad Mouse steered clear, then struck him hard in the back of his helm.  Harry battered his opponent so severely the flanged mace loosed from his hand when he was knocked senseless to the ground in the center of the field.  It was finally down to Harry and Shadrich and they went at each other mercilessly, without hesitation.  The squires rushed out to drag away the dead weight of his last opponent to the sidelines, but it was too dangerous to recover the weapons left behind.  Some of the audience had taken to their feet while they shouted and cheered.  The smaller man was on defense with his shield up, but Harry was still being conservative with his swings to not exhaust himself in the final moments.  Eventually, however, the heir of the Vale seemed to grow impatient.  Alayne winced as Harry landed a painful looking strike to the upper arm that sent Shadrich reeling, but he managed to stay on his feet.  Dodging a slam of his shield, the little man’s sword clipped the falcon wings on his helm and knocked it clear off his head.  Shadrich backed away quickly with his weapons down.  He nodded and waited for Harry to pick up the helm to resume fighting.  They were both swaying and chests heaving, but Harry did not move to recover his helm, leaving his head uncovered.  His ash-blonde curls were matted down with sweat.  Harry growled and charged.  He raised his sword and was cleaving it down on the little man while he still had his shield lowered.  Shadrich spun out of the way but fell hard to his knees.  Harry’s footing seemed to give way in a soft divot in the dirt and he pitched forward with all the momentum of his stroke.  Alayne heard the collective gasp of all in attendance as Harry’s head slammed hard into the discarded mace just above his eye.  For a long moment, the only sound was the wind rustling the withering tree leaves.  He was on his side, lying on his awkwardly bent sword arm as his blood spilled out on the tourney field.  His eyes were half-open but seemed unseeing, and his legs made fitful twitches  Lady Anya emitted a pitiful moan and fell against her grandson.  Even Petyr dropped his wine cup and stood dumbstruck.  

 

Quickly, she nudged her way past Petyr and took Lord Robert by his hands to lead him out of his seat and behind the stands.  He could not become frightened and have a shaking fit in front of all his most prominent bannermen.  As she clutched Robert to her chest, she watched as Maester Colemon and Harry’s squire rushed over to the fallen heir.  A crowd encircled them and the swell of voices grew louder.  She could not see anything past the massive cluster, but curiously, she saw Ser Shadrich now standing alone at the edge of the field.  He had removed his helm and dropped his weapons.  He was at some distance from her, but his arms were now outstretched from his sides and he had a far-away look about him.  Words she couldn’t make out seemed to be coming from his lips.  Perhaps he was as shocked as everyone else was.  There were shouts that the Young Falcon was dead followed by wailing from the audience.  She clutched Lord Robert’s face between her hands and thought he began to tremble -- or was it her hands that were trembling? --  as she whispered lowly how his bravery comforted her and made her feel safe.  He wiped the snot from his nose on his sleeve, straightened his spine, and soothingly stroked her hair.  It was then she realized she was the one who was truly afraid.  She was the one who needed to run away and be comforted.  Harry’s jerking legs awoke nightmares of her father’s beheading and the death throes of the youth she had poisoned the day before.  It was all too much.  

 

A sharp gust of wind slapped her face and she felt her tears would freeze in her eyes.  The crows seemed closer now than they were earlier, raising their voices in a grating, squawking chorus.  Then she felt the warmth of a strong, but gentle touch on her shoulder.  She raised her eyes to see the stubbled-face of Ser Morgarth standing over them.  His massive hand could cover her entire shoulder, the same hand that had just been breaking men.  “Come, my lady.  Come back to the tents to compose yourself.”  He lifted Lord Robert into one of his arms as he calmly led her away.  No doubt he thought she was weeping for her beloved.  She cried again at that, but for herself.  She never felt like more of a liar and a fraud accepting kindness in this moment.                                                                       

 

  Suddenly, in the distance, there was the loudest cracking of stone she had ever heard.  Alayne jumped and clasped herself to his arm.  All eyes were torn from the field and toward the mountains behind the Gates.  The thundering echoed through the peaks and into the valleys.  She could feel tremors under her feet.  From this distance, the Eyrie looked as delicate as the sugar confection that topped the lemon cake on the first night of feasting.  It started with tiny streams of snow that rolled down the slopes of the Giant’s Lance like teardrops, but then the first of the rocks came loose from the peak and slammed into one of the seven slim white towers.  The screams and shouts surged again, overtaking the incessant caws of the birds.  That tower, the easternmost Maiden’s Tower, quickly toppled and slammed into its’ sister.  Castle stones, mountain rock and great plumes of snow tumbled down together collecting more of the same on their way down the slope.  She felt the pull of Morgarth as he urged her away but could not keep her eyes from the sight.  The roar of the avalanche carried to the lesser peaks and soon a flood of snow and rock was rushing down the entire ridge and plowing over sentinel pines.  The lower castles of Sky, Stone, and Snow must be completely buried or smashed.  She looked up again at the Giant’s Lance.  Half the Eyrie was now gone, it’s southern and eastern face shorn away and its’ remaining towers partially collapsed.  Violent, rolling clouds of pure white enveloped the base of the mountain range and were swiftly moving toward the Gates and the valleys below.  

 

Morgarth pulled on her hard and this time she yielded.  A cold blast of air whipped against their backs as a thick, snow-filled mist enveloped them, turning the air to milk.  She was blind to more than a few ahead and could only trust in the knight to guide her.  For the first time, she felt her heart hammering against her ribs and her lungs hurt from gasping frigid air.  The misty shadows of horses lay ahead of them.  A rider was already astride one of them.  Before she could understand what was happening, Ser Morgarth swung himself into the saddle with Sweetrobin still tucked against him.  She heard him murmuring words to the boy to keep him calm.  His brown hair was dusted white with flakes of snow.  The other rider brought his horse up beside her and hoisted her up in front of him as if she were no more than a doll.  Her eyes met Byron’s as he looked down at her.  She felt her lips part as if she wanted to say something, but no words came.  It was then that the Mad Mouse took the third horse and shouted for them to go and they spurred their horses away to outrun the mist.       

Alayne thought they meant only take them far enough away from the immediate danger, but it quickly became apparent that the snows were well behind them and they were making their way down the High Road.  Byron’s arm held her like a vice around her waist, keeping her firmly in the saddle though she did not make it easy for him.  She wildly kicked and swung her legs, causing the annoyed horse to groan and snort.  He could not, however, hold the reins and keep a hand clamped over her mouth at the same time.  She shrieked and clawed at his arm, but he was wearing mail and riding leathers.  Every chance she could she tried to look back to Sweetrobin, but it was useless.  She could not see past Byron’s shoulder.  She prayed hard he would not have a shaking fit, but she knew that it was equally useless.  The terror would surely bring one upon him if it hadn’t already.  She could hear his muffled screaming most of the way, but now there was silence from him.

 

“Please, please,” she cried.  “Stop!  He’s sick!  You’ll kill him if you don’t stop!”  But they did not stop.  They were still at full gallop.  They had already covered so much road they would surely have to slow down soon or exhaust the horses.  Finally, she heard Ser Morgarth behind them calling out emphatically to stop.  They had come upon a very shallow, stony streambed that ran from the mountainside.  The icy water splashed up as Byron reared his horse and turned the courser about.  Lord Robert was limp, cradled in Morgarth’s arm save for some twitching in his arms.  He could be near dead already.  Byron started to say something when she gritted her teeth and jammed her elbow hard into his face.  She felt teeth and what was probably his nose.  As he grunted his grip loosened enough and she managed to slip down from the saddle.  She fell flailing into the water, bruising her backside and legs against the stones.  The water was so cold it seemed to burn as it soaked through her clothes, but she staggered to her feet and ran toward Robert.  Wet tendrils of hair lashed her face.  “Let me see him!” she shrieked.  Morgarth dismounted and kneeled with Robert’s fragile little body in his arms.  With tears welling in her eyes, she stroked his small hand in hers.  His eyes were shut, but the lids fluttered a little, almost as if he were lost in a dream.     

 

“He is alive, my lady.  The shaking has passed and he’s exhausted himself.  He only sleeps now.”  Morgarth turned to Shadrich.  “We need to head straight south.  I can treat him there.”

 

“That is not the plan.”  Shadrich was tense and impatient as he looked at the road behind them.

 

Alayne heard splashing footfalls coming up behind her.  She snatched the dagger from Lord Robert’s belt and backed away from all of them, holding the blade to her own throat.  “You won’t take me back to the Queen alive, I promise you that.  You can drag my body back to her and collect your gold that way.  I can’t stop you.  But if Lord Robert dies you’ll be wanted men for the kidnapping and murder of a lord paramount.  You’ll all hang before you get a restful sleep again.”  Wincing as she pressed the dagger a little harder, she felt a tiny drop of blood coursing down her throat.      

               

Shadrich stepped forward, slowly and carefully like he was approaching an unbroken, half-wild horse.  “We aren’t taking you to the Queen, my lady.  Before we go any further, I think it’s time to tell you we are here to rescue you and the boy.”

 

She stared incredulously.  “Is that supposed to be a jape?   A good melee is all a hedge knight can hope for unless he stumbles on a bag of dragons.’  Those were your words and now they make sense.  Leave us now, let me carry Robert back, and you might still get out of this alive.”  

 

Then his voice softened.  He didn’t quite look so fox-faced anymore nor sound so cunning.  “You never met me before, but surely your father told you stories.  Your father, Eddard Stark, was my friend.  When I heard the news of his death and Robb amassing his forces, I sent my two children to serve your younger brother, Bran.  I came south to King’s Landing to find you and your sister, but could not find a way to get to you.  I hoped if Stannis had sacked the city I would get an opportunity, but that didn’t happen.  I lost you for a long time after Joffrey’s wedding.  My name is Lord Howland Reed of Greywater Watch, sworn to House Stark and ever Ned’s friend.  I can explain much and more later, but please we must make haste.”

 

She swallowed hard.  “That’s a brilliant lie, I’ll give you that.  My own father hadn’t seen Howland Reed since he returned from the war and that was over fifteen years before he --”

 

“Little bird.”  It was such a frail whisper she barely heard it.

 

“What… what did you say?”  It came from Byron, whose mouth and nose were bloodied.  She was shivering hard now and could no longer keep the blade steady.  She felt the blood meeting the curve of her chest and trickle down into her bodice.

 

“Show her!  Show her now so we can be away from here.”  Shadrich urged impatiently.  

 

Byron’s fingers felt around under the neck of his mail shirt.  He drew out that small leather bag that hung around his neck and lifted the cord from over his head.  As he let it fall to the grass beside him, Alayne thought there was something queer going on with her eyes.  He was tall before, but now he seemed taller and his features sharper.  She sucked in a breath when his hair grew dark as pitch and that familiar ruin eclipsed half his face.  She shuddered and heard herself making nonsensical whimpers, though she knew not what she was trying to say.   I’ve gone mad, I’ve gone mad, I’ve gone mad, I’ve gone mad…   The ground was coming up suddenly to meet her, but a strong hand grasped her wrist and lowered her down gently.  “It’s you?” she asked meekly.  He only nodded.  His dark gray eyes looked so pained as if he couldn’t think of what to say either.  She felt the knife loosened from her fingers and she lifted her hands to cup his face, still not quite believing.  “How?” she asked.

 

“Bones and rubies,” said Reed.  “Bones from some long dead soldier that no one would know anymore.   Rubies to strengthen the glamor as long as they’re kept close.”  He ran his fingers through his orange hair and just then she noticed the fading and the regrowth to reveal the gray beneath.       

 

“On the Quiet Isle we have plenty of both for Lord Reed to hide the most recognized face in Westeros,” said Ser Morgarth.   Is he still Ser Morgarth?   “Sandor Clegane is the only one of us who would know you through any disguise.  Do we have your trust now, Lady Stark?”  

 

She slowly nodded, still not entirely certain she wasn’t mad.  “Little bird…” his low rasp startled her again but she couldn’t stop her fingers from tracing his jaw, both sides.  This was not the first time she felt blood on his face.  “There will be more time to talk later.”  He was trying so hard to keep his tone gentle, but the urgency was there.  “This man is the Elder Brother of a fellowship of the Seven.  He can help the boy in ways your maester can’t.  I was near dead once.  He brought me back.”  He turned back to Lord Reed.  “We need to head south.”

 

“I was told nothing of heading south.  We need to go west into the mountains.”

 

“You were told to save the boy too.” argued the... Elder Brother?  She was not used to all this yet.  “Let me take him to the Quiet Isle then.  We can be there by tomorrow.”

 

“I’ll not go anywhere without Robert.” she chimed in.  “Help him and I’ll gladly listen to you anything you have to say.  Are you sure he will make it there?  The maester says these violent episodes will further weaken him until he dies.”

 

“He does not appear to be dying anytime soon.”  The Elder Brother said as he examined the boy.    “We can make it.”  After he remounted his horse, Sandor handed him the boy and he enclosed him in his cloak to keep the wind off him.

 

“Fine, let us just be gone from here,”  Howland said as he returned to his horse.  Sandor helped Sansa to her feet and walked her back to the courser.  This felt like an absurd dream, yet it was real enough with her furious shivering and chattering teeth.  She couldn’t keep her eyes off him and every movement he made.  

 

It was then they heard the pounding of hooves coming up the road behind them.  A single rider.  Reed and Clegane both drew their swords and readied themselves.  It was Lothor Brune, equally ready with a sword in hand as he jumped down from the saddle.  Steel clashed on steel, but against two Lothor was mostly on the defense.  He just barely dodged a slash from Howland while straining against the force of Sandor’s downward cut.  “No!”  Sansa shrieked.  “Don’t hurt him!  Please stop!”  She could have lost a limb or worse, but she ran to Brune and pushed against his chest forcing Howland and Sandor to stand down.  “No, stop.   You must listen to me.  Look at me.”  She took him by his square jaw and forced him to look her in the eyes.  

 

“You’re bleeding.  My lady, what is this?  This whoreson is the Hound.”  He looked up to Sandor and pointed a finger at him.  “Wanted for the rape and murder of little girls.”

 

Before they came to blows again, the Elder Brother shouted “That was an imposter that stole the Hound’s helm, my lady.  He was under my care during the Saltpans, I swear it.”

 

Sansa sighed with relief as she gently placed her hands on Lothor’s blade so he would lower it.  “The cut is by my own hand.  He is my friend, just as you are.  He’s saved my life and protected me more than once.  You must trust me.  I can’t stay with Petyr anymore.  You know this.  Lord Robert isn’t getting better under Maester Colemon’s care either.  I need you to go back and say you couldn’t find any trace of us.  Go back and watch over Mya and Myranda… one day I hope you leave too.”  With great reluctance, Lothor finally relented and agreed to her request.  As she watched him leave, Sandor retrieved the bag of bones and rubies from the grass, placed it around his neck and once again became a familiar stranger.  His hands encircled her waist and he returned her to the saddle.  Gone was Byron’s easy manner that warmed her to him.  This time as he took his place behind her, his eyes would not meet hers.        

          


Chapter Text

They had left the High Road and cut between the barley fields and the mountains to the east, keeping a brisk canter before they were forced to rest the horses near sundown.  A thick cover of trees and overgrown brier along the base of the slope would be safe enough for the night.  Her whole body was stiff and sore from sharing the saddle, bruises on her thighs and near constant shivering until her hair and clothes finally dried out.  Sandor only spoke when it was necessary and limited conversation to practical matters at hand.  He had given her his cloak to wrap herself in an extra layer over her damp fox fur, but when she looked upon his face -- Byron’s face -- he seemed so unnatural and distant.  He wasn’t angry as far as she could sense, but she had dared not lean against him whilst they travelled.  She only requested that he ride beside Elder Brother in case Robert awoke so he would see her first, which he obliged.  

 

Robert finally did rouse as they dismounted and made their small camp.  Elder Brother made a small fire while Sandor hobbled the horses.  Howland went off through the trees to some high ground to check if they were being tracked.  He took his bow with him in case he chanced upon some game.  Sansa sat the little boy down beside her on a bedroll and kept a placid smile on her face as she explained they were amongst friends.  Beyond that, she wasn’t sure how to explain any of this.

 

“Harry is dead,” he calmly said, though uncertain as if it had all been a dream.

 

“I think so,” she said as she held him to her with her chin resting on top of his head.  She could feel Sandor’s eyes upon her from a distance.

 

“The Eyrie had a great big hole in it, didn’t it?  There was a loud crashing and then it was gone.  Alayne, am I not Lord of the Eyrie anymore?”  His eyes went wider at that realization.  The Eyrie had been his whole world since Lysa spirited them away from King’s Landing after the death of his father, Jon Arryn.  Only recently had those boundaries been pushed farther out to include the Gates and with it expanded his courage.  Then it all happened so fast.   He is like a chick thrust out the nest much too soon.   

 

She tried very hard to make her voice sound like her lady mother’s.  “They Eyrie may be gone, my lord, but you are still an Arryn.  Your seat included all the waycastles and the Gates of the Moon.  Remember the Gates was once the high seat of the Vale before the Eyrie was built.”  In truth, she had no idea if the damage extended all the way to the Gates, but all the waycastles and the mountain paths were surely destroyed and buried.  She prayed that Mya and Myranda were safe and Lothor was watching over them.  “I must tell you more now, Robert.  I am not your lord stepfather’s daughter.  My name is Sansa Stark and I’m your cousin.  Our mothers were sisters and our fathers were friends.”  He was taken aback, but she continued carefully.  “Lord Petyr was hiding me because the Queen thought I killed her son, King Joffrey, but I didn’t.  I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you, but it was best no one knew to keep everyone safe.”  She went on to explain how Ser Shadrich was really Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch, one of her father’s dearest friends as well and that he had been looking for her since Lord Eddard was killed.

 

“But if Lord Petyr was keeping you safe, why did you need to be rescued?” he asked.  Frail of body he may be, but she could not doubt the boy was sharp.  This was difficult to answer as it felt somehow shameful and embarrassing to say it aloud.  All the looks and smiles that didn’t touch his eyes.  All the times she had to sit in his lap like a child, but not like a child.  All the endured kisses starting with the first one that nearly got her thrown through the Moon Door instead of Aunt Lysa.  All the times her misgivings were swept aside and she was urged to move ever forward with his plans.  All the anger and shame at herself for giving in, for lying, for being such a fool from the beginning, for not doing more.  There was not one thing she could say that didn’t make her feel like it all stemmed from her own failure and not one thing she wanted to say in front of him.   He already thought she was stupid before, but now...           

 

“He broke his promise to take me home, my lord.”  Her throat suddenly felt quite dry.  “I… I just wanted to go home and I didn’t want to be married to Ser Harrold.”   I am such a coward .  Robert nodded sagely, as if that answer were enough to satisfy him.  It was a good thing the boy was already so at ease around Ser Morgarth before when she changed the subject to the Quiet Isle and how this Elder Brother could help him with his ailments.  He definitely liked him much better than Maester Colemon, but it was hard to picture such a broad and muscled man wearing roughspun robes of a brother let alone have the hands of a healer.  Elder Brother sat down on his own bedroll with his arms resting on his knees.    

 

“The island is not very accessible to outsiders except by a ferry that belongs to the brothers.  Even at lowtide the mud can swallow a man down if he steps in the wrong spot.  We will be safe there for a while.  The Lord Protector will be looking for outlaws on their way to collect a ransom.  Not penitents.”  The fire crackled and sent little embers drifting upward as the sky began to grow a darker blue.  Finally she was starting to feel some heat in her bones.  Out of the corner of her eye she could see Sandor with his back turned as he unsaddled the horses.  He said he had been near death and Elder Brother had saved him.  What happened to him?  Was he there the whole time on this Quiet Isle only two days ride away?  “Can we trust this Lothor Brune not to attempt to track us, my lady?  Nor tell anyone about our friend here?” he asked nodding his head toward Sandor.  “He didn’t look happy to leave you and Lord Robert.” he noted and her attention snapped back.

 

“I am certain he won’t, despite it.  Ser Lothor has shown his worth to me on more than one occasion.  If he didn’t trust my word, he would have continued to fight to his death.  He never would have left us.”  That saddle thudded on the ground a little harder than it probably should have.   Oh… she hadn’t meant it like that.   It was still so bizarre to look at Byron and hear Byron’s voice, but know him to be Sandor.  The world had gone wobbly today in so many ways.    

 

“Ala-, er, Sansa?  I’m hungry.  Is there anything to eat?” Robert asked.  She was feeling pangs of hunger as well.  Sandor strode over to where they were seated and handed her a small bundle of cloth tied with twine.  

 

“Here, my lady.”  He said as she took it from his hand.  “ My lady”, not “little bird ” or even “girl.”  Courtesy from him felt like a foreign tongue. The cloth contained a wedge of hard cheese, a loaf of brown seeded bread, and a skin of watered-wine.  

 

“Thank you, Ser --, “  Sweetrobin started to say, before Sansa jumped in.  

 

“Oh, this is Sandor Clegane, my lord.”  It didn’t seem right to keep calling him a ser.  “He knows me from King’s Landing when I was held there.”  She looked up at him hopefully.  “He was -- is my friend.”  How could he not still be if he went to such lengths to free her?  Her mind and heart were wrecked with confusion.  Perhaps… when he came here searching for an innocent and naive little girl he had seen the person she had become and it pleased him not.  Maybe that was dawning on him now that they could rest.  

 

That damned face that wasn’t his was so unreadable until Robert asked “Is that why he kissed you at the tourney?” while he was nibbling at a piece of cheese.  He shifted with some discomfort at that and she suddenly felt a heat rising up her neck.

 

“A mummer’s farce and barely remembered.” he muttered before turning away again.  

 

She rose to her feet, wincing from the soreness of her bruises, politely whispered she had to make water, and strode off several feet away into the foliage.  She wanted to be far enough from the fire that she could just hide in the darkness for a while.  There was nothing but the singing of crickets and the crunch of dried pine needles under her feet.  She did have to make water, but after she righted her skirts she lingered in a clearing with her back to a tree trunk.  Her eyes closed and she felt the weight of her heart like an anchor that plummeted straight down into the earth.  She had forgotten how painful it was to wear Sansa Stark’s skin.  After a few silent moments she heard a scratching of bark over her head and looked up into the branches.  There was something dark perched up there, swaying like some kind of heavy fruit.  This was an oak, though.  She stood straight and peered up to get a better look.  The minimal light caught it’s yellow-brown eyes looking back down at her as it was chittering and squeaking softly.  It was then it stretched out one black leathery wing from its’ body followed by the other until its’ full span was a few feet across.  A bat!  A huge bat!  Oddly, she was fascinated, not frightened.  It stared down at her a moment more then released itself from the branch, swooping down close to her head before flying off into the dark depths beyond the trees.  She stood there, still and listening, until she couldn’t hear the beating of its’ wings any longer.

 

          Just as she was turning to head back she heard the snapping of twigs and crunching of heavy footfalls.  “Are you preferring the company of shadowcats?” he said.  She could feel the rasp even though it could not be heard.  He looked as though he meant to offer his hand, but slackened it at his side instead.  “Come.  Reed brought back a hare.”  

 

“I’m sorry I bloodied you earlier.”  It was all she could think to say suddenly.  

 

He barked a laugh at that.  “You didn’t break anything.  It was a good shot, though.”  She was still sorry, but also felt a small and absurd measure of pride.  “Then threatening to off yourself with a little lordling’s tickler…”  He shook his head and his mouth turned serious again.  “You had the bloody balls to do it too.  I could see it.”

 

Did I?  Mayhaps I would have if it came down to it.   “It would have been better than the black cells or Illyn Payne.  You revealed yourself then so I wouldn’t.”  She took a step toward him and he froze.  “You weren’t going to otherwise, were you?”  His absolute stillness as the shadows of leaves played across his whole and perfect face told her she hit the mark.  “Why?  Why would you not want me to know?” Hesitantly, she reached for his fingers with hers to see if he would pull away.  He didn’t, but he didn’t answer either.  “You see, I had wondered so many times what became of you after you left.  So many times I had wished for your counsel.  I should have gone with you.”

 

“The last time you saw me back then I recall a knife to your throat as well.  You had the right of it not to go with me.  Don’t doubt it for a moment.”  His face turned away slightly, but he looked at her from the corners of his eyes.  “I have not been drunk in some time now.  There will be no danger to yourself from me.”

 

“I knew that already.  If it’s shame you are feeling at some wrong you think you did me, please set it aside.”

 

“Oh, some wrong I think I did?”  He scoffed, but it was a sad and defeated sound.           

 

“It was the fire.  I understood that and forgave you the moment you cast off the white cloak.  You frightened me, yes,  but I was never harmed.”  She fell silent for a moment but sighed when he did not seem to believe her.  “If you have sinned more than me, let me assure you it’s only because you’ve lived longer.  In the past year I have aspired to exceed you.”  She gave a mirthless laugh.  “I understand I’m not what you expected to find anymore…”  She let her fingers fall away from his.  “Come, we’re losing the light and must head back.”  

 

She could almost feel the callouses on his hand again when it clasped her wrist and drew her back, not ungently.  He held her chin in the vice of his fingers and tilted her face up to him as if he was inspecting her.  “Is this the same girl that kept a direwolf on a pretty ribbon tether?  The same one that could look a king in the face and wish for his head brought to her?  Hmph.  She rings true with this girl that fought me the whole way to protect her little cousin.  Even shed tears for a man she didn't love and whose betrothal she spurned.  Aye, sounds like Sansa Stark to me.”  Then he released her.  She didn't dare correct him on the tears she wept out of fear.  She thought of Harry, and though she never wished him dead, she felt nothing.  Somehow she preferred him thinking that her heart was still soft enough for the Mother’s compassion.  There was still so much he didn’t know yet, but she was grateful he found her familiar still even if she seemed a stranger to herself.  “You need to eat and sleep, my lady.”  Gently he nudged her arm and she was walking back before him like so many times in the Red Keep.  So many questions churning in her head and each fighting their way to the tip of her tongue, but perhaps now wasn’t the time.   When we get to this Quiet Isle there will be time and I will see him truly again.

 

They were drawing closer to the light from the campfire and this privacy was growing short.  She stopped so abruptly he was close enough for their breath to mingle when she spun about to face him.  “Little Bird.  This ‘my lady’ business doesn’t suit you… or us.”  She searched the blue-gray of his eyes as he stood there suddenly and utterly disarmed.  “No matter what else happened before, this much is clear to me and all that I care for:   Sandor Clegane always came back for me .”  There was that familiar twitch pulling at what would have been on the burned side of his mouth as her knuckles gently brushed against it.  His chest moved like the bellows of a forge so close to hers.  “I will have no wall of courtesy between us,”  she said as her hand floated away like a feather in mid-air.     

 

Howland Reed was turning the skinned hare over the flames while Elder Brother was speaking with Robert, who was now seated next to him with his bear skinned cloak wrapped about him like he was a mound of fur.  Again he reminded her of Bran sitting at Old Nan’s knee by firelight, enraptured by a tale of grumpkins or the last hero.  The parts about the dead riding ice spiders always made her run from the room, but she’d always be back the next evening for another story.  Frightening things had their own strange allure.  She smoothed her dress as she sat beside Lord Reed.  Sandor reclined contentedly against one of the saddles cutting slices off an apple with his dagger making his presence unobtrusive as was his way at court.  It was quite a trick for such a giant of a warrior with a scarred face to make himself seem to disappear in plain sight.  The crannogman stared into the flames unmoved.   My father always said he knew the worth of Howland Reed and now so do I, but Father never mentioned sorcery.  “You said you sent your children for my brother, Bran, my lord.  Does he still live?” she asked hesitantly.  It was too much to hope for.  The last she had heard of Bran he was severely crippled and Theon Greyjoy had murdered him and little Rickon.

 

“As far as I know, he does.  I know nothing of Rickon.  My daughter, Meera, was a born with a spear and net in hand.  She can keep them living off the land as long as it takes.  My son, Jojen, has dreams of things that come to pass.”  His profile in the orange glow lulled her with that quality she imagined all loving fathers’ had, that Lord Eddard had, when they spoke to their children.  

 

“Do you have such dreams?” she asked.  The fire spit as the grease from the hare dripped down when he turned it.  He took a pull from the skin of watered-wine before passing it to her.  

 

As she tried to devise the most ladylike way to drink from a wineskin he replied “No.  Greendreams were his alone.  Have you had such dreams, Lady Stark?”  

 

The slightly sour wine dribbled from the corner of her mouth and she wiped it away with her fingers.  “ Greendreams ?  Er, no, my lord.”  Her dreams ranged from nightmares to things that would turn her as red as a beet, but she was no seer.  He made a sound like a hmph at that.  “Lord Reed, everything has happened so fast.  Lord Petyr was so cautious to ensure I stayed hidden.  How did you come to find me?  I remember all three of you came the day we descended from the Eyrie and Lord Petyr had returned from the wedding of Lyonel Corbray.”  The only other ones she could recall who knew her true name were Aunt Lysa, Oswell Kettleblack, and Lothor Brune.  Did Dontos Hollard, fool and drunkard that he was, blessedly sell his secrets to the right person?

 

Howland smiled, slightly prideful.  “True enough, my dear.  Lord Littlefinger drank into the late hours with us, his new hired swords from Gulltown.  We had our suspicions then, but they were confirmed when Clegane here bowed and kissed your hand.  That was the confirmation the Lady Alayne was indeed Sansa Stark.”  Her lips parted in amazement as she stole a glance at Sandor.  To think, Petyr hosted the Hound in his solar, a man he would have known for years in the King’s court, without the faintest idea!  “As I said, I left the Neck long before.  Not the first time in my life I slipped under the nose of Walder Frey to head south, the Gods rot his soul.  I had hoped for a chance at the Battle of Blackwater to reach you.  If Stannis had sacked the city, you might have been moved from the Red Keep at some point.  The dwarf had the upper hand, though.  I simply had to bide my time after that, staying close in the Crownlands.”

 

“After their victory, I was set aside for my traitor’s blood so Joffrey could be wed to Margaery Tyrell.  My relief was short lived.  I thought the Queen was having an appropriate dress made for me for the occasion, as would be the expected public treatment of a highborn hostage.  The dress was actually for my own wedding to Lord Tyrion, which I was informed of moments before it happened.”  The knife slicing the apple suddenly paused.  “To his credit, Tyrion was kind to me in his own way.  He did not mistreat me or assert his rights,” she said carefully.  “In truth we rarely spent any time together.  It was Lord Petyr and the Tyrells behind the death of Joffrey, not I or Tyrion.  Ser Dontos Hollard spirited me away from the wedding feast to a ship I was promised would take me home, but I found Lord Petyr aboard instead.  It was at his family’s home on the Fingers that he married Aunt Lysa before we went on to the Eyrie.”

 

“Ser Dontos’s disappearance at the same time had every bounty seeker and gold cloak in the realm searching for you at his family seat of Duskendale.”   Ser Dontos’s new seat is at the bottom of Blackwater Bay, she thought flatly.  “I was no different.  I took up with a merchant’s party to hopefully hear a bit of rumor on the road or at an inn.  Came across a peculiar lady knight that was also looking for you.  Oh she denied it up and down.  Claimed it was actually her nameless sister she was looking for who just happened to be a maid that fit your description.  Worst liar I’ve ever heard in my life, but not a dishonorable bone in that one’s body.  She was not out there looking for a purse, but she was too bloody innocent to see the two oafs she kept company with were as false as they were brainless.  I’ve no use for bad liars and pure souls.  Who better for the task than a septon and kingsguard then, eh?”  Sandor grunted and Elder Brother shot Reed a look and muttered he was not a septon.  The crannogman pulled the cooked hare off the fire and began dividing up the piping hot meat.  It was unseasoned, but it practically melted on her tongue after not having eaten since that morning.  Robert ate with relish as well.  Lord Reed continued after everyone had begun to ravage their share:  “Still, I had a little inclination to track this lady knight when she had left the inn at Duskendale on her own.  Mayhaps she had gotten a lead.  I kept a day or two’s pace behind her.”

 

“Father had said to us that the crannogmen were unmatched hunters.”  Old Nan also said they were rumored to have mixed bloodlines with the children of the forest.

 

“True enough, but she’s as big as the Hound there.  Not exactly hard to miss if you ask the smallfolk along the way.”  Sansa could not imagine such a woman let alone a lady knight of unblemished honor searching for her.  What original material for a great song perhaps even Arya would have liked, she mused.  “Found my way to the Quiet Isle eventually when the big wench stayed a night there.  Mudflats aren’t such a problem for a frog-eater are they, septon?”  Reed asked as he tossed the wineskin to the Elder Brother who looked grudgingly amused.  “Did you take it as a sign from your gods when I turned up or mine?”

 

“I shall ignore your blasphemous mockery,” said Elder Brother before he took a few swallows.  “This warrior maid, Lady Brienne of Tarth, made an oath to your late lady mother to find you.  She had a young lad with her that she called her squire.  I encouraged her to return to her home, but she was insistent.  A good soul she was, but she was under the impression the Hound had taken you and she was bent on facing him even if it meant her life.”  Elder Brother’s eyes shifted over to Sandor as Sweetrobin finished off the leg joint and gave a yawn.  “I assured her that her theory was not possible as the Hound was dead… at any rate she and her squire left the next morning to continue their search.  A few days later ‘Ser Shadrich’ turns up on the shore unaided as if he hopped the lilypads over.  Startled a poor novice so badly he forgot his vow of silence and dropped a whole bucket of milk on his sandals.  Clegane caught wind of of the ruckus, there was a mention of your name and there was no un-spilling the milk by the time I got there.  We all had a good long chat over several days once we were assured of Lord Reed’s intentions, of course.”  Elder Brother glanced down at Robert, who had drifted off and was leaning against the bulky man.  He lowered his voice to a near whisper as he passed the wineskin to Sandor.  “Clegane mentioned your aunt was lady of the Eyrie as a possibility of where Ser Dontos might have taken you.  I recalled a raven I had received not long after King Joffrey died announcing the marriage of Lady Lysa to the Lord of Harrenhal.  Then a second raven came not one month later announcing her death.  In truth we still had no idea if you were at the Eyrie, but the involvement of one such as Lord Littlefinger and your aunt’s sudden death was reason enough to start looking there.”  

 

Sansa clutched her cloak tighter around her chest.  Remembering the blast of wind in her face, a lost shoe, and nothingness below the Moon Door then Aunt Lysa disappearing into the blue silence made her shudder.  Sandor must have thought she was cold because he tossed another small branch on the fire.  “Lady Lysa’s death was a very difficult time for us.”  She gave the Elder Brother a pointed look hoping he would not discuss it further in front of Robert, asleep or not.  “Blessedly your suspicions proved correct.”   

 

“Aye, thank the gods, my lady.”  Elder Brother nodded and continued.  “The only problem was we needed Clegane to identify you if you were under a disguise, which was very likely considering the distinct Tully look.  I can see we had guessed correctly on that point as well.    Unfortunately, due to my own stupidity an outlaw took up the Hound’s helm and committed the atrocities that befell the Saltpans.  As if simply being the most recognizable face in the realm wasn’t problem enough.  Before, he was only a deserter and might have been able to reclaim his life one day.  The rapes and murders done in his name condemned him to never leave the Isle or he’d be hanged on the spot or much worse, such is the rage of the smallfolk or brigands who would boast they slew the mad dog of the Saltpans.”  

 

“Brother…”  Sandor whispered, but the great, brawny man only shook his head.  So much has changed indeed to hear him call anyone brother with such tenderness.           

 

“For my part in that injustice I would do all I can to atone.  And yes, I did take it as a sign from the gods how I should atone to my friend.”  

 

Friend.  Brother.   Did the Hound ever call anyone friend?  Even her?  She knew what brotherhood had meant to him too.  Maybe the Hound was dead.  He said he had not given himself over to drunkenness in some time.  Come to think of it, in all her time with him whether he was Byron or Sandor there was none of the harshness or mocking she had come to expect.  A part of her shamefully hoped he wasn’t completely defanged from the ferocity that against all reason got her blood up.  That was a selfish wish if he had now found peace in his heart on the Quiet Isle.  Hadn’t she prayed for that for him?  She would have pondered it more while she chewed through a tough heel of bread crust, but Elder Brother continued:  “As you already know Lord Reed provided the solution to that problem by the mysteries of his tree gods .”  He then sternly glared over at Howland.  “Those bones will be returned to the grave we robbed as well as the gems.”

 

“Pffft!  A ‘mystery’, is it?.  The lowest form of magic glamours be.  In the Free Cities it’s as common as dirt even among the lice-ridden street entertainers.  Neat little trick if you want to tumble someone’s wife and neither her nor the cuckold is ever the wiser.”  Elder Brother threw up his hands.  Sandor rolled his eyes and took a pull of the wineskin before setting in for sleep.   A neat little trick for stealing a kiss, as well.  He closed his eyes and flung an arm behind his blonde head looking as contented as a cat full of cream, but Reed turned to look directly at her with eyes glittering.  “There are mysteries, child.  Fire, mud, rock, ice, beasts and trees,” he said low and solemn.  She had no idea what to say to that.

 

Sweetrobin’s sleepy eyes blinked a bit as the Elder Brother gently lifted and placed him on his own bedroll next to Sansa’s.  She was curious as to what Lord Reed had meant, but she was also feeling the weight of her own exhaustion as well as she tucked the furs around Sweetrobin and stroked his hair.  This was the queerest day followed by the queerest tale she had ever heard.  “With winter soon approaching, we decided to wait until the upper castles had closed and the household had made their descent to the Gates.” said the Elder Brother.

 

“You never could have gotten us down the mountain quickly without being caught, even if you could have somehow made it to the peak.”

 

“Quite right, my lady.  We knew Littlefinger had strong ties in Gulltown and thought it best to start there as a bunch of sellswords looking for work.  Fortunately, it didn’t take long to cross paths with Kettleblack at a portside brothel, beg your pardon.  From him we got word of Lord Lyonel’s wedding to a merchant’s daughter and just so happened his master would be in attendance.  His lordship was always looking for more muscle to guard himself and his beautiful, natural daughter.  Preferably unsavory types, discrete, good with blade, and short on gold.”  For such a gruff man he had a kind and inviting smile.

 

“Pity for him he hired gallant knights instead, ser.”

“Get some rest now, my lady.  We’ll be up again before dawn.  I'll take the first watch.”  

 

She smiled at the holy brother as she nestled in close next to Robert.  The crannogman sat peaceful and still. gazing into the flames that slowly dwindled down into the ashen earth.  As she gathered her fur cloak over her there was an unmistakable warmth like good wine creeping through her and she knew Sandor was watching her and watching over her.  It was as fine as any feather bed when she remembered how good it was possible to feel wearing Sansa Stark’s skin too.  When sleep came over her and washed away her soreness and aches she had the most curious dreams of bats.



Chapter Text

The land surrounding them had rolling dunes dressed in gently swaying reeds punctuated with the buzzing of dragonfly wings, the trilling of unseen frogs, and mournful calls of long-legged, wading birds.  This was in stark contrast to the township of the Saltpans, a charred skeleton of its former self.  If there were any survivors remaining, they had not dared show themselves to travellers.  As desolate as it appeared to be, they had stayed on the outskirts of town until Howland Reed scouted and determined there were no signs of soldiers, outlaws, or even raiders from the mountain clans.  Not that there was anything left to raid.  The castle of old Ser Quincy Cox still stood proud amongst the devastation where a girl not much younger than herself was said to have been savaged.  Worse, her truest friend at her back stood accused.  Her hand covered Sandor’s while he held the reigns and he allowed her fingers to interlace with his.  Did he think she was seeking comfort at the thought of the poor maiden’s fate?  She had hoped to assure him she knew he was no monster, no matter if the whole of the world condemned him.  As they made their way down to the port, Elder Brother’s grim gaze had stayed fixed on that closed castle gate as their horses had trotted by.    

 

A single flaming arrow was loosed by Lord Reed, sputtering in the wind.  It arced gracefully before finally extinguishing itself some distance away in the dark blue water of the Bay of Crabs.  Dusk was settling in again.  The holy brothers on the isle had been instructed to keep a vigil for the eventual return of the Elder Brother.  It wasn’t long before they could make out the faint, quivering silhouette of a ferry coming from the isle.  The tide was high and lapping rhythmically against the dock where they waited.  The Elder Brother was a friend to the smallfolk here, having tended to their wounded and dying after the massacre.  But even then they all kept their hoods up and would say nothing until they were clear of this hellscape.  Sandor dismounted the red courser first and held her by the waist as she slipped down to her feet, wincing all the way.  Her thigh muscles felt stiff as two hunks of dried, salted meat.  Two days of riding double and sidesaddle in which she cursed herself for never having asked Mya to teach her to ride astride ages ago.  Though weary, she put on a brave smile for Robert as she took his hand in hers when they finally boarded the ferry.  He had often had such fitful sleep since his lady mother died, even in the lord’s chambers of the Eyrie.  It was a small wonder he was looking wan again and more rheumy-eyed with being so out of his element, as was she.

 

The silent brothers in their dun robes and cowls led the way by torchlight on the wooden steps that meandered up the steep inclines along the shore.  The isle definitely lived up to it’s namesake.  There was hardly a sound but the wind and waves, the gentle bleating of sheep, and the creaking turns of the windmill.  After their horses were led away to the stables, a brother named Narbert greeted them with the smile and a small bow.  Elder Brother introduced him as one of his proctors, but it was not his permitted day to speak.  “Lady Sansa will need a cottage prepared,” he instructed.  “There is a bathhouse that you may use later if you wish.  Most everything is communal here, but you will have privacy, my lady.  Looks like we have arrived in time for evening meal.  The common hall is this way, ”  He gestured up the path to an elongated building of whitewashed wood and stone as he led them on.   Oh, Gods be good.  A hot meal, but another hill .  Her burning legs were screaming in protest.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before she could not suppress the pain any longer and stumbled a bit.  To her surprise it was Robert that took her by the arm before anyone else could.  “I have you, cousin,” he said before sniffling.  She had already grown another foot taller in the last year, making it impossible for him to actually catch her if she truly fell.  She was relieved that Sandor was only one or two steps behind her.

 

“Thank you, my lord.”  She smiled down at him.  Robert was turning into such a fine young man, and she hoped he would make an even finer husband someday, to someone.  The more she looked at his pale face she decided she did not like the look of that runny nose.  If supper didn't improve his color either, she decided she would speak to Elder Brother about it.  

 

At the long trestle tables they were served loaves of hot bread and butter with a thick, creamy stew of crabs complemented by sweet cider to wash it down.  The wafting, savory smells made her tummy growl so embarrassingly loud she hoped no one had noticed or they were at least courteous enough to pretend not to.  Elder Brother took the head of the table and gave the blessing, while Robert sat to her right and Sandor and Lord Reed sat across from her.  They were safe here now, weren’t they?  She questioned why he hadn’t cast off the glamour.  Perhaps he was waiting until he could change from his leather and mail…  into novice robes again?  With the dulcet tones of harp music drifting through the air and the honeyed peacefulness of this place, she thought perhaps it was where Sandor Clegane could truly be happy.  His constant hatefulness never brought him any closer to justice or joy in his former life, and all he could be was an ever suffering and bitter Lannister weapon.  As Elder Brother said, the outside world is unsafe for the likes of the Hound.  Honestly, what did she think would come after this?  She had no right to ask more of him.  Still, she caught the grey beneath the blue in his eyes now and then and there was so much selfish, possessive need of him in her that would come rushing out if her guilt and principles failed to hold it back.   

 

Elder Brother drank deeply from a tankard of mead and wiped a moustache of foam from his lip before addressing the boy.  “The bed in my private chambers is for your use whilst you are a guest here, my lord.  I can even scrounge up a few good books you might be interested in as well.  Have you happened to hear the one about Jenny of Oldstones and the Prince of Dragonflies?”  Sweetrobin perked up like a dog catching a scent, and vigorously shook his head.

 

“Good.  I haven’t heard that one in a long time myself.”

 

“Have you heard that one, cousin?  You never read it to me.”  Sweetrobin asked.

 

“I have, my lord, but I must have forgotten it since we have read every tale of the Winged Knight so many times I feared the pages were coming loose from the binding,” she teased him.  “You will like it, I think.  It was once my best-loved second to --”

 

“Florian and Jonquil,” Sandor finished between spoonfuls as incidentally as noting the weather.  A fool and his -- woman, except he didn’t say ‘woman’ as he once put it so vulgarly.   In retrospect, she was never half as offended as she let on, merely confused and confounded by him.  She was a girl-child then, without a map to navigate the world of men, let alone this particular man.  Yet, that was the song he desperately begged of her too… but he had lost his wits and courage to fire and strong wine, so much that he abandoned all care for himself and stole a kiss that by rights belonged to his king.  She could almost taste the copper of sweat and blood through sweetness of crabmeat.       

 

“Well as I said, was ,” she muttered.  She wondered what he must think of her indulging Sweetrobin with these stories that turned her brains to a beautifully colorful, but hopelessly tangled ball of embroidery thread.  She imagined hearing his scraping rasp in her head, telling her that she hadn’t learned a buggering thing after all.   But I have learned, I think…  I don’t truly believe in these things anymore .  It was just that Sweetrobin behaved so much better, like a proper lord, when she drew him in with flights of fancy.  He was even younger than she when he lost his parents, and now his impregnable, lofty castle home had crumbled like it’s sugar miniature.  The world was an awful place, and she resolved to let him stay a boy for a little while longer.  She turned to Howland Reed and put on a charming countenance like changing a gown.  “My lord, you knew my father as a young man.  What was he like then?”

 

The crannogman set down his tankard as she rested her chin on her hand.  “Quiet and contemplative.  Though all would seem so compared to your uncle, Brandon, who was brash and headstrong through and through.  Ned was kind and a true friend, but still kept himself apart as if he mistrusted too much pleasure.”  He sopped up the last bit of stew in his bowl with a piece of bread.  “This is not to say he was a dour old man before his time.  He was good for a laugh too and even his head could be turned by a beauty, though your uncle had to ask for a dance on his behalf.  Mind you, this was before even Brandon was betrothed to your lady mother.”

 

  “Of course.”  It was interesting to think of her father dancing with some beautiful lady and laughing -- laughing like he would when he ate with his men or when her mother said something clever, before everything went straight to the seven hells.  “Was this at the Eyrie when he was fostered there by Lord Robert’s father?”   

 

“The tourney at Harrenhal.  I was invited to share a table on the dais with your Aunt Lyanna and Uncle Benjen too.”  Her smile faded, which she hid behind a sip of cider.  Father was loath to speak of the last year that his father and two of his siblings were alive and she had the sense not to ask too many questions.  What she knew of that tourney and the war that followed came from her histories in Maester Luwin’s lessons; however, most details related to Aunt Lyanna during that time were vague to absent except for one important fact:  Prince Rhaegar, to the shock of all, publicly humiliated his wife, Princess Elia, and infringed on her Aunt Lyanna’s honor by crowning her the queen of love and beauty in the presence of her betrothed.  His even more outrageous actions afterward would lead to a war and her father’s deepest sorrow.  Howland considered her a long moment.  “Got a touch of your aunt in you, I think.”

 

That took her aback and she had to laugh.  “Forgive me, my lord, but you must be mistaken.  Father always compared Arya to Aunt Lyanna, both with affection and grief.  Most say I favor my lady mother.”  Aunt Lyanna was a beauty, it was said, but she was painted with the darker features of a Stark, and all knew she was as spirited and willful as Arya.  She would sometimes wear breeches and had desired to train in the yard with her brothers, and she was also an accomplished rider.     

 

“Oh, I did not mean in look.  You’re a Tully plain enough -- though there’s nothing plain about a Tully, is there?”  She laughed again and lifted her cup of cider in toast.  “Wolf-blooded she was for sure, but underneath she had a soft heart that could be moved by an injustice… or a song.”  There was a slight melancholy as he trailed off.  She wasn’t sure what she felt about that.  Perhaps she wished Father had seen Aunt Lyanna in her too as he did with Arya.  She felt as though sometimes she were behind a pane of glass watching them.  Her sister could be wild and filthy and unabashedly Arya and still win his smiles and hugs.  Oh, she knew she was loved, but sometimes it felt as though she must be perfect at everything and be such a good girl just to get a nod of approval when Arya was just herself.  Though that wasn’t quite right or fair, was it?  Arya was also treated like a crooked stitch in her elegant needlework, worthy of a sigh before being ripped out.  

 

“She liked the songs?” she asked absently.  She was still somewhere far away mulling on her lost little sister.                         

 

“In a manner of speaking.  ‘Twas moreso the singer,” he replied, taking another long draw of ale.   A singer?  She thought she had seen all manner of singers: old, road-ragged ones and garish, colorful types from far-flung places, or even silver-tongued rogues who thought they could sing their way up a skirt.  She hoped Aunt Lyanna had not been charmed by the latter as Aunt Lysa was charmed by Marillion, who never sounded as awful and beautiful as when he was condemned to a sky cell.   I’ve never been carried away by a bard himself, only the song, which was bad enough.   All peddlers of beautiful dreams and lies, not one has ever told me the truth.  Only Sandor was able.  

 

“In the end, she weighed her love for her prince against duty to her family and bid farewell to the latter,” Lord Reed continued, bluntly halting her thoughts. He tipped his head back and downed the last of his ale.

 

Her smile withered.  “Forgive me again, my lord, but her prince?”  They both looked at each other askance.  “Rhaegar Targaryen?”

 

“Who else?”   

 

Her spoon rudely clanged against her empty bowl, though she hadn't intended to set it down thus.  All eyes shifted to her.  Even a few of the silent brothers a few places down began to watch.  Turned her back on her family for love, did she?  Aside from the fact that this description of her aunt was complete rubbish, she needed no reminders of her stubborn insistence on her love for Joffrey and what it cost.  It hurt that her defining feature to others was utter foolery that led to the misfortune of everyone around her.  She could feel the blood drumming in her ears.

 

“She was already betrothed,” she said trying to keep her voice even, but the bite was there nonetheless, “but Prince Rhaegar kidnapped her and dishonored her in the worst way possible.  The pain of it was so terrible that Father would hardly speak of her.”

 

“Aye, she was betrothed to a stag .  Any maid without dust between her ears would have run off, but since when is a maid asked her opinion?” he said candidly.  “Have you heard none of this before?  No, I suppose not.”  Then she remembered the lecherous and insatiable mockery of a king and the way Sandor had compared her betrothed, Harrold Hardyng, to him.  She thought of Mya’s abandonment too.  Suddenly, it was hard to imagine her aunt married to such a man as much as she could not imagine herself being married to Harry.   But that does not change the fact she was kidnapped and raped!

 

“That may be said of King Robert, but then that means Father mourned a wistful idiot that turned her back on her family for a cruel and... honorless…”  She was so angry now she could hardly find the words.  “ False knight and prince ?  Is that the way of it, my lord?”

 

Sandor’s sniggered like saw teeth dragging through wood. “The lady knows no graver insult!  Which knight do you think saw fit to give my brother the vows and sacred oils, Little Bird?  For every rat you see, just kick over the nest and you’ll find they’ve made dozens more of their own kind.”  

 

Elder Brother looked as if he were about to say something sagely and placating, but she plowed over him anyway.  “I may be accused of such with Prince Joffrey and I will live with that over my head for the rest of my days, but you could not be more wrong in comparing us so.”  Sandor’s mouth twitched.  He remained still save for occupying his fingers by slowly turning his cup ‘round on its base.  “The supposed love you speak of would be for the man that dishonored my aunt in front of everyone?  And that she would dishonor herself by becoming his… mistress? ”      

 

Howland listened patiently at first, but now his eyes narrowed with annoyance.  “One doesn’t need to run away to be the mistress of a future king.  There’s a boon enough in that for the girl and even her family for catching a crown prince’s eye, betrothed or not.  That kind of thing happens all the time and the most it starts is gossip, not war.  Thought you spent enough time in the court to understand that.  But that’s not --”

 

Her jaw ratcheted up like a steel trap. “Let me remind you this prince’s father murdered my uncle and grandfather and would have done the same to my father and Robert Baratheon had Jon Arryn not kept them safe.  Did Prince Rhaegar that she did so ardently love lift a finger to defend her kin from his own father?  In fact, he stood with the Mad King to kill good Stark men.  If my aunt loved such a fiend, Father would never have buried her in the crypts among the lords of Winterfell.  Her death would not have broken his heart so.”

 

“As did mine own!” he said sharply.  “I will forgive you because clearly you are ignorant of many things.”

 

Sandor growled low.  “Careful, Lord Lilypad.”

 

His eyes remained locked on hers.  “Down, dog.  You won’t like the scraps I can toss your way.”  Like they were loosed by a bowstring, she found both herself and Sandor rising from the table at the same time before Elder Brother placed a massive hand on both their arms imploring them to sit.

 

“This is still a peaceful sanctuary.  I’ll not have hackles raised.  All of you, compose yourselves at once.  If you have a point to make, my lord, you better get to it without provoking Lady Sansa or my penitent brother here.”  He shot Sandor a scolding look.

 

“Apologies, my lords.  I… I must be very tired.  I was not myself.” she said as they both returned to their place on the wooden benches.  She felt so hot and strange.  Robert took hold of her hand in his cold, clammy one and stroked her fingers as she often did to soothe his upsets, but he was clearly rapt with all this grown-up talk and traded barbs.                  

 

Howland Reed’s eyes flitted back and forth between her and Sandor before he sighed deeply.  “The injustice I spoke of was against me and Lyanna was first to offer her friendship and to defend my honor.  I am the last who would ever question hers -- or yours.  Robert may have been well-liked among his friends, but she had the right of it.  It was the duty that was demanded of her that was wrong and Robert’s love for her was no deeper than a puddle of piss.  Her horse knew her better than he did.”  He leaned in closer across the table at her.  “I do not blame her for her open, honest heart.  She was no ‘wistful idiot’ and neither are you.  At the time, she fell for the man that saw her wildness and admired her for it, not so much her beauty and definitely not her title.  What you said about Rhaegar wasn’t entirely wrong, my lady.  The crowning was a reckless move, but it was meant as praise of her courage.  She could not have known in that moment all the tragedy that would happen later.  Would that it all could have been different.  I promise you though… it was not all in vain.  What came of it will mean something in the days ahead.  For all Ned’s famed honor, between choices of love and honor he chose love every time.  That’s why he buried Lyanna in the crypts.  Honor is a good thing, but a cold comfort compared to love.”

 

Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.   “I’m afraid not so cold as a tombstone, my lord.”  She quickly turned her face away toward Sweetrobin to dab the snot from his nose with her napkin, but it was really to hold back the mist forming over her own eyes.  His skin felt cool to the touch, but there was a light dampness of perspiration.  Perhaps his full belly was responsible for the sleepiness in his eyes.  “I think it may be time for Lord Robert and I to retire.”  He didn’t look like he’d make it to the end of a story before sleep took him.  She turned to the Elder Brother and said “Lord Robert has a sweat upon him and a runny nose.  Could you have a look at him please?  And if you would be so kind, I think I will make use of the bath house tonight as well.”

 

One of the silent brothers guided her to the baths, which were in a small stone structure with an oaken door that housed four stout wooden tubs.  There was a well that must have been fed by some underground spring from which fresh water could be drawn up and a fireplace to heat it.  With thick mitts on he poured a kettle of boiling water into a tub full of cold.  There was a cake of tallow soap that smelled of honey and herbs and beside it as well was a towel.  On a small table she was provided a simply cut, undyed dress and undertunic of a septa with a pair of practical leather shoes.  Before he left her, the brother set a lantern on the table and pointed to the path that would lead her straight to the women’s cottages.  

 

After a minor scuffle untying the laces at her back, she decided to give her dress, smallclothes, and stockings a wash, and after having scrubbed the hours of hard riding she set them beside the fire to dry.  A clean dress was appreciated, but going without undergarments seemed rightfully indecent, even if it was a short walk.  Her hair was a proper nest of tangles at this point, so much so that she wasn’t sure what she could do with except rake it out with her fingers.  The brothers with their hair close-cropped and tonsured had more use for razors than combs.  Scrubbing every inch of herself in a thick lather of white suds made her feel like she was made of white, virginal snow.  Her clothes would still need more time by the fire, so she settled in for a soak to soothe the tenderness in her muscles.  

 

Before long, she was seeking the comfort of her own hands and musing on her warrior perhaps using this very tub in the same way.  His thoughts would mirror her own while he did whatever men did.  If idle chatter that she was privy to as a bastard girl could be believed, men could be so imaginative in the filthiest ways possible.  Somehow, that didn’t seem so bad when the dreamer was Sandor.  He was a man grown strong long before her, and a soldier no less.  It was slightly disconcerting imagining Sandor’s features without Byron’s intruding, but it made no matter when she imagined the way his throat would be exposed as he tilted his head back over the rim of the tub the way she was doing now.  His lips would be breathlessly murmuring sweet words interlaced with vivid obscenities.  Now she was gliding toward him in the water as if he had conjured up a mermaid and his hands became hers in pleasuring his manhood.  In dreams, she already knew how to work him to rapture.  She wanted to know how it would feel to be him too.  How lovely it would be to slip inside his skin while they kissed, desperately cleaving to each other, as he stroked her little flower to bloom and she touched him in return.  She reached her peak with greater ease, this time being more practiced in rhythm, leaving her shaking and sated.  After tonight’s dinner conversation, she desired nothing more than obliteration of sensible thought, craved the simple white-hot and dumb nothingness.    

 

It was growing so late now, she didn’t want anyone to wonder at her lengthy time in the bathhouse.  The septa’s dress was sewn down the sides in a shapeless way but at least the shoes fit well enough.  She closed the door behind her carrying her wine-colored wool dress, stockings, and boots in one hand and the lantern in the other.  It was Sandor she found waiting at the crossroads of dirt and gravel pathways.  He was changed out of his mail and leather into a gray tunic, though Bryon’s blonde hair shone like silver in the moonlight.  “Waiting for your turn?  I believe there’s still some hot water left.” she teased.  He held out something in his hand.  As she got close enough it was carved and polished comb fashioned out of driftwood, smooth and golden.  

 

“Your hair could use it,” he said and she smiled warmly, “unless you plan on joining the wildlings.”  He looked her over in the lantern glow.  “You’ve washed more of that dye out.”  

 

“Thank you,” she said as she took the comb gratefully after he helped her carry some of her clothes.  “I had knots upon knots after such rough travel.”  She had no looking glass, but she hoped that what he said was true -- that her hair was turning back to red-copper like the seasons changing in reverse.

 

“Hmph… beg your pardon that we had no wheelhouse to shuffle you along, Lady Stark .”  

 

She flicked the comb against his arm.  “On the contrary, serrrr , I was happy to ride in front of you, though don’t look too smug about it.  If I rode behind your back, the view would never change.”

 

 The women’s cottages were shaped like beehives, snug and charming.  There was a narrow bench outside her door that she invited him to sit on while listening to cricket calls and the swishing of tall grasses.  If he only knew how thoroughly she was slain by thoughts of him mere moments prior as she began to work the comb through her wet tendrils of hair.  There was something she needed to know though… “This is such a tranquil place and I can see that it has changed you.  Tell me, is this where you see yourself now?  Do you wish a monastic life?”

 

He barked a laugh at that and she almost jumped from her seat.  “I wish it as much as I wish to be gelded.  Got my head clear of drink.  Isn’t that enough?”  

 

There’s a yellow ribbon that says it isn’t .  “I thank the Gods then… that you are no sworn celibate nor gelded.”  This time her laughter mingled with his.  So often his humor was black and mirthless that she took a little joy in saying something clever that made him laugh truly.  She was glad for him.  He had always had wit and a deft turn of phrase, but this version was different.  A sword as sharp as ever, but mostly kept in the scabbard and certainly not aimed by her throat.  “Now that you’ve an unclouded head, do you find what lies before you pleasing?”  For full effect she drew her hair over her shoulder and combed the lush lengths that were well beyond detangled at that point.  That got his attention.  He almost moved to touch her hair, but withdrew it abruptly like he was bringing a dog to heel.  His mind was burdened with something.  

 

“There’s something I must tell you, Little Bird.” he began dauntingly.  “I was with your little sister for a time after I left King’s Landing.”

 

“She lives?”  A little hope began to swell in her chest overtaking the ache of longing.

 

“This was some months before now that I last saw her.  I found her with a band of brigands led by Ser Beric and Ser Thoros in the Riverlands and I stole her from them.”

 

It was hard to believe those two knights took up lawlessness, but these were strange times.  “Are you certain it was Arya?”

 

“Full of piss and vinegar and dressed as a boy.”   It was Arya .  “I tried to get her to the Twins to meet your brother and mother.  We made it, too, but as soon as we entered the gates everything went to shit.  She made a run for Lord Walder’s hall.  I could do nothing for your family but knock the wolf bitch senseless and get her far from there.  I tried next to take her to the Eyrie, but the roads were overrun by mountain clan raiders.  Then there was a fight with my brother’s men at an inn when I heard news of your wedding to the Imp.”  He could not conceal the way he spat the epithet, though she could not say why Tyrion angered him so.  “I took several wounds. She tended to me as best she could, but after a few days I was a sorry sight.  My wounds festered and I lost much blood.  In my usual charming fashion, I pushed her too far and she left me then.  After that, everything's a fevered dream until I was plucked up by Elder Brother.  I don’t know what became of her, but as far as I know she lives.”  He seemed as resigned as a man facing the headsman’s axe.

 

She stared at him a good long moment, until he became visibly uneasy.  Her hand came up to cup his face and stroke his jaw with her thumb.  First news of Bran and now Arya might still be out there somewhere too.  Scattered to the wind they may be, but if she could become a beacon somehow perhaps they could find her.  Her heart quaked and cracked open.  “My truest friend…”  Delicately her fingers traveled under the collar of his shirt and found the cord around his neck.  He seemed so furiously tense, but allowed her to do as she pleased.  As soon as it slipped over his head, his hair grew as dark as ink and his eyes hard and gray like steel.  One side of his face fissured into black and red ruins with a flash of white bone and a permanent sneer on one side of his mouth.  She held the sachet of bones and rubies and let it fall into her lap.  “I hold in my heart more dear that you cared for my sister than even the many things you’ve done for me.”  She then swore inside that if she ever found Arya again, she would beg her forgiveness and that they could be as they were before princes, queens, and septas came into their lives.  

 

Not ungently, she brushed the lanky hair that fell over his burned side away and caressed his scalp.  The frenzy of his heartbeat was like a cornered rabbit, so palpable it almost had a smell.  It occurred to her then why he kept up the facade even when they were safe or maybe why he chose this particular form in the first place.  It was what he thought she wanted, it made him brave, and let him speak and act in ways the Hound would not.  He could play the gallant knight for her.  This was not ladylike by any means, but hoping her instincts were correct her lips brushed against his, testing for resistance.  The hands that clasped her waist and settled on the curve of her hips was all she needed to spur her forward.  “Sandor,” she whispered against his mouth before fully pressing down to convey all her ardent feelings.  She prayed earnestness was enough to make up for novice experience.  

 

As her arms circled around his neck he pulled her closer to him.  Her bold initiative must have pleased him to her relief.  This time he took the reigns, coaxing her lips to relax with his own and nudging her to move how he wanted.  There were some false starts and moments they were hopelessly out of step, eliciting more low rumbles of laughter between them before plunging back into the sweetness of his instruction.  She felt like butter spreading over hot bread.  Lightly she bit and sucked on his lower lip, mimicking what he had previously done to her.  Eventually, she felt the brush of his tongue and she understood she should part her lips for him.  Rather than delving his tongue into her mouth, he patiently drew hers out, teaching her to flick and caress each other playfully between kisses.  Her head was spinning with the loveliest madness and that emboldened her enough to move one of his hands to cup a breast.  He made a low guttural sound as he desperately squeezed to fill his palm, but that damnable corset was as good as plate armor.  A moment later he pulled away from her, both of them panting and drunk.  “I think that’s enough for now, Sansa,” he barely managed to utter coherently.  He pulled her against the solid wall of his chest, fingers buried in her hair and kissed her tenderly on her forehead.  “I must needs get back.  It would not be hard to guess where to find me and Elder Brother will geld me for true.”  With a glowing, dumbstruck grin she nodded and pressed her cheek into his palm.

 

She felt as wicked as Myranda when an idea seized her that made her redden like she was a crab in a kettle. “Oh, one last thing…” She placed in his hand one of her stockings with the pretty ribbon garter.  Perhaps it would have reflected the sentiment better if it was summer silk as opposed to practical wool on second thought...

 

He looked at it wolfishly amused.  “The Little Bird continues to favor me with pieces of her clothing,” he said before snatching it up and bidding her goodnight.  In his bed tonight it would provoke him the way she intended, she knew.     

 

Reluctantly, he stood and took the lantern, holding it out in front of him to light the path back as she watched him leave from the cottage door.  Suddenly,  the most awful, piercing shrieks ripped through the night air, making her nearly jump out of her skin.  She could see where the lantern light stood frighteningly motionless ahead of her as she ran toward it.   “IT’S HIM!!!  IT’S HIM!!!  I DON’T WANT TO FLY!!!  I DON’T WANT TO FLY!!!  I DON’T...”  

 

Oh, Gods be good …  Sweetrobin’s screams choked themselves out as he collapsed to the ground in an unnatural heap and then he had the most terrifyingly violent shaking fit she had ever seen.  

                              

Chapter Text

The dreamwine was adamantly refused.  Elder Brother gently tried to convince her there was nothing she could do for Robert now and she might as well rest.  A little chair was brought in for her and set next to his bed in the Hermit’s Hole, Elder Brother’s private chamber.  The most rest she would allow herself was to lay her head in her folded arms on the edge of his bed so she could watch him.  Her lady mother would sing to them when they were ill, but Robert hated singing.  So she hummed every song and hymn she knew, though her throat was raw from all her screaming.  Without having to look, she knew her eyes were frightfully red and swollen.  Robert looked as pale as bone, his little face drawn before his time.  The time passed, marked by the shallow rise and fall of his chest.        

 

What happened before was fragmented in memory.  There was her own screaming that turned into the howls of a wounded animal.  Flickering torchlights bobbing around in the dark like fireflies.  The rapid pattering and shuffling of sandaled feet.  A furious awakening in her arms and legs when she clutched his spasming body and forced herself up, though feebly hobbling when she meant to run.  A lightness as his weight was pulled from her arms and her skirts tangling around her legs while she fought to keep up with Sandor’s strides.  A moment before she was soaring on bliss… but that’s how things worked, didn’t they?  By the time he was brought here to this chamber, his shaking was still upon him, his eyes rolled back and unseeing.  Elder Brother had him held upright, while he used a small funnel to dose him with dreamwine and then he fell into a death-like sleep.  

 

She was still humming, something freeform and nameless, when Elder Brother laid a hand on her shoulder.  She looked up to him with eyelids tired and sore with tears.  “Lady Sansa,” he began so delicately as if he could blow her away like a dandelion head, “I must ask you some questions now.”  She may have nodded, she didn’t know.  Beyond the broad expanse of his shoulder she saw Lord Reed sitting at a polished driftwood table across the tiny room that was fashioned from an old cave, a silent mouse rather than a mad one.  She hadn’t even heard him enter.   “After he was settled in, his lordship asked if I had any sweetmilk to give him.  I thought he must be mistaken, that he gave the name to something else.  But he told me his old maester would give it to him on occasion.  Is that what you recall as well?”  

 

“That is true, ser,” she croaked.  Elder Brother poured her a cup of watered-wine from a flagon while she continued.  “Maester Colemon was treating Lord Robert with leechings before, but he was making no headway with his trembling.  The Lord Protector suggested it long ago and it seemed to unburden him of fears and put him at ease.”  She hadn’t felt a want for refreshment, but she accepted it and took meager sips anyway.  He said nothing but his look bade her to continue.  Perhaps any detail she could recall may be of use, she decided.  “There were things a lord must do with which we could anticipate him becoming overwrought…  like the tourney feast and seeing his heir flaunt himself so presumptuously.  The sweetmilk proved effective in staving off an episode with enough forewarning.”

 

“I see… and what of the day to day?”   

 

 

“On any ordinary day nothing is certain; however, if you know the signs sometimes you can sense their coming and even avoid them completely.”  The cool sourness flooding her mouth and throat began to breathe life into her in a way that she didn’t know she needed until it was re-awakened.     

 

“How so?” he asked, seeming genuinely curious.        

 

“The trick of it is to divert him to something that makes him feel strong and brave like a story knight or a kindly-meant lie dressed up as praise.  And just like that,” she flourished with a snap of her fingers.  She felt oddly proud at sharing this.  “He smiles again, squares his shoulders, and moves forward.  It works far more often than not, like magic words…”  Just looking back upon his stillness and the feeling melted like a snowflake.  “I’m sorry, that must sound rather ridiculous.”        

 

“Not in the least.  Even a little nudge of the rudder turns a large galley into a wide arc, no matter how the wind is blowing.”  Elder Brother pulled another chair over and sat beside her.  “My lady, I beg your pardon.  I think I can guess, but I must ask.  What was it this time that upset him?  It was worse than the High Road.”

 

She made the remains of the wine dance and swirl in the bottom of the cup.  The last thing she wanted was to seem like she had abused his hospitality with indecency nor create enmity between Sandor and his newfound brother.  That was hardly the important matter at hand, but he was a man of the Gods.  “Sandor Clegane,” and she said formally using her lady-voice to lend the telling more propriety than it had, “needed to confess to me that he was with my sister for a time until he was wounded and then by his harshness, he lost her.  She was alive at least some months ago, but it gave me hope she may be alive still.  He thought I would curse him, but there was nothing to forgive and everything to thank him for.”  She did not wish to lie exactly, so she measured her words carefully.  She didn’t think Sweetrobin had seen their kissing.  It was dark and he was far enough down the path where he was stricken.  “I insisted the glamor be removed in my presence.  He saved my sister from the Twins.  I esteem him so much that he need not hide his face from me like a criminal.”  

 

As the words came out an already broken heart was torn anew.  Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Sandor since Robert was placed on the bed.   As much as I want to run to him, what if Robert is dying right now and leaves this world without his family beside him?  At the same time I feel as though I am a neglectful, false friend while I impotently sit here, just watching and humming, watching and humming…   “With unburdened soul, he bid me goodnight and then he left down the path where he came across Lord Robert.”  The boy’s screams began when lantern light illuminated what the Mountain had wrought -- what’s merely skin to me now and everything that’s safe, honest, and like home .  There was a heaviness on her chest and she felt another trail of hot tears down her face.  “Why was my lord so far from his chambers and alone?  I thought you said you were with him.”   

 

“I was, my lady,” he said as his shoulders sank.  “Lord Robert was already in bed.  He even took over reading the book aloud when I wasn’t doing the voices as you do.  Then we talked for a while about mostly you and knights.  How he’s been ill since he could remember.  And a little of his mother too.  I had left briefly to fetch some herbs I wanted for an infusion to give him.”  His face looked bitterly pinched as he ran a hand over his gray-stubbled scalp.    

 

“Do not reproach yourself,” she said as she touched his shoulder.  “He came looking for me, I know.  He has not been far from me since his mother was murdered.  Many times he would sleep next to me and this is a strange place to him, no matter how kind and welcoming.”  She turned to gaze upon her cousin.  His eyes didn’t even move under their lids while he slept.  “I failed to consider preparing my lord for the eventual meeting with the true Sandor Clegane.”  Her fingers delicately brushed a curl off his brow.  If he slipped away now, somehow it would seem wrong to cut his hair.  “It pains me to speak of him so, but Lord Robert at times has fears that are somewhat overblown and ill-founded.  One of which is an aversion to men with markings.  It could even be as insignificant as Lord Nestor’s mole, but I don’t believe he has ever known such severe burn scars... ”  The hypocrisy of a few years ago was not lost on her, but she reached a point of piercing through sadness into numbness.  She thought she heard Lord Reed mutter something to himself, but she could not discern it nor did it rouse her curiosity.  She turned back to Elder Brother, her eyes imploring him, for what, she didn’t know.  “I think Lady Lysa perhaps loved him too much as one loves an infant and kept him as such.  She did not think of the man and lord he might become.”

 

“Something you were trying to set right, my lady.  I do believe you were winning that battle.”  He smiled sadly.  “I must ask you more about his care now.  Anything you can recall might help.  The infusion I was making was designed to purge foul substances from the body, though I doubt it’s been used for this in particular.  The ministration of sweetsleep to a child troubles me greatly.  Moreso that it was at the behest of Littlefinger.  It has properties that quell convulsions true enough, but its potency and accumulation make it problematic.”  He then gave her a look that bored into her that made her feel a little off balance.  “When was the last time you remember he was given the sweetsleep?”    

 

    “It was right before the start of the tourney feast.  He could not have a fit in front of his bannermen and heir.  They believe the Stranger is on his heels already, but if they saw him as feeble, not just ill, they would never respect their liege lord.”     

 

“And the time before that?”  His face was unreadable and that made it more disconcerting.  A chill came over her that she had been blind to something crucial.      

She had to pause to think for a moment.  “It was on the day we had to descend from the Eyrie.  The paths are narrow at times with nothing below but sheared cliffs.  One could easily be overcome by dizziness and fall, even without a shaking sickness.  The maester counselled against using the sweetmilk as he had it only a few days prior and that it can linger in the body.  He suggested a draught to make him sleep and strap him to a mule like a sack of corn, but that was unacceptable for the same reasons as the tourney.”  She thought of her father putting on his lord’s face as she had looked upon him with such pride from the gallery when he was Hand of the King and dispensing justice.  Then he was brought so low, stones thrown at him from the crowd before he had died on his knees.  Perhaps it was babbling driven by her frayed nerves, but she felt compelled.  “He is a high lord of an ancient Andal house and cannot be robbed of his dignity and the immediate danger was too great.” she sniffed back a fresh swell of tears.  She then suddenly recalled another detail of that day.  “There was something else… Maester Colemon asked me if his lordship ever had a bloody nose.  He did not, so the maester agreed to give him a small pinch for the ride down, but that was to be the last for half a year.”

 

“It was just shy of a half a year then.”  He stroked his thick beard and his broad brow was deeply furrowed.  “A pinch you say?  A pinch and he could ride down from the Eyrie clear-eyed and sitting straight in the saddle?  Are you absolutely certain, my lady?”        

 

She was almost afraid to answer.  “I am certain it has been a pinch every time.”  Elder Brother looked horrifyingly appalled then his mouth tightened into a thin, flat line.  Abruptly he rose from the chair and paced the room, his mind swirling like an autumn tempest behind his eyes.  “He had to know that amount was wrong…”  He was speaking to no one in particular.  “If he didn’t know, he’s got as much business wearing a chain as a sheep...  it could have, should have, but didn’t kill him…  the seven hells claim that craven gray rat and his master!”  

 

“What’s this now, septon?”  Howland jutted in.  She had almost forgotten he was there.  “Is is it poisoning, slow and secret?”  

 

Oh, Gods!  She had pressed the maester to give it to him once, but he never said it could be lethal!  Her mouth must have been hanging open like a drawbridge.  Yet... murder did not make any sense at all.  “That cannot be.  What good would having Robert dead do Lord Petyr?  His guardianship of his stepson is his entire claim for legitimacy over the Vale lords.  Harry was in his majority and had no need of a Lord Protector as well as having no liking or trust for Petyr either.  He needed Lord Robert alive and fairing well to his bannermen, so none could challenge him on their high lord’s welfare.”  At the very least until I had been wed to Harry, swayed him away from Yohn Royce and produced an heir to both the Eyrie and Winterfell.  Then what use would Harry have either?  Lyn Corbray told it true about what Littlefinger really wants.  In time, he would have married me and claimed all that came with it.                   

 

“You have the right of it, my lady.  It’s not murder,” said Elder Brother gravely.  “It’s reckless and cruel and has been going on for much of Robert’s life, I think.”  

 

The tension made her feel as if her skin would split apart at any moment like an overcooked sausage.  “Speak plainly then, ser!  What’s wrong with him?”  

 

“Think on this, my lord, my lady…”  He held up a thick, calloused finger, commanding their close attention.  “For a grown man, a few grains of the stuff will calm the body, make him feel at ease, confident, and strong.  Give that same man a pinch and he will fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.  Much more than that and that man will never awaken.  Yet Lord Robert, barely a quarter of that size, can tolerate an amount that would land a grown man out like a candle.  I saw him the night of the tourney feast.  He was as bright-eyed and alert as a hare -- as you said, appearing to be fairing well.”  

 

Now she was thoroughly confused.  “I’m afraid I am not following, ser.  How is that possible?”

 

“A drunkard cannot reach his stupor with the same amount of wine as he did as a greenboy.  The body grows accustomed and requires more and more.  Thus, a pinch for the young lordship is the same as a few grains for an average man; however, the treatment is one and the same with the cause.  Without it, the body acutely feels its’ absence and may protest with violence and sickness.  If Maester Colemon wasn’t administering it before it was suggested to him, it was given to him by someone else close to him.”

 

The awful understanding was like the plunge and jerk of the condemned at the taut end of a noose.  “Lady Lysa.”  Her hand covered her mouth as she looked back at her poor cousin as he lay there so still and fragile.  Nothing that touched her babe would have escaped her notice.  Gods, she was mad but to do this!  There was no one closer to the boy than her aunt who was known to feed him herself.  She had heard the servants speak once about Lady Lysa taking him to her breast when he was well past old enough to be weaned.  He had even tried to nuzzle against her own when he took to climbing into her bed.  “Can it… can it be passed from mother to child?  Through her own milk?” she asked and he silently nodded.  She must have been at the stuff herself to calm her many fears.  Fear of the Lannisters, fear of knives in the dark, fear of Sansa taking her husband away.  “They knew.  Both of them.  The maester mentioned the use of breast milk as physic, but he was chided for suggesting a wet nurse.  Petyr knew immediately to suggest the sweetsleep.  The maester would place it in cups of milk where perhaps its taste would be familiar and comforting.  I do not know if Lady Lysa understood what she was doing, but she was mad and raving toward the end.  Lord Robert once swore he heard the singing of a prisoner in the sky cells days after the man had jumped to his death.”  It might be kinder if the Gods took him now if that were the case.  From the corner of her eye, she noticed Howland Reed leaning back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest, ever silent but his mind was chewing away at some thought by the way his jaw moved.     

 

“I swear to you if his lordship makes it through this. I will do everything I can to purge this from his body, so he will not suffer like his mother.  My lady, you really ought to rest now in your own bed.  I promise I will send for you if anything changes.”

 

Sansa took up the lantern that was left on the table.  No, she did not require an escort.  Yes, she knew the path back to her cottage.  A little quiet and solitude was a welcome thing.  Whatever happened now, Sweetrobin was in the hands of Elder Brother and the Gods.  As she walked, the light from her lantern reflected on the leaded glass of a building she passed, making the colors dance beautifully.  As she held the light higher, she saw the carvings of the Mother and Father on either side of the wooden doors.  The unrefined angles of their faces and folds of their robes may have been shaped by simple artists, but the polished driftwood had a warm, golden beauty.  She had not felt close to her mother’s Gods since she prayed in the sept before the battle of the Blackwater.  The door gave way so easily, she felt it would somehow be wrong to not enter.

 

There were still a few candles that had not yet finished burning themselves out on each of the seven altars.  Sansa had no candle of her own to light, but she knelt at the altar of the Mother and prayed that She keep Sweetrobin close to Her.  She prayed for Myranda, Mya, and Ser Lothor, that they were all safe.  She then went before the Smith and asked Him to aid Elder Brother in his work, to give him the tools he needed to save the boy.  To the Crone, she prayed for guidance in the days ahead.  She had a few friends, but they were still not free of danger.  She would need wisdom to choose the right path and whom to place her trust in.  

 

At last, her skirts spread out around her before the Father.  These prayers may go unheard if she did not unburden her own soul of sin.  She stared up into the Father’s flat, wooden gaze, lit from below by the lantern beside her.  “No candles and no septon to hear a proper confession.  I make a poor supplicant, I know.  Father, judge me justly so that my prayers might be worthy of notice.”  She choked on a fresh wave of burning tears.  “My lies are many.  I do not speak of the ones that shielded me from abuse.  For those I’m not sorry.  I speak of the ones that muddied and blurred the lines between my own safety and serving an evil man.  I should have beseeched Lord Royce for help when I had the chance.  I should have told someone how Lady Lysa really died, but I was scared.  No matter what Marillion did, it was no true justice that he took the blame and Petyr slipped by unscathed.  I told myself I was being kind to my cousin to withhold the truth, but what kindness was there in keeping him under the shadows of monsters and cowards that sought to use him?  In his innocence, he placed all his trust in me, but I always stopped short of risking myself.  The only safety that was guaranteed was Petyr’s.  He needed someone to speak for him and champion his interests alone -- someone with more than a paper sword and shield of good intentions.”  She sniffed and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.  She thought she should take no chances and be thorough as possible in her confession.  “I could have been a better sister to Arya and obeyed my father.  I’ve had unchaste thoughts about a man who is not my husband and engaged in indecent behavior.  I killed a man and robbed his corpse --”

 

A low whistle and a clucking of disapproval came from behind her.  Horrified, she whipped around to find Sandor with his arms lazily draped over the back of a pew a few rows behind her.  He must have been lying down when she came in else she would have seen him.  Even now in the low light he was little more than a darkened shape of muted colors.  “You should have made yourself known!” was all she could think to blurt out.  

 

“Your prayers were silent until you got to the Father.  There would have been nothing to intrude upon had you decided to keep it all in your head.”

 

“A poor reasoning.   Are you drunk?

 

“No… the Gods know I wanted to be.  I wanted to get wrecked more than anything, but I forced myself here instead.  Besides, the stores of wine and ale are kept chained and locked.  There’s quite a few here with the same want to drown ourselves.”  

 

At that, her fists unbunched and she sheepishly crept up to sit beside him on the bench, hands folded delicately in her lap.  “That was unkind of me to ask.  It was not your fault what happened.  His mind has been addled by a foul substance disguised as medicine.  Elder Brother says it causes the same fits it’s supposed to stop.”

 

“Little Bird, you think I am unaccustomed to children being frightened of me?  This is no illusion,” he said as he pointed to his face.  “I do not have to understand his words before he fell to know I am the stuff of his nightmares.”  

 

She sighed as his words twisted in her gut.  “I can’t say I understood either.  I should have explained things to him sooner.  He didn’t know your real face, but he knows you unhorsed Ser Harrold and made him feel like there was some fairness in the world.  The next day he asked me if Ser Byron would be in the melee and said that he would make you his master-at-arms.  He wanted you to teach him to fight.  I had never heard him speak so before.  If… when he awakens… all will be well, I promise.”  He was looking off toward the Smith perhaps or at nothing in particular.  “You are accustomed to children being unafraid of you as well.  Tommen and Myrcella had known you all their lives.  I remember your fondness for them.”

 

“The only good that ever came out of the Queen’s --”

 

“Yes, I suppose so,” she interrupted.  He chuckled softly as he nudged her arm.  How Elder Brother managed to not muzzle him at times, she hadn’t the slightest.    

 

“Whatever you think of yourself, you are a good mother to the boy, you know.”  This time it was her turn to gaze up at the rafters and the point where the seven sides of the ceiling met.  Aside from their conversation, it was eerily quiet and still in the sept with just a ghost of incense in the air.  “Little Bird, don’t let me rattle you by asking.  Nothing between us has changed.  What happened to your aunt and why did this Marillion take the blame?”

 

She hadn’t even known her hands were fidgeting until the warmth of his covered them.  “Marillion was this singer that accompanied Lady Lysa when she arrived at the Fingers to wed Petyr that very day.  Late that night, he came to me in my bed and tried to force me.  Ser Lothor held a knife to his throat and made him leave me alone.  He never tried anything again, but he was Lysa’s creature through and through.  

 

You see, the only reason my aunt even agreed to keep me around was because she wanted to marry me to Robert, so he would have Winterfell and the Vale.  Then one day, she saw Petyr grab me and kiss me, but she blamed me and thought I was trying to take her husband away from her.  Marillion bolted the doors shut to stop the guards from coming in.  Then he played and sang loudly to cover the sounds of her mad raging while she tried to push me through the Moon Door.”  Her body shivered of its own accord.  

 

“I came so close to falling, but Petyr stopped her and then he pushed her instead.  When the guards finally came in, Petyr blamed the singer and bade me to support the lie.  I should not care a thing for a man that tried to rape me, but it felt wrong all the same, because Petyr was made himself Lord Protector and guardian over Robert.  Marillion was even tortured into confessing, before he was sent to the sky cells where he did eventually jump.  

 

Then he told me I must always be Alayne all the time or there will be more blood on my hands if anyone found out the truth.  I was already accused of Joffrey’s murder.  I felt trapped.  Then with time, it just became so easy to be a bastard girl from Gulltown.  It was what Petyr wanted to hear and it kept me safe from the Queen, but not from his lap or his kisses.  Though as long as I could endure that, I had his trust and thus my freedom to carve out a little life for myself.  That’s more than I had as a hostage in the Red Keep.”  

 

Sandor remained quiet for so long she feared he might be regretting his promise that nothing had changed between them.  When he finally spoke, it almost startled her.  “If you were ever forced, you don’t have to fear telling me.  I would not think you ruined.  Even if you did what you had to…”    

 

She shook her head.  “ No .  No, I am still a maid.  He did need proof Lord Tyrion never sealed our marriage, since he has failed to turn up dead and make a widow of me.”  In the quiet stillness, she felt a delicate puff of air brush against her hair, the release of the breath he was holding.           

 

A seemingly endless moment passed again.  One of the little flames on the Father’s altar had completely devoured itself, and the dimming light made it look as if the figure was receding from them.  “Shed no more tears for imagined choices,” he rasped as a massive, muscled arm scooped her up against him and instinctively her face pressed into the warmth of his tunic.  “There is no good to come from this ceaseless acting as your own accuser and headsman, Sansa.  There is no shame in being outmatched.  You say you got the smiling whoreson to trust you?  Well, there’s a marvel, because Littlefinger trusts no one.  If there was even a whiff that you would betray him, he’d shove you through the Moon Door himself or mayhaps something worse.  There’s much worse ways to ensure pretty girls like you are never to be seen again.  He’d still have the boy under his thumb, this time alone and with no one looking after him.  There will be time to tell Robert the truth as well, after Elder Brother says he has the strength for it.”  

 

She could have nuzzled against him all night if he’d let her.  It felt good to simply be childish and comforted, the burdens of living being lifted away, even if only for so long as his arms were around her.  “Do all Starks sup on useless guilt, I wonder?  Your sister gnawed straight down to the marrow of that bone after the Twins.  Well, enough of that.  Your nose is as red as a sot and you’re boring the Gods to death.”  His fingers interlaced with hers, so thick they could splay hers wide apart.  “Lay the blame where it belongs and I’ll gladly be the headsman.  I promise you, if I ever get the chance, I’ll cut the smile from his face before I kill him.”

 

“You probably shouldn’t say such things in a sept,” she murmured against him.  She hoped, for his sake, they never came anywhere close to Littlefinger again.  She reminded herself it took all the talent of three brave men, the mixed blessing of that avalanche, and a substantial amount of luck to get this far.  There was no doubt about it; Petyr is relentless, bold, and cunning.  He has resources everywhere.  As many eyes and ears as the Spider.  He would never stop.

 

“What better place than before the Gods to make such a promise to you?  One that is deeply felt and solemnly made…  so what’s this about killing a man and robbing his corpse?”

 

“Oh…”  His question snapped her back around.  She unravelled the whole affair, from beginning to end.  How Ser Lyn discovered her true identity and how he said he would help her, but she didn’t believe him.  His endless need for coin.  The plot to take her for the ransom, dead or alive.  The poison, the deceitful lover, the predicament of the body, and the greater predicament of Ser Lyn.  She looked up at him smiling, praising Ser Lothor for coming to her aid yet again when she realized Sandor’s brows were knitted and his grey eyes were searching her face.

 

“You threw yourself between us, begged me not to hurt him.  Was there a fondness between you that was cut short?”  He was trying to sound casual in his asking, but the worry was there.  

 

“A friendship, nothing more.  Truthfully, Mya Stone turned his head and I encouraged her look his way.  Fortunately for me, he was more than a tad grateful for it,” she reassured him.  The remains of the candles were just keeping their flames above their little puddles of wax.  All that would be left was their lantern light.

 

“Hmm, it’s no matter anyway.  The man has a cask of whatever he drinks coming to him,” he said.    She knew better than to make light of that ration of respect from Sandor Clegane to a knight, no less .   Ser Lothor looked after her when he could not, a thought that must have both pained and consoled him.  Ser Lothor mentioned once he was turned away when he sought out the Brunes of Brownhollow after his father passed.  If it were ever in her power, she’d grant him land and a home for him and Mya too, if she liked.  

 

Sansa could tell by the subtle, stormy movements of his grey eyes he was curiously still brooding.  She supposed his thoughts never made room before for other men winning her smiles and respect.  That was silly, though.  She never once thought of Ser Lothor in that way.  Yet, she had to admit if it was some kind, pretty girl… or shapely, grown woman, much more world-wise than herself, that saved his life…   Well, I would still be grateful, but I am even moreso that it was actually a brick wall of a man instead.  

 

Blotting buxom nursemaids out of her mind, the corners of her mouth then turned up, feeling a yen for this mood to be lifted.  “The coins I nicked were for Ser Byron’s services, but he proved more chivalrous than hired steel ought,” she slyly mentioned.  “Honestly, in my mother’s day a lady could count on the avarice of sellswords.  I can hear her now.  ‘Their dubious loyalties are as certain as Winter,’” she intoned most imperiously.  “There’s no telling what a man without a price could want in return.  It could be practically anything .  What she would say to Ser Byron, I wonder?”  His laughter erupted, rough and velvety all at once.  Watching him transform like that had a satisfaction like catching a snowflake on her tongue or signing a letter with perfect penmanship.  What would her mother think of Sandor anyway?  Perhaps that was best not to imagine.  

 

And the sept grew even darker.  Another blackened, curled-up wick sighing a trail of of unfurling smoke up to the Father’s hidden face.  He rose from the bench, grabbing up the lantern, and offering her the other hand.  “You had best wonder what your lady mother would say about your other confession and your disgraceful behavior as of late.”  Her mouth must have gaped as she stood, because he laughed even harder.  Before she could respond, he had her by the waist, one-armed and slung over his shoulder like a wildling carrying off plunder.  She wriggled and pounded his back with balled fists, but they both knew it was only pretense.  Oh, she would pay him back in turn soon enough.  “What a lustful, black-hearted, thieving, murderous bitch you are, Little Bird!  Come, it’s off to the Wall with you.”                  



         

Chapter Text

Since their second day on the Quiet Isle, Sansa sought to keep her hands fluttering with work and one-step ahead of her mind.  She did mending work for the brothers’ robes, often by her cousin’s sickbed.  There were nights she sat by the little hearth fire in her cottage when she could not abide lying still and alone in the dark.  She’d work until the heaviness in her eyelids was impossible to resist and her hands felt many years her senior.   

 

Sandor burned most of his daylight hours building new fences for the pastures, helping with repairs to a wagon and plow, and re-thatching the roofs of the sleeping quarters.  Once she had caught a glimpse of him relieving a bent-back greybeard of a heavy load of grain, keeping a step behind the old man’s shambling.  By the time she would see him at evening meal, he brought with him the appetite of three men.  

 

Lord Reed, on the other hand, was seldom seen during the day.  He’d often return with small game in tow and said he’d been scouting on the mainland for anyone tracking them.  He never used the ferry nor did anyone see him come or go.  Occasionally Howland would try to speak to her in hushed tones and away from the others.  He asked her strange questions about Lady and spoke of things she didn’t understand.  Had she ever dreamed a dream of her wolf so real that she could taste the blood of her prey or feel her paws scratching at the earth?  He claimed to talk to trees and hear their answers in the wind rustling their leaves.  This was a far cry more than the silent contemplation in the godswood her father had taught her.  Truthfully, Lord Reed frightened her more than a little sometimes and she’d delicately make her excuses or change the subject.  

 

One night at dinner, there was talk of where they would go next.  Both Sandor and the Elder Brother felt that appealing to Yohn Royce at Runestone was their best course of action.  Lord Reed insisted that they must take Sansa into the Mountains of the Moon though there wasn’t much he could say beyond that.  Sandor made plain what he thought of Howland’s tree spirits doling out advice, but before another ruckus could disrupt the common hall Sansa told them all she would hear none of this.  Not until Robert had recovered… or not.  Afterward Sandor warned her that Howland Reed was mad no matter his loyalties to House Stark and to not be swayed by that mystical horseshit.                          

 

When she ran out of tears and holes to mend, an embroidered depiction each of the Seven came to adorn the sept’s formerly plain altar cloth.  Elder Brother, impressed with her exact hand, invited her to learn to sew up a wound the next time it was called for.  It seemed a fine, practical idea until she was faced with the amputation of two of a brother’s toes.  They had accidently been crushed while trying to dress a millstone and the misshapen things looked like bloody grapes.  The sight initially made her wobbly, but she steeled herself before Elder Brother could see and send her away.  Before long, she discovered a queer fascination with the process.  She even finished sewing the tiny flap of skin over the wound under his supervision before he bound it up with honey, herbs, and prayer.  As curiosity got the better of her, she’d pay visits to the patient over the next few days just to watch the leeches plump up, drawing good blood to the wound and carrying the bad away with them.  Ugly and purple though it was, there was no foul odor or running pus.  The brother seemed to be content to have a little respite as well.

 

The worst of Sweetrobin’s purging was five days of restless hell, whipping him between extremes.  During that time his frail body had sweat like a wrung out rag or shivered even under piles of furs and sometimes he vomited bile when his stomach was well beyond emptied.  Still, the attendants that stayed by his side had persistently plied spoonfuls of broth or the infusion down his throat, one by one to keep his strength up.  Then on the sixth day he fully awoke and her heart leapt up like a hare as she ran to him as soon as she deciphered the hand gesture.  Her lord looked exhausted, but equally happy to see her and she smothered his face in kisses as light as butterfly wings.  Sandor did come with her to the Hermit’s Hole, but he waited just outside the open door.  Out of sight, but within earshot.

 

To her dismay, Robert remembered much in vivid detail of the night he fell ill.  There was indeed a demon of a man that many times had haunted his dreams if he chanced to sleep without the maester’s oblivion.  It sounded terrifying the way he described him.  White as milk but for one side of his face marred with something like a blood stain and an empty socket where an eye should be.  Relentlessly he would urge him to fly from the Moon Door into the blue.  

 

Sansa gently explained that it was only a nightmare likely brought on by his condition and it wasn’t real no matter how frightening it was.  She knew he had never known anyone who was burned before.  Very carefully she told him about the glamour and that Sandor was still the same person here to help them.  The scarring on half his face was the only coincidental similarity and that it was a burn, not blood.  Robert eyed her skeptically and asked her how that could happen to a person. Never had she uttered the secret to another soul before and she was at a loss of what to say next.  Elder Brother seemed just as dumbfounded.  After a long moment and very softly, she heard Sandor rasp from outside the doorway.  “Tell him.”  So she did, sparing no details.  She didn’t think it right to paint a prettier picture than it was.  The boy sank back on his pillows deep in thought.  

 

“Someone should have done something,” he finally said, mouth drawn tight.  

 

“I would have done something, cousin.  I am the Arryn.  It would have been the sky cells for his brother,” he insisted.  “But that wouldn’t change what happened to Sandor,” he added sadly.  

 

“No, Ser Sweetrobin the Just,” she said, kissing his forehead.  “Though I think it would have changed some things for the better after that.”                 

 

Half a moon’s turn had passed and there was no delaying it anymore.  In preparation Sansa had fashioned a simple dress with a wider, circular hem than she usually wore.  She would be glad of the extra fabric to drape over her legs while she sat astride the red courser, Ser Byron’s young gelding.  Elder Brother had kindly granted her access to some of the flotsam bolts of fabric that found their way to the Quiet Isle.  Enticing as the silks were, she required a more practical attire of cotton and wool.  It was a dark shade of blue like deep water with the lacings in front so she could easily dress herself.  A lighter blue cotton shift tied near her throat and a matching shawl to cover her pinned-up hair for the modesty of the isle.

 

When Sandor first took her to the stables it pleased her to discover Stranger, who the brothers unsurprisingly tried to rename Driftwood, had survived here with his master.  He would take their lessons as an opportunity to exercise the handsome, but ill-tempered destrier by using him for demonstration.  Sandor led their mounts out to a nearby clearing of grass where some sheep and goats were lazily grazing.  “I’ll hear no complaining.  You’re going to need to learn quickly,” he told her sternly.  “If you get thrown, you’ll have no pity from me if you didn’t listen.”  She nodded solemnly, not wanting to test him on that.  

 

She would have preferred to have an agreeable, old palfrey for practice but the warhorse had an obedient, well-mannered enough temperament that would have to do.  She felt acutely aware of how small she was next to him and he wasn’t even as tall as Stranger.  Her little sister, who would seem like a flea hopping on his back, wouldn’t have a lump in her throat or a twisted tummy as she did.  The first time mounting the beast had her uneasy of sitting with her legs apart and she felt the prickly heat over her face while Sandor adjusted her feet in the stirrups.  He said nothing more than to keep her heels down, but his mouth twitched slightly as she could feel his fingers on her ankle bones even through the boot leather.

 

Posture and poise had never been troublesome for her when learning her dancing and courtly graces, but this was so very different.  She did have some trouble remembering to keep her heels down -- something Sandor reminded her of seven or eight times more.  

 

“Click your tongue and press only your lower legs into his sides,” he said.  “When you need him to stop, press your seat deeper into the saddle.  Rely more on your body to command him, less on pulling the reins.”  

 

No Name Horse, what she called him in her head, was indeed obedient but it was even harder for him to understand her commands when she felt unsteady and every movement unnatural.     

 

This was no bailey pony ride and they stayed at it all morning.  Whatever he wanted her to do, Sandor demonstrated first on Stranger then patiently watched and waited for her to mirror it.  Muscles all over her body were growing sore with unaccustomed use just mastering the basics.  Sometimes No Name Horse got the impression he should trot faster than she preferred and he paid no mind to her fumbling halt commands.

 

“Here, girl,” Sandor called to her.  “Bring one rein out to the side and his head will follow ‘round to meet you.  He can’t buck or bolt then.  If he tries to move forward, it will only be in a circle.”  

Absurdly, she felt a flush of mortification as the sheep heads bobbed up to watch her utter foolery, still chewing their cud, nosey as washerwomen.  If she could bare her teeth at them like a real wolf and not look even more stupid, she would have.  Instead, she grumbled to herself “I shall eat your mutton with relish and the rest can stand there naked while I knit socks.”         

 

Her heart was hammering, the sweat matted her hair to her brow, and she felt like a giant fool half the time; however, she did not dare whine or show weariness.  After a few hours of practice, she gradually worked up to a tentative confidence with trotting, to put it one way, and No Name Horse and herself had reached a certain understanding.  Sandor finally took a minute amount of pity on her sorry self, or perhaps it was pity on the horses, and told her they could take a leisurely ride across the island.   Oh Gods be good.

 

Although she didn’t initially take more riding as a reward, the views of the Quiet Isle by daylight were delightful little sketches.  Grey-brown, pointed hoods and bell sleeves worked the gardens piling carrots and onions into big woven baskets, sprays of green draped over the sides.  Great stalks of corn swayed and rustled in the cool wind, while brothers moved between the rows, plucking up the gold and green ears.  Down by the shore, crab traps were being hauled in on ropes and the air filled her nose and mouth with a briny tang.  Passing a lush and wildly overgrown berry bush, she grabbed a small cluster of sweet, dark fruit and popped them in her mouth.  She could almost taste the sunshine in the bursts of juice.   

 

When the paths narrowed to little winding trail near an isolated shoreline, Sandor rode ahead of her and No Name Horse seemed content just to follow Stranger without too much effort on her part.  Eventually, they reached a gently sloped, half moon-shaped grassy area where the green tapered down to meet the silt and rocks on the shore.  The trees were thick behind them, the distant shores of the Vale to the north and Crackclaw Point to the south, and nothing straight out but miles of waves and sky where the bay lead to the Narrow Sea.  A thin, stoney freshwater stream was just nearby that Sandor said was fed by the same springs that supplied the bathhouse well.  After helping her down, they left them tied near the stream to finish cooling down and to drink their fill.  

 

In truth, these private moments between them were rare.  The isle was always bustling about its labors and they must keep a respectful semblance of propriety.  Nonetheless, there were glances, sly smiles, secret japes, and occasional stolen kisses with herself playing the thief.  He never took what wasn’t clearly offered… which was becoming a little vexing at times.  She was mad to be properly embraced just how she remembered it and how she imagined it would be again.  On the green slope under a tree with a crooked trunk, he laid out one of his cloaks while she waited.  Her hands clasped primly in front of her as she gave herself over to a little girlish swaying while his back was turned.  He sat propped against the tree and his long legs seeming to stretch out endlessly before him.  Joining him there on the cloak, she couldn’t fully stifle the groan of soreness as she sat next to him and tucked her legs to the side.  “That’s to be expected,” he said.  “You did well… enough.”   She wrinkled her nose at that as he chuckled.

 

“I doubt shall ever meet my sister’s talent with animals.  In truth, I never found the pursuit that appealing.”

 

“You gave nothing away.  I’m stricken with disbelief.”    

 

“Did I ever tell you Mya offered to teach me before everything happened?  I don’t think she had the faintest idea what she would be getting into.”  She supposed Mya would be far more of a taskmaster.  A bashful look over her shoulder would find no purchase there. “Her stores of patience would have been beggared, poor girl.”  

 

She smiled to herself, but she missed the company of women many times.  What she wouldn’t give to confide in the older, savvier girls.  As the days passed, their time together was both effortless and a tumult of nervous exhilaration.  It was the same for him too, wasn’t it?  It was like that urge to swim as far from shore as she dared, but still frightened by not seeing the bottom under her or being unable to touch it with her toes.    

 

“Patience doesn’t come natural to me either.” he said, folding an arm behind his head.

 

“No, but you learned to be a little more than you were.”  She smiled sweetly at him, but the corners of his mouth only matched hers by half.  

 

“And what do you need to learn, Little Bird?” he asked.

 

The question rang a little peculiar like it was some kind of trick.  “When we leave here, I must be able to ride on my own, so as not to slow us down.”  That was not the answer he was seeking by his unchanged expression.    

 

Her attention was drawn to a spindly, white heron making its way between the reeds, its beak striking like a two-pronged spear into the water and deftly maneuvering a fish down its serpentine throat.  It turned its head to look back at her, its eye a yellow bead.  Its legs reminded her of the way Moon Boy sometimes went about on stilts at court and wasn’t there roasted heron served at Joffrey’s wedding?  That was a shame, because the bird before her was a graceful thing, a white-plumed tail tapering as delicate as a brush stroke.  As she stared back into the bead, the heron hopped up on a large rock a mere few feet away and splayed its wings out wide to her delight.  The sunlight shined through the feathers like milk glass as it preened.  

 

“It enjoys the admiration,” she mused as she took off the shawl covering her head.  She could feel his knuckles lazily tracing her spine and there was that familiar pull to bend for him like a bowstring, her eyes closing as she savored it.

 

“Vain little creature,” he rumbled low.  

 

When she opened her eyes again, the heron was already silently gliding away over the surface of the water, barely pulsing its wings to ride the current of air.  Tumbling near her through the grass and nudged along by the breeze was one of its feathers.  Not the bladed wing kind, but a thin, wispy one from its breast.  Sansa reached over to grab it before it passed her by and twirled it between her fingers.  So soft and airy it was, a sensation barely registered as she brushed it against her cheek and jaw.  Could anything be more perfect than this?  She smiled and lowered her lips upon his.  A tiny, fresh knick on his chin bespoke of shaving this morning and he tasted faintly of copper and soap.  Yielding and supple as his mouth was, his hands had not yet moved to clutch her to him, causing her to stop and sigh.  

 

“You haven’t answered me yet, girl,” he said.

 

She didn’t think she’d have to work for everything today.  Her thighs squirmed together as she readjusted herself to face him.  “I think I must not have understood your question.”    

 

“That courser,” he began, “still had its tack on when some brothers found it wandering outside the Saltpans.  His old master no doubt is keeping company with worms somewhere,” he added, a tad amused with his own gallows humor.  “He’s solid, only a few hands shy of Stranger and worth some gold, but not so fancy he’d not be fitting a sellsword master and drawing unwanted questions.”

 

She nodded sagely as she looked back through the treeline at their mounts, trying to adopt his appreciation for them as her own.  Stranger did draw the eye with his glossy black hide over a muscular, imposing frame.  A stallion like that could sire many desirable foals that would fetch a handsome price.  That was plain enough.  No Name Horse was nothing to sniff at either.    

 

“He won’t balk at a lance charging straight at him…”  Sandor continued, but a dark cloud descended over his countenance that reminded her of the time he first told her of his scars.  “He’ll also not flee from shouting or chaos... scent of blood or loosened shit.  He can break an infantry line or break a skull like an overripe melon... only the juice isn’t as sweet.”  He must have seen the way she swallowed hard because he snickered.  “Not to your liking?”

 

“Why are you trying to scare me from a horse to which you’ve entrusted my person?” she asked.  It was working if that was his intent and just when some of her intimidation was waning.  They had so little time alone, why was he spoiling it?

 

“He’ll do as you bid him, Little Bird.  Believe that.  He’s become accustomed to your handling.  You can move him easily now...”  His grim smile faded into a stony expression.  “Still, it’s best for you to stay wary all the same.  That one’s knows more of unleashing hell than eating apples from your hand, no matter how he may like the taste of it.”  

 

She didn’t know what to say to that.  A long silence followed and suddenly she felt chilled as the wind whipped up across the water.  

“What are you calling him anyway?” he asked to fill the space while he seemed to be looking past her or through her.  She couldn’t tell.

 

“Oh, I hadn’t thought I’d be the one to name him.  I’ve just been thinking of him as No Name Horse, but I suppose that won’t do to say out loud,” she said, tittering nervously.    

 

He snorted, taking her aback.  “I think he’s earned a consolation more befitting of his pride now that he’s been demoted to carrying your delicate arse around.”

 

He didn’t even feign good-natured teasing.  All color in the scene drained away leaving nothing but chalk and coal outlines.  She should have known that mean dog would come around barking at some point and of course it would be to ruin everything.  

 

“Well, this is some well-trodden ground I’d thought we’d left behind!” she spat.  She had enough of his pointless mocking and confounding her with whatever ghastly thing he was going on about.  Sansa scrambled to her feet, powering through the miserable soreness.  She threw the now crumpled feather at his feet.  She had a mind to just leave him, but not before paying him in kind, not before cutting him as deep if not deeper.  

 

“I shall think of something grand for him indeed!  He’s the only beast around here with the stones to let me ride him -- and he’s a gelding at that too!” she flared and took off striding back up the narrow path with a bunching of skirts clenched in her fist.

 

As soon as her back was turned a hand flew to her mouth and her eyes went wide as eggs.  The words had rushed forth faster than her helpless brains could corral them back.   By the Seven, she hadn’t meant to sound like such a dreadful winesink slattern.  Coy intimations were one thing, but that was just explicit and vulgar.  She just wanted to sting him back, didn’t she?  Do not cry.  It will only make it worse.  Crying is the weapon of little girls.        

 

Of course, she could only get so far though before she felt those arms enclosing her.  

 

“Sansa… Sansa, stop!” he said, gently whirling her around.  When the horse bolts, turn his head toward you was what he told her.  The body can only follow the head.  Instantly, his knees met the dirt with his hands gripping her upper arms.  No!  If she really looked him right now she would turn as soft as pudding and all she wanted was to be strong and angry.  He had been terrible and did not deserve an inch of ground.   Do.  Not.  Cry .  Sansa shook his hands off and punctuated her rage with a shove against his chest, as little as that would actually move him.  Still, she didn’t run again and just hugged her arms around herself while his fell limp at his sides.     

 

He looked as if he expected as much.  

 

“You have the right of running from me, but -- fuck it all -- I care not to see that happen again.  Damn me, for making you feel you must.”  Through a thin, black veil of his hair his eyes gazed up at her with something that would seem like a warning to keep away if you only knew him as the Hound.  The same storms within them covered an array of meaning.  “I have not the talent for pretty words like you and saying everything I mean just so.”  

 

Pretty words, he says!    “Can we just forget this ever happened and just go back now?” she asked wearily.  She could only bare to look at him from the corner of her eye.  

 

“No, we cannot,” he said rising to his feet and closing more of the space between them.  The top of her head barely met his shoulder and she was forced to look up if she didn’t want to be speaking to his jerkin.  “I’ve always bid you to speak plainly with me, have I not?  I owe you much the same.”  Very carefully, she felt his fingers on her wrists, coaxing her to uncross her arms.  “I know what you want, Little Bird.  Bloody hells, I think of little else than being the one to give it to you.”  His voice was so thick she sucked in her breath and bit down on her lip.  “I’m not such a fool that I would turn down whatever you would offer me, but it torments me the same. You’re too fresh and unspoiled.  What do I know of that?  Before you, there were only whores, by trade or not.  And occasionally even one of the Queen’s ladies with a taste for bad men that found the courage to meet the Hound in a dark corner.  It’s never been pretty or nice.  I’ve never forced any of them, but I repaid the latter by making sure she’d regret seeking me out.  They got what they came for and more than they could handle.”  

 

It was the opposite of his intentions, of course, but that picture was a queer kindling aglow inside her.  She could almost feel herself concealed in a nearby corridor, watching with wide-eyed fascination the way he would move, rutting like a beast.  Was that what it was called?  A taste for bad men?  She felt as if she should say something, not even sure what, but as soon as her lips parted he was holding her intently by her arms again.  

 

“You’ve only just come into your womanhood and one day you’ll be back somewhere far above my reach.”   With a husband she ought to have .  He didn’t need to say it aloud.  “You’ll not thank me later anymore than the others did.  I’ll not be your regret, do you understand me?”

 

Bitterly .   I am very practiced at listening and nodding at what I’m told.  

 

“And when do I get to decide what is best for me?” she asked after careful consideration.  “Or when can I finally give voice to my wishes and not have them overruled?  You call me woman, so let me be one.  I would make a choice and live with whatever comes the same as anyone else.”  When he looked about to protest, she reached up and held his jaw with her thumb pressed over his lips.  Funny how her little hand seemed to pillory him where he stood.  

 

“I mislike this pristine tower you are placing me in, Sandor Clegane.  I tell you, it feels as confining as any other cage.  Did you like me better when I was a scared and naive?  No, I don’t believe that.  You took every moment you could to tear the veil from my eyes, but you liked the idea of an innocent maid to save, did you not?  That does not make me less flesh and blood.”  The emphasis was chased by the breath from his nostrils warming the back of her hand.  

 

“You told me yourself you would never consider me ruined, that nothing would change between us, yet we must have a care for the tender pride of my presumed betrothed, whomever that may be?  The idea you could spoil me offends me.  Trust me to know my own mind on this and refuse me only if you don’t want me.”  

 

Finally, she released her hold on him.  “Perhaps it is you that has been given what you want and you find it more than you can handle,” she said, jutting her chin up.

 

She started to slip past him and go reclaim her shawl, when his arms seized her around her upper thighs, lifting her so fast that she threw her arms around his neck for balance.  There was a dull throbbing in her tender muscles somewhere in the outskirts of sensation.  When he had her hitched up almost nose to nose like this, somehow the pain melted and pooled into something different.  

 

“Have it your way then, woman ,” he said gruffly.  “Just so there’s no mistaking let me put a fine point on it… I’ll not simply slink away when you’re ready to play lady of the castle.  You choose this, it’s ‘til one of us is in the ground or nothing at all.  Save your spit for the rest of the world when it scorns you.  If you don’t have the stones for that, then you don’t have ‘em for this,” he said giving her a sharp thrust of his hips.  And there it was undeniably, even with layers of skirts and thick breeches between them.  In spite of herself, she squeaked and shuddered against him.

 

Maybe it wasn’t gallant of him to hem her in so when she had barely swam out from the shallows.  She supposed she had courted this response with her brashness.  All things considered, “‘til one of us is in the ground” did not sound as bad as it should.  They had both nearly died, the future was uncertain, Winterfell was a ruin, she couldn’t stomach another betrothal anyway, and they got on so well most of the time, didn’t they?  Beside that…  no one could uproot him from her heart now.  Not without tearing down the whole garden.  Of that she was certain.  

 

“Yes…” she panted and nodded furiously. “Yes, I’ll have no other.”  

 

The iron links of whatever chain restrained him before yawned open and finally gave way.  His chest heaved like blown horse under her as the force of his mouth crashed against hers.  He was all tongue and teeth and faint scrape of stubble.  She was all warm honey drizzling off the comb.  It was so much better, more vibrant and humming, than she ever remembered.  Mayhaps the absence and longing made for a thicker, sweeter syrup.  Then he set upon her throat like it was slow-roasted meat off a bone, making his way up to the morsel of her earlobe while she fisted his hair and clawed at his shoulder.  A low, rumbling approval against her skin was all his answer to all the breathless, mewling half-words that came tumbling from her mouth.    

 

In a few strides he had cleared the distance back to the tree where the cloak lay.  After gently lowering her down to recline on her forearms, he sat back on his shins looming above her.  Her lips felt swollen and kiss-bruised, her lids heavy like she had disgraced herself with too much drink.  

 

“Your dress… open it,” he bade her as he hastily worked at the fastenings on his jerkin, feasting his eyes on her all the while.  

 

Her hands felt clumsy and oddly like they were someone else’s as they pulled the bows loose.  First her bodice then fumbling down her corset before the maddening criss-crossing devils were too much.  His jerkin shrugged off, he gave her some assistance by splaying the halves of her corset loosely apart while she managed the ties of her shift.  The cool wind off the water lapped against the slash of pale goose-prickled flesh revealed from her throat to juncture of her ribs.  Those Six Maids in a Pool were certainly onto something.  It was wildly tempting to just strip it all away and let warm sunshine and blue sky, green grass below and warrior above all make love to her at once.     

 

Her eyes greedily swept over the way the tunic hung off his shoulders, something he must have noticed because he was letting her have her fill instead of immediately pouncing on her.  She sat upright and let her hands drift under his tunic, blindly feeling every hardened plane and ripple covered in a thick coarseness of hair.  What she wasn’t blind to was the way his manhood buffeted against the front of his breeches.  He hissed as he sucked in a breath under her touch while she was so brazenly marveling at the way it pulsed and protested against its confinement.   I hardly recognize myself in this fevered dream.  

 

I’m practically slavering like a dog .  Reaching over his shoulders Sandor grabbed his tunic and pulled it over his head, discarding it like a nuisance.   Gods, if she ever extolled the beauty of Loras Tyrell, then her imagination was as bland as oat porridge!  Nakedness had done nothing to diminish his massive size.  In truth, she was in full slack-jawed wonderment at the lean hardness of his belly, his broad ox-like build, and the way veins coursed through the sculpt of his arms.  He was mapped with all manner of healed over slashes and gouges, even another burn scar on one of his forearms.  The tangle of black hair ranged the breadth of his chest then invited her gaze down below the cinch of his breeches.  If she nearly came undone by the upper half of him…

 

Occurring to her that he would want to take the same pleasure, Sansa drifted back onto the cloak.  He followed suit, propping his full weight on his side and cradling her head on his arm with his other hand flat on her belly.  For a charged moment he seemed suspended above her and she knew he would not move yet.  Perhaps he understood she needed a show of his dominance, but enough space to slip the snare if she needed that too.  For that, she could grant him anything.  Her hands found the divide of her bodice and further widened it baring her shoulders and breasts to him.  Seemingly lost in a reverie, he grunted as fingers traced their curves and strummed at tips of her nipples like harp strings.  She would gladly accompany it with a song -- soon, very soon.  He had her taut enough to peak without much effort.  

 

“Do they.. I please you?” she asked breathlessly.

 

“Better than I imagined,” he said with an unexpected boyishness, “And I’ve forged a maester’s chain for the study of tits.”  

 

They both broke into roiling laughter at that.  His japes were always so sharp and witty, it would be wrong to think them only blunt and crude.  

 

“Of course you please me, wench.  Stop fishing for flattery.” he said, giving her nipple a flick of his tongue coaxing a sigh from her.  His lank hair drifted over her skin as he continued.  “Their color is like this rock crystal of the same pale rose found near about the mines of Casterly Rock.  They were after the veins of gold so it got tossed away often.  Back when I was squiring, I had picked up one such piece and set to making something of it.  I always thought it might come to life... with the proper polishing.”  

 

Her breast could near fill his palm and he held it like a nesting dove.  She was as good as slain by the press of his tongue and insistant suckling.   Oh, his cruel mouth!  Hot as a brand making her want and want and want .  Before long he turned to its twin leaving the first wet and lustrous, now bathed in cool breeze.   

 

Clutching and raking at his smooth, muscled back was the only thing to be done with this heady restlessness.  Everything else was out of reach except…  Bending her knees, she reached down and dragged some of her skirts up around her waist in a rumpled pile.  She must look a shameless sight, but she was frantic with need and relief so close.  Over her smallclothes, her fingers fiercely grinded against her sex while he was entrapping her nipple between his teeth.  He surely took notice the rise of her body and her louder sighs, because he looked down toward her legs.  His free hand was still at work kneading her breast, but she felt his fingers twitching.  

 

Fuck!   Sansa, please .”  His whispering was ragged and desperate.  “Say ‘yes’ for me one more time.”

 

“I-- I’m near, but I’m not ready for that part,” she said, knowing she was still a little wary of swimming that far out.  “I shouldn’t have said that earlier as if I was.”  

 

She was about to make apologies and explain further, but he soothed her.  “Shhhhh, I know.  I only meant to touch you,” he said on bated breath.  

 

She nodded and he moved his hand beneath hers and above the smallclothes.  He was making almost mournful sounds as if it pained him to touch her.  Half-intelligible murmured things spilled from his mouth that absurdly sounded like praise of her impressive wetness and ‘the Maiden’s own quim,’ which was probably his way of poetic tribute.  She could burst into giggles, but it would be unkind.  She had never felt more of a woman than in his arms and besides, she found his earnestness endearing.  

 

His fingers were stroking the cleft up and down, pressing into it through the barrier of cloth.  No mystery to his mind there. Still, it wasn’t quite hitting the mark.  Delicately she adjusted his fingers to the center of her pleasure, that little jewel of flesh that seemed the crossroads of every nerve in her body.  

 

“Here and like this,” she said as the guided his fingers to the perfect modulation.  

 

He was an apt student watching her move so intently as if he were committing all to memory.  When he was matching her with ease, she responded so furiously that her head fell back and her thighs fell apart.  There was that familiar ascension coiling upon itself as she reopened her eyes to find him rapt with her flushed and dampened face.  Slowly she took her hand away from his and brought it to the burned side of his face.  She could not want another even if she tried, especially when his eyes drank her in like this.  While bucking her hips to match his rhythm, a dark passion overtook him.  He jerked his head round to meet the fingers that touched herself and one by one, he tasted them.  

 

“Oh, Gods!” she cried, as she shuddered hard and violent.  

 

Her legs turned to jelly, quivering of their own accord.  She whimpered as she was forced to push his hand away when the thrumming pleasure multiplied tenfold and turned into a tenderness beyond bearing.       

 

“Sansa,” he said as he pressed hot kisses between her breasts.  “I am your cuntstruck dog, you enchanting little bird.  My proper little lady, I just knew you would be the spirited kind,” he rasped.  

 

Still clutching her through her completion, he moved his body to be cradled by her open, shaking thighs while resting on one arm.  “I’ll not take you, but I’ll die of madness if my cock doesn’t touch you.  Trust me?”  

 

She nodded and she could feel him fumbling with his breeches, pulling out his co -- his manhood , and setting it on the bare skin in the crease between her hip and thigh under her smallclothes.      

 

There wasn’t anything Sansa could see with the gathering of skirts around her waist, but she could feel a length and heaviness she supposed was befitting the man, a fact that was stirring if not a little intimidating.  

 

“Put your arms around me,” he begged.  

 

Her arms embraced him around his neck and threaded her fingers through his hair as she gazed up into a face transformed.  There was a joyfulness about him and perhaps a glimpse of the youth denied him.  She could envision the boy that polished a pretty rock he found just to satisfy his curiosity.  It was a reminder it wasn’t just herself savoring the first brush with a sweetheart.  

 

Echoes of her pleasure warmed her, kindling her desire to see him just as well-sated as she was… as well as to lift the veil on the questions she had pondered in her bath.  She was still floating with anticipation to finally know when to her surprise he spat in palm and wetted his manhood with it.   Oh .  Well, that was not as magical as she imagined, but then he began to rock his hips, plowing it against her skin as if he were inside her for true.  It would be too easy to hastily make it so, if it weren’t for Myranda enlightening her that satisfaction could be achieved without consummation. That full knowledge could be delayed without frustration and might be all the sweeter for it.  The rocking also made for him a tempting spectacle of her breasts following suit judging by the way he growled and lowered his mouth to partake of them again.          

 

So he liked her spirited, did he?  She felt as much with her own blood quickly rising again.  The flesh that he rubbed against was alight with a sensitivity of its own and the urgent pressure of his body was not so direct a stimulation that it felt quite pleasurable again.  As much as she enjoyed embracing him like this, she was aching to trace those cords of muscle on his beautiful form.  Her hands drifted down his chest, his flanks, his hips, then coming to rest on his flexing backside.  He rose up above her again, chest heaving and a slight smile pulling at his mouth.  She bit her lip thinking on how she should never have been so quick to dismiss Myranda’s appreciation for this and she gave her body over to move in tandem.  His manhood was both trapped and slipping between them, which must have spurred his excitement because she felt it jerk and seem to grow harder still.  

 

“Sandor, when you grow near, I wish to touch you,” she said, ripe with need.  “As I’ve wished many times in my bath.”  

 

The cream topping the berries was flashing him such a wholesome, demure look.  Innocent as a lamb, but she was a wolf.       

 

His body lurched as he groaned almost painfully before steadying himself.  “That was real clever, Little Bird.  Nearly had me there.  Believe me, you won’t find unmanning me with your pretty tongue always so amusing.”  Her mind was working out what exactly that meant to even respond, though it was clearly something lewd knowing him.  Her speechless searching had him chuckling hard.  

 

“Go on and touch me then,” he bid her as he withdrew from under her smallclothes.  

 

The exciting prospect shook her from his mocking that without a second thought she was spitting in her palm… except spitting was never an arrow in a lady’s quiver and it so awkwardly dribbled that she had to wipe most of it from her mouth and chin.  He nearly buckled over again as he was roaring with laughter so loud they’d have to rename the isle.  She could burn right now from her scalp all the way to her toes. When he recovered himself he planted a ardent kiss on her mouth.  

 

“You are indeed flesh and blood, real and mine.  I’d rather another man see you naked than have him ever know you the way I do and I’d still have his eyes out for peeping,” he said taking her by the wrist and bringing her hand down to grasp his manhood.  “Like what you had in mind, Little Bird?  Or moreso?” he said, growling with desire.  

 

She gasped as more detail sharpened in clarity through touch alone.  Hot-blooded and thick enough that her fingertips could not touch, ridged with veining, yet so satin-like it quelled fears that it would hurt.  

 

“I had supposed it would match the man,” she said, smiling up at him and arching a brow at his casting a line for her to bite, “but my basis for comparison is small.  My little brothers.  Ser Dontos.”  She almost misstepped and mentioned Lord Tyrion, a sore subject best avoided.  

 

He snickered as he guided her hand in stroking him from base to tip.  “That suits me fine.  I’d rather you not be any more familiar with cock.”

 

“How am I to forge my own chain then?” she asked, giving him a gentle, playful tug and then rising to kiss from the hollow where his neck met his shoulder all the way to his ear.  

 

She could stay here for the remains of the day, tongue and lips melting against bared throat.  The very air around him was heady and virile and she could fill her lungs to bursting with it.  

 

“On your back,” she whispered into the shell of his ear to which he was as pliant as willow wood.  

 

It was a powerful thing, not to be taken lightly, to have a man accustomed to constant vigilance against the next attack giving himself over to closed eyes and helpless moans.  His hips rose and fell, driving himself upward into the enclosure of her delicate hand.    She could feel a bit more slick fluid running from the tip, smoothing her strokes.  One arm slipped around her waist to cup her backside while his other hand hitched her leg up to caress her thigh.  One by one, she plucked the moans from his mouth with her own.  Would that she always give him cause for such happiness.  She then feasted her way down his neck and chest.  

 

“Where do your thoughts turn?” she asked, choked with desire.  “I sought comfort from my worries by thinking of your touch, even before I knew you were so near.”  

 

At that, he lifted his head to give her a pleased, but slightly bemused look for a long moment.  

 

“Thinking is not my usual aim when I’m in my own fist, but now... I can only picture you with your hair unbound and nothing on except these,” he said, slipping two fingers under the tops of her stockings and garters and giving them a pull.  “There’s a way about you in your lady’s trappings I have no accounting for, but it has me come begging.”            

 

She beamed up at him and blushed when it was well past blushing about such things.  The sudden recollection of a token near forgotten and to find it had exceeded her hopes had her fluttering wildly inside. Her boldness renewed and driven by instinct, she lowered her head and traced the border of his nipple with her tongue.  His manhood tightened and jerked again in her hand.  Off in the distance a bell was rudely tolling the call to the midday meal.  His grunts were restless and ragged as as his hand moved between the cleft of her backside to urgently paw at her sex.  The other dug into the saddlesore flesh of her thigh as if to brace himself.  She mewled as she captured the tip in her teeth, exulting in the twisting of rivalling sensations.  A few more sharp thrusts of his hips and he was completely undone.  A warmth spread over her fingers circling the crown of his manhood.

 

Cutting her eyes downward, she swallowed hard and awakened to a realization.   I’ve made a man spill his seed.  Me.   It almost seemed like candle wax had melted and pooled below his navel, his muscled belly quaking in the final spasms.  In this moment she really looked at him there for the first time.  If seeing had been anything like her wedding night and she had grown afraid and… well, thank the Gods it wasn’t and she hadn’t.  Even that much felt like shutting a door behind her.  He wasn’t all that different than her touch had already divined, yet the longer she lingered…  she discovered something so raw, masculine, and demanding threatened nothing worse than fevered bouts of delicious distraction.  Even when he was spent it was like her dog come to heel.   Real and mine.  

 

“Little Bird?” she heard him ask as his panting slowed. One, two, three more clangs of the bell filled the space. Perhaps she seemed too far away and for too long, because he was already using the free edge of the cloak to hastily wipe the evidence from her fingers.          

 

Sansa gently stilled his hand and took the partially soiled wool from him.  As daintily as if she were serving tea to a queen, she finished cleaning him up.  

 

“I suppose someone will be sent to fetch us if we tarry much longer.  As if we were deaf to that thrice-damned bell,” she sniffed before chattering on merrily.  “It would be wicked to scandalize them, but I have half a mind to steal a plate of food, throw the bolt on the cottage door, and pretend there is only you and I, eating from each other’s fingers.”  

 

I’m making a habit of heedless words , she chided herself.  Perhaps it had been too many years of mincing her every word and now she could finally let every thought that came to her fly.  Everyone knew the rules here.  She was caught in the push and pull of two minds.  There was still the girl that wanted a true wedding night someday, full of adoration and desire after all the splendid traditions.  Then there was this new Sansa, who didn’t want to live anymore for the promises of someday that may never come, when she could dig deep into the present with this man.  “... and nothing more bothersome than all my prying questions and requests for stories.  I would boast that I know you better than anyone else.”  

 

Her eyes raised to meet his, stormy and pensive.  “You see… I haven’t felt this lightness since my father, the best man I’ve ever known, died.  I haven’t smiled or laughed so easily as myself.  They’ll just have to forgive me or bugger off, because I feel wrested free --”  And Sandor gathered her up so tightly their ribs could be soldered together.    

                 

“Curses now too?” he asked while giving her rear a good squeeze through her dress.  “Don’t get led so far astray, my Little Bird.  Don’t you know that clean, pretty mouth of yours gets my cock hard enough to carry a long sword and name it my squire?  Though I should like to see you command them to bugger off.  If you’ve a mind for siege warfare as much as sin, I’m the lucky bastard to be on your side of the door.”  

 

His mouth hungrily set upon hers smothering her giggles.  He was always saying the most ungallant things.  

 

“Come now, we both know this is nothing but a first taste.”  

 

Gods, if they lingered any longer, well, she was already feeling an ache of emptiness that must go unanswered.    

 

A few more heated kisses and hastily they righted their clothes, grinning like fools.  She tucked a few wayward curls behind her ears.  Nothing amiss that couldn’t be explained by a vigorous ride.  Sandor balled up the cloak and stuffed it in his saddlebag as she finished tying her last fastening.  How would they ever be able to sit across a trestle table as before?  How could it not be so obvious?  Surely she looked different now in some way.  She bit her lip as giddy as a foal as she approached the stream where the horses were tied.  As long as they had left them there they should be as rested as courtesans lounging upon mounds of pillows.

 

Prinnnnncess ssss.  It came hushed and slipping through the greenery on the wind.  There was no doubting her ears even when she looked to Sandor and she found him unmoved.  He was ready to help her mount up, but she hesitated and surveilled the forest around them.  A squirrel flew about the canopy before alighting on a low hanging bough.   Nothing louder than the droning of insects.  All was as it should be.  Still, there was a niggling feeling that drowned out whatever Sandor was saying behind her.

 

“Here, now.  Be at ease.  ‘Tis only a mouse.”  

 

Sandor whipped around, dagger drawn, to find Howland Reed stealthily emerging from behind a rather slim chestnut tree.  She was startled as well, but not exactly surprised to find him there.  It was no small wonder they say one could be peppered with poisoned arrows without ever seeing the crannog that did the seasoning.  There was no telling how long he had been so near.  

 

“I hear your cousin will live,” he said, blunt as bricks and he did not wait for a reply.  “And yet, here we are. Still sitting here, gathering moss, and not a word or move from you.”  

 

He gave them both a shrewd look up and down in a way that made Sansa shift uncomfortably.  “Naughty child .”    Beside her she could feel Sandor’s ire on the boil as Reed continued.  “The winds are shifting again.  Your hunters will be backtracking this way soon when they find no trace of us at any port town or south along the King’s Road.”

 

Sandor stepped forward.  “Aye, and we’ll be heading to Runestone.  Royces are kin enough to her.  Yohn can offer her castle walls and swords which are a fucking good deal more useful than you.”

 

The heights of these two facing each other were as different as Sweetrobin and his rag doll, but Lord Reed gave no ground.  

 

“Stone and steel will not mean spit soon enough.  Winter’s reach is long and its grip is cruel.”  He pressed forward another step, brushing past Sandor to look her straight in the eyes.  “My Meera and Jojen are sworn to protect your brother and see him through to his purpose,” he said, the hardness in his voice cracking slightly.  “They will die if they must for their prince.  How can you do any less than they, princess ?         

 

Sansa stiffened.  They both knew what she heard by his pointed look.  Sandor’s laugher was grim as he shook his head incredulously.

 

Fuck me .  Don’t tell me you’re carrying on that fool’s fantasy of your own snowball kingdom.  I know where crowns got good King Robb .  I was there.  Bloody good it did her too when Joff had her beaten for his glories.  Well you’ll not be filling her head with that shit.  What do you want one girl to do, Reed?  Winterfell is razed.  There’s nothing left to fight for except keeping her alive and safe.  Maybe find her brothers and sister one day.  Little Bird, be grateful Ned could boast more friends than just frogs.”          

             

Sandor was being more than sensible, she had to agree, no matter how it hurt to hear it out loud.  Once she thought to appeal to Lord Royce and she doubted herself and him.  That proved a mistake.  Yet, Lord Reed was right that she had dug her heels in and delayed, delayed, delayed.  It was too easy to retreat into this little daydream and Sandor hadn’t pushed her too hard about it either if she were being honest.  

 

“I do not speak of plunking anyone’s proud ass on any throne!  This is about Winter, not Winterfell,” Reed said.  “That fight is for another.  This is about the real war coming and your part to play, same as Bran, Rickon, and Arya.  Jon as well.  Your direwolves were a gift from the Old Gods to awaken something in each of you.  It did not die with Lady, but merely sleeps within you.  I come as a guide to lead you back to your place among First Men, who saw mankind through the first Long Night.  Starks are kings and a king’s duty, the only one that matters, is to defend the realm.  I swear it by the Old Gods if we go into the mountains we will find what you need to defend the realm.  Now, as your bannerman and servant I ask, I demand, you make your decision.”                

 

She then felt the heat and weight of Sandor’s hand on her shoulder.  

 

“Little Bird, if you don’t want to go to Runestone, we can take a ship to the Free Cities.  You have my sword always, you know that.  Your fate is not to freeze or starve to death on some stoney slope only to fill a shadowcat’s belly.  The mountains are riddled with savages and you’d have to cross the Lord Protector’s doorstep again.  All on his word that something will happen.  Either he is mad or he’s playing you for his own reasons.  Use that wolf’s nose of yours.”         

 

Sansa worried at her bottom lip and paced about.   I trust Sandor, I do.  And father trusted Howland Reed .  Sandor would risk his life for her.  Howland risked his children, the future of his house, for Bran.  He wasn’t doing it so she could hide or run or sew up holes in dun cloth.  Sandor had all reason on his side, but Howland spoke to something within her she knew had truth to it even if she didn’t really understand any of it.  She had faith divided between two loyal men, but she also had the words of two houses:  Family, Duty, Honor and Winter is Coming.  She sighed.  Kingsblood, wolfsblood, what did it matter?  She didn’t know anything about defending anything.  A wise person leaves those matters to experienced men like Sandor and Yohn Royce.  Though what of faith in the Old Gods?  It was true that there was a direwolf pup for each of the children and direwolves had been thought long gone for over a century.   The Gods fashioned me a Stark.  Even without a home I still belong to a people .  A liege lord has a duty to see to his people’s safety and to do justice when called upon, just as their bannermen have a duty to answer their call.  Howland Reed made good on his oath to House Stark.  The songs are sung of people who are brave, who always try even if they may fail.  

 

When she heard them quarreling and cursing again, she raised her hand to quiet them.   Gods be good, Sandor won’t like this one bit .  

 

“Very well.  We will send Robert to Runestone under Lord Royce’s protection until Petyr Baelish can be removed and Robert’s rightful seat, whatever is left of it, can be restored to him.  I will ask Elder Brother to escort him there himself so he can give testimony to the cause of Robert’s condition.  I will also send a letter telling Lord Royce that when the time is right I will be calling upon him as kin to House Stark and to await word from me.”  

 

She was addressing them both, but now she turned to Sandor who was standing straight as a spear, balling his fists at his sides.  

 

“I trust you both for your counsel and with my life.  I will leave for the mountains as soon as Robert’s arrangements have been made.  Sandor, I… I know you disagree, but I ask you to trust me if not Lord Reed.”  His eyes were smoldering like hot coals and his mouth twisted in the ugliest sneer.  Suddenly, she felt like a stuttering little girl who got caught on the serpentine steps.  “It.. it is my hope that you would still… that I would still have your sword… as you said --”

 

Fucking unbelievable!” he seethed.  He already had his back to her, storming off to mount up on Stranger.  She started after him, pleading for him to wait.  “Fuck off, your grace!

Chapter Text

Her knuckles rapped timidly on the infirmary door like the footfalls of mice. That will not do, Sansa. Straightening her spine, she knocked again as if she were nothing more than paying call on a neighbor. The latch soon raised on the other side and the glow from the candles inside fell upon her face. She gave Elder Brother a poised, toothless smile. Ushering her inside, he bolted the door behind them.

“My Lady, I know you have an early start on the morrow,” he said, “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”

“I scarce believe I’ll find much sleep tonight, brother. Truthfully, I don’t mind a little company right now,” she said. A note asking her to come see him came with the brother who brought her supper of baked cod and parsley sauce, a salad of greens, bread and cider. Sansa ate alone while she wrote her letters. The first was to her brother, Jon Snow, now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. She hoped it would find him overjoyed to know she was alive and well. The words flowed easily to Jon and Lord Royce ending with a satisfaction that her hand had not forgotten how to sign her name just so. There was that graceful upward flick at the end of the “K” that she perfected under her septa’s tutelage. It was quite the opposite with her last letter that felt so clumsy and imprecise. A least worst version possible folded up and sealed in her dress pocket along with the little leather bag of bones and rubies.

A gusty of wind had kicked up outside and was creaking the shutters on the daub and wattle building. Low-hanging branches of the trees scraped against the roof. The air smelled of the rain that would be upon them soon, she thought as she pushed back the hood of her cloak. Inside it smelled of herbs, vinegar, and tallow candles spiced with cloves. He gestured for her to sit at a small table as he poured them both a cup of watered wine from a pitcher. “I’m glad someone wishes to speak to me,” she said as she raised her cup to him.

It was a trying day that left her drained and stiff from her neck down through her shoulders. No matter how gentle her words or how honeyed her reasons, her cousin’s face fell as he learned she would not be going with him to Runestone. She could not even tell him when she would see him again or begin to explain why she was leaving without him. Gods, if only that were the worst of it she could have borne it. With Elder Brother standing present, Sansa quivered her way through the truth of Lysa’s death. Even the parts about his mother being unwell and what she had tried to do. It felt cruel to part with him this way, but he deserved to hear it from her lips. “I lied about what happened because I thought he saved my life, more than once. He said if anyone found out we’d both die for this. I lied, I was scared, and I lied and I’m so sorry --”

The moment her hand drew close to touching him, he recoiled as if it were a serpent. His face twisted in a taut, red rage. “Go away. Just go.” he hissed under his breath, but then when he saw her hesitation his roar so fearsome she shuddered. “I said go away! You’re a liar. I hate you. Get away from me! Get out! Get out! GET OUT!!!”

As if he had shouted into a cavern, his curses echoed against the walls of her mind. She must have seemed far away as she took a sour mouthful of wine. A rough, meaty hand gently stayed her wrist. Her fingers had been drumming on the table.

“In time, he will remember that you mothered him too. He has a chance now to live a long life because you gave him what he needed. That includes the truth as well.” He leaned in before continuing. “It is no easy, painless thing to cut away diseased flesh to save the body. It will be the same in disentangling yourself from the Lord Protector’s lies.”

“My cousin’s life is a price above my shame,” she said. “If this is the Father’s will, I will do my best to make peace with it.”

He smiled, nodded, and gave a final pat on her arm. “I promise there is fresh air to breathe on the other side of this. Be patient… with both of them.”

“Have you spoken to him?” she asked, wide-eyed and hopeful. It was slightly embarrassing this transparency. She walked all the paths searching for him yesterday until it was clear he didn’t wish to found. Judging how he had taken her to that shaded shore, he clearly knew the secluded places of the isle. So she decided to stay near her cottage today and keep a ear for any sound outside the door, nearly jumping out of her skin when her supper arrived.

“Eh… he was in no mood for my company either last I saw him. Not the first time he’s kept to himself for a while. Though my proctor told me we now have enough firewood to last a moonturn. After Lord Reed told me of your plans, it wasn’t hard to guess what troubles my brother. Better the logs meet the ax than Lord Reed though.” His heavy brows arched as he took a long swig himself. The poor man must be so weary of all this.

Stuffing down the urge to pounce on him with more questions, she remembered her manners. “I am so grateful you agreed to take Robert to Runestone. It heartens me knowing you will be with him,” she said.

He waved his hand as if his charge was a mere trifle. “I arranged for a fisherman from the Saltpans to take us directly to Runestone aboard his boat. I helped his wife birth three of his children and comforted him when they were lowered together into their grave after the massacre. He will not betray us.”

Sansa nodded solemnly. Must it only the blood and cruelty of the world that births bonds of love and loyalty? Like grist from a grindstone, she supposed. The hearth fire was warm, but she felt cold all the same. She really couldn’t help herself as if talking about him would make him feel all the nearer. “You call each other brother,” she smiled as she said it. “He’s never been one for vows, you know.”

“Clearly the Gods fashioned him for something other than quiet contemplation… or quiet anything for that matter. He isn’t a ‘brother’ to me in that sense. Nonetheless, he’s still the little one even with a foot over me,” he said and she couldn’t help but laugh a bit. The levity was fleeting though. “I confess there’s much I don’t understand about all this either.” By the way his brow furrowed with worry, his leanings were clearly with Sandor. “As much as I cannot argue Lord Reed is loyal to House Stark, I cannot understand why a fine lady brought up under the Seven should feel compelled to…” He shook his head. His hair had grown out enough now that he could wear the tonsure again. “Well, at any rate, you are free now to do as you wish, my lady. I won’t waste my breath when plainly it will do no good.”

“Oh no. By all means, box my ears and send me scurrying to my room. Tell me what a foolish child I am,” she sighed, resting her chin in her hand. “I know how imprudent it all looks. When I was King’s Landing, I sang in the sept and felt the Mother’s presence among the people there. You may find it blasphemous for me to say, but I felt that power in the godswood too, next to the heart tree. The only truly godless place I’ve ever been was the Eyrie. A cold, empty sept and a godswood of stoney earth. Yesterday I heard it on the wind through the trees, though this place belongs to the Seven. I have to believe this is all the work of the Old Gods and the New. Runestone will still be there when I return. I feel it would be the greater folly to ignore this… this thing. I hope you know I wouldn’t make this decision lightly or without much regret for causing such disappointment. You all are dear to me.”

“Aye, I know you wouldn’t; however, we both know you wouldn’t lose sleep over disappointing me,” he said. “Lumping us louts together, you serve the lamb with the mutton but there’s no mistaking which one you stick your fork in.” Despite herself she burst into laughter at the absurdity of that picture. If a lamb could make other knights wet themselves, then you might compare Sandor to one -- to his face if you were truly brave or stupid. Then again, wolves are never so wolfish as when they want lamb. Really, Sansa. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair, a little shocked at how ill-timed her stirrings could be. “I’m sorry if I overstepped, my lady,” he added, not seeming that sorry at all.

“I came for your company, did I not? You do my spirit good.” It was true. She did feel a bit better. “How do you do this, brother? People are like pots to you. You just lift the lid to see what’s bubbling inside,” she said.

It was his turn to chuckle now. “No matter what they say, people want someone to see them,” was all he could say to that. Perhaps that was true. She’d like to visit this beautiful isle again from time to time if she should be lucky enough. A sweet thought came unbidden of one day delivering her own babes here. It was just another flight of fancy, but then just like that she thought of placing her babe in strong, outstretched arms for the first time.

A pattering of rain speckled the window now. “I leave in the morning. Would he really let us part this way?” she asked. “And even after... he swore his sword to me, so I thought. I expected a quarrel, but he was so quick to leave my side. So damned decisive about it. If I could have just talked to him like we are now, I could have made him understand.”

He gave her a sideways glance as he took another sip. “Oh I doubt that,” he said. “Perhaps you are right and this is the path the Gods will for you. It’s just what Howland Reed proposes is more than a sworn sword’s understanding,” he went on to explain. “There are very few places of safety left in this world for you, my lady. The crannog is a wily one, I’ll grant you, but the roads are no doubt being scoured for Lord Robert and Alayne Stone. And when those turn up nothing they will turn over every village, hovel, and encampment. Aside from that, there are savages and beasts in the mountains should you get that far.”

“Then I need him now more than ever!” she said, tinged with panic.

“A strong sword arm to protect you?” he asked pointedly.

“Yes, of course!” Seven Hells, wasn’t that obvious?

“That’s all? Are you really so blind or are you playing me a tune?” He must have seen the wounded way her face fell as if she was no longer certain she knew neither Sandor nor up from down. He continued more gently. “Things have changed, my lady. We started this mission as your swords. We would deliver you to safety and that would have been enough for him. You would never even need know about the glamor, until you forced his hand. Then you gave him absolution from every way he imagined he failed you. And you were so different from the maid he had known in King’s Landing. He once told me… he said ‘your courtesies were the scaffolding that held you together.’ A veritable fortress of cold stone. Against all expectations, the woman he discovered was a home and hearthfire, full of life’s promise. To the despised and exiled, there’s no sweeter heaven.” He smiled wanly. “You’ve a mind like an arrow that drives you forward into a dangerous, unknowable place. If that scares me, think on him. He can’t fight you, can’t stop you, and can’t watch you do this. Maybe a sworn sword could stand by you dutifully, but it would destroy Sandor utterly if he lost you now.” His gaze turned to wine swirling in his cup. “So much I fear something worse than the Hound rising up from the pit of hell in his place.”

Her mouth was probably opening and closing like a codfish. She certainly felt as stupid as one, rendered speechless as she was.

“Am I wrong that he believed his feelings were returned?” he asked, almost like an accusation.

“I… yes, he did. I mean, I do,” she managed to cobble together. You choose this, it’s ‘til one of us is in the ground or nothing at all was what he said to her. While she knew she would have no other, that wasn’t the heart of what he meant after all. It was a plea to be merciful. Please, please don’t give me half-measures, she could almost hear it in his rasping voice. I don’t want to know, I don’t want to hope if it isn’t true. “I suppose he must have felt like I was the one who was being damned decisive about it,” she was loathe to admit.

“Aye,” was all he could say for a good, long moment. The hour was surely close to midnight. Still she didn’t feel much like sleeping, which she would surely pay dearly for in the saddle come morning.

“I’m not playing at courtship if that’s what you think,” she started. “I’m just a fool who made a mess of things. Perhaps I will always have romance in my silly heart and I was a bit swept away, but I was glad it was him,” she said as he started to refill her cup. “I admit it took me some time to come to return those feelings. His absence made me see the truth of it. That I missed him. And then from the missing came the longing for him to kiss me again, though there was naught to do about it. He was gone, I thought.”

“Kiss you again?” he asked, squinting at her.

“Yes,” she said, suddenly self conscious. Saying it aloud again felt embarrassingly like having to repeat a joke that wasn’t particularly droll the first time. “When I last saw him, the night of the battle. I suppose he wanted a memory to keep with him when he left,” she said. “He was so much more difficult then and rightfully awful about most anything. Still, I probably should have seen that I meant something to him.” Elder Brother set his cup down most roughly, as if he had lost his handling of it. Perhaps the wine was getting to him, yet her head was clear. Odd. He’s such a big man and the wine is heavily watered, she thought taking an askance look in her cup.

“You should retire brother,” she said as she started to get up. “You don’t have to keep yourself up on my account.”

“No no, please stay, my lady,” he said, recovering himself. “There was something else.” He strided over to the high-standing workbench where made his poultices. “Actually the reason I asked you to come in the first place.” The shelves behind him held row after row of clay pots and jars, not unlike the arrangement of Maester Luwin’s turret though far more orderly. Bundles of plants were strung up from the rafters upside down. Charming as that was, there was also a thick glass vat of pond water swirling with leeches and an arrangement of disquieting metal instruments. He had a satchel bound up with leather in his hands that he placed before her on the table. “You remember how we made that poultice for the brother’s foot? There’s the ingredients for that, clean bandages, and a needle and some catgut suturing. There’s powder for pain you can add to wine. I wrote down some basic instructions for common injuries you might find useful. Oh, there’s also a little razor with a keen edge so mind your fingers.” He was starting to stammer his words as he hopped from item to item on his list and he ran a hand through his bristly salt and pepper hair.

She placed her hands on the satchel, touched by the gesture. “Thank you, brother. This is very kind,” she said.

He sighed, looking so much older than his years. “That’s not all… you’re plenty old enough, so I won’t dance around it. Anything can happen to a woman out there,” he said. “There’s a sachet for tea.” That tea, of course. Myranda had a gilded box that she kept hers in and she’d steep some from time to time. “I will pray it never happens, but if you’re ever raped… as soon as you can, drink a cup every day until your blood comes. It’s a cold comfort, but at least you’ll bear no bastards from it.”

She nodded slowly. The Saltpans has been seared into his mind. “If that scares me…” We both know dead women have no use for moontea. He is scared for me, but he’s doing what little he can. “... think on him.” She shivered.

“One last thing before you depart and it’s in the same vein. I must risk your offense, but it is necessary. You can tell me truthfully. I would not judge you. Are you a maiden still?”

Her eyes widened, a touch surprised by his asking. “Yes, of course. And no, I took no offense.”

“Your Lannister marriage… Lord Baelish planned to have it annulled by proving it was unconsummated?” he asked.

“That was his thinking. All the better if my husband widowed me, but yes.”

“If it please you, my lady, I could write you a sworn testimony as a holy brother attesting to your maidenhead. Normally a septa would handle such things, but I’m sure my knowledge and standing would lend a similar weight.” This time it was his turn to grow visibly uncomfortable. “Now there’s no need for a physical exam if that worries you. I take you at your word --”

“Should I find myself no longer a maid, my marriage could stand until one of us dies.” She had been Alayne Stone so long, she had almost forgotten they had made her a Lannister first.

“I know it’s not the foremost of your concerns right now, but the issue will arise again at some point as long as the both of you live. No promises, but there’s a chance this could help your cause in that. I can keep a copy here, take one to Runestone, and give you a third.”

It was a good plan if only better than no plan. A part of her did hope Tyrion wouldn’t come to a bad end to resolve the issue, Lannister he may be. He’d been kinder than most, that much she could say. She’d escaped and he was left to the lions after he was served up by the Queen of Thorns. If we all survive this, he would likely welcome an annulment and a good-riddance to her as well. “You’re right. It may be years before it is safe for me to seek an annulment,” she said. “We should do whatever we can now. And… I don’t expect you to lie on my behalf. If you put your name to a document that could be submitted to the Most Devout, I would have it be the whole truth.” She stood and looked him in the eyes as she felt her lady mother would. “You may examine me and let us both have a clear conscience.”

An intrusive flash came back to her of Grand Maester Pycelle’s bony, spotted hands on her while Cersei’s creatures had held her down. She thought she might have to go away inside, but it really wasn’t like that. As she lay upon one of the beds staring up into the ceiling, the worst she felt was a chill on her legs. Elder Brother was both efficient and gentle and it required only a few moments of pressure. Turning to wash his hands in a basin and without looking back he told her she could get up. “It is as you say, my lady. Not that you were doubted,” he finally said. “I’ll have your copy ready for you when I see you off.” She retied her small clothes, rose from the bed, and smoothed her skirts. After giving her a moment, he turned around to face her as he dried himself on a towel. “I will pray the Gods deliver you safely and give you only what you can bear. You are very brave, my lady.”

I am frightened more often than not. But she thanked him all the same for saying so. “I’m afraid I need to trouble you once more,” she said as she walked over to the little table. Reaching into her pocket, she placed two of the sealed letters and the bag of bones and rubies on the table. “This one is for Lord Royce. You need not discuss the details of my journey now, just tell him I am safe enough. But do tell him everything that has happened. Spare nothing. This other one is to my brother, Jon Snow, if you would be so kind to send a raven to Castle Black. I also require a parchment and quill please.”

As the Elder Brother set them out upon the table along with the inkpot and wax, she stood by the hearthfire. The third letter, the inadequate little scribbling, she fed to the flames and watched it curl and blacken. No half-measures. She could feel his eyes behind her watching her curiously. As she settled into her chair and took up the quill, Elder Brother drained another cup of wine and kept by the window listening to the rain and wind outside. She wrote briskly without regard to line or form. A palsied monkey could do as well. When she was finally done and the ink had dried, she folded it and sealed it with a thick gob of wax. There it was. The words of her heart lined up like chained prisoners.

Whatever the Elder Brother was thinking, he kept it to himself. “Tell him…” she said. “Tell him I swear that with every drop of Stark blood in my body I will come back for him like he always came back for me.” Just hold on a little while longer. I have no right to ask, but just please hold on. “Do you hear me, brother? I will come back for him.” Nodding and silent, he tucked her letters and little leather bag into the pocket of his roughspun robes. There was naught else to do, but raise up her hood and bid him goodnight.

The wave crests seemed gilt in gold as dawn broke over the Bay of Crabs to the east. Howland Reed waited with the horses in hand where the ferry was tied to the dock. Her red courser, Nameless, carried a bedroll, a pack of foodstuffs, and the medicinal supplies. Another bag slung over her shoulder contained a set of extra clothes and the polished driftwood comb Sandor had given her. Sansa walked down the little pathway that winded down the hillside down to meet them all. Well, not all. There was Elder Brother, of course, and Sweetrobin standing beside him and the brothers Narbert and Gillam. She sighed as Sandor was not there, but somehow she already knew that.

Sweetrobin was still as cross as ever and avoided looking at her. She knelt down before him on the dock all the same. His cheeks had a much healthier hue to them since they’d been here and he seemed a bit more fleshed out under his bundle of warm clothes. “I know you are still angry with me and I understand,” she said low enough so only he could hear. “The best way I can tell you I’m sorry is to make sure you are safe and do everything I can to give you your home back. We’ll see each other again and I hope you will find it in you to forgive me, cousin. I love you.” He flinched when she moved to kiss his cheek. He relented and allowed it, but he still refused to look or speak. That would have to suffice, she supposed.

Howland Reed extended his wiry arm out to Elder Brother and to her surprise he found it in himself to clasp it warmly, despite all that had happened. “I reckon you’ve been praying for the day to see me gone, septon.”

“Remarkable how farewells can alter one’s attitude, my lord. Until the next tourney then.”

Howland snorted a laugh. “Aye. ‘Tis only fitting you’d want another go since you lost.” His mouth drew a more serious line. “Bronze Yohn will have his meeting with Lady Sansa. I swear it by earth and water, bronze and iron, ice and fire,” he said before leading the horses on to the ferry.

Wordlessly Elder Brother handed her a thick folded up parchment bearing the seven-pointed star pressed in wax. How to thank this good man enough for all he’s done? She threw her arms around his burly neck as her eyes misted over. Her nose pressed into the coarse weave of his robes as she felt the giant bear paws of his hands around her back. “My gallant knight,” she said, sniffling like a babe. “Watch over them both for me.”

“I tried to speak with him, my lady,” he said, both defeated and rankled. “Brother Rawney told me he broke his fast and left on Stranger before sunrise.”

“It’s fine, brother. He’ll read it when he’s ready,” she said as she pulled her hood up and shrouded her face.

And with that she boarded the ferry. The poles sank down deep into the silty bottom of the bay as four brothers gave a good shove away from the dock. She took Nameless by the bridle and stroked his black mane while she watched the Quiet Isle grow ever smaller. True to his nature, Nameless was the sort of steadfast fellow that knew when to stand there quietly while sparing some pity for a lady. Tucking her hot, wet face down against the heaving barrel of his body, she bit down on her sleeve to silence the sob.

 

~~~

Dearest Jon,

How sweet it is for me to finally be able to write to you. There’s so much to tell and a raven can only bear so much weight, so I must regretfully be brief. I am alive and well. I have friends that have helped me escape my captors and I hope to be able to write to you again from Runestone soon. I have also received word that Arya and Bran may be alive. Let us both rejoice and hope that they remain so until I can find them. Father would be so proud that you made Lord Commander at such a young age. If the Gods be good, we will look upon each other again before too long, brother. Give my love to Uncle Benjen and Ghost. Know that I love you and hold you in my heart as well.

Your faithful sister,
Sansa

~~~

To Yohn Royce, Lord of Runestone

By now you have Lord Robert Arryn in your custody and have met my friend, ally, and emissary the Elder Brother of the order of holy brothers on the Quiet Isle. I trust him to give you full accounting of everything that has happened, including the true nature of Lord Robert’s illness and Lady Arryn’s death. Lord Robert and I are alive in part because of him.

You may be wondering if I am indeed Sansa Stark. You accompanied your youngest son, Waymar, on his way to join the Night’s Watch and visited my family at Winterfell. You caught a buck during a hunt and you bested my father and Ser Rodrik in the training yard. I hope this is sufficient to convince you and that you will forgive me for not revealing myself to you sooner.

There is no one I trust more to take Lord Robert to ward and to teach him how to rule well than you, my lord. For the honor of his father and mine. As for me, know I am safe with my father’s man, Lord Howland Reed of Greywater Watch. I will find my way to you when the time is right. Then we will act. Misrule has had its day.

Sincerely,
Lady Sansa Stark

~~~

Sandor,

I’ve done my truest friend a bad turn. For that I have no defense except that I am a wretched fool that took you for granted and I am deeply sorry. I acted the highlord’s get and made you feel reminded of your place. You are no one’s dog, least of all mine.

What else can I tell you but that I love you? I love you, Sandor. My dreams were shaped around the idea of love, but how much harder the real thing turned out to be. That you are as close to me as my own skin is why I unfairly presumed you would just follow along and bury your differences with Lord Reed for my sake. That was wrong.

But damn you as well for keeping yourself away as long as you have, after everything we shared. I know you love me fiercely. So much that you want me to feel your presence torn away from me like you think I am tearing myself from you. How much hope is there if we cannot talk to one another?

I will not presume again that I can make you understand or that I can assuage your fears. A little bit of trust in me is all I ask. I have something I must do and somehow it makes sense to me. It’s for my brothers and sister, for Mother and Father, and the responsibility to those who loved my family.

Please, please don’t go away again. Stay where I can find you, my love. You are my family as much as any of them. My home is wherever you are and I am sorely yearning to return even before I’ve left. I’m truly lost if I don’t know how to find my way back home. Grant me the comfort of this one thought to carry with me. I do love you so.

L.B.